2. Outside the Sick Room


October 1, 1933:
Outside the Sick Room

As if it were a clock,
Thomas wound the wick up in the lamp.
He sat, watched it burn,
Wound it again.
When the doctor’d come—
How many hours back?—
He’d asked Thomas,
“No electric lights?”
Tom said, “Maybe next year.
And a phone.”
He wished now he’d bought them—
This year, last year—
Riah getting quieter,
Here on the farm alone.

Kerosene—can’t smell it.
Sitting in the kitchen, he
Couldn’t smell the beans he’d cooked
For James. Because of that stifling
Sickroom odor.
Tom had helped birth calves,
Up to his shoulder in the cow—
Wetness and blood. Being in
Where no one was to be.
He wished he could leave, but he
Would not. He heard
Riah breathe.

Doctor’d tied a rope onto the bedpost,
Gave her it to pull when she got bad—
Tom saw her quick seize it,
Not to yell. He had
Heard the doctor in there saying,
“Whoa, now.
Hold on, Missus. Don’t do that,”
In the musing, thinking-out-loud voice
Tom used with busted tractors.
Tom went to her door—
He couldn’t help it—
And he’d seen a dark stain
On the wall. It had exploded
From her?—Commotion,
Riah’s noises fast and high.
Doctor brought out something,
Wrapped in paper, to his car.

Now, from what Tom saw
When he peeked in,
Red was seeping,
Slow as oil from a can,
On the mattress—
Patching folks up could be hard—
How long since she spoke?
Ten, twenty hours?
Tom picked up a spoon
And stirred James’ plate.
Boy hadn’t eaten.
Patty’d took him with her,
To her house. James was not
This hard! No doctor, either.
Tom leaned on his hand.
Yes, James was hard.
Thomas had forgot.
Turned out all right.
He held his ears,
Recalling that rope jerking—
The bedpost, how it squealed.

Bang!—Thomas jumped.
A banging at the door—the doctor’d said
He’d sent for someone,
To sit in and help.
Tom opened up.
Behind the screen,
A woman—big, not fat,
Arms folded—
Dressed in bright green print,
Too tight across.
Her hair drooped,
A red frizz at her ears—
Green smears on her eyelids,
And the reddest mouth
That Tom had ever seen.
It left thick prints
On her cigarette,
Held to the side.

She looked Tom in the eye:
“Good day.”
She tapped an ash off
With a fingernail.
“I’m the nurse.”

7 Responses to “2. Outside the Sick Room”

  1. Gene Says:

    Wow! This poem also has such vivid images, but so different from the first poem. It’s interesting, too, how the reader is inside Tom’s head through the words.

  2. anna Says:

    I fixate on “Doctor’d” and the seeping red.

  3. sshaver Says:

    Gene and Anna, yes, that vivid, seeping red. The life these farm people led demanded such hardiness from them that sometimes I forget they had vulnerable bodies just as we do.

  4. loretta davis Says:

    So powerful shelley. waiting, the pain, remembering, what to do, the numbness, caring about someone you love and feeling helpless. I remember being at the birthing of two calves. The vet helped pull them out and they just stood up. Just like that. So much more advanced than we are when born. The cow was stoic. Not a word, not a sigh, no quick or aggravated movements. At first I thought the nurse was going to bring solace, a healing person, but with the cigarette, who could be sure. But of course its a different time. She did bring calmness. How did you think of this story?

  5. sshaver Says:

    That’s a very striking image of the birth of the calves, Loretta. By an odd coincidence, today is my daughter’s birthday, so I’ve been thinking about the physical vulnerability evoked by giving birth, or having problems with a birth, as Riah did. Your reactions to “the nurse” were interesting to me: since in my head I already know Louise, my main response to her showing up is relief; I feel confident that she will look out for Riah. But of course a reader couldn’t know that.

    Once when I was young I was in the back seat of the car in Texas while my parents were driving somewhere, and suddenly an image came to me of a huge water tower crashing to the ground in a powerful wind. Somehow, that was the origin of this story.

  6. Frances Madeson Says:

    This is spooky. Maybe it’s knowing this work is set in Texas but as I was reading, and letting my mind drift and gather the associations it needs to complete the poem in my reading experience, I thought of cabrito. Do you know what that is?

  7. sshaver Says:

    No, but I’m about to go google it right now!

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