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Something Sick

Some of the patients want to talk.  The nurse sometimes smiles, but regardless, nods.  She acknowledges them, always.  And she hears them.  She listens to them.  She listens to what they are complaining about, and roots out a solution from her toolbox.  She shows them kindness, and sometimes they are grateful, and she believes that giving them optimism improves their will to improve.  And furthermore, she wasn’t cruel - she didn’t believe that anyone should be in pain, unless of course, they rebuffed what she offered.  It was up to them.

And sometimes they died anyway.  No sense in being attached or feeling quixotic about it.  The hospital functioned in some ways like a factory for processing out the sick.  It was a cold fact, but she handled it calmly, and for some reason, many people took her to seem cold in turn.  And that used to hurt, but now it just reinforced everything she thought about them, until she could do her work without thinking about them much at all.

She tried to stay out of the Emergency Room, just because any drop-in could be contagious with anything.  They deserved care and braver people than herself were there to help them.  And get them past those first few hurdles to be maintained in facilities within the hospital, where she could care for them without danger to herself. 

But every so often, someone at a party would ask about the most grotesque things she had seen as a nurse, so she recalled a few of her earlier experiences being pulled in to the ER during night shifts. Gunshot wounds, she’d say, and everyone would seem disappointed.

“But a bullethole is small, so yeah, there’s a lot of blood I guess.”

“Yes, there is.”

“But like it’s not…it’s not carnage, you know?” this shitbag Marc, who Deb brought around for a while, “like, it’s okay by me - it’s fine by me if you don’t want to talk about it, but I was asking more along the lines of gory things.”

And so she’d talk about amputations.  She’d witnessed them through plate glass windows a few times, by accident, though with increasing regularity, while delivering carts of supplies to the surgeon’s wing.  It fascinated her, and the only thing that repelled her about it, was her own fascination, and whether it was okay to not be repelled by it.  And gradually she felt that it was, and avoided that part of the wing, which was to follow the rules anyhow.

“Like a bonesaw, right?”

“Yeah, it’s a saw specifically for bones.”

“That is gross. They knock you out?”

“Yeah, for the sawing, but they’re usually awake when they come in.”

“Yeah, so like, what happens to them, like what do they come in with.”

“Gunshots.”“Yeah, but like what else?  Like power tools and stuff?”

“Yep, power tools.  A guy-” she paused.  She found her mind loosening, taken in on a thread that it knew well, a pattern of synapses she’d traversed before such that these weren’t words she was creating, but reciting from previous thought and felt suddenly uncomfortable, naked, with Marc, and all the other people in the room.  And it felt suddenly muggy, oppressive like the tropics, but damp with the eleveated highway’s fumes filtered weakly by an air conditioning unit in the window and now ingested by this large room of acquaintances. Free of charge.

It hadn’t been more then a moment, but she felt suddenly nauseous and excused herself to sit down.  The oversized leather couches in the loft would be good.  And when she approached, two guys each stood off the two cushions with a show of valiance, so that Norma  could sit in the uncomfortable crack of the couch, only for each of them to buoy her on the arms of the couch.  

She drank some water from a bottle in her knapsack. The guy with the chainsaw had been gnarly.  It was exactly the story that Marc wanted, but it wasn’t the story that she wanted to tell. Two men were working in a backyard to cut down tree limbs with a chainsaw.  One of them, on the ladder was using the chainsaw when it fell from his hands.  The other man, under him, stepped backwards enough to save his own life, but not enough to avoid a ripping tear down the front of his leg, ending with the chainsaw partially hacking off his foot.  

As he later remarked, over the time that he’d been in recovery, he’d learned that the chainsaw had missed a major artery in his thigh by distance so small, it was hard to comprehend how it had missed at all.  But it had, and if it hadn’t, he’d of bled out within minutes.  And yeah, knucklehead Tim dropped the fucking thing, but he was also smart enough to tie a tourniquet and drive like a NASCAR driver to the emergency ward.

She saw him whimper during his arrival, as the doctors addressed his most urgent issues, but he didn’t scream or beg, only moan as he drifted in and out of consciousness, until the doctors finally knocked him out and used the bonesaw for the remainder of his foot.

But afterwards, he spoke, so much and never quite to her at length, but she heard these things he said to family and friends that would visit.  

So many fucking complaints over the years, thousands of people growing sick and lamenting their fate, rhetorically asking Norma to weigh in on “why god would do this to a person like me?” or “I’ve always taken care of myself.  It’s not fair.” “It’s not fair.”  “It’s really, just not fair.”

It was enough to make her sick, those that over-eat, that deliberately malnourish themselves, the 1-a-weekday drinkers and pill abusers and former smokers, the ones that share the same air we breathe every fucking day. All of these very normal people believing they were a picture of health.

It was moving to hear the chainsaw guy, of all of them, show forgiveness.

She drank some more water. Marc was approaching.  He asked her to shift over and so she did.

“Look, I’m really sorry, if I’m dredging things up that you don’t like to talk about.”

She shook her head and waved her hand to indicate that all was okay.

She continued drinking the water and plotting when to stand when he continued, “it must’ve been really terrible for you to be so upset.”

She thought instead of speaking.  She’d developed it as an almost karmic practice with patients.  Early on, speaking to patients felt like an obligation, a part of the nurse’s role.  But within a few years, she began to find ways of blocking further conversations that she didn’t enjoy.  She’d recognize the moment that she lost interest in the conversation, and let her words continue for a moment in her head as she blandly nodded and murmur “yes, yes,” all the while, an ocean of thoughts passing behind her eyes, and if one was paying attention, which they rarely were, they’d see it in turbulent waves.

And so she blocked Marc from her defense that no, it wasn’t the gore of the chainsaw guy that made her nauseous enough to sit.  It was that he handled it with dignity and poise and I was about to parade it for your voyeurism, and that in reality, the most horrific things are gunshot wounds, if you’d just use your fucking ears, because most people come in howling from them, having no idea of such immense pain being possible, pleading for drugs or death, more often than actual care.

Norma stood and found Deb across the room with Alex.

Alex said, “Ask Norma - she’ll tell you the truth.”


“Ask her or do you want me to?  I will - what do you think of Marc?”

Norma looked to Deb.  Deb was a few inches shorter than Norma, with short curls of brown hair that Norma privately thought of as “boyish”.  She looked up at Norma with these wet eyes that reminded Norma of how handsome Marc was and how supposedly well paid he was, and why she’d had to listen to a sales pitch about him several weeks ago from Tom, only to hear it repeated by Deb a few weeks later as validation that she was happy with the bill of sale.

“He’s grotesque.  I don’t like him at all.”

Deb made a face like she was going to throw up or have a heart attack and said, “Oh my god, are you for real?”

“I told you.”

“Even if you think that,” Deb said, “You shouldn’t say it.”

“But you asked, well, Alex asked.”

“Right, Alex asked, but even so, you don’t have to put it that way.”  Deb’s face began to blush and she shook her head vigorously, clicking off quickly in short steps across the hardwood floor.

Norma looked to Alex, who said, “I told her I didn’t like him either.”

“So why is she mad at me?”

“Probably the grotesque thing.”

“Well, why don’t you like him?”

“I just said that he seems really into himself.”

“Well, that’s grotesque.”

“I agree, just, maybe that was a little cold for Deb.  She needs a spoonful of sugar, you know?”

Norma found herself, “yes, yesing” again.  Her therapist had told her it was disassociative.  But, she wanted to say to Alex, how else are we going to get through to her, how else is Deb really going to hear us?  These gentle ways of ripping off the bandaids weren’t kind for anyone except the person unwilling to do the harder thing.

(June 2022)

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