"Sirens," by Christopher Lowe

Christopher Lowe

Christopher Lowe

Christopher Lowe's fiction has appeared at Fiction Weekly and is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review. He is an instructor at McNeese State University, where he also received his MFA. Born in Jackson, MS, he now lives in Lake Charles, LA.


Out the ambulance window, across the flat expanse of farmland, clouds are coming together. I know the look of them, a rolling thunderstorm blowing down from the northwest. Soon, I'll be able to see big forks of lightning that'll flash out of a sky gone black with clouds.

Joe, my partner, is driving. The state of Mississippi has told me that, at 22, I am fully authorized to be an Emergency Medical Technician, but the insurance companies that keep a fairly tight stranglehold on Emerg-o-Stat prevent me from driving. I can administer shots, give CPR, watch people die, but I am not allowed behind the wheel, even though I know this area better than Joe, a Memphis transplant. My father taught me to drive on these old roads with their swells and curves, the places where, once, he would yell at me for going too fast.

In the distance, the clouds seem to go darker. My father loved these storms. "Grass-Growers," he called them. Toward the end, during those harsh summers that left him with ruined cotton fields, I think he maybe prayed for the thick rain a Grass-Grower can provide.

Beside me in the ambulance, Joe cuts loose a low rumbling fart that reverberates around the cab the way the thunder outside works its way across the surface of the rich black soil.

He grins. "That'll teach me to mix wings with tequila."

I ignore him and focus on the road outside. I'd like to drive, to get the feel of the rocky asphalt catching under the tires. There are potholes strewn across the road, and I can imagine the vibrations of the wheel each time we bounce into one.

We're gunning it south down State Road 236, barreling out across Quitman County. The sirens are going even though we're not in a hurry and haven't yet encountered any traffic. Joe likes the sound of them. To me, they seem unnecessary. We rarely pick up people who really need the extra speed the sirens might provide.

We pass an old wooden sign for the turn-off to Mount Zion Modern Baptist Church. The paint is flaking off in big chunks. There was once a crude drawing of sunshine coming up over a lush green field square in the middle of the sign. Now, the colors are dulled to pastel, gray-green grass, dim rays of sun. I try to remember what year Mount Zion closed down, but I can't recall.

Outside, the big open fields spill away, one after another, until I see our destination, J.D.'s Bar, a squat cement building in a sea of gravel. It's five and the parking lot is half full.

Joe swings the ambulance into the parking lot, spitting chunks of gravel in the air.

"Careful," I say.

He giggles, says, "Fuck off careful."

I climb out of the cab and move quickly across the parking lot, past Killer's old Chevy pickup and into the bar, the door dropping closed behind me. In the startling dimness of the place, I find myself blind. A single light bulb sways bald from a cord above the bar, but there is no other light in the entire place, save a vague glow from the jukebox at back. There are no windows, and I wish that I'd propped the door.

J.D., his eyes red-rimmed and oozing moisture, nods at me from behind the bar and says, "He's back there."

I walk to the back of the bar, searching the darkness. I spot Killer slumping against the side of the jukebox. He's grinning, blood covering his face. His nose is broken, bashed nearly flat by some drunk's fist, I think.

"Mr. Tom," he says, mouth barely moving.

"Just Tom, Killer."

"Just Tom," he says. He nods and runs his tongue over his teeth, smearing blood across them, a black stain in the darkness of the room.

"What happened, Killer?"

"Oh, had myself an accident, Just Tom."

They do this sometimes, the drunks of Quitman County. They beat the hell out of each other and call us. Usually, no one bothers getting the police. We give them a lift to the hospital where they get fixed up before having a good night's sleep between fresh laundered sheets. I have come to see these bar runs as normal. We are less an ambulance than a taxi, taking fares from every farmhand with enough folding money to get liquored up.

"Think I might could be missing some teeth," Killer says. "Want to check?" He opens his mouth wide, but I can't see anything other than his two blood darkened front teeth.

"Who hit you?"

"Damnedest thing, I done it myself."

I want to ask Killer why he did this to himself, but instead I say, "You punch yourself?"

"Naw, man. Went and fell on a pool cue."

A shadow moves past us, some drunk who had been at a table no more than five feet away, and I never even saw him. His form is absorbed into the darkness, gone away to nothing until I see him emerge into the thin pool of light by the bar. He is an old man, stringy gray hair clumped with grease, wrinkles fighting for room on his scarred face.

"Killer," I say, "this bar ain't got a pool table."

"I got a cue out there in the truck. Think I must've slipped. Damnedest thing." He laughs, a deep rumbling laugh, like Joe's fart, or the thunder that I know is coming.

"Let's get you out to the ambulance, Killer."

"Don't know that I can do it on my own," Killer says. "Seems my legs are a bit weak. I could use one of them little carts ya'll got."M/p>

"Hold tight," I say, then move back through the bar. Joe is standing across from J.D., sipping what could be a rum and coke.

He sees me looking at his drink and says, "Just a root beer, partner." He winks.

I look at J.D. and say, "What really happened to Killer?"

"Couldn't tell you. I know he went and got a cue from his truck, but I can't see shit that happens in the back. None of my business anyway."

I want to reach across the bar and hit J.D., make him understand that it is his business, that it's all our business. Instead, I send Joe to get the gurney, and I move back toward the jukebox, where Killer is now lying flat on his back.

I don't want to talk to Killer, so I dig around my pocket for change and step up to the jukebox. A lot of these little joints have good blues and country, songs about life in the Delta, about pain and death and betrayal. My father loved these places. He was never a drinker, too much of his old Baptist mother in him for that, but he was addicted to the smells and sounds of places like this. He'd bring me in with him sometimes, hoist me on the stool beside him. I remember the sweet sting of over-carbonated Coke, the low strain of the blues riffs.

I scan the song titles on the jukebox, but it's a weak list. Styxx, Boston, Chicago. Finally, my eyes settle on a familiar name. Lucinda Williams. Jackson. I drop my quarters in and punch the numbers.

The speakers seem to crackle a little as the song comes on. I hear the first plucking strains of Lucinda's guitar. Her voice comes through slow and steady, "All the way to Jackson, I don't think I'll miss you much…"

Joe appears beside me, rolling the gurney to a stop.

I lean down to give Killer my hand. He looks up at me and grins again, showing off his bloodied face for Joe.

When Killer's standing, I help hoist him onto the gurney. He's heavy, all old muscle, hardened by working the Delta earth. I remember him working for my father, back when my father could afford to hire help, before the drought began. As a boy, I sat on the porch and watched him with the other farmhands, their skin glinting dark in the harsh sun. My father would bring them into our house for sweet-tea after the day ended. Now, I wonder if that made Killer mad, if my father's courtesy only delayed his trips to places like J.D.'s.

Lucinda is singing about going to Baton Rouge, about not crying anymore, and I begin pushing the gurney, which rolls with surprising ease across the warped floorboards. Joe moves ahead of me and holds the door open. Light from outside floods into the place and I can see it clearly now, from inside. There are men everywhere, curled above their glasses and bottles, hunched at old handmade wooden tables. None of them look at me, none of them move at all, and I feel the desperate urge to stay here in this bar and listen the rest of my song. I want to drop in more quarters, all that I have, and listen to the song again and again, to lose myself in this place the same way I lost myself in all those Tuscaloosa bars when I was 18, and freshly away from here.

Instead, I push Killer out into the daylight. Behind me, Lucinda is still singing, but her voice is muted through the closed door. We load Killer into the ambulance, and I get in beside him.

Joe barely has us out of the parking lot when the radio stutters out a crackle of static, then Walter's voice comes through. "Service to One, Service to One, Service to One." This repetition is getting old. Emerg-o-Stat owns three ambulances, conveniently called One, Two, and Three on the radio, but Walter can only afford to have one set of EMTs on duty at a time. If the radio comes on, it is a safe bet that it's Walter, fat behind his desk, calling me and Joe.

Joe says, "One here."

Beside me, Killer is already snoring softly, little bubbles of blood popping out of his massive nostrils.

"One, what's your ETA?" Walter labors under the delusion that he's one day going to own a service that fields a fleet of ambulances, an army of EMTs.

"Not but maybe ten minutes."

"Copy that, One. We've got another call ya'll have to take. Get out to Lambert. Highway 38. Two car collision. Troopers are there."

"Yessir. One out." I hear the heavy chunk of Joe dropping the handset in place.

Outside, the storm is blowing closer. I think that I can make out a wall of rain already falling far off in the distance. "You get all that?" Joe asks.

"Yeah," I say. I close my eyes and lean into the metal wall, cool under my forehead. I wonder if I'll be able to feel the reverberations of thunder, if they'll shake my head, my brain, and rattle something loose.

It's only been a little over a year since my father died, a little over a year since I dropped out of school to move back home. I left Tuscaloosa to come back for the funeral and I couldn't detach myself from my home here to go back to that city, back to late nights and a frivolous obsession with football. I wanted desperately to be here, in the place where I had grown up, where my father had lived all his life, so I enrolled in the expedited EMT course at Delta State and got hired on by Emerg-o-Stat. It seemed like the thing for an ex-Nursing major to do. The bank took the dry, used up land of my father's farm, and I moved into the house I was raised in. Now, I'm working double shifts for Walter, wondering what pull this place had on me and why.

Joe cranks the sirens. Raising my head, I look out the back window and stare at the green expanse of fields in full growth. We've gotten record rainfall this year, inches every week. Leaning down, I shake Killer awake.

"We there?" he says.

"No. We got another call. You're going to have to ride up front."

He tries to snort his contempt, but instead a gurgle of blood spills out across his face. He makes no effort to wipe it away.

Again, I want to ask him why he did this, but I just reach into a drawer and bring out some gauze. I use a wad of it to wipe at the blood on Killer's face, but there are layers of it caked on there. I know that without soap and water I won't be able to clean him up. I open a bin and drop in the gauze, flecked with bits of dry blood. Killer is asleep again almost instantly. He looks peaceful there, even with the red smears, and I allow myself a second to wonder if my father would have died had Killer been in the field with him that day.

Joe glances back at me and says, "Here we go, up ahead." He's fixed his face with a wicked little grin, a habit of his. He read somewhere that guys in war, cops, EMTs, doctors, all the people who deal with death on a regular basis, have to have a sense of humor about it. He enjoys this idea.

I tap Killer on the shoulder and say, "Sit up front while we get the guy." He nods, still half-asleep, I think. I close my eyes and see myself as Killer, holding a pool cue so tightly my knuckles turn white. In my mind, I can feel the hard, polished wood pulping my nose, the cue shaking in my hands as it makes contact with my skull. I can taste blood, mixed with the chalky grit of broken teeth. Then the cue leaves my hands, and my father is standing in front of me, and he's bloody too.

Joe stops the ambulance and I force myself free from my mind. I hop out the back onto the shoulder of the highway, and walk quickly, feeling the shift of gravel under my feet. The rocks are too loose, just a scattering of them across a flat surface of dirt.

A Highway Patrolman meets me at the back of the ambulance. Beyond him, I only see one vehicle, a truck, its front end collapsed in a fold of bent metal.

"Three dead when we got here," the patrolman says. "The fourth was breathing, but he stopped just as you guys pulled up."

I nod and walk past him, heading for the bodies that are draped out on the ground. There are five or six patrolmen standing around the bodies. "No one's done CPR?"

"No," one of them, a young one, says. "Ya'll were pulling up so we waited. The one in the black is yours."

He's a big middle-aged guy, with little gray streaks at his temples, and ropy, bone-tan arms that look like maybe he's been a farmer for a long time, forever. His face is crumpled and bloody. The jagged edges of broken teeth peek up from the open darkness of his mouth, and his chest is bent inward like the truck's hood.

I drop to a crouch beside him. My mind is swarming with images of my father, his body crumpled beside the old John Deere. He'd already been dead for hours when they found him out there, lying on a bed of dry, cracked earth. By the time I saw him, he was cleaned up, in his suit and casket, but I've seen enough bodies like this one in the last months to know how he looked out there dying in his field while I was in Tuscaloosa, drinking beer before the LSU game.

In the corner of my eye, Joe's bulk appears. He hands me a breathing tube, and I shove it down the guy's throat, past jagged teeth. I attach a pump and fill him with air, but with a broken sternum there isn't much I can do to get him breathing. I can't pump his heart back into action, can't teach his body to do what it needs to survive.

Joe lays a lift board down beside the guy. We secure his neck and roll him over onto it, then lift it up and set him on the gurney that Joe's rolled out.

"He isn't breathing," I say.

"No shit, he isn't." Joe looks down at the man, his eyes beading, getting ready for a laugh. "Guy's probably got chest bone coming out his back."

We roll the gurney to the back of the ambulance and lock it in place. I'm getting in next to the man, but Joe walks away, back toward the patrolmen.

"Joe," I say. He either doesn't hear me or pretends not to. I get out of the ambulance and say his name again, louder as the first drops of rain hit my arms.

Joe glances over his shoulder, and yells, "He's dead. We ain't in a rush."

I slam the doors closed and move around to the driver's side. I climb in and twist the key that Joe left in the ignition. The engine is humming and I can feel it idle.

I gun it off the gravel shoulder, and we're heading north. The man in the back is not breathing. Beside me, Killer is asleep, his bloody face smearing the passenger side window. I can feel the vibrations of the road through the pedal. I want to pick up speed, to fly past the storm outside, break free of it, away from flat Delta ground growing rich with green life. I want to drive so fast the man in back sits up and breathes and says, "Tommy, slow down." I crank the sirens and for the first time in months, I'm happy to hear them, the long, fluctuating wail that blocks out the sound of the rain now dropping heavy on the ambulance. For just a second, I allow myself to think that maybe the sirens really do help us move faster, that maybe the noise itself is savior enough.