“Do you think you can manage a waterhead?” Mrs. Lacy had asked me when I’d come in. “This baby won’t live much longer.” Mrs. Lacy then handed me the bottle without waiting for an answer.
The veins in the baby’s head were engorged with blood. A bruising blue, they crisscrossed over her skull creating ridges as if on some cratered moon.
“Jessica?” Mrs. Lacy made a face at the little girl. At those frail lids that never opened.
I was terrified. Jessica’s premature body had a head that ballooned. It balanced too precariously on my arm. Would water rush out of the head if I dropped her? Blood? Pus? I inserted the bottle’s nipple and watched the tiny lips pull at it for one drink.
“She has headaches most of the time now,” Mrs. Lacy explained. Mrs. Lacy, a nurse and supervisor who’d befriended me. Two years in college and you’d think a girl would know what she wanted to major in, but I didn’t so I’d taken the summer off to work at the care home, second shift, 3-11:30 p.m. Meanwhile, college had been training me to be a teacher, I guess.
Me who’d always thought I wanted children. No matter I’d been told since I was a child that as to myself, no babies for me. I who was sterile. I who had rocked dolls in my arms in the imagined houses of my once childish bedroom. Rockabye, rockabye baby.
“She’s just not talking much anymore.” Mrs. Lacy took the bottle from me and worked it around the baby’s mouth.
Though Jessica’s tiny body was decked out in a frilly pink dress, none of the aides liked looking at her. Mrs. Lacy was counting on my sympathetic education or, I don’t know, maybe she was trying to be an inspiration to me. The question now was, should I become a nurse?
The baby cried even louder.
“Do what you can,” Mrs. Lacy handed me the bottle again and left the room.
Waterhead. Jessica, I thought, Jessie. I got her to try another drink. My arms ached. Jessica spit up on my uniform. Her tiny arms flailed.
“Connie, you’ll have to try again later. We need you for a change in Room 127!” Mrs. Lacy called in at the door.
But then I was afraid to move the head. My hands careful at the back of the baby’s neck so it wouldn’t wobble, I managed to lay Jessica in the crib.
“Constance!” I was called again.
In Room 127, one of Larry’s bed sores had begun to run. A boy of eleven, he’d been the victim in an auto accident. Another aide and I had to roll him off the soiled pad he lay on, change it and dress the sore, then put on a crisp, white sheet. Larry was going to have visitors. His parents were bringing in their church group to pray for him. He wasn’t dying though. I knew, no chance of that, at least not soon. Larry stared off with vacant blue eyes. A body with tubes.
The church group arrived before I could escape. Larry’s father was the one with downturned eyes, his mother the one who cried as the minister lay his hands upon Larry. I edged back into the hall.
“Whew!” Mrs. Lacy softly blew a stream of air up through the thin bangs across her forehead. She removed her glasses to rub her eyes. “Should we expect a miracle?”
Jessica cried, and I realized then that she had been for some time. The hallway was full of crying.
“Jessica?” I picked up the bottle and returned to find her. I regretted that I’d said her name out loud. I hate that sentimental or sugary sweet concern some girls have.
Jessica’s thin lips pulled. Jessica’s baby skin so thin like a membrane, her face that of a denuded baby bird. A tiny skeleton. “Jessica?” I crooned. “Drink for me.”
The children who are out of bed are wheeled into a circle, the nurses and aids darting in and about their trays and wheelchairs. Feeding time.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe . . . .
Charlie. A seven-year-old and cute, except for his eye. According to Mrs. Lacy, Charlie can pop his left eyeball out of the socket. It’s artificial, of course. Glass. Mrs. Lacy always jokes, “You’ll have an eyeball in the plate there if you don’t watch him careful, and then we’re all supposed to go to the cafeteria and eat the same thing we’re serving them here!” She laughs.
Charlie puts stiff fingers to his eye. He has stiff knees too. He moves like a puppet or a small wooden soldier.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children . . .
“His thing is so big,” Mrs. Lacy had been telling us stories about her husband’s anatomy, making entertaining conversation so mealtime would go faster. “He’s so big, he’s wrecking my insides, that’s what the doctor tells me,” she asserts and pops a spoonful into an open mouth. “His thing bangs away at the wall of my kidneys. Do you believe it?”
Ruthie is my patient too. A pixie girl, very black, and all dimples and play. The reason Ruthie can’t feed herself is that she throws her forks and spoons at the other children. She doesn’t like green peas on this particular evening and so throws them one by one into Charlie’s plate.
The old woman had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
I’d love to take Ruthie home with me to visit if I could, but then she couldn’t make it up to my second story apartment. The one belonging to me, that single girl with brown hair always pulled tight and knotted for work, that girl who works late and with other people’s children. Ruthie has a large scar on the back of her neck, and the stitches meant to knit the original gash back together have left scars too. Her spine is injured and she can’t walk.
“Aaah!” Ruthie is throwing her peas around the room at anyone and everyone. She picks up her plastic bowl, a face alert like that of a tiny squirrel, and then hurls it toward the TV set where it clatters to the floor.
“Ruth!” Mrs. Lacy gets splashed, green juice across her white uniform.
Ruthie had been born normal. She had no father or mother to speak of, and evidently the foster parents she’d been placed with had thought belts with buckles a good way to settle the child down before the courts found out.
Mrs. Lacy takes hold of Ruthie’s arm, closes her eyes and breathes in a moment before taking up another spoonful, “Here, eat.”
A hush falls then because the minister’s group comes from Larry’s room. One of the women peeps up, then quickly backs down. The men look purposefully toward the door. Only the minister surveys the whole scene bravely. He even stops to lay a hand on crazy-eyed Charlie’s head. A large, freckled hand.
Immediately, Charlie, stiff-necked, throws his head back to look up full-face at the minister. Then Charlie pushes his eye, and I have to grab at his hand, I hope gently enough.
Charlie and I both smile for the minister who keeps a smile on his face too. Then Charlie poops on the floor. The poop eases out between the back and the seat of Charlie’s wheelchair. Then he pees.
Mrs. Lacy hands Ruthie’s spoon to one aide, signals another and then quickly guides the guests out the double doors.
The aide gets the mop and bucket, and mealtime becomes, as usual, all noise and confusion. A clatter. The fluorescent lighting bounces off the newly wet floor, a room like a shiny metal box.
“Larry’ll have to be checked again now too.” Mrs. Lacy notes upon her return. “I want to make sure he didn’t get jostled by the prayer group and that his feeding tube is working all right.”
She’d seemed so tired lately. Maybe another reason Mrs. Lacy has befriended me was just to have another woman to talk to. Dark hair parted down the middle and pulled back like my own, she has such a serious face. Heart-shaped. Not old, just plain. She strikes a match to actually sneak a puff from a cigarette and watches the children being taken into their rooms for baths, meds, then lights out.
I know Mrs. Lacy’s husband is a worker in the peach orchards around here. Seasonal work. Also, for some reason, I’ve caught on to the fact that he is her second husband, a stepfather to her two little girls.
In addition to one hall of ambulatory patients, there are two hallways of rooms with children who can’t get out of bed. Babies, or they’re like babies at two years old, four, eight, even ten—their bodies rigid and twisted or completely listless. These babies have a way of watching me as I check and change them, eyes bright with pain. I’m horrified that I often seem to work in a warehouse.
A lot of times, Mrs. Lacy keeps that pack of matches in her right hand. She plays with it while she talks, to help her not smoke so much, she claims. “The waterhead is all yours tonight.”
“I’m going to try feeding Jessica a second time after light out,” I tried. “There’ll be more time then.” Mrs. Lacy nods, agreeing to ready a bottle for me.
So a routine was set up then. I’d try to feed Jessica just a little when I first came in. After dinner, I’d bathe her before my other patients and dress her in one of her tiny pink gowns. She’d breathe less fitfully if I kept the lights dim, my fingers stroking her face and arms, her thin legs.
Much later, after lights out, I’d go again in search of the bottle. Mrs. Lacy would be there in the bright lights of the kitchen area, the tap running and heat steaming up around her face, so the lines in it were soft then too, like a girl’s. Moist. “Bev’s la-de-da parents do have a doctor that can be called for her.” Mrs. Lacy informed me. “No, it’s not usual for a doctor to come for emergencies; we usually call for an ambulance, but at least her parents have done that.”
Having never seen them, I was surprised to learn Jessica had parents. Evidently, monied ones at that. At any rate, a lot of the parents never visited.
Meanwhile, I was beginning to get my own phone calls around that time too. On hot summer evenings, it was always midnight by the time I got home from work. I live alone now, ex-boyfriend Steve having gone off since the beginning of summer. He’d dropped out of school to go find himself, he’d told me. So much for true love.
Anyway, I’d been worried about having to pay all the rent by myself since then, another reason I was working full-time. Also, this nice-looking guy who lived across the courtyard never said more than “hello” to me. He was the only guy I ever came in contact with. Now, all tenants’ air-conditioning was down, the landlord promising to get to it right away. The nights were sweltering. And that’s when my phone began ringing.
At work, anytime after we’d gotten the kids tucked in, if Jessica cried, Mrs. Lacy signaled me, “You’re the one who knows how.”
But standing over the baby’s bed in the dark, almost holding my breath so as not to disturb her, I could only get Jess to take the formula in jerks. Get her to take a little, let her cry, then a little more. She’d choke and I’d massage her back. It didn’t matter, I told myself. She’d die anyway. Was dying. Waterhead. Comatose. Better than that boy Larry, though, I’d rationalize. A living vegetable, all body and tubes, like a breathing corpse.
The other women’s chatter was always within hearing distance.
“Well, he’s a good-lookin’ man, your Mr. Lacy is, and there ain’t enough of ‘em to go around. I tell you what, if he’s hurtin’ you, you send him on up to my house, and I’ll find a use for him.” This would be Peggy, another aide conversing with my superior about her husband.
“Hah, I’m just gonna chop me off an inch,” Mrs. Lacy’d laugh. “What do you suppose is the best procedure for that? I’ll chop me off an inch.”
The first time I got one of my phone calls at the apartment, I hate to admit it, but I was so surprised, I took a second to hang up. The first time, I just passed it off, until there were other calls. Heavy breathing. Then talk. Hot midnight, twelve o’clock. Simple, lovely me, all alone. Maybe a nurse-to-be after all, an angel of mercy, one day maybe like an angel in white. I had no lover. However, I did have an obscene phone caller.
Mrs. Lacy followed me into Jessica’s room one evening. “Damn,” she swore, grasping the bed rails. Tears splashed down her face and onto the bed. “Close the door, please,” she ordered. She tried to stop crying, her hand up to her eyes, her nose. “Damn!” After the door closed, she broke down completely, both hands covering her face.
I patted her on the shoulder. A tear hit Jessica’s face and her thin eyelids fluttered, a moth’s wings. I put myself between the two of them and patted the baby’s tummy with my other hand.
“I’m pregnant,” Mrs. Lacy announced. “I’m going to have another baby.” She held onto me for dear life.
I tried to rock her back and forth. I was remembering her two little girls and how the peach crop was always in danger from storms or frost. Maybe not enough work for her second husband a lot of the times. “Sssh, don’t cry. Sssh,” I tried.
Then for the first time, Jessica’s tiny fingers curled around the index finger of my other hand. Jessica held onto my hand for dear life.
“He said I had to have it,” Mrs. Lacy sobbed. “He’ll leave me if I don’t have the baby.” Bobby pins began to ease from the hair tucked up into a bun.
I stood perfectly still and in-between two bodies holding to me. I held up both mother and child.
Mrs. Lacy finally freed herself and wiped at her face. She straightened her uniform. We stood looking at one another.
“I’m going home to piles of dirty laundry tonight,” Mrs. Lacy half-smiled. She put her hand across her heart romantically. “Laundry at midnight or dawn; that’s my schedule.”
I freed my hand from the baby’s and helped Mrs. Lacy tuck her hair back up before she went out into the hall.
“You’re a natural, you know,” she nodded toward Jessica. “I think you should consider nursing.”
The good-looking guy from across the way was out on the second floor balcony that night when I got home. John, tall, lean, and blond. He offered me vodka and orange juice. There were stars. Later on, I remembered we were drinking straight vodka, him telling me about his plans to be an engineer or chemist, or something. But maybe I’m getting it all mixed up with some of Steve, my ex’s plans, because this John had also decided he’d need to take off on a trip soon too. He also needed to find himself. Anyway, one too many drinks, and John finally stumbled off to pass out. I managed to drag myself back to my apartment.
Good to have someone to talk to though, I’d thought. I’d tried to talk with counselors at school about teaching, but there I’d guessed if one found one’s self, it seemed a matter of what age children you wanted to teach. When I woke up the next morning, my face and even my hair was wet. I’d evidently been crying in my sleep. Still, if I could become a nurse, that would kind of mean I’d found a different self, right?
I took two days off. When I went back, Mrs. Lacy was in Jessica’s room. “She’s been screaming, I think forever.” Mrs. Lacy had circles underneath her eyes. After that, I let them know they could call me during the day or even on my days off if Jess wouldn’t eat. However, it wasn’t the feeding that was the problem anymore.
When Mrs. Lacy checked Jessica’s vital signs, she’d tell me about her various medications. There was a blue pill so her lungs wouldn’t fill. “You know,” she explained, “it’s pneumonia. Like she’s drowning.” The orange capsule was for Jess’s head or her kidneys. I can’t remember.
The painkillers and sleeping tablets were white though. More and more whites for Jessica, so that by the time I left her, she would be still. I’d try to imagine her floating on a peaceful lake, her white sheets a quiet surface, a dream of sleep and nothing dark or deep could come to snatch her under. The baby was in so much pain.
Late one afternoon, the minister brought even more of his congregation in to heal Larry, the blue-eyed boy. Mrs. Lacy warned, “Go ahead; I’ll cover.” The church group was visiting every room, and I made it to Jessica’s room just in time.
Larry’s mother was crying into a handkerchief. Men stood and shook their heads. The minister, billowing black robe to the floor, moved forward. I put myself between him and the bed and moved my arms out across its railing.
“She’s my patient,” I bowed my head.
What I thought was, he’d have to reach past me to get to her. I could imagine this preacher’s view of hell. His would be a god that held you over a fiery pit if you weren’t good.
The minister was surprised, but he prayed, his hand atop my head.
I held my position until they’d all gone. I felt like my patient’s shield that evening, but the setting sun glaring off the white floors and walls, the sheets and uniforms, and the heat rising from the parking lot outside Jessica’s window—everything was fiery right here. We were aglow and melting, she and I. I couldn’t lie to myself. The baby and I, we were just barely hanging on.
Meanwhile, the phone company had diligently been trying to trace my obscene phone calls for me. I’d known before they’d verified the name for me though. I had already found out what they would tell me. What with the breathing and then there was something about that voice—one particular night everyone in the apartment complex had kept their front door open because the goddamn landlord hadn’t fixed the goddamned air-conditioning yet. In the apartment across the courtyard, I noticed that good-looking guy, that John I’d had a few drinks with—he was on the phone too. When I hung up, John hung up.
Hysterical lady. You’ve just been under too much stress, I told myself. Too much work and worry. Just your imagination, so settle down! Oh, God. My hands turned to ice in the hot summer evening. I went out onto the balcony for air. Had Larry’s mom thought God meant her to be his mother; what about Beverly’s? Black skies, the stars burning overhead. I had to think, and evidently, I’d also better move.
About that time, Mrs. Lacy remarked to me, “Sometimes looking at her, I’m afraid I’ll have one with two heads.”
I’d taken to rocking Jessica every night in order to get her to sleep.
Mrs. Lacy continued to talk, “Now with that minister always here and hanging over that boy, I keep thinking all the upset will cause me to have a miscarriage.”
I myself had wanted to be able to flush all the pills down the toilet and not give them to Jessica anymore. I was hoping that nurses learned in school exactly what was in those capsules doctors and pharmacists dispensed, that they learned not only how much could be given, but also how much could be taken away without being noticed. I knew Mrs. Lacy had thought about aborting her baby. She’d told me.
“My husband said it had better be a boy this time,” she was going on. Mother-to-be, she was beginning to show. Under the fluorescent lights, she became luminescent, her pale skin almost transparent. I could see her veins. “He wants a son.”
Mrs. Lacy’s head thrown back so the white of her throat was bared, she appealed to the ceiling. She tried to reason with it. “Two little girls, so I guess it’s my turn for a boy this time, right?” Tears shown on her cheeks.
My arms grown tired, I worried about how Jessica’s head was going to be able to fit into a coffin. Who would make such a coffin?
“Son of a bitch!” Mrs. Lacy choked. She looked beautiful as she cursed her husband. “Goddamn bastard.” She cursed at the ceiling.
At any rate, soon it was all decided for us. Feeding time at the zoo, yet I knew when I saw Mrs. Lacey’s face. She’d come out to get something at the desk. I handed Charlie’s plate and spoon to the new aide I’d been training.
By the time I got to the doorway, Mrs. Lacy had thrown down her stethoscope. She was pulling Jessica’s little blouse aside. “The number,” she said. I don’t know how she knew I was there because she hadn’t turned around. “The number is taped over the phone. Call that number above the phone.”
In the nursing station, I dialed.
“Dr. Johnson,” man’s voice answered.
“Dr.,” I explained it was Jessica, but what I remember is the clatter. Silverware was being dropped and plates set down, chairs moved, and then there was the sound of more silverware. Deafening.
Then the doctor, I thought he sounded young and had a nice voice, asked me if he had time to finish his dessert.
“I think you’d better get right over!” I tried to sound as hysterical as possible. “It’s an emergency,” I told him the truth.
Then I hung up the phone and walked back to Jessica.
The new aide who was feeding Charlie smiled acknowledgement. Very nice, I thought. She was behaving very nursely. My heart beat loudly.
Another nurse and aide had gotten a machine into the room to help with Jessica. Mrs. Lacy breathed into my baby’s china face. The others hooked up the wires.
I looked away.
“Is the doctor coming?” Mrs. Lacy gasped.
“Oh, yes,” I answered, also breathless. “He says he’ll be here any minute.” I thought of chocolate cake. Of ice cream and pie a la mode.
“Mrs. Lacy,” the new aide implored from the doorway. “Connie!” The girl came all the way into the room after me also.
It seems that Charlie had finally managed to pop out his eyeball. To hear the aide tell it, the eye was leering back up at her out of the tapioca pudding.
Meanwhile, Jessica was dead.
Later, Mrs. Lacy told me to go on home and come back tomorrow, but I sat for a while outside to watch a large beetle resting on the sidewalk beneath the concrete stoop’s light. The Egyptians, I thought, had called them scarabs. Its shell glinted black and golden. I thought of the Aztec treasures that Steve or John, the admirers in my life, would be seeing in Mexico. I was thinking idly about ancient times.
I couldn’t cry.
The doctor arrived then. He passed me on the way in. He was a young and good-looking man. He had long, dark hair and a dimple in his right cheek. I remember distinctly because he smiled as he passed, “Hi, there.”
I waited. Dozing or maybe a little crazy, the beetle caused me to dream I was the Sphinx. I was like a statue erected and then left in the desert to house the dead and their treasures. Wasn’t the Sphinx supposed to have had a secret? At night, strangers would sneak inside her though, to crawl around in her belly, like robbers.
“Do you need a lift?” Dr. Johnson finally came rushing back out and down the steps. He’d evidently taken care of everything and signed the death certificate.
I thought then that Mrs. Lacy had also mentioned to me earlier that same evening that, child or no child, her husband had up and left her anyway.
I’d worried, “How will you live now?”
Peacefully, she’d worked on her charts. “I don’t know,” she patted her swelling stomach, but then we’d smiled at each other before I’d gone on with my duties. “We’ll get by,” she assured me.
I shook my head at Dr. Johnson. I decided I’d try to finish school and become something like a midwife, a nurse midwife. It would seem every woman ends up a mother anyway, I sighed.
I hadn’t even considered obstetrics; I still had this vague idea such a doctor pulled a baby out by clamping forceps on its head. Still, maybe being a doctor wasn’t beyond me if I could just arrange money somehow? Pediatrics? Did I want to always nurse kids, not adults?
“Well, good night,” the young doctor waved, and then with the sound of heels on hot asphalt, he drove away. He had a shiny white sports car. Probably a mean backhand for tennis too. The care home gates closed behind him.
The scarab glinted under the bright yellow light, all bright gleaming jaws. Someone else leaving stopped to tell me the ward had broken out in dysentery. Their eyes full of illness, the babies lay in pools. Pools of green shit. I had to get back in to work right now. Sometimes, I hate men. I swear I do.