The Story of a Scar

Since Dr. Wayland was late and there were no recent newsmagazines in the waiting room, I turned to the other patient and said: “As a concerned person, and as your brother, I ask you, without meaning to offend, how did you get that scar on the side of your face?”

The woman seemed insulted. Her brown eyes, which before had been wandering vacuously about the room, narrowed suddenly and sparked humbling reprimands at me. She took a draw on her cigarette, puckered her lips, and blew a healthy stream of smoke toward my face. It was a mean action, deliberately irreverent and cold. The long curving scar on the left side of her face darkened. “I ask you,” she said, “as a nosy person with no connections in your family, how come your nose is all bandaged up?”

It was a fair question, considering the possible returns on its answer. Dr. Wayland would remove the bandages as soon as he came in. I would not be asked again. A man lacking permanence must advertise. “An accident of passion,” I told her. “I smashed it against the headboard of my bed while engaged in the act of love.”

Here she laughed, but not without intimating, through heavy, broken chuckles, some respect for my candor and the delicate cause of my affliction. This I could tell from the way the hardness mellowed in her voice. Her appetites were whetted. She looked me up and down, almost approvingly, and laughed some more. This was a robust woman, with firm round legs and considerable chest. I am small. She laughed her appreciation. Finally, she lifted a brown palm to her face, wiping away tears. “You cain’t be no married man,” she observed. “A wife ain’t worth that much.”

I nodded.

“I knowed it,” she said. “The best mens don’t git married. They do they fishin’ in goldfish bowls.”

“I am no adulterer,” I cautioned her. “I find companionship wherever I can.”

She quieted me by throwing out her arm in a suggestion of offended modesty. She scraped the cigarette on the white tile beneath her foot. “You don’t have to tell me a thing,” she said. “I know mens goin’ and comin’. There ain’t a-one of you I’d trust to take my grandmama to Sunday school.” Here she paused, seemingly lost in some morbid reflection, her eyes wandering across the room to Dr. Wayland’s frosted glass door. The solemnity of the waiting room reclaimed us. We inhaled the antiseptic fumes that wafted from the inner office. We breathed deeply together, watching the door, waiting. “Not a-one,” my companion said softly, her dark eyes wet.

The scar still fascinated me. It was a wicked black mark that ran from her brow down over her left eyelid, skirting her nose but curving over and through both lips before ending almost exactly in the center of her chin. The scar was thick and black and crisscrossed with a network of old stitch patterns, as if some meticulous madman had first attempted to carve a perfect half-circle in her flesh, and then decided to embellish his handiwork. It was so grotesque a mark that one had the feeling it was the art of no human hand and could be peeled off like so much soiled putty. But this was a surgeon’s office and the scar was real. It was as real as the honey-blond wig she wore, as real as her purple pantsuit. I studied her approvingly. Such women have a natural leaning toward the abstract expression of themselves. Their styles have private meanings, advertise secret distillations of their souls. Their figures, and their disfigurations, make meaningful statements. Subjectively, this woman was the true sister of the man who knows how to look while driving a purple Cadillac. Such craftsmen must be approached with subtlety if they are to be deciphered. “I’ve never seen a scar quite like that one,” I began, glancing at my watch. Any minute Dr. Wayland would arrive and take off my bandages, removing me permanently from access to her sympathies. “Do you mind talking about what happened?”

“I knowed you’d git back around to that,” she answered, her brown eyes cruel and level with mine. “Black guys like you with them funny eyeglasses are a real trip. You got to know everything. You sit in corners and watch people.” She brushed her face, then wiped her palm on the leg of her pantsuit. “I read you the minute you walk in here.”

“As your brother . . .” I began.

“How can you be my brother when your mama’s a man?” she said.

We both laughed.

“I was pretty once,” she began, sniffing heavily. “When I was sixteen my mama’s preacher was set to leave his wife and his pulpit and run off with me to Deetroit City. Even with this scar and all the weight I done put on, you can still see what I had.” She paused. “Cain’t you?” she asked significantly.

I nodded quickly, looking into her big body for the miniature of what she was.

From this gesture she took assurance. “I was twenty when it happen,” she went on. “I had me a good job in the post office, down to the Tenth Street branch. I was a sharp dresser, too, and I had me my choice of mens: big ones, puny ones, old mens, married mens, even D. B. Ferris, my shift supervisor, was after me on the sly—don’t let these white mens fool you. He offered to take me off the primaries and turn me on to a desk job in hand-stampin’ or damaged mail. But I had my pride. I told him I rather work the facin’ table, every shift, than put myself in his debt. I shook my finger in his face and said, ‘You ain’t foolin’ me, with your sly self! I know where the wild goose went; and if you don’t start havin’ some respect for black women, he go’n come back!’ So then he turn red in the face and put me on the facin’ table. Every shift. What could I do? You ain’t got no rights in the post office, no matter what lies the government tries to tell you. But I was makin’ good money, dressin’ bad, and I didn’t want to start no trouble for myself. Besides, in them days there was a bunch of good people workin’ my shift: Leroy Boggs, Red Bone, ‘Big Boy’ Tyson, Freddy May . . .”

“What about that scar?” I interrupted her tiresome ramblings. “Which one of them cut you?”

Her face flashed a wall of brown fire. “This here’s my story!” she muttered, eyeing me up and down with suspicion. “You dudes cain’t stand to hear the whole of anything. You want everything broke down in little pieces.” And she waved a knowing brown finger. “That’s how come you got your nose all busted up. There’s some things you have to take your time about.”

Again I glanced at my watch, but was careful to nod silent agreement with her wisdom. “It was my boyfriend that caused it,” she continued in a slower, more cautious tone. “And the more I look at you the more I can see you just like him. He had that same way of sittin’ with his legs crossed, squeezin’ his sex juices up to his brains. His name was Billy Crawford, and he worked the parcel-post window down to the Tenth Street branch. He was nine years older than me and was goin’ to school nights on the GI Bill. I was twenty when I met him durin’ lunch break down in the swing room. He was sittin’ at a table against the wall, by hisself, eatin’ a cheese sandwich with his nose in a goddamn book. I didn’t know any better then. I sat down by him. He looked up at me and say, ‘Water seeks its own level, and people do, too. You are not one of the riffraff or else you would of sit with them good-timers and bullshitters ’cross the room. Welcome to my table.’ By riffraff he meant all them other dudes and girls from the back room, who believed in havin’ a little fun playin’ cards and such durin’ lunch hour. I thought what he said was kind of funny, and so I laughed. But I should of knowed better. He give me a cheese sandwich and started right off preachin’ at me about the lowlife in the back room. Billy couldn’t stand none of ’em. He hated the way they dressed, the way they talked, and the way they carried on durin’ work hours. He said if all them tried to be like him and advanced themselfs, the Negro wouldn’t have no problems. He’d point out Eugene Wells or Red Bone or Crazy Sammy Michaels and tell me, ‘People like them think they can homestead in the post office. They think these primaries will need human hands for another twenty years. But you just watch the Jews and Puerto Ricans that pass through here. They know what’s goin’ on. I bet you don’t see none of them settin’ up their beds under these tables. They tryin’ to improve themselfs and get out of here, just like me.’ Then he smile and held out his hand. ‘And since I see you’re a smart girl that keeps a cold eye and some distance on these bums, welcome to the club. My name’s Billy Crawford.’

“To tell you the truth, I liked him. He was different from all the jive-talkers and finger-poppers I knew. I liked him because he wasn’t ashamed to wear a white shirt and a black tie. I liked the way he always knew just what he was gonna do next. I liked him because none of the other dudes could stand him, and he didn’t seem to care. On our first date he took me out to a place where the white waiters didn’t git mad when they saw us comin’. That’s the kind of style he had. He knew how to order wine with funny names, the kind you don’t never see on billboards. He held open doors for me, told me not to order rice with gravy over it or soda water with my meal. I didn’t mind him helpin’ me. He was a funny dude in a lot of ways: his left leg was shot up in the war and he limped sometimes, but it looked like he was struttin’. He would stare down anybody that watched him walkin’. He told me he had cut his wife loose after he got out of the army, and he told me about some of the games she had run on him. Billy didn’t trust women. He said they all was after a workin’ man’s money, but he said that I was different. He said he could tell I was a God-fearin’ woman and my mama had raised me right, and he was gonna improve my mind. In those days I didn’t have no objections. Billy was fond of sayin’, ‘You met me at the right time in your life.’

“But Red Bone, my co-worker, saw what was goin’ down and began to take a strong interest in the affair. Red was the kind of strong-minded sister that mens just like to give in to. She was one of them big yellow gals, with red hair and a loud rap that could put a man in his place by just soundin’ on him. She like to wade through the mail room, elbowin’ dudes aside and sayin’, ‘You don’t wanna mess with me, fool! I’ll destroy you! Anyway, you ain’t nothin’ but a dirty thought I had when I was three years old!’ But if she liked you she could be warm and soft, like a mama. ‘Listen,’ she kept telling me, ‘that Billy Crawford is a potential punk. The more I watch him, the less man I see. Every time we downstairs havin’ fun I catch his eyeballs rollin’ over us from behind them goddamn books! There ain’t a rhythm in his body, and the only muscles he exercises is his eyes.’

“That kind of talk hurt me some, especially comin’ from her. But I know it’s the way of some women to bad-mouth a man they want for themselfs. And what woman don’t want a steady man and a good provider?—which is what Billy was. Usually, when they start downgradin’ a steady man, you can be sure they up to somethin’ else besides lookin’ out after you. So I told her, ‘Billy don’t have no bad habits.’ I told her, ‘He’s a hard worker, he don’t drink, smoke, nor run around, and he’s gonna git a college degree.’ But that didn’t impress Red. I was never able to figure it out, but she had something in for Billy. Maybe it was his attitude; maybe it was the little ways he let everybody know that he was just passin’ through; maybe it was because Red had broke every man she ever had and had never seen a man with no handholes on him. Because that Billy Crawford was a strong man. He worked the day shift, and could of been a supervisor in three or four years if he wanted to crawl a little and grease a few palms; but he did his work, quiet-like, pulled what overtime he could, and went to class three nights a week. On his day off he’d study and maybe take me out for a drink after I got off. Once or twice a week he might let me stay over at his place, but most of the time he’d take me home to my Aunt Alvene’s, where I was roomin’ in those days, before twelve o’clock.

“To tell the truth, I didn’t really miss the partyin’ and the dancin’ and the good-timin’ until Red and some of the others started avoidin’ me. Down in the swing room durin’ lunch hour, for example, they wouldn’t wave for me to come over and join a card game. Or when Leroy Boggs went around to the folks on the floor of the mail room, collectin’ money for a party, he wouldn’t even ask me to put a few dollars in the pot. He’d just smile at me in a cold way and say to somebody loud enough for me to hear, ‘No, sir; ain’t no way you can git quality folk to come out to a Saturday night fish fry.’

“Red squared with me when I asked her what was goin’ down. She told me, ‘People sayin’ you been wearin’ a high hat since you started goin’ with the professor. The talk is you been throwin’ around big words and developin’ a strut just like his. Now I don’t believe these reports, being your friend and sister, but I do think you oughta watch your step. I remember what my grandmama used to tell me: “It don’t make no difference how well you fox-trot if everybody else is dancin’ the two-step.” Besides, that Billy Crawford is a potential punk, and you gonna be one lonely girl when somebody finally turns him out. Use your mind, girl, and stop bein’ silly. Everybody is watchin’ you!’

“I didn’t say nothin’, but what Red said started me to thinkin’ harder than I had ever thought before. Billy had been droppin’ strong hints that we might git married after he got his degree, in two or three years. He was plannin’ on being a high school teacher. But outside of being married to a teacher, what was I go’n git out of it? Even if we did git married, I was likely to be stuck right there in the post office with no friends. And if he didn’t marry me, or if he was a punk like Red believed, then I was a real dummy for givin’ up my good times and my best days for a dude that wasn’t go’n do nothin’ for me. I didn’t make up my mind right then, but I begin to watch Billy Crawford with a different kind of eye. I’d just turn around at certain times and catch him in his routines: readin’, workin’, eatin’, runnin’ his mouth about the same things all the time. Pretty soon I didn’t have to watch him to know what he was doin’. He was more regular than Monday mornings. That’s when a woman begins to tip. It ain’t never a decision, but somethin’ in you starts to lean over and practice what you gonna say whenever another man bumps into you at the right time. Some women, especially married ones, like to tell lies to their new boyfriends; if the husband is a hard worker and a good provider, they’ll tell the boyfriend that he’s mean to them and ain’t no good when it comes to sex; and if he’s good with sex, they’ll say he’s a cold dude that’s not concerned with the problems of the world like she is, or that they got married too young. Me, I believe in tellin’ the truth: that Billy Crawford was too good for most of the women in this world, me included. He deserved better, so I started lookin’ round for somebody on my own level.

“About this time a sweet-talkin’ young dude was transferred to our branch from the 39th Street substation. The grapevine said it was because he was makin’ woman trouble over there and caused too many fights. I could see why. He dressed like he was settin’ fashions every day; wore special-made bell-bottoms with so much flare they looked like they was starched. He wore two diamond rings on the little finger of his left hand that flashed while he was throwin’ mail, and a gold tooth that sparkled all the time. His name was Teddy Johnson, but they called him ‘Eldorado’ because that was the kind of hog he drove. He was involved in numbers and other hustles and used the post office job for a front. He was a strong talker, a easy walker, that dude was a woman stalker! I have to give him credit. He was the last true son of the Great McDaddy—”

“Sister,” I said quickly, overwhelmed suddenly by the burden of insight. “I know the man of whom you speak. There is no time for this gutter-patter and indirection. Please, for my sake and for your own, avoid stuffing the shoes of the small with mythic homilies. This man was a bum, a hustler and a small-time punk. He broke up your romance with Billy, then he lived off you, cheated on you, and cut you when you confronted him.” So pathetic and gross seemed her elevation of the fellow that I abandoned all sense of caution. “Is your mind so dead,” I continued, “did his switchblade slice so deep, do you have so little respect for yourself, or at least for the idea of proportion in this sad world, that you’d sit here and praise this brute!?”

She lit a second cigarette. Then, dropping the match to the floor, she seemed to shudder, to struggle in contention with herself. I sat straight on the blue plastic couch, waiting. Across the room the frosted glass door creaked, as if about to open; but when I looked, I saw no telling shadow behind it. My companion crossed her legs and held back her head, blowing two thoughtful streams of smoke from her broad nose. I watched her nervously, recognizing the evidence of past destructiveness, yet fearing the imminent occurrence of more. But it was not her temper or the potential strength of her fleshy arms that I feared. Finally she sighed, her face relaxed, and she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. “You know everything,” she said in a soft tone, much unlike her own. “A black mama birthed you, let you suck her titty, cleaned your dirty drawers, and you still look at us through paper and movie plots.” She paused, then continued in an even softer and more controlled voice. “Would you believe me if I said that Teddy Johnson loved me, that this scar is to him what a weddin’ ring is to another man? Would you believe that he was a better man than Billy?”

I shook my head in firm disbelief.

She seemed to smile to herself, although the scar, when she grimaced, made the expression more like a painful frown. “Then would you believe that I was the cause of Billy Crawford goin’ crazy and not gettin’ his college degree?”

I nodded affirmation.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because,” I answered, “from all I know already, that would seem to be the most likely consequence. I would expect the man to have been destroyed by the pressures placed on him. And, although you are my sister and a woman who has already suffered greatly, I must condemn you and your roughneck friends for this destruction of a man’s ambitions.”

Her hardened eyes measured my face. She breathed heavily, seeming to grow larger and rounder on the red chair. “My brother,” she began in an icy tone, “is as far from what you are as I am from being patient.” Now her voice became deep and full, as if aided suddenly by some intricately controlled wellspring of pain. Something aristocratic and old and frighteningly wise seemed to have awakened in her face. “Now this is the way it happened,” she fired at me, her eyes wide and rolling. “I want you to write it on whatever part of your brain that ain’t already covered with page print. I want you to remember it every time you stare at a scarred-up sister on the street, and choke on it before you can work up spit to condemn her. I was faithful to that Billy Crawford. As faithful as a woman could be to a man that don’t ever let up or lean back and stop worryin’ about where he’s gonna be ten years from last week. Life is to be lived, not traded on like dollars! . . . All that time I was goin’ with him, my feets itched to dance, my ears hollered to hear somethin’ besides that whine in his voice, my body wanted to press up against somethin’ besides that facin’ table. I was young and pretty; and what woman don’t want to enjoy what she got while she got it? Look around sometime: there ain’t no mens, young nor old, chasin’ no older womens, no matter how pretty they used to be! But Billy Crawford couldn’t see nothin’ besides them goddamn books in front of his face. And what the Jews and Puerto Ricans was doin’. Whatever else Teddy Johnson was, he was a dude that knowed how to live. He wasn’t out to destroy life, you can believe that! Sure I listened to his rap. Sure I give him the come-on. With Billy workin’ right up front and watchin’ everything, Teddy was the only dude on the floor that would talk to me. Teddy would say, ‘A girl that’s got what you got needs a man that have what I have.’ And that ain’t all he said, either!

“Red Bone tried to push me closer to him, but I am not a sneaky person and didn’t pay her no mind. She’d say, ‘Girl, I think you and Eldorado ought to git it on. There ain’t a better lookin’ dude workin’ in the post office. Besides, you ain’t goin’ nowheres with that professor Billy Crawford. And if you scared to tell him to lean up off you, I’ll do it myself, bein’ as I am your sister and the one with your interest in mind.’ But I said to her, ‘Don’t do me no favors. No matter what you think of Billy, I am no sneaky woman. I’ll handle my own affairs.’ Red just grin and look me straight in the eye and grin some more. I already told you she was the kind of strong-minded sister that could look right down into you. Nobody but a woman would understand what she was lookin’ at.

“Now Billy wasn’t no dummy durin’ all this time. Though he worked the parcel-post window up front, from time to time durin’ the day he’d walk back in the mail room and check out what was goin’ down. Or else he’d sit back and listen to the gossip durin’ lunch hour, down in the swing room. He must of seen Teddy Johnson hangin’ round me, and I know he seen Teddy give me the glad-eye a few times. Billy didn’t say nothin’ for a long time, but one day he pointed to Teddy and told me, ‘See that fellow over there? He’s a bloodletter. There’s some people with a talent for stoppin’ bleedin’ by just being around, and there’s others that start it the same way. When you see that greasy smile of his you can bet it’s soon gonna be a bad day for somebody, if they ain’t careful. That kind of fellow’s been walkin’ free for too long.’ He looked at me with that tight mouth and them cold brown eyes of his. He said, ‘I hope you don’t ever have to find out.’

“It was D. B. Ferris, my shift supervisor, that set up things. He’s the same dude I told you about, the one that was gonna give me the happy hand. We never saw much of him in the mail room, although he was kinda friendly with Red Bone. D. B. Ferris was always up on the ramps behind one of the wall slits, checkin’ out everything that went down on the floor and tryin’ to catch somebody snitchin’ a letter. There ain’t no tellin’ how much he knew about private things goin’ on. About this time he up and transferred three or four of us, the ones with no seniority, to the night shift. There was me, Red, and Leroy Boggs. When Billy found out he tried to talk D. B. Ferris into keepin’ me on the same shift as his, but Ferris come to me and I told him I didn’t mind. And I didn’t. I told him I was tired of bein’ watched by him and everybody else. D. B. Ferris looked up toward the front where Billy was workin’ and smiled that old smile of his. Later, when Billy asked me what I said, I told him there wasn’t no use tryin’ the fight the government. ‘That’s true,’ he told me—and I thought I saw some meanness in his eyes—‘but there are some other things you can fight,’ he said. At that time my head was kinda light, and I didn’t catch what he meant.

“About my second day on the night shift, Teddy Johnson began workin’ overtime. He didn’t need the money and didn’t like to work nohow, but some nights around ten or eleven, when we clocked out for lunch and sat around in the swing room, in would strut Teddy. Billy would be in school or at home. Usually, I’d be sittin’ with Red and she’d tell me things while Teddy was walkin’ over. ‘Girl, it must be love to make a dude like Eldorado work overtime. He needs to work like I need to be a Catholic.’ Then Teddy would sit down and she’d commence to play over us like her life depended on gittin’ us together. She’d say, ‘Let’s go over to my place this mornin’ when we clock out. I got some bacon and eggs and a bottle of Scotch.’ Teddy would laugh and look in my eyes and say, ‘Red, we don’t wanna cause no trouble for this here fine young thing, who I hear is engaged to a college man.’ Then I’d laugh with them and look at Teddy and wouldn’t say nothin’ much to nobody.

“Word must of gotten back to Billy soon after that. He didn’t say nothin’ at first, but I could see a change in his attitude. All this time I was tryin’ to git up the guts to tell Billy I was thinkin’ about breaking off, but I just couldn’t. It wasn’t that I thought he needed me; I just knew he was the kind of dude that doesn’t let a girl decide when somethin’ is over. Bein’ as much like Billy as you are, you must understand what I’m tryin’ to say. On one of my nights off, when we went out to a movie, he asked, ‘What time did you get in this mornin’?’ I said, ‘Five-thirty, same as always.’ But I was lyin’. Red and me had stopped for breakfast on the way home. Billy said, ‘I called you at six-thirty this morning, and your Aunt Alvene said you was still out.’ I told him, ‘She must of been too sleepy to look in my room.’ He didn’t say more on the subject, but later that evenin’, after the movie, he said, ‘I was in the war for two years. It made me a disciplined man, and I hope I don’t ever have to lose my temper.’ I didn’t say nothin’, but the cold way he said it was like a window shade flappin’ up from in front of his true nature, and I was scared.

“It was three years ago this September twenty-second that the thing happened. It was five-thirty in the mornin’. We had clocked out at four-forty-five, but Red had brought a bottle of Scotch to work, and we was down in the swing room drinkin’ a little with our coffee, just to relax. I’ll tell you the truth: Teddy Johnson was there, too. He had come down just to give us a ride home. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. Teddy was dressed in a pink silk shirt with black ruffles on the sleeves, the kind that was so popular a few years ago. He was wearin’ shiny black bell-bottoms that hugged his little hips like a second coat of skin, and looked like pure silk when he walked. He sat across from me, flashin’ those diamond rings every time he poured more Scotch in our cups. Red was sittin’ back with a smile on her face, watchin’ us like a cat that had just ate.

“I was sittin’ with my back to the door and didn’t know anything, until I saw something change in Red’s face. I still see it in my sleep at night. Her face seemed to light up and git scared and happy at the same time. She was lookin’ behind me, over my shoulder, with all the smartness in the world burnin’ in her eyes. I turned around. Billy Crawford was standin’ right behind me with his hands close to his sides. He wore a white shirt and a thin black tie, and his mouth was tight like a little slit. He said, ‘It’s time for you to go home,’ with that voice of his that was too cold to be called just mean. I sat there lookin’ up at him. Red’s voice was even colder. She said to me, ‘You gonna let him order you around like that?’ I didn’t say nothin’. Red said to Teddy, ‘Ain’t you got something to say about this?’ Teddy stood up slow and swelled out his chest. He said, ‘Yeah. I got somethin’ to say,’ looking hard at Billy. But Billy just kept lookin’ down at me. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘What you got to say?’ Red Bone said to Teddy. Teddy said to me, ‘Why don’t you tell the dude, baby?’ But I didn’t say nothin’. Billy shifted his eyes to Teddy and said, ‘I got nothing against you. You ain’t real, so you don’t matter. You been strutting the streets too long, but that ain’t my business. So keep out of this.’ Then he looked down at me again. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. I looked up at the way his lips curled and wanted to cry and hit him at the same time. I felt like a trigger bein’ pulled. Then I heard Red sayin’, ‘Why don’t you go back to bed with them goddamn books, punk! And leave decent folks alone!’ For the first time Billy glanced over at her. His mouth twitched. But then he looked at me again. ‘This here’s the last time I’m asking,’ he said. That’s when I exploded and started to jump up. ‘I ain’t goin nowhere!’ I screamed. The last plain thing I remember was tryin’ to git to his face, but it seemed to turn all bright and silvery and hot, and then I couldn’t see nothin’ no more.

“They told me later that he sliced me so fast there wasn’t time for nobody to act. By the time Teddy jumped across the table I was down, and Billy had stabbed me again in the side. Then him and Teddy tussled over the knife, while me and Red screamed and screamed. Then Teddy went down holdin’ his belly, and Billy was comin’ after me again, when some of the dudes from the freight dock ran in and grabbed him. They say it took three of them to drag him off me, and all the time they was pullin’ him away he kept slashin’ out at me with that knife. It seemed like all the walls was screamin’ and I was floatin’ in water, and I thought I was dead and in hell, because I felt hot and prickly all over, and I could hear some woman’s voice that might of been mine screamin’ over and over, ‘You devil! . . . You devil!’ ”

She lit a third cigarette. She blew a relieving cloud of smoke downward. The thin white haze billowed about her purple legs, dissipated, and vanished. A terrifying fog of silence and sickness crept into the small room, and there was no longer the smell of medicine. I dared not steal a glance at my watch, although by this time Dr. Wayland was agonizingly late. I had heard it all, and now I waited. Finally her eyes fixed on the frosted glass door. She wet her lips again and, in a much slower and pained voice, said, “This here’s the third doctor I been to see. The first one stitched me up like a turkey and left this scar. The second one refused to touch me.” She paused and wet her lips again. “This man fixed your nose for you,” she said softly. “Do you think he could do somethin’ about this scar?”

I searched the end table next to my couch for a newsmagazine, carefully avoiding her face. “Dr. Wayland is a skilled man,” I told her. “Whenever he’s not late. I think he may be able to do something for you.”

She sighed heavily and seemed to tremble. “I don’t expect no miracle or nothin’,” she said. “If he could just fix the part around my eye I wouldn’t expect nothin’ else. People say the rest don’t look too bad.”

I clutched a random magazine and did not answer. Nor did I look at her. The flesh around my nose began to itch, and I looked toward the inner office door with the most extreme irritation building in me. At that moment it seemed a shadow began to form behind the frosted glass, signaling perhaps the approach of someone. I resolved to put aside all notions of civility and go into the office before her, as was my right. The shadow behind the door darkened, but vanished just as suddenly. And then I remembered the most important question, without which the entire exchange would have been wasted. I turned to the woman, now drawn together in the red plastic chair, as if struggling to sleep in a cold bed. “Sister,” I said, careful to maintain a casual air. “Sister . . . what is your name?”

From Elbow Room © 1972 by James Alan McPherson is used with the permission of James Alan McPherson and Little Brown and Co. There shall be no unauthorized use or quotation from this excerpt without the express, written permission of the author or his agent.

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