Telling her story, you could tell, had invigorated Katy. The telling brought up emotions and memories which had been dormant or suppressed. Instead of being an effort for her to recall the details and to describe them, it seemed to prop her up a little, to add color to her cheeks.
Hearing a new part of the story worked even better. Katy was attentive, almost rapt while listening. The story seemed to fill her thoughts. She wasn’t noticing the people on the streets as much. And she had felt something that she thought was gone forever: mirth.
After I finished she was quiet for a minute. “They really said that, about us ‘doing what we should be doing’ ?” She asked.
She thought for a minute longer. About the day, and how it started; how it felt to be made beautiful, to feel beautiful, after being sick and resigned to be unattractive, for so long; about choosing to do the photo shoot; about remembering her past and liking it, rather than hating it as a reminder of how little time she had. About getting unexpected approval, after four years, approval of her life.
And she may have remembered that moment in the back of the truck when she saw how she looked with hair and makeup, how she didn’t allow any tears then. But now she could allow them.
So she did, she let down. The tension of the day, and the exhilaration, and the despair and desolation of the last year, came out. It flooded out. She wept and leaned against the window and shook. Then she turned and she looked at me and I reached over and we hugged and she sobbed. And everything inside, everything that she hadn’t let out for months, because what good would it do, it wouldn’t make any difference anyway, all that came out as tears and cries and sobbing.
As we embraced her wig shifted around and I tried to straighten it on her head, awkwardly. Katy noticed and that made her laugh within her crying. “Don’t … it doesn’t m– m—matter,” she sobbed and snorted.
We were startled by a sharp rap on the window, on the driver’s side. We both jerked up and I looked back to see a traffic cop peering through the window. Katy and I sat up straight. I rolled down the window and the cop said sarcastically, “Are you loading or unloading? I can’t tell.” He was giving Katy a good looking over.
“Just finished, officer. Thanks.” I started the engine. The sounds of the streets had flowed in through the window and I rolled it back up. Katy was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. I looked over at her. “It’s time to get back.”
She looked around and saw that the traffic cop had moved down the street. She reached over and put her hand on my arm. “Just a minute. Wait just a minute.”
She took a deep breath and dried her eyes, smearing the eyeliner. “I know I should get back,” she said. “I mean, I need to get back in bed and I am almost looking forward to see what will happen when I get back. What Nurse Jennifer will say. I am so tired. But I don’t…I don’t want the day to be over. I don’t want it to end. I don’t know what to do but I don’t want it to be … over.” She looked at me with her big eyes and patchy makeup.
I thought it over for a minute, undecided. She was not in good shape. Even with more medicine. She tried to grip my arm with more strength, but it wasn’t much. “Come on, I’ll try that Ensure again,” she pleaded, startling me. Who was driving who?
“Katy, we need to get back,” I said, “but, okay, let me show you something and see what you think. And yes, try the Ensure.” She looked at me with a funny expression, part gratitude, part surprise, part weighing the good moments of the day against the grotesque ones.
“There’s really something else? You had something else planned?” she said, getting that glitter back in her eyes.
“No, not planned. Just something that caught my eye, if it works out.” I looked at my watch. “The timing is okay. Let me show you something, a blog thing on the Internet, and then you tell me.” Katy was intrigued and that gave her another little boost. “Here,” I said, reaching into a cooler for the Ensure, “drink this while you read.” I hope it stays down, I thought.
I pulled up the blog for her on a tablet. She started reading and I moved the truck out onto the street. After about thirty minutes, when we were almost there, she put the tablet down and looked at me. “Is he there now?” she asked. “Soon,” I answered. “His shift starts in about an hour.” She held up her left arm, the one without the IV. The sleeve slipped down and she looked at her thin wrist and slender hand. She nodded to herself and her eyes narrowed. “Well, I can think of something,” she said in a flat voice.
* * * *
It was cold in the room, although it might be hard to make it too cold in such a room. Colton Palmer, Senior Pathology Assistant, didn’t mind the cold. He was alone in the path lab, which he also didn’t mind, and in fact preferred. He had a heavy load of clerical and preparation work, which he did mind, since it meant time away from working on his personal blog. Ordinarily for each shift he would need to process a number of tissue samples and maybe once a week a deceased patient would need processing and preparation before the funeral home rep arrived. Today on this shift he had more than the usual number of tissue samples and biopsies to log in and begin processing. And apparently he had to log in and process two corpses this evening, which took even more time. You wouldn’t think that there would be more forms and procedures for the dead compared to the living but there it was.
Colton was putting off the paperwork for the moment to get down his thoughts for his blog entry. He didn’t view this as unfair to the hospital since he was quite efficient and experienced in this job and could easily take care of the day’s work after his blog update.
And besides, he wanted to see the comments from his last update, and to respond while the comments were still fresh in his mind. He was still pushing the envelope, he said to himself. Challenging the man. His last two posts had shown the country how to reduce the high costs of health care in the US. Your medical costs in your last few months are incredibly expensive, he pointed out. Are they worth it? he asked the world. Are these last months of life so much more precious than all your other months?
With the tubes and electrodes and the wires, and the drugs that make you dizzy and nauseous? Where the money is taken from other people who could live many happy years on it? Where it costs the rest of us thousands a day to keep you alive for a few more days? A few miserable low quality of life days?
I see what it is worth. I see the results every day when they bring the body down to the morgue here, where I work. If I don’t see you on Monday, I will see you on Friday, after we’ve spent a fortune for aggressive, curative care that won’t cure. You will still get down here.
Ask the nurses. They see the extended dying, the prolonged suffering. It makes them hate going to work. But they also see the beautiful deaths when the patients and their families accept and are at peace. With even joy at a death well done.
We had a patient upstairs, nearing the end, respiratory failure. She was put on a ventilator. She couldn’t talk or eat. All she could do was look at her family as they gathered around. Just look at them. A week and $40,000 later she died, the machine still pumping away. A week of struggle. Instead of a little oxygen, mild sedatives, and peace and quiet in a private room.
There were a few new comments and Colton started typing replies. After a few minutes the clicking of keys slowed and then stopped. Still looking at his screen, Colton lifted his hand and felt the back of his neck, at the hairs which were rising.
After a moment, when Colton realized that the feeling wasn’t going away, he turned slowly to look around the room, and then looked at the two gurneys near the supply room, the gurneys with the two bodies to be processed. One of the bodies, still covered completely by the sheet, was sitting up on the gurney. Sitting up. He hadn’t heard any rustling or other sounds. It was just sitting straight up under the sheet, still covered.
Colton was motionless himself for a minute, staring at the body. Perhaps expecting it to lie back down. His heart started thumping and his breathing was quick and shallow. Then he starting speaking aloud, in fragments and disconnected words. “It happens,” he said, “…muscles contract. Gases. Build up. Escape. Move. Body parts, settling.
“I’ve heard of it. Some people have. Seen. Gases contracting. It happens.”
Colton kept staring, without moving, hoping for more settling. As if in answer to his words the sheet slowly slid down the front of the body. Colton gave a low moan as he saw a pale, scraggly-headed, thin corpse, eyes wide open and looking directly at him.
A stray remark from last week, from a friend of his, flickered in his head. “Nearing the full moon, Cole,” his friend had said. “Watch out for the corpse effect!” It was a feeble joke and he had heard it many times.
“Uh….um,”, Colton said aloud. He was still facing the body. A few drops of sweat, flouting the cold air in the room, trickled down his face.
She didn’t move. After a minute Colton saw the body slowly swivel on thin hips and slide down to stand on the floor, still facing him and staring at him, without blinking.
Colton breathed more rapidly. More sweat. He was trying to think again, to reason out what might be happening. Then he saw the figure turn slowly and look at the other gurney, with the other corpse. Slowly the figure lifted the sheet and took the arm of the corpse…I couldn’t see if it was a female or male… and brought it up to her mouth. She opened her mouth and bit down on the yellowed skin. Colton started trembling. He heard the thin figure give a low guttural growl and drop the arm, and turned back to stare at Colton. She started shuffling toward him, losing the sheet completely, and advanced totally naked toward him.
He moaned again, a continuous moan, with the pitch getting higher. He stood up to reveal a dark stain on his scrubs. He moved toward the double doors, slipping briefly on the urine that had trickled down his leg. He knocked the chair aside and pushed on the door. He cried aloud when he realized the door was electric and wouldn’t open to a push. He punched the ‘open’ plate again and again, and rushed through as soon as he got a small opening.
As soon as he was out the door I jumped out of the supply room. She looked at me and said weakly, “Wow,” and started to topple. I got the wheelchair to her just as she fell, and helped her into the chair and put a blanket over her. She weighed nothing. Her eyes were wide and bright. “God, that was marvelous,” she said, “that was fantastic.” She hadn’t felt that way in a year. She hadn’t even thought those words.
“Great, but time to go. Our friend will be back soon. It’s a better story if you are gone.”
I got a hospital gown and another blanket on Katy, and a wool cap. It didn’t seem nearly enough. I wheeled her out the doors and in a few seconds and one turn around a corner we were clear. She was just another patient.
* * * *
I had taken a bottle of ethanol and a cloth with me and swabbed Katy’s mouth and gums. She spluttered and spit and shook her head. “Stop, stop!” she cried weakly.
“It’s hospital protocol, Katy. You disinfect after every bite of a corpse.
“I can‘t believe you did that,” I added.
“I didn’t bite,” she protested in a low voice. “And he needed a push. He wasn’t moving.” She was right, he had needed another jolt.
We got out of the hospital and I pushed Katy to the truck about a block away. It had gotten dark and the sidewalk was lumpy and missing bricks, making it too bumpy for Katy. But we needed to hurry. We were headed into the wind, cold and wet. It was starting to rain. Katy lifted her head to smell the air and feel the wet. She hadn’t been outside in weather, any weather, for a long time.
She turned her head to the side and said something but I couldn’t hear. I had to stop and bend down in front of her. “What is it, Katy?”
“Stop,” she said faintly, “Just stop for a minute.”
“We don’t want to wait around here, Katy We need to get back.”
“You don’t want to wait. I want to stop. Feel this.” I had to lean closer to hear her.
“It’s not hospital air,” she said, lifting her face to the cold drizzle slanting down, raw and bracing. “I won’t doze off here.”
“We should go.”
“Help me down.”
“Help me down. Onto the sidewalk.”
I lifted her and the blankets off the wheelchair and onto the sidewalk. She leaned down and put her cheek on the wet, cracked cement. “Good old earth,” she whispered. “Solid old earth.”
Dirty and smelly earth, I thought.
“We had him going, didn’t we,” she said, looking up at me, with one eye, much the same as she did when I saw her this morning.
I lifted her head up off the sidewalk so I could hear her better. “Yes, we did, Katy. We got him good. We got them good today. Was it fun?”
“Fun?” she said. “Fun?”
She whispered something I couldn’t hear. I leaned close to her face. I felt her reach up and clench her teeth on my neck, trying hard to bite, trying to break the skin. I was so shocked and startled that I dropped poor Katy. I dropped her and her head banged back on the sidewalk. I cried out and saw her looking closely at me, the glitter in her eyes.
“Christ! Sorry, sorry,” I exclaimed. She kept her eyes on me, letting me know.
“Okay, you got me too, Katy. Now let me get you up.” I lifted her up again, still weighing nothing, and put her back in the wheelchair. “I am so sorry about that.”
“Call him,” she said.
“Brian. You have his number.”
“What, to meet you back at the hospital room?”
“No. Here. I want him … come here.”
“Katy, we …”
She waved me off. “Brian … take me back.”
She looked at me again, too weak to talk, but I knew what she meant.
“Do you want the hair, the makeup?”
She shook her head, impatiently. Call him, she mouthed, and turned her head away from me.
“All right, Katy. We’ll call and wait in the truck. Let me get my coat on you.”
Thirty minutes later a cab pulled up next to the truck. A shaggy blondish kid got out and looked around, thoroughly confused. We were in the back of the truck with the doors partly open, facing away from the wind and drizzle. Katy had been dozing in the wheelchair but roused and seemed to know that he had come. I lifted her and the wheelchair, and the re-attached IV pole, down to the sidewalk. Brian came over to us, uncertain.
I wasn’t sure how long it had been since he had seen Katy, how much she had changed. But he knew her immediately. Those big eyes.
Somehow Brian didn’t ask about how Katy got there or who I was or what in the hell was going on. He just looked at her and her only. He knelt down in front of her. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he said simply, caressing her arms. “I’ve missed you so much. It was crazy hard not to come visit you. Every day I had to stop myself from going to see you.”
She looked down and smiled. “I didn’t want you to see me,” she said. I could barely hear her. She touched his cheek. “I wanted you to remember me.”
Brian smiled, a warm smile, no irony. “I’ve been remembering how lonely I am,” he said. “I’ve been remembering how we were either together, or how we were apart and couldn’t wait until we were together.”
Come on ambulance, I thought. Enough is enough. I had called one to take her back to the Medical Center and didn’t think I could leave her until it came. It did take the dispatcher a minute to understand what I needed. We’re on 8th Avenue next to Methodist. No, we don’t want to meet you at the hospital entrance.
“I got that job,” Brian said to Katy “In Queens. It’s right next to you.” She smiled and nodded for him to continue. Without a glance at me Brian took off his jacket and wrapped it around her, blocking more of the chill wind. “Oh, Rachel and I finished that recording,” he said. “I’ll bring it and you can hear how she did the different accents.” He chatted as if they were in a living room. As Brian talked to her I realized that he had kept close track of her for months even if he wasn’t able to visit her. He knew how she was doing and where she was being treated, and if she was being transferred. I could imagine him going to the hospital or skilled nursing facility when she was sleeping, keeping tabs. He might have been a good partner in this, I thought.
When the ambulance came Brian was draped over Katy in her wheelchair, holding her and talking cheek to cheek. She nestled against him. “Remember that thing at college, that I told you about?” I heard her say faintly.
I didn’t have anything sensible to say to the EMTs so I closed the doors of the panel truck and started to leave. At the sound Katy looked up at me. Her face was partly covered by Brian’s jacket.
I bent down next to her and Brian. He looked at me curiously but didn’t say anything. “Katy, thank you,” I said. She nodded, eyes half closed. “Thank you, Doctor Roberts,” she whispered. She was barely there. But it had been a good day, and whatever happened, tomorrow could be another good day.