The room is rectangular, with hospital green walls that match the metal bed where the girl lies quietly. A half-open window faces her at the far end; a yellowed shade flutters with the light August breeze. Sparrows cheep busily outside. A battered wringer washer sits next to a big sink in the corner.
The girl’s head is propped up by pillows. She’s looking at the iron lung next to the bed. They took her out of it a few days ago, and now it is just sitting there, turned off, but ready to start up at any moment.
Twice a day, an orderly comes in with a stack of towels, fills the washer tub with steaming hot water that snakes through a black tube from the faucet, and drops them in. The towels are actually cut-up recycled army blankets. With gloved hands he feeds the dripping wet wool towels into the wringer and then passes them to a nurse, who wraps them around the girl’s arms and legs. The therapy is working; each day she is stronger. She is coming back to life.
This morning, her blanket and top sheet are drenched, but not from the hot packs. A while ago the nurse brought in a breakfast tray with Rice Krispies and a glass of orange juice, then poured milk into the cereal bowl, filling it almost to the top. “There you go, honey,” she crooned. Later, when the girl spooned the cereal into her mouth, the milk slopped over and ran off the tray. When the nurse came to retrieve the tray, she saw the mess. Angry, forgetting herself, she said, “Clumsy girl. You’re going to have to wait until I’m done with my rounds.”
It is 1949, and there are not enough nurses to go around in this epidemic. Most went home to pick up the pieces after the long and difficult war, and the ones left behind were caught by surprise. In this hospital, there are a handful of nurses for two hundred children, some of them infants and toddlers.
The girl can shut out this world by remembering the earlier days of summer when she played on the beach everyday and learned to swim. She relives the first moment of trusting the water and lifting her feet from the soft sandy bottom, kicking a splashy wake behind her.
The girl is reading a book called The Sleepy Kitten. She reads it a few times a day and has most of it memorized. She puts the book down and studies the wall next to her bed. In one spot, there are a few bumps that are actually baby bunnies in a small forest with Bambi, Thumper and some elves.
The moment is interrupted when the nurse returns and wordlessly pulls off the wet sheet and blanket and flings crispy dry ones over the girl, tucking them in quickly. A warm tingly flood of relief flows through the girl. She is respectfully quiet and watches the nurse, who looks a bit like her mother, except she’s older and her mouth is turned down. She has black shiny hair pulled up and tucked under a white cap with “Englewood Hospital” embroidered on it. Her uniform has dark stains down the front and she wears a wedding ring.
“Your mother and father are coming to visit today,” the nurse says, going over to check the window and then looking out at something below. “You’re a lucky little girl,” she says, turning back to face her, “but better mind your Ps and Qs.” The girl thinks these are actually conditions the nurse has placed on the visit and she thinks about how she may have misbehaved. A child in the room next door starts to cry.
She was brought here in the middle of the night about a month ago, and no one has told her what that means and she does not know what questions to ask, nor does she dare because maybe she is not supposed to know why.
An orderly comes to the doorway and drapes what looks like chicken wire across the entrance to waist level, hooking it onto nails driven into the sides. “Getting ready for your visitors,” he says, leaning in a bit. The child next door stops crying. The girl’s eyes close and she falls asleep, dreaming about her little sister.
She is awakened by the sounds of her visitors. “Hello, sweetie,” her mother calls from the doorway, waving. She has on red lipstick and wears a yellow ruffled summer dress. She lightly pushes at the wire mesh and ruefully blows a kiss toward her daughter. The girl’s father stands stoically next to her mother, smiling and brave, like the soldier he still is. The girl is half sitting up and straining to see the details of them, but they are so far away. She wishes they could all leave together and drive to the beach in their yellow Plymouth convertible and swim under the hot sun.
“A present for you,” her father says, and he aims and tosses a bright green rubber frog in a gentle arc toward the bed. It bounces off and onto the floor, skittering away. “Oh, dear,” her mother cries, “now it’s no good.” The girl knows this is true; anything that touches the floor is taken away because now it has germs on it. She fears for the fate of her lifelong panda bear with the black button eyes. “We’ll get you another one next time,” her father announces, fixing the problem.
After they leave, the girl eyes the doomed frog, lit up by a ray of late afternoon sun streaming in through the window. It lies motionless on its back, its bulgy eyes staring at the ceiling, protruding red rubber tongue prepared for an equally doomed fly. She squints hard at it, willing it to move. Through a trick of shifting light, it does; and she smiles for the first time that day.