For the third April morning in a row, Doctor Swift has turned off his pager, put his finger to his lips, and nodded conspiratorially to Delia, who closes the closet door on him, gently. He’s perched in her lawn chair in there amid the industrial-strength everythings: cleaners for glass, for chrome, and for the marble hospital foyer it’s her job and hers alone to make shimmer.
“The doctor’s sick,” she told the nurse on Two East who’d asked if Delia had seen him. Where had she seen him last? As if he were a set of lost car keys. Delia mopped around her: swish-swish right up to the tips of those blaringly white shoes.
“Up on Four West,” Delia told her. “He didn’t look good. I think he’s sick.” This wasn’t exactly a lie.
In Room 213 the blotto-boy’s parents waited for the verdict. A leg to go? Or to stay? The frostbite inches up. After the snowmobile accident, it’d taken hours upon hours to reach the boy who’d somehow lost his boot.
First the toes had gone, then the foot. Delia imagined the doctor’s saws getting bigger.
Behind her door she knew there would be tears for a while as her little transistor radio radiated the war news, death scores followed by ball scores. Then the Expo Update. From the ruins of old railroad yards and parking lots, the Great World’s Fair was rising in the still wintry heart of Spokane. The hospital was full of its mishaps: the toppled ladder (a concussion, a broken femur), the nail gun fiasco (nail through a palm!), and the wiring job gone awry (a still purpling, still shriveling electrocuted right arm). From those rooms came languages Delia felt sure could have been hymns from the Stone Age.
1974 — Nance Van Winckel
After the weather forecast, the door would open. The secret door. And the doctor would emerge.
Doctor Swift. The paging voice was shrill. The coming weather was sleet. Then rain.
The door opens. A face peers around it. He nods to Delia then closes the door. She thinks: We own the dawn hallway. Only steeped inside the closet’s ammonia stench may sad resuscitate. In the closet was the necessary alchemical change needed to drive a decision through to its end. She watches the doctor’s face to see what he’s decided. To save a life a leg must go. No doubt he’d known that all along. And now to make it happen.
Doctor Swift, please dial Two-East.
The boy wanted to go to the Fair next month. Expected to go. Lying there all March and now April, he’d heard the jackhammers rattle the hospital windows. He’d seen the televised footage of the Soviet Pavilion with a forest inside it. A big wide world, the nurses had told him, was coming to our town.
And now stepping into the shadows and out of the doctor’s path, Delia tries not to look into those eyes that have the hard black shimmer at the center, those eyes ablaze with what – who can say? – ungodly or most holy fire.
The sleet rains down. Will a thaw ensue? Will the frost ever quit? Or will the boy’s parents step out into it later after the boy’s asleep and the sharpened-up saws have done their work and the hallway is pristine again and Delia’s door is locked and her yellow rubber gloves snapped off and the mop propped up and the bucket kicked? Kicked hard. Little bugger.
Nance Van Winckel is the author of four books of short stories and six collections of poetry. A novel is forthcoming this fall. A professor emerita in EWU’s graduate creative writing program, she lives in Liberty Lake. Twice she’s had an out-of-body experience on the Tilt-A-Whirl.