Chapter 1

The Hootchie Doctor Hits Town

Friday, June 14
2:58 in the p.m.

How did all the trouble start?

Nine hours after the ruffian trucker made merry along the length and breadth of Main Street, I, too, went whooping and cavorting up the roadway. But I was fully clothed and motivated not by booze but by triumph. Against all odds, I had not been given detention on the last day of school.

There had been several close calls throughout the day. In health class, I nearly ran afoul of the Gentleman Gym Teacher. Fresh and crisp in his snowy Colonel Sanders suit and broad-brimmed plantation hat, he spent the entirety of the class lounging against the battle-scarred lectern, delivering A Little Talk about the menace of public drunkenness in general and men specifically.

Cure-for-Summer-Boredom_Fruit

Pricked by boredom, I piped up.

“Men like you, sir?”

The Gentleman Gym Teacher’s well-brushed white hat paused in mid-fan of his gentile self. He offered the class a dark, yet courteous, scowl.

“Might I beg to inquire who said that?”

I ducked my head and kept my mouth clamped shut for the rest of the period.

At lunch, needled by ennui, I fashioned a food-based statuette I entitled “The Trucker in the Raw.” Rashly, I exhibited it for the consideration of my classmates. When the Lady Principal swooped down upon us to see what all the tittering was about, I crammed the edible effigy into my mouth and gazed at her with innocent eyes and bulging cheeks until she swooped away.

Hotdogs

By the final class of the day, I was determined to take no chances. I settled into my seat next to Annie-Belle Cutler, rolled my head back, and gazed up at the decorative tile mosaic on the ceiling.

As the math teacher enumerated the threats posed by tipsy truckers, I considered the yellow rose of Texas and Viking helmet, entwined in chummy camaraderie, fashioned from yellow and blue kitchen tiles donated by the Fack Sex Furniture Distribution Warehouse. Weaving between dusty beams of sunlight that spilled through the windows was a plump honeybee. It circled the mosaic as slowly as the second hand was circling the clock.

I was powerfully bored.

Bored girl

I watched as the bee drifted along the edge of the mosaic to hover just above the classroom timepiece.

“And now,” said the math teacher. “I will tell you the most important calculation you must make, should you have the misfortune to encounter a trucker this summer—”

I cut her off with a shriek of victory. It was three o’clock!

My cry ricocheted off the ceiling tiles. The bee shot downward and flung itself stinger-first into Annie-Belle Cutler’s exposed upper arm. She let out a cry of her own.

“Ruby Bejou,” thundered the teacher. “That’s deten—”

But judgement was not to rain down upon my head because, at that very instant, the bell rang.

I jumped to my feet, bashed open the classroom door, and fled into the bright sunlight.

School was out at last!

Outside, in the infernal June heat, I met up with my little sister, Pearl. Off we strolled to the Swedish Embassy & Beauty Parlor & Coffee Shop, Somwärin’s preferred site for enacting the sins of envy, pride, and gluttony—all at the same time and technically outside of U.S. soil.

As always, the Swedish ambassador, proprietor and sole employee of the Swedish Embassy & Beauty Parlor & Coffee Shop, greeted our arrival with the silken words, “Välkommen till Konungariket Sverige: För Sverige i tiden.”

We residents of Somwärin had agreed that this translated as, “Welcome to the Kingdom of Sweden: For Sweden with the times,” which we further agreed made no sense. But the Swedish ambassador never failed to recite it in a formulaic voice whenever anyone set foot in this official government facility, so it was surely a crucial tool of Swedish bureaucracy.

Pearl and I chorused, “Hey!” which we had been taught was a genuine Swedish word. But our town’s only native Swedish speaker didn’t respond with a “Hey!” of his own. He contented himself with giving us a puzzled look before directing us to two ergonomic Fack Sex chairs set around an economical Fack Sex table.

“May I interest you girls in a coffee? Or a plate of lutefisk and a coffee?” he inquired. “I shall get your coffee.”

Coffee lover

We disappointed our township’s only foreign dignitary by ordering a pair of sundaes and sodas.

Fika, fika,” the Swedish ambassador muttered disapprovingly as he set our chilly treats before us. “When you finish these, I shall bring your coffee.”

I’d stuffed myself to bursting before I noticed that someone was missing.

“Where’s Opal?” I mumbled through a mouthful of butterscotch.

“Where else?” Pearl said. She tossed a maraschino cherry into the air to catch in her mouth, but succeeded only in hitting herself on the forehead. She scraped it off the tabletop and tried again.

I dropped my spoon with a loud plank.

Could it be that today, just like every day after school, our big sister was holding court in the school parking lot with every male—from sixth graders to teachers—in attendance?

“But she promised to come!”

“Yeah, well,” Pearl surreptitiously glanced at me, plucked the cherry from the floor where it had fallen, and tossed it skyward again. “She’s gotta get hers while she can. She’s gonna be too busy for masculine companionship this summer.”

I stirred my liquefying ice cream and scowled. Our big sister had obtained herself a job this summer and planned to abandon Pearl and me to our own devices all the dull, sweltering days until September.

In Somwärin, there was little to nothing for the teenaged crowd to do during the interminable summer months. As elementary school kids, my sisters and I had glumly attended “Fun Time Swedish Language Learning Camp for Little Youngsters,” put on by the Fack Sex Corporation. It had been a rotten trial, what with rising daily at dawn to sing the Swedish national anthem, writing gracious letters to the King of Sweden to thank him for being a beneficent figurehead, and the lack of any form of protein besides lutefisk.

“You must learn to love this good fisk!” our teachers would shout, displaying the Viking temper that simmered just beneath their pale skin, when we surly kids picked at our ammoniacal meals. The King of Sweden never wrote back, and our Swedish Language Learning consisted of memorizing such useful phrases as, “Ship three chairs to New Hampshire by Wednesday,” and “Please forgive my late arrival, boss. I urge you to dock my salary.” It was no fun time at all.

1950s Jello recipes

“So, what’re we gonna do this summer?” Pearl asked, as she dropped the mangled cherry into her soda and scrubbed at the sticky red blotches on her cheeks.

“I dunno,” I said.

“Well, we better come up with something, coz I don’t guess either of us can stand another summer like last year.”

Pearl was wise. Last summer, we three sisters had passed all our waking hours sprawled in various positions of lethargy in the living room of the Bejou family trailer as we watched the Sissy Spacek Movie Marathon on TV and took in vast quantities of grape soda and Almond Roca until we looked and felt like bloated corpses.

Too old to attend Fun Time Swedish Language Learning Camp for Little Youngsters, too young to put our scanty Swedish vocabularies to use in summer jobs at the Fack Sex Furniture Distribution Warehouse. Our prospects appeared grim.

“I have a bad feeling, Pearl,” I said. “I have a feeling I’m gonna be so bored this summer. You got any ideas regarding what we can do to occupy ourselves?”

“No. I figured you might, being older and all,” Pearl said.

“Maybe Opal will,” I said.

I peered expectantly at the café door. Miraculously, at that very moment, it swung open.

A vicious blast of heat burst through the calm, cool air of the Swedish Embassy & Beauty Parlor & Coffee Shop. On the threshold stood, not Opal, but a sweaty, crazed-looking man.

Breathing hard, he gripped the doorknob for a moment, then staggered into our midst. His hair was wild and his face was red and he wore a thick suit jacket wrought in a subtle plaid pattern, like the one sported by the anchorman who introduced each movie of the Sissy Spacek Movie Marathon last summer.

“Oh wow!” whispered Pearl, her eyes bright. “Another drunken trucker! Maybe he’ll take his clothes off for us.”

The stranger stumbled to the counter, where the Swedish ambassador stood watching warily. The man hung his flushed head and drew in several deep breaths, his hands planted flat on the shining countertop.

“Välkommen till Konungariket Sverige,” said the Swedish ambassador. ”För Sverige—”

“Homagawd, so hat…hat…I hada walk…wicked hat…”

The Swedish ambassador cocked his head, puzzled.

“För Sverige i tiden,” he said. “Would you like a coffee?”

“I hada walk so fah,” the man continued, his voice rattling around the edges of an accent none of us could place. “Dacta Hershille…”

The Swedish ambassador flicked his eyes quizzically at Pearl and me, then leaned forward and scrutinized the man.

“Shall I bring you a coffee?” he enunciated.

“Hah?” the man said, lifting his sweat-soaked head and squinting at the Swedish ambassador. “No, no. Sorry, I’m just so…hat.”

The Swedish ambassador’s face brightened with comprehension.

“Ah! You are not from Texas. You are from faraway, yes?”

The man nodded, scrubbing the perspiration from his forehead with the Swedish ambassador’s table-wiping rag, which lay folded neatly on the countertop.

“And what country do you hail from, please?”

“Bwastin.”

“I ask your pardon?”

Bwastin,” he repeated. “Mass’chusetts.”

The Swedish ambassador looked concerned. He reached beneath the counter and pulled out a thick stack of paperwork.

“Please announce your country of origin and purpose for visiting on these simple forms. You shall have a coffee while I inspect your passport. Have you any fruit to declare?”

“No, I just needa speak with Dacta Hershille.”

The Swedish ambassador frowned.

“Who?” Pearl and I mouthed at each other.

The foreigner dug through the pockets of his Bwastin jacket and produced a letter bearing the Somwärin town seal of entwined yellow rose of Texas and Viking helmet, as seen previously upon the bee-ridden classroom ceiling.

“Dacta Florence Hershille?” the man read, proffering the letter.

“Dr. Flo!” Pearl exclaimed.

The Swedish ambassador and the outsider glanced at her. We girls hunched over our sundaes to conceal our eavesdropping.

“You wish to visit Dr. Flo?”

The man nodded vigorously.

“You are ill?”

“No, no, I just needa speak with her about my lodgings.”

“Please, Mister—”

“Dacta.”

“Please, Mr. Dacta—”

“Dacta Grant. Not Mista Dacta.”

The Swedish ambassador pursed his lips.

“Please attend me here.”

He turned on his heel and vanished into the kitchen.

The peculiar man sighed and swabbed his face with the rag again. Pearl and I peeped at him over our spoons.

“Is he a trucker for real?” Pearl hissed.

“No, he can’t be,” I whispered, as I flicked my eyes over his person. “He hasn’t got the characteristic baseball cap with a lewd saying, and he hasn’t done the rebel yell even once to relieve his pent-up enthusiasm.”

I realized the man was staring at my sister and me. I hunched down in my seat and pretended to eat.

Cherry pie

The Swedish ambassador emerged from the kitchen bearing a steaming cup of coffee and a Swedish-English dictionary. He set the cup upon the counter and opened the dictionary with a flourish.

“Please indicate your nationality and country of origin for the immigration records of the Swedish-Texan corporate commonwealth of Somwärin,” he read aloud.

The stranger slumped over the countertop, his shoulders hunched in defeat. But only for a moment. He inhaled deeply, lifted his chin, and raised his eyes to meet the pale blue ones of the Swedish ambassador.

“Please,” he said. “Fathalovagawd, just tell me where I can find Dacta Hersh—Dacta Flo—whateva you call her. No one came to pick me up at the airport. I hada hitch a ride off a fammer driving an honest-to-Gawd turnip truck. He dumped me five miles outsida town and told me I hada walk the resta the way in this heat.”

“That must’ve been Farmer Bill,” Pearl whispered.

“Where is Dacta Flo?” the man articulated each syllable with the clipped precision of a tailor wielding a pair of pinking shears.

The Swedish ambassador hung his head in shame.

“I have failed,” he said miserably. “Mr. Dacta, these two girls are native English speakers. They will assist you. I cannot.”

Pearl and I looked at one another in surprise.

“Us?” I said.

“But we’re still eating!” Pearl whined.

I kicked her under the table. Nothing this exciting had ever happened to either of us before.

“Please excuse me. I must file a report confessing my incompetence,” said the Swedish ambassador.

He withdrew a clipboard from beneath the counter and trudged across the room to the beauty parlor section of the Swedish Embassy & Beauty Parlor & Coffee Shop. He slumped into one of the pink plastic hairdryer chairs, lowered the glass hood over his head, and covered his face with both hands, his entire frame radiating bleak Nordic sorrow. It was best to leave him alone when he fell into such moments of nihilistic introspection, so Pearl and I stood and motioned to the newcomer to follow us.

“This way,” I half-shouted, to facilitate comprehension.

Out on Main Street in the downpour of torrid sunlight, the man began to sweat vigorously. He mopped at his forehead with the back of his hand, then opened his mouth to speak. Pearl and I perked up our ears, eager to learn his outlander dialect.

“Is it always this hat? It’s only June—how can it be so hat?”

He paused and looked at me, then at my sister.

“I’m sorry about this. I can’t imagine what your motha and fatha would say, you two helping some man you neva met before—”

“Oh, our daddy’s a trucker, and he’s off trucking around from one end of the country to the other and making trouble in every town he hits. He and Mama are long-divorced, so the likes of him wouldn’t mind, I don’t guess,” Pearl burst out cheerfully, all in one breath. “And Mama’s been known to say you’ve got to be neighborly to neighbors and neighbor-like types, so she wouldn’t mind.”

“As long as you aren’t a trucker,” I said.

“Are you?” demanded Pearl.

Every summer, for as long as I could remember, truckers had been showing up in Somwärin with their semis and their Class A commercial driver’s licenses and their synchronized impulses to loiter destructively around town while the employees of the Fack Sex Furniture Distribution Warehouse—including my own mama—loaded their trucks with easy-to-assemble Swedish furniture bound for stores throughout the great U.S. of A. and the lesser republic of Canada.

Somwärin was the sole North American distribution hub connecting the Fack Sex Corporation’s clandestine manufacturing plant in Mexico (called “Southernmost Sweden” on the shipping receipts to Norwegianify the furniture’s Hispanic origin) and the rest of the continent. Unfortunately, not a single Somwärinite in the company’s employ had ever learned to read Swedish. Thus, the simple task of filling the waiting trucks dragged on and on during peak shipping season each June, during which time the warehouse workers—including my own mama—baffled their brains over invoices requesting mysterious objects such as fåtölj, skåpdörr, and nattduksbord.

With nothing to do during the warehouse workers’ period of functional illiteracy, and with a handsome stipend from Fack Sex for each day they were idle, the truckers holed up in a gauntlet of seedy motels on the outskirts of town where they whored, drank, and mischieved the days away. When at last their trucks were fully loaded, the truckers always held a blowout of decadent debauchery and incomprehensible inebriation known along every highway and byway of the Northern and Southern Americas as the Trucker Jamboree. Then, sated and hungover, they drove off into the sunset, leaving us in peace. Until next summer.

Pearl and I crossed our arms over our chests and glared at the man. He blinked in confusion, then said, “Oh, the Teamstas Union! No, no, I’m not a Teamsta.”

He laughed. We didn’t see the humor, so we didn’t join him.

“Then what are you? Nobody but truckers and Swedes from the home office in Stockholm ever come to Somwärin,” said Pearl.

“And you, sir, are no Swede,” said I.

The man held out his hand. I looked at it, wondering what he wanted me to give him.

“My name is Richard Grant. Dacta Richard Grant, actually.”

I narrowed my eyes at the sight of his ruddy palm, covered as it was with the sweat of his brow. I declined to shake it.

“I’m Ruby Bejou, and this-here’s Pearl.”

“I’m twelve and she’s fourteen and Opal’s seventeen and Mama says she’s twenty-nine but she’s really thirty-four and how old are you?” Pearl concluded with a squawk as I jabbed her in the ribs.

“Why’re you here if you’re a doctor? We already got ourselves a doctor in Somwärin,” I said.

“Dr. Flo,” Pearl supplied.

“Yes, I’m awara that. I’m with a federal program that sends dactas to medically underserved communities. A request for an ob-gyn was sent from this…town. So here I am. It sounded like a good idea when I signed up in med school,” he sighed, swiping his hand like a windshield wiper across his dewy face.

“What’s an opie gee whiner?” Pearl inquired.

The doctor smiled and replied, “Ob-gyn. It stands for obstetrics and gynecology.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Obstetrics is the care of mothas and babies before and afta birth. Gynecology is the diagnosis and treatment of disordas of the female reproductive tract.”

Pearl and I glanced at each other, glanced at the doctor, glanced back at each other and burst out laughing.

“A hootchie doctor!” we squealed, holding our sides and gasping with giggles.

The hootchie doctor didn’t look pleased.

Pearl and I snickered all the way to Dr. Flo’s clinic, which was located three doors down from the Swedish Embassy & Beauty Parlor & Coffee Shop. To our collective dismay, it was buttoned up tight, the blinds firmly drawn and the front door locked.

“Wicked pissa,” muttered the hootchie doctor.

“I bet Dr. Barney’ll know what to do,” I said.

“There’s anotha dacta in this town?” the hootchie doctor said.

“Dr. Barney’s better than a doctor,” Pearl said, steering him across the blazing pavement of Main Street. “He’s an animal doctor!”

The hootchie doctor did not seem delighted by this news. Nonetheless, we ushered him through the welcoming door of the Vet ‘n’ Pet Shop, Pearl’s favorite place in the whole wide world.

The physician grumbled in Bwastinese under his breath as Pearl darted between the dimly lit aisles of cages filled with furry fauna and creepy critters.

“Lookit, Ruby! Lookit the bunny! Lookit the salamander! Oh, I love you—what are you, a hedgehog? Lookit how cute he is, Ruby, look!”

Cat tea party

Tipped off by the alarmed bleats of the animals my little sister was terrifying with adoration, Dr. Barney emerged from the back of the Vet ‘n’ Pet Shop, a mouse squirming in his hand.

“Well, hey there,” he said, his eyes sliding from me to the stranger with mellow curiosity.

“Hey, Dr. Barney, this-here’s a hootchie doctor, and—and he—”

I could not continue. I was overcome. I doubled over with laughter.

The hootchie doctor sidestepped me and gave Dr. Barney a smile.

“Hi, I’m Dacta Richard Grant from the—”

“Oh, the ob we asked for,” Dr. Barney said, transferring the mouse to his breast pocket and reaching out to shake hands. “Howdy-do, Dick?”

Dr. Dick eyed Dr. Barney’s mousy palm and unsubtly occupied both of his hands with the task of rustling his letter of introduction from his jacket pocket.

“I’ve been trying to track down Dacta Hershille.”

“You mean Dr. Flo?”

“Is that really what she prefers to be called?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s a matter of preference. We’ve just always called her that. Heck, my name’s not Barney, it’s Owen Maple. Don’t ask me why they call me Dr. Barney, Dick.”

“I—pardon me, but I’d ratha not be called ‘Dick.’”

“Well, sure,” Dr. Barney laughed. “But considering the line of work you’re in, I think you’d better get used to it.”

“Um. So where is Dacta…Flo?”

“County hospital,” Dr. Barney said, as he slipped half a saltine cracker into his pocket, which began to undulate like an alien fixing to bust out of his chest. “Some kid got sick over at the school and she had to ride ‘em in. She’ll be back tomorrow. Maybe the day after, if the young’un takes a turn for the worse.”

Dr. Dick looked alarmed.

“I see. The thing is, I undastood that she would tell me where I’m going to be living, where my office is, when my luggage is going to turn up.”

“Oh, I don’t know anything about housing or luggage, but I can show you your office right now, if you want. Dr. Flo put me in charge of getting it all set up for you.”

Dr. Dick brightened considerably.

“Yes, I’d very much like to see it.”

“Okay, just gimme a sec.”

Dr. Barney turned and moseyed into the depths of the Vet ‘n’ Pet Shop. Dr. Dick and I followed him, leaving Pearl behind to coo over a profane parrot. Dr. Barney strode past the dog kennels and the operating room. He opened a nondescript gray door, flicked on a light, and withdrew the mouse from his pocket. He stuck it in a small wire cage bolted to the cheap wood paneling that covered the wall and began to wash his hands in a steel utility sink.

“Like it?” he inquired presently.

Dr. Dick smiled an uncertain smile.

“What?” he said.

“This space. I cleared it out as best I could. Used to be a storage closet. Feel free to take down the feline anatomy charts if you want; might give the ladies the wrong impression,” Dr. Barney chuckled as he shook his hands dry.

Dr. Dick’s eyes grew and grew and grew.

“You don’t mean…”

“Dr. Flo said you’d only need a small space, since you deal in such a…restricted area of the ladylike body, as it were.”

“This is a joke, right? Haze the new dacta, ha-ha, very funny, I get it. Where’s my real office?”

Dr. Barney met Dr. Dick’s desperate gaze with a mild smile.

“We can get you a shorter exam table eventually, once we have the funds. This-here’s my old equine table, but we don’t see too many horses ‘round here nowadays, so I figured I could spare it. I may need to borrow it back at some point, though—just be forewarned.”

“Oh my Gawd,” said Dr. Dick. “The town physician can’t possibly think I can practice medicine in the back room of a pet store—”

“Technically, this-here’s a pet shop slash veterinary clinic, Dick.”

“Is she insane?”

Dr. Barney shrugged and replied, “You’ll have to take that up with Dr. Flo when she gets back.”

“I…I…I…”

Dr. Dick’s face had assumed an unhealthy, milky hue. I sensed he was overwhelmed. Dr. Barney gave me a little nod and I took him by the elbow to escort him away from the storage closet that was causing him such dismay. When Pearl saw the snow-white shade of Dr. Dick’s visage, she abandoned her beloved beasts and trailed us out of the Vet ‘n’ Pet Shop without protest.

Back in the brilliant sunshine, my sister and I took a few steps back and observed Dr. Dick. Would he dash up and down Main Street in a rage, pausing only to lob a few stones through the windows of Dr. Flo’s clinic? That’s what I would have done.

Or perhaps he would entreat first the sun, then passersby, with a profanity-permeated plea for justice and a bottle of Southern Comfort to take his unfathomable affliction away. That’s what Mama would have done.

In either case, Pearl and I would be eyewitnesses and much in demand when the gossiping began.

Dr. Dick stood very still for several minutes, squinting numbly into the sultry distance.

“I need a hotel,” he said finally, frustration and a light sunburn putting some color back into his features.

Instantly, I set upon him in horror.

The Cure for Summer Boredom

“Oh no! You can’t go to one of the motels!” I said. “Only truckers stay there.”

“Ruby…” Pearl said.

“Filthy hellholes, all of them. You so much as look at one of them motel beds and you’ll catch a disease. A disease of your secret parts.”

“Ruby…you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking?” Pearl said.

“Come to our house. Mama will let you stay with us.”

“Ruby, no!” Pearl said.

“She’d never forgive us if we let Somwärin’s one and only hootchie doctor bunk down at a nasty ol’ pay-by-the-day when we can demonstrate the Bejou family’s sense of hospitality.”

“You’re gonna get us in so much trouble,” Pearl said.

But I was the oldest and I had veto power, so we took him home.

And that’s how all the trouble started.

Pink flamingo

 

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