The Fourth of July, 1931, fell on a Saturday. Though Jim usually made house calls six days a week, he stayed close to the office today in anticipation of emergencies.
The action had started at dawn with the sound of a cherry bomb blowing a bucket sky high. It was like the opening shot of a battle that would last all day and into the night. The larger firecrackers would be exploded individually, the smaller ones in strings. For variation, there were torpedoes, red devils, and snakes. Even firearms would be discharged, mostly by older patriots zealous to affirm our Independence. The din would finally diminish at sundown when the display pieces took over—sparklers at dusk, then pinwheels, Roman candles, fountains, rockets. With so much powder being fired by novices, accidents were inevitable.
There could be other kinds of accidents as well. Knife wounds, snake bites, food poisoning. Collisions, drownings, falls. Sunburn and prostration from the usual intense heat. Not all the trauma would be related to the celebration; it was just that the Fourth was a day for fun and disaster. And if Summitville was to be a battleground, the doctor would be ready with military medicine: antiseptics, analgesics, antitoxins, plasma, tools, bandages, splints.
But actually, this year’s accidents were few. Some that did occur were odd. Suzy Nichols, six, caught her index finger in the hollow handle of a jump rope, and Jim had to split the wood despite her screaming conviction that he was amputating. A railroad worker, Zack Powers, suffered a spider bite on the scrotum in changing his pants and went into severe, intractable pain that would last weeks. A city woman was badly scratched on barbed wire while fleeing a bull. One serious accident, the real tragedy of the day, was young Mike Laurier’s partial loss of vision in his right eye. He had made the mistake of inspecting a pipe that contained a smoldering dud.
Jim also treated a few regular patients in his office. Between cases, he managed to water his plants, repair a toilet, and mow the lawn.
Then, shortly after dinner the office doorbell rang. He was astonished to meet in the waiting room—Violet Dalton.
Had she been released from Mount Olive? Had she escaped? Hard upon surprise came a surge of guilt, for he had neglected to visit her since her confinement, relying on her husband’s word that she was making progress. She might have been the telephone caller who wouldn’t tell Margaret her name.
She had lost weight and appeared shapeless in a short, loose gown. Indeed, time and confinement had treated her harshly. Her once gorgeous hair was matted, stringy, and graying. Her eyes were red rimmed and bleary. Her muddy boots and soiled gown suggested foot travel and outdoor sleeping. She held a large straw hat before her and gazed up at him, her cheeks streaked with sweat or tears.
After a strained greeting, he led her through the empty waiting room to his office. She hesitated, protesting that she hadn’t come as a patient; but she accepted a chair and, sitting primly, followed him with her eyes. He expected anger for his part in putting her away, but she told him in an earnest burst that he was her only friend. He felt awkward as he asked how he could help.
“Oh, Jim,” she said in a near whisper, “you have no idea what they put me through. Did they tell you about my operation? They were taking no chances on their female loonies getting pregnant . . . It was really Grove who put them up to that. Well, I couldn’t take another day of it, so I slipped out. Ran, walked . . . Finally a farmer with a truckload of ducks—”
“Have you been home, Vi?”
She looked around vaguely, hiding her mouth with the hat. The words came from afar. “Home? You can call it that . . . But no; Grove would just send me back.”
“So you came here.”
“Where else could I go, Jim? Or should I say Doctor Martin, it’s been so long?” She leaned toward him abruptly, extending her hand. It was too far away for him to take, and when she dropped her arm, her spirits seemed to fall as well. Why, he thought, am I handling this so poorly?
“There was this boy . . . an attendant,” she said, now twisting her hair. “He was kind to me; he came to my room nearly every night. It’s been a year now, but I remember my thoughts as we— I always thought about you, Jim. Do you understand what I’m saying? Knowing I was alone, that everyone had abandoned me—” She broke off and looked away.
A witness unfamiliar with her sudden shifts of mood and topic might have thought she was faking. She needed help, but he felt helpless. At least he wouldn’t abandon her as before. She started to rotate the hat by its wide brim.
“I never knew what I was doing there,” she said with rising agitation. “I know I’m not right—but that place—why does it have to be that place? A flat in Chelsea maybe; a room on the Left Bank . . . But why a psychiatrist who wants to save my soul? if you can imagine anything so absurd . . .”
“Vi, try to calm down,” said Jim. “I’ll help you, I promise.”
“I knew you would, Jim. There was always something between us.”
He felt compassion, along with exasperation and perplexity. Absent, though, was any physical attraction, for he now enjoyed a blissful indifference to all women except Annette. Hoping to put Violet at ease, he handed her a small glass of laudanum, barely enough to calm her. He had no way to accommodate a sleeping female refugee.
The doorbell buzzed and he heard the screen door of the waiting room slam. He found Joel Shoemaker, fifteen, pacing the floor and waving a crudely bandaged hand. Jim said he’d be with him in a minute.
Violet merely sat now, limp, eyes blank. Too soon, he thought, for the opium’s effect. Manic-depressive? Schizophrenic? Both maybe. He could do nothing for her. And he saw no way to get her off his hands. He couldn’t take her back to the san, or keep her here, or turn her out. He led her to the waiting room, planning to treat Joel while thinking of a suitable haven.
Joel had burned his hand in lighting an original firework, a lid of gunpowder mixed with gasoline. Jim soaked the hand in linseed oil and bandaged it. When he released Joel through the waiting room, Violet was no longer there. He looked out into the twilight and saw her sitting on the marble bench. Joel eyed her until his attention shifted to a burst in the sky and a shower that lit up the whole town.
Jim sat down beside Violet and took her hand, trying to think what to do next. Again, as of old, he was strongly moved to help her, though her strange disorder was beyond his reach. He could at least be kind. She had turned to him―seeking shelter, sympathy, probably sex―despite his disloyalty and neglect. She nestled against him and rested her head on his shoulder. He had to reach a decision.
“Come on, Vi,” he said. “We can’t stay here. I’ll take you home.” Stunned by his words, or dark images they awoke, she shrank away with a dazed look. He stood and drew her to her feet, a robot. Leaving her in the front seat of his car, he cranked open the windows, then went to get his bag and tell Margaret he had to go out. Still undecided, he drove toward the Daltons’ house.
Violet appeared to be in a slough approaching catalepsy. Lights in her house indicated that Grover was there. Delivering her to him, and thus to Mount Olive, was unacceptable. He drove on slowly, trying to review his options. The streets were deserted while the townspeople watched the fireworks. A burst of stars above the roofs heralded hollow explosions and distant cheers.
Thinking she might rally if he could erase the threat of the asylum, he said, “Vi, I won’t take you home, but you’ll have to tell me where to go.”
She stared straight ahead with no sign of comprehension. He drove in silence through the warm darkness. It was not unusual for her trances to persist indefinitely, as though a paralysis had seized her thoughts and will. He was losing hope of reaching her. But then, as if waking, she spoke in a voice almost normal. “Where are we going, Jim? Can’t we stop and get something to eat?”
The air grew cooler as they neared the foothills. Her lucidity proved to be intermittent, though she never fully regressed to the former state. She chatted or hummed, vibrant and responsive; but something he might say—even his asking if she had a friend nearby—could return her to apathy. As he drove on, however, he thought she had recovered enough to pass the night alone in his cabin. At length they reached the narrow dirt road, the rocky hillside, and finally the cabin itself.
He lit the hanging lantern and led her to a chair at the table. She remained seated while he fired up the stove and opened tins of soup, deviled ham, and crackers. He saw her rise slowly, go to the screen door, and look out. Testing, he said, “Watch the soup, Vi. I have to fetch water.”
She turned. “Jim—look at me,” she said, moving her hands aimlessly over her body. “Do you realize I haven’t bathed—I can’t say for how long. I’m—I’m offensive . . . I ought to wash my hair . . .”
He was relieved to see her coherent and concerned about her person. It would take a while to heat water, but he picked up two empty pails and went out. He followed a moonlit path uphill for about fifty yards and dipped the pails into a spring-fed pool. Descending, he gazed across the lunar valley and down at his faintly lit cabin. He was anxious about his absence from town. In leaving Violet here, he’d only defer the problem, but it could wait until morning.
He served the soup and set the pails of water on the stove. To humor Violet, he replaced the lantern with a candle, which wavered in the breeze. She ate slowly with only one interruption, a brief spell of anxiety. She started toward the door, but Jim caught her hand and led her back to the table, apparently quelling her demons. He tried to keep the conversation light. When asked about her daughter, she said she hoped to see her soon, but there was no feeling in her voice or expression.
“The water’s warm now,” he said. “You’d better wash your hair in here and rinse it outside in the shower.” He got his bag from the car and offered her a bar of soap. She gazed at it. “All right,” he said, “I’ll help you.”
“I’d best take this off, love. Will you untie me?”
In complying, he saw a laundry mark at the collar and realized she was wearing a hospital gown. He helped her remove it, and she stood before him in panties and boots. She was still shapely, with smaller but high breasts and full thighs. “They stole all my lingerie,” she said with no sign of embarrassment.
She bent over the sink, and he wet and soaped her long hair. She wrapped it in a towel, and he placed another over her shoulders and handed her his pajamas. Bearing the pails of water, he led her uphill to a niche in the rocky cliff, where he filled an elevated trough connected to a shower head. With her back to him, he removed her boots, and she slipped off the towels and panties. Moonlit rock partly surrounding them sheltered her from the breeze.
Humming, she rinsed her hair and washed and dried herself while he folded up the pajama cuffs. She stepped out of the niche, huddled in her arms, and donned the pajamas. He seated her on a boulder and helped her put on the boots, then followed her downhill. She seemed more comfortable now and more lucid than she had been all evening.
When they reached the cabin, he said, “I have to go now, Vi. I’ll see you in the morning.” He was pretty sure she wouldn’t try to burn the cabin.
“You’re not leaving me here alone?”
“You’re perfectly safe. There’s no one for miles around.”
“No. Don’t go, Jim. I’m afraid.”
“I’ll lend you a gun. If you see a prowler, shoot him.”
“Jim,” she said, touching his arm, “do I always have to be a patient? Can’t you stay tonight?”
“I’m afraid I’d forget myself.”
With his back to her, he took his father’s revolver from his bag, unloaded it, and pocketed the cartridges. “For your protection against goblins,” he said, showing her the gun as he placed it on a shelf. “Blow out the candle and hook the screen door. Have a good sleep, and I’ll join you for breakfast.”
She tried again to persuade him to stay, drawing him toward the cot, but he stood firm and was soon headed back to town.
Nearing the highway from Summitville to Carroll, he stopped at the Herns’ farm. It was about time to see Ed Hern, a fairly new patient, and he’d get in a call to Margaret.
While Ed quieted the dog, Mrs. Hern emerged from the parlor, which was lighted by the dial of a large, bass-heavy radio. The three slowly mounted the stairs to Ed’s room.
Ed was sixty-eight and suffered from a colon cancer that had spread to other organs. Superficial treatments in the city had drained his savings before an honest surgeon sent him home to die. Jim had learned a good deal about the Herns during his visits. For example, he had seen Mrs. Hern march off with a bottle of whiskey her husband had hidden. Ed took this meekly. He was deeply concerned about becoming a burden on her.
Tonight Jim listened to the recital of symptoms, which Mrs. Hern confirmed or revised. He decided to increase the codeine to sixty milligrams. That was about the limit; a larger dose could cause excitement. He tried to look ahead. Morphine, while stronger, was constipating, and a free bowel was vital in Ed’s condition. Where to go next?
Jim agreed to have a cup of coffee. Mrs. Hern’s absence would give Ed an opportunity to speak in private. The worried farmer, now lying on his bed exhausted, confided as soon as his wife was out of earshot.
“Doc, I want you to send me a bill.”
“We don’t have to go into that now, Ed.”
With glances toward the door, Ed continued in a low, matter-of-fact tone. “We’re going to lose the place, Jim. There’s the mortgage, debts, taxes— Tom Mosely, at the Carroll bank, says he can hold off awhile, meaning till I’m gone. That’s when you get paid—when they settle. But they say a claim against the estate—well, the bills should be in before, you see. So bill me now rather than later.”
“Okay, Ed, if you say so. What about Mrs. Hern?”
“She’ll go to her sister’s in Richmond. And Doc—all this malarkey about my appetite—she’s just trying to help by loading on the food. It’s a woman’s way, I guess.” His haggard face assumed a look of deeper distress. “She feels so helpless . . . I could take this better if I had a little nip now and then.”
“I understand,” said Jim, leaning in and lowering his voice. “What we need, Ed, is a strategy—” He heard Mrs. Hern’s returning footsteps. As she entered with two mugs of coffee, he asked her, “Do you have a way to get a prescription filled? Lem couldn’t afford to go on delivering.”
“I could stop after church tomorrow,” she said. “I’m sure the Staffords wouldn’t mind.”
Ed muttered, “At least I’ll get out of that.”
Jim wrote a prescription for C2H5OH in syrup, to be refilled as needed. “Ed, I want you to take a tonic to improve your appetite. It’s important to keep up your nutrition.” And despite the farmer’s strained features, he said to the wife, “He needs a soft diet—lots of liquid.” He knew Ed would soon find that the tonic was mostly alcohol.
He phoned Margaret from the Herns’ foyer. She said his father had called twice within the hour. Jim called him at once, apprehensive of a turn in his condition. Everett, sounding strong but agitated, asked how soon he could get there.
“What’s up?” Jim asked.
“Yeah; he’s been sleeping in the barn—hiding out. I didn’t tell you—figured you had enough on your mind.”
“Well, go on.” He expected a sequel to the affair of the stolen horses.
“He caught his wife cheating and thrashed the guy. The law is after him again. Guess he was feeling pretty low, because I found him in his truck, unconscious, with a hose from the exhaust through the window.”
“Good Lord! Is he still out?”
“He seems to be coming around. But you’d better get here soon as you can. His lips are blue and he’s moaning . . . clenching his jaw. Looks pretty bad.”
“Okay. I’m about ten miles out of town, and I need to stop by the office for oxygen. Keep him quiet. And don’t give him alcohol, even if he asks for it.”
Jim took leave of the Herns and sped toward home. Passing the moonlit fairgrounds, he saw forlorn traces of the firework display: tattered bunting, scattered trash, a burnt-out pinwheel on a post. For most of Summitville, the long day was over. He stopped briefly at the office, then made haste for his father’s house, running the traffic light in the deserted center of town.