by Linda Boroff
Berkeley attracted fugitives, Katie was beginning to realize, whether from the law, from failed relationships, or from the person one had once been. A young couple, Brigit and Tony, had just moved into the flat across the hall in the gray Victorian where Katie lived with her roommate, Cherie. Cherie believed in getting to know one’s neighbors, so she had invited Brigit and Tony to dinner. In the course of their conversation, Katie learned that Tony had done prison time in Georgia for robbery, burglary and car theft, and that Brigit had run away from her studies at Georgia State with this prize catch.
Brigit wore a short black skirt, scuffed loafers and no hose, revealing perfect legs, a grimy band-aid clinging to one knee. Though her ratty blue angora sweater had come from a Salvation Army bin, it did not conceal the fact that God had paid close attention when he put her together.
Tony was about thirty, a tall, lanky blond redneck with amused, larcenous blue eyes, an immaculate dresser and pathological liar who had also developed the bad habit of bigamy. For Tony, the law just kept breaking like a rotten shoelace. Neither Tony nor Brigit had any source of income, but masterful shoplifting kept them well provisioned.
At sixteen, Katie was on her own for the first time. Two months ago, she had arrived in Berkeley on a busload of Vietnam antiwar protestors from Santa Monica. When she called home to announce that she was staying there, her mother had not tried to dissuade her. Katie had joined a crowd at school that drank, used drugs, and had sex. She was truant and had been caught forging attendance excuses. Time and again, she stayed out all night. Her best friend, Erin, carried on with a married man. After school, Katie and Erin would get into Erin’s alcoholic mother’s vodka and call up boys and men, even teachers. Like her absent, errant father, Katie was tall and blue-eyed, curly-haired, and argumentative. The very sight of her seemed to infuriate her mother.
From day one, Berkeley had burst upon Katie, overwhelming and embracing her. This was not “another Berkeley,” or “a little Berkeley.” This was the real thing. Standing before Sproul Hall in a crowd of protesters, Katie had looked up the stairs to its Greek colonnades with a euphoric premonition that her life was at last beginning.
A week later, she was broke, hungry, and disheveled from sleeping on the sofas and floors of chance acquaintances or in doorways. Hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, she met Cherie, who had an apartment to share. Cherie had recently flunked out of nursing school and now worked part-time for a local doctor, using the few skills that she had been able to master, such as presentation of the examining gown. When a similar job opened up with Drs. Ritter and Guyton next door to the office, she recommended Katie.
Cherie was pale and doughy, with long, auburn hair and a habit of firing questions at people, barely pausing for an answer. She was obsessed with Iran, which she called Persia. Evenings, she often brought home some hesitant Farhad or Mohammed recently arrived in Berkeley to study engineering. The Mohammeds taught her the Farsi lovemaking vernacular—pet names for genitals and body sounds and positions. Bursts of giggles emanated from Cherie’s bedroom all night long, sounds of spanking and sex. Koofts and koohns. Lying alone, Katie plugged her ears.
Katie’s new bosses had little in common besides the M.D. after their names. Dr. Ritter was lean, angular, and as flat as his native Kansas plains. Though not short, he was delicately boned, with thin, translucent hair, as if to economize on essential minerals. Dr. Ritter called himself “an old-fashioned conservative.” Whenever his measuring gray gaze fixed on Katie, she would straighten her back and mentally check herself for indolence, mendacity or other moral infections.
Dr. Ritter’s partner, Dr. Guyton, was also in his early fifties. He was tall and stately, with the regular features, graying temples, and deep blue eyes that Katie associated with aristocracy. Dr. Guyton came from an old and distinguished Bay Area family. His father had been the discreet, trusted physician of Crockers and Stanfords. Now, Dr. Guyton the son was a prominent pacifist who donated his services to antiwar rallies and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. His private patients, booted, sandaled and tie-dyed, sprawled wide in the waiting room, redolent of incense and pot, navels defiantly exposed, armpits subversively bushy.
Dr. Ritter’s mostly elderly patients huddled suspiciously apart, fidgeting on straight-backed wooden chairs whose upholstery was a hard, flat pad of green leather. With each passing moment, they seemed to intensify in Republicanism, bristling with Elk’s Club and American Legion insignia. The wives clutched their handbags as if they contained atomic secrets.
Most days, the two sets of patients merely stared at each other, perhaps seeking some common denominator. That certainly wasn’t their maladies: Dr. Guyton’s patients suffered the ravages of youthful excess: hangovers, pulled muscles, sex-induced rug burn. And of course venereal diseases of a dizzying variety. Dr. Ritter’s patients endured all the ills of aging: heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes. None of this helped their dispositions when they were forced to wait by the hour, a captive audience of those who were bringing the nation to the verge of chaos.
Because the one thing the doctors did have in common was that they both ran late. By early afternoon the patients were hopelessly stacked up, scowling, sighing and craning their necks to glare at Katie and Paula the nurse, hunkered down behind the reception window.
Tall and still childishly awkward, Katie admired Paula’s lithe, sylphlike figure in her dazzling white uniform, her dark hair tucked into a neat bun. A swept-wing, snowy cap crowned her delicate features like the headdress of some classical goddess, and Paula did seem almost deific as she flicked the syringe deftly to purge the air bubbles, or drew blood with carmine precision. Or handled Robert Brand, Dr. Guyton’s sickest heroin addict.
“Robert,” Paula sought and held his eyes. “When was your last fix?”
“C-couple days ago.” Robert blinked beseechingly, head bobbing, unshaven, lips twitching downward. Katie thought guiltily of Emmett Kelly the clown.
“Okay.” Paula patted his shoulder. “I can give you something to help you feel a little better.” Robert had lost the ability to keep himself clean. His pants were stiff and creased with dirt, his bare feet blackened. Dull brown hair hung lank across his shoulders. He stared out from deep sockets, dropping his eyes quickly if they met Katie’s.
“His disease is extremely virulent,” Dr. Guyton sometimes remarked. Dr. Ritter’s lemon-sucking expression betrayed his opinion of the disease theory of addiction.
“Dr. Ritter worries what Robert might do if he gets really desperate,” Paula told Katie. “Plus, his patients are afraid.”
“Oh, Robert isn’t the only one Dr. Ritter’s patients complain about,” Katie said. “Did you see those two girls with their heads shaved?”
“They’re in some cult. Well, anyone can get sick, Katie,” Paula said at Katie’s shudder of distaste. “Dr. Guyton is sure the little one has leukemia, but he wants to run more tests. She thinks she just has mono. Doctor says she won’t live out the year.”
Katie was becoming accustomed to the presence of death, which had once so awed and terrified her. Death was not only abroad in Vietnam, exploding in gouts of earth and blood; it was also a quiet, unobtrusive element of office routine, a penciled notation in a chart. But here, people didn’t exactly die; rather, they “expired.” Several patients had expired since Katie came to work there; people she had greeted and chatted with.
“Katybird, I need you to help me out.” Eyes teasing and bold, Tony accosted her in the dim entryway as she returned from work. Out of breath in the chilly twilight, Katie slung her backpack onto the floor.
“What’s the matter, Tony?”
Tony hung his head in sham distress. “I done gone and got me a case o’ the clap.”
“Well, you need to see a doctor,” Katie said. Tony evaded her glance. “It’s not fatal, for God’s sake.”
“Can you boost me a few pills then? Come on, they’ll niver miss it.”
Katie drew back. “Tony, a few pills won’t cure you. You need a whole supply, and a shot too.”
“And where am I supposed to get that?”
“The free clinic will treat you for nothing. They just don’t want you infecting other people.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed, but he grinned quickly and followed Katie into her apartment. Cherie looked up.
“What y’all lookin’ at Shay-ree?” Tony winked. “You better watch out, I git with you they’ll have to tape your eyeballs in.” Tony lit a cigarette, and Katie noticed that his hands were shaking. “I’m goddamn ashamed of myself,” he said, and suddenly began to cry in dry, racking hiccups.
“What have you done?” Cherie did not wait for an answer, but stood up and dashed out the front door into the hallway, leaving Katie alone with Tony, who quickly composed himself.
“Katie, I always did like you,” Tony said. “Now that Shay-ree is the dumbest thing God ever slung guts in.” He tried to laugh, pointing at Katie with his trembling cigarette. “Y’all think just once in your life you found something that won’t let you down. But love ain’t nothin’ but a sucker’s bet.” Tony rose and took one last, deep drag, then stepped on his cigarette, backed out of the door and vanished.
Moments later, Cherie reappeared with Brigit, her swollen face wrapped in a bloody towel. Tony had knocked out half a tooth, broken her nose and blacked both of her eyes. Suddenly, Brigit seemed as fragile and helpless as one of Dr. Ritter’s old ladies.
That night, Brigit moved in with Katie and Cheri, who took turns nursing her. Cherie called Brigit’s parents in Georgia the next morning and explained their daughter’s situation in terms vague and reassuring. They promised to send a check.
Katie made several follow-up appointments for Brigit with Dr. Ritter, and the injuries soon healed, leaving her with a slight lisp through the broken tooth that was not unappealing. Tony hung around town just long enough to intercept and cash the check that Brigit’s parents sent to cover her medical expenses, and then disappeared.
Brigit adapted quickly to life on her own. Minus Tony’s vigilant oversight and censorship, she chattered freely; spinning tales by the hour while Katie and Cherie listened, rapt. Brigit’s lovers had ranged in age from eleven to eighty and included rock stars, politicians and CEOs, though she relished the casual pickup as she would have an olive or a pepper. That was Tony, a spicy felon. Embarrassed to confess that her entire sexual experience consisted of a few inept, drunken copulations, Katie would nod knowingly at Brigit’s stories, as if she too understood the deepest ways and desires of men.
The doctors alternated Saturdays, and Katie arrived early to open the office, tidy the waiting room, and make coffee. This being lenient Dr. Guyton’s weekend, she had slept a little later this morning. As she walked down the building’s dim, empty hallway, Robert Brand suddenly loomed up, looking like a tormented soul who had wandered in from Torquemada’s dungeon or the cellar of the Doges’ palace. Katie’s heart hit her ribcage like a bird hitting a windshield. He must have slipped into the building behind her. Robert’s reddened, watery eyes wandered in their sockets, and his sour breath came in pants.
“Dr. Guyton left me a prescription,” he said. Katie didn’t believe him for a minute. Everyone knew that the office maintained a supply of painkillers, along with the prized triplicate prescription forms required for Percodan and morphine. Only Katie stood between Robert and all the dope in the world.
Dizzy with panic, she opened the waiting room door, and Robert pushed in ahead of her. Together, they searched Dr. Guyton’s dim, mahogany-paneled office, the air quiet, cold and stale, the desk littered with papers and medical journals. Hands shaking, Katie dialed Dr. Guyton’s number.
“Robert is here. He says you left him a prescription.”
“Oh damn,” she heard stretching and yawning. “I’m sorry, I forgot. I’ll be right down.” It was then that they heard noises coming from one of the examining rooms.
“Stay back,” Robert said, sheltering Katie with his body. He must have seen his chance to make up for the scare he had given her. Flattening himself against the wall, he stole down the hallway. After a moment’s hesitation, Katie followed.
“Robert, we should call the police,” she hissed. But it was too late. He grabbed the knob and threw open the door.
Brigit’s feet were in the stirrups of the examining table. Before her was Dr. Ritter in his lab coat and stethoscope, his pants deflated around his ankles. The coat, displaced by what must have been vigorous motion, had ridden up to reveal surprisingly muscular buttocks of the purest white. Katie noted, before pulling Robert out and slamming the door, that the examining table was perfectly configured for sex with a standing man of about six feet in height. Racing to get out of the office, she and Robert collided in the doorway, and it was either that impact or the laughter she was unable to stop that gave her a nosebleed.
For the next few days, Katie walked about in a mild and not unpleasant state of shock. Only the week before, Dr. Ritter had called her into his office to ask if she were using drugs. She seemed to him lax, preoccupied. “You’re in a fog,” he accused. Protesting indignantly, Katie had burst into tears that continued even after Dr. Ritter became flustered and waved her out. She did not know how to convey to him her sense of abandonment; her growing realization that neither of her parents seemed to miss her or care to see her anytime soon, if ever.
Now, perhaps concluding—quite rationally—that he had little to hide, Dr. Ritter began to call Katie into his office frequently. He would close the door and interrogate her about Brigit. At her age, Katie was just beginning to comprehend the cruel power that erotic love can wield over people who have disciplined and denied themselves pleasure throughout a lifetime. All she knew was that Dr. Ritter was held pitilessly fast in the toils of obsession. She also sensed that his love had less to do with its object than with Dr. Ritter’s own elemental nature. He thirsted to know every detail, what foods and music Brigit liked, what clothes she needed. He passed Katie a couple of discreet packages which turned out to contain costly lace underthings and a delicate gold bracelet. Whenever Katie mentioned Tony, Dr. Ritter waved the name aside as he would an insect.
“He isn’t fit to be in her presence.” Dr. Ritter growled and clenched his fist. “He’d better stay away.” At other times, Dr. Ritter’s affect was dreamy—the very behavior he had found so troubling in Katie. But Dr. Ritter was indeed drugged, with eros. He wondered aloud how Katie could be so casual about sharing a home with Brigit, his fondest desire. Brigit’s power over him was total.
Dr. Ritter also began to take an interest in Robert Brand the heroin addict, and this too was unsettling, as if he had bounced to the opposite extreme out of misplaced principle or loss of control. Perhaps he now understood, or even identified with Robert’s addiction, his disease. Dr. Ritter grew long sideburns, always a curious fashion statement in a middle-aged man. And beneath his lab coat, Katie spotted one day a paisley turtleneck. Dr. Guyton saw it too and shared with Katie a tiny, indulgent smirk. But more often, Dr. Guyton observed his partner now with a faintly worried, quizzical look.
When Katie arrived at the office on Dr. Ritter’s Saturday, he leaped from behind his desk with a shout of greeting. At the sight of her, his face fell. Brigit had stood him up. He sank back into his chair and put his head in his hands.
“Forgive me, Katherine,” he said to Katie. “Brigit has been through so much. You and I both know she desperately needs a protector. And she’s still in danger.” Dr. Ritter rose and paced the floor of his office. “She’s very self-destructive, you know,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time… If only she can find it in her heart …”
Katie stood dumbly staring, a silver roll of EKG tape unwinding from her hand.
“Dr. Ritter,” she said at last, with an odd, conspiratorial thrill, “maybe Brigit doesn’t need a new … relationship right now. After all, she just broke up with Tony.”
Dr. Ritter gazed at her in disbelief. “How can you say that? A new relationship is exactly what she needs. A healthy one. Some stability in her life.”
Katie turned away and began to load the EKG machine, wondering in what solar system an adulterous affair with a man more than twice her age could be construed as healthy or stable. But in fact, stability seemed to be in short supply wherever she looked. Berkeley’s ebullient zaniness had lately turned down a darkening path. Even the numbers 1969 looked ominous.
Later that week, Katie awakened one morning to the radio blaring. One of Cherie’s Mohammeds had turned it up loud: “…with the Alameda and San Francisco County Tactical Squads standing by, but not to intervene unless an emergency situation develops.”
“What’s happening?” Katie stood swaying at the door of her bedroom.
“Is a rally,” said Mohammed, eyes flashing, “to defend the park of the people.” Katie stared incredulously, recalling a lot of runty trees, raw dirt and splintery wooden trellises near Dwight and Bowditch. “I feel the issue to be a great one,” Mohammed said. “Freedom against oppression.”
“But doesn’t the university own the land?” Katie yawned.
“No,” said Cherie from under the covers. “The people own the land.”
Mohammed shook his radio at Katie. “You are coming to the rally, yes?”
“No,” she said. “This isn’t a game, Mohammed. They’ll bust your head.”
“I know police is no game. I come from Iran.”
Just before noon, Katie left the doctors’ office to walk home for lunch. The air was warm and moist, the bosomy hills above the University deep green. Along Telegraph Avenue, shop windows were boarded up with plywood. Traffic was being rerouted to accommodate the police, who were staging up and down the streets leading to campus. Katie noted Alameda County Sheriffs, Oakland Tactical Squad, and California Highway Patrol.
When Katie opened her apartment door, the first thing she saw was Tony’s profile, sharply defined against a tortuously lettered purple psychedelic poster on the wall. Beside him stood Brigit, looking extremely uncomfortable. Dr. Ritter, abject and ill at ease in his lab coat, faced them both, his hands hanging awkwardly at his sides.
“Oh, Katie,” Brigit lisped over her shoulder, “Kyle stopped by.” Katie had never heard Dr. Ritter referred to by his first name.
“Brigit, you have to come away from this,” Dr. Ritter said. “You deserve a decent life.”
“She don’t want no ‘decent life,’” Tony drawled. “Don’t waste your time, Kyle.”
“You have to understand,” said Brigit. “Tony and I are practically married.”
Dr, Ritter winced, as if struck. “But he’s a criminal. He beat you.”
“She done gimme the clap,” said Tony. “What in hell was I supposed to do?”
“I did,” said Brigit. “But Tony forgave me. We forgave each other.”
Dr. Ritter groaned and collapsed to his knees like a marionette whose strings had been cut. “I cannot allow this.” He covered his face and shook his head.
“Look, Kyle,” said Tony. “You seem to be a good guy. I don’t want to beat the crap out of you, because I know what she’s like. But I will beat the crap out of you if I have to. Brigit wants you to leave her alone.”
“I love you, Kyle, I really do,” Brigit said, “but I’m back with Tony now.”
“Dr. Ritter,” Katie said in desperation, “please, come away from this.” She reached out. “Just ….walk away.” Dr. Ritter groped for her hand and seized it fiercely, nearly pulling the girl over as he stumbled to his feet. Wordlessly, he straightened his shoulders and shrugged to adjust his lab coat, his face contorted with pain. Katie opened the apartment door, and he limped through after her, still clutching her hand. His own hand felt brittle and dry.
Outside in the hallway, Dr. Ritter stopped. “Katherine,” he said, “I have lost myself.” He searched her eyes.
“Not at all,” Katie said, using the same brisk tone of voice that Dr. Ritter himself used with anxious patients. She nudged him through the outside door.
“I’ve tried to lead an ethical, educated life. And this Tony character is no more than a vicious outlaw.”
“Some people,” Katie said, ”prefer outlaws.”
“Then I’ll be an outlaw too,” said Dr. Ritter. He hoisted two imaginary pistols from his belt loops and shot them into the air. “Bang bang,” he shouted. Katie snickered involuntarily. Dr. Ritter looked sadly at her, his hands still guns. He glanced down at them and his shoulders sagged.
“Dr. Ritter,” Katie said, “you can’t even imagine what goes on in Brigit’s head.”
“I guess not.” They had reached the campus, and Dr. Ritter looked around as though he had just awakened on another planet. “What’s going on here?”
In Sproul Plaza, the crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder, gaudy and half naked in the noon sun, their heads and raised fists a blur. Unintelligible words resounded from the microphone on the Sproul Hall steps, bouncing off the Student Union and echoing around the plaza.
Suddenly, a deafening shout arose, and the crowd boiled over, surging toward the People’s Park like a tsunami, overtaking and jostling Katie and Dr. Ritter. From the vanguard came a series of sharp pops and brief, puffing explosions accompanied by high-pitched screams and hoarse yells of outrage. Seconds later, Katie’s eyes began to sting. The tears welled swiftly, rolling down her face, and she gathered them with her tongue, the way she had as a child. The noise increased, an irregular staccato of explosions and ululating falsetto cries.
Between Durant and Channing, Katie and Dr. Ritter encountered a full and panicky rout, a phalanx of helmeted, goggled Tac Squad in hot pursuit, nightsticks flailing. Fearful of being trampled, they turned and ran with the crowd, jarred by fleeing bodies. Katie heard more volleys, and gas canisters writhed at their feet. People picked up the hot canisters and hurled them back toward the police.
Ahead, the police surrounded Sproul Plaza, and Katie saw that they were trapped. She wondered vaguely why the police had left the crowd no escape, when they desired nothing more than to be shut of them. The crowd ran straight at the encirclement, its momentum carrying Dr. Ritter and Katie along, lurching helplessly against one another. After a brief, confused moment of contact, the mob flew apart in twenty directions with the police at their heels, moving faster under all that equipment than Katie would have believed possible. If they caught somebody, they beat him. People would advance, shouting and throwing rocks, and when the police charged, they would scatter, and so it went.
Two police at the base of the Sproul Hall steps were kicking a man so hard that one lost his balance and grabbed for the other’s shoulder to steady himself. Peeking through the crowd, Katie saw that the victim, curled up and writhing, was Robert Brand, their addict. Trying to shout, she must have hyperventilated, because she suddenly became dizzy and staggered backwards into a sapling.
When her vision cleared, Katie saw the police hauling Robert up the Sproul Hall stairs. Slightly below them charged Dr. Ritter, taking the stairs two by two. When the police reached the top, the doors opened and they dragged their prisoner inside, Dr. Ritter following. There seemed to be a nimbus of light encircling his head, but perhaps that was only the sun reflecting against the smoke and gas.
Robert Brand survived his beating only to expire weeks later of an overdose. Dr. Guyton, Paula and Katie wept openly at the news and, after a moment, Dr. Ritter joined in.
Brigit and Tony soon returned to Georgia, and Katie never heard from them again. But the fact that they might still be out there, coupled with the fact that Cherie eventually obtained a medical degree, ought to make everyone a little more cautious.
In time, Katie qualified and enrolled at the University, venturing back into the good graces of her family with the trepidation of an early polar explorer. She was declared “cured” of her immaturity, as if it had been a transient infection, but residual traces persisted as the years passed, just as the unrequited love of Dr. Ritter must have left its own transcendent ache throughout the remainder of his life. Sometimes, walking down Telegraph Avenue, Katie would hear somebody call her name in a mocking southern accent. Turning, she saw nothing.
Linda Boroff grew up in Minneapolis and Santa Monica and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her work has appeared in Gawker, McSweeney’s, Epoch, Prism International, Cimarron Review, Hobart, Word Riot, Blunderbuss, Fiction Attic Press, Able Muse and others. Her novella, A Season of Turbulence, was published in The Conium Review, and a first novel is underway.
One of her short stories and its adapted screenplay were acquired by Sony in 2014 to develop as a series on the Sundance Channel. Linda will be a co-producer and co-writer on 12 episodes.
Linda has written one produced film. She recently adapted John O’Dowd’s acclaimed biography, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story, into a biopic entitled Fast Fade, which is now in development in L.A. Her magazine article, “Scandalous: Barbara Payton’s Fast Life and Slow Death in Hollywood” appeared in the arts magazine, FutureClaw.