You see so many animals trying to cross the road in October, at this time of year, just wanting to cross the road. Along Highway 33, Highway 77, even coming into town on the Rosa Parks Way. Deer munching on grass on the shoulder, paying no mind to the cars speeding by. I mind them. Working at the transportation center teaches me to mind them and the road. The surface of the pavement.
And the number of stains on the pavement this time of year. Those big, dramatic smears—a bloody firework left behind after it happens. The way you can see the path of the impact by the marks on the pavement. The way you can see the shape of the impact by the dent in the car in the ditch. You can follow the trail of the body as it rolled.
There was this little truck like a Chevy S-10—that size, this little red truck. The man driving was also talking on a cell phone and using his hands to gesture to the person who could not see him. Hands waving, off the wheel, completely distracted. Something moved in the bed of the truck. What had looked like poles sticking out of the bed were hooved legs. Two—the left two—were straight up in the air. The right front leg was broken and bent near the first joint. Shaking, wavering just a little with the bumps in the road. Waving in the air.
This is what I follow while making the drive in the dark to Lincoln. I hear my mother’s voice from years past, shouting across the house where we used to live as my teenaged self heads for the front door.
“Love you. Look out for the deer,” she says.
Work tomorrow. At work, the idea is that we should make the roadway smarter to make it safer. Using technology. We should continue adding layers of technology to the roadway to give it more knowledge, make it more adaptive to the individual driver, and make it responsive to the type of driver and the reactions of the vehicle. All of this. In Nebraska, some 90 percent of crashes are caused by driver error, but the goal is to make the roadway safer. The engineers won’t say it: you cannot control driver behavior. As one of the engineers wrote me in a message, “All’s well that ends well.”
A dark drive lulls the senses into its rhythm. The dashed lines, the rows of streetlights. Dash dash dash dash, dot dot dot dot. And what about that moment when one streetlight flickers on or off right above you? Sure, it might happen every day and to lots of people, but when it happens to you, all is sparkling. Someone or something is winking at you.
Might just be me.
Think of moving in thunderstorms. Follow me here. Streetlights during a thunderstorm in high winds. You can watch the pattern of light hitting the pavement to know the power of the wind. You don’t need to watch the trees: just watch the light change on the pavement. If the dark branches snap back and forth across the ground, making a strobe of the streetlight, watch for flying objects. Take cover.
“Don’t take the interstate,” my mother’s voice says.
I saw a storm that fierce this fall, the sky’s fury scratching at the surface of the earth. Almost makes me eager for winter, when you can burrow away inside its stillness. When it’s winter, it’s winter. A winter day is gray and cold and the air burns your cheeks and the tips of your ears. So cold and stinging that you feel the delicate tissue inside your nose turn raw from its work harvesting the oxygen. The weak and the ailing will struggle to breathe at all. The light of the sun is bright and the ground is bright with its reflection, even if the color itself is as dull as the gravel now covered in dead leaves and slush. When you leave the apartment, you always wonder if the drive to your proposed destination is worth it.
“Stay inside,” says my mother’s voice. A winter day is a winter day is a winter day. It will not change till spring.
But this is fall, for now: weather moves the earth’s landscape. A single tree—your favorite towering one, there in the dark—looks different than it did the day before. Each branch will become more and more bare. Fewer leaves, more branch. In the morning, you won’t be able to help but notice the men raking leaves onto a tarp to be hauled to another location. You can’t escape the additional item of clothing you add each successive morning before you make the slow crossing on the ice, picking your way across on your fawn legs to your car. Some mornings, the frost will gather on the windshield until eventually you find a blanket of ice, more ice than can be removed your lazy way with the wiper blades and high heat.
“You should know better anyway,” her voice says. “You’ve been here all your life.”
Once it is winter, it is winter. And this is not a tautology. In fall, the weather moves. In winter, the weather is ever present. Mind the deer, the icy roads. All’s well that ends well.
“Love you,” she says. “And look out.”