Doctor's Orders By Larry D. Giles
From ALONG THE PATHWAY HOME: Vignettes and Prose-Poems of Childhood, 11.
Synopsis: In a small remote American village of the 60's, a withdrawn though precocious adolescent deals with the depression and isolation ignited by the jeers of schoolmates, by the subtle pangs of segregation, and by his parent's traumatic divorce. The vignette is written in the dialect of this adolescent who is still learning to express himself conventionally.
Last week or the week before was the first time I remember seeing a doctor. Uneasy as a worm, I looked out of a swollen eye. The doctor was bald, but I had lots of hair. Good black hair like mamma's, Trudell said fighting a wad of Double mint and trying to tie his tennies. It was quiet and wavy, and the curls were shy. Loud with no gum and no quarter for lunch, the one with the hack had just called me yella, and three of old man Salem's boys who that day had been made to go to school had let me have it.
High on the back seat, the reddest one whistled at the chicken who walked me to the gate. The one behind my neck kissed me on the ear. The last who smelled like an old henhouse said I read too much and closed my book, then plucked my neck with a rubber.
I wasn't sure what color I was, and I wasn't reading. Except for Trudell sometimes I don't care much for boys or rubbers, and I am more blue or red than yellow. Maybe a dull phosphorescent, a word I keep hidden in my binder. The blue air I carried on the bus was caught in my hair, but I dared not look up to brush it out.
Sometimes the road before us is also caught, frozen like the river, a gray bureau mirror that won't show anything. As though maybe yesterday there was something there but then today it is too cold to say what it is. And the few Saturdays I ride to Tappahannock with daddy who also don't like to talk disappear in mist, trees stuck frigid and sick on the other side. Tucked into Monday, I didn't know how to write it down. Rap-pa-han-nock, I scribbled secretly as the boys thrust ashy, dark elbows through the windows, threw the girls' homework into the swamp.
The girls moved to the other side with the healthy kids, the birds got up and left. I stayed put. But even with their leaving, my thoughts didn't care to look to see where anything went. The pond and the faraway river where granddaddy in spring and fall set traps and I pictured daddy scooting by without a sound in the cab of a dirty work truck lay flat as a book. Dragging into mornings that only give up a puff of smoke, I sometimes turn away for something that isn't there--Clank's, the neighbor's banjo standing unplayed in a corner of the attic across the field, a wind-swept door of a privy we spin by in the frosty twilight, wanting no one, much less the doctor, to go where the dirt road left me.
And wiggling between somebody's fingers, I felt tubes cold on my chest, the doctor's fingers like spoons. I thought of Lisa Horton's thumb being eaten by her throat. Pocahontas on a snowy cloud asking her feathered father to leave his head. The teacher in a far corner, I thought of mamma, who sometimes could be bright as an apple, in a fog that must have driven across the street from the doctor's office for apple butter while winter tried to hear my heart. There was a white man, glasses folded on his shirt, standing beside the cabbage and cantaloupes, watching to see who wanted to put something on the book, or maybe just watching. Even when I think I am well, things run together like sheets. A woman who used to be my mother or my grandmother in a wide flouncy skirt like a bird's wings walks into the shade of the dirt road with my little brother on her hip, his face gleaming with Vaseline, his chest doused with powder.
In a nap sack or navy parka, I don't think on grandmomma's bed. One night, and two, then I forget. School maybe, a kiss behind the ear.
My sister (just between us I call Lisa Horton because on TV her husband is a doctor) is there sometimes with a crook in her neck or a runny nose, a sore that won't heal. Sometimes she is not. I sleep. And daddy goes out.
And on the evening granddaddy say the President was shot, my aunt, half-wheezing of asthma, come home from the restaurant where she work saying she tired of going outside to use the colored bathroom. And Granddaddy, after putting a big leaf of cabbage and vinegar on my leg, call us in a circle and say the first of his nightly prayers.
Spring come fishing all the same with hay fever and measles, worms making a house in the tummy. Granddaddy prayed up, darkly clean, and healthy as an ox. Tattered dungarees whose suspenders wouldn't snap, a straw hat so thin and ailing of winter the wind take it and I don't know if I should run for it. Sometimes I run for it. Sometimes I stand and watch.
When I ails, which is kind of a lot, I sometimes don't know um ailing. You have a fever, Grandmother say. I dream strange things. And I write things I can't read. I read things I can't write. I search for answers in dark faces that smile and disappear down dirt roads, in the back room where daddy was born without a doctor, he say. So you got it good, he finally say something. But I don't wanna go, grandmamma. Why is Festus going to the saloon to talk to Miss Kitty? Why is Prince Valiant looking so sad? The aunts oblige me with answers, but they also ignore me. My sister has something worse, I just a drivel. The perch go deep, Granddaddy say.
Shoes stuck in mud, sometimes-something-someone (a boy) look-back. Wrinkled mouth and twisted gill. Most of the time the boy say nothing. The wind, poor fisherman, be easier to touch than lips, and if lips come close to skin, they sour with winter, in spring too pooched inside a cap or coat or sucked down into the opening of a can.
(But the boy still be looking, his eye half-open. You are hallucinating, she says to the fish, his hair full and bushy, his eye bulgy-swollen. In a corner Grandpa can't see, where the cattails is straight and broken, someone, a fish, adds a couple of drops of water or bubbles to the pond, or mostly the bubbles drop themselves or whispering of other winds they drop where I think I want something, swim in the dark waters I am afraid of. Sometimes in a small canoe or boat alone I hack out a cough or dry a sore. Sometimes I let them run.)
When I am better, Grandma, whose hair is straight and shiny as an Indian's and now silver, has to get behind daddy to make him take me to the doctor. He too mad with yo' mamma to drive ober there, daddy's sister nip, nursing a bowl of corn soup with white onions. We always go to Dr. Stewart, Grandma say from green eyes floating a little like mine, one nearly hidden. She is knitting a wide colorful blanket that tries to warm her legs, but the legs are chunky and tight with her new rubber garters.
Rubbed down with Vaseline, sores scab over. A few days I guess even the bullies is gay, or half mindless with some unknown brush of fever imagine we are happy. Riding blind-like beside the snaky dirt curve of the swamp in Indian Neck, an old path twists and finds its way over somewhat shameless hills and woods. Ears plucked red, we look down disappearing trails sprung off to lands we don't know existed--history lost and poking out its head and not asking for another chance. Along beaten paths and cut up fields that to less frequent travelers seem asleep or wasted away or rather sick with the last of February, on we go before large faraway houses with long columned porches set in the shade of several old locusts that allow dead limbs to remain standing. We keep going, and I keep my thoughts to myself. And when I think less, a few limbs bloom in lusty pale, and we shine through our achy teeth.
There ain't no dentist this side of Richmond except Granddaddy, charming us he do with a piece of grandmomma's cotton. There is, however, the white doctor. But most of us ignore him, unless the black one, also called colored (who's really West Indian) won't see us because he don't know what we have. A touch of the whooping cough or a pink rash or trotsies, better send him to Dr. Chinn, he moans without looking. And if he ain't in, go over the Mattaponi River to Aylet. Laid out half springy and half dead somewhere over the bridge, is Aylett, I kinda think, then Richmond, the closest city and the former capital of the Confederacy (Ms. Amy says), is a far hollow away. In Tappahannock, he say kind of sour, you know there is no hospital (even though I know I was the first in the family, Grandpa told me, in the community born in the city in the Egyptian Building--everybody else on country backroom beds by midwifes of various hues, though never white).
Someone had said what everybody believed--if you were not white, you were black. I was afraid of things people said and afraid of whatever I had, and the doctor in Tappahannock and also Dr. Chinn. Maybe because everyone at the breakfast table suddenly grew quiet when Daddy said, Lord, we gotta take him to the white doctor in Aylet. But Dr. Stewart, the black Indian doctor, was no more chipper than any of the others--another across the river, where they say my first aunt died after having a baby. He was friendly but his mouth crossed like a harness and he didn't want boys to see it. Just like that time I went to him when I caught my thing in my zipper, and I didn't want him to see it. I balled and yelled and then went dead. Oh, except Unc' Ben's wife, who know about babies and everything. She really white but she also colored.
A large frame man with glasses and a patch of a moustache, he is browner than me and very mousey and near the woods, looks at me like one of us is a pregnant woman plucking off the last feather of a pigeon lost somewhere without letters. And he still remembers my peter. Give him some turpentine with sugar, he finally say, feeling my narrow Adam's apple which has grown cold and shriveled.
Somehow or another despite my feverish fear that Daddy would card me off in a huff and I would never see my mom again, I would become a beavered wolf or tiny baby or legless girl lying in Grandma's bed. And I would remember gray-like running a small colorless savage from Dr. Stewart's office to get in the car with mama when a new Skylark came out of nowhere. It screamed like a bird and knocked the wind out of me. Long blonde locks tumbled crunchy like cereal from under a silk scarf, said almost ignoring me and grabbing for my mother, who then though in a strange car was still most startlingly beautiful. Lord, Miss Polly, I was rushing off to Dr. Chinn's when your boy came rushing without a sound like the devil out of nowhere.
About the Author
Educated at Livingstone College, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of Virginia, Larry D. Giles has taught English and writing at his high school alma mater in Essex County and for the city of Richmond. While at Richmond, he received two writing fellowships, teacher of the year, the prestigious REB Award for Teaching Excellence, and an educational leadership fellowship. A Danforth nominee, he is co-writer of Journey Home, with playwright Jacqui Singleton. His writing often centers on family, rural Virginia, and personal resilience and strength, often with sometimes mystical multicultural interweavings. Mr. Giles’ work appears at Highlandparkpoetry.org, Better than Starbucks, and in the River City Poets Anthology, 2018. His first book Flesh and Blood: Collected Poems of Mind, Body, and Spirit is currently in publication.