published in the South Dakota Review

 table of contents

An Act of God
by Paul Pekin

The road was overfamiliar. Twice a week, sometimes more, she was on it, and often after dark. When she saw the blinking lights ahead she swung into the passing lane and eased up the pedal. It was not enough. Suddenly there was a figure before her, a man in blue jeans and a short sleeved shirt who never even had time to turn his face.

Once she had gone over a raccoon and heard it bumping and thumping and scraping the entire length of the floor. This time, a single impact and you could hear glass shatter, after which, the entire world spun and spun and spun again, and finally exploded before her eyes.

You only forget what you wish to remember. Every detail of what followed remained clear the day after, the week after, a year after. It would remain clear forever. She got out of the car knowing she had killed a young man with blonde hair and a tattoo on his forearm. Traffic in both directions was stopped, people were shouting, a man with his necktie flapping was grabbing her arms quite firmly. "You all right, lady? You all right?" He didn't want her to see what people were bending over a few yards down the road.

"It's just my nose," she said, twisting against his grip. She could taste the blood on her lips. Already a tow truck was across the way, the kind with a flat bed that tilts back. How could it have gotten here so quickly? Then she understood. It was this truck she had pulled around only seconds ago, it's overhead emergency lights blocked by the darkened van it had half pulled from the road.

There was a man lying on the highway. When she reached him she saw that he was very tall with dark curly hair with a fine well trimmed beard. He had one eye open, one arm flung out, palm up, and one leg broken clean at the thigh with a long white bone sticking through his blood soaked jeans.

"He's the wrong one," she said. "He was blonde. He had a tattoo. He's the wrong one."

The man with the tie knew exactly what to do. "Don't touch him. Don't try to move him. Let the medics do that."

"That's not him," she repeated, and repeated, and no one would listen. "That's not him. He was blonde. He had a tattoo."

The first officer to reach the scene was hatless and bald with a carefully trimmed mustache. He glanced at the dead man and spoke into his portable radio.

The woman? He gave her a bit of gauze to hold against her face. Her name was Aimee Logan, female white, date of birth, 12/26/34, 13 Oak Trail, Waterside; she had a valid class A license that would expire in two years on the date of her birth. He took this down. He took down her telephone numbers, home and work, her zip code, the license and vehicle number of her car--an 86 Tempo--and the direction of her travel. At first there was some confusion about this. Her car had spun across the road and crashed against the guard rail, facing opposite. He took note of the position of the tow truck and the van it had started to draw up on its tilted bed. These things were important. This was a major accident.

The second man was found face down in the ditch, face down in a foot of water. The reporting officer felt something cold grip the coil of his intestines when he saw that. He hoped it wouldn't turn out that this man had drowned.

The officer was a good cop. He noted the exact time the second body was found and wrote this information in ball point ink on nearest available surface, the back of his own hand. He often did this while working in the field, and came home with various case report numbers, telephone numbers, and times written on his body, by then all properly copied into the correct reports and ready to be washed away.

The officer noted the time the first ambulance arrived. "Take the woman," he said. "There's nothing you can do for the others."

Aimee Logan was now sitting in the back of his squad, the blood from her face ruining the upholstery. "I'm all right," she insisted. "Those men. I killed them."

"You're not all right," the officer said. "You're bleeding, you're in shock, you may have internal injuries."

He wanted her away from this scene, away from these dead men. Above all he wanted her not in the same ambulance with them. There was a short passionate discussion with the para-medics--it might have turned into a quarrel, but then a second ambulance arrived, and another squad, and everything fell into place.

"Don't blame yourself," he said to the woman. They insisted she lie on a stretcher. "Don't blame yourself." But why was he saying this? She had gone around an emergency vehicle with all its lights going, she had killed two men, of course it was her fault.

* * *

The doctor was a young man, young as Allen, she couldn't but note that; all young men she compared with her son. Even the young man with the tattoo, yes that had crossed her mind, perhaps not at the moment, but there would eventually come dreams in which it would be Allen that she ran down on a dark suburban road, and if she lived long enough a day would surely come when she would remember thinking, at the moment of impact, that could be Allen.

But the doctor was like Allen only in age. He was dark haired, crisp, and confident, a spry on-the-balls-of -his-feet young man who believed in himself and was going places in this world. He would someday bald--you could see that--and even want to grow stout, and you could see that too.

"Well, Aimee, let's have a look." He touched her nose with his trained fingers. "Not broken. That's good. Who needs a broken nose?" One of the aids handed him a pad soaked in disinfectant and he began wiping the blood from her face. The aids and nurses were clearly charmed by this young man. It seemed awful to think like this while, at the other end of the emergency room, a pair of gurneys had just been rolled in and hidden behind a green curtain. The young doctor lifted her eyelids, looked into her head, asked questions, expressed concern, winked at a brassy haired nurse--no, she was just imagining this!--and repeatedly addressed her by her first name. Please call me Mrs. Logan, she thought, but it was going to take more courage than she presently had to say this aloud.

"Your arm," he said. "I'm afraid it's broken."

She looked at her arm dumbly. Until now it had not been mentioned. The nurses nodded affirmatively. There seemed to be three of them, no, four, or was it five, they were all so proud of their smart young doctor. Well, they needn't hope, not when it came to smart young doctors.

At some point the police officer, the one with the neat mustache, pushed his head around the curtain. He was wearing his hat now. "Please," the young doctor said. "We're going to take x-rays." "A few questions," the officer said, "it'll only take a minute." His will was as strong as the doctors.

"I'm right, aren't I?" she asked. "There were two of them? But I never saw the second, not until . . . "

"She's going into shock," the young doctor said.

"I had your car towed," the officer said. "It's not driveable. We'll have all the information for you . . . "

The young doctor left her in the x-ray room with an oriental technician who spoke English but did not understand it very well. "I'm supposed to be going into shock," she told him. "No, no," he replied. "Not hurt, not hurt." He worked slowly and she lay a long time on the table. No, she was not going into shock. She was only a woman with a broken arm and a bloody nose who had just killed two young men.

It took two doctors to set her arm. The young one pulled down, the older one pulled against him, and they wrapped the results in plastered cloth that hardened so quickly you felt it heat.

* * *

The officer waited by the desk. There was a telephone there and he spoke to his office. The accident had been his call and now certain responsibilities most of us would rather not accept were his as well. When he hung up an aid led him behind a green emergency room curtain where the two dead men lay side by side. The officer had already examined their papers and knew their names, two young men who in all probability had never met before this evening. There was a young woman standing by the blonde man's body. She was blonde herself, in blue jeans and a man's shirt, with a pinched and colorless face. "I can't touch him," she said. "What's wrong with me? Why can't I touch him?"

She described herself as a friend of the dead man, then as his roommate, finally as his fiancee. Yes, there were relatives, and yes, she believed they had been notified. "But why?" she repeated. "Why can't I touch him?"

The officer was pleased with this young woman, and relieved that she had not given herself to wild cries and accusations. What good were accusations at this point? Would it help the dead to attack the living? He looked into the dead man's face, still stained and muddy. You picked a good woman, thought the officer. Too bad you didn't marry her. She at least would have had that much.

Both men's faces had settled into that expression only the dead can attain, an attitude of eternal indifference and content. They were beyond this world and free. The officer had never seen a dead man that he did not, in the secrecy of his soul, envy.

While he was waiting for the doctors to finish with Mrs. Logan, the second dead man's family arrived, a mother and father, and an older brother who more than made up for the sensible behavior of the tow truck driver's young blonde woman. By then the officer was back on the telephone. "I think I got a problem here," he said, and his supervisor, hearing the commotion in the background, agreed:

The dead man's brother approached trailing several anxious security guards and aids. "Goddam it! I want to know what you intend to do!"

You could see the resemblance this brother had to the second dead man. He was beardless and older with streaks of gray in his carefully barbered hair but you could see it. You could also see that his anger was unfocused and dangerous. "I'm very sorry," the officer said. Some things you do by instinct and having the right instinct is what makes a good police officer. He put his arm around the brother's shoulder and gently led him aside. "Are your parents all right?"

"How could they be all right? Billy's dead!"

The officer took the brother into the emergency room lounge and introduced himself. "I'm Officer Kazmirski," he said. "Steve Kazmirski. I'll be making out the report."

The brother's name was Larry. Suddenly he cried:

"What are you going to do about that woman?"

"The tow truck had it's bed tilted up. She might not have seen the lights."

"Oh, come on!"

"We don't have to decide that here. That's why we have courts. Listen, Larry. It wouldn't make things any easier if we did. An accident like this, it's a terrible terrible thing. I'm going to need your help. Someone is going to have keep this scene under control, and I can't do it alone."

The brother drew a deep breath. "But what about that woman?"

"It's terrible for her too. And if it does turn out to be her fault, I can't imagine how terrible it must be. Try to remember that."

When the security guards saw the officer return with the brother, they relaxed and moved back toward their posts. The brother went to his parents, embraced them, and introduced them to the officer.

* * *

The emergency room staff went on about its business. There was a man who had smashed his forefinger; there was another man who believed his chest pains to be the real thing; there was a woman who felt she had a fever; there was a child who had swallowed something bad. Aimee Logan, testing the weight of her cast, saw that the doctors were finished with her. It was just a matter of papers to be signed now, and waiting for Bert and Allen to come and take her home.

When she reached the desk she saw the officer with the neat mustache at the end of the hall talking to a group of people who suddenly grew silent. Look, she wanted to say, I have a broken arm, I suffer too. But what she really wanted was to sink into the floor and cease to exist.

Then Bert and Allen were with her. "Thank God," Allen said, in a voice that surely reached the end of the corridor, "Thank god you're all right."

A son and his father. Allen was tall and healthy. Bert was white and seventy. "We'll take you home," he said. "We'll talk about it there."

But Aimee Logan, who had just killed two men, could not stop staring at those people at the end of the hall. She lifted her good arm, as if seeking clemency. "Don't," Bert said, but then a young blonde woman who was part of that group was walking their way.

"The officer told us what happened," she said. There were tears on her face and Aimee felt them when they embraced. "I couldn't touch him," the blonde woman sobbed. "I couldn't bring myself to touch him."

At this moment the entire group, as if by agreement, crossed the hall and joined Aimee Logan, her family, and the young blonde woman. They spoke softly, looking down at their feet; for a moment they were united in grief.

At the other end of the hall, the officer closed up his report book. His job was done. He had spoken to his supervisor who agreed there was nothing more any of them could presently do. He let himself out of emergency room door and walked slowly to his squad. A mist-like rain was falling and, hidden by the low clouds, a giant jetliner swooped over so low he had to wait until it passed before calling in on his radio.

"419," he said. "I'm 24 and 8 from that job."

Later he drove down River Road and inspected the scene. Everything had been cleared away and traffic was moving normally. People driving by had no idea why this bald- headed cop with one hand in his pocket was standing there, smoking a cigarette.

the end