Out of all of the boys who turned into men who lived on our block, Fred was the one who was called on by the Lord. I hadn’t seen him since I left North Carolina for Washita. That had been about two years prior. Or was it three? I don’t remember. I called him up and we decided on lunch, rather than dinner. I preferred that. With lunch there is no need for forced familiarity. I remember that we sat down at the restaurant and I realized it was a mistake. The service was slow, so I couldn’t just get my food, scarf it down and leave without saying a word. Instead I had to listen to him.
“It all was because of the hospital. At first it was easy. Nothing hard at all. Just went in and out to do the bedpans.”
Fred wasn’t ready to go directly from ordination to a congregation, so he taught at seminary school while he mentally prepped himself for the task. He worked as an orderly to make a little extra money on the side.
“This isn’t a crisis of faith. I haven’t stopped believing in God or anything like that. It’s the hospital that did it. I saw the people in the rooms and I would go in and I’d pray to God that they wouldn’t notice me. How terrible is that? I was terrified that they would see and want to talk. But often they would just sit there, all morphined up. The women would look terrible, no makeup. With giant crow’s feet and bags underneath their vacant eyes.”
He reached up into his beard and started to pull out individual red hairs. I had the urge to order a stiff drink, but the waitress was nowhere in sight.
“The men were no better. Hooked up to catheters and you could tell whenever they relieved themselves. They had this look of singular bliss, as if that was urinating was the only transcendent thing that could elevate them to heaven. I saw them and I shrunk. I saw them and I was revolted. Since when is a man of God concerned with the aesthetics of his flock?”
I looked like I was about to vomit. “Please stop talking,” I said.
“I prayed every night for the strength to do my spiritual duty, but every time I was walking the wards, a false prayer, a prayer of cowardice came out. I only met one man in shape enough to talk. About fifty-five. He had stage four liver cancer that had metastasized to his pancreas and bladder. Jaundiced eyes and spotted hands. He was angry and mean. Always shouting for me to give him a drink. And he always had to pee right before I took out the pan. He’d give me a wink, too,” Fred said.
I reached out my hand as if to touch him, but for some reason I pulled back.
“Then one night I was in there and he wasn’t his usual irascible self. His eyes were even yellower than they usually were. He now had morphine pumping through his veins, but he looked sharper than the rest. He looked capable of talking. ‘You wanna know why I’m an asshole?” he said. ‘I’m gonna die, man.’ What was I supposed say? So I just followed protocol. The man wouldn’t stop talking to me. ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you. I’m gonna die. Don’t you care?’ Of course I cared. You gotta believe me. I just froze and I left him sitting in his own soiled bedpan.”
I just sat there and did nothing to comfort him. I just looked at the menu and thought of the t-bone steak.
“I went out into the hallway and I saw a nurse that I recognized walking in my direction. I motioned for her to speak with me and I said to her, ‘That man in room four hundred needs to see a chaplain. He’s in spiritual distress.’ The lady just looked at me and said, ‘But sir, aren’t you a minister?’ I just leaned my head against the wall and cried.”
I looked down at the menu and thought about the prime rib sandwich. I looked at Fred. He looked at me.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” he said.
The waitress arrived and asked us what we wanted. I ordered my sandwich and she took the menu away. I didn’t have anything else to stare at.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” he said.
Eric Janken is a published undergraduate poet at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. His work is published in The Peel, the acclaimed student literary magazine on campus. He is also the 2014 recipient of the Truman Capote Literary Trust Award in Creative Writing.