After long hours of night driving it took a second for Tim’s eyes to wake his brain. There was a faint light to the left, down in the ravine, and it was gone behind the moving car as soon as he saw it. He braked to a stop on the wet blacktop. No cars in either direction on the two-lane in the Vermont woods. He turned to squint through the rain on the window, but the shoulder of the road was now blocking the view down the bank. Fifty feet in reverse, then he could gradually see what looked like… headlights under weeds. Wet gravel under the tires meant he was safely off the road.
“There’s a car down there. I’m going over the bank. Call 9-1-1. ”
The slope was running with mud but the plants were big enough for hand-holds. He scrambled and slid to the bottom. A 15 second slog from the bottom of the slope to the dark metal mass. Four tires stuck up like the paws of some woodland roadkill that just made it into the ditch. Smoke came off the warm car and hung, uncertain of whether to leave or stay.
Cold, wet steel at the back of the car, but warmer as he felt toward the engine end. By now the rain had soaked his hair and he had to rub the water from his eyes to bend over and peer beneath the superstructure. Between the night and the rain and the shadow from the ravine and the opaquity of shattered auto glass he could see only the dull, dying dash lights.
He got down on his hands and knees. This must be the driver’s side door, at the rear. Think: down is up. Down. The window is shattered in the wet weeds. His heart raced. He couldn’t even into the car at all and when he called “hello? hello? ” there was no answer. A voice from the road: “Are you O.K.?”
“I’m fine — I’m still looking.”
Past the glass, toward the place where the driver’s window had to be, but he couldn’t tell what was roadside trash and what was significant among all the cold, slimy papers and sharp metal. He slowly and carefully tried to define shapes by feel. When he put his right hand on the bare, warm flesh he jerked back and caught his breath. It felt, just for a second, ill-mannered.
Quickly now, with both hands now, he patted his way in both directions: to the right – – a belt, jeans, metal. My God, the car is on him. To the left – – up the body – – the bare skin of his flank, shirt, shoulder, back of head – – both hands feeling short hair, the face is in the mud – – find a pulse. Is he breathing? He’s face down and the car is on him. How am I going to resuscitate him? There’s the neck, warm but not very warm, and he slowed his fingers down to search with one hand for the carotid artery just inside the front neck muscle. With the other hand he went around the ear and the face was turned that way because there was his nose… no pulse at the neck. He left his hand at the nose and mouth waiting for the cool pass of air. With the other hand he felt the back for any movement in the rib cage.
He froze, and tried to calm. Hard to feel breath or pulse when your own is so strong. He waited for three or four of his own breaths without moving, his own face down in the dark grass as close to the other face as he could get, listening. A car slowed up above, and then voices, but nothing else but the low rustle of the light rain in the underbrush. He wiggled his own fingers slowly, gently brushing the tips around the man’s nostrils and lips, as if to convince himself this really was a face.
Nothing. Quickly again, with both hands again, he searched all over for every pulse he could think of. The clothes were wet in spots but still mostly dry. A shoulder. Out the arm it had unnatural twists and turns. Find the other. Out to the wrist, to the thumb, and then on that side for a radial pulse, sliding inside a clammy sleeve. Adjust the fingertips. No pulse.
This guy is dead.
The state trooper, like every one he had ever met, was as polite as a zen master. The cop tired of the details before Tim tired of telling them. There were a few questions, in tight logical order. Then he took down Tim’s name, address, and phone number and, for once, smiled:
“Thanks. We’ll be in touch if we need you again. You folks drive carefully, now.”
They never called. He never heard the dead man’s name.