Leonard recalls a conversation: “These problems will follow you no matter where you go.” He believes the words to be true, even if he doesn’t respond to them. He doesn’t respond to the awards he has received over the course of his career, nor the catcalls, names or abuse heaped upon him by those whom he is supposed to help. He never responds to crying and pain, especially his own.
Leonard Gannon slowly drifted, end over end, blown from a happening, an occurrence, annihilated by anger. Flashes of the past appeared, roared into focus, melted, dripped into other pictures and. faces: him as a child, his family, those friends who had abandoned him. The images cascaded by in an unending stream that seemed to engulf him until that moment when he had no choice but to gasp. Before he could think about where, why or what he was doing, he was jostled from side to side. He was now seated. The side of his head was pressed against the window glass as if he had been dozing
From the corner of his eye, somewhere on the street, a gown fluttered like a dancing sheet of fog. It was near white from descriptions he had read. Not white—that without color or shade, but alabaster white. Even the name evoked an image of color: blue from an angle, gray faraway, thicker than white, white with an attitude. He raised his hand as if waving good-bye to the woman who wore the dancing, alabaster gown.
Leonard’s innocence was a feminine creature of life and creativity—someone’s mother, or sister. She was a near-human entity capable of suffering harm and death. He kept waving even as she vanished back into his tormented and vivid imagination. He was saying good-bye and thinking hello. His dreaming had deposited him in the midst of memories.
Leonard felt his hostility swell inside his abdomen as he looked at the cityscape from the passenger window of his ambulance. It was palpable, almost solid in context, and it kicked him every now and again like a full-term baby monster. He couldn’t tell which was responsible for his lack of inspiration, the day’s slow progression, or the dreariness of where he was. It came to him. Not only was he dreaming that he was at work, of all places, but it was also the end of August: the eighth month, bad luck, aces and eight’s. It was a silly superstition from his nearly forgotten childhood. It was death.
There was less than an hour’s worth of daylight remaining and the street he rode upon was just starting to come to life. He silently studied the faces of the people on the street as they walked on the sidewalks and stepped in and out of small convenience stores. Everything he saw had a watered down look to it, even the recent shower had failed to enliven the landscape. It appeared as though a foreign acid rain had drained everything of its color and vibrancy. The houses, the street and cars, even the people had a washed out look to them. Along the base of a curb, liquid flowed toward a sewer grating. On its surface, a small rainbow swirled with the gasoline washed from the asphalt. His partner drove the ambulance around a corner.
In Leonard’s mind, it appeared as though the color had been stripped from everything and was being swept away into the city’s aqua-ducts. To him, that was understandable, he was in a toilet.
He closed his eyes as he realized that he was just remembering a racist mantra that one of his partner’s had repeated. In Leonard’s mind, remembering wasn’t what mattered. He spent those days when he wasn’t working forgetting those days when he was.
The individuals were the easiest. He protected himself with his professionalism, detachment and with his ability to separate their lives from his. What remained, after all those years as a paramedic, what always entered his mind when he searched for descriptive adjectives or fundamental points of view, was gray—visual gray.
Leonard returned to the scenery as it passed him by in a deluge of movement and shifting tones. Halfway through a twenty-four hour shift was normally cause for relief, but not that day. Friday night could be many things: dull, dark and painful, but never slow. Most times, it was just painful. Those who work those long hours providing emergency care have a saying: There is nothing they can do to you in twenty-four hours that you can’t forget in forty-eight. They are wrong.
His shift had started at eight that morning. In the ensuing hours, his partner and he had been running continuously; fourteen calls, twelve transports to the hospital; a thousand, spite-filled looks.
The ambulance slowed as they passed the brick facade of a liquor store before pulling against the curb. That stop was for the benefit of his partner. Amidst dreamy grays Leonard couldn’t recall names, only peculiarities. That particular partner of his liked black women. He was the eighth partner that Leonard had had since being assigned to the black ghetto as a paramedic officer.
Leonard watched the provocative derriere of the young woman who had inspired his partner’s attention. He was in no hurry to return to the firehouse. Dinner would be over, and if the past were an indicator, the firemen most likely wouldn’t have bothered to save any food for them. His partner was eternally optimistic that those men they worked with could be trained to be civil and courteous, but Leonard felt otherwise. Usually, their insensitivity would have raised his ire, but, fortunately, his appetite was as barren as the scenery. His partner coughed as the ambulance slowed. Leonard continued to look out the window in response to his partner’s signal.
“I don’t want anything,” Leonard finally said.
His partner shifted the ambulance into park before it had come to a complete stop. The transmission clicked several times as the ambulance’s front wheel crushed a bottle that had been discarded near the curb. Glass was thrown onto the sidewalk in a brown and white pattern like shrapnel from a grenade. Three black men stood nearby, sharing a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. A shard of glass struck the shoe of one of the men as Leonard’s partner opened the driver’s door, exited, and asked:
Without looking, Leonard reached to the side of his belt and removed the portable radio he was entrusted with. His partner took it, looked at it, attached it to his belt and checked the squelch. A loud hiss verified the volume setting. If a call were to come in while he was in the store, he would hear it and come out. After he had closed the door, he wiped sweat from his brow and then spoke through the open window with a leering grin.
“Want me to see if she has a sister, Blood?”
Leonard kept his head tilted back against the headrest of the passenger chair. His voice was lethargic, barely rising above the sound of street traffic.
“You know I’m married.”
His partner mimicked his accent.
“Y’all know ah’m marred…” he laughed and shook his head. “Separated dude, nearly free. Itchin’ for a twitchin’.”
Leonard opened his eyes and appraised his partner. To contrast his twenty-five year old, rail thin physique, his face was round, moon white, and with a rapidly expanding double chin. If left unchecked, it might, eventually, dominate his entire body. His hair was clipped short in a Nazi-youth style, and stood from his scalp as if electronically charged. Leonard smiled.
The smile raised his partner’s spirits.
“Suit’cher’self, Blood. Back in a few.”
He turned away from the ambulance and walked around the hood. That particular partner had been Leonard’s for only a few months and had already inherited a cynicism similar to his. It sometimes irritated Leonard that his partner had found it so easy to become so callous so quickly. Even the nickname they sometimes used for each other: Blood, resulted from his partner’s mimicking of black people’s vernacular. At least Leonard had eighteen years on the fire department—all of it in the ghetto—and concrete reasons to despise his surroundings, unlike the prejudices his partner had come packaged with when he had been hired, nine months earlier. His partner stepped past the man whose shoe had been struck by glass. The man voiced his alcohol-induced indignation as he walked past.
“Hey man, you better learn to drive that thang ‘fore you kill some motherfucker…”
His partner continued past the three men with an ear-to-ear grin. His voice mimicked the drunk’s slur.
“Shit man, I hopes not. Then I might has’ta do some real motherfuckin’ work’n shit.”
Leonard lifted his head, sat up, and rolled the window down. The thick, August air fell on him from the street, obliterating the tepid air that drifted from the dashboard’s vents. The drunk who had yelled at his partner appeared dazed. One of his eyes stared off at a fifteen-degree angle from the second, which squinted as if he were deeply immersed in thought. Leonard was unable to tell if that was his normal countenance, or if he realized the insulting intent of his partner’s comments. After a moment of deep concentration, he stepped away from the other two men and to the alley, ten feet away. Once there, he unzipped his pants and began to urinate against a telephone pole. Two pre-pubescent black girls walked past and giggled at one another before disappearing into the alley. The two remaining men laughed amidst a flurry of handshakes that ended with one of the two men stepping away and toward the ambulance. He continued to speak over his shoulder.
“Man, that Cracker thinks he be talkin’ like a brother’n shit.”
When he had reached the passenger side of the ambulance, he leaned over toward Leonard. The heavy, sweet smell of alcohol rose with the drunk’s words as it mixed with the warm, summer air.
“Say, brother, think you could help me out? I hasn’t eaten for two motherfuckin’ days!”
Leonard unconsciously raised the window to block the smell. When the drunk’s breath became fog against glass, Leonard reached to his side, retrieved a brown paper bag, and raised it to the height of the second man’s face.
The man studied the bag as if he had never seen one before, cocking his head as if to interpret its meaning before he took it from Leonard. Without losing his precarious perch on the curb, he turned and laughed at his friends. The first had finished urinating and had just rejoined the third. They hooted in unison as they returned to the bag in their possession. The man brought his smile back to Leonard and revealed a large gap from where two teeth had departed.
“Was this?” he asked through his smile.
His question was followed by good-natured curiosity as he turned the bag in various directions and looked at it from several angles: left and right, up and down. For a moment, Leonard felt guilty. It wasn’t the first time he had been pestered by drunks and indigents for money.
“You said you were hungry. There’s a piece of chicken and some girl scout cookies in there, bon appetite.”
The man suddenly opened the bag, looked inside, studied its contents, crumbled and discarded it to the side. He glared at Leonard.
He stepped back, cocked his head, and squinted at Leonard. He chewed on his words thoroughly before he finally spit them out.
“Hey man, if I’d wanted motherfuckin’ cookies, I would’ve found me a motherfuckin’ Girl Scout, and taken her motherfuckin’ cookies. Mother fuck!”
His anger suddenly came to life as he balled his hands into sloppy fists, swaying from side to side.
Leonard couldn’t tell if the man was going to hit him, or fall down. His guilt disappeared as he chastised the drunk. “But I thought you said you were hungry.”
“Man, I needs me some money…”
His voice trailed off. It was apparent to Leonard that the man wasn’t nearly as drunk as he wished himself to be. A chorus of hoots rose from his two drinking companions.
“Man, you ain’t gonna get no money off’a that Cracker’n you ain’t gonna get no moe of this eifer.”
The third man augmented his words with a final chugging from their shared bottle. The bottle was tossed to the ground. It landed several feet away with a deadened crunch. The man with the off-staring eye yelled at Leonard:
“Hey man, I fucked me a girl scout once…” he scratched his head. “Maybe it was a boy scout, I can’t remember.”
The two against the wall laughed amidst another flurry of handshakes. In time with their laughter Leonard’s partner came from around the corner. He glanced at the men by the ambulance, opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat. Seconds later he drove through a puddle, saturating the lower third of the drunk’s pants leg. Oblivious to the water, the drunk continued to glare at Leonard as they pulled away from the curb. His partner chortled.
“Well, I see I’m not the only one making friends.”
“Get a number?” Leonard asked. His partner patted his pocket.
“Got’s me a date wif the bitch tomorrow night.”
Leonard shook his head.
“I don’t understand why you go out with so many black women when you don’t like black people.”
His partner laughed. “I’ll tell’ya why. Go out with a white woman, and it’s fifty dollars of wining, dining, then whining because I won’t respect them in the morning, blah, blah, fucking blah. Then, if you end up in the sack with ‘em, they either want to move in or stalk you. Black women?” he sighed out wistfully. “First night you pick’em up and ask them what they want to do,” he switched to a high-pitched voice. “I don’t know. What say we go to the show, or better yet, why don’t we just pick up a bottle of Mule-train and watch some porn over at the Lucky-Time motel’n shit?” His voice filled out from lust. “You ain’t there more’n ten minutes and they’re going down on your dick like a champ.” His face became enthralled by a dreamy smile while he continued driving. “Can’t no one suck dick like a bonehead. White girls play around like, ‘I can’t believe you want me to place your penis inside my mouth…’ Black girls look at sex as if it’s a recreational sport. You don’t have to go through all the guilt bullshit like you do with my girlfriend.”
“Like you do,” Leonard interjected.
“Did I tell you what that psychotic bitch did this time?” his partner asked.
Leonard sighed out. “No, but I’m sure you will.”
“Bitch comes over last night, and you know we haven’t talked in two weeks.”
“You two lovebirds still arguing?” Leonard asked with a straight face.
“Shit,” Blood frowned. “Anyway’s, shows up at my door unannounced about ten o’clock in a trench coat. I’m all set to rehash our current argument when she opens it up. All she’s got on is a push-up bra and panties. Needless to say, after I finish complimenting her on her choice of outfits, she has me tied up to my bed with her panties. After I blow a nut, she starts going down on me again, real slow. Now, keep in mind that I gotta work today. Right in the middle of it, I start talkin’ shit. Y’know, I say something like ‘Suck it bitch’ y’know, romantic shit, nothing bad or anything. Next thing I know, she’s screaming at me and trashing my apartment. Here I am, tied up with no place to go. I didn’t get unhooked until one in the morning.”
“Sounds to me like the girl doesn’t appreciate the pedestal you’ve placed her on.”
Blood snorted. “I treat women like—goddesses.”
“I hate to say it Blood, but from what I’ve heard, you treat’em like shit and then wonder why they dump you.”
“That’s okay,” he answered softly. “One’a these days, we’ll settle down. And if not?” his face assumed a goofy grin. “Then I’ll just find me a good looking buffalo to move in with. One that knows better than to talk her ghetto shit.”
Leonard turned his head and studied his partner’s profile.
“That’s what I mean. You talk about them like they’re animals, and yet every time I turn around, you’re hitting on them.”
His partner smiled before turning a corner. The sun, low against the western horizon, disappeared behind them.
“Jesus, Gannon, you are such a fucking liberal. I can’t help it. Every time I see one’a them strutting down the street with their bubble butts sashaying across the front of the ambolance, I know that all I have’ta do is promise’em a steak dinner and they’ll be mine—”
He sighed out wistfully.
“There ain’t nothing better in the world than lying back with your hands cuffed to the head of a bed with a porno flick playing, while they grind their asses into you,” he became more animated. “Until your THRUSTING MANHOOD is ready to ‘splode!” He suddenly sat, straight up in his seat, with an alarmed look on his face. “Oh my GOD!” he shouted. “I think I have an erection!”
Leonard looked out the window as his partner convulsed in laughter. His voice lowered into lethargy.
“You’re certainly the romantic.”
19:45 hrs. Assist the Invalid, forced entry.
Their path was littered and clogged. Shadows overlapped one another like discarded newspaper, while unusual smells preceded and followed them. The first floor smelled like stale oranges, mixed with urine. The second, corn chips and urine. The absence of light began almost immediately. It occurred to Leonard that he and his partner were walking into a basement; the higher they climbed, the cooler it became. With each successive stairwell landing, the air thickened and pressed against their faces.
Smell your hand…
Is a self-fulfilling announcement. Just the words, without reference to anything of substance, are sufficient to make a person avoid doing so. They wouldn’t need to know why, because the words alone create a negative image. A stairwell will often produce such an effect as the darkness increases. The subconscious equates height with brightness, and when the opposite occurs, everything becomes reversed.
Leonard’s partner wiped his hand fiercely against his pants leg. The metallic, urine smell intensified until they reached the next landing.
“Shit!” he finally said.
They came to rest on the sixteenth floor landing. Leonard’s voice was nearly as thick as the air.
“No, that’s on your shoe. Take a breather, blood.”
The request was habit, usually unspoken. They always stopped on the floor below to catch their breath when the elevators, as usual, were out of service. Catch his partner’s breath, that was, because Leonard rarely lost his. White boys breathing fast might be interpreted by those who lived in the high-rise projects they patrolled as easy pickings, at least to those with less-than-sterling characters. Their uniforms would only provide a slight measure of protection. Seventeen stories above even the closest police wouldn’t help matters.
What mattered was avoiding contact. They parked in the shadows with their lights out, bypassing the crowds who hung out in front during the summer months with their comments and attitudes, and went to the rear, to the staircase that had been specified as the bathroom by a portion of the building’s occupants. Gang bangers only claimed one; the second, seemingly, was reserved for waste.
They slipped in and out with the bare essentials of their trade: a portable stair-stretcher, and an all purpose Quick Response bag that carried basic medical supplies, some drugs and two I.V.’s. They might have to evacuate a dangerous location, and unnecessary equipment would slow them down.
They avoid advertisement and proclamation. They avoid contact with the walls. There are things on the walls that might attach themselves and that won’t turn up until they are far away from that place.
After his partner’s breath had quieted, he started up the stairs again. An unusual, rancid-sweet smell, like decomposing meat, greeted them at the seventeenth floor stairwell. Leonard inhaled deeply, and then jostled the Q.R.B—slung across his left shoulder—before reaching to his belt for the portable radio. After a moment of static, the police wagon was called. It was an odor that he was quite familiar with.
The darkened hallway was, perhaps, a hundred feet in length. Six feet separated the apartment doorways from the heavy, metal grating that prevented garbage and debris from being tossed to the ground below. Thatchy shadows filled in those portions of the hallway floor that weren’t obliterated by waste. Several bulging, black plastic garbage bags littered the cement floor directly beneath the incinerator door to contrast the newspapers, cigarette butts and other debris that had been carelessly discarded. An emaciated, shit brown Alley cat ignored them as it lapped from a small, brackish puddle. Beside that, a dark stain in the shape of a question mark remained on the brick wall where someone had recently urinated. It had trickled down to form a separate puddle.
Near the end of the hallway, a small crowd of heavy, black women gathered. They congealed into one large mass as their heads bobbed apprehensively amongst each other before they stopped and stared in silence at the two foreigners. One dark shape detached herself from the larger core and walked slowly toward them. When she was fifteen feet away, she held a rail thin arm from which a large fold of loose flesh swung as she pointed at the door. She then turned, walked slowly back to the group, nodded her head silently to the others, and they separated. Within moments, the women were safely in their individual apartments. Leonard continued to look toward the end of the walkway.
Three stick shapes stepped away from the opposite stairwell and watched Leonard and his partner. They moved silently amongst each other and made explosive hands gestures as the moment lengthened. The face of one was illuminated red for a moment as he inhaled on his cigarette. His face, like most of the faces they saw in the projects, was angry.
Leonard tried the door, but it was firmly latched from inside. After a moment of speculation, he set the blue, canvas bag down onto the dirty, concrete floor. He then stepped back and kicked the door a foot above the doorknob. For just a moment, it appeared that the door would buckle and open before flat, putrid heat and unidentifiable smells seemingly forced the door closed. His partner laughed beneath his breath.
“Hey, Taekwon-do boy, maybe we should call a truck company to open it.”
Leonard ignored the remark and concentrated on the door a second time. He inhaled deeply through his nose before he suddenly made a quick, skipping motion. His foot struck the door at the apex of his hop and coincided with an explosive exhale. The door was knocked from its hinges and light from the setting sun illuminated the room. Leonard’s partner turned away.
A darkened figure sat in a chair, ten feet from the door. She was recognizable as a woman because she still wore the dress she had died in. Her hands were on the armrest, her fingers blackened and broken from her attempts at protecting herself. The top of her head was caved in and discolored from two weeks of decomposition and from having become putrefied. The beating that had crushed her skull had deposited portions of her brains on to her right shoulder and dislodged her eyes. The previous two weeks had been wickedly hot, causing her body to swell to nearly twice its size before she had burst across her abdomen. Fluids from her internal organs had settled in her lap and on the floor before the whole process had started over again.
From the shadows and over-lapping layers of heated air, a hand reached with a spoon. It shook slightly as it deposited oatmeal into her mouth, opened into a silent scream. The cereal fell into a pile on her lap as parasites retreated into her mouth from the intrusion of light. Her husband removed the spoon and scraped the bowl in the dark.
Leonard’s partner removed the sheet they carried from the back of the stair stretcher and handed it to him. In contrast to the hallway and apartment, the sheet was brilliant white. While he shook it out, his partner opened the small stretcher and rolled it by the doorway. Leonard silently stepped over the threshold and came up from behind the man. Warm air streamed from the apartment and caused the sheet to flutter slightly as Leonard draped it over the old man’s shoulders and began to lead him from the apartment. He didn’t resist. When they reached the front door, the man looked back at his wife. His left eye had been completely destroyed. All that remained was the glistening movement of matured maggots in gangrenous flesh. Light reflected from an excrescence on the left side of his head. He wore a filthy tee shirt and nothing else. Long, black streaks of dried fecal matter were crusted to the backs of his legs. Leonard turned him around to face his wife, sat him down on the stair stretcher and removed the bowl and spoon from his hands. He then wrapped the sheet around him until only his head and bony feet were visible. The chair was backed up and Leonard was about to step out when the old man spoke. His voice was weak and dry.
“Close the door, please.”
Leonard bent over and grasped the door. He was about to pull it back into the encasement when the old man spoke again. His voice was harsher.
“They gonna take care of you now, baby. I tried. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop’em from hurtin’ you.”
When the door was finally pulled shut, Leonard’s partner let his breath out in an explosive exhale. The straps were then secured around the old man and he was wheeled to the stairwell. Leonard stepped to the grating and looked down into the project’s parking lot. He leaned forward and grasped onto the rough, overlapping metal bands. Cooler air from the outside brushed against his fingers like water from a lake. A line of sweat dripped from his armpits and tickled his sides. The darkened shape of a police wagon sat beside the ambulance with its headlights on. He switched to the words that had been taped onto the roof of the ambulance by another paramedic crew: ‘Come On Down!’ before reflecting on the faraway skyline of the city.
It was a warm August evening. Lights sparkled from the distance like stars reflective on water. From where he stood, more than miles separated him from those far away sights. He breathed out heavily and then closed his eyes. He might just as well have looked upon a lunar landscape as try to fathom the reasons why he continued to do what he did. And for just a moment, he felt his throat tighten, before the sensation just as quickly passed.
From the distance, a siren echoed and then vanished. Leonard opened his eyes and looked at the street below. She stood to the side of the ambulance and watched him, glistening, radiant, and awash with color. Her alabaster gown was the same as when he had first awakened in his dream. It moved about her, oblivious to the wind that had died. She didn’t care, nor was she concerned for her safety. She just looked up at Leonard, aloof and impenetrable. She would continue to watch until there was nothing left. His innocence was a feminine creature with copper skin, light green eyes, and reddened lips. She watched from further and further away as she moved and danced in a way that only innocence can—ignorant of pain, sorrow, and all those things that had worn him down. Some sad song sings You Can’t Cry if You Don’t Know How, but Leonard knew that to be only partially true. Sometimes you knew how, you just couldn’t let yourself; otherwise you might never be able to stop. He wished to speak with her, but, somehow, he knew that he couldn’t. There was a reason why he had returned to those memories, it just hadn’t been revealed. He also realized, from some terrible, forgotten dream from years earlier, that there were darker creatures hovering nearby. And as beautiful as she was, they were equally horrific. They lived on the edge of darkness and had wings, scales, crooked teeth, ravenous appetites, and mighty demands.
The response bag was returned to his shoulder before he proceeded to the stairwell. Seventeen flights were not that much from which to escape. The apparition would fade, it always did.