David wanted to rest. He needed to get a good sleep more than ever. It wasn’t anything that would be prohibited at the airport. Or, more precisely, anything that wouldn’t be tolerated. If their group wasn’t awaiting a particular flight and no flight was getting ready to be loaded, they were allowed to nap. Especially the night-time flight schedule was relatively slow, so everyone got their turn for a bit of uninterrupted sleep.
For David it wasn’t just a little nap during the night, it was a significant part of his life regime; he had to get some sleep before his work at the warehouse so he wouldn’t fall asleep there. At the warehouse it could cost him his valuable and precious job. It not only meant income for the family and savings for their down-payment and a mortgage, but it also allowed him to keep up hygiene and do laundry. In the warehouse David also stored his suitcase. Most likely, nobody even knew about it.
But on that last June Wednesday of the year two thousand and one, he couldn’t sleep. Not because the flight itinerary wouldn’t permit it, but because of his tooth.
“You need to rinse it out with some vodka,” recommended Hans, who shared his suffering, together with the others.
“I don’t have any. That’s probably better. They’d fire me,” groaned David. It started the day before yesterday, but he’d thought it was just a cold or sensitivity to something cool. Or it could’ve been a delayed consequence of his hit into the jaw during that fight. David hadn’t focused on it and didn’t investigate it much more. But yesterday the tooth drew his attention; still he was trying to fight it and deny his pain. David couldn’t afford to be lazy and take time off. And besides, he had no health benefits at the airport or the warehouse that could help cover the cost of dental care. He had to establish an order. First, the exam. Tomorrow is his last – once already postponed – exam. He must pass it, that’s all there’s to it. He’ll get certified for electrocardiographic technologist. Yes, yes, that’s the priority. Then the bank, and then perhaps the dentist.
“You look terrible, David,” said Joe, “you can’t go to the exam like this. It’s tomorrow?”
David wasn’t even able to answer; he just nodded. His mouth was slightly open, lips twisted in pain, and on the right cheek he held an ice-bag wrapped in a towel. His entire jaw was pulsating, hot and burning pain shooting up towards his eye. If he bit down only a little, he knew his whole face would feel as though electrified. David sat huddled in the corner on a chair under the fluorescent light and wasn’t saying anything. Every movement of the jaw aggravated his pain.
“David, at zero thirty-two lands a flight from Chicago. Can you do it?”
“I know. Joe, give me a moment, please. I know about Chicago… it hurts like hell… sorry….”
“You’re a doctor,” continued Hans, “what is it?”
“Root canal. Can’t be anything else…,” guessed David.”
“We’ll call Steve. Do you want him to switch with you?” suggested Hans.
“No, don’t call him. I’ll be at the wing…and then I’ll be scanning bags at the belt…I can do that.” Joe and Hans watched David, and didn’t know how to help him. His incredible pain was tangible.
“Whatever you think. In fifteen minutes Chicago’s here.”
“You see, he wouldn’t make it in time anyway…,” mumbled David, “let’s go. It’s a 737. I’ll be on the right wing, bring the belt and…then…then I’ll just be scanning.”
“Good. I’ll get inside and you’ll be at the bottom, Joe. OK?” clarified Hans.
“Then we’ve got two landings and one departure,” remarked Joe. Hans caught the reminder and threw Joe a quieting glance. It was evident that David was barely moving and was struggling with a terrible agony.
“Let’s go,” David stepped out and with him his two partners.
Hans positioned himself on the thick yellow line at the front, while Joe and David stopped at the spot where the wings would be. They lit up their orange wands and watched the noisily-approaching reflectors. With the growing rumble grew also David’s pain, reaching a tortuous maximum. David stood firmly on the ground, clutching his bright sticks the way he was supposed to, and in horror noted the progressively escalating pain. He didn’t anticipate that. The plane’s engine made the entire airport vibrate and his tooth most of all. His molar. David held onto his wands, and felt certain that the entire Boeing was passing right through his jaw. He was close to fainting, but withstood it. When the aircraft came to a halt, David quietly – just for himself – hummed in pain; dragging the pylons under the wings he slowly walked towards the conveyor belt. It seemed to him that the pain was less intense when he hummed. He got behind the steering wheel of the cargo car and carefully drove it all the way to the airplane. He stopped underneath the loading door, still humming. He put the brake on, secured the wheels and slowly made his way to the belt with his scanner in hand. He could barely see. Suitcases were coming down as Hans was sending them. David mechanically scanned each of them and was only partially aware that his right eye was fully swollen; his jaw felt as though it was trapped and crushed in a hot press.
David managed to get through the shift, without making any mistakes, all the way until the morning. At six o’clock he was no longer able to smile or frown, and left the airport feeling depleted.
Five hours were left until his test. At eleven. That meant David had to get his clothes ready, so he wouldn’t look like a bum. He was off at the warehouse that day, but still had access. The only person who knew the shift schedule in detail was the supervisor, and he was also off today. David was lucky.
“I’m fortunate all the time, let’s just hope it stays that way,” David mumbled to himself when he reached the showers in the back, undisturbed. He decided to skip shaving today, as he cautiously examined the electric shaver.
David let the soothingly warm water flow into his mouth, washing his hurting gums and swollen jaw. Neither hot, nor cold. It seemed the pain had subsided a bit after all.
In his T-shirt and airport work boots, David left the showers. He was trying to step softly so he wouldn’t rouse the sleeping dragon that was his tooth-ache. From the suitcase he pulled out his black pants and a yellow checkered dress shirt. Its collar was in the best condition of them all. He chose brown shoes. David knew they didn’t match the pants, but they were in a much better shape than his black shoes. He carefully folded everything, smelled his shirt and, satisfied, carried his clothes outside.
“David,” someone called out from behind, “David, you’re working today? I thought you had the day off.” It was Floyd. That wasn’t what David wanted!
“No, I’m not working today, I’m…I’m off today.” He wasn’t prepared for questions. Floyd walked over to him, watching his face intently.
“What happened to you?” asked Floyd, reaching out to touch David’s cheek.
“No!” yelled out David and stepped away, “my tooth hurts!” he said urgently.
“I can see that. Oh my, your cheek is like beat. That must be agony.”
“Yes, it is, Floyd.”
“I won’t keep you then, go do something about it.” He entirely forgot that he’d wanted to ask David about the meaning of his visit to the workplace on a day off. He let David out through the rear door and didn’t think anything to be out of the ordinary. David closed the door behind him and felt nervous at the thought of Floyd following him. But he didn’t think of it and so David was left to fix his clothing. Shake off the dust, straighten up as best as he could, clean up his shoes a bit. He was trying to move with fluidity and grace, because that was the only way to stave off the pain in his jaw.
It was ten o’clock when David set out. He decided to walk to avoid risking another traffic jam, and despite all the torture caused by his tooth-ache, he felt good.
“You are…,” an elderly gentleman studied the papers on his desk; evidently he was supplementing his income by registering exam applicants.
“Říha. David Říha. I’ll spell it,” he wasn’t in the mood for any bizarre spelling combinations of his name.
“What happened to you? Don’t you have an infection in the periosteum?” The man stood up and closely examined David’s right cheek. But David wasn’t up for a chat. His tooth was in pain! Why won’t the guy leave him alone. Just write down his name and let him be.
“I don’t know. Where should I sit?”
“Just a moment, if you’re not feeling well, you’ve got the right to postpone it.”
“And pay how much? No, I’m signed up for today.” The man continued to watch David, now with irritation rather than sympathy.
“Whatever you think. You’ll have the same regulations and conditions as everyone else. Go to table forty-two then. The assistant will come turn on your computer, and as soon as the number ‘zero’ shows up, click on ‘Start’. The first question will appear and your time will start counting. Do you understand?” David nodded and just wished that the entire ‘steeplechase’ of an exam were over. He’d already completed the medical exam, that should’ve been enough. On the third try. It seemed nothing would come out of his residency application, though, and now David had just about enough. Moreover, it seemed his tooth was stirring for a new attack. He’d done nothing else but study all his life. All medical exams, then first and second post-graduate exams, then airline traffic regulations, and who knows what else. He works at a warehouse and now his tooth hurts. His cheek was swollen, eye squinting so it was barely visible, the facial contours smoothed over.
“Where’s the table? Which number did you say? Forty-two?” David was mumbling, his mouth only half-open as he impatiently and irritated watched the man at the registration desk. David was unpleasant.
“In the fourth row.” David walked to his table and with a sigh waited for the assistant to arrive. Finally!
“Now I will start the computer and when it…”
“…zero, I know, then I’ll click ‘Start’.”
“…I just…I just….”
“Alright.” The assistant quietly turned on the computer, and when ‘zero’ flashed on the monitor, she walked away without saying anything else.
David sat up in his chair. In his yellow, worn out shirt, unshaven and with his right cheek misshapen by the painful process, he was determined nevertheless.
Click. Let’s go!
’Who was the first to use the term ‘electricity’ in relation to…, yes, easy, Sir Thomas Browne in sixteen forty-six, next’. David Říha awoke in him a respectable amount of information, substantiated by his experiences that he’d been carrying in his head. ‘Contribution of Stephen Gray for…, that’s a joke. That’s the transfer of static electricity, of course, seventeen twenty-nine. Who was the first to describe ventricular fibrillation? Wait a second, it was either…, no, I’ve got it. Ludwig Hoffa. For sure. Hoffa’.
David his strike like he had years ago… ‘and how was the abbreviation PQRST determined…good question. That’s Descartes, of course. Mathematical convention… what’s next’? Dr. Říha was a machine. When he tilted his head to the side, the tooth-ache wasn’t as agonizing. At the surrounding tables sat a few other candidates; he didn’t care how many or where they were sitting.
‘…what’s this? Number sixty-eight. Hypomagnesaemia on a T-wave….eh…low amplitude…next’. David wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings. In that exam, like a buried treasure, was their future house. He will uncover that treasure. He has to be there when they’re buying ‘Africas’.
‘Hundred and twenty…if only the eye wasn’t tearing up so much…the meaning of QT dispersion…yes, yes the degree of mortality risk… next, how much is left? Hemodynamically stable atrioventricular block…indication for emergency pacing…’
David didn’t feel tired in the least. He hadn’t slept at night; he spent it holding signal wands guiding a Boeing and cooling down his cheek with an ice-pack.
He wasn’t tired.
‘….let’s keep going…, one hundred and eight…eh…that’s blockage of the right branch bundle, of course…, next….’ With the verve of a gladiator and the strength of a steam engine he wanted to break through the barren period. Now he had the opportunity. Click. Last question, David submitted his test.
In a moment the assistant approached his desk.
“Are you finished?”
“I think so.” He mumbled and placed his palm on his swollen cheek. He looked at the assistant and with his crooked lips made out a smile.