A Family Practice

Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back. His insides hurt the night David went to look for his father. He jangled the car keys in his pocket with each footstep down the sidewalk. A new driver this year, David still liked the feel of the keys in his hand. Their weight. He knew where his father was all right and pushed open the familiar front door. Jonathan’s funeral this afternoon wouldn’t have changed that. No, his brother’s death in Vietnam would probably not change his father’s schedule.

Though it was very late at the hospital, everyone knew David and the young nurse at the desk pointed him in the right direction. Everyone in town knew Dr. Merritt, knew all about his two sons, and knew all about his wife who rarely came out of the house. Everyone knew Dr. Merritt.

At the sound of his father’s voice, David stopped outside the patient’s door. It was unusual that he didn’t knock and go on in. David was the youngest son, the friendly one. He watched his father’s familiar gestures through the crack in the door.

David willed his face to remain expressionless, his skin to contain whatever it was racing around inside. What was bothering him, he thought, must be that he couldn’t really remember Jon. A closed coffin, the sweet smell of funerals, and then a red, white, and blue flag. Guns firing salute. David’s heart beat faster though he tried to breathe evenly. He didn’t feel as if he was getting enough air.

Earlier in the evening, Dr. Merritt had reported to the floor desk first. At night the corridors of a hospital seem dimly lit, he thought. Self-contained. Sounds echoed.

“You’re here awfully late tonight, doctor.” The nurse’s voice seemed to boom. “Even for you.” Dr. Merritt nodded curtly.

The nurse must have remembered the circumstances then because she faltered, “Well, have a good night.” Her tone was sympathetic. The air in the corridor became close. Dr. Merritt ducked into the room.

His patient, Deb Jordan, was a small woman. Not pretty anymore. He felt he knew her body practically without examination as he’d treated her for years. He couldn’t remember her children as well though, all their ages and sizes. Except maybe Carol, Deb’s eldest as Jonathan had been his oldest. He remembered Carol had run away, Deb’s eldest had.

“Doctor?” Mrs. Jordan’s voice cracked, causing the doctor a sudden vision of his own wife, Pat, as she looked at home sunken on the stairs, her head against the banister, hands gone loose on the railings night after night after night of his life.

Dr. Merritt’s face flushed. He listened then to Deb Jordan’s heart, tiny and muscular. He certainly wasn’t with someone who drank too much now. Pat’s heart would have sounded large and slack, the doctor always fantasized, as if wind whistled through it. His own, Dr. Merritt wanted to believe, would be cold and still. No, probably his own heart hardly beat at all anymore.

“I want to discuss your hysterectomy with you just a little bit more, Deb.” Dr. Merritt was proud that he could keep his tone even, reasonable. He’d been so distracted lately, what with the death of Jon, then having to be the one to worry about how someone as far gone as his wife, Pat, would react. The doctor, with the help of his office assistant, had even had to make the funeral arrangements. Deb Jordan was a good woman though, Dr. Merritt considered now. She’d been a good patient, and she deserved better. She was a woman who’d kept a trim figure too, and her cropped hair was still auburn in color.

“The operation?” His patient’s eyes drifted to the clock on the night stand. “Now?” It was nearly eleven p.m.

“All those kids of yours,” Dr. Merritt decided to try a little praise. “The way you’ve kept up with them all and all of their activities.” The doctor could remember back to when he’d still made house calls around their small town. He remembered Deb’s small, cramped home, all Harold had been able to provide for the family. Dr. Merritt also remembered then that Harold was older though. The man had served in W.W. II, and Dr. Merritt was sure he’d delivered four or five, maybe even six children to Deb Jordan, and all of those kids had grown up in that same modest home. He could also picture a younger Deb Jordan in her walled-in backyard filled with a clothesline and rosebushes. A profusion of flowers had been growing all around, and there’d been every kid in the neighborhood screaming across the law.

“We’re all sorry about Jonathan,” Deb Jordan said to her doctor.

Dr. Merritt busied himself trying to count the times he must have saved Deb’s oldest child, saved Carol Jordan’s life—more than once or twice, maybe several times. Asthma. When little Carol had been a child, the doctor remembered, she’d had such thin arms, with fragile veins so hard to find, and the child had cried out at every technician’s touch so that the doctor, himself, had finally had to scan, puncture, insert an I.V. to draw the blood himself. He could even still see Carol Jordan’s tiny nostrils that had been so thin, so flared at the insertion of her inhaler. Dr. Merritt now asked Deb, “Have you heard from your daughter?”

Deb shook her head, seeming to know automatically which daughter he meant.

Carol, Dr. Merritt knew, as a teen had run away from home just late last fall. She’d become rebellious, a protester, one of those hippies driving around the country while they blamed the doctor’s generation for the Vietnam War. Dr. Merritt observed the softness of Deb’s belly, her flabby thighs, and varicose veins. Some women, he knew, thought a hysterectomy the end to life.

“How long will I be in there?” Deb Jordan did finally ask the doctor a question about tomorrow’s operation.

“Not all that long,” Dr. Merritt answered automatically. He examined her chart. Some thought a hysterectomy at least the end to womanhood. All the charts so much the same to the doctor anymore. Examinations for marriage, then birth, infections, backaches, and then more births, along with a case of “nerves,” and the prescription of so-called tranquilizers. Finally then, it was hysterectomy time. Sometimes even then, cancer appeared anyway.

“The time in there depends,” Dr. Merritt went on. He drew a deep breath and tried to space his delivery and explain in full. “As I’ve gone over before, in your case, we do want to make sure and get everything suspicious.”

David, Dr. Merritt’s youngest son, now listened from the hospital doorway. He remembered Mrs. Jordan, Carol’s mother. Carol was a girl in his school, or she had been in his school, a student just a year or two older than himself, and a year younger than Jonathan, who’d been his older brother. Yes, David remembered Mrs. Jordan, mainly because he remembered Carol Jordan so well even now. David knew he’d had “a thing” for Carol Jordan when they’d been in the school play together a year or so back. A real crush.

A nurse walked by, and David smiled at her politely. He knew he was expected to—expected to keep up good relations with Dr. Merritt’s co-workers, that is. Why, both the Merritt boys were good boys, well-behaved and handsome. People had always told his mother she was a lucky woman. Inside the patient’s room, David’s father was actually talking to Mrs. Jordan about removing her uterus. Her womb.

David tried not to be horrified. Then suddenly, David could almost picture Jonathan as if alive again for a second. He could imagine his brother’s back as he led their own mother to bed before Dad got home from the hospital. Jon had always helped their mother to bed so Dr. Merritt could not get so angry at his drunken wife. Jon had accomplished the feat by telling their mother jokes and the news of school he’d saved up all day, so that then their heads together, David could just almost see Mom and Jon as the two progressed a stop and a stumble down the hall.

“We’ll go in and take a good look around, Deb, the oncologist and I,” Dr. Merritt seemed to be concluding. “We want to make sure that we’ve got everything because we want to rule out the possibility of anything serious cropping up again later.” The doctor thought he remembered a particular time he’d treated Deb’s eldest, Carol. Deb Jordan and Harold had only possessed three children at that time, and the three had been quarantined to one bedroom in that small house. The doctor remembered twin beds crowded up against the walls, covers a tumble. The children had been struggling with fevers and measles.

Dr. Merritt, himself, had grown up in this town. He’d gone off to school for internship and training, but then moved back to establish a practice after “the Big One.” After that war, the doctor thought he’d been able to come back and establish a good life here, a nice home for his wife and his two sons. He’d always thought it should’ve been a good life.

“Do you think people like you and I would have done better to have married each other?” Deb Jordan asked quite suddenly.

The doctor was immediately embarrassed. No use lying, he did have a reputation for stepping out and seeing other women once in a while—but people didn’t understand as he did, the doctor had always thought—that alcoholism was a disease. It wasn’t as if he could have just walked away from his marriage and from Pat. Then there were his two sons, Jonathan and David that had to be supported. “What?” Dr. Merritt asked Deb, trying to smile and make a joke. What was the woman asking?

Dr. Merritt remembered that yes, it was the measles the children had contracted, and at the same time, Carol Jordan’s bronchial tubes had swollen. Deb’s daughter had nearly choked to death. “I’ m sorry, I don’t . . .,” Dr. Merritt couldn’t think of a thing to answer. Anyway, he liked younger women.

“I just think of what we could’ve done together.” Deb Jordan seemed to smile at the ceiling though, not at the doctor himself. “I mean we’re the kind that’s worked and worked, you and I, and if we’d been a team . . .,” Deb’s voice trailed off too. “You and I, we’ve both worked so hard all our lives.”

“You’ve heard nothing from Carol then?” The doctor changed the subject. He felt bitter actually. Everyone knew about everyone else in this small town, didn’t they? About marriage problems, about children who went off never to return, about children who went off because they seemingly couldn’t stand the sight of their own parents, about parents who’d stayed together whether one still liked the other or not—and all for them. All for the children.

“No, we don’t hear from Carol.” Deb Jordon answered the doctor. “Never.”

Dr. Merritt recalled that when they’d been teenagers themselves, Deborah Jordon had actually won a beauty contest. She’d reigned as Harvest Queen. He had wanted to go out with her back then. Now, he became aware suddenly of the fact Deb must’ve been referring to earlier times and the possibility of different choices, and to him, the hospital room suddenly seemed quite stuffy. He noticed frost forming on the darkened windows. “You’ll be down for just a little while, Deb. You need to stop some of that errand running and take a rest!” The doctor tried to return the woman to familiar footing.

Meanwhile, David, out in the corridor, thought the conversation had suddenly taken an alarming turn. He could never picture his father being interested in anyone like the Deb Jordan he knew. Of course, he could never really picture his father as close to anyone. Certainly not in love, not even in love with his own mother. David had the distinct impression that men like his father, doctors, that is, science types were not the kind of men who loved anyone.

As to Carol Jordan, Mrs. Jordan’s daughter, it was David’s opinion that she was not in California like a lot of hippie-types. He remembered that once Carol had shown him a postcard from band members she knew who lived in the Florida Keys. It was a postcard worn soft by too much handling—a blue-green ocean and sandy brown beach. That’s where Carol Jordan had run away to. “A string of islands,” David could picture Carol’s thin pink lips as she’d emphasized that phrase when describing Key West. “It’s a string of islands.” Carol had always worn these dangly, hippie-cool earrings.

The bright lights from the corridor, the nurses’ station, the white of all the uniforms, the elevator going up and down, all these started to bother David. All seemed to swim together. Why hadn’t the grownups asked some of the kids, even himself, about Carol’s whereabouts?

Dr. Merritt could remember springtime filled with pollen, and Deb’s eldest girl child who’d played hide-and-seek in the lilac bushes. The child had turned nearly blue from an attack then. Nearly blue.

“I haven’t got anything right now more serious than the bleeding?” Deb Jordan asked Dr. Merritt directly. Her face seemed very lined now, older.

“Pat, the hag!” The doctor remembered once raging at his own wife. Her alcoholic face had grown loose and old and her hair had been streaming down her face. “Pat, the hag,” he’d tried to shame her into sobriety, and the woman had held up this silly pancake turner as a defense against him. Patty, whom the doctor had met when she had served and rolled bandages up for use in “the Big One,” the “Good War.” At any rate, Pat had actually been going to strike Dr. Merritt, when their eldest son, Jonathan had stepped in between them. Jonathan, the eldest, who’d been forever in their home, the peacemaker.

“No, no, Deb, just bleeding is all I’ve seen.” Dr. Merritt actually reached out to touch Deb now. He patted at her. He hadn’t meant to scare his patient, had never intended to do that.

“We’re not talking about cancer then?” Deb Jordan asked the doctor kindly, he thought. “Not death.”

Dr. Merritt straightened at the word. The last time Deb Jordan’s daughter, Carol, had been seriously ill, he’d met the family at the emergency room that time. The child, not then a child anymore, had been refusing to take her medications, had refused then to even lie still. His hands had pressed at the girl’s shoulders, “Honey, let me see. Sweetheart . . . .” Lord, had every child, every teen in the land suddenly gone mad? Carol Jordan had meanwhile gasped and started up off the gurney, she’d snatched at empty air. Clawed at her doctor.

“Doctor! Doctor!” Manicured nails now dug into Dr. Merritt’s arm. A nurse was crying, “David!”

The doctor thought, no — Jonathan, for Christ’s sake. Hadn’t he, Dr. Dick Merritt, said over and over that he didn’t care if Jonathan too became a doctor? The boy needn’t have joined the army and gone off to Vietnam just to escape the fate he thought his father had wanted for God’s sake. His son, Jon’s bedroom had always been flooded with heavy yellow light while he studied. Jon’s brown eyes were always so intent, sizing up his father. A goddamned whiz kid. His son, Jonathan, had been an absolute whiz kid at sports, at school, at the girls. He’d also been a boy so completely unaffected by his own abilities, so determined not to be affected, so determined not to go to college and not to care about success! Deliberately holding himself back, the doctor had yelled so often at his own son, holding himself back—

Deb Jordan was sitting up in bed now, trying to push at the doctor, her gown slipping down awkwardly over her collarbone as she pushed, and the nurse now pulled him out toward the hallway.

“David!” The doctor had finally realized that his youngest son had fallen.

David’s breathing was shallow. It came fast. Dr. Merritt watched, only aware that he couldn’t make himself kneel to help the boy. He could not. After all, what could any doctor do to save his own son?

“I’ve got it!” The young nurse suddenly reappeared from the desk, a paper bag actually in her hand. “Breathe, babe.” She knelt and held the sack to David’s mouth. “That’s good. Breathe into this. That’s right. Just my mom’s old remedy,” she shrugged at Dr. Merritt.

“Yes, good. That’s fine,” Dr. Merritt echoed. Nothing serious then, just hyperventilation. His boy looked up at him, eyes apologetic. At Jonathan’s birth, the doctor had been a medical student, newly married but still buried in a stack full of books at the library, not with his wife. Still, as soon as the messenger’s hand had touched his shoulder, the young intern had been up and running, his books a trail of debris behind him because the words “wife” and “baby” had once literally taken his breath away.

“Breathe normally, that’s all.” The doctor now instructed his youngest, David. Okay, so parents worshiped their firstborn, wanted everything for that child and expected everything from that one. Was all this a sin? Wasn’t it natural?
“It’s been a long, hard day.”

Dr. Merritt reassured David. He didn’t think his voice sounded like his own voice though. “Nerves,” the doctor tried to explain to both David and the nurse. “You’ll be all right tomorrow,” he reassured, while the nurse kept her eyes tactfully on the boy and away from the doctor.

David had finally been able to picture his brother, Jon. As if Jon were really still alive, that is. David had remembered that after a baseball game, Jon’s face would be all sweaty and grimy, and his brother’s glasses would always slide down his nose, despite that black strap he wore to hold them on. Then after a game, David had just recalled, Jonathan always acted the same whether his team won or lost. Jon’s manner would drive their whole family crazy, the way Jonathan could walk through the house in such an unexcited way, the calm way his brother would just swing open the refrigerator and take a swig of milk directly from the bottle. David had suddenly felt caught in the motion of his brother’s sweeping arm. A shadow had come very close and he had fallen.

David sat up.

“Not so fast.” His father insisted upon putting the breathing bag back to his son’s face. “You’re not ready yet.” Dr. Merritt kept a hand on his son’s shoulder and timed his breathing.

David remembered that after a game, after either that win or loss, Jonathan had also always fixed himself exactly two sandwiches, and then Jon had always actually cleaned up after himself. No fuss, no mess. David remembered Jonathan.

David knew that Jonathan must have been a good soldier. Jon wouldn’t have been anything else but good. His brother had been someone hard for even David to reproach. Jon had been hard not to like, even to respect. David suddenly hated that about his brother—that he was someone you would have thought you could count on, thought you could trust . . . . David put the paper bag down then and pushed his father’s hand away, though the nurse did move in to help him stand up.

“Come wait at the desk with me.” The nurse smiled and David’s father nodded and stepped back into the room to finish up with Mrs. Jordan. “Are you cold?” The pretty nurse began to remove her own sweater.

“I’m all right.” David protested, but found he was shaking. His face was wet, his shirt soaked.

“I’m fine,” he repeated. “I’m okay.”

Dr. Merritt was back in Deb’s room quickly, snapping his ever-present ballpoint pen back into his bag as he nodded, “Thank you, nurse. Ready to go?”

David was suddenly embarrassed. His father’s hands were shaking too, worse than his own, and the doctor’s face looked so white. The ride down in the elevator alone with his father seemed way too long. No lectures, no advice tonight though.

David could remember Jonathan so clearly now in his army uniform. Jonathan as he was dressed and ever so ready to leave home. He could also remember Carol Jordan more clearly now, in what had amounted to her uniform—her hippie blue jeans, work shirt, and a blue bandana.

Nice-looking, yes, but David had thought he could love Carol Jordan if just for her mind. He would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that he truly could have. He just loved talking with her, the way the girl had planned, explained, decided, and made jokes. What was it about his brother and her that almost made them one in his mind, David wondered. The two who had never met really, and now, never would except, evidently, in his own mind.

Dr. Merritt stopped dead still on the sidewalk. He was upset that his thoughts now seemed to be rattling around in what was quickly becoming his “old head.” That young and efficient nurse at the desk, someone the doctor, himself, had noticed not long back—why she had to be no more than Jon’s age, and perhaps someone who would have been his son’s type too. Also now, Dr. Merritt knew he should be worrying about getting David home to bed, and then about helping his own wife up the stairs and down the hall.

The doctor thought his wife, Pat, had actually been quite presentable this afternoon at the funeral. One had to give credit where credit was due, and her face had been too pale perhaps, but Pat had actually gone out to have her hair styled. She’d dressed well and had accepted the flag handed to her. She’d drawn its thickness up into herself, and then carefully lowered it into her lap. All of them—the doctor, his wife, David—had gone rigid when the salute was fired. Guns. Dr. Merritt had been proud of the way his wife had gently hugged the flag to herself, as if it were breakable.

The doctor struggled not to cry now, because how dare—he’d tried and tried to reason with Jonathan—how dare Jonathan run off and join the army? To get away from his responsibilities to himself, to his mother, and yes, even to the doctor? What kind of a career was the army anyway?

The doctor tried to realize that he raged in vain. No use in asking, why Jon? Jonathan was already gone now. His Jon who’d always been so predictable and so exasperatingly good. If Jonathan had gotten careless somehow, if his son had made some sort of mistake—or if Jon’s father, if his parents had not been perfect, had not done as well as they should have in their own lives—could all this not have been settled with “the supreme being” in some other way? Dr. Merritt tried to regain his sense of control. He reasoned that he, a scientist, should know better. The universe did not work that way, and he, of all people, a doctor should know death had nothing to do with reward for good people and punishment for bad.

What Dr. Merritt didn’t know, though, was if he was going to be able to make it home right now under his own power. He leaned into David, the youngest.

Inside, Deborah Jordan listened to the sound of the elevators outside her room, their continual coming and going. She’d never felt she had any real reason to complain. She’d never made his personal life her business, and Dick Merritt had been a good, small town doctor. After all, he’d worried over Carol for one thing. Thank God, in fact, for doctors was Deb Jordan’s definite opinion. For doctors and mothers who turned to tend roomfuls of cries and of rashes. The baby aspirin that had to be crushed into a spoon in the middle of the night. For earaches, one must use warm oil. For breathing, the inhaler.

Dr. Merritt had just finished Deb’s exam by clicking that ballpoint pen of his closed. Dick Merritt had always had that same official-looking pen as far back as Deborah Jordan could remember. A graduation gift probably. She remembered her doctor on so many occasions, dashing off a prescription, so that he could then run off to other appointments. His wife, Pat, left alone to live in that big house Dick Merritt had finally managed to build for his family.

Good Lord. Deb opened her eyes again. Her Carol hadn’t been prematurely involved in some way with Dr. Merritt’s son, Jonathan, had she? That wasn’t why the doctor had asked about her daughter tonight? Deb Jordan curled resolutely into a ball. No use thinking about it all any further. She’d learned hadn’t she, that there was nothing that could be done. Deb’s mind became like a kaleidoscope as she began to fall asleep. She could picture, even hear the way her children had sounded when they were young, how they had sounded as they ran across the back lawn at a picnic.

Carol, her eldest, had grown so suddenly into a teenager almost before Deb had realized though. Also then, Carol had worn her long, brown hair down over her back. This hair had often hidden Carol’s face, hidden her daughter’s angry expressions. Momma’s little helper had grown too suddenly into the one who had continually complained that their house was too crowded, that she hated sharing a room with her sisters. That there were too many kids in this house, too many, and too many children too soon. Not all a woman should be for, Mom! Then there’d been this awful foreign war all the teens were so upset about cropping up too. War in Deb’s home and abroad then.

Deborah actually finally allowed herself to experience a sense of relief at the idea of the hysterectomy tomorrow. Oh, she knew very well what the Dick Merritts of the world thought of her. Successful men thought she was just another housewife who’d now have to find something else to fill up her time once of her children were gone, but Deb actually enjoyed the prospect of an empty backyard.

Her daughter Carol’s face had so often been filled with no breath. Her little Carrie’s skin could go so suddenly translucent during an asthma attack, nostrils thinning as if pinched. Be careful, oh so careful, my tulip, my daffodil. Carol, the baby, who in a sense, she’d gotten married to have, her first. Now finally tired, Deborah dreamed of her eldest who went in search of her own room and in search of open backyards. The daughter she couldn’t hope to protect anymore knew how to take care of herself, she prayed, knew also how to protect herself and not “get caught” like she had, Deb prayed. Not her own. Not Carol who knew all too much about being made to feel helpless, but then also knew how to survive.

Outside the hospital, there was wind in the trees. David couldn’t help wondering what his brother had thought about right before he died. If Jonathan hadn’t died on purpose, which was hard to believe, as that’s the way his brother had done everything else—it occurred to David that his big brother then might have actually been taken by surprise. He wouldn’t have had time to be frightened then. He remembered Jon’s sleepy breath as if the two of them were still small and still shared the same room. David was upset, number one, that he hadn’t been there with Jonathan, and number two, that he couldn’t now decide—by accident or with full knowledge—which way did he want to think his brother’s death had occurred? His brother, Jonathan, who’d always been his hero.

Inside, Deborah Jordan breathed in time with the coming and going of the elevators, their constancy. Even if what was being removed tomorrow did not necessarily need to be taken out, Deb thought what she would have told the Dr. Dick Merritts of this world had she been asked, was that the tissues never grew back just like new. The body only healed. Nothing was brand new.

Outside Deb’s window, the moon outlined the few remaining leaves of maple, oak, and sycamore, their edges outlined by starlight against the night sky. Deb thought her life had long ago taught her that love had no bearing on the fact of loss.

Deborah Jordan dreamed of giggling children, of all her boys and girls, surrounding her at a picnic in the backyard. She was busy, of course, trying to serve refreshments, but the children jostled her as children will, and the Kool-Aid had then splashed all down the front of her, all down the front of Deb’s white, Harvest Queen swimsuit. The children laughed and pointed at the liquid that ran down her legs and out over the green grass. Laughed at Momma who spilled blood red and orange. Momma had laughed with them.

Down below, the boy held up his father. Dr. Merritt’s son thought he would have to drive them both home tonight. The youngest also planned exactly how he would help his mother up to bed tonight, his sagging father. And then what about tomorrow night? The needle-pointed leaves turned silver undersides toward the sky. David felt the loss of Jonathan like a knife.