Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Collector - Part One

Betty watched Kurt Lindstrom roll a large plastic trash barrel around the building’s business office. The barrel was gray and sounded like all four of its wheels needed oil. She’d get Bruno to attend to that later. Kurt emptied wastebaskets and wiped off large wooden desks and table tops with a soiled dust rag. An upright vacuum cleaner was parked strategically near Liz Hayden, the office receptionist, who offered a flirty smile as he went by.

“Mister Morretti wants to see you,” announced Betty.

“Ok,” said Kurt as he nervously approached the corner office with his trash barrel.

“No honey, leave that out here,” she added as Kurt approached the threshold. The door marked a boundary between the resilient carpeting of the outer office and luxurious shag that muffled sound in the executive’s chamber. Kurt stepped gingerly onto the soft expanse.

“Siddown,” said Morretti. He pointed to one of a pair of high-backed leather chairs in front of his massive mahogany desk and waved his secretary away.

Betty had a son about Kurt’s age and felt her protective instincts surge. She exited and winked to ease his obvious tension, closing the office door behind her. Kurt cautiously settled into the designated chair across from the building owner. He felt as if his t-shirt and jeans were an affront to the expensive furniture, and eased carefully into his seat.

“Blanco came to see me today. Frankie Blanco from suite 110. Know him?”

“Yes sir, I clean his office.”

“Said something about a beer can. You know anything about that?”

Kurt squirmed as he considered his response. The story seemed ridiculous, even to a college kid working a summer job. But many things about this job were expanding his limited world-view. There was Bruno, the aging German handyman who incessantly made lecherous and heavily accented remarks to most of the building’s female tenants. And Norm, the personal trainer from the building’s health club, a Mister Illinois contestant who was lecherous in his own way, offering Kurt private time in the club under his supervision. Kurt glanced briefly at a framed photo of Morretti’s daughter Carla on the back-desk. Pretty. Rich. Arrogant. She had been in the office several times. Her sidelong glances made it clear that compared with her, Kurt was of the servant class.

“He said something last night” Kurt began, shaking himself from his wandering thoughts. Moretti settled back in his chair, elbows on his armrests and fingertips together like a Zen pose, or a strangle hold.

Kurt related the events of the previous night.

 “Mister Blanco was still in his office. I was cleaning like usual and went in to empty his trash.”

* * * *

“Hey asshole. Where’s my beer can?” Blanco blurted.

“Excuse me?”

“I had a beer can on my desk. Now it’s gone. Where is it?”

Frankie Blanco ran a legitimate insurance business since his release from prison eight years earlier. Moretti leased him office space as a favor to his older brother Tony, but he clearly disliked the younger Blanco. At five foot six, what Frankie lacked in height, he made up for in aggression and threats.

“Mister Blanco, I saw an empty can on your desk the other night. I thought about throwing it away but decided I’d better not. Then I saw it in your trash the next day so I tossed it. It’s gone.”

“Yeah right, you stole it. I want it back,” he said slowly, then paused and added menacingly, “I collect things.”

Kurt looked away nervously. He was not a thief. He had no interest in beer cans but knew that some of his friends had begun collecting them when they went away to school.

“I told you I don’t have it,” Kurt said softly, and rolled his plastic trash barrel into the next room.

“You stole my beer can!” Blanco shouted from his office.

Ordinarily, an empty beer can would have gone unnoticed as Kurt made his rounds. Office trash tended to be pretty uninteresting. But a week earlier, as the contents of Blanco’s can spilled into the larger barrel, something caught Kurt’s eye. A flash of glossy color amidst the white papers and crumpled assortment of the day’s waste. Pictures. A stack of pictures carelessly tossed upside down into the can. Upside down until Kurt turned the can over for emptying. Naked pictures. Kurt scooped them up and stuffed them into a black plastic garbage bag for later examination. From that point on, Kurt paid closer attention to Blanco’s trash.

Later that evening in a vacant office, Kurt pulled the stack of Polaroids from the plastic bag tucked into his cleaning supplies.

“Holy shit,” he muttered under his breath, then went looking for his buddy Don, who was working on another floor.

Don directed him to a darkened office across from the elevators. His own cleaning equipment was already inside. He had been wasting time reading magazines and talking on the phone. The entire college crew rushed through their work each night in order to create free time, often spent together in a safe office on one of the building’s four floors.

“Show me,” said Don, eager to see Kurt’s treasure.

“Oh man, you gotta get rid of these,” he said as he went through the pile. “Blanco would kill you if he knew.”

“Seriously, he’ll kill you, he’s crazy! He’s a fucking mobster Kurt.”

Kurt took the pictures home for safekeeping. For insurance. After all, he was dealing with the mob.

* * * *

“So, that’s why I knew I’d seen the beer can in his trash,” finished Kurt.

Moretti frowned as he considered the story. He looked carefully at Kurt, slowly tapped his fingertips together, sat upright and leaned forward.

“I like the way you think, kid. You still have the pictures?”

Kurt was somewhat ashamed to admit he had kept them. The stack of photos depicted Blanco and his secretary having some after-hours office fun, sans clothing. They appeared to be drunk, though the stupid looks on their faces could easily have been their natural demeanor. They frolicked, taking turns snapping instant pictures of each other in awkward positions on the office furniture. Neither had a good body, which made the resulting images that much more amusing, or embarrassing.

“Yes,” Kurt nodded.

“Bring them to me tomorrow,” said Moretti. “You can go now.”

Sensing Kurt’s concern, he added, “And don’t worry about Blanco. Get one of the other guys to clean his office for a couple days. I got your back.”

To Be Continued

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Morning Rounds – Part 2 – Psyched

The pleasant chat I had with our last patient on morning one of my phlebotomy rotation left me with my guard down. Maybe blood drawing wasn’t such a terrible job after all.

We took the elevator to the fifth floor. As the doors opened it was noticeably darker than other floors, and eerily quiet. Even my trainer spoke in hushed tones.

“We have to make sure we take OUT everything we bring IN. You know, tourniquets and stuff,” she said.

“Oh, and no bandaids. We can’t use bandaids.”

My puzzled look did the speaking for me.

“Sometimes they eat them.”

I didn’t know if she was serious, but nodded my head, and emotionally buckled up for a wild ride.

“Oh, and put your ID away once we clear security. If you need to use your name, it’s first name only,” she added.

We were granted admission to the psych ward through a set of locked doors at the end of the elevator banks, by a security guard who checked our IDs and nodded his approval. More silence. He never spoke.

The first requisition was for a woman in room 511, across from the nurse’s station. Some silent pleasantries were exchanged with the nurses on duty, almost as if to say, “I know where you are. I’ve got your back.” My stomach was in knots.

Jane Doe was sleeping. Seriously, this patient was a Jane Doe. She was young, in her twenties I would guess. Lying on her right side facing away from us, the room illuminated only by an upward facing fluorescent light at the head of her bed, she remained motionless when we repeatedly called her name. The scene was straight out of a Halloween movie. You know, the one where as soon as you get close a knife-wielding psychopath lunges from under the covers. My trainer resisted the urge to touch or shake the sleeping patient, and was about to get a nurse for assistance when the girl stirred, yawned and said, “Oh, good morning.”

The draw went extremely well, but the patient’s thin and fragile veins required a bit of extra time with a tourniquet applied to allow her blood pressure to swell them sufficiently to puncture. We wished her a nice day and then headed to the next patient.

“Oh shoot, we forgot the tourniquet!” said my partner. “Can you go get it?”

I reluctantly agreed, and sheepishly re-entered 511, spotting the flattened rubber band on Jane Doe’s dining tray.

“We forgot this,” I said in hushed tones, reaching out to grab the tourniquet. She just smiled and nodded, as if she knew I was afraid.

“That went well,” I said when I returned to the hall.

“Yeah, they’re usually ok. Ok, now 522.”

By now the sun was coming up on the east side of the building, streaming through open drapes on Patient 522, who sat up in bed, cheerfully chatting with two orderlies and a nurse. He was a scruffy little guy, hidden almost to his bearded chin under a white sheet, only his head uncovered. I wasn’t able to see the full leather restraints that shackled his arms and legs to the bedframe under the covers.

We introduced ourselves, told him why we’d come and made small talk about the weather. My partner approached the left side of the bed with her supplies and prepared the tubes and other materials for the draw, laying them out carefully on the movable bedside dining table. And then she raised the needle from its hidden position behind the carryall.

If you’ve never seen someone go berserk, it’s quite a stunning display.

522 exploded into screams and yelled, thrashing from head to toe and side to side. The sheet seemingly flew away, leaving him exposed in his hospital gown, straining against the restraints, spitting, eyes bulging and shouting that he was going to kill us. The muscles and ligaments in his forearms looked as if they might snap.

The presence of the orderlies now made sense. The nurse tried to talk him down, and my partner held up her hands to indicate there was no harm intended. The orderlies grabbed his shoulders and nodded for us to proceed.

I stood aside, stunned. My partner approached several times, but there was just no way to get a needle in his vein, even if you could ignore the string of profanities and the volume of his outrage. He was moving too much and would have been injured if a vein could even be located.

My partner backed off and shook her head at the nurse. She agreed.

“It’s okay,” my trainer said to 522, “We’re done with you.”

“WELL I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU!” he promised as we walked away.

“I…AM…NOT…DONE…WITH…YOU!!!” he screamed, over and over.

We met the nurse in the hall. She apologized, as if any of this was her fault.

“I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU…” his voice trailed off as the door to 522 was closed by an unseen hand.

The nurse looked back at the room and exhaled. “He has homicidal tendencies,” she confessed. “You tried, it’s ok.”

On day three of my rotation I called in sick.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Back to School

I am reading Moby Dick. I have seen the movie, so I know how the story ends. Melville’s use of language and detail makes this a daunting challenge, and I usually fall asleep after several pages. But like Ahab, I am determined to finish something I started, no matter how painful or at what cost, and I’m determined to chase that white whale all the way to the bitter end.

I’ve been tempted to give up on other books. War and Peace is taking a break. Ulysses is on an extended vacation. But there have been some books that never made it past a cursory examination of the front and back covers.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one such book. It was the assigned reading in an entry level English Literature course I took during my second freshman year in college (I was on the six year plan.) From what I now understand, this was a fantastic first effort by Carson McCullers, who at age 23 penned her finest work, an “enduring masterpiece” that I never read.

I have no idea what this book is about, even having written an analysis of it during the fall of 1974. For when assigned to read the book and write a paper about it, I dutifully bought a copy and read only the back cover.

It was the night before the paper was due. I vaguely remember this being during my “No Doze” period in college. A chronic procrastinator, I would frequently find myself squeezed between the jaws of today and tomorrow, with time relentlessly ticking off the turns of a vice handle that resulted in lost sleep and high anxiety.

With nothing more to go on than several sentences written by reviewers of McCullers' story and knowledge of the very ambiguous title, I sat down to answer the prompted question: why is the heart a lonely hunter?

In several hours of caffeine-fueled desperation at age 20 (three years younger than McCullers mind you), I wrote and then typed a three-page paper, clearly staining the pages with brilliant bullshit. Or so I thought.

I turned in the paper the next day, disappointed with myself at having fallen so short of another straightforward and relatively easy assignment in my ongoing attempt to identify a major by way of 100-level introductory samplings – scholastically taste testing my way to a meal I could call a career.

And so I waited for my grade.

Three days later I sat in the back row of a small first floor classroom, near the door, slumped in my seat and bracing for impact.

The professor slowly handed back the papers, calling out names and softly commenting so as not to draw undue attention to the authors. When the stack of papers was nearly depleted, I sat empty-handed, and watched in horror as he placed the last paper on his desk. He glanced at me briefly, wordless and without emotion. I had been discovered.

I don’t remember the comments he made to the class in general.  I considered bolting out the door to avoid the coming humiliation. But it was too late in the semester to drop the class, and I needed the credit to remain a full time student.
Eventually, he glanced at his watch, made some concluding remarks and then looked my way and asked me to remain after class.

The other students looked at me in wonder. What does someone have to do in an English class to draw this level of attention? Gross plagiarism?

I found myself at the front of the room, standing face to face with the bespectacled little man. I forget his name. He had a little mustache and wore a sport coat. He had dark hair, parted on the left side of his head like a nine year old.

“I just wanted to talk to you privately about your paper.”

“Yeah, I was just…”

He wouldn’t let me speak.

“I have to say, I’ve read a lot of papers through the years” he continued, as if he had practiced this dressing down, holding the beloved book in one hand and my paper in the other for dramatic effect.

I swore to myself, I would never put off an assignment again. I would always read the assigned material. I would read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

“And I can say without qualification…” he went on

It was too late to run. I hung my head and looked at my shoes.

“This paper you wrote…”

I swallowed as he prepared to deliver an eviscerating blow.

“Is the finest one of my students has ever written.”

He smiled as I choked on my emotional release, half laughter and pure amazement.

“Great job” he concluded, handing me my paper.

You would think that walking on hot coals, and bargaining and atoning in the face of scholarly annihilation would be humbling to the extreme. Perhaps being twenty, with an incompletely developed judgment area in the brain insulates young males from such awareness. It’s what makes them good soldiers. Arrogant enough to think they’re immortal.

Without skipping a beat, I responded “Thanks, I’ll have to read it sometime.”

His face fell. I immediately felt horrible.

“I’m kidding,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

I haven’t forgotten the promise I made myself that day. The next book I read will be The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I just wish I had the paper I wrote so I can better understand it.