It was midnight. The hospital was again quiet, locked down and dimmed. Medical
personnel moved on silent feet and kept their conversations to a minimum. Regular
night checks were carried on in whispers, and tall shadows moved along the corridor walls like wraiths along a mountainside.
Billy Travis was graceful for a large
man. His body swayed when he walked, like a canoe riding the waves along a shoreline. The intermittent click of the wooden beads on his dreadlocks was the only audible
sound as he glided through the corridors of the second floor ward area. Normally
Billy would be on the third floor, but tonight two of his people were out with some kind of bug that was going around, and
he did not want them passing anything to his patients, especially those who were immuno-compromised.
Tonight he worked both floors himself,
and thought nothing of it. This place was a sanctuary to Billy. Always had been. He’d come a long way since earning
a living as an auto mechanic seventeen years ago when he’d first come to the states from his home in Montego Bay. He’d been twenty-five, fresh off the boat and dumber than a ten-penny nail. He’d landed in Miami with the shirt
on his back and the sandals on his feet. Two weeks and 1,092 miles in the baggage
car of the Coast Liner put him in New York City, hungry and
scared. A quick sneak onto the back of a truck loaded with wood chips and headed
for New Jersey brought him to a truck stop on the outskirts of Princeton. He lucked out with a job as a dish washer-busboy at one of the greasy all-nighters. Two weeks later he had $100.00 in the pocket of his new jeans. He left the greasy spoon and walked across the river into town. There
was a brand new Chrysler dealership opening up, and a sign in the show-room window said the new owner was looking for mechanics.
If Billy knew anything, it was cars. Back in Jamaica
everyone drove clunkers; at least everyone that Billy knew did. Old models of
everything made in the US of A seemed
to have found their way to his neck of the woods, and they all needed constant maintenance.
Billy learned by doing, and by the time he was eighteen years old, he was in constant demand. By the age of twenty-five, he was a master mechanic. Vince
Crane thought so too.
His knack for internal combustion engines
got him a job as a top mechanic at Vince Crane Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth. Billy
lost all of his soft Jamaican lilt and became thoroughly Americanized. He and
Vince became good friends, and in time the short, cigar-puffing red-head introduced him to another good friend who had bought
a car from him when his dealership had first opened its doors. Gregg House was
a young doctor with high expectations and high ambitions. He liked flashy cars
and big engines, and Vince Crane sold exactly what he wanted to buy. Gregg bought himself a 1989 Dodge Viper the moment it rolled off the line and stopped being a concept car. Billy kept it in top running condition and cemented a friendship with the irascible
doctor that stood the test of time.
Jimmy Wilson came along a few years later. Jimmy was the polar opposite of noisy, boisterous Gregg House, but something drew
them together as friends, confidants and constant smart-ass rivals. Jimmy was
a gentle, quiet and intelligent young man who was one of three sons of a prosperous Jewish family in Trenton. He was in his first year of medical
school, and planned to specialize in oncology. His serious demeanor always took
a downward tack whenever he was in Gregg’s company, and to watch the two of them together was like refereeing a battle
of wills between two ten-year-olds.
Jimmy was gorgeous, moppy-haired and
brown eyed, and had quite a following of pretty young things forever nipping at his heels.
Gregg, on the other hand, never took a woman seriously. He often sent
them … pissed off or crying or both … on their merry way. He was
interested only in medicine, cars, sports and raising hell. And a good piece
of ass now and then. But he would not commit to a serious relationship. When Jim Wilson expressed an interest in purchasing his first car, Gregg brought him
to Vince Crane’s and Billy Travis’ doorstep to pick one out. If the
kid had a car of his own, he wouldn’t bum rides in the Viper all the time.
Wilson’s eyes fell on the sleek lines of an old, used, baby blue Chrysler Cordoba two-door
hardtop, and no one could talk him out of it in any way, shape or form. The three
others decided immediately that Jimmy was indeed a “geek”, and Jimmy laid down his money and bought the car in
spite of the teasing. Of course, no one said a word when he finally traded it
in, still in showroom condition, ten years later.
It was Gregg and Jimmy, of course, who
recognized the intelligence and empathic humility within Billy Travis, and took it upon themselves to try to talk him into
getting his fingers out of the axle grease and into the world of medicine. It
was a hard sell. Billy was not that sure of himself, although their encouragement
often made him wonder if such a thing might actually be possible for him if he worked hard and kept up a good GPA. Even Vince Crane, who hated to think of parting with his top mechanic, told him he would support him in
whichever decision he made.
Scared to death to take the plunge, but
wanting the opportunity that nursing school offered, it took Billy almost a year to finally screw up the courage to make a
decision. When he did, the showroom of Crane Chrysler became a ballroom, and
the congratulatory celebration lasted into the wee hours.
Billy had been a Registered Nurse for
five years when Gregory House became crippled for life. Billy Travis had graduated from PPTH’s nursing school at the
top of his class. He was gruff but compassionate, strong as an ox, but one of
the most gentle of men. And when he was your friend, he was your friend for life. He did not let Gregg’s bitter attitude get the better of him, and he ignored
the whining and the bitching and the pain and suffering Gregg had to endure, handling him with unending humor and tolerance. James Wilson had taught him those lessons well.
He was the only person in the world Gregg would allow to carry him around like a child, and Billy protected his newly
disabled friend, people said, with his life. He also watched over Jimmy like
a second father, because Jimmy was driving himself crazy picking up the pieces of the train wreck that had become Gregg House’s
existence. Jimmy took care of Gregg, and Billy took care of Jimmy. Sometimes both of them.
And so it was, there in the middle of
the night at the huge hospital in Princeton, New
Jersey. Billy left the dayroom area where snack and drink
machines lined the walls, carrying a cup of black coffee and a pack of Little Debbies.
Munching and sipping, he headed back the hallway toward the men’s ward.
He knew Jimmy Wilson’s brother was here, crippled up with PPS, and having a hard time with weakness and pain. Billy hadn’t met Roger yet, but Nancy
had told him about the young man, and Billy intended to remedy that situation tonight.
Maria Colby had told him also, that Roger’s friend Jules was there with him, and that Dr. House had actually
sent one of his minions out into the city to track the other man down. Billy
had known Gregg must be behind the rescue mission. Gregg would be pissed if he
knew Billy had found out about it, but Billy had called Robert Chase aside and Chase had told him the whole story. And he’d heard it said so often that Gregg House just didn’t care. Like hell he didn’t!
Billy paused in the doorway to Room 220,
finishing off the last Little Debbie and the final slug of coffee. It was quiet
in there. The lights were turned way down, and all the beds were filled. Maria had told him that Roger Wilson’s bed was back against the far wall. The
skinny young man wasn’t hard to locate. Billy stepped inside the door and
tossed his snack debris in the waste can there.
Dark eyes glittered at him from the last
bed. There was fear in Roger’s face, and Billy took it calmly. It was a fact of life. It was not unusual for a small white
man to be a little afraid of a big dark-skinned black man like himself, and he was used to it.
Change came slowly, and for some, the Civil War still raged. He held his
index and middle fingers to his lips and approached the bed slowly. Roger looked
up at him, and Billy smiled in the dim light, exposing white teeth that stood out in the gloom like a string of pearls. Another white men’s cliché!
“I’m Bill Travis,”
he whispered. “Third shift charge nurse.
You’re Jimmy’s brother, aren’t you? He’s a good
friend of mine, and I wanted to meet you. How are you feeling? Do you need anything?”
Roger smiled in return and relaxed visibly. “I heard about you,” he said. He
held out a thin hand. Billy took it and they shook hands. “I’m a little achy and having some trouble sleeping, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I always have trouble sleeping. I guess
I’m going to go live with my brother in a few days. He says it’s
no trouble to run me back and forth for my therapy sessions. They’ll be
on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
“Yep, that’s what Maria says. She tells me she and Mark Fetterolf are taking care of all your therapy and meds. Dr. Fetterolf says you’re doing pretty well.
He’s doing his best to fatten you up, you know.”
“Mark? Yeah, he’s a nice guy. Doesn’t like Greg much
though. I don’t know why. I
like him a lot. He understands how bad this damn leg stuff hurts.”
Billy smiled. “You got to meet Gregg House, huh? He and your brother
are two of the best friends I ever had.”
“Did you know Greg before he got
“I feel so sorry for him …”
“Don’t ever let him hear
you say that!”
“Why? I already did.”
“Oh ho! The only reason you’ve gotten away with it is because you’re Jimmy’s brother. Right now you got a free pass … but if I were you, I’d cut it out. He’s in pain … but he handles it. Do him the favor
of not patronizing him. He hates it!”
Roger looked at Billy skeptically, but
nodded. “Okay.” The
young man’s eyes lifted over Billy’s shoulder, and a smile spread on his face.
Billy turned just in time to see a young,
thin black man walk up slowly behind them. “You must be Jules,” Billy
“Yeah, mon. You’re Billy. I still hear the song of the sea in your
voice, mon, but most is gone. Yeah?”
Billy grinned. “You got a good ear. I haven’t been back there
in more than twenty-five years.”
“Montego Bay? Like I said … the sea.”
“Yeah, real close. You?’
“Beautiful old town. I remember it before the resorts moved in. Are you and Roger
… a couple?”
Jules smiled. His green eyes sparkled in the dim lighting and Billy realized how beautiful the young man was. “Yeah, mon. You okay with that?”
“Completely. I know others.”
“I see.” Jules raised his eyebrows appraisingly, but said nothing further.
Billy helped Roger lie back against
his pillows, touched his cheeks and temples with the backs of his hands. Did
he detect a slight temp? He removed the thermometer case from his belt, inserted
a fresh sleeve and indicated to Roger to open his mouth. 99.8 Up a tad from normal. He lowered the blankets to Roger’s
ankles, gently touched his thin legs and the slight swelling that still distended his knee joints. His body seemed to be inclining
to the right. Scoliosis! This young
man needed to get up on his feet soon, before he was unable to walk at all. Billy
needed to stop by the nurse’s station and fill out a report for Dr. Fetterolf.
“I’m going to bring you some
pain meds and something to help you sleep. It was nice meeting you, Roger. You too, Jules. Dr. Fetterolf will be
by to see you in the morning.” Billy stood up and turned toward the door. “I’ll be right back with those meds.” He left quickly before they saw the anguish in his eyes.