Skip to main content

A Question of Timing

ISSUE:  Spring 1979

“How about another drink?” Peter says to the out-of-town lawyer he has brought home unexpectedly for dinner. And he plucks the empty glass out of the man’s hand.

“A short one,” he explains to me, “while you’re putting dinner on the table.”

“But dinner’s on the table. That’s what I came to tell you.”

“Then take it off,” he says and walks over to the bar.

I follow, whispering, since I don’t want to make a scene before the tall, skinny stranger from a Wall Street firm, who is standing by the bookcase, blinking like a startled squirrel.

“For God’s sake, Peter. It’s already ten to seven. They want the speakers on the stage by eight o’clock.”

“Relax,” he says, tonging ice cubes from the silver ice bucket his groomsmen gave him—good grief, was it just five years ago? “If we eat at seven you’ll have ample time to get there.”

He says all this out loud, forcing me to make a choice: Nasty scene before his guest? Or complete capitulation. He’s got me and he knows it. I cannot bring myself to spill my ugly thoughts before a guest.

So I cork them in my skull and glare at Peter, thinking: damn you and your extra drink. Don’t you know that blows it? Blows the fragile schedule I’ve been building like a cardhouse all day long: Bath at two o’clock while the children are still napping. Park from three to five. Baby down again by six. And dinner on the table by six-fifty at the latest. Now thanks to you, everything will be off balance. Nothing will go right tonight, because I’ve lost that extra time I need to get my notes arranged before my hands start shaking. To comb my hair if necessary right before I step out on the stage.

Big deal, you would say. A 20-minute talk on Richmond architecture at your old school. Why should you be nervous? A good question, actually. Why am I so jittery? I used to stand up on that stage without a qualm . . . .

“Would you like a drink, too?” I hear Peter asking me.

“No!” I say. And then I turn and walk back toward the kitchen, hammering my heels into the heart-pine floorboards. One of the main reasons we hocked our souls to buy this hundred-year-old town house. Dirt-smeared, grit-caked, splintery floor boards. One of the main reasons I hate the house now.

As I pass through the tiny dining room, I snatch the casse-role from the silver trivet my great-uncle gave us, take four long steps into the narrow pullman kitchen, yank the oven door open, and shove the casserole inside.”I’ll be lucky,” I am thinking as I slam the oven door and spin the dial to Warm, “damned lucky if I make it to the school by eight o’clock.”

“I’m hungry, Mumma,” Courtney whines. She is sitting on the kitchen floor playing with the strainer and the soup ladle I gave her earlier to shut her up. Her small back propped against the yellow kitchen wall. Her short, plump legs in their lime green tights jutting out into the space between the wall and the refrigerator door. No shoes on, I notice. Dammit, where’d she leave her shoes?

“Can I have a cookie, Mumma? Can I? Can I have a cookie?” And then she starts to cough. A deep, phlegmy cough. It’s getting worse, I think, as I snatch a cookie from the Meissen plate I’ve brought out for the guest. And that wind in the park didn’t do her any good. I hand the cookie down to her. If she’s any worse tomorrow, I’ll take her to the doctor.

“Move over,” I say. “So I can get the butter.”

Courtney bites into the cookie and wriggles toward the stove to leave some room for the refrigerator door to open. I grab its metal handle. But the kettle starts to whistle. So I let the handle go and step across the bright green, bump-kneed legs to get back to the stove. “Can’t you see you’re in the way?” I snap.”Why don’t you go into the living room and play?”

“It’s cold out there,” she says.

She’s absolutely right. It is freezing in this house. We keep the thermostat at sixty-two for fear of going bankrupt from the oil bill.

By now the kettle’s screaming. Loud. As I would like to scream. So I grab its plastic handle and yank it from the glowing coil.

Right away the screaming stops. And silence. Cool, clean silence washes down the kitchen’s narrow, grease-stained, high-gloss yellow walls.

My hands are trembling, I notice, as I start to pour the water into the top half of the old drip coffeepot I bought when I was still in Cambridge, working at the Fogg Museum. It wobbles just a little. I ought to twist it in tighter. But I need two hands to do that. And where can I put the kettle? If I put it on the counter it will burn the Formica. If I put it on the burner, the one free burner, then the scream, that awful scream, will come again. So I do the best I can to twist the top half tight with one hand and continue pouring with the other. When the top is almost full, it tilts, all of a sudden. And spills the boiling water to the floor.

The transparent tongue of water barely misses my skirt and hits the floor, thank the Lord, just this side of Courtney. Then I watch the puddle stretch into a finger pointing straight at Courtney’s lime green tights. It would serve Peter right if we killed ourselves out here, I am thinking as I stand there. Frozen. The kettle in my hand. The water finger inching toward the lime green tights.

Suddenly Courtney screams. A scream of pain. Real pain. I drop the kettle on the coil, and it starts screaming, too. Convert my hands to hooks that scoop the child up at the armpits. And swing her, wet legs flapping, into the dining room where there is a chair that I can sit on while I stand her on my lap and start to pull the steaming green tights off. As I peel the tights down, the skin peels after them, rolling down her chubby legs like a thin pink film of rubber.

And now I’m screaming, too: “Help me! Please. Somebody,help me!”

The men come running, then. Their extra drinks still in their hands.

By the time they get to us, Courtney has stopped screaming. She is only sobbing now, her face against my shoulder. I can feel warm tears and mucus soaking through my blouse.

The men’s eyes open wide at the sight of the raw red backs of Courtney’s legs.

“I spilled the boiling water for the coffee,” I begin. “It hit the floor, and got on Courtney’s tights. . . .” And then I stop. Because I realize that words aren’t going to help us.

The men are silent, too, as they stand there, helpless sticks against the dining room wall, lampposts blinking at the scene of the accident below them while I hold the child against my shoulder and pat her on the back as if she were a baby and she needed burping. All my thoughts and energies are funneled for one moment into this single task.

It is as if the web of words I keep suspended in my skull has been, all of a sudden, swept aside. And I have to act without it. And I feel, to my surprise, more competent without it. Not yanked from thought to thought, but at peace, for once, with everyone around me.

Even with my husband. So far not a word has passed between us. Not a single accusation. Or counter-accusation. Is it possible we realize it doesn’t really matter who is finally at fault? All that matters is the child. The life outside our tangled lives that we started once and now have harmed. Oh God, is what I think. Is anybody sane enough to be a decent parent?

Then I notice Peter’s arms. Stretched out to take Courtney. “Can I hold her for you? While you call the doctor?”

He’s afraid to call himself. I feel, unexpectedly, a rush of sympathy for him.”Yes,” I say, and hand him up his raw-legged, sobbing daughter and walk out to the hall and dial Dr. Henderson who is, thank the Lord, at home.

“How extensive are the burns?” he asks.

“All over her legs.”

“Be specific!” he shouts back.

“Down the backs of both her legs,” I try to keep my voice level, “from her buttocks to her ankles,” and feel suddenly pleased, what a strange time to be pleased, with myself for thinking up a word as anatomical and accurate as “buttocks.”

There is silence for a second. Then the doctor’s husky voice. Calm now and not angry. Steady as a hand holding up my elbow. Cover up the legs with towels> he says. Clean turkish towels, to cut down on exposure to infection. That’s the danger of a burn. Once a large part of the body has been stripped of its protective armor, infection is liable to take over. So keep her legs covered with the towels. And put an ice pack on them, if she’ll tolerate the ice. And get her to the Medical College right away.

In the meantime he will call ahead and get the burn specialist, Dr. Yates, to meet us in the Burn Ward.

The guest agrees to look after the baby if he wakes. So we leave him there, poor man. We hardly even know him. Leave him sitting on the sofa, sipping on his second drink.

Peter drives while I sit in the back with Courtney, who is lying on her stomach with her legs across my lap. Every time I try to press the ice pack to the burns, she cries, “Don’t. Don’t! It hurts!”

Finally, I give up and simply drape the towels across her legs. We drive on, then, in silence. And my mind begins projecting, in the darkness of the car, a Kodachrome slide show— beach shots of Courtney as a teenager with sausage-withered legs sticking out of her bikini. . . .

So I force myself to look out of the windshield. And see that we are downtown. Turning right on Broad Street where the ruby taillights of the cars in front of us are spilling like a necklace into Shockhoe Valley, where the town of Richmond started, and up the distant hill to St. John’s Church. On the other side of Broad I see a chain of white lights moving toward us. Down the slope of Church Hill. And up the slope of this hill, which is Court Hill, where George Wythe lived and died (poisoned by his nephew). And John Marshall built his house. And now the Medical College has put up skyscrapers, jagged teeth planted in the hillside.

I can see the Main building ahead of us now, with a searchlight on its tower that goes up and out, revolving. A flat finger of light accusing something way up in the sky.

In the Admissions Office the aluminum ball on the electric typewriter types out line after line of names, addresses, numbers, while I shift Courtney’s weight from one hip to the other and readjust the towels to cover her completely, to keep out all the germs that must be floating in this office.

Peter searches through his wallet for the Blue Cross card. Finds it. Hands it to the woman. And the metal ball types that number, too. Then pecks a little sentence of its own:

“Mother alleges child was accidentally burned by boiling water.”

Rrrip. The woman yanks the form out of the typewriter. Tears a sheet from it. Hands it up to Peter.”Take this to the Burn Ward. Elevator on your right to the third floor.”

As soon as we step out into the Burn Ward, a typist traps Peter. And a nurse beckons to me—I am still carrying Courtney, still struggling to keep the skirt of towels on her legs— and leads us down a hall to a clean white cubicle where a sterile sheet has been spread on an examining table. Apparently she wants me to set Courtney down on it. So I tip her body forward, slide one hand beneath her knees so that her legs won’t have to bend. What hurts her most of all is when her legs are forced to bend. Then I lower gently to the table on her stomach.

The nurse draws back the towels and studies Courtney’s legs. The skin is pink now, in most places, with periodic puddles of dark red.

“Not as bad as I expected,” says the nurse. “Mostly first degree. Some second. Few, if any, third.”

She bends down to speak to Courtney, who is lying with her face flattened sideways on the table. Eyes wide open. Staring straight ahead.”I wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Yates lets you go home tonight, young lady.”

The nurse’s rubber soles pivot then, and squeak out of the room. I follow her into the hall.”Will the burns leave scars?”

“I don’t know,” says the nurse. “Dr. Yates can tell you that.”

So I step back into the cubicle and wait.

Peter sticks his head in. “How ya doin’, Pooh?”

“Fine,” Courtney says. But only her lips move.

Since the room’s too small for all of us, Peter says he’ll wait, lamppost witness once again, out in the hall.

A medical student ambles in with a syringe tucked under the ringers of the hand that he keeps casually by his side. With his free hand he pulls back Courtney’s jumper and exposes her bare bottom. Swabs it with a dot of cotton. Then, zip. The needle’s Up. And In. And Out. Before she has a chance to cry.

“Tetanus,” he explains as he wipes the needle clean.

I now hear plastic casters rolling on the tile floor of the hall. I turn and see a stretcher sliding past the doorway. First a tight white sheet, wound around a body. Finally a face. The brown, hooked, flint-nosed profile of a woman. An Indian woman. With her eyes shut tight. Is she dead? I wonder. No— I can see a slight rising and falling in the sheet across her chest.

Behind the stretcher comes an old man. Black. Rocking on his rundown heels. His white hair pressed in tiny coils against his head. His overcoat hanging limply from his bony shoulders. He is carrying a child, a little black girl about a year younger than Courtney.

“His granddaughter,” the medical student whispers to me. “The other is his wife.” He nods toward the stretcher. “Burned when their oil stove exploded.”

The orderlies park the stretcher on the far side of the hall, and leave it. Leave the woman sleeping. And gesture to the old man to go into the cubicle opposite Courtney’s. I watch him stand the child up on the sterile-sheeted table. Her fat brown baby legs are pumping with impatience. But so far she has not made a single sound.

The entire scene, in fact, is played out in silence as I try not to stare at the peeling pink patches on the child’s brown legs and arms, and the red patch on her stomach that is partially covered by a pair of dingy gray training pants.

Oh my God, take them off! I think.

As if he reads my mind, the medical student steps across the hall and reaches for the training pants. But the old man blocks him with his arm. No words pass between them. The student shrugs his shoulders and steps back from the room. Then he walks on down the hall.

Infection! I am screaming somewhere way behind the silence. You should let him take those pants off! Don’t you understand about the danger of infection?

But I do not say a word out loud. No one dares to break the silence as we wait there. Together. Propped against the terrifying silence.

Then I hear rubber soles squeaking in the hall. He is coming. Dr. Yates. Like the king in an Elizabethan drama. Hire-lings, nurses, interns, rushing down the hall before him. A flurry of activity. And then, the Man, Himself. Bowing into first one tiny room, and then another. Examining the burns. Then muttering instructions which are instantly recorded onto stainless steel clipboards. The woman on the stretcher and the black child, they must stay, he says. And this child. (He is looking now at Courtney’s legs.) This child can go home, as soon as she is bandaged.

He turns his face toward me. The kindest, most forgiving face I’ve ever seen.”Your child will be all right,” he says. “There won’t be any scars. Except perhaps a small one on her thigh. We’ll bandage up her legs now. And give her penicillin. Can you bring her back to see me Tuesday morning at eleven?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes.” And then I add, to my surprise—ordinarily I’d realize it really isn’t any of my business—”What about the others?” I nod toward the stretcher.

Dr. Yates presses his lips into a line as thin as string. “We will see,” he says. And, oh my God, I know exactly what he means.

Then, before I can say thank you, he is gone.

A nurse and an intern bandage Courtney’s legs from her thighs to her ankles, leaving only her feet free. The student with the syringe ambles in again and gives her a shot of penicillin.

“Now she can go home,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you,” while Peter steps into the room and picks up Courtney and holds her by the waist so that I can put her coat on, her green plaid Sunday coat, which now has clean white leggings that stick out straight into the air, as Peter makes a chair out of his arms.

That’s how he takes her down the hall, while I follow, tossing words of gratitude like daisies at whatever nurses, order-lies, or interns happen to walk past me in the hall. I feel compelled to give back something for this unexpected gift, this gratuitous release from the punishment I know that I deserve. Scars on Courtney’s legs. Lifelong reminders of my failure as a mother.

Oh God, please, I am thinking as we stand and wait for the elevator to come down from the 10th floor. Please help me be a better mother. Yet even as I think this, I know that I won’t be. Very possibly I can’t be.

When the elevator doors slide open, I let Peter go in first, preceded by Courtney’s bright white fork-lift legs. Then I step inside, myself, and press the lobby button.

As the metal doors slide shut, I glance down at my watch. And see, to my surprise, that it is still only eight twenty-five.

Only eight twenty-five? I can feel my spider mind throwing out a guy line. Probably the first speech isn’t even over yet. . . . And I am scheduled fourth. . . . If I could just persuade Peter to put Courtney to bed, and feed his guest the dinner, I could be out at the school by nine o’clock. . . .

A reasonable plan. And so I say to Peter, as I begin to feel the elevator moving down, “I think I still have time to give my talk. If you would just put. . . .”

“No,” he says. Calmly, but firmly. “Don’t you understand? You can’t leave her tonight.”

“But they’ll never ask me back if I let them down tonight. . . .” I hear my own voice pleading like an engine disengaged from the rest of my mind, which has already decided that I won’t leave her tonight. That for once Peter is right. And yet that other part of me keeps on talking: “I’ve heard they’re looking for a teacher. A part-time teacher in the history of art. If I could go there for an hour. Just to give my talk, which is a damn good talk. . . .”

Then I look across at Courtney, who is staring at me blankly, her thin wrists locked around her father’s neck, offering her round eyes like plates, Wedgwood blue plates, onto which I can deposit anything I please.

As soon as we get home I phone the school and try to explain to them why I cannot come. Then, while Peter and the lawyer finish up the wine and casserole, I carry Courtney up the steps—19 heart-pine steps—into the back bedroom where I stand her on her bed and take her jumper off.

“I have to wee-wee,” she says.

A wave of panic washes over me. How can she do that? Without ruining the bandages? Without spraying them with urine which will soak into the burns?

Oh my God, is what I think. Why did I forget to ask the doctor how to do this?

But, “O. K.” is what I say. Trying to sound confident. As if this were a perfectly acceptable request.”But you’ve got to wait. Do you hear? Till I get you fixed in just the right position. So you won’t wet your bandages. O. K.?”

“O. K.” she says.

I can feel the muscles in my forearms straining as I swing Courtney down over the toilet seat, bending my legs slowly, so slowly in fact that I feel one stocking break into a run. I tip her body back against my right arm so the bandaged legs go up and form a V. Then I slide my left hand down her legs to shield the spot way up on her thigh where the bandages stop. Now if any urine splashes there, it splashes on my hand.

I can feel Courtney’s wrist bone pressing on my neckbone. Her warm, sweet breath blowing on my cheek.

“O. K. You can go,” I say.

And then we wait there, locked together. Me kneeling. She hanging. Both absolutely still. And barely breathing. As we used to wait a year ago when she was being trained.

Can she manage it? I wonder. In this strange position? If I just had one hand free, I could reach around and turn the spigot on. It always used to help her when I turned the spigot on.

Then I hear the sound. The reassuring sound of water pouring into water.

I wait until it stops. Slide my arm across her back to reach the toilet paper. Tear a few sheets off. And blot up any drops of urine there might be between her legs.

“Good girl!” I say. “You didn’t get a drop on either bandage.”

Instantly I feel Courtney’s spine relax against my arm. Her wrist bones tighten at my neck.

“You’re my best friend,” she says.

For a while I cannot speak.

As I kneel there, locked in the hug of my warm, defenseless daughter, I can feel the strength draining from my leg muscles. And I wonder for a second where I’m going to find the spurt of energy I’ll need to lift the weight of both our bodies up, onto my feet.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading