Doug glanced out the window toward the parking lot and noticed his gray '78 VW bus parked in a corner under a street light. Then, exhausted from the long drive here, he sat down in a chair near the foot of his father's bed and dozed with his head against the flat hard wall. He wore the same jeans, sweatshirt, and new running shoes he had on when he left home over 24 hours before.
On the wall beyond the foot of the bed hung a large round clock over a small gold-plated crucifix. The space above the head of the bed was filled with the business end of IV poles from which hung the soft plastic containers dripping fluids into his dad. Also suspended there was the monitor.
Doug's father, Holland, was attached to the monitor. He lay on the bed between the shiny side rails, his chest rising slowly with each breath, and then collasping toward his spine as if the effort to fill his lungs was exhausting. The colored lines on the monitor continued their rhythmic dance across the screen as Doug stared with bloodshot eyes. A few minutes ago his father had returned to Room 518 after three hours of abdominal surgery and an hour in the recovery room.
"I removed the necrotic section of his bowel," the surgeon, Dr. Ash said, running his fingers through his curly black hair and glancing briefly toward the door. "He should do okay." His voice hesitated a moment, then added, "But he is seventy-five."
He looked at Doug as if expecting a response. Then the operator's calm, clear voice came out of the ceiling, "Dr. Ash, call three-eight-seven-one stat." The surgeon quickly walked out the door and to the nearest phone.
For the next couple hours Doug sat by his dad's bed. Again he propped his head against the wall and dozed. Morning sunlight began to brighten the room. Every fifteen minutes the nurse came and checked his father's vital signs. She wore blue surgical schrubs even though she had introduced herself as an intensive care nurse. The black capital letters on the white tag spelled out the name, COURTNEY. She stared intently at the monitor for a few seconds, then wrote something on a sheet attached to the clipboard she carried. Then she took a small hand-held plastic instrument with a funnel-shaped end, stuck the small end gently into Holland's left ear for a few seconds, removed it, glanced at the digital readout, wrote on the clipboard again, and left as quickly as she had arrived.
Holland stirred in his bed. His respiratory rate quickened and his eyelids flutered. One eye opened briefly. Doug leaned toward his father's ear.
"Dad, it's me, Doug. How are you?'
After a pause, his father's head nodded slightly, then his eyes opened. "I'm hurting, " His voice came out hoarse and weak. "Can you get that nurse to give me some more morphine?"
"Is it bad?" Doug asked.
"Like sandpaper on the eyeball," his father said.
Doug slipped out of his chair and walked to the nurse station where Courtney was talking on the phone.
"Did you tell him that?" Doug heard her assk and then he voice trailed off as she saw him approaching. Putting her hand over the mouthpiece, she asked, "Can I held you?"
"My father would like more pain medication." Doug said.
She glanced at her watch. "I'll be right there," she said, then turned back to the phone.
Doug returned to the room and Holland opened his eyes. "Did you find her?" he asked.
Doug nodded. His father looked relieved and closed his eyes. Doug slipped his left hand through the side rail and gripped his father's hand for a moment. He felt a weak squeeze in return and saw a brief smile come to Holland's face.
A minute later Courtney walked into the room, a loaded syringe and needle in her hand. After a brief glance at the monitor, she located the inlet port on the intravenous line, wiped it off with an alcohol swab, and with two fingers, kinked the line above the port. Then she inserted the needle into the port and slowly emptied the syringe. After increasing the flow from the bottle to send the narcotic to its destination, she reset the drip to just keep the line open. Then she placed the used syringe and needle in a red container with the warning label, SHARPS, attached to the wall, and left the room.
Soon Holland rested easier and appeared to be in a deep sleep. Doug suddenly realized that he was hungry. He hadn't eaten anything in more than a day. He rose from his chair, glanced out the window at the parking lot where fresh sunlight glared from the shiny polish of a hundred cars, checked to make sure his father was still sleeping, and then left the room.
He walked down the hall toward the elevators. The place was busy. Dietary aides carried trays from food carts to the patients. A large muscular man with a ponytail was carefully stacking perfectly folded towels in a linen closet. Doug had to squeeze past four nurses standing in a circle intently discussing some information on a patient's chart. He didn't see Dr. Ash or Courtney anywhere.
He pushed the elevator button for the second floor cafeteria and got off when it stopped. It took a few seconds before he realized his mistake and tried to get back on the elevator, but the door had squeezed shut and it was gone. This was a patient floor also, not the cafeteria. He looked down the hall and saw, at the far end, the bright exit sign indicating a flight of stairs.
That'll be quicker than waiting for the elevator again, he thought, and started toward the sign. Halfway down the hall he saw a thin man approaching. The man was wearing only a pair of loose white shorts. Doug's pace slowed as the thin man got nearer. His hairless skin was pale and ghostly, but shiny, almost translucent, as if lit from inside. Doug thought for a minute that he could almost see the outline of the man's skeleton through his skin. He had a yellow band around one wrist and a purple one around the other. His step was hesitant, but determined, like one who should use a cane, but refused to. Doug started to nod in greeting, but noticed that the man had a faraway look in his eyes, as if focused on some distant goal.
Doug reached the exit, glanced back to take one more look at the thin man, but he was nowhere to be seen. Doug paused a minute searching with his eyes, but the hall was as empty as if no one had ever been there. Doug opened the exit door and went down the barren concrete steps.
On the second floor he checked the vending machines in the snack bar for breakfast. The only thing they contained was some overpriced yogurt of questionable age. On a wide shelf between the sandwich and snack machine sat a ruined microwave. The door was open. Someone had turned it on with metal inside, and the melted plastic hung in blobs from the top of the interior like stalactites in a cave.
Doug left the snack bar and entered the cafeteria, but his appetite had disappeared. He bought two granola bars and a cartoon of milk and ate, sitting alone at a table in the corner of the cafeteria. In the ceiling over his head was a speaker and from it came the saccharine music heard in hospitals, frequently interrupted by the measured cadence of the operators's voice calling for doctors, nurses, or therapists.
Doug returned to his dad's room. deliberately retracing his steps through the same stairs and hall, but did not see the thin man again. In Room 518, a small woman dressed completely in white from her shoes to the large bow in her coal black hair, and holding a small silver tray in her hand, had arrived to draw blood. Doug watched closely as the sun shining in the window reflected above the silver side rails like a rectangular halo suspended above the sleeping form of Doug's father. The woman circled the bed, breaking the sun's rays, and placed her tray on the narrow bedside table. After turning off the monitor's alarms. she took two small needleless syringes from the tray in her gloved hands and withdrew the plungers on both. She attached one to a port on a tube inserted in an artery in Holland's left arm. Then she attached the other syringe to another port on the same line, turned a stopcock, and filled one syringe, then adjusted another stopcock, and filled the other. She moved the second syringe from the line, capped it, and briefly rotated it in her hand. The she pushed the blood in the other syringe back into the line, flushed it with fluid from the IV bottle, and turned the stopcock again before removing the syringe and discarding it.
As she left, Holland slowly opened his eyes and whispered in a husky voice, "What did she want?"
"Some of your blood," Doug said.
"Vampires," Holland said.
"Feeling any better, Dad?"
Holland nodded. Then he motioned for his son to come closer. Doug leaned over the rail.
"I'm not going to make it out of here," he said.
"Nonsense," Doug said. "Even you said you were feeling better."
"I am, but that's not it, " Holland said, "I just know."
He paused a moment to catch his breath. The red line on the monitor jerked upward into the path of the green one. The screen switched to a row of white numbers and a square red light began to blink. An alarm shrilled out a series of four high-pitched beeps, then became silent as Holland relaxed, and the screen changed again to the rows of colored lines, realigned to their normal paths.
"My keys are in the bag," Holland said, and gestered toward a brown leather pouch lying on the broad windowsill.
"What keys?" Doug asked.
"To the ranch house," Holland said. "There's a chest under the bunk bed with some things in it for you."
"You'll be back there in a couple days, " Doug said. "You'll need those keys."
Holland shook his head.
"Just remember what I told you," he said.
A volunteer walked into the room. She was an elderly woman wearing a pink dress. Her gray hair was curled tightly close to her scalp. She smiled at Doug without speaking, handed him an envelope and continued on to the next room. Doug glanced at the envelope, started to speak to his dad, but noticed that Holland seemed to have fallen asleep. He tore the envelope open. In side was a get-well card. On the cover was a crude caricature of a frazzled nurse trying to give a shot to a patient who was lying in bed with traction attached to each arm and leg. Doug barely noticed the verse which said something intended to be funny about nurses, shots, and hospitals. The card was signed, Bobby.
Holland stirred and opened his eyes.
"Hey Dad, you got a card, " Bobby said, He held the card up for his father to see. "It's from Bobby."
"Who?" Holland asked.
"Bobby," Doug repeated.
"Who's Bobby?" Holland asked.
"How would I know?" Doug asked. "The card's addressed to you, not to me. Do you want to see it now?"
Holland closed his eyes. Soon his breathing relaxed and he was sound asleep. Doug sat in the chair and rested. On the wall at the foot of the bed the second hand of the clock silently clicked from second to second quivering each time it stopped, as if nervous about the future, before moving on. Doug noticed that sometimes it took six jerks of the hand to cover five seconds on the dial and other times only five.
He glanced out the window. A cherry red pickup truck was pulling into the parking lot five floors below. It came to a stop between two of the diagonal white parking lines. A man, woman, and a small girl got out of the truck. The man was carrying something. He bent over and made a series of up and down movements with his arms and back. Next to him a flat object inflated into a large yellow beach ball. He handed the ball to the girl, then loped an arm around the shoulder of the woman and, without looking back, they walked to the edge of the parking lot and laid on the grass under a small tree.
The girl bounced and chased the ball around the parking lot. At one point the ball ricocheted between two parked cars, and then bounced into the path of a black van accerating as it headed for the exit of the parking lot. For a second Doug thought the girl would run into the van, and opened his mouth to cry a warning even though there was no way anyone on the parking lot could hear him. But the girl halted just in time and stood still as the ball careened up from the van's fender, its shadow passing over her, and then bounced off the roof of a parked car before rolling across the lot. The van stopped, and Doug saw a person step partly out the door, make some wild gestures with an arm, then retreat into the van, disappearing behind the tinted glass, and the van sped off. Under the tree the man and woman lay still.
What kind of people, thought Doug, would let a small child play on a busy hospital parking lot? Exhausted from watching the scene below, he turned from the window and sat in the chair, resting his head against the wall again until he fell asleep.
He slept for a couple hours, dreamed of food, and woke up realizing that he was hungry again.
Holland was still asleep. Doug dropped the card and envelope from Bobby in the trash can as he walked out the door. He took the same route to the cafeteria. A physical therapist who though he was lost, pointed to a more direct way. Doug thanked her and without changing directions, kept going.
He bought a full meal of broiled halibut with rice and cooked broccoli and finished it off with a couple chocolate chip cookies. While drinking lemonade, he overheard snatches of conversation from a table of hospital employees nearby.
"Did you see that one's x-ray?"
"I gave him enough to make his bones soft, but the doctor still wanted him more relaxed."
The sounds of he conversation were interrupted as a food aide slowly pushed a cart of empty trays through the room.
"He's circling the drain," said one.
"Not long for this world," said another.
Another employee approached the table and the conversaton turned to words of greeting. Over the intercom the calm voice of the operator came, "Code Blue, ICU, Code Blue, ICU." Two people from the table nearly left in a hurry, their trays abandoned, food uneaten.
Doug finished his meal and left the cafeteria. As he approached Room 518 he saw a couple nurses run into the room. A third pushed a large cart into the room. A tall breaded man dressed in wrinkled green scrubs with a black stethscope around his neck dashed by. A nurse recognized Doug and walked quickly toward him.
"Your father's taken a turn of for the worse. He quit breathing," she said.
She tried to direct him into a small lounge nearby , but Doug brushed past her and walked to the glass door of the room. The room was full of people. One nurse was trying to start an IV in Holland's arm. Another was injecting something into another IV. A respiratory therapist at the head of Holland's bed was helping him breathe with a large blue bag attached to a mask covering his mouth and nose. Another nurse was standing on a stool and pushing on Holland's bare chest, moving up and down in quick jerks, his fingers interlaced on Holland's sternum. The nurse's hairy arms quivered each time he compressed the chest. Still another was writing on a clipboard.
Doug was startled at the color of Holland's skin.. HIs father's usual dark tan had a yellow tint to it. The door to the room was closed so Doug couldn't hear anything. The bearded man walked to the head of the bed, picked up a metal object with a hinged curved arm, opened Holland's mouth, and slipped the curved part into it, then another person handed him a plastic tube which he inserted into the opened mouth and anchored it with tape.
For a few seconds everyone stopped and stared at the monitor which displayed a few shallow wavy lines, then they continued the resuscitation effort. Doug became aware of someone's hand on his shoulder. It was Courtney.
"Would you like a chair so you could sit down?" she asked.
He nodded, still staring into Room 518.
A few minutes later Dr. Ash walked past Doug and into the room. He consulted with the bearded man, listened to Holland's lungs, peered into his eyes with a small falshlight, and looked over a piece of paper containing a heart tracing. Then he motioned for everyone to stop. The green line on the monitor undulated irregularly across the screen and then settled slowly into a straight line. The bearded man shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
For a long time Doug sat and stared into theroom. After arrangements were made and the body removed by the mortician, Doug picked up the brown pouch and a small opaque plastic bag containing Holland's things and walked slowly to the parking lot. It was beginning to get dark and two stars had appeared. The crescent moon curved toward the silhouette of a mountain range in the west. Doug unlocked his VW bus, got in, and sat there with his head on the padded steering wheel for several minutes. Then he turned the motor on, and steered out of the parking lot to I-40. The familiar whine of the acclerating engine increased in volume. He fingered the keys in the pouch and then took the next exit toward the ranch house.
(previously published in slightly different form by
Boise State University in the 1997 cold-drill)