I’m practically running down Philadelphia Street, trying to pull on my gloves and pin my press badge on the edge of my thick, wool coat — the one he made me buy from a thrift shop years ago when were just dating — pages flying as I try to find a blank one in my notebook.
An ambulance races past me, then a fire truck. I break out of my power walk into a run.
Every step is a prayer.
It’s a child the sirens are wailing for; a little girl, maybe eight years old? Hit crossing the busy intersection. Broken arm and leg, they said over the scanner. I need to get there before it’s all over, before she’s loaded carefully into the ambulance, before the scattered knots of shoppers standing in the pharmacy parking lot disband, before anxious neighbors step back out of the cold and into their stores.
But I don’t want to see her laying there. I don’t want to see her soft coat against the hard, black asphalt. I’m afraid of what I’ll see when I reach the corner; afraid I won’t be able to do my job because my stomach’s tying up in knots and — though it has nothing at all to do with the situation — I’m thinking of my own baby and praying desperately that this mother won’t have an empty spot where her much older baby’s stocking ought to hang.
I reach the corner just as they wheel a stretcher across the street, into the waiting ambulance. All I see is brown hair and a white face peeking from the blue thermal blankets they’ve swaddled her with. A woman in a red, hooded sweatshirt leaves her place at the child’s head, climbs quick into the front of the ambulance.
The crossing guard was hit, too, I find out when I stop an irritated police officer after the ambulances are gone, while they’re taking pictures. 86-years-old. We don’t know her name for sure but we think she’s the one who just received an award from the borough, honoring 50 years of ushering small children from one side of the street to the other.
A small Nissan pick-up truck rests about six feet from the crosswalk, black and rusting except for the white tailgate. A man with a Santa Clause beard still sits inside, tugging it, wiping his face. A petite, blonde police officer tells the photographer to back off, this is a crime scene, before she goes back to talking to the man.
Fire fighters are giving me less-than-friendly looks though I’m careful to stay out of the way.
And it’s six blocks back to the office and deadline’s in half an hour and I hurry past a shop owner shaking a rug into the street. The heel of my boot catches but I don’t quite fall. My nose is red and my breath short and I can’t feel my toes.
I type a paragraph to go with the picture. We listen to the scanner, how the old woman’s being flown to another hospital. We wonder if she’ll every fully recover, why they put her on that so-busy intersection in the freezing cold.
I wonder if the man was reaching for his coffee, lighting up a cigarette, glancing away for an awful second before he saw them and it was too late.
And slowly I’m thawing out and deadline is past and I’m pretty sure they’ll all be home by Christmas. I have other stories to write today and company tonight and I’m putting this behind me. This is why we have a reputation for callousness, I guess. We show up when the disaster or tragedy happens and put what seems like private fears and pains on display and we’ve forgot by the time we get home.
Or we try to. Because these stories have to be told, and we have to be the ones to tell them. And you can’t carry them around with you, one on top of the other, and keep your sanity.
So with the writing I bleed the stories out of my being and onto the page, black on white. And the paper settles in the paperbox and I turn on my Christmas lights and let myself forget.
It’s the only way.