by Jim Herr
The guy riding shotgun looked dead, with his chin lolled down on the scoop neck of his tank top. The braking van made his head snap, though, like one of those Insatiable Birdie toys taking its last drink. As it screeched to a halt, I thought, “what an odd angle for any vehicle to enter this parking lot, especially since it crossed immediately in front of my wife, my three little kids and me.”
“I need help! This isn’t my van and I barely know this guy. But he’s in trouble and I can’t move him.” Normally a pitch like this from a complete stranger wearing a shirt (over a bathing suit) and no shorts – Donald Duck style -who just jumped out of an ad-wrapped conversion van would scare people off. But I was intrigued. My wife, not so much. Before I could even speak, she looked at me, mouthed “Nooooope” and kept walking to the door a few yards away.
Let me back up. Just a few seconds earlier, my family and I were walking back from a nearby restaurant to our place for the week in Cocoa Beach. It’s a condo that’s about a quarter mile from a great local establishment called, The Sandbar. We’d gorged ourselves on overpriced fried crap, the kids got Frisbees and my wife and I had a few libations (Category 5 Hurricanes in case you’re ever in town). A typical end to a typical vacation day. The parking lot for the condo sits just off Ocean Beach Boulevard. It’s in a quiet, residential area; not a spot where you’d expect the beach-equivalent of the A-Team van to screech in at angle with a dead guy riding shotgun.
But there we were.
Let me back up a bit more. For as long as I can remember, random people love to talk to me. And not just pleasantries. I’m talking deep, intellectual and sometimes personal conversations, just randomly kindled from a shared pleasantry or acknowledging smile. Not sure if it’s my face, or what. I honestly have RBF, so it can’t be that. Add to this, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve had to help strangers on a frequency that is more than just coincidence. Case in point: my wife and I lived in a condo while I was finishing law school. One evening after returning from afternoon class, I could hear the words “help me” faintly in the air returns of our place. Turns out that our downstairs elderly neighbor, who we didn’t know at all, slipped while getting in the bath and had been stuck, splayed in the tub since the early morning. 911 told me that I should get in her place and help her – I know; I was shocked, too – so I did. I was able to help her, and she was alright. Point of it all is I’m a lighthouse for strangers.
I have to say, though, standing there in my flip flops, I was really captivated. The woman driving the van was a tick away from exploding, and I detected a slight flutter of her passenger’s eyelid, which made me believe he wasn’t dead, yet. I knew I had to help, and I knew I was on my own. Holly and the kids were already inside, heading to the elevator.
“Hey, you’ve got to help me,” the lady implored. “I was over in the Banana River and we were wind surfing. This guy was there giving instruction, when he was stung by a stingray. He’s been in and out of consciousness, and he needed someone to drive his van to his condo so he could treat this himself.”
“Wait, there’s a hospital 2 minutes from where you were,” I noted incredulously.
“I know, but before he passed out he looked at me – the only person there who could drive a stick – and said: This has happened before, and I know what to do. I can’t go to the hospital because I don’t have insurance. If you take me there, you’ll ruin me.”
“Riiiight, so he’s not dead?” I asked, still not quite sure what I was getting myself into, yet fully realizing I was deeply into it.
“No, but he’s passed out because of the pain. I need you to carry him in. He told me we need to stick his foot in boiling water until the stinger dislodges on its own.”
Okey dokey. We’re doing this.
I would soon learn that the sting of a stingray is incredibly painful.
Our boy was a sweaty, salty mess. I opened the door and he poured onto me. He was sticky and burning up. It made him a little easier to carry, I guess. The salt/sweat mixture was like human grip tape. I’m not tall, about 5’10”, and he was quite a bit shorter than me. But he was also quite a bit wider than me, and he was complete dead weight. When my daughter was little, she used to pull that dead weight crap when she didn’t want to do something. My wife and I would marvel and how difficult it was to handle 60 pounds of dead weight. Imagine 200+. And the pilot of the van was no help. At this point, she was on her phone plotting her escape.
“Yea, there’s a guy here who lives in the condo that’s going to take care of him,” I heard her say into the receiver. I knew she was talking to her husband because she told me she was calling him. I started looking around for this hero she was referencing who was going to take care of this piece of human luggage, only to realize it was the idiot who didn’t follow his wife’s lead.
“Wait,” I said, interrupting her call, “I’m not going to take care of him. I need some help. I don’t even know this guy!”
“Neither do I,” she spat back, “and there’s no chance I’m heading up to some random condo with two random dudes.”
She had a point. Neither of us should be doing this, to be honest.
“That’s fair. But look lady, I don’t know you or him. Who’s to say this isn’t some elaborate hoax to lure me up to your pain cave while you call in back up so I can become your next gimp?”
“Fair,” she sighed, “and specific. But fair. Let’s get him upstairs, boil some water and figure this out.”
Realizing we were both risking gimphood, she keyed us in and I dragged future corpse to the elevator.
When we got into the condo, we made like amateur doulas and starting boiling water in anything we could find. Luckily, Samsonite (he was still luggage) had a Home Depot bucket in the middle of his living room. Handy.
“He was in and out of consciousness on the way from the river, and he explained to me that we needed to boil as much water and possible and then put his foot in that water to soak. That would neutralize the venom from the stinger. He said this has happened a couple of other times.”
I pondered what she was telling me, and had no reason to doubt it. I was pretty sure that our guy, shoeless with a red-tinged face from the sun and a house bucket, looked like someone who could practice medicine. He looked no worse than my old college roommate, to be honest. I was a little worried about plunging ol’ boy’s appendage into boiling water, though.
I know I asked for everyone’s name at some point. And I’m sure I gave them mine. I may have even mentioned that I had a family. I was trying to humanize myself just in case I was in the midst of a hostage situation. I guess my wife was thinking the same thing because my wrist buzzed at that moment.
“Are you alive?” was the text I received from my wife. I silently laughed to myself. Her bar for acceptable was as low as my own. Alive, yes.
“Yes.” I voiced into my watch, which disappeared into the ether back to her.
A couple of seconds later, “How do I know this is you?” Worried, but not so much to call the cops, I see.
“You don’t,” I responded, and before I could rethink this response it disappeared and Sammy was now coming around.
As he groaned and complained about the pain, which also came with a new slick of sweat, my comrade told me she was out.
“Look, I gotta go. My husband is on his way to get me. I really appreciate you helping.”
“Uhhhhh, wuuuut,” was all I could muster. I regained my composure, though, putting myself in her shoes. She’d actually done the hero’s work. She’d driven this stranger in his strange van to his strange house and found some other stranger to carry him upstairs to douse him in lava water. Kudos, lady.
“I get it. Before you leave, what do you think I should do?” Honestly at this point, I was at a loss. Our guy was coming around, communicating now in a series of grunts and groans, forever slipping down on his leatherette sofa, with his left leg dipped in an orange bucket. In the kitchen I could hear the water in one of the old pots bubbling over.
“I’m not sure. I think you’ve done enough, honestly,” she said, assuredly. “Maybe just hang out a bit to make sure he stays alive and then take off?”
“Ok. Take care,” I offered. No hug. No handshake. She gone.
Now, mano y mano.
“Hey man, can you get me some more hot water, this is getting too cool,” my patient was speaking. Oh joy!
“Sure, man, hang tight.” I grabbed the medium pot that was almost to a rolling boil, asked him to pull his foot out and poured into his house bucket. He dipped his heel in, like a child testing the pool the first time, then slowly dipped his foot, which looked like a normal foot wearing a red foot suit, into the bucket.
“Ahhhh, yeaaaaa, that’s better,” he said, as he slunk back into the sofa. I could see the sweat on the cushion as he slid further down to a comfortable position.
I set back to the kitchen, only a couple of paces away, to put on more water. I opened my phone and noticed six missed texts and a call from my wife.
“Are you ok”
“Call me now”
“I’m getting worried”
“Call me back”
“YOU NEED TO CALL ME NOW”
Then, her call came again. I immediately picked up.
“Are you ok?” My wife’s voice was cautious and quiet.
“Can you give me more than a one word answer?”
“Yes,” I responded, knowing she was worried, but trying to pull some entertainment out of this. I live for the stories.
“Seriously,” she seethed, “are you ok? I can’t tell if you’re tied up and someone is holding the phone up to your face, or if you’re just being a dick.”
“THIS IS YOUR HUSBAND SPEAKING,” I intoned robotically. “I’m fine. Well not really, since I’m here with this total stranger, helping him dislodge a stingray stinger from his foot. But otherwise I’m peachy.”
“YEA, HE’S FINE,” my patient yelled from his spot, “YOU DON’T NEED TO WORRY! EVEN IF I WAS 100%, I’M PRETTY SURE HE COULD TAKE ME!” Ahhh, reassurance.
“Did you hear that? I’m fine. I could take him.”
“Um, yea,” she said; I could almost hear her eyes rolling through the phone. “When are you coming back? The kids are concerned about you and want to watch a movie.”
“You guys don’t know how to get the movie on, do you?” All veneer that this call was primarily about my safety came unglued.
“Right. How much longer?”
“HEY MAN, HOW ARE YOU DOING,” I yelled over, hoping silently, he’d tell me it was time to GTFO.
“I’m in serious pain. How much water do you have boiling? I need at least another 3 buckets,” he replied.
“I’ll be another hour,” I told my wife and then explained the input functions on the remote to get the movie queued up. That, plus proof of life, was good enough to end the call with a quick, “love ya!” and I was back to playing bucket doctor.
“Hey man, help yourself to anything,” Sammy said. Honestly, I don’t remember his name, so we’ll go with that, and at this point, he was reading my mind. I opened his fridge and grabbed his best beer: a Bud Light. Bud Light, the beer of choice for bros with a bucket in their living room.
After filling up another pot of water and putting it on the red hot electric ring of the stove, I padded back into the living room and took a seat near Sammy. He was slouched down in his couch, his tank top now a tube top as it rode up over his belly, one foot in an orange bucket and a meaty forearm over his brow. He was a slick mess of sweat and drying brackish water. I made a mental note to burn my clothes.
“Man, you’re a life saver. I knew I was screwed as soon as I stepped down. Thank God for that lady. Can you believe no one can drive a stick?” I thought to myself: I can drive a stick; had I been there, I bet I would have been the one to drive him AND carry him AND boil all this water. I made a mental note to never go to the Banana River.
“Seriously, man,” he continued, “this is the third time I’ve been stung. It feels like someone is putting a red hot poker up your leg. Tons of poison, you know. First time it happened, I went to the hospital. They charged me three grand and all they did was give me a valium and stick my foot in hot water. Second time, my buddy drove me home and I was all good….” His ringing phone stopped his train of thought, which gave me a reason to check on the water and grab another shitty beer.
He picked up, “Hey bro, yea, I’m alive. Yea, some lady drove my …. Oh, right, yea thanks for giving her the keys. Sweet, come on over. This dude is helping me, he’s a life saver. Cool, I’ll have him let you in.” I could put it all together, from eavesdropping on his call. Someone he knew was on their way, which meant I was either free to leave soon, or would be here forever. I better drink this beer fast.
“Calvary on the way?” I suggested.
“Yea, my boys are headed over. They had to get all of our gear together so we didn’t get robbed again. Should be here in 10.” Mental note, time for at least one more beer; judging my two outcomes, it couldn’t hurt to have a slight buzz either way.
“Cool, I’ll hand this off to them. How many guys?” He knew what I was asking.
“Awww, man, it’s all good. My three buddies and I run a business where we teach wind surfing. They’re cool, man. You got nothing to worry about. Like I told you’re wife, you could take me,” he unwittingly dashed all reassurance he’d offered. “We’ll give you free lessons! YES! You and anyone you know, I’ll give you lessons for free for helping me.”
“Cool,” I offered, as I added up all the “No’s” in my head as to why that would never happen. Windowless van, stingray stung 3x, house bucket. Sure, bud, we’ll make this a regular thang.
It wasn’t long before his buddies got there. They were nice, and thanked me for helping him out. I’d be lying if I didn’t size them up, and I’d be lying if I said I would have been fine. I got off on the third floor, them riding up to four, and wished them all good luck.
As I slipped into my own condo, where my family had successfully tuned to the correct input, made popcorn and were engrossed in The Goonies, I took stock of what I’d learned from this series of events. Best thing I could come up with: nothing wrong with having a handy bucket even if it’s in your living room.