by Keith Rebec
On the afternoon Julio Dejesus Ramirez got sucked into the wood chipper, we were working in Ida Grove clearing uprooted trees from an F2 tornado.
“Damn looters,” Mike said. “They even rummage through stuff nowadays in broad daylight.” He scratched his beard with a rawhide glove, spat.
Four houses down a man, woman, and child clothed in soiled rags pushed shopping carts heaped with household belongings and metals along the sidewalk. The girl’s cart was chock-full of dented canned goods and a microwave oven, torn bits of pink insulation wedged into the corners.
“We’re all after the same thing,” I said. “A little help to get us through this mess.”
“Little help, my ass,” Mike said. “Them people is thieves. If you need help, go to the soup kitchen or Goodwill.”
The woman and child crawled atop the rubble at one of the houses, and the man struck a toilet in the yard with a ballpeen hammer until the porcelain exploded. He kicked the chunks aside and pulled the commode’s copper innards and slung the glint pieces into the woman’s cart. Then the woman emerged from the mountain of splintered wood clutching a framed picture, and she and the child squatted amongst the ruins and traced fingers along the glass.
“Makes me sick,” Mike said. “Pilfering from folks who’ve lost everything.” He dropped a leafless branch and turned his Cardinals hat backward. “Yo, Julio, you know them crooks? Are they your cousins?”
Julio squinted and fed a clump of brush into the mouth of the chipper. When the blades whined, he looked at Mike, then the family, and shook his head. “Me don’t know,” he said.
“Just let it go,” I said. “We aren’t the law, and you know damn well they aren’t Julio’s cousins.”
“The law,” Mike scoffed. “We ought to run them thieves off or slap the shit out of them.”
While we cleared busted limbs from the street, the trio sifted through the debris, and every time I looked their carts were heavier.
“Screw that,” Mike said. “I aim to fix it.” He threw down his gloves and trudged through yards, the vestiges of stick-built houses.
“Dammit, Mike. Get back here.”
But he just lifted a hand, kept going.
Julio and I collected more branches, then paused to watch the confrontation. Mike got into the man’s face, his hands flailing at odd angles like wounded birds. The man stood with his head down while the woman and child sifted through the ocean of clapboards scattered across the yard.
Then the engine bogged and screeched, and when I turned, Julio’s legs hung from the mouth of the chipper, kicking wildly. “Shit.” I hit the emergency stop and the motor stalled.
Julio screamed; he was tangled in brush and his arms were caught in the blades—the blood already dripping from the folded sheet metal along the bottom and onto the asphalt. “La tormenta,” he pleaded, “la tormenta.”
I threw down my gloves and pulled on Julio’s ankles, but he wouldn’t budge, and before I could tug again, Mike and the man pushed in beside me.
“Damn you, Julio,” Mike said. “Aw, what the hell.” He stuck his head into the chipper and went pale. The splattered flesh wept along the metal like a runny nose and Julio moaned, gargled.
The man leaned into the orifice, then beckoned the woman and child to seek help. Within two or three minutes, an ambulance arrived, and Mike was sprawled in the grass, holding his stomach.
The paramedics pushed us back and propped a gurney under Julio’s pelvis to support his dangling legs. After the firemen and police secured the area, they began disassembling the machine. The firemen sweated, twisted wrenches, cussed. They flung bolts and square metal sections into the street.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” the man said. “Maybe he’ll pull through.” I nodded, and looked at Mike; he was motionless in the grass with an arm slung over his eyes. The woman and child sat cross-legged near him and shared a dented can of kidney beans, watching the rescuers.
I really didn’t know what to say. Anyone who works with wood or saws or uses sharp objects thinks about being cut, and seeing Julio shredded, it was hard not to imagine how it could’ve been me instead.
“He’s only been working with us a couple weeks,” I said.
The man shook his head and crushed a piece of bark under his heel.
It took less than eight minutes for the firemen to dismantle the chipper and free Julio. Both of his arms were gone at the elbow, and he kept saying “Mis brazos” while a firefighter dabbed his forehead with a wet sponge. The paramedics applied white bandages and hand pressure to the nubs of bone, then wheeled him toward the ambulance. Mike remained in the grass near the woman and child, and the man crouched next to me.
“It looks like he ain’t going to bleed out after all,” the man said. “Not many of us in this town can say that anymore.”
The little girl approached us with maroon-stained lips and tugged at the man’s shirt. “Can we go now, Daddy?”
He placed his hand on her head. “I suppose, sugar,” he said, “see what else we might find before dark.”
When the man, woman, and child reached their carts, the girl lifted a blue Hello Kitty sewing machine out and hugged it. Then Mike rose from the grass and brushed himself off.
“About time,” I said. “I sure hope Julio survives.”
“Me too,” Mike said. “Ain’t fair seeing someone get damaged for life.”
“Probably should head for the hospital now.”
“Right,” he said, and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“What did those folks say when you confronted them?”
“Not much,” he said. “They weren’t looters. They’re just salvaging whatever they can from their place there before the next storm strikes and takes everything.”