Every time I see the words "struck and killed a pedestrian" in a headline, the memory of a night 40 years ago comes back to me with cold clarity.
It happened again last week, for the fifth time in Tucson this year, after police Officer Chris Fenoglio struck and killed Steven Duane Rodgers, who was walking across Speedway.
Fenoglio was answering a call. His lights were flashing. His siren was wailing.
Rodgers was wearing dark clothes. He was not in a crosswalk.
I know too well what it feels like to experience such a tragedy.
When I was 16, I had a job working as a carryout at Lucky's grocery store at 22nd Street and Craycroft. It was late and my shift was over. The store manager flipped on the closed sign. I hung up my green apron and jumped into my pinstriped Rambler.
Pulling out of the parking lot, I slipped Carole King into my eight-track and headed home. She sang to me.
I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
I wound through the dark back streets and turned onto 29th. There were no streetlights.
He was walking home in the dark from his neighborhood tavern. We never saw each other coming.
With the suddenness of a Hitchcock fright he appeared in my headlights in the middle of the street, striding toward me. I gasped and wrenched the steering wheel right.
I was too late.
With a slamming thunk I sliced into him. In one horrifying instant my eyes met his as he rolled up onto my hood.
I skidded. He rolled off my windshield and tumbled into the darkness behind me. I leapt out of my car and my childhood leapt out of my throat.
I ran back into the dark to where he lay in the middle of the street, surrounded by the strangers who had been in the car behind me.
"I'm a nurse," the voice in the dark said, "You should stay where you are."
I could smell the alcohol and the blood. I sat on the curb and listened to him faintly coughing. Sirens and uniforms came into the nightmare. Traffic cones were set and lights flashed.
I cupped my hands over my face and pleaded with heaven.
A cop asked me if I'd had anything to drink. He tossed a coin toward the ground to see if I was capable of picking it up.
I caught it before it hit the asphalt.
I looked across the street and saw my parents talking to the police. When did they show up? Who called them?
My mother made tearful eye contact with me. They just stood there, shocked by the unreal horror of the scene.
You have the right to remain silent. You're coming downtown.
I sat next to him in his squad car, frozen with panic, fear and guilt. When we crossed the bridge over the the rail yard on 22nd Street the police radio crackled. I could hear the EMTs describing the injuries with a tone of desperation as they rushed him to the hospital. Broken legs. Massive internal injuries.
Oh my God. What have I done?
The cop told me he probably shouldn't say this to me but he'd seen this kind of thing before.
It wasn't your fault, kid. Dark night. No crosswalk.
At TPD the detective asked the questions detectives ask. A cop came in with a large transparent bag that contained shreds of his clothes and his shoes. They were soaked in blood.
I stared at that blood.
I went home and couldn't sleep. I was a phantom chained to a horrible moment that looped over and over again.
Eventually I went back to school. Sitting in class I heard my name over the intercom.
Please report to the office. A detective wants to see you, Mr. Fitzsimmons.
Was I going to be arrested? In the principal's office the detective told me the news.
It's about the man you hit. He died.
I couldn't speak.
Charges are unlikely. Terrible thing. It wasn't your fault, kid.
Word spread through my high school that I had "killed a man." The halls fell silent and the day turned cold. In the cafeteria I carried my lunch tray to the table where my friends were waiting with macabre curiosity. They stared at me.
Finally Richard asked, "What does it feel like to kill a man?" J.J. snapped at him for asking the question.
I had no answer. I walked out.
My guilty Rambler was parked in front of our house. For the first time since the accident, I saw the dents in the front of the hood. One of the smaller dents was in the shape of a man's open palm. I could see the faint shadow of his fingerprints.
I could bear no more.
I learned that I had killed him in front of his own home. I called his widow. I needed to face her and beg forgiveness.
My parents thought I was out of my mind. A woman who sounded like a grandmother answered the phone. She told me she wanted to meet with me as well.
I went to the small house and knocked on the weathered door. A small white-haired woman appeared. My knees buckled. I fell before her and she bent down, embraced me and calmly invited me in.
A Bible was on the coffee table between us. Behind her I saw a wall of family pictures.
And there it was. His gentle face.
She told me about his life and her grief and their faith. I told her about my remorse and my sorrow.
He'd had a good and meaningful life. She demanded I strive for no less.
Forgiveness, she said. That was the key.