Everyday at exactly 4:16 am, I wake up. Or rather I’m woken up, but it’s never particularly jarring. It started not long after the accident, and I always have company until dawn. Depending on the time of year sometimes my guest is present for a couple hours, and sometimes for only a little while, but he’s always there. I’ve gone to bed at 2 am in a drunken stupor and 9 o clock the previous night, but I can always count on being awake at 4:16 am EST, regardless.
Living alone helps, as I couldn’t see a wife taking too kindly to me getting out of bed and holding palaver with a dead man early every morning. She’d be a lot more apt to think I was a little screwball when she only heard my voice. I would have been pretty certain that Dan’s voice would have been as real to you as it is to me, but once while visiting home, my mother asked me what on earth I was doing up at “4 o’clock in the freakin’ morning, carrying on like one of them men in the city with the cardboard signs and his eyes turned up to God.” I explained it away as talking in my sleep, something that must come from being a “creative type” and having a fertile imagination. She accepted my excuse with that nod and furrowed brow that only mothers have when thinking their only son has gone a little batty.
I suppose I could simply ignore Dan’s soft voice but it’s easier said than done. He asks questions that never fail to get your mental muscles lifting or your heart second guessing your own deeply held morals. I always answer, and I never really mind. In fact I don’t even feel guilty anymore; Dan has gone out of his way to make sure that I don’t.
The details of the accident aren’t as important as the aftermath, but I suppose it deserves telling nonetheless. I had insomnia and went for a ride, a restlessness that I’m sure most young men get from time to time. I had the windows rolled down, and I was listening to Jay and the Americans singing “This Magic Moment”. I liked to drive at night and breathe in the cool, clean air through my rolled down window. The only way that differentiated this ride from countless others is about 46 minutes into my ride, on a back road I saw a young man walking. I was going under the speed limit, and applied my brakes thinking it would be a close call; that I might pull over and give the guy hell for almost getting himself hit, but fate interceded and my brakes didn’t respond. I hit him with a sickening thud going about 42 miles an hour. If I had hit him differently he probably would have survived with nothing more than a broken leg and a keen awareness of deciding to walk in the road in the early morning. However after pumping my brakes frantically they did respond and I slowed to a stop, got out and ran back to him. My heart slapped against the front of my ribcage, playing the primal drum of panic, and my sneakers hitting the macadam seemed as loud as giant’s footsteps as I approached the crumpled body. The back of his hooded sweatshirt read “Maine University” and the glossy letters on the soft fabric made it more real than his body thudding on my bumper. At first I avoided turning the body so as not to do further damage, but upon closer examination, further damage could not be done. Spinal injuries don’t usually occur to dead college boys.
I went back to my car and put the hazard lights on, got my emergency road kit and surrounded the kid, not knowing what else to do. I started the long walk, called the authorities and AAA, and sat in front of the pay phone with my head in my hands. I didn’t cry, but I wanted to.
Not much happened after that. There was an investigation of course. I was sober, the brake line had been compromised and the skid marks after the body, in addition to the condition of the body itself showed that my speed was consistent with the posted speed limit. I wasn’t found at fault, there were no criminal charges, and my insurance didn’t even go up. Not that any of that matters when you’ve taken the future of a man in his early twenties and reduced it to ash. I actually had the courage to go to Dan’s funeral, expecting a reception worthy of soldiers returning home from Vietnam There weren’t many people there, it appeared to be his immediate family. When his parents saw me they recognized me and had no more blame towards me than I would later found out, Dan himself did. His parents were religious people and saw the mechanical failure of a too old Honda as God’s way of calling their son home. They thanked me for coming and I stayed throughout the long, prayer filled service. I wonder if they would have felt differently had they known that Dan wasn’t home yet. Not then. The only entity he met after his death was an author of flat novels, and would be for the foreseeable future.
A week later I awoke from a half remembered dream, and saw a young man in a Maine University sweatshirt sitting and watching me from my desk chair, translucent but there. He was hard to see in the dark room; although you could see through him he didn’t have that illuminating glow that most Hollywood spooks seem to emit. It’s funny but I didn’t think for a second that he was a dream or a vision. One day Dan wasn’t there, the next he was. He introduced himself and went into a monologue about how I shouldn’t blame myself. Not only did he cite the brake line as something beyond my control, but he offered new information about how he had planned to commit suicide and was actually on his way to do it that night. It really didn’t comfort me. There was something even more hopeless about that idea, and it made me wish that if he meant to do it, fate or God or whatever wheel that spins the world could have left me out of it altogether. I didn’t want to be any part of this kid’s death. But I was.
We talked a lot and I had a lot of questions about the afterlife, none of which he could answer. Not because it wasn’t for “mortal minds” to know, but because he didn’t have the answers. He couldn’t even tell me where he was when he wasn’t having our morning talks, because as far as he was concerned it was one conversation; when he disappeared at dawn and reappeared the following morning, he just faded in and out of whatever room I happened to be in. As bizarre as it was, it also felt entirely natural, and our talks were wide ranging. We discussed philosophy and what his visits meant, to him, to me. His own personal theory was because he had suicide in his heart, it made no difference that it wasn’t actually his hand that committed the deed, he had meant to do it and for all intents and purposes he did. To him, it’s what kept him from moving to another plane of existence, moving on as it were. I didn’t disagree completely, but I wasn’t sure real death wasn’t just a hole in the ground, with no afterlife to speak of. We talked about our parents, and life experiences. Our friends or lack thereof. Hell, he even knew some good dirty jokes. The oddest thing wasn’t the fact that I talked to a dead man but the fact that recalling your own past, and thoughts brought them into a certain focus, a clarity that wasn’t there when you only let them bounce around your head and never spoke them aloud. It helped to crystallize my feelings on things that I was always unsure about, and question things that I always thought were facts. In many ways Dan was the best friend I never had.
“It’s too bad we didn’t run into each other in life,” he said one morning.
“Yeah,” I said. He paused and smiled, waiting for me to get his “joke”. I scowled at him. “Don’t be an asshole, Dan. It’s not funny.”
“Lighten up,” he said looking at me more seriously. “That would’ve been the one thing I’d change, I think. If I could go back.” He looked at me deadpan. “Besides what’s a little gallow’s humor between friends?”
I’m not sure why I decided to write all of this down. Until now I always felt it was current, ongoing. It was a story with a rough beginning and I was living in the middle and there wasn’t really an end. I woke up at 4:16 am this morning, like usual but the chair was empty. I looked around, thinking Dan might have hidden or appeared somewhere else. My room was empty. The loneliness lay heavy in the silence. The tears I didn’t cry the night of the accident, appeared on my cheeks with interest. Wherever he was, I hope he did his time. Appearing in my room might have been his purgatory, his punishment for the harm he intended to do to himself. Maybe he just wanted someone to listen to him in death, as no one did in life. I ask myself a lot of questions about how and why any of it happened, but the one that nags me most is why there weren’t more people at his funeral. I wiped the tears off of my cheeks, pulled on a jacket and stepped out into the early morning air, just as the sun came up.
(Note: the photo is “Rickshaw Accident – Art Nomad Sandra Hansen” from fineartamerica.com/featured/rickshaw-accident…)