When the boy first tottered into the clinic, he must have been about four years old, but there was no way to know for sure – the boy didn’t speak then either, let alone count.
That day was a very quiet day, so we all had all kinds of time to lavish on this kid. He got lots of hugs from everyone – giggling every step of the way as he ran from person to person for hugs. I’m thinking he didn’t get many at home, wherever that was. However, the poor boy reeked something awful, so he got a bath too in short order. Sadly like any baby who hadn’t had their diaper changed in too long, his whole little bottom was utterly raw. It was the first, and almost only, time I saw any tears.
That nasty diaper was his only article of clothing. Good thing we were a clinic-slash-hospital; we had clean diapers, but really, who keeps their kid in diapers this long? This child, however old he was, was well past toddler.
At lunch that day he shared a bite or two of whatever we all brought, and pretty soon we were bringing a little extra especially for him. He never went home hungry, I can tell you.
At the end of the day, dressed in a clean diaper and someone’s T-shirt, he wandered off about the same time of day the rest of us started to go home.
He didn’t come back every day, but he did visit frequently. He got his rounds of hugs and invariably a bath and clean clothes. One of the male nurses had a boy at home so he brought in a few things his kid had outgrown, but really we were reluctant to send him home too different from how he came. We had no idea what his home life was like, but I’m thinking he crawled back under whatever rock he came out from under when he left us – he came back dressed the same as when he left.
Since we were all always chattering with each other and with him, and since one lady, the first to greet him every time he came, was always saying, “Say now” before most everything else she said, it wasn’t too surprising, I suppose, that the first word we heard from him was “Say.” After that, his vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds. I’m guessing no one at home spoke to anyone, least of all to him.
That’s not all he learned from us quite by accident. He spontaneously followed one of the men into the bathroom and quickly learned what to do with a toilet – no messed diapers after that. I’m thinking he liked being clean, not having a sore bottom, and all the rest.
His most traumatic day occurred when the horse-drawn ambulance came with an accident victim. It was bad. We were all rushing around hollering commands and such. I noticed the boy huddled in a corner of the room watching with eyes the size of saucers and tears running down his cheeks. No one had time for him though, not even me.
I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, or even an aid. I was the go-get-it person, and I was on the run. In the end the battle was lost. As the clean-it-up person as well, there wasn’t anything I could do until the body was taken away, so I stepped outside for some air. Most of the time, inside was light had happy, but today the place had grown small and airless. Of course the thick smell of blood had a lot to do with that feeling.
As I stepped outside I saw the boy and one of the ambulance horses in an intimate moment. The boy was sobbing, and one of the massive horses that pulled the ambulance was lending an accommodating ear to his fear. The boy was wrapped around his face and the horse just stood there with his face down within reach, nickering softly as if saying comforting things in return.
The driver came up to me. “I ain’t seen anything like it before. I couldn’t bring myself to leave.” He nodded toward the two.
The boy heard him and looked. Seeing me, he gave the horse a parting hug and turned to me for some sort of explanation. He knew sick and hurt people came here frequently, but he’d never seen anything like what happened today.
“I’m sorry, hon.” It was all I could say. How do you explain death to a little boy who could barely talk?
His absence after that was probably the longest since he first started coming, but he did eventually come back, dirty and hungry again. He peeked into the emergency room with fearful eyes, and his round of hugs was not so giggly this time. It was like he was reassuring himself that all his friends here were present and accounted for, that none of us were that terrible bloody apparition that had been in that room. It was several visits before he was back to his giggly self.
The boy had quickly become our mascot, and he could be found most anywhere helping, carrying, coloring, or looking at pictures in some medical book. With children in our families, it wasn’t long before assorted toys and children’s books started to show up for him too. There were about twenty of us; no kid alive had so many surrogate parents. I was curious about his home life, the life he apparently didn’t have there. I wondered why he bothered to go back at the end of every visit, but I suppose he was following our example.
One night I had to hang around late to clean up the emergency room after a bad leg break. When my nightshift counterpart arrived, the first thing she did was puke. She was pregnant and her morning sickness struck her at any time of the day. I told her to go on home; she could make it up to me some other time. Nights were usually very quiet, and I planned to catch some Zs in one of the empty rooms.
I was just finishing up the emergency room and closing the windows when the boy came back. Night shift knew of him; some of them switched shifts upon occasion. Night shift people were usually the single people, or those who wanted their days free for something else. I was single, but I wasn’t a night person. I always felt like a zombie all day if I tried to stay up at night, but I’ve pulled a night shift from time to time as needed.
When the boy came in, he just stood there inside the door. He looked like he was hoping he’d recognize someone. When he saw me, he ran to me, shaking and sobbing. At first I thought it was because he was afraid of the dark, but when he backed up a bit I saw vivid red and white stripes on one cheek and a growing shiner under his other eye. Someone had slapped him hard enough to bounce him against something really hard. Poor boy.
I took him to the kitchen and got him an icepack for his eye and then I rocked him until he fell asleep, then I tucked him into the bed I’d planned on occupying as I finished my chores.
Laundry was one of those chores. We had twenty beds in ten rooms and the sheets were changed every day, and occasionally more than once. Luckily it was seldom that more than half of those beds were ever occupied, though it did happen upon occasion.
I loaded the laundry into the cart and headed across the way to the laundry house. They were a business apart. They did laundry for anyone willing to pay, but I’m willing to bet the clinic was their biggest customer.
I used to date a guy who worked here. He told me he took the job to build muscles. The job did that for a guy, that’s for sure. The machines were big, but only the strongest could manage the one big machine, which is where our sheets usually ended up. The guy would count in twenty sheets or the equivalent, toss in some soap, latch the door, and then turn on the valve that filled the machine with hot water. Then, like a ship’s wheel, he’d start pulling the machine around and around, counting off sixty full revolutions – non-stop. Those machines were heavy once they were loaded up. New workers started out on the smallest machines and they worked their way up. Few made it all the way to the big machine. They either didn’t hang in long enough, or they just didn’t have it.
When the wash was done, he’d stop the machine upside-down and empty the soapy water down the drain. With no way to wring out a load that size, the loads went through like six rinses, each about twenty complete revolutions, then when the last rinse had dripped as much as it was going to, he emptied it into a cart and sent it upstairs on a lift.
The second floor is where the water heater was. Like ours, which was on the roof and seldom got hotter than warm because of it, this one was much bigger and diligently kept at near boiling. The fires to do so heated the entire floor to almost too hot to stand. This is where the laundry is hung to dry, and at these temperatures, drying didn’t take long. On the way back to the clinic, I picked up yesterday’s laundry and headed back to put it all away and continue my chores.
It was after midnight before I could make use of a bed. With two beds to a room it wasn’t a stretch for me to take the other bed. The boy was sound asleep, but he’d been restless. Eh, I didn’t sleep well in a strange bed either.