When a patch of black ice sends Officer Teach’s cruiser into roll on Christmas, he’s
grateful to be rescued. Until he meets the dead cop who pulls him from the wreckage.
I would imagine that being in a car rolling down a steep hillside in the dark is much akin to being held in a very large sack suspended by a rope that is set to spin and then beaten repeatedly with a large piece of firewood.
While my lifestyle made this eventuality much more plausible for me than others, I’d never actually been in a sack and beaten (hung, spinning or otherwise). But I was definitely in a rolling car, and no matter how they may actually compare I have to say it was fairly horrible.
December is not a notoriously snowy or icy month in the South, but it is definitely very cold and very windy. Chattanooga was once infamous for its pollution. Like Los Angeles, it sits in a small bowl of mountains and bluffs, and as such most houses and businesses are protected by hills and trees—but not where I worked on the interstates; those were exposed to the elements, along with the wind and wind-chill that accompany them. So those signs that say “Beware of Ice on Bridge”? They are not messing around.
It was 4 a.m. or close to it on a Christmas morning. (I don’t really pay attention to time by this point in the shift as I go from call to call, or convenience store to convenience store. I carry a radio on my shoulder, a phone in my pocket, an Internet-connected computer on my console and the entire world around me to pay attention to so in the scheme of things “time” ranks low on my list of priorities.) But it was late, and I was coming down the ridge cut thinking about what a shitty day this had been, rolled up appropriately into a shitty week, month and year, come to think of it.
We’d lost friends. Cantankerous elected officials were no longer the exception but the norm now, so benefits and tools being shit-canned were no longer anything new to be upset about, but I was left wondering, as we tend to do, “Is it really worth it?”
I was thinking precisely this thought when much to my puzzlement my headlights started aiming in the wrong direction. I wasn’t driving towards the guard rails; that would be silly. Then I caught view of a hotel that had just been behind me, and a concrete dividing wall, then the rail again (but this time much larger, which was ridiculous because steel didn’t swell, only concrete did). This was unacceptable! I had places to be, and God help me now my coffee cup appeared to be spilling for no reason. (I actually thought all these things in the space of a second when I finally concluded “Oh! Crap! I’m spinning.”)
I was on the Westside Drive overpass and apparently had hit what folks call “black ice.”
My thoughts were interrupted by an annoying impact with the guardrail which I had pierced, but not without it clipping the lower portion of the car, causing it to move slower than the top half, and therefore spin.
(There are a few seconds from the time you leave a roadway and land on the ground beyond it which really, really stretch out, making the thought of “Hey. My pen,” seem reasonable when you find it suspended mid-air instead of dropping to the floor as most reasonable pens would do. It’s actually a safety mechanism for the mind to focus on minutia instead of “The Big Picture,” especially when that picture is one of you likely ending up as a bug on a cement truck windshield. But it’s still an interesting phenomenon to see things float, no matter briefly. I felt like an astronaut.)
So there I was, the first contact with Earth shattering the tranquility of weightlessness and making a mess of my car in general. Wheels up, wheels down, I rolled and rolled very noisily and didn’t have a chance to think of how or if I would stop, when I did, quite abruptly, against the concrete abutment of what had once been a semi-truck loading dock.
Stars flew and after all the fuss and drama, the world grew silent. And cold. I was back in real-time, trying to get the seatbelt off that was holding me in my seat while upside down, the contents of my office (and damn-near my bladder) all around my head. “Ugh.”
I was still fumbling and bleeding when I saw shoes appear on the ground outside my window. Black, plain, worn leather. Polyester pants.
A cop was already there to help me, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“Lemme get that, par-ner.” He knelt down and reached in through glass that had broken along the way and poked the elusive buckle button as I said, “Hey—” and crashed to my head. I unhooked my hip from the center console mount, shook my head like a wet cat and crawled out. “Thanks man, I—” I uttered then stopped.
Bud Crompton. I knew him from pictures. Eight-point police hat tilted back, aviator shades (despite the hour), tarnished shield above a gut that looked like it was smuggling basketballs, and a gunbelt with only a revolver on one side and a nightstick on the other (tucked through the belt, not in a ringed holster). Crompton was without conscience, the guy they called when something horrible needed to be done, and the last time he did so he was found mumbling to himself while dropping pebbles into the mouth of the man lying dead where he’d killed him, having chased him for killing another cop. This was 35 years ago. They say he had no conscience, but I also heard when he was dying of cancer he saw the ghosts of the men he’d killed in the room with him, and he died sweating and scared. And he’d just let me out of my smoking, crumpled car.
“Son, you’re lucky to be standin’.” He turned and walked past the car and I heard the chinking of metal. At first glance I hadn’t seen it, but after I blinked he appeared now to be wrapped from ankles to shoulders with old rusty leg-irons linked end to end, causing him to shuffle as he struggled under the weight. I wasn’t terrified, but I also couldn’t breathe or move. (OK, maybe I was. Doesn’t happen often enough to know.) Red lights suddenly flickered on his face and reflected from the chains as he shuffled past me, cold breath filling the air like cigarette smoke as he labored along.
He was walking towards East 23rd Street and what appeared to be another wreck, but the fire engine on the scene seemed all wrong. It was rounded, an older model I hadn’t seen in years. There was an ambulance there and I was probably hurt, so I followed. Crompton walked ahead of me through the crowd that had gathered and, despite his appearance, no one seemed to care. Or at least notice; perhaps that was it. He didn’t walk through people, but he was wholly ignored. Ah, Americans.
The scene was familiar to me now, but obviously because I had worked it during my first six months on the job. A normal person may have freaked, but I worked a job where clients included the recently raped and the not-so-recently left-to-rot on riverbanks. If a dead cop had just helped me out of a car wreck, what’s to question?
Seven kids and two adults had been in a compact Nova, not a carseat onboard. One of the boys died when he served as an airbag for his mother. I did CPR on him out of reflex while his mother complained of “knee pain” to a fireman, ignoring the boy, and the case ultimately made national news when she was prosecuted for his death.
Crompton stood silently and looked from me to the boy, where I wasn’t present this time. The boy died regardless of my futile attempts, but it was strange seeing it done differently this night. Medics worked him, to be sure, but only as a “load-n-go” for the parents’ sake. Little boys just shouldn’t lie there like that, I thought at the time. (I remember the coppery taste still. You don’t use a lot of “universal precautions” as they’re called, with kids. Especially when you have one the same age at home.)
I turned to walk back to my car, to get away, and found I was at a hotel that hadn’t been there before. I looked around to get my bearings and noticed there was no longer a December chill but instead a hot, humid breeze. I was at the picture window of a hotel room I last saw in 1996, where, right on cue, a woman threw the drapes back and shoved bloody wrists against the window, then smeared them in a figure-eight before closing them back. But I wasn’t there, only my then-partner, who, instead of breaking the window as we had and bringing her down with a comforter gripped between us (like a wild game net), waited on more cars, a master key and an ambulance.
I watched her taken away eventually (as did Crompton who watched from the parking lot across from us), and just knew that she lived despite the changing of events.
I walked over to Crompton, who stood there silently, and said, “I get it. I’m still in the car, right? I’m dead or dying, and you’re showing me what I already know. I didn’t make a difference. None of it made a difference. Thanks.”
Crompton stood there speechless, glaring at me from behind his dark aviator shades, his only reply being a large, brown, hissing cockroach crawling from under his sunglass lens and down his left cheek and neck until it disappeared under his collar. He turned and walked toward the main roadway. I was filled with impotent rage, but moved with him, the hotel seeming to fade in a way that was scarier than the cockroach.
His puffs of cold breath had returned with the chilled air, and I followed him. The smell of transmission fluid went from faint to strong as we arrived back at my car.
“Get in, par-ner,” Crompton said, his hand extending a limp finger in the general direction of the car window.
I was defeated, so I did. I crawled in and pulled myself through the shattered glass and over the loose papers and articles that adorn a cop’s mobile office—earplugs and bullets amidst toothpicks and obsolete memos and circulars, food wrappers that missed the garbage bag (or floorboard, same thing)—I was cut, bleeding, and I lay down in it, cheek against the roof, where I felt the urge to cry and decided to do so. Until I saw boots appear at the door again.
Black, plain, worn leather. Polyester pants. I closed my eyes.
“Holy shit, you alright man?!” Not Crompton’s voice.
I opened my eyes and saw a hand. No cockroaches on it, no sound of chains. I took it and emerged through the far passenger side window.
“Jesus, Sarge is gonna freak out. You OK? You should be sitting down, man. Want me to call somebody, ya’ motha’?” Jim Yappachino (immediately nicknamed “Cappuccino” as a result). I’d trained him, once.
“No man. I’m good.” My lie was betrayed by streaks of blood pouring down my scalp and a buckling right knee as I stood up, so I acquiesced to an ambulance ride after all.
I rode with the stretcher elevated as an EMT wrapped my head, my collar having filled with blood, and it immediately made me think of my dream of Crompton and the cockroach that slid down his. I shuddered.
I answer insignificant calls. I counsel those I am able to and I fix the things I can, but I’d just had a vision of what a waste it was in the scheme of things. As I’d always suspected. As I always knew.
I made the ride to the hospital without comment, staring at the cold white lights of the cabin ceiling and wondered if my GPS was still in the car, on the hill or in a crack house already. I was OK at least, but that’s the best I could hope for I suppose:
An “OK” life. Whatever. Merry Christmas.
Epilogue: The wreck on East 23rd Street didn’t go unnoticed by all that day. A little girl named Ashley saw a policeman doing CPR on that little boy and she never knew what happened to him, but it changed her life. She became a paramedic and went on to medical school. She treated thousands of patients and eventually met a president who gave her a medal for the things she’d done.
The woman in the hotel room? Indeed, she lived for a few years after this, but the officer that went in for her alone used his hands, not a comforter. She was cut and bleeding, and so was he, though he didn’t know it; an infection spread that wouldn’t have otherwise. The source of his sickness was never identified. But with Officer Teach there, it never happened—though neither would ever know it, either.
Differences can be made. We can even crawl through to the other side when things are at their worst sometimes, but we may never know either happened. Knowing, after all, is just vanity. But doing the job and avoiding those chains? It’s like Christmas itself—invisible yet important. And it can be a wonderful life without you ever knowing it.
But trust me on the signs that say “Beware of Ice on Bridge.” They are not messing around.
Merry Christmas, Faithful Readers.