Read More: A short interview with A.A. Balaskovits
It was July when I first saw him, a hot July, the kind of July that you remember because you spent the whole month drenched, and you were amazed that your body could stand to lose all its water. We all looked to the sky. The devout clasped their hands. That month I kept a tally of gunshot wounds blaring into the ER. During the winter, when it’s too cold to set a pinky out the door, people keep their guns in shoeboxes and use kitchen knives. Then they roll bloody out of ambulances. The bodies come in on their backs or their sides, porcelain and metal handles sticking out from their skin like deformed arms. The whole city was at the mercy of the weather, blandly dictating how we would mutilate one another that season.
Lizzy told me that, before med school, she used to spend her weekends chasing ambulances. There was something wrong with her blood, I suppose, because she said the noise made everything inside of her bounce and sing. Lizzy, I told her, blood always moves. It doesn’t know how to stop until it stops. She was mesmerized by the red and white blinding lights, the sirens that left a trail of yelping dogs in their wake. Someone, a teacher I think, told me that sirens were made a particular pitch, one that made dogs, no matter how many times they heard it, into frightened little pups, barking mad for their mothers.
With the heat came the earthquakes—low, rumbling earth beneath the concrete. The ambulances were going off all the time now, and even a minor shake would send people into the ER, holding their heads or arms or legs from where they had hit themselves against their coffee tables, or each other. Even in the mad noise, it is easy to be bored, just something else to grow accustomed to when you hear it all the time.
That’s how I knew he was not a man, not like everyone wanted him to be; the sirens still made him whimper and turn his head.
Men who dream cities dream stability, a kind of urban grace. When they planned their skyscrapers, they circled the part of the coast they would build on. They did not know it was a fault zone, which I suppose was no fault of their own. Their desire was pure in those early stages. Who could have blamed them for continuing on even as the ground began to groan and thrash? They built on sick ground; they could not see deformity for soil.
They planned where each building would go, down to excruciating detail. In the city museum, behind glass, you can see their blueprints and all the smudges and erasure marks where they could not decide what should go at its core. In black, thick letters they eventually decided on St. Ruth’s, our trauma center. She stood above the others, and on its sides the other buildings decreased in size, like a glass and steel pyramid.
There were too many people in the ER the first day I saw him. There are always too many in the ER, a whole bunch of humpty-dumptys. That’s what Lizzy called them, the men and women and children who were broken beyond repair but still crawled to the doors asking for help, expecting help, growing angry when they were beyond medical help. Lizzy used the same expression for the people she dated—some you hump once or twice, and some you kept around a little longer before they were sent off to the dump.
Some of the hump/dumps in the waiting room would have been better off on their own with glue and bandages, but they trusted the glue and bandages of doctors more. I gave them clipboards and pens and sent them, if they were bleeding enough, back to see the doctors. If they were only in pain, or could speak clearly, I had them sit and wait.
They came in together, a tall man with blond hair and a small woman, barely five feet tall. She was learning on him. There was blood, dark, the kind that hits the air and congeals. She’d been bleeding for a while from her shoulder and her stomach. I knew she was a dumpty. I was shocked she could move at all and hadn’t come in an ambulance, but some people just don’t bother. I get that; ambulances are expensive, especially when you’re just going to die anyway. It’s a terrible gift to leave behind, those last bills.
The man had blood on him. He said, Sorry baby, sorry baby, sorry baby, and he was crying or sweating thick mucous all over his face.
Sir, I told him, you have to wait here. She’ll be fine, I lied. I called in the codes. I said, The nurses will take her to the back. They’ll care for her. You’re not allowed there. Sir.
The moment the body goes from structured to diseased is a slow one, so slow you don’t notice a change until it’s already spread and invaded the lungs, the heart, the pancreas. Violence is not so different from disease.
The man had a gun. It should not have shocked me, but it did. When he pulled it out and aimed it at the girl, I felt disappointed and sick.
The ground rumbled beneath us, and I rumbled with it.
I thought, how did he get past the metal detectors? And then I thought that was funny.
I’m staying with her, he said.
I backed away. The humptys in the waiting area screamed and fell on the ground and covered their heads, just like we had been taught for earthquakes.
Sir, I said. Sir, calm down.
The ER nurses were staring at him. The bleeding woman was losing herself all over the floor. When this was all over they would have to disinfect everything under her. Bring in outsiders who did this sort of thing with hazmat suits. The carpet would have to be ripped out.
It’ll be OK, I said. It’s going to be OK.
You bitch, he said, and aimed the gun at me. You’re all bitches.
He shot. I heard it blast. Had it hit, the bullet would have gone through me. My face, each tiny pore, that ugly mole behind my ear, the grease and oil welled up under my eyes, would explode. There is a certain kind of intrusion that is unbearable to think of, from people who do not bother to touch you, but can make everything in you shut down. It’s not like in the movies or TV where they show a clear entrance and clear exit, like a bug that burrows in and escapes with a trickle of red. When it happens, your face, or your arm or your belly, burst outward, disintegrate in the heat.
I heard the crash of my computer tumbling off my desk. I saw my papers flying around me, all those pens, the three clipboards, an empty stapler.
It did not hit me. I did not explode. A man, someone new, was in front of me. I had not seen him, not heard him. I dropped to my knees and felt my head. The man with the gun was on the ground, the ER nurses holding him down with their bodies. He was screaming and wailing on about his girl, and she was on the ground, forgotten, dying or dead.
I rolled my hands over my face. I was there.
The humptys spoke in awe to the police: the strange man had been shot, but he hadn’t taken the bullet like he was supposed to. He wrestled the gunman to the floor. They fought, there was screaming, the blood from that dead girl was everywhere. Whatever wasn’t stapled to the ground was overturned. It wasn’t a major earthquake, just a small one, the kind that shook vases off their stands onto people’s heads. The police took diligent notes and read them back to me. Later, they told me the blond girl had died on the floor. Her name was Shannon. Shannon had been very small.
The police asked me if I knew where the strange man had gone, but I told them I did not.
Do you know him? they asked.
No. I did not know him.
Ma’am, they said. When you’re feeling better, we have some questions. Just routine. Are you feeling all right? Ma’am?
I found him in the corner of the trauma bay, cradling his body with his head pressed deeply into his jeans. I was shaking; he was breathing. When he looked up at me I was almost sick from the amount of blood on his forehead. I thought he was going to die and it should have been me. This poor son of a bitch took a bullet for me.
Jesus, I said. Steady now. I can perform first aid.
I approached him with gauze. He had blue eyes, really awful clear blue eyes with a brown ring around them—I’d seen eyes like that before—and I brought the gauze to his forehead and wiped the skin. Just like wiping shit off the sidewalk. There was no wound, no entrance, no pain. He did not move, even when I dropped the gauze and backed away. This was worse than the man and the gun. I did not expect this.
They said the bullet hit you, I said.
He was gone a moment later when the attending physician found me huddled in the corner, as far away from the gauze as I could be.
I passed my boards with high scores, and after my pharmacy rotations I took a job in the ER. A layperson, or a nurse, would have normally been hired to take insurance and health history from walk-ins. Lizzy helped HR get past my over-qualifications: I know the effects of the medications the patients are popping and how they react to one another, I can better decide what is serious and what can wait, I can perform mouth-to-mouth.
During rotations, I sat behind glass and doled out meds to anyone who had a handwritten permission slip from their doctors, or gave generic Sudafed to kids who wanted to try to make meth in the trunk of their cars. After it exploded, and it always exploded, Lizzy would tell me about the way they looked with half their faces gone and I tried to remember if they were the blue or brown shifty-eyes of the little shits who tried to sound stuffed up when they asked politely for little red pills.
Those evenings when I went to her apartment and sat at her cramped dinette, Lizzy would say it’s inevitable that people hurt themselves. Don’t feel bad. Hey, did you hear the one about the women with the IUD?
I hadn’t heard the one about the woman with the IUD.
An ambulance whirred by, screaming, and we both listened.
She gets an IUD, Lizzy said. Doctor fiddles it up between her legs, pats her on the ass and tells her to have a good day. Some months later she comes into the emergency room real dignified and dazed. She has a brown paper bag and she dumps it on the desk. It’s a bloody fetus with the IUD stuck in its head. Dumpty-dumpty.
Oh yeah? I said.
She asks for a refund, of course.
Isn’t that horrible? I said.
Lizzy and I went to med school together. She studied surgery; I stuck my nose in pharmaceutical textbooks. We took classes on medical ethics together. It was an easy friendship, someone to complain to about the job and who wasn’t grossed out when one of us had to say she dug around in someone’s grandmother that day. There was no danger of competing for residencies. We made a game where we would tell one another the worst stories we heard or saw while practicing, some of them so bad we said if it happened to us, or if it happened again, we would drop out and take up guitar like the other med kids who tried to pay their bills sitting on the corners strumming rhythm. Yet when it happened too many times that the ugliness became rote expectation, we told the stories and pretended to be surprised. Sometimes we told them with our mouths on one another’s, and sometimes with our hands, but those tellings, those movements, were not permanent. Just an ache that needed to be expressed with bodies, and a familiar body was best.
What did the man look like, Lizzy asked me, after I told her about the shooting. The bulletproof guy.
Blue eyes, I said. Really blue.
Shit. I was stuck on a kidney transplant. Waste of a good organ. Woman’s got an ongoing marriage of her lips on a bottle.
I thought she was at the bottom of the list.
She’s got the money for a brand spanking new one, never touched a drop in its life. Your guy’s in the papers, Lizzy said. They’re calling him the Miracle-Man. You’re not the only one. You heard about that fire on Fourth? The Catholic School? He saved three kids and their plaid jumpers, all of it. The kids were half burned, but he was perfectly fine. Not a scratch on him.
Sounds like he’s going to get around to all of us, she said.
Within a week, the man was like earthquake, touching everywhere you could see. They printed photos of what people thought he looked like—a mess of cheekbones and floppy hair—and discussed him on the evening news. They ran side-by-side headlines in the paper: Unknown Miracle-Man Saves The Day right next to Unstable Grounds: Will Our City Crash? Some of the smaller rags called him the Anti-Christ, a fake Messiah, and they claimed he was a sign the city was going to hell. The rapture, they said. Repent. They made up glossy brochures with warning signs of the devil and handed them out on corners. They left their palms out, spread, if you accidentally took one.
People were carrying signs for him, marching in rows down the streets, hanging their signs in their apartment windows, having them printed on T-shirts. There were all sorts of messages for him in English and Chinese and Russian. Go away, they said. Save us, they said. Please help. We need you. And others, Miracle-Baby, marry me?
He’s like a pill, I thought. After swallowing, it’s scientific magic, and suddenly or slowly everything fixes itself and you don’t even need to know how it works. The only ritual is in doctor’s scripts and cash exchange.
When I was a young girl, I thought illness was when the strands of the body that vibrated together became frayed, like strings in old sweaters. Pills broke apart, dissolved, and they would attach to those strings and unfray them, retwist them, heal them, make them new. But that’s not entirely true. Pills retighten our muscles and our veins, making them unnaturally strong, keeping us together long enough to grow old and cultivate cancer. And you can’t fight cancer unless you were willing to kill off some part of yourself. There is no miracle; there is only holding on.
And once we crack open, we are all infestation. Cranial fluids, spinal fluids, blood and pus. One of the first things they showed us in school was the slow decomposition of a body. Within minutes of dying the cells break down and pollute with carbon dioxide. It starts in the stomach and spreads. In a week those gases reach the face. The skin discolors and begins to slide off the bones. The gases in us rise and release; we expand. We look like we’re floating, a kind of rotting magic. That’s why we have to get the dead in the ground or in the freezers or the fire as fast as possible before we witness. When I first saw a body bloat twice its size I vomited. I had to watch the eyeballs and intestines liquefy, then the muscular organs melt. The skin splits and falls off from our bones like finely cooked pork. The muscles turn into waxy soap. The blood pools on whatever side the body lies on, stomach or back. Like a rash. In that way, we are not so different from the rust on the buildings that house us.
Our bodies are only temporary; they are supposed to be temporary. But this man was not temporary.
I paid too much for my apartment, a shitty one-room fourteen stories high with a bed, a chair, a desk, and a fridge that was shorter than my chest. Everything in it was green, from the bedspread to the pale walls to the one picture I halfheartedly put up of a clock, frozen at five-eighteen.
It had a balcony allowing for a lonely freedom, somewhere to smoke so I didn’t have to walk down the stairs and inhale with the rest of the people in my building. I liked inhaling and watching the filter spot with brown and black, the reminder of what I was taking in. At least I was taking something in.
I didn’t smoke during the day. One too many people made just loud enough comments about how horrible it was to be a health-care professional and know how badly I’m fucking myself up. Or the short, fat ladies who walked by and coughed, that strained cough when their throats were clear, because they were too polite to say anything. Or the old men with polos and Bluetooth, saying what a shame it was, such a young thing like me doing this, and their mothers died from lung cancer.
At night I went out on my balcony every twenty minutes.
He was out there. That man. I didn’t know for how long. The sun has not yet set and I could see it fading on the mush-yellow threads of his hair. He hunched against the stone. His feet were bare.
I had a long knife for butchering beef off the bone, sharp enough to cut through fish scales and skin. I’ve never used it; I hate cutting into flesh. I held it in front of me and knelt in my kitchen. I watched him all night. He had a strong back, and I could see the outline of bones indenting his shirt.
He shuddered only once, a great heave that lifted his whole body into tension. I trembled the knife and closed my eyes. He was gone when I opened them.
Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.
A.A. Balaskovits received her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and her MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her work can be found in The Southeast Review, The Madison Review, Gargoyle, Booth, Wigleaf and many others. She recently finished a collection of stories, of which “Put Back Together Again” is part, and is working on a novel. She lives in South Carolina.
Read More: A short interview with A.A. Balaskovits