The clock in the West Plains Lutheran General emergency room has a white face with large black numerals. It’s easy to read, like the clocks Paula remembers from grade school. The time is eight twenty-three. Below the clock are swinging double doors, their sickly green exterior scuffed and pockmarked. Seven minutes ago they wheeled her husband through those doors.
A doctor will soon come through those doors. A Missouri country doctor with a rumpled lab coat (stethoscope hanging from one of the pockets) and a tangle of grey hair. Flashing a toothy smile, hands on hips, he’ll tell Paula the big guy just had a bad case of indigestion. Take him home and he’ll be fine for your daughter’s wedding tomorrow. Just make sure he goes easy on the wedding toasts, he’ll say. And then he’ll wink.
Or the message will come from a young resident with close-cropped hair and sparkling blue eyes. Full of himself, still not quite believing he’s a doctor, he’ll bust through the doors and inform Paula (and the rest of the waiting room) that they were lucky this time. He’ll clear his throat and proclaim that Mr. Stonemason suffered a panic attack. Then he will furrow his brow and continue his lecture. Your husband must go on a strict diet, he will say. He will emphasize “your husband” as though it’s her fault Jim weighs two hundred and ninety-seven pounds.
Or they’ll usher Paula into a room where there will be some foreign doctor from Pakistan or Ghana waiting for her. A surgical mask will hang loose around his neck and his face will be pinched, as if his stomach hurts. He will stare at his shoes as he tells her he’s sorry. And Paula will try to scream, but she won’t be able to make a sound.
Paula perches on the edge of her chair and tries to not look down at her dress. When Jim collapsed to the floor just before the wedding rehearsal was about to begin, he broke his nose. The Maple Springs ambulance was unavailable so after that woman EMT resuscitated Jim, the Reverend Tommy Blaine drove Jim and Paula and the EMT to the hospital in West Plains twenty miles away. Tommy had been magnificent, driving the church van like a man possessed. Paula had held Jim’s head in her lap and now the silk dress she bought at Dillards, a shimmering periwinkle with a cinched waist that accentuated her trim figure, is dotted with his blood.
She fumbles through her purse and grabs her cellphone. There is a message from her daughter, Kayla. She and Barry are on the way to the hospital – Jim’s brother Clayton is driving them. Hearing Clayton’s name always gives Paula a tight feeling in her stomach. She drops the cellphone back in her purse and retrieves her compact. The whites of her eyes are splashed with a fuzzy redness and her short dark hair is clumpy as though she has just finished a workout.
The double-doors swing open and the EMT who resuscitated her husband, emerges. Trixie or Trudy, Paula can’t remember her name, takes one of the plastics chairs and turns it so it’s at a right angle to Paula’s. She whispers, “They’re giving him an EKG and they’ve paged Dr. Khan, he’s the cardiologist on-call tonight.” She pats Paula’s knee. “Where did your minister go?”
“He had a call on his cell.”
The woman doesn’t look like an EMT to Paula. Fortyish, maybe younger. Hard to tell with her pixie hairstyle and smooth unlined face. She’s tanned and has muscular arms and is wearing cutoffs and a white peasant blouse that leaves her midriff bare. Paula had expected a crew of uniformed medical professionals, like on television, but the emergency call was answered by the Maple Springs Volunteer Fire Department. This woman might have been at some bar when she got the call.
Paula tries to read the woman’s name on the plastic ID badge she has hooked to her cutoffs. “Thank you for everything.” She touches her forearm. “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Trudy Bennett,” she says. Trudy stands up and moves her chair next to Paula’s and then sits down again. “I’ll wait with you.”
The glass double doors of the pedestrian entrance fly open. A young hillbilly couple stand in the entrance with their infant wrapped up in a blanket. The admitting nurse, a freckled-splashed redhead, grabs the bundle from the mother and rushes through the double doors.
“What’s going on?” Paula asks.
Trudy is staring at the couple who stumble to the corner of the waiting room like survivors from a train wreck. “Their baby is dead,” she says.
The room goes quiet as two West Plains police officers appear out of nowhere. The older one, who is short and has grey hair and a paunch, takes off his hat and wipes his brow. He ambles over to the nurse at the check-in podium. His partner, who is in his early twenties and tall with a flat belly and broad shoulders, stands in the doorway. His walkie-talkie squawks and a woman’s voice asks him to copy. The officer at the podium listens to the redheaded nurse, and then turns to his partner and tilts his head toward the couple in the corner. The younger officer holsters his walkie-talkie and walks over to them.
Tommy Blaine enters the waiting room, flips his cellphone shut and slips it into the front pocket of his Dockers. He does a quick hand-comb, even though he has had a buzz-cut ever since he became the senior pastor. He scans the waiting room from right to left and then back again. He does the same things on Sundays when he preaches. He avoids the pulpit and stands in the middle of the sanctuary so he can make eye contact with the congregation. He is young, barely thirty, and his eyes, a faded blue like comfortable jeans, are his weapon.
Three summers ago he stood at the church entrance after his “Feed My Sheep” sermon and greeted each member of the congregation as they filed out. When it was Paula’s turn, he smiled and clasped her hand. His grip was firm but gentle, and he didn’t let go with his hands or his eyes. He invited her to join his Meals on Wheels Ministry and without hesitation she said yes. With Tommy’s vision and Paula’s hard work they built the program. In the last twelve months the Meals on Wheels Ministry of Maple Springs delivered nine hundred and fifty hot meals to shuts-in and the elderly throughout the county.
As Paula watches him standing there in the middle of the waiting room she wants to believe that what she feels when she sees Tommy is the warmth of Jesus’ love shining on her through Tommy. Now that’s she’s been Born Again, she wants to believe that the flushed feeling in her cheeks and the tingling in her loins are not symptoms of the lust she remembers from her days as a sinner, but something different. Something pure and good and decent. She wants to believe this, but she doesn’t.
Even now, with poor Jim fighting for his life, Paula is aware that her heart blips and her breathing is self-conscious as she waits for Tommy to discover her. When he sees her he smiles and she feels unreasonably happy to be noticed. As he approaches, Tommy opens his arms wide, but then he spots Trudy and the spell is broken. He assumes his divinity school, concerned-pastor face.
“How is James doing?” he asks Trudy.
Paula answers for her. “We don’t know yet.” She doesn’t recognize the sound of her own voice. It’s harsh, brittle.
The country boy jumps to his feet as the officer approaches. He nods and they walk out the door together. Tommy peers through the window as they take a seat on the bench in front of the driveway. “What do the police want with that young man?”
Paula watches the boy cover his face with his hands. “They brought their baby in, but Trudy says it was already dead.”
Tommy closes his eyes. The woman starts to moan. “She needs help. Excuse me, ladies.”
Paula wants to grab hold of him. She wants to tell him not to leave her. She wants to tell him she needs him more than that sad little girl with the dead baby. She wants to say, Hold me Tommy, give me faith.
Tommy is careful and deliberate as he approaches the woman, as though she were a stray dog running wild in the neighborhood. He goes down on one knee and holds out his hand as he says something to her. She stops rocking and then she buries her head in his chest, sobbing. He wraps his arms around her and strokes her greasy hair.
Paula picks up an old issue of People and slips back into her chair. People proclaims Jude Law to be the sexiest man alive. She tries to read the article, but she can’t get through the first paragraph. She throws the magazine back on the table.
Trudy takes out her cellphone and makes a call. “Hi Anita. Hope you’re being a good girl. I need a ride back from West Plains, so if you get this message, give me a call. Thanks.”
“We can give you a ride home, Trudy,” Paula says. “Jim’s brother Clayton is on his way here with my daughter. Clayton will be glad to help.”
“But he won’t want to…”
“Trust me. The last thing Clayton wants is to be stuck for hours in a waiting room with me.”
Paula shakes her head. She doesn’t want to remember the life she led before she met Jim Stonemason. Doesn’t want to remember the wild girl who partied with bad-boy Clayton and his rowdy friends. She was a different person back then. When she met Jim she gave up all that. Clayton tried to talk his brother out of marrying her, but Jim wouldn’t listen. He loved her. Clayton didn’t believe people could change. Not him, not Paula, not anyone. Tommy would tell her a good Christian should show forgiveness and love her enemy, but she didn’t hate Clayton enough to love him.
Across the room Tommy is ministering to the young woman. Her eyes are closed, her face pinched. Tommy places his hand on her forehead and prays with her. As he delivers his blessing she lets go. She opens her eyes. They are shiny and focused on Tommy. She has lost the vacant zombie-look she had when she arrived.
The public address system squawks to life: Dr. Khan to operating room three, code blue. Dr. Khan to operating room three, code blue. Paula sits up straight and grabs Trudy by the arm. “What does that mean? Is that Jim?”
“I don’t know.”
Paula bites down on her lower lip to keep her teeth from chattering.
Tommy has heard the announcement. He marches across the room, almost colliding with the admitting nurse, and says to Paula, “I’m going to accompany Beth Ann to the police station. She needs to tell them her story.”
“Beth Ann? But what about…”
Tommy turns to Trudy. “Can you stay with Paula?”
He leans over and gives Paula a quick hug. ”I’ll be back soon.”
Paula twists away from him and stands up.
“Go. I’m fine.” She brushes past him and waits at the podium for the nurse to get off the phone. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Tommy, with his arm around the girl, walk out the door to the police car parked at the curb.
The nurse doesn’t have any new information on Jim. Paula takes a deep breath and walks carefully back to Trudy. Her legs feel like jello. She drops into her seat, puts her feet up on the table, and buries her head in her knees. Trudy rubs her back.
“I fucking hate men,” Paula says.
“Me too. They suck.”
Paula lifts her head and peeks at Trudy, and they both burst out laughing.
“Oh God, we shouldn’t laugh in here.”
“Is that another of Tommy’s prayers?”
This time Paula laughs so hard she gets hiccups, which follow each laugh like an exclamation point. The hiccups dissolve into sobs.
Trudy resumes rubbing her back. “It’s okay, Paula. Just breathe in and out. Nice and easy.”
“Ah. Those cleansing breaths. I haven’t used those since Kayla was born.”
“I think it cured your hiccups.”
“Better than it worked on childbirth. Are you married, Trudy?”
“Thanks,” Trudy says.
“For not giving me that look like I have some terminal disease because I don’t have a husband or for not asking me if I’m a lesbian.”
Paula looks Trudy up and down.
“You’re not, are you?” she asks. And then she laughs.
Trudy laughs too. “No, I’ve just got really lousy timing. By the time I was ready to get married all the good ones were taken.”
Paula leans back and exhales. “Jim and I were just kids when we got married. We didn’t know anything about each other. We used to talk for hours. Now, we hardly have to say a word. We’re like those chess-playing computers that know your move before you make it,” She clasps her hands together like she’s praying. “I love him. I really do.”
“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
“He doesn’t make me feel like…”
Paula drops her head and stares at the floor. The tile is white with little red and blue specks, the same pattern Tommy selected for the church kitchen when it was remodeled last year. “God, am I that obvious?” she whispers.
“Maybe a little obvious.”
Trudy smiles at her and Paula takes another deep breath. “When I’m talking with Tommy, my heart starts fluttering and my face feels like it’s on fire. I’m like a high school girl. I can barely breathe.”
Trudy squeezes Paula’s hand. She has a comfortable grip. Her hand feels warm and dry. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting, Paula.”
“I realized something when I saw Jim lying on the floor.” Paula looks up as the entrance doors swing open and a large black woman with her teenage daughter enter the waiting room and cautiously approach the podium. “I don’t want Tommy. I just want that feeling.”
Paula remembers the first time they made love. They were in the backseat of his Chevelle, and Jim’s sweaty body pressed her into the bristly green upholstery. She could smell stale cigarette butts from the door-handle ashtray above her head, and she could see the look of pure adoration on Jim’s face, as though he were the luckiest man alive, as though she were something special.
She remembers Jim teaching Kayla to ride her bike. An impossibly hot summer day with the kind of humidity that sucked all the oxygen out of the air. Jim, his face a shade beyond red, guided Kayla up and down their long driveway until it finally all came together and she rode out of his grasp and down the country road. Jim stood there at the end of the driveway, his shirt soaked with sweat, one beefy arm raised in triumph and the other waving tentatively as though he were uncertain whether to wave good-bye or reel her back in.
Paula remembers Jim’s eyes after he collapsed. He stared up at her with a lost and frightened look that broke her heart. He wanted to know why he was dying on the floor of Tommy Blaine’s church, but she couldn’t tell him.
The clock in the West Plains Lutheran General emergency room reads nine twenty-seven. The rehearsal dinner would be almost over now. Jim Stonemason would be tapping his water glass and preparing to deliver his toast.
The freckle-splashed redheaded nurse appears out of nowhere. She clutches her clipboard.
“Would you come with me please?”
They leave her in an empty examine room. The room is cold and smells like nail polish remover. Paula shivers. She waits. The door flies open and a young doctor, an Indian or Pakistani, enters. He looks tired, and his surgical mask hangs loose around his neck. His face is pinched, his lips pressed tight. He has kind eyes.
Paula wants to scream, but she doesn’t. She waits. Waits for this stranger to deliver the news that will change her life for ever.
“We moved your husband to the ICU. You may see him now. But just a short visit, okay? He needs to rest.”
There are twelve beds in the West Plains Lutheran General Intensive Care Unit. The ICU has all of the latest technology. Twenty-four hour cardiac and arterial pressure monitoring. Intra-venous thrombolysis, fluid, electrolyte and drug management. Airway and mechanical ventilation management. With all this high-tech management how could they not save her husband’s heart?
He will be in the bed next to the window, with the view of the parking lot and the Denny’s across the street. When she walks into the room he will smile. It won’t be the ‘howdy partner’ smile, but that special smile he reserves just for her. The shy smile of the boy who loved her when she had no right to be loved. The boy whose heart was always true.
There will be tubes and wires and electrodes connected to all parts of his body and the ding and ping and whoop of all that management will make it impossible to talk privately. But she will hold his hand and she will try very hard not to cry. She will whisper in his ear that she has always loved him and always will. And he will give her hand a little squeeze and say, I know, Paula, I know. Me too. And then he will close his eyes.
Read more about Len Joy here.