Monday, April 5, 2010

The Walls Have Eyes a short story

It's been a while since I posted a short story so it seems like a good time to lay aside political commentary and send along something completely different.

The Walls Have Eyes

Everyone is staring at me. All those eyes are focused directly on me. Well, not literally, of course, it's just an old photograph populated with long dead, unnamed, sepia-toned forebears peering at a camera lens. But somehow they seem to be staring just at me this moment: In this particular case it's professorial looking men with close-cropped hair. Pencil thin mustaches are in evidence here and there and each is clad in a crisp white lab coat with a row of buttons up one side. All in all a study in thoughtful superiority with just the merest hint of a condescending smile.
One frame over, similarly posed is an orderly assemblage of women in starchy white and gray nuns habits with large striped aprons and old fashioned nurses hats with crosses in the middle. Their countenance is solemn--almost stern--not to be trifled with.
Finally, the last old photo on this wall captures a sturdy brick building situated atop the knob of a hill. Telegraph poles fade into the barren distance. A wagon and a few flivvers are parked in front. The caption reads: 'Old Mercy Hospital, circa 1919'.
Like the photos of those who populated the halls of Old Mercy, the building itself reflects the no-nonsense utilitarian ethic of the time. Square, functional, devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.
I've seen these people before, thousands of faces and places staring unblinkingly at me from the past. Dust bowl farmers, gold rush prospectors, lumberjacks dwarfed by felled Sequoias, railroad section hands, coal miners, fish packers and factory workers. I've seen them all before, but never really looked at them. Like a tourist might see a famous museum. Idly curious, perhaps taking an extra moment or two on a few notable pieces, then checking it off the list and heading for the cathedral or opera house next on the tour.
But today I'm looking more closely. As I stand in the lobby of the modern Mercy Hospital, its air scrubbed clean and conditioned to a monotonous seventy degrees I notice windows open in the old photograph. A breeze is blowing a curtain outside. That couldn't happen here of course, the windows don't open. I try to imagine what it must have been like: Before chemistry and transfusions and antibiotics. Before x-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans, when anesthesiologists used ether or maybe bourbon on a patient before surgery. I picture surgeons, or perhaps nurses or technicians--I'm not sure, really--honing a scalpel on a razor strop preparing to make incisions big enough for two hands. Incisions replaced today with tiny punctures where remotely operated sterile instruments delicately perform routine miracles with a few days of discomfort replacing weeks of post-operative trauma. It's tough to imagine when anxiety about nature's capacity to fight raging infection was supplanted by a course of cheap pills.
The gulf seems too wide to fully comprehend. The past trapped in the photos is beyond my reach; too detached to have any contemporaneous meaning. So are the people. Not just the doctors and nurses behind glass on the wall before me but the others too, recalled from my memory. The soldiers posing by their tents, the fishermen hauling in their catch are all viewed with the same detachment an anthropologist might have for the ten-thousand year old skull found at a dig site.
The melancholy Dane could bemoan the fate of Yorick because he knew him, but I lack that empathy. The faces in all those old photos don't dress like me, think like me, live like me. They don't even look like me.
As my minds' eye shuffles through remembered images, like looking for an album in an iPod, a warm flush suffuses through me then it dawns on me, they don't look like me! Suddenly it becomes important to really focus my thoughts. Why don't they look like me? I'm straining to mentally recall the details when it hits me: All those eyes staring at me are attached to lean--even meager--faces. Beyond thin in the modern sense, most of them are skinny. Synonyms rush into my head: wiry, angular, sinewy, scrawny, gaunt and rawboned. Even the prosperous are mostly lanky with the occasional matronly woman or portly man tossed in the mix, but today's tabloids would be wondering aloud about eating disorders plaguing the richly famous among them.
Yet for all that they look healthy, vigorous even. Ready to tackle the great physical challenges before them; ready to chop down trees or drive covered wagons across the plains. Ready to walk or ride or run if need be to the next task in the conquering of a continent. They look ready to do what I cannot.
I am now uncomfortably aware of my surroundings; acutely attuned to the whisper-quiet rumble of the conditioned air and observant of the gleaming stainless and Formica surfaces. I feel small at the modern-ness of it all. My luxurious car is parked in a garage several stories below, just a few steps from the elevator. My era is a time of double bacon cheeseburgers, fries and soft drinks available from drive-up windows twenty four hours a day. Mine is a time of ergonomic chairs with lumbar support, computers and telephones without wires and televisions without content. Mine is a time of ridiculous paradoxes like driving to workouts and cheering athletic events with beer and chicken wings and chips; of food networks adjacent to exercise channels. Mine is a time when the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer and respiratory disorders. Theirs was a time when the leading causes of death were accidents, childbirth and the flu. I'm beginning to empathize with the past, connect to their emotions feel their circumstances.
"Mr. Jenkins?"
The moment is broken, I turn and nod dumbly.
"They're ready for you now."
I kiss my wife and murmur reassurances. The nurse, clad in surgical scrubs featuring Sponge Bob Square Pants, tells her I should be in recovery in about three hours and that when she is done the doctor will be out to let her know how it all went. Crammed into a wheelchair I disappear behind the "Surgery Suites--Authorized Personnel Only" doors. I guess being a patient authorizes me.
The institutional beige corridors surround and form a maze of rooms stuffed with technology where eventually all the questions are asked and answered, the forms signed and the clothes exchanged for the ubiquitous hospital gown. I am wheeled into a chilled room inhabited by half a dozen or so people swaddled in sterile cotton and nitrile gloves. The last thoughts I have before slipping into drug induced sleep is wondering what all those fleshless people in the old photos would think about gastric bypass surgery.

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