She frequented a neighborhood park near the hospital. I’d see her times smoking a cigarette while she sat on the playground swings. Many nights, she slept on cardboard by the fence, sometimes she tied a tarp from the fence down to the grass to provide shelter on rainy nights. She was tall and gawky with red hair and looked a lot older than her thirty odd years because she had lost most of her teeth. Nothing makes a person look older than when their gums recede. I first saw her one morning this summer when the temperature was already up into the 90’s and the humidity made it hard to breathe. I asked her if she wanted a bottle of cold water, which she did, smiling in such a way you could see her youth hadn’t completely been obliterated from her body from the hard living she had put it through. I also gave her an orange and a couple bucks. She had a tattoo of a blue pony on her neck. It was faded, but the pony looked like a magical kid’s pony — the kind that could fly when it wasn’t being cuddled by a four-year-old.
I never found out too much about her. I knew her name Tammy and knew she was a heroin user. I didn’t know her back story of how she came to call the small park her home. She rarely came down toward Pope Park where we post sometimes in the ambulance and where I get to know many of the users walking east up Park Street to buy their drugs. I usually saw her as I drove past in the ambulance headed west. She walked alone, going in and out of bodegas or standing on the corner lighting cigarettes. Even among the murals and store signs on Park Street, her orange red hair stood out like technicolor in the old movies.
Early on a cold fall morning when you could already start to see people’s breaths as they stood at the bus stop or hurried down the street to whatever job put subsistence in their pockets, we get called for an overdose on the basketball court in the park. My partner pulls the stretcher and I sling the house bag over my right shoulder, and carry the heart monitor in my other arm. The fire department responders stand in a semi-circle over a body. One of the guys gives the finger across the throat sign to say we won’t be needing the stretcher. As I get closer, I see two feet sticking out from under the blanket. I pull the blanket back and stare at the face. When someone dies their soul leaves and their face becomes almost unrecognizable to what they once were. Then I see the tattoo. I look at her face again. It is white and waxen. She’s been dead for hours. Her limbs are cold and stiff. Her mouth is riggored shut. I run my six second strip of asystole.
A slow drizzle has started. I pull the blanket back over her face. We head back to the street, past the empty playground. The morning is black, white and grey.