In two Chapters. By Neal Von Flue
Chapter One: One Will Always be a Nurse.
Five is the maximum number of people that will be in the room when you die. Any more than that and they would be bumping into each other and tripping over the cords, and the intermittent shrill beep that makes everyone look at the monitor would be too hard to hear.
Unfortunately, it will never be like the old paintings; candlelit and chiarascuroed with a composed group of people on the far side of the bed and you in a humble brown robe. Reclining with slightly parted lips like you’re going to whisper dryly to that servant or pageboy leaning on a lance or anguished roman war buddy some single word; perfectly describing the purpose of your life.
Instead they will push you back and forth on some used plastic-covered mattress with machines under it while they tear at the shoulder snaps on the blue open-backed dress they require you to wear. One will evaporate for medicine and another will swoop down out of the sky and into her place, like cars merging on a freeway, a choreographed dance of five or less. And thankfully you will be miles away. Neither here nor there, but in a purgatory where dignity now seems like some regrettable human idiosyncrasy. Your slack jaw sinking into your neck with each compressor pump of the blood pressure cuff.
And when you get real close, two out of the five or less will be doctors who step back to watch and give up with a detached authority which is usually reserved for people who poke carcasses under a porch. their eyes glued to the monitor above your head because all the medicine is up your arm and coursing, so it’s your turn to dance. You’re in Lucky’s Net, wriggling like a fish.
But those nurses will talk to you. They think you can hear them, so they’ll call you “Sweetie” and “Hon” like some fry cook’s wife that lives out on the route and is tired of the dirt road- the kind that wears a loose sundress on the weekends and just wants her old man to take her into town so she can paint it deep red. And she’s calling you, her tan elegant arm caught between a purple rubber glove and the bright splash of her scrubs. Rubbing a shoulder that used to be yours- that you see in that moment like a childhood home- saying “C’mon, Hon. Come back now.” Like a siren on an island of beige tile, the bleach and water lapping at her black clogs, she’ll call you in.
It’s the promise of love that brings you back. She’ll go home after her shift and tell the fry cook about how they almost lost one today, she’ll smile deep at wedding receptions. And, in the mirror when no one is looking, she will stick out her tongue and wag her dangerous head like Kali. But then- when you’re deciding whether or not to move back into your childhood home- her promise is to love you in a way that makes the flowers bloom fast and bold right out of the surgery lights, and that makes the nest of colored wires stuck to your chest collect like the medals on a soldier’s dress blues.
When you hit bottom there will be five people or less. But thankfully one will always be a nurse.
Chapter 2: Why Doctors Take the Stairs
Between the first and fourth floors, there are seven stairs that do not have cracks. There are eleven steps between each landing and a landing between each floor. You would think therefore, that there are 88 steps total. But I didn’t tell you that the first floor has fourteen stairs each. I guess that’s because the first floor is taller than the others, but I’ve never looked up. After my first week, I realized that the doctors take the stairs. They’re always running from one place to another and the elevators are old and often crowded with patients- and family members of patients. Doctors are like weary parents. We believe there is no more noble work, but we also know that we need to steal our moments away from children.
If the cracks in the stairs are widening at all, it’s hard to tell because each one seems caught in the floor wax like one of those prehistoric mosquitoes. You can see them clearly, but under a shiny flat surface. Like looking through a greasy window. No depression, or blackness to fall into, just a jagged crack to bounce off from, emanating from the edges in.
There are four molded lines in the front edge of each step and sometimes the cracks cross them, making the stairs seem even less reliable. Four molded lines in each of the ninety-four steps makes three hundred and seventy-six lines total. I assume the lines are for shoe traction but I bet they’re also good at catching blood or urine, even though I can tell that they are getting pasted over with wax. Things I’ve found sitting on the stairs include; food, such as stray pieces of lettuce, cold pizza cheese, french fries, and a ketchup packet. One spilled coffee and various bandages, pieces of gauze with tape across them, wrappers and scraps of brown paper towels.
When I realized that’s how they get around- that a hospital stairwell is a sharp-cornered artery that white-coated blood cells travel in- I stopped waiting for elevators all together. I had assumed that doctors moved in some way that was as far apart from patients as their parking spaces, or that there was some back lot like Disneyland, and after they gave you your diagnosis, they would slip through some non-descript door that was plated with “employees only” and go walking amongst the creatures smoking cigarettes with their heads off and the texting scowling princesses.
But I came to realize that, while they do have a king’s road, it’s built on the flutter and flush of ninety-four steps. This is how they maintain their superiority, the stairwell is their apple a day. Not only do they pull souls out of the mouth of death, but they get their cardio in while doing it. Like your wife’s new work friend- the one that makes you so goddamn jealous- they lean back and say at parties with practiced humility that Yes, some people say may think that they are like gods on earth, but really they just want to be remembered as humble servants who take the stairs whenever possible.
It’s enough to make you want to keep vaseline in your glove.
I’ve seen three cigarette butts in the five months I’ve been walking from the first floor to the fourth or the fourth floor to the first countless fucking times a day. Each bed in every floor at this hospital has a pressurized oxygen line by everyone’s head and a stray spark could set them alight, turning the clear soft cannula tubes tucked up people’s nostrils into flamethrowers. At least for as long as it takes for the tubes to melt. Then I guess fire would pour out of the walls of every room, while it worked itself down the building like a virus, and into the tanks.
Sometimes the doctors are surprised to round a downward landing- their leather foot falls ricocheting off the tall walls- and see me working towards them. They’ll look up casually and unguarded, and double-take when they see someone not wearing scrubs in their sacred vertical chamber, then sometimes triple-take when they see the determination in my face counting cracks and lines and stairs and landings and floors.
I wonder if it’s the doctors who have been smoking in the stairwells. And I wonder when this will all be over.