Tony pressed his eye shut and braced for it – SPLAT!
It never failed: the almost ritual christening of his new work boots with the vile dousing of human projectile vomit.
He knew it was coming. Just why today?
“James Robinson, 38, experiencing shortness of breath and radiating pain in the upper left quadrant,” Tony recited, pushing from the back end of the gurney while Lucas, his fellow EMT, steered from the front. They made their way briskly past the Nurses’ station and the crowded waiting room, then up the latest hall of Saint Agnes to have gotten a fresh coat of paint.
The extreme makeover was true. Someone was finally doing something.
Tony suddenly caught his own thoughts straying. He continued, handing the metal chart to Dr. Shannon O’Donnell who followed closely behind. “He was found unconscious by his son Kalen half an hour ago and has been uncooperative with lapses of consciousness. Vitals are all over the place. Mild tachycardio at one-ten over–”
“He gonna be OK?” the tween boy asked from the front of the gurney. Tony noticed how the boy struggled to walked forward and backward, both holding on to his father’s feet while trying to hear what was being said. The boy’s book bag wagged wildly from his elbows.
Tony gave the boy his complete attention as he said, “We’re gonna do everything we can. Dr. O’Donnell is the best doctor in this joint.”
“Is it a heart attack?” the boy pleaded.
“We don’t know yet, Buddy.”
“Where’s your mom, Kalen?” Shannon asked walking and reading at the same time.
“She’s gone,” Tony answered quietly. He gave Kalen a kind, somber look. “It’s just the two of them now.”
“That’s gotta be a record,” Lucas mused, shaking his head.
Tony thought he saw Shannon and Lucas exchange a glance. “What?”
“Full blown broke wing syndrome in…” Lucas glanced at his watch. “ Eighteen minutes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothin’. We got this. Get outta here.”
“Curtain six,” Shannon said.
“No,” Tony yanked the gurney to a halt. James Robinson’s eyes bounced open with the jolt. “Say what you mean.”
“I didn’t mean anything,” Lucas insisted, with what Tony was certain was a smug smirk hidden beneath a jungle of reddish-brown facial hair.
Tony almost said as much when James Robinson suddenly leaned over the side of the gurney and SPLAT! The chunky brown vomit managed to impact dead center on the laces of both shoes.
Tony stared in disbelief while Lucas chuckled, pleased with himself.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be in twenty-five minutes?” Shannon reminded, as Lucas nudged him out of the way from the back of the gurney.
Tony could have sworn he saw her suppressing a grin as she stepped away. Tony decided to ignore it. “We’re gonna take good care of your Dad, Kalen. I promise.”
“Tony, go!” Shannon ordered as the remaining three plus gurney disappeared behind curtain six.
Tony didn’t have time to question the wisdom of leaving his newly showered down work boots on the open window ledge to drip dry. He knew most of the staff at Saint Agnes; if someone visiting the doctor’s lounge decided to take off with them, they were sure to be exposed without much effort. He was preoccupied trying to get comfortable in the suit he wore. His EMT uniform felt like a second skin, for all the many hours he spent in them every week. He was a dress down kinda guy, but today it was important to put his intellect and finer edges on display. Be impressive, he heard Shannon urging him in his head; so he would be.
The wrinkle-proof suit Mike had bought him two Christmases ago looked good on him, despite its brutally cramped journey in Tony’s duffle bag all morning. Nevertheless, Tony spent five minutes brushing at the non-existent wrinkles in the suit he wore, only stopping once he caught sight of his hair. He stared at dark brown locks that nearly touched his shoulders and huffed, defeated. “Haircut.”
He glanced at his watch: sixteen minutes.
He shook his limbs and blew hard through puckered lips. “Try to relax.”
Mike was right. It was a good tie. A kind of tiger striped, maybe zebra, possibly even palm tree branch print. Whatever the case may be, Tony felt so corporate wearing it. This was definitely a tie that people could take him seriously in.
Tony had reluctantly trusted Mike to put the ensemble together. The color palette of sky blue shirt and mocha colored suit just seemed wrong somehow. But Mike knew the world of formal wear. The tie really did pull all those colors together.
Tony bound down the backstairs, stopping cold at the landing; his eagerness was getting the best of him. At the end of a cleansing exhale, Tony saw him. The small Filipino boy chewed his bottom lip and twisted his feet in his worn navy blue Keds nervously. The child stood at the mouth of the ambulance bay, looking from left to right and back again. As Tony moved closer, he could see tears welling in the child’s eyes.
“Hey Buddy. Where’s your mom?”
The child instantly stopped chewing his lip. He stared up at Tony startled, his panic growing.
“Did you lose your mom, Kiddo?” Tony asked again gently.
The child resumed chewing his lip, searching in every direction, his foot now tapping-stomping against the shiny new tiles.
Tony smiled calmly and extended his freshly washed hand, which the child instinctively grabbed. “Come on, let’s go find your folks. Know what? I bet you’re not the one that’s lost. I find lost moms and dads all the time. Enough to start a collection.”
Tony was pretty sure the child couldn’t tell he was joking. The boy was wringing his free hand in the waistband of his blue shorts, scanning every inch of the hall, high and low as they slowly made their way to the Nurses station.
The noise and traffic in the hall amplified as they approached the clinic’s central artery.
“Not now Tony,” Esmerelda snapped, as she grabbed a white bundle from behind the counter and hurried back down the hall.
Esmerelda was the kindest, sweetest senorita Tony had ever met. For her to be short with him meant they must be slammed. In only ten minutes, the ER area had been flooded; it had happened that quickly. The waiting room was wall to wall with patients; no one manned the Nurses station, leaving the four phone lines chiming. Tony knew this was the nature of emerging trauma in a fledging hospital that rarely turned anyone away. He would have to find the child’s parents without help from the working shift.
The waiting room overflowed with people, coughing and milling around, waiting nervously.
“Do you see your folks?” Tony asked quietly.
The child’s grip on his hand tightened.
“What’s your name Buddy? Can you tell me your name?”
The boy did not response. Tony watched the child carefully as the boy chewed his lips, his eye searching the faces in the waiting room. Tony watched the boy’s breathing quicken, saw fear taking hold.
Tony leaned forward and lifted the child into his arms; and the boy’s limbs automatically wrapped around his body. Having a new bird’s eye view immediately calmed the child. Tony carried him up and down the hall and circled the waiting room.
With his arms still wrapped around Tony’s neck, the child shook his head no.
“What’s your name, Buddy?” he asked gently.
“Nestor! That’s a great name,” Tony smiled, encouraged by the breakthrough. “Do you know your last name Nestor?”
“Nestor Pina, let’s go to the desk and see if we can find where your mom went. OK?”
For the first time, Nestor looked directly at Tony, and nodded. Trust at last.
The crowd spilling out from the waiting room had grown. Tony held Nestor a little closer as he weaved his way back to the Nurses’ station where a tall, painfully non-descript brunette now stood behind the counter. Despite her floral scrubs, Tony fought to shake a powerful flashback to his fiercely strict three grade English teacher.
The nurse hung up the phone just as Tony reached the counter, greeting him with an unexpectedly warm smile. “You’re Tony!”
“That’s right,” he answered curiously.
“I’m Patty. I’m new,” the woman added cheerfully.
“Welcome aboard,” Tony smiled back. “Patty, this is–
“Mom?” Tony asked.
Mrs. Pina nodded. “They called us and we’ve been waiting so long, I totally forgot. Baby, I’m sorry. His sister has the flu.”
Tony loosened his grip on the boy, but Nestor’s grip tightened. The child stared down at Tony’s shirt with great concentration.
“Is something wrong, Nestor?”
“Let’s go Sweetie,” Mother Pina sang, reaching for Nestor. Suddenly, the boy heaved hard, sending reddish puke down the front of Tony’s shirt.
Patty and Mom darted back out of reflex.
Little Nestor gave a little burp, then rested his head on Tony’s shoulder, “I don’t feel good.”
“Mister, I’m sorry.”
Tony let out a sigh of surrender and forced a smile. “It’s OK.”
T-plus eight minutes.
Tony stood over the sink in the doctor’s lounge rubbing at his vomit doused shirt and tie. Futile as it was, Tony worked to clean the stain that had soaked in center mass. He went through countless paper towels that disintegrated after only a few strokes of scrubbing.
He hadn’t heard the urinal toilet flush behind him. He thought he was alone in the men’s room until a tall, regal gentleman stepped up to the sink beside him. He could feel the man watching him as he continued to scrub at his tie. Scrubbing at a lost cause; he just didn’t want to give up while anyone was watching.
“The legal aid office is across the street,” the man offered, washing his hands.
“With a tie like that, you must be in the wrong place.”
Tony smiled again, Mike was really right about this tie. “Right place, bad timing. I have a job interview in… five minutes ago.”
Tony looked up from scrubbing. “Doctor Sturdevant?”
“One and only.”
Tony’s breath caught in his throat. “There was a five year old… He had the flu.”
“And he shared it to you,” Dr. Sturdevant finished for him. “Too bad about that tie.”
Tony picked up on the man’s good nature right away. Maybe this day was not a total wash. He decided to try. “Sir, if I told you I could be cleaned up and back in twenty minutes-“
“Don’t worry about it. Come on.”
“Or we could reschedule-“
“Anthony it’s fine,” Dr. Sturdevant interrupted calmly. “I try to be flexible. And since you got barfed on in the line of duty, today I’ll even bend over backwards.”
“If you’re sure?”
“Anthony, you’re fine.”
“Call me Tony.”
Dr. Sturdevant gave Tony a firm pat on the shoulder. “Tony. Let’s find you a shirt.”
Thirty minutes into the interview, Tony felt as if he could finally relax. He had finally forgotten that the V-neck scrubs that cut tightly across his chest were printed with beret wearing monkeys.
The talk in Dr. Randy Sturdevant’s modest office had morphed from a very formal interview into a casual get-to-know-you session. Their talk became less about his resume and qualifications, and much more about him personally. The two shared the common challenge of mastering the complicated balance of people skills and medical talent that translated into a career as a physician; particularly peculiar since each men had as of yet only mastered one of the other.
It was the first time in – not since the days when he and Shannon used to hang out – that Tony confided his disappointment at not getting into a residency program, despite his best efforts. He found himself talking to Dr. Sturdevant as a confidante, without shame or embarrassment. And yet, every time Tony felt he was sharing too much, getting too personal, his interviewer would share a similar antidote; about dorm hall antics, impossibly tyrannical instructors and humiliating second and third jobs he held down just to make rent or tuition or both.
Tony silently wondered who had started down the road they now travelled? Tony had not even thought about it until Dr. Sturdevant mentioned for the third time what a famously “good guy” people thought he was.
“Everybody knows Tony. Everybody loves Tony.” Was the phrase that awakened Tony from his comfortable bubble of safety. Something in the way Dr. Sturdevant said it that third time. Something.
“I guess it’s not bad being popular.” Tony added modestly.
Dr. Sturdevant relaxed back in his chair. “It’s the smile, isn’t it?”
“That’s the allure. Your smile.”
Tony took a moment to study the smirk on the doctor’s lips.
“It is very disarming,” the doctor added.
And he suddenly knew what this was. Tony responded with a polite, silent smile.
He had been so optimistic about this job, Shannon assured him that it would be an easy interview; Randy Sturdevant was a great guy. Tough but cool. So why was this cool guy hitting on him during an interview.
“It’ll help. You’re going to have to use all the tools in your box to get some of these people to trust you. That’s key: getting your clients to trust you, to open up to you.”
Tony sat intently listening to the man as a gathering weight filled the pit of his stomach. He really wanted this job but…
“Putting aside the fact that you’re a white guy, around here social workers are more reviled than cops. Social workers can screw with a family’s public assistance, take kids from their parents; it can be a tough job.”
“But not without a few rewards. Right?” Tony added hopefully.
“If all we want to do is help…”
“I could give you a laundry list of good intentions that have backfired on this community.”
“That doesn’t mean you stop trying. There’s always a way to the best possible outcome.”
Tony heard the concern in Dr. Sturdevant’s voice; the cool, caring physician was back.
The weight in Tony’s gut began to lift; maybe he had misread that last exchange.
“Whoever gets assigned to Saint Agnes, I want them to be sensitive to this community’s needs. Know that I encourage professional discretion. So long as discretion is used in conjunction with compassion, I will support your assessment if necessary.”
“One set of rules can’t fit every situation,” Tony agreed confidently. “I think it’s a smart philosophy.”
Tony stopped, surprised. Did he just snap at me?
“Gee thanks,” Dr. Sturdevant snared, rolling his eyes.
Tony stared back at the doctor, now unable to hide his confusion. What the hell is happening?
“So, how long have you been out?”
The question was neither cold, nor inviting, but now Tony was on guard. Something was happening here; he just wished he knew what?
“I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to ask me that,” he replied quietly.
“Oh come on. Everybody’s gay these days. What’s the big deal? How’d you come out to your parents?”
Tony considered the question, and the risk Sturdevant was taking asking it. He decided to play along, Remembering, he said, “Sammy. My date for senior prom. They were expecting Samantha but just good old Sammy Gunderson showed up. Varsity point guard. Couldn’t dance a lick.”
“How’d they take it?”
“My mom freaked,” Tony shrugged. “So I softened the blow by telling her I decided to become a doctor.”
“So I suppose she’s really disappointed in you now.”
Tony flinched at the sting.
“I’m still planning to go back to school–“
“Provided you get in.”
Prick! Tony sat back in his chair, away from the desk before him. He fixed his jaw as they stared at each other. The next moment, he decided he had had enough of this crap. If this guy was going to be picking a fight… Fine. Let’s do this.
“Dr. Sturdevant, did I offend you?”
“I’m just trying to figure out who the hell I’m talking to.”
Determined not to walk into any more insults, Tony just waited for him to continue.
“You see, on the one hand I’ve got a gifted doctor downstairs who thinks you are the best thing since KY. And on the other, I’ve got a sponsee whose life I’m trying to piece back together after you smashed it to dust.”
“What the hell are you…”
Tony final understood: he sat before Nelson’s little known guardian gayngel. And this guy was pissed.
Tony steeled himself. “That’s none of your business.”
“Wrong. When the police commissioner asks me to reach out to a decorated officer facing brutality charges, I make it my business.”
Tony’s head began to spin. “Brutality charge? What are you…That can’t… What happened?”
“Well, it’s nice to see I’ve got your attention.”
It had finally arrived. The moral reprisal for ruining Nelson’s life.
“You know, fags like you ruin it for the rest of us.”
“Everyone has to be as out and as proud as you are.”
“No, that’s not–“
“Some people have more at stake,” Sturdevant charged. “Like families and careers.”
“I know that.”
“Each person in his own time, in his own way.”
“I know I–“
“You automatically think it’s going to be as easy for everyone else just because it was easy for you.”
“I never said it was easy!”
Blindsided. Just like Nelson.
“Good thing Sammy was there for you to dump all the blame.”
“It wasn’t like that I–“
“You’re telling me you really thought it would be easy for a church-going Black man to come out?”
Trapped in this agonizing situation.
“Knowing the egregious shortsightedness within the African American community when it comes to acknowledging the parallels in our civil rights struggles?”
Helpless to change his mind-
“I never thought–“
“Did you think at all?”
Turn back the clock-
“The man had children!”
Do something differently…
The black hole in Tony’s guts, expanding at break-neck speed…
“You’re a home wrecker is what you are!”
“DON’T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT!”
Just like Nelson.
“I know what I’ve done! And I did it to someone I love. I’m not just a home wrecker, that’s too kind. I’m… I don’t deserve anything good ever again.”
Tony felt his heart racing, felt his lungs struggling to fill, felt the heat over every inch of his body, the stink in his eyes.
“Sit down,” the doctor said firmly.
Tony dropped down into his chair, vaguely wondering at what point he had gotten to his feet.
The men sat for a long moment while Tony slowly collected himself.
“What were you were thinking?”
“Does it matter?” Tony answered hopelessly.
“Judgment is important in this job.”
This is still an interview?
Surrendering, Tony fixed his eyes on his hands at his lap. Two months had passed and he had yet to make a confession to anyone. He never imagined the opportunity would present itself this way. Nor would he let it pass.
“I honestly thought Debbie would understand,” Tony began quietly. “She’s such a loving person. She only ever wanted what’s best for all of her family, to keep them safe and happy. I never thought… I knew she would support Nelson in doing what made him happy.”
“And make you happy in the process.”
“No! It was always about Nelson.”
“And about how you knew what was best for him, even better than he did.” Sturdevant corrected.
I did think I knew better. Tony could not respond.
“Did you ever stop to think that knowing meant the beautiful life and family she thought she had was all a lie?”
“I never thought for a second that she would react this way,” Tony pleaded.
“And you were wrong.”
“Yes, I was wrong,” Tony declared solemnly.
“How often do you do this? Married man your thing?”
“No! I wasn’t looking for anything! Sport or otherwise. We just… connected.”
“It’s criminal how most of us fall for a married man the first time.”
Something changed… again.
Tony thought he heard it, that fêted compassion Dr. Sturdevant kept insisting upon. That tiny note in the doctor’s voice that sounded like sympathy. Tony savored the hint in the man’s tone, even though he still didn’t believe he deserved it.
“How is he?” Tony dared timidly.
“It’s too soon to tell.”
Tony wanted desperately to question further, but forced himself to resist. Standing he said, “Well… Thank you… for the… opoortu-”
“Not interested in the job anymore?” Sturdevant asked, tossing Tony’s resume aside on his desk.
Confused, Tony hesitantly sat down again. “I thought… Yes.”
“One last thing. Did you sleep with Shannon O’Donnell?”
Tony stared in amazement. How could he…
Tony’s first impulse was to lie. But his hesitation had already given him away. And the fact that Sturdevant was even asking made it highly probable that this guy already knew the answer. Tony sighed, defeated. “Yes.”
Sturdevant pointedly furrowed his brow. “Explain.”
“It was college and we were drunk and we fooled around. Once… twice. In case you haven’t noticed she’s really hot.”
“So you’re bi.”
“It was an isolated incident,” Tony explained hastily.
Tony sighed. “Shannon is my friend. She did everything she could to help me get into Med school. She tutored me, gave me her notes. But I just couldn’t cut it. When I flunked my MCATs for the second time… It was a comfort.”
Sturdevant stared back impassively.
“We’re just friend. Really good friends.”
Tony waited. Sturdevant sighed.
“Saint Agnes is a mess. I’ve been brought on to try and right this sinking ship. I’ve been here nine months and I’ve only got fifteen more to show that she’s viable. The child mortality rate in Wilmington District is tragic. This community needs this facility. It needs a lot of things, but losing Saint Agnes would be devastating.
Dr. Sturdevant reached into his drawer, producing a thick brochure packet.
“I need staff that’s singularly focused on that goal as well. So you can see how hiring you seems like inviting drama that I simply don’t have time for right now.”
“You’re right. It would seem like that,” Tony agreed. He could hear the doctor’s tone relenting ever so slightly.
“You don’t have the proper degree to be a department head. But you will be pretty autonomous. You’ll be one of two staff members representing social services on site. You assess and expedite cases the doctors bring to your attention. I also want the community bulletin board updated religiously. People need to know there’s help out there and where to find it.”
Dr. Sturdevant stands, as does Tony, handing him the bulk of papers.
“This isn’t a sexy gig, it’s a lot less exciting than EMT work. There are no sirens, no speeding through the streets. But the pay’s decent and it will keep you closer to the environment you want to be in, which could possibly give you a leg up on your MCATs next time around. That’s what you’re looking for, right?”
“Yes, sir,”, Tony shakes Sturdevant’s extended hand cautiously. “Thank you.”
“Tell me I won’t regret this.”
“You won’t,” Tony answered with confidence. “You have my word. I’ll take care of everything.”