Peter Owusu-Ogbiagbevha is a proud prince of Nigeria whose kingly deportment within the prison walls of a Covid lockdown unit is believable and impressive. Many of the staff are threatened by his pharaoh demands which are accompanied by the double clap of huge hands and a threatening mamba Tssssss! from his beefy red tongue. Peter (which he pronounces Pee-tah) is often accused of delusions of grandeur. Though very articulate and eloquent of speech, he’s impossible to understand whenever his wpm reaches 225 in zero to sixty seconds. Such frenzied glossolalia is rare and occurs only in times of great consternation.
At 5:15 AM, Tim Timmons is sitting at the charge nurse desk of the sub-acute dialysis department. His arms are folded behind his head, his left ankle is resting upon his right knee, and his demeanor is placid at the start of another long day. Leaning back in a rolling chair and confident as Captain Kirk staring at a deadly alien presence, he lowers his eyebrows at the two female techs hovering over him.
Darean: “Come on! Don’t be Ice-T!”
(Another clever nickname added to a growing list.)
Asia: “Yeah. The bars have reopened in Baltimore and we rilly, rilly, RILLY want you to meet our friend.”
Asia senses the sarcasm and rolls her dark eyes. Tim swivels his chair toward a computer, symbolically turning his back on the subject.
“Come on, McDreamy! Live a little! We’ve already rented a place where we can trash (she winks seductively at her subtle double entendre) and crash.”
Their friend, as it turns out, is a transsexual who has recently healed from a sex change operation and is now…
“a fully functioning female,” Darean says with whispering wonder. “We used to date her when she was still a guy. Asia and I both agree that he’s hotter than ever. Let’s break her in tonight and celebrate our freedom down by the harbor. Roni will no longer boast of being a virgin. It’ll be so much fun! What do you say—ready to play?”
A long shrill Tssssss!—unexpected and alarming as a pissed off snake—startles all three, interrupting the depraved invitation. This, followed by a thunderous double clap of the hands. The girls scurry away, sinners from the Ten Commandments of a son of God. It’s much too early in the morning.
Peter points to his huge privileged nose.
Responding instantly to the authoritative sign language, Tim fiddles with an annoying combination, unlocks a cabinet, and retrieves a nasal cannula. Trained vision falls upon a limited supply of N95 masks and the reluctant leader makes a mental note to order some more, saving the information in a biologic cloud hidden somewhere inside of his brain.
Tim’s attention darts in Planck time to the clock on the wall. It’s not quite half past the hour and the summer sun has already cracked the dawn. A powder blue light is returning to the sky on a dimmer switch as fast or slow as the revolving earth, brightening by the unstoppable minute.
She’s not awake yet...
Tim feels a familiar pain rush to the pit of his empty stomach like a mobster’s fist. A trembling hand feels for the flask hidden within a deep cargo pocket on the right thigh of his scrubs. Momentarily strengthened, he sighs into a smothering mask and approaches the demanding patient.
Peter is always the first to show for his treatment—shoulders straight, head tall, majestic and regal in a motorized chariot pulled by invisible horses. He refuses any assistance on his journey to the fourth floor. Personal independence is vital to maintaining his credibility and dignity as a ruler of people overseas.
Performing an initial physical assessment, Tim happens to mention his understanding of purple as a royal color, commenting that Peter wears it well. Mr. Double O’s teeth glow extra bright with kingdom joy, responding twice with, “you are my friend, you are my friend.” A royal scepter has been extended to the privately aching nurse.
Tim bows the knee, squatting to attach a green rubber hose to a portable oxygen tank (surprisingly full for once).
Tssssss! Double clap.
Peter holds up four long fingers, palms painted white, in stark contrast to the rest of his skin, which is as dark as night.
Tim is an obedient servant and sets the tank at 4 L per minute. The satisfied tribal chief is then carried away gently on his palanquin, humming an unknown song, nodding his head at something unspoken. His bloodshot eyes are continents away. The strong trunk of his neck is scented with sandalwood oil. Here is someone great, lost and locked in a lost America. Tim visualizes a wise man on his way to visit the Christ child and forgets for a moment all about the bourbon and the silver secret sloshing around in of his pants.
His phone dings. Tim glances down at the glowing screen.
It’s not her.
Just the first in an unpredictable line of nephrologists who will round on their patients via FaceTime.
And, so, another fourteen hour shift begins and Tim Timmons is reminded afresh that time is relative—it speeds up and it slows down, it starts and it stops—depending upon several unforeseen pleasant and unpleasant variables (x – y • R&B / sumshit = blessed fuckety-fuckedness). From the beginning of time (which presupposes an ending), a working clock always keeps the magician’s secret.
Philosophical whenever he pees, Tim stares down at a powerful golden arc as it sprays and loosens dried flecks of shit that have crusted the inside of a filthy porcelain bowl (probably a gift from the grumpy janitor Dwayne) and wonders if time is linear or nonlinear. Maybe nothing he sees is really real.
Pain is for damn real.
Peter, who, two hours into a four hour treatment, receives a cold bare text that his ancient and beloved father has passed away fifteen minutes ago in Nigeria. The king topples from power and submits to the embarrassing human indignity of ripping his clothes and hair and wailing as if he had been set on fire.
The distraught patient forgets about the 14 gauge needles in his arm and, in his unintelligible distress, rips both from his flesh. Blood sprays from his access into the air, high enough to hit the ceiling, powered by a stroke-level blood pressure of 225/110.
Darean is screaming, “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus God!”
Over the wailing man. Over the alarming Fresenius T machine. A sudden mushroom cloud of panic and sorrow.
Heart in throat, Tim sprints to the scene and presses two ungloved thumbs over the hemorrhaging holes and, with a hushed tone as mellow as weed, commands his capable staff.
“Asia, grab me some gloves, tape, clamps, and a thick ass clump of gauze.”
“Darean, bring a privacy screen.”
Both techs are fast and efficient.
Peter diminishes to a shoulder-shaking cry, gripping Tim’s bloodstained forearm, “Ooohh, baba! Ooohh no, no, no, my baba! Come back to me pleeeese. PLEEEESE come back, come back, come back…”
Weeping with those who weep, Tim’s tears mingle with the splashing drops of his temporary friend. Unashamed and unrestrained.
Peter is rocking his upper torso as he mourns. Tim finds it difficult to maintain his grip on the slippery arm but also on the reality of losing a loved one while trapped in a building, unable to say goodbye.
“I have to go, I have to go, I have to go…”
“Oh, Peter, I’m so sorry.“
The remainder of the shift is somber and calm, never ending but somehow ending. A ghostly sound wave of raw human emotion continues to wail in the vulnerable ear of the mind. A blood red memory saturates colorless walls.
But the human spirit is strong and lifts again at changeover with a second round of patients with no recollection. Episodes of Andy Griffith, the chatter of daytime talk shows, and two plump men wheezing at “Yo mama so ugly” jokes, provides redirection.
At the end of the day, a sinking sun takes Tim’s heart with it. Hope dims to dusky despair. A blank blackness beckons to him. With everyone gone, the flask is in plain sight. He traces a thoroughly cleansed finger over the initials of the one he loves. “Damn you,” he utters under his breath, immediately regretting his words. Again, he puts the liquor away. And the struggle continues.
A note is taped to the computer screen: a reminder of the invitation, two phone numbers, signed with a feminine smiley face and a kiss. “Call us, Hot T (hottie—get it?).” They never text him, leaving no trail but winks and perfume. Tim suspects both have boyfriends or husbands. He doesn’t know or care. He’s a traveler and makes it a point to never get closer than one work day with anyone.
The next hour and a half is another soul-scrubbing season in purgatory, sins gradually atoned by charting, scheduling, ordering, signing, reporting, packing blood tubes for FedEx, and—finally—locking all cabinets and doors. For some unknown reason, his custom has always been to turn around and stare at any emptied medical facility for thirty seconds of silence before he leaves. One by one, the voices all go out, then the lights. The stage is empty. The day is done.
This time, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“Only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away.”
Tim turns to find Dwayne the janitor staring at him. Dwayne, the midnight mystery poo stain.
“Listen, you might want to take a look at the staff bathroom. Someone shit backwards in there.”
Dwayne blinks rapidly, licking his lips.
The grumpy janitor knows that Tim knows. Cruel humor punctuates the final sentence of the day.
Tim doesn’t experience any fresh abuses of his name in the confusing downward maze outbound—except for maybe the insane old woman who is stuck on one syllable (T, of course!). “t, t, t, t, t, t….” spitting like a sprinkler. But she doesn’t know that Tim is there. She is picking invisible lint balls out of the air. That doesn’t count.
Fresh from hell’s cleansing, Tim vows not to be so self-focused.
However, the ongoing obsession with his boring and redundant name is like a strange joke. One time, not too long ago, Tim dialyzed a little child in her room and she was watching Sesame Street. Just as he entered the room, Big Bird said, “Today, boys and girls, we are learning about the letter T.” Big T’s and little t’s populated the television screen, dancing and smiling. His favorite scene was Grover with his blue fur, bugged out eyes, and strange voice, “T is for Tim” (a gap-toothed boy in a red baseball cap). Followed by, “T is for toot.””
Root for Timmy Toot Toot.
The front doors of the hospital close behind Tim’s back. Across the lawn and to the right there is a patio of picnic tables as fenced in as the patients. Peter is sitting in his chair with a hospital issue coffee mug of brown plastic. Tim walks toward the bowed king, reminding himself not to ask any stupid, non-thinking (therefore insincere) questions, like, “How ya doin’ big guy?”
Tim takes the empty cup from Peter’s catatonic hand and fills it with bourbon from his flask (very much like a pocket-sized gravestone etched with the identity of someone he’s lost to a death of another kind—but the medicine is still the same for the injured living). “To help you sleep,” the nurse explains, squeezing Peter’s shoulder before walking away.
Tim has spent his whole life walking away.
He drives from Washington DC in the direction of Baltimore, pondering the reckless idea of open bars followed by a downtown penthouse suite and a revenge fuck—an easy two for one affair (minus Roni). The histogram skyline comes into view, appearing unreal, like a distant video game. Colorful pixels arranged into something false. Three dimensional.
A hologram. Hollow. Missing something.
SimCity. Sin city.
Tim ignores the exit. Keeps driving. His truck disappears under water. On the other side of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, he reads the digital clock.
Its 3:30 AM in Nigeria—the morning after.
Funerals and weddings are inevitable. Permanent deals.
She’s with him right now.
Time stops again.
Tim screams until his throat burns. He pounds the steering wheel. The pickup weaves dangerously, crossing lines.
Maybe some music will help.
The last time he looked at his Alexa app, he accidentally discovered she was playing Al Green. She only ever downloads Al Green when…
Having cried earlier in the day for Peter, Tim cries now for himself, eyes stinging with tears. A private cleansing ritual. Preparatory to what needs to be done.
78 more miles and the silver Dodge Dakota is midway across the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The lanes are empty because of the lateness of the hour and the pandemic. Tim slows to a stop. Engages the hazard signal. Imagines surrendering and falling to his death. The rapid descent of the the final seconds of his life will climax with a powerful orgasm in his dropping stomach. He will hit the murky surface hard as concrete. Upon impact, he’ll experience the brilliant fireworks of a grand finale one blink from permanent night. His body will sink into a non-thinking, non-feeling state of rest. His corpse will be food for toxic northern fish. No headstone necessary for a head case.
The wind is moaning. The river is begging Tim to join her in suicidal matrimony, to come hard into her briny mouth.
A habit of his habit, he pulls the empty flask from his pocket. Stares at the initials.
I am no longer yours. I am his.
(Her latest words to him.)
. . . will NOT be the ones haunting his ears when he dies.
He walks to the vibrating guard rail of the bridge, dizzy, swaying on the edge. Very sober. Too sober.
“Goodbye, darling girl.”
He lifts her engraved name to his lips. One final, tender kiss under the humming cables and the moonless night.
Their brief but passionate life together flashes before his eyes.
(Proof that linear time is real: it has the memory of an enormous elephant sitting on his chest. Time doesn’t forget, therefore, time IS.)
Repulsed by the end of things, his spirit leaves his body and looks down upon himself in disbelief, the paling face of all their healthy years aghast, insanity descending.
Tim loosens his grip and drops her. The silver flask bearing her name, the necklace, and a thousand whiskey memories falls silently to the waiting water below.