Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Excerpt from Skels
by Maggie Dubris


"So what's new, babe, did you see us on TV?" Lewis chomped a protein bar as we sped down Ninth Avenue, hot on the trail of some boxing club where they were selling black market muscle-building powder in 25-pound bags. 'We were looking good.' He glanced at his reflection in the side mirror. 'Looking mighty good. I think I'll call up the station and try and get some stills. Hang tight, I'll be right back.
     He disappeared behind a door labeled Gleason's Gym. Smoke from the Muslim incense vendors drifted through my window, a man turned pretzels on a steel cart a few feet from where we were parked. I watched the wild red and yellow lights from the porn theaters dancing across the artless drawings of the women inside, across the stream of workers headed for the subway on Broadway, dancing across the dirty sidewalk and down into the cleft of the street.
     The back of the ambulance grew cluttered with parcels as Lewis checked off items on the list he had taped to the dashboard. As we whizzed through rush-hour traffic I thought about riddles, not joke riddles but real riddles, tiny moments turned this way and that, examined so minutely they began to expand, like drops of water on a microscope slide. But riddles had been around forever, the first poems that weren't ballads, written centuries before anyone knew of the worlds nestled within our own.
     We drove west on 42nd Street, past XXX Video, where Lewis had once pronounced a man who died fucking a blow-up doll, past the all night Kung Fu theater where he said the same movie had been showing non-stop for a year, because it wasn't really a theater, only a cheap place for winos to die in their sleep. Past the chicken stand where they really served pigeon, the shoestore for he-shes, the Lyric Theater where every Saturday night some kid got shot. By the time we hit 8th Avenue, where the shoeshine men who really sold pot hung out, I was exhausted.
     'Doesn't it stress you out?' I said.
     'Doesn't what stress me out, babe?' He winked at a sex bomb walking past. 'That's a guy, you can tell by the adam's apple. It's the one thing they can't get fixed.
     I filed that fact away to use against Weenie as we watched the man wiggle off.  'In Harlem if something wasn't what you thought, it was probably better than you thought.
     'You were only there for two weeks, what do you know about Harlem? Relax, babe. You'll get used to it, it's just The Deuce. No point in getting your bowels in an uproar He ripped open another protein bar and bit off half, spinning the wheel as we turned up Eighth.

A huge crowd of men spilled onto the street in front of TittyTown. The bus slowed to a crawl, Lewis gazed longingly at the marquee.
     'Melissa Mounds,' he sighed, 'if she was my ex-wife, I'd still be married.'
     He stared at the big white limo parked by the curb.
     'I know her.'
     He slammed on the brakes, one arm out to keep me from smashing into the jagged dashboard.
     'Sorry, babe. You know her?'
     'Sure. We went to high school together.'
     I could see the gears clicking behind his eyes. He inched the bus slowly towards the limo.
     'Were you a . . . good friend of hers?' he said casually.
     'I knew her pretty well. It wasn't that big a school.'
     'Here in New York?'
     We had arrived at the center of the crowd, directly behind the limo, with a perfect view of the passenger side door. The limo was twice as long as any I had seen, the windows were rimmed with pink lights, pink writing swirled across the trunk. I craned my head over the dashboard to read it.
     'Miss Melissa Mounds,' it said, in that cheap fancy script that's usually reserved for off-brands of hair rinse.
     'Melissa. That's such a beautiful name, who would think someone from Iowa would be named Melissa?'
     'Ohio. And her real name's not Melissa. It's Charlene.'
     'Charlene.' He flipped the rearview mirror so he could see himself in it and began to comb his hair into more perfect waves. 'That's a nice name. But it doesn't have the same flair. She must be really intelligent, you know, to think to change it like that.'
     I couldn't believe how he was acting. If only he could meet Charlene, he would understand what a cretin she was.
     The limousine door opened. Lewis hurriedly stuffed his comb back into his pocket. The men in the crowd straightened as one, puppets lifted by invisible strings. A single, fishnetted leg swung out, shod in the highest spiked heel I had ever seen. Another emerged and cozied up beside it. Some gorilla in a suit popped out of the front and hustled around, knocking men out of the way with each stride. He reached the open door and held out one paw. A dainty pink-nailed hand floated towards it, and Charlene was assisted to her feet.
     I leaned out my window for a closer look. From the back, I wasn't sure it was her. She looked like a cartoon. From head to toe, there wasn't one thing that existed on a natural woman. Stiff blonde Barbie-doll hair cascaded nearly to her waist, which had been whittled away somehow so it was barely the size of one of my legs. Right below it was a big shiny butt like a pair of water wings, then her tight black dress outlined her thighs to just above her knees, which were pressed modestly together. She took a few steps, hips undulating, her knees never leaving one another, and turned around, one hand raised in a presidential wave.
     It was Charlene all right. She had tits like two watermelons now, but I would recognize that moon face anywhere.
     'Hey Charlene,' I yelled.
     A puzzled look swam into her empty blue eyes, her vast forehead wrinkled in consternation.
     'Charlene! Over here, in the ambulance.'
     She blinked and swiveled her head in my direction. Her mouth puckered into a red 'O' and her hand flew up to cover it. She minced towards me.
     'Or-leee?' Her voice was incredibly high, and for some reason she said my name with a French accent.
     I stood up so I was halfway out the window. 'Charlene! How you doing?'
     She minced faster. The gorilla batted admirers out of her path. I sat back down so Lewis could see her. He looked like he was about to weep.
     'Or-leee! I cannot believe zis is you!' She kissed me on both cheeks. 'Don't mind the accent,' she hissed when she got close to my ear, 'it's part of my persona.'
     She turned to the crowd. 'My leetle friend Or-lee, from boarding school. Zis is such a happy moment for me, I am so delighted to share eet vis my loyal fans!'
     Several men dabbed their eyes, someone honked his nose loudly. 'And who is zis?' She pointed across me to Lewis. He snatched her hand and pressed it against his lips.
     'Tres continental,' she simpered.
     I tried to maintain a neutral expression. 'That's Lewis.'
     'Lewis Orleans, at your service.' Lewis rose halfway to his feet, banging his head into the ceiling. He just left it there, pretending like nothing had happened. He had gone all red-faced, and his voice was lower than usual.
     'You must be such a brave man, always driving around to rescue zee people,' Charlene said.
     'It's my job, Miss Mounds, I knew what I was in for when I signed on.' I could see his biceps flexing from the corner of my eye.
     'Oh, but eet must be so hard. Zees is such a beeg scary city. I am staying at zee Elk Hotel. I do hope you weel respond queekly if I need to be rescued!'
      She batted her eyes. He preened. Something splatted against the windshield. Something brown and formless.
     'Our conscience!'
      The unmistakable voice of John-Paul Saint Brick ground across my eardrums. He leapt onto the hood of the ambulance and began to smear whatever it was all over the glass. He moved like a windshield wiper, his fathomless face ticking back and forth. Charlene shrieked and began to back away.
      'Oh my God, what ees wrong wiz zis leetle man, help heem, help heem, why are you just sitting zere?'
      Lewis got out and stomped on the bumper. 'John-Paul Saint Brick!'
      John-Paul flailed ever more wildly, spattering what I hoped was chocolate pudding across Lewis, Charlene, and the front row of admirers.
     'You know heem? Make heem stop!'
     'We can't stop! We are having a seizure, you fulminate cow.'
     And with that John-Paul hurled himself from the hood, his outstretched hands groping her chest as he flew past to land in a churning heap at her feet. Pandemonium erupted. Half the men charged to the front to rescue Charlene as the other half stampeded for home; bodies collided, heads clacked, arms and legs tangled together in an impenetrable logjam. Charlene leapt like a woman fleeing a rodent into the arms of her bodyguard and was borne swooning across the trampled crowd and into the phosphorescent velvet doorway of TittyTown.
     A strange silence followed her departure. Soon, there were just a few men left, looking stunned, fingering their torn suits as they watched John-Paul writhe. Lewis was nowhere to be seen.
     'John-Paul,' I said.
     He seizured on, but without much gusto.
     'John-Paul Saint Brick.' He froze mid-flail.
     'We are not---'
     A green blur streaked past me and engulfed John-Paul. His little puppet arms flew upward, he popped into the air, the closest thing to an expression on his face that I had seen yet.
     'We'll sue we'll sue we'll sue.'
     Lewis deposited him headfirst in the garbage can, ignoring the protests of the passing hayseeds. He strolled deliberately back to the ambulance, pausing to brush the dust from his trousers and daub the brown from his shirt before carefully opening the door and getting behind the wheel. I watched John-Paul maneuver himself upright, pluck a pretzel from his lapel, and throw it at a woman who had approached to comfort him. If Lewis clenched his teeth any tighter his jaw was going to shatter.
     'Are you okay?'
     He turned to me, his eyes two bullets set into the wads of his cheeks.
     'There's nothing wrong with me.' He drove silently, up Eighth Avenue, down Ninth Avenue, up Eighth Avenue, down Ninth Avenue, until we got a call.

The call was on 46th Street between Tenth and Eleventh, a quiet block lined with abandoned tenements and closed-up garages. We parked across from a strange bridge that was walled off from whatever lay below by gray brick, and guarded at each end by a rusty fence topped by razor wire.
     The call was for an, "Unknown, requesting a rush, states patient's arm turning blue."
     I grabbed the oxygen and the trauma bag. Lewis made a chopping gesture. "Put one of those back."
     'Gauze or oxygen.'
     'What are you talking about?'
     He jerked the oxygen from my hand and threw it back into the ambulance. 'Look, I've been doing this a long time, you want to learn how to be a medic, you better listen to me. I'm not getting paid to babysit you. It's either gauze, or oxygen. Not both. Forget all that fancy-schmancy phoney-baloney they taught you in school, there's only two kinds of emergencies. Gauze emergency, or oxygen emergency. Come on.'
     He grabbed the scoop, banging it against his shin, and yanked up the diamond fence. Someone had scraped away the earth, so there was a foot or so of space; just enough for a person to slide under. I wiggled through, then the scoop came, then Lewis, feet first, straining to hold the sharp wire away from his chest.
     'She knows I'm a fool,' he said.
     We stood on a ledge looking into an overgrown railbed 30 feet below. The hills sloped abruptly, with the rails set in a valley between them, running to the next bridge which covered what lay beyond. Between the tracks wildflowers dotted the grass, but the hills were a lifeless gray, spattered with garbage that had been hurled from the bridge. Here and there skunk trees grew straight out then turned upwards to the light. There was no path, only veins where the topsoil had been worn away by rain draining from the gutters of the tenements that rose in orange slabs from the hilltops.
     'You're not a fool.'
     'I am. I let that little shit-covered pumpkin play me for a fool. Now she'll never go out with me.' His voice broke. 'She can have anyone she wants, why would she go out with me?'
     I shaded my eyes and looked for some sign of our patient; all I saw were the rails, leading into the black tunnel.
     'She'll go out with you. You're her type. I've known her all my life, I know what she likes.'
     Lewis didn't answer. A figure burst from the shadow of the bridge, arms circling, running towards us. There was something utterly desperate about him; something that drove all thoughts of Charlene sleeping merrily with every greaser in shop class right out of my head. I stumbled down the cliff, my feet smacking faster as the grade steepened, hopping around the loose rocks and burst garbage bags.
     "What's down here?" I was out of breath already, my voice sounded like Minnie Mouse. Lewis grabbed the trauma bag from me and hoisted the scoop onto his shoulder. He wasn't even sweating. "ODs." His legs pumped, he kicked a stripped bicycle out of the way. "Drunks. Whores. He-shes. Bodies." He stepped over a broken sink. "Dumped off the bridges."
     I stepped on a syringe half buried in the dirt, the barrel cracking under the heel of my shoe. At the bottom the air was cooler, and it smelled rusty, like the foundry junkyards back home. The man ran towards us, flapping like a scarecrow, his shadow soaring at his feet. I could hear him screaming, "Oh Jesus Oh God," but it was like I was running in a dream, the earth slipping backwards with each step.
     Rail-ties bumped my toes, Lewis ran behind me, straps clanging metal on metal against the scoop. The scarecrow stumbled, doubled over and vomited a yellow liquid; his face was burned the color of Georgia clay, his ragged suitcoat stopping halfway down his arm. He straightened up and crossed himself. "Oh God Jesus hurry oh God Jesus."
     Then he turned and ran and we followed, running between rusty tracks, the grass grown up in rough patches, piles of black garbage bags torn open, jumping over broken railroad ties, the sky lost in a blur of overhanging branches dark under the bridge where junkies lay on mattresses dotted with blood running and running and suddenly the sky broke through and we stopped. All around us were shacks made of wood and tin, tents, and towers of worn black tires.
     "What is this place?" I said. Lewis shook his head. He walked slowly, a man wading into molasses.
     I wondered if we were in trouble. No one really knew where we were. I had this feeling even if we told them, they wouldn't know. In Harlem I always felt like my uniform would protect me, but when I looked around now I wasn't so sure. There were no women here, only men looking slant-eyed as we passed, man sitting ragged in old lawn chairs, men passed out in the shadows of the towers or huddled around fires burning in circles of charred stone. I could tell they were all high. They didn't react like normal people would, straightening up and turning and following our path with their eyes to see where the trouble was. They acted like we might not be real, and if we were real we might not be at all what we appeared.
     We reached a cluster of shacks; faces poked from blanket-hung doorways and just as quickly disappeared. I followed the scarecrow's flapping coat, ducking beneath strange mobiles and clothes hung from ropes that drooped from tree to spindly tree. The ground shivered with the heat that came from it, we walked beside a fence of pounded boards, white letters streaked across.

     Yeloe sun dont goe
     Yeloe sun dont leeve me  heer
     to droun in the nit beloe

     I wanted to stop and see if there was more, but the scarecrow was shouting.
     "Over here God Jesus Over here!"
     Five men stood over something. The smallest turned at the shout, his eyes peeling me with one quick slash and I knew that what lay ahead had nothing to do with me or what I wanted. Two of the watchers ran and the other three stepped away, revealing a man kneeling beside a fire, collapsed inward so his shoulders nearly touched. His arm hung oddly across his chest, his hand cradled his elbow, and when he raised his head his face flickered, drawn in crude strokes of flame and shadow, like a painting on a cave wall.
     I heard Lewis grunt, and looked back. More men had come from the tents and shacks, there must have been ten or twelve, staring, like men in a photograph of the depression, waiting for what, there was no way to tell. Lewis had turned to face them. He looked huge. They hung back, out of his reach.
     The light was a deepening lavender; the patient's arm blue. When I reached out to touch it he closed his eyes but didn't move away. From the shoulder down it was wet and cold as ice. I felt for a pulse. There was none. The head of the bone was palpable in the hollow of his chest; I pushed slightly and it scraped against his ribs. His lips blanched but he didn't make a sound.
     I felt the valley dim around me, the fire rise up a brighter orange; the circle of eyes seemed to loosen slightly, and their greedy shine recede. Nothing moved but the flames. Not the man, not me, not even the wind. The smoke rose slowly and lingered in the hot air. It seemed like I squatted there for a long time, the wrenched arm heavy in my palm, the sound of a siren from the city above spiraling faintly.
     'She fucking don't know what to do.'
     I couldn't tell which man had spoken. I reached for the trauma bag. It was gone. A skel stood where I had thrown it. He yawned deliberately, his thin face distorting, waiting for me to look away before he stepped back.
     I'd never reduced a shoulder; it wasn't even something we learned. Just a sentence in one of my many textbooks filled with blond medics treating blond patients as admiring children looked on. "If circulation is compromised distal to the injury, the dislocation must be manipulated until circulation returns."
     I closed my fingers around his arm, aware suddenly of the perfect symphony of my own hand. My fingers, flesh and sinew and bone and nerve, forever shifting, adjusting to touch and desire, intention, pain. It was as if the bones inside me were speaking, alive in a way that bypassed language or even thought, kneeling on the dry earth as people had done for thousands of years, filled with bones and blood and fear.
     I braced my foot against the man's ribs, grasped his arm above the elbow. His bicep was a blue ball, mottled with bluer tattoos. He leaned back and looked away as I pulled. The head of the humerus creaked from the groove of his ribs, straining as I twisted it into line with the ligaments and guided it outward on an arc I could feel as surely as if a road had been drawn there, until it snapped, alive again, into the socket of his shoulder.
     My hands slid down his arm, his fingers flexed. I was coated with sweat, my stomach aching from the effort of holding him off with my leg. My calf hovered above his thighs. My dusty footprint was branded onto his bare chest, which was covered with jailhouse tattoos, thick with jailhouse muscle.
     'Oh shit,' I said.
     He didn't seem to hear me or notice I was there. He felt up and down the length of his arm, the smooth curve of his shoulder, clenching and unclenching his fist as the blue receded. I knew it must hurt; the oxygen starved tissue shrieking back to life, but his face betrayed nothing.
     I looked around. It was nearly dark, the sun no longer visible, just the last gray vestiges of light creeping over the horizon. Lewis stood at the edge of the fire's glow. He twisted his head and looked down at me, then away, into the circle of men. They had fallen back slightly, their postures softened. I stood up. I could see the orange canvas of the trauma bag behind a worn leg. The leg's owner studied me with a strange, wistful expression. Not friendly or unfriendly, just a man looking into a shop window at something he can't afford.
      The patient stood up. His eyes whipped into mine like a hook whipping into a fish.
     "Thank you, Miss," he said. He raised both arms above his head. I saw the bulge of a gun in his sweatpants. As he revolved the men scattered until only Lewis and I remained. He fingered the thick braid that fell halfway down his back. Then he smiled, a tiny gold panther leaping in the ivory of his front tooth. He was about thirty, with wet sleepy-looking eyes and a Fu Manchu mustache. "THE CAT" was written in block letters across his forearm, a wildcat embracing the letters, a crown of thorns on the animal's head.
     We were alone with him. Even the scarecrow had vanished. Lewis grabbed the ACR from my back pocket.
     'Sign here,' he said.
     The man looked from the paper to Lewis and back again. Lewis was taller, and bulkier, but I knew for sure he couldn't hold this man back for ten seconds if it came to that. The man scrawled his name without reading it, and handed it to me.
     'Go on out there.' He pointed to a bridge about 50 yards down the tracks. 'I'll watch your back.' He kept shooting glances at me, but mostly his eyes were pinned to the shantytown behind us.
     Lewis grabbed the equipment and we headed for the bridge, the dry grass whispering as we passed. We climbed the hill, and if I turned my head I could see the dark roofs of the tin city spread out below me, the threaded track of the railroad, the red fires and the featureless outline of our patient, his arms folded as he watched us leave. I scrambled onto a concrete platform, found the hollow beneath the fence and slid under, grabbing the scoop and bag as Lewis pushed them through behind me.
     We were blocks from our ambulance, on a different street filled with tenements and garages, the streetlights shining yellow now and the sky nearly black. I looked through the diamonds of the fence, but I couldn't see the shantytown anymore, only brush and the platform and the hills falling away into shadow.

'Listen babe, I'm sorry I made that crack about babysitting you.'
      I grunted, trying to compose something that would pass for medical information on the 'comments' section of the ACR. The asshole hadn't even signed his real name. Just printed, 'The Cat.' It was a good thing no one ever really looked at these things.
     'I love working with women. They smell a lot better than men.' He made a strange wheezing sound. When I looked over, he was grinning at me like he was running for mayor.
     'I think I was just . . . stressed. Forgive me, babe?'
     We were parked in front of a place called the Fun Emporium, a discreet ten feet from the marquee of TittyTown. Lewis whistled distractedly as I checked boxes and reeled off medical mumbo-jumbo. I couldn't believe he wasn't going to say anything about that call. We had just almost gotten slaughtered. I stared at the ACR, pretending to reread the words I had written, my pants smelling of woodsmoke, the men's eyes circling inside my head, pricking me as if they'd been spit from a fire.
     Yellow sun, don't leave me here, to drown in the night below.
     Girls walked past in hot pants and tube tops, the street was lit up with so much neon it might as well have been high noon. I wanted someone to appreciate what I had done. Rodie would have bragged to all the men about how I'd kept my cool, and what a great partner I was. But Lewis only wriggled in his seat. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, he cleared his throat repeatedly, then he pounced the minute I looked up.
     'Say, babe, did you mean that, what you said?'
     'About me being Melissa's type.'
     'Oh, that. Yeah. Definitely.'
     He cracked his knuckles, and twisted his head until it snapped. First to one side, then to the other.
     'What's she like? Once you get to know her?'
     I settled back and tried to think of something personal I knew about Charlene. Like if I had to speak at her funeral or something, what would I say? As best I could remember, all she ever did was smoke and put on make-up. And sleep with greasers, but that could stay out of the eulogy.
     "She loves beauty."
     He nodded and leaned forward, a faraway look in his eyes. I thought he was going to say something, but he just sat there with his mouth open, a little baby bird waiting for me to deliver more worms.
     "She puts on a hard front sometimes, but underneath, she has a heart of gold."
     He swallowed hard and nodded again, as if he had never heard anyone described this way, and the pathos of it was almost too much to bear.
     I made myself sound wistful. "Of course, she had a rough life. All she ever wanted was to be treated as a human being. But the . . .you know. ." I made a cupping motion in the vicinity of my chest, "got in the way. It was so sad, it was all anyone ever saw."
     "You mean they're real?" Lewis gasped. Then he caught himself. "I mean, that's terrible," he said in a more normal tone of voice.
     "It was. Now I guess she's come to terms with it." I reached out and gave his arm a confidential squeeze. "She's an old fashioned girl, really. She loves sonnets. Sestinas. That sort of thing.'
     'Sonnets?' He looked at me like I had suddenly started speaking Mandarin.
     'It's a kind of poem. A sonnet.'
     'Oh, poetic sonnets. Right, right, I didn't know which kind you meant.'
     His eyes traced the loops of her name on the marquee.
     'Say, babe. You're a poet, aren't you?'
     I nodded.
     'Do you think . . . ' he chewed on his lip and gazed at me pleadingly. When that didn't work, he started to stammer. 'Do you think maybe . . . you could just . . . I know it's a lot to ask . . . could you write a poem for her?'
     I screwed up my face in a puzzled fashion. 'Why would she want a poem from me?'
     He threw his head back and appealed to the ceiling. 'No, from me! Do you think you could write her a poem from me?'
     'Oh. Sure. That's a great idea.' I gave him a surprised, yet reassuring smile. 'I'll bring it in tomorrow.'


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