July 2-5, 1996. I could go to jail for this.

When I was a student at the University of Jeromeville, I drove a 1989 Ford Bronco.  At the time, many people associated the Ford Bronco sport-utility vehicle model with retired football player and acquitted murder suspect O.J. Simpson, who led police on a nationally televised chase in a white Bronco two years ago.  Mine was red and tan, which conveniently enough were similar colors to my favorite football team, the Bay City Captains.  Technically my parents owned the car.  Dad bought it new when I was in seventh grade.  Between Dad driving to and from work, Mom picking me up from school, and all of my brother Mark’s baseball and basketball games and tournaments, we wore that car out quickly, putting a hundred thousand miles on it in less than five years.

Shortly before I left for Jeromeville, we were coming back from watching some of Mark’s friends in a baseball tournament in San Tomas, and the Bronco broke down.  My parents spent a fair amount of money to get it running again so they could send me off to school in the Bronco.  They got another car, and when they needed multiple cars, they often borrowed a car from my grandparents, who still had two cars and did not drive as often.

The Bronco was a big car.  It was great for when I had to move a lot of things, which pretty much had only happened once, when I moved out of the dorm at the end of freshman year.  It also had four-wheel drive, but I never drove off pavement, so this was not particularly useful to me either.  I would find advantages over the years to having a large vehicle, but those are stories for another time.

A car this size had two major disadvantages.  The Bronco only got around 13 miles per gallon, and it was difficult to park.  The first point was not something I thought about often.  The Bronco had a 30-gallon gas tank, and Mom and Dad gave me a credit card for Chevron gas stations on their account, so I did not have to pay for gas.  But I did often have trouble parking the Bronco in the parking spaces in Jeromeville, which seemed to be narrower than the parking spaces I grew up with.  One night, as I was coming home from the grocery store, this minor annoyance became something I needed to deal with immediately, as I tried to maneuver into a parking space at my apartment complex and felt a bump as I turned sharply to the right.

I had hit the car parked next to me.  What do I do?  My first thought was to finish parking, so I would not be in the way of anyone else trying to get by.  I carefully wiggled the Bronco into the parking space without further incident; I would have rather parked elsewhere, but the lot was full.  When I got out, I saw that the Bronco was fine, but the car next to me, a black Honda Civic, had a small crack in the taillight.  I vaguely remembered something from driver training class about having to leave my contact information and my car insurance information when I hit a parked car, but instead I ran in the house and called my parents.

“Hello?” Mom said.

“It’s me,” I replied, speaking quickly and panicky.  “I hit a parked car.  What do I do?”

“Where are you?”

“At home.  It was parked next to me.”

“How bad is the damage?”

“My car is fine.  The other car has a small crack in the taillight.”

“Don’t panic.  It’s not a big deal.  Do you know whose car it was?”

“No.”

“So just write down your name, and phone number, and insurance information, and put it on their windshield, under the wiper,” Mom said.  I heard Dad’s voice in the background, and Mom told Dad, “Greg hit a parked car.”

“Is my insurance rate going to go up?” I asked.

“Wait,” Mom said. “Dad is talking to me.”  I waited a minute, hearing muffled voices in the background.  “Greg wants to know if his insurance is going to go up,” I heard Mom ask Dad, followed by more muffled voices.  Finally, Mom said, more clearly, “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Dad says if you’re worried about getting insurance involved, if it’s just a tiny crack, it probably isn’t that expensive to fix.  You can offer to pay for it yourself, out of pocket.”

“That could work.”

“And if you’re worried about money, we can send you some to help.”

“I think I’ll be okay,” I said.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes.  I should go now so I can leave a note on the car.”

“Good idea.  Just let us know if you need anything else.”

“I will.”

“Okay.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

I tore a sheet of paper out of a notebook and wrote: I accidentally bumped your car and hit the right taillight while I was parking.  I’m sorry!  If it’s not too expensive, I will pay for it without getting insurance involved.  If that doesn’t work, I can give you my insurance information.  Greg Dennison, apt. 124, 555-0159.  I went outside and walked down to where I had parked, so I could leave the note on my neighbor’s car.

It was not there.

The parking space to the left of me was empty.

I checked the car on the right, just to make sure I did not somehow get confused as to which car I hit.  The car on the right had no cracks in its taillights.

I was now officially guilty of the crime of hit and run.  I could go to jail for this.

Maybe no one would notice.

I waited about five minutes; the other car did not return.  I had not thought clearly enough to get the license plate number.  I went back in the house, picked up the telephone, and called Mom again.

“The car left before I could get back outside,” I said.

“Oh no,” Mom replied.  “I guess you just keep looking for the car around your apartment complex.  Do you remember what kind of car it was?”

“Black Honda Civic, but I don’t remember the license plate or anything like that.”

“Then just keep looking for a black Honda Civic with a cracked taillight, and when you find it, explain what happened.  That’s all you can do.”

“I guess.  I just don’t want to go to jail.  This is a hit and run now.”

“You won’t go to jail.”

“But I could.  I left the scene.”

“You really didn’t.  You went inside to get a pen and paper, and when you got back, the other car was gone.”

“I shouldn’t have spent five minutes on the phone with you,” I said.

“Five minutes is no big deal.  You’ll be fine.”

“I guess.”

“What are you doing the rest of the night?”

“Just working on homework.  I don’t usually work on it until late at night, because I need to dial in to a computer on campus to work from home, and I don’t want to tie up the phone line.”

“Should I let you go?”

“I guess.  I just hope I don’t go to jail.”

“You won’t go to jail!  Just keep looking for the car, and explain what happened.”

“I will.”

After I got off the phone with Mom, I listened to the sounds of the dialup modem connecting to a server from the Computer Science Department.  I worked on my assignment until around midnight.  Tomorrow was Wednesday, the day that I had to be on campus at 10:00 for the discussion, so I did not want to stay up too late.  Before I went to bed, I made one last walk through the parking lot, looking for a black Honda Civic with a cracked passenger side taillight.  I could not find it.  I looked at all the cars parked on the street nearby, as well as the two other parking lots for this large apartment complex, and I did not find the car there either.  I went to bed, hoping that I would not go to jail for this.


Wednesday was a fairly uneventful day.  After I got back from class in mid-afternoon, I checked all the parking lots again, still looking for the Honda with the cracked taillight; I did not find it.  We got our new weekly project for this week, and I worked on that during the night, starting at ten o’clock so I did not tie up the phone line during the day.

There was no school the following day, Thursday, because it was July 4, Independence Day in the United States.  All across the nation, in all fifty states, proud Americans celebrate our founding ideals of independence and freedom by attending barbecues and watching fireworks.

I did very little of that growing up, mostly because I lived in Plumdale.  I love my country, and I want to celebrate freedom, but Plumdale was too rural to have a big fireworks show.  The nearby cities of Gabilan and Santa Lucia did, but the cold ocean currents off of the West Coast often created a layer of fog in the evening, even in summer, obscuring the view of aerial fireworks shows.  Backyard home fireworks shows were also out of the question, since fireworks were illegal everywhere in Santa Lucia County.  Beginning in my preteen years, we began traveling north to Bidwell over the July holiday to see Dad’s relatives.  My great-grandmother lived in an old ranch house in the foothills on the edge of town, and from her house we could see two fireworks displays off in the distance, one at the fairgrounds and one downtown.  But until the first summer I spent in Jeromeville, I had never seen fireworks up close.

I spent the morning in my pajamas, reading, looking for girls to talk to on IRC chats, and working on the novel I had been writing off and on.  I also read the newspaper, a big part of my morning routine for many years.  Last year I subscribed to the major newspaper for this region, the Capital City Record, but I canceled my subscription last fall, when they missed my delivery three times in one month.  Since then, I had been reading the Jeromeville Bulletin, a much smaller newspaper with more of a focus on local news.  The Bulletin had a hilarious daily columnist named Bill Dunnigan who loved to make fun of all the little quirks of living in Jeromeville.  He said something about how Jeromeville always begins their local fireworks display with a speech by someone from the City Council, and how he wished that for once, they would just do away with the speech, and just say, “Let the fireworks begin!”  That would be nice.  The people who tend to win elected office in Jeromeville usually had the kind of political views that made me not want to hear them speak.

I found information about tonight’s fireworks display in the newspaper.  It was at Jeromeville Community Park at the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, about three-quarters of a mile east of me.  The celebration would begin at six o’clock, with food booths and carnival games for children, and the fireworks themselves would begin at nine-thirty, after it was dark.  The article recommended walking or riding a bicycle to the park, since parking was limited and it would likely take a while to get out of the parking lot.  

I started walking east around eight o’clock.  Community Park was next to Jeromeville High School, and I saw the setup for launching fireworks on the school football field, along with a fire truck.  The park itself consisted of a large grassy expanse, with a playground, a few groups of picnic tables, and sports fields scattered throughout the park.  Oaks, sycamores, and pines were planted in small groups throughout the park, as well as a grove of redwoods.  The redwoods were the tallest trees in the park, although they did not grow as tall in this climate as they did in their native habitat on the northern California coast.  I found a place to sit where no one else had sat or placed a blanket to sit on.  It was far enough from the redwoods that my view of the fireworks would not be obstructed.

The park was already crowded, and I was glad I had chosen not to drive.  A band played in the distance; it was no one I recognized, but they sounded pretty good, so I listened until their show ended.  After that, I just sat and watched people for a long time as the sky grew darker.  Having come to Jeromeville as a student, like thousands of others, I spent most of my time in a sort of student bubble, living most of my life on campus and in a student-oriented apartment complex.  Although Jeromeville is known as a university town, children and families live in Jeromeville as well, many of whom have no connection to the university.  That side of Jeromeville, which I did not often come face to face with, was all around me now.  Children ran around the park playing with water guns and glow sticks, and young parents fed babies in strollers with bottles.  It was definitely a change of scenery.

At nine-thirty, I heard a woman’s voice on speakers.  It was hard to make out exactly what the voice was saying, but I heard her say something about the Jeromeville Bulletin newspaper, and then, “Let the fireworks begin!”  A cheer erupted from the crowd.  Apparently the people running this show had actually taken Bill Dunnigan’s suggestion to keep the speech short this year.

The lights in the park went dark, and immediately I heard rockets launching into the sky and loudly bursting in colorful displays, while recordings of marching bands performing America the Beautiful, The Stars and Stripes Forever, and other patriotic music played over the speakers.  After about ten minutes, I expected the show to be ending soon in some sort of grand finale, but the fireworks went on and on.  Fifteen minutes.  Twenty.  Would this show go on forever?  Even the fireworks I remembered watching from my great-grandmother’s house in Bidwell never seemed to last this long.  Finally, a few minutes before ten o’clock, I saw and heard many rockets launching at once; they lit up the sky as they all went off within seconds of each other.  Then the sky went dark, with only faint clouds of smoke blowing away from the park visible, and everyone cheered.  This was the best fireworks show I had ever seen.

When the lights in the park came back on, I immediately began walking back to the west toward Coventry Boulevard.  I had no blanket or children’s belongings to pack up, so I walked ahead of most of the people heading the same way.  It took less than fifteen minutes to get home.  Before I entered the apartment, I checked the parking lots again, still hoping to find the car with the cracked taillight, so I could make that right.  There was a black Honda Civic parked near my apartment, but both taillights were intact; also, this one had Oregon license plates, and if the car I hit had license plates from a different state, I probably would have noticed.

I walked across to the west side of the complex and checked that parking lot next.  I found another black Honda Civic there, and sure enough, it had a small crack in the passenger side taillight.  I memorized the license plate number, just in case the car was gone again by the time I got back to it.  I returned to my apartment, found the note I had written two days ago when I hit the car, and added a postscript about how the car had left while I was inside writing the note, and I had been searching for two days.  I then walked back to the car, which was still there, and left the note tucked under the windshield wiper.  Now all I could do was wait for the owner of the car to call.


I had no class on Fridays this summer, so I went for a bike ride in the early evening.  Early evenings in the summer were the best time for bike rides in Jeromeville, with trees full of green leaves and their shadows long, with the sun low enough that it was not quite as hot as it had been a few hours earlier.  I rode along the Greenbelts that connected directly to my apartment complex, ending in the same park where the fireworks had been the night before.  I continued east along Coventry Boulevard to the edge of the city, where a new housing development was being built.  I then worked my way back west on Fifth Street to downtown Jeromeville and the north end of campus, coming back home north along Andrews Road.

When I got home, the light on my answering machine was blinking.  I pressed the Play button.  “One. New. Message,” a robotic voice said.  The tape forwarded to where the message began, and I heard a woman’s voice.  “Hi.  My name is Dana Forbes, and you left a note on my car about the cracked taillight.  If you could call me back, so we could talk about that, my number is 555-0133.”

I was nervous.  I did not want Dana to be mad at me.  But I knew that I had to do this.  I called the number, and Dana picked up on the second ring.  “Hello?” she said.

“Hi.  My name is Greg Dennison, I left you the note about your cracked taillight–”

“Yes,” she said.  “Thanks for calling me back.”

“I’m so sorry,” I explained.  “I have a big car, and it just bumped a little, and I went inside and it took me a few minutes to write the note, and when I went back outside to put it on your car, you were gone.”

“Thanks for finding me, though,” she said.  “I noticed it yesterday, and I thought, I don’t remember that being there.  So did you want to just pay for it out of pocket?  I was going to get it fixed tomorrow.”

“Do you know how much it’ll cost?”

“He told me over the phone it probably would be around a hundred dollars.”

“That’ll be okay,” I said.  A hundred dollars was a little more than I was expecting to pay in my mind, but I really had no idea what I was dealing with.  I had never had to pay for a cracked taillight before.  “Again, I’m sorry that this happened.”

“Don’t worry about it!  Accidents happen.  I’m just glad you came back and let me know.”

“Yeah.  So do you want cash, or a check, or what?”

“Why don’t you come over with a check around this time tomorrow?  It should be done by then.  I’m in apartment 241.”

“That’ll work,” I said.  “Thanks for calling back.”

“No problem.  Have a great night!”

“I will.”

Everything else happened without incident.  Dana told me the next day that she had paid ninety-one dollars to get the taillight fixed, and I wrote her a check for exactly that amount.  I was relieved that Dana was not upset with me, and that I would not be going to jail.  I made a note to learn my lesson and be careful parking in the future.  With a car the size of a Ford Bronco, I had to be careful of this kind of thing.

As strange as this sounded, though, I kind of wished that my parents had not offered to pay for it.  I did not need them covering for my mistakes.  I already felt guilty that they were paying my rent, and gas.  They also paid all my university expenses, although I still had a scholarship for my grades that covered most of that.  I had my tutoring job, but that did not come anywhere close to covering everything I had to pay for.  Last night I had celebrated Independence Day at the park, but was I really independent if someone else was paying most of my bills?  I decided that once I was on my own with a full time job, I would no longer accept this allowance from my parents.  And when I did get my first full time job, I stopped using my parents’ Chevron credit card, and they stopped sending money to cover rent.  I was not independent yet, but I was working on a degree from the University of Jeromeville, and someday I would be.

January 8, 1995. Let her be.

Today was one of those days where I had to turn the windshield wipers on and off multiple times.  I wish the weather would just make up its mind sometimes. It rained hard enough for a few minutes that I needed to have the wipers on all the way, then the rain tapered off into showers requiring only intermittent wipers.  Then it was dry for a few minutes, and when the wipers started making an irritating squeaky noise, I remembered to turn them off. Then, a few minutes later, it would start raining again, and I would start the whole cycle again.  Of course, the trip from Plumdale to Jeromeville involved driving over hills and across valleys, which also accounts for part of the reason the weather changed so much.

This was now my fifth time making this trip since beginning classes at UJ.  I was learning these roads enough to know where I was and what was coming next.  Highway 11 north from Plumdale north to San Tomas. That usually took about 45 minutes.  Then north on Highway 6, through East San Tomas and Irving, and over a big hill. The highway winds east through the hills, and then north through the outer suburbs of San Tomas and Bay City.  After a city called Marquez, Highway 6 passes through an industrial area on the shore of the Capital River. The river at this point is over a mile wide, and the bridge is very high, because of bluffs on either side of the river and ships passing underneath.  The bridge is narrow, just barely wide enough for three lanes in each direction, with no shoulder and a narrow concrete barrier in the middle. It was built in 1962 when traffic was much lighter.

Across the bridge is an industrial area on the outskirts of the town of North Marquez.  The highway continues north for another ten miles, with hills on the left and a marshy grassland on the right, before merging with eastbound Highway 100.  Somewhere around there, I heard a song on the radio that I had never heard before. At first I thought it sounded like Pearl Jam, but I quickly realized that the singer, although having some similar vocal mannerisms to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, clearly was not him.  This guy had more of a soulful bluesy sound, and the melody wasn’t dark and angsty like a Pearl Jam song. It was more like folksy pop-rock, but with still a little bit of an Eddie Vedder sound to the vocals. Kind of like a Pearl Jam of the South, if such a thing could exist.  “And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be,” the singer who was not Eddie Vedder sang. That line stuck out in my mind all day. I would have to find out what this Pearl Jam of the South was called.

I drove northeast through Fairview and Nueces, but took a little side trip instead of continuing straight to Jeromeville.  A sign on the east side of Nueces says “TRAFFIC ALERT AM 1610,” with flashing yellow lights on top, and for the first time I saw the flashing lights on.  I tried turning my radio to AM 1610 to hear the TRAFFIC ALERT, but there were power lines nearby, and the radio was mostly picking up static. I panicked, wanting to avoid this TRAFFIC ALERT at all costs, so I could hurry up and get back to Building C and, more importantly, pee.  I was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold it much longer, and I didn’t want to stay stuck in traffic.

Because I liked to read maps, I was pretty sure I could get back to UJ on back roads from here.  So I turned onto Pittman Road and then east on Grant Road, through nut tree orchards and cow pastures and tomato fields.  Grant Road eventually became West Fifth Street on the outskirts of Jeromeville, and I headed back to Building C the usual way from there.

What I did not realize at the time is that those TRAFFIC ALERT signs are not alerting me to any traffic in or near Jeromeville.  About 40 miles east of Jeromeville, Highway 100 begins climbing into some very high mountains, and this time of year, snow often affects driving conditions.  Each of these TRAFFIC ALERT signs is attached to a low-power radio station, the one I tried to turn on but couldn’t get clearly, and the radio stations play a recorded message about winter driving conditions in the mountains.  Carry chains in case of changing weather conditions. Chains required from such-and-such point to such-and-such point. Highway closed. Stuff like that. In the 21st century, there are electronic message boards that serve this purpose, but this technology had not yet implemented by the state Department of Transportation in 1995.  It doesn’t snow anywhere near Plumdale, and I didn’t grow up taking trips to the snow, so I had no concept that the TRAFFIC ALERT was about this and not a giant traffic jam approaching Jeromeville. I figured I would rather take about 10 minutes longer to get home than risk getting stuck in traffic.

I called Mom as soon as I got home.  “Hi, it’s me,” I said. “I’m home. It took a little longer because I took a side trip to avoid traffic–”

“You’re home?” Mom said, interrupting me.

“Yes–”

“And you’re safe?”  Mom sounded like she had been crying.

“Yes… what’s going on?”

“You weren’t in an accident on the bridge?”

“What?  Bridge? What are you talking about?”

“I was listening to the traffic report on the Bay City news station, to see if you were going to hit any traffic on your trip home, and I heard there was a really bad accident on the Marquez Bridge–”

“Really, Mom?  You hear there’s an accident, and you just assume it’s me?”

“I just knew it was you,” Mom replied, clearly in tears.  “I’ve been terrified this whole time. They said a car almost went over the bridge.  It ran into a truck. And there was a big pile-up behind it. You didn’t see or hear about any of this?”

“It must have been right behind me.  I didn’t have any traffic at all crossing the bridge.”

“I’m so glad you’re safe.  I need to call Grandma and tell her you’re ok.”

“Seriously, though.  Thousands of people cross that bridge every day.  You hear about one accident, and you just know it was me?  You don’t have a lot of faith in my driving skills.”

“I worry about you.  You know that.”

“I do.  But I also wish you would treat me as an adult.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “It’s just what I do.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your first class?  You start tomorrow, right?”

“Math, at 8 in the morning.  Again.”

“Do you know anyone who is in your class?”

“I haven’t asked.”

“Well, I’m glad you got home safely.  Enjoy your first day of classes tomorrow.  Just think; you’ve been through one quarter of college classes already, so you know what to expect.”

“True.”

“I’ll talk to you later.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and went to get lunch… or, more accurately, Sunday brunch.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the dining commons was not open for breakfast, and during lunch time, they served “brunch” instead.  Students often stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights and did not eat breakfast the following mornings; at least that was my guess as to why the schedule was different on weekends.  I didn’t see many familiar faces at brunch. For that matter, I didn’t see many faces at all. The dining commons was mostly empty. Most students were probably waiting until the last minute to return to the dorms.

I spent my afternoon being lazy.  I wrote some emails to a few girls I had been talking to online.  I read some Usenet newsgroups and got on an IRC chat for a while. I took a nap.  I played Tetris and Sim City, during which I heard footsteps and voices outside. More people were returning from the holidays.

The dining commons was open normally for dinner on Sundays, and it was much more full than it had been at brunch earlier in the day.  I chose a chicken patty sandwich and got French fries to go with it. I looked around and saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, and Liz at a table with a few empty seats, so I sat with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said.

“How was your break?” Taylor asked.  “Did you do anything special?”

“The usual, pretty much,” I replied.  “I was with my family for Christmas. My aunt and her family were visiting.  I spent New Year’s with some friends from high school. It was good to see them.”

“I bet it was,” Liz said.

“What did you guys do?” I asked.

“I went to see my grandparents in Washington,” Pete said.  “That was a lot of time in the car, but it was fun.”

“I was back home in Ralstonville,” Sarah said.  “And my boyfriend and I broke up.”

“Aww.”  Liz looked at Sarah, her face conveying serious concern.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  It was hard, but it needed to happen.  It’s the best for both of us. He was definitely getting in the way of my relationship with God.”

I had never heard anyone give that reason for breaking up.  What exactly did that mean? Maybe it has something to do with that Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that everyone else at this table was part of.  If Sarah said that her boyfriend was getting in the way of her relationship with God, that sounded to me like she was saying he was a bad influence on her in some way.  If that was the case, then this breakup was probably a good thing in the long run, even if it was difficult now. I did not say any of these thoughts out loud, though, because relationships and breakups weren’t anything I had ever experienced personally, so I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“So apparently there was an accident on the Marquez Bridge this morning,” I said.

“I heard about that!” Liz said.  “It was on the news. A car hit a truck and almost fell off the bridge!  Did you see it happen?”

“No.  It happened right after I drove across, apparently.  I didn’t see anything unusual on the bridge But when I got back to the dorm, I called my mom, and apparently she had heard about the accident and just assumed it was me.  It’s like she has no faith in my driving abilities; she hears of an accident in the vague area where I am, and she just knows I was in it.”

“That’s kind of sweet of her to care like that, though,” Sarah reminded me.

“But she doesn’t respect me as an adult.  She worries about me too much.”

“Yeah.  But that’s what moms do.  You shouldn’t get mad at her.  Just let her be.”

“I guess.”

Just let her be, I thought.  Like it says in that song by Pearl Jam of the South.  Yes, it was true that Mom could be a little annoying in the way that she worries about me and doesn’t let me be independent.  That was the reason I never considered applying to Mom’s alma mater, San Tomas State. I was worried that, with Mom less than an hour away, she wouldn’t give me a chance to grow up on my own.  But, as Sarah said, this was all perfectly normal behavior for a mother. Mothers, at least the good ones, worry about their children because they love their children and want them to be safe. And I knew that I should be thankful to have parents who cared enough about me to send me to the University of Jeromeville, and to help pay for what my academic scholarship didn’t cover.  Not everyone gets opportunities like that.

After a few more hours of playing around on the computer, I went to sleep, thinking about how fortunate I was to be in this position, and hoping to find a balance between getting to be independent but still having a healthy relationship with my parents.  And that song by Pearl Jam of the South was stuck in my head, with that one line repeating over and over again since I didn’t know the rest of the song very well. And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.