Did you ever hear the story about the time I stood over a dead body?
I was young at the time. I was around 19 maybe, or I could have been 20. I was clean in some ways but the life I lived was not one that reflects honesty and clean living. I was sober, but in name only. I was only absent of chemicals, but I was not absent of the attitude.
It was the start of winter and during the height of the holiday season. I went with a partner of mine to a nearby food chain. He and I were going to shake the manager down for a few hundred bucks.
The job was simple, really.
We were hired to steal back some construction equipment the manager lost in a business deal. At the time, I fit in with this somehow. I enjoyed the heartlessness of it all and I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of being a criminal. I liked the redemption I found in my anger and it was my behavior, which expressed the strength of my anger.
Eddie and I walked through the game room of Nathan’s and waited to meet our contact. We waited by the front windows that ran along Old Country Road. He and I were laughing because we both had money in our pockets from a recent score, which was bigger than our average. We chose to sit in an empty booth by the glass doors at the side entrance because it was away from everyone else. And after several minutes, the manager poked his head out from behind the counter and nodded to us.
“He’ll be out soon,” Eddie told me.
As we waited, Eddie and I continued to laugh about our recent score. We laughed about the damage we left behind and about the expensive meal we had afterwards. We were two low-level hoods pulling off what we considered to be a neighborhood crime spree. Actually—we were just two stupid kids who believed in our own lies and delusions of grandeur.
Around us, families sat in the booths eating hot dogs and whatever else Nathan’s had to offer. Behind the counter, mainly Spanish speaking employees stood at the registers and took orders. Behind them, mostly Spanish speaking employees cooked, prepared, packed, and readied the food for the unending lines of hungry customers.
The noise from the video games in the adjoining game room leaked in and mixed with the hustling sounds of the kitchen area. Little kids ran across the tiled floor of the restaurant and parents yelled for them to stop. Mothers could be heard shouting, “You get away from there,” and “Stay away from the garbage!”
Many of the children played with the toys they won inside the game room. Aside from the video games, there was games that offered tickets, like Skee Ball or other ticket-offering games that cost more in quarters than they are worth. In the end, kids walk away with inexpensive trinkets like Chinese finger-cuffs, which cost less than a dollar; meanwhile, they spent more than fifty in quarters just to win enough tickets to get it.
After their meal and after the cheap prizes were collected from the tabletops (If the prize even survived the meal without breaking, that is) families returned their trays to the top of a cabinet which housed the trash ans. Then they left to either return home or give the game room another shot. To Eddie and me . . . it was just another night in Nathan’s
We waited several minutes more and I began to grow impatient.
“Where is this guy,” I asked.
Eddie calmed me down. “He’ll be out soon.”
Just then, a tall and slender man burst through the side entrance near our table. He was slightly balding with dark hair that was shaved close to his head and his voice was very feminine. It was clear that he was shaken and it was clear by the glimmer of his watery blue eyes that he was also crying. With his elbows bent upwards and his hands shaking at around chest level, his knees were slightly bent as he pleaded for help.
“Somebody call 911,” he screamed.
“Oh, my God,” he panicked. “Oh my God, She’s dead.”
“Who?” I asked.
Struggling to speak, the slender man explained, “The girl outside . . . She was hit by a car.”
His breathing was fast, as if he had just run 20 miles.
“Oh my God, Somebody please help!”
I recall him perfectly. His face had a bony structure. He wore a red and white flannel shirt with the front buttons opened, a white tee-shirt beneath, and the sleeves were slightly rolled up over his wrists and halfway passed his forearms. He was so terribly frightened and panicked.
I pointed to the payphone next to the glass entrance. “There’s a phone right there on the wall.”
I was so emotionless.
Eddie and I looked at each other and laughed with a heartless laugh. We were not laughing about the dead girl—but there was no sympathy from us either. We were laughing about the tall and slender man and how he burst through the door with his animated posture and his limp-wristed, high-pitched scream.
Although we were sitting along the windows, neither of us heard or saw the accident. However, we did see the aftermath. Across the street, there was a black limousine with flashing hazards that was parked on the north side of Old Country Road, which runs east and west. Me and Eddie were on the south side.
Traffic began to clog the main roadway, but cars managed to pass slowly—each car slowing down to see the gruesome mess of a short woman lying in the center of the street.
I am not sure what we wanted to see. I am not sure if walking over to the body was a testament of my cold-heartedness, or if I was just morbidly curious to see what a dead body looked like.
We walked out from the side glass entrance and down the steps. Then we walked over to the body, which was lying face-up with the unknown woman’s feet towards the north side and her head was to the south. She was in front of another car who fortunately stopped before crushing her once more.
Apparently, the driver of the limousine was the last of three cars to hit the young woman. She might have been dead before this, but her chance of survival was crushed beneath the wheels of the stretched limousine.
This section of Old Country Road is a busy section. Aside from the closeness of two large shopping centers, there were several fast food places in this area. In this case, it was a woman who worked at McDonald’s that was struck and killed.
While on break, the short woman ran across the street to see her husband, who at the time, was working at Nathan’s. Unfortunately, when she tried to cross, a car hit her and sent her body up in the air. When she crashed down, she was struck by a second car before hitting the concrete; this time, she was hit by a mid-sized pickup, and after the second collision, she landed on the ground and she was tragically crushed beneath the wheels of the black limousine.
Eddie and I stood over her. Her eyes were dark and almond shaped. The features on her face were young and softly pretty. She appeared like the others; she too was Spanish speaking and as the story later unfolded, she was running to bring her paycheck to her husband.
Underneath the woman’s head were bits of brain and a puddle of blood, which glistened in a grotesque version of reddish-black beneath the overhead streetlights. Her eyes were opened. The look of fear and shock was still frozen on her face, as if the realization of death remained in an almost primal and pristine state. Her stomach was crushed into the pavement—flattened by the tires of the limousine, and hauntingly, the heat from her bloodied body lifted like steam into the crisp winter night..
This was death. This was worse than anything I had ever seen in any horror movie. Only, this gore was real—and I was unmoved. I was cold, like a steel blade that could cut through anything. I stared at this woman’s death face and I felt nothing. I was numb to it
This is not to say that I was uncaring or happy. Happiness would have at least been emotion. I, on the other hand felt completely detached and unprovoked. I did not wish for this death. I did not see her death as a favorable action. I saw it as a “Better her than me,” sort of thing
I watched the limousine driver sob as he reported his story to the police after they arrived on the scene. In a matter of moments, the street lit up with swirling lights and the sound of sirens could be heard for miles. The limo driver wept uncontrollably as he tried to account for every step of his involvement with the accident.
“I’m so sorry,” I heard him cry.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” he pleaded.
Then he wept as if that pain the women felt before her death was a curse that was inflicted upon him.
The police tried to console the limo driver. I assume the driver was a family man. I assume perhaps he had a wife and children. The driver of the second vehicle was calm, but obviously upset. He did not weep, but he was justifiably shaken.
The driver of the first vehicle was nowhere to be found. But then again, neither was the tall slender man with the feminine voice. Both Eddie and I assumed it was his fault; however, speaking to the police was not something we did. So we kept quiet about him
I did not see the body of that woman as a person. I did not consider the fact that she was a mother, or that she was someone’s daughter. I did not see her meaning or purpose in life. I had no understanding about what she lived through or how she was so proud to deliver her first paycheck to her husband. I did not empathize or sympathize. I saw her as lifeless and that was it.
I even noticed her pocketbook was nearby—and if I am going to be honest and expose the way I was, then I am going to be honest about my sickness and admit that I had the idea of taking her purse.
This was my measure of coldness. And in a way, I worked hard to be this cold. I worked hard to be this numb and unemotional. I saw it as safe. I saw it as free because nothing fazed me anymore.
In the depth of my selfish, self-centeredness, I was protected from heartfelt emotion and safe from the possibilities of rejection. I was stone-faced and emotionally brutal. It was as if I could kill or take a life and feel no different from a fisherman after he filets his catch. I could have cut life from bone and feel no differently than a butcher after he slaughters his meat. It would have meant nothing. I was comfortable in the strength of my callousness, because above all, I no longer felt weak.
I saw nothing wrong with the way I was. I saw nothing wrong with my unaffected way of speaking or my detachment from heartbreak. Then again, I never felt the benefit of true love. I never knew the wonders of being completely vulnerable or what a miracle it is to coincide with someone and love them so much that breathing without them seems impossible.
When Eddie and I walked back inside of Nathan’s, we spoke as if nothing happened. And nothing did happen—at least, not to us. Nearby, a young girl approached me. She was pretty and somewhere close to my age.
“Can I ask you a question”
“Sure,” I said, thinking this might be a chance for something good.
“What’s the matter with you,” she asked.,
“Look outside. There’s a woman lying dead in the street. How can you sit here like that and act as if nothing even happened? Look at you . . . You’re eating pizza for Christ’s sake!”
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” I said.
“Yeah, but you’re sitting here and talking as if nothing happened. How could you be so cold? You just stood over her body and looked at her guts spilled out on the street, and now you’re eating pizza?”
Then she asked, “What would you do if that was your wife, or your sister? What would you do if that was your girlfriend?”
Eddie smiled. “Sweetheart, I can tell you this right now. You see that limo driver out there? If that was his girlfriend lying on the street, that guy outside would be dead. Okay?”
The girl shook her head in disbelief and walked away.
It took decades for me to learn what love is. It took decades for me to learn that arrogance is not the same as confidence. It took what seemed to be a lifetime to understand the benefits of love or truthfully appreciate the fears of loss.
The first person I knew that passed away when I was a young was girl named Donna. She was a good girl. I knew her because we were in pre-school and kindergarten together. We were in grade school together too, but when we were no longer forced to stay in the same classroom, and the social structures opened up into different cliques—Donna went off with the good kids and I stayed with the bad. She was straight-laced and attended honors classes. I was on the opposite end of this spectrum. We eventually became nothing more than faceless strangers to each other. No hello, ho how are you in the hallways. . . .nothing
Donna passed away in High School but it wasn’t real to me. She was a good kid and it made no sense, but what does make sense when it comes to life and death. Perhaps in my youth, I was unable to understand the concept of loss, or better, perhaps I was unable to grasp the emotions that come with such a loss. Maybe I was too medicated at the time. Maybe I ran too fast so fears like this would never catch me.
I was 17 when The Old Man passed but I was more stricken with guilt than grief. The grief stage did not come until much later in life. Before this, I was unable to look at The Old Man’s picture because I felt as if he knew the truth behind my behavior. I felt as if he could see my ugliness, which in turn, made me aware of how ugly I had become. Rather than face this, I tucked it in and buried these thoughts as deep as I possibly could.
My turn of events came when I was much older. My change or transformation began the day I saw the birth of my daughter. My change began when I held my daughter for the first time. It began when she fell asleep on my chest. I could feel the warmth of her little body. She was swaddled in a blanket and nestled beneath my chin.
For the first time, I saw value in myself.
For the first time, I understood what it meant to have purpose.
I understood what it meant to create something and care.
I remember watching my child sleep on my chest
I remember the way she smelled
I remember the tear that spilled from my eye.
I never thought much about that woman on Old Country Road until my child was born. It was after my child’s birth that I was reborn—and by reborn, I do not mean on a religious level. I was reborn in the sense that I had an understanding of life. I had an understanding about its preciousness and its irreplaceable value. I was reborn and alive with the understanding of what love means or how brave it was to unconditionally love someone or care so much for something other than myself.
I never saw myself as beautiful. I never saw my own worth or knew my value.
Most of all, I never knew my Importance
But when I held my child and when I saw how perfect she was; when I saw each of her ten fingers and ten toes, her arms and legs, her two little ears, her little eyes, nose and mouth—it was like I saw beauty for the first time.
True, I was intimidated by my creation. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of losing even more of myself to such a huge commitment and responsibility. I was afraid of the vulnerability that comes with loving someone so much, and I was afraid of the fears that come when say, your child gets sick, or maybe falls on the playground and has to go to the emergency room. Yes, I was afraid, but I was also aware of something beautiful: Nothing ugly could have gone into the creation of such a perfect life. Which means If my child is beautiful—then I must be beautiful too.