Once, very early in the morning in San Diego, I heard a terrible crash as I stepped from a taxi onto the parkway in front of my apartment building. It was so close that I flinched, anticipating a spray of glass. I stepped back towards the street and looked down at the nearby world famous zoo. At the intersection there, I saw the steaming wreckage of two cars. One had plowed into the median, its front end now forked -- the iron trunk of a stoplight embedded deep into its brittle new cleavage. I could see two spider webs in the windshield, no doubt etched quick as lightning by the impact of the occupants' heads. The other car was knocked off the road, up onto the curb at an odd angle, apparently having spun, so that its headlights were shining down the road, against what would be traffic, had there been any at that hour. It was about three in the morning.
I was stunned to see it all laid out there for my eyes only, exactly as the sound of the crash suggested it would look. This was a surprise to me since, so often those days, I would hear what sounded like a car wreck or gunshot or a jetliner crash only to find nothing upon investigating. In fact, this been happening to me my entire life so that, when my eyes actually found these cars, sputtering and steaming in the slow-mo green-yellow-red stoplight strobe, I was pretty excited about it. It was strange to think that it all must have happened in the corner of my eye as the taxi pulled away, as I made for the door, hand patting at my pockets in search of keys. Strange also that the sound of it would explode over me, and yet only a microsecond later, the amount of time it took to turn my head, the scene was entirely without motion. If a hubcap had been spinning like a top on the pavement, the event would have been more plausible -- that evidence of momentum would be enough to fill in the gap, which was now inhabited by a kind of disbelief that this accident had just occurred. I had the uncanny feeling that the scene was arranged for me, hours earlier, and only the sound of it was played through loud speakers in the trees as I stepped away from the taxi.
Regardless of my suspicions, I rushed towards the charged accident space like some treasure of truth was waiting for me there, rendered gold by the alchemy of brutal, medieval automotive violence.
As I ran, a man came out on his balcony and called down to me. "What is it?"
"Nasty crash," I said. "Can you call it in?"
What I found at the scene was two sets of victims. In the car on the median, two small Hispanic men sat stunned and blinking behind the corrupted dashboard. Both their heads were bleeding down into their faces and eyes, creating slick masks of blood. They were both conscious, but moving really slowly. The other car was a flurry of activity as two men dragged another from the wreckage and laid him out on the lawn. They were talking to him, as though talking him out of walking out on a party: "Come on, Steve. Stay with us. We're right here for you, Steve. Hey, baby, that's right squeeze my hand, we're right here." I stepped in their direction. Someone was bleeding from somewhere; it was impossible to tell the source. Blood was everywhere. They spread Steve out on the grass, under a eucalyptus tree and his only sign of life was neurotic twitch in one foot, waving to no one, a kinetic mantra to manage the pain.
Seeing that Steve was being handled, I turned my attention to the other two. The passenger now had the door open and was placing an unsteady foot on the pavement. I went over and took his arm, leading him to the curb, where he was able to sit down. Behind him, on the median, was a rose garden in full bloom. "Espera," I found myself saying as I returned to the car.
The driver was in worse shape. By now, his face was completely glazed over with blood. Yet, he too, insisted on leaving the car. I tried to encourage him to stay put. "Los medicos van ahora," I said. Which I hoped meant: The doctors are coming now. This information didn't change his mind; he continued to try to twist around in his seat, but the steering wheel blocked his hip. I took his arm and he blinked out at me with his black eyes, from behind the pane of blood. With my help, he was able to slide out from under the wheel and stand on the street. I led him to his friend, who had now flopped back and, reclined with his feet in the street, stared up at the dim stars through a frame of roses. The driver did the same. I noticed their pants were crooked and their bellies exposed. They reminded me of those Time magazine photos of Death Squad victims in El Salvador. There wasn't a Death Squad victim in the eighties, I had noticed, whose pants weren't crooked in magazine photos.
"Los medicos van ahora," I kept saying. I looked over at the others. Steve's foot had stopped moving. "Come on, baby," his friends were saying. "Come on!"
They turned to me. "Has anyone called paramedics?" one of them screamed.
"They're on the way," I said, though I still couldn't hear any sirens. Only the groans of the two men next to me, and the pleadings of the Steve's friends. Otherwise, the world was still. What a strange collision -- literally -- of cultures, I couldn't help but recognize as I looked over the people around me. "Tranquilo. Tranquilo," I cooed to the men writhing at my feet. Gay nightlifers and migrant workers. There were no ads on television for these people, I pondered. No one was marketing to them; they were hardly on the cultural radar. I wondered if anyone would come to help.
"Tranquilo," was all I could say. And yet in my heart, I was tranquil -- completely removed from the trauma of the moment, bizarrely detached. Was it the alcohol from my night out; the purported liquid Ecstasy that I had thrown back? Or some greater deadness? I stood there for what felt like hours. Watching small, sturdy men at my feet, grimace under honey-slick masks of red, that spread over their bodies, riding channels in the fabric of their clothes. The roses stood stiffly in the breezeless air. I could hear the stoplight change colors. It was unbearably peaceful.
The firetruck and ambulance appeared suddenly, without a sound. A police car seemingly slid out of the shadows. Their red flashing lights swung and danced over the scene, transforming it into a kind of carnival. Emergency personnel were now rushing everywhere. "They were in that car," I told the paramedic and he stepped over my men, studying their bodies. One of them groaned upon seeing him.
"Tranquilo," I said. "Es medico."
Over near Steve, someone ordered: "Get your gloves on, people. He's HIV positive. Watch the blood."
Radios crackled. Orders were barked. People scrambled to remove equipment from an endless array of compartments, and compartments within compartments, in the firetruck. A massive nesting doll contraption: a strange automotive workhorse creature that I had never seen as such, until that moment. They pulled miles of entrails from it.
I started backing away from the scene as the professionals went to work, but they pulled me back in. "You speak Spanish?" the paramedic said.
"Some. Not very well." I had lived in Spain for a year, but squandered the opportunity to learn the language by hooking up with an Irish crowd.
"I'm going to need your help," he said. He had a military head, like a lot of emergency people -- a toy soldier face. I both admire and despise such heads on people. And I had a hard time believing that no one among them spoke Spanish. All these emergency people and not one of them? In San Diego? Was this a visiting crew from South Dakota? "Ask this one," he said, pointing to the driver. "Ask him where it hurts."
I leaned over the man's face. "Pardon. Señor?" I said. He wouldn't open his eyes. I thought maybe the blood had glazed them shut.
The sentence construction for discussing pain in Spanish is a bit strange for English speakers. I had to take a minute to recall how it worked. If you're asking someone where they hurt, you can't simply say, "Does your head hurt? Does your stomach hurt? Where do you hurt?" In Spanish, you ask, "Where is hurting you? Is your head hurting you? Is your stomach hurting you?" Te duele tu cabeza? It's as though, in the language itself, you are trying to distance the source of pain from its recipient. The pain source is not you; it's outside of you, hurting you.
"Donde te duele?" I crudely asked, forgoing the use of the more formal usted. This was an informal situation, was it not? The man only groaned in response.
"We need to be more specific," the paramedic said. There were others there, now, looking on: a cop, a fireman or two. They had brought over backboards, and they were all snipping at the air with shiny, industrial-strength scissors. "Ask him if his head hurts."
"I think it probably does," I said, not meaning to be ironic, only stating the obvious. "It's bleeding all over him."
"We need to ask," the paramedic said.
I put the sentence together in my head. Then I let it fly. "Te duele tu cabeza? Oye, te duele tu cabeza, señor?"
"Nooooo," the man groaned. I wondered at that. Did he think he was lying?
"Ask him about this area." The paramedic indicated his abdomen.
Estomago is as close as I could come. "Te duele tu estomago?"
Again, a long, windy no. We moved on to the chest, a word I only know when ordering that part of the chicken. El pecho. I didn't know if it was the same, when talking about a person. I had encountered such distinctions before. I asked anyway: "Te duele tu pecho?" I threw in: "Tu pechuga?"
"Si, si," the man said.
"He said yes!" I nearly yelled.
"Yeah. Got that," the paramedic said, winking to his emergency people buddies. "Ask him about his neck."
Neck. I didn't know the word offhand. I tried to recall a pictograph of the neck, thinking maybe I'd find the word sitting next to it. Nothing came. I drew a total blank.
"I don't know the word."
"I don't know the word for neck."
I leaned towards the man. "How about I just touch him and say aqui? That means here. I would be touching the place that you're interested in and saying `here'?"
"Hut! You don't want to touch him!" the cop barked.
"No, you don't," the paramedic agreed.
"The AIDS," the cop said. "You could get it."
I had already touched both men, of course. But I didn't bother telling the emergency people. I had only touched their arms, leading them like blind men by their elbows. They weren't bloody there; the veil of blood had only come down to their necks. I looked at each of the military faces of the emergency people. They were waiting and the sharp cut of their faces emphasized the demand. I put something together. I said: "Señor, te duele en el puente entre tu cabeza y tu cuerpo?"
This means: "Is the bridge between your head and body hurting you?"
When the injured man, who was the driver, heard this question, he stopped groaning. "Eh?" he asked. He opened his eyes. It was a though he'd been faking it the entire time, faking the pain.
I said it again.
"El puente?" he said. He stifled a laugh, but I saw it in his gut, kicking like a baby. "Oye, Hernan," he called to his badly injured friend. "Te duele en el puente entre tu cabeza y tu cuerpo?"
"Yo se, yo se," Hernan said. He didn't bother restraining himself and burst out laughing. The driver could no longer hold it in. The two laughed in their pain-muted way. I could see it hurt them very much to laugh.
"El puente!" they said, over and over.
The emergency people shifted nervously, quickening the rhythm of their scissor snapping, so it seemed as though the scissors were laughing, too. A flock of skeletal sea birds sharing some sick joke. Then, as if on cue, the two injured men stopped. Their faces hardened and they spat out a flurry of curses. "Pinche estupido carbron tonto..."
At that the emergency people rushed in like spiders. They lashed the injured men to the backboards, using thick white tape. Then, using their scissors, they cut off their clothes so that, within seconds, the men were stuck naked to the boards. They were slid like big blood-glazed cakes into the oven door of the ambulance and driven at a high speed only thirty yards or so down the road. They were still parked there when I ditched the cops and slunk back to my apartment, exhausted. I could hear the crackle of their radios from my bed. At first it was undeniably distracting. But, soon, as with just about everything during those directionless, dead days, I was able to turn the sound into a song in my head, a lullaby.
About the author:
Kenneth Calhoun lives in Durham, North Carolina. He has stories forthcoming in Fiction International and 3rd Bed and is still working on his novel about a boy raised by coyotes in the suburbs of Los Angeles.