Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 7

A Proposition

It was a slow day for patients in Dr. Chuck Winton's office. As soon as Barbara Bowen left, he called Howie and burst out,

"I've got you a date. A beautiful seventeen year old girl at St. Monica's. Obviously very bright, too. I didn't actually lie, except for saying that you were my young cousin. I gave the impression that you were a Harvard undergraduate out of school temporarily with a bad stomach."

Howie rushed over as soon as he could to hear more, and to get Mrs. Badgett's opinion. In fact, he narrowly missed Barbara when she came back. After that brief visit, Chuck and his nurse had settled down to yet another in an almost continuous series of coffee breaks. Chuck, jubilant, remarked,

"That's quite a girl isn't she? Both of them, really. Sister Rose is going to have fits when only one comes back. I bet you anything that she tries to get the police to put out an all points bulletin. I'd love to see her face when the desk sergeant tells her that an adult woman has the right to go anywhere she wants whether she clears it with Sister Rose or not."

"I'm worried, doctor. I'm also afraid I may have encouraged her by telling her my story."

"That's all to the good, isn't it? She's surely better off now that she's busted out."

"That's an inexperienced girl. She's only gone to Catholic schools, and even her practice teaching was in a parochial school. You'd be surprised how little she knows about the world. I also don't think she's terribly intelligent. Not dumb, but not much more than average. That may not be enough to learn what she's got to learn fast enough."

"Maybe not. The other one, Barbara Bowen, is certainly smart enough."

"I'm worried about her, too, but for a different reason. They'll hold her responsible."

"That's crazy! They've no right to do that."

"They won't think in terms of rights. For a start, Barbara will be the messenger who brings them just about the worst news they've had in a long time. You know what happens to messengers in cases like that."

Chuck nodded, now not so jubilant. The other continued,

"Besides, Barbara was egging her on."

"I guess she probably was, but I'm certainly not going to tell them."

"They'll know it just because they know Barbara. Any red- blooded American girl would help a nun who wants to escape."

"That's not evidence."

"The nuns won't care in the least. They'll want a culprit, and I can't imagine who else they might pick on."

"Maybe so. But it's still the twentieth century. They can't burn her at the stake or tie her to a grating and flog her."

"You've never been a Catholic, doctor. These girls have been raised in such a way that they're almost defenseless against certain kinds of psychological assault. When priests and nuns want to hurt them, they can wound deeply."

The afternoon was broken when they finally did get a couple of patients. Chuck and Mrs. Badgett had just been discussing the possibility of a half-price sale of his services when a man they hadn't seen before came in with a urinary problem. No sooner had he left than another new patient, a young women, arrived to inquire about plastic surgery for her nose. Chuck stressed the risks of the operation, including the possibility that she would end up less attractive than she was presently. Mrs. Badgett then attempted to make her feel better about the existing nose. Just after she had left, apparently satisfied, it was closing time. Howie turned up and suggested going somewhere other than the Bollinger House, explaining,

"Ken Seitz will want to know how the pornography case is going, and I'd rather not tell him just now."

"How is it going?"

"Pretty well from his point of view. I talked with Sturgis, and he obviously doesn't much care what verdict the local so- called system of justice returns. It's really going to be decided in a higher court. Sturgis will be there, but I won't. In the meantime, Ken can have his conviction just before the election. But I'm not going to tell him in advance. Let him sweat it out."

The two men had now arrived at a small almost empty bar. The conversation drifted to Barbara Bowen and the day's events. Chuck said,

"She's probably in dutch right now, but they might still let you talk with her."

"Should I invite her to the movies in Orrville, do you think?"

"Seniors can go out on dates Saturday night, but only with boys known to Sister Rose. The first time, you should go over to meet them all and convince the sisters that you're safe. I think they show movies there. She might invite you to one."

"This might be just about the best opportunity I've ever had. I'm not going to be tongue-tied and awkward, if for no other reason than because I'm used to coping with people like Ken Seitz. And, for once, I'm not going to be too young."

"I almost wish it were me. She really is lovely."

"Did you see her without her clothes?"

"No, she came in with just a cut finger. I did have to hold her hand, and that was nice. She's quite engaging, too. You don't have to work to get a smile out of her the way you do with my wife."

"It's strange that I haven't met your wife, Chuck. I must have seen her around town without knowing who she was."

"I'm sort of hesitant about introducing her to friends because I never know whether she'll be nice."

"Almost anyone can get it together to be reasonably polite when first meeting someone."

"Well, yes. I suppose it's just that I hardly know her."

"How did you meet her?"

"She had a summer job as a waitress while she was in college, and it was a place I went to when I was in medical school. I didn't notice her too much at first, but she used to chat with me during slow times."

"And you realized that she wasn't an ordinary waitress?"

"That was obvious from the beginning. She was an English major, but she talked mostly about the people who came into the restaurant. She also did imitations. She's very good at that, and they were amusing."

"So she's a bit of an actress?"

"She's never acted in plays, but she probably could have. I think she rather did want to marry a doctor, and put her skills to use in that direction."

"Well, that's security. The wife of a doctor is said to have a good life."

"Except, perhaps, in Bollinger."

"If she did do some scheming, she probably didn't have a place like Bollinger in mind."

"Certainly not."

"Does she hate you on account of the incident?"

"I imagine at times. I'm sure she went out on the town that night, but I don't know whether she has affairs now."

"You could find out."

"I wouldn't want to hire a private detective. There may not even be any in Bollinger."

"Everyone is a detective here. She'd have to be very discreet, or it'd be all over town."

"She goes over to Orrville a lot. If she does it, it'd be over there."

"I've heard a rumor that Diane Morgan was seen with a young man in Orrville."

"My God! I hope that doesn't get around."

"I got it from my police colleague, Vic Olafson. He stopped Diane for speeding one afternoon on her way back from Orrville. Vic doesn't usually do traffic arrests, but he recognized Diane when she passed him at a high rate of speed. At first, he thought she might be drunk, but then realized that she was just euphoric. So he checked with the Orrville police. She's pretty enough to be recognized anywhere, and it came out about the young man. Vic is pretty close-mouthed, but he doesn't want any husband-wife trouble, and he seemed to think that I might be able to deliver a warning. He seems to think that I'm the link between the world of the police and the professional elite in Bollinger."

"You are. Have you done anything?"

"No. I can't imagine approaching Diane in that light."

"That's okay. She's my patient, and I can help. It's good that you told me."

"It did just occur to me that the more adventurous ladies of Bollinger may be taking lovers in Orrville to make life more interesting."

"Who could blame them, really?"

While Howie nodded in acknowledgement, Chuck took a long drink from his glass. He then spoke in a way that was unusual for him.

"Can you do me a favor?"

"Sure. What do you want?"

"Go call on my wife when I'm not there. Try to get her to sign a petition. I want to know what she's really like."

Howie started violently enough to spill some beer. As he mopped it up, he said,

"Chuck, I've never heard of a request like that. I'm sure I couldn't tell you anything you don't already know."

"Will you try?"

"Well, I suppose I could go around with an anti-pornography petition."

Chuck then spoke in a more relaxed manner.

"You know, the ideal system would be where a man wasn't responsible for a woman all on his own. That is, supporting her, keeping her as happy as possible, and coping with her moods and problems. Instead, a group of friends would collect a group of women, share them, and also share the responsibilities."

"Even as little as I know about women, I can't imagine that that would work. I doubt that they want to be shared."

"I don't mean that all the women would necessarily have to be willing to go to bed with all the men. It would be great just to have a variety of nice attractive women to go out with, and maybe fool around with a little. Diane is certainly one I'd like to add to the list. She'd be fun to have around."

"She might play with you, but I'm pretty sure that she regards me as a juvenile."

After a while, Chuck got up to go. Howie, after half rising, fell back into his chair.

"God, I must have drunk more than I realized. I think I'll stay right here and have a hamburger."

"Eating in places like this is probably half of what's wrong with your stomach, not to mention drinking. Anyhow, I won't be bossy without my stethoscope on. See you later."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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