The guy next to me had pulled out his IV before he thrashed himself into silence, and the nurses were all avoiding him now that he was dead and no longer begging for drugs.
“A gusher,” said a doctor coming towards me, looking at the puddle of blood around the dead man’s gurney with limp, baggy eyes. “We cannot have all this over the floor, or someone will slip and fall, and then we will be down one nurse or orderly, and we cannot manage. Not tonight.”
“What if a doctor falls?” joked one of the nurses.
“God is not that merciful,” said the doctor.
MY doctor. His nametag said “Magarshack.” I was hoping for one of the nice-looking female doctors, but I didn’t get one. I got this guy.
Dr. Magarshack picked up my chart from where it lay propped against my naked feet.
“Please,” said Dr. Magarshack. “Another homeless. Tell me who let you through triage. You are fine. Get up.”
“I’m not fine,” I said. “And I’m not homeless. I’ve got to have medicine.”
“Who says? I don’t say. Get up; get out. No fever. Good pulse. Go.”
“I’ve got to have medicine on my arm,” I said. “Look at it!”
With my functional left hand, I peeled back the thick blue blanket they had draped around my oozing right arm and rotated my shoulder so that Dr. Magarshack could get a good look.
“How did you do that?” said Dr. Magarshack. “You did that to yourself, didn’t you?”
“It was an accident,” I said.
“Sure!” said Dr. Magarshack. “It was an accident! And now you need help! Bah!”
My arm was charred, burned, and dripping with a pinkish-tan latticework of new-forming pus from my wrist all the way to my elbow. Since I had last seen it, there were new yellow blisters forming around the edges, and there were now hairy blue fibers from the blanket matted into the densest pools of glistening ooze. I couldn’t feel anything yet, but I knew it was going to start hurting soon. Hurting like a police siren, in sine waves that would bury me under them at their crests.
“How did you do this?” asked Dr. Magarshack, bored.
“I was helping this lady change her tire – she had popped a tire in front of the bank, but she had a spare – and I reached under the car and accidentally stuck my arm against the engine block. I nearly crushed myself because I kicked out at the jack, but the jack held, and the car stayed up.”
“Did you finish changing the woman’s tire?” asked Dr. Magarshack.
“No,” I said.
“Of course not!” said Dr. Magarshack. And then, slyly: “And I bet she drove you to the hospital, apologizing the whole time!”
“I walked here,” I said. “She had a flat tire, just like I said. I’m not lying.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No, it’s numb,” I said.
“Bah!” said Dr. Magarshack.
One of the nurses had already started an IV on me, and Dr. Magarshack took a silver tube of liquid from his jacket pocket, screwed it into the IV portal flap, and squeezed. I saw thick grey liquid flow into the bag and plash toward the hose that snaked into my arm. Dr. Magarshack smiled at me. I didn’t like that smile.
I didn’t like that smile at all.
“I have a job!” I shouted. “I’m not homeless! I don’t stand around on the corner all day, talking to myself, begging for change! I work in a bank. I’m a teller! I never even GIVE money to homeless people. I make eight dollars an hour, and even if I wanted health insurance, even if I payed every cent from my paycheck for it, they still wouldn’t give it to me. I’m a risk!”
“You are a fucking asshole,” said the guy on the other side of the dead man, a wheezing, nearly-naked butterball who was sitting bolt upright on his hospital bed with his hands locked together around his swollen feet. He held his head up and glared at me with yellow eyes, and then went back to staring at his feet and wheezing.
Dr. Magarshack snapped his head toward the wheezing man and walked over to him. He leaned over and peered into his face. He picked up the man’s forearm and inspected it carefully. The man looked at the doctor with kittenish hope before busting up into a coughing fit that made him curl up on his bed like a lima bean.
The doctor flared his nostrils and then returned to me. He glared at my arm, thinking about something, and then finally seemed to reach a conclusion.
“Nurse!” said Dr. Magarshack. “Surgery; room fourteen. This one’s going to need a skin graft. Get “Bottom’s Up” on the phone.”
A thin, blotchy woman with half-moon glasses looked over at me from the nurse’s station and then resumed typing on her computer, her lips moving along with her clacking fingers.
“What’s ‘Bottom’s Up?’” I asked.
“Bah!” said Dr. Magarshack.
That was when the drugs from the little silver bottle hit me and I fell back against the sheets. Everything went blue.
When I woke up, I was laying down in a big soft bed -- with pillows -- in my own private room in a different part of the hospital. My heart was beating like an overloaded washing machine, and I sat up fast: alert, nauseous, a scream forming on my lips.
Dr. Magarshack was on the edge of my bed, grinning at me. There was a needle in his hand.
“Adrenalin,” he said, tapping the syringe. “We need the bed now.”
My jaw hung open and I placed my hand over my heart to feel it beating between my ribs. Against my will, my hand clenched with every beat against the skin of my hairless chest like a cat kneading its litter box. There were burning grits of sand in my brain that cut lines across my consciousness like a subway system made of zippers. I looked down at my arm. Clean, new skin covered the burned area, demarcated by close blue stitches that started to itch as I looked at them.
“This isn’t my skin,” I said.
“We took it off the guy next to you,” said Dr. Magarshack. “He will not need it anymore. Double pneumonia, and then he choked to death when we tried to aspirate him.”
“Isn’t that private information?” I asked.
“It is not private to you,” said Dr. Magarshack. “You’re wearing him. Anyway, that’s not important. The important thing is that we need the bed now.”
“I can’t pay,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m a risk; that’s just the way it is.”
“You can’t pay? You already did! Thank you TO ME for giving your case to the special needs group here in the hospital.”
“I already paid?”
“I sent your case to the Bottom’s Up Group. They paid for you to have the finest care money can buy, in addition to the emergency treatment. Extended care, palliative care, orthodontics, everything. Everything we’ve got.”
“They are a charity. You don’t need to know anything else. If it is a charity, a charity can pick and choose. I recommended you, and they agreed.”
“You took my kidneys.”
“No, that’s illegal, and worthless. You probably drink a liter of bourbon a day. We didn’t take anything. We gave. You will leave here a different man than when you came in. A better man. Soon you will have a whole floor in the city to yourself, thirty stories up where you can’t smell a thing, and a beautiful girlfriend to live with who has parents that you can pretend are yours.”
“I’ve never had that,” I admitted.
“A new world,” said Dr. Magarshack. “And now you must leave this one.”
“But what did you do?” I asked, beginning to shake with fear and fury. “Tell me what you did to me.”
“Please,” said Dr. Magarshack, holding up one smooth and scrubbed finger. “Try to stay calm, or the adrenaline will give you a heart attack.”
“My arm itches,” I said pitifully. “And my head hurts.”
“We didn’t take anything from you, or hurt you in any way,” said Dr. Magarshack. “We only made you better. You want to know what we did? We fixed you. We literally gave you more sense to your mind. We took your tongue, and we replaced all the taste buds you have destroyed by soaking them in alcohol and cheap spices. We took your eyes and we scraped them clean of parasites and mildew. We dove deep into your ears and carved out the wax and resculpted the chipped and weakened bones so that you can hear every pitch again like a newborn child. We replanted the hairs in your nose, and molded you a new septum out of fiber board: you had picked the thing to the quick, you nervous Nelly! And finally, we cut your hair, strained the toxins from your body, and scrubbed your skin so that it shines like a rock star. And now you must go. There’s nothing else we can do – you are an addict -- and so now we are done with you.”
“I’m not an addict,” I said, bewildered. “I work in a bank. I live in an apartment. Nobody asked me about this. I never agreed to anything, and I don’t know what is going on here.”
Dr. Magarshack leaned in very close. His eyes were bloodshot and grey. He smelled like the vent behind an all-night grease and eggs restaurant. I don’t think he had slept in days.
“So help me God,” he began. “I will rip that skin right back off your arm if you don’t get up out of this bed and get out of this hospital right this minute. You people clog this place like a bad taco clogs an asshole. Get out, or you will stay here permanently.”
Shaking, I carefully swung my legs over the side of my bed. Dr. Magarshack dropped a packet of papers on the bed as I began to put on my clothes.
“This is your discharge information,” said Dr. Magarshack. “Goodbye.”
“Where are my glasses?” I asked.
“Oh, you won’t need them anymore,” said Dr. Magarshack. “We fixed your eyes. You see perfectly now. You are one lucky little burn victim.”
I realized he was right. I realized I could see perfectly.
“Will this last?” I asked.
Dr. Magarshack pointed at the sheaf of papers again and left the room. I picked up the packet. It was thick. There were illustrations. All of the Latin words were italicized. I realized I didn’t want to be here anymore. What else might they do to me?
I was alone. I gathered the papers together and stumbled out the door. A nurse met me in the hallway with a wheelchair, briskly took me to an elevator, took me down ten floors to the lobby, wheeled me to the front doors, showed my ID to the security guard, signed me out, and started pulling the wheelchair away before I was even standing again. The security guard laughed at me when I looked at him. I don’t know why. It was sympathetic laughter, maybe.
The bright light of the day hit me in a disorienting slash. It was morning, but it wasn’t the same morning it had been when I came into the hospital. It felt like a weekend. People were doing weekend things along the street: walking slowly arm in arm, heading out to parks in groups to play sports, sitting around under the awnings of shops and chatting with each other.
I had gone into the hospital on a Tuesday.
They had been working on me for five full days while I slept.
The day was so crisp and bright that I could have chewed it like an apple. It stung my eyes with its hundred and fifty shifting colors, and even the simple chirp of birds drilled into my pulsating head like screams. For the first time in years, however, it no longer hurt every time I breathed. The air did not rattle or scratch in my lungs like sandpaper. What had they done with my asthma?
I could read street signs all the way down the block. I could hear mosquitoes banging into the plate glass windows of storefronts five, six, and seven stores down from where I stood near the hospital, staring at the line of pharmacies that tended to the hospital’s exit traffic.
I stepped out into the street. A couple peered at me from the alleyway on the other side. They were street people; coarse and hungry. The man wore so many layers of clothes that his arms stuck out at his side and sweat poured down his unshaved face in yellow streaks. The woman next to him was smiling bashfully and trying to get close to him. He kept stepping to the side, and she kept sliding up to him and trying to get her hands around his body.
“Hey Pete!” said the man, pointing at me. “Hey Pete! Get over here!”
“My name’s not Pete,” I said, staggering over anyway. Maybe they had some information.
“I’m Six-Sweater and this is Sarah,” said the man. “You want to buy some Neat’s foot oil?”
He held up a brown bottle and smiled at me. His teeth were very white in his brown and dented face, and it was like a flash of paint on the dark and grunge-coated street. I could see every pore on his upper lip, and smell his rich rotten loam. True to his name, he wore six different sweaters, and each layer had its own smell: sweat, urine, cologne, vomit, meat, and woman.
“Neat’s-foot oil,” I whispered. “Why would I buy that?”
“They crush up the bones of cows to make that stuff,” said Six-Sweater. “And here’s the thing that gets me, Pete: you use Neat’s-foot oil to soften up leather! You rub it into your baseball glove, or you smear it all over your bucket seats! Cows got the answer to their skin problems locked inside ‘em! Maybe it works for people! Folks are always trying to make their skin soft. Maybe they need to use crushed up people-bones! Pete’s-feet oil!”
“That’s funny!” said Sarah; laughing. “That’s SO funny, Six! Tell it again!”
Her eyes grew wide and she clasped her hands together. Six-Sweater turned around and marched back into the alley, waving his hand behind him as if he were waving away a fart. Sarah watched him go, her smile slowly fading.
“After you’ve been living outside for awhile, your skin starts to get tough and hard like cow’s skin. It can crack and get infected if you don’t soften it up with oil,” said Sarah.
She turned and followed Six-Sweater and I was left there staring after them into the alley.
A wind swept through the dirt and stacks of decaying magazines and blew the whole scene down my lungs to pluck the strings of my newly-reconstructed nasal passages. Why had I stood so close to them? Now I would be sick.
My ears began to ring, and with the tinnitus came the jarring, jiggling sensation of the world losing its definition under my feet. My whole body filled with the smell of cheap beer, warm oranges, and yellow curry smeared over blocks of furry blue cheddar cheese. I lurched and leered. I could hear an airplane miles away as if it were a dentist drilling into my gums to find the root.
I bent over at the waist and grabbed my thighs for balance. I could see mites and pinchbugs in the sidewalk cracks with such clarity that I could feel the tension in each leg and understand the sensuousness in each bulging eye.
There were slaps against the concrete; loud pocks of rhythm that seemed to draw closer and closer to me. The noises were coming from the direction of the hospital. I raised my head up enough to see. A man in a business suit with a cell phone in his hand was running towards me, his mouth stretched tight across his square jaw like a yawning rip in a plastic bag. His suit, haircut, and fingernails were all straight, square, brushed, broad, and white.
The man stopped in front of me. He bent down, cupped my chin in his hands, and raised my head up.
“I was supposed to meet you at the door when they let you out,” he said. “I’m sorry I was late.”
“I don’t even know who you are,” I said.
“I’m with Bottom’s Up,” said the man. “I need you to come with me.”
I held up the sheaf of papers in my hand. My discharge instructions.
“You did this?” I asked.
The man ignored my question and raised his hand as if he were going to slap me. I winced and covered my face, and it was only when I heard the scrape of tires on the curb that I realized he was hailing a cab. The man grabbed me by the arms and gently pushed me towards the open door. I got in the cab, if only because it smelled like dark chocolate, it was air-conditioned, and it hummed and cooed in a way that softened my nausea.
“Don’t talk to me,” said the man, after he gave the cab driver an address somewhere downtown. “I don’t know anything. I just pick people up from hospitals and bring them to the office. They want to see you before you can go. If you need to puke, I have a bag.”
He pulled out a crumpled paper bag from his pocket and set it down on the seat between us. I grabbed it and held it in my lap as the cab delivered us across town.
“Some people puke, but they get better eventually,” said the man. “They get used to feeling good.”
We stopped in front of a building.
We got out.
The man pulled me inside, marched me across an empty lobby to the elevator, shoved me inside, took the paper shopping bag away from me, punched the button for the top floor with his hand beating back the elevator that was trying to shut, and then stepped back into the lobby. He saluted me.
“More to pick up,” he said. “You can catch the subway to a shelter.”
I rode the elevator to the top, staring at the scratches, bends, and pokes in the steel of the door that made whirls of rainbow.
The door opened, and I found myself in a small, clean white room. There was nothing in the room but a single black table. Sitting behind the table were three women in ballroom gowns and one man in a sharp grey suit.
For a long time, we just stared at one another. I stood there in front of the elevator (whose doors slid shut with a susurrant plea) and they examined me with greedy, shameless invasion as if I was auditioning for a part in a play. All of them were young, which surprised me. Younger than me, even: in their early twenties or perhaps still teenagers. I thought everybody in these buildings was older and wiser than hell itself, but I saw that instead they were all just kids.
“I probably lost my job at the bank,” I said, finally. “I’ve been gone for a week without calling.”
The women looked at one another, and then they looked at the man, and then the man looked at the women and then they all looked at me again.
One of the women stood up and smiled. Another came around beside me and took my discharge papers from my hands. She flipped through them quickly and passed them around to the others to look at before sitting back down.
“Hello!” said the standing woman. “Oh, look at you! You glow like a pearl. Can you see me? Can you smell the good things of the Earth? Can you taste again, and do you want to live life like we do now? In a home, with nice things to do, and nice people to do them with?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“We’re Bottom’s Up,” said the woman. “We made you all better.”
The man stood up beside her.
“You were sick and hurt, and we made you better,” said the man, looking at my file. “We fixed your arm. And look here in your file! We cleaned you up. We straightened your teeth, and fixed your cavities. We tested you, and made sure you did not have cancer, or AIDS, or liver flukes, or fibromyalgia, or Crohn’s disease. We tested everything inside you, and we fixed what we could fix, and we repaired what was broken, and we have made you new. And now you may leave if you want. We just wanted to see you. We like to see everybody we touch.”
What could I say? What should I say? I didn’t ask for any help, and I didn’t mean to burn my arm.
I opened my mouth to speak, but there still weren’t any words in me.
I turned around to face the elevator and my fingers rested on the call button. My fingers slid from the button without pressing it. I turned around to face them again.
“Look at him!” said the standing woman. She had blonde hair and green eyes and a little scar across one eyebrow. “He’s so handsome now.”
She looked at her companions and then walked across the room.
She fixed me with her gaze, and I saw swirling tears well up in her eyes.
She knelt down at my feet.
Her red ballroom gown crumpled across my shoes.
“Tell me I’m good,” she said in a quiet voice.
I stared at the top of her head, shocked and confused.
I could smell the skin under her effusive gardenia perfume. Her skin smelled crisp like ginger and I knew it would taste just as strong and cutting.
I looked at the others behind her. They looked at me with pensive restraint. The young man had his hands in his pockets and was chewing on his bottom lip.
I opened my mouth to speak and one of the other women sucked in her breath; scared, nervous, her eyes dilating in horror.
I changed my mind about what I was going to say.
“You are good,” I said instead, trying my best to smile. The woman with the scar hugged my legs harder, beaming at me and laughing through her tears.
Emboldened, one of the other women came and knelt down next to the first.
“Tell me I’m smart,” she said. “Say it.”
Was this a ritual? Was this how I was to pay?
I looked at the tops of both of their heads and then at the two people still staring at me behind the table. No one spoke or offered any advice.
“You are smart,” I said.
The women at my feet threw their hands up in the air, and cried and laughed together. I tried to step backwards out of their reach, but they held me fast.
Across the room, the young man’s fingers went into his mouth and he sucked on the tips. He ran a streak of saliva to his ear.
Suddenly, he leapt from his chair and bear-crawled towards me under the table like a suppliant dog to hug my ankles and press his face into my shins.
“Tell me I’m pretty,” he said, weeping.
I looked at each of them in turn, trying to gauge their sanity. The blonde woman with the scar frowned at me in mingled hope and fear. Would I? Would I say that?
“You are pretty,” I said. He fell back against the floor and clasped his hands together, his eyes shining, his forehead beading with sweat. His companions embraced him and they clutched each other and pressed their bodies together like lovers. I frantically beat at the elevator call button.
The last woman in the room regarded me coldly. She had short black hair and wore glasses that made her eyes look like pinpricks. She did not join in the laughing and tears, but watched her companions with ice from afar. She stood up from the table slowly and splayed her delicate fingers on the table for balance.
She walked across the room with her frosty black gown sweeping behind her like a tail.
She stood next to me, at a distance from her peers, her pupils like mechanical pencil lead that slowly pumped into my face with clicks of her mind, and then she too knelt down, never breaking eye-contact. Finally, when her hands and knees were against the floor, she lowered her head and grabbed my shoes.
“Tell me everything is going to be okay,” she said with grim determination. “And you may go.”
Her companions gasped. Would I say that? Could I say that?
The elevator dinged and the doors opened back up.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I said.
I slipped inside without a struggle and pressed the button for the lobby. I could still hear their cheering and laughter through the elevator shaft as it fell down five, six, seven floors, my heart pounding and the reek of each of them still strong in my nose, their soft, pain-free features burned into me like scars from fire.