Almost everyone Chris knew in college had a part-time job, although the girls less often than the men. Although he had a music scholarship which paid tuition and dorm fees, he still had to eat – and the scholarship required that he play in the marching band and do various odd jobs for half-time football shows. In addition to that, he served breakfast in the Coffee Shop on West Campus, and stuffed envelopes at the State Senate. Many of his classmates worked as waiters in the various restaurants scattered around town, and summers worked for construction companies or, as in Chris’s case, digging ditches for the installation of natural gas in the city.
But the cushiest job among his acquaintances was held by a redhead named Simon. He worked for a private ambulance service, and followed emergency calls to accidents on the highways in Leon County. He was paid by the hour; often there was nothing to do, so he sat in the dispatch room studying four hours every night, at minimum wage. The company he worked for also served as a thanatorium, provided hearses for funerals, and had a showroom with a few caskets. As you might imagine, the place was very quiet. If you could believe him, he sometimes slept in one of the samples, comfortably padded.
The vehicle he drove was owned by one of the three services in town. The CB was always tuned to the Highway Patrol and Sheriff’s channels, and when there was a wreck out on the highway, the race was on. The big nights were usually on the weekends, Fridays after the Florida Seminoles game night, or Saturdays, after binge drinking at the fraternity houses and when half the local population was out drinking in the roadhouses off toward the county line. Whenever there was a death involved, there was a bonus for the driver, paid for by whichever funeral parlor he delivered the body to. Hospitals did not want to receive corpses.
Simon and Chris first met at the West Campus dances. Chris was making up to a girl named Dee, whose roommate Betty was going out with Simon. They drove out on one of those excursions up toward the Georgia state line, where they parked for a while near Killarney Gardens. Simon and Betty went off together into the woods – it was late September and the mosquitos weren’t too bad, while Dee and Chris did some heavy petting in the back seat of the Pontiac.
After that first double date, they went out together pretty regularly. Chris was in the band and got free passes to the games. Dee would sit next to the band, with Simon and his girl nearby. After the game they would go off together for some three-two beer and make out hot and heavy out by one of the lakes.
Simon said that Betty was putting her herself pretty much on the line to a permanent relationship, which was great when they were in the woods, but not so great back on campus, where she was beginning to cling on too close for comfort. Simon had a couple of other girls on hold, you might say; one a cheerleader for the Seminole football team, one a majorette with the Marching Chiefs band. These were still on the soda shop level, but an upgrade was overdue.
Since Simon was on duty most weekends, Betty often drove with friends to see family in Thomasville, just over the line in Georgia. She and Cathy Battle had been friends since childhood, and they took turns, driving Cathy’s Plymouth one weekend, and Betty’s Hudson other times.
One Saturday toward the end of September, Simon sat with his feet propped up in the drivers’ lounge. To meet his science requirement he was taking a meteorology course, and was trying figure out what isobars were exactly. They looked on the page of the textbook like atmospheric amoebas to his eye.
Over the intercom came the dispatcher’s voice.
– We got a two car crash on State Road 8, before Quincy. Multiple injuries.
– I’m on it.
Before he got his shoes tied, his cell phone buzzed. Bud Ayers, at the Fairchild Funeral Home.
– Highway Patrol says we got a fatality out toward Quincy? You’re about halfway there if you’re at Memorial right now?
It was the southern singsong of Bud himself. Always bucking for more business.
– I am.
– Then how about you see if you can beat Clancy to it for a change?
– Who called it in?
– He’ll hold on to it for me. I always give him part of my finder fee. See you later, I’m burning rubber.
In the cab he hit the flasher, but not the siren yet. You had to pass through the residential area first, where a lot of the doctors live, and they had complained. When he entered the highway he floored the accelerator and let the two-tone wail begin. Quincy was less than twenty minutes up the road, so he was pretty sure he could be first on the scene. The competition came from the other side of town, except for Bill Clancy, who would be coming from Richardson’s on South Adams street, right in the middle of the city.
The wreck was at the junction of County Rd. 12 and Scotland Road. He could see the floodlights of the Fatty Armburster’s tow truck on the right side of the highway, and the blue blinkers of the Highway Patrol car off the pavement on the left, where a vehicle was off the verge in the pines, upside down. Guys from the wrecker were already there, trying to cut a way in.
– This’s the one you want, over yonder. Kenny signaled Simon with his torch. Simon cut off the siren but left the lights flashing, pulling over beside a pickup truck slammed up against a tree, the cab door open. On the ground was the driver, his head pretty much a pulp. Kenny backed down the incline and released the gurney.
– No seat belt, you reckon, Kenny?
– You got it. – He leaned off to one side and spat out a plug of chew. – Now don’t you forget you own me one, hear?
Together they lifted the burden into the back of the ambulance.
From the other side of the road they could hear Armbruster yelling from the wrecker.
– Don’t you worry none, Si. By the time they get them cut outa there, somebody else will be here to take them on down to Memorial Hospital. They’s two of them in there, and three more ambulances on the way, two from Tallahassee, and one from Quincy.
– I’ll get back to you, soon as Ayers settles up.
The next day was Sunday. Simon was on day duty for a change. As a favor he had switched with Sam who normally did the daytime shift so Sam could go to a family picnic. Simon thought he would surprise Betty and take her to the Seven Seas Italian and maybe a movie afterwards. Bud Ayers had slipped him a hundred dollars when they unloaded the fatality at the back door of the funeral home. He left a message with the dorm switchboard three times running, but didn’t get through to Betty.
Just a bit after lunch there was a pile up on the steep descent heading south on Highway 27, down from the capitol building. Some fool with a U-haul too front heavy jack-knifed across in front of a trailer rig. At least three families out for a Sunday drive sat in their cars with the doors open, stunned, the kids hugging their mamas’ legs and crying. A little blood, but nothing too serious, it looked like.
It seemed as though every ambulance in the capital was at the scene.
Fatty Armbruster eased a green Chevy off the road and headed back to hook his chain around the bumper of another car. While he waited for the wife and children to get out of his way, he leaned over and stuck his head out the window to speak to Simon.
– You better get this here bunch up to the hospital right away, Sy. They ain’t no corpses for you today, so you might as well just do your job.
– Hey, what’s eating you?
– Last night you ought to’ve taken the ones from the other car. One of these days…
– One of these days, what?
– One of these days somebody’s going to report your bony ass. Turn you in, you bastard. Have you busted.
– Why’s that? What’re you talking about?
– The other drivers didn’t get there in time last night, they was out on other calls. One of the girls bled to death right there on the ground after I got her out. Not a thing I could do. She was heaving blood for fifteen minutes. You mighta been able to do something, all that equipment you got in there. All I had was a pile of greasy rags. The other one liked to have died on the way to the hospital, but I hear she might make it. You SOB. You’re about as close to a murderer as you can get without actually pulling a trigger.
He jumped down from the other side of the truck and wrapped his chain around the stanchions on the rear end of the Buick and dragged it off next to the Chevy.
Claude Rains was giving a reading in Leon High School. As agreed on Friday at the dance, Chris went to Cawthorn Hall to pick Dee up. She kept him waiting in the parlor for a while, making him very nervous. They had to walk down Jefferson, up through town and get to the school auditorium before seven p.m. It was already six fifteen. Finally she appeared at the foot of the steps. Chris was on his feet, ready to go, but the housemother called Dee over and handed her a note.
– Omigod, she said, hand covering her mouth in horror.
– What? What is it?
– You mean Simon doesn’t know? He´s been calling all day.
– Know what? And are you going dressed like that? She was in a baggy sweater, slacks and house slippers.
-I’m not going anywhere. She opened her eyes wider and looked at Chris in disbelief. She had obviously been crying, eyes rimmed in red.
– Of course, how could he know? And you, you don’t know either. She grasped his hand in both hers and led him out the door. – Sit down, Chris.
Totally mystified, he did as he was told. They sat on the park bench in the tiny garden in front of the dormitory, where so often they had said their long goodnights.
– Last night there was an accident. Betty and her friend Kathy made a detour on the way back from Thomasville to pick up Ryan in Quincy. A drunk in a pickup truck ran them off the road. Cathy is in intensive care at Memorial Hospital. Betty…
– She died at the scene of the accident. I knew something was wrong when she didn’t show up last night. No matter what, she always got in before midnight, so she wouldn’t lose her privileges. So I called her cell phone. It rang through to voice mail. So weird. I was worried sick, so worried I couldn’t sleep. Finally she called me back. At least I thought it was her…It was her father. They had gotten a call from the Highway Patrol.
– Christ, Betty. That’s terrible. Poor Betty. And her poor parents.
– And now this note. Simon is expecting her to meet him in the Soda Shoppe.
Her lips were trembling, tears welling up. She squeezed his hand in hers.
– You have to go to him. Nobody else knows what’s happened, and he’ll think…You’re the only one could tell him. Now she pulled him to his feet and made him put his arms around her.
The juke box was loud, and everybody in the Soda Shoppe was shouting to be heard over the music. Chris finally caught sight of Simon off in a corner, talking to the majorette, but where he could see the door and extricate himself gracefully when Betty showed up. He made a high sign to Chris to join him and turned back to the girl of the moment, peripheral vision still toward the door.
Chris felt as though his heart dropped into his bowels; making a path through the gyrating couples by the juke he started across the wood floor, an endless expanse of emptiness, or so it seemed. Some sort of grievous message must have shown on his face, because Simon glanced up again, his expression dimming from within, questions rising to his eyes, and he slowly rose up in the corner booth as if to face judgement.
A short story by Patrick dated 12 February 2012 and sent to me on the 20th, with the following: “Attached is the latest Tallahassee story, very little to do with your mom, but with her I met the main character.”
We then had the following e-mail exchange:
Wow, that’s a powerful story. You set it up nicely. Is Dee Donna, as in “D”?
By the way, may I put it on the site with your other stories?
Let’s wait till I have revised the story, and I want to send it out to a couple of magazines. Maybe Later?
And yes, Dee is/was D. These were our first dates. The ending, of course, is not quite true, though it could have been.
The jack-knifed U-Haul was us. Just as we left town, I had a flat – all the tires were as bald as Telly Savalas. Took all the stuff out of the trailer, because I was afraid to jack the car up with all that extra weight. When I loaded the stuff back, I put the heaviest things in front, mostly books, seemed like the right thing to do at the time. We continued. On flat ground, everything was fine. It was a 46 Chevy, pale green, first car in my name. When we started down that long hill just in front of the Capitol building, (on the way from FSU to the teaching job in Vero Beach), the front wheels lifted off the road and we looked like a crawdad on the warpath, front end waving in the air, and not a thing to be done. You were in the back seat. Jennifer was in the womb, and I was up the creek without a paddle.
In the end we had no wreck, but it was quite a scare.
[He then provided some recipes, which I’ll share elsewhere.]
No problem on holding off….
I recognized a bit of authorial license, like cell phones, but didn’t know the u-haul story. The part about the girl who bled to death reminded me of an old Rod Serling Night Gallery story. It’s a shame that shows like that don’t exist any more, or maybe they do.
Thanks for recipe. One day I may give it a try. I almost made “burger helper” the other day, but decided in the end to just eat the beef out of the pan. Faster, easier, and I was hungry at that point. Come to think of it, I’m hungry now!
Wish I could be there to enjoy your culinary skills. Wish I could stop hacking up crud too, but maybe I’d better be careful what I wish for!