You need to go to Public Health, pick up a client," Libby says. She hands me keys to the van. "See the nurse in emergency."
"Wait," I say, but she's already walking toward her office. "I can't do that." She stops and turns like maybe she doesn't understand what I'm saying. "Can't one of the guys do this?" I'm trying to keep my voice down. Libby comes around the desk, leans in a little.
"It's part of the job. This is what you do now."
I used to be head nurse in the emergency room at Public Health until I started taking more than I was dispensing. I hooked up with Libby, a friend of a friend, right out of detox. She said I was feeling much too sorry for myself, that I was a waste of skin, suggested I keep busy. I figured Libby was okay, so I agreed to work for her here at Libby's Newlife and Carpet Center, a halfway house for alcoholics, only, I'm a volunteer, which means I don't get paid. The idea is to convince the nursing board to reinstate my license early.
Everyone here's been detoxed at Public Health, but not ready to make it on their own. They stick around six, seven months, maybe longer, learn how to install carpet and stay sober. The bills get paid mostly through donations from individuals and agencies like United Way, Catholic Charities, and the carpets, too. Libby sells carpet left and right, then sends the guys out to do the installs.
Everybody here smokes. The other day I replaced an outdated wall poster and noticed the paint. Big difference. I brought a floor fan, set it up behind my desk, and cranked it. Libby came hauling out of her office.
"Where'd that come from?" She's eyeing the cord zigging along the carpet edge. She unplugs and sniffs the end. I remember part of her story覧passed out, blind drunk with a floor fan. Next thing she knew, she was in the burn unit.
"It's UL tested," I tell her. My teeth clamp like I've just betrayed a confidence.
She stands there looking at me for a second, then goes down in my side chair. "Have one of the guys bring a grounded extension."
We're laid out like a hospital on the top floor of an old brick three-story warehouse. There's a lobby, that's where the volunteer desk is, where I work. Down the hall on my left are the bedrooms覧two men in each覧the kitchen and dining area. Down the right's a meeting room, recreation room with TV and a foosball table覧sugarpacks under one leg to keep it steady. Behind me is Libby's office and one for the counselors. The floor below us is empty, occassionally leased for telemarketing or a campaign headquarters. The entire ground floor an Armed Forces recruiting office.
I rigged the fan so air laps the desk, barely ruffling my paperwork before turning the other way. It's just right. The phone rings. I can barely hear the woman.
"He takes two-hour lunch breaks...expects me to cover for him...chews little breath mints."
I'm doodling inside the lines of today's calendar square, wondering who's working the afternoon shift at Public Health. Some of the guys are coming off the freight elevator down the hall, shoving and slapping at each other. It's nearly lunch time.
"Do you think he's an alcoholic?" The caller finally asks.
"I don't know what he is." The guys start tip-toeing like silent-movie burglars.
"It's just that there's an opening in management and I don't think he's, you know, qualified for the promotion," she says. "Wouldn't you call him an alcoholic?"
"Give him the phone number for AA," I tell her. "If he gets the promotion, find another job."
"Yeah, they weren't any help, either," she says, and hangs up.
My papers begin swirling off the desk. Rusty's face-masking the fan from behind覧the whole thing is airborne. I'm trying to catch work schedules with one hand, prevent more from flying with the other. "Stop screwing around, you little punk."
"Stop it. You're scaring me," he says.
Rusty's a new guy. The new guys stand on street corners at busy intersections and shake cans for change. They wear blue bowling shirts with Champion Automotive silk-screened on the back and carry a sign: HELP ME BUY A HAMMER. They collect enough money to buy their own tool belt then get assigned as apprentices to the carpet crews.
"You're gonna get kicked out of here."
Rusty drops down on one knee, his fingers laced like he's praying against his lower bunk.
"Come on, Angie," he pleads. "Don't do me that." He lets his forehead hit the desktop with a thud.
At noon I ride the elevator to the first floor. I'm not in any big hurry to get to Public Health. I spent seven years working there. The last two, I discovered Valium, then Demerol, before the nursing supervisor finally pulled me into her office and announced she was sending me upstairs to detox.
I walk slowly down the hallway of glass by the Armed Forces office. Sergeant Boome is there. He looks sharp in his uniform. He's standing behind two young men, look like they're still in high school, seated on the front edges of their fold-out chairs, tilting into the color video explaining all about the Army. I've seen it. Sergeant Boome and I watched it together one evening when the streets were flooded. He thinks I should join the Reserves with all my nurses training. I told him I'd think about it because I'd like to get to know him better, maybe go out with him some time. He knows I work upstairs, but I told him I was just temping for their staff nurse; I don't want him to get the wrong impression.
Being downtown, we get some pretty rough-looking drunks at the afternoon meeting. Sometimes we get a tourist from one of the hotels, or someone too ashamed to admit their faults in the suburbs. They can really feel anonymous here. Me, personally, I don't like meetings with people I wouldn't have gotten high with. Like I told Libby the first time she suggested I sit in on one, "I'm a drug addict, not a drunk." She wasn't very sympathetic.
Sometimes I can't figure her out. The other day she caught me flirting with the mailman. She told me to leave him alone. "That goes for the soldier boys, downstairs, too," she added.
Sergeant Boome finally notices me. I grin and salute him. He smiles back, raises a finger pistol, takes aim. Too bad he's busy. I'm wondering whether he'd go to Public Health for me.
The air outdoors is gritty and warm. I forgot my shades; sunlight reflects off the traffic and makes me sneeze, but it feels good like summer will be here soon.
Next door is a typical neighborhood restaurant, maybe eight tables. This one's decorated in baseball memorabilia覧a few autographed pictures, some yellowed clippings thumb-tacked to the walls. I don't recall this town ever having a team, maybe it's college. All the tables are taken so I sit at the bar. Above the clinking of people eating is the TV, chained to a metal shelf, playing a delayed broadcast of the morning news. The anchorman is seated next to me with the Home Plate special, watching himself. For some reason, he's the one that delivered the editorial view at the end of the show, instead of the regular guy, his boss. When it's over, he turns back to his lunch but doesn't lift his fork. He's scanning the room in the mirror reflection behind the bar. When he catches me looking back at him, I smile.
"You could run for mayor," I tell him.
"That's funny. I was considering a city-council seat."
Between the Jack Daniels and Old Grandad I see Libby's reflection heading my way. She's got that look, it's spooky, like she knows I'm wondering what this man looks like naked.
"Checking up on me?" I ask, giving Mr. Anchorman a wink.
She looks at him. "Hiya, Joey."
"How's it going Libby."
She wedges her skinny frame between us. "C'mon Angie."
She's standing there like she expects me to get up right away.
"Right now?" I've only eaten half of my baked macaroni. "What about my lunch?"
"You want something, you carry it back upstairs. Besides, I thought I told you to go to Public Health. It's past noon."
I catch up with her at the cash register. She's paying for my lunch.
"I'm not a free-loader," I protest, but we're already outside.
The emergency room is a mess. There's row after row of people who seem to have camped overnight. I hear chatter, moans, the PA, a distant ambulance siren, and it's starting to make me jumpy. I cross toward the nurses' station. Paramedics cut me off, pushing a young woman on a gurney. I want to grab the I.V., ask what happened. There's a lot of blood. I watch them pass and take a deep breath.
"I'm here for the guy going to Libby's NewLife," I tell the nurse. I've never seen her before. Maybe she's my replacement.
"Just a minute." She flips through a bunch of paperwork on a clipboard. I notice her keys on the desk, the one that opens the medicine cabinet.
"Sign here, here, and here," she says, and I do. "Doug Weggens," she says gesturing to a row of wheelchairs near the electric doors. "Fourth chair, gray shirt."
I see an emaciated young man, couldn't weigh more than a hundred pounds, folded into himself. I'm thinking cerebral palsy, or ms, but he looks worse. I cross again, sidestepping a Palmolive-green spill next to the admissions window.
"Hey, buddy," I say, too loud, "I'm your chauffeur."
He looks up with a flat stare. He's messed-up, all right.
"Looks like they're cutting you loose a little early, huh?" I glance back at the nurses' station thinking somebody's made a mistake. The nurse is talking to a man覧got a barbeque fork stuck in his shoulder.
Doug lifts his right arm slightly, extending a wobbly hand. It feels like the hand of Bones, the skeleton from my old anatomy class, only, this one's covered in soft, translucent skin.
"I'm Doug," he says.
I wheel him out. The van's equipped with a wheelchair lift but I've never used it.
"I'm gonna have to pick you up, okay?"
He doesn't respond.
I open the passenger door, knock an empty soda can off the seat. Then I turn around, bend forward, and Doug loops his right arm around my neck. I'm five-eight, a hundred and forty pounds but I didn't expect him to be this airy. I stop for just a moment, feel him in my arms, how light is his hold on my neck and shoulder, then step forward and place him on the seat. I'm leaning across him, buckling his seat belt, when I hear him whisper into my hair, "Thank you."
Right then I can see the river, not see it, but it's in my head: The sun is shining; the water is busy with activity; several freighters are moving slowly up the center lanes; crew boats shuttle about the barges along the far shore; a man wearing a red wetsuit jet-skis down river.
I remember the greenhouse at Audubon Park, where my ex-husband and I went on our first date. It felt like Eden back then, humid and fertile. The orchids覧exquisitely delicate, perfect覧purples, yellows, greens.
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