Driftwood by Robin Gross
Over the years of summer evening front-stoop chats and spring cleanups, snow shoveling and other errands, neighbors learned that Mrs. January had been her family’s only survivor. Since arriving in the U.S., she had married and mothered, but all had died in one way or another. She had inherited enough money to travel, always returning with horror stories. She had been in Beirut in 1983 when the Marine compound was blown up. She wasn’t an eye witness, she said, but near enough to hear the explosion. Mrs. January had been in the San Diego McDonald’s in 1984, when the guy opened up his machine gun. She was the one closest to the door and slid out on her stomach. Most recently, on 9/11, she had been in the City, had seen the terrible clouds, but was sufficiently uptown at Penn Station to escape to Long Island before the trains stopped.
Shifts when Tom had seen action as a Nassau County cop, he could depend on finding Mrs. January sitting with Ella in his kitchen, drinking tea and whispering as if they were already at his wake. Later, he would knock himself for not seeing the mortal connection when Mrs. January was the first one to notice the limp when he was mowing her lawn.
“You should see a doctor.”
“It’s just sore on the bottom. I didn’t twist it or anything.”
“See a doctor,” she repeated. “You should see a doctor.”
That night after the tiring cleanup work, Tom was enjoying a deep, hot bath. He examined his foot. Just before the heel moved up into the arch there was a dark, warty bump. He felt it with his fingertips; pleasure-pain made him touch and touch it again. Then Ella’s fingernails clicked on the bathroom door. She came in holding a thermometer and smiling. She waved it like a wand.
“You’re on duty, Officer.”
Tom could see the outlines of Ella’s tall brown body inside her blue cotton nightie. Her short curly hair was pushed behind her ears, and her black eyes gleamed. Her smile was all promise. Tom thought if there was ever a woman who should be holding a baby in her arms, Ella was the one. He tapped the horrible wart one last time, twanging it for good luck, and stood up out of the bathwater, dripping.
A week later, the limp became more pronounced when Tom had a chase on the Southern State Parkway east to the Suffolk County line, out of the cars and down an embankment. The pain in his heel sharpened so suddenly that he lost his footing. His partner caught the runner. Tom went to his elderly internist who still called himself a GP. His probing fingers made Tom anxious. He sent Tom immediately across the street to see a dermatologist.
Tom went to a basement office in a cluster of mixed-use garden apartments facing the medical building. In a white uniform and black-ribboned white cap, the nurse was a reassuring anachronism out of Norman Rockwell. She took vitals, chatting about the weather and the dangers of being a cop. Tom looked up at the street level basement window where he could see healthy feet walking by. The doctor entered, smiling. Dr. Emmett was machine-embroidered in dark blue on his white coat.
“So what have we here?” he said, sitting down on a swivel chair and rolling close to the patient.
He rotated Tom’s bare foot in his hands. He released it and lifted the good one. He pressed areas on both feet back and forth. His fingertips read Tom’s skin like Braille.
“I’m usually ticklish,” Tom said.
The doctor gave the nurse orders she had anticipated. As he spoke, she handed him a syringe.
“We just have to give you something to numb so we can take a better look,” Dr. Emmett said, tapping Tom’s sore foot, “under a microscope,” he added.
“Biopsy,” Tom said.
“Where did you study medicine?”
Dr. Emmett was genial. He swabbed the foot with alcohol and injected. Tom swayed, and the nurse was at his elbow.
“Sorry,” Tom said, “I’m not good with shots.”
“Now we have to wait five to fifteen minutes,” Dr. Emmett said. “Just like going to the dentist.”
“You a married man, Officer Madden?” Dr. Emmett asked, swiveling around to look at a chart that the receptionist had delivered earlier.
“We’re working on it.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” the doctor said, nodding at his nurse.
She understood the cue and surprisingly crooned, “Holding hands at midnight ‘neath a starry sky…”
“Wow, you sound like my wife’s namesake,” Tom said. “But it’s not quite as nice when you have to go by the book. Or thermometer.”
Dr. Emmett swiveled back around and said, “My father – who was also a doctor – was a strict believer that a man should wear boxer shorts. Those tight jockey things hold you too close to the body. ‘It cooks your fish,’ he’d say. You wear those things?”
“None of the City specialists Ella and I have seen talked about underwear.”
Holding Tom’s numb foot, the doctor prodded it with various instruments until he was satisfied. The nurse handed him a shiny scalpel.
“You want to watch?”
Tom saw the slice but only felt light pressure. His foot belonged more to Dr. Emmett than to him. Tom watched the film of skin placed on a slide on a small tray the nurse held like an altar boy. Dr. Emmett again swabbed his sole with alcohol. Tom liked its clean, sharp smell, but he hardly felt the cold.
“Just a few moments now,” the doctor said, leaving the exam room.
The nurse smiled as the door closed. “So how long you and your wife been trying?”
“Over a year.”
“You’re twenty-eight. How old is –”
“Ella is twenty-three.”
“She goes out to work?”
“She’s a secretary in the City. For an international relief agency. They collect money, clothes, food, like that, and ship it to places where there’s drought, like Ethiopia.”
“They’ve had no rain for a long time.”
Tom nodded. “Africa’s turning into one big Sahara.”
“Do you use lubrication?”
Tom stared at her.
“You shouldn’t. Go real slow so you don’t need to use any jelly. Never use Vaseline! It slows sperm down and sometimes stops them altogether,” the nurse said and paused. “Now I have three kids.”
The doctor returned. He didn’t sit down on the swivel chair. “When I have the results, I’ll get in touch with your doctor, and he’ll phone you.”
“I think you know right now,” Tom said. “You can level with me. Death and I aren’t strangers.”
“We’re going to schedule you for immediate surgery. We have to remove –”
“ – the whole foot?” Tom choked.
“No, no,” Dr. Emmett said, “the melanoma.”
The careful way he pronounced the word told Tom it was bad.
“Then what? About a baby?” Tom said.
“Not a probability.”
Dr. Emmett sighed and sat down on the swivel chair. “It’s all probabilities.”
Tom felt like he was moving backwards, away from the doctor, the room, the building. He opened his eyes and saw his uniform jacket on the clothes hanger in the corner, the white-uniformed nurse, and doctor. All the costumes. The nurse moved first. She was putting on his socks for him.
Alone with the nurse, Tom stood with her help. For a second, he felt joy – that was hope – because he couldn’t feel his weight on his foot. Then he thought what a relief it would be to feel nothing. The nurse helped him put on his jacket and straighten his tie. She gave him a small cup of water.
“My mouth is dry,” Tom thanked her. “I guess you knew.”
She went to get a wheelchair. He felt his 6’3” as heavy in her arms as unconscious bodies he’d lifted. She rolled him to the doctor’s wood-paneled office and helped him onto a leather couch there. His foot was beginning to tingle.
He didn’t know how long she was gone. It was long enough for him to see connections he’d been blind to before. How long had he to live? He was glad his mother was gone. She’d suffered his older brother’s death in Vietnam. His three sisters would say, “The good die young,” again. He could see them at his wake, at the open casket, looking in, crying over his face, the tears raining down. Tom saw Ella sobbing over drought-starved Ethiopians, praying for them and to have a baby. He remembered a thirteen-year-old girl he’d delivered in the squad car.
“It’s a girl,” Tom had told her.
“Good,” the new mother had screamed. “Kill her!”
Tom tried to remember from Catholic school what melanoma meant. It was probably Greek, and he’d failed Latin.
The nurse returned, bringing him a bigger cup of colder water. It felt good in his mouth, down his throat. He thought he could feel it filling his veins, buoying his whole body. He shut his eyes and saw – not his beautiful brown Ella but ancient Mrs. January, her white crown of braids like a halo above her head.
That April night, lightning had begun to flare in the distance. A thunderstorm began. Around the time the priest was reciting Ezekiel, 36:25 (“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean”), a lightning bolt was followed by a thunder clap. Then the telephone rang in Tom’s house. Later, he thought that even before he picked it up, he knew who it was.
He had Mrs. January’s housekey. How many times had she called him in the middle of the night? Tom found her upstairs in bed. The room was dark. He imagined it was also dark in church where the priest passed around the Paschal fire for congregants to light their candles: “Come receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead!”
Tom called Mrs. January’s name. A groan. He turned on a small table lamp. He saw her long white braids, Rapunzel-like, atop the bedspread. He sat beside her, felt her weak pulse, and then held her cold hand. No time to make an unnecessary phone call or try to carry her to the car and the emergency room. A shock of lightning, then quickly loud thunder. Her blue eyes opened.
“Are you in pain?” he asked.
“My will,” Mrs. January said. “Name her for me.”
The unmistakable rattle and final sigh followed. His hand was freed, but he did not close the eyes. Instead, his fingertips furrowed his forehead. He would want the last of the light when others thought he was gone.
Sometime later, through rapid windshield wipers, Ella saw the police car parked in front of Mrs. January’s house. In the living room she found Tom talking to an officer they both knew. The ambulance had come and gone. The rain was really coming down. After making sure everything was secure, the friend shook Tom’s hand and kissed Ella’s cheek, and they all dashed outside. At home, Tom and Ella sat in their kitchen, drying off and drinking milky tea. The thunder moved farther away.
When Tom repeated Mrs. January’s last words, Ella put both hands over her mouth. Then she slowly put one hand over the other onto her heart.
“But I didn’t tell her. I haven’t told anyone yet. Now I’m telling you.”
“You’re telling me? What? We couldn’t …”
“Just before,” Ella said. “We could call a girl Easter?”
“Mrs. January’s name was Esther.”
In late May, the good news in Ella’s office was that it was raining in Africa – it was raining and raining down in Africa at last.