Read Pretty Leslie Online

Authors: R. V. Cassill

Pretty Leslie

Pretty Leslie

A Novel

R. V. Cassill

“I had a bad dream last night.”

“What was it?”

“It's still going on.”

—
from a dialogue with a child

Part One

chapter 1

O
N
T
UESDAY
Ben gave the Tabors' baby girl the first of her typhus and typhoid shots. Mandy was going with her parents to Mexico and Guatemala. Howard Tabor went there three or four times a year on business. This time wife and child would go along to see with their own eyes what they had only seen in Daddy's color films up to now.

“‘Mixing business with pleasure,' he says gallantly,” June Tabor said with a laugh, “though the truth is he's getting old enough to give that up and start mixing business and duty.”

“And yet,” Ben said with the gravity that seemed to please his little patients and their mothers as well, “we know that Howard would hardly experience real pleasure without his ladies along.” On the second syllable of
pleasure
(whistled-sung) the needle was in Mandy's arm and out again before she saw the bee that had stung her. It was not in vain that he had practiced sleight of hand in his high-school days. Though she whipped her head back swiftly, the child never even saw the syringe.

She began to cry anyway. Whether a beautiful honeybee had stung her or a man pretending to be her friend had tricked her, something damn well hurt.

His square, well-manicured hand opened to show her one of his special four-note harmonicas.

“Ooooo. Nice. Say, ‘Thank you, Dr. Ben,'” June recommended.

“Better she plays ‘
La Cucaracha
,'” Ben said. Without losing his dignity or changing his white coat, he converted himself magically into a flamenco dancer. His sharp spike heels bit the floor. The kid ignored the transformation, but it was good for Mama and Doctor. “Dee-dee-da-da-doh-doh-dee,” he sang. “I may fly to Venezuela myself this summer. I've been invited. I think more for my education than because I'm needed.”

Mandy sobbed again, clenched the bright harmonica in both hands, and burrowed into her mother's shoulder.

“Leslie going with you?”

Ben shook his head. “She hasn't decided yet.”

“I know she's working now. Some sort of ad agency downtown?”

“For half the day only. Winning bread, or money for the horses, or whatever it is women need their own money for. Probably stacking it up for a rainy
day
.” The second needle was a cinch. The first had ravished the child's morale; she wasn't even bothering to look for a repetition of pain. But in spite of demoralization she bellowed in the unnatural voice heard rarely from such mute animals as rabbits or weasels. “Ah, lady, you're going to hate me,” Ben said, “but not for long.”

“She's never minded shots so much before,” her mother said. “Do these sting worse or something?”

“They all hurt,” Ben said. “A teeny bit,” he added for the child's benefit. She was only twenty months. At the moment degrees of prospective pain meant nothing to her, but he sometimes wondered if pronouncements didn't linger in a child's mind (as they did in his) until the occasion and perspective to use them came. “Now candy,” he said. “On your way out ask Miss Gompers to give you any color candy you want most.”

“A harmonica
and
candy,” June said. Young mothers have a special tone that reduces words to pacifying nonsense. “You'll spoil her.”

“If I do we'll take her off your hands,” Ben promised. No doubt he had promised conditionally to adopt fifty children in the past month, a sizable fraction of his practice.

“Oh,” June said, “aren't you having one? I mean the last time I phoned Leslie, she told me she was pregnant.”

“Someone has confused intention with fact. Leslie intends.”

“Oh, that's nice.”

“I suppose it is. She's very enthusiastic.”

“I'm so glad,” June said, still and everlastingly determined to confuse good intentions with fact, already doggedly welcoming one more suburban housewife into the happy rat race of parenthood.

Wednesday evening June called Ben at home to tell him Mandy had a temperature of 105. Ben said, “Well. Well, let's wait and see. I suspect it's a reaction to the shot. Give her a whole dropper of your liquid aspirin every four hours and sponge her to bring the fever down. You'll have to keep her in a cold tub forty minutes to get any result. Through the night stay with her constantly. You'll want to be there if she should go into convulsions. I think that's enough for now.”

“What does constantly mean?” June asked.

“It means all the time,” he said, just a touch sharply. When he had hung up the phone he went with not quite sincere exasperation to report the call to Leslie on the lawn.

They talked things over a great deal, Dr. Daniels and his wife—he reporting to her not so much the clinical detail of his work as the incessant comedy of the waiting room at his office, the chart room at Mercy Hospital, or the kitchens and bedrooms and living rooms where he made his house calls. (“The kid had shouted, ‘Hi, Mrs. Bacon' at poor Miss Gompers as he came in and the mother was trying to convince him that the aspersion would offend both Miss Gompers and me so much we would leave him another week in his smelly little cast.…” This was the anecdote interrupted by the ringing phone. The teller was stretched in shirtsleeves on the new grass. Pretty Leslie Daniels had been sitting cross-legged beside him, trying to work a crumb of tobacco off the tip of her tongue, waiting for her turn to tell him her boss's latest pronouncement on life and art, mad old Daddy Bieman.)

Now he returned to speculate with her on the character of her not-very-close friend June Tabor. It was Leslie's sentiment that June had “made a rather nice shape to her life,” considering that she had unwisely already borne a child to a dull and arrogant man whose idea of pleasure in Central America lay more probably in sweating the “niggers” who worked for his company than in dancing the mambo through tropic nights.

It was Ben's relaxed opinion that though he had spoken a bit huffily to June “just to keep her on her toes” in this emergency, she could probably be counted on to do a whale of a good job of seeing Mandy through. Come to think of it, he didn't know what “constantly” meant either. Lord, maybe he was just trying to shift responsibility more definitely from himself to the mother in case things went wrong.

The Danielses were generally tolerant of all their friends (though Leslie thought she wouldn't ask Howard Tabor to any more of their parties) and anyone could tell they didn't nourish themselves on spite. No, they talked so much about so many people and things because they truly enjoyed talking to each other—and maybe because they still felt a very little bit like exiles, now, three years after they had cut all their ties in New York and Ben had started his pediatric practice here in Sardis, Illinois, just about in the middle of the country. Certainly they knew enough people by now. People in Sardis liked them—especially they were apt to like Leslie very quickly, and though Ben was somewhat quieter, when Leslie lured them within range of friendship they found out what a downright good man Ben really was.

But the main things in their lives were what they shared with each other and not with a lot of others. They were making a good thing of their move west, and they grinned at each other as if they knew it. Ben had a very good setup. His office was on the first floor of an old brick house in a good residential district, very charming really with its painted front, its arched front windows in the waiting room and a pleasant little walled flower garden down a flight of stairs from the front porch. The parents of his patients were apt to be professional people, people connected with the University, even a few artists, mostly musicians who played in the symphony orchestra. (It was through an art instructor at the University that Leslie had got her job, just the thing for her, in a commercial art studio trying to grow up into an ad agency.)

Ben also worked in the Sardis pediatric clinic where the patients were mostly Negro, and that was fine, too, because it rather rounded out the good life they had started here. Gave a kind of moral ballast to a practice that made no maximum demands.

Ben was a good doctor. He was pretty sure that he was getting better year by year, simply by the magic of experience. At the same time, he liked to think that medicine wasn't his whole life. He was a bulky man who struck most people as easygoing by temperament, though very few ever mistook him for a former athlete, not even a member of the football squad in a small high school. He looked a little soft in body as well as expression—not a bad thing for a pediatrician, who ought to seem a
bit
like Mama to his patients.

Marrying Leslie and then moving out here, he had fallen into a middle path of life. He had reasons for wanting to stay right on it.

This evening the May weather was genial and simple. The purple, blue, and yellow sky looked like the decoration on a nursery wall. It was almost time to mow the grass and do a little gardening. Ben felt like a man on the verge of discovering just the hobby he's looked for all his life. Cultivating it. Passing it on to his children.
Oh
yeah, he sighed. Yeah, you bet.

Only, in his contentment he couldn't quite conceive what the hobby would be. He owned an Alfa Romeo, besides a station wagon in fair condition, but somehow he couldn't quite see himself settling on sports cars as a hobby. Actually it was Leslie who had talked him into buying this one at second hand. It represented one of her notions of how a doctor ought to race death and the stork.

Last winter he had tried an evening class in ceramics and quit it just in time to prevent Leslie's buying him a wheel and a kiln to install in the basement.

Well, in time the hobby would announce itself—if it was a hobby that was trying to announce its imminent appearance in his life. And there was time. He had crawled up a long way. He had lived through a lot of years when there wasn't any time to breathe and look around. Every medical student and interne knew that feeling, of course. Some had started a little better than he.

Lying on his back, watching the sky fade over his own lawn and his own trees, he smelled the grass. He listened to his fond wife. He worried just a little bit about Mandy Tabor. Not enough to spoil anything.

Wednesday night Mandy began to vomit repeatedly. The next morning her temperature was still above 104, so Ben ordered her into the hospital. He believed the move was precautionary. He was sure as he could be she was still reacting to the shots, but her fluid level was low. “I want her there in case we have to give fluid intravenously,” he explained to the parents after examining her at home.

He drove mother and daughter to the hospital himself, more because that was convenient than because he felt pushed. He had the top down on his Alfa. The morning was splendid. All through the suburb of Samson Heights the dogwood was blooming. The freeway was exhilaratingly open, like an airstrip on a beach, wide to the sky. The sky was rich as May can be, and at the very least the ride did wonders for June's morale.

She had been scared in the night. Ben could guess something of the quality of her fear (“I've got a mother's heart,” he used to kid when he was interning). He could guess even some of the alchemy by which her fear changed some of her distaste for her married state (a known quantity to him and Leslie) into a wretched throb of guilt for the child's misery. He blessed her for that and was glad he knew enough to side with her.

Chatting evenly in his car, she forgot the bad night and her resentments, however sublimated. By the time her baby was bedded in the hospital, she seemed to take it quite for granted that the burden had been shifted completely out of her hands. With the child's fate disentangled from her own psychic woes, she was completely confident that all would be well. She even asked when the next shots in the immunization series could be scheduled.

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