By Claudia Cottle Hinz
Nurse Shirl McCaffrey told a supervisor that she planned to leave just before 5:00, but at the inquiry, a scrub tech said he saw her on the 5:00 bus, which proved it was closer to 4:45 when she left the hospital. In the court stenographer’s notes, another passenger identified Shirl slumped over her purse, the bracelet she never took off, a slim, silver heart, swinging wildly.
And so what if she left a few minutes early? She had spent her whole life arriving early and staying late and no one ever noticed. At 16:41 Shirl entered her patient notes in the computer, printed copies for the next shift and for supervisor Molly Slope, with special instructions to keep an ear out for room 244, Dr. Doug Bram’s last patient just up from surgery.
“Thank you so much, Molly,” Shirl said. “You know I wouldn’t ordinarily do this, but it’s the buses. They’re never on time and I told him I’d be there at 6 and well, I think tonight might be the night.”
“Ah, the mystery man,” Molly said. Shirl watched her type. It hurt to look at Molly’s hands. Molly complained they kept the OR cold as a crypt and her skin was parched to death. Shirl was more careful. She remembered to use plenty of intensive hand cream and on the weekends, slept in special gloves. “When are we going to meet him?” Molly asked. She didn’t look up from the computer screen.
Shirl hid her smile with her hand but her eyes would have given her away. They were a hazy blue with pinpricks of darker blue that in a certain light looked like blood.
“Well, have fun, Shirley. Gotta run,” Molly said, racing off to find Dr. Bram who wasn’t answering his phone or the overhead page.
On the bus, Shirl checked her watch. She would have fifteen minutes to wash her face, change and start fresh with make-up. She stacked her hands over her stomach where the nervousness was. Lines of sweat streaked her scrubs. Being this fresh in love felt a lot like a stomach bug. Maybe she should have a glass of wine before meeting Doug. He would be waiting for her there at the café, sitting outside on one of those French bistro style wicker chairs, on his phone, putting in patient orders, his long legs blocking the sidewalk like he was a giant playing house. He would look up to watch her breezing toward him, light and pretty in a petal pink dress. She pictured the peonies in her neighbor’s small yard, so overwhelmed by their own beauty and smell, that they hung their heads.
The woman opposite was frowning at her. Shirl looked down and saw the brown stain on her scrub top. Could be iodine but it looked worse. She’d had two nasty clean-ups. She rolled up the hem to hide the stain and then the bus went dark.
Shirl blinked. They were stopped in the tunnel. A man reached over her to force open the window and the smell of exhaust rushed in. The black murk of the tunnel walls covered her. She’d have to shower now. She’d be late and he’d promised her that this time he would be on time.
Her phone rang. It was the hospital.
A girdle snapped inside her and for a second, she thought she was about to lose control of her bowels.
“Yes.” She felt inside her purse for the bottle.
“It’s Molly. Your replacement called in late with car trouble. You were already gone…”
“Room 244 has a name. Mrs. Kroner. She went into arrest fifteen minutes ago. You weren’t here and they had to call us up from surgery. Dr. Bram’s M.I.A. You’re in trouble, Shirley. You better get back here.”
Her phone beeped. “Hold on.” It was Doug. She clicked over.
“Shirl. I can’t make it.”
“Oh?” Her voice was quiet in the tunnel. She rattled the pills inside her purse but couldn’t hear how many were left.
“My patient just coded and I wasn’t there. Fuck! I should never… I can’t… I can’t do this. I shouldn’t have let it get this far. I think my wife…”
She felt dizzy. She wanted to tell him there wasn’t enough air for all of them on the bus, that she couldn’t breathe. This morning, he would have known what to say. “The hospital is calling me.”
“Shirl, you didn’t tell anyone?”
She clicked back to the other line.
Molly was saying, “Shirley? Are you there?”
She was picturing Mrs. Kroner. Of course Shirl knew her name. It was the others who never used names. Mrs. Kroner who took her hand and said, “I’m so ashamed” when Shirl changed out the sheets again.
“I’m not Shirley.”
“My name’s Shirl. It’s not a nickname. Shirl’s my given name.”
Shirl could feel the heat on her lips before she spoke. “I could sue.” The word hissed.
“Sue? What are you talking about?”
“Sexual harassment. Dr. Bram.”
The bus was quiet.
“Look. Shirl…” The way Molly’s tongue got stuck on the “l” made Shirl smile. “Calm down. Why don’t you come back in and we can talk.”
But she didn’t feel like talking. She slipped her phone into her purse. She hadn’t hung up and Molly was still muttering, “Shirl, Shirl, Shirl…” deep down in the blackout of the purse.
The frowning woman had fallen asleep. The bus was dark. It wasn’t going anywhere. Shirl pulled the bottle of pills out. She started to count them, but she was so tired. She emptied the pills into her hand. She could just sleep and never wake up. From far away she heard her name.