Before you get too far into this
you should know.
You should know this isn't the kind
of story where anything important happens, or where anything matters
It's not the kind of story where
a carload of cheerleaders go on a road trip and one-by-one meet
gruesome fates. It's not the kind of story where two lonely singles
lost in the bustle of city life find each other through some random
accidentchoking in an uptown restaurant our hero is revived
by a no-nonsense waitress and single mother struggling to make
If you like stories where the characters
remind you of yourself, give up now. Although you may be in here,
you probably won't recognize yourself. This story is not a mirror
or a window. Or an hourglass whose slipping sands are trickling
away. It's not anything glass at all.
If you are hoping this story will
help to explain some messed-up facet of your own life, don't bother
continuing. If you believe that everything happens for a reason,
and that everyone has a purpose in life, stop reading right now
and find something else to do. Cook someone dinner, or go buy
This story does not involve a showdown
between good and evil.
This story does not provide a glimpse
of the future, nor does it explain the past.
This story is a distraction from
distraction. A diary of noise.
Maybe you'll hear it. Maybe you won't.
Sorry, you are out of time.
Please return to your seats.
You've got mail.
The chicken is done defrosting.
was that the wash?
Or the doorbell??
This story was not written by some
distinguished wordsmith, cloistered away in a rustic cabin somewhere
in upstate New York, starving for an impossible pristine text.
It wasn't put down deep in the night by the soft glow of a computer
screen. Or by the flicker of candlelight. It wasn't born paragraphs
at a time on legal tablets or in some battered spiral bound notebook
In fact, this story wasn't even createdit
was found. Floating around out there as all stories do. And it
was never all that important to me until it got out. Until it
was designed, defined, and refinedpassed through disaffected
hands, and measured for therapeutic value.
How about five
hundred hours of therapy? Or complete cochlear reconstructive
surgery? Totally paid for.
I scan the offer as it slides across
the table. My answerI'm not sure how loud.
"I don't care. What good will
it do me? I'm happy now."
But you could be so much happier.
We can make you better. But we need your help. We need to know
where it went wrong.
Just as I finish reading the pad
is pulled back. There's more writing underneath when it comes
back, now the handwriting more distressed.
You should know something. You're
the first, but not the only one. There have been ten more since
you got here. Eyes, ears, hands, etc.
I can't help but smile, but only
at the corners of my mouth where it's just for me. The truth is
that with all the gauze, tape, and cotton wound around my head
I'm really in no hurry to go anywhere. I listen to the blood pumping
through my head and the incessant droning that I've become used
to in the past few weeks.
I rock back and forth on the chair
I'm secured to. Through the window I can see a spectacled herd
of labcoats watching me from the hall.
"Okay. Get a tape recorder or
something because I'm not writing it all down."
I plant the chair legs hard on the
tile floor and clear my throat hoping it sounds calm and authoritative.
"And when I'm done I want out."
The whole thing comes bubbling up
from slowly, steadily. The entire story without a problem, because
when you can't hear yourself talk it's much easier to hear yourself
is me, sitting with the dingy curtains pulled back as the cars
whiz up the hill beneath my window. I peek out, around and down
the corner to where the aluminum siding stretches away, and wonder
if anyone can see me sitting here. On the toilet. A liar, a con,
a thief, a maniac. This is what someone like that looks like I
guess, on the toilet, looking out through curtains. I am everything,
all balled up into one, because what does it matter if you are
simply one or another? Or maybe a few combined? The distinctions
between the things you did or didn't do, they don't really matter.
For sure, everyone has done something.
Everyone has a secret.
I've got mine, sitting on the toilet,
behind the curtains, wondering who might be out there, watching
me look out at them while they look in at me, watching me watch
them watch me. Everyone is made up solely of glances from watchers.
Glances captured from the leveling eyes of people on the street,
or their own as they pass a mirror, or look through rainy glass.
Just in case you're wondering, this
isn't really "headed somewhere" yet. So if you're thinking
that way, just stop.
I light up a cigarette here while
I'm waiting. Too much fiber in your diet and you will always be
waiting. I light it with one of the matchbooks on the sinktop.
There's about twenty of them. Because you never know.
I don't smoke, but smoking is something
you can pick up instantly and it's like you're suddenly part of
a family. You can get a pack of cigarettes anywhere and nobody
is going to say, "Hey, I've never seen you buying here before!
I bet you don't even smoke!" Instead, if someone else is
in there getting cigarettes too, you can kind of nod at them as
you pass on your way out. It doesn't even matter what brand you're
Then, too, if you're out somewhere,
at a bar or a diner, you don't feel like an idiot. You can sit
in the non-smoking section if you want, because you're not really
a smoker. Or you can sit in the smoking section, lay your pack
out on the table, maybe light one up or maybe not. You never look
like you're lonely when you're sitting there with a beer or a
coffee and a cigarette in the ashtray, just smoking itself away.
Maybe a magazine or a newspaper, too.
And of course, there's the fact that
people will never quite have you pegged. They see you walk out
of that gas station with a pack and a lighter and they think they've
got you down. You're not truly happy with yourself. You don't
care about your long-term health. They never even stop to think
that you may not smoke them. Or that you may be buying them for
your fading bedridden grandmother. Or your twelve-year-old nephew.
Or if people see you sitting, say
you're at a Dunkin Donuts or some diner or something. And you're
alone. You're not smoking and you don't have your cigarettes out.
You're just sitting. Again, maybe a magazine or newspaper, maybe
not. They stand in line or they sit a few booths away and they
watch you and they take you apart. That guy looks like a real
nutjob. He's probably going through a divorce, or maybe his mother
has recently passed. I bet he's a Democrat. Whatever. Then you
reach into your jacket pocket, pull out your smokes and strike
one. Through that first thin curl of smoke up around your eyes
you watch the whole game change. Or you can just fish the cigarettes
out of your pocket, making it real obvious, get up and walk out.
Light one up as you go out the door keeping your eyes real shifty,
whispering in low muddled Spanish to the people you pass. Oh my
God, that guy's possessed or something.
These are the
kind of games you have lots of time to play if you're a kidnapper,
drug addict, wife beater, if you're in a wheelchair. I mean, on
the average we've got over sixty years to fill up. Are you making
the most of yours?
As I'm sitting here, not really peeking
out through the curtains anymore, but letting my burning cigarette
balance on the edge of the faux-porcelain sinktop, I'm thinking.
I've been smoking, or not smoking as you may see it, on and off
for thirty-one years. I'm counting the time from when I was born
to age fifteen when I smoked my first cigarette as my first "off"
period. It works. So how many cigarettes have I smoked or not
smoked in that time? And how many cigarettes do you need to smoke
before you can say, "Yeah, I'm a smoker"? I know you
only need to kill one person in the alley behind the bar to be
a murderer. And you only need to swipe one person's car left idling
in a Wawa parking lot to be a thief. So in that light, am I a
smoker yet or not?
If so, I guess telling one lie should
make you a liar. So why stop now? You've got the label, and there
are a lot of stories to be spun. You can start by telling people
you have some sort of terminal skin disease, that the scratching
is manageable but the explosive diarrhea is really hell. Tell
your next door neighbor that you saw her husband coming out of
the Marriott last Friday at lunch. You waved to him but you weren't
sure if he saw you. He seemed like he was in a rush.
While you're at it, go into one of
those mid-priced family style restaurant chain places. Get a table
in the no smoking section. Then ask for an ashtray. The waitress
will say something like, "Excuse me sir but this is the no
smoking section. I can get you a table in the smoking section
if you want?" Just say, "No, this is fine." Then
light up a cigarette, or maybe two or three. As many as you can
handle. Chances are the waitress (or if you're really making a
scene the manager) will come over and request you stop smoking
in the no smoking section. With the burning cigarette or cigarettes
balanced delicately between your fingers you say, "Thanks,
but I don't really smoke. This is just for decoration." So
now you're a liar and a sociopath. Oh yeah, and possibly a smoker.
A true rarity, the complete triple threat.
These are the kind of things that
will really get you some looks. And that's what we're all after,
isn't it? That's the only way to really identify ourselves, by
how people see us. Take my neighbor Bill for example. He lives
a couple of waiting-to-be-condemned houses up the street from
me. I'm not sure how old he is. I mean, I've been smoking on and
off for thirty-one years and I know he's older than that, so let's
just say he's old. He's World War II old, he's starched button
down shirts and dress slacks seven days a week old. Bill's wife
is already dead, somewhere back around the turn of the century
I'm sure, so he's pretty well adjusted to living on his own. I
see him every morning as I'm leaving for work, either when I'm
leaving my house or when I'm pulling out into the street. Any
time he sees me like this he flags me down with his blue-white
flapping chicken arms. Then he sidles on up to my car, like we're
talking at a bar over a pint or something.
"So, where you off to so early?"
"I'm going to work, Bill. Like
every other morning." This is the truth, basically.
"Ahhh, it's good to see a young
person with such a work ethic. You know I worked down at the Steel
for fifty-three years. And the Steel's been shut down ten years
"Great, Bill. Yeah. I really
gotta get to work though."
I'm in my car now, starting to slowly
roll my window up. He's leaning halfway inside though. His teeth
are butter yellow and slimy, but at least they're his. His head
shakes and bobs around like it's on a spring when he talks.
"Ok, Bill. I'm rolling up the
window now. Tell Jeannie I said hi."
Yeah I know she's dead, but he still
talks about her like she's around. I think deep down he realizes
she's gone, but he doesn't want to look like he's all alone. Plus,
he always talks to me about how often he still lays her. Sometimes
if I'm coming home late from the bar or the bookstore, Bill will
be outside standing on his stoop. At first when I crest the hill
on my walk down past his house to mine I only see the glowing
end of a cigar. I can usually smell it too, or hear him singing
little snatches of Dean Martin or Sinatra. I try to stroll on
by pretty quickly because I know he tends to be a follower. He'll
be standing there in his underwear, with or without a tee shirt.
In the winter he'll be wearing his old army boots, sometimes his
And I'm gone.
Then I'll feel a wispy arm clutching
at my sleeve or I'll hear him pattering or clunking (depending
on the season) down the sidewalk after me.
"Hey, hang on there! Where you
going so fast?" He's always out of breath no matter how far
he has to chase me and I don't want the old guy to drop over dead
on the sidewalk. Not in his goddamn underwear anyway. So I always
"Oh Bill, hey. It's really late.
I gotta get to bed. I have to be up early tomorrow."
"Ahhh. I used to have to get
up early too, when the Steel was open. Time and a half for working
"Wow Bill, yeah, that's great.
Well, have a good night. Say hi to Joanie for me."
I use different names Jeannie, Joanie,
Mary, Claire, whatever. He doesn't care, he's just happy I play
along. Like she's not pushing up daisies two blocks over in the
beer bottle littered cemetery.
"Say, you want to come in for
a drink? I got some cognac I've been saving. Just the two of us,
the Mrs. is asleep. I really gave her a working over tonight,
boy. She might be out for a few days."
He slaps me feebly on the shoulder
like this is some sort of fraternal guy joke just between us.
His hand feels like a raw-cold chicken wing.
"Aww I don't think so tonight,
Bill. It's late already. Had I known earlier, then maybe
"Heh!" He kind of shrinks
away and I know what's coming next. Old people are always guilting
you into spending time with them by talking about how they're
going to be dead soon. Bill's really, really old. Like, he talks
about the Great Depression old. "Okay, suit yourself. Just
keep in mind, I'm not always going to be around, you know. The
Mrs. and I, we might be moving down to Florida. I got in on some
prime land down there, you know they're practically giving it
away. Got me a ten acre lot in the Everglades for three thousand
bucks and, hang on here, I got the brochure here in my pocket
He doesn't have pockets. He's wearing
just his underwear. No place for a brochure.
"Ok, Bill. I'll come in for
a drink. But let me run down to my house first. I'll be right
I start jogging down the hill towards
my place because, for real, I have to get up at like 5:30 in the
morning. He's yelling down the dark paved slope to me, "Hurry
up. I have a few of those skin movies you like on tape, too. I'll
put one on the rewinder."
And then I'm in my house, dropping
off a few things, trying to delay as much as possible because
sometimes Bill will just forget he talked to me and go inside
to sleep. So I consolidate a few piles of books and mail into
a larger pile and go take a piss. If I turn my head just a little
bit I can see right across the street to this apartment-style
house where some college kids live. Usually this late at night
there's always some sort of actiona fight, or a drunken
makeout session, maybe a kid puking in the gravel. Tonight it's
quiet but I can see through the shades that the lights are on
downstairs. It's the kind of soft, flickering light only tv makes.
As I'm zipping up I figure there's probably some lucky kid in
there curled up on a ratty couch with some hot piece of ass tight
up against him. And the couch is probably stuffed full of crumbs,
food wrappers, and other girls' underwear.
So I grab this cheap bottle of vodka
I've been keeping around and twist the cap off, take a little
slug. You know, to test it out. It's worth every bit of the nine
dollars I paid for it. It tastes like it was made in New Jersey,
or maybe Utah. Somewhere they don't know shit about vodka for
sure. I twist the cap back down tight and take it with me back
up to Bill's. I figure if he's awake we can start hitting the
vodka and he'll wish he had gone to bed, and if he's asleep I'll
just leave it on his stoop. Or pour it glug, glug, glug down some
poor soul's gas tank. Who does that type of shit?
Back up the hill and there's not
many cars out now. Just the drunks and morons. The two cars that
do go past me as I'm flip-tossing the bottle in the air and walking,
one of them goes by doing about five up the hill and the next
guy's coming up at about sixty. People always assume that they
can get away with things real late at night, because it seems
like nobody is around and nobody is watching. What a great time
for doing donuts in parking lots, paintballing street signs, cruising
around with a few six packs and chucking the cans out the sunroof.
If they'd think about it they'd realize, when there are fewer
people around there is always more attention given by the world
of watchers to the few who make themselves seen. You stand a better
chance of busting into the White House during brunch than you
do at midnight. Really.
The row of houses leading up the
hill is pretty typical of the city and things in general. They
are all separate but there's only about a foot of space between
each one. They might as well be row-homes. I mean really, what
are you gonna do with that space, build a sunporch? Install a
Jacuzzi? Maybe fit your trash cans if they're plastic and a little
flexible. The fronts of the houses are all different. Some have
ancient aluminum siding like mine, with powdery residue so thick
on it that the color becomes a non-issue. Mine's got a few dents
in it too where people have thrown bottles, cans, and rocks at
it from the street as they drove by. Again, most of this stuff
happens late at absurd hours of the night. A few of the other
houses have this fake stucco-plaster look to them. Kind of a white-trash-art-deco
look. Most of the places with this stuff have really sufferedthe
rattling and shaking of big trucks going up and down the hill
all day literally vibrates the plaster right off. Some people
sweep it into the street, and bit by bit their house disappears.
One guy actually gets out the caulking gun every weekend and tries
to slime it back into place. That usually holds for a good few
hours, then a line of trucks rumble on past and it's down again.
My favorite houses are the ones with sagging front porches, usually
with roofs supported by split and rotted four-by-fours. The porches
themselves aren't so bad, they have a certain American Midwest
desolation look to them, but it's the houses behind them that
get me. Fresh coats of paint every few months, ornate decorated
shutters, heavy framed front doors. Like every time they go through
and fix the house up they don't quite get to the porch, and then
it's time to start all over again. This time a new coat of paint
and some fancy gold house numbers fastened to the front door.
And by the way, we're not talking
normal colors of paint here either. Two houses up, the Castillos,
they started with a chocolate brown and have since gone through
tangerine, yellow, electric blue, and now salmon. The porch? It's
a sunbleached driftwood-rot gray.
These are the houses I pass on my
way up to Bill's. His place is brick and mortar, modest and out
of place on this block. I'm almost there when I see some stuff
running down the sidewalk towards me. It's dark so naturally the
stuff looks black, soaking into the cement as it crawls downhill.
It looks a little like blood and I'm thinking, "Tell me Bill's
not laying up here in the street with his head bashed open or
something." I mean, it's not exactly a great neighborhood.
Then I remember the cars that went
bythe guy that was really flying, what if he had to pass
the other guy? Maybe he came up on the sidewalk and there was
Bill in his underwear with his cigar
The stuff keeps running down the
hill. But I'm not going to rub my fingers in it or anything, I
mean, this isn't some lame detective show. People don't do that
shit in real life. And besides, if Bill did get hit by that car
or he got jumped, there's nothing me and my finger dipped in blood
can do about it. I mean, at his age, I'm sure any decent shot
on him would splatter his guts all over. And maybe send a little
puffball of dust up into the night sky, too. Because seriously,
he's really, really old.
But no, I've got it all wrong because
when I get to his stoop at the top of the hill, there he is. With
his underwear bunched up down around his ankles he's facing the
street, so I kind of just get a shadowy profile. His arms are
thrown up high and I can't even make out where they end and the
darkness begins. He's got the little glowing nub of his cigar
dangling from his lips and he's taking a piss on the sidewalk.
As I get up closer I see the worst part. He's turned slightly
uphill, so his piss is hissing on the sidewalk right in front
of him, running down over his bare feet and soggy underwear, and
making its way on down the hill. I kind of just stand there for
a second and watch him from a few feet off. It's like some sort
of twisted Great Gatsby flashback, only I don't see what he's
looking at across the street. Then he's done and he's shaking
the last few droplets out and humming a little bit of "Strangers
in the Night".
"Hey. Bill. I'm back. Everything
He doesn't even turn to look at me
and he's still shaking it. When you're about a thousand years
old I guess you've got nothing to be ashamed of.
"Ahhh. Yep. Let's go in for
a drink, eh?"
"Yeah. Sure. You know, you could
get arrested for pissing in the street like that? Your toilet
busted or something?"
"Oh. No, it's working fine.
But, the wife's in there getting cleaned up. I gave her a pretty
good going over, but she always washes up for round two."
I'm picturing Bill in bed with some
desiccated corpse and trying not to lose it as he's hauling his
piss soaked underwear back up. Then again, he doesn't seem to
be bothered by this situation, so whatever, why should I care?
"Oh, well we can do this another
night then, Bill. Go on in and give her hell and I'll just see
"Heh, you just hang on and listen
here!" He puts a blue-veined chicken wing arm around me and
I can feel his swamped underwear soaking through my pants. "With
women, and especially my wife, they can always wait. In forty-two
years of marriage there's an awful lot of waiting, so what's another
fifteen minutes? So let's you and I go in and have a drink and
smoke a cigar. And I'll show you the new movies."
I don't exactly
get up on time the next morning. Really I don't actually get out
of bed until two. After we finish off Bill's cognac we're so whacked
that we start right in on my vodka. It's so bad you need to have
a bottle of something else down first to make it go alright. It's
what you might call "mixing vodka" except Bill's got
nothing to mix it with. So there we are, and it goes down straight.
But it hurts the next day. So there I am back at my place in bed
with the lights off at two in the afternoon, with a glass of water
I can't bear to drink because my head hurts so damn bad every
time I move. Because I'm dehydrated. Because I should be pounding
water like there's no tomorrow. But I can't. Because of my headache.
Because I'm dehydrated. But I do have lots of police chase video
shows to watch. All in all it's not so bad.
The problem with these police shows
is the problem with about everything else, too. The idea of sirens
and lights signifying trouble is pretty outdated. For starters,
what exactly constitutes an emergency? An emergency for me might
be that I'm just getting off the highway and I really need to
take a shit. I drive eighty the rest of the way home, through
the city, running lights, grimacing behind the wheel. That's my
emergency. So where are my sirens?
The college kids across the street,
they have different emergencies. They're having a big party. More
people come than are expected. It's about a quarter-to-two and
they're about out of beer. Someone's got to haul ass down to the
bar with a load of drunks and get some six packs. Or else the
party's over. That's their emergency. And if they make it just
a few minutes late the bouncers will be herding everyone out and
these college kids will be trying to squeeze their way in, and
they'll try to get six packs and the bartender will say, "Sorry,
I can't serve you anymore. It's after two." So why can't
the most sober kid just step up and say, "Sorry we're late
but we need that beer. It's an emergency."
This brings us to the next part,
and the very core of who I am and what I do.
Things start out well-intentioned.
There are firetrucks, ambulances, police carsbecause when
things go wrong you need them. Then there are alarm clocks, air
raid sirens, horns, bells, and signs in neon. They take away from
the original purpose of the emergency lights and the emergency
sirens. Then we add terror alerts, warning lights, power-standby
lights, breaking news bulletins, and construction signs. People
are bombarded on all sides by warnings and notices.
StopHurry UpForget It,
Just Move Over.
Look Over HereNo, Over Here
Stay InsideListen CloselyNo,
Not To That, To This.
When I started working for Mercy
Hospital I don't think I realized the problem. I got up every
morning or afternoon (depending on the shift I was working) and
drank two cups of coffee while I checked the news. I was looking
for the accidents and tragedies that had happened while I slept.
There was always somethinga jackknifed tractor-trailer spilling
toxic chemicals, a domestic shooting at South Garden Apartments,
some kid stuck in a sewer tunnel or storm drain. These were the
kinds of calls that came pouring in to Mercy, the calls that sent
me flying out of the emergency bay all sirens and lights, dispatched
to fly like a madman to the scene of someone's accident, slip-up,
Two years of driving an ambulance
and I knew the city. I was beautiful, I was miraculousthere
was blocked traffic on Linden, I swung onto 9th and barreled through
the parklives were saved. By day or by night people moved
when I came, like a screeching terror I blew through intersections,
parking lots, industrial parks. Then I started to see patterns
in the kinds of people I was saving. They weren't people like
me or like Bill. They weren't people who would ever (or could
ever) return the favor. They didn't deserve the sirens and lights.
I would charge the wrong way down
one-way streets, weave through pedestrians, pass on blind turnsI'd
pull up at outside a Denny's to find some cokehead lying in a
pool of his own piss, sweating and muttering to himself about
the Cosby Show.
I would cut off a school bus, narrowly
slice past some kids at a crosswalk, crush a wayward squirrel
under my churning wheelsI'd roar into the lot of some apartment
complex to find a shiny BMW full of bullets and blood, behind
the wheel some teenaged kid with gold capped teeth sobbing with
his hands full of guts. Maybe a bicycle laying over on its side
with his kid brother under it, his own little pool of death spilling
out around him.
So I made a decision. And I started,
it was sometime around Christmas I remember. I was just dropping
one off at Mercy, a heart attack, when my radio started screaming.
Shots fired with multiple injuries. 400th block of Pendleton.
Suspected drug activity. Police en route.
The dispatcher requests my number.
"117, I need you over there.
Finish your drop-off at Mercy and get there with lights. Do you
I wait. Maybe someone else who is
closer will pick up on the call. But no, nobody in their right
mind wants these types of calls.
"117 do you copy?"
"I'm here. I'm finishing up
here and then I'm on my way. With lights."
But I don't put the sirens on. I
don't use the bullhorn to tell anyone to get out of my way either.
I don't even break thirty on my way there. And I stop twicefirst
to pick up a coffee at Dunkin Donuts, then at Exxon to fuel up
and get a pack of cigarettes. As I ease off the street I take
a wide circle around the pumps and park very carefully. I flip
my sirens and lights on, get out and walk purposefully inside.
I forget my coffee sitting on the
dash, so I walk back and get it.
It's December and the guy wearing
shorts and a Hawaiian shirt working the counter sees me coming
and meets me at the door. He's pretty excited.
"Hey buddy, if you gotta go
just give me your numbers and I'll bill the hospital."
"Nah, it's ok. Don't worry about
it. I need some smokes anyway."
He scuttles back behind the counter
and pulls down the overhead door where the cigarettes are kept.
"Ok, let's hurry. What do you
I pat my chest pockets then feel
around in my pants pockets.
"Shit, I left my wallet in the
ambulance. Hang on, I'll be right back." I turn around and
start walking back out across the lot to the pumps. Before I get
to the door he's yelling and pounding on the counter.
"Yo! Don't worry about it. They're
on the house. I don't want to be responsible for someone dying
over it, ya know? So come on, what do you smoke?"
I head back to the counter and lean
both elbows on it. I fiddle with a bucket full of plastic reindeer
cigarette lighters. This guy's nervous as hell and this whole
time my sirens are still wailing away.
"Well, actually I don't smoke.
Do you think I look like a smoker though?"
"What?!? Don't you got people
to save? You want the smokes or not?"
"Eh, not really. I'm not really
in the mood anymore. You're making me feel too self-conscious
about myself now."
"Here buddy. Look." He
starts pawing around in the overhead storage. It's a stretch for
him to reach and his shirt rides up over his shorts. He's got
a big hairy gut and the top band of his boxer shorts says HAWAII-ALOHA-HAWAII-ALOHA.
I'm thinking this guy must be clueless or something, and now he's
sweating pretty hard working around in the cabinet.
Outside my sirens and lights are
going wild but I'm in no hurry.
He finally comes out of the cabinet
with two handfuls of cigarette packs. Various brands. He chucks
them down on the counter, stuffs them in a bag, and thrusts it
over at me.
"Here, take em and get out of
here. I don't know what your deal is but I ain't gonna be responsible
for nobody dying. Now beat it."
I take the bag and head back out
to the ambulance. At the door I stop and turn around and look
at the guy. He's watching me and watching the ambulance. I don't
think he understands me. If he only knew.
"Hey, thanks for the cigarettes.
But really, I want you to know I'm not really a smoker. I mean
I do smoke from time to time, just not on a regular enough basis
that I think I can call myself a smoker. You know what I mean?"
By the time
I get to the emergency scene things are pretty well cleaned upa
few cop cars still sitting with lights flashing and doors open
but no ambulances in sight. I park next to one of the cruisers
and walk over to a taped off section of sidewalk. There are a
few cops and some gawkers milling around and as I walk up everyone
turns to look at me.
"Where the hell you been? We
put the call in to dispatch almost an hour ago!" This cop's
all worked up about God-knows-what because I don't see any dead
bodies laying anywhere.
"I know. I ran into traffic."
I take a swig of my now-cold coffee
and wince a little bit at the taste. The cop just glares at me.
I'm wondering if he's mad because I'm standing there an hour late
and drinking coffee, or if he's mad because I didn't bring him
any. Either way it's lousy coffee by this point.
I feel something tugging at my pants
leg so I look down and there's this dark snakepit of hair staring
up at me. This girl can't be more than six or seven years old
and she's already at her first crime scene. She's standing on
my heavy boot and has her arms wrapped around my leg. Her soiled
little jumper is riding halfway up her body and her hair is twisted
into about a dozen braids that skew off her head at all angles.
"Hey misser, you drive the am'blance?"
"You takes people to hop'sital?"
"What if they 'ready dead?"
"Well. If they're already dead
then I take them straight to heaven."
She must like that answer because
she starts giggling into my pants leg. I try to start heading
back to the ambulance but she's clinging to me and standing on
my boot. I make a few awkward steps carrying her along, then I
stop and reach down and pry her off.
"Sorry, sweetie, but I have
to go. I have to take more people to the hospital, and maybe a
few to heaven."
She seems hurt and retreats a few
"Misser, ken you take me to
heav'n? I don' like it here."
She catches me off-guard and I don't
know what to say. I crouch down and motion her to come closer.
"It's okay. To tell you the
truth I don't like it here either. Most people don't. You just
have to find something to pass the time. Wait here a second
I run to the van and grab the bag of cigarettes from the gas station.
"Take these. But don't open them. Keep them in the bag but
carry them around. If anyone gives you trouble about them, you
tell them the nice ambulance driver gave them to you. They'll
make you look sophisticated. And when you're old enough you can
start smoking, and if you smoke real good I'll be back before
you know it to take you to heaven. Okay?"
She takes the bag from me, looking
puzzled, and wraps the loose ends around her hands. I stand up
and make for the ambulance, hearing her muttering from somewhere
So I get fired a few weeks later.
I think because I just stopped showing
up for calls. I mean I'd answer the radio and confirm that I was
on my way and all, but then I'd go pick up Bill and have breakfast
or do some laundry or something. It wasn't that I was lazy or
anything like thatthis was just a much more efficient use
of the vehicle and the time. Nobody else agreed with me though,
not even Bill. And he was even getting free breakfasts out of
The Mercy Hospital
ambulance job pretty much translates over to what I've still been
doingdriving an ambulance. Technically.
Only not for Mercy Hospital, or for
the dead and dying. After all, what can really be done for them?
It's the rest of us that need the help.
So that's what I do. I help people
who have other emergencies besides dying. Dying isn't an emergencyliving
is. And these people appreciate it more, too. They appreciate
the sirens, the lights, the suicidal driving, the sense of urgency.
Because for these people, whatever is emergency enough for them
is emergency enough for me. And that's what we all want. We want
to feel like our life's catastrophes are just as important to
So I flip the switches, hit the lights.
I make people's hair stand up on the back of their necks as I
go careening by at ridiculous speeds. I'm the driver. I'm the
captain. I'm God, Jesus, and UPS all at the same time. I get things
done. And I make my own hours.
Sometimes I drive around and someone
will flag me downa flat tire and they're late for a flight,
or a traffic jam and they need to be at the office in fifteen.
Most of the time people call though, from their cell phones sitting
in traffic or from bed just having realized they've overslept.
And just like that I'm off in my
own ambulance, or what used to be one anyway. You can still see
where the decals were on the sides. It's an '84 Chevy van that
must have been part of the Mercy fleet before they went to the
bigger ambulances, the ones I drove. It's white with spots of
rust that send streams of red metal down the body whenever it
I first saw it down on 7th street
at Carlo's Pre-Owned.
"EXPERIENCED cars for EXPERIENCED
It looked dead with the hood yawning
open and two blown tires, so I told Carlo I wanted it cheap. Just
for parts. His sales pitched that the sirens and lights still
worked and the original factory cabinetry was still in the back.
Now I advertise in the yellow pages
and have my phone number painted in bold block letters on the
side, captioned under the words "RealLife Emergency Transport".
I tried to paint one of those zigzag heartbeat lifelines down
the side of the van but it came out like a mountain range or something.
The heart I painted at the end of the lifeline, it looks like
it was drawn by a three year old. Lopsided. Uneven. When it rains
the rust spots near the roof stream with copper colored water
and the heart looks like it's bleeding. Some people pay thousands
for effects like thatI just watch for storm clouds, or take
it through the carwash.
Just in case
you're wondering why I feel the need to pass this on, all this
shit that means nothing, I'll tell you.
It's not my choice.
I mean, it was my choice originally
to get it down on scraps of paper and cardboard, but putting it
all together, trying to make some sense of it, that part's not
me. I was content with the story as pieces of disembodied paper
and cardboard, fluttering all around me. It sounded just fine
as disconnected poems and verbal snapshots scribbled on pizza
boxes and used tissues.
But then it happened. I became someone
else's emergency. The most pressing issue in somebody's lifemy
health and mental clarity consuming someone else's life. Specifically,
my habits filling up pages and pages of Dr. Leznick's observation
journal and my voice thin and watery on dozens of audio cassettes.
The file folder with my name got thicker and thicker, then it
was emptied into a carton. Now there's an entire vault in the
basement below Dr. Leznick's house full of cartons. All dated
in chronological order with session numbers in black sharpie.
And it's all for me!
What a challenge! How many tapes
can somebody possibly fill up talking about nothing? So far eighty-sevenbut
now the good doctor is converting them to CDs to maximize recording
time. Sometimes he seems pleased with the progress I'm making
and other times he insists I get to the point, stop digressing.
As always, he can't help me unless I help myself.
In all fairness though he has been
very good to me. He always speaks softly with sincerity and he
takes our relationship very seriously. After all, I've become
his personal number one, four-alarm capitol emergency. I'm a crop
circle, a map to the golden city of Cibola. Ever since the first
time I was wheeled into his office bells and buzzers have been
going off in every corner of his scholarly brain. They say, "This
one's a keeper, doc!" as he measures me up sedately from
behind the large desk.
The initial amusement for me has
worn off but that's the predicament of my present tensetrying
to convince strangers of the sanity of my past tense. Because
it really all goes back there, back to Robin, and I've tried to
explain that to Leznick and the other labcoats, too. Nobody listens
though. They're too busy listening to all the other bells, bleeps
and beeps in their own heads, trying to decide whose emergency
needs attention next. Meanwhile, I'm out here on stage trying
to speak calmly and rationally into the mic, trying to make my
present tense a plausible cause-effect chain. Trying to throw
So I'm in business
for a few months and really getting the hang of it. Really getting
the feel for what people need, what kind of things drive them
crazy, or constitute emergencies. I'm in between calls driving
through the south side with Bill after a late night breakfast.
I don't have the sirens on or anything, we're just cruising. The
air rushing in through the open windows is cold and biting, but
not the kind of cold that makes you want to close the window.
It's the kind of cold that makes you want to hold your breath
until your lungs burst. The kind of cold that lets you know just
how warm and alive you are deep down inside at the core. Where
Bill and I are passing a bottle of
port back and forth. It's one of those big gallon jugs with handles
on both sides of the bottleneck. Each time one of us passes it
the wine sloshes around and splashes out the mouth. It's ok though.
It's vinyl upholstery. And I own every stained and cracked inch
We come up on where the railroad
crosses south 6th and the crossing lights are flashing. The gates
are down too so I can't just scoot through. It's ok though, like
I said we weren't in a hurry. So I throw the van in park and smell
the exhaust leak from the manifold seeping in through the firewall.
It feels like Novemberthe open wine, the exhaust, and Bill
taking his first pull on a fresh cigar.
Then the train comes.
A hulking black demon, roaring down
the rails like some underworld god from a Tolkien book. The single
eye-light doesn't search out prey or enemies, it just illuminates
in a sick forecast anything on the tracks about to be erased.
As it gets closer I can hear the cars banging against the sides
of the track, getting louder and becoming more distinct, not just
a mess of sound anymore but a repeated furious hammering. As the
engine blows past the front of my van the conductor lets out two
long blasts on the air horn. It shakes the van so hard Bill loses
his cigar and I have to roll my window up to save my eardrums.
Then I see her.
She's standing just outside my driver's
side window, perfectly still a few feet away from the tracks.
The light from the passing engine hits just enough of her that
I can see her hair flying around her head. She's actually leaning
in toward the cars, her feet planted maybe a foot or two away
but her head craned forward. Like she's inspecting the welds and
riveting as they scream past.
I feel the color leaving my face
as I watch her. I can just picture her leaning in closer and closer,
sobbing hard as inky mascara rivers run down her cheeks, wishing
she knew another way out.
Next up, please step past the line.
Remain still and your problems will
Clean-up and sterilization team to
I imagine a passing door handle or
exposed piece of steel taking her head smoothly. Then just her
leaderless body standing there a moment longer, swaying. In limbo.
Not really knowing just what to docrumpling to the stones
as the spinal cord's message to the brain comes back stamped "Return
To Sender: Address Unknown".
But I guess she's thinking otherwise
because she stays right there, two feet from no more emergencies,
bills, funerals. I open my door and slide off my seat as she's
pulling her hair back and leaning in sideways to listen to the
rumbling wheels. I come up behind her but I know she can't hear
my approach, so I stand a few feet off to the side. I'm afraid
to touch her arm or try to pull her away from the train because
if she yanks herself out of my grasp
Premature execution, platform three.
So I motion to Bill to hit the lights
on the roof of the ambulance. When they come on the whirling red
makes her pallor look hellish. She turns her head just slightly
to look at meshe's still leaning straight into the steel
wheels. She kind of smiles and nods. Like we have this in common
or I know what she's doing or something. I stand there with my
hands in my pockets waiting for the last car while she stays hunched
over, watching me and nodding but intent on the hammering steel.
Her head moves in time to the banging
cars and wheels, her eyes go closed. This is her seat in the orchestra
pit, her symphony.
By the time the last car hammers
away into the dark I can feel the heavy pressure in my ears, like
my eardrums are seizing up. I try to work the feeling out by working
my jaws open and closed, rubbing the mandibles. There's that and
the tears leaking from my air-blasted eyes, the smell of creosote
and oil thick in my nostrils.
The girl is fine by the way.
She flattens her hair down and walks
over to me rubbing her hands together. Her cheeks are flushed
and her eyes are all glazed over. Even though she's right next
to me I can barely make out what she's sayingmy ears are
still on fire.
ride in your
She cups her hand around my ear and
yells straight in. And it still sounds like she's at the bottom
of a well or something.
"I said 'A ride in your ambulance
would be really be a capper for me, but you've got to keep the
"Oh. Ok." What the hell
does she want a ride in the ambulance for? I mean, she doesn't
seem to mind sticking her face into the wheels of trains, so what
does she want, a ride to the E.R. now? "Well, it's not really
a hospital ambulance. Sorry. I could probably get into trouble
if I showed up with it."
She's looking at me like I'm
an idiot. Like I just had my head
halfway under a moving train.
"Yeah, I know it's not a hospital
ambulancea real paramedic would have pulled me away from
the tracks. I just want a ride in it. And I don't even care where.
I just like the sirens."
And for real, I can tell she's not
lying about it because she's looking right through me to the ambulance.
Her face goes white-pink-red with each revolution of the lights
and I can see the sirens in her widened eyes. I don't really know
what to say to herit's like she's having one of those intensely
personal moments right here in front of me. Her mouth is hanging
open and each time the sirens swing around they glint off a mine
"Wow. They're so pretty up close."
She speaks more to herself than to
me as she's heading for the ambulance. By the time I climb in
she's already scrunched down between the front seats fiddling
with the toggle switches on the dashboard. They're each labeled
underneath with old yellowed masking tapethey work the auxiliary
lights and supply power to the outlets in the back of the ambulance.
Bill is completely unfazed by her
presence. He's busy with his pants bunched up around his knees,
pissing in the now-empty wine jug.
Side Note: You are only as good as
the company you keep.
So where do
I end up taking Robin that first night I meet her at the railroad
crossing? Somewhere I figure she can really get the full effectthe
sounds, the lights, the near death experience.
I know a place you can get over the
fence where it runs through a stand of trees. Back in high school
we would go out there sometimes, take a six-pack and lay on the
grass watching the planes roar overhead. And of course don't forget
the pulsing fields of neon runway lights, they're everywhere.
From above it must look like you're landing directly on top of
So it's Robin, Bill and I out there
until the pink starts seeping into the eastern edge of sky. Bill's
already asleep, wrapped up in a corner of the heavy emergency
blanket we are all sitting on. Robin just talks. Nonstop. Except
for when there are planes taking off or landing. Then she lays
very flat with her ear to the ground and her eyes fixed on the
blinking light show spread out all around us.
Audio Stimulus Dependency Disorder.
That's what Robin says it is. An
addiction to noise (and sometimes light) activity. And she tells
me she's got it bad. So bad that when it's totally quiet she has
to talk rhythmically to herself. To keep from losing it she says.
Other times if there's only one sound going on in a room, she
will latch onto it and amplify it in her head, searching for patterns.
She records lots of stuff too she says, like the train tonight.
She's come other nights too and made recordings of it. Usually
she does that a mile or so farther down the line where it echoes
between the concrete bases of a broken-down overpass. The tapes
are never as good as the real thing though she says. They just
hold her over, when she's laying awake at night or at a wedding.
So I lean down over her as she's
lying with her ear cupped to the ground and the whole world sounds
like it's shaking to pieces over my head. I lean down real close
and whisper into her skyward turned ear.
"So what is it about sound or
light that's so addicting? Like, what does it do for you?"
She doesn't answer right away and
for a minute I wait, not even sure that she heard me. I mean,
if she routinely does this type of shit she's got to be damn near
deaf by this point.
Then she rolls over on her back and
her hair spreads out on the blanket behind her. And she fixes
me with this stare. It's the same kind of look she had when she
was watching the sirens on top of the ambulance, when they were
turning round and round in her eyes. Only this time she's looking
dead at me with that hypnotized look. She sucks in a long deep
knife of cold air and the slowly exhales it, whistling it out
through her teeth as her chest rises and collapses back down.
"Well. It's kind of like sound
taking up space, not only outside but in your head, too. And for
me when there's no sound it's like the world is empty, like there's
nothing worth feeling out there. Haven't you ever watched TV with
the sound turned down?"
"Yeah. Like if I'm doing something
else and the noise from the tv is a distraction, but I still want
to catch what's going on."
"Okay, yeah. Well for me silence
is a bigger distraction. Everything is empty and hollow until
there's sound to fill it all up. People, cars, airplanesanything.
It's all tumbleweed just blowing around out there, getting tangled
up in wires or stuck under fences. Until you can hear it all happening,
but not just hear it with your ears, hear it with your whole body.
Your bodylike a huge receptor that you can tune in to anything
you want. And that's the thing is with sound, you can feel it
and you can hear it. And those are the purest ones,
the sounds that leave you shaking even after they go away. The
sounds you can hear in the background of everything else all day
"I think I kind of get it. I
mean, I can still hear the train from earlier tonight, and with
the headache it gave me, I guess I can still feel it, too."
She gets real excited and props herself
up on her elbows. Her face is only a few inches away from mine
and even though I doubt she's thinking about kissing me, every
time a girl gets this close to me I always think about kissing
them. And she has perfect skinbacklit by the runway lights
half of her face is cast in blue.
"Yeah, okay, so you have a headache.
I got really bad ones the first few times, too. But they go away.
You have to kind of work yourself up to really big stufflike
the train. It's taken me years but now I'll pull fire alarms at
the mall and just wrap my mouth around the whole fucking box.
For me it's kind of like growingit's something my doctor
says is getting progressively worse but I think it's getting better.
He says he's seen cases where people have ended up puncturing
their eardrums on purpose because they've lost control but for
me it's not that way at all. I mean, I never hate it or wish I
was different. Even when I wake up at night and I can still feel
that fire alarm going off inside my mouth, or I get a migraine
from staring directly into a strobe light, I'm still in control.
This is something I want to do and nobody gets that. There's no
way to understand it unless you get into it, unless you really
She doesn't kiss me but instead pulls
me down on the blanket. Her fingers are laced around the back
of my neck, smooth and hot. There on the blanket with Bill huddled
up asleep next to us she closes her eyes and pulls my mouth against
her ear. I'm not sure what to do with my breath loud and rough
going into her ear and coming back out to me. I guess I'm not
supposed to do anythingshe must be waiting for another jet
to come roaring low over our heads. I feel like a jerk for asking
so many questions but she seems eager to make me understand. My
mouth is crushed against her ear and when I talk my lips press
on her earlobes.
"So then what about the lights?
Where do they come in?"
"Oh, I don't even know. Just
something I kind of picked up along the way, I guess. I don't
really need them. Not like I need the noise. The lights just kind
of add another dimension to it all. When you get really close
to them like I do you can feel the heat and hear the filaments
vibrating and the energy crackling. But they really are just an
extra. I can go long periods of time without needing themsometimes
I have to because I'll get too close to a flash or stare too long
at a bulb and go blind for a few days. My eyes just haven't adjusted
the way my ears have."
With her fingers in the hair at the
base of my neck and my mouth directly against the opening of her
ear, I swear I can almost hear a buzzing sound. I try to quiet
my voice to a whisper but it comes out a throaty mess.
"So it doesn't even hurt your
ears anymore, all that noise?
"Mmmmm, no." She purrs
and tightens her grip on my neckline. Like she's getting off on
my voice or something. "Every once in awhile I'll really
overdo it and wake up with an earful of blood, but really your
ears can handle a lot of pressure if you work up to it."
She releases her grip on my neck
and rolls over facing away from me on the blanket. I'm wondering
if she's replaying the sounds of trains and airplanes in her head
right now, or if she's just waiting for me to make some sort of
move on her. Either way I'm just trying to wrap my head around
the idea of her life. I'm hoping she doesn't think she's freaked
me out, because she hasn't. After all, I hang out with Bill the
public urinator and I'm not embarrassed by him. Everyone's got
Now that we are quiet and there is
some space between us I realize how cold it is and how tired I
am. I'm thinking about sleep and getting Robin back to wherever
she calls home. I sit straight up and stretch my legs out.
"We should probably get going
pretty soon. It's getting light and the morning patrol will be
coming through soon."
I look over at her but she doesn't
move. She's still turned away from me curled up in the fetal position,
in her own chaotic solace. Or maybe she's pissed off at me for
something I said? Or maybe she had some sort of sound induced
"Hey." I lean over her
but I'm afraid to touch her. I mean, what if she is deadI
sure as hell don't want my prints all over her. "Hey, are
you asleep?" Her hair is swept over across her face so I
poke a stiff finger into her back.
She rolls over and whips the hair
out of her face in one motion, looking at me with one of those
annoyed "WHAT?" looks. I can see the tangled wires running
from a pair of headphones to the cassette player she's clutching
to her chest. She pulls the phones down off her ears and I can
hear a little of what sounds like air raid sirens blaring from
"Sorry," she says kind
of lowering her eyes, embarrassed. "You scared me. I was
just starting to fall asleep."
I say it's okay and as I'm nudging
Bill with my foot and shaking the dead grass clippings out of
the blanket, I feel the remnants of the train-hot steel pounding
through my forehead. And my own internal voice, nearly buried
behind the chaos of crashing cars, droning persistently
"This one's a keeper, doc."
"This one's a keeper, doc."
"This one's a
So that's what
everyone is looking forwhere it all began. I mean, all these
experts are dissecting my tapes and interviews looking for some
chain of eventssomething about a gateway to my mental unrest.
Talk about ways to make someone clam uphow about asking
them about their gateway to mental unrest?
Revenge equals the first time Dr.
Leznick uses the mental unrest line on me multiplied by me spending
a week singing Bruce Springsteen songs into the recorder. The
whole time imagining Leznick listening late into the night by
the light of his desk lamp. Rubbing his temples, clutching at
his unkempt, thinning hair, thinking, "There's got to be
a meaning in here somewhere." Bullshit. That shit's for psychological
thrillers and crime drama t.v. The rest of us, with our gateways
to mental unrest and our spirals into psychosiswe don't
The saddest part of this whole story
is that right now anyone listening is going to realize just how
close to the beginning and end could have been. They're going
to realize that I could have easily fit the nuts and bolts of
my story onto one stinking tape. But that would be no good because
the internal vibration from my voice is about the closest thing
left to sound that I've got.
Eat your heart out, VanGoghwhat
I've done here, I've made a real statement.
Maybe you'll hear it, maybe you won't.
Robin a few more times I start getting used to her withdrawal
from everything around her. Like when she puts on her headphones
and reads William Carlos Williams poems right through her blaring
Cannibal Corpse tapes. Or when she methodically stuffs a pillowcase
full with wind-up alarm clocks, all set for the same time, and
falls asleep clutching the bundle to her chest. Stuff like that.
I'll admit it, with shit like this
going on I start to feel pretty inferior after a couple of weeks.
I walk around with these splitting headaches all the time and
she just begs me to keep blowing a miniature air horn into her
But then the headaches start to go
awayor maybe I just stop registering the pain. Either way,
things get better. I start to fall asleep most nights listening
to the racket seeping out from the foam pads of her headphones.
I find myself sitting closer to the t.v. than I used to. Turning
the volume up higher. Little things like that. By this point Robin
and I are pretty much living together so I guess I'm just adjusting
myself to her lifestyle.
A couple weeks later and Robin and
I are on my ripped up couch flipping through t.v. channelsI'm
sure she's subconsciously searching for the channel with the loudest
volume. She's the same mystery she's been for the three months
I've known her, but I'm not sure if she realizes that I've changed.
I know she sees me sitting in my straight back chair directly
in front of my living room stereo, listening to baseball games
or the Oldies on Saturday mornings. But to her that's normal.
Just like sticking your head under the steel wheels of a moving
train is normal.
So anyway, these are the changes
that are coming over me after spending so much time around her.
Most of the noise related stuff she used to do alone we both do
together now. All the electronics in my houseanything at
all with a volumeit's juiced up to the max. We go through
about three stereos a month, mostly blown speakers and fried tweeters.
It's around this time I stop seeing Bill, too. He isn't too keen
on all the noise that has become an increasingly important part
of my life. Plus there's not room in the ambulance for more than
one passenger anymore. The entire back section is gutted and filled
with heavy speaker cabinetsmostly fifteen-inch combos and
bass boxes. Driving around in the ambulance has become a Robin-and-I-thing
now. It's different with her because I feel like we are on the
same wavelengthlike we're probably the only two people who
could possibly understand either of us. So you can imagine how
weird it is the first time I see her eyes well up with tears,
as she's clamping her hands over her ears and trying to bury her
head between her shoulders. We're at the First Unitarian Church,
up in the belltower. Taking turns putting our ears against the
bells after they ring and come to a rest. They look copper or
bronze and they're cold when your ear is squashed against them.
And even though they're at rest, the metal is still ringing and
it sends a piercing low drone straight through the middle of your
"It's too much. Too loud."
I don't even really comprehend what
she's saying the first few times. My own head is buzzing like
a colony of bees and I can feel the hot blood rushing between
my ears. I pull her against me, pry her hands off her ears, and
scream straight in.
"I said it's too much noise."
"YEAH! I KNOW!"
I still can't really hear what she's
saying. My head is vibrating so much that she sounds like she's
yelling from a distant mountaintop.
"I need to go back down. I don't
think I can handle it."
She pulls away from my grasp, she
seems agitated. I'm thinking maybe she has to pee or something.
The real heavy sound vibrations do all sorts of crazy stuff to
your body. Sometimes it feels like you're going to fly apart because
your insides are sloshing around so fast.
But that's not it at all and when
I finally come down from the belltower she's sitting in the passenger-side
seat in the ambulance. Curled up in a ball with her knees hunched
up against her chest.
In total silence.
I wrench open the driver's door and
"Whoa, that was amazing! For
awhile there I thought my eardrums were gonna go!"
"Your ear is bleeding."
She is crushed up against her door looking at me with something
"Huh?" My head still feels
like it's on a springall the sounds around me are muffled
and suspended in the air.
"Your FUCKING ear is bleeding."
I hear her the second time and stick
my pinky in to blot a crimson trickle that is making its way down
my earlobe. I think it's supposed to be like when a cokehead snorts
so much blow that they bust open some veins in their nose. It's
supposed to be some sort of reality check, a wakeup call or something.
Except it never is. Instead it's kind of funny, and I chuckle
at my stained fingertip.
Robin is gone
two weeks later. She leaves pretty much the same way she camein
the darkness, with an Armageddon of sound assaulting the air all
around her. Only this time it's not Robin who is indulging in
the noiseit's me. Laying under the van (I can't call it
an ambulance anymore because I haven't "saved" anyone
in months) with the muffler and exhaust system in rusty twisted
heaps around me. It's mewith the engine running, the muffler
disconnected, and my head wedged way up underneath where the exhaust
manifold yawns open. Unbridled aggression from those pistons screams
out through the block of the engine and right into my face, my
greasy face crushed against the left frame rail, taking the pain
just so my right ear can inch closer to the source.
That's about where I figure I am
when she leaves but I'm not sure. What I do know is that the few
things she's been keeping at my place are gone when I come back
insidewith my head wrapped in my shirt. Pushing too far
I had mashed the side of my face up against the engine block and
gotten a nice blistering burn from my temple down to my chin.
I can feel the skin popping and bubbling, oozing into the greasy
shirt pressed against my cheek. A small price to pay really, because
I also have that great sense of total vibration about me. The
one I only get when I hit a real good sound and hold it.
The one that starts to wear off about
the same time as I'm trying to peel the shirt off my scorched
skinfirst with my hands, then with the edge of a plastic
spatula. By this point I really can't feel that entire half of
my face so it's ok. It's like operating on a dummy. I finally
pry the shirt out and head to the bathroom to check the damage.
The entire right side of my face
is blackI can't tell what's grease and what's torched skin
though. I poke around in the mush but it all feels dead and a
few shreds of charcoal-paper skin flake off onto the vanity top.
Underneath it's all bright red and pitted.
I wonder how long I had my face up
against the engine block, because for real, this looks serious.
I grab a box of gauze and tape from under the sinkit had
previously been sliding around the back of the van before I put
the speaker boxes in. My patch job is pretty bad and the blood
and pus starts seeping right through the bandage so I yell for
Robin and head into my room. The bed is still unmade from the
morning and I can see where she had wrapped the covers around
her legs. On my side of the bed sits her walkman with the cord
and headphones neatly wrapped tight around it.
It's pretty obvious to me right away
that she's left. Sometimes you can just walk into a room and see
how things are set up and know exactly what has happened there.
Like I could see her, in that bed for the past three nights alone.
While I was asleep in the van on top of the speakers with my face
pressed tight up against the bass cone, there she was, curled
up or maybe stretched out across my side of the bed, asleep with
her headphones blaring. But I imagine it was probably different
recently for her. Maybe they were wrapped around her wrist, lifeless.
Or muffled under the pillowthe same one that used to be
stuffed with wind up alarm clocks.
Something like tears comes to my
eyes, but I can't tell if it's because of her or the pressure
of the swelling. Either way a few big drops slide down my right
cheek and get lost in my mush of melted face.
I snap the flimsy plastic headphones
in half. She doesn't need them anymore, and this whole thing was
her addiction to begin with. It's like a curse that she wearied
of and passed on to me. And what do I have to show for it?
Well, I'm alone.
With half my face melted off. My
eye swollen shut.
Bits of fabric fluttering like streamers
from the edges of my wound.
Grease and oil smeared across my
And holding in my hands the snapped-in-half
wishbones of her headphones.
But for the first time in a long
time the house is silent. Robin is gone with most of her stuff
and all I've got is quiet and a basement full of busted up stereos
and televisions. They're all heaped in a pile at the bottom of
the stairsa growing junkyard of imperfection and failure.
Still standing over the unmade bed,
squeezing those headphone pieces between my fingers, it hits me
that there's got to be an end somewhere, a destination for whatever
it is that I'm doing. I'm taking slow deliberate breaths at this
pointmeasuring the solution that has come floating up to
the surface of my mind. From deep icy depths, black and bloated,
belly up like a dead fish
I wonder if the other senses really
do become heightened to make up for the loss of one.
And then I just do it. It's not set
up or planned out or anything. I just have those two busted arms
from the headphones clenched tight in my fists. So I start first
with the right one, stabbing it hard into my ear until it hits
something solid. It sticks in and I feel the pop. The pop I've
heard other people warn me about, saying, "Go ahead, keep
blasting that shit into your ears. See what happens."
This is the answer.
After the first few tentative jabs
I just start whaling away. There's no order or method to it, sometimes
left then right and sometimes both ears at the same time. My head
feels cleared out after a few upward swings and my grip starts
slipping on the blood slicked plastic arms. My aim gets worse
as it soaks into the foam earpieces and runs down my arms. I readjust
my grip and keep working and I guess that makes sense because
that's what this is all about. Readjusting. Making changes so
that you can continue on.
It's a tough learning curve.
Finally one of the plastic arms snaps
off inside me somewhere. It's deep in there and feels like I've
dropped a twig down an open well. A couple more plunges into the
other ear and then I quit. Leaving four or five inches of black
plastic buried somewhere in there with just the bloody foam earpiece
I stagger to the bathroom realizing
I'm losing quite a bit of blood. In the mirror there I amthe
new me. A+ for artistic merit. C- for style. I'm thinking I'd
better slow the bleeding down or I'll never get to enjoy my new
makeover. So I jam a handful of cottonballs into the craters where
I once had delicate ears and decide I'd better try to get help
somehow. Of course the phone hasn't worked since I tried to wire
the ringer into one of Bill's old hearing aids.
So I slide my ass down the steps
and crash into the front door, realizing I just don't have the
balance I used to. One of my mounds of cottonballs slips out with
a sploosh of blood so I jam it back in with my pointer finger.
Then I begin the crawl up the hill to Bill's house. It's a crawl
I've made before, but only ever down the hilland usually
then dead drunk but not bleeding to death. It's slow progress
but the scenery is nice. Passing the Castillos' house I see they've
repainted again. This time it's a two-tone aquamarine and burnt
orange disaster. The porch is still sagging dangerously and now
seems like it's ready to fall off the front of the house, too.
I've got to remember to keep my eye on itmaybe it'll end
up collapsing into the street soon.
I count two or three more houses
but then my arms start to get weak and stiffen up on me. I know
I won't be able to make it so I flop over and roll into the street,
laying with my arms and legs spread out wide. I figure the worst-case
scenario is I get run over by a truck. Not that bad all things
But I guess I should consider myself
lucky, because I wake up as I'm being strapped to a gurney and
loaded into the back of an ambulance. There is a lot of commotionsirens,
horns, and the slamming of doorsbut it's a silent slow motion
film for me. One of the paramedics straps an oxygen mask over
my messed up face, says something that is probably very grave
by the look on his face. He ends it with a reassuring pat on my
shoulder. I think I say thanks or something but it's hard to remember
without hearing it come out.
Either way the word must get out
that my injuries are self-inflicted because I go straight out
of Intensive Care into Psychiatric Monitoring. Where the rooms
have heavy doors with tiny square glass windowsthe shatterproof
kind with the diamond patterns.
Everybody has their own clipboard.
Some doctors come in with clipboards holding other clipboards.
Nobody has a stethoscope though.
These aren't those kind of doctors.
There is no noise. Not for me, of
course. But seemingly I imagine this place as if I could hear
and still it is dead silent. Tomblike. Painted over in coat after
coat of lustrous white, a fresh coat applied every time you blink.
The orderlies and nurses, they flit in and out like phantoms.
They are solemn and avoid eye contact with me. The doctors are
more solidthey carry giant yellow pads and write notes to
me in sweeping hands. Things like, "You're making remarkable
progress" or sometimes, "If you cooperate we can have
you back home in a few weeks". Other times, "If you
don't help us, we can't help you".
have no new messages.
have reached the ground floor.
Please insert a new audio cassette.
The door will lock automatically
you'll hear it. Maybe you won't.