By Doug Elwell
But first, this note: Doug has been writing his life story for some time. He has begun revising some of his pieces, creating the lightly fictionalized story of his alter ego “Harry.” “The Reluctant Voyeur” takes place during Harry’s military service in Alaska. You can search this blog for “Harry, Elwell” and you will find other essays chronicling Harry’s adventures. At the conclusion of this post, Doug comments on this story’s place on the nonfiction-fiction continuum. – Sarah
It was a few minutes after midnight when Tommy Blackmun didn’t see the moose amble onto the road. Then it was too late. He swerved to the right, ran off the road and skidded down an embankment. His motorcycle hit a glancing blow against a large boulder that knocked him off and into the stony bed of a mountain stream.
Red Richardson was driving in the opposite direction about a half mile away—saw the headlight flash left then right then disappear. He never saw the moose. At first, he thought it was someone on foot swinging a lantern—A hell of a place to be out walking this time of night, must be car trouble. When Red drew near where he last saw the lantern gleam he eased onto the shoulder. There in his headlights was a tire mark in the gravel that ran for about fifty feet then vanished into the dark. He grabbed his flashlight and ran down to a stream. He saw a Honda tangled in a thicket—panned the light slowly—spotted Tommy twenty feet away splayed over rocks lying face up in a few inches of water. He was unconscious but breathing. Red picked him up, climbed up the embankment to his truck, wrapped him in a blanket he kept behind the seat and laid him as carefully as he could in the back. Ten minutes later he pulled up to the emergency room entrance at Elmendorf Air Force Base Hospital in Anchorage. Tommy was still breathing—still unconscious.
Doc Mitchell found a depression in the back of Tommy’s skull, about the size of a golf ball and rushed him into surgery. X-rays showed the fractured skull with several loose bone fragments. Doc drilled holes at the site to relieve the pressure from the swelling. He removed bone fragments and closed the wound. A corpsman pushed Tommy’s gurney to the intensive care unit. Harry Edwards—off duty at the time was hanging out chatting up night nurse Lieutenant Clay when Tommy arrived. He helped pull the sheet Tommy was lying on from the gurney to the bed. Clay noted the date and time and vital signs on his chart. Later in the morning Tommy would be connected to a respirator to help him breathe when it appeared he could no longer manage it on his own.
At six forty-five a.m. Harry got off the elevator on the third floor for the start of his twelve-hour shift in Intensive Care. The familiar sound of a compressor running in 36A was driving a respirator. He passed the room—stopped at the corpsman’s station. ‘I don’t have a good feeling about 36A.’
‘I don’t blame you, Harry,’ The duty sergeant pushed away from the desk, tilted back in the squeaky office chair, re-lit the stub of a cigar and looked up, ‘Got an airman in there what went out last night and got hisself all fucked up—motorcycle accident. He’s all yours at least for today—maybe longer—depends.’
‘Lovely. I was here last night—helped get him into bed.’
Harry put his lunch bag in the fridge in the nurse’s station, checked his watch then took the back stairs to the courtyard for a smoke before he went on duty at seven. Major Guffy was there with two airmen.
He gave a half-assed salute, ‘Mornin’ Major’ and nodded at the guys—a brief flutter of grunts and nods.
The airmen stubbed their smokes and went in. Guffy waited for Harry at the door—pulled her blue Air Force issue cardigan across her front—folded her arms against the morning chill—the firmness of her breasts. ‘Still on for tonight?’—she asked as he tossed his cigarette into the can by the door.
When he went on shift at seven he checked the dressing on Tommy’s head. He was rubbing lotion onto Tommy’s elbows and heels when Bethany came in. She took the chair at the bedside—sat straight—hands in her lap—motionless except for her eyes that darted about the room like a frightened rabbit about to flush. He thought her pretty in a plain sort of way—maybe a small town girl. That was it. She looked like a small town girl. She stared at her husband’s long body lying under the sheet in front of her and dabbed a single tear. She wondered—Was the girl worth it?—then—What difference does it make now? Harry measured Tommy’s fluid output and noted his eight o’clock vital signs on the chart at the foot of his bed. They were unchanged from the previous hour. Tommy’s brain function had fallen during the night but was still fluttering across the scope. Harry thought—Maybe.
Room 36A was small—barely large enough for the bed, a Mayo stand and chair. The metronomic kushhh of the respirator filled the room then seeped under the closed door into the hall. Morning sunlight poured through a window onto linoleum floor tiles. So close to her in that small room knowing neither of them wanted to be there he felt trapped. Thinking their shared vigil might go on for some time he thought to engage her in some way—open a connection based on something other than her husband. ‘When’s the baby due?’ He knew it was the wrong thing to ask but the words seemed to fly out on their own and he couldn’t pull them back.
Her hand moved to her abdomen, ‘December.’
‘Oh.’ Harry was right back where he started—ill at ease and thinking he ought to be doing something. But there wasn’t anything to do for the next hour except lean against the wall and watch the shadows of Bethany’s chair legs inch over the floor as sunlight arced across.
They held their places—inanimate as if frozen in place. Harry in his corpsman’s whites against the white wall—hands in his pockets, eyes cast downward—waiting for the hour to pass. Then take vital signs again and note them in the chart at the foot of the bed. Bethany erect—staring at the white sunlit sheet shrouding her husband. He thought the three could have been models posing for an Edward Hopper still life. Still life—the irony pleased him. A soft knock at the door. Guffy led Mr. and Mrs. Blackmun into their son’s room. They fake smiled then averted their eyes from Harry the way people do at such times—went to Tommy. Bethany sat unmoved. Harry sidled into a corner as far away as possible—watched—wished he could disappear into the sound of the compressor. But he had to stay so he watched them wish their son back to life. He hadn’t seen that before.
They wept silently—the moments of their grief marked by the thumping of the compressor and the measured kushhh of air into Tommy’s cold lungs. Mr. Blackmun took Bethany’s hand and pulled her up between him and Tommy’s mother. They wrapped her in a desperate embrace. Mrs. Blackmun kissed her son’s forehead. Harry saw them start to draw away from the bedside. He noticed Bethany held back for no more than a second or two—rested her hand as if it were a feather on Tommy’s right hand—lightly as an artist’s brush stroke on a canvas. In that thin, precise gesture Harry saw an intimate moment between them that he should not have seen but he was there and it was there and it loomed large in his mind. He wished he hadn’t seen it but he did and the image burned and became a part of him—nagged at him like a sliver in his thumb and he wanted to dig it out. He felt like an interloper and he didn’t want to be that. He saw in that small gesture—that final intimacy her release from their story—a farewell to something they perhaps once had—a last fragment of their coupleness. He didn’t want to witness it. He resented the intrusion. It crossed a line that wasn’t supposed to be crossed. Such things were the ken of the padre.
He stood staring at Tommy’s right hand she had almost caressed.
Late in the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Blackmun and Bethany sat in front of Doc Mitchell’s desk. Mr. Blackmun stared at his hands clasped together in his lap. He worked his thumbs back and forth against each other in a soft—slow way—the way one might while waiting in a station for a late night train. Mrs. Blackmun sat at his right—alternately dabbed tears from her cheeks and worried a handkerchief through trembling fingers. Bethany sat a little apart and stared—clear-eyed—past Doc Mitchell—at a bird that appeared to be building a nest in the tree beyond the window behind him. Her face looked flat as if drawn by a child who hadn’t yet discovered the magic of perspective.
Doc Mitchell shifted in his seat— busily thumbed through Tommy’s paperwork. He looked at the Blackmuns, ‘I’m afraid there is no possibility that Tommy will regain consciousness. I am very sorry. We did as much as possible but his injury was too severe. He’s been slipping into a deeper and deeper coma since we admitted him last night. When I saw him a few minutes ago his brain function had finally ceased altogether.’
‘No hope?’ pleaded Mrs. Blackmun.
‘I’m afraid not. The injury was just too much.’
Mrs. Blackmun toppled onto her husband’s shoulder and sobbed deeply. He put his arm around her. Bethany watched the bird discard a tiny twig she couldn’t seem to fit into her new nest. Doc Mitchell told them they could stay in his office as long as they needed then left. A few minutes later when Mrs. Blackmun was able they returned to Tommy’s room.
Having thought their silent goodbyes, they walked out of Tommy’s room for the last time. Evening nurse Lieutenant Klein and Doc Mitchell went in minutes later. He put his stethoscope to Tommy’s chest—listened. He asked Harry to turn off the respirator, ‘—can’t hear with that thing running.’ Harry flipped the switch—stepped to the foot of the bed—stood next to Nurse Klein. While he listened to Tommy’s heartbeat in the silence of the room Harry watched it pulse through his abdomen. In a few moments, it was gone. He looked at Harry, ‘Get him downstairs.’
Nurse Klein and Harry disconnected Tommy from the tubes he was tethered to that failed to bring him back from wherever he had gone. They had only been aerating his heart while the rest of him slipped away. Harry removed the IV from his arm and the respirator mouthpiece—wiped adhesive tape marks from around his arm and mouth with a swab soaked in acetone. Nurse Klein started to wipe Tommy’s arms and hands with a wash cloth.
‘Don’t wash his right hand, Lieutenant.’
She looked at him and saw something in his eyes—something she wasn’t afraid of, but knew to obey. ‘Okay, Harry I won’t.’
She went into the hall and wheeled in a gurney. They pulled Tommy’s sheet with him on it to the gurney then covered him with another. She handed Harry a manila envelope with his records. He stuck it under Tommy’s heel and wheeled him out of the room, took the freight elevator to the basement then wheeled the gurney to the morgue. He handed the envelope to the sergeant in charge who made an entry in a log book. They wheeled Tommy to the cooler and lowered him onto the steel tray—rolled it shut.
At the same time Mr. Blackmun was driving through the last of the Anchorage rush hour traffic to their hotel. Mrs. Blackmun sobbed—railed at her God the unfairness of it all. Bethany sat in the back seat—passed her hands gently over the growing presence in her—Least he’ll never know you aren’t his.
Harry waited for the freight elevator—looked at his watch—wondered what they were serving in the mess hall.
© 2016 Doug Elwell
About this piece of creative nonfiction, Doug tells me:
“I confess to stretching the limits of creative non-fiction with the narrator’s pov in this piece. But other than the omniscience of the narrator, the piece is about a 99% true story. The names are made up of course, but there was a real Tommy and Bethany. Of course the doctor and nurses Harry worked with were real people. Even the back story of Tommy’s infidelity with his wife was based on some things his buddies said when they came to see him. I have no doubt it was true. Harry resented having to be in the room with the wife and family because he was forced to play a part in a bit of Kabuki theater for the benefit of the lad’s parents and wife. Tommy was kept artificially ‘alive’ until his parents could arrive. He was essentially brain dead almost from the beginning. Only the respirator kept his heart aerated. Finally, although the wife was noticeably pregnant, I have no idea if the child was or was not Tommy’s. Her last thought on the way to the hotel was a bit of an O-Henry twist I threw in because it fit.”
Doug writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore, and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his hometown newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.