Going down easy

From the LabLit short story series

Terry Sanville 29 April 2007

Terry Sanville

They’d tell him about recent trips to the Orion Nebula or some other celestial destination and he would nod sagely

It was a laboratory where the Immaculate Conception might have taken place: petri dishes perfectly prepared and awaiting specimens, blood typing vials neatly arranged in stainless steel racks, and urine samples precisely labeled and set out for analysis.

“Somebody could die if you do it wrong,” Judy, the licensed technician, yelled at her young assistants in a basso profundo voice that shook her round body and echoed down the hospital corridors. Patients, visitors and even doctors quickened their pace to escape the expanding plume of scorn emanating from the lab.

But Justin Buck was the wrong person to yell at. He looked like a doctor on a daytime soap opera, wearing a pressed but tattered lab coat that contrasted with his midnight satin skin. He spoke with a soft Louisiana drawl that had the unfortunate effect of causing strangers to think him slow and in need of precise instruction. But his coworkers knew differently, at least they knew he was smart enough to prosper while they went crying to the detox unit to beat on the padded walls during lunch hours. Justin never had to beat on anything by himself.

Justin was one of three assistants that worked the weekends at County General, when the cops hauled in the drunks for blood alcohol tests and all the manics would show up to have their lithium levels checked. They’d tell him about recent trips to the Orion Nebula or some other celestial destination and he would nod sagely and ask questions in his slow bayou voice, all the while tying off the tourniquet and shoving a 20-gauge needle into a bulging vein on the inside of an elbow. They would scream at the injustice of it all. Justin would talk softly so they would shut up and pay attention and somehow get through it. They always gave Justin the crazies to draw while Shirley and Deborah divided up all the others.

But the quieter Justin spoke, the more determined Judy had become to impart the values of precision and consistency to her questionable subject, his slurred good-old-boy accent just another example of sloppy, uneducated living. Justin had been working only a couple of weeks when Judy yelled for him to get his butt into the bacteriology room. She was standing next to the open refrigerator door.

As he approached, she pointed inside. “And just what do you think that is doing there?”

Justin stared into the fridge at the vials filled with blood and worse, all surrounding his sack lunch.

“I needed a place to keep my juice cold.” A slow smile crept across his face.

“Do you realize what we keep in this refrigerator?” Judy shrieked. “Those vials could explode and you’d be drinking AIDS for lunch – is that what you want?”

Justin gave her a soft “no ma’am.” He snatched his lunch sack and left to stuff it into the fridge in the outer laboratory where only mildly toxic reagents were stored.

“You shouldn’t let her treat you like a child,” Deborah told him afterwards. “Her own boys are grown and gone and she’s just looking for a new one.”

Deborah was a tall brunette who attended the University, majoring in biochem. Of the three assistants, only Justin was not a student, having arrived on the West Coast after a stint in the Army as a corpsman at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He liked to tell stories to the other lab assistants about drawing blood from hulking GIs after they had gone through nerve gas training, how they would take one quick look at the needle and wake up on the floor. Justin had developed a sixth sense about how freaked out patients would react, which is why they assigned him the crazies.

On a Saturday afternoon, the town’s high school football team descended on the laboratory just before lunch. They were in the playoffs and might go all the way to State finals. But to get there, everybody – from the second string place kicker to the starting quarterback – had to be tested for drugs. Deborah had set out a row of five-ounce plastic cups for the samples and Shirley and Justin had erected the booths so that each player could provide the sample while being viewed by a lab assistant. Shirley and Deborah were a bit hyper about the whole setup, but had been yelled at by Judy to “be professional and stop acting like idiots.” They all remembered the story about the halfback whose urine had tested positive for being pregnant, a clandestine contribution made by his girlfriend who was stunned to learn that her boyfriend was kicked off the team and that motherhood was upon her.

As the players exited the booths the lab assistants screwed a cap on each cup, then asked for identification and used it to record names and addresses on the cups' labels. The whole operation went smoothly, although some of the backfield had more difficulty peeing on demand than the linemen, especially in front of Shirley and Deborah. In an hour all the samples were collected and thirty-three cups sat on the counter top ready for processing.

The lab assistants had taken down the booths and gone back to their normal duties when Judy yelled at them to join her at the urine testing station. The tech was red-faced and quivering. She took a couple deep breaths before speaking.

“What’s wrong with these samples?” Her finger stabbed at the row of plastic cups. The assistants stared dumbly. “Come on, I want you to tell me exactly what’s wrong here!”

The assistants fidgeted and continued to stare fixedly at cups containing various shades of amber liquid.

Finally, Shirley spoke in a high voice: “The third cup from the right isn’t labeled,” she said, pointing with a quivering finger. “Congratulations, you get the ninny prize. Now who do you suppose is responsible for this?”

Her voice rose in pitch with each word. The assistants stared at her and said nothing.

“Well, I know this. Shirley and Deborah have initialed eleven cups apiece and Justin has labeled ten – does that help solve this mystery?”

The assistants stood frozen. Suddenly, Justin stepped toward the now purple-faced Judy, a slow smile creasing his face.

“Ya’ll correct. It’s ma fault. I’ll take care of it.”

A smirk began to grow on Judy’s face. Calmly, Justin reached for the cup, popped off its top and drank down the contents with a grimace.

“There, problem solved.” He smiled at Judy and dropped the empty cup on the floor. It clattered and rolled under the counter. Nobody moved.

The color drained from Judy’s face. She staggered to retain her footing, but collapsed into an amorphous mound on the white polished linoleum. Shirley and Deborah stood rooted and agape. Justin casually walked to the wall phone and stabbed at the number for in-house emergency. As the attendants arrived and rolled Judy onto a gurney and wheeled her down the hall, he hung his lab coat on the hook next to the time clock and disappeared through the swinging doors.

That night before closing Deborah was cleaning up the lab and emptying the trash after struggling through a long day with the cranky substitute lab technician. At the bottom of the small trash can stationed next to the wall phone she found a scribbled note in that easy-to-recognize handwriting:

Football team wants drug screen urines this a.m. Prep 32 setups.

Wrapped up in the note was an empty can of Treetop Apple Juice. Deborah smiled to herself as she clicked off the lights and let the velvet darkness envelop the quietly blinking machines.