A Death on Interstate 70
Tucker stopped me on the ground floor, at the top of the stairs that led down to the music department. Tucker was a big guy, in his early thirties. His first name was Michael, but I called him by his last name, just like I’d done my high school buddies back in Los Angeles twenty-five years earlier. He worked on the third floor, in the fiction section. I was still shaking off the snow, pounding my heels on the thin carpet.
“Do you remember the woman from the café,” he asked, “the pregnant one?”
“There’s an article tacked to the bulletin board in the break room about her. She’s dead. She died in a car accident on Saturday night. The baby’s dead, too.”
I paused. “Wasn’t she married?”
“Critical condition. He’s not supposed to make it. They were driving back from Saint Louis. Her family gave her a baby shower.”
Tucker strode off to the escalator. He was holding a coffee table book in his big paw.
I walked down the stairs, through the music department, and to the break room. I hung up my coat and read the article. She was just twenty-four years old. The story opened with the vitals—the who, what, when, where and how of the accident—before telling how, as a teenager, Evelyn had fallen down a snow embankment while walking near her childhood home in Saint Louis. She broke her leg and was stuck there for many hours before a passerby heard her cries for help. She could have died, her parents told the reporter. Now, she and her baby were.
She had worked at the bookstore during the holidays, a temporary seasonal employee. I remembered that even though she worked at the store for over three months, she always looked nine months pregnant: waddling up and down those stairs and through the music department to clock in and out. There was an elevator that ran from the basement to the second floor, where the café was, but I guessed she climbed up and down those stairs, stooping every few feet to catch her breath, because she wanted the exercise.
We spoke a few times in the break room, just the usual small talk, mostly about her pregnancy. She was due in February.
“My mother had fourteen kids,” I said. I was sitting at a table. I usually went outside to smoke during my breaks, but it was too cold that day.
“My God,” she said, stuffing her purse into her locker. “Which one were you?”
“Lucky thirteen,” I replied. “Is this your first?”
She smiled and placed her hands on her belly. “Yeah.”
I had noticed her when she started with the store back in October. She was attractive. She had long, light brown hair, big eyes and thick, full lips. But now she was dead. In that instant, as I was heading out of the break room, I couldn’t make the connection: my mind strained to make that leap between the young, beautiful woman who had, literally, been so full of life in this very building, to the body that was lying inanimate on a cold, hard surface somewhere.
There were a group of managers sitting in one of the offices: James, the manager on duty, Leslie, the community relations manager, and Aaron, the café manager. They were talking about Evelyn.
Aaron was sitting on one of the desks with his legs swinging back and forth. He was wearing his stained café apron. “Bill wasn’t even that mad,” he said. “He just gets animated when he gets excited. He moves his arms around a lot.”
“She thought Bill was going to hit her?” Leslie asked.
Aaron’s eyes widened and he nodded vigorously. “Yeah! And she told her husband and he came in the next day!”
“What did he do?” Leslie asked.
“Bill wasn’t there, thank God,” Aaron replied.
“What did you tell him?” James asked. He had his manager’s game face on.
“I told him to get the hell out”
I had heard that Evelyn was married to a lawyer and that he was an asshole. Still, I couldn't blame him for wanting to defend his pregnant wife if she felt threatened by a male co-worker. Then I thought: why would a young married, pregnant woman who was married to a lawyer want to work a retail job, especially a job in the café? The café workers had the toughest jobs in the store. I was one of the lead cashiers. One of my duties was to go to the kitchen in the café to retrieve cash from the safe and make change for their register. When it was busy, especially during the holidays, it was like going through the engine room of the Titanic. Like most working class people I assumed lawyers made a ton of money. Maybe he did. Maybe she didn't have to work. Maybe she liked commuting from her house to the store, walking up and down those stairs all swollen, jamming her belly into her co-workers behind that crowded counter…
There was a call over the PA for the manager on duty. I walked with James as he headed to the music department. He was twenty-five years old; going to college part-time, and a civil war buff.
“You heard about Evelyn, right?”
“You know what’s really fucked up?” he asked.
“That you’re going bald?” I replied.
He just rolled his eyes and smirked. We were always breaking balls. It was our Tuesday ritual.
He continued. “No one even remembers her. She worked here for four months and all I got all day yesterday was ‘Who the hell was she?’”
“It’s a big store,” I said. “We all work in different departments, at different times. You know how it goes.”
“Yeah, but you’d think some of these people would look up every once in a while.”
“Maybe we should all wear name tags.”
He rolled his eyes again and headed to the escalator.
Jack was with me at the registers—another Tuesday ritual. Jack had been with the store six years. He was a rock musician. He had long, blonde hair and wore motorcycle boots with the required dress slacks. He was also a heavy drinker and usually hung over for his morning shifts. But today he was almost lucid. He remembered Evelyn.
“I read the article,” he said. “That’s fucked up.”
“Her husband must’ve been tailgating,” I said. “She probably screamed and he looked up and saw those red tail lights and he slammed on the brakes…” I held my hands out flat to show Jack how the cars may have collided. “…then their car swerved hard to the left and the passenger side slammed into the back of the other car. That’s how he survived the impact. She and the baby cushioned the blow for him.”
Jack just shook his long mane of unkempt hair. “That’s fucked up,” he said.
The accident happened on Interstate 70, between the college town of Columbia, Missouri, and Kansas City. That lonely stretch of highway was a death trap. There was a blurb at least two or three times a month in the metro section of The KC Star about a traffic fatality. It was either drunk driving or tailgating or some exhausted trucker jumping the median and plowing head on into a mini-van.
The rest of the morning and afternoon went as usual. Every now and then a co-worker would come to the registers and I’d ask if they heard about Evelyn, if they’d read the article. James was right. A few people remembered, but most had no idea who she was. But that’s just the way it is, I thought. You live, you work… people cross in and out of your field of vision… some of them register, some don’t
Then I saw Lorraine. She was coming in for her evening shift. She was a second floor bookseller. I told her about Evelyn. She remembered her. Like me, she had even spoken to her a few times.
Lorraine cocked her head to one side and furrowed her brow. “She’s dead?” she asked, in disbelief.
I nodded. “There’s an article in the break room, tacked to the bulletin board.”
Her eyes widened and she brought her hand to her mouth. “What about the baby?”
I shook my head.
She just stood there for a moment and then she let out a deep sigh and headed for the café..
I was clocking out when Danielle came into the break room. She was a short, stout black woman who had worked with Evelyn in the café. I pointed to the article and she read it while I put on my coat. She turned to me and shrugged. “I told her not to drive to Saint Louis,” she said. “But I bet her husband bullied her into that, too.”
“I heard he was kind of an asshole.”
“They made a good couple because she was kind of a bitch.”
I put on my gloves. “Didn’t she and Bill get into a fight?”
“It wasn’t a fight. She just made too big a deal out of it. She just didn’t like being wrong.”
Danielle hung up her coat and then tugged at her black polo shirt to cover her belly button. “She should’ve taken some of the attitude she used on Bill and used it on her husband. Then she wouldn’t have been driving back from Saint Louis on those icy roads.”
Danielle clocked in and almost sprinted out of the break room; she was a few minutes late.
I walked home. It was windy and cold.
When I got to my apartment I turned on the TV, as usual, and relaxed on the sofa. The sound was turned down. I watched the images of the local news. Kansas City had been haunted by a rash of armed robberies since early January. Armed gunmen were targeting convenience store and bars in the Westport and Midtown areas, not far from where I lived. Three people had been killed. A few more pistol-whipped. The victims being interviewed said they were lucky to be alive.
What must have gone through the minds of the victims in the moments after hearing the the commands of the gunmen, the CHICK! CHICK! of the rifles being cocked? What must have gone through Evelyn’s mind, grabbing her belly as those taillights closed in, feeling the sting of the initial impact?
I was not intimate with death. Most of us weren’t. We left death to the troopers and the detectives and the doctors and nurses and coroners and, finally, the morticians.
In a way, I was jealous of that.