Wednesday, November 30, 2011



The headache that Robert gives Nancy by just his being there in the driver’s seat, oblivious, is almost deadly. Robert and the diesel fumes bring on searing migraines that make her nauseous, that blind her with pain, and that simply make her want to cry; that’s what it boils down to. She wants to cry. It’s Robert and the fumes.

Because ultimately the diesel revving, the Rn-rn-Rn-rn-Rn-rn-Rn-rn that echoes in her head for hours after a tour, that reverbs in her sleep, becomes soothing, by the third or fourth hour; it actually helps. She stretches out on the gurney most tours, at some point, for maybe ten minutes, sometimes half an hour, and opens her ears, allowing the revving to massage her brain. Because it’s not the sound that makes her sick, no, it’s the smell, like smoke and metal, the filth of gas stations, the sweat and menthol of Colby in the engine shop, God! He’s another asshole, with his attitude and his dark laugh, his knotted, greased-up knuckles and dangling silver combination wrenches. Nancy burns when she sees him, through and through, the core of her body immolates on sight of him and she would go, she would run for one chance, one hour with him, if only he’d cease and desist the bullshit go-rounds with the wife he says he doesn’t have, if he’d stem the flow of children through the shop whom he claims don’t belong to him. What the… fine. This also adds to her migraines.  

The worst of it though is the smell, the smell… the fumes circling her skull and invading her nose so redolently that she can’t stand to hang out near the bus, she can not just stand there outside it; she has to stay in, with the AC on, or, stand inside a Dunkin’s or a McD’s or an ER, looking out the window at the bus, as if it was a gigantic dog tied to a meter, waiting, the rig, the am-bo-lance as Keelah calls it, because she can so truly feel the engine poisons entering her lungs that what it is, this obliterating ambulance life, makes everything else seem pointless. 

If that takes root then she is fucked. Ambulance as God is a Hannibal Lecter you don’t want inside your head. Nancy loves to lay on the cool gurney between two and four a.m. and imagine herself as Clarice Starling, as better than Jodi Foster in ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ the diesel rumble shaping her into a brilliant candidate for the FBI, catching a killer on her sinewy instincts, alone. Keelah kicks her awake on the gurney and hands her a pint of fried rice soaked in duck sauce, “Lightin’ it up, lady.” 

What beauty will they see? What heartbreak? What systemic abuse of persons, what chronic despair? Why not smoke? Why not fuck the mechanics? 

Why NOT?

But it’s Robert tonight, not Keelah, and everything is worse. His blubbery jowls covered in sparse reddish beard look hopelessly pubic to her, like the mystical body part of an overweight hermaphrodite, bulbous and private, and she wishes up high in the keening of her brain that she never thought of the phrase because now it will stick; she’ll see it every time she looks at his face, which she tries not to do.

Bulbous privates.


How she hates him; it’s too much. His greasy glasses. His plastered down hair. His gut. That he’s thirty-five and looks fifty and likes it. His high-water uniform pants that bunch up his ass and his too-tight belt, that he actually wears all his bars on his shirt and all his pins and that the shirt is shiny from ironing, that he wears a white dickey underneath with his initials embroidered on the collar. What an ASS. His tool belt. His Nextel. His Swiss army knife. His badge.

Get a LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFFFFFFFE! She screams in her mind at him. You’re embarrassing yourself. You’re embarrassing ME!

His speech impediment, the salivacious L’s, the swallowed words; that she must ask him to repeat himself because she is half deaf in her left ear and he sits on her left because he drives, he always drives, contributes to Robert’s gratifying conviction that Nancy is a moron.   

Robert has worked for St. Agnes Medical for thirteen years; it’s a nearly unheard of record, the distinction of which he is welcome to; you don’t sit on your ass at St. Ag’s for years and years, even as a medic, unless you can’t get into nursing or medical or PA school or just can’t be bothered to do anything else with your life, and there are guys like that. They’re all obese with self-loathing and married to nurses who despise them. All women leave Ag’s and only return as nurses. Five years at St. Ag’s on a rig should be the most or there’s something radically wrong with you. Nancy is rounding the corner into year two and killing herself ready for her medic in a month. Many say it’s too soon; fuck ‘em. 

But good medics agree; you should work as an EMT for three years before medic school. You should be able to run certain codes in your sleep. And it’s true that Nancy is short on experience. She hasn’t had a birth in the field or a gunshot wound. And because it’s the city, where hospitals are both as frequent and as excellent as dog shit, she has not had to use her BCLS, her Basic Cardiac Life Support skills, at all. She hasn’t had to ride in on compressions, clear an airway or make a splint. It’s just scoop and run, scoop and run; take a history and vitals and roll them on in.

Nancy is the magic number, she has learned; she is 33. That’s very old for a woman in EMS, Keelah has explained, “That’s why nobody likes you,” while Nancy’s face burned. And Nancy is not wild about adding another two years of living with her father to the drive-by devastations of her life. She wants to be a medic. She needs the money. She studies hard. But she’s afraid, and on rotations for skills practice, she’s way behind.  She hasn’t had to run deuce IVs. She hasn’t had a burn or a cardiac crash. She hasn’t had to use the paddles. And it feels like nobody wants to help her. 

“Why aren’t you a nurse by now?” 

Mind your own business, ass.

It’s very late in the game. She’s down to the wire. She has a month to get her skills signed off on and has only now realized that it’s best to ride with the same medics over and over, and to stick to the old guys, who don’t want to do it any more and are delighted to allow you to fuck it up. They laugh at her, out loud, but they willingly sign her reports. It’s not that she’s bad looking; it’s that she’s desperate, and everybody knows it, except, apparently, Colby, who they all call The Cheese, or he likes her that way, panicked and sweaty when he flashes her his black-brown eyes and offers up a slick carburetor or a limp, flapping fan belt she can stick her needle in, if that helps, smirking like a dare, when he’s not on his cell or ignoring her. 

So here’s the choice. 

She’s on till 8 a.m., and can sneak in with Circus Mike and Little Eddie from eight to twelve, which can be good, as in busy, on a Saturday morning, and possibly get three or four of the 8 needle sticks she’s missing, and, seeing as it’s not a real rotation, because you’re not allowed to ride along back to back after working, Circus Mike will line up the carbon copies of her last report and fill in the missing sticks; no one will go back and count how many IVs wheeled into the St. Ag’s ER or who did them; QC can only go so far without imploding. And then she can hang out at Woodhull all day Sunday by the FDNY rigs, breathing in the diesel, studying for the medic, waiting for a fire, and if she gets a burn the jolly vollies will sign her report and back-time her a shift which she can make up to them next month, after the medic. Which means that, if she hangs on till twelve today, she’ll have to ask Robert to bring the bus back to the garage without her, and which also means she’ll miss Colby, and then she’ll have to run to be in class by one, stay awake in there till four, stay on for skills practice till maybe six, run home to her dad, eat, take the dog out, and then try, try, to study protocols till ten or eleven, and be in class for skills super early on Sunday in order to be out in time to make the most of waiting for a fire.


She can ask Robert to let her try all the sticks tonight and even, if they get one, a tube; that’s a tube in a throat to reinflate a lung. This is allowed, to get your skills at work, as long as you’re riding with a senior medic, which Robert never, ever tires of announcing that he is. Either way, Nancy needs something from Robert, and he sits in the driver’s seat even though he’s not supposed to, all strained shirt buttons and self satisfaction in spite of the fact that Nancy is supposed to drive, the EMT drives the medic, that’s how it’s done, but Robert rolls his buttocks with delight when she asks to drive and he consistently responds, “Don’t be personal about it; I’m not crazy about women drivers, that’s all.”

If Robert gives her the sticks, she’ll be changing in the garage bathroom at 8:05 because Robert never ends a tour late, and Colby will come into the bathroom and kiss her and leave grease on her breast which she will not wash off in the shower. If Robert gives her the sticks, she’ll get the hell out of work in time for three precious hours of sleep before class.

If Robert gives her the sticks, she’ll get the sticks; she won’t miss, because he won’t get in the way. He won’t help her with sticks, or tubes, unless she asks. Robert loves to breathe on Nancy, he loves to lay his meaty palm on her back during anything mundane; she could be putting a band-aid on a nine-year-old and he’d look over her shoulder and direct, his French-fry breath hot on her. The skills, however, when she’s learning, when she must fly solo and do it right and once, are when Robert stands back, breathes easy, and lets Nancy live. Because Robert loves EMS so much that he can’t bear even to allow his own stout, righteous self to get in the way of anyone else ascending to medic and bringing the gospel of emergency medical transport to those in need. For Robert, collecting needle sticks on your report is a sacred right. They are not his to obfuscate with misogyny and mind-fuck. 

Nancy clears her throat. 

Robert says, “You wanna try sticks tonight?”

Nancy lets out a long unintentional whistle of relief. “That would be great, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” says Robert, “if you – I think it’s good. Because I looked in your book and you’re behind. If you don’t mind my saying. Because otherwise you’ll be here till noon tomorrow and frankly, I don’t sanction that. Especially because I’ve heard of Circus Mike signing off on good efforts, which as far as I’m concerned amounts to manslaughter. So no I don’t mind. Let’s try you out. Let’s get you up to speed. Would you like me to do flashcards with you in between?”

Nancy is aghast, as stupid as she knows it is. Robert has looked into her backpack before and found sanitary napkins and asked her throughout a tour if she would like to stop in the ladies room for a hygiene check. 

“Thank you,” she says in a low growl. “But no, no flashcards. Just the sticks.”

“All righty,” says Robert, turning the key in the ignition. “Buckle up.”

And off they go.

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