When I closed my eyes, I could smell it. Saffron, cloves, coriander and cinnamon. I could see her graceful arms fly over her beloved copper pots as she stirred and tasted. Fragrant clouds of steam drifted around her head, and the dark pools of her eyes sparkled when she caught me watching her.
“Tony, snap out of it.”
Rizzo snapped his fingers under my nose and, startled, I inhaled the bestial aroma of the woman lying on the floor. She had not bathed in days, perhaps a week, and her skin looked as though if you touched her she would crumble. I backed up a step before I caught myself, and glanced at Rizzo to see if he had seen my hesitation, but his gaze was fixed on the woman.
The woman. Margaret Finch-Finley. Schoolteacher for the third grade. I remember coming to her class, and talking to the students about the role of the police in our community. They had wanted to hold my gun, but I joked that they just wanted to play cops and robbers, and that there were no burglars nearby. I had tapped my nose, as though I could smell them. Some of them smiled, but no one laughed. Margaret patted my arm before leading the group into more reasonable questions.
Rizzo glanced at me, and I jumped. He sighed, “Pull it together, man. It’s hard for me, too.” He prodded a pile of clothing near where Margaret lay, his eyes searching, “Call in the EMTs, we need to get her out of here.”
I nodded and stepped into the next room, where the air was a little less foul, and called it in. The dispatcher sounded harried, and told me that they were on their way, but it would be a while. I went back to Rizzo, and he was crouched next to the woman—crouched next to Margaret—with two fingers on her neck. “Is she alive?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Just. She’s cold. Let’s get her legs elevated, but be careful. I don’t see any hypodermics, but you never know.”
I helped Rizzo pull the woman’s legs up, and her skirt rose to expose graying underwear. I looked away, and Rizzo laughed dryly. Margaret’s skin was rough to the touch, and the chillness of her flesh seeped into mine. It felt strange, touching a woman who wasn’t Zahra skin to skin. I eyed the room for a blanket, but could see little in the dim light. The only illumination came from the face of the radio on the chipped and worn coffee table, static the only sound apart from our breathing. “I should find her something warm.”
“Just keep her legs up. The EMT’s will just take it off of her when they get here.” Rizzo stared at her relaxed face. “Jesus. I just saw her at church last week. What the hell got into this town?”
I shook my head. “We brought in her son Isaac last month.”
“Isaac has always played with his meds.” Rizzo huffed, as though supporting her leg was a chore, or perhaps he was tired of me. I was tired of him. For almost two straight months we had pooled so many hours we could barely manage four hours of sleep a night. There were cots set up at the station for us. Rizzo made a poor roommate compared to my Zahra. “Isaac has always been on the fast track up to Silver Springs.”
Silver Springs was the nearest state prison, a mid-level security area which housed non-violent offenders. They could hold up to six hundred inmates. We had sent them twenty-three in two months which could, perhaps, qualify for a state record. The number we had sent to the hospital was in the triple digits. “Epidemic.” I said softly.
Rizzo glared at me. “It’s drugs, not a disease.”
I motioned at Margaret with my chin, “Where are her track marks? Where is the chemical in her blood that the lab can point to and say ‘this drug’ or ‘that drug’? She’s as clean as the rest of them. You say ‘drugs, drugs, drugs’, but you don’t know. What makes these people sick, who can say? I can’t.” As I spoke, the Middle Eastern accent I’d spent years suppressing surged into my voice. Rizzo, Estelle the dispatcher, and our boss the omniscient Craig, were blinded by their need to place the answers in neat rows on their reports, and quiet boxes in their minds.
Rizzo opened his mouth to say something, but a knock sounded at the door, and the EMTs arrived on the scene.
Lila and her partner gave us a curt nod of recognition before taking over. The large man—I could never remember his name—took our place at Margaret’s legs while Lila performed her quick physical assessment. When she spoke, I felt like I could speak with her, I had heard the diagnoses so often of late. “Depressed consciousness, pinpoint pupils, shallow breathing. Shows no signs of head trauma. No obvious track marks.” She swept the room with her water-colored eyes. “No visible paraphernalia.” She paused as the radio on the coffee table barked loud static and fell back to its previous low volume. Margaret’s eyes flashed open at the sound, and closed as soon as it abated.
Lila pushed to her feet. “Thank you, officers. We can take it from here.” She nodded to her partner, “Bret, let’s get her loaded and to Mercy. Prep AED and have epinephrine ready if she goes into arrest.”
Bret the Partner let Lila take the patient’s legs, and gave me a wide berth as he ran past me and out the front door. He looked haggard. The EMTs and medical staff at Mercy’s had it worse than we did, trying to stabilize the patients that were piling up like stacks of cordwood in their rooms and halls. I heard from Lila in passing that the only time the patients weren’t screaming and thrashing was when the radio was on, even if it was white noise.
Rizzo and I walked back to the patrol car, our movements unhurried in contrast to Bret’s quick, timely motions as he rolled the empty gurney into the house. The neighborhood was still, the silence reminiscent of the way a jungle goes quiet when a leopard walks through. Lawns were untidy, cars parked at awkward angles, and the newspaper were squashed piles of muck at the end of driveways. The dispatcher squawked from the receiver on my collar, and I reached for it by habit. Another one, they said, at the high school.
Rizzo stood with his hands in his pockets, his back to the patrol car and his eyes on the distant mountains. He shook his head when I called to him. “I’m done in.” He said, and removed his belt. His badge came next, placed neatly on the trunk of the car.
I did not try to stop him. I watched him walk away, toward those distant mountains, and I longed to go with him. The radio burst static, and a voice whispered through it, but the signal was bad, and in a moment it was gone. I took Rizzo’s badge, his holster belt, and stowed them in the trunk. I turned the car radio and my own to the lowest setting, and headed for home.
Zahra’s car had a thin layer of dust on the windshield. I drew a heart on it before I pushed into the house, and the scent of cooking enveloped me. It smelled like heaven after the hell of the last few weeks. A large copper pot sat simmering on the stove, the blue flames tiny pinpricks that barely flickered. I called out to her, and the sound of her voice carried me on wings to our bedroom.
She was curled on our bed, and for a moment I saw the schoolteacher, the nurse, the junkies, and the dozens of others I had found not so long ago. But then she lifted her head, and smiled, and I fell into her smile, and her arms, and the sweet, lovely scent of her.
“Rizzo has left.” I said, after we had finished and her fingers caressed my back and shoulders. I looked down into her eyes and kissed her forehead. “We should go as well.”
Zahra patted my arm, and I moved off of her. She reached for the clock radio on her bedside table, and flicked it on. Static sounded, and the faint whisper of a feminine voice, before she turned the volume down. “I wish you had called,” Zahra said. “I would not have made supper. We will have to leave tomorrow.”
I had called her, two weeks before, and said to pack a bag for us both. Things were getting worse, I told her, and she should stay inside. Do not answer the door, I had said, and keep the shotgun handy. Zahra chided me for being so concerned, but I saw the gun leaned against the door when I arrived, and was glad she had listened.
“Now hush,” Zahra whispered, and reached for the radio once more. “My program is starting.”
I grinned at her and rolled off the bed. I took a shower while Zahra sang in the other room, her voice rising and falling with the radio. As I dried myself, I could hear the DJ on the other side of the closed door, the voice melodic and soft. I opened the door to release the steam and saw Zahra kneeling on the floor by the radio, her face upturned towards it with a look of rapture.
“Tonight,” the woman’s voice crooned through the static, “Come see me, live and in person. I’ll be waiting for you.” The voice cut out, replaced by techno music that Zahra had expressed nothing but distaste for in years past.
I frowned and moved closer to my wife, but when I touched her shoulder she did not respond. Her breath was shallow, her pupils narrowed to pinpoint dots in her dark eyes. I shook her, and she blinked hazily, and looked up at me with slow, jerky movements. “I have to go,” she said. “We cannot leave. I have to go to her.”
The radio would not turn off. When I unplugged the cord, and flipped the breakers, I could hear it loud from the neighbors’ houses. Soon the air was filled with the music, and the woman’s voice. I shoved earplugs in my ears, but nothing muffled the sound. The woman called to me. She called to Zahra as she screamed and thrashed when I restrained her. I remembered the others, so many others, who we had found curled around their radios. The sound was so loud in my ears, but I snapped the handcuffs into place, locked Zahra to the radiator whiles she bellowed obscenities I had never heard from her precious lips.
When I walked outside, the DJ’s soothing voice could be heard through open windows and doors. The air was cool, and the night full of movement. Some of my neighbors were practically skeletal with matted, greasy hair that hung about their faces, and some of them were bedecked in their Sunday finest. They shuffled, they jogged, and they casually strolled, but all in the same purposeful direction.
“Come to me.”
The voice slithered through the air, and they moved faster. Some of them fell, and when one could not walk, he crawled. A young child toddled in sock-footed pajamas. The ten year old that mowed our lawn sprinted past those who moved too slow.
I pulled the plugs from my ears as I walked with them. My brethren. My family. When we passed close to one another, we touched briefly, skin on skin. Yes, I know you. Yes, I hear her. Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she everything?
At the field there were thousands. White coats of the doctors mingled with the hospital gowns of the patients. I could see where Lila stood with her arms raised, like so many others, her partner Bret standing beside her. Every soul I knew from church, every battered housewife I had helped, and child who had lost their pet swarmed around me, pressed into my skin and breathed the cold night with me until our breath rose like fog above us. I thought of Zahra, chained to the radiator. I imagined her chewing at her wrist, freeing herself in blood and glory, and joining us here. I wished I could go back to her, and that we could dance down the streets toward this magnificence, but I dared not look away.
The music began, and she appeared.
For a moment, I remembered Zahra’s cool fingers on my shoulder as I gazed at the image of the God carved into the stone of the temple a thousand, thousand miles away. The many limbs frozen in motion, the head cast sideways, the tongue exposed. Zahra had spoke to me about the God, but I was too distracted by her touch, which had been so fleeting back then.
Then the music began. She opened her great mouth. She sang.
And we danced.
We danced while the sky turned to honey, and the soil beneath our feet ran warm from blood. We danced, and the beat slowed as the sun climbed higher in the sky. We danced until the dusk, when the first began to fall. I felt the still-warm flesh of a child beneath my feet, but she was singing, and the song was ending, and I could not stop.
I was among the few still standing when her many legs shook the ground, and her arms split the sky. My heart hurt against my ribs. I saw the last of my blue-lipped brothers’ fall to the ground. She screamed in joy when my heart stopped its rhythm and I fell, at long last, before her feet.