A quick note on this piece that I wanted to share tonight: this was the short piece of ethnographic fiction that first opened my eyes to being an author, back when I was 20 years old. I had always loved to write, but no one had ever really encouraged me to pursue authorship until I was enrolled in Ethnographic Writing class. My site was a hospital, and I was tasked with the job of writing a piece of fiction based on my field notes. This story, Earl, was born out of my observations of a lone security guard on the lower levels of the hospital, where I would surreptitiously creep around in the wee hours of the night. I hope you enjoy.
“You come back here one more time and you’ll be sorry!” screamed Earl, the night security watchman, to a man dressed in tattered track pants. Earl took the man by the collar of his faded and torn sweatshirt and escorted him out of the sliding double doors of the hospital. Once he was satisfactorily convinced that the man was not coming back, Earl went back to his security desk in the atrium of the hospital. It was 9:45 p.m.
Even though the homeless squatter Earl just removed from the premises gave him a lot of trouble, he didn’t mind it so much. Though the hospital was always very busy during the daytime hours—full of friends and family visiting their loved ones, pretentious doctors strolling down the hallway reviewing charts, the ill and informed rolling slowly to the cafeteria in their wheelchairs—at night, it was a different story. Sure, the emergency room was still busy—illness and injury know no time, after all—but where Earl worked was a ghost town. It made no matter that Earl had sat behind the same desk for nearly fifteen years. He was still scared late at night, when no one else was around. As he would watch the security cameras, his mind would wander. Earl thought about his wife and children, asleep in bed. He thought about the Jackie Chan movie he had just watched on his portable DVD player. He thought that it might rain in the morning, but he had forgotten his umbrella. But mostly, Earl just thought of being alone.
Secretly, Earl hoped the homeless man would not heed his stern warning. He wished that he would come back—at least then he would have something to do. He chuckled to himself. “Maybe I could invite him in for some coffee and conversation,” he mused.
But, as the hours passed, it became clear that Earl’s new friend had found a better place to stay warm for the night—a place without a menacing security guard to remove him. Earl checked his watch. It was 11:45 p.m. “Funny how time flies when I am having fun,” Earl said aloud, testing the emptiness of the hospital. He always listened to see if anyone would answer. All he could hear was his voice echoing down the dimly lit hallways.
Settling back into his chair, Earl also began to settle back into his thoughts. Around midnight, he always became a little uneasy about being alone in the lower levels of the hospital. To make matters worse, midnight was the midpoint of his shift—which meant that Earl would soon have to do his rounds. Normally, he wouldn’t care about walking around the hospital—Earl, after all, was a pretty friendly fellow—but at night, an eerie glow was cast over the lower levels. If Earl could change one thing about his job, it would be making those damned rounds. He began by walking down the half-lit hallways, shining his heavy flashlight into the darkened rooms. Earl wasn’t sure what he would do if he actually found anything as a result of this ritualistic flashlight shining, but he did it anyway. He opened supply cabinets and peered in. He checked the empty cafeteria, the reception desk, even the gift shop. As Earl walked out of the gift shop, he looked at the stuffed animals lined up on the shelves. Their eyes were expectant, looking as if they knew it would only be a matter of time before Grandma Rose bought one of them for Johanna, her granddaughter with leukemia. It was as thought they knew Terry’s mother would be visiting tomorrow and purchasing one of them for his seventh birthday. It was like they just knew.
Snap out of it, Earl. They are just stuffed animals for Christ’s sake. Regardless of the order he issued himself, as he shut the door to the gift shop, he shuddered involuntarily.
It was 12:45 a.m. Earl had completed every task he had to that night—every task but one. He still had not checked the basement storage room. Earl dreaded this more than any other part of his rounds. As he walked down the creaking stairs, he continued to look over his shoulder, thinking that he may find someone or something following him. Finally, he unlocked the steel double doors and gave them a hefty push. As he continued the flashlight ritual, he mumbled repeatedly to himself, “Just circle the perimeter and you’ll be fine. Just make it around the perimeter, and it will be over.” That was one thing to be said about Earl—even though he was scared as hell, he would never complete a job incorrectly.
Just when Earl thought he would be able to leave unscathed—just when he thought he was done surveying the basement—he heard it. A sob. A quiet, muffled sob. Earl panicked. Who was down there with him? Why were they there? Were they alive? All of these questions began to run through his head with no answer in sight. Finally, Earl gathered enough courage to stammer, “Wh-who is there?”
Earl asked again, gaining control of his own voice—“Who is there?”
Still no answer.
Earl walked toward where the sounds were coming from—from the refrigerated storage room, where many of the prescription medications were stored. The door was cracked, so he pushed it the rest of the way open.
To his surprise, he saw Dr. Piper Anderson, one of the newest interns, curled up on the tile floor, sobbing. After he realized that she wasn’t hurt, just upset, he approached her and touched her shoulder. She looked up at Earl and smiled faintly. Regaining her composure, she stood up and dusted herself off.
“Good night, Earl,” she said firmly, with a cool smile returning to her lips. She turned away from him, and began her walk back up to the emergency room. Earl locked the door behind her and went back up to his desk, rounds completed. He sat down, and began flipping through his DVD’s once more, looking for something else that could fill the quiet of his empty floor of the hospital until the sun rose once more, as it always did.