Ambulance Chaser: A Photo Collage
She was late. This I noted from my perch on the curb. Which meant upon her approach to the Avenida Chapultepec she was distracted, tilting from the wheel to catch a glimpse of her eyeshadow in the mirror as she took the curve on instinct more than anything. Sudden—as it always is—the oncoming car caved in the driver’s side door as she reached for her lipstick. Just a touchup and she was cast out her open window. She rose up and through in a brief instant of dignity, her hair suspended, perfect as she hurtled toward the waiting pole footed in a squalid concrete block, and she came to rest in an uneasy pose—or rather I was, uneasy that is, that her arm cradled the block as though she was about to lift herself up, brush the dirt from her dress, and shake out that hair—oh what those platinum locks did to me, her roots showing her only flaw, it was all I could do to restrain myself. In the end I placed my jacket around her shoulders, it seemed the thing to do, there was blood on it, on my shirt I mean, I’d tried to lift her to the ambulance but failed, the other car had felled the pole her chin rested on, the angle of her head so awkward, was her neck broken or just cocked, the gold bracelet on her wrist and those pristine red fingernails, a socialite with money or an ingenue past her prime, and through it all that horrid little man snapping photos—close ups, even—as though she had finally found the starring role she’d sought for years.
Of course all the media claimed that he was a thief. Got what was coming to him was the subtext. But it could have been any of us. Lord knows we’ve shimmied up the utility pole ourselves a time or two when times were hard. Took precautions, as one must. Rubber boots and gloves and so on. Not that outfitting ourselves as such amounted to more than donning talismans to ward off danger of the unseen variety. Which is what this was. How can you call that stealing, when we’re only rerouting something you can’t see, this is what we’d like to know. Sure if he asked we’d have let him tap into our own line. But there’s a thing called honor, a thing called pride. Fend for yourself even if it means a hustle or three on the side. Which isn’t something the media could ever understand. Ah now those men in their rubber raincoats, their hardhats and galoshes, how they untangle him from the wires. That a thing like this could happen says more about the shoddy infrastructure of basic utilities than it does the character of the man driven to siphon a little power off the grid. Yes, he was our neighbor. We raised a glass with him when we could afford it. But that does not alter facts: his body arcing backward, voltage rippling through him, a man whose desperation was so transparent he ascended the pole in shirtsleeves, you can see that’s real urgency, my friend, and what we get, what they give us, is this moralistic account of deserved punishment for petty theft. Makes us want to tug on the sleeve of the man focusing his lens and say, please, cut the man some slack.
Full day was upon them before the supermarket was looted. Yet shoppers bathed in the greenish fluorescence skirting the aisles felt it could be pre-dawn, as it was when they entered. The ordered rows, the cans and boxes—coca cola and detergent stacked in cramped quarters. At the cavernous checkout, two men. One with a gun that spat spat spat and spun the cashier, who, falling, hoped they’d cry out, his fellow workers. Hadn’t he eaten with them every day? And now this silence, this pain in his chest, his head rebounding off the newly mopped tiles. When the medics arrived, looking like proper jockeys with their caps strapped around their chins, thin black ties swaying, the men were still shouting as they ran the aisles like mice in a maze. The bulb in counter 24 flickered on, then off. Then in full uniform, the officer: easing between the sliding doors, tan slacks with brown racing stripe tucked just so in leather boots, pausing to survey the scene—drops at the spat spat, pomade-glossed hair a muss, crabwalks over to the medics, service pistol drawn, had they seen the men had they seen them, the medics shaking their heads in their jockey caps, shaking. Floodlit in garish hues, shoppers and clerks and responders alike huddled behind the registers in a statuesque garden of paralysis, all except the man who’d run in from the street, camera slung from his neck, shooting and moving and shooting.
I’ll never forget how that face turned up in the water as my partner swam out to meet the body. I didn’t know the guy. Some joyrider flung off the bucket seat. My partner off to fish his bloated corpse from the lake. Listen, I tied the rope around his waist. Suffered gladly the nights he chain-smoked his way to insight on our beat. He was a talker, that one. Is, he’s up to it still, speaking I mean. All monologue once he gets going, no thought of your side. So I’m the one left holding the goddamned rope and corralling the rubberneckers gathered on the far bank. What they’re looking for I can’t say. But then I’ve seen enough bodies drowned in ditches and rivers, lakes and inlets, beneath waterfalls and in flooded gullies, trapped in cisterns and wells and culverts. All these bystanders unsettle me, their accusatory fingers stabbing the air, so I just watch the reflection in the water, blurry gesticulations as he does the breaststroke, lifts his head above the murk. Ripples move out in a lazy arc to meet the body first and when the face rotates upward I can’t begin to describe it. How the water puffed those fleshy features—some nights I have this dream where I’m looking down into water and that face is just floating about like a pale frozen Noh mask and I have a horror that the eyes will open—I’d just like to know who invited the man at my elbow, clicking away like this is his daughter’s sweet sixteen party. What’s to celebrate here, I think to say, but then the rope goes taut in my fists and I’m pulling like mad.
The onlookers pressed around the sidelong auto as though it had come to rest in their embrace. Shirts brushing the warm body. Hands caressing its rough remains. A skeletal frame puckered in the shape of violence, the missing vehicle a rotten tooth now extracted from the scene. In the soft absence grew an ache for the forlorn wreck more palpable than for the forgotten bodies hauled out nearly twenty minutes before. Hush in the air like the space after a bad fight, when the last punch has been landed and neither one has the upper hand, spent fighters standing and panting, the fools. I see it now, called a boy perched upon the wall bordering the avenue. Let me show it to you. Tires bent back upon the axle. The concavity of the carapace, its fragile skin peeled back, the engine a dark mangled kidney leaking across the pavement. Resembling nothing so much as the name it bore, this beetle crushed into the tarmac. And there, pinned above the silent diorama, floats the hovering eye of the man teetering upon a ladder over the upturned faces, his captive audience waiting for the flash of illumination that will capture them not as they are but as they wish to be, silent, grateful, tender, hopeful, immune.
I took the call. As is necessary in my line of work. For I provide a service, and who does not wish someone to be at their side in moments such as these? I am there; it is enough. You know what things they say? They call me a vulture. Carrion feeder, disaster addict, ambulance chaser, maker of snuff films. Gorging on misfortune. But who buys the dailies, after all? Who takes in the late-nite or early morning news? You all do, and for what. For the lurid feature, the body sprawled undressed on the front page, breaking news slashed onscreen. Is it obscene, then? For me to take this domestic violence call en route. I am never late and my arrival cues the mise en scene. A woman cradles her lover’s head to her breast though it will not bring him back. The dark stain on the matted grass shows this plain enough. She is beautiful in her grief, this one. Look how she hides her face in the crook of her arm. Thin robe hangs on such narrow shoulders. Her mouth is a gaping wound that issues a plaint so piercing I thrill to it. Such purity of feeling I have not had in weeks. But all this flattens with time. She won’t remember this torrent of unfiltered emotion; only shame and guilt remain. Won’t remember unless I preserve some detail, some vivid link to spur memory. She’s turned away now, laid him down. Leather jacket riding up his back. Head bent to her knee and then I see the discarded shoe, a bright red pump. I lean close, find the angle. Heels worn to impress or to seduce. They’re in love, these two; the shutter’s snick preserves that love. Call me what you will, but I ask you—can anyone give you such as this? They want what they cannot have. A second life, eternally arrayed in grotesque splendor. Fix the photo to the wall. Look upon it and offer thanks. For I alone return your love to you.
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