Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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 Chapter 2


Mrs. Brenda Skyrms, a nurse at the University of Pittsburgh's student health services, was having morning coffee with her friend Bessie, the pharmacist's assistant. It wasn't an official coffee break, but there was fortunately a little white nook behind the pharmacy with two chairs and a table. It couldn't be seen from the prescription window, and Bessie had pushed the little bell on the counter out of sight off to the side so that they wouldn't be disturbed. Students with prescriptions to be filled tended to simply go away when they saw no one in the pharmacy.

The pharmacist wouldn't have approved of these arrangements, but he illictly ran his own drug store on the side and didn't come in until much later. Bessie thus had more on him than he was ever likely to have on her.

Brenda, as a nurse, had higher professional standards. The receptionist at the front desk knew where to find her in an emergency. Short of that, anyone who asked for her was told that she was with another patient. In this somewhat secretive and maximally soothing environment, Bessie burst out,

"It's only ten in the morning, and my back's already killing


"It's too bad there's nowhere for you to lie down. Maybe you could lie on the floor with a chair cushion for a pillow."

"I'd get all dirty."

"It'd also help if you wore flat heels. People only see the upper half of you at the prescription window, and the pharmacist and I are the only ones to see your bottom half. He's too old and ugly to matter, and you don't have to wear high heels for me."

Bessie laughed, but parried,

"My legs don't look good in flats, and you never know when I might meet the man of my dreams."

Brenda made a humorous but somewhat sceptical face, wrinkling her pert small nose. Then, glancing at the sports page of a discarded paper, she said,

"That reminds me. The Phillies are coming in to play the Pirates Thursday."

"Have you gotten a call from Sam yet?"

"No. I probably will today or tomorrow."

"What'll you tell your husband?"

"That I'm working late because someone's sick."

"He could call and check on that."

"But he won't. He'll go drinking with his friends, which he'd rather do anyway."

"Will you bring a pretty dress and shoes to change into?"

"Sam likes me best in my uniform."

"You go out with him just the way you are?"

"I'll take a shower at the gym and put on a fresh uniform. Then I'll add white pumps and fake pearls, and I'll be ready to go. When I go home, I'll take off the pearls and put on nurse shoes."

"He must really be strange. I never heard of anyone who wanted his date to wear a nurse's uniform."

"Some men might want to play nurse and patient, you know, instead of playing doctor and patient. But that doesn't seem to be it."

"He doesn't want you to massage his you know what?"

"I did meet him just after he'd had a bike accident and dinged his dong. But he was pretty bashful about it then, and it's never come up since."

"You said at one point that you'd never actually gone to bed with him. Has that changed?"

"No. He likes to partially undress me, but it's basically high-school stuff from there. Kissy Face and Huggy Bear."

"That might be pleasant for a change. I could do with fewer pelvic thrusts."

"It is nice, and he's nice. Just different."

As Brenda took the trolley down the hill into the cauldron of smoke from the steel mills, she resolved, yet again, to somehow get out of Pittsburgh. However, there was no escape presently in sight, and she looked down at her costume. On the whole, she was pleased with the effect she had on people in her dressed-up uniform. Her pin and hat established her authenticity, but her pearls and pumps sent confusing messages. She smiled at men she thought might be doctors, and was delighted when they occasionally recoiled.

It took a while to push and elbow her way through the crowd of commuters in the Pennsylvania Station, but Brenda eventually arrived at the meeting place. She was a little late, and, since Sam was always early, she was surprised not to see him. It was only after a few minutes that she realized that the priest standing near her was Sam.

Brenda was overjoyed. She liked being a deviant nurse to begin with, and it was easy to make Sam a deviant priest by giving him a frankly sexy kiss. Then, feeling his hand on her rear, she happily led him past some very respectable people. If only her husband could see her now!

Sam always took Brenda to a good restaurant, but she said,

"No funny business in front of the waiter! Waiters and cooks spit and piss on your food if they don't like you."

"Really? I'd never learn things like that if it weren't for you."

"I've been a waitress. You've never had that sort of experience."

"Practically every waitress I've ever had seemed nice and helpful."

"They liked you, and anyone could tell at a glance that you'd tip well. But, of course, they pissed in your food at Groton and Harvard. They may also have shat in it."

Sam suddenly looked quite uneasy as he asked,

"How do you know that?"

"Didn't they have big dining halls or cafeterias with menials working behind the scenes?"

"I don't know that they were menials exactly, but I don't think they were usually students."

"Some of them must have been poor kids who couldn't go to a prep school or college and resented the rich kids out front. It's so easy to adulterate food. The probability is very great that some of them did."

It was terribly funny to see Sam, who was extremely neat and clean, come to terms with the fact that scuzzballs had deposited foreign substances in his food. Brenda, adopting her best medical manner, said,

"It's actually a public health problem. Cooks with infectious diseases don't infect restaurant customers just by touching the carrots as they slice them. That's not how Typhoid Mary spread typhoid. It's saliva or feces."

"I never knew that."

"It doesn't get into the papers. Restaurants wouldn't advertize in newspapers if they printed things like that."

It always amazed Brenda how much Sam wanted to know about the details of her life. He even wanted to know all about her husband, Dan, who wasn't very interesting. As Brenda said,

"He's a steelworker, fortunately one who hasn't been laid off. He has about the same tastes as the others, and he'd rather be with them than with me until bedtime. He then makes love to me, not at all badly, and goes to sleep."

Sam was obviously wondering whether Brenda was satisfied with this arrangement, but was too polite to ask. She volunteered,

"I see to it that I don't get pregnant. Then, with two incomes and no kids, we can buy just about anything we want. If you weren't stuck on uniforms, you'd see me in some pretty nice dresses."

It wasn't really quite as simple as that, but Brenda didn't want Sam to probe too far. For the rest, he was interested in the students who came in to the health service. He said,

"I grew up in little enclaves that were carefully insulated from the outside world. I'd like to be around a large state university that draws all kinds of people."

"But you're a ballplayer. I bet they're a varied lot."

"They represent the other extreme. So many come from little towns where the road ends. They're interesting, of course, but far from typical."

Brenda didn't usually find the students who came in to the health service any more interesting than the people on trolleys or in grocery stores. She asked,

"Isn't the average person sort of uninteresting in the nature of the case?"

"It's a question of discovering his motivation. He may behave in ordinary ways for fascinating reasons."

"So you think our college kids have something deep and dark hidden within them?"

"Thoreau said that the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation."

That idea rather pleased Brenda, even though she didn't think it was true of herself. She answered,

"I see lots of girls who, behind the smiles, are desperate to get married."

That was what Sam meant. He asked,

"What do they think will happen to them if they don't marry?"

"There are all the economic and social problems that a single woman has, and these girls are aware of them. But it's more than that. I'd call it a nameless dread."

"You know, Jane Austen never married, and she died at forty one for no very clear reason. Maybe the nameless dread was too much for her."

"The depression's hit Pittsburgh really hard, and lots of surprisingly young men die for no very obvious reason except that they're unemployed with no prospects. It may be the same thing."

Sam nodded and asked,

"The girls put up a brave front, don't they?"

"Sometimes. But they're young and they've got all kinds of wild and contrary notions coursing through their minds, not to mention strong and conflicting emotions about boys and sex. We've got one doctor who manages to bring it all to the fore."

Dr. Higham, a man of about fifty who had been a fairly well- regarded surgeon, was silly, capricious, and arbitrary. Within Brenda's hearing, he had fairly shouted at a youngish faculty member who came in with a fungus infection,

"Boy, you got crickets in your crotch!"

The diagnosis had turned out to be mistaken, motivated, Brenda thought, so that Dr. Higham could get off his one- liner.

With the young ladies, the problems were multiplied. He complimented ones sitting in chairs in the corridor whom he had never met. The compliments were often loud and embarrassing. At other times, he sang his favorite song, "A Pretty Girl is like a Melody", as he strolled along. Brenda said,

"Just yesterday, a girl named Susan whom I know fairly well came in for her physical. She'd been waiting in the corridor for a while, and she must've seen Higham doing his stuff. I was his nurse when she was called in, and she almost didn't come into the office when she saw him sitting there grinning. I guess it was just because she saw me that she did come in and sit down. It took a while to fill out forms and answer questions, but there was a lot of tension in the air."

"I went to a woman doctor once, and that was sort of interesting."

"But I bet she didn't leer at you. I had to get Susan ready, and I got her out of her dress over mild protests. Dr. Higham did his bit with the stethoscope, and she winced every time he touched her. Now being touched is a funny thing. It's nice when it's an attractive man, or even a so-so man you happen to like. But, with the wrong man, it's like having a snake crawl on you. Except that I like snakes. It's worse than that."

"Is that because of his age?"

"Not at all. There are young men who are worse. And some of them are also doctors."

"I guess that's one situation where the woman can't very well get away."

"Susan did. When Higham wanted her to take off her slip, she clutched it and whispered to me, "I just can't." I was touching her bare shoulder and I could feel how upset she was."

"What happened then?"

"I told him he'd have to go out into the corridor while I got her into a gown. I was kind of surprised when he did. Then, Susan and I decided that she should come back another time and see someone else. She got dressed and left."

"What did Higham do?"

"She left quickly before he could intercept her, and I told him she wasn't feeling well."

Sam started to say something, but Brenda jabbed him in the left arm as he was raising a spoonful of soup with his right, and said,

"Susan's about twenty one, fairly attractive with a good figure. But she doesn't have an engagement ring, and she's never mentioned a boy friend. She's not at all intellectual, but she's not stupid. She's pretty much your average girl. The point is that she'd marry a young doctor or medical student at least as awful and embarrassing as Dr. Higham."

"Just for the prestige of being a doctor's wife?"

Brenda could tell by Sam's voice that he didn't understand. She replied,

"It's not really for the prestige or money, at least not in the beginning. It's defensive, a matter of accepting one kind of shame, being pawed by a junior version of Higham, in order to steer clear of another kind of shame, spinsterhood, by the widest possible margin."

"There must be other men she could marry."

"But this is a girl who hasn't found one and isn't nearly as likely to after she leaves college. Time's running out."

"I suppose being married to an unattractive doctor is better than being the wife of a marginal baseball player."

Brenda didn't comment on that, but added,

"If a girl like Susan marries a doctor, her parents and everyone who counts will fully approve. The girl herself has to cope with whatever happens on the wedding night and thereafter. And she can't complain to anyone, probably not even her best friend."

"Would you have done that at her age?"

"Probably. Anyhow, that's the way in which a lot of girls are quietly desperate."

It wasn't often that Brenda could convince Sam of something with a resounding thud. But she had this time. He stopped eating altogether for a few seconds.

After that, Brenda made up stories about mythical students. Sam, never suspecting, ate them up. They weren't terribly extravagant or incredible, but they illustrated what Brenda took to be little quirks of human nature. The story at the end, concerning a beautiful girl who had made a veiled lesbian proposal to Brenda, was quite sexy, more than enough to start Sam up.

The stores were open late that night, and they strolled down the street, Brenda taking Sam's arm. She remarked,

"We're the priest and his sister, the nursey. Aren't we sweet?"

They soon began touching, not too obviously, in ways in which brothers and sisters weren't supposed to touch, and then, a little more obviously, in ways in which priests weren't supposed to touch, or be touched by, anyone. Some people laughed, some pretended not to notice, and some looked deeply disturbed. Brenda, a lapsed Catholic, said,

"That woman we just passed is the type that belongs to the sodalities and practically lives in the shadow of the church. She's trying to figure out who to report you to."

"Nurses aren't supposed to curvet sexily around in high heels. You may get reported, too."

"It's not a twenty-four hour job. A nurse can be an after- hours prostitute as long as she nurses well."

As they passed a little alcove between two buildings, Sam drew Brenda into it. She, facing away from the street, allowed him to undo her buttons, saying,

"Don't undo the buttom one or it'll flop open."

Sam followed instructions, and then reached around her to unfasten her bra. Finally, he pulled her slip up inside her uniform. As they squirmed together, Brenda enjoyed herself. It was in her mind that her husband, only a little drunk, would be happy to finish things off.

When Brenda was fastened up and they were back on the sidewalk, she asked,

"How many women like me do you have now?"

"Two got married, so that leaves three including you."

"Do you know what it is that you find in us?"

"Each one has a kind of insight, none more than you."

"I'm not really educated, but I can see into people."

"What do you see in me?"

"I don't think you care a huge amount about baseball as such. You like it because it takes you on a never-ending circular tour. The circling is more important than having ladies located on the circle."

"I do drift. It must be my defence against something or other."

"Of course, you're also a mathematician and physicist and linguist. You don't talk to me about those things, but they may be important to you."

"It's the same as baseball. I'm a major leaguer in a number of things, and that impresses people. The trouble is that I'm not a good major leaguer in anything. I'll never discover anything that isn't already known."

"That's a mighty high standard. It never occurs to ninety- nine point nine per cent of the people that they might make an original discovery."

"Sure. But that was the standard of the people I mixed with at Harvard. I pretty clearly failed it."

"Are you then living a life of quiet desperation, just like Susan?"

"Oh no. I really do love being a ballplayer. Just being out there in the sunshine with the crowd. It can be pure joy at times."

It seemed to Brenda that Sam's denial came a little too quickly. Even Susan had her happy moments, perhaps ones of pure joy. She said nothing, and Sam added,

"Anyhow, I like to collect facts."

"Do all your women supply you with facts?"

"Yes, certainly."

Brenda, amused that she had given Sam more fiction than fact at dinner, replied,

"But, still, you're very smart. And good at analysis."

"I can construct a picture for myself. It isn't the sort of thing I could publish in a journal, but I find it satisfying."

Brenda was about to ask him if he would, one day, like to go to a really private place where they could make love in the usual way. However, catching his look, she thought better of it.

Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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