by Ron Riekki
We get calls for corpses. For the dead. I’m talking weeks dead. People think we’re miracle workers. They don’t realize my EMT schooling was two months long. I don’t even know what the central nervous system is. I’m not allowed to put a needle into anybody. I don’t even know how to put a needle into somebody. That’s for paramedics. That’s for phlebotomists. The only thing I’m allowed to give is oxygen.
I had a partner put a corpse on oxygen. He said he didn’t know if the woman was dead. She had dependent lividity. That means blood pooling. She looked ready for a horror film and this idiot puts her on a nasal cannula. My LT came in and saw that and looked at us like we were the two biggest dumb-asses on the planet. As if I didn’t tell him to take that off her. My partner put the corpse on two liters a minute. For someone with no chest rise.
Here’s the thing about corpses. They’re dangerous. You can catch stuff from corpses; they’re diseased-filled. And they typically have bad things around them—knives, needles, guns. Never trust a corpse.
I’ve probably seen eighteen, nineteen, twenty dead people.
No, come to think of it, it’s more than that. We had an MVA where there were eight people in a truck that rolled over. They all died. That’s eight right there.
It’s probably more like thirty, forty.
That’s the job.
I thought it was going to be helping people live, but people love to die.
I hate corpses.
I don’t believe in ghosts, except when corpses are around. I refuse to be in a room alone with a corpse. If my partner goes out to the ambulance, I follow. I’m not staying in there.
Here’s what we have to do when we show up and there’s a dead person. We have to make sure there’s nothing around that could kill us. That’s the first thing I think when I see a dead person. How did they die and could it kill me? I always assume the worst—electrocution. I’m always thinking electrocution. Somebody’s dead in a bathtub, you touch that water and— bam!—you’re falling in there with them.
Nothing can kill you quicker than a corpse.
I know how stories are supposed to work though. I’m not supposed to tell you all the stories at once. I can’t hit you with forty deaths. Just ratatat with corpse after corpse. The thing is you’d hate me if I told you even one of the worst things I’ve seen. It’s really amazing how badly people can hurt themselves. It’s like a skill. Last week we had a skateboarder impale himself on a fence, trying to skate from one house to the next. The problem is that it was a twenty-foot jump. That’s Olympic long jump distance. That’s thinking you can fly. It’s called drugs.
But I’m going to tell you one story.
It’s a simple story.
We got a call for a corpse. Except it wasn’t a human. We get calls for animals run over by cars. They’re not even pets. As if I know how to bring a skunk back to life. If you call 911 for a raccoon, you deserve to be shot. But this call was for a cat. The owner’s cat got hit by a truck. Flattened really. So they called 911, and it was a slow night so dispatch sent us without telling us it was a cat.
We got on scene. The lady comes out, says we have to save her life. Who’s life? Then she shows us the cat.
There are many stages of death. There’s “are you dead?” And “probably dead.” And “definitely dead.” And then there’s something beyond dead, where the person (or cat) is turned into a thing. It’s no longer a cat. It’s so pancaked that now it’s more road than animal. This cat was like that.
“Do something,” the woman said.
I appreciated how vague she was being. She didn’t tell us to Lazarus the cat. It was simply do anything.
So we did anything.
My partner went into the ambulance and came out with a little pill. I asked what it was and he shoved me away. He went to the cat and put it in what might have been its mouth. It also might have been its anus. Who knows? But it looked official. The pill just sat there on the ground.
My partner looked to the owner. “It absorbs. Give it overnight.”
“She’ll be OK?” The owner knew this was a lie. The owner had to know. No one is that stupid. But she needed to believe in something.
“Go in your house. Sleep. There’s a chance.”
The owner stood there. She wore a sweater. It was July. The night was hot. It looked like her neck was eaten by wool. A green that I’d never seen before. It had nothing to do with nature. It was a green made in a failed factory in northern China, a chemical mistake. She turned and walked towards her house.
“Now what?” I asked.
My partner went to the ambulance.
We drove around the block. We parked far enough away so that we could walk back there and scrape the cat into a bag, unseen. We threw it in the woods. We saved its life in the only way we knew how.
We went to a call after that for a guy who got run over by his own lawnmower. Who mows their lawn at night? His leg was open to the sky. I looked into its guck and imagined the cat owner waking up tomorrow morning, thinking the cat got healed in the night and ran off somewhere, the way that cats do.