I saw a dead body once. We were on a family vacation, heading south.
My brother and I sat in the back of the van, watching cartoons on a travel TV that was secured in place, between the front seats, by bungee cables.
We’d taken our shirts off in the heat, and were perspiring, loud, and rude. We fought. We insulted. We slapped, and pinched and punched. We jammed saliva covered fingers into one another’s ears and gave out Indian rug burns. We made flatulent noises by tucking our hands under our sweaty armpits and flapping our arms. We wrote curse words on a notepad - ones we were too afraid to say in front of our parents - and threatened to beat each other “into pulp.” My brother was older than me, and bigger then, but I tried to overcompensate with the sting of my words.
Dad rolled down the window. We heard patrol sirens whining, distant chops of an idling helicopter. Something was wrong. You could just feel it, like nausea or hot sun on your arm.
Nobody seemed to know or care why we’d stopped. Some people left their cars, danced to radios, or chased each other in circles. Others darted off into the woods to urinate. One long haired man hopped out of his van holding a lawn chair. I watched him run ahead a hundred yards or so, plop down, crack a beer, and wait for his ride to catch up.
We inched ahead.
Eventually, we reached the accident. Shards of metal and glass were scattered everywhere. A sheen of oils and hose-water glistened on the blacktop, reminding me of the time my brother busted the fish tank in Ms. Carl’s second grade classroom.
At some point, traffic began to slow. Cars were lined up, bumpers kissing bumpers, as far, and straight, as any of us could see. The first car was completely smashed in. The hood was bent upward, and the windows all blown out; a crumpled, glossy, magazine picture of a car. A crew of paramedics and firemen circled around it.
The other car was off in the woods that bordered the highway, barely visible, wrapped around a tree.
My brother was the first to see the body. We rolled by it slowly, stuck in the tedious pull of traffic. He pointed at the white sheet lain delicately on the road.
“Don’t look, boys don’t look,” said my Dad, in a tone I don’t think I’d ever heard before. “Close your eyes.”
There was nowhere else to look.
I didn’t recognize what it was at first. All I felt at the time was confusion. Why was this person resting on the blacktop? My god, how hot they must have been! How sweaty and uncomfortable it must be under there. I was concerned. Did anybody realize they were there? Someone was going to run them over! Why wasn’t anyone doing anything?
I fished through the bottom of our Igloo cooler and grabbed a bottle of water.
“You should give this to that person,” I said, passing it up to my Mom. “What person?” she asked. “There’s somebody under that sheet.” Mom took the drink, but didn’t respond.
“You moron,” said my brother as he flicked the back of my ear. He seemed almost delighted. “That person under there is dead. They’re cooking like a steak on a skillet and –”
“Christopher!” said my Mom. I could see the bottle trembling in her hands.
I looked back and saw a hand reaching outward, from underneath the sheet. It had five fingers and unpainted nails – a man, I assumed – just like mine, just like my hand.
Dad remained silent, staring forward into the rear-window of the car ahead of us. Two oblivious children, bowl-cut, in matching overalls, pulled their mouths back with their fingers, making faces, waving.
None of us said much after that. We cleared through the traffic and resumed our usual speed on the highway. We returned to our thoughts, our TV.
At a picnic table in Chattanooga, a few hours later, my Dad pointed up at a mountain off in the distance. “Let’s go up there,” he said, nodding with his chin, while dipping a tear of grilled cheese into a styrofoam cup of soup. “Let’s see what it’s like at the top.”
Mom nodded, chewing, looking out and away.
We parked at the base of the mountain, and a cable car took us up the side. It was steep and felt like a roller coaster, ratcheting up to that first drop. I felt a stab inside my stomach. I imagined us reaching the top and sliding all the way down the other side, flipping and rolling – I thought suddenly of the car in the woods along the highway – into Chattanooga, uprooting plants and trees, crushing pedestrians, tearing through the windows of buildings, out through their back walls like an exit wound. I felt guilty and weird for thinking this way. I wanted to go back home.
We reached the top of the mountain. We could see forever, it seemed.
“Seven states,” said Dad, flipping through his annotated guide book. “It says you can see seven different states from here, on a clear day.”
I tried to imagine that I could see them, all seven, but it was cloudy and everything looked the same from this height. I couldn’t distinguish one state from the other. The sameness was overwhelming. All I could see were the same trees, rooftops, baseball diamonds, cars, fields of green, and the little moving specks that I assumed were people.
I could also see the network of roads, like the gray spidery veins that ran down my mother’s bare legs, which scared me to the point of closing my eyes. For I knew that if I opened them, I could trace the roads back to the scene of the crash.
My brother stepped up behind me and I flinched, waiting for another flick against the ear, or a tennis shoe to the back of my thigh, but he said nothing, did nothing. He looked out with the rest of us and remained silent.
It was getting near dusk when we returned to the van – which was cooler now – and drove off into the night.
We stopped at a roadside motel, later, to sleep. I couldn’t, however.
And while I tossed and turned – pacing, at times, around the darkened room – the rest of my family slept well. So well, that they remained asleep in the glow of a muted news program, which replayed footage from the crash site over and over – as if their nightmares were projecting outward from their minds, across their foreheads, faces.
I don’t think I dreamed of the crash though, once I finally fell asleep. In fact, I don’t even remember what I dreamed of that night.
Postcard: Found at Antiques of Old Wilmington in Wilmington, North Carolina in January 2012.