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CW: This story is set in 1968 and contains language that some readers may find offensive.
During the summer of 1968, John Corbett, a third year medical student, gently palpated the goose egg that bulged from his skull. He ran his finger along the encrusted suture line. It was still exquisitely painful. For some reason, perhaps because of last night’s carnage, he thought of the battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He imagined miniature Union troops defending it and Confederate soldiers storming it, and he felt the casualties of both sides in the throbbing of his head.
He tilted Little Round Top away from Miss Ryan. She was a midwife from the Chicago Maternity Center who had frequently accompanied him, and now drove down Division Street toward Cabrini-Green. John was doing his Obstetrics rotation at the Center which specialized in home delivery. Usually the women who signed up were poor, fearful of hospitals, and seldom attended their prenatal appointments.
John wanted to conceal the bare patch of scalp from Miss Ryan. The intern who manned the first aid station had sewn so many heads last night that he showed no more consideration for John’s appearance than a sheep shearer. John remembered the hearty tug every time the intern finished his knot and snipped it free. No anesthetic, either. The late August sun bounced off his white jacket, fueling the headache also made worse by Miss Ryan’s swearing as she barged from one lane to the next. Little wonder her car was a shit-can. Then again, nobody would molest her car. The first time he insisted on driving his new Mustang into the projects for a home delivery, someone had torn off the louvered rear window shade. Miss Ryan slowed down when a squad car entered traffic ahead of them.
“Pigs,” he said.
“Ah,” she said. “Now they’re pigs.”
“Yes. They are.”
She glanced at him. Her red hair worsened his headache, too. “Tell me what happened.”
“I got hit on the head.”
“Ah,” she said.
John waited for her to inquire further, but she seemed content with his answer. Annie Ryan annoyed him. He loved her. She seemed young enough for him, but fine lines radiated from the corners of her green eyes. They betrayed to him an ill-defined sadness that seemed to have aged her beyond his years and yet pulled him toward her. His face bore no such record, but rather looked to him hopelessly puerile, with all the weathered patina of a baby’s bum. In college he had consulted with an optometrist, hoping to age his large gray eyes with wire-rimmed glasses, but the man had told him with solemnity, that his twenty/ten acuity could not be helped.
His close-cropped hair resembled that of mink, and accentuated not only his freshly denuded crown, but also the fine-grained pallor of his face. Moreover, he was prone to violent blushing and could mark only too well the progress of heat spreading down from his hairline into his virginal cheeks. He glanced idly at the shops they passed, and began to count the windows that were boarded up. Then he realized that Miss Ryan could now see the bald swath on his crown, and resumed his former tilt.
“Nasty cut,” she said.
He nodded, and wondered what to say next. As it was, he was big on scruples and small on grace. “My parents always told me the policeman was my friend. They lied.” Of course, they lied all the time, John thought. The sins they attributed to themselves and each other could not have all been true. For instance, how could his father confess to him his philandering, when his mother confided that the man was “unable to perform the physical functions of a husband?”
“Did they, now?”
“I was naïve,” he said. “I truly believed that if I showed up for the Convention I’d be taking care of casualties. It didn’t matter to me if they were cops or freaks. I just wanted to do something… Just to help.”
Miss Ryan nodded, but kept her eyes on the road.
John told her about the riot and the police pouring out of the blue bus, and the teargas, and the bloody woman in the business suit whom he had tried to drag to safety, before a cop clubbed him senseless with a flashlight.
Miss Ryan sat motionless, her head inclined toward him, her pupils large and black, her soft lips parted. Aroused, he felt himself throbbing all over. He glanced out his window. Newspapers tumbled, children chased each other in the dust, and everywhere the khaki brick buildings rose upward, ordered like tombstones.
“We’re here,” he declared, as though he had just pulled the car over. He opened his door.
“Not yet,” she said.
He closed it.
“We had best wait for the pig.”
John glanced again at Miss Ryan, wondering if he had just said something to make a fool of himself.
“Dr. Corbett, why is it you’re taking call tonight?” she asked.
It still jarred him to be addressed as though he were already a physician. He felt as though he were perpetrating a fraud. He thought it strange that none of his classmates saw it the way he did.
“Surely you’re not feeling well.”
“I like to deliver babies,” he said.
“I’ve heard of a medical student,” she said, “who volunteers to take his classmates’ night call for the Maternity Center. They’re thankful for the extra night’s sleep, but they say he should be medicated for psychosis.” She cocked her head and smiled at him.
Feeling her warmth, he didn’t know what to say, so he told her the truth. “When I saw my first one it did something to me.” He swallowed. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, how could something so big come out of something so small? It was like watching someone pulling a rabbit out of a hat.” He blushed and stammered. “I just needed to see it over and over.”
Miss Ryan’s eyes twinkled. “Would you like two aspirin?”
She tapped two tablets into his palm. He swallowed them dry.
“Dr. Corbett!” she scolded, “You mustn’t! You’ll get ulcers.”
She poured tea from a thermos into a paper cup, and offered it to him. He sipped it tentatively, then drank it down and thanked her.
“No one understands,” he said. “Why should they?” For him it went beyond the magic. He found himself enchanted by pregnant women, the way they walked, the peculiar scent they gave off, that facial expression, as though they knew what they had. He might know to grab the emerging head of an infant in both hands and pull down to free a shoulder, pull up to free the other, and he might catch the body that slid out in a gush of fluid, but in the end he was an onlooker, a gawker.
She smiled again.
The squad car pulled along side. The officer waved and parked in front of them.
The patrol man walked back to their car, smiled and politely tipped the sunshade of his helmet. Before last night, the only cops who wore helmets rode motorcycles. The times, they are definitely a-changin’, John thought.
“Hi, Annie,” the cop yelled through the glass. She waved.
They waited while he stowed his helmet in the prowler. He was a stout man with short-cropped grizzly hair and black eyes. Dense tufts of hair sprouted from his ears and nostrils. His nametag read, “Ballard.”
Annie gave him the building and apartment number. Officer Ballard headed for the building, with Annie at his side listing toward the satchel she carried. He was a garrulous man who gestured as he walked. Perverse to John’s sensibilities, Annie seemed to delight in Ballard’s company, and did nothing to smooth her skirt when the wind pressed it against her hips. John dawdled some distance behind, but not overly far. In every recessed doorway, it seemed, stood a shabby figure that stared at him without expression, and it became shamefully urgent that he make it clear to all that he was with the cop.
They entered a darkened foyer that smelled of piss and garbage. Ballard pressed the elevator button and said, “Here’s hoping…” As they waited for the elevator, he turned to John. “Geez, doc, what happened to you?”
John thought a moment. “I got mugged.”
Ballard shook his head. “You go into hock thousands of bucks, you work yourself to death just to help people, and some mutt cold-cocks you. A Brother?”
“He get your wallet?”
“No. I was lucky. There were cops nearby.”
“They get him?”
Annie turned quickly to face the door. She hit the button in a staccato burst. “It must be broken.”
“They’re always broken,” said Ballard. “These people don’t know how to take care of what they have. Look at this place.” He shook his head again, and made for the stairwell. The elevator door jolted open, dark and empty. “Wait a second,” he said, and drew his flashlight from his belt.
John glanced at it, and barged ahead. He slid on something, and fell with a thump that rattled the elevator. He gagged on the stench.
“Dr. Corbett! Are you all right?” Annie knelt over him in the dark, silhouetted in the flashlight’s glare. John scrambled to his feet, hot with shame.
“Puke,” said Ballard.
“You sure?” John asked. His head was pounding.
“Yeah,” said Ballard. He traced the puddle on the floor with his beam, lingering on the skid mark.
“Wow,” said John. “You up for detective?”
“Dr. Corbett?” Annie tried to break in.
“Naw,” said Ballard. He pressed the button. The door closed. “I got two more years. Then I’m going to bother the missus, maybe teach my grandson how to fish.”
Ballard kept his beam on the dead floor indicator overhead. He whistled tunelessly in the darkness. The elevator groaned upward. John breathed through his mouth.
The door opened onto a dimly lit corridor. Ballard walked out slowly, looking both ways. Annie followed, and John exited after her, breathing air that now smelled sweet. Annie turned to face him. She wore a brittle smile, and her cheeks and forehead glowed red. John felt uneasy. When Ballard took off down the hall, she spun about and marched after him.
She knocked on the door. “Mrs. Cleveland,” she called over the television racket within. “It’s Annie Ryan. From the Maternity Center.” She turned in John’s direction and said to the floor, “She’s attended none of her prenatal appointments except the first one.”
They waited in silence.
Ballard rapped the door with his flashlight.
A voice yelled, “Jamaal! Get the door. See who is it.”
The doorknob turned and released, turned again and released. Then the door opened the length of the security chain, and a small boy peeked through. His liquid eyes widened.
“Mama? It’s the police.”
“What they want?”
Ballard squatted to the boy’s height, cupped his hand next to his mouth and whispered something.
“Mama? The police is with the doctor.”
“Well? Let him in then. About time.”
Jamaal withdrew and slammed the door shut. They waited. Then John heard the chain slide off and clatter against the jamb. The door jerked open a crack and Jamaal reappeared. He stared up at Ballard in silence. The cop squatted again and said something. Jamaal pulled on the door, grabbed the knobs, and hung on, as it swung open.
“Hey,” Ballard said as they entered. “How’d you do that?”
Jamaal grinned, exposing the gaps in his teeth like a jack-o’-lantern. He swung on the door once more to demonstrate his skill, and then scampered out of sight.
Ballard followed him and moved quickly from room to room. He returned to Annie. “Call the dispatcher when you want me.” He looked back. “They got a phone here?”
“They do.” She smiled at him. “Thank you, Officer Ballard.” She shook his hand with both of hers.
He smiled abashedly, tipped his nonexistent hat, and closed the door behind him.
Annie’s normal color had returned, and her smile had softened once more.
She turned to John. “Please don’t refer to policemen as barnyard animals, or make jokes at Officer Ballard’s expense. He is not a dimwit.”
John’s face heated up. “For all I know, he was the one who hit me.”
“All the same,” she continued unimpressed, “do me the kindness.”
“Why?” he persisted, feeling childish in spite of himself.
“Because,” she stated quietly. “My father was a constable – a Catholic – in the U.R.C. and my brother still is. It is a boring way to make a life, and a treacherous one. You may be sure that Mrs. Ballard gets no rest while he’s on the job. Try to believe me.”
While John stood blinking, trying to craft a rejoinder, Annie walked off toward the bedroom. As the heat and rodent stench closed in, he surveyed the living room. Plastic screw anchors dotted the cinderblock walls. Duct tape patched the trails worn in the carpet to the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. Two threadbare chairs and a herniated sofa huddled around the television. It appeared to be new.
Jamaal had emerged from the bedroom and leaned his cheek and hands against the hallway wall, staring at him, entranced as though John were an exotic zoo animal. He smiled. Jamaal gave him a wide berth and dived onto the sofa to watch the cartoons.
The Cleveland bedroom was as spare as the living room. On the wall hung a portrait of a white Jesus. Jamaal’s mother lay sweating near the end of a mattress soaked with birth water and covered now with layers of fresh newspaper. Her short, conked hair stuck to her forehead and radiated in unruly spikes against the grimy ticking of her pillow. Annie had drawn down the sheet, exposing the woman’s belly distended and striped like a melon, and was finished checking her. Pulling off her glove, she turned to John.
“Mrs. Cleveland – she likes to be called Claudine, don’t you, dear – this is Dr. Corbett. It appears we haven’t arrived too soon.”
The woman opened her eyes. “You sure you a doctor?”
“I’ll check her,” he said brusquely, hoping to override the question.
“Look like a Good Humor man to me.”
“Dr. Corbett,” Annie said cheerfully, “I must speak with you a moment.”
Ignoring both of them, John disinfected his hands. He pulled on a glove, slowly inserted his first and second finger into the heat of Mrs. Cleveland’s vagina, and came up short against a looming bulge that pressed remorselessly against him as the next contraction gathered force. He traced the contours with his forefinger to find the rotation of the head. “Left occiput transverse,” he said.
“Is it?” said Annie. She smiled pleasantly.
The belly under his free hand grew ever tighter until it clenched like a mighty fist. A thrill coursed through his body. He felt the hair prickle on his neck. It always did.
“Breathe, dear, breathe!” said Annie softly. “You must breathe through the pain.”
“Shit,” said Mrs. Cleveland through her teeth, “You breathe.” Water ran from the corners of her eyes. “Jesus.” Then she relaxed slowly and gasped for breath. “Jesus.” She was sobbing.
John’s eyes filled. He wiped his face in the crook of his arm. It maddened him that he always wept in the presence of a woman in misery – like a girl. “Claudine? Claudine, I can feel your baby’s head. He’s almost here.”
“Push, Claudine,” he urged, as he felt her womb harden like rock. “Push hard.”
Mrs. Cleveland’s face contorted. The bed shuddered. She let out a long groan, and pushed again.
“Claudine,” he said, “all that grunt and groan is good air going to waste. You need that to push the baby out.”
Mrs. Cleveland’s thighs shook rhythmically. Panting she glowered at him, her teeth bared.
“Can you see his head, Dr. Corbett?” asked Annie. She wore that fixed smile again. It frightened him. As the next contraction was upon her, Mrs. Cleveland started to growl, and the growl grew steadily into a bestial roar. He pressed his fingertips against her flesh to prevent a bad tear. Between her legs, bulging, revealing itself through slowly parting lips, peeked a diminutive butt that squirted shit up his sleeve, then disappeared as the contraction subsided.
“Dr. Corbett,” asked Annie cheerfully. He attended carefully to her words. “Do you think Claudine would be more comfortable proceeding in her supine position…?” Then her green eyes flashed as though they would burn holes in his. “…or would she prefer shifting to all fours?”
He cleared his throat and said, “All fours.”
“Claudine, dear, don’t push!” Annie stroked her forehead. “Let’s have you roll onto your knees and elbows… Thaaat’s it.” She turned to John, and murmured, “A clever idea, doctor, letting the force of gravity work for you, not having to hold the baby’s body up to prevent hyper-extension of the neck.”
This time Mrs. Cleveland took a deep breath and bore down in silence. The bedsprings shook.
“That’s it, dear,” said Annie, with her hand on the woman’s rigid back, “That’s it.!”
Once again, the little buttocks protruded, but this time Mrs. Cleveland pushed on. The blue torso and legs followed and hung free to the shoulders. John supported the little body. “A girl,” he said, but could hardly hear himself for the pounding in his ears. Her cord would be clamped shut between her head and the birth canal. No oxygen.
“One more push, dear,” Annie whispered. John felt the brush of her breasts as she took her position at his back. He was abjectly grateful. He heard the door creak open.
Mrs. Cleveland summoned all she had left and bore down with desperate urgency. The lips widened, and John cradled the head as it slid free. The baby lay in his hands, limp and blue.
“Good work!” cried Annie. “Now Dr. Corbett will hold your daughter as low as possible, so she’ll get all those good things from her umbilical cord while the afterbirth is still attached to you. What’s her name, dear?”
Holding her head in his hand, John cradled the little girl along his arm like a football, while he rubbed her body briskly, and choked down his dread.
“Come on, Kaneesha,” John said in a soft, sing-song voice. “Come on… Come on, little girl…” At last, Kaneesha took a convulsive breath and squirmed. Slowly she pinked up. She opened her eyes, and stared at him silently. He stared back, captured.
Annie’s voice interrupted him. “May I?”
Startled, he looked up. She was smiling. He nodded quickly.
She clamped her cord, cut it, and took Kaneesha from him in a clean towel.
Mrs. Cleveland’s whole body trembled, and began to sag. John told her to relax, to lie on her back. As the placenta flopped out, a rivulet of blood followed and pooled on the newspaper around her buttocks. He pressed down on her belly.
She groaned, “Jesus, God. Why you mashing on me now?”
To help her uterus tighten up, he told her, to stop the bleeding.
“You must be a doctor. Never hurt so much in my life.”
Annie handed Kaneesha to her, and turned to examine Mrs. Cleveland’s crotch. She arched her eyebrows and nodded. “No tear. Good work.”
“She poop him out.” Jamaal stood in the doorway, his mouth hanging open.
Mrs. Cleveland hooted, and said, “Jamaal, you a fool.” She chuckled, and beckoned to him. “Come here, baby.”
John found the liquid soap, excused himself and headed for the bathroom. When he turned on the light, he saw a large gap in the cinderblock where a medicine cabinet should have been. As he rinsed his shirt sleeve and lathered up his forearms and hands, he stared into the gloom of the next apartment where the lights were out and the shades drawn. He leaned over the sink, trying to make out the features in the room.
“What you want?” It was a man’s voice.
John jerked his head back. “Nothing.”
“All right, then.”
John rinsed his hands quickly, and returned to the bedroom.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Annie arched her eyebrows. “You’re in such a hurry, Dr. Corbett! First we must contact Officer Ballard, and we must wait for Mr. Cleveland to arrive home.
“You don’t got to do that,” said Mrs. Cleveland. She cocked her thumb toward the bathroom. “He next door.”
Soon Ballard returned, and Annie told him of John’s prowess at his first breech delivery. Ballard’ eyes grew wide, and his lips protruded.
“No!” he said. “You did that? Jeez, that’s terrific!” He clapped John on the back.
John’s face burned the same way it did when he was a boy and his father heaped praise on him for his grades or for a good play on the field. He never knew if his father meant it.
While Annie taught Mrs. Cleveland how to care for Kaneesha’s cord, and arranged for her first appointment with a pediatrician, Ballard took a seat on the couch next to Jamaal. John stood awkwardly to the side. As the couch sagged, Jamaal leaned into Ballard, and continued to watch the cartoons. Ballard rubbed his knuckles on Jamaal’s head. Jamal kept watching. Ballard smiled and stretched his arm along the back of the couch. John sat down at Jamaal’s other side, careful not to lean back.
Ballard turned to him and said, “You guys are amazing. You know that?”
John shrugged, but Ballard kept talking.
“Now, I never delivered a baby ass backwards, but just having one come out in the back seat of my squad was plenty for me.” He smiled with nostalgia. “We busted a couple of kids last year on a traffic stop. It was small time. They’d bought a brick, thinking to sell enough to make up their cost, and smoke the rest. He was some rich Jewish prick from off the Lake, went to college in Evanston. She was pregnant, maybe fresh out of high school. She was shaking, she was so scared, and her water broke right there in the back seat. Jesus. Her boyfriend, or whatever he was, had used her for a mule, but she’d be damned if she was going to blow the whistle on him.” He sighed, shook his head, and looked back at John.
John nodded his head and waited.
“She loved him. She was going to take the whole thing – the beef, the baby and all – before giving him up. And he let her! He just dummied up, and let her hang herself. So I started to lean on her, but she’s just yelling she’s going have the baby right now. I thought she was faking it to get me off her back – my wife took a day and a half with our first. Next thing I know, bingo, out comes the baby and all the mess on my back seat. I had to haul back and grab the kid to keep him from falling on the floor. She’s crying and carrying on. I called for an ambulance, and they took them away.
“I made sure they keep Joe College in a holding cell with the rest of the scum, long enough to really get to know the place, before they get around to giving him his dime. And I made sure I was there for every continuance his lawyer set up, even the ones on my days off.” Ballard smiled. “He still walked. Those people always do, with their shysters.
“Anyway, a couple days later I had her come down to the station. Even though that prick dumped her like an old piece of meat, she still wouldn’t finger him. I felt sorry for her. And – this sounds kind of funny – I kind of admired her, too.” Ballard cleared his throat. His face grew sad. “She was so beautiful. Her face looked so young, so innocent…” He shrugged. “I let her blow me. Then I told her to scram.”
Ballard stared at John intently. “I been married for almost thirty-five years and I swear that was the only time I been unfaithful.”
Ballard roused himself as one might come out of a trance.
“Why am I telling you this shit? I don’t even know you. You’re not a priest.” He laughed uneasily.
“People always tell me shit,” John said. His heart pounded. “Ever since I was a kid. People tell me shit I don’t want to know.” He hated the cop.
“Maybe you should be a priest.” Ballard laughed again. “Doctors have to keep secrets, just like priests. Don’t they?”
“I’m not a doctor,” John told him. “Not for a couple more years.” He smiled at the cop. “You could use a priest.”
Ballard managed a grin at him, then did a double-take over his shoulder, rolled forward and stood. He dusted off his trousers. “Ready?” he asked Annie.
She stood behind the couch. Water glittered in her eyes. She opened the front door and disappeared down the hall. John rode the elevator down triumphant while Ballard whistled in the dark.
As Annie drove, John luxuriated in the moist breeze that flooded through his open window from the Lake. Never had Chicago smelled so lush, so pristine.
“You did well, Dr Corbett.”
He looked her way. “My name is John.” Light from streetlamps and oncoming cars would bathe her face momentarily, and then leave it in darkness. He found himself alternately dazzled and then deserted. “Yes,” he said. “Left occiput transverse.”
Her laughter washed over him, bubbling like seawater on molten rock. “Don’t bother yourself so,” she said. “It happens to us. I recall after starting – I was still a Sister – tending to Mrs. McPherson, who’d pushed out so many little ones she hardly gave a thought anymore. Well, I say to her, ‘Push, Dearie,’ and she does, and out comes a shapeless gobbet of flesh. True! It’s pearly gray, squirming, kicking its feet. Ah my dear Jesus! What am I going to tell this woman, that she’s birthed a monstrosity? Sister Ruth sees my horror, and says to Mrs. McPherson, ‘Ah, Martha, you’re a lucky woman, indeed. Your little one has arrived wearing his caul. He’s destined for greatness, that one is.’ Then she has me pull back the edge of a membrane I’d not noticed before, and underneath lies little Robert Gordon McPherson in all his glory, no parts missing!” She laughed again.
They stopped at a red light.
John kept his voice low. “You knew it was a breech. You didn’t tell me.”
“I tried,” she said merrily, “but you wouldn’t let a word in.”
“Crap,” he said. “You tricked me. You’re no more honest than anyone else.”
She hesitated. Then her smile faded. “You needed taking down a peg.”
John gaped at her, and said, “You don’t know the first thing about me. There’s a lot I need,” his voice broke, “but believe me, I don’t need that.”
“Oh?” she glanced at him. “‘Ah, Claudine, stop that grunt and groan,’ like a regular Black and Tan.”
“But I said that to help her!”
“Of course,” she said, “It’s always to help us, isn’t it?”
“What are you talking about?” John cried. He believed, nonetheless, that she had shown something of herself. Tears welled in his eyes. Something sad, he thought. He turned his head away as though to watch the goings on of the night.
A horn sounded behind them. Annie’s tires screeched. The acceleration drove him into the back of his seat. They made their way in silence.
He overrode his shyness, and looked at her once more. “How old are you, Miss Ryan?”
She hesitated. “Twenty-two.”
He laughed and shook his head. “I’m older than you.”
At length she turned to him. “Are you hungry, John?
“More than you know.”
The Malt House, on Clark Street, affected the grubbiness of a working man’s public house, but John noticed that despite the discarded peanut shells on the floor, the slide projector cast images of the Art Institute’s collection on a stucco wall, and Vivaldi frolicked in the background. John shook his head at the pretense.
The two of them ate from the pile of fried smelt and chips between them, and washed it down with stout. They were into their second pitcher before he spoke again.
“You were a nun.”
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “It is an honest calling where I come from. It’s how I came to be a midwife.”
“You don’t need to be a nun to be a midwife,” he said in a soft voice, knowing he was onto something.
She said simply, “I believed the priests.”
John sensed that here too hid something more than he could make out, but he wanted only to get through to her. He nodded in reflexive agreement and waited.
Annie Ryan took a long draught, and tilted her glass mug to fill it again. She licked a moustache of foam from her lip. She was putting it away, he noticed, two to his one.
“I wanted to get out of that house, go on in school. I was in no rush to get married, just to become some man’s brood sow. The novitiate sent my mother into ecstasies, of course, but I expected my father would fight it. He did not.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “He gave me up like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“I left the convent after Mr. Ian Paisley’s bunch killed him. That was almost two years ago. They’d gotten close to making the peace, so Mr. Paisley told the Unionists to march. And the march became a mob. One of my father’s own officers ran him down – by accident, they said – driving up on the riot.” Her eyes sought his. “I’ve had my fill of civil disobedience, Dr. Corbett.” Her eyes overflowed.
“My name is John,” he said again.
“They showed him to me on a table. Propped him up on piles of linen, so I’d see only his good side.” She wiped her eyes. “But I loved all of him. I held him and felt his guts.” She cried bitterly. “They told me I must forgive. Forgive. Pshht! If I couldn’t forgive, I’d be up to my hams in blood. I can’t forget. My father was a good enough man. He deserved better.”
“Why was he taken? The Mother told me it was God’s design. I told her if it was God’s design, so be it…” Her eyes flashed so that John half-heard thunder, and her voice grew sharp. “But then His Son would have to do without me for a bride.” She mopped her eyes with a stoutsodden napkin. “I’ve had a belly full of obedience as well.” Then she laughed. “Will you listen to me, now – as though God would care!”
“I care, Annie,” he said.
“You’re not God,” she said softly, and looked away. “You do have a way with people.” Color washed across her face. “Getting them to take off their clothes.” She tilted her head and looked into his eyes. She hardened. “You think you can snap on a glove and enter a woman’s life?”
“You put on that glove, and she bids you enter. You tell her to push or take a breath, get on her knees or on her back, and she does.” Her eyes narrowed. “How many women had you touched before you started this summer?”
The heat rolled down his face in a torrent. He stared silent into his empty glass, and ran a finger along its rim. He looked straight at her. “None,” he said.
“You put on the glove with Officer Ballard, too.” She scolded him gently. “No. Don’t deny it. You just can’t forgive the poor man for his sins. So you invite him to undo himself. When he’s done, you pull that glove inside out with the very tip of your finger and slingshot the nasty thing into the bog. No shit on your skin, no slime nor blood. ‘Go see a priest,’ you tell him.”
John’s face burned. He examined the buckle of the veneer where it pulled away from the table’s edge.
“What worries you, Johnny? Do you fear they’ll touch you back – that you’ll get what they have? Get your white jacket dirty? Do you worry you’ll get a dose from me?”
When he felt her hand on his arm, he flinched, pulling the glass mug clunking to its side. He pounced and righted it with both hands.
They sat quiet awhile. The bartender sounded last call. John felt the puff of her breath – she was leaning across the table toward him. He focused on her eyes even as they blurred and his face went slack. The warmth of her hands closed on both sides of his head. He felt a gentle tug. Annie was delivering him.
“It’s a dirty world,” she whispered. “Jamaal will tell you, we are all shat into it.” She smiled at that. The smile faded. She shook her head gently. “You can’t keep away from everything impure. I know.” She smiled again. “God knows I tried.”
“Annie,” he asked, “do you still try?” He gazed at her, his heart so full he thought it might tear apart. He cupped her cheek in his hand, felt the weakest shaking of her head. “I don’t have a glove on,” he said. “I swear it.”
“Johnny,” she said. There was a tremor in her voice. “It’s time to go.” She blushed, her lips hung open, and her pupils wide.
He looked into those pupils, took in air as though he were diving into a pool of unknown depth, and let it out. “I love you.” He pulled her head toward his, brushed her lips with his. Finally silent, she slouched back in her chair and stared at him with amazement, and managed to say in a small voice, “Ah.”
Roy Lowenstein, is a physician and psychoanalyst who lives in Denver, Colorado. His work can be found in Barcelona Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Blue Lake Review, Copper Nickel, Eunoia, MacGuffin, Red Rock Literary Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review. He is married, with two grown children and a grand-daughter named Coyote.