General Fiction posted April 29, 2012

This work has reached the exceptional level
Ambulance in the middle of the night

Nothing Good

by humpwhistle



Don’t know what woke me.  Some sound that had already dissolved before its vibrations could jangle their way through the gauzy layers of my sleep.  I lay there with wide eyes and shallow breath, waiting for the intrusion to resound, even as I sensed there would be no instant replay for a bump in the night.    

Groggily, I came to realize the bedroom walls flashed a familiar, rhythmic semaphore. 

Wrestled out of my tangled bed linens, I stood at the window.  Through thumb-parted Venetian blinds, I watched my quiet suburban neighborhood pulse to a garish strobe originating from somewhere beyond my present perspective.  Even so, I recognized the ominous signature.  Ambulance.
Shrugging on a robe and stepping into my old, boat-shoe ersatz slippers, I scuffled into the living room.  I yawned gracelessly while pulling at the cord that parts the picture-window drapes. 

Diagonally across the street, parked in front of the Fatal house, a Plainville police cruiser and an ambulance alternately pulsed the international code for: Nothing good is happening here. Now I knew how my neighbors must have felt during all those harrowing years leading up to my mother’s overdue passing.  Years when I slept on eggshells and kept the EMTs on speed-dial.
I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and my lighter from the coffee table and stepped out onto the dark front porch.  I lit up.  I knew Mom’s death and my decision to resume smoking were somehow related, but I wasn’t ready to unravel that thread quite yet.  Having finally given up my dead, perhaps I reckoned it was time to put my own demise back on schedule.  Ah, damned pop-psychology, the know-it-all of modern psuedo-sciences.  Maybe I just want a smoke.  Ever think of that, Sigmund?
Aside from the flashing lights, there was no activity in front of the Fatal place.  It appeared that every bulb in the house was lit, and the front door gaped a wide-open yellow rectangle. I remembered how I felt when the ambulance parked, pulsing, in front of my own house.  When it was my mother who was in trouble.  When my door stood agape.  When my life felt as thin and transparent as Saran Wrap.   

I told myself that whatever was going on in the house across the street was none of my business.  I played no role in this tragic production.  I ordered myself to go back to bed.  Instead, I squeezed through a narrow-gap door and stood clandestine among the front porch shadows.  As I smoked, I spied through the film of the Fatal's Saran Wrap--looking for recognizeable images of myself.

I wasn’t the only voyeur on the scene, but easily the most inconspicuous.   Many of my neighbors from up and down the street--their slumber evidently disturbed as mine had been--stared openly.  Some from lighted porches.  Others in huddled clusters out on front lawns.  They wore pajamas, robes, and various other forms of sleepwear appropriate to this unseasonably mild April night.  Almost every house on the cul-de-sac offered at least one representative to the night-gawkers’ vigil.  There were several congresses of five people, and more. Clusters of concern?  Or merely cliques of the curious?  I noticed we all kept our distance from the subjects of our interest.  Out of respect?  Discretion?  Or, some anciently-embedded superstition?  Visit not upon the ill, lest illness be visited upon thee.  Superstition holds thrall over suburbia.

My mother's image returned.  I couldn’t remember this kind of turn-out for her emergency room pick-ups.  Evidently, an a.m. ambulance in front of the Steifel house had lost its novelty somewhere along the way.  Not for me, though.  I could still taste the copper from each time I had to speed-dial for help.  Hello, Jenny, it’s me again . . . Conscious, but disoriented . . . No fever, but her heart-rate is elevated . . . Thanks, Jenny.  The door will be open.  Tell them to come right in, I'll be with her in the bedroom. 

Once more, I told myself, This is none of your business; time to go back to bed. 

Instead, I lit another cigarette.

"Sam! Hey, Sam.”
Under my breath, I cursed the damned lighter for giving me away. Evidently, not all the pitfalls of smoking show up on chest x-rays.  

“Jack,” I called back with all the enthusiasm of a dull brick.  I spit a shred of tobacco off the tip of my tongue.  That gesture never failed to make me feel like Lee Marvin.  Score one for smoking.  My analyst insists cigarettes are merely props supporting a dramatic bent.  Who am I to argue?  Crutches are props, too.  
Jack scuttled across his front yard, stopped at the road edge, looked both ways as if he was trying to cross Fifth Avenue during the Macy's Parade, then came ahead until he reached the bottom of my porch steps.
“Damndest thing, huh?”  He wore plaid flannel dorm pants and an anciently-stained wife-beater that may have started its life white, and might have covered his paunch once. His feet were bare and paler than a frog’s belly.  He carried a drink in a red plastic cup.  The reek reminded me of my tequila days. 

Jack gestured toward the Fatal place.  “So what do you think’s goin’ on in there?”  

All I could think of was a rube hoping to sneak a peek under the tent flap of a carnival side-show.  I leaned against my house.  “Just somebody sick, Jack.  Ambulances in the middle of the night aren’t that hard to figure.  Might not be the best time to throw a neighborhood jamboree.”
Jack wasn’t listening.  “Heart attack.  The old man.  What do you want to bet?” 
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
He must have registered my tone, because he adjusted his excitement-rheostat down a few lumens.  “Shame, isn’t it?”
I flashed on all the ambulances that had graced my driveway during the last several years.  Garrulous Jack had always kept his wary distance.  Probably why I'd never broken his nose.  “Shit happens,” I said.
“Amen to that, brother.”  He climbed the porch steps and leaned on the wall next to me.
“So, Sam, how’s it going with you?  Really.”
Really?  You want to bond over an ambulance?  Like I can level with you, and only you? 

I walked to the rail and stubbed the cigarette butt into the sand bucket I'd recently placed there.  “Me?  I’m on top of the world.”
Jack nodded and was about to take a sip from his cup when he suddenly stopped and pointed at me.  “But you’re afraid of heights, right?  That’s what you were going to say, huh?  You’re on top of the world … but you’re afraid of heights, am I right, or am I right?”
I fought to keep my voice steady.  “You’re right, Jack.” 
“See?   Always with the jokes, you. Even after all you've been through.  I listen, eh?  You can’t slip anything by ol’ Jackie boy.  Go ahead, say something else funny.”
“Maybe later.”
This time Jack took a long draft from the red cup.  The smell sent a sympathetic tequila-shiver through my body.  I dearly wished it had been the real thing.  I resisted the symbiotic urge to light another Marlboro.
A woman in a mannish EMT uniform stepped through the Fatal's open front door and jogged to the ambulance.
“Dollars to doughnuts she’s fetching the paddles.  What’d I tell you, huh?  Heart attack, for sure.”
“Give it a rest, Jack.  Somebody in that house, one of our neighbors, is in trouble.  Least we can do is pry quietly.”
The EMT wrestled a large black case out of the back of the ambulance and lugged it, two-handed, into the house. 

I surrendered, lit another cigarette while Jack sipped from his red cup.


The gawk-clusters grew and slowly migrated in from both ends of the street as everyone tried to get closer to the action---a classic pajama pincer maneuver. 

The two pre-adolescent Fergeson boys darted up to the ambulance, touched it, then, giggling, ran back to the grouping that included their parents.  They turned and were about to launch another sortie when Dick Fergeson latched onto their pajama collars and toe-walked them, in squirming protest, to his porch steps.  He watched until they disappeared through the front door, then by-passed his cluster and shuffled up my walk.

“Sam. Jack.  Quite a night, huh?”

“Dick,” I said.

“Bet the old man had a heart attack,” offered Jack.

Dick put a slipper on the bottom porch step.  “Could be,” he said.  “Art Whitney says he heard the Fatal’s arguing earlier tonight.”

Jack took a step forward.  “No shit?  Fighting?”

Dick made a slow down gesture.  “Arguing, Jack.  You know, like you and Phyllis do most days that end with a ‘Y’?”

I made a show of looking exactly nowhere.

Jack leaned back on the wall, crossed his ankles and sipped.  “Does Art know what they were fighting about?”

“Arguing,”  Dick repeated.  “What do married people always argue about?  Everything, and nothing much.  Annie'n me'll argue over a sigh if we're in that kind of mood.  Best not listen to Art Whitney.  He likes inserting himself into the middle of things.  Besides, marital arguing doesn’t draw a straight line to an ambulance.  If it did, Jack, you'd have spent the last ten years in the ICU.  Or worse.”

The back of a male EMT filled the Fatal’s yellow doorway.  He pulled a gurney.  The female technician I’d seen earlier pushed from the other end.  Mr. Fatal came through the door and caught up with his wife, who was strapped to the wheeled stretcher.  He held her hand and spoke into her ear while the medics wheeled her down the driveway.   The male EMT rested the stretcher on the lip of the truck and disengaged the front supports while his partner slid Mrs Fatal into the vehicle like you’d shove a pizza into the oven.

Mr. Fatal leaned into the ambulance until the male EMT urged him aside and closed the rear doors. 

As the ambulance pulled away, Mr. Fatal smiled weakly and waved to all his gawking neighbors, then hurried back into his house.

I’m not sure why, but I felt profound shame.  Okay, I do know why.  Nothing good deserves no audience.

The lights continued to blaze through the Fatal’s windows as I watched my neighbor’s silhouette flit back and forth, room to room.  I knew what he was doing. Packing.  Pajamas, robe, slippers, toothbrush, comb, favorite book or magazine.  Most importantly, ID, insurance papers, and a current list of medications.  He’d be leaving for the Emergency Room soon, bringing her everything she’d need, but frantic he'd forgotten something.  Praying she’d still need it all once he arrived. 

I wanted to remind him to bring her eyeglasses and her dentures.  Easy items to forget--especially for a man who'd probably never packed a bag in his life.  I had actually developed and copied a check list for just such events.  I wanted to cross the street and offer Mr. Fatal my well-earned expertise, but I smoked instead.  Cool efficiency in the face of dire emergency is best left to the professionals.  Disorientation and disarray are every loved one's rights.  We are all muddlers amidst a personal crisis.  Meddlers are unwelcome.  When the chips are down, no one wants to hear from a smart-aleck.

Before getting into his cruiser, the cop scanned all the gathered neighbors.  It appeared to me he wanted to say something, but he drove off without a word.  I guess there's nothing in the Cop Manual that covers the morbid attraction of ambulances in the middle of the night.

With the bait of flashing lights gone, people, including Jack and Dick, wandered back into their homes.  I lingered on the porch long enough to watch Mr. Fatal rush out the front door toting a suitcase.  He hurried to his car.  He threw the bag into the backseat and was about to climb in when he spotted me.  Our eyes locked and we exchanged conspiratorial nods.  He drove off, and part of me wanted to be with him.  To offer him support?  Or just for old time's sake?  Whatever, I remained rooted to the porch . . . feeling as though I had passed a torch.  Or maybe a kidney stone.

On my way back to bed, I stopped at the door to my mother’s old bedroom.  I turned on the light.  She wasn’t there, of course, but something of her still was.  I took a deep breath and told myself it was time to bag up her clothes for Goodwill.

I turned on every bulb in the house and left the front door wide open.  I walked to the kitchen and dropped the cigarette pack into the trash.  In the pantry, I found a box of plastic trash bags.  


Non-Fiction contest entry


Earned A Seal Of Quality

I first posted this in 2012. A neighbor's illness brings relevance back to this story.
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