Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 35

In the Hospital

Howie had been in lots of X-ray departments, but he had never been overnight in a hospital. What immediately impressed him was the existence of a special culture there. It wasn't just that there were the ranks of doctor, nurse, licensed practical nurse, student nurse, nurse's aide, and orderly, but also the careful stylized relations between the ranks and the numerous whispered conversations within a rank. It was obvious that the hospital was full to bursting with secrets, but it wasn't so clear whether, and to what extent, the different ranks shared the same secrets.

Lying on his back listening to the radio, Howie was tempted to start a rumor, perhaps that President Eisenhower was having a third heart attack, to see how, and in what directions, it would spread. He could, for example, tell the nurse's aide with the bedpan that he had just heard it on the radio. In the end, he restrained himself even though he believed that the nurses and doctors would be unable to discover the source of the rumor. The real problem was that, flat on his back, he was in no position to follow the spread of such a story.

Howie's first visitor, that very evening, was Barbara. She had already talked with Chuck, and she realized that, in fact, things had worked out extremely well. Sister Rose had sent along a surprisingly large supply of delicacies from the school store-room, and Barbara said, with some amusement, that even Sister Mary Joseph had sent her best wishes.

Barbara wanted to know the details, and appeared rather alarmed, even in retrospect. Howie said,

"I think that boy, Jimmy, probably did save my life. There was no one else around, and I'd have frozen to death if I'd collapsed out there."

"We ought to do something for him. We could start a college fund."

"Dr. Torgeson's considering what to do. You could talk with him, and perhaps go around and see Jimmy's mother."

When later informed of the presence of Wanda in the operating room, Barbara replied, with some disapproval,

"That sounds more like something out of a W. C. Fields movie than a proper medical procedure. Are you sure this doctor knows what he's doing?"

It interested Howie that Barbara, like almost everyone else, seemed loath to tolerate eccentricity in doctors. Howie replied

"He does the veterinary work free, and why not? A man who's a good surgeon on humans shouldn't be prohibited from operating on a dog if he wants to."

"I suppose not. But, if I'm ever operated on, there damned well isn't going to be a dog on the next table."

"We could inscribe that sentiment on a bracelet, and you could wear it in case you're suddenly taken sick."

Barbara laughed only perfunctorily and said,

"So now you know you don't have cancer."

It wasn't a question, quite, but was delivered with a certain hesitancy. It reminded Howie of the sort of thing people said when making a purchase, such as:

"It's fully guaranteed, isn't it?"


"The title is free and clear then."

Howie answered, with the tone of voice a salesman might have used,

"The pain I used to have is entirely gone. There's no need to be concerned now."

"I'll call Mother and tell her when I get back. She was worried about you."

"Really? She was quite reassuring when we talked about it."

"She usually is, but she also worries without showing it. She likes you. She said that you're quite an exceptional person."

"Does she like me enough to have you marry me?"

"She thinks I'm too young to marry, but she'd probably rather you than someone else."

"I bet your father thinks I'm just another young guy after his daughter."

"I imagine so. But he has nothing against young guys after his daughter, and he regards marriage as a contract. He likes to see it negotiated quickly in a satisfactory way."

"Wouldn't he want you to marry the son of some rich family so that he could merge fortunes?"

"He doesn't seem to have that idea. Few people have enough money to matter, and, if they did, he wouln't want to have to negotiate. Anyhow, what makes you think I'd let Daddy pick my husband for me?"

Barbara finished with a smile, and Howie realized that she took from her father a certain style and attitude toward the making of decisions, but not the content of the decisions themselves. He said to her, half teasingly,

"So it's what your mother thinks that counts?"

"In this area. Her plans don't usually work out, but she's much more perceptive about people."

It was just then that Sam Herz arrived. Howie greeted him enthusiastically, and said,

"I feel fine, but I have to lie flat so as not to yank open the cuts in my stomach."

Sam began talking about their weekly football games, apparently under the impression that Barbara equated masculinity with football prowess. Howie, amused by this assumption, casually compared Sam to Johny Unitas. That having been settled, Sam then relaxed enough for them to have a pleasant conversation about the town of Bollinger. At one point, Sam answered the question which was implicit but unasked, and explained why he remained in Bollinger.

"It's got nothing for young ambitious people like you, but it's quite good for me. It's got fresh air and few problems, and, while there's little stimulation, there's nothing to keep you from making your life into anything you want. It also gives you quite a lot of choice in the way that you raise your children. The teen-aged peer group culture isn't strong enough to rip them away from you."

Barbara replied,

"You make it sound attractive."

"In fifty years, you might think about retiring to a town like Bollinger."

Sam and Barbara left together so that they could pick up Howie's car and drive it back to his apartment building. As Sam left, Howie said to him,

"As you go out, you might contrive to let people overhear you telling Barbara that Eisenhower has just had a heart attack."

Sam looked somewhat surprised, but Howie explained his interest in following the spread of rumor in the hospital. Barbara said to Sam,

"Howie will do anything to keep from being bored."

The next morning, Howie woke with the familiar stomach pain still missing. The whole area was still very sore from the incisions, but he found that he was able to move around a little without seeming to tear anything loose.

As a nurse's aide brought him his breakfast, he heard her pause outside the door and say something to a colleague about the president. Her voice was quite concerned. A little later, when the nurse came in, Howie was delighted when she denied having heard anything about President Eisenhower. When she asked him why he asked, he replied,

"Oh, I heard that he broke par in golf yesterday."

The nurse didn't seem much impressed, but Howie still wondered if he had succeeded in starting two separate rumors about the president in two different classes of hospital employees.

Dr. Torgeson came in just before noon with a big smile and a little pill container. In it were not pills, but a tiny

fragment of graphite, the tip of a number two pencil. As Howie examined it with fascination, the doctor said,

"We got it cleaned up for you. I don't know what you can do with it exactly, but I thought you'd want it."

"Yes indeed. For a start, I'll show it to people to prove that I haven't been malingering."

After the doctor left, Howie asked the nurse for paper and pen, and wrote a note to Doc Bradley.

Dear Dr. Bradley,

I appreciate your efforts to help me (which I have kept to myself). As it turned out, Torgy was right!


Howie Slattery

Late in the afternoon, Barbara came by, having borrowed the school car again. He immediately had her look at the piece of graphite. She said,

"It's surprising that something so little could cause so much trouble."

"It must have been embedded in such a way that muscles pushed it against nerves."

After checking further on his health, she said,

"I have some bad news about your car. It's been stripped of tires, wheels, radio, and battery. They even took the seats."

Howie swore briefly, and then laughed.

"I bet it was Sykes' sister and his friends in the neighborhood. Those seats will probably wind up on front porches."

Barbara also laughed and added,

"I doubt that they knew it was your car, but it still seems appropriate. I didn't report it to the police."

"Don't. Vic Olafson would probably turn the neighborhood upside down. It's only an old car. I'll abandon it."

"Some good things have also happened. Daddy signed Chuck up to head his nursing homes, and gave him a lot of money. Then, just yesterday, Amanda came back to him."

"Are those things connected?"

"I suppose to some extent, but I don't think Amanda ever really meant to leave Chuck. She was probably just playing games with him."

"He really does want her, and always has. He must be pretty thrilled."

"Oh, he is. I'm sure he'll be around tonight to tell you about it. If he hasn't already, it's because he's out buying a new car."

"Really? So that's the form his euphoria took?"

"Yes. I'm buying his old car for us."

Howie was suddenly euphoric himself. He said only,

"For us?"

Barbara stood over him, apparently to keep him from flipping off the bed, and said,

"Is your offer of marriage still open?"

Howie actually felt dizzy, as if he might fall, even though he was lying on his back. He did manage to draw Barbara down and kiss her, her hair cascading over him. He finally managed to whisper into her ear,

"What happened?"

Regaining her seat, she explained,

"One thing struck me. You've really cured yourself by exercising in such a determined way as to localize your trouble and make it operable."

"I suppose I actually made the condition worse."

"But it had to be made worse to make it better. If you have the self-discipline to manage that, I can't imagine any likely problems that you wouldn't be able to overcome. I guess I'm making it sound like a rational calculation, but, of course, it's really much more than that."

For a moment, Howie could only stare at Barbara's face, taking in every detail. She then added,

"I've been on the phone with Mother for hours, both last night and early this morning. The upshot is that she trusts you, and she's decided that we're both very precocious people and future scholars or researchers. She didn't say so, but I think she basically distrusts my judgment. She thinks that, if I were on the loose, I might marry someone far less desirable and suitable than you. So she wants to lock you in while you're still available."

"What does your father think?"

"Daddy thinks what Mother thinks in these areas. He likes you, but he thinks she knows best. Beyond that, he thinks an unmarried daughter is an unresolved problem. He wants everything neatly wrapped up."

Just as Howie began to understand, Barbara asked him,

"How sore are those incisions on your stomach now?"

"Getting better. I can move around more, and I'm being let loose tomorrow or the next day."

"Dr. Torgeson isn't likely to come around now, is he?"

"No, he's already been here."

"How about the nurses?"

"They come in and out occasionally."

Before he could react further, Barbara was out of her uniform, and was unbottoning her blouse. She said,

"If it hurts you, we'll stop right off."

"I'm sure it won't."

As Barbara removed her blouse, she remarked,

"I'm just at the end of my period, so it might be a little messy."

"That's okay."

"I'll keep my slip on so it won't be quite so embarrassing if someone comes in."

Barbara reached quickly under her slip to remove her pants, and then climbed up on the bed. Howie yanked off the covers, and, placing her knees on either side of his legs, Barbara lowered herself carefully and asked,

"Does that hurt?"

It did, but Howie had denied much greater pains for far less reason. Then, everything worked so easily that, insofar as he could think at all, he doubted that the preparatory session with Amanda had been necessary.

Howie's cuts continued to hurt, but, as they went on and on, he hardly cared if he was opening them. At one point, he thought that someone had come into the room, but Barbara's luxurient blonde hair, tumbling over his face, blocked his view.

Afterwards, Barbara examined his stomach and said,

"There doesn't seem to be fresh bleeding."

"No, I think it's okay. It certainly felt good. How about you?"

"Fine. It only hurt a little at the beginning, and I enjoyed it after that. I don't think I had an orgasm, but that can come later."

"When I'm back to normal, we can do some experimenting."

Barbara then laughed and said,

"You remind me of one of those wind-up toys that bounce up and down until the spring runs down. At least that's how it might look to someone watching."

"Speaking of that, I did think that someone might have come into the room mid-way there."

Barbara got quickly into her clothes and poked her head out of the door. Then she opened it, and Amanda and Chuck entered. Amanda said,

"There was a certain amount of noise coming out, and a nurse was about to come in when Chuck told her not to. It's fortunate that doctors get listened to in hospitals."

Chuck said,

"Let me look at you Howie, and see if you've opened up any seams."

Having looked, he declared himself satisfied and added,

"That's not recommended activity for a man in your condition, but Torgy stitches people up pretty well."

Barbara replied,

"After all, he's used to working on dogs, and they can't be expected to abstain from sex."

Howie said,

"I thought you'd be along soon, and this was our way of announcing our engagement."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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