a literary review
1. The House on the Avenue
Former patients and idlers gather on the long, green summer lawn, looking up at the three-storey brick house with the red tin roof. The third-floor window above the far end of the porch, the old doctor’s window, is open. The spectators in front pass the news to the ones coming up the hill, until the whole town knows that in 1922, bleeding is the modern treatment for myocardial infarction.
At the station, George is the only passenger to step off the train, home from college with his acceptance to medical school. Cadiz is smaller than he remembers, smaller and lonelier when there isn’t anyone to meet him. He is carrying his bags along the platform when the station master hurries out.
“George,” he calls. “Your mother says to come right away. It’s your grandfather.”
George throws his bags into the trunk of a Model T, the town’s only cab. As they turn onto the avenue, the driver shifts into second gear. Passing people headed up the sidewalk, they turn into the drive to the house. When they see George inside the car, some of the men take off their hats.
“They’re bleeding the doctor,” one of them says.
George leaps out of the car and runs up the steps.
“He had a heart attack,” his mother says in the hall.
Her son, who has seen shells splatter men into the filthy French mud, cannot speak. He shakes his father’s hand and starts up the staircase. When he reaches the third floor, he can hear the old man’s labored breathing.
“We’re almost finished,” Dr. Thompson says.
George’s grandfather is in a large chair, facing the window, blood dripping from his left arm into an enamel pan. Dr. Thompson raises the arm and presses the vein until the bleeding stops.
2. Aunt Grace’s Feet
Three generations pose on the front porch: George’s grandfather, Samuel, with thinning hair, a Civil War veteran’s mustache and penetrating eyes; Margaret, George’s tiny grandmother, her graying hair pulled back so tight George always thought it must hurt; Frank, George’s father, tall, young, sandy haired and optimistic, without the tired, hunted look that he will acquire during the Depression; and beside him Mary, George’s mother, young and smiling, her auburn hair swept up in a dark billow. George, age six, their only child, stands proudly in front.
In 1904, when the picture is taken, George’s brothers and sisters are not yet born. He doesn’t know how parents produce children anyway. If it takes any time, his parents are disqualified. His mother spends the days cooking and washing clothes and cleaning, while his father works most evenings in their dry goods store uptown and has to travel East every few months for the newest merchandise.
That year, just before the first snow, Aunt Grace arrives.
“Aunt Grace has such beautiful feet,” his mother always says.
Although George is closer to Aunt Grace’s feet than anyone, he cannot see them under her long skirt. Aunt Grace is taller and thinner than his mother, with the same full auburn hair and quick smile, but some strain and longing sounds in her laughter. She floats up the steps to the porch as if she were ascending on a pillar of air. Only in the front parlor, when she stretches out her legs to reveal black high-button shoes and the tufts of white bloomers, is he certain that she even has feet. His mother and her sister laugh at his amazement, and he looks away quickly.
Aunt Grace arrives on the train from Wheeling, where she has spent the fall with her older sister. In the spring, she will move on to a younger sister in Akron, and in the summer to another in Cleveland. She is the spinster sister, who lives several months with each of her four sisters and their families, until the darning is done or the garden planted or harvested or her hosts have saved enough for train fare to send her on. When George asks his mother why Aunt Grace isn’t married, she says to ask her again when he grows up.
Three generations live in the big house: the grandparents on the third floor, George, his parents and Aunt Grace on the second. His grandparents’ other children have long since married and moved away, leaving the big house only partially inhabited. No place is colder on a winter morning than a three-storey brick house after the coal has burned low in the furnace.
3. A Cold House
That fall George turns seven, and his father presents him with a brass alarm clock from the dry goods store.
“You’re growing up now, son,” he says solemnly. “Time to get yourself up early and stoke the furnace before you go to school.”
George accepts this sign of maturity without question, just as he would change into long pants in the seventh grade, smoke his first cigar at fifteen, and go off to serve with the Rainbow Division in France in 1917. For his father, the ritual passing of the coal shovel to his son marks the first time he can sleep past six in the winter.
Every morning at five-thirty, the alarm clangs like a train at a crossing, its awful bells amplified by the high ceiling and cold walls. George starts awake. He runs along the icy hall, down the long staircase into the kitchen, and into the basement, where a single light bulb illuminates the huge black furnace and bins of glistening coal.
First shake down the ashes, son, then layer a few shovels on top of the coals until you have a good base, then several more to keep your mother warm until you’re home from school. But not too much. Tom Tyler burned his family out of house and home when he over-stoked their furnace in ’94.
With images of that awful conflagration before him, George is careful to count his shovels, never putting more than eight into the deeply glowing burner. At night, before bed, he puts a few shovels of slow burning slack onto the fire to keep them warm until the alarm clock rings again.
4. A Ghost
By October,George is measuring his days in coal shovels and waking before the alarm. In that last moment of peace, he listens to the creaking sounds of the big house as it tightens its grip against the cold. It is in that moment that he first hears the ghost.
Something lighter than air slips along the hall outside his door. It has to be a ghost; nothing human moves like a soft wind, so subtle it dissipates at the clang of the alarm.
Trembling, he opens the door, but the hall is empty except for a strange warmth, as if a passionate thought has been exhaled in a dream. Creeping down to the basement, George wonders whose ghost it is. Enough people to fill a graveyard have died in his grandfather’s operating room at the back of the house. Why does it have to pick this winter to come back?
The next night, in that moment between sleep and awakening, the ghost returns. It slides softer than sound outside his door. Holding his breath until it passes, George is turning the knob when the stairs creak. There is a second spirit creeping after the first back up under the eaves. The chill from the doorknob makes him shudder.
The third night, he hears them speak, a low, soft moaning from the back parlor as he goes down the stairs. A woman’s voice is repeating something like a chant. George is filled with a terror he won’t feel again until his first night in the trenches. Like artillery salvos or an amputation saw whining through bone, it is rhythmic and fascinating and horrifying. He creeps toward his grandfather’s operating room. With each step, the ghost’s chant is clearer.
“It’s not right,” it whispers. “It’s not right.”
He tiptoes through the back parlor that used to be the doctor’s waiting room. The great sliding doors are slightly parted. He can see the dark shadow of her hair falling over the end of the red plush operating table.
“It’s not right,” she repeats.
Not right to what? Not right to die! Feeling her life bleed away with each stroke of the doctor’s saw, the ghost turns her pale upside down face to the door. George stares into empty black eyes that suddenly focus on him.
Suddenly another ghost leaps toward him, the doors slam shut behind it, and George’s father, like an avenging angel, looms over him in his bathrobe.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m going to fire the furnace.”
George runs to the kitchen and down the basement stairs, throws open the furnace and starts to shovel. No spreading the coal over the soft embers now, just shovel and shovel and shovel, like the battleship stokers who fire the huge ships through blue-black winter seas. Up leap the flames, while the shadow of the demonic stoker dances behind him on the basement wall, bending and shoveling, bending and shoveling, until the furnace glows dark red.
“For God’s sake!” his father cries from the top of the stairs. “You’ll burn the house down.”
George throws down the shovel and runs up the stairs. In another minute the furnace will explode, and the family will be burned alive.
“Outside! Quick!” his father calls, and George runs down the icy steps in his robe and slippers, crunching through the snow-covered lawn.
The third floor window to his grandparents’ room flies open and his grandfather looks out. One by one the windows on the second floor open as his mother runs from room to room, frantically trying to cool the house before it explodes. On the first floor his father struggles with the huge front parlor windows that run from the floor to the ceiling.
Now his mother is running down the steps, hair streaming over her shoulders, and then his grandfather and grandmother in their nightclothes, and finally his father. Everyone is out, even the dog, except Aunt Grace with the beautiful feet.
“Frank!” his mother screams. “I couldn’t find Grace!”
“I’ll get her,” his father says and runs back into the house.
As George looks after him, he imagines the house glowing like the over-stoked furnace around the ashes of his father and Aunt Grace.
His stomach and heart knot together. Billows of smoke pour from the chimney, and in another second will burst into flames. He will be no more than a legend like poor Tommy Tyler, who burned his family out of house and home in ’94.
Grace runs outside, wearing only a nightgown and one slipper. She glances back when his father appears. Her bare foot catches on a step and she twists and falls with his father tumbling down on top of her.
Grandfather hurries to them, brushing off the snow and squeezing their cold limbs through their nightclothes. The only injury is Aunt Grace’s left middle toe, broken where it caught in the step. Behind him the family stands shivering in the snow. The old man looks up at the dark brick house, its fiery breath no longer leaping out to warm them.
“Samuel, I’m so cold,” his grandmother says.
“Looks like your luck held this time, Frank,” his grandfather says to his son. “It’s cooling down. Now help me carry her inside.”
Together they lift Aunt Grace and carry her up the steps. George notices that she winces at his father’s touch.
5. Early Morning Surgery
In the operating room, they lay Aunt Grace on the table. The floor is warm and the air is hotter than an August afternoon. George is surprised to see Aunt Grace’s other slipper on the floor. His grandfather is, too, because he looks at his father the way his father had looked at him when he hit a baseball through the front parlor window.
“My instruments are in the cupboard,” the old man snaps.
As the doctor touches her foot gently to examine it, Aunt Grace gasps. George watches, fascinated by the sight of blood on his grandfather’s fingers.
“This may hurt, Grace,” he says coldly. “It’s a compound fracture.”
Strangely, his father appears preoccupied. What could be more exciting than early morning surgery? His grandfather opens, sets and stitches Aunt Grace’s toe, while she moans as softly as the ghost in the hall. His father takes bandages and iodine from a cupboard, and the old doctor binds the toe in white.
His father walks away into the dark hall. George stares hopelessly at the patient, the patient weeps, and George feels responsible for it all.
The windows are closed again when George returns from school. His mother does not mention how he nearly destroyed their home.
6. A Difficult Recovery
George’s mother refuses to carry food upstairs, so Aunt Grace comes down, but only for dinner. Instead of the laughter of sisters, there is silence around the table. His father stares at his plate and complains about having a small stomach.
After dinner, Grandfather helps Grace back upstairs.
“It will be less painful tomorrow,” he promises, with nothing more to offer except sympathy.
One afternoon, when George comes home, the house appears deserted. Looking for someone, he goes through the dining room to the back parlor and the operating room. Aunt Grace is lying on the table, now draped with a rubber sheet to protect it from blood. His mother holds a handkerchief soaked with ether over her face.
“What’s happened?” he asks.
“Her toe became infected and must be removed,” his grandfather says, making a smooth, sharp cut around the base of the swollen toe.
“There,” the old doctor says. “There.”
He sees only his patient while he cuts through the tendons, removes the toe, ties off the spurting little arteries, and stitches a little flap of skin over the wound as deftly as his mother sews up a turkey. Then he bandages her foot and steps back.
If I could do that, George thinks, I would be happy.
“That’s enough now, Mary,” he says to George’s mother, taking the handkerchief from her sister’s pale face. “She’ll come out of it soon enough.”
His mother leaves the room without speaking.
“Sit here until she wakes up,” he tells his grandson. “Don’t let her roll off the table.”
George sits beside his anesthetized Aunt Grace, watching the color return to her cheeks, wondering how the old man could restore health to the injured, and feeling ashamed he’d thought his grandfather’s patients would return to haunt him.
A letter arrives from Akron, inviting Grace to come early for Christmas. George’s grandfather is to drive her to the station in the buggy, and as she hobbles down the steps from the big house like an old woman, gripping his arm, his mother and father watch from the front parlor window. Aunt Grace, who had such beautiful feet, will not visit again. George does not see her until his mother’s funeral in 1937.
During the long winter days before Thanksgiving, George awakens early and carefully stokes the huge furnace, sometimes so lightly his mother is shivering when he returns from school. Yet no one speaks of what nearly destroyed them all, and George’s chest and stomach fill with guilt harder and sharper than black coal. Once, when she is making pot roast for another silent dinner, his mother says: “It has always been a cold house.”
7. A Curse and a Wonder
Thanksgiving brings no joy, neither when his grandmother brings the turkey, squawking and threatening home from market, nor when his father chops off its head, nor when his mother and grandmother soak it in boiling water and pluck its thick feathers. Odors of feasts and revelry permeate a house where no one sings or rejoices
His grandfather’s Thanksgiving grace hangs like a curse over the table. As always now, his father eats lightly. George thinks he understands why: he had trusted a son who failed him. In sermon after sermon at the huge Presbyterian Church on the square, George hears that honoring father and mother is next to honoring God, and that to fail one is to fail the other. Finishing quickly, George is about to excuse himself when his father suddenly stands.
“Excuse me,” his father says softly. “I have a small stomach.”
He takes a step, then gasps and falls, gripping his side.
The old doctor kneels beside him. Quickly he unfastens his son’s vest and trousers and presses his fingers against his abdomen. George’s father cries out.
His grandfather has the same sad and drawn expression his father has worn for so many months, as if he were shamed by something worse than a grandson who did not know how to tend a furnace.
“Forgive me, son,” the old man says. “I should have seen it.
“George, run to Dr. Thompson’s house, and tell him to come with his instruments,” the old doctor says, recovering himself. “Tell him we have to remove your father’s appendix. Understand?”
The boy, who will survive fourteen months as a courier in the Rainbow Division, completes his first mission, galloping back up the long drive beside Dr. Thompson in his buggy. The two doctors carry his father to the red plush operating table and roll the rubber sheet underneath him. In the midst of their preparation, his mother and grandmother carry the turkey carcass and pies to the dining room.
“Help me with his clothes, George,” his grandfather says, and together they undress the patient.
Silently his mother and grandmother join them and take his father’s clothes
“It’s time for you to go now, Margaret,” the old doctor says to his wife.
Red-eyed, his grandmother presses her thin lips together and leaves. Dr. Thompson lays out his instruments and sutures on a silver tray.
The old doctor takes his daughter-in-law’s arm and leads her to the head of the table. He hands her a handkerchief and the bottle of ether.
“I have to assist Dr. Thompson,” he says. “Start when I tell you.”
She spreads the handkerchief over her husband’s nose and mouth. He does not look at her eyes. George wonders what it was about sickness and injury that made his aunt and father so ashamed. Behind them, Dr. Thompson rolls up his sleeves and washes his hands in the corner basin.
“Frank,” the old man says. “We’re going to begin now.”
He nods to his daughter-in law. She looks into her husband’s gray, shame-filled eyes, smoothes his hair, and drips the ether onto the handkerchief.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” the old man begins. “Say it with me, son, as long as you can.”
“He leadeth me beside the still waters,” George’s father says thickly. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”
Only his grandfather and mother say, “He restoreth my soul.”
Then his mother, too, can no longer speak. The doctor nods to his grandson to go, as Dr. Thompson draws the sharp steel across his father’s abdomen. A dark stream of blood rises from the incision.
As George leaves the operating room, he hears his grandfather say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for—”
He remembers that voice more than anything else that day, more than his grandmother fussing with his father’s suit, more than his amazement that the old man still had the strength to carry his father upstairs to bed with Dr. Thomson after the operation, more than his mother and grandmother’s joy when Dr. Thompson says: “He came through fine.”
The curse of muteness passes with the shadow of death. Suddenly everyone is talking about the wonders of modern medicine, how they all should have known something was wrong when Frank stopped eating, how lucky they were that Dr. Thompson had spent that year in Berlin and learned the new operation. When George takes the turkey broth upstairs to his father, George feels him watching the way he always does, when he thinks George isn’t looking.
“I’m sorry about the furnace,” George begins.
His father sets the broth on the bedside table.
“That wasn’t your fault.”
George is stunned.
“And Aunt Grace’s toe,” he continues the litany of his sins.
“That wasn’t your fault, either. Come here, George.”
Looking at the floor, George approaches the man he feared more than God. His father touches his shoulder and then puts his arm around him.
“There are things that happen, son, that can break a grown man. You’ve come through your first, and you’ll come through your second, and all the others, too.”
George is amazed. At seven, his father is talking to him as if he were a grown man.
He never avoids his father’s eyes again, and they never again discuss the morning George stoked up the furnace like a battleship’s boilers and steamed off into unknown seas.
8. A Tin Basin of Blood
The old man turns his head and fixes on his grandson. George sees Dr. Thompson bandaging his grandfather’s arm.
“What you need now is rest, Sam,” Dr. Thompson says, patting his patient’s shoulder and replacing the scalpel and bandages in his bag.
Before he goes downstairs, the doctor takes the tin basin half filled with blood to the bathroom and pours it into the toilet.
After he has been in practice many years, George realizes that nineteenth-century doctors could not avoid death as easily as their twentieth century successors. His grandfather had sat beside his grandmother in that same room and watched her die, as he had watched so many patients die, helpless except to share the passing of their lives.
George carries his grandfather to the bed.
“Let the others come in now,” his grandfather says.
George goes downstairs and leads his parents and brothers and sisters back to his grandfather’s room. They look on silently until his grandfather, to give George’s mother something to do, asks her for some custard. When the children leave, he tells his son where to find his papers. He dies during the night.
~ ~ ~
Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School (’72), and served as an officer in the Navy in Vietnam. He has received an Individual Achievement Award from the Ohio Arts Council for “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser,” a story that appeared in the Harvard Review, the Writers Digest Popular Fiction Award in the horror category, and the Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University. He is also a winner of the John Reid/Tom Howard Contest. His stories have appeared in Pearl Magazine, Rosebud, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Storyglossia, Failbetter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Harvard Review and other literary magazines and e-zines. He is the author of the award winning collection of short stories, The Butterfly Collector from Black Lawrence Press. For more information about his writing, please go to www.fredmcgavran.com.