Searching for Stones – Jolene McIlwain

She presses into his crest, iliac crest, then goes four fingers higher. He’s ticklish and jerks. She doesn’t smile—she’s been trained to be stoic. She says, “This procedure usually takes a half hour and we’ll need your consent.” Four fingers higher—that’s where his kidneys will most likely be. The body can shift though, with age and weight, just like the ground where she thought she’d planted the bulbs and tubers and they showed up inches, nearly a whole half foot away.

She centers the tube’s beam over his thick trunk. The light is hot and dust burns, stinking. She palpates his arm for good veins, feels his warmth, that bounciness push-back of a healthy vessel. Sweat shines over his shaved upper lip.

IVP Intravenous Pyelogram. Left flank pain, pink urine.

He blinks, stares at the ceiling. Rarely does she do this, but today she looks up, too. The ceilings are high, ten feet, maybe more. Cobwebs like Spanish moss blow in the corners. There are no windows in this room, in this department, in this whole fucking wing. No sun. Maybe that’s why she’s often disoriented. Maybe it’s the scatter radiation that has her lit up, wanting to leave as soon as she arrives at the click, tick, punching time clock of a darkroom and metal-lined, heavy leaded place.

She asks him if he can eat strawberries, shellfish, if he’s ever put iodine on cuts. It’s 1992 and they still use iodinated contrast media that can cause anything from minor flushing to anaphylactoid shock and death. She has to tell him this and he has to sign the form. She knows twenty-five years from now they’ll all look back through the haze of days of milliamperage and kilovolts and think, maybe there was a better way.  

The drug box is two feet from her bum, a little red toolbox with a plastic lock one can twist quick and break if the patient requires a blast of epinephrine. The call box is to her left, an arm’s-length away, a blue light and speaker if she needs to call a code. The crash cart is eleven steps away in the hall—she’s counted—waiting like an impatient friend, reorganizing itself so when it’s time they will surely find the laryngoscope, the tracheal tubes, the paddles, and the cord will not be tangled.

Her Snickers bar is in the control booth because she may crash. It’s twenty years before she learns she’s diabetic, before she starts whispering little sweet nothings to her kidneys each day thanking them for keeping her out of dialysis. But she’s already learned to love these blooming tulips in her flanks. When the contrast flows through that radial vein and into the renal system, when it lights up the calyces, then the stem-like ureters, and empties into the bladder, unimpeded by a stone or narrowing, it’s like flowers growing on our insides.

In the five years she wears her dosimeter badge and gives this test, she’s witnessed only three codes. Only one person has had to be intubated in front of her. She held pressure on the cricoid, she thinks. Or, maybe she hid in the control booth, daydreamed of wild white-tipped Tardas, fiery Fusilier, or variegated purple Zurels.

She doesn’t tell this man about the codes she’s seen, how she’s had nightmares about them. She asks him what he thinks of the weather. Does he think it will frost again? He nods. He shivers. She hopes not, she says. Her tulips are up.

Author Bio: Jolene McIlwain’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and appears online at New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, Prime Number Magazine, Atticus Review, Fourth River, and elsewhere. Her work has been named finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions Anthology, Arts & Letters Unclassifiables Contest and Glimmer Train’s Top 25, and semifinalist for Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and American Short Fiction’s contest.

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