Tuesday, December 22, 2009
One Christmas Wish: A Short Story
May you be kindly understood this Christmas
Still holding the child’s chart, Joe MacBride walked with the woman and her daughter to the front desk. The little girl reached for him, “Up pwee, Doctor,” she said, her fingers spread wide, her feverish eyes trying to smile. Joe scooped her up in his arms. “I have a bit of Christmas candy up here for you,” he whispered, “if your mommy says it’s okay.”
“Just so she doesn’t throw it up on the way home.”
His receptionist gave him a look that told him he was again falling behind. She slapped the little bag of gummy treats onto the top of the counter. Joe grabbed them and whispered. “Where are the vitamin samples?”
“You told me to put some in every exam room.”
“Must be out in Room 5.”
“I wonder why,” she muttered, whirled her chair around and unlocked the cabinet.
The little girl patted Joe’s arm, then tapped the bag of treats with one finger. Joe opened the little bag of gummy treats for his patient and looking into her eyes, drew one out slowly. “Are you sure you’re not too sick for this?” he teased. She shook her head. “Even after that shot?” Joe pouted.
He put the soft candy in her hand. “That’s what I like to hear.” He set her down, fixing the opened bag of treats in her open hands. The receptionist held up a miniature bottle of vitamins. “I swear, Maggie, you can find anything,” Joe said. He gave it to the child’s mother.
“Thanks, Dr. MacBride,” she said, holding it in the crook of her arm with the other samples he’d given her. “And I was hoping for a perfect Christmas this year.”
Joe laughed. “A perfect Christmas?” He caught himself before he scoffed aloud. “No worries. Her ear should be feeling much better in 24 hours.”
“Put them on the nice list,” Joe said, laughing again at Maggie’s scowl. “But I don’t know about you.” Taking up the next chart, Joe wondered what it was about women and their ridiculous quest for the perfect Christmas. He’d be happy if got a little sleep and had something besides McDonald’s to eat. Wait, was McDonald’s open on Christmas? For some dumb reason, he could actually taste his favorite Christmas cookies – rich chocolate shortbread snowflakes his mother produced by the dozen. Remembering his childhood, he tried not to think about his schedule for the next twenty-four hours.
One Christmas Eve when Joe MacBride was a child, his mother Laurie, wanted an hour of quiet.
Just an hour all to herself. The reason was petty and shallow and unnecessary. She merely wanted to finish something she was making, something no one needed. But she’d had a vision for a wee Santa with a miniature quilt for his cloak. In her mind’s eye, she could see his dear, generous face and she simply felt that she had to bring him to life.
But she had cookies to bake and the ornaments for the tree lay in boxes on her work table out of reach of her inquisitive two year old. She’d promised the older children, that when their chores were done, they’d get the lights on the tree, finish the cookies so to eat them. Peter, who was ten, had found a National Geographic under the sofa while vacuuming and now sat on the sofa reading it. Jeannie, who was six, had a cough and refused to stay on the sofa. She’d fetched every doll and stuffed animal in the house—their collective dustiness probably making her cough worse— and beside her oblivious older brother on the sofa had them enacting a drama that involved a lot of screeching and whistling—and more coughing. Eight-year-old Joe had finished wiping the sinks down and now stood guard over the train that sped, whistling, around the base of their naked Christmas tree.
“Pwee hold camoose, Joe,” little Tommy said.
“No. You’ll break it. Stay back.” Joe could be fierce and stalwart.“And it’s caboose. B not M. Play with Jeannie. She’s got animals.”
“Want train,” Tommy said, quiet and insistent. “Want hold camoose, Joe. Pwee hold camoose.”
The phone rang. “Let it ring,” Laurie called from where she stood in the kitchen, shoving the last bits of stuffing into her Santa’s torso. On the kitchen table lay his clothes, his beard, his gear—all made and the thread needed to create his face. But Peter reached to answer it without looking up from his magazine.
“It’s for you, Mom.” Peter, who stretched the phone’s curling cord to reach her, was followed by a teary Tommy.
“Want hold camoose, Mama. Pwee hold camoose.” Tommy held out both little, empty hands.
“CaBoose,” Joe yelled, joining him at her side. “Can you tell him ‘no,’ please, Mom?”
Covering the phone with one hand, Laurie stuffed Santa into her apron pocket; she’d put fishing weights in his feet so he’d stand and he felt substantial there. “I’m going to put the train away, Joe. Tommy can’t handle it being there and not touching it.”
“No!” Joe cried. “It’s not Christmas without the train!”
Laurie groaned within, looking around at the ladder by the tree, the shambled boxes, the tangle of lights and the tissue paper on the floor and said, “Hello,” into the phone while looking down at Santa, whose head and arms stuck out of the top of the pocket. She calculated the minutes needed to fit on the clothes, the beard, sew the eyes whose sparkle she envisioned so clearly.
Tommy was crying now, “Pwee hold diesel train, Mama. Pwee hold it.”
“No,” Joe said. “You already broke that one.”
Listening, Laurie covered the mouthpiece. “If he already broke that car, let him hold that one.” In the other room, Jeannie whistled shrilly, then coughed.
“You shouldn’t give into him,” Joe said. “Think of the kind of man he’ll become.”
“Joe, go make Jeannie take a sip of her drink.” Laurie tried to interrupt the person on the phone and when they finally drew breath, she said, “I already said at the board meeting that I couldn’t do the brochure.”
The caller said, ”I know that’s what you said, but we really need you to do it. You’ve got the vision and the artistic skills.”
“I can’t. No.” Tommy wrapped both arms around her leg, both his stocking feet stepped onto her right foot. “Pwee hold diesel train, now Mama. Pwee, hold it. Want hold it.”
“If you can just get the design done today.”
Laurie left the kitchen, walking stiff legged with Tommy clinging so tightly she could feel the pinch of each little finger. He wailed in a pitch that would make a dog hide. She glanced down at him to see big, bright tears rolling down his cheeks.
"No. It’s Christmas Eve!”Laurie fairly shouted; she covered the phone and hissed at Peter. “Find that broken diesel car.”
“We knew you’d say that, Laurie, but think about it. It’s perfect timing. You can drop it in my mailbox on your way to church tonight.”
“Think about it and try.”
Laurie slammed the phone into its cradle. “I said ‘no!’ Can’t anybody hear me?” She yanked the connection from the wall, took the entire contraption and shoved it into the high cabinet above her sewing center in the family room. Tommy, sniffed, his chest heaving with sobs. Joe bent over Jeannie, offering the sippy cup, which she refused, shaking her head and between coughs saying, “Yucky.”
“She won’t take it,” Joe said, his voice now rising with frustration.
“What do you want, then, Jeannie? You have to drink.”
“Hot tea,” she said, smiling with inspiration in her eyes. “Can you make hot tea, Mama, and sit here with me? My dollies want to tell you a story.”
Laurie sighed and dragged the wailing, clinging Tommy back to the kitchen where she put the kettle on and looked for where her spool of thread had rolled. It was stuck to the honey container. She shoved it into her pocket.
Peter couldn’t find the diesel engine simply because reading while looking is not effective. He took the vacuum to the foyer where he leaned it against the front door, held the plug in his hand as if he might sometime this century use it, but kept reading. Tommy left her leg to follow Joe and beg for the “camoose.” Laurie took Santa’s cape in hand and quickly stitched the edge. She’d made the cape from a miniature Trip Around The World quilt made of colored blocks whose colors radiated out from the center. She wondered how many years it would take before her family would understand. While Jeanie coughed and she heated water for the teapot, she fitted on Santa’s shirt and socks all made from her kids’ discarded t-shirts.
A knock sounded on the door. “Don’t answer it,” Laurie called. “Pretend we’re not here.” Too late. She heard the door scrape open and her neighbor Belinda, calling for her.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Laurie said, shoving Santa’s head down into her pocket so that his little stocking feet stuck up like he was kicking to get out. Joe looked at her, the mischevious spark back in his eyes. “You didn’t hear that,” she warned Joe,pointing at him as she went toward the front door. But Tommy said “Shit,” in a voice as clear as a Christmas bell, just as Peter politely led the visitor into the family room. “Shit, shit, shit,” Tommy said, no tears now muffling his words.
Give him the camoose,” Laurie whispered to Joe.
Tommy smiled at Joe, holding both hands out. “But he’ll break it,” Joe said.
“Belinda,” Laurie said. “Merry Christmas.”
“I see you’re not ready. My god, your tree isn’t even decorated. What have you been doing with yourself?”
“Shit,” Tommy said, “shit, shit, shit.” His eyes sparkled.
“He knows what he’s saying,” Joe screeched. “Look at him!”
Laurie looked. It was true. “No, no, you little scamp,” Laurie said, picking Tommy up and holding him on her right hip to keep him from Santa and his stuff crowding her left pocket. At ear level, Tommy began his campaign again, both little hands holding her face which he tried to turn toward himself, “Camoose, Mama. Pwee hold it.”
Her neighbor grabbed her arm.“I stopped by to see if you could step over to my house and wait for the Poland Springs delivery man. He’s late and I have to run to the store before my party tonight. Got to have water for the party. You know how our water stinks.”
“This is a bad time, she said, walking over to her neighbor and gesturing at the obvious. Tommy pulled her face toward him. “Pwee, Mama. Be good.”
“Get your husband to do this. Where is Tom anyway?”
“His parents’ sink backed up just like yours did last Sunday. And I think he has shopping to do. Then we’re going to decorate together. I like it to be a family thing… almost like a ceremony,” she confided, a tingle of hope running through her at the thought of it. If only Belinda could catch her vision and leave her to accomplish it.
“Bad idea waiting to the last minute.”
“He’d planned to go last Sunday,” Laurie said, hoping to jog Belinda’s memory of the four hours Tom had spent with his head under her bathroom sink.
“Just pour yourself a cup of tea, trot over to my house with it and wait there. You can bring the kids if you have to.“
“Mama just made tea!” Jeannie said.
Belinda nodded. “I can see in the window when you put the kettle on.”
“Did you try calling to see why he’s late?,” Laurie said,
“When he gets there, you should ask him to install a water dispenser here. Your water stinks, too. That’s probably why your kids are always sick.” She glared at Jeannie.
“No,” Laurie said. "No. I can’t take Jeannie out or leave her.”
“If you weren’t so far behind with your Christmas stuff, you could take a minute to help your neighbor. Isn’t that what Christmas is about?”
“Hey,” Peter said, rousing, he slapped his magazine down on the box of ornaments.”It’s because of people asking them to do stuff—"
Laurie held up her hand to quiet him. “That’s okay, Pete.” She forced a smile at her neighbor and walked her toward the door biting her lip while Belinda mumbled something about seeing where the MacBride kids got their bad manners.“
Fighting tears, Laurie poured tea into Jeannie’s sippy cup. Her hand shaking with wanting to throw something, she dribbled the milk and scattered sugar on the table around the cup. She put this into Joe’s hands.
With a glance in the direction of their neighbor’s house, Joe said, “What a—“
“Don’t say it,” Laurie warned.
“I was gonna say ‘witch.’”
“No, you weren’t.” She turned away, murmuring that she needed the bathroom. In she went and shut the door wishing again for one moment even if she wasted it on tears. Tommy followed. She heard his sturdy little body rest against the door.
“Need help, Mama.” She heard his fist knock twice, heard him rattle the handle. “Need hold camoose.”
“Don’t open that,” she warned locking it. At this admonition, he was off; she heard the uneven clippity thump of his feet run across the kitchen.
After washing her hands, Laurie took a deep breath and took the door knob in hand. It didn’t move. Her hands were a bit wet, she reasoned, so dried her hands and tried again. She rattled the doorknob. It would not open.
The lock, which usually popped out when the handle turned, stuck in.
Laurie’s stomach tossed—Tommy wandering free, Jeannie coughing, all her work undone. She pushed it and wiggled it and rattled it again. She inserted her fingernail around the edge, took the scissors from her pocket and tried to pry it up. She looked for a screw driver in the cabinet below the sink. Finding none, she tried to pry the door’s hinge pin up with her fingers, then her scissors. This, too, stuck fast.
“Jeannie wants more tea, Mom,” Peter said, coming to the door.
“I’m stuck, Pete. The lock won’t open.” Her kids leapt into action. She heard them making plans, arguing about what to do. Peter was sure he could get the doorknob off if they had a screwdriver and so they.scampered off to find one.
Laurie looked around. The little powder room without a window was as quiet and snug as a cloister. She lit the candle kept on the sink, closed the potty and sat down. Taking Santa from her pocket, she set to work. Something about the motion of the needle rocking up and down in the unsteady candlelight as she fitted on his trousers and clothed him in a cape warm enough for a trip around the world, gave her a sense of peace and accomplishment that eluded her in the rush and tumble of everyday life. And with peace, came the joy of quiet, clear thoughts.
Christmas had driven her since she was young.
When she and her twin, Doug, were ten, their mother told them, “Don’t expect a perfect Christmas this year, kids.” She said this over her shoulder as they rushed across the church parking lot gravel scattering beneath their feet. “As if we’ve ever had one,” Doug whispered to Laurie. It was the first Saturday in December when the committee women cleaned the entire sanctuary before putting out the decorations. And when their father was sent away, as he was sometimes, their mother redoubled her committee work. “You’ll just be disappointed,” she added.
People at church loved their mother and they approved Laurie. Their mother, a plump, energetic woman with a bright, toothy smile, got more things done than three men and a boy, so despite her disgraceful husband, her popularity on the committee remained unrivaled. Laurie was quiet—silent really—and pretty; people therefore thought she was good and happy. Doug had to move and people mistook this love of action for a darkness inside where there really was none. Everyone said he’d turn out like their father, and though Laurie knew this was untrue, she hadn’t yet figured out why. In those days, she remembered as she stitched Santa and heard her own children running, shouting directions in the house outside the locked bathroom door, people didn’t go to acceptable, celebrity-endorsed rehab centers, they were sent away “for health reasons” when their drinking got too bad. Laurie and Doug didn’t know where “away” was, but they hoped it was far.
“Don’t run with a screwdriver,” Laurie called through her own stuck bathroom door.
“Don’t worry. We won’t.” This from Joe.
And so on that first Saturday in December long ago, Laurie did something terrible.
While the committee women cleaned, Laurie played with Doug until her legs ached. He went on to climb through the rafters of the shed, but Laurie went to the church door.
The sanctuary was made with big smooth gray stones—the kind of gray with the warm sparkle of mica in it that echoed candlelight in a way that called to Laurie’s heart. The little paned windows in curved enclaves let in the late day slant of light. She stood at the curved door, suddenly hungry and thirsty. Beside her hung the little receptacles where people dipped their fingers in holy water. As was her custom, Laurie took the sponge and tipping her head back, squeezed the water into her mouth. Like drinking from a brook, just a sip of the icy water that tasted as if it had run over those big stones in the walls refreshed her and she breathed in the church’s complex scent—wood polish tang, the cool, metallic strength of the stone walls and the lingering perfume of incense and a thousand melting candles.
A group of women, her mother among them, fastened tiny Christmas trees each with a candle as its crowning star to the end post of each pew. Laurie heard one woman say to her mother, “We could never do without you on the committee.” Laurie turned away to watch another group work on the Christmas tree set to the right of the altar beside the statue of St. Joseph.
Doug entered behind her and called to his mother for something to eat. “In the car,” she called back; he turned and ran out, the door slamming shut behind him. Three women opened their mouths to tell her mother about Doug slamming the door, but she cut them off saying, “We have to hurry. Confession begins in fifteen minutes.”
Laurie saw the nativity scene at the left side of the church. Two women stood before it shaking their heads. No one spoke to her as she approached. When she said “hello,” to them, they did not reply.
She came up behind them and saw the homey wooden stable as tall as herself. Real hay strewn on the floor cushioned the reclining sad-eyed cow and the smiling dog. Beside Joseph stood the gray donkey, ready to go as soon as he was needed. The “gloria” angel that hung on the pinnacle of the stable looked so golden and ethereal that she took Laurie’s breath away. Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, all so dear and familiar and humble, gazed with bright eyes at the treasure in the manger “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she said, to the women.
No one answered her and it was then that she saw what had happened to Baby Jesus. In the year spent in the shed, his face had faded to blank, his knowing eyes sightless now and even the painted cloth wrapped around his middle looked transparent. “What happened?” she cried.
If they heard her, they showed no sign of it.
“If we had known that there was a leak in the roof,” one woman mourned to another. We might not have to look at this for a whole month.”
“Nothing can be done. Janet says it will take six weeks to send him back to Italy for a new face and swaddling clothes.”
Laurie stayed by the manger when the women were called away to help. Her mother was now at her bossy best, and Laurie knew that behind her, the church’s holiday beauty was being created in a whirl of forced cooperation.
Jesus looked pathetic. The blue of his eyes gone, the wood around his mouth warped, his cheeks pale as plaster. But his little arms reached out to her as they always did. So she took him.
She picked Baby Jesus up as she had always wanted to do. She tucked him inside her coat, walked to the back pew and sat down to wait for her mother.
When she got home, she took him up to her room and made a little bed for him underneath her own with bits of fabric she’d been saving for Barbie clothes. She found a paint brush and well-used tray of water color paints she’d been given for her birthday two years earlier.
After dark, she walked to her friend’s house up the hill and down two streets. Her friend’s uncle, who was a physician by trade, spent free evenings in his workshop at the back of this house. “Laurie!” he said, offering her a tall stool to sit next to him and watch.
“What are you making, now?”
The doctor’s dark eyes sparkled. “You won’t tell?” She shook her head. “It’s a little carving I’m doing for my wife.” He held up a tiny black and white photograph of a lovely, dark-eyed girl.”This is what she looked like when I met her.”
“Did you finish the wooden spoons?”
"Of course. They were easy.”
"Will you use water color paints on your carving or what kind?”
“Water color would work if I want the color to look subtle, like a stain.”
“May I borrow some of your sand paper?”
“Take anything you need,” he said with a sweep of his hand.
Now her children’s voices were an excited chorus outside the bathroom door. “Pete’s getting the bolts to come out!” Jeannie shrieked. “We’ll break you out, Mama!
“Turn it the other way. No, here, let me.” This was Joe.
“You’re not strong enough.”
“I have the magic touch,” Joe insisted.
Then the doorknob fell into the bathroom and clunked on the floor by her feet. They cheered. Laurie saw glimpses of her children through the round hole where the knob had been. “Are you okay, Mama?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“We can’t get this bolt out.” The hole left from the doorknob was bisected by the bolt that kept the door stuck in the latch. They tried, but the bolt wouldn’t budge. They couldn’t fit the screwdriver through the hole so that Laurie could work on lifting the hinge pin.
“Joe, go see if Belinda can come help.”
“She took off on her broomstick, remember?”
“Pete, call Gramps and Uncle Doug.”
Peter couldn’t find the phone. Not being able to see him, Laurie attributed this to his looking for it with his face in the magazine until she remembered that she’d tossed it up into the top of the cupboard. Peter shuffled off to look for it. Laurie wound the last bit of thread from the spool she’d thrust in her pocket earlier.
Rocking her needle up to attach Santa’s beard, she remembered the weeks leading up to that wonderful Christmas when she had stolen Baby Jesus and had Him all to herself.
After school she had walked to the town library in a tiny brick house across from the church. Books on shelves up to the high ceilings lined the walls of three warm, bright, dusty rooms. In the cobwebbed corner of the main room, Laurie found unwieldy books with photographs of paintings found in museums or on the walls of Italian monasteries. Hiding there in the corner, where she could just see the head and shoulders of the spry, white-haired librarian keeping watch at the front desk, she studied the way the artists made the baby’s face look, and never felt satisfied.
Before going home, she walked across to the church, knelt in the back pew where the draft from the door swirled around her knees and stared at the bereft manger, praying for her ideas to be able to reach down to the tips her fingers. Odd at that scary time in her life she had found a secret place to create in peace.
A week and a day went by before anyone noticed that Jesus was missing. The priest and a crew of men searched the church, the grounds and the peripheral buildings.
Then they all said that Jesus was stolen. People accused Doug, but this didn’t stick because Laurie explained to the doctor that Doug had only been in the sanctuary for that one second asking for food and even Doug wasn’t wild enough to try to steal something while everyone was watching. The doctor reasoned with the congregation using this line of logic and the committee women agreed with the doctor that they would surely have seen Doug if he’d sneaked back in to steal Baby Jesus from right under their noses.
No one asked her if she knew anything or saw anything. No one asked her if she had stolen Baby Jesus. So she kept working, sanding the lip back to a sweet smile, smoothing the warping along the chin, rubbing away the rough paint on the swaddled diaper.
Laurie wrapped Baby Jesus in a little blanket she’d stitched from the scraps of his bed. For the first time ever, he looked like a real baby, warm and tended. She pinned the blanket shut, tucked the baby Jesus beneath her coat and held him tight.
On the way to church, her mother cried. Doug told her to stop, but that made her cry more.”You have no idea what it’s like to be alone.”
“You have us,” Laurie suggested.
“I hope you do understand someday, Doug,” she sobbed, “I hope you do.”
“No, cause you’ll always have me,” Laurie whispered to her twin. Laughing, he punched her shoulder. Their mother sniffed savagely and mopped up her face while parking the car so that by the time they rushed into the crowded sanctuary, she looked her happiest self.
The candles atop the petite trees at the pews burned, flickering with the yellow-y light Laurie thought magical. Shadows shifted on the stone walls making the gold within sparkle. The heavy melting smell of candles drifted beneath the scent of the greens with the cold air that rolled along the uneven flagstone floor. Laurie followed this draft across the sanctuary to the stable and opened her coat. She looked down at the baby, his face not as it had been last year—not perfect and typical—but lovely again, with the darkest, twinkling brown eyes and a knowing smile. His many-colored quilt looked warm and soft.
No one noticed her slip him into his crib, no one saw her eyes fill with tears at the sight of his face lit by the wavering yellow candlelight, no one suspected her as she walked to the right side of the church where her mother and Doug sat beside each other in mutual dislike. Sometime during the Silent Night, a child cried out, “He’s back!”
Doug startled, turning toward the back of the church and gasping, ”Dad?”
Laurie took his hand. “Jesus is back.” She pointed.
“Is that what you had in your coat?”
“They were going to leave him there without eyes, but I like to know he’s seeing me.” Doug laughed at the blanket she’d made the baby. “You scamp. No one even suspected. ”
“I gave him your eyes,” Laurie said. “See how they sparkle?”
“You’re so weird,” her brother had said, squeezing her hand.
Now in her family room, Peter found the phone, but Gramps’ line was busy and Uncle Doug was not home. Joe sat down by the bathroom door and coaxed Tommy to sit next to him. “Where’s Jeannie?” Laurie asked.
“Looking at the Christmas tree.”
Tommy whispered to Joe, “Pwee hold train,”
“I’ll let you hold it if you’re careful.”
“Watch him,” Laurie warned.
“Are you going to throw the camoose, Tommy?” Joe asked.
“Yes,” said Tommy brightly.
“No, you’re not,” said Joe gravely. He looked in through the hole in the door toward Laurie, his blue eyes sparkling with amusement, “He said ‘yes,’ but he means ‘no.’”
“You’re right, Joe,” Laurie said softly, then added, “Joe, ask Pete to get me some blue thread. Blue gray.”
“Tommy’’s being good for once,” Joe said.
When Peter brought the thread, he said he was going to to try to phone some friends and Gramps again. The spool of bluish thread wouldn’t fit past the stuck bolt, so Joe cut a length as Laurie needed it and stuck it through the hole while Tommy chattered about the caboose.
“This a man ladder, Joe?”
“Duh. Yes. Men climb ladders.”
“But, why, Joe?”
“Ask a better question than that.”
Tommy had plenty of questions, but his voice grew soft and contented. The next time Laurie asked for thread, Joe said, ”He’s asleep. What do I do?”
“Do you mind sitting there with him ‘til help comes?”
“No, I don’t mind. Are you okay in there Mama?” Joe said.
“With you taking care of Tommy, I’m fine. How’s Jeannie? I don’t hear any coughing.”
“This coughing is due to asthma,” Joe said, turning from the languid-eyed child to her father. Joe tucked his stethoscope into his pocket and studied Scott Hardesty, trying to remember if Scott had been one of the guys who puffed on inhalers during time out. He had a memory of their huddle, the weird acrid smell that was almost like their shoes sweating in the hot gym, where his brother and one other athlete sharing whoever remembered to bring his medicine. No, it hadn’t been Scott, but the lack of oxygen might have explained a lot.
“You’re not asthmatic,” Joe said to his high school friend as he squatted down to open the cabinet where they kept equipment. Scott’s two older children, both sturdy boys, zoomed little cars across the floor.
“Huh? Me? No.”
“Has one of your brothers ever sat on your chest?” Joe asked the petite girl who sat hugging her knees on the exam table. She nodded at Joe. “Feel good?” She shook her head, coughing. “Like an elephant, right? Kinda like you feel now?” Joe set the nebulizer up next to her. “The air in this machine will make that elephant jump off your chest and run away.”
Joe held the mask to her face watching her color and the heave of her shoulders. Glancing over his shoulder at Scott, he said, “How’s Johanna?”
“Pregnant again and miserable.”
“I thought her cardiologist was adamant—"
“Yeah. We’re not supposed to have any more.” Scott shrugged in the way he had always done. He put up a closed hand to shield his mouth and whispered, “I don’t like to wear a—you know.”
“Nobody likes them,” Joe said, with a glance at the oblivious children. “Nobody thinks, ‘Oh wow! I get to wear a—you know what—tonight!’”
“What do you know,” Scott mumbled. “You’re not even married.”
Joe shut his mouth, took his patient’s wrist to monitor her pulse. There were three problems with practicing medicine in your home town. The first was that people who’d watched you mess up when you were young didn’t believe you’d actually learned anything. Everyone knew you, or your parents, or brothers or sisters, and on this basis wanted advice. But if they didn’t like what you said, they dismissed it on the basis of who you used to be.
Joe leaned back against the counter and folded his arms across his chest. “So what else can I do for you?”
“Johanna’s so sick she wanted me to ask you for some of the anti-nausea medicine.”
“Hasn’t she seen her doctor?”
“She’s afraid to go because—you know, this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“She should see her obstetrician. And her cardiologist.”
“You’ve delivered babies before, Joe.”
“I’ll be here until five and on call ‘til eleven. Then I’ll be at Nighttime Pediatrics tomorrow.”
“She’s got Christmas dinner to cook tomorrow. And anyway, we’d have to pay at Nighttime Pediatrics, right?”
“She shouldn’t be cooking a big dinner, Scott.”
“Hey, do you think your mom would mind a few extra guests?”
“She’s out of town,” Joe said and bit his lip wishing he could write a prescription to beat some sense into Scott’s dumb head. “Take your wife out for dinner.”
“Not everybody makes the kind of money you doctors do.”
The second problem with working in his home town was that while you’d been studying, everyone else had moved on. They had wives, families, houses and he still split his time between one rented room in Baltimore and the half-finished loft over his parents’ garage.
But the good news now was that Scott’s beautiful, red-haired daughter had stopped coughing. Her eyes were brighter and to tease him, she reached up to tug on some of the scraggly hair behind Joe’s ear. He packed up the nebulizer with written instructions on the clinic’s loan policy, specifics on using it.. “Whenever you feel like there’s an elephant sitting on your chest, tell Mommy or Daddy you need to use the machine.” To Scott he said, “you can borrow this one until you get this prescription filled.” He scribbled onto a pad. “I’ll get you some samples on the way out."
Scott herded his young ones out the door with a wave to Joe. “Put him on the naughty list,”Joe said to Maggie. “But if his wife calls, fit her in. I’m going to get my haircut at lunch, but if you text me, I can be back here in five minutes.”
“You’ve used up your lunch hour by taking your sweet time.”
“How much do I have?”
“Twenty five minutes.
“Shit.” Joe said and sprinted out the door. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Outside, it was 34 degrees and raining. His mother’s quilt store and café stood across the street from the haircut place and passing it Joe had the bright idea of poking his head in to see about some food. Mouth watering, he opened the door. “Any chance of a free meal for a starving doctor?” he said, grinning at the employees who had known him his entire life.
“We were packing up some left over sandwiches and cookies for the homeless shelter. We’re about to close.”
“Just one sandwich,” Joe said, wishing they hadn’t mentioned that damn shelter. “And maybe one cookie.”
He heard the crinkle of a paper bag and shifted restlessly feeling the minutes pass.
“Can you say what’s wrong with my finger?” she said as she held the bag out to him. He took her hand and saw the problem beside her warped fingernail.
“Something’s going on,” he said with another grin. He took the bag from her and tucked it under his arm. “I’m at the clinic ‘til five. Stop by and tell Maggie I’m expecting you.”
“Can’t you write a prescription now?”
“Didn’t bring my pad,” he said. He spun right and dashed out the door. Across the street, Dee Dee, the owner of the shop, stood smoking a cigarette and shouting into her cell phone. A timid woman stood behind her, wringing her hands. Seeing Joe, DeeDee snapped her cell phone shut and smiled at him, her arms opening for a smoky hug.
“Any way you can cut my hair in fifteen minutes?” Joe asked.
“Got a big date?”
“I wish,” Joe said, suddenly picturing what it would be like to go home to someone who understood him—or at least wanted to. In his mind he saw a happy, thoughtful face, but when Dee Dee opened the door and told him to go in and take a seat in her chair, the timid woman who stood still on the porch said, ”But you’ve got to fix my hair, Dee Dee. This side is two inches longer.”
“It looks fine!” DeeDee gave Joe’s shoulder a savage push.
“If you need to—“
“No. She's on my nerves,” DeeDee squirted Joe’s rain-wet head with water. “You shampooed this morning, right?”
DeeDee’s phone buzzed. She snapped it open. “I told you stop calling me and go over there check on Pop Pop. I’m at work, dammit!” She snapped it shut.
“Damn kids calling me at work. All I want is them to go check on their Pop Pop, but no.” She had her scissors in hand and began snipping furiously.”After all he done for them. Jesus, Mary, Joseph! They can’t walk across the street and check on the old man?” Wincing, Joe looked away from the mirror, wishing his phone would call him back to the clinic.
“How is your dad?” Joe asked.
“This morning, I go over there and my mom’s hysterical. He’d had an accident. So here I am, on my way to work and I got to get the man in the shower and get him cleaned up.”
“Wow, DeeDee, you’re awesome.”
“He can’t help it,” she said, furiously.”He’s like a dumb child.”
Her phone buzzed again and when she turned to shout into it, Joe’s buzzed too. Getting up, he pulled his wallet out, stuffed a twenty into DeeDee’s hand and ran out the door. But it was a text from his twelve-year-old sister. He flipped it open. I don’t see why he had to be born in a stable. God could have made room at the inn.
Running down the sidewalk, texting, had to be a stable. think about it, Joe’s left foot splashed in a puddle; the water gushed up over his ankle. Back at the clinic’s bathroom, he dried his hair with a paper towel. It left bits of fuzz on the top of his head. Maggie brought his next chart to him there with a glance at her watch. “You call that a haircut? No wonder you can’t get a date.”
“Definitely the naughty list for you." But Joe’s grin withered when he realized he’d left his lunch behind.
When Maggie’s husband picked her up at five, Joe locked the door and went to his office to finish his paper work. An hour later, he decided to run by the hospital to check on a couple of patients he’d sent to the ER and see if the hospital cafeteria might yet be open.
Reading another text from his sister, he paused in the corridor. God can do anything. Why not a comfortable bed or a palace? How to explain the way he’d come to see it? He texted: the stable fits because that showed he wanted to be right with us. Joe heard a familiar angry voice.
“Don’t tell me God needed another angel, Mr. Reverend, sir. I don’t buy that crap.” Ten feet away, cigarette making a wild smoke trail as she waved her arms, DeeDee stood beside a big man with a clerical collar. Joe went to her. She burst into tears. He put one arm around her, took her cigarette from her fingers, snuffed it on the sole of his damp shoe and put the crumpled stalk into his pocket.
“This joker is telling me lies,” she sobbed.
Joe glanced at the cleric whose large face had gone red, whose eyes showed confusion. “Would you mind finding her a cup of tea?”
“That’s not actually my job description.” He wrung his hands.
Joe dug in his pocket for his ID. “Just this once?” Shrugging, the man loped off down the hall. “Who are you here with DeeDee?”
“Ambulance brought my dad They got him breathing again. But that guy says—"
“Would you like me to ask the doctor?”
“I can’t understand a damn thing she said,” DeeDee sobbed.
A few minutes later, Joe found DeeDee smoking in the corridor bathroom. He took her cigarette from her fingers and tossed it into the toilet. “Oxygen explodes,” he said with an apologetic smile.
“Sorry. I’m so pent up.”
“DeeDee, come and see your dad with me.” Arm around her shoulder he took her into the exam room. Her father’s chest moved up and down in the exact rhythm of the machine wheezing beside him.
“Doesn’t look like him.”
“No,” Joe said. “He was a fullback in his day, wasn’t he?”
Nodding she said, ”My kids finally did what I told them and went over there. They found him.” Her voice was high and hysterical.
“What did they do?”
“Called 911. Then me. Mom was at Safeway.”
“They did the right thing.”
“No,” her voice broke and she covered her face. “That shoulda been me there, not them.”
“Maybe,” Joe kept his arm tight around her shoulder. “but I think there’s something noble and beautiful about doing your duty even when it’s hard. They did him a service. And your mom. He might have been in trouble and alone a lot longer.”
“If I could’ve done one last thing for him,” she wept into her hands.
“Is there something you want to tell him now?”
“Can he hear me?”
”Tell him and see.”
“I want him to wake up, dammit!” She held both hands out to him and pleaded, “Wake up, Dad, please,”the fire gone from her voice. ”It’s me, DeeDee. Your favorite.” She laughed in a choking, hysterical way. “That will get him.”
“You and he had the same sense of humor,” Joe said.
She made a gesture moving her hand from her heart toward her father as if the sympathy between them coursed swiftly in a channel there.“Mom didn’t mean to yell this morning. She’s just scared.”
Joe said, “Your mom is going to need your help, now.”
“Why?” she glared at Joe.
“For some reason we don’t know—definitely not the fact that your mom got upset—his brain started bleeding this afternoon. There’s a patch about the size of a grapefruit in his brain.”
“Oh, I see. The machine is keeping him alive.”
“So he can’t wake up?”
“You can pray for a miracle, but without that, he’s leaving. It’s time to say good-bye.” DeeDee touched Joe’s face, her rough, smoke scented fingers wiped the moisture that gathered beneath his blinking blue eyes.
She stepped out to find Christmas had come in all its imperfect beauty. Peter and Jeannie had managed to wind the lights on the tree; Jeannie had laid out all the ornaments in rows on the work table. Laurie stood her santa on the mantle where his beaming expression could cheer their decorating. Jeannie whistled shrilly to awaken Tommy and Joe, who had fallen asleep keeping watch at the bathroom door.
Joe pulled his rusty, rattling MG to a stop in his parents’ driveway. The greenish glow from a computer left on spilled out of the kitchen window. He dug in his pocket for DeeDee’s crumpled cigarette, lit it and settled back to read the text messages from his travelling family. Savoring each puff, he texted back, saving his final thought for his little sister, if not a stable, he couldn’t be with us in suffering and that’s where we need him.
In his loft above the garage, the heat refused to turn on. “Shit, shit, double shit.” Without his coat, shoes or keys, he hurried down the steps and across the yard to the kitchen door. It was not locked. “Finally, I get a break,” he said aloud, thinking immediately of the food he’d find.
The kitchen felt chilly. The refrigerator held stacks of pink petrie dishes as if he’d stepped into a biology class’ supermarket and the way to the food-crammed pantry was barred by a zig-zagged clothesline hung with damp marching band uniforms.
“What the? Is this another universe?”
The kitchen table did not even have a bowl of apples, but instead stacks of photographs and a laptop that gave an electronic hum.
Joe took a drink of water, his mouth to the faucet, tasting metal. He went past the dark Christmas tree, past the silent, little Santas keep watch over the empty room and on up the stairs. He brushed his teeth, thinking of the clean, soft sheets of his childhood, the piles of bright quilts, of sleeping late, his head under the pillow to shut out the obnoxious comfort of his brother’s snores.
He opened the door to his bedroom.
Someone was sleeping in his bed.
Someone was too small to be either of his brothers, the hair too long for either of his sisters.
Joe took one step closer and squinted into the darkness at the sleeper’s face. Black eyelashes traced semi-circles above her lovely cheekbones. Her lips were closed and her nosed flared with each breath. Joe swallowed hard, pinched his own arm, suspecting DeeDee’s cigarette.
His cell phone buzzed.
He went quickly to the hall to answer. A familiar voice said, “Joe? It’s Victoria.”
“Hey,” he whispered. “Merry Christmas.”
“We missed you at the candlelight service tonight.”
Yeah, I drove up during Silent Night. I figured, what’s the point?”
“I know it’s late. I bet you get lots of calls late, though.”
“Only from old friends who’ve already tried Ask-a-Nurse and Nighttime Pediatrics.” He laughed so she’d know he was not mad and added, “What’s up?”
“Brandon has an ear infection and stupid me left the medicine on the counter while we were at my mom’s and then at church. I’m scared to give it to him. It says ‘refrigerate.’ I can’t believe I left it out.”
“How old is he now?”
“Nine months. I wish you could have seen him tonight.”
“Me, too. How’s he seem to be feeling?”
“He’s fine. Adam’s feeding him some applesauce.”
“I would give it to him. Then put it back in the fridge. It’s safe, but the efficacy might be compromised a little. Call your pharmacy and explain. They should replace it.”
He heard Victoria repeat his instructions and the squeals from her family sounded in the background. “Joe’s a doctor! Can you believe it? Gosh, Joe, we’re so proud of you!”
When he snapped his phone shut, the woman was standing in his bedroom doorway—just awake, eyes half shut— she looked even more beautiful.
“I’m Sophia.” She gestured as if this should mean something to him.
“Sophia. Gosh, that’s a pretty name.”
“You must be Joe, the doctor.”
“I am Joe the doctor. Did you just hear my friends?” He pointed to his phone.
“No, your dad said you smoked.” She wrinkled her nose and sniffed.
“My dad knows I smoke?” She laughed at this. He tried to explain. “I only smoke after a bad haircut.”
She squinted at his hair and made a sympathetic face. “Don’t you know it’s bad for you?”
Joe grinned. “I know that’s an easy question, but I can’t come up with the answer.”
“What are you doing here?” she said. “They said you were working.”
“I was; my heat wasn’t. What are you doing here? Wait—you know my dad?”
“I work with him at the high school. I’m house-sitting. Didn’t they tell you?”
“No.” He stared at her clothes. She seemed to be wearing several layers. The top layer looked like the sweats from his junior varsity basketball team.”
“Wait,” she said, “these aren’t your old clothes, are they?”
“I must seem like some kind of weird stalker.”
“You are wearing my clothes,” Joe grinned, “you were in my bed and somebody turned all my food into school projects.”
Her laugh came from deep down and Joe liked the way it filled up the dark hallway. She said, “It’s freezing in here. I tried to light the fireplace but the flue is stuck.”
Joe shrugged, “I can give it a try.” He thought he’d like to see her face in the firelight.
Copyright by L. Nebbia 2009 a work of fiction in which the reader should understand that any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is part of the imaginative process. Literature is not a photograph of life, but a imaginative representation of what it means to be human.