by Sarah Cadence Hamm
Renee Sadbury, school nurse at Beakman K-12 was sure it was neglect. Unlike the other kindergartners, who romped across the playground with baby fat flapping on their chubby cheeks, little piggies in snowsuits and pom pom’ed hats, Margaret Powler was shaped like a pear. Not in the way a woman looks like a pear: little Margaret was narrow at the top, shoulders slumping into a swollen belly, gas-filled. Hard to the touch. While her sister Jenny was a slip of a thing. Which could be normal; there was no average when it came to middle school bodies, burgeoning awkward breasts or the conspicuous lack thereof. But what if Jenny, in all the variation of bodies, was as sick as her sister, and no one saw but Nurse Sadbury?
This kind of vision was not new to her. As she called for a conference with the mother, the numbers on her keypad worn shiny as wet shell with her fingertips, Nurse Sadbury thought of all the things she saw that no one else did. The undersides of tongues. The inner ear. A ghost when she was fifteen, during a black-out that lasted all night, though her brother called her crazy, and told all their friends at school. Bruises in fantastic patterns, damning places.
She didn’t use the term “conference,” of course. While the phone crackled in the crook of her neck, Nurse Sadbury said it would be, “just a little chat about Margie.”
The mother said, “It’s Margaret. I’ll be there.”
And there she was on the office couch. Lilly Powler, a powder-smelling woman with a high coif of hair and a red bow mouth, two minutes early and inspecting her bone-colored gloves, the type a lady might wear to tea. Nurse Sadbury hadn’t seen gloves like that in years, not since her own mother’s time. Fashionable as they looked, she couldn’t help the thought they hid some embarrassing blemish. Eczema, maybe. A pimply rash.
“Mrs. Powler,” Nurse Sadbury began, but Margaret’s mother shook her head.
“You can call me Lilly.”
“Lilly. That’s a pretty name. And the girls, too, Jennifer and Margaret— they’re such classic names. Not like a lot of kids today. Sometimes I think if I hear another ‘Mackenzie,’ I’ll scream.”
Lilly shifted, the vinyl seat beneath her whispering. She twisted her delicate watch around to check its face. Nurse Sadbury looked down at Margaret and Jenny’s files, arranged side by side on her cluttered desk.
“Do you work, Mrs.— Lilly?” Asked Nurse Sadbury, though it was there on the form.
“I do,” said Lilly. “I should be at work now.”
“And your husband? What does he do?” The nurse continued, though all that was on the form as well. The greater part of her job was asking questions, when she already knew the answers. Looking at the form’s tidy sections for “mother” and “father” and “sibling,” Nurse Sadbury wondered what questions people might ask her, to get inside those boxes. Deceased, deceased, estranged. And what sort of answers she could give, to keep them at bay.
“My husband left us when Margaret was two,” said Lilly.
After a moment, Nurse Sadbury said she was sorry to hear it.
She looked at the framed poem on her desk, embossed in gold over a Thomas Kinkade-style beachscape—“Footprints in the Sand.” Pastor Jim had given it to her years ago, claiming it came from his own desk, touting the poem’s ability to comfort a troubled spirit, but Renee Sadbury knew better. It came from the Fishers of Men Christian Bookstore in Poughkeepsie. Their window display was nothing but framed copies, row upon row, the price tags obscuring a corner of the poem, so the title read “Footprints in the Sa”.
Nurse Sadbury picked up the frame, studied it in the dull blue light. It had been too long since she’d rearranged the little treasures on her desk, and now a thin scrim of dust obscured the words.
“In times of loss,” she said, “I try to think of this. I try to think, I’m not alone. I’m not being abandoned. I’m being carried. By…something bigger than me.”
Nurse Sadbury had a hard time focusing on Lilly’s face. Maybe it was her pale skin in the bland fluorescent office, or the glinting threads sewn into her tweed skirt suit. Whatever it was, it started a throb beneath the nurse’s temples. When she blinked, she could see the outline of Lilly’s body, done in negative on the backs of her eyelids.
“There’s nothing bigger than me,” said Lilly. Not unkindly.
“No, you’re wrong,” insisted Nurse Sadbury, and she thrust the poem at Lilly. Who would not take it, who looked at the poem as if it would dirty her gloves to touch it. “I’ve had doubts too, but doubting is a false path. Faith can heal—”
But she couldn’t parrot Pastor Jim’s words, couldn’t make the gift the gesture it was meant to be. And she was being shamefully unprofessional. In the picture, the orange sunset gave the beach an apocalyptic air. As if just out of frame, a ship sank, flaming, into the ocean.
A skinny middle-schooler with strawberry hair rapped on the doorframe. Beside her was Margaret, her face pointed and keen as a fox. Not holding her big sister’s hand, as a normal child might, but staring at Nurse Sadbury’s desk, at the gag-gifts accumulated over a lifetime of office work. A mug, stained with ink on the inside, insisted the drinker didn’t have to be crazy to work there, but it sure did help. Outside in the hall was the tangible quiet of a school in session, disturbed only by the faintest squeak of small shoes.
“I thought the girls should both be here.” Lilly said. “Shut the door, please, Margaret.”
Jenny folded herself neatly on the couch beside her mother, and Margaret, without permission or any sign of affection, climbed onto her sister’s lap, as if she were just a lumpy part of the cushion.
“That’s…yes, that’s fine,” said Nurse Sadbury, though she felt outnumbered, somehow. The three of them in a row. She rested the poem face down on top of her files. It was time to begin.
“Margaret,” asked Nurse Sadbury, “what’s your favorite food?”
If an eight year old could look affronted, that was the expression on Margaret’s face now, as if the nurse had belched in front of her, or told a joke in poor taste. Margaret looked from her sister, who was staring out the window, to her mother, who nodded once.
“I don’t have one,” Margaret said.
“What? You don’t like pizza?”
“Lactose-intolerant,” Lilly said softly.
“You must like something,” Nurse Sadbury said, and tried to smile. It felt like her lips were stuck above her teeth; she covered her mouth with a small plump hand. “What did you eat for breakfast today?”
“Leftovers. From Mommy,” said Margaret.
“Leftovers? That’s interesting. What kind of leftovers?”
Margaret looked at her mother again, and again, Lilly nodded.
“A leg,” Margaret said. “But I didn’t really like it.”
“Well maybe your mother should fix you some cereal instead. Fried chicken isn’t a proper breakfast.” With an audible intake of breath, Nurse Sadbury gave the speech she’d practiced in the mirror that morning, and again, mumbling, over her lunch. “Mrs. Powler, you can’t just give them anything. And you can’t let them choose for themselves, because obviously, Margaret is in a difficult stage where she doesn’t want to choose. You’re the parent. I know things are difficult for you at home, but Margaret seems gravely undernourished and if this problem persists, I’ll have to get social services involved.”
Lilly Powler looked down at her hands and sighed, plucked the tips of her bone-colored gloves.
“I try to feed them what they need,” she said. “But I can’t seem to figure their tastes. Hopefully it will come in time.”
“Mom, jeez…” Jenny slumped a little beneath Margaret. “Don’t cry.”
“Well,” said Lilly, “It’s difficult to be a mother of exceptional children.”
Lilly looked up and Nurse Sadbury saw her wet eyes, green like sea glass; green like the weeds that blew and curled beneath dark water, weeds that caught at children’s ankles, weeds that tangled in the hair of grinning mermaids, drowning sailors in the sea.
“Mommy,” said Margaret, “What’s fried chicken?”
“I’d like to see that poem again,” Lilly said, and sprang across the desk, the poem and the files and her dainty gloves all falling to the floor.
It did not hurt. Or at least, of all the pain in Nurse Sadbury’s life, this hurt was the quietest. Because of her training, she knew exactly where they touched her on the inside— here her gallbladder, there her heart. Lilly liked the sweetbreads best. The lights above them flickered and dimmed, the prelude to a black out. Renee Sadbury was fifteen again, the ghost’s hard promise hanging in the crook of rafters. But this time, it did not matter what her brother said, or who believed her. Because here was the truth. She was carried by it.
When they were finished, Jenny handed out wet naps from her mother’s purse. Lilly collected her gloves and eased them back on to her hands. With her dirty sneaker, Margaret toed the poem out from under the couch where it had fallen, and placed it back among the treasures on the desk. With wet lips, Lilly stooped down to blow away the dust.