Pierre calls 911 for an ambulance every week or two during the warm months when he still pans for gold. More often during the lonely winter.
“Chest pain,” he’ll wheeze the magic words. “Like a fart turned sideways.”
Just to seal it, he’ll often add “I can’t drive.”
We wouldn’t want him to. Not any time after eleven A.M. anyway. There are enough drunks on the roads during the night hours causing accidents; we don’t want the steel mining contraptions crammed into his rusty Datsun clanging into each other and shifting the wreck’s momentum as it staggers between the right lane and its usual trajectory directly into oncoming daytime traffic.
“We’re coming, Pierre,” we always reassure him.
It’s my job to bring the dog food.
Red lights plinking off the pine trees astride the road, siren wailing to warn any meandering deer, Joe, the hospital janitor, weaves around the hills and swoops us down, then up the gullies. Like a needle embroidering the landscape.
As the ambulance struggles up the final grade to Pierre’s shack on the hill, transmission slipping, medical equipment sliding to the back of the vehicle, I pull an opener from the Trauma Kit and start opening the first can. I’ve ruined a few pairs of pants from that splattered grease.
The instant we pull into the junkyard surrounding his shack, the ambulance is accosted by a half dozen raucous canines, no two of which look to be even the same species, let alone the same breed, but all of which are seriously mean and, we’re pretty sure, unvaccinated.
I roll down the window. A big black-and-brown with stinking breath and thistle-matted fur lunges his front paws onto the door, almost reaching the window. His snarling makes my ears ring.
“Ready?” I yell to Joe.
I wind up, like back in Little League, and heave the can as far as possible from both ambulance and front door of the shack.
The howling, yelping, baying cacophony streaks after the can. We jump out, run to the back of the ambulance, yank out the gurney, and run for the shack.
“Got the Trauma Kit?” he asks me.
I streak back to the ambulance, grab the kit, then race toward the shack again. The black-and-brown sees me, and comes charging. We burst in, hauling the gurney and Trauma Kit, and slam the door behind us.
“What took ya so long?” he growls from somewhere within his indoor junkyard. “My friends are saying nice things about me – I must be ready to die.”
The din of dogs is a muffled tornado beyond the thin walls. We can slow down now, and be methodical.
I check his blood pressure.
“Never mind that,” his tobacco breath gargles. “Check my eyes. I don’t wanna go blind from that Immaculate Degeneration, like my brother.”
“I thought you had chest pain,” I retort.
“Yeah. It’s prob’ly from the cigars the doctor said I had.”
“You smoke? I thought you just chewed,” I try hard – in vain – not to look at the permanent brown streak of stained skin at the right corner of his mouth.
“Don’t smoke,” he mumbles. “Doctor said the X-ray showed I have cigars in my lungs.”
I listen to him breathe, stretching the stethoscope to its full distance. That close to him, I don’t want to inhale too deeply.
“There’s some mucus in your lungs. You coughing it out?”
“Can’t. I can get down to my cough, but I can’t get under it. It’s stuck. Take me to the hospital.”
We will, of course. But by the time he’s strapped securely into the gurney and we’re ready, a dozen paws scrape furiously at the door. The incessant caterwauling envelopes us.
I pull the second can from the Trauma Kit, open it, crack the door just enough, and heave again.
They all wheel and run after it. All but the black-and-brown. He stands there, snarling at me, saliva drooling from his black lips like tobacco juice from an old miner’s mouth. But then he, too, turns to chase the pack, sure of himself that he’ll get the biggest share.
We run for the ambulance, wheels bumping over the irregular earth and the scattered trash.
“Hey, slow down,” Pierre complains. “It feels like you done throwed me in the ore tumbler.”
We shove him in the back and lock the gurney in place. We just make it to our seats before the dogs come back, snarling for more.
“Don’t you feed your dogs?” Joe shouts back to Pierre once we’re safe inside.
I shiver at the sound of claws scraping down the vehicle like fingernails on my grade school blackboard.
“Sure I feed ‘em,” he yells up to the driver. “I feed ‘em ambulance guys.”
And he chuckles all the way down the hill as our red light strums the pines that straddle the road.