1. Brown, Claire BSN, RN

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I called his name, and he stumbled out of the tank of men waiting to be fingerprinted, following me with swaying steps toward my office.


"Please have a seat on the white chair," I said, pointing at a stained plastic seat that quite possibly had been white at one time. Without this directive, inmates usually sat on the short black bench by the door, which was too far from the blood pressure cuff attached to the wall. I pulled out an alcohol assessment form and began.


"I need to ask you some questions about your drinking. I see you already have a chart, so you've been here before. You know the drill."


He smiled at me. The smile of a seasoned drunk is like a baby's guileless and often with the same number of teeth. But this man had all of his. His long black hair was graying, his flat face soft and well boned, and his full lips pretty, almost womanly. But his frame was huge, hulking over the edges of the small chair. His hands, limp in his lap, were dirty, scarred, hard. His eyes were on my hands, filling in his name and date of birth on the form.


"I like your ring," he said. "That's a Navajo piece."


"Thanks, yes it is," I replied. "How long since your last drink?" A standard question, helpful for calculating how long before he would be likely to begin withdrawal-or, in other words, how long I had to process admitting papers, call for doctor's orders, and get him transferred upstairs, safely housed in the infirmary and medicated with Librium before withdrawal seizures began. He didn't reply, so I repeated my question. "How long has it been since you had a drink?"


He raised dark eyes to mine, searched my face for what might be the right answer. Sticky sweet clouds of alcohol and sour sweat surrounded us. Finally he replied, "Well, what time is it?" I attached the blood pressure cuff to his arm and glanced at the clock above his head. "Half past three," I said.


"Three in the morning or three in the afternoon?"

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"Three in the afternoon." His blood pressure was 128/84, pulse 76 and regular. He was not nearing detox yet and would probably be fine without Librium for several hours. The nurses upstairs could call for doctor's orders after he'd been moved to the infirmary. Good. One less thing to do. My shift was getting off to a nice slow start.


"Are you sure it's not three in the morning?" he asked.


"Sure I'm sure. I just came in to work. If it were three in the morning, I'd be done already. At home. In bed."


"Then I'm such a bastard." He collapsed forward in the chair, wrapped his arms around his knees and began to cry. "I missed my mother's funeral."


I waited awkwardly, wondering what to say. He made no move to get up. His shoulders were shaking. Finally I asked, "How did she die?"


"She killed herself three days ago in Vancouver. I've been drunk since then. Not that I'm not usually drunk. But I meant to go. I'm sorry, mama. I'm sorry, I'm sorry."


He sat up slowly and began making the sign of the cross in the air. He looked beyond me. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Can you ever forgive me? I'm such an asshole." He slumped over again, hugging himself. One arm was still encased in the blood pressure cuff, its stretch cord coiling down from the dial on the wall, disappearing beneath the mass of his plaid flannel back.


"If your mother can hear you, I think she can also see how sad you are. If you were my son, that would matter to me." I was floundering, guessing, hoping that I wasn't going to say the wrong thing and make him angry.


He sat up and stared at me. "You must hate your job," he said.


"No, I don't," I said. "But what makes you say that?"


"You work with criminals all the time."


I paused, trying to fit the word criminal around this softly sad man, charged with public drinking in Pioneer Square. I could see him there, holding the paper bag around the neck of the bottle, finding shelter from the winter rain on the bricks under one of the trees. I said, "Criminals are human beings."


It was the only thing I could think of to say. I could not have told him that I loved my job, that it was never dull, that it provided moments of odd intimacy like this one, that it gave pleasure in knowing what a nurse usually knows-that he or she is almost always of use.


He cried silently a moment more. He said, "That was a good answer."