Two state troopers broke the news about Uncle Ron’s death. They knocked on our door and said there was an automotive accident and he was dead. According to them, alcohol was involved. Now, to me, that immediately made sense. Uncle Ron had 3 DUIs and was a football fan and it was a Sunday night in November when most of the adult male world was slightly buzzed and worn out from drinking all day and yelling at the TV as it switched from game to game. But, Uncle Ron had been made to give up drinking by Aunt Paula. She drank herself, but had no DUIs and didn’t watch football or go to bars. She was the acceptable type of drunk: the one that stayed home and didn’t bother anyone.
My mom, who had answered the door, told the troopers, as they stood on the porch, it couldn’t have been Ron, her older brother, for that reason; Ron had given up drinking. Therefore, he couldn’t be involved in any alcohol-related incident. But they assured her it was Ron (they had found his suspended license in his wallet). There was no doubt.
My mother moaned aloud about the difficult task that would fall to her of telling Paula about Ron. She didn’t question why the troopers had come to her first, because she knew Ron had listed her as his emergency contact in his hospital file. She had protested at first, of course, because no one anywhere wants to be an emergency contact and have to live in fear for the rest of their days of answering unknown phone numbers as they might be notifications of emergencies you have to deal with. I never answered unknown phone numbers for precisely this reason; I thought someone might have deceived me somewhere along the way and made me their emergency contact and I wanted nothing to do with any bad news. But Ron could not be persuaded otherwise, his emergency contact would have to be my mom; Paula couldn’t be trusted. Why? – my mom had asked. She’s a drunk – Ron had answered.
My mom continued to scream and flail and berate the sun-glassed troopers for their mistake, for her Ron, the repeatedly convicted drunk driver, could never have gotten behind a wheel drunk, because he had promised her, solemnly, that he, due to Paula’s behest, had given up drinking for good. The very thought of Ron breaking that promise and driving intoxicated was unthinkably heretical. The troopers rebutted that she misunderstood - Ron wasn’t driving a car. He was on foot - they explained.
And as if the story had been reversed and Ron was now alive, my mother’s sobs sublimated into teary yelps of pleasure. Ron hadn’t broken his vow; he had remained a devout promise keeper immune to the satanic temptation of drunken automobile operation. It was a win, and in times of loss, we look for wins. My mom had lost her only brother, had yet to tell his wife of his death, but Ron had stayed true, and she stood at the front door smiling at the hefty troopers as if they were telling her she had just won the sweepstakes and she could hardly contain her joy.
But then that joy was struck from her mind by a simpler, more satisfying emotion: Revenge. Who was to blame? Who had run over her precious Ronnie, the valiant martyr who had died with his honor intact? How dare the world be so ironic as to punish a reformed drunk driver by having him run over by one without quite as much fortitude as to kick the habit. Names! – my mother cried. Give me the names of the guilty! Who had committed this atrocity and cut short her big brother Ronnie’s chance to show just how far he had come in his redemption? How drunk was this scoundrel? Exactly how drunk?
The troopers waited patiently until my mom calmed down. The driver wasn't drunk - one of them said.
And my mother’s knowing face then screwed into acceptance, like it was looking in on itself, towards a truth that it knew all along. It was Sunday, of course, and what with church and family dinners and blue plate specials, it was surely elderly, decrepit road terrorists who had taken her beloved, reformed Ronnie. Where are these old coots that ran him over!? - she clamored, grabbing at the green, stiff fabric of the trooper’s uniform. She wanted mug shots of the aged faces that had turned deadly in their later years, refusing to acknowledge their inability to drive a car with a minimum measure of safety. She wanted the troopers to draw out a map on how to get to the spot of road where the ancient seniors ran down her big brother. But, they could show no such pictures and draw no such map. Uncle Ron was not ran over in the street and it wasn’t old people - they explained.
Exasperated, but probably just confused, my mother reached further into herself to explain away the pain of knowing with short placations of anger and hate. It was a state of mind that people fall helplessly into, spending fruitless minutes telling things to others when they are the ones who need to be told. For, now, it became a malicious act of homicide. Her loving brother had been out for a gentle Sunday stroll, pulling in lungfuls of healthy suburban air, when a carload of horny, stoned, thrill-seeking teenagers had purposefully ran her Ronnie down in an act of depraved, cold-blooded murder. I hope you give them all the chair! – she shrieked, as she glanced backwards at me, then a teenager, as if I were the leader of the murderous gang, marauding all over town in a death-mobile, running over clean and sober power-walkers. If my generation was guilty, I was complicit.
But, no - the troopers said - he wasn’t walking anywhere. It wasn’t teenagers.
Running out of emotions, my mom’s eyes dropped to the floor, hoping to at least hold back her sense of surprise or sympathy, in case they were needed for the truth. Mercifully, she finally just asked - What happened, then?
Uncle Ron had been at a bar watching football, just like made sense. He was drunk, just like made sense. The bartender cut him off and then kicked him out after Uncle Ron got into a loud argument with another man over payment of a bet that never existed. Ron promptly staggered across the busy street in front of the bar, dodging a heavy dose of deadly traffic, to a convenience store. He picked out a case of cheap beer and went to the register to pay for it, which was when he realized he had no money in his pockets due to bets that had existed. Ron slowly meandered out of the store, cursing himself, with his empty front pockets still extended, inside-out, from his jeans.
My mother listened to the troopers without expression, like a patient enduring a dentist’s work, secluding herself upon a vantage point where she could listen to the truth and deny it all at once. From behind my mother, I eagerly looked to the troopers, searching for their hidden eyes behind the tinted shades, trying to anticipate what happened next. Trying to discern how Ron had died on such a pointless day.
Then the troopers said - Uncle Ron was run over by a beer truck in a convenience store parking lot.
This was before my own days of football watching and beer drinking and when death seemed like something terrible, some horrible affliction that descended upon the unworthy. I was quite sure I would never die, but if I did, it wouldn’t be when I was drunk, or sober, or hit by a beer truck, or on a Sunday. When I died, it would mean something.
The story went that a beer truck had been parked parallel to the convenience store, making a delivery. Ron hid behind a parked car and waited for the lone worker to push a dolly-full of beer cases into the store and then sprung into action. He climbed into the open truck bed and got choosy, hovering over the pristine stacks of beer in all different shades and flavors. He made his choice and then hopped down from the truck, new acquisition tucked under his arm. His askew equilibrium blew the landing and sent him crashing to the ground and his treasured cargo split open. He frantically gathered up the escapees of his twelve-pack as they rolled in every direction. Like a child, once he gathered them, he lined them up in a row, in the hidden spot behind the parked car, and counted his loot. After five full counts to make sure he wasn’t nuts, only drunk, he had eleven beers. One was missing.
He stood up and saw that the beer truck’s hatch was still open. He could have hopped back up and grabbed a new case, but he felt an attachment to the beer he had already taken. Drunks have an indomitable need to drink every drop of the liquor that is theirs. Getting a different case, or simply leaving with only eleven out of the twelve, was out of the question. Ron crouched down low, head bobbing from side to side, looking for a faint glimmer of the silver, runaway can of beer. He spotted a small glint under the truck. He laid onto his elbows and serpentined his way forward, under the truck, and spotted the silvery bit of aluminum against the back-right, doubled wheel of the truck: it was his missing beer. Hand extended, he dragged himself forward on the rough pavement, until his entire body was obscured by the truck. The truck’s driver saw nothing when he exited the store. He threw the dolly inside, pulled down the door to the trailer, started up the truck, put it in gear, and felt a tiny bump as he hit the gas.
The troopers couldn’t be sure when it happened, before or after Ron’s head had been squished by the massive tires of the semi, but the beer he had chased was open. It’s possible that the tires also hit the beer can and popped it open, but, let’s be honest, I know as well as the troopers knew and my mom knew and Paula would know that the last thing Ron did with his life was enjoy a beer in the darkened shade of the underside of a truck.