What Is Your Emergency?
We both saw it coming. How could we not? It’s a straight shot from the top of the hill through several intersections to the bottom. The driver must have seen us. Surely she was slowing down. You can’t miss a big-ass Buick in the middle of the road unless you’re just drunk enough to fail the sobriety test the police will give you (and just cute enough to have those cops let it slide because you were “barely over the limit,” even though you just hit a fucking Buick).
My brother was doing me a favor: moving our dad’s royal blue Buick Park Avenue so I could get to the car parked behind it. Our mother’s maroon Ford Topaz was smaller, easier to maneuver, the car I preferred to drive, the one I wanted to use to go see my fiancé at 11:00 on a summer night.
My brother had backed the long sedan out of the driveway, over the sidewalk, into the street, and had stopped at a forty-five degree angle, diagonal to both the sidewalk in front and the center line behind.
I took a step closer to the road. I looked at my brother through the windshield, his slim, college boy’s bare neck and short summer hair incongruous behind that old-man-sized steering wheel. I motioned for him to roll down the window. Why the hell had he stopped?
He didn’t roll down the window. He had his head turned to the right, looking up the street. I turned to see what he saw. There had been no other cars on the road, until there was. The SUV was black with shiny chrome and bright headlights.
When it crashed into the passenger side doors, I was still on the sidewalk, but just barely, my toes almost touching the curb. My brother was still in the car.
Maybe she didn’t, but I think the woman in the black SUV must have slowed up some, surely—otherwise it would have been more than a collapsed passenger side and whiplash. It would have been a Buick plowed through the intersection or rolling sideways down the hill. It would have been my brother flattened or tumbling head over wheels.
From the sidewalk, I threw my arms forward and open. The universal reflex for no! wait! stop! But what can wide arms do in a situation like that? Was I trying to shield my baby brother? Was I trying to keep my own balance?
The crash must have been loud, but there is no sound in my memory.
Inside the house, our mother had watched the whole scene from her bedroom window, my father asleep on the bed beside her. I don’t know if he heard the sound of the crash above or below the racket of the window-unit air conditioner, but he definitely heard my mother’s shouts: “He’s been hit! He’s been hit! David’s been hit!”
Out there on the sidewalk, what I saw next was our father running around the corner of the house. Running toward us in a frantic, herky-jerky barefoot-on-a-stone-strewn-sidewalk sort of high-step/kick-combo. Running toward us in what he’d worn to bed: a pair of tightie-white underwear. Out there on the sidewalk, my father, running toward us, nearly nude, without even his glasses or his shoes.
Someone called 911. Someone always does in my family. It’s our predestined lot in life. One of us is always at the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time. We’ve called 911 for a passed-out drunk along the side of the road; for a shed set on fire; for a parking lot argument poised to tip into domestic violence; for reckless driving; for a young child wandering alone on a country road with fast cars and a narrow shoulder; for thugs dealing drugs on street corners; for a pregnant woman choking on an asthma attack; for car crashes.
So many car crashes. Automobile accidents are the family call-in specialty. My brother and I grew up on that long hill of a street with all those intersections. We were weaned on the drawn-out sound of squealing brakes before the sudden smash. A squeal is good. It tells you what’s coming. It tells you that someone had, surely, tried to stop what was about to happen. The worst is when there is no squeal, just the sharp surprise of a crack or boom.
When I asked my brother why he stopped the car while backing up, he says it’s because he saw the SUV coming and knew it would hit him. He says he didn’t pull forward because he would have been pinned against a telephone pole, and he didn’t back up because he’d end up in the oncoming lane. I don’t know how he could have made such a split-second calculation, but who’s to say?
The woman in the SUV must have slowed down, surely, but we all agree that no one heard the squeal, not my father in his bed, not my mother at the window, not my brother in the car, not me out there on the sidewalk.
We’re pretty sure I was the one to call it in that night. First I called 911, and then I called my fiancé.
My brother and I inherited the 911 gene from our father’s side of the family. Maybe it’s the Irish blood, always ready to run into the fray, always ready to fight or to help, whatever the situation calls for once we arrive.
Each year, my brother and I play a game: we keep a running tally of our 911 calls. He lives in Arizona now, and I’m in Pennsylvania. Two years ago, not even an hour after midnight had hit here and was still two hours away in Tucson, I was already up one to nothing: drunk driver in front of my car, swerving all over the place, crossing the lane into oncoming traffic. First I called 911, and then I called my brother. He answered the phone by saying, “Happy New Year!”
“The score is 1–0,” I said. “I’m winning.”
“Already?” he asked. He knew exactly what I was talking about.
We were all lucky, if that’s how you want to look at it. The driver of the SUV walked away without a record. My brother walked away from the accident, too, but his back still gives him trouble even now, 13 years later. I was lucky to have stayed on the sidewalk and not stepped into the street. But sometimes I think: If I hadn’t wanted to go out that night. If I hadn’t wanted to take the smaller car. If I’d had enough money for my own car or my own apartment that summer. All siblings keep an invisible logbook of debts and gratitudes. It’s best not to talk too much about the accounting of it all.
Jennifer McGuiggan’s essays have appeared in various publications, including Numéro Cinq Magazine, Connotation Press, Extract(s), The Collapsar, and the blog of Hunger Mountain, where I previously served as an assistant editor. I received my MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).