It was Saturday, sort of hot out but cooling off as it does most years in early September. Cool enough to finally wear jeans, but hot enough for sandals and a short sleeved t-shirt. My husband and I were headed somewhere, at about ten or eleven in the morning, to the grocery store I think, driving through downtown Claremore, when we passed the second-hand furniture shop. Someone was unloading a beautiful king sized blonde wood bed frame, complete with matching nightstands. We stopped and struck a deal before it was even unloaded from the donator’s pickup truck. He said something about a divorce, and he just wanted the damn thing out of his house. That should have told us something, but we weren’t listening. Our minds were filled with visions of this gorgeous furniture in our bedroom. We paid for the set, went home to get the truck and brought home our treasure. Our entire day, whatever we had planned, was now diverted.
We shopped for a mattress set, and when the staff at the furniture store loading-dock tried to give us the wrong mattress, a much more expensive mattress, my husband told them it was the wrong one. I honestly hadn’t noticed. I am used to him taking care of certain details, while I take care of what is my territory, so had it been me alone, I would have arrived home with the more luxurious mattress set. We joked on the way home about how much it sucks sometimes to be honest. We could have had a much nicer bed if we had only been willing to lie by remaining silent. We got home, set up the new bed, and only needed sheets. We already had a king size bed spread because we had, years before, got tired of tugging the covers back and forth all night. Still giddy with our luck, we drove to Arby’s to pick up lunch. Our morning grocery trip had been diverted. We planned to go buy sheets as soon as we finished eating, but when we arrived home with our fast food, we were missing part of our order. We talked about karma. Aren’t good things supposed to happen when you do the right thing? Like when you turn down the more expensive mattress set someone is trying to put in your truck, shouldn’t you at least get the right lunch? Damn karma. He had to go back to Arby’s to get our correct order, which delayed our trip to buy sheets, which actually changed our day again, as if our original course hadn’t been diverted enough.
If we had left for Wal-Mart just five minutes earlier or later, who knows what might have happened? When the day started, we had no intention of going to a crowded Wal-Mart on a Saturday anyway—the height of insanity. I can’t even remember where we were going when we saw our new bedroom suite being unloaded form the unlucky divorcee’s truck. But be that as it may, on the occasions when we simply must go to Wal-Mart, we go in the evenings when it is possible to find a parking place. But not that day. We had to have our new sheets. Now. So we could gaze upon this glorious bedroom suite that we had paid a mere $135 for.
But there was this delay with our lunch, that we had not planned to buy, before we could get the sheets for the bed we also had not planned to buy, but finally after everyone was fed, we set out to the store, my 16-year-old daughter in tow. Let me add here that generally, if we are going somewhere like this on a weekend, the supermarket or a clothing store or, God forbid, Wal-Mart, and my son has been playing a video game for more than two hours, I make him take a break and come with us. For some reason, on that day, I did not. He was happy. I let him be. Thank God.
We drove through a residential area to get to Wal-Mart, and as we rounded a curve, we saw a blonde man, small of stature and bearded, staggering in the street, shirtless, his head covered in blood, arms waving to the car ahead of us, which swerved to miss him and drove on. Later I found out that several vehicles had passed him before us and not one of them had called 911. My husband, being the person he is, did the only thing he could have. He stopped to ask if Bleeding Guy wanted an ambulance. He was really hurt, and probably only on his feet from adrenaline and shock. I thought he had been hit by a car. He said yes, please call 911, and he pointed down the block and said, “That guy by the truck over there just beat the living shit out of me!” Bleeding Guy was panting, sweaty and bloody, but sure enough, there was the man he had pointed out, walking towards a red pickup in a driveway about three houses down from where we had stopped. He didn’t look our way. He looked normal, like any normal person getting into their truck in their driveway to go do some normal thing that people do on Saturdays—maybe go to the car wash or the store, or to get gas and go to the lake, or grab lunch, or go shopping, or to pick up his kid from a game. He was young, with short dark hair, in good shape, like any other person just getting into their vehicle to go somewhere. And he walked in a straight line.
I was describing him to the 911 operator. My husband told Bleeding Guy that we were calling for help and he pulled away. As we drove forward, the man I soon labeled “The Lunatic” noticed us and started shouting as we approached his driveway. His fists were clenched at his sides. He was screaming words at us. Someone screaming like that should be more animated, waving his arms like Bleeding Guy had been doing. But his eyes were empty. He wanted to know who we were and why we had pulled over to talk to Bleeding Guy. Were we his friends? What had he told us?
The Lunatic was walking toward us and my husband was telling him that no, we do not know Bleeding Guy, but look at him, he is bleeding. The Lunatic did not care. He kept walking towards our car, halfway across the street with his clenched fists and his empty eyes, and so my husband kept going. I looked back and saw that Bleeding Guy had sat on the curb to wait for help. I was worried about him sitting there. I was still on the phone describing to the 911 operator what was happening.
About a block further, we pulled into the parking lot of a small park with a playground. There was a minivan there, and a family in the playground area. My husband pulled into the first parking place, facing the street, to keep an eye on Bleeding Guy and The Lunatic. Let me add here that my husband spent fourteen years in the Army. He went to Bosnia in the early 90’s to secure villages so the remaining victims of ethnic cleansing in that area could go home. For him, you just don’t leave a hurt someone defenseless. Not anyone. At the same time, you don’t risk the safety of your wife and daughter in the car. This was a compromise. Be ready, but from a distance. Wait for help. Don’t let Bleeding Guy become Disemboweled Guy or Amputee Guy or Dead Guy. Watch him. But wait for help.
I don’t know what I expected. I expected the police to show up any second, but they didn’t because in the first seconds of my call I had not described our location correctly. The operator had dispatched someone before I corrected myself. The police were looking for Bleeding Guy somewhere else. We were actually only a few blocks south of the police station. The Lunatic backed out of his driveway and drove in our direction. Later, the police officer who took our statements told me that he heard my voice on the 911 recording saying, “Denny, that guy is following us,” and then there was silence for about three seconds before the crash. He had jumped the curb in his 1.5 ton pickup and hit the driver’s door of our car at about fifty miles per hour. He had roared toward us for that short distance, in a neighborhood, gaining as much speed as he could. I think the silence on the recording is just pure shock from all three of us. This was not really happening. The mind denies.
I remember that as the giant, monstrous front grill of his truck came closer and closer, chrome on red, I wrapped my arms around my chest and looked away, out the passenger window. I should have seen a family there, at the playground, and a minivan, but I don’t remember seeing any of that. I closed my eyes. The truck was only about ten feet away when I turned my head, the point of acceptance, when I acknowledged what was undeniable. I had seen the driver, or at least later I imagined I had, hands gripping the steering wheel, madness in his eyes. But did I really see his eyes or did I only see that later in my mind’s eye? My head hit the side window hard. I literally saw stars. If there is one thing I hate it’s to live a cliché. But there I was, seeing stars. I was deaf for a good twenty seconds—or maybe it was only two. And then we were stopped, about halfway across the park. Our car had made an arc, clipping a tree and continuing on until we were facing 180 degrees from where we started.
Thank God my son was not with us. The back door on the driver’s side, where he would have been buckled in, was crushed about two feet into the seat, filled with glass, an ugly tear of sharp metal. Thank God I had left a bunch of grocery sacks on that side of the seat, the sloppy side of me, or my daughter might have been sitting there instead of behind me. Thank God the little girl who had just walked from the minivan in the parking lot back to her family was not in our path. We heard about her later. She had been right there only moments before the impact.
My husband was screaming to let him out of the car. I had no idea how long I had sat there deaf to everything but a loud ringing in my ears, but suddenly I could hear him. I didn’t want to get out of the car. The Lunatic was at large. But Denny insisted. He was in pain. He screamed. We all crawled out the passenger side. I saw The Lunatic running past us, towards a swampy area behind the park, yelling about his hurt arm. I was terrified he would see us. We were defenseless, and the car blocked my view from the road. He could walk over and kill us and nobody would see. Karma was really sucking at this point. What we didn’t know then was, after the impact, a young man, driving behind The Lunatic, had stopped to help. He had seen an accident, not an attack. The Lunatic tried to pull this young man from his vehicle, beating him, wanting to take his truck. At the same time, an off-duty fireman, who happened to live right across the street from the park, ran out of his house to help, and The Lunatic threatened and tried to beat him too. It was this brave soul who caused The Lunatic to finally flee into the swamp. My husband talked to him on the phone later. Turns out my husband knows the fireman’s dad. Small world.
Sitting in the grass, I held onto my crying daughter, who seemed fairly unharmed but bleeding from a cut above her eye. I didn’t know who was okay and who wasn’t, I didn’t know if I was okay, but I had to tend them. It was my job. My husband had blood coming from his ear. He was on his hands and knees in the grass, in a park on a beautiful sunny September day, screaming. Surreal. He was having trouble breathing. He kept asking what happened, and I would tell him we had a car accident, and he would ask Why? and I would tell him to not worry, to hang on, help was coming and he would say But I don’t remember! and then he would start over with What Happened? And when I went to him, my daughter would cry harder so I would go back to her and hold her, and then the good Samaritans arrived—three teenage girls, who had seen the crash and knew my daughter from school. They came and sat with her and helped her calm down so that I could sit with my husband and have the circular conversation we seemed to be having, and he did not calm down. Then the fireman who had run off The Lunatic came to help us and he managed to give my husband some sound advice like don’t move and don’t close your eyes. Things were starting to feel under control.
It took awhile for the police to even know there had been an accident. They were just out chasing the guy who had beat up Bleeding Guy and did not know we even existed or that there had been a crash or that people were hurt. But finally a police car screamed across the park, past us. The police officer in that first car told us later that when he got to the edge of the swamp he had one of those what did I just see moments, and after chasing The Lunatic into the swamp and apprehending him on foot, he came back to where we were hurt, still there in the grass, and started to piece together the story. This same officer later came into the ambulance where my daughter and I waited to be transported, dripping swampy, smelly water, assuring us that The Lunatic had been caught. I can’t thank him enough for this. My daughter was terrified, even as she was tucked safely into an ambulance. His presence calmed her as I had not been able to. Something about being strapped immobile onto a board and carried away into a waiting ambulance is a bit disconcerting. It was good that we remained together.
My husband was taken to a Tulsa hospital because of the ear bleeding and we were afraid he had a brain injury because of the circular conversation. It was five hours before I was able to learn otherwise. The bleeding was from all the glass they had to dig out of his ear. He had a concussion, a broken sternum, three broken ribs and a hole in his lung. But he was stable and awake and I got to talk to him on the phone that night. My daughter and I were taken to a local hospital where we got to listen to The Lunatic scream and yell about his arm, demanding that someone call his dad, who happens to be a jailer in our county. I guess he thought Dad would be able to get him out of trouble. My sweet girl, who had just learned for the first time how vicious people can really be, was terrified of him. She thought he would somehow break free and come to hurt her. A very kind police officer kept assuring her that The Lunatic was well under guard and he was not getting out of that exam room. We were strapped to those neck-injury boards, immobile, until they could get x-rays, but the staff kept our gurneys close together so we could hold hands. Eventually, we found out that we both had sprained necks and various bruises and lacerations from the glass, and I had a concussion. We were lucky.
A police officer had picked up my son earlier and taken him to my friend Amy’s house. She came and drove us home. I slept in the king-sized bed alone that night, on my husband’s side, with blankets but no sheets. I brought him home the next evening to a long recovery, weeks of pain pills and sleeplessness and worry—doubting and questioning himself. “How did I misjudge what was happening? How come I didn’t just drive away? How did I let this happen?” In addition to the emotional trauma, the guilt, it hurt him to lie down, so that was the one thing he wished he could do more than anything. Karma still sucked. After all that, he could not even lie down to get a decent night’s sleep in our new bed.
Months later, we entered the courtroom for The Lunatic’s sentencing hearing. When we had given our statements to the police, we learned that that Bleeding Guy was named Tim and that he was going to be okay, but he was devastated that we had been hurt, mortified by the entire experience. The guilt was killing him. He cried when he gave his statement and learned we had been hurt. He hadn’t known. He had been sitting on the curb waiting for help, a police car arrived, and an ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. Nobody told him the rest of it until later. We learned that he was forty-nine years old and had spent the morning drinking beer with his new neighbor, The Lunatic, who was twenty-one. When he met The Lunatic that morning, he saw a young man in a new home with no dishes, no towels—nothing. All he had was a job and a truck. Tim called best friend, and the two of them decided that later in the day they would go to some garage sales and buy this poor kid some basics. But in the meantime, Tim and The Lunatic shared a few beers on the patio of their duplex. Apparently, The Lunatic decided to show off some martial arts moves, but when he made a mistake and landed on his ass, Tim laughed at him. Surely not viciously, one would think. It would be a natural reaction. But that was when The Lunatic went into lunatic mode and began to savagely beat Tim. He forced Tim into his own home and beat him unconscious, kicking him in the head and stomach. Tim said when he woke up, he was lying on his bed and he was wet, as if The Lunatic had thrown water on him. When he got up, he found The Lunatic standing in his kitchen, blocking the only exit, but his back was turned and he had something in his hands, so Tim ran past him, out to the street.
At the courthouse, in February, we met Tim for the first time since September 4th. His girlfriend and his best friend told us that he was in counseling because of the guilt he felt, that he had worried himself sleepless about us. We told them that we had decided, after much deliberation, that maybe we were Tim’s karma. We think The Lunatic was getting in his truck to chase Tim, to probably run him over and kill him. He even said in court that he came after us because he thought Tim was in our car. His blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit, but he later seemed to remember he was trying to hurt someone. Hopefully that made Tim feel better to know that we did not blame him, that in fact it was a good feeling that we were able to help him, even though, at the time, we had no idea what we had stepped into.
But in the meantime, we had this hearing to sit through. The Lunatic, who had pleaded “no contest,” sat with his attorney. I admire her, by the way. If she did not believe in her client 100%, you would never know it watching her in court. She spoke on his behalf both sincerely and professionally. She said that he was so young. He would benefit from probation at his age, he was malleable and a good candidate for reform. Prison would only corrupt and harden him. The District Attorney read our statements for us—mine, my daughter’s, my husband’s, and Tim’s. The judge heard about my daughter’s fear—how this one moment had change her life, made her distrustful. He heard my statement about how this incident had changed the life of my child, my husband; how I questioned whether I would ever stop to help a stranger again, no matter how dire the need seemed to be. My husband’s statement was similar. He would not trust. He would hesitate to help again, in spite of the good that came from it. Tim’s written statement was how we learned he had intended to help out his new neighbor. It seems that the ones with nothing, or very little, are the first ones to help someone who has less.
When it was his turn to speak, when The Lunatic stood to address the judge, he cried. He had made a mistake. He drank too much that day and he did not remember all of what had happened, but he had not meant to hurt anyone. He said he was in jail for two weeks before anyone explained to him that he had hurt complete strangers. He said he vaguely remembered fighting with Tim. His fiancée sat in the courtroom next to his mother. They cried too. He told the judge how she was pregnant but had lost their baby after he went to jail. He blamed the stress—he blamed himself. He was so sorry for what had happened and all he wanted to do now was to go home and marry the girl he loved. He would never touch alcohol again. I saw a child—a scared little boy. I saw a confused young person who had no idea how he had managed to ruin his life. I saw myself, when I was that young and had no idea how my actions or words could change things forever and how hard it was to learn that once you do something, or say something, you can’t take it back. You can’t un-do or un-say. The Lunatic became Anthony. Once you see yourself in the enemy, you can’t think of him as anything but the person he is. Anthony got no mercy from the judge, who said to him, “You are lucky nobody died.” Anthony got ten years, with eight felony convictions to be served concurrently. Anthony was a child. I am still not sure how I feel about that now. He could have killed me, or worse, my daughter or husband. But he was a child. His mother’s child.