by W.A. Smith
Emerson Johnson joined up soon after FDR finished his Day of Infamy declaration to Congress. Emerson was twenty-five, putting the final touches on his internship. He and Grace had not yet celebrated their first anniversary when he left. But Grace said later they both knew he would be coming back.
“So much we hadn’t done,” she explained.
When the Japanese surprised most of the hemisphere that Sunday in December, Grace was watching a football game with friends. Emerson loved to play, throwing and catching equally well, but he couldn’t be there. He was assisting his father in a delivery, which, as it turned out, was not one of the uncomplicated ones we’re used to hearing about. Emerson’s father, Charley, received a phone call from a man who said he was not the husband, “just a good friend.” The man was nervous. He spoke in a whisper that sounded like cold wind blowing through pine, telling Emerson’s father the woman was in awful pain, the baby was coming any minute. “She could die,” the man said. Emerson and his father grabbed their black bags and drove to a tenement house on Spring Street.
The woman was lying on a pale cloth mat in the front room. The man was bent over her. There was a sofa, a little wooden table, and two straight-backed chairs. The man’s huge hands clenched and opened in dull, broken movements; his eyes stared down at her as if she were at the bottom of a canyon. Emerson’s father whispered, “If he’s not the husband, there isn’t one.”
The man told them she had slipped down a flight of stairs two days before. “Should’ve been there to catch her,” he mumbled. The elder doctor looked at his son and said they must get her to the hospital quickly, this was not going to be so easy. Emerson bent down to her, running his fingers through her damp hair, telling her to relax as much as she could. “Have you chosen a name?” he asked.
Each breath was a moan, but she never cried out. Her eyes were open, tracing the comfortable, imperfect line that joined the wall and ceiling. In a clear disciplined voice she said, “Been tryin’ to have a baby, seems all my life. Figures I’d stop thinking ’bout it so much and then it’d happen.”
She closed her eyes. “Some doctor told me I couldn’t have one,” turning her face toward the three men. “Said I weren’t fertile.” She looked at Emerson who still had his fingers moving through her hair. “What you say now?” she asked.
Emerson’s father shook his head, pressing his hand against the woman’s bloated abdomen. The baby wanted to come in an unorthodox position, its head was wrong.
“I didn’t know she was like this,” said the man, hands still working the dark air near his pockets. “Not ’til a couple weeks ago. Been out of town.” He lifted his eyes from the woman and glanced confidentially at the two doctors. He carried his own hoarse whisper like a cross, sounding as if he wanted to offer his life story right then. “Complete surprise,” he said and fell silent.
At Roper Hospital they did a cesarean, attempting to free the child, but he was stillborn. The woman was too weak to withstand the sight of her lost son; she was fifty-two and undernourished. She died on the table with Emerson’s left hand on her porcelain forehead. The man who was not her husband had already left the hospital when the two doctors emerged from the delivery room. Their hands dangled uselessly at their sides.
. . .
Shortly afterward Emerson left for basic training. In two months he was overseas. There was never any question about going. He promised Grace he would be back. “Honor and luck will triumph,” he said, smiling, then grave: “You and I have so much more to do.” He told her he loved her as life’s twin. Emerson expected to be a poet in those days.
He was a doctor in his twenties with the marksman’s dream painted on his thin helmet. Three and a half years, cutting and tying off, speaking calmly as he’d been taught. I’m learning this new surgery on my knees, he wrote…bending over the faces’ face, needing more hands and tools, more light.
In Belgium, quite by accident, he ran into an old friend from Charleston. He and Cambridge Walker had known each other since before they were born, and Emerson thought the chance reunion was some sort of miracle. They spent an afternoon together. We were meant to see each other over here, he wrote to Grace. Each of us was to know the other was surviving.
Emerson and Cambridge had their picture taken standing in a field under the only tree in sight. The light behind them clings like ice to the branches. The expression on their faces makes it seem for the moment there is no war near that place; they might be on a weekend camping trip. Their friendship retouches the photograph. They have their arms around each other’s shoulders, relaxed, and Emerson is wearing the vest Grace sent to keep him warm. Bridge looks as though he has a good joke to tell, soon as the shutter clicks.
. . .
Twenty-two years later, Emerson’s father, Big Charley, bought a mahogany box with brass handles on the sides and a drawer beneath. He said it looked to him like a music box that could play a symphony. He polished it. Emerson’s mother lined it with material from a pair of Army cavalry pants Big Charley had worn in 1917, during The Great War. In the box they arranged the medals awarded to their son for his part in World War II, “The second one to end ’em all,” as Emerson’s mother put it.
When the lid of the box was raised, three black cases with gold lettering announced the Silver Star and the two Bronze Stars. Inside the bottom drawer two Purple Hearts and a rainbow of campaign ribbons lay pinned to the olive lining, glistening as if sunlit.
Emerson’s parents presented the gift to him on his forty-fifth birthday. When he unwrapped the box and glimpsed its contents he was overcome for a moment, as if he were standing again in some flame-hardened field on the other side of the world. This was the first time Emerson’s son, Charley, understood that if he watched closely enough he could see his father’s memory working, flashing recorded light there in his dark brown eyes.
Charley once happened upon his mother as she stood in the den, her back to the door, looking down at the mahogany box. Grace ran her hand lightly across the top of it. Charley could tell his mother thought she was alone in the room. She whispered to herself with sad affection. “Above and beyond the call of duty,” she said.
The boy looked in the box and smelled the ancient green of his grandfather’s cavalry pants. He saw the Purple Hearts, George Washington’s cameo face, and he thought of the horseshoe-shaped scar on his father’s skull.
When Emerson was still bald from the operation, he traced the scar with an index finger and told his son a good friend, and great surgeon, had sewn that horseshoe for luck.
“Frank went in there to take a look,” he said. “Nothing but some scar tissue.” Emerson patted his shiny head and pulled on the purple fright wig friends had given him as a joke. He screwed up his face and rolled his eyes at Charley, making the boy laugh. “Now,” he said in a clown’s bitten voice, “we wait and see. Any way you look at it, Son, I’m better off than I was.”
In Czechoslovakia, 1944, a sniper’s bullet found the right side of Emerson’s head as he was searching for a pulse along the neck of a young corporal. The blast threw both men into a foxhole. The corporal survived, and Emerson went on to write a handful of poems during his convalescence. One or two years later a certain numbness began to come and go on his left side, in the leg and hand. It drifted in and out. Emerson conjectured there might be a slight circulatory deficiency, but he kept it to himself. He was young and alive. He was home.
. . .
One humid Sunday in 1964, while he was mowing the largest field near the house, his left leg went to sleep on the job. It was not just dozing. It didn’t report the time off and apparently gave no consideration to the consequences of its inaction. Emerson had bought one of those large rideable lawnmowers equipped with a seat that unhooked from the machine if the human would rather walk. The doctor elected to ride because the fields were expansive and the numbness sometimes made it unpredictable to negotiate uneven ground. He cherished working the land when he had the time off.
He directed the lawnmower in wide, surgical rectangles, thinking about the elegance of an open field. Executing a turn at one end, he hit a hole and the jolt knocked his left foot off the safety bar, but he didn’t feel it dislodged. His sleeping limb, numb from the thigh to the toes, trailed in a dream. Before Emerson could do anything the foot was wrenched back and the wheel of the buggy contraption ran over it, jerking him clean out of his seat. Falling, he felt tissue separating from bone, heard ligaments snapping. He called out in pain, but Charley, who happened to be playing with his pellet rifle behind the house, figured the noise came from near the pond; most likely one of those bitchy geese, he thought?then recognizing his father’s voice hidden in the stretched, anxious sound and running toward it.
Charley saw Emerson on the ground with his head on one edge of deep green and the rest of him curled into a tight fetal position on the freshly mown strip of field. The scent of cut grass thickened the air around him. The lawnmower had stopped a few feet ahead, idling, waiting for Emerson to get back on. He clutched his left leg at the knee, and was very quiet, as if any sound greater than a whisper might further injure him. Charley was frightened seeing him like that?so unlike a father.
Emerson’s jaw looked as though it had been wired shut. He squeezed the words out: “The safety bar works only while you’re on it,” he said.
All the cartilage in his knee was severed. He was in the Veterans’ Hospital off and on for a year. Once on a weekend home he got up to change the channel on the TV, lost his balance and fell. A week later the doctors discovered a hairline fracture of the left hip. Emerson said, “Been telling you guys for a week something was broken.” He looked at the white coats around his bed, gazed at the gray ceiling. From then on his left foot was three sizes larger than its mate, forever swollen, and his cane accompanied him everywhere.
. . .
The first seizure had come earlier, sneaking up one afternoon in October, 1950. It only hinted at the possible voltages. Emerson was thirty-five years old, a practicing neurologist with a four-year-old daughter named Ellen. Grace was six months pregnant. If she had a son, they’d decided to name him after Emerson’s father.
Emerson was offered a shoeshine as he walked past Frampton’s barbershop on Broad Street. He accepted and took a seat. Pigeons and a few stray sea gulls laced the clear sky. The doctor whistled an old Army tune. His right shoe, dappled with spit, was being buffed to a blaze by a small, quick black boy who was eight years old. Right off the boy told Emerson he was eight.
“Maybe I young, but I can shine dem shoe.”
“Hey,” said Emerson, “don’t be hurryin’ to get older.” He reached over with his right hand and felt along his numb left leg. “You’ll be there before you know it,” he told the boy.
His left leg shivered, independent of his upper body. His eyes blinked and something dark, blue, squeezed his left eye shut. His right eye closed then too, completing the darkness, and his head laid itself back so that he faced the sky. There was a voice before the face floated up below him.
“What you say now?” she asked him.
A voice the color of birch trees, her face the same. Watching the woman’s averted blue eyes, Emerson could tell she saw her son, suspended above her in Big Charley’s hands, dead before he’d tasted a minute of light. The cord stretched between them, and the young doctor felt he might reach out and grasp it.
A short bolt of electricity knocked his left foot off the brown shine box the boy had set it on. “What you say now?” Emerson repeated with his eyes still closed.
“I say keep dat foot up here an’ it’ll git what de other got,” the boy said. He was irritated. “White folks!” he muttered, knowing this dreaming old man wouldn’t hear him. He lifted Emerson’s foot back on to the shine box.
Doctor Johnson sat quietly. Finally he opened his tired eyes and noticed several jagged clouds had crept into the sky. He wondered what had just happened to him, and he knew.