The Summer Hours Between Morning and Lunch
by Tim Denevi
t was the first car crash I'd ever seen. Not counting the representations, you know, through TV, movies, Reader's Digest.
All I heard was a screech like steam escaping. Sound and no direction, and at first I thought there were tires in the air above, braking against the horizon of Santa Cruz mountains.
A faded Cadillac had descended the hill into an intersection. Another car, some Sentra/Corrolla type, was coming off the freeway ramp, turning left. By the time I matched form with sound, both were spinning, spinning, locked together like a couple sleeping head-to-foot.
Motion came to rest in the morning half-fog. Real steam puffed now from the crunched Cadillac that was propped on the curb down where the hill flattened out. I had been walking up to the lap pool of the YMCA since my own car had broken down days earlier.
I passed the closer Cadillac, realizing I was half-galloping toward the smaller car that had stopped against the sidewalk in the freeway intersection. I'd determined it the victim and in most need of a stranger's sympathy.
An old man was sitting in front. I came closer and saw he was blinking rapidly as if the sky were cascading light, and I blinked too, just in case. Later, when they told me about the blood thinners and mild stroke, I would realize just how old he was. But in the driver's seat, his spotted and mealy face was wrenched in a youthful tightness that could only be construed as a grin.
I opened the intact door. "Sir," I said. "Sir can you hear me?" The glass of the driver's side window was webbed convex at a point above the lock. Though the impact of the accident had glanced further down, at a buckling near the taillight.
He had not been wearing a seatbelt. A ribbon of blood flowed from his temple, from the point his head had whipped into the side glass, flowing so quick it seemed twirled by wind.
"Can you imagine the sound of it?" he asked, breathing through yellow teeth. He held up a knobbed finger. "Listen. Listen. Wait for it to descend. The whine from so far off is the most beautiful."
The blood was sopping through his v-neck T-shirt, draining down his elbow and tapping against the metallic rim of the floor.
I pulled my own shirt off, which smelled like deodorized sweat, and bunched it to his head, hoping some beautiful passerby, maybe also on her way to the YMCA, had noticed. But the blood swelled through the cotton and I felt guilty and worried. I didn't own a cellphone. He was still blinking and smiling. Another car hadn't come by since the offramp cooled down around now, during the summer hours between morning and lunch.
I spoke the way I'd seen on that TV show about emergency-room attendants battling injuries, maniacs, and their own troubled love lives. "Shhhh," I said. "Try to keep still. You are doing just absolutely great."
He had tilted his chin up, the base of his skull against the headrest as if he were fighting a bloody nose. He leaned against me, for pressure, though the shirt kept dripping. I moved my left hand to the bony space of his collar, the exposed skin so fragile I though my own might rip it.
He grinned. "A fine job, son. Ha. You don't have to duck. It's over two miles off, though you can almost feel it hitting the water, right? Harry's my name, by the way."
"I'm—" A breath of wind caught me off guard, tickling my exposed shoulders. "My name is—"
"You're not listening," he said. His knuckle was slick with blood, and I wondered if I should lay him down flat, or press harder, or find someone to say the necessary phrase that would bring back the reality he knew before the crash.
Then sound was coming up the hill, from behind us. At first like an airplane or a shell in some Dolby Digital war movie. But not from the sky. From a mouth, through nasally words: "Woooeeee, man. I saw that thing pull out early and thought here we go, Terry. I put my arm across your chest, dude. Remember that? Don't read into it, though. Just a reflex—Whoa. Is he okay?"
I didn't want to let go of the old man, to look. He was squinting as if he wondered what kind of squirrelly animal could give off such a whine. I was imagining two men, small and coveralled, maybe, with blonde mustaches and birdlike frames. But they came up beside me, huge. I slid my eyes to catch them, keeping both hands in place, realizing they weren't much older than me.
"Did that happen—did we do that?" one of them, Terry, said. He was wearing mesh athletic shorts. He had the widest calves I'd ever seen, like tennis rackets that handled down at the ankle. "I wasn't driving," he told his friend.
"Jesus, Terry," the whinier voice said. "Go call 911 from the car. Now."
Terry disappeared, and the driver swung around to the hood, facing me and the old man who was nodding slow and understanding as if I were the one in need of counsel.
The Cadillac driver's head was shaved and tan, pecs underneath his Manchester United shirt that would rival the head trainer at the Y. He rested a forearm on the windshield and peered in, smelling like cigarettes. I watched him shiftily, keeping both hands in place.
"Listen a second," he said to me.
He knew what else I smelled, by the way my nose wrinkled up.
"Okay. We've been watching the match down at Hannegans' this morning, via that satellite. Terry came all the way out from Baltimore to see the Cup with me. Jesus, our week had just started."
The old man was still grinning. I wondered if the conversation amused him the way a funny story about someone you miss makes you want to cry with laughter.
I laughed desperately. "I'll report this if you leave," I said to the driver. I imagined the old man glaring along with me, wagging his finger, instilling the necessary shame. Though his breathing had evened out. He might have been squinting, but I had the distinct feeling his eyes were closed tight. "I'll get your license number. I'll tell them to search for a muscle head guy. I'll—"
My anger seemed to rise behind me, like the approach of a train. There was smoke to it. And sound, a metallic grinding.
I sensed movement and craned around. The smashed-in Cadillac was steaming up the hill, Terry gripping the wheel with both thumbs extended. The car seemed to accelerate, right at me and the old man and the whiny-voiced drunk. We all shrank into the doorway, into a triangle of fear and exhilaration, as if we could somehow reverse the flow of blood that moments before had been a twirling finality.
The Cadillac and Terry drifted right, continuing past us and through the intersection, sloshing to a stop against the rise of the street.
The old man seemed to have gone into a seizure, jangling against the steering wheel. But I realized it was me shaking.
"Easy there, dude," the whiny driver said. "Easy. Here." He slid his huge hand under mine, cradling the shirt against the old man's head. "Take a breath. I'm not going nowhere. Let me at that for a while. "
I slinked back. The shirt had bloomed like a wet rose.
"Man, you're doing great," the driver said into the car.
I nodded. Terry climbed out of the Cadillac and walked deliberately to the sidewalk. The old man's face frowned as if it had aged in seconds. His eyes were deathly still. "Why is everybody so quiet?" he whispered.
- - -
Later, the mustached cop asked me if the old man had pulled into the intersection too early, before the light changed. I said I only heard the crash.
The driver had been breathalyzed and handcuffed. Terry was sitting on the curb, arguing that he'd brought the Cadillac up to help, not escape.
A woman arrived, her skin the same graininess as the old man's. His sister. She was barking information about medication to the paramedics who nodded solemnly but never paused their preparations.
"He knew he shouldn't have been driving," she said frantically to me, maybe, or to the surrounding air that had thinned out with noon. "I told him this would happen."
"Was he in the war?" I asked.
"What? Oh no. He does like John Wayne movies. The one's with fighting. And he wanted to be a gunner on a ship, when we were little. Gosh I don't know why I'm remembering all this now." She took a deep breath, blinking quickly as she faced me. "What's your name again, young man?"
That night I called Good Samaritan and found out they'd stopped the bleeding, and I often imagine him being wheeled into the emergency room, tense music in the background, a high-cheekboned doctor winking with jokes like, "Cancel that, nurse. We won't need those 50 CC's of Courage for you, sir!"
I keep adding bells and whistles, when I talk about what happened. Now I rip my shirt in two. And the guys in the Cadillac are much bigger, sometimes with tattoos. Once in a while I'll even throw in a passerby who gawks at my bare chest.
But I always downplay the blood, how I couldn't wash it out of my shorts when I got home, how it drained from an old man with such force I could almost hear his life screeching out.