Fire and Wanda, Chapter 3, Scene 1

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Chapter 3

 

“There’s an answer for everything, Berve. You just need to know where to look.”

 

Yeah, well. Maybe. It’s what I wanted to believe anyway. Berve and I were sitting side-by-side holding hands, just staring straight ahead. As many people as there were in the house (Berve always had a lot of folks in her place) nobody bothered us or even seemed to notice us sitting there. It was funny in a way, because I hadn’t been back to Chicago in ten years, and yet now that I was here I was trying to figure out if I’d ever left. Berve had a few more gray hairs, and maybe she’d picked up a few more pounds, but for the most part she looked the same. Same sadness tucked away behind those slanted dark eyes, like she was always trying to keep you from seeing whatever it was she’d just seen. Maybe it was a mother’s protective reflex, I’m not really sure. Even when she smiled, as warm as those smiles could make you feel, there was always the pain you could sense just off to the side, just two steps outside of your peripheral vision.

That day, which was the day after I’d gotten back in Chicago, Berve was wearing a pink house robe with matching slippers that looked as if they’d been marched around the block a few hundred times. Berve wasn’t the type to get rid of things – or people – once she’d grown attached. I had called her the day before from the airport right after I called Mrs. Spiller, letting her know I was in town and wanted to stop by. Even though I hadn’t told her I planned on coming she didn’t seem surprised by my call. Told me to drop by the next day, which was Sunday.

“Want me to come in the afternoon? I’m guessing you’re probably gonna be at church in the morning, right?”

“I probably should be there, but I’m just not feeling up to it. If you can believe it, I haven’t been to church in almost two months. Pastor keeps calling. I keep telling him I’ll be there the next week. But I never go. I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t know…”

“Berve…?”

“I’ll be all right, sweetheart. Just some things. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here and I’m glad you called. Why don’t you come on by around 11 or so. My daughter’s gonna be here cooking, so you can get you something to eat. You remember Donna, don’t you?”

I nodded with a smile I was glad she couldn’t see. Girl had curves that made a Coke bottle look like a section of garden hose.

“Yeah. I remember. How’s she doing, anyway?”

“Divorced. Two kids. Living with me.”

“Really?”

“All right now, boy. I can hear the horns growing in your voice. Leave my little girl alone.”

“Yes m’am.”

She giggled, which made me feel less worried about her well-being. But the next day when she answered the door in her robe, I found myself worrying all over again. That plus her not going to church sent up huge red warning signs. Berve had always been the type not only to never miss church but to answer the door in what to most folks would look like her Sunday finest, even if it was just the paperboy coming to collect for the route. Berve was a very proud woman.

I met her for the first time more than a decade earlier at the University of Chicago hospital at the burn center on my first day at work. After more than three months through a long hot summer of beating the streets looking for anything at all, I finally landed the job. Actually it was my roommate Charles (we had another roommate we called Ray but she was almost never there) who hooked me up, which was a good thing since we were starting to run low on food money. He had a gig at the hospital working as a clerk on some other floor and used to always tell me about all the women he was fucking over there, although I could never figure out where these numerous liaisons were taking place. But the other thing Charles used to bother me with was telling me I should apply for a job at the hospital. Aside from the fact that I was nervous about what I might see, I also couldn’t get myself to believe that it would be as easy to get a gig there as he was saying. Charles, who was originally from the Liberty City area of Miami, and who seemed to love nothing more in life than fucking and getting high, made it sound like all I had to do was just go down to the personnel office, fill out an application, take the test, and that was it.

“But don’t you have to know how to type to be a clerk?” I asked him one day when the heat hung heavy like a wet steam blanket and we were both just sitting there in the so-called living room sprawled out in our shorts and t-shirts with the windows open trying not to move too much.

Charles just grinned at me as he took a hit off the remainder of the joint he was holding before squashing it out in the overflowing jar lid on the floor.

“Man, you worry too damned much about shit. Don’t even worry about that shit, OK? Shit. Like I told you, I got it all handled. If you know the right people, that kinda shit doesn’t even matter.”

“You know, you sure do say ‘shit’ a lot. Any idea why that is?”

I thought he was gonna choke he was laughing so hard, and I started to figure maybe I shouldn’t have cracked my little joke when he had all that reefer smoke blowing up in his lungs.

“You’s a funny motherfucker, man. For real. But square biz, you need to come down. You could be workin’ inside a couple weeks. No joke. Just let me know when you’re goin’ down and I’ll tell Anita so she’ll know to look out for your shit. Anita’s my girl on the inside.”

Well, not exactly. Anita was the supervisor, and she damned sure wasn’t anybody’s girl. But Anita did have a big heart, and she actually was cool enough with Charles that she looked out for me. I know that for a fact because my two-fingered score on the typing part of the test, which was supposed to be so important, didn’t even seem to matter in the end. What mattered was the one-on-one interview with Anita, which lasted for about 45 minutes. I think she wanted to see for herself that I wasn’t some crack head who was gonna jump ship inside a week and leave her hanging with an open slot and some angry nurses.

Apparently I made the right impression. A week later Charles comes home with this big grin on his face. At the time I was in the kitchen with the refrigerator door open trying to figure how to make something out of nothing.

“What?” I said, looking over my shoulder at him standing there.

“Nigger didn’t I tell you? Sheeeeit!”

I stood up like a bolt.

“Get the fuck out! I got the job?”

“Man, I told you not to worry about all that dumb shit you were trippin’ on. It ain’t about that out here. Chicago’s one of those who-you-know places. Matter of fact that’s damned near the only thing that matters to these folks. Believe me when I tell you.”

We gave each other a tight hug, then slapped palms so loud it sounded like firecrackers going off.

“So when am I supposed to start?”

“She’s supposed to call you tomorrow, but I think it’s gonna be next week.”

“Damn!”

And with that we pretty much wasted our brains for the rest of the night. You would have thought I’d just gotten hired on Wall Street.

Anita called the next day like Charles said she would, but she said she wanted me to come in to fill out some paperwork in a couple of days. I actually wouldn’t be starting until the week after next. Whatever. The main thing was now I could actually look a few days into the future and see food on the table. This was a good thing. But more important than that, especially since Charles was due to be leaving back to Florida in a few weeks and I had to get out of the apartment. It meant I had a shot at making a way for myself out here without tucking tail and crawling back home like most of my friends back in Denver were laying bets was gonna happen.

So my shift was in the Burn Unit, and my hours were from 4-8 p.m. six days a week, with a decent number of opportunities for overtime. My job was basically to type up patient charts, answer the phones, and regulate the traffic of visitors coming in and out of the burn center. Since it was a smaller unit than a lot of others, and because most of the patients in there were so messed up, the rules for visitation and other things were a little different than in the other units where patients weren’t in quite such bad shape. It took me awhile to get used to all the screaming that went on whenever a patient would be getting his or her bandages changed. The pain of having them peeled away when there was no skin underneath was excrutiating, and there wasn’t one patient I ever saw who was able to ‘man up’ and pretend like it didn’t hurt. Sometimes the biggest dudes, the ones you knew were probably striking terror into folks on the outside, were the ones hollering the loudest practically until their lungs gave out. The more serious the burn, the more hair-raising the screams.

Anyway, even though there are buses and trains to take you just about everywhere in Chicago, it was more trouble than it was worth for me to try and catch the two buses I would have needed to get me from where I lived in Hyde Park to the hospital, which actually wasn’t that far away just to the South. So I walked to and from work every day, pretty much rain or shine. In the wintertime it was a bitch, but wasn’t much I could do about it.

When I showed up on that first day, I’m sure looking about as lost and out of place as I felt, I just sat at my little desk by the window hoping nobody would come for visitation until after my shift was over. I had bought some paperback horror novel from the store downstairs and was doing my best to hide myself as deep into the story as I could. My immediate supervisor, Ken, a scrawny pimply-faced white guy who wore a perpetually tired and nervous grin, had told me during a break in my orientation session that it was actually OK to read when things were slow on the unit so long as there weren’t any visitors and the chief doctor wasn’t around. Good thing for me I never actually saw Dr. Roberts the entire time I worked in the burn center. Heard a lot of unsettling tales about him from the nurses, but never had that eye-to-eye, which was probably a good thing.

So there I was, leaning back in my chair, the unit considerably more quiet than it would become in about an hour during bandage-changing time, and I was happily flipping from one page to the next thinking maybe this wouldn’t be quite so bad after all. Especially not for just four hours per day.

Then Wanda shows up. The shift change meeting had concluded in the back room, so now the nurses were out on the floor checking in personally on each of the nine patients. There were 12 patients total on the floor when all beds were occupied. Wanda first caught my attention with her slow, easy smile, but it was those large, dark, cat-like eyes that ruined me. And she knew it. One thing I would learn about Wanda fairly quickly was that she was an excellent flirt. She knew how to get a man to look, knew when she had him, knew how to handle him – and how to get rid of him when she got tired.

To me the funniest thing about Wanda was her skinny, somewhat hairy, chicken legs. Especially from the knees down. She had no chest to speak of. Hell, I had a bigger chest than she did. And unlike your standard sister, she had a behind like a cliff face. It was nice and wide, which I liked, but what it possessed going east to west it sadly lacked when extending north to south. A curveless wonder.

But that was the miracle of Wanda. Despite the chicken legs, the flat ass, and the flat chest, she was the sexiest female I had ever seen in life. The way she swayed, the slow, smooth, caramel-sweet teasing tone of her voice, the way she cocked her head and cut her eyes…

Wanda was far more aware of her physical shortcomings than anyone else, which meant she was far more aware of how to compensate for them. She knew how to make a man only see the good stuff, and men being men, it was only the good stuff that most of them wanted.

“Hey,” she said, after hopping up onto a nearby patient transport cart. Except for mine there weren’t any chairs up front, probably because the nurses weren’t supposed to be seen sitting down. Guess that made sense in an academic sort of way. The truth was that the nurses I worked with had an innate sense of how things were flowing on the floor almost from the minute they stepped through the door to begin their shifts. They could hear it and gauge it just by the sound and intensity of the anguished sighs and moans that permeated the air night and day.

I looked up from my book. Smiled. Flipped my hand up in a brief wave.

“Hey.”

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kaoblues
Writer and musician.

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