"Chicken devil rotten bastards. Obama mama in the vitamin D escape pod with your fucking SHOES!" she says, trying to hold steady while kneeling on a filthy mattress.
We all stand listening, crowded in the doorway of the stagnant room, redolent of acrid, burnt crack and unwashed bodies, our collective flashlight beams trained on the swaying, screaming woman. She is perched on the edge of the mattress babbling a non-stop stream of obscenities and nonsense as she rapidly whips her head back and forth. This woman, who looks to be in her late 60s but is probably much younger, bares her toothless gums at the closest police officer as he steps closer. I watch as droplets of blood from the cut on her head arc from her Medusa-like hair to splatter on the gouged wall, a surreal hemoglobin rendition of a later Jackson Pollock. "Blood on sheetrock." The three cops in the room all step back again to avoid the spray.
"This chick is Coo Coo for Coco Puffs," a sheriff's deputy says as he takes a step forward and reaches behind his back to grab his cuffs.
"Rotten rotten, ROTTEN!" The woman spits the last word, looking at the cop with crazy wide eyes rolling in her head, like a gut shot horse, as she tries to get up off the mattress.
"Okay," the cop snarls, "It's 2 in the morning, and I have had enough of this shit." He reaches down to grab the woman by her scrawny arm and drag her to her feet. She lets out an ear splitting howl as the cop propels her toward the door.
"Soup spoon lovers with no account box car chummy shit eaters." The woman tries to grab at each of us as she is hauled across the room.
"This young lady and I have a date downtown. You guys can hit the road. Thanks for coming." He half walks, half shoves the yammering woman down the stairs, to the waiting police cruiser, with the occasional "FUCK YOU" echoing up the stairwell in the abandoned building. Tim has said little, and he beat the cops down the stairs, taking most of the gear with him. I shake my head, grab my bag and walk down to the idling ambulance where Tim is already in the driver's seat. He has the truck in drive and rolling down the street as soon as I close the door.
Back at quarters I kick my boots off and climb back into my still warm bunk. I close my eyes and try to slow my breathing, but sleep seems to be a long way off. Trying a little self hypnosis, I image myself on a warm beach with waves crashing in the background. A beautiful redhead is on the towel next to me. She leans over to gently brush her lips against mine, a wicked glint in her eye. She leans close and whispers in my earÖ
"Medic 92, Medic 92 a call for unknown aid. Respond Priority One."
I sigh, push back the covers and shove my feet back into my still warm boots.
Tires crunch over gravel and broken glass as the stutter flash of the strobes light the dark alley behind the Greyhound station like a garish carnival midway. I shrug my shoulders into my jacket as we roll to stop behind a couple of police cruisers parked next to an overflowing dumpster. I glance around the lot and climb out of the ambulance, locking and slamming the door behind. Tim pulls our stretcher from the back of the truck as I heft my bright orange alchemistís bag of medicines and breathing tubes and sling the Lifepack monitor over my shoulder to walk across the trash-strewn, potholed blacktop toward the fluorescent lights behind the cracked and taped glass entry doors of the city-subsidized apartment building. I'd been here before.
The cop sitting on a folding chair next to the pay phone in the graffiti-tagged lobby never looks up from the clipboard he is writing on. "Sixth floor boys," he says, blithely gesturing toward the elevator. I crush a syringe under my boot as I walk past him.
Tossing our gear on the stretcher, Tim and I stand in the urine soaked elevator, not looking at each other as it slowly creaks way up to six. I try to hold my breath, but my lungs betray me at the 4th floor, and I am forced to breathe in the fetid air. Tim coughs in sympathy, but neither of us says a word. We'd ridden this elevator, or one like it, before. We know what's waiting on six.
Tim and I worked B shift on Medic 92 in District 5. The old guys called it "The Knife and Gun Club." Lots of fights. Lots of overdoses. Lots of bad shit. We'd been partners for a little over two years, and I could see that the stress of the job was beginning to get to him. Rather than grab a beer or come over to the house for a BBQ, now he bolted for his car as soon as the tour ended, making excuses about family commitments and forgotten dinner plans. He had withdrawn from the rest of the guys on the crew, keeping mostly to himself. I'd overheard him on the phone with his girlfriend the other day. He was saying he didn't think he could take much more. Personally, I canít understand why heís so broken up. Itís just a job. Itís like I told him when we started working together. "You need to take the emotion out of it. People die. Get over it."
The elevator doors slowly open onto the sixth floor, and I push the stretcher out and hang a right. We walk in step, our heavy black boots clomping down the linoleum hallway, the sound echoing off the industrial gray cinder block walls decorated with spray-painted gang tags and misspelled obscenities. We can see a bright light spilling from the open door at the end of the hall, the black silhouette of two cops at the threshold, waiting for us. Together, we walk toward the light.
The first time Tim and I worked as a team, our first call was to this sixth-floor apartment for a heroin overdose. My old partner had just transferred back to an engine, and Tim was brand new to the medic unit. I could see that he was jazzed. In the beginning, every call gets you pumped. It's that scary feeling of not knowing what you're going to find when you walk into a room that sends that little blue ball of electricity screaming down to the pit of your stomach where it rolls around, sizzling. Makes your hair stand up and your breath quicken. Skydivers tell me it's the same feeling they get as they push through the door.
I glance over at Tim as we walk down the hall. He's shaking his head, fists clenched, eyes closed. It looks as if he's muttering to himself.
In the apartment that first time with Tim, we met Julia. Later, we saw her so often, sometimes once or twice a shift, we had taken to calling her "Our Julia", a woman who looked worn-out, but was still a young girl, no older than 22. Always she dressed in dirty clothes with filthy hair, nails bitten to the quick. Track marks ran up and down her arms, but she was somebody's daughter. I could see that she was pretty once, Our Julia. Anybody could tell that. That first time we found her, she was lying in a puddle of vomit in a tiny bathroom, barely breathing. Her junkie friend said she spiked up, and the next thing he knew, she "looked dead, man!" I had dragged her limp body out from between the toilet and tub and crouched behind her motionless head, tipping it back, placing the mask of the ambu bag over her face. Squeezing the purple bag, I forced air into her lungs. Tim had struggled to start an IV in her delicate hand vein. I watched him draw up a syringe of Narcan, a drug used to counteract heroin, and quickly inject it into the port on the IV tubing.
We made it to the end of the hall. The cop on the left, a younger Hispanic guy I'd seen a few times before, looked down at my gear piled on the stretcher and shook his head sadly. "You ain't gonna need that stuff, Bro."
That first visit, a few minutes after the Narcan hit, Julia started breathing on her own, but she was also puking and ready to fight. Tim and I held her down as I leaned in close and quietly tried to explain what had happened, that she had almost died. That she needed to go to the hospital with us. She writhed underneath us, sweaty, trying to bite, trying to break our grip. A feral cat, caught in a trap. Pupils pinpoint in dark green eyes, she looked up, looked through me, but spit at my face, luckily missing. "Fuck you! Now I have to score again."
The cop at the door was telling the truth. We didn't need any of our resuscitation gear. Julia was dead, and from all appearances had been that way for a while. She was sprawled on the floor of her pitiful Section 8 apartment, her left arm resting in moldy remains of take out food and cigarette butts that had been ground into the carpet. The cop came up behind me.
"We just need you guys to verify the death, and you can hit the road."
"Let me just run a strip for you," I said as I reached to pull the monitor off the stretcher. "Tim, you mind grabbing..." I looked up, Tim was gone. I looked at the cop, and he shrugged, then motioned to the door.
"Give me a minute guys," I said as I stood up, my knees popping. The cops laughed.
"Don't worry, Mikey. She's not going anywhere."
The laughter followed me out to the hallway to mingle with the echo of my boots on cheap linoleum as I follow the sounds of sobbing that will lead me to my partner.