Latrine Duty

Latrine Duty

by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

The bathroom never had a chance. Marcela tackled it with military precision, quadrant by quadrant, and soon it was hers again.

First off, the towels would have to go. Luis’s mom had been a godsend these past six months, staying at the house, taking care of the boys, holding Jaime’s hand when he took his first, rubbery steps. Goddamn it. Marcela took her mother-in-law’s towels and tossed them in the hamper. She’d give them back on Sunday after church, clean and fluffy and folded. But they were too cheerful and too pink for this bathroom.

Marcela hung up the old towels. There, she wasn’t going overboard. Not like they were camo or anything. Just blue with a nice stripe.

The toilet was next. A lot can happen in a toilet in six months, and Marcela made her face Air Force stony as she lifted the lid. Luis’s mom was more relaxed about housekeeping than Marcela. Unlike her daughter-in-law, she had never studied epidemiology. That was before Marcela had done a surgery rotation that took her breath away. To hold torn but living flesh in her hands and make it right again, restoring its perfection—there was nothing like it. Scrubbing up made her heart beat harder. Stepping into the OR was like entering a world where she was in charge of the universe. She could see God’s design in the curve of each bone. It was like working in concert with Him. During surgery her fingers were transcendent. She had a gift and a duty to use it.

There was a danger, one of her colleagues had pointed out, in assuming they were doing God’s work, as they were surrounded by people who felt the same way but expressed it differently. Marcela agreed, but was pretty sure that healing the wounded was closer to divine good than planting IEDs where NATO troops might be located but civilians and children certainly were.

Marcela propped open the toilet lid, then lifted the seat with her other hand. The bowl was okay, not gleaming but not glowering either. Hell of a lot better than the stinking holes most of her patients had to use, this past half a year. She dumped in some bleach and let it sit. Then she got on her knees and peered behind the toilet.

The mother lode.

Roberto was six; Jaime was still toddling. The toilet bowl was a guideline, not a legitimate military target. Marcela grabbed a brush and some cleaner and started scrubbing the floor and wall behind the porcelain.

In some ways, being out there had been easier. She had had her own room in a B-hut with, thank God, her own AC unit, and the days had a monotonous regularity. Sleep alone on a narrow cot and never have to worry about waking the other person. Eat food someone else had cooked. Dress herself. For six months no diapers, no easing floppy feet into socks, no getting clothes onto anyone but herself. She would run laps before the day got too hot and the desert sun turned her strength to water. After that, surgery. Most days. Her obligations went in one direction instead of many. And she hadn’t cleaned a bathroom in six months. Over there, she was too important.

Those brown, desert children looked exactly like her own:  dusky skin, dark hair, and eyes the color of coffee beans. Jamie and Roberto were still asleep, but she could feel their presence as if the house were breathing and she could ride the soft ups and downs of its breaths. It was her first weekend home; she’d had just enough time to shake most of the jet lag. Now it was time to reestablish herself in her own house. Some things had changed and could stay changed; some things would go back to the way they had been before. Jaime was wearing a new brand of diapers. The old ones had started giving him a rash, Luis explained. That was okay. And she had been staggered to find that Roberto now liked tomatoes. Well, that was okay, too. But unmade beds and smelly bathrooms—those days were gone. Because what kind of a mother would she be if she let those things stand?

Home wasn’t all scrubbing out latrines, though. The day looked to be cold and rainy, so she would make everyone tomato soup and grilled cheese for lunch. The boys would want to play video games, which she and Luis limited. If the rain held off long enough, she’d shove them out into the yard to run around for a while.

Marcela would never again take running for granted. Especially not running children.

Her first amputation over there still haunted her. It wasn’t her fault. Even here, even in the best hospital in the world, that woman would probably still have died. By the time her husband brought her in she wasn’t much more than a pulse held together with tatters of skin. He had known not to use a tourniquet, he said. But he didn’t know how else to stop the bleeding. And his wife wouldn’t go to a male doctor. The woman’s eyes opened briefly and focused on Marcela. Thank God, the husband said. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?

Marcela could smell the rotting flesh before she cut away the clothes. She cut the leg off above the knee. The patient had died on the table.

Afterwards, Marcela asked the chief surgeon if the family wanted the leg. She didn’t know anything about Muslim burial customs. Do they need this? she said. Do we—wrap it up for them? And they had been in surgery for sixteen hours straight with nothing but blood and bone fragments and the clink of shrapnel landing in metal bowls as they pulled it out of arms and legs and chests and faces, and suddenly they couldn’t stop laughing. Is this for here or to go? Marcela prayed the woman’s husband hadn’t heard them.

Sometimes when Marcela cleaned the bathroom, she put on latex gloves. Like surgical gloves. But when she checked the box of disposable gloves in the closet, it was empty. She put Gloves on her mental shopping list and went back to scrubbing.

Her first patient over there had been a kid Roberto’s age, about six. His brother carried him in, big kid, maybe thirteen, doing his damndest not to cry. Land mine. Someone else set it off. The little boy hadn’t been right on top of it, which was why he was still alive. But he’d been close enough. Marcela had saved about half his hand:  index finger, middle finger, and thumb. His palm was torn up, but it would heal. The boy would be able to hold a pencil. He could go to school, if there was one. When he grew up, he could have a trade. Marcela knew most of the other doctors couldn’t have done that much. Hands were her specialty. Still, the brother’s half-sobbed thank you had hit her like a sucker punch.

Marcela loved hands. The way each of the carpal bones blossomed from a single center of ossification, rough surfaces on the bones providing a grip for ligaments, concave bones anchoring muscles. Hands, she thought, are the architects of dreams and the wizards of desire. They draw and write and paint and gesture. They fling to the air in triumph and clench in fury and despair. Hands make you human.

Maybe she’d let Roberto and Jaime play extra video games today. Just for the joy of watching their thumbs tap swiftly and expertly on the consoles. Even Jaime was good at it. Perfect  hands, bones held together with a web of muscle and tendon and skin.

There was no soap in the sink. Marcela wondered how long it had been gone. Those boys. She reached into the vanity and pulled out a fresh bar, unwrapped it and set it in the bone-dry soap dish. Her boys’ perfect hands might as well be clean.

To the kids, she wasn’t Doctor anything. She sure wasn’t Air Force Major Marcela Ruíz. Here, at home, she held special titles only two people could use, and they chimed in her ears like soft bells whenever the boys spoke them. Mom. Mommy. And sometimes Mamá.

Someday, chances were good they would be proud of the work she’d done over there. But not now. Now they were just glad she was back. When Mommy comes marching home again, hurrah. Hurrah.

Luis and the kids would wake up to a clean bathroom. It would be utterly wasted on them, but that wasn’t the point. She was back and taking care of them. Marcela had other gifts besides medicine.

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Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs writes both fiction and nonfiction.  She is the author of the novels Wrong Place, Wrong Time and Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café, and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco.  Tilia lives in Massachusetts with her husband and a brace of kids.  Two neurotic standard poodles round out the household.  When Tilia is not writing and parenting, she teaches classes for prison inmates. Website:

8 thoughts on “Latrine Duty

  1. Wow. Powerful. Most of the PTSD type stories I have run across have been about the front line guys. This was a wonderful perspective and I hate to say it, stirred up my own memories of my times in the “Sand Box”.

  2. A blessed, integrated worldview sees every task as inspired by love, which motivates one to do his or her best. Thank you for this deceptively simple and well-written tale.

  3. Lots of powerful stuff: the contrast between the lyric description of hand architecture, and the grisly humor of limbs to go; the evocation of guilt at failing as a surgical savior; the complex of feelings about competence; the arid wittiness about toilet accuracy. Lots and lots!

    A minor point: the paragraph “Sometimes when Marcella cleaned…scrubbing” jarred me a bit, pulling me away from the sweep of the story.

    But really great stuff.

  4. This is a fabulous story. ‘a pulse held together with tatters of skin’ – wow. ‘the mother lode’ – hilarious, in context. Perhaps you could resubmit this story to markets that accept reprints. So well done!

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