Soldier On, Babies
The nurses are in the banquet hall by now. Together they navigate their way through tables and chairs in a wave of white gowns and red heels. Every few minutes, a chorus of giggles ripples through the wave. They are bronzed and rouged and glowing, and they glance over their shoulders with batting eyes.
The doctors follow en masse, toppling éclairs and petits fours as they stagger forward with stethoscopes draped around their sturdy necks. Dainty biscuits, baked meringues, macaroons, and puff pastries crumble and fall to the floor in their wake.
The nurses bait the doctors onward with swaying hips and tender sighs. Those little flirts. They could lead the doctors across the entire Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area if they wanted to. And they had! The doctors and the nurses forever wander through apartment complexes and strip malls like cats and mice.
This is the only way out:
Once a week, the nurses offer one of their own to the doctors. The chosen nurse slows, and a lucky doctor sweeps her off to the Southern Methodist chapel. The doctor lifts the veil just enough to kiss the nurse's glossed lips. They walk to their sedan in a shower of white rice and bubbles. Dragging tin cans behind them, they drive to their new house in Highland Park. They introduce themselves in the darkest bedroom, as is the custom. They make babies, then birth babies. The babies cry, and they say, "Soldier on, babies."
Lost your balance at the edge of the pool?
Soldier on, babies.
Broke your face against the sliding glass door?
Soldier on, babies.
Hit your soft spot on the linoleum?
Soldier on, babies. Soldier on.
All the babies soldier on, wet, broken-faced and dented. Meanwhile, a new nurse and a new doctor join the procession. Like clockwork the nurses and the doctors soldier on.
The nurses have found their way to a parking garage, and still they walk. Look at them fumbling for their car-keys in the dim fluorescence. They look distressed and search every corner of their handbags. They pout, lips out. They've lost their keys! The doctors trip over themselves in excitement. The nurses will need a ride home! The doctors have Saabs!
Why are they still walking? Why don't they swoon, worried and desperate and alone?
This is a game they play for the doctors. The nurses stroll past the tolls and out of the parking garage smirking. On and on and on.
But wait! A nurse breaks free from the pack. Is this too a game? She ducks behind a dumpster.
As the rest carry on, the nurse lights out for the interstate. She looks back when she reaches the overpass. How could they not notice her escape? How could they be oblivious to the growing bulge under her smock? She has been using an emery board to file down the heels on her red pumps for months. She hoped to take the pressure off her bruised feet. Instead, she became the shortest head bobbing among the wave of nurses while her feet went on throbbing. For nine months the prospect of virgin birth loomed, and for nine months she never missed her cue. The morning sickness came but always passed, and when it was time to toss her hair, she sent tremors through the doctors like no nurse could.
Crouching in the armpit of the overpass, she births a baby girl. She swaddles the baby in a soft blanket unlike anything she's ever folded neatly at the foot of a hospital bed. A whole week she's been hiding the blanket against her chest under her smock in anticipation. It smells of her skin. She's almost certain the doctors and the nurses would frown upon all of this.
The exhausted nurse tucks the baby in a shadow. The baby sleeps and dreams of beached whales and sago palms and Oakland Athletics baseball caps. The treasures of the world.
"You are special," she tells the baby.
The nurse, flustered by the fatigue and confusion that follow childbirth, abandons the sleeping baby. She races off to find the nurses, no doctor to tell her she needs her rest.
The nurses go marching on. They've made their way to the local campus and approach the quad. Collegians in navy robes and tasseled hats sit in collapsible chairs, only half-listening to a commencement address.
"If your dog dies, he was a good dog and now he's soldiering on. If your boyfriend leaves you, there goes your everything but he too must soldier on. If your mother dies, we loved you mom and we'll miss you and we hope to see you again someday soldiering on. Feel heavy and pray nothing bad ever happens again, then soldier on, babies. Soldier on," says the speaker.
The wave of nurses comes rippling through the sea of navy robes like the tide. They pass through rows and rows of chairs without stepping on a single toe. The doctors follow as always. The clang of metal announces their departure as soon as they've arrived, collapsing collapsible chairs as they go. Go, go, go.
The nurse catches up with the procession in the butterfly house. The canopy above her casts a shadow that cools her fever. Monarchs nest in her hair and she rakes them out with her fingers like a beachcomber. She thinks of the overpass, where highways meet and her child sleeps.
The nurses glide through the botanical gardens, the only place their beauty is ever rivaled. Fragrant petunias, lilies, and tulips overwhelm the nurses' own perfume. The doctors trample everything that was once beautiful and alive, but not before it's too late for the nurse to name her baby. Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose, she repeats.
The nurse comes back for the baby. The baby's dreams are as vivid as ever. She awakens from visions of Jesus and jean jackets to see her mother, the nurse. The nurse presses her child against her chest. They follow the interstate from Dallas to the gulf and make a home and a life together in Galveston. She nurses her infant in early morning, while she walks along the shoreline of the barrier island.
The nurse is a hospice worker and visits the homes of bedridden businessmen who are never around. They forever chase secretaries across East Texas, the secretaries a gentle breeze and the businessmen a blue-blazered herd dragging oxygen tanks and IVs behind them. The nurse busies herself tidying their dens and smoothing ripples in bed sheets. She tugs one corner, then another, then another. Whenever a ripple disappears another forms. This way her work is never done.
The baby nears her first birthday, and the nurse buys her an airplane that hangs from the doorframe on bungee cable. She sets the baby in the pilot's seat. The baby's bare little feet batter and bruise from bouncing on the linoleum all day, but she goes on smiling.
"I love you, Rose," says the nurse upon witnessing her daughter bouncing and beaming with baby feet.
Rose grows up chasing gulls on the gray gulf coast. When she's old enough, the nurse buys her a dog from the country and he chases gulls too. They watch the birds scatter skyward and eclipse the sun.
Rose pretends she's an astronaut hurtling through space. She looks down on Earth and sees city lights, tiny conflagrations burning in clusters. She transmits Morse code messages about the wonders of mankind to her dog, who flies an airplane high over Texas. He sees swimming pool after swimming pool, each a brighter blue than the last, but he never forgets the big picture. It's the ocean he's flying into. He splashes into the water and starts it churning. Rose crashes into the moon and keeps it moving along its orbit. Together they make the tides.
One day that dog dies, and Rose cries. The sea doesn't dry and the waves still wash up bits of scrap for the gulls to pick at. And it all seems so wrong to Rose.
"Why?" she asks the nurse.
The nurse shakes her head.
"Sometimes things are ugly," says the nurse as she digs a hole in the backyard. She wipes sweat from her eyes and streaks soil across her face. It smears her rouge to look like warpaint.
"Am I ugly?" says Rose.
"If only," says the nurse.
Rose has met a boy:
They're lying on a blanket over dunes and grass when their biceps touch. He reclines to rest his back and she pretends to do the same. But she really just wants their biceps to touch. And when they do it's electric. She always remembers the blanket for that.
She carries that blanket out to the beach and washes it in the warm foamy pools that sit stagnant after high tide. She imagines it hasn't been washed since the night their biceps touched because she remembers the blanket for that.
And it has a smell. The same smell of her mother's skin that makes her think about her stomach. The smell of sand and salt. She remembers the blanket for that.
Sometimes she runs her fingers up and down the boy's stomach until he flinches and she remembers the blanket for that too.
The nurse takes Rose to Houston, where they visit mission control. As they tour the facilities, Rose peers through plexiglass to see astronauts in orange flight suits pedaling stationary bikes. The astronauts pedal and pedal with their chests wired to EKGs. The machines pulse soft light every time an astronaut's heart beats, and they always will. When the tired astronauts look to the sky, scientists swoop like owls, rushing to blot their perspiring foreheads. "Soldier on, babies," they say.
In Austin, politicians slog past bus stops and package stores in pursuit of their slender aides.
College Station swarms with professors in herringbone jackets wandering after graduate assistants in pencil skirts.
Somewhere in Dallas the nurses come trickling out of revolving doors.
Soldier on, babies.
Rose babysits the neighbors' five-year-old on Fridays after school. She takes the child to the beach, where they play all the same games Rose once played. They drag their feet, combing fresh grooves in the sand to spell out HELP. Every time a biplane or a hospital helicopter passes over, they flail their arms to signal their distress, laughing the whole time. With civilization in plain view, the would-be rescuers always fly on.
And the biplanes have messages of their own. Like 501-USA-INFO or Schlitterbahn Galveston Open Now. Rose and the child invent jingles to accompany the banners that soar overhead. They shout them into the gulf like anthems. Once every lucky Friday a plane comes along skywriting. Rose convinces the child that if she tries hard enough she can blow the word-shaped clouds to Mexico, sending them messages of the exciting grand openings and Labor Day sales that await them in America.
Rose models nude for drawing classes at the university. She could sit to a sculptor for a statue of Sharon Tate. She poses, surrounded by young men biting their lips in berets and striped shirts. As one, they shut an eye and size her up with their thumbs. Rose writes magic marker messages across her stomach to give the artists a hard time. The professors consider her a distraction and stop hiring her, but it's just as well. Those poor artists always paint her swathed in white sheets, fearing they'll be discovered for the treacherous flesh-tones glowing underneath.
Rose comes home on holiday with a tattoo, and the nurse celebrates her daughter's independence. How punk rock! How fun!
"They won't let me nude model anymore, so I thought I might as well," says Rose.
The nurse applauds. She considers showing up to work tomorrow in her underwear. She'd iron blue blazers in next to nothing, but the thought alone is enough.
Rose goes back to the beach and sunbathes on that blanket over sand and dunes. If the doctors happen to pass by, they might finally stop and stare. But for now it's just gulls and neighborhood boys, both longing to pick crumbs off her stomach.
Rose decides on nursing school. She fishes the white gown and red heels out of her mother's closet and puts them on. She glosses her lips before surprising her mother in the kitchen.
"Rose, you were an astronaut," says the nurse.
The nurse treks to the beach with a blanket under her arm and her daughter at her side. They bury their feet in the cool sand. A biplane streaks by at dusk, making a final pass before carrying its message home.
What does a mother want for her daughter? East Texas. The moon. The gulf. The treasures of the world.
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