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international
Spring igyy
$3.00  Editor-in-Chief
MICHAEL BULLOCK
Associate Editors
DOUGLAS BANKSON GEORGE MCWHIRTER
ROBERT HARLOW C. J. NEWMAN
JACOB ZILBER
Editorial Assistants
CHRISTIANNE BALK JOSEPH KELLER
DANIEL MOSES
THOMAS A. MURPHY
JEFFREY SCHAIRE
ROO BORSON
DAVID BROWN
BILL ENWRIGHT
MARK FINKENBINE
LORRAINE GLENNON
TONY SOUTHGATE
TIM STEPHENS
CATHY FORD
Business Manager
SUE STEWART
Secretaries
SUE STEWART
IAN A. SPENCE
\M
international
A JOURNAL OF
CONTEMPORARY WRITING CONTENTS
VOLUME  SIXTEEN     NUMBER  ONE     SPRING   1977
Vincente Aleixandre
(translated by
Louis M. Bourne)
Five Poems
4
Willis Barnstone
Three Poems
12
Robert Bringhurst
Instruction Instructing Itself
15
Mary Burns
The Men on my Window
18
H. C. Dillow
Two Poems
3°
Mark Finkenbine
The Angel
33
Francis Gannon
Small Deaths
120
Justin Glove
Fixtures
125
Ralph Gustafson
Three Poems
132
Joe Hutchison
Three Poems
i35
The Crystal Garden
138
Linda Wikene Johnson
Two Poems
148
Susan A. Katz
Trial by Touch ( poem)
150
Shiv K. Kumar
Beyond Love
151
Wes Magee
Two Poems
156
Kim Maltman
Two Poems
158
Brian Purdy
Two Poems
161
Ian Robinson
Intermittent Light
163
Joe Rose
Eight Drawings
176
The Monk Ryokan
(translated by
Greg Yavorsky)
Six Poems
185
Daniel Weissbort
Four Poems
188
Notes on Contributors
194 cover : Eye Spy, Joe Rose, charcoal on paper.
PRISM international, a journal of contemporary writing, is published
twice a year by the Department of Creative Writing at the University
of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. v6t IW5. Annual subscriptions
are $5.00, single copies $3.00, obtainable by writing to the Editors at
that address. Microfilm editions are available from Xerox University
Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and reprints (Vols. 1-5) from the
Kraus Reprint Corporation, NYC.
In order to reduce production costs at a time when these are constantly
rising, PRISM international will henceforth appear twice-yearly. However, the number of pages in each issue will be substantially increased,
so that the total amount of material published each year will remain
the same. The cost of single issues will be raised to $3.00, but the annual
subscription will remain at $5.00. Vincente Aleixandre / Five Poems
Translated by Louis M. Bourne
EVE OF MYSELF
A sweet passion from water of death does not fool me. Do not swear
to me that the sea is far-off, that all the whitecaps of tin and the
crevices of earth that open between my fingers will do to hide your
smile. I cannot agree to the deceit. Hiding from forms and birds,
from the whiteness of a pressing future, I can stretch my arm to
touch delight. But if you laugh, if you seize the brevity that never
fails, I shall not feel strong enough. I shall collapse like a waist that
bends. My eyes know that persistence sheds no light, but it can be a
painless solution. Stripping my temples of some walls of snow, of a
trickle of blood that would make the afternoon later, I shall succeed
in explaining my innocence to you. If I want life it is not to deal it
out. Nor to waste it. It is only to have my lips in order. Not to look
at my hands of wax, though life's decipherable wealth may rush in.
To sleep when my time comes on a conscience without a pillowcase.
I shall know how to appreciate colors. And odors. And the pure
anatomy of sounds. And if you call me I shall not look for very lukewarm water to rinse my teeth. No, no; I shall face the cleanness of
the glow, the glitter and the sterile wound of the dusks. I shall not
hold back even a single word. I shall know how to dress, paying tribute to false matter. To the fleshy dome of waiting. To everything
that threatens my freedom without history. I shall rush naked among
the fallen blues in order to look like I am made of snow, or of copper,
or of a muddy river without tears. Everything except not to be born.
Except to have to smile, hiding myself. Except to know that my eyebrows exist like branches of sleep fully alert.
Because of this, I am training myself here and now. I am counting
the inches of my struggle one by one. Because of this, a laugh springs
up from my heel which is not smoke. Because of you, who don't
explain the most profound geography.
If I go mad, don't let them lock me up. Let them permit me to
dream of clouds. With the firmness of my will, I shall raise vague
ceilings and then lift them up like lids. My eyes shall bring the swings
to all of you. I shall rule you all with the fine dust of saints. You will
know how to worship other robes, and the elegance of their fall shall
make your mouths draw near.
Let me be born to the pure rebellious creation of my name.
(Passion of the Earth) IT'S NO LONGER POSSIBLE
Don't say your name, sending your music out
Like a stiff light that scatters,
Like the moon that, in winter, spreads
Its pensive dust over bone.
Let night crush the absence of flesh,
The last nakedness that someone craves;
Let the moon wheel over the stones of heaven
Like an arm, dead now, with no burning rose.
One light, some time ago, smelled of flowers.
But it smells of nothing.
Don't say that death smells of nothing,
That absence of love smells of nothing,
That absence of air, of shadow, smell of nothing.
The moon drove out, there, then, far away, long ago,
Drove out the shadows and flooded with glowing roses
That place where a bosom throbbed.
But the moon is a bare bone without accent.
It is not a voice, it is not a heavenly cry.
It is the dense hollowness of it, wall where they echoed,
Thick walls where the whisper of kisses broke.
A bone still wants to wheel across a heaven
Of stone, wants to master that extinguished calm;
Still wants to seize a rose of fire
And hold it near some lips of flesh to burn it.
(World by Itself) THEY ARE BELLS
A grooved heart
Beneath dead bells needs to rise.
Bells are bells,
Are hidden beats of a turning that doesn't arrive.
The town in the distance,
The size of a squinting eye,
Lies in green, still not breathing,
Half-traveled road or arm lukewarm to a kiss.
Bells of happiness,
Of a thirst for spiraling up where a mute cry
The size of a dying child
Doesn't stop falling like snow on your shoulders.
Softness of a landscape of sighs
Through which it's no trouble to walk, though that sea swells
As you slowly breathe a sadness or image consumed.
Meanwhile bells ring
Like sad shoes
Mismated in the gentle afternoon;
They are a cheek that needs to be trodden
While a dawn is sighing, still beneath the earth.
(Swords like Lips) NOBODY
But I know that a body can be taken for
A piece of music, a heart or a tree in winter.
I know that the soft noise of the grating earth,
The inaudible howl of the night,
Licks your feet like a dry tongue
And sketches a grief on contented skin.
Who's going? Who's moving on?
Crossing rivers like panthers asleep in shadow;
Crossing greeneries, leaves, well-dressed lawns,
Spying lazy boats or kisses,
Mud or crackling stars;
Spying fish stunned between two last gleams,
Disasters in the form of sealed sadness,
Lips, mute, final, vagaries of the blood,
Hearts withered like sordid women,
Like labyrinths where nobody finds his ultimate illusion,
His loneliness without air,
His vanished word;
Crossing forests, cities, sorrows,
The despair of always stumbling into the sea,
Of drinking from that tear, from that huge tear
Where a foot gets wet, but never caresses; Shattering the sinewy branches with his forehead,
The ban on persisting in the name of the law,
The torrents of laughter, of teeth or of bunches of mud,
Of words ground up by broken molars;
Filing the edge of air with his body,
Feeling the tropical branches on his flesh,
The embraces, the ivy, the millions of lips,
Those last suction cups the world makes when kissing,
A man shines or rolls on, a man lies still or stands up,
A man feels his heavy head like muddled blue,
His absent tears like bright fire,
And he watches the skies like his own face,
Like his lonely height rejected by a word:
Nobody.
(World by Itself) COBRA
The cobra, all eyes,
The afternoon a shape spread out (descend, cloud),
A shape among dry leaves,
Surrounded by hearts suddenly still.
Clocks like heartbeats
In the motionless trees are birds whose throats droop,
Kind kisses to the slinking cobra
Whose skin is silky or cold or sterile.
Cobra on glass,
Hissing like the chill razor that destroys a virgin,
Fruit of the morning,
Whose velvet is still airborne with a bird's form.
Girls like lagoons,
Eyes like hopes,
Bare as leaves,
Cobra passes lascivious watching his other sky.
10 He passes over and over the earth,
Chain of bodies or bloods that touch
When the whole skin has fled like an eagle
Blocking the sun. Oh cobra love, love!
Love shapes or ships or moans,
Love everything slowly, body on body,
Between thighs of cold or between breasts
The size of compressed ice.
Lips, teeth or flowers, vast snows;
The world beneath convulses, drifting free.
Love the depth with blood where the acquired jewel
Gleams.
Earth trembles.
(Destruction or Love)
ii Willis Barnstone/ Three Poems
Wandering around Buenos Aires for Three
Hours Christmas Night When there are no
Taxis, Colectivos, and almost no People except
for Borges who doesn't Want to Go Home and
Wants to Talk about Lonely Gauchos Buggering Sheep, and of Milton and Dante
"But all that nonsense Dante wrote about
paradise and hell, you cant take it too
seriously, yet he may be the finest poet who
ever wrote." But you need footnotes to find out
what he meant. "That's because he didn't care
about literature. He was writing to fink
himself with God and Florence. Besides, I dare
say he was a nasty man, dont you think?
But what an ear, and he said things with no
silly metaphors and didn't make Jesus talk
the way Milton does, who even makes a hawk
sound like an English schoolmaster. The slow
hours of the evening are a good time to look at
poetry, to walk and stop and walk and chat."
12 LUCKY BORGES
You are a lucky man. You have good friends
and in your way have loved passionately,
wandered in three continents for a key
out of the labyrinth of time and ends,
and in foreign pampas known every blend
of agony: fame, and truth of death. You see
back through our dream to no cosmogony
or Kabala no-end. Your dead eyes send
you to a mirror. You stand there. Nothing
burns in your head but gold from some old coin
lost like you in China or Thrace. You join
objects outside. No sword. You are a thing,
failure of God, alone, lucky to find
the brief light and echo for us the blind.
13 AT A TABLE
"No, no, no. Wait a bit. I think the right
word is nightmares." Tonight while rebel planes
fly low over the city, and the reins
of power drift, the icicle of light
plays on the table. If you could see the moon,
the other world — the one word — would be found
and the Yellow Emperor murder you or hound
you into madness and rags. Nightmares. Soon
the godless end. Tonight, almost a guest
in your unmirrored ebony room, you talk
about a strange friend and his son. The rest
is in a poem you will write. The dead clock
comes alive, and once more you lie down, seeing
the terror of peace: no time, no night, no being.
14 Robert Bringhurst
INSTRUCTION INSTRUCTING ITSELF
Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era, edited by John Newlove (McClelland & Stewart, 1977), 270 pp., $5.95 paperbound.
There is more (and less) to this anthology than first appears.
Consider the opening sentences of Newlove's preface:
This selection is based on a survey done [sic] of the needs of Canadian
literature instructors in universities across the country. They were asked
which modern Canadian poets .. . should be represented in an anthology, and to what degree.... From this it was possible to sketch out
the size, form and content of the book.
If this is true, then what we have is something approaching a statistical model of the current tastes of Canadian literature instructors —
an item which may be of great use for diagnostic purposes but which
is unlikely to be (and isn't) quite the same thing as a useful anthology of Canadian poetry.
Note please that Newlove's first sentence is a bit misleading. A
survey was conducted not "of the needs of Canadian literature
instructors," but rather of their needs as they perceived them. It's a
case of the doctor letting the patient write his own prescription,
which, for a fee, the doctor will sign.
Explain it how you please, this interposition of the teacher not as
middleman performing a service but as middleman calling the shots
is a worrisome move. When the universities communally write or
edit their own books, both education and art have taken second
place to academic self-preservation.
What, then, does it look like, this selection sketched by their
aggregated sagacities, the Canadian literature instructors, and filled
in by John Newlove? Is it really so bad? Don't those instructors
know what they're doing better than some randy, ill-schooled poet?
The book includes some fine poems by some highly talented
people — Dennis Lee, John Glassco, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn
MacEwan, Jay MacPherson and Newlove himself, to name some.
It also includes a raft of needless trivia (Livesay, Waddington, etc.)
and sheer waste paper (Reaney, Souster, etc.).
15 For comparison, a partial list of those who are not included:
George Amabile, Robin Blaser, Stanley Cooperman, George Jonas,
D. G. Jones, Robert Kroetsch, Pat Lane, Travis Lane, Charles
Lillard, Pat Lowther, Robin Matthews, George McWhirter, Susan
Musgrave, Robin Skelton, Tom Wayman, Phyllis Webb and J.
Michael Yates. The exclusion of many of these speaks well for the
anthology and for the Canadian literature instructors; it amounts
to basic hygiene. But an anthology of modem Canadian poetry
which ignores Yates is a farce, and one which ignores Jonas' The
Happy Hungry Man and the best work of Skelton, Musgrave and
McWhirter, has abandoned whole quadrants of the territory it
claims.
Within the straitjacket imposed on him, Newlove has edited handsomely in most cases, bizarrely in others. His selections from Ralph
Gustafson and Louis Dudek may be the worst that could have been
made, and he apparently worked in ignorance of the later work of
Dennis Lee (Lee's poems for children excepted). But why the strait-
jacket in the first place? Or, given the straitjacket, why John Newlove trussed inside? Newlove is neither ignorant nor unappreciative
of the work of Yates and others who belong in this anthology in
place of many who are here. What is this anthology doing under
Newlove's name?
It is of course the standard Canadian anthology refloured and
rolled through the crumbs. It is the picture of Canadian poetry as
concocted by the schools, and that is a strange tableau, with some,
not all, of the few serious poets in this country looking oddly out of
place among the tea cups and the beer cans. A scholarly selection,
if scholarship means empirical registration of the number of twits,
twoots and orangoutans which happen to walk past. A very disheartening selection if the universities are supposed to encourage
and disseminate the deeper uses of art and the engagement of
deeper values.
To that end, I quote you the excellent (and out-of-print) poet
Jack Gilbert:
Poetry, for me, is a witnessing to magnitude. It is the art of making
urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the
housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum
pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves.... What poetry chiefly is not
for me is an entertainment. I recognize that there are other ways than
mine to approach poetry: that for many it is an esthetic recreation,
the making of beautiful objects; or it is the congenial play of the
16 imagination over a subject; or it is an exercise in expertise.. . . Most
poets aspire to the adequate poem, not the important one. ... I refuse
to be tolerant of poetry that expects to prevail by default.
Suppose such standards were actually applied in the literary
industry instead of promoted, like a penny stock or a cure for hemorrhoids, in the back pages of small magazines. What would we have
to show then under the rubric Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era?
In fact, a good deal. In fact, enough. Enough that this ludicrous
double standard for things Canadian and non-Canadian ought to
be sloughed off.
If half the poets in this anthology carried different passports and
wrote precisely the same poems, scarcely anyone would bother to
read them and they would never have reached the schools. But a
poem, like an empirical hypothesis, a mathematical proof or an
engineering solution, is what it is regardless of whence it comes.
Physics is physics, poetry is poetry, and painting is painting. Each is
practiced differently from place to place and from time to time. But
each is stifled, not protected, by educational fences erected along
political, geographical or temporal lines.
As to linguistic lines, let us rehearse some of the simple conditions
of our presence in the world. There can never be Canadian poets in
the sense in which there can be and are Hungarian poets, French
poets, Greek poets, Latin poets. Canada is not a language. English
and French are languages. English, like Portuguese, Spanish and
French, adheres to a porridge of geographies, politics, blood types,
diets and divinities. A man who hammers artwork out of that language, like it or not, wallows among them. Those who dislike such
unpredictable competition can if they choose learn to write in
Tocharian or Manx. Only the illusory standards will change; poety
is scarcely what is lost in translation.
Canada will make it or she won't. Fawning and pampering is no
way to raise a country, any more than to raise a child. Is she consumptive? Does she have polio or rickets? Why, my God, strong and
lovely as she is, do we find her shut in a room with a mirror — or
find Jack McClelland pushing her gingerly down Bloor Street in
an iron lung or a wheelchair?
I'm not suggesting there should therefore be no Canadian poetry
anthology; I merely suggest that it ought to be a good one. And I
suggest that for the schools a multinational anthology is really what
is needed, whether or not it is what the patient in his fitful delirium
might prescribe.
17 Mary Burns
THE MEN ON MY WINDOW
It used to annoy me to see the shadows of men on my curtain every
morning and afternoon. They walked past the window in front of my
writing table and across a thought I was trying to see by gazing at
nothing. They were an interruption, a distraction, though they had
no way of knowing. I lived then in one of the few houses still standing in the downtown section, and my side yard happened to be the
shortest distance between the probation office and the law court.
In late September, when the weather turned cold, the shadows
became bulkier. The men wore hats and heavy overcoats and seemed
to be walking faster. I thought of writing a notice to hang on the
front fence, "No Trespassing," but everyone ignored the sign forbidding them to block the driveway.
What could I have done? At least in the winter they walked
quickly and wore a path I was also able to use through the drifts that
mounted on the east side of the house.
I had simulated bamboo curtains. There was just enough space
between the plastic slats for me to be able to catch a vertical glimpse
of the person passing. But the slats became more of a distraction
than the men. It required a good minute's worth of concentration to
focus on the image in the narrow space and reflect on it. Still, I was
able to distinguish one man from the others by the pipe that jutted
from his face and by his bare head. He never wore a hat while I was
looking. His hair was thick and grey and came down to the turned-
up collar of his grey overcoat. I knew he was a probation officer
because observation had taught me that lawyers carried briefcases,
probation officers only a file, if that. Another clue was the direction
from which he came each morning; it was always from the front of
the house, from the probation office across the street.
There are times in the book-writing business when distractions are
welcome and daydreaming can be justified, but that was no excuse
for ruining my eyes. I slid the curtains open an inch to widen my
narrow view. It still wasn't wide enough for anyone to casually see in.
The man who captured my attention must have been very handsome when he was young. He was handsome even then, but in the
18 way that statues whose sharp creases have collected dust are handsome. His nose was straight and narrow, his eyebrows a little darker
than his hair, and his face a good colour, as though he were permanently tanned. He may have used a sunlamp, I don't know, but that
kind of face stands out in the north, unless it belongs to an Indian or
a half-breed. If he was a half-breed, there was more white on him
than Indian.
Though he wasn't always alone when he passed the window, he
didn't walk double file as some of them did. He respected the invisible line between my exclusive property and the path they had
taken for their own. Another quality that appealed to me was his
serious expression. The younger men with the dark beards and the
fur-trimmed parkas didn't seem to realize they were, in fact, trespassing on private property. They laughed, not caring how loudly,
and I resented them. It never occurred to them that anyone lived in
that old house. The man with the pipe I respected for his discretion.
He was also a man of regular habits. He usually passed at five to
ten in the morning, which was just before court began, and again,
from the opposite direction, close to noon. If I didn't see him just
after one, he wouldn't come by at 4:15, unless it was just that by
that time I was up from my writing table and never noticed him. I
supposed he had his mornings in court and his afternoons in the office
or the field. I wasn't able to find out anymore about his schedule
since I never identified any of the cars parked across the street as his.
When on business the men used the government cars which were
kept in the parking lot next to the movie theatre.
The movie theatre was something else I had to contend with, but
it remains beside the point for now. The only connection I think
relevant is that my bedtime coincided with the end of the 9 o'clock
show. It was usual for me to listen to the cars starting up and the
voices of the people leaving the theatre as I fell asleep. If I concentrated I could probably recall the sound of Danny's voice among the
rest, or, if not his voice, the loud muffler on his souped-up car. He
was one of those you always saw downtown, coming down the stairs
from the pool hall above the drug store, loitering around the post
office in summer. I can imagine the shows he would have seen.
There were ways I could tell what was playing by the types of cars
in front of the theatre. It was a game I invented shortly after moving
into that house. Simple enough. Station Wagons and Campers meant
a Disney-type feature; scattered foreign models indicated the manager had wasted his money on a three night run of some obscure, arty
19 film. Hot rods and pick-ups were more general, but you could count
on a majority of them if a detective or a western were playing.
I didn't know Danny, but I recognized his face when I saw it in
the newspaper, and that is also when I learned his name. According
to the newspaper, 18-year-old Danny Washington had been charged
with attempted murder as the result of stab wounds incurred by his
younger brother, 15-year-old Ed Washington on the night of January 14th. The incident had occurred at the Washington brothers'
home in the Indian village, and Danny was on probation for having
committed a series of petty thefts the previous summer. That's as
much as the newspaper said, and I didn't think any more about it
at the time because these incidents were common. Everyone who
lived in the town knew just how common, even though the police
didn't report half the number of drunken fights in the village. When
a case was reported the victim was usually someone other than a
family member. Wives might clobber husbands over the head with a
beer bottle causing ugly wounds, but the only witnesses were other
members of the family who wouldn't tell. The husband seldom filed
a complaint, so the police carried out superficial investigations, the
hospital files thickened, but the statistics didn't change, officially.
It must have been a full week after I had read the newspaper
report when I saw the pipe-smoking probation officer walking down
my path toward the court building with Danny Washington. Danny
was walking in front, his head down, his black hair jumping on his
shoulders. I couldn't see any handcuffs, any form of restraint at all.
Danny walked as freely as the grey-haired man, along the path and
then out of sight behind the garage.
Where would he have gotten bail money? Or, was it that he had
been released to his probation officer just for the trial? Why was he
walking freely, past my window, on my property? Danny Washington
had attempted murder!
My opinion of the grey-haired man changed. Had I been so naive
that I thought him considerate, discreet? I considered lodging a
complaint; even I, a generally tolerant person, had limits. It had
seemed senseless to make a fuss about the lawyers and the probation
officers using my path as a short-cut, especially in winter, but now,
instead of showing appreciation of the favour they were violating my
rights to security and protection by leading criminals through my
yard.
That was my first, and I think, totally justifiable reaction, but I
didn't phone the probation office to register my objections. Reason
20 usually prevails if given time to reveal itself, and I am the sort who
prefers to wait and see what happens. What happened was, the
probation officer came by near noon when I was still feeling upset
and unsure of what to do. He wasn't with Danny, but walked alone
as he usually did, with his eyebrows drawn together and his hands
stuffed in the pockets of his overcoat. Danny was in jail, I supposed,
and the grey-haired man looked worried. What had the judge said?
I hurried to the front window to watch his movements. He went into
the office, but returned in a minute with another man. They stood
talking on the steps of the building for what seemed like five minutes.
I couldn't see his face clearly, only his profile. I sensed, rather than
saw his concern and it was a reprimand to me for having felt abused.
There was a boy in trouble and this man cared. As a probation officer
he was supposed to oversee Danny's rehabilitation from the life of
crime the boy had begun, but he had failed. Failure can embitter and
cause one to become detached, but this man wasn't giving up. His
concern confirmed my first opinion of him as a responsible person; he
wouldn't have let Danny walk without restraint unless he had felt
the boy was trustworthy.
When the other office workers began to pour from the building for
lunch, the two men dispersed. The one who interested me headed
for the hotel down the street. I had hoped to see his car. Disappointed, I went back to my table and the typewriter. The distractions
of the men on the window had gotten out of control, I was fully
aware of that, but there was some justification. Entertainment? No,
not in the sense that I was amused. Involvement is the better word,
and there was little enough of that in weeks, months of quiet, solitary
days.
That evening there was a report of Danny's hearing in the local
newspaper. The prosecution's case looked impregnable. The Crown
Attorney read a statement from Ed, who was off the critical list by
then, but still in hospital, and told the judge he would bring forward
another witness, a sister of the boys. According to the newspaper
story, Danny and Ed had been preparing for bed following a party
at another house in the village. Ed said they'd been drinking, and
were arguing on the way home. But when Danny pulled the knife
Ed had tried to joke his brother out of anger. It didn't work. Danny
attacked his brother, slashing at the younger boy's arms and face.
Ed's screams woke a sister who was the one who had called the police.
The defense was going to try to prove extenuating circumstances
and had asked for a day's adjournment to prepare the case. Extenu-
21 ating circumstances, I could just imagine; a hornet's nest full of
them, drink, jealousy between brothers, poverty, broken home. But
what could be so extenuating it excused a brother who turned on
another brother? Still, it was surprising that the victim had identified
his attacker and was seeing the case through to the end. Indian
families were supposed to be very close, that's why so few of the cases
of violence actually made it to court.
I sympathized with the probation officer's problem. If the circumstances were extenuating enough to have existed for some time, the
probation officer should have removed Danny from his family before
Danny's frustration could break out. I didn't know much about the
law, or much about the duties of a probation officer, for that matter.
But I had an opinion. Everyone had an opinion in that town. The
outside papers didn't appear on the newsstands until they were a day,
sometimes two days late, and we had to pay 50 cents for the old
news, because of the cost of air freight. Since the only other source of
national news was the radio, people in our town didn't pay much
attention to what was going on across the country. The rest of the
country, the south, the east, anyplace outside was as far away as a
foreign country. Our own news, faithfully reproduced by the local
newspaper, was more immediate. We knew the mayor, if not personally, better than we would ever know the prime minister. We
knew most of the names in the Magistrate's Court column because
they appeared in that space over and over. Take Danny Washington,
for instance. He wasn't a stranger by face, even if he remained one
by name until he attacked his brother. Also, he was an Indian, and
Indians were a favourite subject of conversation. You couldn't spend
an evening visiting without touching on Indians at least once. I
wondered if the same was true for them, but in reverse; did they talk
about whites the way we talked about them?
I knew Danny Washington's name would be rolling off tongues
all over town. Most would say, what can you expect? And these
would be the ones to use Danny as an example of the total uselessness
of all Indians. A brother! I could just hear it. A few might try a
sympathetic approach .. . poor kid, never had a chance . .. but the
sympathetic ones would be the newcomers who hadn't lived with
the problem and seen it grow. If they were smart they'd have learned
not to talk loudly in public places and so be branded a bleeding
heart. It was the way things were. You might move north with an
open mind, but it was as difficult to remain unbiased as it was to do
22 without double windows and oil furnaces in winter. Like it or not,
Danny was one of the reasons why.
Only the most biased would base their judgment on the strength
of the one assault, though. Part of his problem was his reputation
for hanging around, for drinking and driving fast in that loud car of
his. People wondered how Danny had been able to buy the car. He
wasn't known as a steady worker. As far as anyone knew he didn't
work at all. But he might have told Indian Affairs he needed a
vehicle in order to get a job at the mine just out of town. If that was
the case, the taxpayers were paying for Danny's car, and no taxpayer
in our town liked that idea anymore than they did other Indian
Affairs giveaways. Maybe Indian Affairs had had nothing to do with
Danny's car, but who would ever know. The whites and the Indians
lived in two separate communities; we didn't know each other
except by reputation, and the commonest form of communication
was innuendo.
The only way to live with the situation was to live outside it.
Don't get involved, my friend, Ann, advised. Not that I would have.
At that time I was writing fiction, not sociology; there was no reason
to become involved. But, as people often will, Ann had been speaking
more to herself than to me. Her attempts to live in both communities
at once had hurt, hardened and aged her. She had found it impossible to maintain the academic detachment required of an anthropologist while living with the tragedies that daily befell the people
she was supposed to have been studying. She is back at the University
now, preparing to teach.
Ann was a bridge between the whites and the Indians, though; the
grey-haired probation officer was another of the few that existed. I
wondered if he had Ann's difficulty with detachment, then decided
he would be harder. His face showed the stern quality I thought
essential for anyone involved in social work. But there was something
else, what? Was he a softie underneath? The kind of do-gooder you
expect to fall into that line of work? How much responsibility, or was
it guilt, did he feel? I fell asleep without having come to any conclusions, hardly noticing the sound of the car doors slamming, the
engines revving, the calls outside my window.
In the morning, when my head was clear, I remember feeling
uneasy about the gap between what I had been thinking about the
probation officer, and what, or who, he actually was. Imagination
takes you just so far unless you're willing to go all the way, probably
ending up somewhere in schizophrenia. I should have followed my
23 impulses then, but instead I spent all morning considering two
schemes, and then it was well past the hour for indulging in either
one. The first idea was to go to court; even if he didn't speak, which
I was sure he would have, I could have learned something definite
about the probation officer from the way he responded to the activity
in court, what he wore under his overcoat, how he related to Danny.
And I could have learned a great deal more about Danny. The
second idea bordered on silliness. I considered taking out the garbage
to the containers at the back of the garage just before noon, when I
figured the probation officer would be coming down the path. The
plan was to drop the bag, letting the contents fall in front of him so
that, if he was the kind of man I thought he was, he would stop and
help me pick it up. The court idea bothered me because I had never
been to court and had no tangible excuse for attending. The garbage
idea, besides being disgustingly contrived, would have taken additional planning because I didn't want just any garbage spilling in
front of someone I didn't know.
I sat at my table thinking until the entire morning was wasted.
There was no sign of my man at lunchtime. The others all paraded
by the window though, and when I went out later I found a pop can
in the driveway. They were getting more careless than ever. The
noon radio news included nothing about Danny's trial. I didn't see
the probation officer at all that day. He may have passed late in the
afternoon, but I was out on errands.
There were no papers on the newsstand. It was published biweekly and I'd had my days mixed. There wouldn't be another
edition, or any printed news of the trial until the following day.
"I forgot the day," I explained to the man at the cash register.
"Have you heard anything about the Washington case?"
"Washington case?"
"Yes, you know. The Indian boy who stabbed his brother?"
"Oh, that one. I should've known. Nope, young lady, I haven't
heard a thing. But I can guess. The damn courts are so soft nowadays all he's gonna get is six months, probably suspended. Next week
it'll be another brother, or a friend. Maybe it's the best way after all."
He winked. "In no time they'll have all killed each other off."
"Well, thanks anyway."
In the mail the next day was another rejected story. My subsequent gloom and self-doubt dominated the morning. I didn't think
of Danny and the probation officer once, no, that's not true. I did
think of them once as examples of why I wasn't making any progress
24 with my work. Too many distractions. The rejected story was as
much a distraction, though. I didn't accomplish much that day
either, but I did resolve to get back down to serious business the next
morning, and in the afternoon I did concentration exercises in
preparation.
But when I read the details of the trial in the newspaper that
evening I was quickly caught up again. Danny had been found guilty
despite the sad and gruesome story told by his lawyer. Ed Washington, the victim, was a step-brother of Danny's, as it turned out. Of
the seven Washington children, only two had the same father; Ed,
and the sister who had phoned the police. The defense attorney had
drawn out the details of the argument which preceded the fight from
a reluctant defendant, it seemed. Bit by bit came the revelation that
Ed had accused Danny of fathering the youngest Washington, a
child Ed claimed was conceived the night Danny fell onto a bed at
the home of a neighbor. Danny had been too drunk at the time to
notice that the bed's other occupant was his mother. He swore he
had fallen asleep immediately; that his brother's suspicions arose
from jokes their mother had made about waking up in the same bed
as her eldest son, something that hadn't occurred for 17 years.
In his closing speech the attorney told the court that Danny had
been practically disowned by the white man who fathered Ed and
his sister because Danny was a full-blooded Indian. The man
favoured his own children, and Danny's mother, afraid of her common law husband, was prevented from giving Danny the attention
he needed in his early years. The mother began to drink heavily,
supposedly to forget the beatings the man was regularly giving her,
and Danny had to assume responsibility for the younger children.
One had died in the midst of a binge its mother had indulged in to
celebrate the imprisonment of her old man for armed robbery.
Danny, who was eight at the time, had carried the baby in a blanket
through the Indian village and along the town streets to the hospital,
unaware that the bundle he carried was lifeless. The lawyer claimed
that Danny's rebellion toward the conditions he was forced to live
within began then.
I put the paper away. There was no solution to the chicken and
egg situation of the Indians. None that I could see at any rate.
Danny's was an unfortunate story, but I could also see the judge's
point of view. The cycle had to stop somewhere, and letting Danny
go might just urge it on to more violence, promiscuousness, and God
knows what. There was nothing I could do about it, and I did have
25 work to do. My resolve held. I barely looked up when the grey-haired
man passed the window in the morning and I didn't turn the radio
on at noon to listen for news of sentencing.
The next time I saw Danny Washington he was a running shadow,
flickering past my curtain with the frenzy of a wind-threatened
candle flame; he caught my attention immediately. I was frightened.
He must have escaped. But how? Had the probation officer once
again been trusting enough to let the boy walk freely? In less than a
minute the shadow flashed past the curtain again, from the opposite
direction. He must have met up with someone at the front yard.
How stupid to have run that way! He knew where the probation
office was. So he ran back, the only way, through my yard, though
that was also a dead end; they had chased him from the court. I
stood up to look out the back window just as the grey-haired man
and two police officers with drawn guns rounded the corner of the
garage. Danny was trapped.
The pounding of my heart made it even more difficult to hear the
voices muffled by the window glass. I stooped under the window sill
and slid the curtains shut, using only the bottom edges to do so. Then
I peered over the sill from my position on the floor. I didn't want to
get shot.
Danny stood frozen on the path, his back was turned to me. The
grey-haired man was talking to him, his serious face strained forward.
The police officers stood behind the probation officer; their revolvers
were ready in their hands and aimed at Danny. The probation officer
must have persuaded Danny to talk to him. Anyway, he moved
nearer with an arm out to cup Danny's shoulder. I saw his look of
surprise and fear when Danny twisted the outstretched arm and
pulled the man in front of him. A hostage. But how ... He didn't
have a weapon I could see. I wanted him to give up, they'd get him
eventually anyway and then it would just be worse for him.
Danny backed around the corner of the garage, directly into the
yard, dragging the probation officer with him. He jammed his elbow
through a pane of glass, my garage window, and grabbed hold of a
long splinter which he held to the probation officer's throat. I stayed
down, kneeling on the linoleum, fascinated and horrified at the scene
outside.
The pounding on the front door brought me to my senses. Of
course! The police would want to use my house to cover them. They
could use my house, but I didn't want any part of it. I hurried down
26 the basement stairs and hid in the corner behind the furnace. They
had no way of knowing I was home. My typewriter and papers lay
on the table in front of the side window, but there was no proof I'd
left them only minutes before. They rushed in the front door, at least
four pairs of heavy issue Mountie boots tromping on the floor above
me.
"Call (garbled) at HQ and tell him we've got the bastard
covered."
"Get down, you idiot! You're a perfect target there."
After that, I couldn't hear what they said. The front door opening
had let in a blast of cold air which activated the furnace. The furnace
fan was about a foot from where I was kneeling. All I could make
out was the shifting of positions, the ringing of the telephone, and the
entrance of more heavy-booted men.
I was glad to be hiding. I didn't want to witness the murder of
that man, or of Danny, if it came to that. I hoped they could both
escape. Escape must have been what Danny was bargaining for, but
where would he go? If he'd been in a city he might have been able
to hide out in some tenement, or fly to another city. Here he could
only escape to the bush, but it was winter, and Danny was a town
Indian. I didn't hold much hope for his survival in the bush.
Yes, it was better to be in the basement. I haven't once changed
my opinion on that. Though I was curious, I was also relieved that if
the incident was ever reviewed in court I wouldn't be called upon to
testify. No one know I had witnessed Danny's escape and had seen
him capture the grey-haired man. There were limits, I told myself as
I waited, real limits to what one person can do for another person.
If the grey-haired man had realized that, he wouldn't have been at
Danny's mercy. I congratulated myself for having managed to stay
safe. I realize that's a notion certain people are inclined to mock, but
haw many of them have ever been in a position to make the choice?
One thing did bother me, outside the curiosity, that is; there I was in
the middle of the most dramatic event of my life and I wouldn't be
able to tell anyone about it.
Another thing, when the police rushed out the front door, and
after I had waited awhile before returning to the kitchen, I regretted
not knowing what had happened. There was no one in the yard. The
only sign of the struggle was the trampled-down appearance of the
snow, and the broken window in the garage. I would have to hear the
story, like everyone else, on the radio.
27 I couldn't make a noticeable move in the house until there were
no obvious witnesses, such as the police car stationed in front of the
movie theatre. In fact, it was four o'clock before I could safely call
the police station to report my broken window and inquire what had
happened to the man I had heard was taken hostage in my back
yard. I had been out walking, I explained. The officer in charge
believed me.
He told me what I had seen with my own eyes, and I asked, trying
not to sound impatient, what had happened after they left the yard.
"I don't have all the details yet, m'am, but the hostage was
released unharmed, and I understand the prisoner is in hospital."
"Was he shot?"
"That I can't say, m'am."
"What about my broken window? Will it be replaced?"
"I'll get somebody over to look at it tomorrow. Was anything else
damaged?"
"I don't think so. Thank you, officer."
My status as victim, of sorts, didn't qualify me for any special
privileges of information. I heard the rest of the story on the evening
news, and over the radio in the morning when a local broadcaster
interviewed the probation officer, whose name, I learned then, was
William Perrier. He didn't say much because he didn't want to
prejudice the court case that would undoubtedly arise, but he did
admit having talked Danny out of the escape idea. When asked why
Danny was in hospital, the probation officer (his name still doesn't
feel comfortable on my lips) replied that Danny's wounds had been
self-inflicted.
He'd tried to commit suicide!
I was glad to be able to put a voice to the face I had watched so
often. It was a voice slightly accented, but identifiable as to origin.
It was a deep voice, but at the same time gave the impression of
coming from a distance. He must have been distracted, or preoccupied because the interviewer was sitting in the same studio and he
sounded clear enough.
William Perrier, when asked, said the incident would not affect
his position one way or the other. His experience had taught him
there was more and harder work to be done if the north was ever
going to be able to cope with the problems which resulted from boom
development.
I wondered if he felt accused when later that week the Government announced an investigation of the probation department. The
28 implication was that Perrier had done something wrong in allowing
himself to be caught in such a situation, to have become a hostage.
I thought it heartless of the Government to respond that way, but
there was some justification. He had shown a surprising trust in
Danny. Perhaps he was naive, rather than kind. Stupid, some said,
but I was not without sympathy.
Danny Washington was sent to a maximum security prison in
B.C. I never heard what happened to his brother. William Perrier
kept his job and I continued to see his shadow on my curtain mornings and afternoons at the same regular times. Though I closed the
curtains over the inch gap I had made earlier, the men on my
window remained distractions. I finally decided it would be easier
to move than to try to overcome the daily interruptions in my work.
29 H. C. Dillow/ Two Poems
AN OLD HISTORIAN BURIES A COLLEAGUE
He was himself a study in ignorance:
blood learning the language of farewell,
a rot of intellect in a storm of words.
Corrupted in his nonage
by the henchmen of the holy rational,
he saw the letters forming on the wall
and could not read.
In his bleared myopia living remained to the end
as inexplicable
as the colour of sky moved
by an old love
for the rounds and hollows of its filling.
Overhead the apple blossoms
fritter away their white foolishness
in the wry wind scuffing the dust.
The shriving light withers. Nothing is purged
or perjured by this ritual.
Praise-ending, we silently ask deliverance
from a botched death
and call our fears to order.
30 m
Relief brings home what needs to be remembered,
directs our first steps back into his world
drifting in late afternoon
much as he left it:
in the west a width of sky, the hackneyed contrast
of sea and land,
and a far echo of Homer's sovereign language
thinned to a peevish screak;
in the east, in the dark beyond the terminator,
eight hundred million quilted Chinamen
in desperate pursuit of the sutnmum bonum.
No one is saying more than he knows,
and nothing is moving
towards any unthinkable consummation.
Only here and there a blue-eyed astronaut
is touched by the perfect madness of the moon.
3i PALLIATIVE
The spaces between the leaves shift, creations
No less than leaves abstracted, spinning and glistering
In the hand of God. Where the Oriole hangs his nest
Of judgments one utters "Spring" to systematize
Knowledge with no least chance of a mistake,
Who once walked whistling into the wood of error
Carrying only an axe, a knife, a blanket.
Now settled in reason's querulous dignity
He beggars all to feed his poor head-jelly,
Excogitates Pyrrhic victories over fear
Of spiritual defecation, unerringly
Constructs the required abstract blue-black space
In which to fall to embarrasing perdition,
And everywhere detects his flattering image
To which humility gives the name of Nature.
But wholly indifferent in the timeless luxury
Of being or becoming, rocks, trees, leaf-mould, earth,
And the slow, sifting fall at the heart of the wood
Sing to no man-flesh their peculiar burden,
"Paradise, Paradise," as if time were no older
Than this very day, as if the fiery sword
Had never been more than the simple, guiltless light
Caught in the tumult of the churning leaves.
32 Mark Finkenbine
THE ANGEL
1970    In Transit
Her cheek peeled up from the tacky plastic. Lights. Electric lights
red through closed eyelids. Up, get up off the table. She lashed her
head from side to side. Let me up! Wake. The anesthetic didn't hold.
Don't cut, more sodium pentathol, let me up, where ...
"Hey, whoa, hold on there, honey."
Her eyes jolted open. She froze, hands grappled to the armrest,
nostrils flexed, her body half launched into the aisle. The details
slowly coagulated before her: the grimy aisle, the rows of seats, the
nodding heads and gaped mouths drooling. She commanded herself to sit back, uncoil.
"Say, I tell ya, if I had dreams like you got, I ain't so sure I'd
go to sleep." A meaty hand blocked her vision with a pack of King-
size Winstons. She glanced at him. An unbroken thatch of black
eyebrow overhung both eyes, and one corner twitched an invitation.
She shook her head. He shrugged and jammed a cigarette between
his lips. " 'Course, a ride like this, it's enough to give a fella nightmares, let alone a gal." He scratched a match, cupping hands tenderly around the flame, sucking hard.
She stared straight ahead. The driver stood chatting in the door.
Her eyes narrowed, staring sharply at the driver until he lugged his
bulk up the final two steps and eased into his seat. His foot goosed
the accelerator, the idling engine blatted and then roared, the gears
ground, the bus groaned forward. She closed her eyes, unknotted
her forehead.
"My, my, my. You look beat. I seen you got on here at Columbus.
I come down from Cleveland myself, so I already got more'n a
hundred miles on you. Hate to say it, but it don't get any more
enjoyable. How far you going? ... I say, how far you going?"
"Florida." She kept her eyes closed.
"Oh yeah? Whereabouts? I got a cousin or two down around
Tampa. ... I say, whereabouts in Florida?"
"West Palm Beach."
33 He whistled. "Sounds classy. But you got a long haul ahead of
you. We're just barely through Kentucky. I get off in Macon, myself. I don't envy you no trip through Florida. It's a long, long state."
She opened her eyes. "This bus ride is the best thing that ever
happened to me." She turned away and hunched over in her seat.
She heard his calloused hand grate over his chin stubble. All he
said was, "Well, now."
She drew up her legs, curling tighter. Rest. At least doze. Sink, if
possible, into sleep. Sink. Oh, to float in a coma until the Greyhound
completes its run.
I've run too many Greyhound races. The race to New York that
I won by losing ... a baby. No, Mary, don't do that to yourself.
Sleep, for god's sake. Easiest thing in the world. Nothing to it. A
snap. Just go right to sleep. Maybe I should talk to Hiram or Elmer
or whoever this yokel is. That would be a guaranteed soporific.
Coffee cups clashed on saucers. The ranks of chrome equipment
winked electric reflections at the waitresses twitching past. The Post
House Cafeteria cacophonated.
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Why, hell no, here, just let me get my coat off this stool for ya."
His eyes were pinched against the smoke plume from his cigarette.
When he glanced at her face, mild surprise lifted his thatch of eyebrow. "Oh, it's you. Thought you was planted in that seat for good."
Her mouth flinched, irritated. "There's nothing I want more than
sleep, so naturally I'm wide awake."
"What's wrong?" His grin was nicotine yellow. "Ain't your conscience clear?"
"It isn't clear and it isn't clouded. It's convoluted."
"Huh?" His black-rimmed fingernails rooted at his scalp until
the shoulder of his work shirt was flecked with dandruff. He called,
"Hey, honey, stop buffing that counter a second and bring the little
lady here a cup of coffee."
"She's not a honey, and I'm not little, or even necessarily a lady."
"Well, hell." He turned away in disgust.
"Sorry." She was sorry, but he kept his face blank, his eyes averted.
She shrugged and went to the ladies' room. The toilet didn't have a
lid, so she couldn't sit and enjoy the privacy of the stall.
34 The mirror, teller of truth, of a sort. Her short brown hair had
gone ratty against the oily plastic seat. She dug crumbs from the
corners of her eyes, then kneaded her whole face, trying to force
some blood into it. A weak smile sneered up the corners of her
mouth. Not even Rufus out there would invest much effort in the
pursuit of that face.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary . . . It's been dull since Macon, without even the limited thrill of avoiding conversation. Why was I so
rough on him? 'Cuz he tawks lahk this hyere, buddi?
The bus is awake. Look at them crane and ogle, and it all looks
like the same boring orange grove all the way down from the state
line. So this is paradise. What's the thrill? So good to be here, or so
good to be away from wherever? Please, sir, may I have more sleep?
More? These orphans grow more impudent every day. Jesus, Mary,
relax. You're babbling.
"Here's the bedroom. In there's the bathroom."
"Mm. Not much closet space."
"Yeah, it's kinda small, but lookit here, see this space here where
the water heater is? You can hang a coat or two in there."
"This bathroom looks like the best thing in the whole apartment.
A shower, that's good. I love showers." She caught her own eye in
the mirror. Grey iris to grey iris, she tried to probe herself, but the
metallic grey eyes shielded her thoughts like lead. What's he saying?
"... and you get that deposit back when you leave, minus any
damages. You can hang pictures and so on, but not too many nail
holes in ... "
"Fine. Is that the lease?"
"Yeah, just let me explain ..."
"May I have it, please? Where do I sign?"
"Uh . . . don't you want to know ..."
"Where? Here?"
"Yeah, right, sign there. But ..."
"But you want the deposit and a month's rent?"
"Well ..." His eyes bugged at the wad of bills she produced
from her purse. She held the bills immobile until he glanced at her
face, saw her smile, and pulled back his head, which he'd blood-
hounded forward.
35 She counted off the rent and deposit, handing him a larger stack
of money than she kept for herself. "There. Now if you could just
write a receipt for the next four months, we'll both be happy."
"I don't generally take but one month's rent at a time."
"Yes, but you'll help me out, won't you? This is a little trick I'm
playing on myself, to make myself feel like I belong here."
"Okay. I guess so. Your name is . . . ?"
"Mary Blake." He filled out the rest of the receipt, then stood
holding it, still doubtful about a block of time longer than a month.
She held out her hand, her eyebrows raised. He gave it to her. "And
the keys, please." He fished in his pocket.
"There you go. Now, we're not used to things moving this fast.
We haven't got the place painted, and we like to rewax the floor."
"Fine. Maybe some other time."
"It's a nice place. It's no palace, but..."
"But I won't be spending much time here anyhow. It's fine,
really, and I want to thank you. Goodbye."
The manager was obviously not used to having his lease-signing
spiel curtailed. He flustered his hands, finally jamming them in his
pockets, crinkling the lease. His smile twitched defensively against
her dismissing smile. He retreated out the door. She immediately
opened her one scuffed suitcase, pulled out soap and shampoo, and
showered until she'd drained the hot water tank. She trailed a hand
down her wet body. She didn't feel she had scrubbed all of the film
of exhaust fumes down the drain. The bus ride still clung to her,
souring her mood.
"All things work together for good to them that love God." Is
that right? From what musty, mnemonic storeroom did I produce
that quaint antique? Because of Momma. Momma. But this is good,
no matter who or what gets the credit. Surf, sand, sun. An inspiring
scene. Wait a minute. Inspiring? This is usually pictured as, um,
relaxing, that's right. So relax.
Her second day on the beach was a more diluted joy. Her skin
tingled with a hint of sunburn, but she buttered it insensible with a
drugstore lotion. The calm air suddenly whirl-winded around her,
peppering her with sand. The ocean was a relief, but she was not a
good swimmer. She couldn't float all day, chilling her skin blue,
36 mimicking a Portuguese man-o-war. She hiked further up the beach,
trying to shelter in the hollows between dunes, but flies clustered
there, strong-mandibled flies that needled her skin and drew ruby
blood samples. She decided to stay in the open, like a raw nerve
sandblasted. This was vacation. This was why she had moved down
here early. In a week, the work would start. Ready or not.
"Dr. Thornton."
"Dr. Smith."
"Dr. Savage."
"Mary Blake." Eyes were cornered at her. A few of her new colleagues stared. She smiled back, widening her pewter eyes at them.
Their looks shifted away.
The introductions over, the senior staff began their round or
orientation talks. Mary sat with bent head, looking studious. Beside
her technical notes, she made marginal comments. "Dr. Cranston
— sees self as authority, rolls out rules in basso profundo, is not
profound. Dr. Garcia — friendly, approachable. Open-minded? Too
much to hope for?"
It was a long, jabbering morning, reminiscent of med school. As
in medical school, heads started to loll onto shoulders, snapping upright for a few bewildered seconds before sinking again. Dr. Garcia
quickly stood before another speaker could be introduced. "Let's
take a break, shall we, gentlemen?"
The interns swarmed for the percolator. Mary needed to rewind
her springs with caffeine, but the pot was empty by the time she got
to it. She leaned against the table to wait for another pot to perc.
Her gaze was abstracted, but finally the smile she was looking at
registered. Another intern. She smiled back, and he stepped up to
her. "Long morning."
"You said it." She laughed. "I'm glad Doc Garcia gave us a rest."
"Yes, I was nodding off a trifle."
"We all were. I was thinking that it reminded me of lectures at
Ohio State. Except there you'd get the occasional joker who'd stretch
out in the middle of the aisle and make a pillow of his books. There's
no comic relief here."
"It's not exactly a comic situation."
"Maybe not. Anyway, I'm glad they don't quiz us with that half-
baked Socratic method."
"The half-baked ... ?"
37 "You must have had this in med school. You get a guest lecturer
who outlines a case for you, then asks, 'How many c.c.'s should this
patient receive?' How were we supposed to know? That's what he
was there to teach. But the students go stumbling through random
numbers until they hit it, and the game creaks forward one more
notch. You sit through enough sessions of Twenty Questions and
bingo, you're a doctor."
"Well ..." He groped through his thoughts. "They're full-time
doctors. They don't have time to improve their teaching techniques."
"Yes, that's just the problem, isn't it?"
His smile petrified like a knot of wood. He sidled away to join a
group that chuckled over some medical pleasantry. She sighed and
put down her empty cup. Caffeine would just give an unnecessary
torque to the adrenalin she suddenly felt. She must remember to
mellow her pronouncements if she was to make friends.
By the end of the day, they had toured the hospital and received
their assignments. Mary was to start in Emergency. That sounded
interesting. As she gathered together her purse, pens, and notebook,
a senior staff member stood conferring with Dr. Garcia, who nodded
thoughtfully. The white-haired doctor gave Garcia a solemn clap
on the back and propelled him toward Mary. She looked up. "Yes?"
"... We're happy to have you with us here at Oceanview General, and we hope you'll have a rewarding stay."
"Thanks. I hope so too."
"We couldn't help noticing ... when we introduced ourselves ..."
"I just called myself Mary Blake. Well, after all, my first name
isn't 'Doctor'."
"Yes, heh heh, quite right. But Dr. Cranston felt, well, we all feel
that too much informality can be detrimental."
"We're all doctors here. I felt I could dispense with my title."
"Of course. I mean, with patients, we want to maintain a degree
of . . . aloofness."
"Don't worry. I know that every student green from the lecture
hall has to be 'Doctor' at the bedside."
"Fine, fine. I was sure you'd understand." He left her.
Mary dropped her notebook and purse on one chair and slumped
into another.
The chairs fined the three walls, forming a U that faced the desk
across the corridor. The chairs were wood, plain and unpadded,
38 looking stark without a scarred school desk to hide behind. Out in
the front lobby, a cleaning woman was easing herself onto a vinyl
couch. Up in his office, Dr. Garcia had dozed in the embrace of his
swivelling Naugahyde armchair. But here in the Emergency room,
the chairs looked like they were intended as a lesson to the accident
prone, the careless, the chance victims, the people who wouldn't
learn to come to the hospital at an orderly, pre-arranged time.
Whew. Mary rattled her head. She was seeing plots and subterfuges. Maybe there was a sensible reason why the hospital had
done it. Blood washes easily off wood or something.
"Can I get you some coffee, Doctor?"
"Hm? Yes, please. And get yourself a cup." When would these
nurses loosen up? With the other doctors, many of the nurses could
at least flirt, for what that was worth. At least it seemed friendly.
All the nurses treated her strictly professionally. Why? Probably just
the veteran nurse's contempt for the intern, unleavened by sexual
interest. Mary shook her head again.
The nurse returned with two mugs. "Here you go."
"Thanks. It's been a long evening, hasn't it?"
"Oh, about standard. You started during a slow period, so this
looks busy to you."
Not as busy as University Hospital during football weekends. But
Mary let that pass, sipping her coffee while she looked for another
conversational lure. "When is it most frantic around here?"
"Easter. This is no Fort Lauderdale, but we get our fair share of
the mob. I'd like to hand out numbers and make them stand in line
like they do in ice cream stores."
"Yes, sir, and what is your order? Two scoops of bandages, with
a sprinkle of antibiotics?" Mary's laugh drew an answering laugh
from the nurse. "So what cases have we had tonight? I had the boy
who smashed his finger in the door, and the old woman with the
chicken bone in her throat."
The nurse counted on her fingers. "There was the go-cart accident, that was bruises and lacerations, there was the facial burn,
there was a cracked rib ... "
Her catalogue was cut short by an engine snarling through a
gutted muffler. Through the glass doors, they could see a green, '59
Chevy, garishly lit by the red neon "Emergency" sign. A black man
sprang from the roaring car and ran around to the passenger's rJe.
When he opened the door, another black man spilled out onto the
39 concrete, then screamed at the first man. Mary and the nurse sighed
and headed for the door.
"Oh man, oh man, why you do that? I was leanin' on that door,
fool, you don't open it when I'm leanin' on it."
"Come on, muthah, get up. You look like we be playin'."
Mary stood in the open doorway. "Okay, what's the problem?"
Before she finished the question, she saw the answer. The man on
the ground struggled to his knees, clutching his left hand over a deep
gash in his right shoulder. He still cursed. The tone of Mary's voice
cut through his tirade. "All right, you're not Bessie Smith, so don't
pretend to die out here."
"Bessie Who? Who she jivin'?" The men looked at each other and
rolled their eyes. Mary and the nurse propelled them inside. The
nurse hurried around to her seat at the desk and tried to get some
information. Both men's faces were puffy with bruises, but both
insisted it was an accident, while refusing to give details. Mary led
away the man with the cut, leaving the nurse to interrogate his
sparring partner.
Mary was sure she couldn't have heard correctly. "What's your
name?"
He scowled at her. "Orangeade Wilson."
"Orangeade?" She couldn't help it, she had to laugh. "That's
great. Really. That's unique."
Pride squared his shoulders. "Ain't nobody else named Orangeade."
As they talked, she peeled his hand away from the gash and
swabbed the crust of blood with alcohol. The cut was long and
bloody, but not dangerously deep. It wouldn't require debridement.
"Okay, there's no dead or contaminated tissue here, so we won't
have to cut any away. It won't require surgery, just a few stitches.
Nothing serious, only enough to give you a little scare."
"Scared? Me? Don't gimme no shit." Once again, she stung his
arm with alcohol. "Ow, hey, girl, what you doin'?"
"Don't tell me that hurt."
Thus challenged, he was ashamed to admit it. "Naw. Didn't feel
nothin'."
"So how did this happen?"
"Aw, that damn chump, he messin' with my woman 'n got scared
when I walk in the door. Man, I just wanta sleep, but he come at
me with a knife. Shit, I cut myself worse shavin'."
"Then he got scared and brought you in."
40 Under the force of her smile, he had to laugh. "Yeah."
When she had finished with the stitching and bandaging, she
opened the door to usher him into the hall. As he stepped into the
doorway, he chuckled and was about to give her a wisecrack, but
then his eyes startled wide and he loped down the hall toward a side
exit. Two policemen flanked the black man at the Emergency desk.
A policeman with a paunch got up from a chair behind the desk,
laughing, "Go get'm, Herb. Give'm a scare." Herb sprinted down
the hall, while his partner led the prisoner out to the patrol car. The
paunchy policeman took off his hat and dried the sweaty rim with
his handkerchief. "What a circus!" He shot a look at Mary. "What'd
you let him get away for?"
"Sorry. It's just hard to work when I'm handcuffed to the
patient."
He looked at her, deliberating, and then shrugged. "Guess so.
Listen, sweetheart, where do you nurses keep the coffee?"
"I am not a nurse."
"Sorry. Didn't mean to insult you." He turned to the nurse at
the desk, whose back had gone rigid. "Would you please get me
a cup?"
"Certainly, Chief."
Mary unclenched her teeth, determined not to show him he had
scored a point. The nurse returned with the coffee, which the Chief
slurped greedily. "Thanks, sweetheart." Herb came back down the
hall alone, disgruntled. The Chief grinned at the nurse. "One way
or another, we take care of the spooks. That boy's probably ten
miles out of town by now."
Mary had turned to leave, but turned back again. "Was it really
necessary to come here and run sprints through the hospital? After
all, if they're silly enough to fight over a woman, why don't you
let them just bruise each other? Did anyone file a complaint?"
"No. Normally, we'd leave'm alone, but when we get a call saying
they came here to get patched up, just so they could go and do it
all over again, we've got to let'm know they shouldn't bother the
hospital, or us."
Mary glared at the nurse, who returned a cool smile.
The Chief resettled his hat on his head. "Let's go, Herb." He
patted the nurse's ass and her smile soured.
Mary sank onto a wooden chair, abstracted once again.
4i A phone call prepared Emergency for an ambulance arriving
from the prison. The prison doctor told Mary that the man they
were sending over had a temperature of 108 and his white count
was 37,000, almost 30,000 higher than normal.
Mary was ready with an antibiotic cocktail when they rushed him
in; she filled him with chloramphenical, oxacillin, penicillin, kana-
mycin, and colistin. She saw he was black and shivered when she
looked at his face: teeth tinged with blood, lips split, nose and eyes
smashed. But she didn't recognize him, and only got the shock when
she saw his name on the chart. It was the man the police had
arrested several nights before, the man with the knife.
Once she stabilized the patient's condition, she sent him on to
another wing of the hospital. She saw Herb hanging out by the desk,
talking to the nurse about his gun. She marched up to- him. "What
happened to that man?"
"What? That's what I'm here to ask you."
"I mean, why is he mangled like that? And come to think of it,
why was he in prison? Shouldn't he have gone to the police station
for a minor offence?"
"Hey, slow down." He made hushing motions with his hands,
then led her away from the knot of people who gathered to listen.
"Okay, I'll tell you as much as I know. We did take him to the station and we told him about lawyers and everything. We were just
going to throw a scare into him, then let him go in a day or two.
But he started getting sassy, and the Chief was all riled up and we
sort of had to pull the Chief off and throw him in a cell for his own
good. Pretty soon, he's complaining that he's got a gigantic headache and he starts asking for painkiller. As soon as he heard that,
the Chief says, 'That nigger's a junky. I don't want no cold turkey
in my jail.' He had the guy taken to prison to let them deal with him
and try to pin a tougher sentence on him."
Mary nodded. "He isn't a junky, is he?"
"I don't think so. It didn't look like withdrawal, exactly. But he
must've been hurting pretty bad, because he stole some painkiller
from a con at the prison."
"Uh oh."
" 'Uh oh' is right."
Mary looked away, unhappy about what she knew was coming.
"The con was using it to get high, wasn't he?"
The deputy nodded. "He sure was. So when this guy stole it, the
con and his friends just whipped the crap out of him. Then I guess
42 the infirmary found out about his temperature and stuff. They
phoned to let us know, since we sent him over."
"So now it's my turn to tell."
"Please."
She frowned. "The trouble is, I don't know much. It wasn't
obviously one thing or another, so I dosed him in every direction,
trying to keep him alive until he could be diagnosed. And that's it.
He's barely alive, and that's all we can say for sure."
"You're kidding."
"No, I'm not. But I'm sure your prisoner will thank the Chief for
his concern. How touching."
"The Chief didn't send me. I came to find out for myself."
Mary's grimace softened into a smile. "Sorry I snapped at you."
Herb smiled in reply, ready to small talk. Mary had already turned
down the hall, heading for the library that might hold a clue.
"I just wanted to find out how he was doing. I've thought about
it a lot, and went through some texts, but it baffles me."
"Unfortunately, I'm reduced to looking in texts myself. I certainly can't learn anything from the patient. We cultured him stem
to stern and couldn't scrape together enough bacteria to make a fly
sick. When the doctors in Emergency toss around the antibiotics
like they came out of a gumball machine, they don't leave us much
to diagnose with."
"Dr. Garcia, I was the one on Emergency that night. I thought
I did what was best."
"I know you were the one. Why do you think I mentioned it?"
"Sorry. I should have withheld medication. He might have died,
but at least we'd know what he died from."
Garcia fiddled with his moustache, turning the ends into the corners of his mouth, nipping at them with his teeth, not bothering to
reply. He was about to walk away when Mary snapped at him,
"You haven't answered my question."
"What question?"
"How is he?"
Garcia's eyebrows shrugged, and then he saw a nurse passing and
beckoned to her. "Tell me, how is Mr. Brown?"
"Mr. Brown. Is he the white count? He's hanging on. Not much
change since we got him from Emergency."
Garcia waved the nurse away. "Is there anything else, Dr. Blake?"
43 "Can I see him?"
"Sure. Won't do you much good." He walked briskly away from
the conversation. Mary suspected that every doctor who worked
Emergency had gotten that same reprimand. When she caught herself trying to think of wittier ways to phrase her retort, she marched
into the ward to concentrate on the medical puzzle.
His face was a black blot framed by the pillow. The cons had
beaten his features into a blur. Mary's face was flushed with fascination, and to divert herself, she did his vital signs, even though a
nurses' aide had done his signs an hour ago. Mary found his blood
pressure too far down, teetering him on a fatal brink. She rang for
a nurse while debating types of medication, but it was Dr. Garcia
who hurried in the door, with his stethoscope already in his ears.
Mary tried to consult with him, but he brushed her away. As she
backed off, he called, "On your way out, will you pull the curtain
around this bed?"
An insult? She saw him watching the curtain as he bent over his
stethoscope. A nurse watched. Yes, it was an insult. The nurse
jumped forward to help only after Mary had the curtain half drawn.
She was stalking for the door when the other patients called her
back. "What's the problem?" "Is somebody having a hard time?"
"I don't like it when they run in here looking worried." "Where's
my doctor?" She did what she could to calm them, then waited to
ambush Garcia in the hall.
"Couldn't Mr. Brown be moved to another ward? These convalescent wards fill up with old people, and they're jittery. He's a
mess to look at, in the first place, and when you come flying in trailing attendants and equipment, they get scared. They think they're in
that room because that's the place for hopeless cases."
"Don't you want to hear how Mr. Brown is, first?" He'd trapped
her. She hung her head while he gave her the details. He concluded,
"So you see, it was a relatively minor episode." He was gone before
she could ask again to move the patient.
She started asking around, finding out about Garcia's cases, feigning indifference. Two days of research gave her the result she expected ; he was a hotdog. Any case that was unusual or particularly
difficult, he would take for himself. It became a challenge, the
Doctor and Death tugging at the patient, the mechanic battling entropy. How he must have hated turning a case over to a surgeon or
a specialist.
44 Mary tried to stay away. The evenings dragged, evenings of swallowed pins, broken toes, hypochondriacal ravings, mechanical problems that left her too much time to think.
West Palm Beach. She had no idea how important that "West"
was. Palm Beach was the chain of hotels and beaches and manicured
parks, a thin sliver of land ringed by yacht docks, swarmed over by
Rolls Royces and Bentleys and the occasional plebeian Cadillac.
West Palm Beach, the mainland, had everything and everybody
else: the workers, the poor, the blacks, the fights, the accidents,
troubles in the omnipresent sunshine. And it had a hospital ward full
of old people too feeble physically and financially to do anything
but fret in their rows of beds and stare with alarm at the prisoner
whose body was Garcia's diversion.
She had to see. She climbed the stairs and found the nursing station deserted. What? She peered down the hallway. How could there
be no nurses? The call board twinkled. It looked like every patient
on the floor was awake and pressing the button, demanding attention, pleading for a nurse and reassurance. Should she handle some
of these? What's going on?
"Oh, Dr. Blake, hi." A nurses' aide had come out of a nearby
door and went behind the desk to stare at the call board. Her hands
curled into feeble fists and she turned scowling to a cart filled with
trays of fruit juice. She grabbed at a tray, knocking over the cups,
spewing juice onto her dress and the floor. Mary caught her arm
before she could bang it down on the desk. She flopped onto the
chair and rasped out, "Damn it," through a constricted throat.
"Okay, okay, settle down. Now what's going on? Where is everybody?"
"Oh, that guy, that Negro, he had another stroke."
"Another? You mean he had one before?"
"Yeah, last night. The guy's been dead about three times."
"But Dr. Garcia took half the hospital in with him to bring him
out of it, right?"
"Yeah." The aide looked up at Mary. Was that a smirk? Was
Mary's tone breeding insubordination? Change the subject.
"It looks like most of the floor needs a nurse."
"All they're going to get is me and a cup of apple juice. That's all
most of them need. But if any of them need medication, they'll have
to fight Garcia to get a nurse."
"You'd better go. I'll keep an eye on the desk. And why don't
you push the whole cart around rather than carry it tray by tray?"
45 "Oh yeah. I guess I wasn't thinking." The minute of sitting had
taken the hustle out of the nurses' aide. She slouched along behind
her cart, resenting the patients' need of her; not her specifically, but
her genetically, anyone in white who would say, "It's all right.
Don't worry."
Mary mopped up the spilled juice, tumbling arguments through
her head. No single plan of attack had coalesced when Dr. Garcia,
tugging and chewing at his moustache, led his silent team down the
hall. So when she rose to confront him, she herself wondered what
she would blurt first.
Garcia automatically expected a challenge and led the way into
an examination room for some privacy. He stalled her by running
through a list of symptoms. Mary quizzed him. "Motor ability?"
"Gone."
"And mentally? Is he alert?"
"He's about on a par with a sponge. He's definitely circling the
drain."
"And his face looks like a high-speed accident happened to it.
Couldn't you have let this CVA finish him?"
Garcia recoiled. "Dr. Blake, do I have to remind you that we're
here to gather data about his disease?"
"You already told me the cultures showed nothing. Are you waiting for him to breed more bacteria?"
"We're engaged not only in therapy, but also in research."
"You can't help him. Would you tell his family you're saving him
out of curiosity?"
"I wouldn't call it," he sneered, " 'curiosity'."
"What about the other people who need the space? What about
a person with an operable cancer who gets stalled because there are
no open beds?"
"This white count could be of much greater significance, if not
for this patient, then for the future."
"I know, I know, the patients are here as data."
"That is correct." He left her.
She went to see Mr. Brown. Even two days earlier, life had
quickened the face, had shown that a different face had served as
the raw material for this brutalized mask. But now the flesh had a
look of finality. It was as set as a lump of clay. She gripped his wrist
with two fingers, feeling the pulse flutter through. Should he die?
Should he be made to die?
46 1964    Columbus
Pay now, bear later, if at all. Or bear now, pay forever. Now it's
a money question. My emotions used to boil, but they finally evaporated. With all that heat, why do I feel cold now? It can't all be a
money question. If money was all, the answer would be to learn
typing and rake in dollars as an executive secretary. Instead . . .
"Barney crapped in his bed again. Mary, I think you better take
care of that." The hallway swarmed with nurses. Any other nurses'
aides? No? Mary banged the food tray back onto the cart. The nurse
walked away.
Damn nurses. They would never bother to clean up a bed, even
though three of them were just standing there, criticizing the doctors.
Would they think to at least pass out the food while she changed
the sheets? Not them. But they'd jump all over her if she was late
doing the vital signs. Would they even bother to take a blood pressure if they wanted to know it? Maybe. But it was probably beneath
them.
A tear slid down to nestle above one nostril. She snorted. God,
Mary, you're so neurotic? Would that be the diagnosis? Would a
male doctor blame menstruation? The ache clutched her when she
paid attention to it. I am right, despite my body.
She worked on automatic pilot, muttering. She refused to pay
attention to what she was doing. This was the third time on this
shift alone that Barney had fouled himself. What were they doing,
force feeding him? How could one inert body process all those feces?
She pictured him with mouth spread while a nurse stood over him,
tamping the food in, stuffing him like a sausage. She nickered. Not
only neurotic, but juvenile to boot. Well, after all, who had a better
excuse than a teenager for being juvenile?
She surprised herself by feeling better after changing Barney.
When she came back into the hallway and saw the nurse who had
given the order, her spine stiffened, but the nurse said, "Take your
time. The schedule is just to give you an idea of how long things
should take. It's flexible." Flexible, like Mary's spine, which slouched
in relief.
The nurses' aides ate after the patients had been served. The
whole cluster of them chattered down to the cafeteria, with Mary
trailing them. She deliberated past the ranks of food, finally forcing
47 herself to take an apple and a small, disspirited salad drowning
under bright orange dressing. Different uniforms swarmed at different tables: interns laughing together, nurses debating a point, nurses'
aides chewing fast with an eye on the clock. Mary couldn't face eating alone again. She headed for the women from her floor, who
looked up surprised, smiled, and cleared table space for her.
"So, Mary, are you used to it yet?"
"Sort of. It still takes me twice as long to do things as it takes
everybody else. Like Beth, she can do vital signs in about ten
seconds."
"Beth's been here a long time. You'll speed up. You just have to
get a rhythm."
"I guess so, but something always interrupts. Like Barney."
"Oh god, that vegetable."
"He's an unusual vegetable, though. He's self-fertilizing, a load
of manure every time you check. He looks distinguished, even in a
hospital bed, a Roman Senator kind of face, framed by that mane of
white hair."
"And sitting on a leaky anus. Listen, why go into it? Especially
when we're eating. Let's talk about something else. You going to
the game tomorrow?"
"Game?"
"Come on, Mary, wake up. The Ohio State game."
"No, I don't care to see the Battling Buckeyes." She felt heads
turn toward her, questioning. Few people in Columbus would admit
that Ohio State didn't pump their adrenalin. "There's somebody
on the team that I don't care to think about. A formerly good
friend."
Eyebrows raised. This was intriguing. "Mary! That makes you
nearly a celebrity! Who is it?"
"I don't want to talk about him. A tackle, that's all."
"But where do you know him from? Come on, we want some
gory details."
"I went to Ohio State. Before ..." She almost blurted, "...
before motherhood threatened." She kept her eyes fixed on her limp
salad. "I can't bear it. I can't bear to talk about it. Some details are
too gory." She'd monopolized the attention of the table. She looked
up, imitating sprightliness. "Now it's my turn to change the subject."
Her mind blanked, a crimson pall shrouding her thoughts. The eyes
stayed on her, friendly, puzzled. Her throat felt tourniqueted, damming the blood into a burning flush across her face. Their eyes
48 peeled tactfully away, and the conversation sputtered up around
her. She pushed her tray away, then got up and hurried from the
room, reeling.
How many afternoons had she sat in that horseshoe stadium, huddled shivering in her coat, watching the right side of the Ohio State
DEEfense DEEfense? Pudgy old grads sat around her, eyes misty
over the school song, shredding their vocal cords as they screamed
for the entrails of the Michigan team. They had screamed for Joe
to murder that quarterback. Mary had shuddered in the stands,
remembering the night his meaty hand crushed a bruise clear around
her arm. She had been cramming for an Invertebrate Zoology exam,
had had to leave to earn her tuition toting beer at a High Street
hangout, had flung her Zoology text at Joe for tackling his way to
such a fat scholarship. But there she was, back in the stands, remembering every play Joe made, because he had cried when he saw
what he'd done to her arm.
She went back to her floor and hid in the conference room. It
still stank from tobacco. Every morning they came here for a briefing
on the patients, and the cigarette reek thickened immediately, steel-
wooling her eyes, clamping her skull.
The woman she'd been talking to found her there, staring at the
formica tabletop as at a blank movie screen, devoid of meaning.
"Listen, are you okay? We ... I don't know, did we say something,
or what?"
"No, not really. How could you know? It's just that I had such
big plans when I went to Ohio State. Now here I am ..." How to
say it?
"What sort of plans? What happened?"
"Career plans. It's too complicated. It's just that I would never
..." There was no way to say it that wasn't insulting. She would
never, ever, have become a nurses' aide if she hadn't been forced.
She wanted to be a doctor.
A nurse glanced in, then opened the door. "No more time for
chitchat. Let's pick up those food trays."
She woke the next day in a cocoon of gloom. She just knew her
day would be bad. But when she forced herself to sit up, she rose
out of her mood as if it was a low-lying fog. The $50 a month room
was in an old house that had been partitioned into a hive of tenants.
She was surrounded by them, without a window for a glimpse out-
49 side. So she stopped short when she opened the front door on a grey,
rainy day. Time for a drop in mood. She waited to hit the emotional air pocket. Nothing. What had she dreamed in the night that
had so insulated her?
None of the problem cases bothered her. Mrs. Fenster's vagaries
were expected. Mary asked, not believing she'd really find out,
"How are you today, Mrs. Fenster?"
Mrs. Fenster aligned her dentures, preparing to speak. "A wonderful day for all God's plants."
Mary held the thin wrist, feeling through the flakey paper skin
for a pulse. "Yes, but how are you?"
"All this hot sunshine. My, my. I hope the daisies don't shrivel."
The rain drummed dully on the window. Mrs. Fenster's pupils rolled
heavenward; her eyes were blanks. Her head sank back on the pillow and she spoke through a castanet clatter of dentures. "Put icing
on the goats. Hydrant."
It was almost veterinary medicine. The patients' problems were
reduced to what Mary could observe, to how many beats in how
many seconds, to the numbers on the dial of the blood pressure
gauge. On other days, Mary had been angered that some patients
could not detail their symptoms. Today, she was glad they couldn't
mislead, invent, or deliberately lie.
The aide she'd talked to the day before approached tentatively.
Mary smiled. Together they went into the next ward, where they
found Barney sitting up in bed, excited. Moving closer, they saw
him bouncing his penis from hand to hand like an elongated volleyball. He studied it, quizzical crinkles deepening around his eyes. He
couldn't seem to remember why it was important. He looked up at
the two aides and a goofy grin bloomed across his face. Mary
laughed, "That's real good, Barney," and pulled down his gown.
He was still intent on his crotch, and concentration had tightened
his muscles, so they both had to press down on him to straighten him
out, like he was a folding picnic table that didn't want to work.
They tried not to laugh too loudly until they were out in the hall.
Mary shook her head. "Whew. Pretty strange. When I started
working here, it sort of shocked me that everybody laughed about
some of the patients. But really, I guess you can't help it."
"Sure. Barney's so nice and gentle, it's like watching a puppy."
"I'm going to ask this again, because I really want to know.
What's the story on Barney?"
50 "Well, he's had too many cardiac arrests and his brain wasn't
getting enough oxygen ..."
"No, I mean before he came in."
"A doctor told me Barney was a top Columbus lawyer."
"Really? Do you think he knew we were laughing at him?"
"I guess I don't know. We didn't laugh at him."
"We couldn't have laughed with him, because he isn't even there.
I don't know. I'm confused." Mary frowned.
The other aide cocked her head, listening. "What's that?"
They hurried to where there was a commotion. Mrs. Fenster
thrashed in bed, arms windmilling, legs pumping, as if she was trying to play tennis prone. They put restraints on her.
The day rigidified into its routine. Mary somnambulated through
her tasks, thinking about Barney. Voices demanded her. "Nurse.
Oh nurrrse." No matter how often she'd show some patients their
call buttons, they still trusted to their voices. "Nurrrse." Mrs. Fenster
wandered down the hall. Mary intercepted her. "Now how did you
get out?"
"Must feed my Venus Fly Traps. Get me some nice Venus Flies."
Mary steered her back to bed and lashed her down so tightly she
could have hung on through a hurricane. Mrs. Fenster turned grieving eyes on her. Mary passed along the blame. "The doctor ordered
me to do it." Within half an hour, Mrs. Fenster had Houdinied out
and was circling a potted palm in the lobby. Mary knew there was
a spark somewhere in that old head.
Mary watched Barney. She didn't want to find out the background of Mrs. Fenster or anybody else. Just one man's story had
snagged her more fully than she had wanted. She was happy that
he never lost his smile, listened closely to his humming for hints of
melody, winced when he tried to speak. For all she knew, his smile
might have been from gas pains, but it looked pleasant. His conscious effort to labor out a sentence was grotesque. Mary felt with
horror her own face contorting into gargoyles in sympathy. She
turned away, wondering if he could have seen. He startled her with
success. She was bringing in his food tray when he said, "You girls
are so good to me." Then his eyes clenched shut, a close to the conversation.
Mary wanted to exult about it to Barney's wife, but restrained
herself. Why raise hopes? She watched the older woman sit through
visiting hours, sometimes prodding a coherent phrase out of her
5i husband. Both women watched across a chasm the flickering of his
mind. Could it be growing brighter?
Barney filled Mary's thoughts but didn't monopolize them. She
was alert enough to rebel when ordered to administer enemas to
Mrs. Fenster "until clear". One enema would have traumatized
her. Two or three . . . Mary got the bag and tubing, then stood
debating by the bed. The old woman could weasel out of restraints,
but she was a brittle, dusty flower pressed long ago in a heavy book,
ready to crumble at a touch. Mary hunted up the head nurse and
said, "I'm not going to murder her with enemas."
The nurse's mouth gaped. "You're not what?" She phoned the
doctor and explained Mary's refusal. Then she frowned and slowly
hung up the phone. "He says okay, don't give the enemas."
Mary blurted, "I thought he would fire me." The nurse shrugged.
Mrs. Fenster's reprieve was short. She died a week later. But first
she was able to take the cameo from her neck and give it to her
fifteen-year-old granddaughter with her own hand, rather than
letting it disappear into a pile of her leavings, to be divided with
surgical impersonality by a will. Mary was gratified.
Barney had another myocardial infarction. He was found dead,
but the doctors raced in, thumped his chest, jolted him electrically,
pumped his lungs, plugged him into machines, and said he was
alive. His wife showed strain dragging at the corners of her mouth.
She still stopped to talk to the nurses and aides, asking how they
were, smiling at their answers, but she seemed always to be focussed
on a void.
Mary questioned the aide who had first told her some details.
"You said that Barney was one of the biggest lawyers in Columbus.
But look at his wife. I mean, she's a really nice person, but she's not
what I'd picture as a lawyer's wife. She has no jewelry but her
wedding ring. Her clothes are nice, but they obviously come off a
rack at a department store. What's the deal?"
"I guess the doctor meant a well-known lawyer instead of a rich
one. Barney took notorious cases, defended the biggest underdogs.
He didn't get much money for it."
"Such an intelligent man ..."
"As far as his intelligence goes by now, they may as well plant him
in a flowerplot."
"That's awful."
"It's also the truth."
"I don't know what to think. They had an old lady dying at her
52 own rate and were ready to kill her by flooding her intestines. Now
they have a man dead before they could get to him, so they started
him up again. Where's the sense?"
"Don't try to figure it. It'll only confuse you."
Mary thought about Barney's wife. Barney himself was no longer
present, and commanded Mary's thoughts only theoretically rather
than personally. His wife couldn't afford to make the machines live
for the body. Medical insurance was not a complete cushion. She
had started talking about her husband in the past tense. She was
crying by his bedside when Mary walked in. Her grey hair showed
she had raked it with a trembling comb of fingers. She swallowed
and fought the shudder out of her breathing, then let her hand
barely grace the rumpled sheet over his wired chest. "What good is
my sitting here?" Mary cried too.
Then visiting hours were over, while Mary stayed rooted by the
bed, studying Barney's waxen face by the glow from the dials that
twitched their claim that he was still human, not clay. She had seen
embalmed faces shining with more seeming health. She was rooted,
but she swayed. She pulled at the inside of her lips with her incisors.
She jerked. She flinched awake and realized she had her hand on
the switch to his oxygen, and her finger was flexing, ready to shut
it off. Doctors banged in and shoved her into the hallway. She
tottered to the nearest chair, not noticing until her fogged eyes
cleared that Barney's wife stood patiently, watching the door. The
doctors came out again and orderlies went in. They wheeled him out
with a sheet over his face. His widow followed the draped body down
the hall, not quite smiling, but with her tension visibly drained.
The aide who was friendly with Mary asked, "What's wrong?"
Her tongue felt swaddled in cotton.
The aide sat beside her. "Barney?"
Mary's eyelids twitched.
"Yeah, poor Barney. He looked ahead, though. A couple of years
ago he drew up his own legal paper, said that if he was revived
after an illness or an accident but they couldn't get a mental response
out of him, they were to pull the plug after a week or so. The
doctors couldn't do that, but they put this 'no code' on him and
sort of looked the other way when he died. Not that that's quite
legal."
And Mary had almost killed him first.
"Are you cold? You're shivering."
Her muscles fluttered. What am I doing? What am I doing?
53 1970    West Palm Beach
Mary checked, then checked again. Her spine iced over. No
pulse. She pulled the covers from the bruised, black chest and bent
her ear to the heart she knew was still.
Why now, for god's sake? Why couldn't you live until I got out
the door? Can I leave unnoticed? Will they blame me? A flashback,
oh Jesus, and this time I'm innocent. I've got to ... calm down.
Nobody suspects. Can this corpse be revived?
She stayed in the room, waiting for the flurry in response to her
ring. She knew she'd been dredging memories for a long time when
she realized all the fights were out and sleep was rattling in the throats
of the old convalescents. She remembered to create a box of privacy
by pulling the dingy green curtain. A nurse flung back the curtain,
ready for dramatics. Mary held up a hushing hand. "Relax. He's
gone." Caution made her invent. "I just now came in and found
him cold. He may have been dead for a while."
Next came two men with a cart of electronics and oxygen. They
were ready to plug in the body, but stopped for Mary's explanation.
The nurse bent over him, gently poking at his face, a gesture of
testing fruit for ripeness. The two body mechanics put away their
power cables and looked on. The nurse whispered a whistle. "I
didn't pay much attention to his external condition before. Looks
like they tried to put him through a meat grinder."
Dr. Garcia was last to arrive, and he was chiding them as soon as
he entered, raising his voice the length of the ward. "Yes, well, why
are we all standing around?" The geriatrics came groaning and
hacking out of sleep, moaning their reluctance to wake to a nightmare. "Are we waiting to play a game of bridge on his stomach?"
Mary pulled the curtain behind him and once again explained. He
checked the pulse himself, while she seethed. His lips tensed into a
zero of disappointment, and his tongue flicked out to capture some
moustache to chew. He gestured them away, pausing to halt Mary
with a frown. When they were alone with the body, he asked, "Why
are you still here? Didn't your shift end an hour ago?"
"I wanted to make sure everything was okay before I left."
"Everything in Emergency, or in the whole hospital?"
54 "I came up here because I was involved in the case at the beginning. That's all."
"Too bad you couldn't have come a little earlier."
She hoped she looked unconcerned. "If you really wanted some
warning, why didn't you hook him up to a monitor?"
"Theoretically, every patient in the hospital could use a monitor.
We simply haven't the facilities." They stood mutely at that impasse, neither one willing to leap into a chasm of accusations. He
flipped the sheeet over the patient's face. "It looks better covered.
As for you, you should sleep when you get a chance. Interns don't
get enough sleep even without checking every patient in the place.
Call an orderly on your way out. We're sending a gift to the
morgue."
"I'm very sorry. We did everything we could for him."
"Yes'm, ma'am. I 'spect you did." The old man turned his
rheumy eyes on her, clouded eyes that made clear the sarcastic edge
to his Stepin Fetchit whine. "I surely do 'predate it, ma'am."
Mary stepped back and hid her face with some charts, pretending
she had to study them right that second. Why had she come down?
She had known the tense-eyed old man would get no explanation
from the morgue that could match his outrage. But what could
she say?
He looked down again at the face, fibrillations rippling along his
jaw. "What was it killed him?"
"We're not sure. We could help him a little bit, but his symptoms
didn't add up to anything we could name."
"Musta been a germ with a punch."
"Oh, his bruises were from something else, that ..."
"I know. Yes ma'am. Know all about it. Yes'm." He ducked his
head at her, getting far into his role as docile darky.
Mary saw the door admit another man, young, heavy with muscles. She paused a beat, but then glimpsed a bandage on the shoulder that was turned away from her. She smiled, but he wasn't paying attention to her. "You through, man?"
"Yes, I b'lieve I am." He flicked the sheet back up over the
mangled face, but didn't move toward the door.
"Yeah?"
The old man waited for a silence to settle so he could shatter it.
Waited. "She say she don't know what killed him."
55 The younger man didn't bother to look at her. "It's him, ain't it?"
"It's my boy, right enough."
"Then let's go." That was it. They had only wanted to be sure,
wanted to see that it wasn't some other prisoner beaten into anonymity. They were sure of the cops' they-all-look-alike syndrome.
Simultaneously, they'd have sworn the police knew each of them,
probably had files on every black person in the state. Now they knew
it was the corpse it was claimed to be, and the state could go ahead
and dispose of it.
The old man was out the door, but Mary stopped Orangeade
with a hand on his arm. "How's the cut?"
He looked at but didn't see her. He glanced at the bandage that
was now ragged and stained. "Perfect." He was gone before she
could blurt any more questions. Come on, Mary, did you think he'd
have the answers?
"Can you see him? Well yeah, Herb, I guess so. But I don't think
you want to."
"Aw, hey, I've seen sick people before. I've seen accident victims.
How ugly can he be?"
"He's not gruesome. I didn't mean that. He's discouraging."
"Okay, enough playing around. Where is he?"
"The morgue."
"Oh." His hand fiddled with the visor of his police hat, which he
then removed.
"Herb, he really doesn't care any more if your hat is on or off for
him."
"Huh?" He looked down and his hands jerked, as if he had just
become aware of what they held. He jammed his hat back on. "So
what did he die of?"
"Everybody keeps asking that. Including me."
"Was it because, uh, he got beat up?"
"No, no, it was some internal cause."
"Oh, whew, that's good."
"Why?"
"Uh .. . You remember, the Chief kind of got on his case, and
that's sort of why he was in the pen and got beat up and all. Just
didn't want our department mixed up in it. You know."
"And yet, what if the condition was induced by a trauma, such
56 as being accused of addiction, or being sent to prison for a moment
of jealousy?"
"Uhh ..." Herb groped, mouth gaped.
Mary winced her eyes shut and ground at her temples with her
fingertips. "Forget it, Herb. I don't think that's what happened.
Just keeping your Cop's Conscience on its toes."
"How's your Doc's Conscience?"
She opened her eyes to search his face. He'd shoved his hat to
the back of his head. His challenge had been a reflex, nothing more.
She reclosed her eyes.
His tone softened. "Hey, you look beat. Come to think of it, you
always seem to be around, all over the hospital, whenever I come
here. Don't you ever sleep?"
"Sleep? An intern sleeping? Those are contradictory terms."
"But don't you have a husband to go see?" His eyes searched for
a ring. Mary laughed. "How about a boyfriend?" Mary looked at
him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to give you the third degree. You
were just looking real frazzled. It's a shame."
"A shame?"
"Yeah. You . . . you're a pretty woman. Medicine is going to take
some of the edge off it."
"Oh deputy, do you know what you just said? Have you been
asleep for the last ten years?"
"Whaddaya mean? Listen, I can't even think straight in here, it's
so bright and everybody's running around and crying and everything. Why don't we get out of here? I mean, when I'm off duty, I
could pick you up and we could go have a drink or something. How
about it?"
Mary's smile widened. "You can take your hands out of your
pockets. I've seen your wedding ring. Oho! You turn such a pretty
shade of red. You see, deputy, a wedding ring doesn't bother me,
but if you're blushing, then you've got something in mind that
bothers you. No, it doesn't sound like a good idea. Ring or no
ring."
Mary became highly skilled in Emergency. She had always had
the technical competence, but daily increments were added to her
pyschological skill. Victims trusted her and calmed at her touch.
She depressurized Waiting Room hysteria, impressing friends and
57 relatives with her control, even when she didn't know how they
could possibly help the patient.
The Administration of Oceanview General removed her from
Emergency and sent her to a terminal ward.
You keep running into the same problems, and always will. When
you five in hospitals, how can it change? When you live with the
dying. Okay, okay, no cliches. Of course we're all dying. But they,
they gather here to die, here where I have my life. And on this ward
I'm reduced to saying it's okay. It's okay to die. It really is.
1966    Columbus
"Will you look at this?" The tension of keeping her voice down
pulled at Mary's face. "The next best thing to a corpse. Shall I
cover the face?"
The other nurse ratcheted her head through sweeping arcs, checking all corners. "That's sick. Somebody'll hear you."
"Not here." Mary jerked her thumb at the patient. "You can tell
in two seconds when Allbright has been passing the gas. These women come back looking like they're training to be professional paperweights." She bent to the mother's ear, spoke her name. Nothing.
"It's so frustrating."
The other nurse shrugged. "She'll come out of it."
"She could be looking at her baby right now."
"So what can a nurse do about it?"
"We could brighten up this place. Look." The staff of St. Berna-
dette's automatically ignored their surroundings. The walls and ceilings were flat white, the floors linoleum mottled with a pattern that
disguised scuff marks. The straining, laboring women had nothing
to concentrate on but a crucifix.
"Okay, it's boring. But say we brighten up the place, distract
them with posters and stuff. What does that do?"
Well, it wouldn't feel so much like an Emergency room, would
it? I mean, in here, pregnancy feels like a disease. No wonder they
want to be asleep instead of doing Lamaze."
"Listen, is this a pitch for the Nurses' Association?"
"No, Betty, I'm just trying to talk to you. I feel so helpless when
I see things that need to be changed."
58 "You want to know what I think? I think we better discuss it
some other time." She walked away.
Mary looked at the dormant mother. "What do you think?"
Silence. "I thought so."
"Mrs. McCarthy?"
"Yes, Mary, please come in. Have a seat. Now, tell me how you're
doing."
"I don't know. When people ask, I always say, 'Fine,' because
that's what they want to hear. But I really don't know."
"Are you ... restless?"
"Why do you ask?"
"When I check on graduating classes, getting ready to offer jobs
to new nurses, the schools often have recommendations for me.
Ohio State was unusually warm in their praise for you. Yet now
that you're in Labor and Delivery, you've announced your intention
of becoming a midwife. Isn't nursing enough?"
"There's more to my history than that. I had to leave school for
a while, and I worked as a nurses' aide. That certainly wasn't
enough. Maybe I'm a compulsive climber."
"But answer the question. What about nursing?"
"It's ... so restricted. As a nurses' aide, I thought the doctors
always knew best. As a nurse, I'm starting to wonder. I see them
prescribing things that make me shudder, like ethanol IV's to delay
labor so the baby's birthday will coincide with rich Uncle Edgar's
birthday, rich Uncle Edgar who happens to be heirless. I've seen
plastered mothers looning through labor. They have a baby and a
hangover with teeth in it."
"And ..."
"Well, some things have got to change, some options have to be
opened, and if the doctors won't lead, the nurses have to."
"There is a limit to how fast you can change ..."
"I've heard that before and I still don't understand why."
"You don't understand because you're too wound up. You know
that I take a special interest in the new personnel, especially from
Ohio State. Isn't that right?"
"Yes. You do."
"And I'm pleased to see you doing so well. In fact, you're going
beyond your capacity as a nurse. Recently there was a woman
whose cervix had to be cut. I'm sure the doctor knew your ability
59 with a needle and thread, but are you aware that it's not strictly
legal for you to do the episiotomy afterwards?"
Silence. In two seconds, she'd been outwitted.
"Mary, as I said, I'm pleased that you're so concerned about the
quality of care here. And I sympathize and would like to help. Will
you let me see what I can do? Can you wait?"
". .. Okay."
"Fine. Feel free to drop in any time."
Petty tricks and personality clashes fouled the hospital atmosphere.
The bargainers tangled words across a conference table.
The Administration scheduled all the nurses for a single afternoon
so they could be herded in shifts to the St. Bernadette's chapel, the
largest room in the hospital. Mary was startled to see a movie screen.
The film was about union organizers who shot opponents when the
union didn't get its way. It was so glaringly crude, Mary was too
stunned to catcall until midway through the feature. Her sarcasm
loosed a swell of laughter and snickered criticisms. She grinned over
her success until a friend sat next to her, cupping her hands to
whisper in Mary's ear. "McCarthy has hired a whole new flock of
nurses. They're getting higher wages than we are, but they had to
agree not to join the union." Mary's eyes reddened over the betrayal and her own naivete, while the hoots and jeers howled
around her.
*        #        *
"So you're supposed to assist me. You'll meet the others shortly.
You know, you look about as lively as a tree stump. What's the
problem?"
"Turmoil in my schedule. I used to work four days, ten hours a
day, then they switched me to five days at eight hours. After that,
they juggled shifts so that I couldn't get used to sleeping day or
night before it'd change. And now they're floating me from floor to
floor. I don't recognize the patients. I don't know where I am any
more."
"And why are 'they' doing this? Tell 'them' to stop it."
"They're trying to discourage me."
"Why?"
"I thought you knew. I'm helping unionize the nurses."
"Perfect. That's just what I need on this project, a professional
malcontent."
60 "Now wait a minute ..."
"You wait. I'll be right back." Mary stared after him, more
sleepy than insulted. The hospital's tactics were working.
Another nurse approached, asking, "Are you part of this terminal
experiment too? It sounds amazing."
Mary nodded. "This Dr. Alber, what's his story?"
"He's senior staff and he teaches at Ohio State ..."
"No, I mean, is he good?"
"Who knows? Some senior staff are hardly ever around."
When Bill Alber returned, he started the meeting. Mary assumed
she was still included. Alber's introduction was brief. They were
going to study the effects of LSD on the terminally ill. He himself
would study the analgesic effects. He gave a brief summary of what
he expected to find. The psychologist, Dr. Krentz, would study shifts
in mental attitudes. Dr. Krentz unfolded from his chair, shooting up
like a center called off the bench as a substitute. He was emaciated,
all his nutrition going into height. While he lectured, he pawed the
air as if searching for an absent basketball. Alber stood propped
against the wall, apparently studying his shoeshine.
The meeting dissolved in a flurry of paper, each person compiling
a stack of abstracts to read for background. Mary approached
Alber, who kept his eyes down. When he still didn't look up, she
asked, "So, am I in or out?" His eyes showed he found no clues
from her face. "I'm the union organizer."
"Oh, right. No, no problems. Everybody I talked to said you're
a top-notch nurse."
"You don't think I'll sabotage the experiment for the good of the
union?"
"You trying to pick a fight?" He surprised her with a smile.
"How about a cup of coffee instead?"
It was soon a habit for them to go to the cafeteria after each
preparatory session. Mary braced her arms on the table, wrapped
her hands around her cup, leaned toward Bill to fill his wandering
eyes. "But aren't you going to have to ignore some specific problems
of these specific cases, in order to draw some sweeping conclusions
for a magazine article? I mean, aren't you going to get a little glory
out of this?"
He closed his eyes. "Let's not analyze the doctor, shall we? I can
go to Krentz if I want that." He yawned. "What do you expect to
get out of it?"
61 "I'll have a greater understanding, a better empathy for .. . "
"No, no, no." He yawned again. "Don't give me anything spiritual. What real, tangible reward will you get?"
"It'll look good on my record."
"So?"
"When I get into medical school, that might help me wheedle
more money."
"Med school. You are a dreamer, aren't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh .. . nothing. Say, why do you have to dwell on this? I'd
just as soon not think about it right now. Let's have a little small
talk, a bit of chit chat, a laugh or two."
"I keep waiting for the project to start. Day after day we discuss
theory, so of course it runs through my head."
"Krentz and I are making assignments tomorrow. Soon enough?"
"Maybe soo soon."
"I knew it. I just knew you were a malcontent."
Cancer ward. Patient 2C. Egon Stengel. Carcinoma of the colon.
Colostomy performed. Metastases spread. Preterminal.
A colostomy, a shortening of the bowel so that it opens from your
abdomen and you shit into a bag. Remember the nurses' aides.
When a stunning woman would pass, they'd sneer, "I bet she has
a colostomy." Humor is a good insulator. But Mr. Stengel is a
clockmaker who just got a rococo antique to repair and ...
One week for staff member to become acquainted with and gain
trust of his or her patient. The one hundred micrograms lysergic acid
diathylamide, 9 a.m. No other analgesic. Continue antibiotic, cytotoxic, and hormonal injections.
Egon Stengel is depressed but willing to talk, ready to regret so
much of his life, to miss the kids he and his wife never had, to tell
me his plans for their cottage on the lake, their garden planted with
corn and peas and ...
Patients to receive no prior information. Following injection, staff
member to watch for giggling, prolonged stare, etc. Patient to be
told he or she has received a powerful drug whose effects will pass.
And Egon is relaxed, even when in pain. He mentions, "I'm in
pain," but it seems no more important than the sensation of muslin
sheets sliding on his skin. And he talks. And smiles his way into
euphoria. He says death doesn't matter, but now death is on his
62 mind. He's propped in bed, reading the Bible, looking for clues,
worry darkening the armpits of the striped pyjamas his wife brought
to make him feel at home. Death still doesn't frighten him, but why
do the words keep shuffling? And after his brain has bonfired, he
sits as peaceful and warm as embers, holding my hand. And I am
an angel unto him, an angel ministering unto him in Paradise. Me
and my syringe.
Each patient to receive two weeks follow-up. Mood changes and
shifts in philosophy to be charted daily.
And Egon sees his wife Bertha and tells her, as best he can, that
death is okay. She shrugs. "Okay or not okay, it's going to happen."
And he can't quite say. She can't quite hear. And Egon's chart, like
all the patients' charts, plunges.
A second set of patients. Procedure repeated.
But Egon . . . and Bertha ...
*        *        *
"What's the matter?"
She tried to cancel his question with a shrug, but he wouldn't go
away. He took off his glasses and ground his palms into his eyes.
Without the heavy black glasses frames, his face looked less official
and initimidating. "Work getting you down? Trouble with . . .
what's it ... Stengel?"
"We've paid so much attention to these patients for over a month,
purposely getting to know and care about them. Now we drop them
and they get attention by the clock; 5 p.m. food, 10 p.m. a shot."
The subject got dropped without a resolution in sight. He radiated charm, herding her along with it, using charm like a cattle
prod, sweeping her out of the cafeteria, out of the hospital, and into
his Thunderbird. But where could he take her when she was in uniform? They went to a bar called Mooiishine, where a wiry black
man pounded jazz out of a piano. Bill Alber apparently knew the
Columbus bars. When the music stopped, she had a full gin and
tonic. By the time it was empty, her good mood had evaporated,
leaving a vacuum. She wanted them to stack the chairs on the tables,
lock up, and leave her alone in the dark. Bill pried the glass from
her fingers, charming and cajoling her to the door.
She sank into a couch of velvety, sand-colored material, barely
noticing the opulence of his apartment. Thoughts scrambled and
ricocheted, trying to claw through her skull sutures. Everything
focussed when Bill kissed her.
63 "Mary, here's something I think you should see." Helen pulled
Mary into a bathroom, first checking to see that it was empty.
"Oh? Where did you get these? I mean, this must be confidential
information." They spread the files across two sinks.
"I wandered in, found the office empty, and walked off with
them."
Mary picked up a sheet of figures and shook it. "Look! Here's a
nurse with only one year's experience, and look what she's earning!
She's getting almost a dollar an hour more than Ruth, who's been
here ten years. Look at these numbers. It's crazy. We have to use
this for bargaining."
"But Mary, what if it is confidential? I was just going to show
you, not spread it around."
"Well, hell." Mary suppressed the familiar quiver of frustration.
"I guess we'll have to turn it over to the lawyers and let them
decide."
"I didn't know we were getting into anything this intense."
Mary Baker. Twenty-five years old. Cervical cancer. Metastases.
My own age, and she's dying. Why not me? She even looks like
me, with the brown hair, but her eyes are more green than grey.
Jealous? Of the healthy? Jealous of me? How will I get to know her
if she resents me? A malicious coincidence, which could so easily
have been reversed. Her mouth so small, so round, I didn't know
until I saw her asleep and unguarded that pain pursed it through
the day. Pain. What would it do to me?
She relaxed that pucker of pain to talk, to tell about her childhood on a farm outside Cleveland. She skipped over memories of
high school and examined more closely her college days and the
time spent with the high jumper who married her. Her compressed
mouth took pains to articulate. Her face conveyed nothing. It was
a mask of control.
Bill Alber stepped up to the foot of the bed. "Mary?" Both
women answered, "Yes?" One gasped. Alber gestured, and Mary
put down her notebook, tried to smile some reassurance to her
patient, and left.
"It didn't strike me before that you have the same name."
"It feels very strange."
"Merely a coincidence. Don't let it rattle you."
"It puts my emotions in gear."
64 "I can remove you from the case, if you like."
"... No, I can handle the mechanics of it. I'm all right."
"Good. Now, where would you like to go to dinner this evening?"
"... I don't know. Ask me later. I think I should talk to her some
more."
"Don't upset yourself with this thing."
"But it's doctor's orders that I should get to know her. Right,
Doctor? Don't worry about me."
Mary stopped talking. Her eyelids crumpled over blank pupils;
her forehead was mirror-bright with pain sweat. Mary Baker.
Twenty-five. A profile of her physical condition was a plummet.
Her mental chart held the same low, steady line, an unblinking
acceptance.
And can I help? Can I do anything but prod and probe until I
knock her off that emotional tightrope, that steady line her mind
treads across this chart? Just let her die.
She slapped the charts together and hurried to the nursing station, where she found that it was another hour before the patients
were to ease into painkillers.
"Nurse? Nurse .. . Blake, is it?"
"Yes?"
"I'm Mrs. Williams. The nurse here told me you were with my
daughter, Mary Baker."
"I was. She won't notice I'm gone."
"Oh no! Did something happen?"
"She's waiting for an injection. She needs all her attention to
maintain herself."
"Oh. Can we talk? Do you have a minute? I don't know what to
do. I talked so some doctors, but they said they were in charge of
a whole program, they weren't that familiar with a single case. They
thought maybe whoever was spending time with her ..." Her voice
was dying. The knot in her throat was wet with repressed tears, a
wet knot swelling, blocking her breath.
Mary took her arm and guided her into the sun room. An old
patient sat on a couch whose split vinyl had been mended with
tape. She sat in her quilted bathrobe, smiling in her nest of shredded
old magazines, her eyes smiled shut against the view of the warehouse across the street. Mrs. Williams tried to straighten her rumpled
blouse and skirt, brushing at invisible smudges. Mary led her out
65 of the glare to a shadowed corner, where they sat on plastic chairs.
"Now, how can I help?"
"I ... I'm afraid of something ... I don't know what to do."
Mary waited. "About your daughter?"
"Yes."
"You do know what her condition is, don't you?"
"Yes. I've known that for some time. It's that ... I'll have to tell
you what happened back in the 40's. I had two miscarriages and I
thought I was never going to have a baby. My doctor had a drug
he said would help. DES. Di-something."
"Diethyl stilbestrol." Mary was puzzled.
"And it worked, it really did, and I had my baby girl. I was so
happy. Then this thing happened, the cancer. I felt so strange taking the DES. I thought maybe I wasn't supposed to have a baby,
that I was having a baby by a trick, and the trick took twenty-five
years to backfire and I got scared, so I asked a doctor about it."
Her diaphragm heaved, but she made no sound. Like her daughter,
she fought pain in silence.
Mary put a hand on her arm, tried to exude calm. "I know. You
think it's a carcinogen. And you think that's why she's in the hospital." Oh god, you think you've killed your daughter. My hand on
her arm. The osmosis inverted, her pain leaking to me rather than
my pretended calm flowing to her. "It's not your fault. You were
under doctor's orders, and he was doing the best he could, working
on what was known back then."
"Don't. Don't tell me. I've thought of all the excuses. She . .. she
says you've been talking to her every day. Jim, her husband, he's
too close to her. I can't be sure about asking him. But you know her
now. Can she take it if I tell her?"
"She's dying, Mrs. Williams. Do you think she needs to know
what you suspect? Is it that important for you?"
"I told her before, before the cancer, about the DES. Maybe she
remembers. Maybe she made the connection. I want everything to
be clear between us."
Mary stalled, equivocated, making sure the pain shots had been
given. Nursing school hadn't prepared her for this. School had been
all mechanics. Nothing prepared her. She remembered the emotions
she and her mother had juggled between them, memories of a dead
baby and a dying mother. Memory could not prepare her.
The dying woman's eyes were filmed by drugs. "Whoo. When
I'm in pain, I'm wound to tight that every second is an eon. I ... "
66 She paused to pump her lungs deeply several times. She shook her
head. "I wish they could kill the pain without making me so groggy.
This dullness make me feel deader than anything." She worked to
put a rueful smile on her face.
Do it fast. "Your mother is here to see you."
"Why doesn't she come in?"
"She has a problem. She doesn't know how you'll react to it."
The rueful smile stayed. "Is it about that fertility drug or whatever it is she took? I've been waiting for this."
"Then you do remember. She wasn't sure you would."
"We had a family crisis at the time, and she told me about the
hell she went through to have a child. It burned into me. Of course
I remember."
"But why did you connect that with this?"
"Because she was afraid. She hoped it wasn't a mistake. I used to
think she meant that I was the mistake, when I was a problem child.
Now I see it could be a medical mistake."
"I wouldn't blame your mother. There's no solid proof that I
know of."
"Don't worry." The patient's eyes were sharpening. She stiffened
and seemed to inch higher in the bed. The shot was wearing off
already. "Who knows? Doctors tend to pass out medication and then
discover the complications. Maybe some proof will appear. But I
can't care about that right now. I have to end my life as well as
I can."
The two Marys hugged each other, their wet cheeks pressed together. She has no pretensions to maintain. That's how she became
my friend so deeply, so fast. All I can do as a friend is listen. It
kills me to be so helpless.
She wanted to stay in the woman's embrace, but had to pull back,
to signal Mrs. Williams to enter the ward and take courage from
her daughter.
The only light was the glow of the clock face. Bill had dived into
sleep after giving her breasts one final, satiated caress. His arm was
still flung across her abdomen. She eased herself up into a sitting
position, propped against a mound of pillows. She flicked a finger
through his hair. She thought she could see the flecks of grey through
it, see the sag his cheeks made along his jaw when he wasn't awake
and smiling. Her eyes ached from staring in the dark. She had tried
67 again to explore her thoughts with him, but he was unbuttoning her
uniform at the time. Her hand Brailled around beside the bed until
she found the bottle of sherry that would float her into sleep.
"Jim works ... in a med tech lab. A shit sampler. Yesss sssurprise.
A controller of chemicals... . He knew about DES. He kept quiet
too. Such a thoughtful husband. So unsure of his wife. Given time
... and we are given time, a total gift from out of the blue, or maybe
the black, the void, no, the black as opposed to red, meaning solvency as opposed to bankruptcy, urn, that means, let's see, we all
start out solvent . .. what? I thought I was belaboring the obvious,
thrashing it black and blue, ha!, but the obvious just stuck its head
into the sand and I don't recognize what I was thinking ... Oh!
Given time, we'd have known each other, maybe, and he'd have
trusted me more, maybe. Or not."
Three hours in, and the teeth-clenching Carnival of Paradise was
subsiding into mellow incandesence. She was levitated on the injection. On closed eyelids, she saw, "Oh, flowers. Allegro ma non
troppo. Dear old Ludwig van's Sixth, the movement of arrival,
opening movement of cheerful feelings in the country. Opening."
She opened her eyes. Blinked. "Oh."
"Maybe we should be in the country."
"No." She looked out the window and smiled. "It's raining, see?
It's all right. We don't need the countryside. Not today, anyway.
No hay today."
Mary smiled too. The patient comforting the comforter. This
woman is so strong, strong because she has peace. If she didn't need
the prop of that peace, I'd beg some from her.
Inevitably, just as Mary admired her calm, the dying woman
wept. Her hand clamped on Mary's hand. The nurse leaned forward to whisper the only professional advice she had. "It's all right.
Engage the feeling. Explore it. It will pass." Her memory was filled
by Bill Alber's face, sober behind glasses perched midway down his
nose, pontificating, "Statements to the subject that it is merely a
'drug reaction' are contraindicated."
"Sorry. I'm drowning my sorrows in salt water." The tears stopped
flowing, but she didn't wipe their tracks from her face. "This is terrible, what I'm doing to Jim, to Mom."
"It's not your fault."
"Fault. ... Earthquake. My world has been shaken apart, but
68 why should they go to the expense of trying to patch me up? It's not
long before I finally crumble into pieces. They should move on,
attend to themselves."
"You ..." What? What wouldn't sound empty?
"I don't have to do all this talking, do I?" Her pained mouth
widened briefly, creased her face into a short smile. Pooled tears
sparkled at the corners of her smile. "You know what I mean, don't
you? Can't you tell I want to die?"
"Yes." So would I.
"And what if somebody actually asked to be terminated?"
"We'd have to take that into consideration."
"What does that mean?"
"You moron!" Bill leaned on his horn, then passed the offending
car in a squeal of rubber. "You see him cut me off?"
"I know the feeling. Bill, what does 'take it into consideration'
mean?"
"What? Oh, the patients, right. I did hear that your case wants
to die. She's making a fuss. We'll put it on the chart."
"That's all?"
"Why, do you propose to kill her? You can't run an experiment
if you bump off the guinea pigs."
"Bill!"
"Will you relax? This case is getting to you."
"I think we've harmed her. She had herself under control and
saw things clearly, but then we gave her eight hours of false heaven.
Coming out of that has thrown fluctuations into her control."
"Oh. Mm. Bear in mind that the carcinoma is more advanced
now and she has more pain. But that's interesting. I haven't seen
reports of that in previous studies. I think we may have just earned
a footnote."
"There have been other experiments like this?"
"Quite a few. We're corroborating established facts."
"What?"
"Certainly. Krentz and I wanted to start with established techniques so we could perfect our own techniques and controls. This is
only the prelude to our major project. We're funded to work with
amputees to see if LSD will eliminate phantom limb pain."
"But these terminal patients ..."
69 "The facts are known. The drug helps for a few days, and then
they return pretty much to normal. In fact, our results follow the
pattern so closely, we think we can leave the second round of
patients and abbreviate the final round."
"No! You can't just drop her now. Now is when she needs help
the most."
Bill pressed the transmitter button and the garage door rolled up.
After he had parked, he turned a benign, patient smile to her.
"Mary, you can't help her. Nobody can. She's killing time, waiting
for death, and that's all." They left the garage and he headed for
the front door of the apartment building. He unlocked the door and
pulled it open for her, then turned to see that she was out on the
street, trying to flag down a car to take her back to her shoebox
room.
"Ah, Miss Blake, yes, we'd like to thank you for all your help. I
think you'll find you've been reassigned this morning." Dr. Krentz's
cadaverous frame couldn't fill the doorway, but he held his arms
akimbo so she couldn't pass.
"Let me talk to Bill ... Dr. Alber."
"I'm sorry, we're about to start in here. Perhaps later." He
loomed over her, trying to intimidate her away, but she ducked her
head to peer through the crook of his elbow. She could see Bill at
the table in front of the conference room, hunched over his everlasting charts. She spluttered, but Krentz was closing the door on
her. "Dr. Alber feels you perhaps have too much of an emotional
investment to be objective. But thank you again. I believe you're to
report to pediatrics." The door slammed.
Charts! I was supposed to play solitaire until he was done juggling charts, and then distract him. No medical talk from me. I
didn't have to persuade myself that he had brains, didn't have to
search for intelligence like I had to with Joe. But neither could I
display intelligence. Oh, but he is like Joe. He's as sensitive as
novocain. Now I'm ordered to drop from his life. Like I was ordered
to drop from Mary's. And Egon's. Egon.
She couldn't find Egon Stengel on the ward where she'd shared
his struggle. At the nursing station, one woman finally extracted a
memory. "Oh yeah, he hung on for a couple weeks, had a really
bad night, and then he was gone."
They made me forget. I forgot. They, he made me.
70 She was reprimanded for being late to pediatrics, where the squalls
of the children emulsified the thoughts she tried to organize. The
day dragged to a close. She could think no better in the quiet of the
changing room. The welter of emotions, distractions and concretions maelstromed. She didn't change out of uniform. She went back
into the hall, headed for the terminal ward.
She stood by Mary Baker. An orange plastic chair stood at the
head of the bed. A blue water pitcher and a spotty water glass sat
in puddles on the formica top of the bedside table. A massive shot
of morphine had left the grey face as lifeless as chair, pitcher, and
glass. But as Mary watched, pain knifed through, twisting the lips,
making claws of the mottled hands that gripped the muslin sheet.
The eyes opened. Mary searched the dull green pupils. Pain killer
glazed over any hint of recognition she hoped to find.
Why did you tell us you want to die? Why tell everybody? How
can anyone grant you that ultimate favor without bringing 'murder'
to every mind?
A woman of 53 gasped and wallowed in the next bed. She was
a breast carcinoma who had been slated for the experiment. Alber
and Krentz had assigned an underling to get to know her, but she
had deteriorated so fast, the doctors felt she'd die before providing
an adequate follow-up. They forgot about her.
She was immense. Her flesh puddled to the edges of the bed.
Mary flinched at the sight of her wrists. Piles of maggoty white
flesh camouflaged the scar tissue, but Mary could tell how often she
had attempted her own terminal cure for her cancer. Krentz and
Alber had kept her from a psychiatric unit for their own practice.
Then shelved her.
Mary was almost past the nursing station, but the words tumbled
from her. "I'll watch the desk for you if you want a break for a cup
of coffee." The other nurse was startled, but it was a long evening,
so she left. When she came back, Mary had taken a syringe from
the locked cabinet and cradled it in a wet palm in her pocket. She
returned to the ward. She didn't draw the curtain. Too flagrant.
She held up the syringe, pushed the plunger until the mephenesen
squirted from the top. How odd, to do that automatically so the
patient doesn't get air bubbles in her veins. As if it mattered. I am
right. This is the best. Mary looked at the round red face, aimed a
thought at the poor flickering brain, willed that thought to penetrate the fat and tell the woman that her wish was granted. This is
7i right. The needle slid into a vein, professionally precise. Mary's
body felt like a vaccum, and she imploded.
When she was alive again, when she was able to leave the ward,
the quivering knot of her diaphragm seemed to force her toward
speech. She saw herself seizing the hospital intercom, sending her
voice to every corner, searching for Bill Alber to tell him, "/ helped
her. I helped her." She had kept herself from looking at Mary Baker.
"Hey Mary, where've you been hiding? Come on, get out of that
uniform, we're going for a drink. Everybody's waiting."
"Helen. What?" "
"Where have you been? Haven't you heard? We won!"
"Won?"
"Our lawyers outfought their lawyers. The nurses can unionize.
I bet we get over fifty cents an hour more."
Mary's laughter slapped off the dead white tiles of the changing
room. Helen left her, because she would not change. Would not
move.
Bill must have come searching for her. They faced each other in
a hallway rattling with the screams of children. "She died last
night."
"She .. . ?" How could he suspect?
"Mary Baker, your cervical CA. Went into convulsions and
stopped breathing. Her mother and husband both objected to an
autopsy. No wonder. A nurse found some liquid in a glass on the
table. We analyzed it. An autopsy would have released an odor of
bitter almonds from the cranial cavity."
"Wait, that's . . . Prussic acid?"
"The husband admitted putting it there at her request. He was
very calm, even with the police. ... I thought you'd like to know."
He looked at her. "Rough night on that ward. A woman in the next
bed died suddenly too." Looked at her. "But I doubt that she drank
from the same water glass." Looked. "Mary, you'd better sit down."
1971    West Palm Beach
"This man obviously shouldn't be moved. Mr. ..." She glanced
at the chart. "Mr. Bain, would you like to just sit up?"
His voice had to hack through the phlegm his clenched mouth
had collected. "I wanted chhackk to sit by the window. Ech." His
72 head trembled over his water glass and he wobbled a globule of
phelgm into it.
"For right now, sitting up in bed will have to be enough." Perhaps we could arrange to move your bed closer to the window."
From the window, he would see an asphalt slice of parking lot and
the nylon flag on its aluminum pole.
Mr. Bain's face flashed disappointed relief before it retensed. He
fought to sit up. Mary gestured for the nurses' aide to assist him. A
minute later, the aide followed Mary into the hall. She spoke defensively, her arms crossed and knees locked together. "The chart said
he ought to sit over by the window. I was just doing what the chart
said. For exercise, he was supposed to get up and sit by the window."
"The chart did say that, but it was obviously out of date. Didn't
you see that he's using all his strength to stay alive? You were ready
to wrestle him over to the window."
"I never saw him before. I didn't know what he was like. They
been shifting me from floor to floor to fill in."
A memory twinge shivered Mary's lungs, but she paused a beat,
then said calmly, "Try to familiarize yourself with each new place.
If you have any doubts at all, ask questions. Make sure you know
what you're going."
The aide heard the dismissive tone in Mary's voice. She said,
"Okay," and shuffled down the hall, her arms still hugged across her
chest.
Mary was very calm. Her first day on the terminal ward had been
viscerally knotting, but now she was very calm and relaxed, clearly
aware. After assuring herself that the ward routine was flowing
easily, she took the elevator to the administrative offices.
He blinked. "This is a highly unusual request, Dr. Blake. You
must understand that Oceanview brought me in to maximize their
efficiency, and they have been extremely pleased with the scheduling
of the new interns. Do you really expect us to throw that schedule
out of kilter?" He laced his fingers like a pile of white sausages and
thumped his hands down on his desk top, a gesture of finality, a
model of the solidarity between medicine and management.
"If you checked my record, you'd see that I've had training in
this area that was unusually thorough and very intense."
"No doubt, no doubt. But I seem to recall that this training took
place when you were a nurse. Now, I'm not a medical man, but
73 that can hardly be the same as a doctor's experience, can it? You
must inevitably benefit from staying on that ward."
"Supervising death isn't very different no matter who you are."
"As I say, I'm not the person to pass judgment on medical questions." He took off his glasses to buff them with a handkerchief, as
if he no longer cared to even see her. Without their thick glass filters,
his eyes bobbled atop fat cheeks like raw irised eggs balanced on pink
pillows. Sighing, he replaced his glasses. "However, I can at least
check your file. The final decision will have to be made elsewhere."
One bloated finger punched the intercom alive, and he sent a secretary for Mary's history.
"Mr. Reims, as an efficiency expert, you must see that I can't
spend my time hounding administrators when I should be doctoring.
Thanks for at least checking my record, but remember that I
bounced off half-a-dozen secretaries before I got to you. I don't
want to be told I have to climb to even higher rungs of the ladder."
Yes, yes, I have never sounded so strong.
The Jello of his face stayed set in a polite smile. "I will do everything I can. Neither of us wants to waste time on this matter."
By the following Monday, Mary was switched to Labor and
Delivery, the ward she had wanted from the first. The authorization
was signed by Garcia. Progress.
Zippidee doo dah. Feeling fine, the world is mine. This is the
medicine I planned for, assisting at the entrance to the world rather
than the exit. Hallelujah, brothers and sisters. Say goodbye to the
angel of death. Plenty of sunshine comin' my way, zippidee day.
"Hey, Daktari, don't that just jazz your eyeballs?" The artist sat
in a lotus pose on the tabletop. A circle of kids in pyjamas ringed
the table, watching him, mouths slack, expectant.
"Mbwebwe, you've done it again." On the wall, a bright orange
lion hobbled on crutches, his eyes crossed in comic pain. Mary held
her stethoscope an inch from the wet paint, frowned hard, then pronounced judgment. "I think he'll pull through." The kids shrieked
laughter and poked each other in the ribs.
Mbwebwe's face was a black background lit by multicolored paint
splashes. He smeared at it with a cloth, rubbing until he looked like
a finger-painted hallucination. "Daktari, I got a favor to ask."
"Finish scraping your face so you won't give anybody nightmares,
then meet me in the hall." Mary went to ask the orderlies to wheel
74 the bedridden children over or a look at the new picture. The
orderlies shuffled off with downcast eyes. Now that she had gone
from interning to residency, her orders had them jumping faster and
listening less. They were sure she had no interest in what they said
and never gave answers that revealed themselves. Sullen eyes on the
ground, they waited for commands.
When Mbwebwe came out of the ward, he was followed by the
cries of the children, cries that echoed his name down the hall. He
grinned. "I was telling them a story about that jive lion that broke
his leg running hurdles against an ostrich."
"Even when your paintings are done, I think we should hire you
to put on a floor show. Now what was that favor?"
"I know you helped me get this job, so I thought maybe you
could help me some more. I see where they're fixing up your place
over there where they have the babies, new paint, pictures, all sorts
of crap. But those pictures ..." He wrinkled his nose.
"Too cute?"
"Too cute. Also, too white."
"You're the first person to mention that."
He winked. "I wonder why?"
"But do you know how hard it is to find a good picture of a black
woman and her baby? Believe me, I realize how many black women
come to this hospital."
"So okay, why don't I paint you a picture?"
"Well..." She looked away.
"Don't worry. None of this shit of lions on crutches. You've seen
my serious work. You know I can paint."
"But Mbwebwe, your serious work is about madness and dismemberment and ..."
"But I have the technique, don't I? Admit it. Just admit I can
paint."
"It's true. You can paint."
"Can't you trust me? Don't you believe I'd paint beauty for my
beautiful sisters to look at?"
"I want to believe you. First, let's see how straight you can be
with me. Be honest, now. Where did you get that name? It reminds
me of something from George of the Jungle cartoons."
"God damn, right on, Daktari, right on. Nobody ever caught that
before. Ain't it a gas? I did it so I could hear all the stuffed honkies
call me 'Mr. Mbwebwe, sir.' I don't know how I keep from laughing myself crazy. Not even the black folks caught it."
75 "But what is your name?"
"Mbwebwe. No, listen, you let me paint that picture and I'll
sign my real name. That's how important it is."
"I'll see what I can do, Mbwebwe. Really."
What would the madman paint? When she'd gone to the Arts
and Crafts Fair down by the beach, his booth had been conspicuously shunned. She saw why immediately. Grotesqueries writhed
across every canvas. On one side of the booth hung a warped glass
clock. Two hammers dangled from the center of the piece, which
was titled "6:30." Something clicked between her eyes. She had
raised one of the hammers, glanced at the artist, and smashed the
clock. He'd leaped on a table, whooping, "All right! All right! She
got it!" He was a talker, she listened, and he'd ended up decorating
the children's ward. Somehow, she had trusted him with that commission. But a painting for adults? That could be insane. For
mothers. Would he paint it for Sereeta, the languid woman who'd
smiled beside him in his booth?
"Doc, I dunno ..." Herb stared at the painting.
"Oh, wake up. Even a 'nigra' can be a beautiful mother."
"No, no, that's not it. Not at all. It's so ... " His hand fluttered,
grasping emptily for adjectives.
The painting hung where two halls intersected in a T. It dominated the wall that was the top of the T, a small, scintillating splash
of color that focussed all eyes in the Labor and Delivery area.
Mbwebwe had wanted it right in the delivery room. "My Madonna
should bless every birth! My Madonna should share her smile with
every mother!" She sat in profile, her face cupped in an electric
blue sweep of cloak and hood. The hood had gathered in folds at
the back of her head, freeing a wild black halo of hair, swirling
spirals of hair finely detailed as in Persian miniatures. Her eyelids
drooped half-closed in a swoon of fulfillment. Diamonds of light
sparked from her gleaming black skin; gems of light outlined her
rich, full lips quietly smiling. And the baby was perfection, staring
wide and silent into that smiling face.
"Just so ... "
"Do I see a hint of a tear?"
"Oh Christ, whew." He laughed and tried to blink it away. "Must
be an allergic reaction."
"Herb, you don't have to be embarrassed."
76 He hid his face by bending to peer at the signature. "Hez ...
Hezekiah Jones? What?"
"You wouldn't believe who that is. Do you know Mbwebwe?"
"You're kidding! That lunatic? He had some stuff at the Palm
Grove Gallery and we had to send squad cars to keep the tourists
from tearing it off the walls. Really savage pictures."
"That's why this picture is so shocking."
"It makes me kind of sad."
"Sad?"
"Yeah. You know why I'm here? My wife made me come. Well,
I guess I could have stayed home, but it was better to come. These
birth control lectures, that's why we're here. She wants to put off
getting pregnant so she can teach school a few more years, and she's
making sure we know all the angles. But a baby ..." He gestured
longingly at the picture.
"I see." She looked away, closed her eyes. She was hollow. The
vessel in her belly was knotted shut by a vacuum.
He lowered his voice, glanced around. "Did you know that there's
been some gossip about'this thing? People have heard there's this
sacrilegious painting of a black woman and I don't know what all.
Some people don't like it."
A woman with close-cropped blond hair marched up, taking swift,
determined steps. "Herb ..."
"Oh, I guess it's time, huh?" He caught her glance at Mary,
stepped between the two women, and herded his wife away.
Mary was preoccupied. She noticed that Herb had made a charade of not introducing his wife, as if the two shouldn't meet, but it
didn't register with any force. She turned away, testing phrases in
her mind, and headed for a phone. "Hello? Is this the Gazette? I'd
like to talk to the Feature Editor . . . Hi, this is Dr. Blake from
Oceanview General. I think I have an interesting story for you. The
hospital recently acquired an art work which has caused quite a
bit of excitement among the people who have seen it.. . . Would
you? And a photographer as well? ... That will be fine. And perhaps we can discuss some of the services we offer, birth control
information, for instance.. . . Great. Just have them ask for Dr.
Mary Blake."
An eavesdropping nurse shook her head. "Garcia's not gonna
like this."
77 "So, Ms. Daktari, what do you say? I asked you a favor when I
asked you to let me paint that masterpiece for you. But you've seen
it, you know that actually / was doing you a favor, especially with
all the publicity. I figure you owe me one." Mbwebwe perched on
the edge of his chair, hands on knees, elbows spread, posed lion-like
to pounce on her answer.
She wanted to choose her words carefully, but torrents of ideas
fought to spew out. "You say I owe you a favor." She turned to the
woman who sat beside Mbwebwe, resting a hand on his thigh.
"What do you think, Sereeta? Do you think I'd be doing you a
favor, or just him?"
The woman blinked, thought for a moment, then turned and
looked at Mbwebwe, while he kept his eyes fixed on Mary. Mary
got a good look at the profile; she was talking to Mbwebwe's Black
Madonna. Sereeta's face relaxed and she turned back to give her
answer. "He couldn't make me do this. We decided together. ... I
think that's all I need to say."
The women traded evaluating stares. Mbwebwe rose out of his
seat and braced himself on the edge of her desk. "There are so many
reasons why. Career reasons. Financial reasons. I mean, I hate to
nickel and dime this question ..." Both women waved him back
to his chair.
Mary sighed. "A question of rights, correct? Whether or not it's
your right."
Sereeta lifted her chin. "Exactly."
"I think it is your right."
Sereeta verged on a smile. "So do I."
"But why come to me? Why me? Why always me?"
Mbwebwe threw himself back in his chair, snorting disgust. "Hell,
you know what kind of crackers work in this hospital."
"I'm sure they'd object only on moral grounds, not through racial
idiocy."
Mbwebwe and Sereeta shrugged shoulders at each other. He stood
and said in a martyred whine, "If you can't act on your convictions,
I'll just get out the coathanger ..."
"Sit down. I like you, Mbwebwe, but I can't tolerate any grandstanding right now." Now? Why didn't they take measures in the
past? Because the birth control iectures just started? Because local
blacks don't trust the hospital and wouldn't want to attend? No,
they aren't ignorant. Then why? Christ, why bother to even ask?
And now? Who has a right to dissuade them? How dissuade them?
78 Show Mbwebwe his own picture to stir his emotions? I can see
Sereeta confronted by her portrait, staying composed, resolved.
"There are some details to be worked out."
"Then you'U do it?"
"Didn't you know I would?"
"But this means you will?"
"Okay, okay, if you must hear it stated: yes, I'll perform the
abortion."
Thin smiles all around.
1964   New York City
National Geographic. Newsweek. Time. Far, far too much time.
Nausea. Where do they get these ratty old magazines? Who can
read? Nausea? Vertigo, maybe, like I'm sitting up here far too high,
like I'm not getting enough oxygen, my head spins but it's no gyroscope, no stabilizer, oh Jesus, just don't pitch forward, nose dive
into the shag carpet that's had all the life crushed out of it. Because
nobody's here to see or succour.
Mary sat alone in a plain wood box, a tiny reception area panelled
in plywood that was plainly scabrous pine beneath its thick smear of
oak stain. She was rigid, concentrating on clutching her canvas shoulder bag, the canvas darkening under her damp palms. Nobody in
the reception room. No receptionist to take names or pseudonyms.
She opened her fists and rooted in her bag for her wallet, from
which she took a scrap of paper that was tattered from constant
sweating scrutiny. Dr. Alvin or Alan Cramdon. The name was written in smudged pencil by an unfamiliar hand, a tip from one of
Joe's horde of buddies. Joe had ditched that buddy. Joe didn't want
Mary to have that tip. The Battling Buckeye wouldn't tackle the
problem of what to do with his child.
Too much time. She finally stood up to go back to the door she
had come in. She caught herself tiptoeing and forced herself to walk
normally. When she opened the door, there it was, a plaque for Dr.
Alvin Cramdon. An electric buzzer ground somewhere.
"Yes, yes, yes, I heard you the first time." Mary swung around
and saw an old man in a lab coat, his head cocked to study her. His
hand explored the lab coat's pockets, jingling his coins and keys.
His white, tangled moustache was oddly stained, and when he
79 absent-mindedly groomed it with his left index finger, the stain
spread further along his upper lip. His eyes tightened grumpily.
Mary had never been so happy to see anybody.
Columbus
"Joe?" She rattled the door. In violation of his own Total Openness rule, he had locked the door, locked out the floating population
of Ohio State free spirits. Had he forgotten that she had a key? She
called his name again, then unlocked the door. "Joe?" The place
seemed empty.
The kitchen looked different. How? She finally realized that, for
the first time, she could see the formica of the countertop. Books,
records, and dirty dishes had been flung aside to clear a small space
for a small stack of money. She counted. Fifty dollars short. His half
was to be only two hundred, and he was still fifty dollars short. Fifty
dollars was the price of the pawn shop guitar he had rhapsodized
about.
In the hallway, she heard a few awkward plunks and strums. His
guffaw and a woman's giggle mingled with the twangs.
Mary left.
*        *        *
New York City
"I wasn't sure if I was in the right place."
"I was getting set up back there. Takes time to do this right.
Here, in here."
"I wanted to ask how long this would take. Not the actual .. .
operation, but how long I'd be laid up."
"Why are you in such a hurry?"
"I'm in college. I can't afford too much time."
"Oh, college, well well, let's speed things up for the college girl.
See if your education helps you with this document." He handed
her his bill. She dug aimlessly in her purse, waiting for her vision
to clear, while he rocked on his heels with his hand again jingling
the coins in his pocket. When she produced her wallet, he asked,
"So where's your husband? Or boyfriend?" She pretended not to
hear.
He patted the padded plastic of the examination table. "Up here.
"Up here. You know what to do, feet in the stirrups. That's right.
80 Now I'm going to scrub you." He lathered her belly and between
her thighs, then doubled over in a fit of gluey coughing. He spat
the result into the sink, then left. As the blood drained from them,
Mary's legs tingled. Time passed, and the lather on her stomach
caked, then peeled.
Columbus
What do you pack to go to New York? Toothpaste? Underwear?
It was all to trivial. Sleeping pills? Tranquilizers? How about a
pacifier? She pulled from the closet her secret, her Raggedy Ann.
She had brought it from home as a small cloth anchor, so she would
feel moored someplace, not like a speck in a void of college. She had
hidden it in her dormitory closet. Joe would have laughed.
She stood fretting, twisting Raggedy. Money? Another fifty dollars? A sudden vision — a young woman entering an abortionist's
office clutching a baby doll. Sick! She flung Raggedy from her.
Raggedy Ann was as old as Mary, and stuffing leaked from the
seam that held her head to her body. Mary gasped when Raggedy
thumped against the wall. She dove upon the doll to check for
damage.
New York City
A burst of hacking announced his return. "What's this? Feet in
the stirrups, remember?"
"I was trying to get some feeling back in them." She kneaded her
thighs.
"Okay, this is it. First we have one little injection."
"Of what?"
"An anesthetic."
"What kind?"
"Why? Do you know your pharmacopoeia? What should I give
you?"
"How do I know?"
"Exactly. How do you know? There." Pain pinched her cervix.
He stared at her vulva, picking his moustache.
"Doctor?"
"Now what?"
"Isn't there supposed to be a nurse in here?"
81 He jammed his fists on his hips. "For somebody about to ditch a
baby, you have an awful lot of other things on your mind. Here, I
should have done this right away."
"Hey, wait, what's this?"
"Valium. You know about Valium? It'll ease your hostility."
"It's not hostile to want information ..." Warmth and comfort
radiated from the point of the injection. Her head rolled back to
be cradled in the foam rubber headrest as the voltage in her cerebrum was turned gently down.
Pain shocked through her when he dilated her cervix. With her
eyes closed, her head spun and the pain pressed on the back of her
throat, making her retch. She opened her eyes and stared at the
squares of soundproofing fibreboard in the ceiling.
"I can't help you. Your uterus is tipped, and I can't work in there
without endangering you. You paid me for a straightforward abortion. No complications."
What is that stain in his moustache? It spreads and clings when he
brushes at it. Viscous filaments of . . . "You what?" The sweat on
her body iced over. "Does that mean ... you didn't do anything!
Are you keeping all that money?" Halfway through the sentence,
her belly started to jerk, and she was crying.
He jotted down something on a slip of paper and put it in her
purse. "That's the name and phone number of another doctor. He'll
take care of you. I'll need this room soon, but make sure you're all
right before you go." Unsmiling, he patted her knee and left.
Mary twitched feebly, ludicrously on the table, crying, gulping
and hiccoughing air while praying to stop breathing altogether,
using her drug-jellied arms to untangle her feet from the stirrups,
fighting dizzily to rise above the Valium and seize some control.
She sat in a cafeteria, pretending she didn't feel like she was still
being vivisected by stainless steel. She no longer remembered why
she had forced herself into the food line for her first meal in three
days. The food looked manufactured rather than cooked. The lemon
meringue pie was brightened by so much food coloring, it seemed to
have a lit light bulb inside. Mary had forced herself to ignore
appearances and had grabbed a plateful of a gravy and meat concoction ladled over bread, and a dish of flaccid green beans. After
82 chewing a mouthful for over a minute, she gagged it into a paper
napkin, then sat swilling down coffee and working through a pack
of Camel nonfilters. She stubbed out her butts in the gravy until
her plate looked like a decomposing porcupine bristling broken quills.
Time to leave. She'd nicotined and caffeined herself into a neutral
hurricane. Time to take her frenzy back to Western Union.
Mary seethed as she left the cafeteria. How could she report that
butcher, that thief? To whom? Was she liable to prosecution herself? She chewed wounds into the inside of her lips.
The clerk behind the desk at Western Union barely looked up.
When she had sent her telegram to Joe, she had tried to come as
close as she could to screaming by wire. The man had made no
comment, and hadn't shown any recognition when she checked back
every half hour for a reply. This time, still deadpan, he flipped an
envelope onto the counter for her.
"Sorry can't afford to finance your vacation stop Joe"
The clerk was annoyed that he couldn't concentrate on the latest
issue of Sports Afield because of a raging, wailing Mary. The cold
stainless instruments inside her twisted.
Return to New York City
The doctor commences the procedure by concluding an internal
examination to verify the pregnancy and check the angle of the
uterus. The walls of the vagina are held apart by a speculum.
It didn't take long. He looked at Mary and said quietly, "Yes,
you have what could be called a 'tipped' uterus." Mary was empty
of tears. She merely cramped her jaws.
Pittsburgh
When she got off the bus, she staggered like a bumper car, blundering from obstacle to obstacle toward a telephone. She deposited
her money and stood blankly. She finally had to look up the number
in the phone book. "Hello, Mom?"
For some reason, her mother said she couldn't come to pick Mary
up. Mary had to board another bus, a city bus, and crawl slowly
through downtown Pittsburgh. She felt she should be prepared to
explain, but could find no words to rehearse. Her mother looked at
her and put her immediately to bed. Explanations could wait.
83 Return to New York
A local anesthetic is sufficient to block pain occurring during the
operation. The paracervical block, which is the most commonly used,
is also used frequently during childbirth. Xylocaine or carbocaine is
injected at the back of the vagina behind the cervix, thereby "blocking" sensation from the uterus before it reaches the spine.
Mary concentrated on technicalities, rehashed textbook talk, so
that she wouldn't realize what she was thinking. "I will never again
receive a paracervical block. I am never going to have a child. I
will not have a child." A vision fought through that repressed
thought and its transparent veneer of technical jargon; it was a
vision of the next step, of the polished metal rod waiting to impale
her.
Pittsburgh
"But Momma, what's wrong with you?"
"I can't say."
"How can I help if you won't tell me?"
"This isn't getting us anywhere."
Morning was Mary's favorite time, but the morning light was not
kind to her mother. She looked old, suddenly grey, her hair in
strings, cheeks concave, eyes darting as if to make sure everything
was still in its place. She cleared her throat and visibly tensed for
the effect of speech. "Your father and I know about... Jim? Jack?"
"Joe. How could you? I was going to tell . . "
"Never mind. It was just obvious. You moved in with him. Right?
Now what? Lover's quarrel? Why come home?"
"I ... It's ..."
"God." The old woman's thin blood drained from her face. Her
hollow grey cheeks whitened. "I was afraid. Baby? Lord."
They sat.
Return to New York
Pain.
The cervical canal must be dilated to permit the introduction of
surgical instruments . . . Hegar's dilators . . . the width of a finger
... the cervical tissue stretches more easily in women who have had
children. Although .. .
84 Mary knew the severe pain was blocked. She also remembered
that the anesthetic could not block cramps. She pictured the convolutions of her brain cramping and twisting in anticipation. Her
breath rasped. The doctor worked quietly. Her spine was an electric
cable between cerebral and cervical pain.
Pittsburgh
"Sorry. I can't drive. Too wobbly. You'll have to take a bus to
the bus station. Greyhound costs less. If we could afford a plane.
Then it would be over soon." She had put on a long coat over her
pyjamas so she could go to the bank, and now she wore the same
outfit to walk Mary to the bus stop.
"Please tell me what's wrong. Look, you're exhausted. God, I
feel sick for doing this to you."
"Mary, calm down. It happened before your trouble. Not your
fault. I was having headaches. Forgetting. The doctors will check."
"Here I am taking your money ..."
"Stop it. That's my money. I can do what I want with it. You
want to get through school. You want to be a doctor. Fine. Let me
help. I have medical insurance for my problem. You don't have any
help but me."
"What about Daddy?"
"You let me handle him. I earned this money myself. He can't
complain about that. I'll tell him how it is. Now you get on that
bus." She willed some warmth into her goodbye kiss. Mary wanted
to jump from the bus when she saw her mother sway and prop
herself against a telephone pole.
You didn't do this to her, it's not your fault, it started before you
came home and told her. The bus passed through the suburbs, then
entered the Liberty Tunnel on its way downtown. Black. The blackness of the tunnel made mirrors of the bus windows. Mary saw herself as haggard as her mother. You did not cause her illnesss!
Alone in her bedroom at home, she had weakened, had chinked
her armor, and felt the seed hot in her belly. She knew from school
the stages the fetus goes through. No, that mass of cells inside was
not a person. She could not sacrifice herself, her career of help to
others, her life, she could not sacrifice that to an accidental growth.
The bus roared out of the tunnel, and Mary shut her eyes against
the light. I did not cause her illness. But I'm a complication. How
85 could I empty her bank account? What were my alternatives?
Douches. A soap solution under pressure. Risks -— chemical peritonitis, hemolysis, renal failure. Or insert a tablet of potassium permanganate and risk chemical burns.
She hid from emotion behind lists and terms. She stood in line in
the Greyhound terminal, waiting to return to New York. The
doctor commences the procedure .. .
Return to New York
He inserts a foreign body . .. dilated canal ... to remove a
foreign body .. . no, part of my body .. . no, a foreign body ...
rupture .. . disrupt placental . . .
Mary's anxiety rocketed her into ether. She was no longer present.
She was merely tubes acted upon by other tubes.
A nurse helped her from the table and led her into another room,
where she oozed onto a couch. My fetus. What did they do with it?
What was it like? The doctor came in and stood quietly until he
was sure she had seen him and could talk. "Feeling okay? No, don't
sit up until you're sure you want to. One question: would you tell
me who referred you to this office?"
"A hack. Cramdon. Alvin Cramdon."
Dr. Randall's lips twitched a momentary disgust. "Oh. That's
too bad. I wondered why you knew so much about the procedure."
"Listen, is there some way I can get that guy?" She sat up, indignant, then swooned back down.
"I can't advise you on procedures to use against a colleague of
mine. Confidentially, I'd like to support you in an action against
him, but the time and expense would be prohibitive." He shrugged.
Mary closed her eyes and willed the world to go away. Momma.
The end of Pittsburgh
"House seems empty without her, don't it?" Mary's father sat
under a shroud of cigarette smoke.
"She'd never let you scatter ashes around like that."
"Don't I know it! Kind of wish she was here to yell at me." He
snorted. "That's funny. Wanting her to yell. Ain't that funny? Ed?"
Mary's Uncle Ed only grunted. He scratched himself from boredom.
"Well, I think it's funny. Listen, maybe we should have a drink."
86 "Oh Daddy, god, you keep talking about a drink. Why don't you
have one instead of harping about it?"
"Well maybe I will. Maybe I just will." But he sat, lighting fresh
cigarettes off his stubs. Periodically, her uncle would yawn or her
father sigh.
Her memory raced. She had come home for spring break and
found her mother wearing a bonnet to cover a head shaved for the
operation to remove a brain tumor. Blank face. Jittering eyes. Alien.
Her father hacked, and his lip convulsions jerked the ash off his
cigarette, spilling a trail down his shirt. "She was doing real good.
She could get up and walk around and all. Then Mary here found
her sitting on the kitchen floor, crying while the breakfast burned
up. She couldn't remember how to do breakfast. How can you not
remember how to do breakfast?"
"Aw, relax. She'll be okay," Ed said through a yawn. He kicked
off his loafers and curled up on the couch.
"There's gotta be something I can do." He pulled at his earlobe
as if to milk it for ideas. Mary fumed. Why hadn't he told her?
Daddy hadn't wanted his little honey to worry. She could have
handled it, perhaps helped her mother as her mother had helped her.
Somehow. He hacked again. "Something. Don't know what ...
Maybe ..." He ran into the bedroom.
"Daddy, what are you looking for?"
"She has a Bible in here somewhere." He burrowed through the
clothes in her dresser.
"But she's unconscious. What good will it do her?" Mary had
spent days watching her mother atrophy in the hospital bed. The
lifeless woman had forced open her eyes just that afternoon and
beckoned to Mary. Her hand crushed her daughter's hand. Her
withering lips fought to whisper, but then she crumpled in upon
herself, and her grip stiffened like rigor mortis. Mary's viscera froze
when she thought, "That's not my mother any more."
"Look in that stand by the bed. I've seen it around."
"She can't read it, and you never showed an interest before. It'd
be like taking a lucky rabbit's foot to her." But he was so frantic,
she opened the drawer of the stand and stirred a hand through it.
"What's this?" He held up a bank book. "I didn't know she had
her own account." He forgot the Bible and looked through the
figures. "What's this? This big withdrawal has your name by it."
"For my operation." She would not name it.
87 "Your operation?" His mouth hung open. "Oh ..." He looked
at the bank book. "I forgot." He left the bedroom without finding
the Bible. Mary knew it was of no help to her mother, but she
looked for the book as a comforter for her father. When she returned
to the living room, her father was showing Ed the bank book. He
pointed. "And look at the date on that."
Ed shoved the book away. "Aw right, now, that's enough. Look,
here's Mary."
"Daddy?" She held out the Bible. He looked at it but poured
himself a shot of bourbon rather than taking it from her. He sat in
an armchair. His fingers flipped through the pages of numbers.
Mary had seen how those numbers grew in poor little steps scraped
out of the household money, to be wiped out in one large subtraction. She had never felt so foreign in her own living room, but
refused to be driven out. Ed folded and unfolded his hands, staring
at the floor. "Damn you!" Her father cried the first tears she'd ever
seen on his face. "Damn you!" He hurled his glass at her, a pitiful
throw hampered by the back of the chair. Mary didn't have to
duck. The sweet stink of bourbon rolled down the wall. Uncle Ed
cried too as he pushed her out of the room. She grabbed her purse
and ran out the front door, leaving her clothes and school books,
forgetting Raggedy Ann.
She shivered on the bus as far as Cambridge, Ohio. She got out
at the Post House Cafeteria to phone Pittsburgh, to try to say that
tumors aren't caused by daughters, they simply happen. When she
greeted her father, he sent a crash through her head by flinging his
receiver against the wall. Uncle Ed picked up the phone to tell her
her mother was dead.
7972    West Palm Beach
"Nothing to it. You all right, Madonna mia?" Mbwebwe drove
gingerly with his left hand, squeezing his right hand on Sereeta's
shoulder. She sighed. "Oh Sereeta, you perfect sefiorita. Want to
go home and sleep?"
"Uh huh. For a long time."
In the back seat, Mary stretched, arching her back, yawning until
her jaws hurt. "I could use some sleep too." An understatement of
a constant state. Sereeta, I wish I'd been treated like I treated you.
Mbwebwe wheeled his '67 Plymouth in front of her apartment
building. She didn't realize he had also gotten out until she got to
88 the front door, where his hand stopped her hand from reaching for
the knob. "So what do I owe you?"
"I don't know. I really don't. It would have been easier as a
hospital procedure, but I had to set this up privately with the doctor
whose clinic we used." She yawned and leaned against the building.
"I'll check with him and then call you. What's your number?"
"Oh .. . Maybe I'd better call you, okay? In a couple of days?"
"Fine. Whatever." She turned again toward the door. He shocked
her awake by hugging her tightly for a second. "Daktari, you're a
beauty." He sprinted back to his car, leaving her held up by the
wall, puzzled. Oh no. I wanted that hug to last.
"May I ask who sent you?"
"Ain't nobody sent me. I come by myself."
Just fool luck. As luck would have it. Lucky me. Mary was curious, though. "Did you go to any other doctors first?"
"Hell, no. They's always so . .. I don't know, persnickety or
something." The woman had been scratching at a pimple on her
chin, and now she dabbed idly at the tiny well of blood she had dug.
Mary wondered how personal she should get. Would this woman
notice? Or care? "Can you afford to have this operation?"
"Can't afford not to." The woman smirked. She knew she had
an unbeatable argument.
"I'll consider the case. You realize that this would be strictly
confidential?"
She shrugged her bra strap back up on her shoulder. "Sure."
Will I do it for the lover of an acquaintance and not do it for a
friendless fool? The fool has the greater need. Mary rose and walked
the woman to the door, deferring the decision she knew she'd make.
Remember, Mary, that not only fools are ambushed by pregnancy.
Remember that. And the decision for Sereeta was not her right
alone, but a woman's right. And even a foolish woman knows who
is on her side.
Not even Labor and Delivery is safe. My clarity fades to grey.
"A friend brought me." Her blond hair was ratted and lacquered
into an airy helmet. She wore a skin-tight Duke University T-shirt
and shorts climbing the cheeks of her ass. Her words garbled out
around a wad of gum. Doesn't anybody have babies any more?
89 "What prompted this friend to bring you to me?"
"He said he knew you. He thought it'd be okay, but he didn't
want to prejudice you against me by coming in."
"Prejudice? What does he mean?"
"I dunno."
Mary had had this argument with herself so many times before,
it squealed through her head like a speeded-up tape and she had
her verdict. Wait. You got through your own abortion by becoming
a machine. Who knows what evil you're capable of if you habitually
act mechanical? Stop. Feel. Consult more than just your rational
self.
Her heart rattled the bars of its rib cage, yearning for the weight
to pass from her. But it would not. "We can perform the operation
Saturday. Now I need your medical history ..."
Abortion is not murder. Mercy killing is mercy, but it is killing.
I was right. There is not yet a person to kill.
When she showed Billi out, Garcia was standing in the hall. He
heard the door, cut off his sentence, turned to look at Mary. Everything stopped. Then, slowly, he nodded to her, she nodded to him,
and the world was in motion again.
Billi showed up exactly on time on Saturday morning. Mary
winced slightly as she watched Bilfi's jiggling ass bounce out to the
parking lot. Was it right to put this woman back in action on the
streetcorners or wherever? But would a baby mean any more than
just a temporary vacation? She made a sour face to herself. Who
knows?
And what's this "prejudice" problem? Is the guy black? Mary
raised her eyes and recognized a Plymouth, and, leaning against it,
Mbwebwe. He flicked away the cigar he'd been chomping and
swept open the back door for her, bowing her in. She stopped short
and glared at him. "Shouldn't you know better?" Why do I feel
so betrayed?
"I'm not entirely responsible." Billi snuggled against him. "This
young woman is my business associate."
"That's really a dizzying corporate image you present."
"You see why I didn't want my presence to prejudice you?" He
swept his hand in front of him, again trying to usher her in. Frowning, she sat in the back seat. What is he to me that I should feel so
betrayed?
90 She barely contained herself for the ride up the coast to the clinic.
She turned Billi over to a nurse, then took Mbwebwe aside. He tried
to speak, but she cut him off. "Now what were those reasons you
were so glib about last time?"
"I thought you didn't want to hear them."
"With Sereeta, it was a question of her right to an abortion. Billi
has the same right. But now I want to know why you think you can
use me."
"Daktari, give me a break. I'm not jiving you. These women
know what precautions to take, and I try to supply them with all
that they need, but mistakes happen."
" 'Mistakes'. You're a quick draw with those euphemisms, aren't
you? What was the spiel you were going to give me about your
career? Your art?"
"Shit, you ever try to live by painting pictures that the yokels
don't understand and can't stomach?"
"But why earn your money like this?"
" 'Cause it's a real friendly business. This is nothing compared to
what I had in New York a couple years ago. This is just me and the
people I love."
"You moved from New York to the South?"
"Yeah, and I made it work."
She wanted to keep talking, but forced herself into the examination room, toward the instruments. From terminal ward to birth to
termination, death to life to death, convinced she was the Angel of
Mercy in all capacities. It took a certain agility.
"Doctor, could you speak to Dr. Cramer for a minute?" It was
an order masquerading as a question, and the nurse left without
waiting for an answer.
Mary saw that Billi had been led grumbling from the room, so
she slammed down the plastic speculum with all the rage she felt.
Her hand tingled. It was time to confront Mbwebwe again, not
time to talk to another doctor. Her thumb tingled warm and wet.
A sliver of shattered speculum had harpooned into the fleshy base
of her thumb. What? She pulled it out and dabbed at the gouge
with a gauze pad.
Cramer was tilted back in his swivel chair, fingers laced behind
his neck. He nodded to Mary and guided her with his eyes into a
tufted vinyl armchair.  When he saw the crimsoned gauze,  he
9i flopped his chair forward, concerned. "What's wrong? Have some
trouble?"
Mary peeked under the gauze, then, apparently mystified, held
out her hand to show him a palmful of coagulation. His head
snapped back a fraction, and he was silent. Mary straightened her
back and said, "Yes? What is it?"
"Oh, uh ..." He'd planned on a friendly chat between colleagues, and now he suddenly floundered in enigma. "Uh ... did
everything go all right? Yes? Good. Now, this makes how many
operations? At this clinic, I mean."
"I've performed five abortions. You know that."
"Yes, that's true. Isn't that . . . Don't you feel that's quite a few?
I mean, you're not advertising on billboards, are you?" His chuckle
died in the antiseptic gap between them.
"I'm doing what I think is important. My clients don't spread
the word. They come to me independently." She saw the smile strain
on his face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be so curt. It's a complex
situation, and I'm perpetually trying to think it through."
"It is complex. Very complex. I'm glad to provide the facilities,
and the financial arrangement is quite good. I just don't want you
getting in over your head and taking me with you." His smile was
warmed by concern.
"You're right. I'm keeping a close check on myself as well as my
patients. I've thanked you before, but I'd like to thank you again
for being so understanding."
"Mary, I'm glad we straightened this out." He ventured another
chuckle. "You just had me wondering. The black fellow out there,
I know I've seen him before at this clinic. It scared me to think
you'd even started a chauffeur service."
She was out of her chair. "Goodbye, Doctor. Your payment will
be in the mail." The air chilled again. In the doorway, she saw
Cramer jut out his jaw and drum his fingers on the plexiglass that
shielded the diplomas framing his desk top.
"You what? You don't know what to think? With all your degrees
and pedigrees, you don't know what to think? I'll tell you. You
think what I think. I think you did a hell of a thing, you helped
these women a hell of a lot. Look at Billi."
Mary took a gnawed swizzle stick from between her teeth. "Yes,
let's look at Billi. My god, I had to order her to take off her rhine-
92 stone platform heels so she could walk to the car without flattening
her face on the pavement."
"Irrelevant. She was woozy from whatever drug you gave her.
And what's the alternative? You want her blown up at nine months
and wobbling around on those shoes? Because you know she'd wear
those clown shoes no matter what."
The corners of Mary's mouth pinched in perplexity. She stared
down into her martini.
"Daktari, you're a disappointment. All the time telling off people
at the hospital, all the time trying to bring this town into the current century, and now in the middle of it, you bail out and sit there
empty, not knowing what to think. I never went to college, but at
least I always know what's on my mind." Mbwebwe tossed the rest
of his tequila to the back of his throat, then snapped his fingers for
another round. The woman behind the bar ignored him.
Mary's voice betrayed her by quavering. "My mind isn't empty.
It's too full. Too many revolutions of too many variables. It's my
attempt at centrifuging those thoughts, to separate out the relevant."
Mbwebwe waited, but the pause came to a full stop. "Well? Does
centrifugal force work?"
"No. Everything blends into one dull color."
"White?"
Mary laughed through her nose, shaking her head. "White. That's
right. Purity. All my thoughts blend and become rationalizations. I
do everything out of the goodness of my heart and blankness of my
head. I was taught very well how to be a doctor. That's all facts and
figures and mechanics. Why wasn't I taught how to think? Who can
tell me how to handle my mind?"
"Daktari, Jesus." He leaned across the table, took the cocktail glass
from her fingers, and covered her hands with his. She pulled her
shoulders back, straightened her spine, tried to hold her head erect.
Her smile fluttered. Mbwebwe tightened his hold on her hands. "I'm
sorry I called you a disappointment. You don't have to be tough all
the time. Come on, you can let go around me."
She slumped back down, feeling her mental tension slacken as
she eased her muscles. Her smile steadied. She freed one hand from
his and retrieved her martini. After the final gulp, she allowed him
to again cover her hand. "What a day. . . . What a life."
"Hey listen, I'm sorry."
"For what?"
"Putting you in this position. ... I didn't know."
93 She bridled. "You couldn't have 'put' me in any position if I
didn't allow myself to be there."
"All right, all right. That sounds more like the old, feisty Daktari." They grinned. "I just want to tell you, if you're not sure you
want to do it, I won't ask you any more. Everybody should have
time to work out their ideas. I thought a safe abortion was a fine
idea. But I'm living in a different world."
"A different solar system."
"A different galaxy."
"The Outer Limits!" They laughed.
"Well, well, you two having a good time?" A belly hove into their
field of vision. Mbwebwe withdrew his hands. The belly hung over
a gun belt. "Hello, Doctor. So very nice to see you again."
Mary didn't look up. "Good afternoon, Chief."
"And Mr. Hezekiah Jones, Esquire, our local Rembrandt." The
Chief gave as much of a bow as his paunch would allow. Mbwebwe
returned his stare, mute. The Chief turned back to Mary. "So.
Having a little laugh? You sounded like two business partners who
just clinched one hell of a deal." No answer. "Well now, don't let
me intrude. I'll just move along. Hope to see you two again real
soon." He lumbered off.
A chilly ichor slimed over Mary's skin. "What did he mean?"
Mbwebwe's jaw muscles worked rhythmically. When she rose to
catch his eye, he admitted, "You never know, with that porker."
1973
Limbo. Limbo lower now. How LOW can you GO? Babble
babble. Why does my head feel as if I'm wearing a concrete hat?
Could it be from trying to read the Journal of the American Medical
Association under this overhead perlight? Sleep? Interning erased my
memory of how to sleep, invaded my raphe system and impounded
my serotonin. I'm running purely on noradrenalin. I'll sleep in my
next incarnation. Blah blah.
Mary had judged accurately. Riding a bus north from Florida
was an effective exercise in anonymity. She had figured a plane ride
would be too fast, only an hour or two of limbo. But she'd forgotten
how thorough the Greyhound purgatory could be, how soon she'd
feel as if her life was spent in a Waiting Room with a yellowing
Reader's Digest. Eating at Post House Cafeterias, her peristalsis
moving what passed for food post haste through her system, so that
94 she seemed to sit for hours on the toilet, rattling around in the
claustrophobic metal closet that was the Greyhound bathroom. Her
fellow passengers lived out of A. & P. shopping bags, ate out of their
coat pockets, washed in splotchy bus station sinks, slept in plastic
terminal chairs with dead coin-operated televisions staring blindly
at the glittering filaments of drool running from their slack, snoring
mouths.
Mary had thought this blank time would free her mind for problem solving. She would swear she'd never make that mistake again,
if she could only think of something to swear by.
She played with the footrest at the bottom of the seat in front of
her. It was apparently meant to ratchet up and down, locking into
positions that were ideal for her feet. Theoretically. Actually, she
kept swinging it up with her toe, letting it go to thunk back down
on the floor. She stopped when the soldier in front of her complained. His frown turned lecherous, so she cowered once again
behind her Journal.
She pulled a letter from her purse, looked at Dr. Cramer's return
address, then put it back. It was scalpelled into her memory anyway. She could no longer use the clinic. A technicality. She had
already used it several times. She could find other clinics. Wrong?
Right? What would the Supreme Court decide? Legality was another technicality. Right? Wrong?
She pressed the button in her armrest. Nothing. The button didn't
move until she hammered at it with the spine of her hardcover book.
Then it jammed and wouldn't pop back out, so her seat reclined
and wouldn't straighten up. She watched the other passengers twining their arms and legs, trying to twist into a comfortable pose.
When she wanted to sit back up, she'd have to hunt for another
seat.
Right? Wrong? Variable? Interchangeable? Why try to figure it
out here? Because she had chosen to figure it out here. Why? Why
was she constantly busy, with her free time spent in an apartment
with a telephone jangled by women pleading? Why was she never
alone and relaxed? So that any sin could be mitigated by a plea of
Chaos? Ooh, that sure was deep. Reclining in her seat, she felt she
was on the couch of an exceptionally grubby and low-rent analyst.
She pictured herself in a beard and thick glasses, saying, "Mary, you
hide from your problems by seeking overwork and a distracting environment." Deep. Very deep. Let me off this bus.
95 Pittsburgh was grey, gritty, an entire city that felt like a Greyhound, that smelled like cigarettes smoldering on linoleum.
Her father was grey. His suit bagged around him. His muscles
had melted and drooped over his belt. When their eyes met through
the crowd he smiled and played the gentleman, raising his hat.
Florescent light ricocheted off his bald, polished scalp, which Mary
remembered as being thick with hair. She ran toward him, but saw
him shrink away from possible embrace. "Daddy, you look wonderful." She wasn't lying.
Her letter must have worked. She had been sitting in her apartment one night, sitting in the dark, thinking, when fear cloaked her,
isolated her, as if the whole world had clicked off when she had
flipped the light switch. She needed not just a friend, but an anchor.
She dove for the glow from the telephone, had the operator ringing
the number before she thought to ask the time. Three in the morning. She hung up. She could imagine her father saying, "You're
scared? Because the fights are out?" She had almost catalogued her
troubles for the operator. So she had composed a letter, a very delicate letter to the stranger she hadn't seen for years. His reply had
been an invitation.
They sat in the living room. "So you're a doctor now?"
"Yes."
"I can't get over it. Your mother would have been so pleased."
The dead woman had been dead long enough to be a safe topic.
He slapped his hands on his knees. "Say, can I get you some lunch
or something?"
"No, thanks, I couldn't eat now. Listen, we have a lot to talk
about, but I need to stretch out for a while now, okay?" She was on
the stairs before a doubt struck her. "Where should I sleep?"
"You remember where your room is, don't you?"
"Sure."
"Well, we didn't ... I didn't move it anywhere." He was trying
to stay jovial.
She flopped on the bed. Most of her stuff was in boxes. She could
tell that he had retrieved some of her pictures and rehung them for
her visit, because they were in the wrong places. Her red-webbed
eyes flicked back and forth across the ceiling.
96 She found books from her first semester at college, the semester
that was to be her liberal arts base before she specialized in the
pre-med program. Several books surprised her, the set of thin books
from the Philosophy course that had bored her catatonic. She'd
forgotten she'd even taken a Philosophy course. Which book might
be enlightening? Theory of Knowledge? Too broad. Philosophy of
Natural Science? What's that? "The laws that form the basis of the
different thermometric methods illustrate some of the 'nomic
threads' connecting the concept of temperature with other knot-
concepts." Yawn. Metaphysics? "What I believe is that I am now
able to move my finger one way and that I am now equally capable
of moving it another way, but I do not claim to be able now or any
other time to move it both ways simultaneously." Wait, wasn't there
a book on Ethics? No? There must have been. Would it be any
more help than the simultaneous finger? Are you kidding? Ha ha ha.
What a great little kidder.
Mary walked the neighborhood in expanding circles, trying to
absorb it all, to jolt memory or emotion. She halted at an intersection, wondering. A laundromat? Was her memory alert enough
to receive the jolt she was trying to send? She went inside and found
only a pimpled teenager with her head bowed glumly over a pregnant belly. Mary asked, "This wasn't always a laundromat, was it?
Wasn't there a little drugstore here at one time?" The teenager just
looked at her. Mary went outside and circled the building. That
brick wall. Hadn't she spent hours bouncing a fuzzless tennis ball
off that wall? Sure. So?
Ah, but look at this place. Even the trees are familiar. I would
never have believed how quickly palms would bore me. Give me
these good old maples and oaks any day. And it is good to see Daddy
again. It is. I wish I could relate to him more fully than I do to this
maple. But he has awakened more feelings. He does remind me that
there's a world outside the clinics of West Palm Beach.
If she'd had a bald tennis ball, she'd have bounced it off the
wall for a while.
It's not exactly emptiness. That sounds too dramatic. Will you
admit to boredom? But why be bored? The answers aren't coming.
Nature abhors a vacuum, but my mind does not. Conclusions don't
97 rush in to fill the space. This is not how I operate, reflecting at
leisure. Answers emerge from the froth of activity. I construct solutions, I don't cogitate about them. Boredom. When have I ever had
time for boredom in the last few years? Perhaps it's a good sign.
"Eat your sauerkraut, honey. It's not good cold."
"I was just thinking."
And he shuts right up. Musn't disturb the thinking doctor. He
doesn't know me. He's a nice little man, he strains to be considerate.
He has nothing to do with me. But I feel oddly settled, ready to go
back. He can never know the good he's done me just by not being
hyperactive. This was a nice interlude, but I'm not about to run
away to it.
"Yes, I was thinking I'd probably leave tomorrow. I should get
back to the hospital."
"Yeah? What time? I could take a day off from the mill to take
you to the bus station."
"Actually, I thought I'd fly, get the trip over with. I want to get
to work right away."
Smile. You're going home.
Air borne. Air born. Born out of thin air, an unknown quantity.
Air bored.
Why is West Palm Beach home? Because med students travel to
many hospitals, interviewing, student and staff measuring each
other, punching their preferences onto computer cards to be shuffled
and dealt by a Honeywell or an NCR or something. What did I
spend? At $25 a selection, one top choice, two decent choices, one
certain choice in an unsought corner of mosquito-breeding Minnesota just to be sure I wasn't left without a position, that's, let's see,
one hundred dollars. No wonder I economized by riding busses,
transportation that left me raving. No wonder I didn't get my top
choice, since those bus rides reduced me to a medical jargon
automaton. Doctor's fees are the best revenge.
Plane rides are so strange. Into a terminal, through a hallway, up
escalators, into a tube, sit a while, down escalators, hallway, terminal. As if you hadn't moved. But here it is, sunshine, palms, every
Florida cliche. Smile. This is what the IBM card trick dealt you as
a home.
98 1975    West Palm Beach
Some things changed. Dr. Garcia shaved his moustache. But without a scalpel to flourish, without a moustache to twirl and pick at,
his hands were lost. He started excavating in his ears, boring in with
the vibrating tips of his little fingers. He hovered over Mary after
she had finished a delivery. "What do you think of the new Doctor's
Lounge?"
She pretended to look around at the chrome and glass tables, the
couches and chairs of ersatz leather, the miscellany gleaned from
old copies of Interior Design magazine. "It's a real trend-setter."
"Yes, isn't it, though?" He snickered. When she'd proved her
medical ability, their conversations had ceased to sound like sheets
of sandpaper grated together. Now he defended himself with light
sneering, so they could pretend to share an ironic perch looking
down on Oceanview General. Mary sat forward, craning her neck
to get a good look at Garcia's hands. Were the tips of those little
fingers orange? If not, where did he wipe that ear wax? An orange
lining to his pants pockets? Wax deposits in patients during surgery?
She was trying hard not to think of her last delivery.
Some things appeared to stay the same. There were some surprises. She had the standard mothers and babies, with the standard
deviations. This afternoon had been a protracted labor, a teenager
howling, being serious for maybe the first time in her pea-brained
life. It had been a mock parthenogenesis, a pregnancy with no
known father. She had pouted, "I want to keep my baby," as if it
had followed her home like a puppy. Her mother wanted nothing
but the best for her little girl. Mary had advised the scowling girl
to eat well and drink milk. Ma would put aside her bag of caramels
to waddle across the dirt road, puffing and sweating to the Mobil
station to get her girl a Coke. Wasn't Coke the best? Ma had wanted
to watch the delivery, but made so much noise she had to be
removed. Mary was tempted to sew the teenager shut so she'd never
show up in Labor and Delivery again.
The surprise appeared to be minor. When Mary did the exam,
her hand went into mush. A breech presentation. A standard deviation. But it didn't quite feel like a baby's butt. She ordered X-rays,
and her stomach jumped when she saw the result. You've just given
birth to a five pound teratoid. Ignorance would flush the acne-
purple skin of the girl. "What's that mean?" A monster. Anence-
phaly. No skull. Mary had squeezed her fingers into what was left
99 of the baby's brain. And then Garcia had wondered how she liked
the lounge.
Some things remained exactly the same. Her phone rang incessantly. Women. Why couldn't she persuade herself to be interested
in the few men who called? There was one man she would have
called herself, if she could decide she wanted to. She could not
decide. How could she want to talk to a pimp? Why was he the one
who understood, who listened, who was honest?
The women wanted abortions. Despite the new Supreme Court
sanction, she did only four hospital abortions, compared to the five
clandestine terminations. Now other doctors would provide that
service, for a fee. The phone rang her nerves, the other tenants
thumped, argued, played muffled stereos, the traffic snarled and
fumed outside her window.
Tell ya what, Mary, the more things change, the more they stay
the same. Another insight. So deep. She curled in an armchair,
clutching her legs to her chest. She couldn't persuade herself to
drink the martini balanced on her knee.
"I just can't understand it. Why aren't you driving a Cadillac?"
Mary was hidden behind sunglasses. Heat from the baking pavement shimmered her vision.
"Why do you always give me a hard time, Daktari? Look at my
clothes." He got out of his car to do a turn like a model. "Blue jeans.
Work shirt. Dressed like a plebe. Do I wear jewelry? One single
ring, a ring I made myself." He showed her his band of unorna-
mented silver filigree. "Now my hat. No broad brim, no shiney white
Gatsby crown, just this mothy wool thing." He pulled off his cap to
let his hair spring out. "My hair is a bushy Afro. No process job
plastered to my skull. No shiny chemical curls. Look." He jumped
on the hood of his car. "Look at this. Is this a man who would
drive a pimpmobile with a bar and a TV and six inch white walls?
Give me a '67 Plymouth any time." He tapdanced on the hood.
Mary cleared her throat and jerked her head at the police car
across the street. Mbwebwe jumped down beside Mary, put an arm
around her waist, and swept her into the car. He bowed to the cop,
who smiled mechanically. "Time to hit the old Boy Scout trail." He
squealed away from the curb.
"What makes you think I have time to go anyplace with you?"
100 "You let me put you in my car, didn't you? Don't be coy with
this boy."
"Okay, boy."
"Don't you call me boy!" He held his breath to give his face a
tinge of eggplant purple, fake rage. "I'm not a boy, I'm a man. Say
it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. Wooo! Uh oh, look behind us.
A Vision in Blue."
Mary turned and saw a police car cruising almost on their
bumper. Mbwebwe flicked the wheel and they squealed to the side,
the turn flinging Mary onto his shoulder. The car wallowed to a
halt in the sand, and Mbwebwe flashed a casual wave to the cop,
who slowed and then roared away. Mary was going to straighten up,
but found Mbwebwe's arm around her shoulder. She asked, "What
was that little skit about?"
"A ritual courting dance. They love me. But it's a case of casting
a pimp before swine. We get along great, but every time they need
a good press release, they bust me and claim they're cleaning up
the city."
"And now they assume I've changed professions." His teeth
flashed a grin in the corner of her eye. She leaned forward and
opened her door, sliding from his grasp. "Since we're parked, let's
take a walk."
They floundered to the top of a dune. He spread his arms to the
ocean. "Wowee zowee. There it is. Mom. Kinda makes you think
of Time and Eternity and all those other big time, capitalized ideas.
You're not smiling, Daktari. You're thinking, 'Why isn't this nigger
ever serious?' Okay, seriously, why don't we go to my place or your
place or someplace neutral and scramble our brains with hours of
sex?"
"Very subtle." She turned away from his eager grin. "Also very
sudden, considering I haven't seen you since you stopped needing
my vacuum curette."
"I thought you wanted me to leave you alone."
"And Sereeta? Don't you care about her? Or is she just another
business partner?"
"I love her. But she knows my love is vast and nearly universal.
Listen, if you even bother to discuss it, you know you'll eventually
agree." He flopped on the sand, clutching his heart. "It'll be
devastating."
She put out her hand and helped him to his feet. "I won't allow
myself. Come on. I want to go to the hospital."
101 He shook his head. "It's a shame. I feel sorrier for you than for
me. You're thinking about it too much. Watch; you'll think until
you don't know what to think."
Mary ran laughing through the sand. Movement postponed
reflection.
Just me and the crabs on my stretch of beach. Funny little fuckers.
Look. Perpetually digging out their perpetually collapsing holes,
carting sand in their claws. Such a metaphor for something or other.
Except that I keep digging my holes deeper, shafts deep and dark
with no beams supporting the ceiling. A pimp. Am I insane? Jangled
on adrenalin when he approaches, synapses overloading so that I
actually, incredibly preen myself for him, primping for a pimp. But
of course, we all know that it's only when you insist you're sane that
you're really crazy. Uh huh. How many people shiver on Florida
beaches in the summer? Only one that I know of.
"Another surprise spring on me." She felt like she'd been swallowing ice.
"It's no surprise to us. We've been working on it for a long time."
Sereeta wasn't interested in the ineffable glow of the expectant
mother. Her style was defiant pride. She had always lounged and
draped before. Now she sat straight to keep the tilt of her chin at
the most effective angle.
"Amazing." Mbwebwe perched on the arm of Sereeta's chair,
exulting.
"Not too long ago, you didn't want a baby." Mary muted the
argumentative tone.
"The timing wasn't right. Now it is. This is a very complete
plan." Sereeta was even proud of her unadulterated pride.
Mary knew she'd have to wrestle her thoughts at home. Why did
she feel so startled, as if something had been done to her? When she
was obviously peripheral to the event. She tested her gaze on
Mbwebwe, and held it calmly.
The initial lecture on prenatal care was standard material, and
Mary delivered it quickly and clearly. When she had finished,
Mbwebwe escorted Sereeta to the door, then ushered her out with
the car keys in her hand. Mary heard the door shut and looked up
to see him still in the office. "Yes?"
102 "Just wanted to thank you for the pep talk. And thank you in
advance for helping us out. And thank you for understanding how
important it is."
"How important is it?"
"Sereeta has already had a kid." For once, his clown smile was
gone. "She was raped by a honkey when she was sixteen, and
couldn't do anything about the raper, couldn't do anything about
the bambino except have it. Jimmy's a hell of a cute kid, too. Got
his mother's face. Got his father's mind. The poor little kid is a
mush brain. Kid's eight years old and he can just about say his
name, and that's all. Sereeta couldn't feed even herself; how was
she supposed to grow a healthy brain in her belly?" His tone challenged her. She spread her hands helplessly. He slumped back in
his chair. "Anyway, it took all of the eight years since then before
she was ready to try again. She wants everything perfect, is determined to have it perfect. We had all those reasons for an abortion,
good reasons, but the real reason was Time. She wanted to ordain
the day of conception herself." His grin bloomed again. "We conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that this one would
be created superior. My Black Madonna will have the worst and
the best."
Mary cleared her throat. "I'll do my best to help." Hell. Why say
anything, especially trivialities? Empty. She felt more like an instrument than a wielder of instruments.
"Daktari, you're a gem. A gem I would still like to wear, by the
way. Shall we go someplace and try each other on?"
"How can you keep dropping Sereeta from your mind?" She's so
much on my mind.
"Who's dropping her? She's right there, with you beside her."
"Don't tell me she wouldn't care."
He laughed and dragged his hands down his face, moaning.
"Jesus. We might fight about it or we might not. The fighting keeps
us honest. Jesus God. She knows what's going on. I keep her posted
on the lack of developments. See? See? You're thinking too much
again." Mary shook her head. He sighed. "So how am I supposed
to leave? Sereeta has the car."
"I'll drive you. Come on."
As they walked down the hospital corridor, Mbwebwe effervesced,
greeting unknown patients, grinning at the staff, bowing to the
orderlies. He was a black bright spot, a focus of live light who made
103 the bead green tile walls even dingier by comparison. They rounded
a corner, and he instantly drew into himself, became a shadow in
the glare of fluorescent lights and floor polish. The Chief stood
there, thumbs hooked in his belt, gabbing with Dr. Garcia. Garcia
gave a jerk of recognition, then looked away from his fellow doctor
and her rigidly silent escort. He tapped the Chief's arm to hush him.
The Chief's eyes barely flickered, but his smirk twitched and he
eased one thumb out from between fat and belt so he could touch a
finger to his cap. Mary's surprise surged into a surprising anger, and
she took Mbwebwe's arm, which flexed under her fingers. As they
passed the two silent men, she said clearly, "I'd like to see your paintings. Can we go to your studio?"
"I just wanted to warn you, Doc. I don't really know what to
warn you about. All I know is that the Chief has been keeping an
eye on your friend for quite a while now, and he's had you checked
out as well."
"I don't know what he could find."
"What if I told you we checked Cramer's clinic?"
"No!"
"It's an open secret. Don't worry. That's too far in the past.
Besides, by now it's legal."
"That's not what I'm worried about. There's so much distance
already between me and the rest of the medical world of Florida. I
was friendly with Cramer until I antagonized him myself. For this
to happen ..."
"Don't worry, I said. He never knew we checked."
"What kind of Gestapo state is this?"
"Don't yell at me! I'm the one who came to warn you, remember?"
"Herb, what are you going to do if your undercover buddies find
out about this warning? Or were you sent to give me this warning,
to make me jump into some predetermined cage?"
His head jerked, and he tucked his chin defensively into his collar.
"You think that?"
"Why should I trust anybody?" She saw him rise to leave and
cried, "No, please, don't leave me." They stared at each other, then
looked away, confused. "Now what can I do?"
He looked around. His mouth gaped twice, but the words died
silently. He sheltered in irrelevancy. "You've got a nice apartment."
104 "Not really. It's all dentist office decor. But it is tidy. I have this
sudden passion for order."
His eyes were caught by a painting. He winced. It was a bas-
relief triptych of a Barbie doll metamorphosing into a B-52 dropping
napalm on the heads of antique China dolls. Threads of monofilament stuck out from the canvas, dangling charred bits of gore that
stirred in the breeze. "Mbwebwe's work?"
"Fairly obvious, isn't it?"
Mary was on the beach, running up and down the dunes. Nobody
was near to see and wonder.
Why medicine? Why always medicine? Why not pottery, or
photography, or anything artsy craftsy? Is a creator happier than a
repairer? Am I attracted to him because of who he is, or because I
want to share vicariously in his creation? Will I always substitute
words like "attraction" for "love"? How about a fanfare for this
next question? What is Love? Bring me water; I want to wash my
hands, or maybe my mouth.
Water. She sprinted and plunged into the surf. She swam. She
stopped to tread water, and was shocked to see the beach so distant.
She was limp by the time she struggled back, and the surf rasped
her across broken shells. She panted on the sand.
Too late to create? Too late to be an artist. So many have the
inclination, so few the inspiration. But it is not yet too late for the
ultimate creation, the creation of a new person. Is that creation?
Or am I only a vessel, an alembic wherein the distillation of male
and female meet and are purified? I provide the raw material, but
the new person forms itself. It emerges pure and new, but it emerges
into an impure culture, a germ culture. Can't I ever get away from
medical terms? There is no guarantee of that child's purity. I could
have a teratoid. A monster.
Mbwebwe flew mto the hospital one evening. She barely recognized him. She had struggled with her feelings for months, had gone
to see him many times, always at his studio, afraid of the strength of
her feelings. He enticed her, but she would not yield.
In all the times she'd seen him, she'd never seen him like this.
He was dazzling in white: white broad-brimmed hat, what was
almost a zoot suit, white boots. He glittered with jewels. He brushed
105 past the front desk, hunted her down in the corridors, gave her no
chance to be surprised. "Daktari, listen, I just got a call that Sereeta
is having a hard time, and I want you to come out and help her."
He stalled her reply. "I don't want to take time for an ambulance
to get out there and then come all the way back in. There's no telling
what'll happen. Please, Daktari."
She was through for the night anyway. When she grabbed her
bag, he hustled her out to the parking lot. Mary liked Sereeta. She'd
taken perfect care of herself, and Mary hoped she'd arrive in time.
They drew some stares. Her all-white ensemble wasn't nearly as
elegant as his.
His car would have been obvious in any parking lot. It was a
gleaming white and chrome Bentley. In sunlight, the reflections
from it would have been blinding. He held the door for her and she
sank into leather. She was quiet for the first part of the ride, gaping
at the TV, the bar, the utter gaudiness. "It's not a Cadillac, but its
nothing less than I expected."
He didn't take his eyes from the road, because they were pressing
ninety. "Cadillacs are too common. I'm just sorry I couldn't give
you a ride for a more cheerful reason. I'm telling you, Daktari,
you're a real godsend."
A godsend. The Angel of Mercy flies again. For once, she was
being taken to deliver a child instead of to end one. She slumped,
brooded. All those abortions. Is that what she'd be remembered
for? Some angel. She felt as cheap as his hood ornament, an angel
with a thin chrome skin and orange plastic wings.
Mbwebwe slammed on the brakes and twisted the wheel. The
car screamed into a four-wheeled drift, shuddering to a stop in front
of a large, brick house. She was petrified until he joggled her elbow
and said, "Hey, let's go. She needs you."
He leapt up the stairs and hurried through the front door. Mary
peeked into the empty foyer. She expected something to match the
car, but somebody had showed restraint. There was some gilt and
velvet, but it wasn't spotlighted. On the polished hardwood floor
was a thick Oriental rug. Who here has taste? Where did he go?
He hurried out to the upstairs landing and called, "Daktari,"
beckoning to her. She ran up the stairs so he wouldn't drag her up.
He took her arm and led her into a bedroom. Sereeta was stretched
out on satin sheets, sweaty but fairly calm. Mary checked her and
asked some questions. She was going to deliver prematurely, but
everything looked fine. Mary took Mbwebwe aside. "Everything
106 is okay. She just started having contractions. I'll stay and deliver
the baby, but this really wasn't called for. You could have driven
her in."
"Okay. Sorry. Billi called me and I could hear Sereeta hollering
in the background. I didn't know how bad it was. I just came in
and got you. I really appreciate it, Daktari, thanks." He clapped
her on the back and hurried to return to Sereeta. Mary stood there
asking herself who he thought he was, dragging her around like
that. She tried hard to get angry.
Sereeta cried out. Mary got her breathing correctly, which calmed
the haggard woman. "I forgot how much it hurts. But I want to
have the kid, I really do. Poor kid. It doesn't know what its getting
into."
When she relaxed, they left her for a minute to get a cup of
coffee. Mbwebwe asked, "Do you need hot water and stuff?"
"What kind of corny movies have you been watching?"
"I just want everything to go right." He jumped around the
kitchen, trying to get the coffee ready and get back to Sereeta.
"You do love her, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
She couldn't see his eyes. "Don't you think you could take off
your sunglasses in the middle of the night?"
Upstairs, Sereeta screamed. Billi was trying to calm her, but she
wailed until Mbwebwe charged in. Mary got as ready as she could
in that bedroom. Sereeta was laboring hard, but nothing happened.
A thought chilled Mary. She should have catheterized the bladder to
run a test. When she did, she was able to introduce her hand into
the vagina. She held her breath. Hyrocephalus.
A hopeless baby can rupture the mother's uterus. Mary worked
automatically. She should have checked earlier. Did she not care
about Sereeta? Doubts confused her dexterity.
She brought out a spinal needle to puncture and drain the head.
She would not have to crack open the skull and scoop it out. Mary
hyperventilated, unconsciously mimicking Sereeta's breathing, as
she fought for a soothing word to murmur to the writhing woman.
Sereeta groaned, "I want it, I want it," through clenched teeth.
A pause in contractions. Sweatsoaked towels framed Sereeta's
head "Rashied? If it's a girl, maybe Ayesha?"
He smoothed back her hair from her wet forehead. "Beautiful
names."
"I want a boy."
107 "What if I want a girl?"
"Too bad."
"How about one of each?"
"Give me time."
Mary tried not to listen.
Strain. Sereeta was built incredibly right, and the head eased out
uncrushed. The head could have been swollen by as much as five
liters, but Mary judged it to be less than a liter now that it was
drained. It would have no mentality, but an operation could keep
it functioning. Who is the surgeon? Why don't any names come to
mind? The body emerged, and thought stopped. It was a perfect
baby's body, dwarfed under that lumpy, swollen head.
Joy, This baby is to bring joy? Mbwebwe rose to take a look, but
Mary ordered him to calm Sereeta. The baby breathed without a
slap on its butt. The hideous thing gurgled, and Mary coughed to
cover the noise. She pressed her right thumb on its trachea until it
stopped. She couldn't feel a snap, but she knew the Hyoid bone
must have broken. Mbwebwe looked up, and Mary said, "The baby
didn't live."
It was a boy.
She picked it up and wrapped it in a towel, keeping her back to
Sereeta, then took care of the afterbirth. The purple satin sheets
were slick with blood. Sereeta's wailing choked down into a steady
cry. "Why couldn't it live? I wanted it to live. Couldn't we take it
to the hospital? Does it need an incubator? I'll pay whatever it
takes."
Mary left the bundle on the floor at the foot of the bed and bent
over Sereeta. "We did everything we could. You were a perfect
mother and it's not your fault. Now it's important for you to stay
calm and get your strength back."
"Was it a boy or a girl?"
"Sereeta, close you eyes and stay quiet."
Her eyes were sinking in tears, but wouldn't close. "Can I see it?"
She clutched at Mary with a sweaty hand, and Mary sprang back,
shuddering. Mbwebwe pressed Sereeta in his arms. He was crying
too. Mary made sure they were caught up in each other before she
carried the bundle out of the room.
Staring into space. She snapped out of it when she realized the
towel was thin and damp. She went into the bathroom for another
towel, but there were none. Mbwebwe had been so anxious he'd
probably taken every towel in the house into the bathroom. She put
108 the bundle in the sink and looked around. Shower curtain? No.
Curtains from the window? No. Eyes of lead looked back at her
from the mirrors, grey eyes shading into green. That hair, cropped
so close. Why do I look like that? There was a thick, cotton bath
mat draped over the side of the tub. She wrapped her bundle in
that and went back out on the landing. She was so weary, holding
a little package that dragged on her arms, a solid lead baby. She
needed to wake up, so she went down to the kitchen for coffee.
He should have brought Sereeta to the hospital. Mary could have
handed this thing to a nurse to take away. She'd have to make out
a report, fill out forms, but first she needed coffee. They'd finished
the pot Mbwebwe had made. She looked through cupboards for
the can of Maxell House, still slinging the baby on her hip. The
gears of her mind refused to engage. The baby was leeched onto
her hip. She made herself put it down on the counter so she's have
both hands free. It took forever to get the percolator going.
The fluorescent light killed all shadows in the kitchen. It was as
bright as an operating room. The coffee was a black mirror. She
watched her face swirl in it. Grease floated on top, and she wondered
what she'd eaten that would leave an oil slick. She looked at the
bath mat. Call the hospital and have them send an ambulance?
A boy the shade of coffee and cream stumbled into the kitchen,
gnawing on a wooden fire engine. His black curls swayed in front
of his shining eyes. He appeared to be nine or ten, very shy. He
stood in the corner between the doorway and the cupboards and
shrank together, his right leg wound around his left, his arms hugged
across his chest. The fire engine stuck out of his folded arms, and
he chewed and drooled on it.
Mary said, "Hi. What's your name?" He shrank together more,
trying to disappear. "That's a nice fire engine you have there." His
slack lips smiled around it. Her head cleared. This must be the
retarded child Mbwebwe had told her about. "You're Jimmy, aren't
you?" No response. She sipped her coffee. He toddled over to her
and handed her the dripping toy. She took it between two fingers
and set it on the table. He fell to the floor and hugged her legs while
she drank her coffee.
The caffeine finally roused her. The phone was in the kitchen, so
she detached Jimmy from her legs and went to dial. When she
turned around with the receiver to her ear, Jimmy was unwrapping
the bundle on the counter. She slammed down the phone, leaped
across the kitchen, and snatched the bundle away. The first high
109 spot that caught her eye was the top of the refrigerator, so she put
the thing up there. It wasn't actually moist, but she felt slimy after
handling it, so she scrubbed her hands.
Jimmy's lower dip pouted out. She had taken a surprise away,
and he was lost without it. He didn't know enough to cry to get
it back. "It's all right, Jimmy, you didn't do anything wrong. Here,
here's your fire truck." She couldn't find anything to wipe her
hands on. Mbwebwe really had taken every towel in the house. She
shook her hands to let the air dry them. Jimmy chuckled and shook
his hands too, stumping around in a little dance.
She was so weary. She touched Jimmy's hair and almost leaned
on him, a live crutch. She had to sit down. She'd telephone in a
minute. Jimmy danced over to her to curl up in her lap. His head
burrowed into her stomach and he scrambled with his arms and
legs, trying to swarm on the chair with her. She helped him up and
cradled her arms around him.
If she had been Sereeta's doctor eight years ago, Jimmy might
never have come out alive. Mary had done abortions to prevent
delivery of severely retarded children. Jimmy was lucky to be alive.
He grinned and squirmed as she hugged him. The hug tickled him
and he wriggled harder. Mary had to smile, her lips twitching. The
lump in her throat rasped her breath.
Mbwebwe slumped into the kitchen holding his sunglasses and
rubbing his red eyes. "Should Sereeta have anything? Something to
calm her down?" Jimmy stood on Mary's laps to wrap his arms
around her neck. Mbwebwe reached for him. "Jimmy, for god's
sake, quit pestering." Mary slapped Mbwebwe's hand away and
hugged Jimmy to her. It was time to cry, at last. She let herself sob.
If Mbwebwe wanted to unwrap the baby and see why it wasn't
alive, let him. She wanted Jimmy to hug her. She squeezed him, and
he laughed.
She'd been so afraid to feel. Sereeta had been building to an
ultimate that Mary had denied herself, sharing that experience with
the man from who Mary had forced herself to stay aloof. What
frightening crimp could jealousy hammer into Mary's mind? She'd
been afraid to feel it. All she had felt when that deformity had
emerged was horror. It was no comfort to know that her feelings
were correct.
Shouldn't he be up there with her? His hand on my shoulder. He
swallows and swallows. I was the doctor in charge. Now Sereeta is
in charge. She has the power because she lost the baby. Her power
no is less than that of a mother holding her newborn healthy child, a
pair who overshadow all. But the power of a baby, even dead but
delivered, is Sereeta's now, a power she didn't have when she was
pregnant, when the baby was an unknown. Is that why he's down
here? Is he cringing before that mystery?
Mary lifted Jimmy from her lap, but he kept clutching at her.
She had to attend to Sereeta, tranquilize her if need be. If Mbwebwe
was stunned immobile, she's have to handle the details. That baby.
The back door banged open and she heard a man say, "Well,
how's that for a family scene?" Mbwebwe spat a curse and ran from
the room. Mary heard scuffling and turned to see a policeman
behind Mbwebwe, holding him by the arms. More police were
clumped in the doorway, ringed around Billi, two other hookers,
and a couple of sullen customers. The Chief stood with his legs
spread and hands in his pockets, jingling his keys. He grinned at
Mbwebwe, then widened his eyes at Mary. "Why, it's the Doctor.
I wondered who would be in white around here, besides our friend."
He glanced at Mbwebwe, whose white suit was rumpled and
stained.
She fought back her tears. She didn't want an audience.
The Chief stepped toward the hall door, saying, "The back of
the house was so productive, I can't wait to see what's upstairs."
Mbwebwe dropped his sunglasses and lashed out with his fists. The
policeman twisted his arms behind him, and his glasses crunched
underfoot. He squinted in the light, cursed.
When the Chief turned again toward the door, Mary forced out
a sentence. "I have a patient upstairs who shouldn't be disturbed."
The Chief turned to her. "Is that so?" Jimmy stared at him. The
Chief came over and poked him in the ribs. "How ya doin', little
shaver? What's you name? Huh? Come on, son, speak up." He
looked at Mary and jerked his thumb toward Jimmy. "Not too
bright, is he?" Jimmy tried to squeeze around behind her.
Mbwebwe choked and looked at the floor. A policeman said,
"Oh Jesus" behind her. She didn't have to turn. Their faces told
her what he'd unwrapped. The Chief sneered down at her. "I guess
you do have a patient upstairs. Looks like you did quite a bit of
doctoring." He jerked his head and the police herded everyone
toward the door. Mbwebwe was crying again. Mary was beyond
that. She was dead numb.
in An officer escorted Mary to the car. The back seat had no door
or window handles on the inside. Heavy wire mesh screened the
front seat from the back. She felt rabid. The back door on the other
side opened and they shoved Billi in. She fell against Mary, then
scrambled away. The driver got in, looked around, couldn't quite
grasp anything to say. It was Herb.
West Palm Beach
The Chief's office was frigid with air conditioning. He pointed to
an arm chair and Mary huddled in it, trying not to shiver visibly.
Silence. She knew it was absurd, since he wasn't questioning her,
but she said, "I'm not saying anything until I get a lawyer."
"Doctor, don't give me lines from Perry Mason. I just thought
we should talk." He swept his forearm across a corner of his desk,
clearing away papers and a framed picture of his heavily jowled
family. He slung his right thigh up on the desk and leaned forward
to hover over her. "We really regret having to get you into this, but
there you were, doing an operation in a whore house, and with a
dead baby to show for it. We all know, not a doubt in anyone's
mind, that you did all you could for that little child. But Doctor, it
wasn't smart to do it outside the hospital." He leaned back, let her
breathe. "We'll do what we can to keep this to ourselves, won't we?
You go home and get some sleep. We'll talk some more later." He
patted her arm. She couldn't control her shiver.
Time stopped. Every second she expected the Hand of the Law
on her shoulder. From her short stint in the morgue, she knew the
broken Hyoid bone was total confirmation. Would they do an
autopsy? They. It's not We versus They any more; it's just me.
The Chief hunted her down in the hospital. "By the way, it was
buried yesterday. She found out it was a boy and wanted to name
it Hezekiah. Incredible. After what that pimp did to her."
She looked everywhere but at his face. He hiked his pants up on
his paunch and asked, "So how's everything at the hospital?"
"Fine. I have a number of expectant mothers waiting for me."
"I bet they wouldn't be happy with anybody else."
"You bet." Her voice was steady.
"Well, keep up the good work, Doctor." He was walking away
112 when he said over his shoulder, "Come see me in my office soon.
We'll talk doctor talk, little broken bones and such."
"This has the full approval of City Hall. You'll be an asset to the
community."
"It'll never work, and I don't care if City Hall holds my scalpel
hand. It's a violation of civil liberties."
The Chief's jowls draped around a smug mouth. "Ever hear of
Cleavon Blunt?"
"No." A sudden twinge, the shadow of the closing trap.
"Never heard of Dr. Cleavon C. Blunt of Andersonville, Alabama?"
"What about him?"
"A Federal Court jury ruled that he wasn't violating the rights
of his Welfare patients when he sterilized them. We're not asking
you to do any more than what he's done, and he's already fought it
in the courts for you."
No. He could not have said that.
The Supreme Court abortion ruling had seemed like such a
triumph. How could she have envisioned this? She'd be saving the
state money by aborting and sterilizing the poor. The Chief's wife
was pregnant, and he strutted with priapic pride, yet he'd schemed
to deny so many people the hope of more children. Priapic. Oh no.
Could he be starting some of the children he wanted stopped? He
doesn't want to see his beige babies. I am his birth control. Pride?
Any pimpled teenager can father or mother a baby. Yet he is so
very proud.
She could send the patients to other doctors, show them alternatives. But if they wanted her attention, they would have to agree,
after the first child or any illegitimate pregnancy, to being sealed
forever. And she had gained the trust of so many of the poor. They
would be operated on if she said so. Alternatives? Who? Garcia?
The Chief must have Garcia's approval already if he's forcing his
program on me. Garcia.
The Chief smiled at her, silently smiled until she was harassed,
stampeded. He moved closer. "How about going for a little drive
with me. We'll straighten out all the details." He put his arm around
her waist. Her shudder was his answer.
Did that baby gurgle? Could it possibly have breathed? Did I
"3 strangle a baby that wasn't alive? How can I have any idea of right?
Please, let me go, please.
Only one person might understand. She had to wait for him to
get out of jail. She was standing in the door of a Baskin and Robbins
store, licking her ice cream cone, when he hurried past. He was
dressed plainly in a plaid shirt and overalls. "Mbwebwe." She put
out her arm. He sidestepped around it and hurried on. "Wait. You
were there. You know they had me trapped. I was playing with
Jimmy, thinking maybe I wouldn't even do abortions any more. I
don't want to be doing what I'm doing now." She babbled at him
with a scoop of French Vanilla melting and running down her hand.
He got to his Plymouth, fumbled the keys from his pocket, dropped
them, turned on her a look of outrage. Her voice strangled. He
slammed into the car and squealed away in a stench of burning
rubber. Had the Chief told Mbwebwe about the flattened windpipe
to make life harder for him? Or harder for Mary?
It's too fast. I need the time to know whether I'm right. I've lost
my friend. What is a pimp, anyhow, that he should judge? Who
does he think he is? Who do I think he is?
My bathroom. The medicine chest. A few c.c.'s of mephenesen
waiting for me in a hypodermic. I should be prepared.
"Yeah, she blew right up. I've seen other women do it, but it sure
is amazing." The Chief's hands were in his pockets, arms framing
his swollen belly. "She sure is taking a long time for a little old
baby."
"That's right nice." The two women, black and white, murmured
empty compliments. The black woman sweated and picked her lip.
The Chief loomed and leered over her, put a hand on her shoulder
and chafed her skin with his thumb, rubbing as if to erase it.
Mary stood in her office door, too startled to speak. She grabbed
the Chief's elbow and hauled him into the office. "Those women
are about to be sterilized. Don't you have anything better to do than
tell them about your wife having a baby? Don't you want to be in
the delivery room?"
"Hell no. And you just never mind about your precious mothers.
I happen to know that two or three babies have been delivered that
should have been impossible."
114 "I counselled them to go elsewhere. I have that right."
"You got no rights without the law. If you don't keep up your
efficiency, we'll have to find some other final solution." He was
about to bluster cruder threats, but he clamped his mouth, swelled
with bottled rage, and stomped out.
The first sterilization was standard. Mary blew her up with carbon
dioxide, pushed in the laparascope, and sealed the tubes with an
electric needle. Simple.
She had to take a break before she could continue, so she paced
the hall. Economics. Better to sterilize than over-populate. More
opportunity for kids already born. Etc. Would I ever dare to try
those reasons on a mother?
A nurse walked by and Mary stopped her, hoping for an exchange
of banalities about something safe like a new pair of pants. The
nurse wanted to talk about a woman in labor. "It's taking a hell of
a long time, over 24 hours."
"Dystocia of that length should get a C-section." The solution
came to Mary automatically."
"Right. I think Garcia is using her as a visual aid to a lecture.
He's showing some nurses the difference between classical and low
cervical, and between intra- and extraperitoneal low cervical."
"Garcia's going to do a delivery? Who's the woman?"
"The wife of the Police Chief."
The second sterilization was as routine as the first, except for a
moment when she filled the eyepiece of the laparascope with tears.
She had the nurse check her eyes, but he couldn't find anything in
them. He swabbed off her face so she could continue. When they
wheeled out the lifeless, black sterilized woman, Mary felt a core of
nerves buzzing deep in her brain.
The hallway reeked of distinfectant, but Mary gulped the air.
She hadn't been able to breathe in the O.R. She trudged to Labor
and Delivery for information. The nurse was in street clothes, rushing to get to a tennis court, but she had time to say, "The C-section
just finished. The baby's dead, but the mother's doing fine."
Mary's eyes locked. What would she permit herself to feel?
The Chief strutted in the hallway, scowling through a window at
all the new babies as if he was making an inspection. Had he been
in the delivery room, he'd have tried to intimidate the baby out.
Why does he dress like that? He's the Chief, he could wear a business
suit. Does he like dressing in a uniform and strapping on his gun?
"5 He looked at his watch and demanded of Mary, "What's taking so
long?"
He doesn't know. Her brain clicked too quickly for her to follow.
"Chief, I need your help."
"No time now. Where's that Garcia?"
"I'm assisting him. As you know, your wife's having a difficult
labor..."
"Yeah, no kidding. You cut her open yet?"
"We're about to operate, but we need some blood in reserve as
a safety factor. Could you ..."
He rolled up his sleeve. "Let's go." She steered him into an empty
examination room. So many variables. Would they be left alone?
Would the Chief realize his blood hadn't been typed and matched
to his wife's? Do not think. Act.
She prepared the IV and he snapped, "What's that for?"
"You'll be losing a lot of fluid, so you'll need a saline solution to
maintain blood pressure." She opened the valve and the sodium
pentathol hit his vein. She hovered over him. He stared at the ceiling, drumming his fingers impatiently on the table. Then his eyes
rolled to her, and she knew he had felt the drug. He was dead to
the world before he could speak.
Nothing to it. Feel for one of the vasa, manipulate it to the front.
A brief dissection with mosquito forceps. Zip. Pull out the vasa
with Allis forceps. Snip off a loop between dacron sutures, sew the
ends with absorbable thread, do the other vasa, two stitches in the
skin, and I'd be done.
No, Mary, I don't think so.
He'd be shaved. He'd know. He'd nail me and then go rutting
around the county without a thought. Does he think about it now?
Could I keep it a secret? Leave him his little pubic beard and
just swab him with a surgical cleanser. He wears those jockey shorts.
Those would give him enough support. His wife's misfortune might
keep him from sex for the days it would take to heal. I'd cut out
enough to guarantee it could never be reversed.
No, Mary. It would be more convincing if you were persuading
yourself to do what you didn't want to do. You were right when
you overcame your own wishes to fulfill the patients' wishes. I was
right. But to sterilize women without their wishing it, to alter this
stud without his knowledge — no.
116 If I did what I really want, I'd lop it off altogether. Why must
women alone bear the penalty for being poor and pregnant? Because
you'd have to castrate every male in the world to stop unwanted
babies. Chief Stud makes me almost willing to do that.
And if I did my little surgery? I imagine I'd go home, open the
medicine chest and reach for the hypodermic. The moment the
mephenesen hit, I would be beyond responsibility. And the Chief
would continue his randy ways, while his wife remained empty. Or
if he discovered how I'd altered him? And if his wife became pregnant, and he knew it couldn't be his? Horrible. Would she survive?
I should have known when I put that needle in my bathroom. It
coincided with the sterilizations. How could I not see that I was
rationalizing a wrong?
Mary wrestled with the Chief's bulk, trying to get his underwear
back up. The door opened. Herb. Mary grabbed a scalpel and held
it to the Chief's crotch. Herb's mouth and eyes opened wide; he
reached for his gun. Mary pressed scalpel to skin. "Deputy!" I've
forced a showdown.
Herb looked down at his hand. "Jesus." He put his gun down
gingerly, with disgust.
"Thank you. Thank you. What made me grab this?" She threw
down her scalpel. It clattered loudly on the tray. Herb jumped.
Mary gestured at the Chief. "Help me get his pants up." She tried
to be calm, but a swirl of vertigo made her sit abruptly down. When
she could open her eyes, she saw Herb bending over her. "I'm okay.
Give me a minute, and then let's do those pants."
He grunted as he heaved to raise the Chief's ass. "You were going
to castrate him."
"No, not quite."
"You got the drop on me there. I couldn't have stopped you."
"You're right. You couldn't have. I stopped myself."
He dropped the Chief's ass back on the table after she'd zipped
him up. "I'm glad you didn't. I think maybe I could understand
why you would. But I would have hated you."
"I don't like myself right now. But I hope to change that."
Herb's harried face flushed. "Look . . . what are you going to do
with him? It's not like anything happened, but he'll know you
knocked him out."
"That's right. There's nothing I can do."
"You could . . . You could take off. I'd let you. I could give you
117 all the time that's possible." Herb grew more agitated. "Why did I
have to like you? Why did I walk in here?"
"Why did you?"
"I was looking for the Chief. Somebody had to tell him about the
baby, and he doesn't have any real friends who could help him. I
didn't want to be the one, but who else was there?"
"Why did you come into this room? You're not supposed to enter
examination rooms."
"An orderly told me you came in here. I thought you were talking
or something."
"We were seen?"
"Yeah."
"... Thank god I had time finally to think."
"Can I put my gun back in my holster?"
"Sure. You were so shocked. I didn't know what you might do."
"I know. I must have thought it was a Western, drawing like
that."
Mary's legs twitched. She sat down and closed her eyes, breathing
deeply. "I'll be ready in a minute."
Mary breathed more deeply, breathed wholly, consciously, felt the
air calm and strengthen her. "I'll stay and tell your boss here that
I'm not doing any more operations for him."
"But ... that baby ... we know what happened to it."
"You saw it. What could you have done or I have done to give
that child a life?"
"... I don't know. I thought about it. I might have done what
you did."
"If I have to, I'm willing to see if twelve jurors agree. I'm willing
to climb the courts to the top." She stood, still feeling her breath
warming her. She headed for the door. "We can leave him here.
He'll be nauseous when he wakes up, but only for a minute."
"But look ..." His voice showed anguish. "So you go to court.
What good does that do?"
"I'd like to see the right precedents on the books. It's a cold victory, but it spreads the good farther than I can alone. My decisions
have been private for too long."
Herb looked at the Chief's bulky body. The Chief's jowls wobbled.
He grunted, struggling to rise out of the anesthetic. Herb turned
back to her, his voice helpless now. "You sure you won't leave? This
court stuff is just a dream. Courts don't solve everything. He won't
even fight you in a court. You haven't seen him get really mean yet.
118 He's been easy on you because you weren't important to him. He
didn't want to waste his energy. Listen, he'll stomp all over you.
He'll gang up on you with that Garcia. Who knows what kind of
shit he'll pull? I know him, and I'm telling you, get out of that
man's way."
He was right. She knew it, and it chilled her. They wouldn't go
to court and settle right and wrong in a tidy little debate. She waited
to see if she'd feel fear. I've changed the lives of others, been an
instrument of their desires. I've argued the moral questions for myself, but I've acted on other people. Now, this time, I will bear all
the consequences.
She smiled. "You can tell him I'll be in my office, if he wants to
send a posse. And you can tell him he'd better be careful. Because
I'm ready, and I'm right."
"9 Francis Gannon
SMALL DEATHS
He was fourteen years old with a face full of acne, chunking along
head down through a crowded shopping center, carrying a little
cardboard box with a hamster in it. He liked nothing better than
wandering around in shopping centers. He played pinball, smoked
cigarettes and attempted to convey the impression that he was engaged in some secret venture of great importance requiring his
attendance at that particular shopping center. That is usually a
difficult impression to convey successfully, but it borders on the
impossible when one is fourteen years old with pimples and wearing
dirty basketball shoes with holes in them. Occasionally he saw another kid in the crowd who was apparently playing the same game.
This gave him a vague sense of his own absurdity and, after such a
sighting, he would try to tone down his attitude until he got out of
the other player's sight. Then he would start again.
The shopping center was big and modern with fountains, foliage
and exotic tropical birds. The place was enclosed and the temperature inside was always seventy. Outside a huge electric sign read,
"It is always Spring inside." When Dennis was twelve a young boy
had been castrated in one of the public bathrooms and had bled to
death. Although there had been quite a bit of community uproar
over the incident the murderer was never found. The newspapers
invariably termed it either "a senseless act" or "the work of a
maniac." Dennis' father, reading of the murder, shook his head
wearily and muttered from his armchair, "There will always be
maniacs." It was his father's habit to speak in absolutes.
Dennis was at the shopping center because his parents habitually
went to the harness races on Saturday nights. His father would "take
mom out" which was a strange way of putting it since his mother
didn't even like going to race tracks. She liked the idea of being
"taken out" however, and went gladly. She always had the same
exit line for the boy, "Don't burn the house down Dennis." Then she
would kiss him on the forehead and go with her husband to scream
at the horses pulling their little men in carts.
120 Dennis always told them that he intended to stay home and watch
television but as their car was pulling out he had invariably begun to
get his shopping center money together. He picked up sofa cushions,
combed through pockets and generally came up with three or four
dollars in assorted change. Thirty minutes later he was strolling amid
tropical flora and fauna, a suburban stranger in paradise.
His parents did not allow him to have pets. They claimed that he
was allergic to fur but Dennis suspected that his parents actually
disliked animals and had fabricated the allergy story. More than
anything else he craved movement and, to his eyes, fish seemed
exceedingly boring. They hung in the water and did nothing and
their death was not a major event. Now he had bought a fat red
hamster with the excitement of forbidden thrills. As he moved
through the crowd toward the bus stop he could feel his heart beat.
He was very happy.
He had been waiting for the bus only a few minutes when two
young men approached the concrete bench on which he sat with the
hamster box beside him. They were older than Dennis and they
talked in a manner that he did not fully understand. Sometimes they
said "mother" in a way that puzzled him. When the bus came they
got on in front of Dennis whose attention was centered on the red
animal peering through the slot in the cardboard box. Yes, he
thought, it's still in there.
Dennis was standing on the steps of the bus waiting to pay when
the two young men got into an argument with the bus driver.
"That's a number three transfer," said the bus driver. His voice
sounded like a man struggling to tolerate great ignorance. "You need
a Federal Avenue bus for that. It's no good on this bus." He was old
and jowly and looked as if he'd been born to drive buses.
"What do you mean Federal Avenue? This is the bus we always
take!" the taller one said incredulously. His companion looked past
the driver into the nearly empty bus with blank eyes. He appeared
utterly uninterested in the proceedings.
The bus driver continued, "It's no good on this bus pal. You need
the Federal Avenue bus. It'll be here pretty soon." He put the bus in
gear to express the finality of his statements.
The two young men lethargically turned to get off and Dennis
had to back off the steps to let them out. They got off without looking at anything but, as he began to reboard, he saw one of them
staring at the slightly vibrating box by his side.
"It's a hamster," he said raising the box for emphasis. When they
121 did nothing to acknowledge his statement he walked up into the bus
feeling somewhat uneasy. He paid the driver and sat down across
from an old man in one of the two parallel bench seats toward the
front of the now mobile bus. The two young men, frozen into
effigies of disdain, glided gently past the window.
"These niggers think they know everything," said the driver in a
conversational tone of voice. There was no one near the front of the
bus except Dennis and the old man, and the boy wondered who the
driver might be addressing since his eyes were staring straight out the
windshield. Then Dennis saw the old man nod in wearied agreement
and felt that the aged gent must be a frequent passenger.
It was a cloudy night in late August and as he looked out the
window of the moving bus he found that his own reflection obscured
the sight of whatever the vehicle passed. He looked at the front of
the bus and saw a plate that read, "Your operator Homer Vantage."
He wondered if that was really the driver's name. He looked at the
oblong mirror over the driver's head and saw two framed eyes staring
fixedly ahead. The old man's eyes did not even seem to be focused.
Dennis felt that the driver and the old man, veterans of life, in some
way understood each other.
When he got to his stop Dennis gave the driver his ticket and got
off with the box held firmly beside him. As he walked home he
formulated his plan for concealing the hamster from his parents. By
the time he arrived he knew just how he was going to do it.
He found a large box in his garage and carried the two boxes, the
red one with the hamster and the big corrugated one that had once
held liquor, into the house and put them down on the floor of his
bedroom. He took the hamster out and looked at it. He couldn't tell
whether it was female or male, but he decided arbitrarily that it was
a member of his own sex and named it Mike, a name he had long
admired. Once, at the beginning of a school term, a teacher had
called him "Denise"and the androgyny of his first name had ever
since disturbed him.
He watched the animal snorting around in the box and decided
that it was probably hungry. He got a small bowl, filled it with water
and placed it, along with some lettuce, in the box. Then he sat and
watched the animal explore its cardboard home. As the hamster ran
jerkingly from side to side its swift darting movements took on the
aspect of a smear of red paint thrown energetically against a brown
canvas. He watched the hamster without regard to time, reveling in
its randomness, fondling the petals of his own life . . .
122 Suddenly it was eleven o'clock and he knew his parents would be
returning. He took the box and carefully placed it in his closet, a
place he knew they rarely looked. His closet was where he stashed
his cigarettes and the paperback books that he considered to be
pornographic. He was totally confident of the closet's impregnability.
He had just gotten ready for bed when he heard the car in the
driveway. He quickly got into bed and pretended that he was asleep.
As he dozed off his father's racing comments faintly disturbed his
silence but his dreams were of the hamster and its reckless movement — the boy and the animal in the closet, together in the wild
sleep of the young.
When Dennis awoke his first sight was the yellow slashes of sunlight pouring into his bedroom between the blinds across from his
bed. He walked to the window and saw the rusted swing set that sat
neglected in his backyard. He was too old for swings. Indeed, it
seemed to him that life's offerings inevitably divided themselves into
two categories. There were those things he was too old to experience
and there were those things he was too young to experience. There
was nothing in between.
He went to his closet to look at the hamster. As he carefully
removed the box he was shocked to find that it was empty. He
frantically searched his room but he found no trace of the hamster.
It seemed incredible to him that the animal could be there when he
went to sleep and gone when he awakened. He hurriedly dressed and
went downstairs to continue his search. He looked everywhere in the
house but his efforts were fruitless. The hamster was gone.
Dennis sat down at the kitchen table contemplating the intractability of the conditions of his life. His mother entered the room and
noticed his mood.
"What's the matter?" she asked, "Are you looking for something?"
"No," he said, looking for signs of suspicion on his mother's face,
"I'm not looking for anything."
Some orange juice had spilled on the table and its glistening
appearance struck Dennis as being somehow ominous. He thought of
the lost hamster and ate his breakfast in silence.
A week later Dennis was watching a Tarzan movie on television
when he heard his mother's startled cry from the kitchen. He ran in
to see his mother and father staring at an overturned mousetrap on
the floor next to the refrigerator. There in the trap, caught by the
throat, was the hamster. It was covered with its own blood and
appeared grotesquely large in the little wooden trap that has been
123 built for a smaller animal. Its coat was obscenely dirty, covered with
the filth of a week's worth of mouse life in the crevices of Dennis'
father's house. The hamster had carried the trap around with him
after being caught and there were spatters of blood in an irregular
pattern that covered the right side of the kitchen.
"How the hell did that thing get in there?" said his father opening
the trap and dropping the dead thing into the uncovered trashcan.
Then he went back outside to finish mowing the lawn.
Dennis looked down at the hamster. It was lying on a pile of coffee
grounds with its eyes closed.
"I don't know how that thing got in there. It's really weird," he
said without conviction. As he walked back to the living room he felt
strangely transformed. He had lost forever the simple ability to accept
the inexplicable that is the sole possession of childhood.
He looked out the livingroom window at the man mowing his
lawn. The day was hot and his father had removed his shirt. Sweat
glistened on his upper body as he methodically pushed the mower
through the thick summer grass. Dennis felt that his father was
certainly not thinking of the dead animal in the kitchen. On the television screen Tarzan furiously wrestled with a massive lion. The
screen no longer interested Dennis and he reached over and switched
it off. The image shrank to a single radiant dot precisely at the center
of the black field. Then it was gone.
124 Justin Glove
FIXTURES
Three yellow stars hung like teeth beneath the moon. A traffic light
changed from red to green. Billy Factor and his fiancee Evangeline
Kearney crossed the deserted suburban avenue. On the other side of
the street, beyond a sprawling parking lot, a new shopette stretched
out for a city block.
Factor turned to Evangeline. Neon lights overhead cast a vivid
glow to her calm, arrogant face. "Ready for the promised land,
babe?" he said. "I feel good personally." He smoothed his hand
across her stomach.
"I feel good too," she whispered hoarsely. "Scared — but the good
sort of scared. When you're up against it —■ "
The shopette was closed down for the night except for a green
brick drugstore. It stared out at them like an evil eye.
They crossed the parking lot at a forty-five degree angle leading
to a fast food outlet. Inside the deserted franchise three-legged metal
chairs were stacked upside down atop a white counter. Orange picnic
tables and orange garbage pails were set up on a strip of blue concrete. Factor and Evangeline sat down at one of the tables.
A hundred yards down, a Thunderbird pulled up in front of the
drugstore. Two blonde teenyboppers eating popsicles scrambled out
of the car. They wore tight shorts and halter tops. They ran inside
giggling and making sounds like doves.
As a rule Factor would have thought about their fourteen-year-old
flesh at length; he would have closely considered how nice the feel of
it would be. Soft as lanolin, tight as a drum: something to that
effect. But faced with his grave task adrenaline pumped through him
as if needle-injected; physical desires disintegrated and submerged
like crumbling rowboats into the rivers of his blood.
Evangeline took a round, glass jar from her handbag and unscrewed the top. She applied a dull white cream to her face with
circular motions of her fingertips. She smeared it on thickly and soon
looked quite like a mad clown in the moonlight.
She rubbed her hands clean with a tissue and began on Factor.
The cream felt cool against his feverish face, but slightly suffocating.
125 Satisfied with her efforts, Evangeline produced a diamond-shaped
mirror from her handbag and scrutinized herself. She offered the
mirror to Factor.
He shook his head and eyed a one-armed man in khaki shuffling
out of the drugstore. The amputee looked in the direction of the
harlequin-faced couple, his lone hand angled against his brow to
ward off the glare of a streetlamp. He mumbled to himself — a mild
oath or a nervous song — then got into a Toyota pickup and drove
off.
Evangeline put the jar of makeup back in her bag. She toyed with
something else.
"What are you doing?" said Factor.
"Checking my gun."
"How does it seem?"
"I don't like these bullets," she said, "I'd rather have wadcutters,
I trust their flat faces better." She tilted her head coyly. Her lipstick
looked purple in the night lighting. "They don't look so sneaky and
unreliable."
The two boppers exited from the drugstore. They grabbed at each
other's arms and sang out their adolescence in throaty voices.
"The ballistic difference is moot," said Factor. "Anyway we're
not going to use the guns, Vange. It's just a show of force."
Evangeline smacked her fist on the table like an angry judge.
Factor imagined the red blush beneath the white face. "My choice
of images," she said, "doesn't mean I think this is an intellectual
exercise — like you most certainly do. That's a real drugstore, Billy
. . . we're going to rip off real money and narcotics . . . these are real
guns, real bullets .. . Death and pain — it's real."
Factor pulled back his shoulders and forced his thumbs through
belt-loops in his trousers. "You think I disagree with that?"
"Yes . . . yes — I sure do." She pronounced the words slowly and
theatrically, pointing her finger, opening wide her eyes. "You know
what you said to me when we first met, Billy? You said you could
never tell the difference between when you were awake and when
you were dreaming. You know that?"
"What's that have to do with anything?"
"You're right," she said. "I had to think about that for a long
time. I had to figure out just what could be the practical difference."
She took a deep breath, leaned back and blew it out at the stars. "At
first I thought it might be we can ignore our dreams because we're
not responsible for them. But that wouldn't do as a difference for
126 you ■— because you don't think you're responsible for your waking
life either. Do you?"
Something like a knitting needle — both sharp and dull —
touched Factor deep in his brain. His defenses went up, his mind
clouded like a whirlpool or the center of a storm. The faint stab was
enclosed and dissolved before it broke into consciousness.
"Maybe I don't," he said. "But dream or not, it's stupid to talk
about now. I don't want to talk about it."
"Do you ever," she said acidly. She slapped the gun cylinder into
its frame, took her hand out of the tote-bag and looked across the
summer sky. "Your problem is," she said suddenly, "that you live
without crises — and that's no way to do things."
"Shut it up," he said.
The first time they'd made love he was positioned above her and
fast approaching climax. She bent her elbows and violently shoved
him off with her forearms.
"I can't!" she screamed. Factor's member flipped on its side like
an otter.
"Why not?"
"I thought you were my father."
He spat on the floor. "Please — none of that Oedipal crap for me,
babe. If your father was an asshole, why should I pay the piper?"
"It's real," she said. She caught her breath. Sheets of tears rolled
over her cheeks.
"I don't care."
"He was a good man," she sobbed.
"Oh dull. They all say that. I really don't care at all." Factor went
to the bathroom and read military history until she cried herself to
sleep.
The crackle of a radio broke the air. Across the parking lot a
forest green and white police car crawled up in front of the drugstore. Paranoia washed through Factor's body; teams of phantoms
danced in a ring around the picnic table.
"Look there, Evangeline," he said, "that's no dream. We're up
shit creek."
Evangeline looked back at the squad car. A single cop climbed
out and stretched his arms.
Evangeline stood up and held her hands palms outward, fingers
spread, against her face. Gamely, she rolled her head back and forth.
127 Then she pushed her splayed-out hands sideways from her body in
a straight line — a mime confronted with an imaginary wall. She
shook her head madly, threw her hands in to the air and broke into
a soft shoe routine. Her feet padded against the ground like little
weasels.
The cop waved at her and went into the drugstore. The paranoia
lifted from Factor —■ turned to summer heat; the phantoms back-
pedaled away from the table and fastened onto distant groups of
stars.
Evangeline sat back down at the table and tapped her heels gleefully on the concrete. Factor patted her hand and smiled.
"You hold up well," he said.
"It's going to be just fine," she said.
Their relationship was always in flux, changing like tides and
chameleons in form and color, but amplified by the changes, never
diminished.
One morning a week earlier they'd walked down a sidestreet, not
talking. Factor was still lost behind the curtains of his sleep; they
rarely pulled back before noon.
Some Latins were kneeling on the sidewalk. They shot dice before
a grid of six squares drawn in blue chalk. In each square long pieces
of stone weighted down dollar bills. Factor and Evangeline stopped
to observe.
"It's hardly fun just watching," said Evangeline. She tugged at
Factor's arm. "Let's go do something, let's play tennis. I want to
wear white and exercise and sweat."
A man in sunglasses and a black T-shirt was running the game.
His assistant counted out change while he spurred on bets, yelling
nonsense in Spanish. He shook three dice in a cup and let them fly
across the sidewalk.
Factor turned to Evangeline. "Wear white, exercise and sweat?
We could dog-style in our underwear with similar effects. I don't
want to play tennis."
The assistant swept the losing bets off the grid, nimbly counted
and stacked the bills. He flipped out four dollars to pay a winner.
The man in the shades continued yelling and shaking the cup; more
bills flew to the pavement and were pushed under the shards of rock.
"Everything's in your head, Billy," said Evangeline. "You don't
want anything more real than a reflection on your retinas. You
128 dismiss everything with analogies and cynicism. You convert every
action to a thought. It's not healthy. It's lazy — self-indulgent."
They moved on down the street. Factor glared at her.
"Quit it," she said stiffly. She kicked at a stop sign. "There you go
again. You're not even giving yourself time to understand what I
say before you file it."
Factor scratched his head. She was quite right. Walls went up as
quickly as ground was cleared for them. It was a dream and he
wouldn't wake up.
"Well," she said. "What are we going to do?"
From behind them came the voice of the man running the dice
game. He was screaming about la policia. Several of the players
walked quickly past them and disappeared into a bodega.
"How about a drugstore robbery?" said Factor.
The policeman came out drinking coffee from a paper cup. Keys
jangled against his hip. He looked once quickly in the direction of
Factor and Evangeline before he got back in the police car. The
crackle of the radio went on and off. He drove away.
"All right, let's move," said Factor. They got up from the picnic
table and walked across the cement and gravel lot toward the drugstore. The moon was quarter full, encircled by a gray lining. The
little stars beneath it were obscured by clouds. The green brick of the
drugstore was too bright, plasticine.
A young woman was on duty at the counter. She stared at the
patrons with clown faces. She wore a tight, short-sleeved sweater
without a bra, demonstrating lopsided breasts, a characteristic that
unmistakably appealed to Factor. Evangeline went up to her and
started talking sanitary napkins.
Factor went to the back of the store. A graying pharmacist was
typing out prescriptions behind the counter. His expression was
morose and weary, his lower lip was drooped like a walrus's, his eyes
were sunk deep in the sockets. Patches of sweat checkered his smock
despite the store's heavy air-conditioning.
Factor moved easily and naturally across the floor, as if it were a
ballroom. He fell into the reflexes of dream. He half-kneeled before
a shelf of cologne and slid a .32 Beretta out of his cowboy boot. The
fluorescent glow from a fixture above him made the rows of cans and
bottles appear as lucid as the image of a mirror. The grip of the gun
meshed together with his hand.
129 He stood up and approached the counter. He pushed the automatic into the pharmacist's stomach.
"Don't move," said Factor. "I'm coming over to join you." He
pulled back the gun a few inches. Using his free hand for support,
he climbed over the counter.
Momentarily he looked toward the front of the store. Evangeline's
gun was trained on the cashier.
He faced the pharmacist again. The old gentleman's eyes were
crosshatched with streaks of red. Factor thought of the canals of
Mars.
"Don't get panicked," said the pharmacist in a shallow voice. "I'll
give you whatever you want."
"I want the money," said Factor. "And the narcotics."
The pharmacist's hands shook. He opened the cash register and
pulled out all the bills. He picked up a flat yellow sack with advertising on it and stuffed it with the money. "Do you want sleeping pills?"
he said to Factor. "Tranquilizers?"
Factor blinked. All of his blood seemed to be frozen at the edge of
his skin; apricot shadows passed before his eyes; dying bees buzzed
faintly in his ears.
"No," he said.
"What," said the pharmacist, "what then?" The words came
slowly from his mouth, his voice was high-pitched, the pronunciation
garbled — like a man who'd swallowed helium. Or it was Factor.
"Narcotics, narcotics," Factor repeated the word over and over,
tauntingly, like a catcall, so he wouldn't forget it.
The pharmacist took a ring of keys from his pocket. "You don't
look like one of them," he said to Factor. A tier of sweat had formed
on top of his lip. He stooped down and unlocked a steel cabinet
beneath the counter.
"What do they look like?" asked Factor.
The pharmacist removed a large bottle of Demerol. "Not like a
joke," he said.
A gun reported. Something bit at Factor's shoulder. He wheeled
around and saw the policeman crouched at the entrance, his .357
Smith drawn.
Evangeline turned and put three bullets through the cop's
stomach. As he fell, he fired twice at her.
From the corpses of our dreams we pick off sequences and cycles
130 that live on in our waking hours. Feelings of pursuit, our steps slowing as if we were running through deep wet concrete. The feeling of
falling — the opposite feeling of flying: they mean the same.
Evangeline's body flew backwards spread-eagled into a shelf of
movie magazines and tabloids of romance.
Like a fish slipping from its skin, Factor slipped from the dream
into the drugstore. He gasped for air and realized that his medium
was gone forever; that the scream of the girl with lopsided breasts
was as real as the blood passing down his shoulder, as real as the
colored mist that rose off Evangeline's body and passed into eternity.
!3i Ralph Gustafson/ Three Poems
AROUND MULL
Mendelssohn made an island,
Staffa, nothing
On a map. What of history
Unless the bearded marble or
The pot is found? that table,
Set with stew and armour,
That was round, short-foot
Tamerlane of Samarkand,
The gentle Richard and Pomfret
Where they stopped him breathing
With an axe;
The brig o' Doon —
Dead of history
Without the poems. Thinking backward is
An inkpot written-out
Lacking the soupy soul
And art; nations
Selling coin and clocks,
Gorgeous mountains only,
Pericles and Florence
Had a sort of home-town art ...
Here
Is the murderer of Duncan,
The Book of Kells, Iona's
Lonely isle.
132 PRAISE OF MARGINS
And of the white moon (be praised, O Lord)
 SAINT FRANCrS OF ASSrSSI
The egret debugs the cows in Granada,
The white egret perambulating
His dinner; as naucrates ductor, the shark,
In fishy terms. Ocean teems,
On land the scarlet tanager wings
A million lice. All is one
With the scrambling stars, with him who eats.
Soul's the pivot; otherwise
Is scales and hair. This dusty challenge
Is the mock of sequestration,
Not the forfeit for redemption.
Praise to the weevil who lives on seeds,
Whose head's prolonged to snout; to the crawling
Crab and starfish, compliment. Dust
Is news of God, sequestered stars,
Exaltation. Laud to the burdened
Yak who has no need to shorten
Breath on mountains, the padded cat.
God's the very daystream, not
To be given up to be got to. Soul's
The need: sensuous day turns red
At dawn; at certain hours a dreadful
Sundry seeks an opposite.
J33 VARIATION ON A POEM OF MONTALE
happiness ... It's not for us
and he who has it doesn't know
what to do with it.
I know what to do with it.
In my garden I sit where
The windows are open.
The tanager sings.
I do not see him,
A fear of mankind
And a modest glory
Surround him.
They say the gods don't come down here.
I wait in the sun
Not despairing
And the breath of happiness
Brushes my sleeve.
134 Joe Hutchison/ Three Poems
THE CALENDAR CANDLE:
BURNING THE FIRST MONTH
for Jon and Terre
A blue snow at the flame's center, like the dust the body gathers in
its unused rooms ... heavy dust that migrates blindly when any
door in the house swings open. All around the stiff, twisted wick the
little storm billows, confused . .. every moment of a man's life flying
toward him, past and future at once ... a swarm of bruised words
in which a naked poplar shivers, trying to hold still.. ..
But often, from somewhere in the tangled branches, birds appear.
They test the blizzard with red-ochre wings, uncertain ... then suddenly let go! Diving up into high rippling clarity, they float —
longer than they'd hoped — before their glowing bodies turn black.
135 THE ANCESTRAL SHORE
Bordering the field, a tribe
of oak trees, October's
negative fever shaking them
into fire. In waves
the morning fog
feels slowly toward them ...
desire rising from far back
inside us, reaching
for the burning
sickness that heals. Then
suddenly it's there -— the ancestral
shore: painted limbs lifted
in praise, their
brightness delivered
out of extinction; it is
the cold brilliance our spines
remember: a blazing forth
in extremity —
at the glacier's edge.
136 GHAZAL OF THE WAKEFUL NIGHTS
The dying fire farts, mutters, scratches its crotch;
those chilly chimney-gusts just won't let it sleep.
Dragged from the river, an unknown child. Yet how
heavily her absence rides in my shadow's black wagon!
Like desire, gravity measures our fear of vanishing;
as though earth, if we'd let it, would let us go.
Restless, the widow clears the pane with her sleeve.
But their child sleeps curled around his own breathing.
Cold splashed water hugs the campfire's coals, freeing
a tall ghost: star-haunter; bitter-breath; wanderer.
137 Joe Hutchison
THE CRYSTAL GARDEN
"Only repressed life is in time." — norman o. brown
1
The Garden was around here, he was sure of it. Unless they'd razed
it. On both sides of the empty street slum buildings steeply rose,
every window dark. Garbage cans dented by kidkicks stood near
every stoop, exhaling odors of rotted apples, stinks of lettuce gone as
slimy as snot, bourbon-soaked coffee ground aromas, and the grey
rot of egg-damp cigarette ash. Alfred wrinkled his nose, involuntarily licked his lips. Even this spoiled air excited his hunger.
Christ, they couldn't've torn down the best one in town. Unless this
damned neighborhood's wiped it out. I remember we'd taxi down
this street in college, some girl and me, and climb out of the cab,
and step lightly past the doorman into the Garden. Mirrors, chandeliers, velvet draperies, china plates and rare wines in crystal stemware, soft jazz and vintage swing, ah God it was beautiful. Original.
Never guess it was right here in the middle of these ruins. Is. Has
to be. Wish I could find a phone booth to check if it's moved. Nothing like that round here I suppose. Damn kids'd probably rip the
coin-boxes out. Where are they I wonder. Where's anybody?
Pull your pants up, his father said, voice rasping as if he were sorry.
Alf eased off the bed, belt-whipped buttocks quivering, welts already
ribboning his skin. The scrape of his briefs' elastic waistband when
he hoisted them made him wince, and his tear-drenched face grew
chilly as he licked his lips slick with salty mucous. He had come
home from a movie two hours late, broken his curfew. Look here
son, his father said, holding out his left fist overturned with its pale
fingers hairless as the shell of an egg. With his ink-stained right
finger he tapped the glinting crystal of the gold watch strapped to
his wrist. A man without time, he said forcefully, is utterly lost.
138 Alfred checks his wrist. Bare. Underskin soft as a girl's belly. He
stares at it until the image surfaces in memory, the watch laying on
the dressertop, the tiny knives of its hands glowing green in the
dark. An expensive Omega. In his rage he left one of the few tilings
he truly loves.
Pull down your pants boy, his father ordered. Alf pulled them down.
His father pushed him forward onto the bed, then removed his wide
leather belt (its hiss like a snake's as it slipped the loops), raised it
high as the ceiling it seemed, and took a deep breath. Held it. Alf
could hear his father's watch faintly ticking above him in the dark.
Damnit! Meetings tomorrow, appointments. A few lost minutes
might lose me a client. Dad always said a good accountant keeps
one eye on his watch and one on the books. Well hell I'll just have
to go home and get it. After dinner. Who knows, maybe I'll have a
wife and not an ar-teest by then.
Well, said Alfred, clearing his throat and handing back to Eva the
latest Art News, so your work shows tremendous promise. Who
knows, she replied, Kohl's a highly respected critic though. I like
your college paintings better, said Alfred. Eva said nothing at first.
Yes well they have a certain, she tossed the magazine onto the end-
table, innocence. You're upset about something, he said. Not really,
she sat down opposite him in the rocking chair, it's just I've been
invited into a traveling gallery. What's that, he asked. The Arts
Council's been given a grant that'll pay our expenses, four other
artists and me, she told him, and we'll work with schoolkids to earn
our keep out there. Out there, he repeated. On the west coast, she
said, five different cities on the west coast. Alfred sat forward on
the couch, elbows on knees, hands interlaced so tightly their knuckles
whitened. And just how long will you and your, he paused, fellow
travelers be gone? Three months, her eyes narrowed and aimed at
139 his. He laughed. Well I just can't allow, he began. Allow, she
growled suddenly angry, who do you think you are? I'm your husband, he said forcefully, voice resonant. And that gives you the
rights to my life I'm sorry, she shook her head, but you're fucking
mistaken. Eva, his eyes widened. You're an accountant, a soulless
accountant, she stood up pacing back and forth, you come to me
nights with those ludicrous inkblue fingers, she reached down and
grabbed his clenched hands apart, and / allow you to touch me, I
allow it! He hit her then, hard. She toppled backwards, struck the
arm of the rocker and lay on the carpet holding her head, guarding
it from any kicks he might give her. But he only stood over her,
panting. You are my wife, he roared, my wife!
8
A cat shrieks off to his left, wails like a baby. Crashing glass. A
trashcan lid rolls its tin thunder into the street and falls whongk
against the curb. Stopped dead, Alfred breathes shakily, eyeing the
cat as it scoots under a wooden stoop. Uraaow, it cries from its
hideout. Uraaaoow.
Why can't I dream of Mama, Alf whispered through the darkness.
You just don't remember them, his mother said, stroking his forehead. But Tony Garcia at school always dreams, Alf pouted, he tells
us about them every day at lunch. Dreams don't matter, she assured
him, they're just leftover memories that's all. But Tony said there's
a woman, a Mexican woman who comes to him looking for her
drowned child, she drowned it herself in the river, Alf told her.
Hush now, his mother tucked the blanket under his chin, that's just
a story. Why those people fill their children up with pagan lies, she
muttered half to herself, I'll never know.
10
Wonder what that damned cat's crying about. Jesus look I'm shaking. Heart beating in my throat. I swallow, it's still there. Wild as a
trapped bird. I swallow, it's still there.
140 11
So he slept. He dreamt the Mexican woman came to his window.
Then into his room. The bed began moving, turned to a river the
white sheet foaming up from under the dark blanket. Mi nifio, the
woman moaned bending over Alf, her lips too close to his face, mi
nifio. Her voice rose wild and lonesome but Alf didn't answer, didn't
answer. He pulled the river over his head and underwater held his
breath, held it. Held it. Then he woke gasping, kicking back the
blankets damp with his sweat, heart pounding sorely bruised against
his ribs. He found the room empty, heard his parents speaking low
in their bedroom, very private, then his mother's throaty intimate
laugh. And he laid back heavily, slept through the night inert as
a stone. The wailing woman did not return. She was the only dream
he would ever remember.
12
The cat's finally finished. I breathe. The silence is like fresh air. And
suddenly the idea this all might be a dream occurs to me. Ridiculous
of course but I glance all around me. The street's still deserted.
Feeling foolish, I pull up with forefinger and thumb a small lump
of shoulder skin and pinch it. No pain. The same with a squeezed
blob at the base of my neck. A bit frightened now, I reach into
my pants and pinch through the pocket the tip of my penis. Jesus
Christ I can't feel it. It's dead. Then panicked I touch the pale band
on my left wrist, the white shadow left by my watch, and from where
the word Omega should be I pull up a bit of flesh. I pinch it. Hard.
13
He knelt on the floor beside Eva finally with his false apologies. But
when he spoke she shook her head wildly still clutching it, guarding
it, weeping in short spasms. A few minutes later he stormed out of
the house kicked the front gate open and stalked up and down the
street for nearly an hour. Until he realized the neighbors had
probably seen him, would already be putting two and two together.
There's a man who can't control his wife, that's what they're thinking, he muttered, the bastards. Then he started toward the city
center, hungry angry and tired, to find the Crystal Garden. The
restaurant had never failed to impress the girls he'd brought there
141 in college, the ones he most wanted to fuck. Its elegance was dazzling
and seductive. The waiter was a handsome Mexican, knowing and
slightly decadent, who spoke a flamboyant Spanish that seemed to
help the girls into soft receptive moods. Alfred seldom slept alone
after a night at the Garden. Eva of course ridiculed the place and
joked about the waiter's affected r's. She even put down Alfred's
tuxedo, albeit subtly, and that angered him. But when she spoke of
Van Gogh and Goya, Da Vinci and Velasquez, he fell in love with
her lucid passion. How vividly he imagined introducing her to his
friends, envisioning their charmed faces and polite smiles tight with
envy. During that first dinner they ate together, in his mind, he
made her his wife. And two weeks after their first date, he seduced
her.
14
Ouch, he spits through his teeth. The red mark on his wrist fades
slowly, stinging. Less fiercely he once more pinches the spot. Winces.
Smiles. Then he starts to walk. Quickly. More and more rapidly, his
black shoes ticking on the concrete. With new confidence he strides
toward the dark at the street's far end, feeling fully awake at last.
Faint wind moans in an empty stairwell.
15
Seduced me, Eva laughed one day after they'd been married less
than a month, / seduced you! He chuckled with her over the joke,
swallowing his panic. But the notion haunted him. Again and again
he relived the seduction, each step of it as clear in his mind as a
simple mathematics procedure. In his memory he was always in control, on top, her response always following his stimulus. Again and
again he managed to break the grip of his doubt. For a time.
16
What the hell's this? A fence. A God damn fucking fence I could've
killed myself. Christ's my lip bleeding? Can't see can't even tell if
there's blood on my hands. God damnit a dead end the fucking
street's a dead end. Not even a stinking streetlamp. Jesus. I'm good
and lost now.
142 17
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and a
tree to be desired to make one wise, what do you think she did, the
pastor asked his congregation, of course she took thereof and ate the
fruit! Alf sat wedged between his mother and father on the hard
pew. The pastor droned on, his Protestant voice lacking the dark
force of resonance, but more terrible somehow for being so clear.
Soon he would make them kneel, and soon after that there would be
Communion when he'd whisper Body and Blood, and the words
would make Alf giddy with excitement. He glanced up at his mother.
She was watching the preacher with eyes serenely blank. His father
also was watching, but his eyes were hard and jewel-like, tiny crystals
of attention. So He drove out the man, boomed the pastor, and
naturally the woman went with him.
18
I glance down at my wrist, at the white watch shadow. I'm so tired.
I turn to look back up the long street and lean back against the
fence. Shut my eyes. I can feel my jaw-muscles working, stomach
full of dry thunder. Wait a minute. There's music. I look down the
narrow alley curving away off to my left where it's coming from.
There's a glow spilling out from around the corner. Has to be the
Garden. I start toward it, slowly. The lopped torsos of buildings seem
to lean over me, their broken windows like open mouths or wounds,
and the alley's so dark. Somewhere a tin can falls clink, rolls hollow
for a few feet. And suddenly heart in my throat I'm running. I
round the corner and see light streaming from two grimy windows
flanking a large rear door and over that a sign reading crystal
garden supper club. I stop, panting thickly, legs slightly trembling.
On the left windowsill a black cat crouches, watching me with wide
cool eyes. There's a leisurely forties' tune raining gently from beyond
the door and washing over me. Finally I'm calm. Swallowing, I
walk up to the door and knock. It swings back creaking (or did
the cat meow) and I hesitate, then step through into the kitchen.
19
Those first two years Eva painted only in her spare time, but she
grew increasingly restless. Her work was shown at a local gallery to
H3 indifferent reviews that noted her mastery of safe line and careful
color. The critical response hurt her and forced her to question, to
tap new energies trapped inside her. I need to get out, she told
Alfred one night. What, he replied, get out? There's a cabin for
rent in the paper, she went on, says it's ideal for artists. But where,
he began. A few miles outside of Twin Lakes, she said, it's not that
far. But why should you want to hide out alone in the woods, he
demanded. I just need time, she answered, if my art is ever to go
forward I'll have to learn my whole self, root and branch. Look
here Eva, he told her, I married you to have you with me. Well I
don't know why I married you, she snapped. But I love you, he
touched her shoulder. She shook his hand off. You smother me, she
told him, you drown me in love, your narrow proper love, oh Christ
I can't think why I ever married you! He gripped her arm, shaking
with held-in rage. Security, he hissed at her, I'm a damned patron
of your art. A Medici yes, she spat out. And you, he paused before
releasing her arm, you use me freely don't you. Rubbing her arm
where he'd squeezed it, she began to cry. I've had no choice, she
murmured.
20
The kitchen's a wreck. Dust-laden pans and strewn utensils, spiders
resting in webs woven in the cold ovens. But Alfred scarcely notices.
He walks on toward the music, into the diningroom.
21
Eventually they forgave each other, it was a time when forgiveness
was always the outcome. But Eva began to spend more and more
time painting. She grew intense and broody. And her work, yellows
greens and browns composed into graceful abstractions, became
nightmarishly heavy with blues and carmines until Alfred felt only
bewilderment when he viewed them. He often returned from the
office to a house dark and cluttered, Eva shut up in her room with
some stubborn canvas. She sometimes went without food, falling into
a sort of fever that terrified him when he noticed it working. They
argued more often. Became tense even in their few moments of
closeness. Finally he began to imagine ways of winning her back
from herself, daydreamed of making her totally his as she'd never
really been.
144 22
A hand on my shoulder and I whirl. It's him. Ah Alfredo, he grins,
it is good to have you back. The same waiter, the Mexican. It has
been a long time, he tells me. Yes, I force the word out, tongue weak
in my mouth. Sit down please, he orders amiably, here is a menu.
And he's gone. I feel faint or drunk and fall heavily into a chair at
a table in the center of the empty room. I'm the only customer.
Confused, I sit for a long time, trying to remember the words for
game hen in Spanish, keep drawing a blank. Christ. Then he's here
again, asking me something. I can't understand.
23
Alfred the sole customer sat in the center of the room. His brain
snatched at the little Spanish he'd ever known, phrases learned only
for the Garden. In vain. And suddenly the waiter stood beside him
once more. Que quiere usted senor, he smiled. Sweat broke out on
Alfred's brow, then his breath caught. Wait a minute this menu's
blank, he said, feeling the cardboard flutter like a stiff wing in his
hand. The waiter shrugged. I will bring you, he grinned helpfully,
whatever. I—I'm not sure, Alfred stammered. The waiter leaned
down too close to his face. Listen, he murmured, I remember you,
your tastes. He dropped a dark hand onto Alfred's shoulder. I will
have them cook you an unforgettable meal, he exclaimed. Yes, Alfred
nodded, do that, I mean si. Trust me senor, the man said.
24
Yes do that, I tell him. Trust me senor, he assures me, you will love
it. Then he disappears. Jesus after all these years he knows me. I
scoot down in my seat, prop one foot on the opposite chair, and try
to relax. The band is playing something slow and sleepy. I shut
my eyes.
25
He closed his eyes, listening. Hours passed at a distance. The trombones and clarinets converged like two rivers, weaving current to
current, a dark rush that carried him away toward a cataract, the
smooth rock-lip of a cliff. And he drifted backwards in a long long
fall until his first evening in the Garden stood before him again. He
J45 remembered the girl, the first one, but not her name. She was slender
and pale, with watery blue eyes and dark brown hair cut too short
for her angular face. Alfred knew her from a class they shared in
Business Machines. He remembered how she idolized his facility with
numbers and his upperclassman wit. I'm a virgin, she told him when
he got her up to his room, and that thrilled him.
26
Turn around, Eva shouts. There's nothing more to say, Alfred tells
her, turning. She holds up to him a hideous surreal portrait, something like a diseased ape wearing a blue suit, thick cock bursting
pointy and crimson through the crotch. This is a mirror, she growls,
voice hoarse as a low violin note bowed from slack catgut. He stares
at the thing a moment. Then he kills her, razor's her flesh to ribbons in his mind. In his mind. But swallows his rage somehow, even
keeps from knocking her down again. You God damned bitch, he
spits through his teeth, God damned woman.
27
It was Evelyn by Christ, he remembered. The instruments in the
ballroom seemed to echo in ascending tones Eve ill in and that night
came back to him that original fuck his first and her first. He
remembered jabbing into her gently to start with then harder deeper
while she held her eyes shut lips clamped together until he broke
through and a cry like a babybird's or a kitten's forced its way out.
She was all sweat all joy he could feel it inside her. Then a lone
saxophone moaned in the ballroom like a beast it made him shiver.
28
The low wail of the saxophone calls to him, a voice echoing in a
cavernous place between his groin and his skull. With a shudder of
excitement he remembers the scribble of blood and semen on the
bedsheet after Evelyn had left, sees it once more as terrible and
mysterious as a smeared entry in a ledger, or a violin's high cee
flying hungry above the staff, a sweet sticky grace note. Then a
hand on his shoulder.
146 29
Of course I woke up in bed. Eva was shaking me.
30
He starts up in his chair. Perdoneme usted senor, the man smiles
apologetically, dropping his hand to his side. On the table before
him Alfred finds a huge covered platter, silver and gleaming, the
waiter's face a distorted egg sliding on its surface, the lips moving.
Este es la substancia que usted siempre necesitaba, the voice reaches
him, spirants drawn out to a hiss. What, Alfred asks, staring at his
own reflection ovalled in the curved mirror of the sterling shell. I
am sorry senor, the waiter says, I forgot you do not understand
everything. The man's voice is both servile and strangely resonant.
It has taken a long time, I apologize, he continues, but this dish is
rare and we had to get it special for you.
31
You're dreaming Alf, Eva said, shaking me, wake up now. I was
already awake, heart beating wild in my throat as if to escape. Even
when I finally calmed down, I couldn't speak, tongue like a dead
bird in my mouth. What was it, she asked me. As usual I couldn't
remember, though I seemed to hear the fading echo of a knife clicking on a plate, or the ticking of a clock perhaps. A nightmare, I
managed after a moment, just a bad dream.
32
The waiter lifts the heavy cover and there lies Eva, that portion of
her from the bottom rib up, roasted and steaming. The lids are
caved in over the burst blisters of her eyes and someone has stuffed
an apple into her mouth, the fruit dark brown and shrivelled, split
by the heat and pungent in the glittering room. Alfred gazes trembling. Hunger rolls like dry thunder in his stomach. Raising a gilded
fork, he touches her cheek and the fangs sink easily in, making amber
juice drip from her slightly blackened chin. Es el tiempo, the waiter
whispers. Alfred answers: It is time.
147 Linda Wikene Johnson/ Two Poems
BEAR
there is a place
where a bear's foot bled
into a cave
through a stream
bled on green leaves
black dirt
the earth is now bleeding
into his veins
a hum of warm sand
and water
148 YOUR FIRST SHOT HAS MISSED
your first shot has missed
mine has stripped morning's vine
to a slender stem
opened roads
to people who only send
their eyes travelling
the huge buffalo of dawn
shivers
with what bullet
are children killed
the small
sleeping
almond
storms shimmer out at daylight
cold-blooded and shaking
by the roadside
you lean on your rifle
you yawn
swelling behind you
morning makes a click
as if loading
149 Susan A. Katz
TRIAL BY TOUCH
We creep
together
slowly aware
of bare flesh
warm
from the shower
glistening
wetly in the half-light.
Tame
beneath your ominous
weight
reliably soft
like foam
you sink in
to me
like a stone.
In this nightly
trial by touch
we merge
like shadows
into one black
splotch across
the bed
inside my head I wander
whitely past your eyes
closing
to erase me.
150 Shiv K. Kumar
BEYOND LOVE
They came in droves to offer condolences — relatives, neighbours
and friends. Even on the fifth day, they poured in ceaselessly from
daybreak till dusk. Some of the callous things they said pricked
Shanta like needles in a waxen image.
"To lose one's husband at 23!"
"And to die at the temple crossing. So near the House of God!"
"Thou art indeed just, Lord ..."
"These truck-drivers — harbingers of death they are."
"So young and so beautiful. I think she should remarry and not
let it all go waste."
"Of course, anyone would take her."
Shanta took it all in stoically, huddled on the divan in her soiled
sari. Despite her dark, terror-stricken eyes, long dishevelled hair
and the sick pallor on her face, she had a strangely regal demeanor.
Like an empress dethroned — wrapped in the remnants of a bygone
splendour and beauty.
"But one must learn to live with such catastrophes, my dear,"
said a widow in her late fifties who had buried her second husband
only last summer. "Time will soon soften things for you."
Glibly sermonizing, though inwardly self-complacent about their
own security, most of these professed sympathizers only deepened
her agony. Little did anyone realize her irrevocable commitment to
Rajiv, who had given her all that a woman could wish for. And now
she had to live on the memories of those four fugitive years.
And then his souvenir — a three-year-old vibrant little boy. Sunny
was the very image of his father, the same swing of the arms and
those sensitive fingers that curled so plastically round objects. Soon
he would grow into another Rajiv; but would that diminish her
pain?
In the nights, after she had put Sunny to bed and her mother had
retired into the rear room, loneliness descended on Shanta in heavy
layers. All the bitter things she had heard during the day would now
flap round her head like ominous bats, squeaking spitefully in her
ears. Why did it have to happen to her? Never had she hurt anyone,
151 never missed her daily puja, her weekly offerings at the Hanuman
Temple and her annual pilgrimage to the Trimulai hills. "Thou art
indeed just, Lord ... !" But before the thought grew into a blasphemy, she sharply censored it. "It is all my own karma, I know."
On the eighth day came Surjit. "My alter-ego," Rajiv used to
call him. Shanta had not forgiven him for staying away since the
cremation. It seemed as though he had attended the funeral just
out of courtesy. And then the long break! The pity of it all, since
among all her friends he alone could have empathized with her,
himself a widower for five years — and still so dedicated to the
memory of Rita. A life-size photograph of his wife dominated his
bedroom and steel-framed albums bulging with wedding snaps lay
scattered all over his sitting room. "Sheer morbidity," Shanta and
Rajiv had often called it, and Surjit had merely smiled at their
verdict.
When he came late in the evening, there was only one couple
present — Shanta's neighbours. They had just recited their daily
litany of condolences. "Please do let us know if we can be of any
help to you. We're just next door, you know." And they left without waiting for her reply.
Surjit discerned a look of bitter protest in Shanta's eyes.
"I know what you are thinking," he said.
"Do you, really?"
These were perhaps the first three words she had uttered since
the tragedy. She now collapsed on the divan and broke into an
anguished sob. Her old mother shuffled into the room, distressed at
her daughter's pain.
"My poor child!" the mother said, then turning to Surjit: "Not
a tear all these days and now this sudden breakdown!" She gathered
Shanta in her arms and began to weep herself.
"I deliberately kept away," Surjit now spoke in sombre, muffled
tones. "I knew there would be visitors — all raking up memories,
doling out hypocritical sympathies. I have been through it myself,
you know. Couldn't stand it. Oh, why don't they let one alone?"
"To suffer in isolation?" Shanta's words were loaded with misery.
"Better that than to expose one's pain to prying eyes," said Surjit.
He added after a brief pause: "Rajiv's death has revived all my
own wounds. How much we had shared together! If Rita was my
wife, he was ..." There were tears in his eyes and he turned his
head sharply to stare blankly into space.
152 Shanta now pulled herself together. She looked at Surjit's pale
face. She had never seen him cry, he was such a strong person, invulnerable in his grief. But now she felt she could divine his innermost thoughts. Rajiv had told her so much about the man and his
wife and the mockery she had made of their marriage. She could
easily conjure up an image of Rita, without ever having seen her:
Rita painted like a doll before love-making, Rita with her shrill,
brazen laugh, Rita . . . Shanta wondered how well Surjit had really
known his wife. Then quickly she reprimanded herself for such
incongruous thoughts on the eighth day of mourning.
"Actually," Surjit had by now regained his composure, "I came
this evening on business." He then assumed a brisk official tone,
partly to control his emotions, and pulled out a bunch of papers
from his pocket. "Here are a few documents for your signature.
This is the claim-form for gratuity. I'll look after the formalities
myself."
Shanta now arched herself like a wild cat. "Go away, I don't
want any gratuity," she nearly screamed at him. "All this talk about
copper and silver — is that all you can offer me? How I wish I
could kill myself!"
A face peered from behind the curtain. Sunny, disturbed from his
dreams, had almost sleep-walked from his bed into the room. He
stood at the door, utterly dumbfounded.
Shanta's mother gently touched Surjit's shoulder and whispered:
"Let's leave her alone. She has been on a knife edge all these days
... talking to Rajiv in her sleep and seeing all kinds of hallucinations."
Surjit returned a week later. An unexpected downpour had lent
this summer evening the chill of early winter. There were no visitors
around. Sunny greeted him on the porch with a cold, accusatory look
and nearly turned away, when Surjit caught him by the hand.
"Very angry with your uncle?"
"I don't like you any more." His face was sullen.
"I'm very sorry ■— but look what I have brought you."
Surjit ripped open a box to uncover a toy battery-plane, with
folding wings, revolving blinkers and rubber wheels.
"Thank you, Uncle!" The boy's eyes now gleamed with happiness. But a few seconds later, his face again lapsed into gloom. "How
did you know I wanted this kind of plane?"
"Your daddy had told me about it." And before Sunny could ask
more about his father, Surjit added: "Where's Grandma?"
*53 "In her room. Not well."
"And Mummy?"
"In bed."
"Then let's go to your nursery and try out this plane."
They had a glorious half hour with the toy when Sunny felt
somewhat sleepy. He dozed off on the floor, his hand still clutching
the plane.
Since the house was ominously quiet, Surjit picked up Sunny and
gently settled him on a cot in the passage between Shanta's bedroom
and the nursery. He was about to walk away, without disturbing
anyone, when he heard a ghostly whisper behind him: "Where are
you, Rajiv? Won't you come in now?"
Surjit stood transfixed beside the cot. A tall wraith approached
him. "I knew you hadn't gone away. Not really. It was all a nightmare." Strong fingers gouged his arm. "I won't let you give me
the slip this time!"
A hand began to pull him, boldly and compulsively, into the
adjoining bedroom. At once Surjit realized that Shanta was in a
state of hallucination. Deeply touched by her intense suffering, he
did not resist.
He was now in Shanta's bed and soft, furtive fingers were running over his chest, unbuttoning his shirt . .. He, too, was towed
under by a mysterious wave of emotion and felt himself wedging
deep into the subliminal layers of a dark, fathomless sea. All distinctions had faded into one white irrepressible urge for communion.
His hands began to respond and two bodies now grappled fervently
with each other in darkness. Not a word spoken — only the heavy
breathing of mounting desire.
And then it was all quiet. Shanta had already gone deep into
sleep. There was on her face a strange glow of peace and happiness.
Surjit moved out of the bed, dressed briskly and let himself out of
the house.
Two days later, when he called again, Shanta looked him straight
in the face. She had acquired a new composure and dignity. There
was no shade of guilt or embarrassment in her eyes.
"Have you brought those papers?" she asked him.
"I have."
Shanta's mother now hobbled into the room, and from behind
her Sunny ran forward and threw himself into his arms.
"It's so kind of you to help my daughter," said the old lady. "May
God bless you!"
154 "Oh please — what have I done? ... And how are you today,
Mother? You have not been too well."
"I'm better now, it was just an attack of gout... Yes, Sunny told
me you came the other day. Most of the time he's zooming his plane
around. He has been able to forget his pain for a while."
Shanta's eyes were focused on Surjit, who looked in vain for an
answer to the nagging question: Did she really know?
But for her there were no questions. Only an awareness of having
received something beyond love — profound understanding.
J55 Wes Magee/ Two Poems
AN URBAN CONFRONTATION
Swans sail the waters of a shallow lake.
An idyll, until you see the housing estate,
the water sick with rusting prams and drowned cats.
Where the lake narrows, a weir vomits froth to
an open drain. A small island is reed clogged,
and there a single willow is dying.
Youths gather at evening to stone the swans.
A mound, bulldozed from shattered concrete slabs
and earth, is a ready-made ammo dump.
Missiles are guided home by shouts and farts.
As one, the swans turn towards their island home.
Sun slots itself behind a block of flats.
Two youths wrestle. One surrenders to jeers,
and his boots are ripped off, hurled to the island.
He spits, and storms the water, ankles snagging
plastic bags and wire. To cheers he takes the reeds
and hauls himself through mud to disappear.
The landscape works itself into a frown.
The swans attack. Their beaks slash like razors,
huge wings beat and clout. The boy falls back, his face
a scarlet mask of gore. Fusillades of junk
cover his thrashing retreat, and hands drag him
up the oil skinned shore. He is carted off
like a survivor from a pub bombing.
Some chuck bottles which explode like grenades
against the willow's trunk. The rest wheel away,
unhurried, loud voices offending the brickwork.
Later, night blindfolds the houses, and helpless
stars flash far out at sea. Moon reels like a drunk.
Swans resume the waters of the shallow lake.
156 ALONE IN THE HOUSE
Summer, and the family has split for camp, the coast,
leaving me alone in the house, a roomcomber
trudging through drifts of newspapers and magazines.
For days I've lived on toast, and although the radio's
distant dribble seeps through summer's silence I stand
at the window with loneliness flooding my lungs.
But 'alone' is relative. In fact this house teems
with squatters. Flies and wasps explore the kitchen sky,
silverfish gobble walls, a blue-bottle rolls like
a World War One air ace, ladybirds inch into
door jamb cracks. In the piano mice are nesting.
The loft has been surrendered to sparrows and bats.
Others in this commune grow more sinister;
spiders hold their evening Olympics in the bath,
a cockroach steals across the carpet like a hearse.
Even in bed where 'alone' creeps and crawls over
my skin, the mattress mites multiply by magic.
The long summer, like a lame dog, drags on and on.
157 Kim Maltman/ Two Poems
THE IMMIGRANTS
For weeks the cabin sailed
through the rains and we endured
We pushed on through the winter
driving fire before us
while the cold snapped
at our heels like a wolf-pack
We no longer sense the wind
as constant motion
Snow slips through the breaches
in the outer world
For days it has been still
so cold
the stars have mingled with the dead
158 THE DREAM
Each night he dreamed
and everything was ice.
The wind lay still as frost
among the rocks
beside him.
On a glass lake stretched below
a coffin floated
locked in two great sails of ice.
A line of voices
whispered in the starved light
swept along the shore.
Each night the same
the snow in folds
swirled round his shoulders
falling thicker till he turned at last
and ran
and hid
and slept (when he could)
and dreamed.
J59 He kept a rose beside the bed
and every morning it seemed
more translucent.
He could almost feel it
melting in his hand.
Each morning it took longer to dispel the feeling
as a thin sky filled the room
and wide awake he felt
his hand locked to the tiller
and the wind behind him
rising like a wakened glacier.
160 Brian Purdy/ Two Poems
PASSAGE
and how
when I come to bed late
she makes a space
even in sleep
for me
moves
as though by instinct
to further edges of bed and sleep
is a musical passage
as this one slipped
between consecutive leaves of dreams
no Wagnerian cycle
molten with brazen steeds on fire
beside the incestuous Rhine
no sculptured fugue
cool as ice-white marbles
of women no one thinks to lie beside
but
an oddly-shaped song
thin blue notes through an open screen
where night and peacefulness curve
the two of us
like double-clefs to lazy loosening
the breathing music of sleep.
161 YOUR HAIR IS BLOND
Your hair is blond but
dark at the roots. Your eyes
I can't remember. And yet
I remember your sweater was red
as a jellybean in a child's fist
but fuzzy. We drew the drapes
and the room went gold.
Your flesh was white & wet
for mine. A quilt in clumps
of warmth around us, we
surfaced in each other's eyes
like coins gone dark
with the touch of too many hands.
the taste is cupric & bitter. Your hair
so blond but dark at the roots.
Your eyes I never remember.
Your eyes like pennies, pitted.
162 Ian Robinson
INTERMITTENT LIGHT
1
At four-thirty on summer mornings there was a lightening in the
sky above the fir trees at the top end of the garden. It came from
the sea beyond. First, some brighter rays touched the tops of the
trees themselves, then the four chimneys of the house lower down in
the hollow. It took a good half-hour to illumine properly the lower
floors of the house, and more to penetrate to the closed depths of the
garden, which sloped down from the fir trees to the back of the
house.
The woods were dense on either side of the road. Lawrence freewheeled down the hill on his old bicycle. The road surface was pitted
and the basket of provisions which Mrs. Burroughs had sent him to
collect from the village shop rattled and banged up and down on
the rear mudguard. Lawrence didn't care if it fell off. He liked to
feel the wind on his face as his body parted the air in front. Birds
were singing in the woods and grasshoppers were busy in the thick
verges of the road. In the shop, Rita had served him and he had
made his usual appointment with her. This, and the brightness of
the day, made him feel happy. As he rode, branches and sudden
patches of light flicked past over his head as the bicycle gathered
speed. Lawrence gripped the handlebars tightly, ready for the hard
pedal up the final rise. Once over the top of that, he could freewheel again down to the driveway of the house. He looked forward
to the noise of his tyres on the gravel. All he had to do was deliver
the provisions to the kitchen and then he was free to spend the rest
of the morning in the long room above the garage, working at his
latest painting. Smiling to himself, Lawrence began to pedal furiously as the bicycle slowed against the rising road.
163 At ten-thirty p.m. exactly Tarda closed her magazine, went to the
kitchen stove and made a cup of chocolate. At ten-thirty four she
went out of the kitchen holding the cup, along the hall and up the
stairs to Mrs. Burroughs' room.
Inside, as usual, Mrs. Burroughs sat at the dressing table, wearing
the nightdress that revealed her plump white shoulders. In the mirror, her large brown earnest eyes watched Tania walk across the
room and put the chocolate down next to her right hand. Mrs. Burroughs inclined her head both in thanks and in confirmation of this
regular event, and waited. Tania picked up the hairbrushes, unbound her employer's hair and let it fall its full length to just below
her shoulders. She then began a rhythmical downward stroking of
the hair with both brushes.
While she did this, Tania gazed admiringly at Mrs. Burroughs'
fine head and shoulders and wondered if she herself would be lucky
enough to look so well when she was over forty. Equally, via the
mirror, Mrs. Burroughs followed with pleasure the gentle economy
of Tania's hands and arms, occasionally regarding the small composed face which, as usual, was quite impassive. In the background
of the room a clock ticked quietly under a glass hood.
"Drink your chocolate," Tania almost whispered, "it will get
cold."
Mrs. Burroughs nodded and raised the cup.
"Move your head a little to the right," Tania said. Mrs. Burroughs
obeyed. Then she asked, "You're not bored here, Tania, are you?"
Tania showed no surprise. "No," she said.
"You wouldn't like to go back to London? It would be more
lively."
"No," Tania said. "You know I like it here. But you mean, I
suppose, that you are, you would?"
Mrs. Burroughs acknowledged this perception with a smile.
"Sometimes, yes," she admitted. In the mirror she saw Tania frown
slightly. Tactfully changing the subject she went on, "Remember
the doctor's coming to dinner on Thursday. He will have his usual,
of course."
Tania allowed her mouth the beginnings of a smile.
"Don't laugh," said Mrs. Burroughs. "I know he's dull but I
have to be nice to him. He admires me."
164 "I know," said Tania evenly. "But you will not be bored then,
will you? You will enjoy your game with him."
Mrs. Burroughs sighed, "Yes, I suppose I shall." She saw Tania's
eyes regarding her and knew what Tania was thinking and that it
was true. It would never go that far. "Yes," she nodded to Tania's
reflection.
Tania went on brushing, injecting more sympathy into her strokes
to show she understood that life was sometimes hard for women of
Mrs. Burroughs' age, alone, who still felt herself to be alive with
hopes. "Drink your chocolate," Tania said kindly, while Mrs. Burroughs lowered her head, fighting down a moment of depression.
After exactly ten minutes brushing, Tania stopped, walked to the
windows and drew the curtains slightly open. A small breeze was
coming down the rise from the sea. The curtains shivered. Mrs.
Burroughs left the dressing table and got into her bed. She settled
herself on the banked-up pillows, reached for her book and switched
on the bedside light.
"It will be hot tomorrow," Tania said from the window.
Mrs. Burroughs nodded. "Good," she said, "I shall swim, I think."
Then, after a pause, "Thank you, Tania."
Tania picked up the empty cup and went towards the door. She
knew that Mrs. Burroughs felt better now, that it was best for both
of them to preserve the regularity of habit they had established and
were now used to. She switched off the main light and said, "Goodnight. May you sleep well." She said this, too, every night.
Mrs. Burroughs smiled. "Yes, Tania," she said, "I think I shall,"
and added, cautiously, "now. Good night."
Tania closed the door and padded down the hall, quite content.
As she descended the stairs, she heard a hiss of air as the breeze
from the sea swept round the house.
There was no moon tonight. Lawrence passed the gnome in the
centre of the lawn and began the incline towards the trees. When
he reached the top he stopped to look back down the slope towards
the house. There were no lights showing. He turned and went towards the summer house hidden in the trees. He entered, struck a
match and looked round. At the far end there was a small dais on
which stood a white wrought-iron table and two chairs. Lawrence
moved these to one side, spread the cushions on the wooden floor of
165 the dais and sat down in one of the chairs to wait. He lit a cigarette.
Just when he'd come to the end of it, he heard a twig snap outside
and stiffened. Instinctively, he shrank further back into the shadow.
Now that his eyes were so accustomed to the darkness, it was easy
for him to make out the figure that stumbled into the entrance.
"Over here, at the back," he said. The woman advanced carefully
across the floor. She was breathing hard and could not see him
properly. When she reached the edge of the dais, Lawrence leaned
forward, stretched out a hand and grasped the edge of her low-cut
blouse and pulled it down over her shoulder. She stood still. When
he had uncovered her left breast, he bent his head towards it and
touched the nipple with his tongue, pleased to hear her sudden,
sharp intake of breath.
5
By midmorning the alabaster gnome in the centre of the lawn
received the full blaze of the sun. From a distance, in this light, the
figure had an iridescence that prevented any exact delineation of its
outline. Was it standing or kneeling, was one arm missing? This odd
effect would last only for an hour or so in certain kinds of summer
light and, by afternoon, the object could always be seen clearly for
what it was.
When he woke Lawrence remembered nearly all the details of the
dream. The child was running down the long slope of lawn from
the house to the lake. On the other side of the wide expanse of deep,
green water was a Punch and Judy stand and, nearby, a little girl
in a frilled Victorian dress rolling a hoop. The child watched this
scene for some moments, then returned to the house. Passing under
some beech trees he saw, away to his right, a woman in an all black
riding habit, directing a black horse in a circle among the trees. She
did not look at him. Up at the house, in the long drawing room, he
watched from the double doorway his father and a strange lady.
His father approached the woman and very slowly undid the top
button of her overcoat. Between them, reflected in the big mirror
above the mantle piece behind them, the child could see himself
watching from the doorway.
This dream was a recurrent presence in Lawrence's life, filled
with images that he wished one day to build into what he thought
166 of as The Painting. There were other elements in it, too, but very
blurred: something about a pigeon loft, a face peering from a tower
and a drowning, but Lawrence could never get these other details
clear in his mind.
Rolling over in bed to face the window, he studied the unfinished
landscape painting, propped beneath the sill. It needed a figure, it
had always been his intention to have a figure, in the bottom left
foreground. Something ethereal and sad. The many secret drawings
he had made of Tania so far did not satisfy him. Mrs. B would not
do, she had too much presence. Far too real, Lawrence thought,
perhaps I should ask Tania to keep still, but that would spoil things.
To know her better would be to bruise the mystery. I must get up,
he thought. He had to clean the car before he drove Mrs. B to the
town ten miles away. I must think, Lawrence decided, and began
to think instead — though this was not what he had meant — of
meeting Rita on the beach this coming afternoon, his dream
forgotten.
Mrs. Burroughs opened the French windows and stepped into the
garden. The cool breeze she felt at once on her face reminded her
of the sea and she began to walk towards the summer house. First
she passed by, lightly brushing her left hand across his brow, the
alabaster garden gnome, who stood head bent and one hand resting
on his hip in a pose that created an emotion of distinguished melancholy. Reaching the summer house, she veered to her left under the
deep shade of the fir trees and came to where a pond had been
installed the previous summer in a tiny clearing, open to the sky.
Here she sat and rested on the stone surround, pleased to see
sunlight on her bare arms. She looked down and saw a version of
her face smiling back at her from the pond's surface. She thought
of tomorrow, of how George Graves would pay her his usual compliments, but she was aware that she required more than these.
Perhaps after all she should curtail her visit here and return to London with Tania. She knew, too, that she would have to say something to George, who had been very patient with her. This house
was a bit of a white elephant nowadays, she decided. She dipped her
fingers into the cool water and flicked them up and down to make
tiny waves, and watched her arm, a disturbed look on her normally
calm features. Again she tried smiling at her reflection but some new
167 ripples on the surface prevented her from seeing anything clearly.
She saw a frog watching her with blank bulbous eyes. Eventually,
she stood up and decided to walk to the sea, which lay down a
gentle slope the other side of the rise just ahead of her where the
last trees were.
8
know them by heart the face in the tower whose the loft with pigeon
shit and water coming up and up not me someone else drowning in
light this room falling on the chimney slowly over floorboards only
to picture it straight another morning trim the rosebushes today
sitting like a statue on the back seat a calm Buddha get up god it
aches still good last night on the cushions never stops must be eight
already that Rita coffee in the kitchen first draw that loft Tania
slow mysterious green eyed walk what thinking all day like a ghost
to know more not needing anything left my watch up there young
and too thin the sun a figure in the foreground there today can't
think summer over soon his mistress in the mirror and the water
bare and green and deep untouched
Hidden in the trees at the top of the garden, the wooden summer
house always remained cool even on the hottest days. From its open
front, it was possible to see through the trees on the right to the
pond in its raised stone surround and, to the left, the long smooth
downward slope of lawn, broken only at its centre by the white
alabaster gnome facing the French windows of the drawing room
some fifty yards further on.
10
In the sunny shop, Tania bought stamps for the letters she had in
her bag — she'd noticed that Mrs. Burroughs was writing again to
Mr. Vincent in London — and handed her list to the red-haired
young woman behind the counter. Though Tania came regularly to
the shop once a week in summer, they hardly ever spoke to each
other. There was always a reticent watchfulness between them.
Tania didn't know why it was there. It was true, she thought, she
did not care for that one's rather overblown handsomeness, but
there was something on the woman's side too, some suspicion of
Tania.
168 The pile of tins and packets mounted on the counter top. It was
pleasant to stand in this bright and cheerful place, the rows of
coloured packets and wrapped goods rising up above the counter
on their shelves, all reds and greens, yellows and whites and browns
shining in the sun.
The woman was working out the bill when the shop door opened
again, the little bell ringing once. Tania looked and saw Lawrence,
standing surprised in the doorway. He nodded to her and kept to
the far end of the shop, away from her, toying with some packets
on the counter there. What does he want? Tania shrugged — she'd
seen a watchful glance pass between the woman and Lawrence;
there was something between them, of course. What rotten taste he
has, Tania was thinking as she paid the bill and placed the goods
inside the large canvas bag she had with her. Lawrence was obviously waiting for her to go. She smiled sweetly at both the woman
and him as she passed on her way to the door. As she went out into
the sunlit, narrow street, Tania heard him clear his throat and begin
a sentence with an edgy, "well."
11
Statuesque and stately, he thought, a touch of Renoir's succulence
mixed with a bit of Goya earthiness and humanity. She came towards him across the gravel of the yard, walking slowly. It would
soon be dusk. The light, still sharp, had reached that point of
brittleness from which it would soon begin to fade and lose intensity.
"Lawrence," she said, "will you show me what you've been doing
with your spare time? I mean, your paintings."
"Of course, Mrs. Burroughs," said Lawrence, "do come up." He
ascended the stairs behind her, as if in a trance. Blankly, his eyes
regarded her strong legs and buttocks moving up the steps ahead of
him in the dark stairwell.
A cool even light filled the room from the big window. The canvases, six or seven of them, were stacked round the walls on either
side of the window. On the back wall, above the bed, Lawrence had
pinned his many drawings. Mrs. Burroughs examined these first and
smiled when she discovered images of herself and Tania. "I see,"
she said. Then she began to turn over the canvases. At the end of
ten minutes she faced him and said, "I get very bored here sometimes." Lawrence didn't know what he was supposed to reply to
169 this. Then she went on, "I know, of course, what you get up to in
that summer house."
This was unexpected. "Oh," was all Lawrence could say, rather
ruefully, deciding to look at the floorboards. Then, after a pause,
daring to raise his eyes, he saw that she was almost laughing. She
said, "Will you do something for me, Lawrence?"
"Of course, Mrs. Burroughs."
"Well, for a start, don't call me that," she said, still smiling.
"Then shut that door and come over here to me."
Lawrence, penitently, did as he was told.
12
well I like my toes on the bare lino like this — we'll go back to town
soon she's getting bored I have my routine here it's a pity — she
can't stand that doctor she wants more than that I know — it is
pleasant to walk across the lawn and see the sea — happy I suppose
I am I am established — we need more eggs — put on my shoes
before I take her coffee up — writing to him again what will that
mean I wonder — I've made a nice pattern for myself — I like the
sea and the trees and all the sounds at night and day — only that
Lawrence I know him — the kettle's going to boil this kitchen is
cool when it's hot like today — need nothing more than this for the
moment it's all right —■ she will spoil it back in town — the light is
different here no problems stay the pattern is just right and I understand it — in three minutes the clock will strike eleven — I know it
by heart
13
In moonlight the white alabaster gleamed with a blueish tint. A
straight black shadow was cast out across the lawn.
14
The outboard motor came to life and Lawrence pointed the boat
out to sea. Keeping close to the rocky shore, he nosed the craft round
the small headland to meet the unimpeded swell of the sea. It took
nearly three quarters of an hour to reach the beach on the seaward
side of the conical island that lay in the next bay about half a mile
off shore. While Lawrence beached the boat and helped Tania to
170 unload the two large baskets, Mrs. Burroughs walked off and disappeared among the low rocks and shrubbery above the beach.
But she returned in time for the tea Lawrence made. Tania stood
looking out to sea. Her proximity had flustered his efforts with the
fire and, while he'd been waiting for the kettle to boil, he'd kept
glancing up at her. But she took no notice of him. Tania collected
their empty cups, laid a cloth on the sand, unpacked the baskets
and started to slice bread. "I love picnics," Lawrence said, but no
one answered him.
After lunch, Mrs. Burroughs said she was going for a swim. "Don't
bother about me," she said, "do what you like." She took her rolled
up swimming gear and walked off along the beach. A little later
they saw her inching her way into the water. Tania and Lawrence
did not look at each other. He felt that her attention was not really
fixed on this place at all. It was somewhere completely different,
imposible for anyone else to imagine. "I'm going for a walk," he
said.
He took the binoculars from the boat and set out inland. Once
off the beach, the terrain became progressively more difficult to
cross. There were many large boulders wedged between the trees
and the ground rose very steeply after a short way. The bracken was
thickly tangled beneath his feet. It took him nearly an hour, much
longer than he'd expected, to reach the summit from where, sitting
on a small open plateau, he could see the beach they'd landed on.
Through the glasses, he saw Tania in a bikini, face up and arms
outstretched on the sand in the sun. The powerful lenses made her
seem to be right in front of him. Lawrence studied her body carefully, surprised to find that she had a shape effectively concealed by
her normal clothes. He could see a fly moving towards her navel.
To the left he picked out Mrs. Burroughs walking along the edge
of the sea, still in her swimsuit. Today she seemed different to
Lawrence, somehow more confident. He admired her fleshy progress
but decided, as he watched, that he would not get caught like that
again. He knew she was expecting a continuation but it was somehow too complicated, though enjoyable enough.
He saw Mrs. Burroughs walk up to Tania, who did not get up.
They held some kind of conversation. It was interesting, Lawrence
thought, to watch faces and not hear what they were saying. He tried
to fit words to the movements of their mouths but neither of them
made any helpful gestures. Their conversation, as far as he could
tell, was as composed as their faces, orderly, exact and even regi-
171 mented. At its conclusion, Mrs. Burroughs suddenly raised an arm
and pointed up the hill, apparently right into the lens of the glasses.
Lawrence hastily put them down. He lay back on the mossy ground
and watched the shapes of clouds travelling across the sky. 'Perfume of embraces all him assailed' — he smiled at the phrase which
was one of his favourites (though the next bit was not true as far as
he was concerned). Tempted though he was, he knew he would be
able to resist.
Later, climbing down the hill, he came face to face with Tania,
who emerged from behind a tree. "Hallo," he said gaily, "going for
a walk?"
"I came to fetch you," she said.
"Oh," said Lawrence, "is it time to go?" She was still in her
bikini. He let his eyes survey her body. She did not flinch but continued to stare at him quite coolly. Nothing was said. Lawrence
began to fidget.
At length, Tania spoke. "You ruin everything."
"What?" said Lawrence, "What do you mean?"
"You can't leave anything alone, can you?" she said. "I despise
you."
Before he could say anything she turned and disappeared down
the hill, as quickly as she had arrived, between the trees. Lawrence
stood, open mouthed, staring after her.
In the boat on the way back round the headland no one spoke.
Lawrence at the motor saw how the wind had changed and how the
water had taken on a steelier colour as the sun moved lower towards
the west. He was still feeling both surprised and puzzled.
Mrs. Burroughs sat upright in the middle of the boat. She felt
better today, her body more refreshed, her mind clearer. She was
conscious of Lawrence's eyes on her bare back, but did not mind at
all. She watched Tania in the bow, trailing one hand in the water,
not moving, her head bent dejectedly forward.
15
She flung off a blanket, sweating, and lay down again. The soft
wind, coming through the open window and shifting the curtains,
did not cool her. She lay still, while a bubble of sweat, tickling its
way downward from her wet neck, crept across the smooth upper
slope of one breast, then slid round the deep curve into the hollow
between both. She listened, rigid. There was no other sound but the
172 wind and her breath. She looked across the room to the doorhandle,
but it did not move; there was no sound of a footfall beyond the
door.
16
From the top of the rise, which looked down on one side to the
sea and on the other through the trees to the garden, several different
shades of green could be seen. On the seaward side there was the
pale green of the gorse bushes in the sandy soil. On the rise itself
there was the thick clotted green of the fir trees and, on the garden
side, the lighter, more even green of the grass glimpsed through the
swart trunks of the trees. On the grass itself there was a different,
more mottled green, the green of Tania's dress as she drifted downwards on bare feet from the summer house, past the alabaster gnome,
towards the steps at the back of the house, framed by the earthier
green strips of the honeysuckle that bordered them.
17
There were six candles, three at each end of the oblong rosewood
table. Mrs. Burroughs and Dr. Graves sat facing each other on the
opposite two shorter sides. A bottle of Moselle stood between them.
The doctor's glass was nearly empty, Mrs. Burroughs' hardly
touched. Tania hovered in the background, at the end of the long
room near the sideboard, dressed in black with a white apron and
collar, a disguise she always wore for these occasions, ready to remove
their plates when they had finished the main course.
The doctor poured himself some more wine. "Excellent piece of
veal, this," he said. "Did you . . . ?"
"No, Tania ..."
"Excellent, though, excellent," the doctor muttered.
Over the second course he looked up again. "You're looking very
well, my dear," he said. "Must agree with you down here."
"Plenty of fresh air and exercise, yes," Mrs. Burroughs admitted.
"Tell me, my dear," he said, reaching out and touching her hand,
"have you thought any more about .. . ?"
"Yes, George, I have," she got in quickly. "I have thought a lot
about what you said, but I'm sorry, I can't..." The doctor nodded,
as if he had expected this.
"Pity," he said, "great pity, a good woman like you going to
waste," shaking his head in disbelief. Mrs. Burroughs smiled at the
173 compliment, though with an irony he did not detect. Tania, removing the doctor's plate with a certain firmness, overheard this passage
and, catching the expression in Mrs. Burroughs' eyes, realized that
her employer had still more surprises in store for her.
The moon was already out when Tania served their coffee in the
living room. The French windows were open on to the garden so
that they could see the lawn lit by an odd blue light. The alabaster
gnome, though some way off, could be made out quite clearly. Tania
observed that Mrs. Burroughs had deliberately positioned herself
on the sofa, a coffee table between herself and the doctor. From
where she sat she could just see the edge of the garage but there
was no light on in the room above it. Mrs. Burroughs frowned.
18
Slim fir trees surrounded on all sides the hollow where the house and
its garden rested. Often at night, when the wind was in the right
direction, it was possible to catch the intermittent sussuration of the
waves on the beach beyond the summer house and the trees. During
the day, the gnome's shadow turned round the garden like a sundial.
19
One midday Mrs. Burroughs walked up to the summer house with
a book. She thought she would read for an hour before lunch. But
instead she sat and looked at the wooden walls, the white iron chairs
and table, the cushions on the dais. They must be dusty, she thought,
I'll tell Tania. Then she noticed how they had been laid end to end,
she saw the indentations in them and some cigarette butts on the
floor. None of these signs of habitation looked fresh to her, but she
could not be sure. She heard a gentle ticking sound echoing round
the room and spotted the wristwatch underneath the table. There
seemed to be dust on it. That's Lawrence's, she thought, and
remembered how she had watched him take it off in his room. The
little bastard. It worried her that she could not tell how recently the
summer house had been used. The bastard, she said to herself again.
She tried to read but could not take in the words. Regretfully, she
closed the book, looked round the quiet dark place for one last time,
then walked out into the garden. Thrushes were whistling in the
trees.
174 20
On the steps outside the French windows Lawrence sat smoking.
Soon he must go inside, put covers on the furniture, lock all the
doors and bolt the shutters. But just for now he wanted to sit in the
sunlight. On the way down to the station, he'd seen her large brown
eyes watching him in the rear view mirror. After that, he'd avoided
her gaze. Now he looked moodily up the garden towards the summer house. To cheer himself, he thought of the tobacconist's daughter who was coming out to see his paintings later. What's the matter
with me? he wondered. His bicycle waited against the garage wall.
A small black beetle was crossing the stone step near his left foot.
Very carefully, Lawrence raised his sole, pivoted slightly on his heel,
then let his shoe press down upon the beetle. There was a mild
crunch.
21
The back of the house was faceless. All the shutters were closed over
all the windows. There were tire tracks in the loose gravel by the
garage doors but no sign of any bicycle. At six a.m. the grass shone
with thousands of specks of light as the sun hit the dew. The white
gnome, one arm satirically resting on its hip, avoided gazing at
those windows; stood contemplative, mysteriously alert and supple.
On the ground in front of its blank eyes, a colony of ants darted
purposefully between blades of shining, silvered grass.
175 EIGHT
CHARCOAL
DRAWINGS
Joe Rose The New Breed, charcoal on paper The Honey Pot, charcoal on paper Tragedy of Life, charcoal on paper
RESERVED BY NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA ID
a
0
"ti
o
u
o
ft.
o Terrible Suspense, charcoal on paper
RESERVED BY NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA The Shrink, charcoal on paper Planet Earth, charcoal on paper 1984, charcoal on paper Monk Ryokan/ Six Poems
Translated from the Japanese by Greg Yavorsky
The monk Ryokan (1758-1831) was born in Izumosaki, a small
town in northwestern Japan in what is present-day Niigata prefecture. He was a Soto Zen priest who remains famous to this day for
his highly individualistic style of calligraphy. Free-flowing yet disciplined: this judgment can be applied as well to his poetry and
his lifestyle. In Chinese poetry (kanshi) his model was Han Shan
(j. Kanzan, a.d. 627-650, cf. Snyder and Watson, Cold Mountain
poems) and in Japanese poetry his model was the Manyoshu (early
gth century). His eccentric behaviour is the subject of many folktales. He embodies the true Zen spirit and is out there somewhere in
the universe still working on himself.
185 When you ask about the past   it's already gone
When you think of the present it's passing too
Roving and roaming without a trace
Who's foolish   who's wise
Subject to karma passing the hours and days
Sustaining oneself and waiting for the end
Aimlessly I came to this place
I turn my head and twenty years have gone by
A single road amid ten thousand trees
A thousand mountains in the hazy mist
Not autumn yet the leaves already fall
No rain yet the cliffs are always dark
Carrying a basket I pick clouds' ears
Bearing a jug I draw water from the rocky spring
Apart from those who have lost their way
Nobody makes it to this place
I bind my eaves beneath the blue cliffs
Somehow here I'll five out my life
Petals fall and the mountain birds peck
The forest silent on long spring days
Without the least pressure of human affairs
Sometimes I see the woodcutter passing by
In the flood of silence when I sit hugging my knees
Distant mountains evening bell voice
186 Since I came to this place
I don't know how many green springs and yellow autumns
The old tree dark and girdled in wistaria
Tall bamboo grows taller in the valley shade
My stick rots in the night rain
My robe ages in the wind and frost
Lonely and desolate morning and evening
For whom should I sweep the stone floor
An old monk of the western sky
I can't count the springs since my tracks vanished
on Mt. Kugami
How many robes faded like smoke and haze
I always carry the same black stick
I walk along chanting a song that grows distant
in the green river
I sit and watch the white clouds rise up
in the towering mountains
How pitiful    a visitor in this floating world
of fame and profit
An empty lifetime spent running around
in the windblown dust
Who called my poems poems
My poems aren't poems
When you understand that my poems aren't poems
Then we can talk about poetry
187 Daniel Weissbort/ Four Poems
FLIGHT INTO THE WILDERNESS
I am walking away from the place where they sell white furniture .
It is too late, past closing time.
I begin to run —
downhill,
I pass many people struggling up.
Bounding along in my fur jacket,
not sweating,
I cut a handsome figure —
it is so easy,
I could fly if I wanted,
I almost do.
And things get better still.
I am in the real countryside,
animals grazing,
sheep large as life,
and not just sheep,
larger creatures too,
rhinoceri, boar,
is it possible, boar!
They turn in my direction now,
threatening, it seems.
The questions now are —
will they charge?
and
should I stand
or flee?
188 FUNERAL MUSIC
In the immaculately restored chapel,
with its shining composition floor,
the procession has begun.
A funeral march on the organ,
a memorial service,
perhaps for the war dead.
I am en-niched, as it were,
within a gothic arch,
there lounging, elegant.
Leading the procession,
the officiating are soon out of the way.
What follows is parents,
or mothers rather, only mothers,
huge in great-coats to the ankles,
heads sunk, faceless,
sweeping by as though on wheels.
Then, prominent in the center of the aisle,
you, that familiar determined look,
dark glasses. You turn,
sensing my casual presence,
and I wave to you, smiling.
There is no answering smile
and instantly I am assailed by guilt.
And as you pass, again I wonder at
your disinterested regard
for the rites of society,
and increasingly for those of burial or remembrance.
189 DEATH IN SPRING
Spring began with death
and the promise of more.
Sweat gathers in the hollow under my lips,
my cheeks shine,
craterous pores catch the light.
The heart grimaces, clenches,
an old fellow,
left of centre,
in the dark red jungle,
waiting for ambushes.
At the bottom of the garden,
the children quarrel in the sunshine,
their heads undefended.
Men in their forties,
axed by coronaries,
plunge straight out of their business suits.
We have barely time to notice
before they are underground.
Where is life then?
Buds stick their tongues out,
standing erect on vibrant twigs;
oil-skinned dogs
penetrate each other deep;
lovers collide sightlessly.
Everything gleams,
imprisoned in growth.
190 We melt,
we lose our boundaries,
death makes a composite estate of us,
moves freely within it,
feeds freely off it,
champing absently.
No one notices.
Death breathes on sexual organs;
the sawing continues,
the blade does not cut.
Life becomes a ghost.
191 FROM HERE TO THERE
Clutching a casket containing my poems,
I stepped from the guarded apartment building,
closing the heavy plate glass door behind me.
I am on a terrace, the river is below,
and in the distance, in the dark,
buildings familiar from long back.
Echoing in my head that woman's goodbye,
and the man's, standing behind her,
who encountered me in the hallway
of the old flat of my childhood
as I tried to slip away unnoticed,
drunk and stumbling,
from the party,
to steal out, wretched, "a rather seedy, scruffy sort of fellow".
But it's alright, I tell myself,
heading down the corridor,
it's alright to be alone.
I know this path, it follows the river.
In the distance, the castellated silhouette,
towers, walls, the covered stone bridge over the river.
But, steadying myself in the air, in the darkness,
I question the direction I came,
though I think I know I must cross the river
to reach my apartment building, "a rather run-down, scruffy
sort of place",
but cannot recall the whole route from here to there.
192 Where am I?
Even in my dreams, you are disembodied. So soon.
But I address you:
Have you ever had ... And myself answer:
Of course you have!
My love, how you'd laugh, making it all alright.
And the river, clustered about by familiar old buildings.
Half a lifetime away. The possibility of loving
and being loved,
then,
there.
193 NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Vincente Aleixandre, born in Malaga in r8g8, is recognized as one of the
major figures of modern Spanish poetry. His La Destruccion o el amor
("Destruction or Love") was awarded the Premio Nacional in 1935.
Poemas de la consumacion ("Poems of Consummation") won the
Premio de la Critica in 1968. In ^74, his twelfth book of verse,
Dialogos del conocimiento ("Dialogues of Knowledge") was published.
Collections of his work in translation have appeared in French, German, Italian, Rumanian, and Swedish.
Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, studied at the Univer-
sidad Nacional de Mexico, Bowdoin College, the Universite de Paris,
the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London),
Columbia University and Yale and now teaches at Indiana. He is well
known as a poet and translator. His recent book of original verse
entitled China Poems has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Louis Milton Bourne was born in Richmond, Virginia, in rg42. He
studied English at the University of North Carolina, Hollins College,
Virginia, and Corpus Christi College at Oxford. He has lived in Madrid
for more than seven years, teaching English and translating recent
Spanish poetry. His original poems in Spanish, as well as his many
translations, have appeared in various literary journals.
Robert Bringhurst was Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Creative
Writing at the University of British Columbia during 1975-77. His
poetry, essays, articles and translations have appeared in Poetry, Canadian Literature, Kayak, Arion, The Malahat Review, Mundus Artium,
The Ohio Review, and many other journals. His most recent publications are Bergschrund (Sono Nis, 1975) and a pair of chapbooks, De
Equis Meis and Jacob Singing.
Mary Burns has lived in several parts of the U.S. and western Canada.
She and her daughter have recently moved to Vancouver Island. She
has worked as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, and now
spends her time writing fiction.
H. C. Dillow is Associate Professor of English at the University of
Regina. His poems have appeared in Ariel, Waves, Antigonish Review,
Fiddlehead and Queen's Quarterly.
Mark Finkenbine has just completed his M.F.A. degree in Creative
Writing at the University of British Columbia. He is the 1976 winner of
the Macmillan Short Story Prize.
194 Francis Gannon was born and grew up in New Jersey. He is presently
doing research in the English Department of the University of Georgia.
He writes: "I like to paint, play basketball, go to movies and overeat,
and am fond of believing that I know a great deal about boxing."
Justin Glove was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the day following
the bombing of Nagasaki. After college, he spent a few years in military
intelligence. He has lived in Rangoon, Managua, and Santa Cruz,
Bolivia.
Ralph Gustafson writes, "I recently went to Russia on a poet exchange
with the U.S.S.R. and out of the visit came Soviet Poems, which soon
will be published. A new collection of poems, Corners in the Glass,
appeared Autumn 1977 from McClelland & Stewart, Ltd."
Joe Hutchison is a graduate of the Creative Writing Department at
the University of British Columbia. His poems and short stories have
appeared in various literary publications including Fiddlehead, Puerto
Del Sol, Rapport, and Sou'wester. One of his poems is soon to appear in
The Nation. He is currently living in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
Linda Wikene Johnson obtained her M.A. from the Department of
Creative Writing, University of British Columbia. She is currently
working on a biography of the Indian poetess Pauline Johnson.
Susan A. Katz was born and raised in New York City. She graduated
from Ohio University in 1961 with a B.F.A. degree in Radio-Television
Communication. She now lives in Rockland County, New York. Her
poems have appeared in various magazines and in rg76 she shared the
Henry V. Larom Award for Poetry.
Shiv K. Kumar has published short stories in several periodicals. His first
collection is due to appear next year. He has also published three
volumes of poems, Articulate Silences, Cobwebs in the Sun and Subterfuges (Oxford University Press), a play The Last Wedding Anniversary
(Macmillan) and a volume of literary criticism, Bergson and the
Stream of Consciousness Novel (New York University Press).
Wes Magee: Born rg39, Greenock, Scotland. Presently Deputy Head
of a large Junior school in Wiltshire, England. First volume was published in 1974 (Urban Gorilla, Leeds University Press). Currently
working on a sequence of poems dealing with pain, confinement, and
the concentration camps set up during the last war. Awarded a Literature Bursary to enable him to visit camp sites in Europe.
Kim Maltman was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and now lives in
Vancouver with an orange cat named Schmoo. Kim is a graduate
student in Physics at the University of British Columbia.
195 Brian Purdy is a resident of Willowdale, Ontario. His poetry has
appeared in Waves, Dalhousie Review, Fiddlehead, and Tamarack
Review.
Ian Robinson is an English writer, graphic artist and editor. He lectures
in Comparative Literature at Kingston Polytechnic, Surrey, and edits
Oasis. His stories and drawings have appeared in previous issues of
PRISM international.
Joe Rose, who did the charcoal drawing, "Eye Spy," reproduced on the
cover and the eight inside, was born in Germany, fled to England after
the Nazi takeover, lived in Australia for many years and now lives and
works in London, England. He has won a number of art prizes, has had
numerous one-man shows in Australia and London and in 1972 was
awarded the British Empire Medal for Services to Art. He is represented
in the Power Institute for Modern Art in Sydney, Australia.
Daniel Weissbort is the editor of the well-known periodical Modern
Poetry in Translation. His poems and translations have been widely
published. He is presently teaching at the University of Iowa, where he
directs the Translation Program.
Greg Yavorsky: Born in Montreal. B.A., M.A. McGill, then Japanese
Studies UBC. Recently working and wandering about Japan. Then back
to hanging out in the mountains: Yosemite, the Rockies, and Tetons.
Working on the kanshi (Chinese style poems) of Japanese Zen monk
Ryokan. "Living by the waves is a great pleasure but I am returning to
the mountains. The distant peaks cloud-covered. I do not know when I
shall return."
IOWA SCHOOL OF LETTERS AWARD
FOR SHORT FICTION 1978
This annual $1,000 Award is for book-length volumes of
short stories by authors who have not previously published
a book of prose. Book-length entries of at least 150 typewritten pages will be accepted until September 30, 1977,
for the 1978 Award. Inquiries and manuscripts (with
return postage and wrapping) should be sent to: Iowa
School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, Dept. of English,
English-Philosophy Bldg., The University of Iowa, Iowa
City, Iowa 52242.
196 BOOKS
for almost every taste
and purpose can be found,
easily, at
and PAPERBACK CELLAR
919 Robson
670 Seymour
4560 W. 10th Avenue
1032 W. Hastings
684-4496
684-3627
CA 4-7012
688-7434
The true University
of these days is a
collection of books
Thomas Carlyle
ubc bookstore
on the campus
288-4741 for artists beyond the level of basic training.
Worth up to $9,000 plus program costs not
exceeding $1,100 and travel allowance, if needed
Closing dates
15 October 1977 and 1 April 1978:
architecture, dance, filmmaking,
multidisciplinary art, photography, theatre,
video, visual arts, writing.
15 December 1977: music.
Applications are also accepted at any time for:
Short Term Grants
Travel Grants
Project Cost Grants
For further details, consult our Aid to Artists
brochure or write to:
The Canada Council
Arts Awards Service
P.O. Box 1047
Ottawa, Ontario
K1P5V8
ISSN 0032-8790

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