When Jana returns to the curtained cubicle, she finds eighty-three-year-old Mr. Cianetti has moved off the examining table and is sitting on a low metal stool. His frail crossed legs have hiked up the johnny so his genitals are visible, snuggled in the crack of his groin like resting mice, but he seems not to notice. His steady dark eyes follow her for a moment as she lays down his chart, then his face implodes in a grin which furrows the loose flesh of his cheeks and reduces his lips to mere lines but still comes out looking impish.
Jana loves her old patients. Ambitions all played out, they sit before her, ink still, mysterious with memory, removed from the dirty march of time. Some of these people are the ages her parents would be, though she rarely thinks of this, rarely allows herself to think of this.
"Your parents must be proud," he says.
She leaves his chart on the counter, takes a seat on the other stool, and rolls up beside him. "I'd like to admit you overnight, Mr. Cianetti. So we can do some more tests and get a better idea of what is going on. I want you to see a neurologist. His name is Ren Scofield and I've already talked to him about you."
"Of course." He squints at her. "You can tell me I'm dying."
"It's not a question of dying," she says, though of course it is and he knows it. He probably won't die today or tomorrow, or even next month, but at his age his prognosis is not good even if his brain tumor is operable.
She would prefer to have this discussion when she had time for it, instead of at a moment when she is pressed to leave to get her son, Evan, but one can't always choose these things, and she would also prefer to be the one to talk to Mr. Cianetti rather than leaving it until the next shift when Gaffney and Ettinger come on. They're both good docs, but they can be abrupt with the older patients, often imparting just enough information to inflame the patient's anxiety and exacerbate the physical complaints.
"I'm not afraid of death," Mr. Cianetti says. "When you're my age it has a certain appeal."
She listens to the aftermath of his words to see if he means it, to see if the words don't regroup in the silence to mean the exact opposite. Sometimes, out of the silence, more words and feelings will materialize. He recrosses his legs, reaches up to his earlobe, and strokes it with a single finger.
Their silence is a small bubble in a hurricane of ER sound-a wailing child, frantic footsteps, the squeak of rolling carts and gurneys. And there's another subtler set of sounds embedded here, which only she can hear: the sounds of full-blown illness, not measurable in decibels, or detectable by the human ear, but easily amplified by the mind. The surge of adrenaline, the synaptic havoc of a brain in distress, a heart beating furiously to maintain itself. He glances around the cubicle and she sees his nearly lashless lids have moistened. She touches his loosely fisted hand. Lightly. Briefly. The skin is mushroom soft, and through it she can feel his entire circulatory system.
The ding at the nurses' station indicates another patient has arrived. She hates that sound interrupting every conversation of import, goading her to the next patient, as if what they do here is merely a mechanical transaction. The six other doctors in her ER group, all men, respond with good humor to the sound (more patients, more profits) and at least once a month one of them takes her aside. "You don't have to solve all their problems, Jana, just their medical ones," Ron Gaffney is fond of saying. Or the group's director, gentle fifty-eight-year-old Bill McElroy says: "You were born in the wrong generation. In the old days it would have been fine to work at your pace." But they say these things gently and they keep her on because patients write letters of thanks to her, because the hospital administration wants them to have a woman on staff, and because she does her job quietly and well, taking on extra shifts whenever anyone asks.
"This isn't a death knell, Mr. Cianetti. I only want you to know it could be serious."
"Just tell me what to do, General." He grins. It amuses her to hear him call her "General," which is just what her husband, Cooper, often calls her. She didn't like the term at first, but she's come to accept it-just because she's a general does not make her a dictator, and it's true that she takes charge easily and gets things done.
"You're a good girl," Mr. Cianetti says, as if he's her teacher or her father, his tone implying that she has yet to see much of life. Hearing his words, she wishes he were her grandfather and she was the clear-eyed, naive girl he thinks she is.
"Do you have family?" she asks.
"No. No family. They're all dead."
She touches his hand again and ignores another dinging outside. "We know you have a brain tumor, Mr. Cianetti. The CT scan told us that. But we have to find out what kind you have and whether it's operable."
Slowly, she explains the plan for admitting him. She delivers the words simply, in the soothing way that makes patients old and not-so-old later recall her as a special doctor, trustworthy and fully present. He listens agreeably, squinting through his headache pain yet unwilling to belabor it, but when the nurse, Sue Dennison, comes to wheel him off, he looks at Jana with a panicked realization she will not be accompanying him. He keeps his dark, watery eyes on her with an expression of speechless betrayal as he is wheeled away.
THE ROADS ARE SLICK with a cold rain. Late to get Evan, she chides herself for taking too much time getting Mr. Cianetti settled. Evan is in an after-school program called Little Creations, which he began in this, his first-grade year. Though it is reputed to be one of the best programs in town, it was not Jana's first choice but a last minute arrangement necessitated by Evan's baby-sitter Mrs. Stubbs's sudden decision to "retire." Approaching sixty, Mrs. Stubbs claimed that Evan's energy was getting to be too much for her. She had been sitting for him since he was eight months old, so parting with her has not been easy for Evan or Jana.
A great urgency scrolls through her in these twilight moments when she transforms herself from doctor to mother. She feels a drive strong as a migratory compass. She cannot reach Evan fast enough, cannot believe they've been apart for so long.
Little Creations is located near the hospital-six minutes without traffic-but even so, today she'll be late. She drives too fast. She always drives too fast, maneuvering her Honda Accord deftly through city traffic, trying to outwit and out-drive the other cars as if they are all participants in some Olympic event. Behind the shatterproof tinted windows her demons can prance freely, and she easily outdistances even the surly young SUV drivers.
The water on Bellingham Bay is pimply with rain and the islands, usually visible, are shrouded in fog. The roads seem slimier than usual and she slows. The driver of a red Ford Explorer behind her, a youngish-looking man from what she can see in the dusk, leans on his horn, then he swerves into the right lane. When he's overtaken her, he cuts in front and slams on his brakes, forcing Jana to jam hers so hard that she comes to a full stop and misses ramming him by only a few inches. She sees him checking his rearview mirror, gloating, pleased he's "gotten" her, before he takes off at top speed, weaving from lane to lane.
A symphony of rage rumbles throughout her car. Rage in the pistons and rage in the carburetor, rage in the wipers slapping rain from her vision. Rage slithers through her irises and her flared nostrils. It bongos in her eardrums and travels down her jawbone to rattle her teeth. Rage is awake and alive, loose with possibility. The driver of the red car has long since disappeared, but the fury he has left in his wake has a kind of afterlife. She knows the right thing to do when rage hits-stop everything, shut down. The rage wears itself out and slinks away. But when she is driving, this strategy is impossible; though she tries to keep rage away from the accelerator, it settles there, too, and as she wrangles with it, the Honda leaps along faster than she means it to go.
When she reaches the parking lot of the school that houses Little Creations, she sits in her car for a minute or two, trying to calm herself. Thinking of Evan again, she hurries inside.
The school gymnasium, which is home to Little Creations, initially appears to be empty. Its shellacked floors gleam. Its tables are strewn with art-project materials-paper, brushes, paint, glue, glitter. Sandy, exceptionally tall and dark with the small round face of a ten-year-old, though she is probably at least twenty-five, is tossing paper scraps into a plastic-lined barrel and testing the finished art for dryness with a tapping finger. Evan is nowhere in view.
"Hey," says Sandy, noticing Jana, then glancing pointedly at her watch. It is 6:13, thirteen minutes past closing.
"I know I'm late," Jana says. "I'm so sorry."
"Evan's over there." Sandy nods to a corner of the gymnasium where Evan crouches under a table, his head shielded under the canopy of his arms.
"He's had a bad day," Sandy whispers. "Come on out, Evan. Your mom's here."
Evan doesn't move. Sometimes, at home, Jana craves for Evan to learn such stillness, but now, under the circumstances, it's not something she can appreciate. Sandy approaches the table, which is strewn with forgotten oddments of clothing. Jana follows.
"Evan, it's time to go home," Jana says, her voice sounding tremulous as windblown tinsel.
"I'm not going," he says.
"Of course you are," Jana says. "And we're already late. Daddy will be waiting for us. Please come out."
"No." The word, like a small superball, echoes off the gymnasium's high ceiling.
"There was a little incident," Sandy says. "I think he feels bad about it."
"He'll tell you."
"I will not," Evan says. "I won't tell her."
Sandy crouches. "Come on, buddy. You have to come out sometime. You can't sleep here."
Evan retreats further under the table and clutches its metal supports. Jana sighs instead of swearing. If it weren't for the endlessly patient Sandy beside her, she would scramble under the table and drag Evan out. This manipulation of his is not acceptable, a fact that seems to make no impression on Sandy.
"Come on, Evan." Sandy calls him like a dog. "Come on."
"I can't come out. My mom will kill me."
Jana flushes; Sandy has no knowledge of Jana that would cast doubt on Evan's contention.
"Of course she won't kill you. You won't be too hard on him, will you?" Sandy addresses Jana in the same singsong she uses with Evan.
"You know I won't, Evan. So come out now and we'll talk."
"Make her promise, Sandy," Evan says. "Make my mom promise she won't do anything bad to me."
Under Sandy's assessing gaze, Jana tries to make light of this, tries to make her voice sound high and agreeable. "Of course I won't, Evan."
Slowly Evan unballs himself. He crawls on all fours through the table's forest of metal legs, finally emerging from under the shadows and lifting his face. For a moment he looks not like Evan but like Varney, Jana's brother, and love and anger boil together in her so she wants to cry out, fall to her knees, and draw his petal-soft cheek to hers.
One thing Jana has always been sure of is that Evan looks nothing like Varney. Evan has Cooper's round-faced rosy-cheeked look. Her brother Varney's face was always more like her own, long and pale, framed by thick straight hair, and congenitally serious, even when smiling. But watching Evan now as he emerges from under the table, she feels as if an eerie genetic about-face has taken place. Evan has begun to look more like her side of the family, his face narrowing, his curly blond hair straightening and darkening so in certain lights it looks brown. The only unaltered trait he retains from Cooper is his dimples, which give him a charm he can display or withdraw according to his needs. Right now the dimples are out of service, sealed up under slack moping cheeks. He folds his arms, adult-style, jamming his fists into his armpits.
"What did you do?" Jana asks.
Evan devotes his eyes to the floor.
"Tell her what happened," Sandy prompts (As if it happened to him, Jana thinks, as if Evan himself had no role at all in provoking it).
"It was Jason's fault. He punched me first. Right here." He feints a punch at his belly, replete with a gasping sound effect.
"And?" says Jana. "What did you do to Jason?"
Evan looks at Sandy. He is the picture of sweetness with his eyes flared wide, like his dimples, to garner sympathy.
Sandy nods. "Go on, honey. You have to tell her."
"I wanted his ball."
"Yes, and-?" Jana says.
"I didn't bite hard."
A hit or a punch is certainly a disdained violation, but biting stands in a category by itself. Primal. Bestial. Rabid dogs bite, sharks bite, mountain lions bite when pushed, but human beings, Homo sapiens, are not a biting species, not once they can speak.
Jana latches her hand firmly on Evan's upper arm. "Look at me, Evan. Where did you bite him?"
Evan points to his forearm.
"Did it break the skin?"
Evan shakes his head quickly, beginning to cry.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Johansen. He's not a biter. I've never known him to be a biter."
Jana doesn't look at Sandy. "He bit, didn't he? We're going home. Get your backpack." She turns to Sandy. "Do you have the number of this boy Jason? So Evan can apologize."
Sandy hesitates. "It's not necessary. He can do it tomorrow."
"I think now is better," Jana says.
"Plus, I'm not really allowed to give out numbers."
Jana heads for the door, Evan scrambling in her wake, Sandy trailing behind.
"It was good you spoke up, Evan, honey," Sandy says. "You told the truth. That's good."
Jana stops walking and turns to Sandy. "I'll handle this, thank you. We can sort out if there's any good here."
"But what?" Jana says, hating herself, her flare-up, hating the bad-parent label she is sure must be forming in Sandy's brain, but knowing, too, that she cannot let these things stop her, that things must be done in the way she knows they should be done, because if she backs down (as her own mother so often did, as she herself often does, too) all bets are off.
"Nothing." Sandy sighs. "I mean, just don't be too hard on him."
It's dark out and still raining, fat drops that burst cold on Jana's neck. In the back of the car Evan sobs quietly, pressing his face against the window. If she watches him too long, she'll weep herself. She fights the part of her that wants to ply him with kisses and toys and sweets, ignoring what has transpired, sealing the bad deed in. But bad deeds don't remain sealed; they live tenaciously, dormant for months, or even years, until they begin to grow like mold on forgotten bits of food, giving birth to new bad deeds. Her parents, educated people, should have known better, should have seen moments like these as teaching ones.
Though with Evan, much as she tries to teach, he seems to take nothing away. He passes through her lectures and punishments as if comatose or deaf, emerging without memory, without wisdom, then, so quickly it seems, he's there again, not committing the same violation maybe, but one so like it it seems he has no power to generalize at all.
She drives fast, she drives loud, music pounding from the radio to drown out the other sound, the constant reedy natter that grows and recedes and grows again. Slush on the windshield, heat on her neck, sound pounding, always pounding, light, then loud in her ears. Water worming down the windshield, mind reciting the weight of elements, cataloging the order of bones. Sound pounding.
From clear down the street she sees her mother-in-law Seretha's car, parked in their driveway beside Cooper's pickup. She cuts the ignition and listens hard as the motor spins off. There is the omnipresent pounding (low, but loud), and a musical fourth up from that there's Evan's whimpering, and, yes, if she's gauging it right, and she's pretty sure she is, an augmented fourth up from the whimpering is the shrill screech of her rage. Thirds and fifths are pleasing intervals, Varney used to instruct her, but augmented fourths, diminished fifths, or tritones are unresolved intervals that sound demonic, depress people, send them into madness. Knowing this she is somewhat immune, but not entirely. Two years ago she replaced the microwave because its beeping made a diminished fifth with the low but audible hum of the refrigerator.
"Aren't we going in?" Evan says, interrupting his sobs after they've been sitting in the parked car for a good two minutes.
"Yes, we're going in. And when we get in, you may not speak to Daddy or to Gramma. I want you to go straight to your room. I will bring you some dinner in there."
"What are you going to do to me?"
Afraid to turn, she watches him through the rearview mirror. His large, achingly beautiful eyes, the gray green of certain beach stones, prey on her so easily. Outside she raises an umbrella for them both, but he dashes ahead, the tails of his red rain jacket flapping like a toreador's taunt. He runs up the three wooden steps of their remodeled two-story Craftsman house, so when she-staggering behind with Evan's lunch box and backpack, her own bag, the umbrella-arrives in the kitchen, he is already sitting on Cooper's lap, regaling Cooper with the story of how he was punched.
Cooper, rosy, cheerful, winks at Jana. "Home from the wars?"
"Evan," Jana says, ignoring Seretha; ignoring the smell of sautéing onions (promise of dinner on the way); ignoring the way Evan has nestled his head at the smooth roots of Cooper's neck; ignoring how Cooper himself has cleaned up and changed from his work clothes; ignoring that the table is beautifully set, candles even; ignoring the fact that she has come home to a sweet scene, "I told you to go to your room."
"Daddy," Evan pleads.
"Do what the general says." Cooper ruffles Evan's hair. Evan clings to Cooper's chest.
"Oh my heavens," Seretha says. "Whatever he's done, it can't be that bad. Nothing Gramma can't handle."
"Mom," Cooper says, admonishing with raised eyebrows.
Jana has not moved beyond the doorway. She has not looked at Seretha. She has not set down her things or taken off her jacket. "Evan, go."
"Whatever happened to forgiveness in this family?" Seretha says.
"He happens to have bitten someone," Jana says, still not looking at her mother-in-law.
"But he punched me first."
"All kids bite sometimes, Jana," Cooper says. "I'm sure I bit, didn't I, Mom?"
"I'm sure you did."
"Dogs bite. Panthers bite. Snakes bite. People do not bite," Jana says.
"Maybe first-grade people do?" Cooper suggests.
Jana closes her eyes. "Cooper, please."
Pressing her lids tight, she wills him not to do this. She does not want to invoke aloud, in front of Seretha and Evan, the Puke Pact, made between her and Cooper when they had only known each other for five months, were not married, and had just discovered she was pregnant. They were living in Portland at the time, where Jana was finishing her residency, and they had traveled to Seattle to see an old friend of Cooper's. On the way back they stopped at a diner for eggs and hash browns. The hash browns were fantastic, crusty and not too greasy and filled with soft fragrant onions, but as soon as she ate them, she went to the ladies and up they came, completely undigested. Back at the table, sipping water, James Taylor singing "Fire and Rain" on the jukebox, she and Cooper made their deal. If she went ahead and had this baby-the baby that Cooper, at nearly forty, so desperately wanted-she, Jana, would need to be the disciplinarian, she would need to be the final arbiter. Cooper was startled; he had not thought past booties and bottles. Discipline was years away, wasn't it? She had to assure him-Cooper who wouldn't lay a finger on anyone-that she didn't believe in spanking. She simply believed in standing firm.
"Go, bud," Cooper says. "Do what Mama says."
Evan falls from Cooper like a limp squid, then, staring at the floor, drags himself toward his bedroom. Spider, their pure black cat, slinks up to Evan like a co-conspirator. Evan lunges at Spider, lifting the cat by the upper torso so the rest of his body dangles, long and awkward and temporarily paralyzed, down to Evan's knees. Burying his face in Spider's neck fur, he imbibes comfort.
His room is the envy of any child. Cooper has created an aesthetic tour de force: a four-tiered wooden construction with brightly painted abstract designs and inlaid mosaic tiles that functions as bed and play structure, a potent reminder of his father's love should Evan ever doubt it. The rest of the room is equally colorful. Cupboards across two walls overflow with Lego bricks, blocks, cars, puppets, stuffed animals of every imaginable species, art supplies, and every inch of wall space displays Evan's artwork or bright poster art selected by Jana. Recently Jana has begun to wonder if the room might be too colorful, too stimulating, too disorganized. Optical receptors are hypersensitive, and what comes through them can affect the brain powerfully. She vows to do some simplifying here soon.
Even throws himself on the lowest level of his bed, hurling Spider as he falls. He lies on his side, back to Jana, fingernail picking at an adhesive glow-in-the-dark star. His six-year-old body is small and wiry like Varney's was, its muscles hard as a man's. But when he is close to sleep, he softens. And in the last few months, he has begun to thicken. Varney never thickened like this.
She crouches by the bed. "I'm sorry I got so mad, honey, but you know biting is bad, don't you?"
"Why did you bite, then? What made you bite?"
"You had the mean bug?"
"Yeah, I had the mean bug."
"What did the mean bug feel like?"
He breathes so heavily she thinks he's asleep. She lies down beside him, putting her hand on the rise of his jacketed pelvis. "Silver," he says suddenly. "With pointed claws like a lobster."
Now she wishes she hadn't said anything. The mean bug, who has been in their family vocabulary for a couple of years now, is too easy an out. Maybe this time something else was at play.
"If it's a bug, then you can crush it, can't you? Or you can tell it to go away."
She lies there tasting her familiar cocktail of adoration and remorse, wishing she could spend the remainder of the night exactly where she is. After a few minutes she extricates herself and rises, touching his shoulder briefly, probing the way you test the temperature of water you might enter.
"I'll get you something to eat," she says and hurries out.
Copyright © 2003 by Cai Emmons
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