Julie McCargar, the charge nurse most days on 7-3, walked past me down the hall shaking her head.
"They keep on rolling bodies in," she said. It was something she said a lot.
Morning had been a bitch by any standards, beginning with Pam catching twins that shot out like bubbles from a frog's mouth as she stood by a gurney in the chaos desperately trying to get report from dog-tired Wayne at a quarter to seven, continuing soon after with a traffic pile-up that brought in two Care Flite choppers, four or five ground units and close to forty families who arrived from home partially dressed, eyes lit with terror, and stood cluttering up the ER's mouth till we finally had security and the ER cop clear them out. Now it was early afternoon and things had let up. Every floor and cabinet top was heaped with detritus: ripped-out IV bags, sterile wrappers for bandages and clamps and tubes, plastic syringes, trays and basins scattered about and themselves overflowing.
"For God's sake let's try and pull it together before the next wave comes in," Julie was saying as I walked into the nurse's station near the front of the unit. Through glass partitions we could see a waiting room as trashed out in its own way as the trauma and treatment rooms, but less than a dozen patients now waited on the mauve and lime-green plastic chairs. Julie turned to me. "Laura could probably use some help in meds-4, Tony. They've been holding pattern in there for a while now." Then she went out the chute fast, pursuing an intern who'd just walked by.
Meds-4 was at the far end of the hall, a converted storage space used chiefly for holding triaged patients till we could get around to them, minor accidents and the like.
Laura was leaning against the wall and writing on chart sheets splayed out over the counter. Seated on a chair with her back to me, hunched about herself the way people with central pain do, was a woman with shortish blond hair cut to the same length all around. her head was down, the back of her neck a smooth separate plane. Over the chair's back I could see on her black T-shirt three letters of an arc, E-T-A, and part of a fourth, an O, or possibly a G, with what I took to be a disembodied eye floating above them.
Laura looked up and said in a whisper: "Come in very slowly."
The woman held a large bird cradled in her arms with her face down close to it. Her eyes swiveled up to me as I came to her side, then, in surprise, she made to straighten her head and look full on but winced and cried out.
"You two know one another?" Laura said.
I nodded and walked around in front. The bird, a hawk I now saw, and a young one, had one talon through Susan's right cheek. There was a runnel of blood down it, and when she opened her mouth I could see the rest of the talon moving about inside.
"It hurts like a sonofabitch, Tony."
"We've got the bird sedated," Laura said. "And the vet from the zoo sent along a note. This should have been seen a long time ago." She waved sketchily towards the hall. "You know. Dr. Talbott's on his way back down from the O.R. now."
"Don't try to talk, Suze." Then to Laura: "What happened?"
"Miss Gomez works as an assistant at the zoo. She was taking the bird out of its cage for a feeding when something they think probably a copter that flew over just then made it panic. It tried to fly, and before Miss Gomez could get a better hold "
"The hawk did."
"Right," Laura said., and went back to her charting. "I didn't know you were back in town," I told Susan. "Wait a minute. Here." I handed her a pad of old order sheets chopped into rough quarters and stapled across the top for use as scratch paper. It was a sickly, pale green and would end up as shopping lists, phone numbers, crib sheets for vital signs, resuscitation records. I took a pen out from among the scissors, hemostats and penlights of my labcoat pocket and gave that to her as well.
Keeping one arm cradled under the hawk, she balanced the pad on her thigh and wrote with the other hand, barely touching the paper with pen, it seemed, tiny letters in handwriting that had in it something of the roll and flow of her parents' language with all those terminal, run-on O's and A's.
"But your letter..."
Only way I could do it.
"It was terrible for a long time without you, and impossible. Then it was only terrible."
"Then I guess it was over."
She wrote something quickly, scratched it out, looked up at me out of the corners of her eyes. They were turquoise, sometimes blue, often green, with large pupils almost filling the iris and in strong light leaving only a rim of color that made me think of eclipses.
Together we had been a small Alaska, our own six-month white night together. Sleep was a strange bedfellow to us both. Susan went to sleep instantly then woke an hour or two later to pass the night prowling about the apartment and returning perfunctorily, again and again, to bed, where covers eddied up and down her. Then the drinking would start. I could never fall asleep and lay there heavily conscious of her arm across my chest, of her presence in another room or breath on my shoulder, at last sinking towards semi-consciousness at three or four in the morning when she had abandoned all pretense to sleep. I would open weighted eyes to her profile against the white wall and watch as memory, night thoughts, a peculiar softness I came to know well, washed over her features.
In the hallway a prisoner from county jail walked by with the deputy alongside. He wore cuffs with a long chain, and blood ribboned down his chest from multiple cuts on neck and shoulders. A faded tattoo moved jerkily like an early cartoon character on his upper arm when he flexed the muscle there. His skin, possibly from tanning agents, was an unnatural yellowish-brown.
Neal Talbott came in, nodded to Laura and me, and knelt by Susan's chair. He moved his upper body around, looking at things from several angles, occasionally probing gently with one finger at her cheek. Talbott is from British working-class stock, with little taste or place in his life for the esoteric. Everything about him says that even the most complex tasks are accomplished in a series of practical, small maneuvers.
He half-turned, still on one knee, and told Laura what he would need: Novocaine and valium drawn up, dressing tray, fine and gross suture kits, Betadine scrub, size eleven gloves.
Then to Susan: "You'll be a solo act again in just a few moments, dear. There'll be only a small scar which should pretty much fade within a month or two. But just to be sure, we'll have Plastics take a look."
I've always envied people like Neal Talbott, for whom obstacles and impediments are not so much easily overcome as unacknowledged in the first place. They skate through life on solid ice, warmly wrapped, mind and eye focused, invigorated by the exercise. Our minds are printed circuits, I think, snapped into place at birth, and we can't do a lot about the way those circuits fire.
He draped Susan with a sheet and scrubbed the area around the wound, moving slowly so as not to frighten the bird. Instinctively he held his hea close to it, humming tunelessly as he worked.
Laura had pulled over a rolling tray and stood by it handing him 4x4's, bottles of Betadine, swabs, alcohol. A smaller tray held suture kits, sterile wrappings torn back and hanging down over the side of the tray like a skirt. Susan had her eyes squeezed shut, and I could see muscles jumping in her jaw as she ground her back teeth. I went over and took her free hand in mine. It fit the way it always had.
Neal injected Novocaine subcutaneously both inside and outside Susan's cheek, gave it time to catch hold, then flicked a scalpel briefly above and below the talon, opening a slit like an episiotomy, less than a centimeter on each side, talking alternatively to the hawk and to Susan in low tones.
"This is the tricky part," he said.
Leaning in close to the bird, he put thumb and finger inside Susan's mouth and grasped the hawk's talon. Then he gently took hold of the part just outside and began to ease it through the opening, pulling the digit straight. I caught a glimpse of the finger outside Susan's cheek then and it was done.
The hawk immediately retracted its foot, pulling it in close to its body, but made no further move. Susan sat up straight, arching her back. You could feel tension falling off walls and ceiling. I squeezed Susan's hand and let go.
"We have a launch," Neal said, and started prepping for sutures.
He used finest silk and set the sutures close together in a precise row. It looked, when he had finished, like the spine of some intricately small and delicate animal.
"I'll have Plastics nip down for a look," Neal said as he washed up at the sink, "but I do believe we're home free." He came over and put a hand briefly on Susan's shoulder. Then to Laura: "Anybody know what we're supposed to do with the bird?"
"I'll take it back with me," Susan said. "Thank you."
"Nothing," Neal said, and was gone, swinging out into the hall with his labcoat waving in the wake, on to new solutions. Julie came in to tell Laura she was needed in trauma-1 for a full arrest four minutes out if things were wrapped here. I wet a washcloth for Susan, handed it to her along with a towel, and started cleaning up the room.
"You left the paper?"
I nodded. "One too many obits. Too many society fundraisers."
"How long have you been here?"
"Almost a year now."
She wiped her face vigorously everywhere else, gently around the tiny spine there on her cheek. Mascara had smeared below her eyes, giving her a vaguely clownlike look. Her cheek was faintly gold from the Betadine. An X-ray machine lumbered past in the hall, nosing chairs and trashcans from its path.
"I don't drink anymore," she said, and when I turned to answer, she had pulled up her skirt, opened her legs. It could have been accidental, I suppose, and she went on pulling her clothes back into order. For a moment I felt as one does upon coming into the curve towards the home at the end of a long, exhausting trip.
"That's wonderful," I said.
"Well..." She stood, still cradling the hawk, one hand pressed down on its feet, fingers intertwined with them. "I'd better be getting back. Hate to lose this job. It's the only good one I've ever had."
"What about Plastics?"
She shrugged. "You have a phone these days?"
I shook my head.
She touched my cheek, lightly, and when she did, the hawk rustled its wings, causing her to back away.
"You're a good man, Tony," she said.
I tossed the last patches of guaze, a handful of disposable forceps, scalpels, tweezers and tiny needles curved like scimitars, into trash and Sharps containers. Everything in life seems to happen either very slowly or very fast. Things from which we will not recover, heart attacks, huge trucks, Alaskas, are bearing down on us, careening into our lives.
Upstairs in ICU are the ones we almost saved. Their hearts go on, and they breathe, and that is all they do. For a moment, standing at the threshold, I hear their call, a sound like whale songs slipping through cracks from a world we cannot imagine, settling on me from the limitless blue above.
'Alaska' is faintly alluded to in Jim's novel Moth (54). Hospitals, generally, are recurrent settings in many of the novels and short stories, a legacy of Jim's own experiences working as a respiratory therapist. They feature, for example, in the story "Bubbles," and the novels, The Long-Legged Fly (11-12, 38-43, 83-85, 95-99), Moth (1-8, 53-54, 99-100, 105, 111-12, 137-41, 164, 202-5), Black Hornet (61-67, 133-34, 170-75), Eye of the Cricket (7-8, 29-33, 47, 62-63, 73-76, 126), and Bluebottle (1-19, 24-35, 41-47). [commentary R. Martin, 2002]
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