It had been some days since the doctor had given Josephine leave to rise from her hospital bed, but she had largely chosen not to do so. Two weeks had passed since the evening her husband, Joe, had put her through the living room window. Two weeks abed was not quite enough. Josephine had come to believe she would know when it was enough because, in the hospital, everything had its proper time. Sister Frances came with food and pills at seven and noon and seven again. Father Emmett walked the halls with his duffel bag of hosts and wine and anointing oil between two and three in the afternoon. Dr. Larkin probed and injected and dressed wounds an hour or two before sunset. And Josephine’s mother, Irma, came to visit at four each day, save Sunday, after her lunchtime shift at the diner.
In the days after the accident (so-called by the nurses), Josephine had been ashamed to ask after her husband. But a week went by with no mention of him, then ten days, twelve. This sudden erasure of his life seemed to erase a part of her own, an effect she found not wholly unpleasant. And something had happened to her eyes. Nothing looked the same. Here was the common world—the chipping nightstand, the telephone, the stuffed armchair that never regained its form once sat upon. But the light was wrong. The sun through the window was too weak in the mornings, then strong before dark. The ivy creeper nosing around the window frame cast a shadow-vine that writhed on the bleached linoleum. Shadow-leaves bucked in the gusts that beat time against the rackety screen Sister Frances brought to keep out the flies and wasps. No matter how she blinked or rubbed her eyes, whether her sleep was whole or fitful, the light was distorted in this new world.
On her third Saturday at St. Mary’s, Josephine received her mother as she had each of the previous thirteen days. She lay back against the pillows in a fresh cotton dressing gown with her eyes lightly closed. She could always smell her mother coming. Irma smelt of burnt coffee and stale rolls, the same smell she had come home smelling each evening of the six unholy days of the week when Josephine was a child. The day was hot and pulled other layers from Irma’s skin. Brine from reaching bare-handed into the pickle barrel. Sweat beading up under hamburger grease and talcum powder. Since childhood, Josephine had liked to frighten her mother who had an odd tendency to hover over any prone body she believed to be sleeping or dead. When the house-smells (parlor dust, wood mold, iron) were close in her nostrils, Josephine forced her eyelids open.
“Jesus and Christ!” Irma leaped back and stumbled against the armchair behind her.
Josephine smiled with the right side of her mouth. The muscles required for the other half-smile remained yet unusable. When Joe lifted her body to push it towards the window, she had turned to the left, so that side had got the worst of it. The flinch to the left wasn’t an instinct. There had been time to choose which side. Looking up, Josephine focused her eyes on Irma’s nose, which occupied the center of her face like a small freckled mushroom sprouting from a boulder.
“Knock off that grin! You look like a half-wit. Where’s the doctor gone off to? He see you today?” For the past two weeks, Irma had been the fervent companion of Dr. Larkin, the ward’s afternoon attending physician.
Irma pulled her lips together and chewed them between her teeth. Below her, in bed, her daughter looked smaller than she had as a girl. The swelling brought by marriage and children was replaced with twitching slimness, as if Josephine’s bones had been re-strung with kitchen twine. The first days after, Irma had made the arrangements. They would all leave: she and Josephine and the boys. There were cousins in Warnsburg, way down in the hills, where Joe, if he followed, would meet the end of a rifle. In the first days, yes, that was the arrangement.
“Everything lovely at work today?” asked Josephine with a grimacing brightness, pulling her lips up her right cheek until the stitching in her face began to ache. “Have a seat, won’t you, Ma?” Josephine gestured with her good hand to the easy chair slouched near the bed. Her fingers were thick, surprising above the bird-bones of her wrist. She had bitten her nails to the quick all her life. Here, someone had filed and buffed them. But what then of the other hand, tucked beneath the sheet? Irma pinned her eyes to the wall above the bed. She would not see the left hand; she would not seek it out.
“It’s not teatime at the Savoy in here.”
Josephine dropped her hand from the air, but left the smile fixed in place. “Any broken eggs in the omelets today?”
It was their oldest joke. Irma grinned and took her eyes for a spin around the thorned head of Jesus, perpetually crucified over the headboard.
“Dr. Larkin says you need to get up. Get moving.” Irma dropped the mass of flesh where her chin should have been for emphasis. “He says to me ‘Irma, time is going on and your daughter with it.’ He says it’s going on, whether you like it or not.” She said this in a way she believed to be cheerful, though she had no ear for that sentiment.
“He spent the morning next door with the Spiegel girl, him and Father Emmett.” Josephine pulled a pout. A half-pout, as it were. Elsie Spiegel was a Bavarian doll, dimpled and curled within an inch of her life. Her leg was crushed the previous Sunday when, jumping for the running board on the streetcar, she missed her footing. Josephine tried to picture Elsie lying in the street, blood pressed out of her compact veins like oil from the meat of an olive. But she could only summon up a chipped porcelain doll, limp and expressionless on the pavement. Josephine’s eyes fixed themselves in a high corner of the room, behind her mother’s right ear. A torn web, long-void of its spider, floated there beyond the reach of Sister Frances’s dusting spear. Though the sun was full in the room, the web cast no shadow at all.
“We’ll see about that. I’ll be having a word with Elsie’s father, be sure.” Irma huffed a breath over her daughter’s face and levered her body upright. Josephine watched the threads of web-silk pull loose from each other by small degrees.
“Her father owns a plastics mill. He’s making her a custom leg. Wouldn’t she have the luck? She’s leaving soon. We’ll be usual again, Dr. Larkin and I.”
Irma was standing now with her back to the window. The thought came to her unbidden, unwanted: Josephine could give a person the urge to slap her. Arrangements had been made. They could leave tonight. It was simple enough, as most things were. She thought of pleading with her daughter but, never having made a plea, couldn’t fathom how to begin.
Outside, cars sloshed in the trafficway cut some years back through the hillside where St. Mary’s kept broad watch over the City of Kansas below. The windowpane was filled in the middle with the rustling tops of sycamores that grew in the cemetery on the trafficway’s opposite side. Backed by the sun, Irma was a dark blotch against the bright day behind her. Josephine listened for the bump and skip of car radios below, drivers waiting for the traffic light to turn.
Irma stood taller and picked at her blouse. There was nothing for it then, nothing more to say. She turned and dropped her pocketbook by the chair before settling herself heavily into it. Her eyes sunk level with her daughter’s body. In profile, Josephine looked almost unharmed.
“I’ve a bit of news from the old neighborhood.” The old neighborhood was Irma’s term for the small set of streets where she’d lived since birth. It irked Josephine to hear it called this, as if it were an ancient enclave somewhere. In truth, their houses were ten blocks distant.
“I’d prefer the National Geographic.”
“Now, this is bound to get you riled a little. It’s got me shook, and that’s some doing.” Irma dragged the chair nearer to Josephine’s head.
“Father Emmett, he’s been to Africa. He told me about the women, stark naked, no tops or brassieres. And Sister Frances, she was in Mexico, so she can speak Spanish.” With her mother seated, Josephine shifted her eyes to the ceiling and moved them lazily over the matte hills of plaster.
“Alright, here goes. You know the Macon house on Mercier Street? With the cat smell? Been there since before the Pilgrims?” Irma felt suddenly troubled by the warmth. The sun should have been relenting this time of day. The drops on her brow had broken free and begun to course around her little nose. She took a moment to wipe her face with her handkerchief. “Last night…Josie, it burned clean to the ground. Mrs. Macon didn’t make it out. It smelled awful, all that cat hair burning.”
The Macon place was known to Josephine from her from her earliest life. The house was pistachio-green clapboard with a brick façade painted a matching green. It was small, too small for the lot, with scrubby grass twenty feet in all directions. A thick border of red geraniums planted around the foundation gave it a Christmas look in the summertime. The Macon house was of unending fascination to children, some of whom believed Santa Claus lived there summers. Though it had probably once contained children of its own, the only occupants during Josephine’s lifetime were old Mrs. Macon and her calico cats. They prowled the grounds day and night, innocently massacring the geraniums and crabgrass: death by mass urination.
Now Irma’s eyes had little specks of light in them, as if she were seeing the fire before her. Josephine’s own father had been killed in a fire just before she was born. The subject of fire still held a strange power for Irma. Josephine tensed the muscles over which she had control, causing a flood of pain down her left side. When she did this, her body felt a part of her distorted vision, the left side an outsized shadow, the right, its natural state. Irma’s agitation rose with her voice.
“I went over there straight away when I smelt it, but wasn’t anything I could do. The windows were busted from the heat and the cats were running all directions. Remember when we used to go by there when you were a little girl? Remember you used to hold your nose? You always wanted to go by there, even with it smelling so bad. “
Josephine turned to see her mother, a stack of pale lumps piled into a shirtwaist dress. It was true; the house had fascinated and repulsed her. It flaunted its terrible existence in the street, forcing itself on one’s eyes (the colors), up one’s nose (the smell), into one’s ears (the mewling). Absurdly, at the center of this pressing horror was only Mrs. Macon, a woman so unremarkable that Josephine could not recall her face. Relieved of her news, Irma leaned back and blotted her neck. Josephine opened the right side of her mouth.
“I was thinking of cats, too, just the other day. Father Emmett saw a tiger in Africa. He said it moved like it was shrugging its shoulders all the time. Like it didn’t care in the least about eating you.”
Irma started forward to reproach her daughter, but then closed her eyes against it all. The white walls, the heat, the pitifully small Christ assigned to this room. A car blew its horn lazily in the street. Then the room was silent for a long time until Irma stood up to begin her search for Dr. Larkin.
On her third Sunday at St. Mary’s, Josephine awoke with a feeling of lightness. Below the room’s open window, a car radio played a song about love. A young song. Young people in their cars were going out for drives across the river. The countryside, of course, lay in all directions. But they were driving to the green hills beyond the river, where the Missouri made bluffs when it cut west off the headlong plunge of the Mississippi. When they were courting, Joe and Josephine had driven these hills. They were carsick hills, coming one after the other, rapid and shallow. When they reached a crest, Joe would gun the engine. Josephine would reach under the white leather seat to hold on. The car would float for one second, no more. She was so light then. They would plow back down into the next trough. They bruised their legs and broke the shocks. In the evenings, they came back dirty from road grit. They ate hot biscuits and had an hour alone, in Irma’s parlor behind the lace drapes. Joe brushed his hands all over her dress. She traced her fingers over scars from street fights.
At three o’clock, Josephine woke again and felt a stirring under her breastbone. It was swelling in her, as if something had lodged in her chest, a little bubble poking against her clavicle. When Dr. Larkin arrived for his rounds, he took five short strides to her bedside. A tall man would have taken three.
“Mrs. F, how are we today?” asked Dr. Larkin through a red beard. His eyes did not meet hers, but swept as a searchlight over her broken left half. Then he was at her side, deft fingers on her cheek.
“I couldn’t say how you are Dr. Larkin,” mumbled Josephine through her half-wit grimace. “So I suppose I couldn’t say how we are.” Dr. Larkin looked up from the dressing he was peeling off her face.
“Sharp, very sharp. Your mother is a sharp woman too.” Dr. Larkin leaned back to his work.
“Yes,” continued Josephine, “but what type? Would you say my mother is tack-sharp? Or perhaps knife-sharp? Or, in your case, a scalpel? ” She often spoke sweetly to the doctor, letting his manful concern spread over her like a balm. But the new stirring thing had her, as Irma would say, a bit riled. “Have you any wine or cordials around, Doctor? I’d like us to make a toast. To sharp women.”
Dr. Larkin laughed and pressed his fingers down to secure a fresh sheet of gauze. Josephine’s left face felt new and tight as it healed. The appearance was ugly, but the healing was not without its pleasure.
“You’re quite a sport, Mrs. F. You’re a very funny woman. I didn’t know you took after your mother so much.” The doctor lifted her shoulder from the bed. She winced behind her teeth then swallowed it.
“Dr. Larkin, let’s just say we go our separate ways, my mother and I, on most accounts.” It felt grand to say this to the doctor, to vie for his attention as Elsie must do.
“Well, Mrs. F,” said the doctor, an instrument of some kind audibly clutched between his own teeth, “They say the truth will set you free. So, just keep that in mind.”
“What?” Josephine braced the muscles of her right face and made her voice rude. “What are you saying?”
“It’s just a saying that helps people I talk to. I was saying to Elsie yesterday that when God closes a door, he opens a window. And she said to me, ‘That might be true, Doctor. Though if God forgets the window screen, you’ll soon be infested.’ She’s a sharp one, too.”
Dr. Larkin walked around to the bottom of the bed and squatted to test her reflexes. When he tapped the bottom of her right foot, Josephine did an unexpected thing. She pulled her leg up at the knee and sent it out for a not-gentle kick to the side of Dr. Larkin’s neck. It had been a decision; there had been time to decide. Enough time to draw her knee back and position her heel so it would fall against the flesh of his neck. His red beard twitched as his head flicked back towards the open door. He made almost no sound as he hit the floor, just a scuffle of shoe leather and gabardine.
On Sunday evening, after dinner and pills, the riled feeling within Josephine began to push in a flush across her chest and face. Outside her body, the world had gone quiet and dark. The window’s creeping ivy outlined an unbroken blackness. The tires of the cars going home to Sunday supper were only a slight hum now in the gash of the trafficway. The overhead lamp cast an intolerably equal light, neither bright nor dim, somehow worse than the sickening quality of the sun. Sundays had a tucked-in quality at the end of them; Irma would be putting the boys to bed now. For the first time since her admittance, she felt terribly alone. Her pulse came faster, filling the capillaries near the skin.
The hallway was half-dark when Josephine slid her foot over the threshold of the room. In the warmth of the night, the nurses had shut the lights to make it seem cooler on the ward. At the end of the corridor was a desk with a nurse and a little way beyond, the chapel. Her steps fell unevenly, the pads of her feet much softer than the third-limb rap of her cane.
When Josephine pulled open the door to the chapel, the room was near full. She walked to the front pew slowly, letting them see her in all her cut-and-bruise glory. She had a sudden desire to be seen. The chapel air was thick and she shrugged through it like a heavy drape. She sat on the right where Mary’s pink toe peeked out from the blue folds of her robes to press upon the serpent’s slithering head. Across the aisle, under Saint Joseph’s staff, Elsie Spiegel was saying her prayers. Her bowed head was just over the space where her leg should be. Her robe and nightgown covered the stump, but there it was, outlined by a sudden cliff-drop of satin at the thigh. The absence of her leg made her beauty more dollish. It was difficult not to look at her. The girl was younger than Josephine had thought. Perhaps the ward made them all look older. She should have been out riding in a car, coming back from the hills on her Sunday drive. Josephine closed her eyes and began to pray.
Irma had largely passed over Mrs. Macon in her description of the tragic fire. Most people passed over Mrs. Macon, who did nothing to fight her own eclipsement with her garish house and its feline stench. In trying to call up the poor woman, Josephine could see only oxford shoes and socks with elastics stretched to the limit. Settling into prayer, the Macon house burned before Josephine’s eyes as it must have before Irma’s. Blue-orange fire curled in quiet, neat lines over the green paint of the house before spreading out to roar. The cats flowed out, not one by one, but as dense as the streams of flame bursting from the screens of the front porch. Ridges of fear edged into the lingering pains in Josephine’s jaw and shoulder. As the house burned, two streetcar tracks grew away from it, bright as fire themselves. A trolley bell clanged loudly, mixing with the fire sirens. The hot windows failed to burst, but cracked instead with the dull, grinding-glass sound of a body going through them. The prayer was loud now, viciously loud, and Josephine began to shake hard in the pew. It had been a mistake to leave her bed, to leave the shadow-light of her room, to pray now as she hadn’t for weeks. She breathed hard through the right side of her face, sweat thickening on her lip. Then the prayer was quieter, quieting down, and she walked barefoot under a bright sun over the charred bricks of the Macon house. Around it, the border of geraniums remained unharmed. Mrs. Macon was lying in the middle of the bricks, a little charcoaled. Josephine knelt and lifted the old woman’s head into her lap. She stroked at the cat’s fur that covered the woman’s head, soft and rippling under her palms.
On Monday morning, the telephone rang. Josephine was again abed, Sister Frances having found her half-asleep in the chapel the night before. She read a dime store romance the nurse had smuggled in, though dime store romances were discouraged. When the bell began its ringing, Josephine started. It had done this only three times since she arrived. Twice had been Irma, calling from the diner when she wanted to laze in the phone booth and talk. Once it had been her boys, both struck suddenly quiet by the novelty of speaking to their mother through the handset. They had cried while Irma shouted at them from the background to say something nice to her.
The phone was on its eighth ring when Josephine answered. She reached over with her good hand to grasp it, then pulled the receiver from the cradle. She hadn’t counted on its weight.
“Hello?” said Josephine. It was odd to hear her voice on the telephone. It came out breathy and hard in the way of meeting a stranger.
The other end was still. Then, the voice came, rough as crust on bread.
“Is this Josephine Fatovic?” it asked.
“Yes?” answered Josephine, forearm aching from her grip on the receiver. She loosed her fingers and relaxed her shoulder. It was a woman.
“Oh, well. It’s Mrs. Macon. From over on Mercier Street.”
Josephine frowned and was quiet a moment. The paperback tented on her lap waved its pages in a sudden breeze from the window. The heat had broken in the night. The breeze was cooler now and sent gooseflesh popping down the right side of her body.
“Of course….Mrs. Macon. I mean, I heard the terrible news. About your house.”
“Oh, well, my cats are the only terrible thing really.”
Josephine paused to stare at her knees under the covers, then darted her eyes about the room to sooth the queer feeling in her stomach. But the sun came in weak as water and nothing looked the same from day-to-day. The web in the corner was gone, demolished. The stuffed chair was mustard yellow today when yesterday it had been the color of wheat. Sister Frances passed by the door, solid as an iceberg in her white habit.
“Mrs. Macon? Where are you calling from? It’s just…my mother said you passed. In the fire.”
“Oh, sure, Irma tells a tale, don’t she? But I guess you’d know….”
Irma was known to tell tales, it was true. Josephine slouched back into the pillow. In her mother’s mind, one of life’s great pleasures was to be informed someone was dead and then to learn the opposite. It was a strange sort of gift, but a gift nonetheless. When Josephine’s father was burned in the fire, this very thing had happened. They told me he was three hours gone, Irma would say. He’d run down the street clean ablaze. But there he was. Plenty alive in the hospital . Leaned his head down on my belly and talked right to you. Remember what he said? Josephine did not remember. He had only lived another ten days.
“But there was a fire, wasn’t there?” Josephine’s chin dropped down to her chest.
“Sure was. Big one in the kitchen. Started when I was frying chicken. Maylene jumped right up on the stove and dove for the leg while it was still in the pan. Landed flat on the handle and flipped the whole darn thing over right into the flame. Caught herself afire, too. It was a dreadful thing to see! ”
Mrs. Macon sobbed a few big tears into her end. They were the fat tears of a grief that could be soothed with a few shushes. Josephine remained silent on the line. As she pictured Maylene in the act of chicken-thieving, she could not help but feel a little satisfaction at the cat’s fate.
“Well, I called anyhow to say your husband has just been wonderful. I didn’t know where to go or what to do after the house burned, so I went with Irma. There she was, in front of my house, when I came out with the firemen. But she was all full in her house with you feeling poorly in the hospital and her looking after your boys. She went right down next day though and got your Joe to take me. She said he needed somebody anyway, to look after him and cook. Said you might be gone a good long while.”
A breeze gusted and knocked the romance to the floor. Josephine took a breath, then another. Mrs. Macon held the line and squawked. Sunlight dumped itself suddenly on the squares of linoleum in front of the window. The room seemed to spin six inches, then stop. The last things she remembered before the hospital: the grinding-glass sound of the window breaking, then the blue-painted floorboards of her own front porch. Her face was half-turned up to the ceiling. Underneath her body, a spreading warmth. It was dark already. The porch light was bright so that Joe’s face, when he bent over her, was hard to see except for the sweat that caught the light. When he reached down to lift her head into his lap, she saw that she could die, if she chose. But he brushed his thick fingers along her arms and waist. Then along her ribs and neck. The way he had in Irma’s parlor, with the door closed, with the lamp dimmed. She had fallen into the blackness of injured sleep still huddled in the crook of his arm.
With her good hand, Josephine cast back the sheets and pushed herself up to sitting before snatching the telephone back to her ear.
“Don’t you go bringing those stinking cats in my house. If there’s a mess of cat piss to clean next week, I’ll be the one giving you hell.”
Josephine slammed the receiver in its cradle. She made her way across the linoleum to stand at the window, in the square of light. Morning traffic flowed in the street below, toward downtown, the river and the hills beyond. In the graveyard, worn headstones squatted like a flock of pinioned birds. Josephine knocked Sister Frances’s window screen to the floor. Both hands on the sill, she leaned far out. Somewhere on that road, that rude moat of life, her mother was riding the streetcar to work this morning. Humming a tune, pleased with herself. Josephine leaned farther out. The left side of her lip pulled open with her right and the sun came into her mouth. It rested on her teeth while her screams passed over it, that diffident and changeable light.