WHEN LENA GETS SICK, June, her mother, doesn’t notice for two days. It’s a Kentucky January, bleak and rainy with an occasional paltry snow, and Lena’s father, Patrick, from whom June has been divorced one year, has just announced his plans
to remarry in March. Lena hears her mother talking to friends on the phone, her voice cheery and capable. “Oh, well, you know, it was bound to happen. We’re both moving on. Now, six months ago? I would have been shaken to the core.” But off the phone, June shifts around the house, teary-eyed at irrelevant things she brings to Lena’s attention: a greeting-card commercial on television, the few dead leaves still stuck to the branches of the sycamore outside the kitchen window, a lumpy ceramic turtle Lena made for Patrick in kindergarten, four years ago. To cheer up, June gives herself a home perm, and her hair turns frazzly, separating into kinky hunks with straight, brittle ends. “What do you think?” June says, holding up the back of her hair with her hand, lowering her head for Lena to see.
Lena squeezes a fistful, says it feels like the pink roof
insulation in the attic. This sends June to her bedroom for an hour.
At school Lena sits at her desk, listless and warm. The glands at the back of her throat swell to the size of peas, and when her teacher takes the class to the bathrooms, Lena pushes past the other girls to the mirrors over the sink, where under the fluorescent light she tries to see. She opens her mouth so wide that the corners crack into tiny grains of dry skin, but her throat lies in shadow. All day she probes the lumps with the back of her tongue, just to make sure they’re still sore. She likes how her voice has gone husky.
At home June circles the wedding date, March twelfth, with a red pen on the calendar by the refrigerator. Since the announcement she’s been talking to the pastor each week again, as she did just after the divorce, and has taken to repeating for Lena phrases he gives her: “You must learn to love yourself,” and “All things work together for good.”
“I want you to fully grasp that,” she tells Lena. It’s easy, she’s said on the phone, to talk to Lena as though the girl is much older. It could have something to do with how Lena’s eyes shrink behind thick glasses, how in sickness her skin has taken on a yellowish tint.
“Do you love yourself, Lena?” June asks, bringing her face so close that Lena can see every hair, every pore. This close, faces look like something else entirely, the nubbly surface of the planets Lena’s seen on science shows.
“I guess,” says Lena. She’s never thought about feeling anything at all for herself, as though she were another person, but June seems to think it’s important, which means it might be or it might not be. The problem with June, Lena once heard Patrick say, is that everything turns into a big production. A weepy federal case.
“What’s that you’re doing with your mouth?” June says.
Lena has been feeling her glands, and she bites her tongue to keep it still. On her hot forehead, June’s palm is clammy.
“You’re burning up, Lena. You’re hot as can be. Have you been feeling bad?”
“I can feel my throat,” Lena says.
“You’re sick,” June says. “Lena, you’re sick. I didn’t notice and you didn’t say. Why didn’t you say? You have to say, Lena.” June’s fingers disappear into her stiff hair. She closes her eyes and says, “I feel like a horrible mother.”
IT TURNS OUT TO BE strep throat. June takes off from work, the doctor gives Lena some medicine, and after four days and a weekend Lena returns to school. But three weeks later, she’s sick again. This happens sometimes, the doctor says. If the antibiotic doesn’t kill all the bacteria, they come back with renewed force. Lena pictures it like tug-of-war in gym. All the bacteria on one team, lunging hard to make their comeback.
June is in a pinch. She processes payments at the electric company and has run out of days she can take off. The woman who used to sit for Lena during the day now has two toddlers of her own, and won’t expose them to strep. All the mothers of Lena’s friends work, the teenaged girls are in school, and Patrick lives half a day away, over the border into Tennessee. So the pastor makes an announcement at church about a member needing a sitter, and the following Monday morning Mrs. Shefferd arrives. She is
a small, bony woman, with short hair gone completely white, and she wears a faux leopard-print coat from Sears, some thirty years old. Because it doesn’t button all the way, Mrs. Shefferd wears a jacket underneath, and several sweaters underneath the jacket.
“Lena, back to bed,” June says. She clips earrings onto her earlobes and buttons her own coat. “Mrs. Shefferd, I’ve left directions on the counter.”
“Go on, now,” says Mrs. Shefferd, her voice throaty and sure. “You don’t worry about a thing.”
Each morning when Lena wakes up, Mrs. Shefferd greets her with a glass of water. The directions say for Lena to drink a glass of water each hour, even though after the fourth glass, fourth hour, she can hear her stomach sloshing and has to pee every ten minutes. The directions also say when the antibiotic is to be taken and what Lena is
to have for lunch each day. The notes make it clear Lena should stay in bed, but Mrs. Shefferd allows her to lie on the couch in the front room and watch television. Mrs. Shefferd rocks purposefully in June’s antique rocking chair, the one Lena’s supposed to be careful of. During commercials she asks Lena questions. Not the questions Lena has come to expect from old ladies—nothing about school,
or church, or her parents. Instead, Mrs. Shefferd offers choices. “Where would you rather live,” she asks, “the beach or the mountains?” Lena says “beach” and Mrs. Shefferd reminds her of hurricanes and tidal waves. Lena says “mountains” and Mrs. Shefferd reminds her, cheerfully, that some mountains are volcanoes.
“If you could only eat foods that begin with ‘r’ or ‘c,’ Mrs. Shefferd says, “which would you pick?”
“R,” Lena says.
“No celery? No Cream of Wheat?”
“I like roast beef,” Lena says.
“Oh, yes, and rhubarb and rutabaga,” says Mrs. Shefferd. “Good thinking.” When Lena feels like being up and around, she drags projects out from the back of her closet—crocheting that her grandmother tried to teach her on the last visit, a half-finished floral paint-by-number, the oils gone slick and runny inside their tiny plastic vials. Mrs. Shefferd comments politely on the painting and fingers the crocheting—just a granny square in tricolor pink yarn that Lena can’teven remember how she made. “I don’t know how to crochet,” Mrs. Shefferd says. She holds the square to the lamp, then rubs it against her
face, eyes closed. “My mother was a different breed.” Lena, kneeling at her feet, can smell cinnamon on Mrs. Shefferd’s breath. On the television people exclaim and jump around, having won a prize for guessing something, but Lena has turned down the sound.
Lena brings out her shoebox of teeth from her father’s office of orthodontics. They aren’t real, are really just the molds he makes of patients’ teeth, to display on before-and-after shelves in the waiting room and to take to conferences. These are the leftovers, and Lena lines them up on the living room floor for Mrs. Shefferd to admire, which she does; so many sets of jaws, incisors twisted in their sockets, or pushed into unnatural rows, and plaster gums that just end, the irregular shapes of upper mouths. There are also strips of wax in little boxes, miniature rubber bands of all colors that Lena and Mrs. Shefferd string on yarn for necklaces, and a black mouthpiece Lena’s father uses to wedge open his patients’ mouths, and to pin down their tongues. ...