John’s eyes bulged as he yelled. With every new insult he shouted, his skin darkened to a deeper shade of red, which soon became scarlet before morphing into a shiny kind of burgundy with tinges of indigo around his ears. He ripped his ball cap from his head, and a few wisps of brassy blond hair stood straight up before sagging over to lie askew across his nearly bald head. “You’re the worst damn medic I’ve ever seen!”
Ella cringed, cramming her hands deeper into her pockets. She stared at the floor as he shouted about something she had messed up. Probably the same shortcoming as last week, judging from his volume. He was loud. It was a third-time shout. Third-time shouts were the worst. Third-time shouts formed the decibel peak of the transgression continuum and were usually garnished with sweeping gestures of the arms and hands and cussing that propelled spittle into the air. By her fourth repeat of a mistake, the shouter quieted to grumbles and resorted to the next step in the punishment algorithm, which usually involved paperwork of some kind. Verbal warnings are only real when they arrive in written form.
She nodded in feigned understanding at the appropriate time. This was elemental for a convincing display of contrition, and she was good at contrition, having done so much of it. If she excelled at anything—and that was doubtful—it was extricating herself from trouble. Rolling her shoulders forward and shrinking into her pockets formed only the foundation of her response. Her gaze, which staggered back and forth from the floor to the yeller’s face, right between the eyes, did the heavy work. Wide-open puppy eyes combined with a furrowed forehead had to be used sparingly, like cayenne pepper on sautéed vegetables and rice. Too much, and you’d get spit out into a napkin. Tears were reserved for men over forty or last ditch efforts. She’d play the little girl card if she had to, but that was distasteful for everyone involved.
John ramped up to yet another level. Ella was truly impressed by his devotion. The veins in his neck distended, which was a symptom of left-sided heart failure. Or right-sided heart failure. Possibly congestive heart failure. She furrowed her brow and tipped her head. She should probably know this. Maybe. None of it was good in a man his age and would only increase the sparsity under his cap.
“I’d fire your ass, but no one else wants our shit pay! As great as it’d be, I can’t run this ambulance alone. Instead, I have to run with a fucking moron for 24 fucking hours straight!”
Ella bit her lip. He wasn’t wrong, but his flavorful terms weren’t saying anything she hadn’t heard before in one combination or another from some irate coworker, or supervisor, or herself. She was a horrible medic. It was a fact she accepted as firm reality. She maintained no denial or resistance against her perpetual, intractable incompetence. She agreed with him fully, totally, and completely. She pitied his unnecessary exertion to convince her of what she, herself, was firmly convinced.
She felt no shame or embarrassment. Resignation to facts allowed relief. That was that. Incompetence was a fact of her life, like flat tires and robo calls. If anything, her inadequacy revealed her persistence. Though inept, she clocked in. Though unfit for duty, she wore the uniform. Though incapable of properly performing her job, the paycheck displayed her legal name and twice previous address on it. She just kept showing up, to John’s chagrin.
Tones blared through the engine bay. Ella gazed at the speaker to hear God’s commands. “Med 2, be en route to 806 Farmingdale. 806 Farmingdale. Fall.”
John kicked the door jamb. “I’ve had enough fucking calls with you to last me all of eternity, but sure, let’s go again! Why not!” His voice rose higher with his sarcasm. Ella wondered if he was hysterical. “Hystero-” was Greek. German. Latin. It referred to the vagina. Or uterus. The flamingo tubes in there somewhere. A female term. Women are hysterical creatures. She blinked and watched as a clump of bubbles flew from his mouth. Someone should tell him it’s a female term.
She tipped her head to her mic. “Med 2, 10-4.” If he was working so hard at being hysterical, the least she could do was call in to dispatch.
John pointed at the ambulance. “Now put your ass in that seat, and just—just don’t touch anything!”
She ducked her head, her chin brushing the collar of her polo shirt, and pivoted slowly on her heel, her boots lining up parallel as she shuffled around the ambulance to the passenger side, her hands still in her pockets.
John turned over the engine and flipped on the lights and sirens. She watched him, waiting for further diatribe, but he only ground his teeth. Being hysterical must have tired him out. That was like him, silence after the storm. Tipped-over lawn chairs and a flowerpot on the roof. He probably wouldn’t speak to her for a few hours aside from “move” and “gimme that.” She sat on her hands and waggled her boots in time with the siren, back and forth and back and forth with the wig-wagging sounds. Yelling, silence, yelling, silence. Life imitating art-o-mobiles. She smiled.