I was listening to the Practical Magic soundtrack and writing about October when the page for the dead man came in. Of course, it was not worded as such. Dispatchers are masters at couching the uncomfortable in palatable terms, but we were able to get the gist of the message and we left town on a blaze of strobes, ripping through the beautiful day with all the noise, lights, and bluster of a travelling circus.
I’m not a religious nut. All right, maybe I am. Maybe I am a total Jesus freak, because I do believe. I believe so hard it hurts; I just can’t always follow through. Anyway, I sent a quick missive skyward – be in my hands, God. In my heart, on my tongue.
Because none of us here on earth do what we do alone.
Our patient wasn’t a patient at all, but, indeed, a dead man, and by the time our scene size-up was over, we had assumed the mask of cool sorrow and utter professionalism that we wear at these times. It’s a necessary guise, but it is just that – a guise.
Call the sheriff, the coroner, the dispatcher, med com.
Wait here on the tawny patch of windblown prairie that this man called home. Small, snug house. Fence and flowers and barn yard spread like a Grandma Moses painting beneath the most benevolent sun that ever rose.
And look, look here – a dusty workhorse of a tractor. A big, powerful International 806 diesel. Tires taller than my head, a seat indented, worn down to metal from a hundred seasons in the field. I looked at that tractor, and I looked at that dead man, and although I’d never met him before, I knew him then. I knew that those hands, even yesterday, had been strong. Broad and scarred, the nails stubby and rimed with grease that all the soap in the world couldn’t remove. Oh, those hands – they sifted fall soybeans and pinched them to gauge the moisture content. They tugged wet cornstalks from the corn head, they wielded hoes, shovels, hammers. They patted the dog and held the child, circled the waist of the woman he loved.
The voice would have been big enough to shout above the roar of the tractor. “Get the hell back from that auger!” he would say to the boy – the man, now, the one standing over there – and while the words were rough . . . such love. Right? Such love.
So, we did the things only we can do – zipping bags and tucking limp hands, murmuring condolences. Rote, right, necessary things – and we silenced the sirens coming home.
October’s magic lingered right where I had left it, dripping gold from the oak to our station roof. It hadn’t diminished; I could still feel it – even though I was pretty sure a piece of that good man’s soul had broken loose and lodged in my own, the way the deceased soul’s always do. Painful and wonderous all at once.
I took my coffee and one of the nasty Marlboros that my younger self had reveled in and my adult self doles out sourly – only as needed – and I sat outside in the glorious day. And I thought about how this job wounds and heals all at once, but at the bottom of it all, it is always a privilege. The ending of a life is just as hallowed, just as remarkable, as the beginning and the in-between – but learning to read it as such is probably a lifelong project.
Halfway through that lovely, filthy cigarette, I heard an entire flock of warblers calling from a bush across the alley. Our station kitty had startled them into flight, and they chattered and sang, and for a moment they filled the sky until they settled again.
That felt like a sign to me, and I thought, surely, since our patient was the best of the best – a keeper of God’s earth, all these years – those big hands would find a job in another space, another time.
I think he is already there.
Lucy Crowe is a small-town girl, career EMT/firefighter, and mother of three. Her short fiction has appeared, under the pen name C. E. Jones, in Downstate Stories, WOW Women on Writing, and 365 Fiction. Her debut novel Sugar Man’s Daughter was published by Rainstorm Press in 2013. Follow her on Twitter @AuthorLucyC.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.