Short Stories

The Five Don’ts

“Memorial Hospital,” I told the driver. He nodded and pulled away from the curb.

The taxi smelled vaguely of bleach and vomit which didn’t bother me. Bleach was just one of the tools of my trade and vomit was one of the reasons I had a trade. I worked as a janitor in the emergency department at the Memorial Hospital. Cleaning up after sick people was my job.

The emergency department was one of the newest areas of the hospital and was outfitted with new equipment and machines and beds. But it didn’t take long before it smelled and felt just like the old emergency department. Sickness has a certain smell to it and that smell permeated my uniform and my skin. Some days it was in my hair and the odour wafted around me. But I wore that scent like a badge of honour because I was proud of my job.

“And finally, just a reminder. Please don’t engage the patients,” the ward supervisor said on our first day in the new facility. He looked up at all of us from the front of the room where he had been giving the janitorial staff a briefing.

The new guy beside me raised his hand and didn’t wait to be called on. “What does engage the patients mean?” Everyone groaned.

The ward supervisor patiently explained and enumerated the rules on his fingers. “Don’t talk to them. Don’t talk to their families. Don’t help them out of bed. Don’t get them something to drink. Don’t get the nurse.”

Everyone, except the new guy, knew these rules as the Five Don’ts. (Which we joke about and call the Five Donuts.) The rules are supposed to make our lives easier. We keep our heads down, get the work done, ignore the patients, clean up vomit, and disinfect with bleach.

But I couldn’t help myself. Three years ago, on my first day on the job, I broke four of the Five Don’ts before my first break. The patient was pitiful. She was mewing like a newborn kitten and I wasn’t sure if she was crying or in pain. Or both.

I peeked at her as I pushed the mop under the hospital bed, being careful not to touch the bedframe as we had been taught, not wanting to disturb her. She looked to be at least a hundred years old and about as small as toddler. I later learned her name was Addy, short for Addison. Her eyes were closed and the sounds coming out of her made me ache.

I looked at the room known as ‘Emerg A’. There were twelve beds placed around the room in a circle. Everything was white – the walls, the linoleum floor, the bed linens, the furniture, everything. The monotone colour was blinding, even now, late at night, making it feel like high noon in the desert. The middle of the room housed a large modular station where the nurses and doctors worked. Unnatural noises came from around the room, sounds of hissing machines that provided the breath of life and electronic beeps that kept beat with worn out hearts. Everyone at the center station was occupied.

I bent over the bed and whispered to her, “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”

I moved the mop in a lazy arc, pretending to be cleaning.

“A drink. I’m parched,” she said. I watched the center station and picked up a cup with a straw from the bedside table, and placed the straw in her mouth. She sucked on the straw like it was life itself and drained the few inches of water. Her eyes opened and she forced a smile at me. And in that moment she won me over. Within minutes she had convinced me to call her daughter, who didn’t answer, so I went and got the nurse for her.

At my disciplinary hearing two weeks later, I lamely offered up that I had not broken rule 3. Which in my opinion was the only one of the Five Donuts that made sense.

“Front entrance?”

The cab driver’s voice startled me. I looked out the cab window and wondered where I was. The tree-lined street was familiar and it took me a moment to remember where I was. And my stomach sank at the thought of my errand. Addy’s daughter had called me that morning and I offered to help.

“No,” I told the driver, “the morgue, at the back entrance on Clarence Street.”

I was here to say goodbye to my friend Addy.