Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The utter importance of regular sterilization

By Dylan Greer

It is the dry season and the wind sweeping over the lake does little to stir waves. The rocks show high watermarks and the grass on the edge of the lake bed is dry, collecting pollen dropped from insects circling above. The fish, confined to a small crowd in the center of the lake, jump to catch the insects and avoid the cormorants swimming flying above them. The birds not out fishing are standing, wings outstretched, on branches of the surrounding trees. Soaking in sunlight while gnats bite at their ankles.

One cormorant breaks the surface beak-first without a splash and flies straight upward. It spins as it rises. It is choking, although it sounds like laughter, on a trout lodged sideways inside its neck. The shape of the fish is clearly visible in the bird’s elastic throat. The bird flies out over the trees and up the hill toward the trauma ward of St. Mark’s. Landing on a branch outside the window of Room 362, the cormorant attempts to speak but is stifled by the trout. Exhausted, and squeaking a melody from an old jazz record, it falls to the ground and is found weeks later by an orderly smoking a joint on his lunch break. He lingers over it, studying its beady eyes and the now unrecognizable lump in its throat before flicking his roach into the bushes and searching for the nearest janitor to clean up the mess.   

Inside the hospital, a 44-year-old Salvadoran immigrant named Elizabeth cleans up a patch of drying blood on one side of Room 452; a clock has fallen to the ground and shattered on the other side. The two are unrelated. She has mopped the floor and now is on her hands and knees, scrubbing with the soft side of a sponge. Occasionally she looks to a mirror across the room and watches herself work. She has no children, no partner and her visa expired a month ago. She flips the sponge over to the rough side.  

“Elizabeth?” A young doctor sticks her head through the doorway. She is known around the hospital for remembering names and faces. Elizabeth had never talked to her. She hadn’t told her of her family or the beach where she learned to surf. She hadn’t told her about the rosary beads in her pocket or about the war. Elizabeth sits up straight, her spine growing from the tiles like a tree trunk. “When you get a chance could you go to the break room? Someone spilled coffee all over the inside of the microwave.”

“Yes, Doctor.” Elizabeth said with a smile. She was an English teacher in Salvadoran high schools for 10 years before her visa was accepted. She also taught dance and coached swim teams. This, however, was after the war.

She scrubs harder now, and the stain begins to lift. Sunlight breaks through clouds, shining through the window and blasting off the mirror, reflecting back onto Elizabeth. She is blinded briefly but does not break focus. Finished, she mops over the spot again, this time in a figure eight, before collecting the pieces of the broken clock. She holds the two ends of her apron in one hand, creating a pouch and carries the shards of glass, cutting herself with a small piece, out to the nearest recycling bin.  

She walks out to the nurse’s station, dumps the glass into the bin and turns to the nurses. These ones wear all white and are cackling amongst themselves. Elizabeth is in an olive green jumpsuit with a black apron. She walks to the sink next to the counter and washes her hands. They are bloody and she watches the dyed water swirl slowly down the drain. She stays for a minute attempting to scrub off every drop she can but blood continues to drip so she dries her hands on a paper towel and looks at them. She is cut, not too deep, but deep enough to warrant a bandage. Instead, she wipes her hands on her leg and covers the wound with a latex glove, pocketing a few more for later.

It is noon and the end of a 10-hour shift. After cleaning the microwave in the breakroom and changing into her street clothes, she goes to check the garbage and make sure that she doesn’t have to take it out while she goes to the bus stop. She looks inside of the dumpster and sees the bird lying on top of a clean cardboard box. The bird’s neck is now free, but feathers and skin are beginning to flake from the bones. She puts on two of the gloves she took and lifts the bird out of the dumpster. It is sturdy, not too drippy nor too well put-together, so she takes a black trash bag and places it inside.

The ride home is generally uneventful. There is a bus stop on the east side of the hospital and she boards there. The bus is empty except for a couple of released patients on their way back down the hill. She places the bird on the seat to her left and rides home, listening to a Spanish podcast about how Brexit affects the tourist economy of Spain.

Once home, she places the bird in a plastic bucket filled with one third water and two thirds bleach and turns her tv on to Wheel of Fortune reruns. She makes a microwave meal and watches Vanna White flip letters while the skin of the bird melts.

After a couple hours and no $100,000 winners, she picks the skull out of the bleach with kitchen tongs and shakes the remaining skin until it drips back into the bleach. She then carries the skull to her sink where she washes it and once again watches dyed water spin down a drain. The bird is still encrusted with blood and cerebral fluids, so she scrubs it. Harder than she scrubbed the dried blood off the tiled floor. Clean, the skull is placed to the side of the sink to dry as Elizabeth pours herself a glass of wine and returns to her television, just as the theme song for the Newlywed Game comes on.

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