The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.
The man was not hurt when the other car hit ours. The man I had known for one week held me in the street in a way that meant I couldn’t see my legs. I remember knowing that I shouldn’t look, and knowing that I would look if it wasn’t that I couldn’t.
My blood was on the front of this man’s clothes.
He said, “You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined.”
I screamed from the fear of pain. But I did not feel any pain. In the hospital, after injections, I knew there was pain in the room —“ I just didn’t know whose pain it was.
What happened to one of my legs required four hundred stitches, which, when I told it, became five hundred stitches, because nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be.
The five days they didn’t know if they could save my leg or not I stretched to ten.
The lawyer was the one who used the word. But I won’t get around to that until a couple of paragraphs.
We were having the looks discussion —“ how important are they. Crucial is what I had said.
I think looks are crucial.
But this guy was a lawyer. He sat in an aqua vinyl chair drawn up to my bed. What he meant by looks was how much my loss of them was worth in a court of law.
I could tell that the lawyer liked to say court of law. He told me he had taken the bar three times before he had passed. He said that his friends had given him handsomely embossed business cards, but where these lovely cards were supposed to say Attorney-at-Law, his cards said Attorney-at-Last.
He had already covered loss of earnings, that I could not now become an airline stewardess. That I had never considered becoming one was immaterial, he said, legally.
“There’s another thing,” he said. “We have to talk here about marriageability.”
The tendency was to say marriage-a-what? although I knew what he meant the first time I heard it.
I was eighteen years old. I said, “First, don’t we talk about dateability?”
The man of a week was already gone, the accident driving him back to his wife.
“Do you think looks are important?” I asked the man before he left.
“Not at first,” he said.
In my neighborhood there is a fellow who was a chemistry teacher until an explosion took his face and left what was left behind. The rest of him is neatly dressed in dark suits and shined shoes. He carries a briefcase to the college campus. What a comfort —“ his family, people said —“ until his wife took the kids and moved out.
In the solarium, a woman showed me a snapshot. She said, “This is what my son used to look like.”
I spent my evenings in Dialysis. They didn’t mind when a lounger was free. They had wide-screen color TV, better than they had in Rehab. Wednesday nights we watched a show where women in expensive clothes appeared on lavish sets and promised to ruin one another.
On one side of me was a man who spoke only in phone numbers. You would ask them how he felt, he would say, “924-3130.” Or he would say, “757-1366.” We guessed what these numbers might be, but nobody spent the dime.
There was sometimes, on the other side of me, a twelve-year-old boy. His lashes were thick and dark from blood-pressure medication. He was next on the transplant list, as soon as —“ the word they used was harvest —“ as soon as a kidney was harvested.
The boy’s mother prayed for drunk drivers.
I prayed for men who were not discriminating.
Aren’t we all, I thought, somebody’s harvest?
The hour would end, and a floor nurse would wheel me back to my room. She would say, “Why watch that trash? Why not just ask me how my day went?”
I spent fifteen minutes before going to bed squeezing rubber grips. One of the medications was making my fingers stiffen. The doctor said he’d give it to me till I couldn’t button my blouse —“ a figure of speech to someone in a cotton gown.
The lawyer said, “Charitable works.”
He opened his shirt and showed me where an acupuncture person had dabbed at his chest with cola syrup, sunk four needles, and told him that the real cure was charitable works.
I said, “Cure for what?”
The lawyer said, “Immaterial.”
As soon as I knew that I would be all right, I was sure that I was dead and didn’t know it. I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence. I waited for the moment that would snap me out of my seeming life.
The accident happened at sunset, so that is when I felt this way the most. The man I had met the week before was driving me to dinner when it happened. The place was at the beach, a beach on a bay that you can look across and see the city lights, a place where you can see everything without having to listen to any of it.
A long time later I went to that beach myself. I drove the car. It was the first good beach day; I wore shorts.
At the edge of the sand I unwound the elastic bandage and waded into the surf. A boy in a wet suit looked at my leg. He asked me if a shark had done it; there were sightings of great whites along that part of the coast.
I said that, yes, a shark had done it.
“And you’re going back in?” the boy asked.
I said, “And I’m going back in.”
I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story. I’m going to start now to tell you what I have left out of “The Harvest,” and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out.
There was no other car. There was only the one car, the one that hit me when I was on the back of the man’s motorcycle. But think of the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle.
The driver of the car was a newspaper reporter. He worked for a local paper. He was young, a recent graduate, and he was on his way to a labor meeting to cover a threatened strike. When I say I was then a journalism student, it is something you might not have accepted in “The Harvest.”
In the years that followed, I watched for the reporter’s byline. He broke the People’s Temple story that resulted in Jim Jones’s flight to Guyana. Then he covered Jonestown. In the city room of the San Francisco Chronicle, as the death toll climbed to nine hundred, the numbers were posted like donations on pledge night. Somewhere in the hundreds, a sign was fixed to the wall that said JUAN CORONA, EAT YOUR HEART OUT.
In emergency room, what happened to one of my legs required not four hundred stitches but just over three hundred stitches. I exaggerated even before I began to exaggerate, because it’s true —“ nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be.
My lawyer was no attorney-at-last. He was a partner in one of the city’s oldest law firms. He would never have opened his shirt to reveal the site of acupuncture, which is something that he never would have had.
“Marriageability” was the original title of ” The Harvest.”
The damage to my leg was considered cosmetic although I am still, 15 years later, unable to kneel. In an out-of-court settlement the night before the trial, I was awarded nearly $100,000. The reporter’s car insurance went up $12.43 per month.
It had been suggested that I rub my leg with ice, to bring up the scars, before I hiked my skirt three years later for the court. But there was no ice in the judge’s chambers, so I did not get a chance to pass or fail that moral test.
The man of a week, whose motorcycle it was, was not a married man. But when you thought he had a wife, wasn’t I liable to do anything? And didn’t I have it coming?
After the accident, the man got married. The girl he married was a fashion model. (“Do you think looks are important? I asked the man before he left. “Not at first,” he said.)
In addition to being a beauty, the girl was worth millions of dollars. Would you have accepted this in “The Harvest” —“ that the model was also an heiress?
It is true we were headed for dinner when it happened. But the place where you can see everything without having to listen to any of it was not a beach on a bay; it was the top of Mount Tamalpais. We had the dinner with us as we headed up the twisting mountain road. This is the version that has room for perfect irony, so you won’t mind when I say that for the next several months, from my hospital bed, I had a dead-on spectacular view of that very mountain.
I would have written this next part into the story if anybody would have believed it. But who would have? I was there and I didn’t believe it.
On the day of my third operation, there was an attempted breakout at the Maximum Security Adjustment Center, adjacent to Death Row, at San Quentin prison. “Soledad Brother” George Jackson, a twenty-nine-year-old black man, pulled out a smuggled-in .38-caliber pistol, yelled, “This is it!” and opened fire. Jackson was killed; so were three guards and two “tiertenders,” inmates who bring other prisoners their meals.
Three other guards were stabbed in the neck. The prison is a five-minute drive from Marin General, so that is where the injured guards were taken. The people who brought them were three kinds of police, including California Highway Patrol and Marin County sheriff’s deputies, heavily armed.
Police were stationed on the roof of the hospital with rifles; they were posted in the hallways, waving patients and visitors back into their rooms.
When I was wheeled out of Recovery later that day, bandaged waist to ankle, three officers and an armed sheriff frisked me.
On the news that night, there was footage of the riot. They showed my surgeon talking to reporters, indicating, with a finger to his throat, how he had saved one of the guards by sewing up a slice from ear to ear.
I watched this on television, and because it was my doctor, and because hospital patients are self-absorbed, and because I was drugged, I thought the surgeon was talking about me. I thought that he was saying, “Well, she’s dead. I’m announcing it to her in bed.”
The psychiatrist I saw at the surgeon’s referral said that the feeling was a common one. She said that victims of trauma who have not yet assimilated the trauma often believe they are dead and do not know it.
The great white sharks in the waters near my home attack one to seven people a year. Their primary victim is the abalone diver. With abalone stakes at thirty-five dollars a pound and going up, the Department of Fish and Game expects the shark attacks to show no slackening.
Originally published in The Quarterly, and then in Amy Hempel’s short story collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom.
About the AuthorAmy Hempel was born in Chicago, and now lives in New York. She is the author of Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Unleashed, and Tumble Home. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Mississippi Review, Grand Street, Columbia, The Quarterly, Mother Jones, Zyzzyva, and other leading magazines.