Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Not a fire this time

I'm sautéeing vegetables for dinner, standing in the kitchen, Mr. Billy & I talking - about what is lost now, but Mr. Billy was mid-sentence - when a heavy metal scrape and crunch break in from outside. It's just a step to the window, and I see a black SUV. The driver's standing so hard on the gas it leans forward on its shocks, the wheels' friction holding it back a fraction of a second before letting go with a long screech, and it disappears down the street.

I don't see the other vehicle at first; it's a white mini-van up on the curb, less than four feet from the corner of our building. Mr. Billy slides open the window.

"Are you okay?" he calls.

Already neighbors are gathering. I'm ready to call the cops, but I see a cell phone flip open down there on the street.

"My cousin was killed by a hit and run," I say. It's the first thing that pops into my head.

Mr. Billy's already on his way down the stairs. I stay long enough to make sure the stove is off, and follow him out into the spitting rain.

The driver of the white mini-van is hysterical, her mouth wide open, wailing behind the steering wheel. Her door is open, and she has one foot out on the runner board. She doesn't appear to be hurt.

Several people are standing around, leaning into the car to talk to her, lighting up cigarettes, talking. One of them is talking to Mr. Billy, looking familiar.

"Hey, look who lives here," says Mr. Billy.

It's N., an old acquaintance of ours; he moved into the house across the street six months ago and we didn't know until just now. He hugs me and we laugh. I look over at the hysterical woman and my laughter tails off. She isn't slowing down, waves and waves of loud sobs, mouth stretched wide like a jack o'lantern.

"You got the license?" Mr. Billy is saying, and I'm impressed, someone managed to get the plate number that fast, but that isn't it. One of the neighbors is holding something in his hand.

Not the number, the actual license plate.

"Yeah," he says, laughing, "it broke off when he hit her. I saw it land in the street."

"Fuck YEAH," says someone else.

I imagine the driver's sick feeling when he realizes his plate's gone. It feels good. I have revenge in mind right now, crowing at his stupidity, oh, he'll get his tonight.

The hysterical woman is still howling. I lean in, ask her if she wants to come inside where it's warm, but she shakes her head, still sobbing, thrashing at the tears with her fists. She doesn't seem to speak much English.

"I tried to speak Chinese with her," says N., "but I think she only speaks Cantonese."

The hysterical woman's phone starts to chime. She opens it, holds it to her head, howls into it. Finally the howls turn into words, but she hasn't calmed down. She closes the phone and settles back into her sobs, rocking slightly in her seat.

"She lives right up the street," says a woman. She and the man with her live a few blocks away; they were driving home when they saw the accident, and they tried to chase the black SUV, but it pulled away too quickly.

Everyone goes quiet, and we look at the driver of the white mini-van.

"She's hysterical."

"Maybe we should call back, get an ambulance here."

"An ambulance will come anyway, won't it?"

"No, she said she didn't want an ambulance."

"I'm calling."

I introduce myself to the couple who tried to chase the SUV. We shake hands. We look at the mini-van driver. I crouch down next to her. I'm trying to figure out how to ask her if she needs anything, a blanket, a drink of water. She shakes her head, rocking, crying.

"How long before the cops get here, do you think?"

"Man, is she okay?"

"She's, it's the shock, you know? It's a shock."

"Yeah, I guess so."

Finally, a police cruiser rolls quietly toward us.

"Police," I say to the woman, pointing.

"Thank you," she says, then opens her mouth to howl some more.

The cop speaks Cantonese. Another car pulls up. We tell what we saw, what we heard. They run the plate. None of us saw the driver of the other car, none of us can describe him. Or her. I tell one of the cops where to find us if they need anything else, and we go inside where it's warm and dry.

I'm finishing dinner, and Mr. Billy looks out the window.

"Her husband's there," he says, "they're hugging."


anne said...

It must be a scary thing, being the victim of a crash when you can't speak the language.
I love your conclusion.

Suzanne said...

Ditto on the last line; whew.

Never a dull moment in The City, huh, Chems?

Anonymous said...

Caitlin, this is an amazing story! If I'd been your roomie, I could've spoken my 2-year-old's Cantonese to her, but I have a feeling that she just needed to grieve loudly & without abatement until her husband arrived....!

moiety said...

I'm feeling oh so hoi polloi to be asking . . . but has the neighborhood heard if the hitter/runner has been apprehended?

regards to both you and Mr. Billy,

Geo said...

What a story. But not just anyone could have written it so well, Billy.

(I cheered over the license plate.)


And now I'm thinking about the plates I've left behind in my life.

Anonymous said...

Great Story, Well Written!

Chemical Billy said...

thanks all. and moiety, welcome! no news - city neighborhoods sometimes lack in the continuity department. we have moments together, but precious little collective memory...