Anthropophagi

An excerpt from Diamond in the Rough, the manuscript of an EMT’s wayward journey in EMS. In this chapter, Tim Anderson revisits a scene.

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The worst thing I saw was called anthropophagi. You can look it up in the dictionary, or wait a moment and figure it out for yourself from what I will tell you. The story comes in two parts. Part one, we are called for weakness. It is a nice house in a middle-class neighborhood in a suburban town. The door to the house is locked, but with the dispatcher communicating with the caller over the phone we learn there is a key under a flowerpot outside the front porch. “The key-under-the-flowerpot routine,” I say to Tom. “I should have thought that. Forgive me.”

“Don’t let it happen again,” he said, and cuffed me on the back of the head.

We open the door and are met by two dogs, a tiny white poodle and a larger mixed breed. They bark, then turn and head down the hall, just as we hear a female voice from the end of the hallway say, “I’m down here.”

The house is dirty and with the empty feel of someone who has moved out, but not cleaned up yet. There is missing furniture, partially filled boxes, take-out cartons of Chinese food and pizza boxes on the table in front of the TV, some beer cans, cigarette butts overflowing their trays. The carpets smell of urine.

She is lying on a mattress on the floor. A skinny woman maybe in her mid-thirties with long blonde hair and the most beautiful blue eyes, eyes that grab you even though she is sort of skanky, eyes that make you see the beautiful woman she was once. You could imagine her younger at a bar or a party on the arm of some charismatic bad boy who no doubt led her down a wrong path, and then left her. “My back hurts and I can’t get out of bed,” she says. “I’m out of my pain meds. I need to go to the hospital. I can’t take it anymore.”

I can see the track marks on her arms. She is just wearing a thong and a loose armless tee-shirt. I can see that Tom, despite himself, is checking her body out. I am too. I guess if I was a skanked-out heroin addict, I could see myself spending the afternoon shooting up with her.

We help her up on to the stretcher, and get her bundled up.

“You have someone to take care of the dogs?” Tom asks.

“No, I just got rid of my boyfriend,” she says. “I’m all alone. I haven’t fed them for a couple days, but as soon as I get my meds, I’ll get to the store and take care of that. Maybe you could check their water bowls for me?”

Tom filled their bowls and teched the call, even though he didn’t do any ALS. I wondered if it was just her eyes or if maybe he was dog enough to be angling for something else. Tom had more women than I could imagine, but it seemed he was never satisfied.

“She was a skank,” he said, when we cleared the hospital. “A drug-seeking skank.”

“Is that why you teched the call?”

“She’s got the virus,” he said.

“There went your dinner date.”

“Ha ha. I was just protecting you in case she offered to service you for a ten spot. I know it’s been a while since you’ve had it, and she had that desperateness in her eyes.”

I never pretended Tom was my friend, but I looked up to him, and it hurt when he ranked on me.

“I know you’re not like your pal Fred,” he said, “but I can’t be too sure. Better safe than sorry.”

I just looked out the window. Was I that desperate for companionship that it showed so clearly?

***

A week later we were called to the same house on a welfare check. We didn’t realize it was the same house until we found ourselves standing at the doorway with Jimmie Winslow, a Hartford cop, unable to get in. Jimmie was calling back the dispatcher for information about how to get in when I announced, “The keys are under the flowerpot.” I lifted the pot up and produced the key. The cop was impressed.

“He’s clairvoyant,” Tom said.

“Well, Mr. Kreskin, what are we going to find inside?” Jimmie asked as I turned the key in the door.

I looked down and saw the little white poodle with a splotch of red on his cheek.

“Nothing good,” I said, and then the smell hit us.

The floor was littered with dog feces. We stepped gingerly as we went slowly through the house looking for the source of the odor, which we knew too well was a decomposing body. Suddenly down the hall I had a quick glimpse of big dog darting past—almost like a wolf in a thick forest in a scary movie. There one moment, then gone the next.

“She’s down there,” I said, pointing to the end of the hall. “That’s where she was when we were here before.”

I followed Jimmie down. He was six-four, two-fifty, but he had his hand just a few inches from his holster. I have to say there was a good deal of suspense as we tiptoed down that hall like we were trying to sneak up on death itself, which we were, although it, as always, had a surprise for us.

Jimmie swore, and then turned and left the room retching. I stood in the doorway and stared. Tom, despite being an absolutely top-of-the-line medic, had a weak stomach when it came to dead bodies. He usually let me handle the presumptions, relying on me to alert him to the borderline calls. There was nothing borderline about this call. The woman wasn’t just dead. She looked like that character from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Her head was a skeleton. It looked just like one of those bony skeletons that used to hang in the classroom. Where her pretty eyes had once been, there was nothing. Her face had been eaten off so much that the back of her head had fallen away like a ripped bag. You could see tufts of her long hair scattered about the room. I imagined the dogs ripping the hair off her head, as they tugged at her.

Jimmie stood beside me now. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You think there’s foul play in this?”

“More like canine play,” I said. “I think they just hadn’t been fed for a while. She was a junkie. We’ve picked her up before. She probably shot up and died, and they were just trying to get her up so she could get them some food. That’s why they pulled her hair off. I guess they were just really hungry and she was the only food they could get. “

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

“Of course, I suppose it could be a crime. It wouldn’t have been a burglar because there’s nothing to steal here. Maybe her ex-boyfriend came back, strangled her, and smeared puppy chow on her face.”

“You’re sick.”

“She had the most beautiful eyes,” I said, remembering, and I thought about them now, rolling around inside one of those dog’s stomachs, and I confess, I felt nauseous myself.

Tom gave me the monitor and let me run a strip for him. I found her name on a state welfare envelope. While we wrote up the paperwork, a couple other officers and animal control had arrived. They were trying to corral the dogs. The little dog they already had in a small cage. The big dog was more of a problem. The animal control officer held a pole with a noose around the end. Jimmie, his hand shaking, held out a dog biscuit.

The dog growled, showing his teeth.

“He’s not interested in the biscuit,” I said.

***

For a long time afterwards I wondered what the woman of the house was thinking as she looked down on what had happened or looked up from the hot seats. Would she be horrified? Watching as her loved pets ripped her face apart? Or would she have some empathy for them, understanding that they had done what they had done to fill a basic need—the need to survive, and maybe even being glad that she had been able to keep them alive in their days alone in the wilderness that house had become. I like to think that she was in a place where she knew no pain, where her face showed no sign of the hardships of her life, and that there was mercy in her beautiful eyes.

***

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