“The Nice-to-Haves” by Ramona Reeves

Babbi smoked her cigarette the required distance from the hospital’s entrance. Earlier during her shift—midnight and again around 3 a.m.—half the ER nurses had stood outside smoking and trading stories with her, but it was twenty minutes until shift change, and the nurses had better things to do. In less than an hour Babbi would be at her next job, after that with her kids, then she’d sleep six hours at most and return to the hospital. She knew better than to smoke, but these ten-minute breaks punctuated and divided her life into portions she could handle.

When two ambulances swerved into the bay of the ER, Babbi snuffed out the cherry of her cigarette and stepped through the whoosh of automatic doors. She stood against a glossy hospital wall, away from the swarm of nurses and paramedics buzzing toward the new arrivals. The Bigmouth Nurse appeared in the hallway, the one who still couldn’t remember Babbi’s name after six months. She blabbed all about the two men being slid from the vehicles like fresh bread loaves and told another nurse they had staged a drunken dual with what they thought were empty pistols. A paramedic wheeling the first man past Babbi told the Bigmouth Nurse, “He’s the lucky one, got it in the shoulder. The other one got it in the family pride.” The nurse’s reaction matched the jovial, somersaulting penguins on her scrub top, but Babbi was not amused and fled through a door marked Employees Only. She was a peon, a lab clerk, but when the ER staff hit capacity, they called upon her to help the sick and injured and reduced her to nothing more than an extra set of hands. This had been one of those nights when you couldn’t spit without a new arrival. Already the ER staff was treating a Fourth-of-July burn case, a couple in a car accident, and two heart attacks. If she returned to the lab, she was certain the call would come and make her late for her next job at the Y-Stop—all because of some man’s bloody pecker.

She needed a good hiding place and opted for a route through the hospital’s morgue, always unstaffed at night, to avoid anyone from the ER. A long set of stairs took her into the windowless space as dark as a nun’s habit, illuminated only by a series of motion-detecting lights. The area smelled of scalpels and cleaning buckets. She tried to think about something bright, like her children playing on a summer beach when they were small, but the sound of her breath catching in the darkness sank her light-bearing thoughts. Months ago she’d seen a draped body on a stretcher and pretended that beneath the sheets sat stacks of pots and pans.

Although only a few minutes, it seemed like an hour before she reached the passage on the opposite end of the morgue. She climbed the dark stairwell swiftly and eased open a battleship gray door at the top. Seeing no one, she ran into a bathroom cattycorner to the stairs. Inside she chose the handicap stall as her hiding place because what decent person would disturb a disabled woman taking a dump? As an added precaution she closed the lid and climbed onto the toilet to hide her feet. She crouched and waited and counted. Her shift ended in fifteen minutes. The Bigmouth Nurse would be calling the lab by now and asking where the hell she was, that is, if anyone was there to answer. Her first month on the job, Babbi had asked the nurse, “Who’s gonna check on lab orders and answer the phone if I go to the ER?”

The nurse had clucked her tongue, as though Babbi had the sense of a slug. “Let’s just say there are nice-to-haves and need-to-haves in this world.”

Babbi couldn’t forget the first time the nurse had drafted her into ER service and abandoned her with a man whose injuries had soaked his stretcher in taillight red. She had been instructed to watch the monitors for changes in his condition, but she could barely tolerate his whiplashed breathing and the family members wailing on the other side of the gauze curtain. A woman with three nearly grown children, she had handled her share of bodily fluids, but she hadn’t been called into this line of work. One person’s calling was another’s penance. Honestly, she’d hoped to feel more at ease after six months on the job, but instead she had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the contradiction between the slick, blemish-free walls and the diseases they harbored. She also worried more about her children. Don’t drive drunk, she told them. Be careful with sharp knives. Read the instructions for power tools. Did they use power tools?

As she perched on the toilet, Babbi dismissed lack of empathy as the cause of her current situation. She simply understood her limitations and had little time for other people’s traumas. She was too busy worshipping at the Church of Single Motherhood: its altar a broken appliance, its stewardship a car repair, its sacrifice the lack of anything new, its afterlife children who enjoyed better lives than hers.

The walls inside the bathroom smelled of oranges and ammonia. She felt a little guilty about resting her soles on a surface so clean you could almost forget the function of the bowl beneath. The polished tiles and the smooth porcelain supported the illusion. Unlike the ER, what happened in this room quickly went away, undiscussed but managed.

The main door to the bathroom opened. “Babbi, you in there? They need your ass in ER.”

The baritone voice belonged to Lawrence, who wore his lab coats belted at the waist, a purple and gold Mardi Gras band on his left pinkie, and a sunrise of eye shadow over each eye. “You know Mr. T don’t like it when you hole up in here,” he said. “If he finds out, it’s all over.”

Mr. T, or Talbert, had gotten her the job in the first place. After her fourth marriage and a hodgepodge of low-paying service gigs, Talbert had offered Babbi a “more respectable option”—his words, not hers. His offer hinged on one condition: that she never discuss their yearlong, adolescent marriage with anyone at the hospital. His wife Claire knew about it, of course, but since there were no surviving children, he didn’t see any reason to fan the flames of gossip, or in this case “an old flame.” Talbert had chuckled at his stupid play on words, but Babbi could tell he was ashamed of their marriage. To Talbert, she would always be a mistake, maybe his biggest.

“I know you’re in there,” Lawrence said.

It’s hard to tell anymore, she wanted to respond.

“I am not covering for you,” he said. The main door shut, sighing as it closed.

According to Babbi’s watch, six minutes remained in her shift. She stepped off the toilet and peeked beneath the stall. Lawrence might be standing just inside the door. At the very least he was probably standing in the hallway waiting for her to leave. She mounted the toilet again. Sure enough the door reopened, but the shoes tsut tsut tsuting toward her were not the slick hi-tops that tapped when Lawrence walked.

“Get down off the toilet,” the voice said.

Talbert. Babbi sighed, climbed down, and unlatched the door. “What’re you doing here? Hells bells, it’s not even seven o’clock.” Like all the hospital higher ups, he only worked weekdays but complained about how much he worked.

“I wanted to catch up on email.”

“Oh.” Babbi couldn’t imagine losing an hour of sleep to answer email.

“You think it’s attractive, a middle-aged woman perched on a toilet?”

Attractive? When they were married Talbert had dawdled around their apartment in gigantic brown slippers that resembled two coconuts.

“I also wanted to talk about the other night,” he said.

He bit his bottom lip, a nervous habit that occurred when he wanted to say more. “There’s nothing to talk about,” Babbi replied. He’d acted stupid and that was all. A one-time thing. She pushed him aside and left the bathroom, but as soon as she entered the hallway, there stood Lawrence.

“Well, well, how’s Miss Porcelain Angel?”

She tried to go around him, but he bumped against her with his right hip. Talbert quickly caught up and sandwiched her between them. The two men exchanged greetings over her head. Lawrence slapped her left arm with a package of syringes. “Don’t be mad at me.”

“I think she’s mad at me,” Talbert said.

“You were in the ladies room, Mr. T,” Lawrence replied.

“About that request I made the other night,” Talbert said, “let’s just forget about it.”

He winked when he said the word “request,” which annoyed Babbi.

“Did you hear Mr. T?” Lawrence asked her.

“I heard him,” Babbi said. Wouldn’t Lawrence just love to know that Talbert had shown up drunk at her apartment? But everyone knew you couldn’t trust a phlebotomist. Anyway, Talbert had tried to kiss her and that was all. “No one will carry on my name,” he had slurred. “I almost had that with you.” Then he had fallen forward pawing at her. She had pushed him backward with such force on her tweed sofa that his head struck the side table behind him. Years before, when she mostly honored the wrong requests and spurned the right ones, she might have gone along.

“My, my, look at the time,” Lawrence said. “My shift’s up.” He blew Babbi a kiss and made his way along the hallway smiling, nodding and telling jokes to the staff he passed. He tried to act happy all the time, but Babbi had overheard the pleading phone calls with lovers who always left him. Lawrence was the saddest person she knew.

“Did you hear me?” Talbert said.

He wouldn’t let the incident go until she responded. “Don’t worry. It’s over,” she said. And it had been over for a very long time. On the night he’d shown up she told him to leave. She told him doing it with him would be like humping her little brother, when really it might have been like returning to the garden of her youth, a green and awkward place teeming with possibility, a place where one might make a memory but not a life.

“Thanks,” Talbert said. “I know I acted stupid. Worse.” Babbi was about to say you’re welcome but wasn’t given the chance. “Claire is meeting me for breakfast,” he continued. “You’re welcome to join us.”

Claire. The woman cooked from old issues of Gourmet, paired wines, and belonged to a ladies’ investment club. When she and Talbert made love, she probably thought about how to best organize the kitchen. Maybe Claire couldn’t help herself, being an “old” Mobile girl with old money and old problems, but given lots of time, Babbi couldn’t imagine choosing to fill it with activities that had little to do with actually living. “Thanks for the invite,” Babbi said, “but I work at the Y-Stop, too, remember? I’ll see you later.”

“Not if I see you first,” Talbert said.

It was an old joke, their version of Amen.

Babbi hurried along the hallway past a poster that read, “How to Avoid Heart Disease.” Simple, avoid having a heart. But few things were simple. The arteries in the poster attached themselves to a pudgy, pink bladder and looked similar to bagpipes. She wanted to replace the heart with the Valentine-candy kind that read, “You’re swell” or even the locket kind–something that seemed less real and easier to replace.

When she reached the lab she opened a file drawer and removed a behemoth, leopard-spotted purse that held her change of clothes for the Y-Stop. Again she entered the ladies’ room. The handicapped stall was taken. Babbi entered the adjacent space and undressed. She was hungry and thinking about breakfast until the other woman began puking, and then she thought only of dressing quickly and getting the heck out of the bathroom. She hoped the woman wasn’t carrying a virus. Hospitals contained too many sick people for her taste. Surely what she was hearing was morning sickness. Her own pregnancies had been queasy affairs—her body’s way of hinting at the unsettling nature of raising children.

Babbi unlocked the stall and, hoping to avoid the other woman altogether, hurriedly shoved her scrubs and hospital shoes into her bag. One couldn’t be too careful about germs in this place. But the door to the handicapped stall opened before she could get away, and to her surprise, there stood Claire. Talbert’s second wife wore a blue and red plaid jumper and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar that made Babbi want to laugh. She was every bit a Puritan princess.

“Hi, sweetie, how are you?” Claire said. She leaned toward Babbi and simulated a hug, her arms barely touching her.

“Good.” She couldn’t believe Claire was going to act as though she hadn’t been sick. “I can’t believe I ran into you and Talbert on the same day. Just lucky, I guess. What brings you this way?” She already knew the answer, of course, but she didn’t know what else to say.

“Aren’t you sweet, but I’m the lucky one, running into you. I decided to meet Bertie for breakfast. Technically, I’ve already eaten because I hate hospital food, but I try to show an interest in his work. You know how it is.”

“Right,” Babbi said, but she couldn’t imagine feigning interest in someone else’s work. Maybe she was single for a reason, but was it such a crime to be honest? Any man who could allow her that luxury might win her loyalty for life.

Claire lathered her hands, then intensely scrubbed between her fingers. Afterward she dug into her purse and pulled out a mint. “Would you like one?”

“Thanks, but I’m good,” Babbi said. She wanted to forget what she’d heard in the stall, but it was stuck like old wallpaper to her mind. “I hope it’s not rude to ask about your morning sickness.”

The perky pond of Claire’s face drained. “You have no idea how much I wish that were true right now. It isn’t for lack of trying.” She sighed and slumped her shoulders as though she’d taken on the weight of a fallen tree.

“I wouldn’t worry. Things happen when they’re supposed to.” But Babbi knew things happened when they pleased. “You didn’t look sick, so I just assumed. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, that,” Claire said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue from her purse. “It keeps the figure, my mother always said. We ladies have to do what we can.”

“I guess we do,” Babbi replied, but she couldn’t imagine puking on purpose.

“You really are lucky,” Claire said, “to have children, I mean. Funny, isn’t it?”

“I guess so,” were the only words that came to mind. Babbi felt annoyed but gave Claire a real hug anyway and said she was running late. The plaid jumper felt soft and child-like and smelled of a cedar closet where something might be hidden, something too precious to be useful. Claire had said funny but meant unfair. She and Talbert had everything to offer a child, and Babbi had little except love and sometimes not much of that. Yet the ocean of her children’s lives had swelled from her own, and this fact would be true even as she ebbed and they flowed. She hadn’t given them as much as she’d wanted, but she’d given them what she could.

When Babbi neared the exit of the ER, the Bigmouth Nurse passed her in the hallway and said, “Have a good day, Bambi.”

“Yeah, you too,” Babbi replied. The nurse was the worst kind of clueless; she was someone people listened to. Babbi’s boss at the Y-Stop wouldn’t listen nor care why she was late and would probably schedule her for back-to-back weekends as punishment, but as she drew closer to her car, she thought about Claire purging to maintain her figure and supposed it could be worse.

Babbi’s stomach grumbled as she unlocked the passenger-side door to her tiny, dinged-up Ford. The driver’s side door had been stuck for months, but repairs costs money. She climbed over the stick shift and felt in her bag for the bramble of keys that seemed to roam her purse at will, always ending up in a new location. Her stomach rumbled again. At the Y-Stop, a doughnut awaited her. Not the healthiest breakfast, but Donnie, the assistant manager and the man she’d recently begun dating, would warm the doughnut and buy her coffee. Maybe her man-picker was finally working, or maybe it wasn’t, but she was trying not to blame herself for following her heart. The drawn out notes of those god-awful bagpipes whined inside the chests of everyone. Some people listened, and some pretended not to hear, but no one–including her–could escape their call.

RamonaReevesRamona Reeves, a native Alabamian, also has fiction in The Southampton Review and Gris-Gris: An Online Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts. She received the 2013 Marg Chandler Fellowship from A Room of Her Own and completed her MFA in fiction at New Mexico State University. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.