Afternoon Delight

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Excerpt:

Lieutenant Tim Cannon sat in the ambulance’s passenger seat, one elbow resting on the open window, eyes on the side mirror, as the newest EMT backed the bus into the bay. “You’re good,” he said.

Casey shifted into park, took his foot off the brake, and slumped forward to knock his head against the steering wheel.

“Might as well get it over with,” Tim said.

“It’s not going to be good,” Casey said into the steering column.

“Nope.” Casey was a couple of months into his probie year as an EMT with the FDNY’s Emergency Medical Services department, and so far living up to the rumor that he’d graduated near the bottom of his class. Tall, gangling, with blond hair and the wide-eyed stare of a spooked basset hound, he was an easy target for practical jokes and teasing. He took it very well, probably out of long-standing habits left over from surviving junior high school. Tim kind of liked him.

“I puked,” Casey said with another thud against the wheel.

The evidence was smeared down the front of his blue uniform shirt, the smell still pretty ripe, but Tim had had an iron gut long before his decade as a paramedic in New York City. He’d never thrown up on the job and rarely gagged at the smells the city and its residents produced on a daily basis. Casey, on the other hand, got caught in what veterans called a sympathy puke. Usually a bystander caught a whiff of something unpleasant to the sensitive human olfactory glands and upchucked their last meal. The scent (or maybe the retching sound—he had an ongoing debate with Captain Jones over which actually triggered the sympathy puke) sometimes set off others nearby.

“Yup. You puked. It happens to the best of us.”

“Have you ever . . . ?”

“Nope,” he said cheerfully, and opened his door. “Go get cleaned up, and hurry.”

“Yessir,” Casey said, and trotted for the locker room.

Tim strolled over to the group of EMTs and paramedics watching Casey’s scuttle of shame.

“Is he wearing his lunch?” Gutierrez asked, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the locker room.

“We didn’t have time to eat. That’s breakfast,” Tim said. “Vic had a seizure and threw up when we got him on the stretcher, setting off his wife and three other assorted adults in the apartment, which smelled like no one had taken out the trash this millennium.”

“How’d he handle it?” Captain Jones asked when the laughter died down.

“He gets an A plus for effort,” Tim said. “Didn’t drop the gurney, waited until we had him loaded before he threw up the second time. Stayed in the back with him the whole way to Bellevue.”

Casey emerged, pink from either scrubbing or embarrassment. “Want some lunch?” Gutierrez said.

“I could eat,” he said, shoulders hunched, smoothing down his cowlick.

The bay dissolved into laughter, the teasing a time-honored method of deflecting attention from the call itself. If Casey was going to make it as an EMT, he needed to sharpen his technical skills and step up his humor.

“Go on,” Tim said. “I’ll clean out the bus.”

Casey straightened his shoulders, reminding Tim of a plastic hanger springing back from the heavy weight of a coat. “No way, LT. I’ll do it.”

“Get out of here, before I change my mind,” Tim said.

“Thanks, LT,” Casey said.

The rest of the group walked out of the bay in their blue uniform pants, white polos, and sturdy boots. They blended in with the people going by, some peering curiously into the open bays, most preoccupied with their lives, on cell phones, talking to friends, or just talking to thin air.

Tim linked his fingers and ran his hands over his hair, exhaling as he looked out at the street. Spring was in the air: the temps nearing seventy, everything suffused with warmth and light, smelling faintly of grass and trees in bloom. Even in Manhattan the scent of spring trumped concrete and metal.

For a moment he stepped out of himself and watched people go by like they were members of some alien race. Then he turned to the ambulance. He’d done this check thousands of times, usually with a partner, keeping up a running commentary about the Yankees’ season, the latest girlfriends, the latest firehouse prank, as they replaced dressings, tape, airways, and checked equipment. Lately he opted to work alone. It was faster, especially when his partner was a shiny new probie. Casey was eager to learn, but not yet as quick as Tim. In the past he’d always downshifted to a probie’s slower pace, making sure the newbie absorbed the hundreds of details that took them from trained to competent. Today, he didn’t feel like slowing down.

In fact, lately he’d had two speeds: pedal to the floor and asleep.

Another day, he told himself. He’d take Casey through it another day.

Work completed, he loped over to the duty office and poked his head through the door. “I’m off the clock and going to get some lunch. You want anything?”

Captain Jones was head-down in paperwork. “No, thanks,” he said. “Hey, Catz and Moran caught a call with your elderly couple on Canal Street. The old man wandered down the block and into the park before a cop found him.”

“They’re not my elderly couple,” Tim said automatically.

“She likes you. Says she finds you a very nice young man.”

Tim shot him a glare. The Cohens had lived in their apartment for nearly fifty years and had escaped the FDNY’s EMS division’s notice for forty-nine of those years. In the last few months they’d become frequent flyers. Mr. Cohen suffered from mild dementia, not quite badly enough to require round-the-clock care, but Tim could see it coming. Their boys lived in Hartford and Boston, close enough to visit but not close enough to keep an eye on their parents. She had a home health aide a couple of times a week, but insisted she could, and would, take care of him. In the gap between home and the nursing home, elderly folks ended up on the frequent flyer list.

“What happened? Dehydrated?” Tim said, his mind running through options for lunch. What happened after the immediate moment of the crisis wasn’t his responsibility. Speed and skill were a paramedic’s basic tools. Stabilize ’em, transport ’em, do it all over again, as fast as you can. We don’t deal in futures, he’d told Casey on their first day.

“He was having a lucid day, apparently. Wanted a hot dog,” Jonesy said. “She insisted on sandwiches. She turned her back, he went out to get a hot dog and scared her half to death.”

“Okay, good. We’re playing ball tonight, right?”

“Six at the playground,” Jonesy confirmed.

Come to think of it, a hot dog sounded pretty good. Tim walked out of the firehouse, but rather than following the other guys to Houston, where restaurants specializing in fast, cheap food crowded against a mishmash of stores, he headed for Seward Park. A hot dog vendor was parked just inside the park entrance. The lunch rush from the surrounding businesses was over, so he walked right up. “Two dogs with everything, a pretzel, and a Coke,” he said.

The pretzel balanced on the laden dogs, he walked up the brick path and found a bench in the sunshine. Mindful of the condiments smeared on the bottom of the wax paper protecting the pretzel, he set the food on the bench beside him and began methodically tearing off bits of twisted bread. Spring was definitely here; sunlight dappled the newly opened leaves overhead, and hundreds of tulips in red, yellow, and orange stretched toward the sun. Some pedestrians clutched library books from the New York Public Library branch across from the park, while mothers pushed infants and toddlers in strollers. He watched these visitors from a world that wasn’t lurching from crisis to crisis walk past and idly wondered when he’d last spent any time in that world.

A few late diners occupied benches in his vicinity, some eating food from soft-sided lunch boxes, a few with hot dogs, but most holding paper bowls from the food truck parked at the curve of the park’s east entrance. symbowl read the sign over the open window along the truck’s side. An awning protected the two women working in the truck from the sun, and a market board bearing the menu was braced near the passenger door. Tim couldn’t read the items offered, but whatever the woman sitting two benches from him had smelled really good.

He finished the pretzel, balled up the wrapper smeared with condiments, and started in on the first hot dog. As he watched, the door swung open and one of the food truck employees skipped down the steps leading from the back of the truck to the city street. With a bright, easy smile, she said something to the woman still in the truck. They shared a laugh, then she went down on her heels and used the white cloth in her hand to rub out one of the daily specials listed on the chalkboard.

Hot dog forgotten, Tim watched her, because there was something eminently watchable about her. Her light brown hair was swept up on top of her head in a messy knot. Unlike so many of the women in Manhattan, she was all curves—rounded shoulders, full breasts, a sweet little swell of belly, her bottom outlined in her skirt’s pale blue fabric, her calves tapering to feet in incongruous red patent leather clogs—and yet she seemed as light as the sunshine filtering through the leaves.

She looked over her shoulder and caught Tim staring. That bright smile flashed on her face, full of mischief and delight. He smiled back before he knew he was going to.

Gaze fixed on the shrubbery across from him, he crammed the last of the hot dog in his mouth, swiped at the corners with his napkin, and balled up the remains of his lunch, then automatically checked his watch. Four minutes. Slow for an average paramedic, who preferred food consumable in two minutes or less.

Movement caught his attention. He looked over his left shoulder to see the food truck woman walking toward him, a steaming bowl in one hand. Probably it was her lunch break, too, now that the rush was over. He stood up in case she wanted the bench in the sunshine.

She flashed him that bright smile. “Don’t leave,” she said.

“I thought you wanted this bench,” he said.

“I did, because you were sitting on it.”

A fast talker. Just the way he liked it. He sat back down, stretched his arm across the back of the seat, and smiled back. “Still here, darlin’.”

She held out the bowl, a napkin and spork cupped between her palm and the bottom of the bowl. “Do me a favor and give this a try.”

He looked into the bowl she held, which wasn’t difficult even sitting down because she had to be a good twelve inches shorter than his six-foot, five-inch height. The recyclable cardboard container appeared to be missing the two primary components of food in his world: meat and some sort of white bread, like a bun, a tortilla, pasta, or breadsticks. Sprinkled on top were some leafy sprigs of something he didn’t recognize.

The smell made his mouth water. “What is it?” he asked.

“It’s the symbol,” she said. “It’s vegetarian, but you can get it vegan. It represents the natural world that creates and sustains our bodies, and which in turn surrounds and encompasses us.”

Not sure how to respond to that, he stared at her.

“I know,” she said with a little grin. “I’m the chef. Trish does the marketing. Just try it.”

“I just ate,” he said, holding up the balled-up wrappers to demonstrate.

“You certainly did,” she said, not moving. “If by ‘ate’ you mean ‘inhaled chemically processed meat byproducts at roughly the speed of light.’ Did you even taste that?”

From anyone else the words could have sounded judgmental. But laughter infused the woman in front of him, seemed to radiate from her skin, and involuntarily, he chuckled. “I’m not sure I want to taste it.”

“Oh, I like a good hot dog now and again,” she said. “Ball games, especially. Beer and dogs and a really good mustard. But something tells me that’s your standard lunch.”

“I get pizza, burgers, sandwiches,” he protested.

“I meant the method of consumption, not the actual food. Just try this. Please. The sauces aren’t quite right, and I need input.”

He could walk away, leaving her holding a bowl of food in the middle of the park, or he could humor her. His cell phone wasn’t going off, and the warm spring air settled against his skin. “Okay,” he said, and took the bowl from her.

She brushed the crumbs from his pretzel to the pigeons bobbing and strutting by their feet, then sat down next to him. He dipped into the bowl, trying for a bit of everything—rice, beans, sour cream, salsa—and lifted the sporkful to his mouth, all the while trying to identify what was in the sauce that made it smell so mouthwateringly good.

He stopped thinking entirely when the flavors spread across his taste buds. Lemon, garlic, the black beans not mushy but not hard, the salsa that nearly exploded with tomato and chiles, and under it all, the chewy rice.

“Huh,” he said.

“Good huh or bad huh?”

“Good,” he said, going back for a second sporkful. “What’s in it?”

“A base of brown rice, topped with black beans, sour cream, avocado, salsa, shredded cheese. That’s our standard sauce. I’m working on a variety of others.”

“So it’s like a burrito bowl.”

“That one is. With the right sauces it takes on Korean or Middle Eastern tones. You can get nearly infinite varieties of flavors out of a bowl of rice, protein, vegetables if you’re into that sort of thing, and the right sauces.”

“You can get nearly infinite varieties,” he said around a mouthful of the strangely compelling dish. “I get rice and beans topped with cheese and sour cream.”

“It’s a skill,” she said, amused. “I’m guessing you have other skills.”

“I do, darlin’,” he said. “What’s in the sauce?”

“That’s my secret. Any suggestions? Too hot? Make it hotter?”

“Oh, I always like it hotter,” he said. “What do I owe you?”

“On the house. Well, on the truck. Either way, it’s on me.”

He looked at her, at her lush lips, her face bare of any makeup at all, at the freckles dotting her forehead and cheekbones, but mostly at her mouth. This was promising. Very promising. “It looks good on you, darlin’,” he said. “Thanks for lunch.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, still smiling. “Come back, and bring your friends.”

***

Sarah Naylor opened the back door to Symbowl and hurried up the steps into the truck’s interior. Her business partner, Trish, was leaning out of the service window in search of cool spring air. The truck’s interior had to be ninety degrees, giving Sarah a taste of what August would be like. She could all but feel her hair frizzing in the humidity, strands escaping from the knot to curl against her face and neck.

“You gave him lunch after he ate two hot dogs and a pretzel?”

“Did you see him? Six feet four if he’s an inch. He could eat an entire bowl and come back for seconds,” Sarah said. She joined Trish in the window. “We want customers with appetites.”

“What did he say?”

“The sauces could be hotter.”

“Anything else?”

“The cheesiest pickup lines I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Delivered with a smile, though.”

Trish shifted her weight and watched Tim take long, loping strides toward the park’s entrance. “That guy? You’d think he’d know his way around. Or maybe he’s too arrogant to put in the effort. He looks like Thor.”

“He’s not that bulked up,” Sarah said absently. “Unlike your average action movie hero, I’m guessing he could lift his arms over his shoulders.”

Trish snapped out of her reverie. “Okay, so he’s an EMT, which means he knows cops and firefighters and other EMTs, all of whom eat lunch at light speed from fast food places and trade recommendations. Word of mouth. I’ll follow some of the official Twitter accounts.”

“And I’ll keep experimenting with the hotter sauces.”

“We’re a team,” Trish said, and stirred the simmering black beans. “Let’s hope for a mid-afternoon rush.”

 

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