NUMBER PLEASE

By John Thomas Tuft

He steps into the elevator wearing his JCPenny’s hunter green 3 piece suit. He wore it to his seminary graduation five years earlier and is proud that it still fits. He checks out his reflection in the polished walls of the car, adjusts the nameplate pinned over his breast pocket, wondering at the designation of ‘Chaplain.” Checks his hair, punches the button for the third floor, and whistles the opening bars to “Amazing Grace” to accompany his ascent. There’s a soft jolt, the doors slide open, and he enters the world of the OB/GYN floor of the medical center. A large woman with red hair piled above a cherubic face motions to him. She takes in his outfit with a guttural “Ja!” Motions to the patient room door behind her. “You got my page? Gut. Young couple, wife just had a miscarriage. Go in there and do your prayer thing. Just remember: Nommer asseblief!” She says this emphatically, with a lilting accent on the last syllable. Finishes with another emphatic, “Ja!”

“What?” But before he can say more she turns and disappears through pneumatic doors labeled NICU. He looks around bewildered. No one offers any guidance, so he takes a breath and hesitantly opens the door. A young man is perched on the side of the bed, comforting a young woman. They both look scared, overwhelmed, alone. They look up with reddened eyes. “Hi. I’m JG, uh, Reverend, um, I mean, I’m the chaplain.” The man gets off the bed. “We don’t need a chaplain. We need our baby. Please leave us alone.” The woman clutches at his arm. “Charlie, maybe he can say a prayer for little Joshua.” The chaplain fumbles in his pockets for his prayer book. But while he searches, the couple turn away and murmur their pain softly to each other.

As the chaplain steps out of the room his beeper beeps. He checks the number and steps through the whoosh of the NICU doors and stops before a large glass window. On the other side of the glass, tiny angels hooked up to tubes and wires of breathless machines strain for another day. Just one more. Nurses glide from one to another, offering unction. In the far corner, he spots a rocking chair. Sitting in it is the large woman with the red hair piled above a cherubic face. She holds the tiniest of bundles, cooing softly as she rocks both their souls. She senses his gaze, looks up and motions him to come in. He hesitates until he hears her emphatic “Ja!” The nurses look up at his entrance, and quickly dismiss the man in the green suit as another oddity in a world they try their best to manage.

“What?” He asks, confused. “Do your prayer thing,” she softly insists. “For who?” he asks as he fumbles for the laminated card with a prayer for those in poor health stamped on it. “No, no,” she whispers fiercely. “Nommer asseblief! Didn’t they teach you anything in all that schooling?” “I don’t know what that means,” he whimpers. “Here, hold her,” she insists. “When I was growing up on the farm in South Africa, we had party lines.” He cradles the precious, weightless bundle, as he listens. “We would pick up the phone, crank it, and the operator would ask, “Nommer asseblief?” She says this emphatically, with a lilting accent on the last syllable. “She would connect you and as you talked you could hear the neighbors deciding whether to listen in or hang up with the soft clicks.” His beeper sounds, urgently. He cradles the little angel with one hand as he checks the call. “ER. Stat.” She takes the bundle from his arm, waves him on with a “Ja!”

He hurries through the corridor. The elevator will take too long, so he plunges down the stairs. He bursts through the doors, running for his life, nervous yet thrilled at being so needed. As he clears the entrance to the emergency room, the red strobes of an ambulance give the controlled chaos an eerie glow. He is confused to see a large woman with red hair piled high above a cherubic face jerking her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of a trauma room.  “In there. TA. Female, 29, eight months pregnant. DOA. Impaled on the stick shift. They’re trying to save the baby. Go!”

Heart in his throat, he pushes in. No one looks up. Life hangs in the balance. A nurse sees him, motions. “Over here. Quickly. Say a prayer.” He takes two steps toward the gruesome scene. His foot slips out from under him. He sprawls on the glistening floor. Lands on his hands and knees. The green suit turns brown with blood. He can’t breathe. “Nommer asseblief!” is all that he can say. A sound breaks through. The urgent protest of a newborn’s cry. He covers his face with trembling, sticky-with-blood hands. Through them he whispers for all to hear who wish to hear. “Ja!”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.