Sunday evening, 7 o'clock, the two of us are driving in the misty rain along Greenspring Avenue toward Druid Hill Park when we see the man in the red car roll the dice with his life and ours.
His car is out of control and speeding toward mine. My car is moving up the Greenspring Avenue hill from Cold Spring Lane. The red car has just come over the other side of the hill, past Children's Hospital, where the road curves slightly to the left just as it starts to go downhill fast.
The man in the red car does not negotiate the curve in the road. The rain has made it too slippery at his speed. He is maybe 60 yards from us when we see his car go into a mad 360-degree spin. I stop my car in the middle of the street and gaze in fascination, as though a drive-in movie has suddenly sprung up in my windshield.
The red car, careening wildly, bounces off a parked white van now and keeps coming toward us. It's maybe 40 yards away. I think about putting my car into reverse but find my eyes too glued to his car to check my rear-view mirror for traffic behind me.
"Maybe I should back up," I hear myself say. My voice seems to be coming from someone else, someone who wishes to seize control of the situation because everyone else seems too absorbed in watching the accident play itself out.
"Yes," my friend says softly, equally absorbed in the drama outside our windshield.
Now the red car is maybe 30 yards from us and still veering crazily. The red car bounces off a curb. I see in my rear-view mirror that the road behind me is clear enough to back up. I put my gear shift in reverse. I do not move. I am too fascinated by this scene in front of me and cannot move my legs to put the car into motion.
Now the red car is maybe 10 yards from us. Move your car, a voice in my head says. Move it now. But it is too late now. The red car slides just past us, bounces onto the sidewalk and comes to rest at the base of a metal light pole. Ten yards from disaster, and I'm still sitting here wondering what to do. Ten yards: That's the distance between moving on with our lives or maybe watching them end.
The man in the red car seems to be unhurt. We get to his door as he's climbing out of his front seat, muttering something about rushing to get his taxes done on time.
"Are you OK?" we ask.
"Look at this mess," he says. The front of his red sports car has been smashed in, the hood crumbled up like an accordion caught in mid-note.
"Are you OK?" we ask again.
"I'm OK," he says, sounding a little dazed.
"That's the important thing," we offer by way of consolation. Rain is falling out of a leaden twilight sky. A couple of cars roll past and keep on going. We offer to go to a nearby telephone and call police.
"I just dropped off my little boy," the man in the red car says.
We offer again to telephone the police. The man in the red car thinks about this for a moment as he checks the damage to his car.
"My girlfriend lives around the corner," he says. He says he will call the police from there. We do not wish to press it, nor to jot down his license number. We are not police. In the rush of the moment, we trust him.
"The important thing," we tell him, as he examines his car, "is that you're OK. Cars can be fixed. It's just tin and glass."
The man in the red car nods his head in agreement but does not seem so certain. A moment later, we drive off, passing the white van and seeing the damage on its side. There's an unspoken assumption that the man in the red car will do the right thing, that he'll contact the owner of the van and make good on the damage.
Driving through the park, we relive the moment again and again, feeling like good citizens because we'd stopped to check on a stranger and feeling like people with solid values because we'd assured him that human life was more important than the damage to a mere car.
The little glow in our hearts lasts for a few seconds. We keep coming back to the white van. Would the driver of the red car contact the van's owner? What about the police, we wonder. We'd both noticed the driver of the red car had a slight odor of alcohol about him.
We drive into the evening wondering if the man in the red car will HTC play it by the book. In our concern for his personal safety, we have taken it for granted that he will be honest.
We want to believe the best about people, even when much evidence leads us to the contrary. We drive through town, running a small evening errand, and decide to drive back the way we came.
Neither of us says anything, but our intention is clear: We can still take down the license on the red car. The owner of the white van should not be the victim of a hit-and-run. We want to trust the owner of the red car, and yet . . .
On Greenspring Avenue, the red car is nowhere in sight. The white van sits in the rain, its side caved in and scraped raw. There is no note on its windshield, indicating someone will come by to arrange for insurance payments.
In the course of caring for the man in the red car, we neglected the owner of the van. And only time will tell how naive we were.