Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 3

Mrs. Badgett

In the Winton household great efforts were made to maintain surface regularity, whatever might be going on underneath. Chuck and his wife, Amanda, arose every day at seven thirty, and Amanda got breakfast while Chuck dressed carefully. He would then sit in the dining nook of their modest ranch house while she served him, hardly eating herself.

As usual, Amanda sat down with her coffee. Chuck looked into her cool gray eyes until she looked away. He had always been fascinated by his tiny elegant wife, and the first premature touches of gray in her blond hair made her more attractive still. As she now looked off into space, he admired her firm chin, straight nose, and generally patrician appearance. The fact that she didn't often smile made it wonderful when she did.

Apparently tired of looking out over the endless prairie, Amanda turned to Chuck and spoke in her low voice.

"I hope the roofer comes today."

Chuck would have preferred something more dramatic or personal. Still, the very idea of a strange man coming to the house when he wasn't there excited him. He asked,

"What are you going to wear today?"

She looked at him, rather solemnly, as she went through this part of the ritual.

"My blue cashmere top, and gray skirt and pumps. Then, if he comes in time, I'll drive over to Orrville for lunch and shopping."

Orrville was a town thirty miles away, a little smaller than Bollinger, but a good deal more attractive. There was a college there, at least one good restaurant, and a movie house. Chuck replied,

"If he doesn't come in time, you'll be all dressed up with nowhere to go."

"It won't be the first time."

This was as close as Amanda ever came to discussing what Chuck thought of as "the New York incident." She knew perfectly well that a promising, and perhaps even brilliant, career had been closed down there. The result was a practice in Bollinger. She hated Bollinger, understandably enough. There was nothing to do there but have babies. Amanda hadn't been as thrilled at that prospect as most women, but, even when they tried, she hadn't conceived.

Chuck vividly remembered Amanda's reaction the afternoon of the incident. When he told her, she went into the bedroom without a word, slamming the door. He didn't dare follow her in. He listened at the door while she cried for an hour or more. After that, he heard the shower running. When she eventually came out, she was dressed up. As she crossed the living room to the front door, he asked whether she was leaving him. She replied with a simple "no" in the course of going out the door. She didn't return until after midnight. She then rebuffed his attentions, put on her robe in the bathroom, and went to sleep wearing it.

The next morning, Amanda had started off with breakfast as usual. She didn't refer to any of the previous day's events, nor did she ask what was going to happen next. A partial reprieve had come a few days later. Amanda reacted with surprisingly little apparent feeling, seemingly almost with indifference. She volunteered only that he might do better somewhwere in the midwest. He had caught the implication immediately: that he might behave better in the countryside than in the big city. Chicago wasn't the countryside, but it was a step toward the hinterlands in which they now found themselves.

In the years since, Amanda hadn't seemed to care whether Chuck had affairs with other women. There were never any questions about where he had been, and he was free to go alone to a medical convention wherever and whenever he wished. In fact, there had been no other women. When out of town, Chuck concentrated instead on buying beautiful clothes to bring home to Amanda. She liked the clothes, would smile and kiss him chastely, and would let him seduce her. In sex she had been rather restrained since the incident, but would sometimes have a ladylike little orgasm. At other times, he would find, on withdrawing, that she moaned like a mortally wounded animal.

When Amanda lapsed into what Chuck took to be a bitter silence, he would wrack his brains to think of something to say which would draw a response. On this morning, he could do no better than,

"How's our budget coming this month?"

As Amanda explained in a rather distant way how, barring some miracle, they would run out of money in a few weeks' time, Chuck wondered, for perhaps the thousanth time, what Amanda had done on the night of the incident. He was almost certain that she had had sex with someone. Most probably, she had found a man in an expensive cocktail lounge in the late afternoon. She would then have talked with him for at least an hour. Probably they had had dinner together. Amanda didn't like to miss meals.

The odds were at least even, probably a good deal more, that the man was married. There would have been a call to his wife with an excuse, but he wouldn't have had a place to which he could take Amanda. Chuck had often imagined a scene in the back seat of a car in a parking garage. His wife would have been splayed out, her skirts up to her neck, with one foot, still in a delicate shoe, sticking over a seat back.

Another thing Chuck didn't know was whether Amanda still had affairs. The incident had not been a minor one, and there might still be a need for revenge. Or Amanda might simply have gotten started that way, and then found that life in Bollinger could be spiced up with a little illicit bliss. Her trips to Orrville might have that object. Even the roofer who was due to call might find the lady of the house, despite her austere appearance, more welcoming then he could have guessed. Chuck had long made a practice of secretly examining Amanda's purse for notes or mysterious telephone numbers. He also looked over her clothing for straps or catches which might have been torn or broken in a moment of passion. He never found anything suspicious, but it did little to ease his suspicions.

At almost precisely quarter past eight, Chuck got up from the table, kissed his unresponsive wife, and said loudly,

"I'm off. I've a busy day today."

Amanda said nothing, but nodded. She did seem to realize that he did what he could to scratch out a living as a new doctor with no connections in town.

One of the few advantages of life in Bollinger was that one could walk to work. The Winton house was the last one on a street which ended in the prairie. On this day there was no longer the warm sweet smell of the late summer and early autumn. On the contrary, low threatening clouds hung over most of the vast expanse, and the winter that might come early with layers of ice and snow would soon put an end to all smells. Chuck turned his back on the prairie. It made him uneasy. He had grown up in the gentle hills of southern England, where the horizon was always within easy reach. This business of having land and sky merge indistinguishably together in the infinite distance wasn't his sort of thing at all.

As Chuck charged along with his giant steps, his mind drifted to his work. It worried him that he couldn't figure out what was wrong with Howie Slattery's stomach. He gathered that other doctors had been equally puzzled. Howie had undergone a battery of tests for ulcers, during which he had absorbed more radiation than was really desirable. Nothing had been found, and one doctor had diagnosed the problem as gastritis, which meant a gastric disturbance, which meant almost nothing. Chuck himself didn't think that it was an ulcer, but he hardly had any alternative diagnosis.

There was the possibility of some form of cancer. Chuck hadn't mentioned that to Howie, and it seemed not to have occurred to the latter on his own. But then, Chuck reflected, that possibility always occurs to everyone; they merely refuse to admit that they're thinking of it. It was sometimes a kindness to assure a patient, unasked, that he didn't have cancer. But there were also patients who reasoned that the doctor wouldn't even mention it unless there was a possibility that it really was present. On the whole, it was better to leave the subject alone.

Such pains could always be psychosomatic, but Howie didn't seem in the least a hypochondriac. On the contrary, he was much more likely to ignore pain than to invent it. He even refused novocaine at the dentist's. On the other hand, the combination of having been both an orphan and a child prodigy might have created tensions which had been repressed and could now evidence themselves in peculiar ways. Anyhow, Howie's main problem now seemed to be his lack of a woman. If he ever found one, his stomach might settle down.

Chuck was now in the old part of town, on a broad street with great trees. The brisk wind whipped leaves out of them which fluttered down around him as he approached the central square. In front of the court house a couple of men greeted him. It pleased Chuck that they did so. He reflected that he got more solid respect here in Bollinger than he would have had in New York, even without any incidents. People here thought of him, not as another young man on the make, but as one who saved lives. Chuck hadn't really saved one in Bollinger yet, but it was just a matter of time.

Mrs. Badgett was already in the office, preparing for the day's appointments. About forty, she looked trim and efficient in her strikingly clean nurse's uniform. She wasn't really a nurse, but it hardly mattered. Chuck didn't mind giving the injections himself while she did all manner of necessary things, and did them in such a way as to create the required professional atmosphere. She also did little extra tasks in a way that was at once maternal and the sort of thing one might expect from an energetic junior partner. On top of everything else, she was a good deal more amiable than the woman Chuck had left at home. On this occasion she reported,

"Just for fun I've been checking the ages of your patients. The average age of the adults is thirty two. I bet Doc Bradley's average is practically double that."

"He must be a pretty good doctor. I don't think there's a single one of his regular patients who's defected to us."

"No. You've got some from the other doctors, and you get a good share of the newcomers to town."

"If you've noticed, we do get some younger people from the old families. I think it's rebellion. They don't want to go to the same doctor as their parents."

Mrs. Badgett considered the matter briefly and replied,

"They may also not want to go to a doctor who might tell their parents things they don't want them to know. Like, for instance, those unmarried girls who come in for contraceptives."

"Yes, but there are really only a couple of those."

Mrs. Badgett then added, with a smile,

"You're also getting a disproportionate number of women in the twenty to forty range. I wonder why that is."

Six months earlier, such a comment would have disturbed him, but Chuck now realized that it was intended only as a compliment. Although he and Mrs. Badgett addressed each other formally, they could discuss somewhat sensitive subjects. Chuck replied,

"I haven't gotten any indecent proposals yet."

"No. I don't think you will. They want to flirt, but nothing more serious. They think you're safe because you have such an attractive wife."

"I suppose that's the main reason why I am safe. Even apart from that, though, a doctor in this town would be crazy to fool around with his patients. Everyone would know about it in ten minutes."

"Yes. And, of course, there's the danger that some neurotic woman might imagine or invent something. It's my job to bustle around enough to keep their fantasies from getting started."

"Do you think we have any who are capable of that?"

"Maybe a couple. I think Denise Langenbauer is one. I suspect that she makes up complaints so you'll have to examine her."

"I guess we should take special precautions with her."

"The next time she comes in, you can tend the phone while I get her ready. That'll help settle her. Then, when you examine her, I'll be standing right beside you even if the phone's ringing off the hook."

The first couple of appointments were routine. Since Chuck was trying to build up his practice, and wanted roughly twice as many patients as he now had, he chatted with people and examined them with a slightly exaggerated thoroughness. After the second one had left, there was time for a coffee break before the arrival of Mrs. Diane Morgan.

Mrs. Morgan was in her early thirties, and was married to a lawyer who was also a patient. The Morgans had been in town only a fairly short time, and they had met at a party. Mrs. Morgan, a pretty blonde, burst in hurriedly.

"Hello Chuck, I hope I'm not late. I had to drop Jimmy off at the sitter's."

Mrs. Badgett replied,

"Not at all. We were just finishing our coffee."

As Chuck got up to lead the way into his office, Diane explained,

"It's the same old thing again. I don't need to be examined, but I need a little advice."

Chuck was quite familiar with the problem. Diane had a blood type mis-match with her husband, and, although she had had one child successfully before the antibodies could form, she had lost two since. A few months previously, a girl had actually been delivered live, but had died soon afterwards. Looking at her now, one wouldn't guess how destructive that experience had been for Diane. She said, quite casually,

"Doug wants to try again, but it seems just pointless to me."

"I'm pretty sure that it is. You've got the antibodies, and it's just about impossible to keep your blood separate from that of the baby."

"Doug's intelligent, and he knows all that. I can't imagine why he wants me to go through it again."

"You also want another child, don't you?"

"Sure. We don't think it's good for Jimmy to be an only child, and I think Doug wants a little blonde girl like me. But he's talked with you. It's as if he didn't believe you."

"He certainly seemed to believe me. But we could have him talk with Doc Bradley, and he could read the medical material. Most of it isn't very technical."

Diane sat across from Chuck, leaning a little forward, her dignity and composure warring with what he took to be an impulse to cry. Then she stood up suddenly and moved away toward the window, her slim vibrant figure outlined sharply by the dull autumn light. He noticed that her shoulder-length hair was still bleached by the summmer sun. Diane spun suddenly toward him, her skirt lifting to show her pretty kness, and said angrily,

"If only he could have the right kind of blood, like most men. What's your type?"

"A positive. But it isn't doing Amanda and myself much good. We've tried with no luck."

"It would be ironic if Amanda could conceive with Doug and I could have a live baby with you. But none of us are advanced enough to do the obvious thing."

It was a statement rather than a question. Chuck replied,

"I guess that's not what Doug wants."

"I'm afraid he really wants to be deceived, but not with anyone we know."

Chuck was himself affected considerably, but, after a moment of confusion, he replied,

"You mean, he wants you to just find someone who'll go away without ever knowing that he's fathered a child?"

"Yes. That's it exactly. I wasn't quite sure why I was coming to see you today, but now I know. I want you to tell me what sort of person to choose."

Chuck was much more shocked than he would have been if Diane had proposed having sex with him. Desperate for a professional reply, he said,

"You certainly can't do it with someone you might find at the bus station. The chance of disease is too great, not to mention bad heredity."

Diane laughed.

"I've gotten that far myself. It'll have to be over in Orrville, and I want someone who'll disappear. How about a college boy?"

Chuck was now on firmer ground.

"As far as the chances of conception go, the younger the better. But I understand that Orrville College is a repository for wealthy young people who can't get into a good college. An idiot college boy is hardly better than a bum at the bus station."

"I was in a chess club in college. I could visit the Orrville College chess club, at least if there is one."

Chuck had to laugh at that, and it seemed to relieve them both. He commented,

"Chess certainly requires one kind of intelligence. But you can't pick some skinny little kid with big glasses who doesn't look anything like Doug."

As they discussed the further ramifications of Diane's rather desperate plan, Chuck kept having images of her in the clutches of some stranger. He finally found the nerve to ask,

"Are you going to enjoy it?"

"I may, but you needn't worry. I won't fall in love with anyone or leave Doug, or do anything that would mess up Jimmy's life. It just has to be done, that's all."

It was remarkable how much cheerful dignity Diane could maintain in even the most embarrassing and difficult circumstances. He supposed that it was a kind of courage.

Just then, Mrs. Badgett came in with a question from a patient who was on the telephone. She seemed to think that her sore throat was a sign of cancer. Mrs. Badgett said,

"She's pretty nearly hysterical. Can I tell her that an aspirin will cure the cancer?"

They all laughed at that, and, by the time Chuck had dealt with the emergency, Diane looked happy again. When she then left, Chuck went to the window to watch her as she crossed the street. With quick sure steps Diane proceeded to her car, slipped her coat off, and tossed it into the front seat. She then slid in with a swirl of her skirt and had the car started almost immediately. It accelerated quickly down the street and turned left rapidly enough to make it sway considerably. Chuck's remaining image was of a blonde head with fashionable hair-do outlined in the car window.

When Chuck returned to the outer office, he asked Mrs. Badgett,

"Did you hear that?"

Since Diane had previously discussed her problem when Mrs. Badgett was present, and even asked her advice, Chuck hadn't thought to close the inner office door. Mrs. Badgett now replied,

"Yes. When I realized that she was talking about such personal things, I was going to close the door. But that seemed disruptive. So I'm afraid that I just went on listening."

"I think she expects you to know everything. But does it sound crazy to you?"

"Well, I don't think I know anyone else who'd do that, but Diane's one of my favorite people. It just means that she wants a baby terrifically, probably harder than a man could understand."

"Well, I recognize that. But it puzzles me about Doug. I don't want a child that badly, and, anyway, he already has one. I can't believe that he really wants her to take a lover."

"On the other hand, if he really loves Diane, he couldn't want her to go through another miscarriage or stillbirth."

"No, I suppose not."

After a minute of silence, Mrs. Badgett said,

"He apparently hasn't said anything about adoption. He seems to want a little girl just like Diane. So, there's no other way."

"But wanting to be deceived into the bargain. That amazes me."

"I think we all want to be deceived in lots of ways. Half your patients want to be assured that they won't ever die."

It wasn't the first time that Chuck found himself admitting that Mrs. Badgett was probably right.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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