Encomium


Teresa held his earlobe the way some girls hold a man’s hand while he drives. Her arm had hung limply, suspended by the grip of her thumb and index finger, for the last ten minutes, and the ear was starting to hurt. Andrés could feel her fingertips nearly meeting through his cartilage. But he kept quiet. This was the first time she’d touched him in days.

It was that quiet time of night in a rural college town, when traffic has wound down and partiers have yet to emerge. The old Civic passed bars just revving up, unfussy brick and cinderblock huts bunched together at the edge of the small downtown strip. A few years back, when they were just out of high school, Andrés and Manny had tried these bars, but it wasn’t a good scene: hayseed frat boys eying the Latins, cocky from booze and the certainty that each white kid in the bar had their backs. It was better to park somewhere with a bottle of Smirnov, although Teresa said it was a trashy way to party and Manny gave him shit for liking vodka.

The pain in his ear became unbearable and Andrés gently touched Teresa’s hand. “Can I have a break?”

“Fine.” She dropped her hand into her lap. “Sorry.”

The road dipped beneath the highway and when the car resurfaced the hospital came into view. It was the county’s newest and tallest building, textured walls and tinted windows with metal flourishes, out of place in a neighborhood of single story aluminum siding. “If you need it you can borrow the car after your shift. You taking your mom to work in the morning?”

“Think so.”

“My shift finishes before yours, so Rebecca can give me a ride home. Oh!” Teresa snapped her fingers. “I forgot to tell you something Rebecca saw in NICU.”

Andrés said he couldn’t stand Becca. “All the sudden she can’t work her shifts next week so I have six overnights in ten days.”

“Didn’t know you had that much going on, you can’t cover someone’s shifts.” She gave him that disappointed look. “Dre, her mom is really sick. Or her aunt. Someone is.”

Andrés waited to speak until it was plausible he wasn’t changing the subject. Under his powder blue nurse uniform he wore a white long sleeve shirt and work boots crisscrossed with lines like an old and worried forehead. His hair was gelled up and his goatee was trimmed short. Under her hoody Teresa also wore the blue uniform. Her hair was pulled into a trim black bun, her makeup reduced from the deep purple usually saturating her eyelids.

He asked, “What did Rebecca tell you?”

“You can ask her when she’s back.”

Andrés parked in the underground lot across from the hospital, under an administrative building. They didn’t speak as they climbed the stairs and crossed the street. People relish the silent tension radiating from a couple fighting in public, and the women in the hospital’s lobby were no different, maintaining a loose conversation while they watched Andrés and Teresa silently enter through the automatic doors, scan their badges at the desk, and wait at the elevator.

Andrés offered, “You look good in the nurse gear.”

“Please, this shirt is so baggy I look fat. And I hardly got makeup on.”

“You’re buttoned-up and classy.”

“I’m usually looking cheap?”

There was no good way to answer so Andrés didn’t try. Teresa laughed, said he needed to work on his smoothness and playfully socked him. They were close to making up when a call came to the front desk; Teresa needed to prep for an obstetrical hemorrhage en route from maternity to surgery. She rushed to the stairwell, leaving Andrés to endure the giggles of two students too drunk to feel the shards of glass in their arms, the obvious result of some roughhouse tumble through a window.


~


From now on, no matter what, you don’t leave the room.

Andrés washed his hands and hustled along the purple and green tiles, his reflection crossing portraits of smiling, variously-raced former patients. Dr. Mansfield was already stressed that a Mexican-looking nurse, male no less, worked the NICU, making parents uncomfortable. If he found the room unattended, even for thirty seconds, he would have an excuse to fire Andrés, and Andrés knew that losing the job meant losing Teresa.

And of course it had to happen in the rare moment Andrés was monitoring the room solo. The charge nurse was consulting in maternity and the PCA, what was her name? She’d scurried out to the storage closet for supplies. As soon as she left his stomach bubbled and burst, sending him running down the hall. But he’d only been gone a minute or two.

He turned the corner to find a janitor mopping the opposite end of the hallway. Andrés considered a wave of camaraderie, thanks for not ratting me out, but decided that the gravelbellly wouldn’t report him even if he knew Andrés had broken the rules, had abandoned his patients. Andrés slipped into to the NICU ward, with its wide window displaying rows of plastic carts. Monitors blinked and beeped, connected by wires and tubes to tiny wrapped bodies and grimacing red faces.

The population of Encomium never needed more than a handful of cribs in its NICU. If a college girl got pregnant she usually withdrew to her hometown, so the newborns came from college faculty or the workers that served them, plus the occasional local kid from the Tyson plant.

The room seemed undisturbed. No respiratory alarms, not even crying. Andrés checked each patient’s monitor and listened for breathing.

Mary Elizabeth Allegri: stable.

And what the hell was that about? You never get sick. Must be that cafeteria food.

Benjamin David Kroeger: stable, mask blocking the phototherapy rays from his eyes.

Teresa loves it, but it’s nasty. Hard cantaloupes and spaghetti. Gotta be that. Afternoon booze never messes with you.

Marius Rios: stable.

The infants had no idea they’d been left alone and slept as peacefully as the earlyborn and underweight were able. Andrés had worried for nothing. People get nausea, especially in a hospital, and what was he supposed to do, get sick on the babies?

Isaac Joseph Weintraub.

It was the tiny kid with that thing in the folds of his neck, the skin tab shaped like a flower bulb. From under the lip of a striped cotton cap dark little eyes stared at Andrés, unfocused and afraid. Andrés examined the cerebral oximeter hanging from the crib’s side, like it was flung by the child. Somehow Isaac had turned completely around, head where the feet should be, though of course a kid this young couldn’t roll, couldn’t even lift his head. Andrés didn’t know what to think. Had someone come in while he was gone? For a moment he felt something behind him, not touching him, he just sensed it there, dense enough to depress the floor and lift Andres up like a see saw; he felt himself tilting backwards, about to roll like a marble on a hill. Then it evaporated and was nothing but sound, a low rumbling tone, always there but never noticed until every other frequency falls away. Andrés shook off the ridiculous feeling and checked the room for anything else out of place.

Little Isaac opened his mouth to cry. He was hungry.


~


Andrés knew he wasn’t supposed to like being touched by another man. Shoulders pressed together in a truck’s backseat, that was ok, or backslaps and handshakes, but those were not real touch. Those were the same as talking or sharing a joint. Touch was private; it changed your breathing and the temperature of your skin. It wasn’t a sex thing, Dr. Busenbark’s methodical compression of Andrés’ stomach. There was relief to it, dropping your guard and trusting this person not to be weird, not to laugh. To take care of you.

Not something Andrés could ever tell Manny, who already called him Night Nurse. Thanks, Teresa. Talking Andrés into quitting construction for nursing school. It was because she was only half. She was pretty and proud, Esa chica fresa his mom called her, so she was ashamed that her dad worked at the Tyson plant and got weird about it, especially after Manny said she dressed like a cholla. In September she met some college girls, started going to their parties and that Raw Dog bar and refusing to bring Andrés. And where was she now? Tonight she had stood him up in the cafeteria, and he only went so he could sit with her. Otherwise he’d eat at home for free.

Busenbark asked if Andrés had regular digestion problems or if this was a new thing. The doctor’s sandy hair was thoughtlessly divided in the center, with strands swaying upright at the part line, considering whether to cross over. Once you were a doctor, Andrés supposed, you stopped worrying about grooming. A woman would look past it.

“Have you seen blood in your vomit or stool?” Busenbark asked if there was a family history of stomach or colon cancer. Andrés said his mom hadn’t had cancer yet, other than that he didn’t know. He’d been sick the last few nights and worried that he could give the flu to the babies.

What Andrés wouldn’t tell Manny, or even Teresa, was that he gave a genuine shit about his job. He worried about the kids when he was off, the preemies that wouldn’t gain weight and the ones with shifty families. Teresa said they should get trained up and go outpatient in a bigger town, better hours and money, but Andrés liked where he was. Why mess with a good thing? Especially considering his old job, working at the batch plant with Manny. Coming home looking like a statue, coated in cement dust. Scrubbing with dish soap until he could see his own skin. He wondered what work the father did, the one whose wife died after labor, whose kid had the thing on his neck and the irritated skin. Isaac. His dad obviously didn’t work at the chicken plant, at least not on the floor. Maybe management, or maybe at the college. Andrés had seen him in the first-time father’s uniform: a mismatched ensemble of whatever was on hand when his wife felt contractions. After labor, and after surgery failed to save his wife, the man had watched his son through the NICU’s glass for ten minutes, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and hurried down the hall. He hadn’t been back, had never even held Isaac, now a week old.

Busenbark said it was possibly food poisoning, or it could be the drinking.

“What drinking?”

“If you drink alcohol in the afternoon there’s an acid buildup that upsets your stomach at night. The longer that behavior continues the worse your stomach gets.” Busenbark washed his hands.

“Who says I drink in the afternoon?”

As Busenbark left he promised not to report the stomach issues, on condition that Andrés save drinking for his off days. Alone in the room, Andrés drank from the sink to give himself a moment to cool down. It was one thing for Teresa to nag him about drinking, or tell his mom, but a doctor where he worked? As he dried his goatee with a paper towel Andrés rehearsed a lecture about trust and privacy. He flicked lint from his nose and opened the door.

Teresa, leaning against the wall, looked up from her phone, giving Andrés that disappointed look, her arched eyebrows spectacularly black under hair so freshly drowned in peroxide it was almost white.


~


“What, Manny, your girlfriend bring you lunch?” Ernie walked up grinning. He always grinned, whether he was talking baseball, talking women, talking tragedy. It was the only face he knew. “Long time no see, Andrés. Still up in the hospital, wiping old lady asses?”

“All kinds of asses.”

Ernie stood laughing as Manny and Andrés sat on barrels near the concrete plant, in a gravel-covered field far from town, Styrofoam containers balanced on their laps. Cement dust drifted from Manny’s jeans and workshirt into the hot wind like dandelion seeds. Ernie was dressed the same but, as foreman, his clothes were clean. His shades reflected the sun as a gaudy rainbow flare.

“Let me know if you want back out here. You know Manny’s not worth two shits once the sun’s out.”

“I did two years of school to get my job. Plus NICU certification.”

“Two years? I could teach you to wipe an ass in five minutes.” Ernie grinned wider. “If you get sick of nursing, we’re looking to get someone in the Operator’s Union, if you put in a few months as a laborer.”

Manny stood up. “I’ve been asking about being an operator.”

“I know it.”

Andrés had never considered operating. They usually reserved heavy machinery for the fairer-skinned and better connected. He could make actual money at that, more than at the hospital, at least for now. And Andrés wouldn’t have to get further certified, wouldn’t have to see Teresa in the cafeteria, eating with the other uppity RNs and Dr. Busenbark.

As Ernie’s truck puttered away Andrés closed the container’s lid to keep dust off his eggs and beans. Manny was oblivious. He spoke through a mouthful of dirty beef.

“Might as well take it, Dre. Nobody sees you when you work nights. You tried nursing cuz Teresa was on your ass, and now that’s done, why are you still at it?”

“Who said we’re done?”

“It’s a big deal, getting something like that. I’m never gonna be an operator, and your dad is a laborer for life.” True, as far as anyone in Encomium knew. Fifteen years earlier, Marin had left Chicago to work in this town, framing some dorm or campus building. He stuffed his wife and two little ones in a rowdy apartment complex, full of well-off students, nocturnal devotees of video games and beer pong. When the job finished Marin found another crew working near the Oklahoma border, and after a month of three hour commutes he bought an onsite trailer, where he stayed during the week and saw the family on the weekends. When he followed work to Missouri the weekend appearances stopped. None of that bothered Andrés, but as he got into high school he hated seeing his mother stuck in the apartment, cataloging her collection of classical music tapes, dupes of CDs from the library, organized chronologically and nationally, a sinkhole of energy and ambition. She hated Encomium, the state’s smallest college town, hated her job in the University cafeteria, which she kept because it meant reduced tuition for her children, although only her daughter used it. Rosalva hated the apartment, said she only got to live in Chicago for two years before she moved to Kansas, never went to a baseball game, missed the museum, and when Andrés told her to go out and meet someone, there were plenty of other Latin people, she said, He tenido bastantes mexicanos. He knew what she’d say if she saw him here, sitting with Manny.

“Why do you eat like that? Your sister’s like me. A catracha. If she’s not hungry, she won’t even sit at the table, but when she eats, she sits down, eat eat eat, and she’s up. You, you’re your daddy, like all the others here. You eat a little, talk a little, eat a little, you waste the day.”

Manny looked into Andrés’ container. “Why you eating breakfast now? It’s like two o’clock.”

“Cuz eggs taste good all day.”

The caravan of dump trucks assembled behind the mixing drum. Suspended ten feet in the air, the drum poured concrete into the truck beds, the trucks hauled the concrete to the paving train, and the paving train turned the concrete to interstate. Andres wondered what kind of operator they were looking to train. Running the batch plant, monitoring the mix of cement, rock and sand? Or even Gerald’s job, running the paving train? He heard that Gerald’s lungs had gone bad, too much time in dense air, toxic with dust and petroleum. “After lunch I’m signing up for classes.”

“For what?”

“Neonatal CCRN. Means I can work NICU even if we get kids born super early or with serious breathing problems.”

“You want to be with babies, just marry Teresa and be her little bitch. Do the laundry, maybe grow some titties. When you gonna take classes?”

“Afternoons, before my shift.”

“You’re drunk before you shift.”

“Not anymore.”

Manny laughed and spit a morsel into the dirt. “How you even gonna pay for classes? I never seen you with any money.”

“You sign a letter saying you’ll stay at the hospital and they pay for the classes. Plus minority scholarships.”

“Andrés, that girl is stuck up as shit. Bet you she’s hooking it with that doctor. If you work nights and do class in the day, when you gonna see your friends?”

Andrés wasn’t taking classes for Teresa. He hadn’t touched booze for days, not since the second time he’d found Isaac turned around in his crib, and had that feeling again, something behind him with arms raised as if to take his coat. The thing was messing with Isaac, somehow keeping him sick and small, and as long as Andrés came to work buzzed he’d never figure out what it was. A few days without vodka and his stomach was solid, and that feeling, that presence disappeared. It was stupid, it had been nothing. He focused on the kids, followed every doctor’s instruction, never sulked, gave no lip. And Isaac began to eat better, breathe on his own. After three days he put on half a pound. Andrés decided he needed to learn more so he could help more. He took enrollment forms to fill out with his mom, and he would show Teresa how on top of it he was, would take her to dinner and not have a drink, or clear his mom from the apartment and cook something. Put on a button-up. Maybe even shave. Teresa always said she liked the clean cut look.


~


He swigged deeply from the bottle, tasted vanilla and wasn’t crazy about it. Andrés had always wanted to try Grey Goose. Over the years he would sometimes take it from the shelf to test the weight of its thick glass, rubbing his thumb over the embossed graphics. And he always set it back for a plastic jug of the cheap stuff.

Tonight though, after Manny told him a friend saw Teresa in a car with some guy, some guy who sounded a lot like Dr. Busenbark, Andrés had walked directly to Elbert Liquor and decided it was time to spring for the Goose. He couldn’t remember how much it cost. Before the clerk could give change the top was off and the vodka was down his throat. He slumped into Manny’s inherited Taurus and they drove to that middling part of town where the houses were small but meticulously kept and everybody mowed their lawns. They parked on the street and waited, passing the bottle back and forth. Manny complained about the vodka, and Andrés told him about the first time he drank the stuff, a weekend when he was fifteen or sixteen and Marin came through town and took him to dinner. With his receding hair and yellowing teeth this stranger had made Andrés nervous, his sleeveless shirt trashy even for Arby’s. They went for a drive after dinner, father and son sipping Smirnov and Sprite from the same paper cup, dipping the truck into ditches and back roads to avoid stop signs and streetlights. Marin asked if the boy was getting any, and Andrés told him about his new girlfriend Teresa. “Just remember to use a rubber when you go dickie-dunking.” Marin described the night in Chicago, seventeen years earlier, when Rosalva said she was pregnant. Anxiety pressed instantly on his heart, a weight he realized would never leave as long as he lived. Andrés had sat silently in the truck, trying to understand if it was a way of explaining that even if Marin was never around, was rarely in the same state as his son, he hadn’t forgotten him. He still worried.

A minivan pulled up to the curb, a row of stupid stick figures stuck to the rear window: father, mother, three kids and a dog. The Busenbarks. Teresa hopped out the passenger door and walked up her driveway.

Andrés charged screaming at her, calling her cuero for sleeping with a married man. She did not acknowledge the insult. Her parents came outside, calm as ever, standing behind Teresa as she explained that Busenbark had asked for help at some free clinic where he volunteered; he needed a nurse who could translate for the patients. She said the work would beef up her Masters application and was the decent sort of thing that Andrés would never think to do. Teresa cut off his apology and said it was ok. “I’m not surprised. I’ve expected much worse from you.” It was what she got for slumming.


~


Andrés hummed an invented melody, body bent over the cart, exhaling lightly to keep his toxic vanilla breath off Isaac as he pushed the swaddled child to a room in maternity, where the father was waiting. Isaac was just under five pounds and his skin had cleared. Andrés was proud. But he didn’t trust the dad to feed him enough, feed him at all. Isaac’s father had declined the hospital’s offer of in-rooming, giving him a night with assistance and monitoring before he took on single fatherhood. No, he’d said, he didn’t want help, he just wanted to be home.

When Andrés had approached Teresa at the beginning of his shift she turned and walked away, would not listen that he was getting sober, that he had finally enrolled. Fine. Andrés would take his classes, get certified, make money, meet some girl at the college and run into Teresa at the Raw Dog bar. She’d see he wasn’t drinking, would grind on some frat boy to get his attention and Andrés would only care about his new girl, whatever her name was, from Wichita or Kansas City, who’d always wanted a boyfriend with flavor.

He looked at Isaac. Thin black hair frizzed up, bridgeless nose the size of a marble, slowly waking and looking up, past Andrés. And as if chilled by a breeze the hair rose on the back of Andrés’s neck. His stomach lurched. That something was behind him. Andrés felt a shape, a weight rise. It was angry that Isaac was leaving, wouldn’t let him go. Andrés looked at the baby. Isaac seemed relieved, comforted, ready to smile, even though a newborn face could not form a smile.

Andrés stopped walking.

He realized that it was not him. He had not nursed this child to health. Isaac had plumped and learned to breath, was maintaining good body temperature, not because of doctors or supplements, not because of the dedicated nurse that Andrés had become, but because this thing had stayed by his side from the beginning. It was a caretaker. Andrés had only been in the way. And so, who was he to say what was best for the child? He was a reckless drunk, soon to lose his job, who would someday submit to the inevitable, knock up some poor girl, maybe marry her, then flee to the peace and simplicity of booze.

To the something, to the infant, he whispered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.”


~


Is Mom already watching TV?

Andrés sat up, wondered why he was on the old brown couch, its raised stitching pressing a checkerboard pattern into his cheek. Why was he still in his nurse uniform and boots, and why was the room so bright? He heard the sound again and stood up to open the front door. Manny’s car honked in the driveway.

“Thought you wanted to work today. Ernie’s waiting for us.”

“When did I say that?”

“You called me last night.”

Andrés waved him off and went back inside. He looked at his phone. A text from Teresa: What were U thinking?

Andrés had no idea.

Five missed calls from her. He dialed her back.

“I can’t believe you.”

He asked her why.

“You don’t remember putting that baby back in NICU? You told that father he couldn’t have his son. Like you were child services. How wasted were you?”

Still no idea.

“Am I fired?”

He wasn’t. The father had stormed out, even when hospital staff assured him that Andrés didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t have the authority, and if the man waited another nurse would fetch Isaac and they could go home. In terror of a lawsuit, an administrator had driven to the father’s house to apologize, and once there quickly realized the father was in no state to care for a newborn. “Dr. Busenbark said he heard it was disgusting, just food and clothes everywhere. Like the guy hadn’t gotten up from the couch in a week. He was a mess.”

Andrés nodded, though of course she couldn’t see him.

“How did you know?”

Andrés hadn’t known.

She wasn’t satisfied with that, wanted to come over and have him explain. Andrés said he would see her later, at the start of his shift. Applications don’t fill themselves out.  

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