Monday, June 29, 2020

A Body Swinging Like the Clapper of a Bell by Robert Kinerk

Robert Kinerk tells the morbidly humorous story of three Alaskan ambulance attendants: Casey, Jason and Cranmore.

It's a rainy night in the panhandle part of Alaska, 1966. We're three men on an ambulance crew and we've hauled our gurney up a flight of narrow stairs. A woman's lying across a bed. She's on her back with her bra and panties on. Her head hangs off the mattress, her face completely bloody. Even her hair is soaked. Blood stretches out its strings, falling - drip, drip, drip.

The bleeding woman's boyfriend, in his baggy underpants, is standing by the window with a steak knife. "We were just having fun," he says.

His girlfriend croaks the same thing. She says she doesn't want to go to the hospital. What she means is she doesn't want her boyfriend to have to answer for the stab. The cops would ask a lot of questions. Jail time.

Drip. Drip.

"If you're not okay," I tell the bleeding woman, "the hospital's the place to be. If you are okay, they'll let you go. A quick cab-ride, you're home."

Upshot is, we get her to the hospital. The doctor takes a look. It turns out she is okay, and two days later she's behind the counter at a new café where I treat Jason to lunch. Jason is the rookie on our crew. He eyeballs the bandage the woman wears on her throat. It's so scrunched up and dirty it looks like chewing gum. Over my soggy chicken croquettes, whispering because what would be the point of embarrassing our waitress, I tell Jason what happened in the steak-knife room. The panties and the bra. The dripping blood. The dumbbell in his underpants.

"You gotta feel sorry." Words of wisdom from a waif. Jason has stuffed his mouth full of greasy hamburger, but that doesn't stop him from sharing his thought.

"No one has to feel sorry, Jason."

Ours is not a feel-sorry field of service. There are chaplains begging for those jobs. When drunks with steak knives start playing games, that's when we spring into action. Our job is staunching the flow of blood. Metaphysicians need not apply.

Jason hadn't exactly appeared on the firehouse stoop in a basket with a note, Take care of my baby, but in his infancy, a few years earlier, he might have made that appearance. He had drifted west from Minnesota and then followed the coast of British Columbia to the new state of Alaska, washing up on the island of Boon. I had taken this poor waif beneath my scrawny wing. I am Casey, the ambulance-crew veteran and its spiritual adviser.

Jason's inaugural call comes. It's early morning, way out the road. We hadn't been given an address. We're told to look for a certain location - like, "After you take this bend and pass a house that has a donkey engine in its yard, look on your left for a big cedar tree. You'll see a guy who'll show you where to go."

Cranmore and I take Jason. When we reach a woodsy wilderness we see a young guy waiting - dark haired, maybe twenty-two. He's standing by a cedar tree and waving. "Come this way!"

We haul the gurney out and follow him into the woods. "Appendicitis," he yells across his shoulder. Thank you, doctor. This guy is wearing black jeans and a halibut jacket, which is the rough, grey work coat common in this part of Alaska. He has spiky wisps of something in his hair, as if he slept in straw.

We hike down a trail barely visible, a skinny path, squishy underfoot because this is the southeastern part of the state. What isn't rocks is muskeg with salmonberry bushes. After maybe a minute and a half of huffing, we come to a creek five-feet wide. On the other side we see a shack, and what have these people made it of? They've made it out of road signs. They'd trotted off with the Construction Area - Keep Out signs, and signs that say Detour, and signs that say Road Closed.

They had felled three alder trees across the creek to make a bridge, but alder trees are not that thick. The walking distance, bank to bank, is seven feet approximately, five feet directly over water. Still, no one on our crew is wearing boots. Ours is a volunteer ambulance service, part of a largely volunteer fire department, and we answer calls in what we have on at the time, which for me, this time, means street shoes. I have Jason help me carry the gurney across the slimy, skinny bridge. "Careful," I tell him, as if parental advice is necessary.

Inside the shack, no light but what the open door lets in. Almost blocking the door is one big double bed. On the bed lies a young woman, apparently blind. She's stretched out on her back, moaning, with an infant clinging to her chest.

The dark-haired young man who flagged us down guesses we're thinking the moaning woman must be who we'd come for. "No, no," he says. "It's him. He's over there."

He points to a darker corner, but Jason's heart is with the sightless mother and her baby. He looks stricken by the sorry spectacle. Had it been in his waif power he might have gathered up the blind madonna and her scabby child and spirited them to whatever succor a kind heart might nose out.

Cranmore and I turn toward the dark. We see, emerging out of dimness, another adult, a gray-haired crone, the witch or mother of the family. She has gummed-up features. She wears a filthy skirt and men's construction boots. She's pointing to a guy lying on the floor squeezed up in the fetal position. This guy tops out, I'd say, at three-hundred pounds.

We set the gurney down beside the moose. I ask him to unbend a little. We're going to have to strap him to the gurney and pack him out of there.

Much moaning and groaning. Much squawking from the crone. From the bed the same groans as before. The only guy not groaning is straw-hair. He has smoked himself off - zip. He fears he might be put to work packing the sick guy out. That's what my guess is.

The three of us take our positions; Cranmore - fortunately husky - at the heavy, shoulder end, with me and Jason as the leg men. Jason staggers just lifting the load we share. And the monster groans. His mother - if that's the relationship - pours out curses. The blind woman on the bed adds to the wailing. Her groans set off more squeals from the baby.

Just reaching the door is a battle. Then, when we get to the creek, we see another problem. Are we going to wade through the water with this three-hundred-pound burden; are we going to risk the alder-tree bridge; or are we going to tell the guy, 'Screw it. You have to walk.'

We choose the third option, although we don't announce it in exactly the words I've suggested. Turns out the guy is okay with it. He understands the risk of getting dumped in the cold creek. His mother, though, comes screaming. She's followed us out of the cabin. She screeches while we set down the gurney and unstrap Moose. The guy has enough sense to ignore his mom. He wobbles to his feet. He eyeballs the alder trunks. He probably wishes he hadn't been so lazy and had chopped down a thick hemlock instead, but he makes no mention of that.

He stretches his arms out for balance. He takes dainty, girlish steps, but once he's started he doesn't hesitate until he's safely on the other side.

We are, of course, relieved. We follow with the gurney. We tell him to lie down on it so we can strap him in.

Meanwhile his mother, the hag, has never stopped screaming. She's trying to cross the creek herself but her foot slips and - splash - she's in the icy water over her construction boots, hollering her head off. No one pays attention except Jason. He stands staring like he's in a moral quandary about whether he should go and help her flounder out. He hesitates about lifting the loaded gurney, torn between his duty to the fire department and his sympathetic feeling for the crone, who, I'm sure, given the opportunity, would have carved his heart out and sliced it up for stir fry.

It is Jason's nature, I was to learn, to extend his sympathy to the suffering masses, and at that moment, in those woods, the crone in the creek represents suffering humanity - the war- weary, the disease-stricken, the prisoners in fetid jails, and the battered, bleeding foes of tyrants. The current is washing her filthy skirt tight against her scrawny legs. Her cursing is concert-hall quality. And she's somebody's mother. She's the mother of a human being who is half the size of a baby elephant and whose appendix may have burst. She couldn't have been more representative of suffering if she'd been elected to the post.

And Jason feels sorry for the hag.

"Look sharp," I shout. That breaks the spell. We three lift. We struggle up the muskeg path and reach the ambulance. There we find Mr. Twenty-Something standing sheepishly by the cedar tree. Under his arm, a lunch box. It turns out he works in town, at the spruce mill. Twenty-something asks if we can give him a ride.

"Fuck off," I tell him. Cranmore says much the same, although not in language as delicate as mine.

Only poor Jason resists the chance to be obscene. He hesitates at his passenger door. His milk-of-human-kindness jug is filled up to the brim.

"Get in the god-damn ambulance," I yell. Cranmore, more pithy, says, "Shit."

Our next call comes on a Sunday about 5am. "Heart attack," the dispatcher says.

Seven of us lived at that time in rooms on the fire hall's second floor. When calls came in at night it was the upstairs bachelors who responded. On this call, three of us - the man- mountain Cranmore, Jason and me - drive out the road and find an L-shaped one-story at a bend in the road. A semi-hysterical woman in a man's plaid bathrobe lets us in. She says her husband is dead and she wants him out of there. She doesn't want her kids to wake up and see their father rigor-mortised.

We wonder why she hadn't noticed him before he stiffened up, but an ambulance crew isn't paid to speculate about conjugal relations. We're paid to do our job, so we follow the semi- hysterical woman down a dim hall to the bedroom where her dead husband lies curled up on their bed. The guy's in his Jockey shorts. You find out a lot about what people wear to bed when you work on an ambulance.

We aren't supposed to take dead people in the ambulance. If a person's dead the rules say to call the coroner. Let the coroner call an undertaker, and let the undertaker handle it from there. We try to explain this to the semi-hysterical lady. We say her husband certainly looks dead but we aren't authorized to say he's dead. She has to get an authority on corpses for that.

This woman has abundant brown hair that probably would have been gorgeous under other circumstances. I guess her kids would be nine or ten years old. She isn't old enough to have teenagers. And her husband, the deceased, still has a full head of dark hair. He isn't exactly trim but he isn't terribly out of shape either. I guess he'd be between thirty and thirty-five.

"If you aren't authorized to say he's dead, how do you know he isn't?" the lady hisses.

Where's a coroner when you need one? She has a point, of course, and the upshot is we agree to strap her late spouse to the gurney and haul him out of there.

We have to strap him carefully. He's curled in a way to overlap the gurney cushion, and he could fall off if we're sloppy.

It's worse once we get him in the ambulance because the gurney locks to the wall on the driver's side. The dead guy's back presses against the wall and forces his knees and his head and part of his shoulders out to the air on the opposite side. His head is so far out, as a matter of fact, that on the whole trip back to town somebody has to sit in the jump seat holding it in his hands.

"It's a great honor," I say to Jason, who shows a little squeamishness about cradling the head of the deceased.

Jason is so soft we could probably have bruised him with spit. Not that we go around spitting on new fire department recruits. He has a boneless look is what I should say. A look of no muscles, but like his body is simply this paste-colored bag with maybe suet in it. His neck sprouts up from it, an ordinary neck, and then the blossom of his head with its liquid eyes and homely ears and lackluster, shoe-polish hair. I mean hair that clings to his skull so close it looks like wax from a Shinola can.

We put Jason in the jump seat. He doesn't like it but he's the rookie, and we say he has to be the holder of the dead guy's head.

Meanwhile Cranmore regales us with details about his sexual exploits of the evening before. He'd been after this one girl, a little slip of a blonde, for a long time, and he finally seduced her in the back seat of a Volkswagen bug. Now, the girl may have been just a slip of a thing but Cranmore is six-feet-four and weighs two-eighty. He had been all-state in high school basketball, not because he was particularly good but because he was so big smaller guys tended not to challenge him under the backboard.

He has an elaborate explanation for how a person his size can have sex in the backseat of a Volkswagen, and much of his explanation is droll.

In Jason's boneless hands, the dead man's head will not stay still. We're driving over ripples in a road of hard-packed dirt. The dead man's head bobs like he's laughing about sex enjoyed under confining conditions. Jason, staring at the bobbing head, grows more and more pale. It's a metaphysical pale as well as a nauseous pale. The difference is this: With nauseous you puke; if it's metaphysical your faith is challenged. Especially if your faith is of the conventional kind, the kind that starts with Jesus loves me and proceeds through church suppers and fellowship meetings and pastors named Jim or Bob and brings you at the end to a Hallmark heaven where grace abounds and those whom God has chosen walk on streets of gold.

"What is it with you Minnesota people?" I say. Jason gags.

"Don't get sick!" Jason gags again.

"Stop!" I yell to Cranmore.

Before Jason can puke, Cranmore pulls over. Jason shoots out the back door. He retches and vomits by the side of the road. When he comes trembling back he finds me in his place in the jump seat. I am not immune to noble gestures. The bouncing head put our rookie in Barfville. He hadn't mastered, yet, the indifference required of caregivers when corpses bob their heads as if hysterical at jokes being told about back-seat sex in Volkswagens involving ultra-tiny women and men the size of national parks.

Guys lived in the fire hall to save money, not because we liked to get up in the middle of the night and answer fire calls. When fire calls came, a fire horn summoned other volunteers from their homes. The horn, on the roof of our two-story fire hall, weighed more than a hundred pounds. Its blare woke up hermits on distant islands and scattered bears on far-away hills. It was particularly loud in our living quarters, especially in the bedroom right under its place on the roof, which, as it happened, was the bedroom we'd assigned poor Jason.

All our rooms were alike, basically cubicles without even a closet, although each had a floor to ceiling wooden wardrobe with cupboard-like doors on its front.

Jason took that room never having heard the horn. But maybe it wouldn't have made any difference if he had. The horn is terrifying even to a person hearing it for the hundredth time. The first night the horn goes off, Jason is deep in sleep. It sounds to him like nuclear warfare. He shoots out of bed. His eyes bug. Zing - he jumps in his wardrobe. He hunkers down among his scanty articles of clothing and slams the door, crouching with his eyes squeezed shut for further protection from the whomping noise he hears.

It was the most perfectly child-like thing a person could do, short of hiding under his bed.



Cranmore says as much on the call the horn summons us to. Cranmore regales me with panicked-Jason details while I am trying to assure the homemaker who called in the alarm it is no problem at all to be shocked out of bed at three in the morning because somebody put beets on to boil and went to sleep forgetting them.

The homeowner, sheepish about the beet alarm, offers us grapefruit juice. He is a slug- shaped man with a bald head whose nasal voice is familiar. I hear it on the radio. He recites the local news - who has gotten married, who has died, who's appeared in district court on a charge of drunk and disorderly.

He's poured grapefruit juice, which he keeps refrigerated, into half-sized Dixie cups. While we open windows, he shuffles in our wake from room to room, his grapefruit-juice refreshments on a tray, and I am touched by his cordiality. He represents the claims put on the human heart by cordiality.

Grapefruit juice! Grapefruit juice. What can a person say of cordial grapefruit juice?

Not that grapefruit juice converts us to kindness. By us I mean the firehouse crew.

Merciless teasing commences, once we're bunking down again, and Jason is the butt. Cranmore goes WHOMP right in Jason's ear, imitating the sound the fire horn made. Later he asks the boy if he's out of the closet yet, Cranmore betraying by his bray how original he thinks his joke is.

We have a long, narrow kitchen in our second-floor living quarters, and when I come in a week later for Cheerios and milk, Jason's already there, making egg salad for a sandwich. I have to do a sideways step to slip past him to the fridge. He doesn't turn. I hadn't planned on saying WHOMP, but the occasion seems so ripe I do.

Jason swings around and hits me in the face.

I can't say for sure I feel his punch. It's too great a surprise. My thought is, 'Did he really do that? Did he throw a punch? Did he hit me in the face?'

"Am I bleeding, Jason?"

"I shouldn't have hit you." He looks about to cry. "But you shouldn't have made fun of me, Casey."

"Jesus, Jason. You punched me? Jesus H. Fucking Christ."

Spiritual advisers don't usually curse, but blood is dripping from my nose and making a red, Hitler moustache on my upper lip. Jason, penitent I guess, hands me a paper towel. I rush away to our communal bathroom, where cold water does its staunching trick. When I return, hors de fucking combat, to the kitchen, Jason has dodged away. He's left behind his not quite completely mashed egg salad, which I stand over, poking my finger into my nose until blood drops splash into his bowl. This, I think, will teach you, Jason, in whom the sap of human kindness flows and in whom it does not.

Two days later, on an early morning ambulance call, Cranmore and Jason and I drive to a house in the west end where homes cling to the side of a hill. The address we'd been given brings us to a path across a field so big they could have fought the Second Battle of Manassas there. We set off through knee-high grass. At the end of the path, a flight of stairs climbs, switchback style, to a gingerbread-style house perched overlooking the meadow.

A man had died at the kitchen table enjoying his nightcap of red wine. Thin hair slicked back; a lean, aristocratic face; a slender body - everything combines to make him look like someone suave. His tumbler with wine in it sits on the table. Ditto the green bottle. He'd put on a silk, paisley bathrobe for this nighttime ritual and he's sitting in a kitchen chair pulled up close to the table. He died resting his chin on his left hand. His right hand still reaches to touch his glass, as if he'd been in pleasant contemplation of another sip when whatever mechanism moves the heart stopped working.

He is so well balanced, with his belly to the table and his head resting on his hand, that he hasn't tumbled over. He sits in his happy position, and all through the night no one knew he was dead until his nephew found him in the morning.

Here is a situation much like the situation of the dead husband weeks before. That had been poor Jason's rookie run, the one on which he'd barfed.

We get the same argument about Mr. Silk Bathrobe that we'd heard at that earlier call - Silk's nephew says he doesn't want his kids to see the corpse. We agree to be the transporters of someone we'll claim not to know is dead. The difference this time is those tricky, switchback stairs. Cranmore says if we're to get the bent corpse down the stairs, he and I will have to carry it in a blanket. We tell Jason to precede us with the gurney, which the waif obediently collapses and tucks beneath his arm. Out the door he goes.

When Cranmore and I assigned Jason to carry the gurney, we meant for him to set it up and wait for us at the bottom step, but the subtlety of that instruction escapes our rookie. Stepping off the bottom stair, he shambles across the field, still carrying the gurney. A few steps down the path, he starts to whistle. Cranmore and I trot to catch up. The body in the blanket falls into the rhythm of our run - swinging like the clapper of a bell.

The sky is blue, with clouds like balls of cotton. In the green grass, dots of flowers show, the color of ketchup and mustard. Birds sing from hiding places in the trees. This is a perfect day to sing. And what I sing to our whistling waif is this: "Jason, I'm sorry about your egg salad." It's the ketchup-colored blossoms, not much bigger than the heads of pins that make me say it. I'm not sorry. Jason knows that. He's not sorry for punching me either.

But Cranmore starts to sing, "Ding-dong... Ding-dong," because the corpse, in its blanket between two galloping ambulance attendants, is swinging like a bell. Cranmore is not sorry for singing his cartoon song. No one is sorry for anything. Everyone is singing. Technically, Jason is only whistling, but I am including his contribution in the catch-all 'singing' category because it was a grand day for swinging a corpse in a blanket. It was a day beyond any miserable day of soggy croquettes. Beyond Band-Aids fingered till they look like chewing gum. Beyond shacks made out of road signs and people hiding in their wardrobes when the fire siren screams. I sing of grapefruit juice cordially presented, and flowers the color of condiments. Jason is whistling. I don't know what his tune is. And Cranmore - goofy Cranmore - sings, "Ding-dong... Ding-dong." The body, which we carry at a trot, the body swings and swings. We are ambulance attendants running with a body swinging like the clapper of a bell, and the song that rises from our throats to the cotton-candy clouds is, "Ding-dong... Ding-dong... Ding-dong."

8 comments:

  1. Very well written and paced,shows the droll dark humour necessary to survive in jobs like ambulance driver or policeman. I liked the descriptions of eccentric woodsy frontier characters and the window into the world of emergency response. Alaska 1966... wow a very interesting setting and time.

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  2. Jason seems like a survivor...shame he has to lose all of his youthful idealism to fit in with this sort of crew. Casey makes a point of hammering on all of Jason's faults, but I get the sense that he's rather fond of the kid...and that many of the criticisms are a reflection of his own personal experience.

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  3. Enjoyed the human, relational elements in this story. I suppose it was inevitable that Jason would harden.
    Ambling style, a lot of miscellaneous scenes, but every one holds reader's attention. Enjoyed the humour.

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  4. Weekend at Berny's meets Northern Exposure. I loved how the outrageousness of the situations ended up feeling perfectly natural. Excellent characters. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

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  5. I especially liked the discussion of metaphysical vs nautious pale.

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  6. Alexander RichardsonJuly 3, 2020 at 7:38 PM

    Great detail, greater heart. You had me from the beginning. The morbid humor was powerful and made me laugh several times. Keep writing.

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  7. I loved every single word of this, the brilliant characterisations, the descriptions and the black humour.
    Great stuff
    MMcC

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  8. I am smiling, groaning, and only sort of horrified--all of these feelings quite delightful.

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