Mary Forbes had been in mild, aggravating is-it-time-yet-? labor for three days, two days after the due date the doctor had given her. She was huge and hot. For three weeks or so she had felt tightening in her abdomen that came and went. She had never been pregnant before and her body had grown unfamiliar. At moments she felt strong. These moments flattered her; she was doing it. At other times she felt insecure, reasons for panic swarmed her. Occasionally she burst into helpless giggles. She walked through their orchards to the neighboring orchard, about half a mile away, to ask Tomomi Watanabe who had had three children, two now old enough to work on their farm during the harvest. When she had been feeling sick in the morning, Tomomi had told her to eat a small helping of rice wrapped in seaweed and sent her home with a tub of steamed rice and a packet of dry seaweed. It had helpt. Today she carried a can of milk, which she would trade there for eggs. Mary remembered that Tomomi had had another baby who had died a few days after birth. She did not want to think about that and turned her mind to the state of the irrigation ditches in the orchard. Those on the Watanabi side looked more precisely cared for, but she did not want to criticize her husband even in her mind and made herself feel certain that theirs worked just as well. The Watanabis’s yard was like theirs: a vegetable garden, a flower garden, no barn because they did not keep cows, a chicken house with a fenced in area where the chickens were scratching. Tomomi asked her what the contractions felt like, and Mary told her they felt like tightening in her stomach. Tomomi asked her if her back hurt and she said no, a little ashamed. She asked if the contractions were like cramps. Mary said she was not sure. Tomomi continued to question, leaning in to her in a friendly but business-like way. Were they close together, were they were evenly spaced, if were they increasing, and how long they lasted. When Mary answered no, Tomomi grinned and said it was just her body warming up.
She stept close to Mary and felt her bump, cupping her hand blow her navel. Mary began giggling. Tomomi looked at her quizzically.
"I can't help it. Do you know Buster Keaton's Cops?
Tomomi looked blank.
Between giggles and tears Mary tried to explain, "It's his movie. He's running from a big cop. He sees a steamer trunk standing open on the street, jumps down into it and pulls the lid over him from inside. But the cop has spotted him and snaps the lid shut, locks it, and tries to pick it up. But the trunk is bottomless.” She paused, giggling too hard too speak. "The cop lifts up the empty frame. Buster looks up at him from his crouch. He's so embarrassed and then scampers away. Ever since I got big I can't help think of the scene and laughing.
"When did you lighten?” Tomomi asked.
Mary was embarrassed: "The other day, I think. I have to use the outhouse more. Does that mean it’s coming soon?"
"Hard to tell," she said
She sent Mary home with a new tub of cooked rice and a packet of dry seaweed. After Mary put the milk in the ice chest, she cleaned the house and put things away. She had cleaned house the day before and things were soon spick and span. She went out to the turkey house and cleaned under their roosts and gave them new straw. Her husband came and commented almost confused that she had cleaned everything for three days. He was solicitous of her as if she were a fragile object. She felt tenderly toward him, but all she said was that she said she had to make things spick and span.
The next day she went out and began cleaning the irrigation ditches, hollowing out weeds with a rake and rebuilding the edges with a shovel where they had slipped away.
Contractions were coming more often now. They were now like menstrual cramps. They moved in a slow wave from the middle of her stomach down to her pelvis. When they came on she leaned forward with her hands against a tree and her back began to hurt all the time. She could relax between contractions but her back always hurt. She went and found her husband who carried a pocket watch and asked him to time contractions. They were coming every five or six minutes. He suggested they drive their Model A pickup into town and see the doctor. They had a party line and she phoned her sister who lived in town to meet them at the doctor's office so she could ride back with them if it seems warranted.
The doctor's office was upstairs from a dry goods store on Santa Clara Street. Her husband put his hand to her back as she climbed the stairs. She found her sister in the waiting room with a small suitcase. "I was hoping it would be today," her sister said. She was wearing a bright flowered dress and high heels. She came into the examining room with Mary, but the doctor gestured her out, to Mary's relief. He asked Mary politely to get into the exam chair and fitted her ankles in the stirrups. Eagerness masked her humiliation. He reached into her vagina and said she was dilated four centimeters. She should go back home and phone him when her contractions were stronger and more frequent.
Later that evening the doctor was smoking on the Forbes’ porch. It was a gentle late spring evening. The sun had set behind the mountains toward the sea, but the western, cloudless sky remained a luminous blue grey while stars had begun to prick out in the black over the hills to the east. From the second floor window above the porch a single bulb added a warmer color. The doctor could hear the bubbly murmur of turkeys roosting in their house to the left and smell the warm green of manure from the barn to his right. His Packard shone in the yard in front of him and beyond it a prune orchard was showing blossoms.
Robert Forbes came up to the porch. He had been milking down in the barn. He was a young man of middle height, his face half obscure in the semi darkness. He was wearing overalls and a blue shirt. He shook the doctor's hand without speaking, put down a milk can, and asked, "Will they be all right?"
"She'll be fine, "the doctor replied in a tone that suggested achievement.
"Is this the way things usually go?” Robert asked.
"It's completely normal."
"I think she's hurting a good deal," her husband said.
"We'll take care of that pretty soon," the doctor said.
"Can I go in?” Forbes asked.
The doctor shook his head. "Strictly forbidden," he said. "You'll get to see your child pretty soon."
Forbes picked up the milk can and carried it into the house, but soon reemerged.
"Say," he said, "Do you think Shepard can beat Collins?"
"I think Collins is safe. What do you think?" the doctor replied in a way that suggested he thought the farmer's opinion was of special interest. They discussed the upcoming senatorial election for a few minutes. The conversation led to the anti-Japanese positions of some politicians. "Senator Shortridge said the children of Japs will be loyal to their fatherland..." Robert Forbes said neutrally as if testing the waters. "I think they're OK," the doctor said.
Robert Forbes grunted as if he had gotten an answer, then carried his empty milk can back towards the barn.
A few minutes later, Tomomi Watanabi opened the screen door, stept onto the porch, and stood uncertainly in the semi darkness. The doctor was wearing high-waisted pinstripe slacks with wide cuffs, and a matching jacket with narrow, padded shoulders, a narrow dark blue tie, and a fedora. His clothes made him look taller than he was. Tomomi stood close to him as if she were on tiptoe, although she wasn't. She was heavy set and wore a shapeless print cotton dress, the print hard to make out in the fading light. A stifled moan disturbed the night.
He turned to Tomomi said, "Put on some water," in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way, although it was an order. She smiled cheerfully, nodded as if she had shared the order and went back inside. He heard the sound of the kitchen pump. When he heard another moan, the doctor tossed his cigarette into the night. Its fluttering arc reminded him of fireflies. He had grown up in New Jersey where summer nights had been charismatic with their flashing. He wondered when he would ever see them again. He picked up his black bag from the floor and entered the house through the screen door.
Tomomi Watanabi was in the kitchen heating water on a hibachi she had carried with charcoal from her farm. The doctor looked at her with agreeable surprise and said, "You must have experience with births."
"Wood burning stoves are not handy for a little water," Tomomi stated.
He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. "You must be a good friend of the Forbes," he said, mixing hot and cold water in a kitchen bowl and lathering his hands.
She stood up and stept closer to him and said, "I'm glad you understand that."
"Some time I'd like to hear about how you know them?’ toweling his hands dry.
"I live on the nearest farm," she answered.
He smiled at her as if that were a pleasing arrangement, then turned to leave. She imagined the conversation she might have with him someday.
To the left of the little entrance hall was the kitchen, to the right a work room with the churn for separating cream, ahead on the left an open doorway allowed a view of the main room where the wood stove smoldered, and in the center a narrow stairway, which the doctor ascended.
The small bedroom had a single bed, a single chair, and a night table. The light bulb hung from the ceiling under a paper shade. A corner room, it had two small windows.
The bed was rumpled, but Mary Forbes was on all fours in nightwear on the floor beside it. Her sister was kneeling beside her pressing her lower back. The woman in labor was breathing hard but smoothly now. "Will someone help me?” Mary asked, not her sister, but the universe.
The doctor entered the room without knocking. He gestured conspiratorially to Mary's sister to get her up on the bed. Margaret half lifted, half forced her up. The doctor gestured for her to mound pillows so she could half sit up. Another contraction came and she paused, then relaxed, and heaved her sister into place. The doctor reached into her vagina and nodded conspiratorially. He took a forceps wrapped in a cloth from his bag, unwrapped it, spread the cloth on the table, and lay the forceps ready.
"Tell that woman to bring up more hot water," he instructed the sister, who quickly went to the top of the stairs, called down to Tomomi, and got a response. He took a handkerchief from a small bag within his bag and daubed it with chloroform from a bottle. When a contraction began he leaned over and touched it to her nose, while her sister held her hand. Mary thanked him. He repeated the process. Tomomi had come upstairs, put a bowl of hot water on the table, and retreated unnoticed into the dark of the hall where she watched through the doorway. Once Mary complained that the chloroform no longer relieved her, but sometimes she fell asleep between her pains. In about an hour the baby's head was resting on her perineum.
"Give a hard push," the doctor said, "and we'll do it."
"I can't," said Mary in a muffled voice.
The doctor held back the chloroform three cycles. Then said, again, "Give a hard push," and the baby came out. Mary seemed only half awake, and when the doctor held the baby to her did not immediately respond. The doctor waited for the pulse to disappear from the umbilical cord, cut it and again offered the baby, now crying, to Mary, who looked startled and took it to her. He looked fondly at her and asked her sister to tell Forbes he had a son and could come up.
Dirk van Nouhuys has a BA from Stanford in writing and an MA from Columbia in contemporary literature. He writes novels, short stories, experimental forms, and occasionally verse. He publishes regularly in literary and other magazines to a total of about 75 items. You can learn more at www.wandd.com.