The future begins right now in Bonnie Rozanski’s novel “Y.”
The time is the very, very near future. The place, a very real and vivid New York City.
A never-before-seen microbe infects young women with flu-like symptoms. The true import of the disease eventually appears as the usual roughly 50-50 ratio of male and female births begins to change. The future of the male population, not so good. Among the younger generation, monogamy is increasingly replaced by polygamy. Wars decrease. Crime falls. Football attendance is down. Ballet attendance up.
Dystopia? Utopia? It all depends on your point of view. But Bonnie Rozanski’s Y is one of the most fully imagined, provocative novels I have read this year, and I’m thrilled that she has allowed us to share today’s 12,600-word Free Kindle Nation Short excerpt with you.
–Steve Windwalker, Editor
4.0 Stars from 6 Reviewers
Here’s the set-up:
The year is 2011, the place, New York City. A mysterious microbe has begun to infect women of child-bearing age. Though the medical establishment writes it off as a simple flu, and the epidemic appears to be dying out, a young New York obstetrician confronts a conundrum. In the past year, the ratio of boys to girls born in her practice has declined precipitously. Dr. Deborah Kruger suspects the truth: that infected women are no longer able to give birth to male children.
With the help of her husband Larry, a computer analyst, Deborah tracks the epicenter to New York City, from which the infection is already bursting forth. And, as years pass, despite hundreds of laboratories at work on it, the microbe continues to overrun borders and envelop the Earth. With Science unable to stop it, and the contagion rippling worldwide in an AIDS-like pandemic, how will society cope in an increasingly female world?
Unquestionably, some changes are inevitable. Companies hire more women; who assume more leadership positions, replacing the male hierarchy with their own female style of management, to great success. Among the younger generation, monogamy is increasingly replaced by polygamy. Wars decrease. Crime falls. Football attendance is down. Ballet is up.
“Y” follows three New York City families for an entire generation, each with its own story. The blue-collar husband proves unable to deal with a wife who has become the major bread-winner. The yuppie husband does well in his career but cannot resist the temptations of a workplace with limitless young women. His wife, turned off from men entirely, will leave him and become a force to reckon with in her own right. And, along the way, the children of all three families struggle to find mates and to secure their own places in this new, topsy-turvy world.
At once a fast-paced thriller of a gripping race for a cure, a speculative tale about a futuristic society, and a comic battle between the sexes, “Y” is, above all, the story of real people caught up in a society they no longer recognize.
by Bonnie Rozanski
An Excerpt from
A Novel by Bonnie Rozanski
Copyright © 2011 by Bonnie Rozanski and published here with her permissio
Dr. Deborah Ackman squeezed through the crowd to the Lexington Avenue subway, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, all headed in the same direction: downtown. She looked around her at the pulsing, coursing flow of people, and thought, it’s like one giant bloodstream, all of us feeding the same organism, New York City. The medical analogy pleased her, and she smiled.
The woman to her left was watching her warily from behind the New York Times. Deborah caught the look through the corner of her eye, and decoded it: a smile on a Monday morning in January had made her look suspicious. She turned, still smiling, to face the woman, who turned away, in accordance with one of the cardinal rules on the New York subway: watching someone is permissible, as long as one doesn’t make eye contact. Eye contact is strictly forbidden. It is the only effective strategy for maintaining one’s own space in a city where there is no space.
Deborah took the Lexington line to 23rd Street and walked two blocks west to her office. It was a small, neat stone building with decorative ironwork surrounding the heavy wooden door. Following the advice she had given herself four years ago when she started pediatric practice, she walked up the two flights to her office. At 33, she was in pretty good shape despite the gruelling hours she had to put in to take over her father’s practice.
Of average height, a little plumper than she would like, but with a clear, pale complexion and flaming red hair, she still got whistles from the construction crew down the block. Not that she really appreciated that sort of thing, she told herself, as she approached the front door to her office, its bronze faceplate engraved with the names Dr. Maurice Ackman, Ob/Gyn, and underneath, Dr. Deborah Ackman, Ob/Gyn. After all, she was a doctor. She deserved some respect. Certainly, no one would dare treat her father as a sex object. On the other hand, the idea of anyone whistling at that distinguished, white-haired gentleman was so absurd that any sexism seemed completely irrelevant. Forget the whole thing, Deborah thought: her self worth didn’t depend on what hardhats thought of her. She opened the door to the reception area.
At 9:30, the waiting room was already full of young women, some shifting in their seats as if it were uncomfortable to sit.
She smiled at all of them benevolently, said hello to her receptionist, Carol Hartigan, and walked quickly back to her office. Carol was right in back of her.
“Dr. Ackman, you already have a room full of patients.”
“I know,” Deborah sighed. “I didn’t think I had this many appointments.”
“You didn’t. Most of them were so insistent, I said we’d try to fit them in. For most of them, it seems to have come on during the weekend. Flu-like symptoms, lower abdominal pain, some vaginal discharge.”
“Where’s my father?” Deborah asked, as she walked into her office and hung up her coat.
“He’s coming in for the afternoon. No more mornings. He told us that last week, Dr. Ackman. He’s supposed to be semi-retired.”
“I know. I just wish he had waited for the summer. These things always have a tendency to happen this time of year.”
“Do you want me to call him?”
“Mmm…no. He deserves his rest. Now, who’s first?”
“Christine Henley. She’s been coming here a few years.”
“Okay, put her in the room A. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Carol gave her the first file. 24, unmarried. No previous gynecological problems. Dr. Ackman slipped on her white jacket and walked into the examining room across the hall. Ms. Henley was on her back, only her head and feet visible from beneath the sheet.
“Hello, Christine. What seems to be the problem?” Deborah asked solicitously.
“Oh, I don’t know. Saturday, I felt fluey, with pain down here.” She pointed to her lower abdomen.
“Any vaginal discharge?”
She seemed a little embarrassed. “Yes.”
“Redness, genital sores?”
“Well, let’s take a look.”
Deborah conducted an examination, and asked the woman to sit up.
“Well, no signs of herpes. Certainly no lesions. It could be Chlamydia, though 70% of the time there are no symptoms at the beginning. I’ve taken a sample for the lab test, but I don’t really think that’s it. Have you had intercourse recently?”
Christine seemed embarrassed again but answered, “Yes, with my boyfriend.”
“You might want to ask your boyfriend if he has any symptoms himself, like burning during urination. There’s always a possibility it’s a new sexually transmitted disease, but let’s hope not. Right now, not knowing what it is, I don’t want to give you anything. There’s no evidence of infection. Best advice is to keep away from sex for awhile.”
She looked crestfallen. “Can’t you give me some antibiotics?”
The same old question. “Let’s wait for the results of the lab test. If it’s not bacterial, antibiotics won’t work.”
Christine was not convinced. “My gp always gives me antibiotics.”
“Not for viruses he doesn’t. At least, I hope not. Every time we overuse antibiotics, the bacteria just develop resistance to the medicines that much more quickly. Then the medicines will be useless.”
Christine looked at her skeptically. “Is the other Dr. Ackman here?”
Deborah felt a slight chill. “No, he only comes in afternoons these days.”
“Well, then I’ll be back, when he is here. He will know what is right.”
Deborah turned toward the woman, and said sternly, “I can’t stop you from doing that, Christine, but I know full well what the correct treatment is. My father will only back me up.”
“Well, I’d like to hear him say that,” the woman said, and began to get dressed. Deborah turned and left, glancing down the hall to the reception area, where so many other patients waited. This, she thought gloomily, is what I went to med school for.
* * * *
Larry Kruger sat at his computer in the second bedroom, which had been redone as his home office: a desk, a work station, a chair and a couch. Minimal furnishings. No rug, because he covered the floor with paper, manuals and equipment. It was to have been his room on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Deb’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and up for grabs on the weekends. However, due to his messy work habits, it was now solely his office. She didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Personally, he couldn’t see the reason for it; Deborah was just being overly tidy. Besides, any creative person needed to have some tolerance for disorder. If there were only order, there would be nothing to do. Everything would already be in its place, finished, perfect. So, he wasn’t perfect; he was creative. He prided himself with always looking at problems in a new way. So what if the price was a little dust?
With Deborah at work, he might be able to get something done. Thank God it was Monday, so he could work at home. He really got a lot more done this way. All he had to do was finish this program, debug it and upload it to the central computer at work. He loved the quiet of the house when he was alone. No meetings. No people to listen to who didn’t know what they were talking about. No rat race. No boss. Well, there was a boss, but he could e-mail him. No face-to-face stuff. He was in his element.
Larry stood up and stretched. He was a tall man, verging on gangly, with unruly dark hair and a crumpled look about him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, unshaven and wild-looking. Well, he thought, Deborah didn’t marry me for my sense of style. It must have been my personality. Abruptly, the program finished and started spitting out data. It looked all right. It was saving it to a file as well, so he could review it later. It looked all right. Yeah, that’s good. Okay… No, damn it! He knew it would do that again! He sat down, stopped execution and opened the source file. He was still there, working on the code, in the dark, when the doorbell rang at 6:30 p.m.
It was a half a minute before anything registered. By this time the doorbell had rung a couple more times. He unfurled himself from his desk chair and walked through the apartment to the front door. “Deb?” he shouted through the door without looking through the peep hole, then looked through when he heard nothing in reply. There she was, partially bent over, holding three shopping bags on her knees and fumbling through her purse for her key. He opened the door and took all three bags from her, lifting them lightly as if they weighed little or nothing.
“I thought maybe you weren’t home. It took so long for you to come to the door,” she said.
“Sorry. I was working on something,” he answered, swinging the bags onto the counter.”
“Not so hard! You’ll break the…” She looked inside. “eggs.”
She picked up the carton with gooey, viscous stuff dripping down the side of the cardboard container. Deborah carefully removed it from the bag and set it down in the sink. She looked at him with an expression of loving exasperation. “You’re always working on something.”
He shrugged, then gave her that slow grin she liked so much. “Well, you didn’t marry me for…what did you marry me for, anyway?”
Deborah came up to him and stood on tip toe to kiss his cheek. “Your sweet, absent-minded personality. And your super-computer brain.”
“I knew it was something.” Larry caught another glimpse of himself in the toaster. His hair was sticking up at angles to his head. “Not my sense of style.”
He took another look at her. She looked exhausted.
“Have a hard day?”
“It seems every woman from 18 to 40 was in my office today. Everyone was complaining of lower abdominal pain and flu symptoms. …It may be no more than just a new kind of stomach flu. I hope. I’d like to know who else is infected.”
“Like who?” Larry said, unpacking the groceries.
“Men, children, older women. I don’t know. It might be sexually transmissible. I made a call to the Department of Health, but they didn’t know anything about it…Well, we’ll see what the lab tests show.”
“I think you’re working too hard,” Larry said, leaning forward to brush her hair away from her face.
“Well, Dad had to pick this time to take partial retirement.”
“So, talk to him. Tell him you need him full-time.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Deborah replied, biting her lip. “He really needs some rest.”
“He’d understand. You don’t stand up for yourself enough, Deb.”
She had heard that one before; she looked at him coolly for a minute, then turned and walked toward the bedroom. “From you of all people,” she said, then, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Larry followed her until she slammed the door in his face.
“Damn it, Deborah, fight with me if you have to, but don’t go into the bedroom and sulk. You get hurt so easily.”
Shaking his head, he walked back to the kitchen. Five minutes later, when she still had not come out, he started dinner.
Deborah lay sprawled across her bed, her position of choice when she was having a tantrum. She knew she was being silly. She was being a child. It shouldn’t have bothered her. Nothing should bother her. She should be a grownup, keep a stiff upper lip, be a mensch. She was a doctor, for God’s sake. She thought of her father, her sweet-seeming, benevolent, authoritarian father. She knew Dad would have wanted her brother David to have joined him in his practice, not her. Even now, after she thought she had earned his respect, she found herself in the little girl role with him.
You’d think that after all those years of medical school, internship and residency that she’d have learned to stand up for herself. To do what she wanted and ignore everyone else. But it seemed so unethical. Were girls taught that so much more thoroughly than boys or was it something they were born feeling? Is it right to put someone else before yourself, or will that someone else just use it as an excuse to step all over you?
Besides, it doesn’t always work, Deborah reminded herself, pushing herself up to a sitting position and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. People don’t accept that same kind of barge-straight-ahead-don’t-think-about-anyone-else behavior from a woman. If you are submissive and coy, they think you are a bimbo, but if you come on strong and aggressive, they call you a bitch. Heads, you win, tails, I lose.
Above the bed hung a little sign she had had framed as a joke for Larry’s birthday. She turned her head to read it again: “The male model involves a relative degree of obsession, egocentricity, ruthlessness, a relative suspension of social and personal values, to which the female brain is simply not attuned.”*
So much for the male model. What was the female model? A work in progress, probably. Savory smells were wafting into the bedroom from the kitchen, and hunger was beginning to win over cantankerousness. She stood up and walked to the door.
* Brain Sex, Moir and Jessel, 1989
Chapter 2 – January 5, 2011
“The division meeting is about to start, John,” Alison said and pushed him away from her. “Besides, don’t stand so close; you’ll make it obvious to everyone.”
“No one’s looking, Al,” he said, still leaning over her. He was bigger than she was and had no trouble imprisoning her against the wall.
“Think, John. Any one of these people would be delighted to tell your wife about us.”
He glanced around him, then pushed himself back a little. “People aren’t as smart as you think, Al. No one has any idea.”
Just then Amy came around the corner, on her way to the meeting. Alison could have sworn that she looked first at her, then at John, before she asked, cheerily, “John, how are those two cute little kids of yours?
John turned abruptly. “Uh, fine.” He scowled for a few seconds, then determinedly fixed a smile on his face. “Hey, thanks for asking,” he remarked, as Amy walked away.
Alison looked at him as if to say, “See?” and walked in after her.
He watched her as she walked away from him. Alison had a natural sway to her walk; it wasn’t fake. She wasn’t out to seduce anyone with any of those feminine tricks. She considered herself a player in the high stakes of retail management. Alison would make it on her own, with her own brains, her own talent, and her own looks, such as they were, which were not bad. She had brown hair cut very short, a body not overly distributed in any one area, but generally appealing, with a good ass and legs, and a smart, almost impudent looking face. Just looking at her could make him hot.
John waited till all the department managers were seated before he entered and sat down. It was his style to act unrushed. Usually, it worked. It added to his status, he thought, though Alison occasionally tweaked him on his style: he was too studied as far as she was concerned. It worked on most of them, though, even the divisional managers, who, he was certain, were considering him for the next Main Floor divisional slot. He needed style; it compensated for the fact that he was only 5’7″. So, he dressed well; he never bought his clothes at Findlay’s as all the others did, even though he could get them at cost. He went over to Roche and Son for its top quality suits. It would eventually pay off.
There were about a dozen department managers, each of whom reported to the Divisional Manager of Main Floor Apparel, Roger Toddy. Each month they had a meeting thrashing out what went right, what went wrong, how to meet last years figures, new ideas on promotion, merchandising, new trends, best sellers, you name it. It always paid to prepare something ahead of time, so you could get some floor time. Even if you didn’t have anything original to say, if you said something that had already been said in a more authoritative tone, you got credit for it.
Roger opened the meeting with a comparison of Christmas 2009 and Christmas 2010. “I guess you all know that we’re down 9% from last year’s figures. We’ve got to pull up our sales, guys. Work on your best sellers; you all know what sells in each of your departments. This quarter, for example, women’s sweater sets have been blowing out of the store in women’s sportswear, and in the Boy’s Department cargo pants have been a major draw….”
As Roger went on about ways to improve sales, John looked around him, and noticed something he had seen before. More than half of the department managers in the division were women. This was not surprising. Retail had always been known to be a “woman’s business.” In reality, however, the hierarchy conformed to all the other big businesses. The lowest level had plenty of female sales associates; the next level, department managers, was more than half women. At the divisional level, only one-third were women, and at the very top, zero. It was satisfying for him to see the status quo. It meant that he had a better chance for promotion than seven out of the other eleven department managers in the room. He sat back and waited for an opportunity to speak.
Finally, Roger said, “I’d like to hear from some of you now to find out what we can do for this coming year to meet and surpass 2010’s figures. Anyone?”
Amy had her hand up, more at her side than straight up. “Amy?”
Amy stood up, obviously a little nervous, and began to state her idea in a low voice, “Last year, women’s sportswear tried a week-long promotion based on the Caribbean, and did well selling swim wear and some accessory pieces.”
Roger broke in, “Amy, what I can hear sounds good, but you’re speaking too low. Could you speak louder, please?”
Amy began in a minimally louder voice. “I think we could perhaps do better selling Italian ready-to-wear in a similar week-long promotion. We had lots of people in to see our Caribbean displays but not enough buyers. Italy could provide us with far more appealing products to sell. We’d easily meet our figures from last year, don’t you think?”
John stood up. “I think that Amy’s idea has a lot of merit,” he said authoritatively. “But I think if we do this thing, we should include the men’s department, the food division, and maybe even the furniture department and do this as a store-wide event. We could have people making pasta at booths, and stage some fashion shows, and I’m certain I can prevail upon some of my designers to lend their presence as well as their products. All in all, I think we could draw in a lot of people just through advertisement of the event, and then get a lot of impulse buying.” He stood there smiling for another fraction of a minute before sitting down.
Meanwhile, Alison had stuck her hand up, and was not noticed, so she stood up.
“This could be a very expensive proposition, John. You’d have completely new costs that you’d have to defray regarding advertising and labor….”
Amy raised her hand, but was not recognized. Bruce began talking from his seat.
“Well, I think you’ve got to spend money to make money. As long as we do a complete projection of our costs and expenditures…”
John stood up, his hand on his chin, contemplatively. “Bruce, that’s a great idea. I’m sure that Roger would be happy to have you work up that projection. Wouldn’t you, Roger?”
Roger nodded absently.
Alison put her hand up and was recognized. “Well, as long as we don’t go into this without knowing what we’re up against, I wouldn’t stand in the way of this idea…”
John remarked from this seat, “I should hope not. It’s a great idea.”
Alison added, “But I had this other idea for the children’s department. I think that the yuppies with children are willing to part with a lot more money on their kid’s clothing than we give them credit for…I’ve got a supplier…”
They could hear voices at the door.
“We’re almost out of time, guys,” Roger said, looking at his watch. “The other divisional managers are going to be using this room. Any other ideas are going to have to be tabled for our session. But I want to thank John for that excellent idea on the Italy promotion. And Bruce, I’m going to ask you to do that projection of costs and expenditures, and we’ll take it up next time.”
Passing John as she left the room, Alison muttered, “Roger just gave you credit for Amy’s idea, John.”
He looked surprised. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Alison. Amy just brought it up. I took it and ran with it. Hey, meet you in the back of the store in one hour?”
“I’m busy, but maybe you’d like to ask Roger and suck up to him some more.”
* * * *
Victoria stood for a moment in the livingroom, surveying the damage. Matthew grinned sheepishly, still holding the curtain rod at a rakish angle, with the curtain sprawled across the floor and partially obscuring his little sister, Dana. Screams issued from beneath the curtain.
Victoria rushed to pull the little girl out.
“Matthew!” she yelled. “Why did you do that? You almost hurt the baby!”
“Wanted to climb to top of window!”
Matthew was silent for a few seconds, thinking. “I don’t know.”
“Because it was there,” Victoria muttered under her breath. There never seemed to be much more of a reason for whatever Matthew did. He just liked to see if things could be done.
She gathered the toddler up in her lap and sat down on the armchair closest to the window. Dana was still crying, but not as hard.
“You wouldn’t do such silly things, now would you, Dana?” Victoria asked, bouncing her up and down.
She looked sternly at Matthew and said, “Go to your room!”
Matthew looked sternly at his mother and said, “No!”
“Yes, you will!”
That was enough of that. She put the baby down, grabbed Matthew’s arm and dragged him down the hallway toward his bedroom. Matthew began to yell and tried to bite his mother’s hand. With all his strength, he pulled away and ran back to the living room. Victoria wearily walked back to where the two children were sitting.
“I’m going to call your father,” she said, and picked up the phone.
Matthew seemed unconcerned, and began playing with his truck.
Victoria began to punch in the numbers. “Findlay’s? Could I have John Lowe, Department Manager of Men’s Wear? Yes, I’ll wait.”
As she waited, Dana toddled over to Matthew and put a hand on the truck. She wanted to play, too.
“No, this is my truck. Here, play with this, Dana.”
Victoria watched Matthew give his sister a lego block, which Dana promptly put into her mouth.
“Get that out of her mouth, Matthew. She’ll swallow it!”
“Okay,” he said, fishing it out of the little girl’s mouth with a dirty hand. Dana began to cry.
John was on the line. “What’s the matter, Vicky? You pulled me out of a meeting.”
“I’m sorry,” she answered, “but you’ve got to do something with Matthew. I can’t do anything with him. He’s into everything, and he’s not sorry about anything.”
She could hear John stifle a laugh. “Well, honey, boys will be boys. You wouldn’t want him to grow up to be a wimp, would you?”
“Oh, John. He needs to be disciplined, he won’t listen to me.” She lowered her voice. “I’m going to tell him you are very angry with him and will give him a good talking to tonight.”
“No, don’t do that. I’m going to be late tonight. I have…I have to set up for the winter sale.”
“Not again! Didn’t you just have a winter sale?”
“Um. Not that one. This is the winter suit sale.”
Victoria turned to look at the children, who were both pulling at opposite sides of the truck.
“I’ve got to go. When will you be home?”
“Late. Maybe 11:30. Don’t wait up for me.”
“You want to say something to Matthew over the phone?”
“No time. See you tomorrow.” The phone went dead.
She ran over to the two, separated the truck from Dana’s little hands, and gave her her teddy bear from under the couch. For this she gave up a management position at Findlay’s!
* * * *
It was snowing by 5:00 when Carol left the office, but she walked the six long blocks to the 7th avenue subway, as she always did; Bill always said that they should save on those little extras like bus fare if they could walk. Of course, Bill had the car in New Jersey, so he never had to walk anyway, but, well, she guessed she could save a little for their baby, if they ever had one. Bill said he wasn’t ready. He was already 28; she was 26. She had been ready for two years now. When they had gone to Bill’s parents’ house last week, his mother had advised her to butter him up. That’s what she had always done with Bill’s dad, she said. And if that didn’t work, to just go ahead and forget a few of the pills, then claim it was an accident. Somehow, that didn’t seem right to Carol. She wanted to be honest and for Bill to be honest and for them both to want the baby together. She really didn’t know what was right anymore. She couldn’t just demand that they do it now. He wouldn’t like it. And when Bill didn’t like something, you had to get out of his way…
Carol wound her woollen scarf one more time around her neck. Scarves were always too long for her; she was such a diminutive person. Most people guessed she was closer to 16 than to 26; she had a doll-like appearance: smooth, round face with petite features and china blue eyes. She guessed that that was why men were always trying to do things for her, as if she couldn’t do them herself: opening doors and pulling out chairs. They meant to be nice, but it was like living in a world where everyone else was a grownup, and you were the only child. She wanted to grow up.
The scarf had unwound again, and was dragging on the ground. Carol grabbed the end and tucked it into her pocket. She didn’t really need the scarf. It was snowing, but, all in all, it was a nice night: a little smoggy and slushy underfoot, but the storefronts were all lit up, and some shops still had their Christmas lights, so the whole scene seemed to twinkle. The snowflakes caught the light as they fell. She passed a woman pushing a stroller with a little baby in a pink snowsuit, allowed herself to stare at that baby till she was out of sight, then turned away and descended the stairs to the 7th Avenue subway, which took her to Port Authority Terminal, where she caught a bus to Montclair, New Jersey.
* * * *
“Hi, hon,” Bill said, sitting in the chair in front of the TV. “I brought the potatoes you asked for. Five pound sack?”
“Thanks. Where are they?”
“On the kitchen counter.”
Carol hesitated. “They should have been put in the oven. It’ll take a long time to bake them.”
He looked at her, jutting his chin out the way he did. “Did you tell me that?”
“No, no, I didn’t. Sorry. It’s my fault. I’ll just make them another way, I guess.”
He turned back to the TV, so she took off her coat and hung it up, then picked up his socks from the floor and dumped them in the laundry basket in the bathroom. When she came back, he was still watching, with his bare feet up on the coffee table. That was a close one.
She glanced at Bill through the corner of her eye. He had come home from work and pulled on some old sweatpants and a flannel shirt, no doubt leaving his clothes on the floor in the bedroom. Bill was one of those guys who should have shaved twice a day, his beard was that heavy. She could see from a glance that it already covered his lower face in a kind of furry mat, matching his heavy eyebrows on top. He was just over average height, which meant that he towered over her unless she wore 5 inch heels; he had a broad torso and a square, handsome face. She had fallen for him the moment she saw him: in social studies class in eleventh grade. He seemed to like her, too, and called her doll face. She used to like that.
“Hey!” She looked up.
“Dinner?” he said.
She walked into the kitchen, where the potatoes still lay on the counter. “How about country fries?” she shouted.
She peeled the potatoes and cut them into slices, frying them in a pan. She had defrosted some steaks that morning, so she pan-fried those, too, and added a salad. She wanted him in a good mood. She knew how to do it if she needed to. Make a nice meal, act cute and kind of coy. Cuddle up to him. That usually did it, and it worked this night, too. He was pawing her on the sofa just as it was when they were in high school, as if they hadn’t been married for five long years. He actually carried her to the bedroom and tenderly took off her clothes, one by one, stopping to kiss each newly naked part of her. Before he came, he asked her one thing:
“Are you still on the pill?”
She answered, “Yes” without hesitation, even though she had stopped taking it three days ago.
Chapter 3 – January 6, 2011
Deborah took off her surgical mask and gown. She checked the clock; it was 10:45 a.m. Carol knew she’d been called in to deliver the O’Neill infant this morning, and she had already called her father to fill in. So, Deborah wasn’t due till 12:00 at her office. She’d have time at least for some lunch. Meanwhile, she still had to see Mr. O’Neill, who was in the waiting room, unaware that he had a healthy 7 lb. daughter.
She made her way down the hospital corridor to the waiting room. Most fathers would have joined them in the birthing room, but apparently one previous time was quite enough for Mr. O’Neill, and he was content to wait out the uncertainty somewhere else.
She noticed him standing in the corner, looking out the window at the parking lot. She remembered him well from the last delivery, when he had fainted.
He licked his lips nervously. “Ah. Dr. Ackman, is everything all right?”
“Absolutely. Both your wife and new daughter are doing just fine.”
He seemed to relax suddenly, and sat down heavily in the chair. Deborah was afraid he was going to faint again, but when she saw his face, she realized that his reaction was not due solely to relief.
“Doctor, you know this is our third girl.”
She sat down facing him. “Yes, I know.”
“We were hoping for a boy this time. You know, third time is a charm.”
“Well, your little girl is certainly charming,” Deborah said, with a smile.
He made an effort to smile back. “I’m sure she is. In fact, we’re naming her after my mother, Eleanor.”
“That’s very pretty.”
He ignored her polite comment. “But I think it’s time for us to look into some process that puts the odds more in favor of a boy. Would you know what we can do?”
“They’ve made some progress, I know, in filtering sperm,” Deborah answered. “You know, I guess, that it is the male who determines the sex of the child?”
“Well, approximately half of the man’s sperm carries the x chromosome, which will father a girl, and the other half carries the y chromosome, which will produce a boy. The woman always contributes an egg with an x chromosome, so it’s the sex of the sperm which determines the sex of the child.”
“So, it’s my fault.” He looked out the window again.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s anybody’s fault. Besides, there could be a lot of factors determining which sperm fertilizes the egg. I know of a geneticist in this hospital, and can have a chat with him to find out what procedures are available. When your wife visits me at the end of the week, you might come with her and I’ll tell you what I’ve found.”
He seemed much more cheerful. “Thanks, Doctor. Can I see them now?”
“Just ask at the desk which room she’s been given. Enjoy your new daughter. I’ll see all of you next week.”
Deborah began walking down the corridor to the elevator. She still had a little time, and lunchtime might be the best time to catch Dr. Fleischer, the genetics specialist she had mentioned to Mr. O’Neill. Sam and she had gone to medical school together, but she hadn’t talked to him in a year or more. Deborah checked the office listings; Dr. Fleischer was listed as being in 1006. She stepped into the elevator, squeezing in between several aides speaking Spanish, the language of choice in New York City hospitals. It was something she would have to work on, she thought as she got out and walked down the hall to 1006.
He had a patient, but his receptionist told her he’d be free in a few minutes. She absently flipped through a copy of Vogue, but it depressed her: all the models seem to have legs up to their necks. Ten minutes later, she was in his office.
Sam Fleischer was about the same age as Deborah, of average height, with a thin face and dark, expressive eyes. He seemed happy but surprised to see her.
“Deborah, I’m glad you came up,” he said, extending his hand. “Here we are in the same city, the same hospital, and we see each other once a year!”
“I know. What’s your excuse?”
“Same here. But if you have time for lunch, I’d like to talk to you.”
Sam looked at his watch. “I have half an hour. Let’s go downstairs to the cafeteria.”
They took the elevator down to the basement floor, following the labyrinth of hallways to the cafeteria more by sound and smell than by sight. They sat down at a small table in the corner.
“So, is this a clinical case?”
She smiled. Half an hour was no time for small talk. “Well, it’s nothing really. I have a patient – that is, her husband, who asked me what he could do to improve their chances of having a boy. I thought you’d know of the latest procedures – like sperm filtering.”
Sam took a bite of his sandwich, and chewed for a few seconds before answering. “Well, sure,” he said. “They’ve had a lot of success recently in the IVF Institute in Virginia doing exactly that. Their procedure is based on the fact that the y chromosome sperm has less DNA than the x chromosome sperm, and because of that, it’s lighter, and it can be separated off into a separate fraction. Then they use the fraction of the sperm for the appropriate sex and use artificial insemination to introduce it into the woman. As I remember it, they’ve had an 85% success rate with producing girls, and a 65% rate with boys. Of course, it was on a small sample: only 29 women. And the study they published only used the method to produce female babies. But it looks good.”
“Funny that they have less success producing boys. Still it’s worth a try, I guess. 65% is better than 50%.”
Sam nodded, then added, “The procedure might even be good for your business.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, it seems all I hear these days is of couples having girls. It’s probably not particularly scientific, but over the past couple of years, all my friends have had girls.”
“Well, that’s unusual.”
“I guess. Maybe it’s a statistical blip. But you could check your own stats. How many girls versus how many boys have you delivered in the past year?”
She laughed. “I couldn’t tell you offhand, but I could check my computer database.” She thought for a minute. “You know, this is really funny, but I think I have been delivering a lot of girls. Strange I didn’t think about it before.”
Sam checked his watch. “Oops. Have to go. I have a 12:00 appointment. Good seeing you, Deb.” He gave her a peck on the cheek. “If I hear of any newer studies, I’ll give you a call…” He waved and left.
She sat there for a few minutes, finishing her coffee and thinking about what they had just said.
* * * *
Bill straightened up from the counter he had just installed, eyeballing it. There were a few finishing touches he still had to do. He looked at his watch: lunchtime. The other guys were already sitting down on some crates, unpacking their food; he might as well quit, too.
The outside of the house had been done for several months, just waiting some staining and trim. They were just finishing up the inside; it was good work for the winter, and most of the guys were glad to have it. He looked at them as he made his way toward their makeshift eating spot. They were a good bunch of guys. Jimmy, over there, had been working in construction on and off for twenty years: he was the old man. Bart was a jack-of-all-trades, called in if they needed some extra hands. Greg was the master electrician, always in demand. Ralph was their resident plumber, an all-around good guy, always ready with a joke. He, Bill, was the skilled carpenter, though he’d do anything that needed doing. Most of them had worked together for the five years Greenwood Construction was in existence. It was a pretty good life for a guy like him who was better with his hands than his head. He reached the group, sat down on the floor, and opened his lunch box.
“Here comes the fried chicken guy,” Bart said.
Bill looked up from his lunch. “I don’t always have fried chicken. Carol just knows I like it, so she makes it a lot.” He took a bite of the drumstick. “She knows what I like,” he said again.
“She knows what he likes,” Ralph repeated with a leer, elbowing the guy next to him. “And I bet she gives him whatever he wants.”
Bill stood up, his lunch sliding to the floor. “Don’t talk about my wife like that. She’s no slut.”
“Calm down, Bill. I was just making a joke. I didn’t mean anything. Carol’s a real lady, I know that.”
Bill sat down again and picked up the drumstick, blew on it and began to eat again. “You’re damn right, she’s a lady. More than your old lady, anyway.”
Ralph answered, “Hey. You’d just like to get your hands on my old lady, if you could. What bazooms Denise has. It’s still the best part of her.”
“It’s the only good part of her,” Bart remarked with a grin.
Ralph looked at him for a second, then decided it was just a joke. He could take a joke. “Well, it’s the best part, anyway,” he repeated. “I didn’t marry her for her brain.”
“Hey, Greg,” Ralph said. “What’s it like being a bachelor again? Huh? Getting a lot of it?”
Greg was recently separated from his wife, and had moved into a small apartment a few miles away.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Whenever I want. And I don’t have to put up with that chattering all the time. It’s a pretty good life.”
“What about Greg Junior? You get to see him?”
“Yeah. Weekends. Took him to the Yankees game last week,” Greg answered, crumpling up his lunch bag. Then he added, “They give you children and then they think they’ve got you hooked, and they can reel you in anytime they want to. Well, they can’t. She don’t have no hold on me.”
“And they all want children,” Bill complained. “Whether you’re ready or not. Carol keeps going on and on about it.”
“So, let her have one. She’ll be the one to take care of it.”
Bill shrugged. “She’s making a pretty good salary from the doctor’s office she works at.”
That seemed to be all there was to say. This was more conversation than they had had in weeks. For the rest of the break, they all munched contemplatively on the rest of their lunches, and when 12:45 came, got up and went back to work.
* * * *
Deborah got back to her office by noon, and stopped by her father’s office next to hers before beginning to see patients. The office was empty; judging by the full waiting room, she thought, he’s still in with a patient. She should talk to him about this sudden influx of patients. The Health Department still hadn’t called back, so it was probably just a local phenomenon. Still, there seemed to be some microbe out there, causing, at the very least, discomfort.
Just as she turned to leave her father’s office, he walked in, slowly, looking fatigued.
“Dad! You look like you’ve had it today. Quite a crowd we’ve got,” she said, nodding toward the waiting room.”
He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “Hi, honey. I think we’ve got a little epidemic out there. Nothing to worry about, though. I think it will run its course in a few weeks.”
She moved aside to let him step behind his large mahogany desk. He sat down heavily.
“Not if it’s sexually transmitted. This could be the tip of the iceberg.”
He had started filling out some paperwork, separating forms into several piles on his desk. Distractedly, he said, “Have you checked with the Health Department to see how many other cases have been recorded?”
“I called yesterday,” she answered. “They didn’t know anything about it. I think I’ll have Carol call back today when she has a chance.”
Her father looked up. “Look, Deborah. I’ve been in this business longer than you have. There’s always something, but most things run their course without causing too much havoc. We’re in the disease business, but with ob/gyn, thank God, we don’t usually get into the virulent stuff. And, because of antibiotics, syphilis is mostly a thing of the past; same with gonorrhea. At worst, this is an infection, and we’ll find the source.”
“What about AIDS?”
“What about it?”
“We haven’t found an answer to that for thirty years.”
He laughed. “This isn’t AIDS, for God’s sake. It’s probably no more than a variant of the stomach flu.
Carol looked in from the doorway. “Dr. Ackman.”
They both looked up. “I mean, Deborah,” Carol said, smiling, “There are still eleven patients waiting to be seen.”
“You mean, can I get a move on?”
Carol nodded, still smiling. She turned to go out, then thought better of it, turned, and stepped into the room. “Oh, we got the results of the lab test for Christine Henley and some of the others from yesterday morning.”
“Really? You have it here?”
Carol handed an envelope over to her.
Deborah opened it. “Hmmm,” she said, reading it. “Nothing. They couldn’t isolate anything.”
Her father looked at her indulgently. “Christine had the same thing as all the patients I’ve seen today?”
“The same thing.”
“I’m telling you, honey. Let it run its course. It’s probably viral, and we can’t do much about that, anyway. Let the patients’ own immunity fight it off. You’re too young, Deborah, and you think medicine can do everything. The fact is, Nature is still the best doctor.”
He finished with his forms, slipped them into a folder, and got up. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going. And you have a full waiting room. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.” He gave her a pat on the head, and left.
Why did she still feel like she was five years old?
Chapter 4 – January 7, 2011
John sat at his desk in the back of the store, poring over a diagram of the management chart. Behind him, sharing the storage space, were hundreds of bagged men’s suits hung on racks, waiting to be logged in, unbagged, and brought out to the floor. He turned his head to survey the task. Either he could start unbagging now and it would be all morning before he was done, or he could wait another hour and a half, and he’d get his sales staff to do the job in a quarter of the time. It was no contest. He turned back to the management chart.
John knew that the divisional for Main Floor Men’s was on his way out. On his way down was more like it. You either produced or they replaced you; it was as simple as that, and Roger Toddy didn’t cut it. He spent too much time with his department managers, helping them with their merchandising problems, and lobbying for more sales staff. His staff and managers loved him, but he just couldn’t seem to make a profit. Time management, John thought. He should have spent his time on strategy, and on stroking the buyers to give him special treatment. Toddy had asked for what was going to happen to him; John didn’t feel at all guilty in pushing him that last little bit off his pedestal.
That would never happen to him. John knew exactly how to go about getting something and keeping it. Keep your head above the crowd. Make them notice you. Present the best ideas; if not yours then somebody else’s. Make friends with the top managers, and they’ll pull you up to their level. And when you get to the top, watch your back.
John drew a red circle around the box with Toddy’s name. Roger Toddy was toast.
Alison peeked her head in. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but Mr. Lodge is doing a review of the main floor. You might want to get out here.”
“Thanks, Al. I owe you,” he called as she withdrew her head.
John jumped up, smoothed his pants, took a quick look in the floor length mirror he had mounted to the side of his desk, and walked out to his department.
Mr. Lodge, CEO of the Findlay’s chain of department stores, stood facing the Men’s Wear Department, pointing to a row of circular racks. John could just hear his comment.
“Now, that’s smart merchandising,” he was saying to his assistant, who was keying something into his PDA. “Brand names front and forward. Good looking department.”
John slipped in behind them. “Glad you like it, sir. I’m John Lowe, the department manager. He stuck his hand out right in front of Mr. Lodge, making it impossible for him to do anything but shake his hand. “Lowe,” he said again.
“Well, Lowe, I was just saying you or your associates have done a very good job merchandising this department.”
“Well, the concept was my idea, but I’m glad you like it.” He paused, then added, “Roger Toddy, my divisional manager didn’t.”
Lodge, consulting with his assistant, may not have heard. John tried something else, something magnanimous.
“My associates did a real good job making it work, didn’t they?”
Lodge looked up. “Keep up the good work, Lowe,” Lodge said, striding away, his assistant keying in madly as he ran after him.
Yes!! John thought, making a thumbs-up sign to no one in particular. He remembered my name.
The new sales associate from the adjoining department of women’s hosiery crossed the aisle to stand beside John. She was a pretty, young thing with long, blonde hair and a short skirt. John had noticed her before.
“That was really great the way you came right up to Mr. Lodge and shook his hand. I would have been too afraid.” She gave him an admiring smile.
“Well, thanks,” he replied, straightening his tie, “but you have to show them what you can do. I’m not going to be a department manager my entire life, you know. I just might have his job someday.”
“Well, if you think that way, maybe you will!” the girl said.
“Mary, isn’t it?”
She nodded, pleased he remembered her name.
“When do you get off for lunch, Mary?”
“You want to meet me in the coffee shop at five past? We could get to know each other.”
She took a surreptitious glance at his left ring finger. No ring. “Well, why not?”
“Great. Well, I have to get back and finish my marketing plan. See you then, Mary.”
“Okay, Mr. Lowe.”
“Call me John.”
“Okay, John.” She smiled sweetly, then turned back to her hosiery counter.
He walked back to his office area, humming to himself. What a sweet, naive kid, she was. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he might keep his wedding ring in his pocket.
* * * *
Deborah sat down at her desk for the first time in six hours. Another eighteen cases of whatever it was. She buzzed for Carol, who came in with her coat and hat on.
“Oh, is it time to leave?”
“Six o’clock, Dr. Ackman. If I don’t leave now, I won’t catch my bus.”
“I understand. You have a life. Go home. Oh, by the way, did you ever contact the Health Department?”
“Yes, a couple of hours ago. They said a number of cases had been reported, scattered over the five boroughs.”
“So, we’re not the only ones,” Deborah said, resting her head in her hand.
She looked up. Carol was still standing there, obviously waiting to be dismissed. “Go home!” she said with a laugh.
For about a half hour, Deborah pored over Medicare and insurance forms. Finally, she stood up and stretched. Outside her office window, the sky was black. She peered out at the circles of lamplight illuminating the snow. Larry would be wai