The Most Beautiful Place on Earth
I’m blinded by the light as I approach my driveway. I barely see the sheriff’s deputies as they surround my car. I hear a scream and a heart deep wail and do not realize it is coming from me until my daughter wraps her arms around me. She tells me to breathe deeply and I do until the hammer inside my chest pounds a little less. I must keep on convincing myself that I am good in a crisis.
On Clear Ridge, overlooking Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, the high-tide pounds the rocks and the surf redefines the ocean floor. It is the hottest day of summer. It is nine o’clock at night and there is no sign of an evening breeze. The air is heavy and dry. We fear for fire in the parched mountain meadows. The lethargic crickets have given up on their nightly mating hysteria, save a few whose legs clap to a slower beat.
The fat police man stands back and a younger softly spoken one approaches me. “Do you know where he might be hiding?” He asks. I choke back vomit in my throat. “I think so.” I tell him. “Where?” He waits while I answer. “I know the house. I can show it to you from the upstairs window.” “Can you direct us to it?” “No. I can point it out to you. It is across on the next mountain.” “Can you come with us while we search for him?” Another police man interrupts. “We need her to help identify the body. Can someone else show us where this house is?”
A neighbor comes over to my house and meets me and the friendly policeman. The neighbor speaks Spanish. This will be useful later on. The neighbor gives me his car keys. I’ll need his car when I pick up the mother and bring her home. The neighbor goes on the hunt with the policeman.
“Is she okay?” I ask the policeman I follow down the stairs to the waiting car.” How can she be okay?” He almost yells at me. “She’s dead.” I know. I mean to ask him if her body is intact. Is she mashed to a pulp? What am I to expect? There is no point explaining this to this man who looks like he could have young children of his own. His job must be painful tonight.
My 20-year-old daughter wants to come with me. I say no. I tell her someone needs to be by the phone. No one will call. No one knows what has happened.
It’s a day or so yet before the full moon. Luminescent waves ride to shore. On any other night this scene would be beautiful. Tonight the brightest light is the search-light mounted on a bare metal tripod. It lights up the mountainside giving meaning to the phrase cold light of day.
Tucked into the side of the single-lane dirt road half way up the mountain is the mother’s car. She sits half in and half out of the passenger seat. Her friend with whom she has spent the day sits rocking her own two-year old in her arms. The mother whimpers until she sees me. I kneel beside the open door and cradle the heavy sobbing woman who cannot speak English but chants “Jacqueline, our Jacqueline,” over and over. Eventually I cry too – only a little this time. I’m good in a crisis. My turn will come later.
Latex-gloved, white-masked and overall-clad men descend the mountain guided by the search and rescue team. Two men carry a stretcher. They arrive at the over-turned red truck – the red truck driven by the father. The red truck abandoned by the father with the dead body of his eight year old daughter crushed beneath it. “Mam? It’s time.” Another white-masked man speaks softly to me. “Do you think you could take the mother away please? We need to bring the body up.” “Of course.” Horrific though I know it will be I want to stay and watch Jacqueline come back up the mountain. Perhaps I don’t believe she’s dead. I scoop the wailing mother into my arms and with the help of a policeman, lead her up to the car I will drive her in the quarter of a mile up to our home.
Mother, father and daughter, Jacqueline, lived on my property. Mother and father were my caretakers, and I took care of Jacqueline, our sort-of shared daughter, much of the time.
It is the day after the accident. The father will not be found for another couple of days when after much persuasion from a few of us who locate him will convince him to turn himself in to the police.
On this day after the accident I sit on a rock waiting by the Sherriff’s car on the edge of the mountain where the truck went over. The sheriff has descended the mountain side to an area strewn with empty beer bottles and a child’s clothes. Jacqueline was found naked. There will be a simple explanation for this. When the sheriff returns with a sack of evidence and shorts and tee-shirts and underwear and a few toys – “yes” I say. They were her clothes. I washed those shorts last Saturday.
When his work is done, the sheriff sits with me for a while in silence. He is our local sheriff and he cares. “Funny,” I say to him, “Jacqueline and I always stopped at this point to look at the ocean on our walks to the beach, and she died here. She used to say to me each time we passed by “This is the most beautiful place on earth, huh?”