April Is the Cruelest Month
REACHING THE TOP of Dr. Stahl's cement steps, Josephine Margaret Butler grabbed the door to balance herself and got a grip on the lion-head knocker.
There was a general spin to the world ... Oh Lord. She would die if she threw up here on the street in front of God and everyone. The scarlet sense of pain was starting to focus, flaming the skin of one arm and her hands and face.
But she would be just fine, now she had reached this house. Doctor's house was old style, ornate, queenly in a homely way: solid. Jos would be just fine, now she had reached this house.
She pulled herself up straight; not far behind would be Larry, bellowing his brains out. Soon she'd hear his flat feet slapping the sidewalk. He himself was all right, so why didn't he let her heave in peace? Nope. He stuck that freckled beak into every single thing.
Shifting her grip to the cool black doorknob, she rocked onto the balls of her feet and began to bang on the door with the edge of her hand, ignoring the bloody smears. She was sick enough to want to avoid seeing such a thing, and banging on the door was making her head a lot worse--Be home, Doctor ... come out come out it's Saturday and you're always home on Saturdays except when a baby was early ...
It had felt like the day might last a hundred years, a Saturday in the spring of 1963, one of those tender days that almost nothing can queerfor you--a pure sky and fragile grass, and a vague breeze that stirs something in you like dreaming.
Josephine and her first cousin on her father's side had been fooling with gunpowder rockets for an hour or more. The youngsters were gone to the movies for once, and there was still time to make up a batch of firecrackers. Still, there was this wistful feeling to the air that made them dawdle. Almost endlessly dawdle.
Violets, common as dirt, were shouldering into the rough grass everywhere.
"How much more time do we got?" yawned Larry.
"Not much," said Jos, and sat down on the grass.
In general, Larry wasn't the greatest company. Well, one thing about him: excited, he almost managed handsome in spite of his skin and his teeth and being criminally lazy. He didn't wear a belt on his jeans, so when he stood his trousers didn't cover him, and he didn't wear a teeshirt, so his longjohns showed. Still, he was company and easy to please, as long as the project went bang; and the aluminum did, and the gunpowder did, and boy did the primer go bang! She didn't want the rocket to flop and there'd go Larry, whining all week long.
"Actually, I think maybe an hour and a half. Anyway, enough to finish this." She stopped rolling firecracker paper and lay on the grass herself.
He stopped rolling firecracker paper and just lay down.
The air felt odd. Jos had been stopping now and again to remember that she wasn't and had no reason to be expecting anything from anybody, and she wasn't in hate or love or expecting to fight or cry or laugh, or ... it was just that the air was powerfully soft. It interfered with the job and slowed her down till she was crazy. But oh ... something in life felt funny today ... .
Both of them were constantly looking back over to the house in case the family came back early, a troop of twelve-ten-seven-four-two kids pouring like marbles down from the house and poking into every single thing. Well, not the baby. He was still at the age where they lurch like drunken sailors.
The house (it was Jos who had started calling it The Mausoleum) was a huge white elephant of a thing with many unusual angles anduseless windows and stairs, built entirely by a superstitious town founder. It had a huge backyard that sloped down to a barberry hedge, and past that to a ditch lined with gravel and brush that sloped up on the further edge to a vacant lot, which was bordered on the far edge by an alley. The distance from the house to the alley was about a block. In the middle of the lot lay the bare patch of dust, gravel, and ant hills where their "rocket" had been wedged loosely among fist-sized clinkers and rocks. It was gun-colored, about a foot high, and the magnesium and glycerin and all were tamped into a blasting cylinder, a thing you could find in Kentucky anywhere, thanks to the mines.
It wasn't like fireworks were against the law; it's just that, well, you never knew how parents might react. And the little kids would get under your feet, and they might get burned.
There was now a gravel mound with an intricate creation packed down into it, except for the space where they had reached in and tried to pull the paper away from the glycerin. It stuck.
"Wellll," whined Larry, getting ready to say he was tired or bored or the sun was in his eyes (he wouldn't wear sunshades, unlike Jos). But he didn't say it, he just lay back in the new bright grass and sighed. Even Larry seemed affected by the season, though he wasn't what you'd exactly call poetic.
Clouds scudding across the sun washed wide, distinct shapes across the yellow lawn, varying shades and tints that would translate into the many greens of summer. But now it was yellow. Yellow and shadows and blooms. A lot of ragged dry grass left over from winter. Larry got up and looked back over the project. So did she. Then he lay down again, and gazed up at the sky. If Larry could get spring fever, hell, the very gravel could seethe with restless passion.
It was a Saturday in April, the pleasant sort of day when nothing should be allowed in the way of spring, of its gauzy gentleness, of the uneaseful thoughts and longings it creates. Nature needed this brief, clean breath before summer melted Summit, Kentucky, all over again. Jos was sorry that the day had gone like this, but how could you fix it?
Now she'd hurt herself and maybe Larry.
The knocker. She should use the knocker, naturally.
Jos banged again, thought better of it, and taking the knocker in hand clung right-handed to the knob; she had just hefted the knocker when the door jerked backwards and Jos fell, graceful as a brick, into Doctor Stahl's high front hall, her dun hair fanning down into her eyes.
Such a lovely hall, dark and cool.
Staring down, down, down at her was Juliet Stahl, Doctor's youngest--open mouthed, sunlight banding her wide, flat face and her almost-red hair: freckled Julie, several years older than Jos, several grades behind, in junior high. Her good friend, Juliet Stahl. Everything would be fine now that the Stahls were here.
Jos rolled carefully onto her shredded palms and knees, and gritting her teeth, grasped the wooden door frame; crab-handing up the molding and onto her feet, it sort of occurred to Jos that Julie stood anchored, splay-footed in her too-new jeans, and staring. And Julie was taller than she. Last winter she wasn't that tall, but oh--where was Doctor, anyway?
And Julie acted. You never knew what Juliet Stahl would do.
Abruptly she shoved Jos back onto the porch, mumbling something ending in "Mother," and slammed the door, leaving Jos outside, death-gripped to the cool, brass knocker again.
Each leaf shape, each slope or dint in the earth had its blend of greens and golds, together with the whites and pinks left over from opening spring. Everything alive was up and striving.
Bright sun on the metal nearly blinded her.
It was all beginning to feel damn silly, but how dared they take it apart? Surely the glycerin had soaked around the paper by now: They'd heard it fizzle and squeal. And on the third set of tries the tamping rod had merely twisted and sat itself stupidly at an angle. A perfect waste of about three dollars, not counting the shotgun shells. But it had smoked. Surely it was just about to work. She had that feeling--the one that tells you something's about to happen. So she stayed about ten feet away, sprawled behind the logs set up as shielding.
In his wind-flattened trousers, Larry got up and shuffled through the dust toward the tamping rod.
"Wait--it might go off!" Jos yelled.
"A cat could see hit's a dud, Josephine!"
Automatically she looked behind her. Her parents' yard on the far side of the gully--still empty. Make one last try and then they should take it apart--too dangerous for the little kids to find (or Dad to see his shotgun shells). She'd get a bucket of water and soak the thing in that. Would that take too long?
But she really didn't want to move just yet. "Want a cigarette?" she breezed, not waiting for an answer. This was a dig at Larry because cigarettes made him sick.
"That thing ain't hot or nothing! Hit's went out! Guess I better go see it stays out."
He was waiting till she'd interfere and do it. Of the two of them, it was she who was always first. So she obliged him, jumping up and running toward the pipe. "I tell you what--we'll sneak over here during church tomorrow morning. That'll be plenty safe--it almost works!"
She tripped flat. Then she was up again, still running. Trip was one of the things she did the best.
"Awww," mourned Larry. "Hit would have been real keen."
Nothing this time, not even the whoosh! at first. There was a blasting cap under the permanganate and glycerin in the upside-down pipe, and the primers and powdered aluminum. The end toward them was sealed with melted bird shot, and it all seemed dead except for a bitter stink and the rank smell of hot metal. If she squinted a little, she could see a skirl of smoke.
Larry stood, hanging his awkward hands; he had backed away to several feet behind her.
Probably they could save the cap if the primer hadn't lit. She put a hand out toward the metal. The top radiated warmth. Or was it the base ... ?
"It's warm!" she exclaimed. "The top and bottom--"
The sound was so loud she didn't hear it.
After a time, Jos was down but still falling, though the direction wasn't clear. She could have been falling through the eye-blue sky or deeper into the uneven grass that was rising miles above her. A silent airplane was wafting across the sky. Grass blades and the tops of trees were touched by an utterly silent wind above her.
Larry's face blocked the airplane, mouthing at her. Then he was closer, almost astride her, arms out-thrown. Larry never touched her; they were like brother and sister. Or brothers. But she held up her hands for his help and the skin of one hand came away on Larry's palm. He was quickly covered with her blood, his face wried up like a mask. She hoped he wasn't hurt. He mustn't be hurt--because she loved him.
Up on her feet again, she noticed that someone had filled her shoes with lead shot, weighting her into the earth, and yet she was helium-headed.
Probable scenes occurred to her unbidden: The Kids' shocked looks. Mama's vague face suddenly focused. It would be best if nobody saw her looking like this--so, to wash. And the closest place would be at Dr. Stahl's.
Something in her painful ears was trying to get in. Or out, perhaps. Ranks and files of what sounded like bees in her ears..
Larry was talking and making no sense, pointing, gesturing back to her house, flapping his mouth. He naturally figured he'd be safe if he brought home the news, the snitch ... so she had better look more humanlike and wash off all the blood--
The Stahls'! It was only about a half a block away; she could wash off there, she could rest. When Larry galloped off up the bank toward The Mausoleum, Jos wobbled off at an angle to the alley close at hand. It ran right next to the Stahls' back garden gate.
From the mouth of their alley Jos crossed the street to the next alley, but she didn't have a firm enough grip on herself. Here the tide rose and she bent to rid herself of everything inside. Everything, she figured, since last weekend.
Straightening up was a dizzy affair, difficult, her attention fixed on the glow of the now-chilly lane. It was soft, moss-paved, with brokenstones and glass pressed into its moss and soft black tar. Odd she had never noticed how lovely it was.
The houses and fences seemed taller. No birds called. No lawn mowers or cars or airplanes; and no kids.
Everywhere along the grass-grown, rutted track were low walls, long walls made of mixed stone, brick, crockery, scraps of metal. At the very mouth of this alley had stood a wooden fence, following which seemed to be about six separate sections before the Stahls'. Jos leaned upon each wall. She was sure of that.
Small flowers were growing in the walls and along the dirt of the alley: violets, hepatica, flowering mosses. Flowers unkinking from the wheels or the last feet passing. In the shade, three-parted hepatica; in the sun, reedy asparagus, snow-on-the-mountain, sweet william. There was a tree swing inside the third wall, with a cat sitting in it. The longest series of walls she'd ever seen.
Among the stones of the wall next to Doctor's were quartz bricks, bottle glass, huge marbles set in mortar. The wall lined the driveway leading from the alley, and the ground was unsteady like gravel.
The Stahls' back gate was locked, so Jos turned left into the neighbors' quartz brick-lined drive that led her in front of a large barking dog, which was fortunately on a chain. Over their heads, hers and the dog's, was a great flowering willow, tiny leaves, lithe canes shrugging elaborately in the wind. She passed a waist-high stand of peonies shaking heads like good-looking girls; and she then discovered she'd found the street and the doctor's steps, just as she'd imagined them. She had needed to imagine them. It had been rather difficult. Dizzy.
The trip had taken either a great deal of time or really no time at all. She couldn't tell.
Jos was dizzy, very dizzy. Hard to think. She was hearing swarms of very loud bees, millions of swarms, through which came a kind of bull-calf sound. Dragging her three-ton head toward the sound, Jos saw it was Larry, dark-haired, dark-eyed, perpetually gawping at life in general, ol' cousin Larry, finally, scrambling up the steps behind her. She didn't want him to touch her--in part because the world wasspinning so fast she was shortly going to heave again. Deafening bees. Larry's wide mouth flapped and a yell followed after like a vapor trail.
Jos was crouched up against the cool wall of the porch.
She folded down to the cool, soft stone, leaned forward over the edge toward the yard, and heaved.
Larry was shouting aw hell and worried and, grabbing the knocker, commenced banging on the door. He had always been too short; he looked taller from this position. Maybe he wouldn't be the runt of the litter after all ... . Again the Stahls' door was hauled back, this time revealing Doctor. Short, thick, middle-sized, middle-aged; freckles on her square, spare face like pale confetti, a cigarette in one hand. From under her arm poked daughter Juliet, rabbitlike, shying but staying to stare.
Doctor said something, but through the bees, Jos didn't hear it. Then loudly and distinctly, Doc said: "Come in, come on!"
Doctor was wearing terry-cloth shorts and one of her son's T-shirts, as if she'd been lounging, "watching" golf or tennis mainly through her eyelids, "resting her eyes." She was freckled all over; even her thighs were freckled.
"Why didn't you carry her?" Doc said shortly, and turned to grind out her Lucky. "Can you walk?" This to Jos. Doc's voice had a crisp and abrasive edge that Jos had never heard. It kind of hurt.
"Carry her?" Larry squeaked. "I'd of had to ketch her first."
Doctor bent and took a strong grip on Jos, straightened, and hefted Jos onto her feet; she was a good deal stronger than anybody'd think.
Doctor, thin-lipped smile gone thinner, was steering Jos into the hallway, her hands firmly supporting Jos by the elbows. Doc's most salient features were her patchy gray and dark red hair and her flat-footed march; these distinguished her from any other woman, any distance. "The couch is right ... over ... here," she said, turning Jos around.
Juliet was standing, bug-eyed, by the couch.
Renatta Stahl's kids were worlds homelier than she. Mr. Doctor must have been a sight.
The big dark couch rose to meet Jos slowly, like a wave, and her body bore it down and deep into the springs. The room rose miles above her, like looking up at the mahogany ceiling from a cellar-deep hole in the floor.
Someone, possibly Larry, hefted her sneakers up onto the couch, and her calves sank deeply into the cool fake leather.
Julie and she read magazines on that couch (Julie with Stage and Screen, saying "God! Looky here!"--covering her mouth and chortling over kissing scenes; Jos reading Popular Science and Field and Stream. Doc seemed to take every possible magazine, herself only reading stuff like True Detective.)
The couch wasn't just cool, it was freezing; although Jos was sweating heavily, she was chilling. And shaking, aware of an increasingly urgent need--"Quick!"
A bucket appeared, and Julie vanished. Larry, too.
You wouldn't think there'd be that much in a person.
Jos sank back, amazed at the depth of the cushions, at the English paneling in the ceiling--deep brown, flawlessly joined. She fancied walking among the massive panels. But her right eye was swelling and the ceiling turning round and round and round.
Wouldn't Dad be furious that she'd come here? He didn't even like Dr. Stahl. Something about their high school years together; what on earth made a doctor move back to Summit, after escaping? But then again why would Dad have moved back with a college degree?
Actually, nobody knew or could have guessed what Dad might say. Ask the same question three times and he'd give three answers, no two related.
Well, not about important things, though.
Jos was probably fine ... mostly just sick at her stomach. That and dizzy, with places that hurt. It was just the explosion, the fright, the mess. Man, that was stupid--reaching out to touch a misfire like she had. Three'd get you ten she was fine, just a little banged up. And sick. That was all.
If she were really hurt, maybe Dad wouldn't mind a doctor ... . It wasn't like they were Holy Rollers or something. He had really seemed concerned when Maxie broke his arm (but he was a baby and the onlyboy, back then). And last spring when the newest baby had died ... well, everybody'd grieved, of course. On the other hand, Mama'd already had eight kids.
Which said what?
What if she were touchingly, helplessly ill (Dad's face softening, his usual impatience twisting into grief)?
Jos had better be hurt, or make quick plans to leave. Besides, she was too old for his discipline. Only thing was, he didn't know that yet.
After losing that baby, Mama couldn't bear to think of accidents, couldn't read about them in the paper. Oh. Ugh.
Jos was beginning to feel really bad about the rocket--hurting herself and maybe her cousin (Mama's grieving face by her bedside, holding her hand)--cut short by violent nausea.
Once Doctor had started in things moved fast; Jos herself was trying to control her stomach. It had decided on its own to jettison everything so she'd dry completely out. Horribly embarrassing.
"Don't worry, Josie," said Doc. "A head injury makes you heave like that. Everybody does it."
And once Jos had closed her eyes they wanted to stay that way. She was aware of being half-carried out to the station wagon, and then, in the back, trying to remember what had happened. Why she was there.
And come to think of it, why Dad was there. She could hear his pugnacious bawling out in the drive.
And Doc yelling back. Then came the rocks-in-a-bucket bumping of Doc's almost shockless Harvester station wagon.
Dad and everyone fighting ... which had possibly never occurred. She could have made it all up or had it as a dream since Dad wouldn't talk to Doctor, and she herself was occupied, and she hadn't seen Mama. She had wanted to see Mama's face so badly it almost made her cry. Which was probably due to the pain--she wasn't a baby ... . Dad saying over and over, Renatta, you have no right treat my children, without my say-so and Jos bumped up and down and the turns made her heave--over the edge of the seat and into a bucket.
Much later somebody told her that Mama had given permission, which made Dad sulk. Truly enjoyable.
The hospital entrance was ice cold and Jos was shivering worse than before; no time for a blanket.
Jos found herself wondering up at the sky-high lights, a towel across her chest, her various limbs held by various people--then suddenly blinded by the lights, heart banging through her chest as some part of her was jerked. Every bit of skin on her body hurt.
By her left side was a steel tray full of shiny clanking metal. Her hands--a sharp stab and she yanked them almost loose, propelling her nearly upright; a large woman's hand mashed her chest, and she was flat back down on the table again. One eye throbbed. Her head hurt and she was dizzy. There were bands of pain and a thousand gashes and tears. There was pressure on her arms and wrists and sharp things were carving on her hands. Excruciating twinges.
The pain brought her into herself enough to remember the ride and its probable reason, and Doctor's head imprinted itself against the brilliant round overhead lights. "--me," she was saying.
Doctor's lips moved, but the sound came in uneven: "--cussion," she said.
Then a nurse reached some headphones down onto Jos's ears, everyone watching intently. "Everyone" meant one of Doctor's white-whale nurses, and a man in white and blue, a man in white with a mustache, and another of Doc's white-whale nurses.
Did Mama know about this? Where was she? Probably Dad hadn't even told her Jos was hurt. Jos needed to see that vague, sweet face again.
Oh yes. Ma had given permission.
And another nurse, a gray woman with a steel stiletto needle, went down toward her feet, and there was definite pressure on both of Jos's ears. The people waiting. It could have been that Jos was supposed to be saying or doing something.
"What do you want me to do?" she croaked.
"--me," mouthed Doctor. How could Jos hear with those heavy damned phones on her ears? At that precise moment, Jos heard a sound like a soprano drill singing eeee-t very quietly in the left side of her head.
They were asking something again. Which ear? Left, she gestured. The tone went off. This occurred repeatedly, and then they gave her some kind of a shot. Something for pain? They nodded. Again: which ear? No ear. Nothing. She could hear nothing at all in either ear. Suddenly the mustache man (a doctor?) took the thing off her head. He held the whole rig up to her right ear, eyebrows arched as in well?
Nothing. Then he hefted it and held it against her jaw--a jarring screech! and she half-reared up. Almost sitting, her head ringing: eardrum, he was saying. Rupture--
You never think things like that will happen to you.
The hospital bed was too hard; it hurt her back. There were curtains all around the bed hanging from cold metal poles. No windows were close. Doctor was just outside the opening in the curtains, seated on a metal stool, scribbling briskly on a notepad.
When it was they had stopped ringing bells and wagging tuning forks at her Jos couldn't be sure, and she didn't know how long she'd been asleep. She was still dizzy, but something was fighting the heaves for her now. Her ears hurt sharply--especially the right, which she now understood could not hear. There were bandages and such literally all over, her blouse cut to pieces making way for more, but no place was wounded as thoroughly as her hands. Was something gone? ... And then her face ... all the bandaging--? She touched her face lightly. Tears were burning her eyes.
Whatever else she did, she mustn't think about hearing. If she'd lost her hearing--if it was permanent--college was gone. Medical school, gone. Well, part of her hearing. One ear. That wasn't so bad, was it? Or was it? Blown away. Thank God she was vain enough to be wearing shades, or her eyes ... she couldn't think about that or she'd start to scream and ...
Think of the room.
You'd think there'd be people running around in an emergency room, but instead it was quiet and, by the way, not nearly as grim as the rooms upstairs. She had been in a room to visit Grandma last year, father's mom, a few days before she died.
She had been barely covered with a sheet in the close, hot room. There were cesspool smells and too-sweet flowers and tobacco smoke and death. Someone had sent a card--Is it time yet?"--horrifying Jos.
This room, however, was steel; shiny and bright, full of windows and crookneck lamps and eye-watering cleansers. And smoke, snaking up toward the ceiling. Don't think about the pain or Grandma or fingers. Or hearing or sunglasses; only think of light.
"I understand you can hear me better," said Doctor standing above her. Jos opened her eyes. She didn't remember ever having closed them. Doctor touched the bandages here and there: seemed satisfied.
"You had some concussion deafness in your good ear. Left ear. That isn't the same as a brain concussion, although you do have a kind of brain concussion; that is, a kind of bruise in your head. The ear concussion is like an explosion." Doc walked around the bed and looked at things around Jos's face. "Well. I guess you know Max is fit to be tied." Her mouth moved like someone speaking rather loudly.
Dad was generally fit to be tied. All the time.
"Larry tells me you were fooling with blasting caps. Don't ask me what I think about that, or your good ear is going to tire mightily. And I don't want to hear where you got them. Larry was dying to tell me. Here." She tapped under Jos' right ear; Jos winced. "Percussion, eardrum," thought Doctor aloud, scribbling.
Jos grinned against the cloth tape: drums. Percussion. The metal crookneck lamp hanging overhead looked for all the world like a kettledrum. Part of a kettledrum, anyway. Boom, BOOM.
Doctor walked back to a screen at the foot of the bed; X-rays were on it. She turned on the light to the screen and tapped the picture, speaking very broadly and distinctly.
"Especially ..." Doctor was tracing, tapping, at one particular picture to the right. "Don't tell me you got them from Evan. My son is a source of continual joy to me. Larry kept trying to tell me all about the shotgun shells and all till I truly considered tossing him through a window.Well. I want my son back in college, so no felonies, and I don't care if he wears his hair like those Beatles or Mussolini. I just don't want to waste him on a battlefield ... .
"My constant joy," she ended.
She wasn't wearing her shorts; she must have gone home to change. Which meant Jos had been dead to the world for an hour or more.
Jos didn't know what to make of Evan, who was, after all, much older. He wasn't in the Army, so people had begun to spit at him--and he looked like one of those so-called folk-singing groups. He wasn't at college and wasn't quite anywhere else. He seemed to be happy just hanging around the Farm Bureau Co-op and cars.
Larry the Snitch.
"The concussion you have is mild. You have a mild concussion, and a lot of flesh wounds. All right so far? Good. If you can't understand me, you stop me."
A very large and pleasant nurse who generally attended Doctor brought over another X-ray, this one from such an angle that the central shape looked buglike. Jos didn't wonder the nurse was there. The white-whale nurses, Flo and Bedelia, always accompanied Doctor. They were really very fond of her--went everywhere with her. Like bodyguards.
"There ..." Doctor traced a line around the bug shape. "You have some hairline cracks in your skull, but they're ... old." She took a long breath. "I've always thought your family was hard-headed. Well. I guess you do know," she said, raising her voice, "you nearly blew your own damn head off. And your good hand--"
"Left-handed," croaked Jos.
"Are you really?" Doctor's smile was as wide as a wall. "That's linked with genius. Einstein. Edison. And of course, myself. But then ..." She sighed. "Juliet's a southpaw, too. Well. You need to see a specialist about that ear. Do you know what I mean by percussion damage to your eardrum, and a fairly substantial area of rupture? I'll talk to Max about a referral."
Jos hurt all over, especially her hands and head, and she closed her eyes. Dad wouldn't listen. Not to Doctor or anybody. "If I mention," Jos said, "that somebody else has offered to pay for some ear specialistbecause we can't afford it, he might suddenly decide that he will. Otherwise--" Jos raised a hand and let it drop. Just thinking about her father made her head worse.
Someone gave her a shot, and the lights went out.
She felt good around Doctor and Juliet. She even found their house relaxing.
The front entry to Dr. Stahl's house led into Josephine's favorite section, a long hall like the side aisles in a church, connecting the front hall to the back door. The lighting was sharp and dramatic through carved arches at intervals overhead, cookie-cutting the eastern light.
The far end opened out to a big brick kitchen with pasty walls of indeterminate color and much sheer, old-fashioned inconvenience--a high, deep sink, a homely stove jammed against an inner wall (too high for comfort). A metal card table found space for itself. Evan had brought it home and it seemed to fit. There were folding chairs--generally stacked or strewn--and books and papers were shelved, piled or scattered everywhere and in heaps on the floor and table. The pile on the table was weighted down with Evan's microscope.
Something about Evan ... ? Much too hard to remember Evan now.
The back door led to a high-walled garden next to the alley. Jos liked the alley. She liked the dark, carved door to the garden.
Along the high outer walls were rock roses and flat English ivy, and in the center of the yard was an old kitchen garden ringed by a low brick wall. Unusual things there; some medicinal, such as digitalis. And rosemary, sage, oregano. Colored basils.
And here was a deep purple basil curled around itself. She bent to straighten it, to see if some varmint was killing it, and--there was another door she hadn't seen, a basement door--open so its carving showed, and Evan in the middle of it, beckoning. Didn't say a word. And she stood and stretched and followed; past the furnace was a well-appointed clinic, past Evan was equipment; he vanished out of her way and she almost ran into a long central table and the sheet fell off and up! sat this bloody, hissing thing, shrapnel and torn flesh, bloody sockets, hating her ...
"Honey, c'mon, wake up. C'mon now," the nurse was saying. It was dark outside and this wasn't one of Dr. Stahl's nurses. "Y'with us? Feeling a little better now, honey?"
Jos nodded dumbly, still shaking from the dream. What if there was another door to Doctor's house like that?
"You were having a bad dream, hon. I could tell. A lotta people get nightmares with concussions. Specially young'uns."
Jos was starting her senior year. Not exactly a "young'un" anymore, and she tried to bristle. Of course, she did look young--having skipped two grades.
About then she heard the voices out in the hall, like a number of people greeting a new arrival; the tile and steel accouterments made much echoing. A baritone, quarrelsome. Without a doubt, they'd have to be greeting Dad.
Had Mama come too? Jos listened ... no, no mezzo.
Jos unsquinted her eyes wide enough to see the edge of the white bed curtains, where short, wide, balding Dad had planted himself, his jaw and throat working like a frog's. A pop-eyed, nervous man too vain to wear glasses. Max Butler, looking like he'd sharpened his tongue and was spoiling for an optimist.
But she kind of wished people wouldn't laugh at him.
Her ten-months-older sister Ellie was probably clear distracted, and anyway, it was Josie's turn to cook.
Funny thing being almost-twins with Ellie; Ellie was a stretched-out and colored-in version of Jos--darker hair, darker skin, longer legs and arms. What if that had bothered Ellie all this time? Taken for twins instead of being the eldest. Everything was making Josie sniffle tonight.
Stupid! Touching the pipe with the blasting cap. She could have been blinded, deafened, killed. The rocket hadn't all blown up and what if it had? Everything gone instantly. Stupid, stupid fool.
Dad had ducked back out of the curtains to shout "Nonsense!" at somebody, and Jos couldn't hear the answer, but a woman laughed.
Maybe he'd go away if she looked asleep; she squeezed her eyes shut. Why couldn't he have been her best friend, Ruth? Or Ellie. Or Mama, of course.
The curtain rings moved. Dad again. "Get up!" he snapped. "Maybe you can fool them, but you can't fool me! You're all right!"
She hurt all over, especially her ears and one eye, but his words made her swallow hard. She was wallowing around this cubicle when she knew very well she could have been up and dressed, although she'd have died before she'd tell him that. Her head ached horribly and every cut from her shins to her face was heard from clearly, but you could get things like that falling into a barberry bush. "Every minute you're here is food out of your brothers' and sisters' mouths, so get the hell dressed and let's go! You think I'm made of money?"
Imagine watching the kids with a head like this. Or even walking. Even trying to turn her head right now without--ugh--it seemed she needed that antivomiting shot.
Jos looked around at the chalk-white walls, uncomfortable-looking pans and utensils and thingamajigs. Yes, her insides were asserting she was going to heave.
"Max? Please lower your voice, please. This is a hospital."
Doctor came inside the curtain but dropped her voice so Jos had to guess at " ... needs to rest." Doctor now was standing by the bed, and Jos closed her eyes again, trying to swallow a cosmic ocean of spit. " ... can't hear very well, and if she walks much, she'll fall. This--" Jos felt Doc pointing under her eye. "--required several--"
"Quick," said Jos. "I've really--got to--"
"She can sit up, can't she? Well, she can sit up in the car."
"Joyce, come help this young lady to the lavatory," said Doctor. "I'm sorry, Max; what did you say?"
A new nurse appeared and hurried Jos off to a restroom she could lock, and that made her feel a bit better. She got rid of bile and water and, as she did, wondered if the explosion had sprung some leak inside.
" ... mother will watch ... worry your head," Dad was yelling. "I'ma poor man, Renatta. I'm obliged--in case ... didn't know ... seven more at home ..."
Six, it was. He refused to stop counting the last one, which had died--seven sounding more important than six.
Scads of men made more children, but Dad made it sound like his achievement was a subject for a Nobel prize. He tried to take every stage, that's all, anywhere he went. She could have been a stiff in a box and his well-rehearsed depth of feeling would have won him all the sympathy.
Jos stepped out of the restroom and the nurse caught her underneath one arm and helped her back to the curtained bed.
Dr. Stahl was seated on the metal stool, arms folded in an easeful way that drove men like Dad just nuts. She raised her eyes and looked at Jos significantly. "It would be a good idea if you stayed here overnight. What do you think?"
One of the things that had crept incrementally into Jos's conscious mind was the fact that she must have lost control of herself somehow. She'd wet herself. This section of the hospital was air conditioned, she was shivering with the wetness, but she'd die before she'd let someone clean her up. It was bad enough that others had seen her heave.
Dad was stalking around the hall outside. Doctor paused to light a cigarette.
"I'd like for you to stay the night. It's customary to keep head injuries under observation for, say, forty-eight hours or so. They don't have to be severe. You can stay here two or three days, if you want. They'd appreciate you more when you got back. I'd like you to stay." Doc leaned forward and mouthed the words but you can go home if you want to so that Dad couldn't hear.
Doc was gazing steadily at Jos as if trying to read her mind, as if she had nothing else to do right now. Finally she looked away, her smoke rising lazily in the air.
For a moment Jos was so flattered she was tempted to stay the night. Someone had noticed what a powerful lot of use she was at home.
Grandma had treated Jos like a queen sometimes.
"Grandma" brought up "family"; brought up a stream of thingsthat mightn't get done if she stayed all night on a ward. Feeding the dog. Cooking. Relieving Ellie.
I have to get dressed! she fumed. She was deeply tired, bone-weary; it was way past time to drag herself, very privately, into her clothes.
Doctor was leading Dad out to see to some paperwork.
If she stayed the kids would worry. Not Dad or Mama of course; they considered her mostly grown and self-responsible. But Ellie was a worrier--Ellie, her "twin," who didn't look like Jos. Delicate and tall to Jos's peasant frame. Judy Lee, the next one after Jos, would be jealous of all the attention; probably she'd try to break a leg. She was the one who acted just like Dad.
Dad could have told them anything by now--that she was faking or lying in a ditch somewhere, most likely that she was faking--but you never knew how things would come out with Dad.
And her room. Maybe JLee'd deliberately sleep in it tonight. Jos liked facing the paint-over-wallpaper walls covered with clippings and quotes and remarks in what was her very own room. She'd put pictures of child star Andre Watts, and of Einstein and Leonard Bernstein with hair like besoms.
Her room was actually a short, wide hallway with a closet. Most likely it had been a ladies' dressing room. The rest of the kids were two or more to a bed.
If she went on back home Maxie would bring her Interesting Things to Look At, his glasses greasy; and exact accounts of what everyone said, gory details of the blast, vomit, Julie's shock, and Larry's hysteria. That was his Very-Intelligent-Boychild way of soothing things.
Mason would come and sing about Joy, Joy and Jesus wanting some Sunbeams; only he and Tracy, the littlest girl, had any real claim on looks. And the baby, Cliff, would climb on Jos and go to sleep next to the wall. It was her turn to read to the kids and her day to cook, had anyone cooked? Dad would take Mom to the Elks' Club for Saturday dinner. Likely all the kids would fill up on cornbread.
Well, he could surprise you sometimes ... or at any rate he wasalways surprising Mama: handsome clothing and costume jewelry, dinners at the Elks' Club most of the time.
Food? Ugh. She put it out of her mind.
Would JLee help? Unhappy, stocky, dishwater-brown Judy Lee and her horrible glasses. She hated to cook. She hated to do anything even marginally helpful. She was probably envying all the attention paid to Jos. Next week she'd probably blow herself to kingdom come.
Then there was Louie; had anyone fed the dog? Nobody'd even check to see if she even had water. The little kids often forgot, and food is all a dog really has in life.
Obviously enough, Jos had to go home.
She was sniveling, probably from the pain. She wasn't the type to cry, after all: It must be time for a pill or some such thing. She didn't cry.
Jos must have fallen asleep in the passenger's seat. Oncoming headlights hurt her eyes as the Chrysler wagon pulled into Summit proper. Soon she'd be seeing their strange old house and the family and rest and sleep ...
They had moved all over the South so long, and now this crazy and beautiful thing was theirs. She still didn't believe they'd never move again, that this was really Home. Maybe there was something to the notion that Southerners crave land. Or was it Irishmen? Not that they were Irish.
Dad was ruminating over a mangled toothpick as he drove. Maybe he was angry. Generally everything about her made him crazy.
Though her lips were split and her mouth was dry, a coffin nail would have really felt terrific; but a year or so back, he'd developed an ick against smoking. Just as she started. This gave him one more way of being different from everyone else. And naturally he announced that his kids couldn't smoke, which was kind of hard on the four who already did.
He probably knew that. He probably just wanted to make a rule that everyone was sure as hell to break. He did little things like that all the time to his family.
Maybe the give-and-take of smoking was too friendly for him. He himself also chewed tobacco. He said it anesthetized his (terrible) teeth. Well, it also anesthetized the porch and the steps and the roadbed for several miles, and he didn't have to share it.
And here they were at home.
Dad squawked the emergency brake, pulled his foot off the clutch, and let the car convulse to exhaustion and die.
She'd soon be in her own bed, up against the cool inner wall, up against the mottoes she had carefully hand-lettered. What would she scrawl to commemorate this day? A poem, if the pain would let her think.
Dad cleared his throat. "So," he said, jaw out, "she give you something for the pain?"
Jos fished the container out of her shorts and handed it over. "I'll take care of this," he said, tucking them into an inside coat pocket. Then, leaving the keys in the car, he got out and spit the bits of toothpick in the street.
She had dumped half the bottle into her pocket before she'd left the hospital. Not that she'd known he'd ask. She was surprised to see him come around and offer his arm. It occurred to her that she really might be hurt ... .
Up on the porch, there came everybody--Elinor carrying Tracy and Maxie with Cliff and even Mama and the rest, all babbling and worried in the bright porch light. It made her head pound and her eyes burn worse.
Many arms and piping voices; Jos put a bandaged hand onto Mason's head; and Mama, as if Jos were little, closed her arms briefly around her. She smelled of lilac.
Ma was just getting up for the evening; she'd play the piano, play all night. It would soothe Jos. She loved to hear both Ellie and Mama play.
She had made one good decision: coming home.
Jos lay in the dark with her eyes closed, hoping the painkillers would spread through her hurts and knock her to sleep. But this was beginningto seem unlikely. Everywhere that gravel or shards of shrapnel had hit hurt like pitchforks. What she needed was concentration. Something to take her mind off the little sharp hammers and needles ... like the speech Doc had given her. The harsh lecture about how stupid she'd been.
That she was a girl, and wouldn't be seen as an individual ... .
Even if you do become a doctor, you'll just be a woman, just like a colored intern can end up washing the floor. You have to downplay that. You have to fight to avoid being a second-class M.D. Someday you'll be gowning up for surgery, and someone will slap you with a nurse's orders. You can't be too much a woman. That's being a servant. But you can't be a hoyden, either.
A boy can blow off steam. He can join a fraternity, drink himself half-dead, be any kind of undignified, and they'll say, boys will be boys. But when they're in a surgery, they'll strut. They've been taught all their lives that they'll be worthy of respect, so they will be.
But you? You'll grin and bear it. When they slip fingers in your lab coat and sew testicles to your cadaver ...
A male student can be a fool, unless he's a Negro. You don't get points for that. A Negro med student in our school might get murdered. The only one in the school who'll have a harder time than you would be some Negro boy or, God forbid, girl ... and it could happen that some professor with a sense of fair play might take a Negro boy under his wing. I can't begin to imagine what kind of misery would fall to a Negro girl ...
Wait, wait, don't answer me yet. Yes, of course there are colored doctors. I went to a Friends seminar on tuberculosis and I met two women doctors, very sharp, very sharp. They were colored, a mother and daughter. I think they could smell out TB, they'd seen so much of it. Well. Those ladies had gone to a colored college, and the younger one had gone on to the University of Chicago.
Well, maybe sometime that will happen here. But.
Let me tell you. If that man with the sense of fair play takes you under his wing, it won't be to coach you in Ophthalmology. I had to stop halfway through my third ...
You're good looking. I don't mean you're showy; I mean you're a, you're an Audrey Hepburn. That will serve you ... .
Hepburn. What was that supposed to mean? JLee knew about movie stars. Or maybe Hepburn was a rock-and-roll singer, like the Bugs. Badgers. Beetles. Some damn thing.
Well, medicine is a man's profession, and manliness is the only virtue you'll have to have--except you mustn't look like a man or act like a man or talk like a man, or they'll put you in an asylum. The only manly thing you can have is dignity. Otherwise the patients stay away. You'll get the poorest of the poor so you had better love the art for medicine's sake.
To make people think of you as dignified, act dignified. You have to look like what you want to become. You can't afford to act like a fool--or a girl.
Doctor had sat in the metal chair with her hands in her white coat pockets for what seemed a very long time. After a while she sighed and fumbled for a cigarette, methodically going through every single pocket. Jos had nearly fallen back to sleep, but apparently Doc was still on the subject, muttering.
... Well, that and courage. I think women have more courage, anyway--going into the valley of the shadow of death each pregnancy. Like your mama.
She had stopped and stood up, brushing herself off, and was not too happy to see that Jos was watching her. Well. Your head isn't that bad. You should be up by Tuesday.
Resnapping the metal fasteners on her bag, she said with finality: Come over anytime you want. You've got Julie thinking she can do her own lessons, thank God. Then too, we all like to see you ... .
We're neighbors. I don't sleep much anyway. Remember that, and come on over and play gin rummy sometime.
Jos had dozed, tired as she was.
And then she turned her head. She could barely hear it, coming from The Parents' room. Dad was making sweet sounds on the fiddle. Dad hadn't had it out since early springtime, when the baby born too small hadn't managed to make it.
No family could take two deaths three months apart.
Tears made her head ache, and the violin went on; how do you remember that what you do can devastate others: that your life wasn't only yours to waste? And the hated tears again.
Finally she fell asleep, obsessed with the wish that they'd forgive her.
A YEAR OF FULL MOONS. Copyright © 2000 by Madelyn Arnold. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.