Suburban Soliloquy

114. Hit-and-Run

A web of meandering streets is draped across low hills, forming the map of Levittown, Pennsylvania. It has no symmetry, no straight lines and no center. Near-identical homes spaced apart with casual equality sit back from the roads, separated from asphalt by an expanse of lawn. Levittown is divided into sections, each community filled with its own model home. In my community the model is called "country clubbers", also known as ranchers. These are three-bedroom residences, single-storied, but with large attics. The houses are situated about thirty feet or more apart. Few homes have remained in their original state. After fifty years, extra rooms have been built into almost every attic.

A particular characteristic of my section of Levittown is the absence of sidewalks. When the Levitts built our community, they conceived that the strollers walking in the streets, the lack of through streets, and the bushes blinding the corners of side streets would naturally force drivers to be cautious, that there would be no need for too many traffic signs. It hasn't worked. People, especially children, get injured or killed. The bushes have had to be removed or pushed back from the corners. Stop signs, speed limits, signs warning us to watch for children and slow for school crossings are now posted everywhere. There are still incautious drivers and people, mostly children, who continue to get injured or killed.

The children themselves often contribute to these tragedies. Disenfranchised of any real power, they hang out in packs that stretch into the middle of the streets, imposing their control on traffic, as if to say, "Take notice and submit to our will." Willfulness is the only power that is left to children. Too often they miscalculate. There are young people who want their moodiness expressed in their clothes, darkly adorned, sometimes with hooded sweatshirts; they patrol the streets at night invisible and inviting tragedy. Then there are the young children on bicycles, intoxicated with speed, who do not anticipate what is so predictable to anxious parents; they come racing out of side streets and even the careful driver cannot amend destiny.

Just after nine o'clock on a Sunday night, thirty-five-year-old Forrest Earl Brown came barreling down Forsythia Drive South, past the local elementary school, along a downhill straight that runs a tenth of a mile and passing a slower moving car. This is a maneuver that is uncalled for on the residential streets of Levittown where the speed limit is posted at twenty-five miles per hour. At the bottom of the hill the street turns sharply left. Bradley, a handsome young man of fourteen, stood beside his bicycle parked at the curb talking to Victoria, a cute young woman, also fourteen, who sat on the curb beneath a yellow warning sign. The sign showed the silhouettes of two walking children, was meant to caution drivers to be alert for pedestrians crossing. This is where Forrest Earl Brown lost control of his speeding car and ran off the road scraping the side of his car against the post of the yellow warning sign.

Incredulously, Forrest Earl Brown continued in a straight line across the rising lawn belonging to the Bangors, my neighbors, until he reached a street again on the far side. This was Red Rose Drive. He turned right, traveled a short distance, and about fifty feet from my bedroom window, he turned the car around and started down Red Rose Drive back to Forsythia Drive South. The car he passed earlier had turned up Red Rose Drive to give him chase, but now passed him going the other way. Forrest Earl Brown paused as if to survey what had been done, then drove to the bottom of the street and turned right to continue racing away on Forsythia Drive South.

I slept through this entire episode, even though I had the bedroom windows opened for this strangely warm October night. I had to return to my job by midnight. Ms Keogh, my more significant other, was napping beside me, was also unaware of the tragedy that just took place a mere five houses away. Still, there were witnesses among my neighbors who rushed to the aid of the two teenagers. They found the mangled Bradley not far from his mangled bike. He was moaning with the pain and complained that he was freezing. My neighbors brought him a blanket, reassured him and held his hand while professional help was sent for. Then they noticed the shadow in the woods. This was Victoria who had been thrown seventy feet. She was mercifully unconscious.

"What the hell is that noise?" I complained. "Who the hell is using a leaf blower or mowing their lawn at this hour?" We both woke. Eventually, the noise shifted tone and moved away, and I recognized it for being a helicopter (two, actually). "Something is going on," I told Ms Keogh. Medical helicopters were airlifting Bradley and Victoria to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. We did not know and took no further notice. I dressed while Ms Keogh prepared my dinner.

I went to the kitchen where Ms Keogh had my dinner waiting. While I was eating, she came rushing back into the kitchen to announce something was definitely going on. She shut off the kitchen lights and I could see against the walls the flashing red and blue lights coming in the window. I went outside to investigate. A crowd of people had gathered at the end of the block and everywhere were police vehicles. Two police officers were taping off the street. I watched while they taped off the end of my driveway. It was a crime scene. I ask two of the nearest officers what had happened, but neither would speak a word to me, or else they hadn't heard me. Another officer was spray painting circles around debris in the road. "This is where he turned around," he told his colleague. It was a neighbor who finally told me what had happened.

When it was time for me to leave for work, my way was still blocked by the tape. I called my job to let them know I would be late, so they could hold a technician over until I got there. Then I strolled halfway down my street until I reached an officer walking up the street gathering the pieces of debris from those orange circles, loading them into plastic bags and making notations in a book. I watched and walked alongside of him, staying on my side of the yellow tape. It wasn't long after that that the tape was removed. I drove the opposite way to avoid the commotion that remained at the end of my block.

The next morning, as soon as I was home, I walked down to the corner and surveyed the scene. I wasn't the only one. A couple of helicopters were hovering nearby. It wasn't hard to trace the tire marks and telltale orange spray paint that highlighted events in the tracks and where pieces of car had been left behind, and where each of the children were left sprawling. I had read a news account on the internet the night before. Both kids were still alive but in critical condition. The driver of the car had not yet been found. Witnesses said the car was a white Volkswagen, probably a Jetta. It was all very obvious. I could see where at the bottom of the hill the driver had slammed his brakes, where his wheels hit the curb and the signpost must have shaved off his right mirror. His wheels left dark tracks in the grass from the nearest curb proceeding to the distant curb of my street.

There were also tracks coming out of Firtree Road into Forsythia Drive South. The police had marked them. I thought they were the same car and this led me to a lot of misinterpretation. It was only after rereading the news accounts that I realized this couldn't be and went back to check. On closer inspection I could see the Firtree marks were unrelated. That they merged with the hit-and-run driver's tread marks was just a coincidence. Indeed, orange circles indicated where the two marks converged. The Firtree marks merely indicated another reckless driver. The investigating officer possibly made the same mistake at first, but if so, he resolved it the same night.

I took out my Moleskine notebook to take notes. That is when I made the acquaintance of J.D. Mullane, columnist and investigative reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times (he was once nominated for the Pulitzer Prize). He was there also taking notes. We discussed the tragedy at length, particularly the mindset of the driver. We both knew the police would eventually catch this driver if the driver didn't turn themselves in. Too much evidence was left behind. The car had been damaged. Mr Mullane told me how he has been in the journalist business for seventeen years and seen the same thing plenty of times before. It was always the same, the drivers start out somewhere watching a game and getting drunk. These guys turn themselves in the next day when they are sober and it can no longer be proven they were driving under the influence. I wondered if among the people who came to inspect the site had there been a plainclothes policeman hoping the culprit would return to the scene of the crime.

That new day, Forrest Earl Brown from Willow Grove turned himself in. The police did not bother checking him for drugs or alcohol, it was too late. He had been at Hazy's Bar and Grill watching the Eagles football game and drinking with friends, but claimed he wasn't drunk at the time he slammed into Bradley and Victoria. Why would someone prefer to be thought a sober schmuck and by nature an incompetent driver rather than admit to being impaired by alcohol and in need of help for a drinking problem? He further claimed he was full of remorse. Evidently the feeling of panic exceeded his feelings of remorse the night before. I looked at the photographs of him coming out of the courthouse, but could not see remorse in his face because he crouched and covered his face and hands in his clothes. I looked at photographs of his car. The car turned out to be blue, but witnesses had everything else correct. The bumper was hanging cockeyed, a headlight was smashed, and the windshield on the passenger side was sunken inward and was a white fog of tiny cracks.

I am writing this two weeks later, a few days before it will appear in Snakeskin. Bradley and Victoria remain in stable condition at the Children's Hospital. And I'm asking myself, could that have been me driving too fast and losing control of the car? Could that have been me hitting a pedestrian? Would I have left the scene of the tragedy I had caused? There is always the chance that elements would come together, that I could be driving too fast, that an unnoticed person might step out in front of me, but not like this, not as reckless as this. And surely I would feel more remorse, could not have rushed away as he did. The question I want to ask Forrest Earl Brown is did he have a cell phone? Did he call for help?

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"