The room was cold and when the man sat down in the metal chair she could see him stiffen. He smiled at her uneasily and she could see the deep lines in his coarse black face. As he eased back into the metal chair and dropped his shoulders, Rena could tell that he had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to be cold any more-- he was that kind of man.
“Have you ever done this before?” Rena asked.
“Yeah, but it’s been a few years,” he said.
His forearm was thick as she turned his wrist upwards. Long veins popped up from underneath his skin when he clenched his fist. She tied the slim rubber tube around his arm, just above his elbow, and asked if that was all right, he nodded and kept looking straight ahead. When she rubbed the wet cotton ball on his arm he jumped a little, as if surprised. Rena asked again if he was all right and he nodded again.
“Was it cancer?” she said.
“The last time you had this done. Was that when you had lung cancer?”
“Yeah. I guess it’s been a little over five years now.”
“That’s great. From what your file said it looked as if you were in the later stages. It’s hard to beat when it’s that far along, but I guess I don’t have to tell you.”
“It was misery, real misery. But, Doc keeps telling me I’m all clear, so I ain’t going to argue with him.”
When she sank the needle into his vein she could see him tighten again, like he was waiting to be punched. The clear radiation drained from the syringe and into his body; in a matter of hours it would be absorbed into his bones. The big fluorescent light above them buzzed and flickered and the man looked up at it.
“Looks like you got a short in that bulb,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s been doing that for a while. I need to tell the janitor, but I keep forgetting. Are you handy with stuff like that?”
“Yeah, I worked on a few construction crews over the years. You pick up stuff along the way.”
“I’m all thumbs with that kind of stuff,” Rena said.
She pulled the needle out of his arm and saw a small purple drop of blood pop out. The white gauze turned pink when she pushed it into the bend of his arm with her thumb. She took his wrist and raised his arm to a full bend and he looked like he was flexing his muscle, but he wasn’t. The rubber tube snapped when she took it off of his arm. She put the cap back onto the needle and unscrewed the top and dropped it into the red needle carton.
“Did your doctor tell you that you would have to come back in a few hours to do the scan?” she said.
“Yeah, he did. What did you just inject me with?”
“It’s radiation. That’s how we see what’s inside you. It lights up your bones for the machine here.”
Rena turned and looked at her big clock that hung on the wall just above her desk.
“I’m going to need you back in here at two o’clock for the scan.”
“Okay. I’ll be back then.”
He picked up his jacket from the back of the chair and took the gauze off of his arm and tossed it into the trash can. He glanced down at where the needle had been.
“Do you need a band-aid for that?” Rena asked.
“Naw, I think it’s stopped bleeding.”
“All right, then. See you in a few hours.”
The man nodded and smiled a slow smile. He slipped his jacket on and walked out of her office.
Rena walked around to the sink behind the partition that separated the office from where the treadmill and the scanning table stood, and she washed her hands. Her stomach rumbled a little as she walked back around and looked at the clock to see that it was nearly lunch time. The cafeteria was serving chicken salad today, so she pulled a few bucks from her purse, left her quiet room, and walked down the long, cold hallway.
When he came back in he seemed a little more relaxed, but he still wore the heavy smile and overwrought eyes. He took his jacket off again and draped it across the chair. Rena guided him over to the scanner and asked him to lie down. When he had stretched out on the thin table his wide shoulders were hanging over the edges. Rena gently shoved the table down a few inches and walked over to her computer a few feet away. She dimmed the lights in the room.
“Now this is going to get really close to your face. You may feel it on the tip of your nose for a moment, but it will eventually move down. The whole scan should take about thirty minutes. If you feel like you need to stop just tell me and I can pause it, but try your best not to stop because we will just have to start it all over again. Do you have any questions?”
“No. I think I’ll be all right.”
“All right, then.”
The machine made a gentle humming sound as it began to move slowly down his head. The flat surface of the camera moved so slowly that it was hard to tell it was doing anything, but before the man knew it, the camera was less than an inch away from his nose. Rena was facing her computer and watching the silhouette of the man’s body begin to light up as the camera slowly ran over his face.
He breathed heavily and Rena could hear the sound of it over the hum of the camera. She turned in her chair to look at him and he looked the same as he had before, heavy but calm. When the camera finished moving over his face she would begin to speak to him again. The chatter eased some people and others would actually fall asleep. That was always fine with Rena; when they dozed off she would pick up a book and read, and the pressure to entertain and keep them calm for thirty minutes would not be on her shoulders.
Most people were cold when they would lie on the table and a lot of them would complain about it throughout the entire procedure, no matter how many thin blankets Rena placed over them. This man hadn’t complained and didn’t seem to need much; those were always the best ones.
The flat screen of the camera had now moved down to the man’s thick neck. His breathing had eased off, since the screen was no longer so close to his face. Out of sight, out of mind.
“So, where exactly is the pain in your back?” Rena asked. The man turned his head suddenly towards her, as if he had been startled awake.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s my lower back. Any ideas what it could be?”
“No, I couldn’t say. I just do these scans here and pass them on to the doctors.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad way to make a living.”
“It’s not bad. I enjoy it, for the most part. What about you? Are you still in construction?”
“No, I retired about a year ago. I wish I was still working though. I’m bored to death most days.”
“It must be nice to be able to spend all that time at home, though. I’m sure your family likes having you around.”
“It’s just me. My wife died four years ago. We never had kids.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, about your wife I mean.”
“Yeah, the cancer got her. She watched me beat it and then less than a year later it got her. I guess it was determined to collect a debt from my house in one way or another.”
“It doesn’t discriminate, that’s for sure,” Rena said.
The both of them were quiet for a moment and the man tilted his chin down and watched as the camera slowly scanned the top of his chest. Rena looked back at the computer and watched more of the empty form on her screen begin to breathe and illuminate under the persuasion of the radiation.
“What about you?” the man said. “You got a family of your own?”
“I’m married, have been for about two years. No kids yet, though.”
“Well, don’t rush it. And, if you don’t feel the need, just don’t have none. Me and Marcy just never took the notion to have any and we never regretted it. Sometimes, silence is its own reward. I think they too many folks out there having them just because they can, without giving any thought to whether or not they should.”
“That’s very true. Right now the only kids that we can handle are our two dogs,” Rena said.
The man turned slightly and smiled a thin smile. “You got dogs? What kind?”
“Just a couple of mutts we got from the pound. Chris, that’s my husband, says that he thinks they’re German Shepherd mixes.”
“They must be pretty big.”
“They are. They’re only about two years old, but I hope that they are done growing. They’ll run us out of house and home if they get any bigger.”
“I used to have a Shepherd myself, years ago. It was before I met my wife.”
“Was he a good dog?”
“Yeah, he was. Got hit by a car after I had him for about six or seven years. I think I met Marcy the very next week.”
“I guess it’s good that you had her then. It must have made losing him a little easier.”
He nodded his head and took a deep breath. The hum of the camera was now barely audible as it moved toward his stomach. Rena leaned back in her chair and glanced at the computer screen. Its glow was green in the dim room and the outlines of the man’s bones were bright white with the grimy black behind them to accentuate everything else in the body that the radiation didn’t illuminate.
As the camera moved to his lower abdomen, Rena put on her glasses and squinted at the screen. The small white spots were speckled along his lower spine and she knew what it was as soon as she saw it. The debt hadn’t been paid in full after all. She turned in her chair again and looked at the man as he lay motionless on the table, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he knew, if he really knew. For a brief second an image of the man flashed through her mind, with heavy eyes, heavier than they were now, and a gaunt face. He was sitting in a line with other dying people, on either side, with the same yellow fluid running into their veins and poisoning them from the inside out.
“You know, I lost that old dog long before that car hit him,” he said. Rena was startled and didn’t answer for several seconds.
“Oh, the Shepherd,” she said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he was a good dog, don’t get me wrong, but there was this one day when I was out in the yard doing some work and he was just out wandering around. I wasn’t really keeping too close of an eye on him, but I knew that he was around. Anyway, when I finished up I called him and he didn’t come. I could see him just past my truck. He was stretched out on the grass, but he wasn’t coming when I called him, and that was strange to me, ‘cause he always came when I called him. So I walked over to see what he was doing. He had something between his paws and when I looked down I saw that it was a turtle.” He took another deep breath and looked up at the ceiling again. Rena was leaning over listening intently.
“Was he eating it?” she said.
“He was. He had chewed the shell and an arm and most of its chest off by the time I had walked over there, and the poor creature was still alive. I shooed Gus away and looked down at the thing and its little bald head was just kind of slowly turning and it was taking these big gasps of breath. I grabbed a shovel and took its head off. It was quick. But, after that I never could look at old Gus the same way. I know it was just a dog being a dog, but to this day it still bothers me when I think about it. I don’t know.”
“No, it makes sense. Animals can be sadistic little things, that’s for sure,” she said. The man didn’t speak anymore and neither did Rena.
The test finished and Rena slid his table out and dropped the sides so that he could stand up. The man stood up and grimaced at the pain in his back as he straightened his posture. Rena, out of the habit of dealing with more feeble people, grabbed his arm and walked him a few steps. He let her do this and didn’t protest. He picked up his jacket from the chair and slid it over his wide shoulders.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” he said.
“That’s it. I’ll send the results to your radiologist and you should hear something in a day or two,” she said. She smiled and he nodded at her.
When he walked out of the room she sprayed her table with sanitizer and wiped it down. She sent the pictures of the test to the radiologist and made sure that she had turned off the camera. The clock on the wall told her that it was time for her to go home, so she turned off her computer screen. She collected the cooler bag that she brought her lunch in and grabbed her white lab coat. She locked her office door and turned off the lights.
The hallway of the hospital was cold and empty. The time clock that hung on the wall made its mechanical clunking sound when she ran her card through. She nodded at the heavy lady at the front desk and walked out of the doors as they whished open. She felt a slight chill from a breeze that blew by. She looked over at the sun and stood still in the parking lot until she felt its warmth.