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 Out of Bounds

Cappy Jack ©2003

The siren went off on Tuesday night just as he was winding down. It made his heart start jumping, he looked down at his shirt and sat still. No need to rush, he was just across the street and up a ways from the firehouse. Called to duty, ’Damn’, Grady thought about missing his study, losing the reason he had cut class. He looked at his watch. It was just about the time he would be near home coming from Abington in his old GMC pickup truck. He closed the calculus book, turned off the spot lamp and got up.

“I’m going.” Called up to Sandra, he looked in the hallway, up the stairs, waiting for her reply.

“Good Luck!” He knew she was lying on the bed waiting for her treat when he climbed the stairs. She was four years older with thirty she liked to say, didn’t have time for the firehouse socials but neither did he. Sandra loved Grady and let him risk his neck on the back of a fire truck. He had been in the war, you know, and knew how to handle himself.

“Bring home a chicken this time.” By then he was through the study and out the kitchen door ready to trot over. But Sandra was referring to a barn fire he described to her on another midnight joyride with a bunch of yahoos. They got the big animals out before backing away to the 3am wind that consumed a lot of straw and some chickens.

The night was cool with a full moon but no wind. The ride on the back was smooth this time; they just ran the Ridge to Goldmine road. There at the tangent turn off onto Goldmine was a head-on collision. A car and a truck, nobody could be sure which way either one was going before hitting right smack dab in front and coming to rest here.

“Grady, you hold the hose. Any fire, you put it out.” The Chief and I could smell gasoline on the ground. Randy’s old man was going after the car door with a pinch bar, trying to open it. What an accordion. He swung it at least a dozen times before handing it to Randy. I just looked on while some spotlights behind me went on.

“Are the paramedics here?” The Chief was asking someone else. I wouldn’t look behind for fear of fire.

“Yes” A voice made unfamiliar by the scene, choked with disgust.

“Send one up here now.” The Chief was tense but I didn’t fear fire even though I wouldn’t look away. The three-inch hose was heavy and taut with water. He was closer and could see that a man in the car was in bad shape. The spotlights showed his face tilted back. He seemed to be sitting in the back seat. His eyes were closed. There were no spaces between the back seat of the car and its firewall. The nurse climbed into the car through the space where the windshield once was, perched over the guy and put a tube down his throat. She had to ball herself up so small to blow in the other end she lost her balance and peeled off to the side so I could have a good look. Every time she blew into the incubator, his neck injury would flap, showing his throat had been cut. His red shirt and black leather jacket soaked up his life’s blood and hid it.

“He’s dead.”  I said it loud enough so everybody could hear. They all stopped and looked down. They knew, too, no need to pronounce. The ‘jaws of life’ was set up and the nurse climbed back out of the vehicle and gave me a hard look walking back.

“Grady! Come over here to the truck. We may be bending metal here.” The Chief was referring to sparks, one fireman had his two fingers on the guys neck.

“He’s dead, too.”  The pale blue pickup was just like mine.

By now there was a crowd, all smoking, but back at a distance in the gutter. The Ridge road was blocked in both directions. The nice sedan was smaller and still smoking in the middle, facing nowhere. The pick up was facing nowhere too but off the road by just a pace. Six or seven people, I didn’t look much. Another paramedic, a man, came up and looked dismayed at the sight; door open, hanging on its hinges, the stop broken. The dashboard was pushed up to the seat crushing the man, his hands still on the wheel. His face was peaceful, like the other victim, they both were done.  I didn’t wonder what would happen next, I was uneasy thinking this could be me. Same road, same time, and the truck looked like mine in the dark. He looked about my age and had brown hair too. I took an uneasy look at the smokers. This death was too gruesome. I knew from the war to look away quickly. They were all looking intently.

A stretcher was brought up alongside the truck bed and a bundle unrolled exposing a variety of knives. The medic, a man with his teeth set, lips flat back and with sweat on his brow selected one; A Turkish delight by the scimitar look of it to me. I also recognized it as a boning knife from a summer as a butcher’s helper down at the shore. I knew how to use it too, carving around round sockets, releasing a leg of lamb, for instance, I had seen Jimmy do it all summer.  I knew what was coming, looked at the smoking engine compartment, turned left towards the spectators again, ghouls, all of them. Their eyes were goggled out of their sockets watching the medic with rapt attention. He worked fast. My peripheral vision saw one leg come out of the pickup, then the other. A big tug of war with the dead man and the medic finally produced a torso set on the stretcher along with the legs, sorta in order.

“Hose down the road abit, Brady.”  The Chief wanted to tow these vehicles out of here. Both bodies were gone. I was in another world, lost track of how much time had transpired, felt tired all at once. The big hose cured me of that and one of the guys upped the pressure. My sweeps were short and I kept the skip down. Rolling up was quiet and we went back to the barn in silence. That could have been me.

I wondered for a few day about how those two men made such a mistake. There was no way to discern the directions the vehicles had been traveling at over sixty-five miles an hour each. That much I heard at Randy’s Dad’s garage. Did both men exceed their limit? Goldmine comes into Ridge at a tangent from a long straightaway and the long curve of the Ridge was bounded by a berm on the inside, gentle slope on the other side. Playing chicken? Someone asleep? I was always keyed up driving fast back home. Wide-awake at this time of night, I’m sure I could have averted a head-on like this and be so glad that I did. Strange it was so close to me in time, space, and meaning. I was pushing my own limits having just understood the concept. Full throttle, balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, I churned up around me with enthusiasm.

I would have been on Ridge road right about there on any other Tuesday night, coming head on from Penn State Ogontz Campus after a night of math. I skipped class to study for my calculus test at Lehigh. When I told my night class instructor I was taking engineering math at Lehigh he looked at me and said, “They’ll chew you up.” It was tougher, that’s why I skipped. I was so chilled by the coincidence I asked my teaching assistant at Lehigh, after a 300 plus attendance, about the meaning of limits after class one day. He looked at me, looked up, looked down again and said, “Fair question. To tell you the truth, I don’t know. If you get a reasonable explanation, let me know.”  He bent at the waist and left me with a plausible appreciation for the difficulty of the thing. Knowing limits was difficult and finding them was dangerous. Most follow the norm, and don’t we know they are safer.

If I understand it correctly, a limit is something you never reach, only come close to. Slowly and with caution, live long; know what crosses into death; flat up against it but never crossing over until the last minute. And then infinity becomes the finite state. Sandra said,

“That’s spooky.”

I tried to explain my unease. My relief at backing away, limiting myself, seemingly saving myself from crossing into the circle, skipping the surface, tangentially. My home fell in the circumference of the circle that Ridge would make with the curve serving Goldmine roads tangent. I lived on Allentown road and drove that way so many times I knew holding the wheel tight would get me home even when I was tight. Were those guys drunk? How else could their reflexes fail them? They were going fast, yeah, but couldn’t their instinct to survive kick in? Maybe a wrong zig before a zag got them, no way to tell. My own brushes with death, with my limit, were just as mysterious, nothing seemed to fit, nothing mattered, just getting through was all that mattered. To the other side, but didn’t that break the finite state? It did if you were still alive. They weren’t and one of them should have been me, in a normal routine.



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written using Microsoft Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition