He couldn’t have been a day under 70. His gray hair hung straight down past his shoulders and deep wrinkles lined his face. He was sitting on the cement lip of a flowerbed smoking a cigarette, opposite a sign that read, “no smoking beyond this point.”
“I’m not looking break any rules,” he said by way of introduction, revealing several dark gaps in his mouth where teeth had once been. His name was Doug, but he didn’t come right out and say so. “My heart’s like I’m eighty,” he continued. “At one of my appointments, couple months back, I had a heart attack right there on the doctor’s table! I told the nurse I felt ok but she made me lay there for fifteen minutes anyway. After that my heart was still screwy so they gave me the paddles.”
Doug was hit by a truck in 2009 and he’d been crossing the state to come to the University of Iowa Hospital ever since. He pulled down the neck of his shirt to show me the surgical pin in his collarbone that bulged under his skin. “See that?” he asked. “They put that in after the accident.”
“I always come on Tuesdays. It’s always gotta be on Tuesdays,” he explained. It was the only day the Iowa Care van was able to pick him up from his home on the Nebraska border. A typical visit to Iowa City for Doug meant a four and a half hour drive across the state, two to three hours in a waiting room, culminating in a fifteen-minute examination. After that, he’s was on his own until his second appointment or the van could take him home, neither of which occurred until the next day.
“I can stay in the shelter if I want, but I usually just sit up all night in the E.R. waiting room, drinking coffee,” he said, “it’s easier, especially if I have an appointment. I’m not looking for a handout. And don’t think I’m complaining ‘cause I’m not. I love this town. The hospital and the town have done so much for me. These trips out here are my escape. Especially when it’s warm. I come out here, I smoke, I smile at the girls. It’s like vacation.”
Doug lived with his sister and her husband, Ed, in a house purchased with their mother’s life insurance payout. “He’s an, asshole,” Doug explained, painting a picture of Ed as an overbearing, 300 pound, state employee who was pushing Doug to his limit. “For mother’s day I waxed my sister’s car,” he said, “and just so he wouldn’t throw a hissy fit, I waxed his too. And you know what he said to me? ‘Why didn’t you wax mine first?’ Can you believe that?”
He finished his cigarette in one hard drag then snuffed out the singed filter. “Excuse me,” he exhaled and walked to a trashcan on the corner, dropped the butt into the slot, and walked back. He took another one from the pack, “Gotta stop talking about Ed. It’s just stressing me out you know? He’s just such an asshole. I spent four hours planting a garden and he comes home and says to me, how come I didn’t mow down the weeds? I can’t stand living with him. I could leave. I should. I don’t really have that much stuff in the house anyway. I could get a job here. I’m a machinist. Heck, I’m only fifty. I could start over.”
He took out his lighter and lit the cigarette. He smoked and watched a pair of women walk past. “You know there’s no rule that says I gotta be on that van tomorrow.”