THE FORTY-INCH PANHANDLER
On the snowy corner or in his own surgery the good doctor was no match for the gypsy kid with the appealing eyes
HE HASN’T grown a mite since I first noticed him one afternoon two years ago in front of the Garrity, a cheap movie house. “Gimme a nickel, Mister? I want to see the show.”
1 felt down in my pocket. He was such a tiny hoy I should say forty inches tall little brown face and snapping brown eyes that were like the seeds of a tiger lily. “Here you are, son.” I gave him a quarter. It seemed there was barely enough of his hand to hold it.
It was a cold day; snow was in the air in hard brisk swirls like salt in the wind. The quarter from my pocket was warm and I could feel it warm the palm of his cold little hand.
“Go in the movies now, son. Get out of the cold.” I glanced instinctively at his feet. He was fairly well shod, and they turned up at the toes a bit like kid’s shoes do. His corduroys were incredibly narrow and tiny. I took him in and then without another thought, for it was useless to worry about someone for whom you could do nothing, I wheeled myself round to go into the sporting-goods store. It was ice-fishing time and the lakes were frozen to a good fourteen-inch depth so it was safe now to drive the car out on the lake and spend a quiet hour sitting in the car sipping a highball while you waited for your signal to flash. I needed some new lines and a couple of signals. The boy had turned and stood as though he were studying the billboard pasted on the brick exterior of the theatre, but I could see he was still watching me furtively. I stepped into the door of the shop and glanced back at him.
That was all, except when I came out of the store he was on the diagonal corner pulling the arm of a man in a big grey overcoat and looking up into the man’s face with his little brown hand stuck out in front of him. The man reached into his pocket as I had done and put something into his palm. I watched the kid watch the man out of sight. Then he took to his heels and ran down Main Street, cut across through the streetcars and dodged into the narrow little cubby of a store between Kum Inn and a newspaper stand. The show window of the place he went into was hung with a wrinkled canvas on which was painted a huge hand with lines and numliers across the palm and fingers. It covered the whole glass. In the other window was the picture of a man’s head about five times life size with veins running through the top. A big sign made of canvas and very torn from the wind hung across the entry way: Palmist.
I stood for a minute on the other side of the street and as I stood there a woman appeared in the narrow door, completely obstructing the entrance with her hands on her hips and her elbows touching the frame of the door on either side. She had exactly the same face as the little boy. Her eyes were like the seeds of a tiger lily too. She stood swaying slightly from side to side so that I could almost hear the hoop earrings rattle. Her skirt was of yards and yards of yellow stuff with red figures in it and it was banded around the bottom with strips of red and green. There was a scarf wound around her head.
In a minute, like a little chicken darting out from under the wings of a hen, the gypsy boy came out into the street again. She didn’t even look down to see him. She just shuffled herself as he passed and stood swaying in the doorway for another moment and then abruptly went inside.
After that day I would almost always notice him on the street somewhere. I would see him two or three times a week. Sometimes he had a shoe-shining box stuffed up under his arm: a big box, but it never seemed to be any strain on him to carry it. He was strong as wire. Sometimes he’d be walking along plucking the sleeve of a soldier, looking up into his face and pointing across the street at the palmistry place after the soldier had put some money in his hand.
I got so I could pass him by even if his toes had been sticking out of his shoes. Rut they weren’t.
ONE DAY about the middle of the afternoon Miss Margott, my chair nurse, came into the laboratory in the little room between the two operating rooms: one I use for extractions and the other for general work. I was fixing up the wax impression of a lower plate to send in to the laboratory that does my prosthetic work.
“There’s a little boy,” she said, “here without appointment and alone. He says his tooth hurts him badly. You’ll see him, won’t you?” She glanced at the wax impression of the lower I was working on: “That Mrs. Cookman?”
I nodded, laid Mrs. Cookman carefully aside and stepped to the lavatory to wash my hands. “Put him in there. I’ll be in in a minute.”
I went in wiping my hands and I threw the towel into the hamper before I turned to him. “Well, son, what seems to be the trouble?”
There he sat, not a mite bigger than he had been the first lime I saw him. He squirmed and tried to slide up into a better sitting position on the slippery leather seat, and pointed to his jaw. “It aches like hell,” he said, his two little seed-black eyes directed on me with that full brazen unblinkingness that he got from being on the street.
“Umph huh.” I put the mirror in his mouth and took a look. “Guess it ought to come out, son. It’s too far gone to save it.”
“Awright. Take it out. I had teeth pulled out before.” He clenched his small brown fingers around the chair arm and strained his head back and opened his mouth wide.
“Do you have any money? It will cost you three dollars to have that tooth out.”
Without opening his eyes or closing his mouth he rolled his head back and forth. “Nope. Ain’t got no money,” he said.
“Well, I’m sorry, son. I can’t take that tooth out for you without the money.”
Miss Margott was standing over by the sterilizer getting the Novocain needle ready and she wheeled around and stared at me with real horror in her face.
“Aw go on, mister. It won’t take a minute a’ your time.”
I just picked up another towel to wash my hands again and went back through the laboratory to the other chair. Miss Margott followed me in and stood in dumfounded silence at my indifference.
“Well, Dr. Stillman,” she said stiffly. “If you must have your pay before you’ll relieve that suffering little boy I’ll pay for it.” She hadn’t been with me but five weeks and I could see she was on the point of leaving. Mercenary, inhuman monster, leaving a child to suffer. I could practically hear the words going through her brain.
There was nothing I could say right there. She was still a stranger to me and I couldn’t express myself easily. I had a definite feeling of self-righteousness that made me uncomfortable. Rut 1 still felt I should be firm. Softheart touches were making a panhandler out of this bright little devil. There wasn’t any time to deliver a sermon if I could have delivered it. So Miss Margott and I turned backs on each other and said nothing. All she could see was that appealing little face with a tooth that ached.
I went back into the room where the kid was. “That tooth should come out, son. It is going to ache all night. Your mother home, son?”
“Well, wherever it is she’s always at -—at the palmistry place.”
The boy shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Well, you go get her. I don’t like to extract a tooth for you and leave you to go out on the street alone. You go get your mother and ask her to come back here with you. Just to be sure you get home all right.”
“Me? I’ll get home.”
“Well —go get your mother anyway. It’s rules.”
The kid slipped out of the chair, caught Miss Margott’s eye and winced at the pain his tooth was causing him, put his hand to his sore cheek and ran out the door.
Miss Margott despised me. She didn’t say a word to me, just mumbled “poor kid” to herself.
“He’s a tough little wheedler and it’s people like you that make him worse.” Everything I said was inadequate and 1 was muddled myself.
She just cast me a look.
“My God—I don’t need the money —it’s not the money. I pay too much income tax already . .
It vvas no use.
IN A half hour he was back with his mother. She filled the reception room with her person and there was a smell of rancid olive oil. She had on a bright green skirt today with a dirty yellow blouse and a wide green sash, a different green from the skirt and very shiny.
T had Dan Prebble’s daughter in the chair with a rubber dam over her mouth. It’s not one of those jobs you can leave and come back to. I had to stay right with it. So I had to keep them waiting.
Events were against me. My chair nurse was filled with so much animosity toward me that my rubber-dam patient was becoming uneasy. She’d be sure to mention it to her father—-president of Rotary that year. I began to feel very jittery. There was an unspeaking quiet with nothing but the clink of the instruments and the wincing grunts of the nervous patient. To make it intolerable the boy’s mother pushed open the door every so often and looked in at me.
I realized then, moral attitude or not, that I would have been better off had I extracted the tooth at once, patted the kid on the head and let him scar oer off. Instead, here I was with a sceptical patient, a chair nurse who would probably walk out on me at the end of the day and a giant belligerent woman charging around the reception room.
And, of course, there was still a little boy with a toothache.
My own head ached.
“Still feel numb?” I tried to say lightly to Miss Prebble stepping out of the chair. She nodded glumly.
The gypsy woman pushed into the operating room again and I motioned that she should bring the little boy in. I left Miss Margott to put the napkin on his neck and arrange the head rest.
When I came in with the Novocain needle he had his little fists doubled and his huge mother stood beside the chair. I started to explain that no one but the
patient was allowed in the operating room, but decided to waive further rules and get the thing over with. So I said nothing. The lid of the sterilizer banged shut and I asked the boy to open his mouth.
The mother stood there with her hostile eyes on me and I injected the Novocain. “You won’t feel a thing in a few moments, boy.”
1 let him sit twenty minutes while I did a diagnosis in the other chair then I went back to him. “You feel numb, son?”
The mother edged nearer and set her hands on the wide square hips.
I probed the boy’s mouth gently and he screamed. “All right, son, now take it easy. We’ll have to give you another needle. We won’t do a thing until it takes effect. Just relax now’.”
1 called for another Novocain and injected it carefully. Then I went back to the other o air. Meat while my reception room was piling up. , e schedule was already a half hour eft'. Had it been another patient I could have sent him back to the reception room to wait. Rut 1 didn’t want to risk a scene. Miss Margott punched her head into the laboratory to tell me there were four people waiting. There was an abscess—swollen. “Should I
tell him to go home and put an ice pack on until the swelling goes down?” “I’ll go talk to him,” I said, trying to give the impression to the patient in this chair that I was giving her my undivided attention.
WHEN I wrent back to the boy Miss Margott stood ready again with the surgery unit for the extraction of the second bicuspid. The instruments were lying in a folded-over towel. I gingerly picked out the forceps.
“How’s it feel, son. You feel numb?”
T drooped. My forehead started to perspire. I glanced at Miss Margott. “Not numb at all? You sure?”
“I’m sure,” the boy said looking from one to the other of us, frightened. “Let me look.”
He flinched away until I asked Miss Margott to take the instruments. Then he opened his mouth, his eyes wide and startled. He screamed his head off when 1 touched him.
“All right, son,” I said wearily and went back into the laboratory. Miss Margott followed me, absolutely silent.
“I think he’s becalming the symptoms of the anaesthetic. Only once in thirty years of practice have I had trouble with my anaesthetic.”
When a second injection fails I don’t usually give another. I wait until another day to operate. Today I didn’t know what to do. If I sent the boy out without extracting there would be a scene I hesitated to imagine in front of a full waiting room.
“I can’t try another nerve block,” I said to Miss Margott. I outlined the whole problem and asked her to try to explain it to the mother. “Meanwhile keep all this particular batch together. If some of it is defective we’ll have to send it back to the manufacturer. But I still think he’s becalming the symptoms—I can tell pretty quick if I can get in his mouth. I don’t want to hurt the little fellow,” I said to her disappearing back. “Just tell her he hasn’t reacted to the anaesthetic. We’ll try ; something else.”
I knew trouble was inevitable, but I was now like a fellow in a canoe who has started over the rapids. Too late he I realizes he’s a fool.
I went in with an empty syringe and ! pretended to give another injection, j “I know what the trouble is, son. I’ve I been giving you what I usually give to boys your age. It didn’t take. This is a real man’s anaesthetic. You’ll be all right now.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at my own 1 inventiveness and he opened wide ; without flinching. I glanced at Miss j Margott and she laid the surgery kit ; out for me again on the tray.
WHEN I finally dropped the miserable little tooth into the cup on the chair tray the woman was yelling bloody murder in Hungarian. Swear words I imagine. The little boy slid out of the chair like a rag doll and j was hanging onto her. Miss Margott was trying to assuage the crowd in the waiting room and I was trying to give post-operative instruction. But I gave up.
“This is what you get when you’re a free case. I’ll slit you throat in you sleep.”
I tried to maintain a professional calm. Miss Margott who should have attended to this emergency was busy ! with another one. “Madam,” I said, in j what I thought was a commanding timbre of voice, “this was NOT a free j case. Three dollars is my charge for
a simple extraction. I want you to understand that the problem with the anaesthetic was beyond my control . .
“Three dollars! ... for MURDER.” She flourished toward the blood on the napkin and screamed the word again, then lapsed into her incomprehensible tongue.
Finally I broke in and spoke the last word: “Madam, I have explained to you that this is no free handout. You understand? And there’ll be no more screaming about it. I am very sorry about the anaesthetic difficulty but it’s a greater loss to me than to you, I assure you.” I turned and went in to the other operating chair, already filled with a tired old lady waiting for a full mouth impression.
I OBVIOUSLY had made my point with the gypsy woman for every day or so the boy came to the office with a quarter. The three dollars was well on its way to being paid up when I ran into him with his shoe-shining box. He
was always careful to carry that now. I pretended not to notice him and passed him by, but I could hear him at the coat sleeve of the man behind me. I could hear the beseeching little voice and picture the bold little black eyes snapping with entreaty. I walked on faster.
When I got to the corner, waiting for the traffic signal, he sidled up beside me. “Here you are, doc, another quarter.” Just as the other man came up beside us.
The quarter was in my hand.
“How much’s that I owe you now, doc?”
“Seventy-five cents,” I said, roughly piercing him through with my gaze, determined to carry it through.
The man at the curb beside me was looking at me in horror a thousand times worse than Miss Margott’s. He reached over and jerked the boy’s shoulder. “Here, son, you pay that man.” He put a dollar bill in the boy’s hand and turned to stare pointedly at me. The imp below us stuck out the dollar bill. “Here you are, doc. Now we’re square, and you owe me a quarter’s change. Next time I want a tooth out I won’t come to you.”
“Well, I should say not,” the man beside him growled. “A child who has to beg medical care in the street. It’s a disgrace to the community. A disgrace.”
The little fellow stood beyond my reach with his cap in his hand and his eyes rolling around following its wheellike movement. “You see, doc, I told you I’d pay,” he said, with his eyes seeking the man who glowered beside me. ★