Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
|The Sleeper (February, 1972)
She can hear the bells, smell the disinfectant, and under that urine. There's the soft squeak of spongy shoes on linoleum, and voices on an intercom speaking in various codes, and distant coughs and cries. Each hall has several community rooms, empty, or full of families, people talking, reading magazines, comforting each other. There is the florist, and flowers here and there. In the central nurses station, a large woman, dressed all in white, laughs loudly as she eats a cheese sandwich and talks to a nurse about the old man who is always complaining. The little girl's head aches and aches, and she can't open her eyes, so she keeps them shut, and worst of all, she can't remember any words at all. And she thinks to herself, I'm not going to say anything until I can remember the words, and in the dark, in the night, she begins to practice, silently, moving just her lips, then her tongue, around the dark and spiky syllables.
I'm sitting beside the little girl's bed. She looks asleep, and unhurt. A few scratches on her cheek and arm, that's it. She has swelling on the brain, a big lump behind her ear where she landed. She flew through the air, out of the car, after it started flipping end over end. This was before seat belts. The doctor calls it a deep concussion. "We just have to wait," he says. The X-rays are negative. "The skull is intact. She's young and resilient."
Her lips move from time to time, a sort of whisper. Her breathing stays calm, constant. They gave her oxygen for the first couple of days. Now the tank is gone, and the mask.
Rex comes in, pats me on the shoulder, leans over and kisses the girl, says "Daddy's here," sits down heavily on the other side of the bed. He looks at her for a long time, then up at me. He raises his eyebrows in a question.
"Nothing's happened since I got here," I say. "I read her the funnies. They say to talk to her a lot, who knows what gets through." Rex knows that. He looks down at her, pats her hand. "Daddy's here," he says again. "Daddy's here, honey." She sleeps on.
I go out in the hall and smoke a cigarette. I go down to the lobby and get a Coke out of the machine. Hospitals aren't "smoke-free" yet, and anyway, this is North Carolina, and Duke Hospital, a facility built on tobacco. We grew up here believing that, all things considered, cigarettes were probably good for you as well as--cool. Mickey Mantle smoked Camels. I've seen the ad. I light up again and pace back and forth in front of the Coke machine. A tall, thin doctor walks up, striding rapidly. He asks me for a light.
When I go back to the room, Rex and the girl are right where I left them. "Take a break," I tell Rex. He smiles at me, gets up. "I'll be back in a few minutes." After he leaves, I sit beside the bed and say, "It's Roy here, honey. It's really getting nice outside now, the crocuses are coming up already. Pretty soon the redbud will be out." I reach out and pat her little hand, which is folded across her stomach. "You know what? I'm going to get you a kite this year. What to fly it with me, sweetie?" She sleeps on.
When Rex comes back he says he can stay for the evening. I get up after a while. "I'll come back in the morning," I tell him.
Outside it's dark. It's the middle of winter, the beginnings of the beginning of spring. Around the hospital it's all florescent lights and concrete and asphalt and desperation, but out in the countryside where I live, the crocuses are indeed coming up. In the morning I sit on my front steps and drink coffee and look at them around the stoop. I wish my dog hadn't died.
I haven't been to work for weeks,
except in fits and starts. At first, after the crash, I didn't go
at all. First there was that weekend of dealing with it, the stuff
in the wreck, Katherine's mother down in Florida, Rex teaching in Georgia,
the hospital. Not that I dealt with it. I just sat at Gloria's
house, at the kitchen table, for hours. I can't remember where I
slept that first night, I have no idea. My first rational thought
was, the little girl needs to live with Rex; not an old, bitter grandmother.
That passed through my head sometime early on, and I held on to it. When
Katherine's mother arrived, I convinced her it was a good idea.
Today I go to work, pick up my mail, go to the hospital. The girl lies there. I reach over the bed rail, pat her hand. "Hi hon. Itís Roy. It's a beautiful day outside. Great kite weather. Here's what's happening in the funnies." She squeezes my hand! Her eyes are open, and she looks at me and gives me a little smile.
That's the first day of her coming out of it. That's it, a little smile, a squeeze. Rex and I walk her up and down the hall in a wheelchair, talk to her. She looks curiously at pictures of elephants and rabbits on the wall. In the cafeteria we talk about what to say to her about Katherine. She will ask eventually. I go back to work, put in a couple more hours, take a little work home with me. I feel like jumping up and down. I turn on the TV, drink a shot of bourbon, smoke a Camel.
Every day now Rex and I are thinking, this will be it. She's going to talk today. It's maybe five days, though, between the smile and the squeeze and what she does next. We're walking her down the hall and she suddenly reads a word on the wall--there are these murals on the wall, as it's the children's part of the hospital, big cartoons sort of. It's amazing. Back in her room she looks at the Sunday funnies and says a few more words that are written there. This goes on for several days, her reading words out of the funnies, the paper. And the words begin to be, perhaps, not entirely random. They have to do, maybe, with why she's lying in the hospital, and where her mother has gone.
Now she's been in the hospital close to a month, and she's talking and walking, and it's time for her to leave. Rex and I roll her out to his car--she can walk fine, but hospitals want you to roll. It's really spring now, warm, gorgeous, a southern breeze. Rex has to go back to Georgia. After a day or two, I put them on the plane. Rex has told the little girl that Katherine is in heaven. She seems to understand. On the way out to the airport--Rex's girl friend is driving--he looks around at me. I'm in the back seat with the little girl. "We ought to get a band together sometime," he says.
Tommy writes of the Hollow Rock years before the Red Clay Ramblers
Jesse's letters about Tommy's illness and passing
Red Clay Ramblers Souvenirs