By W.M. Achrya



Sometimes I wish he could throw a tantrum.

On his belly on the floor, fists banging, feet kicking, and scream ŌNoooo!!!!Ķ

Yell and cry himself hoarse with animal sounds, his face red and blotchy, everyone around him squirming with embarrassment.


But he canÕt.

A screaming tantrum would kill him.


He sits on the covers in the hospital bed, his thighs against his chest, his chin resting on his knees. The position helps him breathe. His face is as white as the bed sheets, but almost translucent, bluish, the color of that disgusting skimmed milk turned a little sour that you had to drink back home when there was nothing else.

He doesnÕt scream. He looks at me, startling blue eyes under a shock of black hair, and sometimes, once in a while, the tears spill over. Silent, only his breath heavier, more labored, gasping.


The ward nurse bends the rule and lets me stay. Visiting hours are over, but she knows that Tommy will settle down in a while and pass a calmer night this way. They put a screen around his bed: white wooden frames connected by hinges for folding, with lengths of white cloth stretched inside them.


I sit on TommyÕs bed and hold his hand.


--- --- ---


Barry had black hair and blue eyes. He was funny, witty, a terrific dancer – and then we were alone and he was painfully, sweetly, endearingly shy. It took him a month to get his nerve up to kiss me. My world exploded into fireworks, but he wouldnÕt believe that I wanted him.

What I didnÕt want was to couple like dogs in some alley, so I saved my money for his birthday, for a present to both of us, a night in a real hotel.

Barry started looking for a better job so we could get married.

Then my parents went to Ohio to visit my sister and her new baby, I had to stay in Chicago for my job at the record store, and Barry and I lived together the whole week in my parentsÕ apartment. Somehow no-one found out, only, months later, BarryÕs mother.


And that was it.


BarryÕs mother wanted to see him married to a nice Irish girl, not to some good-for-nothing Bohunk atheist. She was going to send him back to Galway, never mind the recession, never mind the threatening war, he was not seeing me again.


If he had no backbone, I wasnÕt going to beg.

So he married this pale, red-headed Catholic his mother had picked for him, in a hurry, as if the girl was pregnant. But she was not.


I was.


My father almost finished the whole thing off with a kick to my belly. He went berserk when he found out. He bellowed like a bull, just raw screams when he ran out of ways of calling me a whore. My mother got between us, was she more afraid that heÕd kill me or that heÕd bellow himself into apoplexy, anyway, he grabbed her, threw her against the kitchen sink, and she half-lay there sobbing, her feet slipping on the linoleum as she tried to get up and couldnÕt.


I twisted around and caught the kick on my hip, the bruise had me limping for close on a month. A girl from the store let me stay with her for a week. My aunt in Nashville almost melted the phone wires with what she said about her bigoted brutish jerk of a brother, and I was welcome to stay with her and her family.

My father let me come and pack one small suitcase. Behind his back, my mother sneaked me a quick hug and fifteen bucks.


And so I moved to Tennessee.


--- ---


This Dr. Blalock scares me.

He rushes through the corridors, barking orders left and right, like he was some sort of god here. And in a way he is.

They say he may save Tommy, turn him into a normal child.


ItÕs TommyÕs heart, it doesnÕt pump the blood the way it ought to. ThatÕs why TommyÕs so weak, pale, his lips almost blue. At four years old heÕs never run in the grass, sung a song, or kicked a ball. They say itÕs a wonder heÕs alive.

Some wonder...

I love him to bits, but, for a little kid, what sort of life is this?


But then, to carve up a chest and operate on the heart?

TheyÕve never tried it before.

Yes, I work in a store, but my grandfather was a surgeon, back home. ŌDo not touch,Ķ thatÕs what surgeons learn about the heart. And this one thinks he can change it...

With my Tommy and the other kids on the ward for guinea pigs.

At a price.

Just having Tommy here for assessment is costing me... you donÕt want to know, and Dr. Blalock doesnÕt care.


--- ---


My aunt helped me find a job in a furniture store.

The pay turned out to be better than what I got in the record store in Chicago, and the boss, the owner, was a really decent guy. He understood about the baby, too. He hired me when I was four months gone, then let me come back when Tommy was born, gave me time off when Tommy was sick.



After a while I started hearing things about the boss. His wife was a real bitch, they said, blackmailed him in the bedroom to get all those new gadgets for the house, and he got pretty much nothing for it, they said, she was a dead fuck.

So he wanted something on the side.


This something turned out to be me.

If it hadnÕt been so weird, it would have been funny.

Me, a single mother, with a sick child and not much of an education, he could have pulled my skirt up on one of the leather couches in the store after we closed, and then just told me to shut up or else.


But no, not him.


He asked me out to dinner.

He ordered wine.

After a couple of drinks he started talking like IÕve never heard a man talk before.

About his wife and why he couldnÕt simply divorce her. About not getting what he needed as a married man. About being so scared of catching a VD, he might get sick from the fright alone.

He laughed at that, and I laughed with him.

So he asked me to come to a hotel with him. HeÕd pay for TommyÕs assessment at the hospital, he said.


He turned out to be a shy, gentle lover, surprised and pleased like a little kid when he managed to arouse and satisfy me.

He kept his side of the bargain, about TommyÕs hospital bill.

Then came the weirdest thing of all.

He offered me a contract.

A formal contract in writing that weÕd both sign and keep copies of, saying that IÕd be his mistress for a year and heÕd pay for TommyÕs operation.


I was stumped.

But maybe, just maybe there was such an animal.

A horny guy with kindness and decency in him.

About as weird as a surgeon repairing a little childÕs heart.


--- ---


I hear the door swing open and a group of people come in.

I peer through a crack in the screen around TommyÕs bed.

ThereÕs the pediatrician, the plain-looking lady doctor with the hearing aid.

And thereÕs Dr. Blalock, with his usual scowl and growl.


They stop by the cot next to TommyÕs bed. ThereÕs a tiny girl lying in it, only a baby, just as pale and blue-tinged as Tommy. SheÕs scheduled for the very first operation.

If that succeeds, there will be more. Tommy may be next.


Dr. Blalock scowls at a chart, hands it to the woman doctor, says something to her, then looks down at the baby girl.

Something happens with the doctorÕs eyes. They light up, soften.

And he says: ŌThis little girl wants to live.Ķ