Chapter One: The Invalid Invalids
A Rorschach of teardrops stained the lap of my dress. Weary of my sob story, I peered out the window of the bruised station wagon in which I was riding. If there had been a town, I'd missed it. A dusty, sun-seared landscape appeared before me wherein grimy beer cans, french-fry wrappers, crumpled paper cups and straws had been impaled on the spines of innumerable saguaro cacti. From the fleeting vehicle, it seemed to me, I was looking at a petrified forest of shish kebabs.
My parents, Charmian and Maurice Leigh, who considered cactus so hideous they wanted the entire phylum banned from Beverly Hills, were responsible for slapping me down in this alien collage.
"Think of yourself as a...conquistador," Charmian had suggested on the way to the airport. "I'm speaking metaphorically, tu comprends, about what you'll discover at the boarding school to which you're bound."
"There's no better antidote for your health than Arizona," Maurice had chimed in. He had hypochondriacal tendencies, so I paid little heed to his statement.
"Did I ever tell you about Junior Laemmle going off to war?" my mother asked. She believed in neutralizing distress with a story.
"Many times," I grumped, because I could have re-peated this one word for word.
"Junior, the only son of Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, was delivered to the train by limousine," Charmian said. "While Junior's mother sobbed and his father quivered, the chauffeur stowed fourteen Louis Vuitton trunks, not to mention the dozen wicker baskets puckering with the young man's favorite viands, into a small, albeit first-class, compartment. Mr. and Mrs. Laemmle the First had furthermore arranged for the chauffeur, livery et al. to accompany Junior to the battlefield. They owned a studio, so why not?"
"Would you send someone with me? If I had to go to war?" I asked.
"Women don't go to war. They stay home and...rivet."
"But if they did? If women were soldiers?"
"Your father and I don't have the wherewithal of a mogul. You'd have to go it alone," Charmian said. "And possibly, if Junior had served in the military without assistance, he would have developed a backbone."
"Please, please, don't make me go," I'd appealed to my parents one last time.
"A movie star's daughter's got no cause to cry," the driver of the car informed me. At the Tucson airport, he'd introduced himself as Dirk Swiggert. His pronunciation belonged, as Charmian would have noted, strictly to horse operas. A Milquetoast dressed in emulation of the Marlboro Man, Dirk had to be the school's jack-of-all-trades.
"I'm not a movie star's daughter," I felt compelled to let him know. "I'm really not."
"The scuttlebutt says different."
"What they're sayin' around school."
"My mother had a show -- The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Half Hour. When it went on television, it didn't last long."
"Never heard of it," Dirk said. "She's a movie star in these parts."
"She'll be glad to know." I sighed. "But please remember, I personally have no connection to Hollywood."
"Well then there now, better mop up them tears," Dirk instructed me. "We're a hop, skip, and a jump from the premises."
Before us sat a squat, crumbling adobe wall that, since it spanned only six or seven feet, had the sole function of holding up a sign. RANCHO CAMBRIDGE WEST, it said. A bovine skull, pale as a ghost's sheet, had been tacked beneath it -- by a disgruntled student, I surmised.
Twenty feet beyond it, where Dirk parked on gravel, I viewed a small compound -- definitely not an oasis -- of five single-story buildings that had seemingly been dropped on random patches of crabgrass. A narrow, cracked cement path connected them. Crudely stuccoed in white with green tar-paper roofs, the bland, unimposing structures were meant, evidently, to billet an entire academy of learning.
"Go on now, hon, git out," Dirk said as he leaned across me to open my door. "Jest walk on down that pathway past the classroom buildin' on your left till you come to the first residence. That'll be the girls' dorm. I'll bring your suitcase on over on my next round. Gotta git back to the airport before supper. Got another gal comin' in all the way from the Eur-o-pe-an continent."
I was fifteen years old, exiled from the only home I'd known, and starting a new school midsemester. Feeling sophomoric in all senses of the word, I didn't want to be left alone, not even by a handyman. But being an obedient girl, I acquiesced.
Sans suitcase, I found my way to the dorm, opened the front door, and stepped into what I would soon learn was called the rec hall, appropriately spelled wreck by the Rancho Cambridge West pupils. The large room could easily have housed a Ping-Pong or pool table, but the earthen tile floor hosted nothing more than a frazzled vinyl couch. I studied the sparsely stained pinewood doors spaced at intervals around the halls' spackled, putty-colored walls. Those doors led to the dorm rooms, I had no doubt, but all of them were closed.
Why hadn't my parents sent me to the first-rate finishing school in Switzerland where I could have been reunited with my best friend? True, I hadn't seen Daisy in five years, but the memory of her amused savoir faire always kept me company. Capricious, wily, and beautiful, Daisy never would have allowed an abrupt expulsion from home to dampen her spirits. She had internal fortitude.
At least I'd escaped Hollywood, I consoled myself. Here in Arizona I would fulfill the all-embracing desire that I'd nurtured for most of my fifteen years: to live with normal, amicable people from America's heartland. And so, like a lone actress on the stage as the curtain rises, I crossed over to one of the doors and knocked.
"Oh hey, yoo-hoo," a ponytailed girl yodeled at me as she flounced into the hall, nudged me out of her way, and closed the door behind her. I took several steps back as she ogled me from head to toe. "Fee, fi, no lie, it's you, and wouldn't you know, you're wearing a costume right out of an old movie," the curious person commented.
To create the illusion that I was off to somewhere "beau monde," my mother had required me to wear a long-sleeve purple sheath designed for her by "Irene." Shirred shearling trimmed the hem, collar, and cuffs. In its day -- before Jackie Kennedy transformed fashion -- Charmian had looked truly precious in it. I did not. The purse that made the outfit an ensemble, or so said Charmian, was fabricated from plucked ostrich skin. I felt blessed that my feet were smaller than Charmian's or I would have been wearing a dead bird's shoes, too.
"Hi, I'm Fleur Leigh," I said, wondering if I should try to explain my apparel. "My name is hard to remember unless you know it means flower in French."
"At RCW it means baloney," the girl said, puffing out her cheeks and crossing her eyes.
"And what's your name?" I asked, deciding to ignore her discourteous jibe.
"Oh, how now brown cow? Let's get this straight: we know who you are, Blossom. And we're not impressed. But me? I'm Reba Rand."
The appellation surprised me. It sounded like a Hollywood creation, the kind a studio would pin on a ravishing actress born Gertrude Schneck. Alas, due to the circumference of her stomach, Reba had not one iota of a starlet's appeal. "My, that's a melodic name," I said, attempting to pay her a compliment.
"Right, and there's nothing wrong with me, either, that won't be cured in exactly three more months," Reba said. She rubbed her protruding stomach in case I didn't catch on. "Say hello to Wozzums."
Trying to disguise my shock, I complied with her request. "Hello, Wozzums," I said. I didn't know that a girl Reba's age could be pregnant and still attend school. In the history of the Beverly Hills school district there had been only one pregnancy, so far as anyone I knew knew. As soon as the administration had received intelligence on her fecundity, the offending mother-to-be had been expelled.
"So, Blossom. Wanna meet the other girls?"
Maybe pregnancy impeded memory. "You're on the right track," I said gently, "as to my name."
Reba cackled and motioned toward the door. "We talk soft in this room. The sickest ones're all in here."
"Oh, hey, what did you expect? Everybody knows that Arizona is the health capital of the world," she said as though huckstering for the Tucson chamber of commerce. "Perfect climate for what ails you. This town is one big super-duper hospital, didn't you know?"
My father had associated the state of Arizona with remedial medicine, I remembered. "You mean all the kids at this school are sick?" I asked.
"Right you are with Eversharp. So what's wrong with you? Be honest now -- no fakers allowed." Reba fingered the doorknob. "No movie-star brat would be hustled to this boneyard if she wasn't ready to kick the bucket."
My teeth began dancing a flamenco in my mouth. My father had been sending me to doctors as often as most girls have their hair cut. Did my parents know something about me I didn't?
"So, okay, keep your ailment to yourself. Who cares? Who gives a baby tooth? Anyway, everyone's dying to meet you. Oops." Reba clucked her tongue. "Guess I shouldn't say die. Just be sure you don't excite Sparky or her heart will go kapluie. I kid you not." With that warning, Reba threw open the door.
Charmian could uproot a bedroom while dressing for a cocktail party, but even her discards looked orderly compared to what I encountered. The blinds were drawn against the late afternoon sun, but in the dim light I could see at least eight girls, two to each of the room's four beds. Swathed as they were in hospital gowns, the patients were hardly distinguishable, and an armamentarium of medical equipment further obstructed my view. An IV appliance dripped liquid into some poor, prone girl's arm. The ladder back of the one viable chair in the room had an enema bag jauntily woven through it. A wheelchair, canisters of oxygen, a traction contraption were in evidence. The bedpans outnumbered the beds.
I wondered now if the multitude of tablets and capsules Maurice foisted on me daily were harbingers of a fatal disease. My favorite nanny had departed from our house when I was an impressionable four-year-old. "C'est fait. I had to let her go," Charmian had tsked at the time. "Miss Nora is chronically ill. Your father has witnessed her germs jitterbugging all over our plates and silverware. Really, she's a regular Typhoid Mary."
At the time I'd thought typhoid and typhoon were one and the same: the blowing of wind, sand, leaves, and noses.
"But I love Miss Nora," I'd beseeched my mother.
"She probably infected you, but she'll do it no more."
Could it be that Miss Nora's microbes were still vagabonding through my veins?
A vision of Cocteau, our purebred Saint Bernard, flickered through my optic nerves. When Cocteau had contracted mange, he, too, had been exiled, along with his disenfranchised hairs and scabs. His bed had been incinerated. Were my mattress, sheets, and four posters being trucked to the Department of Sanitation at this very moment? I considered the probability, then let out a scream, a feeble one that I doubted could be heard above the susurrus of coughing, wheezing, and moaning.
Reba clamped her hand over my mouth. "What did I tell you? YOU WANT TO GIVE SPARKY A HEART ATTACK?" she shouted as I struggled to extricate myself from her grasp.
"She's new. She knows not what she does." A rasping, unsteady voice coming from the bed nearest the window took up my defense. A face whose pallor approximated a paste of flour and water captured everyone's attention.
My attendant abandoned me and rushed over to the papier-mâché girl, evidently the one called Sparky, a nickname doubtlessly attributable to her red hair. "DON'T GET EXCITED. YOU'VE GOT TO DO WHAT THE DOCTOR SAID."
Directing a flaccid smile in my direction, Sparky fell back on her pillow.
"DON'T SMILE. DON'T GET EMOTIONAL," other girls said.
"ARE YOU LISTENING TO THEM, SPARKY?" Reba added, her voice abrasively shrill. "If you aren't, let me remind you, you're gonna be a dead duck."
"You can fuck your duck," Sparky retorted.
Among the teenagers I knew, profanity was still taboo. Even my father reserved his basest ejaculations for the company of men. Aghast, I took Sparky's foul language as another sign of Rancho Cambridge West's inferiority. Echoing my confusion, a gangly girl in the corner piped up, "Eah, eah, what's she saying? What's going on?"
"That's Deaf Dena." Reba introduced a skinny yet bosomy girl. "Shout hello at her, will you, Blossom?"
"HELLO, DENA!" I cried, not bothering to correct Reba about my name.
"Eah?" Dena responded.
A girl named Melly -- short for Melinda, I soon learned -- struggled out from under her sheets. Atop her child's body shone the sunny face of a cherub and a halo of Hershey-colored hair. Her mischievous smile won my instant affection. If only her hands and bare feet weren't so grotesquely swollen and ulcerated.
"Melly, you know if you walk on them, your feet will fall off," my guide through this hellish ward told her.
Melly let out a groan.
"Leprosy," Reba enlightened me.
How can that be? I wanted to ask. But because I'd been taught by several nannies that courtesy and civility would see me through the grimmest of times, I automatically said, "It's nice to meet you."
"Gosh! Wow! You aren't a snob!" Melly remarked, sounding genuinely surprised. Her warm, expressive voice carried with it a trace of a giggle.
A tall, broad-shouldered, manly girl wearing dark glasses and tapping a red-tipped white cane bumbled too close to Melly, knocking her onto her bed. The floor was so cluttered that the girl had to wave her cane a foot above ground level in order to advance. In the process she thwacked my shins.
"This is Lizzie," Reba announced. "She'll be your roomie, and she wants to get acquainted now." Reba spoke louder than she had for Deaf Dena, as though all of Lizzie's faculties were on the fritz. "Mind if she feels you?"
Before I could protest, Lizzie ran her sticky fingers over my eyes and nose and cheeks and mouth. She smelled of horse manure.
"Stop scrunching up your face," Lizzie growled while I gazed into her blank stare. "You are scrunching it, aren't you? If you're not, you're really homely."
"How's the great desert air of Tucson supposed to cure blindness?" I asked in retaliation.
"It's not," Lizzie answered. Her impenetrable glasses were aimed at my ear. "My parents booted me out. The tap-tap-tapping of my cane was driving them out of their gourds."
I would have commiserated -- after all, I'd been booted out, too -- but just then someone began coughing. The deep, phlegm-filled hack might have emanated from a large, ailing dog. I'd been vaccinated for whooping cough, but had she?
"Is there a doctor on the premises? Is there a school nurse?" I asked, as much for myself as for the hacker.
"Forget it," Sparky weakly advised me. "Still, I can't stand the sound of Babs's lungs turning inside out. It makes my heart skyrocket."
"You mean your pulse, Sparky," Miss Know-It-All Reba corrected her.
"Babs'll be silenced in a jiffy," a tall, stringy-haired girl volunteered. "Hot compresses coming up."
"Who's she? What's wrong with her?" I asked Reba over the sound of discharging phlegm.
"Meet Tammy. She's got allergies. They're nothing."
Not only were my teeth chattering in spite of the heat, I couldn't stop shivering.
After Tammy slopped a hot, wet towel on Babs's chest, she hurried to Sparky's side. "What can we do you for?" she asked. She seemed unusually devoted.
"I need peace. I need a place to call my own," Sparky answered plaintively.
"You mean heaven? Oh, Sparky, not yet!" Melly pleaded.
"Help me. Please. I need Dino," Sparky whined.
A record player, its chunky spindle suitable only for 45-rpm records, was immediately hauled from under her bed and the needle placed in the desired groove. Dean Martin, a singer who had been the brunt of my friends' jokes -- Wolfman Jack never spun his discs -- now served the noble purpose of drowning out Babs's barking. But Martin's singing may have caused -- and most certainly didn't prevent -- an asthmatic girl to have an attack and an epileptic girl to have a fit. The latter writhed on the dorm-room floor.
If this was an act, why were they performing it for me? What had I done?
Melly, leprous feet and all, and Lizzie, holding her cane like a partner, began to dance clumsily. To the tune of "Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu)," Sparky performed a levitation. She jacked herself up on her elbows and struggled to sit up. Slow as a sloth, she dislodged the blanket from her legs. Seeing their misaligned position, I could have sworn they were atrophied. Gradually Sparky inched her feet to the floor and rose to achieve a shaky balance.
A new record fell into place on the turntable, and Bobbie Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby" aptly began to play. While the other girls subdued the writhing epileptic, Sparky danced. In slow motion she wiggled her shoulders, ground her hips, and rubbered her legs à la Elvis.
Though skeptical, I felt afraid, so much so that I yearned to be excused and exit this room, this school, this vortex of diseases, this new, loathsome life. "How can you stand this?" I demanded of Reba.
"That's the way the cookie crumbles," the smart aleck said.
Groaning and panting, Sparky danced on. "Really, you should get back in bed," I pleaded with her.
"To give your heart a rest," I said in earnest.
Sparky stared at me gravely. Her eyes held mine until, with a quick motion, she embedded her top teeth in her bottom lip and began to shake. Was this the onset of a heart attack? I reached over to her, hoping to guide her into bed, but my touch triggered a series of strangulated noises. First came hisses, a balloon expelling air, then a few muted chokes, but very quickly the sounds intensified and proliferated into a hearty roar. Sparky was in the throes of a laughing jag!
When Sparky laughed, I discovered, the world laughed with her. One by one, be they deaf, dumb, blind, gimpy, ulcerated, epileptic, asthmatic, or pregnant, they laughed. A cacophony not unlike the bellowing of sea lions packed the room. Had one of the canisters I'd spied contained laughing gas? Had it exploded? If it had, wouldn't I be laughing, too?
Copyright © 2003 by Diane Leslie