Thursday, January 04, 2007


This is me at the hospital where I worked as a surgical orderly.

Here are some story fragments written in the style of various authors. The exercises were composed when I was in The Writers Studio, a workshop for poets & fiction writers. These & other fragments appear in the current issue of Skidrow Penthouse magazine.

after Isaac Babel

1. The Head Nurse of the East Wing, Fourth Floor, stood up when she saw me, and I marveled at the extravagance of her Amazonian body. She rose, her ivory uniform and virginal hose clinging to her figure like lichen. A smell of rubbing alcohol and disinfectant singed the air around her. Her long legs were like twin towers of raw chalk.

She grinned at me, clutched a red pen, and filled out a chart just handed her by an assistant nurse. A patient had died in the night and there were lines requiring the proper initials.

"Massive hemorrhage," the Head Nurse muttered as she signed with a flourish. She tossed the chart onto a pile and turned to me with blue eyes that beamed with love for her work.

"I'm from surgery," I said, waving a slip of paper. "I've come for the girl in 418."

"So you have," said the Head Nurse. "You're new here?"

"Yes," I said, admiring the luster of her authority. "But I'm just working for the summer."

"Oh, a college boy!" she guffawed. "Earning money for books, are you? Not many books read around here, let me tell you. Too much dying going on. So: think you'll cut it?"

"I'll do okay," I said, and went off down the blazing hall behind the assistant nurse to find room 418.

I pushed ahead of me a green-sheeted gurney, its metal guardrails reflecting the cold liquid fluorescence of the ceiling lights. Through opened doors spilled pools of harsh sunlight in which swam black ghosts bent toward I.V. poles and oxygen tanks.

At the half-closed door to 418 the assistant nurse stopped and turned. She wore a bright uniform the color of piss and her hair was yanked off her face into a ponytail. With a crooked smile she said: "A shame you have to see this, first week on the job. Whoever sent you must be laughing their head off. Take my advice: breathe through your mouth and look only at her eyes."

She opened the door and motioned for me to push the gurney forward. The room was dark with thick curtains drawn against the sun. In the bed lay a girl covered by an oatmeal-brown blanket. She lay on her side, her face turned away.

"He's here!" the assistant nurse sang cheerfully. The girl let out a low groan and rustled under the bedclothes. Her hair was black and greasy, like fresh oil paint scratched across her skull.

"Time to go, honey," the assistant nurse said. She tugged decisively at the covers.. The girl's threadbare hospital gown was tied in bows in back, its tattered hem barely reaching the girl's heavy thighs. Her bare legs were covered with dozens of small tumors, the size and shape of bloodshot fish eyes, each one shiny and moist.

The assistant nurse turned to me and said, "C'mon. She won't bite you." As I came closer the stench of putrescence scraped at the insides of my nose. Breathing through my mouth, I positioned the gurney alongside the bed and set the wheel brakes.

"Okay, honey," the assistant nurse said. "We need you to scoot on over to the cart here." The girl rolled like a walrus onto her back. Her face, like the rest of her, was riddled with the pus-tipped tumors. Her eyes, dark and filmed with a membrane of tears, pierced me for a brief second, then shot away.

The girl stretched a tumor-spotted arm out onto the gurney, and the assistant nurse grabbed at her wrist. "You help with the legs," the assistant nurse ordered, grinning at me sardonically. The girl's torso was now on the cart but her legs and wide rear end remained on the bed. She was heavily medicated and unable to help herself. Each of the tumors seemed alive, as if an insect, or a worm, were writhing just below the thin, translucent surface.

"Go on!" the nurse exclaimed at me. "We haven't got all morning."

With obvious trepidation I reached out to take the poor girl's ankles. Her eyes, half-hidden beneath drug-heavy lids, took in my fear and immediately turned away. Her leg, when I finally touched it, felt cold and clammy. The tumors were hard, like birdshot had lodged just beneath the skin. Unsure of what to do, I looked to the nurse.

She leaned in toward the patient and said, "Now, honey, you're going to have to move your bee-hind over onto the cart, okay?" She then nodded to me, and, as the girl rolled off the bed, I pulled her legs onto the gurney.

2. The day before, a herd of orderlies had beaten a rambunctious loony on the 3rd floor to pulp. When I heard about this I went up to see how the fellow looked after his encounter with the boys in green. I found him in a small room, bound up in a narrow bed. Brown leather straps held his protruding wrists and ankles to the mattress. He was tall with an elongated face as pale as a scoured skull. An appointment with Mertz, the jovial electroshock therapist, had wrung the man of all his bloodcolor and had dried his pores to the bone. His bare legs, thin, porcelain-white except where bruised a spoiled-cheese blue, gave off a dusty smell like old books. It seemed to me that of the previous day's rebelliousness there remained only the eyes, still focused and hard, and the fists, balled and pumping like a heart.

Also in the room was Phelonius, a helper for the 3rd floor nursing staff. He was known throughout the hospital as an oaf and he demonstrated this often by placing a mop on his head like a wig and dancing awkwardly with the wooden handle. Also, many times I'd found him staring into his wash pail. Extending his red tongue, exposing teeth jammed haphazardly into his gums, he would be singing Top 40 songs to himself, occasionally collapsing into fits of mirth that brought tears to his eyes. Today I found him busy mopping the tiled walls of yesterday's bloodletting.

"How many it took to hold you to the floor, Louie?" he asked the loony while bending to inspect a crusty tile.

The man was silent.

"It took five," Phelonius said, "though there're nutcases can hold off ten or more. Some addlehead from Massillon State had a dozen greenies hangin' off him like flies and still he kept standin'. But I guess he was more pumped-up than you."

From beneath the man emerged a fluttery eruption.

Phelonius removed the mop from the pail, balanced it precariously against the wall, then gazed intently into the pink-clouded water. His reflection mesmerized him. Gyrating his lips he whisper-sang the chorus to "Jive Talkin."

"I'm through with this here gig," he announced all of a sudden to the man. "Don't tell Nurse Keloid, but Donald Pinkus over at Massillon State is gonna take me into his unit. That's right, old man, I'm gonna be a real orderly. No more of this here moppin' and scrapin' shit outta toilets. And I'll be with the real posse, too, which is more than I can say about the losers around here. Yesterday, when those greenies grabbed you and I was holdin' you by the hair, I said to Shovelhead, I said, 'Looky here, Shovelhead, your boys is pummeling this old man and all you let me do is yank his hair. Just cuz I ain't no greenie they won't let me in on the festivities.' And you heard what he said, didn't you, Louie? 'Phelonius,' he said, 'you don't need to take no shit from nobody. When these fellas are through you can take a few shots as well.' So he did say I could get a few in. But then they hauled you out into the hallway and Shovelhead says, 'Go ahead, Phelonius, big man, give it to him.' 'Uh-uh,' I told him. 'Not with Nurse Keloid right down the hall. She'll have my ass.'"

Phelonius grunted and moved off to the far wall. He leaned against the wet tiles and stared into the air; squat, depressed, with the splintery mop handle in his tentacle-like grip.

"Those nurses always talkin' abut how cool Shovelhead and his boys be," he said sulkily. "But you hang out with them a while and you'll see they're cold as a nun's cunt."

The loony raised his corpse's face from the mattress, stared for a moment at Phelonius, then lowered his head with the grace of a debutante setting down a priceless figurine of glass. Phelonius lazily glanced about the walls and floor, then, disentangling the mop from its handle, he set the dripping cloth strips on his head. With his wide ass quivering, he danced around the room to a silent beat.

Denis Johnson

Things were slow that afternoon at the hospital so I went looking for Shovelhead and found him in the little anteroom where they parked the dead surgery patients.

"What happened?" I asked him.

"His ticker," Shovelhead answered. "It got beat up by the anesthesia."

Shovelhead was standing on a gurney, looking down through the lens of a Polaroid camera at a dead old man. The dead man was naked except for a catheter that hung from the hole of his penis.

"You got any dope?" I asked, and there was a flash. Shovelhead climbed down and we watched the photograph develop.

Shovelhead had a lockerful of photographs. My favorite was of a little boy who'd come into Emergency with a champagne flute up his anus. In that picture you could distinctly make out the protruding round foot of the glass between the kid's shiny pink buttocks.

"This old dude," Shovelhead said, waving his new photo. "He's photogenic."


I was in O.R. 10 holding some guy's leg while Dr. Hoyle sawed it off just above the knee. The patient was a skinny little guy but his leg weighed a ton. He had diabetes or something. I couldn't keep my eyes off his toenails, which were long and yellow and curled over the round tips of his toes. Plus, I was having a difficult time gripping--it was like holding a log while someone cuts through it.

"What're we listening to?" the anesthesiologist asked of no one in particular. His surgical mask hung loosely from his face and he kept stuffing crackers under it and chewing loudly. I wanted one of those crackers badly but my hands were full.

"Miles Davis," Dr. Hoyle replied as a nurse swabbed his brow. "By the way, turn it up," he ordered. "I can't hear it over the saw."

As the leg became looser it just seemed to get heavier and colder.

"Just a few more seconds, Stubby," Dr. Hoyle said to the sleeping patient. "Almost there."

I was wondering if, after the leg was severed, the toenails would continue growing when I felt a jerk and the leg was suddenly free. I nearly dropped it before a nurse appeared with a big silver tray and said, "Here," and I set the leg down like it was a sleeping cat.

Just as we were finishing up there was an Orderly Alert announced on the loudspeakers. We tore through the metal stairwell door and headed for the elevator.

We met up with the other orderlies on the third floor, where they kept the mental patients. Nurse Keloid filled us in on the situation.

"Mr. Pomeroy got the wrong medication," she explained. "He's in the game room now and if you go in there he throws billiard balls at you."

"I'm familiar with Mr. Hemorrhoid," Shovelhead said. "Let me handle this."

"Let me remind you gentlemen," Nurse Keloid said. "There's to be no physical abuse here."

Shovelhead looked insulted. "Nurse Keloid," he protested, "You're talking to professionals here."

The game room was located half-way down a long hall of mostly private rooms. Mr. Pomeroy could be heard shouting and hurling billiard balls against the walls. Occasionally a ball sailed out the door.

The four of us inched our way down the hall, with Shovelhead in the lead. I was in charge of the straightjacket. It felt in my hands like the lynx coat of a beautiful movie star whose bare white shoulders required covering.

"Mr. P.!" Shovelhead called out. The racket stopped immediately. "Mr. P., we're coming in. Put your balls down and your hands up!"

The other loonies stood just inside their doorways, terrified of their friend, their eyes as big as onions.

Shovelhead picked up one of the balls that had landed in the hall.

"We're armed, Mr. P.!" he said, and just then a cue ball whizzed out of the game room door, ricocheted off the wall, and hit Shovelhead on the hip.

"We're coming to get you, Mr. P.!" he shouted.

Thom Jones

Dennis Marvel was still in the rest room when he should have been on line for roll call with the rest of us. We stood shivering in the frigid hospital air at 7 a.m. on a Monday calling out "Yup" or "Here" as our names were read by our supervisor, Nurse Hempel. When Nurse Hempel got to "Marvel" on her list of orderlies, however, there was no response, just a few snickers and a muffled, world-weary "Uh-oh" from one of the surgical assistants. Marvel! Nurse Hempel shouted, in a voice laced with venom, down the long corridor of operating rooms. Let's get it together! We've got patients to cut open!

Marvel showed up a moment later, just as the rest of us were headed upstairs to pick up the first patients, and he met Nurse Hempel's curt remonstrance with his own special brand of outrage. "Okay!" he squawked, his well-tanned face turning crimson. "Next time I'll take a shit right here in front of your desk! How's that?"

Marvel was not to be with us long there in the surgery department of St. Luke's Hospital. He was a product of the upper middle class, a straight B+ college student, a temporary. He was there to earn a little extra spending money for the summer, to kill time, and he had that temporary attitude that led to episodes like this one. As full-timers, the rest of us had gone through extensive training, working for weeks at a time in the various departments at St. Luke's, while Marvel spent a few days watching videos about bedpan procedure and blew air into CPR dummies. He'd never had his arm up some senior citizen's colon trying to loosen up prehistoric bowels, nor was he required to prep a patient for surgery. He just picked them up, brought them down, and did a little clean-up. And all the while he took great pains to elaborate on his long-term plans, which happened to include law school, New York City, penthouse apartments on Central Park West, and tickets to the Metropolitan Opera.

The other orderlies played softball, looked forward to getting drunk on Friday nights, and complained about their sex lives. Marvel played golf, drank champagne, and gave detailed lectures about the erogenous zones of beautiful models. Being from the disreputable side of town, such things were exotic to me. Marvel was pompous and sarcastic and I didn't much care for him but I could still appreciate his ambition. I was absolutely convinced that he would achieve his goal to become a successful New York lawyer. But I admit it bothered me that he was not expected, while he was working at St. Luke's, to hold a patient's doomed leg during an amputation.


Blogger Sheela Wolford said...

Chris, Your writing is as clever and perfect as Frankie. Keep on! Anna, I, hopefully her husband and some others are trying to group up to see you on Sunday. NO MATTER WHAT, it will be Anna and me, your groupies.

7:18 AM


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