This story originally appeared in In * Tense Literary Magazine, Spring 1999
The clean red rags he holds against her head to slow the bleeding as he drives are from the trunk. He picked the rags instead of gauze from the first aid kit that came with his car because the first aid kit looked so small next to all the blood.
People don’t just jump out of moving cars.
She is bleeding in other places, but it is her head that concerns him. The rags grow darker under his fingers. It occurs to him that he is worried too about the leather upholstery. He wants a plan for not worrying about the upholstery. As penance he tries to remember her name over the talk radio he’d turned down not fifteen minutes ago when he pulled up to the curb where she was standing next to a bus stop.
Cindy. Susie. Sandy.
He knows that standing near a bus stop is a game they play with the police. In a small city like Lucas, the police know most of the prostitutes. They aren’t fooling anyone. But if they stand near the bus stop or pretend to be on the phone or window shopping, if they keep it moving, the police have more important things to do. He has figured this out. It’s what he’s decided is the case after watching them for months. He could be wrong.
She’s unconscious and she is bleeding and he is driving her to the hospital. The nearest hospital. He’s seen her on the street before and she isn’t his favorite. He has thought that she looked…undernourished. He looks over at her now. She is wearing some sort of hip hugger jeans with words written on them in black marker. Helen, his wife, had a pair like these in college. He is surprised at how thin her wrists are. When he picked her up off the road he noticed that one of her wrist looked broken; but he can’t bring himself to look at it now. Broken bones bother him.
He’s never really had a problem with blood. Not really.
Now he is thinking he could have done better. He could have been picky. But the anticipation had grown beyond choices, grown over months until he made a decision on the way to work. Today.
He would never have imagined there were prostitutes walking the streets of Lucas; but there was a woman with her head in someone’s car one day while he waited at a light and then she got in and he thought, Jesus, I think that woman is a hooker. Once he knew what to look for, he began spotting them easily. Not many. Maybe a half dozen on 2nd Street during the day, at least twice that many after dark. He knew. He’d been watching, even following a few after they’d been picked up. They would park on quiet side streets or parking lots in the industrial section south of Lincoln Avenue.
Flushed with adrenaline in the first few moments after she slipped into the seat beside him, he forgot immediately not only her name but how much it was going to cost and what, specifically, he was paying for, even though he’d practiced the exchange for weeks.
Do you need a ride? I’m Peter. I’m Bill. I’m Sam. I’m Tim. Tim.
There is blood on the upholstery. He can see it. Out of habit he pulls into the employee entrance of the hospital parking lot. He has to drive around to the other side of the hospital, over one speed bump after another, to get to the emergency room. He knows how much it costs to have a speed bump repaired. Of course he knows. He will know the salary of the emergency room doctor who treats her, and the nurse.
How much does it cost to clean blood off leather upholstery?
He gives himself ten seconds to decide whether he should carry her in or bring someone out. If he gets someone, they’ll bring a stretcher. But he’ll have to take his hand away. His hand is covered with blood. He holds it away from his body as he walks. The doors to the emergency room slide open and he looks for a face he will recognize.
“Ed? Ed, are you hurt?” It is a nurse practitioner. Her name is Lisa? Laura? She is looking at his hand, reaching for him. “What happened?”
“No…no, I’m fine” he says. “It’s someone else. Someone in my car. She’s bleeding. She’s in my car, the front seat.”
She looks outside at his car and then calls another nurse. There is movement, people moving. A stretcher. They are bent over the driver side door of his car. A doctor runs past him, a doctor he has had lunch with, a doctor he has negotiated salary with.
He could have been pickier. As they wheel her past he follows and reads the words written onto her jeans with black marker: Nasty. Cream Dream. Wet and Ready. He thinks of the small candy hearts that show up around Valentine’s Day. Near her crotch are the words: Funky Town.
She is so thin. He notices that her hair has probably not been washed recently. Her clothes are dirty. He’d thought she was pretty but as he looks at her now he can’t remember why. The doctor is speaking calmly to the nurses as they move her from the stretcher. In a few minutes they will know everything that is wrong with her. He is surrounded by machines and equipment and he knows how much everything costs.
“Do you know her, Ed?” asks the doctor.
He is struck by how easy the question is to answer. He hesitates.
“No, I don’t know her.”
“Where did you find her?”
He looks up. Everyone is busy and wearing safety glasses manufactured in Michigan. The doctor is busy. The doctor is just making conversation. Already, the safest assumptions are being made. Of course he found her. Ed Haley is good people. Ed Haley turned this hospital around. Ed Haley wears pin-point oxford shirts.
“On the side of the road, the freeway on-ramp, actually.”
The nurse practitioner turns and looks at his hands. “You should wash up.”
As he walks toward an alcove where he knows he will find a deep sink and antiseptic soap someone says, “She’s lucky you drove by. Most people would just keep on driving.”
“Really?” he asks softly. He wants to know. Really?
Once they pulled away from the bus stop, back into traffic, he began to relax a little. He thought she was fidgety. Was she nervous too? Maybe she hadn’t been doing this too long. She was looking in every direction. Turning her head left and right. Moving in her seat.
She mentioned his hair. A compliment. Ran her finger over his ear. “I like your gray hair.”
“Not as young as I used to be,” he said. That was stupid to say.
“So do you do this to help out the girls?” she asked.
“What? No, I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“That’s cool. I like older men.”
He looked at her, trying to catch her eyes. She put her hand on his knee and leaned toward him. “I really dig older men, you know.” Then she was sitting up again, looking at everything. Looking all around and moving like she couldn’t get comfortable in the seat.
As he puts his hand under warm water he sees there is blood on his jacket, his blue blazer. It looks like it has been painted on with a brush. A wide paint brush. He takes off his blazer and throws it into a large, square, plastic trash can. He knows this is a container for waste that isn’t dangerous. They are cheaper if he buys at least ten at a time.
The blood flows off his hands, down the drain. Like a scene from a movie, he thinks. He should call Helen. Should he call Helen? Someone, he can’t remember who, once told him that Helen was the best thing that ever happened to him. This person said it in a way that made him think people saw him as someone who couldn’t really take care of himself when it came to certain things. He’s always trying to make a list of what those things might be. Without Helen. He can’t ever seem to make the list, but he knows it’s true.
Helen makes lists for everything. His assistant makes lists.
When he can’t remember how much the paper towels cost he is suddenly relieved. He concentrates. He still has no idea, not even an approximate idea and he enjoys the feeling. This is a game he’s played before. Other people, people who work for him, know how much the paper towels cost.
When he told her he’d never done this before she didn’t make a smart-ass remark. He’d expected a sarcastic remark. That’s what he was prepared to hear. But she put her hand back on his knee.
“Oh, baby, don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you. You don’t have anything to worry about it. Nope. Nope nope.” She shook her head, moved in her seat, bounced her leg.
“I’m not really from around here,” he said. “Well, not Lucas. I live out by the lake. Brookton.”
She was looking out the window. She seemed to focus for a moment on each person on the sidewalk. Her head jerked back and forth. “Oh, really? Yeah. That’s cool.”
“I’m in sales.”
She turned, pointing her finger. “You don’t sell motor homes, do you?”
“Oh, no. Farms, uh, farm equipment. Sprinklers.”
She smiled. “That’s good. My ex sold motor homes,” she went back to fidgeting. “He was an asshole with a capital A.”
“Yeah, farm equipment mostly. My name’s Bill, by the way.”
She gave him a big smile. “I heard you the first time, baby.”
His plan had been to take her to a motel, The Caravan Inn, let her keep the room. He told her this. Her reaction was disappointing.
“That’s great, baby. You’re sweet,” she said. But she didn’t look at him when she said it. She was looking out the window. She was looking everywhere, like she was looking for someone.
He wasn’t paying attention to where he was going, driving by rote. When he turned onto the freeway on-ramp it was out of habit. This was what he did every day after work.
“What the fuck!” she yelled.
He realized his mistake.
“I’m sorry, I…”
Her head was whipping around. She was looking around the car like she had dropped something. “Let me out of this fucking car. Stop the car. No fucking way.”
“No, look, it’s just…I’m driving home.” He began to accelerate. The best thing to do, he thought, was to get off the freeway as soon as possible.
“No fucking way!” She was screaming. She started hitting the window and the door. “No. No. Fuck.” Her screams made his shoulders flinch. He kept thinking, nothing is really wrong here. He needed to stay calm.
“Wait, I’m just going…wait. It’s okay. It’s a mistake.” He reached for her.
Then the door was open. Then she was gone.
He heard the slap and huff of her body hitting the asphalt. Then his foot was pressing hard on the brake. He looked into his rearview. Look into the mirror, Ed, not at it. The sun had set only moments before but he could see only black in his mirror. He turned. Black. He began to back up slowly until her crumpled shape appeared in his reverse lights.
She was so light, seemed so small in his arms. Her head looked bad. In his trunk he found a first aid kit and the bag of red rags he’d bought at the auto parts store. His new car wouldn’t need a tune-up for years and came with road-side assistance. The least he could do was keep an eye on the oil.
“She’s broken up pretty good. She’s got a bit of a stay ahead, but she’ll be all right, I think. You get a bleeder in the head like that and it always looks worse than it is. Some broken bones.” The doctor is with him in the waiting area.
“Well, that’s good news, isn’t it?” says Ed.
“You never know, I mean she was already weak. She was definitely using. She might even have been dealing. She had cash in a plastic bag in her underwear.”
Ed remembers her putting the money into her pants. “Really?” he asks.
“Yeah. It’s going to make her recovery that much harder. I hope they keep her at least a few days over at County.”
“Indigent Medical Services. We’re going to have to transfer her over to County. The only I.D. she has on her is her Social Security card. They’ll run it but it’s a safe bet she doesn’t have coverage.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I didn’t think…”
“Hey, Ed. You went to the nearest hospital. I saw all that blood. You did the right thing. We’ll be able to transfer her in the morning. She should be okay. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.” The doctor puts his arm around Ed’s shoulder. “You’re usually the one pointing these things out to me.”
“Get home, Ed. They’re not working under the best conditions over at County, but she should be okay.” The doctor starts to walk away and then stops. “Unless, you didn’t want to make some special arrangements, did you?”
It would be that easy. He is the Executive Administrator. A night or two, maybe more. He would know how she was doing. There is detox on the third floor, private rooms, a waiting list, expensive, but he could set it up. It certainly wasn’t unheard of.
“No…no,” he says, “she’ll be fine at County.”
He thinks about using a different on-ramp as he heads for home but decides this is silly. There is no sign on the road that someone had jumped from a moving car a few hours earlier. Maybe there are blood stains but they are too small for him to see as he speeds past. He puts his foot to the floor until he is on the freeway.
They are out of bagels at home, so he stops at the store near their house. Bagels for breakfast are a part of his routine. Like Helen and her tea. He decides to buy a box of the green tea she drinks. If she needed tea, she would buy it herself, but he likes the feeling of buying it for her.
Helen’s car is in the driveway next to their son’s car. He parks in the street like he does every night. Helen is sitting in the family room, her bare feet up on the coffee table. The sound is turned down on the television. She’s wearing his sweat pants.
“Hey there,” she says, “you’re getting home a little late.”
“Tell me about it.” He bends down to kiss her.
“For a bunch of doctors, they sure aren’t very good at handling crisis are they?”
He laughs. “Well, I don’t know. One of the staff got into some trouble. It was a personal thing.” He thinks of his coffee mug at work which was a gift from Helen. On the side it reads: Number One Rescuer.
As he puts away the bagels and tea, Helen has gone back to her papers. She is grading essays on Shakespeare or Swift or Yeats. He tries to imagine hating something about her. She looks up and smiles. He adores the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, the lipstick on the wine glass in front of her, the books that have been sitting next to the couch for over a week. They rarely argue anymore. When was the last time? He doesn’t know. It must have been about their son and if so, it was an argument he would want her to win.
“I should have called,” he says.
“Oh, I figured it was one thing or another.”
She hasn’t asked about his blazer.
In front of their house sits his car, less than a year old, a shade of blue that he selected from a catalog. Helen insisted he treat himself. His first luxury car and the first car he will not make repairs to himself. The leather upholstery is stained with blood and deep red rags are stuck, drying to the carpet.