Copyright 2002 by Judy Alexander
by Judy Alexander
From that day on, I spent a lot of time walking, ’cause Sherman couldn’t keep quiet, and I had to keep him away from the hospital. I walked along the railroad tracks. There was something calming about walking the rails; they stretched for miles in both directions, and I could imagine myself carried along to a different place. I dreamed about hopping a train to Texas. I wanted to be back with my Mama. I knew that meant being with Papa, too, but now that my back had healed, that didn’t seem like an unbearable proposition.
One day, when I was out walking around town with Sherman, a woman said to her husband, “She’s awful young.” I wanted to tell her I agreed with her, I was too young to be caring for my cousin all day long. But when I repeated the story to Yesenia, she stopped making cinnamon tortillas and laughed. She says, “That woman, she think, little girl es madre de Sherman. Mother of Sherman.” I didn’t think that was funny at all.
I walked along the New River. I hear now it’s the most polluted river in the whole United States, so maybe that’s why I got all this cancer. But back then, the river didn’t look so bad, just a little muddy. Late spring and early summer, the cottonwood trees released their cotton-ball seeds. The wind blew the seeds down to the river, where they stuck on the dead, algae-covered branches what floated at the water’s edge. Left to myself, I could have stared for hours at the branches covered in white cottonwood fluff, amazed how much they looked like they were coated with snow. But I never had time to stare for long, ’cause Sherman was always causing trouble. He threw rocks in the water so it splashed in my face. He caught butterflies, tore off their wings, and told them to swim as he tossed them in the river.
Sherman was too much for me. Aunt Ione wouldn’t discipline him, and she wouldn’t let me switch him, either. He’s the reason I have no teeth in front, but that’s another story. I should wear my dentures, but they hurt; I had them done at a dentist college, and they never did feel good. I put up with so much pain in my early years, I just can’t put up with any more. So my prosthetic breast, my fake teeth, my high heels, I don’t wear any of those.
I began to speculate that Sherman’s father was from the American side, maybe even someone who lived in Calexico. As I walked through town, I was always on the lookout for a man who looked at Sherman with a fatherly look, or someone who looked away too quickly, too guiltily. But most men looked at Sherman with a sense of wariness, ’cause he was an awful child, always breaking things or stealing things, and the men were concerned about their own property, not about any possible paternity. He was a thief from the time I met him, so storekeepers didn’t like to see us coming, and shopping was one of my chores. Trying to get anything done with Sherman in tow was like walking with shoes too tight.
That first year, the school year was already half over, so I just took care of Sherman. The second year, I went to school all day, but Sherman was in Kindergarten and only went half day. I had to pick him up from school at noon and bring him to the hospital. I fed him, cleaned him up, and put him down for his nap, and then I went back to my classes.
Sherman looked real little when I first got there, only four years old, but by age twelve, he was a fullgrown man. Aunt Ione didn’t know what to do with him then, so she sent him off to military school. He was too young to go to war, but Tony once told me there was a boy Sherman’s age on Guadalcanal, fought for several months before they found out how young he was and sent him back home. If that had been Sherman, they never would a guessed his age, and with all that meanness in him, he could have taken the island all by himself.
I thought a lot about Sherman’s folks. Sometimes I thought he wasn’t related to Aunt Ione at all, ’cause I couldn’t imagine Aunt Ione ever having patience for a man.
There was another woman in town, a black woman, I think she must have been about the only negro in town, she was a midwife and delivered babies, too. But Aunt Ione didn’t begrudge the competition. This other woman, I think her name was Miss Maxwell, was mostly delivering Mexican babies, and Aunt Ione said wasn’t any money in that. Sometimes, though, Aunt Ione had to take on one of Miss Maxwell’s patients. The Doctor asked her to. Miss Maxwell didn’t like to deliver breech babies, and she’d send those women to our hospital to be treated by Doctor Huntsberger.
Course, the midwife’s patients didn’t have the money for a hospital birth, and I can’t see Aunt Ione taking on any patient for ten days what couldn’t pay, so maybe Doctor Huntsberger paid their bills, though I never heard him talk about his good deeds. That’s the kind of man he was, never bragged about anything, always said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.” I come to the conclusion that my cousin Sherman was the son of one of those breech mothers. His mama went into labor while the doctor was out of town making house calls, and Aunt Ione did her best, but the poor woman died, and Aunt Ione didn’t tell anyone, just buried the woman in the backyard. And if anyone ever asked, she just told them that the woman had refused to stay in bed for ten days, she’d gone back to Mexico, she was one of those tough farm field women who squat when they give birth, then get right back to work. But all the time Sherman’s mama was buried under that grapefruit tree, what used to be an orange tree till her sadness soured the fruit.
* * *
I didn’t sleep well at night. Partly it was the heat, at least in the summer. But if the heat wasn’t a problem, the patients was. It was a real hospital, even though it only had four beds, with a doctor who performed real operations. In the middle of the night, after the ether wore off, some of them would start screaming. I’d hear Aunt Ione open her bedroom door and head downstairs. She was a hard worker.
The house had been built for a family with twelve kids. There were three bedrooms upstairs and four downstairs. The kitchen and dining room took up the north side of the house. The kitchen could be closed off from the rest of the house with sliding pocket doors, so we had a little privacy, but even the kitchen was used for the hospital. There was a scale in there for weighing babies and vitamins and that autoclave. We never used the dining room for meals, we ate at the breakfast table in the kitchen. The dining room had metal file cabinets full of patient files.
The house smelled like a hospital, too. Aunt Ione insisted on using Lysol to clean every surface. And on operation days, the smell of ether made me feel ill even when I was up in my bedroom.
One of the downstairs rooms was L-shaped, and that’s the one where Doctor Huntsberger did his examinations for people what didn’t stay at the hospital. I think he paid Aunt Ione some money so he wouldn’t have to rent an office someplace else. In the short part of the L he kept his medical books and a cot so he could nap if he had a patient he had to check on all night. In the corner of that room was a closet, and I had to watch like a hawk to keep Sherman out of there. That’s what we called the pharmacy, even though there was already a real pharmacy in town. Doctor Huntsberger kept aspirin and quinine and caffeine pills and digitalis and even some sulfides, what they used in those days instead of antibiotics, even though they give some people an awful nettle-rash. Those was the days before amoxocillin and all what we have now. We didn’t even get penicillin until the war, and then it was mostly soldiers what could get that. That first penicillin came already in a syringe, and it was so thick, sometimes Aunt Ione just couldn’t get it through the needle and we had to throw it away. The pharmacy is also where we kept anything sanitary, like all those bandages I rolled.
Only one time Aunt Ione’s hospital got full up. That was the time four women decided to have their babies at once, and on top of that, the lawyer’s son broke his leg. That time, I had to give up my room and sleep with Cousin Sherman. Aunt Ione and Yesenia locked arms to make a chair, and the new mother sat down. They carried her that way up the stairs to my room. There was no bathroom up there, but that didn’t matter, because the new mother used a bedpan.
During hard-to-sleep nights, I thought about Mama. I wrote to her many times, on pretty postcards what I bought with the money left over from grocery shopping. But I never got a single letter or card back. I knew it couldn’t be Mama’s fault. Maybe she was writing me every day, but Aunt Ione was hiding her letters. Maybe Papa wouldn’t let Mama write. Maybe Mama was real sick, too sick to even write and let me know.
I’d lie in bed and sucked my thumb, something I hadn’t done in years. I was like one of them little kittens you get what’s been weaned too soon. Its tiny paws knead your shirt and its tongue and lips leave a wet spot from sucking dry cloth.
Judy Alexander, a marketing communications writer from Santa Ana, California, was inspired by stories from Texas and California old-timers. Sour Fruit is excerpted from her recently completed novel, Desert Medicine, which is under review at several publishing houses. Other excerpts were published in the spring 2001 issue of the Concho River Review, the Calvin College web site at http://www.calvin.edu/worship/em, and on her own web site at http://www.judyalexander.com