Jennifer McGuiggan

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).