Slim's Broken Leg, Part 4
Slim Goes Underground
After the two interns left, I sat there awhile, in no particular hurry to get out in the cold and hit the road back to Turkey. It was peaceful in there, though I figured any second somebody could come busting in. The minutes ticked by. A mouse scooted in under the door. I watched the little fella go sniffing along the wall, then disappear beneath a stainless steel cabinet. Above the cabinet, some anonymous head honcho hung in a black frame on the wall. The picture—all bleached out—must have been forty-years-old. The glass was cracked, a rip in the picture shot diagonally across the honcho's affable, smiling face.
Just above his head, a melon-sized wad of yellow insulation drooped through a hole in the ceiling, like an unfinished bowel movement. Along the top of the wall, chunks of plaster had given way. Some maintenance guy had tried patching it with a two-foot square piece of Masonite, but the screws were boogered out, so the thin board gaped open at the top. It was only a matter of time till the bottom screws boogered loose, whereupon the Masonite would tumble to the floor or crash-bang on the steel cabinet.
Just then, the door opened, a heavy-set guy in a grey Dickie's uniform wheeled in a large box loaded on a dolly.
“S'cuse me,” he said. “Just droppin' this off, then I'll be outta your hair.”
“No problem,” I replied. “What's in the box?”
“Hazmat suits.” He slid the box by the cabinet, turned, and wheeled his dolly out. The door swung shut behind him. I suddenly had an idea. I wheeled myself over to the door and peaked out. All clear. I rolled to the box and ripped it open. Yep, hazmat suits, all right, but there were only about ten suits in a box big enough for forty or fifty. The suits were randomly labeled: S, M, L, and XL. Roughly five or six head-coverings with built in respirators and goggles seemed to have been thrown in almost as an after-thought. I took out a medium, then, standing as best I could, tried it on, then pulled on one of the head coverings, and dropped back in the chair.
The door swung open again, and there stood Darwin Lockwood.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “Didn't know anyone was—“
“Darwin! It's me, Slim.”
“Slim? You still here? The fuck you doin' in that get-up?”
“Well, Dar, I had an idea. I thought I might try talking to some of these Covid patients.”
“What, are you crazy? What you wanta do that for?”
“Well, I write a little, see. Thought I might ask 'em why they didn't take the shots.”
“Oh, right! I get you. Hey, where'd you get the suit?”
“Right here. Somebody just dropped 'em off. There’s only a few, though.”
“Yeah, that’s typical. Tell you what. I'll go with you. That way I can run interference in case somebody tries to fuck with you.”
He quickly donned a suit, pulled the hood over his head. “Follow me!” Then, he stopped. “Oh! I almost forgot! You want me to push you?”
“No, I can manage.”
We steered a crooked path through the gurneys of Covid patients, the ambient sounds of the hospital—doctors and nurses moving around, machines beeping, patients moaning, coughing, the soothing robot woman wafting in on the PA.
He turned. “What?”
“Why don't I just talk to some of these people right here?”
“No, no, I got a better one for you—if we hurry.” We pushed through a set of doors into the ICU, where still more patients were traffic-jammed in the hall. Here it was a little quieter. Leaning close, Darwin said they were just prepping a woman for the ventilator in Room 9. “Although, between you and me, I'm not sure she's a fit candidate for the ventilator.”
“What's the doctor say?”
“Well, the doctor—that's Suarez—he says put her on a ventilator, so that's what we'll do, of course. What he says goes. That's how it works here. The doctor's the boss.”
“So, what's the problem?”
“Well, the problem is—“ he broke off, glanced around nervously. “Here, step into my office.” He wheeled me into a janitor's closet, closed and locked the door, then, went on, just above a whisper. “A lot of doctors have quit on us, Slim.”
“So you said.”
“Yeah, well, a bunch of of 'em died of Covid. Nurses, too. So we're having to make do. Thing is, it's tough trying to get people to work out here. Nobody wants to work in some third-rate county hospital in the boonies. The higher-ups had to make some hard choices. Anyway, rumor has it, before he came here, Suarez was a med-tech in the Navy.”
“So I heard. But there’s a lot of rumors floatin’ around this place.”
“You mean he's not a real doctor?”
“I don't know. He says he is, but who knows? Suarez may not be his real name, either.”
“Not his real name?”
“I don't know if you know this, Slim? But when you have a society that's in upheaval, such as we have now?—you get an abundance of pure fuckin' chaos. A lot of things end up on the back-burner. Outstanding warrants, for instance. Suddenly, a lot more people running loose who shouldn't be running loose.”
“You mean—fugitives? From the law?”
“Exactly! And one thing these folks have discovered—owing to the fact that their radar tends to be a little more fine-tuned than your average Joe Citizen—is a sudden glut of jobs for people with little or no experience. For better than average pay!
“I ask you, Slim—what better place is there to hide out in, than a hospital in the midst of a pandemic? And what better disguise than a doctor's white coat or a hazmat suit? There's more people running around this joint in hazmat suits than we had before the pandemic. I couldn't tell you who half these birds are.”
“Jesus. What do they do all day?”
“Near as I can tell, they just walk around.”
“They wear stethoscopes around their necks and carry clipboards or laptops, and just blend in. The nurses don't know who's a real doctor and who's not. The doctors don't know who the real nurses are.
This janitor I know—calls himself Mike—real name, Fahzoud, but he's doesn't use that name around here—he found what looked like a homeless encampment down in the basement—the boiler room, to be exact.”
“On the square, man. He found clothing, sleeping bags, trash-bags full of beer cans, tequila bottles, and styrofoam lunch trays from the cafeteria. Not only that, but somebody’s makin’ name-tags down there.”
“Yeah, they got a machine down there, with the blank tags, everything they need. So, they just punch in a name, like Smith, and put ‘Doctor’ in front of it. Or—’Sally Williams,’ followed by ‘Registered Nurse.’ Slip a photo in there and you’re all set. Fazhoud told me they’re chargin’ people twenty-five bucks apiece for those counterfeit name tags.”
“Holy shit. What'd Fazhoud do about it?”
“He didn't do nothin' about it. I told him if he did, he'd be the one that would get fired.”
“For bein' a trouble-maker. Whistleblower. So, instead of these crooks gettin’ shit-canned, Fazhoud would be out on the street with no job and a bunch of criminals waiting to cut his throat.”
“Why not just turn them over to the cops?”
“You're kiddin', right, Slim? How many cops do you think are gonna come looking for some malefactors in this God-forsaken hole? You think they'll make 'em rip off their hazmat suits? You saw how that cop that helped you in here couldn't wait to get his ass back outside. For all he knew, you just dashed in here after dumping your tenth victim in a wave of serial killings.”
We left the janitor's closet, hurried along the crowded corridor. As we approached Room No. 9, I took his arm. “So, this Suarez—he could be like a—a murderer, or something?”
“I don't know about that, Slim. He seems nice enough. His name doesn’t exactly fit. I mean, he’s not even close to lookin’ Hispanic.” He shrugged. “What I don't understand—if this lady in here can talk at all, then that means she can get air in her lungs, so she don't need the ventilator. But what do I know? — I'm just a vet’s assistant.”
He knocked and we entered Room 9. A big heavy woman was stretched out on the hospital bed, her head propped up with pillows. Eyes closed, mouth gaped open. Different colored wires stuck to her chest. A machine beeped, a nurse checked her pulse.
“We're in luck,” Darwin whispered. “I know this nurse.”
(Next—Slim’s Broken Leg, Part 5: Slim Interviews A Covid Patient)