Jax saw Alma’s head resting on her arm, flat on the cool surface of her desk. Her hair covered her face and spilled over the edge like a soft black waterfall. She normally came to school with a thick multi-strand plait that fascinated him, especially as he always sat behind her. He wondered if she was tired, or having a bad day. He dropped his three-ring binder flat on his desk and swung himself into his seat.
He meant the sound to rouse Alma, but she didn’t take his bait. She barely shifted, turning her head from one side to the other. He’d wanted to talk, but she didn’t seem interested.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, in a hard tone to cover the soft feelings he carried for her.
Again, she barely moved, but he heard her mumble, “I don’t feel good.”
Jax just sat. He wasn’t sure what to do with his concern. When their teacher began to address the class, he focused up front trying to ignore the limp body in front of him.
“Good morning class,” their teacher said.
“Good morning Mrs. Shelby,” they responded, more like nursery school than junior high. Jax noted that Alma didn’t lift her head for the entire period of English.
Alma was at her usual lunch table. He noted that she sat upright, but that her big brown eyes looked dull and small. Again, before the end of school, he glimpsed her in the nurses’ office as he passed its door on his way to the bus. Her normally animated brown face was pale and drawn.
At home, he began a three-page essay on his favorite subject, bugs. His teacher told him to “narrow the scope” to one kind of bug, so he chose bees. Alma’s father, a professional bee keeper, lent bees out to small farms in the area, and Jax hoped Alma would be feeling better soon, so he could invite himself over to work on the essay. It had been a few weeks since he’d visited her house.
He had a rough outline going when his older brother, John, returned from high school football practice.
“Food,” said John in his Neanderthal impersonation as he stormed the kitchen. He swung the refrigerator door wide but stared into empty shelves before slamming it in anger. “Doesn’t anyone go to the grocery store anymore?”
“Make yourself a PBJ,” offered Jax. John shot him an angry look and climbed the stairs of their upscale contemporary, slamming the door to his room. Jax hated slammed doors. They echoed off the travertine floors and the wall of glass that overlooked gray lines of breaking waves. In a minute, loud angry rap music exploded through the floor. It was a direct insult, since Jax knew his brother’s expensive headphones were sitting on his bed.
Jax looked out at the seascape before him, considering their mother’s promise that she would be back in a few days. But, that had been almost a week ago. He wandered into the kitchen to prepare his own PBJ when he heard the garage door opener squeal and strain, like a poorly trained trumpeter heralding their father’s return. His chest tightened as he heard a terrible scrapping-crunching noise in the garage. It stopped abruptly, and Jax, now panicked, ran for the stairs.
He banged his fist on John’s door as he past, and shut his before diving onto his bed. It had become a way of communicating their father’s return. John’s music stopped. Since their mother was missing-in-action, their father had taken advantage, and his drunken entrances had increased as the weeks multiplied. He returned home unpredictable, and more often than not, vicious.
Doctor Jenkins inspected the damage. The passenger side mirror had been shirred off and the white paint from the garage door frame streaked the entire length of his black Beamer. He swore and kicked the bumper. A small but noticeable dent appeared as pain radiated from his foot up his spine. He could hear his wife accusing him of feeling no pain, and he strongly contradicted her statement based on the intense sensation in his foot. He swore again, wishing she was there to receive his full fury. This catastrophe was her fault, as was everything that weighed on him.
As he maneuvered himself and his briefcase through the kitchen door, he had to admit he’d overdone it. He slapped the closer out of habit. The motor screeched as the panel lowered. Doctor Jenkins was already inside the kitchen when the garage door touched his moonroof and automatically rose, leaving the evidence on view for the neighborhood to see.
Jax wished he’d brought his laptop upstairs. His notebook and his homework assignments were still spread across the dining room table, and he wouldn’t consider a rescue mission until much later, after his father had passed out. Neither he nor John could tolerate the unrelenting wrath that surrounded the drinking. Even later on, it would be risky, since the first floor was one open space, and his father sometimes only appeared asleep, while actually staring at the moonlit surf.
From Jax’s bedroom, the less scenic front yard faced a cul de sac, where similar homes ringed a circle of flowering shrubs. There seemed to be a parade of dog walkers and nannies pushing strollers as the sun gently set into the sea. He noted glances directed at their garage, which was hidden from his vantage point. He didn’t know why they seemed so interested.
He had a thought. He could call Alma. He could tell her he left his assignments at school. And ask about the bees. He would have to fake his questions since he hadn’t gotten far enough in the assignment to know what he needed. But his cell was downstairs.
The only landline was in his parents’ bedroom. That entailed a less risky mission as he was certain his father wouldn’t come upstairs until morning. He rarely did. He quietly opened his bedroom door and sprinted down the hall to the master bedroom. He scrambled over the king-sized bed, and landed by the nightstand. He pulled the phone to the floor and dialed her number.
He had known Alma for three grades. Each year he found her more interesting than the one before. But this interest was his deep secret. He couldn’t tell anyone. His friends would tease him, and worse, they would tease her. So, he tried to cover by being gruff, and sometimes mean at school. But he knew she liked to talk on the phone. When he called her, she was always nice, and they could sometimes keep the conversation going until her mother called her for a chore, or reminded them about the hour.
“May I speak to Alma?” he asked when her mother picked up the phone. Alma didn’t have her own cell.
“Sorry Jax, she is sleeping,” said Alma’s mother. Jax remembered the nurse’s office and her not feeling well.
“She ok?” he asked. “It isn’t even late.”
“She’s coming home a little sick. Fever and tummy-ache. Nothing much but she is home tomorrow. I tell to her you called.”
Without thinking he said, “Please tell her to feel better.” He cringed at this clear suggestion that he cared about her, so he quickly hung up and sprinted back over the bed, down the hall, and into his room.
It was nearly eleven when he snuck downstairs for a sandwich and his laptop.
Doctor Jenkins awoke on his living room floor, staring into the fireplace. He pulled himself up and turned off the cell phone alarm that had been buzzing for some time. The Johnny Walker bottle lay on the hearth. The full regret of his drinking swelled painfully between his temples. He forced himself to the shower and into a fresh suit and tie.
He drank black coffee before remembering the car. The garage door was still open, the car, half on the driveway, was tight against the frame. He remembered the damage, the source of his sore foot, and more regret filled his knotty insides. After further scrapings and intensive maneuverings, he straightened the car inside its bay. Then he found his wife’s keys and took her over-sized SUV to the hospital.
On the way, feeling wretched and angry, he remembered his boys. Had he seen them before he passed out? He couldn’t remember. He dismissed his guilt, thinking they were old enough to get themselves fed and off to school. No one had coddled him when he was their age. Anger towards their mother’s abandonment stirred inside him. He didn’t know a mother could do such a thing. Not his wife. Not like this. Not with that asshole, Barry.
He stopped in the coffee shop behind the visitors’ entrance and ordered a double-shot latté. He tried to smile at the new cashier, but it felt like too much effort, so he nodded instead and headed for the surgeon’s locker room, sipping foam as he walked.
Eleanor, the head surgical nurse, passed him in the hall. “Did you see the call for an emergency consult in pediatrics?” she asked.
He slugged the latté quickly, grateful that it wasn’t scalding. “I’m on my way,” said Dr. Jenkins as he about-faced.
“Hang on, Jenk, you need these,” she said, pulling a tiny box of breath mints out of her pocket. She shook them in front of him. He took a handful. Her eyes showed her disapproval but he was already looking away. It wasn’t his breath, it came from his skin, and others were bound to notice. He would pass this patient on if he could. This wasn’t a good day for anything complicated. On the other hand, if it was simple, a surgery could distract him from his tiresome self-loathing.
John and Jax sat at the kitchen island, their cereal bowls full of dry cornflakes. The milk had soured. The pale sky stretched far out to sea where birds dove through the waves. Beach combers came into view, far beyond swaying grasses.
“You hear anything from Mom?” Jax asked.
“Nope. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, bro. I doubt she’s coming back. Would you?” asked John.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t she have to get a divorce or something?” He wanted to ask about their futures, but realized John was headed to college in six months. He had already mentally moved out. Jax was the one who would have to navigate the disaster of their disintegrated family. He started to think about his mother and the chances she would come back for him. By now, he was certain she had also mentally moved out. He lost track of time, wandering through the dead-ends of what came next as he walked to his bus stop.
Alma’s desk was empty when he sat down in Mrs. Shelby’s class. He hoped she would feel better in time for his important bee questions. He plodded through his day, took a swing at Joey Speigle because he called him a wuss at lunch, and endured a lecture from Mr. Morehouse for leaving his math homework on the dining room table. After school, he snuck out of the bus line and slipped around the corner to avoid going back to his house. He started walking north on Grand before he realized he was headed to Alma’s.
She lived about two miles down the main street out of town. He knew it wouldn’t take long, as he had walked her home several times before. He liked her neighborhood. It felt like everyone knew each other there. A variety of toys scattered the lawns, the houses were close together, without fancy landscaping. A few gardens had flowers bordering the homes, but many had old cars in the driveway, or even on blocks in front. Laundry hung on lines. Dogs barked behind chain-link fences. The windows were all small, like the rooms inside. Some of the houses appeared much too small to contain all the children. But neighbors talked and children laughed.
Alma’s house was tiny, on a long narrow lot, cubes of bees buzzed in her back yard under scrubby trees. Her father was usually tending to the honey they produced when he wasn’t delivering.
Alma had no siblings to share a room with. She slept on a twin mattress on her floor. Her room was decorated with her own drawings and paintings and a few posters with Spanish writing on them. Jax was trying to learn their language both at school and whenever they talked, but he struggled and did poorly in class. Alma laughed at him. She reminded him that she had learned his language and it was much more complicated. Alma didn’t have the slightest accent, unlike her parents. But Jax had no problem understanding them.
When he knocked on her door, he waited a long time for an answer. Finally, it opened and a tiny woman whom he had met before peered out. It was Alma’s abuela. She lived a few houses away with uncles and cousins, and didn’t speak English.
“Lo siento, Alma no está en casa,” she said through a small opening. “Ella está en el hospital.”
Jax blinked, translating the obvious words, putting it together slowly. “Hospital? What’s wrong?” he asked, and then managed, “Que pasó?”
The old woman began explaining rapidly. Jax listened carefully but nothing she said helped. She repeated everything a second time and he heard “Apéndice, emergencia.” He nodded.
“Gracias. Iré a verla,” he said, then embarrassed, he repeated, “Gracias.” He didn’t run, but walked quickly toward the familiar hospital, another mile away, where he had practically grown-up. His father would still be working. He knew many of the nurses and the doctors. They would be nice to him and could tell him how Alma was doing. He could probably get a good meal there as well. As a surgeon’s son, he knew that an appendectomy was an easy procedure. His father had explained how simple it was, and he wished he could have communicated that to Alma’s abuela.
He entered through the Emergency doors because he knew his way around. He snuck passed the receiving desk, followed a nurse through the double doors, and took a short-cut through Radiation to the elevator that took him up to the surgical floor. He checked the first waiting room for Alma’s parents, then the second room, where he found them wedged into a corner like frightened pups. Their eyes widened and their faces lit up when they saw Jax.
“I heard you might be here. I came to visit my father,” he lied. “How’s Alma doing?”
“She has surgery for much time,” said Alma’s mother.
“Cirugía de emergencia,” his father said, looking tearful.
“Appendicitis?” asked Jax.
“Si.” Alma’s father motioned with his hands like an explosion.
“Ruptured?” asked Jax, remembering the terminology he so often heard at home. His mother had been a surgical nurse before his brother was born, so his parents had shared a professional dialogue in better times.
“Si,” both Alma’s parents said. Their bodies seemed as one, their hands gripped together.
Jax promised he would get information for them and headed down the hall in search of a familiar face. As he rounded the corner, he spied a young intern he knew, about to disappear behind the off-limits surgical doors. Jax called, “Dr. Bob!”
The young man turned, smiled, waved, but didn’t slow down.
“Wait, Dr. Bob, I need to ask you a question.”
“Can’t chat Jax. I’m helping your dad, gotta run.”
“Is he in surgery?”
“Emergency acute retrocecal appendicitis.” The double doors jolted closed, nearly catching Dr. Bob’s surgical coat.
Jax felt a wave of panic rise from his ankles, through his intestines, across his face. His father was performing surgery on Alma. Immediately, he pushed back his fear by reminding himself of his father’s reputation, and years of experience. He remembered his mother, long ago, telling him what a good doctor his father was. All of these arguments did little to sway his alarm.
His brilliant father had become an alcoholic in free fall. His mother had jumped ship with a vascular surgeon named Barry, and that betrayal fueled his father’s plummeting descent. Jax and John, and their mother, knew it was only a matter of time before he hit bottom in a spectacular catastrophe. “Your gonna kill somebody”, she growled the last time she found him drunk. Those words echoed. She had threatened to leave. Their father accused her of an affair. Blame was hurled back and forth. Doors slammed, arguments escalated. After a month, she made good on her threat, promising to come back for her boys. Another month later, her promise floated, unfulfilled. Jax imagined the spectacular catastrophe now at hand.
Outside the surgery doors, he paced. He couldn’t face Alma’s parents with this news. He couldn’t tell them they had nothing to worry about. He couldn’t brag that his father was the best surgeon for any procedure. He couldn’t imagine anyone he trusted less.
He too was sinking into a spectacular catastrophe, deeper with each pass in front of the doors. He felt guilt, though he knew it wasn’t his fault his parents’ marriage had dissolved, or that his father’s drinking had exploded. He could have warned the hospital, but if they had believed him, they would have fired his father, destroying his career. And then what would he be like? Jax couldn’t imagine worse. But his inaction had resulted in Alma on the table, under his father’s unsteady hand.
The surgery doors automatically swung wide, startling Jax. There stood his father, surgical mask below his chin, scrubs covered by his loose gray coat, gloves removed. His face taut and pained, his graying hair tousled under his gray cap. He registered Jax with surprise.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Jax, caught off guard, stammered until he blurted, “Is Alma ok?”
It seemed to take his father a second to put the name in the place of the patient he had just finished. “Is she a friend? I had no idea.” Jax felt embarrassed, his secret was out. But that mattered little compared to his question. His sharp pupils drilled into his father’s bloodshot eyes, and didn’t stop drilling. Through those two holes, Jax unloaded everything into his father. Anger, fear, disillusionment, despair. Dr. Jenkins took a step back, and felt the electricity of his son’s stare as if he’d been tasered.
“Her parents are waiting. They’re worried.” Jax’s voice sounded hard, threatening, unrecognizable.
“I’m on my way to talk to them now,” said his father. “She’ll be fine in a few days, Jax.”
Jax breathed in relief. He felt his heart-rate return to a normal rhythm and the whooshing sound lowered in his ears. He started to walk back to the waiting room, behind his father, but his steps slowed, then he turned and slipped down the hall to the elevator. He left the hospital and jogged to the bus stop on the corner, wiping away tears. The bus arrived after he had kicked the concrete bench a dozen times.
John hadn’t returned from practice and the house felt lost and exposed. A storm gathered just off shore, darkening the beach as it approached. He dialed his mother’s cell phone from his kitchen. He hadn’t planned what he would say if she answered. The call went to voicemail. He had no words and hung up. A wave of rain hit the wall of windows, as if the ocean had raised itself into the wind and attacked his house with all its might. He hoped for a ten-story tsunami, imagining the wave carrying him and the house out to sea, as far as the horizon and farther.
Headlights turned into his driveway. He expected John had gotten a ride in the storm. But when he looked, he saw it was a taxi, and under the overhead light, his mother’s face shown as she handed the driver money. Then she stepped out into the downpour, covered her head with her bag, and ran for the front door. Jax fumbled with the deadbolt, and flew into her wet arms. He held her hard, even as she struggled to pull him into the house. The rain soaked their clothes through.
“Jax, are you alright?” she asked closing the door. “I’m back,” she said, untangling his arms from her middle. He couldn’t tell her the depths of his fears, or his grief for the loss of his family, but he sobbed in place of words. He desperately wanted her to fix everything. He remembered how he once thought she had that power.
“To stay?” he wept, knowing it wouldn’t be easy, but hoping it could be better.
“Back to sort things out, make some decisions. We have to talk,” she said.
Two days of talking later, Jax took the elevator to the 4th floor. He carried a cut-glass vase his mother had found, filled with pink roses she had picked out at the florist. “Alma will love these,” she told him as she formed a perfect bow with white organza around the bouquet.
He entered her room with the vase held out in front. Alma beamed. Her face was as beautiful as ever, her shiny black hair loose on her shoulders, contrasting the white hospital linens. “For me?” she asked, smiling coyly.
“Yep. Feeling better?”
“These help!” she said as he placed the vase on the rolling table that covered her lap. “It’s good to see you, Jax.”
“I hear you’ll be back at school next week.” Jax sat on the edge of her bed. He made small talk, avoiding the subject of his visit.
“You look really sad, Jax. Are you ok?” she asked after a while.
“I’m moving with my mom and brother to Portland. My dad is going to rehab. So, this is also goodbye.” She extended her hand as her smile dissolved into misery.
“Oh, Jax. No. You can’t move.” He took her hand and held it, never wanting to release it.
“We’ll stay friends,” he said quickly, wishfully. “Maybe you can visit. My mom says it’s beautiful there. My dad needs to do this, and I wouldn’t mind a little change, to tell you the truth. So, it’ll be ok….” Jax went on, reassuring Alma that their friendship wouldn’t end. The perfume of the pink roses filled the room as Alma and Jax said goodbye to each other, for hours.