He was the kind of middle-aged Jamaican man whom people can’t help but to refer to as “that Jamaican gentleman.” The accent starts it off and the follow through is the semi-official demeanor, the close beard well-tended, the straight back, the precise enunciation. He was a medical technician, so he got to wear a lab coat and this lent him, and probably gave him cause to produce, an air of authority. But he didn’t overdo it; he wasn’t pompous. A Frenchman, with his accent at play, might have taken it to the next level and gone over the top.
I was sitting in the tiny waiting room of the Nuclear Medicine section of the Radiology department when he walked in holding a clipboard.
“Hello, David? I’m Jeffrey. We’re almost ready for you.”
It was 9am. Jeffrey leaned toward me.
“We’re about to make your breakfast. How would you like your scrambled eggs?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, just salt, please.”
“Just salt. Okay. I’ll be back for you. It should just be a few minutes.”
A woman wearing a hospital gown walked into the waiting room with her daughter. They looked remarkably alike, even their frowns.
In ten minutes, Jeffrey was back and I followed him down the hall into a room marked “Imaging.” Inside the room stood a machine — a beige metal box by a bed. From the box protruded an articulating arm that held aloft a squat cylinder. But what really caught my attention was the tray perched on a skinny stand.
“Have a seat, David. There’s your breakfast. Enjoy.”
There was a covered plate, a piece of whole wheat bread wrapped in plastic, and two small containers of juice. A napkin and plastic utensils, too.
I sat in front of the tray stand and uncovered the plate. It wasn’t scrambled eggs as much as a thin egg pancake.
“We have for you egg, some bread, and — I didn’t know which you liked — apple juice or orange juice.”
“Apple juice is great.”
“Wonderful,” said Jeffrey.
What is it about meals, preparing them, serving them, that brings out the inner caretaker in people? And what is that binds the people who eat the meals to the ones who cook them?
“So, it’s in there?” I asked Jeffrey, looking up at him.
“Yes. It has a half-life of six hours. So in six hours it should be completely out of your system.”
Jeffrey nodded, smiling. He knew people didn’t like radiation.
“Yes, don’t worry.”
Then he went to a console in the corner of the room. He entered data into a computer.
“So should I eat this quickly or … ?”
“Eat it as you would any meal. Take your time. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
So Jeffrey left me alone in the imaging room and I faced my breakfast. I peeled open the apple juice, unwrapped the bread. With a fork, I dragged the egg pancake over the the bread to make an open-faced sandwich. Somewhere in that egg was a radioactive isotope, but I couldn’t see it. There was one off-color little egg bubble that aroused suspicion. Without planning to, I ate around the suspected isotope, sipped the apple juice, ate around it again, until I had no choice but to eat that part, too. It didn’t take long. The meal was not unsatisfactory.
When Jeffrey came back, we went to work. He led me to the cylinder and adjusted it so its circumference covered most of my chest and stomach.
From his console, Jeffrey called out directions.
“Okay, a little more to your right.”
Jeffrey was watching a monitor. On it, the yellow and red flickerings of a weather radar, a cluster of them in the center. And below it, near the bottom edge of the screen a faint and sparkly blue mass that looked a bit like a sack.
“Just a little bit more, David, please, to your left. Perfect. Now hold still.”
Jeffrey recorded the results onto a form, on the first of many rows that ran down the sheet. He asked me to turn, and guided me into position, and recorded that data, too.
“Okay, you can go sit down now. We’ll do it again in a few minutes. You have something to read? You want the paper?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got something.”
I’d been meaning to finally finish reading the New Yorker from a few weeks back. I was down to the Annie Proulx short story. I had avoided it because she writes about cowboys.
Jeffrey took the tray and left. I started reading. A pioneer couple. Late eighteen-hundreds. A cabin built by hand.
In a few minutes, there was Jeffrey again.
“Okay, let’s go.”
The front, the back. Jeffrey recorded data on another row. I went back to my seat, and read some more until Jeffrey called me.
“Let’s go again.”
The front, the back. Jeffrey recorded data on another row.
A man in a lab coat came in, inquiring about some equipment stashed in the corner.
“Did you hear about Daniel?” he asked Jeffrey.
“Yes, yes. Terrible.”
“What happened?” I asked. I stood at my position in front of the imager. The sparkly blue mass had grown brighter. We were about halfway down the rows on the sheet of paper.
“He got mugged. In Times Square.”
“Yesterday,” explained the newcomer. “He got cut by a knife. They took his camera.”
“He was carrying his camera over his shoulder,” said Jeffrey.
“Right, and they came from behind and cut his camera strap. When the camera fell, Daniel turned around. And they cut him on the forehead. He’s okay, though.”
Jeffrey shook his head.
“Six-thirty,” said the man.
“In the morning?” I asked.
“At night! In broad daylight.”
“Unbelievable,” said Jeffrey, still shaking his head. “Very bold.”
Another man in a lab coat walked in. The Colonel. That’s what he looked like. White hair and a white beard with curlicues.
Jeffrey said, “This is him, David. The one who got mugged.”
I could see the band-aid on his forehead, placed at an angle.
“Yes, that was me.”
He sounded like The Colonel, too. Like a Southern Gentleman.
“I can’t believe it. Six-thirty,” I said.
“In broad daylight,” said The Colonel.
We all shook our heads.
Eventually, Jeffrey and I were alone again, doggedly working our way down the sheet.
“Two more times,” Jeffrey announced.
“Boring, isn’t it?”
“I hope you don’t have to do this all day long.”
“No, no. I have other things. I did one yesterday, though.”
The blue sparkles had grown quite pronounced by now. The radioactive egg had finally worked its way down toward the small intestine.
When we finally finished, Jeffrey pointed at the clock on the wall.
“Look at the time,” he said.
It had taken an hour and a half. But I had finished the short story. The pioneer couple dies, one after giving birth to a still-born, the other from pneumonia, in a snowstorm.
Jeffrey told me to go to the waiting room until the radiologist, who would interpret the results, called me.
We said our good-byes. Although likely we would never see each other again, we had just spent close to two hours together with food and his friends. It amounted to something, but who knows what?
Before I left, Jeffrey turned to me and smiled.
“Thank you for choosing Lenox Hill Hospital.”