Alex Herrington_for_Hard To Believe

Freddy said, “Hal, dude, you just missed the nurse. She wouldn’t tell us bupkus but oh my god, what a smoking hot body. We’re calling her Hot Donna.”

I traded hugs with him and felt anxious: Freddy joking about the situation made me worry that things were really bad. Turning to John, I said, “What’s happening with Dana? The nurse really wouldn’t tell you anything?”

John shook his head. His eyes were wet and raw. “She just said he’s still unconscious, but stable. The doctors are running a bunch of tests.”

I’d flown into Denver at noon, expecting to be in Aspen with John and Dana and Freddy by sundown. Instead, here we were, crammed into a tiny hospital waiting room. The air smelled like stale heating ducts and cleaning fluid. “So we can’t see him,” I said.

“We’re not family, so no. The nurse said we have to wait in here.”

“Have a seat,” Freddy said. He and John had taken up positions at either end of a mud brown loveseat. Every textile in the room—carpet, seat cushions, drapes—was an earth-tone, washable fabric. We’d been relegated to the Motel 6 of waiting rooms.

I claimed the chair by the window and propped my feet on my suitcase, which was packed with ski gear and two handles of top-shelf tequila, one wrapped in birthday wrapping paper for Dana. “So how did he end up in here? Is it related to the lymphoma?” Dana had been diagnosed last year and was supposedly in remission, but he was notoriously bad about details—for the first month of his treatment, I hadn’t even realized he was fighting stage 3 cancer.

“They’re not sure yet.” Freddy seemed like he wanted to say more but was having trouble, like a man holding too many playing cards.

“His neighbor found him collapsed in his driveway and called the medics.” A woman had come in, blond hair in a low ponytail, wearing dark blue pants with an equally somber pullover vest.

From her outfit and her neutral tone, my first thought was that she was a nurse. Then she sat on the couch arm next to John and put her arm around his shoulder. The new girlfriend, I realized, reaching out to shake her hand. “You must be Lorna,” I said.

“And you must be Hal,” she said. “How are you doing, John, honey?”

“I’m pretty freaked out,” John admitted. He leaned his head on her shoulder.

“Well, have faith—the Lord is willing to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows.”

I recognized the Holy Bible when I heard it. “Uh—Lorna, not sure if you know this, but Dana’s an atheist.”

She looked at me, her eyes narrowing, as though trying to decide if I was serious.

“Just trying to save you from wasting your time,” I added.

“Prayer is never a waste of time,” she shot back.

John closed his eyes. “Guys, please—not now.”

I looked at my friend, head nestled into Lorna’s embrace. In three years rooming together at UCLA, John and I had debated everything: sports, capitalism, workout routines, dog breeds, threesomes, religion. He was as much a non-believer as I was, of this I was sure. Although, until about two hours ago, I’d also been sure I was about to spend the weekend partying with old friends. I got up from the chair, stretching. My ass was starting to ache from all the sitting. “Hey Freddy—coffee run?”

We joined the cafeteria line behind a gaggle of elderly volunteers wearing bright smocks, their haircuts no-hassle short and gray. “So, how’s work going?” I asked Freddy.

“Oh, kind of shitty. The real estate market in Tucson tanked, just like everywhere else.” Freddy still had the curling eyelashes and football player’s build that had made him such a chick magnet in college. “How’re you? How’s the telecom world?”

“I just got promoted to executive director of operations,” I boasted.

“Still dating those young guys from the line crew?”

I pretended to think. “Um—is twenty-four young?” My current boyfriend worked days climbing utility poles and studied marketing at night. His precious free time he spent with me, although we both knew my fascination with his abs wouldn’t outlast finals week.

Freddy laughed. “Twenty-four? Fuck you.”

“Fuck you. Your lady is awesome.”

“Yeah, and we’ve also been together eight years. I can’t remember a whiff of what single snatch is like.”

One of the volunteers turned and gave Freddy a stern look. I smiled at her. “It’s all about choices, dude. Life is like chess and I’m playing tomorrow’s game.” We’d reached the cashier. I ordered drip coffees and pastries and Freddy tossed down a credit card to pay the tab. “Thanks, man.”

He said, noncommittal, “Yeah.”

We were both tiptoeing around something and it felt strange. “You okay?”

Shrugging, he said, “I just thought Dana had this lymphoma shit under control.”

“Passing out in his driveway doesn’t sound under control to me. Wasn’t he supposed to be getting blood counts every three months?”

“He told me he skipped sometimes. It was freaking him out. He felt like he was reliving it every time.”

“Seriously? Goddamn him.” I sipped the hot coffee. The liquid scorched my tongue. “You know what, goddamn you too, for not telling me.” Grabbing the drink carrier, I stalked back to the elevator. At the other end of the hall, John was holding open a door for Lorna. I read the sign aloud. “Interfaith chapel.”

“John got religion,” Freddy said, behind me. He held the bag of pastries curled under his arm like a football.

“Or religion got John,” I said. Our buddy had been with his share of wackadoos over the years: the bald stripper, the ex-wife who’d dropped thirty K at native casinos. But a religious chick? It was hard to believe.

Late afternoon sun beamed into the waiting room. Freddy sat in a corner texting. John was buried in the Denver Post sports page. The evening stretched ahead like Interstate 70—flat, horizon-less, shimmery. I flicked John’s newspaper. “Hey. Did you know Dana wasn’t getting his blood work done?”

“Huh?” He looked at me over the top of the paper.

“Freddy said Dana told him he was skipping his blood work.”

“No, I didn’t know. But knowing Dana, I can’t say it surprises me.”

Freddy set down his phone. “Hal, did Nurse Hot Donna say anything else? I feel like they aren’t telling us jack shit.”

A few minutes earlier, the nurse had stopped in briefly to say only that they were still running tests. I’d followed her back to the ICU. Stopping outside the locked double doors, Nurse Hot Donna had pushed her dark-framed glasses up her nose and asked who I was, exactly. A friend, I said, the word stunningly inadequate for Dana, the smartest guy I knew, hopeless optimist, reliable wingman, goofy little almost-brother. “Nope. Nothing.”

“Son of a bitch,” Freddy said.

“Maybe Lorna can pray down some updates,” I said nastily.

John snapped his newspaper. “Hal, don’t be such a prick. What’s your problem with her being a believer? Did a priest play hide the sausage with you back in the day?”

I didn’t answer. I counted to ten, then twenty, then one hundred. I stared at the divots in the carpet where the couch legs had made dents from a previous position. Reminding myself to breathe, I looked out into the hallway, where an elderly man in a hospital gown and slippers shuffled by, clutching an IV stand, heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. He felt like a metaphor for our long, halting day.

On Sunday I woke up with an ache in my gut. Freddy and I had grabbed a late dinner the night before at a steakhouse near the hospital, then he’d gone to his wife’s cousins’ place to crash and I’d checked into the Marriott. I’d stayed up late watching ESPN and making a dent in one of the tequila bottles and thinking about John’s comment.

No minister had ever tugged my wiener, but my manhood had been the topic of a multitude of sermons. Men lying with men is an abomination, Pastor would thunder, and I’d sit next to Mama wanting to cry or punch something, wondering how she and he and our Baptist congregation could all be so smug and so certain and so wrong. John telling me to shut up had taken me back to those tortuous hours in the pew, being told to pray away the urges I felt toward other boys, to stuff them away the way I bundled up my cock before track practice.

Anyway, I couldn’t dwell on it now: shit/shower/shave, and a cab to the hospital.

I took the elevator to Dana’s floor and lo and behold the ICU doors were propped open. It felt like an invitation—a gift—for arriving early and alone. I walked in as though I had a right to.

“Sir?” A broad-shouldered nurse in purple scrubs intercepted me, stethoscope bouncing on a broad, impeccable chest. “Excuse me? You can’t go in there.”

I looked over his shoulder into a room, saw a bed and a flat screen spewing out vitals like a stock ticker. Saw figures around the bed, heard voices, a high-pitched voice, then Dana’s voice—wait—Dana’s voice? “Is he awake?”

“Only medical staff and family members are allowed in,” the nurse was saying.

“I am family,” I lied.

The nurse looked me over. “Is that so? I just spoke to his mom and sister. They’re still trying to fly out of Fort Lauderdale. Apparently a hurricane’s blowing in.”

Suddenly, two figures burst out of Dana’s room: Lorna, ponytail flopping behind her like a leaky balloon, and a white-haired man decked out in a three-piece powder blue suit. As they exited, a half dozen figures in scrubs fanned out across the hall behind them.

“Be healed. Be healed! Praise Jesus,” the man was crowing.

“Family only, huh? Then how did those two get in there?” I said, angry, but my nurse’s attention was focused on Lorna and the wailing old man.

Facing the defensive line of nurses, Lorna said, “You let us alone. He’s clergy.”

“You need to leave. Now,” the big nurse said. A muscle in his jawline flexed.

“Let’s go, Preacher,” Lorna said, taking his arm. They proceeded down the hall together, like carolers singing a grim, unwelcome hymn.

“Looks like the hurricane already blew in,” I said to the nurse, knowing I was being melodramatic. He watched me all the way to the end of the hall, and pressed a button to close the double ICU doors behind me.

Lorna and Preacher awaited me outside the doors. “Hal, meet a friend of mine,” she said, smiling, eyes bright, seeming exhilarated from the earlier encounter.

The man stepped close. His coffee breath plumed into my nostrils. “God bless you, my son. Did you come to commune with the young Lazarus?”

“Preacher’s a faith healer. We prayed Dana from his slumber.” Even though she was still smiling, Lorna’s eyes were as hard as rock, as though she knew things I did not.

Preacher grabbed my arm with cold fingers and pressed his eyelids together. “Oh, Lord Jesus, heal this young man. Heal his friends. Take away their fear and longing. Be healed. Be healed.”

I pulled my arm free. “Stop it. I’m not sick.”

“We all sick,” Preacher moaned. “We all sick, son. We just don’t know it.”

“Hey Dana, you want some more pop?” Freddy sat at the foot of Dana’s bed. The room reeked of cold cuts and onions. With his Mom and sister still stranded in the Southeast, newly-awakened Dana had waged a hunger strike until the nurses allowed Freddy and me in around lunchtime. We’d grabbed supplies from the Subway around the corner and waltzed triumphantly into his room.

Dana sipped his drink, then began to cough. He coughed and coughed. Freddy rose from the bed, concerned, but Dana hiccupped finally and caught his breath.

A dark-haired nurse in flowered scrubs poked her head in. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, Guadeloupe, sorry,” Freddy said.

“You should no eating pepperoni subs,” she said, shaking a finger. We laughed. I was relieved that Nurse Hot Donna seemed to be off duty.

“Jesus, you guys,” Dana breathed. “All this and I choke to death on 7-Up?”

“So, dude, what the hell happened?” I said. “You came down with the flu plus a random infection and here you are?”

He yawned, kitten-like, his mouth wide-open, teeth gleaming. “That’s what they think. I took a shitload of antibiotics for the MALT last year, so when I got this flu bug, regular drugs didn’t cut it.”

I felt a tug of worry. “What about the next flu bug? And the one after that?”

“I’m just trying to get through today, Hal.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Once I get my resistance built back up, I’ll be fine.”

“And keep getting your blood work done,” I said pointedly.

Dana didn’t answer. He stared at the Broncos pre-game show on his TV.

“Lorna says her and that Preacher guy woke you up with their prayers,” Freddy said. He fired a sub wrapper at the trashcan but the wad of paper bounced off the rim.

“Who is that guy?” I said. “Did she bring him here from L.A.?”

“She told me he’s local,” Freddy said. “Her church out there hooked them up.”

“He tried to faith heal me,” I said, wiping my fingertips with a napkin. “Fucking old fraud.”

Dana said, “Who’s to say? Maybe the prayers did some good.”

“Or maybe your doctors had something to do with it,” I said.

“Who cares, as long as it worked,” Freddy said diplomatically.

“No offense, idiots, but I believe in medical science,” I said.

“I believe,” Dana said, pausing to catch his breath. “That I’m going to kick you two assholes out of here if you don’t shut up so we can watch the game.”

It was our last night together. Just as his Mom and sister arrived tomorrow, we’d all go home, vacations over but not taken. Freddy got permission from Nurse Hot Donna to throw a birthday party in the cafeteria. She signed off on everything but my hip flask, filled with tequila from the nearly empty fifth. Lorna had offered to pick up taco truck dinner and a cherry pie from King Soopers, and even I mumbled my thanks as I chipped in twenty bucks.

We seated Dana at an out of the way cafeteria table. He surveyed us like a king, an unshaven sovereign bundled up in hospital gowns and a bathrobe. “Okay, listen up. I’m sorry about your vacations, dudes. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

“How about making sure you get your blood work done,” I said ungenerously.

“Jesus, Hal.” Freddy said. “Give it a rest. It’s not like he wanted to end up in a coma.”

“I wasn’t in a coma,” Dana said.

“You were in a coma,” John said.

“Well fuck me, you’re all M.D.’s,” Dana said. He sipped from the margarita we had mixed up in a Minute Maid carton.

“Chow time!” Lorna arrived, dumping grease-spotted bags onto the table. The smell of tortillas and cheese and salsa wafted over us like perfume.

“Where’s the pie?” Freddy said.

“Praise the Lord and pass the pie.” Preacher sailed into view, his Colonel Sanders hair flapping, balancing a pie on each fleshy palm.

“What’s he doing here?” On principle, I didn’t want to dig in now, but damn my traitorous taste buds, I seemed to be starving. Would dinner obligate me to listen to whatever sermon Preacher might feel like regurgitating?

“I said he could come,” Dana said.

“Let’s say grace,” Lorna interjected, as everybody reached for food.

“Might I lift us up to the Lord in prayer?” Preacher said unctuously.

“I’ll pray,” I said.

Everyone looked at me. “Hal, “John said, weary.

“’I thank you god for most this amazing day.’ Amen.” e.e. cummings’ poem quoted over dinner had never failed to send my mother into a fury, and, looking at Lorna’s pinched expression, I had to admit it still felt good to piss off a sanctimonious female. I bit into a warm tortilla. “Delicious. Thanks so much, Lorna.”

“What a blessing that you young folks can be here with your friend during this time of trial,” Preacher said.

“Funny thing is, he’s not a blessing at all,” Freddy said, winking. “He’s actually kind of a pain in the ass.”

Lorna cracked her gum. “You all should be thinking about the future.”

The future. Eternity. Here it came. “Can’t we just enjoy the now?” I said, irritated.

“You did say you were playing tomorrow’s chess match, Hal,” Freddy said.

“Shut the fuck up,” I said. Nearby, an Asian family was busily shoving tables together, metal chair legs squealing on the tile.

Lorna said, “I think you all know. You know it’s serious with Dana, and you’re afraid to face the truth about what’s coming. For him and for you.”

“What do you know about anything?” I said.

John was looking at Dana with leaking eyes. “What’s coming?”

“Just a goddamn minute. My health is my business.” Dana jabbed a thumb at his chest. “Everybody else can just fuck the fuck off.”

Freddy looked pale. “Dana—”

“Fred-dee,” Dana drawled, trying to be funny. He looked around the table and then drooped a little, as though finally recognizing the uncertainty in our eyes and faces. John sat with his head bowed—praying, I thought. Or maybe bracing himself.

I felt light-headed. We’d all been so busy clowning around, pretending like nothing was wrong, nothing had changed, that this was one more minor blip on the road back to hale health and heartiness. Did Dana not trust us enough to be honest? Maybe we had let him down with all our brainless horsing around.

“The Lord Jesus is here for you,” Lorna was saying earnestly. “For all of you. If only you’ll let Him in, you can spend eternity with Him.”

I stood up. She wasn’t going to let it go. Then neither was I. “Hey Lorna, you know what, you and Preacher—you two are vampires. Preying on people when they’re weak.”

Lorna said, “We’re here to speak the truth, Hal.”

“The truth? The truth is—”

John stood up too. He still had a couple inches on me. “Knock it off. Both of you.”

Lorna went on, “The truth is, the Lord woke your friend up, and you can’t stand being wrong.”

“You can believe whatever you want,” I said.

“I believe what I witnessed,” she said, again with the smug certainty.

Nobody else spoke. Preacher chewed on, moustache deep in carne asada. Was Lorna onto something? Did she really know something we didn’t? She’d been in the room when Dana woke up. John knew her best of all of us, and even he was getting hauled around by the nuts.

After everyone had cleared out of the cafeteria—a nurse wheeling Dana up to shower, Freddy to call his lady, the unholy trinity of John, Lorna and Preacher who knew where—I stood outside on an empty terrace, under a burned-out patio light, tears splashing my clasped hands. Tequila always made me emotional. I dried my face with a napkin, dug in my pockets for my emergency cigarette.

“Man, I’d kill for one of those.” There was a shuffling sound, Dana’s slippers sliding across the cement.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting cleaned up for your family?” I said.

“God dammit. Stop being so fucking helpful. All I wanted was just to have our weekend. You know? Be assholes together, like always.” Dana breathed, closing his eyes.

“You can’t blame us for being worried. You don’t tell us shit,” I said.

“It’s true, you don’t.” Freddy came up, handed a lit cigarette to Dana, supported his elbow as he took a draw.

“Are you guys nuts?” Here was John, wild-eyed. “If the nurses see this, they are going to fucking bust you.”

“Oh come on. Give a dying man a cigarette,” Dana said.

We looked at him, miserable. “Dude, you’re not dying,” Freddy said.

“We’re all dying.” Dana looked around for a place to sit. I eased him into a chair, marveled at how light he was.

“Don’t let Lorna and Preacher get to you, Dana. They’re just a couple of whack jobs.”

“Hal, why don’t you shut up–” John elbowed me hard, knocking the wind out of me. I shoved back, watched him waver like a man on a tightrope.

“Everything okay out here?” A man approached, stethoscope slung around his neck. It was the broad-shouldered nurse who’d kicked me out of the ICU.

“Everything’s fine.” Dana’s trembling hand masked his lips, his cigarette breath.

The nurse held up my flask. “One of you leave this down in the cafeteria?”

“That one,” John muttered, nodding at me.

“Just celebrating a birthday.” I squinted to read his nametag. “How are you—Nurse Thomson? I’m Hal.”

“Kevin,” the guy said, shaking my hand. He wore pale blue scrubs and white Comverse kicks.

“Let me ask you something,” I said. “Did Jesus wake our friend up from his coma?”

He frowned. “Wrong profession, my friend.”

“Dude, are we all dying?” Freddy said, drunkly earnest.

“Every living thing is dying,” Kevin the nurse said, looking around the patio, and up at the sky. “Living and breathing and suffering and farting and fucking and loving and dying. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”

Preacher and Lorna were right, in a way. The fuckers. There was movement in the universe, I felt. A change, a disturbance, the way things stirred and then did not, just before a storm.

About the Author: Elise Glassman lives and works in Seattle, and she studied fiction with Laura Kalpakian and others at the University of Washington Extension, and with Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Colorado Review, Neon Beam, The Summerset Review, Main Street Rag, the Portland Review, Tawdry Bawdry, Referential Magazine, and Switchback. Her essay “Touch” appeared in the anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religion, and in 2015, her story, “Free Ride” will appear in Per Contra.

Artwork: Alex Herrington