Tom, Eric, and Jimmy started out for Portsmouth, New Hampshire on a Saturday morning in mid-October. The towns they passed through on their way to Route 1 North had largely lost their own identity in the Boston sprawl. There seemed to be an interminable number of dreary little businesses making or selling things that Tom couldn't imagine wanting, but the mood in the car was nevertheless a hopeful one. It was enhanced still further when Eric announced that he had called Ann the previous evening.
"When I asked her out to dinner, she began laughing very hard. But, then, she accepted."
"You must have taken her by surprise."
"I guess so. I hope she doesn't think I'm looking for a nurse. For that matter, I hope that's not why I called her."
"I don't think so. I find her very attractive myself."
"Have you talked with Sharon in the last few days?"
"Yeah, we're going to have our first real date this week if all goes well."
Tom was aware that Jimmy was left out of these things, and said to him from the back seat,
"I'll ask her to find you a girl who's intellectually mature but your age or a little younger."
Tom was aware of having made this promise before, and it sounded a little weak. Jimmy nevertheless looked pleased, and that despite the fact that Tom knew him to have great misgivings about their present mission, that of seeking out a Chinese doctor for Eric. Jimmy had previously said privately to Tom,
"This man probably wouldn't be allowed to practice if he claimed to be a regular doctor. He may be a complete charlatan."
Jimmy had then volunteered to come, partly to translate if need be, and partly to assess the man Eric was to see. Eric, knowing of Jimmy's suspicion of anything Chinese, now said to him,
"This man's certified as an osteopath, which, according to Ann, means that he can do massage, and do certain other things. That allows him to work in traditional Chinese techniques and remedies, but he doesn't give you anything you'd need a prescription to buy."
Jimmy responded amiably, but he wasn't good at concealing his thoughts and feelings. Tom could see that it amused Eric to see him try.
They got well up on the North Shore along Route #1 before Eric began to feel queasy. He said to Tom,
"You'd better drive. It might upset drivers coming the other way to see me puking out the window with one hand on the wheel."
Jimmy got in back, and they made it to the middle of the next town when Eric gave the signal. They were right next to a large church, which seemed to be having a charity rummage sale on the lawn and sidewalk. Ladies in large hats were sitting smilingly behind tables facing the street. Other ladies, and a few gents, were prowling up and down, looking for customers. The unseasonably warm weather might have been expected to provide at least a few, but Tom guessed that the wares, thought valuable only by those who had donated them, didn't have much drawing power.
They had just come to a stop in front of one of the seated ladies when Eric opened the door and let go. The woman looked utterly aghast as the vomit reached a point a yard or so from her feet. Her mouth open sideways to display teeth smeared with lipstick, she gave a partly gargled SOS cry. Judging to a nicety Eric's last retch, Tom started up quickly and said,
"As a matter of style, it's important to act as if we came fifty miles just to do that."
Eric, laughing as he cleaned up, suggested,
"We could paint, 'Another Gift from K-Entry' on the door of the car."
Portsmouth proved to be an old seaport with a navy yard across the river. There were many houses which had been built cheaply on rectangular lines a couple of hundred years previously. They had now contorted themselves into odd angles, but managed to remain standing. In one of these, according to the sign, there flourished Dr. E. L. Sun, osteopath.
The indications were all wrong. There didn't seem to be any other patients, and the waiting room looked more like a family living room than anything sanctioned by the AMA.
The nurse-receptionist was also all wrong. At least in a way. A remarkably pretty Chinese girl in a white uniform who looked to be about sixteen, she could hardly be a nurse. On closer inspection, she didn't have white stockings and nurse shoes, but something much more glamorous. She did have a nurse's cap, but Tom recognized the little pin on it as the symbol of the United States Army's Chemical Warfare division. Evidently, Miss Sun, as Tom took her to be, had gone to the army-navy store, and had there picked out something that she thought looked medical. Given the likelihood that her father would dispense chemicals of some sort, the pin might be more appropriate than she realized. For the rest, the atmosphere was rather like that of a family-run Chinese restuarant. The mother would presumably be in the back, mixing up remedies.
Eric identified himself in the normal manner, and seemed ready to proceed. Tom was afraid that he had become desperate enough to try anything. Looking at Jimmy to see what he thought, Tom saw that he was entirely fascinated by Miss Sun. Tom could hardly blame him. Here was a lovely young girl the right age who had enough spunk to pretend to be a nurse.
In an ordinary doctor's office it might have seemed odd for a patient to be accompanied by his two friends when he went in to see the doctor, but Miss Sun raised no objection. In any case, Jimmy seemed strongly inclined to go wherever she went. Tom had only to follow along.
Dr. Sun was a very small Asian with a very big smile. He looked Japanese to Tom, and the smile was either that of a diplomat planning a sneak attack on one's battleships or that of a used car dealer with a super extra good special sale- priced roadster.
When he started speaking, Dr. Sun did sound Chinese. His English was barely intelligible, but, when Jimmy engaged him in Chinese, there still seemed to be problems. Finally, after some of the confusion had been resolved, Dr. Sun said to Eric,
"So you have what the Americans call cancer of the stomach?"
Suddenly, his speech was more intelligible and he sounded better generally. He knew all about this illness which Americans, in their ignorance, called stomach cancer. Besides, Ann had recommended this man. He couldn't really be a fake.
Dr. Sun motioned to the girl who was obviously his daughter, and she very quickly had Eric stripped to his underpants. He looked a little embarrassed and pink, but also pleased. Dr. Sun then conducted an extremely thorough examination, doing some things Tom had never seen done before.
There were no acupuncture needles on this occasion, but a powerful massage of the back and stomach areas. Dr. Sun took off his jacket for this purpose, and was revealed as a little leviathan.
Eric looked as if the process was alternately painful and pleasant. After a half hour of that, Dr. Sun asked about vomiting, helping out his shaky English by pretending to vomit himself. After Eric had answered in detail, Dr. Sun nodded to his daughter and pointed to the back of the room. True to Tom's internal prediction, a small neat woman emerged and was introduced as Mrs. Sun. Then, pointing to the still nearly naked Eric, the doctor and his wife began a spirited discussion. She came over, made a brief examination of Eric, and shook her head. Her husband let go another torrent of Chinese, and she smiled as if the matter were cleared up. Mrs. Sun then went back to what was evidently the kitchen as Miss Sun helped Eric dress. They then waited, making fractured small talk, until Mrs. Sun came out with several bottles and vials.
Almost as soon as they left the house, Eric laughed and said,
"I do feel better. Massage may not cure anything, but it certainly raises morale."
"Are you going to take those remedies they gave you?"
"Sure. Ann warned me that he's a bit of an eccentric, but I think he and his wife are both competent. What were they arguing about, Jimmy?"
"They agreed on the diagnosis, which seems to fit into a Chinese category I don't know anything about. But they disagreed on the treatment. Then he said something about your attitude and she agreed. That was when she went back to mix things up."
Tom wondered if Jimmy were shading the truth. Mrs. Sun, who was apparently the equivalent of a doctor, had shook her head as if to say that it was hopeless. Her husband, Tom suspected, had said that anyone with an attitude like Eric's had a chance to survive. Jimmy then said,
"That massage seemed very good. I think I'll come back with you next Saturday and get one myself."
Eric smiled and replied,
"Did you really think we'd believe that that's your reason for coming back, Jimmy?"
As Jimmy blushed, Tom asked,
"Have you figured out how to move from the patient-nurse relation to a dating one?"
"As it happens, I have. I'm going to speak to Dr. Sun in Chinese and ask him for the honor of escorting his daughter to a movie."
"It sounds as if you might be going back on your resolve not to be Chinese."
"Only for a little bit. I bet Miss Sun is much more interested in being American than Chinese."
"Eric can get Ann to give him an RN pin. Then you can give it to Miss Sun to put on her cap instead the chemical warfare one she has now."
They stopped to eat in a little Italian restaurant just off the main town square. This, too, was run by a family, but the father was in the kitchen while the mother sat at the cash register and the daughter waited on the tables. They sat near a window outside of which dead leaves and dead newspapers were being whisked by the wind. Eric put his elbows proprietarily on the red oilcloth as the signorina lit the candle in the disused Chianti bottle. She, too, was young and attractive, but Jimmy hardly looked at her as he ordered spaghetti and meatballs. Tom followed suit, but Eric ventured to order some fish.
When Eric put the little bottles on the table and began to take pills with his water, the proprietress showed curiosity, seemingly mixed with some suspicion. Eric explained, and she responded with jubilation,
"My husband, he goes to Dr. Sun!"
They were given to understand that Dr. Sun was a genius who had cured the chef's bad back, and had also improved him greatly "in other ways." She came over to look at the mixtures, which were evidently not identical to the ones given her husband, and commented,
"But you're a young man, you no have the same problems."
It seemed, as they discussed the matter further, that there might not be so much difference betwwen the medicinal and culinary uses of many of the same herbs. When the Italian lady went to greet some new customers, Tom was sure that she had it in her head that she could cure a good many ailments with her cuisine.
Eric sprinkled one of the Suns' powders on his halibut, and then offered Jimmy some. As he said,
"When you take Miss Sun out to dinner, she'll want to put these herbal concoctions on everything you eat. So you may as well get used to them now. It wouldn't do to gag."
Jimmy actually tried some, but the powders turned out to have almost no taste.