She’d been walking home after her shift when it happened. It was one of those still-warm fall evenings, the sky just dim enough to prove that summer had ended. The pastel dregs of sunlight softened the edges of the row houses. Jess didn’t live far from the hospital where she worked; she was on the close side of the park. It was not an unreasonable walk. She was wearing her scrubs, and at least back then, she’d half-believed this conferred on her some sort of battleground immunity—proof that she helped people for a living and therefore should be exempt from petty crime. This was exactly the sort of subconscious tenet her father would have teased out of her and mocked had he still been living.
Once, running into one of her former patients, someone she knew had been convicted of armed robbery, she’d feigned obliviousness but he’d waved at her, enthusiastic as an old friend. “Lookin’ good, doc!” he’d called out cheerfully. You eat it up, the guy she was quasi-dating, a financial analyst, had said. Just because you work in the emergency room. Like that makes you Jesus or something.
He was wrong, though. That was the last thing she’d ever think. There was a giant statue of Jesus in the old entrance to the hospital that people touched for solace and luck. They left flowers and notes there, as if it were the local Lourdes. Jess passed it every day on her way to work without stopping. She couldn’t bear the detritus of wilted petals, the hopeful crayoned drawings of children, all those earnest supplications.
And yet she’d still somehow expected, well, not be waved to, but to be left alone, to be granted a kind of protected neutrality. So when someone jerked her back into the alley, she’d felt at first like she’d been wrongly inserted into another person’s bad dream. When he jammed a cold metal barrel against her throat, she’d almost laughed—the sheer absurdity of it! No, seriously! she wanted to say, You don’t know the things I’ve heard, the things I’ve seen, all the graham crackers I’ve given out with a smile! I’ve been so nice! I’ve wanted nothing but to help! She had, she suddenly realized, been operating under a childish assumption. Every story of human depravity her father had ever told her, his attempt at inoculating her against naïve optimism, flashed through her mind.
“Give me whatever you’ve got,” the man said. He spoke low and warmly into her ear. She’d once taken a self-defense class, learned ways of jabbing her elbows, kicking at groins, but this all vanished from her mind. She went limp-limbed, her heart jabbering wildly in her chest.
“You can have it,” she whispered. “Here. Take my wallet.” As if in a dream still, she handed it over. She didn’t want to see his face. She’d heard bad stories about what might happen if you saw the person’s face.
The man laughed, a harsh bark.
“That all you got?” he said. “That ain’t nothin’.”
She swallowed and nodded.
The metal against her neck shifted, and then she felt his hand. It was rough but tender, grazing the line of her cheek, down the curve of her throat to her clavicle, down, down between her breasts to the waistband of her scrub pants.
“I could hurt you,” the man whispered quietly. “You should be more careful. You got lucky this time.”
And with that, he’d shoved her back out to the sidewalk.
She’d staggered forward, catching her breath. When she dared gaze into the alley again, all that remained in the dimness were two large plastic trash bins and a rat.
She hadn’t even called the police at first. Once she’d made it back home, she’d simply staggered around the apartment, dazed. The police already had their hands full, she figured. Her roommate, Aubrey, a practical-minded medicine resident who was working a stretch of nights, had been the one to insist Jess report the crime.
A female police officer had arrived to take the report. But Jess could tell that when she told her what she’d lost—twenty dollars and some change—that nothing would ever come of it. Jess mentioned the threat to the female officer, too.
“Well, did he?” the police officer asked impatiently.
“What, hurt me?” she’d responded. “No, no. He told me he could have. If he’d wanted to. He whispered it in my ear.” Jess had felt herself tearing up at the recollection.
The female officer raised her eyebrows.
“Sorry, miss,” she said, her voice weary and faintly condescending. “We’ll do our best.”
Jess knew by the distracted look in the officer’s eyes, the bored way she’d scribbled down notes—an act, something to placate her—that no one would ever find this guy. No one would really even look for him.
The officer shoved her notepad into a pocket and nodded at Jess.
“My dad was a cop,” Jess said stupidly. As if this would make a difference. As if this fact would matter to the officer. It was a hard moment to celebrate police work. People were filled with scorn and distrust. One bad apple, etc. Although now it was more like two bad apples, three bad apples, a whole bushel of bad apples. Jess rarely mentioned her father’s line of work to friends, so now maybe she just wanted to tell someone else about her dad—someone who would be sympathetic.
“Oh, yeah?” the officer said, her voice bored. “Here?”
“No,” Jess said. “Pittsburgh. Where I grew up.”
“Well,” the woman said, not even looking at Jess. “Good for him. But it’s not like it is here. Nowhere is like here. Take better care of yourself.”
Jess felt chastised. Foolish.
And that’s when she had decided to start carrying the knife.
It was a large buck knife her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday, a gift she’d considered terrible and thoughtless at the time, a consolation prize after she’d refused to accompany him to a firing range and learn to properly handle a firearm. And now? It was sentimental. A buck knife in a city full of guns! Would you bring a knife to a gunfight? Yes, probably she would.
She was working another shift in the ER, and the man in Bed B seemed vaguely familiar. Jess refreshed the computer screen so that his name popped into the field—the name meant nothing to her: Augustus Johnson.
Of course, she didn’t know the name of the man who’d attacked her. She wouldn’t recognize his face either. When she’d felt those hands gripping her shoulders, heard that voice, invisible and commanding as a malevolent god, her eyes had rolled back in her head like a spooked horse. Useless. She’d been useless.
In ordinary life, Jess was a person who prided herself on her calm competence. She was unflappable. Usually. That’s why she didn’t mind working her shifts in the ER.
She went ahead and put in the routine lab work for the guy in Bed B: CMP, CBC, U/a, Utox, BAL. It was always a surprise when someone’s tox came back negative—almost everybody’s urine was dirty with something. Everybody who showed up here was up to something, but at least in this little universe of the ER, Jess was in control. She liked to believe she brought a touch of human kindness, of dignity, to the people she saw. An extra blanket here, a cup of cranberry juice there—it made the shift go better.
She’d meet Mr. Johnson later, after she finished her note on Ms. Thaxton. Ms. Thaxton believed herself to be pregnant with kittens.
When she’d first decided to go to medical school, her father had been thrilled. My daughter, she’s gonna be a surgeon, he’d told his buddies at the dark-paneled bar where they drank shots of Jameson after work. Later, his vision grew even more specific. Can you believe that, he’d say, a blue collar guy like me with a daughter who’s gonna be a heart surgeon? My daughter, the heart surgeon. Her cheeks had burned whenever he’d said it. She’d wanted nothing more than to please him. Of course, she had never planned to be a surgeon, had never trusted herself to be deft at anything other than listening.
She’d applied for residency in psychiatry not long before her father died. He’d died on the job, suddenly—not in the line of duty, but sitting in his patrol car, hands clutched against his side, a half-eaten burger wrapped in wax paper on his lap, a victim of a massive myocardial infarction. A victim of a cliché.
Sheila, one of the nurses, popped her head into the workroom.
“Chalmers is looking a little shaky,” she said. “We may want to go ahead and give him something to stay ahead of his withdrawal.”
Jess nodded and ordered a dose of librium. Chalmers was well known to them—a heavy drinker who came in frequently, making all kinds of provocative statements until he sobered up. He had a history of withdrawal seizures. Sheila was right to watch him.
“We can start with fifty,” Jess said. “Although I’m sure he’ll need more soon.”
“Oh, and let me know what you make of the new guy in B,” she said. “Not sure what he’s after.” She threw her hands up in an exaggerated gesture of frustration. “I tell you, every day’s a lesson in gratitude!”
Jess nodded. Sheila had a way of inventing aphorisms.
She was used to talking to all kinds of people: the flagrantly psychotic, career criminals dodging upcoming court dates, sad old alcoholics, mentally retarded eighteen-year-olds who’d just gotten kicked out of their group housing, sharp-tongued young heroin addicts selling themselves for their next hit, weary homeless guys who’d say they were suicidal just to get a cranberry juice and a sandwich. First, it shocked or saddened you. Then, it made you calloused, practical. You battened yourself down with efficiency. You learned the art of kicking people out.
Jess pulled her hair back into a ponytail and stood up. She took only a blank piece of paper and a pen with her as she exited the workroom and headed to Bed B.
“Knock, knock,” she said out loud. There was no door—only a thick curtain. “Mr. Johnson? I’m Dr. Reilly. I’m here to talk with you.”
The man in Bed B smiled up at her, expectantly. He wove his fingers together, letting them rest on his chest, a gesture that struck Jess as professorial.
Augustus Johnson nodded and gestured to a chair as if he were her host, as if she were a business associate and he were inviting her into his office.
“How are you, sir?” Jess asked, pulling up a stool close but not too close. Her voice was carefully calibrated to be pleasant but detached, like a reporter in a strange, war-torn city.
Mr. Johnson shrugged and studied her, impassive.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked. “Water? Juice? Graham crackers?” This was another one of her standard openers.
“That all you got?” Mr. Johnson said, inspecting his left hand as if he’d just been the recipient of a French manicure. His voice was low. “That ain’t nothin’.”
The pen slipped from Jess’s hand and rolled to a stop on the floor.
“Why don’t you tell me what brought you into the Emergency Room today? How can we help you?” she asked after a momentary pause, speaking by rote as she leaned forward to pick up the pen. Her hands were cold and numb, too stiff not to be clumsy.
Mr. Johnson leaned forward too, so that their heads almost bumped. The pocketknife, which Jess had tucked in the shirt pocket of her scrubs, fell with a thud to the floor. Stupid, she thought. Always respect the blade, her father used to tell her, always appreciate the fact you’re holding a weapon. She never should have had the knife on her during her shift. But the knife’s cold heaviness in her pocket had pleased her. She’d been reassured by its quiet proximity to her heart.
Her hand scrambled away from the pen, fingers fumbling toward the knife instead, but Mr. Johnson got to it first. He picked the knife up, lifting it up appraisingly. He opened it, pressing the tip gently against the soft meat of his palm. Respectfully.
And then the blade flashed. Mr. Johnson waved it in front of her face. For one stupefied moment, Jess considered calling for security. That would be the correct response. But then she’d have to explain. By the time she’d finished debating herself, he was holding the knife down again, discreet, offering it to her.
“You should be more careful,” he said, handing the opened knife back to her, handle first, more gingerly than necessary. “You could get hurt.”
She had less than an hour left on her shift, and then she was going out tonight with the financial analyst. The financial analyst wore subtly expensive clothes and always had a good haircut. He took her to nice restaurants, the kind where your bread was served with a tiny bowl of olive oil dotted with a glob of garlicky stuff. The financial analyst kept up with things that were going on in the world. He asked Jess if she’d invested in her Roth IRA. He wore a pedometer—one of those high-tech wristbands that also tracked your sleep. Every now and then during their dates, Jess would catch him glancing down at it.
The financial analyst was scornful of many things: macaroons, acupuncture, good deeds. All loads of crock, he said. Boutique junk food, voodoo, people trying to make themselves feel better. The financial analyst had more respect for a world in which people scrabbled over things openly. There was more honesty to it.
The financial analyst didn’t put a lot of stock in psychiatry either. He’d told Jess that. Psychiatrists were merely the current socially acceptable version of psychics or fortune tellers, he said, but with the ability to prescribe sedatives. Jess often wondered why she continued seeing him. Her roommate Aubrey also wondered why Jess continued seeing him. She’d told Aubrey she found him tart and refreshing, like balsamic vinegar. Something to sting your throat and make your eyes water.
In reality, there was something else. Jess had discovered it twice accidentally: once, on her father’s birthday, and once, just after the incident with the man attacking her. “So he only took twenty dollars?” the financial analyst had said. “Yes,” Jess had answered, “but he attacked me. He pulled me into an alleyway, where no one else could see, and he had something against my throat. He threatened me.” And she’d begun crying, her whole body racked by big, hiccupping sobs. Both times, the financial analyst had held her, wordlessly, stroking her forehead as if she were very young again. He held her that way for a long time, patiently—more patiently than Jess might have imagined, more patiently than he had to. Afterwards, they didn’t speak of it. If Jess thought about it too long, it was embarrassing. She preferred the financial analyst gruff, matter-of-fact, and complaining, ill-tempered with everyone else around him.
Mr. Johnson’s lab work had all been within normal limits, and, surprisingly, his tox had been negative. He had retracted his suicidal ideation and asked to leave in time to make it to the nearby Code Blue Shelter.
Jess nodded, the cold weight of her knife secured now in her pants pocket, more secure and easily within reach.
“Just as soon as the attending comes by and clears you we’ll get your discharge papers and get you out the door,” she said.
It seemed like he winked at her. A wry wink. Or a lazy eye.
Jess wondered if she was losing her clinical aplomb. She was turning into the sort of person who carried a knife, who slept with it under her pillow, who grew skittish when she passed old men licking fried lake trout from their fingers at bus stops.
When the shift ended and Jess had signed out to her coresident, she gathered her bags and headed out the main ER entrance. The waiting room, as she left, was crowded with bedraggled figures sleeping on plastic chairs or moaning under blankets. One man hunched in the corner was vomiting into a plastic basin. An obese woman in pink Capri pants clutched at her side. A sign in handwritten marker said the current wait was eight hours. The waiting room smelled of urine and unwashed feet, the multitude of ways a human body can rebel against itself.
She walked out into the late afternoon sunlight like someone fleeing a leper colony. It was the time of day when you could almost mistake the neighborhood for beautiful. Even the low-rise projects nearby seemed gilded.
Jess looked at her watch. She was meeting the financial analyst at a tapas place. Small portions had become a luxury item, he said. The plates gave one a sense of accrual.
She walked briskly down the block, noting that the trees were starting to turn.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder. She startled, her relief ricocheting into panic.
She jerked around, grasping the knife reflexively and flipping open the blade. Muscles tensed, she stared up at the man behind her and wobbled slightly, her balance off. His hand moved from her shoulder to steady her. It was large and warm and rough around her own. She let herself be steadied, squinting into the sunlight, one hand in his and the other still clutching the knife.
He was tall, a dark silhouette backlit with late October sunlight, a figure ablaze. Mr. Johnson. He seemed broader-shouldered, more imposing now that he was not reclined on a stretcher. Then again, Jess supposed this was probably true of everyone.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “I have your pen. I was going to give it back.”
She saw that he was watching her to see what she’d do. He’d seen her open the knife. She flushed, uncertain, and tried to shove her the knife deeper into her pocket. The tip of the blade tore fabric, and she could feel the tip cold against her thigh.
His grip tightened around her left hand in a way she didn’t know how to interpret. All of her instincts were off-kilter. She could not gauge anyone’s intentions anymore. His grin seemed either fond or menacing. His breath was maybe too close to hers. She was possibly over-reacting. Or possibly not reacting fast enough.
She realized suddenly she wanted to be rid of the knife, the burden of its implications, the responsibility of it. It seemed like a curse rather than protection. She wanted her old, vulnerable hopefulness again.
“I have to go,” she said, jerking her hand free of his and running back toward the hospital. She ran the long way, around the sidewalk and back to the old entrance at the dome. There, breathless, she climbed the steps, entered, and flashed her badge to the security guard.
It was quiet in the dome, a church-like hush. The octagonal balconies rose above her up to the cupola.
She approached the ten-and-a-half foot Jesus, looming in marble, his arms outstretched. She’d never really studied his face before: eyes downcast, mouth stern. It was an unfathomable expression. She touched his big toe cautiously before relinquishing the knife. The open blade glinted silver amidst the drying flowers and heartfelt notes at Jesus’s feet.
She looked up at him again, and, of course, his expression did not change. Her pocket felt too light now with the knife gone.
There. Let it be a gift, an expiation, she thought. Let whatever hospital employee was in charge of sweeping up these offerings decide what to do with it. Let her pretend to be someone other than herself, someone who could still rub the toe of a statue for good luck and wish to make things other than what they are.
Joanna Pearson is the author of a book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth (Story Line Press, 2012), winner of the 2012 Donald Justice Prize and the 2014 Towson University Prize for Literature, and a young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011). Most recently, her short stories have appeared in Blackbird and Big Big Wednesday.