“What?” the mother cries. “What about my baby? Is it okay?” Patience reaches for her stethoscope and listens for a brief moment.
“The baby’s fine,” she reassures and that may be so, or possibly not. She didn’t spend a lot of time listening. “Now bear down like you mean it!”
“Oil,” she orders again and I pour a little of the oily golden liquid on her fingers. She wipes it around the woman’s vagina and two pushes later the head is out. “Wait! Blow!” There’s a rubbery cord around the baby’s neck. She eases it off and the baby drops into Patience’s clever hands. She holds the blood-covered, dark-haired, wailing infant out to me and when she reaches out her chubby little arms, I almost choke up. It’s as if light has burst my tired heart open. I don’t know how else to say it. Light.
May 5, 1934
Today I accompanied the midwife, Patience Hester, to the bedside of Thelma Booth, mother of four who was in advanced labor. Thelma was bleeding heavily and we were concerned about an abruption or previa. Since there was no time to get her to Torrington, Patience, had her stand for the last bit of labor to create a tamponade. The bleeding slowed and a healthy 5-pound, 6-ounce baby girl was born a few minutes later. The father, Wally Booth, a coal miner, at the Horse Shoe Mine, could not come home for the next twelve hours because he was working two shifts in the hole, so Patience and I had to stay the night.
The midwife slept with the three children in their bed and gave the broken-down sofa to me. All night we could see the lights from the coal trucks going up and down the road and we had only bread and milk for supper.
Outside, another day fades. Inside, flames crackle in the heater stove and there’s the cozy smell of woodsmoke. Yesterday, I discovered a small pile of split oak under the porch, enough to build an evening fire, but it won’t last long, and hopefully it will soon be warm enough that, except for cooking, we won’t want a fire. Lamp oil will always be needed, but for now we have the three candles I brought from Perrysville. I am loathe to spend our last dollar on kerosene, because we might need it for food.
I let out a breath and stand up. “Bedtime,” I tell the doctor and begin our ritual.
First, we march to the outhouse. I wait outside while Blum relieves himself. Then he waits for me. This is progress, I have to admit; I used to have to stand right beside him and hold his male organ. Next, we return to the kitchen to wash in the white enamel washbowl and then brush our teeth with baking soda.
This is one of the things Dr. Blum and I have in common . . . or had in common, I should say. . . . We once shared a keen desire for scrupulous oral hygiene, and I still spend at least two minutes on each of us brushing with our Reputation toothbrushes. Isaac sits on a wooden kitchen chair in a trance with his mouth as wide as a baby bird’s. I actually think he likes it.
Finally, I remove his clothes and pull on his long white cotton nightshirt. Then I lead him to the sofa and cover him with Patience’s green quilt. (He still refuses to go up the stairs to the other bedroom.)
My day is almost over. I blow out the candle and for a minute sit in the rocking chair next to him. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep . . .” I whisper. “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. . . .” Before I’m through with the children’s prayer, Isaac is already snoring.
That’s when my real prayer begins, a prayer with few words. “Thank you for all that we have and help us get through tomorrow. Help us. Help us get through tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow or the next day, though I dread it, I will look for work again.
At dawn as yellow light slides over the mountains, I wake to the sound of someone clunking around downstairs.
Yanked out of a net of strange dreams, I sit up in bed, the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Definitely movement . . . and I fear the worst . . . that one of the traveling men has come into our house, one or several!
A woman alone with a companion who’s no help; we are sitting ducks. And where’s our guard dog, Three Legs, when I need him? I yank on my pants, pull a sweater over my head, and rush down the stairs, yelling more aggressively than I feel, “Who’s there! Who the hell is down there?”
I discover Dr. Blum standing in the middle of the front room looking lost and holding his penis. Three Legs stands at his feet looking up with a big, wet grin.
“For god’s sake, Isaac!” I admonish. “What the hell are you doing?” It’s clear what he’s doing, he’s trying to go to the bathroom, but we have no indoor toilet and no porcelain potty either. Still upset, I roughly push him out to the porch and point to the rail, waiting to see if he will get the idea. He doesn’t.
“Oh, Isaac! Come on!” I howl as he pees on the porch floorboards. Then I let out the breath I was holding. “Sorry . . . You just are so much work to take care of!”
“The truth is, I was scared, you know?” I continue my monologue. “I was scared! I pictured a couple of vagrants stumbling around downstairs, rough men who could hurt us.” I am still shaking, almost crying, and I have to wipe my eyes before I can see. Finally, I calm myself.
It’s then that I realize the importance of Dr. Blum’s action. He was actually trying to take care of himself. Somewhere between unbuttoning his long underwear and opening the door and walking to the outhouse, he apparently forgot what he was doing, but he was actually trying. He was trying.
“Come on, Blum,” I command. “Just get in the car.” The doctor and I are dressed for another day of job hunting, and though I put on a little makeup, my mood is not great. After talking to Mr. Stenger and Mr. Bittman last time, I feel sure that looking for work will be futile, but I have to keep trying.
I stop with one foot on the running board. A pickup, throwing dust, is moving our way. It pulls up in front of the gate, and a muscular man with thick, dark hair and a small beard jumps out. He’s wearing the regulation farmer’s coveralls in striped denim and the cloth stretches across his biceps. “You the nurse?” There’s the bulge of chewing tobacco in his right cheek.
I fold my arms across my chest. “I am.”
“My name’s Simon Markey from over Snake Hollow. My wife’s paining bad and Patience Murphy, the midwife, said I should get you. She said to tell you come fast.”
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