by Sara Backer
Luke never knew Gus; he wasn’t responsible for taking his job. The drug test fired Gus, fair and square, but the staff seems to blame Luke for replacing him in the operating room.
Luke looks at photographs of Gus on the staff coffee room bulletin board, trying to understand his appeal. The staff is so lazy they never bother to remove them, although they’re five months old. Gus dressed up as a punk Santa Claus with a Mohawk wig and dark sunglasses, holding two nurses on his knees at the hospital Christmas party. A candid snap of Gus downing a Pepsi after surgery, a small line of blood still on his forearm. He wears his blah-blond hair in a crew cut in front and a small pony tail in the back. He has a large nose and a badly capped front tooth. Then there’s the photo of Gus and Diane. Luke doesn’t know why he keeps looking at it–Gus’s tongue is stuck out like a snake and Diane’s leaning back with her mouth open wide. They’re dancing in the cafeteria, under garlands of syringes and gauze. They don’t mean it seriously.
“Gus was a damn good surgical nurse,” Diane told him. “And a great guy, too.”
“Do you have to use that word?”
“The D word.”
Diane laughed in disbelief. “You know, you’re scary.”
Diane’s hair is black, a short pixie cut, and he can’t tell if her skin is dark or tanned. His own face stands out for its paleness. In Oregon, no one has a tan in March, but this is California. Everything’s different.
When Gloria, Luke’s wife, asks him about his day, his work, his co-workers, he doesn’t know why he never tells Gloria about Diane. He hasn’t from his first day on the job at the university hospital. He’s created a secret when he has nothing to hide.
Gloria’s become moody. After dinner, she watches television in bed with the sound off. The bedroom is packed with oak furniture that doesn’t fit into their Burbank apartment. They walk in a narrow channel between the bed and dressers docked against the walls. Luke can’t sleep with the jumpy light but waits as long as he can before asking her to turn it off. She sighs and lies next to him, silent, unresponsive, even hostile. Often, when Luke tries to get her attention with a kiss, she tilts her head to keep the TV screen in sight. He hears the click of the remote control as she changes channels behind his head.
When they first moved into the pink stucco apartment building, Gloria called their upstairs neighbor “The Queen of Quiet” and joked about her demands for silence. Now, Gloria’s caught the disease herself. She padded the cupboards so they don’t shut with loud snaps, and taped the latches open on the closet doors. “I don’t want to bother anyone,” Gloria says, but Luke wonders if it’s something more.
The Queen explained she’s a graduate student and needs to study. The Queen gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day, even on weekends. Gloria pushes Luke’s morning erection away and listens to the Queen’s footsteps over the bed, creaking. She tells him she’s waiting for the Queen to move to the living room; THEN, etc. But hours pass before Gloria is sure the Queen won’t hear them having sex, and Luke gets up to make coffee and shower, and Gloria gets up to answer the phone on the first ring, and somehow, they never get back into bed.
The Queen complained to the landlord when Gloria played the radio at 10:00 a.m. She objected to the telephone ringing after 10:00 p.m.–couldn’t they stop receiving calls “that late?” When Gloria explained the hospital calls any time, day or night, the Queen said that wasn’t a “real reason.” Then she asked them not to flush the toilet.
“I hear everything,” she said significantly.
Luke knows Gloria’s home most of the day (she sells Shaklee vitamins) so it’s harder for her to laugh at the Queen, but he doesn’t know what to make of it. Gloria swears that each time she coughs, or opens a drawer, it sets off the Queen’s creaking feet. She’s started to take this as disapproval from a higher source.
The Queen of Quiet will be the first to vote for a Sex-free Bedroom Act, Luke says. Gloria says well, that’s going too far, but, in fact, they have achieved exactly that. Sometimes, Gloria cries for a solid hour–face down in the pillow, quietly. Luke strokes her long brown hair and prays for patience.
On the corner of one of those high-risk intersections with six traffic lights and the ten variations they go through, Diane sees a man with two boys, bouncing a fluorescent green tennis ball between them as they cross on a green light. When they reach the safety of the sidewalk, the smaller boy fails to catch the ball, and it dances into the street. The man quickly turns the boy’s head straight ahead with a firm but affectionate hand as he says, “Time to make that a memory.”
Balls go bouncing and you’ve just got to look ahead and keep going where you’re going. Anyone who works the OR knows this. Gus was the best. He handled mangled organs and limbs with unparalleled professional calm. Diane once asked him if he ever panicked, ever grossed out.
“This motorcycle accident,” Gus remembered. “The guy was about thirty, a little older than me at the time, and looked real bad. Nothing about him wasn’t messed up. We tried to patch him up but it was, like, critical, and we lost him. And when I went to bed, this is like two a.m., I stayed awake thinking about the fragile line between life and death.” Gus added, “For about ten minutes. Then I fell asleep.”
If she was ever smashed on the highway, she would want a surgeon with a big ego and a nurse with steady nerves. She would want Gus at the table.
Competence isn’t good enough for the new administration. They’re trying to build an image. In Gus’s place is a six-foot Pillsbury Doughboy with a thick brown mustache and terminal politeness. Luke says grace before eating plastic-wrapped sandwiches from the vending machine. No doubt, there’s another Luke waiting in the wings to replace her, too.
Gloria’s ashamed to admit it, but the long distance telephone ads on TV bring tears to her eyes. So does the coffee ad, the one with the long lost family member returning home before everyone’s awake. Why does TV make her life seem hopeless?
One night, when Luke is in surgery, Gloria returns late from a longer-than-usual Shaklee rally. As she parks the Subaru wagon, her headlights swing onto a man, crouching below her kitchen window.
She stays in the car, frightened. The man digs in the dirt, ignoring the lights. He’s small, and crouched on his feet in a way American knees don’t bend. She beeps the horn. He looks up, waves, and resumes his digging.
Gloria’s heart is thump-thump-thumping, but she gets out, clenching her keys between her fingers. She recalls the instructions in her self-defense class: jab the eyes. “Hello?”
“Hi.” Him: glow-in-the-dark smile beaming out of twenty years’ worth of a healthy life inside a lean bronze body.
“What are you doing?”
“Planting Impatiens. They grow in total shade.” He gestures to spindly stems with four or six round green leaves on them.
Gloria checks her old-fashioned silver stretch-band watch. “At 11:15 at night?”
“Yeah,” he says, unconcerned. “I want to finish this job tonight. I have a midterm tomorrow.”
“You’re the gardener?” Gloria asks.
“Yeah. I’m Ketut.” He holds out a hand, then realizes it’s dirty and wipes it on the butt of his oh-so-tight Levi 501s.
“I don’t mean to be suspicious, but. . .well, you can’t be too careful.”
His face registers an idea. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think I could scare anyone.”
Gloria unlocks the apartment door and goes inside. For the first time, she realizes she hasn’t put any pictures or posters on the walls. The walls are Landlord White, plain, virginal, defying any nail holes or (shudder) tape. She decides to fix herself some herbal tea and fills the kettle with water, hoping the faucet noise won’t wake the Queen.
Then a knock on the door. (Too loud!) Smiling Ketut, asking, “Do you have any twist-ties I could borrow? To stake them up?”
“Uh, sure,” Gloria whispers. She forgets which drawer she keeps them in, and forages through a few. She knows the water is ripe and about to whistle and the Queen would never forgive her. “Here.” She gives him every twist-tie she owns: green paper-coated, red and yellow plastic-coated, carefully saved with the plastic bags. As she hands him the ties, her fingernails touch his palm and the kettle begins to scream. She races to the kettle and, removing it from the burner, splashes water over her fingers.
Ketut tromps his dirt-crusted boots inside, grabs ice cubes out of the freezer and presses them against Gloria’s hand.
And a month later, Gloria is still thinking about him. And now, when she thinks about him, it’s nasty stuff, with twist-ties or ice…and despite forcing images of Luke into her brain, despite Luke, her husband, and out of all the men in this suburban town, she is daydreaming about…(this is so wrong!)…she is fantasizing about…(stop! God, help her stop this!)…she is masturbating about…(she knows better!)…she wants…
Luke’s first heart surgery over at last, he sits in a blank corner table in the cafeteria with a glass of milk he doesn’t feel up to drinking. The patient died. Diane sits next to him, which is a big surprise because he’s sure she hates him, but maybe she wants to pick on him when he’s down.
Diane talks about a staff luncheon when, because Carol didn’t digest milk products, Lenny limited his cholesterol intake, Pete added tomatoes to his allergy list, Jeannie considered mushrooms to be an exploited life form, and Lauren refused to ingest chemical preservatives, they ended up ordering a large pizza with nothing on it. A pitcher of water to go with it.
“Voluntary jail,” Diane concludes. “Bread and water, please.”
Luke doesn’t even try to smile, much less laugh.
“Win some, lose some.” Now, it’s obvious she was trying to cheer him up.
“He wasn’t that sick. His operation was standard, nothing tricky. He should have been home in a week,” he said. “Why did God choose him to die?”
“Don’t go too deep. The heart’s just a pump.” Diane lifts a forkful of chicken salad to her mouth.
Luke realizes he forgot to pray before drinking his milk–but he hasn’t tasted it, yet, so it’s not too late. “It’s not wrong for me to care. That’s why I’m here.” This is his prayer, his grace.
“Is that so?” She peels the foil off a plastic bottle of orange juice. “Then why are you here, in the cafeteria?”
“I need to keep my strength up,” Luke explains. He gulps at his milk, but it tastes as bad and dry as barium.
“Who’s with the patient’s family?” Diane has eaten half the chicken salad. She wasn’t involved in this operation.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Luke says.
“Something to think about,” she says matter-of-factly. “They didn’t die. One thing you might do, Mr. Here-to-Care, is comfort his wife and kids. They might want to know what happened in there. Not just from the surgeon, but other people who tried to save his life. I know it’s not in your job description, but it’s something you could do instead of questioning God’s judgment.” She drinks orange juice, unconcerned.
Luke immediately knows she is right. His job is done, but not his work.
Finished, Diane stands up, and her white skirt rides up her white nylons. Luke notices her thigh. She tugs her hem down. Now, her skirt is tight against her butt and his boxer shorts are tighter on his crotch. He thinks of the man who died, and Gloria, and feels ashamed.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she says. “It’s your first heart.”
Luke goes home early. The Queen of Quiet is still in class. Gloria tries hard to be perky and interested in Luke; she knows her depression has hurt Luke, too. “Was the operation a success? Who performed the surgery?”
Luke takes the remote control off the bed table and throws it across the floor, out of Gloria’s reach. “Hold me,” he says.
Gloria pats his back, like her mother used to pat hers when she was a child. She thinks about Ketut’s hard back, how his wiry muscles stand out. Luke’s back is white, freckled, and soft.
Luke strokes Gloria’s spine with his thumb, thinking of Diane, her posture in that photo with Gus, leaning back from the hips, tilting parallel to the axis of the hard-on Gus must have had from dancing with her. He kisses Gloria hard on the lips, not asking first, not waiting until she’s ready, not expecting to go further than a kiss, but wanting to have that moment.
At the surprise of his kiss, Gloria is caught thinking about Ketut, and she kisses him back. It’s dishonest, scary, and exciting. She’ll stop him, of course–in a little while.
Luke feels her respond and goes wild. He rolls on top of her, still kissing to keep her from talking. He holds her shoulders down in the pillow with his forearm and pulls her flannel nightgown up with his free hand. His wedges his knee between her legs and works her thighs apart.
Gloria knows he won’t go further without her consent. It’s wrong to be thinking about another man. She’ll turn her head and they’ll discuss this, have coffee. Maybe after one more minute.
Luke senses this will end soon; Gloria will talk in a minute, suggest having coffee. So he pushes inside her, and he doesn’t feel like good old considerate Luke; he is pushing her, pushing her for rejecting him, teasing him, hinting he’s second rate.
Gloria is shocked. She doesn’t know what to make of his passion. She starts to work it out against him, digs her fingernails into his buttocks, arches her back away from him, but, oh, that only let him in deeper. And now it’s a nasty cycle, deeper and deeper, both of them in over their heads.
The next day, the second shift at the hospital lines up to urinate in bottles. No one is exempt.
Diane is behind him, wouldn’t you know it. “How about that, Luke in the line-up. Got a special prayer for this?”
Luke thinks about Gloria’s body last night. He has no excuse for what he did. That she was his wife didn’t justify that kind of sex. In fact, that made it worse.
He is extra-thorough with the sterilized towelette on his penis as he wipes, knowing he is guilty of something he won’t get fired for. As he leaves the bathroom, before he joins the line to hand the plastic cup to the technician (an outsider, called in from a designated government agency sixty miles away, that’s how much they trust them), Diane grabs his arm.
“I’ll pay you twenty bucks for that sample,” she whispers.
Luke shakes his head. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
Diane stares at him, and Luke can tell Gus would have cheated for her. “Nothing’s fair,” she says.
No one is watching.
Luke returns to the bathroom to pour half his specimen into another cup that he will leave by the sink for
Diane to bring out as her own. He wonders what he will tell Gloria if he’s caught cheating and fired.
Gloria, at home, watches urine on the TV–blue urine poured from a beaker into a diaper, next to a bare baby’s butt. The soap opera will continue in a moment. She watches with the sound off because the Queen is studying. Now that Gloria has learned the knack, she can hear pages turn, can almost hear the Queen swallow and breathe. She certainly hears the rustling outside her kitchen window, like giant termites munching down the walls.
Ketut is back, untying the twist-ties off Impatiens plants that are sturdy and leafy, now, with white and pink buds. The sight of his tan back isn’t the same. She’s amazed she ever fantasized about him. He’s just a nice kid.
He knocks on the door to return the ties. Gloria invites him inside for lemonade. The Queen’s feet creak across the ceiling. He tells her about his country. He tells her evil spirits hide in the jungle because they like silence and that you must drive them away with noise or music. His voice is moderately loud, causing The Queen to stomp. Removing a CD from his backpack, he asks if he can play it on Gloria’s player.
The Queen isn’t subtle when Balinese drums and gongs erupt from Gloria’s living room. Books hit the ceiling, aiming for their heads.
Ketut looks up, confused. Bam, BAM, BAM!
Gloria smiles and turns the sound to top volume.
Sara Backer spent three years in Japan (1990-1993), as the first American and first woman to serve as Visiting Professor of English at Shizuoka University. She’s the author of American Fuji, a Kiriyama prize nominee.
Backer, a Djerassi Program Artist in Residence in 1999 and Norton Island Resident Artist in 2011, is also a poet whose work has appeared in numerous literary magazines including Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Review, and Slant. She has taught creative writing classes for Cuesta College, Maui Literary Circles, Northeast Cultural Cooperative, and New Hampshire Institute of Art. She currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and lives in the woods in New Hampshire. Visit her website for more information about her.