Stray



Ron Riekki, Fiction

My partner is thirty percent blind in her right eye. I used to call her Right Eye and say that she was the unknown fourth member of TLC up until Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes set fire to her boyfriend’s mansion. This was also before I found out all the details of what had happened to her. If you do enough ambulance shifts with one person, you end up finding out way too much information about each other. Even if those EMT shifts are in LA where you typically only get minimal breaks. I’ve done twenty-four-hour shifts where we’ve done non-stop calls. And by non-stop, I’m talking not even time to eat, where you have to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner from vending machines.

There is nothing unhealthier than working in the medical field.

But eventually you’ll have a dead night. Typically it’ll be during a new moon. “An African-American sky,” my partner calls it. Her real name is Jyll. Her parents are pure Californians, where babies’ names must be misspelled for future entertainment industry branding purposes. I told her the name is a cross between Jekyll and Hyde. Jyll didn’t say anything when I said that. I call her “Pill.” Simply because it rhymes. And it’s what we dispense.

I’m not attracted to her at all, thank God. You never want to be attracted to your partner. The uglier and funnier they are, the better. Jyll has a chain-smoker’s body, the type of shape you see in people repeatedly in rehab. Fat and skinny at the same time. The psych patients all love her. For the patients, she feels like a less successful older sister.

On those peaceful no-moon nights, you talk. Or sleep. But if you can’t sleep—and, according to regulations, you’re not supposed to, so let’s say we don’t sleep—you talk. She said she was going to tell me about her eye, but first I had to tell her about my grandma. One night shift I’d mentioned my grandma and then said I didn’t want to talk about her anymore and ever since then Jyll has been trying to get me to tell the full story.

I warned her there wasn’t much to it and then I just told it. My Gram’s from São Paulo. A favela girl. One day she was playing with her best friend and another girl. They were about thirteen, using a doll as a baseball (true story), when both my grandma and her best friend just dropped to the ground. The other girl thought it was a game, but when neither my grandma or her friend got up, the other girl ran away crying, just left them lying like that. A neighbor found them both in the dirt. A bullet had embedded in my grandma’s head. It happens there. Stray bullets. It’s not unheard of. No one seemed shocked. Angry, but not shocked.

Jyll asks if I ever met my grandma.

“She’s still alive,” I say. “The bullet’s still in her head. They never took it out.”

“So she’s fine?”

“She’s always been a thirteen-year-old, her whole life. The brain functioning stopped developing.”

“Just like you,” Jyll says.

I stick out my tongue. Jyll hates when I do that. She says it looks vulgar, grossly sexual. I tell her that it’s what doctors tell patients to do every day.

She says we’re not doctors.

I pick up the clipboard, make sure I’ve filled out everything. You can almost have your entire form filled out before you even see the patient. “So what happened?” I ask, pointing to my eye. She’s silent. “Come on,” I say, “I told you about my grandma. And I’ve told maybe three people that, ever.”

The neighbor’s house across the street looks like it was painted the color of congestive heart failure, the shutters done in a shade resembling pink frothy sputum.

“All our calls seem to surround Compton,” Jyll says, “but we never get one actually in Compton. Who takes the calls there?”

“Maybe nobody ever gets injured there. You ever think of that?”

We’re in Paramount, east of East Compton. We’re parked outside of a call. Unknown medical. A domestic disturbance where we pulled up, heard shouting, and called dispatch. So we waited for the cops to come. They did. They went in. They came out. They told us it was all fine, so we went in.

Inside the house is a fifty-five-year-old woman. I assess her. Thank God Jyll hates doing that. I love patient assessment. It’s like I get to play House for a few minutes.

While I do that, Jyll tends to do scene safety, which is a great thing to have. The owners have just let out a dog from the back of the house that the police must have requested be locked up. Jyll tells them to please keep the dog away while we’re helping the patient. It’s some kind of a weird beaten-up poodle. Not like a toy poodle; it looks more like a sex toy poodle. Like a gonorrhea poodle. I don’t want the dog around me. For obvious reasons. And a big one is that sometimes, during assessments, the patients can yell out in pain just from a simple palpation and the dogs can misread this and attack.

They put the dog in the back room, and Jyll comes over and asks what’s up.

I’m taking a final pulse to double-check that I got the first reading right, and I yawn. And just as I yawn, the patient coughs, so that I feel little water droplets all over my face. Patients repeatedly do things like this, as if they have no comprehension that viruses can transfer; they don’t understand that bacteria dream of these moments.

I snap my mouth shut, trying not to make it obvious that this bothers me, and I ask for the bathroom.

I go in and actually take liquid soap (lavender and chamomile) and squirt it into my mouth. I turn on the faucet and the weakest stream ever of water comes out. It’s like the house has almost no water pressure. I try to take in as much as I can and slosh the water around, but the bitter taste of the soap gets worse. Instead, I just keep spitting into the sink.

The bathroom has not been cleaned since the days of Betsy Ross.

I suck it up and go back out to the front room, my mouth bubbly. I know that there are carcinogens in soap. I also know I didn’t wash my mouth out long enough. Jyll smiles when I get back.

“So,” I tell her, “she’s complaining of nausea and emesis.” Emesis means vomiting. I like to use medical terms when I can. Jyll hates them. She says it’s disrespectful to the patient. I think the opposite. There always seems to be other people in the room, coming in and out. Medical scenes create crowds, even if it’s crowds of only two or three. Using med terms keeps everything in code, so you’re not broadcasting a patient’s medical history to the world. It’s the same with medications. I never would ask a patient if they’re HIV-positive. Instead, I just ask them the meds they’re on. If they say, “I’m taking Stribild. And a SSRI,” they’ve just told me they have HIV. And they’ve just told me that they’re depressed about it. Because they’re taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Makes sense. Being HIV-positive and being depressed often go hand-in-hand. But the nice thing is they can tell me everything by just talking medication-speak. Which the rest of the world tends not to know. At all.

I ask the patient if she’s taking any medications.

She says she has a list.

This is getting to be more and more common. There is so much money in the pharmaceutical industry, and patients don’t take just one pill anymore. They take so many that their meds become meals. They’re so filled with tablets that they’re not hungry. The digestive system already has enough to do. Instead of steak and eggs for supper, it’s Staxyn and Egrifta. Washed down with a glass of red Winstrol.

I tell Jyll about the emesis and that the woman’s complaining about abdominal tenderness, distention. “The pain’s radiating from here.” I point to my belly button. “To here.” Back and shoulders.

“Pulse?”

“Rapid. Hard to find, but when I did, rapid.”

“How rapid?”

“Very.”

Jyll grasps the woman’s wrist, feels her pulse for herself. Jyll touches her forehead. “She’s warm.”

“I know.”

“She also says she has a sore throat.”

“She didn’t tell me that.”

Jyll looks to the patient. “Do you have a sore throat?”

She nods yes.

“She has a sore throat.”

This is the moment where we both decide diagnosis. Something we’re never supposed to do. You save that for the hospital. That’s solely for doctors. The docs get furious if you ever give a diagnosis. But we love to do them. I’d quit the job if I couldn’t do them, at least silently to myself.

We go to put the trauma kit back in the ambulance and as soon as we get outside, I say, “Pancreatis” and she says, “Influenza.”

“Flu?” I say.

“It’s pronounced ‘pancreatitis,’ you fool.”

I go to pull out the gurney. I like pulling it out. There’s something authoritative to it, the way the gurney crashes to the ground. It announces to the neighborhood that we’re staying.

We hear laughter inside, inappropriate laughter, loud.

“Jesus,” Jyll says, “I swear I’ve never been to a call where at least one person isn’t drunk or high.”

“Or sick.”

She goes to head back inside.

I tell her, “Hold on. Is that yelling?” We’re never supposed to enter if there’s yelling. But to be honest a lot of paramedics ignore it.

“They’re not yelling,” she says. “They’re laughing. Like it’s goddamn Mardi Gras.” She walks in the house and then turns and walks right back out, walking exceptionally fast towards me. She motions for me to put the gurney back in and then she walks right by and whispers, “Code 13.”

“Code 13?” I say. “What’s going to blow up?”

Code 13 means “danger of explosion.”

I get in the passenger side.

He’s about to blow up,” she says, and starts up the ambulance. We pull away.

“We’re just leaving her?”

“He had a gun.”

“Who had a gun?”

“A little handgun.”

“Who?” I say.

“The dog guy. The guy from in back.”

“Was he going to shoot her?”

“No. No, no,” Jyll says. “I don’t know. He was just standing there with it.”

“Threatening?”

“No.”

“Just standing there?”

“Yeah.”

“Doing what?”

“Laughing! You heard him.” She turns onto Rosecrans.

“About what?”

“Who cares? He had a gun. Radio it in.”

I hit the button.

She stops me. “Call it in. Don’t say that over the radio.”

I call on my cell, let them know what’s happening. Dispatch sounds angry. They don’t like when we use our cell phones. They tell us to radio it in, in code.

Jyll pulls over. She does the radio.

We wait. Dispatch says something, but I can’t understand a word of it. Only Jyll seems to understand them. I tune them out. The radio is all hers. Driving is hers. The patients are mine, and I’m worried about pancreatitis-flu-dog-gun woman.

We sit there waiting. And I ask what we’re doing, and she tells me that dispatch said to hold our position, so we’re holding.

And we hold.

And we hold.

I tell her to ask dispatch what’s going on, but she says no, that they’ll contact us when they radio. Meanwhile the cops are heading back over there.

“It’s not illegal to hold a gun,” I say. “In your home.”

She turns to me and takes the clipboard out of my hands, putting it on the floor. We’re not going anywhere any time soon.

I look down Rosecrans, this long spine that leads down into Compton, goes all the way until it hits the big skull that is the Pacific Ocean. We’re parked near a street sign. I read it.

“Rosecrans.”

I want to say out loud Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, but I know Jyll won’t get the reference. She hates theater. She says it’s for old white women. I asked what she meant by that and she said every play she has ever gone to—a grand total of three of them—had audiences filled with gray-haired women. I thought about it and, all the plays I’ve been to, it was the same for me. And it’s hard to argue when someone’s right. She asked me if this job already didn’t get me sick of old white women and the conversation stopped there.

Jyll is counting. I can tell she’s counting. There’s a certain glazed look she gets. She once told me she likes to do dopamine drips, to practice calculating them. You take the patient’s weight, drop the last digit, subtract two, and then that number is the 5 mcg dose.

She’s doing that now. I can tell.

“A 160-pound patient,” I say.

“What?”

“What’s the dopamine?”

She looks confused.

“The patient dose,” I say. There are no cars going by, as if LA is exhausted. “What were you thinking of?”

“Nothing,” she says.

She looks like she’s thinking about the opposite of nothing, as if her head is filled, as if the patient weighs 3,700,285 pounds and she’s doing it all in her head. 370,028 minus 2 is 370,026 mcg/min/kg for a 3,700,285 pound patient.

I cough.

She turns to me, examines me.

Oh God, I think. Not diagnosis time. If I have any little ailment, she immediately goes into assessment mode. She doesn’t like to do this to the patients that want her to. Only wants to do it to her co-workers who don’t want her to. I hate it. She starts talking medical history with me, with no code, saying things like, “When’s the last time you had unprotected sex?” No one likes getting asked that question, especially by the person you spend twenty-four-hour shifts with.

“I don’t have anything,” I say. Sometimes a cough is just a cough. It doesn’t have to be a sinus infection or asthma or bronchitis or pneumonia or gastroesophageal reflux disease or syphilis. It’s just a cough.

“You need to get laid,” she says.

First she’s concerned I might have syphilis. Now she wants me to go out and get it.

I want to ask her about her sex life, but I don’t.

I want to ask about her dreams, fears, hopes, but so much of our conversation is sports, weather, jokes. I’ve noticed that when things go bad, that’s when we talk. I mean, really talk. Or at least she really talks. I wear my heart on my sleeve and on my pants and in my hat, but she needs adrenaline to open up. After a patient dies, we talk. After we get chewed out for showing up two minutes late, we talk. When the heart’s going fast, when we’re as tachycardic as our patients, that’s when the guard goes down. I feel like I could do it now, but everything is in the timing. Especially in the medical world.

For now, our life is asphalt.

LA, for a town of over a million, can be boring as hell. Its streets, sometimes, can feel like they are doing nothing other than waiting for an earthquake to swallow them up.

Jyll sits there, clicking her teeth, chewing on a stray hair in her mouth, or on nothing. She told me once that she was thinking about plastic surgery, but she couldn’t afford it. She said she wanted to look like a woman you’d see on a stage. Then the next day, she flip-flopped. She hated those types. She liked the puff of her cheeks. Wrinkles mean you’re destructible. It shows you haven’t sat on a couch your entire life.

She drops the keys in the cup holder, takes a deep breath, and says, “We were in Helmand. It’s a province. We called it Hell-man. It was about 0700, whatever, doesn’t matter. It was a blast, a massive explosion. I don’t know what from. I don’t care, whatever. I’m in the driver’s seat. Stephen, you know.”

“Your friend.”

She ignores me. “He wasn’t sitting there.” She nods to me. “He was standing right outside the door. It was open. And then, explosion. Instantly killed.”

Dispatch says something incomprehensible.

Jyll gives our unit number and says, “Roger that.” Something suddenly so military about her. Maybe it was the night, its thick Kevlar of blackness wrapped around the ambulance, but Jyll felt like a colonel to me.

She keeps talking as if we didn’t have to get back to where we had to get back to. “The fragments hit all along my right side. And I thought it was mortar, a bomb, or just flying debris. I said that to the doctor. And, I don’t know why my doctor told me this, the ASTS surgeon, this really wacky guy. He looked like a teenager in camouflage, hyperactive, but he went to Yale Medical School. He must have told me eighteen times he went to Yale Medical School. Asshole. But it was weird, he told me that the fragments in my eye were actually bone. That what blinded me was bits of Stephen’s skull. That my whole right side is filled with pieces of Stephen.”

She starts up the ambulance. And we circle back, heading towards the house, the police still there. A squad car has parked in our original space, so Jyll is forced to parallel park.

“You want me to get out?”

She shakes her head no.

“I’m supposed to get out,” I say. The rule is you need a spotter, to guide, so the ambulance doesn’t get damaged, scrape against anything by mistake.

She waits for me. I don’t get out. And she backs up.

She finishes parallel parking, says, “I read that our hands hold—” She picks up her pen. “Around five thousand to five million units of bacteria for every centimeter.” She opens her door, gets out. I go around to the other side. She continues, “Neither of us washed our hands from that last patient.”

“This one?” I point to the house, to the patient somewhere deep inside.

“She’s a part of us right now.”

I feel like I have to cough, but I hold it in.

The police motion for us to go in. No one is in handcuffs. No one is in trouble. No one is going to die. A bit of laughter trickles out onto the street.

Jyll and I step inside, swallowed by another house.