Excerpts >Summer 2006

Carol Bly

An Amateur’s Story

People said they loved and respected the family doctor, but in fact they had reservations. Anyone you asked would say, “he’s just terrific and we are so lucky to have him way up here in the middle of the woods – but he does go off on a tangent.”

They didn’t carp at him about it in the weeks before Easter because the town of St. Fursey had an ecumenical choir and generally people were drawn together. The weekly rehearsals, singing together, lightened the late Sunday afternoons of late winter. Big shots faithfully rehearsed right alongside ordinary people. Not bottom-level people like the town crud, Brad Stropp, for instance, but people who knew enough to pretend they made sense of the five mysterious black lines of the staves on their sheets. People secretly simply imitated whoever sang beside them, but they pretended to read the music and obey the director.

The sopranos dragged along the melody line, the altos, tenors, and basses struggled side by side. People sat right in the same section with other people like the town money-bags, Peter Tenebray, who could buy out their entire families and send all the kids to Harvard. Except during Lent he was Mr. Tenebray to most of them. For now, during the weeks of these rehearsals, everybody was on a first-name basis that would last right through Easter and even for a few days later. When they met one another at Hanks’s Super Valu they fearlessly grinned over the grocery-cart cages, even at the richest people, even at the doctor, though they never went to first names with him. Their grins said, At bottom we are really all alike! We are all just people, struggling along, if you ask me. Even Natalie Tenebray, the ecumenical choir director, the big man’s wife, who everyone knew was juiced up whenever and wherever you saw her. Well, look, she had a drinking problem, she was doing the best she could, wasn’t she – like the rest of us? That was what their looks said. There was more to it than that. She handled them all, they felt it clearly enough, with authority. She was a professional. You don’t handle people with all that authority, alcoholic or not, unless you are a professional.

The general pre-Easter tolerance did not apply to their doctor, though. That is, they supposed Dr. Anderson was excellent in his profession, family medicine, but not everybody warmed up to him. Something held them off. It might have been only that you knew Dr. Anderson would be one of the last people to touch your body.

On a Monday in March, the St. Fursey Clinic hallway was full of ordinary people plus even the chief of police during the lunch hour. People even peered in from along the registration counter in the waiting room. Dr. Anderson was prancing like a teenager up and down the hallway, hugging his fifteen-year-old son, kissing him, never minding the boy’s red face. Simon could have been killed a half-hour earlier, but he had used his head and had a lot of luck, so his father was laughing and crying in the hallway of the St. Fursey clinic. The med techs, especially the bitchy one whom no one particularly liked, carefully backed away with their paper cups of urine, and the two office nurses held their index boards close so that their nutty boss and his son wouldn’t barge into them as they zig-zagged past.

Of course it was wonderful that Simon Anderson had survived crashing a pickup with no brakes right through the huge north window of Hanks’s Super Valu. People knew all the details within a half hour. Of course everyone smiled. Of course people said that it was a near thing. But in some less voluble neighborhood of their upper cortices, what people in their right minds call their heart of hearts, they did not all admire their doctor cavorting like that down the clinic hall. OK so Simon Anderson had not been killed. OK so Simon Anderson in his wisdom had cut school that day in order to go into the St. Fursey auto lot and “try out” a secondhand Chevy pickup which shouldn’t have been given him since it was on the lot expressly for brake repair. So Simon was tooling down Fourth Avenue and sees the usual cordon of middle-school kids grinning and blocking the street, so in order not to kill them he makes a right turn into Hanks’s big window and the pickup comes to a stop against the Day Olds cart. The fact was that kid, a doctor’s kid as like any other kid, had played hookey, go figure – and anyway, Dr. Anderson had a kind of way of bringing up stuff and doing stuff that didn’t connect. All they meant was, he did have that tendency, even if he was a professional doctor. You’d be talking about one thing and he would bring in some completely other thing and it wasn’t always a day-brightener either.

This single March weekend, followed by this Monday, gave Dr. Anderson exercise in most aspects of his practice. He endured each of the two smells he never could really accustom himself to – the fetor from incising the chest for an examination on a rotted human body was the first. And then, today, on Monday, the classical, thick, pallid stench of semen on a battered patient.

On the Friday he had a pronouncing. The body had lain beside Minnesota 65 for ten to twelve days, partly shawled over by a drift of spring snow. Animals or birds had eaten its eyes. On Saturday forenoon Dr. Anderson had done the examination as a favor to the county M.E. who didn’t sing in ecumenical choir and therefore was free to have the weekend away.

The efficient cause of death was two blows to the head in the upper left parietal area. They could not have been self-inflicted. The body had been in sexual intercourse before the head was struck. It would be held chilled until someone claimed it. For now it was a legal possession of the state of Minnesota. The doctor and the chief of police talked about it. The chief was smart, not just smart, but nice. The murder, he said, looked like work by a large organization whose skills included getting rid of any bodies it wanted to get rid of.

“How do you know?” Dr. Anderson said.

It was classical. Neither the body in vivendi or no one else, either, had handled any of the deceased’s clothes or shoes, the chief said. There were no partial prints on anything, shoe-lace endings included.

Earlier that Saturday morning, between three and three-forty-five, Dr. Anderson had attended the delivery of a moribund baby. Its parents had refused any medical intervention throughout an unpromising and potentially dangerous pregnancy because they were practicing, they told him, the full power of prayer. Each of the four times the doctor had pointed out to them that the pregnancy was not good, they had smiled at him. Clearly they were wise people tolerating a dim-spirited fellow. The father had explained that both he and his wife were in personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The doctor took their remarks like blows to the face, but he had heard worse.

On Sunday he had only rounds, which included checking on the mother who had lost her baby. He started off down the maternity wing, but turned back to pick up one of the nurses to go with him.

The mother told him that she didn’t like to say anything so negative but she had some concerns. She had always supposed he was a good doctor, but the reality was, if her attending physician had been willing to pray with her and her husband the way they had four times requested, instead of allowing the devil to fill him with pride in his professionalism, they would not have lost their baby.

Dr. Anderson raised his eyes from the clipboard of her vitals and told her again how sorry he was that her baby had died.

He sat at the nurses’ station filling out reports. The senior nurse handed him a cup of coffee without his asking for it. She said, “I thought you handled that just perfectly, Doctor.” Her eyes filled and her voice thickened. “I’ve always noticed – we’ve all noticed – how gentle you are, too, when you have to blanket and hand over a dead baby to its mother. Like yesterday. I know it’s your job and all, but not everyone’s that gentle. Not everyone’s that caring.”

The other nurse who was on duty returned to the station from a patient call. The doctor stopped scribbling his codes and signatures and remarked, “You know an experience I’ve never had?”

The first nurse had decided it was time to cut the sadness now. She said in a witty tone, “Of course I do. You have never delivered a baby yourself, Dr. Anderson.”

He said, “I have never attended the delivery of a healthy baby, handed it to its mother, and then heard airplanes fly over and then had bombs drop on the hospital and kill the new mother and the baby. I’ve never had that experience.”

The nurses stared.

The younger one began to cry.

He paid no attention.

“No,” he went on, in a nearly comfortable tone, “Turns out I’ve never had that experience. I wonder if the President has ever had that experience.”

Now the one nurse wept in a florid, nearly vomitous way. Presently the two nurses handed a Kleenex box back and forth, very gently.

Soon Dr. Anderson was done, so he pushed up the little dutch door and left them. Near the coat hooks, however, he overheard the senior nurse say “I like Dr. Anderson a lot, but I really wish he wouldn’t do that so much of the time. Dragging in stuff. We had enough sadness around here this weekend what with someone left dead out on 65 and that dead baby without him dragging in other stuff that hasn’t got anything to do with anything.”

That was early Sunday morning. The Anderson kids had fried pancakes at home. The doctor got a beeper at ten but only to arrange a seventy-two hour hold for his repeat bi-polar. One of his repeat husband-battered patients called but called back two minutes later to say she sure didn’t know what was wrong with her, she guessed her head would come off if it wasn’t screwed on, how that she could have said anyone pushed her down the basement staircase when what had happened was the usual, she’d lost her balance with a basket of laundry, and she bet even the doctor did dumb stuff like that once in a while and she gave the good-sport laugh he knew from years of practice meant she had dug in on this version of the script.

No one delivered a baby. No one called from the hospital to say anyone was claiming the murdered woman’s body. He was free to finish breakfast and eat lunch with Simon and Annie and even get in a full one-hour nap and still make it on time to the 3 p.m. chorus rehearsal.

In the clinic on Monday he did a wild Virginia reel up and down the hallway and didn’t mind that Simon was embarrassed. He didn’t mind that he thought he had a one o’clock appointment with someone but absolutely couldn’t recall whom. He couldn’t feel any weight in his right white-coat pocket which meant he had again misplaced both his cell phone and already, the new stethoscope. Never mind.

The appointments nurse said, “Dr. Anderson! Do you want to pick up?” She held out a wireless.

He laughed and practically sang, “No, but I’ll take it!”

He let Simon go but said, “Don’t leave.”

The show seemed to be over so the crowd politely drew back a little, to allow their doctor some privacy on the telephone. In the next moment, however, they heard him give a shout, a shout that was one part shout and nine parts snarl. Nobody could resist eavesdropping.

“You’re saying what?” the doctor shouted into the phone. “Yaaas I know who you are! You are saying that Simon skipped school and missed four classes? I believe you! I am sending him home for the rest of the afternoon, too, Principal! So he will miss whatever he’s got in the afternoon, too! I am ordering up bed rest. You’d like to know why? I will be happy to explain it! – you what! You resent my tone! Listen! Do you realize that my son could have avoided risking his own life by driving through a bunch of younger kids in the street! He could have done that! That’s what people do, Principal! Whatever they’re doing, they just keep on doing it, never mind that they can foresee what will happen! But Simon didn’t!”

The clinic crowd were utterly delighted. Even the techs, even the dour one, grinned.

“Jeez, Dad,” Simon said.

The doctor held the phone away from his mouth long enough to say. “Pipe down, Simon. You shouldn’t talk! I want to look at your signs again.”

Back into the phone he said, “He could have done that, you know. Half the world just keeps doing whatever they’re doing even if they could save lives by doing something else. Not Simon. He made a 90° turn and drove through a building so you know what, you know what’s going to happen to that string of kids? They are going to grow up and go to your high school some day! Now I have to get off the phone and let you get back to your work.”

The doctor said to Simon, “I want you home, on the couch or in bed. Lying down. I will come check you after a while – wait a minute! I don’t want you there alone! Oh good – ” he cried, and pointed at Arlene Stropp, a woman he knew, who was standing among the crowd.

“Arlene!” he shouted. “Is today the day you clean my house? Could you take Simon home with you and stay with him?”

His appointments nurse said severely, “Dr. Anderson, Mrs. Stropp is your one o’clock appointment and she’s already been waiting a half hour.”

“Go home,” he said to Simon one last time, “If you feel even the least thing, dizziness, nausea, anything, call me!”

The chief of police came forward. He said, “I’ll drive him home, Doc.”

Dr. Anderson hugged him, too.

His happiness lay all about him, as though he himself, some vessel of himself, had poured out.

He rushed toward his nice cleaning woman. “I’m so sorry, Arlene! I wasn’t thinking! Here – ” and he took her folder from the nurse, “Come on in here.”

He pushed up the orange patient-in lever. “Don’t be cross with me!” he said, following her in. “My son is alive, you see.”

His patient was far from cross with him. She looked at him with a face full of love. Her face also showed a fresh five-centimeter bruising on both left and right side, with several-days-old dark black and blue in the periorbital area around each eye. Dr. Anderson began lightly touching her face. He figured the original bruise site was on the left cheek, but she had turned when struck there, to the right, likely to stave off further blows to the left-side damage done to the jaw three months ago. Macrophages had eaten the old blood, and scavenger cells in both cheeks were well into several days’ worth of remaking blood. Destroyed hemoglobin gave one cheek surface a brownish green.

He wheeled a little closer to Arlene and lifted her hands. The underside of both arms was yellow, where they would have caught some of her husband’s blows when she raised them to protect her face. Dr. Anderson set one assault on her at about five or six days prior, and new assaults today.

He asked her a few desultory questions while he wrote on her sheet. She never paid any attention to his advice, but he always kept her in the clinic as long as he could. He kept half an ear cocked for an opening when he might talk her into making a charge and leaving the brute of a husband. There was no single reason that Arlene should stay to get beaten up every – he peeped into three previous pages – every four months or so.

Arlene Stropp, so far, had followed a conventional pattern. She always gave Dr. Anderson a specific, partial subject to advise her on. “Just look at the left side of my jaw, would you, Doctor, please?” she would say. Keep away, her tone always said. Keep from any holistic remarks about my life. Over the past few years he had several times given Arlene Stropp his shaky speech on the subject. There is a law now, Arlene, he would say, as though it were nothing to do with him and he were helpless in the case: He would tell her, I have to report such bruising as you have. He always offered it all in a very low-key tone, matching her classically deadbeat lifelessness of voice. You know what that means, Arlene? It means you have more people on your side than you know about. Not just me and my staff but people with authority in Duluth.

She never paid any attention.

He didn’t think it was money. His other battered wives needed to stay married for the husband’s income. They had to feed their children. Not Arlene. She brought in the only regular income they had. He knew she cleaned the elementary school and part-time the St. Fursey Episcopal Church, and a number of individual homes. He himself knew of four people who had her come for half-days. In the way that word got around Dr. Anderson knew that Peter and Nat Tenebray and he himself paid her $25 an hour but another three of her employers whom he knew of stayed at $12 an hour, probably the rate they had hired her at years ago. Practical enough. They knew as well as Arlene knew they didn’t have to pay more. She wasn’t going anywhere. Everyone knew her husband couldn’t keep a job. That lady was good and stuck.

Arlene would actually save money by throwing Brad out, the doctor figured. What kept her in the abusive marriage wasn’t hard to understand. First, if she tried to get out of it Brad Stropp would beat her up. The chief of police was a nice and savvy cop, but she would get beaten up before he ever got there. Second, even if the chief fixed up a restraining order on Brad, Brad would beat up Arlene, get put in prison for a while, then get out and beat her up again. The clincher reason though, Dr. Anderson thought, was that Arlene was caged in her own ideals. She was married. Whatever impenetrable fog of disrespect the rich and the near-rich of St. Fursey, and the women’s church groups, let fall upon Arlene Stropp, they couldn’t take it away from her that she was a married and gainfully employed woman. She crouched in that marriage the way a live-caught mouse crouches in a humane trap. Arlene did not see it as a cage for holding prey ready for a predator.

Today Dr. Anderson’s heart was so full of joy about Simon he had to order himself to stay on task with Arlene. He let her talk. Even in this early March day, at 47 degrees of North Latitude, she wore a print cotton dress. She kept one knee crossed firmly over the other with the lower legs and ankles held together, then tipped to one side, like a college girl on television. He was not sure whether her dress, the more rather than less pathetic for looking ironed, would be her clothes for cleaning houses or if she did her cleaning in pants but had put on this dress for her appointment with him. He knew she loved him. How could she not? He didn’t take it personally. In a culture so full of cruelty as the United States was, people loved anyone in the helping professions who was civil or minimally kind. Of course she loved him.

As they sat there, he trying, as usual, to conjure up some way to convince her to leave Brad, he caught the floating fetor of semen. That smell on her changed everything. She always came to his office fresh-bathed. Only force, at the noon hour, so she could scarcely keep her appointment, could have made her come to him with her husband’s seed spilled on her.

The repellent odor gave him a new idea.

“Open your mouth, Arlene,” he said peremptorily. “No – wait a second. Is your jaw O.K. enough now so you can open your mouth wide without any discomfort?”

She opened her mouth.

He said, “Yes – like that, but wider. Now,” he said almost harshly. “Say Ahhhh.”


“Good. Now listen carefully, Arlene. Say ‘Ahhhhh’ this time just the same way, the same note, as I say it.” He said Ahhhh very loudly.

She imitated.

“Good!” he exclaimed.

She looked at him as though he had lost his mind.

She tried to shrink from his handhold: he had taken hold of both of her hands several minutes ago and was still holding them. He let go.

“Now,” he told her. “You say Ahhhh on that same note. I am going to start out with you. Then I will change my note, but you keep yours. As I raise my voice don’t slide up with me.”

He took his note and she picked it up. For a quarter-second they held it together, he taking an octave lower. Then he slowly went up a fifth.

She kept her note.

He cried, “Arlene, you are a natural!”

He then said, “I’m just going to suggest one more thing.” Dr. Anderson noticed he was using the explanatory language of a family physician doing an internal female exam – it was the language that said, “I know what I am doing is embarrassing and intrusive but it has a purpose and I promise this will be over in just a moment.”

“Just one more thing,” he said. “Please take a good deep breath and let it out, then take another, and let it out, then take another. Then, sing the same note I sing, the way you did before, and hang onto it until I stop singing completely.”

He smiled briefly at her face. “No, I have not gone crazy,” he said.

They each breathed in and out together and then took their note, which was the bottom of the same fifth they had sung before. They were both using Aaaaaah as before. Then he jumped clean up a major third. Arlene held strong, so he rushed singing through the first bars of the Hymn to Joy. He knew that whatever music she didn’t know she would know that melody. It was jammed into the culture as firmly as the National Anthem. Even Arlene’s repulsive husband would know it and love it.

He sang loudly. The cramped little consulting room with its glass of cotton swabs and its folded paper gowns and its skeletal heel rests and its posters about the difference between a bacterium and a virus and its Norman Rockefeller print of a white-haired physician with his stethoscope pressed on a doll’s chest while a little girl watched – Dr. Anderson’s consulting room blared with his sound. Then he, and no doubt she, too, ran out of breath. Silence.

“Oh!” his patient exclaimed.

He waited. Please, he begged her silently: Please actually say something. Please commit yourself to some opinion or other. Silently he begged her: Oh what?

Arlene said, “That was so pretty!”

But she added in her usual gravelly tone: “Dr. Anderson, why did you want to see my tonsils when I haven’t got a sore throat? And anyway, you told me ages ago my tonsils were shrunk up by now.”

“I want you to sing in the ecumenical chorale,” he said.

“I can’t sing with those kind of people,” she remarked without any particular expression.

He told her she had an ear. She could hold a note even though other people very near by were singing on a different note. He told her without lying that she had musical taste. There was nothing wrong with old Beethoven, he thought a little wildly to himself, and there was nothing wrong with Arlene for liking him. He told her the next rehearsal was Sunday afternoon at three. He was going to get that music to her ahead.

“Wait a minute, Arlene,” he interrupted himself. “Do you read music?”

“I can read the words part, not those lines things,” she said.

She added, “Dr. Anderson, I can’t sing with those people.”

He stood up. “You’re right. Not today you can’t but by Sunday you can. It’s only Monday. I will get the music to you tonight.”

Her head came up fast. “Not to my house!” she exclaimed.

“No,” he said. “Are you cleaning at my house this afternoon?”

“At the school,” she said.

Then he would get the music to her at school. He was going to set up times to sing with her so she could memorize everything before Sunday. To himself, he said, that little devil Simon who’d skipped school and put a pickup through the whole front of a grocery store, that boy could do a little work for the old man – he could do five half-hour singing practices at home with Arlene. He himself would sing on the melody to teach her, and Simon, who was in the tenor section anyhow, could do the tenor line, and then Nat could take the alto and sit off to one side of Arlene so she would get used to hearing the opposing women’s part on the right. Nat wouldn’t give him grief about this, because they’d do it during one of her five or six happy hours of each day and she liked music at any level anyway. Drunk or sober, at least so far in her alcoholic pattern, she always came through for the ecumenical chorales.

Dr. Anderson noticed he was fast crumbling back down to practicality after the passion of gratitude for his son’s life. He explained that he would pick Arlene up on his way home from clinic at 5:30 tomorrow and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. He thought to himself, he wouldn’t offer the Saturday go. He’d done last weekend for the coroner. He wanted a weekend off.

He had the door open and held it for her.

“I will have to ask my husband,” Arlene told him.

He said, “I come pick you up at your house and either Simon or I drop you back home a half-hour later. You don’t have to ask your husband anything. If Brad has any concerns he can ask me.”

“Those people though,” she murmured, now that he and she were out in the hall where they might be heard. She added in an odd, nasty whisper: “Big shots.”

But he said very loudly, “We’re using the Episcopal Church red robes this year, Arlene. I’ll see you get one.” He went on in such a loud voice she had to realize he actually wanted others to be listening . . . a nurse or two, a passing patient, a tech. “Since we talked all the time about the ecumenical choir rehearsal this was not a medical consultation.”

He followed her down the hall toward reception, still talking loudly. He said to the receptionist, while helping Arlene Stropp on with her jacket, “We never saw Mrs. Stropp here this afternoon. She was here about the ecumenical chorus. No meds.”

At last she was gone. He thought: I will call Simon and see how he is. Where’d I leave my cell phone, though? He returned down the hall to pause at the door to the blood room.

His least favorite of all the techs the clinic had ever hired was pulling a slide out of her microscope. Without even lifting her head, she said, “On the baby scale, Doctor.” He took up the cell phone.

“And your stethoscope’s in the clinic jacket you left in the doctors’ lounge. Right pocket.”

She had clearly made her voice express as much disdain as it could. The medical technician had come to St. Fursey Clinic at twenty. She must be only twenty-two or twenty-three now. She might grow up to be a friendly or affectionate human being yet. He bet she might. Then he thought, that’s not true. He didn’t bet she would. He bet she would stay the same. He was only an amateur psychologist but he wasn’t completely stupid. Chances were she would go on doing what she was doing and being the kind of human being she was being. She would do a whole lifetime with her taste for low-key bullying and her resistance to joyful occasions.

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