Everybody slept. Not only the janitor in the break room behind Vera’s desk, and not just the boy on the ventilator in the bay across from her, Propofol whispering its way through his veins, but also the boy’s furious father, the girl with the dog bite, the boy who drank Tylenol, the wailing child, the child whose mother was wailing—all of them. Everyone in the entire children’s emergency department was fast asleep, visible through half drawn curtains and open doors: the doctors, the nurses, the EKG tech in his zebra-striped scrubs.
“It is time to sleep,” was all she’d said. Because she’d had enough—everybody had. She’d been announcing, for the third time, that visiting hours were over. Finger firmly on the intercom button, Vera had said: “Good evening. It is now eleven p.m. Will all but one parent please leave the bedside? We can only have one parent at the bedside. Thank you.” They’d all ignored her, the furious father grumbling about barbarians, fascists, Nazi doctors, and other people who separated children from parents ad nauseum. She couldn’t really disagree with him. Who on God’s green earth expected a parent to walk away from their sick kid? Wrong direction. Try to separate her from Hal at such a time, when he was a boy, and someone would have lost their teeth. Not her, and not Hal.
Now the department was quiet, the only sounds the hum of her computer and the buzz of a dying lightbulb. Now she could make her phone calls.
The first was to hospital security. An officer answered on the first ring.
“I need you in room three,” she said. “I’ve got an angry dad.” The man had reached inside his jacket with the wrong sort of look on his face—the impotent rage of a parent wronged by a heaving, shuddering system—and these days one never knew what was being reached for, a phone or a piece of candy or a gun.
“Angry dad,” said the officer. “Gotcha. Is it an emergency?”
Vera looked thoughtfully around the department, its occupants sunk deeply now in the folds of sleep. Their faces were soft and animated by their assorted dreams. Seeing this, she was flooded with a warm well-being like she hadn’t felt in years. Since she’d spoken, since everybody slept, there was no longer any emergency.
“You’ll come by in time,” she said, feeling her blood pressure settle and her heart ease up.
“Amen,” said the officer, sounding grateful and extremely sleepy. She wondered about the sleepiness. Where was his desk? How far had her words travelled?
No use wondering. She called AT&T about her phone bill, the super about a leaky faucet, and a shoe company about a return she wanted to make. She called her boyfriend, kicking her legs up onto the desk because they ached and nobody was looking, then she pulled off her mask because she was at a safe enough distance, and anyway all the wailing, shouting, and subsequent generation of deadly respiratory particles had ceased. She ordered a slice of pizza from the place on 72nd. Finally she dialed her son Hal, who lived in San Francisco. It was just past eleven p.m. in New York City, just past eight out west; Hal would be channel surfing with Loretta. Loretta was a weather reporter, which seemed like indulgent work since the weather was right there for everyone to see, but then again it was prediction that people were after. They were after the what next. She wanted to know when Hal was coming home. She missed him something fierce.
Vera held the receiver, warm from so much use, and waited to hear Hal’s voice. Room three was directly in front of her; she had a clear view of the boy on the ventilator. He was in bad shape, tubes and lines poking out of him every which way. The Propofol was a mercy. The ventilator was too; it just kept on blowing air into the boy’s lungs so that he could rest. It made a rhythmic poof with each breath, like a quiet piston, a train just starting up. He’d rolled in an hour ago, only eight years old and shot in the chest, a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.
The furious father was his. From the moment EMS rushed them in, he’d stormed around the ER shouting and waving his hands. He hollered while they intubated the boy, then overturned the IV cart when the baby-faced doc asked him to put his mask on, and finally when he was asked to vacate the ER—because his thin-shouldered wife would obviously stay at the bedside weeping—he had reached purposefully for his inside pocket.
Vera knew a thing or two about what angry men kept in their inside pockets. Such a man had been her mother’s boyfriend over and over again in different places and at different times. They carried cigarettes, fifths of vodka, broken dreams, iPhone pornography, and sometimes a gun. Derek K. had carried a gun, and that was why her mom was long gone.
When the father reached inside his coat, she’d had a funny moment of weightlessness, like watching Derek K. reach into his coat all over again. A feeling of disquiet, a pause in the choreography. The glint of glass before you stepped on it in bare feet. His coat was like that of a bad guy in the movies: camo, heavily worn, visibly dirty. If she got close enough, she might see his chest rise and fall beneath it, as Derek’s had, and then stop because as she understood it, you held your breath when you pulled the trigger.
Vera had risen to her feet shaking, a strange resolve flowing through her like it came from somewhere outside of her, but close by—the steadfast ventilator perhaps. Her finger on the intercom, the heavily sanitized receiver pressed hard to her mouth, she had spoken. She hadn’t known at first where the words were coming from, but in seconds, still up on her aching legs, she understood that they had been inside her for a long time. They had formed in clouds years before, as she watched her mother struggle to breathe and then calm as the vent and the medicine took over, making temporary weather in her lungs until she died. It is time to sleep.
She had always thought that it would be best for families to sleep through the things they couldn’t bear, when the people they loved were sick or injured. She’d thought it many times but she hadn’t said it out loud. Perhaps the out loud was the important part. She had said many important things to herself, but never out loud.
Today, her words bore fruit. Everybody slept. It seemed like a movie, but it was real. That was the way things were, more and more.
“Hello?” Hal’s speech was thick and drowsy: hullow?
She thought about the sleepy security officer and wondered again, but no, there was no way that the words of Vera V. Jackson could have been so effectual, carried so far. “Hi baby.”
“We’re watching some bad shit on the news.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“More and more.”
“Seems like something’s got to change.”
Vera let her breath out in assent. She heard him flip the channel, surf, surf, surf, find, as he’d done all his life. His tryst with each channel was as short-lived as each job, apartment, or girlfriend.
“We should plan a visit,” she blurted out, sooner than she meant to. She lowered her voice, so as not to disturb the sleepers around her. “I found tickets to New York, real cheap. You and Loretta could fly together.”
Hal hesitated. “I don’t think it’s a good time.”
“A good time for what?” she asked. “For coming home?”
“For flying,” he said. His voice was low and languorous.
“Well, the sale ends Sunday.”
“They want us to hurry, but we don’t have to.” Hal yawned.
It felt very hard then: the phone bill, the sink, the unreturnable shoes. Her son in California, which was far away and on fire. She fixed her eyes on the telephone cord. The cord was connecting her to her boy. It was reliable; she would focus on this small mercy. “Okay,” she said. “That’s okay then. We can talk about it later.”
“I’ve gotta go to bed.”
“I miss you,” said Vera. “Get some rest.”
The delivery boy called from outside. They all had to wait outside these days, and if you wanted your food you had to go and get it, so she swung her legs off the desk, shrugged on her sweater, snapped her mask behind her ears, and pushed herself up from her seat, feeling the years in her creaking knees.
She didn’t want to wake anyone, so she stepped onto the polished floor carefully, marveling at its luminous stretch. The janitor had been through with the buffer and it gleamed, casting a tender light around the room.
She kept to her side of the ER, avoiding room three. Strange how the father was asleep on his feet. It must be the fury that kept him upright, she thought, as she crept toward the exit. Everybody else had crumpled in place. His lips were slack and dry, his eyes wet. One hand reached for his inside pocket, but in the stillness she could see that the other hand was on the shoulder of his wife. Angry and sad, she thought. She knew these storms—they were like Loretta’s warm fronts and cold fronts, little x’s of disturbance scrambling the lives of the people around them.
The woman slept with her head in her hands, the bedside nurse in a restful semicrouch. The baby-faced doctor had been kneeling at the bedside, looking for just the right place to stick another tube, so he slept with his face on the child’s abdomen, his head moving softly up and down as the ventilator puffed away.
Outside the revolving doors, the city was silent. Even the pigeons were quiet, asleep in the dark boughs overhead. She stepped over the chalk hearts drawn by school kids and girl scouts, skirting the word “Hero” and the enormous “Thank You” so she wouldn’t smudge the chalk, and found the delivery boy propped up against a bench, fast asleep. She lifted the pizza from his hands and ate it on the bench under the thin August moon. Everywhere she looked were sleeping people. The yellow light touched their wrists and shoulders, it elevated them so that they were not just people on the street, but actors in a movie, each one ready to fill his role, to be the thing he was slated to be, like the boy on the ventilator who might become anything someday—another angry man or a baby faced doctor, a weather man, a pizza boy or something not yet named, something only now gathering at the edges of his life as he slept and dreamed in the shadow of his father. Everybody was waiting for the scene to begin: the next word, the next line, the next breath.
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