The Boston Doctor by Lisa Gordon
“Don’t look back,” Nels said.
The gravity in his voice, her only comfort. The train ride had been long and unrelenting. Crowding in against countless others, Millie hushed Thelma, their new baby girl, so often her voice turned to gravel in her throat. The smell, unbearable: humanity at its worst. The persistent grumble of the tracks beneath them, the constant bump and jostle, a new torture. The only color, for so long, the backs of their eyelids.
“Almost there darling, almost there,” Nels whispered, over and over, his eyes squeezed fiercely shut, his full lips pressed in a hard line. Who was he speaking to, she wanted to ask: her? Or Thelma? But she did not, she could not. That question was born of insecurity, and insecurity bred fear. Nels had taught her that; had taught himself that. And there was time for neither in their new life. She tightened her grip on the blanketed bundle of their daughter, and tried to imagine it:
Nels had pointed to it on a map and told her it would be filled with bricks the color of persimmon and windows high in the starry sky. “All the medicine in the world is happening here,” he’d said. “And we’re going to be a part of it, yes, yes we are.”
She loved him for that, how he included her, as if she, too, were taking a scalpel to someone’s throat, or administering penicillin on the backs of dying tongues.
They arrived at Back Bay station to little splendor. The planks below her feet swelled with weight. Humidity clung to her skin like sweat. Immediately, the fashions affronted: swooping skirts, high-necked blouses, wide-brimmed hats. And the colors—oh! Colors Millie was not sure she knew the names of; colors of vegetables and fruits, perhaps, that didn’t grow on her family’s farm. Purples, greens, oranges bright as sunsets.
Thelma bucked in Millie’s arms, silent, her eyes wild.
“We’re here, baby girl, here we are!” Nels sang. His demeaner was back—another comfort she needed. He kissed Thelma’s cheeks with lips pursed big and swollen. “Boston here we are!”
“Shushhh,” Millie hissed, gripping his arm. But inside, she soared.
Nels pointed across the street. “There,” he said.
“There!” Nels grinned, easy with the thrill of surprising her. “Our new apartment building.”
“An apartment!” Millie said. “Nels!” She nearly dropped Thelma. The building stood before them, of quality Millie couldn’t properly determine, but to her, it was wondrous.
“I promised,” Nels said, taking her by the elbow and leading her across the tracks.
He had promised. It hadn’t been her place to ask, but she had hoped; oh, how she had hoped! And now: an apartment of their very own. Their very own. It stood mightily, bricks upon bricks, just passed the station. Nels retrieved a key from his satchel, dangling it in front of her face, his smile enormous, infectious. The landlord, Nels said, had sent it two weeks ago. Gratitude and confusion—but how did he, when could he have—rushed to the surface of her cheeks. She kissed him, before remembering herself, then laughed, embarrassed.
Look at us, she thought, this new family, their new life. She couldn’t get over the new smell of rust mixed with dry air, or the new sound of the train hissing, the porters calling out in their glossy voices, or the elegance of the ladies, the swish of their dresses. How quickly she came back to earth, the earth where they didn’t belong.
Her Ma and Pa back home, her sisters and Uncle Rep: what would they say, if they saw her now?
The quarters were small and modest, but they were clean. A small mirror atop the mantle. An armchair in the corner, near the window. A straw bed, in the front room. A belly stove.
“We’ll need to buy everything else, in due time,” Nels explained. He set Thelma on the floor, shiny with wood polish. “My exams are next week. I expect to be employed soon thereafter.”
What Millie wanted to say, she knew she couldn’t. Was he certain the hospitals would hire him, here? Back in South Carolina, he’d gone to both local hospitals, dressed to the nines. He’d gone to many of the local physician practices, white and Black. He’d been turned away from every door. At first, his anger erupted like a rock thrown through glass. Then, it tempered, becoming more even, fueling his motivation.
He took Millie’s cheeks in his hands. “I hope you are pleased, my darling,” he whispered.
Millie squeezed the tears from her eyes, lest he see her cry. For he’d believe they were tears of joy. But once Nels left for the lay of the land, a strange sadness came over her—it had, perhaps, been there all along. He told Millie to rest, but she could not. From the window, she saw the wooden planks of the train platform, the steam hung in the air with a hot energy, the Boston skies grey and unwelcoming. People of the kind she knew nothing about on their merry ways, living their strange lives. Thelma fussing in her arms, her mouth a pink animal, wailing.
Millie watched her husband leave, thinking, when he came home, she’d have to find new ways to be a wife to him.
* * * * *
That first autumn, as the leaves fell and the sky stayed endlessly gray, Nels prepared for his licensing exam. Millie passed the time by taking walks with Thelma when she fussed. The accents were different in Boston. Clipped syllables, tight lips. She missed the sing-songyness of Southern talk, the rise and fall, how voices bloomed with vibrancy and anger, with gossip and laughter. She knew her accent marked her, but many other things did, too: the daughter of a former slave, she was also half white, a plantation owner’s daughter, but too dark to pass. She’d feared she’d never match the Bostonian poise, a poise Nels already seemed to embody.
Millie preferred to the parks in the Commons to the commotion of the streets. Thelma loved the lake between the trees best, marveling at the big white birds gliding in the water. Later, she learned what they were: swans. She, too, was stunned by their majesty and elegance. She preferred to stay there as long as she could, but there was much to do at home. Walking briskly, she tried shed the imposter feeling as if it was weight she could lose.
Nels was late. Millie had barely anything other than barley and peas for dinner, and he was expected with their Sunday roast. She fretted at the window, trying to quell her eager stomach by sucking on rosemary leaves. She longed for a drink and wished she could ask Nels to bring some home, but knew how unladylike that was. Finally, he arrived with a parcel wrapped in newspaper.
“Today was grand,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “I shadowed Dr. Worthy all day. He’s a fine man, indeed, and a finer doctor. He will help establish my practice.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said. She opened the parcel and was surprised to find a rack of lamb.
“I thought you would like it.”
“Oh, but we can’t afford this!”
“It’s on loan-away from the butcher. I’ll pay back more next week.”
“But your boards aren’t for a few more weeks, and even then—”
“I’m going to be a doctor, Margaret. Here, in Boston. I am. And not a word of it again.”
Nels’ key had turned; he locked her door and was opening Thelma’s, instead, reaching for her to hold her high in the sky, his smile as wide as her squeals of joy.
“I can’t believe you’ll be educated as a Bostonian,” he murmured to her, burying his face in her neck.
She was envious of her own daughter, the very thing that sucked her dry of milk, of self. Envious of the life her daughter would lead. Envious of the love her husband showered her, copious, unbounded love. Her love for her daughter was love, yes. But it was rageful in its purity.
She opened the lamb, pressing her hands into its raw meat, realizing only then that she didn’t know how to cook it.
* * * * *
Millie went to bed but couldn’t sleep. She lay watching the candle burn out until Nels came barreling into the bedroom. He’d gone out with new comrades, at some saloon in Copley Square, drinking away money they still didn’t have. She pretended to be asleep, but whether or not he knew that, he didn’t let on.
“Millie-my-Margaret-my-lady-oh-my,” he sang. “I’ve got it, I’ve got just the thing, the very thing indeed, indeed indeed indeed!”
Millie couldn’t help but smile, though she kept it small and hidden in her face. Oh, how she did love seeing Nels like this, truly elated, walking on clouds, taking her along for the ride.
“The thing?” she said demurely.
He laid down in bed and kicked off his shoes with great labor—they toppled to the wooden floors Millie had cleaned hours earlier.
“Sshhh,” she chided him. “Sometimes it’s as if you forget you’ve ever had a daughter at all!”
“Oh, gracious me!” he cried, extending his arms beyond his head and grinning ear to ear. “As if I’d ever forget the love of my very life.” He turned to her, his eyes bright and swimming.
Her skin sang, then quickly bristled, once she realized he’d not meant that she was the love of his life. At the same time, he caught his error, smart man that he was, even if drunk: “Second-in-standing, mind you.”
“What, is it Nels?” she said, impatient now. She was jealous of the fun he was having, the fire lit in his brain.
“The thing,” he said, “yes.” He closed his eyes and rested his hand on her forearm. The rich, dark smoothness of his skin shone keenly in the candlelight.
“A hospital!” he cried.
“A…hospital,” she said, not sure what he meant.
“My own, my very own.”
“Your—your own? Your own hospital.”
“Yes! Men have done it. A Negro man in Chicago. A Negro man in Georgia. Purchased small home dwellings and converted them into hospitals. Trained, Negro doctors. They’ve done it.”
“But you’ve not yet—”
“It will be open to all patients. Anyone. Free of charge, if need be. And I will employ only Black physicians, and I will create a nurses’s training program for young Black women, they need careers too, we need—”
“Impressive, Nels. But—”
“My sweet dear. I have responsibility. To forge it for others. To create opportunities for others. To raise us up.”
“But Nels, you’ve not yet—”
“I will train them. I will give them jobs. He groaned, his body beginning to twitch. “Donations will function here. We need to find a church.” At that, he seemed to wake up, brightening. “Why haven’t you found us our church?”
She hadn’t known if Boston churches would be different from home. She hadn’t known how to find out. “I…I don’t know,” she whispered.
He turned then, deciding to sleep, and this was a small gift. Millie had not yet said her piece—he had not let her. They both knew that he hadn’t yet passed his boards. Nels knew that he would. Millie’s uncertainty extended deeper than that. She was quite sure he’d pass his boards, but his larger plans frightened her. Not that he couldn’t achieve them, but that she wouldn’t grow with him. Wouldn’t become the wife he’d need for such a life. That she wouldn’t know how. She couldn’t even find their church.
Tears came to her eyes. Luckily, they were only the beginnings of tears, tiny wells of water too timid to flow. She wiped them on the lace sleeve of her nightgown and began to undress her husband, who was snoring now, tumbling into dreams.
* * * * *
The house on East Springfield Street was unimpressive, but strong. And it was more than a house. A whole brick building of a thing—three, four floors from what Millie could tell.
Nels stood off to the side, watching her approach. “Well?” he said. Already impatient for her reply, though she’d just arrived.
Millie looked up and down. It was the same as the other rowhouses on the block, lined with early trees, forming a young canopy. “The street is quite lovely,” she said, turning her head back to the building.
“The loveliness of the street is a side thought, if at all. Have you focused your attention on what’s at the end of the block?”
Millie had not. Now she did. Beyond them lay the resplendent center pavilion of Boston City Hospital, its iron-domed pillared building just beyond view.
Nels reached into the bassinette and drew out his daughter, held her up, up, up. “Look!” he said. She made not a sound, but her smile disappeared into the sky. “That’s Daddy’s, yours and mine, it’s ours, baby girl!”
But it wasn’t.
“It rings, Millie. It rings!” he exclaimed, circling the baby in the air, pointing her toward the city hospital, up and down the street, the building that might become his.
Ever the questions! Was it proper to have the city hospital a block away? Where and how would the patients find them? How would they pay? Who would he hire? Could they afford it? What about supplies? Was the city ready for a black physician? Were they? She bit her tongue, reminded of Nels’ words: questions were born of insecurity, and insecurity bred fear.
But fearful, she was.
“So this will be just—”
“I will need somewhere to practice, Millie, in case they won’t take me.” He nudged his chin toward the hospital at the end of the block, its enormity looming. “I need somewhere to train others like me. I need to help us.”
Oh, her good husband. Her good, courageous husband. She needed to chew her own fear and spit it out.
“You will, Nels. It could be—” Millie searched for words. “Revolutionary.”
At that word, he seemed to deflate. He sat down on the front steps and settled the baby in his lap, her arms and legs squirming, wanting more of him. Millie watched his face, seeing this doubt upon him like a new skin. She knew she needed to scrub him clean of it.
She went to him and placed her palms on the sides of his head. She looked him in the eye, square as she could, and in them she saw two Corneliuses: one, the young man she knew so long ago, the dreamer; and two, the grown up version of that young dreamer, smoothing out his dreams like untangling a knotted rope.
“You will not just be good. You will be excellent.”
He nodded back to the house. “If not I, someone else will do it,” he said.
“Perhaps, though not as well.”
She thought of him as a little boy, hauling coal into the fire of the McCrossin’s home, his father out back chopping wood, his mother long dead; she thought of his tiny, capable hands, his brain, alive with fire, and how the couple admired him so much they paid for his schooling. They saw it in him, even then. (Sometimes, when she looked at Thelma, she thought: do I see that in her? Do I? And she thought: did anyone see it in me?) She thought of the letter from McCrossin that Nels kept in a cardboard file in his desk, next to the brass letter opener.
It seems to be but yesterday when you as a little boy was studying your Spelling book and performing your House-hold duties at our Home; how well I recollect the day you started to school and again I say that it fills my heart with pride to see that my advise has been kept by you and you have distinguished yourself at school and won a higher place than ever, in my friend-ship, I trust and predict that you will able, as a man of the world, to distinguished yourself among man-kind and do good for the race to which you have been born, there-by setting a fair example to the countless millions of your people.
“No one is as skilled as you,” Millie said.
“But they are, Millie. I’ve good training, of course. But medicine is medicine.”
“But medicine is not medicine. It is your touch, your manner, your temperance, that makes it so. Your confidence.”
He looked toward the building again, gripping her fingers. “Perhaps that is why they won’t follow my lead—” He turned Thelma toward him, cradling her in one arm, stroking her eyelids and nose with the light touch of a finger.
“No,” Millie said, shaking her head slowly, side to side. “That is exactly why they will.”
And, she wished she could add, exactly why I have, too.
* * * * *
He passed his medical licensing exam with flying colors. “Fireworks!” he said when he came home, his hands exploding in front of his face. “Fireworks!” As if saying the word made them appear. But, his eyes all lit up with stars and planets, his movements singeing with afterglow, she could almost smell the gun powder.
It seemed Thelma’s tiny arms reached for him before he’d entered her vision. He flew her on his back, zooming about, singing me oh me oh my. Thelma’s little giggles heaps of glee, dollops of creamed sugar fluffed on every other note, together their song becoming more familiar, yet more unpredictable, at once.
She wiped her hands on her apron. Back in the kitchen, Millie listened to the heady bubble of boiling water, the thud of the rolling pin on dense dough, until the sound of her own song became the only one she could hear.
Lisa Gordon’s fiction has been published in Paper Darts, Storychord, Hypertext, and others. She is working on a novel about Cornelius Garland, a Black physician from Alabama who founded and operated the first and only Black hospital in Boston, from 1908-1928.