This was to be the first story published in actual print. So said Duotrope.com when I was searching for a market for my story. Alas, in a down economy, this turned out to be the first online-only issue of the now defunt SALiT Magazine (Savannah Arts and Literature magazine – the logo was a salt shaker). One way or the other, it was the first stranger to decide that my work was worth publishing, which was an exciting honor. This story is about a bad day my friend Eli and I had on our bikes last fall. He has since moved to Alaska, where I imagine he is hunting bears with nothing but his hands and his god-given intuition. Could be he’s working as a handyman or a carpenter, though.
They tell you, the experts do, to never, under any circumstances, employ the second-person autobiographical, adding, for chrissakes, what do you think this is, junior college? But you’re too close, and you need its urgency, and they aren’t there to feel the heat and hear the sound of it or smell the native herbs stirred up by the wheels of the ambulance that autumn day. They aren’t and you are and so that makes it your story to tell however you see fit.
You know that it’s the writer in you that recognizes the irony in the accident. You both bomb a hill and then admit to tapping your brakes most of the way down, for fear of losing control of your bicycles. Age, you say, has made you more anxious, and your friend agrees. He has forgotten his helmet, and comments on it often, as an explanation for the care he takes at intersections. “And if I’m supposed to be this bike role model in the neighborhood,” he says before the ride, “I should really wear a helmet.” You talk about people riding carelessly, and without brakes, and about health care reform and painkillers. But none of it seems ironic at the time, and you aren’t a reader; you don’t recognize the foreshadowing.
Neither of you is going very fast. The hill you sped down was no match for the one you’d just climbed, and now you were tired, were on your way back. This had been your friend’s idea, to wrap up early, and it had surprised you. He must have been tired, couldn’t have been going very fast.
You’ve seen plenty of seizures in your days working as a personal care attendant to the developmentally disabled. Those you’d expected, were on the alert for, knew the protocol. This is something different, nearly unrecognizable. It doesn’t seem real, and you feel stuck in a moment, stranded in time, lost between old and new and the cold sweep of the second hand.
Who puts speed bumps on a bike path, anyway? Surely this move was aimed at protecting public safety, which explains the bright yellow paint, this paint that will replay again and again in your mind as you look down, lift your front wheel, and float over with ease. You are in the lead, and here there are a few frames missing from the film canister of your memory, but there is a noise, a slamming of metal, and you look back to see more floating, slowly, slowly, your friend’s face into the pavement. At this moment, everything becomes unbearably fast, and it is at this moment that you become trapped.
You drop your bike and “are you okay” and lips flapping into the ground like a horse or someone with the shivers. He is shaking it off, he will get up, it was bad but he is okay, but he does not get up, it is not shaking off, and it is really, really bad. He is twitching now, and you call 911, and others arrive, and your friend is lying there, bleeding, glasses stuck to his face, being examined by strangers. You try to tell the dispatcher where you are, but you don’t know, or you only kind of know, and “does anybody know if we are near the chapel?” and what if you’d gone riding yesterday like originally planned or if you hadn’t suggested, at that T in the road, “let’s head over to Fort Snelling.”
More strangers now, and your friend is done convulsing, or maybe he’s not, it seems like it goes on a long time, but one of the strangers is good, she tells him not to move, so he must be done, now, and then you hear her tell another, “Sir, thank you, but right now the best thing you can do is go on and finish your ride.” A man in full historical reenactment gear is dressed as some sort of soldier with a red blazer with brass buttons and a hat like a cotton swab. He kneels beside you and your friend’s bleeding, barely conscious face and opens a small first-aid kit, never breaking character as he says, “would any of this be of any use to you?”
Your friend tries to get up, pushes himself to hands and knees, blood and spit dripping from his lips, says, “oh, fuck,” and you feel better, but you’re still worried. This could be bad, really bad. He manages a sitting position, answers questions from you and the good stranger. You can see his full face now, and one side is completely crimson. It’s terrible. There is a family not far away; they haven’t seen him yet because of the native grasses, and as they make their way, you shield his gruesome face with your body and hope they don’t notice. It’s the kids you worry about more than anything.
You’re still on the phone with 911, he lies down on his back, which scares you, but you’re more scared to move him. You get his age wrong, ask if he has a history of seizure disorder; he doesn’t. You are describing his injuries and he points to his lip – which is fat and you’ll find out later he’s bitten through – as if to say, “hey, dipshit, what about THIS?” But you know him better than that, and you feel bad for portraying him with that sort of malice, especially in his condition. He’s kind if he’s anything, and you doubt that this has changed, though head injuries can be unpredictable.
You’ve really got to get this right.
The dispatcher says an ambulance is on the way, and you can hear its siren, but she says, “I want you to stay on the line so we can make sure they see you,” and you are standing just behind the tall weeds, waving your arm, trying to be as visible as possible, lighting flares with your mind, and they do see you, and you thank her, and finally you are off the phone, suddenly without purpose.
The paramedics are good, too, and they speak kindly to your friend, giving him a neck brace and a board, and eventually onto the rig. You’re filling out an accident form with the park director, who offers to take your bikes to the visitor center and store them for you, which is great, because you’ve already gone digging for a lock and tried to figure out how and where to lock everything up before anybody even offered you a ride on the ambulance.
But they do, and it’s strange, nothing like in the movies. They tell you to ride in the passenger seat, and you do, and you sit there for what feels like a very long time while they take your friend’s vitals and ask him a lot of questions about who the president is and what is his address and “North? That’s a long way off. Did you ride down here or drive and then ride?” And you crane to hear his answers, because like them, you want to know what he knows, what he can do, how his brain is holding up.
When the ambulance does finally take off, you’re still in the front seat, not on a pleather bench in the back holding your friend’s hand and begging him to hang in there, please, just hang in there, buddy. And the ambulance doesn’t leave in a hurry, but slowly pulls off, and it’s the driver’s off-handed comment about how the weeds smell so good that tips you off to their existence in the first place so that you can mention them in your opening paragraph. Soon you’re driving the speed limit down the highway, him talking about all five times he himself had sustained head trauma, and how he’s a paramedic and doesn’t wear a helmet even though he knows he should, “but then I also know that lives would be saved if we wore helmets in the shower.” A fair point, and now you’re relaxed.
It feels strange, though, ambling slowly towards the hospital, making jokes with the driver about the relationship between concussions and early onset dementia. You say something about how maybe he should start labeling things now. He laughs, you apologize, he retells a joke Ronald Reagan made about his own battle with Alzheimer’s – “its great! Everyday I meet new people.” You feel like an ass and wonder about your friend, if he can hear you, if he knows what an ass you are. You’ve known him for years; he probably didn’t need today’s excitement in order to fully understand your character.
You used to watch E.R. pretty faithfully, so you think you know what it would be like to arrive at an emergency room in an ambulance. You think that you will be in the way, so you stand to the side of the ambulance once it’s pulled into the garage and the paramedics are extracting your friend. You feel a little useless and don’t know what to do with yourself, but then the paramedics, casual as ever, wave you over and tell you to follow them. So you do, and it’s into the emergency room.
The emergency room is very subdued, which you figure must be nice if you are a patient, but you want your friend’s experience (which is also your experience, to a certain degree) to mean something somehow, so a little bit of hustle and shouting would be welcome. Instead there is a clerk or receptionist of some kind directing them to a room.
“23 is open.”
“Yeah, in the back.”
“But there was a loss of consciousness.”
“Well, you can go in seven, then, we’ll just move some people around.”
You realize that this is all the urgency you are going to get. As you are realizing this, someone asks you, “are you family?” and you don’t have the presence of mind to lie, and so it is off to the waiting room for you to wait and wait and worry, stripped of all purpose.