Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 14

Yet Another Game

When Howie awoke the next morning, he first noticed that the bed was wet. Relieved to find that the cause was the leaking ice bag Chuck had provided, he noticed that his knee was somewhat swollen. It nevertheless worked through the full range of its motion with almost no pain. When he got to his feet, he trotted the length of his apartment with good results and decided that he was ready.

The Sunday morning touch football game drew together a Bollinger elite quite different than that presided over by Ken Seitz at the Bollinger House. The football players tended to be, with only a couple of exceptions, youngish men of some importance in the community who had come from somewhere else. Chuck played, even though he had been raised on Rugby football. So did Howie, Sam Herz, Mrs. Badgett's husband, Ed, and Diane Morgan's husband, Jim. The half dozen others included two lawyers, a psychologist, two businessmen, and the local meteorologist. Howie had once invited Ken Seitz to play, but the latter replied,

"No thanks, Howie. I played in high school, but I'd rip loose something for sure if I went out there now."

Even as Ken spoke, Howie realized that Seitz thought that team sports were to be played in school, and not afterwards. It wasn't really a matter of possible injury, nor was it quite a question of dignity. Ken wasn't pompous, and it wasn't that he didn't want people to see him sweaty and dirty after a game. It was just that he thought that there were appropriate kinds of behavior for each period of one's life, and that it wasn't a good idea to cross boundaries unnecessarily.

The games were actually quite intense. The blocking was the same as in tackle football, but without the protection of helmets. Several of the men had played on college teams, Ed Badgett on a Rice team that had gone to the Cotton Bowl. The upshot was the rather odd circumstance that everyone played as if everything depended on winning the game even though, at the same time, no one actually kept track of the score.

In his way, Chuck was the most remarkable. He had trouble catching the American football with its unfamiliar shape, but he had surprising speed, let alone for a man of his size. He also played with a dangerous abandon.

On this day, Howie, the fastest man on his team, was detailed to cover Chuck. Howie's room-mates had played on the Harvard team, but, in the off season, he had played touch football with them. They played touch much as they played tackle, and Howie, a fourteen year old far from his full growth, had developed a scrappy little man's style of play. Even now, at six three and a hundred and eighty, he gave away some height and a good deal of weight to Chuck. On the other hand, he was good at bump-and-run, and he took advantage of Chuck's ignorance of the rules to interfere subtly when Chuck out-reached him for a ball. Oddly, Chuck was more likely to catch it when Howie was all over him than when he was alone.

The teams, different each week, were well-matched on this occasion. They played for some two hours, at which point it was decided that they would play to the next touchdown. Howie's team had the ball, and, on second down, they threw long. Howie, at right end, went down straight, out-running the defender, and then cut diagonally for the middle. Ed Badgett threw a line drive deep down the middle. Howie's experience was that he could actually get to a ball which first looked out of range, and he sprinted for all he was worth with his eyes fixed on the ball. His knee was working perfectly, and it was at moments like this that he was completely unconscious of either his jock itch or the pain in his stomach.

Just as Howie reached for the ball, he was conscious of a sort of thunk and felt a mild shock. The ball simply disappeared. He soon discovered that it had been thrown exactly between him and the other end, Jim Morgan. Both had had their eyes on the ball, and they had collided head-to- head without ever seeing each other. Jim Morgan was about the same size, but the top of Howie's head had hit the side of Jim's, with the result that Howie felt relatively little while Jim dropped as if pole-axed. The ball had apparently glanced off at least one set of finger-tips and gone bouncing down the field.

There was some initial concern about Jim, but, even before Chuck had a chance to look at him, he was sitting up and jokingly accusing Ed Badgett of having led him into Howie intentionally. When Jim was helped to his feet and declared himself hardly groggy and ready to play, Chuck intervened and looked in his eyes for signs of concussion. Not seeing any, he discharged Jim and asked Howie,

"Are you all right?"

"My jock itch is pretty bad."

With that, they decided to adjourn to the pancake house.

The pancake house was something new in Bollinger, the local outpost of the first national chain of restaurants any of them had seen. As such, it carried great prestige. The people of Bollinger went to it in much the spirit that they might have gone to the best and most expensive restaurant in the area. Indeed, it was fairly expensive, and the menu did feature some items from other parts of the country which weren't familiar to the residents of the Illinois midlands.

Since the members of the ordinary ruling elite went there after church with their families, there was a certain clash of cultures when the football group burst noisily in. Most of the traditional people in Bollinger went to church most of the time, and, even when they missed a Sunday, they dressed as if they had gone. It was only too obvious that the football players hadn't been to church, and most of them looked as if they had never seen the inside of one.

There were some bad looks directed at the newcomers, and some harrumphing. However, when Howie waved to Ken Seitz, Ken smiled and waved back, as if humoring a party of kindergarteners. It was Sam Herz who said,

"A lot of these people don't look as if they have much fun in life. After all, how much fun could church be?"

Jim Morgan replied,

"I never liked it myself, but Diane usually goes, she says to maintain our respectability. I don't object because she's always very sexy afterwards. If Howie hasn't put my sympathetic nervous system out of commission, there'll be a treat waiting for me when I get home."

Chuck replied,

"As your medical advisor, I strongly urge you to take a shower first."

Since there were a dozen of them around two tables pushed together, and none had taken showers, newcomers seemed somewhat reluctant to be seated near them. The manager looked worried, and Howie knew what his problem was. Were they driving away more business than they themselves accounted for, and, if so, how could he get rid of them? He pointed out playfully to the others that their presence might lead to the institution of a dress code in time for the next Sunday. Sam replied,

"I don't think so. These places are managed from Atlanta, and all the decisions are made there. They don't want a coats- and-ties image."

Someone else suggested,

"Maybe they want people like us more than people like them."

"Probably so, at least on the national level. Maybe they think we're the wave of the future."

When they finally broke up, Chuck gave Howie a ride back. As they got in, Chuck complained about his soreness and stiffness, and added,

"The trouble is, I don't do any exercises or stretches from one Sunday to the next. How are you holding up? You were kicked in the knee yesterday and hit on the head today."

"Pretty well. The knee and head are okay, but I think the stomach pain's getting worse. It almost feels as if a foreign body were embedded in it."

"That should have shown up on those X-rays that they took. I've now been sent them, and I've talked on the phone with two of the doctors who saw you. They remember your case well, but really don't have anything to suggest."

"One of them told me that a great many people have to live with some kind of chronic pain. I'm sure that's true of many middle-aged and elderly people, but I've never met anyone else my age in that category."

"There are some, but that's neither here nor there. Let's stop at the office and see if the pain has become more localized. Did the game affect it at all?"

"I don't think so, really. It's just that I get involved and lose consciousness of it."

As Chuck opened up the office, it seemed to Howie that his relation to his doctor might be unique in the history of medicine. Not so many doctors and lawyers traded each other their services, and not many patients were virtually invited by their doctors to have affairs with their wives. Howie felt only moderate guilt, and that only because he was depriving Chuck of the enjoyment he would have had in hearing about it.

Upon examination, the pain was as elusive as ever. Chuck's prods and pokes did nothing to intensify it, and nothing he did reduced it. He concluded,

"Nothing seems to have changed. And, of course, if they couldn't arrive at a satisfactory diagnosis with all the resources they have at Harvard, I'm not likely to do any better out here. They gave you just about every test I can imagine."

"I know. I'm sure some of the doctors there put it down to the stress of student life. The trouble is, no matter how my circumstances and moods change, the pain always remains the same."

"Howie, the one advantage I have is that I know you much better than they could have. I really don't think your pain is psychologically based."

"Can it be cancer?"

"There's always the possibility of some form of cancer, but a sore throat can also be a cancerous symptom. It's certainly a mistake to jump to that conclusion in the absence of any other.

Howie had sensed, all during the conversation, that Chuck had something to suggest, and it finally came out.

"One possibility would be an exploratory operation. I'm not going so far as to actually recommend it. It'd be an extensive procedure, and it might be unnecessary. It's perfectly possible that your pain will simply go away."

The very word 'operation' made Howie distinctly uncomfortable. He also thought that it could be a great mistake to turn his body over to the medical profession for extended fun and games when it was quite likely that, in the end, they'd be able to do nothing to help. He asked Chuck,

"Suppose they did that and found cancer. Would they then be able to do anything about it?"

"It would all depend on the circumstances. But, of course, it's mostly a matter of getting to them quickly."

"And I've had this, whatever it is, for years."

"But, really, it could be a hundred other things besides cancer. The great majority of them would be curable."

Howie wasn't fooled in the least. No doubt there were a hundred extremely exotic conditions which could be cured, and which occurred in one patient in a million. Cancer happened every day in every community. Howie said nothing and Chuck continued,

"Part of it's a matter of trying to estimate and compare different sorts of risks, not to mention the amount of time an operation would put you out of commission. The rest is a matter of how much pain you're willing to put up with."

"I think one thing I'll do is to immediately get myself into the best possible physical condition. Then, if I still have the pain, I'll probably try the operation."

"You're already in good enough condition to play football for two hours pretty vigorously."

"Yeah, but I'll stop drinking altogether, and I'll eat better and exercise hard every day."

"The exercise could conceivably make it worse as well as better. But, if it did get worse, it might settle in one location and be easier to diagnose."

"Okay, Chuck. I'll start right off making it worse to help you."

Both men laughed, and Howie headed home for his shower.

Howie found, in the next day or two, that, without being particularly upset, he had trouble thinking about anything but the proposed operation. After the first few minutes, it was no longer fearsome, just interesting. He was agitated only when people disturbed his concentration and forced him to think about something else.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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