One morning in November a man and his daughter arrived at the county hospital, an old red-bricked building that might have been a barracks or a prison. Most of the hospital’s patients came from surrounding farms and the scattering of towns in a 30-mile radius; more affluent locals preferred hospitals in Atlanta, 60 miles to the south. Phil McCrea often drove his chortling black pickup along this hilly road from the smallest of the nearby towns, where he worked as a mechanic, but usually he was headed for the cemetery, which was separated from the hospital’s rear parking lot by a narrow ridge of woods. Local people joked that you arrived at the front door of the hospital but went out the back, though few would have made the joke within earshot of Phil McCrea.
The pickup pulled into the graveled lot and sat there for a minute, idling. Neither McCrea nor his daughter, a strong-looking teenager named Jody, had spoken or glanced at each other during the half hour’s ride. Since his wife’s death last year, McCrea wasn’t used to company: he put in a solid eight hours at the shop but seldom spoke to his co-workers, while at home Jody and her father inhabited separate worlds, like two boarders accidentally sharing a single house. McCrea was a tall big-boned man with thinning red hair, a prominent forehead and jaw, eyes and mouth that seldom smiled. His only child resembled him, though she had her dead mother’s straight brown hair, which she parted severely and tied in back with a rubber band. Father and daughter even dressed alike: boots, jeans, and flannel shirts, usually, though today Jody wore a white cotton blouse and a small gold crucifix that had both belonged to her mother. In the truck cab she sat there fingering the tiny cross, gazing through the scarred windshield as though lost inside a trance.
“Reckon it’s time,” her father said, shutting off the ignition.
Jody’s face showed nothing, though she blinked her eyes, slowly, in what might have been contempt.
She said, “I reckon it’s about four months too early.”
Her father’s jaw hardened. “Don’t fight me, now. We done been through this.”
“Well, / been through it,” his daughter muttered. She took a breath.”Okay, then.”
At the same moment, father and daughter opened their doors and got out.
Inside, they waited for a while, and then they were shepherded into a small ochre-painted waiting room where Jody, her father sitting silent next to her, grunted one-word answers to the nurse’s questions and jabbed her initials onto some forms the woman handed her. This nurse—young, blond, and apparently frightened—then led Jody into another, even smaller room and handed her a plastic cup. She pointed to a small adjoining bathroom, while Jody stared at the cup as if she might enjoy crushing it in her hand. Yet the tension went out of her face when the nurse said, breathlessly, “Mr. McCrea, if you’d kindly wait outside. . . ?” He had followed them to the doorway and now stood there looking block-like, immovable.”Well, I reckon I’ll go on,” he said, and again Jody closed and opened her eyes with deliberate slowness. Whenever you suggested something to Phil McCrea, he would repeat the idea as if he had thought of it. But Jody told herself: it doesn’t matter, he’s gone. She went into the bathroom, filled the specimen cup, then spent a long moment staring at her pale strong-boned face in the mirror. Even as a young child she was teased, called “horseface” by the kids at school, and refused to be comforted when her mother said not to worry—she was just a tomboy, this was a phase that many girls went through. Two years ago, when she was 14, she’d yelled at her mother during supper, “I ain’t a tomboy, I’m just plain homely,” an outburst that had brought a rare smile to her father’s lips. Her mother, who was pretty but tired-looking, hadn’t known how to respond when Jody ran out of the kitchen.
Jody often thought about that night, only because it was her last memory before her mother fell ill with cancer (“female trouble,” her father preferred to call it) and after that, the two had talked only of her mother’s illness. Her mother had had a kind heart but a weak disposition, Jody thought, and it seemed that for her entire life she might have been preparing for her slow and painful death. Her gaunt face had become strangely beautiful, and instead of fighting the cancer she seemed to thrive on it, often telling Jody that she didn’t mind the pain, or any of what was happening; Jody and her father really shouldn’t worry. Jody wanted to ask, “Why the hell don’t you mind,” but her anger was mixed up with sorrow and fear and, above all, confusion, for the first weeks of her mother’s illness had also been the time when she’d met Lennie. Everything had happened all at once, and she’d never been able to tell her mother. Jody had felt stranded inside her father’s realm of silence, where words and love and pain were just symptoms of female trouble, nothing more.
When she came out of the bathroom, the young blond nurse had left. An older, severer woman—she could have passed for Phil McCrea’s sister, Jody thought—had taken her place. She was tall, gray-haired, unsmiling, and stood with her arms folded.”Ready?” she said briskly, taking the plastic cup.
For some reason Jody didn’t answer, and the woman looked at her.
“I said, are you ready?” she asked.
“Ready for what?” Jody said, in the pert voice of a much younger girl.
The nurse turned and started out of the room. “This way,” she said over her shoulder.
The nurse led her to a semi-private room on the second floor; last week, when her father had escorted her to the obligatory visit with a counselor, the woman (also gray-haired, but more pleasant) had explained that since Jody was so young, and in her second trimester, the doctor wanted her to stay overnight. Did she understand, did she have any questions, had she considered her options carefully?, the woman said quickly, shuffling through some papers on her desk. At the word “options” Jody glanced at her father, who’d said nothing during this interview but whose big-jawed sullen face caused Jody’s own face and tongue to harden, so that she could barely speak; she’d willed that hardness to spread down toward her sore heart, her queasy stomach. She’d swallowed with difficulty and said, “No ma’am, no questions,” and minutes later they’d been back in the truck. Her father stopped at the cemetery, as he did almost every day, but Jody had stayed in the truck cab, staring dully through the windshield as if her father had stopped for gas or a loaf of bread.
“Go ahead and undress,” the nurse told her, “and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Today Jody wanted to resume the pose of indifference, or acquiescence, in order to cope with what was going to happen, so she nodded slowly, unbuttoning her blouse. She stared with mild curiosity at the partition dividing the room, wondering if a girl like herself slept on the other side?—or perhaps someone like her mother, who might be dead by nightfall? Lying in bed, Jody stared at the ceiling and remembered her girlish fantasies, that night she’d lost all arguments with her father. Sneaking out of the hospital, like someone in a movie, heading out to the main road and hitchhiking down to Atlanta, surprising Lennie at his parents’ house, or at the veterinary clinic where he worked part-time. . . or maybe she and Lennie had planned her escape together, and he’d be waiting at the hospital curb when she rushed out, one arm cradling her stomach, and together they’d drive down from these hills and southward, never to return. . . . How gradually these feverish ideas had lost their richness, their possibility, a sullen hard certitude replacing her wild flights of hope, her father’s cold pragmatism cancelling out the romantic dreaminess she must have inherited from her mother. How gradually but inevitably, over the agonizing lifetime of a few short days.
The nurse returned, breaking Jody’s reverie. For a half-moment Jody wished the blond, frightened-looking nurse might come back, but no, she preferred this scowling gray-haired woman with her chilly dry hands. Within seconds the nurse had inserted a thermometer into Jody’s mouth, prepared a tray holding medication and syringe, made notations on Jody’s chart. She removed the thermometer, gave it a hard look, then transferred this same look to Jody.
“It’s almost time,” she said. “The doctor would normally stop by, but he’s doing another procedure, so he’ll see you in the OR.” She lifted something from the tray.”I’m going to start an I.V.and inject you with some Valium, and then we’ll wheel you downstairs. You’re getting a general, you know.”
“A general?” Jody said. She winced at the needle-stick.
“General anesthetic—that means you’ll be asleep,” the nurse said, like a teacher scolding a stupid child.”It’s because you’ve waited so long.”
A sudden bright anger scalded her heart. “I waited because —”
“I’ll inject the Valium now,” the nurse said, and all at once Jody’s anger dissolved.
“You’re lucky, you know,” the nurse said in a voice that sounded blurry and almost kind to Jody’s ears.”When I was young, we didn’t have this option. Couldn’t just ask the doctor to fix our mistakes. A few years from now, most likely, it’ll be outlawed again, and best it should be. So maybe you’re learning something, eh?”
Jody felt as though she were floating and remembered with difficulty why she was here.”Where’s my daddy?” she said.
“He’ll be along,” the nurse said vaguely, but then she began talking to a man who had entered the room—was this the doctor?—and Jody felt them urging her onto a metal-framed gurney. The nurse was talking about the doctor’s schedule, how it was always hurry up and wait, but Jody felt that the woman wasn’t speaking to her. The young man—or were there two young men?—laughed softly, their murmured responses inaudible as they began maneuvering Jody out of the room.
She closed her eyes. This diminished the floating sensation but heightened the sickish motion of the gurney. But then she forgot about that, too, as her mind yearned back to that intensely pleasurable first night with Lennie, last summer, when they’d gone for a hamburger and then had driven out into the country, Lennie’s car swaying gently as they turned this way, that way, going nowhere in particular. When he’d pulled the car alongside an old corn field—it was dusk by then, the dark coming on fast—Jody had known what would happen but had decided that she didn’t mind, after all she was 16 now, and it was surely time. If she could believe the talk of girls she overheard at school (few of them talked directly to her, old horsey-face) the time was long past; they reminisced about “doing it” at 13, 14, bright fluttery talk that wound through their discussions of parties and ball games and Friday night dates, a world entirely foreign to Jody. Since her mother’s death, Jody had known how her father would react to boys around the house, and Jody had understood in any case that few of the boys from school would dream of bringing their loud sputtering cars down the McCreas’ deadend street at the edge of town, where most of the other peeling frame houses were occupied by elderly couples or lone silent men her father’s age.
Which had made that evening with Lennie seem all the more miraculous, to use one of the words her mother had favored. Jody tried not to look eager or too happy when he stopped kissing her forehead, her cheeks, her neck, and asked if they wouldn’t be more comfortable in the back seat—Lennie had borrowed his uncle’s car, a four-door Chrysler—but as they moved into the rear of the car, Lennie easing himself on top of her, she hadn’t felt weighted down but, in a pleasant way, turned inside out, as if this evening marked the death of old horsey-face, as if tomorrow she might look in the mirror and see another girl entirely.
And Lennie was gentle. Lennie was sweet. “Is this okay?” he said in a hoarse murmur.”This doesn’t hurt, does it?”
She couldn’t answer because she’d been seized by the image of her mother’s face, during those last days in the hospital.”It’s over for me,” her mother had whispered, barely able to open her eyes, “but for you it’s just starting. . . .” Jody hadn’t known how to interpret these words—were they a promise? a curse?—but that night, holding Lennie, she thought she knew. She understood how foolishly she’d behaved just after her mother’s death, when she’d put away the clothes her mother made for her—frilly blouses, wool sweaters in soft pastel shades—in favor of jeans and flannel, and had thrown away the lipstick and mirror her mother had bought for her 14th birthday, and had let her hair go unwashed for weeks at a time. At school they ridiculed her—”when you gonna shampoo that mane of yours, horsey-face?”—but she ignored them. For more than a year she’d been the school oddity. Last April, when a boy approached her in the cafeteria, where she sat eating lunch by herself, she’d thought it was some kind of practical joke: all the time he spoke to her, she kept expecting to hear the catcalls of other kids breaking out around her, and to see the boy himself start laughing, acknowledging that the prank was over.
But Lennie hadn’t been joking. No one paid them any attention, and the more he talked the more she understood that he was just lonesome, a new kid at school who hadn’t made many friends. He’d enrolled in January, he told her, and was staying with his aunt and uncle for a while; they ran a medium-sized farm near town, and he wanted to be a veterinarian, and so here he was. In a lower voice he told Jody that his parents had divorced last year, and though he lived with his mother, she had some emotional problems, and she was seeing a man Lennie didn’t like, and so. . . when his uncle made the offer, he’d jumped at it. He was glad to be here, never mind that he didn’t know very many people. He loved the farm, he was glad to get away from Atlanta, all the noise, the traffic. . . . He’d talked on and on, anxious but friendly, cracking his knuckles, every once in a while pushing his glasses back up his nose. Jody sat there amazed, watching him. His face was ruddy, scarred from acne, and Jody understood that he’d probably approached a number of other, prettier girls—he wasn’t shy—and had been turned away. Yet he had a boyish smile, and his eyes were a clear strong blue, and despite herself Jody liked him. When he began, “So, I was wondering if. . .,” she’d said yes before he finished the question, giving him a quick nervous smile, and there was a long pause, and then they’d laughed at the same moment.
Jody had never dated before, and when Lennie began showing up on Friday or Saturday evenings—sometimes in his uncle’s Chrysler, more often in his own beat-up Chevy Nova—Phil McCrea had been too shocked to respond with anything but hostile silence, stomping back into the TV room and slamming the door whenever Lennie rang the front bell. Although Jody had excavated the boxes of clothes her mother had made her, she found that she’d outgrown them; but her mother’s own blouses and skirts fit her perfectly, and she wore them without asking her father’s permission. He’d glared at her, the first time or two, but said nothing. She still wore no makeup, but she’d bought some musk-smelling perfume at the drug store, and a cheap hairclasp of imitation pearls, and she wore her mother’s delicate gold chain and cross.
Though her dates with Lennie became the focus of her life, they were infrequent. He worked hard on the farm and on his school assignments, so he called only once every two or three weeks. Sometimes they went to a movie, but more often they took long drives in the country, and after that evening when they parked beside the corn field, Lennie drove out there automatically, not asking Jody what she wanted to do. Jody told herself that she didn’t mind. Would she have preferred to go anywhere else, after all? And she loved the drives they took, before and after lovemaking, and the way Lennie would flex his strong hands on the wheel as he talked about the future. He was much more serious and ambitious than the other boys at school; he already knew that he wanted to attend veterinary school at the University of Georgia and that he must do well now, as a junior, in order to get a scholarship. He loved animals and told her endless anecdotes about his experiences with the cows and goats and sheep on his uncle’s farm, and how badly he wanted his own farm someday. . . . Early in their relationship Jody learned that Lennie’s father, who still lived in Atlanta, was an accountant, but Lennie seldom referred to either of his parents. He wasn’t yet 17, but already he struck Jody as an adult, a man who had definite plans and a firm sense of the future. It was only a matter of time, she reasoned, before she would tell Lennie that she’d fallen in love.
This was what her mother had meant, Jody often thought. For you, it’s just starting. . . .
That last night she saw Lennie, in August, he’d broken the news that his mother had called; that she’d been calling all week to demand that he come back to Atlanta for his senior year. The guy she’d been seeing had abandoned her— Lennie was glad of that, at least—and she needed him, she’d never lived alone before. . . . So they’d struck a bargain: just one more year at home and then she’d help him financially, as much as she could, when he started veterinary school. He had to go, Lennie told Jody, holding both her hands but gazing just past her eyes. Probably, he reasoned, he’d gotten what he needed from staying at his uncle’s farm, and maybe it would be best if he focused on school next year. But of course he’d come to visit, he said quickly. Of course he’d invite Jody to Atlanta, once he explained the situation to his mother. They had a nice guest bedroom, and he was sure there would be no problem. . . . Somehow that phrase, “no problem,” had brought an icy convulsion to her heart, but she said nothing. She nodded, agreeing with his logic. She’d waited until she was in her room, alone, before allowing herself a few quick tears, a hardened clench of her long bony jaw.
In the following weeks, she tried telling herself that she hadn’t been trusting enough. That she was sour and suspicious, like her father, and she had to get over that. For Lennie began phoning her, using the pronoun “we” whenever he talked about the future, and an intimate confiding manner that he took on—somehow she knew this—with no one else. Jody could tell he was lonely; he spoke in that same rushed anxious voice he’d used when they first met in the cafeteria. He talked about his mother and her problems, about his work and activities at school, about his new part-time job at an animal clinic, which he loved, and which would look great on his application form for veterinary school. He couldn’t come north right now, he told her all during September, and most of October, but he’d try to get away at Thanksgiving break, or Christmas at the latest. In fact, Jody was relieved. The longer he waited, the longer she could put off telling him about the baby, reasoning that she couldn’t give him such news over the phone. But by late October she was beginning to show, and her daily ritual of assessing her naked abdomen in the bathroom mirror had become an occasion of dread rather than pleasure. She felt that time had begun to slow down, as if to force her secret gradually but mercilessly out into the open. She hadn’t been surprised when her P.E.instructor, Miss Kimball, had handed her a note from the principal: “Please see me.” It had been the first of many confrontations, but she hadn’t seen or spoken to Lennie again. Somehow Lennie had been spared.
Now she confronted a balding green-clad man with silver tufted eyebrows who stared down at her, displaying his teeth in what must have been a smile.
“Miss McCrea?” he said. “Did you hear me?”
Her eyes had been open but unseeing. She’d heard nothing but a drone of distant voices, detached from her. Still she felt as if she were floating, her mind turned soft and gauzy. She listened with difficulty but managed to nod her head, yes. Then she shook her head, no. She understood that her eyes had filled.
“It’s the shot,” a woman’s voice said. “Made her a little woozy.”
Jody saw that her knees had been hoisted into the air, spread wide.
“Well, that’s probably best,” the doctor said idly, sorting through some instruments on a tray. He nodded to someone behind Jody’s head.
“Now just close your eyes,” came the man’s voice, behind her, “and start counting backwards from a hundred. Can you do that, Miss McCrea?”
Jody said, “I don’t want—”
Her throat had constricted, choking off her voice. She shouldn’t cry now, she told herself, she had to tell these men about Lennie, to explain that she didn’t want—
Tears leaked from the sides of her eyes, but no one noticed. They were down beyond her opened legs, murmuring, and behind her the man said, “All right, here we go, then. One hundred, ninety-nine. . .”
She blinked several times, confused. She felt groggy, her throat felt very sore. Only a few moments passed before she understood what had happened. She felt no pain down there, only numbness, as if the lower half of her body had been removed. She kept blinking her eyes, trying to think what she must do. But someone was entering the room.
The gray-haired nurse. “Feeling better?” she asked, bending down.
“I don’t. . . don’t feel nothing,” Jody mumbled.
The nurse drew back, as if repulsed by this answer.
“Your daddy’s on his way,” she said primly. “He’s coming to see you.”
Jody blinked her eyes. She said, “I told them I changed my mind—he made me sign them papers, I wanted the baby and I didn’t want—”
“Hush now,” the nurse said, touching her forearm. “Your daddy will be here soon.”
The baby was what bound her to Lennie and was all that she had.
“But I wanted—”
She heard her own childish echo and fell silent. The nurse had left the room.
Jody raised her head. Already she felt stronger, and there was no pain. She did not want to see her father, she thought, nor did she want to hear what she might say to him. Instead she wanted Lennie. Probably there were good reasons why he hadn’t called. Yes, probably she’d sold him short because she couldn’t trust people, just as her father couldn’t—my God, she was through with that! She would call Lennie and ask him to come for her. She’d go to that little motel down the road, get a room, call him from there and wait patiently. It was only an hour’s drive from Atlanta. She had waited months to see Lennie again and could easily wait another hour.
Sitting up, she moved her legs gingerly over the side of the bed. Nothing. No pain. She felt perfectly fine. A little dizzy, maybe, but that would pass. She saw her clothes hanging in the closet across the room: blouse, jeans, boots, and the oversized blue-jean jacket she’d worn for weeks in the attempt to hide her pregnancy. Her wallet was stuffed inside the jacket, but did she have enough money for a room? She had 20, 25 dollars. If it wasn’t enough, she would tell the proprietor that Lennie would pay the rest when he arrived.
She walked carefully toward the closet, more excited with each step. She felt happy. She felt that she was controlling her own life, at last. Imagine how her father and the nurse would react, coming in here and discovering that the bed was empty! But they would never understand, of course. Only Lennie would understand.
She let the hospital gown fall to the floor, careful not to look at the bandage below her waist. She felt nothing down there and would not even look. Getting into the clothes was easy, except for the jeans, which were tight. Then she did feel pain, but only a twinge. Just enough, she thought, to let her know she must be careful.
Yes, she was like someone in a movie. At the door she peered into the hall, seeing several nurses but not the gray-haired one. She took a breath, bowed her head, and hurried toward the elevators. Fortunately there were several other visitors in the hall, and she blended right in. There were two women waiting for the elevator, and it opened miraculously the instant Jody walked up. The women were talking in low murmurs, and neither of them glanced at her.
Downstairs Jody walked slowly but steadily until she found the rear exit and got away from the building. Out the sides of her eyes, she looked for her father’s truck in the parking lot, and then she gazed out to the oiled road; but she saw nothing. He was taking his time, as usual. Jody smiled to herself, but now she paused. She hadn’t thought beyond this point. The motel was less than a mile away, but she shouldn’t walk that far. She could call a taxi, but that would mean going back inside the hospital. She paused, uncertain. That was when she saw her father’s pickup in the distance, rounding the last turn of the oiled road that would bring him up toward the hospital.
She veered away from the parking lot and headed in the only safe direction—toward the thick woods that bordered the hospital at the rear. About ten yards into the woods she stopped and looked back. Here among the pines and thick-leaved elms it was dim, shaded, cool, and she stared out into the lot, where sun glinted off the white gravel and the windshields, and she knew she could not be seen. She might have been glimpsing another world. Her father had parked at the edge of the lot and, outside the truck, squinted upward for a moment at the hospital building, as though trying to pick out Jody’s room. He didn’t even glance toward the woods. His face looked stern and unsmiling, as always. He walked with slow but determined strides toward the rear entrance. Jody kept her eyes trained on him until he was gone.
She might have been someone else, she thought—a distant observer, someone her father would not recognize. For a long time she’d felt that he didn’t know her, and that explained why they lived as virtual strangers in their house. Yet it hadn’t always been so. Phil McCrea had been a man of few words, but not unkind and not without humor. Her mother’s death had unhinged him, Jody knew. She could recall the two of them joking together in the kitchen, her father’s arms slipping around his wife’s waist as she stood frying eggs or washing dishes. He would whisper, and she would laugh, poking him with her elbow, or dabbing soap suds onto his chin. Once they had seen Jody watching from the doorway, and her father had run over, scooped her into the air—she must have been nine or ten—and brought her back to the sink, where her mother had dabbed suds on Jody’s chin, too, and both her cheeks, and her father said she looked like a little Chinaman, and the three of them had laughed and laughed. . . . Helplessly Jody had remembered such scenes when her father confronted her, last week, the moment she walked in the kitchen door from school. Their argument had been violent but brief, for he’d decided what she must do; he’d already made a doctor’s appointment and had told the school principal that Jody wouldn’t be back until January. When Jody responded first with anger, then with tears, saying wildly that she and Lennie were in love and he’d promised to marry her, Phil McCrea had laughed harshly.”That boy’s long gone,” he’d said, “and why wouldn’t he be?” Jody hadn’t been sure what he meant and hadn’t asked. She stalked back to her bedroom and slammed the door, and again that terrible silence had filled the house.
For several minutes Jody had kept walking into the woods, but now she came to a clearing. Her eye took in the sloping hill of stubbled yellow grass, which was dotted with grave markers where the trees should have been. This was a cemetery without marble headstones or statuary, or much ornament of any kind. Just the brass markers, with a small stone vase beside each one. Some of these held bright plastic daisies or zinnias, others held dead flowers or were empty. Jody walked out into the green sunlit grass, blinking. She no longer felt groggy, but in her abdomen she felt a stabbing pain with every step, forcing her to limp and bringing to mind the pain her mother had undergone during her last days.
Female trouble, her father had mumbled, embarrassed. . . . She looked around her but couldn’t remember where her mother had been buried. After the funeral she’d refused to accompany her father when he visited the cemetery, and after a while he stopped asking her. It had been too painful, she thought. She had just met Lennie and so she’d pushed all that horror and pain away. She had not wanted to acknowledge what had happened or to be like her father, morose and silent, clinging to death.
Surveying the dozens of grave markers, Jody thought that today she’d endured another, smaller death; now that her head had cleared and the pain had begun, she could understand quite easily. The thought of calling a taxi or trudging out to that motel, the thought of phoning a boy who had surely gone a long way toward forgetting her—these notions now seemed cartoonish and absurd, like some leftover day-dream from her childhood years.
It took only a few minutes, after all, for her to find her mother’s grave. She had remembered from the funeral that it was near the narrow graveled road that cut through the cemetery, and that it had seemed set apart, by a discreet few yards, from a cluster of other markers all belonging to one family. Jody stood over her mother for a long while, her hair blowing in the mild November wind, her hands shoved inside her jacket pockets. In one of the pockets she felt the gold chain and cross, which she now grasped in her fingers like a charm. She’d felt the aching slippage of blood inside her loins, as though pulled by gravity, yearning downward to enrich the very earth in which her mother lay. But Jody ignored the pain, the seeping blood. She could not even summon any tears as she stood above the small grass-covered mound that enclosed her mother.
After a while she said, in a husky murmur, “His name was Lennie, Mama,” and for the moment, at least, those words eased the pain. Then she waited until she heard the chortling engine, the crunch of gravel, and headed out to meet the one man who knew where to find her.