You Are What You Breathe

"You Are What You Breathe" by David Smyth
“You Are What You Breathe” by David Smyth, watercolor

A Message from the Editors, 2014 Rubor Volume 2

We hope you enjoy the second issue of Rubor: Reflections on Medicine from the Wasatch Front. We express special thanks to the Division of  Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of Utah, as well as the Associated Students of the University of Utah for providing financial support for this publication.

We started Rubor to provide a space for students, health care providers and patients to explore the art of healing and medicine through prose, poetry, photography and visual art . Our goal is to create dialogue about the challenges and triumphs of health care and to encourage creative expression among people of the University of Utah health sciences.

Rubor greatly appreciates and depends on contributions from our community. To view additional submissions that were published online, please visit rubor.med.utah.edu.

-Rubor Staff

Editor-in-Chief
Stephen Jenkins

Photography Editor
Lynn Nguyen

Poetry Editor
Martin de la Presa

Prose Editor
Bryan Johnson

Staff
Catherine Callister
Heather Curtis
Kristina Grim
Elizabeth Nelson
Quinn Orb
Jacob Saunders
Erin Wiedmeier

Faculty Advisor
Gretchen Case, PhD

The Stethoscope

We found the old doctor’s bag in some weeds next to the woodpile, not far from the old carriage house. The bag was locked, but the dark leather had long since dried and was brittle enough to break. We each took a side and pulled, spilling the bag’s contents on the ground. We examined our new treasures carefully ; three glass bottles with yellowed, crumbling labels, four rusted metal scalpels, two evil-looking syringes, and an old black case containing a strange wooden horn. Sam grabbed the horn first and blew it enthusiastically. When it failed to make a sound, he frowned and tossed it aside, turning his attention to the scalpels. I picked up the discarded horn from the dirt and examined it. The wood was light and smooth. I turned it over in my hands and it shone like one of my father’s pipes. The side opposite the funnel-shaped end was circular and flat. Unlike the rest of the horn, it was white and looked to be made of ivory or bone. On an impulse, I brought the instrument to my ear and listened.

Tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump. A strange drum beat in the distance. I took the horn away from my ear and the sound was gone.
“Sam,” I called, “Listen to this.”
I tossed him the horn and he listened as I had.
“What?” he said. “I don’t hear anything.”
I took the horn again, but this time when I raised it to my ear I heard nothing. I shrugged and Sam turned back to the scalpels. He was testing their edges with pieces of his hair; I could tell they were duller than he would have liked.

I put the mysterious object back into its case and slipped it into my satchel, then stood and looked at the sky. It was mid-June, and the sun was high and hot.

“We should get back, it’s almost four o’clock.”
Sam grunted but remained crouched.
“Okay, see you tomorrow,” I called as I turned and began to walk down the dusty road towards home. The flies buzzed around me and the sweat bees hovered close, but for once I barely noticed. Though the sun burned on my back and my shirt was soaked in sweat, I could not get the haunting beat of the horn out of my head. And my blood was as cold as  winter.

I took the horn to Dr. Randall the next morning, hoping he would know more about its utility.
“Ahhh,” he said excitedly, “I know what this is. This is an old stethoscope.”
“A stethoscope? But it looks nothing like it.”
“This is one of the first. Here,” he said and gestured to his chest,
“Try it.”

I placed one end of the stethoscope on his chest and brought my ear to the earpiece. Almost instantly I could hear the drumbeat again, though now I knew it was a heart. The beating was louder this time, but it also sounded wrong. I cannot describe how I knew this. The doctor’s heartbeat was neither particularly fast nor slow, and its rhythm was strong and steady, but all the same I knew. I looked at Dr. Randall. He laughed, mistaking my uneasiness as bewilderment.
“Now get along, I’ve got patients to see.”
Still speechless, I was pushed out of his office before I was able to utter another word.

Dr. Randall died that Saturday. They said it was a  heart  attack. He was old, almost seventy, but somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that the stethoscope had something to do with it.  I still carried it with me in my satchel, and frequently now I would take it out and listen. The heart­-beat had grown stronger; I could feel its pulse beating constantly against my side. I hadn’t told anyone else about the stethoscope, and I was afraid of the consequences that might result should I use it again . Still, the thing beat with such insistency I could not ignore it.

There were orphan cats in the field behind my house that the neighbor fed each night from her porch. Often I would sit and pet them as they came for their food. One night, a brown tabby I called Mud followed me home, rubbing against my leg and  purring .  I could feel the heartbeat of the stethoscope consuming me. It was as if  it  was a metronome  and my own heart beat along to it,  slightly out  of time.  I held the stethoscope in my hand and bent to listen to Mud. The beat of the stethoscope grew stronger as the cat grew weaker and the light disappeared from its eyes. I timed my footsteps to the rhythm of the heartbeat and walked home.

I did not hear my parents when they spoke to me.  I could not hear the wood floors creak as I walked to my room or the  sound of the  door closing behind me. I no longer felt my own heart within my chest . I was ruled by the relentless beat of the stethoscope, and it was growing stronger and faster with each passing hour.

The next day it took all my strength to meet Sam back where we had found the doctor’s bag. Tears poured from my eyes as I tried to explain what had happened, what we had really found. All I could manage was one word. “Stethoscope,” I sputtered, thrusting the instrument towards Sam.

Sam turned the stethoscope over in his hands, unable to understand my hysterics. I could not stop him when he held it to my chest; I  could not stop him from listening. He brought his ear to the stethoscope. Tha-thump, tha-thump, t ha-thump.

 

MS3: What It’s Like to Be Green

Up real early, pre-rounds, rounds, pimp my face off.
Admit, admit. Osteomyelitis, hold the antibiotics, oh shh.
Rinse, lather repeat. I’m beat. This girl’s got to get some sleep.
Coffee black. I’ll take it drip. Follow up, ruptured appi. Try to get a grip. Present next patient, this time don’t look like a complete idiot.
Stress, I’m a mess. Is this stable angina?
Esophageal spasm, pleural pain, or maybe cardio trauma? I need my mama.
Another drip coffee, take a sip and a breath. Let it rest. Ease this pain in my chest.
Now it’s six p.m. on a Friday and I’m laying in my bed.
Textbook excerpts, study questions are running through my head. My body feels like lead.
Social life. What’s that? Maybe the gym or just a snack. Another nap? Yeah, I got it like that.
My EKG skills are slack. When you know it shout it out, if not smile and nod.
Write it down, look later. Play the game you little fraud. Wait, wait hold up. It’s not all bad.
The people, the patients, the crying and the sick.
Compassion and learning, bring it back into perspective. So you give. Keep on trying. You feel like crying? Step back. Take a breath. Back on track.
Up real early, pre-rounds, rounds, pimp my face off. Admit, admit. Get it, get it.
Rinse lather repeat. I’m beat. This girl’s going to get some sleep.
Wake up. Do it again. Little girl dreams, full circle. MS3 mid year debacle.
Work it, work it. Make a decision. Clock is ticking. Career picking. One more year till no revision .
For now I sleep. I’m beat. Rest, so you can repeat.
Rinse, lather, don’t shatter. In the end, remember what matters.
This is MD. Year three.

 

A Dying Man

After relating his prognosis to a dying man with widely metastatic cancer, I am surprised to find that this man’s primary concern is to finish his novel.

“I must finish it before I die,” he tells me.

With bravado and a boyish grin this gentleman then asked if I was married. When I answered no, he followed up with a wink, asking if I’d be interested in a date with a dying old man? I smiled, laughing softly at his joke and told him that I must apologize, but the doctor-patient relationship would not allow it . After relaying his prognosis I rose to leave this man and his son to find their peace, but when the old gentleman told me he would appreciate my company, I promised to return. When I did return several days later, I did so to hear this man’s story.

He was eating his hospital dinner accompanied by an old and longtime friend of his. I listened quietly as they recounted their tales of chasing women and a “rapscallion” youth. Married three times, this patient’s third wife and the professed love of his life had died of cancer years before. It is for this reason, he tells me, he does not fear death, as he has already been intimately a part of the process. Again when faced with death, his primary concern was to finish his novel. How human of him – I thought – the recognition of our limited time on this earth and the desire to leave our mark on it.

“Three marriages?” I laughed, “Surely you have it down by now?”

And so the old gentleman told me his 3 secrets to a successful marriage, which he claimed to be caring, communication and attraction. He told me that the problem with the world is that woman grow up wanting to be sweet and beautiful princesses, while men do not grow up wanting to be princes, but rather wanting to be scoundrels. He believed this to be the root of many of the conflicts between men and women.

This gentleman and his friend continued to muse on their former lives for some time and I listened quietly reflecting on their tales . I was struck by such a beautiful opportunity to hear another reflect on a  life of memories as that life comes to a close.

At the end of our conversation this gentleman told me he had once thought to become a doctor, but had reconsidered stating that he hadn’t wanted to give up his life. I looked at this man and told him that I sometimes worry the same thing. I am young and I spend most of my days wrapped up in a hospital or with my head in a book, but I told him, too, that here in the hospital I see another side of life that not everyone has the chance to see. Every now and again a patient comes around that reminds me of this and makes me feel alive.

Knowing I meant he was one of those patients, a furl broke his old and wrin­kled brow. This old man with silver hair, full of bravado with tales of lust and living despite his cachexia looked up at me with eyes that became wet. “You are one of the good ones. Thank you,” he told me.

And with this farewell I left this man in his hospital bed to reflect on his life and to find his peace in his passing. He was transferred to oncology and dis­charged several days later. I do not know where or how this man is and it is very likely that his passing has already come, but I do know that through medicine and the revelation of our own vulnerabilities that patients can enter a state of anger and denial or one of reflection and peace.

You do not connect with all of your patients, but when you do and when your souls touch in that intimate way of patient and provider, you become part of a process so much bigger than yourself. The circle of life, the realization of our own mortality, the human responses to those ramifications, the pleading, the hope, the acceptance, the pain and the love that can all be present . What it can teach and show and make you feel if you are receptive to it. That is what I love about medicine – the view of the soul it grants you.

Oxidative Phosphorylation

There is nothing romantic
In the textbooks about oxidative phosphorylation.
The words themselves
Are like two clunky feet
That encumber the tongue that wishes to soar.

I think of it as the intricate flight of electrons
Through immense structures, each as fluent
And organized in molecular language
As a novel is with us, both
Eventually yielding usable energy.

We are like these electrons I think.
We barrel through so many forms,
The great and vast complexities of life,
Just to settle with something simple, small,
Abundant, and invisible to us.

Ultrasound

Shadows shift, silent
She holds her breath and stares
Is that the heartbeat?

Flu shot

He didn’t expect to wake up one morning
with leaden legs that wouldn’t move when he willed them to,
like the circuitry had been fried.
I see his crew cut and dog tags
and marvel how he survived heat stroke
and IEDs in Iraq.
And now he can’t feel a pinprick below his belly button
or move his legs.
He may never walk again,
All because of a flu shot.

Sometimes you get aches and pains,
or chills that will make you grab a blanket
and kick it off your legs at the same time.
You may expect a little soreness at the inoculation site,
that whirl of inflammation described by Arthus.
I got my flu shot too.
It was mandatory.
All I felt was the lightning poke of the 25-gauge needle.

And now this other man thrashes against the restraints
tied to ankles and wrists to prevent him from pulling out
the tube that breathes for him.
He looks at me wide-eyed and delirious.
He’s only forty-one,
but influenza has ravaged his lungs and brain.
He may never come off the ventilator,
and if he does, his mind will never be the same.
All because he didn’t get a flu shot.

Fairy Tales

I have yet to meet a 30-year-old woman
with stiff, aching joints
and a butterfly rash on her face.
She is just a fairy tale character
in the panoply of medicine.
I’d like to meet the 16-year-old girl
with the webbed neck,
and no menses
or the 25-year-old woman from Japan
without a pulse.
I hope I’m on call
when the 50-year-old pig farmer from Mexico
comes to the emergency department with seizures,
or was it the 50-year-old rancher from Argentina
with difficulty breathing
and weeping, tumid feet?
I think I’ll be ready
when the sweet grandmother arrives
with a headache and jaw pain,
or when a worried mother
shows me her languid five-year-old’s strawberry tongue
and peeling hands.
But today all my patients have back pain,
and the only thing that helps is Percocet.

Modern Shepherd

"Modern Shepherd" by Eric Hu
“Modern Shepherd” by Eric Hu, photography

Growing Pains

I frowned at the dying rhubarb in my yard. When I had tenderly placed the roots in the soil six weeks ago, I had delicious fantasies of homemade rhubarb pie, served hot with french vanilla ice cream. I dreamed about rhubarb coming up to my knees, practically offering itself up as a sacrifice for my pie. But all thoughts of pie vanished as I stared at the pathetically wilted leaves. I heard the kitchen door slam, and my roommate came out to join my despondent reverie. After a moment of silence, in memory of the dying plants, she turned to me with a big grin on her face. ” So… how are you going to keep people alive?”

This was the first time I’ d lived in a house with a yard since leaving home 6 years earlier . I was so excited to enjoy my first garden. I’d filled every available box with carrots, peas, green onions, strawberries, watermelon, green peppers, squash, tomatoes, raspberries, and the ill-fated rhubarb. There was just one glaring problem; I couldn’t keep a damn thing alive. The carrots and green onions just teased me; they got about 2 inches tall, then they dug in their roots and refused to grow anymore. The peas were even more shameless – they muscled up to a proud 4 inches in height. Enthused by my success, I called them “The Mighty Peas” and babied them shamelessly. But after six weeks – right when I wanted to be eating them – they gave up and died. Those ungrateful peas. I gave them everything they ever wanted – water, compost…uh…fertilizer? Crap, I forgot the fertilizer.

Plant after plant, the same story was repeated. Strawberries – dead. Watermelon – dead. Mint – dead. Raspberries – dead. Raspberries and mint, by the way, are weeds. Farmers will burn down whole mint fields just to keep it from invading their crops. That’s right; I couldn’t even keep an invasive plant alive.

Understandably, I became very worried about my abilities as a budding physician. If I couldn’t remember to put fertilizer on peas, how would I remember to check my patients’ medications for interactions? If I couldn’t sense when my raspberry plants needed water, how would I know when my hypotensive patients needed fluids?

This concern crossed my mind one day when I was shadowing a surgeon who specialized in skin grafts for burn patients. As he ran a specialized instrument down the patient’s arm to remove dead skin – something I called “the skin-mower”- he struck up a conversation with the resident about gardens. “I had a garden in medical school,” the resident said. My ears perked up. “My plants were all so short, and they just didn’t produce very much. What do you think the problem was?”

The surgeon nodded wisely and took another swipe of skin off the patient’s arm. “They didn’t have enough water. In dry climates like this, they always need more water than you think.” Somewhere inside the recesses of my brain, a dusty old light bulb blinked on. I didn’t have to be born with a green thumb; it was something that I could learn.

A few months later, I was up to my eyeballs in flashcards, studying for the boards in a cold sweat. I grew increasingly panicked as card after card flashed before my eyes, each more bamboozling than the last. There was no way –  absolutely  no way – that I was going to be able to learn all that . Trimethoprim did  what  to  the liver?! I was on the fast track to killing all my patients, and I couldn’t figure out  why no one was stopping me. I kept waiting for one of my teachers to grab me by the  scruff of my white coat and throw me out the back door.

Discouraged and in serious medical student funk, I  wandered  out into the hall on a “study break” – really more of a “study MAKE A BREAK FOR IT,” as I was actually making a mad dash to my car to try and escape  the  strain  of  school. However, I was stopped by one of my teachers. He asked me, very kindly, how I was doing, and I answered honestly. ”I’m really discouraged. I feel like no  matter  how  hard I try, I can’t get high grades. And this is some important stuff –  if  I screw this up, I could really hurt one of my patients” He abruptly halted his purposeful stride  down the hallway and turned toward me, leaning forward intently. “I know you feel discouraged, but you’ re really doing rather well. You know enough, and you will learn what you need to when the time comes. The important thing is to not give up. Just keep plugging away- you’ll be all right.”

When I arrived at home, I stopped by the remnants of my garden. A few of the plants were still bravely hanging on – we had beautiful yellow squash, growing faster than I could harvest. The cherry tomatoes tasted like a little burst of summer. And the green peppers were growing like mad. I had hopefully planted a little herb garden after everything else died; it was flourishing, perfuming the whole yard with its fragrance. I had planted it thoughtfully, deliberately. I added the correct amount of fertilizer, watered it appropriately, and placed it where it got plenty of light. My professor’s words were still on my mind as I tore off some parsley to have with dinner. I could keep something alive. And I was getting better at it as the season wore on. Next year, maybe I’d be able to keep the strawberries alive.

Hell, maybe someday I’ll even manage to keep a patient alive.

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

My dad left me suddenly in 2008. He walked into the bathroom and fell over dead against the door. Susan, my sister, had to push him across the floor to get the door open and discover what had happened. I miss him. It seems a little stark to put that phrase down on paper, but I do miss him. After my graduation from high school, and especially after my graduation from medical school, we didn’t spend a lot of hours together. Despite the lack of geographic closeness, it was a comfort knowing he was in this world. A strong father figure, he seemed to be an anchor to  me, and with his passing the role  of anchor for the family settled on my shoulders. I get the out-of-the blue thought frequently  that I should call him and discuss how things are going.  For a split second if feels right, but then the empty ache fills my chest and reality returns. There is no one to call.

He lived in a most interesting time. He was born in 1929, just prior to the Depression. He was raised in rural Montana and grew up as an honest ranch cowboy. His father, my grandfather, was drafted at age 37 into the Army Tank Corps during the waning days of World War II. That left my dad at age 14 back home in charge of the ranch, cows, hay, horses, siblings and mother. He was equal to the task.

He began his adult business life buying and selling livestock, especially horses. Mechanization of agriculture hit the American West at that time. Four cylinder tractors were replacing four-legged horses – even beautiful, matched teams of big draft horses. Dad bought them for canners, at prices that were discouragingly low. 2000 pound Belgians were slaughtered and shipped to Europe for sausage. He loved horses, but not in a sentimental way.

Many of those horses were simply turned loose on the high plains. The Blackfoot Reservation had a lot of horses like that, high plains drifters, difficult to tell who could sign the bill of sale. It was  a practical  idea to have an Indian companion from the reservation. Dad did. They rounded up horses by the hundreds, shipped many on the Great Northern, boxcar load after boxcar load. The two of them, a young white man and an old Blackfoot man, rode the prairie. They ranged from north of Great Falls  into southern Alberta. They trailed the herds to the rail head at Great Falls or sometimes to Browning, on the reservation.

His Indian companion was older. One  day  while  riding together  in the Sweet Grass Hills, the  Indian  stopped,  looked  carefully  around  and  said, “This place is familiar.”

He rode over to a small bluff, looked out and pointed out across the open plain toward Canada. “When I was a boy, I was up here gathering sweet grass for the Medicine Man. Some movement caught my eye over there.”

He told the story of how in his youth he was up on that hill. He was the sole witness as a single rider rode lickety-split across the border into Canada. Three other horsemen in pursuit were trailing. The lead rider got across the border, pulled his horse up short and dismounted. Pulling his rifle from his scabbard, he kneeled down and shot the other three riders as they got close .

The scene had played out in real time, and the echo of the shots reached the hill a couple seconds later. After putting his rifle back  in his  scabbard, the lead rider got back on his horse and rode north, disappearing into the wild rose country of southern Alberta. The Indian boy waited for what he thought was a safe time, then rode down the hill to the three shot men.

He said to my dad, “It was a sheriff and two  deputies.” He paused for a second and went on, “They were all white men. All dead.” He paused as if looking back into the years, and finished, “I got my sweet grass  bundle, climbed on my pony and rode home.”

My life as a doctor was interesting in its own right, but I always had some yearning for my childhood cowboy days. We didn’t have bicycles growing up, but we each had a horse. At the time it seemed perfectly normal to ride up to the grocery store, tie my horse to the telephone pole and go in to get some penny candy. Horse manure on main street was a normal event in our town. My first horse was an Appaloosa mare named Beanie. All summer I had to stake her to the roadside for feed and lead her to water twice a day. One day she slipped on a ditch bank, fell and broke her neck when the stake rope pulled tight as she hit the bottom of the ditch. Dad came and broke the news to me. He took me with him on my first overnight cattle-buying trip and my first stay in a motel. I was on my best behavior. I got up early the next morning and had my motel bed all made perfectly before it was time to go. It took me a few years to figure out why my dad laughed and hugged me when he saw the perfectly made bed.

Russ, the second child in our family, ended up the new owner of a big ranch in Lewistown, Montana in the late 1990s. It was 11,000 acres – one third in the mountains for summer range, two-thirds along the creek bottom for hay and  winter range. He had  500 mother cows. Once I had to speak at a conference in Billings, a fast two hour drive from Lewiston. I took an extra cou­ple days and drove to Lewistown to check out the lay of the land. The lay was awesome, the scenery stunning. I was back in the saddle, riding through the trees and cattle seemed to calm that yearning. I stayed as late as I could and drove back late to Billings. I missed the first flight but caught the second. A bit disgruntled at the hiccup in my schedule, I boarded the half-empty plane, claimed a row for myself and got out my computer.

I was typing away, not paying much attention to the other passengers. I had stretched out completely and was completing my journal entry for the weekend. Pausing to think before adding the next entry, my attention was grabbed by quiet sobs coming from the row behind me. I sat quietly and eavesdropped.

The sobs were coming from a woman who was flying to Alabama for  the funeral of her son. That he had died tragically was obvious, but I missed  the part where she had described the exact accident. She was telling her seatmate about the accident, and about how sick her husband had been recently, nigh unto death, but he had pulled through.

“Not that I want my husband to die, ” she said,  “but why not him, an  old man who has lived a good life, why not him die instead of taking my son?”
Her seat-mate, a man, quietly replied, “I know what you mean.”
She went on, “I would rather me die a hundred times than take him and leave his wife and new baby behind.”
Another gentle reply, “I know what you mean – I had those exact same thoughts when my son died.”

The sobs from his seat-mate stopped and the woman and I  both listened as he shared his story – the story of his 22-year-old son who had died several years previously .

“He was the fourth child out of six,” he said, “but  that  didn’t  make it  any easier. You miss them just as much as if he was the only one.”

Speaking quietly, not crying, but with a  tremor  in his voice, he  went  on, “My son was driving home and his car broke down, so he thumbed a  ride with a 17-year-old girl and her companion. The young woman driver  hit  black ice at 100 mph. My son, in the back seat was killed – the other two survived.”

I was amazed at his understanding and compassion as he listened, shared and responded to  this  sorrowing woman for the entire one hour flight. He shared his insight as he told her, “The pain never goes away, you just cry less. You can’t hold anger or hate against the person who caused it – it just eats your heart, and you need your heart to love the rest of your family.”

The woman’s sobs faded as she was able to talk about her loss. She pondered a few moments of silence as we were pulling up to the gate in Salt Lake City, and then said, “At least I’ll get to see my new baby grandson that I’ve never met.” She closed with, “I don’t know how to thank you for listening to me. I thought this flight would be unbearable, but it wasn’t.”

I could hear the sound of flesh on flesh as he patted her hand and replied, “You are more than welcome.”

I sat quietly as the passengers disembarked. I was dying to see who these people were. After the row in front of me emptied, I stood, stepped into the aisle, turned and reached back to pick up by briefcase. I was face to face with the conversation couple.

She appeared about 70. Short hair, streaked with gray, done in an old-fashioned perm. Nike shoes, comfortable cotton shirt and double knit pants with elastic waistband. Lined face, work-roughened hands deformed a bit with arthritis.

He about 50, whip-leather thin. A cowboy with baseball cap, short-sleeved pearl button snap shirt with vertical stripes. Levis, ostrich skin boots and a big rodeo buckle. I thought of speaking, but found I had nothing of significance to offer.

I nodded my head to them, let them pass and followed the two quietly out of the plane and down the ramp. My ostrich skin boots made a quiet staccato tapping on the aluminum  stairs, echoing his as we stepped down to the tarmac.

Bliss

She was wheelchair autonomous
And proud of her functional left side.
Doctors call it aphasia when she can’t find
Words, but a poet can call it
Being stroked by brilliant forgetfulness.
Here is why:

On the patio outside,
we’re surrounded
By red bricks that fracture access
To the outside.
She is flicking her pointer finger
At the freegrowing trees
As if it were a magic wand
And language the missing magic.
She is intermittent exasperation
But intent determination.

Her caregiver approaches her
With unconditional listening
And a bag of extra phrases should she need.
But she does not look
Because she is still searching.

In a final frustrated moment
Broken biology wins over hope
And her finger falls with a frustrated sigh.
She turns left, defeated
To his patient countenance
And in astonishment she exclaims
“You have eyes?!”
No beat is missed,
“Yes, two of them.”
And the same rhythm
“They are beautiful.”

Listen, meine Kinder

June 11, 2001

The two dogs sat in front of the barcalounger. Ingrid settled in, sighing, and popped her feet up. Taking a chicken tender from the bag on her lap, she bit into it, chewing slowly. Pittie and Socorro looked at her. Pittie drooled through the space where his four side teeth used to be and Socorro vibrated slightly.

Ingrid talked around her mouthful of tender. “Listen, meine Kinder,  and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” She finished chewing and licked her fingers. “This I had to memorize when I first came to America  and went to Schute with my cousin. She was in the seventh grade, so I was in the seventh grade, too, even though I was already sixteen. That’s how they did things in those days. It was ok. The girls wanted to know all about menstrua­tion and I told them, so they did not be mean to me, and I learned the English good from them. It was 8th of November, in thirty-five, I think. Or maybe thir­ty-eight, but that doesn’t rhyme so good. Hardly a man or woman is now alive who remembers that famous day and year. Anyway, a long time ago.”

Ingrid extracted two more tenders and conducted a little Brahms with both hands, humming as she conducted . The dogs locked on her hands and followed the swooping tenders with their gator heads. They smiled nervously and trembled but did not jump. “He said to his friends if the Deutschen march, by land or by sea to the town  tonight,  hang  a  lantern  aloft  in  the  belfry arch. Belfry is where the bats live in the church of the Goyim. And also in your head if you go crazy. One if by land.” She tossed the first tender to Pittie, whose attention had flagged a little. “And two if I see.”

The second tender landed on Socorro’s nose. The brindle pit bull whined and drooled but did not move until Ingrid snapped “pickle”. Then Socorro flipped the tender up in the air and caught it on its way down. It disappeared in one bite. “And I inside the closet will be. Ready to hide while the others do not arm. For they were stupid and didn’t hide and were all taken away but me. I miss them even now, but yes, they were stupid . And I was stu­pid for going out after the Deutschen took them, and I followed them. I joined them, and that was a bad idea. The end.”

Ingrid divided the rest of the chicken tenders three ways. When they were all finished, she let the dogs lick her fingers off, Pittie as usual taking the right hand and continuing to lick his way up Ingrid’s forearm  to  her  tattoo. Ingrid made them lie down, one on each side of the barcalounger, and the dogs went off to sleep, dreaming of piles of tenders. After a few minutes, Ingrid’s eyelids shut and she began to snore softly, then roused and spoke to the sleep­ing dogs. “If Deutschen march  in  here, you hide, you understand?  And you  two be quiet. They have things more scarier than your teeth.”