The young cop watched the grey Jeep straddle the median as it rounded the curve at Eagle Hill. The Jeep was moving well below the speed limit; a good thing since the roadway was slick with an inch of light, fluffy snow. The tracks in the snow had been what had caught the cop’s attention. A nice slow drift from the center of the road to the curb and back again. At 2:30 in the morning, even Christmas morning, this was a good sign of a live one.
The left blinker of the Jeep flashed, and it turned up onto the North Ridge. The cop guessed that the driver probably lived in the neighborhood. As if to confirm his suspicion, the signal flashed again as the Jeep turned into a driveway. The cop wanted to be sure, and pulled up and watched as the operator, a middle aged man, stepped out and looked back to the cruiser.
The cop approached. “Problem, officer?” The man said.
“You seemed shaky on the road. Do you live here?”
“Yeah. I’m just getting home from a friends house.”
“Party?” The young cop asked.
“Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass. You know.”
Even in the wintry breeze, the man gave off a heavy bottle breath.
“Must have been a lot of communion wine,” the cop said. “How about you show me your license.”
Indignantly, the man said, “Why?”
“Because you’ve been drinking. Because you were driving all over the road. And because I said so, that’s why.”
After several tries, the man found his wallet and then fumbled through his credit cards, library card and a condom foil before finally locating his documents.
The cop read the name and address on the license. Satisfied that the man was home, the cop handed it back and asked, “Ever go fishing?”
Confused, the man stammered, “Yeah…sure…why?”
“Do you keep what you catch, or throw it back?”
“Well, I guess it depends. If it’s a keeper, I keep it.”
Nodding, the cop said, “Well, you’re a keeper. But I like the idea of catch and release, so here’s my deal. Since its Christmas and you’re home now, I won’t lock you up for drunk driving if you promise to go in the house and go to sleep. If I see you out driving again this morning, you go to jail. Do you understand?”
The man started to protest, but thought better of it and turned away. As he stumbled up his front step, the cop said, “You’re welcome.”
Back in the warm cruiser, the cop shook his head as he slipped the big Ford into gear. He had been in a sour mood from the time he signed on at 1:00 am. This was the third Christmas in a row that he had spent on the graveyard shift. When he got home in the morning wanting nothing more than a few hours of sleep, his wife and kids would be up, excited and full of energy. He would then have to push through a day of relatives, heavy meals and noise; half awake and checking his watch for when he could get home and crawl into bed before starting all over again at midnight. It was a drag on family life for sure.
The snow subsided as the north wind freshened. He could make out the lights of a distant trawler prowling the waters off Cape Ann. Well, at least some other poor bastards have to work tonight, he thought as he drove along the deserted road. He passed the Yacht Club, darkened in the off-season, and the partially iced-over Clark Pond. The lot at Pavilion Beach was vacant of cars, and a swing through Little Neck left him more melancholy with its boarded up cottages and abandoned trash cans carried by the wind like suburban tumbleweed.
He spent the next hour aimlessly driving around town, checking doors, casting judgments on the quality of the Christmas lights on various homes. Normally, he would be an intent listener of late-night talk radio, but the usual broadcasts were replaced by an endless drone of canned holiday music. Even Marty’s was closed, making a long, tiring night even more so. Finally, with nothing left to see and little desire to drive, he parked on Town Hill and stared down onto the empty public square.
Minutes passed, and he rolled down the cruiser window to stave of his drowsiness. It was 3:45 a.m. In fifteen more minutes, he could go into the station for his break. He saw the familiar green and gold Boston Globe delivery truck pull up to the front of Ipswich News, and the driver unload the morning papers. He looked forward to the diversion of reading the news. Watching the truck pull away, he started the cruiser to swoop down and snag a copy of The Globe just as the radio cracked.
“Station to Car Three.”
Ah shit, he muttered as he picked up the mike and answered the call.
“Car Three on”
The desk cop gave him a call for a medical aid at a nearby elderly housing complex.
“What’s the nature of the medical?” He asked.
“Unknown, but an elderly gentleman requested an ambulance to take him to the hospital.”
“Received. Is the ambulance in route?”
“Roger, but its going to be delayed. They’re coming from Beverly.”
He wasn’t keen on medical aids, especially with the ambulance far away. The first aid equipment in the trunk was limited; a jump kit, ambu bag and oxygen. If someone was in need of real attention or care, it would be a long time coming. Nothing was worse than trying to keep a sick or injured person going until the people who actually knew what they were doing showed up.
He didn’t ask the desk cop for a name, hating to feed the gossip chain of scanner-land. But the apartment number carried a vague familiarity that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
He pulled into the complex, seeking the apartment number with the cruiser spotlight. Many of the units had lights on; flickering blue flashes from late night televisions, bedroom lamps and an occasional Christmas tree. He and his partner Guy B had talked about this once; how all of the houses in town would be dark at night except for the elderly village. “They’re afraid to die,” Guy had opined. The cop agreed with his wisdom.
“I’ll be off,” he reported as he pulled up in front of the address and popped the trunk lid. Bending over, he wrenched the first aid kit and oxygen from the trunk well and started for the door. A light came on as he reached the threshold; someone had been watching for him.
The door opened and the stale air of the apartment spilled into the night. An older man dressed in worn tan pants and a plaid hunters coat stood inside.
“You call?” the cop asked as he looked at the man, recognizing him from some other time before.
“It’s me,” the man answered. ”Where’s the ambulance?”
“It’s on the way. Why don’t you let me in?”
“I need the ambulance. I’ve got to go to the hospital,” the man insisted and started out the door.
Dropping the first aid gear in the snow, the cop slowed the man. “Whoa, hang on there. The ambulance will be here in a minute. Let’s go inside out of the cold.”
The old man stood there, and the cop saw that he was trembling and pale. Stooped at the shoulders, he rubbed his hands together trying to warm his fingers. That’s when it came to the cop. “Hey, I remember you now. I was here last Christmas when you called for an ambulance.”
The old man didn’t acknowledge what the cop said, but didn’t resist being guided back into the apartment either.
Like most of the apartments in the village, the place was small, cluttered and musty smelling. The furnishings were dated and sparse; an easy chair covered in towels, a small couch with a pillow and blanket, and a coffee table littered with newspapers, crossword puzzles, pill bottles, a coffee cup and TV remote. The television was an older console variety; a grainy, black and white version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” burning through the screen. The top surface was adorned with framed photos of the man and a woman the cop assumed was his wife.
“Here, sit down,” the cop said. “You’re shivering. Let me get that blanket there and cover you up. You live alone?”
The man nodded sadly, and looked at the photos on the television. The cop spread the blanket about the man’s shoulders. He could feel the man’s bones and thin arms as he gathered the blanket around his chest.
“There, that’s it. The ambi will be here in a minute. What’s your name?”
The man told him and the cop recognized an old town name. He was breathing rapidly and the cop readied the oxygen. He touched the man’s shoulder and quietly said, “Try to relax a little. You’re going to be okay.”
The man sat silently in the chair. The cop asked, “So what’s going on, why did you call for an ambulance?”
“I just don’t feel well,” the man replied. “I’m all worked up, like I’m having a heart attack.”
While the man was speaking, the cop gently held his wrist and felt his pulse. It was faint and beating rapidly – not a good sign.
“Just take it easy, okay. Do you want some oxygen?”
“I don’t like the mask,” the man replied.
“That’s alright. I have something that just goes under your nose.”
The man nodded in agreement, and the cop connected the green hose to the nasal breather. “Help me get this under your nose,” the cop asked. The man worked the canula with his wrinkled, bony fingers as the cop positioned the tether behind his ears.
“Okay, good. Now try to relax a little.”
The man sat back and closed his eyes.
After a minute or two, the man’s breathing became less labored and he opened his eyes.
“How long ago did you loose your wife?” The cop asked.
“Three Christmases ago,” the man said.
“I’m sorry,” the cop said. “Christmas must be tough for you.”
The man stared straight ahead and the cop heard the ambi pull up to the front of the building.
“The ambulance is here now, so just sit tight and let the EMT’s take over, okay.”
The man offered a wan smile, and the cop stood aside as the medics stepped through the door. They assessed the man and after determining he would be transported to Beverly Hospital, the cop asked him whom he could call and notify.
The man looked away and said, “No one. I’m alone now.”
The medic exchanged glances with the cop, and said to the man, “You sure? Everybody has somebody?”
“No, there’s no one,” the man answered solemnly.
As the medics wheeled the man to the back of the ambulance, the cop asked where his keys were, so he could lock up the apartment. The man patted his pocket and told the cop that he had them. When the man was secured on the stretcher, the cop leaned in and said, “If you need a ride home later, tell the nurse to call us. I’ll come up for you.”
The man smiled and reached for the cop’s hand, held it tightly and whispering, “Thank you.”
Struck by the man’s gratitude and a little embarrassed by the sudden gesture, the cop cleared his throat and tried to smile. “You’ll be okay, I’ll see you later.”
After closing the ambi door to the chill winter air, the cop told the medic,“I was here last year for the same thing. I think he just gets lonely and worked up.”
“Okay. He’ll get checked out anyway. I’ll have them call you once they’re through.”
The cop went back inside to shut down the TV and make sure the stove was off. He leafed through an address book he found on the kitchen table. There were just a couple of names of people in the village, no relatives, and no kids.
After securing the door to the apartment, the cop returned his gear to the trunk of the cruiser. He tried to leave the trunk neater than he found it, harboring a futile hope that the next guy would do the same. He cleared the call and after picking up the newspaper, made his way to the station.
The desk guy was an older widower who worked every Christmas whether scheduled or not. They yakked about the news and the other trivia, and then he asked the cop about the medical.
“Not sure. I think the guy’s just lonely. His wife died a few years ago.” The desk cop looked down and returned to the sports page.
After a few more hours of quiet patrol, the cop drove to Hilltop Road and watched the sun come up. When he got back to the station, he called the hospital to find out how the old man was doing.
The nurse put him on hold to get the doctor.
“Are you family?” The doc asked.
“No. I don’t think he has one. At least that’s what he told me.”
“Well, he passed away an hour ago.”
“My God,” the cop said. “What happened?”
“Probably cardiac arrest. He just closed his eyes and slipped away. You sure there’s no family?”
“I checked his place and didn’t find any names. He had his wallet with him, maybe there’s something in there.”
“We’ll check. He was VA anyway, so they probably have some info.”
“Okay, Doctor. Let us know if you need something else.”
After his shift ended the cop drove home and pulling into his driveway, saw his kids run to the window and urge him inside. As he stepped through the door, they jumped into his arms shouting, “Merry Christmas, Daddy.”
His wife came to him and threw her arms around him, welcoming him home. Sensing something different, she looked at him and asked him if he was feeling okay.
After a few seconds, the cop said, “Yeah, I’m feeling……touched.”