Green Hills Literary Lantern

3 a.m. Ambulance Driver



            We met at an all-night burrito shop in North Hollywood, right near the 101, that’s owned and run by a North Vietnamese refugee. His name’s Chau, and I’ve bought food from him enough times to justify waving at him if I ever met him on the street. Except I never do. The woman sat two stools down from me at the counter—at the bar, really, because that’s what the burrito shop used to be—and we wouldn’t have said a word to each other if Chau hadn’t mixed up our orders. We would have stared at our newspapers or at our plates and chowed down in silence as if on opposite sides of the universe, both eating a ceremonial last meal.

            But Chau gave her the fish and me the chicken, so we had to lift our heads and look at each other. She wore a light blue uniform that looked vaguely cop-like, and I thought she might be a security guard even though I didn’t see a gun at her waist. I pegged her for 39—she had the slightly wrinkling skin around the corners of her eyes and mouth that women start getting at that age, when maturity and tiredness start being more insistent about nudging youth off of center stage. And she had wavy red hair, probably dyed if its brightness was any indication, that didn’t go well with the blue uniform. Green eyes. No ring on her finger, which surprised me because she seemed married. Maybe she didn’t wear it for work. Maybe she was divorced. Maybe she had two fatherless kids asleep at home, and needed two jobs to feed them. In any case she smiled politely at me, just like I smiled politely at her, when we cut open our burritos and discovered the mistake.

            “This one’s yours,” she told me, eating the bit she’d sliced off and keeping the fork that had touched her lips. Then she slid my plate over. I followed her lead and did exactly the same.

            “Thanks. No better place to eat at 3 a.m., huh?”

            “Mmm.” She already had the first bite of her rightful burrito halfway down her throat. She looked ready to shove it all down without taking another breath, if she could. I cut a dainty bite of mine and chewed dispassionately, if for no other reason than to balance out her fervor.

            “I haven’t seen you here before,” I went on. Because I was already in a conversation with her, like it or not, and it’s much easier to let conversations go until they reach their natural conclusions than it is to back out of them once they get started.

            “Yes you have,” she told me after she swallowed. Then she jerked her thumb behind her, out the window at a waiting ambulance. “That’s my rig. You remember that, don’t you?”

            I turned around and recognized it immediately. Remembered reading the big, red, backwards ECNALUBMA on its front more than once, and thinking of the words you can make out of it. There aren’t all that many for a source word so big. CLAN. CLAM. CLUB. BUM. BLAME. ABLE. AMBLE. MALE. MACE.

            “You may not’ve noticed me,” the woman said, “but you’ve seen me. I’ve seen you. I’m just pretty inobstrusive.”

            I liked the fact that she tried to use big words, even if she messed them up. “Don’t ambulance crews usually have more people?”

            “They do, but the guys have another place they like. Across the street and down a block, sort of Thai/Chinese.”

            “Right, I’ve eaten there. A Mexican guy runs it.” I jerked my chin toward Chau in the kitchen. “Like these guys traded lives.”

            “Right, the Mexican guy.  Here’s to America.” The ambulance driver laughed and raised her fork like she was making a toast, but didn’t try to keep the conversation going. Maybe our shared laugh over the interchangeability of ethnicities and cuisines was, for her, the high point and end point of our interaction. She put her head down and ate like I didn’t exist, and I couldn’t help studying her. I tried to remember seeing her before at all, even half a glimpse on the way in or out the burrito shop door, but nothing about her had stuck in my head. Like she said, “inobstrusive.”

            “How does your crew find you when there’s a call?” I asked her.

            “Well, we’ve got the walkie-talkies.” She patted the one on her hip, where I’d looked for a gun when I thought she was a security guard. “If there’s a call we all hear it, and I swing by. I’m more of a— I like to eat alone, usually.”

            The ambulance driver half smiled at me, which amounted to her jutting out her lower lip and curling it up a quarter inch. It’s as if the word “loner,” the one she didn’t want to say, had stapled itself to her mouth.

            “What do you do that brings you here at 3 a.m.?” she asked me, starting to eat more slowly and settle into the counter.

            “I train people to emote,” I told her as nonchalantly as I could, looking slightly away. That’s the only way I can tell people about what I do—out of the corner of my mouth, like they’d already met twenty people that day who did it. Like saying I’m in sales, or a computer programmer. Something people don’t have to add up.

            “To emote?” She backed away and craned her neck to look at me sideways. “You a shrink or something?”

            “No, more like a motivational speaker. It’s hard to explain.”

            “I’ll bet.” She took another mouthful of food, but swallowed it without chewing. She’d gotten curious. “How can you train people to emote when—I’m sorry for saying this, but you don’t come across like a very emotional person. If you don’t mind me saying it.”

            “Oh, it’s simple. I live a lie. I stand in front of them and I teach them how to emote better than I do.”

            I stood up and swung my arm and shoulder in a cheerleaderish, go-get-’em kind of motion. Then my voice rose in pitch and vibrato, and I stabbed my index finger through the air at an imaginary audience.

            Now I had more than the ambulance driver’s curiosity. I had her attention.

            “Because if you don’t emote, everything builds up inside you. Everything you wished you could be, but wouldn’t let yourself be, is going to rot inside you and build up, until it explodes or turns into cancer.”

            Chau hurried out from the kitchen, looked at me once, and retreated. I knew he’d never look at me with trust in his eyes again after that moment, and I sat back down.

            “I think that’s true,” said the ambulance driver after she stared at me awhile, chewing. “They either blow up, or shrivel up. I see lots of sick people, and it’s half and half.”

            “When I see sick people,” I told her, “I want to make them feel better. Don’t you?” I realized, as the words dissolved into the air around me, that I hadn’t quite pulled back from motivational speaker mode.

            “I guess,” she told me, shrugging. “I want to drive them to people who can make them feel better, at least. I’m not a doctor, or anything.”

            “But you don’t have to be a doctor to heal people.”

            “Well in my profession, you do.” And that, to the ambulance driver, was that. She went back to her food, sullen.

            “I’m talking about in everyday life.” I must have been loud because Chau popped his head out from behind his pans again for a second. “When you see a sick person, doesn’t it make you want to hold your hands up to them and pull the sickness right out? Doesn’t it make you want to pull out everything they didn’t let themselves be so it won’t make them sick anymore?”

            I leaned towards her so quickly that she didn’t have time to react, and held my fingertips an inch away from her temples. It was invasive, sure. But she looked at me like she knew karate or jiu-jistsu and would kick my ass if I got a millimeter closer, or stayed near her a second too long.

            “Look at my hands,” the ambulance driver said, and she shoved her palms at my face. They were small, chubby, dry-looking hands with calluses all over them—so many calluses that all the lotion in the world couldn’t smooth them out. I could see every whorl of her fingertips, all the creases that nicked at her lifeline and her loveline. See the place where a wedding ring might live, or used to live. A kitchen fan turned off and suddenly there wasn’t a sound in the place. Just the woman’s hands and me.

            “Look at them,” she said again, pushing them almost into my eyes. “Do you think I can do that with hands like this? Tell me.”


Steven Wingate’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast—which awarded him its 2006 Fiction Prize—Mississippi Review, River City, Plains Song Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he founded the journal Divide: Creative Responses to Contemporary Social Questions.