The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 21


On a hot June afternoon, three months after her return from Vietnam, Frankie woke from her first decent night’s sleep.

Maybe she was getting better.

She was.

She was getting better.

She put a robe on over her SKI VIETNAM T-shirt and panties and headed down to the kitchen for coffee.

She found her mother at the kitchen table, dressed for the country club, smoking a cigarette, a cup of coffee beside her, reading the newspaper. Frankie saw the headline: FIRST LT. SHARON LANE KILLED IN ROCKET EXPLOSION IN VIETNAM.

Mom drew in a sharp breath, slammed the newspaper face down on the table. Then she looked up, tried to smile. “Good morning, dear. Well, good afternoon.”

Frankie reached for the newspaper.

“No—” Mom said.

Frankie wrenched it away from her mother, turned it over to the article. Army nurse Sharon Lane is the first—and so far only—nurse to be killed by enemy fire, although seven nurses have been killed or died during the conflict to date. First Lt. Lane died almost instantly when a rocket fragment struck her during an attack at Chu Lai.

Frankie put down the paper. Enemy fire. A rocket fragment.

Almost instantly.

“Did you know her?” Mom asked quietly.

“No.”

And yes. We were all the same in some ways. I could have been her.

Frankie closed her eyes, said a silent prayer.

“Maybe you should call in sick for work today.”

Frankie opened her eyes. She felt jittery now, anxious. Angry. “If I called in sick every time I felt sad, I’d never go to work.”

“I ran into Laura Gillihan yesterday at the Free Bros. Market. She mentioned that Rebecca would love to see you.”

Frankie poured herself a cup of coffee, stirred in some heavy cream. She was breathing a little fast, felt almost light-headed.

Becky Gillihan. There was a name she hadn’t heard in a long time. Once upon a time, they’d been friends. At St. Bernadette’s Academy, they’d been inseparable.

“She’s married. Still lives on the island. I could call. Tell her you’ll stop by before work. What else will you do until your shift starts?”

Frankie wasn’t really listening. She could feel her mother’s worried gaze, felt how she was being watched. Frankie should say more, tell her mother that she was okay, not to worry, but the thought of Sharon Lane wouldn’t let her go.

Almost instantly.

She walked down the hall, stripped out of her clothes in her bedroom, and took a long, hot shower, crying for the unknown nurse until her tears ran out.

Afterward, she re-dressed in the clothes she found on her bedroom floor—bell-bottom jeans and an embroidered peasant top—and realized she was shaky from a lack of food. She lit up a cigarette instead of eating.

On the kitchen table, she found a note from her mother.

Frances Grace,

I spoke to Laura. Rebecca was thrilled at the prospect of seeing you. She asked me to pass along that she is hosting a party for Dana Johnston today at 4:00 P.M. She invited you!

570 Second Avenue.

We are off to a charity auction in Carlsbad.

Home late.

Frankie glanced at the clock on the stove. The party had started fifteen minutes ago.

She didn’t want to go to Becky’s. In fact, the thought of going made her feel vaguely ill. Could she handle seeing old friends?

No.

But what was the alternative? Sit in this mausoleum of a house alone, waiting until long after dark to go to work? Or be here when her parents returned? Her mother eyed her nervously all the time, as if she feared Frankie was wired with explosives and one wrong word would set her off. And Dad seemed determined not to look at her at all.

She’d promised Barb and Ethel that she would do more than endure, that she would engage.

This was as good a place to start as any.

She ate a piece of Wonder Bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with sugar, and headed back to her room for her shoes and handbag. It occurred to her that she should expend a little effort with her hair and makeup. Maybe wear a dress. Several of her old high school friends would be there, after all, most of whom had grown up swimming at the country club and learning to play golf.

But Frankie couldn’t do it. The Army nurse’s death had stripped her defenses down to nothing. She was barely hanging on as it was. She started the Bug and backed out of the garage and headed across the island, drove up Orange Avenue, and turned left on Second, just a street from the park.

The house was a bungalow from the 1940s; small and perfectly kept up, gray paint, a bright red door. Flowers grew in neatly tended window boxes on either side of the stone path that led from the sidewalk to the front door.

Frankie got out of her car and walked very slowly to the gate, opening it—click—shutting it behind her—click.

The stone path was lined on either side with flowers in bright pink bloom.

She stopped at the front door, knocked, and immediately heard footsteps on the other side.

Becky answered the door. For a split second, Frankie didn’t recognize the beautiful young woman with bouffant blond hair, who carried a plump, blue-eyed toddler in a sailor suit on her hip.

“Frankie’s here, everyone!”

Becky shouted so loudly that the baby in her arms started to cry.

Frankie was pulled through a house cluttered with children’s toys, out to the patio, where a dozen well-dressed women were sitting in folding chairs, drinking champagne. A silver coffee service sat on a slim wooden table; beside it, an array of hors d’oeuvres: pigs in a blanket, ants on a log, nut-covered balls of cheese encircled by Ritz crackers.

It felt strangely discordant to Frankie that this staid, unchanging world of flowers and champagne and women in summery dresses persevered while men—and women—were dying in Vietnam.

Frankie recognized several high school friends, girls she’d played volleyball with and gone on double dates with, a few of the cheerleaders, two or three older women—the mothers—and also saw some young women she didn’t know. College friends of Dana’s or relatives, perhaps.

The patio was decorated with balloons; a large table held beautifully decorated gifts. It was a birthday party, she supposed. Had her mother told her that?

“I … should have a gift,” Frankie said, feeling out of place. She didn’t belong in this party full of pretty housewives who wore pressed dresses and smoked Virginia Slims.

“Don’t give it a thought,” Becky said, taking her by the arm, leading her through the party to a chair near a fragrant, laden orange tree.

Dana began opening gifts.

Frankie tried to smile in admiration at appropriate times. She saw the way the other women oohed and aahed over household items. Silver candlesticks. Waterford glasses. Sheets from Italy.

Dana, whom Frankie barely remembered from grade school, smiled brightly at each present and said something special to the giver. Her mother sat beside her, making notes about each gift, so that short work could be made of the thank-you notes. A maid in a black-and-white uniform bustled from table to table, freshening drinks and delivering canapés.

A wedding shower, Frankie realized slowly. Oh God.

Frankie snagged a glass of champagne from a nearby tray.

She drank it quickly, put her empty glass down, and picked up another, and then lit up a cigarette, trying to smoke herself to calm. Then she remembered that she had to be at work at 2300 hours.

She shouldn’t drink before her shift at the hospital.

It was just a party. Nothing dangerous or frightening, but she felt anxiety ripple through her. Panic rose up; she closed her eyes, thought, You can leave soon. But what was she so afraid of?

“Are you okay?”

She felt Becky come up beside her, smelled her floral perfume. Jean Naté. Their favorite from high school. It made Frankie think of ’Nam, and how her perfume had reminded the wounded men of their girls back home.

Frankie released a breath, let it out slowly, and opened her eyes.

Becky was there, tucked in close as she used to do a lifetime ago. Her smile was bright and untroubled. She seemed impossibly young, but she was Frankie’s age.

Frankie tried to smile, but her anxiety was so high, she wasn’t able to tell if she’d succeeded.

“Fine,” Frankie said. How long ago had Becky asked? “Fine,” she said again, trying to smile. “So. When’s the wedding?”

“Two months,” Becky said. “Dana is marrying Jeffrey Heller. You remember him? Football scholarship. We were all at USC together.”

“Did he go to ’Nam?”

Becky laughed. A pretty, optimistic sound. “Course not. Most of the boys we know have ways out. A few have gotten married.”

“How fortunate.” Frankie got to her feet so quickly it must have looked like she wasn’t in control of her body, and really, she wasn’t. She was like an animal who had sensed danger and gone into full flight mode. If she didn’t leave now she might scream. “I should go.”

“Why, you just got here, silly!”

“I … have to work.” Frankie sidled to the left to give herself a clear path.

Someone put a record on the stereo and turned up the volume.

“We gotta get out of this place…”

“Turn that shit off,” Frankie snapped. She didn’t realize that she’d yelled it until the record was scratched and the party fell quiet and everyone was staring at her.

She couldn’t smile. “Sorry. I hate that song.”

Becky looked frightened. “Uh. How was Florence? Chad and I are going for our anniversary.”

“I wasn’t in Florence, Bex,” she said slowly, trying to calm down, pull back, be okay. Be normal.

But she wasn’t okay.

She was standing with a bunch of debutantes and sorority girls who were planning a wedding with fresh flowers and honeymoons abroad while men their age were dying on foreign soil. Not their men, though, not their rich, pretty college boys. “I was in Vietnam.”

Silence.

Then a titter of laughter. It broke the silence; the women all joined in.

Becky looked relieved. “Ah. Funny joke, Frankie. You always were a card.”

Frankie took a step closer, went toe to toe with her best friend from ninth grade. All the while she was thinking, Calm down, back off, at the same time she thought, Killed by enemy fire and almost instantly.

“Believe me, Bex. It is not a joke. I’ve held men’s severed legs in my hands and tried to hold their chests together just long enough to get them into the OR. What’s happening in Vietnam is no joke. The joke is here. This.” She looked around. “You.”

She pushed past her friend and strode through the pod of silent, staring women, heard someone say, “What’s wrong with her?,” and before she made it outside to her car, she was screaming.


Frankie sat at a picnic table in Ski Beach Park, overlooking the ocean. As usual on a summer evening, the place was crowded with people out walking their dogs or jogging in brightly colored short shorts. Kids played in the grass and in the sand, their shrieks of joy sometimes startlingly loud.

She ignored all of it, or, more accurately, she didn’t notice the commotion going on around her. She smoked one cigarette after another, only getting up to put her butts in the trash.

There was something wrong. With her. And she was unsure of how to fix it. Her behavior at the shower was unacceptable on any level. There was no doubt about that. Oh, Becky and the others had been offensive about Vietnam, but so was much of the country. That didn’t give Frankie license to lash out. All she’d had to do was claim a need to leave and politely walk out of the party.

Instead …

Her anxiety and anger had surged, come out of nowhere, and suffocated her.

Even now, hours later, it was still there, lying in wait, ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. It made her feel weak, shaky. Fragile.

She’d never thought of herself as fragile, and yet here she was. Alone and afraid.

She could handle a MASCAL in ’Nam with ease, but a long-forgotten friend at a bridal shower could bring her to her emotional knees with the flick of a word.

Vietnam.

That had to be at the root of her outburst. And how could it not? She’d shown up at a bridal shower only months after Rye’s death. Wouldn’t anyone be upended by grief at a time like that?

But what about the sudden anger? Was that part of grief?

She had to do better, be better. No more putting herself in upsetting situations. No more telling people she’d been to Vietnam. They didn’t want to hear it, anyway. The message was clear: Don’t talk about it.

She needed to do as everyone suggested and forget.

She knew that enforced silence added to her anxiety, increased her anger, but it was undeniably true that even her own family was ashamed of her service and expected her to be ashamed, too.

At 2245 hours, long after dark, she was still on the wooden picnic table bench, worrying over all of it, gnawing on the bone of her failures. When she stood up, she realized she hadn’t eaten all day and the pack of cigarettes she’d smoked had left her light-headed.

She got up and walked to her car, hearing the ocean purr behind her. The park was mostly empty this late; just a few pairs of lovers out here now.

She drove the short distance to the hospital and parked. Moving cautiously—she was jittery, unsteady—she entered the brightly lit halls, went to her locker, and put on her uniform. After brushing her teeth at the sink, she straightened and caught sight of herself in the mirror: a young face with old, tired eyes, black hair, and a stark white nursing cap.

She headed for the nurses’ station, made herself a cup of coffee, ate something from a vending machine, and began her rounds.

The halls and rooms were quiet. Most of the patients were sleeping and there were no surgeries scheduled for tonight.

Four hours later, she sat at the station desk, tapping her pen. On her shift so far, she’d changed four bedpans, helped three patients to the bathroom, and replaced two pillows. She’d filled water pitchers and lowered a bed and helped one old woman sleep by reading to her.

As usual, she had pretty much just twiddled her thumbs.

Suddenly the elevator doors banged open. An ambulance attendant rolled a patient in on a wheeled gurney. “The ER is packed,” he said. “Bus accident.”

Frankie shot to her feet, felt instinctively for the Kelly clamp on her fatigue pocket. Not there.

“Gunshot wound,” the attendant said.

Frankie felt a rush of adrenaline. “This way,” she said and ran alongside the patient, who was a young man. Shot in the upper chest at close range. Blood gushed from the gaping wound, dripped onto the floor. He couldn’t breathe, gasped, grabbed for her.

In OR 1, Frankie hit the intercom. “Code. Bay One. Code. Bay One.”

To the attendant, Frankie said, “Get him on the table.”

“There’s no doc—”

“On the table,” she shouted, washing her hands, looking for gloves. “Now.”

The attendant moved the kid onto the operating table. Frankie masked and scrubbed up and hurried back to the table. “You’re going to be okay,” she said to the young man.

He gurgled, gasped, clawed at his throat. Something was obstructing his breathing.

Frankie went to the intercom again, hit the button with her elbow, and called for help, this time saying, “Code blue. STAT. OR, Bay One.”

“Hang on, kid,” she said. “The doc will be here soon.”

The patient gasped, started to turn blue.

Frankie glanced back at the door. Didn’t these people listen? Did they not respond to calls?

She waited five more seconds, then found the surgical cart, grabbed some antiseptic ointment and a scalpel and a breathing tube.

He was dying.

She wiped his neck with antiseptic and picked up a scalpel. It took less than twenty seconds to do the tracheotomy and get the kid breathing.

“There,” she said when he inhaled and exhaled through the tube. She cut off his shirt and vest, exposing the wound. It was gushing blood. She grabbed some gauze, applied pressure, and tried to stop the bleeding.

A short-haired man in scrubs rushed into the OR and stopped in his tracks. “What in the hell?”

Frankie threw him an irritated look. “There you are. What took you so long?”

The doctor stared at her, his mouth open. Mrs. Henderson appeared beside him. She looked at Frankie, her face no doubt streaked with the patient’s blood, her white nurse uniform stained red in places, her cap thrown to the floor, applying pressure to a patient’s wound.

“Who did the trach?” the doctor asked, looking around.

“He couldn’t breathe,” Frankie said.

“So you performed a trach? You?” the doctor said.

“I called. No one came,” Frankie said.

“We have other emergencies,” he said.

“Tell that to this kid.”

The doctor turned, said, “Mrs. Henderson, get a team here. Now.” He went to wash his hands.

Frankie felt flushed with pride. She had shown them her skills. Saved this young man, maybe.

Mrs. Henderson stood there, her arms crossed, her hair frizzed out around her white, starched cap, her forehead pleated, her mouth set in a grim line. “You could have killed that man.”

“I saved him, ma’am.”

“Who do you think you are?”

“I’m a combat nurse. A good one.”

“That may be,” Mrs. Henderson said, “but you’re also a loose cannon. You have just exposed this hospital to liability. You’re fired.”

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset