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The Pittsburgh Outings

 Martha Whitmore Hickman, Fiction


They picked him up early from school, having sent a note to his second-grade teacher—Please excuse Edward at 2:00, for a doctor's appointment in Pittsburgh. The appointment was at 3:30. They could have made it in an hour, but they didn't like to hurry. These trips, every six months, had become happy outings for the three of them—a time when he could have his parents to himself and they could give him the kind of attention there wasn't time for usually, with two other children in the family.

They had started the trips three years ago, in 1960 when Edward was three and they hadn't been able, even with the medicine Dr. Hutchison prescribed, to avert the convulsions that wracked Edward's small body every time he developed even a slight fever. Initially, the doctor had predicted Edward would outgrow the convulsions by age two, then by three. But soon after Edward's third birthday the children had the flu—first the oldest boy, and then Edward and his sister. When Edward had struggled with his fourth convulsion in 36 hours, so that his mother felt, even while caring for the others, that her soul, her anima, hovered over him, watching, waiting for the eyes to roll back, the little legs to stiffen and jerk, the terrible staccato hiccupping sound to come from the throat, Dr. Hutchison had said, ‘When he's better I'd like you to take him to Dr. McDonald in Pittsburgh. He's a neurologist. Let's see if he has anything to suggest."

So they had taken Edward, as soon as he was well and they could schedule an appointment. They told him they were going to see another doctor, and because the three of them were off on a trip together, and because he loved to be with them, sitting between them in the car seat and chattering to both of them and pretending to drive his red steering wheel, it seemed almost a gala trip, despite the shadow of the reason for their going that hung over the two of them, but not over him.

In the doctor's waiting room, on the sixth floor of the University Medical Center, they gave their names to the nurse and found three empty chairs along a wall, among the silent waiting adults. Edward's father took a magazine and started to read and Edward's mother rifled through the pile and found a children's magazine and said, her mouth dry, "Look, Edward, at this boy feeding the dog."

Edward sat, his short legs out in front of him, and looked at all the faces watching him—a sudden diversion—and said, aloud, with a little anxiety getting to him now, too, "What dog?"

The waiting faces smiled. Edward's mother smiled, too, and said, "Here, honey, in the magazine."

They had just finished the magazine, Edward chattering and relaxed now, when a tall man with white hair appeared in the archway by the desk. "Edward Arter?" he said, and peered around the room.

Edward's father put down his magazine and stood. Edward's mother said, "Here we go, dear," and Edward hitched forward off his chair and they crossed the room and followed the man down the short corridor to his office.

Inside a room of green carpeting, dark furniture, dark paneled walls, the doctor said, "I'm Dr. MacDonald."

Edward's father extended his hand. "I'm glad to know you, Doctor. I'm James Arter. This is my wife, Sarah"—he gestured toward her.

"And this young man"—the doctor smiled down at him—"must be Edward."

Edward nodded, his dark eyes solemn and wide.

"How are you, Edward?" the doctor said.

"Fine." His eyes did not move from the doctor's face.

"You can go over by that picture," the doctor said, gesturing toward the far wall, "and climb up on that couch, Edward, while I talk with your mother and father." Edward, relieved to be excused, walked over and climbed up on a black leather couch that sat under a large painting of men in a boat on a rough sea.

The doctor turned back to his mahogany desk and indicated the two chairs beside it. "Won't you sit down?"

They all sat and the doctor picked up a letter that lay in an open folder. He scanned the letter, his brows furrowed and intent above the dark-rimmed glasses. Edward's mother, remembering afterwards, recalled his kindly dark eyes, a handsome broad-jawed face, unlined for a man with white hair—about 60, she guessed—recalled the general darkness of the furniture, the greens and browns of walls and floor, more like a lawyer's office than a doctor's.

Dr. McDonald looked up. "I have a letter from Dr. Hutchison about Edward. Let me ask you a few questions."

Edward's mother tried in her articulate and transparent way to extract from him some promise that Edward was going to be fine, that the convulsions were a passing event, that as he grew older he would not have them anymore, that they would never be worse than they were now, because, how frightening, how terrifying, they were.

This, of course, he could not tell her. He did not know. Probably they would go away. But sometimes convulsions that started like these did recur later, with a fever, or even without. When Edward was older, they might try a brain wave test, to see what it told them, but for

the present the doctor would give them different medicine for Edward to take whenever he had fever.

A brain wave test? A chill struck her spine. What could ameliorate the threat of the doctor's words? She would like to tell him, though it wouldn't be seemly and she supposed he must be able to discern it for himself, what an utterly charming child Edward was. She did say that of all their children she supposed Edward might be best able to bear any stigma there might be against convulsions, because while he was so sensitive to how people felt and that might make it harder for him, still—she hardly liked to admit the thought—if he should turn out to have epilepsy or some other disease, his friendliness, his empathy would help, though these seemed such involved words for a little boy. But Edward was such a delightful person.

Dr. McDonald smiled at her, and then turned toward the boy who sat, tipping himself first to one side then the other, swinging his chubby legs against the front edge of the leather couch. "Will you come here, Edward, please?" the doctor said. Edward slipped off the couch and came and stood in front of him and gazed up into his face.

The doctor picked up an ophthalmoscope from his desk and held it out toward Edward. "You see this funny thing?"

"Yes," said Edward soberly.

"It has a little light in it," the doctor said. "I'm going to look into your eyes with it. Is that all right with you?"

"Yes." Edward twisted his neck to get a better look at the light inside.

"Now," said the doctor, shifting Edward into position in front of him, "you stand here and I'm going to stare into your eye with this light. But I don't want you to look at me, or at the light. Look over there at your mother."

Edward gazed first at the light, so close to his eye now, and then he moved his glance over to her as she sat, her head inclined, alert. She relaxed—of course he would look at her. "Now, look carefully," the doctor said, "and tell me if you see a fly on your mother's nose?"

She smiled at Edward—it was a kind of foolish conspiracy they often had together, pretending silly little things.

"Yes," said Edward.

"That's fine." The doctor glanced at her quickly, with an expression of benevolent pleasure. He returned his attention to the child. "Tell me," he said, rotating the plane of the ophthalmoscope, "is the fly moving around on your mother's nose?" There was a pause.

"Yes," said Edward.

She smiled at her husband. How dear of Edward, wasn't it, to go along with the game?

"That's fine," said the doctor. "Now, let's look into the other eye." He turned Edward's body around, so he was facing away from them, toward the wall. "Do you see that big picture over there?"—indicating the picture above the couch, the painting of men in a boat at sea.

"Yes," said Edward.

"Well," said the doctor, "see the man with the red jacket on?"


"Now you watch him," said the doctor, directing the light from his instrument into Edward's left eye," and tell me if you see that man waving his arm." He rotated the ophthalmoscope. "Do you see him waving?"

Another pause, and then, "Yes," said Edward, tentatively, softly. She looked at her husband again; their eyes met. How like Edward, wanting to see what he thought the doctor wanted him to, not wanting to disappoint the man by telling him that of course there was no waving arm, of course there had been no fly on his mother's nose.

The doctor set his instrument on his desk. "Everything's fine," he said. He looked at Edward fondly. "Will you come back and see me again, Edward?" Edward checked his mother's face, then his father's. He smiled at the doctor, "Yes," he said.

"Good." The doctor extended his hand gravely to Edward, who reached up to shake it.

The doctor turned to them both. "Come back in six months," he said. "In the meantime, if anything special comes up, please call me. You have your prescription?"

Edward's mother opened her purse. "Yes, here it is." She slipped it out to show him. "Thank you," she said, and they left, got in the car and started home.

Crossing the first big bridge out of the city, Edward said, "I like Dr. McDonald. When can we go again?"

"I'm glad," his mother said. "In about six months." Part way home they came to a Dairy Queen and Edward's father said, "Shall we?" and his mother said, "Let's," and his father pulled the car into the lot and got out and brought back three cones and they sat in the warm afternoon and chatted away and enjoyed the soft cold ice cream and the honey crunch of the comb.

In the course of the next months, Edward had a couple of quick illnesses, with fever. Each time, his mother gave him the medicine, but the convulsions came, the same as before. She was in despair. She called Dr. MacDonald, long distance, after the first one. "Just keep up the medicine," he said. "As long as they come with fever, I wouldn't worry too much. But bring him back when the six months is up."

So they waited, and brought him back, and his mother gave her anxious recital from the notes she had kept of Edward's illnesses: how high the fever had been, how long the convulsion lasted, how Edward seemed when it had passed. "We gave him the medicine," she said, pleading with the doctor to perform some magic.

"That's fine," he said, calmly. After they had talked more and he had maintained the integrity of his inability to predict absolutely for her that the convulsions wouldn't continue to happen, he called Edward back from the leather couch, and he picked up his ophthalmoscope and said, "Now, you remember that fly on your mother's nose?"

"Yes." Edward smiled slightly to himself and looked at his mother.

The doctor put the device up to Edward's eye. "Now, look over at your mother's nose, Edward, and tell me—is that fly still there?"

This time Edward didn't hesitate. "Yes."

"Is the fly moving around on your mother's nose?"

"Yes," said Edward, quietly, matter-of-factly. The doctor turned Edward to face the other wall and the painting, and she looked at her husband and they smiled at each other.

"Now," the doctor said, "Do you see that man in the red jacket, Edward?"

"Yes," said Edward, his voice muffled by the doctor's coat sleeve as he held the instrument to Edward's eye.

"Tell me, is that man waving his arm?"


"That's fine." The doctor set his instrument on his desk. "Will you come back in six months?"

Edward said "Yes" right away this time and they all nodded to one another and left.

These trips had become part of the pattern of their busy years; every six months the three of them would take the afternoon drive to see Dr. MacDonald, and Edward would go to the black leather couch and his mother would describe any infections the boy had had since their last visit, and the convulsions that continued to come, though once Edward had developed a slight fever and did not have a convulsion, and didn't the doctor think that was a hopeful sign? And at the end of their visit the doctor would call Edward over to his chair to check his eyes. Soberly, he would ask Edward about the fly on his mother's nose, and the man in the red jacket in the painting waving his arm, and each time Edward would say, yes, there was a fly and it was moving around and yes, the man in the red jacket was waving his arm, and each time the mother and father exchanged their glances of love and delight, though they never mentioned it to Edward, afraid that they might spoil the whole thing, afraid that somehow they might violate the charm of this little ritual with which the boy offered to the doctor and to them his esteem and his trust. But they spoke of it to each other, and over the telephone they told his grandparents in Massachusetts and his other grandparents in Ohio, and the wonderful news as it emerged over the months that sometimes now Edward had a fever and the convulsions did not come, how Edward continued with this dear ritual, of solemnly acceding to the suggestion of the fly on her nose and the man in the painting waving his arm in its red sleeve.

So on this day it was time to go again, and here they were, waiting for Edward outside the school door. He no longer wanted his mother to come to his classroom to get him. "I can come out myself," he said. These last several times they had waited in the car, and Edward would appear, his body slanting against the weight of the door, his arms braced and pushing. When he had forced the door back as far as he could, he would let go and quickly step out of the way and watch it jerk slowly shut on its pneumatic hinge.

This time, though, he just came out the school door and down the walk toward them, holding a book against his hip and swinging his other arm. "Edward's growing up, isn't he?" she said to her husband and he said, "Yes."

It was true. It seemed to her that very often now he walked like a boy not a child, that he didn't stop to dawdle at puddles or scrutinize the Queen Anne's Lace that grew at the edge of their lawn, or come around the way he used to and say to her, for no apparent reason, "Are you happy?" so she wondered what insecurities he had about her.

She opened the car door for him, and he said, "Hi," to them both and climbed over her to settle in the middle between them, and her husband started the car.

On the way they talked about school, and the barges on the river, and the high bridge, and he was the first to see the Dairy Queen where they would stop on their way back.

When they arrived at the doctor's office, they gave their names and each found a magazine as they settled to wait.

After awhile Dr. McDonald appeared and called Edward's name and they put down the magazines and followed him into his office.

Edward went to the black couch again. The doctor asked his usual question, "How are things going?" and she gave her recital, confident and enthusiastic this time, because the children, including Edward, had had two bouts of sickness in the last six months and with one, Edward had had no fever and with the other he had developed fever but no convulsion. Didn't the doctor think maybe this was the end of it? He looked at his record, lying on his desk, and said, "It's certainly encouraging." He reminded her there had been two other periods that had been clear, and then Edward later had a convulsion. They couldn't be sure.

But he was getting older. It was quite likely that Edward was outgrowing the convulsions. Yes, it was good news. She was justified in being hopeful.

The doctor turned to Edward. "Will you come over here, please, Edward, and let me look at your eyes?"

"Yes." Edward came and stood in front of him.

"How have you been, Edward?"


"And, let's see, what grade are you in now?"

"Second," said Edward, looking solemnly at him.

The doctor picked up the ophthalmoscope and held it for Edward's scrutiny. "You remember this, don't you?"


"Now, will you turn this way, please?" said the doctor, turning him to face her, and raising the instrument to the level of Edward's right eye. "You remember that fly on your mother's nose?"

"Yes," said Edward.

"Is it still there?" the doctor asked. "Do you see it moving around?"

She glanced at her husband and sat slightly forward in her chair, waiting.

Edward paused. "No," he said.

"It isn't there this time?" the doctor asked, casually, lightly, squinting into the tiny lens of the ophthalmoscope.

"No," Edward said.

"I see," said the doctor, and turned Edward toward the big painting.

She was suddenly subdued, shaken. She looked at her husband. It had to happen sometime, didn't it, her glance said. His eyes said, yes, dear, it did.

The doctor was looking into Edward's other eye. "How about the man in the red coat, do you see him?"


"Is he waving his arm?" the doctor asked, matter-of-factly.

"No," Edward said.

"I see," said the doctor, kindly, lowering his arm. "O.K., Edward. That's fine. See you in six months."

Edward nodded. Then, just for an instant, his brown eyes turned to her, asking her to understand—because it was kind of silly, wasn't it—hoping she didn't mind, about the fly and the man waving.

She smiled at him, blurred. Of course it was all right. He was a dear child. He was growing up. The important thing was the convulsions were tapering off. But still...of course it was all right.

The doctor held out his hand, and his eyes were unusually kind. "They grow up, don't they?" he said.

"Mmm," she said. "Yes." She reached for his hand, not wanting to talk about it, certainly not wanting Edward to think she was in any way disappointed, or even that there had been anything unusual about this visit. Because, after all, there was no fly, and the man in the red jacket didn't really wave his arm.

Her husband came close and stood beside her and pressed her elbow lightly against his side. He shook hands with the doctor. "Thank you," he said. She took Edward's hand and they went out into the waiting room and down in the elevator and out into the sunlit parking lot and, gaily again now, into the car, up the river road, stopping at the Dairy Queen, and home.

That evening as she was getting ready for bed she happened to glance at the end of her nose in the bathroom mirror, and then she stole quietly into Edward's room and laid her cheek against his forehead as he slept, and thought about babies, and about boys growing up, and remembered in gratitude the convulsions' tapering off, and then, at last, allowed herself a few tears—for the fly on her nose and the man in the red coat waving his arms.