Bloody footprints crisscross the gym’s locker room floor.
“Where is this coming from?” I ask nobody in particular.
“It’s me,” comes a voice around the corner.
The voice’s owner is seated in an alcove on a long bench. Gym shorts hang above his knees and a plush blue towel covers his generous belly. A pool of blood and piles of blood-soaked hand towels surround his feet.
My children would know what to do.
A journalist in the room, accustomed to making people aware of sensitive situations, announces, “He needs help, but I can’t go. You should go.”
“Hang in there,” I tell the man. “I’m going for help.”
“There’s a guy in the locker room, his feet are bleeding, he needs help,” I tell the front desk attendant.
She flips open a first-aid kit and forks over gauze pads, medical tape, and scissors.
“No alcohol?” I ask.
“That’s it,” she says. “I’d go, but I can’t enter the men’s.”
This would be a no-brainer for my nurse kids, except they’d refuse without gloves. Universal precautions aren’t optional.
“Thank you for coming back,” says the bloody-footed stranger.
Pooled blood is spreading.
“I’ll bandage you, but you’ve got to see a real doctor.”
I can’t admit, I’ve got no clue what I’m doing. I’ve never done anything like this. And I sometimes faint at the smell of alcohol wipes. That would not instill confidence.
I open three gauze pads. “Together, we’ll place these under your heel.”
“Okay,” he says, more confidently than I can muster.
Leaning to his right, the stranger extends his left foot. I hold out the gauze pads and he positions them. I cut 18 inches of tape to wrap under his heel and up his calf like a stirrup. When I reach behind his ankle, the tape sticks to itself, glancing his foot. Holding up the tape, I see traces of blood.
Just what I was afraid of. This is why I need gloves.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” says the stranger.
On my second try, the tape holds the front half of the gauze pads firmly in place.
“You going to wrap some around the other one?”
“Next,” I say, thankful he only has two.
I wrap tape around the back of his heel, covering the rear gauze pads, then cross the ends over his foot.
“You’re doing better than an emergency room doctor.”
That is a profession to which I never aspired.
“Do you frequent emergency rooms?” I ask.
“I try to avoid them, but I’m not always successful.”
The gloveless janitor starts mopping the bloody footprints, but keeps his distance from the pool near the man’s feet.
A young man wearing a “lifeguard” t-shirt enters, holding a single alcohol swab packet.
“I haven’t done this foot yet,” I say, pointing.
The bewildered lifeguard rips open the alcohol packet.
The stranger leans to the opposite side and extends his other foot. Without gloves, the lifeguard carefully dabs the man’s heel three times. I hand the lifeguard two gauze pads, which he places in position. I cut the last two open and ask the stranger to hold them in place. I duplicate the taping maneuvers. Fortunately, the tape doesn’t stick to itself, and I avoid even the hint of contact with blood.
Should I be ashamed that I have to consider the possibility that this gentle man could carry HIV and I need to protect myself?
When I’m done, I stand and suck in a deep breath. The stranger announces, “With the powers invested in me, I hereby certify you as an emergency room doctor.”
I vigorously wash and dry my hands, then step back into the locker room. “You gonna be okay?”
“I am now,” the stranger replies.
“Be right back,” I say.
I return to the front desk.
“Thank you for taking care of the man’s feet,” the attendant says.
“No problem, but don’t you think we need alcohol and latex gloves?”
“I’m messaging management,” she says.
return to the locker room. The man is slowly pulling up his underwear, an inch to the left, an inch to the right, shifting balance delicately.
He’s in pain and his underpants are too small. Quite a dilemma.
“You sure you can make it home?”
“I can, now that my feet aren’t bleeding.”
“You okay otherwise?”
“I have high blood pressure.”
“You promise you’ll see a doctor, a real doctor?”
“As soon as possible.”
“I’ll be looking for you. What’s your name?”
“Bem. And yours?”
“Thank you, Jim.”
Seeing Bem hobbling toward her, the desk attendant shouts, “I’ve got 911 on the line.”
He shakes her off. “I found my own doctor, thank you.”
Her help is too late.
I text my kids. My son’s response: “I wouldn’t touch it without universal precautions.” My daughter’s: “The gym failed, but you did good.”
For days, I keep my eyes peeled, wondering what’s become of Bem.
Should I have called 911? Did my sloppy bandaging slow his seeking competent care? Did I do him a disservice?
I meet with the manager. He says, “The front desk should have called the lifeguard to bandage the man.”
“But what about alcohol? What about gloves? What happened to universal precautions?” I ask.
“There are four first aid kits,” he says.
“Each one needs to be checked weekly and restocked. That’s the head lifeguard’s responsibility. We thank you for what you did, but you shouldn’t have had to. I apologize for this unfortunate departure from universal precautions. I’m undertaking a full investigation.”
“But where’s Bem?” I ask.
Finally, I step into the locker room and there’s Bem.
“How’re you doing?” I ask.
“Pretty well,” Bem answers, standing firmly without wincing in pain.
“How’re your feet?”
“They mostly hurt at night.”
“They’re not bleeding. What did you do?”
“Put on some cosmorin cream.”
“You seen a doctor?”
“I was late.”
“So what happened?”
“The receptionist said, ‘You’re late. Go home.’”
“Did she reschedule you?”
“She wouldn’t because I was late.”
“You need a doctor.”
“You have diabetes?”
“Who you see for it?”
“My family doctor.”
“The one who won’t see you because you were late?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Have you gone to a diabetes specialist?”
“You think I should?”
“You have diabetes and high blood pressure.”
“And stints in my arteries around my heart.”
“You gotta take care of yourself. You can’t assume someone will always be there to bandage your feet.”
“But you were. Thank you, again, for what you did.”
“You need to see a doctor who can help you. Soon.”
A couple of days later, I’m melting in the sauna with Akia, the Ugandan, who is readily recognizable by the ritual scarring on his back. We’re talking about his wife’s death and his quitting his job to be home for their three daughters. Then I say, “Weren’t you here when I found the bloody footprints and bandaged the man’s feet?”
“The man was back to thank everyone who helped him,” Akia says.
“I was glad to see him still alive.”
“You helped him the most.”
“What else could I do? Where you think he’s from?”
“Pretty sure Nigeria,” Akia shakes his head. “The man needs help. It took him 20 minutes to get dressed.”
Two weeks later, I’m sitting again with Akia soaking in the sauna when Bem walks in, takes my hand firmly in his, holds our clasped hands with his other hand, and says, “Thank you again for what you did,” then climbs up to the third tier bench with Akia.
“You see a doctor?” I ask.
“I saw a podiatrist.”
“You tell him about your diabetes?”
“I told him I have cracks in my feet that sometimes bleed.”
“If I hold a newspaper, my hands shake.”
“Everybody shakes when they read the news these days,” I say.
Akia laughs, quietly.
“But they even shake when I’m holding a text book.”
“You shouldn’t be holding something that heavy, not in your condition.
Akia laughs out loud.
“My hands shake when I’m drinking coffee,” says Bem.
“You considered cutting back?”
“I think I’m experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I need a specialist.”
“Speaking of which, have you seen that diabetes specialist?”
“There’s a two-month wait. And I have the wrong type of insurance.”
“So they won’t take you anyway,” I say.
Months later, still untreated for his diabetes, Bem announces he needs heart surgery and will be out a month.
Two months later, Akia visits Bem at home and gives me a report.
For a while, Akia keeps coming to the gym and sitting in the sauna daily. Without explanation, the time elapsed between Akia’s visits to the gym starts gets longer and longer. I keep looking for the ritual scarring on Akia’s back. He doesn’t return either.
JIM ROSS jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding research career. With a graduate degree from Howard University, in seven years he’s published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photography, plays, and hybrid in 175 journals on five continents. Writing publications include Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Libretto, Lunch Ticket, Manchester Review, Newfound, The Atlantic, and Typehouse, with Ocotillo Review forthcoming. Photo essays, mostly text-based, include Barren, DASH, Kestrel, Ilanot Review, Litro, New World Writing, Sweet, Typehouse, and Wordpeace. He recently wrote/acted in a one-act play. He also appears in a documentary limited series, I Sniper, broadcast domestically and internationally. Jim and his wife–parents of two nurses, grandparents of five little ones—split their time between city and mountains.