For some reason, the guy in front of me has stopped at the stop sign, turned on his flashers, and exited his truck, phone to his ear. I'm about halfway into a full-tilt rant about idiotic driving and how the hell am I supposed to help him push his truck out of the way when he's wandering around yacking on the phone when I see the cars in the ditch. Two of them, a white one and a gold one, both utterly nondescript small American sedans from 2000 or so. A crash at this corner—two two-lane county roads, speed limits 45 and 55, a stop on one and nothing on the other—is no surprise. I've been braced for my own for years, since I started working at the end of one of these roads. But this one is fresh, nobody there but the cars in the ditch, the guy on the phone, another car pulling up opposite me, and me. I creep past the truck, turn right, put my flashers on, pull over into the ditch. From that angle, I can see that the air bags in the gold car have fired, and that the passenger-side windshield is broken. Part of me wants to flee, thinking somebody's head hit that windshield and I really, really don't want to see the results of that, but I get out and cross the road and then can see that there is no one in the passenger seat. The last car to pull up has disgorged people who are helping a woman out of the white car, and I can see a kid, apparently calm, in a car seat in the back. The white car's front end is smashed back a foot or so and then sort of wedged downward, as if it had tried to dive under the other car. The guy on the phone is also focused on the young woman and her kids, and so I turn to the gold car, in which sits an older woman, perhaps my mom's age, alone.
I kneel at her broken-out window, the door below it blasted back a foot or more, fifteen inches, and she's breathing, sees me, but can't really tell me her name (Ellen? Elma? Alma?). It was the deploying airbag that broke the windshield. I touch her shoulder, tell her help is coming: the guy on the phone is, of course, on the phone to 911, still is, answering questions about number of injured and no there is no chemical spill and yes the older woman is breathing and yes there is some blood (the other woman is bleeding, not badly, from her hand) and so on and I assure the lady in front of me that help's coming, that the smoke coming from her dash is air bag propellant, not smoke, there's no fire, don't move, don't move, probably best not to move.
"My legs hurt!" she says. "I'll bet," I say, but her saying that moves me past my fear of what I might see to actually have a look. I'm afraid of feet trapped in torn sheet metal, grossly crooked femurs, more blood . . . but there is no obvious injury, after all. The interior is not nearly so caved in as the exterior. Modern cars—even only sorta-modern cars—are pretty damned amazing.
The woman from the white car has pawed her bloody hand all over her calm and unfazed kids enough so that that they are now panicked and fazed and crying, and they're at full tilt when some dude pulls up, marches across the street, heading for the white car and the crowd around it. On the way by, he yells at the woman in front of me "There's a fucking stop sign there! What the fuck do you think you're doing?" I don't think she's catching this, and he moves on to yell at other people before I snap something back at him. His people—I think the other driver was his daughter—calm him some, start filling him in, and it's just me and the older woman again. I notice the ring on her wedding finger—three birthstones in a white- and yellow-gold setting and ask her if there's anyone she'd like me to call. "Call? No," she says. She's steadily more present and coherent and I start to think that it was just a hell of a blow (did her head break that side window?) and perhaps the wind mightily knocked out of her, that had had her so fuzzy up til now. "I can't find my glasses!" she says. I can't see them anywhere, and really God knows where they are after a face full of airbag. She wants to know what's taking so long; I tell her it's only been a few minutes but that I can hear sirens. And I can, first a Highway Patrolman, his presence a relief to me because I'm afraid that Mr. Dad Guy is going to come back over and yell at my lady some more and that I'm going to come completely uncorked if he does, and then a firetruck and an ambulance. As the HP officer is briefing the firemen on triage matters, the woman in the car suddenly looks right at me and says "What the heck happened, anyway?" What the heck happened is clearly that she ran the stop sign, but I don't tell her that. I tell her that I'm leaving her in the care of the professionals, who are now striding towards us.
And I tell her that I'm sorry this happened to her, and then—in a fit of gross obviousness—that I hope the rest of her day goes better. And she says, "Thank you."
I tell the officer that I'd witnessed none of the accident, have only been offering comfort and need to get going, and he thanks me with a pat on the back. By the time I come back by the scene, maybe twenty minutes later, they have gold car woman sitting sideways on her passenger seat, her feet on the ground . . . surely a good sign.
Surely, I hope, a good sign.