by Joy Hart
The snow had been falling that day. He couldn’t tell if it was just falling slowly or if time itself had slowed until it had the seeming weightlessness of snowflakes. As he watched a shimmering star-shaped crystal drift toward his face, he was aware of nothing else – not what day it was, or how he got here, who he was with, or where they were going. There was only the silent, floating white against a muffled blanket of dove gray sky. It seemed unavoidable that the snowflake would eventually land, and it did. In that moment, a twinkling sensation of icy cold sank into his cheek, then ran through his head, into his veins, down his arms, legs, hands, feet until it jolted his entire body awake to excruciating pain. His head throbbed and pounded. There were sirens in the distance but a quiet, disembodied moaning was the sound he could not escape. Someone or something needed him, he knew this. A sharp, salty taste of blood ran into his mouth as he turned his head. Suddenly aware that something wet had soaked through his jeans, he said a silent prayer that it was the snow, then painfully pulled himself up on his elbows. It was not the snow. Both his legs were bent, misshapen and going in unexpected directions as if he was the subject of the Picasso paintings he’d been learning about in 3rd grade art class. There was a lot of blood. It was making its way down the hill, taking the path of least resistance, through the tracks in the snow. Tiny red rivers flowed away from his body like an extension of his veins reaching out towards the overturned car that laid ahead, still smoking.
“Oh no,” he thought to himself, “This… this could not be happening.” They had been on their way to do something extremely important, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember what it was.
In an instant, there were flashing lights, wailing sirens, then men running everywhere. He desperately needed to pull himself up, needed to help them help his parents, his sisters. He tried to yell for help, but he could barely get anything out and no one could hear him over the sirens, he’d been thrown so far from the vehicle. He knew he would be left alone and die here if he could not get their attention, yet his legs would not move and his desperate, raspy calls went unheeded. He was feeling very weak and had to lay back down and close his eyes if only for a moment. Something in him thought maybe it’d be for the best to let the snow just cover him up.
“Son! Wake up son!”
The boy opened his eyes to see the rugged but kind face of a man in uniform looking down on him, not knowing how long he’d been passed out. The fireman called others over and they carefully picked him up and got him on the stretcher.
The last thing the boy saw before going unconscious again, were the flashing lights of the fire truck that was blocking the road beating rhythmically across the face of the fireman who had found him and stayed right by his side as he was loaded into the ambulance.
“Your turn,” Sam directed after a glance at his watch and a roll of his eyes.
“Naw man, I put that sonbitch back in bed two days ago,” said Chuck.
“Just take the goddamn call, Chuck. I’ll get Ryan to go out there with me once I get through hosing down this equipment. Unless we get a real call first, that is.”
Grumbling and cussing under his breath, Chuck shuffled over to the phone, “Greer Fire Department, Chuck speaking.” Then, “Yessir, Mmmhmm. Yep. Ok. We’ll be along shortly.”
“You’re not gonna believe this Sam but your best friend fell out of bed again and guess what? He can’t get up!” Chucked yelled sarcastically over the noise of the hose.
Ryan came in pulling on a suspender with one hand, cup of coffee in the other, “Oh no, don’t you even look at me like that Sam. The hell if I’m going over there to pick his sorry ass up today. How many times has he called for the same damn thing this year? Over 50? An’ it ain’t even April yet. What is wrong with this dude? Did you know he’s only 42?”
“Yeah… I don’t have a clue why he can’t just use the supports they put in for him on the wall and pull himself up. It’s a bona fide mystery to me. My wife thinks he’s just lonely,” said Sam.
“I betcha he thinks its funny. I betcha he’s sittin’ there laughing his ass off when he calls ‘cause he knows we gotta come out there every time, whether we like it or not,” Ryan ventured.
“Anybody ever explained to him how much he’s costing taxpayers with this little game of his?” asked Chuck. “And he could cost even more than that if we can’t get to a fire in time because we over at his place… AGAIN.”
“He’s been told,” said Sam. “We’ve sat down with him and explained it all. And the thing is – he understands, he gets it. He says he won’t do it again. He’ll call the neighbors or the EMT’s next time. Then a few days go by and … surprise! Guess who? I mean, I feel for the guy. He’s too young to be in this shape. Said there was an accident when he was little – been disabled ever since.”
“You think he’s ever had a wife or a girlfriend?” pondered Ryan, rubbing his beard. “I never seen signs of any woman at that house.”
“How the hell would you know anything about having a woman in the house, Ryan? You ain’t never got one past the front porch!” Chuck teased, crossing his feet that he’d just thrown up on the desk and putting his hands behind his head.
Ryan puffed his chest out and looked down his nose at Chuck with a grin, “I think your mama would beg to differ.”
“Alright, let’s get this over with,” interrupted Sam before things escalated. “C’mon Ryan. Chuck, finish this up ok?”
Sam knocked loudly on the door. “We’re coming in, Mr. Falwell!”
“Ok, I’m in here!” came the reply with a laugh, because it was where John always was, and they all knew it. “Here” was on the stained, shag carpet beside his bed, where he lay when he had tried to get out of bed without using his walker, which had been left too far out of reach.
Sam and Ryan appeared at the bedroom door.
“Alright John, well here we are again. Let’s get you up.” Sam managed to get the words out without sounding too exasperated. Sam and Ryan picked a path through the boxes of mail-order items and stacks of magazines and newspapers that lined every wall and hugged along each piece of furniture on their way over to the man on the floor. An acrid smell of must and cat urine hung heavily in the air like fog.
“Fellas! Aw, hey there Ryan. Sam. I’m so glad you could make it. I can always count on the Fire Dept. They never let me down. No pun intended! Ha, ha! But seriously, I don’t know what I’d do without you guys,” John said in a conciliatory way, his eyes locked onto Sam and Ryan’s, eager to see empathy, but fearful of the disdain that sometimes showed in their faces instead.
“Yeah, well you kinda got us over a barrel now don’t you, John? You know we have to come,” Ryan hovered above John now with his arms crossed.
Cutting his eyes sharply at Ryan, Sam began, “Now John, what Ryan means to say is that we don’t mind helping you but you have many better options than the Fire Dept. You know, we’ve gone over it all so many times. And you have the supports here on the wall, not far away. When you fall, why can’t you just scoot yourself over to the wall and pull yourself up? Then you wouldn’t have to waste all this time waiting on us to show up.”
“And we wouldn’t have to waste the taxpayer’s money,” Ryan felt justified in adding, but quickly thought better of it after noticing the disapproving look on Sam’s face.
“I don’t know. If I try to get over to the wall, sometimes I pull my back out and then I can’t even get around with the walker to get to the bathroom or feed the cats.” offered John.
“We just can’t be coming out here all the time like this,” Sam managed to say with exertion while he and Ryan picked John up and put him on the bed. “Now who can I get in touch with to help you out next time? Give me a name and a number please.”
“There really isn’t anyone. Ms. Patrick next door will come sometimes but she’s usually taking care of her little grands and besides she can’t lift me on her own. I reckon I can call 911 and get the EMT’s out here. It’s just that I know it’s not life or death so I hate to pull them away when there might be someone who needs them more. Plus, sometimes they want to take me in for a psych evaluation and then there’s no one here to take care of the kitties. They need me.”
“Well, let them worry about that. How about I call your social worker and we meet up over here to discuss some options and get everything figured out once and for all?” Sam offered hopefully.
“I guess that’d be alright. I sure do appreciate it when you all can come though. I know almost every firefighter at that station now. You know, any of you are welcome anytime… and your families.”
“We appreciate that John,” Sam said, tapping John’s sunken shoulder with his hand reassuringly then turning to go.
“Take care now, Mr. Falwell,” said Ryan.
“I guess sometimes you just need to know you’re worth saving,” John said quietly as the firemen passed through the room on their way out the door.
An old photograph on the cluttered, dusty dresser caught Sam’s eye as he made his way to the doorway. It was one of those posed family shots from Olan Mills studio. A mother, a father, and two daughters surrounded a little boy in the middle – a little boy who had John’s face.
“Who are these people, John? Is this your family? Do any of them live around here?” Sam asked.
“They were my family. They don’t live anywhere anymore.”
John’s face had changed, his whole body looked as if it had shrunk. He looked away from the men, out the window into a darkening sky that hung low, promising an unusual late March snow.
As the firemen left, the memories of that day long ago, when the frigid, harshness of life was broken up only by the kindness and concern of a man wearing a sun-yellow fireman’s coat, came flooding back to John. It’d all been his fault. He was the one who dared his sister to jump off the roof into the snow. It was his fault they were out on the slick roads trying to get her to the hospital with the bone sticking out of her broken arm. Every day, he prayed for forgiveness. And every time the firemen came, it was his sign – he was worth saving, one more time.