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Authors: Alix Ohlin

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BOOK: Signs and Wonders
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He smiled at me, his green eyes warm. “That’s not a terrible idea, sir,” he said. He settled himself on the couch, and in a couple minutes we could hear him snoring. At first Stephanie just sat there, staring down at her spaghetti, tears glimmering in her eyes. But I reminded her she didn’t want to get sick, that she had to keep her strength up, and she nodded and lifted her fork. She was sensible like that.

After dinner, I did the dishes while Stephanie made up the spare room for Alan, then crashed in front of the TV. To my surprise, when I went back there to check on him, he was awake. The bedside lamp was on and he was reading one of her

“Guess what?” he said when he saw me. “The female body has a hundred pleasure receptors.”

“Must be nice,” I said.

“Seriously,” he said. “I know maybe three.”

“Yeah.” This wasn’t a topic I was interested in pursuing. “You need anything?”

“Where’s Steph?”

“Sleeping. She’s had a long day.”

“I hear you,” he said. “I hear you.” He was sitting propped up against the pillows, his legs straight out in front of him. With his shoes still on you couldn’t tell which one was the prosthetic foot. He saw me looking.

“You’re a doctor. Tell me why it’s the one that’s gone that hurts.”

“The nerve endings,” I said. “They call it ghost pain. The OxyContin should help.”

He snorted. “I’m not going to lie to you, OxyContin’s like baby aspirin to me at this point.”

I didn’t know what to say to this. “How’s the physical therapy going?”

“How do you think?” He closed his eyes, and a small smile played across his face. “I was in this tank once, me and Ludo,” he said. “We were going through this patch of desert when we heard all this artillery, it sounded real heavy. And then it just stopped. Ludo tells me to stick my head out and see what’s going on. I say no way, I’m gonna get killed. We argue about it for a while. Finally I say okay and stick my head out the top. I look around and I can’t see a damn thing. Not one single person for miles. All I see is this brown desert. After a while, none of it makes sense to me. You know how if you look at a word too long, you can’t tell if it’s a real word? I couldn’t even tell the difference between the sand
and the sky. Finally Ludo pulls me back down. The weird thing is, we never did hear anything about combat engagement that day. Nobody ever said one word about it.”

“Was that where you got hurt?” I said.

“No,” he said. “That was somewhere else.”

He was so quiet after that I figured he’d fallen asleep. I was about to switch off the light when he finally spoke. “You got anything on you, Doctor Tom?”


“Don’t hold out on me,” he said. He opened his eyes and there was no affability there, no sweetness at all. “Don’t you fucking hold out.”

I could see how much he hated me. For being a doctor, for fucking his sister. For having both my feet, for waking each day without pain. “I don’t have anything,” I said, and left.

Steph kept inviting him over for dinner. I think she hoped that the more time he spent with her, in her calm, organized orbit, the more it would rub off on him. Or maybe she was just hoping to keep him decently fed. When invited, he always showed up, always toting that backpack, mostly sober, sometimes not. Once I woke up at midnight and went to the bathroom only to find him passed out next to the sink. I poured cold water over his head to wake him up. He came around slowly, shaking his head, and grabbed at me. He’d lost weight, and he was scrawny, but his arms were strong and ropy with muscle. I went through his backpack. He had five different medications in there but all the vials were empty. Other than the meds, there was nothing in the backpack except a dog-eared copy of
Sports Illustrated
and wallet with a Costco card in it.

“Please get the fuck off me,” he said, pushing me away.

“How much did you take?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Did you throw up?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Do it now.”

“I’m sleepy now, man.”

“Do it now, or I’ll have to take you in and pump your stomach.”

“Okay,” he said, “Okay.” He stuck his fingers down his throat until he gagged. He seemed practiced at it. I sat with him for an hour or so, leaning next to him against the wall and making him drink water, until I felt like he was all right.

Midnight, Tuesday. It was February, an icy night with the roads as slick as rinks, when we got the call from St. Luke’s. Someone had found Alan behind a bar. It seemed possible he’d been there an entire day and night before he was discovered. The temperature hadn’t been above freezing for a week. By the time we got to the hospital, he was awake. The skin on his face was peeling, his lips cracked and bloody.

“Hey, kiddo,” Stephanie said. As she leaned over him, covering his hand with hers, he bared his teeth at her like an animal.

“Leave me the fuck alone,” he said.

Stephanie had just worked a double shift. Exhausted, she started to cry. “Alan,” she said.

I touched her arm. “Why don’t you take a minute?”

She hung her head. She didn’t want to leave him, but she was about to lose it. She nodded, resigned. “I’m going to call Mom and Dad,” she told him. “I’ll be right back.”

As soon as she was gone his mood seemed to clear, and he grinned at me. The dimple in his cheek was still there when he smiled, incongruous against the chapped skin. I’d never seen him like this, his moods so all over the place.

“I only got frostbite in one foot,” he said. “So that’s an upside.”

“It’s good to stay positive,” I said.

Just as quickly as it had arrived, his manic mood left and his grin evaporated. His green eyes were steady. “You could really do me a favor, you know,” he said. “Man to man.” He didn’t say anything else. He cocked his head in the direction of his backpack.

I knew he probably had a whole pharmacy in there. He’d been at the VA hospital in Wilkes-Barre, and they were trying out some new meds, seeing if they could control his pain any better. Stephanie had told me she was hopeful it was going to work, but she said this every time, about each new treatment and every fresh promise from Alan. At work, I’d seen her treat patients with cool professionalism, helpful as she could be, distant as she needed to be. With her brother, it was always going to be different.

“Help me out, Doctor Tom,” he said.

He had that deadpan expression, but it wasn’t disguising some flash of humor. It was just dead. “Please,” he said.

I picked up his backpack and placed it on his bed. It was heavy, and I didn’t ask what was in it. I brought him some water, then turned off the light and closed the door behind me. The hallway was deserted, and I found Stephanie and took her down to the lobby and made her drink a cup of coffee, keeping her down there as long as I could. The nurses went to check on him, but not in time.

I’d been a doctor for less than a year.

I wouldn’t say he looked peaceful. I would say he looked shrunken, and ill-used, and older than his age, which was twenty-six.

I held Stephanie in my arms while she cried. I knew then, feeling her lean into me, feeling my own sadness catch fire from hers, that I loved her, and wanted to marry her, and I stored this feeling away in my heart for a happier day, assuming that we would get to one eventually.

There was a small service, at which Alan and Stephanie’s mother cried dryly, hopelessly, and Ludo gave the eulogy. He said Alan had saved his life by walking in front of him one day, that otherwise, he would have been the one who got injured. “It sucks,” he said.

After the first week, Stephanie didn’t cry all that much. She threw herself into work, double and even triple shifts; she would have worked even more if rules hadn’t forbidden it. In the evenings she cooked for me and ate very little herself, and I tried to be there for her, to listen if she wanted to talk, to hold her at night when she turned to me. On weekends we went on walks, and to the movies. Once, we went to Atlantic City and drank too much and gambled and slept together, and when she smiled for what seemed like the first time in months, I began to feel the clouds parting around us.

Then one night I came home at six and Stephanie was lying on the couch sobbing violently, her shoulders shaking with the force of it. I got her a tissue and she blew her nose into it, honkingly.

She sat up, her knees pulled up to her chin like a child. “It just sort of hit me,” she said, “that he’s never coming back.”

There was nothing I could do to comfort her. She wouldn’t let me touch her. I wondered if on some level she knew, or suspected, what I’d done. “Leave me alone,” she kept saying, and she sounded just like her brother. I left the house, drove around for
a while, stopped at a bar. I started thinking about my old life in Philadelphia, the friends I had there, and the women I’d known, and it seemed like I’d been under some kind of spell, living an unreal life. I had these thoughts, but when I got back to the condo, Stephanie had composed herself. She fixed us each a drink. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just so hard.”

“I know,” I said.

I put my arms around her, and we sat together on the couch. She leaned against my shoulder, her hair brushing my chin. I looked out the window at the half-empty subdivision. No lights showed in the houses nearby, and the blackness of the street blended into the inky night. There was no horizon. It reminded me of the story Alan had told me, about not being able to tell the difference between sand and sky. It sounded almost beautiful to me, to be lost for a moment like that, with no one to tell you which way was up.

Robbing the Cradle

They were making a baby. They were going about it in the traditional way. In a ceremonial moment, Lisette put her birth-control pills away in a shoe box that she then buried in the back of the bedroom closet, underneath the silver pumps she wore only to weddings. She had loved Dan for five years, two of them as his wife, and would have said, if asked, that she couldn’t possibly love him any more than she already did. But this turned out to be false; what had come before was only a beginning, a small green bud. Now that they were planning a family, a new tenderness grew between them, sweet but not spineless, because it was also taut with possibility. When he held her, when he lingered on top, inside her, his light sweat sticking to her belly, when he came, sex itself seemed entirely different. It was wonderful and terrible and holy, to be in love and to know there will soon be a person in the world embodying that love. Half of each of you, combined.

Fueled by this intense, thrilling notion, they had sex all the time. In the supermarket, they held hands. In the evenings, when Lisette was at work with the youth orchestra, running the teenagers
through Tchaikovsky, she ached for her husband, for his hair and smell and skin. Thinking about him, wanting him, she found a sensual component, if not sexual, in the stroke of a bow across a cello’s wide flank, a kiss to the lip of a flute. Everything was a body, everything seemed ripe. The kids, who were between fifteen and eighteen, braced, head-geared, rippled with acne and coltish energy, used to both annoy and entertain her. They’d gotten along well, joking and teasing and even liking one another. But now she felt maternal. She was nicer, more patient, and physical, too—a little pat on the shoulder or brush of the arm letting them know how special they were. There was nothing inappropriate in it. Her energy was all for Dan, and what brimmed over was just extra caring and love. Sensing this, the kids responded. Instead of complaining about the Tchaikovsky being too hard, or hating the modern pieces (which is what they usually did at the start of the season, so that by the time the Christmas concert came around they’d be sure to score major victories in technique and sophistication), they bent their heads and practiced, practiced, practiced.

When Dan came home from work each afternoon—he taught math at the same high school where she rehearsed—they made love before dinner, in between his day and hers. It was like being newlyweds all over again. Sometimes, Lisette thought back to their wedding day, when she’d felt a squeeze in her chest so strong she’d almost thought it might be a heart attack. She and Dan had exchanged vows in front of all their friends and family, then leaned close and whispered a private vow just to each other, something no one else could hear. These days were like that moment all over again: they moved inside a rosy cloud, a bubble of promise, the family-to-be.

This went on for a year.

Each month she expected to get pregnant, and each month she didn’t. She couldn’t understand it. She was young, healthy, ready. By the sixth month, she started to think of her period using her grandmother’s antiquated term.
The curse.
She paid more and more attention to the slightest shifts in her body’s chemistry, its devious ecosystem of hormones and blood, tending to it even as it steadily let her down. She took vitamins, supplements, evening primrose, folic acid. She became an expert in ovulation and cervical mucus. She gauged, with a scientist’s exactitude, the swell of her breasts, the frequency of her tears, all the symptoms that presaged another failed attempt. When the curse came, relentlessly punctual every month, she would lock herself in the bathroom and cry.

BOOK: Signs and Wonders
11.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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