by Daniel Lynch
The IV snaked over the bedrail pumping me full of broad-spectrum antibiotics. There wasn’t as much of me as there used to be.
It was 2:00 a.m. and my meds were due. The nurse on duty was a young man, I forget his name now, but he was tall. The night before, when he lent over me to adjust my pillow, I could see tattoos streaking out from under the collar of his shirt. They looked like bats, sketchy wings unfolding over his collarbones. I asked him what they were.
‘Old,’ he said. ‘Very old.’
‘I turn 86 in a few weeks,’ I said. ‘My definition of old is probably different to yours.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said. Then he pressed the button to raise the bed, and fed me some mush from a plastic bowl.
The other patients in my pod were asleep most of the time. One had a bad lung infection, complications from some kind of surgery. The other burned himself playing with kerosene at a bonfire party on the beach. He looked like soup all bandaged up.
2:00 a.m. wasn’t any different to lunchtime in that regard. Fewer noises maybe, but about the same level of conversation. When the nurse with the bats came in, he clickity-clacked like some drunken metronome. It was his cowboy boots. I asked him why he wasn’t wearing sneakers.
‘These are moulded to my feet,’ he said. ‘Wear em long enough, they’re the comfiest shoes you’ll ever own.’
‘Where’re my meds?’ I asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Just the pain ones.’
He told me the same thing he told me the night before.
An hour or so later, I was still awake and Mr Wet-Bandages was moaning in his sleep. He was knocked out on the good stuff, so whatever he was dreaming was reaching up through a pretty thick fog.
‘I try not to dream,’ I told him.
He made a noise like a cow moving slowly in the rain.
‘That’s the problem with skin,’ I said to him. ‘You only miss it when it’s gone.’
Cowboy-Bats came back in then, clickity-clack, and pushed the tray table in front of me.
‘I’ve got a deck of cards, and about a hundred matches,’ he said. ‘You want to talk all night or you want to play.’
‘Depends,’ I said. ‘What’re we playing for?’
‘Something other than matches,’ he said.
Playing cards with only two people cuts the chances of winning in weird ways, with shitty hands. Cowboy-Bats suggested blackjack, but my memory’s not so good so I told him pick something else.
‘Wusses game,’ I said.
He shuffled the cards and dealt out a poker hands.
Mr Wet-Bandages gurgled while we played. I started losing at first. Not on purpose, it just played out that way. Then I had a good run. Then another. My pile of matches got bigger.
Light burned around the edges of the thick hospital blinds before the game was over. When I had all the matches on my side of the table, Cowboy-Bats slumped in his chair.
‘You can forget the game if you give me my pain meds,’ I said.
‘You know they won’t work,’ he said. ‘Not really.’
‘Might help take my mind off it.’
‘You’ll still feel it.’
‘Everyone else here’s blasted. I want a little relief is all.’
He got up then, moved the table next to the bed. ‘It’s early,’ he said. ‘I finish soon. But I’ll be back before I hand over.’ Then he clickity-clacked out of my pod and down the hall.
Sometime during the game the guy with a lung infection had rolled over, his arm falling from under the covers. His breaths were shallow. He was a stilled waterfall and all I wanted was to be home in my regular non-adjustable bed away from people who had become liquid.
I could still feel my legs.
They were no longer attached to my body, and they hurt.
I shut the light out for a while, but not anything else. I heard Cowboy-Bats sidle up to my bed. I faked sleep. I didn’t want to be refused painkillers again. His clicks became scrapes and then I couldn’t hear his shoes anymore.
‘I guess you don’t need to worry whether they fit.’
When I was sure he’d snuck out of the pod, I opened my lids. His boots were on the table.