After his hacking cough sent him to the ER, his brain fooling him back into thinking he was dying, he sat in his gown on the papered table, letting the pregnant nurse come to take his vitals: the cuff around his arm, letting the machine pump, the clip over his finger for his heart rate, in a race, and the thing in his ear that beeped and told her what his heat was, which to him was a flame erupting from his center, rising up and out any pore and crevice. The nurse didn’t really say much. But when she took back her devices, writing on her clipboard, he turned around to the machine to see the numbers.
“That’s mine?” he said.
She smiled in her happy-faced scrubs, said nothing, and she nodded.
“It’s usually not that high,” he said.
She said sometimes coming here makes people nervous.
When she left, he sat alone, coughing up air that he imagined was infected. Like a stone in his chest that for days now had been stuck there. He coughed more, thinking what the nurse said. He wasn’t nervous. He used to work in places like this, and it always was the same, whether in New York or Wisconsin, New Jersey or Ohio, even the army hospitals in Germany he’d worked at, drawing blood from infants, with the bio-hazard pails and latex, the gauze and pads of alcohol and Band-Aids. He was in a state he wasn’t used to, an out-of-towner, and the only way his insurance would pay was if he resorted to the ER. He’d told the lady at check-in it wasn’t even urgent, talking in his voice that lately he didn’t even recognize from hoarseness, liking hearing the altered state, how he could make it sound so shallow, a voice that made him feel like he wasn’t the man he maybe had been, one who married once then twice, each time leaving wife and children.
He heard a baby crying in the next room, or rather, the next curtain over. It was a quiet day, he thought, for the ER, but it was a small town, early in the morning, and he knew from all the hospitals he worked at, that the small ones will usually mean you might be gifted with a smaller wait time.
In the corner of the room, he thought he saw a peep of his from a former workplace, a man who used to work in triage, how the man ran out into a load of shrapnel, like all those other men, the blood on their hands and arms and faces.
He thought about war. It was in the news, up there on the screen, out their in the waiting room, up there on the TV.
The war. The war. He’d never been in war, or had he?
He got up and readjusted, laying back the table from its upright posture. He put the white blanket over him and looked up at the ceiling, but that only made him cough more. He sat up again, hearing the baby next to him crying more and more and more and more and more, like the girl he was visiting this week, here, in this state, how she’d cried into his arms when she told him she was pregnant. It’s ok, he’d said, holding her, feeling his heart get hotter, his breath rising from inside, his illness, his sickness: the germs.
Kim Chinquee is the author of the collections “Oh Baby” and “Pretty.” She lives in Buffalo, New York.