Thanksgiving–I Am Born
Just to keep up my streak of posting story excerpts on holidays, here’s the birth of the main character of my novel Where You Belong (On Sale NOW!!!), which takes place on Thanksgiving in Iowa. Based partially on a true story. It was supposedly snowing the day I was born. The rest is fiction.
The first contraction came when my mother got about two miles from the plant. She felt a sudden sharp pain in her midsection that caused her to involuntarily let go of the steering wheel. The old Ford veered off the road, into a ditch.
With the pain from the contraction, my mother barely noticed as the truck lurched to a stop in the ditch. Only after the pain faded did she try to back the pickup out, but it was stuck. She tried opening the door to find the snow piled up too high to let her out. The window was not an option at this point with her bulging stomach. She could only sit in the truck and hope someone came along to help.
I-380 was better plowed than the local roads in Midway and especially better than the rural roads my mother traveled, but that didn’t keep cars from getting into an accident anyway. A pickup similar to my mother’s red Ford careened out of control into a tractor-trailer from the Herbert Fertilizer Company. The accident closed I-380 south, diverting traffic into Midway.
One of those diverted by the accident was a young nursing student named Matilda Frost. Until November, Matilda had never even seen snow except in picture books. She came to Iowa from Melbourne, Australia, an unlikely transition made for a very likely reason: love.
Matilda Frost had met her lover while working as a waitress in a café during the autumn-spring in the United States. He was a creative writing student at the University of Iowa spending a semester overseas. When she came over to his table, he had a stack of papers piled up to one side and a notebook open on the other. “If you don’t mind my saying,” Matilda began, not waiting for the young man to respond, “you look like you’re in for a long day. I’d say you need a cup of coffee and a bowl of lamb stew to keep you going.”
“What I really need is an ending for this story,” he said, dropping his pen with disgust. “Got any suggestions?”
“That depends. What’s the rest of it about?”
The young writer went on to describe his novel about a heartbroken man who travels to Australia from his home in America after his fiancée falls off a boat on their honeymoon. The man wanders around the continent for a while, running into wild aborigines, brutal hunters, and crooked ranchers. Bit by bit the man loses hope and sanity until he’s naked and crawling on all fours like a beast. Then he reaches the coast and stands on the edge, looking down at the sea-
“And then what?” Matilda asked. As the writer had described his story, Matilda pulled up a chair to sit across the table from him, violating café policy. When the manager came over to subtly remind her about this, she hissed into his ear, “I’m on my break. Piss off.”
“That’s not what I’m sure about,” the writer said. “I thought maybe he’d jump into the water and drown himself.”
“Why’d he want to do that?”
“I thought it would be symbolic, so that he and his wife could be together-”
“That’s a load of pig shit,” Matilda said, helping herself to a cup of coffee. “Why would anyone want to kill himself symbolically? It’s not going to change anything.”
“It’s tragic. Like Romeo and Juliet,” the writer said, becoming flustered.
“I never did understand that one. He kills himself because he thinks she’s dead and then she kills herself when she finds out he’s dead. A bunch of nonsense.”
“But that way they were reunited in death-”
“What good did that do either of them? If he’d been more reasonable, he’d have waited and seen she wasn’t dead and then they could have been together in this life.”
“I suppose so, but-”
“If you don’t mind my saying, what this Yank in your story should have done instead of wandering the Outback like an idiot was to go down by the docks and find himself a sturdy woman to put this dead one out of his mind.”
“That seems callous, don’t you think?”
“Maybe.” Matilda gulped down her coffee. “At least then he’d be happy for a couple minutes.”
The writer began scribbling down notes in his notebook. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.”
“Your way’s not so bad,” Matilda conceded. “It’s very artistic.”
“Every artist needs a dose of common sense once in a while.” The writer looked around the café to find the manager glaring at them. “I hope I didn’t get you in trouble.”
“What, with him? I was going to quit this lousy job anyway.” She turned around and shouted to the manager, “Hey Andy, get my last check together. I don’t want to have to come back for it.”
“You can’t quit in the middle of a shift-”
“I’ll quit this stinking job when I bloody well feel like it,” she said. For emphasis she hurled her apron at him. Taking the writer’s hand, she stood up. “Make it quick, would you? I got other things to do.”
The young writer’s name was Matt Newmark and for the next six weeks, he and Matilda spent most of their time together in her flat. Matilda became his muse, his authority on common sense, and his lover all in the first night.
Following Matt to America didn’t prove difficult, but staying there with him was more of a chore. Matilda had to fill out reams of bureaucratic paperwork to get a student visa, including the forms to become a student at the University of Iowa. The prospect of higher education had not appealed to Matilda in Melbourne, but surrounded by students in Iowa City, she decided to give it a try.
Among the programs offered, nursing stood out to Matilda. She had spent her childhood as a nurse to her father, who had lost a leg in the car accident that killed her mother. And as she was quick to point out, she had been taking care of Matt since they first met. “It’s not so different from being a waitress, just more blood.”
Matt didn’t argue this, but then he didn’t argue with anything. Matilda noticed that since they came to Iowa, he often walked around with a glassy look in his eyes. The reason for this became clear after she found a roach clip in his pants. “What’s this?” she asked when he got home, holding up the clip.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “I smoke a joint now and then when I need some inspiration. A lot of writers do it.”
Matilda left it at that, but over the next few months as she began her nursing coursework she noticed Matt needed “inspiration” far more than before. He stayed out long into the night and when he did come home, he collapsed on the couch or the floor without saying anything. Like a good nurse, Matilda would pick him up off the floor and drag him back to bed.
The final straw in their relationship came on their one-year anniversary. When they went out to a fancy restaurant Matt was too stoned to even read the menu. Matilda drove him home before the main course arrived. He tried to salvage the evening by making love to her, but couldn’t manage an erection. “I’m sorry, babe,” he said before passing out.
The next morning he woke up at a clinic in Minnesota Matilda had read about in one of her classes. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“You’re going to get yourself together,” Matilda said. “No more grass.”
“Hey, come on, I’m not an addict. I can quit on my own.”
“You can get out of the car on your own or I can carry you.” Matilda was not as big or well built as my mother, but she possessed the wiry strength necessary to turn over a three-hundred-pound man for a sponge bath. Matt didn’t test her, walking into the clinic under his own power.
It was after a visit to the clinic-her final visit-that Matilda Frost was on I-380 that Thanksgiving morning. Though she had gone between the clinic and Iowa City a dozen times since leaving Matt there, she had never gotten off the highway except for a quick stop to refuel her elderly Chevy. With the accident closing the highway, Matilda found herself driving along the snowy streets of Midway-driving on snow was still a new experience for her-until she made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on unpaved back roads covered in a foot of snow.
When Matilda first saw the tail end of the Ford pickup sticking out of the ditch, she thought maybe the driver had parked to wait for a plow. As she got closer, she realized the angle of the truck was too unnatural for anyone to have parked there. “Poor bastard’s going to freeze to death,” she said aloud. She felt it her duty as a prospective nurse to lend a hand if she could, and if the driver of the pickup was a local, at least Matilda could get directions back to the highway.
The last thing Matilda Frost expected to find was a woman lying on the seat, her bare legs spread apart and bloodstained pants draped over the steering wheel. “Oh, dear God,” Matilda said. She tried to open the door, but it was held fast by the snow. “Hello? Can you hear me in there? I’m going to get help-”
“There’s no time,” my mother said with a groan. “It’s coming.”
“Your baby is coming now?” My mother could only nod. “Bloody hell.”
In her year of training, nothing had prepared Matilda Frost for delivering a baby in the cab of a pickup truck. To her credit, she didn’t panic; Matilda Frost could always be counted on to think clearly in any situation. “All right,” she said slowly, more to herself than my mother, “everything’s going to be fine. I’m a nurse.”
Inside the truck, Marlene groaned from another contraction. From what she could see through the window, Matilda knew there wasn’t much time left. I would soon be out. “Keep breathing. Try to relax. I’ve got a blanket in my car.” Matilda slogged back to her car, where she found an old blanket she and Matt had used for a picnic.
Armed with the blanket, Matilda swam through the ditch to the passenger’s side. “I need you to open this window, so I can get inside and help,” Matilda said.
“I’m not sure I can,” Marlene said. The pain of labor had cracked her stony façade.
“Of course you can,” Matilda said with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Reach up with your right hand. Almost got it. There you go. Give it a few good turns.” Following Matilda’s directions, my mother opened the passenger’s side window. Matilda tossed the blanket in first before she slipped through the open window, careful not to land on Marlene-especially her delicate stomach.
Once she managed to arrange herself in a squatting position between Marlene’s legs, Matilda found my mother in tears. “It hurts.”
“I know. I wish I had something I could give you, but we’re just going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, like Mary in the Bible, though I’d say this is a fair bit cleaner than a stable, wouldn’t you?”
My mother smiled wearily. “I guess so,” she said.
“Next time you feel the pain coming, I want you to push as hard as you can.”
“I-” A contraction struck at that moment.
“Push!” Matilda shouted. “Push as hard as you can. You can do it.”
My mother’s groaning turned to a scream as she pushed. “That’s a good girl,” Matilda said. “I see the head!”
“What’s it look like?” my mother asked.
“It looks fine. Keep pushing. Push! You’re almost there. Push!” At this last command, my mother bore down, determined to propel me from her body like a missile. I emerged into the world in increments, first my head, then my shoulders, and then the rest of me plopped out, still attached to my mother by the umbilical cord. “There he is. You did it!”
“He?” my mother asked.
“That’s right. It’s a boy. A normal, healthy boy,” Matilda said to reassure my mother. She gave me a light slap on the back to start me crying. “That’s a good boy,” she said to me as I cried, not able to see or understand anything going on. “Do you have anything I can cut the umbilical cord with? A knife of some sort?”
Exhausted from the labor, my mother still had the strength to open the glove compartment and take out a hunting knife that had belonged to her father. She kept it there for protection, never imagining it would be used to separate her newborn child from her. Matilda sawed through the cord, tossing the excess into the snow.
Something warm enveloped me-the blanket Matilda had brought with her. Wrapped in this, Matilda pressed me into my mother’s arms. With my new eyes I looked up at her and she down at me. “My baby,” she said. “My baby.”
My mother and I waited in the pickup while Matilda drove back into town to fetch an ambulance. They didn’t see each other again until my mother was safely in a hospital room and cleaned up and I was in the nursery with the other newborns. From what the doctors could tell, the unusual delivery hadn’t caused any harm to mother or child. This was thanks entirely to the efforts of Matilda Frost, whom love had brought to America and a wrong turn had brought into our lives.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Marlene said to Matilda. “If you hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“It’s all right,” Matilda said. “I did what I could.”
“You saved my life. And his life. I don’t think I can ever repay you.”
“You don’t have to repay me. That you and the child are safe is enough for me.” Matilda sat down beside my mother’s bed, patting her hand. “Has anyone called the father yet?”
“I don’t care about him,” my mother said.
“I’m sure you don’t mean that.”
“I do. I hate him. He’s a conniving little weasel.”
To steer the conversation away from this sensitive subject, Matilda asked, “Have you thought of a name yet?”
It was then my mother had an idea of how she could repay Matilda Frost for saving her life and mine. “I want to name him after you,” my mother said.
“I’m afraid Matilda isn’t a good name for a boy,” she said with a nervous chuckle.
“Frost, then. His name will be Frost,” my mother said. The stony look returned to her face to indicate that there would be no argument. And so I became her namesake.
There you go. Happy Thanksgiving. Except to any Canadians reading this. In which case, Happy Belated Thanksgiving!