Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 31


Since things were going well for Margaret, Barbara went back to Wilmette with her parents. She called Margaret on Friday to see how the date with Ed Badgett junior had gone, and the report was good. It was, indeed, to be repeated if Margaret visited again.

On Sunday, the Wintons left for a short vacation in St. Louis. It was arranged for Howie to take Margaret out for Sunday dinner and put her on the train for Chicago. Howie picked her up just as the Wintons, in good spirits, were packing their car. Amanda said to Howie,

"Chuck came up with this idea yesterday. St. Louis is actually closer than Chicago, and he's got Mrs. Badgett to call the people who have Monday and Tuesday appointments and put them off. I wasn't supposed to go in to work until Wednesday anyway."

Amanda sounded very pleased, and Howie suspected that it was the first time in a long time, perhaps the first time since arriving in Bollinger, that Chuck had taken her on a vacation.

Margaret, now showing no inclination to return to St. Monica's, joked that she was wearing the pink dress in which she had originally escaped. Howie took her to the Bollinger House, the only place in town that served Sunday dinner. He found her fairly easy to be with, and they talked mostly about Barbara's mother. Margaret remarked,

"It must be quite a surprise to find that your girl friend's mother looks like that."

"I was warned. Barbara made it clear to me that I wasn't to pay more attention to her mother than to her, but I could hardly help it. I was sitting next to her mother at dinner."

"I know Ann pretty well by this time. She's really done more to save me from the nunnery than anyone. A couple of times, I was on the point of making a run for it back to St. Monica's. But, just by being with her, I got the idea that there was no need to panic."

They had finished, and were waiting for the check, when Howie saw Sister Rose walk in the door with a woman he hadn't seen, the latter in ordinary clothing. He had forgotten that many lay Catholics did their consciences a bit of good by taking nuns out to dinner on festive occasions. They were themselves some distance from the door, and Margaret was mostly faced away from it. He said to her,

"Don't look, but Sister Rose is just coming in the door. Turn your head slightly to the right."

Margaret actually turned white and gasped, but did as instructed. Howie said,

"If she sees me and heads this way, I'll jump up and go to meet her. But she hasn't. She and her friend are being led to a table on the other side."

As Howie instructed Margaret to turn her head slightly the other way, he said,

"You needn't worry. All she could possibly see is the back of your head and your dress. If that's the dress you got in Bollinger when you left, she can't have seen it. Have you changed your hair?"

Margaret managed to blurt out that she had. Howie replied,

"Then there's no way she can recognize you. It's not a particularly unusual color. When we go out, I'll walk behind you to shield you. There's no danger."

Howie actually thought the situation funny, but he could see that Margaret didn't. She asked,

"You've met her, haven't you?"


"What if she recognizes you and calls to you?"

"She's unlikely to call across the room, but if she does, I'll go to her while you continue out. Even standing in full view, there's nothing that could possibly identify you from the back. Your hair comes out enough to provide perfect cover."

The check came just then, and Howie put down enough for a generous tip, not wanting to wait for change. Even though Margaret was obviously greatly shaken, she managed to walk out of the dining room without stumbling or making herself conspicuous. Howie thought that he himself might be seen, and be suspected of disloyalty to Barbara, but that couldn't be helped.

When they got out to the lobby in safety, Howie was prepared to laugh about the incident with Margaret, but, to his surprise, she began to cry. That made him decidedly uncomfortable. In addition, he supposed that the people around them must think that he was making Margaret cry. Fortunately, she was still intent on opening up distance between herself and Sister Rose, and he, looking straight ahead, hustled along beside her. When they got to the car, she choked out,

"I've got to go back."

Howie replied soothingly,

"Yes, I'll take you to the station right now."

"Naaow, back to St. Monica's."

Howie cursed inwardly and wondered what to do. For a start, he opened the car door and helped Margaret in. When he got in his side, he found her with her head on her knees, sobbing convulsively and shaking all over. It was an experience entirely new to him, but he drove the short distance to the station.

Parked by the tracks, all attempts at communication failed. Howie finally asked,

"If you get into LaSalle Street Station, will you be able to get home from there?"

There was again no clear answer, nothing really to over-rule her previous statement of intent to return to St. Monica's. When the train finally came, the last of the day bound for Chicago, Margaret remained in her near-fetal position, obviously unable to get on board. Indeed, when he started to open his door, she only clutched desperately at his elbow.

Howie had once read a book on mental disorders, and thoughts of schizophrenia and catatonia forced themselves into his mind. What would he do if Margaret became catatonic, a state which she might easily be approaching? With Chuck away, he could only take her to Bollinger Hospital. Would they believe that all this had resulted only from a chance view of Sister Rose? What would they think that he had done to Margaret?

It finally occurred to Howie to call Barbara's home. Barbara herself would already have left since he was to meet her right where he was in three hours' time. But her mother, Margaret's protector, would probably be there.

With Margaret clutching him, Howie had actually to drive across the parking lot to the outdoor telephone, which he managed to reach through the open window. He knew it was bad form to make the call a collect one, but Margaret effectively prevented him from trying to marshal the necessary change.

Howie knew that his explanation was garbled, but Mrs. Bowen took it in surprisingly quickly. He concluded by saying,

"I think she does want to go back to St. Monica's, but Barbara'll kill me if I take her there."

"There are more important things than Barbara's wishes to be considered at this point."

"Yeah, I guess so, but, if I do take her back, she'll probably be there for life. I could drive her to Chicago, but I don't know her address. The way she is now, she probably couldn't tell me."

"It also sounds as if she wouldn't go into her apartment unless you carried her in and stayed with her. Ask her if she's willing to come to stay with me."

Howie made another attempt to get through to Margaret. She lifted her head momentarily and frightened him severely by looking at him with her ravaged face. But she did seem to assent. Howie picked up the receiver again and said,

"I think she's willing."

"All right. I'll drive half way there and meet you and take Margaret back here. I'll get a map."

Howie also had a map in the glove compartment, and managed to get it. When Mrs. Bowen came back on the line, they decided on the town of Mendota, some two hours away for each of them. She said,

"I remember the train stopping there, so there must be a station. That'll be a good place to meet. I'll be in a dark blue Buick hard-top."

As Howie described his own old Chevy, it struck him as interesting that Mrs. Bowen didn't drive a Cadillac. After they had hung up, he called Sam Herz. The latter agreed to pick up Barbara at the station and tell her what had happened.

Once they got on to the open road, it was easier. Margaret let go of Howie's arm and retreated into herself. There were occasional sobs, but there seemed to be no need to talk. Howie turned on the radio and listened to the peculiar sounds of the midwest.

Howie made the turn on to US 34, a fast straight two- lane highway, and speeded up. Margaret was still in the same position, saying nothing, and he remembered how he himself had been when he accepted that he had cancer. He had wanted to think, not talk, and he supposed that Margaret, with her very different set of problems, felt the same way.

Streaking east across the empty prairie in the gathering night, Howie would occasionally see headlights in the distance, mere pinpricks of light, and would watch them grow larger until, with a rush of air, the other car swept past. He eventually grew tired of the whining tone of the songs, and was about to turn off the radio when the evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong came on. Howie, never a believer, liked Garner Ted. The latter would always begin with a quite acute analysis, economic, sociological or political in nature, of some aspect of current world affairs. The tone was surprisingly cynical for a man with such strong religious connections, but the punch line, strung out for five minutes or so, would be that the world could be saved only by a radical return to God.

Garner Ted was, by far, the best thing on the radio. Moreover, his calm relentless pessimism accorded well with the bleak winter scene outside. They were almost to Mendota when Garner Ted changed gears.

"Friends, does the life-style of present-day America remind you of something?"

The something turned out to be Sodom and Gomorrah. He took off from there. The sociologist had been replaced by the preacher, but Howie still enjoyed the intense, almost breathless, discourse on sin and hell-fire. Then, suddenly, while Howie was following the railway track, in search of the station, Margaret screamed. It wasn't a pleasant scream, and it shook Howie. It sounded as if it came from one of the nether regions Garner Ted was describing so vividly. Indeed, it had probably been inspired by that description, combined with Margaret's own belief that she was headed in that direction. Garner Ted was an eloquent man, and he had evidently gotten through to her.

Howie quickly turned off the radio, but the damage seemed to have been done. Margaret was extremely agitated as he turned into the station yard, and even grabbed the steering wheel. Howie stopped suddenly and saw Mrs. Bowen walking toward them. She looked in the window which Howie opened and said,

"Oh my, this may be more than I bargained for."

Howie, panic in his heart, managed to respond fairly coherently,

"You can't possibly manage alone. We could all go back to Chicago in your car. I could leave mine here and come back to it on the train tomorrow."

He made this suggestion only partly to be helpful. Above all, he didn't want Mrs. Bowen to beg off and send him back to Bollinger with Margaret. He was thankful when she said,

"Neither of us can manage alone. Perhaps you could drive while I sit with her."

Since Margaret still had his arm, Howie found it easy to carry her to the other car. Mrs. Bowen said,

"Let's lay her down on the back seat. I'll squeeze in beside her and rub her back. That may make her feel better."

Since it was a two-door car and Margaret had become almost rigid, it took some little time to get everything arranged. As they started up, Mrs. Bowen was actually kneeling on the floor between the seats as she tried to make Margaret comfortable. Her head was quite close to Howie's, and she said quietly,

"I know a doctor I can call if she's still like this when we get there."

Howie assumed that the doctor was a psychiatrist, and he felt, for the first time since the appearance of Sister Rose, that things were under control.

The big powerful car held the road better than Howie's vehicle, and was a pleasure to drive. He could hear Mrs. Bowen murmuring to Margaret, and gathered that she was rubbing her back. Margaret began to cry more loudly, but in a different and less hysterical way. Instead of the choking gagging sounds, Margaret was now almost roaring, apparently with anger. Mrs. Bowen seemed to be encouraging her, and they did have a conversation of sorts, little of which Howie could make out. Then, after about half an hour, Margaret quieted. Mrs. Bowen said to Howie,

"She's asleep now, and I'll come up front."

"Shall I pull over and stop?"

"No need to. I can squeeze between the seat backs if it won't interfere with you."

Mrs. Bowen's admirable legs were well displayed as she managed it nimbly and settled herself on the passenger seat. Since there were no other cars were around, it mattered little that Howie briefly crossed the center line. Once seated, she said,

"This feels better. My arm was getting awfully tired and I wasn't sure how long I could hold that position."

"Is she more or less all right now?"

Mrs. Bowen smiled, evidently at his naivite, and replied,

"Massage helps a little and being able to give vent to feelings helps a bit more. But that incident at the dining room must have been the last straw in something that's been building up. I'm afraid this isn't going to just go away."

"You seem to have helped her. She certainly calmed down."

"Women can do things for each other that men can't. Some years back, when I was in a bad spell, I called my best friend at three in the morning, and she came over. She had me lie on the couch while she rubbed my back and I cried and bawled and poured everything out, fortunately without waking the family. It helped me really quite a lot. A couple of years later, I did the same for her."

Howie was amazed and replied,

"I just can't imagine you doing that."

"You haven't been around women much, have you?"

"Not really. The orphanage was all boys, and I was too young for the Radcliffe girls."

"When you told me about it the other day, it sounded as if you'd never been close to anyone."

"My college room-mates and I were pretty close, and there was my Chinese friend."

"I mean at the orphanage."

"Well, that was a pretty hostile environment."

"Weren't there any adults who took an interest in you?"

"Oh, there were Sam and Ida. Ida was the cook and her husband, Sam, had a garbage route which included the orphanage, but also the surrounding area. I'd often go with him as his helper, and then I'd eat with them instead of with the boys. Ida saved out the best for us, and she also made things the boys didn't get."

Mrs. Bowen seemed very interested in Sam and Ida. Howie was surprised that she should be, but explained,

"Sam died last spring, and I went down and made some arrangements for Ida. Many things didn't work out too well for them, but I would say that they were mostly pretty happy in a day-to-day way. Ida's having some problems now, but she's quite resilient."

Mrs. Bowen wanted to know yet more, and Howie said,

"Being an independent garbageman is much better than people realize. You wear heavy gloves, and you just pick up cans and dump them in the truck. It's a good outdoor job, strenous without being back-breaking, and you can go at your own pace and do things your own way. It's never boring, and you feel free."

"You must have talked with Sam a lot."

"Oh yes, we covered a sparsely populated area, so we spent a good deal of time in the cab, driving from one pickup to the next, and then to the dump. We made lots of stops for coffee, and we went hunting and fishing. Sam liked fishing better."

"What was Sam like?"

"He was an honorable man in a Texas way. He'd been a high school football star, and he'd won a medal in the first world war as an infantryman. In Texas, no one ever forgets things like that, no matter how long you live. In fact, he never really had to do anything he didn't want to do after that."

"So he wanted to be a garbageman?"

"Yes. He used to tell me it was the best job there was. He was quite a smart man, but he had no idea of doing anything more ambitious."

"Did his wife accept that?"

"Well, that was a bit tricky. Sam was something of a local hero to the day he died, and no one in a town like that thinks there's anything wrong in doing that kind of work. On the other hand, Ida might have thought that he'd be more ambitious when she married him. If you really knew Sam, you knew he wouldn't ever do anything else, but she might not have known him that well then. As it turned out, Ida had to work too, and being the orphanage cook isn't nearly such a good job. She would have liked something better."

"Did they have children?"

"Yeah, the son was killed in the last war. The daughter married a wealthy man, and hardly ever came back afterwards. She didn't even come for Sam's funeral."

"She sounds very unpleasant."

"I guess she probably is. I've never met her."

"Who was it who got you to Harvard?"

"That was Ida. Sam didn't see any point in it, but Ida had me taking tests and filling out scholarship forms. It was funny when I went back later. Ida wanted me to lose my Texas accent, but Sam wanted me to keep it. So I had to talk one way out fishing with him and another way with her in the kitchen."

"She must be happy about you now."

"I think so. She's not much more demonstrative than Sam, but I do think she's pleased. Even Sam was. He didn't hold with lawyers, but he was happy when I became a prosecutor. He thought crooks ought to be sent to jail, though he did always say that there was no need to send a lot of people to jail since you could just take them behind the police station and shoot them instead. But, then, he always said he would've been a crook himself if he'd had a little more imagination."

"He was joking, of course."

"Well, yes, although he didn't usually joke. I think, though, he really did think he might not have been so upstanding if he'd been out there in the big world doing things. As it was, I don't think Sam ever did anything he really had to be ashamed of."

"That's very unusual."

"Yeah, but not so much so in those circumstances. There weren't many temptations."

"That couldn't be true. I'm sure there are lots of temptations everywhere."

"Well, of course, there are always temptations to depart from the truth. At that age, I told lies constantly. It amused Ida, and I think she actually encouraged it."

"That's strange."

"Well, she's very smart and admires intelligence in others. I had raised lying almost to an art form, and I'm sure she thought my elaborate and interwoven lies were a mark of intelligence."

"Sam didn't approve, did he?"

"No, not in the least. But I knew that in advance, so I never lied to him. He didn't inquire too much into the things I said to other people, even Ida. I can only remember a couple of times when he told me not to lie to her."

"What happened in that respect after you left the orphanage?"

"My college room-mates were like Sam. I soon learned not to lie to them either. I usually tell Ida the truth, except when she practically begs me to make up fantastic stories."

"So far as I can remember, I've never known anyone like Ida. I suppose it's not necessarily disastrous to encourage a child to lie, or perhaps even steal, if there's also warm- heartedness and good feeling. Perhaps she thought you were smart enough to know when to lie, and when not to."

"My natural instinct is to lie when convenient to the people at the courthouse. I keep that to a minimum, but I do sneak out when I'm supposed to be working. I lied to Barbara, on at least one occasion, with unfortunate results."

"You're a puzzle, Howie. You say you lie, but you're also so open. Most people who lie don't admit it."

"I'm the same way with Barbara. I blurt everything out like an idiot child, but I told her I'd never had sex with anyone when I had."

"Were you afraid you'd lose her if she knew?"

"Yeah, I'm sure that was it."

"Barbara's a lot cooler and more reasonable than most girls. I don't think that would upset her so very much."

"It was my lying about it that upset her."

Mrs. Bowen shook her head and replied,

"I can't make out whether you'd be the sort of husband who'd have secret affairs for the fun of concealing them."

"I can't imagine that anyone married to Barbara would have an affair with anyone else, secret or otherwise."

"That's what all men think before they marry, and just afterwards. But things change."

"Well, I know it sounds funny, but I'm on a program to improve my general integrity."

This time, Mrs. Bowen laughed outright and replied,

"I didn't know it was possible to go on such a program."

"It seems to me that it's just a matter of altering habitual everyday behavior. I'm good at pushing myself in other areas, and so, I thought, why not this?"

"How's it going?"

"I overdid it in certain areas at first, but I feel I'm making progress. Barbara says she doesn't know whether to laugh or cry."

"I don't think the usual rules apply to you, Howie. You've really had an amazing number of experiences for someone your age. And you've accomplished a great deal. I think you probably can undertake various character building enterprises that seem odd to other people."

"Did you teach your children to be honest?"

"I suppose I did. Children aren't naturally honest. There was one embarrassing scene with each when I made them take back something they'd stolen to a store and apologize."

"Stealing wasn't really my thing. There wasn't much to steal at the orphanage, and stolen goods were awfully hard to conceal."

"At least, Ida didn't encourage you in that?"

"No. She thought lying was harmless, but certainly not stealing. As far as lying goes, I suppose I'm trying to teach myself what you taught your children when they were little."

"Anyway, Howie, I'm glad to hear about Sam and Ida. The other day, you made it sound as if the only decent relationship you'd ever had was with a dog."

Howie laughed and replied,

"That was Nake, Sam's bird dog."

At that point, they drew into the town of Batavia, and Mrs. Bowen said,

"I wonder if you could pull into that hamburger place. I never did get any dinner."

Howie went in while Mrs. Bowen remained with Margaret, and he decided that he could use a hamburger himself. He got an extra one in case Margaret woke up and was hungry.

Howie was used to seeing Barbara eat greedily and fast, and was curious to see how her mother would eat. As it turned out, she ate rather daintily, being careful not to get the juice oozing out of her hamburger on her fingers. She said,

"It seems to me that a lot of Margaret's problems come from trying to teach those junior high school kids. I visited once, and the boys in the back are very unruly."

"That's just about the worst age for boys. Our teachers were more like prison guards than teachers."

Mrs. Bowen shuddered slightly, but continued,

"Well, my idea was along these lines. There are volunteer teacher's aides in Margaret's school, generally mothers. We have a man who works for us who's quite tough and rather alarming looking. He was actually Bob's bodyguard when he was involved with mines in West Virginia. He's really quite nice, but I was thinking of sending him to class along with Margaret. He could sit in the back row, and I'm sure the boys would behave."

"That ought to do it."

"Of course, she won't be ready to teach tomorrow, or perhaps all week, so we'll call in sick for her. But I'd like to see her back in action soon. Then, once she's settled, she can make her final decision about going back to her Order."

Margaret was still sound asleep, and Mrs. Bowen said,

"We might as well split her hamburger and eat it before it gets cold."

It was when they started again that Howie felt an unusually strong and sudden pain from his stomach. He kept going, but Mrs. Bowen noticed and asked,

"Are you all right? Did you eat too fast?"

"No, it has nothing to do with eating, it just comes and goes."

"Barbara said you had some stomach trouble. Perhaps you'd like to see our doctor tomorrow."

"No thanks. Chuck works on it, and he's really pretty good. They also gave me every test in the world at Harvard."

"So you've had it that long. It's strange that they haven't cured it by now."

"There are a number of theories about it. It's probably some form of cancer."

Mrs. Bowen almost hit the ceiling and made a horrified noise.

"Howie, don't joke about things like that!"

Howie replied,

"I wasn't, really. Dr. Torgeson thinks it's something embedded in my abdomen even though the X-rays didn't show it. Dr. Bradley as much as told me he thinks it's cancer. Of course, it's always possible that it's some weird exotic condition, but things that don't fit any other category usually do turn out to be cancer."

"Have you talked with Barbara about this?"

"Just recently. Before that, I played it down."

"I'm afraid I just don't know how she'd react if she did think it was serious. I guess I don't really know my own daughter."

"I wasn't sure either. But she seemed to be able to deal with it."

"Well, it can't just be ignored. I'm sure you're very tired of being tested, but I think you just have to persevere. There are also big medical centers in Chicago. We could arrange everything."

"I've also got some other ideas."

Howie told her about his conditioning program. Mrs. Bowen didn't look impressed and replied,

"I hope I'm not being bossy, but, if you do think about an operation, you might want to have it in Chicago and have the best man. Could the Bollinger hospital really be very good?"

"No, I suppose it couldn't. Not if it's like the other things in Bollinger. Anyhow, I'll try my thing first."

Howie was pretty sure that, if it came down to it, the Bowens would offer to pay for him to be operated on by a good surgeon. He reflected that he didn't have the kind of pride, false pride really, which would prevent his accepting such an offer.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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