My wife and I first began dating in July of 1983. Soon after, I met her parents for the first time. I think it was safe to say I made quite an impression on them: they told her afterwards they preferred she not see me anymore. I can’t say that I blame them. I’m not sure what their model of an ideal suitor would have been, but if I guessed a good-looking, clean-cut, overtly Christian young man of no small means, I could not have been far off (a pastor’s son would have been perfect). Since I was almost beyond handsome at the time (hey, this is my blog; I’m entitled to a certain creative license), I certainly met the first standard. Unfortunately, as a long-haired, heathenous part time worker whose only financial goal was student loan avoidance through perpetual matriculation, I fell decidedly short in meeting the other criteria. My only saving grace (you parents of girls approaching dating age pay special attention) was that by telling their daughter not to see me, I became forbidden fruit and therefore all the more attractive to her. We settled into an uncomfortable but exciting routine of brief, often clandestine meetings, sprinkled with an occasional group date with her family in the hopes that I might, through my obvious and undeniable charms, eventually gain favor with them (we were young and naive).
On one such evening in September, we had gone to the movies with her parents and younger brother and sister. Afterwards and in that awkward time where people stand in the parking lot, unsure of what to do next or, in my case, how to gracefully extricate themselves, she whispered that I should invite her family to a local restaurant. I did, and they readily accepted; it appeared that things were working in my favor and there might be hope for us yet.
We arrived at the restaurant, were seated quickly and after a lengthy perusal of the menu, began to order one by one. Suddenly, I was impaled in the heart with a paralyzing stab of fear (all of us have experienced this feeling: that moment when you realize you had forgotten something of vital importance, and it was now too late. I once had this feeling on a basketball court, when I saw a clock on the gym wall and realized my father had just remarried and I had missed it. It nearly ruined the rest of the game for me). I was new at this; because I had invited them, did custom dictate that I was footing the bill? They couldn’t actually expect that; could they? It would explain why they accepted the invitation so quickly. Everyone was ordering food like Somalis at a buffet, and I had six bucks to my name. There was no way to broach the subject without looking like a complete loser and undoing any perceived relational progress that had been gained to that point. So desperate was I and at such a loss for remedy that I resolved to fake either a seizure or imminent gastric distress when the bill came.
As they sat waiting for the food to come and I sat with my sphincter prolapsed from anxiety, there was at once a great flash of light and a loud boom which came from the street behind us. A car, fully engulfed in flame, was sliding on its side at considerable speed along the far curb lane of the street outside the restaurant. I yelled for someone to call 911 and ran across the street, unsure of what I could do but grateful for the diversion. The car had been traveling at a very high rate of speed and had hit the curb in a merging lane, which ruptured the gas tank and caused the car to flip on its side. By the time I neared the car, it had come to rest against a large, concrete-filled traffic pole. It had hit with such force that the front and back of the car were touching; it was like a chip bag stuck on a tree branch in a windstorm.
I was the first to arrive and saw the driver almost immediately. The car had slid at least sixty feet on the driver’s side before impacting the pole; it was obvious that he had died, in gruesome fashion. I climbed on the car to look down through the passenger window, saw no one else inside, and then someone tried to pull me down by the waist.
“There’s no one else, Richie. Watch the fire.” It was my dentist, whom I always referred to as Dr. Josef Mengele, D.D.S (see part I). Though I hadn’t seen him earlier, he been eating at the same restaurant.
I was pretty sure the driver was the only one in the car (as it turned out, there had been a passenger; he had flown out the window upon impact with the pole and landed seventy-five feet further down the parking lot. The firemen found him later and he survived), and there was still a risk of explosion, so I hopped down. I saw my dentist walking back across the street; I came up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. He screamed and jumped in terror, as though he thought I was the driver coming back from the dead. I found it a most curious and unsettling reaction.
By then everyone had cleared the restaurant to gawk and all the food that had been ordered went uneaten. For some time afterwards, whenever I retold the story I claimed that God had sent this man to his doom in order to spare me the possibility of painful embarrassment in the restaurant (I was not a Christian at the time, so it didn’t concern me that God would work in that way; after all, I was worth it). All in all and despite the permanent emotional scarring from what I saw under that car (I will never, ever forget it), things went pretty well for me that night. I was spared any embarrassment with respect to the bill, my future in-laws had to be impressed with me climbing atop a flaming car and my girlfriend knew she had a man-stud for a boyfriend.
A couple of months later I went to my dentist for my regular visit. He took great pleasure in recounting the event with me and his hygienist whilst jabbing me in the gums with his little hooked instrument and bouncing his little mirror across my molars.
“Richie, your gums are bleeding. And it looks like you have a little cavity.” Of course I did. “It’s really small, and you’re such a brave fella. Let’s skip the shot and get it done quickly. I’ll be gentle and you just tell me if it hurts.”
After twenty minutes of me moaning as though I were gagged and beaten with a sock full of nickels, and he ignoring me, the torture session mercifully came to an end. As I leaned forward to gargle and spit out blood and bits of drilled enamel, my dentist held something up for me to see.
“See this pen, Richie?”
“Yeah, nice.” I groaned.
“It is nice, Richie. Guess where I got it?”
I thought for a second. “No…” I remembered and now understood his reaction when I had touched his shoulder at the accident scene.
“That’s right, Richie. The dead guy. Took it right out of his shirt pocket. He wasn’t gonna use it, was he?”