By Dylan Greer
Have you ever wondered how liquids reflect light? How the moon illuminates a lake, a fire sings over a glass of water or how the fluorescent bulb in room 236 of St. Mark’s hospital danced in the metallic embrace of a bedpan? It was the morning, and the orderlies were making their first rounds. The pan had been unattended for more than a couple hours and the frigidity of the room, nearly that of the autumnal Idaho air, had taken the temperature of this particular liquid down to match it. The orderlies could feel the cold through their latex gloves.
“Where are we taking these piss-buckets now?” Joseph — one of two workers from the nearby Niimíipu tribe — had grown tired of the light and its dancing partner but was relieved by the pan’s loss of warmth. The room was cold with nothing but machines and an elderly woman lying motionless in the bed.
“They just changed it. I think we’re supposed to take them to the third floor now, but I’ve just been pouring it out behind the dumpster.” Mike was also frustrated by hospital work and had begun the transition into his backup career as a low-level drug dealer. Unfortunately, with the hospital, and sleeping patients’ nightstands, as his supply closet, he found himself still dependent on it for money.
“I don’t know how they haven’t fired you yet,” Joseph said.
“I give great head.”
“Don’t talk like that in front of Mrs. K. I think she used to be a nun.”
“Past tense,” Mike said, “There must have been a reason she left. Besides, there’s no nuns in Idaho.
They left 236 in a procession, first the bedpan, then Joseph, holding it the way a god-fearing man holds a crucifix, and finally Mike, pill bottles rattling in his pockets. They walked single file between the rows of shuttered blinds and pulled-tight curtains. Past the nurses’ station where a pot of coffee sat full for a suspiciously long time, and where the hunger was palpable. Sherry was on hour 25 of a 36-hour shift and hadn’t stopped working since hour 12. Minnie just managed 30 minutes of sleep in a recently deceased patient’s room.
She took a bottle of nasal spray from her pocket and pulled a hit into each nostril. Her scrubs were light blue and plain, a significant departure from the floral and abstract patterns of her colleagues, but apart from that she was indistinguishable. The nurses were liquid paper white, and each kept their hair in a tight knot at the top of their head. They wore sneakers with extra padding and lumbar support. There were eight brunettes, two blondes and one ginger. Minnie was one of the brunettes and she joined the bedpan’s funeral march.
But when Joseph and Mike turned left to head to the dumpster, Minnie kept right and wandered over to the Alzheimer’s ward. They had comfortable chairs and easy conversations. The furniture was upholstered to be timeless: thin white chevrons on a baby blue field. So, whether a patient thought they were in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s, no anachronistic fibers would shock their system. On the walls hung Bob Ross-instructed art of Pacific Northwest forests and rivers. Under each of the paintings, a card was stapled to the wall with the name “RUTH,” and the title. Minnie’s personal favorite, “Moonlight Sonata,” hung above the fireplace mantel. It was crude and scarce, the kind of painting that, with a little work, could have been perfect in any motel bedroom. As Minnie stared and drifted along that moonlit river cutting through trees and “happy little bushes,” behind her a corpse was being moved.
When Joseph wheeled it out on a stretcher, it was covered end to end in a black plastic bag. Mike had suggested Hefty bags as a cost-cutting replacement, but was dismissed as “apathetic” and “so in love with the sound of his own voice that he would desecrate human remains for the attention.” This bag called no attention to itself. It was dark and deep and humorless. The fluorescent bulbs reflected from the folds, but the rest of the light was absorbed in plastic.
“When I die,” Joseph said to no one in particular, “don’t put me in one of these things. They seem so final. Like once you go in you’re never coming out.”
“Isn’t that the point?” Minnie said, still transfixed on the painting, “they could put smiley faces on them, or make them rainbow, but that’s not gonna change their meaning. They’re final because they’re honest.”
I think I’d like a smiley face, Joseph thought as he wheeled the gurney down the hall and over to the elevator. He waited with the bag, touching it, straightening its curves and flattening its edges, so that no light would pool in the darkness. The elevator played an instrumental cover of “Close to You,” by The Carpenters and Joseph stared so intently at the bag that he forgot to press M to lower the elevator to the morgue.
It was damp but surprisingly warm. Joseph checked the toe tag on the bag and went to the corresponding locker: “A3.” First row, third from the left. He slid the body into the freezer like a file into a cabinet. Again, he felt the cold through his latex gloves and thought about summer and fire and blood. He secured the latch, wrote “occupied” on an index card and taped it to the door. Inside, A3’s joints were stiffening and its skin was paling. Hemorrhagic fluid rose to the surface and formed deep pools of blue and black. If someone was there to see it, they may have remarked on the outline, how closely it resembled the lake in the foothills beneath St. Mark’s, but Joseph had left and the outline was rapidly changing.