When the elevator stopped at the fourteenth floor, Christine thought that if five years ago someone at the University of Wisconsin had asked what twenty-year-old Chris Francis would do a couple of years later, she would have never guessed she would work in a New Orleans hotel.
After the accident in Wisconsin, she had sought a place, where she could be unknown and which was unfamiliar to herself. Familiar things had become an ache of heart. Strangely there were never nightmares after that day at Madison airport.
She had been there to see her family leave for Europe. Her mother, her father, her elder sister, embraced Christine; and even Tony, two years younger and hating public affection, consented to be kissed. They all promised to write, even though she would join them in Paris two weeks later when term ended.
And a few minutes later the big jet took off with a roar. It barely cleared the runway before it fell back, one wing low, becoming a whirling Catherine wheel, for a moment a dust cloud, and then a torch. Finally, it turned into a silent pile of machinery fragments and what was left of human flesh.
It was five years ago. A few weeks after, she left Wisconsin and never returned.
Jimmy Duckworth, the bellboy accompanying her, noticed, “Room 1439 – that’s the old gent, Mr. Wells. We moved him from a corner room a couple of days ago.”
Down the corridor, a door opened and a man came out. Closing the door behind him, he hesitated, eying Christine with frank interest. Barely perceptibly, the bellboy shook his head. Christine, who missed nothing, supposed she should be flattered to be mistaken for a call girl. Herbie Chandler’s list embraced a glamorous membership.
“Why was Mr. Wells’s room changed?”
“Somebody else had 1439 and raised a fuss.”
Christine remembered 1439 now; there had been complaints before. It was next to the service elevator and served as the meeting place of all the hotel’s smokers. The place was noisy and unbearably hot.
“Why was Mr. Wells asked to move?
“I guess it’s because he never complains.” Christine’s lips tightened angrily as Jimmy Duckworth went on, “They give him that table beside the kitchen door, the one no one else will have. He doesn’t seem to mind, they say.”
At the realization that a regular guest, who also happened to be a quiet and gentle man, had been so awfully treated, fury rose inside her.
They stopped at the door of 1439. The bellboy knocked. At once there was a response, a moaning.
“Open the door – quickly!” Christine instructed.
The room, as Christine entered, was stiflingly hot, though the air-conditioning regulator was set hopefully to “cool.” But then she saw the struggling figure, half upright in the bed. It was the birdlike little man she knew as Albert Wells. His face was ashen gray, his eyes were bulging and his lips were trembling. He was attempting desperately to breathe.
She went quickly to the bedside, “Get the window open. We need air in here.”
The bellboy said nervously, “The window’s sealed. They did it for the air conditioning.”
“Then force it. If you have to, break the glass.”
She had already picked up the telephone beside the bed, “This is Miss Francis. Is Dr. Aarons in the hotel?”
“No, Miss Francis; but he left a number.”
“It’s an emergency. Tell Dr. Aarons room 1439, and to hurry, please. Ask how long he’ll take to get here, then call me back.”
The elderly man was breathing no better than before. His face was turning blue. The moaning had begun again.
“Mr. Wells,” she said, trying to sound confident, “You might breathe more easily if you kept perfectly still.” As if in response to Christine’s words, the little man’s struggles lessened. Christine put an arm around Mr. Wells. She put the pillows behind his back, so that he could lean back, sitting upright at the same time. His eyes were fixed on hers, trying to convey gratitude. “I’ve sent for a doctor. He’ll be here at any moment.”
The bellboy had used a coat hanger to break a seal on the window. And now a draft of cool fresh air entered the room. In the bed Albert Wells gasped greedily at the new air. As he did, the telephone rang. Christine answered it.
“Dr. Aarons is on his way, Miss Francis. He’ll be at the hotel in twenty minutes.”
Christine hesitated. He could come too late. Also, she sometimes had doubts about his competence. She told the operator, “I’m not sure we can wait that long. Would you check our own guest list to see if we have any doctors registered?”
“I already did that. There’s a Dr. Koenig in 221, and Dr. Uxbridge in 1203.”
“All right, ring 221, please.” Doctors who registered in hotels expected privacy, once in a while, though, emergency justified a break with protocol.
A sleepy voice answered, “Yes, who is it?”
Christine identified herself. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr. Koenig, but one of our other guests is extremely ill. I wonder if you could come.”
“My dearest young lady, I would be very glad to assist. Alas, I am a doctor of music, here to ‘guest conduct’ this city’s fine symphony orchestra.”
Christine had an impulse to laugh. She apologized.
“Of course, if my unfortunate fellow guest becomes beyond the help of the other kind of doctors, I could bring my violin to play for him.”
“Thank you. I hope that won’t be necessary.” She was impatient to make the next call.
Dr. Uxbridge in 1203 answered the telephone at once. He could help and promised to come in a few minutes.
Christine instructed the bellboy to go find Mr. McDermott and bring him here. She picked up the telephone again.
“The chief engineer, please.”
Doc Vickery was Christine’s friend, and she knew that she was one of his favorites. In a few words she told him about Albert Wells. “The doctor isn’t here yet, but he’ll probably want oxygen.”
“I will bring it myself. If I don’t, some clown will likely open a tank under your man’s nose, and that’ll finish him for sure.”
The little man’s eyes were closed. He appeared not to be breathing at all.
There was a tap at the opened door and a tall man stepped in from the corridor. A dark blue suit failed to conceal beige pajamas beneath. “Uxbridge,” he announced in a quiet, firm voice.
The newcomer took out a syringe, assembled it. When he had drawn the fluid from a small glass vial into the syringe, he pushed the patient’s sleeve upward, cleansed the forearm above a vein with alcohol and inserted the syringe. Glancing at his watch, he began to inject the liquid slowly.
“Aminophylline; it should stimulate the heart.”
A minute passed. Two. The syringe was half empty. So far there was no response.
Christine whispered, “What is it that’s wrong?”
“Severe bronchitis, with asthma as a complication. I suspect he’s had these attacks before.”
Suddenly the little man was breathing, more slowly than before, but with fuller, deeper breaths. His eyes opened. The tension in the room had lessened.
“You were very ill when we found you, Mr. Wells. This is Dr. Uxbridge who was staying in the hotel and came to help.”
Mr. Wells looked at the doctor and said with an effort: “Thank you.”
“If there’s anyone to thank it should be this young lady.”
The doctor then told Christine, “The gentleman is still very sick and will need further medical attention. My advice is for immediate transfer to a hospital.”
“No, no! I don’t want that.” The words came from the elderly man in the bed.
For the first time Christine studied his appearance. Originally she had judged him to be in his early sixties; now she decided to add a half dozen years. His face held an expression, which was mild and inoffensive, almost apologetic.
The first occasion she had met Albert Wells had been two years earlier. He had come to the hotel’s executive suite, concerned about his bill. The amount in question was seventy-five cents, and Albert Wells insisted that he did not owe it to the hotel. Christine proved that the little man was right. She liked him and respected him for his stand.
“If you stay here, you’ll need a nurse for twenty-four hours and oxygen.”
The little man insisted, “You can arrange about a nurse, can’t you, miss?”
“I suppose we could.” She wondered, though doubting whether he had any idea of the high cost of private nursing.
The chief engineer came in, wheeling an oxygen cylinder on a trolley.
“This isn’t hospital style, Chris. It might work, though.”
Dr. Uxbridge seemed surprised. Christine explained her original idea that oxygen might be needed, and introduced the chief engineer, who was connecting the tube to the plastic bag.
“This hotel appears to have some highly competent help.” Dr. Uxbridge was still perplexed.
She laughed. “Wait until we mix up your reservations. You’ll change your mind.”
The chief engineer had connected the free end of the rubber tube to the green cylinder with oxygen. Dr. Uxbridge told him, “We’ll begin with five minutes on oxygen and five minutes off.” Together they arranged the improvised mask around the sick man’s face.
“Have you sent for a local doctor?”
Christine explained about Dr. Aarons.
Dr. Uxbridge nodded in approval.
There were firm footsteps down the corridor and Peter McDermott strode in. His eyes went to the bed. “Will he be all right?”
“I think so.” Then she brought Peter into the corridor and described the change in rooms, which the bellboy had told her about. “If he stays, we should give him another room, and I imagine we could get a nurse.”
Peter nodded in agreement. A few minutes later, everything was arranged.