The person who served you your coffee assumed that you were a doctor. He, a small, dark brown man with an accent you wouldn’t presume to place, said, “Will that be all, Doctor?”
Your brain had to make sense of the mistake before you could say, “Yes. Yes, that’s it. Thanks.”
You sat down at your regular table. Two actual doctors, a pair of old white guys, were sitting a few tables away. One of them was hunched over a Tupperware container filled with sliced fruit, the other was staring off towards the elevators and twisting his wedding ring like he was trying to unscrew it but the threads were stripped. A few children raced past and a man with a deep voice said something sharp and foreign and one child stopped running and turned towards the man, then back towards his sibling or cousin who was still zigzagging and laughing. A different man with a sharper voice, a voice that made the ring-twisting doctor flinch, said the same foreign thing and the second child stopped, sat down and cried. One man, you didn’t know if it was the sharp voiced or deep voiced man, walked over to the crying child and picked them up then led both children back to where their family—at least three generations of it—was crowded around two tables as far to the side of the dining area as they could get.
The coffee was too hot. It wasn’t bad coffee, had never been bad coffee, but it wasn’t good either. It was an excuse for you to sit here, that’s all.
A man and a woman got off the elevator. You pulled a newspaper out of your black bag and set it on the table. While the man stepped back to look at the signs above each vendor’s counter, the woman looked around at the people sitting at the cafeteria tables. She made eye contact with you and smiled sadly. You nodded and looked down at your newspaper. Your arms bracketed the folded broadsheet and you rubbed your thumbs against the pads of your index and middle fingers, but your eyes watched the woman walk up to the man and the two exchange hushed words. The woman put her hand on the man’s far shoulder and the man raised his shoulder nearest the woman so that he could gently extract then bring his elbow over her head and hang his hand off her far shoulder. You saw then, maybe in the gesture or in the shape of their hands or their postures, that they were brother and sister. They walked to the new Hero Burger—it opened early last month—and started reading the menu. The man asked the server if they sold veggie burgers then the woman explained to the server that she has a severe nut allergy.
The doctors at the nearby table stood at the same time. They weren’t even looking at each other and if they had exchanged some signal you missed it. One of them, the one who was twisting his ring, said, “Well,” to which the other one replied, “Well.”
You agreed with them, but you didn’t stand right away because, well, leaving with them would be strange and obviously—you don’t know—collegial? Like they might have started talking to you about some doctory thing and you wouldn’t know what to say and your cover would have been blown which would have been devastating because what would you have done, what would you do without the hospital?
It was a year earlier you started coming here.
Okay, not quite.
You started coming here, like, let’s see, uh fourteen months earlier. The regular visits anyway. At first you were coming with your partner whose cancer had come back and come back in more than one place, not just their beautiful brain. The surgeon who’d seen it said it was beautiful. You knew it was beautiful in its operation, in its functioning, in its living state. Something about the surgeon’s comment—meant as a lighthearted, even laudatory Nice work!—conjured a brain in a jar, your partner’s brain in formaldehyde on some surgeon’s shelf, admired for its shape, admired as a specimen or a teaching tool. “This is where we dream. This is where your balance comes from. This is where your memories live. This part here helps you form attachments.”
Thirteen months ago you were visiting your partner here because keeping pain from hammering that beautiful, dying brain required intravenous opiates. You asked your boss to fire you so you could collect E.I. while you and your partner’s mother sat in the hospital room watching her child drift further and further away. Other family came too, of course. You would leave the room and go for walks. The ubiquitous nurses and doctors were like the staff on or even the engine of the impressive ship the hospital was. The patients were the ship’s passengers, suffering on their way to the shores of either the continent of life or the continent of death, their families, their loved ones, their people anxiously traveling with them.
When you were younger you loved, even still you love, taking the bus and observing the person across the aisle, reading over the shoulder of the man or woman in front of you, closing your eyes and listening to the music escaping the headphones of the person next to you, closing your eyes and imagining what that music might be calling up or washing away for them. Thinking about this communion calls to your mind a jug being filled with water from two sources simultaneously. Or hundreds, thousands of people walking the banks of rivers, to the shores of lakes and oceans and pouring out jugs and water bottles and glasses like it is some religious festival. With this image you experience overwhelming warmth somewhere near the center of you.
Just under twelve months earlier you stopped having a reason to come here. And right away you missed it. The day of your partner’s funeral in the suburb where they grew up, you were also surrounded by many people, but it was different because you had all gathered for the same reason, the same grief, the same difficulty and it was a pain that you were perceived to be one of the main bearers of. As a consequence, so many of the people grieving, carrying their own hurt, came to you with the sweet hope of sharing and easing your hurt, but with the side-effect of adding their suffering to it.
Your partner’s favourite drag queen had been invited to perform and she was weeping her way through a second rendition of “When Doves Cry” when you got up, whispered to your partner’s mother that you were going to the washroom and walked out. Your heels were bleeding into your dress shoes by the time you reached the train station. Your train had just left and the next one wasn’t due for nearly an hour. You bought a coffee and sat on the platform waiting and enjoying the emptiness. A train traveling in the opposite direction stopped and a stream of people with their own lives and worries and griefs walked the same direction for the length of the platform, took the same stairs and one of two tunnels before going to their own cars or to get into the cars of friends, lovers, mothers, fathers or to get on the bus that would drop them where they needed to be.
Sometime between then and when the train carrying you home was splashed in a burst of setting sunlight coming through a gap between two mountainous skyscrapers, you had decided—or come to know, really—that you were heading to the hospital.
You bought another coffee from the man who had mistaken you for a doctor and again he called you doctor.
When the elevator came and opened its doors, you walked on, but you were so occupied trying to find a way to hold your coffee without a creeping burn finding its way through your skin that you forgot to press a button to tell the elevator which floor to go to. You heard a muted conversation before a set of doors at the back opened up and a caretaker with his head down wheeled a cart across a tiny gap.
“Excuse me,” you said.
“Oh. Excuse me. No, God, pardon me.”
“It’s no trouble.”
Behind him was a vast area with canvas bins and silver-barred shelves with bottles and linens, its cinder-blocked walls marked black from contact with rubber stoppers that protected the corners of things. A short man with greased hair, probably Filipino, watched you slide out of the way of the cart, then bent back to his task, his arms and part of his head disappearing into a sack of canvas hanging from a stainless steel frame on large, grey, rubber wheels.
“Nice weather lately,” you said. “Looks like we might have a summer.”
“Fly season,” he said. He pressed the button for the fourth floor.
You reached over and pressed the button for the fifth floor to see where the conversation would go. “What’s that?”
“Seen ’em fucking everywhere. Flies. I mean having sex everywhere. I’m not a vulgar talker. Don’t use the F-word for emphasis.”
“Anyone you talk to’s all delighted the weather’s getting warmer again, but when you work with garbage . . . ”
“I can see how warm weather might be a mixed blessing.”
“Mixed nothing. What’s the blessing?”
“When you aren’t at work?”
“You think I’ve got A/C? There’s a nice time in the evening where if I happen to be by the lake or— Nah, you’re right.”
“No need to be sorry. I’m just in a bad mood’s the truth. The weather is nice. The flies agree.” The elevator stopped, the doors dinged open and the caretaker pushed his cart out. “You have a good day, you hear?”
On the fifth floor you got out and did a circuit, careful not to spill your coffee. Most of the doors were closed, but you passed one that was open. A hunched nurse was sticking electrodes to the chest of a topless, bearded man.
You took the elevator back to the first floor.
Whoever had designed the hospital’s lobby had, either by carelessness or design, used ramps and gardens to obscure sightlines. If you were eight or maybe ten feet tall you would have been able to see the whole vast multileveled open space supported by regular columns and partitioned for various purposes. There was value, you thought, or beauty maybe in the way that the walls and the green life here seemed to direct you down safe, quiet, known paths—to lead you this way to the front doors, this way to the pharmacy or that way to the small, private sitting area where just over a year earlier you and your partner’s mother had discussed the details of your deathwatch rotation.
You heard singing and you followed the sound up a long ramp to a small courtyard outside of the gift shop. The plants lining the sides of the ramp obscured your view of the performer, but you could see a woman crying in a dirty bathrobe with clear tubes up her nose, could distinguish a decent version of “Purple Rain,” could sense an inexplicable heaviness in your body as if your feet and your arm—reaching for the banister and holding tight—knew something that you too smugly ignored. When you cleared the last plant, a rubber tree reaching its waxy leaves out into the walkway, you saw, smiling welcome, then smiling recognition, your partner’s favourite drag queen, the one who’d sang “When Doves Cry” twice at the funeral.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. All of your partner’s people had developed relationships here, especially in the last months of your partner’s life. You’d never seen the drag queen here before, but there was no reason to think that they didn’t perform regularly to lift the spirits of who? Well, the lady with emphysema all folded up like she was smoking outside on a cold day. There was a man with a new baby, or a bundle of fabrics in varying shades of white that had taken the basic shape of a new baby; a bald person—a hairless person actually—of no clear sex and no obvious age; a woman whose body seemed tired, who had bags under her eyes, but who otherwise seemed well. Two boys too young to be alone sat up on the edge of one of the concrete planters. The larger boy, was hammering his heels against the wall he was sitting on. The smaller boy was pulling pieces of fern off the plant and dropping the pieces to the floor.
You didn’t feel like you could leave, but you were desperate to. How would the conversation with the drag queen go? “What are you doing here?” would certainly be a question, most likely the first one. “Oh, you know, this is what I do now. I come here.”
A man wearing Madras shorts and a sweatshirt with the hood up came out of the gift shop and handed the boys on the wall’s edge a package of wine gums each then lifted them both down simultaneously.
“Hey, you don’t pay,” came a voice from the gift shop.
The hooded man turned back even as he began walking down a ramp, his hand on the boys’ backs pushing them, guiding them.
“He no pay,” said the voice. The small woman who ran the gift shop with her husband came out the doors, looked at the crowd and pointed in the direction the man and his sons had disappeared in.
No one in the crowd moved.
You smiled. You stood. You walked past the drag queen, held your palms up and shrugged while mouthing the word “Sorry.”
“Hey,” the woman said. As you rounded the corner, you saw that she had spotted a security guard who turned towards her. “That man with two boy, again he no pay.” The security guard nodded, turned and ran in the direction the hooded man was walking.
You slowed down and took a relieved breath. Your heart was racing; you put your hand over your chest as if to calm it.
By the time you passed the security guard, he had caught up to the man and his sons and he was saying, “Well, why’d you bring them if you were going to steal?”
The hooded man mumbled something in reply.
“Well, this is not the first time you’ve stolen something here. You shouldn’t have brought them if you knew you were going to steal.”
You could see the glass doors to the street, students passing with their backpacks and side bags and white headphones, a businessman on his cell phone.
It was time to go home, for the day anyway.
Toronto, April 2016
Story: Lee Sheppard