Tony was cycling downtown to work. It was the highlight of his godforsaken day. It was freedom. It was control. It was revenge. He clenched his whistle between his lips, ready for the inevitable. The bastards. The lousy bastards. They were everywhere. Total losers. Inconsiderate, unthinking, totally narcissistic goofs. It wasn’t once or twice. It wasn’t the occasional driver making an innocent mistake. It was an epidemic.
He blasted them with that whistle at the first sign of trouble. The idiots. He could see it developing. They pulled out to pass, cutting him off, oblivious to the destruction they could wreak on him. They spotted a parking spot and darted over without even glancing around to see if their totally self-centred notions might cause trouble for anyone else. Sometimes they simply stopped; stopped dead in the middle of traffic, maybe searching for a street or someone they were meeting, not caring about anyone else, forcing him to jam on his brakes, skid to a stop, risk toppling over in front of the metal monster on his tail, oblivious to his fragility.
“Stupid fucks.” he said, “Ever thought of anyone else?”
He blew that whistle long and loud and harsh. And often. That woke them up. It was glorious to see their heads jerk around, the wild-eyed glance in their mirrors, the red scream of their tail lights. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Scare the shit out of them. Maybe some of them would learn a lesson, learn to show some consideration for other people. Thoughtless buggers. They should all go to hell. They deserved to go to hell. This one in particular. The one in the white Mercedes.
Tony’s middle finger was bold and free. The driver turned, stared at him from behind the glass. Tony saw him wince, as if he’d been dragged out of some half-mad masturbation fantasy. Despicable.
“Killing me wouldn’t bother you a bit, would it?” Tony shouted, “Up your ass buddy. You deserve the worst. The absolute worst.”
Tony pounded his fist on the window. He knew the imbecile wouldn’t get out. They never did. Weaklings. That’s what they were. Big shots wheeling around in their two ton killing machines but too afraid to take on someone who stood up to them; someone who wouldn’t give in to their bullying ways.
“I bet you go to church every Sunday, then run me down in the street. Think a little. Just a little. Tell that to your god damn priest.”
This was one of his favorites. He’d been using it for several months. It probably didn’t make sense to the foreign-looking people but that didn’t matter. They would get the sentiment. Smarten up or go back where you came from. But they weren’t the worst. This line worked best with white people with suits and ties, wealthy people convinced that they held title to the universe, confident that everyone should dance around their thrones. Men mainly. Women were no fun. They usually froze, stared straight ahead and pretended he wasn’t there, pretended he wasn’t scorching them with the death stare from only inches away. At least they had the decency to be terrified. Men were better. They assumed they were perfect – everyone else was wrong. Men reacted, got ugly. They were the worst. Arrogant turds.
It was a long light and then an advanced green for the traffic coming towards him. Plenty of time to fume about this latest injustice, turning repeatedly to glare at the culprit, torturing him for his folly: letting him know that he was sealed in Tony’s memory, would be cursed for the rest of the day, hell, for the rest of his life if Tony could manage it.
As his light turned green Tony leaned forward, ready to surge ahead with the rest of traffic. A power window hummed beside him and he glanced over. Maybe the driver was going to spit at him, spout some obscenity. Damn, they were so unimaginative. So brave, so quick to shoot that window up again if he even feigned a move to retaliate.
The guy in the Mercedes had a warm, mellow voice, much like that announcer on CNN, like someone from the Caribbean, though he wasn’t black. Maybe a little tanned, not much.
“You forgot your meds this morning?” the man said. It flowed out of him like chocolate lava, his bemused smile displaying his supreme confidence in yet again coping with the tawdry challenges of life, once again deploying his staggering charms to nullify the lesser types inhabiting this world.
Tony scowled. Drivers are so shallow. He would have put him in his place but the cars ahead were already edging ahead. The driver winked, and the window eased shut. The car to Tony’s left edged over slightly and Tony’s path forward narrowed. He rose on his pedals, started to pull ahead then jerked to a stop, caught between the converging vehicles.
“Fuck you,” he shouted, pounding the trunk of this latest violator with his fist, “Fuck every one of you.”
It wasn’t fair. No damn way. Something had to be done. That driver in the Mercedes had to be told. He had to recognize that Tony had the upper hand, that it was Tony who had been violated, Tony who had been forced into harm’s way. ‘Off his meds’? Bizarre. Pompous. Tony’s life in peril and that driver gets to blow him off like that? No bloody way.
He tracked it from behind, the white Mercedes, threading its way through the traffic, edging over to the right, probably aiming to turn at the next intersection. Tony floundered in the middle, then caught a gap and shifted over a lane, pushed along for half a block then caught another opening and slipped into the right turn lane. A car honked at him as he cut over and he raised his middle finger but kept going. It was the Mercedes he wanted. He wasn’t sure what he really wanted but he knew he had to take care of this. Something would happen, something always happens, and it was essential for him to be there, to let that guy know, to seize the upper hand. That was part of Tony’s genius: he would make him pay.
The Mercedes was just ahead, stopped at the red light, ticker flashing for a right turn. Three lanes of traffic side by side, a street car slipping through the intersection from the left, a stream of pedestrians pouring across from the right, blocking the Mercedes. Its tail lights winked on and off, on and off, as the driver edged forward. It was moving only inches at a time; each time a gap opened in the crowd another bunch of people dashed across in front of it, scuttling the opportunity. This was all happening in seconds, the Mercedes struggling to make its turn, Tony rushing forward on his right, Tony recognizing that he must claim his privilege, as the light turned green, to race ahead on the right side, to force the Mercedes into a brakes-to-the-floor stop as he cut in front of it. That was the law. Tony was right, dead right, as he surged forward, cut through the pedestrians, out of the shadows, into the sun, into the blinding sun.
“Please try to stay still.”
Tony opened his eyes, saw a shiny white ceiling and pock-marked aluminum walls. A face, female, wearing a blue mask, hovered over him. She had brown eyes, a small scar over her nose and furrows on her forehead. She was wearing a blue uniform with gold tracings. A siren screamed.
“We’ve put you in a neck brace,” said the paramedic, “In case there’s a fracture. Try to relax. You’ll have to let things go for the next few hours. No point in fighting it.”
Tony hurt all over. A hellish sore throat. His hip throbbing. He did not want to be there. He needed to be at work. He needed the money. He was supposed to meet Brianna and Tyler for supper that night, then head out to a club. Tomorrow was Saturday. Saturday he was going to Ottawa with Tammy. They had already booked a rental car. Paid for it.
“Am I going to die?” he said. He had trouble getting it out. Christ, his throat felt like gravel. Sounded like gravel.
The paramedic was fussing with a bag over Tony’s head to the right. When she moved it he felt a tugging in his arm.
“Not likely,” she said, “But it’s not up to me to say. They’ll figure that out at the hospital.”
“Right. I hear that a lot.”
Tony blinked, tried to pull this all together, to make sense of what seemed like no sense. He had a vague notion he’d been riding his bike, then a blast of overpowering light, pain, more pain, then silence. Now this.
“What happened?” he said.
“The cops told me your whistle went down your throat. You were choking on it.”
She was leaning over him now, shining a flashlight in his eyes, glancing at the monitor pecking out its tinny beat to his left. Tony tried to read her eyes, those brown eyes, assessing her over her mask. Now she was taking his blood pressure.
“It was that bugger in the Mercedes, wasn’t it? I knew he was trouble.”
“No, apparently it was some nutbar walking across the street. Super-sensitive to noise. When you whistled so close to him he drove you one. Rammed the thing down your throat.”
Tony tried to swallow, discovered that was a bad idea.
“A real wacko.” she said, “They told me he completely lost it. Beat you up. Kicked you. He would have kept going but this other guy pulled him off. You were lucky.”
Tony scanned the ceiling. He could haul up bits of it: something like running into a brick wall, a flash of light, a sudden agonized blast, his breath unavailable. But little more. For now, there was only the trembling wail of the siren bouncing off the downtown buildings, the pain in his throat, the pain everywhere, the realization that his life had made a dramatic turn, and now, apparently adapting to a new scenario, was simply rolling on, transporting him, despite his wishes, along with it.
“But there was a Mercedes.”
“Sure,” said the paramedic, “I talked to the driver. He’s a doctor. He dragged the guy off you, then he got the whistle out of your throat. He stuck around and helped when I arrived. Nice guy. Could have been worse without him. Much worse.”
Tony tried to wiggle his fingers. It seemed important to know if his fingers were working. Surely if his fingers were working the rest of him could not be far behind? He felt the ambulance bump over street car tracks. The siren stopped. Maybe the paramedic had signaled the driver that the crisis was over. That would be good. His fingers seemed to be okay. He wondered what other parts of him might be working. Maybe he could get out of this in one piece.
But that throat. It was like he’d swallowed a shit load of pepper. It seemed to be getting worse. He pictured a whistle jammed down his throat, then let that go; not something he really wanted to re-live. He moved his tongue around, exploring each of his teeth in turn. His teeth would be an obvious victim of a beating but everything seemed to be intact. His tongue hurt, probably raked by that whistle shunting through him.
“The cop took your whistle.” the paramedic said, “Probably evidence if the guy is charged. You might get it back some day. Eventually.”
Tony focused on breathing, was comforted to find that it didn’t hurt all that much, realized that he had expected it to hurt a whole lot more. That whistle? He really couldn’t care less. A whistle was nothing special. It was the mission that counted, kicking order and tyranny in the ass.
“I’ve never been in an ambulance before.” he said.
The paramedic chuckled.
“It’s best avoided. When you end up in an ambulance your life is changing, like it or not. And here I am – watching it all happen. It’s normal for me, a bit more frightening for you.”
Was he frightened? Sure, a little. More like nervous, a little nervous. Bad things happen. If you let every little setback get you down you’ll never get anywhere. Still, pain is pain.
“Don’t you get tired of it, watching people die every day?”
“Dying doesn’t happen all that much. Maybe a few go, later, in hospital. Most pull through. But I don’t think they ever get over it. There’s something about this little box on wheels that tends to sharpen the focus. You’ll remember. You might even surprise yourself.”
Tony grunted. A strange sense of release had overtaken him. It was like sitting on an airplane just before takeoff. The future was out of his hands. For the next few hours God and the pilot would determine his fate. He could merely sit there and wait, contemplating what the future might bring with no assurance that a future was really certain. It was strange how easeful that felt
“Perhaps I should lead a calmer life,” he said. “Less heroics.”
The paramedic chuckled.
“There you go,” she said, “This little box is working its magic already.”
“You think so?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s up to you. Ambulances don’t offer money-back guarantees.”
Tony pondered that one. Was that supposed to be funny? He detected a message, a warped warning. So what did she know? An ambulance attendant?
The ambulance stopped, the paramedic leaned over and peered out the window.
“That’s it,” she said, “The folks here will process you. Good luck. You should be OK.”
She turned, pushed the doors open and stepped down. Tony felt a stab of resentment. ‘Process’? Was that what it all came down to? Processed like frozen chicken or a slab of beef? Welcome to my ambulance. Now, screw off.
“Do you give that spiel to everybody?” he said, “You think that I’m some sort of dolt?”
She looked around, her eye narrowed.
“Who are you really talking to?” she said, “Not me. You don’t even know me.”
Tony clenched his fists. What the hell did that mean? Who else was he talking to? He hated this woman, hated her boring observations, and hated her lording it over him. Someone tossed her a uniform and a nameplate and suddenly she was Doctor Freud, kindly stepping in to rectify his brain. Typical. Let anyone get a jump on you and that’s the end of it. They never let go, never stop pressing for more. It’s the way of the world.
But best to let that rest for now. There was trouble enough ahead in the next few hours. He would have to bear down and gut it through. There would be plenty of time later to tackle the deep thinking. Or maybe not. Perhaps this was no more than bad luck, unrelated to this woman’s simpleminded wisdom. But for the moment, surrender was best. A temporary surrender, a feint to weakness before surging back. Like guerilla warfare.
His stretcher was on the move now, rolling across the floor, then seemingly airborne, landing with a clatter on the pavement. Voices on either side of him seemed to be announcing his arrival. He steeled himself for their probing fingers, their icy tools.
“Just another test,” he whispered, “Nothing comes easy. Come on you bastards. I’m ready for you.”