39 • Somebody’s Son
The corridor narrowed to a fine point far ahead, seeming to stretch to infinity, or at least to Fargo. Will wasn’t sure which was worse.
He knew the hall was really no longer than a few hundred feet and that his boots now seemed filled with sand, or buckshot or maybe even cement (but this was so much more cliché than Will could stand). He rubbed his eyes and shook his foot to the side, as though sifting out the sand, and kept walking.
The nurse stopped in front of room 352 and Will wondered why a 20-bed hospital in a 1000-bed town needed to pretend to be so cosmopolitan. She opened the door and stuck her head inside.
“Mr. Murphy? Your boy is here to see you.”
“But I—” Will started, for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Look, Mr. Phillips. We all know you’re not his son.”
People had been saying that to Will about his own dad his entire life. It seemed strange to hear it from a nurse he’d just met, about a man he barely knew.
“We really don’t care what kind of arrangement you have with Mr. Murphy. He asked for you and we want to take care of him, so we called and here you are. The rest is none of our business.”
“Don’t make me say it again. Just go in, umm, Mr. Phillips. He’s waiting for you.”
Will bit his lip. “Thank you.”
The nurse nodded slightly and walked away.
He heard the nurse’s voice coming from halfway to Fargo while Will stood stood facing the closed door with his hands in his pockets.
He turned his head, shrugged, and pushed open the door. Joe lay on the bed, his head pressed into a starched white pillowcase on a pillow that was clearly too soft to support his neck. His face was white, stretched, the shadows under his eyes accentuated to a deeper hollow than Will knew to be true. A hospital gown with a navy blue print hung loose over one shoulder.
Will remembered visiting his grandmother in her hospital bed in the old red brick hospital in Delphi, Indiana, when he was 11. She had turned sideways to reach a cup of water on the side table and her gown drooped open in the front, exposing a sagging, wrinkled breast. A child was not meant to see the nakedness of an elder, such frailty at its most-poignantly expressed, yet he’d been unable to look away or ever to unsee it, though in time he’d been able to alter the image, to superimpose Helen’s ribs, visible against the wrinkled skin which served to take his eyes from the unthinkable. It had come as a surprise to him that his grandmother had a woman’s body, as though when a person reached a certain age, one retained the form but not the substance. He knew her slender, rounded shape to fill her traditional flowered dresses in way that was truly lovely. But it was better, it seemed, to see one’s elders, particularly one’s relations, in the abstract, something he could never do again after Helen’s breast tumbled out of her gown. Of course, such thoughts only made his aversion to hospitals grow, picturing his own body in the immodesty of the printed gown, wondering what parts might come tumbling out or come up just plain missing, should he not take care when reaching for a cup of water himself. How might a man like Will age, he wondered, as the alternating meter of Joe’s shallow breathing and a beeping monitor came slowly into focus.
He said his friend’s name aloud, stepping the rest of the way into the room and letting the door close quietly behind him.
Joe lay still, eyes closed, chest rising and falling under the soft thermal blanket folded over as though he’d been slipped into a giant white envelope. Will had hoped to find him sitting up reading the Argus Leader, joking about his neighbors and doctors making a medical emergency out of a little heartburn. But Joe was not sitting up flirting with the nearest nurse. If in fact he waited for Will as they’d said, he waited in his sleep, for he was most certainly unmoved by Will’s arrival.
He walked to the bed and put his hands on the side rail.
“How’d I ever get mixed up with you, old man?”
He counted the patches stuck on Joe’s chest, wires leading out to whirring and beeping machines, counting things that should be impossible to measure from outside a body, yet there they were, showing up in flickering numbers, in zigzagging lines peaking and plummeting, defining the things that go on inside a man that no one can really see.
“Cameron came along, Joe, ” Will said quietly. “She’s out in the lobby watching Rachel Ray make potatoes because they said only family could come back. And isn’t that a little ridiculous because I’m here, Joe, not your son and they say they know it, yet here I am.”
Will looked around the room. Two Mary Groth paintings hung on the far wall, the rich greens and golds and oranges of her prairie landscapes faded to insipid blues and violets and the matting burned yellow, subjected to the cold fluorescents buzzing overhead after dozens of years of overseeing patients living and dying in this room with the naugahyde recliner that smelled of Lysol and beef bouillon.
He looked back at Joe, still peaceful on his bed. “You look like hell under the lights too, my friend.” He glanced at the door. “Wonder if there’s a way to bust you out of here.”
Will chuckled. “Who am I kidding? I can’t even park the 16th minute in a 15-minute zone. I couldn’t get us past the nurses here. Sorry, old man.” He patted Joe’s shoulder and then stepped back quickly, putting his hand into his back pocket in a fist.
“Listen. You wanna watch some TV? We can catch you up on the news.” Will picked up the remote and pointed it at the television. He sat down in the brown chair and leaned back. “See here?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “While you were sleeping, Obama struck a deal with Iran. Yep, Iran. Can you believe it? Made a whole lot of people froth at the mouth over that one.” He pressed the remote to change the channel. “Sorry, man. I can’t do Fox News. Not tonight.” He laced his fingers behind his head. “What else… Oh, yeah. Donald Trump is still running for president because that’s what the world has come to. But Huffington Post just said they’ll cover his campaign in their Entertainment section instead of Politics.” Will looked at Joe. “He’s leading in Iowa. Can you believe that?”
The door opened and the older nurse came in.
“How’s our patient doing?” she asked.
“Oh, he was just asking me if he could have a beer.” Will winked. “Said something about feeling like he just carried a refrigerator across the room on his back.”
The nurse chuckled. “That would sound about right.” She lifted Joe’s wrist and looked at her watch.
“Why do you still do that?” Will asked. “I mean, you take his pulse by hand when you have all these machines recording everything anyway.”
“Human touch.” She smiled. “People need to be touched, but we can’t very well just come in here and randomly put our hands on patients. So this is a way we can still do that.”
“Is that true?” Will said, leaning to read the nurse’s nametag. “Myrna?”
“Well, it’s true for me, even if it’s not what the rulebooks say. I’m old school. Oh, I know the machines are helpful and all. But sometimes the body has things to say that patches and probes don’t tell us. And a body needs to feel skin to remember it’s alive.”
“Why did you call me?” Will asked.
“Pardon?” Myrna looked up from her watch.
“Why did you call me when Joe came in? Why not a family member?”
“Well, you’re listed in Mr. Murphy’s chart as his next of kin. His paperwork says you’re his son.”
“Joe doesn’t have any sons.”
“I know. But when he was here last week after that thing with the baseball, he had us update it. So as far as we’re concerned, you’re his son.”
“I’ve only known Joe a few weeks.
“He must feel like he’s known you longer.”
“Who was his next of kin before?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Why not? I’m his next of kin.” Will smiled.
Myrna adjusted Joe’s blanket, even though it hadn’t moved since the envelope flap had first been folded back. “Anyway, it seemed a smart move on his part. At least you’d come see him. Hypothetically speaking, if his brother in Chicago were listed as his next of kin, for instance, he’d likely not show up unless Joe passed on.”
Will looked at Joe, the shiner still visible and yellowing under his right eye. “Is that so.”
He looked at the nurse. “He’s a good man, Myrna. His brother is a fool. Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
“I’ll come back and check on you in a little while, Mr. Phillips.”
“It’s Will. Please.”
“Alright, Will.” Myrna smiled. “Would you like me to send in your fiancé?”
“My what?” Will looked up, puzzled.
“Your fiancé. In the waiting room. There’s not much else for her to learn about potatoes.”
“But she’s not—”
“Joe told us you were engaged to a beautiful young woman. Looks like he was right.”
“But she’s not—”
“You must learn to hush, Will. We’re doing this Mr. Murphy’s way.” She scrawled a note in Joe’s chart and then snapped it shut and tucked it under her arm. “So. Shall I send her back?”
“Actually, yes, ” Will conceded. “I’d like it very much if you’d send Ms. Julian back. I’m sure Joe would be delighted to see her.”
“She’ll be right in, Mr. Phillips.” Myrna dipped her head, turned and went out, leaving Will alone with the sleeping Joe Murphy.
He thrummed his fingers against the rail alongside Joe’s motionless body. “Look, old man, ” he said softly. “I still don’t know how you did it, squeezing your frustratingly charming self into my world that didn’t really need the disruption. But you did it, and here we are, and so you sure as hell had better wake up.” His hands wrapped around the bar and he found himself gently shaking the bed.
Joe didn’t move. He rhythmic, shallow breaths went on and on, a slight rattle underneath them as though he’d like to start snoring. Will thought of Joe’s wife listening to him snore night after night and wondered how often she got up and went to the kitchen for a glass of water, or maybe a sip of wine, to get herself back to sleep. He heard the soft creak of the door behind him and turned to see Cameron slip in. She held the door and muffled the sound of the latch with her body, then sidled up to Will at Joe’s bedside.
“He looks like hell, ” she murmured.
“Remind me not to call you for the part where we put a good face on things, okay?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m afraid I lose my signature nuance when I’ve been up most of the night. But listen, I have this new recipe for oven roasted new potatoes and asparagus I’m dying to try out.”
“It’s okay, ” Will said. “He does look like hell.” He pointed at Joe’s right eye. “See that? He took a baseball to the face getting out of the car the other night after our dinner with Pearl.”
“Holy…” Cameron said. “Guy’s had a terrible week.”
“Yeah. You know I’m not just his next of kin, right? He told them I’m his son.”
“His son?” Cameron laughed. “And how did he do that?”
“He updated his records when he was in the ER for his shiner.”
“Joe never had a son.”
“He could have just made you his emergency contact. He didn’t have to make up a story.”
“What’s he up to?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what—” Will jabbed Joe softly in the arm with his finger. “You’d better listen to this part, Joe. If I’m somebody’s son for all of 10 minutes, he sure as hell better stick around for a while.”
Cameron put a hand on Will’s arm. “Easy there. Looks like someone else loses their nuance when they’re tired. Don’t be poking the old guy. You’ll wake him.”
“That would be bad? He’s unconscious after a heart attack. It’s not like he’s napping on a Sunday afternoon.”
Cameron slipped her hand into Will’s and gave it a light squeeze. The two stood at Joe’s side, neither speaking.
After several minutes, Will broke the silence. “I think he wants to give you away.”
“He what?” Cameron asked, looking at Will. Will kept his eyes on Joe.
“He wants to give you away. At the wedding.”
“What wedding?” Cameron asked. “Do you need more coffee? Or less coffee? What is your sleep-deprived mind yammering about?”
“They didn’t tell you when they brought you back?”
“Tell me what?”
“It’s family-only back here. They didn’t tell you how you got in?”
Cameron looked at Joe, back at Will, then at Joe again. “He didn’t, ” she said.
Will turned and to face Cameron. She dropped his hand.
“Sneaky old rascal.”
(to be continued)