“Will you, son of man, judge this bloody city?”
“Shit, I’d judge this place like motherfucking Judge Dredd. They better not give me a gavel. I believe–and I am not kidding, I believe this–that I might injure myself, I’d judge this fucking place so hard. I’d have to stretch first! And even then, even then, I might really tear myself up. I’d get into it. I might blow out my asshole.”
“Not your knees?”
“Fuck my knees. I’m worried about rectal integrity at this point. I get the power to judge some of these slack-nutted fuckwits? I’m laying down sentences like Shakespeare, and I’m putting my back into it. Puts a lotta stress on the body, and you know my theories about the asshole.”
Aiesha Mundi, whom everyone called Aye-Aye, knew his theories on the asshole, and there were many: the proper care thereof, appropriate cleaning techniques, appropriate cleansing techniques–Cordoba Martin differentiated between cleaning one’s asshole and cleansing one’s asshole–and, of course, the secret history of the asshole. The stuff they don’t teach in paramedic class. She also knew Cordoba’s theories on his balls, and his cock, and the Israeli/Palestinian problem, and agronomy, and interstellar telepathy, and the mysterious origins of backgammon, and what was going on with his sister and her jackass husband. He had spent a week last year developing an intricate idea about the future of nipples. If he weren’t funny, Aye-Aye would have stabbed him years ago.
She wasn’t sure what a knife would do to him, though. Possibly nothing, based on observation. Cordoba had been stuck with needles infected with everything from AIDS to zygomycosis; negative tests always. They would bring junkies back to life at the Hotel Synod with Naloxone and get a swinging, flailing, sweaty thank you made of fists and kicks; Aye-Aye saw him take numerous blows to the nose–hard and connecting whacks–and not even sneeze. He’d punch through windows and not get a scratch. Cordoba said there was a trick to it, and Aye-Aye thought that maybe he was telling the truth.
He drove the ambulance, which was a type 2, which means it was built on a van’s chassis instead of a pickup truck’s, so it was not a jutting hood and cab in front of a boxy back section, but a single carton of a vehicle with a sloped front that bore a scarred metal grill. Cordoba had theories about getting out of the way of ambulances, and all of them centered around his belief that you fucking well should. He had bumped Buicks, shoved Chevies, fucked up Fords; he smiled every time. One time, they returned to the garage at St. Agatha’s with the entire rear bumper of a Datsun 280z caught up in the cowcatcher. Cordoba had wanted to leave it there as a warning, but Aye-Aye turned him down on the grounds that it was unprofessional. The grill was black, and the ambulance was white with a two-tone horizontal stripe down either side, emerald and gold.
She did the paperwork. This was the trade-off of first response, of cops and firemen and paramedics: privilege for paperwork. Shatter windows, kick in doors, punch ne’er-do-wells, jam syringes of potent chemicals in strangers’ buttocks; this is all allowed as long as the proper forms are completed properly. In triplicate. In ink. Press hard. At first, they traded off the driving and paperwork, but Cordoba wouldn’t stop talking while he wrote and always ending up writing down the bullshit he was saying.
The cops got called on you. The fire departments was called for you. But Little Aleppo called the paramedics themselves. Heartburn and loneliness and self-amputated toes. Children who recognized the signs of a stroke in their parents. Adult children helping their mothers out of the showers they’d fallen in, trying to look away from their nude flesh. Anonymous renters in the Hotel Synod, and anonymous homeowners all the way on the Upside. Folks who just didn’t feel right. Others who had been physically wronged by their appliances. Sometimes real, real late, the phone would ring and the voice on the line would ask,
“Can you hold onto my gun for me? Just for tonight? It won’t shut up.”
And though the regulations said that they couldn’t, Aye-Aye and Cordoba did. She marked it down as “Shortness of Breath” and left business cards and phone numbers, put the weapon in a quart-sized plastic bag, wrote the owner’s name down with black marker. She put them in an unused locker in the garage. The guns would be claimed, or not.
St. Agatha’s was on the Downside. It was a trauma hospital, a gunshot hospital; it was a hospital you suddenly needed, not one you elected to go to. The dispatcher decides where the 911 call goes to. Crime to the cops, and fire to the firemen, and injury to the ambulance.
“They’ll automate this fucker.”
“The whole thing?”
“Sure. Inevitable,” Cordoba Martin said. “You know those claw machines in the arcade? You got a joystick and you try to pick up fucking teddy bears and whatever?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“That’s the first wave. Those machines? They learn. They’re using our hand-eye coordination against us, and that’s gonna be the end of human labor.”
“You’re an idiot. Those claw machines are fixed.”
“Fixed for death.”
It was noon and the Main Drag was snappish and short-tempered; lunch was necessary. The morning’s coffees had curdled in the neighborhood’s stomachs and pedestrians were peevish, and no one would yield to oncoming traffic even if it was an ambulance with its red-and-blue lights circling and wailing. Drunks were waking up sober and junkies were coming off their wake-up shot. The Poet Laureate was dead asleep in a messy apartment, dreaming of critical success.
And the Morning Tavern. Day for night in the Morning Tavern: some people liked to rock and roll all day and save their partying for the nighttime, and that was alright in the Morning Tavern. First beer served right before dawn, and Last Call rung out in the late afternoon. No credit, ever, and the walls fluttered with the Rejection: dishonorable discharges, and no-thank-you’s from publishing houses, and divorce papers. If you needed to start drinking early, then the Morning Tavern was for you.
There was a fat man on the bar’s floor. He had fallen from his stool. He was clutching his chest with one hand and holding the hand of a short woman in a tight black dress with the other. She had hair the color of Superman’s tights and was telling the man that everything would be okay when Aye-Aye ad Cordoba burst in with the stretcher. There was an oxygen tank laying on the white sheets of the mattress.
Aiesha Mundi, whom everyone called Aye-Aye, knelt next to the man and stuck two latex-covered fingers into the nape of his neck to hear his pulse, and she said,
“Can you hear me, sir? What’s your name?”
And the man wheezed,
“Okay, Seamus. Try to breathe. You’re not going to die today.”
Cordoba Martin jammed the oxygen mask on Seamus’ mouth and nose, and wrapped the springy cord attached to it around his skull.
Aye-Aye asked him,
“Your chest hurt?
Seamus nodded, and he looked around desperately for his mother or Jesus, but they were not there; just a short black woman and a tall white man, both in short-sleeves and blue latex gloves. Then he was on the stretcher and then he was in the ambulance with the Morning Tavern a forgotten landmark of the past behind him. Sudden illness concentrates the mind on the present; pain brings the moment into focus. You have ancestors and you have plans, but let your right ventricle skip a few beats in a row and you have nothing but right now.
Human beings live in their heads until their bodies don’t let them.
Cordoba put Seamus on the thin mattress and the gurney extended upwards with wheels under it; they took him outside from the darkness of the bar into the sun of the sidewalk and then into the ambulance head-first. Aye-Aye climbed in with him, and Cordoba closed the back doors and climbed behind the wheel. Flicked the lights and sirens back on and did a u-turn on Widow’s Way so he was driving east, and then he turned south on the Main Drag and nudged a Volvo out of his way at a red light. There was no separation between the front seats and the patient-space in the back and he could see what was happening in the rearview mirror.
“Seamus,” Aye-Aye corrected.
“–you’re in good hands. This woman has never lost a patient. A bunch have died, but she always knew where they were. Hasn’t lost one.”
Seamus flopped his arm up to the oxygen mask and shifted it off his mouth. He asked,
“Does he think he’s helping?”
“He does,” Aye-Aye said, and put the mask back on him.
St. Agatha’s was three minutes away–four if Cordoba Martin had to shove a Chrysler onto the sidewalk–and Aiesha Mundi, whom everyone called Aye-Aye, started a line on the fat man lying on the stretcher. Someone needed help, so they went. Some people need more help than others, and paramedics are all socialists at heart: to each according to their need. You go when you’re called, and do the paperwork on the way, because that’s the job in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.