I was walking home from school, with my babysitter, Valerie, on a hot and humid spring afternoon. It was really, really hot out, but I was in a good mood: At school I got to play tag, build a Lego tower, and eat some birthday cake. At the corner of Seventy-Second and Amsterdam I saw something weird. Just outside of Grey’s Papaya, there was an odd, frozen cluster of people. Neither of us could see through or over the group from afar, so we kept on walking toward it. Valerie squeezed my little hand.
The street was pretty crowded that day. Watching cars go by always looked like some sort of super-speed obstacle course to me. I heard a car honk and got kind of annoyed. I always thought that was so stupid. Are they really mad that some slow walker or lousy driver added five seconds to their trip? Can’t you just wait for five seconds, I always thought. What they really should be honking at is traffic itself, but I guess that’s impossible. I mean, everyone driving a car or walking is going somewhere.
We were getting closer to that odd cluster of people. I was so excited to see what they were all doing. My hand started to sweat in Valerie’s from the added heat, so I slid it out and took my first steps toward the edge of the sidewalk. Alone.
For how close together these people were, they sure were quiet. Everything was pretty quiet, actually. There was no moaning homeless man under the streetlight that’s next to the newsstand on the corner. There were no customers in Grey’s Papaya (the first and only time I’ve seen that). There weren’t any cops outside the subway station either. There couldn’t have been more than six people in sight who weren’t part of this mysterious group. With some more walking, I finally reached the outer ring of people.
I knew I had a lead on Valerie, and that I had to act quickly, so I dove in. It was dark and so, so wet. I couldn’t see very far in any direction. Valerie yelled my name, and I yelled back, but I don’t think any noise I was capable of making could’ve escaped that abyss. The heat inside the group made me feel squished, confined. No one moved or acknowledged me, and that scared me a little. Everyone was so sweaty. My arms kept brushing against people’s wet leg hairs, which actually helped me slide between all the sweaty bodies. I felt kind of like Nemo at the beginning of the movie when he’s darting around in that weird plant where only clownfish live.
After I pushed through to the final ring of people, I rotated myself and slid between the two closest to the curb. Why won’t anyone touch the pavement, I wondered. People always seemed to love being on the edges of the street, especially when they knew they couldn’t cross it yet. Everyone looked frozen still. So lifeless. A few seconds after joining the people on the curb, I looked up. I wouldn’t look down again.
She lay on her stomach. Her left cheek fried on the pavement. Her right leg bent at the knee, and her left was straight. She had short, greasy, dark brown hair that covered her face to about her nose. Why is her nose bleeding? What is she doing down there?
Her eyes were pretty. When we made eye contact, I kind of awkwardly looked away toward the side of the Seventy-Second Street Subway Station. Pretty quickly, I brought my gaze back to her. Her eyes were really open. Why won’t she stop staring at me. Then I noticed a web of redness in her otherwise very blue eyes, and that she hadn’t blinked, or moved at all really, in some time. It took me a second. But then I knew she was dead. I never thought people could die with their eyes wide open like that. She still looked scared.
I stared at her face a little more until I smelled something nasty. Gasoline. I looked downtown, to the left, and I saw her motorcycle. It was on its side, dripping its gas onto the street. I started hearing sirens in the distance. All of a sudden, people started moving again. The group began to split back up and walk away to wherever it was each person was going before.
The people who walked by and stopped to look were different than the ones who had already left and probably seen the whole event. They never stopped walking for more than a few seconds. They looked at her like someone would look at rancid road kill that their dog had brought back after playing in the yard—a grisly and disconnected inconvenience.
I felt everything seeping into my memory. The gasoline flooding the street and thickening the air. The blood that had dried into and stained the cracks between the pavement’s chipseal. The pieces of torn abdominal flesh that had already fried into glistening, bloody potato chips. The red lines imprinted in her bright, terrified, and helpless eyes. The fervor that had all too quickly returned to the streets after ambulances started coming. All of it sank deep into the folds of my brain, ready to be endlessly churned over and over again until the definitive end of all my thoughts.
As the crowd thinned, Valerie spotted me. She ran over and clamped down on my wrist. She scolded me to never do that again. I wouldn’t listen. While she dragged me downtown by my wrist, I watched the driver of the car that she must have rear-ended. I stared at him until he was out of sight, but he never lifted his tearful face from his right palm. He’s sad, I thought. Sad for her. Really sad. His car’s trunk had a massive dent from where the motorcycle hit it, but he never looked up. When cop cars, sirens screaming, turned the corner, he didn’t look up and his shoulders didn’t stop bouncing. I still don’t really know what he looks like.
We didn’t talk while we walked. A block or two later, Valerie bought me a cherry icee from one of those little carts, my favorite. It was an unusual moment of affection for her. I held the little Dixie cup in my hand, letting the syrup drip all over my fingers while I thought. There was a very, very old and sick looking lady using a walker on the pathway to my building’s front door. Some stupid looking middle-aged man in a white button down shirt and black pants flipped his cellphone shut as he caught up to her. We joined the pair quickly because she was so slow.
I could tell he was trying to skirt around her. Looking at his determined expression made me angry. I felt hot, really hot. I looked down at my melting icee. I felt blood pumping through me. When he muttered something under his breath, I smashed my Dixie cup into his side and screamed and screamed until my voice gave out. Everyone stared at me, but I didn’t really care.
The only time I ever cried over that day was when the old woman made her slow, pathetic turn to join in confusedly glaring at me.