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Release date: January 26, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 288
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How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
20 July 1984
About an hour after Adan leaves her at home alone, Lala stands barefoot in the dark doorway of his house, in a scratchy white nightgown she has stolen from Wilma, assuring herself, despite the obvious, that everything will be okay. The salty air was still when she opened the door, and sweat still beads her face when she slips her feet into Adan’s old sneakers and grabs hold of the inner soles with her toes, worrying about her descent to the gray velvet blur of beach so far beneath her. She has been cautioned not to climb or descend the stairs on her own, in her condition, and Adan has been instructed to build a banister to steady her descents to the sand, but they have both ignored the good sense of the fishermen who sometimes help her up the steps with her groceries. The twenty-five cement steps to the ground remain just as treacherous as the day she first climbed them, eighteen months earlier, with a string-bag stretched into the shape of everything she owned. The steps are perhaps more treacherous, she reasons, with a belly the size of a beach ball disrupting her balance, so she leans on the weather-beaten wood of the house on her left and shrinks away from the sheer drop to her right.
Lala holds onto the holes in the wooden side of the house and eases herself down the first few steps, until the splintered wood falls away into nothingness on her left side and there is still the nothingness on her right and several steps remain to be negotiated before she reaches the sand. She pauses, stretches her arms out on either side of herself to maintain her balance, and does not dare to wipe her face when she sweats from the effort, and the hurt and the heat. When Lala’s stomach starts to twist in on itself she whimpers for Wilma—whom, even now, she cannot call Granny. Lala forces herself not to hug her arms around her belly; she keeps them outstretched to maintain equilibrium and bites her bottom lip instead. She bites it until it bleeds.
Lala does not know where she will find Adan. All she knows is that he is somewhere on the beach, doing a job. Adan doesn’t tell her much before he leaves for this type of work, least of all where he will be working. Still, when his sneakers carry her off the last step and onto the sand, Lala propels herself forward because she knows she needs to find him, she knows that something is wrong, that more than a month before she is due to have her baby, she should not be bleeding blurry poinsettia flowers everywhere she sits.
Ten minutes later she finally reaches the sidewalk behind the big houses on Baxter’s Beach and is barely limping along, despite bleeding that would warrant a run. The big houses, for the most part, have their backs to the road, with impenetrable wooden gates, unscalable walls, and hedges higher than her grasp extends. While she works on the beach during the day, braiding and beading the silky hair of tourists, Lala sees the fronts of these houses, their patio railings low enough to be kissed by the water. Tonight, thinks Lala, the houses have firmly turned their backs on her, and she does not dare to rattle a gate and ask for help. There might be dogs, she reasons, or security guards with guns, and the sticky slick between her legs does not seem like a good enough reason to risk facing them.
But when the pain grows sharper and she cannot catch her breath and the sneakers are spotted in red and the flowers have made a carpet on the back of Wilma’s white nightgown, Lala becomes brave and decides to ring the buzzer beside the ornate service gate in the guard wall of the house nearest to her. And after she has rung it once, she finds that she cannot stop and she presses it so desperately that it pulses more quickly than each gasping breath she takes. By this time she is no longer sure that the dogs and the guns could be worse than the suffering she is enduring. By this time she is no longer looking just for Adan; she is looking for help.
While she is pressing this buzzer, Lala hears a gun go off inside the house, and while she is still wondering whether it really was a gun or just the noise a malfunctioning buzzer makes—a pop-pop instead of a trill—the gate beside her is wrenched open and there stands Adan, right in front of her, calm as the day but for his throbbing scar and the menace on his face.
Lala does not believe in coincidences, and apparently neither does Adan. She does not quake with relief when she sees her husband close the service gate of the big house behind him. He does not ask what the fuck she is doing there. Instead, he turns her around and shoves her ahead of him, and then he sees the red on the back of her skirt and Lala hears him swear and believes he understands that the God she prays to has led her to just this house at just this time so that she can find her husband just when she needs him most.
Adan extracts his bike from the back of a bush and removes a pair of black woolen gloves from his big hands and Lala sees one of her stocking legs hanging like a limp tongue from his pocket, spattered in blood that is not her own. Understanding dawns on her face in the breath between contractions, then fear. At that moment, Lala loses the ability to do anything but stand there, staring at him. It is Adan, she thinks, who puts her on the bar of the bike and reminds her to lift and point her legs so he can pedal without tripping over her feet. It is Adan who tells her to cover her ears when someone starts screaming from that same house. It is Adan who snaps that she should shut the fuck up when she starts to explain why she came, despite everything he told her. Whatever she does, Adan says, pedaling so hard that his thighs whomp-whomp into her flanks as they ride away from the service gate, do not look back, do not look back. We have to get out of here, says Adan. Fast.
When they career into the parking lot of Baxter’s General twenty minutes later, Adan removes the stocking from his pocket, the gun from his waistband, and the black T-shirt from his back, exposing his white vest and dark chest to the early-morning air. Lala does not remind him that by doing so he is risking worse illnesses than they can afford. Lala is quiet. Adan throws the stocking, the gun, and the T-shirt into a peeling yellow dumpster at the east end of the parking lot while she waits bleeding on the sidewalk. He is calm as he does this, so that he does not arouse suspicion, but there is hardly anyone about. He rearranges some discarded wood inside the dumpster so that it covers the gun and the stocking, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing at 2 a.m. on a Friday morning. Lala is beginning to feel like she is fading, but she is not sure that what she feels is faintness. What she is sure of is that the scream she heard begin the moment Adan’s bare feet left the pavement outside the service gate with the buzzer was the scream of someone mourning a loved one newly dead or dying. That scream fills her head so much that she cannot trust herself to speak after she shuts up, because she believes that if she opens her mouth that scream is the only thing that will come out.
* * *
Three things are true about Baxter’s General Hospital.
One is that there is never any toilet paper in the bathroom in the Accident and Emergency Department. Instead there is a little sign next to the one wide mirror, pockmarked with rust, saying that paper is dispensed by the nurse on duty. You can miss that sign if you are not looking. If you are frantic. If your visit to the bathroom is a by-product of your emergency. If you are in a rush, it is only once you are seated in the stall, expelling what must be released, that you realize you are without a means to clean yourself up, without the ability to call someone to help you. Which is why the stalls are full of the evidence of human accident—palm prints of human excrement on the toilet tank, blood spatter beneath reminders that FIZZY WUZ HERE and ROCKIE AND RAINA 4 EVA on the walls.
The second true thing about Baxter’s General is that the nurses really do tell you to shut up: You were not screaming so loudly while your man was impregnating you, so why are you behaving so badly now that what he has left inside you is finding its way back out?
Three is that the nurses do not look you in the eye when they know they cannot help you, when you are pushing out a premature baby they know will soon be born dead. If it is you and two nurses, and if you scream that they must call a doctor, they assume you are unaware that doctors at Baxter’s are scarce and that there are no doctors to waste on a baby that is already in the realm of the spirit.
Lala learns the first true thing at four o’clock in the morning when she and Adan have already been in the Accident and Emergency Department for two hours and she feels the need to go. They are sitting side by side on two blue plastic chairs, his right hand clasping her left, his left hand rubbing the scar on his forehead, both of them bent over at the waist as if genuflecting before the big gray double doors behind which is someone who can save their baby.
Inside the waiting room, Adan inhales sharply and looks around with the slow sideways stare of a snake every time the doors slide open. He exhales only after he confirms it is another someone ailing, not the police looking for him. He has already spelled out Lala’s name to the nurse staring at a computer screen behind bulletproof glass. He has already returned to the glass, leaned into the series of holes in the shape of a flower until his tongue is almost flat against them, and reminded the nurse that his wife is bleeding. He has tested the limits of his patience so much that his anger can no longer contain itself and trembles through his shoes to tap on the green linoleum tiles of the floor. When Lala starts shaking and fainting in and out of a sort of sleep, this anger radiates outward and Adan jumps upright, sends the chair skating backward and starts to boom swear words into the quiet of the room.
“Wunna understand that my fucking wife here bleeding ’til she ready to faint?”
The nurse behind the glass is fastening a little watch, made like a brooch, onto her starched white tunic. She takes her time doing so, despite the ominous rumble of Adan’s distress. The nurse has suffered these types of outbursts before and has become immune to them.
Adan sprints into an adjoining room, wrangles a blanket off another nurse and returns to wrap it around his wife. He is still looking at the door, still thinking about the gun in the dumpster and what happened at the house. Finally, when they hear a siren wailing closer, Adan says he must leave her there, go somewhere where he can lay low, just in case. And Lala doesn’t remind him that it is possible she could be about to lose his baby.
Lala thinks she asks him to help her to the toilet first, but she is sure he leaves her in the doorway of the ladies’ room. Lala searches every single stall but all the toilet tissue dispensers are empty and she hasn’t seen the sign and she comes outside and Adan is gone and her head is spinning and she stumbles into the men’s room and searches it also because there is blood all over the back of Wilma’s nightgown and she will be damned if there is now going to be shit all over it too. And right when she comes back outside to ask a nurse or a guard or another one of the sick and waiting whether they have a pack of tissues or baby wipes or a napkin from a forgotten sandwich, a voice calls her name over the PA system and the gray doors open and a nurse appears—a squat woman with an ill-fitting wig and a uniform too white to suggest a good bedside manner—and the nurse says Hurry up we don’t have all night and Lala does not move because now she’s wet herself and she’s embarrassed and hurting worse than before and the nurse sucks her teeth because now it will have to be cleaned up (Didn’t you know you wanted to go?) and then she notices Lala’s belly is rounder than just fat and she notices the bloody prints that the soles of Adan’s sneakers have made on the green-gray floor and she shouts. A stretcher comes, and Lala is lying down when she enters the doors and passes into a hallway with prone people groaning. She sees arms held at odd angles and gashes and wounds and shirts and towels being pressed to foreheads and mouths and bleeding places and she looks up to spare herself and there is a grid of ceiling tiles and square fluorescent lights tic-tac-toeing into the future and Lala wonders whether, after all she has already been through, she is going to die here. And the thought does not distress her. The stretcher stops and another nurse appears and when next she comes to, they are telling her to push but Lala does not want to push because she is afraid of what she will find.
Lala learns the second true thing, because when she opens her mouth to ask for water the scream she has been hiding comes out instead. Lala wants to tell them This is not my scream—this is a scream I picked up from a house on Baxter’s Beach because she is hoping that the nurses will understand that this scream will also require treatment, but they don’t. The nurse with the bad Boney M wig says Shut up and asks her if this is how she was screaming when she was taking the man who got her into this mess. Her eyes tell Lala that she cannot, will not, allow Lala’s screaming to get into her own head because it doesn’t look good and these teenage girls without a pot to piss in are in here every day at younger and younger ages.
So Lala closes her mouth and swallows the scream she caught on Baxter’s Beach the way some people catch a cold and in her mind she begs the baby not to die as she pushes and feels the vessels in the whites of her eyes pop and flood her vision.
And Lala learns the third true thing when she gets past the stinging and the tearing and the stretching and the slippage and is suddenly, breathlessly freed of a weight she has been carrying within her for the past eight months and recognizes that she does not hear the squall that, in every television depiction she has ever watched, signals the birth of a baby. So she says, “Nurse—nurse?” because she wants the reassurance that everything is all right, that the baby is fine, but the nurse does not look at her, the nurse yanks her wrist out of Lala’s grasp and tells the other nurse to call the doctor and her hands are holding something that does not move. She is rushing the baby to the spot of light under a lit lamp on a table, putting a bulbous tube into its nostrils, rubbing and pressing and listening to the baby’s chest. And Lala understands that it is not good and she does not want to look but she does and she wills the baby to live because she can see that the nurses have already given up and because, suddenly, she is angry that Adan is not there and after tonight, she is sure that she can no longer love Adan and perhaps the baby is all the good in him and she wants it to live so she can love it instead. Another nurse bursts into the room and a very young student doctor is behind her and it is the two of them who stand over her baby on the small side table and slap it and prod it and prick it with tubes and needles until Lala hears a weak little cry. And it is only after Lala starts to whimper her relief that the student says, “Is she stitched up?” and the nurse who worked on saving Baby says “No” and comes back to her and pats her arm and says it is okay, they are doing everything they can.
By the time they are done Baby is still blue but she is breathing, and she is taken from the small, white table and shown briefly to her mother and then whisked away and the room is quiet while Lala is stitched up and stabbed with more needles and transfused with someone else’s blood and she is cold and she is shaking and the nurse with the wig is wrapping Wilma’s blood-soaked nightie in a ball and putting it into a bag and preparing the room for another delivery and Lala asks if they can call Wilma and tell her Stella had the baby and ask her to come, even though she knows that Wilma will not come. And the nurse, unimpressed by the fact that Lala calls her grandmother by her first name but softened by Lala’s apparent ability to beat the odds, says, “Okay—but the baby probably won’t be able to have visitors for a while.” And her tone says maybe the baby will never see visitors. And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having the baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in ICU she shakes her head No and the nurse clucks Tsk, tsk and Lala thinks of Adan, who hasn’t come back and she wonders if he went back for the gun but she keeps her mouth closed because some of the scream is still in there.
26 July 1984
For the first five days after the murder, Mira Whalen is mute. She cannot speak when the maid says good morning, she cannot tell the swarming policemen to move their booted feet off the white carpet in her bedroom, she cannot say anything when the police insist on showing her photographs of all the robbers they know who were out of jail at the time of Peter Whalen’s murder. She can only moan refusals (Don’t come, Don’t arrange for the body to be taken back to England just yet, Don’t cry) when her mother calls with offers of assistance.
But her voice is not the only thing that leaves her—on each of the five nights since the murder, Mira Whalen has also lost her teeth.
Painless though it is, it fills her each time with an unexplainable terror as she dreams it, a terror that remains unabated on waking. It is often an ordinary dream, as dreams go (walking the dog, washing the dishes) save that, before she knows it, her two front teeth tumble from her mouth and into her hands. Every night.
In her dream, she is warned by a mental tearing-away devoid of physical sensation that nevertheless compels her hands upward until they reach her lips. She parts them slowly and feels the proof plop into her palms. It is always baby teeth—bloodless and tiny—the kind you might leave for the tooth fairy. Her Morphean self stares at these miniatures, whiter and more multifaceted than she remembers, and while she stares, the mental rending starts afresh, the central incisors in her palms are elevated and there is the slow parting of lips and the silent crash of more of the teeth she hasn’t owned since she was a mere little girl.
What disturbs Mira Whalen most about these dreams is not the threatened loss of her ability to chew, but rather the fact that she often continues to stare at the teeth in her palm, even though she knows that more are to be lost. It does not matter to Mira that she is dreaming. Surely, she thinks on rising in the near-morning, surely her sleeping version should be smart enough to foresee what will happen next? To do something to prevent the loss of more teeth? While Mira Whalen ponders the stupidity of her somnolent self, her sensible side repeats the same actions each morning on waking: Mira Whalen walks the twenty steps from the makeshift bed on the carpet behind the closed bedroom door to the mirror above the bathroom sink. There she takes three deep breaths before forcing herself to face the glass, at which point she watches her reflection bite the back of her hand, hard enough to mark it, and then examine each curve in the smarting impression.
It is only after Mira Whalen has convinced herself that her real teeth are all grown up that she counts them, every morning after the murder. Mira Whalen counts aloud, as counting her teeth in her head gives her the sensation of still being asleep and the prospect of being a sleepwalker is the scariest thing of all, but today is the first day that her voice actually makes a sound. Mira’s voice grates over her tongue and teeth, and emerges from her mouth a rasping thing that whispers even when she doesn’t want it to. On each of the first five mornings after the murder, Mira Whalen considered it a blessing that she could not speak and wake the children even if she was so inclined. On this, the sixth morning, she chides herself for being so stupid as to still believe in blessings.
On the sixth morning after the murder of her husband Mira Whalen looks at the lonely pink electric toothbrush in the medicine cabinet while she swallows three Panadols and one Celexa with a gulp of water she catches in two cupped palms under a hot tap. She does not realize that she opens the tap marked Hot but she does not burn her fingers, because she never needs more water than she can catch in the ten seconds before the water from the spout begins to steam. She swallows all four tablets in one gulp and lifts her head from the spigot just as the water reaches a temperature that could singe her skin if she isn’t fast enough, and then she is faced with the mirror again. For the first time since the murder, Mira allows herself a look, a long look, at a witch with wild hair, wandering eyes and a wet, crusting bruise on a cheek now shaded with purple and blue. Mira Whalen turns away, partly because, outside of the teeth, the person in the mirror isn’t someone she recognizes and partly because she has better things to do than try to fix that woman’s face. Things like calling the Baxter’s Beach Police Station, for example, to determine whether they have yet caught the man that killed her husband. Things like calling the mortuary at Baxter’s General to find out whether the forensic pathologist has flown in from Sweden as yet so he can tell them what they already know and she can take the children and get the fuck out of here. Things like trying to reach Peter’s ex-wife and the mother of his two children to tell her what has happened because the first Mrs. Whalen is an artist and has gone off to a retreat on a mountain in India where she doesn’t even have access to a fucking phone. Things she hasn’t been able to bring herself to do in the first five days since she lost her husband.
On the sixth morning . . .
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