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Nineteen Minutes

ISSUE:  Spring 2016

Illustration by Pat Perry This time, as the contraction mounts, Lore does not cry out, but her face is tense and grim. In fighting back her cries of fear she is fighting her body, too, and the nurse, Franckline, can feel the inner muscles clenching against the descending head, rendering the long moment of suffering unproductive. She does not touch the girl; she can feel as clearly as she feels the constriction of the muscles that the girl does not want to be touched. Franckline thinks girl although she read on the intake form that Lore Tannenbaum is thirty-one years old, a year older than Franckline herself. Caucasian, born July something, a speech therapist employed by the New York City Department of Education. Franckline pronounced the girl’s name wrong at first, said “Lorie,” and the girl corrected her, said there was only one syllable. Lore. Why a girl and not a woman? She arrived here all alone shortly before 9 a.m., lugging her duffel bag, her tall body pitched to one side with the weight, no man with her, no mother, no friend. No one at all, which is almost unheard of: even the homeless addicts sometimes have a man or a friend; even the prostitutes have friends who bring them in. But Lore Tannenbaum did not appear to be an addict or a prostitute. She was wearing clean sweatpants and a clean button-down shirt; her walk, once she set down the duffel, was steady, even graceful; and at the desk she produced an insurance card. 

How insistent Lore is, how rigid. How pointless it is to fight the body and the pain it sends, stretching and widening one to make new life, demanding that the self fall back and make space. Make space! Pointless to fight it. Yet nearly all of them do, crying, screaming, praying, begging Franckline to make it stop, to reel back the forces of being. She has known that since she was a child. She was no more than six years old; every time there was a birth in her village she would run, more than a mile if necessary, to be there. Nearly faint with excitement and anticipation: Would the woman bleed a lot, develop a fever, would she scream loudly or just whimper, would she live, would the baby live? She was compelled to see what might happen. The deep groans of the squatting woman, the way her sisters and aunties and cousins would cluster around her, gripping her arms and steadying her hips, running with sweat all of them, the parched lips and the low humming songs; it was like the races the older boys and young men sometimes ran against each other, the strain of bodies pushed to their limits, the pain, the exhaustion, the glory in the finish, but better because more violent: the head crowning at the end, the blood mixed with the sparse hair, the last push and the last groan, the woman released at last, muttering, weeping, cradled by the arms of the sisters and aunties and cousins.

And no one prevented her from watching. She saw everything. Somehow the others knew not to shoo her from the door. She learned to bring tea leaves and massage the scalp of a woman in the early stages of labor. They called her Ti Matrone, the little midwife. Over time she absorbed the practicalities: when to make the woman walk, when to make her drink, when to wait. By the time she was eleven or twelve she knew how to turn a breech baby, apply herb compresses for heavy bleeding, make a woman expel a baby that had died. The villagers said she had the gift, she was what they called pon, or bridge, could bring life safely from there to here, from the womb to the world. Of course there were times when the babies died. The mothers, too. But mostly Erzulie Mapiangue favored Franckline when she attended at a birth, and protected the laboring mother. Back then others’ pain did not touch her, had nothing to do with her. Not until after her own child, the three-days-old child, the child who had never once cried: then.

The girl, Lore, beyond the contraction again, lowers herself onto her side and lies there, hot misery radiating from her skin. “I thought I would be better at this,” she says. 

Franckline pulls a chair up close. “Let me ask you. You can yell, can’t you?”

The girl is silent.

“Here is what you do. You are right, you can forget that deep-breathing nonsense. Nobody can breathe through those pains. When the next one comes, I want you to take one big breath and then yell, but very slowly, you understand? Not with your mouth but from the back of your throat, deep.” Franckline demonstrates, rumbling her voice up in a quiet groan. “But louder. You yell in slow motion, making it last as long as you can. Okay? We’ll practice when you’re ready.” 

“I’m ready now.”


“Help me onto my hands and knees.”

“Now,” says Franckline, when Lore is in place. “Draw in a lot of air—down into your belly—and yell it back out. Slowly.”


I can open this girl, Franckline thinks. She will open. “Not bad, but you can do better than that.”


“Don’t close up the throat.”


“That’s better. That’s better. You do that when the next one comes.”

Lore watches the clock. For a while now, the contractions, which had been coming every three to four minutes, have inexplicably slowed. It’s been twelve minutes since the last one, and she is restless. 

 “Maybe the TV,” she says. 

“Very good.” Franckline points the remote at the television. Two women and a man coalesce from a blurry panel of color. At first there’s no sound. The women sit on a couch and the man—the host, apparently—is behind a desk. The women, dressed in tight sleeveless sheaths and high-heeled pumps, laugh frantically over something the man has said, throwing themselves over their laps and then throwing themselves back, flinging their long hair behind them. The women lean and laugh, their mouths enormous, open, glistening things, their shoe heels pointed as skewers. 

Franckline pushes at the volume button and the conversation rises into the room. 

Tried to make the tacos.… 

Food poisoning! He said he’ll never trust me again.

(And then male laughter: haw haw haw haw haw.)

Lore is staring moodily at the screen, as if wounded by the banter of the women and the host egging it on. Franckline wonders if she ought to find another channel, but they will all be the same: laughter and loud voices, guns and car chases, at best a religious lecture. Merchandise spinning on a platform. Perhaps that would be all right: earrings and bracelets nestled in gray velvet, glinting in the bright TV lights. Sometimes, in the evening, tired from work, Franckline watches Home Shopping Network or QVC with the sound turned low. If you know you are never going to buy anything, it can be soothing to watch the glittering items offered one after the other. You probably enjoy them for nearly as long as the people who buy them do. Bernard believes that the television for anything but the news and the financial reports is a waste of time, and occasionally Franckline has to fix him with a look and say that perhaps he doesn’t ever need waste and forgetfulness but that she does. 

A tattoo where?… 

No, darling, I won’t show you.… 

Haw haw haw haw haw!

Fourteen minutes since Lore’s last contraction. Franckline feels a pulsing in her groin—not quite a pain, perhaps, or, yes, a pain. Is she imagining pain into being by fearing it? At the library in Flatbush, on the computers there, she has looked at the images of bicornuate uteruses, pinkly meaty, split like a wishbone. This anomaly the reason it took her six years to become pregnant again after the lost child, the reason the new pregnancy failed at twenty-two weeks. The reason that only now, after seven years more, is she pregnant again. She’s observed, in the pictures, the two petallike chambers, the gestational sac residing in one. Her baby is growing in the left chamber. The hospital doctors say there’s a reasonable chance the chamber will expand enough to allow the baby to grow to term, especially since Franckline has already borne a full-term child, but they don’t want to make promises. She can’t help at times picturing the child running out of room, the head pushing against the uterine wall, or the cervix giving way and the unfinished life spilling out. 

Snow falls outside the window, not heavy, not light, steady and wet-looking, small splatters of moisture rather than neat dry flecks. The evening she met Bernard he spoke of snow, the delicate, floating wonder of it, and the tall hills that stayed on the ground for weeks and did not disappear. They were at his mother’s table. Bernard had found her on the steps of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, where she sat, footsore and very hungry, having wandered for hours in the city. She had lasted six months at home, trying not to see her lost baby in the face of every child. She had wept so compulsively, so unendingly, that even her aunt Thérèse, her favorite, who always indulged her, slapped her and said it was time to behave herself, to stop spitting at fate. She would have another child, many more, Tante Thérèse told her, at the right time, but Franckline wondered who would take her as his woman in her disgrace. She had had a child with a man who was not her man, a man of whom her parents did not approve. Her value had been greatly reduced. Would she be made to join with someone she hated, who disgusted her? And in any case the thought of more children did nothing to numb the ache; it was that child, the child who never once cried, the one she had come to know so well over the months she had carried him—his kicks and hiccups and slumbers—that she longed for. That child would never be born again, not in that body, on that day. She had been meant to be ashamed of him but he had been immune to her shame, had been something great and new and clean, for those few days he had lived.

She left home one day in late spring. She had turned eighteen the week before. A woman wrapped in dirty tatters leaned against one of the cathedral arches, muttering and occasionally, sharply, calling out the word “father!” like a curse. Franckline had spent nearly all of her money on a series of tap taps to the city, and she had no place to stay. She had thought, foolishly, that she could sleep in a park or behind the presidential palace unmolested, but the eyes and gait of the men on the street made her understand that this was not so. Now, about 10 p.m., a man approached her and said he had a room for the night, did she need one? She suspected what sort of payment this might involve but she was panicky and hungry and she was already, in the mind of those she had left behind, spoiled. Would it matter so much? But before she could rise to join the man, Bernard was there, telling the man to al fè wout ou, to leave his sister alone. The man shrugged skeptically and moved away. Like a bad spirit he vanished into the dark. Bernard asked Franckline if she wanted something to eat, and bought her a large plate of goat fritay from a street vendor. She supposed he might be merely another, cleaner version of the man who had offered her the room, particularly after he said she couldn’t stay out like this for the night, he would take her to his mother. But she didn’t think so. His eyes didn’t seem to have the same narrowed appraisal in them. His gentleness did not appear to be a fraud. 

He did in fact take her to his mother, not far from the center of the city. She was a tall woman with glasses and a commanding air. She served Franckline—aware that she had not bathed for two days—spiced cocoa and fresh pineapple, and Bernard talked about Miami and New York, both cities he had studied in; he planned to go into banking or finance. He described the snow in the north, where they had family, how surprisingly light it was when you scooped it into your hands. And yet it was heavy enough to make roofs tumble down. He did not talk about how, within days, it blackened and crusted on the sidewalks and turned into gray slush in the streets. Franckline discovered that only once she was in Brooklyn herself. The banks that grew up by the sides of the road frightened her; she found it sinister the way they buried lost things, items revealed only months later: a doll’s arm, a stamped envelope, a child’s pair of pants. When Franckline passed by those banks, all she could think of was the refuse hidden inside.

She did not believe Bernard had omitted the snow’s despoliation to make a better story, to entice her. More likely he simply did not think of it. What mattered was the beauty life presented you with; ugliness was incidental, transient. The essence of snow was to be beautiful; therefore, in all of Bernard’s stories about snow, it was beautiful. Bernard’s mother showed Franckline where she could bathe, and put her to bed in sheets that were wonderfully stiff and clean. In the morning there was hot coffee and fresh bread and eggs. Bernard had already left for his job delivering crates of cereals and soap.

A knock on the labor-room door, but the one who knocked doesn’t wait, opens the door and strides in. It is a tall, broad, youngish man in a dark overcoat dusted, like his hair, with snow, snow that seems to have tumbled right out of Franckline’s recollections to moisten his nose and eyebrows. He strides past Franckline toward Lore. He is carrying an enormous white stuffed panda with a store tag still dangling from one ear. He stops abruptly and turns back to Franckline.

“Judith Cooley’s room?” he asks. “I thought this was Judith Cooley’s room?”

On the bed Lore is holding her gown together with one hand, with the other arranging it to cover her thighs. Franckline steps between her and the man to better block her from his view.

“Check with the charge nurse,” she says briskly. “Out the door and back to your right, the big desk.”

The TV again: “Coming up at four: Laura Bush’s top barbecue recipes!”

“I’m her brother,” says the man, not moving, as if hoping that by staying longer he can lessen his blunder. “I just drove in from Rochester.” 

“That’s all right,” says Franckline. Go! she thinks. “Down the hall to your right and talk to Marina.”

Lore watches the panda (welcome baby, its white T-shirt had read) bob out of sight and disappear; the door closes with a resounding bang. She curls onto her side, her knees drawn up, her fists tensed against her belly, the obstructing cords from the fetal monitor enraging her. She’d thought for a moment … there was that familiar-looking black wool coat, a familiar height and dark hair; she’d believed for a moment … she will not say it! But her thoughts betray her. Asa. Asa with his arms full of childish whimsy; Asa whom she had forbidden to see her again. The man had stood there; she had felt the shock of familiarity in her belly and her groin; her heart had moved with giddy velocity toward his figure. 

Lore wakes with a startle. She can tell that she’s slept no more than a minute. Franckline is still beside her as before, and she can just remember the thought, or rather the image, right before she dropped. She was dialing a phone in a taxi, trying to push swollen fingers at the small keys. Then she dropped. And in that short minute she went somewhere else, into an apartment she has never been in, where a woman with snow-white hair was serving her beautiful small cakes on a platter. The platter, silver, gleamed brightly. Lore dithered over which cake to take first—they were all so appealing—and then, before she could put her fingers around one, someone shrieked loudly, as if to shoo her away.

She hears it again now—the shriek. It was the noise that woke her. It is a woman somewhere down the hall, and Lore blames her for taking away the platter of cakes. It was wonderful to have been there, in that severely well-appointed room, attempting to choose something sweet. Although now that she is awake she does not like the thought of food at all. The apartment had something in it of Asa’s parents’ apartment, of his mother’s impeccably ordered library. The woman shrieks again. In childbirth class Lore and her classmates saw movies of women who did not scream and did not panic, but bore their pain with athletic grimaces. She had been in a temper every Wednesday at six-thirty in the evening, in the big room above a city gym, tired from the day spent coaxing second and third graders to pick up M&Ms by sucking on a straw. As she walked from the subway, her hips twinged at each step. Sometimes, through one hip, there shot a bolt of pain so strong that she had to stop while other people bumped her and cursed. It felt as if the hip was coming unhinged from the leg, as if it was going to snap out at some strange angle like a puppet’s. These twinges, these bolts, had come on around the seventh month. All sorts of things had happened at the seventh month. Eating anything spicy made her ill for days. She could not tolerate milk. She had gas and hiccups. 

She knew that there were other women in the childbirth group who came straight from work, without even a break for dinner, in their maternity blazers and heels that pinched their swollen feet, but even so, even though she had time to go home from P.S. 30 and drink a little tea and have a little meal, she was in a temper every Wednesday and could not bring herself to like the class. The plumpish instructor, her own children grown and gone, was a nice woman, well meaning, yet Lore was irritated by every word she spoke. Why? Why should she dislike Betsy, the instructor, or Melissa and John from 74th Street or Catherine and Peter from Summit, New Jersey? Was it because, as her mother would have put it, they looked like money? Why did Jane and Cecily’s plans to have Cecily birth the baby in their feng-shuied bathroom cause Lore to smile with condescension? For a short time, she herself had flirted with using the bathtub. Perhaps that was what it was—these other women, these couples, still believed in what they could imagine, still enjoyed building up in their minds their perfect homes, their perfect births. Whereas she, the one partnerless woman, the one who always had to team up with the instructor for the exercises, stood precisely for the fact that things did not turn out as you had planned. Betsy massaged Lore’s back, showing the muscle groups that John and Peter and Jane should press on during the labor, to release tension. She held Lore’s hand, to demonstrate the importance of loving touch.

When she got home from class, there would be another message from Asa on her answering machine. Lore thinks it must have been Marjorie who got in touch with him. Marjorie, one of the kindergarten aides, had swooped in with her friend Diana when the visible signs of Lore’s pregnancy became unmistakable, very late, at twenty-one weeks. Lore did not know either of them that well, but they had decided to rescue her. A couple of times Marjorie had asked her nervously whether she’d spoken to Asa, and didn’t she think he had the right to know about the baby? No matter what had happened? And mightn’t being in touch help, you know, financially?

Diana overheard and scolded Marjorie terribly. Asa had slept with Lore’s best friend, she reminded her. And Lore didn’t need some asshole’s help: She had a good job and good benefits, she would manage on her own. Very sure of Lore, very cavalier about Lore’s finances, was Diana.

The shrieking woman has fallen silent. Maybe she is all right. Maybe the baby has emerged and it is all over for her. Maybe they gave her an injection that took away the pain. 

“Would you like some water?” asks Franckline.

“Yes, please.” 

Franckline brings her a paper cup from the sink, and, when Lore is done with it, offers more. After three cupfuls Lore sinks back onto the bed feeling much better, as if her veins and tendons had needed watering. She sighs. It is not so bad to lie here between pains, waiting, daydreaming. She likes the silence, and she likes Franckline for preserving it. A bolt of sun pierces the big window, dashing a stripe onto her blue hospital gown and warming her face. Soon she will sit in the rocking chair on deposit at Babies ’R Us (she would not take it home with her, nor has she stenciled the living room, nor put together the crib: it is not good to tempt fate)—soon she will sit in such an offering of winter sun, a single ray warming the baby and the breast at which it suckles, and they will rock and rock in a shaft of time that has stilled just for them. While the baby sleeps Lore will cook green things in a big skillet, and water the plants: the geranium and the coleus and, in memory of her mother, the Starfighter lilies tended from the bulb all winter. Her mother had labored patiently over her lilies in the rocky little yard of their house in Hobbes Corners. Lilies her favorite, but there were also cosmos and phlox, tulips and roses. At night, moonlight drinkers tossed empty bottles onto their lawn. 

It is coming again. The pain is signaling from a distance, beginning to press her. Lore struggles up to her hands and knees, Franckline steadying her as she rises ponderously above her own weight. “Now yell,” says Franckline. Lore takes a deep breath and holds her mouth open in a large O, to give the sound the biggest possible exit. The breath, the O, causes words to appear in her mind, and the words are Fuck you. Fuck who? It doesn’t matter. She breathes air deep into her belly, makes an O, and her mind agrees: Fuck you. She propels from her mouth a great moan that grows louder as the pain builds. When she runs out of moan she inhales again and pushes out a new voice stronger than before. Fuck you and you and you. Fuck you, fuck everyone. Fuck you all, fuck off, you millionfold little fuckers. The sound she is making is so loud that it stops up her ears. The moan and the pain run side by side, both tenacious, both insistent, but finally the pain begins to drop off and Lore lets the moan slacken a bit, too: a jog now, a trot, a walk, and then both sound and pain come to a stop.

A moment passes. Then another. Lore lifts her head. Franckline has stepped aside and is looking at her with a smile, impressed. Their eyes meet. Franckline starts to laugh heartily, and Lore laughs, too. 


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Alexis Williams's picture
Alexis Williams · 7 years ago

I love this story. The female support, the slow reveals, the hopefulness in this tired, brave woman's heart. Congratulations on the birth of this story, Pamela.


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