by Jacob Aiello
They say your heart is beating too slow. They have you connected to the heart monitor and every time you drop below 40 beats per minute it starts beeping and someone has to hit a button on the screen to silence the machine until you drop below 40 again, but you never go higher than 45 and most times drop just above 30 so that it’s going off every 30 seconds or so and I can tell on top of everything else you’re starting to get a migraine. You ask me to ask the nurse if there’s any way to turn off the beeping. He’s standing right there, writing numbers on the whiteboard above your head, but I ask him anyway. “Is there any way we can turn off this beeping?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “There’s a reason it’s beeping. The beeping tells us your heart’s beating too slow, which is something we need to know,” he says, addressing you but looking at me.
“But we already know her heart’s beating too slow,” I say. “That’s why we’re here. The machine’s beeping and you’re not even looking at it anymore, so I can’t really see what point there is in keeping it on if it’s already served its purpose, which is to tell you her heart’s beating too slow. Her heart’s beating too slow. Can we turn it off now?”
“No,” he says. “No way to turn it off.”
The nurse leaves and the heart monitor’s still beeping and you ask since I can’t turn off the beeping if I can at least turn off the fluorescent light overhead.
“We probably shouldn’t,” I say. “Although the light switch is right by the door so I suppose if they need it on when they come back in they can just turn it on themselves.” I stand up and turn off the light so now there’s just a small dim light behind you, definitely not bright enough to read by but just enough that I can see the muscles in your face begin to relax. The beeping goes off again.
“That beeping!” I say. “It seems irresponsible for them to not turn it off if they know it’s going to give you a migraine, which is just one more thing they’ll have to treat on top of the real reason you’re here, which is bad enough. Not to mention that the first code of medicine is supposed to be first do no harm. I’ve got a mind to tell the nurse that when he comes back, don’t you think? Should I tell the nurse about the first code of medicine?”
“Can you press the call button?” you ask.
“For the nurse?”
“I want to see when I can see the doctor.”
“I’m sure the doctor will be here as soon as he can,” I say. “But don’t know if it’s such a good idea to press the call button when you don’t really need it, otherwise when we do need it they might think we’re abusing it again and not come or at least not come right away. Like the boy who cried wolf,” I say. “After all, it’s an emergency room, and they have to prioritize and right now your wondering when the doctor will be in isn’t high on that list and if we bother them now they might hold it against us later when we really do need their attention.”
“But I want to see the doctor,” you say. “And I’m cold. I want a blanket.”
“Really really cold? If I went and got you a blanket would you still be cold?”
“Yes I would,” you say, “and while you’re up you can ask when I can see the doctor.”
So fine, I go out, find a bathroom, splash cold water on my face and stare at myself in the mirror. I haven’t shaved since the day before yesterday and the face full of stubble looking back at me makes my face look fat, fatter than my face usually looks which is far fatter than I’d like. Another handful of water. Flush the toilet and then turn the faucet on again in case there’s someone with their ear to the door wondering what the hell I’m doing in here, which there isn’t, just relieving myself and washing my hands if it’s any business to you, Mister, which it isn’t, but washing my hands anyway because this is a hospital and with a significantly higher rate of contagions.
There are two kinds of people I see right now: those less deserving to see a doctor than you and you, still waiting on the doctor. The older woman with a cough who checked in fifteen minutes after us has her own room already and the attendance of a doctor, greeted with a warm smile as if he’s her long-lost accomplished doctor son. Unless he’s her actual son I fail to see how a cough could take precedence over a barely beating heart, not even from an older woman with a higher risk of pneumonia or other infections, weakened immune system, or even broken bones, which would look as if they took precedence, compound fracture especially if the broken bone or bones was jutting out of the skin but actually doesn’t take precedence because it’s farther from the heart or brain and so less likely to result in death and grief of friends and family.
Even the cough, lungs, while close to the heart are not as close to the heart as your barely beating heart, which is the heart and so should take precedence. A heart attack or cardiac arrest would take precedence over your barely beating heart since they’re a stopped heart, beating even less than your barely beating heart, but not unless there’s an ambulance that just pulled up outside with a man inside whose heart has stopped beating and girlfriend watching whom he loves and who loves him holding her breath because she thinks to herself, I will not take another breath until he does, even though that’s a physical impossibility and of course she’ll take another breath because her lungs are burning now, the lungs, which are close to the heart but not as close to the heart as the heart.
I ask the nurse how to get outside and also ask him since I have him here when he supposes the doctor might be in to see you. “Follow the exits,” he says. “Soon,” he says.
Outside it’s just stopped raining and the Emergency sign glows in the fog. The hospital and its surrounding grounds are non-smoking, signs everywhere I look to inform me that the hospital grounds are exclusively non-smoking or that smoking is expressly prohibited on the hospital grounds or that if you wish to smoke you must remove yourself from the hospital grounds where smoking is forbidden. I climb the stairs to the city sidewalk and nearby bus stop and light my cigarette. It is lovely to contribute to the fog.
I see a bus coming down the street and it begins to slow as it gets closer, even though I’m not standing inside the bus stop enclosure where smoking is also prohibited. I wave the driver past to let him or her know that I’m not standing inside the bus stop enclosure because I’m smoking but actually standing on the sidewalk because smoking is also prohibited on the hospital grounds. All this I communicate with a wave. Shortly after the bus has passed a security guard approaches to tell me that smoking is expressly prohibited on the hospital grounds, and because I’m smoking I should either remove myself from the hospital grounds or cease smoking. “Both options,” he says, “would also be welcome.”
I apologize but wonder aloud if the city sidewalk beyond the hospital sign where I’m standing isn’t actually beyond the hospital grounds and therefore an acceptable smoking location. “No,” he says. “The hospital grounds extend to the street.”
“But what if someone was walking from one location to another and while they were walking they were also smoking a cigarette,” I ask, “and the route from their starting point to their destination happened to include this sidewalk even though they had no business with the hospital itself but were just using the sidewalk as a pedestrian thoroughfare.”
“They would be asked to cross the street where the hospital grounds don’t extend to or else cease smoking,” says the security guard.
“And if they were waiting for a bus?” I ask.
“The bus stop is not part of the hospital grounds,” he says, “but smoking is also expressly prohibited inside the bus stop enclosure.”
“And if I was to stand in the middle of the road,” I ask, “would I be able to smoke then?”
“You would,” says the security guard. “Though it’s not a recommended designated smoking area because it’s in the middle of the road, and if you were not standing in the middle of a crosswalk while the crosswalk light was on you could also be cited for jaywalking,” he says. “Although that would be the concern of the police department and outside the hospital’s jurisdiction.”
By now I’ve finished my cigarette and I thank him for his thorough and patient explanation and return to the emergency room lobby where they give me a little sticker to affix to my shirt to let anyone who may wonder know that I’m a guest here, then allow me back to your room where you’re asleep and the doctor has still not yet arrived.
Jacob Aiello cofounded the Soft Show, a bi-monthly experimental reading series that weds improvised live drawing with short stories read aloud by their authors. His own short stories are forthcoming from Stealing Time, and have appeared in The Portland Reader, The Portland Review and The Wordstock Ten, an anthology of fiction from the 2007 Wordstock Festival. His nonfiction has been previously published in Reading Local and Street Roots, a nonprofit homeless advocacy paper based in Portland, Oregon.
Carol Rollo is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Cagliari. She studied Communication Engineering in Turin and Children's Illustration in Barcelona. She co-runs Perropanda, a self publishing label concerning mostly illustrated books and silkscreen prints. For more, visit the artist online at illustreisenauer.com.
Silvery Ghosts is a music project fronted by New York City-based singer-songwriter Hank Kim. The new album, Love & Other Ephemera, released this month and also features the voice of another New York City staple, Kelli Scarr. For more, visit the band online at silveryghosts.com.