Small Great Things By Jodi Picoult: Book Review
I read this timely, heartfelt book about racism in the weeks leading up to the US election and it gave me hope.
Bestselling author Jodi Picoult gives voice to three first-person narrators: Ruth, a woman of colour and experienced labour and delivery nurse, who is accused of causing a baby’s death; Turk, the angry White Supremacist father of the dead infant; and Kennedy, the liberal white lawyer who represents Ruth.
Picoult details the events surrounding the baby’s death and the subsequent lawsuit from all three standpoints: the target of prejudice, the active racist and the well-meaning non-racist.
The novel is a beautiful exploration of what would happen if these three very different viewpoints came to understand each other.
I think now, more than ever, this is a book to give us hope.
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Small Great Things By Jodi Picoult: Book Extract
The miracle happened on West Seventy-fourth Street, in the home where Mama worked. It was a big brownstone encircled by a wrought-iron fence, and overlooking either side of the ornate door were gargoyles, their granite faces carved from my nightmares. They terrified me, so I didn’t mind the fact that we always entered through the less-impressive side door, whose keys Mama kept on a ribbon in her purse.
Mama had been working for Sam Hallowell and his family since before my sister and I were born. You may not have recognized his name, but you would have known him the minute he said hello. He had been the unmistakable voice in the mid-1960s who announced before every show: The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC! In 1976, when the miracle happened, he was the network’s head of programming. The doorbell beneath those gargoyles was the famously pitched three-note chime everyone associates with NBC. Sometimes, when I came to work with my mother, I’d sneak outside and push the button and hum along.
The reason we were with Mama that day was because it was a snow day. School was canceled, but we were too little to stay alone in our apartment while Mama went to work—which she did, through snow and sleet and probably also earthquakes and Armageddon. She muttered, stuffing us into our snowsuits and boots, that it didn’t matter if she had to cross a blizzard to do it, but God forbid Ms. Mina had to spread the peanut butter on her own sandwich bread. In fact the only time I remember Mama taking time off work was twenty-five years later, when she had a double hip replacement, generously paid for by the Hallowells. She stayed home for a week, and even after that, when it didn’t quite heal right and she insisted on returning to work, Mina found her tasks to do that kept her off her feet. But when I was little, during school vacations and bouts of fever and snow days like this one, Mama would take us with her on the B train downtown.
Mr. Hallowell was away in California that week, which happened often, and which meant that Ms. Mina and Christina needed Mama even more. So did Rachel and I, but we were better at taking care of ourselves, I suppose, than Ms. Mina was.
When we nally emerged at Seventy-second Street, the world was white. It was not just that Central Park was caught in a snow globe. The faces of the men and women shuddering through the storm to get to work looked nothing like mine, or like my cousins’ or neighbors’.
I had not been into any Manhattan homes except for the Hallowells’, so I didn’t know how extraordinary it was for one family to live, alone, in this huge building. But I remember thinking it made no sense that Rachel and I had to put our snowsuits and boots into the tiny, cramped closet in the kitchen, when there were plenty of empty hooks and open spaces in the main entry, where Christina’s and Ms. Mina’s coats were hanging. Mama tucked away her coat, too, and her lucky scarf—the soft one that smelled like her, and that Rachel and I fought to wear around our house because it felt like petting a guinea pig or a bunny under your fingers. I waited for Mama to move through the dark rooms like Tinker Bell, alighting on a switch or a handle or a knob so that the sleeping beast of a house was gradually brought to life.
“You two be quiet,” Mama told us, “and I’ll make you some of Ms. Mina’s hot chocolate.”
It was imported from Paris, and it tasted like heaven. So as Mama tied on her white apron, I took a piece of paper from a kitchen drawer and a packet of crayons I’d brought from home and silently started to sketch. I made a house as big as this one. I put a family inside: me, Mama, Rachel. I tried to draw snow, but I couldn’t. The flakes I’d made with the white crayon were invisible on the paper. The only way to see them was to tilt the paper sideways toward the chandelier light, so I could make out the shimmer where the crayon had been.
“Can we play with Christina?” Rachel asked. Christina was six, falling neatly between the ages of Rachel and me. Christina had the biggest bedroom I had ever seen and more toys than anyone I knew. When she was home and we came to work with our mother, we played school with her and her teddy bears, drank water out of real miniature china teacups, and braided the corn-silk hair of her dolls. Unless she had a friend over, in which case we stayed in the kitchen and colored.
But before Mama could answer, there was a scream so piercing and so ragged that it stabbed me in the chest. I knew it did the same to Mama, because she nearly dropped the pot of water she was carrying to the sink. “Stay here,” she said, her voice already trailing behind her as she ran upstairs.
Rachel was the first one out of her chair; she wasn’t one to follow instructions. I was drawn in her wake, a balloon tied to her wrist. My hand skimmed over the banister of the curved staircase, not touching.
Ms. Mina’s bedroom door was wide open, and she was twisting on the bed in a sinkhole of satin sheets. The round of her belly rose like a moon; the shining whites of her eyes made me think of merry-go-round horses, frozen in flight. “It’s too early, Lou,” she gasped.
“Tell that to this baby,” Mama replied. She was holding the telephone receiver. Ms. Mina held her other hand in a death grip. “You stop pushing, now,” she said. “The ambulance’ll be here any minute.”
I wondered how fast an ambulance could get here in all that snow.
It wasn’t until I heard Christina’s voice that I realized the noise had woken her up. She stood between Rachel and me. “You three, go to Miss Christina’s room,” Mama ordered, with steel in her voice. “Now.”
But we remained rooted to the spot as Mama quickly forgot about us, lost in a world made of Ms. Mina’s pain and fear, trying to be the map that she could follow out of it. I watched the cords stand out on Ms. Mina’s neck as she groaned; I saw Mama kneel on the bed between her legs and push her gown over her knees. I watched the pink lips between Ms. Mina’s legs purse and swell and part. There was the round knob of a head, a knot of shoulder, a gush of blood and fluid, and suddenly, a baby was cradled in Mama’s palms.
“Look at you,” she said, with love written over her face. “Weren’t you in a hurry to get into this world?”
Two things happened at once: the doorbell rang, and Christina started to cry. “Oh, honey,” Ms. Mina crooned, not scary anymore but still sweaty and red-faced. She held out her hand, but Christina was too terrified by what she had seen, and instead she burrowed closer to me. Rachel, ever practical, went to answer the front door. She returned with two paramedics, who swooped in and took over, so that what Mama had done for Ms. Mina became like everything else she did for the Hallowells: seamless and invisible.
The Hallowells named the baby Louis, after Mama. He was fine, even though he was almost a full month early, a casualty of the barometric pressure dropping with the storm, which caused a PROM—a premature rupture of membranes. Of course, I didn’t know that back then. I only knew that on a snowy day in Manhattan I had seen the very start of someone. I’d been with that baby before anyone or anything in this world had a chance to disappoint him.
The experience of watching Louis being born affected us all differently. Christina had her baby via surrogate. Rachel had five. Me, I became a labor and delivery nurse.
When I tell people this story, they assume the miracle I am referring to during that long-ago blizzard was the birth of a baby. True, that was astonishing. But that day I witnessed a greater wonder. As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama’s, there was a moment— one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.
That miracle, I’ve spent thirty-nine years waiting to see again.
The most beautiful baby I ever saw was born without a face.
From the neck down, he was perfect: ten fingers, ten toes, chubby belly. But where his ear should have been, there was a twist of lips and a single tooth. Instead of a face there was a swirling eddy of skin with no features.
His mother—my patient—was a thirty-year-old gravida 1 para 1 who had received prenatal care including an ultrasound, but the baby had been positioned in a way that the facial deformity hadn’t been visible. The spine, the heart, the organs had all looked fine, so no one was expecting this. Maybe for that very reason, she chose to deliver at Mercy–West Haven, our little cottage hospital, and not Yale–New Haven, which is better equipped for emergencies. She came in full term, and labored for sixteen hours before she delivered. The doctor lifted the baby, and there was nothing but silence. Buzzy, white silence.
“Is he all right?” the mother asked, panicking. “Why isn’t he crying?”
I had a student nurse shadowing me, and she screamed.
“Get out,” I said tightly, shoving her from the room. Then I took the newborn from the obstetrician and placed him on the warmer, wiping the vernix from his limbs. The OB did a quick exam, silently met my gaze, and turned back to the parents, who by now knew something was terribly wrong. In soft words, the doctor said their child had profound birth defects that were incompatible with life.
On a birth pavilion, Death is a more common patient than you’d think. When we have anencephalies or fetal deaths, we know that the parents still have to bond with and mourn for that baby. This infant— alive, for however long that might be—was still this couple’s son.
So I cleaned him and swaddled him, the way I would any other newborn, while the conversation behind me between the parents and the doctor stopped and started like a car choking through the winter. Why? How? What if you ...? How long until ...? Questions no one ever wants to ask, and no one ever wants to answer.
The mother was still crying when I settled the baby in the crook of her elbow. His tiny hands windmilled. She smiled down at him, her heart in her eyes. “Ian,” she whispered. “Ian Michael Barnes.”
She wore an expression I’ve only seen in paintings in museums, of a love and a grief so fierce that they forged together to create some new, raw emotion.
I turned to the father. “Would you like to hold your son?”
He looked like he was about to be sick. “I can’t,” he muttered and bolted from the room.
I followed him, but was intercepted by the nurse in training, who was apologetic and upset. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just . . . it was a monster.”
“It is a baby,” I corrected, and I pushed past her.
I cornered the father in the parents’ lounge. “Your wife and your son need you.”
“That’s not my son,” he said. “That . . . thing . . .”
“Is not going to be on this earth for very long. Which means you’d better give him all the love you had stored up for his lifetime right now.” I waited until he looked me in the eye, and then I turned on my heel. I did not have to glance back to know he was following me.
When we entered the hospital room, his wife was still nuzzling the infant, her lips pressed to the smooth canvas of his brow. I took the tiny bundle from her arms, and handed the baby to her husband. He sucked in his breath and then drew back the blanket from the spot where the baby’s face should have been.
I’ve thought about my actions, you know. If I did the right thing by forcing the father to confront his dying baby, if it was my place as a nurse. Had my supervisor asked me at the time, I would have said that I’d been trained to provide closure for grieving parents. If this man didn’t acknowledge that something truly horrible had happened—or worse, if he kept pretending for the rest of his life that it never had—a hole would open up inside him. Tiny at first, that pit would wear away, bigger and bigger, until one day when he wasn’t expecting it he would realize he was completely hollow.
When the father started to cry, the sobs shook his body, like a hurricane bends a tree. He sank down beside his wife on the hospital bed, and she put one hand on her husband’s back and one on the crown of the baby’s head.
They took turns holding their son for ten hours. That mother, she even tried to let him nurse. I could not stop staring—not because it was ugly or wrong, but because it was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen. It felt like looking into the face of the sun: once I turned away, I was blind to everything else.
At one point, I took that stupid nursing student into the room with me, ostensibly to check the mother’s vitals, but really to make her see with her own eyes how love has nothing to do with what you’re looking at, and everything to do with who’s looking.
When the infant died, it was peaceful. We made casts of the newborn’s hand and foot for the parents to keep. I heard that this same couple came back two years later and delivered a healthy daughter, though I wasn’t on duty when it happened.
It just goes to show you: every baby is born beautiful.
It’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.
Right after I gave birth to Edison, seventeen years ago at this very hospital, I wasn’t worried about the health of my baby, or how I was going to juggle being a single parent while my husband was overseas, or how my life was going to change now that I was a mother.
I was worried about my hair.
The last thing you’re thinking about when you’re in labor is what you look like, but if you’re like me, it’s the first thing that crosses your mind once that baby’s come. The sweat that mats the hair of all my white patients to their foreheads instead made my roots curl up and pull away from the scalp. Brushing my hair around my head in a swirl like an ice cream cone and wrapping it in a scarf each night was what kept it straight the next day when I took it down. But what white nurse knew that, or understood that the little complimentary bottle of shampoo provided by the hospital auxiliary league was only going to make my hair even frizzier? I was sure that when my well-meaning colleagues came in to meet Edison, they would be shocked into stupor at the sight of the mess going on atop my head.
In the end, I wound up wrapping it in a towel, and told visitors I’d just had a shower.
I know nurses who work on surgical floors who tell me about men wheeled out of surgery who insist on taping their toupees into place in the recovery room before their spouses join them. And I can’t tell you the number of times a patient who has spent the night grunting and screaming and pushing out a baby with her husband at her side will kick her spouse out of the room postdelivery so I can help her put on a pretty nightgown and robe.
I understand the need people have to put a certain face on for the rest of the world. Which is why—when I first arrive for my shift at 6:40 a.m.—I don’t even go into the staff room, where we will shortly receive the night’s update from the charge nurse. Instead I slip down the hall to the patient I’d been with yesterday, before my shift ended. Her name was Jessie; she was a tiny little thing who had come into the pavilion looking more like a campaigning First Lady than a woman in active labor: her hair was perfectly coiffed, her face airbrushed with makeup, even her maternity clothes were fitted and stylish. That’s a dead giveaway, since by forty weeks of pregnancy most mothers-to-be would be happy to wear a pup tent. I scanned her chart—G1, now P1—and grinned. The last thing I’d said to Jessie before I turned her care over to a colleague and went home for the night was that the next time I saw her, she’d have a baby, and sure enough, I have a new patient. While I’ve been sleeping, Jessie’s delivered a healthy seven- pound, six-ounce girl.
I open the door to find Jessie dozing. The baby lies swaddled in the bassinet beside the bed; Jessie’s husband is sprawled in a chair, snoring. Jessie stirs when I walk in, and I immediately put a finger to my lips. Quiet.
From my purse, I pull a compact mirror and a red lipstick.
Part of labor is conversation; it’s the distraction that makes the pain ebb and it’s the glue that bonds a nurse to her patient. What other situation can you think of where one medical professional spends up to twelve hours consulting with a single person? As a result, the connection we build with these women is fierce and fast. I know things about them, in a mere matter of hours, that their own closest friends don’t always know: how she met her partner at a bar when she’d had too much to drink; how her father didn’t live long enough to see this grandchild; how she worries about being a mom because she hated babysitting as a teenager. Last night, in the dragon hours of Jessie’s labor, when she was teary and exhausted and snapping at her husband, I’d suggested that he go to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. As soon as he left, the air in the room was easier to breathe, and she fell back against those awful plastic pillows we have in the birthing pavilion. “What if this baby changes everything?” she sobbed. She confessed that she never went anywhere without her “game face” on, that her husband had never even seen her without mascara; and now here he was watching her body contort itself inside out, and how would he ever look at her the same way again?
Listen, I had told her. You let me worry about that.
I’d like to think my taking that one straw off her back was what gave her the strength to make it to transition.
It’s funny. When I tell people I’ve been a labor and delivery nurse for more than twenty years, they’re impressed by the fact that I have assisted in cesareans, that I can start an IV in my sleep, that I can tell the difference between a decel in the fetal heart rate that is normal and one that requires intervention. But for me, being an L & D nurse is all about knowing your patient, and what she needs. A back rub. An epidural. A little Maybelline.
Jessie glances at her husband, still dead to the world. Then she takes the lipstick from my hand. “Thank you,” she whispers, and our eyes connect. I hold the mirror as she once again reinvents herself.
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On Thursdays, my shift goes from 7:00 a.m. till 7:00 p.m. At Mercy–West Haven, during the day, we usually have two nurses on the birthing pavilion—three if we’re swimming in human resources that day. As I walk through the pavilion, I note idly how many of our delivery suites are occupied—it’s three, right now, a nice slow start to the day. Marie, the charge nurse, is already in the room where we have our morning meeting when I come inside, but Corinne—the second nurse on shift with me—is missing. “What’s it going to be today?” Marie asks, as she flips through the morning paper.
“Flat tire,” I reply. This guessing game is a routine: What excuse will Corinne use today for being late? It’s a beautiful fall day in October, so she can’t blame the weather.
“That was last week. I’m going with the flu.”
“Speaking of which,” I say. “How’s Ella?” Marie’s eight-year-old had caught the stomach bug that’s been going around.
“Back in school today, thank God,” Marie replies. “Now Dave’s got it. I figure I have twenty-four hours before I’m down for the count.” She looks up from the Regional section of the paper. “I saw Edison’s name in here again,” she says.
My son has made the Highest Honors list for every semester of his high school career. But just like I tell him, that’s no reason to boast. “There are a lot of bright kids in this town,” I demur.
“Still,” Marie says. “For a boy like Edison to be so successful . . . well. You should be proud, is all. I can only hope Ella turns out to be that good a student.”
A boy like Edison. I know what she is saying, even if she’s careful not to spell it out. There are not many black kids in the high school, and as far as I know, Edison is the only one on the Highest Honors list. Comments like this feel like paper cuts, but I’ve worked with Marie for over ten years now, so I try to ignore the sting. I know she doesn’t really mean anything by it. She’s a friend, after all—she came to my house with her family for Easter supper last year, along with some of the other nurses, and we’ve gone out for cocktails or movie nights and once a girls’ weekend at a spa. Still, Marie has no idea how often I have to just take a deep breath, and move on. White people don’t mean half the offensive things that come out of their mouths, and so I try not to let myself get rubbed the wrong way.
“Maybe you should hope that Ella makes it through the school day without going to the nurse’s office again,” I reply, and Marie laughs.
“You’re right. First things first.”
Corinne explodes into the room. “Sorry I’m late,” she says, and Marie and I exchange a look. Corinne’s fifteen years younger than I am, and there’s always some emergency—a carburetor that’s dead, a fight with her boyfriend, a crash on 95N. Corinne is one of those people for whom life is just the space between crises. She takes off her coat and manages to knock over a potted plant that died months ago, which no one has bothered to replace. “Dammit,” she mutters, righting the pot and sweeping the soil back inside. She dusts off her palms on her scrubs, and then sits down with her hands folded. “I’m really sorry, Marie. The stupid tire I replaced last week has a leak or something; I had to drive here the whole way going thirty.”
Marie reaches into her pocket and pulls out a dollar, which she flicks across the table at me. I laugh.
“All right,” Marie says. “Floor report. Room two is a couplet. Jessica Myers, G one P one at forty weeks and two days. She had a vaginal delivery this morning at three a.m., uncomplicated, without pain meds. Baby girl is breast-feeding well; she’s peed but hasn’t pooped yet.”
“I’ll take her,” Corinne and I say in unison.
Everyone wants the patient who’s already delivered; it’s the easier job. “I had her during active labor,” I point out.
“Right,” Marie says. “Ruth, she’s yours.” She pushes her reading glasses up on her nose. “Room three is Thea McVaughn, G one P zero at forty-one weeks and three days, she’s in active labor at four centimeters dilated, membranes intact. Fetal heart rate tracing looks good on the monitor, the baby’s active. She’s requested an epidural and her IV fluid bolus is infusing.”
“Has Anesthesia been paged?” Corinne asks.
“I’ve got her.”
We only take one active labor patient at a time, if we can help it, which means that the third patient—the last one this morning—will be mine. “Room five is a recovery. Brittany Bauer is a G one P one at thirty-nine weeks and one day; had an epidural and a vaginal delivery at five-thirty a.m. Baby’s a boy; they want a circ. Mom was a GDM A one; the baby is on Q three hour blood sugars for twenty-four hours. The mom really wants to breast-feed. They’re still skin to skin.”
A recovery is still a lot of work—a one-to-one nurse-patient relationship. True, the labor’s finished, but there is still tidying up to be done, a physical assessment of the newborn, and a stack of paperwork. “Got it,” I say, and I push away from the table to go find Lucille, the night nurse, who was with Brittany during the delivery.
She finds me first, in the staff restroom, washing my hands. “Tag, you’re it,” she says, handing me Brittany Bauer’s file. “Twenty-six-year-old G one, now P one, delivered vaginally this morning at five-thirty over an intact perineum. She’s O positive, rubella immune, Hep B and HIV negative, GBS negative. Gestational diabetic, diet controlled, otherwise uncomplicated. She still has an IV in her left forearm. I DC’d the epidural, but she hasn’t been out of bed yet, so ask her if she has to get up and pee. Her bleeding’s been good, her fundus is firm at U.”
I open the file and scan the notes, committing the details to memory. “Davis,” I read. “That’s the baby?”
“Yeah. His vital signs have been normal, but his one-hour blood sugar was forty, so we’ve got him trying to nurse. He’s done a little bit on each side, but he’s kind of spitty and sleepy and he hasn’t done a whole lot of eating.”
“Did he get his eyes and thighs?”
“Yeah, and he’s peed, but hasn’t pooped. I haven’t done the bath or the newborn assessment yet.”
“No problem,” I say. “Is that it?”
“The dad’s name is Turk,” Lucille replies, hesitating. “There’s something just a little . . . off about him.”
“Like Creeper Dad?” I ask. Last year, we had a father who was flirting with the nursing student in the room during his wife’s delivery. When she wound up having a C-section, instead of standing behind the drape near his wife’s head, he strolled across the OR and said to the nursing student, Is it hot in here, or is it just you?
“Not like that,” Lucille says. “He’s appropriate with the mom. He’s just . . . sketchy. I can’t put my finger on it.”
I’ve always thought that if I wasn’t an L & D nurse, I’d make a great fake psychic. We are skilled at reading our patients so that we know what they need moments before they realize it. And we are also gifted when it comes to sensing strange vibes. Just last month my radar went off when a mentally challenged patient came in with an older Ukrainian woman who had befriended her at the grocery store where she worked. There was something weird about the dynamic between them, and I followed my hunch and called the police. Turned out the Ukrainian woman had served time in Kentucky for stealing the baby of a woman with Down syndrome.
So as I walk into Brittany Bauer’s room for the first time, I am not worried. I’m thinking: I’ve got this.
I knock softly and push open the door. “I’m Ruth,” I say. “I’m going to be your nurse today.” I walk right up to Brittany, and smile down at the baby cradled in her arms. “Isn’t he a sweetie! What’s his name?” I ask, although I already know. It’s a means to start a conversation, to connect with the patient.
Brittany doesn’t answer. She looks at her husband, a hulking guy who’s sitting on the edge of his chair. He’s got military-short hair and he’s bouncing the heel of one boot like he can’t quite stay still. I get what Lucille saw in him. Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks.
It doesn’t matter if you’re shy or modest—nobody who’s just had a baby stays quiet for long. They want to share this life-changing moment. They want to relive the labor, the birth, the beauty of their baby. But Brittany, well, it’s almost like she needs his permission to speak. Domestic abuse? I wonder.
“Davis,” she chokes out. “His name is Davis.”
“Well, hello, Davis,” I murmur, moving closer to the bed. “Would you mind if I take a listen to his heart and lungs and check his temperature?”
Her arms clamp tighter on the newborn, pulling him closer.
“I can do it right here,” I say. “You don’t have to let go of him.”
You have to cut a new parent a little bit of slack, especially one who’s already been told her baby’s blood sugar is too low. So I tuck the thermometer under Davis’s armpit, and get a normal reading. I look at the whorls of his hair—a patch of white can signify hearing loss; an alternating hair pattern can flag metabolic issues. I press my stethoscope against the baby’s back, listening to his lungs. I slide my hand between him and his mother, listening to his heart.
It’s so faint that I think it’s a mistake.
I listen again, trying to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but that slight whir is there behind the backbeat of the pulse.
Turk stands up, so that he is towering over me; he folds his arms.
Nerves look different on fathers. They get combative, sometimes. As if they could bluster away whatever’s wrong.
“I hear a very slight murmur,” I say delicately. “But it could be nothing. This early, there are still parts of the heart that are developing. Even if it is a murmur, it could disappear in a few days. Still, I’ll make a note of it; I’ll have the pediatrician take a listen.” While I’m talking, trying to be as calm as possible, I do another blood sugar. It’s an Accu-Chek, which means we get instant results—and this time, he’s at fifty-two. “Now, this is great news,” I say, trying to give the Bauers something positive to hold on to. “His sugar is much better.” I walk to the sink and run warm water, fill a plastic bowl, and set it on the warmer. “Davis is definitely perking up, and he’ll probably start eating really soon. Why don’t I get him cleaned up, and fire him up a little bit, and we can try nursing again?”
I reach down and scoop the baby up. Turning my back to the parents, I place Davis on the warmer and begin my exam. I can hear Brittany and Turk whispering fiercely as I check the fontanels on the baby’s head for the suture lines, to make sure the bones aren’t overriding each other. The parents are worried, and that’s normal. A lot of patients don’t like to take the nurse’s opinion on any medical issue; they need to hear it from the doctor to believe it—even though L & D nurses are often the ones who first notice a quirk or a symptom. Their pediatrician is Atkins; I will page her after I’m done with the exam, and have her listen to the baby’s heart.
But right now, my attention is on Davis. I look for facial bruising, hematoma, or abnormal shaping of the skull. I check the palmar creases in his tiny hands, and the set of his ears relative to his eyes. I measure the circumference of his head and the length of his squirming body. I check for clefts in the mouth and the ears. I palpate the clavicles and put my pinkie in his mouth to check his sucking reflex. I study the rise and fall of the tiny bellows of his chest, to make sure his breathing isn’t labored. Press his belly to make sure it’s soft, check his fingers and toes, scan for rashes or lesions or birthmarks. I make sure his testicles have descended and scan for hypospadias, making sure that the urethra is where it’s supposed to be. Then I gently turn him over and scan the base of the spine for dimples or hair tufts or any other indicator of neural tube defect.
I realize that the whispering behind me has stopped. But instead of feeling more comfortable, it feels ominous. What do they think I’m doing wrong?
By the time I flip him back over, Davis’s eyes are starting to drift shut. Babies usually get sleepy a couple of hours after delivery, which is one reason to do the bath now—it will wake him up long enough to try to feed again. There is a stack of wipes on the warmer; with practiced, sure strokes I dip one into the warm water and wipe the baby down from head to toe. Then I diaper him, swiftly wrap him up in a blanket like a burrito, and rinse his hair under the sink with some Johnson’s baby shampoo. The last thing I do is put an ID band on him that will match the ones his parents have, and fasten a tiny electronic security bracelet on his ankle, which will set off an alarm if the baby gets too close to any of the exits.
I can feel the parents’ eyes, hot on my back. I turn, a smile fastened on my face. “There,” I say, handing the infant to Brittany again. “Clean as a whistle. Now, let’s see if we can get him to nurse.”
I reach down to help position the baby, but Brittany inches.
“Get away from her,” Turk Bauer says. “I want to talk to your boss.”
They are the first words he has spoken to me in the twenty minutes I’ve been in this room with him and his family, and they carry an undercurrent of discontent. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to tell Marie what a stellar job I’ve done. But I nod tightly and step out of the room, replaying every word and gesture I have made since introducing myself to Brittany Bauer. I walk to the nurses’ desk and find Marie filling out a chart. “We’ve got a problem in Five,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “The father wants to see you.”
“What happened?” Marie asks.
“Absolutely nothing,” I reply, and I know it’s true. I’m a good nurse. Sometimes a great one. I took care of that infant the way I would have taken care of any newborn on this pavilion. “I told them I heard what sounded like a murmur, and that I’d contact the pediatrician. And I bathed the baby and did his exam.”
I must be doing a pretty awful job of hiding my feelings, though, because Marie looks at me sympathetically. “Maybe they’re worried about the baby’s heart,” she says.
I am just a step behind her as we walk inside, so I can clearly see the relief on the faces of the parents when they see Marie. “I understand that you wanted to talk to me, Mr. Bauer?” she says.
“That nurse,” Turk says. “I don’t want her touching my son again.”
I can feel heat spreading from the collar of my scrubs up into my scalp. No one likes to be called out in front of her supervisor.
Marie draws herself upright, her spine stiffening. “I can assure you that Ruth is one of the best nurses we have, Mr. Bauer. If there’s a formal complaint—”
“I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her touching my son,” the father interrupts, and he folds his arms across his chest. He’s pushed up his sleeves while I was out of the room. Running from wrist to elbow on one arm is the tattoo of a Confederate flag.
Marie stops talking.
For a moment, I honestly don’t understand. And then it hits me with the force of a blow: they don’t have a problem with what I’ve done.
Just with who I am.
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The first nigger I ever met killed my older brother. I sat between my parents in a Vermont courtroom, wearing a stiff-collared shirt choking me, while men in suits argued and pointed at diagrams of cars and tire skids. I was eleven and Tanner sixteen. He’d just got his driver’s license two months before. To celebrate, my mother baked him a cake decorated with a Fruit Roll-Up highway and one of my old Matchbox cars. The guy who killed him was from Massachusetts and was older than my father. His skin was darker than the wood of the witness box, and his teeth were nearly electric by contrast. I couldn’t stop staring.
The jury couldn’t reach a verdict—hung, they called it—and so this man was free to go. My mother completely lost it, shrieking, babbling about her baby and justice. The murderer shook hands with his lawyer and then turned around, walking toward us, so that we were only separated by a railing. “Mrs. Bauer,” he said. “I am so sorry for your loss.”
As if he had nothing to do with it.
My mother stopped sobbing, pursed her lips, and spit.
Brit and me, we’ve been waiting forever for this moment.
I’m driving with one hand on the steering wheel of the pickup and the other one on the bench seat between us; she clenches it every time a contraction hits her. I can tell it hurts like a bitch, but Brit just narrows her eyes and sets her jaw. It’s not a surprise—I mean, I’ve seen her knock out the teeth of a beaner who dented her car at the Stop & Shop with a runaway cart—but I don’t think she’s ever been quite so beautiful to me as she is right now, strong and silent.
I steal glimpses at her profile when we idle at a red light. We have been married for two years, but I still can’t believe that Brit is mine. She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, for one, and in the Movement, she’s about as close to royalty as you can get. Her dark hair snakes in a curly rope down her back; her cheeks are flushed. She’s puffing, little breaths, like she’s running a marathon. Suddenly she turns, her eyes bright and blue, like the middle of a flame. “No one said it would be this hard,” she pants.
I squeeze her hand, which is something, because she’s already squeezing mine to the point of pain. “This warrior,” I tell her, “is going to be just as strong as its mom.” For years, I was taught that God needs soldiers. That we are the angels of this race war, and without us, the world would become Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. Francis— Brit’s legendary dad—would stand up and preach to all the fresh cuts the need to increase our numbers, so that we could fight back. But now that Brit and I are here, in this moment, about to bring a baby into the world, I’m filled with equal parts triumph and terror. Because as hard as I’ve tried, this place is still a cesspool. Right now, my baby is perfect. But from the moment it arrives, it’s bound to be tainted.
“Turk!” Brittany cries.
Wildly, I take a left-hand turn, having nearly missed the hospital entrance. “What do you think of Thor?” I ask, turning the conversation to baby names, desperate to distract Brit from the pain. One of the guys I know from Twitter just had a kid and named him Loki. Some of the older crews were big into Norse mythology, and even though they’ve broken up into smaller cells by now, old habits die hard.
“Or Batman or Green Lantern?” Britney snaps. “I’m not naming my kid after a comic book character.” She winces through another contraction. “And what if it’s a girl?”
“Wonder Woman,” I suggest. “After her mother.”
After my brother died, everything fell apart. It was like that trial had ripped off the outside layer of skin, and what was left of my family was just a lot of blood and guts with nothing to hold it together anymore. My father split and went to live in a condo where everything was green—the walls, the carpet, the toilet, the stove—and every time I visited, I couldn’t help but feel queasy. My mother started drinking—a glass of wine with lunch and then the whole bottle. She lost her job as a paraprofessional at the elementary school when she passed out on the playground and her charge—a kid with Down syndrome—fell off the monkey bars and broke her wrist. A week later we put everything we owned into a U-Haul and moved in with my grandfather.
Gramps was a vet who had never stopped fighting a war. I didn’t know him all that well, because he’d never liked my dad, but now that that obstacle was out of the way, he took it upon himself to raise me the way he thought I should have been raised all along. My parents, he said, had been too soft on me, and I was a sissy. He was going to toughen me up. He’d wake me up at dawn on weekends and drag me into the woods for what he called Basic Training. I learned how to tell poisonous berries apart from the ones you could eat. I was able to identify scat so I could track animals. I could tell time by the position of the sun. It was sort of like Boy Scouts, except that my grandfather’s lessons were punctuated by stories of the gooks he fought in Vietnam, of jungles that would swallow you if you let them, of the smell of a man being burned alive.
One weekend he decided to take me camping. The fact that it was only six degrees outside and that snow was predicted did not matter. We drove to the edge of the Northeast Kingdom, close to the Canadian border. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back out my grandfather was gone.
His truck, which had been parked at a pump, was missing. The only hints that he’d been there at all were the impressions of the tire tracks in the snow. He’d left with my backpack, my sleeping bag, and the tent. I went into the gas station again and asked the attendant if she knew what had happened to the guy in the blue truck, but she just shook her head. “Comment?” she said, pretending like she didn’t even speak English even though she was still technically in Vermont.
I had my coat, but no hat or mittens—they were still in the truck. I counted sixty-seven cents in my pocket. I waited until another customer pulled into the gas station and then, when the cashier was occupied, I shoplifted a pair of gloves and a hunter-orange hat and a bottle of soda.
It took me five hours to track my grandfather—a combination of racking my brain to remember what he’d been yammering on about in terms of directions that morning when I was half asleep, and walking down the highway looking for clues—like the wrapper from the tobacco he liked to chew, and one of my mittens. By the time I found his truck pulled off on the side of the road and could follow his footprints through the snow into the woods, I wasn’t shivering anymore. I was a furnace. Anger, it turns out, is a renewable source of fuel.
He was bent over a camp fire when I stepped into the clearing. Without saying a word, I walked up and shoved him so that he nearly fell into the burning embers. “You son of a bitch,” I yelled. “You can’t just walk away from me.”
“Why not? If I don’t make a man out of you, who the hell will?” he said.
Even though he was twice as big as me, I grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and hauled him upright. I drew back my fist and tried to punch him, but he grabbed my hand before the blow could land.
“You want to fight?” my grandfather said, backing away and circling me.
My father had taught me how to punch someone. Thumb on the outside of your fist, and twist the wrist at the very end of the throw. It was all talk, though; I’d never hit someone in my life.
Now, I drew back my fist and shot it forward like an arrow, only to have my grandfather twist my arm behind my back. His breath was hot in my ear. “Did your pansy-ass father teach you that?” I struggled, but he had me pinned. “You want to know how to fight? Or do you want to know how to win?”
I gritted my teeth. “I . . . want . . . to win,” I ground out.
Gradually he relaxed his grip, keeping one hand clamped on my left shoulder.
“You’re small, so you come in real low. Then you’ll be blinding me with your body, and I’m expecting you to bring the punch up. If I duck, my fist will hit you in the face, which means I’ll stay upright, and leave myself wide open. The last thing I’ll be expecting is for you to come up over the shoulder like this.”
He raised his right fist, looping it up and over in a dizzy arc that stopped a breath before it kissed my cheekbone. Then he let go of me and took a step back. “Go on.”
I just stared at him.
This is what it feels like to beat someone up: like a rubber band stretched so tight it aches, and starts to shake. And then when you throw that punch, when you let go of the elastic, the snap is electric. You’re on fire, and you didn’t even realize you were combustible.
Blood sprayed from my grandfather’s nose onto the snow; it coated his smile. “That’s my boy,” he said.
Every time Brit gets up during labor, the contractions get so bad that the nurse—a redhead named Lucille—tells her to lie back down. But when she does, the contractions stop, and so Lucille tells her to take a walk. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s been seven hours already, and I’m starting to wonder if my kid is going to be a teenager before he decides to come into this world.
Not that I’m saying any of that to Brit.
I’ve held her steady while an anesthesiologist put in an epidural— something that Brit begged for, which totally surprised me, since we had planned to do a natural birth without drugs. Anglos like us stay away from them; the vast majority of people in the Movement look down on addicts. I whispered to her as she bent over the bed, the doctor feeling along her spine, asking if this was a good idea. When you have the baby, Brit said, you get to decide.
And I have to admit, whatever they’ve got pumping through her veins has really helped. She’s tethered to the bed, but she’s not writhing anymore. She told me that she can’t feel anything below her belly button. That if she wasn’t married to me she’d propose to the anesthesiologist.
Lucille comes in and checks the printout from the machine that’s hooked up to Brit, which measures the baby’s heartbeat. “You’re doing great,” she says, although I bet she says that to everyone. I tune out as she talks to Brit—not because I don’t care, but because there’s just some mechanical stuff you don’t want to think about if you ever want to see your wife as sexy again—and then I hear Lucille tell Brit that it’s time to push.
Brit’s eyes lock on mine. “Babe?” she says, but the next word jams up in her throat, and she can’t say what she wants to.
I realize that she is scared. This fearless woman is actually afraid of what comes next. I thread my fingers through hers. “I’m right here,” I tell her, although I’m just as terrified.
What if this changes everything between me and Brit?
What if this baby shows up and I don’t feel anything at all for it?
What if I turn out to be a lousy role model? A lousy father?
“The next time you feel a contraction,” Lucille says, “I want you to bear down.” She looks up at me. “Dad, get behind her, and when she has the contraction, you help her sit up so she can push.”
I’m grateful for the direction. This I can do. As Brit’s face reddens, as her body arcs like a bow, I cup her shoulders in my hands. She makes a low, guttural noise, like something in its last throes of life. “Deep breath in,” Lucille coaches. “You’re at the top of the contraction . . . now bring your chin to your chest for me and push right down into your bottom . . .”
Then, with a gasp, Brit goes limp, shrugging away from me as if she can’t stand having my hands on her. “Get off me,” she says.
Lucille beckons me closer. “She doesn’t mean it.”
“Like hell I don’t,” Brit spits out, another contraction rising.
Lucille arches her eyebrows at me. “Stand up here,” she suggests. “I’m going to hold Brit’s left leg and you’re going to hold the right . . .”
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. An hour later, Brit’s hair is matted to her forehead; her braid is tangled. Her fingernails have cut little moons in the back of my hand, and she’s not even making sense when she talks anymore. I don’t know how much more of this either of us can take. But then Lucille’s shoulders square during one long contraction, and the look on her face changes. “Hang on a minute,” Lucille says, and she pages the doctor. “I want you take some slow breaths, Brit . . . and get ready to be a mom.”
It’s only a couple of minutes before the obstetrician bursts into the room and snaps on a pair of latex gloves, but trying to help Brit to not push feels like being told to hold back a tidal wave with a single sandbag. “Hello, Mrs. Bauer,” the doctor says. “Let’s have a baby.” He crouches down on a stool as Brit’s body tenses up again. My elbow is hooked around her knee so that she can strain against it, and as I look down, the brow of our baby rises like a moon in the valley of her legs.
It’s blue. Where there was nothing a breath ago, there is now a perfectly round head the size of a softball, and it’s blue.
Panicked, I look at Brit’s face, but her eyes are screwed shut with the force of the work she’s doing. Anger, which always seems to be on a low simmer in my blood, starts to boil over. They’re trying to pull one over on us. They’re lying. These goddamned—
And then the baby cries. In a rush of blood and fluid, it slips into this world, screaming and punching at the air with tiny fists, pinking up. They put my baby—my son—on Brit’s chest and rub him with a cloth. She’s sobbing, and so am I. Brit’s gaze is focused on the baby. “Look at what we made, Turk.”
“He’s perfect,” I whisper against her skin. “You’re perfect.” She cups her hand around our newborn’s head, like we are an electrical circuit that’s now complete. Like we could power the world.
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When I was fifteen, my grandfather dropped like a stone in the shower and died from a heart attack. I reacted the way I reacted to everything those days—by getting into trouble. No one seemed to know what to do with me—not my mom, who had faded so much sometimes she blended into the walls and I walked right past her without realizing she was in the room; and not my dad, who lived in Brattleboro now and sold cars at a Honda dealership.
I met Raine Tesco when I was staying with my dad for a month the summer after my freshman year of high school. My dad’s friend Greg ran an alternative coffeehouse (What did that even mean? That they served tea?) and had offered me a part-time job. Technically I wasn’t old enough to work, so Greg was paying me under the table to do things like reorganize the stockroom and run errands. Raine was a barista with a sleeve of tattoos who chain-smoked out back during all his breaks. He had a six-pound Chihuahua named Meat that he’d taught to puff on a cigarette, too.
Raine was the first person who really got me. The first time I saw him out back, when I went to put the trash in the dumpster, he offered me a smoke—even though I was only a kid. I pretended I knew what I was doing, and when I coughed my lungs out he didn’t make fun of me. “Must suck to be you, man,” he said, and I nodded. “I mean, your dad?” He screwed up his face and did a perfect imitation of my father, ordering a medium half-caf no-foam nonfat soy latte.
Every time I went to visit my dad, Raine made time to see me. I’d talk to him about how unfair it was to get detention for whaling on a kid who had called my mom a drunk. He’d say that the problem wasn’t me but my teachers, who didn’t realize how much potential I had and how smart I was. He gave me books to read, like The Turner Diaries, to show me I wasn’t the only guy who felt like there was a conspiracy of people keeping him down. He’d give me CDs to take home, white power bands with beats that sounded like a hammer pounding nails. We’d drive around in his car and he’d say things like how the heads of all the major networks had Jewish last names like Moonves and Zucker and were feeding us all the news, so that we’d believe whatever they wanted us to believe. What he talked about were the things that people might have thought about, but never were brave enough to say in public.
If anyone felt it was strange that a twenty-year-old might want to hang out with a fifteen-year-old kid, no one commented. Probably my parents were relieved to know that when I was with Raine, I wasn’t actively beating anyone up or cutting school or getting into trouble. So when he invited me to a festival with some friends, I jumped at the chance to go. “Are there, like, bands there?” I asked, figuring that it was one of the music gatherings that dotted the Vermont countryside in July.
“Yeah, but it’s more like summer camp,” Raine explained. “I told everyone you’re coming. They’re psyched to meet you.”
No one was ever psyched to meet me, so I was pretty pumped. That Saturday, I packed up a knapsack and a sleeping bag and sat in the passenger seat with Meat the Chihuahua in my lap while Raine picked up three friends—all of whom knew me by name, as if Raine had really been talking about me after all. They were all wearing black shirts with a logo over the chest: NADS. “What’s that stand for?” I asked.
“North American Death Squad,” Raine said. “It’s kind of our thing.”
I wanted one of those T-shirts so bad. “So, like, how do you get to be part of it?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.
One of the other guys laughed. “You get asked,” he said.
I decided at that moment I was going to do whatever it took to get an invitation.
We drove for about an hour and then Raine got off an exit, turning left at a handwritten sign on a stick that said simply IE. There were more signs like this, indicating turns through cornfields and past sagging barns and even through a field of milling cows. As we crested a ridge, I saw about a hundred cars parked in a muddy field.
It looked like a carnival. There was a stage, and a band playing so loud my heart thumped like a backbeat. There were families milling around eating corn dogs and fried dough, toddlers balanced on their fathers’ shoulders wearing T-shirts that said I’M THE WHITE CHILD YOU’RE SECURING THE RACE FOR! Meat wove around my feet on his leash, getting tangled as he scarfed down bits of popcorn that had been dropped. A guy clapped Raine on the shoulder and gave him a big reunion-style hello, leaving me to wander a few feet away toward a shooting range.
A fat man with eyebrows crawling like caterpillars across his brow grinned at me. “You want to give it a go, boy?”
There was a kid about my age firing at a target that was pinned up against a stump pile. He handed the semiautomatic Browning to the old man and then went to retrieve his bull’s-eye. It was a profile of a man with an exaggerated, hooked nose. “Looks like you killed that Jew, Gunther,” the man said, grinning. Then he scooped Meat up in his arms and pointed to a table. “I’ll hold the pooch,” he told me. “You pick the one you want.”
There were stacks of targets: more Jewish profiles, but also black ones, with giant lips and sloping foreheads. There was Martin Luther King, Jr., in a bull’s-eye with words printed across the top: MY DREAM DID COME TRUE.
For a moment I felt sick to my stomach. The pictures reminded me of political cartoons we had been studying in history class, gross exaggerations that led to world wars. I wondered what sorts of companies manufactured targets like this, because they sure as hell weren’t being sold in places like Wal-Mart’s hunting aisle. It was as if there was a whole secret society I’d never known about, and I’d just been whispered the password for admission.
I snagged a target with a bushy Afro bursting through the borders of the bull’s-eye. The man affixed it to a clothesline. “Can’t even tell it’s a silhouette,” he said with a snicker. He put Meat on the table to sniff at the targets as he zipped mine back to the edge of the stump pile. “You know how to handle a weapon?” he asked.
I’d taken shots with my grandpa’s handgun, but I’d never used anything like this. I listened to the man explain how the gun worked; then I put on the headphones and goggles for protection, tucked the stock against my shoulder, squinted, and squeezed the trigger. There was a volley of shots, like a coughing fit. The sound drew Raine’s attention, and he clapped, impressed, as the target zipped back to me with three clean shots in the forehead. “Look at you,” he said. “A natural.”
Raine folded the target and tucked it into his back pocket, so he could show his friends later how good a marksman I was. I took Meat’s leash again, and we walked across the meeting grounds. On the stage, a man was grandstanding. His presence was so commanding that his voice became a magnet, and I found myself being pulled to see him more clearly. “I want to tell you all a little story,” the man said. “There was a nigger in New York City, homeless, of course. He was walking through Central Park and several people heard him ranting, saying that he would punch a White man in his sleep. But these people, they didn’t realize we are fighting a war. That we are protecting our race. So they did not act. They ignored the threats as the raving of a crazy fool. And what happened? This beast of the field approached a White Anglo—a man like you, maybe, or me, who was doing nothing but living the life God intended him to live—a man who cared for his ninety-year-old mother. This beast of the field punched this man, who fell down, struck his head on the pavement, and died. This White man, who had only been taking a walk in the park, suffered a fatal injury. Yet, I ask you—what happened to the nigger? Well, my brothers and sisters . . . absolutely nothing.”
I thought of my brother’s killer, walking free out of a courtroom. I watched the people around me nod and clap, and thought: I am not alone.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Francis Mitchum,” Raine murmured. “He’s one of the old guard. But he’s, like, mythic.” He said the speaker’s name the way a pious man spoke of God—part whisper, part prayer. “You see the spiderweb on his elbow? You can’t get that tat until you’ve killed someone. For every kill, you get a fly inked.” Raine paused. “Mitchum, he’s got ten.”
“Why do niggers never get charged with hate crimes?” Francis Mitchum asked, a rhetorical question. “Why are they being given a free pass? They would not even be domesticated, if not for the help of Whites. Look at where they came from, in Africa. There’s no civilized government. They’re all murdering each other in the Sudan. The Hutus are killing the Tutsis. And they’re doing it in our country too. The gangs in our cities—that’s just tribal warfare among niggers. And now, they’re coming after Anglos. Because they know they can get away with it.” His voice rose as he looked out at the crowd. “Killing a nigger is equal to killing a deer.” Then he paused. “Actually, I take that back. At least you can eat venison.”
Many years later, I realized that the first time I went to Invisible Empire camp—the first time I heard Francis Mitchum speak—Brit must have been there, too, traveling with her father. I liked to think that maybe she was standing on the other side of that stage, listening to him hypnotize the crowd. That maybe we had bumped into each other at the cotton candy stand, or stood side by side when sparks from the cross lighting shot into the night sky.
That we were meant to be.
For an hour, Brit and I toss out names like baseball pitches: Robert, Ajax, Will. Garth, Erik, Odin. Every time I think I’ve come up with something strong and Aryan, Brit remembers a kid in her class with that name who ate paste or who threw up in his tuba. Every time she suggests a name she likes, it reminds me of some asshole I’ve crossed paths with.
When it finally comes to me, with the subtlety of a lightning strike, I look down into my son’s sleeping face and whisper it: Davis. The last name of the president of the Confederacy.
Brit turns the word over in her mouth. “It’s different.”
“Different is good.”
“Davis, but not Jefferson,” she clarifies.
“No, because then he’ll be Jeff.”
“And Jeff’s a guy who smokes dope and lives in his mother’s basement,” Brit adds.
“But Davis,” I say, “well, Davis is the kid other kids look up to.”
“Not Dave. Or Davy or David.”
“He’ll beat up anyone who calls him that by mistake,” I promise.
I touch the edge of the baby’s blanket, because I don’t want to wake him. “Davis,” I say, testing it. His tiny hands are, like he already knows his name.
“We should celebrate,” Brit whispers.
I smile down at her. “You think they sell champagne in the cafeteria?”
“You know what I really want? A chocolate milkshake.”
“I thought the cravings were supposed to happen before the birth . . .”
She laughs. “I’m pretty sure I get to play the hormone card for at least another three months . . .”
I get to my feet, wondering if the cafeteria is even open at 4:00 a.m. But I don’t really want to leave. I mean, Davis just got here. “What if I miss something?” I ask. “You know, like a milestone.”
“It’s not like he’s going to get up and walk or say his first word,” Brit answers. “If you miss anything it’s going to be his first poop, and actually, that’s something you want to avoid.” She looks up at me with those blue eyes that are sometimes as dark as the sea, and sometimes as pale as glass, and that always can get me to do anything. “It’s just five minutes,” she says.
“Five minutes.” I look at the baby one more time, feeling like my boots are stuck in pitch. I want to stay here and count his fingers again, and those impossibly tiny nails. I want to watch his shoulders rise and fall as he breathes. I want to see his lips purse up, like he’s kissing someone in his dreams. It’s crazy to look at him, flesh and blood, and know that Brit and I were able to build something real and solid out of a material as blurry and intangible as love.
“Whipped cream and a cherry,” Brit adds, breaking my reverie. “If they’ve got it.”
Reluctantly I slip into the hallway, past the nurses’ station, down an elevator. The cafeteria is open, staffed by a woman in a hairnet who is doing a word-search puzzle. “Do you sell milkshakes?” I ask.
She glances up. “Nope.”
“How about ice cream?”
“Yeah, but we’re out. Delivery truck comes in the morning.”
She doesn’t seem inclined to help me, and focuses her attention on her puzzle again. “I just had a baby,” I blurt out.
“Wow,” she says flatly. “A medical miracle, in my very own checkout line.”
“Well, my wife had a baby,” I correct. “And she wants a milkshake.”
“I want a winning lottery ticket and Benedict Cumberbatch’s undying love, but I had to settle for this glamorous life instead.” She looks at me as if I’m wasting her time, as if there are a hundred people waiting in line behind me. “You want my advice? Get her candy. Everyone likes chocolate.” She reaches blindly behind her and pulls down a box of Ghirardelli squares. I flip it over, scanning the label.
“Is that all you have?”
“The Ghirardelli’s on sale.”
I flip it over and see the OU symbol—the mark that proves it’s kosher, that you’re paying the Jewish mafia a tax. I put it back on the shelf and set a pack of Skittles down on the counter instead, with two bucks. “You can keep the change,” I tell her.
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Just after seven, the door opens, and just like that I’m on full alert.
Since Davis arrived, Lucille’s been in twice—to check on Brit and the baby, and to see how he was nursing. But this—this isn’t Lucille.
“I’m Ruth,” she announces. “I’m going to be your nurse today.”
All I can think is: Over my dead body.
It takes every ounce of willpower for me to not shove her away from my wife, my son. But security is only a buzzer away, and if they throw me out of the hospital, what good does that do us? If I can’t be here to protect my family, then I’ve already lost.
So instead, I perch on the edge of the chair, every muscle in my body poised to react.
Brit grabs Davis so tightly I think he’s going to start screaming. “Isn’t he a sweetie!” the black nurse says. “What’s his name?”
My wife looks at me, a question in her eyes. She doesn’t want to have a conversation with this nurse any more than she’d have a conversation with a goat or any other animal. But like me, she’s aware that Whites have become the minority in this country and that we’re always under attack; we have to blend in.
I jerk my chin once, so infinitesimally I wonder if Brit will even see it. “His name is Davis,” she says tightly.
The nurse moves closer to us, saying something about examining Davis, and Brit recoils. “You don’t have to let go of him,” she concedes.
Her hands start moving over my son, like some kind of crazy witch doctor. She presses the stethoscope against his back and then in the space between him and Brit. She says something about Davis’s heart, and I can barely even hear it, because of the blood rushing in my own ears.
Then she picks him up.
Brit and I are so shocked that she just took our baby away—just over to the warmer for a bath, but still—that for a beat neither of us can speak.
I take a step toward her, where she’s bent over my boy, but Brit grabs the tail of my shirt. Don’t make a scene.
Am I supposed to just stand here?
Do you want her to know you’re pissed off and take it out on him?
I want Lucille back. What happened to Lucille?
I don’t know. Maybe she left.
How can she do that, when her patient is still here?
I have no idea, Turk, I don’t run this hospital.
I watch the black nurse like a hawk while she wipes Davis down and washes his hair and wraps him up in a blanket again. She puts a little electronic bracelet on his ankle—like the ones you sometimes see on prisoners who’ve been released on probation. As if he’s already being punished by the system.
I am staring so hard at the black nurse that I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes up in flames. She smiles at me, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Clean as a whistle,” she announces. “Now, let’s see if we can get him to nurse.”
She goes to pull aside the neck of Brit’s hospital johnny, and I’m done. “Get away from her,” I say, my voice low and true as an arrow. “I want to talk to your boss.”
A year after I went to Invisible Empire camp, Raine asked me if I’d like to be part of the North American Death Squad. It was not enough to just believe what Raine believed in, about Whites being a master race. It was not enough to have read Mein Kampf three times. To be one of them, truly, I had to prove myself, and Raine promised me I’d know where and when the right moment came to pass.
One night when I was staying at my dad’s, I woke up to hear banging on my bedroom window. I wasn’t really worried about them waking up the household; my father was out at a business dinner in Boston, not due back till after midnight. As soon as I threw up the sash, Raine and two of the guys spilled inside, dressed in ninja black. Raine immediately tackled me onto the floor, forearm against my throat. “Rule number one,” he said, “don’t open the door if you don’t know who’s going to come inside.” He waited until I was seeing stars and then let me go. “Rule number two: take no prisoners.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Tonight, Turk,” he told me, “we are custodians. We are going to clean Vermont of its filth.”
I found a pair of black sweats and a screen-printed sweatshirt I wore inside out, so that it was black, too. Since I didn’t have a black knit cap, Raine let me wear his, and he pulled his hair back in a ponytail. We drove in Raine’s car, passing a bottle of Jägermeister back and forth and blasting punk through the speakers, to Dummerston.
I hadn’t heard of the Rainbow Cattle Company, but as soon as we got there, I understood what kind of place this was. There were men holding hands as they walked from the parking lot into the bar, and every time the door opened there was a flash of a brightly lit stage and a drag queen lip-synching. “Whatever you do, don’t bend down,” Raine told me and snickered.
“What are we doing here?” I asked, not sure why he’d dragged me to a gay bar.
Just then two men walked out, their arms slung around each other. “This,” Raine said, and he jumped on one of the guys, slamming his head against the ground. His date started to run in the other direction but was tackled by one of Raine’s friends.
The door opened again, and another pair of men stumbled out into the night. Their heads were pressed together as they laughed at some private joke. One reached into his pocket for a set of keys, and as he turned toward the parking lot, his face was lit by the glow of a passing car.
I should have put the pieces together earlier—the electric razor in the medicine cabinet, when my dad always used a blade; the detour my father made to stop for coffee every day to and from work at Greg’s store; the way he had left my mother all those years ago without explanation; the fact that my grandfather had never liked him. I tugged my black cap down lower and yanked up the fleece balaclava Raine had given me, so that I wouldn’t be recognized.
Panting, Raine delivered another kick to his victim and then let the guy scurry into the night. He straightened, smiled at me, and cocked his head, waiting for me to take the lead. Which is how I realized that even if I’d been totally clueless, Raine had known about my father all along.
When I was four, the boiler in our house exploded at a time that no one was home. I remember asking the insurance adjuster who came to assess the damage what went wrong. He said something about safety valves and corrosion, and then he rocked back on his heels and said that when there’s too much steam, and a structure is not strong enough to hold it, something like this is bound to happen. For sixteen years, I’d been building up steam, because I wasn’t my dead brother and never would be; because I couldn’t keep my parents together; because I wasn’t the grandson my grandfather had wanted; because I was too stupid or hotheaded or weird. When I think back on that moment, it’s white hot: grabbing my father by the throat and smacking his forehead against the pavement; wrenching his arm up behind his back and kicking him in the back till he spit out blood. Flipping his limp body over, and calling him a faggot, as I drove my fist into his face again and again. Struggling against Raine as he dragged me to safety when the sirens grew louder and blue and red lights flooded the parking lot.
The story spread, the way stories do, and as it did, it swelled and morphed: the newest member of the North American Death Squad— namely, me—had jumped six guys at once. I had a lead pipe in one hand and a knife in the other. I ripped off a guy’s ear with my teeth and swallowed the lobe.
None of that, of course, was true. But this was: I had beaten my own father up so badly that he was hospitalized, and had to be fed through a straw for months.
And for that, I became mythic.
“We want the other nurse back,” I tell Mary or Marie, whatever the charge nurse’s name is. “The one who was here last night.”
She asks the black nurse to leave, so that it’s just us. I’ve pushed down my sleeves again, but her eyes still flicker to my forearm.
“I can assure you that Ruth has more than twenty years of experience here,” she says.
“I think you and I both know I’m not objecting to her experience,” I reply.
“We can’t remove a provider from care because of race. It’s discriminatory.”
“If I asked for a female OB instead of a male one, would that be discriminatory?” Brit asks. “Or a real doctor instead of a medical student? You make those allowances all the time.”
“That’s different,” the nurse says.
“How, exactly?” I ask. “From what I can tell, you’re in a customer service business, and I’m the customer. And you do what makes the customer feel comfortable.” I stand up and take a deep breath, towering over her, intimidating by design. “I can’t imagine how upsetting it would be to all those other moms and dads here if, you know, things got out of control. If instead of this nice, calm conversation we’re having, our voices were raised. If the other patients started to think that maybe their rights would be ignored, too.”
The nurse presses her lips together. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Bauer?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I answer. “Do you?”
There is a hierarchy to hate, and it’s different for everyone. Personally, I hate spics more than I hate Asians, I hate Jews more than that, and at the very top of the chart, I despise blacks. But even more than any of these groups, the people you always hate the most are antiracist White folks. Because they are turncoats.
For a moment, I wait to see whether Marie is one of them.
A muscle jumps in her throat. “I’m sure we can find a mutually agreeable solution,” she murmurs. “I will put a note on Davis’s file, stating your . . . wishes.”
“I think that’s a good plan,” I reply.
When she huffs out of the room, Brit starts to laugh. “Baby, you are something when you’re fierce. But you know this means they’re going to spit in my Jell-O before they serve it to me.”
I reach into the bassinet and lift Davis into my embrace. He is so small he barely stretches the length of my forearm. “I’ll bring you waffles from home instead,” I tell Brit. Then I lower my lips to my son’s brow, and whisper against his skin, a secret for just us. “And you,” I promise. “You, I’ll protect for the rest of my life.”
A couple of years after I became involved in the White Power Movement, when I was running NADS in Connecticut, my mother’s liver finally quit on her. I went back home to settle the estate and sell my grandfather’s house. As I was sorting through her belongings, I found the transcripts of my brother’s trial. Why she had them, I don’t know; she must have gone out of her way to get them at some point. But I sat on the wooden floor of the living room, surrounded by boxes that would go to Goodwill and into the trash dumpster, and I read them— every page.
Much of the testimony was new to me, as if I hadn’t sat through every minute of it. I couldn’t tell you if I was too young to remember, or if I’d intentionally forgotten, but the evidence focused on the median line of the road and toxicology screens. Not the defendant’s—but my brother’s. It was Tanner’s car that had drifted into oncoming traffic, because he was high. It was in all the diagrams of the tire skids: the proof of how a man on trial for negligent homicide had done his best to avoid a car that had veered into his lane. How the jury could not say, without a doubt, that the car accident was solely the defendant’s fault.
I sat for a long time with the transcript in my lap. Reading. Rereading.
But this is how I see it: if that nigger hadn’t been driving that night, my brother wouldn’t be dead.
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