I see dead people

She witnessed a horrific and extraordinary car accident 20 years ago. That accident gets thrust back into her life as a recent footage of Muammar Gaddafi’s dead body paraded across television sets.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray…

I remember it as if it were yesterday, but it was the fall of 1989 and my first month away at college. The song drifted from the car, windows down, on the first nice day we’d had in weeks. A lot of 1960’s groups were doing “reunion” tours, which everybody knew meant that they had squandered their earnings on excesses, but we didn’t care; those excesses were to be expected from the free love generation. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a band who had played Woodstock, or been involved in the British Invasion. I had just seen The Mamas and The Papas in concert at my tiny liberal arts school with about 100 of my classmates, many of whom left before the show was even over. “The Sixties are so cliché,” the overindulged rich girls said, and I nodded agreeably. Having no real money in my family–in fact not knowing how my parents were sending me to this school at all–I had a desperate need to fit in.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray…

The car never even slowed down. I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change so I could cross the busy street to the cafeteria for supper. I looked at the sky, enjoying the sun on my face as I waited. Missouri wasn’t California, and “gray” was an actual forecast: it was either rainy, sunny, or gray. I was from the bottom corner of the left coast and not used to so many cloudy days in a row. The lack of sunshine was affecting my mood, and it was only the first month. I sighed. Of course I had to leave California. My parents, at this point, were miserable and waging emotional war against each other. I had to get out if I wanted any chance at life at all. But did I have to go so far? To a place where I knew no one? Why didn’t I choose Florida? Even Hawaii? I doubted every decision I had made that led me here. Here, to these strangers. Here, to this corner. Here, to this gray. I listened to the song as the car approached, thinking “California Dreamin’, indeed” and turned to say something to the man waiting on the curb next to me, but he was walking away.

You know how some people say that during life-changing events time slows down? I’m here to tell you that’s wrong. Television, movies, people telling dramatic stories: all wrong. What happened, happened in an instant. The man to whom I never spoke stepped off of the curb and was gone. He went over the top of the car and landed almost exactly back where he took off from. Like a gymnast who has broken bones, starved herself, and pushed away loved one just to get to the Olympics and stick the perfect landing, who then throws her hands up in that unmistakable “V” that says, “worth it.”

He nailed the landing.

The sound, simultaneously a squishing, crunching, sighing noise, is now forever entangled with “California Dreamin’” in my mind. If I had to recreate it in a sound studio, I would use spaghetti, squeezed between someone’s fingers; while another technician snapped pencils; and yet another punched an overstuffed bean bag. I would never get it right. I would forever be chasing that one elusive element that would recreate it exactly. The windmill to my Don Quixote. The spot to my Lady Macbeth. The car, with Cass and Michelle still harmonizing, kept driving. The man lay in the street, not having even given the driver pause. I looked down, struck dumb, paralyzed. A woman in a nice suit ran down the sidewalk and screamed at me to find a phone and dial 911.

The song still floated through my head, as I turned and went inside the building that I was standing beside. I heard the woman behind me screaming at the gymnast, “SIR! SIR! ARE YOU OKAY?” I knew he wasn’t okay. He had given his life for that one perfect performance, and one that I would remember, forever. A dismount from the living world.

I turned on a television news channel a few weeks ago and listened to headlines as I prepared for another day in retail, a habit I formed years ago. Snippets of stories floated into my mind and were filed, appropriately. “Safe To Discuss With All Customers” (typically weather, and feelgood stories), “Safe To Discuss With Customers I Know” (typically celebrity-related scandals), and “Don’t Even Think About It” (typically political). As I walked by the TV, an image caught my attention.

Michael Jackson’s autopsy photo.

I looked away. I had nowhere in my brain to file it, and I didn’t want to. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it’s still there. Waiting until I fall asleep, or forget to be vigilant about pushing it down.

Then, just last week the media circulated, with jubilation, a picture of the corpse of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. I didn’t want to see it. There’s no more room in me for images of dead men. However, when I used a search engine to find more information, having heard that the controversial leader had been killed, it popped up in the results generated. Just a thumbnail. Just enough.

What kind of society have we become that seeing images of people who are deceased is not only not disturbing, but desirable? How hardened are we that the only concrete proof of death is photographic evidence?

I, for one, don’t want to see full-color confirmation of anyone’s mortality. People die. I know that. I am not the kind of person who needs their lifeless body to star in a post-mortem photo shoot to believe it.

Image from Meet Joe Black.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Jeb Hoge on said:

    It has been a very weird couple of months for this. MJ’s photos, Qaddafi, Dan Wheldon, the Reno Air Race crash, and yesterday a Moto GP racer died in a violent crash…all of these and probably more have been not only glimpsed, but shown (in some cases over and over) by news sources over and over, and I can’t quite get where this new lack of sensitivity to viewship is coming from. People say it’s all about page views and ratings, but was there some revision to the code of journalistic ethics that took out the parts about not replaying someone’s death or post-mort imagery? Did we lose the dignity of the older news leaders? Is it just that there are more cameras everywhere and we just have to accept that this is our new reality?

    I don’t know, but I don’t like it.

  2. Mariane on said:

    No, it’s the movies. They have been desensitizing us little by little over the decades. I remember when it was really shocking to hear the f-word said in a film. (Gone with the Wind was considered daring for its “give a damn.”) Now I hear the f-word on the bus in casual conversation. There’s so much graphic violence in films now. I can recall when The Wild Bunch was considered shocking, and it just showed bad guys getting hit with bullets and blood squirting.Midnight Cowboy was originally rated X, because there was a humping scene in it. Now I see Anne Hathaway totally nude in a light romantic comedy. Now we have stuff like the Human Centipede — and even on Southpark on my television. For entertainment. For laughs. So we should we shocked by photos of real death? Because it’s real? In my mind, it’s still just an image. At least we didn’t show people hitting the ground after 9/11. Celebrities and dictators lose privacy by default. there’s photos of Mussolini dead, bloodied, and hanging by his feet after World War II.

  3. Scott Burger on said:

    Consider the ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’. All the murders and suicides from the frontier, combined with pictures of dead children propped up in their coffins.


    Personally, I think Americans are too far removed from the reality of death these days, and it has an effect on our debates about things like end of life health care and abortion.

    I am not saying we need to go back to more violent times, but I do think that all the zombie movies are trying to tell us something.

  4. Photographic evidence (not that THAT isn’t easy to fake, these days!) is our latter-day equivalent to parading the body through the streets and country-side or mounting the deceased’s head on a pike. It’s just easier to disseminate.

    Most of us are still barbarians, at heart, it would seem. We have a LONG way to go to becoming that enlightened and peaceful species we like to depict in Science Fiction.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I can’t imagine the horror you felt, or what went through that gentleman’s mind as he was being struck. How unbelievably awful.

    I agree that there is too much “shock value” in this world. Michael Jackson’s autopsy photo was completely unnecessary.

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