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No Accidents

Posted on Monday, July 20, 2009 in An American In Paris, Columns

Nothing happens by accident. Of that I’m totally convinced. The most recent instance of why I don’t believe in serendipity was revealed to me yesterday in a poem I found on the Net. It’s by a guy named Dan Fante. Dan’s father, John, was one of the foremost influences on my writing. In my teen-age days, I used to work (as a dishwasher) in the hospital (The Motion Pictures Actor’s Rest Home) where Fante ultimately died. Many years later, I would become close with his wife, Joyce, and later I almost moved into Fante’s old writing room in his Malibu house.

So, yesterday, I found this poem by Dan Fante. It describes his reactions after witnessing a car accident in which a man was killed. For some reason, after I finished reading the poem, I felt very peculiar. I was still poking around on the Net, and suddenly, without warning, I stumbled upon a Web page I’d created at least five years ago, back when I was learning HTML. It contained a draft (unfinished) of a story — also involving a car accident — which I’d written perhaps 10 years earlier. A story which I’d completely forgotten about.

When you read the story, which is based upon a true incident, you’ll understand why I’d buried it. And that’s about all I want to say.

So first, Fante’s poem (my apologies to Dan for changing the way in which the poem is laid out on the page), and then my (unfinished) piece.

Accident? Well — you decide for yourself.

————————————————————————

3-31-2000

by Dan Fante

I saw this guy check out
Just before lunch today

Waiting for the crossing light on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard.
A bad paperback and my newspaper under my arm

I’d smoked my cigar and sipped my snazzy Starbuck’s coffee
And exchanged chit chat with Ann the counter girl with the “D” cup
about the odds of her leaving her old man and running off to Mexico
with a swashbuckler like me
And made a fresh resolve to start another novel
Then knew immediately it would go the same way as the rest of my
tedious, worthies shit  these days and ultimately change nothing

Then, hearing this hellish noise
I look up
To see metal flash and spinning red
and another car hit that car and that car crash into a concrete poll
and the body of this business guy — head first — his paisley tie and 3-piece suit
still correct and in place — explode through the front windshield of his SUV
on a nonstop trajectory for an 11:07 a.m. face-to-face appointment with Jesus

And half an hour later, at the second hand bookstore on Santa Monica — it came
to me
maybe stupidly
that this guy wouldn’t be going for a run after work today
or returning to the urgent phone call from his broker
or kissing his kids goodnight
or doing whatever it is people do
before they die abruptly
beneath a flawless April Sky

————————————————————————

A Death In Isla Vista
by S.L. Goldman

I killed this guy one time. It was weird. I was driving back up to school at UCSB late on a Sunday night. Right after you get outside of Oxnard, the freeway turns into Pacific Coast Highway. I was driving along — I can still remember the song on the radio — “Seven and Seven Is,” by Love — and I felt this kind of thump on my car; it wasn’t a great big thump or anything like that. Just a normal thump. Then my front windshield cracked down the middle.

I pulled over to the side of the highway and got out of my car. In the middle of the road I saw what looked like a pile of grey rags. My first thought was that I’d hit a dog or something. Then, before I had a chance to do anything, several other cars ran over the thing. I saw pieces of stuff fly away from the object. It was only then that it struck me that I’d hit someone.

Things get a bit hazy after that. I remember a cop car pulling up, then an ambulance. It all went really fast. The cop got my name, my registration and stuff, then he said they’d be contacting me. That was it, really. I got in my car and drove back to Isla Vista, where I was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with another guy. When I got there, a couple of other people were in my apartment. I told them I had hit some guy on PCH, and I was pretty sure the guy was dead. For a minute or so, nobody said anything. Then we all started laughing. Not because it was funny or anything, just because it was so, well, weird. Then I started crying. Pretty soon, everybody was crying.

That was the only time I ever cried about what had happened that night. In fact, that was the only time I ever really felt anything at all about it.

I was in therapy at the time — my therapist was this real nice German lady named Mrs. Gottsdanker — and I told her about what had happened and all. I asked her how come I didn’t have any emotions about it. At the time, I remember, I was having a problem having emotions about lots of stuff. I figured when something like this happened, you ought to have some kind of feelings about it. Mrs. Gottsdankder was very “supportive” (her word) of me. She explained to me that since I knew nothing about the person I’d hit, that he effectively had no identity and so it was perfectly normal that I didn’t have a lot of feelings about it.

“But I killed a guy!” I exclaimed. “Shouldn’t I be feeling something?!”

“First of all,” she replied, “you are feeling something. The very fact that you’re concerned that you don’t feel anything, means that you are feeling something.”

“But, I don’t feel like I feel anything,” I retorted.

“It’s quite possible,” Mrs. Gottsdanker explained, “that you’re in a state of shock. If that’s the case, you’ll probably experience a delayed reaction at some point in the future. She wrote out a prescription for librium and told me my time was up.

After that, I tried to find out something about the guy I’d hit so that at least I’d know who he was. After contacting the Ventura police department I got some information.

His name was William Travers Holben. He was 35 years old; the officer I spoke with described him as “a transient.” Apparently he’d been drunk and was trying to run across PCH when I’d hit him. The officer I was speaking with told me that the accident was clearly Travers’ fault and not mine.

Even before they told me that it wasn’t my fault, I’d already thought of other ways to get out of it — like maybe I’d just hit him, but it wasn’t my car that killed him. It was the cars that ran over him after he was laying there that killed him — not me.

But in my heart I knew that was bulls—. I’d dealt the death blow and I knew it. And even if the guy was a transient and all, he hadn’t always been one. He was something else once. He had a mom and a dad. He’d once been in love with someone.

I mean, people just aren’t born bums — something makes them that way.

It really bugged me that the police would just write him off like that. Anyway, who ever heard of a bum with a pretty name like William Travers Holben? Nobody, that’s who!

I thought all kinds of stuff about the guy for awhile, but finally I guess I sort of just forgot about the whole thing. The only two real bad things about the incident were that the next day, I was washing my car off, and I saw that there were little pieces of the guy’s blue jeans stuck in the grill in my car. I remember washing them into the gutter real quick.

The other thing that still sticks in my mind was this weird thing that happened after I’d pulled away from the accident. I was driving along, just sort of numb; finally I came to a stoplight in Summerland, which is right outside Santa Barbara. This car pulled up next to me at the stoplight, and I saw that the man driving the car was trying to signal to me. I didn’t really want to acknowledge the guy, but he seemed real frantic about getting my attention, so finally I reached over and rolled down my passenger side window.

I can still see the guy. He was wearing all black, and his shirt was buttoned up to the neck. I remember thinking that he looked exactly like Robert Mitchum. Not just any Robert Mitchum though. No, he looked like Robert Mitchum in “Night Of The Hunter.” I half expected the guy to have the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, just like old Mitchum did in the movie.

Anyhow after I rolled down my window, the guy rolls down his window.

“Do you want to go to confession?” he said.

“What?” I blanched.

The guy looked at me and kind of half-smiled. It wasn’t a very nice smile.

“I saw what happened back there, and I want to know if you would like to ask God’s forgiveness,” the man said. “I’m a priest, and I thought I might be of help.”

I just sat there looking at the guy. The next second, this huge black bubble of anger welled up in my gut. For a second, I imagined pulling the guy out of his car and beating his face into the pavement until it was nothing but a bloody pulp.

“No thank you,” I said. “I don’t believe I’d care to do that.”

I rolled up my window and drove off. But then the really weird part happened. The guy started following me! He followed me almost the entire way back to campus. I remember thinking all these crazy thoughts, like maybe he was some kind of maniac or something. I thought all kinds of weird stuff. I thought maybe I’d actually gone into shock and I was just hallucinating the whole thing.

Finally, when I got to Goleta, the guy pulled off the freeway. I watched his lights in my rearview mirror as they disappeared into the fog rolling in from the ocean. I remember my hands were shaking real bad. They didn’t stop shaking until I finally got back to my apartment.

Like I said, the whole thing is pretty hazy. Sometimes I think I might actually have invented it. You know how if you tell yourself something so many times, sometimes you don’t know whether it really happened or if you just made it up?

Anyhow, I never forgot that guy; in fact, I still think about him. Sometimes when I’m driving, I feel like some crazy preacher that looks just like Robert Mitchum in “Night Of The Hunter” is following me. I wish I wouldn’t think that kind of stuff, but I just can’t seem to help myself

©Stuart Goldman

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