Chapter 2

The river’s latest outburst was merely a hiccup in duration, and the sky remained clear; the air calm. Mabel and Van passed the gray church, beyond which were several houses on either side of River Street, and beyond the houses the road ended abruptly in a small roundabout.

Directly in front of Mabel and Van, facing the circle and the length of River Street, stood an eight foot tall wrought iron fence, comprised of black spikes connected by a vining network of metal ivy leaves. Stone columns stood at either side of an open gate of similar design.

On top of the columns perched stone gargoyles, peering down at passers-by with inquisitive expressions. The bird-like creatures might have seemed intimidating had they not been wearing clothes. One wore a pink neck ribbon, and the other a small flower-bedecked straw hat.

“Hmm,” said Mabel, as she and Van passed through the gate. “I wonder who’s been dressing up Marty and Igor?”

Van just laughed and rolled his eyes as if this was exactly the type of thing he expected at this house.

Before them stood a large brick house. It was a classic foursquare, obviously old, and badly in need of a handyman’s care. A covered porch ran the length of the first story, supported by four columns. The front door, and two windows flanking it, sported borders of leaded glass which were cracked in several places. Each of the three tall, narrow, second story windows had at least one pane of glass patched with silver duct tape. The low-pitched roof projected several feet beyond the building’s exterior walls, and it was capped with two small brick chimneys and a cupola. Ivy, growing thickly around the base of the house, trailed in curlicues as high as the second floor windows, and a few bricks had become dislodged where the ivy’s tendrils had loosened the mortar.

Despite the house’s state of disrepair, there were some curious decorative touches making it evident that someone had been attending to its appearance.
In the yard, a bronze statuette of a pirouetting ballerina accented a small clean pond of well-fed goldfish. In front of the porch stood two concrete urns of lush burnt-orange mums, and on the front door–tied just above a tarnished knocker engraved with the word “Rotter,” was a basket of dried flowers.

Mabel stepped onto the porch, followed by Van. Several warped floorboards creaked beneath them. A swinging bench hung from the ceiling to their right. Sitting on it, with a slumped posture suggesting complete despair, was a young woman.

“Hey,” said Van, addressing the sad lady. “What’s up?”

She raised doleful eyes toward them, and sighed heavily.
“I’m just not good at that kind of work,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m a terrible disappointment to the doctor.”

The young woman stretched out her long, lean frame, and sat up straighter. She had on a calf-length jumper of pastel floral cotton over a white t-shirt. Her wavy black hair was pulled into a ponytail, and her facial features were quite lovely, Mabel noted, provided one was not distracted by her exceptionally scarred complexion. Fresh red scars, just beginning to heal, ran here and there across her face and arms.

“Yes,” she said, noticing Mabel’s gaze. “I look a mess now, but Dr. Rotter says that always happens. He says skin just can’t sit around being dead for very long before the tissue weakens, so it sometimes splits when the blood starts to flow again. But he’s a great stitcher. You wouldn’t know it looking at those beefy hands of his, but he says I’ll look better soon.”

She slumped back on the swing. “It doesn’t matter though. I’m still so abysmally bad at everything a laboratory assistant should be good at.”

“Well,” said Mabel sympathetically, “maybe you’ll feel better after you eat. We brought manicotti from the co-op.”

“That sounds lovely,” said the woman, smiling weakly. “I’ll come in after I collect myself.”

Van opened the front door, and held it while Mabel stepped inside. He rolled his eyes toward the back of the house and whispered, “here we go again.”

They were in an entry hall that led straight back to a kitchen. To their right was a small and cozy sitting room filled with upholstered chairs which might have been comfortable had they not required one to sit up so straight, and a fireplace where several logs were burning. A doorway to the left revealed a library where walls completely covered by shelved books surrounded a cluttered wooden desk.

Everything in the house, from eye level down, was–despite the clutter–swept, dusted, and spotless. On the ceiling, however, dwelt an amazingly numerous collection of spiders. Webs stretched across every corner, some occupied, some abandoned. On an antique table near the front door, a bowl full of bubble gum and caramels sat, apparently in preparation for Hallowe’en.

A thumping sound resounded repeatedly from the kitchen. Through the doorway, Mabel saw the burly doctor pushing a wet mop around the slate kitchen floor.

“Oh,hey,” called Doctor Rotter, looking up. “Always clean the floor to calm my nerves, ya’ know.”
The voice was deep, with a gravelly timbre which suggested years of tobacco use.

Mabel and Van entered the kitchen. A banged-up coffee percolator was bubbling away on the stove. An assortment of plants and herbs, potted in empty coffee and soup cans, cluttered the counter space around the sink and the windowsill above it.

On a dinette table with a speckled turquoise formica surface, several books were open. Gray’s Anatomy, a medical textbook, lay next to Elementary Calculus. On a chair next to the table sat In Monet’s Garden, a book featuring colorful floral paintings, and bearing a Logjam Public Library sticker.

“It’s just crazy, you know?” began the doctor, leaning his mop against the wall.

He was a stocky man, of medium height. His skin had the pallor of too much time spent indoors, and his frizzy hair and beard resembled steel wool. He wore rumpled gray sweatpants, a white t-shirt, and well-worn brown loafers.

“We’ve studied the nervous system. We’ve studied the endocrine system. We’ve discussed simple quadratic equations. All great stuff, you’ve got to admit, right? And she just looks at me blankly, with these big, brown eyes, and says, ‘May I go pain now?’” Dr. Rotter raised his voice to a falsetto at the end.

Mabel closed her mouth tightly, to pretend she wasn’t smiling, and shrugged.
“How about some dinner?” she asked, setting the insulated bag down beside Gray’s Anatomy. “I hope it’s still hot.”

Dr. Rotter began absentmindedly pulling a motley selection of plates and glasses out of a cupboard.
“Here’s the kicker,” he said, grabbing fistfuls of ice out of the freezer and plopping them into two glasses. He pointed toward the front of the house. “That brain came from a nuclear physicist. Terrible thing, it was a train wreck. The body was completely unsalvageable, poor dude. But guess what?” he continued, with feigned brightness, “The body’s a college girl, summa cum laude, degree in chemistry, untreatable bacterial meningitis.”

“Sounds like a winning combination,” said Van, nodding.

The doctor grunted. “Yeah. So what’s she like? All this girl wants to do is paint and admire the pretty colors. Huh. I oughta quit and go into real estate.”

“There’s nothing wrong with art,” said Mabel, although she knew already what Dr. Rotter’s reaction would be.

The doctor picked up Gray’s Anatomy and held it reverently, like a priceless artifact.
“But, I don’t need another artist around here,” he said in a tone one might use when speaking to a naughty toddler. “I need a partner in scientific exploration. I need someone who sees beauty in cellular structure. Art in nerves and synapses. Problem is, they’re all so dang nice, I can’t hold it against them.”

The front door closed with a gentle bang, and the dark haired young woman entered the kitchen.
“I could do with some food,” she said, smiling sweetly at Dr. Rotter.

His gruff demeanor softened perceptibly. “Honey, you just sit down and help yourself to some of the best Italian food you’ve ever tasted,” he invited.

“I don’t remember ever tasting Italian food before,” she replied.

Dr. Rotter handed her a napkin. “Yeah, well, like I’ve told you–the transplant procedure tends to pretty much wipe out personal memory. Hey,” he continued, gesturing at Mabel and Van. “You two sit down. We can share.”

“Thanks,” answered Mabel, “but I think we’re both expected home for dinner.”

“Well, have some iced tea for a minute, then.”

Mabel handed Van a glass, and they took the two remaining chairs.

“Oh, Doctor!” said the young woman, with sudden brightness. “Well, two things, really.”

“Let’s see,” suggested Dr. Rotter. “You wanna go to med school?”

She flashed him a look of amused reproach. “Don’t be silly. No. It’s the goldfish. They’re positively shimmering. The sun glints off them like a thousand mirrors. I should love to paint them.”

“Oh,” replied the doctor with mock amusement. “That is a surprise!”

“And the other thing,” she continued, with an even brighter smile. “I’ve chosen a name. I shall call myself Patience!”

“Honey,” said the doctor. “You’re my seventeenth attempt. That should be my name.”

“But you’re Doctor Rotter,” said Patience with a playful smile. “Doctor Ernie Rotter. And I’m Patience.”

Mabel stood up. “Dr. Rotter, I think Van and I should really be going. It was nice to meet you Patience.”

“Wait,” said Patience with sudden anxiousness. “There’s something else I need to say.”

Van and Mabel paused, and Dr. Rotter looked at Patience with an amused expression.

“Dr. Rotter,” she began. “I love you as I would a father. I would never, ever do anything to hurt you if I had a choice.”

Dr. Rotter stirred his iced tea and sat patiently.

“I have to leave. Oh, Dr. Rotter, after all your work, I have to leave here! I’m just not what you need. The only thing is,” Patience hesitated, a worried expression furrowing her scarred brow, “I don’t know where I shall go.”

Dr. Rotter handed Patience a roll and the butter. He gazed out from under his bushy brow with a combination of fondness and resignation.
“I know where you’ll go,” he said.

“You’ll go to the co-op,” said Van. “It’s where they all go.”

Patience looked at Van questioningly.

“Don’t worry, I live there, and I know you’ll love it. You’ll fit right in,” he said.

Dr. Rotter sat back in his chair. “Honey, eat your dinner. I’ll take you over there tomorrow.”

Patience gave him a grateful nod, and began to nibble on her roll.

“I’ll tell Mom and Dad you’re coming,” said Van, getting up from his chair.

Mabel followed, picking up the now empty insulated bag.
“Goodbye Dr. Rotter,” said Mabel. “We do have to get home. And Patience, I’ll see you at the co-op.”

“Hang on there, you two,” said the doctor, rattling the table as he got up. “I’ll walk you to the door.”

What remained of the dusky afternoon light filtered through small panes of glass in the front door. Dr. Rotter paused as he reached for the doorknob.
“It has something to do with the positioning of the probes,” he said thoughtfully, not to anyone in particular. “You’ve got to find a spot with plenty of excitable nerve tissue, and most of the good neuronal pools are in the brain.”

Van looked at Mabel and said, “he means when he gives them the big jolt of electricity, the electrode is inserted somewhere in the brain.”

“And for some reason,” the doctor continued, “the right and left hemispheres come out unequally stimulated…”

Van completed his sentence, “…and you end up with an incredibly right-brained individual like…well, like my parents.”

“Yup,” acknowledged Dr. Rotter, “and they’re all great folks, really creative…I’m proud of them really, but…”

Mabel said, “you want one of your children to be an egghead, like Van.”

Dr. Rotter flashed a crooked smile, then straightened to full height. “I am a man of science. And the sciences are,” he said in a proudly formal tone, which suddenly shifted as if he were adding parentheses, “apart from occasional brilliant flashes of insight such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, a predominantly left-brained pursuit.” He ended with a farewell salute.

“Bye Doc,” called Van. Mabel waved, and the two headed back through the gate, under the watchful stone eyes of the gargoyles.

“I wonder if he’ll ever get it right,” said Mabel. “You wouldn’t blame him if he’d given up by now. It must be very frustrating.”

Van pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well,” he said, “lucky for me he can bring ‘em to life at all. My folks were the first two, you know.”

“Do your parents know where they came from in the first place? I mean, are you ever curious about whether you would have aunts and uncles, or grandparents?” asked Mabel.

“Well,” answered Van, “They’re all made from spare parts. Parts of my dad came from a schoolteacher, and parts of Mom came from an Olympic skier, but if you tried to track down all the parts, I’d have more relatives than any kid in Logjam. And most of them wouldn’t believe where I came from anyway.”

Mabel and Van began to hurry home along River Street, as it was getting quite dark. To their left stood a small white cottage with a pristinely green lawn. This was in marked contrast to the neighboring homes whose yards were littered with early Fall leaves.

Mabel waved at a hunched little woman in the yard, who was slowly and deliberately picking up what few leaves she could spot remaining on her lawn, and dropping them in dented steel trash can.

“Hi, Miss Penny!” called Mabel.

“Oh, hi!” the little woman called back. “These darn leaves!”

Miss Penny smiled with a toothy grin which seemed considerably too big for her tiny, excessively wrinkled face. “I’ve just been talking to Sparkle,” she said, motioning to her front porch. In the fading light, Mabel hadn’t noticed the white, wire-haired dog, who appeared to be taking in the conversation.

“She’s just restin’ up a few minutes,” continued Miss Penny. “Says she has some hard work to do tomorrow. Says she told you about it too, Miss Mabel.”

Mabel looked at the dog. Sparkle looked back, and waved her tail slightly. The words, “I’ll have something to show you,” replayed themselves in Mabel’s memory. She looked back at Miss Penny, who was shuffling toward her, cane in hand.

The old woman, who stood no taller than Mabel, put a wrinkled hand on Mabel’s arm.
“If a critter has somethin’ to say to you, it’s usually best to listen,” said Miss Penny.

Mabel nodded, then looked back at Sparkle who had begun to nibble an itchy spot by her tail. Van looked anxious to get going.
“Bye, Miss Penny. The lawn looks great,” said Mabel, as she and Van turned to cross River Street.

They passed the empty lot on the way back to Mona Lisa’s, but the green van was nowhere to be seen, and Mabel felt somehow relieved. She handed Van the food carrier as he turned to go inside, and headed for Eurus Press alone, feeling comforted by the rippling of the Willibunk, and murmur of the trees.

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