After we left Burger King, Steve Crandall said he wanted to switch seats because he was tired of sitting in between stacks of horn cases, and there was still an hour’s drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike before we reached Pittsburgh and home. “No big deal,” I said, climbing in ahead of him, but he stood between the open double doors as if he expected me to change my mind.
He didn’t step aside until Don Kohler, the other first horn who’d been riding in back of the equipment van, shuffled up. I knew enough to stay wedged between the cases while Don climbed in and found a space to sit across from me. Steve swung the doors shut behind him and settled back with a wink. I drew my knees up and so did Don, and Steve stretched out with his hands behind his head, grinning like he’d just put his feet up on a teacher’s desk.
So it was Steve who had his weight against the door as we accelerated into traffic from the on-ramp. Mr. Kohler, who was driving, swung between two trucks that were spaced far enough apart for him to fit in if he floored it. When the door popped open at fifty-five or sixty miles per hour, Steve’s legs flew up and he was gone without a sound.
The doors flapped, leaving Don and me alone with a van full of trumpets, the two of us staring out like you see animals doing from trailers, like you know something awful was happening but couldn’t get a handle on it. And then Don started pounding on the glass between us and Mr. Kohler, and everything slowed down.
We never got to see Steve. We sat in the van and neither of us talked, our chins on our knees until a state trooper looked inside, running his hands along the doors while he asked us to step down and follow him to where we could sit on a patch of crown vetch that covered a slope. From there we could see the ambulance and the patrol car and the flares a quarter mile back the highway.
“You think he’s dead?” Don finally said.
I shook my head, but what I was thinking was how I’d ridden almost a hundred miles with my back pressed against those doors. Don didn’t do anything but start to gnaw on his thumb nail. “Probably,” I finally said, the first word I’d managed since Steve had vanished.
Mr. Kohler was Don’s father. I remembered he’d closed the doors and rapped on them twice when I’d climbed in after our show in Altoona and propped myself against them still wearing my visored hat, but he hadn’t rapped on them before we’d left Burger King. Steve had swung them shut himself because Mr. Kohler was having a cigarette before he climbed into the driver’s seat.
Steve had a skull fracture and massive head trauma. He had other broken things, too, but that’s what killed him, my father explained as he drove me home. “It’s why people wear helmets on motorcycles,” he said. “And bicycles,” he added, as if now I was supposed to buy one after riding a bike for ten years without dying.
“All right,” I said, but that’s as far as I got.
My mother sucked in a breath like she’d just surfaced after diving into a pool. “Not now, Jack,” she said.
My father looked across the seat at her, taking his eyes off the road in a way that made me stare into the oncoming traffic. “What better time?” he asked, and when she rapped her knuckles on the dashboard like a teacher who was losing control of her class, he added, “Rex Kohler says he thought it was our boy who fell out,” talking as if I’d vanished, my mother beginning to sob as if she felt that too.