Sunday, May 09, 2004

Diary Of A Rag And Bone Man

by Jack Rafter
No. 8. Desperate Times, Part III.

Previously (see below): After a night in the Mercy Hospital, our homeless hero finally gets to see the doctor. Turns out he didn’t have pneumonia after all, and is released to a bright sunny morning.

Well, I didn’t have pneumonia, but I still wasn’t feeling so hot. I had all the symptoms—runny nose, sneezing, coughing, head feeling like a split melon. I didn’t want to walk three miles to the shelter; they wouldn’t let me in till close to nightfall, anyway. And I sure didn’t have any business spending another night outside. Especially if the weather turned chilly again.

So I stuck around the hospital. I thought maybe I could smuggle myself back in without actually having to see the doctor. I just needed a good night’s sleep, that's all. A decent meal or two—if I could finagle them—wouldn’t do any harm, either.

By noon, the clouds were rolling in again and the temperature starting to drop. I was glad I’d decided to stay near the hospital. Avoiding the walk-in clinic entrance, where I was sure to be recognized, I walked in the far end of the building. First, I had to leave Vincent tied up in the bushes near the door. He whimpered a little and looked up at me with those big sad eyes. I told him not to worry—I was going to smuggle him in, as well. That seemed to have a calming effect on him, so he laid himself down and got ready to wait. I went on in and made my way to the cafeteria, bought a cup of coffee with a bummed half-dollar, found a stray newspaper and settled down for awhile.

Around four, I decided things might be getting busy in the walk-in clinic, so I headed that way. At the double swinging doors, I stopped and peaked through the window. Sure enough, the red-haired day nurse was still on—working the clipboards, handing out forms to newcomers.

In the hallway, there, I could see a dozen or more gurneys parked along the walls. A few were occupied, but most were free. Judging from the night before, I knew the later it got, most, if not all, the gurneys would be taken. I was hoping to snag one while they were still available.

Yeah, I hear you say, “How dare you take a bed someone else might really need.” To that, I say, look—I didn’t make this country that is so indifferent that it doesn’t bother to provide decent health care for its people; a country that preaches “Homeland Security,” while thousands are losing their homes, children are going hungry; and where huge corporations pay little or no income taxes while sending all our jobs overseas. I figured they could spare an extra gurney for the night.

Just then, I was startled by a voice behind me. “Are you lost?” I turned, and there--so help me--stood Nurse Margaret, her own self, the dreaded night nurse! With her big breasts and stern face and lips the color of Heinz 57 Ketchup. Her mouse colored hair was pulled back in a bun so tight it looked like she was trying to give herself a face-lift. I was so taken aback, I almost passed out. My knees were wobbly. Luckily, Vincent seemed to have frozen between my legs; he must have sensed the danger. Meanwhile, nurse Margaret was frowning at me—that severe, disapproving frown I’d seen the night before, as if I were a bug she thought she’d already smushed with her shoe. I was afraid she was on the verge of recognizing me. After all, it was she who had listened to me through her stethoscope the night before and pronounced me sick with pneumonia, a diagnosis which proved incorrect.

Somehow, I resisted the urge to tell her she’d gotten it wrong, which probably would have resulted in her calling security and having me escorted out. Or maybe she would have done it herself. Instead, I said, “Uh, could you tell me where the restroom is?”

At that, she squinched her nose at me, almost as if I’d just presented her a crudely drawn picture of what I intended to do in the restroom, instead of merely asking where it was. Then she said, “Back that way. Up the hall. To the right.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

She nodded, then passed on through the doors.

I watched her go up to the red-haired nurse. They conferred a moment. The red-haired nurse handed her the clipboards, then they moved off toward the office. Now was my chance. I scooted through the doors. Having spent a night there already, I’d gotten the lay of the land. There was a utility closet right there in the hallway. I opened the door to the closet, grabbed the nearest free gurney and rolled it in, closing the door behind me. Then, I switched on the light. On the shelves were stacks of every kind of form you could imagine, in all colors—pink, blue, saffron, green. I tore one off, folded it lengthwise down the middle, found a pen, and printed a sign on it:

“This gurney reserved for Dr. Welby.”

I was thinking of Marcus Welby, the TV show doctor, played by Robert Young, who, in his later years, attempted suicide. Then I stood the sign up like a tent on top of the gurney. I figured anybody that saw the sign would leave the gurney alone, even if they thought it was odd. In my experience, most people—-nurses included-—seldom question anything a doctor does; even other doctors aren’t likely to meddle in each other’s business.

While I was there, I decided to look a little more. You never know what might be useful. Well, there weren't any drugs or anything like that. I guess they keep all that locked up. But I did find something a little more valuable. Five rolls of red tickets—all just like the one Nurse Esther had given me that morning for a free meal in the cafeteria. Each roll had a thousand tickets. The mother lode! I slipped one roll in my coat pocket, switched off the light and scurried back to the cafeteria.

Needless to say, I ate good that night. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, cream corn, broccoli, and, finished off with a nice little tapioca pudding. I kept some back for Vincent and took him out a plate. I also took a big wad of napkins to blow on, since my eyes were weeping and my nose was dripping like a leaky faucet.

By then, it was around seven o’clock, getting dark. Now, I wanted to smuggle my dog in, and maybe you’re wondering how I got that done. Well, I’ll tell you. I have this canvas coat I normally wear, that almost reaches my knees. So, what I do is I take the coat off and tie the sleeves around my waist, so it almost drags the ground, like a skirt. Vincent likes to get under there and walk with me. He thinks it’s a game, you see. All he has to do is see me tie the coat around my waist and he scoots right under there without waiting to be called. So that’s how I’ve managed to smuggle Vincent into a number of places undetected.

And that’s what we did. Soon as he was under the coat, we entered the building and started down the hall. Vincent usually gets right between my legs as we putter along, so walk a little bow-legged to keep from kicking him. But no one seems to notice. We passed nurses, orderlies, doctors, guys in suits, all kinds of people; most of them treated me with indifference. Some of them nodded and said, “Hello.” I nodded back and smiled. All they saw was some poor bum walking along with his coat tied around his waist. No idea there was a dog under there.

When we got to the walk-in clinic, I stopped and peaked through the windows of the double doors. Pure chaos, just like the night before. The red-haired nurse was off duty, now, and there was Nurse Margaret wandering around with her clipboards, the only life raft for miles around. No wonder she was strung so tight, I thought. Meanwhile, I noticed all the gurneys were now occupied with sick or wounded people.

When the coast was clear, I squeezed through the swinging door with Vincent scooting along under my coat flaps, like an appendage. I made for the closet and ducked inside, pulling the door behind me. So far so good.

Then, I smelled something funny, like cigarette smoke. I flipped on the light and looked. There, on the near end of the gurney-—my gurney-—sat a large woman. She looked Hispanic. She had one arm folded under her breasts, the other propped on it, holding a cigarette. She looked at me with stunned surprise, her eyebrows arched up around her hairline.

I noticed her dress was a pale green, a kind of uniform, with a nametag pinned over her breast. The name on it was Merry Ann Alonzo. Clearing my throat, I said, “Uh—excuse me.”

“Who are you?” she said with an accent.

“Um—that’s my gurney you’re sitting on.”

“What? Are you--?” She picked up the little tent sign and looked at it. “You are Dock-tor Welby?”

“That’s me,” I said, sneezing suddenly. “S’cuse me.” I fished a napkin out of my pocket and blew into it.

“You’re kidding, right?” she said.

“Nope, not kidding,” I replied hoarsely.

“’Scuse me, sir. But you don’t resemble no doctor, here.”

“Oh, you’re referring to my clothes. Well, I was just working outside. I do a little gardening on the grounds, hereabouts. When I’m not in surgery. Kind of a hobby. But right now, I’ve got a patient who needs that gurney.”

She jumped up. “Oh, sure thing. Sorry, Mister, uh—Dock-tor Welby. I was just taking a break.” She indicated the cigarette. “You don’t mind, I hope.”

“Not at all. Take your time—uh—Miss Alonzo. I know you work hard.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t mention it.” Then I sneezed again. Once, twice, three times. I took out some more napkins, blew my nose and dabbed my eyes.

“That’s some cold you got there, Dock-tor.”

“Yes, it is,” I muttered.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be working outside with a bad cold like that,” she said.

“Well, you know us doctors,” I smiled. “We’re our own worst patients.”

“Oh, yes, do I know that!” she laughed. “My husband is a veterinarian.”

“You don’t say.”

“Oh, yes, I can never get him to take time off when he’s sick.”

“Well, there you go,” I replied. Then, taking down a folded sheet from the shelf, I said, “I just need to make this thing up.”

“Oh. Okay,” she stepped out of the way.

I spread the sheet over the gurney, letting the sides hang down till they skimmed the floor. At that moment, Vincent shot out from my coat and disappeared under the sheets.

“What was that?” said Merry Ann Alonzo.

“What was what?” I said.

“Something just ran under that sheet. It looked like an an-ee-mal of some kind.”

“Oh, that’s Vincent-—my dog. He makes the rounds with me sometimes.”

“The rounds?”

“You know—-see patients and stuff.”

“Wait a minute. You saying your dog goes around with you—-here, in the hospital? No kidding?”

“No kidding.”

She laughed. “Making the rounds with you! That’s funny!” Then, pausing, she took a drag on her cigarette and looked at me a long moment sideways. “You aren’t really a doctor, are you, mister?”


“What are you doing, then?”

“I just need a place to sleep the night. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

She looked at me a moment, smiling, shaking her head a little. “No,” she said, finally. “I don’t tell on you. Go on, whoever you are.”

“My name’s Jack.”

“Okay. Buenos noches, Jack.”

Buenos noches, Miss—-Senora Alonzo.”

I turned the light out and cracked the door to have a look. Nurse Margaret was now the center of so much calamity I knew she wouldn’t notice a bum pulling a gurney up the hall. Under the sheets, I heard Vincent’s paws clicking on the tile floor as he followed along. I parallel parked the gurney between two others, and hopped on, shed my coat, rolled it up and threw it underneath. Then, I laid down, pulling the sheet over me. Within minutes I was sound asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up coughing—-really miserable. It seemed to go on and on. I was afraid my lungs were going to come up. Then, I felt a hand on the back of my neck. “Sit up,” said a voice. The hand supported my head as I sat up. I was so groggy I could hardly focus on anything. The other hand swung toward me holding a spoon with a red liquid. “Take this,” said the voice. I opened my mouth and took the liquid. Cough syrup-—strong. Codeine, maybe. “Now, lie down.” I laid down, looking up as I did. It was Merry Ann Alonzo. Smiling. “Sleep,” she said. And I dropped off again.

* * * * *

I awoke to Katie Couric’s voice. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The hall was cheery and bright with spots of sunlight dancing in from the waiting room. I felt like a new dime. Whatever Merry Ann gave me worked like an elixir.

Most of the gurneys were empty. There were a few others with people crashed on them, some of whom looked like they could be dead. I wasn’t sure. There was a guy in the next gurney up from mine, propped up on his elbows, having a look around. He was an old guy with a turkey neck. No teeth, mouth sunken in. Whiskery face. His ears were big and stuck out from his head, like flaps, and hair was growing out of them. I think he had just awakened. The expression on his face seemed to say, “Where the hell am I?” He regarded me with the same look, only then it became, “Who the hell are you?”

His tongue darted out, swabbed his cracked, flaky lips, then disappeared. Suddenly, he called out: “Martha!” And again, louder, “Martha!”

I looked around. I saw the red-haired nurse glance this way, then she started for us. “Oh, shit,” I thought, and pulled the sheet over my head. “Martha!” I heard the old geeze shout again.

The nurse squeaked past me in her rubber soles. “Who are you?” I heard her ask the guy, to which he replied, “Who are you?”

“I’m the day-nurse here. My name is Flynn.” I heard her rifling through some papers. “I think you’re Mr. Mabry. Are you?”

“Am I what?” he said.

“Mr. Mabry. Charles A.? Is that you?”

“My name is Arthur,” he ranted.

I heard her take a deep breath, to give her patience. “Okay, then the A stands for Arthur, is that right?”

“Well, of course!”

“All right, Arthur, you’re going to see the doctor in about the next hour, or so, I hope.”

“For what?”

“We’re going to x-ray your hip. We’re going to replace your hip-joint.”

“My hip is just fine. Nobody’s cuttin’ on me.”

“No, your hip is totally gone, Mr. Mabry. You can’t even walk.”

“I’ll crawl, then. Where’s Martha?”

“Who is that?”

“Martha! My sister!”

“Is she waiting for you out there?”

“Out where?”

“Out in the waiting room.”

“How should I know?”

“What does she look like?”

“Looks like my sister!”

“All right, just wait a minute. I’ll go see if I can find her.”

Nurse Flynn squeaked off to the waiting room. In a moment, I heard her call out, “Is there a Martha Mabry here? Martha Mabry?”

Nobody answered. I pulled my sheet down and looked at the old man. He was sitting there, staring with his mouth open. A little slip of spittle was starting to peter down the crease from the corner of his mouth.

“Maybe Martha went for breakfast,” I offered.

He blinked and looked at me. His tongue slithered out, then went back in again. “I hope she brings me some eggs,” he said in a quiet voice. “I’m plumb starved to death.”

“I’ve got some free meal tickets in my coat pocket. If Martha doesn’t come back soon, I’ll go get you some breakfast.”

“Thanks.” He looked at me. His face seemed to soften for a moment.

About then, I saw where Katie Couric was coming from. There was a TV mounted high up on the wall. So they had one in the waiting room, and one in the hallway, as well, I suppose so they could bother the sick and dying in both places at once.

This morning Katie was interviewing some actress I didn’t recognize. The actress was talking about Jennifer Lopez. Apparently, they had recently worked together on some TV sitcom. She was describing J-Lo’s butt—how mesmerizing it was—how you couldn’t take your eyes off of it, and so on. While they chatted about that, and Katie laughed hysterically, a little line of type slowly inched its way across the bottom of the screen. Our Air Force had just bombed a mosque in Fallujah.

I remember the Today Show of the ‘50s, when I was growing up—-was played on a simple set with big round clocks in the background, so you could keep an eye on the time; the host was Dave Garroway. Arthur Godfrey was on the other channel with his own morning show. They were not very flashy, as I recall, those guys, but they had a lot of humor. They were soft-spoken, folksy. Dave Garroway wore horn-rimmed glasses, a crooked bow tie. The pace of those shows was easy going, even gentle, I suppose you might say, as if somehow they had gotten the idea that people would rather be brought more gently into their day, as opposed to being rudely grabbed by the lapels, jolted, and revved up. I don’t think it would have occurred to either Dave Garroway or Arthur Godfrey to hold forth with one of their guests at an early hour in the morning about some girl’s ass.

Nowadays the Today Show features a posh livingroom and a kitchen straight out of Architectural Digest, fully operational. It’s a set that must have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, so it looks as if the show originates from inside Donald Trump’s house. This version of the Today Show is very busy. It lurches from one topic to another, from one guest to the next, with hardly a moment to draw a breath or to allow for the possibility of a real thought to take shape. There’s a yakky, frenetic quality to it, as if the hosts and their guests are hopped up on methamphetamines or just mainlining caffeine.

Suddenly, Nurse Flynn appeared out of nowhere. Standing over me, she said, “Who are you?”

“Me? Uh, I’m—“

She frowned. “Weren’t you here yesterday morning?”

“Uh, no, ma’am. I think my brother was in here, though.”

“You have a twin?”

“No, ma’am. We do kind of resemble each other, though.”

She looked skeptical. “Listen, I don’t have time to fool around. You were in here yesterday and you had pneumonia.”

“No, ma’am, I don’t have pneumonia. You can check me yourself.”

“What’s your name?”

“Donnie,” I said. “Donnie Rafter.”

“Wait here. I’ll see if I can find your chart.”

When she was gone, I hopped off the gurney.

“Where you going?” said Arthur.

“Going to get you something to eat. I’ll be right back.”

“What if she comes back?”

“Tell her I left.” I winked at him.

“Right,” he said, and winked back.

I told Vincent to stay put a minute. Then I reached in my coat pocket and tore off a ticket. In the cafeteria, I got a double helping of eggs, some apple sauce, yogurt and cottage cheese. All soft stuff. I figured Arthur Mabry, sans teeth, was gumming it. Then, I went back to the clinic. Nurse Flynn was nowhere around. I handed the plate to Arthur. His eyes got big and he said, “Thanks! Man, this looks good!” He sat up and started right in. Moving to my gurney, I snatched up my coat, tied it around me and gave a soft whistle. Vincent came out and went under again.

“That your dog?” said Arthur between bites.


For the first time that morning, he actually smiled. “Well, good for you!” he said and shoved a spoonful in his mouth.

“Well, see you around, Arthur,” I said. “If the nurse asks you where you got that food, tell her Dr. Welby brought it.”

“Sure thing,” he grinned.

Vincent and I stopped off at the cafeteria, grabbed some breakfast, then took the plate outside by the far exit. The sun was out, it was nice and warm. I was feeling more my old self after a good sleep. There was a little park across the street. We headed over there, sat down under a tree and had our breakfast.

Then, we laid back and napped awhile. When I woke, the sun was almost straight overhead. I thought about hanging around and using another ticket for lunch. I reckoned I had about nine-hundred ninety-seven free meals left on the roll. But the cafeteria staff was starting to look at me funny and I didn’t want to push my luck. So I headed for the Bizzy Bee Griddle. Maybe Johnny Blair would be back by now. He’d been gone a couple of days due to a death in his family. I was curious to know who died. And I could tell him about my two days in the hospital.

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