Tim Timmons is an easy-going traveling nurse who (for reasons more than one) secretly hates his Mary Poppins-ish name. However, after many years in scrubs, he’s perfected his medical signature with no small amount of pleasure, expertly scratching the T’s and the m’s into a disturbing two inch strip of atrial fibrillation on every legal document he signs.
Eleven into a thirteen week contract, Tim hasn’t been issued a name badge and, for this, he is grateful, always content to remain a stranger. Certainly, at this late hour, there’s no need for any plastic identification. In a matter of days, he’ll be someplace new—he’ll be someone new (which is no one, really). Nobody. He’s nothing more than an apparition, a ghost passing through hospital halls. Relocating. Reincarnating. Always starting over again, helping his fellow man, getting in and getting out, detached and unattached, doggedly sidestepping the inevitable pains and pitfalls of a love that isn’t loyal or a friendship that is fickle.
Loneliness is the price of peace. Dusk always punches him in the stomach.
Tim is the last of the dialysis staff to clock out for the day—after a robust fourteen hour shift—the final four spent at the sticky bedside of a recently retired man who suddenly finds himself bedridden, tangled in a mess of bleached white sheets and a web of life-threatening comorbidities not even one month after leaving the job.
David is his name.
Tim silently hates, hates, HATES the name David and asks permission to address the dying man by his surname—Peyton—one of the greatest quarterbacks (and the nicest) in NFL history.
Foggy green eyes appraise Tim, wanting to trust him, this nurse with a few strands of silver Christmas tinsel gleaming from a brown forelock, watching closely as the tall, skinny nurse plugs his ears with a stethoscope and places the diaphragm over the apical pulse for a full minute (irregular, tachy). Next, the lungs (crackles x 4). Finally, the ankles (noticeably swollen, with a pitting edema of +3).
The pallor of David’s skin is gray and his head resembles a slow moving boulder.
After the brief assessment, David answers Tim’s question with a smile so warm and genuine that, for a shooting star moment, his face is handsome. “Sure,” he says, clearing his phlegmy throat, “Please . . . that’s what my closest friends call me.”
After a few necessary preliminaries, the treatment begins and so does another temporary friendship. Tim knows what is coming. There’s the usual round of questions and answers concerning what dialysis is and what it does. (Does it hurt? No.) (What are those jugs? Moonshine—just kidding—bicarb and electrolytes in an acid solution.) (Does it burn? God, no, try to relax). Following that predictable initial stage, many patients begin to relax a bit into a self-focused awe mixed with morbid curiosity as they watch their blood (Is that my blood? Yes, it’s not mine—wink, wink) exit the body on a circuitous route, rush through a strange filter, and then back into the body again, cleaner each time. Peyton says it looks like his blood is zipping through a crazy straw. Then—the final stage—when comes the personal information, the unavoidable intimate part of a four hour date. Here’s where relationships happen.
Tim is opposed to relationships and wants to run, but he can’t.
Peyton gave most of his life to the Atlantic Electric Company in New Jersey, a lineman, “climb’n poles.”
As Tim listens, he thinks of electrical currents as he observes the wave patterns on the monitor, afraid a biological surge will pop a circuit in Peyton’s heart and the light of life will go out of his eyes. The man’s potassium level is off the charts.
“Hey, didya ever notice that most bad things always happ’n at night?”
“That’s because the devil owns the night,” Tim says, more out of a professional obligation to respond than an agreement. Most of his personal pain had always arrived in broad daylight, marching like a noon parade, honking horns, waving from a fire engine, twirling batons, doing cartwheels, blowing trumpets, and banging on drums.
“Ta-naders, thunder-n-lightnin, ice…”
Tim gets what his patient is saying. Peyton is evaluating his life, his identity, his self-worth. A man does that whenever he’s forced to shit into a pan as helpless as a child.
Affirming him, “So . . . whenever the lights went out, YOU went out.”
Yes’sr! Specially in the winter. My call’n was to keep people warm. Sometimes the wind chill would shrink my bingity-bong down to one of those teeny weeny Vienna sausages you find in the Dollar Store.
Laughing, Tim says, “Allow me to return the favor. I see that you’re shivering. Would you like a warm blanket?”
Tim returns with a blanket from the ICU warmer and the heavy cloth feels as if he’s just plucked it fresh from a laundromat dryer on maximum heat. It’s unwise (not to mention against the rules) to cover Peyton’s catheter access but, out of compassion, he ignores the rule, tucking the blanket around his patient’s stiff, hunchbacked shoulders and overruling the insulting misery of a paper-thin gown.
Comfortable now, Peyton’s eyelids become heavy and he’s talking and nodding like a drunk, even slurring a bit. Dialysis drains a man in more ways than one.
“Thesssse rrr crazy times, aren’t they, Tim, buddy?”
A minute passes in silence. Time to let the man sleep but only with pleasant thoughts.
“Peyton, if you were granted one wish, what would it be?”
Without hesitation, as if he’d already been considering the question, “I’d go fishing wiv my wife on the Delaware Bay. I’d kiss’er at sunrise as if it wuz the first ‘n last time.”
His grammar is atrocious but his love is poetic. His dream is sweet and simple. Unfulfilled.
Peyton had signed a DNR only moments ago to spare the love of his life from any further heartache (the ink is still wet upon the somber form). In return, the MD offered no eye contact but only a chipper “Thank you!” and disappeared from the room just as quickly as he had entered, with no more than a sentence of explanation.
Even in retirement, Peyton is still dealing with bad weather, but a cold and ice of a different kind.
David’s wife, Peggy Peyton, is less than fifty miles away but might as well reside on the other side of the planet. The corona virus has locked the whole world behind closed doors, including Saint Christopher Hospital. No visitors until further notice.
St. Christopher: patron saint of bachelors, travelers, gardeners, epileptics, storms, and toothaches. Viruses didn’t make the list.
How does the Catholic church decide on such a hodgepodge of categories? Tim wonders if he himself dies as a martyr, might there be a chance he’ll become the patron saint of masturbation?
Peyton has finally fallen into a deep sleep while the noisy, exasperating Braun machine (most dialysis nurses prefer the quieter, more cerebral Fresenius machine) keeps him alive for another day. Tim, a guardian angel in green scrubs, perches his lanky legs on a stool and continues to watch Peyton’s rhythms on the heart monitor—tall T waves—hyperkalemia. He thinks of his signature again (the only deadly rhythm he ever wants to see).
He watches. He waits. He checks his emails and his texts—still nothing from her. Tim with a sharp pain in his chest and shortness of breath, but there’s no machine that can fix broken love.
David Peyton’s teeth are sitting in a jar on the bedside table and his relaxed face resembles a soft, wrinkled, mustached hand puppet caving in upon the fingers of an unseen spirit, no longer humorous or endearing but tragically sad. The rise and fall of his chest is not normal, his lungs are wet, his snores are too deep, and his rubbery lips vibrate with every life-weary exhale. The sound is that of a pending death rattle, every respiration counting down to the final breath.
Tim’s tired mind entertains Shakespeare on the futility of life. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…”
Peyton is still shivering under a third blanket. Tim can’t keep the faithful lineman warm. Tim can’t keep this man’s lights on. Only God can accomplish such a thing but He seems to have gone missing. And Saint Christopher is useless.
Nancy Pelosi is babbling on a flat screen television mounted on the wall. Tim says, “Shut the hell up” and turns the power off. No storm or ice is required, only an index finger.
Three and a half hours later…
At the end of Peyton’s hemodialysis, he wakes with a panicky apneic gasp for air, as if waterboarded. “I was dream’n,” he says. Tim doesn’t pursue the subject but only reminds his temporary captive that a nasal cannula is useless when dislodged from the nostrils and worn as a headband.
“The damn thing hurts m’nose.”
Peyton’s O2 SAT is down to 87%, Tim replaces the cannula and turns the oxygen up to four liters. “Up your nose with a rubber hose. Take deep breaths through your nostrils, exhale through your mouth. Slow and deep. That’s right. Just like that.”
“Hey, did you hear that Bill Withers died?”
“NO! The corona?”
Peyton starts singing, terribly off key and short of breath, “There Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” Tim duets with him on the 26-fold “I know, I know, I know” but both men know experientially the gut-wrenching truth of the song and fizzle out after the fourth or fifth. They don’t need twenty-six times to know, just once.
An alarm sounds, indicating that dialysis is complete, and Tim returns Peyton’s cleansed blood to his body, strips the “crazy straw” lines and F180 dialyzer and tosses both into a red biohazard trash can that smells like death every time it’s opened. A stat bedside potassium reveals that the treatment was only semi-successful but the old man is out of the danger zone and his T waves are no longer peaking and pointing toward heaven. The room is quiet now with only the white noise of the machine heat disinfecting itself.
Tim steps out briefly to relieve himself. When he returns, his breath smells like bourbon as he performs a post-treatment assessment (looking, listening, feeling), writing notes with a left-handed hook. Peyton stares at him again, his green eyes like unpolished emerald stones set deep inside his gray boulder head.
“Hey, listen, will ya do something for me pal?”
“Anything but vote for Joe Biden.”
“Will you download Joe Cocker onto your phone?”
“You Are So Beautiful.”
“No—not you—the song. I want you to play your phone into my phone. For Peggy.”
“Well, well, well, aren’t you a romantic!”
The two phones join, the song is played, and David reminds Peggy Peyton, his wife of forty years, that she is beautiful and everything he had ever hoped for. There are feminine giggles, at first, followed by tears on the other end of the line. Tim would’ve given them their privacy but he’s holding the song in his hand. Then comes the prophetic knowledge of final moments. Physically separated, these two beautiful souls are joined together on the phone, one is about to leave this world, both are unable to touch or hold each other, locked down, confined.
The song ends. The call is disconnected. A salty tear trails down Peyton’s stubble cheek to the corner of his toothless mouth. His fallen countenance is a sad Fred Flintstone.
A dinner tray arrives just in time, rescuing Tim from a forced and lame response. A young freckled girl in a mask and gloves opens the hot plate without saying a word. No matter. Peyton is delighted. “Beef Stroganoff!”
The meal looks more like orange dog vomit but at least it smells good.
These are Tim Timmon’s thoughts as he glides down a shiny Pine-Sol corridor (a scent that takes him back, back, back—way back—to his days in the Navy, one life out of the nine that he’s already lived).
Jaunita from housekeeping is in the act of placing a yellow warning sign in front of the women’s bathroom displaying a frightened stick figure slipping and falling on the ass he doesn’t have. She smiles at him. “You look like a model walk’n the runway, Timmy-Tim-Tim.”
One of the many variations (or abuses) of his name that start popping up around week eleven, as predictable as the hurricane season, these breezes of affection, signaling that it’s time to pack up and go. With St. Christopher’s blessing, of course, upon all bachelors and travelers.
Ding. Sharp as an orgasm in his pocket. The phone. (Please, please, please be her…)
Nope. Just his next assignment. New York, New Orleans, or Detroit. The hardest hit areas, tent hospitals, graves, blah, blah, blah. Nurses needed.
TEXT: WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?
Tim pauses, thinks of the one he loves, the one he left…
NO PREFERENCE. WHEREVER I AM WANTED.
Tim pauses again (he meant to say NEEDED) but hits “send” anyway. His response is acknowledged instantly with a thumbs up and a smiley face.
He scrolls to his ex-fiance’s latest text, two weeks old and contagiously cold. “Don’t contact me ever again. I’m not yours anymore.”
Down a lumbering elevator that rattles and gripes in its own elderly language. Through an empty lobby. Past the security guard, a twin of Dizzy Gillespie and just as generous of jowl, his cheeks sneaking around and overtaking the mask on his mouth. Tim is glad to see him. The happy man is a sort of emotional antacid.
“Yo, man. You be liv’n here?”
“Most of the time, yeah.”
“Well, get some rest, Double T.””
As Tim exits the door, the guard calls out, “Where’s yo mask, T-bone?”
“Don’t need one. I’m not afraid of invisible dragons.”
Outside, Tim reaches into the cargo pocket on the right thigh of his scrub pants and pulls out a flask, kisses the initials (CRE), takes two back to back swigs, puts it away. All day on an empty stomach, the buzz hits him in seconds.
The crickets are singing, chirping—what’s another word? All he knows is that their music is more complicated and mature than chirping and doesn’t want to insult them with a cliché. It’s what then? A symphony, the stringed instruments, violins hidden in the blue violets of spring, an unseen orchestra of tiny insect men in shiny shell tuxedos wooing their women with song.
Tim imagines a baton tap, tap, tapping on a tiny stand of loose leaf music. The playlist for the evening, A Cricket’s Magnum Opus: Mate with Me.
The bourbon causes Tim to wonder what crickets look like when they do it? Do the males show off the length of their stridulating wings? And when the man finally scores, does the music stop?
Tim crosses the parking lot to the farthest corner where no one ever parks because no one wants to walk a mile to the front door, especially with a killer floating in the air. There’s thick bushes out there. The ass of Tim’s pickup is rammed into secrecy. He opens the tool box behind the cab. Two pillows, three blankets, a camping lantern, and a copy of Yeats. The bed of the truck is his bed, the cheapest motel in town. No one’s answered his Craigslist and Airbnb inquiries. It’s likely because of the quarantine or that he’s a nurse and everyone’s afraid of catching the corona. Understandable. No biggie. Saves him money. Besides, the moon is a robust woman tonight who’s not afraid to reveal her sexy flaws and the night air smells of wet dreams. Far superior to a cheap room that reeks of 420 friendly, festering with bed bugs and diseased hookups.
Tim drinks almost a fifth and spins into a wild dreamscape of past sins and passionate love. A split second before the real world disappears, the fact hits him that the music of the crickets doesn’t taper off one by one, pianissimo. No. Their soothing sexual rubbing suddenly stops as if someone’s flipped a switch.
He remembers reading somewhere that romantic cricket musicals stop whenever the temperature drops to a certain point, like a natural weather forecast. Tonight the air is noticeably colder. Okay. The honeymoon is over. The males are giving their women the silent treatment—or maybe it’s the other way around?
DON’T CONTACT ME EVER AGAIN. I’M NOT YOURS ANYMORE.
Her blue eyes haunt him.
They had planned on attending the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC. But now….
The last week of March, the lion of winter is almost a lamb but still bites at night. Tim wakes around 2:30 a.m. with two strange pains, the first of which translates into his dream and transports him out of it. Carrots. Baby carrots in a crisper, too frozen for his salad, but in reality, the ten carrots are his ten toes too stiff to bend.
The second pain is the shaft and tip of his penis which had become engorged at some unmemorable point, extending upward into the overly-tight waistband of his underwear, unmercifully bent and pinched, smashed against the ridged surface of the pickup. Panic sets in—the 2 a.m. kind that always imagines the worst. He pictures a tourniquet applied far too long after a poisonous snake bite, a grotesquely swollen limb, and the subsequent amputation after irreversible nerve damage.
Like a rabbit fleeing the gun, Tim hops over the side of the truck, lands on his frozen carrot toes, pulls out his schlong, slaps some circulation back into the once happy old chap, and (sweet relief!), there’s a proper response.
A minute long piss in a Catholic parking lot is harmless. Praise be, there aren’t any cameras. However, there IS retribution, an evil slant that sends the urine rolling like a flood back at Tim’s socks and his toes are warmed. He peels off the damp socks, cursing under his breath, slips barefoot into his Crocs, and walks to WaWa for a beer. On his way, he passes the north side of the hospital and stops for a moment to stare up at Peyton’s corner window. He would whisper a prayer but no longer believes most of the time. Besides, Peggy’s already prayed a prayer on a level of pure love he’ll never be able to match. One sincere intercession is enough, right? Or does heaven operate like Wall Street? Is there a spiritual Bear Market?
Out loud, breath steaming, still dizzy from bourbon…
“Hang in there, Peyton. The Delaware Bay is waiting for you. Fight to live again! Kiss your woman at sunrise.”
WaWa is surprisingly full of fellow insomniacs wearing masks and gloves. There are blue duct tape X’s everywhere. Tim walks to the beer cooler, grabs a tall boy Ice House Edge, and obediently takes his place on the X that is 6 feet behind a strikingly handsome and well-built man.
Standing in line, Tim thinks of X’s. WaWa is in the process of replacing the temporary blue duct tape X’s with permanent red circles of paint, almost as if they’re committed to never returning to human intimacy. The scrubbed floor of the store looks more like the colorful game board of Candyland.
Somebody please tell me that this separation isn’t permanent.
Dr. Fauci insists that Americans should never shake hands again and that the norms of society have “forever” changed. So strange. All the commercials and billboards are encouraging Americans to stand together by staying apart. Fear and isolation as a new way of life is a terrible prescription for health and a grim prognosis.
Tim shakes the poisonous thought of his ex-fiance loving and sleeping with a man like the one standing in front of him. The girl behind the counter is visually stimulated and giddy. “Hey, Taylor!”
Of course, his name is Taylor.
Taylor smiles and nods on his way out the door. “Thanks for all you do, man.”
“I noticed your scrubs…”
Tim likes Taylor, but doesn’t want to. Damn charmer, that one.
The girl behind the register (Aimee, according to a name tag with a long yellow ribbon streaming from it, reminding customers to remember the 6 foot rule), scans the can of beer without looking at Tim. “ID please,” she says flatly.
Tim wants to say, “Really?” But he doesn’t. Instead, he shows her the date on his suspended drivers license. “Yep, born before men landed on the moon.”
Aimee, barely twenty, doesn’t respond. Another victim, a casualty of something else long ago forgotten, now imprisoned behind Plexiglas.
Ding. A text. Not from her (damn, damn, DAMMIT!). The recruiter . . . who obviously doesn’t sleep these days either.
NEW YORK. SIGN THE CONTRACT.
Tim’s ex-fiancé, for a narrow hopeful moment in time was only a temporary blue duct tape X, but now, she’s a permanent red painted circle. A stop sign. A social distancing that’s literally forever and with no more affection for him than the girl behind the counter.
In less that two minutes, Tim signs the contract electronically and the deal is sealed in the wee hours of the morning. Just as simple as a vow of a marriage that never happened in the much happier yesterdays of South Carolina.
Credit card approved, Tim cracks the beer in front of the vacant-eyed girl and pressure from the agitated can sprays the Plexiglas barrier. With an apology, he turns and saunters out the door and into the abandoned streets. Down Schilling Road with all of its empty cafes and potted plants and fountains. The feeling is surreal and oddly romantic—like trespassing onto an empty Broadway stage after hours. Between the magic, more magical.
The wind is blowing. Tim, unmasked, inhales whatever’s in the air, hoping he’ll catch a good death.
Halfway through the extra alcoholic beer, he’s feeling better, almost ready to sleep again before his next shift. In a few meaningless hours, he’ll enter the hospital, take a whore bath in the sink, brush his teeth, pin his long hair back at the neck, steal a ham sandwich and chase it with a communion-sized orange juice from the patient nutrition refrigerator, keep people alive, and fake that he’s happy as hell. No one will ever know what is unseen.
Under the moon, on a forsaken street, in front of a large glass window displaying a designer kitchen and an unoccupied table loaded with fake food, Tim is playing the music of Frank Sinatra on his iPhone, “That’s What God Looks Like to Me.”
Crooning along and dancing with no one, Tim stumbles, falls, and scrapes his elbow. The remainder of his beer foams on the ground and he laughs himself into an embarrassing, shoulder-shaking, drunken cry, followed by a three word prayer of two words. “God… please… God..”
Rolling onto his back, Tim fingers a small key (hers) hanging from his necklace and waits for the otherworldly song to end. After two minutes and fifty-seven seconds, Frank goes silent as the crickets.