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The Perils of Small Mammals

Posted by on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 in Features, Issue, July 2011.

The frost is only just beginning to melt from the windshield of Brent’s Hyundai as he pulls out of his apartment complex and into the creeping line of traffic on the main road making its way to the interstate. Brent briefly considers forcing his way over to the right lane so he can stop at a drive-through and grab some breakfast, but there’s too much frost on the windows and the last thing he needs is to get in a wreck with one of the other time bombs on the road, especially after last night’s events. He and Trish had a particularly nasty fight, one that in its second hour had the college students next door banging on the paper-thin walls and screaming. “What’s your problem?” Brent had wanted to yell back at them. “It’s not like your degree will be worth anything.” Brent’s own in Business Communication sure wasn’t. Five years and a few tens of thousands of borrowed dollars later, and Brent is working forty excruciating hours a week at a call center twenty miles away. The game is over.

The drive-time DJs are talking about last night’s TV shows. Don’t these two chuckleheads realize that in this age of hundreds of channels, only a few of their listeners have any clue what they’re yapping about? The long chain of cars stutters forward.

Trish left last night, but Brent has no idea where she could have gone. Trish doesn’t have the kind of friend that would open her door at one in the morning and take her in. She is a leopard, a solitary creature that trusts nothing except her appetite. She overpowers and mauls and when her prey is sufficiently disoriented and incapacitated, she plays with it, tossing it up in the air and pinning it when it tries with the last bit of hope and strength it has to rescue itself. He knew this from the start, but he had no choice except to play his role. Brent starts down the on-ramp towards the interstate, where traffic is heavy but moving at a steady clip. He wedges his tiny car in front of a semi that flashes its lights in protest. Brent knows that Trish came back at some point in the early hours to get some things she left behind. It’s the second time she has left like this.

Part of Brent hopes that she won’t come back, but at the same time he can already feel that void opening up, and out of it emanates a plume of despair, noxious and leaden. How is a guy like him going to find someone new? He has no money, no motivation, a dump of an apartment, and he’s already in his late twenties. The young and ambitious are behind him, the successful and moneyed are ahead. And then there is Brent, another anonymous, hopeless loser in this ceaseless stream of traffic. When Trish berates him, or attacks him, or simply walks out the door, he gets that same feeling he got the night he met her at a friend’s Halloween party. He was on a couch in a straw hat and overalls watching Jason Voorhees chop through another gaggle of libidinous teens when she came out of some dark corner—all black leather and silver metal—and gave him a long, angry kiss that tasted of tequila and mild salsa. He had followed her desperately for the rest of the night, ignoring her grimaces of annoyance and her snide revelation that she did it on a dare. He begged, he flattered and pawed, and finally, out of intoxicated impatience, Trish relented and gave her number. The truck pulls closer to Brent’s bumper and its grille, a red maw with long silver teeth, fills the Hyundai’s rear view mirror.

The radio clowns are talking NBA now, trashing the Bucks and Clippers. How does someone get to be one of those guys? Two bums who spend a few seconds between commercial breaks yukking it up. Most of what comes out of their mouths is them laughing at their own obvious jokes. Brent can keep his friends roaring for hours at the bar on a good night with his rants about how terrible Trish is and how miserable and absurd it can be to live with her. Why can’t he be the one behind the microphone, earning the easy money?

But now the truck has gotten closer still. The driver starts jake-braking, and Brent can feel the growl vibrating through the thin padding of his seat. In his frustration, Brent rolls down his window and makes an obscene gesture in the icy morning air. The truck driver pulls the horn. Brent smacks the steering wheel and yells out more obscenities in frustration. The obnoxious horn sounds again. He feels a sudden lightness in his body. The frustrations of last night evanesce and he suddenly feels compelled to pull over. He doesn’t take advantage of his car’s small size to evade the belligerent predator stuck to his rear. Rather, Brent glides onto the shoulder and lets his car decelerate on its own. Sure enough, the Peterbilt logo is still right there in its new home at the top of the Hyundai’s rear view. The car finally stops and Brent shoves the gearshift into park. Behind him he can hear the truck groan and shudder as the driver parks it.

Brent completely ignores the cars rushing by only a few yards away and kicks open his driver’s side door. He stands up and holds his hands in the air. The passing spectators, enjoying what small sliver of the unfolding drama they can, honk their horns in equal measures of appreciation and derision. After a few seconds during which Brent can see the driver fumbling with something out of view, the door of the truck’s cab opens and a portly, unkempt man clad in jeans and a denim vest stumbles down. He’s shorter than Brent imagined, but the thickness of him is nevertheless imposing and he’s screaming something—Brent can’t quite make out what over the din of the ceaseless river of engines—and speeds up his pace as he approaches Brent. Brent starts screaming back—not words, just a steady stream of syllables, and now the driver is so close that Brent can make out the stains on his shirt.

Before Brent’s brain can process the situation, the driver lands a straight right to Brent’s face. Brent doesn’t feel any pain as the knuckles press into his cheek, but he can hear the structure of his tissue giving way. Brent stumbles backwards a half-step and brings his left hand up to where the punch just landed, and his right arm uselessly dangles out towards the highway. He tries to get his bearings so he can protect himself and fight back, but the next thing he feels is his adversary’s fist driving into his ribcage. He hears a furious string of words but doesn’t comprehend them. Now the pain comes, sharp and heavy. But the pain gives Brent some bearing and clarity, and he thinks of how embarrassing it is for all these people to see him getting pummeled like this by someone so much older and out of shape.

Brent is still grimacing from the pain and as a result his eyes are barely open, but he flails his left arm out and in a stroke of blind luck he parries away the next incoming punch. Brent follows up with a strike of his own to the side of the trucker’s protruding stomach. The trucker grunts and leans over slightly. Brent tries to take advantage, but ends up feebly smacking the man’s face with the fingers of his left hand. The trucker grabs Brent’s left arm and yanks it. Brent responds by trying to pull his arm free, and each makes harmless swipes at the other’s face with his free hand. Their right arms also end up tangled, and Brent delivers short kicks to the trucker’s shins as they grapple.

The trucker is much heavier than Brent and begins to push him backwards. As Brent struggles to maintain his balance, he takes in gulps of air tainted by the odor of his foe’s rancid breath. Amongst the smell of sausage, potatoes and truck-stop coffee, Brent catches a hint of something familiar. It’s musky and dank, and in his mind’s eye he sees for an ephemeral moment the silhouette of a grandfather he barely remembers. Brent is still furiously kicking at the trucker’s legs and he finally gets his toe up to just under the man’s knee. His opponent’s leg buckles and Brent suddenly finds that his right arm is free. He quickly rears back and hits the trucker just above the ear. The solid hit is exhilarating, and all the pain Brent is feeling becomes a dull hum over the rush he feels coursing through his veins.

In the periphery of his awareness Brent realizes that traffic is slowing so that the racing rats can take in just a few more fractions of a second of this sudden circus. Brent imagines for a moment that the man in the traffic helicopter will mention this in his next half-hourly update. That will give those morning guys something to chuckle about.

But now something else is happening. Brent no longer feels that he’s getting pushed backward. The trucker has relaxed his hold on Brent’s left arm and he is gasping as he lunges towards Brent’s Hyundai. The trucker falls forward, moaning as his body brushes past Brent and hits the car. The heavy man rolls across the trunk and falls to his hands and knees. He’s almost in the grass now. Brent leans against the rear quarter panel of his car and watches in a state of confusion as he also gasps for breath, but not quite in the same desperate manner. The trucker lets out a guttural and labored sound, something akin to a cough but without the abruptness. His arms give out and now his head is turned sideways in the gravel. Rivulets of pink saliva run from his lips, and he falls over onto his side, clutching both hands to his chest. With one open eye he looks at Brent wildly.

The last elective Brent took in college was First Aid and Safety. The class had a reputation as the easiest three-hour credit, and Brent certainly didn’t take it seriously. Now he wishes he had attended more lectures. The trucker groans loudly and struggles to let out a few muffled coughs. It takes a few more seconds for Brent to realize that this man is having a heart attack. He looks at the open door of his car and contemplates making a run for it. Would any of these passing people be able to piece together what happened? Would any of them bother taking down his license plate? But then Brent remembers his cell phone, sitting there in the cup holder. He runs and falls into the front seat of his car. He fumbles with the phone and sees that its battery indicator is flashing. Last night after Trish left he had gotten up every few minutes to check for a missed call or a text—some sign that Trish was sorry, that she wanted to talk and come back home to him.

With trembling fingers, Brent mashes out 9-1-1 on the phone’s keypad. He tells the dispatcher as best he can that there’s a man having a heart attack. His phone beeps a low-battery warning signal. Brent tries to remain calm, reminding himself that he has a very similar job answering phones. This is a conversation between two professionals. He mentions that they’re just a few hundred yards away from the mall exit. There is only silence on the other end. “Can you tell me how to perform CPR?” Brent asks. He waits a few seconds for a reply before holding the phone out in front of his face to see a screen as dead and dark as a winter night.

Brent hurls the phone against the passenger side window and it rattles down to the floor. He scrambles back out into the cold morning air to check on the trucker. The man is rocking just slightly, and his hands are still covering his chest. Brent kneels down beside his former adversary and places his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“You okay, dude?” asks Brent.

The trucker lets out a series of low, short huffs. He grimaces and rubs his thighs together. Brent looks imploringly at the passing cars. He waves his arms frantically and points to the suffering man. Before him proceeds a parade of open-mouthed, staring faces. Some drivers are pointing their phones and snapping photos. But there’s no indication that anyone is going to stop and help. Brent gestures to the procession of gawkers to call for help. The trucker is quiet now and his slow throes have ceased. Brent curses to himself in panic. “CPR, CPR,” he mutters over and over, trying to conjure the few sessions of class he had bothered to attend. It comes back to him in tiny, incongruous fragments. But out of that discordant milieu he seizes a single treasure of memory.

Pulse, gotta check the pulse.

Brent jabs a flaccid index finger into the man’s Adam’s Apple. The man doesn’t respond. Brent prods around the man’s throat and quickly becomes exasperated. He places the back of his hand just in front of the trucker’s mouth, but doesn’t feel any air movement. He picks up the man’s limp arm and mashes his fingers into the underside of the wrist. He waits for a moment but feels nothing. Brent looks at his hands, trying to remember what to do next. He looks at the trucker’s stoic face. The moustache and lips are caked in foam, and one side of the man’s face is covered in a pink film. Brent tries to pry the mouth open. He works his index finger to the back of the tongue and wiggles it around, feeling for anything to be dislodged from the airway. By this point it’s obvious to Brent that the man is not breathing.

Rescue breaths.

Brent pulls out his glistening finger and wipes off the film on the trucker’s shirt. He leans forward towards the lifeless face but then quickly jerks back as the foul odor burns and clings to his nostrils. Brent gags and spits. He curses some more. He pretends he’s doing a stunt on “Jackass.” In this moment of clutch motivation, he inhales deeply and plunges his head downward, sealing his lips over the man’s open mouth. He tries to ignore the bizarre sensation of the man’s steel-wool moustache on his own smooth skin and the abominable tastes and textures. When Brent’s lungs give out, he takes another breath and donates it once more.

And now it’s all coming back. Brent remembers the day when the class practiced chest compressions on the dummies. “Like you’re throwing a fireball,” Brent said to the teacher, referring to the way one hand was placed on the other. Brent’s friends would have guffawed. His classmates only showed blank, nervous stares. But there is no time to relive the shame. Brent begins to give the man chest compressions. At first he doesn’t feel that he’s accomplishing anything, but he leans into each thrust and begins to see the trucker’s flabby chest sink in. Brent loses count, but his arms are starting to get tired and so he goes to give the man two more breaths.

Brent is now wholly dedicated to keeping this man alive. He gives 15 thrusts and 2 breaths in steady succession. His shoulders burn and his mouth hangs open in a struggle to take in enough of the icy air to sustain them both. The glacier of cars carrying the crowd of anonymous, silent spectators crawls towards downtown. Somewhere in a detached partition of Brent’s consciousness, he realizes he wants to save people’s lives. He wants to be an EMT, or go back to school and become a nurse, maybe even a doctor. He can’t take another day as an on-demand sycophant, apologizing profusely for hours on end to people who claim to be rent irreparable by a new 25 cent charge on their bill. He knows that regardless of what fate befalls this unfortunate fellow, this is the beginning of a new life, imbued with purpose and focus and importance. Trish and her unpredictable, roiling spasms of temper and venom are but a figment now, one of the transient and inconsequential wisps of cloud tens of thousands of feet above in the pale winter morning sky.

Brent is out of breath. The freezing air and effort of the chest compressions has forced him to pause. But he looks up to see, in the distance, an ambulance. Its pulsing red and white lights move through the mess of cars like an alligator in a tired pond on a tired day. Brent holds the trucker’s hand and gives it a squeeze. “It’s okay, bro. Here they come,” he whispers, before filling his lungs once again with life to lend.