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  • Susan Waller Lehmann

Road to Nowhere


One day in mid-March 2004, I had to drive north to Lineville, Alabama, to serve record and appearance subpoenas to the owner of a cabinet shop. This was the first work I’d set out to do since a week-long bout with the flu. The sun was shining and the temperature was in the low 60’s. When I pulled onto Highway 9 North out of Wetumpka, I felt as though I’d been released from a dark cave. I cranked up Sirius Disorder on satellite radio and got into the drive. There was great music playing. I felt carefree and happy.

According to my mapping program – GPS was not a commonly available service at this time – it was 79 miles from my house to the cabinet shop. I had spent a leisurely morning at home, doing some light housework and playing a few computer card games. I had left the house at around noon, and thought I’d arrive at the cabinet shop at about 1:30 or so. I wanted to miss the lunchtime exodus, if there was one, but not be too late arriving in the afternoon. I thought that even if I had a bit of a delay in Lineville, I could be back home by 4 at the latest. My husband was out of town and my 18-year-old daughter wouldn’t be home until nearly 6 p.m. I thought I would take her out for dinner that night. It was a day that was completely mine.

I had virtually no phone signal as I drove on the rural highway. Towns were small and separated by acres and acres of pine and oak trees. There was little traffic and I was able to maintain a steady 55 mph. I had little on my mind as I moved along in my pretty little Volkswagen Jetta. The sunroof was opened several inches to allow fresh air in, but not enough to mess up my hair. I had bought the brand-new car two years earlier, when I realized I didn’t need to haul around kids any longer. The Jetta was a dark gray, 4 door sedan with black leather seats. It was a beauty. I washed it by hand every week.

Shortly after I crossed under US Highway 280 I had to stop at the traffic light in Kellyton. I sat there, the sole car at the intersection, and realized this was the first red light I’d caught. I glanced at my watch. I was making excellent time. I resumed the posted speed moments after the light changed. I was just a few miles from the town of Goodwater.

Suddenly a flash of something caught my eye. I felt a jolt, a loud, booming thump. The car shuddered and groaned around me.

What the hell?

Something big flew off to my left.

I slammed my brakes and pulled to the side of the road. The car shuddered and skidded to a stop on the rough rock scattered just off the pavement.

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

I fought hysteria.

Breathe.

Think.

I turned off the radio.

What did I hit? Oh my God…

I clenched the steering wheel.

I hope to God it wasn’t a person. Or a kid.

Oh my God.

I looked around slowly. A fine hairline crack ran across the windshield. The hood of my car was crumpled. My heart pounded and I was terrified. What had I hit? I unlatched the seat belt. I pulled up on the door handle but the door would not open. I pressed my shoulder into the door. It wouldn’t budge. I pressed the window button. I heard the sound of the small motor, but the window remained closed.

My mind raced. I felt a huge pressure in my body. I realized I was panting.

I’m trapped.

Panic brewed in my gut.

Breathe.

I forced myself to take deep breaths. I tried the door again. The car rocked with my efforts. The door was immovable. I continued to breathe deeply; I needed to stay calm. As my pulse slowed, I noticed a tuft of animal hair sticking out of the crumpled hood. There were splatters of blood on the windshield and the hood of the car.

A deer. I’ve hit a deer. That was what I saw.

I looked around but did not see an animal. I studied the woods to the left, across four highway lanes. A dead deer would be laying in the road. A wounded deer would have sped off into the woods to die. I took my phone out of the console. I had just one signal bar. I tried to make a call but it failed. Of course.

I knew I would have to get out of the car.

Several vehicles blew by me. A guy in a pickup truck slowed but when I tried to wave him down, he sped off to the south.

“Shit,” I muttered as I began to look for the flashers. I realized that I should put them on. Maybe someone would stop to help me. Flashers, flashers, where are they? Just as I thought I’d need to pull out the owner’s manual, I saw the big button, right in front of me. I pushed it. Instantly the hazard lights began to flash on the dashboard. I hope they’re blinking outside.

I pulled up my right leg and thrust it over the transmission gear into the wheel well of the passenger side. I hoisted the rest of my body into the seat. I moved carefully. I didn’t want to either hurt myself or rip my pants. That would figure. I hoped like hell that the passenger door would open. A felt another wave of panic roll over me.

What if I’m trapped in here? What if the door won’t open? What if no one stops to help me?

And the worst thought yet: No one knows where I am. A tear rolled down my face. Don’t cry. Just breathe.

I wondered if I could crawl out of the sunroof if the passenger door wouldn’t open. I wasn’t certain I could maneuver into the back seat because the two front seats were only a few inches apart and the headrests came close to the sunroof. I had my phone in my hand as I pulled on the door handle.

The door opened.

Immense relief flooded me as I got out of the car and stood on the pavement. I walked around the car. The hood was crumpled and the left front fender was smashed. The panel over the front left tire was damaged, and the driver’s door was badly dented. I was surprised the window hadn’t broken with the impact. The left headlight was broken and bloody. Another clump of deer hair hung from a shard of glass. But aside from the hairline crack, the windshield was amazingly intact. The flashers were on in the back, and on the front right side.

I had two bars of signal. I dialed my husband. He answered on the third ring.

“Hello, darling,” he whispered. He was in a meeting in Washington, DC.

“I’m in trouble. I’ve had an accident,” I said, as evenly as possible, struggling to keep panic out of my voice. The phone went dead. I looked at it. There were no bars. Great. I walked around the car, but I had lost the signal. I opened the passenger door again and stepped up onto the door frame so that I would be taller than the car. After an agonizing five seconds three signal bars appeared on the phone. As I dialed Peter, he called back.

“Bad signal area?”

“I’m standing on top of the car,” I exaggerated. I gave him the details and included the part about not being able to open the driver’s side door.

“Are you alright?” he asked gently.

“Yes, I’m okay.”

“You’re not hurt? Is your neck okay?”

I turned my head from side to side. “I think I’m okay.”

“Did the airbag deploy?”

I bent down and looked into the car. “No. Surprisingly, it did not.”

“How fast were you going?”

“55. I’m coming into a town and was about to start slowing. The bag should have deployed, right?”

“Maybe. But only if you were hit within the sensor areas. Can you start the car?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Was there any steam coming out of the hood?”

“No.”

“Look under the car. Do you see anything leaking, like oil or fluid?”

“Hold on.” I placed the phone on the roof of the car and stepped off the door frame. I bent down to look under the car. I had pulled off the road onto the grayed asphalt of the breakdown lane. The ground looked dry. I climbed back onto the car and picked up the phone.

“I don’t think I see any signs of oil or fluids.”

“Good. That’s good,” he paused. “Do you think you can get back into the car and try to start it?”

“I, uh… guess so. But I’ll have to crawl over to the driver’s side.”

“Oh, darling. I’m so sorry. Where, exactly, are you?”

“About 50 miles north of the house, on highway 9, just past the intersection of Kellyton and 280. I was headed to Lineville.”

“I’m not sure I even know where that’s at.”

“I’m about 15 minutes north of the turn off for Lake Martin,” I said.

“Alright. I’m going to call our insurance guy and see what you need to do. Go ahead and try to start the car, and I’ll call you back, okay?

“Yes.”

“I love you and I wish I was there to help you. I’m glad you’re okay. It could have been a lot worse.” More cars passed by as we spoke.

I got back into the Jetta and climbed into the driver’s seat. I put my foot on the brake and turned the key. The engine started. It ticked over quietly. No unusual mechanical noises assaulted my senses.

I was simultaneously relieved and terrified. I put the car in drive and took my foot off the brake. The car moved forward slowly. Nothing seemed wrong with the engine or the wheels. I turned off the engine and got back out of the car. I waited for Peter to call me back.

Minutes passed. Cars and trucks drove by me. No one stopped to ask me why I, a middle-aged blonde woman, stood by the side of a highway, next to a car with the flashers on.

After eight years of living in Alabama I had grown skeptical of that romantic and too often quoted characteristic that all folks down here claimed as their own: Southern hospitality.

At that moment I knew it was a myth.

When Peter called back he said that I didn’t need to have a police report for the insurance claim. I told him the car started right up, with no hesitation. He asked if the tires looked okay, and if the wheels or axle seemed to have been damaged. I told him about moving the car a few feet and there had been no unusual noises or behavior. I walked around the car again, bending down to look under the vehicle one more time. Everything appeared to be okay.

“Do you feel okay to drive home?” he asked.

“Is that what I have to do?”

“Yes. If the car is drivable, you need to take it home. You’re set up to bring it in for an estimate in Montgomery tomorrow.”

“I think I’m pretty close to the next town, Goodwater,” I said. “How about if I find a mechanic or a body shop and ask someone to take a look at it before I drive home?”

“That’s a great idea. I wish I was there to help you.”

“Me too,” I said. “But I think I’ve got this.”

I climbed back into the car and fastened my seat belt. I drove for a few minutes, slowly and well below the speed limit, to the town of Goodwater. I soon found an auto body and mechanic shop and pulled into the driveway.

I went into the business. The office was dark, so I walked through a doorway to the work area. I spied a man working under the hood of a truck.

“Hello,” I called.

He looked up.

“Hi,” I said. “Hi. Um, would you mind taking a look at my car? I’ve had a bit of an accident, and I’m a little worried about driving it back to Wetumpka.”

He wiped his hands slowly with a rag. “What happened?” he asked as we walked toward the office door. I told him the bare details. He whistled as he walked around the Jetta.

“Yes, ma’am, she got pretty banged up.” He took his ball cap off his head and wiped the sweat off his face with the dirty rag. “I saw you up there on 9, standing there, aside your vehicle.”

But didn’t stop to see if I needed help? I wanted to scream at him, but decided to be polite. I told him that I must have hit a large doe, but that I didn’t see her.

“Yes, ma’am. I see the hair she left. You didn’t see her though?”

“No, I she must have run off into the woods.”

“Do you know which way she went?”

As if that really matters. I thought for a moment and visualized the accident. “I was headed north. I think I saw her come from the woods on the east side of 9, and ran right in front of me until we collided on the driver’s side. She must have gone into the woods on the west side.”

He pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it. “I’m gonna go back up there after I leave out of here and go see if I can find her,” he said. “That would be some good meat.”

For some reason this annoyed me. I was ready to get out of there. “So, what do you think? Do you think the engine is okay to drive home?”

“Man, if you was my wife I’d tell you to park that car and get another ride home,” he said. “Where’s your husband?” He looked me up and down.

“He’s away on business.”

“That car ain’t safe to drive. You can leave it here and we’ll get it fixed up for you. You can just call someone to come pick you up.”

“Hmm.” I didn’t have anyone I could call to rescue me that day. Peter was in Washington, DC. Jacob was in college, Danny was in the US Army, stationed in Germany. Michelle was either in school or at her job at a law office. I could not think of anyone who could come out to Goodwater, Alabama to pick me up. I certainly didn’t want to leave my car there. I glanced at my phone. I didn’t have any service.

“I think I’ll take my chances,” I said.

Stopping in Goodwater was a monumental waste of time. I wanted to believe the engine was fine, but I just didn’t know. I climbed back into the driver’s seat and took a deep breath befor

e I started the engine. It was a white-knuckle drive, but I made it home safely. It turned out the damage to the car was merely cosmetic. It was fixed within a couple of weeks. Once I had a loaner car I drove back up to Lineville and delivered those papers.

The incident served as a reminder to watch for things that fly through the air, and I learned the true meaning of Southern hospitality.

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©2017 BY SUSAN LEHMANN INVESTIGATIONS (SLI)