Preoccupied

by Karen Aschenbrenner
As the emaciated new mobile model trembled across the stained Formica, I kneaded the edge of my batiste and toddled away from the counter. The answering machine sprang to attention as Julia mimicked a tymbal, chirping her location and news, leaving nothing to ambiguity. Under eighty and already a great-grandmother, I patted the limp tendrils pulled over my hair-rollers. I picked up the phone and inquired, “Did I not request Lindsey wait until after my appointment to have that child?”

“I’m sure your hair’s fine, Kaethe.” Julia’s voice, ever ubiquitous, smiled into my kitchen. I watched the peeling wallpaper brighten in the corners. The baby came early. Keith’s out of town. Catching a cab, he made it to the Houston Airport Lindsey was having the epidural, but the next flight wasn’t for three hours. Julia donned scrubs. For a moment, her voice quavered animatedly; she’d been allowed into Lindsey’s patient bay in the PACU. Then she snapped back into business, ordering, “Take a cab. Tip right up front. Tell them to hurry.”

Brows furrowing, I focused on the directions to St. Joseph ’s Julia rapidly explicated. I breathed my aggravation into the phone, “How much will this cost me?”

“That’ll be $18.56,” Jamal informed me, flinging the door wide open as he flourished his arms with gusto, reminiscent of a magician’s bawdy apprentice.

“You did a double-loop. You have two choices. I pay your price without tip, or you charge me for a crow’s flight across the city and I tip enthusiastically.”

Jamal leaned against the door, considering. The cab ride had been unnecessarily long. The whole time, Jamal babbled on about rams. This confused me. I thought he said he was into computers at Georgia Tech, not zoology. I told him my husband had been an instructor there in mathematics.

As we passed Centennial Olympic Park the second time, Jamal pulled over to talk with sidewalk-loitering teenage boys in baggy t-shirts—and braided hair? They must have been friends of his.

“We need to hurry,” I worried, hitting the front seat for emphasis. I had already given him three dollars.

When we moved again, I stuck my head out the window to catch a breeze, cautious with my curls. There was an accident up ahead. I quickly reeled my head back in. We angled onto West Peachtree .

“Scenic detour,” he said, pleased to be driving up the meter.

Halfway down the road, the familiar campus area turned into another place, equally familiar. I was twelve years old again, wedged under wool blankets that could never make me warm in the back of Hubert Goetz’s coach. We were on our way to Wiesbaden, an unfamiliar Aunt Norma, and her home three blocks off from the opera house, her claim to fame.

“What was that?” Jamal asked, picking up my mumbled reminiscence. Nothing, is what I told him as we turned into the parking entrance. It’s nothing.

“How much will you tip me?” Jamal asks now.

“Nothing,” I reply, “but I will do it with enthusiasm.”

With a hearty laugh, Jamal took the bills for running up the meter good-naturedly. “It would’ve been more, but I can’t stiff an old lady cool enough to have an iPod.”

I curtly nodded, pocketing my diminutive lifeline. It didn’t bother me the way those silly little beeping phones did. I wished I could bring it out and let the music wash over my thoughts, diluting their importance. At my age, I know I could get away with it, but in a hospital, going to see my newborn great-grandson, it seemed inappropriate.

“I got to hold him for a second,” Julia said when she saw me in the hallway. Lindsey and the baby were both in transit to the maternity ward. “He’s so small. I’d almost forgotten that.”

“I’m sure he’s just a lamb,” I said, looking up to watch Lindsey being wheeled down the hall. My granddaughter’s dark hair plastered in thick clumps around her face. She was lost under a thin russet hospital blanket. Her left arm rested on its side to avoid contact with the fresh caesarian scars. The pulse oximeter had been moved twice already. The clamp-like device irritated her skin, leaving her fingers red and puffy.

We waited outside for Lindsey to be settled into her new quarters. Julia told me Keith phoned again to say his flight had electrical problems. Half hour delay.

“Nothing goes the way we plan,” Julia concluded, laughing lightly. My hands trembled. I dropped my purse. Julia picked it up for me as a tall nurse with an elevated side ponytail pushed the baby’s isulet past us into the room. She parked it beside Lindsey’s bed. Once we entered, Julia plopped her things on one of two chairs and rummaged through the bag she pre-packed weeks ago, pulling a plush elephant from it. I brought a teddy-print quilt, myself. I folded and refolded the present, giving Lindsey some space. I waited for the right moment to see him for myself.

“So precious,” Julia murmurs now, squeezing Lindsey’s free hand. She’s got her other arm inside the circular isulet hole, holding on to what she can.

Lindsey’s neck twists, unapologetically exposing her ankh tattoo, as she cranes her ears to hear every stir from her hours-old son. She pushes the overbed table of melamine laminate with plastic wheels away from her body and calls her mom over.

“It was so nice, in recovery,” she sighs. “The sponge bath. Could you get those ice chips for me?”

My daughter, Julia, jumps across the room almost as fast as she did when a harried nurse checked Lindsey’s blood oxygen levels before leaving us alone. She stood, jaw set, repeating, “What are you doing to her?”

I sit off to the side in a lightly padded vinyl visitor’s chair, watching, as the world of recovery whirls around me. Lindsey keeps calling for her phone, reporting every detail of her ordeal to Keith who is doing his best to experience it over in Houston . I should say, from the air. He must be over Alabama by now.

“We’re naming him Aidan, Kaethe,” Lindsey raises her arms in mock-exasperation. They’re wrapped in cords. “Keith and I agreed on that already. He’ll be here in an hour, he thinks.”

I shuffle over to the isulet. The bundled fingertips reach out of their terry-cloth wrappings, pausing to savor the feel of warm, sterile air. I reach my hand out and the two touch. We twist together like sugar-sprinkled tomatoes. An odd combination. It tastes just right.

I peer into the baby’s face, searching for flesh memory. It’s a muggy morning, filled with the thick air that comes before true heat can burn it off. Typical for August in Atlanta . My long-sleeve blouse isn’t enough. My shoulders shake, giving away my shiver. How long has it been since I’ve seen that face?

I’ve never gone by Mom or Grandma. I like to hear my own name every day, a balm for reopened wounds, layering over harsher tags. When I am angered, the memories resurface, pounding like hammers to the head against the fragile thin layer of self-esteem I’ve managed to build up over the years. Deep in my own thoughts, I mutter in German.

“Are you okay?”

I nod. My daughter, used to my mood swings, softens the sharp glance she’s directing my way. She sinks down on the side of the bed, accidentally kicking a bedpan out from floor storage. After asking for Lindsey’s permission, she picks Aidan up.

“Those cheeks are as chubby as yours were.”

Lindsey throws a pillow at her mother. I smile. She’ll be fine. She takes Aidan in her arms and studies his features, looking for the story of who she is written there, hoping to find her own deficiencies filled in this new promise. She doesn’t know that’s what she’s up to or she wouldn’t be doing so. But I’ve been there before, and I can’t take my eyes off her fascination.

“Where did he get those eyes? Keith has family in Shanghai I’ve never met before, but I can’t think of anyone…” Lindsey becomes undecipherable as she sips lukewarm coffee. Swallowing, she looks to her mother, who reasons, “Babies often have blue eyes. They fade. Well, darken, really, to brown. That’s probably what will happen.”

“They’ll stay.” My voice is stronger than I expect it to be. Aidan’s eyes connect with mine as Lindsey lifts him at an angle. Julia and Lindsey turn. Three generations look to me for answers.

“We’re American. That’s unhyphenated.” It’s not an answer, but it’s my answer for everything. Julia rolls her eyes. I coined the phrase when she brought home a paper tree with lines to fill in family members’ names in the sixth grade. I’d repeated it often enough when she’d visit Vic’s parents and wonder about mine. I can’t say I was relieved when she stopped asking, though.

Julia brings the baby over to me, encouraging, “Talk to him. Let him hear your voice.”

“Louie,” I say, tasting the feel of my tongue rolling in the old, familiar way. Julia raises her brow. She doesn’t correct me. My memory’s sharp as hers, which might be my problem. I bend my head and touch the tiny ear, whispering to him alone. “I’m so sorry.”

Outside the three-foot window, the sky darkens over tall building lines. A storm’s coming. I look into the newborn’s wide amber eyes, mirrors of another’s. I sit down in a cheap fold-out chair, too overwhelmed to see which reality is anymore.

The muddied, rain-soaked cobblestone road stretched before me, overwhelming my ten-year-old sensibilities with the endlessness of journey. We stopped at Mitzi’s house for supper yesterday, but the von Trebel’s told us they don’t want any trouble. We ran out of old friends and things to barter. We spent it all trying to reach Nürnberg.

It was a foolish idea, leaving Aunt Norma’s. But she told us if anything happened to go to her friend, Josef Wiegandt, at an Ansbach address, out of the bigger cities. He had been in Nürnberg on business, sustained injuries in a large blast at Hauptmarkt und Frauenkirche, and we again found ourselves in transit to an overfilled krankenhaus. As we walked the ruins of the city, I wondered why the sun shone and why the murky grey-green water lay still, with debris floating along invitingly like fallen leaves or brush.

With our parents gone, Uncle Frank in America , and Dresden torn apart, we seemed to be choosing which storms to weather. They were everywhere. The British and American troops crossed the Rhine a month ago, Aunt Norma had informed us. People walk the streets, seeing nothing, waiting for the world to change again.

“All this change,” Lindsey gushes, looking out the window. From the smile on her face, I know she’s not seeing the same sights I am. “Our new house, Keith’s promotion, the pregnancy—and now that’s over. It’s so exciting!”

It might be too exciting. Lindsey sinks back against the bed frame, looking pale and drawn. Before she sinks into a light sleep, she mumbles, “Remind me how terrible that was if I ever talk about having another one.”

“That was the easy part,” Julia responds, patting her knee. “Wait until he’s twenty, off on his own, calling every day because this or that didn’t go right.”

Lindsey closes her eyes for less than ten minutes before a long shadow stretches out before me on the linoleum. I turn to find its cause, but Lindsey’s faster. Sitting up alertly, she shouts, “Keith!”

“Louie!” I hike the squalling infant up past my flat hip. My brothers Anton and Wentzell crouch beside me. Our eyes, pale slits, have acclimated to dark alleys and temporary hiding places over the past three days. When air-raids erupted in Berlin , Gestapo started making split-second decisions in the streets. No one’s really safe right now. No one’s ever who they say they are, and the enemy approaches. They say, in the zeitung I found, it will be worse for us all if the enemy arrives. Thought I don’t believe the journalists, there’s only time to react.

Boots on the streets thump. A sturdy left, right, left. Our aunt, an anxious widow, was our uncle’s wife. Her threats ring in my ears. All those nights washing dishes in her bungalow, she reminded me what could happen to us if I didn’t work harder. I listened. If we’re found, I fear they will take their clubs and use their boots and show my younger brothers what it means to live.

Pain. I was there when the Jewish children were discovered behind a fake wall my father built into the east side of our apartment. Two boys, former classmates of mine, were snatched up so fast one could forget they were ever there. We had warning. My mother shoved me into our neighbors’ arms, two stories down, pretending I wasn’t hers. I backed into a corner, reaching for Wentzell’s hand. We closed our eyes. We didn’t open them again until Rose Wiegandt squeezed my arm and said the men had taken my parents away. Where, and especially how, I didn’t ask. As she assured us they’d see us safely out of the city, I fingered my mother’s worn rosary and stopped listening.

“Kaethe? Do you want anything? I’m running to the food court,” Julia says, shifting her gaze to Lindsey and Keith’s reunion. I hold up a cup of coffee, watered-down garbage with a Styrofoam aftertaste. Shifting, I hit the iPod with my hip, activating the playlist.
“Is that heavy metal?” Lindsey, incredulous, must be able to hear the reverberating drumbeats from her bed. We’re closely-confined, and of course, I have it on full volume. I lean back against the hard wall, hitting the tip of my head on the window railing that looks out into the hall of this hospital unit.

Keith circles around the isulet and Lindsey’s bed, attention riveted to the bundle in his arms. His heavy shoes clunk on the floor.

Soldiers approached. My heart pounded in rhythm, matching Alois’s wail.

“Quiet him,” Anton hissed at me. Wentzell wasn’t much quieter, engaged in flinging junk into the puddles.

“Achtung!” The command in Anton’s voice makes Wentzell stop. He allowed himself to be pulled along and buried under a pile of boards dispersed across an area littered with abandoned furniture, torn clothes and genuine trash.

“Why are we hiding?” he asked casually, as if he wanted to know why people took hats off in church. I shot Anton a warning look. We knew armed SS battalions were marching through the city, retreating with dignity. They took prisoners on forced-marches with them, randomly shooting out their frustration. They didn’t have time to discern who was who, or what to do.

Some people looked out their windows, waving them on out, praying with their eyes it was forever. Others shed tears of loss and fear. They’d known belonging, productivity, opportunity, and wealth these past years that had never been there for them before.
Luftwaffe units had flown overhead three times that day. Something big was happening, and we wanted to be out of its way.

With Wentzell taken care of, Anton rushed toward a large two-door cupboard and squeezed in. With his hand, he urged me to follow.

He lifted his finger to his mouth, glaring at Louie. I shook Louie in frustration. His cries jolted like drum beats.

Those really were drum beats I was hearing. Desperate, I clamped my palm firmly over his small mouth. I squished into the abandoned cupboard and closed the open door. I pressed my hand against his smooth skin, praying it was enough.

“A soda and a chicken patty? Are you sure that’s going to be enough for you, Keith?” Julia asks after repeating his order. The normally boisterous man nods distractedly.
Julia turns to go, pocketbook in hand. I shakily stand, pat my legs, and make to follow. She protests, but I say I want to walk, glancing behind me. Steady now, I lead the way out the door, stepping into the bright hallway.

Footsteps faded. We hopped out into fresh air and turned onto the street. For a moment, everything remained uncertain, but then two young boys’ rousing cheer filled formerly desolate streets.

Anton leapt after the cheering boys and jumped into the small cluster of children. Wentzell looked up at me, confused, until Anton returned. He explained simply. “American soldiers.”

“My brother was a soldier,” I tell Julia as we move through the small dining area towards the shabby food counter with its eight selections. She stops mid-stride to look back at me. It’s the first time since Anton’s visit I’ve ever talked about my family. She was four at the time. I doubt she remembers. “In Korea . His name was Wentzell.”

Julia comes to the front of the ordering line. The moment dissipates. I grab a chair at a sticky bistro-style plastic table. In minutes, Julia has her order and brings two disposable bowls of limp salad with mushy tomatoes wedges over to the table I’ve chosen.

“I’m going to take this in to Keith,” she says, shaking a brown bag. “Wait here?”

I watch her walk off confidently, greeting two nurses she knows as she passes. Her head’s held high. Her hair’s razor-edged cut contrasts her heart-shaped face. In a month, she’ll be fifty. She looks stunning, my baby. When she turns the corner, I refocus on the food in front of me. I absently twirl my soda straw.

For many, it wasn’t good news, the Americans overtaking the city, but I twirled Louie around in a celebratory circle, cooing. When he didn’t wriggle at the motion, I glanced down and realized I was still keeping Louie quiet. I dropped my hand.

Louie lolled limply in my arms. I stroked his tummy, which was warm, hoping to feel it pattering. Nothing. I turned towards Anton and saw in his face the blank disbelief that had to be in my own, as well.

“He’s free,” Anton finally said. He turned, hopping from stone to stone. His feet squelched in puddles, sloshing like explosions in my ears. Louder—

A wail penetrates the past. For a moment, I think it is Louie. Then I remember Aidan. It’s neither.

An orderly pushes a pajama-clad child no more than twelve past the food court. Dressed in a windbreaker, a bright pajama set, and walking shoes, the girl is being discharged. Her face is flushed, and in her right arm she cradles the left, which is done up in a cast with bright pink layered over the plaster.

Trailing behind them, a smaller girl the very replica of the one riding in the wheelchair sobs uncontrollably, repeatedly apologizing for the accident.

I was apologetic for the accident, but Louie wasn’t there to forgive me. Six months later, Anton, Wentzell, and I sailed to America with the recently renamed Aunt Norma Wiegandt and Josef. We met our uncle in Boston . He took us to the coast. We walked a long wharf. Wind whipped my hair. The Atlantic spray spattered across my face, a welcoming touch.

Where water blurred into sky, I imagined I saw the other shore. I opened my balled fists. They both carried beach pebbles, smooth from rubbing sand and water-worn. White, brown, pink, and gray. I tossed them into the waves, one at a time. The thick body of water swallowed the small stones without a single gasping spray. I cried because I was not sorry so many people had left us. I was sorry for myself, and for the rest of us with our memories, beautiful and haunting.

As tears streak down my face, Julia takes the seat across from me. Her long legs push up against the table board. She wears a self-satisfied smirk. Pushing away the tasteless salad, she stares into my face with clear eyes the color of warm amber, rich and strong. I catch a glimpse of myself in a warped reflection behind us where a metal toaster is plugged into an outlet and rests on a condiments table. Content, I meet her gaze.
Karen Aschenbrenner, a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, researches literary representations of disability, medical humanities, and the mythology of healing.

© 2008, Karen Aschenbrenner