Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Street's First Ambulance Ride

Street heard the siren a moment before he opened his eyes.

The inside of the ambulance didn’t want to come into focus at first --besides being unfamiliar to him-- and Street blinked a few times, his eyes searching around the box before settling on getting the EMT’s face. Street could feel his own body and the stretcher jostle as they drove over a curb, all the stuff hanging from the stretcher and all the stuff hanging on the cabin walls, swayed with his sense of balance. He couldn’t see down his body, toward his toes. The oxygen mask was in the way. And he couldn’t turn his head because they’d wrapped him in a head brace. He could see to the sides and over his forehead and he looked at the EMT making notes on a clipboard. No blond nurse, with a large chest or pearly whites. No, Street said to himself, just my luck. Some guy too big for his uniform, too large a chest, and a round face.

”Jeez, Frank,” complained the EMT. “We gotta passenger back here, OK?” The EMT was actually smiling, looking at Street's eyes, as he yelled at Frank, up front, who was apparently still learning how to drive.

”Talk to the city,” yelled Frank. Frank leaned on the klaxon as the truck accelerated.

Street could feel the centrifugal force as the truck leaned into another corner. They were downtown, Madison, Tennessee, on one of the back streets of old warehouses along the CSX tracks. They bumped over another curb, turned left, and now slowed to rattle over the old grade crossing. Street could look out of the cabin windows that were punched along the roof line, recognized the precipices drifting by one by one, and the power lines and street lights and the traffic light, as they swung right on to Franklin --yes, this was smooth like Franklin with its new pavement-- and Frank gave it the gun. The truck rattled badly, all the stuff bouncing around on their shelves. He’d never ridden in an amb’lance before.

Street momentarily drifted back into unconsciousness. He awoke again as the angry klaxon tried to clear a path through knotted traffic. He strained to see what was going by. Where were they?

Clear of the traffic, Frank gunned the engine again.

Street’s throat was dry. He growled instead of speaking. He couldn’t tell the EMT about the shot. Wasn’t much he could say. About Duffy Anderson’s call to meet him in the old warehouse. About the blast to the leg. About the pitching out the hoist door and spiraling down to the loading dock. About why Duffy --a trusted informant for many years-- had appeared with 25 caliber pop gun and blazed away with three rounds, which may have been all the gun was loaded with, hitting Street in the shin, just below the knee, the shin which buckled, and sent him twisting and reeling out the hoist door, and down one floor, landing, bouncing, on the loading ramp.

It could have been worse. The ramp was clear of debris and junk and he didn’t have far to drop and maybe instinctively he put out his hands and arms to capture the fall. If any of that even happened he didn’t remember it. Of course, if Duffy Anderson’s aim might have been truer then he --Street-- would be dead.

His first recollection of being on the ramp --the time between Duffy shooting and Street opening his eyes again was filed in the back of the bottom drawer and not to be opened ever-- was shoes. Shiny shoes. Patrol shoes. Black with rubber soles shoes. Shoes at some unrecognizable angle behind a concrete foreground. His jacket had scrunched up to cover one eye and the other eye, down on the concrete, saw this new, rare view of the world. The shoes moved around a lot and then didn’t move a lot and they’d all move again. They were cops shoes, tracking shoes, chasing shoes. Official shoes. No brand names, no cute symbols, no nonsense. The thought raced through his head, he should ask the chief if they could get some shoe endorsement money.

Then the noise rushed in. His head pounded. Voices screamed. Sirens amplified and died. More rushing. Waterfall sounds. White noise. Then immediate darkness and silence.

He didn’t know if his head hurt. He couldn’t feel it. He wiggled his fingers. He tapped the stretcher rail. He tried holding his breath. He growled. Everything appeared to be working. The EMT smiled as if knowing what Street was doing. Consciously, Street tapped his toes together. Did that count for real feeling or was his brain kidding itself? If his brain was kidding itself wouldn’t that be a good sign?

The interior of the crash truck stumbled forward like a tide as Frank collided with another traffic jam. It was rush hour --more like rush 3/4 hour for Madison-- and the nearer to the hospital they drove the worse the traffic. Ordinarily any driver could be beyond the hospital in five minutes --although if you were in a hurry to get home it seemed like an eternity-- but when you’re the one riding on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, five minutes is the difference between life and death. In Street’s case, death was not an option ‘cept his head was beginning to hurt like hell and maybe dyin’ would be better.

The ambulance swerved right again and Frank let out a curse at some idiot driver who shouldn’t be allowed on the roads between the hours of eight in the morning and midnight. He hit the curb which tossed everyone and everything in the back to one side and this time the EMT blessed Frank with sincere, authentic enthusiasm. All the hanging-down stuff swayed in unison which Street thought was just enough to make him want to vomit.

Street had only used his weapon a couple of times in his so-far short career. (Was he writing his obit as they navigated the traffic snarl?) He’d shot at two people and missed both times. He’d had a partner pushed to resign from the force after being wounded in a gun fight while Street was brawling in the parking lot with the accomplices. (He’d and Tinker Donaldson had answered a robbery in progress about 10 years ago near the mall and Tinker, being that damned ol’ Tinker Donaldson crazy fool he was, kicked down the door of the store and one of the suspects panicked and charged. Donaldson conveniently stepped aside in his best toreador style and rushing man collided with Street, instead, who was still pretty new on the job, and they tumbled down the three steps onto the hood of a car and in between the parked cars clawing and scratching and yelling at each other like a couple of crazed cats while Donaldson, cocky as ever, paraded into the store like he owned the place and caught a 38 that ripped a hole right through his gut. Donaldson didn’t collapse immediately instead the punch of the slug made him shuffle back a step or two and conveniently sat him down in a sundae-shoppe chair, rested his one arm up on the table and his other arm on his leg, like he was a customer, all the while the store clerk had had the sense to brain the shooter upside the head with a pot of coffee --smacked ‘em a good one breaking the carafe and exploding boiling hot water all over both them-- grab the gun, and call the cops.)

In those days EMS was just coming into practice so Donaldson had to ride in the back of the hearst-style ambulance, a system which relied on speed instead of care. Street, in the mean time, suffered a sprained back from rolling off the fender of the car and then being bent over the parking curb, his pistol drifting under one of the cars. Donaldson was shamed into retiring instead of being fired for being a full-time idiot.

Back in the back of the truck, Street could see the light posts and few trees go by slowly and then the very top of the hospital entrance sign glowing in white on blue, and a couple of more right turns and the truck slowed to get past the guard followed by an even slower turn into the emergency bay.

Janet would be about off her shift at the hospital. She was a mid-level administrator and, before they divorced, had admitted she checked incoming names to see if his was ever on the hit list and it frightened her every time, which was partially the reason she couldn’t take living with him anymore. When their neighbor --a fireman-- had been crushed in the John Sevier fire she was beside herself when he --the neighbor-- was admitted and in very tough condition and it was Janet who consoled the wife but no one was there to console Janet because that night Street was drafted to help fight the fire, too. Common enough story but still intimately worrisome and her love for Jesse Street transformed into too much of a concern for his safety, and because he had been a cop since college, and didn’t seem to want to not be a cop, she felt cornered. She’d been with him the day they buried his parents. He had been a sophomore at the university studying history and a drunk driver had, in a moment, south Madison near Unicoi on a deadly stretch of road, taken away his entire family. The young man became lost and drifted for some time after that, dropping out of school, and nearly inconsolable. Tennessee drunk-driving laws were different back in the day and the man had gotten off scot free. Two months later James Jesse Street accepted Uncle Sam’s invitation to visit Viet Nam as forward observer and sometime after his discharge from the Army he returned to the university and not long after that the man who’d killed his parents was found in a back alley in Madison beaten to a pulp but alive and only Janet ever put the dates and times and vague explanations together but was never sure of any of it except Jesse Street served with honor and valor and came back to the university to finish his degree and start a career with the Madison P.D. but not to start a family.

And now he was on his way to the hospital. His first ambulance ride. His first time ever shot. His first time to really hurt, but he wasn’t going to die. Not from the gunshot wound, at least.

Just why had Duffy Anderson shot him? Duffy wasn’t a shooter. Duffy was a down-and-out drifter who probably couldn’t hurt a person if he’d tried. Duffy would more likely take a bullet than give one. Street’d known Duffy Anderson for enough years to know the guy wouldn’t just up and shoot Street or anyone else, even if provoked. Some people just don’t do those things. He’d arrested Duffy a time or two and also let him go a time or two so the attack just didn’t make sense. Frightened people shoot. What they’re frightened of may be different than yours or my fears, or unreal or not, make sense, but they were frightened nonetheless.

The ambulance glided to a stop. No screeching of tires. No drama. Nothing fell off a shelf. No excitement. The EMT was already getting the back doors opened. Street followed the man with his eyes, watching every move. The summer’s evening light flooded the interior of the cargo box.

He looked down for his toes and still couldn’t see past the mask and it wasn’t until they’d slid the stretcher from the truck he saw Janet and she took his hand --it was warm and alive-- and then there was a dizzying roll through the doors and into the emergency operating room.

He’d been here before but never on his back.



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