My Figurine, by Claire Stringer

I work the night shift at the ER.  I’m that smiling jerk behind the front desk, the peppy guy whose grin never so much as twitches when you come up to ask me to ballpark how long it’ll be before you’ll be seen by the doctor; the one who shrugs and says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m sorry, sir, we’re very busy tonight;” the one who offers you a tiny yellow kidney-shaped vessel if you feel nauseous or are projectile vomiting all over the waiting room.  I remain totally calm and collected while people swarm around me, yelling about how they need taxi fare to get home to their children, berating me for representing the unbelievably inefficient hospital—the bureaucracy–crying that they have cut off their thumb and have to wait three hours for medical attention.  Every night, I get paid to maintain order, to remain completely thick-skinned in the pandemonium of the diseased, the hysterical, as they contemplate their mortality, weighing their lives against the three hours it takes to be acknowledged.

Some of these people have accused me of having no soul, of not caring.  They think I have no emotions, and that is why I’m able to endure twelve hours per night of college kids rushing in with alcohol poisoning, their friends crying and holding each other, wrapped in the white hospital blankets, shivering and not understanding how their futures are more or less in my hands – my welcoming, phony, meticulous hands—sanitized every ninety seconds—sweeping over my desk, restructuring my neat stack of vomit vessels, a container of flu-containing masks, cheesy signs about covering your cough, a rolodex and clipboard.  But that’s not how I manage.

How do I live like this, how do I keep my cool during the nightly frenzy?  Do I have some sort of creepy fetish?  A fixation on sickness, sordidness, hysteria?  Other people think it’s because I’m so orderly.  And it’s true:  my desk has never seen a speck of dust, my hands are cleaner and softer than the moisturizing Kleenex that sit on the counter two inches to the right of the sign-in clipboard.  Every time I get up and leave my pure little sanctuary amidst the chaos, I floss and bleach my teeth in the bathroom, making sure that no one’s filthy germs have shot into my mouth.

Such rituals may be thought of as small escapes from the mayhem, my own contributions to the emergency room, my way of compensating for the shitty service, the inevitable terror that people experience there – a meditation, if you will.  But I do all of those things ordinarily.  Cleanliness comes as second nature to me – no, I have something that will get me through anything, anything at all.  Something very special that I keep in my pocket at all times.  It is what triggers that smirk, that seemingly artificial grin and infuriatingly syrupy voice.

I reach into my pocket quite regularly, as though urgently seeking a phone, a pager, a pen, while speaking with patients – they think I am trying to accommodate them when in fact I am actually exploring the contours of a delicate, two-inch-tall, multi-textured mouse figurine.  I wash my hands every time after fingering its felt suit, thumbing his diminutive eye sockets and plastic little nose, sticking my nails between each of its fingers, fitting my pinky between its legs like a finger puppet.  I massage away the traces of its furry microfibers out of my hands with the bottomless vat of hand sanitizer on my desk, guiltily leering at my deep secret, my little friend that no one can see – none of these disgusting, sickly nutcases will ever know.  They may call me a voyeur, a sicko, but I can choose whether or not they get to see the doctor, I am the one with the “in.”

My collecting began in college.  It was out of spite.  Freshman year I had this roommate, the little prick, who would borrow and then ‘accidentally’ ruin all of my things – he broke my lucky pen, drunkenly threw up all over my shoes (he hadn’t actually borrowed those, they were just on the floor, wrong place at the wrong time), spilled orange juice on my favorite copy of Beowulf (I have seven).  Fed up, I retaliated:  I began to hoard.  Nothing in particular at first, just junk I found in alleyways, free things I found on Craigstlist, napkins from different restaurants, yogurt containers, mugs, my own trash, other people’s trash.  I wanted to accumulate so much clutter that he would have no space and leave.  But he just threw everything away.  I had to find more valuable stockpiles, cultivate a rare interest of some sort and pursue it.  So I discovered Elma’s Little Critters, a website entirely devoted to the small animal figurine market  (it’s underground, don’t feel too bad if you haven’t heard of it).  Elma is an eighty-seven-year-old widow in Maine.  She and I started a sweet little email correspondence, and it’s still kicking to this day!  I am her number one customer, I have certificates framed and hung next to my shelves of Little Critters.  Sometimes she sends a tin full of her homemade brownies with my orders.

In any case, that was when my life as a hoarder really took off – I go to meetings with fellow Critter Pals every Tuesday night, we drink tea together and sometimes trade our pets’ outfits.  During the holiday season, we do Secret Santa and knit sweaters or beanies, sometimes mittens if we’re feeling ambitious, for one another’s favorite figurine.  That’s how I met my girlfriend.

Perhaps you’re wondering how I keep my fuzzy little creatures clean – fur collects a lot of dust, which I cannot tolerate!  Scrubbing with a toothbrush and Pine Sol does the trick, though it takes quite a while to thoroughly fix up five hundred figurines; that’s what I do during the day when I’m not working.

Brady the Mouse is by far my most loyal companion.  That’s why he gets to come to work with me on most nights.  Always dapper in his tailored suit, he reminds me to remain professional; his wise, warm, beady eyes keep me beaming and understanding, contained in my sterilized, perfectly tidy compartment.  At the slightest touch of his round ears, I quiver with delight, sanitize my hands, and pass someone a vomit receptacle.  And I do it with a smile.

Claire Stringer eats breakfast for every meal, enjoys the company of fat old cats, and had a difficult time trying to write this bio.

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