By Ron Riekki
He has a barbed wire tattoo. I stare at it. I am holding C-spine. The rule is that once you start to hold C-spine, you cannot let go until the patient’s spinal column has been thoroughly secured. I stare at the barbed wire tattoo. It looks like a series of black devil’s horns, the kind people make with their hands at heavy metal concerts. It looks like a row of drunken Hs. It reminds me of Pamela Lee Anderson. There is blood on the ceiling. I wonder how he got blood on the ceiling. Especially so much of it.
This is H-Ward. It’s almost as if his tattoo knew. His tattoo predicted his future.
He has been in here forever. We have all been in here forever.
My life has been barbed wire.
There are two options growing up here: you either end up in the mines or the prison. You either work in the mines or you go to prison. You can go as a criminal or as a guard. I went the other route. I’m a paramedic.
The boy who is a man who looks like a boy jumped off of his bunk, spinning his body in midair in hopes that if he landed on the floor correctly he would snap his neck.
I’m not sure if it worked.
He’s not the one with all of the blood though. His bunkmate did that. His bunkmate slit his wrists and his hands and his feet and his abdomen and his face and his knees and his back and his eye; he’s somewhere in a speeding ambulance right now.
My patient tried to commit suicide to get out of this world.
“Cockroaches,” my partner says.
The thing about holding C-spine is you can’t do anything else. You can’t stop blood flow or take a pulse or wipe your forehead or anything. All you can do is hold the person’s neck.
My partner is saying ‘cockroaches,’ because that’s what he thinks they are. It seems in the prison that no one can die. In the outside world, people die tripping on stairs and falling asleep while smoking. It is easy to die with all of the swimming pools and five o’clock traffic of the real world. But in the fake world of prison, it seems impossible to die.
It’s possible to go blind or get hepatitis or get paralyzed here. But death seems so rare.
“They’ll live through anything.”
We wheel the patient out of the room. He looks up at me, not moving his neck, just his eyes. His barbed wire eyes. He says, “Thank you, ninja.”
I’m dressed in black scrubs. Not a wise choice. It’s harder to tell if there’s blood on you. It’s always best to buy the lightest colored scrubs possible. You want to be able to tell if there is pus or blood or semen or feces or snot or earwax or any of the endless things that come out of other people’s bodies. You want to be able to notice it immediately then be able to make sure it’s also not on your skin.
“Ninja,” he says again. He says it sweet. Prison, I’ve found, is a place of gentleness. The prisoners rap together and play ball together and create helpful resistance while the other one does pushups and even when they stab each other, it has so much intimacy to it. It reminds me of MMA fighting, the way that the men are shirtless on top of each other, choking the life out of the other one with so much intense closeness, the other’s face kissing the floor.
My partner has no hair. He shaves it so that prisoners can’t grab him by it.
We get into holding and we wait for the nurse. We’re paramedics, but we always wait for the nurses. The nurses, in prison, are gods. They are Michael Jordans. And Barack Obamas. They are women who touch men who never get to be touched by women. The prisoners fall in love with the nurses, they propose to the nurses, they try to be Don Juans and Cyrano de Bergeracs. They fail. The nurses keep them alive, long enough to fail again, and again.
There is a window in holding, one of the few windows in the prison. It looks out at barbed wire. We place the patient so he can look out at it.
The barbed wire here is stunning. It goes to the moon. Beyond the moon. It wraps around the moon and comes back to Earth. It is a display of wealth. They put incredible money into the barbed wire. When people enter the prison who have never been here before, you can watch them taking in all of the barbed wire. It is majestic, like one million Os. It is a scream manifested in metal cable. It goes on and on, OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO across the horizon.
Two more paramedics come in with another patient.
There is a near full moon tonight. We have sixteen guards on suicide watch.
We sit in silence and then the two new medics start talking.
“How ‘bout those 101s?”
“What’s going on over there?”
“Cut, cut, cut. Hack, hack, hack.” The medic mimes cutting his arms, his chest.
“At least they’re not throwing feces.”
The prisoners laugh.
It reminds the medics that prisoners are in the room.
We go back to silence.
I look at my scrubs. The prisoners are in blue. We can’t buy blue scrubs. The other medics are in green. I could only find black scrubs. I’m tall. They didn’t have my size in any other color. I fell in love with the black scrubs. I stand out in the prison. I’ve been told by my boss that that’s bad. I don’t care. It makes me feel like no one can see me.
Lightning happens outside, the sky cracking in half, and then gone.
One of the medics says, “The barbed wire isn’t as scary without the sun to reflect it. It seems dead.”
We wait for more lightning. It doesn’t come.
“Are we allowed to have two patients in here at the same time?” asks one of the medics.
If I remember correctly, the memo was only one patient in holding at a time. It’s too dangerous to have two patients in holding together. You have no idea what a patient will do. Especially around medical equipment. I’ve been told the most dangerous part of the prison is medical holding. There’s too much for them to steal, too much for them to use as weapons. I look at the locker. The nurse has the key.
I look at the other patient. His face is swollen. His head looks like it has been inflated. His lips are inner tubes. His eyes are puckered almost shut.
I look at my patient. Nothing calms someone down quicker than a neck injury. Neurogenic shock. Slow heart rate, low blood pressure. We should be doing several things right now, like administering oxygen and applying ice packs, but instead we’re waiting for a nurse.
There is more than one medical holding. They could be filled tonight. It happens. Nights go bad. Nights can be criminals. One night is arson. Another night, the darkness kidnaps the light; the sun never seems to come up. There are days here, sometimes, that are nights. We’re so far north that sometimes there is only nighttime, back-to-back-to-back nighttime.
“What’s your name?” says the prisoner, the words mumbled. He must have been beaten severely. Maybe beat himself up severely. Sometimes there is a football game on. They do this to go to the hospital. The waiting room there has a TV. If they time their self-mutilation just right, they can see half of the game.
I look at the barbed wire. I don’t look at the prisoner. Not now.
“Medic Johnston,” he says, “And this is Medic Hollings.”
“Your first name.”
“Just ‘Medic’ is fine.”
“Medic,” says the prisoner, “You got a wife, Me-dic?”
“No,” he says. “Got no family.”
It’s a rule in prison. None of us have any family. All of our mothers died in childbirth. Our fathers committed suicide. No sisters, no brother. No girlfriend, no wives. Nothing. We have no friends. We are alone in the world. It’s a rule.
“If I was out there, I’d have a girl,” he says through his mouth that has no teeth.
My worry right now is his airway. With that much swelling, his throat could get cut off. His lungs could stop having access to air. You never want a patient to die. Patients who die, their families sue. Patients who live sue. You’d think they wouldn’t, but the truth is that they know more about the court system than many lawyers. They have the free time to sue. You don’t want to mess with a prisoner. We’re there to keep them alive to serve out their sentence. I don’t care what they’ve done.
“Where’s the frickin’ nurse?” says the medic.
Now I understand why you only want one patient in holding. It would be nice and silent in here, waiting with my patient who can’t move, waiting for yellow lightning to slash through the barbed wire, the simple beauty of silence while waiting for that to happen again. Instead we have what we have.
“Go look for her,” he says to his partner.
“Can’t leave the patient,” she says, “Abandonment.”
She’s right. We’re always supposed to outnumber the patients by double.
“She knows we’re here.”
“Then where is she?”
We listen. We listen for riot. We listen for doors and bolts and footsteps. The prison is made for listening. There should be more concerts in prisons. Endless Johnny Cash.
I hear movement.
My patient moves his neck, breaks through the tape to sit up.
My partner lectures him on not moving. It’s too late. He’s stretching on the backboard. His neck is fine. Or at least fine enough to move around like that.
My partner pleads for him to lie back down.
The other prisoner laughs through injured lips. His laughter sounds like footsteps. His face looks like the moon. Another lightning snaps the sky in third. It’s horizontal lightning. He struggles through his laughter, choking.
One of the medics goes to the cabinet, tests to see if it’s locked. Of course it is.
I used to steal liquor from my dad’s cabinet in the red room in our old house when I was a kid. It tasted like rectangles. It tasted like rotten octagons. I had the sensations of shapes with booze. The smooth circles of vodka. I would get drunk and fall asleep staring up at my room’s acned ceiling, its moon-crater face. I would forget about mines and school. I would lie and spin and forget about math and my father.
I know there were worse fathers where I grew up. There were fathers whose airways closed up from working at the mines, the audacity to die young of small cell lung cancer, to leave a family left with nothingness. Towns breed prisoners and wardens and maintenance coordinators and haul truck operators. I remember the ore used to get stacked so high that it would block the sun in the evening. Night came earlier in my hometown. The earth emptied below our feet and got stacked next to our school. There was a mound of the guts of the world next to our basketball court with no nets. Our baseball diamond with no outfield fence had the open-heart surgery of dirt piled up next to it.
Everything leads you to holding.
I listen intently for the nurse. She wouldn’t be coming for several more minutes, maybe hours, maybe not tonight. We’d have to keep the prisoner’s spine intact, keep the throat open, hope that they would lie there, get tired, that maybe we could bond with them without telling them anything about us, that the hours would go by and we would be relieved in the early dark morning, and be able to go home to our wives who don’t exist and lie down in our beds that don’t exist with no death in the night. And I could fall asleep, peaceful, lightning in my head.
Ron Riekki wrote U.P.: a novel (Great Michigan Read nominated) and edited The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press, 2017).