The Early Tears with Vic Pasternak: Lesson 8 –Asleep at the wheel

llustration by Josh Carrolll
llustration by Josh Carrolll

Captain Jerry called me into the office and asked, “How well do you know Wellman?” I’d been there a few times dropping Rx at the old folk’s home, but I didn’t know it know it.

“I know it well enough,” I said, because Wellman is out of town. “Is it picking up there?”

“It’s picking up here but you’re stopping there. The folks you’re looking for don’t know Wellman and they want a driver who does.”

The call originated at the U, Emergency Entrance, where I picked up a family of four. They looked like refugees. Filthy, tired and beaten, with dry blood in their clothes and hair. Even the 4-year-old. The dad’s face was shredded although only his scalp was sutured. He’d also busted his right arm to the elbow and held his ribs like they were busted too.

“Hey,” I said, stopping short of asking how their night was going.

“We’ve been in a wreck,” he said, squinting at me like a man without his glasses. “Our eldest daughter is in the ICU. She’s 12.”

No car seat for the four-year-old but I let them pass. They were going home to freshen up and nap before the bounce back here. Home was in Fairfield, about 50 miles south of Wellman. This was going to be a good ticket.

I wanted to rap about plain stuff but the dad just wanted to talk about the accident. “I don’t even remember how it happened,” he said. “I really don’t think I fell asleep. They said I must have because all I remember is the van rolling and then we woke up in a field.”

He gave me a hard-earned grin as his wife said sharply: “You fell asleep.”

It was a weird drive south, all of them buzzing with adrenaline but the others too stunned to chatter like dad. The youngest stared out the window the entire ride and was eerily still, and for a moment I thought he might’ve died in my backseat.

When we got to Wellman, the dad pointed me south out of town on W38.

“Weren’t we supposed to stop for something in Wellman?” I asked him.
“Nah, we got to stop out here first. This is the way we go home.”

I didn’t know where we were going, but I had my suspicions.

None of us spoke those last miles, which at first I thought would be three or four down the road. We instead rolled on for 10, turned through West Chester, and went 8 more, and then south again between soybean shares on the state two-lane.

We went another mile before I saw it. In the field to the east, a plow-furrow visible from the highway and as striking as Superboy’s landing.
From what the dad said, they’d been traveling southbound. The van must’ve swept through the oncoming lane and opposite shoulder, rolled at the ditch and cut out a wire fence, then slid tens of yards across the soybeans where it finally stopped in a heap of earth.

No skid marks on the pavement: He’d fallen asleep.

I pulled over but nobody moved or said anything.

“Would you like to get out? I’ll wait, man.”

“No, I just wanted to make sure they actually towed the car.”

“Oh,” I said, putting it together. “Did they tow the car to Wellman?”

“See?” he fired at his wife. “Everybody sends their car to Wellman.”

I turned the cab around and we drove back, another 20 miles. Their minivan, battered and hanging from a tow sling, had caught my eye when we first passed through town. But the family said nothing and I thought nothing of it, just another day on America’s roads.

When we returned to Wellman, the van had been removed from the sling and was parked on the corner slab like a showpiece they’d drag out to scare kids into driving sober. The van was twisted on its frame, the hood crunked and filled with beans and dirt, and a front passenger tire was unaccounted for. The passenger side windows were spider-webbed but were by some miracle intact.

I’ve destroyed a few cars in my day but the first is always worst. Seeing the damage was like realizing life had flashed before my eyes and that I missed it.

The lives of this father’s entire family were now flashing before his eyes. He caved in the parking lot and bawled in his hands.

I felt up for the adventure. “What do we need out of the van?”

The wife said, “He needs his wallet and phone.”

“Christ, the house keys too,” the dad moaned. “I don’t know where they are.”

The only door that opened was the busted rear hatch, crushed out of line when the chassis twisted. The hatch lifted enough that I could wedge under the door and skinny inside.

If anything could be said to be torn asunder, the minivan’s interior was it. It looked like gallons of blood had sprayed the ceilings and seats and the blown airbags and the insides of the remaining windows. The windshield had been pushed inward and the driver door bent outward. The 4-year-old’s car seat was filled with glass.

I also saw the steering wheel bent violently where it broke the father’s arm against his chest. They said the 12-year-old wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and had flopped around, striking dad with her face.

I moved fast. The wallet and phone were stuck purposefully in the console and I dug on the floor for keys before finding them in the ignition. On the floor among the debris of the exploded glove box and everything from under the seats I found the father’s glasses. Only a single streak of blood on the lenses, and I licked my thumb to wipe it off.

When I got back to the cab, everybody else seemed to have calmed down as the father had calmed down. We all took a breath and prepared to carry on 50 more miles to Fairfield. He thanked me for the glasses especially.

“Was it bad in there?”

“I’ve seen worse,” I told him, even though I hadn’t.

Sean Preciado Genell is author of the Vic Pasternak novel ‘All the Help You Need,’ available now at Prairie Lights. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 205.

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