Because he’d never had a heart attack before, it was only after the third contraction that Jerome Archings lifted his foot off the gas and let the maroon Crown Victoria coast to a stop on the shoulder. A state patrol dispatcher would later remark, on her cigarette break, that he was “seventeen miles south of nowhere” in a corner of Adams County.
That’s where a young trooper had found him, head slumped against the steering wheel, his cheek already gray, his foot still on the brake. A rough-legged hawk looked on from a fence post. A murder of crows gambled on the pavement. Though nothing of the birds made it into the incident report.
From Jerome’s perspective it was a crisp, early winter day, though it hardly looked like winter in this part of the state. Before the pain there was a disorienting discomfort. It was the sensation of his digestive system rising into his chest, as though it were trying to leave the mortal universe ahead of the rest of him. Near the end, when it was clear that he was being reaped, as it were, from his life, several images of his sons and daughters passed before him, as though his mind were leafing through an album for the last time. He also heard his wife calling him to dinner. He could smell the pot roast, and almost taste the potatoes.
From the trooper’s perspective it was among the tidiest of death scenes. The car was spotless inside and out. In the backseat, arranged in small cardboard containers, were Jerome’s sales files. It was just one of his idiosyncrasies. The information was all on a computer, per company rules. And yet, as he had for thirty years, Jerome still kept paper files and traveled with them on his rounds to see customers throughout the Columbia basin. His latest stop had been to see the Mendenhalls in Asotin. They’d given him a bag of apples and a John Deere pen. He had tried to give them his cell phone.
“I just hate the damn thing,” he said, “but they make me carry it.”
Those were his last words.
From the tunnel of light that veered off in the general direction of Steptoe Butte, he looked back at the trooper inspecting his body. By then a mare’s tail of ice pellets had appeared to the east and for a few seconds it made a rainbow. Very impressive, he thought, of the trooper, with the crisp blue uniform and the classic thin-edged hat.
He also thought, from above, that it was a good way to leave, with everything more or less in order, and not having wrecked the car or mangled his body. Considering how deadly it had turned out, it was still all very kempt. And merciful.