Writing a novel is perilous business. Since I've started this project:
1) I stuck my hand into a running mixer in an attempt to keep it from ripping Julia's trapped hair out of her scalp (no, she didn't lose the hair; no, nothing was broken, but I did pass out; yes, it will leave scars; yes, she will pull her hair back around the mixer in the future.);
2) That evening, for the first time in 9 1/2 years with children, we had to go to the ER for an injury: Jack's stitches over his eye.
3) The next Saturday I spent 10 hours in the ER with my mom , who ended up staying for three more days in the hospital. She's feeling much better now, and I thank you all for your prayers.
4) We woke up this past Friday morning to the fire alarm in the basement alerting us that our boiler had caught on fire. No one was injured and nothing was damaged (except the boiler, obviously; the firemen told us that the hottest part of the fire was 600 degrees), but no boiler means no heat. We had to flee the house for Cincinnati over the weekend, driven out by the cold and and the noxious fumes of burnt plastic and whatnot. The moral of the story: if you have an old boiler, install a fire alarm in the basement. Ours most certainly saved our house, and quite possibly saved our lives.
I'm a bit apprehensive about what the rest of November might bring, but I write on.
Peggy bustled in, phone pressed to her ear.
“John says that to avoid hypothermia, we need to get her body temperature up,” she instructed. “The best way to warm her up is to skin to skin contact. At least that’s they say in the Boy Scouts.”
“Skin to skin?” Martin asked warily. “Do you mean… skin to skin?”
“I most certainly do.” Peggy was all briskness. “Do you really think it would be the best thing for Emma to go out again in this weather to the ER?”
“No!” I insisted. “She can’t go out again now that we’ve got her home.” I sat on the edge of the bed and started hiking down my stockings under my skirt. “I’ll put her feet against my legs.”
“Martin, you sit against her back and put your arms around her,” Peggy ordered.
“Peggy.” Martin looked at her and ever so slightly raised an eyebrow, but she started out the door.
“I have to go back to the house and get the electric tea kettle and some real tea. The Lipton stuff she has in there scares me.” She put her head back in the room. “And don’t tell me you’re shy about taking off your shirt, Martin. I won’t have it.”
Martin looked at me.
“There’s an old woman freezing right here, and you’re afflicted with modesty?” I pulled off my sweater defiantly, and sat facing him in my tank top.
The room looked like the aftermath of an explosion in a closet. My boots and Martin’s shoes were kicked by the door. Emma’s heavy sweater was on the arm chair and my own, tossed carelessly atop it, had slid mostly to the floor. My stockings were balled up next to the bed. On the other side of the room Martin’s jacket was folded on the dresser and his shirt and tie hung on the back of desk chair. Now, sitting up behind Emma, he stripped off his undershirt and aimed it at the chair.
“Three points,” I congratulated as the shirt fluttered over the chair to land on the carpet by the window.
“You do better, then.” He reached for a blanket, but not quickly enough to hide an eagle inked on his bicep.
“What’s your tattoo?”
“A Polish Eagle.” He unfurled the blanket. “Legend says that Lech, the founder of Poland, saw an eagle glowing in the light of the setting sun and took it as a good omen. My mother’s family is Polish, and I had it done when I was in Poland.” He draped the blanket over his shoulders, covering his arms.
“That’s very patriotic.”
“I was very drunk,” he said dryly. He settled Emma, in her thin house dress, against his bare chest and wrapped his arms and the blanket around her. She snuggled against him and sighed happily.
“Well, you’re a nice young man,” she cooed.
“Emma, you’re a shameless flirt,” I declared as I extracted one of her feet from the covers. “You’re going to break Martin’s heart if you go on this way.”
Emma chuckled with delight and nestled her head against Martin’s shoulder. “You’re a nice young man,” she repeated, and from the motion under the blanket I could tell she was patting his hand.
Her foot was bitterly cold under her thick elastic stocking. As I peeled it off I rubbed the foot briskly, trying to get the blood flowing. Martin raised his eyebrows.
“What is that?” he asked.
I plucked a piece of cotton from between Emma’s toes and tossed it on the floor to join everything else. “She has hammer toes, and the cotton keeps them from rubbing together.”
“Aren’t there foam things you can buy for that?”
I shrugged. “I guess, but this is what she’s always done, and she’s used to it.”
He watched as I carefully pulled all four pieces of fluff and massaged the arches of her feet.
“Do you do this every night?”
“Yes.” I tucked her foot between my legs under my skirt to keep it warm, and started on the other one.
“Are you a nurse?” he asked, shifting Emma’s head to his other shoulder. (“Isn’t he a nice young man?” she purred.)
“I’m not anything,” I said, trying to keep any tinge of bitterness from my voice. “I stay here with Emma and take care of her, and I catalogue the books in her library. I studied literature, and I have no marketable skills.”
“This isn’t a skill?” He nodded toward the cotton. “I can’t think of many people who would do that without complaining.”
“I don’t think there’s any money in it without medical training, which I most emphatically do not have.” Emma’s foot was like ice. Adjusting the blankets, I slid in from the bottom of the bed, curling my body around her legs and holding her feet close to my chest. “Anyway, Emma is my aunt. People take care of their families.”
“It’s one of your commendable qualities that you accept that as a universal notion.”
“I don’t know whether to take that as mockery or as a compliment.”
“Take it as praise,” he said, and I found myself unable to meet his eyes. A silence grew in the room. Emma rustled restlessly and complained, “I don’t know when the folks are coming over.”
“We’ll see folks tomorrow, Aunt Emma,” I told her. “We’re going to Peggy’s house tomorrow, do you remember?”
“Oh, Peggy.” Emma was appeased. “I haven’t seen Peggy for so long.”
“She’s coming over in a few minutes to make you some tea, Emma.”
Emma wriggled, trying to get her feet free. “My feet hurt. I want to get up.” She struggled with Martin, who held her firmly, and tried to kick at me. I tried to adjust my grip on her legs, but she managed to lash out with one foot and catch me across the cheek with a sharp toenail. I yelped and jerked back, and Martin managed to subdue her by wrapping his legs over hers.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re bleeding a little.”
“I… I’ll be fine,” I breathed, putting my hand to my cheek. Emma, who had settled down, was watching me with interest.
“Honey, what happened to your face?” she asked, concerned.
“I hurt myself,” I said with as much cheer as I could muster. “Don’t worry about it, Aunt Emma. It’s just a scratch.”
Martin started to protest, but I kicked him. After I’d gotten a tissue to hold to my aching cheek, I sat down beside him and Emma.
“She really doesn’t remember,” I explained. “There wouldn’t be any point in blaming her. She’d just get upset.”
“You’re remarkably forbearing for someone who was just kicked in the face.”
A rattle at the door announced the return of Peggy with the tea things. She was full of exclamations at my scratch and brought a wet washcloth to soothe my burning cheek. Then she filled her electric kettle while I chafed Emma’s feet, keeping my face at a safe distance.
“How much longer do we need to do this?” I asked Peggy.
“I don’t really know,” she confessed. “Is she warm yet?”
“She’s getting there,” said Martin. “I wouldn’t mind taking a little break right about now.” He slid out from behind Emma, who laid her head instantly on the pillow and observed, “What a nice young man.”
I took my mug of tea and sat on bed by Emma, stroking her hair. She smiled peacefully and murmured, “You look nice tonight, honey. I like your hair like that.”
I laughed. “You must – you took all my hairpins.”
Peggy leaned forward from the armchair. “Emma, we’re looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
“Why?” Emma wanted to know. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Christmas!” Peggy chirped. “You’re coming to our house for dinner.”
“I have to go to Mass,” Emma worried. “Are we going to Mass?”
“Of course, Emma,” I soothed. “I’ll take you… Oh.” For I had just remembered that my car was at church.
Martin looked up from the desk chair. He had pulled back on his dress shirt and sat leaning his elbows on his knees and cradling the mug of fragrant tea, weariness etched on his face. “I’ll take you,” he offered. “I have to go tomorrow anyway.”
“Thank you,” I replied, fighting against a sudden onslaught of the same fatigue. “What time?”
“9:00 would be best.”
“We’ll be ready.”
Under her mass of blankets, I could feel Emma shivering again, and now she moaned, “I’m so cold.”
“Round two,” said Martin, a bit grimly, standing and locking his hands behind his back to stretch. “What’s the best way to do this?”
I thought. “Here, let’s try it this way. You lay against Emma’s back, and I’ll lay in front of her with my back to her, and that way she’ll be sandwiched.”
“Will she able to breathe?” he asked skeptically, but already he had shrugged out of his shirt and was folding up his glasses.
“Now slide over, Emma!” I sang out, maneuvering her in place. “We’re going to snuggle up all cozy and get you warm.”
“Who’s this man?” she asked, without rancor.
“This nice young man helped me find you tonight,” I reminded her. “He’s taking us to Mass tomorrow. He’s Peggy Harriman’s nephew Martin.” I inched around until I’d pressed my back to her without getting my hair in her face, and nudged my feet up against her cold ones. Behind me, I could feel Martin trying to get comfortable. He held Emma close by putting his arm across her, and his hand rested warmly on my stomach.
“If this doesn’t warm her up, I can’t think what will,” Peggy mumbled. She had closed her eyes and her head was tucked against the side of the cozy chair. I realized with faint alarm that if conversation drifted off, so would we.
“Did you study in Poland?” I asked Martin. “Surely you didn’t go there just to get a tattoo.”
He snorted. “No. This was a few years ago, when I was just out of business school. It was my first international consulting job. I used to travel around a lot for business; but I’ve been trying to stay closer to home lately.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said, enviously. “I’d love to be free to travel.”
“Free to travel.” His voice had a curiously rough quality. “That does sound nice, doesn’t it? It’s not as glamorous as all that. The only wandering around Poland I did was from my hotel to the client’s offices. I didn’t see any sights.”
“Except the tattoo parlor.”
He let out a breath that was almost a laugh. “Yes, the tattoo parlor. One night I was drinking with some of the local guys and they found out that I had Polish background. We worked ourselves up into a frenzy of solidarity and decided that we should strike some significant blow for the homeland. The result was matching eagle tattoos for all the Brotherhood.”
“So you didn’t just wake up the next morning and there it was?”
“No. That would be a good story, wouldn’t it? But I remember it clearly, and I knew at the time what I was doing. I just wouldn’t have made that decision if I were sober.”
“At least you have the memory,” I protested. “You’ll always be able to look back and say, “Remember that time in Poland?” and have a good story to tell. Isn’t that better than having stayed at home and been dull and respectable all your life?”
“No,” he said flatly. “I’d rather have my arm plain and unsullied, and have no story. Some mistakes leave consequences that can’t be erased.”
“I don’t know,” I argued. “Maybe I’d rather have the tattoo and the memories.”
I felt him slide the blankets off my arm and move his fingers along the unblemished skin. “But you don’t,” he said. “Why?”
“I guess because I don’t really want to make a mistake that can’t be erased. I just wish I’d done something unique once in my life.”
“A tattoo isn’t unique. It’s a common, stupid mistake, and I was old enough to know better.” He tucked the blankets up around Emma and me, but his hand settled on my shoulder. “Living with your aunt like this and taking care of her when you’re only… how old are you?”
“…twenty-two, that’s unique. That’s different. You seem mature beyond your years.”
“I wish it felt that way,” I yawned. “It sounds almost romantic, but it’s just everyday life, only with lots more repetition and odd behavior. Someone told me it was like caring for a toddler, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never taken care of a baby.”
“No. That’s another experience most people have that I don’t.”
“You seem like the sort of person who’ll have that experience in the proper time.”
“I suppose. My sister’s going to have a baby, so maybe that will break me in.”
More silence, and I was almost drifting off when he said, “Tell me about cataloging your aunt’s books. I’d like to see her library.”
I shrugged, more to feel his hand move on my shoulder than from indifference. “I’ll show you tomorrow, if you like. I seem to spend more time reading that writing. My parents are convinced that there are some valuable books in there, but I’m starting to doubt it. Her collection seems tailored around her own tastes – what she found beautiful and interesting. I’m not sure how many volumes of objective value are in the collection. There’s a copy of Jane Eyre that might be worth something, but it’s been written in.”
“The books must have been valuable to her, though.”
“Yes. That’s subjective value.”
He laughed out loud– a genuine, clear, open laugh – and Aunt Emma startled and muttered before subsiding back into her harsh even breathing. Martin’s hand drifted over my face and brushed the hair softly away so he could touch the tender weal on my cheek. “Your aunt is lucky to have you, Emma. You must be good company for her.”