The Accident: A Crash That Shattered a Group of Friends
Three decades ago, a fatal car crash shattered a puny town and a group of friends. All these years later, Michael Paterniti eventually tells the tale
The accident—the very first one—occurred on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving of my senior year in high school. It left one friend injured and one dead, and for a while afterward the entire thing seemed so surreal and unlikely that all we could do—friends, family, anyone connected but not in the accident itself—was attempt to re-create the simultaneities of that evening, the very first person at the scene, the shock of the duo at the nearby house from which the call was made for an ambulance, and then: who called whom, and who was where when they heard. Given our own shock, we couldn’t imagine the parents of the victims hearing those very first words: There’s been an accident.
When the news reached my family that night, in that orbit of calls, my parents, perhaps like other parents among our friends, presumed their child might have been in the car, which wasn’t the case, however might have been, had I made a different decision earlier that evening. For us seniors, it was a free night with no school the next day, a holiday from everything, including our cursed college apps. Mine was spent with my gf, so I missed the pre-party and then the rail to the real party. And so I missed the accident, too.
*Names have been switched across.
There were two cars, belonging to Jax* and Flynn, driving from the beach north up through town to someone’s parentless house. Railing with Jax was Seger, and with Flynn, Xavier. On a spread of road by one of the town’s country clubs, Jax lost control of his car, hit a telephone pole, and skidded a hundred feet into a tree. The crash drove the engine through the dashboard. The Jaws of Life were required to cut the bods from the wreckage.
At that moment—as the very first siren sounded, as the very first numbers were dialed, as the bods were gathered and rushed away—I was watching a movie/eating Chinese/on a bed with my gf, I can’t recall exactly. Lost in the oblivious haze of youth, I was certain, like millions of teenagers before me, that nothing would ever touch us there.
Until, of course, it did.
Growing up, we had this sort of unusual thing in our town: an ambulance service operated by kids. It’s still there today, in fact—thriving. Then, it was housed in a defunct crimson train station that rattled every time a passing commuter train rushed by on its way to Manhattan. In winter, icy gusts came lunging through the walls. There was a garage with two ambulances, and off it, a cramped radio room. Inwards the station was an open common area where presumably tickets had once been sold, but which now hosted our training sessions and organizational meetings. Upstairs there was a loft where the CPR manikins were stashed. Sometimes you’d leave behind and go up there at midnight to turn out a light and almost have a heart attack at all those synthetic figures laid out, staring dumbly at the ceiling.
The ambulance service had been founded in the ’70s. It was as if some Hollywood execs had sat around spitballing one-line pitches for after-school specials, until someone blurted, “_Emergency. _but with kids in charge.” Of course, we had adult advisers who played a vital role—and our both tender and mercurial fiftysomething patriarch, who cursed and yelled at everyone, calling them “boobie” in an attempt to gauge our harshness. And yet it was we teenagers who did the bulk of the work. We began in the radio room in ninth grade and graduated to gofer on the ambulance in tenth, then went on to become EMTs and ambulance drivers. As an experiment, the ambulance had succeeded a little too scrupulously, and by the time I came along, there were about fifty of us who worked there in one capacity or another.
Still, there were those in town who wondered: Could a 16-year-old EMT (someone who had only recently learned to drive a car) indeed help at, let alone treat, the worst accidents? It became our job, then, to be overdiligent and professional so as not to let anyone down. On every night of the week, including weekends, holidays, and religious days, a team was “on duty” at the rickety station, where we’d run through checklists, train, sit and do homework, or just flirt and shoot the shit, pimply, hormonal teenagers that we were. From six P.M. to midnight, we acted as very first responders, clad in our “whites” (a nosey uniform choice for those dealing in blood) and orange fluorescent jackets. The rest of the time we carried pagers—in school, at practice, wherever. And our precious weekends were soon packed with fund-raising, chores at headquarters, and more training courses, including hours logged at a local emergency room. There, we were instructed to regard each fresh accident with a sort of dispassionate force, no matter how extreme the circumstance.
In the zero-sum of that moment, it didn't even occur to me what the inverse meant: Let it be Seger. And how guilty I'd feel for years after about it.
Primarily, however, I reminisce a lot of time spent gargling air into those manikins, real lip to synthetic lip, thrusting palms down on fake chests loaded with thick springs, and, at the end, paper readouts issuing from a slot at the ribs, a ticker demonstrating the peaks and valleys that gauged one’s efficacy at providing CPR. Repetition made for perfection on those fake bods, tho’ reality, I would soon find to my dismay, could be different. When the grandfather of the boy next door keeled over on the lawn, I lined my palm up on his sternum as I’d been instructed—and had succeeded at so many times before on the dummies—and with the very first thrust felt three real ribs give way.
When it came to treating victims, every kid at the ambulance had at least one call that remained indelible—maybe a multi-car crash on the highway, maybe a cardiac arrest or a house fire or a head injury—that introduced us to a world of distress we hadn’t known before, that took us behind the veil of our town. I recall responding to a daytime suicide, at a house not more than a mile from my own, and when we spilled out of the ambulance and hustled through the strobes in our bright uniforms, hoping to save the overcast day, fix the wrong, chunk back the bod—crazy-competent mini-adults that we were—one unimpressed police officer stopped us brief on the doorstep.
“You’re not going in there,” he said. When we insisted, he exhaled an exasperated breathe and added, “She slit her goddamn wrists in the bathtub, and you’re kids, and I’m not letting you in there.” I reminisce we protested, outraged that he’d called us “kids,” and we wouldn’t leave the scene, waging our own quiet sit-in, until we were ultimately called off by an adult adviser. But even as we worked ourselves into a bruit, I had this nightmare picture of a submerged naked assets, blood streaming from her wrists, face twisted in some ghoulish rictus.
Half an hour later, I was sitting back in calculus, attempting to figure out a derivative.
The night of the accident, I returned home from my gf’s house to find my parents and my 16-year-old brother sitting grimly at the kitchen table, a scene that undoubtedly played out in other kitchens across town, too. My dad, who would have been in his late forties at the time—my age now as I write this—was a business executive who worked long hours, seemed to have boundless energy for house projects on the weekend, and made sure we were at church each Sunday morning, where he often volunteered as a lector. My mom, a country dame transplanted to suburbia, possessed a deep reserve of patience for her four wilding boys. Among them I was the oldest, recently sprouting up an inch taller than my dad, attaining total, moody man-boy status. In that moment I knew nothing, indeed, and was being told nothing. My parents said they’d drive me to the hospital; I said I could drive myself, but they were having none of it.
As we left to go, my brother pulled me aside. He also worked at the ambulance service and had heard that the night’s on-duty squad had left the scene with two figures. When my brother said one of them wasn’t breathing, I reflexively thought, Don’t let it be Jax, and repeated that in my mind, imploring some higher power as my dad drove me underneath the sodium points of light on the highway. In the zero-sum of that moment, it didn’t even occur to me what the inverse meant: Let it be Seger. And how guilty I’d feel for years after about it.
As a kid, I thought my town was a wonderland. The lawns were always freshly cut, gardens overflowing with explosions of color, the blue sky etched with mystical fans of ice from the planes that came and went from Fresh York. Somewhere out there was the wild world, but here we lived in our own disassociated nirvana, a place where a kid felt protected and free. We railed our bikes everywhere. We swung on string swings and swam in pools or at the beach. There was nothing truly to fear, so my mom set us liberate out the back door each day and we raced through the forest, to some neighborhood yard where there was always a game of football or Wiffle ball furious.
There, too, lived Seger, an athletic kid with light-haired hair and blue eyes. I reminisce one year splitting time with him at quarterback on our Pop Warner football team, the little guys with good palms who conveyed the ball to fatter guys, who then attempted to run through, or over, the opposing team. Later, in sixth grade, we’d strung up out with two neighborhood women, meeting after school, loitering, attempting out the very first rehearsals of sexual attraction. He took the lead, with the confidence of one with older siblings. The louder and funnier and more kinetic he was, the more I struck a pose of dumb bewilderment.
And then we sort of lost track of each other. He moved to Jax’s neighborhood, and they became close friends. I eyed him here and there but we didn’t truly overlap again socially until high school. By this time, he’d become commencing safety on the football team—but had a sentimental streak, too. Late at night, at whatever party, he could be counted on to hijack the stereo, caterwauling at the top of his lungs to one of his beloved songs: “And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye. ” He sang that song every time—and it became a ritual that made everyone laugh. Ah, there goes Seger again, we said. He sounds like a dying cat! Only later did we realize the irony. He’d been singing about an accident all along.
At the hospital that night, the waiting area was flooded in bright light and the stench of antiseptic. I kept replaying this disconnected memory of a summer Sunday earlier that year—the full-color positive to the stark negative of this moment—when I’d gone with friends from the ambulance to a remote reservoir where swimming was illegal, the sort of prohibition that was too hard to fight back. We bought beer at some shady package store and, once on the right mess road, pulled over and climbed through a fuckhole in the fence, then hiked into a pine-lined lake where we leapt from rocky cliffs into clear drinking water. It was one of those endless afternoons, hopping, swimming, sunbathing on the rocks, all punctuated by salty gulps of cold beer as the day unfurled, then curled back on itself. Every hour felt like a day, and I reminisce returning home that night, my skin still hot from the sun, feeling as if I’d been gone a week.
Now here we were, perched on a cold November night at what felt like a certain end, in a state of suspension, as the seconds flew. The news was eventually delivered. Seger’s dad arrived, and heard for the very first time about his son’s death. He was sexy like his son, with a sleek face, but now his expression contorted and he let out a high-pitched keen that made us all tuck our goes lower, knotting our palms over our stomachs.
Afterward we sat all night—our circle of friends—stupefied, empty. We were all more or less facsimiles of one another. We got good grades, played sports, would soon be off to decent colleges. And now we were marked, too, by this night. So we waited for the news about Jax with the same sense of fear. When the sky shifted from black to purple, someone told us to go home, that there’d be more news in the morning. So we did.
We’d had a dead cat, of course—and our very first dog. (R.I.P., Buttons.) There was my cousin Cindy, who drowned when we were both Five, but I’d been too youthfull to comprehend. And my dad’s dad, whom I never truly knew however wish I had, fastened to some weird bag at the end. But the accident was the very first time someone in my everyday life—someone on the bus, someone in the cafeteria, someone in my PE class—had just vanished. Up until that point, I’d yet to encounter a dead assets on any ambulance calls. And now Seger’s death led to the shock of that other question: Was Jax going to die, too?
No, it seemed, he wasn’t. The morning after the accident, he struggled back up to total consciousness. Despite severe injuries, he was able to talk to his family—and he asked to see me, too. We’d been friends for almost ten years by that point, very first thrown together on a Little League baseball team. I drove back to the hospital, alone this time, wondering if he was disfigured or what he’d say, the Thanksgiving Day traffic slipping with terrible normalcy.
When I was shown into the ICU, there he lay, hooked and wired, gams in weighted traction, wearing a neck brace. He was so pallid I could see a network of veins under his face. He looked as if he’d just washed up on a limpid tide after the storm, having been a shipwrecked party to some unspeakable acts. His cheeks and forehead were pimpled with the buckshot of the shattered windshield. He struggled to raise his head. And I couldn’t look away.
When I’d very first met Jax, at 2nd base—we played the same position—he stood spewing flecks that sparkled in the bright sun, making a Tourettic sprinkler of slobber. I took note of his oversize mitt (didn’t he know that besides me he was the smallest one out here?), his untucked T-shirt, the points of sandy hair from the ridiculous shag underneath his maroon cap. He didn’t fairly fit in the framework—brash, misplaced elf that he was. Off the field he wore strange moccasin-like footwear he’d gotten while living in Europe.
Jax was a blurter, a motormouth, a fantastic nicknamer, the name capturing the thing in you that was your weakness or your greatest exposure. For example, there was another kid we knew who spoke in chopped-up, sputtering excitement and as a youthfull teenage could often be found puttering around the Sound in his whaler, leaping sways. And so he became “Hooten, Hooten, Merrily.” (I’m not even sure what it meant, but it was ideal.)
And Jax was fearless. I spotted him dive madly at ungettable nut sack and later fly into a rage at his older brother or the class hooligan, scary for the fury of his attack, his preparedness to sustain a hail of blows if only to land one. Once he launched himself onto the bondage mask of a moving car, attempting to reach the driver, a bf of his sister’s. I eyed him take flight many times from the wooden, paint-peeled railing at the pier, plunging into the warm water of the Sound, his wiry assets in catlike adjustment to the force of push-off, the midair moment of peace, then always that little spasm of joy as he crashed through the water’s surface.
Now here he was, Jax, the once mighty berserker, laid low. In legends, he would have been the knight felled by the act no one dared to make, the wading of some rough sea, the arrow slung at the giant, the throwing of his assets at Doom, sacrificing his life for something perhaps meaningless. But here, in suburbia, he’d marked the days of our boredom by stunts and diversions, driving, say, with only his knees, to his gf’s, over four miles of twisty road. Or leaping from a moving boat. Or laughing that laugh that was on you and with you.
What exactly had happened that night became a nagging mystery. Pixels of rumor and eyewitness account began to resolve into startling coherence.
Everything in life held a joke, except this, right now. He flipped his eyes, attempting to concentrate, smacked his cracked lips, incapable to produce slaver for all the painkillers mainlined through the IVs needled in his arms. His tongue was engorged. He looked frightened, diminished. “I’m sorry,” he said with difficulty, then fell back to his morphine cushion.
That was it. But he’d needed to say it and wished me to convey it to our friends—and beyond. Whatever had occurred on that night before Thanksgiving—and he had little to no memory of the accident—he took utter responsibility for it. His eyelids fluttered shut while I stood awkwardly, watching him bury underneath the surface as if bearing witness to a drowning. Then I was shown out.
It happens sometimes with the dead. A magnetic field builds around their absence, compelling muffle—or, worse, repelling memory, driving it underground. Until, later, it rises again. And it always does: A drive past the spot in the road, or the cemetery, or the house where Seger lived—then didn’t—and the recollection of a life, and the accident that claimed it, comes back in bony fingers.
So how do you pry yourself liberate of the past? We were teenagers then. We knew everything—and nothing. As the story got stranger, some of us acted out in unaccountable ways. There were those who disavowed the accident entirely, while others, like me, stupidly went looking for a 2nd accident, to re-enact—or atone for—the very first.
In the days and months after Jax hit the tree, we regularly visited him in his hospital room, where uneaten meals came and went on wheels, where he floated on the fine chemicals that inhibited his agony. When their powers dimmed, you could almost feel him burying, wincing, fighting. He couldn’t stir, couldn’t get up to piss on his own. Already skinny, he quickly lost about twenty-five pounds. He had skin grafts, gnarled, scarred, screaming-red attachments on his feet and his gams, both of which were badly cracked. And yet over time, as he regained his senses one by one, he attempted to create a entire life up there: nurses who laughed at his jokes, a parade of friends that revolved through. His mother and gf were a ubiquitous presence, as were the wobbly Day-Glo blocks of uneaten Jell-O perched on the nearby lunch tray.
Once, several weeks after the accident, I drove by the bod shop to report back on the condition of his beloved sports car, the one that he’d paid for with money earned from odd jobs, as if recording the severity of a crash he knew nothing about. But he pointed to a deck of glossy photos already taken by his brother. Fanning them in my palms, I found shot after shot of the ruined car. “It’s still a miracle you lived,” I told him, instantly realizing the larger cliché that everything you might say in such a situation sounded clichéd, which is when I shut up about all that.
Of course, Jax eyed no miracle in his survival. Seger was dead, and he hadn’t even been able to attend the funeral, the church pews loaded with friends who came as their own act of penance. (“The cemetery is my very first stop when I get out of here,” Jax kept repeating.) And there was no miracle because, he knew, someone would be made to pay.
Jax was a brutal realist. Suspended like a tattered kite in the antibacterial blankness of his hospital room, held up by wires and sinkered lines, he awaited his fate. His figure already cracked, the deep-throat would hurt less than Seger’s death. But still, it was a desperate way to think. He’d been diminished to an immobile fugitive whose faith rested on the fact that he would likely be charged for his friend’s death.
One other thing about the dead: With them, so, too, goes God sometimes. This is normal, I suppose, in the aftermath of tragedy: to question one’s faith. But no matter how grim the circumstances, Jax never seemed to have done the same, for he was one of my few friends who didn’t go—by choice or force—to church every Sunday. There’d been a summer night inbetween our sophomore and junior years when we sat out on the pier, just the two of us, Jax reeling in bluefish. After he packed a bucket with them and a school of thrashing bunkers moved on (they hammer the water into a desperate froth above the blues that gave pursue), we sat staring at the starlets draped over everything and got into an argument about God. I said He existed; Jax said no way. We ended up in his bedroom, paging through his World Book encyclopedia as I attempted to press my case with “facts.” The more I hopped from one entry to another—Noah’s Ark, the Ten Commandments, miracles—the more absurd my “scientific inquiry” sounded.
“It’s all made-up,” Jax said, laughing more at my stubbornness. “You’re never going to find proof of Him in there.”
At Seger’s funeral, they played another of Seger’s dearest songs, with its lyric Childhood living is effortless to do. People stood and said the right things. People—Seger’s gf and parents, family and friends—became distraught.
I desired to demonstrate some emotion, too—because he would be badly missed—but there I sat, boiling at God/no God while otherwise disembodied, bringing the dispassionate force of my EMT training to every detail so I could report it back to Jax. As if we were all part of one bod that could be immobilized somehow, as if we could tick off the checklist—airway, breathing, circulation—to find the hidden ailment stuck in the left ventricle, and be saved.
Soon the enforced patterns of our quasi-martial school life reasserted themselves: We dutifully went to our classes, to physics (where the teacher prattled on about the inadequacies of highway entrance ramps, chalking on the board in a swirl of scribbles all the horrible ways you could die while injecting the quicker flow of traffic) and English (we were reading Gatsby now, the green light, the deadly car accident, the bod in the pool) and calculus (as if to solve a proof might put the universe back together, expose a different god). The swim season had begun, hours lost in bubbles, lap after lap staring at the black lane line of my own failing. And of course I continued railing the ambulance, showcasing up at random accident scenes to splint the violated femur or bandage the bloody forearm.
There was a night when we were called to help a man hit by a car. He’d been thrown to the side of a busy main street, bloody and covered in slushy filth. He was buzzed and belligerent, and as the cars came and went and the strobes lit his face, it leisurely dawned on me that he was my old swimming coach, Mr. Wharton, a dude I truly revered. When I told him who I was and reminded him that he’d coached me over hundreds of hours in the pool, he attempted with difficulty to look me in the eye. How many times had he pumped me up, or screamed at me in the pool to abandon slacking, or celebrated a come-from-behind win, all to demonstrate he cared? But on the shoulder of the road now, incapable to concentrate on my face let alone stand in place, he said, “Why don’ ya go f-f-fuck yourself!”
Much more polite was the concussed kid at the ice rink who gently barfed on me when I leaned over him, covering me with bilious warmth. “I’m sorry,” the boy mumbled.
From his very first comeback to consciousness, Jax had no memory of the accident, none whatsoever, but accepted his guilt as a reflex. Of course, we, his friends, didn’t care about blood-alcohol levels and toxicology tests. He’d made a bad mistake, was packed with contrition, and had our instant forgiveness.
But Jax’s lack of memory didn’t stop the police in their investigation; it drove them deeper. What exactly had happened that night became a nagging mystery. Pixels of rumor and eyewitness account began to resolve into startling coherence.
For example, I had friends who, at the time of the accident, had just finished playing spanking paddle tennis at the country club up the road. They’d heard the noisy crash, and when they came out of the parking lot, they were startled by a car moving past them. Later, when piecing it back together, they kept wondering: Why was Flynn’s car driving away?
But all these things soon became clear to Jax when the police paid him that awaited visit one day in his hospital room, suggesting a surprising theory that went like this: On that dark open up of twisty road, as Jax zoomed north, Flynn’s car went to pass, bumping the rear left panel of Jax’s car, which sent him careening off a telephone pole, into the protracted skid that listed left to right and hurtled his car into the tree.
Could it have been true?
When confronted with the theory, Jax was incredulous. According to the police transcript from the taped interview, he said, “I don’t think any of my friends would do that. Very first of all, [Flynn] and I are damn good friends.”
(Underneath the fusillade of his spoken assaults, one of Jax’s greatest redeeming traits was that he spotted those in his internal circle as figures of unimpeachable character, as loyal as he. For all the sport he made of us—and we of him—he was absolutely blind to the deeper stamp of one’s defect. His belief in his friends was so finish it verged on naïveté.)
Sometime around Christmas, however, Flynn’s car was impounded, and the police would later say that paint found on its front fender seemed to match the color of Jax’s car. By spring, Flynn had been charged with negligent homicide, reckless operation of a motor vehicle, and evading responsibility. The narrative that had Jax in a moment of singular teenage elation and irresponsibility now opened to another possibility: two cars traveling at a high rate of speed when one car passed on a taut turn and drove the other off the road. Or this: Flynn’s car passing without warning. That is, as much as Jax had screwed up, maybe it hadn’t been all his fault in the end.
So much of what happened in my town—the ancient town I knew and loved, the sprinkler-fed garden that existed during the Reagan Pleistocene in one of the outer rings around Manhattan—was never spoken of, or if so, only in purred gossip. Affairs, eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, trips to rehab: Everybody seemed to know everybody’s business, but it was cloaked and closeted. No matter how egregious or boorish the behavior or betrayal, to say it out noisy, to expose it beyond the social circle for which it was meant, was an affront almost as egregious. Every scarlet letter was partially hidden.
This is true of many places, or perhaps true of every place. No puny shame accompanies the moment when our failings are made public—and it’s with tense, bated breath that most wait for the unpleasantness to go away. However unsettling the news, a year or two or three and it can be relegated to the snowdrift of memory and then forgotten, substituted by the fresh drama of the day.
As a child, I found this disorienting. The parents were murmuring about something, something with intimations of anguish or fear, dark fairy tales of some sort, but what?
The charges against Flynn made the story awkwardly public, and soon the paper ran a long article detailing the events of that night before Thanksgiving; the strained, surreal situation at our high school of friends attempting to pick sides, or figure out what to believe in the very first place; and the tragedy of alcohol-related car accidents in our town. Was it suburban privilege, or our access to cars, or the dark, winding roads? The police captain was quoted as telling that over the course of the past three years, a dozen youthful residents had died in automobile crashes. The pastor said he’d never seen such “tragedy with youth.” The leader of a youth religious group claimed, “There’s nothing but victims.”
One night during our monthly organizational meeting at the ambulance service, in a room packed with fifty kids—everything coming to a standstill at twenty-minute intervals as another commuter train roared by—I found myself launching a prayer, the very first, indeed, since the night of the accident. This particular evening included the awarding of special gold starlets, reserved for the members of a particular team for an exceptional call, our version of the Medal of Honor. This team, as I recall it, had responded to a very bad crash on the interstate, had performed CPR under harrowing circumstances, and had brought someone back to life.
To be so recognized was the pinnacle, to have your name called to come down and receive a starlet from the ambulance service’s founder, to be so distinguished for heroics among your own hypercompetent, frantically applauding peers. (We all knew they’d seen and done something we both hoped to and hoped not to.) It meant that for at least that moment the prophecy was true: You were so good, in fact, that you could raise the dead.
Dear God, I found myself begging, give me something horrible and bloody. Let my next call be a multiple-car crash with gasoline glugging all over the highway, or a cardiac arrest in a house fire, or a kid electrocuted on the railroad tracks. Let it be a shark attack or an alien invasion, whatever makes the best movie. Whatever is the most impossibly fucked-up, Lord. Just let me lay my forearms on some big, honking, metal-twisted tragedy, so I can work my own miracle this time.
Jax came out of the hospital with snow on the ground, then convalesced at home for a while. When the police asked to talk to him, he went without his lawyers, against their advice, and attempted to reaction what he could about the accident. Eventually he returned to school on crutches, which later gave way to this clunky stimulating device he’d sometimes wrap around his gam and ass-plug into the wall, what we called his “bone machine.” He hobbled the same halls as Flynn, but they studiously avoided each other now while the various lawyers ready for the criminal trial. Meantime, it seemed clear that Seger’s family would bring a civil suit of some sort, perhaps against all the boys. But at least on the surface, everything carried on, despite the awkwardness. College applications were ended and sent out; no one got dumped by his gf.
Time accelerated. The snow melted, the season switched, and our town bloomed: daffodils and forsythia at Easter, the dogwoods and cherry trees not long after. Lawns turned green again, the leaves drawing lush curtains over everything. The pier was repainted; boats were put back in the Sound, their sails snapping in the wind.
With the passage of time, Jax doubled his efforts to retrieve some shard of absent memory. The most significant night of his life to that point and he couldn’t reminisce anything but leaving Seger’s house to go to a party. It was some fierce, cosmic joke. His antipathies, guided inward by guilt, now had an outward target. When Flynn pleaded not guilty to the charges, reiterating through his lawyers that he hadn’t been at the accident scene that night—a version of events backed by Xavier—Jax became animated again. As they maintained their innocence, Jax’s fury grew.
It was elementary: Knowing what Jax believed they knew, how could they have left him there? And where had they gone?
It was hard for him to concentrate on anything but the accident—it all went back to that open up of road. We drove it every night, in our minds. And Jax tantalized himself with attempting to recall. Eventually, in conversation with his doctors, it was agreed that he would visit a Yale psychiatrist who used hypnotism. It was maybe something Jax would have once regarded skeptically, but what other choice did he have?
The session lasted almost two hours. He left the psychiatrist’s office not knowing anything, hypnotized as he was—nor did his parents. The psychiatrist promised that after reviewing the videotape, he’d send it along. Jax could only confirm what the psychiatrist had said, that things had gone “very well,” whatever that meant.
A few weeks later the videotape arrived. Jax called, I drove down to his house, and we joined his parents to observe it for the very first time. When Jax appeared on the television screen—or what I reminisce of Jax on that screen—he sat straight up, wearing a button-down T-shirt. His eyes were shut, and he seemed fairly relaxed, answering some basic opening questions. He was evidently already hypnotized, and the psychiatrist pointed out a needle stuck halfway into the skin inbetween his thumb and pointer finger, however Jax said he felt no agony and seemed to have no skill of the pin.
The psychiatrist then asked Jax to navigate the very first four-fifths of the night in question. Jax described how Seger had loaded in with Jax at Seger’s house, railing shotgun, how Flynn and Xavier followed in the other car. Jax led them up Ocean to Main, Main to Birch, Birch to the high school. Then the two cars emptied through the high school parking lot, turned left onto Coral, and took a right onto High. At this point, they were a quarter mile from the tree.
In the videotape, Jax, whose eyes are closed but tracking underneath the lids, seems at ease charting their progress. The psychiatrist leads him leisurely, asks him to regard the activity as however it’s “a photograph.” Jax is talking to Seger, music on the radio, streetlights passing in longer intervals now, the speedometer needling: twenty, twenty-five, thirty. Then he’s on the straightaway before the curve with the maple tree, and the psychiatrist says, “Concentrate on your rearview mirror.”
There are leaves skittering, dark branches overhead, a wedge of light before the sports car. He reaches to turn up the music, presses the gas. The lights are reflecting in the rearview mirror, the other car right on his tail. He is talking to Seger.
He’s talking to Seger. The music is blaring. Leaves are skittering. The road takes a turn. Music, leaves, dark branches. Seconds from hitting the tree, he looks in the rearview mirror, answers the psychiatrist. “I see [Flynn’s] car,” he says, “see him cut out left. He’s getting closer. What’s he doing?” For the very first time, he seems to be talking not to the psychiatrist but to himself. “He’s almost parallel,” he says. “There’s no way.”
His eyes shut taut. He looks stricken, skinny lips pressed together. And then his bod rocks once, very hard.
† This section has been updated to reflect extra information regarding the criminal charges and civil litigation related to the accident.
Did it happen like this?† If you’d seen the gauze, you might have thought so. At the very least, it gave Jax a narrative to which he could eventually cling as the courts began to parse the evidence of what had occurred that night.
Very first came the criminal charges against Flynn that hovered over him for a year, ending in a courtroom drama that found Jax hobbling in on crutches and Flynn home from college accompanied to court by a dozen family members. Despite several eyewitnesses placing Flynn’s car near the scene after a noisy crash, the prosecutor admitted that it was “a difficult case to evaluate” and determined not to prosecute. He said his decision was based on the lack of reliability of Jax’s account under hypnosis (especially since the theory that Flynn’s car bumped his had primarily been advanced by police), and the judge dismissed the case. Outside the courtroom, Flynn’s lawyer said the ruling “totally vindicates my client” and that Flynn was headed instantly back to college.
￼Dear God, I found myself begging, give me something horrible and bloody. Just let me lay my arms on some big, honking, metal-twisted tragedy, so I can work my own miracle this time.
In the wake of that dismissal came an array of civil suits that dragged along for years, yet after Jax’s and Flynn’s lawyers lodged with Seger’s family (for $100,000 and $300,000, respectively), everything whittled down to one: Jax suing Flynn for damages.
Almost four years later, the newspapers covered that trial gargle by gargle. On the stand, Flynn testified that they’d been drinking 7-Up and vodka at Seger’s house, detailing the route of his travels, which was almost the same as Jax’s, claiming he’d never seen an accident and only learned about it twenty minutes later, after arriving at the party. Under cross-examination, when questioned about the possibly matching color of paint found on the fender of his car, he said, “I never hit his car before, nor any other. car.” The paint wipe, the director of the state’s forensics laboratory testified, was “similar, but possibly not the same.” There wasn’t enough paint to permit a more finish analysis. Other details emerged: They’d begun drinking around six P.M. and left for the party around 9:30. At an intersection well before the site of the accident, Xavier had hopped out of Flynn’s car and run ahead to Jax’s for matches, after which they traveled several lengths behind Jax before pulling away along a road leading to the party. Another local resident testified that she had seen only Jax’s speeding car near the scene moments before hearing the crash. After movie of Jax’s hypnosis session was shown in court, an experienced for Flynn rejected its legitimacy, arguing that “suggestibility plays a big part” in what someone subject to hypnosis supposedly recalls. In the end the jury found Flynn “negligent, but not responsible” and awarded no damages.
It was senior year, seventeen years old, the soccer and football season just over, a party in the offing. Could life have been any better?
At the end of the school year, just before prom, my prayer was answered: On a humid, cloudy night, I got my call. Already I’d racked up my cardiac arrest (that neighbor of ours) and a chaotic highway accident (an unsatisfactory violated femur), but this sounded promisingly bad.
We were summoned to a vast seawater farm, with its rocky hillocks and ancient oaks, a place we knew for its Revolutionary War battles and midnight cow-toppling. This night, however, the darkness was almost a substance, and even as we directed our spotlight up into the trees, the rays were absorbed, leaving nothing to see. Eventually we came upon a car on the shoulder with its hazards blinking, someone who had witnessed the accident and rushed to help. The ambulance stopped, and I leaped out.
The way I’d dreamed it always involved saving someone. I would perform some suitable miracle, and later, in the most ridiculous part of the fantasy, my victim and I would become friends, exchange gifts, and if she was pretty, maybe get married, her wheelchair being proof that I’d snatched her from sure death. Now I ran over soggy ground to the car. I shone a flashlight over boulders and downed branches. The car was off in the trees, sitting a duo of feet back from the gnarled trunk of an oak, the rubber hood accordioned to half its normal size. The driver’s door was ajar, and a dark figure loomed in back, the Good Samaritan attempting to pull and hold traction from his awkward angle.
Despite his best efforts, the woman’s head still lay facedown on the steering wheel. I could smell gasoline and manure—and gin and beer. I, too, was in an awkward spot, down on one knee inwards the open front door. I placed the flashlight on the dash, and then, as I placed my palms over each side of her head, over her ears, with both my pinkies lifting from below her jaw, her face rose before me. Her skin was soft to touch, but she was badly bloodied, and her nose, where there had been one, was now just a lump of bone. There was a clean slot in her forehead, and something green and gooey seeped out. Her eyes, half shut, were white. She was groaning softly, rhythmically, the kind of groan that reflected a anguish so deep it may not have been felt consciously.
I regretted my decision the minute I made it. And now we were stuck together.
It was going to be a long time before we could stir her—we were going to need the Jaws of Life to get her out—let alone before she would see an emergency room. The chick or woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, had hit the tree going very rapid, quick enough for her skull to have been punctured and brain matter to have seeped out.
I can recall a lot about the minutiae of that night, about how the firefighters arrived, lighting giant catches sight of on the car, making it seem like day in that glade, and then the whining of the eyed as they cut her out. Another ambulance arrived, with grown-up paramedics authorized to administer drugs, which they did, running lines from cascade bags to the veins in her arms. There must have been two dozen people working, spectating, helping, at the height of the act. And then, after they cut her liberate, I recall standing on the back runner of the grown-up ambulance, standing there as they sheared the clothes from her figure—her skin was pallid, her breasts utter—and put in more lines and an oxygen mask over her face, attempting to stabilize her before leaving for the hospital.
Afterward, when the grown-up ambulance went screaming off, everyone took their things and quickly retreated. We were pretty shook up; someone on our squad was weeping. The woman was in a deep vegetative state, on her way to death by morning. And we’d done nothing to switch that. I myself came closest to a feeling when the clouds parted and the moonlight came down over everything, including the serrated wreckage, in thick, pallid, silver planks, a moment that could have been godly but was nothing of the sort. The feeling was of betrayal and shock.
Now whenever my mind slips to such naive meditations—these mock-heroic desires of saving anyone from anything—I need only conjure that doll’s face in my forearms again. I need only hold that unmendable bod close to realize how far I’d traveled from Thanksgiving. I got what I’d wished for, and I wished to give it all back.
One last memory of that night: When I came home in my ambulance whites and orange fluorescent jacket, splatters of blood on my sneakers, my father was sitting at the kitchen table, his work arrayed before him in scribbles on the yellow legal pads he favored. I gave him a few details, leaving out the part about when the damsel’s parents displayed up at the scene.
“It sounds pretty bad,” he said.
There was a pause, a long one. I couldn’t look him in the eyes for fear it would all come out, all at once, in a good breathtaking gush, everything I’d held down. He might have already understood this. But I’d spent the year arming and armoring myself, and no one dared to treatment anymore.
My father sat at the table, his face registering a father’s concern. If he had something he needed to say—or a question to ask—he thought better of it. Or I cut him off, on my own at last. “Good night,” I said, putting my foot on the very first step of the back stairway leading to my room, unmoving for a moment, then shifting my weight powerfully to climb.
“Good night, son,” said my father.
This past Thanksgiving marked the thirty-third anniversary of Jax’s car accident and of Seger’s death. For a long time afterward, you could see scars of the wreck on the trunk of the maple tree they hit, written in what seemed like Sanskrit. It was hard to look at; but for the few marks, the tree itself seemed to flourish, carrying no memory of that night.
Over time, the enormous trunk healed itself, its bark without blemish, and then one day it was simply chainsawed to widen the sidewalk. In all those years that the tree had loomed there—blooming its gaudy leaves in the spring, losing them like discarded twenties in the fall—I’d pass by searching for evidence that the accident had actually happened, that it hadn’t just been a desire. My attitude was coldly forensic. I often thought to stop and touch the markings like an archaeologist, tho’ never did. When the tree all of a sudden vanished—only pallid sawdust littered the spot—there came this rush of feeling: sorrow, elation, guilt.
In the years after, Jax built a hectic, successful career in finance. Sometimes, when visiting home, I might drop in to find him hungover on a Sunday, on the couch underneath a blanket, watching old horror films. Eventually, some time after the rest of us, he married and had children. A few years back, when I told him I dreamed to write something about the accident, he said, “Write the truth, then.”
It took a long while, because as I found, the magnetic field around the dead truly does repel memory at very first. But once I let it all back in, I couldn’t wiggle Seger, the one who couldn’t speak at all, the one who was all of a sudden everywhere. One newspaper article from the time of the civil trial detailed the courtroom testimony of a financial experienced who was asked to assess the amount of money Seger might have generated in his life. The accomplished said $1.Trio million was a fair guess, which would amount to about $Two.8 million today, but it seemed all the more tragic to reduce his life to a number like that. Give us any other number: YouTube movies sent or dogs possessed, favors for neighbors or baby pictures e-mailed. Before the rock closed over the vault, I wish someone had speculated about what he’d found that night—God or no God—when he passed through the tree.
Perhaps we indeed are surrounded by the past, made prisoners of it. No matter how far we travel, how hard we attempt to leave behind, the scarred tree forever stands by the side of the road, if only in our minds. The only way to drive by is to set the past straight, once and for all, by remembering.
Talking to my brother, a lawyer now with kids of his own, I ask what he recalls about that night, and he says two things: (1) that the EMT from our ambulance service had told him something he couldn’t ever leave behind, that Seger had been found with a shard of glass in his eye; and (Two) that I had originally planned to join Jax and the rest of them on that evening, prior to the party.
And maybe if I had, I would have missed the chance to write this down, as I have, which is the only way I can make sense of anything or realize ultimately that there’s no sense to be made of it: that once upon a time in a faraway town, we grew up—and some of us lived. And some of us attempted to turn away but never fairly could.
But most of all, if I’d been there that night, I couldn’t tell you now that Jax, my old friend, can still be a beautiful ache in the caboose and the truest person I’ll know. If I were never to see him again, this would be my memory of him, of that year: the bucket utter of blues, the encyclopedia without God, the energy of his wiry assets flying, bowed in the sun, attempting to recall why he ever desired to leave this earth in the very first place.