Cliff pulled into one of the parking spaces in the lot below the row of condominiums, turned the ignition off, and opened the driver door of the 5-year-old hatchback. The frigid air stung his cheeks. The first week after Christmas had brought the first real cold snap of winter, and temperatures had dropped to the low teens before Cliff had even left work. And now snow clouds hid the moon. The concrete stairway up to the condo doors was lit only by ornamental street lamps.
Cliff rolled out of the driver’s seat and he closed the door behind him, hiking toward the steps while glancing at his watch in the glare beneath the closest light globe—just past 11:30. He knew his son would be asleep, and his wife too, with one wine bottle down and another half to go. At least he could look forward to five hours’ sleep before getting up for work in the morning.
Cliff carefully climbed the concrete steps, glazed with a cobbled layer of ice. At the top, he took a breath, and spit onto the walk. He got to the door where he fumbled through his keys under the parking lot lights. When he found the right one, he opened his front door. Stepping into the bright foyer, he saw Darlene’s angry face, Ryan screaming in her bouncing arms.
“Where the hell have you been? We are out of milk and juice both, and Ryan’s gone out of control!”
Cliff tossed his backpack onto the couch. “Okay. I’ll run down to the 7-11 and pick up some milk. You want juice, too?”
“Well, what sense does it make for you to go down there and not get both?”
Cliff zipped his jacket back up and headed to the door. The cold air hit him in the face as soon as he stepped back into the dim light and closed the door behind him. Most nights were like this if Darlene were not already snoring. She snipped at him as soon as he walked through the door.
Cliff could not be blamed for his late hours. That was just part of being a medical resident. Also part of the reason he sometimes looked forward to his nights on call at the hospital.
When Cliff got home at a decent hour, he wanted nothing more than to fall to the floor and play with Ryan. Toy trucks held center stage, but airplanes were starting to come on strong. It didn’t matter if it was the day after an “all-nighter” at the hospital. No matter how tired, Cliff needed his time with Ryan.
Before Ryan, there had been time with Darlene. She certainly had her own friends, and when Cliff was on call, she would have a “girls’ night out.” When he was not on call or in the languor of post-call fatigue, Darlene would be energetic and affectionate. She would have made burgers or spaghetti, which may or may not get finished before the two would find themselves in the bedroom, creating disarray of their Queen-sized waterbed.
That was before Ryan. Soon after Ryan’s birth, Darlene slipped into a depression. She went early to bed and stayed in bed late, and not to frolic. Cliff rejoiced at those moments, even though sex was now becoming a fading memory, replaced by Darlene’s anger. Soon it was also replaced by the alcohol.
Cliff took a deep breath as he walked back toward the concrete steps. Tonight’s brief encounter came as no surprise. The cold night air brought relief from the heat inside. He got to his car, climbed into the driver’s seat, and started the engine, noting with relief the left-over warmth of the car’s interior. He put the car in reverse and backed into the center of the parking lot before pulling out the drive and onto the county road.
Cliff took advantage of Bruce Springsteen on the radio and turned up the volume to help clear his head. A half mile to the main road, and another quarter to the 7-11. The convenience store lot was empty, except for an old pickup truck in the parking lot. Cliff pulled into a spot in front of the well-lit store and got out of the car.
As he turned the corner on the walkway and headed toward the automatic door, Cliff noticed a shape on the ground, lying close to the corner of the building. Not sure what it was, he approached with hesitation, before recognizing the shape of a person. A man in a navy pea-coat and knit wool hat, lying half on his back, half on his side, not moving.
Cliff’s medical persona leaped into action, and he pounced to the ground beside the man, grabbing and shaking his upright shoulder, shouting, “Hey, buddy. Are you OK? Hey…” He checked. The man seemed not to be breathing. Cliff felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing.
He saw no one else near the store and jumped to his feet. He ran to the door and yelled in, “Call 911! Call 911 right now!” Returning to the man’s side, he checked again: still no breathing, no heart rate, setting into full gear the automatic Cliff.
He flipped the man on his back and lifted between his shoulder blades to tilt his chin up, his head back. Then he grabbed the stubbled jaw, pulled it forward with one hand, and pinched his nostrils with the other. Placing his lips against those of the unconscious man, he blew two full breaths into the man’s lungs, grateful when he felt them fill with his own air.
He paused. There was no reaction and Cliff delivered a “precordial thump.” Grasping both hands together, like a volleyball player trying to make a save, he raised them above his head and brought them down on the middle of the man’s chest. Still nothing.
It was time to start chest compressions, and Cliff gave five. He had done this so many times, he could have done it in his sleep. He returned to give him another two breaths. This time he noticed the iciness of the man’s lips, and he knew the cold was from more than the freezing night air.
Cliff knew the man was dead. He’d likely been dead for a while. But Cliff did not stop. Chest compressions, two, three, four…breath… chest compressions. He could not be sure how long this continued but it was long enough that his arms and lower back ached. Cliff was familiar with this routine enough to realize that the aches rarely became too much to bear. But then, CPR without the help of an entire team was something new. Ignoring the ache, he continued. And even with the freezing cold, sweat rolled down his sideburns.
At last, flashing red lights strobed the parking lot, followed by a lot of noise—banging truck doors, clanging metal, and then a stretcher on wheels pushed by two overweight paramedics. Cliff’s relief was palpable when they ordered, “We’ll take over.” One placed a clear, soft plastic mask over the man’s mouth and nose, and squeezed the bag which would give him breaths. The other continued the chest compressions begun by Cliff. He was suddenly aware of the sour taste in his mouth.
Cliff backed away a few feet to the edge of the walkway and watched as the paramedics continued their work. They exuded confidence and competence. With perfect coordination they lifted the man onto the collapsed gurney without ever missing a breath or a compression. A third attendant, the driver, now joined them, helping to raise the gurney and wheel it to the ambulance.
Cliff seemed to disappear into the darkness, though he had not moved from his spot on the sidewalk. No one spoke to him, and within minutes the back door of the truck slammed shut, a siren cried out, and the ambulance rushed back to the road. He continued to stand alone surrounded by the dark. The siren and the flashing lights both faded in the distance, and finally Cliff scuffed his way back to his car. The engine turned started with ease, and Cliff drove back in a slight daze, returning finally to his condo.
When he passed through the front door, Darlene stood there, looking more angry than before, Ryan screaming in her arms.
“Where the fuck have you been?” she screamed. And seeing his empty arms, “Where is the fuckin’ milk?”
Cliff shrugged and turned toward the bathroom. But then he stopped and turned back toward Darlene, holding his arms out for Ryan. She handed the boy over and stomped down the short hall, slamming the door of the bedroom.
Cliff bounced Ryan gently in his arms, and his cries quieted, morphing into giggles. Cliff’s fatigue began soon to descend on him also, like the dark shadow of a cloud passing overhead, and he sat on the couch, still cuddling the boy, whose nose was still dripping.
Ryan laid his head on Cliff’s chest. His breathing soon became rhythmic, and Cliff pulled himself from his own drifting to see that Ryan had fallen asleep. Slowly and quietly, Cliff rose from the couch and carried Ryan to his room where he laid him in his crib.
After Ryan settled, Cliff once again turned toward the bathroom. He could not remember a shower seeming more inviting.