Nance Van Winckel
For the third April morning in a row, Dr. Swift has turned off his pager, put his finger to his lips, and nodded conspiratorially to Delia, who closes the closet door on him, gently. He’s perched in her lawn chair in there amid the industrial-strength everythings: cleaners for glass, for chrome, and for the marble hospital foyer it’s her job and hers alone to make shimmer.
“The doctor’s sick,” she told the nurse on Two East who’d asked if Delia had seen him. Where had she seen him last? As if he were a set of lost car keys. Delia mopped around her: swish-swish right up to the tips of those blaringly white shoes.
“Up on Four West,” Delia told her. “He’d didn’t look good. I think he’s sick.” This wasn’t exactly a lie.
In Room 213 the blotto-boy’s parents waited for the verdict. A leg to go? Or to stay? The frostbite inches up. After the snowmobile accident, it’d taken hours upon hours to reach the boy who’d somehow lost his boot.
First the toes had gone, then the foot. Delia imagined the doctor’s saws getting bigger.
Behind her door she knew there would be tears for a while … as her little transistor radio radiated the war news, death scores followed by ball scores. Then the Expo Update. From the ruins of old railroad yards and parking lots, the Great World’s Fair was rising in the still wintry heart of Spokane. The hospital was full of its mishaps: the toppled ladder (a concussion, a broken femur), the nail gun fiasco (nail through a palm!), and the wiring job gone awry (a still purpling, still shriveling electrocuted right arm). From those rooms came languages Delia felt sure could have been hymns from the Stone Age.
After the weather forecast, the door would open. The secret door. And the doctor would emerge.
Doctor Swift. The paging voice was shrill. The coming weather was sleet. Then rain.
The door opens. A face peers around it. He nods to Delia then closes the door. She thinks: we own the dawn hallway. Only steeped inside the closet’s ammonia stench may sad resuscitate. In the closet was the necessary alchemical change needed to drive a decision through to its end. She watches the doctor’s face to see what he’s decided. To save a life a leg must go. No doubt he’d known that all along. And now to make it happen.
Doctor Swift, please dial Two-East.
The boy wanted to go to the Fair next month. Expected to go. Lying there all March and now April, he’d heard the jackhammers rattle the hospital windows. He’d seen the televised footage of the Soviet Pavilion with a forest inside it. A big wide world, the nurses had told him, was coming to our town.
And now stepping into the shadows and out of the doctor’s path, Delia tries not to look into those eyes that have the hard black shimmer at the center, those eyes ablaze with what—who can say?—ungodly or most holy fire.
The sleet rains down. Will a thaw ensue? Will the frost ever quit? Or will the boy’s parents step out into it later after the boy’s asleep and the sharpened-up saws have done their work and the hallway is pristine again and Delia’s door is locked and her yellow rubber gloves snapped off and the mop propped up and the bucket kicked? Kicked hard. Little bugger.
Note: Originally published August 2014, The Spokesman Review.
I worked in a hospital while I was going to college, and I remember a young boy who lost his foot, then his leg, to frostbite. I also recall the doctor crying in a little “break room” behind the switchboard, which was where I worked. I made him some coffee and he told me why. Years later I had sketched out a few other sorts of details through an invented narrator, but it wasn’t until our newspaper asked me for a piece of fiction to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of the World’s Fair in Spokane that I had that extra something that pulled the piece into focus for me: the setting itself. The larger world of work and adventure and all that the boy might have to miss. An aside: I had been considering medical school after college, but I thought I’d first try to get this “writing bug” out of my system so I wouldn’t regret it later. I’m still getting the bug out. Still not regretting it.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of five books of fiction, most recently Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Stories (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Pacific Walkers, her sixth collection of poems, was a finalist for the 2014 Washington State Book Awards. BOOK OF NO LEDGE, a book of visual poetry, will be out next month with Pleiades Press. Nance is a Professor at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers, the recipient of two NEA fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, the American Short Fiction Award, Poetry Society of America’s Gordon Barber Poetry Award, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes. She also teaches in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency MFA in Writing Program.