Terrance Lovell has had enough. Intuitively, he knows what he’s about to do. And, for once in his life, he will follow through—at least that’s what he’s telling himself as he pulls into parking lot C, already fifteen minutes late for work.
Tardy: that’s the word Rhonda will use, emphasizing the “T,” almost spitting at him through overly-bright red lipstick, slightly smudged at the corners of her sour mouth which always reeks of old coffee and onions. She follows every company policy to the nth degree, with religious fervor, tracing every line with clipped, unpainted fingernails, absolutely refusing, shaking her head adamantly at the frequent offers of a curiously strong peppermint or a stick of gum. Now Terrance associates the thick policy manual with Rhonda’s horrendous breath. Mercy.
A sonorous voices speaks to him from the radio, “What is your life? It is a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.” He wants to listen to the preacher for a moment longer, but it is enough. The point has been made. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. Not a religious man in any stretch of the word, he thinks this might be a sign—not a revelation because he witnesses people dying every day—more like a timely reminder that he could be next.
The blue digital clock flicks another minute from his life. It is now eighteen past the hour. An iPhone vibrates in his pants, causing him to jump, defibrillating his rapid-fire mind. The charge nurse is wondering where he’s at. Of course.
A quick death wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe heaven and hell aren’t really real. Maybe he’d cease to exist. Maybe he’d get a do over. Maybe. Today he’s certain about one thing only: his occupation is a slow, miserable drag to death. He doesn’t belong here. He’s wearing the wrong shoes.
Every space in the employee parking lot has already been claimed by responsible, punctual, fast-walking adults. With a long sigh, he enters the dingy parking garage.
Staring into the rear and sideview mirrors, he notices the corners of his eyes are looking older—crow’s feet—as he maneuvers his elderly but faithful Dodge Dakota into a space so cramped there is less than one inch remaining between a cement column and the silver hood, squeezed tight as the stress in his neck and shoulders.
He turns the radio on one more time, listening and looking for another sign. The preacher is giving an invitation. “Today’s the day. Now is the acceptable time of salvation.”
Unable to open his door, Terrance climbs with tangled legs over to the passenger side, bumps his head against the dome light, and exits the comforting heat of the truck. An icy wind shoots straight through his scrubs.
The hospital is waiting. Oh, how I hate this place…
His shoulders slump as he nears the entrance. With a deep, cleansing breath, he forces an erect posture. He does this by visualizing a string attached to the top of his head, pulling him up, up, up like a puppet. His arms and legs loosen and dance from the imaginary thread. If he doesn’t start paying better attention to his form, he’ll end up with kyphosis like so many other middle-aged career nurses, heffalumps and woozles, sporting an embarrassing buffalo hump at the base of the neck, always worried about the next ass-licking JACO inspection.
A revolving door is moving counter-clockwise and divides into three sections. Someone’s rolling out as he’s rolling in, a fellow with bloodshot eyes. Terrance feels like a pinball, ready to shoot into the main lobby. He follows the circle all the way around and into the winter air again, wanting to leave, but decides to reenter, the toasty warmth of the main lobby overpowering his urge to run, to flee, to escape into the wild.
“T-Love! Hey, Boo!”
Dijonnaise from housekeeping, wearing purple scrubs. A loud, happy, likeable girl named after a condiment. She’s proud of her name, she says, because she’s spicy and brown. No one’s ever corrected her error. Fortunately, her mama was wasn’t more inspired by gray poupon.
“Hey, D. How ya doin?”
“I’m blessed—but if you gonna short’n it, T-dawg, call me Nay Nay.” She breaks into a song and dance by the same name and with a perfect, somehow annoying rhythm. “Watch me, watch me,” she sings with a contagious smile.
“Listen, have a good day, okay? I’ve got to rush to the fourth. I’m a half-hour late.”
“They already be talk’n trash bout you up there. I told them to leave you the hell alone. You just a nice old man try’n to make it. Speaking of mak’n it, when you gonna take me out for an innocent drink?” She says this with a wink.
“There’s no such thing. Besides, you’re way too young.” The elevator closes upon him like a curtain on a stage. His facial muscles relax and the fake smile drops instantly. End of ACT ONE.
The claustrophobic box takes its time, stopping at every floor along the way. A handsome but arrogant surgeon is standing next to him, an insincere, fast talker with zero eye contact unless you’re a female. Terrance is invisible to him. Years from now, and four wives later, Zell will be paying the high cost of multiple infidelities and harassment suits (perhaps he might save some money if he performs his own vasectomy). His blue eyes will have dulled from alcoholism and his belly will pop out like a beachball. Yeah, it’s coming sexy, sexy—you strutting, self-loving, peacock bastard.
Thinking such comforting thoughts and staring blankly at an elementary level poster (“Did you wash your hands?”) while the surgeon snickers and sexts on his phone, the door opens on the fourth. Terrance taps the useless and uncreative keycode (1-2-3-4-*) and enters the unit. The signature scent of dialysis rushes into his nostrils, instant nausea. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” Nobody responds. Dumb thing to say anyway.
At a red box, Terrance pauses for a long time before clocking in with a shrill beep. Heads turn toward him and then away again, robotically, as techs and nurses prepare for the long and busy day ahead. The charge nurse, the perky and self-assured Miranda, is printing color-coded names onto a dry erase board. Without looking away, she says, “Glad you could make it, Sleeping Beauty.”
“Wish I could say the same.”
“Well, put your big boy panties on and get to work.”
Terrance’s thin-skinned anger is instantly doused by Sean, a bright-eyed man of Irish descent, who’s as likeable as he is cynical. Approaching in surgeon green scrubs, he extends a welcoming hand with a warm smile, “You look like shit.”
Putting an arm around Terrance and glancing furtively at the charge nurse (whose dry erase marker is squeak, squeak, squeaking), Sean says, “Aye, lad, Miranda’s a wee bit bitchy this morning. I was only five minutes late and she started in on me. I tried to offer an excuse with a Leprechaun’s pinch of an apology but she just thrust a pale hand in my face and said, “Do you know your Miranda rights? You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be held against you…'”
Sean whispers, “You need to stop drinking.”
“I know—it’s just that my lips were dryee.”
“If you ever need to talk, I’m here. Only do me a favor and spare my ears from your fake Irish accent.”
“Yes, Father McGarity. Thank you.”
“What do you have in the bag?”
“Bourbon and a Bible.”
Well, get rid of one and keep the other.”
Fourteen hours later, Terrance exits the ICU and walks to the cadence of a stethoscope dangling and clacking from his neck, down an impossibly long and shiny corridor, returning to the other side of the hospital. A security guard stops admiring his own tattooed muscles for a moment to eye fuck Terrance as he passes. Yes, I really do work here, asshole. Don’t tase me, bro. A polite nod to the guard isn’t returned. He’ll make a good bad cop one day if he ever earns his GED.
Everyone in the hospital seems comfortable with their identity. The kind chaplain walking faster than the grim reaper to the dying one’s bedside; the confident ER staff patching holes, splinting bones, and restoring lost pulses; the handful of twenty-something ICU nurses climbing the career ladder and turbo excited over a Wenckebach discovered on the heart monitor; the unlikeable, multiple STD’d surgeon Zell raising a two-inch boner over a Tetralogy of Fallot repair (and one must admit that the man is really good at what he does); the sweet ladies in the gift shop smiling with a renewed purpose in life, selling gum, trinkets, flowers, and Teddy bears after their dear husbands have died here at Mercy Hospital; the chef in the cafeteria who takes pride in every dish he makes and caresses a soup ladle like a man should romance a woman; Rhonda who lives to enforce hospital policy and infection control, paralyzing all repeat offenders with her breath; Sean, a friend of the friendless and nurse of amazing skill who lives to support his wife and babies with a faithful masculinity and loyal love. There’s also the older man, Robert, a subtle hero in so many ways big and small, refreshingly humble, avoiding the spotlight, a wise and loving father figure to the often wayward dialysis staff, giving everything he has left to give, the energy of his body, the food on his plate, the shirt on his back, innocent as the biblical Job, days away from a second retirement, looking over his shoulder, examining his life, his girls, his wife with the utmost satisfaction, and although he will never say it, the measure of his days has been a job well done, with no regrets—privately Terrance looks up to him, longs to be like him, will miss him the rest of his life.
Terrance saved more than one life today. No big deal. That’s what hemodialysis does. One assignment came through the ER, someone’s husband and father, drowning in his own fluid, unable to breathe, septic, pitting edema so bad he looked like a Cabbage Patch doll. Tall, peaked T-waves on the monitor, hyperkalemic, heart flickering like a loose bulb ready to extinguish. Four hours and one HD treatment later, his family finally arrived. They said, “You know? He doesn’t look that bad.”
11 p.m. When Terrance reenters the dialysis unit to put his equipment away, the place is empty and the ghostliness is somehow pleasant—until a janitor who could pass for a three hundred pound Biz Markle comes out of the staff bathroom, sheepish, embarrassed. A nasty shit cloud reaches Terrance’s sensitive nose and he backs away, silent but visibly repulsed.
“S’alright. Haven’t you ever read the children’s storybook classic, “Everyone Poops”?
The janitor, somewhere in his early twenties, morbidly obese, uniform vinegary with sweat, lingers for a moment longer. “Can’t say that I have but it’s sounds like some really good shit.”
“Hey, man, can I ax you a question?”
“Yeah, sure.” Terrance hears Biz Markle’s, Just A Friend, playing in his mind (“Oh baby, you got what I need…”).
“You been do’n this long?”
“Yeah. Too long.”
“More than enough.”
“Do you think I can do it?”
“Of course. Anyone can do it.”
“The day is already over so Terrance takes his time. He enters the staff break room, clocks out, finds his bag in locker 73, reaches under his writing tablet and a map of the Appalachian Trail, pulls out a bottle of bourbon, pours four fingers into a large Styrofoam cup. “What’s your name?”
The young janitor, Barney in purple housekeeping scrubs, stares at the bourbon with wide eyes.
“Nah, man, I got my Dew.”
“I’m Terrance Lovell.” He taps an index finger on the name and ugly mugshot sealed to the magnetic hospital ID badge that is clipped to his hip. Then he extends a hand scented with soap, bleach, and latex.
They shake and Terrance can’t help but think of fecal matter, wonders if the smelly man had washed his hands with soap and water for fifteen seconds to the tune of the damn birthday song. He remembers the poster on the elevator with new respect, Did you wash your hands?
“Why you be wear’n yo badge down there like some cowboy Texas Ranger? People gotta go down on you to read yo name.”
“Picture’s too ugly to sport it on my chest. And, quite honestly, it turns me on to break the rules.”
“I see,” he says , pointing to the bourbon.
“Yeah, well, lesson number one: don’t ever start drinking. No—first—don’t ever fall in love and then you won’t start drinking. But that’s a story for another day.”
“Should I be writ’n this down? Don’t fall in love. Don’t start drinking.”
Terrance likes the boy. “Humor will get you far in life, might even save it.”
“Do I gotta go to school?”
“I don’t understand what you do. I work the night shift and be see’n you guys at the end uh the day, dis…dis…respect’n…”
“Disinfecting.” Terrance takes a gulp of bourbon, amused, warming to the alcohol and his new friend, both.
“Yeah, clean’n the machines and look’n all weary and shit. But there’s sumpthn bout it.”
“I don’t know. Like fire trucks back from the fire, gett’n waxed and ready to go again.”
Terrance takes the next fifteen or twenty minutes to explain the basics as clearly and carefully as a teacher, encouraging James to go back to school. “It’s a good career, honestly, a medical specialty that keeps people alive, something to be proud of, homeslice.” His free hand, eloquent from alcohol, sweeps the empty bay of the clinic, as if patients are still filling it to capacity. “If any of these dear folk stop their treatment, they will die within a matter of days.”
“If I don’t be gett’n back to work, I be dy’n soon.”
“You here all night?”
“Yeah, bruh.” Then he starts dancing and singing like Dijonnaise, “All night long…”
“I appreciate all you do. Scrubbing this place until it smells like roses is no easy task. It’s old fashioned hard work.”
“Hell, yeah! I be sweat’n like a big fat ho in church!”
“But that whale turd you dropped into the staff toilet earlier (kerplunk, kerploosh) destroyed all your hearty efforts at fresh, clean air.” Terrance claps the laughing boy affectionately on his massive back, James’s blubber making a pap pap pap sound.
“I hope to see you wearing this RN badge and saving lives in the acute dialysis unit within two years.” It was a lie, of course, because Terrance wouldn’t be returning.
Chuckling like a comfortable friend, “You too old, man. You be dead by the time I in da house.”
Life is a vapor.
When James’s dangerous ass fumes had fully dissipated and it was safe to enter the bathroom again, Terrance pees a strong and steady stream for about two minutes. Thank God my kidneys still work or I’d be drowning. He brushes his teeth, washes his face and hands, secures his too long hair in a ponytail.
He takes one last look at the empty unit, the vacant stalls, the color-coded names of all the patients who’ll be dialyzing in the morning. Some of the names he recognizes, frequent flyers, noncompliant, some likeable, some unlikeable. Friends. Bound by a common struggle.
Many are desolate, lonely, and frightened in their personal lives and constantly striving to be admitted to the hospital. Where there is hot food. A warm bath and blanket. A clean bed. Safety. Other voices. Television. No roaches crawling into their ear canals at night. Cookies upon request. Human touch. A much better place to live or die.
Terrance is buzzing when he takes that final walk. The long way. Remembering. Up two floors to room 608, allegedly haunted. It always remains unoccupied, even with a full census. He once asked to sleep in there overnight. No.
He’s almost to the elevator, when an attractive, shapely nurse in blue scrubs and long black hair notices him from the far end of the hall. “Hey, handsome.”
Terrance turns to her. “Hey,” he nods.
Coming closer, “Haven’t seen you in a while” (she accents the word seen like a siren).
“Well, I try to avoid Med Surg. I prefer my patients unconscious. I’ve been living with the dying in the ICU.”
“That hurts my feelings,” she says with a mock pouty face.
Terrance knows she’s teasing. Is there such a thing as platonic flirting? Maybe not. Probably not. He can’t remember her name but she’s a lesbian who’s in love and currently very active with a red haired paramedic. The batting of her eyelashes means nothing and is only a game she plays. Doesn’t matter. He loves another, intensely, for life. The ache he feels in the pit of his stomach never goes away. He remembers how his fiancé would passionately mark his neck and later point it out with a territorial kind of satisfaction (“See? That means you’re mine.”), but now he’s running, running, running from that relationship until—
The elevator doors open. Sweet relief. An escape hatch.
Inside, an old man wearing a tie and a breeze of strong cologne asks, “Son, are you going up or down?”
“If you’re going down, we really need to talk,” he says with a solemn urgency. He extends a wrinkled hand with a shiny gold wedding band. “I’m the night chaplain.”
The elevator doors slide close, slowly entrapping him.
“Goodnight!” the raven-haired nurse calls out, waving cheerfully, blowing him a kiss through the sealing doors. Four inches, two inches, one inch. Her face (Charlotte?) disappears.