Sunday, February 17, 2008

Healing Louise

As she grew up, Mama, ice cream and the idea of nursing school were enough to keep Louise from falling off the edge of the cliff in her mind. By the time she graduated and held her starched white cap in her hands, she believed she was more than a big round top spinning alone in the universe. That was partly because of Norm.

Norm was the only male nursing student in the class and the only one who would let Louise sit with him at lunch. She could talk, so long as he didn’t have to answer. One day Louise thought up something that might make him talk back. “I want to curl up in some big old bed with you, Norm,” she said. He stared at her, knocked over his chair, still speechless.

When the twins were born exactly nine months later, Louise did not tell Norm. “Because they’re mainly mine,” she reasoned. “I bet Norm couldn’t even tell them apart.”

At first, the babies slept all the time and Louise kept right on working her new job at the hospital.Soon, she needed a looser schedule. The babies needed more and more attention and Mama was getting too old to baby-sit all day long. She was willing to, but Louise worried that she might start to do it wrong. Who really took care of things when I was growing up? She scratched her head, trying to make the bad memories pop out.

The emergency room always dazzled Louise with its white walls. She liked the way the disinfectant pinched her nose, and the nurses looked like angels, white from halo hats to soundless shoes. “ That’s what I want to be when I grow up,” Louise would tell her little wounded birds. “A nurse who lives at the hospital and saves everyone all the time."

Louise had had many jobs when she was little. She nursed neighborhood birds back to health or to their inevitable deaths, and she helped Papa, with Mama spilling out of his arms, get to the hospital in time. Staring from the depths of the clanging old car, she’d nudge Papa to turn, or else to wake up. She’d check on Mama, moaning in the back seat under the tattered black raincoat. Moans sounded bad, but were actually good—it meant Mama was alive enough to be fixed one more time.”

Now she was grown, with grown –up problems. Louise looked from her mother to her daughters. “The twins need their own Mommy,” she decided. The next day, she
signed up to be a home health care worker and immediately put on her nurse’s uniform,in case someone needed her right away. “Nobody thinks that’s weird, now do they?” she asked her tiny girls. They seemed to agree, in a commotion of gurgles.

Her first assignment had her worried. Her palms sweated slippery as she knocked on the patient’s door. “Come,” mumbled a weak voice. Louise pushed the door open and saw one Mrs. Dodge lying like a beige mushroom in the vast field of her frilly bed. Her ashen hair was strewn around her pillow and her lips tightened into a severe line at the nurse’s approach. Maybe she’d let her closer, and maybe she wouldn’t.

Louise arranged herself on the other side of the bed;it was the only way for someone so large to reach the patient.A strand of hair kept escaping her cap and dangled into her eyes. Every time she pushed it back, the bed bounced and the patient moaned.

On the way home that night, Louise picked up a bucket fried chicken.“I deserve a treat for putting up with that ungrateful old woman,” she told herself. She thought of her old job and bit into something with give.

After Papa left them flat, there had been no more trips to the hospital. Louise felt kind of homesick about it. She had to figure out how to get back to the bandages, the disinfectant, the nurses. Maybe if she saved her lunch money for bus fare, she could take the bus to the hospital after school.

It took some doing. Louise starved through each lunch hour,watching girls in pastel angora shovel red Jell-O and cocktail weenies into their lip-sticky mouths. Louise stared into her glass of water as if something interesting was floating in it and eavesdropped on their conversations. Listening to them learning to become cruel distracted her from hunger pains.

Today’s fried chicken was to make up for the hunger of those days. Louise decided not to feel guilty, but it took willpower.

Each time she got an assignment, Louise got as excited. She panted and shook,and it took forever to get her uniform washed, starched and pressed. But by the time she got to the patient’s bedside, a big sweat stain had appeared, traveling down her back and spreading under her armpits. The lace hanky that Louise kept tucked into her rolled up sleeve never did a damn thing.

One day the supervisor summoned Louise to the office. “Must be about my next case,” she thought as she locked the car and brushed crumbs of an Egg McMuffin from her skirt. The supervisor was someone Louise had never met. She imagined someone thin and French-twisted.

Louise entered the office, resisted the urge to salute.“You’re fired,” said the
supervisor.When Louise made no answer, the other woman said,“We’ve had complaints.” More silence from Louise; an exasperated sigh from the boss. “They say you insult them. They say you have no tact. Like the paraplegic for whom you advised suicide.” The supervisor pointed to the exit.

Once in her car, Louise broke down and cried. She cried at the drive-through at
Mickey D’s, at Burger King, at Taco Bell’s. She cried as she ate one thing and as she unwrapped something else. By the time she pulled into her driveway, her car looked like a landfill and she had a bad case of the hiccups.

The nostalgia she felt for nursing soured on the spot. All that time and trouble!
She thought of her junior high days, how she shot out of school day after day, plastered herself against the bus window, waiting for the first glimpse of the
hospital. She could have been home having after-school cookies and milk with Mama!
Instead, she flung herself against the door marked EMERGENCY a hundred times,
skipped along the dingy green corridor to the cafeteria where everything was perfect.

First thing, Louise would say to the cafeteria lunch-lady, “I’ll take the chocolate
cake, please.” Once, as the cashier opened her mouth to speak or swear, another
woman said, “ I know this child. I’ll pay for her cake.” It was one of the nurses who had fixed Mama. “Your mother’s hurt again?” the woman scowled.
“No, she’s fine,” Louise stammered. The nurse’s eyebrows shot up like punctuation.
“Well?” she prompted the girl.
“I just missed the hospital, that’s all,” said Louise. “I want to be a nurse when I
grow up.”
The woman sighed like a punctured tire. “What-- no ballerina fantasies?” She barked out a mean laugh that had confused Louise until right this moment.

Just when it seemed Louise was home again for good, she said to her girls,“Mommy has to go find us money.”
“Why?” they asked as they jumped up and down on the bed.
“We need food,” said their mother.
“We have food,” they said. “Ding Dongs, Oreos, Twinkies.”

Nobody would hire Louise. “You’re finished in this town,” she told her mirror
after another fruitless job hunt. She pulled off her cap and crushed it between her palms.

Now Louise watched TV all the time, eating chips and trying to get an idea.One day she came across a show in which middle-aged mothers were trying to explain to a hostile audience why they sleep with their daughters’ boyfriends. “Where do they find these people?” she asked her girls. “ Trailer parks and shopping malls in Cleveland?”

Louise fantasized about what would happen if she got into the audience. She’d give them the unvarnished truth, the good advice she was famous for. She’d wear her
uniform, and people would take her seriously.

She did just that and it was as easy as falling off a chair. Her first time out she
the show featured a trio of naughty middle-aged people. The title of the program was
Women Who Share A Man. Louise raised her hand as soon as the panelists shut up.
“Have you all had your carotid arteries checked? Because you may not be getting
enough oxygen to your brains what with all that blood pooling in your groin areas. You might be anoxic and that could cause you to think your lifestyle is acceptable when it isclearly just plain rude.” The audience roared its approval and the camera zoomed in on Louise.

Soon she found herself invited to all the shows: Dr. Phil, Oprah, Jerry. She made
blunt comments and the hosts took her to dinner. They didn’t seem to care how much she ate. It was safe to laugh at her old memories now, like that time at dinner when she cleaned her plate as usual, held it out to Mama, and said, “More.”

“Are we having another growth spurt?” Mama had inquired sweetly. The words pricked at Louise; she checked to see if Mama had on the same smile that used to infuriate Papa. There it was, plain as day.

It didn’t matter how big she got now. She wished she knew it would turn out like
this. She’d been such a big child, nobody would believe she was just a kid, so big the hospital banned her for lying about her age. And what about the time when she showed up at a Halloween party dressed as a nurse? They threw her out for being a grown-up.Her life got quiet, the only sounds: chewing and swallowing.

People began to recognize her in the street and in the grocery store “Hey, it’s
Louise the Nurse!” people whispered all the time now. They never looked down when
they saw her coming, or got mad when she couldn’t fit into a chair.

“Well, look at me,” Louise thought. “I must be a star!”

One day Louise was out front pulling up the crabgrass and a stretch limo
pulled up; a man stepped out. “Louise the Nurse?” he asked politely.
“What?” she said, trying to see behind his dark glasses.
“I’d like to offer you a job on my radio show. You could tell people what to do
with their problems.”
“What-- for money?” Louise asked suspiciously.
“OK” the man said.
“Can I wear the uniform?” she wanted to know.
“Well, it’s radio, but sure, I guess so.”

Months later, Louise watched from her deck chair as her girls frolicked by the pool. The daughters were dressed in identical nursing uniforms. Toy stethoscopes dangled from their ears. Presently they crouched over a hurt bird, poking it with Popsicle tongue depressors. “Bring that thing to me,” Louise said. In no time at all she had made a splint from the girls’ Popsicle sticks. Pleased that she still had the knack, Louise said, “There you go. Good as new!”

The little girls looked at the bird skeptically. “It’s still not flying,” one twin
whispered to her sister. She looked her mother straight in the eye, as if she knew the truth when she heard it, and there would be no point in lying. “Mom,” she said, “Are you a real nurse?”

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