FISH STORY • by John Christopher Nelson

We’ve made our way from the station to post in La Mirada. The call comes in as a stabbing.

“Head for Santa Fe Springs,” I tell Armando, typing the address into Google Maps.

As is too often the case, the same neighbor who found Mark and called 911 is standing at the front door, eager to usher the two of us inside with our gurney. I’ve come to know neighbors as grotesque caricatures, overtly aware of the activities surrounding them and determined to provide witness. I’ve wondered, hearing some of the things neighbors have shared with me over the years, whether or not patients would want their private lives disclosed this way.

“You think you know someone,” this neighbor begins and trails off, having heard the cliché somewhere. I want to shove him so he falls on his face, but I don’t. He leads us around the house and into the garage.

Here is Mark, late fifties and shirtless, a pile on the concrete floor. He’s slumped over the edge of a galvanized aluminum bucket, arms anchored in his blood. There is a towel beneath his knees and a few others wrapped around the base of the bucket. The garage is remarkably clean and organized. Mark is freckled, the lightness of his skin enhanced by all the blood he has lost. He isn’t fat, but lacks definition. He’s thick around the waist where his flesh hides the top of his pant line, except where his Hanes are taut along the curly red hairs at the small of his back.

He’s carved both wrists with the hope of death, not consolatory sympathy. While I’m bandaging his wounds, I notice they’ve stopped bleeding. Putting Mark on the gurney feels like handling a tuna and I’m sure he will be dead before we reach Whittier Presbyterian. Nothing about Mark gives me any reason to believe he’ll live.

By the time a person reaches middle age, it’s no longer an attempted suicide. Even if they don’t succeed, the act is its most intentional, the spontaneity of youthful overreaction wrung from it. Adult routine is divided among banal necessities that discover grown-ups floating aimlessly in the peripheries of life’s circus. The trouble with reaching a certain age is not noticing when the circus is packing up. Distractions and obligations collapse with the tent poles and purpose brakes in an indifferent halt.

The on-duty doctor is waiting as we back in, a cigarette hanging indifferently from his lips. Before Armando can cut the engine, the doctor is pulling open the doors, then keeping pace alongside the gurney as we roll toward the entrance.

“He still with us?” the doctor asks, cavalier and unconvinced.

“Not much of him.”

He peels back the bandages on Mark’s left wrist, replaces them, and throws a smile my way.

The cigarette doesn’t leave his lips until we reach the sliding doors where he relaxes his mouth enough to let it fall to the ground as he enters the passcode.

Some nights the whole shift is quiet, with only a run or two to pass time. Others, we get locked in a holding pattern, the calls stacking in synchronicity. We clear one, and dispatch has the next lined up for us as we leave the emergency room. This Friday is the latter of the two, and we arrive back at Pres an hour after clearing Mark.

After we get our new patient a bed, I find one of the nurses who was around earlier and ask what happened to Mark.

“He lived,” she says, not caring. I’m tired, distracted by her fingers and the pen she’s holding. She refuses to look at anything but the clipboard she’s navigating. The nurse senses me still standing beside her and acknowledges me with impatience. Seeing my expression she adds, “I know,” and walks away with her chart and aloofness.

I exit through the automatic doors, thinking about what Mark will feel, what he’ll think, when he regains consciousness.

I’m sorry for Mark, not because of whatever made him cut his wrists, but because he failed. He’d surrendered entirely, and it wasn’t enough. Life was not finished with Mark.

From the ambulance, I observe the multitudes, lonesome bundles of flaws and confusion crumpled by life. It’s during graveyard shift that everything is most foreign. Thoughts, actions, and the justifications for them all are mistranslated. Those with whom I share the night—firefighters, law enforcement, nurses—agree wordlessly, none of us discussing this awareness. We’re complicit in the ugliness of the human state, withholding our secrets from the sleeping world.

I pull myself inside the rig. Armando starts the engine and we head down the ramp, out of the ambulance bay and back into the night.

John Christopher Nelson is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA and earned his BA in Literature from UCLA. His work is forthcoming in The Blotter and Horrors of the Deep: An Anthology of Startling Sea Stories, and is featured in The New Guard, Chiron Review, Able Muse, and elsewhere.

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