The Twenty-Mile Clinic had originally been organized for the old folks in the little satellite town who found it hard to get to the doctors at the proper hospital in McKinley. But now that Twenty Mile had become simply the name of a bus stop in McKinley, the clinic mostly served young women and their children who wanted to stay close to home or to the day care in the church across the street. The church had been built by the same people who had organized the clinic, though they had never thought of daycare, since in those days women stayed home to care for the babies. No one had heard of “well-baby clinics” then -- and a sick child had been serious business. These days the young mothers in the clinic waiting room seemed always on their way to work, watching the clock anxiously, but they had long lists of things to check.
The old lady was one of the last of that first generation, still hanging on in her little house where she had raised three kids. Partly -- since none of them had made it to true adulthood, all of them succumbing to disease and accident in various ways. Life is dangerous. It had taken her husband, too, but later, when he had just begun to get old. She was aware that he had relieved her of a possible burden. But also that she might have become the burden. Neither of them would resent such a burden.
Now she herself was truly old. At night her brain roamed through dark caverns of memory, turning a faint and moving light on various carvings, facades, entrances, and sketched-out ochre paintings of wild beasts. She didn’t want to stop at any one scene, was content to move along, roaming. Life is a process. It goes on and then it ends.
She was a writer. All day she sat writing. In the early years she had a manual typewriter, then an electric, and now, of course, a computer, which she loved. When she finished a book, she tied up the manuscript in red ribbon and added it to the pile on her bookshelf. If anyone had known she was a writer and asked her “what kind” of books she wrote, she would not have known how to answer. Her kind of book. That’s all. Publishing was a foreign concept.
No one in Twenty Mile had any idea how farflung her web of friends reached, mostly men, often other writers. Some of them published and famous. But she didn’t really care about being published: she just loved the sensation of creating story, leaving a trail, like a spider with full spinnarets, making connections until there was a web of meaning, organic, inevitable.
“Mrs. Haverford? Mrs. Haverford? Are you all right, dear?” The staff was used to dealing with women not much more than girls as well as their children, both as they budded inside them and then after they bloomed outside. They weren’t very sure about old people. Mrs. Haverford had no opinion about babies. She was not an admirer of children. She’d spent her time making messes to put food into them, cleaning up the messes they returned to the outside of them, cleaning up the disorder after them whereever they went, trying to see who they were, what they were trying to become and what she ought to do to help them along.
Now she just accepted whatever was. The children in the waiting room were not her problem.
“Mrs. Haverford, this way.” The nurse was young and wearing a ring. Soon she’d be pregnant if she wasn’t already. Her scrubs were pink and yellow with little pandas and penguins. Flattening the folder of notes on the counter with her ringed hand, she said, “I see we need to do a blood draw. Is that okay?” Mrs. Haverford nodded. But how did she know what was okay? She just did what they said. They were irrelevant. If you balked, that made them suspicious and then they pried. So she obeyed the card that reminded her to make an appointment though she had a pretty good idea of what was happening in her own body.
The nurse had slender cool nurse hands and stroked her arm with sensitive fingertips, looking for a “good” artery. Mrs. Haverford had lost a lot of weight and her flesh was loose within her skin. “My veins roll,” she said. The nurse nodded, put back the needle she had chosen and found another, so the information must have meant something to her. The young woman was skillful and soon had the blood.
“You wait right here and the doctor will come in a minute.” Mrs. Haverford prepared to kick her heels for half an hour. Her mind went back to a little project she’d been working on: planning her suicide. Her best correspondent, a old writer who did very well for himself though he was stormy and unaccountable -- which might have been part of his charisma and good sales -- had booked a Caribbean cruise. She had found it quite astoundingly out of character for him to choose such a jolly trip. And personally she thought it was a great waste of money to go with fat prosperous shuffleboard players into a deliberately predatory sequence of ports, accumulating trinkets to drag home.
Later, when the author was mysteriously and simply not on board anymore, even though the ship was between ports on the open sea, she understood what had happened. But she couldn’t afford such a romantic end, swimming away from a ship in a warm, moonlit sea.
Then she had read an article about Mexican veterinary clinics where a person could buy the kind of drugs they use to put dogs to sleep. To sleep. A euphemism, of course, but why not? Why feel bad about it? She had even used the computer to order the right amount. Forget all the stuff about sleeping pills and plastic bags over one’s head. She knew how to inject the drug. She had once worked for a veterinarian, used the same kind of flexi-strip to raise a vein that the nurse had just used on her. She had made the injection and watched the dog simply slump down limp. The light is on, the light is off. Not so much effort as swimming.
The doctor, another young woman, came into the room. “We’ll see what your test results say, Mrs. Haverford, but in the meantime I’ll just write you a new prescription and we’ll see how it goes.”
How it goes. How it goes. Maybe when she got home the package from Mexico would have arrived. Would there be a full moon tonight?
When she had gone the young nurse turned to the doctor. “I just love Mrs. Haverford. She’s no trouble at all.” Then, “I took some really cute photos of my kitten last night. Want to see them?” She took a flip phone with a screen out of her scrubs pocket.
The doctor looked and admired, but she was thinking, “There was something funny about Mrs. Haverford.” Maybe the blood tests would have the answer. Then it was time for the next baby. There’s always a next baby.