Every good story needs a crisis. See that woman with her windows down driving sixty-five mph in bumper to bumper traffic on the 405 while eating a taco and waving to the Planned Parenthood billboard? That’s me, crisis of faith, crisis of conscience, you name it, I’ve got it.
So I’m driving down the expressway on my way to work eating Taco Bell and belting out Elton John. Don’t panic, I’m a multi-tasking pro. Without losing a single shred of cheese or lettuce, my singing enunciation even achieves an English accent. It pours out the windows along with Elton’s into a balmy pre-sunset dusk. They just don’t make ‘em any better than Southern California. Unfortunately the mysterious ‘they’ do not extend their brilliant creativity to hard frosts. This thought, no hard frosts, precipitates, I didn’t set the alarm, and transforms my belting out, “I guess that’s why they call it the blues,” into an equally exclaimed, “Shit!”
While Elton carries on his merry way I’m scanning for the nearest exit ramp, calculating the time it will take to reach home, arm the alarm, and start off again. Most of my adult life I’ve played this game with chance. Most people probably play it. The one where we try to decide what the chances are of the dog peeing in her kennel if we run a few extra errands rather than go straight home from work. The one that debates visiting the old hangout against the chance of seeing that ex. And mine, if I leave the alarm off once, what is the chance someone will break in tonight of all nights?
Most of the time I play the odds, but not with the security alarm. Being a single woman living alone, coming home after the night shift without the peace of mind that an intruder is not lurking in my condo isn’t worth it. I don’t know the likelihood of someone bothering to go up five floors to break into my unit of all the ones below it but it only takes once for all feeling of security to shatter.
The thing about living alone: when something like this goes wrong there’s no one but myself to blame. I should get a dog. If I owned a dog, say a dachshund, I’ve always liked those, I would be able to be angry with someone else right now.
I rack my brain for a culprit to absorb my anger so I don’t end up arriving at work sweat smelly. Wally is as good a candidate as any. If Wally hadn’t gotten into his Elton John spiel I would not have left the senior center late, would not have rushed to get ready for work, would not have forgotten my breakfast/lunch/dinner/whatever you call the four o’clock-ish meal of an overnight worker. And I would have armed the security system.
Anytime Wally gives me a new CD of his favorites I receive a lecture on each track’s importance whether for the musician, for music at large, in history, in pop culture. That’s phase one. Phase two involves personal details, who was dating who, cheating on who, doing drugs, having a career crisis, having children, you name it. Wally is a child of the sixties who met his wife in the eighties and didn’t stop living the good life until his first kid came at the end of Bush I, so he’s got the experience to provide me with a quality pop music education. It will be Wally’s fault if I’m late for work. I’m never late for work.
Dachshunds are kinda wimpy dogs. If I start thinking about a pet seriously, I’ll have to discover something bigger, scarier, something that eats spiders. I consider spiders intruders. This is why when I thought, no hard frost, I immediately remembered the security alarm. Usually I think, hard frost: spiders twenty-four-seven invading my space. Someday when I have time I’ll share some of my spider stories. Even from the fifth floor there are spider stories to be had.
I pull into my condo parking lot and Elton announces, “The bitch is back,” to the kids gathered at the In-N-Out showing off their surf boards. All brawn, no brain, my aunt likes to say of surfers. She spent some mysterious portion of her life, before I came along, here on the west coast. She ties off anecdotes like nobody’s business but when and how she gained the experiences that supply them have never been mentioned. Probably she’s the one who put the first bug in my ear to come out and find the ocean.
This is home, a two-tower high rise in Santa Monica. Don’t make the mistake of associating luxury with high rise in this case. There’s no ocean view, there’s no security guard in the parking lot to watch the gate that rolls open for anyone. Once I saw it open for a man walking a Saint Bernard. The ocean is out there somewhere because families in swimsuits stop off from Highway 1 to grab snacks and cheap towels from Walgreens, but otherwise you wouldn’t know it. There’s no salt spray in the air, just fast food grease and exhaust. Inside the stairwell smells like a swamp. Why do I sink almost half a month’s pay into this place every month? I like being up high.
Jogging five stories in flip flops is not recommended. Elton continues to croon at me while I clap my way up with an echo amplifying the noise off the concrete stairwell. I investigate my door for any sign of forced entry, look for anyone spying on me. Shayla across the way does have a dachshund, also a mother. They’re just stepping out for a walk. I act like I jog up the stairs every day and enter my condo, resisting the need to hesitate and inspect the floor, the ceiling, the wall, for startled arachnid legs. If only arming the alarm would keep them outside where they belong.
Off to work for real this time, I skip back to I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues. Such an unwieldy title for a song. Cutting it off at the beginning, end, or middle transforms it into some obscure Muddy Waters or Charlie Parker track. This is the thirteenth time I have listened to this song since hearing it for the first time at the senior center approximately three hours ago. By the time I arrive at the hospital, I have memorized all the words.
“Are you slacking off, Miss Employee of the Month?” asks Brooke. I catch up to her waiting for the elevator in the employee parking ramp. “You know it’s my job to be late.”
“I forgot to arm my alarm.”
“You live on the fifth floor.”
“Don’t give me that look. You’ve never lived alone in your entire life.”
I’ve known Brooke three days less than I’ve known southern California. She trained me when I came on at the senior center which is actually The Golden Senior Care Residence. During the staffing crisis two years ago we took the plunge of temping with the hospital, gambling the loss of job security for the hope of graduating into the ranks of the hospital staff. There’s this stigma about nursing home work. Hospitals don’t think it counts as experience. Temping is the most qualified way to get in. We did, but as auxiliary staff. This means instead of being employed in a department, we float around wherever there is a shortage. Being a floater keeps life exciting. Two weeks ago I did a stint in the ER under the terrorizing Doctor Rennells. Since Friday I’ve been with Brooke on overnights in 7East.
Overnights are a world unto themselves. Possibly boring if the staff mix isn’t just right, possibly a cocoon above the world from which a cohort of closely-bonded mischief-makers look out and plot their daylight activities. 7West has this comradary. They even eat meals together. We in the East occasionally hear their incontrollable laughter. The East, in addition to having its back to the ocean, also has the look and feel of the last nurse standing on the edge of a wasteland.
Last month a leak in a bathroom on 8East got into the ceiling and ran into an exposed electrical outlet. Three rooms and our central hallway into the north tower remains cordoned off with translucent construction tarp. We have to go down a floor and use 6’s skyway to reach the cafeteria, cancer center, and basically everything else except the ER. Those tarps make a really creepy sound rustling around when the AC turns on.
The staffing shortage on 7East started before the fire. One nurse got his number called for the National Guard and shipped out. One’s on maternity, one broke up with her fiancé and moved back to Nevada. One got food poisoning and died. I should say, she’s rumored to be dead. She’s also rumored to have connections with certain folks in San Quentin. Of those remaining, a mix-up with the charge nurse gave permission for two summer vacations during the same week. The one I’m covering went to India to scatter her mother’s ashes. Last I checked, gangs of men were attacking western women in India. There’s another game of chance I’m not interested in playing. Gandhi is a really good film and about as close to India as I ever intend to get.
Christie isn’t snarky enough to look at the wall clock when we walk in but I’m sure she checked the computer screen clock. Before I came along, she was considered pretty hot stuff among the general staff. She graduated from a research hospital with two internships under her belt and a letter of rec from one of those nationally famous gene researchers trying to cure everything we still manage to die of. She knows nursing but she’s not very nice. Her bedside manners, her table manners, all of her manners ooze this sticky condescension that does well among doctors’ egos but not with us underlings. Add this to the fact that she’s been left holding down the fort alone so Hope could pick up her kid from daycare instead of being the one waiting for us to show our lazy Floater butts and I’m surprised she doesn’t comment on our delinquent arrival. In fact her eyes are glued to the computer screen with one ear bud discreetly hiding beneath her hair.
“What’s so interesting?” Brooke angles for a look at the monitor.
“Nothing,” snaps Christie. She lingers too long before closing the browser window. Brooke sees the video.
“Was that Libertines on Trial? You’re bonkers. What if a patient saw?”
“Is there a new one?” I ask, smiling to myself over Brooke’s shock. Libertines on Trial isn’t illegal per se, but the creators are considered criminals, their pseudonyms listed on the domestic terrorist Seek and Destroy list. It’s basically guys wearing masks staging a broadcast announced ahead of time to select loyal followers who spread the word once the stream goes live. Each broadcast features a celebrity arrested for leading the American people astray. During each phase of the trial the online audience passes judgment by popular vote. The end goal is to transform the wayward celebrity into a person of conscience who will return to their life reformed and use their influence to sway the national conversation in a more principled direction.
“It was just on Hope’s Facebook,” says Christie. “It’s not like I watch it. I think it’s disgusting.” She stands hastily and begins to collect her belongings. “I’m not Facebook friends with her either. I just happened to see it.”
“Why wouldn’t you be friends with Hope?” I ask, confused that this comment found its way into Christie’s embarrassment at being caught red-handed with Libertines on Trial.
“She’s one of those flat earthers, isn’t she?” asks Brooke, looking to Christie for confirmation.
Flat earthers. It’s amazing how easily this world casts me back to the outer fringe. At least this piece of ignorance doesn’t feel as guilty as not knowing any Elton John, or the infamous blunder I made asking, within the hearing of fifteen or so people, what Pulp Fiction was. I assume flat earthers is some California slang I haven’t heard, so I say, “A flat earther?”
Christie rolls her eyes and hands Brooke the charge clipboard. The two of them have become complicit in an understanding against me. Brooke doesn’t even like Christie and yet this is one of those money moments when a friendship shows its true colors. “Hope believes dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time.”
“Oh.” I smile. Time to move on, pretend I’m not even more confused, and at all costs disguise the fact that I too believe dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. I think I do. Some sneaking suspicion that this belief will throw me in with the ignoramuses living in flyover country causes me doubt. If burned at the stake of friendship, at this moment, I would not admit a belief in the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans.
“Any new beds?” I ask.
“Mason checked out,” murmurs Brooke as she flips through the chart.
“And Nagy,” says Christie. “She made a point of saying how glad she was to meet you, Jane.” Her nose pinches around the edges as she glares at me. “The only excitement you might have is with Helston in bed four.”
“Helston?” I ask too quickly.
“That’s what Hope and I were thinking, too. I asked and she pretended like she didn’t know who I was talking about.”
“Who doesn’t know Steve Helston?” asks Brooke. “Does she watch movies? Peace, Love and Understanding, Poseidon, Troy?”
“He was barely in Troy.”
I take the chart from Brooke and read every line. I keep it on the desk ledge so they won’t notice my hands coming down with a touch of tremor. I’m known for being as strong as the male nurses when it comes to turning and lifting patients. Christie will notice a tremor. Every time I show the least inconsistency from my stellar work performance she points it out.
“She must live under a rock,” I manage.
“She isn’t the indoors type. Came up this afternoon from the ER. Jet-Ski accident. They put twenty-three screws in her leg.”
“That would be so weird though wouldn’t it?” says Brooke, “If Steve or Daniel got off the elevator right now and said, ‘I’m here to see my mom.’”
“Very weird,” I agree, relieved to know the game of chance does not favor this possibility.
“Even if it is her,” says Christie, “they’d come on my watch, during visiting hours. Have a nice night.”
My eyes follow her down the way and around the corner without realizing my sight has fallen victim to my distraction. Instead of being relieved bed four isn’t his mother I’m disappointed, even let down by some expectation three seconds ago I didn’t want fulfilled; a second chance meeting, if only to find out how he’s been since the first one. I know the public news of course. He made such and such a film. He’s rumored to be dating this or that actress. But I don’t follow it too closely because I don’t want that image to erase what I remember of him, the real version of Daniel Helston, from eight years ago, dripping wet, standing over me in triumph.
“Yeah, sorry. Just wondering how Christie and Hope don’t kill each other day after day.”
“No joke. So um, dinner?”
“What about it?”
“I just asked if you’d brought something.”
Brooke does details. She likes perfectly-polished nails, and word puzzles, and jigsaw puzzles, and unsolvable medical mysteries a la Dr. House. Usually she thinks about three different problems at once, rotating them as time and circumstance allow. Thinking about the next meal is practical. And maybe she’s still thinking about the six letter word for ten across on in the New York Times crossword. But she’s also going over everything she knows about the Helston brothers, debating the odds, just as I am.
Our eyes meet. “It can’t be her,” I say.
Brooke nods, just once, as though to put all suggestion of the opposite out of her head and put in something else. “Can you believe Christie was actually watching Libertines on Trial at work?”
“I would. They’re up for less than a week before the Feds find the source.” I enter my Facebook log in and search for my friend Hope Lovejoy, the flat earther. The link to the video has been reposted and liked over a thousand times. Compare this to Hope’s seventy-five Facebook friends and its possible to believe she’s posted something as mind blowing as documented existence of Bigfoot.
“How do you know that?”
“Everybody knows that.”
In my peripheral vision Brooke tries not to watch my screen as the video loads. She digs a crossword puzzle out of her purse. She picks up a pen. “So, who did they do this time anyway?”
A headshot flashes up on the screen following the show’s title credits played against their signature image of a sandal with a cross and sword through it, a woman with feathered hair caught up in a headpiece so it rises up out of her skull and spills over the crown like a fountain. “Annie Maybe. Have you heard of her?”
“Duh. She’s supposed to be like the richest woman in the country. What are they putting her on for?”
Brooke knows more about the show than she initially let on. Maybe she listens to people talk or watches it in secret. I’ve heard of that, how even people that don’t agree watch it in secret.
“I don’t know. He’s still talking. It’ll come up in a minute.” It used to be that Brandon always did the introduction and reading of the accusations. Even though they use masks, I knew it was him from the way he stood, always juxtaposed against the camera rather than facing it head on. He thought the tilt made him look more serious. The last few shows someone else has been reading. I can’t identify anyone with confidence. Living so far away from their support base I don’t know as much as I used to. I’m not going back. I can’t. I won’t. But every so often I forget and temptation comes and smacks me across the face. Those are my people. What am I doing here?
“Maybe you should just wait until we get off,” says Brooke. “These computers have monitors. There’s probably a bored security guard finding out right now that someone on 7East is watching Libertines on Trial.”
“If he’s not watching it himself.”
“Right...but seriously. I don’t need any more warnings, you know?”
It isn’t like Brooke to be skittish. This is the woman with tattoos leaking out of the sleeves of her scrubs and more studs poked into her ears than a horse ranch, several of them against dress code. When our boss makes her monthly surprise inspection of our performance Brooke is always ducking behind a doorway to remove her contraband steel.
“I think it’ll be fine,” I reassure her.
“Well I’m going to do rounds and put our names down on everyone’s boards, do you mind?” Instead of walking off she stands and looks at me as though waiting for an answer to a question. Why would I mind? Oh yes, Helston.
“Go ahead. But if she tells you anything you have to tell me.”
Brooke heads off, humming to herself. With Mason and Nagy gone we only have nine patients, should be an easy night.
The votes are just being compiled on Libertines on Trial when Brooke returns. Annie Maybe has been convicted for crimes against the family, for campaigning for no fault divorce in every state, for extolling the praises of biased court judges who have gotten her out of five mistake marriages, and for showing her five-year-old daughter off in beauty pageants.
I have decided Brandon is the one reading the sentence. I imagine his voice becomes difficult to understand, rattling around with anger as he describes how Annie Maybe hired a film team to make a documentary of her daughter’s experience that was distributed for free to anyone interested in being beautiful like her daughter.
“You’re still watching?” asks Brooke. She pauses behind me to see Annie Maybe defiantly defend herself during her allotted ten minutes before the branding. “Where did they vote the brand?”
“Her chest I think. That’s where the camera zoomed in.”
“She’ll be wearing T-shirts and turtleneck sweaters the rest of her life.”
I pause and quickly minimize the window as I hear footsteps coming down the hall. Not footsteps, only the AC kicking on and billowing the construction tarp. Brooke gives me a look.
“What? I just think what they’re doing is an interesting idea. It’s sort of like a modern day Robin Hood.”
“Kidnapping and torture? They operate outside of the law.”
“Most superheroes do.”
“They ruin peoples’ lives.”
“People who were already ruining their own lives. This woman had five divorces. Do you think she even knows how to be happy? She’s had money her entire life and never known how to live with it. The Vanguard will give her a mission. She won’t have to pass her time prostituting her child to judges on national television.”
“I was in a beauty pageant as a kid. You calling me a prostitute?”
There, I’ve done it again, thrust out to the fringes. I talk too much when I’m emotional. Trials make me emotional.
“No. I just think those kinds of things create false expectations. We can’t expect men not to look at a woman’s form as an object if it’s being treated that way by the national conversation.”
“National conversation, right.” Brooke rolls her eyes. “Did you decide about dinner?”
I hide my disappointment. There are so few places serious conversations happen here. I would like to have one with Brooke. It could be the theme of the night, something we return to between rounds to muse over, debate. I think Brooke has a good heart but she never questions anything she believes or pauses her brain long enough to wonder if there could be some greater calling.
“I’ll eat whatever you’re interested in.”
She pulls out our folder of take-out and delivery menus. “By the way, Mrs. Helston is quite a character. I never thought I’d say this about a woman, but she’s got balls. She told me about the accident. Got sucked under by a wave that twisted her sideways. She was under for forever and the waves just kept coming and coming. Would have drowned if not for the life vest. She said she’s having some chest pain but the leg is fine.”
“She must be an extreme sport athlete or something.”
“I’d hope not at her age. She’s almost sixty. We might have some problems later if she doesn’t go to sleep. I don’t think she’s used to staying put very long. Said she’d love to meet you.”
Brooke shrugs. “Something to do? I barely made it out of there before she all but asked me to pull up a chair.”
“So the chest pain isn’t severe?”
“Didn’t seem like it. Did you hear about Doc Bowan? He’s being sent before a review board for negligence.” Brooke clears a place on the desk for her crossword puzzle. She opens her Diet Coke, the crackling hiss signaling the true start of the shift with all tasks complete until bed six’s IV change in an hour.
“Why would she mention it unless it was bothering her?”
“She’s got a morphine feed.”
“I know.” It’s silly of me but something doesn’t feel right. My entire childhood I’d been trained to listen to my still small voice. Now it’s telling me chest pain in a woman of sixty on a morphine drip isn’t usual.
I look through Mrs. Helston’s chart. No other injuries are listed from the accident. No complaints. Could be the diaphragm or just the force of the accident settling in.
“Might as well go say hi now.”
Brooke doesn’t look up from her puzzle. “While you’re at it, I think I forgot to chart bed six’s BP.”
Bed six was in a car accident, the lone survivor of a T-boned SUV. He will make a full recovery if no major organs fail in the next forty-eight hours. His doctor isn’t too worried since she moved him up to us from the ICU. But he isn’t a case Brooke should be forgetting to chart every hour.
Before I see Mrs. Helston I hear her breathing, the belabored kind of stuttered inhaling of severe pain spasms. A woman of delicate bone structure and the leathery skin of a sun bather, I see no immediate resemblance to suggest her relation to the Helston brothers.
“You must be the other one,” she says.
“That’s a nice name.”
She pauses to catch her breath, her hand straying to her chest. I sit on the side of the bed and listen through my stethoscope. I don’t hear the steady heartbeat swoosh I like.
“Mrs. Helston, do you have any ongoing heart conditions? Are you taking medications?”
“That’s a pretty necklace.” She reaches up to touch the string of glass beads I wear like other women wear their wedding ring.
“Who gave it to you?”
“A guy back home.” I laugh but I’m still listening through the stethoscope. The moment of pause before her next question allows me to hear sounds I’ve never heard from a living patient.
“You loved him?”
“My husband’s never given me any jewelry.”
“So no conditions? Meds?”
She begins to shake her head but tenses at a particularly sharp spasm. It lasts less than five seconds then she’s gone, unconscious, flat-lining, the monitors sending up a chorus of alarms. I collide with Brooke running to the door.
“Call downstairs. Her aorta just ruptured.”
I run back into the room and prep the bed to move, raising IV posts, shifting the crying monitors, detaching, reattaching. It’s been ages since I’ve navigated a bed with a dying patient. The need to hurry does not lend itself to steering.
Brooke arrives in time to help me straighten out and make it through the door. The doctor on call meets us at the elevator and does his exam as we travel down to the OR. He barks questions to me:
Why do I think it’s the aorta?
What’s her history?
I can only hope there isn’t some unknown condition Mrs. Helston forgot to mention before she went under. Beneath the suntan, her skin turns grey. Brooke works the air pump until we disembark. The surgical team takes over, moving down the hallway to the OR in a posse around the bed.
Gradually the adrenaline retreats, the clipped voices of the team fade. Brooke and I stand in the deserted hallway with only half the florescent lights on, the most likely targets of a horror movie climax. I wonder why more horror movies aren’t set in hospitals. Brooke wants to know how I knew the aorta had ruptured. She feels her way around her ears replacing her contraband studs.
“It looked like a case study I read in a book once.”
“You read in a book once,” she repeats, shaking her head. “You could be like that fat guy on Game of Thrones. He’s always mentioning something he read in a book once.”
“I hope someone remembers to call her emergency contact.”
“You might as well do it. People forget those all the time.”
While Brooke does rounds I look for Mrs. Helston’s husband’s contact information in her file. There are two phone numbers but no names listed for emergencies. I dial the first one. The line rings almost six times before it’s picked up and a rich baritone slurs into the receiver, “Who’s this and how’d you get this number?”
Okay, I’m ready to hang up. Anyone who watches movies knows that voice. And while this recognition would have rendered Brooke speechless with unbounded pleasure, I’m still considering hanging up, letting someone else summon the Helston brothers to the hospital later, after I’ve gone home.
“Yes…um, this is Jane at the—”
“Is this about my mother? She’s not getting out any earlier than the doctor says. I’m not pulling strings for her this time.”
“She’s gone into surgery. Part of her heart…ruptured.”
“My mother’s heart is fine. Is this some kind of practical joke? Who are you?”
“I’m the night nurse. It’s possible the force of the accident destabilized the aorta and you might want to check in at the ICU in a few hours to make sure she made it out okay.”
“You’re serious.” He’s bewildered now instead of angry, at a loss to confront this second catastrophe of the day. “My brother usually handles these types of things.”
“Is there someone else you’d like me to call?”
“No, he’s…in the air right now—you’re saying she might not make it out—is that what you said?”
“There’s that possibility. The surgeon may know more in a few hours. I’m just a nurse. I thought someone should know.”
“Yeah, thanks for that.”
I set down the phone but leave my hand resting on the receiver, imagining the lingering connection kept warm by my sweaty palm. The excitement/panic/curiosity I felt before at the prospect that Mrs. Helston could be his mother returns with a double dose of first date nervosa. Our previous meeting did not end under the best circumstances. As many times as I’ve tried I’ve never been able to decide what it would be like to see him again, not Steve who answered the phone. Daniel.
When Brooke returns I say I’m going to be in the rec room if she needs anything. I always feel guilty saying specifically what I’m going to do with Brooke because she does that, ask a polite and suggestive question, a form of indicating what she wants. By comparison I feel pushy. But I need to be alone. I won’t last the next nine hours imagining him on his way here, imagining what I will say and do. What he will do.
Each floor has a lounge set up as a rec room for long-stay patients with board games and a Playstation 2 and a piano keyboard. I keep the volume low even though there are no patients in the rooms sharing my walls. My aunt gave me lessons all through elementary school. She promised music would be my anchor. I made the mistake of repeating this to my parents once before the age when I realized the correct anchor in their minds was God and that music was all well and good as long as it served His purpose.
I play in the dark with my eyes closed. The uncurtained windows of the rec room look east over the city lights into the inky blackness of the continent. From that blackness I was spat out onto sandy California soil, banished for lukewarm indecision in a family that burned as hot as smoldering coal.