Mashed potatoes streaming with rivulets of butter. The table had groaned under all the food the neighbors had brought in for her father’s funeral dinner. Ham and green beans, corn-on-the-cob, and cornbread. Apple pie and angel food cakes. Today, the food still swam in front of Caroline’s closed eyes as it had on that terrible day just six weeks ago. As did the scene from her kitchen at home, a kitchen filled with women armed with rolling pins and large mixing bowls, with Caroline’s own mother who, unable to sit and grieve earlier, had insisted upon beating egg whites for the angel food cakes. Egg white after airy egg white.
“She’s tryin’ to work herself to death, tryin’ to follow after him,” Caroline had heard the farm women whisper about her mother. Indeed, Caroline’s mother had finally fainted dead away. The old-fashioned kitchen had been filled with heat and humidity.
The doctor’s office this morning, on the other hand and on this particular day, was cold and clean. When Caroline opened her eyes, Dr. Richard Hancock’s shelves seemed all shiny white and metallic silver. The shelves were lined with gleaming trays, bottles of antiseptic, surgical gloves, and tubing. With cold metallic instruments and sheathed syringes. Caroline lay on the table and strained to hear the doctor and nurse as they talked out behind the frosted pane in the examining room door.
“Primitive!” Caroline didn’t have to strain to hear this particular pronouncement or what followed from the doctor’s mouth “Why do these people hang on to such outmoded ideas? A bunch of old wives telling tales!”
“Doctor,” Caroline heard the nurse’s voice break in soothingly. Nurse Judith Brock, a woman with an education. In all of her childhood visits over the last few years, Caroline had much admired Nurse Judith Brock. The woman’s trim figure always clad in the uniform of an office nurse. The woman also always had coiffed hair and manicured nails, and most importantly, a quiet and even voice. Judith Brock spoke in measured and professional tones. Nurse Brock was in control, Caroline fancied. She was a woman who had her emotions under control.
“Miss Meadows,” Dr. Hancock entered the room. The man didn’t glance at Caroline at first, but then he seemed to pull himself up short. He turned on his heel to walk up beside Caroline’s prone figure before he held out his hand. Caroline had always thought Dr. Hancock a handsome, if portly, man. For a man her mother or father’s age, that is. Nurse Brock, the doctor, Caroline’s mother, all seemed to Caroline, much the same age. Dr. Hancock had a full head of hair though. Caroline admired the doctor’s watch and tried to ignore all the dark hair on the man’s arm.
“Nurse Brock tells me you’re going to be entering the upper grades soon. Our little patient all grown up into a teenager now!” Dr. Hancock finally took Caroline’s hand and gave it a firm shake.
Caroline had always been a little intimidated by Dr. Hancock really, his barrel chest and thick fingertips. Of course, a rural woman like her own mother had always made Caroline, had always made all her children “dress up” when coming in for an examination or an inoculation. A doctor was, after all, a man of science, and nurses still wore caps.
Nurse Judith Brock came into the examining room then. She seemed, to Caroline, to be able to walk soundlessly. Nurse Brock came to stand just behind Dr. Hancock’s shoulder. She smiled down at Caroline, all perfect lipstick, and Caroline smiled back.
Caroline had been so angry with her own mother this morning. Her own mother who had, uncharacteristically, dropped Caroline off outside Dr. Hancock’s office, dropped Caroline off, Caroline had felt, as if practically abandoning her on the physician’s doorstep. Caroline had felt oddly like some kind of round, fragile egg landing with a splat on the sidewalk. So hot outside this summer, why an egg could fry on these sidewalks, was how the T.V. weather forecasters were describing the July heat. Caroline thought her mother had been acting even more frantic than usual lately. Not really like her mother. Why right after Dad’s heart attack, Mom had simply gone off into the bedroom and closed the door, leaving Caroline and her two younger brothers begging her to come out, if only for the funeral.
“Caroline, I have to ask you to scoot down toward me just a little bit more. That’s it.” Dr. Hancock coaxed her. “Bring your behind . . .,” the doctor paused only for a moment. “Bring your buttocks right down to the edge. That’s a girl.” Dr. Hancock laid a hand on Caroline’s thigh. He wore a wedding ring.
Caroline felt uncomfortable lying flat against the table, nothing much on but a loose gown and a sheet. She thought she remembered being naked in front of the doctor once before, but of course, that had been different. She had been little then, just a child. The thought of a large ham ringed in pineapple slices, a pink and juicy ham served up for the funeral dinner flashed up before Caroline’s eyes again.
Caroline also remembered getting in trouble during her first few days in grade school, getting in trouble because she’d gone down the slide on her stomach while wearing a dress. Caroline’s parents had been so embarrassed. Caroline’s father, still “with them” then, had assured Caroline’s teacher that his daughter had, indeed, had years and years of training in Sunday School. Her mother had assured the principal that Caroline really knew better than to let boys look up her dress.
“The doctor isn’t going to hurt you now, dear.” Nurse Brock chimed in. “Let me help you. Raise your legs up more. That’s it.” The nurse grabbed one of Caroline’s bare feet, lifting it up into the air. The movement caused a terrible squeaking as Caroline slid even further down.
Caroline felt embarrassed that her clammy skin stuck to the doctor’s table. She felt humiliated that what Dad had once called her “baby fat” still rolled around her waist and her hips.
“A sturdy girl,” Caroline’s rural grandmother had always called her granddaughter while her hands had patted Caroline’s hips firmly, if lovingly, and then the old woman would also pat at Caroline’s behind.
At this particular moment, though, Caroline thought her left leg seemed to roll right into Nurse Brock’s lean shoulder. Her thigh spilled out over the nurse’s manicured nails.
Nurse Brock actually grunted. “That’s a girl. Right up into the stirrups. Put your heel right up here in this stirrup, your other right up over there.” Dr. Richard Hancock’s head, in the meantime, disappeared down between Caroline’s legs. She could spy two hairy arms, two hands darting down, as if disembodied, down off behind the raised sheet.
“Doctor’s not going to hurt you, Caroline.” Nurse Brock spoke in her usual low tones. “He’s just going to take a look-see down there for your mom. We’re just going to give her some peace of mind, right honey?” Nurse Brock reassured Caroline, who felt dampness beginning to gather across her forehead. Caroline held herself rigid, praying drops wouldn’t trickle down her nose. Nurse Brock had arched eyebrows. She wore eyeliner. Caroline wished that her tummy wouldn’t “pooch out” so as she was lying flat on her back like this.
“What did that boy do to you? Caroline’s mother had asked not too long ago, a time just a few weeks after Dad’s funeral. “What did he do to you out there in the barn?”
“Nothing!” Caroline had sworn. Mother had been asking her about one of her many childhood friends, Jimmy Lacey. In past years, Caroline and Jimmy Lacy had often played together in the barn. However, these days, Momma evidently didn’t think this play was all right anymore. Caroline could so easily call up images of Jimmy Lacey’s face as the boy dangled a grasshopper by the legs in front of her face, or of when Jimmy came swinging out of the hayloft to land with a thud in front of her. Jimmy Lacey had dark, wavy hair and a nose covered with freckles.
“What did that boy do to you when you two were alone together out there in the barn?” Caroline could still hear her mother going on and on. Caroline could envision a curl of her mother’s unruly hair popping out over her forehead. “Caroline, haven’t I got enough to worry about with your father gone now and only me to run the farm? I want your brothers out there with you and Jimmy now if you play together, is that understood, Caroline Jean?”
Dr. Hancock snapped on his gloves. Caroline felt ashamed actually. Ashamed that what she liked remembering now about the barn was the barn’s coolness in contrast to the bright light outside on a summer’s day. Caroline also liked to remember, she liked to feel all over again the way Jimmy Lacey had put his arm around her when she’d been crying over Daddy, and the way Jimmy had lifted her face to kiss the tears away. Then he’d kissed her softly, on the mouth. Caroline remembered that Jimmy had worn a soft cotton shirt. She’d thought only that her friend had meant to comfort her. Jimmy had meant to comfort her about the death of her father. He hadn’t meant to do anything bad.
“I hope you never have to understand what it’s like to be left all alone!” Caroline’s mother had been talking about the barn episode again and then gone on to explain why Caroline needed a “womanly examination” then, whenever she’d driven Caroline into town this morning. They’d driven past green, rolling fields and also fields lined with growing corn. Who’d drive Dad’s combine now at harvest? Who’d even do the plowing and planting?
Meanwhile Mom had chattered on, “I have to get your brothers raised up old enough to help me out or even go out on their own. I have to get you up and safely married, young lady, and I’m all alone now, honey. I have to do everything by myself!”
Caroline’s mother had deposited her on the sidewalk then. Then her mother had sped off, Caroline had finally realized, to take those pies she had so carefully balanced on the back seat to Mr. Jack Dawson’s Bakery on Court Street. Her mother was nervous about how Mr. Dawson would like her pies then, and how much he’d pay her for them. Caroline thought maybe that was why Mom had seemed so upset, even angry.
“The doctor is just going to touch you now, darling.” Nurse Brock stood near Caroline’s knees and kept her filled in on what was going on “down there.”
“You’ll just feel pressure, maybe a little pinch,” the nurse reassured her. “The doctor won’t use the speculum unless he has to get a further peek, but he won’t stick it all the way in this first time, Caroline. We’re just looking for something like a little half-moon outside.” Nurse Brock spoke slowly and kept her eyes on the doctor’s hands.
Caroline could not imagine what Nurse Brock meant. She wanted to sink into the table. Dr. Hancock’s hands didn’t feel cold really though, just peculiar. Caroline’s memory suddenly flashed to the image of her own farmer father’s hands as they knowingly inspected the teeth of an animal, the practiced hand as it came down over the flank of a mare or a cow. The farmer had to determine if the animal was fit for buying, for selling, for breeding. Caroline could see her father’s hands so clearly suddenly, the way they could also manipulate an udder or the machinery of the milking machine, and rich whole milk would flow.
Caroline gripped the sides of the table. Dr. Hancock’s fingers seemed to push a bit. They poked and they pried. Caroline tried to lie still, to comply.
“You have large breasts,” Jimmy Lacy had said to Caroline on that fateful evening of the kiss. In the sweet hay smell of the barn, Jimmy had actually reached out to touch Caroline’s developing chest. Caroline had felt herself getting goose bumps. Jimmy Lacey’s hand had simply stroked down over them though. They’d not uncovered them. “Nice breasts,” Jimmy Lacy had seemed to speak in wonderment.
“Just trying to get a good look, Caroline,” the doctor spoke up.
Caroline felt the shock of cold metal. It hurt. She struggled not to cry.
“Intact.” Dr. Hancock pronounced almost immediately though. Then he stood up and peeled his gloves off with a snap. The doctor turned toward Nurse Brock then, as if perhaps there were some inside joke between them though. “Or at least she looks fine to me. You don’t see anything unusual happening, do you, Judy?” The man’s voice lowered, “Of course, how can we say for sure what the girl has been climbing up and over, or what she will be climbing up and over in the next few years?” With this, Dr. Richard Hancock threw back his head and chuckled. The whites of the man’s teeth shone.
Caroline felt suddenly awash in shame. The white overhead light danced across her eyes. She had so wanted her mother to be happy again, and Caroline just wasn’t sure that the doctor’s words were something her father would have been proud of as concerning his one and only daughter.
Nurse Brock smiled again, however, and winked down at Caroline. Caroline admired that the woman seemed so unruffled, so self-assured in the directions she gave then. “You can get up then, honey. You and I can let Mom know her little girl checked out A-Okay. I’ll give her a call when you all get home, and we girls, we’ll have a talk.”
Caroline felt vastly relieved that she wouldn’t have to report to her mother. She felt, in fact, extremely grateful to Nurse Brock. Dr. Hancock, meanwhile, busily scribbled on Caroline’s chart a moment before he nodded vaguely in Nurse Brock’s direction and the disappeared. Caroline heard the doctor knock briskly on the door of the next examining room before entering. The man was on to his next patient.
Nurse Brock methodically cleaned up after Dr. Richard Hancock. She then laid out Kleenex for Caroline, as well as a white pad “just in case.” Caroline had realized that this was when her mother had gotten really upset, whenever there’d been no late evidence of Caroline’s oh-so-new “cycle” in the garbage this past month. Caroline thought her mother had been sneaky about checking on evidence—adults could be so shocking, so disgusting.
“. . . and I’ll be talking to your Mom, also, about how you’ve all just been under such a strain lately.” Nurse Brock did seem to Caroline, however, to be sympathetic. “We’re all so sorry about your father.”
Tears squeezed hot suddenly against Caroline’s eyelids. The whole town knew then. Knew that Dad had passed on and left them, and so they felt pity for Caroline’s whole bereft, abandoned, and alone family!
“The doctor can give your mom something so she can sleep too, you know,” Nurse Brock continued. “I’ll suggest it to her. And I’m sure she’ll be able to sell some of her pies and her cakes to Dawson’s Bakery too. Jack Dawson uses local goods from lots of the ladies out around the town here.”
Caroline listened intently, but sat back up only after Nurse Brock had left the room. Caroline thought of Nurse Judith Brock as a woman so unlike her own mother. To her, Nurse Brock was not only a town woman, an educated woman, but a woman who probably frequented beauty parlors regularly, and not just for Christmas or Easter. She was also a woman who must live on a shaded town street in a carpeted home. A woman who probably owned at least a set or two of fine china.
Caroline cleaned herself thoroughly and dressed quickly. She struggled with last year’s skirt that rode up around her hips and the blouse that buttoned too snugly now around her bust, but Caroline was feeling a certain relief because she had no doubt that the bakery would buy some of her mother’s pies this afternoon. No doubt. Why Caroline’s father had raised food, and her brothers might well raise it one day too. Her mother was a good country cook. She could make all kinds of dishes, all from scratch.
Caroline, herself, already felt quite confident about her own ability to roll pie dough, knead bread, and to fold stiff egg whites smartly into angel food cakes whipped up from scratch in the large, vanilla-colored bowls strewn about her family’s much-used kitchen. Caroline had always loved the curves and the substantial “feel” of those bowls, not that these were what “ladies” with china had. Still, Caroline liked the earthenware bowls.
The talk between Nurse Brock and the office assistant about “arranging payments” stopped whenever Caroline stepped out into the waiting area. Caroline very carefully then kept her eyes on Nurse Brock though and not on any of the other patients. She prayed that everyone wasn’t looking at her.
Dr. Hancock suddenly breezed out into the reception area though, slapping yet another chart onto the counter. “Don’t worry; you did just fine in there, young lady!” His voice seemed to boom.
Caroline blushed beet red.
The doctor lowered his voice awkwardly then to a whisper. “Tell your mom, you’ll be just fine for a man someday.” Dr. Hancock’s eyes darted anxiously over Caroline’s shoulder before he leaned over to grab at the large jar of candy always kept in his reception area. “I guess you’re too old now for me to offer you one of these?”
Caroline didn’t think she wanted to have anything to do with men anymore ever, but she judged that the doctor meant to be kind. There was no chocolate, of course. “No, thank you,” she answered politely as she’d been taught to answer and then stepped quickly out the door to wait for her ride.
The afternoon sun was still hot outside, but Caroline felt it had been the red and the green, the lemon and the grape, the fiery orange of the doctor’s suckers that had threatened to overwhelm her, to suffocate and to swallow her up in some humid blanket of sweetness. Smothering sweetness.
Caroline stood waiting. She would never have dreamed and did not dream now of telling the doctor, not even Nurse Brock, about how she had desired to grab up all of Dr. Richard Hancock’s candy suckers. About how she had also wanted to eat all of the potatoes and cornbread at her father’s funeral dinner, about how she had wanted to fill up and block out of any hint of emptiness inside. About how she so desired a return to fullness, a sense of well-being, and even of enjoyment. Would she ever feel filled up again?
At the same time, though, Caroline pulled herself up self-consciously. She sucked in her stomach and hoped she wasn’t too conspicuous on the sidewalk here. A good girl, a lady—this was what her father had wanted her to grow up to be—pure, pristine, and someone in control. Beyond reproach. Caroline knew that if she’d eaten all those suckers, even one sucker really, she’d have only had to throw them all up then. She’d have had to go down to the barn to throw the stickiness all up. Sweet syrup all over the hay. Some forbidden thing.
Carolyn balanced precariously on the curb and very carefully resisted the urge to study her own shadow. She leaned against the tall, slim lamppost on the edge of the street and wondered if Nurse Brock went on diets. It wasn’t as if she thought of herself as really fat or ugly, Caroline sighed. On the other hand, she just felt so definitely unpretty. She had to stop eating so much, she planned for her future: Don’t eat.