An Anniversary

Gary Fincke

Before I pull off the four-lane highway, I make sure the shoulder is wide. Amish families live in the area. They drive their buggies along this road, and yet, despite the paved shoulder, I pick a spot where an open field seems level enough to take my right-side tires as insurance. When I open the door, there is plenty of clearance from the highway’s nearest lane, but I switch on the flashers, too.

I’ve stopped near where I have been told the boy stepped in front of the speeding truck. A few dozen strides take me to a wooden box that pinpoints the location. For weeks, stuffed animals and flowers were placed at the site and someone, when rain was forecast, had begun to gather the bears and rabbits and puppies, storing them on site for a future donation to charity. Right now, the box is empty. I’ve heard that no matter the weather and the presence of this box, nearly all of the toys were placed outside, many of them ruined.

It’s been nearly a year. There are vigils planned for tomorrow, the anniversary. Candles and condolences.  Memorials and anti-bullying speakers. Right now, the trucks, when they pass, are terrifying. The posted speed limit is 55, but most exceed it. Suicide by truck seems as certain as jumping from the roof of a high rise, but it feels impossible to will the body to be crushed and torn and disfigured. The boy, it’s been reported, walked here from where he lived. It would have taken over an hour, plenty of time for second thoughts.

Only a few seconds suffice for my own thoughts to shift. It is all I can do not to step back into the field before each truck passes. Being relentlessly bullied doesn’t seem enough to step into slaughter. Grit flies into my eyes, the rush of air chilling. I am afraid that someone will stop, believing I need help. Or that the driver is familiar with the location and see me for the voyeur that I am.

The boy, a teenager, was “girly.” In this rural area, or perhaps anywhere, a target. When there is a pause, no headlights in the two oncoming lanes, I walk onto the road and stand in the middle of the inside lane. As a truck and a few cars speed by in the opposite direction, I feel giddy and unbalanced, but I make myself wait. At the first sight of a distant headlight, I feel so foolishly selfish I hurry back to where the empty box sits like a small, cheap cenotaph. By the time two cars flash past, I have already turned so my face is hidden.

There are posters on the campus where I teach. One vigil will take place a short distance from my office. In each of my classes, a student has invited everyone to attend. Not satisfied, I manage to stand at the side of the nearest lane–dangerous, but plenty of room for any reasonably alert driver to swerve unless there is another car coincidentally directly beside him. The next distant vehicle appears to be a truck. I stay in place, start counting, and reach three before I scramble over the shoulder and into the field, hearing the truck pass as I stop. When I turn, a second truck is passing. It does not slow.

I hurry to my car. Once inside, I see headlights filling both lanes in the mirror, so much brilliance I hold my breath as if expecting to be hit from behind. I drive the fifteen miles back to my neighborhood with the radio off. After I park in the driveway, I walk across the nearby road to a field where I can shuffle ankle-deep through undergrowth I can barely make out, listening, for once, to languages other than my own–wind, leaves, distant traffic, the fearful speech of scurry beneath the tangle of crown vetch, thistle, and honeysuckle that flourishes beside me.

Gary Fincke's essay collection The Darkness Call won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018). A new collection, The Mayan Syndrome, will be published by Madhat Press in 2023. Its lead essay "After the Three-Moon Era" was reprinted in Best American Essays 2020.