Summer 2010 - THE POTOMAC

The Incident
   Wendy Skinner

     The gas station attendant on the corner was the first to realize a connection between the car accidents and later deaths. Two of his regulars, Mr. O’Leary and Mrs. Gonzales, had been involved in a rear-ender the month before, really just a honk and a scratch hardly worth mentioning. He’d witnessed the accident while checking a taillight. Both of his customers had emerged from their vehicles and exchanged driver’s licenses with no apparent discomfort. However, a day or so afterwards, the attendant ran across their obituaries in the paper: one “suddenly with the Lord” and the other “unexpectedly taken from loved ones.”
     The alarming upward swing in the number of fatalities due to accidents at Dupont and Lexington Boulevard drew the attention of the County Officer of Traffic Engineering and Safety. The number had snuck up on him, disguised in the beginning as simple fender-benders or careless side-swipes with no life-threatening injuries noted in police reports.
     The gas station attendant concluded that the angle of the sun combined with the seasonal air particulates caused an abnormal refraction in the newly replaced semaphores that caused the human eye to temporarily misperceive the true color of the glass. Red became green and green became red. However, the attendant lost sleep over the fact that he could not explain the deaths of Mr. O’Leary and Mrs. Gonzales, or the countless others who would die within days of the ever increasing traffic accidents.
     The Chief County Engineer ordered a survey of the intersection that included signal sensors and switch timings, traffic volume and speeds, and pavement abnormalities. Forensic photographers recorded the semaphores’ relation to the sun’s angle and refraction qualities throughout the day. A graduate student in dioptrics from Rochester Institute of Technology gathered data for his doctoral thesis titled, “The Incident of Catadioptric Systems and Solar-Semaphoric Interaction.” Volumes of studies lay in numerous offices, but gummed up in the red tape of bureaucracy, the officials’ efforts to remedy the intersection of its accursed condition proceeded slowly.
     In the meantime, word spread throughout the community that conditions for the “Incident” (for that is how the Mayor had begun to refer to the phenomenon) were best observed moments before nightfall. People began to gather at the intersection about an hour before sunset. At first, just neighbors in lawn chairs relaxed with a few cool beers while their children sold lemonade for 25 cents a cup to curious passersby. But soon more showed up: transportation officials, the City Council, news reporters, a science class from the high school, happy hour folks from the nearby bar, members of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted, and a daily entourage from the Peace and Enlightenment Center sixty miles away in Pittsburg.
     Each evening they craned their necks, snapped photos, video taped, scribbled in notebooks, made bets, and knelt in prayer, all in hopes of seeing the dioptrical phenomenon, the Incident. Needless to say, they also witnessed numerous close-calls responding with a choir of “Ahhs” and later, an increasing number of full-contact crashes that inspired several solos of “Oh, my God!” The collisions quickly gained miracle status when after one such gruesome metal against metal crunch, a young Mexican girl told her mother she saw the Virgin Mary in the aura of the Lexington Boulevard westbound left turn arrow.
      The police department no longer bothered calling the paramedics but instead hired extra officers for reporting vehicular damage and managing ICC—Incident Crowd Control. Then, within a week after the crashes had peaked in both frequency and severity the usual bustle of traffic passing through the intersection came to a halt. That is, when the crowds arrived in anticipation, save for the occasional bicycle, not a vehicle was in sight and an eerie windswept silence overtook the boulevard.
     The crowds thinned as quickly as the roadways had emptied and the attendant cursed the semaphores that blinked at no one as he locked the door and walked away from the gas station for the last time.
     Within six months cars and trucks eventually returned to pass through the intersection of Dupont and Lexington Boulevard. Due to city budget cuts, no further action deemed necessary regarding the intersection. A new owner reopened the gas station. And no one ever reported an Incident at the corner again. Although, in winter when the traffic paused at the red light on Lexington west-bound, on occasion the Virgin Mary could be spotted hovering in the ghostly wisps of a car’s exhaust.

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