Chapter 6

“I don’t care what your Nurse Griswold says, I want this patient re-evaluated. If it’s determined that she’s a poor risk, she’ll need to be transferred to a different facility, one that does not play as vital a role in the community as St Mary’s Hospital. Do I make myself clear?”

Like a sculpted marble altar, the ceremonial focal point of many a glorious cathedral, the still woman lay on the narrow hospital bed, shrouded in once-white linen, as Doctor Thaddeus Morgan spoke in the direction of Nurse Sally Rowe. Like an altar boy asked, at the 11th hour, to serve Mass with a new priest, Nurse Rowe looked attentive and tried her best to project an attitude of respectful obedience. She was both a new Nurse, (fresh out of school), and a new nurse at St Mary’s, (hired only the week before), and, although young, she’d assimilated the facts of life, as manifested in the healthcare profession’s caste system. Her Supervising Nurse had warned her that the Chief of Medicine was given to flights of ‘hands-on-Management’ fantasy, and might, without warning, show up on the Ward looking for errors to correct. This was her first encounter with Dr. Morgan and she was impressed by the accuracy of her Head Nurse’s description,  ‘he is an exquisitely dressed bully’

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan was 45 years of age, short (5’10”), at least 90 pounds overweight, and wore wire-rimmed glasses that no longer fit properly, which caused painful looking creases at the corners of his eyes and just in front of his ears. He had very thick brown hair worn in a style that his barber assured him was exactly like Errol Flynn’s. Thaddeus Morgan’s extremely obvious self-indulgence was clothing. Since leaving medical school, Dr. Morgan could be recognized by the exquisitely, (and expensively), tailored clothing that he wore both to his private practice, and to the Hospital. He had a tailor in Kansas City that he would visit at least twice a year for the express purpose of refining and adding to his extensive wardrobe.

Were one to note only his haircut and his wardrobe, Thaddeus would have been a singularly attractive physician. However, he possessed a complexion that benefited from an overly copious network of blood vessels. On a good day, his face had a rosy, healthy glow. During the stressful portions of these good days, rosy became florid, invisible veins appeared, like war paint across his cheeks and down the sides of his neck. As if unaware of how precariously attractive balanced against un-attractive, Thaddeus Morgan wore a remarkably exuberant mustache. To be more descriptive, a ‘handlebar mustache’ and, at the risk of too fine a point, ‘a waxed handlebar mustache’.

The result was a man who, despite holding a position of great authority, went to great lengths to inform onlookers that here was a man at war with himself.

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan was very self-conscious about his weight. It had been so, since childhood, a childhood during which the contralto singsong taunts of  ‘Fattius Morgan…  Here Comes Fattius Morgan!!’ were recorded in that horribly permanent part of the memory where reminders of how we might appear before the world are stored. The poison of such injury to the soul is, sadly, immune to logic and reason, whether dispensed by a well-meaning parent intent on consoling their child, a well-meant and usually futile strategy, or as self-administered advice and consul.  Thaddeus would often reflect on the intractability of the human psyche, recognizing how inconsequential these slights were, in light of his station in life, yet he would still feel his shoulders hunch and his eyes seek a hiding place, whenever such memories intruded on his adult reality. The tragedy of it all, Thaddeus would say to himself, (he would never speak of this aspect of his childhood, Shame being the twin gargoyle of Humiliation), is that it all still had an effect on his life as an adult. While a lifetime of education and scientific training afforded him the luxury of the insight into the nature the injury his child-self suffered, it did nothing to change anything. The permanent after-effects, the emotional reverberations, in subtle and all-to-often undetectable ways, shaped his adult behavior and therefore the quality of his life.

Not content, (better to say, unable to give the child-shaped demons the slip), to simply out-grow and therefore leave the hazardous environment of his childhood, ten year old Thaddeus Morgan endured the slings and arrows of the socially dominant, yet intellectually inferior classmates in school. Girding himself with a wall of fat, overeating became both response and defensive strategy. His studies and (their) promise of a better world, surrounded by accomplished adults who would support his efforts to excel were the light at the end of the tunnel. Finding an appropriate role model was the real challenge. In the year 1916, while still in grade school, the profession of physician seemed, to young Thad Morgan, to be the most accessible and promised the highest return for his effort. Soldier, Politician and Movie Star, as alternative goals, were all judged to be un-realistic ambitions. The first on the basis of the physical requirements, the second because of his unconscious appreciation of the fact that to be a politician was to be a person that would line up with the bullies, making snowballs (but not actually throwing them) for people like his tormentors, and Movie Star, while never considered a worthwhile or realistic goal by the young, (but in many ways, quite mature), Thaddeus, did have an effect on how he expressed himself once he began to succeed in his efforts.

So Thaddeus studied and ate and got ‘A’s. Accompanying each ‘A’ was a bruise from being pushed down, a puncture wound from a tack accidentally left on his seat in English class. Each injury, (an adult might call them minor, that adult would then betray which side of the battle they had spent their childhood), a Purple Heart in the battle ground of childhood. It was a war of attrition, and Thaddeus’s sense of self-worth was damaged from the very first sortie. The ability to feel ‘a part of’ the circle of people who made up his young world being the first casualties. As for his opponents, the dogs of this quiet war were, at least on the surface, much more merciful. For them, the cost was to be discovered later in life in the chains of social inferiority, forged by the young, worn as adults. Except, of course, for those among Thaddeus’s tormentors who might grow up to be politicians or, perhaps, very successful farm owners.

But in that quintessentially childlike way, the courage of the tormented is entirely lost on both the tormentor and the tormented. Thaddeus endured each assault stoically and twisted his own natural desire to strike out/ to strike back, inwards. His books were the punching bag that his father would never have permitted, his studies as much a martial art, preparing to win a life in which the bullies would be cast out and down, below where he would stand. Freedom from their torment by virtue of social/professional standing, was the best a very intelligent, but still only 10-year-old child, could imagine.

Returning to the town of his birth, (and subsequent torment), Thaddeus Morgan opened a practice and joined the staff of St Mary’s Hospital. He was a brilliant young doctor and a remarkably over-dressed man.

Now, on a Saturday morning, a time that he expected to find the staff at their most relaxed, he looked around the ward, seeking an outlet for his frustration. The thin layer of sweat that uniformly covered his skin, despite the relatively mild temperature, was beginning to form beads along the edge of his scalp, glistening trails down the side of his face, a condensate of fear. His white lab coat, hanging open, brought un-sought attention to his protruding stomach, all the more noticeable by contrast to the thin human shapes that gave 3 dimensionality to the narrow beds of Ward C.

“For that matter, where is Nurse Griswold!?” he looked around the room, over the tops of the 10 beds, anything below eye level, having no influence or bearing or consequence in his world, whatsoever.

“Where is who?’ Sally Rowe, very new to St Mary’s, already knew that in her profession, some things never changed. Leading among unchanged, the potentially lethal unintended consequences of Doctors acting outside of their specialty and the practical (and therefore often ignored), wisdom of the Charge Nurses. Sally started working at St Mary’s the week before and had been on rotating shifts, providing coverage and relief as needed. She had not yet met half of the nurses working in the hospital.

“Nurse Griswold! Tall, blonde, quiet to a fault. I met her on the occasion of this patient being admitted,” Dr. Morgan’s glance down at Almira Gulch was brief and, if one were not very observant, might be mistaken for a random glance. Nurse Rowe had the distinct impression that the Chief of Medicine was uncomfortable looking at the occupants in the narrow beds, particularly this one in Bed #10. Unremarkable and nearly indistinguishable from the other nine patients, but for the dark red ribbon sewn into the faded blue collars of her gown and the photo of the small boy on the nightstand, turned to face towards the center of the room, as if standing guard.

****

“I’m heading into Town.” Dorothy stood next to the battered grey bicycle after wheeling it out of the barn. The small basket on the front still had a lid, as did the larger basket behind the rider’s seat.

Uncle Henry and Hunk Dietrich stood on the back porch and watched as Dorothy, with an odd look on her face, lifted the lid of the basket on the bike’s back fender. She stood very still, shook her head very slightly and got on the bike.

Hunk walked up as Dorothy started to move, the bicycle going fast enough to maintain balance, and, standing in front of her, legs on either side of the front wheel, held the bike in place, stable enough that Dorothy was able to keep both feet on the pedals.

“I’ll be in Town later this afternoon, probably around 3 or so. I’ll be inside or out front of the Library, there’s no need to have to pedal home after a long day,” with a glance towards the porch, Dorothy nodded slightly and, released by the tall man, headed towards the gate.

Riding along the flat, dusty road, Dorothy Gale felt good. The bicycle, though showing the wear of excessive use, (and no small amount of sudden and un-expected abuse), rode well. She smiled. It had been a long time since she’d taken out off on her own, and she looked out over the wide rolling fields to either side of the road, the barbed wire of the fences implying a dotted-line-division between ‘it’s ok to keep going’ and ‘maybe you want to think about what you’re doing’.

Dorothy thought about how little physical exercise she had since returning from school. Not that there was a lot of bike riding in Bronxville, NY. The Phys. Ed. curriculum at Sarah Lawrence was quite rigorous. For freshman, it was a prerequisite and despite the obligatory complaints about early morning cold on the athletic field in September, Dorothy enjoyed the exercise, an alternative to the cars and taxis that were the normal mode of transportation.

Dorothy was planning on stopping at the Hospital and hoped to meet Tom Hardesty in the Town Square. She was certain that he would be agreeable to a fishing trip, provided he didn’t have his two girlfriends with him.

***

Tom Hardesty opened the door to his father’s darkened bedroom and spoke quietly, but very distinctly,

“Ethan’s in the kitchen, I think he’s making you some breakfast. He’ll be fine. When you get up, don’t get nervous. I took the truck, I have to run into Town for a while. Everything’s alright. I’ll be back sometime later in the day.”

Tom heard a sound of sleep-groggy assent, closed the door and walked out the back door of the house.

“Hey Ethan!  Tend to the chores. Don’t go off until I get back, ok?”

A distracted ‘yeah, ok’ floated above the head of the 10-year-old boy.

Tom got in the truck and headed down towards County Rd 28 and Town and, he hoped, a  chance to see what might have been.

***

Emily Gale stepped out on the back porch where her husband Henry and Hunk Dietrich sat, relaxing after lunch.

“This may be Saturday, but you two aren’t in Kansas City where you’d have nothing to do for the afternoon. The only Day of Rest in my book is tomorrow, the Sabbath, so if you two aren’t able to find a way to be useful, I’ll be all too happy to oblige!”

Henry Gale took a scuffed leather tobacco pouch from his left jacket pocket and, from his right pocket, a well-worn Meerschaum.

Emily stared at her husband, the challenge unmistakable. She looked at Hunk Dietrich and was unable to will him to make eye contact, as he was intently focused on carving a small block of wood.

Recognizing the battle was lost before it started, Emily Gale relented. A consummate manager of people, she decided to use the sense of relief the two men were surely feeling at their apparent success in out-witting her, to her advantage.
‘If the cattle and the hogs had as much brains as the men in my life think they have, we’d all be riding in the back of the truck headed to Kansas City’, she thought as she pulled her favorite porch chair around to face the two men.

“Well, I guess there’s no harm in slowing down a little on a nice June Saturday like today, now is there?” both men nodded slowly with the timid alertness seen in rabbits suddenly in the shadow of a hawk passing overhead,

“Henry, tell me what you learned over at the Hardesty place this morning.” Emily Gale took a small notebook and pencil from the pocket of her blue and white print dress,

“Are they ready for an Offer to save their farm?”

“Well, Em, it was kinda funny. Hunk and I got there around about 10:30. Ephraim came to the door, after we banged on it long enough to raise the devil, looking like a man who needed a drink. His boy, Ethan, just a little spud, was in the kitchen. Ephraim stepped back from the door, by way of an invite an we both walked in. Ain’t never seen a young ‘un work so natural in the kitchen as that boy. Had coffee brewin on the stove, smelled right good, wasn’t it so, Hunk? and, the boy looked like he was fixin some food up too,” Henry Gale turned his head towards Hunk,

“What’d that smell like to you, Hunk, smelled like bacon and eggs, didn’t it? Smelled real good, near as good as Margherita’s breakfast,” hearing a sudden clattering of dishes through the open kitchen window, Henry leaned to his right and spoke in the direction of the screen door, “Meaning no disrespect, Margherita! You put out the best spread in the whole of McPherson County!”

Turning back to face his wife, who was staring at her husband with a patient, and well-practiced expression, Henry continued,

“So, Ephraim sat himself at the kitchen table and stared into his coffee cup, like he was hoping it’d be something other than what it smelled like”,

“What can I do for you, Henry?” he said to me, after taking a careful sip of his coffee,

“So I told him we were just paying a neighborly visit and, seeing how it’s been going around town that he was having some troubles, if he needed some help we could maybe lend him some farm hands,”

Henry ignored the sound his wife made and looked over at Hunk, to avoid seeing the increasingly rapid tapping of her pencil on the small pad in her lap. Hunk was so engrossed in his wood carving that he didn’t notice Henry looking at him for support or, for that matter, Emily’s increasing impatience. Hunk did, finally, look up in the general direction of his employer and said,

“yeah, right good coffee it was!” averting the look in her eyes,

“…but the farm looked like it was being worked. Nothing new to the place, no repairs or anything, but clearly Ephraim is keeping up with the demands of his farm. Hard to imagine that just him and his two boys were keeping the place in such a good state all by themselves.”

Emily Gales’ impatience suddenly faded, and like a photo in a pan of clear developer solution, a look of wary suspicion began to form on her face.

***

“I have to get back to Town by 2:00 pm, don’t forget.”

Dorothy sat at the back of the rowboat, her bare feet on the cool damp wood of the floorboards. Listening to the rusty-wooden sound of the oars being pulled, she felt the rocking surge as Tom started rowing them out towards the middle of Echo Lake. Closing her eyes, she let her right hand drop into the water, tiny waves rising up the sides of her fingers as the water began to move past. The water wasn’t particularly cold, but nevertheless, she felt the skin on her forearm tighten and raise into goosebumps. Her eyes closed enough to appear to be dozing, she looked at Tom Hardesty in the center of the little boat. The act of rowing created a curious rippling effect on his body, more a sequential tensing of muscles, rather than a flowing effect. It seemed to start with an obvious tension in his upper shoulders, which lagged behind the motion of his body as he leaned backwards, pulling on the oars. It was as if the weight of the water on the flat wooden oars was transmitted up his arms, preventing his bending backwards from the waist. Dorothy smiled at the thought that what she really was seeing was Tom Hardesty trying to drag the lake up to where he sat, each time the lake moved to where he was, he’d lean back, always staying ahead of it. The muscles in his shoulders and chest became more and more defined as he rowed, his white tee-shirt beginning to stick at certain points in the movement of his torso. She also noticed that the water flowing around her hand was not as cold as she thought.

***

Tom Hardesty had parked the truck along the side of the Town Square that faced the Library. He decided, during the short ride into town, that he wasn’t going to take any chances. By sitting in his truck he limited the chance that either Nancy or Patricia would spot him. They’d both been there when Dorothy suggested they meet on Saturday, but Tom did nothing to remind them of the ‘date’ and was hoping they’d forgotten.

He spotted Dorothy as she rode an old grey bicycle up to the where the sidewalk cut through the Park, kept going to the waterless Fountain, got off her bike, and leaned it against a nearby bench and sat on the stone rim.
It was what she wore, not what she rode, that became the focus of Tom’s attention. Slacks on women was an uncommon sight, in the large Small Town of Circe KA. Her blouse looked familiar, but she’d done something to it, tying the shirt tails together, revealing her midriff that caused him to both sit up and notice. Lacking the vocabulary of fashion to analyze how the 18-year-old girl achieved this effect, his response was to mutter, “Damn!” (to anyone who might also be watching).
Tom got out of the truck, stopped after about 5 steps and returned for his guitar. Pulling it out through the open window, the guitar banged on the sill, a musical alarm ringing in the quiet morning air. He laughed, in part at his how nervous he felt,

‘Come on, Tom’ he thought, ‘this is Dorothy you’re talking about, nothing to get all worked up about.’

At the sound of the guitar, Dorothy looked in the direction of the truck and, without saying a word, got up and, pushing the bicycle along at her side, met Tom before he had gotten more than 10 feet from his truck.

“Let’s go!” seeing Tom’s questioning expression, she continued,

“To the Lake! You’re taking me fishing today!” as his expression changed from temporary confusion to more of an assessment of the situation, she put her left hand on his shoulder and said, closer to his ear than necessary,

“Unless, of course, you’d rather wait for my two best friends from High School to join us. Now if the chance to row me out on the Lake is what you’d prefer, help me get this bike in the back of the truck and we can get going.”

Tom laughed out loud, grinned to himself and thought about haylofts, and, inexplicably, tornados.

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