WRITING WELL 9 - incarnate

by Susan Weber

The buckaroos swagger into the infusion center ready to do their dark duty. Chemo patients and their specified others, glancing up from cell phones, bloated hands, and sunken laps, look away again unfazed. To be precise, only Jesse swaggers. Nika shuffles and B.O. mopes.

“Sheesh-o-mighty, B.O.!” says limp-haired Jesse in a cowboy hat. “You’re living up to your moniker all too accurate. Stinks to high treason around here! You never heard of Old Spice anti-man-scent roll on?”

The large one’s jowls waddle as he lumbers after the boss. “B.O.’s code for Blood Orange, in case you forgot. And for the record, I showered three maybe four weeks ago.”

Nika says nothing. She lags behind to wink at Tabitha who’s signing patients in at the desk. The receptionist shimmers like a sunset glinting off Utah sandstone. Nika will get through to this joy monger yet.

The doom squad regroups at the broken down coffee maker in the corner of the waiting room. The machine is deaf to Jesse’s taunts, so he rips open a silvery packet and gulps down the black grounds. His gullet is a gulch gone dry. A lady in overalls turns her partner's wheelchair away before the wheeled-one, her lids like weighted clouds, can catch Nika’s eye.

Slamming a fist at the switch plate, Jesse leads his posse through double doors, the stenciled panels whooshing to the side. Back rooms packed with clients draw the marauders past schedulers who slurp nonfat yogurt from Tupperware containers. A nurses’ aide, up to his chin with linen, heads for the blanket warmers. Intake personnel in cotton scrubs that feature penguins wielding colorful umbrellas are taking vital signs from patient arms. “Do you have a fear of falling?” says one to a craggy gentleman.

B.O. does a double take. Swears he saw the codger stick a foot out. Bring Blood Orange down, will he? Jesse yanks at B.O.’s arm. “We got bigger fish,” he says, handing his cohorts their aprons, strapping his on too. They grab baskets loaded with Peanut Butter Ritz, Lorna Doones, and honey almond flax seed bars.

A flannel-shirted patient sits in the leatherette infusion throne of Unit 66. The man has just declined the remote, a red flag to the counterfeit snack slingers who invade his curtained space. TV’s been the gateway drug for brain negation decades now, and this guy's not partaking.

“It’s pointless,” says B.O. “Let’s move on.”

“Check out the lady in Unit 68,” Nika purrs from the hallway. The slack-jawed patient is watching Dr. Oz interrogate an adult thumb-sucker on his show. "That’s wicked gawker downer stuff right there.”

“Can’t you fools smell a challenge?” Jesse scowls, wheeling up a stool to the flannel clad lumberjack. The interloper sits, crossing his legs under his edibles. His partners hover, stooped and fidgety.

Nurse Renée asks her patient how he's doing. The timbre of her voice annoys Jesse so he jams two fingers and a calloused thumb at the man’s thigh, pinching hard. Insult to injury — his special expertise. The man’s eyes water as he holds back a wince. “Could be better,” he says, his chest squalling.

Jesse swivels to watch Renée’s red curls swoop around her cherubic face. “So what’s going on?” she says, and her patient's breathing slows.

“What do you think?” Jesse snarls at the others.

“She talks to him like he can still swim fifty yards back stroke in under a minute,” mutters B.O. “How am I supposed to — see that? His shoulders. They’re square as Jack LaLanne’s.”

“Who the hell is Jack LaLanne?” sneers Jesse.

“Old guy. Muscleman. Food nut.” Nika says. “Bane of my best work. Health breeds goddam hope.”

“I can make him mope!” says B.O. “Watch this.” He fingers his iPhone, juggling his basket on a beefy arm.

The lumberjack is telling Renée about his insomnia and how Tylenol makes the pain worse. “Yes!” says Jesse, palming his stetson, flinging it into fluorescent lights. “My kind of ineffectual pharma shit!”

The nurse’s com badge bleats. “We need you asap in the lab,” says a starchy voice.

B.O. smirks, pocketing his phone. "Told you I'd fix this."

“See that, see that?” Nika says. “Took the dude’s fortitude with her.” A slump descends on the man; his plaids cave in on themselves.

“Look at him, checking work emails!” Jesse leans back against the IV pole, sliding his hat down over his eyes. “Always let the workplace do your damage,” he says.

“How do you spell de-press-ing?” Nika trills. She adjusts her vocals to a monotone. “This should be easy, right?”

“Who’s the hussy?” says B.O., swallowing a Lorne Doone.

The hussy pops open a ginger ale and inserts a straw. “They’re out of 7-Up. This okay?”

“Yup,” says the lumberjack, taking a sip.

Erect on his stool, Jesse fumes. “The guy looks good on paper. Type I Myelodysplastic Syndrome, unending toxic treatments, sleep deprivation, diminishing returns.”

“He’s in his sixties,” Nika says. “Maybe he's still got reserves.”

“Any sane dolt with stats like that would feel like ancient history,” says Jesse.

“At least he should complain more,” says B.O. “Must be some kind of Gandhi freak.”

“Wait until the wife’s not here,” Jesse says, spitting up words. “We’ll see who’s down and out.”

“Sorry,” says Renée, slightly winded. “That was weird." No one at the lab had called her. "So I’ll be back with your shots, soon as Pharmacy sends them down."

“You know,” says the wife. “We wish we didn't have to be here, but you're all so — ”

Pivoting on a torn boot, Jesse punches the curtain and showers the linoleum with comfort food on his way out. “I didn’t come to watch no cussed soap opera!” he says, his entourage fluttering behind him.

The trio steams past the intake worker who is peeling off a young man's pressure cuff. “Do you feel safe at home?” she says, attaching a wrist band. His mother hugs his backpack and peacoat, shifts from one foot to the other, and holds the wan boy smile in hers.

Photo by Famartin CC BY-SA 3.0