The accident report for that night got processed the next afternoon. It was filed away somewhere and then, when the files were converted to computer a few years later, it probably got thrown out. But I have a photocopy. Mario made it for me.
"Is there something wrong with it?" I asked when I got the report back in my mail.
"No, it's fine." Mario growled.
"So why do I have it back?"
"That's not the original. 'Sa copy."
"Copy, original, who cares? Why do I want it?"
"I just thought you might, is all."
I stared at him until he looked up from his console.
"Some people like to, you know, keep them. Especially when they turn out good."
"Keep accident reports?" That was maybe the most morbid thing I'd ever heard.
"Hey, just the first ones, OK?" Mario protested. "You don't ever forget your first one. Where you're the primary, you know, the only one on the scene. And everything works out good. That's a nice thing to have, sometimes."
Mario looked away from me, decided he was explaining too much. "You don't want it, give it back. Here, give it'a me. I got a trash can right here…"
I stood there for a minute with the accident report and a fistful of administrative memos from the interoffice mail. Thinking about this strange tenet of blue religion. Thinking that police work has got to be the most sentimental of all the hard-ass, don't-care professions out there. Imagine keeping mementoes even of 'the one you never forget.' Doubling up on the good memories to balance out all the bad ones that you couldn't get out of your head, no matter how hard you tried.
"No," I said finally, "That's ok. I'll keep it. Whatever."
I stuffed the accident report in a folder and put the folder in my locker. And by the time I left the Newark Transport Police, that folder was pretty thick. I didn't look at it much, but it was there. The collection of all the ones that worked out OK, beginning with my first. On the day I went to clear out my locker, I pulled out Charles's report—I never could think of him as Charlie.
Mario wasn't working the dispatch desk that day. If it had been someone I knew up there, I probably would have let it slide. But it was a new kid, practically an infant, just over from New York; I'd heard he was a whiz on computers, he hadn't heard anything about me. I told him I wanted to run a check on somebody's license, see if this guy had gotten into any trouble lately. Officially, this is not done, of course. Your records are your records and the police have to show 'reasonable need' before we can access them. Show reasonable need or know a computer shark from the Bronx.
The computer guy checked four different databases; "Nothing," he said, finally.
"No license with that number."
Aww, Christ. Charles had gone and driven himself off the road one too many times. Too busy thinking about people, and why we were more complicated than the most complicated math problem. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. You never forget your first one.
"What's the last accident listed for that license?" When had all that thinking caught up to him?
Bronx gave me a date; it matched the one on my accident report.
"Wait—there weren't any accidents after this one?" I asked.
He looked at me like maybe I was dumb as well as old. "Six accidents, total, listed under that number: two in California, one in Illinois, three here in Jersey. The last one on the date I just gave you."
"Then what happened?"
"Nothing." Bronx said again, slowly.
"Why did the number disappear?"
"It expired." He swiveled the computer monitor towards me, pointed out the dates. "The license expired, and the driver never renewed it."
In the NTSB database, you can see whether a licensee is deceased. A little red 'x' appears in their license history. It helps prevent ID fraud: you can't use your dead twin's license as your own photo ID, 'cause a scan on the license will show that he's dead. You'd be amazed at how many people try stuff like that.
There was no red x in the summary for Charles's license.
How badly would it freak Bronx out if I started crying right now? Or laughing? Or both at once? "So, since this accident ten years ago, the guy is alive and well and living in California?" I asked, as calmly as I could.
"Could be," Bronx shrugged, "but wherever he is, he sure ain't driving any more."
Endquote: "Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, evesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." (Walker Evans)
In the interests of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I know nothing about the Newark Transport Police, New Jersey or New York police procedures, the exact geography of the Meadowlands, car accident-processing, or the National Transportation Safety Board. That's only a brief list of the stuff I don't know anything about. Everything except the Numb3rs characters was made up from whole cloth. But I'd still really love to know what you think. And for those concerned about 'Hearing Voices,"--today I settle all family business.