Cold Comfort

        This is a short story I wrote as an entry to the NYC Midnight 2017 Short Story Contest

Cold Comfort

by

  Jeanie Fritzsche

 

I can see what’s happened from two blocks away, the crumbled hood of the black Lexus jammed into the rear bumper of a small yellow car. From this distance, in the fading light, I can’t tell the make of the front car but we’re inching along now, everyone wanting to get a look. I’ll have a better view as we get closer.

Nearing the accident, I’m surprised to see a crushed bicycle wheel and tortured handlebars sticking out between the two cars. Blood pools on the asphalt, and I do a quick calculation of my options.

One, I can turn right at the intersection ahead and keep going. There’s plenty of people crowding around to help so, as I see it, no harm, no foul if I don’t get involved.

Or I can drive by and, if I see what I expect to see on the ground between the cars, call it in to the police. You would think someone’s already done that, but you’d be surprised how often a crowd will mill around a scene like this, everyone thinking someone else has already called, no one bothering to ask. My call could mean the difference between life and death. Worst case, I’m just one more unnecessary phone call.

My last option is to pull over and join the crowd. This one is tricky. If I do stop, I have to decide: do I or don’t I leave a business card? This might sound cold, even mercenary, but it’s likely that this is a fatality. Someone will need an undertaker.

And I happen to be one.

I’m not a body snatcher, like some, who keeps a police scanner in my car and heads out at the first sign of somebody else’s bad news, but undertaking is a business, just like trading stock or selling solar panels, and you’ve got to get business if you want to stay in business. It’s possible a decent profit just fell into my lap. If I spend too much time weighing my options, it’ll be a lost opportunity.

A parking space opens up at the curb, and I realize the universe just gave me a little shove. I pull into the spot, check my purse for business cards, and walk half a block up the street to join the crowd.

Things are chaotic. The driver of the yellow car, which turns out to be an old piece-of-shit Corolla, and the Lexus owner are in the street swearing at each other. A hysterical young woman, maybe in her twenties, stands next to a red bicycle that’s been dropped on the sidewalk. Bystanders, mostly women, surround her like crows on a McDonald’s bag.

In the street, between the cars, the bicycle frame lies atop the body of a young man. He’s not going anywhere until the ambulance arrives. From the looks of it, there will be the obligatory trip to the hospital and, from there, the morgue. I turn my attention to the young woman.

It’s times like this when it pays to be the only female mortician in town. I merge into the group on the sidewalk and inch my way closer until I’m standing beside her.

Pulling my phone from my purse, I whisper to her, “Who can I call for you?”

The girl is in shock, stares dumbly, but I persevere. “Do you have a friend?  A sister? Perhaps your mother?”

She shakes her head.

I look up and see Sheldon Markowitz, a true ambulance chaser, hurrying down the street, elbowing people out of his way as he hustles toward us. Shel is my main competition and a force to be reckoned with.

I move closer to the girl, lay an arm across her shoulder, and guide her toward my car.

“I hear a siren,” I say, “probably the ambulance. Is this your husband?”

She shakes her head and whispers, “My fiancé, Reggie.”

I look down at the thin band, the tiny diamond on her left hand, and sigh. This will be a bargain-basement coffin, maybe even cremation.

“If you’re not married,” I say, “you can’t ride in the ambulance. Let me drive you to the hospital. I know this is a terrible shock.”

I ease her onto my front seat and hand her a tissue as the ambulance arrives. On the short drive to the hospital I learn that her name is Genevieve, she and Reggie met in a rehab facility, they’re trying to get a new start.

Great. I think, Simple Pine Casket, $545.

As the ambulance shoots past us, heading to the hospital with her probably-dead fiancé in the back, she tells me her father owns oil rights back home in Oklahoma. My spirits rise. Royal Sunset, $1,195.

At the hospital I lead her to the ER, seat her on a molded-plastic chair, and bring her a clipboard with a sheaf of forms the apathetic crone behind the counter shoves at me. I haven’t expected so much paperwork—they usually process a corpse quickly and move on—but apparently Reggie has a pulse.

Figures. It will be a long night.

“Can you tell me what happened?” I ask Genevieve, to pass the time.

She turns teary eyes toward me.

“I can’t really say,” she says. I can hear Oklahoma in her soft voice. “I stopped to look at a puppy in the window of the pet store, but Reggie kept on going. Next thing I hear a crash but, you know, I don’t think nothing of it. I look up ahead, but couldn’t see Reggie anywhere.”

Until now, I haven’t taken a good look at Genevieve, being more concerned with establishing what we in the business like to call “empathy.” Frankly, we like to call it that, but strip away the hushed tones and feigned interest in what a wonderful/loving/cheating, but now dead, mother/grandpa/son-of-a-bitch the deceased used to be, and it’s just salesmanship. And a corpse.

I stop now and pay attention to the woman, more a girl, beside me. She’s small and delicate, a bit on the mousy side. Her drab hair is pulled into a ponytail, wisps falling out of the clip that holds it. Fingernails bitten down to the quick are painted a bright lavender. The shorts and t-shirt she put on this morning, in anticipation of a day out with her fiancé, are splattered with blood. I realize she must have tried to get to Reggie, smashed between the cars, when she arrived at the scene of the accident.

“I thought maybe he’d pulled over by the bar there on the street,” she continues, “and I was ready to give him hell because we’re clean and sober now.”

Her eyes tear up, and she shakes her head slowly. “I should’ve knowed he wouldn’t break his promise to me.”

I hand her a Kleenex and pat her knee.

“Reggie sounds like a fine man,” I say. “I’m sure he’s going to be okay.”

Of course I’m not at all sure of either of those things but, to my surprise, I’m beginning to hope that it’s true. I’m not enthusiastic about the vision of Genevieve’s swollen, grief-stained face beside Reggie’s coffin, even if Daddy springs for the Mahogany Deluxe Slumber-in-Comfort Wood Casket, $3003.95.

We sit together while the minor injuries—broken bones, asthma attacks, drug overdoses—enter and leave the ER. A few serious cases, such as a ruptured bowel, a knife wound, are whisked behind the hermetically sealed doors and don’t return. I help Genevieve with the paperwork, then walk down to the cafeteria to get us coffee. Genevieve asks me to bring her five packets of sugar. We thumb through dog-eared, outdated Time and People magazines. We watch the clock.

The sun is just beginning to climb above the horizon when the doctor, a small man who appears to have recently stepped off the plane from New Delhi, comes into the waiting room. We’re the only ones left; he comes directly to us.

In heavily-accented English, he explains that Reggie is in serious condition, but stable. He has lost a leg, and a lot of blood, but not his life. Genevieve chokes back a sob.

“No, no,” the doctor says. “This is not such a bad thing. You know, a one-legged man won the Madison Marathon.

“We will send the patient to the third floor for recovery. You can visit in the afternoon.” Looking at Genevieve’s tear-stained face, he takes her hand and pats it gently before returning to the ER.

I give her a ride home, relieved the night is over, and Genevieve will not be needing any of my merchandise. I drop her off in a small trailer park beside the highway, hand her my business card and ask her to keep in touch.

As I pull out of the gravel drive, two police cars and an ambulance speed by, heading toward the Motor Speedway outside of town.

I turn the wheel in their direction and proceed to follow.