Orienteering by John Thompson

Joey placed the official Cub Scout compass on the topographic map he’d unfolded across the bed. Then he faced it North the way his book showed, but he was confused. The book said there was the North his compass pointed to, and there was also a true North. Why wouldn’t North just be North?

“You goin’ somewhere?” asked his brother Francis as he hopped on the bed opposite Joey and opened his latest issue of Hot Rod.

“No, but when I do get to go camping, I’ll know how to find my way.”

Joey was supposed to show the other guys at the den meeting how to use a map, so he’d borrowed the more advanced Boy Scout book from the library. He thought when it was his turn to run the meeting, he’d know what he was doing, but the Boy Scout manual talked about degrees, longitude, latitude, elevation, and all kinds of stuff he wasn’t sure of. He kind of understood, but he didn’t think he could make somebody else understand. “Do you know how to find where you are if you’re lost?” he asked Francis.

“Yup.”

“Whatta ya do first?” He figured he had Francis this time.

“I’d ask a cop how to get to the Sharon Hill trolley,” he said and went back his car magazine.

Joey decided to make sure he understood North, South, East and West, the in-betweens SW, NE, and the even the harder NNW and SSE.

“Look at this ‘Vette!” said Francis shoving the magazine in Joey’s face. There was red Corvette, top down and with shiny chrome wheels, all right, but on the opposite page was pretty woman with long blond hair, dressed in a short miniskirt with a tight deep cut v-neck sweater. She was perched on the back of a car beside a giant golden stick shift, bent forward so her breasts dropped toward the admiring men below.   MISS HURST GOLDEN SHIFTER was painted across the side of the car’s platform.

“That’s neat,” he told Francis, but he was nervous about the strange sensation in his groin. The same feeling had come on him in the hospital this winter when the nurse had bathed him. His thing had gotten stiff and stuck up in the air and the nurse had said, “My, my.” He gave the magazine back.

“That’s what I’m gonna’ get me some day,” said Francis. “A cherry ‘vette just like that.”

“Me, too,” said Joey, starting to get dressed in his Cub Scout uniform.

“You gettin’ outta going to the hospital?” asked Francis.

“No,” said Joey annoyed. You weren’t supposed to get outta going to the hospital to see your mother, even if you’d been going every day for almost three weeks. “I’m going.”

“Dad said we gotta make sure not to piss her off when she comes home.” Francis rolled the sleeve of his tee shirt up. He’d been wearing jeans to school and black motorcycle boots, too. Their mom would never let him get away with it if she’d been home. “The doctors said she’s gotta avoid stress.   Stop losing her temper.”

“I guess,” Joey said as he tucked his Cub Scout shirt in and checked how it looked in the mirror. He hoped she would like it that he visited in his uniform.

Joey had hated hospitals ever since he’d had his appendix out. He hated the sight of sick people, the smell, everything. He was actually too young to visit, but nobody said anything about it, except one nun who had asked how old he was. But she had let him stay; telling his mother that as long as he was well behaved it would be all right “just this once.” He secretly hoped the nun would see him again, because most of all he hated sitting there beside his mother, night after night, not knowing what to do or say.

“Dad’s picking me up after the den meeting,” said Joey.

“I bet he takes you to Horn & Hardarts.”

“Probly.”

“I’m gonna’ eat at Gino’s,” Francis gloated looking over the edge of his magazine at Joey, who would rather eat Gino’s hamburgers, too. But, even so, he liked going to the 69th Street Horn & Hardarts with his dad, liked pushing his tray along the chest high shelf of stainless steel bars past the steaming racks of food. He’d stand up on his toes to look over the selection, but he always got the same thing. He knew it made his father proud to see him point to the liver and onions. That’s what his dad usually got, that or the Salisbury steak, but liver and onions meant you had sense enough to know what was good for you. At the end of the line, they would go to the automat where desserts sat behind little glass doors. His dad would get lemon meringue pie and Joey’d get apple.

They’d carry their trays up the big marble steps that rose on either side of the ground floor dining area, grabbing a table on the balcony next to the brass railing. The mezzanine overlooked the whole first floor and they could see everything; it was like watching a movie. The customers moved along the wall of food in assembly line precision. His dad liked watching the people come and go, too. “This is what it must be like for the bosses at work,” he said once. “They sit in a window like this above the floor of the plant and watch us.”

Most days they ate dinner at the hospital cafeteria, which was okay, but it was in a basement and didn’t have as much to look at. Besides, doctors and nurses were in there sometimes, and last week he’d seen the nurse that had taken care of him after he’d had his appendix out. He’d watched her go through the cafeteria line with her tray, noticing the way her white uniform clung. She had taken off the pointed nursing cap and undone the pins from her long black hair. She even came over to the table with another nurse, one almost as pretty but with red hair.

“Hello, Joey,” she’d said. “What brings you back here?”

“My mom’s sick.” He could hardly speak and his face got hot, blushing at the thought of her checking his incision while his penis got hard. He also caught a glimpse of white lace from her bra through the opening of her blouse.

“Heart attack,” said his father looking solemn.

“Sorry to hear that. I hope she’s doing all right.”

“She’s doing much better,” said his dad. “She should becoming home in a week or two.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Then she pointed at Joey and said to the other nurse. “Have you ever seen eyes that blue before?”

Joey lowered his head and played with his green beans, feeling his cheeks burn, as he blushed even redder.

“Aren’t they gorgeous?”

He swirled the gravy in his mashed potatoes.

“Come on, Joey,” she goaded. “Look up.”

He raised his head and the other nurse with the red hair said, “Let me see.”

He looked her in the eye.

“Oooh, you’re going to be a lady killer when you grow up.”

His nurse put her hand on his head and brushed his hair back from his forehead. “Already is.”

He hadn’t run into her since then, although he probably wouldn’t mind seeing her as long as she didn’t see him.

Francis had been right. Joey and his dad ate at Horn & Hardarts before going to the hospital; they’d stopped at the gas station where Francis worked, too. Francis had pumped their gas, cleaned the windshield, checked the oil, and warned his dad that their mom wasn’t in a very good mood. “I didn’t do-nothing'” he’d said. “She was already mad when I got there.”

Joey stood beside his father on the hospital elevator, still in his Cub Scout uniform and proudly carrying the flowers his dad got for his mom after talking with Francis. When the elevator stopped at the 2nd floor, ­“his”­ nurse got on and hit the stop button. “My, don’t we look handsome tonight?” she said reaching down and straightening his yellow scarf. It was held together in front with a leather ring bearing the emblem that showed he was a Weblow now and almost a Boy Scout. A bed was rolled aboard. He couldn’t see the patient’s face, just the back of her head and a wisp of thin silver gray hair clinging with sweat to her frail neck. The nurse shuffled toward Joey to make room as a man in a white uniform stepped in and released the stop button. When the door started to close, the nurse was up against him, her hip against his shoulder.

“Going up?” Someone stopped the closing door with his hand and got on. Joey knew it was a doctor because he had stethoscope hanging from his neck and he smelled funny.

Joey was already against the back wall and his nurse had to moved against him more. He held his mother’s flowers in front of him and his right elbow was pressed against her rear end. He couldn’t help it. The sensation in his groin started again. The elevator jerked and started up. She smelled nice. Nothing but the woman’s body leaning against him mattered. He could feel the quiver of her muscles as she shifted her weight and could see the outline of her underwear and the straps that must have been for garters and stuff, just like in the Sear’s catalogue. He thought of trying to touch the bottom of her white uniform without anyone knowing, especially her, and he inched his left hand closer, but chickened out, when he heard a rustling sound from the bed. He turned his head and was facing a toothless old woman with wrinkled pale skin. She glazed wide-eyed right at him and foam bubbled from the side of her gaping mouth. She tried to speak, though no words came from her bluing lips. But he knew she was saying, “Help me!”

Joey pulled away, pressing into the nurse even more. The elevator opened and he wanted desperately to get out. He tried not to see the old woman, but his eyes kept going back to the terrified stare, her eyes pleading, begging for help from the only eyes she could make contact with from where she lay. His father excused himself and stepped off, but Joey was on the other side of the bed, trapped. The doctor and the orderly finally stepped out when they realized that Joey, who couldn’t talk, needed to get off.

“Bye, Joey. I hope your mom’s feeling better,” said the nurse, but he didn’t answer. He was staring at the old woman, though he couldn’t see her face now, just a bent swollen hand with blue veins and brown spots. A plastic band dug into her puffed up wrist.

When the door closed, his father put his hand on Joey’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

He always walked this hallway with both fear and fascination, amazed by the number and kinds of sick people but afraid to look at them. When they caught him stealing a glance, he pretended that he wasn’t and looked away. Some nights, a patient would be moaning or even screaming, but everyone tried hard not to notice. They were almost to his mother’s room, when he heard, “Get your hands off me!”   His stomach knotted.

“Mrs. McCoy, I’ve got to take blood.”

“That’s the third goddamned time you missed the vein!”

“Mrs. McCoy.”

“Go learn on somebody else. You’re never around when I need you, now you won’t leave me alone. Get out!”

His dad put his hand on Joey’s shoulder and stopped him. “This might not be such a good time to visit. Why don’t you go upstairs for a while?”

He walked Joey back to the elevator. Luckily, this time, neither the nurse nor any sick people got on. The seventh floor waiting room had an observation deck with big windows that looked out over everything. He had waited up there last Saturday, a bright clear day, and he was able to see all the way to the Ben Franklin Bridge. It was much nicer than the waiting room on the same floor as his mother’s room, where the view wasn’t very good and he could still hear.

“Stay right here till I come back for you,” said his dad stepping back into the elevator with the drawn, tired look Joey’d been seeing more and more. “Remember, stay put.”

“Dad!”

His father pushed the black rubber stopper and the elevator door separated again. Joey stuck the flowers out.

“Oh, yeah.” His dad took them and the door closed.

Joey went to the wall of windows and climbed up on a chair to get a good look. Dots of white light strung across the black horizon. Below, the street lamps and car headlights moving between rows of lit up buildings, looked like a giant train set. Joey was trying to figure out what direction he was looking, when he remembered his compass.

He found the North Star. At least he thought it was the North Star, since it seemed to be the brightest, but when he turned the N on the compass in that direction to test himself, the arrow pointed the other way. Moving the compass around, he found that the lit up area must be West Philly, he thought, proud of himself for figuring it out. He tried to find their house. His dad had turned the living room light on before they left, so he figured one of the dots was theirs.

“Are you by yourself?”

Joey spun around, startled to find the stern nun standing by the elevator, her arms filled with linens and a pillow.

“I’m waiting for my dad.”

“You shouldn’t be left alone in the hospital.” The elevator opened and she stepped on. “Behave yourself now and feet off the furniture.”

“Yes, Sister,” he said, already climbing down from the orange vinyl chair as the elevator doors closed leaving him alone again.

He picked up a ­Look­ magazine. Nothing was of much interest except the men building a wall in Berlin. They reminded him of his father and Uncle John laying block for the steps on the back of the house. One man had a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a hat like his uncle’s.

The first announcement that visiting hours were over came through a speaker down the hall and people began to leave. Joey watched them, peering over the edge of the magazine, as they stepped onto the elevator. He wished his dad would hurry up so he could leave, too, and he put the ­Look­ down. A ­National Geographic­ caught his eye. Bronzed men in a wooden boat were riding a wave as it crashed onto a pure white beach. When he picked up the magazine, it fell open to a fold out map of the South Pacific.

He spread the map open on the table, took out his compass again and lined it up with the North marker. The pictures were of Easter Island, which he found on the map. He wished his dad was back so he could show him that if you went directly SSW from the hospital long enough, you would come to Easter Island. He climbed onto the chair again and looked out in that direction, but saw only a few dots of light in the distance.

When Joey turned the map over to the next page, he saw a picture of natives on a lagoon beach. A mother held a baby at her breast. He began to get the strange sensation in his groin again and looked around to see if anyone was watching, but he was still alone. He wasn’t sure if he wanted that feeling to go away or not until he noticed the crucifix on the wall between the elevators and quickly turned the page. Crucifixes were everywhere in Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital, in the lobby, in the elevators, even above the bed in his mother’s room.

On the page of National Geographic a woman leaned over a small fire wearing a grass skirt and a string of beads. Her breasts stretched like water balloons toward the earth. Another picture showed two lines of women, of various ages and breast shapes, dancing before a group of men drumming on a log. That good feeling was coming on stronger, heightened by his knowledge that these women were straight out that way, SSW, on an island right now, and he knew where. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from those pictures, except to go to the following pages to see if there were any more; when there weren’t, he came right back to the woman who was tending the fire.

He hardly noticed the second announcement that visiting hours were over and everyone should have left the hospital by now. He was engrossed, not caring if the crucifix was there or not, when the elevator doors slid apart and the nun stepped off. He turned the page and the pleasant sensation vanished.

“I see you’re behaving yourself,” she said.

“Yes, Sister,” he said, but he was sure she knew.

“Your father should have gotten you by now. Visiting hours are over.” She stepped closer. “Do you know what room your mother is in?”

“329, Sister.”

She was gentler than she had been before, and he sensed she was upset. The whole time she spoke her fingers nervously kneaded the black beads of her rosary. “Stay here. I don’t want you wandering the hallway.” She pushed the down button. “You understand?”

“Yes, Sister.”

The elevator door opened and another nun, a much younger one, got off. She was followed by a white haired priest with a big belly. The older nun held the elevator open and told the younger nun to make sure the patients were in their rooms and all the doors closed. She spoke in an urgent whisper that aroused Joey’s curiosity. The priest said nothing and solemnly followed the young nun down the hall with his Bible pressed to his chest. The door had closed on the stern nun before he could ask to go to the bathroom. He knew where it was, because he’d used it on Saturday, but she’d said not to wander.

The other elevator doors opened this time and two men in white uniforms pushed an empty gurney off. “What’s the rush?” said the tall thin one whose blond hair was slicked back like Elvis Presley’s. “She ain’t goin’ no where’s. Besides, we can’t take her down till all the visitors are out anyway. I’m gonna catch me a smoke.” He plopped down in the chair across from Joey, and looked surprised to see him there. The other, a shorter and stockier man about the same age but with a crew cut, noticed Joey, too. “You waitin’ for somebody?” he said smiling.

“My dad said to stay here.”

“Oh.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Joey said, embarrassed by the way he’d blurted it out.

“Right down the hall, around the corner. I’ll show ya,” said the stocky one while the other man picked up the ­National Geographic­.

“I been there before,” said Joey. “Can I go?”

“If you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Joey jumped up, feeling relief already and he walked quickly down the hall. The last thing he heard before turning the corner was the tall man say, “Yo! Look at these melons. How’d ya like to put your face between them and play boobahla, boobahla?”

By the time he came back from the bathroom, the men were gone. With all the patient doors shut, the hospital was quieter than ever. The ­National Geographic­ was still lying open to the page with the native women. Joey picked it up, but just as the pictures were beginning to affect him again, he heard the squeak of wheels coming up the hall. He closed the magazine and put it on the table two chairs away.

The elevator bell rang just as the men pushed the gurney into sight. The door opened for the stern nun and his father, who was still holding the flowers they had brought for his mom.

“Where were you?” they both said at the same time. She held the elevator open and signaled him to come on. “I said to stay right­ here.”

“I had to go to the bathroom,” he said, before standing up nervously. He reached the elevator just as the gurney did. A sheet was pulled over the head of the patient, which struck Joey as odd at first, until he realized the person must be dead just like on “Dr. Kildare.”

An old hand, with brown spots and blue veins, stuck out from the sheet on the other side of the stainless steel railing right in front of him. One of the swollen fingers was almost cut in half by a wedding ring that would never come off now. He couldn’t see the covered face, but he knew it was the same old lady he’d ridden the elevator with earlier. He froze, knowing he was seeing something else he wasn’t supposed to.

“You’ll have to wait here with your son, Mr. McCoy,” said the nun anxiously. She waved his father out of the elevator while she held the door for the other men to roll the bed in. Before the doors closed she said angrily, “­This­ is why we don’t allow children in the hospital.”

His father said nothing. They both watched the doors shut and his dad lit a cigarette. He seemed shaken. “You okay, Joey?”

“Yeah.”

His dad stuck the flowers, so they stood nicely, into the sand of the ashcan between the elevator doors. Joey followed him to the windows and they stood quietly, looking out into the darkness. His dad’s eyes seemed distant, like he was gazing off at something far away. Joey watched smoke roar from his dad’s nostrils and hit the window. He held the compass to what he figured was true North, sure of one thing. If he went far enough SSW from Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital, he’d come to Easter Island where the women were alive and had breasts.


John Thompson’s stories have appeared in Specter Magazine, Voices de la Luna, Breakwater Review, The Monarch Review, The Stone Hobo, Raven Chronicles, Bayou, Northeast Corridor, Piedmont Literary Review, the anthologies Working Hard for the Money: America’s Working Poor and Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. His stories have been read at InterAct Theatre’s Writing Aloud, and earned Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXI. “Orienteering” is part of a collection to be titled The Real McCoys.