Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
1024 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Answering the Question

by Judith Arcana

Sandy’s on a talk show, and she’s talking; there’s a YouTube clip that’s getting a lot of play. In the clip, which opens with the camera focused on a tattoo on her right forearm (a small red apple with two little green leaves on its tiny stem), she’s explaining how most people felt different forty years ago—different about contraception, abortion and motherhood in those years before the anti-abortion movement. Now she’s getting to the part, about ten minutes in, where she says that sometimes people ask the Janes if anybody died.

Journalists, sociologists, undergraduates considering careers in what’s now called health care delivery, people who show up in classrooms, auditoriums and bookstores where Janes are talking—they sometimes raise their hands in the q&a and ask if anybody died. Or they wait ’til the end, when the event is over and the Jane is being taken out for supper by the people who invited her to talk. Then they come up to her and ask, sometimes in almost a whisper, Did anybody die?

What they mean, Sandy thinks, is this: Did you kill anybody? The amazing thing about this question, she always says, is that the ones who ask it obviously expect the Jane to tell them. If that Jane thinks anyone in the Service killed somebody, the people who ask her think she’ll tell them. So they start out with a belief in the honesty and integrity of the Janes. Isn’t that kind of amazing?

The old phrase “butcher abortion” hardly ever turns up anymore, though “back-alley” is still popular for talking about the past and the rapidly-arriving future. That’s the cultural history prompting such questions, Sandy thinks, because nobody who asks is hostile. Only the occasional anti, showing up to spit poison, is hostile—and they never ask this question because they already believe the Janes are murderers. In spite of their 21st century PR messaging, they think girls and women who have abortions are baby-killers. People who ask the question, though, really want to know what happened back then; some of them are so young they think the Service is the abortion Pleistocene of the USA. Of course, that’s not the case—abortion history is way longer in North America, just like everywhere else, but they have no idea. Mostly, they just have no idea.

When she is the one asked, Sandy tells—like Denah, Lucy, Betsy and other Janes who are out—the only story they all know. Sandy’s been speaking and organizing through the years anti-abortion people have been harassing women on clinic sidewalks, bombing buildings and shooting doctors, so when she’s asked—like by the twenty-three-year-old Medical Student for Choice in Miami in January of 2005—she tells the only story she knows about somebody who died, a woman named Glenda Charleston. (Rachel used to say the woman’s name was Selina—or that there was another woman who died the same way, and that woman’s name was Selina.) They all know there were many women who died because abortion was illegal and inaccessible—women who’d never heard of the Janes, or heard too late. So many women. But there was only this one they knew about for sure, so her terrible story was the terrible story they told.

Sandy says, talking to the host behind the long desk, looking into the camera: Some Janes say the woman’s name was Selina, but I was told her name was Glenda. One time I heard somebody say she’d actually used a coat hanger; another time it was a knitting needle. Truth is, though, nobody in the Service knew what she’d done before she called us; she didn’t tell us anything. She just showed up for her appointment like everybody else.

She hadn’t told her counselor she already tried to do it—and she’d probably lied about how far along she was, too. There were always women and girls who lied or said they didn’t know, because they were afraid. They thought we wouldn’t do it if they said the wrong date—you know, the wrong number of weeks—too many weeks.

She, Glenda or Selina, even faked her temperature. They’d left her alone with the thermometer in her mouth, and she must’ve taken it out or shaken it down, so her infection fever didn’t register.

She was desperate, and desperation made her body so rigid they couldn’t get the speculum in; they had to massage her thighs and perineum for almost fifteen minutes. When she finally relaxed, a rush of thick yellow pus came out. The pus poured out of her vagina, down the speculum, all over her thighs, all down the plastic sheet. Then they knew. Even the sweat smell, before that, had seemed normal. I mean, they thought it was only fear, you know? Janes were used to that.

She was shaking while they cleaned her, sobbing and talking in that kind of whisper-shout you do sometimes with panic. They were telling her she had to go to the hospital, telling her Arlene would leave right then and take her, drive her right from there to the emergency room. But she just kept saying No. No. No. No. Her voice rasped when she said she couldn’t, could not, have that baby. She could hardly breathe. Her eyes and her crying were wild. She screamed, I brought money!

Arlene and MaryAnn talked about it that night, telling Sandy they were practically shaking when they took out the speculum and carefully, gently, washed her; how Glenda was trying to get up while they worked; how she pulled her clothes on and rushed out of the apartment; how they tried to but could not stop her when she ran down the stairs. They had the phone number she’d given, but nobody answered when they called. They called for two days and nights, and nobody answered.

Then, on the third night, somebody picked up the phone. He said, Miss Glenda’s passed. I’m so sorry to have to tell you like this. She’s gone. This is her pastor speaking. Would you like to talk to a member of the family?


SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Judith Arcana

writes poems, stories, essays, and books, publishing online and on paper. Her books include Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography; the poetry collection, What if your mother; and the poetry chapbook, 4th Period English.

Forthcoming in 2012 are a fiction zine (Keesha and Joanie and Jane, Eberhardt Press) and a poetry chapbook (The Parachute Jump Effect, Uttered Chaos Press). She’s working now on the Maude poems and a collection of short stories (Hello. This Is Jane.), which includes “Answering the Question.”

Judith lives in Oregon, in an apartment upstairs of her neighborhood library.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury