Evelyn Sharenov, 2/1/2010
Current Occupation: writer and psychiatric nurse
Former Occupation: writer and psychiatric nurse
Contact Information: Evelyn Sharenov’s fiction and nonfiction have been published in numerous literary journals – Glimmer Train, Fugue, Etude, Mediphors, NYQ, The Bear Deluxe, XConnect, The Wild and others; anthologies including Citadel of the Spirit, The Patient Who Changed My Life and Best American Short Stories; and is forthcoming in the New York Times. She has written for The Oregonian, Bitch Magazine and Willamette Week. She has been awarded an Oregon Literary Arts grant and, most recently, an artist-in-residence program on the Big Island, so it’s off to Hawaii in May/June to complete her ms ‘Notes From Bedlam,’ literary nonfiction about working with the mentally ill. She is also at work on a personal memoir. ‘Off Duty’ is a work of fiction. She knows that her bio is almost as long as her flash fiction.
The nurse left work at five o’clock. She leaned back in her car seat and kicked off her sturdy, worn-in white leather duty shoes. Her ankles were puffy and she massaged them; her strong fingers pressed the retained fluid back into the appropriate tissues. Then she unrolled her white stockings from her thighs to her toes and placed the two white donuts neatly into her shoes. She unpinned her white cap and ruffled her blond curls with her fingers. Then she unfastened her bra, pulled the straps down and out through the sleeves of her scrub dress and pulled the bra out through the neckline. Next she hung her stethoscope from her rear-view mirror so she wouldn’t forget it when she walked back out onto the ward at five AM. Everything in exact reverse order from that morning.
She sat a while before she turned the key in the ignition. It was dark as she headed east out of Portland, toward the gorge. There was light wind, and it picked up, and then light snow blew sideways, leaving little behind to know it.
By the time she passed exit 14 on I-84, things had deteriorated. Snow froze on contact with the road. Her old Caddie slid sideways across the freeway. She turned off a couple of exits early, onto the Columbia River Highway. The truck stop was empty. Drivers knew this kind of storm, knew that the exit would be closed off in a couple of hours so they didn’t bother heading out in the first place.
The nurse parked on the old highway. She would have to wait it out. She knew these roads in good weather, not socked in by snow, wind and dark. She pulled a couple of old horse blankets onto the front seat; they were wrapped around a pair of brown wool socks, black galoshes, two sweaters – one frayed at the elbows and one at the hem – and a drab plaid wool coat, all of which she pulled on, starting with the socks and ending with the coat. She wrapped herself in one blanket and set the other one across her lap. She added a second pair of gloves, leather over cotton. If she had to spend the night in her car, she didn’t want to freeze to death. A bar was the only business to offer light and a couple of old streetlamps added a queasy yellow to the untravelled road. She could get to the bar if needed. In fact, she figured her safest bet was to head over there now, the sooner the better.
She looked up at the tall black silhouette of rocky butte against the charcoal sky. It loomed above the road where she had parked, a straight drop, which leveled off for a single lane of traffic, then dropped again, a steep incline into the Columbia River. A man could tumble that distance without anything to break his fall, she thought. The wind shrieked down the backbone of the gorge, rattled her car, her teeth, her bones, shook all sense loose from the world. And as if in thinking it could happen, it did: a figure she hadn’t noticed a moment earlier, a man, extended his arms and leaped like a diver from the cliff.
The nurse was about to make her way across the street to the bar to call the police, then stopped and stood stock-still. The man’s greatcoat unfurled as the wind whipped up under him. It filled his coattails and he circled and dipped and rose, soared and looped like a hawk on thermals. She thought she might have heard him whoop in great joy, but it might just as easily have been a scream or the wind playing her ears for fools.
‘My lord,’ she thought. ‘I’ve never seen the like.’
What she had seen was trauma. She pulled an old cracked leather briefcase from her trunk, drew up a syringe of morphine, readied splints and torn sheets, opened packages of gauze bandage and rolls of tape. She put her stethoscope back around her neck and took a flashlight from her glovebox and waited. The snow formed a sheath of ice on her face and the wind froze it in place. She worked her muscles to crack the mask.
When the man landed it was on his feet; he skittered down the middle of the icy street then swerved, stumbled, fell, hit his head and slid straight under the nurse’s car. The nurse heard him moan once, then nothing. She got down on all fours, shined her flashlight under her car and determined she could back up slowly without running him over or otherwise adding insult to his injuries. He was breathing but knocked out cold. His pupils were reactive to light. His heart beat strong in his chest. Snow fell around them, like yellow tape at a crime scene. She walked to the bar. It was locked. They’d gone home and left the lights on.
The nurse wrapped the man in one of her blankets, careful to logroll him into it, then muttered that she’d have to lift him into her car somehow. Nothing seemed broken, but if it were, his neck, an arm – there was no time, she thought. She picked up his body as if it weighed no more than a child’s and muscled him into her car, set him down, then settled him across the back seat, turned on the ignition and began the long slow drive back to the hospital.