The painted drum, p.21
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       The Painted Drum, p.21

           Louise Erdrich
 
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  But Seraphine didn’t ask about why John gave her money or why Morris gave her a ride. She was more interested in where Ira thought she might stay while she applied for emergency housing and got on the waiting list for permanent housing.

  “I don’t know yet,” said Ira.

  “Well, you’ve got to find somewhere,” said Seraphine. “We can put you and your children in the women’s shelter for a month, maybe, starting in a couple of weeks, but before that we’d have to put them in foster care and you, I don’t know…” She touched the scar on her lips.

  “I’ll find a place,” Ira said. “Bernard maybe. He might let us stay with him. I don’t know. It’s pretty far out there.”

  “That’s a problem.” Seraphine nodded. “You with no transportation. I’m going to ask your daughters some questions now. I need to find out how the fire started.”

  And do you need to check my story out, Ira wondered, see if they saw me getting high on drugs or I beat them up or fucked Morris on the living room rug while they were eating breakfast, not that we have a rug anymore, or a living room, and the whole thing that started it was there was only breakfast, only oatmeal.

  “Okay,” said Ira. “You go talk to them.”

  Ira went back to Apitchi’s room. He was hot, limp, in a very deep sleep. He didn’t stir when Ira kissed his forehead. Ira peered closely at him. Then she pushed the nurse’s call button and went out the door.

  “There’s something wrong with him,” she said to a nurse. “Come in here. Please. You’ve got to get the doctor to look at him. There’s something wrong.”

  “We’ve got a chest X ray ordered,” said the nurse, brushing past her, “and we’ll probably get him on IV antibiotics. The doctor was here while you were gone and they think he maybe has pneumonia. It’s probably pneumonia,” the nurse said, as though that was reassuring. “Do you want to help me,” she said, seeing that Ira looked stunned, eyes filling with tears, “do you want to help me get him ready for the X ray?”

  Ira nodded and tucked his blanket in around his feet.

  “We can wheel him out,” the nurse said.

  Ira kept her hand on Apitchi’s head as they made their way down the hall. His hair was rough, thick, and matted. They had given him a sponge bath but there was still soot behind his ears, she saw, and a black line at his hairline, and soot in the corners of his nose. He didn’t smell like ash, though, she thought, bending over to kiss him again as the elevator took them down. He smelled like a little boy. He was named Apitchi for the robin that made its nest just over the door and raised its babies the summer she was pregnant. Alice was named for her mother and Shawnee for the prophet. Ira’s father had been religious, he had named them with spirit names, too, and he had brought Ira back from the Cities when her husband left her. He had helped her obtain a legal divorce and he had given them all of his veteran’s pension money and his social security.

  They went down to the X-ray room. Ira had to stand behind a lead shield. Apitchi was shrinking, she thought, into his sleep. But the nurse assured her that she’d seen plenty of children with pneumonia and every one of them had gotten well.

  Once Apitchi was settled back in his room and got his antibiotics, Ira thought she’d better go back and see the girls. Shawnee was sitting up in bed when Ira entered the room. Her hands were wound in soft clubs of gauze and she was trying to work the remote control on the television. The TV was suspended between the girls, opposite them on the wall.

  “Here,” said Ira, taking the remote control, “what do you want?”

  Shawnee looked fixedly at the screen and shrugged.

  “Alice?” Ira was carefully pressing channels.

  Alice frowned at the television. They let their mother flip through the channels, twice over. Finally Alice raised her arm, the one without the IV. “I want that one.”

  “Okay.” Ira put down the remote control and sat next to Shawnee, but Shawnee said, “Mom, could you get off the bed? I need to lay down.” Ira got up and helped arrange the covers over her. Shawnee’s feet were bandaged, too.

  “How do they feel?” said Ira.

  “Bad,” said Shawnee.

  “Can I do anything?”

  Shawnee stared briefly at her mother, then looked away. It seemed to Shawnee that she had been on a long trip, that she had gone somewhere far away and her mother was left behind. Her mother was back in a place where nothing had happened to Shawnee, but in truth everything had happened. She had been to the edge of life. Apitchi and Alice had gone there too. Shawnee had dragged her brother and her sister back. She hadn’t allowed them to die. Or herself, either. Now that she was back on this earth, she was lonely. She wanted someone to say to her, Shawnee, you saved them. Not to look at her with eyes that said, You burnt the house down.

  Ira put her hand out to stroke Shawnee’s hair, but Shawnee jerked her head away from her mother’s touch without taking her eyes from the television screen. Ira sat down and put her hands in her lap and pretended to watch a man coaxing an alligator from its underwater den. She was wondering if Seraphine had told her children something that set their minds against her, or if they were mad at all, but maybe just surprised to be in a hospital. She thought that she should talk to Shawnee and Alice about what had happened. I should find out, I should know, I am their mother, she thought. But at the same time she dreaded knowing any details because all of it, every bit, was her fault. She had put her children in that danger, she had left them, and knowing more about what they had suffered could only make her feel worse. It reflected her failure to protect them. Also, she had a bad instinct. It was growing in her. Ira was afraid that at some point, when she was very tired maybe, she would say to Shawnee, How the fuck could you have burnt down the house? Our only place to live? All we own? Gone? How the fuck? Ira was so afraid of blurting this out that she got up suddenly, and left the room.

  She sat with Apitchi until his fever let go, his skin cooled a little, and he no longer frowned in his sleep. When she returned to the girls, a nurse was giving them extra milk, juice, pudding, crackers, and they were eating every bit. It was still an hour before the lunch trays would come. Ira was hungry. Yesterday there had been an extra tray sent to the floor and one of the nurses had brought it to her. So she’d had an entire dinner—turkey, gravy, beans, mashed potatoes, even a coffee. She had eaten every scrap on that tray. But there had not been an extra breakfast this morning. Ira was hoping there would be an extra tray at lunch again, and she did not want to leave the floor in case she might miss it. But she also wanted to find out how Morris was.

  Ira went searching down the hall on the adult ward. But she was too shy to actually look into the rooms. Quick, casual glances through each door did not reveal Morris, so she asked about him and a nurse took her all the way to the end of the hall. The room was dark, the curtains drawn, and Morris’s eyes were covered, as Ira had thought they would be.

  “You have a lady visitor,” the nurse said.

  “Seraphine?” said Morris.

  “No, Ira.”

  “Boozhoo!” Morris put out his hand. “How are your kids? Come in here. Siddown. There’s crackers.” He didn’t grope, but put his hand precisely on the table pushed up next to him. He lightly touched a stack of cellophane-wrapped saltines. “Would you like some?”

  Ira took a package, opened it, and ate both saltines. They melted on her tongue.

  “Have more,” said Morris.

  “No, I gotta get back. My kids’ lunch trays are coming. My kids are doing good. Apitchi’s got pneumonia, except.”

  “They can treat pneumonia, it’s safer to get pneumonia than a lot of things.”

  “Yeah,” said Ira. “I was scared though. How about you?”

  “Me,” said Morris, touching his hair, which was bunched up over the bandages, “I think I have finally done it. Maybe I’ll go blind now, all the way blind. One of my cornea’s all scratched up, the other got ulcerated. They just told me. Anyway, the suspense will be over.”

/>   “You won’t be able to drive,” said Ira.

  “Well, I wasn’t supposed to, really, I should have told you. I’m sorry about that.”

  “You tried,” Ira said. “If you hadn’t gone in the woods after my kids and the snow got so bright, maybe your eyes wouldn’t have quit on you.”

  “It was gonna happen,” Morris said. He patted the covering on his eyes, adjusted the bandages. “So, your kids okay, really?”

  “The girls won’t talk to me yet.”

  Morris nodded, as if that made sense. “Give them time to come out of it,” he said. “There’s water, too, in that pitcher. The nurse just put new ice in.”

  “They taking good care of you?”

  “Yes,” said Morris. “Morphine. They know me from before.”

  “You been in for your eyes then?”

  “Other things, too,” said Morris. “Where you supposed to live now?”

  “I don’t know yet. Bernard, maybe. I never asked him though.”

  “Your mom’s dead.”

  “Long time ago.”

  “And I heard about it when your dad died. He was a spiritual man, I knew him.”

  “My dad knew how to give names. They gave him the ceremony. It was because he had dreams. He couldn’t stop his dreams. They kept coming at him. It turned out he was meant to do certain things that would put his dreams to use.”

  She stopped. “Ma’iingan,” she said. “He gave that name to you.”

  “Your dad said that was the only time he ever gave that name out.”

  “That name meant a lot to him because wolves saved his life, once, I guess.”

  “Amen,” said Morris. “My name saved me, too.”

  “How?” said Ira.

  “That’s for another visit,” Morris said. “I got to hook you in somehow.”

  Ira went quiet because she didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t know whether she wanted to be hooked in or left on her own. “Anyway,” she said, “Popeye?”

  “Yeah, too bad about that.”

  “You don’t like your nickname?”

  They both laughed.

  “Well, I must go,” said Ira. “Bye.” She leaned over and put her hand in Morris’s open hand. He held her hand a minute. Just held her fingers with his fingers. Then he carefully let go.

  Had she missed the lunch trays? Ira was so hungry that she was beginning to feel all wobbly down the center. She walked quickly back to her children and first checked on Apitchi, then went to Shawnee and Alice’s room. There was no sign of lunch yet. She lowered herself into a chair. She noticed a little box of Sugar Pops on the table next to Shawnee’s bed, and she wanted to say, “Are you going to eat those?” But she thought that Shawnee might give her that stare that she had given her before.

  “What are you watching?” she asked.

  “Powerpuffs.”

  “It’s stupid,” Shawnee said.

  “No, they’re good!” said Alice.

  I’d better call up Bernard, thought Ira. Or maybe go look for him when he comes on his shift. She heard the rumble of the lunch cart coming down the corridor and her stomach pinched hard. An aide brought two trays in, each with a piece of skinless chicken, a spoonful of rice with some vegetables mixed in, a salad with pale pink tomatoes, and green Jell-O. There was a carton of milk and a few sticks of celery and carrots. Ira cut up Alice’s meat. The girls ate everything. When they were done, Ira put their trays back outside, on the cart.

  “I’m going to see Apitchi now,” she told Shawnee and Alice. On the way out she asked a nurse if there was an extra tray. The nurse said no. Ira said that if anybody didn’t eat their tray could she have it, and the nurse looked closely at her.

  “You got money for the cafeteria?”

  “No,” said Ira. “I’m here with my children.”

  “I’ll make sure they order a supper tray for you,” the nurse said. “In the meantime, come over here.” She took Ira to a small closet kitchen. From the little refrigerator, she took two cartons of chocolate milk, two yogurts, and a bowl of peaches covered with plastic wrap. She balanced a handful of wrapped crackers on top of the plastic wrapped bowl. “Those peaches are from just yesterday,” she said.

  Ira took the food to Apitchi’s room. He was still sleeping, his arms tucked close. He huddled in the sheets. Ira arranged the food on the windowsill and then she sat down next to Apitchi’s bed. Slowly, she reached over, selected a carton of milk, and sipped it. The chocolate milk was rich, cold, and she felt it trickle all the way down to her stomach. Next, she ate the yogurts—first the blueberry then strawberry—taking little precise scoops with a plastic spoon. She put her head back on the chair and rested for a while. She ate the peaches and the crackers. Then she drank the last milk. When Apitchi woke, he looked anxiously all around the room and let his gaze rest, at last, on his mother’s face. I don’t know what I will do if he hates me too, Ira thought, but when he realized it was she, he burst into tears and tried to hold his arms out. Ira went to him gratefully. His arm was strapped to a board along with the IV and his other hand was taped to a little paddle so he couldn’t reach over and pull out the needle. Ira carefully positioned him against her so that she could read a picture book to him. She read it six times, the same book, until it made her sleepy. She leaned back in the bed with Apitchi and felt his heart beating right over her heart.

  When she woke from her light sleep with Apitchi, it was late afternoon. All of her children were still asleep. She went to Morris’s room and stood in the entrance. He was looking at her with his lids half shut. His bandages had fallen off. She said hello, and he seemed to acknowledge her by gazing at her peacefully, but when his expression did not change, she realized from his deep breathing that he was actually asleep with his eyes open. This sight startled and made her want to turn away, but she was held by the strangeness of exchanging this calm regard with a person who was unconscious and maybe even dreaming.

  “It’s Ira,” she said, when he stirred. “If you want to keep sleeping, I’ll go.”

  “No, I’m not tired.” He sat up and fixed the bandages back over his eyes. “Just bored. They’re gonna bring my tape player and my tapes in later.”

  “Maybe I could read to you,” said Ira. “I just finished reading to my little boy.”

  “What did you read him?”

  “Green Eggs and Ham.”

  “I’ve heard that one,” said Morris.

  “Well, I could get you another,” said Ira. “Probably they have a bunch of books somewhere.”

  “Okay,” said Morris, “if you find a good one, you read it to me. It’s a deal.”

  “I’ll check downstairs later.”

  Ira stood awkwardly in the doorway, not sure whether to sit down or to leave.

  “Look,” said Morris. “I gotta say, I’m sorry. It’s about what I was thinking, what I implied, when I stopped the truck on the road.”

  Ira dragged a chair next to the bed, sat down. She put her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands. Now that the bandages were on he couldn’t see, so what did it matter. She had wondered if he was going to mention that moment.

  “You were lonely, and me, I was desperate,” she said at last. “And it’s true, I was after some money. If somebody had offered me money to fuck them, I would have done it earlier, but then your brother gave me money for some groceries, so I wasn’t that desperate anymore.”

  “He screwed me, then!”

  She laughed a little. “We should let it go, I mean, because the kids are gonna be alive and they could have…whatever. But they’re okay. Your sister-in-law visited me.”

  “Seraphine. War wounds.”

  “She was in the army? Which one?”

  “The one that was conducted on us where they took our children prisoner.”

  “She went to boarding school then.”

  “Yes. And now as I have scratched up my corneas to the point of ulceration, I truly see through a glass darkly, as in Corinthians.”

/>   “That’s the Bible,” said Ira.

  “Yes, the New Testament, which is on twenty-four double sided tapes.”

  “So you lay in the dark and you listen to the Bible.”

  “That Old Testament, especially, rated R for sex and violence. Don’t let your kids near that book.”

  Ira laughed. “Wow.”

  “You’re impressed?”

  “I’m kind of scared of you.”

  “Why, because my eyes bug out? Most cases like mine do not persist, but I even had surgery and they still popped out again, and the treatments haven’t worked. The doctors say I’m just stubborn. The whole thing stems out of my thyroid gland, and I know it got fucked up in Kuwait. They’re going to paralyze my eyelids with Botox and see if they drop.”

  “You’re kidding.”

  “I’ll be young forever. I’ll have young eyes.”

  Ira looked down at her hands.

  “I don’t know what I’d do. I feel for you.”

  “I’d rather you just feel me,” said Morris. “Up.”

  “Sad.”

  “I know it, I’m so out of practice.”

  “Yes, you are. But that’s a plus in my mind.”

  “Good.” Morris paused. “Are you used to your house being gone yet?”

  “I am trying to get used to remembering that I have no house, nothing, just what I have on me.”

  “Which is?”

  Ira began to rummage in her purse. “A comb, a compact, a stick of gum, an extra diaper, some bills, food vouchers, old mascara, a bunch of toilet paper, photographs, which now I’m very glad I always carry, and lots of lint balls.”

  “That’s in your purse.”

  “Right. Oh, and I also have a beadwork clip and a bag of earrings I was hoping to sell. Here,” she handed him the clip, which was a sunburst design picked out in extra-small fancy cutbeads. “This is an example of my work. You can feel how I made it anyway.”

  “Nice.”

  “Yeah, I’m real careful. I do good, tight, work, me.”

  Morris held the clip, running his fingers over it. “Can I keep it?”

  Ira hesitated, “Well, I’d like to give it to you. But I could maybe get forty for it. I was gonna show the nurses.”

 
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