It was 3 p.m. Kenansville, Florida. I think. The heat was apocalyptic. All of the ambulances had left except for ours. They’d taken all the living people and left us with the dead. We were waiting for the coroner. I’m a part-time EMT and my partner is so part-time that he only does a shift once a month. They figured we couldn’t screw up with dead bodies.
We both already had headaches from the smell. I’m sure with all the car exhaust and random fires and such that cancer won’t be too far off for me.
We stood staring at the bodies. The road was completely closed off so that nobody else would have to see this. A few cops were nearby, jotting things down, but they left us alone. One cop who I knew walked up and said, “Hi, June” and walked away. June was the month when my first patient died on me. I cried. Never, ever do that in front of a cop. Otherwise they’ll come up with a nickname for you that will keep reminding you of your first patient’s death.
The patients before us now didn’t die on me. They were already dead when we got here. There’s no need to do CPR if you see dependent lividity or rigor mortis, if you have incineration, if the body has already decomposed, or if they’re missing any of the Wizard of Oz organs—heart or brain. The car was upside-down. It was full of a family. They had a combination of incineration and other things that I won’t go into.
Before work, I went bowling with my girlfriend. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have slept in. Early in the shift, my partner had told me he’d been struggling with depression. You talk about things like that with your partner. You sit there for hours with nothing to do, waiting. Some partners just tune into their cell phone and pretend the world doesn’t exist; it’s amazing how intense they can get with the screen. Others talk. I didn’t know what to say. Staring at the dead bodies, I wondered if it would be a good time to say something. I tried to think, but I just wanted to sleep. Thanksgiving was coming up. I wasn’t going to be able to afford to go home. I’d been pretty depressed myself. It’s a minimum wage job. I’d recently seen my first dead baby. This was in an E.R. A drowning. The baby was all wet and the mother was standing nearby, also completely wet, and I was shocked at how much the dead just let people do anything they want. The nurses were doing CPR on the baby and its arms and legs just wiggled uselessly. A nurse motioned me to step in to relieve her for CPR and I went to step forward but a medic stepped in front of me and took my spot, so I just stood there, useless. You could tell the baby wouldn’t live. They kept going with CPR for a long time and all I was able to do was close a curtain so patients in the E.R. couldn’t see what was happening. One of the E.R. patients caught eyes with me and she looked at me like I was a hero when all I was doing was moving a piece of fabric a few feet in a different direction.
My partner said he wanted to kill himself with his rifle he called “Big Medicine.” He’s a wild hog hunter. I know if people have a specific way they want to kill themselves, it’s much more likely to happen, but I also didn’t want to tell H.R. because my partner told me not to say anything to anyone.
I looked at the bottom of the car, its insect-black guts. Even the car seemed dead. The sky was all hazy and grey and wounded. Sometimes an entire day can seem injured, eviscerated.
On the way to the bowling alley we listened to an old Mitch Hedberg CD my girlfriend’d made me for my birthday a week ago. On the CD, Mitch says, “I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.” I replayed it like five times until she told me to stop. I’d been trying to make up jokes lately and tried some out on her, but she didn’t like any of them, except one where I said, “I don’t see what’s so hard about being a hostage. I could do that blindfolded. With two hands tied behind my back. In fact, that would make it even easier to be a hostage.” She said that one has promise. She’s from Lillers, France, and is a big Charlie Hebdo fan, from way before the attacks. She was in Paris when they happened and texted me that there were people hiding under tables where she was eating. Her restaurant wasn’t one that got attacked but she said that everybody was afraid and panicking. Verbatim, the end of her text said, “People run for no reason. It’s silly.” She didn’t know what was going on. I thought about turning off the comedy CD and talking to her about it. Since she’s come back we haven’t talked about it at all. A son of one of her father’s friends was killed. I’m not sure if she knew the son well. I haven’t asked. I’m afraid to.
The coroner can take a long time to come. This is my second corpse we’ve been left with in the last two months.
Back at the base station, they like it if you tell jokes while waiting for calls. EMTs like to pretend to be tough so they tell a lot of racist and sexist jokes that they pretend aren’t racist or sexist. I just watch sports on the old black-and-white TV and keep silent. I hate sports. The only thing I like about sports is the injuries. I like to watch old Youtube videos of players getting injured and try to think how I’d try to help them on the sidelines. I’ve always been like that. Even when I was a kid, if I saw someone fall on ice in a parking lot, I’d rush over to ask if there’s anything I could do. I like to help people, especially if they’re hurting really badly. As a matter of fact, I don’t really like to help people if they’re not hurting that much. It’s just a waste of time. With corpses, it puts me in a strange position. You can’t do anything for the dead.
In the backseat, you can see the mother and daughter. I think it’s a mother and daughter. Usually we try to take the patients out of the car, but when they’re obviously dead, you don’t bother. You wait for the fire department to do it, but they were busy with the living. You have to prioritize. In triage, it’s called black tag. You have to treat the red tags first, then the yellow, then the green. In triage, green means stop and red means go. There’s an intersection traffic light above us. It keeps changing. Even though no cars are coming. No one has turned it off. It keeps moving smoothly through the colors.
Black means you’re dead.
“I’ve been suicidal before too.”
My partner doesn’t respond to what I’ve just said. He goes closer to look at the bodies inside, crouching down. He covers his face. Maybe it’s the smoke lingering. Maybe it’s the smell of burned flesh. People, set on fire, tend to smell a lot like animals, like pork, in fact. I can’t go into barbecue places anymore. It reminds me of MVAs, multiple-vehicle accidents, the smell.
It’s never a good time to tell someone you’ve wanted to kill yourself. I remember I told two friends of mine once and all they did was catch each other’s eyes and look down at the table.
I go over and crouch down too. I don’t cover my face.
My partner nods his head yes.
Out of the corner of my eye I see what I think might be a dead crow. Licorice color with its wings in decerebrate posture, ready to hug sky. I actually consider going over to it and giving it CPR.
It’s 3:30 p.m. Kenansville, Florida. I think. The month of May on its final breaths.