Where the Spotted Dog Used To Sit
Charlie Peck could horn a snore long and loud. He could follow that snore with white space that filled the bunk room just as much as the snore did. My bed was too short. I’d just as well be awake and working than awake and waiting for the next blast from Charlie. I was three months into the job and not yet used to sharing a room with a guy, especially a guy like Charlie.
So it was a kind of relief at three a.m. when the lights flashed and the tinny alarm came over the speakers. The dispatcher’s voice, “Station 56, 85 year-old female, severe abdominal pain, unable to move. Needs assistance.” The address was the Marquart trailer park.
Charlie Peck was up and out of his bed with his last snore still coming out. “Goddamn fucking people can’t manage to get through one goddamn fucking night.” His feet landed perfectly in the two legs of the pants he’d left in a fireman’s circle on the floor.
Most of the time we’re tapped out it’s medical. Not many fires out here in the ‘burbs. In the nights it’s old people, lonely and scared. Death’s sour bourbon breath nudging up on them.
On our way down the hallway, Lt. Cage Newman came out of the officer’s room, spiffed up like the Bat Chief was coming for an inspection. Cage was just downright pretty. Next to him Charlie Peck, with his run amuck hair, was like a bad dream.
Charlie got behind the wheel of the engine, Cage next to him in the passenger seat. I got in the jumpseat. We put on our headphones and Charlie started in on me. “Cold back there Probie?” My teeth were gripped tight to silence their chatter. “Ya oughtta feel lucky,” Charlie kept on. “Back in the early days, I spent my time in the Dogrobber’s spot.”
Yeah, yeah. Charlie’s told me all about back in his day. Back when the Dogrobber stood in the middle of the running board, where the spotted dog used to sit.
One day I asked Charlie why they had dogs on fire engines. Charlie wasn’t old enough to have been on fire wagons pulled by horses, but he was old enough to know about these things. Old enough to care.
We were at the dinner table, a few shreds of roast drying on the white platter between us. Charlie leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Well, Dalmatians were bad hunters but good with horses. Before engines, they ran beside the horses. To keep them calm, clear the way.” He moved his hands and a few hairs went straight up. “Course sometimes a dog got too close. A horse would kick it under the wheels. Then you had a three-legged spotted dog.” Charlie rubbed at a spot of gravy near his shirt pocket. “Some big stations still have dogs. They’re just mascots. Don’t do anything.”
Charlie turned the siren off at the Marquart. But the strobes were big and the engine loud. Porch lights came on. Grey heads poked between curtains.
Number 820 was neat and tidy outside but it had a run down way about it. Pine needles raked into piles, a flowerpot at the front door with two straggly yellow pansies drooping over the edge.
A small man answered the door. His cheekbones stuck out like ski slopes. His feet were smaller than my wife’s. His voice was soft and high. “Mother’s down the hall in the bedroom.” He pressed his lips together and stepped aside. A faint trail of smoke rose up behind him where he held the cigarette he didn’t want us to see. Or maybe he was hiding it from Mother.
Dishes were everywhere in the kitchen. They were stacked and orderly and dirty. The smell was a mix of apples and citrus gone past ripe, and dried up tuna. Newspapers and magazines were stacked in the hallway, making it not much more than two feet wide.
We went down the narrow hallway and into the bedroom. Mother was stretched out on the bed. If she was standing, she’d of been a half foot taller than the man that opened the door and at least twice as big around. Her long white hair had some yellow strands. It was brushed out smooth and held back from her face with a red headband. A hairbrush was on the night stand beside her bed. The room was empty except for the bed, the night stand, a lamp, and that hairbrush.
“Ohhhhh.” Mother’s eyes were closed. Her hands moved across the rise of her stomach, the way a pregnant woman caresses her unborn child. “Ohhhhhh. Noooooo.”
Even across the room we could hear the rumbling. This was no unborn child. This was some bad borborgymus and all that air was gonna come out soon.
But, as Charlie always says, “There’s all kinds of calls. Some you want and some you don’t. You give care on ‘em all.” So I started on the old woman. Pulse, pressure, questions.
Charlie took Mother’s hand and held it. “You’re going to be fine, dear.” His whisper filled the room.
The rumbling in Mother’s stomach was reaching its peak when the ambulance crew came. “Ah the professionals,” Charlie said. He patted Mother’s hand one more time and moved aside. I gave the paramedics the vitals.
Charlie winked at me. “We’ll let you fellas have at it.” He jerked his head to the door. We got outside the bedroom just as the old woman let it go. “Ohhhhhhh. Oh my.”
Lt. Cage was still in the room with the ambulance guys. He wasn’t going to smell so pretty.
We put our gear away and waited by the engine. Charlie put his hands behind his head and tilted back on his heels. “Squalor.” His breath came out in a long white puff. “All kinds of squalor in this world.”
I leaned back and put my foot up on the running board and my hands behind my head, like Charlie. The moon was a half circle. It was light enough to see the pair of small black wingtips tied by the laces and dangling from the telephone wire. The toes of those shoes pointed down at us, like ballet slippers.