C.R. is dead. Wounded, locked, and deserted. Though, mind you, no autopsy would be appropriate on these ruddy bones, such hair and epidermal generosity. Lifeless in his office, this posh tomb. Littered war zone of desk, bookcase, taxidermied fox on a mount, hundred-year-old Turkish Belouche rug (burned by a Salem in one corner), and a picture of ex-girlfriend (Eleanor, brunette, tan). Add to that debris bourbon, a box of Triscuits, an oily geodome of hacked cheddar cheese upon a pile of papers. The window, with its industrial fillip of poly-blend curtained swag, hints at late afternoon, of darkening clouds pulling across sky. Note his working jaws of worry, the stale odor of failure, and lastly, a portrait on the wall, to which he speaks:
A physician as well, from the bloody fields of the Civil War.
God save C.R. Bring on the vale of tears.
Call the man in question here, Dr. Carroll Randolph Ash (Hell, you can call me C.R. That’s what my friends say, C.R., you son of a bitch. Yessir), Corpse Reviver, Confirmed Rebel, what have you. There’s a full glass of Virginia Gentleman Bourbon in his little silver tumbler, he wears a tattered sheepskin vest of his father’s (old Doc Carrie, bought things and never gave them up), his feet are on the desk, his elegant tanned ankles (my best part, thoroughbred) entwined. A famed doctor of neonatology; you may have heard of him. If you are the parents of a too-early-born baby the size of a remote control in this part of Virginia, no doubt you’d know him well, the easy banter of his speech, his white coat slumped on a lanky frame during rounds. You’d regard the man as a form of demigod if your child now played and laughed in the backyard, or a dark shadow in your mind’s chifforobe, a reminder of your infant’s last days.
A podium-leaning, loafered soldier in the realm of bililights and nasogastric tubes who invented the cross-venous-nutrient plan (or CVNP, some call it, I’d be happy to update you, later, to my field, if you like. Fascinating stuff). A clutter of Plexiglas awards lies on the second walnut shelf in his office, gathering dust.
Fond of history, of antique things.
Old letters, retro wars, specifically the Civil War (buff, you could say. Love that stuff, just love it). And the last couple of years he’s been drawn and fascinated by the ultimate hobby, the reenactment of battles from the Civil War, though he’s never done it, but he longs to (I’m real fascinated with Ball’s Bluff, here in Virginia, probably because we own some land right up to it, to the edge, probably because our own people died on that field), has subscribed to Reenactor’s Journal, even bought some period clothes (I got this, this old jacket, a shirt and such, a belt, just a start, you know), and really thinks one day he’ll join up with those folks and try it out, give it a shot (I mean I don’t know what kind of freaks they might be and all, but it seems like it may be a hoot, you know, out in that canvas tent, feeling like you’re really there).
Don’t particularly care for firearms myself. A six-month internship in the ER singed any interest there, the massive rechiseling of flesh by bullets throughout the night, mingled with alcohol and the stale-tobacco stench of trauma-induced nicotinic acid, pretty much offered distaste, despite the fact he’d enjoyed wild turkey hunting as a boy with his father. Yet, thank you, no. (My great grandpa’s shotgun, hand-carved of walnut and brass, lays upstairs. Any of you that cares for that stuff may try it out. I enjoy some good doves, wrapped in bacon.)
But, he thinks: What’s it like to flare nostrils in the hazy attar of gunpowder freshly shot in the air, all sharp and spicy–mixed with human sweat, blood, entrails, crushed grass, amoebic mud–O, he wonders about real life fisted in his face as opposed to the tang of that scrubby iodine brush he uses every day, pale coffee, nurses’ deodorant, the goddamned Lysol, that sweet perfume on everything, that vanillic whiff of a new baby with a leg like a pigeon’s plucked wing, that’s the odor in his clothes, his hair, his boxers even, not acrid sweat or burned cornmeal from a cast-iron pot, but this rosy pomander of life, the smell that singularly makes him feel old. That and those candy stripers.
(Aah, shoot, what I wouldn’t do for some Brunswick stew. Like my mother used to make). Knocks off his shoes and lays his feet back on the desk. Tosses the empty Triscuit box in a slow lob across the room, missing the trash can and spilling a soft cracker dust.
A tentative cause for his demise:
Above his fine head of hair, in room 233G, on the second floor, a woodsy conference room for mucky-mucks, they are meeting, discussing Dr. C.R. Ash with furrowed brows, talking of a certain Baby Hodges, and necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC, in the doctor talk), and the various protocol of feeding, and C.R.’s blatant misconduct and out-and-out irresponsibility. Therefore, unbeknownst to most of the hospital, but not C.R. himself, nor his secretary, they are drawing up excuses to fire the man.
C.R. is impatient. Half sad and half happy, half drunk, half a hard-on thinking of a young candy striper (her thighs, Shrub, soft as melon meat). He has written, scratched out a letter on a piece of parchment paper he found in a specialty paper store (it looked good, like it coulda been Lee’s own type of paper, Mosby might’ve had that type of paper, it works, you coulda, Shrub), written in pen and ink and sealed it with wax, and the letter says:
Dear Sirs and Madam:
Having received communications from your office and elsewhere, and being desirous of knowing what my rank really is, have the goodness to enlighten me accordingly and oblige,
Very Respt yrs obt svt
Commanding 1st Specl Batt
Ball’s Bluff Babies Hospital
C.R. copied this directly from a journal on the battle of Ball’s Bluff he was reading. It seemed important-sounding and he liked the jokiness of it and also, C.R. did not give a hoot if those mastodons choked on their own upchuck. He waited, drank, and drew up another letter with the pen and ink:
Dear Sirs and Madams,
Being in arrest awaiting charges I respectfully request that the arrest may be suspended and I may be permitted to serve in some capacity as a candy striper’s assistant. I believe the uniform will suit my willowy frame. I am sure you gentlemen will appreciate how important a candy striper is to this fine establishment.
Very Respt yrs obt svt,
Dr. C.R. Ash
It gave him momentary pleasure to imagine those grayed old creatures in the wooded room reading that and saying What? and how, fast as buttermilk poured across a linoleum floor in that hot sticky Virginia air, it would spread to everyone in that hospital, full of bleach-washed bloody smocks and hacked limbs and cancerous globs and hypodermic needles and crying children and steamed green beans the color of army fatigues, soon everyone that worked there would say What? It was only, though, a flickering pleasure. Like satifying himself in the executive men’s room as he heard his longtime friend and comrade, Dr. Pendleton Compton, washing his hands while he thought furtively of the patient who turned him on, it was a fleeting thing, over in a second, a brief quiver which left him flattened with regret.
His birdish secretary for sixteen years now with shaking hands because she knows there is something gravely wrong, first, a certain issue with a candy striper and now, well, the bourbon, this weird letter, poor Dr. C.R. all bleary, talking to the painting (You know Betty, don’t you, Shrub?), mumbling about his old dog. She sits outside the room, poised in feline expectancy for the tiniest sign.
Of what to do. Hands in her lap. Her computer screensaver awhirl with cats. She waits.
This is Betty Owens, native of the area, faithful aide-de-camp.
She’s been a good secretary these sixteen years, out of love, not job responsibility. Fifty, a tiny puckered mountain wren, bones with a skin crust, her figure almost adolescent, wraith in silhouette but for the papery crook starting in the shoulders, up close her eyes, wide and brown, still seem to belong to a smudge-faced imp, she wrests them around the room, flitting, searching for a place to land. Her hair, short brown bob held in place by a single hairband of grosgrain, very simple cotton Talbots clothing and her mother’s pearls, a brooch of a cat with pearled eyes given as a gift by a patient, Betty saves things, like lace remnants, rubber bands from the mail, like C.R.’s whole career, she scoots around and puts out fires.
It would be stated, if Betty were doing so, that she is also the proud owner of three cats, my pride and joys, oh, they are quite unique little personalities, I mother them, I care for them like a mother would, Charlie, Mariah, Dunny. Dunny is the rascal, the baby of the lot. He rips up my good chairs, pulls out my needlepoint, they get heavy cream in the evening for their coats. She reads Thackeray, she’d say, and Dickens and Thoreau, though her bedside table reveals Jude Deveraux, and so she consumes those novels se-cret-ly.
C.R. is in a bleary mood, the type of mood liquor brings on, the kind that doesn’t care for the moments to come, but focuses in a mopish way on the past. It’s getting dark outside his large window in his office in the hospital, the night wintery amidst the background of plush evergreens, and it may snow, it has that crisp stillness in the air. It’s a good night for all, working with the usual diligent patter, the green-smocked padding around. Clumps of pastel-draped workers around the various sectionals created for the admittance of patients and bulletin-boarded updates. The ill in the various examining rooms, some silently staring, others entombed in plastic devices. The sweet shudder of the automatic doors swish to the moving feet, the beds, the mourning, the celebrating, the afraid. All lies in normal pace in the electrified cacophony of beeps and clicks, the technological backdrop of a hospital murmur, yet there exists a promise of frivolity, for tonight, at 7:30, will be the holiday party over in the huge main conference room of the Lord Fauquier Wing, the invite lays propped on many of the hospital’s cubicled offices, the holly-patterned card, with the scripted Good Cheer to All! A Dickens Christmas! All interns, all fellows, all orderlies, all nurses, all physicians, gravely suture and insert and snip and inject, yet smile in anticipation: a grog, a grope. Holiday parties can be fun.
Tosses more bourbon, talks out loud, his eyes up to Colonel Shrub.
You remember Candy Striper? Hell, you ought to, saw her in here, right? Am I not out of my mind for wanting her or would you’ve been as strong in those, freaking conditions, a young girl, a sweet thing, blond, and you know I got a thing for blonds, a really big thing for sweet, creamy, buttery blonds with pink cheeks. Oh, shit.
He pauses and Shrub still looks down admiringly.
* * *
Shrub, my friend, a cc is a small amount, a very small amount, barely a soup”on, so to speak, a dash, a piffling substance, why, I’ve just drunk down about a thousand ccs just now of sour mash, yet to these babies, Shrub, a cc is a hell of a lot. You start with a half a cc, see, of breast milk that is, tube-fed of course, just a bleep of milk, and sees how it goes. See if they can handle it. That’s the art. Knowing how much and when. Because that Baby Hodges had been on an IV since Saturday, a nine hundred grammer and doing OK, that girl not even named him, that’s no good, we’re saying, come on, now, give him a name, but her eyes all bleary just staring, so we call him “Tuffy,” so Tuffy, see, seems ready for a dash of milk, ready for his supper, so to speak, so I order the dose, one cc, one damn cc, but I don’t know, Shrub, I don’t know.
Back to the one cc, after making this choice I proceeded to instruct Nurse to gavage him, you know, Shrub, we stick a tube down his esophagus to the stomach and hook a syringe on there and just let, you know, let him have the drop, no big deal though I sure as hell wouldn’t like that done to me, but you know, Shrub, this is what we do, sir, it’s all for the best of the child, and the little ones don’t seem to have a gag reflex so, uh, that’s that. Then I do a check on the residuals, check out the contents of the stomach by doing a gavage tube suctioning, unfortunately encountered bile and the kid gets all bloated, bad sign, therefore had to decompress the child’s stomach activities–
Performed a series of X rays and noted a serious thickening and a few air pockets in the baby’s intestinal walls which indicated to me, a serious state, a very bad complication of necrotizing enterocolitis, basically you see, sir, circulation to the intestines is cut off, sorta, and maybe during hypoxia or chronically poor circulation from, say, an open ductus in the heart or something, the normal bacteria goes haywire and just eats on itself, see, and they invade, then they cause gas bubbles that swell up and the whole thing can break up and perforate and cause all kinds of hell in there, a civil war of the personal body, see, Shrub, and in this case, a disastrous case, a bloody one, a Gettysburg. In this case, morbidity, my man.
Now you see, morbidity is the deal around here. Once a month we get together in that big office up on the seventh floor, they got all sorts of catered victuals, paltry ham sandwiches, potato salad, brownies, all that stuff brought in stretched out in Saran Wrap, yeah, I notice that stuff for some reason, anywho, we sit in that room, have a working lunch, munching sandwiches and chitchatting. That would surely annoy the French, wouldn’t it? So then, we talk of morbidity, in vague, nonhuman tones. Case #3–Hawkins: Morbidity caused by sepsis, further aggravated by shutdown of vital organs. Twenty-five weeks, 790 grams. We discuss the doctor’s actions with Hawkins. Had an aggressive treatment of antibiotic intravenous been followed? (Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins loped in that Saturday, from Warrenton, at 6:10 because of the call of the doctor, they carried a plush purple bunny for Jake, their firstborn, there was a steady calm inevitability in the doctor’s voice, a worsening of conditions, a graveness, he explained, they had gone to BuyBuy Baby yesterday and bought a navy blue stroller–Should we get the green? they had discussed, No, I think Mom mentioned she’d be getting that snowsuit in the blue fleece, you know, the one at BabyGap.) Had an expedient set of bloods been done on the baby as apnea worsened? Naturally, said Steadman, physician on the case, who leaned back in his suede chair, nurses checked the levels and saw the decline, he said in his even factually enunciated voice, we did procedure down to the nth on this one, it was just, as they say, one of those things (I think a border, well, this one, hon, this one of giraffes would be cute, around the edge of the room, did you manage to get that shelf up, because I need the space for his lamp here, is that the phone? Mike, get the phone, honey).
During Steadman’s monologue on his clinical machinations with this poor infant’s situ, I found myself thinking: What was it like in that green Honda Civic driving across the rural road of Route 50 at 1:00 that night for the Hawkinses after Jake coded, or in your jargon, passed away, after the nurses disconnected the plugs and wrapped him in the hospital blue blanket as she, Maggie (I guess a Winnie-the-Pooh theme is good, but, you know, the classic Pooh, though, not the Disney), sat in one of the nursery’s white gliders and they handed her the tiny bundle, think of the weight of a roll of toilet paper, think of the length, the width of a small beer bottle, a little grayish head the size of those tiny Christmas tangerines my mother used to love and the poor father, Mike, his hand around the baby (When does Little League start, anyhow? Is it five or four?), the screen painted with yellow balloons put up to shield morbidity from the other families holding their baby’s squirrel paw hands, speaking in droning, hymn voices. What was it like as they drove home that evening–did music play or was it silent? Did Maggie cry or was she immobilized? Did the stars sweeping across the deep Virginia sky charm as always or was there a steely pain to the shards of light, a cutting flatness now that came from the cosmos?
Would they ever love again?
That was the first thought, Shrub, that brought me to dillydally in the doctor’s no-man’s-land, sitting there playing with my potato chips on the caterer’s plastic plate, Steadman’s voice whining on, discussing, as it occurred to me suddenly, this whole family’s well-being as casually as if he was ordering french fries at a drive-thru McDonald’s, it was the, uh, usual standards, leading to this case of morbidity, nothing irregular, I thought beyond the patient’s facts, like peering up under your buddy’s mother’s dress surreptitiously when you dropped your yo-yo, I just had to see, even if it was scary or, I just had to see what I’ve been missing, I saw the Hawkins pain or tried to feel it, I got beyond the anesthetizing we sometimes think in these moments, or worse, the impulse of OK, one less chart to think about, moving on, like that quick sniff a deer gives a dead one in their momentary acknowledgment, so that’s that. And then, it was shortly thereafter, the candy striper I have been referring to simply as Candy Striper–the girl I had been talking to daily and offering fancy Italian chocolates and watching her push the cart and giving her change for the Coke machine and telling her silly jokes when she goes by with a bouquet (Now is that for me? Why, ain’t you romantic)–fell into a bit of trouble.
* * *
There was a huge rush of personnel one afternoon, the cart of life came whirling by, a few muffled sobs came from the hall. Something was up, son! Code fucking blue, baby! We all came outside our offices and Betty ran into my office to call me up to the OR, oh, sir, breathlessly rushed from her mouth, you are needed at OR stat, I wiggled on my coat, OK, OK, no problem, wondering why the hell she’s being so squirrelly for something so usual, hell, I handle premies all day long, but she says, her face sweaty and pink, it’s that girl, C.R., that girl, the candy striper, she’s had an infant (even then, I thought with a flash of irritation, call it a baby, for Christ’s sake, woman), yes, an infant in the bathroom, and it’s tiny and that thing can’t be more than six months, she’s from a fine family, the Hodgeses, up the road there, I can’t believe it, I’ll need to call her mother, oh, Lord.
Understand, Colonel: That sweet, soft thing, that candy striper, gave birth.
Silence. C.R. stops talking, takes a deep breath. Another swig of bourbon.
Back on that day, Betty’s hands flicked around the phone and finally her little creaky voice urged on information and she pressed “1” to automatically dial the number, it was thirty cents extra, but surely this was urgent, and finally the ladylike voice of Cynthia Hodges came through, yes?
It’s Betty Owens.
Well, hi, Betty! How are you, dear?
I’m very well thanks, uh. Cynthia?
Yes? Her voice got pale and liquidy because she understood, in the nanosecond feeling appraisal done by women, a wrong tone, a deer’s bleat, something off, is there–?
Cynthia, I need you, dear, to come down to the hospital. Something’s up with Kirsten.
Oh God. Oh God. Is she dead. Dear Lord!
Oh, no, no, Cynthia, no she’s not dead but. But there’s a been a situation, a, a,–
That was approximately three months ago.
Yes, C.R. did dutifully run down and smock himself and fall into the OR, where the girl he’d been sharing a light repartee with (Oh, dear, you’re wearing pink, don’t you know you set my heart on fire in that color, as he offered her a chocolate, he gave all people who crossed his path chocolates), the girl in question lay still and white, crying softly, the nurse by her side, and C.R. directed the staff to c-pap the child (a-nine-hundred-and-ninety-gram infant), who was consuming 80 percent room oxygen, happily, who avoided intercranial hemorrhaging, who still would need to cross the path of stomach, eye, hearing, and other difficulties, breathing disorders, apnea spells, feeding complications, bradycardia, yet who lay after two hours and difficult state-of-the-art interference in his tiny warm isolette and meanwhile, the girl, the candy striper, sobbed into the nurse’s arm, I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I thought, I thought, I thought, I was late because of gym or those diet pills, I knew I was fatter I ate cookies too much I couldn’t wear my skirts and I thought you had to do it to get a baby I never really did I thought I thought, and the nurse patted her arm.
Her mother came in, her face a torn strip of pale skin, and then the door closed and C.R. said to Betty, send some roses up from me, will you, and Candy Striper then was released with her mom and they went home and after school candy-striping became temporarily inconvenient (Mrs. Feittles-Lopez said, Let’s take a break for a while, shall we, patting Kirsten’s gown-clad knee). She would come to the hospital to visit “Tuffy,” as the nurses called him, since she wouldn’t name him, the candy striper figured if he grew stronger she would, but it was three weeks later that Tuffy lost weight and apnea grew and his insides flirted with bacteria and his stomach bloated and then C.R. probably made the miscalculation of increasing his feedings instead of discontinuing, the infamous application of the one cc, and Tuffy died at 4:38 p.m. due to severe sepsis and actually on many levels the family seemed almost relieved, it had already come to C.R.’s attention that Tuffy had indeed suffered some brain bleeding and most likely would be incapacitated cerebrally, and Candy Striper didn’t feel relief as much as a new leaf open up, a new chapter, her stomach was normal, hormones had leveled, she no longer bled from between her legs, all felt healed and Tuffy was gone, and she came back to candy-striping, the uniform fit snugly and her breasts were bigger and she passed C.R.’s office one evening and he said his same comments (Springtime just breezed by, aaaaah) and she lingered, and said, who’s that? pointing to the portrait.
That, that was a very fine Civil War surgeon. My cousin, actually. Name of Colonel Shrub, that’s who.
That, my dear, is a surgical kit from the Civil War, they cut off people’s legs with that thing there,
Oh my God! She recoiled from the leather case and stood back.
And of course she’d have a chocolate, and she sat in his leather chair, the girl had a half-woman, half-baby thing going on that was confusing to all, especially C.R., who didn’t know whether to flirt or comfort or lecture or ignore her, but the fact she hung around his office on some level irritated him (note the pile of charts he must fill) but also intrigued in the flesh and the mind (object all you want, but we’re made this way, people, God don’t make mistakes), she sat in the chair, spinning, and as he smiled he noted that her postpartum physique still lingered yet her face remained pink and doughy as an infant’s, so damn soft as a pillow, dear God, these children have relations at a young age, he thought, who’s the scoundrel that managed to get in her pants? Was it a one-time deal or what? Are children as promiscous as they’d have you believe on 20/20?
Why did Tuffy die, Doctor Ash?
* * *
Whoa, that snapped him to, her eyes pooled up, and she whispered it: Was there some particular thing or was he too small, or is it because I didn’t name him? Tears now. Can you tell me why?
And he had started to think about that stuff then, too, you see, that was when the Hawkins baby died and C.R. sat in on the morbidity meeting and thought of that couple and cried driving back home to his graveled estate, he actually cried, and if she had asked him a question like this two months ago he would’ve said the usual (crap, I would’ve said the usual crap, Shrub, you know the levels, the bloods, the sepsis, the rudimentary science answers, the back pats), but this time he said I don’t know, I don’t know why anything lives or dies, why any fucking thing does any fucking thing (bourbon, yes, these are fragile times), and his eyes looked glossy and sad, and this girl-woman, woman-girl, what in hell is she, why’s it so confusing? Why? Got up and reached for my hand, I guess I had faltered and seemed the sorry one, and with the audacity of a woman, not a child–closed, closed my door!
It was six o’clock so, yes, most had gone home, but holy shit, a closed door does not look good. Did I care? Does one care? Is propriety worth living for? Or do we just go with the screwing up in the name of, what is it, love, sex? She had switched from girl-woman quickly to all woman, that was easy to do with that look she turned around with, a downward dark glance in my eyes, she went to my CD player as I looked up in a wet-eyed stupor, and put in Hits from the Seventies and played “Love Roller Coaster” by the Brothers Johnson, a favorite tune of my hip swinging youth, and looked me in the eye, got behind my desk, this young mother thing, this girl in the short pink and white skirt, and held my hands to her face, that shirt she wore, the pink-striped outfit, like a candy cane, she placed my hands on her face, and as I leaned forward, forward into the airy warmth of this child, I smelled the fresh scent of bloody newborns and rain and I lay against her, and the song played it’s crazy course, she moved her hips, my old mouth, with its gray stubble, got inside her lips, my tongue felt joy, boy, I danced inside that girl’s mouth, I thought not of Tuffy but of pinkness and bourbon and being young and feeling good and passion, and passion, Colonel Shrub, passion is the soul of everything and if you ain’t got passion (and his hands felt around her ass, pulling up her uniform) then you are indeed dead, toss out adultery, toss out incompetence, toss out loser, toss all your words on me (in the corner showing her tiny mint green panties, pale as spring grass), throw them down on me, Shrub, throw the whole goddamn world, I got passion and I’m fucking alive.
Excerpted from The Good Remains
©2002 by Nani Power. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.