Let me tell you the strange story my friend, Will, once told me.
Will's always been a bit of an enigma, he likes to tell people he's a "fringe personality" and he does tend to hang around the edge of things. But he misses nothing, he's simply good at not getting noticed, unlike our friend Gerry who always tries to run the show, or Jack, the tall good-looking jock, or me, The Boring Guy Who Keeps Our Group Together. I get noticed because people find me boring, incredibly boring, I'm legendarily dull: I speak in a low monotone.
But don't worry, this story's not about me. I was the one responsible for the four of us getting together that night at Bradley's Pub, but really, who wants to hear about that?
So we were knocking back a few at Bradley's, it was sleeting outside on a miserable March night, and I told the guys my idea of a fascinating thing that once happened to me. And the way the three of them looked at me, I could tell, they didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Gerry, God bless him, cackled that weird way he does and then raised the ante with a heroic tale of power, prestige, and money, starring, of course: Gerry. When he'd finally concluded his epic adventure, Will and I applauded with mock enthusiasm but Jack just smirked.
Then, in a low voice, Jack took us behind the scenes at the State Championship game, the game where he dropped forty-eight on Roosevelt High in a losing effort. Now I don't know which end of a basketball is up, still, I was hanging on Jack's every word, we all were. And when our friend finished his stirring saga, we were all stunned and sitting on that long-ago bench with a towel over our heads.
We snapped out of it with a series of impassioned toasts: to our high school, to our lost youth, and to our ongoing friendship. We ordered another round and then surprisingly -- as if he'd only this moment joined us -- Will began to tell his story.
"I once worked as an Emergency Room orderly," he said. "At the time, I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I thought I'd check out health care. I took all morning classes at the community college and got a job on the three-to-eleven shift at Valley Hospital."
"Why don't I remember this?" asked Jack.
"You guys were away at college, it would have been our sophomore year, and by the time I saw you in the summer, I'd quit the hospital. It just never came up."
"Go on," said Gerry, taking a sip of his Scotch.
"So I'm working in the E.R. and it's a dark, slushy night," Will said, "a lot like tonight. Things had been quiet during the day, maybe one broken arm and a baby with a bad diaper rash.
"Now the Emergency Room had two doors: a big double-door to the waiting room and a staff-only door that led to a narrow hallway, and that's where I'd take my coffee breaks. Some of the doctors or nurses would even have a smoke in that hallway, it was a much more relaxed time.
"Anyway, one end of the hallway was always quiet -- that was the morgue -- and from the other end came the raucous symphony of the hospital kitchen: the clank of dishes, the tinkle of silverware, the occasional crash of breaking glass and a fair amount of cursing in Spanish."
Will took a sip of his tequila -- tequila straight, that's all he ever drank -- then continued.
"This girl Donna worked in the kitchen and took cigarette breaks in the hallway. She was beautiful -- she had big blue eyes, straight black hair and the most pallid complexion I'd ever seen. So Donna and I knew each other by name, and we'd talk at leas -- "
"What kind of body did this chick have?" Gerry interrupted. "Did she have a nice rack?"
Jack and I simply shook our heads.
"As a matter of fact, she had a fabulous figure," said Will, "and in her white polyester uniform I could see the outline of her bra and panties. I could tell whether they were plain, or patterned, or lacey."
"To see-through uniforms!" toasted Jack, and we all raised our glasses and took a sip of our drinks.
I was drinking club soda, of course, since I'm always the designated driver, but I was completely intoxicated by the vision of blue-eyed, dark-haired Donna in her white lace panties and bra.
"To say I had it bad for that girl," said Will, shaking his head, "would be an understatement. But even though I spoke with Donna two or three times a shift, she clearly felt nothing for me. Or if she did, she hid it well. So I simply basked in her presence, this lovely kitchen girl, every chance I got. And I always tried to be in the hallway when her shift ended at seven.
"On the night I'm telling you about, I saw Donna as she was leaving and warned her that the roads were treacherous. And when Donna said, 'Thanks,' she touched my arm. That was it. No wide smile, no prolonged eye contact, just a casual touch on the arm.
"But that was enough to set me on fire, I drifted back into the E.R. on a cloud of infatuation, the hair on my forearm standing up where she'd touched me. Then the phone rang and Nurse Zelman picked it up.
"That's how we found out about incoming emergencies back then. The phone on the wall rang, the E.R. nurse picked it up and verbally relayed the salient details to the entire team, in this case: 'Elderly white male en route, possible M.I.' My job in that situation was to -- "
"What's an M.I.?" I interrupted.
"A heart attack," said Jack. "Don't you ever watch TV?"
"Honestly?" I said, "Not much. I spend most of my free time organizing my stamp collection, in fact, there's a big show coming up at -- "
"Fuck your stupid stamps!" snapped Gerry, glaring at me, "Let Will tell his story." By the time he's on his third Scotch, Gerry can be a little mean.
"As I was saying," said Will, "they were bringing in a possible M.I., and when I heard the ambulance's plaintive wail, I went out and helped the paramedics bring in the patient.
"The man did not look good, he was extremely pale, gaunt and non-responsive. It's funny how when you bring a patient into an E.R. and they're moaning, or crying, or even screaming in pain, the staff stays pretty cool: the patient's gonna live. But bring in someone completely comatose and there's an immediate tension in the room, you can feel it.
"Before I'd even transferred the patient to a bed, the E.R. doctor, a cranky old guy named Kraft, was all over him, yelling out orders, "I.V. stat, pulse and B.P. stat, EKG stat!"
"What's sta -- " I started to say but the murderous look on Gerry's face stopped me short. Jack grinned at me from across the table.
"As you could imagine," Will continued, "I was pretty excited by what was going on. It was my job to get a blood pressure on incoming patients and I had to do it the old-fashioned way, with an inflatable blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope. But before I could get the cuff on the old man's arm, the phone rang and Nurse Zelman announced, 'Adolescent white female en route, car accident, possible chest injury. Will, go help the paramedics and put her in Bay Three.'
"I have to say I was very disappointed, I was leaving a life-and-death situation to go help some teenager with bruised ribs. Before air bags and collapsible steering columns, chest injuries were quite common in car accidents, but the word 'possible' made the injury sound mild. So the ambulance drove up, the paramedics pulled the stretcher out, and who's the patient? Yep, Donna, the gorgeous girl who worked in the kitchen."
"No shit!" said Jack and Gerry simultaneously, and they fist-bumped to serendipity.
I, myself, knew it was Donna as soon as I heard the words "adolescent white female."
"The paramedics and I rolled Donna into Bay Three," said Will, "and the way we used to move patients was that I leaned across the bed and got my hands between the patient and the gurney, and then the paramedics lifted and pushed while I pulled. For the briefest moment then, Donna was cradled in my arms, like a bride on the threshold of a honeymoon suite, and then she was safely on the bed. Her mascara had run -- whether from crying or the driving sleet I didn't know -- but the smudges under her eyes made her look so sad and innocent. It was all I could do not to kiss her."
"You should have," said Jack. From anyone else this would have been an idiotic statement, but when it came to the ladies, Jack was a man of action, not words.
"Well, the paramedics did rush out of there and we were alone. I don't know why I didn't kiss her except I was trying to be professional. As Donna told me how her car had hit black ice and spun off the road, I took her blood pressure and pulse, and gently sponged her face -- in addition to smudged eyes, she had a little blood on her lip.
"I felt proud to be taking care of Donna and I was wondering if she was impressed when Dr. Cohen came bustling in, yanking the drapes closed behind him. I remember he was very brusque -- he'd probably been getting ready to leave the hospital when the call came -- and after ascertaining that Donna's chest was the only thing hurting her, he picked up a pair of duckbill scissors and sliced open her uniform top and bra, just like that."
"Was it a white lace bra?" I asked, trying to be funny. My buddies merely rolled their eyes.
"As Dr. Cohen none too gently palpated Donna's torso, I drank in the view of her soft, milky-white breasts," Will went on. "They were so pale I could see a filigree of blue veins beneath the surface."
"How were the nipples?" asked Gerry with his trademark cackle, "Did she have big, thick nipples?" I was glad Gerry asked because I was curious too.
"I'm not gonna dignify that with a reply," said Will. "But I will say this. While Dr. Cohen wrote in her chart, Donna was just lying there, naked from the waist up. And the pained expression on her face could have easily been mistaken for the look women have during sex."
"To the look women have during sex!" toasted Jack, and God bless him, Jack should know. We took a big gulp of our drinks and despite the fact I was drinking soda, I felt giddy and light-headed.
"In any case, Dr. Cohen practically threw an order for a chest x-ray at me," said Will, "like I said, he was in a big hurry, and then he disappeared through the curtain. As soon as he did, I pulled the blanket up to cover Donna's nakedness and our eyes met."
Although the rest of the bar was rocking, you could've heard a pin drop at our table. I noticed Jack was licking his lips and Gerry was sucking on ice.
"Was there affection there?" said Will. "Admiration? No, just gratitude. Still, I potentially had lots of time with Donna ahead of me. By the time I transported her to X-ray, waited for someone to take a chest film and someone else to read it, it would have easily been close to midnight. So I had to stifle a groan when Nurse Zelman called for me from Bay One. I gave Donna a heartfelt smile as I left, unaware that I would never see her again."
"She died?" I exclaimed.
"No," said Will, chuckling, "She just never came back to work after the accident, prob'ly because her car was totaled. I guess I could have tried calling her, but my gut feeling was: she wasn't interested."
Jack shook his big, handsome head at this.
"I hustled back to Bay One where the M.I. guy was, still deathly pale and comatose, and now the place was quiet. In fact, the patient wasn't even hooked up to any monitors. Dr. Kraft was making notes in the man's chart and without looking up, he asked me to get a B.P.
"Nurse Zelman was over in the corner, washing her hands, and I remember feeling put out that she couldn't do it. Nevertheless, I inflated the cuff and listened for the thump-whump, thump-whump of the man's heart as the column of mercury slowly dropped on the sphygmomanometer.
"Nothing, I was still thinking about Donna's perfect breasts, how soft and pale they were, and I didn't hear a thing. Embarrassed, I re-inflated the cuff and tried again -- still nothing. I wondered if Dr. Kraft was testing me since sometimes, due to previous trauma or surgery, it's hard to get a B.P. on a particular arm. So I put the cuff on the patient's other arm, and once again, I couldn't hear the heartbeat. I felt like a total idiot by this point and after one more futile attempt, I said, 'Sorry, Dr. Kraft, but I can't seem to get a blood pressure on this patient.'
"'Of course not,' said Dr. Kraft, closing the patient's chart and standing up, 'He's dead.' The crusty old physician smirked at me then strode out the double doors. Nurse Zelman, clearly in on the joke, stifled a grin and handed me a sterile-wrapped package. "'Everything you need is in here, Will. Undress Mr. Smith' -- yeah, the guy's name was Smith -- 'wash him up well, wrap him in the plastic shroud and take him to the morgue. You have a name tag for the toe, a label for the outside of the shroud, and another label for the freezer compartment you put him in. Page me if you need me,' she said and headed out into the waiting room, leaving me alone with the dead man."
"Were you scared?" I asked, plenty scared myself.
"Not then, no," said Will. "Mr. Smith merely looked like he was sleeping. But after I wrapped him head to toe in white plastic, he looked like the main character in a monster movie, if he'd made even the slightest movement I would have peed myself."
"Is it true that people shit themselves when they die?" asked Gerry, slurring his words.
"Well, I can't speak for all people," said Will. "Mr. Smith was the only recently-deceased person I ever encountered, and yes, there was a small mess of that sort to clean up."
"E-e-w, gross!" I said. This remark seemed to anger Will.
"Listen, the man was helpless, he was naked and dead on a hospital bed, and it was my job to take care of him. If his mother had given him his first diaper change and bath with all due respect and dignity, then I could damn well do the same for his final clean-up. I washed his body, wrapped him and tagged him, and when I rolled the gurney out the back door, I took a left towards the morgue.
"With the kitchen closed for the night, the hallway was eerily quiet and as I rolled Mr. Smith down the hall, I found myself giggling, of all things. I kept expecting someone to show up and say, 'What the hell're you doing with that body?' but of course no one did. The giggling came to an abrupt halt when I entered the morgue."
Will drained the last of his tequila then pursed his lips.
"With some difficulty, I transferred Mr. Smith to a sliding drawer in the morgue freezer. It had felt like a movie until then and if Mr. Smith had suddenly started breathing, it would've only been an embarrassing mistake, he wasn't really dead -- ha, ha! -- and back to the E.R. we would go. But the poor soul hadn't twitched or made a sound -- Nurse Zelman had warned me that sometimes the newly-dead do -- and when I closed the freezer door on Mr. Smith, I hoped to God he was really dead.
"Making my way back to the E.R., I kept reminding myself that I couldn't get a blood pressure on the patient in four separate attempts. Dr. Kraft said Mr. Smith was dead, Nurse Zelman had agreed, and the sphygmomanometer made three. Still, I couldn't help but think that after I shut that freezer door, there could be no resurrection."
We were completely silent, all four of us, so quiet I could hear hail bouncing off the nearby window, like a ghost tapping the glass with his fingers. It would've been a good time for a toast or a joke, but sadly, those are not my forte.
"As you might imagine, I didn't sleep very well that night," said Will. "I kept seeing images of Donna and Mr. Smith, both of them naked and helpless and terribly pale. I lay there, feeling my heart ka-thumping in my chest, and I just kept touching my body, feeling its warmth and textures and ticklishness: its undeniable vitality. And when you think about it, our bodies form the basis for our hopes, our dreams and our desires. Whether it's love or death, it all comes down to flesh."
"To flesh!" bellowed Gerry, loud enough for other patrons to stare. We emptied our glasses and wordlessly put on our jackets; there seemed to be nothing left to say. And as we walked out of Bradley's into the cold, inclement night, I resolved to drive extra slow.
The last thing we needed was a trip to the Emergency Room.