By Alix Ohlin
Alan was lying face down in Centre Square, a squiggle of vomit on the pavement beside him, his one good leg folded sideways. He looked bad and smelled worse, and if he had been anybody else, we would’ve glanced at him and kept walking. But he was Stephanie’s brother, so I bent down and shook his shoulder. The classical music the city played to discourage loitering trilled around us, and on the other side of the square, two homeless guys smoked their cigarettes and watched.
“Hey, kiddo,” Stephanie said. She crouched next to him and felt for his pulse. Her curly blonde hair fell over her shoulders. Together, we dragged him to a sitting position, against a stone memorial to the Civil War dead. Alan’s head lolled to the side. I’d seen the family photos, and I knew that at one time he’d been a good-looking teenager, green-eyed, a dimple in his cheek. It was hard to imagine girls going for him now. During his second tour in Afghanistan, an IED took off his left foot, and since he came back, Stephanie said, he’d been struggling. Struggling looked like an understatement.
Between the two of us we hoisted him up and anchored him on our shoulders. His eyes were closed, but I could feel him trying to steady himself, to help us out. It took us 15 minutes to get him across the street and into the back seat of Stephanie’s Civic. She wanted to sit back there with him, so I drove us up the hill to Forks. Her condo was in a subdivision that had sprung up too fast, and half the houses were empty. It gave the neighborhood a creepy feel—all those carless driveways, the skinny, weak trees. As I drove, I glanced at them in the rearview mirror. Her arm was around him, his head leaned against her neck. His eyelids fluttered. He was smiling.
I met Stephanie my first week at the clinic, which was also my first week in the Lehigh Valley. I was a brand new doctor, and newly single—Robin, my girlfriend since medical school, had said she’d come with me to Pennsylvania but then, at the last minute, had taken a job in San Francisco instead. She’d barely even apologized. “San Francisco, Tom,” she’d said, spreading her palms, the difference between California and eastern Pennsylvania too manifest to require explanation. So I moved by myself. The job was at a large practice with a staff of young doctors who rotated through on their way to bigger hospitals in other cities. I myself didn’t plan on being here long. What I hoped was to set up my own practice in a nice suburb of Philly, maybe Cherry Hill, where I’d grown up; this place was just a stopover.
Stephanie was the head nurse on duty my first day. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail that fought to contain it; it frizzed around her forehead, and she kept lifting her hand to smooth it down. She showed me around the place, introduced me to everyone, and from the offhand way she said my name I understood that she had my number, and didn’t count on me staying long either. She was a good nurse, unflappable and smart. Two weeks after we met, I was walking to my car when I noticed her leaving at the same time.
“Hey,” I said.
“Call me Tom, please.”
“Okay, Tom.” The way she said it was not inviting. She was wearing a lumpy brown cardigan over pink scrubs and Crocs, as unattractive an outfit as I’d ever seen, but somehow I still kept straining at its outlines, wondering just what it disguised.
“Buy you a drink? I don’t really know where to go around here, but maybe you can tell me.”
She cocked her head to one side, not smiling. I was expecting her to shake her head, but instead she said, “Let’s go.”
We went to a sports bar. Over drinks she was quiet. At one point, I caught her looking at her watch. But then she leaned over to me in the booth, and we were making out. She tasted like chicken wings and rum.
She never sought me out at work, we didn’t flirt there, but whenever I’d ask her if she wanted to eat or get a drink, she said yes. Stephanie was a local, born and raised in Macungie, her father having worked at Bethlehem Steel until it closed, her mother a secretary for the school district. They didn’t have a lot of money, and she’d put herself through nursing school working as a waitress. As soon as she told me that, I felt like I could picture it exactly, the no-nonsense way she took orders, a change belt wrapped around her thin hips.
“I bet you got great tips,” I said.
She looked at me, her mouth in a straight line. She had these deadpan expressions that took me a while to figure out, and I liked her for that.
“Enough for school,” she said. “And a car. And a couple trips to Mexico.”
We’d been dating for around a month when she called me and asked me to help her with her brother. She hadn’t said much about him, just that he’d been injured while serving, and she wasn’t sure what he’d do now. He was younger than she was by a few years, and I had the feeling she’d always looked out for him. They’d gone to high school with a guy who was now on the police force–he was the one who’d called her about Alan passing out in Centre Square.
On the short drive back to her place, we didn’t say much. I could hear her talking to him in the back seat, just simple things. “You don’t look good, Alan. We’re going to take you back to my place and get you cleaned up. I’ll make you some grilled cheese. Or whatever you want.” As if she were his mother. Her arm was around his, their blonde heads drawn together, and I felt like their chauffeur, some hired hand. When we got back to her place, she guided him to the bathroom. His clothes stank, and his arms and chest were crowded with tattoos and bruises. He looked tough, but he was pliant while we stripped him.
Together we bathed him, a dirty overgrown child, and he came around more while we were doing it. He didn’t seem upset that we were manhandling him. He was very polite. He kept saying, “Thanks” and “I’m sorry.” When he was more or less clean, Stephanie and I helped him out of the bathtub, and she asked me to get him some fresh clothes from a dresser in her bedroom. Apparently they were his own clothes, because they fit just fine.
“This is Tom,” Stephanie told him, once he was dressed.
“I’m sorry we met this way,” Alan said. He held out his hand, and we shook. His blond hair was lank, and his green eyes were bloodshot, rimmed with exhaustion. I’d have given him a B12 shot and locked him in rehab for a month, but he wasn’t my brother.
“No problem,” I said.
She fed him a grilled cheese sandwich, as promised, and put him in her spare room. Then she and I went to bed. “Are you okay?” I said.
“It’s not the first time,” she said. She shrugged, helplessly. “His leg kills him.”
“What’s he on, medication-wise?”
“He’s been on everything. He always says it doesn’t help.”
Undressed for bed, in a white tank top and underwear, her whole back was covered in tiny freckles. I set myself to tracing them with my index finger, making constellations out of them, a triangle, a star. I loosed her hair from its ponytail, and it sprang to life, a million curls clouding her shoulders. She lay down and folded herself against me, pulling my arm across her stomach. I wondered if she was crying. But she turned, and kissed me, then made her way down my stomach, and I closed my eyes, not thinking about anything else at all.
After that night, I was deep into Stephanie’s life, and I liked it there. We started spending most weekends together, and I met her parents, who were sweet, tired people, too impressed that I was a doctor for me to be comfortable around them. She showed me around town, the shuttered factory they’d turned into a casino, the quaint cobblestoned Main Street of downtown Bethlehem, the shambling towpath along the Delaware Canal. Sometimes we went hiking in the Poconos, its dazzle of green bisected by the truck-heavy rumble of I-80. It seemed like a hardscrabble place to me, gritty and rural, and as much as I liked Stephanie, I had a hard time imagining staying there for long.
The closer I got to her, the more I realized that her life and Alan’s were intertwined. She was constantly bailing him out, helping him get job interviews, putting him up for the night when one of his many housing arrangements–he’d get a new roommate or a new girlfriend, then argue with them and move out–crumbled.
I answered the door one night in December to find him standing on the doorstep, swaying a little. Over one shoulder was a blue backpack. He almost always carried it, and sometimes I wondered if it contained all his possessions in the world.
“Yo,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“We have, actually. More than once.”
“It was a joke, Doctor Tom.”
“Oh,” I said. He was just as deadpan as his sister. “Come on in. Steph’s cooking.”
When she saw him coming into the kitchen her face lit up, nothing deadpan about it. Their two dark blond heads glinted in the kitchen light. She was always happy when he came, no matter what condition he was in. For the first few minutes of the meal, we were so distracted by the commotion of cooking and getting it all to the table that we didn’t notice how high he was. But then I realized he wasn’t eating, was just holding up his fork and staring at it, transfixed. After a while the two of us just watched him in silence. When he finally noticed us, he put the fork down.
“It’s beautiful, you know?” he said.
“It’s Mom and Dad’s old set,” Stephanie said. She passed me some garlic bread, nudging me to give it to Alan. She wanted to get something into his stomach.
“No, I mean, forks in general,” Alan said musingly. “There’s this perfection to them. You know what word I’ve always liked? Tines. The tines of a fork. It sounds so perfect, like little chimes. Like a trinity. Like a trinity of chimes.”
“Oh, kiddo,” Stephanie said. “What did you take?”
Alan smiled at her. He was the most affable addict I’d ever met. “I feel good,” he said. “I got a little help from Ludo.” Ludo was a guy from Allentown who’d served in Alan’s unit. They hung around together a lot, though they often fought, Ludo driving off and leaving him stranded at a bar, or a McDonald’s at midnight, or a truck stop in Ohio, halfway through some road trip they’d cooked up, then abandoned.
I could see he wasn’t going to eat anything, and Stephanie’s face, her eagerness to have him there like a normal person, was tearing at my heart. “How about you lie down for a bit?” I said.
He smiled at me, his green eyes warm. “That’s not a terrible idea, sir,” he said. He settled himself on the couch, and in a couple minutes we could hear him snoring. At first Stephanie just sat there, staring down at her spaghetti, tears glimmering in her eyes; but I reminded her that she didn’t want to get sick, she had to keep her strength up, and she nodded and lifted her fork. She was sensible like that.
After dinner, I did the dishes while Stephanie made up the spare room for Alan, then crashed in front of the TV. To my surprise, when I went back there to check on him, he was awake. The bedside lamp was on, and he was reading one of her Cosmos.
“Guess what?” he said when he saw me. “The female body has a hundred pleasure receptors.”
“Must be nice,” I said.
“Seriously,” he said. “I know maybe two.”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t interested in pursuing the topic. “You need anything?”
“Sleeping. She’s had a long day.”
“I hear you. I hear you,” he said. He was sitting propped against pillows, legs straight out in front of him. With his shoes still on you couldn’t tell which one was the prosthetic foot. He saw me looking.
“You’re a doctor. Tell me why it’s the one that’s gone that hurts.”
“The nerve endings,” I said. “They call it ghost pain. The OxyContin should help.”
He snorted. “I’m not going to lie to you, OxyContin is like baby aspirin to me at this point.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. “How’s the physical therapy going?”
“How do you think?” he said. He closed his eyes. A small smile played across his face. “I was in this tank once, me and Ludo,” he said. “We were going through this patch of desert. And we heard all this artillery, it sounded real heavy. And then it just stopped. Ludo tells me to stick my head out and see what’s going on. I say no way, I’m gonna get killed. We argue about it for a while. Finally I say OK. I stick my head out the top. I look around, and I see nothing. Not one single person for miles. All I see is brown, all I see is desert for miles. After a while none of it makes sense to me. You know how if you look at a word too long, you can’t tell if it’s a real word? I couldn’t even tell the difference between the sand and the sky. I didn’t know which way was up. Finally Ludo pulls me back down. The weird thing is we never did hear anything about combat engagement that day. Nobody ever said anything about it.”
“Was that where you got hurt?” I said.
“No,” he said. “That was somewhere else.”
He was so quiet after that, I figured he’d fallen asleep. I was about to switch off the light when he finally spoke. “You got anything on you, Doctor Tom?” he said.
“Don’t hold out on me,” he said. He opened his eyes and there was no affability there, no sweetness at all. “Don’t you fucking hold out.”
I could see how much he hated me. For being a doctor, for fucking his sister. For having both my feet, for waking each day without pain. “I don’t have anything,” I said, and left.
Steph kept inviting him over for dinner all the time. I think she hoped that the more time he spent in her calm, stable orbit, the more it might draw him in. Or maybe she was just hoping to keep him decently fed. When invited, he always showed up, toting that backpack, mostly sober, sometimes not. Once I woke up at midnight and went to the bathroom only to find him passed out next to the sink. I poured cold water over his head to wake him up. He came around slowly, shaking his head, and grabbed at me. He’d lost weight, and he was scrawny, but his arms were strong and ropy with muscle. I went through his backpack. He had five different medications in there, and all the vials were empty. Other than the meds, there was nothing in the backpack except a dogeared copy of Sports Illustrated and a wallet with a Costco card in it.
“How much did you take?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Did you throw up?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do it now.”
“I’m sleepy now, man.”
“Do it now, or I have to take you in and pump your stomach.”
“Okay, okay, but please get the fuck off me,” he said, pushing at me with his strong skinny arms. He stuck his fingers down his throat until he gagged. He seemed practiced at it. I sat with him for an hour or so, the two of us leaning against the wall, drinking water, until I felt like he was all right.
Midnight, Tuesday. It was February, an icy night with the roads as slick as rinks, when we got the call from St. Luke’s. Someone had found Alan behind a bar. It seemed possible he’d been there an entire day and night before he was discovered. The temperature hadn’t been above freezing for a week. By the time we got there, he was awake. The skin on his face was peeling, and his lips were cracked and bloody.
“Hey, kiddo,” Stephanie said. As she leaned over him, covering his hand with hers, he bared his teeth at her like an animal.
“Leave me the fuck alone,” he said.
Stephanie had just worked a double shift; she was exhausted. She started to cry. “Alan,” she said.
I touched her arm. “Why don’t you take a minute?”
She hung her head. She didn’t want to leave him, but she was about to lose it. She nodded, resigned. “I’m going to call Mom and Dad,” she told her brother. “I’ll be right back.”
As soon as she was gone his mood seemed to clear, and he grinned at me. The dimple in his cheek was still there when he smiled, incongruous against the chapped skin. I’d never seen him like this, his moods so all over the place.
“I only got frostbite in one foot,” he said. “So that’s an upside.”
“It’s good to stay positive,” I said.
Just as quickly as it had arrived, his manic mood left and his grin evaporated. His green eyes were steady. “You could really do me a favor, you know,” he said. “Man to man.” He didn’t say anything else. He cocked his head in the direction of his backpack.
I knew he probably had a whole pharmacy in there. He’d been at the VA hospital in Wilkes-Barre, and they were trying out some new meds, seeing if they could do better to control his pain. Stephanie had told me she was hopeful this time it was going to work. She said this every time, each new treatment, each new promise from him. At work, I’d seen her treat patients with cool professionalism, helpful as she could be, distant as she needed to be. With her brother, it was always going to be different.
“Help me out, Doctor Tom,” he said.
He had that deadpan expression, but it wasn’t disguising some flash of humor. It was just dead. “Please,” he said.
I picked up his backpack and placed it on his bed. It was heavy, and I didn’t ask what was in it. I brought him some water, and then I turned off the light and closed the door behind me. The hallway was deserted, and I found Stephanie and took her down to the lobby and made her drink a cup of coffee, kept her down there as long as I could. The nurses came to check on him, but not in time.
I’d been a doctor for less than a year.
I wouldn’t say he looked peaceful. I would say he looked shrunken, and ill-used, and older than his age, which was twenty-six.
I held Stephanie in my arms while she cried. I knew then, feeling her lean into me, feeling my own sadness catch fire from hers, that I loved her, and wanted to marry her, and I stored this feeling away in my heart for a happier day, assuming that we would get to one eventually.
There was a small service, at which Alan and Stephanie’s mother cried dryly, hopelessly, and Ludo gave a eulogy. He said that Alan had saved his life by walking in front of him one day, and that if this hadn’t happened, he would have been injured instead. “It sucks,” he said.
After the first week, Stephanie didn’t cry all that much. She threw herself into work, double and even triple shifts; she would have worked more if rules hadn’t forbidden it. In the evenings she cooked for me and ate little herself, and I tried to be there for her, to listen if she wanted to talk, to hold her at night when she turned to me. On the weekends we went on walks and to the movies. Once, we went to Atlantic City and drank too much and gambled and slept together, and she smiled for what seemed like the first time in months, and I began to feel the clouds lift around us.
Then one night I came home at six, and Stephanie was lying on the couch sobbing, truly sobbing, her shoulders shaking with the force of it. I got her a tissue and she blew her nose into it, honkingly. She sat up, her knees pulled up to her chin like a child.
“It just sort of hit me,” she said, “that he’s never coming back.”
There was nothing I could do to comfort her. She wouldn’t let me touch her. I wondered if on some level she knew what I had done, or suspected. “Leave me alone,” she kept saying, and she sounded just like her brother. I left the house and drove around for a while, went to a bar. I started thinking about my old life in Philadelphia, the friends I had there, and the women I’d known, and it seemed like I’d been under some kind of spell, living an unreal life. I had these thoughts, but when I got back to the condo, Stephanie had composed herself.
She fixed us each a drink. I put my arms around her, and we sat together on the couch. She leaned against my shoulder, her hair brushing my chin. I looked out the window. The streets of the half-empty subdivison were dark, no lights in the houses nearby, and the blackness of the road blended into the inky night. There was no horizon. It reminded me of the story Alan had told me, about not being able to tell the difference between sand and sky. It sounded almost beautiful to me, to be lost for a moment like that, with no one there to tell you which way was up.
Alix Ohlin is the author of Babylon and Other Stories and a novel, The Missing Person. Her work has been anthologized in Best New American Voices 2004 and Best American Short Stories 2005. She is an assistant professor of English at Lafayette College.
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