HE IS: TALL, KNOBBY-KNEED, THIN AS A QUARTER POLE, IN HIS shop on Seventh Street, craned over his tailoring bench, applying white piping to a vest, when the pain in his lower right abdomen becomes a searing white-hot agony. He moans and keels over his work table, clutching at himself. This causes Mr. Billetti, the produce vendor in the market stall next door, to come running. After a moment of panic (arms flapping, hopping on one spot, saying, “Holy-a cow, holy-a moly”), Mr. Billetti throws his groaning friend onto an empty wooden cart, laying him on the flatbed ordinarily reserved for rutabagas and eggplants. He rickshaws Dimitri all the way to St. Mary’s, bursts through the doors, and cries “Help! I needa help!” before collapsing at the toes of the Virgin Mary.
Ten minutes later, they scalpaled Dimitri open and removed what was left of his appendix, which by that point wasn’t much, a squishy burst purple thing the size of a prune split lengthwise.
Then they wheeled him into Ward 4 and parked him halfway down the right aisle, asleep and wearing a white flannel hospital gown. After about a half-hour or so, I wandered over and took my first long gander. He was lean and sharply boned and what the other trainee nurses called handsome, with his fine nose and wavy hair and olive-toned skin. Even unconscious he wore a smirk; later I figured out he wore it so much during the day his face had learned to fall that way natural when he was asleep.
As the poison spread through his body, he plumped up and turned the colour of a carrot. His hands looked like they’d burst if you pricked them. He slept around the clock, the only painkillers in 1907 being the kind that put you out like a light. On day three, I happened to hear two doctors discussing what all that stuff circulating through his body was likely going to do to him. “Either it’ll kill him,” the older one said, “or it won’t. I suppose we’ll have to wait around and see.”
After three or four days, it became obvious Dimitri was choosing the second option, for his bloating eased, his skin returned to a colour more salad oil than carrot and he didn’t look so mortuary-still when asleep. While emptying a chamber pot near his bed one morning, I took a moment to look him over, fascinated by the way his chest hair curled like baby fingers over the collar of his gown. Suddenly he opened his eyes and without bothering to focus said, “What is it your name, beautiful girl?”
Now this had a discombobulating effect on me, for not only was he the first person since my father had died to pay me a compliment, but he’d come out of what was practically a stone-cold coma to do it. I looked at him, perplexed at how he’d managed this, seeing as most people come awake so groggy and confused it takes them an hour to remember which way is up. I finally put it down to instinct, like the way you blink when onion vapour gets in your eye. When I turned and left I could feel his eyes struggling to get a bead on my crinolined backside.
“Maybe next time you stay longer,” he croaked, ‘maybe next time, beautiful girl. . . .”
That afternoon he asked for scissors, a bowl of hot water, a razor, a towel and a mirror, all of which I delivered when I was good and ready. Over the next half-hour he hacked at, and then trimmed, and then razored, the beard he’d grown over the past six days. When he was finished he looked at himself, closely, angling the mirror a hundred different ways so he could examine every nook and cranny, including the one burrowing deep and gopher-hole-like into the middle of his chin. “Aaaaaah,” he exclaimed, “now I am feeling like new man!” Only his moustache remained, pencil thin and dark as squid ink.
Soon he was getting up and roaming around and starting conversations with other patients. Didn’t matter those on the receiving end were weak and pallid and in no shape at all to hold up their end; Dimitri would sit and share his opinions on his country, or the tailoring business, or the hospital food, all of which he thought could be better. (He was the sort of man who smiled when complaining.) When he wasn’t chatting, he was flirting with the nurses, both trainee and regular. Once, I was having a drink at the water fountain near the end of the ward when I felt a hand alight on my right hip and give it a little polish. Course, it was Dimitri. I spun around and slapped him and told him he’d better holster those mitts of his if he wanted to keep them. From then on, every time he passed me he’d look like we shared a secret–a secret he’d let me in on when and if it pleased him.
All this fraternization infuriated our head nurse, the jowly and old-before-her-time Miss Weatherspoon, no doubt because she was the only one he didn’t turn beet-red with attention. She’d order him back to bed, only to have him grin, shrug his narrow shoulders and pretend he couldn’t speak English. It was a show of insolence that perked my ears, for I’d had my problems right off with Miss Weatherspoon, my not being the world’s greatest fan of people in love with their own authority. One day when Dimitri was up and roaming and responding to her bossiness in Greek, she grew flustered and decided to complain to one of the doctors. I happened to be walking by and saw her, salmon coloured, motioning with a crooked finger, face muscles tight as fencing wire. “But you said bedrest only” was the bit I heard. This caused the doctor, an older man named Jeffries, to roll his eyes and say, “Oh, all right, Beatrice, periodic bedrest if it’ll make you happy.” This put Miss Weatherspoon in an even worse mood than usual, which is saying something.
Suddenly everything needed doing all at once. Worked off our feet, we were. I got sore joints from scrubbing body parts. Two of the other nurses–lucky ones, I mean, with options–up and quit that afternoon. Right near the end of shift, Miss Weatherspoon decided Dimitri needed a sponge bath, so she ordered another trainee nurse named Victoria Richmond to do the job. Now, at that time it was popular for girls from good families to have a stint at nursing too, mostly because it gave them something to do while waiting to bag a husband. Victoria was such a girl: sixteen years old, skin like alabaster, blond ringlets, father a tobacco baron from the right side of Louisville, had a home to go to at night instead of the dorm for live-aways. In other words, she was the kind of girl I had trouble seeing eye to eye with, for every time Miss Weatherspoon told her to do something she’d lower her eyes, curtsey and say, “Of course, ma”am. Right away.”
She did so this time as well, after which she turned on her heel, practically a pirouette it was, and went off to fetch a bowl and her favourite pink bathing sponge. When she reached Dimitri’s bed she pulled the curtain and stepped inside, at which point I got bored and started doing something else. About a minute went by before me and everyone else on the ward, patient or staff, got interested again. And I mean real interested, for there was a screech, sounded like metal being sawed, and then Miss Richmond sprinted all girly toward the doors, elbows tight against the body, knees pressed together, lower legs wind-milling sideways. Her sponge was still gripped in one hand, and as she ran it left a series of watery drips on the floor. When she was gone it looked like an oversized slug had passed by.
When the commotion was over, Miss Weatherspoon marched to Dimitri’s bed and turtled her head through the split in the curtain. We all watched. She extracted herself and stood, her face featureless as a plank. A thought crossed her mind–you could practically see it passing, as her eyes slendered and her features sharpened and the edges of her mouth crept ever so slightly in the direction of the ceiling.
“Miss Haynie!” she bellowed.
I moved fast enough so’s not to be insubordinate but definitely not running like Victoria Richmond would have.
“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon?”
“It seems Miss Richmond has had to take her leave. I’d like you to complete the patient’s sponge bath.”
“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon.”
“Oh. . . and Mary?” She hesitated, savouring the moment. “If you enjoy your employment here, I suggest you be as thorough as possible. For unless I miss my guess, this patient is not the . . . how shall I put this? This patient is not the cleanest of individuals, particulary in regard to his daily ablutions. His private daily ablutions. Do I make myself clear? I’ll inspect him when you’re finished.”
“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon,” I said again, this time stressing the part of her name that announced to the world she was unmarried and thick at the ankles and not about to get younger anytime soon. Truth was, I was annoyed and mightily so, for I barely had an inkling of what she was driving at, Miss Weatherspoon being the sort of woman who never said what she meant for fear of breaking some social convention invented so recently she hadn’t yet heard about it. Instead, she went at things in circles, erasing her tracks with words that did little more than eat up time. Fortunately, with people like that body language generally makes up for any vaguenesses; the gloating leer plastered across her face informed me this task was lewd and distasteful and intended solely to show who was boss. My only defence was to pretend it didn’t faze me in the least, so with as much calm as was musterable I turned and went looking for my sponge.
Upon reaching the patient’s bed, I stepped inside the curtain. Victoria’s bowl of warm water still sat on the metal bedside table riveted to the wall. Dimitri, meanwhile, looked like a child who’d been caught lying. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I could not help. . .”
I nodded as though I understood, even though I didn’t, the upshot being his apology didn’t relax me in the least, if in fact that’s what it’d been meant to do. “Good morning, Mr. Aganosticus,” I said all professional. Then I pulled back the bedsheet and took my first look at the body of my future first husband. Or at least I would’ve, had he not been furry from neck to spindly ankles and all points in between. On top of it all floated his crucifix, chain lost in the underbrush. Rooted and awestruck, I marvelled at how the hair swirled over his body, like a curlicued forest, growing lighter in some spots and heavier in others, the centre of the jungle falling in the exact vicinity of his privates. If he had a penis and testicles, they were lost under the jungle canopy, a fact that caused me to breathe a sigh of relief. My plan was: when I got to the critical part of the bath, I’d reach beneath the upper branches, give him a quick once-over and call him abluted.
I started on his neck, where gaminess can occur in the folds of skin. Dimitri closed his eyes. When I wiped his chest he sighed, which I took as a sign of encouragement. I moved my sponge over the area directly below the rib cage, where you can feel breath being drawn. Dimitri sighed again, and I felt encouraged again, and I proceeded to steer my hand a little lower, dampening the area where, on a less furry speciman, the stomach would’ve ended and the hair would’ve begun. I heard a gasp. I looked up and saw he had the same sheepish expression he’d been wearing when the sponge bath had begun. A second later, I saw what he had to be sheepish about, for there it was, his manly levitation, slow but unstoppable, rising through the jungle folds, like a totem pole being hefted by natives. I could practically hear the drumming. Though my heart was pounding and my insides felt airy, I couldn’t bring myself to look away: long and log-like it was, with a gnarling of grey-green veins that seemed to funnel skyward and provide sustenance to a bulbous, maroon headpiece.
I swallowed hard, and found there was nowhere to look; every time my eyes settled on a spot it happened to be that spot, a phenomenon making it hard to think or get things done. Finally I whispered, “Now you look here, Mr. Aganosticus. My instructions are to give you as good a washing as I’m able, and while I’m not particularly pleased about it I don’t have much choice in the matter. At the same time, I’m keen those on the other side of this curtain don’t know what’s going on in here. So if you make one peep, if you make one unnatural noise, party’s over. You understand?”
He nodded, and I proceeded, lathering my hands until they were barely recognizable as hands. Breathe, I told myself, breathe regular, for I was starting to feel a little faint, society having a way of preserving eighteen-year-old girls in a sort of virginal aspic back then. After a bit, I reached out and made contact in the way you make contact when contact’s a thing you’re not sure you really want. Suppose gingerly’s the word. Or tentative. Problem was, I was so young I didn’t even know when it comes to certain parts of the body a lightness of touch is the very thing that causes the most sensation. So I went ahead, not enjoying myself exactly but not hating it either: I remember feeling worldly for getting to know the contours involved and that particular way thickness can feel. After a moment, I looked up at Dimitri’s face and saw he’d clamped one hand over his mouth and that tears had welled up like jelly in the corners of each eye–trembling he was, and red as a fire engine. His facial contortions so fascinated me, in fact, I neglected to put an end to what I was doing to cause them in the first place, the upshot being that seconds later I discovered what a grown man will do when treated to an excess of soapy rubbing.
I stood there, shocked. I was seriously considering giving the patient a whack across his sheepish-looking face, and surely would’ve were it not for the fact it was my whacking hand that’d gotten soiled. Then, I heard it. Shoes, comfortable ones, coming to a squeaky stop outside the curtain. I froze, which was a mistake, for the sudden lack of movement tipped her off. She whipped open the curtain and caught me, still as a figurine, right hand held out and messy with seed.
For the longest time she just stood there, not talking, arms folded across her stomach, one hip jutted, smiling like a crocodile.