“Emmanuel’s on Faulkner, that’s great, thanks. Faulkner Drive or Faulkner Court?”
Herbert George Washington—George to everyone but his wife and mother—pounded the steering wheel of his rusty Eighty-Eight Cadillac and wove through curving suburban streets. A sign caught his eye and he slowed. “When did this road turn into Faulkner Lane? What the hell!”
To George’s building frustration, Emmanuel Hospital lay in plain sight beyond the curving roads and man-made hills of Sandalwood Heights, a wealthy and ever-expanding suburb on the south side of Stapleton. Yellow and red flowers mocked him, spelling out “Emmanuel” in an emerald background on one of the slopes ahead.
What happened to square-grid streets and simple city planning? All the curves, the gardening… Gotta pretty everything up for the rich folk, make sure they know they live somewhere better.
He pushed his round-rim glasses back up his nose, and they promptly slid back down. Even with the windows down and air rushing past, his face beaded with sweat.
The Indian Summer stole the cool breezes of autumn and replaced them with eighty-five degrees of heat and stifling humidity. The Cadillac’s air conditioning always made grinding noises after two minutes of use, so it was no help.
Another thing to get fixed someday, George thought. Maybe if this Emmanuel job goes well, I can get a recommendation for work at Westside.
Faulkner Lane wound around another bend and revealed the gate of the hospital staff parking area. Shoulda just followed the signs to the damn E.R. and found my way in from there.
George stopped at the gate and held his temporary Emmanuel Staff badge up to the scanner. The yellow arm lifted, permitting him entry.
He found a spot, grabbed his personal satchel of tools, and exited the car. Two young men in clean white coats stood near their sports cars, giving either George or his old beater furtive glances. One shook his head and muttered something George couldn’t make out.
George paused and leveled a direct glare their way. Yeah, boys, this is what happens when no one on your staff knows how to fix your dinosaur patient alarm system. You gotta call in the poor folk from downtown. But you bet I’ll take your money.
The small tuft of hair atop his head caught a light breeze, but he felt withered in the sunlight. His thick blue maintenance coveralls trapped in the afternoon heat. He clipped the badge to his chest pocket and hustled toward the staff entrance.
“Seven East? All right. I’ll send him up.” The fat white security guard put down the phone. “You’re the contractor for the Rawlins system?”
“Yessir. Like I said.” George tapped his foot and pursed his lips.
“Staff elevator’s down the hall.”
“I know where the damn elevator is, son.” He held up his badge. “How do you think I got this in the first place?”
He shared the elevator ride with two doctors, both male, one black. George leaned against the back corner and watched the lights mark each floor’s passing. He ignored the look of disdain the doctors gave him, as though he might stain the pristine walls by his mere presence.
The doctors got off on the fifth floor, and the doors lingered open long enough for George to catch their conversation. “Couldn’t they find someone more… local?”
A few expletives came to mind, but George kept his thoughts to himself. Always better that way. Let ’em think you’re a nobody, just some brother from the ‘hood, maybe a little smarter than the rest of “your kind.”
Acting that way, some people—even other African-Americans—would look down on him. But since he posed no threat, they would tolerate him too. Go along with the black jokes and the cracks about fried chicken, everybody laughs, and I keep gettin’ paid. Laugh along when they talk about gangs and drugs and what goes down in the Twenties, and no one minds me bein’ there—even though I have to drive home to that hellhole at night.
A biomedical technician with no college education, George had little hope of landing a permanent job in the troubled economy. Advancing technology and the rising intricacy of computerized components made most top-quality medical equipment incomprehensible to George. But his broad experience and photographic memory of electronic schematics helped him solve crises and malfunctions many on-staff BioMed techs declared hopeless. Over the years, he made a name for himself and earned frequent calls from the area hospitals whenever their guys couldn’t hack a job.
George became Emmanuel Hospital’s go-to guy for all the aging equipment they didn’t want to replace. None of the higher-ups wanted to spend the money to update decades-old systems installed when the hospital was built. It cost far less to bring George in than to tear out circuits in the walls and ceilings of every floor.
Stinginess kept him working in the suburbs, and lack of funds kept him working downtown. Three days a week, he walked a mile and a half from home to Our Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Twenties. They had no money to spend on glamorous new equipment, so George earned his check by keeping their current inventory functional—all the models he grew up fixing and tearing apart, the so-called junk that places like Emmanuel would unload on the cheap whenever they bought the newest thing.
It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t permanent, and it was painful driving all over Stapleton and its suburbs. But between George’s freelance work and the meager checks LaTasha brought home from admin work in the school district, the Washingtons were getting by.
Food on the table every night, clothes on my kids’ backs, and a roof that don’t leak on their heads when it rains. With these things, we shall be content.
He thought of the rusty Cadillac threatening to fall apart in the parking lot. Okay, with most of these things, at least.
The elevator opened to a flurry of nurses going room to room checking on patients. A white redhead doctor saw George and waved. “G-Dub! Come on, man, we need your help.”
George chuckled at the familiar address. The kids he ran with grew up into the friends who came over for poker night, and that was their name for him. Not some white guy from the Heights. But John McGarrin was a nice enough man, George figured, at least so long as the status quo held out.
The wealthy whites and affluent blacks of Sandalwood Heights were happy to welcome someone like George into their midst, so long as two things were clear:
First, the visit was for a specific temporary purpose. Can’t have too many blacks driving through the town, swarming the stores, or God forbid, moving into the neighborhood. One guy coming down from the Twenties to fix some old junk—that was fine.
Second, he had to know he would never truly fit in. As long as he went along with the mocking and ignored the whispers behind the back, as long as he understood he’d never really be “one of them” then they’d act like he was.
He brushed off the thought, flashed a grin, and entered the fray. “What up, Irish?”
“The whole thing blew up,” John said. “Lights and colors, bells and whistles, every single one went off. You should’ve seen the panic. An entire floor of patients in recovery from surgery all Code Blue at the same time. I think several doctors had to go change their pants once we figured out it was a malfunction.”
George gave the expected laugh. He looked at the system panels beside each door as they headed for the main nurse’s station. Every possible warning light burned bright.
John continued. “We cut the sound of the alarms. You can imagine that was a pain. Turns out when they put this system in, they didn’t want medical staff to ignore the warnings when patients started dying. So we might have made some extra work on severed circuits.”
“Great. You know I get extra pay for call-ins after four.”
“Whatever man, if you can fix this, you deserve it. We’ve brought in nurses from other floors to make rounds every five minutes, keeping watch on patients’ vitals and ensuring their condition isn’t worsening. Almost had a woman slip through the cracks and Code Blue before we got that started. Jeez, could you imagine the lawsuit?”
George moved behind the counter and set down his tools. “It’s probably just a blown transistor,” he said, removing a wall panel near the ground to access the alarm system. “There’s a motherboard that governs power routing to all the other circuits in here. I’ve seen this happen once before. That transistor blows, power goes through all the circuits, and every light in the place goes up like a Christmas tree.”
Nurses rushed by, disheveled and exhausted. John watched them pass then turned back to George. “Sure, electronics and crap. Whatever. You can fix it?”
George nodded. “I can fix it.”
John pointed at him and backed away. “You’re the man, G-Dub!”
“Yes I am. That’s why you keep callin’.”
“Whatcha readin’, boo?”
LaTasha Washington leaned on the doorframe watching eleven-year-old René, who lay on her stomach on the bed, her dirty-sock feet in the air, swaying back and forth.
“To Kill a Mockingbird. Gotta write a book report in a couple weeks for Miss Pearson. I don’t know if I like the name ‘Boo’ anymore, Mama.”
LaTasha laughed and sat down on the bed by her daughter’s softly kicking feet. She patted René’s back and cocked her head, contemplating the thoughts the classic might inspire within her innocent daughter’s mind.
“How do you like Miss Pearson?”
“I dunno,” René said, distracted. “Sometimes I think she’s trying too hard.”
LaTasha nodded, her concerns confirmed. Troops to Teachers is great and all, but how are they going to send some rich white girl down here to teach inner city kids? What does she know that my baby needs to learn? How is she supposed to relate to these children?
“She’s pretty cool though,” René continued. “Did you know she has the same name as me? Says it’s the bestest name of all. She spells it with two ‘e’s at the end, though.” René looked up at her mom. “Miss Pearson told me at the end of the year she’ll say why she likes our name so much.”
LaTasha looked over her daughter’s homework. “That’s nice, boo.”
“One time she told us about Afghanistan.”
“Yeah, we were talkin’ about drive-bys and gang fights, and someone said how scared they got when guns popped off nearby. She told us how one time their convoy got hit by an RGP or somethin’ like that.”
Jesus, have mercy. What is this woman teachin’ my baby? LaTasha sighed. “I’ll talk to her, boo. Make sure she’s teaching age-appropriate content to her class.”
“Nah, Mama, you don’t gotta. She cool. I think some of the guys that didn’t like her before gave her props.”
“She’s cool. Don’t sound like a thug. And I’m going to talk to her, it’s okay.”
“Mom, no, it’s not.” René put a finger in the book and rolled over to glare at LaTasha. Child, you better watch the tone of that look before I smack it off your face.
“You always yell at our teachers about everything, just ’cause you work at the school.”
“I do no such thing.”
“The kids call you PTA—you’re the parent in charge of teacher administration.”
Oh, that’s clever. Little brats. “Parent-Teacher Association,” LaTasha corrected.
René pleaded. “They make fun of us, Mom. Chris gets picked on at Pulaski too, he just don’t say anything to you about it. The girls in class say I’m an Oreo.”
“They can say that all they want, right up until they’re living off welfare, popping out babies. You’re going places with your life, and that means having a certain level of education.”
René rolled her eyes. She’d heard it all before. Well, I’m gonna keep saying it, child, until I see you spread your wings and fly higher than your Daddy and me.
“All right, I didn’t mean to distract you. You keep reading.” She patted René’s back once more and left to check on Chris.
She found him curled up on the bed, pencil in hand, erasing answers in an Algebra workbook. LaTasha smiled as she watched. He always sticks the tip of his tongue out on his upper lip when he’s trying to figure something out. There it is again.
“How’s it going, Little Man?”
Chris sighed without looking up. “Mom, I’m as tall as you now.”
“With a voice almost as deep as Dad’s. I know, but you’ll always be my Little Man.”
“Quadratic equations suck. When will I ever need to know this?”
“When you’re trying to get a high school diploma, with grades good enough for a scholarship to Southern Illinois, or some other college, so you can get your degree and make a living to support your family.”
“I’m gonna open a comic book shop. Don’t need quadratic equations to sell comics.”
A superhero posed on the other side of the page Chris worked on. She knew without checking that his books were full of similar drawings—aliens fighting giant robots, muscle-bound men and fake-chested supermodel women in capes and tights punching each other between math problems. It had been that way since fourth grade. Still on that dream.
“You need math to see if you’re making money or losing. You need skills to keep your employees paid and decide how much inventory to purchase.”
Chris narrowed his eyes at her and mumbled, “Yes, ma’am,” before returning to his work. “When’s Dad getting home?”
“I haven’t heard from him. He told me he got called to the south side for some big crisis, so I bet he’ll be home late. Don’t forget, you got laundry to do tonight or tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He penciled in an answer and turned the page.
Now for the real question. “By the way, why’d you get detention today?”
She suppressed a smile at his wide eyes and open mouth. That’s right, I’m a superhero too, the All-Seeing, All-Knowing Mama. And don’t you forget it.
“I, uh…” Chris stammered. “I mouthed off to Mister Jackson. I apologized, but he made me clean the chalkboards and whiteboards as part of my discipline.”
“Good. Watch that mouth, Little Man.”
A distant sound like a pack of firecrackers broke the night’s silence. LaTasha flinched at the noise even though she knew the gunfire must be a few blocks away. Chris looked toward the window too, curiosity and trepidation playing across his face. Sporadic shots followed, then a siren wailed afar off.
“Ambulance on the way. At least it’s not in our building this time,” Chris offered.
“Thank the Lord for that.” LaTasha managed a smile for her son’s benefit. It struck her as sad that he knew the difference between the warbling police siren and the wail of an emergency vehicle. “You keep hitting that math homework. Get done so you can enjoy your weekend. I’m gonna go wait for Dad to get home, maybe give him a call to see how long it’ll be.”
“Sure thing, Mom.”
LaTasha walked toward the front of the family apartment, one large room with a cracking tile surface covering the quarter that served as the kitchen. They had a rickety dining room table with five chairs across from the kitchen stove. At the front of the apartment, two aged padded recliners faced the television and flanked the couch that had been their wedding gift from LaTasha’s parents. The lime green wallpaper peeled in several places.
She flipped on the television—some laugh-track sitcom she didn’t recognize—then sat in one of the recliners. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and began her vigil. “Lord, bless Herbert wherever he is. If he’s still fixing things, bless the work of his hands. If he’s headed home, be a hedge of protection about him. Bring him home safe to me, Jesus.”
The peace Bishop Simms preached about took a long time in coming that night.