Let Them – Michael Martin
When Jimmy sees what Ann has done, he wails along with her, and then he tries to look into her eyes. He brushes aside her red curls and takes her face in his hands and tries to look into her eyes, but she squeezes them closed and starts to shake violently. He says, “I’m gonna call Rocky,” though he doesn’t know if she can understand him, and he picks up the phone and asks the operator for the exchange. He looks at the tiny pink flowers on the pale green wallpaper of the apartment, and wonders what kind they are supposed to be. He doesn’t know flowers. He knows aluminum and steel, carbon and tungsten.
Rocky is Jimmy’s super in the machine shop, his best friend, like a big brother almost. Jimmy and Ann don’t have any family. They all go to ballgames with Kreider from Shipping and Receiving when he gets tickets from his son who works for the Phills. Rocky drives them in his Crown Vic ragtop. Rocky is on Town Council, and the state forest fire board. Rocky has state cops over to his porch for beers. Rocky organized the new public ambulance company. Jimmy hopes the operator doesn’t listen in.
Rocky is used to being woken from a sound sleep. He tells Jimmy he’ll call the ambulance and the police. Rocky says, “I’ll be right there. I’ll do whatever I can.”
Rocky says they are going to have to call the police.
Jimmy can’t tell if Ann understands what is happening. Ann is still crying, still holding the limp bundle, and he thinks that he should hate her, but he doesn’t. He thinks that he should beat her, strangle her, throw her from the attic window. But he doesn’t. He looks at her in her new nightdress, hiccupping from this flood of grief, and he knows Ann is still the woman he loves more than life.
Gone! Just like that! He does not understand it. He knows Ann could not have meant to do what she has done. But she has done it. He holds her tight, the limp bundle between them, and they are wet with ear others’ tears.
The ambulance comes, a new Chevy that dazzles the darkened neighborhood. Red and white lights slide up the sides of his neighbors’ houses and then disappear in the gaps between. Jimmy looks out the window at it. He sees the paramedic in the passenger seat suddenly illuminated as he throws his door open, and Jimmy meets him in the entryway downstairs. His uniform is crisp white, but Jimmy can see the remains of a stain below the right breast pocket. The driver comes in the door behind him, carrying a stretcher that looks like a child’s toy. They try to take the limp parcel from her; the big driver pins her arms, and while she wails Jimmy thinks he should hit the man, that he should hit them both for making her scream her choking gasping screams. But he doesn’t. Instead he goes and gets her robe, and after the driver lets her go, after she collapses in Jimmy’s arms, Jimmy dresses her in it to cover the damp spots her breasts make in the thin fabric of her house dress.
The paramedics look inside the bundle. They fuss, and they glare. Jimmy puts his arms around Annie and she gasps into his shirt. He doesn’t want to cry in front of these men. He is twenty-three, and she is nineteen. He does not really know how to grieve. The ambulance does not leave. The paramedics wait outside until the lights turn from red and white to blue, and Jimmy knows there are questions to answer. He does not know what the answers will be. He does not know if he can speak. He has lost almost everything. He cannot bear to think of losing her, too.
Still holding her close, he stands up. He feels like he should be standing when they come for her. Through the window he sees Rocky’s yellow convertible pull up on the lawn, the black top up. Jimmy wishes he could hear that motor purr. He wishes he could feel it burp and grumble and hurtle them forward into space. Rocky and Lisa have a boy, Teddy, and he fits between them on the big bench seat in Rocky’s car. Jimmy and Ann love that boy Teddy. Jimmy has been daydreaming about taking the kids fishing, when they are both old enough.
Rocky is out there, shaking hands. Rocky comes in with the uniforms, his hand on the older cop’s arm. He’s wearing a two-tone Havana shirt, and a straw porkpie over his white-blond hair, but he is grim, Rocky, who is always such a sport. He says, “Hiya, Jim. Hiya, Annie,” but Annie just stares at the floor. Rocky gets them glasses of water, and they gulp at them.
Rocky tells the cops to call Captain Deets at the state barracks. He says, “Tell Deets I told you to call.” He tells them to use the phone, and not the radio. He stands blocking the door and points at the telephone on a little table by the kitchen door.
Jimmy knows Donny-boy Deets was an MP in the Big One, that he’s a big deal now. The uniform calls in, and nods at the voice on the other end of the line. He stands staring at Jim and Ann, while Donny boy spells it out.
The cop gives Rocky the phone, and Rocky looks grave and listens for a long time. He says, “We’ll meet you there. Thanks, Don. Thanks, I can’t tell you how much.”
Rocky goes outside, while Annie weeps softly into Jimmy’s shirt. Jimmy is tall and slender, but Rocky is built like a brick shithouse. Rocky played ball in high school; not as tall as Jimmy, but he’s two or three times as big around at the shoulders. Rocky comes back in with the paramedics. The smaller one has a hypodermic needle. They are red and they look angry. Rocky has his jaw set. Rocky says, “Jim, let them.” So they stick her, and they wheel in the gurney, and they strap her to it as she passes out.
Her face is sticky, her red hair a mess, and Jimmy gasps at how beautiful she is. They have been calling each other “momma” and “papa” ever since.
Jimmy follows the slow procession of the gurney down the stairs and through the front door. When they jar her against the bannister, he shouts “Easy now!” He starts climbing into the ambulance, but Rocky takes his arm. “Ride with me – she’s sleeping,” he says.
The cops get in their car, waiting. Rocky walks up to the ambulance driver, and squares off a few inches from the guy’s chest. He says, “We’ll be right behind you all the way to Norristown.”
The ambulance driver is even taller and broader. He looks at Rocky and says, “When it happens, they go down to Doylestown.” He means the jail. There is steel in his voice, hatred in the coals of his eyes.
Rocky barks, “Well this one is going to God-damned Norristown!” Norristown is the state hospital.
“I guess you’re the boss,” the driver says. He turns and swings himself inside the ambulance and slams the door.
Rocky walks Jimmy around to the passenger side of his cream-yellow Crown Vic. It is a warm night, and Rocky puts the top down before he puts the big Ford in reverse and pulls out behind he ambulance. There is no hurry. The lights of the ambulance are not flashing. It is big and heavy and red, and Jimmy wishes Rocky would pass it at a hundred miles an hour and just keep going.
Rocky’s voice catches when he tries to talk. He says, “Don will meet us at the hospital. ”
Jimmy nods, the warm night air blowing his tears back along the corners of his eyes.
“She’ll be in, ah, Norristown for a while,” Rocky says. “It’s probably best for her. She’ll get some rest.” Jimmy just nods. He sees the future stretching out in front of him like the dark tunnel of trees. The headlights only shine so far. The taillights of the ambulance are like the eyes of some terrible thing in all that darkness. He leans back and looks at the sky. He feels the world slipping beneath him and the cold stars above.
“They’ll want to take her, ah,” Rocky says, and Jimmy feels his body go stiff. His heart stops. “They’ll want to give her an operation,” Rocky says. “Her, ah. You know.”
Jimmy sobs. “She didn’t mean it,” he says. He thinks of the boys who were shell-shocked, how it didn’t do any good to punish them. How they couldn’t control themselves.
Rocky says, “She’ll be the same as ever, Jimmy. Just no more… Maybe it’s for the best.” And Jimmy wants to hit Rocky, too.
Jimmy says, “Christ, Rocky, she’s a young woman. It’s a mistake.” He chokes. “She made a mistake.”
“Listen,” Rocky says. “Donny said I gotta put you in line. He says he can’t help you if you don’t play ball, and if you make a scene—anything–it’ll only be worse for her. Hat in your hand. Mr. Prosecutor, sir. They call your wife something you don’t like, you dummy up and look at the floor.”
Rocky grips the wheel. Boulders loom at the sides of the road, and the limbs of trees in full leaf blot out the stars and moon. He coughs and spits into the night air. “He said you should hear it from me, Christ, I should tell you because I’m your friend. Well, I’m tellin’ you. She can go in the hospital tonight, but they will still file charges in the morning. Donny will talk to the prosecutor. Donny says–the thing is, she can’t go to court. She’ll go to prison, Jim. Nobody wants that. But you gotta—you have to get your shit straight, right now.”
Jim’s nose is running from the night air. He coughs and spits into the slipstream of the big open car. “We want to have more,” he gulps. “We want a whole houseful.”
“Don says it can’t happen, Jimmy. Don says if she can have more, they won’t leave it alone. They’ll prosecute. But if she plays ball, if they know she can’t do it again… They’ll keep her in the hospital a while and you’ll have to jump through hoops like a couple of circus monkeys, but eventually they’ll leave you both alone.” He puts on his blinker and slows to follow the ambulance. “That’s the best anybody can do.”
“I could have the operation,” Jimmy says after a while. “They can make it so I can’t get her…” He trails off. Jimmy smells cow manure on the wind, and they pass a dark, silent dairy a few moments later.
Rocky wipes something out of his eye. Softly, he says, “Jimmy, it don’t work that way. I don’t like it either, but you can wish in one hand and shit in the other.”
The roads are wide and modern a couple blocks out from the new hospital in Pottstown. The new red ambulance crawls past the sign to the emergency room. Rocky’s convertible gleams in the streetlights in the parking lot. He lets the big Ford idle while he flips the switch for the roof, and a hydraulic pump extends the fragile mechanism until its shadow falls over them. It reminds Jimmy of a lunar eclipse he saw when he was a child. Rocky locks the retaining mechanism at the front of the ragtop on the driver’s side, and Jimmy does the same on the passenger’s.
The horizon is lit with a thin band of blue. They turn towards the glassed-in main entrance of the hospital. Jimmy thinks of the cut flowers and chocolates in the gift shop, closed and shuttered at this time of night, and he can’t move his feet forward. So Rocky puts his arm around Jimmy’s back. Rocky bucks him up under the arm, and propels him forward until Jimmy’s legs take over and he enters a new and terrifying world, blind from crying, depending on instinct and the strong arms that encircle him.