I awaken on a hard surface, but it gives a bit. The ICU bed is elevated so that I’m sitting almost straight up. It seems there’s an iron football helmet on my head. Straining, I open my eyes and look through Vaseline. The light is low.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

I moan. My throat is raw. My mouth is stretched around huge hardness: plastic tasting. Cool dry chemical air is forced into my nose. I jerk, but cannot escape it. Sharpness pinches. Four IV needles have been inserted into my hands and arms, which are strapped to boards. The surgeon had said there would be one. One. What went wrong?

Ding-ding-ding becomes a squeal.

The squealing stops.

“It’s all over now,” a blurry nurse says as she replaces an IV bag. 

She’s whispering, but the sound is shattering.

“Your surgery went well. Take some deep breaths for me, then I can remove the breathing tube.”

Inhaling the sharp chemical-smelling air, I groan and utter, “Please,” a hoarse “eh” arrested by the invasive tube.

“Try not to move,” the nurse says, injecting something else into the IV.

I notice that I’m shivering.

She arranges a warmed sheet over my scanty hospital gown, then punches a device connected to a tube connected to me.

“I’ve given you something for the pain.”

Closing my eyes, I’m relieved the breathing tube has been removed.

~ ~ ~

Sunrays beam through my grandmother’s kitchen window, which spans the wall behind the sink. Hanging baskets of over-sunned ferns and trails of philodendra shadow the counter. Although my grandmother’s new central air conditioner whirrs through a small vent, the kitchen air is heavy with August heat. Oily aromas of tomatoes and sausages hover. Lonnie set a pot of jambalaya aside on the stove before he went to the store. Lonely since he left, I’ve been sitting at the kitchen table and coloring a picture, horses in a pasture, but there’s a cotton field across the road.
This is prettier.  

The den is cooler and has a television, but I want to be here when Lonnie returns. Wearing navy-blue shorts and a white puffed-sleeved top with red, yellow, and blue ricrac my grandmother made, I’m dressed for a warm day.

Lonnie’s Plymouth, model 1949—almost twice as old as I am—crunches over gravel then motors through the smooth concrete carport. I run to look outside but, too little to see out the window over the sink, I climb onto the kitchen stool and catch a glimpse as Lonnie crosses the backyard
half of the circular driveway and disappears.

The thick wooden door opens. In comes a dark brown-skinned man wearing a grey baseball cap, a blue-grey work shirt, and baggy charcoal trousers. The screen door bangs shut behind him. Lonnie’s face is dotted with sweat and his shirt is damp. It’s very hot outside in Arkansas.

He’s carrying an old wrinkled grocery bag.

            “Lonnie!” My arms reach up for him, but his are still full.

            “Hey, Puddin!” he says.

Brighter than the sun, he smiles back at me and sets the wrinkled bag on the counter. It’s the sack he takes to the service station to bring back filled with bottles of cold soda. Turning to face the wall with windows, he opens a narrow closet just inside the door. He hangs his cap on a hook, withdraws his full knee-length white apron, slips the straps over his bald head and ties the apron strings around his back.

He opens his arms now and gives me a big hug.

Wrapping my arms around him, I press my cheek against his apron, soft, not starched, because it’s his every-day kitchen one and it smells comforting like Lonnie does.

“You want you’ soda pop now?” he asks.

I smile and nod. He knows I do.

Retrieving the grocery bag, Lonnie holds a treasure. He peeps inside. Fingering the metal tops of the bottles in the bag, he shuffles them around and they make all kinds of glassy clinks and heavy clanks. The colors of the fizzy liquids I’m certain the bottles contain are still hidden, but I see condensation dripping onto the paper bag and anticipate an ice-cold soda.

“Grapefruit pop?” he asks.

I make a face.

He looks sad at me as if Mr. Billy had only one flavor in the refrigerator chest today.

“You sure ’bout that?” he asks, a playful sparkle in his brown eyes. “The grapefruit’s mighty good—my favorite.” He sets the pink soda on the counter, but the bag is still weighted and clanking.

Two more bottles, cherry and lemon-lime, appear on the kitchen counter next to the white porcelain stove.

“Or,” Lonnie says, smiling wide, and slips the last bottle from the bag, “grape?”

“Grape!” I say.

He pulls a bottle opener from a drawer and pops the top. As he hands me the bottle, purple bubbles foam through icy crystals rising over the dark liquid, almost bubbling over. Wrapping both hands around the glass bottle, full and dripping cold, I smell grape flavoring, tilt my head back like Lonnie does drinking his pink grapefruit, and take a big fizzy, nose-tickling swallow.

It tastes like summer used to taste.

A blurry nurse in blue scrubs comes into focus, but I don’t recognize her. About my age, twenty-something, she injects liquid into the IV.

“Antibiotics,” she says, “to prevent post-surgical infection.”

Now there is only one IV in my arm and a heparin lock in my hand.

“Can you tell me what year it is?” she asks.

Of course, I think, but, a moment ago, it was 1960 and I was six years old.

“1983,” I answer, my tongue dry and sticking to the roof of my mouth. “May I have some water?”

“Not yet. You had some emesis earlier. Strong anesthesia has made you forget. I’ve already given you several spoons of crushed ice.” She sits in the chair next to me and smiles sweetly. “You’ve been here in ICU since you first awakened eight hours ago,” she recites as though accustomed to repeating information dozens of times.

Unable to recall having crushed ice, I think of Lonnie and my eyes water. A tear runs down my cheek. I loved Lonnie. We all did. I’ll miss him the rest of my life.

“I’m Mary,” the nurse continues. “I’ve been looking after you. Your mother and father are in the waiting area.”

“They’ve waited all this time?”

“Never left.”

“May I see them?”

“Soon. They’ve each been in for a few minutes every few hours as ICU rules permit.”

In this small dim room, I’m surrounded by wires and medical equipment, most of which are attached to me, a trapped, over-achieving pincushion with surgical steel daggers in its head—if it had one. I wonder how long my thoughts will be as clear as a mud puddle.

Across from the foot of the bed, a shaded glass window opens to a blue-bright area. The nurses’ station is a flurry of activity, a world apart from the quiet in here. Mary draws the curtains, blocking the painful light.

“That’s better. Thank you.”

I recall the front part of my head will have been shaven ear-to-ear and struggle against the IV and other constraints to feel for hair. My fingers find a drainage tube, resembling a balloon, which alarms me.

“This is normal,” Mary says, intercepting my hand.

She reaches to check the dressing on my head. Her arms, like mine, are tanned by the California sun, but I wonder if I will leave the hospital before my skin has paled to winter.

Mary injects something into the IV.

Lonnie is sitting on the kitchen stool with a large glass salad bowl on his lap. On the counter next to him are bunches of celery, boiled potatoes, a plate of shelled hard-boiled eggs, and a bowl of fruit. He reaches for a knife and a celery stalk, which is already clipped at the ends and strung. Holding the stalk, he cuts three vertical slices partway down the length of the celery until it reaches the wider paler green at the opposite end.

From the kitchen table, I drag a chair in front of Lonnie so we can talk and I can watch how he chops celery. I hop onto the seat and sit cross-legged, but then I remember myself and put my feet on the floor and cross my ankles.

Lonnie smiles and shakes his head a little bit.

“Why do you cut the celery the long way?” I ask.

“So I can slice sideways again and cut small same-size pieces for the salad.”

He demonstrates. Four perfect bits of celery drop into the bowl.

I clap my hands.

“Years of practice, Puddin.”

A few minutes later, the bowl is full of chopped celery. Lonnie stands up and covers the bowl of potatoes and other salad ingredients with a red-plaid kitchen towel.

 “How ’bout an apple?” he asks.

“Will you peel the whole thing in one long squiggly strip?”

“Sure, I will!”

I smile.

He selects a large red apple from the fruit bowl, returns to his stool, and begins to peel it.

Watching a coil of peeling dangle from the knife, which looks like it could fall apart at any second, reminds me of a book my mama’s been talking about.

“Mama said she was all worried by a book written by a woman whose name sounds like Ann somebody, but it wasn’t.”

“Wasn’t what?”

“Wasn’t ‘Ann.’”

“Oh, I see.”

I think about starting first grade this year and decide it’s a bad idea because I’d be there all day instead of here with Lonnie, but I like the globe my godmother gave me for my birthday. Turning my head nearly upside-down and sideways to watch the peel twirl around, I visualize how the globe twirls around on a pin and then I get all worried like Mama.

“You mighty quiet, Puddin. What you thinkin’ ’bout now?”

“Earthquakes.”

“Why you thinkin’ ’bout them?”

“Well, because the book my mama read was about Atlas shrugging while he’s holding the world on his shoulders, and after Mama finished reading it, she shook her head at it and told it that it took a good heart and a strong conscience to run a country, not just reason. Then she said if we didn’t change our ways, the ground would open up and swallow us all into Hell!”

“Bless you, child, that ain’t gonna happen. There’s been no earthquake here since the day the Mississippi River flowed backwards and made Reelfoot Lake, a long time ago.”

Although Lonnie made me feel better about us not going to Hell, I still have my doubts about a global shrug. I stare at the apple peeling, long red and juicy scallops curling from the knife and swinging almost to the floor.

“Lonnie?”

“Hmm?”

“Do Republicans cause earthquakes?”

He looks worried like I’ve said something I should have kept quiet about, but then he chuckles, so it’s okay.

The apple peel nearly breaks. He lets it sway a little then catches it.

“Now why you reckon Republicans got to do with earthquakes?”

“After Mama said the Earth would swallow us up, she said she’ll have to think twice before she votes Republican this fall and just might vote for the Catholic instead. We are.”

“Are what?”

“Are Catholic.”

I grin at Lonnie because he’s teasing me again.

He grins back and hands me the best longest all-in-one perfect swirly apple peeling I’ve ever seen.

“Are you sure you’ mama been readin’ ’bout earthquakes, Puddin?”

 

 

~ End of Story One ~

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