Here’s a fructose sweetened, tooth decaying delight for all my readers. “Hand Delivered” is one of the stories included in my ebook Farting in Church, only $.99 for Amazon Kindle or eBook, PDF and other formats. I swear, the following story is 100% true.
“Unit 87!” my radio squalled.
Just will yourself not to answer, I thought.
“UNIT 87!” it squawked again.
I picked it up the CB receiver and answered. “Unit 87, 10 – 2.”
“Thanks a lot. Are you checking out?” The dispatcher, Frank, had a rough, Brooklyneese accent thick like marinara sauce. Sometimes he sounded like a supporting actor from a DeNiro movie.
“No. I’m open.” I was exhausted but could use the extra money. I had spent the afternoon running legal documents between the downtown law offices and the courthouse. The truck’s AC leaked Freon, leaving me to swelter in Tampa’s July heat. Then I had to fill up on gas in the middle of a run, and there were no gas stations downtown. I had to drive two exits north on I-275 to get gas, then drive back and resume the back-and-forth runs.
“Well this ain’t papers.” dispatch said. “Are you comfortable with…human tissue?”
“No problem.” I delivered stool samples and blood for drug screening all the time, what’s the difference?
“Well, it’s different. It’s a body part.”
“You mean a prosthetic?”
“No, as in a hand.”
I sat in disbelief. I knew ExpressME sometimes delivered organs. One courier boarded a plane for Miami with a heart in an ice chest, but that was years ago and maybe even just legend.
“Help me out. Unit 34 is up in Pasco and everyone else is stuck in traffic. What’s your 20?” dispatch said.
“7-11 at Himes and Dale Mabry.” I signaled to the bartender to give me my tab.
“Close enough.” Ten miles away. Close only by Tampa geography.
“Ok, 16 at Moffitt Center. You’ll have two 16’s on the ladder. Moffitt needs to be 22’d at 8-p.”
“10-4,” I said as I gulped down the last swig of beer. Meanwhile, my pager vibrated, rattling my pocket change. The bartender pushed the check in front of me, and I put a $10 bill on top of it.
In the truck, I spruced up in the mirror and sprayed myself with Old Spice to cover the smell of the beer. Then I took a shot from a miniature Scope bottle, swished it around and spat out the window, and cleaned my face and hands with a wet nap from Popeye’s. I read the address on the pager’s viewscreen and filled out the delivery ticket on a clipboard. I started for Moffitt center, head spinning with the scent of imitation lemon and cheap cologne.
My girlfriend had had the genius idea that I become a courier after she met one who claimed to make $600 a week. There were no jobs to be had in the dead of summer, at least working inside, so the next best thing was in an air-conditioned car. I showed up at the ExpressME office and the equipment manager gave me the job rundown on the spot.
The company delivered documents and medical specimens within a reasonable area and may deliver out of state or country for a huge fee. I worked as an independent contractor, which meant I had to get a business license out of pocket. Also, I had to rent a CB radio at $15.00 a week and buy Hillsborough and Pinellas county road atlases at $30.00 each. They loaned me an Igloo ice chest with a Styrofoam compartment that stored dry ice to keep medical specimens cold. My payment was half the delivery charge, based on the mileage from the point of departure.
After two months as a courier my best paycheck, after deducting gas, oil changes, and expenses, was $350 a week. Still, there was an independent cowboy allure about the job, kind of like being a trucker.
I saw the world behind the reception desk of public intuitions like jails, hospitals, colleges and doctor’s offices. Like the Greek god Mercury, I was the courier of fate and verdicts. Would the urine sample I delivered to a drug testing lab test positive or negative, earning someone a job or a workman’s comp claim? Or did the blood work sample foretell if someone’s polyp was benign or malignant? Or if that unprotected one-nighter doomed some unlucky soul?
Earlier that day I had made two runs between the Tampa General Hospital’s Psychiatric ward and the courthouse. The patients waited at the door in a drooling, Thorazine stupor like needy pets waiting for their owner. One would expect Hannibal Lecter’s dungeon ward, but instead it was more like walking through an animal shelter full of desperate and confused faces. This one huge fellow followed me from the exit to the nurses’ desk. He lurched over me with his long, stringy dishwater blond hair and nose practically on my forehead. He mumbled something and the desk nurse shooed him away, handing me a document addressed the Clerk of Court. Perhaps the guy knew I held the paper that would either incarcerate or free him. I delivered it five minutes later and drove to the Moffitt Center to pick up the “tissue sample.”
Around 5:00, I arrived at the Moffitt Center, a world-class cancer research center. I entered the reception lobby, reading my pager, and asked for the doctor. The nurse paged him and told me to meet him in one of the labs. I found my way through the tan hallways to the correct one. There on a table was a cardboard box about one cubic foot in volume, wrapped in packing tape dotted with yellow warning stickers, sitting innocuously like a fruit basket. The lab looked like any other, medical tables, sinks, microscopes, sliding glass door fridges like the one I took a Yoohoo from earlier and stray test tubes. I announced myself, but the lab was empty, only me and the hand. A note next to it said to leave the pickup slip and on a yellow post it note, gave the address of the drop off. I left the slip as told and stuck the post it on the box.
I picked up the box, suddenly conscious that something once alive was inside. The box was cool to the touch, probably packed full of dry ice. I carried it down the hall at full length, keeping as much distance between it and my body as I could.
With two pages rattling on my belt, I jogged to my truck and put the box on the passenger seat. As I filled out my delivery slips, I glanced at it. “On the floor or in the seat?” I thought. Nightfall arrived and the passenger side floor seemed dark and cavernous, so I put the box on the seat and put the seatbelt around it. My next 16 was at an OBGYN at Habana and Rome. Traffic mercies were on my side and I-275 was blessedly unobstructed, yet I couldn’t stop glancing at the box, wondering about its contents. Since Moffitt was a cancer research center, it had probably had been stricken by cancer and was amputated. The destination lab was going to study, perhaps even cure, a very rare form of cancer. Perhaps the hand was dead, but the cancer…
No. I turned on the radio and the noise of shitty 80’s metal and C-B chatter was more comforting than the silence.
I had expected a simple specimen pickup at the OBGYN, but once I got there, the receptionist showed me three legal document boxes instead. I carried them to my truck and was about to in the truck’s bed and fasten them down with a cargo net. The receptionist, obviously eager to go home, demanded that they be put in the cab. No problem. I put my cooler in the bed and moved the boxes around, stacking them on the passenger seat. I then hurried to I-275 West toward St. Pete.
At the onramp to the eight-mile stretch of the Howard Franklin Bridge, a haunting feeling crept over me. It’s the sort of creeping feeling when you fear you left the iron on at home or your fly is unzipped. I looked at the passenger seat and thought that something should be there, but maybe it was nothing.
There was no way to U-turn on the Howard Frankenstein and I was four miles onto the bridge with only Tampa Bay on either side. I shouted curses that, with a few well-placed verbs and nouns, could have made a good rap song. I punched the cab ceiling and left a permanent indentation. The only turnaround exit was on the St. Pete side, four miles ahead. Would Tampa’s army of petty criminals and tweakers steal it, pawn it, use it in a Santeria ritual or carve it into an interesting tobacco accessory?
After a 16-mile detour, I was back at the OBGYN and the parking lot was empty. The hand sat on the curb, undisturbed. I took it and checked it out and it seemed undamaged.
Once I put it on the passenger floor, dispatch called. “Unit 87!”
“Unit 87. Over.”
“What’s your 20?”
“Rome and Dale Mabry. En route to St. Pete for a 16.”
“OK. That special package giving you any trouble?”
“Oh, no. It’s fine. I sort of needed an extra hand.”
“Yeah, right. You’re the only one who would take it. Just get dropped off by 8-p.”
Back on route, I traveled deep into peninsular St. Pete, dropped off the legal boxes at a law office, and made a short lateral run between clinics. St. Pete’s street grid pattern was easy to navigate, unlike Tampa’s, which was arrayed like dyslexic Jackson Pollock painting. I found the laboratory with little effort, which was near the Salvador Dali Museum.
At the lab’s entrance, a metal gate barred my entrance. I announced myself on a call box and a toneless voice directed me to service entrance. The gate parted and revealed a white, windowless, single story structure fringed by palm trees. I found the service entrance, completed with two barrel-chested uniformed guards waiting for me, both holstering 9mm Glocks. The guard scrutinized my ID, spoke to someone on his radio and then led me through a steel door. Inside was a walk-through metal detector like in airports, and, seeing a small plastic basket, I emptied my pockets into it. After clearing the other side without a blip or a tick, he gave me a temporary visitor pass and led me through the maze work of the hallway.
We arrived at a double-glassed doors and he swiped a badge on a reader, showing me in. I had seen many labs before, but this one was out of a Bond flick. There were computer stations with four flat screen monitors, very expensive in those days. In the corner were consoles with colored displays with bar graphs, line graphs and fractal patterns. One showed a black and white video of a beating human heart. But where was the heart? It seemed mounted in some kind of box with wires and tubes affixed to where the arteries circulated blood. An elderly man in a white lab coat with silvering black hair entered from a side room. He wore a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, with the right lens tinted.
“I’m Anthony from ExpressME. Your package.”
He held his arms out to accept the package, yet I felt attached to it. We had a good scare together and it had made a sometimes-tedious job a lot more interesting. I relinquished the package, and he turned it around to inspect it. I noticed a black scuffmark on the side the moment he did.
“Did you drop this?” he said in an accent I couldn’t place, glaring at me with that one single eye.
“No sir.” I noticed the telltale video heart beat faster. Was that my heart?
“Then what is this mark?” he said.
“Not sure. I kept it safe in my cab.” I knew this place did something with body parts which was top secret. I hoped my mistake could cause my heart to become a video star.
The man in the lab coat shook his head. I presented him with the ticket and he signed off, shuffling off with the hand through another door. I found myself mesmerized by the beating heart on the screen. I stared at it for what seemed to be long time as it pumped, slower, slower, and slower.
“Sir,” the security guard said, “Your business is done here.”
Sure, it was done. The most interesting part of my day was now being opened and analyzed. Back to fussy secretaries, dismal nurses, haughty doctors and the endless circuits between hospitals and clinics. I doubted my job would get any more interesting or my life for that matter.
The guard led me out of the facility and I headed east on I-275 back home to a hot meal and a shower.
I eventually quit ExpressME for a temp job since the expenses of being an independent wore on the body and the vehicle. Often after that, I would see an amputee and wonder if their former limbs were being kept alive in the strange laboratory. Once I saw an old woman who was missing her right hand and wondered if it was her hand I delivered. I had a macabre vision of that hand, its pale fingers twitching in a jar as the soulless video heart beat on and on.