SHORT STORY CONTEST
AS CLEAR AS WATER
by Daryl Murphy
When the caller finally gets past her receptionist near the end of the day, Dr. Louise Banks still has three occupied examination rooms and four more patients thumbing magazines in the waiting room.
“I said we were backed up, but he’s called four times and won’t leave a message. Now he says it’s urgent,” Monique, the receptionist, tells her. “Might be Blue Cross. He sounds white.”
The man does indeed sound white. “I don’t know if you remember me—Max Conner?”
“Max Conner?” she repeats dumbly.
“I was seventeen the one time we met—must be thirty years. Abe is my brother. Abe Conner? He convinced you to let me come for a weekend.”
That name clicks even though it is one long culled from her life.
“He’s sick. He wants to see you.” Stunned silent, she lets him drone on. “Well would you think about it?”
The call lasts barely five minutes, but it is as if decades have passed. By the time she hangs up, she feels a breathlessness as if the room holds little air. Monique’s eyes study her. “You okay, Doctor?”
Louise nods. “Where’s Selma Jackson’s chart?”
The moment she walks into exam room two, Louise knows her mistake in seeing the girl immediately after the call. Fifteen and six months pregnant, Selma sits on the exam table cradling her belly in her hands. Undernourished and anemic but delighted about a future she can’t really imagine, Selma always challenges the good doctor’s compassion. Louise knows she still lives on potato chips and candy like so many other impoverished expecting teens despite the lectures and brochures on prenatal care Louise dispenses every visit. Selma still refuses to wear maternity clothes. The sight of the girl’s dark body squeezed into oversized stretch jeans and a pink top that wouldn’t have contained that belly before the pregnancy sends an angry tremor through Louise. The hand clutching the girl’s chart shakes.
“You taking those vitamins, Selma?” Louise hands her yet another brochure.
Even as the girl makes her childish excuses, Louise exhales slowly in an attempt to stop the slippage. Time has become her enemy. She feels its pull. But Louise is a pragmatist. One thing she learned from her father, a former refugee from Mississippi Jim Crow, is always to march forward, head erect, never compromising or looking back. So she wrestles back her composure. No one sees her secret struggle, her resolution that only charts, symptoms, illnesses will occupy her mind.
By the time she reaches her car, there is only one illness left. Advanced lung cancer. Two months or less. Will you come?
Time takes her then. She is behind the wheel of her Lincoln, backing out of her parking space, but she is also in a bleak, mustard yellow bathroom where a spider crouches in a large, white, claw-footed bathtub—back in a year when she had been too young to feel her own youth. The spider rotated suddenly on the eight fragile legs jutting out from its abdomen like the rays of a child’s Crayola sun.
At Louise’s yelp Abe came running from his books, his lean worry melting into laughter when he looked to where she pointed.
“Babe, it’s just a spider.”
“Look at the size of it.”
“It won’t hurt you.”
“I can’t go near them. Get it out!”
He ran out, then reappeared with the cover page of his term paper, his pale thin back, as hard and smooth as the porcelain, bowing over into the tub. He scooped up the spider; she backed into the corner away from where he stood extending the page for her to see.
“Want to kill it?” he asked, grinning his grin.
She burned with shame, knowing his good heart, his unwillingness to injure or kill any living thing. “Just get it out of here.”
“You’re funny.” He went out. She heard the kitchen window open.
She did not feel funny but as if electricity flowed beneath her skin. The spider had felt it, had seemed to pulse and grow from it, and even with the arachnid gone the bathroom crackled around her. She closed the door and opened the taps to fill the tub. The room filled with steam; steam filled her lungs and hid the heavy webbing in the paint. Sometimes she imagined she could hear the paint cracking and flaking away. Lately she thought she felt an inner pulse just out of sync with her own.
Her body sank beneath the water, darker than any house spider against the porcelain but still unchanged. In bed just mornings ago Abe had pressed his blonde head to her brown belly, amazed at how taut and smooth it remained, and how silent to the new life. She had marveled at his happiness and swallowed her own despair.
He opened the bathroom door. She turned her head to hide the crying. He stripped and slid into the water behind her without a word. He soaped her back in a slow rhythm; behind closed eyes she imagined the white spirals. She felt him stirring. Between them the soft drip of water from their bodies might have been rain, a garden of silence springing from each drop.
“I can’t,” she finally said.
He understood her meaning. “You can.” She felt the change in him, the rising tension. His chin pressed against the top of her head; he enveloped her like steam, smelled of new sweat, his morning cigarette. Tears fell onto the tangle of her Afro. “Please . . . .”
They trembled sadly together in the cool air from the distant kitchen window.
* * *
When she gets home from the clinic, she goes straight to her daughter’s room and sits on Joy’s bed. The Polish maid, recommended to her by the hospital’s chief of staff, is thorough. The room, a soft salmon pink, looks as if it were still the center of Joy’s world with its dense floral patterned bedding opposite the polished antique vanity Joy had had to grow into.
Louise goes to the tall mahogany dresser, fingers the gleaming glass on the two photographs. In Joy’s college graduation portrait, her sleekly straightened black hair cloaks her shoulders, and her smile parts enough to show flawless teeth. Louise sees her own thinner self in an older photograph—a family portrait—but her husband was as bald and thick-bodied five years ago as now. He has pudgy, brown fingers that belie his skill with a scalpel. In the photograph his right hand rests on Louise’s shoulder. Louise thinks of the new wedding photograph out in her airy living room in which Joy is a dark, slim stalk in a bloom of white, her tall Scots-Irish groom beside her.
And she wonders at how the world has changed. Always a practical child, she had defused confrontation by turning to steel on playgrounds when white children tossed racial slights around like balls. And she had discovered how quiet resolution in the classrooms and guidance offices could fool kindly teachers and counselors into believing she had taken to heart their sage advice on where little black girls best fit in the world. Yes, she knew what a nurse’s aide was. Her mother spent her days changing bedpans at Michael Reese Hospital for little enough pay. “Only you and God know what you can be,” Benjamin Meeks told his daughters, his Louise and her baby sister, Gloria. God never told Louise what he knew, but Louise wanted to be a doctor and so had marched forward, earning the grades against most, if not all, expectations.
She relives stories told in her father’s deep rumble. She closes her eyes and sees a young man hiking roads and riding railways up to Chicago from Mississippi, intent on leaving hardship behind him. He is gun-metal black; his limbs are strong. She hears the heavy thump of his feet down their stoop and through the gray morning. At night he returns, coveralls stained and damp from hoisting and moving, his earthy musk preceding him but his back unbowed, sometimes discarded treasures on his shoulders: an overstuffed chair, the antique vanity Louise would pass to her daughter. Louise is his girl, his oldest, and he holds her on his lap to tell her tales, good and bad, of the life he has known. She remembers his pride at finally passing the civil service exam and her own giddiness at the loud celebration dinner in an actual sit-down restaurant. How she had filled her mouth with sweet, greasy ribs and hot biscuits and cold, yellow potato salad. She sees the break in those shoulders the day Medgar Evers meets the bullet that has been a long time coming. Louise and her mother and sister know to stay quiet, to let her proud father concentrate on Walter Cronkite’s baritone, on the thousands of electronic dots transmitting the image of black men in blacker suits standing wet-eyed in a Jackson, Mississippi driveway. Her father’s silence crackles. From where she sits hugging her knees, Louise focuses on the strength in his hands and feels his silent yearning to snap a white neck.
Abe’s pale throat flushed red whenever trouble stirred his gentle soul. She had known this from the first words he spoke to her at one of the campus anti-war rallies. In those days on the campus in Ann Arbor there were always rallies where hair length, clothing, and outrage unified black and white against the Asian war or for the Chicago Seven, the SDS. Who had introduced her to this eager boy who called Soul on Ice his Bible, chanted to free Huey Newton, and thought himself grooving whenever he heard Motown on the radio? She had thought him safe, someone with whom to debate Nixon’s policies and the constitutional right of Black Panthers to bear arms. He was the monster tamed. A curiosity from the other side. How had they moved from peace to love?
The fault had been hers. She should have resisted the lingering brush of his hands on her body, should not have allowed him to walk her the long, languid routes home. Never should have answered his gentle rap on her heart. She should have stayed loyal, choosing a man black and strong like her father, as was the boy she had loved freshman year, had daydreamed a marriage with, had received between her legs. And the others who followed, who told her what a fine sister she was. Proud of Blackness. True to the Cause. What had driven her to betrayal?
As the song had warned, love was strange. A new calm had filled her when she first accepted Abe’s love, for this man so unlike any she had yet known was the first to look at her as if with her father’s eyes. She felt more than a symbol; Abe knew she could be anything. And so for a brief respite she had laid down the fight. But her father’s world still thrived beyond the university. It peered at Louise from blanched faces whenever she stood with Abe in movie lines or awaited service at the corner burger joint. Faces she might have walked up to and demanded, Ain’t I a woman? but for the restraint of his arm around her waist. Sometimes his privilege infuriated her—that inalienable right not to see the thinking behind those stares. While Abe grooved on life, Louise steeled herself against the public contempt for the skinny honky and his soul sister whore. Love across lines became a love with costs: Abe banished and his clothes hidden at the back of the closet the two times her parents could afford the train to Ann Arbor. Soul brothers and sisters who ignored her on campus and no longer called. The life of a child.
Adrift without an anchor, Louise went home for spring break. Her family met the train, their faces enflamed with pride. Her father refused to let her carry the slightest bag and insisted she ride up front with him as he drove south along Lake Shore Drive, peppering her with questions: How were her studies? Was she getting enough to eat? Whatever happened to that young man studying engineering? A real credit; were they still dating? Crackers couldn’t keep down a black boy as smart as him!
It had been a year since she had visited home for any extended period, and at first she felt at a loss without Abe. Nights lying in bed, listening to her sister gush about boys and high school, she felt the absence of her lover’s arms. But then what she came for happened: slowly her life took on the family rhythms that had always sustained her. She helped her mother clean and cook, laughed and gossiped with her sister. Watched from the window as her father left for work each morning and was often there again evenings when he returned. She was home.
A party in her honor had been planned at the church. For once her father made no critique of her imposing Afro, the magnificent bushiness radiating from her head. But he insisted she accompany her mother downtown for a new dress that would fit the occasion.
At the huge, bustling department store she chose a demure spring floral print, not too mini—a respectable length of leg above the knees. Her mother waited to pay while Louise went off to find nylons (something a radical in bell-bottoms no longer had in her wardrobe). When Louise returned, she found her mother still waiting. The cashier seemed intent on ringing up every other woman who approached the counter. All white, Louise realized.
Had she been alone or with Abe, Louise would have raged forward and demanded service, and at first she did feel her outrage working to find its voice. It was her mother’s attitude that stopped Louise—the dogged, almost serene patience, dress draped over an arm of her simple gray cloth coat, purse clasped before her demurely with both hands. A lady waited. With all the dignity she could muster. Her mother had taught this by example all of Louise’s life. It was as if Louise were a young child again, absorbed within the aura of her mother’s familiar and comfortable acceptance of place. It filled Louise with a sadness that smothered her anger like a blanket, this glimpse of a home to which she could never really return.
“Come, Mama.” She took her mother’s hand, tugging against the resistance. “My mother has been waiting,” she said to the cashier in a strong, calm stage whisper. She took the dress from her mother and laid it upon the counter. She stared into woman’s wide blue eyes and smiled with all her might.
The cashier’s face went crimson. Her hands flew as she rang up and bagged the dress.
At the party Benjamin Meeks stood before family and friends and raised his glass. “You all know my girl. And I am one proud man to have this daughter,” he told them all. “Most of you seen her workin’ hard all her life. The first in this family to finish school and go on to college—a good college—with a scholarship. Good thing, because her mama and me couldn’t have sent her. And when she finishes her schooling and brings her doctoring back home . . . .” He looked at Louise long and hard, emotion watering his eyes. “This church—this community—will share in our miracle.”
First a day laborer and now fourteen years a mail carrier, her father still stood tall in Louise’s eyes although she now saw the slump in his shoulders and how his thick, dense black hair had become a gray fringe. Beside him, her mother sat with that same inscrutable patience. They would be her child’s grandparents. They would help her teach it to claim a place in the world. Her sister Gloria would be the doting aunt. Beside Gloria sat the reverend who would christen the baby. Throughout the church basement, smiles brightened faces and hands raised glasses in her honor. Louise tried to imagine Abe among them, a part of it all.
* * *
“Not now. And not a mixed baby.”
“That baby will be ours! Please . . . .”
In the face of her resolve Abe kicked over chairs and vanished for hours. He slunk back with broken daisies behind his back. He begged her to marry him. In the end he sat beside her, listening for the nurse to call her name. His right thumb traced slow circles on the top of her left hand. She watched it work into her flesh, deep and steady as the current buzzing in her head.
“We’ll be okay,” he promised.
“We’ll be okay,” she promised back.
Afterward, through the haze of searing pain, she felt a loss in every bounce and turn and screaming halt of the rusted Ford Pinto. Or she rose from sleep to an empty bed. Or his eyes skipped past hers; she learned the sharp edge of his profile. Their silence came to full bloom.
Even as he nursed her with broth and tea, he vanished by degrees. When had she last heard his laughter? How far did he need to walk for cigarettes? When he finally came to bed, his arm on her back felt different, lighter, as if the substance of love had dried away, leaving a weightless husk. She wondered if she wanted him back. Finally she chose.
As he stuffed his army surplus duffel with his clothes, she fought the need to stop him.
“You really want to do this?” he demanded. He jammed a tangle of T-shirts deep into the duffel.
He turned to her clutching a wad of frayed Jockey briefs. “I love you. We love each other.”
“ I know what I feel—what I’d do for you, what I’m willing to do. I agreed to the abortion.”
“You didn’t have a choice.”
“No. I guess I didn’t.” His throat pulsed; it burned crimson. “What about you, Louise? Was I ever going to meet Daddy? Did you ever really consider having my baby?”
“Your love. Your baby. What about school and a future? Everyone out there expects me to fail.”
He spread his arms. “And what’s here doesn’t count? You really think the enemy is all around us, but never ever in this room.” He punched the last of his clothes into the bag then turned back to her, his face flushed, his eyes blurry. “Fuck it—you know why, Louise? Because someday it has to be about us. About who we are and what we want.”
“That might have been. Someday. You know someday? I grew up on it.” She was Marion Anderson singing her challenge to the DAR; she was Dr. King rattling the gates to the Promised Land. “‘Someday things will change. Black people will have their time someday.’ Maybe it was your turn to wait.”
He opened his mouth to answer, but she stopped him with a raised hand. She picked up her woven shoulder bag from a chair. At the door she said, “Leave the key on the table.”
She winced at a shot of pain but worked her slow way down two flights and across campus to their favorite used bookstore. Wondering how long she would have to stay there, she tried to concentrate on browsing through the dark, narrow aisles. After more than an hour she had discovered a hardbound copy of Grimm’s Fairytales in new condition and a fiercely highlighted paperback of LeRoi Jones’ The System of Dante’s Hell. The irony of these choices made her choke back a strange, iron laughter. She thought of finding a phone and calling her father so his gruff bark could tell her she had done right without his knowing what the wrong had been. She counted out the five-dollar total for the books through a cloud. The apartment was empty when she returned, but Abe had not left his key.
Days passed and she remembered little about them beyond the waiting, awake and asleep. She grew stronger, finally wanted solid food. She opened her textbooks again.
The wait ended as she awoke to the press of his body on the bed. At the touch of his hands she knew she would not fight or struggle, had always intended to take in his rage and hope one more time. Destruction guided their coupling—a coming together, a breaking apart—and when he left, the key clicked like a lock on the bedside table. She did not see him again. By the time a white face she could not place stopped her to say that Abe had dropped out of pre-law and would be switching to sociology at Wayne State come the fall, she believed she had stopped missing him.
* * *
She has barely slept in days. A second call from Max has filled in the blanks: Long years of social work in Detroit. A childless marriage and bad divorce. These final days of hospice. Will you come? Louise heard a plea for resolution filtered through the kid brother’s voice.
She lies to her husband, makes her plans. She feels hounded by the same dark dread and sadness that came with her father’s death.
Benjamin Meeks had reaped an old age full of blessings: an easy retirement and two successful daughters whose futures he had balanced like a trunk on his back. Louise had weathered his sudden illness and grand funeral with the prideful dignity that had always made her Benjamin Meeks’ daughter. Accepting casseroles, kissing cheeks, or standing in regal black among the press of pale lilies with her mother and sister, she locked herself so tightly against the loss that her days passed as remotely as the cityscape winter now frozen in the windshield of her Lincoln. But as she maneuvers the car along Stony Island Avenue from Hyde Park to the Skyway, then across the Indiana void, she feels the first fine cracks in her will. By the time she stops in Michigan City to dry her eyes and refuel, she is wondering what she could say to him. This is who I became? Sorry we broke each other’s hearts? She takes her gold card from the attendant, signs the receipt, and turns toward home. Max does not call again.
Time swings by a filament, by a spider’s single strand.
After a scalding bath, Louise clears the condensation from the bathroom mirror, squinting at the blur of her own face. She puts on her glasses to study her blunt, brown features, wonders what was ever in them that could draw someone from one world into another. In these seconds of collapse and surrender that sometimes come, she lets them return to her: his pale hands on her dark shoulders. She will always remember him as young and strong. Their child’s absence fills her, but that judgment she can bear. It is the mirror couple who haunt her—a girl as clear as water, a boy as vacant as steam. Louise wipes a palm across the mirror and they are gone.
When I was a kid in the turbulent 50’s and 60’s, the fiction and poems I read presented a world where people maintained (or found) a strong moral compass despite the sometimes insane behavior around them. Harper Lee’s Scout, Jem, and Boo Radley. Tormented John in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. I knew people like them walking my streets, needed to write about them, so I earned my MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. After twenty-plus years as a teaching vagabond, moving from state to state to teach the craft of writing, I’m currently settled in Chicago and focused on actually finishing a short fiction collection and a novel. My story “Philly” was the 2010 Briar Cliff Review Fiction winner and a Pushcart Prize nominee. “Fledgling” was a 2013 finalist for the Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Fiction Award, and “Blue Notes” was a 2013 finalist for Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize.