Read an Excerpt
Barney Livingston was the first boy in Brooklyn to see Laura Castellano naked.
One August morning in the summer he turned five, he wandered into his backyard and was saluted by an unfamiliar voice.
He glanced toward the neighboring garden. Peering over the fence was a blond little girl who looked about his age. He felt a twinge of nostalgia for the previous occupants, who had included a terrific punchball player named Murray.
And from what he’d heard, these new people didn’t even have a boy.
Barney was therefore surprised when, after introducing herself, Laura suggested they play catch. He shrugged a sort of dubious okay, and went to get his Spauldeen.
When he returned a moment later clutching a small rubber ball, pink as Bazooka bubble gum, she was standing in the middle of his garden.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“I climbed over the fence,” she answered nonchalantly. “Okay, vámonos, throw me a high one.”
Understandably, Barney was slightly off balance and bobbled the ball that Laura had deftly caught and vigorously tossed back. For he was still disconcerted by the fact that Murray had been seven years old and still had needed assistance to get over the fence, whereas this Laura had apparently vaulted it with ease.
After an energetic half hour, Barney decided that Laura had satisfactorily filled Murray’s shoes (sneakers, actually). He reached into his pocket and produced a pack of cigarettes labeled “Lucky Stripe,” and offered one to her.
“No, thanks,” she responded, “my father says I have an allergy to chocolate.”
“What’s an allergy?”
“I’m not sure,” she confessed. “We’d better ask my papacito. He’s a doctor.”
And then the inspiration struck her. “Hey, why don’t we play Doctor and Patient.”
“How does that go?”
“Well, first I ‘esamen’ you, then you ‘esamen’ me.”
“Sounds kinda boring.”
“We would have to take our clothes off—”
“Yeah?” Maybe this could be interesting after all.
Office hours were held beneath a venerable oak tree in the far corner of the Livingston garden. Laura instructed Barney to remove his striped polo shirt so she could establish that her patient’s chest was sound. This was accomplished by means of an imaginary stethoscope.
“Now take off your pants.”
“Come on, Barney, play the game!”
With some reluctance, he stepped out of his blue shorts and stood there in his underpants, beginning to feel silly.
“Take that off, too,” the young physician ordered.
Barney glanced furtively over his shoulder to see if anyone might be watching from the house and then removed his final garment.
Laura looked him over carefully, giving special attention to the tiny pendant between his legs.
“That’s my faucet,” he explained with a touch of pride.
“It looks more like a penis,” she replied with clinical detachment. “Anyhow, you’re okay. You can get dressed.”
As he eagerly obliged, Laura inquired, “Want to play something else now?”
“No fair—now it’s my turn to be the doctor.”
In an instant she had disrobed completely.
“Wow, Laura—what happened to your … you know …”
“I don’t have one,” she answered somewhat wistfully.
“Oh gee, why not?”
At this moment a strident voice interrupted the consultation.
“Baaar-ney! Where are you?”
It was his mother at the back door. He hastily excused himself and peered around the tree trunk. “I’m here, Mom.”
“What are you doing?”
“A girl called Laura from next door.”
“Oh, the new family. Ask her if she wants cookies and milk.”
An impish face popped out from its arboreal concealment. “What kind of cookies?” Laura asked cheerfully.
“Oreos and Fig Newtons,” Mrs. Livingston said, smiling. “My, aren’t you a sweet little girl.”
Theirs was a childhood paradise called Brooklyn, filled with joyous sounds: the clang of trolleys blending with the tinkle of the bells from the Good Humor Man’s chariot of frozen fantasies. And most of all, the laughter of the children playing stickball, punchball—even hockey games on roller skates—right in the streets.
The Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t just a baseball team, they were a cast of characters—a Duke, a Pee Wee, and a Preacher pitching on the mound. They even had a guy who could run faster than you said his name: Jack Robinson.
They gave their hearts for Brooklyn.
So who cared if they could never beat the New York Yankees?
But not in 1942, for the Americans were still waging war on three fronts: in Europe against the Nazis, in the Pacific against the hordes of Tojo, and at home against the OPA. This was the body President Roosevelt established to ration the civilian supply of essential items to make sure the GIs had the best of everything.
Thus while Field Marshal Montgomery was engaging Rommel at El Alamein, and Major General Jimmy Doolittle was bombing Tokyo, back in Brooklyn Estelle Livingston was battling to get extra meat stamps to ensure the health and growth of her two sons.
Her husband, Harold, had been called up one year earlier. A high school Latin teacher, he was now at a military base in California learning Japanese. All he could tell his family was that he was in something called “Intelligence.” That was very appropriate, Estelle explained to her two young sons, since their father was, in fact, very, very intelligent.
For some unexplained reason, Laura’s father, Dr. Luis Castellano, had not been drafted at all.
“Is Laura nice, Barney?” Estelle asked as she tried to coax yet another forkful of Spam into her younger son’s mouth.
“Yeah, she’s okay for a girl. I mean, she can even catch a ball. Talks kinda funny, though.”
“That’s because the Castellanos are from Spain, dear. They had to run away.”
“Because the bad people called Fascists didn’t like them. That’s why Daddy is in the Army. To fight the Fascists.”
“Does Daddy have a gun?”
“I don’t know. But I’m sure if he needs one, President Roosevelt will see that he gets it.”
“Good—then he can shoot all the bad guys in the penis.”
A librarian by profession, Estelle was all in favor of enriching her son’s vocabulary. But she was taken aback by his newest verbal acquisition.
“Who told you about penises, dear?” she asked as matter-of-factly as she could.
“Laura. Her dad’s a doctor. She doesn’t have one, though.”
“Laura doesn’t have a penis. At first I didn’t believe her, but she showed me.”
Estelle was at a loss for words. She merely stirred young Warren’s cereal and wondered how much he already knew.
With time, Barney and Laura went on to better games. Like Cowboys and Indians or GIs and Jerries (or Japs), democratically changing from goodies to baddies with each passing summer day.
A year went by. The Allied troops were now invading Italy and the Yanks in the Pacific were reconquering the Solomon Islands. Late one night Barney’s brother, Warren, woke up screaming, with a fever of a hundred and three. Fearing the worst—the dreaded summer scourge, infantile paralysis—Estelle quickly wrapped the perspiring little boy in a bath towel and carried him down the front steps and over to Dr. Castellano. Barney, confused and frightened, followed a step behind.
Luis was still awake, reading a medical journal in his cluttered little study, and rushed to wash before beginning an examination. His big hairy hands were surprisingly swift and gentle. Barney watched in awe as the doctor looked down Warren’s throat, then listened to his chest, all the while trying to calm the sick child.
“Is okay,” he kept whispering, “just breathe in and out for me, yes niño?” Meanwhile, Inez Castellano hurried to fetch cold water and a sponge.
Estelle stood mute with terror, Barney clinging to the folds of her flowered bathrobe. She finally found the courage to ask, “Is it—you know … ?”
“Cálmate, Estella, is not polio. Look at the scarlatiniform eruption on his chest—and especially the enlarged red papillae on his tongue. Is called ‘strawberry tongue.’ The boy has scarlet fever.”
“But that’s still serious—”
“Yes, so we must get someone to prescribe a sulfa drug like Prontosil.”
Clenching his teeth, Luis replied, “I am not permitted to write prescriptions. I have no license to practice in this country. Anyway, vámonos. Barney will stay here while we take a taxi to the hospital.”
During the cab ride, Luis held little Warren, dabbing his neck and forehead with a sponge. Estelle was reassured by his confident manner yet still puzzled by what he had told her.
“But Luis, I thought you were a doctor. I mean, you work at the hospital, don’t you?”
“In the laboratory—doing blood and urine tests.” He paused and then added, “In my country I was a physician—I think a good one. Five years ago when we first came, I studied English like a crazy man, reread all the textbooks, and passed the examinations. But still the State Board refused to license me. Apparently, to them I am a dangerous alien. I belonged to the wrong party in Spain.”