An excerpt from the novel
Copyright ©1999 Jim Gabour. All Rights Reserved.
Some people in Blue Moons say that both women get what's coming to them. Downright nasty thing to say, in one manner of speaking.
Sounds about right, if you look at it another way.
The young Betty Daniels and Matty Sue Franklin are still alive and living in Blue Moons. They do just fine, except for the fact that the two teenagers are stuck in banged-up, old-as-hell bodies. And that Betty's son Buick is completely insane.
Those two girls. They get what's coming to them, alright.
Odd when such things drop into a life. The timing and all.
Matty Sue got hers when the two high school graduates were both feeling like nothing in the world could touch them.
The teenaged Betty Daniels-Baskin was already in the riotous, joyous phase of her early marriage. She'd called up her friend every morning with a complete description of the previous night's physical activity with the new husband. She'd chosen a handsome 18-year-old named Pontiac Baskin from among her many suitors. Neither Betty nor Matty Sue had a clue as to what was down the road. Not just then.
A fall semester at SMU, happily away from home, was as far ahead as Matty wanted to see. But her body had an surprise for her. In the midst of the summer joys of a last Yellow Bird Girls' Camp, that body had gift-wrapped and parcel-posted something called poliomyelitis to an unsuspecting teenage girl.
Mail call, Matty.
Opened it up and boom, got her. Beating Doctor Salk and his vaccine to the post office that was her legs by a solid decade. She hadn't really known it was necessary to watch out for such stuff. All she had gotten before at camp were stone-hard brownies and poison ivy.
Matty Sue. She was still well shy of her nineteenth birthday when she woke up one morning flat on her back inside a neck-to-toe metal tube. Just her head sticking out the top like a bit of squeezed toothpaste waiting for a brush onto food-stained giant molars. There she lay. A plastic hose sucked fluid from her lungs. Another pumped nutrients to her stomach, bypassing a throat that had oddly enough forgotten how to take in food. Matty had heard that there was a catheter somewhere down below, but luckily she could neither feel nor see it.
This was not a pleasant alternative to a July's horse-back riding in sweet-scented piney woods around Lake Texarkana.
A mirror angled over her face allowed her to see well-meaning mourners enter as far as the nurses would let them. Her visitors would take in a distant eyeful and gasp at her plight.
"Poor girl," they'd say. Every time. From a safe, non-contagious distance.
But Matty's married friend Betty Daniels-Baskin was frustrated at being held back from the ward. She had taken to throwing paper airplanes inscribed with messages of love and lipstick kisses toward her canned friend, yelling greetings and screaming out the current location of her airborne messages. After the third flying paper incident, though, Betty was banned with finality from the hospital, and had to content herself with mailing the folded messages in envelopes disguised as regular, more boring adult correspondence.
Matty Sue couldn't even open the letters herself. Her arms were inside the can. But she knew from the first day that she had to get out of that thing, the sooner the better. Crying wouldn't help, so she didn't. She clamped her jaw down. Chewed off a good ounce-and-a-half of the inside of her cheek. She didn't cry. If leg braces and a wheel chair were now the best she could expect, she'd get leg braces and a wheel chair. But she wasn't going to live out her life in a damned tin cylinder, staring backwards and upside down at people who were broadcasting waves of pity to her from across the room.
"Poor girl," they said, again and again.
"Hell, no. Get me out of here," Matty cried to the orderly, a man who looked old enough to have worked on General Grant's TB ward.
"Sho nuff," he said. He'd heard that demand before.
She did get out of the machine, though, just like she predicted, but it took her five months. Funny, the things that machine did to her. For instance, after about six weeks Matty Sue started having the very real sensation that she was moving. That she and the tube were coming unglued from the face of the earth and starting to roll around the ward. The nurses told her not to worry. That the wheels were locked. "The machine can't move on its own, Missy." Movement was a normal sort of hallucination, they told her. "It's OK, honey. Many young people get to feeling they're rolling around after they've been locked up in one of these iron lungs for a while. Don't you worry your sweet head now. It'll go away, darling. Just you wait."
"Wait, my ass," said young Matty Sue.
She was unconvinced. She knew she had moved. She started measuring her location on the floor every day, staring in the overhead mirror and setting mental marks. But the movement only seemed to happen when she wasn't prepared.
Still, she knew it was real.
Even funnier -- not haha funny, but strange -- was her last week in the machine. The week she had anxiously anticipated from the moment she woke up in her camp cot unable to breathe or swallow or move. It arrived, and she discovered that she didn't want to get out of the artificial lung. She was scared that without it she might wake up in the middle of the night and suffocate, her body having forgotten once again how to breathe. She was safe in the machine, safe. She didn't want to get out. Not just then.
The process of extracting Matty Sue had taken ten days. First, only a few minutes with the lid up, then longer periods. She found that her arms were slowly returning to normal. By the third day, she was able to lie in her bed without the aid of the iron lung through entire daylight hours. But night was harder. A nurse would sit with her the whole time, reading aloud from fashion magazines to keep the terror away. Describing new form-fitting brassieres and the possibilities of synthetic stockings with reinforced crotches. Until, on the eighth night, Matty slept alone and unaided. Her dreams had been terrible, and she had the worst nightsweats she had ever experienced in her short life, but she awoke reassured that she could indeed leave the confines of the hospital and survive.
After all, FDR had.
Matty Sue's departure took four more years of well-meaning, but experimental and painful, therapies on the polio ward. Her pin-up-quality legs were irrevocably mangled and scarred in the process, and she soon purposefully forgot that they had once been lovely.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died of complications from his polio.
One rainy day in May Matty Sue was sent home. She was not a US president at the time.