Night after night – from 10pm till 6am – I fed the furnace, wondering how I’d meet my demise. Would I slowly succumb to boredom or die in a sudden fiery apocalypse?
For minimum wage, I fed metal moulds filled with brass powder onto a conveyor belt that led into a 2,000 degree gas-fired furnace. Bathroom faucets and other fixtures came out the other end, hardened by the heat. Two hours into my first shift, I understood why this small foundry was always looking for help. Whenever one of my fellow workmen walked out a side door for a smoke – a door clearly marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY – the open door created a draft that caused the gas jets in the furnace to flame out. After ten or twenty seconds, the gas would re-ignite with a thundering boom, flames shooting out either end of the furnace.
The place was an accident waiting for the six o’clock news, but I didn’t stick around long enough to make the headlines. I hadn’t survived a tour of duty in a war zone just to die in an industrial accident. After three weeks and three explosions in one shift, I left around midnight and didn’t return. I spent what was left of the evening at a neighborhood pub located at the junction of Routes 6 and 7 called, appropriately enough, The Six and Seven.
I sat at the bar nursing a beer while perusing the Help Wanted ads in the local paper. But it was the second week of June and the pickings were slim, most jobs already taken by college students like me looking to make tuition fees. There was an opening for an orderly at the local hospital, but bedpans immediately came to mind and I’d already left one shitty job.
The next day I made half a dozen calls but came up empty. Desperate, I walked into the personnel office at the hospital and asked if the orderly position was still open. Without a word, the receptionist handed me a clipboard, an application, and pointed to a pen on the counter. After a ten-minute interview, I was hired. That was too easy, I thought, but it was already midway through June and I still hadn’t saved enough to get me through the upcoming fall semester.
After a perfunctory training period learning how to make beds with hospital corners, help patients in and out of a bed or a wheelchair, and take temperatures – oral and rectal – I was assigned to a medical-surgical ward on the third floor.
My first day on the job I must have emptied half a dozen bedpans, all filled to the brim. Another orderly watched me gag while carrying a bedpan at arm’s length to a bathroom. Later, at the nurse’s station, he asked if we could work out a deal. Whenever a patient passed – ‘expired’ was the term he used – I’d help the nurse prep the body then wheel the deceased down to the morgue, located in the basement of the hospital. In exchange, he’d answer the buzzer whenever a patient needed their bedpan emptied. Trading one shitty job for another was how he saw it. “Deal,” I answered. I would have shaken on it but I’d seen where his hand had just been.
At lunch he asked how I could handle the ‘recently deceased’ – another term he used to describe the dead. I told him I’d been in the Army and there were times when I’d had to deal with death and dying almost every day.
“And the hospital dead are different,” I told him. “They aren’t covered in blood, they’re wearing clean clothes, and they die in a clean bed. There’s no thrashing about, screaming, or calling out to loved ones. It’s quiet here and these people die peacefully.” He nodded and turned back to his lunch.
I was advised by the head nurse that the patients in Room 306 would occupy most of my shift. “They need almost constant attention,” she warned. Nicknamed ‘The Pit’ by those who worked this floor, Room 306 was the largest room on the ward, the rest being singles or doubles. The Pit held seven beds, all occupied by elderly patients who all appeared to be at least seventy or older.
I wasn’t quite sure why these elderly patients were there. The third floor of the hospital was a medical-surgical ward, but few, if any, of the occupants of Room 306 ever left for tests or procedures. It seemed that their only affliction was old age. One septuagenarian sat in his wheelchair all day staring at the floor, lost in thought. Another spent most of her day pacing back and forth, talking to herself and gently weeping. “Nobody cares whether I live or die,” she’d cry. One old lady just sat by a window, staring out.
Wondering what she was looking at, I glanced out the window and found that Room 306 overlooked a cemetery just across the street. Piss-poor planning or deliberately convenient, either way, the sight of all those headstones had to have been especially unsettling.
To make matters worse, the room faced south. The summer sun blazed through the windows turning the room into a steambath despite the air-conditioning. In the afternoon, it was hotter than hell, or at least hell’s waiting room. If that weren’t enough, at times Room 307 smelled like a urinal, especially in the morning before the patients were bathed, gowns changed, bed linen replaced, incontinence pads tossed and the floor mopped. Hieronymus Bosch could have used Room 307 as a model for one of his paintings.
After a week on the day shift, I was permanently assigned to nights. “Piece of cake,” I said to myself. “Just the night nurse and me watching over sleeping patients.” But it was not to be. A couple of the patients were insomniacs who kept me hopping through the night. And at least once a week – sometimes more – one of the old folks in the Pit would pass. It was like the Angel of Death had learned of the deal I’d made and was determined to help me keep my end of the bargain.
During our short training period, we were told not to get attached to our patients, that it would make our job more difficult. But there was one patient we did get to know, an elderly gentleman named Mr. Dolan who entered our ward early one morning, just before my shift ended. He smiled and greeted everyone he met as he walked down the hall carrying a much-travelled leather valise and wearing a threadbare three-piece suit. He was assigned a bed in a corner of the Pit, away from the windows.
As I helped Mr. Dolan change into his non-regulation pajamas, I noticed a small scar to the right of his abdomen. Out by the nurse’s station, I was told that the scar was left over from exploratory surgery. The old gent had cancer and had come to the hospital to die.
“How can that be?’ I asked. “He looks fine, kind of thin, but OK.” By my tone, the duty nurse reminded me not to get attached to our patients because, one way or another, all would eventually leave, either through the front entrance, wheeled out by a loved one, or by a side door, wheeled away by the undertaker. During my short stay at that small hospital, very few of the patients in Room 306 left by the front entrance.
It was hard to avoid our latest admission, this elderly gentleman who’d come to Room 306 to die. Unlike his roommates, Mr. Dolan was a jovial fellow who wandered the halls, smiling and chatting with the nurses and orderlies. His roommates, for the most part, ignored him.
Slowly, though, the smile began to fade, his eyes took on that glassy, medicated look, his walk turned to a slow shuffle, his outings grew fewer and shorter, and his chats grew less lively and coherent. Eventually, he was unable to leave his bed.
He left us late one night, quietly, like he didn’t want to be a bother. The night nurse and I followed the usual procedure and readied him for his journey, first, downstairs to the morgue, then to a place where he would be put on display and mourned by his loved ones. And finally, perhaps, he’d be laid to rest in the cemetery across the street.
I wheeled Mr. Dolan down the hall, into the elevator and down to the morgue where I gently placed him on the sliding metal shelf that led into the refrigerated vault. There was little left of Mr. Dolan but skin and bones. But he was, as they say, going to a better place, a place where there was no pain or suffering. I envied him.
When he died, his face mirrored the pain of his last hours. But as his journey began, his body relaxed and the lines in his face grew soft. I stared at him for awhile as he lay on the cold metal shelf. James Joyce’s lines came to mind:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I pulled the sheet back over Mr. Dolan’s head, slowly slid the shelf into the vault and gently closed the door. As I was about to leave, I heard movement coming from the far end of the morgue. A doctor and an orderly were attempting to transfer a body from a gurney onto a metal table where, I assumed, the doctor would perform an autopsy. The deceased, a man of about fifty, had the build of a linebacker in the NFL and the two were having difficulty.
“Grab him by the handle,” I heard the doctor joke, nodding at the dead man’s penis. The orderly paused for a moment, gave the doctor a disgusted look, then resumed fumbling with the corpse. I was reminded of one fall afternoon when I watched as my uncle and a hunting companion struggled with a deer carcass that had been gutted and skinned. The two were trying to carry it into the garage where they would hang the carcass from a hook and carve it into steaks.
With the body safely on the table, the doctor turned to a counter covered in sharp and shiny instruments. He picked up an electric chest cutter and revved it like he was revving up the engine of a Pontiac GTO. He smiled at the orderly and asked, “Wanna help?”
During my year at war, I fired my weapon often, sometimes in anger, but mostly in self-defense. I’m not sure if I ever killed anyone; the one enemy soldier I came face to face with – he was so close I could almost hear the beating of his heart – was shot by the man behind me when I hesitated. But I wanted to kill this doctor who’d taken vows to comfort the infirm, heal the sick and ‘do no harm.’ There would be no hesitation this time.
Where, in any of your medical textbooks, does it say you have the right to disrespect another human being, even in death? Grab him by the handle? How about if I grab you by the friggin’ throat? This is no deer carcass, you piece of shit!
That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I turned and left.
When I got back to the nurse’s station, I tossed my nametag on the counter and walked away. I took one last look in Room 306. Mr. Dolan’s bed had already been changed and awaited its next transient. I took the stairs two at a time down to the main floor, out the main entrance and into the night. Across the street lay the cemetery, patiently waiting. I thought of a fragment from Carl Sandberg:
I am the grass. I cover all . . .
Shovel them under and let me work.
I retreated to The Six and Seven. “So, what are you gonna do now?” asked the bartender.
“Don’t know,” I said with a shrug, absently staring at the TV at the end of the bar. “But I’ll survive. Been in tighter spots before.”
By day, I sat at the beach watching girls and working on my tan while sipping Chianti from a Coke can. By night, I drank beer at The Six and Seven and watched ball games on TV not caring who won.
One sweltering weekend, however, I loaded my VW Bug with a rucksack load of clothes, my sleeping bag, and a six-pack. I drove north, escaping both heat and humanity. A half hour into Vermont, I exited the highway, took a left at the end of the ramp and drove west until there were no houses to be seen in any direction. I turned onto a dirt road into the woods and drove uphill until I came to a clearing on the bank of a rocky, cascading stream.
I turned off my car and sat with my head back and eyes closed, basking in the solitude. I thought I was alone until a sudden, gentle breeze brought the faint sounds of music and laughter. Not far from the stream I found a small gathering of youths encamped under a stand of tall, cool pines. One young man sat on a log and picked at a guitar while others, lounging around a small campfire, laughed, chatted, and sipped from cups.
I was greeted by an ethereal, flaxen-haired young woman in faded cut-offs and a tie-dyed t-shirt who seemed to rise from the earth. For a moment, I thought I’d fallen asleep and woken up in a place that exists only in classic Victorian poetry. The young woman smiled, and asked if I’d like to join them.
She told me her name was Aileen – “Eileen with an ‘A’.”. She introduced me to her friends whose names seemed from another time and another place. “Maybe that’s just Vermont,” I said to myself.
“Sit. Please,” Aileen said. I shared with these other-worldly youths a half-empty half-gallon of wine I kept in the trunk of my VW for emergencies . . . and for times like these.
After awhile, Aileen and I strolled over to the stream and sat on sun-warmed rocks. We dangled our feet in the cool water and basked in the summer sun. For the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening, we talked, laughed, drank wine, and listened to music from my car radio.
I told Aileen I was a college student majoring in English. “At least for now. I’m not sure what I want to do, really. Kinda taking it day by day, to tell the truth.” She told me she’d just graduated from high school and would be entering Smith College on a scholarship that fall.
“My father teaches English at the regional high school,” she said. “I might major in comparative literature, but I haven’t really made up my mind yet, either.” Later, when the evening cooled, we shared my sleeping bag by the campfire and talked into the night about poetry and books.
“Have you read Yeats?” she asked.
“Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.” Yes, I’ve read Yeats.
“That was Yeats’ epitaph, some say. How about Joyce?”
“Somewhere in my car are copies of Dubliners and Ulysses,” I said. “I’ve started Finnegan’s Wake, but it almost defies comprehension.”
“Some things were meant to be unfathomable. Mystical, even. Read Yeats’ Folk and Fairy Tales of the Irish Peasantry.”
“Yes I said yes I will yes,” I answered.
Reluctant to leave, I spent what was left of the summer with Aileen in our pastoral paradise. All that was missing were rainbows and unicorns. We continued to frolic in the woods by that mountain stream, with occasional trips to a nearby town for provisions,until the last week of August when our Edenic summer ended. Aileen set out for Smith College and I reluctantly returned to my New England normal school, a teacher factory that pumped out pedagogues with machine-like efficiency.
All that fall semester we kept in touch with letters and phone calls. Tied down by a full load of courses and a part-time job in the student union, I was unable to visit Aileen until the Christmas break when I drove up to Northampton. Her scholarship didn’t quite cover all expenses, so she filed papers in the administration building over the break to make ends meet.
The sun that day hid behind ominous, slate-gray clouds. A pitiless December wind cut through my worn and weary Army field jacket. A hacking cough, which had plagued me on and off since Thanksgiving, returned. The trees were gray and barren. The grass on the banks of the Mill River lay covered in snow. Parts of Paradise Pond had frozen over. Except for a few maintenance workers listlessly picking and shoveling at the ice and snow, the campus seemed devoid of life.
As we walked along, Aileen, who smiled just once during my visit, seemed distant. It became apparent that, far from Vermont, she had become ensnared in that world outside our wooded Utopia. It didn’t help that over the fall, missing Aileen and bogged down in a college rut, I’d slipped into my own form of melancholia, do doubt helped by too much work, jug wine and Joni Mitchell. I spent almost as much time in the college infirmary as I spent in class.
Slowly, I came to realize that my trip to Northampton had been a mistake and wondered if our summer together had been an anomaly. Reluctantly, I cut my visit short. When I kissed Aileen goodbye in the parking lot, it began to snow. Again, I remembered Joyce’s lines about the soul swooning. Her lips were cold and hesitant, her eyes, gray and distant. As Aileen walked away, I knew I’d lost her.
Somehow, I managed to graduate, and after stops at several graduate schools eventually found a position teaching English literature to the disengaged and disinterested. Memories of my time at that small hospital lingered and to this day I avoid doctors and hospitals if at all possible – I’ve left instructions with my attorney that when my time is near that I never be warehoused in anything resembling a Room 306. “Push me out a window and say I slipped,” I’ve instructed.
One summer, several years ago, on a whim, I drove up to Vermont. I searched for hours, but, unable to find that dirt road that lead up to the clearing, I stopped at a gas station and asked about mountain streams, clearings, and stands of tall, cool pines. “Couldn’t tell ya,” the old man said, in a tone reserved for outsiders.
I found a bookstore and asked the owner, an elderly woman – a townie, no doubt – if she knew Aileen. “Her father taught English in the regional high school,” I said. She gave me a wary up and down look then replied, “Oh, Aileen. Yes, I knew her father. He told me she never graduated from Smith College. She married, had a couple of kids, divorced, then moved away, to the west coast. I could be wrong, but I think she died . . . at least that’s what I heard.” I fumbled mindlessly through the magazine rack then left.
It’s been several decades now since I first met Aileen with an ‘A’ in that stand of tall, cool pines, but occasionally I think of her and our idyllic summer, and when I do, I’m also reminded of a place Dr. Burt told us about in his Irish literature class, Tir na nOg, a mythical land where sickness and death are unknown, and, unless your name is Oisin, everyone lives happily ever after. But that’s a myth, Dr. Burt had told us. “Just a fairy tale,” he said.
Mike Mulvey asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.