The blizzard commenced in earnest sometime between the appetizer and desert. My wife and I emerged into a snow-globe world where the flakes came down in clots as large as rabbit tails. The fresh snow erased the imperfections in a still-transforming area of the south Loop, painting the cracked sidewalks and vacant lots with a coat of temporary innocence.
We leaned together in a human teepee for support, Jill because she was wearing high-heel boots and was five months pregnant and me because of the bottle of wine. Jill had wet her lips with the Zinfandel to toast our anniversary and I had felt compelled to finish the remaining four and a half glasses before the check. The result was that I was less help to her than she was to me.
As we inched toward our car on Wells Street, a man staggered into the street waving his arms and jacket at a passing sedan. The car braked, fish-tailed in the slush and then accelerated, missing the man by the width of its rear view mirror. The man yelled unintelligibly, as the tail lights dissolved into the cataract of the storm.
“Is he coming over here?” Jill’s fingers dug through my coat into the flesh of my forearm, as if the added pressure could transfer her welling anxiety to me.
“Of course,” I said, meaning to be funny. (I’m told I find myself quite hilarious when imbibing.)
A few seconds later, the man’s stumbling trajectory converged with ours.
“Please help me. It hurts. Help me. My head,” His stained winter coat was off, pressed to the right side of his scalp. “Look. It hurts. My head,”
He pulled the jacket away from his bald skull to reveal a deep two inch gash, which seemed in no hurry to stop bleeding. Blood had darkened the side of his jacket, his sweatshirt, his jeans. A drop fell into the crust of fresh snow and radiated outward, as if the flakes wished to share their gory find.
Honestly, I didn’t want to help. My first thought was for my wife’s safety and to a lesser degree my own. The man seemed erratic, the wound more likely the result a blow than a fall. And even if he proved injured but harmless, I had my wife shivering next to me and a bottle of California’s finest clouding my judgment. Did I have to get involved?
Valet #1 came trotting down the block, perhaps in aid to an obvious scene of distress. Valet #1 slowed, as my wife asked him to return to the restaurant for help, and then continued toward the lot, as if the question had been in Aramaic. Valets #2 and #3 feigned deafness as they passed.
I dialed 911, while arguing with my wife to return to the car. All the while, the injured man kept us current with an on-going, fragmented account of his pain. It was too late to walk away.
I summed up the situation for the emergency operator, still pleading with my wife via facial contortions and hand gestures. I provided our location. I attempted to answer the dispatcher’s clarifying questions.
“I don’t know if he’s been drinking or on drugs.” I told the dispatcher.
“I’M NOT ON DRUGS!” The injured man’s scream was loud enough to freeze the valets in their tracks and the breath in my throat. The operator did not need me to repeat his answer.
I hung up, my hands shaking from more than cold. With additional begging, my wife finally relented and went to warm up the car, where she promised to keep watch. I promised I would be fine.
Still agitated, the man tried to walk away. Repeatedly, I gently led him back to the tree where we’d first met. I tried to calm him as best I could.
“Keep the pressure on, it’s okay, help is coming, don’t sit down, you’re going to be okay.”
But really I was thinking how lucky I was. In ten minutes my end of the ordeal would be over, the wounded man’s still in progress and uncertain. He may or not have been homeless, but was surely somewhere on the left of prosperity’s Bell Curve. Even after the ambulance came, even if he received prompt medical attention, how ‘okay’ would things really be for him?
The fire truck created its own slow motion effect, as it closed tentatively along the still unplowed street. The siren grew with the intensity of the reflected light. Then the alarm cut silent, leaving only the revolving red strobe to mark area of emergency.
As the first firefighter leapt from the truck, I began to guide the injured man. Before I could take a second step, the three valets swept past me like a pack of black-jacketed Dalmatians. They yelped and hopped around the firemen, suddenly too helpful, seeking some imaginary scrap of credit that was somehow infinitely more important to them than to me.
An ambulance arrived and a scrambling paramedic came bearing gear. He threw a blanket over the injured man’s shoulders. I knew then I could no longer add anything to the situation.
I stepped outside the radius of the flashing lights. At that moment, I was no longer an active player, not even a spectator. I was miles from being a hero, and in fact did little more than the bare minimum, what anyone would reasonably expect if they were in similar peril. And yet how many had ignored him before my wife and I stopped? How many more would have passed if we didn’t?
I climbed inside our climate controlled car and swept flakes from my lashes and brow. My wife had questions, but I needed a moment to process. She pulled into the street, past the resolving spectacle, and we disappeared into the whiteout, as anonymous as the man we almost didn’t help.
Randy Kohl has also been published in Pology Magazine, Kaleidoscopic Resonance and Perigee: publication for the arts.