[Note on 3/9/11: Thank you to my blogging friends for feedback about this post and the courage to click “Restore.” There’s always the chance I’ll pull it tomorrow when I wake up in a different mood.]
[This post contains graphic adult themes and language and may be not be appropriate for some readers. It is a short piece of make-believe about the late, great Charles Bukowski. I read most of his books in college. Recently, Lizi wrote about him in a blog post (thanks, Lizi, this one’s for you, unless you hate it or it blows). However, Mr. Bukowski is not for everyone, perhaps not you. And remember, it’s fiction, though I wish parts of it were true. To my wife: censor this post for a long time from you know who.]
If Charles Bukowski Had Cystic Fibrosis
I vomited during PFTs. It was the third blow. We used the numbers from the first one. It was the highest but low. Not good for me living a long time. The PFT tech was upset about the mess. She also looked embarrassed for shouting “holy fuck” when it happened. She crossed herself, followed by, “I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“I’m telling the doctor,” she said. Then she tapped five numbers on the phone for the clean-up crew. “Yeah, you know who.” Strike two.
I was late for the appointment. That was strike one. I transferred to the wrong bus and had to backtrack. 83, 38, who was the genius to put those routes near each other? I found a bar, a sushi joint. I hate sake. But when in Japan. The sake made me blow bad. Well, CF did. But sake is a poor bronchodilator. The Doctor lecture, again. The one about me coming to clinic late and drunk. It’s a hard choice for them. Deny me clinic, let me die. Allow me clinic, clean up after me. The team would have to decide, not me.
I took the walk of shame back to my exam room. The staff looked at me, away from their charts and computer screens. I asked for a bottle of water and got “bad dog” eyes, and an “okay” nod. Happy “Hate You, Motherfucker” day was in full bloom. I shut the door. The disapproving comments streamed into the room, fog-like. Jesus, what happened to airtight construction?
I waved my hands in front of the paper towel dispenser. Nothing. Second try. Nothing. Fuck this machine. I was surprised how easy the cover came off. Made in Shitsville, China. Two broken pins fell to the floor. I kicked them under the exam table. I took some paper towel and extra in case the sake bomb came up again. Then I wedged the cover back on. It looked okay.
I tossed the paper towel I used to clean myself in the red bin. Hazardous, yes.
The door opened. An arm held out a bottle of Arrowhead. No gown. Just an attractive arm. I should kiss it, I thought. Instead I grabbed the water and thanked the mystery woman. “No problem,” she said. I hate “no problem.” I only hear “problem.”
The nurse assistant, Sheila, came into the room. She had brown hair with bad streaks, shoulder length. Brown eyes the color of Cocoa Puffs. She just married her third husband and had two kids, both in jail. She wore her gown loose and a small cross around her neck. I sat up straight, unbuttoned my cuff and rolled up my sleeve.
“You’re drunk again,” she said.
“I got lost.” I said.
“Doctor Wolferram is going to be P.O.’d with you.”
“Fuck him. He’s a doctor. Are you P.O.’d, Sheila?”
“If you puke again, I’ll mess you up, Mr. Famous Writer. You know I will.”
She was still sore about the visit when I puked on her. She told me she stopped working at the hospital because she got tired of cleaning up after patients. My vomit brought back old memories. But we were speaking again. If I felt like puking today, I’d make a run for the bathroom. I’d do that for her. Or for me.
“High, low, high,” she said.
“BP, pulseox, temp, in that order,” she said.
“Probably the sake. Hot drinks fuck me over.”
She ignored me and wrote the numbers on a Post-It. She’d copy them to the chart outside.
After she left without saying goodbye, I puked in the trash can. There was no hope of making it out. The room smelled bad. I opened the door. Everyone looked busy. I carried the trash can low, next to my leg, and walked it to the back hallway and left it there. A gift for later.
When I got back to my room, I poured half the water bottle into the sink and replaced it with whiskey. My hands were shaking trying to line up the bottles. Some spilled on the linoleum. I dropped a piece of my paper towel stash on it and worked it back and forth with my shoe. A hole forming near the big toe. I threw away the wet paper towel and empty whiskey bottle.
I sat down and drank and looked at the white walls and medical posters. Sinuses look like meat. I stared at the “healthy lung/CF lung” wall poster. I stood up and walked over to it. I peeled it off the wall, taking a little paint at the corners. I folded it up, stepped on the red bin’s pedal and dropped it in. Two points.
I heard rustling at the door. Nurse Charlotte was gowning up. The door cracked. “I’ll be right in. Anything you need?” I’d used the “new lungs, sponge bath, and Scotch,” line too many times. I shook my head.
She entered. I cursed the “medical gear required” rule. She was an attractive woman and I wanted the full experience of staring at her. But I understood why someone would wear protective coating around me. Who knows what my blackheads ooze.
“Hi, Charles,” she said. Her volume and happy tone hurt my head.
“Having a bad day, are we?” she asked.
“Not with you in the room. You’re like the sun, bright.”
“Ah, how nice. Thank you, Hon.”
She was the lawyer nurse. Happy, but always presenting a case why you should do something. Since she was good-looking, it was okay. She wore pink nurse PJs and had green eyes, fake eyelashes, Palm Desert skin, black hair, and a mouthful of white teeth hidden behind the mask. I had seen her smile outside the room. I tried to count her teeth but it’s impossible when someone’s awake. Passed out, yes.
“Take that mask off. Let me see those beautiful teeth,” I said.
“Chuck, hospital rules. You know.”
“But you’re a movie star. You’re perfect.”
“True and true.”
Answers like that made me love her more. No false modesty. She had the confidence of Coca-Cola, the real thing.
“What’s your husband like, successful?”
“I think so.”
“Some days. He always wants more.”
“He’s a man.”
“Does he have good lungs?”
“I have no shot, do I?”
“Not in this lifetime.”
“In the next then?”
“If you’re sober.”
“Grant a dying man in this life one wish?”
“What’s the wish?” she said.
“Hop up on the exam table. Let me listen to your lungs.”
“My grandmother used to say: Some things are better in your dreams.”
“Like finding a cure for this fucking disease.”
“One day, Charles. One day.” She said it like she believed it.
“What color panties are you wearing?”
She paused, then pulled the curtain of her paper gown away. She stuck her thumb in the side of her nurse pants and pulled them down three inches, letting me take a good look before she put everything back. My heart jerked off. And when she asked her usual questions, I lagged behind, still stunned. What meds was I taking? I forgot my med list. Was my compressor working? Sort of, slowly, when I use it. How was I feeling? I’m here.
She stood in front of me and stripped off her disposable robe. I watched. “Where’s the trash can?” I didn’t want to lie to her. I kept quiet. She stuffed the gown in the red bin, and said “bye for now.” She left. I had the image in my head, forever, I hoped.
I drained the 50/50 bottle before he door opened again. Charlotte tossed me a tin of Altoids. “Before the doctor comes in.” Her teeth, I counted 39. The door shut. She liked me. I could tell. But she was too pretty for me.
My friend Stan lost a leg when a stack of bakery equipment toppled on him. He married a Ukrainian medical supplies rep he met at the doctor’s office. She was a former Ms. Somewhere. The settlement made him better looking, he said. And the new leg taller. Stan once offered to let me have her for the night. She had artificial lips he paid for. They looked like sausages. I couldn’t do it. He got upset and didn’t speak to me for a summer. She drank too many margaritas during one of their Gatsby Nights. Stan found her in the swimming pool, her lungs filled with water. He and I started drinking together again. He told me he couldn’t forget how she looked in the pool. “The bad pictures last longer,” I said.
I was sleeping on the table when the doctor showed. I woke up and dangled my legs off the table. I reached into my pocket and removed two of the dozen alcohol pads I’d swiped. I tore them open and sniffed, weak. Not like the smelling salts paramedics use.
“Let’s talk about your PFTs ,” he said, right to the point.
“Bad sushi,” I said. I lied. I had ordered sushi, but didn’t eat it. I should have. My stomach was upset now.
“You’re not being compliant, Charles.”
“Is that bad?”
“Do you want to live or not?”
“It feels like living to me.”
“How long?” I asked.
“You don’t take your meds. You don’t . . .”
The “you don’t” lecture lasted 5 minutes. It ended with another threat to ban me from clinic. While he spoke, I dreamed of ordering drinks at clinic. Drinks in colorful glasses, something special for having to sit here for three hours. I imagined drinking with Charlotte, drinking, flirting, fucking her on the table. What time was it? How long until happy hour? Should I hoof or cab it to Ernie Dios’ bar?
“How is your writing going?” the doctor said.
“Is there a pill I can take?”
“Yeah, to write faster. And I want a boner.”
“Quitting drinking is the best pill for both of those.”
“I’m outta luck.”
“What color is your sputum?”
“Hold on.” I coughed. It came up, voodoo. This time I was surprised. It was red.
“How long have you had hemoptysis?”
He looked at the PFT results again.
“I was lying down,” I said, “that probably caused it.”
“You need to be admitted.”
“I need a drink.” My lungs didn’t agree. I felt the pop and more blood followed. I walked fast to let it out. It splattered in the steel sink. Some hit the counter and wall. I put my hand on the paper-towel dispenser. The cover came off and bounced and banged on the floor. It sounded loud in the small room. I stuck my leg out to stop it and lost my balance, falling, taking the rest of the dispenser with me. I vomited on the way down, a bloody mess. I got to my hands and knees, ready for a wrestler to mount me. I coughed more blood onto the floor. It kept coming, like an earthquake. Criminals with bleach would be needed. The doctor placed his hand on my back and a plastic basin on the floor.
When the bleeding stopped, the wheelchair was there to take me to the hospital. Not much of a choice. Gabriel, father of three boys, lifelong Raiders fan, was my pusher. I liked him. He brought me a bottle of red wine during my last hospital stay. He kicked the foot pads up out of the way and helped me into the chair.
“Ice Station Zebra,” I said.
Gabriel backed me out. “Excuse me, excuse me,” he said to the same people who slow for car accidents. I looked into the room as it moved away. “Was there a poster right here?” Dr. Wolferram asked Nurse Charlotte. I smiled at her with my red teeth. She smiled back under her yellow mask. I did have a chance, and in this lifetime.