Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 34

An Operation

Ever since his victory over pornography, Howie's zest for prosecution had declined. Then, with his decision to return to Harvard the next fall, it declined even more markedly. Indeed, he had reached the point of frankly avoiding as much work as possible. More often than not, he claimed to be in conference when he was actually alone in his office with a classic work in economics.

As early in the afternoon as he decently could, and sometimes a bit before that, Howie would slip out the back door of the courthouse. He would leave his office door open with papers on the desk, as if he had gone only to the men's room. When everyone left for the day, the janitors would eventually close his door. He knew that his diminishing industry would be noticed, but Ken Seitz still owed him a big favor. He was sure that he could spin things out for his remaining six months in Bollinger.

After his daily escape, and a change of clothes in his apartment, Howie would be ready for the main event in his day. Moving furtively to his car, he would drive to the edge of town and park near the former residence of Wellington Sykes. Locking the car carefully as a precaution against the people of the same ilk who remained in the neighborhood, he would then set off running. With the town at his back and practically nothing in front of him, Howie would feel the freedom of his escape undiminished by the least sense of guilt. Building integrity was one thing, and escaping from prison quite another.

As it happened, the seventh of December, the nineteenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, was bright and clear. Following his usual routine, and noting a woman who might have been the sister of Sykes, he set off in his high-topped Converse All-Stars. It was a little colder than he had expected, probably twenty degrees with a westerly breeze, but he knew that he would eventually get warm enough to remove his gloves.

With a fresh snow making the land seem even more uniform than it already was, and much brighter, Howie felt as if he were at sea. Headed due west, with nothing visible on the horizon in front of him, he steamed powerfully against the wind with the sun broad on his port bow.

The whole prairie was covered by a grid-work of gravel roads at one mile intervals. On any given road, there might be a car every other day or so. Most often in the middle of the day, no cars would be visible on any of the roads. As usual, Howie's only companions were the prairie gulls. They were also suggestive of the ocean, but managed without that ocean in a landscape which appeared to contain no other living things. Howie called out to one that swooped low,

"Can you see the Japanese fleet?"

The gull didn't answer, but quickly shot ahead and gained altitude, presumably on a reconnaissance mission.

While it would have been difficult and exhausting to run across the fields, the gravel of the road had absorbed the snow nicely, with the result that Howie could run with a mild crunching under his feet, and no feeling of slipperiness. It seemed to him that his conditioning program was coming along quite nicely. Between running along the roads and exercising at the YMCA, he had reached the point where Sunday, with its football game, was a day of relative relaxation. He was now, he thought, in better condition than he had ever been in college.

It was also undeniable that the pain in Howie's stomach had changed. It was getting worse, but also more localized. Instead of feeling as if he had a bad case of constipation with gas, it now felt almost as if someone were sticking him with something sharp, say a pencil. Torgy might be right after all. Anyhow, the pain formed a counter-irritant to the pain of trying to keep up too fast a pace for too long.

Having gone west for two miles, Howie turned south on to an identical gravel road, now with the sun fine on his starboard bow. Treasonably deserting the American side, he now imagined himself the pilot of a Japanese torpedo plane whipping along through the bumpy air only a few feet above the surface of the white sea. At the next mile junction, he released his torpedo toward a small grain elevator in the distance, banked sharply, and went into a screaming turn to the east. In the middle of the turn, he yelled,

"Take that, Yankee dog!"

Howie also felt as if he had taken some machine-gun fire in his stomach from the ship's AA batteries, but he kept on without reducing speed. In fact, having just passed the three mile mark of what would be a six mile run, he checked his watch to see if he was likely to get a good time.

As he ran on with the sun slightly behind him, Howie tried to concentrate on form, keeping his hands down, his back upright, and his head erect. It was generally a good way of compensating for the fatigue which was likely to be a factor in the second half of a run. On this occasion, he was more conscious of the pain in his stomach than usual, and, for the first time, it was hard to remain upright in the face of it. With some fear that he might have trouble making it back to town, not to mention the final mile back to his car, he added a little speed. It was hard to maintain, but he did manage a quite creditable fourth mile.

It was when Howie could see the details of the outermost houses, perhaps three quarters of a mile away, that he found himself struggling desperately. The pain was now as localized as anyone could wish, as if he had been stabbed with a red- hot stilletto, but it had become almost impossible to run at all. When he slowed to a walk, the pain was somewhat reduced, but he was going so slowly that it seemed that he might collapse without reaching the town at all. He then started running again, albeit slowly and shakily as he staggered back and forth from one edge of the road to the other.

Howie had always been able to abstract from pain, and he now managed to count his steps. He couldn't manage enough arithmetic to figure out how many steps it would take to get him to town, but he fixed in his mind the number five hundred as an immediate goal.

Before he had even gone a hundred steps, Howie found that his right leg was hardly working at all, and that he had to keep twisting his hips to get anything out of his left leg. In that fashion he managed some three hundred steps, oblivious to everything but the need to move forward. It was then that he suddenly found a boy approaching him on a bicycle.

The boy appeared to be ten or eleven, and the balloon tires of his bike were wide enough to allow him to make progress over the ice-covered gravel. Howie was far past any explanation, but the boy seemed to understand his plight. Saying nothing, he got off his bike and wheeled it alongside Howie. The latter found that he could put some of the weight of his right side on to the handle-bars, and, with the boy steadying the bike and pushing it from the other side, they managed to go along at a reasonable walking pace.

It was when they approached the first houses that the boy spoke for the first time, asking,

"Where do you want to go?"

Howie could think a little despite the pain, and realized that they were still a mile from his car. And, anyway, he doubted that he could drive it. But it did seem to him that Dr. Torgeson's office was in that part of town, and he managed to ask the boy if he knew where it was. The latter replied,

"Sure. He saved my dog after she was hit by a car. I'll take you there."

Howie felt utter and profound relief. The boy and the doctor would do for him what they had done for the dog.

When they arrived, the boy helped Howie up the three steps, and they stumbled unannounced into the waiting room. The nurse wasn't there, but, when the doctor heard the commotion and came out, he was wearing his surgical outfit. He asked only,

"Where did you find him, Jimmy?"

"Out on the prairie. I figgered he'd shot hisself by mistake."

"Good work. I've just scrubbed to spay a dog, and I can't touch anything. Help him into the next room and on to the table, Jimmy, and then you'd better get home to your mother. She may be worried about you."

When he staggered into the next room with Jimmy's help, Howie saw an anaesthetized German Shepherd on one of the tables. He managed to get on to the other, and get most of his clothes off. The doctor then had Jimmy push a trolley with a bowl of hot water and soap over to him. After Jimmy had departed, Dr. Torgeson said,

"My nurse is sick today, and I could do with some help, but Jimmy might be upset by the blood. You can wash the area thoroughly and open and close the canisters for me."

After Howie had washed his stomach carefully, he lay back. The pain, still sharp, was diminished by not having to move. He said to the doctor,

"I was in bad shape out there, and that boy probably saved me. I'd like to do something for him."

"Jimmy's a good boy. We'll think of something appropriate. I'll also tell his Scout leader. That should be worth a badge of some kind. Is the pain localized now?"

"I can point to the spot."

The doctor used his foot to push away the trolley, and then pushed up another on which there were canisters leaking steam from under their tops. The doctor said,

"I've got everything all ready to work on the dog, but the standards for sterility are higher for people. The instruments inside the canisters are sterile, but I can't touch the tops to open them. I'll have you do that. You'll also have to inject yourself with the novocaine. The needle is clean, but the syringe hasn't been sterilized."

"Let's not bother with it. I doubt that the cutting will add anything to the pain."

"No, probably not."

Howie opened the can when instructed and lay back, not watching particularly closely. The doctor said,

"There are several old scars quite close to the area you indicated. I'll try this one."

There was an odd sensation of the knife. It was a slippery feeling that hardly affected the pain one way or another. The doctor said, his voice coming through his mask,

"I have to go very slowly because there may be only a tiny fragment of graphite or wood."

Howie said nothing as the doctor made tiny incisions. He would then use a magnifying glass and cut some more. Finally, he said,

"Before going any deeper with this one, I'll try the one next to it."

There was again the same feel of the knife breaking skin, and the same process of searching. Then the doctor said, with obvious excitement,

"I think I see some pigmentation here."

He again took up the magnifying glass, and Howie asked,

"Have you found it?"

"I don't have a fragment, but it's that same blue-black color that's in your thighs. If the fragment's here, it's deep."

The doctor went to work again, and Howie wondered if it would be too deep to reach in such a casual operation. Just then, he felt is if he had been struck a mighty and paralyzing blow. The pain was far worse than anything he had so far experienced, but he was thrilled and delighted.

The doctor drew back immediately when Howie cried out. He said,

"I bet we're on to it."

"Can you see anything?"

"There's a body about the size of a small pearl embedded in the abdominal wall. There'll be graphite or wood in the center that's been coated over the years. It looks as if the original blow must have been hard enough to actually penetrate into the abdominal cavity. It's a wonder you didn't die of infection years ago. I don't want to disturb anything more than I have to, so you'll have to remain very still while I get it. I'll try to be quick."

Howie put his hands together, palm to palm, nodded to the doctor, and pressed as hard as he could. Since he knew what to expect, the pain was a little more manageable. The thought of a very sharp knife poised above his vital areas also motivated him strongly to stay still.

It took the doctor something like half a second. After that, the pain changed character. Howie's stomach hurt because it had been torn up with a knife, but, suddenly, the mysterious and unaccountable element had disappeared. Everything was under control. Dr. Torgeson called Howie's attention to the blood over everything, and then laughed and said,

"You look as if you'd been at Thermopylae."

As Dr. Torgeson began to sew Howie up, the pricks of the needle, sharp though they were, provided an added contrast to the feelings that had been coming from his stomach for the last five years. Then, just when he had drifted off into a fantasy of Barbara removing her clothes, there came a frantic scrabbling sound from the next table. Dr. Torgeson paused, looked over, and said,

"I'm afraid Wanda'a waking up."

"She may just be dreaming. I knew a dog who'd do that, probably when he reached the point of chasing the meter reader in his dream."

The doctor looked doubtful, and then, with a bark, Wanda leapt athletically from the table and began bouncing around the room. When she put her forepaws up beside Howie and began sniffing toward his stomach, the doctor got hold of her collar and drew her away, patting her head with his other hand. He then said,

"Hang on to her, Howie. I'll be finished in just a minute or two."

Before he could finish, a woman came into the room, stopped, and gave a little cry. The doctor looked up and said,

"Hello, Annie. I was about to do Wanda when this poor feller came in and needed emergency surgury."

Howie waved to Annie who, obviously embarrassed, came over to take Wanda. She asked,

"Are you all right?"

"Doctor Torgeson's got me all fixed up. I'm fine."

"I hope Wanda didn't interfere."

The doctor finished the last stitch with a flourish and replied,

"Not at all. She wanted to lick his wounds here at the end, which, for all we know, might have helped them heal. Anyhow, if I hadn't been prepared for Wanda, I couldn't have done Howie nearly so quickly. If you can bring her around tomorrow, I'll spay her."

After Annie left with Wanda, the doctor said to Howie,

"I did cut into your abdominal cavity, and we'd better put you in the hospital for a few days. As active as you are, you'd open up those wounds in no time. I'll summon the stretcher bearers, and you can just relax and let the nurses take care of you."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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