The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 20


“I’m worried about you, Frances,” Mom said.

“Go away.” Frankie rolled over, put her pillow over her head. How long had it been since she’d lost Rye? Three days? Four?

“Frankie…”

“GO AWAY.”

A gentle touch on her shoulder. “Frances?”

Frankie played dead until Mom sighed heavily and left the room, closing the door behind her.

Frankie eased the pillow off of her face. Did Mom think that Frankie had moved on already?

At that, her grief expanded again; she let it submerge her. Strangely, there was peace in the nothingness, comfort in her pain. At least Rye was with her here in this darkness. She let herself imagine the life they would have had, the children who looked like them.

That hurt too much to bear. She drew back, tried to push the thought away. It wouldn’t leave.

“Rye,” she whispered, reaching for a man who wasn’t there.


“Frances. Frances.”

Frankie heard her mother’s voice coming at her from far away. “Leave.”

“Frances. Open your eyes. You’re scaring me.”

Frankie rolled over, opened her eyes, stared blearily up at her mother, who was dressed for church.

“I’m not going to church,” Frankie said. Her voice felt thick. Or maybe that was her tongue.

Mom picked up the empty glass on the nightstand. Beside it was an empty bottle of gin. “You’re drinking too much.”

“Takes one to know one,” Frankie said.

“Dad said he saw you wandering in the living room. Sleepwalking, maybe.”

“Who cares?”

Mom stepped closer. “You lost someone you think you loved. It hurts. I know. But life goes on.”

“Think I loved?” Frankie rolled over and closed her eyes, thinking, Rye, remember our first kiss?

She was asleep before her mother left the room.


Frankie became aware of the music in stages. First the beat, then the rhythm, then at last, the words. The Doors. “Light My Fire.”

She was in ’Nam, at the O Club, dancing with Rye. She felt his arms around her, felt his hips pressed against hers, his hand settling possessively in the curve at the base of her spine. He whispered something and it made her feel cold, afraid. What? she asked. Say it again, but he was pulling away, leaving her alone.

Suddenly the music blared, turned loud enough to hurt her ears, sounded like a red alert.

She sat up, groggy, headachy, pushed the damp hair out of her eyes.

Her lashes were stuck together. Grit itched at the corners of her eyes.

The music snapped off.

“Sleeping Beauty awakes.”

“Not so much beauty, but plenty of sleeping.”

Frankie turned her head, saw Ethel and Barb standing in her bedroom. Ethel was heavier than she’d been in Vietnam, with rounded curves that had filled out her tall frame. Her red hair was pulled into a low side ponytail. She wore bell-bottom jeans and a striped polyester tunic top.

Barb wore black corduroy pants and a black T-shirt and an olive-colored military-type jacket with the sleeves cut off. “Get out of bed, Frankie,” Barb said.

“My mom called in reinforcements?” Frankie said.

“I called, actually,” Barb said. “I hadn’t heard from you since we talked about Rye’s coming-home party. I got worried and called. Your mother answered the phone.”

“Get out of bed, Frank, or I’ll throw you over my shoulder,” Ethel said. “Don’t think I won’t. I can lift a bale of hay.”

Frankie knew there was no point arguing. She saw the way they looked at her, with a mixture of compassion and resolve. They were here to lift her out of despair; it was in the way they looked, the way they stood, the confident set to their chins.

They wanted her to just get up, stand, start to walk. As if grief were a pool you could simply step out of.

In reality, it was quicksand and heat. A rough entry, but warm and inviting once you let go.

She pushed the sour, sweat-smelling covers back and got out of bed. Without making eye contact—she couldn’t look at them without thinking of Rye—she walked down the hall to her bathroom and took a shower, trying dully to remember when she’d last turned the water on or washed her hair.

She towel-dried her hair and put on the clothes she’d left hanging on a hook on the back of the door (clothes her mother had bought to cheer her up)—a blue tunic and pants set with a pointed white sailor collar and a white cinch belt. She felt like an actress dressing for the role of dutiful daughter.

Ridiculous. But the effort it took to choose something else was beyond her.

Barefoot, she walked back into her bedroom.

At the sight of her friends standing there, she knew how much she loved them. She could almost feel that love, but not quite. Grief had bludgeoned away every other emotion. “I’m fine, you know,” Frankie said.

“Apparently you’ve been in bed for well over a week,” Ethel said.

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“Come on, Frank,” Ethel said, linking her arm through Frankie’s. Barb grabbed the radio and moved to Frankie’s other side. A flanking maneuver to make sure Frankie was hemmed in.

The trio walked down the hallway.

Frankie pulled them past her father’s office. The last thing she wanted them to see was the heroes’ wall, and her absence on it.

Frankie was surprised that they seemed to know the house and have a plan. They walked through the yard, across the street, and out to the beach, where three empty chairs and a portable ice chest waited for them. Barb set the radio on the ice chest and cranked up the music.

Frankie felt unsteady, listening to the surf roar toward her. The familiar music took her back to the best of Vietnam, and the worst.

“I loved him,” she said out loud.

Barb handed her a gin and tonic, said, “Sit, Frankie.”

Frankie didn’t sit so much as she collapsed.

Ethel sat down beside her, held her hand.

Barb sat in the third chair.

The three of them held hands, stared out at the Pacific Ocean crashing beautifully onto the shore, the constant, ceaseless battering of water, the quiet retreat of each wave.

Frankie said, “How could I not know he was gone? How could I not feel his loss from the world?”

For that, there was no answer. The three of them knew death intimately, had stood side by side with it for years.

“You need to do something,” Ethel said. “Start a life.”

“There’s this group,” Barb said. “Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It started with six vets marching in a peaceful protest to end the war. Maybe you could take your anger and use it for something good.”

Anger? That was a distant shadow on the horizon of her grief.

Barb had no idea how this felt, how debilitating it was to lose yourself along with your love. And Frankie couldn’t explain it without sounding pathetic or worrying them more.

Best to just say, “Hmm.”

“Life has to go on, Frank,” Ethel said. “You’re tough enough for Pleiku. You can survive this.”

Ah.

Life goes on.

But does it really? Not the same life, that was for sure.

“I love you,” she said, knowing that her friends wanted to help, but how could they, how could anyone? They were just telling her what she’d heard before: the only way out was through.

More platitudes.

The question was, how? How did you get through grief, how did you want to live again when you couldn’t imagine what that life could be, how you could be happy again?

It was a question that hadn’t occurred to her before. She’d done her best to exist (or not exist, really) in the safety of her bed, with the covers pulled up, but even she knew that couldn’t go on forever.

What did she want?

Rye.

A wedding.

A baby to hold in her arms.

A home of her own.

“How has it been, coming home?” Barb asked.

“Besides finding out that the man I love is dead?” Frankie said.

“Before that,” was Ethel’s softly spoken answer.

“Tough,” Frankie said. “No one wants to talk about the war. My father is ashamed of me even going.” She looked at her friends. “So, what did you two do?”

Ethel shrugged. “You know my story: I started vet school and fell back in love with my high school boyfriend, Noah. He was in-country while I was, but we never saw each other. He knew how much I loved George. We have … history. When I’m feeling fragile, he has a way of holding me together.”

Frankie nodded. “You have nightmares?”

“Not much. Anymore,” Ethel said at the same time Barb said, “You’ve got to push it aside, Frankie. Do something.”

“What do you have left, Frank?” Ethel asked after a while, when the music changed to something folky and soft. No anger in this music, just sadness and loss and sorrow.

“What do you mean?”

“You tell me.”

“Well.” Honestly, this was something Frankie had never thought about. She knew who she’d been raised to be, what was expected of her, but that was before, wasn’t it?

Barb repeated the question: “What do you have left?”

Frankie thought about how she’d changed in the past two years, what she’d learned about herself and the world. About Jamie, and her certainty that she had to do the right thing, which meant that she’d never even kissed him; she thought about Rye and how their passion had transformed her, loosened her into a different, bolder version of herself. She thought about Fin and their idyllic childhood, the way he’d told her, It’s okay, and she’d believed him.

All of them, the three men she’d loved, had awakened her, filled her heart, made her happy, but they couldn’t be everything.

“Nursing,” she said softly.

“Damn right,” Ethel said. “You are a shit-kicking, take-no-prisoners-good nurse. You save lives, Frank. Think about that.”

Frankie nodded. She sensed a glimmer of possibility, a way to move around her grief. In helping others, maybe she could find a way to help herself.

“You guys are the best,” she said, her voice breaking. “And I love you. Truly.” She got to her feet, turned, looked at them. They were here to help her, but she knew—as they knew—if she were to be saved, she’d have to do it herself.


In the next few days, Frankie showed Ethel and Barb all the places she’d loved as a child; the three friends spent long hours on the beach, just talking, listening to the music that made them laugh and cry and remember. By the time her best friends left, Frankie had a plan for going forward. She spent days scouring the want ads in the San Diego newspaper and making calls. When she finally scored an interview, she got up early to prepare. She typed up a résumé on the IBM Selectric on her father’s desk that no one in this house ever used. Her mother believed, of course, in handwritten letters, and her father had secretaries to type for him. When she was happy with it, she zipped it off the roll, reread for typos, and then slid it into the lambskin-leather briefcase that had been her high school graduation gift. It was the first time she’d used it. Her initials—FGM—were stamped in gold on the black leather.

Grateful—for once—that her mother was an ardent shopper, Frankie found a suitable two-piece striped dress with a funnel neck and a hip-hugging green belt hanging in her closet. Her top dresser drawer held an array of rolled-up panties, a few lacy bras, and some pantyhose in the cinnamon hue Frankie and all her high school friends had worn in the winter to look tan. She slipped her feet into a pair of low-heeled camel pumps.

From the ferry’s car deck, she saw the almost-completed bridge; huge concrete stanchions rose out of the wavy blue water, curving from one shore toward the other.

On the mainland, the small hospital was housed in a Mission-style white building that took up a city block, its front and side yards studded with palm trees. Frankie parked in the visitors’ lot and walked to the front door. The minute the doors opened and welcomed her in, she smelled the familiar scents of disinfectant, alcohol, bleach, and for the first time since coming home she felt like herself.

This was where she belonged, who she was. Here, she would find a path through her grief.

She went to the front desk, where a bouffant-haired young woman greeted her with a smile and pointed the way to the director of nursing’s office on the second floor.

Frankie’s hand on the briefcase’s leather handle was damp. This was only her second real job interview. Military recruitment didn’t count. She knew that she looked young—was young, at least chronologically.

She found the office she was looking for, two doors down from the elevator on the second floor. Outside of it, she stopped, took a breath.

No fear, McGrath.

Standing tall, shoulders back, chin up, as she’d been taught by her parents and the nuns at St. Bernadette’s, she walked up to the door that read MRS. DELORES SMART, DIRECTOR OF NURSING, and knocked.

Mrs. Smart looked up from the work on her desk. She had a round face with bright red cheeks and wore her gray hair in old-fashioned pin curls that lay flat against her head.

Behind her, a large window overlooked the parking lot. “Mrs. Smart? I’m Frances McGrath. Here for an interview.”

“Come in,” the older woman said, indicating the empty chair in front of her desk. “Your résumé?”

Frankie sat down, took the folder out of her briefcase, and slid it across the desk.

Mrs. Smart read it. “St. Bernadette’s,” she said. “Good grades.”

“I graduated at the top of my nursing school class at the San Diego College for Women.”

“I see that. You worked for a couple of weeks at St. Barnabas. Night shift.”

“Yes, but as you can see, I just returned from Vietnam, ma’am, where I was an Army nurse for two years. I worked my way up to surgical nurse, and—”

“You are hardly trained for surgical assistance,” Mrs. Smart said crisply. She pushed her glasses up and stared at Frankie. “Can you follow instructions, Miss McGrath? Do as you’re told?”

“Believe me, ma’am, the military demands it. And my Vietnam training has made me an exceptional nurse.”

Mrs. Smart tapped her pen on the desk as she read and reread Frankie’s résumé. Finally, she said, “Report to Mrs. Henderson at the first-floor nurses’ station Wednesday at eleven P.M. for your first night of work. Tilda in the office next to mine will set you up with a uniform.”

“You’re hiring me?”

“I’m putting you on probation. Eleven P.M. to seven A.M.

“The night shift?”

“Of course. It’s where all beginners start, Miss McGrath. You should know that.”

“But—”

“No buts. Do you want to work here?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. See you Wednesday.”


On her first day of work, Frankie dressed in a starched white uniform with an apron, thick white stockings, and comfortable white shoes. The nurse’s cap sat on her teased, precision-cut bob like a flag of surrender. In ’Nam, in the shit, it would have fallen into some patient’s gaping ab wound, or been splattered with blood.

She arrived ready to work, was shown to her locker and given a key. At precisely 2300 hours, she reported to the night charge nurse, Mrs. Henderson, an elderly woman in white who had a face like a bull terrier’s, complete with whiskers.

“Frances McGrath, ma’am, reporting for duty.”

“It’s not the Army, Miss McGrath. You can just say hello. I hear you have almost no hospital experience.”

Frankie frowned. “Well. Civilian, maybe, but I was in Vietnam at a mobile—”

“Follow me. I’ll get you started.”

The charge nurse walked fast, her shoulders squared, her chin tucked in, her head on a swivel. “You are on probation, Miss McGrath. I assume Mrs. Smart relayed this information to you. Our patients are important to us and we strive to offer the highest caliber of care, which means, of course, that nurses who know next to nothing do next to nothing. I will tell you when you can treat actual patients. For now, you may help patients to the restroom, refill their water, change bedpans, and man the phone at the nurses’ station.”

“But I know how—”

Another hand held up for silence.

“Here’s the emergency room. You’ll see everything here—from a heart attack to marbles stuck up a kid’s nostril.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good sign. Politeness. Nowadays, most girls your age act like feral dogs. My granddaughter dresses like a vagrant. Follow me. Keep up. This is the surgical ward. Only highly trained surgical nurses work here.” She kept going on her tour of the hospital.

Frankie followed her new boss down the hallway, past half a series of closed doors. She was shown the restrooms, the lab, the equipment room; they ended up back on the first floor at the nurses’ station.

“Sit there,” Mrs. Henderson said. “Answer the phone. If there’s trouble, page me.”

Frankie took a seat. You may help patients to the restroom, refill their water, change bedpans.

She took a deep breath and released it. Barb and Ethel had prepared her for this. She’d known it was coming. There was no point being angry. She simply needed to show them what she could do. Good things took time.


April 27, 1969

Dear Ethel,

I got a job as a nurse in a local hospital. Yay! I hope you can read the sarcasm in that word.

Barb was right. They’re treating me like I’m a candy striper. Sometimes it makes me so mad I want to scream. They have me on the night shift, answering phones and changing bedpans and refilling water pitchers.

Me. On the night shift.

The only good thing is the anger sometimes makes me forget how sad I am.

I’ll stick with it, though. Prove myself. I’ll bet you’re thinking of my first shift in-country.

I’ve got this. Thanks for reminding me, by the way. I still love nursing.

That’s something.

So, how’s life on the horse farm? Still kicking ass in your classes? How’s that new mare coming along, what’s her name? Silver Birch? After some book you read in junior high?

How’s Noah?

Love,

F


Running, breathing hard.

The admin building blows up beside me.

A chopper overhead. I look up, see Rye in the pilot’s seat.

A whistling sound.

I scream.

The helicopter explodes in the dark sky, blows into pieces. Ash rains down on me.

A helmet thuds to the ground at my feet, on fire. RIOT melts off the metal.

Frankie woke with a start, looked around.

At least she wasn’t on the floor. That felt like a small victory.

She pushed the covers back and got out of bed, not surprised to find that she felt weak. Last night had been a bad one for nightmares. There was no rhyme or reason to it; she had nightmares and mood swings out of the blue. Sometimes she felt as if she were hanging on to the end of a giant undulating rope. It took all her strength not to let go.

Putting on her chenille bathrobe, she made her way out to the kitchen, which was empty at 1500 hours. She poured a cup of coffee and carried it out to the patio, where her mother sat at a table by the pool, doing a puzzle.

“There you are,” her mom said, setting a puzzle piece aside. Her gaze narrowed, swept Frankie from head to toe. “You didn’t sleep well again?”

Frankie shrugged.

“This vampire shift of yours isn’t helping.”

“Maybe not.” Frankie sat down.

“How much longer will they have you working these ghoulish hours?”

“Who knows? It’s only been two weeks.”

“I don’t like it.”

“Me, either.” She looked at her mother, who she knew saw the sorrow Frankie worked every day to overcome, and also worried about Frankie’s unsettling anger, which could flare up without warning.

“We should go to dinner soon. At the club.”

“Sure, Mom. Whatever.”


At just past 2200 hours, Frankie drove toward the ferry terminal on Coronado. There were few cars out this late on a weeknight in mid-May; no tourists stumbling from bar to bar, no well-dressed couples walking to their cars after dinner out. The island was tucked in for the night already and Frankie was going to work. She intended to be early to start her shift, as usual; it was something she’d learned in Vietnam.

In San Diego, the hospital was brightly illuminated. She parked beneath a palm tree and headed inside, waving to colleagues on her way to the lockers.

She smiled tightly, hopeful that no one detected the rabid frustration she felt with every shift.

They still treated her like an FNG. They didn’t even let her start an IV.

Still, she kept her mouth shut and soldiered on, as she had been taught to do. At her locker, she changed into her uniform and headed for the nurses’ station, to take her place at the desk.

As usual, the halls were quiet; most of the patients were sleeping, their doors closed. Frankie’s first chore was always to check each room, each patient. And to call for help if it was needed.

She poured herself a Styrofoam cup full of coffee and stood at the desk, sipping it.

An elderly man shuffled toward her, moving as if in pain, his shoulders hunched.

She put down her coffee.

He was dressed in an old-fashioned way: tan slacks and a crisply ironed white shirt. “Nurse?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m José Garcia. My wife, Elena, is having trouble breathing.”

Frankie nodded. She knew she should call Mrs. Henderson, ask for reinforcements, but she didn’t. Screw it. Whatever was happening with Mrs. Garcia, Frankie could handle it.

She followed Mr. Garcia to Room 111.

In the room’s only bed, a woman lay still, her body covered in blankets, her head raised slightly on a mound of pillows. Her face was pallid; her mouth hung open. She breathed in and out slowly, making a terrible rattling sound.

“She just started breathing like that,” José said quietly.

“How long has she been ill?”

“Six months. Cancer of the lungs. Her students come by almost every day, don’t they, Elena?” He touched his wife’s hand. “She is a high school teacher. Fierce,” he added. He turned to Frankie. “You heard about the walkouts? Students and teachers protesting inequality in our schools? She was part of that, my Elena. Weren’t you?” He gazed down at his wife. “She fought to get her students college preparation classes, instead of just training for domestic work. You changed lives, mi amor.” His voice caught.

Frankie took hold of the woman’s gnarled, bony, dry-skinned hand and thought for a moment of all the hands she’d held in Vietnam, all the men and women she’d comforted and cared for. It steadied her, calmed the loud noises in her head.

“You’re not alone, Elena,” she said. “How about some lotion on your hands? I bet that would feel good…”

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