After our father left, my mother decided to become a nurse. She’d always taken care of him, she said, but now he was gone. She’d loved having babies to tend to, but now my sister was four, I was six, and my brother was eight, all of us old enough to manage a few hours a day with our unmarried aunt. “Harry was a faithless prick,” our mother said to her on the phone, her back to us as if that set her voice on mute. When she turned around, she smiled and said, “Now we’re getting educated and starting over.”
Our mother came home with thick books and samples of the things we’d seen at the doctor’s. She measured our height and weight. She took our temperatures. She wrapped a cuff around our arms and read the numbers for our blood pressure. While she listened to our hearts and lungs with a stethoscope, she said good or excellent or perfect.
She brought home a book called Human Anatomy. It was big and full of pictures like ones we had in our rooms, but my brother said there wasn’t a story. “Oh yes, there is,” our mother said. “Let me tell you.” She told us to lie down and be still so she could identify all the body parts. It sounded easy—arms and legs and knees and all the rest, but instead she named the bones—tibia and fibula, ulna and radius—while she tickled us and recited.
“There are more characters,” she said, and she started on all the places inside us, the things we had to imagine—kidneys, liver, stomach, lungs. She poked us softly as she found the spots, but my brother said, “Stop” and walked away.
She located the parts of my sister and me I’d never heard of—pancreas, gall bladder, diaphragm. She turned pages to show us the pictures in her book, but my sister had already begun to play with her dolls. “You’re so sweet,” she said to me each time she turned a page.
I was the only one who learned where my thyroid was and what it looked like. I was the only one who could put my hand over where my appendix was and know that a doctor could remove it someday, and I’d never miss it because it didn’t do anything anymore except get infected and make you sick. “Vestigial,” mother said. “No longer with a function.”
“Enough anatomy,” she said one evening. “I need to practice the things I’ll be doing soon. Who wants to let me get an IV started?”
Nobody, not even me, wanted to be stabbed by a needle. “We’re not cars,” my brother said when she asked again. “We don’t need a fill-up.” My sister began to cry.
“It’s just a prick,” she said, but we all shook our heads. “It’s just a tiny prick and a slow drip. Before long, you’ll forget it’s there.”
I said, “None of us are hospital sick, but there’s a patient in my closet.”
“Pretend isn’t the same as real,” our mother said, but she waited until I came back with the Barbie our father had sent for my seventh birthday, the limited-edition rubber one our mother had laid on her bed before saying, “It looks like you know who.”
“Make her have something wrong inside her where nobody can see,” I said.
“Her esophagus,” our mother said at once, and pointed. “She’s so skinny because she can’t swallow her food.” She sucked up water in her eyedropper and tried to get the doll to drink, but Barbie drooled and slobbered all over herself. “See?” our mother said.
All three of us got in close to watch. Barbie didn’t even move as the needle pushed into her hand. “This is just to get things started,” our mother said. “To keep her hydrated until I learn how to do a feeding tube.”
“Poor Barbie,” my sister said, but now our mother was smiling. She said she could learn everything else without us. That things were more complicated than names. What Barbie needed was a surgeon, someone she would be able to help when she learned enough to be a real nurse and she could hand the doctor the proper knives.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). His story “The Corridors of Longing” will appear in Best Small Fictions 2020. An essay “After the Three-Moon Era” has been selected to appear in Best American Essays 2020. He is co-editor of the international anthology series Best Microfiction.