Mercy's Child

Vanessa Hemingway


Angela Quinn, nearly five years old, listened glumly to her mother's side of the conversation. It was his day, she repeated into the receiver. She had plans and she was sorry he had to work, but since it was his day the child was his problem. After she hung up the phone her mother smiled at her in that tight, careful way she saved especially for things concerning Angela's father and told her flatly how much fun the day was going to be. That he'd forgotten about it being the one day every two weeks he spent with his daughter didn't mean her father didn't love her. "Oh no," she told Angela. "What he does and what he says are two completely different things from what he feels." Her mother turned her by her shoulders in one full circle. "Pretty as a picture," she said. Then she squeezed Angela against her chest as if to crush her and just as suddenly pushed her toward the door, the elevator, and the downstairs lobby. He'd be there in ten minutes. "When he asks," she told her daughter, "tell him you've never seen me so happy."

         Once Angela was inside the yellow cab her father squeezed her knee. "How's my doll?" he said, and without waiting for her to answer, "Small problem," he told her. "Another doctor called in sick. I have to take his shift. Maybe there's a friend you could visit with? Someone's house where I could drop you? A little girl friend?"

          Angela hung her head and didn't answer him.

          "What about a sitter? Someone who could look after you for a few hours, just until I'm finished? Then I'll pick you up, and we could have dinner together, just the two of us, anywhere you like."

          The cab driver coughed and the meter clocked another twenty cents.

          "I have to work," her father said, frowning.

          Angela waited, careful to conceal her excitement.

          "It's not play." Her father shook his head. "Not fun."

          Angela nodded now, frowning with him.

          "Alright," her father told the driver, "Mercy Hospital, then."

          The child sat back on the sticky black vinyl seat so that her legs straightened and the toes of her mary janes tapped together in front of her. The city streets passed in a blur. She could have been on her way to the park with Mrs. Brown or another sitter, or at home watching TV, or in Bloomingdales trying to keep up with her mother. Instead, she was going somewhere new. Next to her father she wasn't sulking anymore. Her cheeks were flushed and the toes of her mary janes tapped in rapid rhythm as she breathed, gently fogging the passenger side window.

          Her father washed his hands carefully at the stainless steel sink behind the nurses' station while Roberta, the only one of the four nurses her father called by name, read from a clipboard. "119 is now in 121 because of Mr. Taylor, the new admit. We're going to need a Hoyer lift for Mrs. McKenzie; an aide threw his back out maneuvering her onto the bedpan. Mr. Hernandez in Room 116 has a serious substance abuse habit Mrs. Hernandez doesn't know about. And Room 120," Roberta paused. "Mr. Nelson. The incomplete C7."

          "I remember Mr. Nelson," her father nodded, waiting.

          "He's been on about his penis again, and what, if anything, he can expect in terms of return. He'd like some exercises, Dr. Quinn."

          The thinner, prettier nurse tittered.

          "And Mr. Sorenson went Code Red at four this morning." Roberta indicated she'd finished her report by handing the clipboard to Angela's father.

          He lifted his eyebrows. "And?"

          "Stabilized," Roberta said, looking straight ahead.

          The nurse with the chapped lips and floral print scrubs, the one who had taken Angela's coat, piled gauze pads and tongue depressors on a table in the windowless room to the left of the nurses' station and sat Angela down. Under her breath the nurse asked no one in particular, "Does Dr. Quinn think I'm going to watch over a child in addition to dispensing medications and doing all my regular duties?" She licked her dry lips and pushed the sterile pads and wooden sticks toward Angela. "Sit," she told the child, "and stay." And when Angela remained motionless in her chair, the nurse patted her on the head. "Do you have a doggy?" the nurse asked her, and without waiting for an answer she explained, "I kept a small dog once, for company. A Pekinese dachshund mix, with your same golden hair, but it got sick, and I didn't bother with another one. A nurse doesn't have anything left to give once she gets home at the end of the day."

          In the next room, Angela could hear Roberta. "Do not resuscitate?" Roberta said, pronouncing each hard 't'. "I'm a nurse, for goodness sakes. It's my job to save lives, and when a patient goes Code Red, even if there is a DNR sticker on his chart, well, I wasn't going to just stand back and watch the man die."

          The fourth nurse, the one the other nurses called Tina, was nodding as she pinched tiny green pills into rows of clear plastic cups on a roll-away cart. "Don't get confused," Tina told Roberta. "You saved him. I had a situation once in a hospital in Montana where an old man's heart stopped. The only AED on the floor hadn't been charged, the thing wouldn't defibrillate, and we lost him. Now that's sad." The last green pill missed its cup, and Tina had to feel around for it between the neat rows. "The man's alive because of you. He should feel grateful."

          "I have to go to the bathroom," Angela said.

          Roberta looked at her as if she doubted it, but when Angela pressed her knees together and stood on tiptoe, Roberta said, "Someone should go with her."

          "I'm five years old," Angela said. "Almost five."

          "She's almost five," Tina said. "Six, seven, eight, nine, ten." She finished counting another row of pills.

          The hallway was long and brightly lit; heavy grey doors pocked the length of it, most of them open, even if only slightly, slender metal handles gleaming like the levers on the frozen foods section at the supermarket. Behind each one of those doors, Angela imagined a shadowy figure in a bed, a sick person.

          "Wash your hands after," Roberta said, and then the phone rang and Angela heard Roberta: "Not another admit? Well, I guess we can put him in 122."

          There was just enough room to slide through the first open door without touching it. The floor was vaguely sticky, pulling at the child's shoes, making small sucking noises. In the bed against a wall was the fattest woman Angela had ever seen. Her head, disproportionately small, plastered with a few blond strands, sat bright red and cocked to one side like the cherry on a La La Palooza sundae.

          "Finally," the fat woman said without opening her eyes. "I thought you'd left me here to die." She was hungry. My God, she had a thirst. And pretty soon she was going to need to make a deposit. "Did you forget about me, Roberta?"

          When they opened, her small walrus eyes were black. "Well, get a look at you," she said. "Almost good enough to eat." Her hand reached out for Angela, the fingers five bruised and meaty sausages, trembling. "I bet you can keep a secret," she said. "Down the hall there's a candy machine." She nodded slowly, as if the information deserved time to sink in. "Right outside and around the corner. I hear the coins dropping in all day and most of the night. Everyone walking past my door with crinkling bags, crunching. Get me some potato chips," she said, her fingers still trembling. "There's change in my purse, there." When Angela hesitated, "Get yourself something, too."

          Sitting on a double-wide wheelchair was a liver-colored shoulder bag, and at the very bottom of it, a small puckered blue change purse. Angela left the pennies. As she slipped back out of the room the fat woman was still talking. "I bet your mommy's skinny as a rail," she was saying. "She probably gave you that blond hair and blue eyes. I look like my mommy, too. Big. We're all of us big."

          At the vending machine Angela firmly pressed the coins one by one into the slot and watched the potato chips do a swan dive, landing with a thunk. There was just enough change left for a Baby Ruth. She ate the candy bar standing up, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, licking the chocolate from each small finger. How many Baby Ruth's would it take to get that fat? She wiped her hands on her dress. The potato chips rattled in the bag as she ran with them back to the fat woman's room.

          The light above her door was flashing, and an aide in aqua blue scrubs was standing outside, slowly pulling on first one latex glove, snugging each finger into place, snapping the end of the glove loudly at his wrist and then repeating the process with the ungloved hand, in no apparent rush, though the fat woman could be heard from the hallway, crying, "For God's sake, won't somebody come?"

          "You can't go in there now," the aide said to Angela. "Mrs. McKenzie's having a bowel movement. Poo poo." He pinched his nose with two blue latex fingers. "Ca ca." He looked down the hall both ways and then whispered to her, "Shit," and grinned. He had one gold tooth.

          "But these are for her." Angela held out the bag of potato chips. "She needs them."

          "McKenzie?" The gold tooth winked at her. "She's calorie-restricted. Now, next door, Mr. Hernandez, maybe," the aide said.

          The door to the next room down was wide open. The fluorescent lights were on and bright, though everyone in the room appeared to be sleeping. Against a wall that was hung with colorful crayon drawings of stick figures was one slim cot with an old woman and two children on it. In the corner, on a straight-backed chair was a younger woman, her head tilted back, her eyes closed, her mouth open with a look of long suffering, just like the grandmothers looked in church, on their knees, waiting for a taste of what the priest was offering. And what lay in the hospital bed was only part of a man: a head and chest and just one arm, and both legs capped with big white gauze bandages at the knees and nothing below, empty sheet where his feet should have been.

          "Buenas." The eyes opened, and he looked at Angela standing in the doorway. He made a quick sideways motion with his head for her to come closer. "Bonita. Chiquita bonita," he whispered. "Necesito fumar. Necesito cerveza."

          Angela walked the potato chips to the bed and placed them gently where his missing arm would have lay.

          He closed his eyes. She was backing slowly out of the room when one of the nurses, Tina, put a hand on her shoulder. Angela jumped as if a volt of electric current had been sent through her.

          "There you are." The nurse shook her head. "Poor circulation," she said. "From the diabetes. And on top of that, he smoked cigarettes. You'll never smoke now, will you?"

          Another nurse, the pretty one, stopped beside them in the hallway, knelt down to adjust the buckle on her sensible shoes, and then looked into the room. "Have you ever noticed that we never get just one Mexican?" she said. "Some patients, like big Mrs. McKenzie, never have a visitor. But when a Mexican gets sick, the whole family moves in. They take care of each other."

          "Yeah," said Tina, "None of them speaking a word of English, bringing in all kinds of foreign foods, smelling up the place. As if we were a motel." She made a small clicking noise with her tongue against her teeth. "They don't seem to mind sleeping like that."

          "What's all this?" Angela's father said, seeing two of his nurses standing in the hallway. It was enough to scatter them. Except for Angela, who stayed where she was, an expectant look on her face.

          Her father glanced through the open door at the sleeping family. "This doesn't scare you? You're not afraid?" Angela shook her head. "Maybe you'll be a doctor some day. Like your father," he told her. "Come along, then." She followed him into the next room down the hall.

          "Good morning, John Taylor," her father said. "It says here you've had a stroke."

          The man lying in the bed didn't appear to have heard him. He had one whole side that wasn't cooked, an egg half off the burner, runny and loose. His right arm and leg dangled just off the edge of the bed, his head leaned left, and his right cheek hung slack and full of marbles. While Angela watched, her father pricked the man in several places along his loose arm and leg with a safety pin he'd swabbed with alcohol. The man was unresponsive.

          "I'm testing his sensation," her father explained. "The pin feels dull to him when it should feel sharp." He lifted the patient's right arm and said, "Resist me," and the arm dropped back to the bed, dead weight. "Loss of motor control on the right indicates left brain involvement."

          Then her father said, very slowly and clearly, "Mr. Taylor, this is my daughter." With a hand on her shoulder he pushed Angela firmly toward the bed. "Angela. Why don't you try that? Say, 'Hello, Angela.'"

          Something inside the man erupted. The wide blue belt that strapped him loosely to the bed strained to contain his sideways lurching as his whole frame careened toward the child. Whatever it was, it wanted out, and he'd opened his mouth to let it, when, slippery and pink, maverick, wild, lapping against his slack cheek, dripping clear and bubbly saliva, his tongue started choking him. "Ah…ah…." Tears were rolling down his cheeks, a gulping, slobbering sound, like a dog working over a bone, bubbling up from his throat. "Ayn," he choked. "Ayn-gell." And then he fell back against the pillows, closing his eyes, exhausted by the effort.

          "That's very good, Mr. Taylor." Her father jotted a few notes in the manila file folder next to the admitting physician's report. "Wash your hands," he told Angela on their way out. "And here." He tapped the area right below his eye where some of the patient's spittle was dotting the girl's cheek.

          They had just entered the bright hallway when a voice in the next room called out, "It's Dr. Quinn I want to see! Not anybody else. Only the doctor!"

          "Mr. Sorenson," Angela's father said, pushing his daughter ahead and closing the door behind them. "I heard you had a near miss this morning. If it wasn't for Roberta—"

          "Don't mention that nurse's name to me, doctor," the man said. "That woman plucked me from the gates of heaven, and for no reason except that she didn't know her job. I was Do Not Resuscitate, doctor. That was the promise this hospital made to me. If God should so choose to take me, Mercy Hospital clearly states in its code to patients it will not interfere, if those be my wishes. If those be my wishes!" he shouted. "Those were my wishes." He closed his eyes. The thing was he had been right there, he whispered. The gates so near he could have touched them.

          Her father sat down on the edge of the bed. He reached for the old man's wrist to find a pulse, closing his eyes to help his fingers catch a trace of the faint beating, and to Angela's astonishment, he fell asleep. There was no other explanation for the deep rhythmic breathing of the two men who kept absolutely still for such a very long time. Just when she'd finally decided to shake him, her father spoke. "It shouldn't be too long, now, Mr. Sorenson." Angela had never heard him sound so tired.

          "It should have been yesterday," the old man said.

          Her father straightened up and glanced at his watch, wide awake again. "Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Sorenson?"

          The pale blue, loose-fitting hospital pajamas hung from the little man's shoulders and hips in a way that made them look empty, as if someone had laid the shirt and pants out on the bed covers for the next patient. Without looking at the doctor he said he'd like some water.

          "Press the call button," her father said, "and the nurse will get that for you right away."

          Mr. Sorenson looked up, his large, round, blue eyes remarkably clear. "I won't. I won't take a chance on seeing that one again. I know it's not your job, that's what the nurses are for, but I won't call for her."

          The pink plastic water pitcher was on the rolling table by the side of the patient's bed. Angela immediately reached for it. Her father told her she could fill it down the hall.

          When she came back in the man's eyes were closed. She put the jug down on the bedside table. The slatted shades of the small room let in the sun in large stripes that zigzagged across his bed. His chin and forehead were lit up; even the shadowed parts of his face shone as if his smooth skin had been scrubbed and polished. He was lying on top of the sheets, draped in the empty-looking pajamas, and his feet and hands were free and very large.

          One eye opened. "I died last night," he told Angela. He said it soft and slow, in his velvet drawl, the words like sand rising around her ankles. How he saw his mother and his first wife, the angel of God, golden light, and they were wanting him to come, like no one had wanted him for anything in a real long time.

          His great hand grasped her wrist; the fingers were paper-dry and cool. "You hain't never felt that," he whispered. Then he told her to pour the water and bring it close.

          "You think you're special?" he asked her.

          She didn't know. She might be. Probably not.
"You are." He told her to close her eyes and put herself in the safest, most peaceful place she could think up. "Are there horses?" he asked her in time.

          "Ponies," she told him.


          In his hypnotic burr he said her people were there with her and that everyone was holding hands. There was a river, and they were bathing in it. Could she feel it?

          "I don't know."

          "You do. You feel it," he said. "You do."

          And she did. For a moment, an instant, something held tight inside her let loose, and the warmth of river water came trickling down her legs until she was standing in a small puddle of her own making.

          He smiled at her. "Nothing to be afraid of," he said. "Nothing left to fear. All that's left is for that angel to come back and get me. I expect it could be today." He winked at her. "Maybe tomorrow."

          The nurse who had piled the gauze and tongue depressors on a table for Angela now put the girl's soiled things in a bright red bag with the words Hazardous Waste in bold black letters on the outside. She used one of Angela's pink hair ribbons to tie the bag with a bow. "That will help Dr. Quinn remember to take it home," the nurse said. The hospital gown was doubled around Angela's small frame, tied at the waist with another pink hair ribbon, and the fuzzy blue no-slip socks were inches too long, but it occurred to Angela she'd never worn anything so comfortable before. The nurse licked her dry lips and said, "In that get up your father won't even recognize you. You're Mercy's child now."

          "What are you in here for?" A man sitting in the hallway in a wheelchair with tattoos up and down his arms asked Angela.

          He thought she was one of them, Angela realized. He thought she belonged there.

          He told her he had always liked little girls. "It used to be that I could sit in a park and watch their young rabbit movements for some time. It's something I can still look forward to," he reassured himself out loud. "There's nothing wrong with my eyes. Or my mind, I'm pretty sure of that. Though after an accident of the kind I had," he said, "nothing's a given." Every day he tried something old, some action that had been as automatic as pissing, and struggled. "Pissing, for one, will never be the same," he told her, "and not just because I can't stand, aim, or shoot. Now I have equipment, paraphernalia for everything." Did she want to see? "I have to dab first with an iodine swab, then I mess with the catheter tubing, placing everything just so in order to push that tiny rubber tube bit by painstaking bit—I am a spectacular eight inches; that part, thanks to God, hasn't changed—finally forcing open the little sphincter that seals off the bladder, and if I don't have it all set up right, the piss starts to flow out the tube every which way but into the pot." That had happened a number of times before they sent in the ugly nurse, who'd expertly handled him, "like a butcher does ground chuck," he said, and miraculously, "I set myself up properly every time since." He smiled at her. "Even carry the kit on me wherever I go. That's how I can show it to you right here in the hallway. You can talk about it. You can even watch the instructional video," he said, "but none of that holds a candle to actually doing it."

          Angela smoothed the gathered skirts of the blue hospital gown with the flat of her hands and nodded. There were some things you had to do for yourself.

          "Yes," he nodded with her slowly. "I'm a little more random in my thought processes, I'll admit it, since I found myself strapped to a hospital gurney, a metal halo secured to my skull with real screws." When they'd removed the device from around his head, "I could hear the metal squeaking, turning against bone, the way rivets squeal on their way into wood." The holes had only just begun to heal and scab over. Like Christ's crown of thorns, his mother had told him at her one and only visit. "Christ's crown of thorns," he repeated to the child and smiled. "She reached out for the scabs to touch them. Smoothed what was left of my hair instead. I told her it's the only halo I'll ever wear, and they had to bolt it on."

          No, the life he knew was gone for good.



When her mother answered the bell at ten o'clock that night Angela stumbled through the door and toward her room. She'd never felt so tired in her life. Her mother followed her though the kitchen and into the bedroom. "He didn't even come up with you," she said. "He could have called to say how late you'd be. Did he know what time it was?"

          "He had an emergency," Angela mumbled, her eyes nearly closed, half-asleep.

          "What's that you're wearing? Where are your clothes?"

          Angela got into her bed after removing only her coat and pulled the covers up around her. Her mother's breath smelled stale. When she leaned over, her long loose hair hung in Angela's face. She imagined the hairs were tiny pins pricking her skin. It feels dull when it should feel sharp, she heard her father say.

          "What happened? Angela? Angela?"

          "I don't know," she murmured. With her eyes closed she saw Mr. Sorenson's ponies. She'd gone back to his room, sat in a chair beside his bed. Angel, he'd whispered to her.

          The next morning the apartment was dark; Angela's mother always pulled the shades down, not wanting to be woken by the sun. Angela could watch television, even play the radio; her mother never came out of her room before ten on Sundays. Instead, Angela retied the bow at her waist, cinching it a little tighter, pulled the blue fuzzy ankle socks higher up her calves, buckled her patent leather mary janes, and took five dollars from her mother's handbag in the living room for cab fare. The apartment door locked behind her.

          When she got to Mercy Hospital none of the nurses seemed particularly surprised to see her. Her father was in a meeting; she could wait in the doctor's lounge if she wanted to.

          She walked straight to Mr. Sorenson's room. There were fresh sheets and a pink blanket folded at the foot of the bed. Where had he gone? She felt panicked. "Mr. Sorenson?" she asked a nurse she didn't recognize. "Mr. Sorenson?"

          "Yes, dear," the nurse nodded her head. "He passed. Early this morning."

          He'd passed. He was gone, then. To his people, she thought, and wondered who they were.

         Angela walked slowly to the vending machine where everything behind the glass was shiny and tightly wrapped. A little farther down the hall a man in a grey uniform pushed a gurney stacked precariously high with bright red garbage bags stamped with big black letters. He was going toward the exit. At the very bottom of the pile a pink ribbon had come loose and was trailing from the gurney, dragging on the ground. There was change in the child's coat pocket, two quarters and a dime. Angela thought of big Mrs. McKenzie, who was still waiting for her potato chips. As she walked under the bright lights toward the fat woman's room, the shiny bag in her small hand, the flesh of her thighs rubbed, slightly sticky from the river Mr. Sorenson had set to moving inside her.