Monday, April 30, 2007

What else could we do?

The headlights danced on the oil stained concrete like silver dollars. The welts in the road shook the old ambulance as we bounced down the street, shaking the large, rectangular silver mirrors. The fisheye mirror, sitting squarely atop the larger, side view mirror, distorted the peripheral world as we passed it by.

The moon was full and round, like a baby's belly, and was floating effortlessly in the starry, blue sky. Thick, hand-drawn clouds lounged in the sky, floating from the mountains and drifting towards the towering, glass buildings of downtown. And harmonizing music, a relaxing backdrop to all the radio chatter of our dispatch coming from the small, plastic speakers bolted to the ceiling above our heads, soothed my ears of the nonstop madness being dispatched in the city.

My arm rested on the well-worn armrest. My head fell back into the top of the seat and the restlessness of my legs calmed. My mind began to relax from the previous call and I looked forward to the post we were headed to, a post where an evening could be spent with your feet propped on the open door, dangling in the warm breeze of the night air. A post where one could enjoy a book, or a movie, or even a quiet little nap. Things were looking up.

Then, like a snow leopard chasing it's prey on the rocky preface of a mountain, a large, red, pickup truck pulled along side of us. It's old, stained, yellow headlights ominously bled into our lane. It's engine growled as they accelerated and barked as they slowed. It smelled of gasoline and tequila and it's black, tinted windows masked the souls within.

I subconsciously took note. The milky white beams of the moon breaking through the thick clouds above intoxicated me and lulled me into the peaceful state I sorely hoped to maintain throughout the rest of my shift. The music in the background calmed me and the anticipation of removing myself from this world with my new, used paperback book in my backpack eased my sharp nature.

Lurching forward, then falling back again, the red pickup begged for our attention. I glanced to my right and the black, opaque window was rolled down. Inside, a man with a cowboy hat, black mustache and large, cauliflower nose cursed into the moving air. His angry red eyes squinted as his lips spewed defamatory phrases in multiple languages. The shadow to his right remained that, always a shadow.

My partner increased our speed. Sixty in a forty-five. The truck mimicked and sped up. My partner braked, slowing the awkward emergency box to an uneasy fifteen in a forty-five. The evil, blood red truck reciprocated. It remained by our side, to our right, always within arms reach.

The calmness of the music had disappeared and the restlessness in my legs reappeared. The chatter on the radio seemed even more overwhelming and the clouds cooled the warmth of the moon hovering above head.

A side view mirror, small and black pushed itself into my frame of reference. It almost hit my window as the swerving truck tried to force us off the road. Inside, still, an angry, sunburnt face of a man I had never met before. His left hand at twelve o'clock on the worn steering wheel. His right hand, hiding something in his lap.

We continued down the road, playing cat and mouse with the seemingly fictional characters to my right. Each block I thought, I hoped, they would break off and speed away into the stifling darkness. They didn't.

I reached for the black microphone wedged into the silver clip on the dash. I pulled it out, it's tangled cord stretching into my lap. I lifted it close to my mouth, and without pushing the button, talked to my partner about the situation under the pretense of me reporting them to the police, a trick that normally frightens angry citizens into believing we are calling the police.

And like a seasoned Texas Hold-em champ, my bluff was called. The red truck continued to attempt to hit us and run us off the road. It's engine intimidating us with every revolution.

The slurs got louder and more intense. The mustached character driving this angry beast was clearly getting angrier and angrier. The shadowy figure next to him became more animated and seemed to feed fuel to the fire.

This time, I actually clicked the button. This time, I gave a description as clearly and calmly as I could and tried to remember where I was. I tried articulating the series of events and nothing but stutters broke my lips. My partner grabbed another radio and switched it to the police district we were in. He, holding the portable radio in his lap, hiding it from the character next to us just as he was hiding something from us, talked clearly into the stale air now filling the ambulance.

Units from every part of the city began responding. The mention of a possible weapon sounded through the airwaves like an air raid siren of World War II. Engines screamed and sirens wailed as police officers told dispatch they were enroute.

The whites of my eyes thinned as my pupils got larger. I began breathing faster and rehearsed in my mind what I was to do, and say, if a weapon was brandished and pointed in my direction. And as I finally came up with a logical answer to this hypothetical question, the red, dented truck sharply turned right and sped off into the darkness, it's engine howling into the night.

We got back on our radios and cancelled all the cover. We cancelled the four district cops, the sergeant, and the other ambulance speeding our way from their far away post. We slowed down, took a breath, and looked at one another and laughed. We laughed not because it was funny, but because we didn't know what else to do.

As we pulled into post, the one I had previously been dreaming about, the phone in the ambulance rang.

My partner nodded, yes'd, and uh-hum'd the person on the other line. I sat next to him like child on Christmas morning waiting to open his presents, waiting for him to hang up the phone.

He clicked the red "end" button and tossed the phone onto the floor.

The police were looking for those two people fitting the very description we aired. The police were looking for a red, dented truck driving up and down that street all night.

The ones that had been shooting innocent people as the rumbled past them.

We parked the ambulance quietly in a dark, hidden parking lot and look at one another. My partner laughed, uncomfortably, and so did I.

What else could we do?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Zero to ohh crap.

It seems all I run, everyday, every shift, every week, on every street, in every abode is chest pain or shortness of breath. While all the other ambulance are waiting for cover on the suicidal party with a gun, or returning emergently back to the hospital with someone fighting the clammy, suffocating grip of near death, I sit in my ambulance waiting for one of the only two types of calls I ever run.

The seventies male with chest pain, the thirteen year girl old with shortness of breath, the thirty-one year old male with chest pain or the guy standing at a phone book in the 7-11 parking lot, in the rain, with a touch of both, are just samples on my recent playlist.

There I sat cramped in a fogging ambulance with rain and white clumps of snow melting on the heated front window. Claustrophobia, allowing the warm spring weather to tease me briefly, had returned with a vengeance. The small DVD player sat propped on the dash with a box of tissues under the right corner to compensate for the slant in the dash. Donnie Brasco was burying himself deeper in the underbelly of wise guys, teasing me with his excitement of being an undercover FBI agent.

On the ambulance radio, calls were being dispatched all throughout the city. Auto vs. pedestrian, rollover accident, cardiac arrest, uncontrollably violent suicidal party, and a car in a lake -parties trapped. I shuffled back and forth in my seat fighting with the growing aches in my restless legs.

They called me on the radio. I answered with my location and briefly, just briefly, hoped for something more than the usual. Maybe a shooting or a stabbing. I'd even take a status seizure or a multiple casualty car accident. Please lord, anything but chest pain or shortness of breath.

I was wrong.

Chest pain. A seventy-one year old male with chest pain. Again!

We zipped through the wet streets not breaking any land speed records. I complained about the nature of the call. "Chest pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, shortness of breath, that is ALL I ever go on!" I whined.

I started my report, knowing this would be like every other chest pain call I had run over the last month. Someone felt a tinge in their chest, got scared, and called 911. I would get there, talk to them and receive uneducated and evasive answers and quickly determine it wasn't worth continuing to question the patient. I would load them up, check their vitals -all of which would be fine, and hook them up to the heart monitor -again, all of which would be fine. A little O2, a little aspirin, and the obligatory nitro under the tongue would fill our time on the way to the ED. Another chest pain call under my belt. Another false alarm.

We walked into the apartment and the short man sat laughing and smiling with the fire department. He wasn't sweating and wasn't white as a sheet. He wasn't having any difficulty breathing and his anxiety level was less than mine. His knees were crossed and he nonchalantly complained about some nondescript pain in his chest.

"What does it feel like? Can you explain how it feels?" I questioned, going through my flowchart of cardiac questions.

A long pause, a smile at a fireman, and a wink to his toothless girlfriend shouting in the hall. "It just hurts."

Of course it does, I think to myself. "Well, lets get going then."

He takes two steps to my bed, the oxygen mask tethering him to the blue canvas bag holding the green oxygen cylinder. He sits and worries about everything else. My mind wanders and I shush the screaming woman in the hall. "We can here you just fine. There's no need to yell," I said.

The elevator lurches floor to floor and I take this opportunity to interview the patient more thoroughly. He doesn't really want to play this game. He'd rather talk about something else. I feel his heart pumping thick blood through his circulatory system with my two fingers on his flaky, white-skinned wrist.

We load him into the ambulance and the firemen return to the meal simmering on the stove. I shut the doors and cover him with a blanket. "Let's do it all," I said to my partner.

I go through the motions like a robot. Lean and grab the blood pressure cuff. Stand and open the clear cabinet holding all the IV's. He sits there chewing the aspirin I gave him in the elevator.

My partner hooks him up to the heart monitor and out of the corner of my eye I see an abnormality.

"Maybe we should do a 12-lead?" my partner says as the dieing tissue in the patient’s heart makes itself known.

My partner unbuttons his shirt as the short man declares he is feeling much better. Six white, square stickies are placed strategically along his chest. From his right nipple all the way around the left side of his chest, wires are dangling from his hairy chest. We beg him not to move so we can get a clear picture on the print out.

He's having a huge heart attack. The anterior and lateral aspects of his heart are dieing rapidly in front of me.

"How's your pain?" I ask with a little more urgency.

"It's down to about a zero," he laughs. "Why? Am I sick?"

I explain what is going on with and tell him things are going to move a little faster now. We are going to go lights and sirens to the hospital and I'm going to need to do a whole lot more. "You're going to need to answer all my questions the best you can," I shouted over the loud sirens.

And with that, my luck turned drastically. Sitting in front of me was the acutely ill person I had been hoping to help for the last few weeks.

The ambulance his sixty, in twenty seconds. And I went from zero, to ohh crap in half as many.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tears.

The rain danced on the windshield between sweeps of the large wiper blades. The emergency lights reflected off the falling drops as they shattered into the large, clear window. The water, asleep on the street, trapped all the flashing colors of the light bar on our ambulance like a prism and disoriented me. I eased off the gas, gripped the wheel tighter, and squinted my eyes from the rainbow of colors reflecting off the wet surfaces passing by my driver's side window.

The siren seemed louder. It reverberated off the large glass pane windows of the Starbucks and echoed between the brick walls of the restaurants closely packed next to one another. The wiper blades slapped back and forth and made every image seem like animation, as though they were drawn on index cards and flipping through the palm of my hand.

We were on the way to a possible stroke. It was a nice neighborhood, one where people only call 911 when they really need it. A neighborhood that apologizes for interrupting our imagined busy lives and is embarrassed by all the decorative, flashing apparatus outside their manicured lawns.

I walked up the driveway, rain defying gravity and dropping upwards from beneath my hat. A freshly paved drive was surrounded by manicured lawn. At the top of the hill, next to the steps that led inside the brick home, was a four-door Cadillac. It was silver, and clean, but certainly not out of date. A car that was probably paid for by a social security check and a pension from 30 years with the same company.

We opened the glass-paned front doors and dripped cold rain onto the warm wooden floors. Our shoes squeaked as we traversed the living room to the ornamental couch. A stand up piano sat in the corner next to the gas fireplace. On its mantle sat framed pictures of generations of loved family.

My partner turned and started out towards the ambulance. "I'm going to see if that hospital will take her," he said. "She's within that window for a stroke alert.

I stepped forward, raindrops freckling her face as I blinked at her through my glasses. Her shirt was tucked in, her hair was combed, and her pants had evidence of incontinence. She lied on her back with her eyes wide open and her mouth closed, drooping significantly on the left side. As though someone had flipped a switch on the left side of her body, all motor skills and means of gesturing were on pause. I raised her left arm, asked her to hold it in the air with her eyes closed, and let go. It dropped like the electric ball in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

She closed her eyes. A tear formed only in her right eye.

We picked her up and placed her on the bed with damp sheets from the rain. The firemen coordinated buckling her in as I found a blanket to cover her up. The plastic oxygen mask rattled on her face and fogged with each breath. "We're going to be doing a lot of things at once when we get outside, okay?" I said as we began wheeling her out the door. "We're going to take good care of you."

In her mind, she spoke clearly and eloquently, like her favorite author from the book club she had recently joined. I heard nothing but slurs and broken sentences. It was as though she was speaking a foreign language and no one around here could translate.

"I know it's scary, and I know you're trying to say something to me," I said. "We can figure this out together."

The night's sky sifted water drops on us from the sky above like a baker over a cutting board. We opened the double doors of the ambulance and slid her, and the metal bed she was uncomfortably resting on, into the two locking mechanisms. My partner sat on one side, and I crammed myself on the small square seat to her right. Both arms were grabbed and as I strapped a blood pressure cuff on her right arm, my partner poked a green-hubbed needle into her other. We talked medically to one another as she sat below the yellow lights listening to rain drops burst on the top of the ambulance.

I crawled out from my cramped hole as my partner talked to her softly. He did more neurological exams and explained what was going on with her. She attempted to smile, crookedly, and still cried softly from one eye.

We arrived to the ED in four minutes. It had been 14 minutes since she called 911 and 24 minutes since the onset of all her stroke symptoms. We pushed her down the hall and into a large room where a young lady sat in the corner in pink scrubs with a brown clipboard in her white hands. The doctor followed in behind us.

The story was told quickly and precisely. Medical terminology lofted back and forth in front of her like a heated tennis match. Her eyes, flinching left, then right, bounced back and forth. Monitors beeped and techs spoke in code to one another. They talked about her as if she wasn't there.

"Let's send the blood and get her off to C.T.," commanded the doctor.

No one had talked to her yet. I removed our bed from the hospital room and push it into the crowded hall, next to an elderly man in a wheelchair watching the commotion in front of him. I leaned my shoulder on the metal frame of the large double door and watched and listened.

The doctor asked her some quick, cold questions and she attempted to respond, but was unable. The doctor, already mentally twenty minutes in the future, abruptly attempted to explain what was going to happen. The ED tech unlocked the bed and grabbed the two black handles at the head. The monitor sat propped to her left and the blood pressure unit rested to her right.

Everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. And everyone also forgot the most important thing they should have been doing. As they wheeled her past me I grabbed the black rail to her left. "Everything is going to be alright," I said.

She blinked twice and tears ran down her cheeks. Tears, like raindrops, fell from both eyes.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Old and cranky. And rightfully so.

The narrow downtown street was framed with parked cars. Bumper to bumper they sat crowding the passing traffic along the one-way street. Trees, developing new, green leaves, sat majestically along the uneven concrete sidewalk. The hilly front yards were turning from patches of brown and rust, to a dark, green luscious grass. Spring had arrived and, as the sun shined through the thick cotton-ball clouds above my head, my partner parked the ambulance behind the old fire engine sitting in the middle of the street.

The one-way street was cluttered with brownstones converted into multiple occupancy apartments. Each had their own set of worn steps that broke away from the city concrete sidewalk. Inviting names like "Aspen Home" and "Mountain Place" hung above the double-entry security doors. Some in neon, some formed out of ornamental iron.

I slowly exited the ambulance and took in the view of the mountains. This was my first call on my first day back from my three days off, and my mind was elsewhere. I could see the apartment building, the double doors propped wide open by fire's wooden wedges, and figures inside the long hall shuffling around. I rounded the corner and narrowed my thoughts.

Four steps up, a small landing, and another four steps and I was standing in the entrance of the aptly names apartment building. The white doors, three on one side and three on another, sat invitingly to all those who entered. Numbers nailed to the center were accented by personal affects of the residents inside. Stickers from local bands, flowers from their garden, and grease stains from a hard days work all forecasted what may be inside that white door to all those who passed.

The door I saw had nothing on it.

Lying on the worn carpet, wrapped in a white blanket with two blue stripes, was an elderly man. Firemen stood wiping their brows over the elderly man struggling to get comfortable on the dirty, uncomfortable floor. They had just carried him out from his apartment that reeked of urine and feces. The naked man was wrapped like a butterfly in a cocoon and squirmed as he cussed everyone around him.

I approached and was greeted by a pungent smell. One that smelled like sour eggs boiled in gym socks. A smell that was sharp, like a French cheese, and assaulted your senses like a car salesman on crack. I choked back my attempts to gag and quickly took report from the firemen. As he talked, my mind reminisced about the last few days away from work.

"Do you want to see?" asked a fireman.

"Well, not really. But, I suppose I half to."

The fireman opened the blanket and the grumpy, naked man grumbled obscenities. I looked down at his waist, where his legs met his hips, and saw a gaping, infected, hole-dripping white clots of infection. The hairs on my arms stood at attention and my mouth quickly lubed itself with sputum in preparation of me vomiting. The hole seemed bottomless. It was at least 6 inches long and was cavernous as a spelunkers dream. I quickly covered him up, I had seen enough, and he continued to slander all standing near.

"I hate paramedics and I hate doctors," he spat as he tried to make himself comfortable in the makeshift swaddle.

I attempted to talk to him but he continued to berate me. "You killed my mother," he argued.

We loaded him into the ambulance and the firemen fled like immigrants crossing the border illegally. I opened all the windows in the back and attempted to circulate the stale ambulance.

"You killed my mother!" he screamed.

"Did I kill her?" I asked. "Was I the one personally responsible for the death of your mother?"

"No, not you specifically, but it was you paramedics. You guys, and the doctors, killed my mother."

I attempted to talk to him more but he just wiggled under the layers of white blankets. Rotting skin contained bilious fluid that leaked from his groin and saturated the white sheets. The smell lingered in the moving ambulance like lead smoke, reminding me of the disease and infection trying to kill this old man.

We bounced down the road and he grunted with every pothole. Slander dripped from his tongue as his evil eyes stared through my soul. I sat there, with his left arm resting on my knee as I taped the IV, and tried to communicate with him. Anger and hatred enveloped him and despair radiated like heat on a blacktop highway.

"All this anger is going to kill you," I said. "It's going to drive you to your grave."

A snarl and roll of the eyes. A flinch of the shoulder and he turned on his side, his back facing me. His bony, pale white shoulder protruded from the blanket. He quivered a little and grunted under his breath.

"Are you cold?" I asked.

"No response. He closed his eyes in disgust and ignored all of my gestures.

I slid down the blue bench seat and reached into the cabinet where we keep the blankets. He snarled and cussed me once more. I opened the blanket and wafted it over him like fresh linen on a pillow top bed. It landed on him precisely and I tucked in the edges to prevent the draft from chilling his infected body. He continued to ignore me.

As we pulled into the ambulance bay and bounced the rear wheels off the yellow parking block I began unplugging all the equipment from the ambulance interior. I switched the lights off, grabbed my information and made my way to the back doors. I passed on his left and whisper broke the infected air.

"Thank you for the blanket. You were very nice."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

If you don't want my help, why did you call?

It was my seventh call in five hours. And I was tired.

We sped from the south side of town to the north, cutting through lanes like a supped-up stock car. The evening traffic had made its angry way home and only a few, random stragglers strayed along the night streets. The four-lane highway was clear for but a few random headlights bouncing in the distance. My partner pushed the accelerator all the way to the floor and the engine's governor only allowed the ambulance to max out at 95 mph. The bright box whistled in the night air as we flew from one end of town to another.

We exited the highway and made a right on the large boulevard, the traffic seperating like Moses parting the red sea. The opticom above the stained light bar flickered into the future, causing the string of red lights ahead to turn green. We kept a steady speed, people ominously moved to the right, and we arrived on scene with the siren still echoing in the distance and the smell of burning brakes still lingering in the air.

I hopped out the uncomfortable seat and fell to the graveled lot. A black man stood in the shadows smoking a cigarette; it's cherry pulsating from bright red to a cool amber. We approached and he nodded.

We walked into the entrance of the fire department, which was also the entrance to the city's YMCA and the city's library. It was a large business building, tan on the outside with long, rectangular windows preventing any of its occupants from enjoying the nature that surrounded them. It was a peculiar place for a fire department, especially in such a large city, but the spray-painted signs didn't lie. It was just at the end of the ply board walkway.

Firemen in blue sweatshirts and tangled hair stood outside their front door. All of who were just asleep, and all of whom were trying to stay awake. One with a clipboard stood officially under a construction light penning any important history he found relevant. The newest of the crew, the boot, was kneeling beside a large, half-dressed angry man on a stairwell. I approached and with an obvious sigh of relief, the probie stood up, gave me a brief report, and moved back into the shadows.

An oxygen mask was strapped to the irritated man. He sat on the fourth step, resting his large feet on the first. He had no shirt and was only wearing a pair of denim jeans. Like a silk tie from Brooks Brothers, a scar hung from his neck to his chest. Below, like buttons on a dinner jacket, three scars sat horizontally on his large belly.

I quickly determined from his body language that he wanted nothing to do with anybody. He sat cussing and flailing and berated the very people he had walked to for help. I was disgusted with how someone who obviously wanted help refused any courtesies offered.

I approached and introduced myself. Repeated the story to him and he disgustedly agreed. I pointed over my shoulder and said, "Let's walk to the ambulance, then."

He stood, his 6 foot 5 inch frame towering over the sleepy group of people in front of him. He ripped the plastic mask from his face and threw it to the ground. "I don't need this shit, anymore!" he said.

I walked in front of him, he moaned and flailed and like a Broadway Star, exaggerated his condition along the fifteen-step trek. I continued walking. If he really wanted help, he knew where to go and knew how to get there. He cussed the night sky and punched his chest like a giant ape climbing the Empire State building.

"Sit there," I said, pointing to the bed with an already stained sheet on it.

"I need to do a couple of things"

His large frame engulfed the bed and his feet hung from the sides. His body quaked with each defamatory statement.

"Take me to the fucking hospital," he demanded.

"I need to do.."

"I said take me to the fucking hospital!"

I stopped what I was doing and tossed everything into the well of the bench. I was tired, sleepy as the firemen, and was in no mood to deal with this. I briefly thought about barking back but realized it would be a waste of time, like trying to rationalize with an intoxicated person. I leaned back against the blue, cushioned wall and looked him in the eye, "There's no need to be a dick to those who want to help you," I said.

He looked to his left and realized I was serious. He opened his mouth to say something, whether it was something nice or mean I don't know, because I was in the process of standing up and moving to the seat behind him. If he didn't want my help, he wasn't going to get it. And I certainly wasn't going to nestle up next to him and baby him like he probably always wanted his mother to do, but didn't.

So, we drifted from the scene and bounced down the road to his hospital of choice, one I wouldn't have necessarily chosen in the first place. He sat in front of me stomping his feet, wailing his arms, swearing to Jesus as he pounded his chest. I sat behind him, legs comfortably resting on the head of the bed doing my paperwork.

He played his cards early in the game and I called his bluff. A 35-year-old man acting like a 5-year-old child with the vocabulary of a 16 year old. If I was such a bother why did he call us? Why not walk yourself to the hospital? That way, you don't have to deal with sleepy firemen and "inept" paramedics.

I'll never understand why people are like that. They're sick, they call 911, and then they treat everyone around them like an unwanted child.

If you don't want my help, why did you call?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Her nightmare of a life.


Her black T-shirt was on inside out and backwards. The Russell Athletics tag hung around her neck like a thrift store necklace. Her hair was mated and greasy and hadn't been combed in quite a while. She wore black athletic pants that were, again, two sizes too large. And stains, from who knows what, were the only designer insignia she could afford for her disposable wardrobe.

I heard the toilet flush as I rounded the corner of the beige hallway. Four metal doors sat next to one another with large, square Plexiglas windows. Like animals in an exhibit, the inmate’s privacy and freedom had been revoked. The officers were able to walk down the hall and witness everything the trapped animal was doing. The officer spoke loudly to the inmate through the large window and metal door and finally waved me forward.

The candy bar-sized skeleton key clanked the machinery inside the heavy door. With a twist and a grunt from the officer, the door popped open. Inside you could count the yellow cinderblocks suffocating the inmate from floor to ceiling. Incorporated into the wall, was a concrete bench with a rounded corner. There was nothing sharp in the cell and everything dulled your senses. Bolted into the concrete bench was a round, silver eye of a hook. It was there to handcuff the felon to the concrete bench and restrict any already-restricted freedom of movement. As if the eight foot by six-foot cell didn't already do that.

She sat twitching on the scuffed abutment of the depressing wall. Names of gangs had been scratched into the stained concrete. Gang quotes of defiance stained the bench as if Thoreau had tutored all in the art of Civil Disobedience.

I entered just as the toilet had finished filling the stainless steel bowl. It sat to my left as she attempted to sit calmly directly in front of me. Crack was coursing through her veins.

I approached her cautiously and began talking to her. She, like most ever inebriated felon, began to tell me how today's event was related to something last week and felt it important to detail every event from then to now. I interrupted her, held her intoxicated attention for a few precious seconds, and asked her again what she had told the police was hurting her.

As if she were sitting on hot coals, she bounced up and down, left and right and mumbled something about her belly. I quickly came to the realization that this was going nowhere quickly and exited the cell. She sat flinching as if she were catching fireflies. She stuttered nonsense as phlegm ran down her nose onto her chin. An aging face framed wild eyes. Although she was in her twenties, she looked like she had already lived a life of my nightmares. Occasionally, she looked sharply over her right shoulder as if someone was teasing her in the corner of the cell.

The cocaine, baking soda, Drano, and whatever else the manufacturer of that crack rock decided to put it in was poisoning her body as it coursed through her dirty veins.

I stood her up and walked her 5 feet from the bench to my stainless steel bed. She walked like a newborn giraffe from the cell to my bed, kicking her feet and wobbling her legs. Arms flinched and eyelashes twitched. The crack was circulating.

She plopped onto the bed and attempted to remain still. She couldn't. We wheeled her out to the ambulance and began patient care.

We left for the hospital and the farther we got from that tiny, claustrophobic cell, the more she started talking. The more I started asking questions.

It all started when she was forced to smoke a rock of crack dipped in Pennzoil motor oil with a loaded gun to her head. Her brother was just killed by the same gang members threatening her. She had been high everyday since; her three children were at home with her husband, the one who gives her $100 a day so she can support her habit.

She would have her kids stay with her mother, if they could. But, normally, she was as high on crack as she was. You see, they smoke it together.

I lectured her, tried to make her feel bad so as to break through the fog of nonchalance of the cocaine high. She started crying and said she wanted to die.

And for a moment, I thought to myself. Maybe that wasn't such a horrible request.

If my nightmares were as bad as here everyday life, maybe I'd think that too.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Shattered.

He loaded the last clear, plastic water bottle into the back of the white cargo van, slammed the metal double doors shut and made his way to the driver's seat. He pulled the black vertical handle on the dented door and stepped up into the cab. The grey, upholstered seat bounced slightly as his full weight rested in the seat. He reached out to his left and grabbed the worn handle and pulled the heavy door closed. It slammed and shook the various papers resting on the dust-ridden dash. The wrappers from his fast-food breakfast rustled under the large, heat magnifying front window. He tilted his wrist so as to allow his watch to slide out from under his coat jacket sleeve; it was 4:30 and Friday. He reached down onto his waist, unclasped the palm-sized phone from the plastic holder and punched 3 buttons; his wife was speed dial #1.

The pink flip-phone vibrated and sang a melody from her favorite sitcom television show. She fumbled in her purse as she searched for the source. Standing in the express checkout line with more than the allowed fifteen items, she shuffled through paper receipts, chapstick, her beige compact, apple-flavored gum, and the bottle of Bath and Bodywork's Magnolia Blossom Body Lotion. She found it flashing colors and lifted it out of her black Coach purse, flipping open the receiver with her thumb.

He spoke into the phone with an angry tone. It was time to go home and yet, on the other end of the line, was his boss who had now ordered him to deliver one more trailer load before the end of the workweek. He couldn't believe it, his horrible week only seemed to get worse. All he wanted to do was to clock out and go to his favorite, local bar and drown the scars of the week in the foam of his favorite 12-ounce draft. He turned over the ignition and the large semi engine rumbled to a start. It was already warm from driving around the city all day from doing deliveries. The rubber on its eighteen wheels was already soft and warm. The semi-truck was quickly loaded to allow him time for one last timely delivery of its important contents. The airbrakes hissed and the cab shook as he shifted the eighteen-wheeler into gear. Just one more delivery and his week would be over with. He floored the enormous vehicle and a plume of black smoke mushroomed into the air. His boss would know that he was mad. He sped through the city streets and found the on ramp to the highway. As he barreled down the ramp and onto the already congested highway, he reached for the radio and found his favorite country radio station.

He pulled his hand back from the volume knob as the talk-radio on AM radio filled the small white van's passenger compartment. His week was long, like usual, but he was happy it was Friday. He had talked to his wife and she was on her way home with a brown sack of groceries that would be his dinner that night. The kids were at his grandmother's house and all that awaited him at home was his wonderful wife and his golden puppy. Both, he knew, would be ecstatic the minute he walked in the door. Tonight was date night, and even though he had to work tomorrow afternoon, he didn't mind having to drive home the company van in rush hour traffic. The sun began to set and shot beautiful rays of white light directly into his windshield, causing him to fold down his visor, causing him to squint his tired eyes. He reached into a compartment looking for his sunglasses.

He placed the black, wrap-around sunglasses over his scared, worn face and slid the semi's transmission into a higher gear. He accelerated and weaved in and out of traffic, the sooner he delivered the trailer's contents, the sooner he could get back home and start his weekend. The sun, stretching from behind him and casting his own shadow in front of him, set behind the mountains. He pushed on the accelerator.

As he eased off the accelerator of the cargo van, because the slowing traffic in front of him, he saw an opening in the left lane. He signaled, looked carefully over his left shoulder, and eased the white van into the number one lane. He was going seventy in a fifty-five, but was alright with that because everyone else was too. He was on his way home. It was date night.

She moved the dial to forty-five minutes. The oven timer was set strategically for her husband’s arrival. She hoped to hear the garage door open, and her husband pull in, as the oven timer began it’s beeping.

The beep from the small sedan bounced off the large semi. It didn't startle him in the least. He didn't hear it because he was moving so quickly and the radio was dialed all the way to max. The sun at his back, he accelerated.

Moving quickly, accelerating to pass the slower vehicle leaking a cloud of white, pungent odor from its exhaust, he grasped the steering wheel with both hands. The roads were becoming thinner, trickier to navigate. He hated driving the white van this fast.

She set the table, put what food was ready on the new table linen she bought at Crate & Barrel. She went to the refrigerator and bent down looking for the chilled bottle of sparkling wine.

He looked up from the floorboard of the semi where he dropped his invoice and was surprised to see the SUV in front of him. He swerved right, but then realized the lane was occupied. He swerved left.

The van braked suddenly. Red lights flashed in the near distance. Why were people slowing? Why were they swerving right?

She stopped, causing her sneakers to squeak on the white, linoleum kitchen floor. She had forgotten the wine glasses.

He turned the large semi wheel to the left, overcorrecting. The brakes locked and the large trailer began to slide away from him, smoke steamed from the burning rubber on the highway.

In front of him, on the other side of the highway divided by a concrete barrier, he saw the cause for the braking cars. Smoke was lifting off the highway like steam. He looked to his right. A car. To his left, the concrete barrier. Ahead, a semi out of control.

He over-adjusted the large semi steering wheel once again, attempting to force the large beast back to the right and away from the barrier and the oncoming traffic. The tires turned but the semi continued on its destructive path. There was no going back.

He slammed his right foot on the large rectangular brake pedal. It felt as though he had pushed it through the floorboard of the white van.

The large left wheel of the semi climbed the concrete barrier. The force of the weight of cargo continued to push him forward. The front cab of the semi was lifted into the air.

It sailed in slow motion ahead of him. A white semi cab aloft in the mountain air, its shadow, from the setting sun, ominously engulfing his field of vision. The sharp rays of the sun were now gone. It was instantly cold. Shadow enveloped his world. His life went into slow motion. Who would tell his wife?

The fragile glass exploded all over the ground. She stood there, momentarily, as she was engulfed with a feeling of loss. She knelt down and tried to pick up the pieces, but couldn't.

Flames from the white cargo van exploded from under the large semi. The driver, afraid of an explosion, climbed out of the passenger door of the semi and fell to the highway tarmac, landing on broken glass and shards of metal. Traffic stopped and he ran across the highway.

She fell to a chair, exhausted. What was wrong? Her stomach turned and her knees weakened. What was wrong?

Behind him, his large semi sat atop a white cargo van. Flames billowed out the shattered windows and smoke poured into the sunset. He knelt on the ground as he watched the trapped man attempt to free himself from the burning van.

He cried for help.

And so did the semi driver.

And as she sat on her wooden kitchen chair she looked over her shoulder into the other room. The television was on and Chopper 9 was panning the wreckage on the highway. It zoomed in on the smoldering white cargo van.

She began crying and instantly thought about picking up the pieces in front of her.

But, she couldn't.

How would she tell the kids?