Germs

In their break room with the loud pop machine, the nurses were talking about him again. I heard he shouted at a little kid that sneezed on the exam table. Oh, really? I heard he slapped a mother’s hand when she tried to touch her new baby.

He lifted his chin and didn’t react. He didn’t like it when they talked about him – not because he thought they were right, but because it irritated him when people were stupid.

He passed down the hall. There were bits of fluff on the carpet where it met with the wall. There wasn’t supposed to be fluff on the carpet. This was a hospital. Who knew where the fluff came from? He took a glove out of his pocket, put it on with a snap, and picked each bit of fluff off the carpet. He took them to a nurse’s station and threw them away, along with the glove.

Then he went to his own station and ran the water until it steamed. From the cupboard above the sink he took a thermometer and held it under the water. Mercury crept until it hit 190. He worked his hands in the steaming water with powdered, gritty soap.

After the soap had bubbled away down the drain, he held his hands under the water until they were red and painful.

He drove carefully away from the hospital and turned into a quiet office complex. He parked in a spot with a sign that said:

Reserved
Dr. Sherman Marvin, MD

He was Dr. Sherman Marvin, and it was his parking spot. He locked the car remotely, walked a circle around it to make sure it wasn’t parked on anything objectionable, and went inside.

He noticed that his receptionist, Cheryl, quickly closed her lunchbox as soon as she saw him. He wondered what she was eating. He also noticed that Cheryl was wearing sandals again, and that she had painted her toenails. He held his breath for ten seconds and didn’t comment.

On the knee-high table between the rows of short-backed waiting-room chairs was a magazine called Suburban Practice Monthly. The biggest name on the cover was his. He took a bottle of sanitizer from his breast pocket and sprayed it on the magazine before he touched it.

His desk was at the very far end of the little hall. The one Cheryl led patients down when it was their turn so they could wait for him and fill his perfectly sterile rooms with their problems. He didn’t open the magazine until he had it on his desk. He didn’t like reading in the waiting room. He didn’t like being in the waiting room, even if there were no patients yet. Dr. Sherman was the only person that ever went in his office, so it was never contaminated.

The name of his article was “The Quest for Sterility in an Unsterile World.” It had been well-received by the magazine. The editor raved about it from behind his black oak desk and under his Hippocratic plaque that said he, too, had been a doctor, once. He’d called it timely, and he’d called it provocative, and he’d called it groundbreaking. But then, when Dr. Sherman glanced back as he left, he saw the editor subtly picking his nose. The hand he’d shaken. Dr. Sherman shivered and closed the magazine.

He felt a thousand little bugs running up and down his arm, in, around, and under his skin. Little bugs that had been in the editor’s nose. Little bugs that came out of the trash can in Room 2 where he’d dropped that tongue depressor. Little bugs that came from afterbirth today at the hospital. Germs.

Dr. Sherman hunched his shoulders up and quivered. It was probably good that most people didn’t understand germs. It was good that people were stupid. Because being stupid at least allowed you to live in peace. But when you understood germs, as Dr. Sherman understood them, you lived a different life. A better, cleaner, more educated life.

He touched his phone and buzzed Cheryl. He loved touching the phone in his office, because it was the only phone in the world he could be sure was sterile.

He told Cheryl to call the hospital and inform them of his regretful resignation. Why? He felt he should focus on his private practice.

Cheryl didn’t sound happy about this.

He added that he was disappointed she hadn’t honored his preferences regarding her footwear. Sandals aren’t sanitary, and nail polish lends itself to chipping and worrisome debris.

Thank you, Cheryl. That will be all.

Dr. Sherman took his tote of cleaning supplies into the hall, popped on his gloves, and started with Room 4. The room numbers were cut out of construction paper – Cheryl made them every few months. This time they were yellow rubber ducks. For a moment he stared at them.

Cheryl made them at home. She had children – who knew what else the scissors had been used for?

He tore them down, threw them away, and took the trash out to the dumpster. He washed his hands under 190-degree water, with powdered soap, and left his hands under the water until his skin was pink and crawly.

Then he wrote the numbers on the door with a permanent marker from his office – a marker that had never been shared with anyone and was as safe as a marker could be.

Then he cleaned every inch of each room, using a stepladder to reach the ceilings. Most doctors didn’t clean their ceilings, but Dr. Sherman knew germs can travel and attach in the face of even gravity. He didn’t want bugs falling off the ceiling. The thought made him shiver.

A mother was in the office, with two of her children. One was a baby, and it smelled like babies smell. The other had a cough and wasn’t making any effort to cover its mouth. Though he knew it was impossible, Dr. Sherman was sure he could see every germ that spewed out of the child every time he coughed.

He stood, frozen, in the doorway. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t step into his own office. It was supposed to be safe, but it wasn’t. It was supposed to be a place of healing, but it was a cauldron of poison. These people. These germy, buggy, crawly people. They were bringing poison into his office. How was he supposed to heal people?

He bit his lip. He had to be polite.

He told them he was very sorry. He told them they were actually closed that day. He told them to please call again to make another appointment.

The child coughed as his frustrated mother dragged him out. Coughed right next to Dr. Sherman’s knees. He was proud of himself for not recoiling.

When they were gone, he ignored Cheryl’s look and went to the back. He had spare clothes; he put them on. Then he washed his hands in 190-degree water with powdered soap and left them under the water until they were salmon.

Then he sat down at his desk and paged Cheryl.

He told her there was a new office policy: he didn’t accept ill patients. He would do checkups and physicals. He would continue to act as a diet consultant. He would treat broken bones. But not open wounds or sores.

In his office toaster-oven – he didn’t use a microwave or allow Cheryl to – he cooked a tin of whole wheat pasta at four hundred degrees for eight minutes. It was baked crispy, but that’s what it took to kill germs.

He washed a fork in his sink and ran it under 190-degree water. He ate happily.

That afternoon Dr. Sherman checked the swelling on a child’s ankle. It was obviously just sprained, so he didn’t have to touch it. He just had to recommend a place to buy a good brace and crutches, and he sent them on their way. The mother seemed a bit testy, but she didn’t say anything. He was the doctor.

He was a happy doctor. He was very optimistic about his new office rules.

Shortly after, he paged Cheryl to have her buy Pine-Sol, and he heard a voice in the waiting room. She told him it was a man looking for directions.

After the man left, Dr. Sherman made a sign that said Patients only – anyone without an appointment will be asked to leave and taped it to the door.

While he was taping it, he heard Cheryl take a call from someone with melanoma. She recommended them to another doctor.

This made Dr. Sherman very happy.

He slept at the office, on a sterile operating table sheeted with sterile paper. He slept very well. Ever since the divorce, ever since he didn’t have to try to work up the courage to share a bed with another person, he’d been sleeping better. Ever since he didn’t have to slip out before she woke up, lest she want to kiss him goodbye, he’d been having pleasanter mornings. Three years ago, last month, he’d gotten divorced.

Energized, he used the morning to blast the waiting room with every sterilizing product he owned. He stood back, hand on his chin, and thought about the room. Hmm. If people didn’t sit down, then their total contact with surfaces in his waiting room would be a fraction of what they were. He separated the seats and, one by one, dragged them across the parking lot and stacked them beside the dumpster. He almost laughed when he surveyed the spartan room.

Would it be too much, he wondered, to ask patients to put plastic booties over their shoes, now that their shoes were the only thing touching his office? He decided it wouldn’t.

He put boxes of large, medium, and small plastic booties just inside the door with a sign that said please wear immediately.

When Cheryl came in, she didn’t say anything. She knew it wouldn’t do any good. Dr. Sherman reflected that she wasn’t a terrible receptionist, sometimes. Just surly.

He washed his hands in 190-degree water with powdered soap, and left his hands under the faucet even longer than usual. He had touched the dumpster. He went to his office and waited, gleefully, for his first standing, plastic-booted patient.

That day, and the next, and the next, were the best days Dr. Sherman had ever experienced.

He slept at the office every night after sterilizing everything, and woke feeling like he owned his own body. He wasn’t sharing it with any invisible monsters. He wasn’t playing host to creeping tenants that bit and gouged and spread their offal.

Then a teenager was sitting on the exam table. A skateboarder. He had fallen and his kneecap was lumpy. It was going well, because Dr. Sherman didn’t want to touch him and the teenager didn’t want to be touched. Dr. Sherman asked questions about how it felt; the teenager answered them. Dr. Sherman was enjoying himself.

Until the teenager asked where the bathroom was.

Dr. Sherman told him he should wait until the exam was done, but the teenager shook his head, and Dr. Sherman had to point out where it was and wait while the teenager used the bathroom.

It seemed to take a very long time. As soon as the teenager came back, Dr. Sherman gave him a referral to a specialist and told him to have a nice day.

It took him an hour to work up the courage to clean the bathroom.

When he was done it was 8 PM and Cheryl was gone. After he’d washed his hands in 190-degree water with powdered soap and held them in there until they were numb and sluggish, he called her at home.

He told her that we would no longer be accepting patients and asked her to please cancel all his appointments for the rest of the week. And month. And year.

She told him he could call them himself because she quit.

He was glad, actually, because then he didn’t have to fire her. It was only a matter of time before she wore sandals again, or came to work with a sniffle. He hoped she wouldn’t die out there. He shivered to think how many things were probably crawling around her body. He decided to sterilize her desk. And then to sterilize the whole office, because if there were germs around her desk, they would have spread.

When he was done sterilizing the entire office, and after he’d washed his hands in 190-degree water with powdered soap and left them in the water to steam and pucker, he sat at his desk and smiled. He was very confident there was not a single crawly in the entire office. This space, if nowhere else in the whole world, was pure.

In his fridge there was enough pasta to last him a week, if he was sparing. He thought about this. He could live here, if there was enough food. He wouldn’t ever have to leave the office. He wouldn’t have to ever encounter a germ again.

He smiled.

Since there was nothing left to clean, he just sat, and so he didn’t get hungry very soon. But when he did, it made him wonder what would happen when he ran out of food. Could he go back out, now that he had achieved purity? He didn’t think he could.

But then Dr. Sherman had a terrible thought. When he died, he would be a corpse. He would decompose and rot and foul his purity. He would be the germ. He would birth the crawlies.

He shivered and shuddered and wept.

He knew he had to protect his office, his Eden, from that. He knew he couldn’t bear to be the agent of impurity, even if he was dead.

He lay on an exam table and watched the ceiling. Nothing. No germs. No crawlies. Pure.

But he wasn’t pure. He was a corpse in the making. Poison.

He went to the phone and he dialed. He called an old friend. He called in a favor. The friend – or he had once been a friend – worked at the morgue.

At a quarter after one, the once-friend dropped a package outside Dr. Sherman’s door. He waited until the car was long-gone, then unlocked the door and dragged the package in. He sanitized it, then the inside of the door, then the floor and ceiling near the door.

He put the stepladder away and washed his hands at 190 degrees with powdered soap and left his hands in the water until they were steaming more than the water was.

He unrolled the package; it was a body bag. It was airtight, sealed – smellproof, germproof.

He spread it on the floor of his little office and unfolded it. He set it up, inside out, germproof, dull black and coffinous.

It was inside out so he could seal it from the inside.

Daniel Southwell grew up in the woods of north Michigan. To support his writing habit, he has worked as a roughneck, roustabout, and surveyor. He has been bitten by a tiger.

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