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Quiet Night

Routine responders

Routine responders

I heard the engine first, ignoring it for the streetsweeper truck, but the pneumatic snap of brakes made the cat perk up. Lights penetrated the curtain and the engines idled in their diesel strangle. Ignoring it was easy, until I couldn’t, and then I looked.

Aside from the truck and two cop cars, nothing to see. Lights flashed and the truck and the engine idled, endlessly falling over itself, but that was all. No cars snaked past, no one walked by, no dog barked: a show nobody watched.

Anyone imagines, is nosy. Fire truck but no fire: a medical call. Police add interest. Maybe someone violent is having a heart attack, got their catheter plugged. It’s all right to think to myself with silent half-attention. Even looking out the window tests the edge of decorum. I don’t want to be a vulture, but it’s right across the street. Aside from the Christmas tree in the window I’ve seen no movement or change at that house since I moved into mine.

Drop the curtain, turn over. The cat pushes the curtain open and keeps watching with two feet on the sill. Firemen come down the steps and load massive tackleboxes in the truck’s boilerplate sides. They wear they heavy pants without the coats, making them bottomheavy like old cartoons of broke hillbillies wearing barrels. Cops come out of the cars, moving slowly in professional cop boredom.

Two figures hang back in the driveway. The one closest to the street I can’t see from the telephone pole’s perfect alignment, but a cops are talking to the person, one watching without looking away while another takes notes. The other hangs back by the house, black hoodie pulled down. I see nothing but a white hand and the cigarette’s glowing end. He stares across the short driveway at nothing, taking the cigarette up and down.

Losing interest, the cat hops on the sill, wanders back and forth, then jumps down. I close the curtain. The living city will sleep or pace the clock, but that’s outside the window.

Morning is grey, not that cold, and not that early for me. It’s a funny day to have off: an extra Friday for Christmas Eve, the calendar pulling the timing trick school used to use for arranging for a secular Good Friday off. I left the Christmas lights on and they seem overwhelmed even against the clouds.

The street is empty, fortunate for the traffic. The house betrays nothing. The curtain that let the Christmas tree look out is drawn.

When I was a kid I heard other kids relate how an ambulance came for someone old or sick, and I could tell they were tired of it. There was a kid with an uncle in the spare room, and everyone knew he was waiting out his life. We were in elementary still, when recess and Saturday morning cartoons were important. I can remember the kid being a little behind on new things, like I was, but he was preoccupied in the way that innocence is when faced with something large and multifaceted.

In college a tenuous acquaintance gave in to cystic fibrosis. B was a freak, dressing in black and freaking out my high school with his skeletal cackle and disdain for everything holy. His eyeballed face, identical to Marty Feldman’s with its same juxtaposition of kindness and the-freaky, pinned the innocent with its colorless, manic luminosity. Like most of the weirdos I half-circulated with I feared him as much as was entranced by him. Everyone knew he was sick but knew not to say anything.

He lived in a small mother-in-law house behind his parents’, out on a county road that was mostly holes. I had only one real conversation with him, one college winter in that house. Others smoked outside or listened to the endless Stevie Ray Vaughn that wailed from the impressive giant-screen television with speakers big as Stonehenge to match, but B lay on his bed like a Roman patrician. I sat in a kindergarten-sized chair at a tiny white desk and we talked about surrealism. He was recently returned from the Dali museum in Florida, where he’d met his stripper girlfriend. He didn’t cackle, didn’t say anything outrageous or bizarre or show any feature of his high school persona. We talked like older students taking an art appreciation class seriously. His eyes lit up in describing Guernica. Then he coughed, or rather, his body coughed him. The girlfriend, who though unpolished I thought was a kind and honest person, held him up while she held a small bucket for him to cough into.

People would mention B having a rough time, the ambulance coming late at night. The last time it came it took him to the hospital. I saw him there late one night. Others were there and I don’t remember saying anything. I remember how white with light the hospital was, and Christmas was coming.

I remembered B halfway through writing this. I have not thought about him for a long time. I would visit his headstone, the cemetery not far from my girlfriend’s house. I am not sure why. Maybe to cement death’s presence and reality, maybe as the odd sort of self-torture depressives are prone to.

I hope whoever the firemen and cops came for is all right. I hope everyone they come for is all right. To the black figure smoking in the driveway, I would say I’m sorry and it’s all right. I would say those things now because I realize it is important to say them, to tell people you are there. We are all here together, which is more important to know than someone’s name.

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