by David McLeod
The Story of Joe
"Coffee, please, and then about ten minutes to get my thoughts together–and to wake up." Joe looked at the waitress to gauge her reaction. She looked around the diner and then nodded. Her lips were tightly compressed. I know what she's thinkin': how long am I going to take up her table? Will I leave a tip?
Joe understood the woman's concern. He had waited tables at fine restaurants and family restaurants, at diners and at dives. He'd earned big tips and he'd been stiffed. As the failure of the Obama economic recovery and the various stimulus packages had become more and more apparent, the number of customers and the size of the tips had dwindled. Joe had worked two jobs: one as a waiter and one as a dishwasher. Still, he'd barely been able to make ends meet. When Denny had kicked him out, Joe had taken what he could carry in a backpack and in the pockets of his parka, and set out for home.
Home was Helena, Montana, and Joe figured a bus would get him there in a week or less. What he hadn't counted on was how the recession had affected the bus company. "You'd think that more people would have to ride the bus," the ticket agent had told him. "The only people who can afford to travel, can afford to fly. Folks too poor to fly? They're too poor to take the bus, too. They say…" The man leaned forward. His voice dropped. "They say folks are startin' to ride the rails–like during the Great Depression. They say they found two men in a rail car, crushed to death when the load shifted, right here in San Bernardino."
The man leaned back, and then ran his fingers down a laminated schedule. "Now, I can put you on an express to Las Vegas, then Denver, and then Salt Lake City. It leaves in three days. There's a layover in Denver, and in Salt Lake you'll have to wait two days for the next express to . . . Missoula." He quoted a price to Joe, and then added, "They'll stop at Helena and let you off. It'll be a gas station on the interstate, though. Not the downtown station."
Joe didn't have to think. The cost of the ticket, plus the layovers, would be more than he had. "Isn't there anything cheaper?"
The man looked at Joe. "You're a student, right? Goin' home for the holidays, right? I can sell you an open ticket on the local. It leaves at midnight, tonight. It'll take you a week longer than the express, but you won't have to wait around, you know?"
Joe knew. The man was telling him that he could sleep on the bus all the way to Helena. He'd have to eat at diners and gas stations, wherever the bus stopped. He'd not get a shower until he reached Helena, but Joe had bathed in the sinks of public restrooms more than once. "What's an open ticket," he asked.
"Means if you have friends in any of the stops, you can get off the bus and take the next one. Open ticket's good for six months." He quoted a price.
If a town's got a Sally, I can get off, get a meal and a shower, and sleep in their shelter, too, and then take the next bus. Joe had stayed at Salvation Army shelters during his travels, and was willing to listen to the preaching–and the testimony from the usual crowd of drunks and druggies–in return for a safe night's sleep and a meal. "Done," he told the ticket agent.
Joe's plan had worked. The shelter in Las Vegas had been clean and un-crowded. He'd stayed a night at a Rescue Mission in Denver. In Cheyenne, he'd gotten off the bus and walked to the Salvation Army. It hadn't been far–he knew it wouldn't be: bus stations and Salvation Army shelters were usually in derelict parts of town. He told the Captain who ran the shelter with her husband–another Captain–that he'd lost his job in California and was hitching home and could he stay the night. When he said he'd been a dishwasher, she offered him $10 if he'd wash dishes after the evening meal. "It's not pay–it's not even minimum wage, I don't think," she said. "Call it a gift."
Joe had agreed. The next morning, he'd stuck that ten-dollar bill in his shoe and set out for the bus station. Now, in Jacksonville, Wyoming, he was about to spend the ten dollars–the last of his money–for coffee and breakfast. And a tip, he thought while he scanned the menu.
Joe's bill came to a little over six dollars. He handed the waitress the check and the ten-dollar bill, and told her to keep the change.
"Um, that's a pretty big tip for a guy who's spending the last of his money," she said.
"Huh? What do you mean?" Joe tried to keep anger from his voice. He didn't entirely succeed.
"Take it easy, hon," the woman said. "I've waited tables here for 40 years. You ain't the first person to walk across the street from the bus station. You ain't the first person to order sausage gravy and biscuits–the cheapest thing on the menu. And you ain't the first person to pay with a ten dollar bill that's got creases like they was ironed into it–or been in your shoe."
The woman's words evoked images in Joe's mind: images he'd suppressed for a long time. Now, they returned. Each image triggered another, and they cascaded and flickered through his imagination. A map: he was just over halfway home, and broke. The biscuits were the first food he'd had in three days, and they sat hard in his stomach. A bus crawling along the map: the next bus going north from Jacksonville was three days away, and Jacksonville didn't have a Sally; Joe had learned that too late. The imaginary bus reached Helena: his mother stood motionless, no smile and no hug. His father turned his back and walked away. His little brother curled his lip in a sneer and followed their father.
As Joe watched, blackness washed over the images, but did not obliterate them. Rather, it obliterated Joe. He slumped. His forehead hit the edge of the table as he fell to the floor, but Joe did not feel the blow.
Joe woke briefly when the EMT inserted a needle into his arm, and again when he was lifted from the gurney into a bed. It was not until the next morning that he became fully awake and realized that he was in a hospital room. He tried to sit up, but became too dizzy to do so. Within seconds, the door opened and a boy wearing white pants and a blue and white pinstriped shirt came in.
"Hold on . . . a nurse will be here in a minute. Don't try to sit up," the boy said. He put his hand on Joe's chest and pressed gently. "You banged your head. I watched the neurologist examine you. Your pupils were different sizes. That usually means concussion. I'm Tony. I'm a volunteer. They used to call volunteers Candy Stripers until they let boys in. The girls still wear pink; the boys get blue. I was watching you on the TV." He pointed to a camera in the ceiling, and then continued talking. "They bathed you–the nurses did. They wouldn't let me help even though you're a boy and I'm a boy. I mean, they wouldn't let a volunteer help, anyway. Oh, here's the nurse."
"Thank you, Tony," the nurse said. "Would you watch the station, now? Thank you." Her words were a clear dismissal. Tony hurried out of the room.
"I am Nurse Spencer. How do you feel?"
"Dizzy, a minute ago. Better, now. What happened?" Joe asked.
"You were at the diner. They said you fainted, fell out of your seat, and hit your head on the edge of the table. The cut bled a lot, but the real problem was concussion. We did an MRI. Do you know what that is? We did an MRI and found nothing serious. You'll be held for observation until you're no longer dizzy and your pupillary reflexes are normal. Let me see." She pulled out a small flashlight and shone it into Joe's eyes, one after the other, back and forth.
"Looks good to me, but the neurologist will decide. Now, according to your driver's license, you're from California, but we couldn't find a phone number for you at that address. And what's your insurance?"
Blackness threatened to overcome Joe again, but he pushed it away.
"I don't live at that address any more, and the phone never was in my name. And I don't have insurance."
"Oh. Well, not to worry. We won't kick you out." She chuckled. "But I don't think we'll be able to keep you in a private room any–Oh, hello, doctor."
"Good morning. How is the patient?"
Joe lay back and tried to listen, but the nurse and doctor's voices were too low. The doctor repeated the flashlight-in-the-eyes and finally spoke to him.
"One more night for observation, and I think you'll be ready for discharge. Nurse? Given the current hospital population, I don't think we need to move him." The doctor was gone before Joe could ask any questions, or thank him.
"Are you hungry?" the nurse asked. When Joe nodded, she said, "I'll send Tony in with your lunch."
Tony put a tray on the Mayo stand, and handed Joe the bed control box. "Press this to raise your head. Stop if you feel dizzy. I'm supposed to wait while you eat in case you choke or anything."
"Um, I feel fine," Joe said. "I don't think I'll choke." He saw Tony's face flinch, and then added, "But I'd like your company." Tony smiled and rolled the Mayo stand into place.
"They said you were from California," Tony said. "I've never been to California. What's it like?"
While Joe negotiated his way among bites of mystery meat, mashed potatoes, and Jell-O, Tony bombarded him with questions. What was California like? How come he didn't have a suntan? Did he know any movie stars? What was Disneyland like? Did he know any TV stars? Did he have a convertible? Did he know Governor Schwarzenegger? Did he surf?
Tony was not an unpleasant boy, nor was Joe. However, Joe was deeply depressed by his situation, his lack of money, and his uncertain future. He tried to tolerate the inquisition but ultimately exploded. "Look. I don't know anybody who's famous. I never even got to the ocean or to Hollywood. The governor lives in Sacramento, not Los Angeles. I was a waiter and a dishwasher. My boyfriend kicked me out and I'm trying to get home to Montana but I'm broke."
Tony's face went white, and then red. "I'm sorry. Jesus, I'm sorry. Please don't be mad. Please don't tell on me. They'll kick me out…"
Joe sputtered, and then wiped at the Jell-O that landed on his hospital gown. "Um, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be mad at you. Uh, can I have a wet washcloth or something?"
"Oh, shit. Now you're wet. I'm going to have to get you a new johnny," Tony said. "Don't do anything until I get back, you hear?"
"Yes, master," Joe said. His anger was stilled, as was Tony's fear of being kicked out of the volunteer program. "I really want to be a doctor," the boy had explained. "And a lot of the doctors are really good about letting me follow them on rounds. Dr. Furman even lets me watch him operate. We don't have a real operating theater, so I have to scrub and stand in a corner of the operating room until he calls me to look at something."
Joe had pushed aside the Mayo stand, and pulled the hospital gown off his shoulders by the time Tony returned.
"You weren't supposed to do anything!" Tony said. Joe saw a blush reach the boy's cheeks.
Tony tore his eyes away from Joe's chest and abs and biceps and deltoids. The litany of the names of the muscles ran through his mind, but it didn't help. "Here," he said. "Sit up and I'll help put it on over your arms. When you're covered, I'll pull the old one away."
"Afraid to see me all the way naked?" Joe asked.
Tony blushed furiously, but he didn't answer.
"No," Joe answered his own question. "You're going to be a doctor. You said you'd watched operations, so you've seen people's insides, so you're not afraid of their outsides. You heard me say my boyfriend kicked me out. You looked at me way too long when you came in the room. You're gay, aren't you?"
"Yes," Tony said. "Now lift your butt off the bed so I can pull the old johnny off."
"It was easy to be gay in California. Can't be that easy in a hick town in Wyoming." Joe instantly regretted his words. Not any easier than it was in the hick town of Helena, Montana, he thought.
"You'd be surprised," Tony said. He wadded up the gown with the Jell-O stains and tossed it into a hamper. "Did we get any on the sheets? I know how to make up a bed with the patient in it."
"No, I don't think so," Joe said. "Got a boyfriend?"
"No," Tony said. "Do you want any more Jell-O?"
"No, thanks," Joe said. "Why not? You're smart, and cute."
"Too smart, and too cute," Tony said. He took the tray from the Mayo stand. "You're to nap, now." He turned and left the room, closing the door softly behind himself.
Too smart and too cute. What the hell did he mean by that? Joe fell asleep, and dreamed of Tony.
Joe waited in vain for Tony to come into his room the next morning. It wasn't until after his breakfast tray had been brought in and removed by the nurse that he realized: Monday…a school day. He said he was a volunteer. Probably in school. A great emptiness opened in Joe's mind, and he began to cry.
"Hey, sport, what's wrong? You feel bad?" A strange voice pulled Joe from the dark place where he had retreated.
Joe gulped back tears and opened his eyes. A man wearing white scrubs stood at the side of the bed. He held folded linen in one hand. "Nothing, really," Joe replied. "Uh, just feelin' sorry for myself."
"You don't want to be doin' that, you know. Start feelin' bad for yourself too much, and you start likin' the feelin' of feelin' bad, you know? It's a vicious circle. Now, why was you feelin' bad and do you want me to change the sheets?"
"Uh, they said I'd be leaving today," Joe answered the orderly's second question, and then the first. "I don't know where I'll go. I don't have any money. Um, and I was kind of hoping I'd see Tony before I had to leave, but I guess he's in school."
"Tony? Who's Tony?"
Joe's answer led to an explanation that lasted nearly thirty minutes. He learned that the orderly's name was Isaac; that he didn't know Tony; but that if Joe wanted, Isaac would talk to the kitchen manager about a job for Joe. "You can stay at the YMCA for a while, 'till you get enough money for an apartment."
Apartment, Joe thought. He thinks I want to stay here.
Maybe I do.
"Joe?" The dietician stood in the doorway and gestured. "If you're caught up, would you take trays to the floor?"
Joe set a tub of dirty dishes next to the industrial dishwasher. "Yes, ma'am." Minutes later, wearing a clean apron, he was on the service elevator behind a tall cart that carried patients' meals.
The nurse at the first station was brusque. "You're new. I don't know you." She stared at his chest where a nametag should have been. "Where's your nametag?"
"No ma'am. I'm Joe. They gave me an ID–" He gestured to the laminated card clipped at his waist. "But they said the nametag machine was broken."
"Okay," the nurse said. "What you got?"
Joe had checked the list before he reached the floor. "Eighteen standard and two specials. One special is for 231A and the other is for 242A." He handed the list to the nurse.
"Follow me," she ordered. Joe pushed the cart down the hallway, stopping at each door as the nurse carried in the trays. Most of the doors were open. Joe tried not to look in, but his curiosity was strong. One of the patients, a woman with wispy, blue hair, caught his eye. She waved. Joe blushed and fixed his eyes firmly on the back of the food cart. When he passed the next room, he did not see the boy in the blue and white pinstriped shirt, seated with his back to the door.
Two weeks passed, and then two more. Joe had repaid Isaac the money Isaac had given him to pay for a room at the YMCA. He'd repaid the hospital the advance they'd given him so he could buy food and wash his clothes. After his second paycheck, he figured he had enough to get to Helena. Joe put what little he owned in his backpack and the pockets of his parka, and looked around the room that had been his home for a month. He left the Y and began the long walk to the hospital. He owed it to Isaac and the others who had befriended him to say goodbye. He wanted to be able to say goodbye to Tony, but he'd never seen the boy again, nor was anyone able to tell Joe about him. Privacy rules, they'd said.
Joe slid his ID through the reader at the employee entrance, and went straight to the restroom. He needed to wash his face and straighten his wind-blown hair before he saw people. Standing at the urinal, his back to the door, was a boy in white pants and a blue and white, pinstriped shirt. Joe's stomach lurched. "Tony?" he said, softly. The boy didn't react.
Joe stepped toward the boy and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Tony?"
"What the…!" The boy turned his head. Joe's hand fell away and he stepped back.
"You're not Tony," he mumbled.
"No shit, Sherlock," the boy said. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Uh, Joe. I thought you were Tony. I'm sorry."
"Uh, he was here a month ago when I was a patient. He brought me lunch. We talked. I've been looking for him He was a volunteer, like you–white pants, blue shirt, and he had brown hair, too."
The boy zipped his pants and pushed past Joe to get to the sink. He looked sideways at Joe. "Tony who wants to be a doctor?" he asked.
Joe nodded. He was afraid to speak, afraid that words would break the spell.
"He and Doc Furman just got back. They've been on the Ute Reservation. Doc Furman does a free clinic there. Tony's not here, but you can call him. He lives with his grandmother, Mrs. Lillian Goodman. She's in the phone book." The boy dried his hands and was gone.
Joe leaned against the wall. Why do I feel so happy?
"Uh, this is Joe, from the hospital. May I speak to Tony?"
"Joe? Joe who? This is Tony, but I don't . . . ."
"Joe from California, you brought my lunch."
"Joe with the concussion? Holy crap. Are you still in the hospital? I thought you were going to be discharged."
"Yeah, I'm still here. Not a patient, though. Isaac got me a job. Uh, can we get together for a cup of coffee, maybe?"
After setting a time to meet at the hospital cafeteria for coffee, Tony hung up the phone and leaned against the wall. Why do I feel so happy?
Joe was sitting in the cafeteria when Tony arrived. Burst in, rather. As if he realized he was being obvious, Tony took a breath, and slowed his steps. Joe was nearly as obvious. He knocked over his chair as he stood, and blushed until he realized that no one was looking at him. The cafeteria was nearly deserted at 3:00 PM.
Joe righted his chair, and turned to find Tony standing only inches away. "Um, hi," Joe said. "Uh, I knocked over my chair." He gestured to the offending furniture.
"Um, hi," Tony said. "Uh, I noticed. You okay? Dizzy or anything?"
"Uh, no," Joe said. He paused. Tony watched emotions flash across Joe's face. At last, he seemed to make up his mind. "I was just really, really glad to see you." Joe gestured to the table. "Do you want coffee? It's pretty bad this time of day."
It was Tony's turn to pause and reflect. "No, no coffee, thanks." He pulled out a chair and sat. It was the chair beside Joe's, not the one across the table. "I was really, really glad to see you, too," Tony said.
The boys sat in uncomfortable silence, until Joe cleared his throat. "I've never seen you except in your volunteer uniform. You're cute in that. You're a real knockout in those chinos. Oh!" Joe stopped speaking abruptly. "I forgot."
"You mean ‘too cute'?" Tony asked.
"Yeah. Too cute and too smart. You never did tell me what that meant."
"You know I want to be a doctor?" Tony asked.
"Yeah, that's how I found you. The guy–I thought he was you–asked if I was looking for Tony who wants to be a doctor. He said it like it was one word: Tonywhowantstobeadoctor."
"I know what I want, and I'm going to be a doctor. I study. I follow doctors around. I read medical and chemistry textbooks. And I'm smart. I know it. I get straight A's in school. I maxed the college entrance tests. And somebody at the school leaked it to the newspaper.
"Most of the guys don't know what they want, or what they want to be. They're content to be farmers or ranchers like their fathers, or join the military, like their fathers, or whatever.
"There are a couple of exceptions. Paul and Larry both want to be pilots. Patrick wants to be a filmmaker; Tiff wants to be a lawyer. But most of them?
"Anyway, I'm different, and I don't mean just being gay. I don't like being different, but I'm not going to give up my dream just to get along."
"Okay. That's the ‘too smart' part. What about the ‘too cute' part?" Joe asked.
"Promise not to tell?" Tony asked.
"Honor bright," Joe said.
"I know I'm fucking perfect. I'm probably the only boy in the world who never had a zit. My hair is prettier than any girl's. My teeth look like every fucking one of them has been capped, but they haven't. And I don't give a shit! Everybody assumes I'm vain. Everybody assumes I'm too good for them. And everybody thinks I'd never settle for ‘second best,' and that's what they think they are.
"Truth? A lot of people speak to me. A couple of people are kind of friends. But most people–I don't know–they're afraid of me? Fuck! I don't know!"
"Hey!" Joe said. "Settle down! And, Tony? Thanks for being honest with me."
"Tony, I saw your soul just now. I would never have had the courage to do that. I've never known anybody to be as honest, before. And I think I love you for it."
Joe stood. Ignoring the four nurses who had come into the cafeteria, Joe pulled Tony to his feet and kissed him.
Tony watched as the room spun and the light from the florescent fixtures coalesced until there was nothing in the universe except Joe and him.
The next morning, Joe took the open bus ticket from his wallet and, without thought, tore it up.