There are things my mind does, in its relentless pursuit of inefficiency and procrastination, shouldn't happen to a dog, but one thing it's good for is it slows down and stays steady in the middle of an emergency, and it was this mind that said, in a quantum second, “This doesn't look good.”
I knew I was in motion — fast motion, and I was not in control of anything. In hindsight it seemed dark, though the sun had not actually set. Could be my eyes were squeezed shut. But then when things come unstuck from normal and hurtle around, and you're one of them, maybe it's best to protect your eyes, keep them scrinched up. I was in deep forest, too.
Another split quantum and I knew I was in a car. I can't say now if I had any sense of brake, steering wheel or anything else specific, just a bumptious whizzing — possibly spinning — that was way too fast for any peaceful outcome, and a wry sense of chagrin (yes, you can do all this in practically zero time; ever read about the universe's first quantum? It happened in less time than this) — anyway a wry sense of chagrin: “This might be It.”
I say “wry” because my life has furnished more such moments than I can recall, moments when I could have died, some of them along with other people. This one felt like a real contender, and I wasn't even doing anything risky, except blanking out. That's the only thing that fits in here, on this tumbling Tilt-A-Whirl.
So there's a blank place, just as, when I was able to look for them, there were blank streaks on the road where there would have been skid tracks if I'd had the brakes on: blank space, then all of the above, then a tremendous loud crash. “I thought so,” I quantumed.
Then it was quiet.
I'm alive. That's a start. No pain to speak of, but that doesn't mean much. Shock dulls pain to the vanishing point sometimes. I might be in shock.
Okay, let's get things together: car, crash, conscious. Not great, but it could be worse. Something funny: where's up & down? Could I be...? Yep, I'm upside down. Shit.
Now this: I'm hanging upside down in my seat belt, in a wrecked car on a snakey winding road in the dark. It wasn't really dark, but the fading light from above the high treetops and the window-holes for the car all flattened fooled me, and here I hang, in the dark.
The tension on the seat belt made the little parts of the buckle tight on each other, and the button didn't want to push. My concern was rising because if I was motionless in the middle of a road in the dark, I could get dead easily and maybe other people, too. Not good, as my president might tweet. I sucked my stomach in about a mile, pushed the button and fell on the sunroof, oof. The windows had broken on both sides of the front seat, leaving puddles of cubed safety glass on the road (so, yes, I am on the road). The windshield was a mess but mostly intact, folded like origami. The side windows were flattened, but still big enough for me to wriggle through, pulling myself forward with my forearms on the pavement, the glass-covered pavement. Too bad.
It's not dark, with my head outside the car. Sure enough, another car is coming from the west. I'm not fully delivered yet. I hope he sees me. This twilight time is, visibility-wise, the worst, but he's pulling over. As his door opens, two hundred feet away, my rebirth completes itself. I pull my feet free from the car and, in sections like a transformer in the movies, expecting a sharp pain from somewhere, stand erect. The emergence from the narrowed window truly felt like being born. I should get a slap on the butt. My satisfaction at getting free of the wreck merges with awareness of how this out-sliding must look to the person approaching.
Could nothing be busted? Not even sprained? The other driver is a man, also gray, bearded. What was he driving? A little pickup truck, I think. He has turned his flashers on. My broken headlights still shine — right on the road directly in front of them, in the direction of the trees, not the traffic, uselessly.
“Yeah. I think I'm all right.” Tricked you again, Reaper. It's probably been no more than a minute — maybe not that much — since I first woke to this topsy-turvy world from wherever I was.
I'd had a heart monitor taped to my chest two hours ago at the VA clinic in Ukiah. My blood pressure is like a jumping bean, high, low; absurdly high, absurdly low. My pulse is slow, and I do lots of strenuous stuff, work and exercise, with nary a chest twinge, nary a moment short of breath. Doesn't add up, hence the monitor, reading the rhythm. Be interesting to see what reading they get from this.
If I asked the other driver his name, I don't remember it. He was not eager to get caught up in all this, but he stayed. He took the west and I the east, waving at oncoming cars to slow down, watch out, go around the wreck. There's enough room for that. Nobody hurt. Nothing to see, thanks. He told one of them to call 911 soon as they have a signal. “They'll be here soon,” he said to me.
Blood was dripping off my right arm and hand from the puddles of glass. My son was a skateboarder. The sometimes-spectacular abrasions to his arms and legs he called, dismissively, “road rash.” My road rash was bleeding. I didn't feel like dabbing at it because there were slivers of glass in it. Also I had the dim sense that, as an accident victim I should have some badge of victimism, even a trivial one, so I let it drip. The shirt I was wearing is coincidentally the color of dried blood. It was a tidy shirt, and I had creased pants and leather shoes, a seeing-the-doctor ensemble. I was a well-turned-out victim.
Now I can look at the car. It's Ellie's. She spotted it online when Nick Wilson put it up for sale. Nick is a person who cares for his cars, keeps them working right. This Jetta would win no beauty contest, but everything worked — even now, stricken, broken and upside-down, everything still worked. She bought it triumphantly, put a fine set of new tires on and has enjoyed it since, a little more than a year.
Shit. Shit! It's totaled. Whatever just happened, there's no panel on this car's body that isn't deformed, to say the least, and all the parts that are supposed to absorb abuse, to bend and break so the passengers don't, did: both airbags deployed, seat belt did its thing, God knows the roll bar did. The frame and engine compartment all buckled in ways calculated to spare me the violence, and Volkswagen, I once read, uses “virgin” steel — that is, steel straight from a steel mill, not recycled from other wrecked cars. What I read said the structure of new steel is tougher than reused. At any rate, the car's destroyed and I'm not.
At longer reflection, I think Volkswagen may have saved my life just now, while I was totaling my girlfriend's car.
The other traffic is scarce, but they're beginning to stack up anyway. I have a little penlight; the other guy has a flash. We urge the pausers to move on. They slide by me, eyes peeled for casualties. A detached body part would be a jackpot. All they see is this old guy, one arm bleeding. That's all.
As a reporter once, I heard on my car radio, as I was driving home, of a gunfight, right where I was at the moment, injured taken to a hospital I was passing, so I parked and went in, expecting the usual blockade from first responders and police. No obstacle. Empty emergency-room corridor, except for sounds, off, of commotion. Next to me, on a gurney, a man is covered, face, body, everything, except his left arm has slipped off his chest and dangles straight down in that loose way that living bodies cannot attain to. Sleeve rolled up. That's a very virile arm, big hard muscles on it, a flowing rivulet of blood puddling under the gurney. Arm looks like it ought to have a lot more miles in it. I was too chicken to risk getting caught lifting the sheet. Turned out it was a sheriff under it, a dead sheriff, fatally perforated in a private dispute. I and the sheriff were alone because the living people were in the “accident room,” as Emergency was often called then —”Ax.” They were trying to save the other disputant. Don't know if they did. It was a long time ago. I didn't call it in because mine was an evening paper, and the morning papers would be all over it. Nobody had invented a cell phone yet, much less a smart one. My calmly trickling arm is attached to a living body, thank you veddy much.
The Comptche Volunteer Fire Department arrives, lights flashing. I appreciate the flashing lights without thinking about it, as a child might. They mean to help, somebody to keep other cars from ploughing into things in that grim serial way. Aron comes over to check me out. He's up-to-the-minute in grubby, well-used fireman clothes, soiled yellow with bright reflecting tape. Aron is a nice-looking young fellow with a fun, wolfish grin. “I think I'm okay.” He fixes me up with the EMT lady, who will invite me into her truck and look me over for damage, I a 79-year-old man, she a woman maybe twenty, right out of a TV series.
She patiently squeezes arms, legs, ribs, strokes my head. “Little cut on top here.” In another era, my head might have been there on the road. So thorough was the planning for Ellie's Jetta (I swear I'm not on their payroll), all I have from a high-speed rollover is this little cut on my scalp with only a couple little slivers of glass in it, hardly bleeding at all.
It's only later I realize the close-up-and-personal attention I get from EMTs and the CHP who will arrive momentarily have the purpose of checking me for injury or signs of concussion or maybe that sharp little tang of alcohol that even a single drink produces when you get a whiff of the drinker's breath. I don't realize it at the time, just enjoying the camaraderie and competence of these guys.
I had a cup of McDonald's coffee in Ukiah ninety minutes ago. I haven't had any kind of medicine today. No “substance” had anything to do with this mess. I imagine it changes the climate slightly, no trace of disapproval, only sympathy and concern, people nice enough to make you want to share a round of drinks, drink everybody's health. I'm not too bonked to not notice this oddness, this peculiar jubilation. It's because I'm standing, and Ellie's car is upside down and — several have made this an urgent question — nobody's in it.
The fire chief, Larry [Tunzi], introduces himself, another pleasant, smiling guy (what's with these Comptche responders?). He asks if I want them to order an ambulance and take me back to Ukiah. Hell no!” No thanks. Just a tow truck, please.”
Then the truck, mighty Ben driving (he's a big boy).
The CHP's Officer Covington had me walk around the Jetta with him, trying to piece together what happened (and, I bet, getting within the radius of my whisky-breath — if I had whisky-breath, which I don't. I can see his report: twilight, road surface damp from recent rain, visibility unrestricted, no other car. I felt — at least I imagined I felt — a certain protective impulse from the Comptche people. They were more comfortable with me in the EMT truck. I seemed to be okay, but you never know. They hustled me back in it, leaving Covington, also a fit, handsome young man in the utility clothes you see as often as regular uniforms these days, as puzzled as I am over how this scene got set, exactly. All these people are from Central Casting.
There are other responders whose names I didn't get. Thanks to them, too. Somebody dug in the debris inside the car and found my new glasses, intact.
And so it went, rolling my VW, Ellie's VW. Ben brought me home. Triple-A, thank goodness. Now to shock Ellie. There was no phone signal at the crash site. I asked several people to call and tell her I'd be a little late. They said they would, but nobody did. When I told her what happened, her color went gray. She could see me as a dripping arm, a calm severed head. Ellie's imagination is vivid. She has found death, mortality and all the things in that arena to be equal parts fascinating and horrifying. She knows, better than I and probably better that the responders, many of the myriad options Fate had to choose from for me Monday night.