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For someone with as much capacity for sympathy as June, an emergency room is hell. It pained her to see so many nice people in such nasty condition. Few of them could or would return her smile; the wrinkle in her brow became a crease. One man had been waiting seven hours, and June’s imagination saw him trudging through seven deserts in search of water. An old woman waited for her husband, and June’s imagination flipped through the photo album of their happy years together and shared something of the woman’s anxiety. One young man said to no one in particular that he didn’t think he liked morphine, and June’s bowels knotted in vicarious nausea. A pale girl with a band-aid on her thumb evoked in June’s mind fountains of blood splashing a white kitchen. The sight of a healthy, cheerful-looking fat man caused her to shudder at the ant farm of decay that presumably riddled his interior, the depths of despair that his grin presumably concealed. Her heart went out to everyone. She beamed at them her most supportive smile — an anguished rictus, in fact, which so monstrously contorted her face that everyone in the room generously hoped that she would be first to see a doctor.
June knew how busy and tired and overworked and footsore the doctors and nurses must be (she imagined them coming home to their small but cozy apartments after sixteen-hour shifts, shouldering the door closed with a sigh, putting on their slippers, running a bath, making a nice pot of tea), and she did not want to be a bother. So she merely gazed at them plaintively as they came and went. None of them met her eye. She tried to guess from their posture, demeanor, and pace whether they had seen a little old woman die that day, or whether on the contrary they had seen a little old woman miraculously recover. When this also proved inconclusive, June began to roam the halls and peer into rooms — while making herself appear as small and healthy and self-sufficient as possible.
She saw a man in a cast and thought how nasty it would be to have a broken leg. Then she thought how terrible it would be to have cancer. Then she thought how terrible it would be to be married to someone with cancer; then how terrible it would be to have a child with cancer; then how terrible it would be to be the doctor of a child with cancer and be unable to do anything to help … In one of the patient’s rooms she glimpsed a bouquet of flowers and her optimism rebounded. How marvelous it would be to be that doctor, and be able to cure that child’s cancer! And how wonderful it would be to be that child’s mother; and how wonderful to be that child! Doctors and nurses, she mused, really were heroes … Perhaps she would write a novel about a child with cancer . . .
She turned a corner and heard a voice she recognized scream, “I don’t want to go in there!”
The scream was so bloodcurdling that June could only picture a gang of thugs shoving poor Mrs. Drax down a manhole or stuffing her into a body bag. Instinctively, her heart thudding, June ran down the hall to the old woman’s rescue.
She paused in the doorway to reevaluate the situation. Reginalda Drax sat propped up by pillows in a hospital bed, the clean white sheets pulled snugly up to her chin. Several feet away, well beyond shoving or stuffing range, stood a short, sad, serious doctor or nurse (June could not tell them apart) with one hand on a wheelchair and the other holding a clipboard.
“I’m not getting anywhere near that infernal contraption and that’s that!” cried Mrs. Drax. When her mouth flew open and her voice came roaring out, her head seemed disembodied, swaddled there in the bedclothes. To June she said, “Who are you? Get out of my room. I asked for a private room, not a room filled with smelly zombies!”
The doctor or nurse turned to June. He had a wide, unhappy mouth, which he opened minimally to ask if she was the family.
Mrs. Drax was aghast. She denied that she had ever seen this strange woman before, much less been related to her.
June twisted a toe into the linoleum, glanced left and right, and coughed into her fist. It occurred to her that perhaps the sight of the person who had run her over would not be a wholly welcome one to Mrs. Drax. Modulating the truth uneasily, June said, “I was at the scene of the accident. Is she … all right?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me! What’re you asking him for? He’s as much a quack as all the others. I had sciatica for twelve years before they diagnosed it right. Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room. I am in the room. This is my room! I asked for a private room!”
The nurse or doctor took June aside and, with sober candor, showed her the X-rays. The bones, he explained, showed white; the breaks in the bones were black. June gasped: Mrs. Drax’s skeleton looked like something that had been uncovered by archeologists — or rather, something that had been baked in an oven, methodically shattered with a hammer, then uncovered thousands of years later by archeologists.
“Frankly,” said the nurse or doctor, underscoring his frankness by gazing into June’s eyes for several seconds before continuing, “frankly, it’s amazing she’s even alive.”
June winced. Mrs. Drax said that if they thought she couldn’t hear what they were whispering over there they were crazy; she could hear a pin hit carpet at fifty yards; and if they thought she was going to let them stick a pink chunk of foreign plastic in her ear they had another thing coming. “I’m not getting in no wheelchair neither. There’s nothing wrong with my legs. Just give me my walker and get out of my way!”
The doctor or nurse looked sadly at the old woman. “Mrs. Drax,” he said, “you have been in a very serious accident.”
Reginalda Drax denied that this was so.
“You’ve just come from four hours of extremely intensive reconstructive surgery.”
Reginalda Drax said that she had not authorized it and would not pay for it.
“The surgeons did everything in their power, but it is, frankly, unlikely, given the extent of the injuries, that you will ever be able to walk again.”
Mrs. Drax said that if they would give her her walker she would walk on their graves.
“Mrs. Drax, I — Your walker, it’s — ” A sob of guilt escaped June. “It’s completely broken!”
“There’s nothing wrong with my walker that a drop of oil won’t fix. People these days! A little squeak in the wheel and they throw it on the trash heap. A little wear in the soles and they’re out buying a new pair of shoes. They’re down there at the landfill burning up piles of tires with perfectly good treads on them as we speak. How much tread do you need on the roads around here? You’d think they thought they were in the North Pole or someplace. Snow-chains in July! I’ve seen it!” She peered distrustfully at June. “What’re you, chunkalunk, some kind of wandering sales rep for the walker makers? Get out of my room, and take these stinky geezers with you!”
June’s mouth fell moistly open. “The poor dear,” she reasoned, “she must be in terrible pain.”
The nurse or doctor shrugged. “She won’t let us give her anything.”
“When can she go home?”