On the Saturday night before Christmas, a little past midnight, I was driving home from a dinner party. I was on the Pasadena Freeway, heading north through Highland Park, and listening to the radio, poking along at a moderate speed in the middle lane, when I noticed a man in the left lane beside me trying to squirm out of the passenger window of a white sedan.

I thought, What is he doing?

He had short brown hair, pale skin, and wore an ivory-colored windbreaker. And he was pointing insistently at a red sedan in the right lane.

The mind, trying to make sense of such things, slows down, so that the clumsiness of its workings are revealed: In this case, I observed myself trying to come up with the correct description of what was going on:

Oh, a frat-house prank.

But it looks dangerous.

He looks like an eel coming out of a hole.

Those frat boys shouldn’t mess around like that.

They must be drunk.

Why is he pointing like that?

He should be careful or he’ll fall out.

Why is he pointing like that?

Why is he pointing like that?

Not wanting to be in the middle of whatever it was, I instinctively slowed down, but then the white car fell back too, out of sight. The red car careened on, in and out of lanes, but the overall flow of traffic impeded its progress.

Then the white car was alongside me again, and this time the man was out of the window from the waist up, his left elbow on the top of the car like a stunt guy in a movie, although he looked far more awkward than any director would allow.

I saw then that he was not a young man, but in his 30s or 40s, and I also saw that he was not just pointing at the red car, but pointing a gun, a short, small black gun at the red car. Pointing and aiming.

My mind resumed its struggle to understand.

Oh, some older, sleazy guy.

A card game or deal gone really bad.

He means business. And the person driving means the same business.

And the red car knows it.

I reached for my cell phone and dutifully punched in 911, but it was a new cell phone and I ended up on some screen menu. I gave up, because I needed to concentrate and also because I knew from experience that when calling 911 there’s always some rigmarole, and it can be several minutes before you get through to a dispatcher, and this, whatever it was, was happening too fast for that.

I was a witness to a shooting about three years ago, and was held up at gunpoint about 20 years ago, and both times, I was so surprised, so stunned, so amazed to find myself in the middle of such events, I couldn’t, when asked later on, even begin to identify the attackers. To my own surprise, I made a terrible witness. But because of those previous episodes, I consciously wanted to be a better witness and recognized that here was a chance to become one. Here was the opportunity to be present, aware, to wake up from whatever solipsistic stupor I naturally inhabit and take note — clear, accurate note — of what was going on around me.

I looked for a license number, but the white car was too far ahead for me to make out the digits. While I didn’t really want to get in the middle, or even any closer, I sped up. Whether this came from wanting to do my duty as a citizen, or to continue to partake in the intensity of the moment, I can’t exactly say. There’s a childish self-importance in actually seeing such drama unfold, though it’s coupled with an equally strong impulse to steer clear, and a pervasive sense of unreality. The mind has resorted to denial: What is he pointing at? And even when I’m actually seeing a gun, I’m doubting it: Guns aren’t black, I think, even as I know better. (During the previous shooting I witnessed, I thought, “Why is that man throwing firecrackers at that other man?”) The mind rejects horror reflexively, or my mind does. Although it’s possible that the hallucinatory unrealness of such heightened circumstances is partly what allows them to happen.

I couldn’t quite get close enough to see the white car’s plate. Really, you have to get pretty close. Too close.

The red car suddenly swerved off the freeway and up an off-ramp.

The white car promptly cut in front of me and followed the red car off the freeway, and the last I saw of them, they were both on the ramp, paused at the stop sign, a car in between them. Ironic, I thought: Here they are trying to kill one another and simultaneously obeying the laws of traffic.

Then I was past them. Out of it. For a moment, I had been in the middle of something. Now I would never know what, if anything, happened. And if something did happen, I had nothing to offer about it. I hadn’t seen the name of the exit the two cars took. I hadn’t successfully read a license plate; I couldn’t identify either car make. I could be no use to the police.

I was left instead with how fallible the perceptions are, how easily bewildered the mind, how approximate its assessments.

I still wonder what that man and his driver were so angry about. What makes a person want to kill another person — and endanger so many innocent people in the process? What makes a person not even care about being seen while engaged in such actions? How had the gunman been worked up into — or habituated into — the practice of such unabashed violence?

But that night, after the fact, as my adrenaline level began to drop, my fear shifted from the heightened physical state to a jangled, disturbing emotion.

I picked up my cell phone and called friends who had been at the party I’d left, who I knew would be awake. They were watching television, they said, still in a food coma from dinner. Their voices, cheerful and then concerned, calmed me down and, most important, called me back into the world I usually inhabit — that civilized, beautiful and fragile state governed by law and, miraculously, general goodwill.

—Michelle Huneven

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