I don’t know how long I stood, staring blankly, at those damn doors. I had walked through them at least once a week for the past four years. In the summer time when they slide open, they give you a quick fierce burst of miraculously cool air. In the winter their muted swish breathes a warm gust, like walking under the nose of something huge and alive. I would walk through them carrying a walker or an oxygen cylinder, rushing to see some patient waiting for me to come so they could go home. My pace always quick and my mind always occupied with the same mantra of perpetually changing words. Patient name, room number, patient name, room number, patient name, room number. This however wasn’t business. The patients name was far too familiar to me today and the room number was unknown to me. I don’t know how long I stared at those damn doors. The doors led into a windowed waiting area and I noticed for the first time that the windows were tinted. I’m sure they always have been, but I just noticed in that moment. Every time the doors slid open with their swish and gust of air, the opening appeared as a dark hole. The doors and windows themselves reflected the clouds and blue sky of what most would consider a perfect day. It felt like Armageddon was coming every few seconds as a rectangular black monster tore its way through a hole in the sky. I thought about that black monolith in 2001 a space odyssey. This black hole would change me too. There’s no way I was ever going to be the same after I walked into that space. I doubted however I was going to step inside and proclaim, “My god, it’s full of stars.” I couldn’t keep the thought from running through my head of walking in and announcing to anyone who was listening, “My god, it’s full of scars”. I decided I had stood there long enough staring at those damn doors, I willed myself inside. I was trying to think of anything other than the task at hand. I noticed how loud my footsteps were. First the dull clap of my sneakers on the pavement, then the swish of the doors and woosh of the air. That overhead fan was all I could hear or think of for a blessed moment, then it was my shoes again. The inside of almost every hospital in town has this strange kind of flooring at the entrance. It’s a link of carpeted metal pieces a few inches wide that’s designed to dry your shoes and catch the moisture as it falls from your feet. It’s one of those things that seems so simple and obvious, but no doubt made some guy billions of dollars. At least once a week for four years and I had never noticed how loud this thing is underfoot. My simple flat-soled shoes clacked and banged on its surface in a slow regular rhythm that I was sure would wake every patient in the place. It wasn’t just the carpet though. Everything was louder. I guess the difference was just my own mind being so quiet. I tried to create the mantra in my head, “Mr. H., room, whatever”. It didn’t work. Through the second set of sliding glass doors, my steps took on a sharper click as I walked across the tile floor into the atrium. Someone coughed somewhere and I heard a toilet flush in the bathroom. When the smell of chlorine and the trickle of water hit my brain, I realized I must be walking far too quickly. The information desk is past the fountain. As long as I didn’t have a room number, I didn’t have to be anywhere. Surely, once they knew my purpose, no one would begrudge me to stand motionless next to the fountain. The clank of an espresso filter against a padded metal bar shook me out of my short reverie. Coffee sounded like a great idea. I could grab a cup of coffee, maybe an espresso, and just sit for a minute to clear my head. Skyler was working, thank god. She always makes me smile. The coffee stand was off to one side in the atrium. A tiny little cart with the machine on top. Skyler had been working there for about nine months. She was very pretty, great smile, gorgeous eyes. At first, I would just order my drink and fidget awkwardly until she gave it to me. Then one day I mentioned that I used to work at a little coffee shop in my hometown. From then on we would discuss tamping techniques and how to pour the perfect rosette. I even taught her how to make my favorite drink. I don’t know what the real name of it is, but back home we called it a cubano. That’s about all it had been too. Once I mustered the courage to start to ask her out. I tried to be smooth, mentioning offhandedly about “this thing I have to go to tonight”. “It’ll probably be pretty lame, but good people watching I’m sure.” Before I could embarrass myself, she was gracious enough to tell me about the evening she had planned with her boyfriend. It’s completely possible she didn’t have one, but that was ok. I’m sure I would have said something stupid anyway. On that day she glanced up from her book and smiled that smile at me. I smiled back best I could, but it didn’t feel normal. She saw it too. “Hey, Conner, everything ok?” Her brow furrowed with concern as her eyes searched mine. She was the only person in this hospital that ever addressed me by my name. I had told her once and she always remembered it. At least once a week for four years, and the case managers that send us the orders I bring don’t know my name. Sometimes completely ignoring my nametag and asking me who I am and what company I’m with. But Skyler remembered. I didn’t tell her what was really wrong or what I was there to do. Just said I was having a rough day. She apologized, and sounded sincere. She always made me smile. In true, brighten anyone’s day fashion, she didn’t charge me for my coffee. I put the money in her tip jar. I always tip baristas. And servers at restaurants. Waiting tables is hard, and I still consider good coffee to be an art. I can’t bring myself to tip the cashier at self-serve yogurt joints. Granted, I’ve only been to one, but I don’t understand tipping for doing nothing more than the basic description of your job. Anyway, she told me she hoped my day got better and got back to her book. I sipped my cubano taking time to notice the perfection of it. The perfect shot every time. This was the longest time I had ever spent in this part of the building. It was a large open atrium with a glass ceiling, filled with live plants. The inside rooms on the floors above had windows overlooking it. I guess to give the patients the feel of an actual window with a view. I don’t know if it worked or not, I had never bothered to ask anyone. To me, it was just nice and peaceful. Some muzak was playing over the speakers, Girl From Imponema I think. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being somewhere far away and in some warmer climate. The scratch of walker wheels, and the smell of antiseptic made it impossible. There was no way to be anywhere but a hospital. Hospitals and churches. You can never make hospitals or churches smell like anything but hospitals and churches. And schools. When I started my job, I didn’t really know how to deal with the people.getting a signature out of someone who’s been cooped up in a hospital for weeks, or hasn’t had a visit from their family in months, or someone who’s just all alone in the world is a challenge. When I started, I didn’t know how to politely remove myself from a situation. It was hard for me to just walk out. I think they know. I think they all know you’re trying to leave, and I think they know how to keep you from it. I’ve had so many surgeries described to me so many times, I’m confident I could pull a few of them off in my garage.
The questioners will keep you the longest. They’ll ask you a personal question, knowing full well that twenty-five year old you wouldn’t dare be rude to seventy-something year old them by refusing to answer. This is the South after all. But once you answer one question, they have you trapped. They offer you unwarranted advice on anything you’re careless enough to mention. Good advice too. Just the same advice you got yesterday from the guy in 6103. Family, politics, restaurants, the good lord, nothing was off limits.
That was me in the beginning. I couldn’t say no to a piece of respectable. aged, advice. The one I got the most always seemed mildly ironic to me. After describing their operation or showing pictures of the grand-kids, almost every patient without fail would offer the same bit of wisdom: "Don’t get old". Needless to say, in the beginning I was slow. The head tech at the time was always on me about it. Telling me I needed to be more efficient with my time. If I didn’t pick up the pace, I wouldn’t last more than a year. Big words from a man who got fired for driving the company van, drunk, back to the office from a strip club. I eventually got to the point where I could turn away a story from the good old days and answer a question generically enough to squash a follow up conversation. I got quicker. In fact, I became so impersonally polite that my times became the best out of all of us. One day, the strip club afficianado said, “Damn Conner, we’re gonna have to start calling you Mercury”.
I understood the reference, but he explained it anyway. “Mercury isn’t just a planet ya know. Mercury was the name of the messenger to the Roman gods. It was said that he was so fast, he was the only one who could get into Hades AND back out again.” He was still talking going on about the gods when I walked out, and somehow, he got the name to stick. They still call me Mercury. My own downfall was when I discovered the balance between the two. I made the mistake of learning that I can be quick with most, but really talk to the few I see often. Some patients get a walker, or bedside commode, stuff we call “bent metal” and I never see them again. People with hospital beds, wheelchairs and the like, I usually see only twice. Oxygen patients are another story. I have to come into their homes at one of the worst times of their lives. They’ve been in the hospital for god knows how long, and then before they can relax, this kid has to come into their home, and show them this damned machine. To say you can’t make it personal is bullshit from the get go. The moment you walk through that door it’s personal. You’re in someone else’s home. It probably isn’t clean, at least not to their standards. You’re a stranger seeing one of their most intimate and weak moments. After the initial invasion of privacy, you keep seeing them, and in their home. Some, it’s only once every six months for maintenance, others monthly for supplies, but most, every week for portable oxygen tanks. The people themselves are both your salvation and damnation. It only takes one interesting fact about them to get hooked. Learn something about them that makes them accessible. Nine times out of ten, you get rewarded with a pick-up ticket, a note at the top reading: dod X/X/XX. Date of death. Unfortunately that gets easier. Every once in a while, you get the post heart surgery patient. They are usually the rare ones whose pick-up tickets have the note: Doctors Discharge. I tell them all the same thing at pick-up. I hope you never see me again. The average in our company is about a year. COPD is a bitch. At first, you feel a bit like the angel of death. You know that most of the people you meet in the daily course of your job will die within a year. I never had that pressure at the coffee shop. The short-timers do get easier. You learn how to get your face to fit perfectly with your words. You learn to look down and away while you shake your head. No family member is ever the same. They all thank you of course, some cry, some hug, some smile. But it gets easier. The long term people, that’s the tough part. You see them once a week, for years. You learn about their families, they learn about yours. You know their dogs names, and bring them a milkbone for Christmas. You ask about their son in Toledo, or daughter in California. Did your Nephew get that house? They remember your birthday. They ask about your parents. A simple delivery turns into half an hour, subsidized by the patient who got the bent metal and polite smile as you backed out of the room. I can still remember the day my first oxygen patient died. My first set-up that is. I could still drive you straight to his house without even looking at the road. I still remember the names of his three children. I remember the resigned look on his wife’s face. She smoked a cigarette while I carried the last of the bad memories out of her house. I set her up three months later, I can’t imagine what it’s like looking at that machine every day. There’s a chance it was the same one her husband used. I used to imagine that it was, and that she could smell him in it, that maybe that made it easier. I would come to discover that the real long timers would be the impossible. A patient with COPD wasn’t expected to last more than three years by their insurance company. In fact most insurances stopped paying for the service at three years. They called it “capping”. Our reward for helping them outlive their disease. I had a handful that had been with our company as long as I had. I got close to them. It was hard not to. Mr. H. is my favorite. I started off our relationship by screwing something up. Our respiratory therapist had set him up, and our first meeting was me delivering the wrong supplies to his house. I was sure he was never going to like me. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me remember what that first conversation was about. I don’t really even remember if I asked him a question or if he asked me. Regardless, he became one of mine. We all had patients that no matter what our route looked like that day, we got to go see them. He had this beautiful golden retriever named Sarah. Sarah was an old dog and sweet as any animal possibly could be. If there’s anything in this world I can’t resist, it’s a good dog.
I never believed it until Mr. H. filmed it, but he would tell Sarah that I was on my way each week, and she would go to the sun-room door and wait for me. She announced my presence with a single bark as I approached each week. I learned eventually that he and his wife didn’t have any children, save Sarah of course. The only family either of them had was a nephew that lived five hundred miles away in North Carolina. For the first three years, my visits to that house were confined mostly to pleasant conversation and time with the dog. Mr. H. had been a pilot, and owned a hotel. His last name happened to be the same as a major chain of hotels, and he had hilarious stories of hijincks his name tag got him into at conventions. Shortly after the pleasant conversation came the thoughtful gifts from Mrs. H. Medicare prohibits me from accepting any kind of gratuity from any patient, and I never have. Mrs. H. though, would have something for me almost every week. At this very moment I can taste her homemade Chex Mix. She made the kind of banana-bread that is only created from closely guarded familial recipes. On Thursdays, I was never hungry at the end of the day. They always seemed concerned over my lack of a wife. They tried to set me up with a girl from their church once, but I declined. Their main concern about my single life however was the terror that I might not be getting a home-cooked meal each day. I assured them that most of the women I dated couldn’t cook anyway. By some turn of event, again forgotten to me, I ended up eating dinner with them every Saturday night at their house. Though, I’ve forgotten the invitation, I’ll never forget that first meal. Homemade pot-roast and hand mashed potatos.
At the end of the meal, I thanked them for their hospitality and left feeling full and undeserving. The last time I showed up for dinner at six, I didn’t leave until eleven. Mondays became the beginning of the work I had to do to be rewarded with a dinner on Saturday. I labored all week with that one event in mind. Wednesday wasn’t Wednesday anymore, it was two more days until. Sunday wasn’t Sunday, it was Mrs. H. leftover day. They spoke to me honestly and candidly. They never offered direct advice but shared what had worked for them. They had pet names for each other. We should all be so lucky. I slowly came to realize that I probably wasn’t the only one counting Wednesdays. I was the family they never had. Last Thursday was the worst Thursday I can ever remember being a Thursday. When I showed up to work and went to my box to get the tickets for my route, one was missing. I asked my office manager where Mr. H.’s ticket was. She told me she hadn’t heard from them. I tried to call, but there was no answer, just Mr. H.’s voice telling me to leave a message, "Sarah was listening".
On Friday, still no answer. I tried to push it out of my head, it had been cold out this past week and snowy, maybe he just didn’t need tanks. It was Friday night that I got the call. Mrs. H. sounded tired, she apologized for not returning my call. I heard everything she said to me, but it didn’t seem to land until much later. “Jerry’s in the hospital. Stroke.” She told me. “He’s not doing well. I’m sorry Conner, but we’ll have to reschedule dinner tomorrow.” I begged her not to worry about dinner, that I would be fine. I asked her where he was, she told me but asked me not to worry. Anyway, here I sat, at a table next to the fountain, just passed those damned doors. Even though I knew Mrs. H. would hate that I bothered myself enough, I was here to see him. I had been looking down at my espresso cup, but really through it. My eyes focused on the bottom and the grainy bits of bean that had made it through the filter. The cup summed up the situation. It wasn’t half full or half empty, just straight-up empty. The gritty white bottom making it abundantly clear that I had run out of excuses. I threw my cup away, tossed a smile to Skyler, and walked to the information desk. The fifteen short steps felt like a mile. The volunteer at the desk smiled and asked how she could help me. I must have seemed like a freak, the question resonated deeper in my mind than it should have. I wanted to tell her to do this for me, to take me back in time, to make sure bad things don’t happen to good people. “Sir?” She asked. I gave her the name and got the room. The mantra was back but the rush was gone, no bent metal in my hands. Mr. H., 5132. Mr. H., 5132. Everything so far had felt drawn out, extended somehow. The elevator ride however, happened in a flash. There I was, on the fifth floor. I had been there so many times, I knew exactly which hall would take me to which room. Which hall would take me to his room. I wasn’t sure I was ready for this, but I had gone too far to turn around. I had gone too far in the hospital, and too far in my relationship with Mr. H. There was no turning around, I wasn’t doing this for me after all. The door of his room was open. I had been hoping it would be closed, then I could back out, then I could knock and maybe not get an answer. Another damn door. This one didn’t hide behind tint though, two more steps and I would be able to see everything in that room, everything I never wanted to. I knocked gently on the open door, and got the answer I expected, nothing. Deep breath. I walked in. The room looked like every room I had been in at this place, the only thing different was the bed. Not the bed itself I guess, but the whole scene looked different. I wasn’t looking at someone needing bent metal that I could politely walk away from, I was looking at someone I loved. Someone that I’m just now realizing I love. I had always enjoyed their company and dinners. But it hit me here and now, that I love this man. I lost it. I mean really lost it. I began to cry in great shuddering sobs that I haven’t experienced since I was a child. He looked old. I don’t know any other way to say it. The man was seventy years old the day I met him, but he always seemed young to me. The clever glimmer was invisible behind closed eyes, the smile wasn’t allowed to form. He seemed so small in that bed. He had tubes and wires running out of him everywhere. A ventilator tube hung between his lips, he couldn’t breathe on his own. An I.V., heart monitor, catheter, oxygen saturation wire, he looked more machine than man. He looked weird without his glasses on and his hair not parted. I pushed the overbed table away and carried a chair next to his bed. “Hey, Mr. H., how are you?” Stupid question. He didn’t move. “Mr. H., it’s Conner, can you hear me?” Still nothing. I looked up at the monitoring equipment as though I could understand it, it beeped and drew bright lines across its’ screen, but explained little. All the lines were green, I guessed that was good, green usually means good. I thought of what to say, we had spoken about so many different things the past few years, but I couldn’t think of a single one. I ended up sliding down in the chair and saying nothing. I just studied his face. I don’t remember feeling the least bit tired, but I was awoken by a nurse telling me visiting hours were over. That Mr. H. needed his rest. I know she was only doing what was best, for both of us, but the idea of him resting in a medically induced coma made my cheeks hot. The only thing that got me to sleep again that night, and the next two was a bottle of wine. I woke up Monday morning with a nameless despair that made me want to call in. I figured that if I wasn’t at work, nothing else could happen to my patients, things would stop happening if I didn’t show up. I knew they wouldn’t and went in anyway. I tried to be chipper. I greeted everyone, tried to smile, but no one looked me in the eye when they said good morning. When I finally got to the showroom from the warehouse, my office manager was standing at the boxes that hold our routes. She had a piece of paper in her hands and a shiny teary gloss to her eye. “What’s going on?” I asked. “I thought you would want to do it.” She handed me the paper and walked away. She wasn’t being rude, she just knew I would need a minute. I read it five times just to be sure. Pick up ticket. Jerry H. DOD X/X/XX. Here it was. I really didn’t think it would happen, that it could. I was used to being the angel of death, but I didn’t think I would ever have to take one of my own. I don’t remember the drive to the house. I only know it happened because I remember getting there. Seeing his van with the golden retriever bumper sticker. Sarah was waiting for me, as always, but she didn’t bark to announce my presence. She didn’t get up to bring me a toy or wag her tail, she just looked at me in that way that only sad dogs can. We stared at each other for a minute before I knocked on the sunroom door. I had decided that morning that I was going to be professional and handle this like any other pick up, I would apologize for her loss, I would listen to her tell me how many years they were married, I would hug her if she needed it. It didn’t work out that way. Through the glass, I saw her turn the corner from the hallway, and couldn’t bear to look at her. I looked down. I heard the door slide open, and I heard her sniffle. I took one step in the door before she pulled my head to her shoulder. I cried deeply, and openly. I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed but cried even harder when I realized she was consoling me. She rocked me and whispered to me that it was ok. Once I had settled down and could speak again we talked for a minute or two. When the conversation was winding down, she looked me dead in the eye, her eyes watered and her lip trembled slightly. “Conner,” she said weakly, “do you have dinner plans Saturday night?” We still had dinner for a while. He always came up, but it was always smiles then. Things he did, things he said. I can’t pretend damage wasn’t done. I don’t get close anymore. I don’t linger. I don’t learn the names of patient’s children. I’m quick. I’m efficient. I don’t go to funerals. I’m head service tech. They call me Mercury. And I'm toxic.