Dump Truck

“It’s like starting all over again. You don’t realize when you start, that in twenty years, suddenly you blink your eyes and everything changes again.”

I stare blankly at the windshield. “I’m sure something will come along,” I encourage her vaguely.

I haven’t realized how tough this has been for her. My younger brother is applying to colleges at the same time as I’ve been scoping out grad schools and my older brother has gotten married. She’s having trouble grappling with the fact that she’s not a full-time mom anymore, and after being out of the workforce for a couple of decades, it’s a jarring transition. On top of this, the interpreting business she’s been doing part-time work for just lost its bid to the state, meaning she’s been almost completely without work for the past few weeks with a lot of time to think about how lost she feels.

We’re cruising along I-93 toward Boston. It’s the morning of Martin Luther King Day, one of those strange Monday holidays, so traffic has been light up to this point. The roads are crusted in a cracked whitewash of salt residue and ice. The sky is the color of ash, turning the bay on our right to milk. I fiddle with the GPS to distract myself from the roaring of the highway which fills the car and reminds me of how I’m not sure what to say.

“Oh my God.”

I look up.

“Oh my God,” I echo.

The dump truck we’ve been following for miles suddenly no longer has wheels on the ground. The struts on the guard rail pop away from the road like severed piano strings and the metal torques, rips, then arches high into the air as the truck stumbles through it and begins to cantilever out over the water below. From the inside of our car, the scene is slow and silent, as though the truck were suspended weightlessly in outer space. But the presence of gravity becomes suddenly apparent as it drags the truck down the embankment. The first time it flips, a spatter of dirt and gravel is flung from the truck across the roadway. The second time it flips, I see twisted steel kick up into the air amid a gush of smoke. And then the truck is lost from view. My mom swerves as gravel assaults the car’s tires. I grab my phone and dial 911.

I explain, as well as I can, what’s happened to the operator, who sounds irritatingly calm, almost bored.

“Is the cab of the truck in the water?”

I look back to where the dump truck lies prone and smoldering, only half on the embankment.

“I don’t think so,” I say. I pray.

I wonder what caused the accident. A sip of coffee at just the wrong moment? A sleepless night or a distracting conversation running circles in the driver’s head? Or was it something even less controllable than that? A swatch of ice and a set of poorly maintained brakes? Later I find that the driver survived. But I wonder if, in that moment, he expected he would. I didn’t. I’ve never been in a near-fatal accident or felt that I was a scalpel’s edge away from death, so I don’t know if your life really does flash before your eyes in such a moment. But I can’t help but think that it would be rather unfortunate if it did. What a terrible reminder of everything you are suddenly about to lose. Would you realize that the entirety of your life, everything you ever did, every relationship you ever had, everything you ever learned, could be irrevocably obliterated by one mistake or by some stupid, senseless accident?

I try to imagine what it would feel like in the split second when the driver realized the truck was going to fall into the bay. The feeling of freefall that might have felt like either no time at all or a horrifying eternity after the truck separated itself from the road, but before the first impact. The sudden swooping of the stomach and prickle of sweat on the palms and forehead as the reality of the mistake set in. Would it feel just like missing a step going downstairs? Would he have been able to differentiate between that usually harmless slip and this, something that was so infinitely worse? Can any of us?

We have to crawl through a parking-lot standstill as we leave the city at the end of the day. Eight hours later, the accident still turns traffic to a sludgy ooze as cleanup crews wrestle the dump truck’s carapace and payload out of the icy water. How simple, how neat, how appropriate a metaphor is that truck. I’m sure the driver never envisioned, in the moment he lost control of the dump truck, in the moments before, what the consequences for that second would be. Hundreds of people for miles around, stopped for millions of combined hours because of one second. My mom didn’t know when she became a mother. You can’t see twenty years down the road what the difference of a second makes. We’re all dump trucks really, all of us driving through life carrying our various payloads, completely unaware of the difference, the millions of differences, that one stupid accident, one little mistake, a single second could make.

The End

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