Sounds of Life

On this mid-November morning, the peaks of Mount Baldy jut like breasts into the darkening sky. Clouds pregnant with improbable snow hover above these mounds, forcing themselves in from the Pacific Ocean on their way to a taller, more impressive mountain range, the mighty Sierras, where they will drop their burden. Then the wind signals by changing its voice from a cry to a sigh that it wishes to loiter here a moment.

The clouds follow this wind down the hillside as it becomes a rustling murmur, follow it onto the flat land, follow it to the noisy, busy roadway on the valley below. On that road, a yellow cab screeches up to the entrance of the San Gabriel Hospital and expels a young man. Just at that moment, the clouds’ waters break into the hissing wind, large drops drumming the roof of the cab, slanting sideways and splashing off the sidewalk.

The young man shouts into the wind, “Christ, I forgot the umbrella. What a day for this. Honey, can you make it onto the portico?”

“Yes, yes, but hurry.”

The young woman groans as she lifts herself from the backseat of the cab, as her man showily pats his pockets for a wallet. The passenger door slams shut behind her, rudely closed by the gusting wind.

“Shit,” he breathes, “I left it at home. Right next to the umbrella.”

The window on the driver side emits a chalk-on-a-blackboard screech as the cabbie rolls it down, shouting, “Good luck, soldier. Send me a cigar. Pay the next guy double. Ma’am, best to you and that new little one.”

The cab peels away with a wet tire-spinning stutter as the man executes a tight about face. He moves toward his wife, clip-clopping with his half-hitched step, the step he has had since leaving two inches of his right leg on Guadalcanal five years before. He has traded his military uniform for a worker’s uniform, blue Dickies cinched tight on his narrow waist and a plaid work shirt tucked in haphazardly. There will be no work for him today, no manual labor at any rate.

Now, practically lifting his heavier- than- he- is wife, the man hurries her through the rain to the entrance. The revolving front door admits the couple, emitting a hydraulic sigh, and whooshes itself closed behind them. The clouds must stay outside but a tiny pirate breeze hitchhikes on the couple into the hospital.

Rattling, an old wheelchair is drawn up to the Admissions desk. Squeaky complaints from its ancient wheels are heard down the hallway. The young wife, dressed hurriedly in a loose flower print top and narrow cotton skirt, sinks herself into it. Her long, thin hand thrums upon the white leatherette train case perched on what is left of her lap. This case holds her new blue robe and slippers, a picture of her three year old daughter framed just yesterday, and a treasured silver and tortoise shell-backed hairbrush, passed on to her by her grandmother. She stiffens with a new pain.

They are headed to the sign that reads Labor and Delivery in bold black letters above the arched doorway. Soft, piped music plays Artie Shaw’s version of Begin the Beguine. The wife’s drumming changes to a Latin rhythm. The train case jumps on her knees.

“You forget between times how much it hurts,” she gasps while grabbing the proffered hand of her husband, dropping the beat. You can almost hear the bones in his hand grinding together as she grips it. In the small windowless labor room, he helps her into her gown.

“Just yell if you want to, Betty. These gals are plenty used to it by now, I’ll just bet.”

Her small yip, hardly louder than a puppy gives way to a series of notes climbing up the scale, do to fa to ti, skipping over the notes between, and then winding down to a tonal aum. She sits up and wipes her eyes with the corner of the white sheet. Grabbing her hanky from its hiding place in the hospital gown, tucked up under her billowing right sleeve, she blows her nose. Her wrists look thin and fragile next to her swollen belly. They glow bluish in the florescent light of this cubicle.

“I sure wish this baby hadn’t decided to come early. Thanksgiving is right around the corner. I thought we’d be able to get ready for this new one over that long weekend. Oh, Kenny, we haven’t even picked a name.”

“I’ve got an idea to kill two birds with one stone. Why don’t we just start listing names , starting with “A” and go on down the list until we say one we like? That will distract you from the pain and the name’ll come to us.”

“Wait a sec. Aaaaaugh. God. Aaaaaaugh. Sweeeeeet Jesussssssss. Huh, huh, huh, huh. How long was that? How much time between?”

“Forty-five seconds long. Pretty close between pains.”

Scritch, scritch, scritch, scratch. His pocket watch sounds loudly in their small space as Kenny winds it again and again.

“There. Let’s keep thinkin’ of names for this little guy.”

“Call ‘em out to me and I’ll tell you if I like it.”

“Adam?”

“God, no.”

“Brian?”

“Remember that Irish kid from down the street? What a brat.”

“Bruce? Calvin? Carl?”

“Ohhhhhhhhh. Where is that doctor? My Lord, helllllllls – belllllls.”

“Fifty, fifty-one.” The man counts the seconds.

“Okay, let’s try again. Kenny, are you sure you don’t want a junior?”

“Nope. We’ll give ‘em my middle name. David? Duncan? Danny?”

The woman agrees then, “That’s what we’ll call him. Danny. Danny Lee Donnelly. Uh. Uuuuh. Oh, myeyeyeyyyy. This is a big one. I think….my water….too early, isn’t…Lord. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! Kenny, I think we’d better call the nurse, call thenursequick, callthe…”

The nurse, an extremely fat one dressed in a less-than-clean uniform wears her cap perched comically on her huge head. Taking one look at Betty, she shoos Kenny out the door. He lands in the waiting room, alone in an ocean of cigarette and cigar butts, Field and Stream magazines, soiled waxed paper sandwich wraps, paper cups with dregs of coffee. He sits down on the couch, which breaks a leather fart into the quiet air. Kenny smiles and commences to chug from a small silver flask lifted from its hiding place in his rough jacket. With his Marine Corp Zippo he lights his Camel. The right thumb pushes against the lighter’s wheel, click, click, click. The thumbnail is dark blue, the victim of a missed hammer stroke two days ago. This effort of stroking the lighter causes him to grimace.

He blows out his first inhale with a deep belly sigh. The fag hangs crooked from the drooping corner of his mouth while the smoke escapes into the air. This exhaled air attaches itself to the little breeze that had accompanied the pair into the hospital and finds its way to the woman, wending their way down the hallway to delivery.

In the Delivery Room, the breeze hides soundlessly as Betty’s voice becomes a cacophony of natural and unnatural noises. These are ancient echoes, mammalian, atavistic. Betty moves her focus to inside her womb, listening for that urge, the mandate for transcendence of this little being.

“Ta-tump, ta-tump, ta-tump,tump, tump,. Tump, tump.”

“Whooosh, whhoooooossssh, whhhhoooooossssshhhhh.”

Betty and her baby hear their hearts drumming and their blood singing through the cord which still connects them for moments more. Time is suspended in the heart of the breeze. Seconds, maybe minutes, maybe hours later, the white coated doctor, smelling like an ashtray and rubbing alcohol, steps forward.

He stoops between her legs and pierces her concentration with his demands to, “Push. Push. Push harder now. I see the crown. Push. That’s it.”

“Oh, here we go.”

“ Hahh, ohhhhhh.”

A forceful breath out, a deep grunt, a long winding operatic high note, all give way to the baby’s first, “Wouaaa wouaaa wu wu wouaaaaaaaaaa.”

“Good work. Hold on. I have to wipe her down… let’s weigh her.” The scales clank as the doctor moves the knob across the silver bar. The baby cries another heartbreaking wail.
“Let’s see. Five pounds. Any ounces? Hm, 5 pounds, 4 ounces. 21 inches. Well, well. Here you go, mama.”

The doctor’s hands are massive; they surround the little baby, almost hiding her in their heft. “What will you call her?” he asks as he holds her up like a trophy.

“I guess….Let me think. Um, not Danny.”

“Hah. I agree with that. So…maybe a little more gas for Mommy, nurse. Would you like that, mama? Just help me one more minute here. Then you can rest.”

“Ah, my God. I have a pain. What’s? Another baby…?”

“No. No. Just the one. This is your placenta, the afterbirth. Put the baby up to your breast. Let her suckle. That will cause you to contract.”

“Thank you. Oh, thank you all. Look at her. She’s…..so tiny. Hi, there, baby girl. Here you go. Ahhhh.”

“Not Danny” latches on, and you can hear her mewling, sucking first attempts at sustenance. Then her frustrated scratchy barks puncture the air again.

The doctor busies himself with the afterbirth. The extracted placenta lands with a loud sloppy plop into the bucket beside him. Then Dr. Stinky, as Betty thinks of him, whirls around and is gone without another word.

Inside the delivery room, the fat nurse takes up “Not Danny” just as the pirate breeze lightly lifts the corner of white sheet covering Betty. That transforming air, that small breeze from the outside world, it is sucked in loudly by the child, refueling her tiny screaming lungs. Betty closes her eyes, mumbles a short blessing for her girl, and sinks into a narcotic slumber.

In the father’s waiting room, Kenny leaps up to hear the news of the birth of his second daughter. He groans a bit as his right knee clicks painfully into place. He stows the flask in his workman’s jacket and reaches out to shake the Doctor’s hand. He wobbles some on his short leg.

“Thanks, Doc. A girl? What d’ya know? Another little girl, hm? Well, that’s fine…just fine…really fine. Thought it might be a boy this time. I guess we’ll just have to try again.”

“I wouldn’t bring that up just now to your wife, son. You can go in to see her soon.” The doctor accepts the cigarette offered by the new father and walks away after getting a light from the Zippo.

Outside, viewed through the flat rain-streaked windows of the waiting room, clouds move on soundlessly, easterly, on a new breeze, holding up the remainder of their burden, readying that release for the next piercing mountain top. Looking at this vista, Kenny thinks of a female version of their agreed upon name. He’ll run it by Betty after he goes and gets a real drink.

Not Danny, but Donna Lee. Donna Lee Donnelly. That has a nice sound.

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