Menu

Short Story

1.

NAN SLICED OPEN THE ENVELOPE with a dinner knife. Listed on her winter class schedule next to 421b Advanced Clinical Nursing and 431b Principles of Administration, she had Perspectives on Literature, a first-year English option. She looked for the name of the professor who would be teaching the course:

ENGL 115 Jocelyn C. Jones

Even in the nursing department, Nan had heard of the famous American author who taught English at MacDonald. The Star had write-ups when she won a major book award. Nan had seen the woman around campus—once when they passed each other on a walkway between buildings and once checking out books at the library. Her looks were distinctive: a tall frame, dark sculptural hairdo, large solemn eyes.

She published under a different name than the one listed on the class schedule. Jocelyn C. Jones must be an alias to keep from attracting attention at the university. A professor of her stature did not usually teach a first-year class. Most instructors tried to avoid the heavy marking workload and duller students attendant to a survey course.

Nan would be among the oldest in the class, a non-major. She had grown accustomed to science and nursing courses, where she made good use of a trainable memory and studious habits. For Perspectives on Literature, she would have to write essays and participate in discussions of opinion and theory. She had chosen English because of the homework—reading stories and plays and poems—but she didn’t know whether she could make an A out of it.

At the corner store a few days later, Nan saw the cover of Newsweek. Jocelyn Phelps gazed out from under a diagonal headline reading “Love and Violence: A Vision of America.” She wore double-hooped gold earrings weighted with pearls, and her black hair gleamed. Her lavender eye shadow matched the collar of her dress. Nan paid the fifty-cent cover price and had them put the magazine in a separate bag so the paper wouldn’t get water spots from the milk jug.

After dinner that night, Nan sat on the living-room couch with her feet tucked under her and read the article. Wally had gone to play guitar with a dance band but couldn’t convince his tired wife to join him. Instead she pored over the black-and-white photos of book covers and columns of text.

Eleven years separated them in age. At thirty-three, Jocelyn Phelps had written four novels, three story collections, three books of poetry, and a volume of essays. Even Nan thought this was quite a feat. Her rate of output received unfavorable reference in reviews, and she had written to the New York Times Book Review that she would prefer they write about everything she hadn’t done, that not expecting enough of ourselves was a human weakness. Nan wondered at a woman unsatisfied with eleven books to her name. If she truly wrote all the time, even between takes of the Newsweek photo session, how could she expect to produce more?

Phelps had grown up on a New York farm in some poverty. Nan’s own parents lived on the wrong side of the Ambassador Bridge. They ran a local trucking business and couldn’t aspire to the house where Phelps now lived with her husband Russell Jones, a fellow professor at MacDonald. The article said that the Jones’ back lawn looked across to Detroit, where they used to live, so they must be in a large expensive place on Riverside Drive. No children were mentioned.

One of the photos showed Jocelyn Phelps pouring tea for her husband, leaning forward from the couch with a hand on one bare knee, her legs at a coquettish angle underneath her miniskirt. Russell, in his patterned shirt, smiled at her goofily. He looked like Wally; they shared a high forehead, long sideburns, and thick-rimmed dark glasses. From the photo, the Joneses seemed happy together.

Phelps was the first in her family to attend college, just like Nan. The professors at her university called her a brilliant student. Nan had been good enough to get a small scholarship, which augmented her parents’ careful savings. With Nan living at home, they could just afford the tuition; she couldn’t have gone away to Toronto. They wanted her to do nursing, a respectable professional career for a girl, though not as esteemed as an academic position. Nan was heartened to learn from Newsweek that her professor loved teaching, and that students wished her courses would never end.

One thing troubled her, though. Nan had difficulty matching the writer’s sweet, beautiful face to the things they said she wrote about: rape and riots and murder. Nan believed Phelps when she said that the material was not autobiographical, that she wasn’t interested in writing about her own life. But it didn’t follow that she would write about violence. Nan puzzled over the contrast between the author’s unremarkable life and her disturbing fiction. She had thought of borrowing one of her books from the library to read over the Christmas break, but now she wasn’t sure.

 

2.

In January, Nan started her advanced clinical nursing lab on the surgical floor. She had to get up at five am to be at the hospital by seven. She would leave Wally sleeping while she started the coffee percolator, one of their wedding gifts, before going to shower in the narrow bathroom. (Wally had started her drinking coffee, since she was making it for him anyway. She liked the nutty smell of the ground beans, but added lots of cream and sugar in order to be able to drink it, and brushed her teeth afterwards.)

She drew the shower curtain aside carefully before stepping onto the bathmat; Wally had a habit of sneaking into the bathroom and startling her, trying to touch her before she got her housecoat back on. Less than a year into marriage, he was still drunk on the opportunity to kiss or fondle her any moment of the day, instead of outlasting a set of parents in the living room or driving to the far side of town for a parking spot. This morning he waited until she opened the door to defog the mirror, and then hung on her, his grinning face peeking over her shoulder while she wound her hair into a bun.

Wally poured himself coffee and sat bare-chested at the kitchen table while Nan toasted and buttered bread and boiled eggs. Her damp hair cooled her head as it dried. After they had eaten, Wally put on her ruffled apron to make her laugh while he did the washing-up. She savored the pleasure of leaving the dishes to someone else. When Wally had asked her to marry him on her twenty-first birthday, she might have protested about finishing school if she hadn’t been so fed up with the domestic situation, cooking and laundering for her four younger brothers while her mother helped in the family business. Her parents hadn’t objected to the early wedding, happy to have Wally take over her tuition payments and living expenses on his engineer’s salary.

Nan had ironed her blue-and-white striped nurse’s uniform the night before and starched her white mortarboard so that the peaks of the fitted cap stood stiff. When Nan had lived at home, she had to rush her uniform back and forth from her room to the ironing board in the basement, making sure none of her brothers touched it with sticky hands. Now she had time and space to dress slowly. She hung her velour housecoat on the back of the bedroom door and drew on the elements of her uniform—nylon stockings, flat-seamed slip, and shirt-dress. Her breasts registered tenderness as she fastened the blouse over her bust. The waistband separated from the uniform, and Nan had adjusted it by moving the buttons over so that it still went around her waist.

The conception had been something of an accident. She’d had trouble with bladder infections since the honeymoon and needed to go off the pill because of the antibiotics. Wally came home unexpectedly for lunch one day, and now here they were.

The tricky part was the department. MacDonald had just started offering the four-year degree in nursing, and they were a small class. She and one other girl had married. Nan could think of a number of reasons, ranging from propriety to physical stamina, why the department would not be happy to have a pregnant nursing student wandering the hallways. Nan was counting on camouflage to get her through graduation with no one the wiser.

She put socks on over the nylons to protect them from her boots as she walked. Her white hospital shoes lay in a small duffle bag she carried in her hand. After a long good-bye kiss from Wally, Nan checked the roast to make sure she had turned the oven on. At the end of a day’s nursing duty, she didn’t want to come home to a cold round of meat and no dinner. She put her fingers on the dial, assuring herself that the red light was lit and the temperature set to 200 degrees. She laid her palms against the door to feel the heat.

 

3.

Later that week, Nan arrived at the university fifteen minutes early for her first English class. She didn’t want to walk in with everyone staring at her. This way, she could enter as soon as the previous class let out, climb the stairs of the sloped lecture hall, and sit in the very last row.

Other students wandered in wearing bell-bottomed jeans and snatched up desks in the front row. They knew each other, and they leaned over the backs of their chairs to talk, laughing and running hands through their hair.

From her book bag Nan took a clipboard with a sheaf of lined paper secured in its clamp. She placed her textbook next to this. She also put out a black pen, a red pen, and a short ruler for underlining headings. Across the top of the lined paper she wrote: ENGL 115, Perspectives on Literature, Prof. Jocelyn Jones, January 9, 1973. Looking at the date, she calculated: she’d be twenty-three when her baby was born, and when her child was ten years old and starting grade five, Nan would be thirty-three. Thinking of it that way, her professor had lost a lot of time if she ever planned to have children.

The classroom filled up, and the clock hands edged toward the appointed start time. When the professor came in, Nan almost didn’t notice her, since she entered at the same time as a few other girl students, in a buttoned-up cardigan and plain skirt. Her hair wasn’t so tidy as it had been in the magazine photos, and she now wore large tinted glasses.

Copies of the course outline made their way through the rows of students, passed from one hand to another. Nan read the list of authors looking for names she knew, but she only recognized Faulkner and Hemingway. None of the women were familiar.

Somehow, just by looking at them, the professor got her students’ attention and began speaking in a gentle upstate accent. She asked them to call her Mrs. Jones. She expected that they do their assigned reading before class so as to be prepared to discuss the stories immediately. Their essays ought to be typed, and they were to use Chicago style for footnotes and citations. Nan noted each command on her sheet of notes in a tidy, upright hand. When she reached the bottom of the page, she moved it to the underside of the stack and started anew, not liking to write on both sides and risk the ink leaking through.

Now Mrs. Jones moved on to her introductory lecture, talking about the elements of fiction—plot, character, and theme—and when Nan wasn’t writing notes, she watched the woman who commanded the front of the classroom, thin and tall, soft-spoken but energetic as she warmed to her subject. She made small jokes, and at first they were afraid to laugh, but she continued to coax and tease them, and by the end of class some students laughed out loud.

Nan knew she would tell her friend Moira about this class afterward, so she took notice of everything: the length of Mrs. Jones’ skirt and the tone of her vowels when she said nahvel and irahnic, the range of facial expressions from pensive to cheery. Once or twice Nan caught herself and wondered why she cared so much. Jocelyn Phelps was only a woman, after all. But she was a famous and successful woman. She had a heat inside her, a steady gas flame fed by a silent source.

 

4.

In the elevator of the Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital, Nan unbuttoned her coat with one hand while she watched the numbers light up and fade. Moira was already in the break room on the surgical floor, putting on her white shoes.

Nan stood before the mirror and lined up bobby pins between her lips, hands raised to fasten the tiny mortarboard in just the right spot on her head. She caught hair and fabric between the ridged legs of the pins, leaving the barest glint of metal at the edge of the white cap. She gave it a cloud of hairspray and hoped for the best. The nursing school insisted on the distinctive cap, to set their students apart at the hospital. But Nan felt like she was working in a tiara or a wedding veil, always with perfect posture, in horror of the cap falling off into a patient’s lap, dangling its pins like the legs of a spider.

Moira had waited for Nan so they could go to the nursing station together to get their patient assignments for the day. The head nurse spoke less formally than others they’d worked under, showing a fondness for gossip about patients and staff alike.

Nan would be doing postoperative care for a nineteen-year-old girl who’d ruptured her spleen in a car accident. In between asides about the sobriety of the driver-boyfriend, the head nurse reminded Nan to pay special attention to adequate lung expansion, since the spleen’s proximity to the diaphragm could cause splinting and shallow breathing. Nan looked at the plan-of-care notes for the patient’s name, Donna Cameron. She didn’t like when staff referred to people by their procedures, talking about the splenectomy in room 402 or the double bypass who needed more pain medication.

Nan started the shift changing beds and then passed out breakfast trays. She worked with Moira whenever she could. Nan and Moira had gone to high school together and were the only non-residence students in their class. Nan and Moira ate their bag lunches in the student union building and didn’t go out to drink or smoke like the girls from Hamilton and London.

When Donna came back from surgery, Nan and the orderly hoisted her from the stretcher onto the bed. Groggy with anesthesia, Donna didn’t seem aware of herself as Nan arranged the sheet over her bare legs and showed her the call button. She took Donna’s temperature and pulse and then held onto her wrist a little longer while measuring her respirations so that Donna wouldn’t change her breathing in response to being observed. Finally, she checked the incisional dressing and saw goose bumps grow on Donna’s skin.

Moving around the bed, Nan stole glances at the patient’s face. The girl had turned toward the window. Her hands rested on the bedclothes, her listless fingers curled over her open palms. Words repeated in Nan’s head—what an awful thing, I’m sorry, I hope you’re all right—but she couldn’t translate the thoughts to speech. She clasped Donna’s chart in her arm to record her notes and left the room with a nod when the parents entered.

Nan would work in a nursing home or a community health center when she graduated, not a hospital. She was not cut out for fast-paced, high-stress situations like the operating theater or emergency room, nor did she care for the complexities and crises of intensive care and the cardiac ward. Even in her fourth year she felt ill-prepared; there were many procedures she hadn’t learned yet. Catheterization, for example, and sterile dressing changes.

The hours wore on. With the beep of machines and the loudspeaker announcing doctors’ names in the background, Nan and Moira talked about Jocelyn Phelps. Moira thought she must be on a starvation diet to stay so thin. And that she might be infertile, since the Joneses had no children. Nan’s mind flicked to her own pregnancy, which she hadn’t yet disclosed to Moira. Later, in the washroom, she arranged her skirt in folds across the front. She had waited too long to eat and felt a light-headed nausea coming on.

Just before the end of her shift, Nan was called to Donna’s room. The head nurse had the sheet pulled back and Donna’s stomach exposed. She wanted to know why Nan hadn’t called their attention to the slight abdominal distension, which could be caused by a hemorrhage. Nan turned red and said that she hadn’t known to watch for such a thing. The head nurse countered that any student ought to notice when a patient’s belly swells up after having her spleen removed. Nan should remember in future to be more thorough. This type of situation demonstrated why the trainees still needed their work checked, the head nurse explained to Donna, but the girl didn’t seem to hear.

 

5.

Nan tried bringing her English textbook to bed, something she couldn’t do with her thick heavy nursing books. But Wally would pull the book out of her hands and put it on the table beside him, out of her reach. Then he would turn out the light.

So she took to doing her homework at the university, between classes. She read the stories straight through without interruption, several times over, because she often didn’t understand what was going on. Later, in class, Mrs. Jones explained subtleties that Nan had missed, symbols and metaphors, in a tone of voice that said, Of course, you already know this. Nan recorded equations in her notes: rocking horse = quest for money; rose + decay —> irony.

Growing up hadn’t left much time for books. She had only one favorite as a child, a story about a collie dog that she read so often the spine cracked. Nan’s girlfriends had passed around Harlequins in high school, but now that she had her own real-life romance there wasn’t much need to be pining after others. Mrs. Jones, on the other hand, seemed to do nothing but read. In her head she kept titles of books, titles of stories, more authors’ names than a card catalogue. Nan wondered that she had room for anything else. The names and titles dripped out of her like a leaky tap; everything reminded her of a book that she had to mention. “You haven’t read that? Has no one read that?” she would ask, shaking her head.

Nan had read what was called literature for high school English. Those stories had only one correct interpretation—the teacher’s—which was impossible to guess, so she waited to have it spoon-fed. Between grammar and essay-writing lessons, Shakespeare plays and American poetry, they only had time for one novel and a few stories. Trying to keep up with the maths and sciences that would get her into nursing, Nan had little time for fiction.

In ENGL 115, however, she found herself ahead on her homework and more than once read stories that weren’t even assigned for the course. She leafed through the textbook looking for an opening paragraph that caught her interest and finished the story while stirring a white sauce or riding the bus.

Writing the essays was not as enjoyable as reading, though. Mrs. Jones assigned a topic and wanted orderly and original papers. Never mind rephrasing what she’d heard in class; Nan had to think up new ideas, which were few and far between. She got Cs and Ds. Moira expressed shock at her marks and thought she should drop English immediately and register for a bird course. But Nan’s enjoyment of the material outweighed her usual desire to be at the head of the class.

Besides, Mrs. Jones never taught intro courses. Nan had learned there was a certain cachet in being Mrs. Jones’ student. Her classmates talked about their professor before and after class and followed her around. They wrote mash notes that they never delivered and talked about getting into her writing workshop to show her their own stories. One girl even retrieved the professor’s empty Coke can after she had lunch at the Dominion House. Mrs. Jones wouldn’t be around forever: she’d been in London, England, on sabbatical last year, and would surely end up at an Ivy League school sooner or later.

Nan kept an eye out for her professor on campus. She knew the location of her office in the English department and went by occasionally, glancing inside if the door stood open. Nan could have entered during office hours. She also took to studying in the English department lounge, which she found more anonymous and comfortable than the nursing lounge.

One afternoon while reading there, she heard a shuffling and looked up to see Mrs. Jones, face blanched, edging along the wall toward her office. Nan rose uncertainly. She would have stayed there, watching, as the professor passed the lounge, but their eyes met, and Nan understood that she should go to her.

“My office,” Mrs. Jones said breathlessly, and lifted an arm to place her hand on Nan’s shoulder, exerting a slight pressure as they continued down the hall together. When they reached the locked office door, Mrs. Jones pulled the key from her pocket and handed it to Nan, who inserted it into the lock and swung the door open.

Mrs. Jones entered and motioned for Nan to move the few books from the loveseat to the desktop. Then she lay down on her side, knees bent, feet on the floor. Nan stood in the doorway watching the pulse in the woman’s neck beat violently and then said, “Do you need anything? I’m a nursing student.”

“No. Just shut the door,” Mrs. Jones replied, eyes closed, hand on her chest.

“All right,” Nan said, and withdrew. She wondered whether she should tell the department secretary about Mrs. Jones’ condition, but decided that the professor was lucid enough to have requested assistance if she wanted it. Nan stayed in the English lounge as long as she could but left without seeing Mrs. Jones emerge.

At their next class, a day later, Nan half-expected a note on the door saying the session was canceled, but there was nothing. She sat nearer the front. Mrs. Jones would not reference the incident in any way: she rarely spoke about her writing or her personal life, focusing on the course material and occasional current events.

Mrs. Jones seemed more tired than usual when she came to class. She wore a black twin set with her gray tweed skirt, and her face looked transparent, with only the red lipsticked mouth and dark curls to hold it in place. She stayed closer to the lectern. At the end of the class, the students handed in their latest essay. Nan hung back until most of the others had left before placing her paper on the pile. The professor was busy with her purse but then looked up to say, “Thank you.” Nan nodded and fled. Afterward, it occurred to her that this thanks came in response to the turned-in assignment and was not an allusion to the previous day’s encounter at all.

 

6.

In early March, Nan had a bout of stomach flu and called in sick for her hospital shift. She huddled in bed, still feverish but no longer vomiting, and read a story for English class. From the title, she expected a romance: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” But the story was about a family of two rambunctious children, a tired mother with a baby in her arms, a grandmother who knew best, and a father, Bailey, who tried to take them all on holiday to Florida in his car.

Nan had never taken a trip like this with her family, certainly not to the United States. When they closed the business, no money came in, so her parents took half-days and long weekends instead of full weeks.

But this fictional family seemed so familiar that Nan was no longer reading but riding along with them. She felt the southern sun magnified through the car windows and began to perspire, nauseous from traveling so long in a stuffy car on the glaring highway, with the children John Wesley and June Star arguing and trying to pinch each other behind her back. She could smell the grandmother’s smuggled cat, hidden under the valise, just before it leaped out onto Bailey’s neck.

The resulting car accident jolted Nan forward and left her body aching, stunned that something momentous had happened to such an ordinary family. “We’ve had an accident!” the children shouted in capitals. Bailey threw the cat against the side of a pine tree. Nan’s nursing training kicked in, and she started doing triage: check the baby for injuries, brace the mother’s broken shoulder.

Then the Misfit arrived, wearing silver-rimmed spectacles but no shirt. Nan didn’t trust him. She knew from the first moment that he was the escaped serial killer that the grandmother had read about in the newspaper. Seeing the gun he carried confirmed her suspicion. What a terrible coincidence. Of all the people to run into on the back roads of Georgia.

When the Misfit’s henchmen led Bailey and John Wesley into the woods, she hoped desperately that they would only be tied up and left there, but then she heard the pistol shots. Her heartbeat raced and her fingers grew clammy. These things just don’t happen, Nan thought. The children’s mother was asked to join her husband in the woods, and when she said a faint “Yes, thank you,” chills swept Nan’s body. Her eyes lit on the baby, sleeping in its mother’s arms, and she was overcome. She cried through the last moments, the piercing scream from the woods, more pistol reports, the blood pooling underneath the grandmother where she lay half-slumped in her navy blue dress. “It’s no real pleasure in life,” the Misfit said, and Nan fell over onto the mattress, clutching her arms around her cramped stomach, and keened for the dead baby’s body, torn by a bullet.

Minutes later she felt a looseness in her bowels and bolted to the toilet. She hadn’t eaten anything except saltines and ginger ale, but her body continued to expel everything in hot streams. Shivering in the bathroom, her nightgown hiked around her waist, Nan called up the story’s ending again. Had she been reading a true crime magazine or a university textbook? With such a reaction to the printed page, perhaps she shouldn’t be nursing in the face of actual flesh and blood. But the gale of weeping, the tears mingling with sweat, had flushed her out. For the first time, she could feel her own child, held solid against her shoulder.

 

7.

Nan almost didn’t go to class when they were scheduled to discuss “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” She was reluctant to hear the story casually dissected. But she found herself at her desk when Mrs. Jones began the lecture. The author was not a man, as Nan had assumed. Rather, Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic woman born in Georgia, and she had died of lupus ten years ago. Nan pictured herself walking into a hospital room to deliver a meal and seeing O’Connor, who looked round-faced and homely in her photograph, sitting up in bed to write this story in a notebook.

Much of their discussion centered on the grandmother’s character. They talked of the veneer of gentility symbolized by her prim sailor hat, which was stripped away when she faced death, and the moment of consciousness when she recognized her mystical connection to the Misfit and reached out to him. They also touched on the Misfit’s obsession with Jesus and his frustration that he could not know whether the story of Christ was true, not having been there to witness it. Nan followed the conversation but couldn’t quite relate the interpretations to the vivid story in her mind.

Near the end of the class, Mrs. Jones walked toward her and said, “Yes? At the back?”

Nan hadn’t raised her hand, but everyone looked in her direction, expecting a response. Had Mrs. Jones seen some unexpressed thought on her face in the eager way she leaned forward on her desk? Nan swallowed and pursed her lips. “It was so sad, the way they died,” she said. “Especially the baby.”

Mrs. Jones mounted the first step toward her. “Do you have a particular comment about that?”

“Just that, she made them so real,” Nan said, her voice dropping. “When I got to the ending, I cried.”

The students around her snickered. Mrs. Jones came up the second and third steps and stood by her with arms crossed. Nan couldn’t move back to put space between them; she was hemmed in by the desk and the wall. Mrs. Jones watched her, two fingers against her throat as if taking her pulse.

“But you realize this story is not meant to be realistic, or even naturalistic,” she said. “We should read O’Connor’s work on the level of parable. The characters are these grotesques who can’t see the transcendental world until they undergo some kind of violent ritual. They’re suffering from an egoism that can’t be argued away but must be destroyed.”

Nan stared down at the desk, nodding. She could not comprehend Mrs. Jones’ words, but she knew that she had been contradicted. She shut her eyes and waited for the moment to pass. Thankfully, another student picked up on the professor’s last words and started in on Freud and the unconscious. Mrs. Jones drifted back to the front of the room.

After class, Nan was almost out the door when she heard Mrs. Jones’ quiet voice: “Congratulations.”

“Pardon me?” Nan said, turning.

The professor smiled. “You’re expecting?”

“Oh,” said Nan. She looked around to see whether anyone else had heard. “Yes,” she said, “I didn’t think I was showing yet.”

“I noticed, by the way you moved, where you put your hands. There was something.”

“I’m not due until August,” Nan said, resisting the impulse to touch her stomach.

“Shouldn’t affect your schoolwork, then.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Nan said. “I’m graduating in May. I’m a nursing student.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Jones. “I remember.”

Nan’s face colored. She hadn’t meant to invoke that day in the English department. But Mrs. Jones didn’t dwell on the reference. “You like this class?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Nan. “I know my grades aren’t very good, but I like reading the stories. I just need to pass.”

“I haven’t heard you talk much in class,” said Mrs. Jones. “Today was unusual.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking. Such a dumb thing to say.” Nan let her book bag dangle from her fingers, ready to turn away.

But Mrs. Jones shook her head. “The story spoke to you. You fell in love with it.”

“Yes,” said Nan, “I did.”

 

8.

On break from their hospital duties, Nan and Moira draped their coats around their shoulders and escaped down Crawford Avenue to the river. The fresh March air banished the smell of antiseptic, and the trainees became two chums strolling at their leisure in the middle of the day. A woman pushed an orange-flowered umbrella stroller along the clear sidewalk, and the toddler inside kicked her legs and cocked her head shyly. Nan turned to watch them after they’d passed and finally told Moira that she too was having a baby. Moira flung her arms around her friend and they hugged and exclaimed, Nan’s head tilted up in exultation at the cloudless sky.

At the end of her shift, Nan stood in the bedroom and unbuttoned her uniform, watching her hands move down the stiff fabric, parting it to reveal the taut, creamy skin underneath, the faint hair that led down to her navel. She shrugged her arms from the sleeves and let the uniform collapse on the floor, a white puddle that she stepped away from. Here was her true clothing: the bra that held two swollen breasts, the high-waisted panties expanding to cradle her child.

She would not be working after she graduated. Instead, she would sew curtains for the nursery, attend prenatal classes, and buy maternity clothes. She would not have to leave her babies to ride the bus and rush about on her feet all day, as her mother did. Nan did not belong in the hospital; she was just a sojourner there.

Nan received a passing grade in Perspectives on Literature. Their final class was marked by the giddy melancholy of term ending. Most of them would never see or speak to Mrs. Jones again. She would grow more successful and renowned, while they would settle into comfortable, ordinary lives. Nan did not regret this. She was not Jocelyn Phelps and never would be, and she was content to have felt a little of the heat coming off that dynamo. Nan left the textbook of stories behind on her desk, now that she was done with it.

On graduation day, Nan left her robe open to show the plaid maternity dress rounded over her six-month belly. Nan’s parents took photos of her and Wally, his arm draped around her, pointing at the baby growing there. Her white shoes and her starched cap were put away in a box.

The next time she stepped inside a hospital, it was to give birth to a bright-eyed baby. Afterward, in the darkened ward room, Nan struggled to feed her child. The infant didn’t know how to latch and thrashed and squirmed in protest, fighting against Nan, pushing away the bulging nipple. Now, though, Nan knew not to listen. There was no room for deference or hesitation. Nan persisted, gripping her breast and settling it firmly into the baby’s crowing mouth until at last the instinct took hold and she began to draw.

Years later, Nan learned that the author Jocelyn Phelps suffered from tachycardia, an abnormally fast heartbeat caused by a malformation of the heart valve. Reading Phelps’s biography, with special attention to the years she spent at MacDonald, Nan realized that this condition had caused the woman’s ashen face and breathless voice that day in the English lounge. The biographer described a specific seizure in 1973 that was “alarmingly protracted, lasting more than an hour and bringing hallucinations and thoughts of death.” Nan thought of Mrs. Jones lying on the couch in her office, and wished she had been able to stay with her until the episode passed.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Related Short Stories

Jesus Called

By

Michael Morris

Human Services

By

Lorraine M. López

Image

The Vermilion Saint

By

A. Muia

The River

By

Molly McNett

Pin It on Pinterest