I LOGIN AND PUT ON MY HEADSET. It’s time to save more pinheads. Whether taking a 911 call from a hysterical mother whose toddler swallowed a Viagra, extinguishing a fire started when a pothead hears the doorbell and throws his weed in the trashcan, or blocking out a Neanderthal before he decapitates my quarterback who can’t scramble, it’s all the same. How did there get to be so many pinheads in Houston? I say collect them all in one place, maybe the stadium where that preacher has his church, and knock some sense into them before it’s too late. Give them all Rorschach tests while recordings of 911 calls blare on the stadium’s PA system, and those who are predisposed to stupidity get to meet the guys and me on the field for some tackle football.
I should get a tattoo on my biceps that reads, “Pinhead Savior.” My call center coworkers would freak. When I wore my Volunteer-firemen-do-it-for-free t-shirt, tight over my pecs, Connie practically drooled. It was my way of lightening it up for her. She sits at the station next to mine taking calls. How does she cope? She pops Altoids, guzzles cans of diet Dr. Pepper, and chain-smokes on breaks. That’s what this job can do to you. See, there are three kinds of people in this job: the feelers who get emotionally involved with the callers, the zombies who barely have a pulse, and the realists who understand that most of the callers are pinheads so do your job and go home. Connie is a feeler. I’m the sole surviving realist.
Here are the feelers: Connie the little Altoids addict, Lucas who pulled out clumps of hair during calls until he had to shave his head (I gave him a wig), Maria whose teeth are red with lipstick by the end of her shift because she chews on her lips (I bought her a toothbrush), and Dennis who converted from realist to feeler after a particularly dicey incident with an eight-year-old and a chainsaw. Dennis and I used to be buds – we were the masters of pain on the football field – but now you can find him on his free time volunteering at the children’s hospital. I give him a peace sign and turn away, avoiding thoughts of the nasty little incident that currently haunts me.
Now about the zombies – Vincent, Jose, and Frank – I could write a book. These three could form a comic group, kind of like the Blue Man Group, only no one would laugh. They’re like the holographic doctor on one of those Star Trek series, “Please state the nature of your emergency.” Try slapping one of them and I bet your hand would pass straight through. I know how Jose got that way. He dispatched the police to the wrong address and a little girl watched as daddy drowned mommy in her wading pool. Why is it always the kids paying for the mistakes of the pinheads?
I look over at Vincent, who’s on duty. Yeah, he goes by Vincent, not Vince or Vinny, and the similarities with Vincent Price are spooky. He has eyes that look like the Crypt Keeper’s, a voice that could counteract the effects of ten Jolt sodas, and if he ever smiles I think it would touch off a minor earthquake. I called in once when I was with the firefighters, to warm things up, and Vincent answered. In my best Dracula imitation, I told him there’s a fire at a nearby funeral home and formaldehyde-laced smoke is gassing people. I think he wanted to run right over and catch a snort. But can I blame Vincent for his catatonic existence with all the pinheads having emergencies?
When I’m not saving pinheads over the phone, I’m keeping them from becoming crispy. Last week there was a house fire in Midtown, black smoke billowing from the windows when we get there. A scrawny mother holding two kids runs up to the chief, babbling and pointing to the house. We figure she’s speaking in Vietnamese, but heck if we can understand her. Through hand motions, she convinces the chief that there’s a big guy somewhere in the house. “Hey football star,” he says to me, “go in and get the fat man.” You ever seen a chunky Vietnamese? This guy had wedged himself into a bathroom the size of a phone booth, and it takes an ax to extract him. He’s half dead from smoke inhalation and I carry all three hundred pounds of lard butt out of the house. That’s a lot of rice. “You were made to rescue people, football star,” says the chief as he shakes his head in wonder.
Football star – that’s what I was in high school back in Katy. We still play sometimes, the guys and me. Their edge is gone. Weaver the wide receiver has a gut that jiggles when he catches the ball, Fast Eddie lost a couple steps, Gonzalez can’t block worth a crap with his bad shoulder, and Tyler the prima donna quarterback limps like a bum. You think the quarterback is the star? The lineman is the bomb, protecting that pinhead quarterback. My senior year we went undefeated.
Last night we scrimmaged, minus Dennis the mush man, so it was Gonzalez and me protecting Tyler. Kids were playing a soccer match on the adjoining field, parents watching from the sidelines, and I froze. I just froze, watching this little redheaded girl in pigtails chase after the soccer ball. The defensive tackle ran around me and pounded Tyler into the next county. Tyler writhed and moaned on the ground as his ankle swelled, and Gonzalez cursed me in Spanish. When I turned back to the soccer game, I couldn’t find the little girl.
Where are all the pinheads and their emergencies today? Bring ‘em on. It wasn’t like this yesterday, when I was here with Dennis and Connie. I search the computer for yesterday’s transcripts, find the one I’m looking for, and review it:
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” (I had to repeat myself three times before a tiny voice replied.)
“Hello. Are you okay?”
“My daddy’s hurt.”
“What’s wrong with your daddy?”
“He stopped talking and he won’t move.”
“Are his eyes open?”
“Yes, but he won’t talk to me.”
“Where are you?” (I had the cell phone number, but the exact location was blank on my screen.)
“Um, he was driving home and it just happened.”
“So you’re in a car?”
“A jeep. It’s brown.”
“A brown jeep. Are you on the road?”
“No, daddy pulled off when he felt bad.”
“That’s good. Is your mommy there?”
“She’s visiting my aunt. Can you send someone to help?”
“I will, sweetheart. What’s your name?”
“Megan. That’s so pretty. Do you know what road you’re on, Megan?”
“No, and it’s dark. I’m scared.”
(About this time, I was wishing one of the feelers had taken the call. I never was good with kids.) “Oh, sweetheart, it’s going to be okay. How old are you?”
“And you called for help all by yourself …”
“Daddy called before he couldn’t talk. Is someone coming?”
“I don’t know where to send them yet, Megan. Hold on.” (All I knew was the cell tower location, and it covered a good chunk of land north of Houston. I dispatched paramedics to the area and told them to look for a brown jeep on the side of the road.)
“Megan, I’m back. Where was daddy driving from?”
“My soccer game. I scored a goal.”
“Good for you! Do you know the name of the soccer field?”
“No. Please hurry. He’s breathing hard.”
“I’m trying, honey.”
“He’s sweating so much.”
“Megan, tell me about yourself.”
“I have red hair and pigtails.”
“You must be very pretty. Do you know how to turn on the headlights?”
“I think so.”
“Okay, honey. Turn them on.” (I told the paramedics to look for the lights.)
“Oh, he’s …”
“His eyes are closed. Where are they?” (She began to cry.)
“Hold on, baby.”
I clear the screen, wipe my eyes, and look around to see if anyone caught me. There’s no need to read the rest of the transcript; I’ve been replaying it in my mind ever since the call ended. After the pinhead paramedics wandered around for fifteen minutes, they found the brown jeep with Larry Ross dead from a stroke and Megan screaming for her mommy.
Last night I dreamed I was back in Midtown battling the house fire, but this time I was saving a redheaded seven-year-old in pigtails instead of a fat Vietnamese. Don’t ask me how she got stuck in a bathroom; dreams make their own reality. I flailed away with my ax, but to no avail. As the smoke rolled in and it became clear there was no hope, I made a call on my cell phone. A familiar voice answered, “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”