My van was the grande dame of the preschool fleet, a veritable humpback Chevy whale amid the Mitsubishi minnows collecting the children from St. Rita’s school at three p.m. She could hold six screaming preschoolers in the back, all of them with car seats, and without a factory-installed airbag in the passenger seat, she could accommodate an extra child up front when necessary. Today, Monday, it was necessary, and that lucky child was Melissa the Motormouth. Had the incident which was about to occur been worse, my defense would have been to put Melissa on the stand for five minutes and let her talk. I contend no jury in the world would convict me of driving too fast to get her home.
“. . . and then Jason took off his clothes and pooped in the wastebasket,” Melissa chattered, “only it was tall and he missed so it went down the side. And then he looked at it so I went to get Mommy and she said he was like Daddy ‘cause he leaves messes all over the house. Mommy almost cleaned it up, but Spike chased Fluffy through it and got poop on their feet and then Mommy chased them in the kitchen and then they got poopy paw prints everywhere. Yuck! Mommy cleaned Fluffy up and threw Spike outside. She mopped the floor and said Daddy would have to give Spike a bath when he got home ‘cause Spike was his dog and—Mr. Nick, watch out for that man!”
She pointed ahead to a man I’d been watching already. He was staggering down the shoulder of Highway 31, every so often lurching into the right traffic lane. The sleeves had been cut out of his flannel shirt and his too-long pant legs were bunched around his feet. Wiry, ebony arms flailed as he strove to gain his balance.
“Uncle Harold walks like that and Mommy says he needs to dry out but Uncle Harold never looks wet to me . . .” Melissa was saying, but I stopped paying attention to her and slowed the van, approaching the stranger as cautiously as I could with traffic whizzing around us. I checked the rear and side mirrors to see if I could cut into the left lane.
The traffic was too heavy. He moved a little farther away from me toward the far right of the shoulder. Thinking I had room to quickly scoot by him, I nudged the accelerator.
He chose that instant to stumble toward the road again. I slammed the brake pedal to the floor and inched to the left. The preschoolers screamed, all of them, all at once. The next thing I knew the man was tumbling into the ditch. I hadn’t heard a thump, but I couldn’t swear I’d missed him. I pulled the van over to the side and started to get out of the car.
“Where are you going, Mr. Nick? Can I come, too?” Melissa begged. Simultaneously my daughter Stephanie said, “Daddy, don’t go!”
I reached into the middle row and squeezed Stephanie’s hand. “It’s going to be all right. I have to make sure that man is okay. No, Melissa, you can’t come. Everyone stay in your seats.”
I locked them in the van and ran over to the ditch.
He lay face down in a carpet of green, shaggy weeds. We hadn’t had rain in a week so there wasn’t much water in the ditch. Probably no chance he could inhale water and drown, I thought, but I gently moved his face to the side anyway. He was breathing but unconscious. I checked for blood. The shirt was stained, but not with blood. He smelled of body sweat unchecked too long by soap or deodorant.
The mid-May sun, still high in the sky, made the beads of ditch water in his black hair sparkle. I patted his face. “Hey, buddy, are you all right?” There was no response. “Hello?” I lifted the eyelid I could get to.
“Is he okay?” a woman shouted. I looked up and saw a blue BMW parked behind my van. A woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in a business suit, stood next to it, waving at me. “You didn’t hit him. I saw it happen. He looked like he had a leg spasm or something. It made him jerk and fall. He might be one of those insurance swindlers, though. You need to be careful.”
“I don’t see any wounds, but he’s unconscious,” I shouted back. “Do you have a cell phone? Can you call nine-one-one?”
“It’s in my car.” She turned and started toward it, then scanned the road, one hand shielding her eyes from the sun. “Wait. There’s a police car coming. I’ll flag him down.”
While she stopped the police car, I ran up to reassure the kids that everything was fine. I reminded them to stay in their seats while I talked to the police officer.
From the way the officer approached, one leg stiff at the knee, I knew it was Ken Roth, an ex-reserve who’d been wounded in Desert Storm. Roth’s daughter Jamie and my daughter Stephanie had gymnastics classes together, so I saw him every Monday night. After a quick hello, he followed me to the ditch, listening to my story. The woman who’d flagged him down hung around; he’d asked her to stay until the ambulance came and he had a chance to get her statement.
Roth checked the man over for injuries, found none, then went up to where my van was parked. He inspected it carefully, examining it, I guessed, for evidence that I’d hit the man. After a few minutes, he returned to the trench.
“It doesn’t look like he’s hurt or that you hit him, Nick,” Roth said. “Don’t know why he fell, but, phew, he stinks. Might have been alcohol. I don’t see a wallet or anything. Looks like he might be homeless.”
The man and his clothes needed a good washing—that was beyond dispute—but I didn’t smell alcohol on him. I didn’t contradict Roth, however.
Roth stood up. “The ambulance should be here soon. I’m going up to call in. Will you stay with him?”
I said I would.
After Roth left, I took a little more time to examine the man. His hair was matted and hadn’t been cut in a long time. He had a stubby beard which I estimated at a week’s growth. He appeared to be in his late fifties, with age lines in his face that, minus the unkempt beard and hair, would have made him look distinguished.
I thought I saw the corner of something sticking out of his right back pocket. Roth had felt for a wallet but hadn’t actually checked anything else in there. I tugged at the corner and pulled it halfway out. It looked to be the Polaroid photograph of a hotel room.
All of a sudden he twitched, pulled his left knee toward his waist, and then turned himself over, the photograph still half in his pocket. He opened his mouth in a yawn. The teeth were yellow but straight, and there were no signs of dental work. I still could not detect alcohol on his breath when he muttered, “Ugghh.”
“Hello, are you okay?” I asked.
His eyes, bloodshot and yellowish, opened. The pupils were huge, dominating the flinty brown irises, and his eyes glowed like those of a cat in the dark. “Cahill wore red,” he said in a hoarse voice. Then the eyes closed up tight.
Had he said “Cahill”? That name had been in the news recently.
“What?” I nudged his shoulders. “What did you say? Come back.” He didn’t respond.
Roth returned. “Did you turn him over?” he asked, looking at the body.
“No, he did it himself. And he talked to me. It was a little bizarre, but for a moment he came to.”
“What did he say?”
I paused for a moment. If he really said “Cahill,” there might be a story in him the freelance reporter in me didn’t want to share yet. Now I was sorry I’d said anything. “Well, it wasn’t very clear, and I’m not sure I heard him right.”
“Nothing that would tell us his name or anything?”
“No, it wasn’t anything like that.”
“Well, there’s an ambulance on the way. Don’t know what’s keeping them. Nick, I need to get your statement.”
“I know. I’ve got a van full of anxious preschoolers up there, though. Can it wait until I’ve dropped them off?”
His mouth tightened. I could tell he wouldn’t let me go, but he understood about the preschoolers. “Why don’t you go see how they’re doing? Maybe I can get your statement when the paramedics get here.”
I scrambled up the ditch toward the van.
The kids were all out of their seats, even the three-year-olds. The older ones must’ve sprung them. Every child had his or her face pressed against a window. I opened the driver’s door and reached for Stephanie, who was kneeling on my seat. She wasn’t crying but the look in her eyes told me she was scared. “It’s okay,” I said, hugging her.
Using my most soothing voice, I got the rest of them back in their seats. There was no use explaining what was happening, so I just reassured them we would be going shortly. They were no sooner seated when the ambulance, siren blaring, pulled up. They popped out of their seats again.
“Are you going to jail, Mr. Nick?” Melissa asked anxiously.
“No, of course not,” I said, but not before the three-year-old Starner twins began crying. Then some of the others started, and suddenly I had my hands full.
Stephanie, who’s four and a half but really good with the younger kids, helped, but by the time I’d finished calming the tow-headed twins, the paramedics had returned from the ditch with the man on a stretcher. All the kids watched in awe. The paramedics said something to Ken Roth, who was standing next to the BMW taking the businesswoman’s statement. He nodded. They loaded the man in the ambulance and took off.
Roth closed his book, helped the woman into her car, and watched her leave. Then he walked over to me.
“Everyone okay here?” he asked.
“For the moment,” I answered. I turned to my charges in the van. “This is Officer Roth, kids. Can you say hello to him?” They did, with just a bit of awe, after which Melissa started.
“Mr. Nick didn’t hit the man on purpose,” she said. “He ran in front of us and Mr. Nick had to run him over . . .”
“My daddy didn’t hit him!” Stephanie protested loudly. “And he’d say he was sorry if he did . . .”
“It’s okay, Stephanie, Melissa,” I said, holding Stephanie’s hand. “Officer Roth and I are going to talk for a couple of minutes, and then I’ll take everyone home.” To the group, I said, “Can you be real quiet so the policeman can hear me?” With wide eyes, they nodded their heads.
True to their promise, the kids were mostly silent while Roth and I stepped out of earshot and went over what had happened. Roth seemed satisfied with what I told him, though he questioned me twice about what the man had said. Each time I insisted, and it was almost the truth, that I couldn’t be sure what he’d told me. Either Roth figured I was on the level or he decided I wasn’t going to let on, because he didn’t push it beyond the second “Are you sure?”
“Did they take him to Johnson Memorial Hospital?” I asked.
“Yeah. Do you want to be notified if they find anything?”
I nodded. “I know I didn’t hit him, but I’m sure I must’ve scared him. I’ll try to stop by the hospital after I drop the kids off. When will you have the police report filed?”
“Now that we have these laptops, we file them as soon after the fact as possible. Mine’ll be transferred to headquarters by the time you get home, if you want a copy.”
“Thanks,” I said. We returned to our vehicles. Roth sat in his car talking on the mike.
“Everything’s fine,” I assured the children as I eased into traffic. “I didn’t hit him, but he fell into the ditch because there’s something else wrong with him.”
“Why did he fall?” Stephanie asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
“What’s his name?”
“He told me a name, but I don’t think it was his name.”
“Whose was it?”
“No one you would know,” I replied.
No one she knew, but if I’d heard right, I could guess who he was talking about. And although I didn’t know yet what any of this meant, I definitely wanted to find out.