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A Life Or Death Matter

ISSUE:  Winter 1990

One late afternoon in July, Minetree and I were trying to survive the 94-degree heat on the screened porch. Minetree read the Richmond News Leader and frowned. He rubbed his temple with one finger. I rocked myself on the glider, downwind from the electric fan. Upstairs, the radio pumped out a Lawrence Welk polka. Mother was lying up there on her percale sheets, bare as the day she was born.

I was pretending to do biology homework. I’d flunked biology in the tenth grade. I was all adjusted to taking it again next year, when Minetree, my stepfather, said why don’t I just get it over with at John Marshall summer school. I lasted three days out of respect for Minetree. After that, I didn’t go to another single class. I took the bus every morning and got off at my friend Mary Tyler’s stop. All the boys had jobs so the two of us hung around Dr. Clement’s Drug Store and read movie magazines or went out to Maymont to the public pool. Then I’d lug my bookbag home around one o’clock as if I’d had a hard morning.

I hadn’t figured out yet what I’d do when Mother and Minetree got my report card. Mother would definitely make a long speech about my actions having lifelong consequences. Minetree, who took up for me whenever he reasonably could, would say something like, “Hold it, honey. When you’re 15 you don’t know what lifelong means.” Then he’d get on the phone with Mrs. Beazley, headmistress of my school, and arrange with her to let me retake biology. It wouldn’t be a pretty scene, but it would be manageable. When Mother complained that I was getting too big for my britches and she didn’t know where it was all going to end, Minetree told her that I was going through a phase and that at heart I was a good girl. When he said that, I just about melted, and for two or three days I’d try to be helpful and pleasant.

So there I was on the porch, looking studious, with my notebook and biology book propped up on my knees. It was so hot, the heat had sucked up all the ice in my Dr. Pepper except for one cube which looked like spit sitting on top. The fan whirred. Minetree frowned at the newsprint every time the glider squeaked.

The sky rumbled, and a cool-down rain came on softly, just a few fat drops at a time. Minetree looked up from his newspaper and asked me to run out and see if the car windows were rolled up.

“It’s hardly raining,” I said.

“It’ll rain more. Please go.” His face was stern, and he winced when he talked.

“I’m in the middle of the circulatory system,” I said. “Did you know that you have 250 million red blood cells?”

The sun shone behind the raindrops and lit up the gnats swarming the oleander bush.

“And anyway,” I said, “As we all know, its bad luck to be abroad when the devil’s beating his wife.”

He threw his newspaper down, “I’ll go then.”

I wrote 250,000,000 in my note book under the letter I had just written to Charlie Corbin who was away being a camp counselor. While I doodled faces in the zeros, I knew Minetree was putting his artificial leg in the right place to get up. “No wait, don’t, I’ll go.” I started to say, but my damp shirt stuck me on the pillow cushion, and the elastic of my underpants rubbed against the sunburn I’d gotten by the pool that morning.

Thunder clapped far away, and a breeze blew in as the sun went behind a cloud.

Suddenly, I heard a sound like rain pouring through the roof onto the floor. I lifted my book and looked out under it. Minetree was still in his chair, and I could see his feet, the good one planted and the other sitting on its heel. Between them, gooey stuff, like strawberry jam, was pilling up and then flattening out as it spread over the straw rug. He threw up blood in great heaves. He hung on to the arms of the chair heaving, and red drops dribbled from his nose.

I didn’t do one single thing to help Minetree except scream for Mother. When I was little and had the throw ups, she used to hold a damp wash cloth against my forehead and hold my stomach. But I just sat there, clutching my book to my chest, wishing she’d hurry up, though I didn’t like to think what she’d have to say about ruining the straw rug she’d just bought at Thalhimer’s last week.

The rain was picking up. The light on the porch was grey and still the red stain spread like a shadow.

“Mo-ther,” I screamed again.

Minetree’s hands loosened on the arms of his chair and his head fell back. His eyes were closed and blood dripped from his open mouth onto his white shirt.

I heard Mother’s feet slapping the wood as she ran downstairs. Her heavy bosoms flopped as she ran across the shiny living room floor, bare of rugs for the summer. I giggled because she looked so funny standing in the door way, strip stark naked, except for her nightgown which was slung around her neck like a scarf. She couldn’t see Minetree in the corner behind the lamp.

“Did you have to scream, Amelia?” she said. “You scared me to death. And why, in heavens name, are you sitting up there?”

I was perched on the arm of the glider with my feet on the cushions. My glass of Dr. Pepper fell on the brick floor and smashed. The rain was heavy now, and the air smelled like damp bark and grass and blood.

I pointed at the blood.

Her eyes followed the trail to Minetree’s feet and suddenly, the way a drop of rain slides off a leaf to the ground, it reached her—what the horrible mess was all about.

“Minetree?” She ran to him and whipped her nightgown from around her neck and began to mop his mouth, kissing his face as she mopped. She whimpered his name. “Min-a-tree, Min-a-tree.” Her face, slick with sweat, was as white as his.

“Amelia, call the rescue squad. Quick.”

“I don’t know the number.” The porch screen behind my back gave as I pushed against it.

“Well, for God’s sake, come here at least and hold his hand while I do it.” She held his hand out to me. My knees buckled, and I weaved my way to her trying to sidestep the bloody splatters.

His hand lay in mine like an empty glove. The veins and even the freckles were drained white. I couldn’t bear to squeeze it knowing it wouldn’t squeeze back, so I rubbed my thumb over the crack in the dark stone of his Virginia Military Institute ring. Minetree always said his cracked ring was the only thing he had to show for being in the war. That was just hilarious because the same shrapnel that hit his ring had torn his leg off first. Now I wondered if he had looked less dead on that Iwo Jima beach with the flesh and bone of his leg all gritty with sand than he did on his own porch.

Mother came flying back from the phone and stepped smack in the blood trying to get to his chest. She laid her head against his shirt and said in jerks, “Breathe. Just breathe. Until they get here.” She started pounding his heart with her fist.

“You don’t have any clothes on, Mother,” I said. She glanced at her body and went back to her pounding, so I finally did something useful and went upstairs to get her some clothes. I grabbed the yellow sun dress and underclothes from the bed. As I ran back downstairs, I heard the sirens. I got Mother dressed just as the ambulance screeched to the door. Two ambulance men rushed in with their stretcher, took Minetree’s pulse, and connected him to a bottle. So he wasn’t dead yet.

The men said there was a jump seat for Mother in the ambulance. She was holding on to my hand now, squishing my knuckles back and forth.

“I have to have my daughter with me too.” She said. “She can sit on my lap.”

“I can’t sit on your lap, Mother. How can I sit on your lap. I can walk.” St. Luke’s Hospital was only a few blocks away.

The ambulance man frowned at me. He had a name badge pinned on his white shirt that said “Red,” though his hair was coal black.

“You sit wherever your mother wants you to sit,” he said. But there wasn’t enough room for my head if I sat on her lap, so I sat next to her on the sticky rubber floor. We were backing out the driveway and the red light was whirling around when I remembered a life or death matter.

“The car windows. Wait.”

But the driver had clicked on the siren button and Red was fooling around with the bottle contraption.

“Mother, I should have checked the car windows. Mine-tree asked me to.”

“Amelia. It doesn’t matter.” Since she couldn’t get to his hand, Mother was rubbing the toe of Minetree’s shoe, the one that never had any life in it. The rain was really coming down now, so hard that the windshield wipers groaned and the driver had his chest against the steering wheel trying to see out.

It mattered a lot to me. I could picture the rain pouring in the windows filling the sag in the driver’s seat of the black Oldsmobile. The rain would flood the floor, cover the brake pedal and build up to the stick that jutted out from the steering wheel, the stick the United States Marine Corps had designed especially for Minetree, so he could push it to make the car go because his fake foot couldn’t manage the gas pedal. The rain would rust out the little stick. It would ruin everything if Minetree couldn’t just be free to get in a car and see the world when he felt like it. It seemed to me if the car went down the drain so would Minetree.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked my mother. She was watching Red listen to Minetree’s heart with his stethoscope.

“What?” Her body trembled and her head jerked like she had St. Vitus Dance.

Red unplugged the stethoscope from his ears. He didn’t look worried but he didn’t look relieved either.

“Mr. Red,” I asked. “Could you tell me please what’s wrong with my father?”

“Hemorrhage,” he said and started rolling the blood pressure wrap around Minetree’s arm.

“Could you just tell me if a hemorrhage happens because something outside makes it happen—or whether it would just happen anyway.”

If I’d only studied my biology more I’d have known what caused a hemorrhage.

But Red was listening again through his stethoscope. I hoped he was hearing lots of blood pumping though I didn’t see how, considering the amount Minetree had left on the rug at home.

“Amelia, sugar.” Mother pulled my head against her knee and patted my hair. “Just hush.” My mother had taken on a funny odor, like the sour old wet bathing suit I’d stuffed in my bookbag.

The ambulance sped down Monument Avenue past Jackson, Lee, and Stuart, saddled on their horses in a shroud of mist. I said “thank you, Jesus” when we turned onto Allen St. at General Lee’s statue because he faced south to show he’d survived the War between the States, and that was a good sign for Minetree.

Cars screeched to the curb in front of us. Whenever my mother and I pulled to the curb to let an ambulance pass she always said, “God bless you.” I rubbed a circle in the fogged up window to see the faces that were saying a little prayer for Minetree, but all I could see was the light on top of the ambulance coloring the rain drops red.

The ambulance skidded up to the emergency entrance of St. Luke’s and stopped. The driver opened the back door of the ambulance and helped Red lower a ramp. They rolled the stretcher out.

Inside the emergency room, a loud speaker shouted “Dr. Mercer. Your patient’s in emergency. Dr. Mercer to emergency.” Lights glared off the white walls and bleached out the faces of an orderly pushing an empty wheelchair and a nurse who rolled a clattering medicine trolley. They looked like a pretty sick bunch and not like anybody I’d want to open my eyes to after I’d had a hemorrhage. The nurse almost collided with Minetree’s stretcher, and Red muttered “Watch it, sister.” Then he yelled “Priority admission, priority admission,” and disappeared with Minetree through a swinging door with a sign that said in no uncertain terms that we couldn’t go in. Mother pushed on the door anyway.

“Hey,” said the nurse with the noisy medicine trolley. “You can’t go in there.”

Mother clamped her hand around my arm. Her skin was the color of the ivory candles on our dining room sideboard. Perspiration ran down her face like melting wax and dropped down the front of her dress.

“Is your mother sick?” the nurse asked.

“My mother is not sick,” I said. “But my father has had a hemorrhage and we have to see the doctor.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s Minetree Fairfax.”

“There’s no doctor in this hospital by that name.” she said.

“No, no, no” I said. “I mean my father is Minetree Fairfax.”

“What is the name of your doctor?” She stared at the bottles on her trolley as if she was counting them.

“Who’s our doctor, Mother?” but Mother’s eyes were X-raying the swinging door.

“Mother.” I peeled her hand, one finger at a time, from my arm. “Who’s our doctor,” but her hearing seemed to be on the blink, and so I said “Dr. Mercer,” and hoped I was right.

The nurse directed us to a tiny little waiting room with no air and no fan and a lot of ratty magazines. Mother held my hand for dear life and played with the hairs on my arm. Her foot hammered the floor. I looked at the picture of Monticello on the wall. I tried to remember the beautiful things Mother and Minetree and I had seen when we were there last May. All I could dredge up was the bed where Thomas Jefierson breathed his last so I watched the second hand bump around the big wall clock and tried to compose the questions I’d ask Dr. Mercer.

Minetree always said he’d never known one for questions like me. He said he was going to have to give up his law practice to have time to answer them. I’d say “Minetree, I have a question,” and he’d say, “Ask and the answer shall be revealed unto you.”

Minetree revealed a lot of things about my real father who had been his brother rat at VMI. My real father died when I was three and a half, and I only had one memory of him, the day he went away to war. I had stopped asking my mother questions about him when I was little, because she’d start pushing back the skin around her fingernails, raise her eyes up, and get lost in her thinking.

But Minetree. I could ask him anything.

“Did my father ever get off the straight and narrow,” I asked, and Minetree just about keeled over laughing. He ticked off an episode for every finger of his right hand that showed me that getting into trouble was in my genes. That was last winter when Dr. Clement had called my mother to tell her that I had been begging at his soda fountain. Just a nickel here and a dime there but he said it was worrying his customers. Of course, I denied everything. I said all those powders he worked with that had turned his skin on his face grey had gotten to his brain.

Once I asked Minetree why my daddy had left an adorable baby girl and a perfectly good wife to go to war when he didn’t have to. He joined the RAF before our country went to war and ferried patched-up planes from France over the English Channel, and one plane came unpatched and dropped him into the water like a bomb.

Minetree said that it didn’t have anything to do with how much he loved my mother and me. Sometimes you just had to do things you didn’t feel like doing because you knew they were right. I felt like saying that looked good on paper but didn’t feel good in my heart. I didn’t say it because tears were gathering around Minetree’s eyes. Minetree was the kind of person who cried over beautiful music or just telling you the plot of a tragic story.

“Mrs. Fairfax?” A nurse stood in front of us with a clipboard. “I have just a few questions to ask you.”

Mother dropped my hand and smoothed her rumpled skirt. Answering questions calmed her trembling and seemed to put new life in her, as if her answers would make Minetree well. But the kind of questions the nurse asked—name, age, color of eyes, hair, disfiguring marks—sounded like missing person questions to me, and my stomach insides started rolling around. I picked up a thumbed over Photoplay magazine with Lana Turner on the cover. She posed with her hand on the steering wheel of a white car. Her arm was draped across the back of the red leather car seat, shiny in the sun. She looked perfect and happy like she had never done anything she didn’t want to do in her whole life.

The heat in that waiting room made my hair friz up around my face. My face tingled like it was preparing to break out in spots. My sunburn itched where I couldn’t scratch it in public and I thought about how good the fizz in a Dr. Pepper would taste just then. And how I would give anything to be back out on the porch with Minetree and start the afternoon all over again.

Just as the nurse wound up her questions, Dr. Mercer turned up. He was tall, bony, white-haired, without a drop of color in his face except for a bloodshot eye. If he’d had his church suit on, I would have said he was the undertaker coming to talk over funeral arrangements. But my mother stood up and said “John,” and let him put his arms around her. She had recovered herself enough to frown at me for not standing up and shaking hands, but I felt too woozy.

“Now,” he said, and his lips started moving, but my ears closed up like they did sometimes in biology class when Miss Hayes talked about body parts. I stood up, said “I have to be excused,” and ran. Down the corridor, past the swinging door, and out the exit of the hospital.

Rain drops dribbled from the bushy leaves hanging over the sidewalk, and a foggy moon had risen. I crossed over to Grove Ave. and raced up Allen St., past Dr. Clement’s Drug Store, where a dusty light lit up the bedpans and toothbrushes and Ace bandages in the window. I made it to Monument Avenue just as the spotlights lit up General Jackson, galloping in place, north towards Washington. I averted my eyes and began counting the street lanterns, guessing how many I had to pass before I’d be home.

Mist rose from the pavement like breath. The shiny wet street hissed. Like it hissed the time my father left for the war. That day, the sun beat down and made the street swim. My mother held me on her hip. My father stretched out his hand that had the fat VMI ring with the perfect stone on it, and said, “A kiss for Daddy?” But I pouted and swung away and hid my face in my mother’s neck. The tires, pulling away from the curb, popped the bubbling tar in the street, and the tar hissed.

The downtown bus, the one that stopped right in front of John Marshall Summer School, roared past empty, splashing up water on the sidewalk, filling my tennis shoes so that they made sucking noises as I ran. Just ahead, I saw the black Oldsmobile. Oh, boy, oh boy, I crossed my fingers on both hands. The windows would be rolled up. The sag on the seat where Minetree sat would be dry, and a nurse, a cheerful one, with a pretty face like Lana Turner’s, would be cranking the top of his bed down and smiling at Mother who had just pounded his pillows so that when the orderly slid him into bed, the pillows would whoosh. His room was the best corner room in the hospital. The sun would pour in like rain in the morning and at night moonlight would flood the room.

The car was parked under a maple tree. Rain dripped from the leaves and pinged against the roof. The curbside windows were up. I ran around to the other side of the car, grabbed at the door handle and rattled it. The handle didn’t move. The moon behind me, bright now, lit up the drizzle on the rolled up glass like stars, and I scooped it up and rubbed it on my face.

As it turned out, a pretty enough nurse was cranking down Minetree’s bed and my mother, who had already given the pillows a workout, was fluttering her fingers in a wave as the orderly eased him onto the sheets. But I didn’t know that then, so I skipped back to the hospital, careful not to step on any cracks. If they could break my mother’s back, the Lord only knew what they could do to Minetree’s remaining red blood corpuscles.


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