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g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Artwork by Alex Nodopaka
Play Dead, Roll Over
So this is how my life’s going to end.
My mind latches onto the sound of footsteps approaching as I lie face down on the filthy sidewalk. I let my mouth droop open, smuggling and releasing puffs of air through my nostrils, appearing—I hope—to look as if I’ve ceased breathing. I press against the ground, muscles taut, trying to temper the spasmodic shaking. Having just been blasted in the side at point-blank range with a snub-nose revolver, I need to give my assailant the impression that the first and only shot has finished the job. But it’s futile. Try as I might to control the shakes, I’m as relaxed as a squirrel flapping in the road, freshly nipped by a passing truck.
A succession of clicks on the pavement moves closer. The stranger halts, his shoes making a double scrape on the concrete—inches from my right ear. The lurking sensation of a gun leveled at me injects an adrenaline blitz through my system, prompting my chest and ears and fingers and eye sockets to pulsate while waiting for bullets to crash through the back of my skull—and as I wait, one image comes to mind: Mom, lips quivering, choking on tears and struggling to stay upright as she clutches onto the coffin’s edge at my funeral.
The rattle of a car engine, pistons knocking, pushes aside thoughts of a pending burial. I stay face down and listen to the driver kill the engine and step out of the vehicle, followed by the voice of Sgt. Charlie Doyle of the Roosevelt Island Public Safety Department.
“Peacock?” he mutters. He whispers my name but in the absences of a response abruptly hollers. “Peacock!”
I want to scream back Gun! He’s got a gun! but I’m unable take off the death mask, wrap up the final act of my play-dead performance. The warning never makes it to my lips. Doyle groans, convinced he’s in the presence of the deceased.
Finally I unlock one eye.
Then the other.
He kneels, touching my shoulder in commiseration as he shouts “Oh, shit, you are alive!”
The gunman remains within sight, though he has stepped back, poised against the wall of a nearby apartment building. His hands are empty.
Officers Terrence Kwan and Richard Jenkins then arrive and rush to my side. I also watch as plainclothes Public Safety Manager Ted Wilkerson approaches the still-unidentified stranger, who makes the mistake of asking, “Who are you?” while reaching toward the re-holstered revolver in his waistband. Ted, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and a recently retired New York City cop, whips out a semiautomatic pistol and rams the barrel between the suspect’s teeth, answering “Who am I? I’m the motherfucker with the gun in your mouth!”
Wilkerson smacks the man’s hand away and confiscates the weapon—and only then does he remove his deep-throated gun from the face of the shooter, who now gags as if trying not to vomit. Handcuffed, they escort him to headquarters about a hundred-fifty feet away.
It’s safe to put my head back down. But it’s too soon to rejoice. My brief reprieve from utter dread disappears as I grow conscious of the steady moistening of my uniform, a steady drip-drip-drip from upper torso to ribcage. My sudden awareness of this saturation strikes like a meth injection to the heart.
“Terry, tell me,” I say to Kwan, without looking up. “Am I bleeding a lot?” Kwan exhales, forcing air through tightly pressed lips. He doesn’t answer.
“Ter-ry?” I call out in slow-motion.
Finally, he sputters “Well… aw, man… let’s just say… um… don’t look. Just don’t look.”
I elevate the uninjured side of my body, raising it high enough to take a peek: clumps of coagulated blood, like miniature dams, block the red rivulets, which now ooze into the pavement’s decorative zigzag crevices. After sucking in a deep breath I let it go, determined not to panic. I shut my eyes and force-feed images of a favorite beach into my brain, imagining I’m resting on a blanket, seagulls shrieking above, nearby waves crashing on the sand. No matter how false this serene setting may be, it helps trick the central nervous system—and hence my cardiovascular system—into pumping out lesser quantities of body fluid. Escaping to Point Pleasant seems to slow my heart rate and, I hope, the discharge of blood.
My reduced movements startle Doyle, who assumes I’ve lapsed into unconsciousness. He taps my arm, breaking me out of my self-induced trance.
“Peacock, can you hear me?”
“Yep, I’m still here,” I say, suddenly feeling lightheaded as I speak. “I was on the beach, that’s all. It’s cool.”
“The beach?” Doyle whispers to himself or maybe to Kwan.
“I’m just resting,” I assure him. “Feel free to check back in a minute or two.”
Point Pleasant reenters my mental screen. Waves. Sounds of seagulls. Boardwalk barkers and game buzzers. Good times.
Still, I wonder about the extent of damage the bullet may have done to my trunk. My armpit throbs, the muscle underneath a shredded mess. An adjacent spot on my back—the very spot, I’m guessing, where the bullet had exited my body—feels afire with pain radiating in all directions.
I can, however, move my fingers and shift my legs and arms and speak—no paralysis. Plus, imminent execution no longer hovers like a hawk floating over a field in search of a juicy rodent. Perhaps in response to those glass-half-full ruminations, my mind abruptly shifts focus to an uncritical though personally meaningful consideration, despite the continuing severity of the situation.
“Know what, Sarge?” I ask Doyle.
“What is it, Steve?”
“This is really going to fuck up my St. Patrick’s Day,” I say, pausing to cough out a phlegm-filled chuckle. “Don’t think I’ll be making it to the parade this year.”
Two undercover detectives from the 114th Precinct in Queens roll up in an unmarked car. The first of the blue jean- and sneaker-clad cops jumps out and dominates the scene like an alpha-male lion securing territory. Glaring at the uniformed rent-a-cops huddled around me, he shouts, “Did it occur to any of you to put pressure on his wounds?” No one answers.
They roll me onto my back like bakers rotating a fragile eighth-of-a-ton dough pile. Squatting beside me, one of them rips open a red-cross-adorned package and yanks out the contents, warning, “This might sting a bit, but it’ll slow the bleeding.”
He presses a white hunk of towel-thick gauze against the bullet’s entry point. I flinch as I swallow a lungful of air.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” he says. “Whatcha got?”
“Am I gonna die?”
“You’ll survive. I’m sure.”
“So, it really doesn’t look like I’ll die?”
“Get it out of your head. You got it?”
“Got it. Well, I’ll try.”
An approaching siren echoes through the corridor of hi-rise apartments lining the street then mutes, choked in mid-scream as if proclaiming the Emergency Medical Service’s arrival. The white-shirted squad comes to me with a stretcher in tow.
A stocky paramedic in his mid-twenties picks up where the detectives left off, repacking the wound with a fresh bundle of gauze. I zero in on the bushy moustache sitting on his lip like a fuzzy creature at luxuriant rest. In his eyes I see a history of pain and misery—events witnessed, not necessarily suffered.
He cuts the straps of the bullet-proof vest, working in unison with a technician who removes the sticky panels wrapped around my torso. I shiver as a cold breeze blows over me from the East River.
Officer Jenkins finds the .38 slug, which penetrated my body and exited through the back, lodging in the sleeveless protective-garment’s rear panel. Despite my injuries, I am comforted that the vest stopped the shot from hitting something—or someone—else.
Surrounded lengthwise by emergency personnel, I’m about to be lifted onto the carrying bed. Impulsively, I insist on doing it myself.
“Don’t be foolish,” the other detective says. “Just let them put you on the damn stretcher, will ya’?”
“No, I can do it. Just let me do it.”
Everyone—the detectives, EMTs, paramedics, and my fellow public safety officers—stand by, tense, as if ready to leap, while I scoot onto the low-lying stretcher.
“Ready?” I say like I’m heading to the movies rather than the emergency room.
The ambulance hurtles toward Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens, a trip hastened by NYPD cruisers dispatched to block off side streets at major intersections. We roll into the driveway of the ER, where they pull me out and rush past a contingent of hospital staff lining the entranceway awaiting our arrival. I issue several half-serious “hellos” mixed with an occasional semi-serious “good to see you.” Once inside the ER, however, my sense of humor dims as they steer me toward a set of doors emblazoned with the sign TRAUMA UNIT.
I can’t tell whether ten minutes or an hour and ten has passed as the doctors probe the bullet’s entrance- and exit wounds, take X-rays, read charts, stopping here and there to throw a few questions my way. They then tape a wad of clean gauze to both ends of my newly acquired holes. Regardless, the doctors and nurses suddenly stand near-motionless around the table, alternately staring at me and at each other. The chief doctor draws nearer, stern and unsmiling, almost grievous. Misinterpreting her sedate demeanor, I assume the worst.
“Officer Peacock,” she says, pausing to shake her head before continuing further, “I’m pleased to say, but admittedly shocked, that apparently you’ll be fine.”
She explains how the slug, after piercing my armpit, had split the latissimus dorsi—the “wing” muscle—like a rubber band, then traveled through my body, flying out my back just below the shoulder blade.
“That’s why we won’t be stitching up the wounds,” she says. “Since you’ve got a hole on each side of the torn muscle, it’s best to let it drain. Otherwise the fluid will build up inside and you’ll end up with an infection.”
Since I had coughed up a small amount of blood, yet had no problems breathing, she figured that the bullet had bruised, but didn’t puncture, my left lung. If I had turned a fraction of an inch at the moment the shooter pulled the trigger, the slug would have taken the scenic route—a journey that could have perforated and deflated one or both lungs, penetrated my heart, or even severed the spinal column. The shot likewise had navigated its way between a bunch of veins, arteries, nerves, and nodes.
“This is, quite frankly, nothing less than amazing,” she concludes.
Amazed or not, she wishes me well before directing an aide to wheel my portable bed out of the unit and into a corridor near the hospital exit, making way for an accident victim extracted from a car wreck. I watch them wheel him in and—shortly after—observe him wheeled back out with a white sheet stretched over his face.
A pair of orderlies eventually pivots my stretcher and takes me away, circumnavigating a hallway crowded with plastic and stainless-steel institution-grade chairs and beds and live bodies leading to the ER’s epicenter.
I wait a short while before asking one of the nurses if I can make a call. I figure that it’s better for my parents to hear my voice before seeing a file photo of my face on television. The orderlies roll me closer to the nurse’s station.
My elderly grandmother answers the phone.
“Hi, Nana, I just wanted to let you know that…”
“Hi Steve. Just wait a minute,” she says, “That call-waiting thing just kicked in.” It’s 1990. “Call waiting” is a new arrival in Nana’s—and most people’s—lexicon.
“No, Nana, please don’t put me on hold,” I plead. “I need to…”
“Just hold on, will ya’?” she says with loving Bronx gruffness. “It’ll only take me a second. It’s an important call.”
“But so is…”
I rest the receiver on my chest, speechless.
“What’s going on?” the nurse asks. She’s surrounded by other staff, also curious to know what just happened.
“She put me on hold,” I say sheepishly, continuing in her defense, “but only ‘cause I didn’t get a chance to tell her where I was.”
Nana returns soon after. “Sorry ‘bout that, Steve,” she says. “That was your Aunt Chickie. I’ve been waiting all day for her to call me back.”
She pauses, then asks, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
“Well, I am working, sort of,” I say evasively. “Listen, I have to make this quick. I just wanted to let you know I hurt my shoulder…area,” belatedly adding “area” so as not to lie. “I’m in the hospital.”
“What does ‘shoulder area’ mean? Did you hurt your damn shoulder, or what?” she asks, aware I’m not getting to the point. “What the hell is going on?”
“All right, Nana. All right,” I concede. “Let’s just say, don’t watch the news tonight.”
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