SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
February 5, 2012

The Growing Mountain

 

I was on my way home from the bodega with a fresh supply of beer and smokes. It was a damp and chilly seven a.m., and some of the light rain from the night before had frozen in thin rough patches on the sidewalk. There weren’t many people out yet—just a few dog walkers—and that was always a relief.

       I was approaching an intersection, still three blocks from the safety of the Bunker, when I heard it, whatever “it” was. A distant sliding crunch. Something quick. So quick it didn't even register until after the fact. Then the slow wail began.

       The night before I’d slept surprisingly well, but awoke feeling a little off. A quiver in the guts and the legs that I put down as a residual hangover. The damp air and the movement seemed to be helping some. I was sure the beer in the bag I was carrying would help, too.

       It took a few more seconds for the wailing to coalesce into words—or rather a single word repeated: “Help.”

       Pausing, I cocked my head trying to get a fix on the voice. It was an older woman’s voice, but there was nothing frail about it. The acoustics at the intersection were insane, and the voice seemed to be coming from every direction at once.

       As I stood there trying to place it, several other thoughts started creeping in around the edges. The first impulse was to pretend I hadn’t heard it. Wasn’t hearing it. Nothing going on here. Just head home. There were plenty of other people around to help, right? I knew that wasn’t true. The sidewalks were empty. Even if I did go over there, wherever she was, what the hell was I going to do? I didn’t have a cell phone to call 911, and there were no payphones within blocks. Worse, I’d probably figure out where she was by stepping on her throat, and that wouldn’t help anything. Besides, it was probably nothing but a scam to sue the city. I knew a few people who made a nice living doing that.

       But I couldn’t just ignore her, scam or not, considering how many people regularly insist on helping me whether I want it or not.

       She continued screaming “Help!” and I started to get a fix on her. She was across the street—a four-lane avenue buzzing with pre-rush hour traffic. I had no real choice here. I’d probably make a hash of whatever I found, but I still had to go on and try.

       God, I hate dealing with people in distress.

       Then I heard running footsteps behind me. A man and a dog. I’d passed them just a few moments earlier heading the other way. I hadn’t noticed what kind of dog it was. Maybe it was Lassie. If that was the case, all our problems were solved—Lassie would run and get the fire department and Sheriff McGregor and—

       The man jogged past me with his Doberman.

       Oh well.

       As he passed he said “Someone’s fallen down!” before dashing through the oncoming traffic without a single thought for his own safety.

       On the one hand I of course admired him, and wished I could as quickly and easily snap into action like that. There is no thought involved—you see people who need help, and you run to help them. I always wanted to be like that.

       At the same time I was suddenly filled with contempt for this smug, heroic son of a bitch and his fucking do-gooder Doberman.

       Noble fucking asshole. Bet he’s so goddamn sincere and proud of himself.

       More than anything, I felt a breeze of relief. So long as Captain Justice was on the scene, I was off the hook. He’d put his coat under her head and mop her brow until the EMTs arrived. She was in good hands.

       Still, I had to go over, even if it was only to be completely useless. I waited for the light to change. Blind men simply shouldn’t go diving fearlessly into heavy traffic to save old ladies. It rarely ends well. But blind or not, Our Hero had spoken to me. He knew I was there, knew I heard her, and knew I was aware of what happened. If I didn’t at least offer my assistance it would be bad news. The important thing, though, was that it was the right and human thing to do.

       As I stood at the corner waiting for the light something else started pulling at me. The old cowardice. The longer I waited for the light, the more useless I felt. Hell, he probably had her leg in a splint already, and had placed a personal call to “his dear personal friend” Senator Schumer about getting some quick action on these deadly icy sidewalks of Bay Ridge. I just—

       Before the light changed, I crossed the other street and headed back to the Bunker with my beer. The moment I made the decision to leave them there I knew it was a mistake, and a mistake that would follow me for a long time. It was something else to add to that mountain of shames and failures that haunt me when I’m caught in the silence. It was more proof that I’m just like the rest of them.

       As I reached for my keys the black knot of shame nestled in among my already quivery guts and stayed there for awhile.

       The ironic thing about all this is that I don’t care for people much. If I met that woman who’d fallen, I’d probably want to push her down myself. As for the Righteous Mr. Righteous, I’m just left wishing more drivers had better aim. Hell with them both.

       Nevertheless, a few hours later I tried to redeem myself by rescuing a stray cat out of the rain, but she wasn’t having any of it. Probably smelled the worthlessness and scampered away.

 

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