Saturday, July 03, 2010

The tiniest, sliver of a second

Our big story du jour was about a fundraiser for a sheriff’s deputy who lost her arm in a boating accident. Apparently, people are selling green bracelets to raise money for her medical expenses. Now, the irony of selling bracelets to collect money for a woman who lost her arm was not wasted on a room full of apathetic news people – and bad jokes were soon volleyed around the room like a good, old-fashioned game of pong.

Afterward, I looked at my co-worker and said, “I feel the flames of hell licking at my ass.”

It was just one of those days -- one of those aware days.

I noticed it again when a press release rolled into my inbox, and I opened a new document and began to write:

A woman is in jail on charges she beat her 12-year-old adopted son with an extension cord, stuffed a pair of socks in his mouth and secured a piece of blue tape over his lips.

I looked at the sentence and thought about how easily I had typed it out, a skill honed after more than a dozen years spent boiling down someone else’s tragedy.

A man shot his 6-year-old cousin after Thanksgiving dinner
Police said a 16-year-old girl was gang raped
A Downingtown man is accused of stabbing his wife while she slept

If I’m not careful, I think about it. And I hate it when I do that. Because the difference between a good day, and a life-changing, gut-wrenching, holy-fucking-shit day is just the tiniest sliver of a second – and that’s not information you want to meditate on for any length of time.

Tick. Tock.

I’ve heard this is why we should live every moment like it’s our last. But I think that’s too much pressure. Naturally, you are going to find yourself in the grocery store behind a blue-hair with a stack of coupons as thick as the Fountainhead stuffed in her withered little fist and you don’t want to be standing there thinking “This arthritic living corpse is stealing my life.” That’s just not Zen.

I think about all the precious moments I wasted today: at least 45 minutes spent talking like a gypsy with my friend Chris, making up raunchy, fake fortunes; about 25minutes spent trying to look interested in a co-worker’s personal problem; and probably several minutes peeing. Which, frankly, would be the perfect epitaph for my tombstone: “Here lies Kelly Wolfe. She pissed away her life.”

Tick. Tock.

The other scary part of the whole deal is that these life changing tragedies often have nothing to do with decisions we make ourselves. We might be cruising along, paying our bills on time, using our blinkers, and making grocery lists when some nutjob decides that your life is about to take one hella turn. (The six-year-old was asleep in her bed. I picture her in pink jammies, clutching a favorite toy. I hope she was dreaming. I hope she didn’t wake up.)

Tick. Tock.

I think of one night, in those fragile days after 9/11, when I was working in Philly. We reporters would work 12 hours, then get together late at night to eat, drink, and just not be alone goddamn it. On this night, I’d been lost in thought when I parked my car (a newly-wed had been showing me a photo of her husband of two months. He was out there she was sure, we just had to find him) and I hadn’t paid attention when I slipped my car into a parallel spot and turned off the engine.

It was well past 1 a.m. when we all parted ways after dinner. And, of course, I couldn’t find my car. I was walking along a deserted, dark, narrow street – looking for something, anything familiar – when I saw headlights approach me. It was a green station wagon with three young men inside. The car slowed. They gathered in a little knot and gazed out the windshield at me. I ignored them and walked on – refusing to appear rattled. The car passed me. I heard it speed up and turn a corner. A few minutes later, I saw the car approaching me again. It slowed. The three men stared. I walked on. The car sped up, turned a corner.

I picked up my pace, and thought about trying to find a place to hide. I didn’t know what to do. Keep looking for my car? Hide in the shadows of an alley where, if they find me, what then? In the midst of trying to formulate a plan, I saw the car approaching again. It slowed. The three men stared. Then the car sped up, and turned a corner.

Just then, my phone rang. It was Bob, a friend who worked with me at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Hey, what’s up?” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“It ain’t good, friend,” I said. “I’m over by Fairmont and I can’t find my car. Some guys are driving around, circling me. They keep slowing down to look at me.

Bob, I think they are going to grab me.” I whispered the last sentence.

“Calm down,” he said. “I would slow down to look at you, too.”

Bob laughed. I did not. I was scared.

“Fuck you, Bob,” I spat. “Just write me a nice obit tomorrow, will you?”

Bob was still laughing.

“I won’t have to write your obit tomorrow, Crazy,” he said.

Men. It must be nice to gallivant around the world without a vagina – never feeling like prey.

I took the phone away from my ear and screamed into the mouthpiece.

“Dude! I! Am! Not! Kidding! I! Am! Fucking! Scared!”

I put the phone back to my ear.

“This is really bad, Bob. I can feel it.”

There was silence on the other end.

“What do you want me to do?” Bob asked. I heard concern in his voice. It was a real question. Frankly, I couldn’t think of anything he could do. If my gut was right, I’d be tied up in a basement somewhere by the time Bob made it from his apartment on South Street to Fairmont Avenue in a cab.

“Look, Bob, it’s a green station wagon. Three guys. Dark hair. I’m off Fairmont. That’s all I got. Stay on the phone with me. If you lose me, call the police.”


I cut him off with a whisper.

“Bob, here they come again.”

The car approached. I stopped on the sidewalk with the phone to my ear and looked at the driver. He had dark, wavy hair down to his shoulders and was wearing small, round sunglasses even though it was now almost 2 a.m. The car slowed to an idle. The driver and I looked at each other for a long time. He was not smiling. I felt my heart thrash against my rib cage.

Tick. Tock.
Tick. Tock.
Tick. Tock.

Then the driver slowly turned his head, looked back at the road, punched the gas, and drove away.

A stood for a second, steadying myself.

“Hello? Hello? Kelly, are you alright?”

Bob was yelling into the phone, but his voice sounded far away, somewhere beyond the current of blood rushing through my ears.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

My legs felt wobbly. I don’t know how long I stood on that corner, trying to remember how to breathe, holding the phone to my ear, Bob and I silent at either end.


“Yeah,” I said.

“Stay right there. I am coming to get you.”

“Hurry,” I said.

I looked up and down the street, trying to pinpoint a landmark so I could help Bob find me.

Just then I saw the dark outline of my car, parked just ahead, about two blocks away. Honestly, it was like it materialized there.

It felt like the sun had just come out. I honestly thought I heard a chorus of angels singing.

“It’s OK, Bob,” I said. “I see my car!”

“Oh, Thank God,” he said. I heard relief in his voice.

We hung up and I sprinted. My hands shook as I slid the key in the lock. I got in and gunned it away from the curve, not stopping until I came to a red light at Spring Garden. Then I rested my head against the steering wheel. When the light turned green, someone behind me honked, and I jumped.

Tick. Tock.

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