Monday, March 28, 2011

It was the same all over the city.

In the days immediately after the plague the buses were running again, though there were few passengers. During long stretches of the day, a coach would be occupied by the driver alone, guiding rows of empty seats through the rainy avenues. The smell of burning was still in the air. Everything smelled like fire: our hair, our clothes, our shelters, even the food we ate. It would take a whole winter of rain to wash all that burning from the air, to clean the soot from the faces of the buildings and citizens left behind. We didn't mind the charred air; it masked other, worse smells we wanted to forget. The buses were part of a general plan to return life to its normal state as soon as possible. Vast numbers of citizens and large swaths of the city had been reduced to cinders but public transportation was up and running. Schools, hospitals, churches and liquor stores were open and I made pilgrimages to all of them in their turn. We all did. What else were we going to do?

I saw the woman outside one of the hospitals, where she stood on the sidewalk opposite the main doors. People broken and breaking, mending and fading, living and dying all streamed past while she held herself immobile. Her hands and face were pale, almost the yellow of fresh butter, startling against a black wool coat. Beneath her coat a crimson scarf wound about her neck, a burst of color that brought to mind houses aflame in the middle of the night. I had seen this woman before, during the days of panic. I shuddered and walked on, into the hospital to do my duty. The woman and I were destined to collide; her duties intersected unhappily with mine and I didn't wish to associate with a thing like her. These were the sorts of thoughts I couldn't afford to be distracted by at the hospital. It was best to concentrate on the awful task that lay ahead of me.

The national guardsmen checked my identification and I was escorted back into the secure wards. A stack of files in sickening yellow binders with crimson and black tabs was waiting for me. The charge nurse put the files into my arms and then scuttled away as if it was me who was unclean. Her name badge said Angela. She was permitted to ask my name and I was permitted to tell her, but she never asked. I never offered. I carried the files to the dim office the hospital lent us, placed the ugly folders on the desk and closed the door behind me. I sat down and examined the files. The epidemic was officially over, the buses ran on time and there was fresh produce at the grocers but there is no end to death. Every day I think of that poem by Shelly: Death is here, death is there, death is busy everywhere. There is a high suicide rate in my department.

The files were all in order. The doctors had followed the directives and it was time for me to act as an officer of the state. One by one I signed the last forms, closed the files and set them aside. Through the closed door I heard someone cry out in pain, a woman I think. There was always noise in the secure wards.

I dug through my coat pockets until I found a pack of cigarettes. Smoking is of course forbidden in hospitals but the office stank of carbolic and the sickness and I needed the nicotine to steady my nerves before I went out into the wards. Some of my colleagues carried whiskey in pocket flasks. My colleagues were good men, or anyway they were men like me, but I did not believe in drunkenness on duty though I was never so forward as to chide anyone for it. We all must make our way through life somehow, from the safety of bed out into the world and back, from this morning to tomorrow's morning, facing all this alone. It's not my place to condemn.

I dropped my cigarette to the floor and with the heel of my right shoe I smeared the butt against the tiles. Someone would come sweep up later; I always smoked after signing off on the death files but there was never evidence of this when I returned to the office. Through the door I could still hear a woman crying and I hesitated to go out into the wards. It is little wonder that doctors prescribe tranquilizers so often. I was developing a headache.

I carried the stack of files to the nurse's station and the woman there took the folders but did not look at me. On a few occasions I'd spoken to the nurses about the weather or some other trivia, attempting to build an awareness of our shared humanity and mission, but the nurses never answered me. They didn't like me at all; in their eyes I was nothing more than a duty, a hateful task. I was not a man with a beating heart and blood in his veins. I was not a human being at all. My headache grew a little more intense and I thought about asking for aspirin and a glass of water. Surely a nurse wouldn't ignore a man in need of medical help.

"Nurse Angela," I said.

She stood and walked away from her station, stopping twenty or so feet down the corridor with her back to me. My right eye throbbed suddenly, as if it would burst. I straightened my tie and walked down the corridor toward the critical wing. I could feel the nurse's eyes on my back as I walked along.

An orderly recognized me and waved me into a room that was narrow and long and dark and lined with wheeled beds. A corpse lay on each bed, covered with a red sheet. There were yellow and black tags pinned to the sheets, one at the foot of every bed. I knew that a matching tag was tied to the large toe of each corpse’s right foot, beneath the red sheets. The air smelled of the sickness, of meat and blood and bowel. This was all wrong.

"They are dead?" My question came out more quietly than I intended and for a moment I didn’t think the orderly had heard me. Just as I was about to repeat myself, he answered.

"The other government officer was here earlier. There was a mix-up in the scheduling, apparently."

"And so these people are dead."

"You were not going to let them live, were you?" He did not sound apologetic. His question was a challenge.

"That is not the point." It was the woman. She had come before me. This is not the way it had been ordered. There would be trouble at the Department now.

"What will you do?”

"My duty. Leave me alone, won’t you?"

It was the same all over the city. At hospital after hospital I found that the woman had preceded me, in violation of the directives. My headache grew steadily worse and by nightfall it seemed as though my body would soon split apart, from the crown of my skull down through my ribcage. I cradled my head in the palm of my hand during the bus ride home and nearly missed my stop. That would have been unpleasant; I don't like being outside after dark. The plague is officially over but one never knows and so I hurried along the quiet block from the bus stop to my building. There was a note tacked above the row of doorbells, right over the placard listing my name.

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