Fiction · 02/10/2021

Totaled

When I opened my apartment door, my friend Sandy stood in the doorway, her clothes disheveled and stained with blood, her hair matted on both sides, twisted like stray wires.

“Sandy!” I said. “Come in, you look like a wreck!”

“I am a wreck,” she said. “I was just in a car accident.”

“Oh no,” I said. “Are you okay? Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“No, it’s not worth fixing me at this point. The medic said my spleen is gone, my liver ruptured. But insurance should pay life to Dan and the kids.”

“Really?” I said, leading her to the sofa, but then, thinking of the blood, redirecting her to the old chair which the dog usually sleeps on. “Off, Alex,” I said to my Boston Terrier. He lumbered off the chair reluctantly and sat on the carpet.

“Well, what brings you here?” I asked as Sandy sat down. “Not that I’m not excited to see you,” I added. Her right ear was ripped and leaking, which explained the matted hair on that side.It didn’t seem to bother her though.

“Well, I was in the neighborhood,” Sandy said. “It happened just a few blocks from here, and I thought, why not pop in on Maryanne? Oh, and I wanted to return this serving spoon from that wonderful fruit salad you brought over last month.” Sandy pulled out the spoon. “It was in my purse and miraculously didn’t get damaged.”

“Well, that’s very sweet of you,” I said. “But you can keep it.” I couldn’t imagine using it now.

She set it down on the table nonetheless.

“Can I get you some coffee,” I asked. “Or water?” I saw a bone protruding from a hole near her elbow. Something thick and gray was leaking onto the chair cushion.

“No thanks,” she said, her usual cheery self. “I can’t hold liquids right now anyway. But a sponge would be great. I can chew on that — absorb some of this blood.” She opened her mouth wide and showed me the gaps where her teeth had been. She pulled a tooth chip out, wrapped it in a tissue, and put it in her pocketbook.

I turned toward the kitchen for a sponge and something strong to drink.

“A clean sponge if you have one,” Sandy called out as I left the room.

I made myself an Irish coffee and stood in the kitchen with the mug in one hand, a new sponge in the other. I took a deep breath. I didn’t really want to go back in, face more gore, try to concentrate on her story as I calculated how long it would take to clean up the mess Sandy would leave behind or how many calls I’d have to make and papers I’d have to fill out if she died in the apartment.

Be supportive, I told myself. This is about her, not you.

I took another breath, put on a smile, then swung open the kitchen door and headed over to Sandy, who had already sunk a few inches into the chair.

“Here you go,” I said, handing her the sponge. “I unwrapped half of it, so you wouldn’t have to fiddle with the plastic. I didn’t know if you’d broken any fingers.”

“Totally,” she said, holding up her right hand. Her four fingers pointed in wildly different directions, like a signpost to major cities in the world. Her thumb was missing altogether. “Thanks,” she added.

“So what happened?” I asked, then took a big gulp of my coffee, burning the roof of my mouth. “Awww!” I screamed.

“What’s wrong?” Sandy asked.

“I burned the roof of my mouth,” I said. “But go on.”

“No, no. Do you want to get some ice for that?”

“Maybe I should,” I said, holding my hand to my mouth, as though that would do any good.

“Want me to get it?” she asked.I thought of her mangled fingers on the fridge handle, picking at the cubes of ice, and I said, “It’s okay. I got it.”

I went back in the kitchen, already a little tipsy from the whiskey — I hadn’t eaten anything yet that morning — and fished myself some ice. Then, I realized how selfish I was being. “Can I get you ice, too?” I asked.

“Oh, sure,” Sandy said from the living room. I could barely hear her voice over the hum of the fridge. “That’s awfully nice of you.”

“No worries,” I said, coming back in and handing her a cube wrapped in a paper towel.

“How sweet of you,” she said.

“So what happened?” I sat back down and took a more cautious sip of coffee.

“Well, it’s not very exciting. I was just crossing the street and didn’t look both ways. Got hit by a station wagon. He didn’t even have time to slow down. Totally my fault. I feel bad for the guy. Dented his grill, though that should be covered by insurance. But will my car insurance pay for his car, if I wasn’t technically driving? I mean, it’s still a traffic accident, right?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “You’d have to look it up, call them. Did the cops come?”

“Yes, the whole mess. This guy was going to pick up his wife at the airport, so I really felt bad. He seemed so…”

“Angry?”

“No, guilty, like it was his fault. Poor man.”

I shifted back on the sofa, Alex wagging his tail beside me now. Sandy was right, I thought: not such an exciting story. “And then the ambulance came? Didn’t they want to take you to the hospital?”

“Yes, yes, and a fire truck. They always overdo it,” Sandy said, chewing softly on the sponge. “It was ridiculous. That’s when the paramedics told me my liver was gone, and my spleen. I could tell I was a wreck, beyond repair, so I refused to get in. Why waste the resources? Plus, I think it made the guy feel better that I just walked away. ‘No harm done,’ I’d said. ‘Sorry to make you late.’”

Sandy sat quietly then. I worried she had died, but I saw her blink now and then. She rarely talked about herself, so even this story had seemed long. I’d already finished my Irish coffee, which irritated the roof of my mouth going down but ultimately dulled the pain. I thought of offering Sandy some straight up whiskey, but then remembered: no liquids.

“Well,” I said. “That’s quite a story.”

“No, not really,” Sandy said. “How has your morning been? Am I keeping you from anything?”

I had been looking forward to a nice morning alone taking a bath and reading a book. I’d forgotten all about that as soon as the doorbell rang, but now it was coming back to me. I wanted my morning back, as much as I loved Sandy. We were tennis partners for years.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” I said. “But I plan to go out in a bit. Do some shopping. Do you need a lift? Was your car totaled?”

“No, no, just me. Remember, I was walking?”

“Oh right. Well, that’s good at least. No damage there.”

“Yes,” she said. “And in all the pandemonium, I didn’t even lose my keys.” She held them up on a crooked finger. “I kept my wits about me.”

“Yes,” I said, looking at the darkening spot on the cushion of her chair. “I can tell. About your wits, I mean.”

“Well,” she said, pushing the mass of her body upward. “I should get going.”

I watched as she used her good arm to prop herself up, then pivoted to stand, a small trail of liquid dripping from her pants to the floor. Alex watched the drops eagerly. “I’m so sorry,” Sandy said, noticing the puddle. “I’d bend over and clean that up, but I’d be afraid I’d never get up again.”

I smiled weakly, though she wasn’t looking at me. “No worries. I’ll just get the mop. I needed to clean the floors anyway.”

Sandy straightened, though she leaned leftward. “Well, it was good to see you.” She turned and stumbled toward the door. “I’d hug, but I don’t want to get your robe dirty.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” I said. I looked over and saw Alex already lapping up the mess on the carpet and wondered what could possibly remove the scent and stain in the chair.

Sandy struggled with the front door lock until I undid it for her. “That can get stuck,” I said. “I’m so sorry about the accident,” I added. “But say hello to Dan.”

“I will,” Sandy said. “If I make it home.” She smiled to show me it was a joke, though it wasn’t clear that it was. “And thank you for the ice and towel. And sponge. I feel a little better. You’re a lifesaver.”

I smiled as I watched her stumble, trying to grasp the railing at the top of the stairs with her bad hand.

She wobbled and began to tumble down the stairs. I closed the door quickly. Then, I grabbed the TV remote and raised the volume. I didn’t want to hear her land.

+++

Nathan Alling Long’s work appears on NPR and in over a hundred publications, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, Witness, and Story Quarterly. His collection, The Origin of Doubt, was a 2019 Lambda Literary Award finalist, and his current manuscript, The Empty Garden, was a finalist for the Iowa Fiction Award and the Hudson Fiction Manuscript award. He is the recipient of a Truman Capote Literary Scholarship, a Mellon foundation grant, and four Pushcart nominations. He can be found at https://blogs.stockton.edu/longn/.