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The O. Henry Prize Stories (Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards)by Laura Furman
from The Atlantic Monthly
The summer of 1916 would later be known as the last summer of peace. Within a year the United States would be at war, but that summer we still believed that President Wilson could keep us out of it. As a nation, we were told, we were getting bigger, better, and more stylish. Our population had risen to 100 million. Prohibition laws had been passed in twenty-four states. Every household would soon own an automobile. Ostriches, grackles, blackbirds, orioles, egrets, herons, and doves were slaughtered by the thousands so that their feathers could adorn women's hats. Americans were full of all kinds of foolish hope, and my mother and I were no exception.
On the morning of July 20 Mother and I were riding in a small wooden bus over the rutted back roads of Indiana, heading for magical Mudlavia. Every time the bus jounced, I felt a sharp pain in my knee, a pain that shot through the dull ache that had been my constant companion for three months. I was sweating in my wool knickers and jacket, which my mother had insisted I wear. Whenever she saw pain on my face, she drew me against her. I was too hot to be so close to my mother, smelling her too-strong lavender scent, but I was also afraid, and I felt lucky to have her with me. Six other passengers were on our bus, all adults, all traveling alone. One had a cane, three others hobbled on crutches. A fat man had been carried onto the bus by four farmers in Attica. An elderly woman lay flat on a stretcher at the rear of the bus. She kept making little whimpering sounds that drove me mad.
I closed my eyes to the dust, the cripples, my mother's round face, her dimpled chin, her lips pursed with concern, her eyes searching for every nuance of my feelings, and imagined myself, older and more handsome, soaring over a six-foot crossbar as a stadium crowd roared. I was only ten years old, but I was already determined to become an Olympic track star, setting world records in the high jump and the long jump. That summer, because of my knee, I'd had to give up daily jumping practice in my backyard. I was looking forward to our stay at Mudlavia, because without jumping my life had become a bore. My father was often away on business. I was tired of playing silly games with the Dotties, tired of going calling with Mother on Wednesday afternoons. I was also tired of the ache in my knee, but, I must admit, that was the least of it.
Why hadn't I told my parents as soon as my knee began to hurt? Had I sensed how serious it was? Perhaps I feared being totally smothered by my mother's love and concern--which felt stifling under ordinary circumstances. I'll never know why I didn't tell them, but I still take a peculiar pride in the fact that I managed to hide the pain for so long.
The night they found me out, we were putting on one of our plays--my best friends Dottie B. and Dottie G. and I. Each week Dottie B., who wanted to be a writer, wrote a new play. Every one featured the same two characters--a stupid married couple called Susanette and Losenette Floosenette, who were always having "misunderstandings" with friends, family, and everyone they met.
We put on the plays at my house, because my parents had the biggest house on Ninth Street. That night thirty or so neighbor children and parents were sitting on the new rose-colored carpet in our parlor. My mother's precious Globe Wernicke bookcase and her fumed-oak chairs and couch, with their elaborate carvings and spindles, had been pushed back against the wall. The new carpet was displayed to its best advantage.
I was playing Losenette, in my father's suit coat and bowler hat, and Dottie G., in her sister's red nightgown, was my wife, Susanette. We were visiting the Eiffel Tower on a trip we'd won through a soap-flakes sweepstakes. Dottie B. was the gendarme, telling us we couldn't take our dog, Monique, up to the top with us. I was in love with Dottie B. then, and still am to this day.
"But you don't understand," I said, glaring at the gendarme and tweaking my imaginary moustache. "She's a French poodle." I put all my weight on my left leg, accommodating the ache in my right one.
"Oui oui, miss-ouer," Susanette said, patting her hair. She clutched my squirming cat, Flip Flop, who was playing Monique. Susanette went on, "We promised her she could see her native Paris from the Eiffel Tower."
A ripple of laughter emerged from the audience. As always, I listened for my mother's laugh, and I heard it.
The gendarme drew herself up. Her reddish gold hair was tucked up under one of my newsboy hats, and she wore a pair of my knickers. So beautiful, Dottie B. "Sorry, mes amis," she said in a deep voice. "But what if she should do her business up there?"
This was the riskiest line in the play. Somebody tittered.
"We've come prepared," I said, whipping one of my father's handkerchiefs from my pocket.
"Oui," my wife said. "We'll take it back to Indiana as a souvenir. They'll display it in the courthouse, and people will line up to see it. Because it's French business, you see."
More laughter--a few nervous chuckles from the adults, snickers from the children. I glanced at my mother, who was shrinking back against the wall. My father got up and left the room. To my surprise, instead of feeling afraid, I felt frustrated and angry. The whole purpose of the plays, I realize now, was to insult an audience that didn't even have the sense to be insulted. The Dotties and I were imitating everything we hated about our stuffy parents, but most people thought we were poking fun at someone else, and some, like my father, took offense at a small impropriety and missed the point. I knew I was in for a spanking, so I decided to step off the plank and say something truly awful. Before I could speak, Flip Flop, for no apparent reason, went berserk. He began to twist and claw at Dottie G., who shrieked and held him out to me. I lunged for him, coming down hard on my right leg, which hurt so much that I collapsed in a ball on the floor. My mother rushed to my side. No spanking after all.
Our family doctor diagnosed my problem as rheumatism and suggested a visit to Mudlavia, which he described as a health spa known for its curative mud baths and mineral waters. It was only forty miles southwest of Lafayette, near the state line. Dr. Heath explained that a Warren County farmer, a Civil War veteran, had been digging a ditch near the spot where they later built the spa, and the mud had cured his rheumatism. People from all over went there to take the cure. Medical doctors were on the premises. It was just the ticket, Dr. Heath said.
"Sounds shady to me," my father said at dinner, the night Mother and I told him about Mudlavia. He helped himself to roast beef, clicked on his stopwatch, and began to eat. That summer he was practicing Frederick Taylor's regime of time management. At first he'd tried to impose it on Mother and me, but we'd rebelled by doing everything as slowly as we could, so he gave up and was now bent on improving only himself. He was thirty years old but looked twenty, so he'd taken to wearing rimless spectacles of plain glass and had grown a sleek blond moustache. I suppose he wanted to look more like a school superintendent and less like the man he'd been before he met my mother, a young rake who'd had a tempestuous, short-lived marriage to a woman named Toots Goodall. I'd stumbled on this information one day when I was poking through a box he kept hidden in the back of his closet. I'd found photos of him and Toots. In one of them he was perched on a large, gaudily painted quarter moon, Toots sitting in his lap. When I asked her about Toots, Mother told me about his failed marriage, and made me promise not to mention it to anyone, including him. I thought then that she didn't want to remind him of his earlier, wilder life, fearing that he might decide to go back to it, but she must have known that part of him already had.
While Father fiercely chewed his roast beef, he stared at Mother and me with accusing eyes, as if we were hiding something from him, and I guess we were--we were hiding the intensity of our desire to go, to get away. "How do we know the place is safe?" he asked Mother.
"It's out in the middle of nowhere," Mother said. "It must be safe. Dr. Heath wouldn't have recommended it." "I suppose you're right," Father said, clicking his stopwatch. "Two minutes, thirteen seconds. A new record."
Small-town doctors were gods, and to ignore Dr. Heath's advice would be a social snub. Mother had said the right thing. Mudlavia was tucked back in the woods, up against a hillside. As our bus rounded the last bend, we passengers strained to get a good look at the place that would cure us. The sprawling building was four stories high, green with white trim, and had a wide wraparound porch. In front was a manicured garden, bordered by hedges, with a bubbling limestone fountain in the center. Despite the heat everything looked fresh, even the pink hollyhocks lining the dusty road.
The bus pulled into a dirt lot beside the hotel, and the engine rattled and died. A feeling of peace, along with the dust, settled over me. It was the quietest place I'd ever been. Ninth Street was one of the busiest streets in Lafayette, and all day long we heard the roar of motorcars and the clatter of trolleys struggling up the hill. At Mudlavia, I heard individual sounds--a crow calling in a tree behind me, the atonal tinkling of wind chimes. A side door of the hotel flew open and a group of men, dressed in white, marched toward the bus. A few of them were pushing wheelchairs. Mother touched my shoulder. "One of those chairs is for you," she said.
"Why? I don't need it." My crutches were beside me, leaning against the seat.
"The doctor here recommends it. It will put less strain on your knee." She bent over and whispered in my ear. "For you, it's only temporary." Her windblown hair, pulled loose from her egret-feather hat, tickled my cheek.
"Your hair's a mess," I said, sounding like my father.
Flinching, she turned away.
"Welcome to Mudlavia." A deep, southern-sounding voice filled the bus. The speaker was one of the men in white--a tall, strong-looking man with a squarish head. "We're here to make your stay with us as comfortable as possible." He spoke as if reading from a prepared speech, and his eyes were trained on a spot at the back of the bus. "Do not hesitate to ask if you are in need of anything, ladies and gentlemen." His eyes shifted to me. "And young fella." He smiled, two front teeth popping over his lip. Every head turned toward me. My mother had tears in her eyes. I bowed my head, embarrassed and pleased to be the center of attention.
At dinner Mother and I sat at a table for four in the dining room, I in my wheelchair, she in a ladder-back chair. There were white tablecloths and huge chandeliers. We picked at our helpings of glazed ham, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables from "Mudlavia's Healthful Garden." In the corner of the large dining room a piano player in a tuxedo played popular tunes that we could barely hear over the rattling of dishes and the diners' chatter, some of which, especially from the table next to ours, was raucous.
At that table sat a thin, almost emaciated man with dark, sleek hair who perched on a red rubber cushion. On his right sat a voluptuous young woman with an elaborate, piled-up hairdo. She wore a low-cut, short-sleeved dress made of shiny silver material. On his left sat a woman who had dark hair cut in the new bobbed style, and wore an equally revealing black dress. A huge green parrot sat on her shoulder. The two women nestled in close to the man with the cushion, and all three were laughing loudly, as was everyone else at their table. Everything about these people was overdone, from the timbre of their voices to the sparkle of their jewelry. I'd never seen a parrot outside a cage before. And except for the man with the cushion, none of them appeared the least bit sick.
I couldn't look Mother in the eye. Somehow I felt embarrassed, as if I were responsible for these "unsuitables," as my father would have called them. I wanted to protect her from them, or felt that I should. And more of these big-city types were scattered throughout the dining room. Only a few people, most of them passengers on our bus, had the same scrubbed demeanor we did. We were outnumbered. Had Dr. Heath ever been here? I wondered, not able to take my eyes off the threesome at the next table.
"One would think," Mother said, frowning at me, "with all the sick people . . ." She didn't finish her sentence, but I knew she meant that our neighbors ought to be more considerate. "I think this place is more of a resort than a health spa." She took another bite of glazed ham, chewing slowly.
"We could leave," I said, knowing I should offer the option. "We could call Father, and he'd come get us." I drained my glass of milk in one swallow, the way I was forbidden to do at home.
Mother didn't notice. She was staring at the man with the cushion. "No," she said. "We'll be here only three weeks."
"Paul Dresser wrote 'On the Banks of the Wabash' at Mudlavia," I reminded her. This was something else Dr. Heath had told us. "You say the most intelligent things." Mother smiled, giving us permission to enjoy our dinner.
"Good evening." The cushion man stood beside our table. The woman in the silver dress waited there with him, hugging his cushion to her large bosom. Mother set her fork beside her plate. "Good evening," she said to the man, but she looked at me.
"Your first night here?" His voice was surprisingly soft.
"Of course it is," the woman in the silver dress said. She also had a big nose. "Isn't this the first time we've seen them?"Copyright © 2005 by Laura Furman
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