A pigeon pecked at his left ear and woke him up. He was lying in the city park where he’d slept all night. He shooed the pigeon away. “Little fucker,” he said.

It was dawn and he slowly got up, got his things together in his small green bag, and walked to the plasma bank as the sun was rising. He was tall and thin, with raggedy clothes. His name was Anthony Moore.

By the time he arrived at the plasma bank, a line had already formed outside the door, though the place wouldn’t open for another hour. It was summer in Tucson and already 82 degrees.

The people in line, all men, all a bit cracked, knew each other. They were regulars. The loudest talker leaned against the plasma bank door.

“I like to get here early,” the loud talker said. “I get up early anyway, and there’s no particular point in staying home.”

A nod of agreement meandered among them, somnambulists in the building’s shade.

“I don’t sleep,” he said. “I just don’t sleep.”

One tooth was missing in the middle of his sticky, praline mouth. He had a black shirt tucked into a pair of black jeans. On his leather belt hung a small knife, a pager, two cell phones, and a tape measure. Dark sunglasses and a blue-brimmed cap pulled low. He was well-versed in a variety of subjects, from nano-probe technology to crème brulee.

An enclave of bums staggered by, walking so close together as to be holding each other up. The boniest of all struggled to push a grocery cart, pregnant with bulging, ready-to-burst bags of aluminum cans. The morning sun caused the whole thing to explode with sparkles, like a jeweled tumor.

The bums stopped and one of them leaned into the garbage can. Garbage flew out like a fountain onto the ground all around, onto the sidewalk and street, and every once in a while, his hand would emerge with a bit of some abandoned eatable, or an aluminum can, and relay it to one of the others.

Anthony and the others watched the cop car pull up.

The one with his head in the can came out. His mustache was white from the last of someone’s tossed latte.

The cops scolded the bums. One of the bums, the matron, crab-stepped around in circles, picking up all the trash and throwing it back into the can. The cops cocked their heads like robots, bored and cruel with protocol.

The metal gate that protected the front door of the plasma bank was opened ten minutes late.

“Grace is running late again.”

“No, it’s Thursday.”

“Monica, then.”

They single-filed in, blinking in the gag-clean air, everything white as an egg, cold as a meat locker. A pecan-skinned Hispanic girl in a white frock gave everybody a little silver bag of juice to drink while we waited.

“Morning, Monica.”

“Morning, morning…”

It was nice of her.

They committed their names to the paper on the clipboard on the counter and turned to negotiate the grid of blue plastic chairs. When they each found a suitable spot, they sat down to their juices, as if they were exhausted.

A television was mounted in the upper corner of the room, a bird cage from which squawked the dippy hosts of a morning show. The hosting duo consisted of a taffy-handsome, effeminately enthusiastic, mid-aged male, and a slightly-thickened, Puritan female, erect as a fence post, with a mouth like a rubber band that tried to talk intelligently, but always snapped back into an automatic, moronic, hominy-toothed smile.

A white-frocked girl with parboiled hands gripped the clipboard.

“Anthony Moore?” she called.

Anthony got up from his chair. He stood up and walked over toward the girl who was calling his name. She was plain-looking, smooth skin, faint purply smudges beneath her coffee eyes. She took his mugshot and instructed him to go sit down next to another woman in another white smock.

All the employees looked so bored, so resigned, like old circus animals.

Anthony sat down in front of the other lady.

“Give me your finger,” she said. She pricked him with her little pricker, the bitch, then milked the scarlet blood out into a tiny tube. The machine did the rest. Machines did everything, everything important. The humans served to fill in the blanks, to act as connectors. He hated to see people who have been doing a job so long they have become like a machine. He had been a machine for years and years.

“We have to check your blood for proteins,” the woman said, not looking in his eyes, “and make sure you’re not diabetic.”

She stared at the computer screen, immersed in what she saw. Never had she seen anything like this. The screen was swiveled so he couldn’t read it, but a red hazard light blinked on and off. He could see it reflected in her eyes, which were screwed up until her muddy black eyeliner cracked. Her mouth moved in a silent series of puckers, lip-chews, and clucks.

No trouble; please, no trouble.

His hands were clammy as frogs’ butts. The air in the building maintained a steady 64 degrees, to keep the germs down, to keep the blood from spoiling. He didn’t see a single fly, in fact, while he waited for the truth.

Finally, she stopped looking at the screen and wrote something down.

“Well?” he said.

“Looks good,” she said. Just like that.

Then there was another wait, another corner, another set of chairs, this time red chairs.

“Anthony?” the doctor said.

He was short and a fitness addict. There was not enough fat on his body to fill a blood vial. His musculature was that of a triathlete on heroin. There was black stubble on his suntanned arms where he had shaved them. His black hair was parted over his left eye, with each hair combed back on either side, where they remained, obedient as Mormon wives. His whole head looked like a wood carving.

He knocked Anthony’s knees with a rubber hammer, listened to his heart with his safe-cracker stethoscope, probed his stomach and kidneys, waiting for him to yelp.

He kept writing things down without saying a word.

“Everything okay?” Anthony said.

“Fine, fine,” the doctor said. “Most of the major tests will take a week to come back, so I can’t say much until then.”

“Oh,” Anthony said. “I can still give plasma today, right?”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “If you’re sick, we’ll contact you, and your plasma will be destroyed.”

He wrote something down, then stopped. “The tests take a week, and if we find something like AIDS, we send it in for a secondary test, which takes another week.”

“Two weeks.”

“I made the mistake of telling a guy once, last year, that he had AIDS,” the doctor said, “and then the secondary tests came back and it turned out he really didn’t have it. I felt terrible. I drove over to his address as soon as I found out, but he wasn’t there. He’d already moved.”

“Oh, boy.”

“He moved the day after I told him.”

“Ever find him?”

He shook his head no. Then he seemed to snap back and remembered where he was.

“No tattoos?” he said, his pen poised.

“No.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Not even a dot?”

“A dot?”

They looked at each other.

“Have you had sex with a prostitute within the last year?” the doctor said.

“No.”

“Have you been incarcerated within the last 72 hours?“

“No.”

Then Anthony got to pee into a cup.

“How much you want?” he said to the doctor as he took the cup.

“Anything,” he shrugged.

When Anthony was done, the doctor snapped on a rubber glove, and the piss was analyzed in about ten seconds. He walked back over to the desk, signed one more form, and then sent him to wait in another place.

“Everything okay?” Anthony said.

“Just one thing,” the doctor said. “Your crits are a little high.”

“My what?”

“Your crits. Tell the nurse they were a little high. She’ll know.”

“Is that bad?”

“99 percent of the time, no.”

“But I should tell the nurse?”

“Tell the nurse and she can keep an eye on it,” the doctor said.

“Crits a little high,” Anthony said. “Got it.”

The chairs in the next room were yellow.

“Anthony?” the lady said. Another clipboard crier. They all wore white smocks, like snow people, snow-royalty. It was colder in each room. She flattened her clipboard against her chest and looked at him. He stood up.

“My crits are a little high,” he said.

“How high?” she said.

“He didn’t say, just a little high, he said to tell you and you’d know.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Is that bad?”

“No problem.”

He followed her into the main room. He had passed a high-security clearance test and was finally allowed to see the nerve center. It was like the inside of an alien spaceship, with human specimens prone on large gray recliners, looking drugged and hauntingly mollified. The lady led Anthony to a futuristic recliner. It was gray and heavily padded like the others, and curved like a fallen S. He climbed on, happy to relax. It was the most comfortable chair he’d sat in in years.

The recliners were set along the walls of the room, facing one another. He looked at the people. Everybody kept gripping their fists, gripping and gripping.

“First time, eh?” the nurse said to Anthony as he lay there. She looked like a trucker’s wife, with a deep voice, a twisted nose, and strong shoulders.

“You just lie right here, there’s nothin’ to it,” she said. She walked around, attending to others. Then she swung back to Anthony’s bed/chair.

“Just relax,” she said. “I’m not gonna stick you yet; Marcela will do that. Which arm do you want to use? Doesn’t matter?”

She wrote something on his chart, tossed it on top of the machine. “Okay,” she said. “See those lights there?” She indicated the machine to his right. “You want them to be green. Except when they’re red.”

“Green, except when they’re red.”

“Right,” she said. “When they’re red, don’t worry about it. But when they’re green, you pump your hand, keep pumping and pumping, okay?”

“Keep pumping.”

“Make sure they stay green, all of them, not two or of them, all four.”

“What about my crits?”

“You just let me worry about your crits.”

She walked over and unhooked a bottle from another person’s machine. She wrote something with a black marker on the bottle and, without looking at Anthony, she kept talking.

“This is what your plasma looks like,” she said. “Looks like apple juice.” She walked the bottle over to a man who took it away behind a wall. She walked back over to me and slapped Anthony’s machine the way a mechanic would slap the hood of a car. “Your blood goes in here, is separated into plasma here, and then drips down through this, and into this bottle.”

He looked at the empty bottle.

“She’ll make some noise,” she said, “but don’t worry about it. A few beeps and hums means she’s working right.”

That machine was like a combination of R2-D2 and Dracula.

“And when you hear her make the charge call,” the nurse said, “Doot-doodooDOOO! That means you’re done. Any questions?”

He shook his head no.

“Okay, then.” She clapped her hands. “Marcela!” She rushed off and a girl the size of a professional wrestler went over. She looked at Anthony’s chart and prepared her sadistic works.

“My crits are high.”

“I know,” she said.

She knew.

The thought of a needle can send people into a panic. It’s as if you can feel that needle going all the way up through your arm and past your elbow and shoulder and into your heart and then even lower. Anthony knew a boy who jumped into the lake, feet first, and landed on a sharp, broken tree trunk, submerged below the water, which pierced his heel and traveled up his leg like a large splinter, all the way to his hip. Needles: nothing should be that sharp.

Marcela busied herself with her clamps and hoses and scissors, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, like she was hot-wiring it. She applied iodine with a Q-tip, which was the color of grasshopper spit, in slowly widening circles onto the soft belly of Anthony’s thin right arm.

The scary part about needles is by the time you feel them, they’re already in you. Bullets are the same way, but much worse; Anthony knew that. Even if you watch it happening, it’s like watching a baseball player swing the bat while sitting in the nosebleed seats: you hear the crack a second later, and your senses seem to be lying to you.

Anthony gripped his hand.

There was a guy to his left. His machine was obstructing his face. All Anthony could see was his body, from the chest down, lying on his recliner. He wore jeans and basketball shoes. He sounded young.

“First time?” the faceless guy said.

“Yep.”

“Just keep gripping,” he said.

Anthony gripped extra hard on account of his high crits. His fingernails dug into his palm.

The faceless guy flirted with the snow-royalty nurses as they went around.

“Yolanda,” the faceless guy said, “I’m not talking to you today.”

“Why not?” Yolanda flipped her long black hair while administering to someone else.

“You blew me off last Friday, that’s why not,” he said. “We were supposed to go for drinks. What happened to drinks?”

“I told you I had plans,” Yolanda said. “Besides, what would your girlfriend think?”

“She wouldn’t care.”

“Ah hah.”

Another girl walked by.

“When are we gonna go out and do something, Paula?” the faceless guy said to her.

“I’m Erika,” the girl said.

“Erika, right, that’s what I said,” he said. “How about tonight? Let’s go out, you and me.”

“Are you gonna spend all your plasma money on little ol’ me?” Erika said.

“Hey, I got lots of money, babe,” the faceless guy said. “I just do this to help the kids.” He gestured to a poster on the wall with a big, smiling child supposed to have been saved by somebody’s plasma.

When the plasma bottle was full, a saline solution would be pushed through the tube into Anthony’s bloodstream.

“Just wait,” the faceless guy said to him. “When that saline hits your blood, it’s cold, man. I shivered the first time it happened. But now, hell, now I love it, it’s great.”

His bottle of plasma was almost full. He was ready for the saline.

“I’m almost done,” he said. “Here it comes!”

Just a couple more drops to go.

“Here she comes, baby!”

It did look like apple juice.

Across the room lay a fifty-something year old man with bags under his eyes. He kept falling asleep. The nurses would smack his leg as they walked by.

“WAKE UP, EVERYBODY!” they would shout.

Directly adjacent to Anthony was a young, maybe 20-year-old guy, pickled and porky, with rosy cheeks and retarded eyes. His feet stood up at the end of his recliner like clown’s feet, huge and peanut-shaped. Everybody was in this same position with slightly elevated feet, a disarming position. Everybody was on the same level: the bottom.

An hour later, Anthony’s plasma bottle was almost full. A good-looking nurse had just come on shift. Red hair piled upon a tiny head, not a single pore in her opal face, smart glasses that didn’t rest too high on her nose. She wore the same white smock that the rest of them had, but somehow hers was alluring.

“You’re almost done,” she said to him.

“Already?” he said.

The machine did its pathetic little “doot-doodooDOO!” The saline solution poured through the tube. It rushed like peppermint through Anthony’s veins. His whole right arm went numb, like menthol oil rubbed underneath the skin, directly on the raw muscle.

The cutie disconnected him. She put a piece of cotton on the tiny bite in his arm.

“Hold this here,” she said. Their fingers touched. How long had it been since that happened, he wondered. She wrapped him up and patted his shoulder.

“Good job,” she said. Then she handed him a white ticket.

“I don’t know how,” he said, looking at the ticket. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Come on,” she said, “I’ll show you.”

She walked him over to another machine. He wanted her to hold his hand.

“You put the number from your ticket in there,” she said. “Then you read the directions here.” Her arm and perfect little hand reached across his body to point at a sign on the machine. The sign instructed users in the proper method of entering your birth date on the keypad, which was the next step. He was too engrossed in her hand to read the sign, and so the first time he tried it, he did it wrong.

“Oops,” he said. “What?”

“Hit clear,” she sighed impatiently.

Finally, after three attempts, the 20-dollar bill slid out. He turned to smile at her, but she was gone.

He walked out the door and into the bright day. It felt good to be walking in the sun with a 20-dollar bill in his pocket. He breathed deep. An easy spirit flowed through him. He walked up Cherry Street and took a left on 22nd toward the outlet bakery.

***

For all installments from 6 to 6, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Traveling Mercies
  2. Next Time, Take Skyline
  3. Suicide Lane
  4. Morenci in My Rear-View Mirror
  5. A Spiritual Adventure
  6. Sonja’s Ring
  7. A Pair to Draw To
  8. Grocery Day
  9. A Day with Melanie
  10. The Hot Light
  11. Drano
  12. The Cab Knows the Way
  13. Dodi’s Luck
  14. Don’t Die Before Your Mother
  15. Bob’s Big Day
  16. Nothing But a Human Being
  17. John’s Dream
  18. God Didn’t Get Me No Weed
  19. Ramirez
  20. What’s Going to Happen to Me?
  21. Do I Look Like an Indian to You?
  22. The Maze
  23. Fun with Ruby
  24. Portrait of the Artist as a Certified Loony
  25. Turn Around, Dumbass
  26. Red Bull Blues
  27. The Great Desert Palms Escape
  28. Bitcoin
  29. At Least it Isn’t Raining
  30. Marshmallows on Everything
  31. Mermaid with Doctor’s Mask
  32. My Other Jacket
  33. Late
  34. The Hideaway
  35. You Can Have a Seat, Sir
  36. Book People
  37. 112 Degrees
  38. No Way
  39. El Pendejo
  40. Batman