Leroy Abellard meets interesting people on the graveyard shift at Parkland Hospital.
Previously published in Beyond the Levee, an anthology of short stories (copyright 2020)
If it had an engine, Leroy Abellard could fix it — it didn’t matter if it was a lawnmower or a 25-ton industrial AC unit. By the time he was twelve, Leroy had gained a reputation throughout Terrebonne Parish as a bona fide mechanical wizard. Never had a knack for book-learning. Just the same, at the age of fifty-two, Leroy could boast he had never been unemployed — not counting the six-month stint he spent up at the Dixon Correctional Institute. (Even there, he managed to fix a faulty boiler that had given the maintenance team trouble for years. And Warden Dupree was so pleased with the rebuild of the V-8 on his 1972 Camaro LS he was genuinely sad to see Leroy go.)
So when Dallas ISD gave Leroy the pink slip after yet another shortfall in the city’s budget, Leroy didn’t fret. He got stewed on spiced rum that night and spent the next day nursing a zinger of a hangover with a time-tested Creole remedy. But by the third day, he was gainfully employed again, working maintenance at Parkland Hospital — graveyard shift.
The first time he ran into them was on his second shift. Leroy was pushing his tool cart in a dim underground corridor with surplus hospital beds parked against one wall when he saw a brightly-lit store-room off to his right. He slowed as he walked past the open door and noticed two men inside, seated at a folding table playing cards.
“Sorry,” Leroy said as he pushed on, startled by their presence.
The man facing him, a nervy-looking white guy with deep-set eyes, nodded at him. The other man, a broad-shouldered guy in shirt-sleeves, didn’t even turn around to look.
The following night, he ran into them again. The well-built man caught sight of Leroy this time and waved at him, as though they were old chums. He was older than his partner, handsome in a Technicolor-movie way. Leroy nodded and kept on moving. He couldn’t imagine why a couple of white men would be playing cards in the sub-basement of a hospital night after night, but it was no concern of his. “White-collar,” he muttered to himself.
Then he didn’t see them for a few days. But his first shift the following week, there they were again. This time, the older fellow flashed him a million-dollar smile, called out, and waved him into the storeroom.
Leroy shuffled in, bowing his head slightly, out of habit, having grown up in the South.
“Say, you’re new around here, aren’t you?” the man said.
“Well, I’m Jack. This here’s Oz,” he said, pointing at his partner with his chin. “What’s your name?”
“Leroy Abellard, sir.”
“Mr. Leroy Abellard — pleased to meet you.” Jack spoke in a northern accent, so thick it was almost funny. “I’d shake, Leroy, but I’ve got such a hot hand,” he waved his cards, “I’m afraid I’d scorch your skin.” Jack smiled again, beaming, and damn if he didn’t look familiar!
Oz scoffed. “You’re bluffing. But it is bad luck to press flesh when playing poker.”
“Everything’s bad luck in your book,” Jack said and winked at Leroy. “Say, Leroy, how about you join in for a quick game of gin rummy?”
“I gots work to do,” Leroy said.
“Work can wait. No one will be the wiser. Ain’t that so, Oz?”
“Damn straight,” Oz said through clenched teeth. “But one day the proletariat will rise up. And then the bourgeoisie will take note. And how!”
Leroy settled into an empty chair.
Jack chuckled. He leaned into Leroy and whispered, “I swear, half the time, I have no clue what he’s talking about.” Jack slapped his cards face down on the table and shoved them into the deck.
“I knew you was bluffing,” Oz said.
Again, Jack winked, sending a chill down Leroy’s spine, because he finally recognized the man — both of them — and Leroy’s old heart started beating so hard now, he thought he’d blow a gasket. But to his surprise, after the initial shock had dissipated, Leroy found himself oddly at ease. He even chuckled after winning a game. At 4:30 in the morning, Jack told a joke about a rabbi and a Catholic priest going to a strip bar that had Leroy doubled over, guffawing. At six A.M., Leroy checked his watch, pushed back on his chair, and excused himself.
“Let’s do it again!” Jack called out.
“Next time bring cash,” Oz said in that nasal voice of his.
An hour later, Leroy punched out, walked into the morning sun, and rode the bus back to his apartment. He showered, ate a bowl of instant oatmeal, and lay in his bed, unable to sleep. At noon, he got dressed, and walked six blocks to the Oak Lawn branch of the public library, where he settled behind a computer screen and spent the next few hours reading about a part of history he should have learned in school.
That night, he played cards with Jack and Oz again, did so for the next few weeks. If a maintenance emergency call came in on Leroy’s walkie-talkie, Jack and Oz would trudge along and watch in admiration as Leroy performed his art.
Soon, Leroy began prodding them with questions. “What do you do, Jack?”
“Mostly, I sail,” Jack replied. “You ever been to Martha’s Vineyard?”
“I mean, for a living,” Leroy said.
“You kidding?” Oz interjected. “Jack’s never worked a day in his life. His old man’s loaded.”
“How about you, Oz?” Leroy said.
“I was in the Army.”
“What about now?”
Oz shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”
It seemed the two were operating under some form of amnesia, that large swaths of their past were inaccessible to them.
“How long y’all been here at Parkland?” Leroy asked one early morning, digging a little deeper.
“Hell! Seems like forever,” Oz said.
“Can’t you leave? Go where you need to be?” Leroy picked his words carefully.
“Well, that’s just it, old boy,” Jack replied. “Seems like we’re stuck here. I don’t quite know how to explain it. I’m not even sure I understand.”
“I got nowhere better to be,” Oz said.
Jack turned to Oz and said, “We could go sailing round the cape if I could find a way out of here.”
Oz chuckled. “If I wanted to sail, I’d have joined the Navy ‘stead of the Army.”
What astounded Leroy was the deep friendship between the two. Though separated by a vast gulf of age, education, and refinement, it was evident the two genuinely liked each other. More than that — they were soul-mates. It was more than a little unsettling.
On a Saturday morning, his day off, Leroy picked up the phone and dialed long distance. His cousin Shontelle was a rootworker who sold herbs and oils and candles out the back of her hair salon in Baton Rouge. Her grandmother had been a Hoodoo priestess. (That stays in the blood.) If anyone knew what to do with Jack and Oz, it was cousin Shontelle.
“What trouble you got yourself in this time?” Shontelle said in her sing-song Creole voice when Leroy told her he needed her help.
“It’s not like that,” Leroy said. “Listen here, for the last month, I been playing cards with John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald.
“You already drinking on a Saturday morning?” Shontelle said.
Leroy went on to tell her about his new job at Parkland — “that’s where they both died, see?” He told Shontelle how he first ran into them, how he had been spending most nights in their company. He told her about their apparent amnesia and how they seemed to be the best of friends.
Shontelle interjected hums and tongue clicks and the occasional, “Sweet Jesus!”
Leroy finished his monologue with, “And that’s about the size of it.”
Shontelle waited for a beat and said, “Leroy, they have to move on.”
“That’s why I called you.”
It took Shontelle a week to hatch a plan. She read the Seventh Book of Moses, consulted a Gullah conjurer from the Carolina lowlands, and held a Vudon séance with a high priestess from New Orleans. Then she phoned Leroy, laid it out for him. Had him write it down for good measure. She had him read it back to her twice, word by word.
“The only way they can move on,” Shontelle said, “is to gain supreme knowledge. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“You mean to say, they’ll know.”
“That’s right,” Shontelle said. “The truth will shine before their eyes.”
“Boy, that’s going to be rough.”
“You have no idea.”
Leroy had ten days to prepare, ten nights before the next full moon. In a canvas duffle bag, he assembled the necessary paraphernalia: frankincense, a gris-gris bag filled with hair and nail clippings, two bundles of sage, a glass candle with a hand-painted cat, the Seventh Book of Moses with the relevant passages underlined in red pencil, the pages dog-eared in a sacrilegious way. On the designated night, he stuffed a live chicken in the bag and smuggled the whole bundle into Parkland Hospital.
Jack was shuffling the deck when Leroy walked into the storeroom.
“You got here just in time,” Oz said, leaning back in his chair.
Jack suddenly stopped shuffling the cards. “Why the long face, Leroy?” he said.
“Boys,” Leroy said. “It’s time for y’all to move on.”
In minutes, everything was set. Leroy started reading the incantations. From time to time, Jack had to look over his shoulder and help him pronounce a word. The air came alive with the buzz of static electricity. Leroy felt a mechanical shudder coming from the boiler in the next room, the mark of a power surge. The overhead light bulb flickered, then seemed to burn brighter, emanating a sickly orange glow. At that moment, Leroy grabbed his jackknife, and slit the hen’s throat, held it upside down to let its blood spill on the floor. The overhead lights went out. The candle flickered and extinguished.
For a minute, the three men sat in cold black silence. When the lights came on again, John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were staring at each other impassively. After a few tense moments, President Kennedy said, “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” Oswald said.
“Why did you murder me?”
Oswald scoffed. “Hell, I didn’t know you, then.”
“I had a family.”
Oswald raised his voice. “I hated you. Okay? I hated everything you stood for. But things are different now.”
Kennedy nodded. “You’re right. Things are different now.” The president got to his feet, headed for the door. Before stepping into the corridor, he turned back. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something but just shook his head, walked out, and was engulfed by a dazzling light.
“Jack!” Oswald called out. “Jack, I’m sorry.”
It was too late, and Oswald knew it. He doubled over and started sobbing. Leroy got to his feet and headed for the corridor.
“Don’t leave me,” Oswald said.
“You can find your way out now,” Leroy said.
“I’m not headed for the light, Leroy. You know that.”
“Be that as it may,” Leroy said, trying to hide his disdain, “it’s time to go.”
He walked down the long hallway, kept going until he reached a bank of elevators. A portly man with a gray fedora was punching the call button repeatedly.
“Going up?” Leroy said. Maybe some of that supreme knowledge had rubbed off on him because he could tell straight away that the man was not of this world.
“Been trying to go up for a hell of a long time,” the man said.
“What’s your name?” Leroy said.
“Rubenstein. Jacob Rubenstein.”
Leroy sighed. He looked back down the corridor where he had abandoned Oswald and shook his head. “You better come along with me, Mr. Ruby.”