The Girl with a Pimply Face (William Carlos Williams)

One of the local druggists sent in the call: 50 Summer St.,
second floor, the door to the left. It’s a baby they’ve just
brought from the hospital. Pretty bad condition I should
imagine. Do you want to make it? I think they’ve had somebody
else but don’t like him, he added as an afterthought.
It was half past twelve. I was just sitting down to lunch.
Can’t they wait till after office hours?
Oh I guess so. But they’re foreigners and you know how
they are. Make it as soon as you can. I guess the baby’s
pretty bad.
It was two-thirty when I got to the place, over a shop in
the business part of town. One of those street doors between
plate glass show windows. A narrow entry with smashed
mail boxes on one side and a dark stair leading straight up.
I’d been to the address a number of times during the past
years to see various people who had lived there.
Going up I found no bell so I rapped vigorously on the
wavy-glass door-panel to the left. I knew it to be the door
to the kitchen, which occupied the rear of that apartment.
Come in, said a loud childish voice.
I opened the door and saw a lank haired girl of about fifteen
standing chewing gum and eyeing me curiously from
beside the kitchen table. The hair was coal black and one
of her eyelids drooped a little as she spoke. Well, what do
you want? she said. Boy, she was tough and no kidding but
I fell for her immediately. There was that hard, straight
thing about her that in itself gives an impression of excellence.
I’m the doctor, I said.
Oh, you’re the doctor. The baby’s inside. She looked at
me. Want to see her?
Sure, that’s what I came for. Where’s your mother?
She’s out. I don’t know when she’s coming back. But you
can take a look at the baby if you want to.
All right. Let’s see her.
She led the way into the bedroom, toward the front of the
flat, one of the unlit rooms, the only windows being those in
the kitchen and along the facade of the building.
There she is.
I looked on the bed and saw a small face, emaciated but
quiet, unnaturally quiet, sticking out of the upper end of a
tightly rolled bundle made by the rest of the baby encircled
in a blue cotton blanket. The whole wasn’t much larger
than a good sized loaf of rye bread. Hands and everything
were rolled up. Just the yellowish face showed, tightly
hatted and framed around by a corner of the blanket.
What’s the matter with her, I asked.
I dunno, said the girl as fresh as paint and seeming about
as indifferent as though it had been no relative of hers
instead of her sister. I looked at my informer very much
amused and she looked back at me, chewing her gum
vigorously, standing there her feet well apart. She cocked
her head to one side and gave it to me straight in the eye, as
much as to say, Well? I looked back at her. She had one
of those small, squeezed up faces, snub nose, overhanging
eyebrows, low brow and a terrible complexion, pimply and
coarse.
When’s your mother coming back do you think, I asked
again.
Maybe in an hour. But maybe you’d better come some
time when my father’s here. He talks English. He ought to
come in around five I guess.
But can’t you tell me something about the baby? I hear it’s
been sick. Does it have a fever?
I dunno.
But has it diarrhoea, are its movements green? .
Sure, she said, I guess so. It’s been in the hospital but it got
worse so my father brought it home today.
What ate they feeding it?
A bottle. You can see that yourself. There it is.
There was a cold bottle of half finished milk lying on the
coverlet the nipple end of it fallen behind the baby’s head.
How old is she? It’s a girl, did you say?
Yeah, it’s a girl.
Your sister?
Sure. Want to examine it?
No thanks, I said. For the moment at least I had lost all
interest in the baby. This young kid in charge of the house
did something to me that I liked. She was just a child but
nobody was putting anything over on her if she knew it,
yet the real thing about her was the complete lack of the
rotten smell of a liar. She wasn’t in the least presumptive.
Just straight.
But after all she wasn’t such a child. She had breasts you
knew would be like small stones to the hand, good muscular
arms and fine hard legs. Her bare feet were stuck into
broken down leather sandals such as you see worn by children
at the beach in summer. She was heavily tanned too,
wherever her skin showed. Just one of the kids you’ll find
loafing around the pools they have outside towns and cities
everywhere these days. A tough little nut finding her own
way in the world.
What’s the matter with your legs? I asked. They were
bare and covered with scabby sores.
Poison ivy, she answered, pulling up her skirts to show me.
Gee, but you ought to seen it two days ago. This ain’t
nothing. You’re a doctor. What can I do for it?
Let’s see, I said.
She put her leg up on a chair. It had been badly bitten
by mosquitoes, as I saw the thing, but she insisted on poison
ivy. She had tom at the affected places with her finger nails
and that’s what made it look worse.
Oh that’s not so bad, I said, if you’ll only leave it alone
and stop scratching it.
Yeah, I know that but I can’t. Scratching’s the only thing
makes it feel better.
What’s that on your foot.
Where? looking.
That big brown spot there on the back of your foot.
Dirt I guess. Her gum chewing never stopped and her
fixed defensive non-expression never changed.
Why don’t you wash it?
I do. Say, what could I do for my face?
I looked at it closely. You have what they call acne, I told
her. All those blackheads and pimples you see there, well,
let’s see, the first thing you ought to do, I suppose is to get
some good soap.
What kind of soap? Lifebuoy?
No. I’d suggest one of those cakes of Lux. Not the flakes
but the cake.
Yeah, I know, she said. Three for seventeen.
Use it. Use it every morning. Bathe your face in very hot
water. You k”ow, until the skin is red from it. That’s to
bring the blood up to the skin. Then take a piece of ice.
You have ice, haven.’t you?
Sure, we have ice.
Hold it in a face cloth-or whatever you have-and rub
that all over your face. Do that right after you’ve washed
it in the very hot water-before it has cooled. Rub the ice
all over. And do it every day-for a month. Your skin will
improve.If you like, you can take some cold cream once in
a while, not much, just a little and rub that in last of all, if
your face feels too dry.
Will that help me?
If you stick to it, it’ll help you.
All right.
There’s a lotion I could give you to use along with that.
Remind me of it when I come back later. Why aren’t you
in school?
Agh, I’m not going any more. They can’t make me. Can
they?
They can try.
How can they? I know a girl thirteen that don’t go and
they can’t make her either.
Don’t you want to learn things?
I know enough already.
Going to get a job?
I got a job. Here. I been helping the Jews across the hall.
They give me three fifty a week-all summer.
Good for you, I said. Think your father’ll be here around
five?
Guess so. He ought to be.
I’ll come back then, Make it all the same call.
All right, she said, looking straight at me and chewing
her gum as vigorously as ever.
Just then a little blond haired thing of about seven carne
in through the kitchen and walked to me looking curiously
at my satchel and then at the baby.
What are you, a doctor?
See you later, I said to the older girl and went out:.
At five-thirty I once more climbed the wooden stairs after
passing two women at the street entrance who looked me
up and down from where they were leaning on the brick
wall of the building talking.
This time a woman’s voice said, Come in, when I knocked
on the kitchen door.
It was the mother. She was impressive, a bulky woman,
growing toward fifty, in a black dress, with lank graying
hair and a long seamed face, She stood by the enameled
kitchen table. A younger, plumpish woman with blond
hair, well cared for and in a neat house dress-as if she had
dolled herself up for the occasion-was standing beside her.
The small blank child was there too and the older girl,
behind the others, overshadowed by her mother, the two
older women at least a head taller than she. No-one spoke.
Hello, I said to the girl I had been talking to earlier. She
didn’t answer me.
Doctor, began the mother, save my baby. She very sick.
The woman spoke with a thick, heavy voice and seemed
overcome with grief and apprehension. Doctor! Doctor! she
all but wept.
All right, I said to cut the woman short, let’s take a look
at her first.
So everybody headed toward the front of the house, the
mother in the lead. As they went I lagged behind to speak
to the second woman, the interpreter. What happened?
The baby was not doing so well. So they took it to the
hospital to see if the doctors there could help it. But it got
worse. So her husband took it out this morning. It looks
bad to me.
Yes, said the mother who had overheard us. Me got
seven children. One daughter married. This my baby, pointing
to the child on the bed. And she wiped her face with
the back of he,r hand. This baby no do good. Me almost
crazy. Don’t know who can help. What doctor, I don’t
know. Somebody tell me take to hospital. I think maybe do
some good. Five days she there. Cost me two dollar every
day. Ten dollar. I no got money. And when I see my baby,
she worse. She look dead. I can’t leave she there. No. No.
I say to everybody, no. I take she home. Doctor, you save
my baby. I pay you. I pay you everything-
Wait a minute, wait a minute, I said. Then I turned to the
other woman. What happened?
The baby got like a diarrhoea in the hospital. And she
was all dirty when they went to see her. They got all
excited-
All sore behind, broke in the mother
The younger woman said a few words to her in some
language that sounded like Russian but it didn’t stop herNo.
No. I send she to hospital. And when I see my baby
like that I can’t leave she there. My babies no that way.
Never, she emphasized. Never! I take she home.
Take your time, I said. Take off her clothes. Everything
off. This is a regular party. It’s warm enough in here. Does
she vomit?
She no eat. How she can vomit? said the mother.
But the other woman contradicted her. Yes, she was vomiting
in the hospital, the nurse said.
It happens that this September we had been having a lot
of such cases in my hospital also, an infectious diarrhoea
which practically all the children got when they came in
from any cause. I supposed that this was what happened to
this child. No doubt it had been in a bad way before that,
improper feeding, etc., etc. And then when they took it in
there, for whatever had been the matter with it, the diarrhoea
had developed. These things sometimes don’t turn out
so well. Lucky, no doubt, that they had brought it home
when they did. I told them so, explaining at the same time:
One nurse for ten or twenty babies, they do all they can
but you can’t run and change the whole ward every five
minutes. But the infant looked too lifeless for that only to be
the matter with it.
You want all clothes off, asked the mother again, hesitating
and trying to keep the baby covered with the cotton blanket
while undressing it.
Everything off, I said.
There it lay, just skin and bones with a round fleshless
head at the top and the usual pot belly you find in such
cases.
Look, said the mother, tilting the infant over on its right
side with her big hands so that I might see the reddened
buttocks. What kind of nurse that. My babies never that
way.
Take your time, take your time, I told her. That’s not
bad. And it wasn’t either. Any child with loose movements
might have had the same half an hour after being cared for.
Come on. Move away, I said and give me a chance. She
kept hovering over the baby as if afraid I might expose it.
It had no temperature. There was no rash. The mouth
was in reasonably good shape. Eyes, ears negative. The
moment I put my stethoscope to the little boney chest, however,
the whole thing became clear. The infant had a severe
congenital heart defect, a roar when you listened over the
heart that meant, to put it crudely, that she was no good,
never would be.
The mother was watching me. I straightened up and looking
at her told her plainly: She’s got a bad heart.
That was the sign for tears. The big woman cried while
she spoke. Doctor, she pleaded in blubbering anguish, save
my baby.
I’ll help her, I said, but she’s got a bad heart. That will
never be any better. But I knew perfectly well she wouldn’t
pay the least attention to what I was saying.
I give you anything, she went on. I pay you. I pay you
twenty dollar. Doctor, you fix my baby. You good doctor.
You fix. •
All right, all right, I said. What are you feeding it?
They told me and it was a ridiculous formula, unboiled
besides. I regulated it properly for them and told them how
to proceed to make it up. Have you gOt enough bottles, I
asked the young girl.
Sure, we got bottles, she told me.
O.K., then go ahead.
You think you cure she? The mother with her long, tearful
face was at me again, so different from her tough female
fifteen-year-old.
You do what I tell you for three days, I said, and I’ll come
back and see how you’re getting on.
Tank you, doctor, so much. I pay you. I got today no
money. I pay ten dollar to hospital. They cheat me. I got no
more money. I pay yon Friday when my husband get pay.
You save my baby.
Boy! what a woman. I couldn’t get away.
She my baby, doctor. I no want to Jose. Me got seven
children-
Yes, you told me. .
But this my baby. You understand. She very sick. You
good doctor-
Oh my God! To get away from her I turned again to the
kid. You better get going after more bottles before the
stores close. I’ll come back Friday morning.
How about that stuff for my face you were gonna give
me.
That’s right. Wait a minute. And I sat down on the edge
of the bed to write out a prescription for some lotio alba
comp. such as we use in acne. The two older women looked
at me in astonishment- wondering, I suppose, how I knew
the girl. I finished writing the thing and handed. it to her.
Sop it on your face at bedtime, I saId, and let It dry on.
Don’t get it into your eyes.
No, I won’t.
I’ll see you in a couple of days, I said to them all.
Doctor! the old woman was still after me. You come back.
I pay you. But all a time short. Always tomorrow come
milk man. Must pay rent, must pay coal. And no got money.
Too much work. Too much wash. Too much cook. Nobody
help. I don’t know what’s a matter. !his door, doctor, this
door. This house make sick. Make sick.
Do the best I can, I said as I was leaving.
The girl followed on the stairs. How much is this going
to cost she asked shrewdly holding the prescription.
Not much I said and then started to think. Tell them
you only get half-dollar. Tell them I said that’s all it’s
worth.
Is that right, she said.
Absolutely. Don’t pay a cent more for it.
Say, you’re all right, she looked at me appreciatively.
Have you got half a dollar.
Sure. Why not.
What’s it all about, my wife asked me in the evening. She
had heard about the case. Gee! I sure met a wonderful girl,
I told her.
What! another?
Some tough baby. I’m crazy about her. Talk about
straight stuff. And I recounted to her the sort of case it
was and what I had done. The mother’s an odd one too. I
don’t quite make her out.
Did they pay you?
No. I don’t suppose they have any cash.
Going back?
Sure. Have to.
Well, I don’t see why you have to do all this charity
work. Now that’s a case you should report to the Emergency
Relief. You’ll get at least two dollars a call from them.
But the father has a job, I understand. That counts me
out.
What sort of a job?
I dunno. Forgot to ask.
What’s the baby’s name so I can put it in the book?
Damn it. I never thought to ask them that either. I think
they must have told me but I can’t remember it. Some kind
of a Russian name~
You’re the limit. Dumbbell, she laughed. Honestly-who
are they anyhow.
You know, I think it must be that family Kate was telling
us about. Don’t you remember. The time the little kid was
playing there one afternoon after school, fell down the
front steps and knocked herself senseless.
I don’t recall.
Sure you do. That’s the family. I get it now. Kate took
the brat down there in a taxi and went up with her to see
that everything was all right. Yop, that’s it. The old woman
took the older kid by the hair, because she hadn’t watched
her sister. And what a beating she gave her. Don’t you remember
Kate telling us afterward. She thought the old
woman was going to murder the child she screamed and
threw her around so. Some old gal. You can see they’re all
afraid of her. What a world. I suppose the damned brat
drives her cuckoo. But boy, how she clings to that baby.
The last hope, I suppose, said my wife.
Yeah, and the worst bet in the lot. There’s a break for
you.
She’ll love it just the same.
More, usually.
Three days later I called at the flat again. Come in. This
time a resonant male voice. I entered, keenly interested.
By the same kitchen table stood a short, thickset man in
baggy working pants and a heavy cotton undershirt. He
seemed to have the stability of a cube placed on one of its
facets, a smooth, highly colored Slavic face, long black
moustaches and widely separated, perfectly candid blue
eyes. His black hair, glossy and profuse stood out carelessly
all over his large round head. By his look he reminded me
at once of his blond haired daughter, absolutely unruffled.
The shoulders of an ox. You the doctor, he said. Come in.
The girl and the small child were beside him, the mother
was in the bedroom.
The baby no better. Won’t eat, said the man in answer
to my first question.
How are its bowels?
Not so bad.
Does it vomit?
No.
Then it is better, I objected. But by this time the mother
had heard us talking and came in. She seemed worse than the
last time. Absolutely inconsolable. Doctor! Doctor! she
came up to me.
Somewhat irritated I put her aside and went in to the
baby. Of Course it was better, much better. So I told them.
But the heart,. naturally was the same.
How she heart? the mother pressed me eagerly. Today
little better?
I started to explain things to the man who was standing
back giving his wife precedence but as soon as she got the
drift of what I was saying she was all over me again and the
tears began to pour. There was no use my talking. Doctor,
you good doctor. You do something fix my baby. And
before I could move she took my left hand in both hers and
kissed it through her tears. As she did so I realized finally
that she had been drinking.
I turned toward the man, looking a good bit like the sun
at noonday and as indifferent, then back to the woman and
I felt deeply sorry for her.
Then, not knowing why I said it nor of whom, precisely
I was speaking, I felt myself choking inwardly with the
words: Hell! God damn it. The sons of bitches. Why do
these things have to be?
The next morning as I came into the coat room at the
hospital there were several of the visiting staff standing
there with their cigarettes, talking. It was about a hunting
dog belonging to one of the doctors. It had come down with
distemper and seemed likely to die.
I called up half a dozen vets around here, one of them was
saying. I even called up the one in your town, he added
turning to me as I came in. And do you know how much
they wanted to charge me for giving the serum to that
animal?
Nobody answered.
They had the nerve to want to charge me five dollars a
shot for it. Can you beat that? Five dollars a shot.
Did you give them the job, someone spoke up facetiously.
Did I? I should say I did not, the first answered. But can
you beat that. Why we’re nothing but a lot of slop-heels
compared to those guys. We deserve to starve.
Get it out of them, someone rasped, kidding. That’s the
stuff.
Then the original speaker went on, buttonholing me as
some of the others faded from the room. Did you ever see
practice so rotten. By the way, I was called over to your
town about a week ago to see a kid I delivered up here
during the summer. Do you know anything about the case?
I probably got them on my list, I said. Russians?
Yeah, I thought as much. Has a job as a road worker or
something. Said they couldn’t pay me. Well, I took the
trouble of going up to your court house and finding out
what he was getting. Eighteen dollars a week. Just the type.
And they had the nerve to tell me they couldn’t pay me.
She told me ten.
She’s a liar.
Natural maternal instinct, I guess.
Whisky appetite, if you should ask me.
Same thing.
O.K. buddy. Only I’m telling you. And did I tell them.
They’ll never call me down there again, believe me. I had
that much satisfaction out of them anyway. You make ’em
pay you. Don’t you do anything for them unless they do.
He’s paid by the county. I tell you if I had taxes to pay
down there I’d go and take it out of his salary.
You and how many others?
Say, they’re bad actors, that crew. Do you know what
they really do with their money? Whisky. Now I’m telling
you. That old woman is the slickest customer you ever saw.
She’s drunk all the time. Didn’t you notice it?
Not while I was there.
Don’t you let them put any of that sympathy game over
on you. Why they tell me she leaves that baby lying on the
bed all day long screaming its lungs out until the neighbors
complain to the police about it. I’m not lying to you.
Yeah, the old skate’s got nerves, you can see that. I can
imagine she’s a bugger when she gets going.
But what about the young girl, I asked weakly. She seems
like a pretty straight kid.
My confrere let out a wild howl. That thing! You mean
that pimply faced little bitch. Say, if I had my way I’d
run her out of the town tomorrow morning. There’s about
a dozen wise guys on her trail every night in the week. Ask
the cops. Just ask them. They know. Only nobody wants
to bring in a complaint. They say you’ll stumble over her
on the roof, behind the stairs anytime at all. Boy, they sure
took you in.
Yes, I suppose they did, I said.
But the old woman’s the ringleader. She’s got the brains.
Take my advice and make them pay.
The last time I went I heard the, Come in! from the front
of the house. The fifteen-year-old was in there at the window
in a rocking chair with the tightly wrapped baby in
her arms. She got up. Her legs were bare to the hips. A
powerful little animal.
What are you doing? Going swimming? I asked.
Naw, that’s my gym suit. What the kids wear for Physical
Training in school.
How’s the baby?
She’s all right.
Do you mean it?
Sure, she eats fine now.
Tell your mother to bring it to the office some day so
I can weigh it. The food’lI need increasing in another week
or two anyway.
I’ll tell her.
F(ow’s your face?
Gettin’ better.
My God, it is, I said And it was much better. Going
back to school now?
Yeah, I had tuh.

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