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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Holler-Ambo, Chris Castle

We admit we are powerless over alcohol-that our lives have become unmanageable.

    JC whispered into his cupped hands as he leaned in front of the back of his ambulance. It was early and no-one else was around. He tried to keep his eyes closed but once or twice they cracked open to the space inside the vehicle. The bucket sat in the middle of the floor-space, the rag overhanging like a dog’s tongue. Flecks of blood were still dotted along the walls; a long smear ran along the side of the bed rails. He finished praying and clapped his hands once, like he always did.
    By the time the work was done, the pre-dawn light was starting to break through the skyline. It almost looked beautiful, despite the looming presence of the hospital and it’s sickly, pallid walls, its cheap, dim lights. A few other crewmen drifted into the car-park and waved to him. The squad leader broke apart and ambled over, punch-drunk. He was holding a coffee cup up high in his hand, like it was a torch.
    “Relax, it’s just coffee, no extras,” he said as he handed it over. He even flipped the lid so JC could catch the scent.
    “Appreciate it,” JC said. It had got to the point where he was so tired now, he felt re-energized.
    “I should be thanking you, going out there on your own, in the middle of all this craziness. City riots…” He drew out his cigarettes and lit one, blowing the smoke away from JC. The boss had always looked impossibly young but now he seemed not just older but tired, too, as if he were trapped and had only just realised it.
    “Is it letting up?” JC asked, resting against the back of the ambulance. Now it was clean it smelled of bleach and chlorine, like the old swimming pools used to, before science got polite and took away all the old scents and memories of his childhood.
    “For now. I spoke to a cop on the way back and he says they’re getting on top of it. Figures last night might have been the worst of it. How bad was it for you?” He flipped the butt drain the drain, where minutes before JC had poured his bucket full of bloody water. The filter caught on the grate and slowly absorbed the blood until it had turned bright red.
    “It was okay. I got everyone back home safe. One gang pitched a bin at the window, that was it,” JC said and shrugged. He drew deeply on his coffee, trying to push back the fear he had felt.
    “You’re like god damn oak, JC. How you did it without taking a nip of something, I’ll go to the grave not knowing.” He ran his finger along his moustache and laughed, but it was a low, sad thing. He looked over anxiously to JC; the way men do when they need something but don’t know how to ask. “You know you’re on the roster for today, right?”  
    “I know, chief. I’ll get cleaned up and be back. The ambo’s going to need some work done on it, though. We got the budget to run a full service?” JC finished the drink and dropped it in the nearby bin.
    “We got nothing, JC, same as before. You know what, you fix what you can; you like tinkering with cars, right?” His eyes lit with the idea of breaking the rules and he drew another cigarette out, as if he was celebrating. “What the hell, right? You take it easy, JC, okay?”
    “One day at a time,” he answered, as much to himself as his boss. He watched the man stagger off, back to the others, already calling out somebody’s name. JC fished the keys out of his pocket and locked the back doors. 
    He stopped off for breakfast and then rode the ambo back through the city. At this time of day it was empty and he found a window seat, where he could look at all the damage done. Glass shimmered everywhere, like the streets were made of something better than tar and chewing gum. Windows were put out, shops gutted. A few of the fires still smouldered and endless rows of cars were overturned and trashed. His thoughts flashed back to the night before, how a few of them had rocked the ambo when he had stopped to survey a scene, their faces covered by hoods so only their teeth were bared. He’d shot-gunned it and drove on, leaving them screaming into his mirrors. His hands were shaking as he parked it in the garage.
    Too wired to sleep, he walked down the streets, seeing which shops had been worst affected. The computer places had been picked clean, along with the food and liquor shops. One or two had their shutters down and he could actually see the dents where they’d tried to break through. The last few shops seemed to have been spared; the flower shop, the card shop, the butchers. The worst they’d seemed to have suffered were broken windows. 
    “I almost feel insulted,” a voice said, making him jump. JC turned round to see the woman who owned the florist sweeping away the glass. She was smiling as she rested on the top of the broom handle. “I guess I wasn’t cool enough to steal from, huh?”
    “I think…” JC began, before clearing his throat, trying to think of something to say.  “No-one tried to hand me any roses, at least.” He watched her smile and felt steadier. He knew her to say hello but little more; even so, he liked her.  
    “I guess nothing says revolution more than stealing a laptop and a six-pack, right?” she went on, nudging the biggest pile of glass into a heap. Her face went suddenly serious. “I saw you out here last night. You pulled up not too far to help that kid a couple of hours ago right?”
    “That’s right,” he answered.
    “How’s he doing? He came in here once or twice, buying flowers for his grandma. He was the best of the pack he was running with.” She looked at JC and waited.
    “He was pretty bad but he’ll make it in the end. You give me his grandma’s address; I’ll check in with her and see she’s doing okay.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out his notebook from the inside pocket.
    “I don’t have it. What do you keep in there?” She said, setting down the broom and walking over to him.
    “I keep a note of the people if they’re from around here. I know some of their families.” He looked up feeling as if he was talking too fast, even though he knew he wasn’t. “I’ve always lived round here.”     “That’s a good thing to do,” she said and for a moment almost looked lost. “Hey, I’m going to grab coffee at Jimmy’s later, if you’re around…I could do with someone to talk to, after all this.”
    “Sure,” JC said, aware the word almost came out like a question. He felt weightless. “I finish my shift at four.”
    “Are you sure you won’t be tired?” she said and creased her eyes. He shook his head. “Okay, across the road at Jimmy’s, if it’s still standing at five, right?”
    “Right,” and surprised himself by laughing. “Five,” he repeated and then backed away. He walked on, listening to the glass crunch under his feet. JC looked back once, expecting her to be sweeping and saw her still looking his way. “I’m Jon,” he shouted and lifted his hand to wave.
    “Rita,” she called and waved back. It should have felt dumb or silly, but it felt like neither. Instead, it just felt honest and somehow like a good thing. 
    “Am I late?” she said, sliding into the booth opposite him. She wore a floral patterned dress and a cardigan over the top of it. He was glad he had worn a shirt and the doubt and the sense of feeling ridiculous drained out of him a little. Now, it was just plain, old-fashioned nerves.
    “Not at all,” he said, half-rising as she made herself comfortable and realising he was making that gesture too late. To cover himself, he flagged the waitress.
    “So at least the place is still standing, huh?” she said, finally settled. She sipped from her water glass and he did the same.
    “The police say it’s over now.” The place was empty apart from the two of them and the waitress.
    “Good. I guess it’ll give people a chance to think about things.” She shrugged and smiled. The waitress brought over the coffee’s and jammed the receipt under the salt and pepper.
    “You know, I got that shop so I could see the best in people. I thought if I get this place, whoever comes in will be trying to do something better. What do I know, right?” She reached for her coffee and sipped it.
    “I think…that’s a good way to try and see things,” he said, knowing that wasn’t enough. She looked up at him.
    “I’m sorry, Jon, talking like this, it’s just…I think after what’s happened, small talk seems kind of…redundant, you know what I mean? Or maybe we’ve all just drunk too much coffee and not had enough sleep.” She smiled and then did the strangest thing; she crossed her eyes and made a goofy face.
    “What about you, you must feel like you’re helping people when you work, right?”
    “Yes,” JC said, drawing a breath. He liked the feeling of this, of being honest and just telling the truth without any other clutter. It felt like something, something real.
    “I went to visit my aunt in hospital once, she’d had a stroke and I remember how her skin was like paper in old books. She should have gone to the hospital a long time before, but she never did.” He felt his mouth dry and sipped his coffee.
    “I came out of there and stood in the parking bay and saw these ambulances all lined up. One of them pulled out, way too fast, and tore along the road and I just thought he’s helping people quickly, with speed, right away, with no delays and that was it. I don’t know.” He brought his hands up, thinking he’d feel embarrassed but instead feeling light.
    “Yes, you do,” she said. Outside, the first few cars were being allowed back down the street. A few honked their horns to the shop keepers who waved back, holding their brooms up like swords. “It’s the small acts of kindness, I guess. That’s what my old man used to say. ‘Small acts of kindness build a cathedral in the end.’ I always remember him saying that.”
    “That’s a good thing to say,” he said, feeling her eyes on him.
    “Tell me, something,” she said. She sipped her coffee and waited. JC began to think, but then started talking before he could control anything that was in his heart. 
    “When I started driving down to the rougher parts of town, there would always be a kid on the corner waiting for me, to let them know I’d got there and the cops would be on their way soon after. They’d always say, ‘holler-ambo,’ so much, I took to calling my vehicle it.” She repeated the words and made it sound beautiful.        
    “I’d like to see it sometime, you know, not in action and surrounded by gangs: Holler-ambo.” She raised her eyebrows and the tease was pitched just right; funny without being cruel.
    “I’ve got it in a lock-up, by my place. It needs work, so the boss let me take it back with me.”
    “Could you show me?” she said it quietly and saw the reluctance in his face. “Tonight, while we’re all still wired and telling the truth.”
    “Are you sure?” he asked her. Now she had suggested it, it was all he wanted to do.
    “If we’re going to be honest, we may as well do something honest.” She kept looking at him and there was something in them that he couldn’t refuse.
    “Okay. Okay, let’s go,” he said and drew his hand up to the waitress.
    JC waited by the till as she packed something into a cardboard box out the back. Some of the flowers had wilted in their vases, as if the riots had sapped the energy out of them. On the counter was the pad where people wrote their messages. He traced over, reading the last one. She stepped out of the back room and shook her head when he offered to take the box.
    “It’s as light as a feather, really. Could you call for a taxi?” she said, looking down to the phone on the counter. As he called, he tried to sneak a peek inside the box and she snapped the flap down like a steel jaw, making them both grin.
    “So here it is,” he said, pulling the shutter up and stepping back. “I can reverse it out so you can see it better in a minute.”
    “No, that’s fine. Just open the back door up, that’s all.” He walked around and opened it up. She set the box down and opened it up. “Let’s start with chrysanthemums, okay?”
    JC watched her as she stepped up onto the floor space and began to put a flower along the side of the crash cart. Next, she put one on the wall, by the needles. For a while he couldn’t do anything else but watch. Finally, he stepped inside and reached into the box. The smell was a muddle of different scents and smelled better than anything else he’d known.
    “I know it’s dumb, but...” She shrugged and turned away.
    “That’s not a dumb thing to think, not at all,” he said quietly and even though he could not see her, he knew she was smiling. 
    The two of them stood a few feet away from the back of the ambo. It was covered in flowers, the colours exploding off of every piece of metal. He noticed it was beginning to get dark overhead and the stars were coming out. It had become night without him even noticing. He tried to remember the last time that had happened to him; time passing without any fear or doubt but…easily, with joy. The bike pulled up and kicked the gravel up some more. JC walked over and took the cartons of Chinese food off him. 
    “Tell everyone we’re still going, okay?” The man said as he handed back the change.
    “I will,” JC said and nodded. The man returned the nod and looked over to where Rita sat.
    “Nice flowers,” he said and dropped the helmet back on his head and skidding away down the road.
    “Outside with the stars or inside with the flowers?” she said, taking one of the cartons from his hand.
    “It’s a nice choice to have, Rita,” he said and realised it was the first time he had actually said her name. It felt almost familiar. She smiled back to him and looked from the sky to the ambo.
    “Yes it is,” she said quietly and scooped open the carton. She walked away and sat on the lip of the vehicle, so the plants touched her shoulders and the stars lit her food. It seemed like a perfect option. JC sat next to her, the city silent around them and they began to talk.

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