BY THE WAYSIDE by Jeff Putnam
Cut and rewritten, with commentary, by the author
[Comments are in brackets. Book was written in 1987. Comments are from 2016]
That could have been the cry of a newborn, all right, and I was looking for it on the living room floor beneath the couch she was on.
No, the noise had come from Elena, the Cuban woman who was about to have our baby.
“We’d better get down there.” She meant the Maternidad, the Barcelona charity hospital where the baby’s welcome was scheduled for a month and a half hence.
It was sunup and we’d returned to the flat two hours ago from a trip to southern France. Elena had been asleep when I’d done the fast driving.
I was already rehearsing the things I’d tell her mother when she showed up. If our baby didn’t make it she’d add murder to the list of my crimes. At the top of it was “soft on Castro.” Mama and Daddy Cabezón were disgusted with Elena for getting pregnant by me. They disapproved of everything but my height genes.
In a quavering voice Elena translated what the interns were saying. The baby had stuck its arm through her cervix, the arm had been without circulation, it would take too much time to set up a spinal. She’d have to have general anesthesia.
“A general… What I wanted all along…”
This wasn’t sarcasm. Sleep was Lena’s favorite state of being. She hated being on her feet more than a couple of hours each day. I’d known her to shed tears when she couldn’t get out of walking a certain distance, always a distance I’d have called short. Sit right down by the side of the road and sob.
Being gassed and knocked out this way was almost as good as going into a coma… Compared to the kind of snoozes she was getting with me, a high order of stupor, insensibility deluxe.
Elena was wheeled away, gratefully supine. One of the doctors told me where to wait.
I waited all day. I was sure that our baby was somewhere in a pail. It had learned all it would ever know of life outside the womb while it flexed one tiny hand. Elena too had not survived. After a lifetime knocking at Death’s door she’d finally been taken in.
The nurses had seen how distraught I was getting. By afternoon the doctors had had a look, too. There were conferences behind cupped hands. No one had the guts to give me the bad news.
By five PM I was feeling feverish, which I thought unusual for someone who hadn’t eaten. Dehydration could cause hot, dry skin, but I’d been getting up every ten minutes or so to go into my night watchman routine, which I finished with a swallow of water before facing more tense minutes of waiting. Of course the main thing was to check the big picture window behind a green room-divider where all the preemies were arrayed with name tags at their feet. No “Cabezón,” though. No “Bancroft.”
It occurred to me that I might be losing my mind, and what a good thing that would be, because then I could barge through the double doors and get a straight answer or start going through their pails. A few seconds after I got that idea I acted on it.
The people in green were accustomed to having women like Elena wheeled in and out of their lives, but this hot-browed, hand-waving person spoke little Spanish and was a head taller than the angry husbands they were used to seeing.
I finally got through to one of them when I clutched my right arm, waggled the fingers of my right hand, then pointed between the legs of one of the nurses.
“Ah, Senor Cabezón. Your woman is gone from here this morning, early. She rests now. Nurse will take you…”
Lena was already sitting up in bed, reading an illustrated magazine, looking less bored than usual. Her huge, dark-blue eyes were especially huge and dark blue. The emptiness in them was giving me an erection. No. Not here. Not yet. Mere vascular twitches that would turn into an erection when the time was right.
“’Lo, hon. I was sure you’d gone out for a few.”
“You’re okay, then. The baby?”
“A girl. She’ll have to spend a few weeks in the preemie unit but they say she’ll be all right.”
“She won’t lose the arm?”
“Nah, she’ll have full use of it soon. Hungry? Have a seat. The Boixes brought these. Sorry they’re almost gone.”
Irrelevant pastry of some kind. Or perhaps the very thing that Catalans brought after a caesarian. The Boches – the Catalans pronounce Boix the same way the French say “boches” – had been driving me crazy ever since we came with their ritual Catalanism.
Lena told me I could go see the baby, but only through a glass window and only by yelling “Cabezón.” If I wanted to go… she had no objection. If I wanted to come back and say what the baby looked like… fine.
The page made a snapping sound and slithered into alignment.
Before I rushed off I thought to tell Lena how glad I was that she’d come through surgery in one piece, even if there was a small cut in it, and was in such good spirits. She glanced up, frowning slightly, as if I had a motive.
“Thanks for coming.” She went back to her magazine.
Acting bored was never a pose with Lena. She’d had her baby and life was back to normal – something to nibble on, something to read. She’d have been less bored back in our flat with the things I cooked for her and her books on romance philology.
Her books covered one wall in her little bedroom whenever the spirit moved me to clear the floor of them. Lena had just finished a year of doctoral work at the University of Barcelona and she needed a lot of books to make up for all the classes that conflicted with the hours she set aside for sleep.
BY THE WAYSIDE by Jeff Putnam