He’s in one of my rooms. I pay attention to it now, because his window is closest to the nurses’ station and faces the automatic doors I push my cleaning cart through. I see him as soon as the doors breathe open and the negative pressure ruffles the gown’s paper against my clothes.
Everything’s faster in here, no time to catch up on anything or anyone, other than the dying.
I stay out of everybody’s way and clean wherever they aren’t.
When I peek in his room, the machines and tubes are still at it, feeding into his coming corpse. He gets his own room, mostly because he’s been here eighty-five days, longer than anyone else. Plus this hospital is where the stars and the money come. I can barely tell what he looks like anymore though because his face has swollen and stretched, covered with tape holding tubes jammed into his head. IV machines cluster around his bed like alien guards, blinking, and purring the meds into his bruised arms and belly. Catheters bleed out into sacks of brine.
The nursing staff won’t tell me anything about him because I’m “services”, but I know plenty. I figured it out. I scrolled Instagram and Twitter in my Comet Closet when he first came in, and there he was – singing and tap dancing with Savion Glover like the future’s at his feet. It’s some kind of workshop, tapping, stomping to a number from Shuffle Along. I recognize the routines, mostly because my Auntie Ida used to perform on Broadway back in the chorus. She’s the one who got me into dance. She knew that routine. And she knew who he was for sure. Watching him and Savion on my phone, it was their ease at it, improv and hip moves that made them float and made me whoop out loud.
Sometimes when I clean his room, they’ve flipped him onto his stomach to help him breathe better, even though the ventilator’s doing the breathing. It’s hard to see his face then, but I can see the tattoo of his baby’s name “Izzy” on his wrist over the bruising. It’s the same tattoo that’s on his Instagram.
The Covid’s got the doctors carving on him. After a couple mini-strokes, he got bruises and clots that went bad. They took a couple chunks out of his back and thigh. His hands and feet turned yellow purple and swelled up. Then one foot turned grey black. He wasn’t there yesterday when I showed up for my shift, so I thought he’d died but “No, not yet” Carol said. As ICU Charge nurse, Carol’s all business, and funny too. But she was so mad when I asked, it turned into: “That Fuckin’ ‘Rona. She’s not gettin’ him.”
We both like him. Her cause she’s kept him alive so long and he’s fighting for life. Me cause I’m a fan and can’t wait to see him dance in person. She didn’t say anything when I stayed late last night outside the ward, pacing in the hallway till they brought him back.
This was the first time I’d ever had a chance to just look at the art on the walls. So much money in this hospital, like it’s nothing to drop millions in a hallway people just rush through to visit their dying. I was half-dreaming of another life, staring at a black and white of Garland and Rooney smoking at rehearsal, when I heard the orderlies wheeling his gurney around the corner. His leg was gone.
As I drive home through empty Baldwin Hills to Ida’s bungalow in Gardena, seems like the only good thing these days is the traffic. Namely none. When I get there, routine’s the same: undress in the garage, run naked inside to scrub in hot soap, then stay awake. I make Ida hide in her bedroom. And we holler at each other catching up on our day. It drives us crazy. I know she’s lonely. None of the neighbors want to talk to her, because they know where I work and what I do. They think I’ll infect her and them.
When I’m all clean and naked in the kitchen, I’ll eat Cheerios and watch anything but the news. A helicopter will thwuck by overhead heading for BLM protests. And I’ll wait for morning to start over in the only place where there’s contact.
Trudging back in, you’d think it’d be quiet. But you’d be wrong. It’s like a future town all indoors. It takes forever to get from one tower to another. Just by walking from the staff parking lot to anywhere, you’re covering blocks. E.R.’s overflowing with sick. Gurneys lining hallways. And on the ward, even more sick. Even more racket.
Pushing the cleaning cart back into the ward, I look for him right away. There he is. Savion’s pal is still hangin’ in. Still fighting from the inside out. And when I go in his room, I can almost see the virus. Just sitting on his bed, casual, shedding sprinkles. Onto the IV machines. Draping over the tubes going into him. Waiting to land on the next body, to ooze into the wet stuff and grow there too.
I’m here to stop it. All the whirring and beeping of the boxes give him little twitches. I want to clean the tubes, but I can’t. No one does it. The nurses clean him. They clean his bed. They swap out the tubes for me to throw away. And I clean everything else. But no one cleans the tubes while they’re connected to him. Which I don’t think is right.
The closer I get to him, the harder it is to look at him now. He’s become so much smaller than in his pictures and TikTok routines.
His iPad is tie-wrapped to the bed guard. His wife and Izzy baby smile, frozen, staring from the tiny screen at his IV guardians. Sometimes Carol or another nurse turns on the iPad and lets his wife and baby talk to him, or sing to him. Today she reads a story to their Izzy while he lies there seeing nothing, maybe hearing. The story’s about five monkeys jumping on a bed. Izzy’s laughing. It’s relaxing to hear them while I clean.
I pull the hazard bag out of its support can in his room and jam it into the larger bin on my cart. And like that, I can seal it up inside. Then unfold a fresh bag for the can and tie the red knot that holds it to the rim.
I wheel the cart out of his room. The hazard bag bulges with disease. I feel its invisible cloud moving like smoke all around me. Out of the ward. Down the hazard elevator. Outside to the waste dock off Third St. And I leave it there.
The ocean fog’s all the way over here, blanketing everything grey and muffling the streets. I’ve got time to go to the parking lot for break. Fog tumbles between the open levels overlooking Burns & Alden Drives. I’m feeling smothered. I have to get to my truck to rip off PPE and the hair net just so I can rest on the seat for a minute to disinfect and vape. I check my phone for the last routine he put down, stare at his body and legs flying on TikTok. I know why his wife loves him. With legs like that and the way he places his hands in the air like deep sea satellites. Auntie Ida tried to show me that once, but I never understood why the hand had to be just so. “For balance, baby. Beauty.” She laughed. And if she liked the way I did it, she’d kiss my cheek squealing with pride, then smudge off her old lipstick.
I’ve got another eight hours on my shift after this break. A few minutes left, so I crank up the sounds in the parking lot to shake it all off, to stop thinking about cleaning death, to find a patch of music. I’m trying to get his TikTok routine down – Childish Gambino’s This is America. But he’s doing it with a Running-Man, Kool-Moe-De combo. And tapping it—like he did with Savion.
He’s just so good. Watching him on my tiny screen, above empty streets. Sci-fi fog rolling in.
I look up. Time to get back. I grab my stuff and beep the truck lock over my shoulder.
When I get back, right away I can tell it’s different. His room is bright and Carol’s in there with him. By the time I pace to his door, I can see it’s over. He’s on his back. All his tubes are gone, in a heap now in the corner can, waiting for me. All the IV drippers have been wheeled off, in use already on others. Carol is cleaning his body. It’s so odd now to see someone naked, with no mask, no shield, no gear or gown. All the bruises and damage still there, a roadmap of his torture, but the tracks’ll grow lighter as the blood sinks and his body cools.
Carol’s quiet, dabbing tape gum off his cheeks, along with caked blood and sweat.
She can’t look at me she’s so pissed, losing another battle. I know I’m not allowed to help her, but she doesn’t say anything when I reach to lay my hand on his.
Carol catches my eye. At first I got nothin’ and she’s always the strong one. But then I can feel it coming and so can she, so she tips her head for me to go snivel somewhere else. I don’t even notice my hand catches the bed rail that pulls a rip into my glove. While I’m walking away to the Comet Closet and peeling them off to weep, somehow I forget how the virus survives. It’s on my hands now and I rub it into my tears.
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