THINGS SEEN FROM A MILE AWAY
Everybody’s life has tragedies, I don’t even know why I’m bothering to write about this one. I can’t really ask for anyone’s sympathy, I didn’t even like the guy. I just knew him, thanks to the fact that Martina was the maid-of-honor at my cousin’s wedding, and she is like some kind of obsessed promoter who wants to share everything in her life with everyone she’s ever met, whether they want to be in on it or not. If she was Santa Claus, and you didn’t have a chimney, she’d blow a hole in your roof and come down on a rope, that’s the kind of woman she was. Arnie was her man.
When the police came to question us after the accident, we had to admit that he’d been drinking. Martina was at home that night, chatting with friends on the computer, it was boy’s night at the pub off Highway 28, and she owes her life to the fact that sometimes guys would rather be alone.
Scott told the cops that Arnie must have had 6 mugs of beer off the tap; I noticed he’d had several shots of whiskey as well. Pat, the bartender, said it was 8 beers, and 5 shots, plus 2 Irish coffees. "I thought those were cups of coffee to prep him for the road," Scott said. Pat said no, they were spiked. All of us agreed that we’d told him not to drive home by himself. Steve had offered to drive Arnie home in Arnie’s truck, and I’d follow in Steve’s car. Then he’d bring me back to the pub’s lot for my own car.
"So, what happened?" the cop asked.
"He said no. He said he was fine."
"And you didn’t try to stop him?"
"Look, who’s going to stop Arnie? He was in the Special Forces, he was built like a tank. He would’ve made Triple H crap in his pants. And he’s as stubborn as any man who was ever born. Getting him to change his mind would have been like ripping a phone book in half. Look how skinny I am."
Pete added: "He told us he was getting into his car to get something out of the glove compartment. Then he just drove off."
The cop wrote down something in his notebook, then looked up. "All right," he said. "You tried to stop him, and he wouldn’t listen. You didn’t think of calling 911?"
"Is that what you’re supposed to do?" Scott asked.
"It might have saved his life," the cop said.
"Fat chance," Pat said, after the cop was gone. "What, and set up a high-speed chase?"
"That’s right," Scott added. "Could you imagine if he’d got busted for ‘driving under the influence’ and lost his license? I wouldn’t want to be the one who’d ratted on him."
"Poor Martina," I said. But then, I thought, marrying him might have been even worse than losing him. May he rest in peace.
Well, I am sure the cop found out from other people that drinking was only a part of the problem that night. You’ve seen the models of the DNA molecule, with all those wild clusters of atoms climbing upwards in a spiral like a swarm of bees flying towards a new person who’s going to be born? Well, drinking was only one of those atoms, one of those bees…
Like Scott said, there was the guy’s temperament. Impatient, angry, with ears that seemed to have permanent plugs built into them. The guy wouldn’t listen to anybody, he treated every bit of advice that came his way like the demented request for money of a drug-soaked homeless person, he held his nose and walked away, most often with a violent look of superiority on his face that made you feel glad he didn’t plunge a knife into your guts. Thank God, he let you live! Pete, who works in a garage, saw him driving by one day, and seeing how the truck handled, told Arnie that he needed to have his brakes checked. "They look shot to me," he told his friend, who I prefer to call an ‘acquaintance.’ "The lining’s gone. You better bring her into the shop, tomorrow."
Arnie told Pete he was just after his money. "I need a new muffler, too?"
"No, seriously," Pete told him. "The brakes are off. You might have a crash." Pete also noted how worn the treads on his tires were. "Next time it rains, you could go off the road."
"If I catch you looking at my wife the same way you ‘re looking at my truck, I’ll snap your neck," he told Pete. And then he went inside.
Martina later told us that Arnie wouldn’t have had any right to get jealous, even if we did check her out, because during the time they were together, he was more interested in his TV than he was in her.
"Your TV," Pete corrected her. "It belonged to both of you."
"No, his TV," she said decisively. "The only way I finally managed to watch a show I wanted to was by changing my tastes. I forced myself to like football, because that was all that was ever on."
I think she was fishing for one of us after Arnie was killed, but none of us took the bait of her lonely, well-displayed body, dangling in front of us like a worm, because, after all, what kind of woman would have gone with a man like that in the first place?
But the car problem was still only part of the total package that did him in. Jarrett, who worked in the same construction company as Arnie, saw him load a crate of explosives used in demolitions into the back of his truck, from their central inventory. The company was changing work sites that week, and Arnie wanted to save time in the morning, by not having to drive back to the inventory location from his home, and then over to the new work site.
"Hey, that’s restricted materials," Jarrett had told him.
"I’ve got transport clearance," replied Arnie.
"Yeah, but what are you going to do, leave the Hazmats overnight in an insecure location?"
"In my truck? In my driveway? Let me tell you, nobody, not even a ghost, comes around there in the night. Everybody knows me, what, are they crazy? I got floodlights on my property, motion detectors and an alarm, and inside I got a shotgun. Do you know what I did in the Special Forces?"
"Ok, ok," Jarrett said, "but that box isn’t sealed. Remember, we opened it up and used some of the explosives last week? It’s not firm and tight, it needs to be repackaged, you can’t drive it like that, over bumps in the road."
"Mind your business, god damn it!" Arnie told him. "Damn! If everybody in this country was like you, we’d still be a part of the British Empire, or living under the rule of Castro."
Jarrett couldn’t believe it. "Yo, this is basic safety!" he protested. "It’s not about who’s a boy and who’s a girl! When you were in the Special Forces, didn’t they tell you not to clean a loaded gun?"
"Don’t tell me what to do!" countered Arnie. "Fear, fear is what’s going to ruin this country. Fear that things will blow up! Fear that the brakes won’t work! We might as well not get out of bed! Once a country becomes obsessed with how well its brakes work, you know the end is near! We used to be a country in love with the gas pedal, with the open highway, with the sky, with speed, with getting somewhere! Now, we’ve become a nation afraid of crashing. Crashing and blowing up!"
"Well, for God’s sakes," said Jarrett, "at least, take that canister of gas out of the back of your truck."
Actually, it was two canisters. Arnie always drove around with spare gasoline in the back of his truck, so he wouldn’t ever have to worry about running out on some lonely, god-forsaken road, or wasting time in line waiting at the pumps if he was in a rush. He prided himself on being self-reliant. Old Mr. Mathis, who had fought in the Second World War, said Arnie’s system reminded him of "jerry cans", and described how he and his self-propelled gun crew had knocked out two Nazi tanks in Italy, which exploded like "previews of Hiroshima" thanks to the spare gas cans which the Germans had hooked onto the sides of their vehicles.
"You should have a wax manikin made of yourself, like at Madame Tuffant’s [that’s what he called her]. Because if you ever crash, son, there won’t be any body left to put inside the coffin."
Arnie respected Mr. Mathis, because, after all, he was a fellow soldier, so he didn’t tell him to shut up, he just called him senile after he had left. When Jarrett warned him about transporting the explosives next to his gas canisters, Arnie told him: "Look, I’ve advanced under enemy fire, and you’re telling me I can’t drive a truck?"
"Stop it!" Jarrett told him. "Just forget about whatever amazing things you did in the past, and look at the situation as it is now. Use your common sense! Look at what happened to the space shuttle – o-rings! If they could only have that launch back – but they can’t. What you’re doing now is ten times worse than that. It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to see where this is going!"
Arnie answered him with a defiant middle-finger, and was gone.
At the time he came to hang out with us, no one who was present knew that he had high explosives in the back of his truck. Certainly, not Lee, who stepped outside for a moment to have a smoke right next to the truck. Thank God for the little sculpture of the leprechaun that’s out there on the post in front of the pub (there used to be four of them, but three were stolen. What can you do? Drunks.) They say the little fellow brings good luck, and that must be how Lee made it back inside with nothing worse to show for his outing than a few more particles of tar in his lungs.
It was sometime between 1 AM and 1:20 when Arnie finally got up to leave, after convincing us (for the amount of time that we were in his arm’s reach), that the Miami Hurricanes were overrated, the New England Patriots were wimps, Stonewall Jackson lost the Civil War because he wouldn’t fight on the Sabbath, and the Byzantine army was vanquished because it castrated its soldiers. When Pete, knowing that I had studied some history, asked me if that was true, Arnie, speaking for me, said that it was.
As Arnie started to leave, Scott actually did ask him if he felt all right to drive home (Scott didn’t just invent that for the benefit of the cop). "Look, it’s starting to rain outside," he told Arnie.
"It’s pouring," Lee agreed, retreating from the doorway with a cigarette he’d planned to smoke. "It’s raining cats and dogs."
"Such a stupid expression," Arnie said, coming back from the bathroom, where he’d had to relieve himself again. All of our bladders were working overtime; if we ever had to pay them for what they do, that night they’d have earned time and a half.
"What?" queried Lee. It hadn’t registered.
"Raining cats and dogs? Who ever came up with that one?"
"Maybe, like in a hurricane, animals were picked up by the wind and fell down with the rain," suggested Lee.
Somebody had heard, somewhere, of documented reports of frogs falling on a town in Europe.
"Oh, shut the f*** up!" Arnie told us all. "I’m going home now."
"The roads could be slippery," we warned him.
"Wait till it stops," advised Pat, coming back from a window. "It can’t come down that hard for long. Right now, windshield wipers couldn’t even keep up with it."
"Oh, come on!" cursed Arnie. "You’re all so negative, so worried about every little thing! History belongs to the bold! Do you remember," he asked me, intending to exploit my knowledge of history, "what happened after Hannibal beat the Romans in the field?"
"Which time?" I asked him.
"Hannibal sat on it. He didn’t go for it. There it was, he had just KO’ed the Roman army, and the city was his for the taking. But instead, he just celebrated and waited for the Romans to cave in. And one of his generals said, ‘Hannibal, you know how to win a victory but not how to use it.’"
I wanted to comment on that disputed interpretation of military history, but before I could part the curtains of beer that covered my mind, he had gone on to say: "That’s us, today, boys. America. We won the Cold War, and now we’re just sitting on it. And instead of breaking all those little vile eggs of envious haters, we’re letting them hatch and fill the world up with new threats. Fear! Fear is what is doing us in, boys, the fear to accept what we’ve won, the fear that we’ll be bad, or blunder; the fear to drive in the rain!" He put on his coat. "The world belongs to the foot on the gas pedal, not the foot on the brake. What does the song say? The home of the brave?"
We did try to stop him, truly, though not as zealously as we told the cop.
After a moment, we heard the engine of his truck gunning on, and Pat saw the headlights shining down Highway 28, and the rain pounding Arnie’s vehicle, like a woman hitting a man who she cannot deter with her helpless fists.
According to what we were told at the funeral, the accident occurred at the place by the big black rock, where teenagers’ love notes mingle with ancient Native America pictographs. There, there is a sharp curve in the road, which is preceded by a sign which says "Speed Limit 25 mph." The engineers who made that sign didn’t leave much room for error. According to Pete’s brother, who works for an insurance company, 30 mph will put you off the road.
A little after 1:30 AM, a visitor from Germany driving in a rented car, who says he was about 30 meters behind Arnie’s truck (however far that is), heard a screech and saw the vehicle plunge through or over a rail down into the grassy dip below. The truck probably rolled a couple of times before it suddenly exploded and burst into flames. According to the witness, "It was just like the movies you are always making here in America. I was wondering, where is George Clooney?"
From a house ½ mile away, a woman who couldn’t sleep heard the explosion and saw the light of the fire. It was such a large conflagration that she thought a plane had gone down in the thunderstorm.
At Arnie’s funeral, two days later, we just stood there, shaking our heads, as Martina stared dutifully at the grave with sunglasses she didn’t need.
We’d all seen it coming from a mile away, and we’d tried to stop him. There were the brakes, the tires, the explosives, the canisters of gas, the rain, the curve, the alcohol. But most of all, there was Arnie.
Some people can’t be saved. If there’s any lesson to be learned from this story which I have, for no good reason, felt compelled to write, it’s that.
Aside from that, there’s nothing I can think to say except: thank God, none of us were in the truck with him!
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