The siren whooped as we fishtailed around the corner onto the block where the call was. Bodies spilled into the street, boys pushing their girlfriends out of the way as Rodie nosed the ambulance close to the curb. Lights from the cop cars flickered a red tattoo across the wall of faces. I tumbled from the cool of the cab into the thick heat, the smell of smoke and beer, screams and, from a window somewhere above us, the sound of a barrelhouse piano, gaily pounding. Police radios crackled from deep inside the crowd and I heard a shout, “Medic!” as some girl grabbed my arm.
“Piney’s shot, Piney’s shot,” she screamed, pulling me to face her.
A cop yanked her off me and threw her back into the crowd. Rodie’s head poked around the back of the bus.
“Get the scoop,” he yelled.
I wrestled it from the side compartment; the straps were caught and it seemed more cumbersome than the ones at Bellevue. Finally I got it loose and looked around. Rodie was gone, the cops gone also. I scanned the mass of heads and saw a patch of blue, and an empty space near the wall of the project. Holding the scoop in front of me, I started towards it.
A body blocked my way, the scoop flipped sideways and dug into a girl’s thigh. She twisted, “ Watch it, bitch.”
“I’m the medic,” I yelled, and she shoved the man in front of her. “Let the medic through, what’s wrong with you all.” The man raised his arm, a bottle of beer clenched in his fist. His fury bounced from the girl to me to the people in front of him. “Move, move, when I say ‘move’, move,” he shouted, shoving two boys to the side.
I stepped into the hole they’d left. Faces swung suddenly towards mine, my voice calling, “medic, medic,” breaking through the stuttering piano, the screams, babies howling and the crackly voice of a woman singing, someplace far away. I had no idea where I was going, all I could see were tee-shirts and heads. An elbow hit my ribs, my cheek knocked against the scoop, the crowd batted me onward.
“Medic,” I shouted. “Medic, watch your back.” My voice was tiny, soaked up by the heat, the flesh. I held my arms straight out to make myself bigger and the crowd squeezed open in front of me and sucked closed behind me as I pushed the scoop against them, plowing blindly on until I knocked against a chain of cops.
The chain opened and I was inside. A black man lay face-up on the sidewalk, blood spattered around him in loose strips. Rodie knelt at his side, four cops stared down as he worked. The man was light-skinned, his face tinged gray, and I felt dizzy just looking at him. He was so young, with red hair oiled flat, and I had this feeling he was already dead. But his eyes were open, moving as he watched Rodie’s arm swing past. I blinked and tried to make sense of what was going on. A cop gripped my shoulder. I couldn’t hear anything he said, just girls wailing, voices tumbling, words in random handfuls, splashing against my ears. Everyone was looking at me, hundreds of eyes, hundreds of voices, and I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do.
A woman burst from the edge of the crowd, knocking me as she passed. I stumbled, and felt a sharp ache as my knee hit the concrete. I was a medic in Harlem; it was the end of June; my knee was bleeding into my pants, and some woman had just hurled herself onto my patient.
I grabbed her arm. She wrenched it free.
“That’s the mother, don’t grab her like that,” a man shouted.
She engulfed the lanky body. “Baby, Clarence, baby, stay with me,” she moaned. She was short and fat, gold bracelets slipping down her arms as she pulled him to sit. I caught a glimpse of his face falling onto her shoulder, life flickering across it like frames from a movie, slow, slowing down, then he was buried in the brown sheen of her dress. Bodies pressed in on us, an arm brushed my back, a white sneaker flashed across my thigh. The cops wrestled their arms together, bracing against the crowd, the mother wailed and rocked her son. Beyond the linked elbows I saw a boy smashing his fist against the wall of the project, a girl weeping, her face half covered with hair. Finally Rodie and a cop tore the mother away, hurling her into the arms of two men who dragged her backwards.
“Come on Ma, let ‘em work, Ma,” but still she screamed, pinned to the crowd by either wrist, like a butterfly struggling to break free.
I knelt beside her son, cutting his shirt. The wound was so small. A dark red hole not half an inch in diameter, surrounded by spirals of flaked blood. He wasn’t bleeding anymore. Yellow circles from the cops’ flashlights danced across him, his chest barely moved, he stared up at me, but I wasn’t sure what he saw.
“I won’t let you die,” I said. There was no reaction, just the barest fluttering of his lips as he struggled to breathe.
Rodie had the line in already. We rolled the limp body onto the scoop, tossed the IV bag onto the stomach, and carried him to the ambulance.
“Tube him,” Rodie said, and ran to the front.
Fists pounded on the back door as we pulled away. I banged into the wall as Rodie hit a pothole full speed, equipment flew everywhere, and I realized the man had stopped breathing. I stuck the laryngoscope into his mouth. Nothing looked like it did on the dummy. Everything was wet and red, jiggling from the motion of the bus. Behind the epiglottis I located the vocal cords, two strips of ivory, fed the tube into the darkness between them and hoped that I was in.
It was impossible to hear lung sounds, the siren drowned out everything. The man’s chest was rising a little, but he still looked dead. I felt for a pulse. There wasn’t one. The ambu-bag took all my strength to compress, so I knew the tube couldn’t be in the belly. His throat was crooked, his neck veins stood out like ropes. Suddenly the picture flipped into focus. With one hand I reached down and unsealed the chest wound, listening for the hiss of air. Nothing happened. He still lay froglike, his arms flopping with each bounce of the ambulance. Every time I squeezed, the bag got harder, until it felt like I was trying to flatten a football.
I was supposed to tape the tube in. I should be doing compressions. But Rodie was backing up the bus and I could see the Harlem ER out the rear window, a doctor in his white coat waving us in.
“I think he has a tension pneumo,” I said, as we dropped the wheels of the stretcher.
The doctor was already on top of him, syringe in hand. He jammed the needle into the still chest and there was a loud pop as the trapped air rushed out. The plunger shot backwards, grazing the doctor’s cheek as it flew towards the wall.
“Still no pulse,” he said. A cop car squealed up. The ambu-bag was easy to squeeze now, the man’s blue face half-turned, his neck veins flat. As we rolled towards the doors the mother shot from the cop car and grabbed him, half on the stretcher, her arms in a vise around his chest.
“Get her out of here,” the doctor said.
As she gathered her son close the tube ripped from between his lips and the IV bag fell to the floor, backing up in a scarlet curl.
“He’s dead anyway, I was too late.” The doctor walked away. “It doesn’t matter. Let her have him.”
“Don’t say that, don’t tell me that.” Tears streaked her red cheeks, her eyes bounced frantically around until they caught mine, and I shook my head. At last the cops pulled her off and we wheeled the stretcher into the crash room.
An intern cracked his chest. “Good call on that tension pneumo,” he said to me as he sliced between the ribs, forcing them open with a jagged vise. The man’s heart was a red, slimy thing. The intern held it between his palms and squeezed, but it wouldn’t beat again. It bulged, red and watery, through the gaps in his fingers. I couldn’t look at the man’s face, once his chest was open like that. He was so tall his feet hung off the end of the stretcher, the blood-filled IV bag lay beside his hip.
“There’s his aorta, there’s the lung, you can see it’s collapsed.” The intern pointed with one gloved finger. It was easier to look at the man as a bunch of organs. I didn’t want to go back into the driveway where his mother might still be.
I lingered over my paperwork, and watched one of the medical students sew up the chest. Finally they covered the body with a sheet and I had to leave. When I got outside, the mother was gone, I didn’t know where to, and Rodie was cleaning the floor of the bus with peroxide, a lit cigarette bobbing on his lip.
“You made a mess,” he said. “Try and be neater next time.”
The tendons in his face twitched as he mopped with hard, jerky strokes.
I watched him for a minute. “Do you think I did all right?” I said.
“He died, what does it matter?”
He was facing the wall so I couldn’t see his expression.
“But we couldn’t have saved him.”
“We could have.” When he turned around, Rodie looked like someone had pulled down a pair of shades behind his eyes.
“We could have saved him easy. Three years ago, we would have.” He leaned towards me, I could smell the traces of gin from Miss Montalvo’s lingering in his breath. “What that doctor did wasn’t hard. Think I couldn’t have done it out there in front of the projects? We used to do it all the time. Then they decided it was too advanced for us ambulance drivers. Got to leave something for the MDs. So a few black men die, so what.”
“But you could have done it, then. You could have saved him.”
“If I wanted to lose my job.”
“They can’t fire you for that, you’re saving someone.”
“Men’ve been fired for less.”
He slammed the door and started to walk to the front.
I grabbed his arm. “Wait a minute, tell me how to do it.”
He snorted. “What for?”
“So I know. Just in case.”
He shook me loose. “Didn’t you watch that doctor? That’s all you do. Find the rib and go right over it. An idiot could do it. Plenty have.”
He didn’t talk for the rest of the shift. My knee stung, I wondered if he was telling me the truth, that we could have saved the man. We drove up and down the streets of Harlem, past the rows of black window tenements abandoned as the city’s fortunes plunged, past the chicken joints and café con leche bakeries, men on the corners nodding as women hurried home from shift-work, their arms full of groceries. The night seemed so normal, not the kind of black, scary night someone could be murdered in. Rodie flipped the radio from station to station, all the same words, the same beats. Then the sound of a piano filled the cab, so close I could hear the fingers pounding the keys, and a peeved, leathery voice, half-buried in the tape hiss.
Well if the house catch on fire, and there ain’t no water round
Landlady throw that gallon jug out the window, let the shack burn on down
As we turned the corner, the music dissolved into static. I fiddled with the dial. Stations fluttered past, but whatever we had stumbled on was gone, and it was nothing but Donna Summers as far as the eye could see.