Noise, Part II

by Luke Boyd

I don't exactly get up on time the next morning. Really I don't actually get out of bed until two in the afternoon. This is because after we finish off Bill's cognac we're so whacked that we start right in on my vodka. It's so bad you need to have a bottle of something else down first to make it sit alright. It's what you might call "mixing vodka" except Bill's got nothing to mix it with. So there I am back at my place in bed with the lights off at two in the afternoon, with a glass of water I can't bear to drink because my head hurts so damn bad every time I move.

Because I'm dehydrated.

Because I should be pounding water like there's no tomorrow.

But I can't.

Because of my headache.

Because I'm dehydrated.

But I do have lots of police chase video shows to watch. All in all it's not so bad.

The problem with these police shows is the problem with everything else, too. The idea of sirens and lights signifying trouble is pretty outdated. For starters, what exactly constitutes an emergency? An emergency for me might be that I'm just getting off the highway and I really need to take a shit. I drive eighty the rest of the way home, through the city, running lights, grimacing behind the wheel. That's my emergency. So where are my sirens?

The college kids across the street, they have different emergencies. They're having a big party. More people come than are expected. It's about a quarter-to-two and they're about out of beer. Someone's got to haul ass down to the bar with a load of drunks and get some six packs or else the party's over. That's their emergency. And if they make it just a few minutes late, the bouncers will be herding everyone out, and these college kids will be trying to squeeze their way in, and they'll try to get six packs and the bartender will say, "Sorry, I can't serve you anymore. It's after two." So why can't the most sober kid just step up and say, "Sorry we're late, but we need this beer. It's an emergency."

This brings us to the next part, and the very core of who I am and what I do.

Listen up, the table has been set.

Things start out well-intentioned. There are firetrucks, ambulances, police cars--because when things go wrong, you need them. Then there are alarm clocks, air raid sirens, horns, bells, and signs in neon. They take away from the original purpose of the emergency lights and the emergency sirens. Then we add terror alerts, warning lights, power-standby lights, breaking news bulletins, and construction signs. People are bombarded on all sides by warnings and notices.

Stop--Hurry Up--Forget It, Just Move Over.

Look Over Here--No, Over Here

Stay Inside--Listen Closely--No, Not To That, To This.

When I started working for Mercy Hospital, I don't think I realized the problem. I got up every morning or afternoon (depending on the shift I was working) and drank two cups of coffee while I checked the news. I was looking for the accidents and tragedies that had happened while I slept. There was always something--a jackknifed tractor-trailer spilling toxic chemicals, a domestic shooting at South Garden Apartments, some kid stuck in a sewer tunnel or storm drain. These were the kinds of calls that came pouring in to Mercy, the calls that sent me flying out of the emergency bay all sirens and lights, dispatched to fly like a madman to every oops, eek, and uh-oh.

Two years of driving an ambulance, and I knew the city. I was beautiful, I was miraculous. If there was blocked traffic on Linden, I swung onto 9th and barreled through the park, and lives were saved. By day or by night people moved when I came; like a screeching terror I blew through intersections, parking lots, and industrial parks. Then I started to see patterns in the kinds of people I was saving. They weren't people like me or like Bill. They weren't people who would ever (or could ever) return the favor.

They didn't deserve the sirens and lights--the urgency of emergency.






This was the wall of impenetrable static that stood between my sirens and the true emergencies.

I would charge the wrong way down one-way streets, weave through pedestrians, pass on blind turns--I'd pull up outside a Denny's to find some cokehead lying in a pool of his own piss, sweating and muttering to himself about The Cosby Show.

I would cut off a school bus, narrowly slice past some kids at a crosswalk, crush a wayward squirrel under my churning wheels--I'd roar into the lot of some apartment complex to find a shiny BMW full of bullets and blood, behind the wheel some teenaged kid with gold capped teeth, sobbing with his hands full of guts. Maybe a bicycle lying over on its side with his kid brother under it, his own little pool of death spilling out around him.

So I make a decision. When I start, it's sometime around Christmas, and I'm dropping one off at Mercy, a heart attack, when my radio starts throwing static: Shots fired with multiple injuries. 400th block of Pendleton. Suspected drug activity. Police en route.

The dispatcher requests my number.

"117, I need you over there. Finish your drop-off at Mercy and get there with bells. Do you copy?"

I wait. Maybe someone else who is closer will pick up on the call. But no, nobody in their right mind wants these types of calls.

"117, do you copy?"


"I'm here. I'm finishing up and then I'm on my way. With bells."

But I don't put the sirens on. I don't use the bullhorn to tell anyone to get out of my way, either. I don't even break the speed limit on my way there. And I stop twice--first to pick up a coffee at Dunkin Donuts, then at Exxon to fuel up and get a pack of cigarettes. As I ease off the street, I take a wide circle around the pumps and park very carefully. I flip my sirens and lights on, get out and walk purposefully inside.

I forget my coffee sitting on the dash, so I walk back and get it.

It's December and the guy wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt working the counter sees me coming and meets me at the door. He's pretty excited.

"Hey buddy, if you gotta get gas just give me your numbers, and I'll bill the hospital."

"Nah, it's okay. Don't worry about it. I need some smokes anyway."

He scuttles back behind the counter and pulls down the overhead door where the cigarettes are kept.

"Okay, let's hurry. What do you smoke, pal?"

I pat my chest pockets, then feel around in my pant pockets.

"Shit, I left my wallet in the ambulance. Hang on, I'll be right back." I turn around and head back out to the ambulance, but before I get to the door, he's yelling and pounding on the counter.

"Yo! Don't worry about it. They're on the house. I don't want to be responsible for nobody dying, ya know? So come on, what do you smoke?"

I head back to the counter and lean both elbows on it, fiddling with a bucket full of plastic reindeer cigarette lighters. This guy's nervous as hell, and this whole time my sirens are still wailing away out at the pumps.

I smile ingratiatingly as I turn a red-nosed Rudolph lighter over and over in my hand.

"Well, actually, it's funny you ask because I don't really smoke. Would you say I look like a smoker though?"

The lights bouncing off the glass store windows must be making him crazy. He's edgy and worked up over something.

"What?!? Don't you got people to save? You want the smokes or not?"

"Eh, not really. I'm not really in the mood any more. You're making me feel too self-conscious about my possible smoking habit now."

"Here buddy. Look." He starts pawing around in the overhead storage. It's a stretch for him to reach, and his shirt rides up over his shorts. He's got a big hairy gut, and the top band of his boxer shorts says "HAWAII-ALOHA-HAWAII-ALOHA." He's sweating pretty hard digging through the cabinet.

Outside my sirens and lights are still going wild, but I'm in no hurry.

He finally comes out of the cabinet with two handfuls of promotional cigarette packs. Various brands. He chucks them down on the counter, stuffs them in a bag, and thrusts it over at me.

"Here, take 'em and get out of here. I don't know what your deal is, but I ain't gonna be responsible for nobody dying. Now beat it."

I take the bag and head back out to the ambulance. At the door I stop, turn on my heel and look at the guy. He's watching me and watching the ambulance.

"Hey, thanks for the cigarettes and all. But really, I want you to know, I'm not really a smoker. I mean, I smoke from time to time, just not on a regular enough basis that I think I can call myself a smoker. I don't even know if I'll smoke these."

I pause a second and lean against a wire rack of sunglasses before continuing.

"I'm forgetting something...matches. You got matches?"

By the time I get to the scene, things are pretty well cleaned up--a few cop cars still sitting with lights flashing and doors open, but no ambulances in sight. I park next to one of the cruisers and walk over to a taped-off section of sidewalk. There are a few cops and some gawkers milling around, and as I walk up, everyone turns to look at me.

"Where the hell you been? We put the call in to dispatch almost an hour ago!" This cop's all worked up about God-knows-what, but I don't see any dead bodies lying anywhere.

"I know. I had to get coffee and cigarettes. Two stops--I can't drink gas station coffee, and Dunkin Donuts doesn't sell cigarettes."

I take a swig of my now-cold coffee and wince a little bit at the bitterness. The cop just glares at me. I'm wondering if he's mad because I'm standing there an hour late and drinking coffee, or if he's mad because I didn't bring him any. Either way it's lousy coffee by this point.

I feel something tugging at my pant leg, so I look down and there's this dark snakepit of hair staring up at me. This girl can't be more than six or seven years old, and she's already at her first crime scene. She's standing on my heavy boot and has her arms wrapped around my leg. Her soiled little jumper is riding halfway up her body, and her hair is twisted into about a dozen braids that skew off her head at all angles.

"Hey misser, you drive the am'blance?"

"Uh huh."

"You takes people to hop'sital?"

"Sometimes, yeah."

"What if they 'ready dead?"

"Well, then I take them straight to heaven."

She must like that answer because she starts giggling into my pant leg. I try to head back to the ambulance, but she's clinging to me and standing on my boot the whole time. I make a few awkward steps carrying her along, then I stop and reach down and pry her off.

"Sorry, sweetie, but I have to go. I have to take more people to the hospital and maybe a few to heaven."

She seems hurt and retreats a few feet.

"Misser, ken you take me to heav'n? I don' like it here."

She catches me off-guard, and I don't know what to say. I crouch down and motion her to come closer.

"It's okay. To tell you the truth, I don't like it here either. Most people don't. You just have to find something to do to pass the time, though. Wait here a second..." I run to the ambulance and grab the bag of cigarettes from the gas station. "Take these. But don't open them. Just carry them around, and if anyone gives you trouble, you tell them the nice ambulance driver gave them to you. And when you're old enough, you can start smoking, and if you smoke real good I'll be back before you know it to take you to heaven. Okay?"

She takes the bag from me, looking puzzled, and wraps the loose ends around her hands. I stand up and make for the ambulance, hearing her begin digging into the bag behind me.

I get fired a few weeks later.

I think because I just stopped showing up for calls.

I mean I'd answer the radio and confirm that I was on my way and all, but then I'd go pick up Bill and have breakfast or do some laundry or something. It wasn't that I was lazy or anything like that--this was just a much more efficient use of the vehicle and the time. Nobody else agreed with me though, not even Bill. And he was even getting free breakfasts out of the deal.

The Mercy Hospital job pretty much translates straight into what I decide to do next--it's still driving an ambulance, technically.

Only not for Mercy Hospital, or for the dead and dying. Dying isn't an emergency--living is. And these people appreciate it more, too. They appreciate the sirens, the lights, the suicidal driving, the left turns on red lights. Because for these people, whatever is emergency enough for them is emergency enough for me. And that's what we all want. We want to feel like our life's disasters are everyone's problem, like they deserve a bullhorn forcing traffic to the side of the street.

I do just that. I flip the switches, hit the lights. I make people's hair stand up on the back of their necks as I go careening by at ridiculous speeds. I'm the driver. I'm the captain. I'm God, Jesus, and UPS all at the same time. I get things done. And I make my own hours.

Sometimes I drive around, and someone will flag me down--a flat tire and they're late for a flight, or a traffic jam and they need to be at the office in fifteen. Most of the time, people call though, from their cell phones sitting in traffic or from bed just having realized they've overslept.

And just like that, I'm off in my own ambulance, or what used to be one anyway. You can still see where the decals were on the sides. It's an '84 Chevy van that must have been part of the Mercy fleet before they went to the bigger ambulances, the ones I drove. It's white with spots of rust that send streams of red metal down the body whenever it gets wet.

I first saw it down on 7th street at Carlo's Pre-Owned.


It looked dead with the hood yawning open and two blown tires, so I told Carlo I wanted it cheap. Just for parts. He pitched that the sirens and lights still worked, and the original factory cabinetry was still in the back. $900 firm.

Now I advertise in the yellow pages and have my phone number painted in bold block letters on the side, captioned under the words "RealLife Emergency Transport." I tried to paint one of those zigzag heartbeat lifelines down the side of the van, but it came out like a mountain range or a jawline of mismatched shark teeth. The heart I painted at the end of the lifeline, it looks like it was drawn by a three-year-old--lopsided and uneven. When it rains, the rust spots near the roof stream with copper-colored water, and the heart looks like it's bleeding. Some people pay thousands for effects like that--I just watch for storm clouds or take it through the carwash.

In between calls I'm driving through the south side with Bill after a late-night breakfast. I don't have the sirens on or anything, we're just cruising. The air rushing in through the open windows is noisy and cold, but not the kind of cold that bothers you, the kind of cold that makes you realize how alive you are deep down. At the core, where it matters.

Bill and I are passing a bottle of port back and forth. It's one of those big gallon jugs with handles on both sides of the bottleneck. Each time one of us passes it, the wine sloshes around and splashes out of the mouth. It's okay though--it's vinyl upholstery, and I own every stained and cracked inch of it.

We come up on where the railroad crosses South 6th, and the crossing lights are flashing. The gates are down too, so I can't just scoot through like usual. It's okay though--like I said, we're not in a hurry--so I throw the van in park and smell the exhaust fumes from the manifold seeping in through the firewall. It feels like November--the open wine, the exhaust, and Bill taking his first pull on an aromatic Cuban.

Then the train comes.

A hulking black demon, roaring down the rails like some underworld god from a Tolkien book. The single eye-light doesn't search out prey or enemies; it just illuminates in a sick forecast anything on the tracks about to be erased. As it gets closer, I can hear the cars banging against the sides of the track, not just a mess of sound but a repeated furious hammering. As the engine blows past the front of my van, the conductor lets out two long blasts on the air horn. It shakes the van so violently that Bill loses his cigar, and I have to roll my up my window to save my bowstrung eardrums.

Then I see her.

She's standing just outside my driver's side window, perfectly still a few feet away from the tracks. The light from the passing engine hits just enough of her that I can see her hair flying around her head. She's actually leaning in toward the cars--her feet planted maybe a foot or two away but her head craned forward. Like she's inspecting the welds and grease fittings as they scream past.

I feel the color leaving my face as I watch her; I can just picture her leaning in closer and closer, sobbing hard as inky mascara rivers run down her cheeks, wishing she knew another way out.

I imagine a passing door handle or exposed bulkhead taking her head smoothly, then her leaderless body standing a moment longer, swaying, in limbo. Crumpling to the crushed gravel as soon as the last spinal signal loops home--Return to Sender.

She's obviously thinking something other than suicide though because she stays right there, two paces away from no more distractions, no more bills, and only one more funeral. I open my door and slide off my seat as she's pulling her hair back and leaning in sideways, like she's listening for some illicit promise. I come up behind her, but I know she can't hear my approach, so I stand a few feet off to the side. I'm afraid to touch her arm or try to pull her away from the train because if she yanks herself out of my grasp...

DING! Premature execution, platform three.

So I motion to Bill to hit the lights on the roof of the ambulance. When they come on, the whirling red makes her pallor look hellish. She turns her head just slightly to look at me, but she's still leaning straight into the steel wheels. She smiles and nods like we have this in common, and I just stand there like a schoolboy waiting for mommy to finish shopping--hands in my pockets, kicking at some stones while she stays hunched over, and a little trickle of blood drips from her earlobe.

Her head moves in time to the banging cars and wheels, her eyes go closed and mystic. This is her seat in the orchestra pit, her personalized symphony.

By the time the last car echoes away into the darkness, I can feel the pinpoint pressure surging in my jaws, like my eardrums are seizing up. I try to work the feeling out, pressing into the soft flesh just behind my jaws and massaging in circles. Kneeling in the sonic wake of the train with sharp stones piercing my kneecaps, I feel totally disconnected from myself.

A steady stream of tears leaks from my air-blasted eyes, and the choking stench of creosote and oil is thick in my nostrils.

The memorized pounding of the train has been transferred into the blood pulsing through my ears.

The girl is fine.

She flattens her hair down and walks over to me rubbing her hands together. Her cheeks are flushed, and her eyes are all glazed over. Even though she's right next to me, I can barely make out what she's saying--her words are drowned by the c-sharp ringing in my ears.

Please leave your message after the tone...

"...ride in your...capper for me...sirens on..."


She cups her hand around my ear and yells straight in. And it still sounds like she's at the bottom of a well or something.

"I said, "A ride in your ambulance would be really be a capper for me, but you've got to keep the sirens on'."

"Oh. Okay." What the hell does she want a ride in the ambulance for? I mean, she doesn't seem to mind sticking her face into the wheels of trains, so what does she want, a ride to the E.R. now? "Well, it's not really a hospital ambulance. Sorry. I could probably get into trouble if I showed up there with it."

She's looking at me like I'm an idiot. Like I just had my head halfway under a moving train.

"Yeah, I know it's not a hospital ambulance--a real paramedic would have pulled me away from the tracks. I just want a ride in it. And I don't even care where--I just like the sirens."

For real, I can tell she's not lying because she's looking right through me to the ambulance. Her face goes white-pink-red with each revolution of the lights, and I can see the sirens reflected in her widened watery eyes. I don't really know what to say to her--it's like she's having one of those intensely personal moments right here in front of me. Her mouth is hanging open, and each time the sirens swing around, they glint off a mine of silver fillings.

She points at my lightbar like a kid at a shooting star.

"Wow. They're so pretty up close."

She speaks more to herself than to me as she's heading for the passenger's side. By the time I climb in, she's already scrunched down between the front seats, fiddling with the toggle switches on the dashboard. They're each labeled underneath with old yellowed masking tape--they work the auxiliary lights and supply power to the outlets in the back of the ambulance.

Bill is completely unfazed by her presence. He's busy with his pants pushed down around his knees, pissing in the now-empty wine jug.

He asks me to hold his cigar while he shakes himself a few times, then he screws the cap back on.