Phe, Chapter 3: The Salesman

I’ve been hanging around a hospital in Texas for a couple of days now. This run dropped me in the middle of the Texas hill country in August. By the looks of everyone around me, the heat must be bad. I know I’m here for the Salesman, but this extreme heat might demand an extra run or two of me while I’m here.

The Salesman has COPD and now pneumonia. They have a full mask on him to force the oxygen into his lungs. The hope is that his oldest daughter will make it here from Oregon to be by his side with her two younger sisters before he dies. The youngest lives locally and is the Salesman’s primary caregiver; the middle daughter arrived yesterday from Houston. She talks about how the heat is even worse back home and the two daughters argue over which city is the hottest.

Sibling rivalry is another thing I can’t get my head around: why exactly do human siblings compete all the time? I see it often in rooms like this one. The nervous and worried energy overwhelms them so they find past events and old arguments to bicker about. The energy has to be released somehow. It’s always stupid stuff like the weather on a beach vacation 30 years ago, or whose dog was better behaved when they were kids, or which one caught the bigger trout that one time they went camping. It’s like a verbal version of the guy who won’t stop shaking his leg when he’s sitting down: that energy has to come out somehow.

Griffin is here to tend the sisters. He’s another one of my friends among the comforting presences. The two women start up again. He looks at me and rolls his eyes before resting a hand on each of their shoulders. They settle down and the middle daughter decides to text the older sister to see if she’s landed and made it to her rental car.

I nod at Griffin and slip out of the room. The Salesman isn’t going any time soon. This kind of death comes with choices. The Salesman is waiting for something, but he’s the only one who can name what that is and even he doesn’t know it yet. Maybe it’s the arrival of the oldest daughter; maybe it’s a chance to say something to all three girls; maybe he wants to hear the daughters say they love each other one last time—there’s no way to know.

I have a feeling his wife will appear when time gets closer. She died when the youngest daughter was just a year old. I remember because I was the one who made that run. She was heartbroken. The mom didn’t want to leave her girls and the Salesman but she had no choice. The doctors put her on bed rest when she was pregnant with their last daughter. No one knew it, but she had developed a blood clot in her leg. One day when she was out playing with her girls, the clot moved and travelled to her lungs, a pulmonary embolism. There was no way the doctors could have known, and no way she could have felt it coming. One moment she was pushing the middle daughter in the swing in the yard and the next she was lying on the lawn. The oldest daughter ran to the neighbor’s to call the ambulance. I watched as the mother’s spirit rose up from her body and registered deep emotional pain. We floated there, watching the girls fall on top of the mother’s body. The neighbors had to lift them off of her so the paramedics could try in vain to revive her.

I find an empty stairwell and manifest into a form similar to that of a former coworker of the Salesman: a woman who answered the phone on the floor. He doesn’t know that she passed away a year ago in Dallas. He had liked her and even thought about asking her out, but he couldn’t reconcile sharing his attention with her and his daughters. His girls always came first, no matter what. He had worked hard to become mother and father to them. He learned to braid hair and managed to pay for braces and most of college for all three of them.

The only thing he allowed for himself was his cigarettes, a small indulgence that only took 2-3 minutes but helped take the edge off of his worry. Between breaks from the floor, drinks with clients, and a couple of cigarettes after getting the girls bathed and to bed every night, the Salesman had worked up to a pack-a-day habit. And now it was going to take him from the daughters who had been the center of his life.

I knock on the Salesman’s door and the daughters invite me in. “I’m Tiffany,” I say. “I’m Barb’s daughter. Mom worked with your dad at the dealership and she asked me to look in on him. She heard he was in the hospital.” I act a little nervous and unsure so that the daughters will open up. It works.

“Come on in. . . Tiffany, did you say?”

“Yes. Thank you. I won’t stay long.”

“No! We welcome the company, especially from someone connected to Daddy’s work. He loved his job and the people he worked with at the shop. I think I remember meeting your mom once. Dark hair? Blue eyes?”

“That’s her! Big eyes and bigger hair. And lots of jewelry! She wears a ring on every finger.”

The daughters giggle. They remember Barb. She loved to tell kids jokes that were a little too mature for them and the girls still find them hilarious.

I step over to the Salesman and smile. His eyes brighten up, even under his mask. He recognizes the resemblance but doesn’t know quite who I am, only that my face is somehow comforting. He reaches his hand out from under his hospital sheet. I take it and give it a squeeze then wink at him.

He smiles again, then turns his head away. He’s tired.

I step back and prop myself on the window sill behind the daughters’ chairs. Hospital rooms seem to get smaller and smaller. I don’t especially enjoy spending time in them in my manifest form. I’d rather be free to float and linger.

After some small talk followed by silence, the daughters settle back into remembering childhood trips and fretting over their sister’s arrival. We hear a knock on the door and the daughters perk up, hoping it’s their sister.

“Come in!” they almost shout.

“Oh, it’s you Dr. Markham,” the younger daughter says.

“Sorry to disappoint,” the doctor says in a tender and caring voice. After centuries of being in sick rooms, I’m still adjusting to seeing female doctors.

“No, please. We’re just waiting for our sister. She’s flying in from Oregon this afternoon. She should be here any minute.”

“I see. I’m glad she’s coming. I know your father will be glad to have you all in the same room again. And who are you?” She’s looking at me. Honestly, I had forgotten that I was manifest and they could see me.

“My apologies. My name is Tiffany. I’m the daughter of an old friend.”

“Nice to meet you. Do you mind stepping out while I visit with the patient and his family?”

“No. Of course. I was about to leave anyway. I just had promised Mama I’d look in on them. It was nice meeting all of you.” I step into the waiting room, trying to decide whether or not to change forms again. I choose to stay manifest for selfish reasons. There’s a Coke machine in the waiting room and a cold Coca-Cola is my indulgence, maybe the only one I have. The machine drops one down just as I walk up to it. I grab the can and listen for the pop and hiss as I pull the top. Now this, this is one thing about humans I can understand.

As I sit down to enjoy my personal vice, the doctor pops her head in.

“Tiffany, is it?” I have to think for a moment. I’m not always good at remembering the stories I create for myself.

“Yes!” I say a little too loudly. “I’m Tiffany. The daughter of a friend.”

“Yes, you said. Were your mother and Mr. Sanchez good friends?”

“They were. They worked together for years.” I sincerely hope she doesn’t ask me many more questions. I don’t think I have the creative energy to make it any more detailed.

“Tell your mom she made good friends. Mr. Sanchez has been a good patient, as in the real meaning of the word, always joking, even on the worst days. Even now he’s being pretty amazing.”

“Thanks, Dr. Markham, I’ll let her know.”

“Please, call me Anne. I get the feeling you’re not local, so I don’t expect I’ll be seeing you as a patient.”

“Anne. Mother of Mary. Grandmother of Jesus.” I say.

“That’s right. Few people around here know that.”

She must have a great rapport with her patients. We’ve been sitting here for two minutes and she already has me engaged.

“It’s nice to meet you, Anne. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and for being, obviously, a great doctor. The work you do matters, more than you can know.”

“Thanks. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.” She looks down and I can see she’s tired.

“Trust me, I’m an expert. Keep up the good work.”

She looks at me a little strangely, then smiles before I walk out of the waiting room. I leave my perfectly good Coke behind, but I can’t stay with Anne any longer. Something pulls me away, tells me to leave her.

I step out of the hospital into the Texas sun and breathe in the hot air one last time before slipping out of my manifest form. I’ll be better off being able to float around the room. This is going to be a long night and Griffin and I will need all the room we can get. The third sister has just arrived and behind her I see a comforting presence that I don’t recognize. By the end of the night we’ll know each other pretty well. If she’s travelling with the daughter, then that means the daughter is hurting.

All night we watch over the Salesman and his daughters. His blood pressure and pulse drop. The nurses hear the alarms from the machines, then rush in with their implements and carts, just in time to watch his body claw its way back up to more stable levels. He does this again and again. The daughters chat, take turns sleeping, panic every time he seems to be declining, and hold each other.

Around four a.m. the Salesman makes a motion with his hands and scratches a note on a piece of paper held up for him by the middle daughter. The youngest sees what’s written on the page and bolts out the door. The other two women look at each other, confused. Griffin stays in the room with the other comforting presence. I learn that her name is Mariah and she’s relatively new. This is her 543rd run. Griffin knows the younger daughter is in the best condition, having been the one who has spent the most time with the Salesman, so doesn’t go with her.

A half hour later the daughter returns, carrying something. “Daddy, I found them. It took me a minute because I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it, but then I remembered your nightstand.” She reaches out and places a scratched up Zippo lighter in the Salesman’s hand. He smiles, then closes his eyes and sighs.

It’s time. The wife arrives along with the spirit of a young man in army fatigues. I get it now: the Salesman suffers from survivor’s guilt. The Salesman looks at each of his girls in turn, then straight at his wife and his army buddy, both of whom had died long before him and he had never learned to deal with either death. He nods and closes his eyes, sucking in one last deep breath. He opens his eyes long enough to catch mine and smiles, nods, and exhales.

The daughters fall on the Salesman’s body, the same as they had their mother’s all those years before. Like their mother, the Salesman floats above them, full of pride and love and heartbreak. He’s tired and he’s ready. I do my job, watching as he journeys between his wife and his friend.
This time I collapse in the form of a worn lab coat on the back of a chair behind the nurses’ station. I’m close enough to the charts that I can listen to Dr. Markham–Anne. I find her voice soothing as she talks herself through the notes she makes. She records the steps they took to make the Salesman comfortable and that they had decided not to attempt to revive him, per the daughters’ wishes and her own best judgment.

Griffin left Mariah tending to the daughters so he could stand next to Anne and near the nurses. He knows Anne is grieving for the daughters and places a hand on her shoulder as a tear drops on the chart beneath her. He spots me out of the corner of his eye, crumpled on the back of the chair. He grins and nods.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s