Emma tore her toe on the metal threshold at Jake’s doorway. It happened on the February Tuesday when Jake’s asthma and dust allergy were diagnosed, three hours after Dr. Blankman gave her the pamphlet with the picture of the grossly-enlarged dust mite and the terrible tales about carpets and curtains.
Of course she should have waited for help before de-installing the wall-to-wall in Jake’s room. But Emma is energetic to the point of impatience, so eager she is called impulsive. She changed into sweatpants, pushed up her sleeves, and started ripping. She lugged heavy rolls of the musty stuff down to the garage. She sweated and sneezed, but she got all that mite-harboring blue junk out of her son’s bedroom before dinner.
The job exhausted her. After she dragged the last of the carpet pieces out to the garage she was so tired that she finally stepped in the dog shit she’d been avoiding through all prior passes. Her own retriever had left it there that afternoon, fresh and soft. It stuck in her textured sole like butter on a cold waffle. She bent to untie her shoes, nearly keeling over with fatigue, and then she went barefoot back upstairs.
Unshod, tired, it was easy to shuffle. She lifted insufficiently as she passed into Jake’s room, tearing her right big toe on a nail that protruded from the metal strip that used to hold down the bad blue carpet. She was surprised at how much it bled. She was also surprised at how much it hurt, until she inspected the nail head and saw its dull edge. Walking was painful and awkward. An inconvenient injury.
No sooner had she finished the carpet removal than Betsy arrived and it started to rain. The events were unconnected but both made Emma happy. She was always glad to see her friend, especially on their regular Tuesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. She loved rain, and today the weather made her glad she’d already dragged the carpet pieces into the garage; if she had left them in the driveway, as she thought of doing at first, they’d be getting wet and heavy.
As it happened, Emma came to regret both events. Maybe she was irritated by all the carpet-pulling and her bleeding toe, but she didn’t have any patience for Betsy’s rambling mysticism. She didn’t want to hear about her friend’s recurring dream any more than the usual astrology. “I don’t know, Bets,” she said more caustically than she felt, “but it seems to me it’s too easy to push one’s dreams around, interpretation-wise. Kind of like the old Ouija board; you always knew someone at the party was steering it, you know?”
“No. I don’t know that.” Betsy’s fair complexion reddened with emotion. “I for one have had some true predictive experiences with the board you’re disparaging. And I certainly am not pushing my own dream around. I’ve had it so often that I know what it contains.”
“But that’s just it. You’ve had it so often. Don’t you think your dreaming self could be recognizing some familiarity and then some part of you could be filling it in so you recall it as identical?”
“Look, Emma. Since I was a little kid, I’ve dreamed about this one house. I’m not too sure about the outside, but I can draw you a plan of its interior. And the thing about it is, there’s a windowless room in the center of the place, off the kitchen, hidden away. Each time I have the dream, I rediscover the room. And each time I find the room, I become sad that I haven’t been using it. I vow to remember it and use it.
“But I think I’ve figured it out. I think the room is a simple metaphor for a part of me that I’m not using. I have to find my own interior room and live in it.”
Emma knew she should retreat at that point. But her toe was still bleeding and she was still irked. She distrusted dream devices in books and movies, and she wasn’t much more receptive about them in a friend’s narrative. Instead of smiling or nodding and changing the subject, she mumbled something about dream interpretation being as useful as astrology.
“What’s with you tonight?” Betsy got up then for a glass of water, and didn’t sit down right away. She continued talking as she paced Emma’s kitchen. “Don’t try to tell me there’s nothing to astrology. I’ve invested years in its study, and there’s so much to it that I’ve barely begun. I can pick a person’s sign after fifteen minutes of conversation. How could I do that if there’s nothing to it?”
“Because you’re dealing with a bunch of people who know about astrology! Let’s find an island somewhere, where no one has ever heard of the ‘science’ and therefore can’t act his sign. Then I’ll bet you have trouble.” No sooner were those words out of her mouth than Emma regretted them. “Oh, I’m sorry, Bets,” she said. “Sit down. You want a stronger drink?”
But by that time neither had the energy to retrieve feelings. They shared a few minutes of delicious criticism about their friend Pam’s continuing cosmetic vanity (the woman was getting into “toxic” facelifts – injections of botulism bacteria that temporarily paralyzed small muscles and thus prohibited wrinkling), but Betsy left for her own place without sitting down again.
Emma fed Teddy the dog and Jake the fourteen year-old boy. She wasn’t hungry herself, but she nuked a Lean Cuisine and chewed through it. She tried not to walk on her toe, but stepping around on her right heel didn’t work very well. She went early to bed.
At 3:30 in the morning her bladder woke her up. Stepping out of bed right foot first, she forgot about her injured toe until she put her weight on it. At the same moment that she felt the pain, she felt the liquid.
Her first idea was that the dog had peed. But Teddy was a middle-aged retriever with good control; he never went inside. “What the?” Emma said aloud, as she limped to her lamp.
She had stepped in a four-inch wide stream of water coming from under her bed toward the fireplace. She hop-stepped over it and around the bed, to discover that the stream originated under one of the French doors to the small porch off her room. Under the door, across the Pakistani rug, beneath the bed, toward the fireplace. The water was definite evidence that her floor wasn’t level. It didn’t take long for her to find the bent metal weatherstripping under the door.
“Why now?” was her next frustrated thought. On her knees with her emergency flashlight she couldn’t see the problem, but she felt with her fingers the rippled edge of old metal. For who knew how many storms, that strip had held wind-driven rain outside the door, but some critical event that night, some perhaps hair-thin, feather-weak force, had pushed the stripping just far enough to let rain in under the door to flow across her room.
She fetched old towels. She wiped the floor, blotted the rug, created a roll of terrycloth threshold where the weatherstripping had surrendered. She limped to the washer with the wet towels, and then returned to bed, but she didn’t settle into good sleep for the rest of that night.
She and Jake managed to repair the weatherstripping the next afternoon, after he returned from school and she came home early from work. She and Betsy spoke that evening and normalized their relations. In fact, except for the continuing every-other-step annoyance of a toe injury, Emma felt better. She recovered from the frustrations and fatigues of her Tuesday.
On Saturday morning, however, she woke with a stiff neck getting stiffer. She knew she carried her stress there, and she did the exercises to relieve it, but throughout the day her mobility decreased and her discomfort grew. By that night she could barely turn her head, and she was irritable and drowsy. She considered her condition for some time before deciding that the pain merited prescription relief. She got into the Vicodin in the medicine cabinet and slid, eighty minutes later, into a pleasant restful sleep.
She woke Sunday morning on a soggy pillow. There was a slime of saliva on the pillowcase, below and around her mouth; she didn’t know why she had been mouth-breathing without a stuffed nose, but she assumed she’d slept mouth agape and drooled steadily from her left side.
As she raised her face from the pillow she realized that her neck stiffness had increased overnight. She was not happy. She struggled to an upright posture and continued to drool. She began to speak her frustration and found she could barely flex her jaw. She couldn’t enunciate. She panicked.
She woke Jake and managed to communicate the urgency of her situation. Grunt-talking and gesticulating, she made him understand enough that he called 9-1-1. Then he called Betsy. She normally came by on Sundays, but on that day her visit started early and went long, at the hospital.
Luckily Emma had had the prescribed series of tetanus vaccinations as a child. Unluckily, when she stepped in the bedroom water it had been far longer than the recommended ten years since her last booster. She became very ill, and her initial statistical chance of survival was less than eighty percent. But the doctors reacted promptly. They’d never treated a tetanus infection, but they loaded Emma with antibiotics, dosed her with muscle relaxants, and provided respiratory support for the brief time she needed it.
They conjectured that the source of infection was the rust- and germ-bearing water that flooded past the old weatherstripping and into the cut on the bottom of her toe. They read that the incubation period averages ten days but can be any number from three to twenty-one, so onset four days after exposure was not improbable.
What was improbable was Betsy’s reaction to her friend’s infection. She didn’t introduce crystals or candles or incantations to the sick room. She brought reference materials. Something about the event made her softly scientific. She was able to explain the infection to Emma (“It’s a little bacterium, called Clostridium tetani, which is actually a nerve poison.”) She was even able to entertain them with her knowledge (“Dig this! You know how your problem is Clostridium tetani? Well, Pam’s Botox? Those were injections of Clostridium botulinum – one of the eight bacteria of botulism – used to temporarily paralyze small facial muscles so they can’t contract and the face can’t wrinkle. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t it a trip that a cousin of what tried to kill you is ‘helping’ her?”) Emma would have voiced responses to these and others of Betsy’s comments, but lockjaw isn’t conducive to speech. She would have nodded but her improving neck still didn’t permit easy movement. She used her hands and eyes on Betsy to convey her appreciation.
Emma recovered fully. She was out of the hospital in five days and after another ten there was no sign that she had been ill. Within three weeks of the Tuesday night exposure, it was like the accident never happened.
But Emma-and-Betsy were changed by the infection. Betsy’s ventures toward science continued; before long she could talk about her own digestive problems with authority and confidence. Without abandoning most of her mystic interest, she added some with scientific method.
As for Emma, she’s remembering her dreams now. She wakes up most mornings and jots down her impressions. She finds there’s a recurring motif in her nocturnal visions. Emma is dreaming about thresholds.