Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Bumper

The day was soft with the scent of jasmine and eucalyptus as the first grade girl waits for her parents' friend. She stands near the curb in front of the school, unaware of the soft afternoon light, the nearby lawns brown from the late summer heat, and the ordinary absence of rainfall. She is alone. Her parents have gone to the Grand Canyon, leaving her to wait on this street of school yard and stucco bungalows. She was quite familiar with this place, Venice, and has explored her own neighborhood on foot, on bike, on street and sidewalk, and, often, in the neighbors' backyards. But she does not know the neighborhood around her school and so she is waiting.

When Beverly pulls up across the street, the girl is delighted to be done with waiting. She looks down the block and sees a car in the distance, a car which seems to be a long way off. The girl is comfortable in her body and its reactions, she is fearless in her neighborhood, she is independent and unafraid. She steps into the street, starting the short journey towards her mother's friend and the rest of her day after school.

From that day to this the one salient image, the one very concrete reality, indeed the only impression for some minutes afterwards is this: the Bumper. The girl really has no memory of the sound of braking or even whether braking is attempted. It is the image of the Bumper that is resolute in her memory, the Bumper shining and frozen as ice spires bright with winter's light, suspended there at her hip. It's as if she has noticed a metal object attached to some formerly unobserved solidity, something that she might have accounted for in her assessment of the situation if time had been moving as expected.

Of her flight through the air only fragments of still images remain.

The next clear realization she has is of lying across a car seat, blood everywhere, with many adults suddenly around, crying and speaking in loud voices. They try to clean up the blood. They put a cool damp cloth on her forehead. To a first grader, even a very tall one, the view looking up from this angle is discomfiting. Perhaps if the pain and blood were absent, if her competent body of minutes before were still present, she would laugh at the worried faces, believing that she had fooled them in some surprisingly clever way. Or possibly lying across the big bench seat of this large and boxy 40s car, smelling of tobacco and cologne, might remind her of late night trips home from friends' houses, her parents in the front seat and herself happily dozing across the back seat. But these thoughts have no place here. There is little room for her pain and others' fears, no place even for the Bumper or her magical tumble through the air. She doesn't remember feeling afraid. Everything is, she will only understand much later and with insight gained from ample quantities of self-administered 60s chemicals, surreal.

Why are there not other children in this scene? Is the event so traumatic on its own terms, by its own defining instant, that all that remains is the long careful look down the street, the friend a few feet across the street, the step from the curb, and then inexorably and now almost desiringly the attention, the caress of the Bumper followed by the flight and its feeling of a badly-fed slide projector? Why, she wonders later and not just once did her parents not sue the butt off this speeder? But we were wondering, why no other children? The girl, now sitting in my chair almost 60 years later, does not know, so she imagines an adult's being late. She would like to imagine an adult's startled shout, "Stop!" and let's agree that almost certainly there was one, but in the girl's memory the encounter with the Bumper happens in complete silence. So, if there were noise, let's say it was the bright and dull sound of a large speeding object striking a small unformed human child and if there were children present, think of the delight, once the inevitable "I'm glad that wasn't me" thought passes, of the appearnace of the ambulance all twinkly and screaming. The girl is somehow handled into the ambulance's dark interior and is now the property of the people whose job it is to repair children after their ride on the Bumper. It cannot be immediately apparent that the only injuries, or so I believe, are a broken arm (ha! at six, it's her second) and abrasions enough to last a lifetime. No, the ambulance scurries determinedly to the hospital, lights and sirens a-blazin'. The girl is shocked, not medically, but in the manner of one who is struggling to create the word "surreal" on her own. (Given enough time she could have, too.) Her final memory of this day is of having the ethered mask placed over her mouth and nose and of the bright red and black dancing shapes that followed in her interior theater. The next morning, and this she remembers as well, the arm is found to have been set improperly and must be rebroken and reset, but of this process she blessedly has no memory.

The disturbing edge of this event has dulled over the years as the girl grew up and had many more near encounters with the ending of her life. She won't say that she was spared so that she could do great things, but she remains grateful every day for her life and she would be infused with this gratitude even if unscarred.

But she always remembers the Bumper.