Termination | An Excerpt from CROSS FIT
By Paul Teodo & Tom Myers
In eleven days I’ll have a year. Twelve months without a drink. About time. I’ve been around the program for about twenty years but could never manage a year. I was an in and outer. More out than in. I’d get to that tenth or eleventh month and shit would start to happen that’d make me thirsty. Disappoint all those who were hoping that I would get it. This time I felt good. Strong. I was close. But it was one day at a time.
I was in my office at Western Highlands Medical Center sipping black coffee, reading the Sun-Times, listening to La Forza Del Destino by Verdi, one of the darkest and most depressing operas ever composed. Everybody dies at the end, murdered or suicide; their prayers for salvation and redemption unanswered. Beautiful, but it could make you want to slit your wrists. Some people give me crap for listening to opera. I don’t have to explain it. I like it. Season tickets to the Lyric are more than a grand so it’s opera or the Bears. The Bears suck. I choose opera. With this job I can afford it.
Front page. FIVE PRIESTS ACCUSED OF MOLESTING ALTAR BOYS. The leaders of the church supposed to be protecting their flock sit on their asses while kids get abused and traumatized for the rest of their lives.
Also on the front page. OBAMA VISITS CHICAGO. November’s election was huge.
Sports Page. CUBS SWEPT FROM PLAYOFFS . I love it. I’m a Sox fan.
Business Section. HOSPITAL ADMINISTRATOR FOUND DEAD. We don’t usually make the news. Survived by his wife of thirty-two years and son.
Back page COLD SNAP PREDICTED TO SET OCTOBER RECORD. Bad weather? In Chicago? Who would notice?
DOG FIGHTING RING BROKEN UP. Made me think of mine. Hung from a Goddamn tree when I was a kid. I can’t go there. Not today. Not this morning.
I think I’d met that Orman guy. The hospital exec. Seemed like a good man. I wondered about a Jewish guy running a Catholic Hospital. I grew up in that neighborhood. I got out a long time ago. Glad to be gone. The area’s a war zone. I wondered if somebody off’d him. Wouldn’t be surprised.
My phone buzzed. I looked down at the screen, Greta. She never called this early. It was her me time, to meditate, maybe contort in yoga or Pilates. Should I pick up? She was my boss, but Jesus, it was 6:30. I cut the volume on the opera.
“Greta,” I tried to sound happy, surprised, “Good morning. Early for you.”
“Good morning. I figured you’d be in already.”
“I like early. Get my head clear for the day. What’s up?”
“Do you have some time today about 3?”
That’s when it started. That feeling like a monkey fist twisting your gut. The pain starts. You try to catch your breath, to make it go away, but that doesn’t work. The pain just gets worse. Then that monkey becomes a gorilla who reaches down and squeezes your balls tight. “Sure.” My voice now much less cheerful.
“Good. I’ll come to your office.”
“Should I have anything ready? Report, numbers, research?” Knowing that if the answer was no, the news would not be good.
She paused, maybe two or three seconds, I could see her bite her lower lip with that top incisor when she needed to make a decision. “No, I just want to talk. See you at 3.” She hung up before I could respond.
Her name faded from the screen. The gorilla squeezed tighter. My left nut. The most sensitive, ruptured by Sal Vittori, a man-child linebacker for Saint Rita who buried his helmet in my groin during the Chicago Catholic League City Championship after F.O. (Francis) O’Malley handed off to me for a 2 point conversion to take the lead. I did not succeed. It’s strange the shit you think about when you’re scared. Like that year I spent at The Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, commonly known as Charley Town, after I almost killed that punk who hung my dog. I was scared then too.
Something bad was going down. It was her pause that told the tale, but what the hell? I finally got some fiscal accountability around here. Budget was now tracking. Doctors were happy. I’d fired the assholes who weren’t. Nobody’d died who shouldn’t have. And I’d taken the class she’d prescribed, learning how to talk to women, and not look at Greta’s breasts even when they plopped out of her blouse. I thought I’d toed the line. Maybe it was a let’s see where we’re at and where we need to go meeting. I looked at the ceiling and heard God laughing. That ain’t what she’s coming for bud.
No. Today bad shit was going to rain down. It would arrive at 3 packaged in a two thousand dollar business suit; Jimmy Choo shoes wrapping perfectly pedicured feet; five grand of jewelry strategically dangling from earlobes, wrists and neck, plunging artfully into ample cleavage, which, faithful to my training, I would studiously avoid.
I slugged the rest of the coffee and tried to distract myself with the sports page. BEARS LOSE AGAIN. They’re out of the playoffs two years in a row. LOVIE ON HIS WAY OUT. He should be. And the Bulls would be a lost cause this year under Vinny Del Negro. An embarrassment to Italian-American people.
What the hell does she want? I stood and stretched. The back cracked. My arthritic shoulder, fractured by Officer Brown when I jacked him for coming on to that little kid at Charley Town, still gave me problems. I’d proudly worn the jagged scar left by the hack that did the surgery. It gave me street cred. And it took two of them to hold me down while the good officer beat me with his club.
“Are you okay?” Jenna was an early bird too. A compact curly-haired brunette with runner’s calves and a Christian work ethic that was fifty percent scared and fifty percent dedicated stood in the doorway. Her bum husband had bolted with a crack-whore, draining their accounts, leaving her with kids aged two, four, and five, so she needed a job. Though I swear there were days she would have worked for free just to serve the Lord. She was my assistant.
“Fine Jenna, just a little sore.”
“Too much football.” Her smile was sweet, like honey. Or saccharin.
“Too much old.”
She giggled. She was maybe twenty four. “You’re so funny.”
I wasn’t. I was scared and something I had no control over was about to happen. That gorilla was holding tight.
“I’m gonna go for a walk.”
“You have a 7:30 with Dr. Eriksen.”
“He’s always late.”
“You never know, God surprises us.” She left.
“I won’t be long, and I doubt if even God can get him here on time,” I growled through the doorway. I grabbed my jacket, felt for my keys, and started to leave.
Her phone rang. Her face strained. She waved for me to stop. “Hold on Doctor,” she said into the phone.
I wanted out of there. “I’ll be back in time.”
She put him on hold and held up her hand. “It’s Dr. Eriksen. He’s on the line.” She looked around the room like she was ready to commit a crime. “He’s really PO’ed.”
I swiped the phone from her hand. “Bjorn what’s up?” Nothing. Silence. “Bjorn.” I tried again. Still nothing.
“Let me.” Jenna bent over the desk and clicked the button connecting me with the irate surgeon. She stood back clutching the ever-present crucifix she wore around her neck.
“This is totally unacceptable!” Eriksen was as arrogant and angry as I’d ever heard him.
“What is Bjorn?”
“The condition of the OR, unacceptable!” His voice louder with every word.
“What’s wrong now?” I emphasized now. Pompous prick.
“I’ve made my expectations clear and you do not deliver.” I could see his pale Scandinavian skin turn crimson.
“What do you mean?” I decided to play dumb.
“You know what I need.”
“I don’t need to grovel.”
He never asks. He demands. He’s never come close to groveling. It was no use talking on the phone. “Bjorn sit tight, I’ll be there in a minute.”
“I’ll sit where I choose.” He disconnected.
“He’s so scary. Are things going to be okay?” Jenna trembled.
I tried to comfort her. “He’s just a bully.” Her look told me Eriksen reminded her of someone from her past. Most likely the ex. I hate bullies.
“I’m going to the OR. I’ll be back when I’m back.”
Jenna sat at her desk quietly, eyes avoiding mine.
I stomped down the hall. I hate bullies. I always have. I tried to contain my anger but I’d had it with his threats and arrogance. I’m not sure who I was encountering in the hall as my mind was on the Swede.
“Good morning.” The voice seemed far away. “In a hurry?”
I picked up my pace, my steps echoing off the marble floor. Eriksen would be a good tune-up for my meeting with Greta. I welcome combat in the face of fear.
There was a crowd waiting at the elevator so I hit the stairwell. Four flights up would do me good. I took the steps two at a time.
I swiped my card and the OR doors flew open. Eriksen is 6’4, around two-thirty. Hacking on people is hard. He liked it meat locker cold while banging on a hip or yanking a knee in place. The staff complained when they worked with him needing parkas to keep their teeth from chattering. Eriksen liked to stand out in red short-sleeve scrubs and extra-long gloves, blasting ZZ Top as he sawed, hammered and sewed on the orthopedically damaged suburbanites hoping to improve their less than stellar golf or tennis games. On occasion, especially in summer, I’d catch him in shorts. “Bjorn,” I’d scold him like a recalcitrant kindergartner, “put your pants on, Infection Control.” He’d scowl, his mask crinkling and then bitch about the temperature. And then put his pants on. Orthopods. Prima donnas second only to neurosurgeons.
He turned as I entered and eyed me up and down as if assessing my worthiness to be in his presence. “Bjorn what’s wrong?” He turned away making me beg him to talk. “C’mon what’s wrong?”
Well Dressed Man echoed off the sterile green walls.
“Can we turn that down?” I yelled over the bearded Texans.
A masked attendant in blue scrubs silenced the music.
Eriksen pointed to the thermostat. “I have discussed this with you in the past. In fact, multiple times. The temperature is not to my standard.”
The staff was huddled in winter wear providing insulation to their flimsy scrubs. Eriksen stood alone in his short sleeve top.
I glanced at the thermostat. “It’s sixty-three degrees.”
“I expect fifty-eight. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
I wanted to smack him. That would score points with the staff, but I’d probably get charged with assault, lose my job and any severance that was going to be attached to what I assumed was my impending termination. “We can’t. Joe and I have worked on this. The equipment won’t go lower than sixty-three. Plus consider our staff.”
“They’re here to service me. I am the surgeon. I require fifty-eight, as I have communicated multiple times before.”
“Sixty-three Bjorn, that’s what we can do. It’s fine for the rest of the surgeons.”
“They don’t bring you the business I do.” His sneer sliding across his face like a snake. “I’ve cancelled my cases for the morning.”
I wanted to slap that look off his face. “You what?”
“Cancelled.” I could tell he was loving the hell out of this. The spectacle. The performance. The opportunity to display his power.
“You had two hips. A knee. Big cases. That shows no respect to our patients and their families, not to mention the inconvenience to our staff.”
He seemed to puff his chest. “I will take them elsewhere.”
The room became deathly silent. The staff cowered anonymously behind their surgical masks: eyes bouncing back and forth between me and this bully. He played the card that independent surgeons loved to drop on hospital executives. Usually the MD’s won. Loss of surgical revenue. It could be the death knell of an administrator’s career.
I had nothing to lose. I was getting fired anyway. “You worthless piece of shit. You can take your fucking cases wherever they’ll put up with your bullshit.”
I sensed smiles beneath the masks witnessing the spectacle. On what I assumed might be my last day I’d gained a bit of cred. I doubted I’d enjoy the skirmish at three as much.
He stormed out of the OR. Probably heading to Greta’s office.
My father would have said, “tristo kosmatih medvedov”, which literally means three hundred hairy bears. That’s as pissed off as you can get in the Slovenian idiom. So when my old man really wanted to insult someone he swore in Italian. But I’m sticking with “worthless piece of shit”.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel CROSS FIT by Paul Teodo and Tom Myers