“Dispatch this is Jones. There’s no pulse. Confirmed dead, we’re gonna need the coroner at 258 Ash St.”
The gulps of grief coming from the woman across the room sounded like she was treading water to stay alive while taking in gigantic swallows of air and water tangled together. Water and air are both needed to survive, but in situations of loss like this, I’d seen it drown and suffocate someone simultaneously. I scanned the room looking for clues to who the dead man was.
“Hey. Hey, I’m gonna need you to take a breath for me for a minute. I need to confirm the identification of your husband here. Does he have a wallet?”
She wailed as mascara sludge moved down her face leaving her resembling a sad raccoon. The nightstand was cluttered with various prescription bottles, my guess was this guy went a little heavy on the meds and he didn’t wake up. The drawer half-open held wrappers from Reese’s candy and a tattered velcro wallet. I hadn’t seen a velcro-style wallet used by a grown man in ages, and the guy on the floor had to be in his late 40’s at least.
His bicep muscles were withered like pitiful chicken wings. The kind you send back to the kitchen because they have hardly any meat on them for eating. The frame of his body was rigid and ashen, completely devoid of life as if he’d been hard on his body for a long time. How did this woman think we’d be able to save him? He’d been gone for a couple of hours at least.
There was no driver's license, but there were a couple of loose bills and a tiny plastic accordion of pictures that held wallet-sized images. The first was a picture of two small kids, a boy and a girl with their arms hooked around one another’s necks. Big toothless grins and ice cream smeared faces beamed up at whoever snapped the picture. I flipped the picture over to the next one looking back over my shoulder as the woman’s head dropped back against the wall, her eyes catatonic and unblinking.
My breath caught in the waiting room that was my throat and mouth, the door sliding itself tightly shut on my exhale. I stared at a picture of me at age eighteen. I panicked at why a stranger, a dead one at that, had a picture of me in high school in his wallet. Without a second thought, I removed my photo, accidentally dropping it to the floor afraid I’d be caught stealing it. My flowy handwriting caught my eye.
“Carey, It was fun sharing Reese’s with you this year in Spanish class. I know you’ll go far with baseball. You’re good at everything you do. I hope to see you around- xoxo Niamh
I was assigned to be Carey Hendrick’s partner in Spanish class for our entire senior year. I’d had a crush on Carey Hendrick for more years than I could remember. Now I had to be within an arms reach of him and the panic set in.
“Hey, I’m Carey. What’s your name?”
“Um, it’s Niamh.”
“It sounds like Steve, just drop the ST and put an N in its place.” I couldn't believe he just said my name sounded like Steve.
“Isn’t Steve a man’s name?” I asked him to remind him that I was in fact a girl.
“Yes. But this is how I’ll remember your name. Niamh not Steve.”
Do you know what it’s like to have someone pronounce your weird name correctly on the first try? It feels like slipping into the perfect pair of jeans. There is no adjusting the pockets or sucking in your little food belly brought on by peanut butter cups. Jeans that fit are cause for an internal celebration because any outward triumph is just bragging and no one likes a person that brags about how good their jeans fit. There isn’t any weird dance of trying to give the person comparison of what your name sounds like. That’s what it felt like when Carey first said my name, like wearing a good pair of jeans I filled with internal celebration.
They warned us that we’d see all kinds of things that would harden our inner softness. They warned us that what most of us had seen on TV wasn’t even a fraction of what we would see as medics in the field.
“Be prepared to see some shit.”
That was the informal warning above all else. Five people dropped out of medic training in the first week after we were subjected to slide after slide of vehicular fatalities and images of people dragged from the icy cold rivers in the summer. But nothing could prepare me for this.
Carey held his wallet-sized baseball picture in his hands at an angle that let me see every little vein in his perfectly muscled forearms. He kept it pinched between his forefinger and thumb with his pen in the other smiling at me. I’d waited all year to ask Carey if I could have one of his coveted baseball photographs. Sure we’d shared a couple of packs of Reese’s peanut butter cups throughout the year in Spanish class, but that didn’t mean I was the kind of girl he’d ever give a picture to.
When I found out they were his favorite candy I always made sure to offer to split the pack with him. Everyone knew that there were only 8 wallets in most picture packs, and if I was lucky enough after sending one to my weird Uncle Frank in Ohio and one to my best friend Alma I could divvy up the last six pictures among anyone interested in asking.
Carey tilted his head at me and said, “I’ll give you mine if you give me yours.”
If Carey had asked for six of my pictures, I’d have given him every last one.
There are moments when hell is most certainly covered in icicles, and this was one of them. It was a pigs flying overhead in bi-planes kind of moments. Or as Sr. González, our Spanish teacher, said often, “Cuando las ranas críen pelo.” High school translation- When frogs grow hair!
“Hairy frogs…” slipped from my lips.
“You okay Niamh? Did you just say hairy frogs?”
I put my hand out to receive what would become my most treasured high school possession. A coveted picture of Carey-freaking-Hendrick; Baseball Adonis, all-around nice guy. His hand trembled a little, maybe from how tightly he held it between his whitened fingers.
“Are you okay? Your hand is shaking.” I was such an idiot. I couldn't believe I'd told the star pitcher that he had a shaky hand, there goes my cool factor.
“I’m good Steve. It just shakes sometimes.”
The grief-stricken woman approached me at the back of the ambulance. Her breath seemed to have returned. The back of her hands were smeared with black wisps of mascara from rubbing her grief away. I didn’t want to do this with her, not now. This part always came after an overdose, when the family of the loved one would accuse me of not doing CPR for long enough or screaming at me for not getting there sooner. I didn’t have the energy to do this right after I tried to save Carey’s life without even knowing it was Carey, to begin with. This was the kind of shit they didn’t warn us about in school. Those families would blame us for their losses, they didn’t mean it but they were desperate to make it make sense.
I thought I might as well get it over with.
“How did you know Carey?”
“What do you mean?”
“You knew him, didn’t you? I saw the way your face fell when you opened his wallet. He hasn’t looked like that in a long time. Surprises everyone who knew him back then.”
“Yeah, we went to high school together.”
To be fair I didn’t look much like the girl in the picture in his wallet anymore either. My hair shorter and dyed shiny jet black was a far cry from the long-haired ponytail-wearing girl in the picture. I was taller too, stood much more confidently than I ever had. Something about saving people’s lives daily brought a sense of false confidence at times.
“The doctors think that’s when it all started.”
“When what started?”
“The signs of his MS. It started with an occasional tremor and some fatigue.”
That day I embarrassed myself and pointed out his shaky hand was a foreshadowing of this day, the day I would find him dead from an apparent narcotics overdose.
“Aggressive, that’s what the doctors said. Baseball was the first thing to go. It was brutal to watch the light go out in his eyes. I felt like we kept looking behind curtains for the dimmer switch to turn him back on.”
My embarrassment aside, I lifted my head to meet her eyes, “I’m so sorry your husband died. Carey was such a nice guy.”
A light guffaw squeezed from her dried lips. Her laughter brought on more tears. I wasn’t doing a good job talking to Carey's wife about her grief.
“Oh God no. I’m his sister, his big sister. He would have laughed hearing you call me his wife though.”
Pointing to my embroidered uniform shirt, her eyes scrunched up, “How do you say your name?”
“It’s Niamh. It sounds like St-”
Did he keep my picture all this time? My brain tried to wrap around the idea that Carey Hendrick kept MY picture in his wallet. I climbed into the cab of the ambulance choosing to sit shotgun. The shock was a feeling I hadn’t felt in quite some time on the job, but it’s what I felt at this moment. A chuckle left my lips at the silliness of someone like Carey owning a velcro wallet. I reached for my work bag that held my wallet covered in pastel flowers with a golden zipper. I hadn’t looked through the pictures in my wallet in a long time, but there it was, the picture of Carey Hendrick in his royal blue and gold baseball uniform. The picture stuck to the inside of the plastic protected by time and nostalgia.
God, he looked so different back then compared to now.
I flipped the picture over.
“Thanks for the picture, Carey. Have a good summer!” Fearing complete embarrassment by turning fifty shades of deep red, I made like the wind down the halls of our high school. I knew I couldn’t read whatever he wrote on the back of that picture until I was far, far away from him. Sitting inside my old hand-me-down Ford Ranger I pulled the picture from the back pocket of my jeans and read….
Did anyone ever tell you that you’re the prettiest girl in this school? It’s true. Even if your name sounds like Steve. Keep in touch <3 - Carey Hendrick #23 ℅ 2000”