It was raining, and pelting down on him harder than it had been when he had left the house, and simply brushed aside the need for his rain slicker. After all, it was just a quick trot into town, and he needed the air. And wouldn't it be marvelous, he wondered, if he happened to bump into a large black umbrella with a trim blonde underneath, and when he tapped her on her shoulder to apologize, if it happened to be Margaret Houlihan, having been marvelously conjured into his little town, back into his dreams, back into his life.
This was getting obsessive, Hawkeye Pierce warned himself sternly. He had left Margaret, or rather, she had left him, standing in the dust of what had been the 4077 MASH nearly a year ago, after the incredible, breathless kiss of a lifetime. She had left his life the way she had entered it, being driven away in an army jeep into an olive drab sunset.
He saw her everywhere: on the street, in the garden, on the beach, in the shops. At first he mentioned it, ever so casually, to his father. "Hey, you'll never guess who I thought I saw in town today?" But after a number of these revelations, he overheard his father on the phone, long-distance to New York City and a certain psychologist of his acquaintance, late night after his father believed he had taken to bed. After that, he kept these secret sightings to himself, always disappointed when a lady turned out not to be the lady in question, and chuckled without much humor .
After three years of the most intense experience of his life, shared intimately with the contradictory, confusing ,compassionate, and compelling confection named Margaret, sometimes he had felt they were synchronized so well they were part of the same body. Other times, she remained a mystery to him. But always, always, Margaret. Waves, moonglow, firelight, clouds:something elemental that he could no longer reach out and touch, but always with him.
"Damn," he thought to himself, this is stupid. No woman has ever been this special. And I can prove it. I will simply make arrangements to see her again, we'll chat over old times, and then she'll be out of my mind forever. Or maybe I'll be out of my mind forever, his little warning voice whispered. As usual, he ignored it.
Hawkeye knew exactly how to find her current whereabouts. He put in a call to Colonel Sherman T. Potter, Hannibal, MO.
"Greetings, may I speak to Mrs. Potter's Mr. Potter?" Hawkeye asked, remembering how the Colonel had referred to himself during the last days of the war.
"Ol' Doc Potter here."
"Colonel...Sherman, this- -"
"Hot doggies I'd know that Yankee accent anywhere. How are you doin', Son?" Pierce could hear Mildred Potter bustling around the phone, and his old commander hushing her --it's Hawkeye--, and he felt warmly welcomed, long - distance.
"Uh, fine, Sherman, just fine and dandy. Set up in practice with my father, dabbling in surgery at the local hospital..."
" And dabbling with the local ladies?" he guffawed.
"And how are you, Sir?"
"Oh just swell. Added a couple more grandkids to the litter, a filly to the paddock, and a horseshoe trophy to the den. On call to the VA hospital, when they need an old hand thereabouts."
"You sound wonderful, and very busy, " Hawkeye said warmly, genuinely glad the kindly old doctor was enjoying his retirement from the army. "Say, I was wondering...uh...you keep in touch with some of our wandering campfellowes?"
"Sure, Mildred has some addresses on her Christmas card list. And I reckon Klinger has all the names and numbers of the old gang. Quite the character, our Klinger. Tells me he is what they call an 'entrepreneur" now...whatever in Sam Hill that means..."
Pierce cleared his throat." I was thinking of ...eh..Margaret...Houlihan. Assuming she still is Houlihan...?" he tried to sound casual, and failed miserably.
There was an uncomfortable pause at the other end of the line.
Potter sighed." Well, you're right, Hawkeye. You know Margaret and I are pretty close. Of course I have her address."
Hawkeye held his pencil poised over the paper, waiting, but the Colonel did not offer the information to him.
Now Pierce was getting anxious. "She's all right, right?"
Potter heard the concern in the boy's voice and wondered if his lecture was really necessary. Then he remembered it was Hawkeye he was talking to. "Well, " he began, "like a lot of vets, Margaret is working to adjust to life after Korea. In fact, life out of the army."
"Margaret in civvies?"
"She resigned her commission a few months ago. She's..searchin' , I reckon."
"Ain't we all..." he muttered under his breath. "Sherman, I would really like to get in touch with her."
"You heard from Hunnicut lately?" Potter tried to change the subject. " Now there's a happy ending to a draft story. A real nice little family, good prospects in his chosen profession...even good weather out there, I hear..."
"Colonel, is there a reason you won't give me Margaret's address?" he asked directly.
"Hawkeye, you know I cherish your friendship. But Margaret is vulnerable right now and I would take it very personally if you hurt her," he said bluntly.
Pierce was startled. "Colonel, I would never hurt Margaret. "
Potter sighed. "I know you would not mean to, Pierce. ...never on purpose, but-"
"Maybe she has hurt me."
"Maybe the two of you together just... don't fit..." he counseled.
"Maybe the two of us should make that decision." They paused the conversation again, and all they could hear was long distance static.
"Maybe she's in Chicago. At Clearwater 2-2556."
"Thank you, Colonel," he said formally.
"Don't hurt her, Pierce, " he warned, then added, "I want you to know, I gave Margaret the same advice about you."
"You never were any good at following orders, so I just gotta trust you two on this...don't let your old commanding officer down, huh?"
"You can't tell, but I am waving you a long-distance salute."
He had such anticipation for this phone call. First, he misdialed. Then he was surprised to notice his hand tremble. It was a call that could change the direction of his life, he thought. Or give direction to his life. He got as far as the second last number before setting the receiver back down, paced in a small circle, chuckling at himself. He took a deep breath, wiggled his fingers, cracked his knuckles, and finally placed the call. He counted the rings, waiting for her answer..
"Hello." When she did answer, her voice was subdued. flattened. Not exactly the voice of an angel, or even an enthusiast. But of course, she did not know yet that it was him, did not know the monumental importance of this conversation.
There was a pause and he held his breath for her response. It was terse.
"Margaret, how are you? Long time, no tease..."
" I..um...hello," she repeated."Hi, Hawkeye. How are you?" she inquired mechanically.
"I am...underwhelmed at the enthusiasm of your greeting. Chicago must really agree with you."
"How did you find me?"
"Through a mutual commanding officer," Hawkeye was disturbed at the direction this call of a lifetime was taking. "Uh, look, if this is a bad time to talk, I can-"
"No, it's fine, I'm just...surprised, is all. It's been awhile. How are you?"
"Older, if not wiser." He could almost feel her face crack into a smile." And you?"
"Ah, you do understand, Margaret, that this conversation is approaching the awkward stage?"
"Well, I am trying."
"You certainly are trying. Yep, you are one of the most trying people I know,." he quipped.
"Which is why you called the Colonel to track me down. And since he did give you my number, I assume he was satisfied with your motives. Are you that bored with peacetime?"
"I am bored with running round and round the mulberry bush of this conversation. Look, Margaret, I want to see you. I need to see you. Actually, I DO see you, all the time, but it's never really you. I hoped that if I could spend some time with the real you, this recurring blonde hallucination will stop following me around. So what's it to be? Will you take the first plane out east, or do I take the first couch to Sidney Freedman's?"
"Hawk..." she hesitated, then continued, uncharacteristically gentle. "Some things have changed..."
He refused to hear that. "There's a Midwest Airlines flight out of O'Hare in about-"
"-Ninety -three minutes-"
He was confused, and delighted. Yep. Just the effect Margaret Houlihan always had on him. At least that had not changed. "I'll meet ya under the big clock."
"No, I could just--well, OK, maybe that would be best. Unless you think..." she drifted off, fuzzy, unable to complete a thought or a decision. Now, that was different. The major had never had a problem making decisions before, nor remaining committed to them, even when they were wrong.
"You'll have a great time, Margaret. I promise. If you knew how much I am looking forward to spending time with you, well, you would tease me unmercifully to the end of my days."
"I've never been out East," she injected; inconsequentially, he thought.
"Well, travel is broadening, they say. It will be fun, I promise," he repeated, afraid that this strange woman on the other end of the phone line might yet change her mind, and he did not know if he could stand that now. And he wondered what she had done with His Margaret.
"OK," she replied, and set down the phone, disconnecting them
Hawkeye just stared an the receiver in his hand for a moment. His glee at connecting with Margaret was dimmed by her unusual demeanor.. He wondered if another call to Colonel Potter was in order; perhaps he would unravel the mystery if he knew that Margaret were coming, prepare him if necessary, for...whatever. The old man had hinted that she was "vulnerable," whatever that meant. Good grief, weren't they all?
"I am on medication," she told him that, first thing. He thought it was an odd way to renew an acquaintance. " So I no longer feel like 'leaping out of tall buildings in single bound'. Lately everything has been sort of...remote. But it's very calming," she reassured him. "Maybe you should try some. We make a great team, huh—you're manic, and I'm depressive," she gave an odd little laugh. "They wouldn't let me sign out of the hospital on my own. I had to put down the Colonel as next of kin, and he had to come fetch me. So embarrassing," she looked down. "But, they were probably right," she conceded. "My judgment has not been the greatest, lately. Witness this," she referred to her presence in Boston.
"This is a good thing, Margaret," he tried to reassure her.
"Honestly, Hawkeye, you can speak to me in words of more than one syllable. It's not my brain that's damaged. Just my soul."
"It's just a couple hours' drive back home but if you'd rather stay in Boston for the night, get some rest, we could start out fresh tomorrow..."
"Dammitt, I knew I shouldn't've told you. I knew I shoudn't 've come. You are going to mollycoddle me and be afraid of my every move and analyze my every word..."
"'Mollycoddle'? You may have visited in Hannibal too long.." he tried to joke. "The Colonel's colloquialisms are rubbing off."
"Sorry, Pierce," she twisted her head around, like a twitching trapped rabbit looking for an escape. "I am really really sorry, but I should not have done this. I'm sorry, but I have to go-" she sprang up from her seat in the coffee shop and tried to dash off but he grabbed her hand too quickly. He pulled her back down into the booth beside him. She struggled for a minute, then just went limp in his arms. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she started to cry.
Hawkeye did not know what to do. He had been a whiz in cardiac surgery. but not curing heartaches. It was so unlike Margaret to make a scene in public. The old Major he knew would never admit to personal weakness. Good thing everybody in the crowded airport coffee shop was too busy to bother noticing the troubled couple.
He held her gently but firmly, and she seemed to crave the closeness. He rubbed her back and crooned into her ear. "Hey, I know this nice little place, not far. I'll check you in, we'll order room service, put on the radio, just like any other bourgeoisie suburbanite tourists...It'll be nice, I promise..."
"You always promise, Pierce," she mumbled into his shirt.
"And I always deliver, right?" He put his fingers under her chin and raised her head until she could focus on his eyes."Right?"
"OK," she acquiesced.
Hawkeye slept little that night. He held Margaret in his arms as she cried herself to sleep. Then he paced around the small room in the moonlight. Now he regretted that they had not driven back to Crabapple Cove, where he would have access to his medical texts. He thought about calling Sidney Freedman, then put that notion on hold til he could observe her more closely. She had been right about that, he reluctantly agreed. Since she confided in him, he had been analyzing her every word. And she was probably fed up with being analyzed. Just as he had been when he returned to the 4077.
Pierce found himself in an uncomfortable arm chair, stiff from the little sleep he had managed. He looked across the room and saw the blankets begin to stir . "Good morning, Sunshine," he greeted.
"Ugh..." she groaned, not emerging from the cocoon of tangled bed sheets. "hwummiflegog.."
"Yeah, it is that. For my best imitation of a gentleman, I'll give you first crack at the shower."
That invitation was enough to make her rise up, and sit awkwardly cross-legged in the center of the bed. "Hey, Pierce...you didn't screw me last night".
"Wrong. Actually, we did not screw each other last night. I think that's a record for us: one in a row."
"I'm not what...who you were expecting when you made this offer, am I?" She looked so forlorn, he was reconsidering his position. He crossed over to the bed, sat beside her, pulled her head onto his shoulder.
"Oh, Baby..." he managed to convey so much sadness and hope and helplessness and strength and possibility into those two words that she knew exactly what he meant.. She reached her arm around and patted his back. It was a good strong gesture of recovery; it demonstrated that she was feeling for someone outside herself.
"You've lost weight," she observed, running her hand across his spine. "And you certainly didn't need to ," she scolded.
"I keep busy, run it off.."
"Manic," she declared.
"And...to be honest, food doesn't taste as good as I -- well, expected it to, post-Igor."
"We all had our expectations."
"He says I'm sposed to expect her," Daniel Pierce grumped, feeling that his good nature had been presumed upon by his son."Hmf. It's my house, dammitt, and I'm not so sure I want to play host to one of his -- a woman with some real problems, apparently." He was grousing long distance to Sherman Potter. The old Colonel had been considerable help when Daniel needed an understanding of how to help his son readjust after the war. The two men had bonded and spoke occasionally now across the miles, enjoying each other's observations and conversation.
"Well, you know how I feel about Margaret, she's a fine woman and I wish her every happiness. But much as I like them both, I can't help feeling there's a combustibility between them that ...well, I dunno…it's like the Fourth of July. Lots of noise and color and a spectacular few minutes, then it's all over, and there's just silence and sour smoke drifting in the air."
"Sherman, can you tell me any more about her problems? I'm just not convinced Hawkeye knows what he's getting into"
It was a long distance sigh. "I'm sorta bound by confidentiality, Dan. I guess I could share with you, without any details, that she's had a difficult few months, and she's getting better. Actually, I urged her to stay with us a little longer, to get stronger, but she was bound and determined to make her own way. Why she chose Chicago, I'll never know. But she wanted to be on her own, she said. And she's one strong - minded filly."
I bet I know why she chose Chicago, Dan thought to himself. Because it's 750 miles closer to Boston than Hannibal is.
"Yeah, well, I'll welcome her, I spose," agreed the flinty New Englander. "She seems to mean so much to the boy. Lord knows, Ben has had his history with the fairer sex, but ..."
" I know. Margaret has ridden the merry mixer of romance, too. But there's something different about the way these two interact. Even when they're apart, they're together, if you know what I mean...". Like Siamese twins that share one heart between them. Bound forever. I must be gittin' old, he mused and chuckled at his own poetic bent. Or mebbe it is that mush that Mildred reads, spillin' over onto me
She would have been nervous, but she was packing enough anti- depressants to keep her feelings at a distance. It was how she got through the days now, keeping life an arm's length away, observing rather than feeling. It was comfortable, calmer, safer. It was what she could have used back in Korea.
Why did everything always come back to Korea? Like the center of her life, and the rest of her experience merely spokes off the wheel. She had resigned her commission as an experiment, to see if there really was Life After Korea for her. So far, the experiment was a failure. Or maybe she was the failure. The big brave major who was so strong, so invulnerable. Invulnerable means to never be touched, explained her therapist; to be invincible means you may be touched, but you are never conquered. Margaret preferred invulnerable. It was less bother.
Why was Pierce bothering? That was the question.. Perhaps he was bored and needed a refreshing hijink to amuse himself. But then, why had he stayed, since she was so obviously not amusing.
He was unspeakably gentle towards her. And not in a condescending manner; that she would have detected and squelched at once. No, he didn't treat her like a patient. With him, she could be simply Margaret. And that was enough.
The closer the car got to Crabapple Cove, the faster her breath came, and she had to practice her measured breaths to maintain control. She was going to meet the man who meant so much to Hawkeye, and suddenly it mattered very much to her, that Daniel Pierce should like her. She wondered how much Hawkeye had told his father about her, and how many secrets she would have left to herself, and wanted the elder Pierce's respect, dreadfully much.
"I want him to like me," she whispered into the wind.
"He will adore you. I promise." He was at it again; Pierce's Promises. It was not that he was careless or thoughtless or regularly made reckless promises with no intention of keeping his word. Benjamin Franklin Pierce had a boyish optimism, that if he wanted something badly enough, he had the power to make it happen.She had seen him actually astounded when his will was thwarted by some person or circumstance. He always meant well, she conceded. But that didn't make it any less painful to the person who had believed him. So, she had the little bottle in her little bag. Just in case any one were to be disappointed in this enterprise.
He pulled the car over and took her hand. "Come on, I want to introduce you to my faithful mistress: she may wander away, pull back, but she always returns to me. She can be turbulent and troubled, or clear and glassy, or..."
"Yeah, I get it, I get it, the sea..." she interrupted his reverie.
She obeyed him, of course. Despite her better judgment, she had obeyed him, even when it came to this visit to his beloved Maine. Here was more proof that she just was not ready to take up life on her power yet. Too easily influenced; too needy for approval.
"My feet are sinking in the wet sand..!"
"Take off you shoes," he shrugged.
"And meet your father all barefoot and sandy? " she panicked. "Great, what will he think of me then?"
"He'll think you walked on the beach. It's a common habit here." She leaned on his arm, steadying herself and drew up one foot, unstrapping the pump, and then the other, and smiled to herself. Who'd've ever imagined that Pierce would be a stabilizing influence in her life?
It did not go unnoticed. "See, you are smiling already. The restorative powers of the sea," he attributed.
"It is awesome, " she agreed. He did not return her arm after she removed her shoes, but rather tucked it inside his, and strolled with her down the beach. With the pounding and whooshing of the waves, and the screeching of the sea birds, it was far from quiet, yet it was peaceful, rhythmic, and made her feel that all was well everywhere for everyone.
Daniel Pierce, MD, was absent when they arrived, which ticked Hawkeye off. He had given his father all the specifics about their arrival, and had expected him to be present to welcome them. Damn. His father knew how important this meeting was to him, and to Margaret, unsure of this entire episode. Hell, he had damn near unfurled the flags and cued the heralds to trumpet her arrival. The least his father could do, as Lord of the Manor, was show up on his own doorstep and offer a howdy-doo. The more he thought about it, the more he was perplexed by his father's attitude toward Margaret's visit. He was usually such a congenial host, so warm and welcoming. What was it about this particular visit, this particular guest, that had him acting in such an uncharacteristic manner?
He had been..well, cool to the whole notion of Margaret visiting their home. But being Hawkeye, eternally impulsive, he pushed aside the vibrations of reluctance he detected from his father, and the insecurity that clung to Margaret like a tight sweater, and insisted they follow his script entitled The Perfect Visit.
He offered Margaret a drink, and she accepted a glass of cranberry juice. Pierce could not keep still, moving from kitchen chair, to window, to pace the carpet, to sit again, but jiggling his leg.
Margaret could not miss his performance, and his jumpiness was beginning to confirm her nagging feeling that this had been just another disastrous idea. Not even a plan, just an impulse fed by- what? Loneliness? - Something more sinister, like desperation? Now here they were, stuck together in what appeared to be hostile territory. And it was too soon to take another pill.
"Uh, Margaret, I 'm gonna drop by the store, get some provisions...you can rest here, explore the house, take a nap, read a book..." Margaret interpreted his nervousness as regret that he had ever brought her here in the first place. "Be back in a flash." He kissed her cheek absently. "Here, I'll take up your bag to the guest room." She followed him up the creaky stairs past two rooms and opened the third for her. She settled on the bed, which also creaked.
"Is this place haunted?" she tried to joke.
"Only by the Ghost of Hospitality Past," he muttered to himself. "No," he replied to her, "but fair warning: if you try to creep into my room in the wee hours of the night, Dad'll hear you…." He shoved open a window. "There..fresh sea air, no extra charge..." he turned to her. " I'm sorry. I don't know what...this is not the way I pictured your introduction to.. to a place that means so much to me."
"Hawkeye, do you have to leave right now?"
Her timidity was not in his script, either.
"Be right back, " he replied, "promise," and disappeared down the stairs. She strained to listen to the creaking til it ended and she knew he was gone and she was alone in a house haunted by his dead mother, his absent father, and the spirit of a young idealistic doctor who had never noticed Korea on a map.
She tried to settle down but his nervousness had been contagious. She focused on the room itself. The bed beneath her felt sturdy. There was a plain chair and desk in the corner. A radio and a clock on the nightstand. Your basic, generic guest room provided by a household of men.
Now her feminine curiosity took over. Here was a chance to peek at the real Hawk's lair. She creaked her way down the hall to the door he had indicated was his and turned the doorknob. It opened (creaking, naturally) and admitted her into the private world of Benjamin Franklin Pierce, MD.
It was a plain room; but then, she had not anticipated Pierce to be partial to color or fabric. There was a double bed, mussed as though it was accustomed to being occupied. A pile of clothes added to the swamp-like ambiance. That much, at least, was familiar. The night stand held a radio, but no clock, as if time had no meaning or relevance here. And a half empty (or considering one's perspective, a half- full) bottle of gin poised like a monument. She picked up the empty glass from the floor, sniffed at it from habit, and replaced it beside the bottle, just to make certain no one tripped over it during a nocturnal raid. The unmade bed was wearing on her nerves, and she wondered if it would be too obvious if she made it up, smoothed the sheets and plumped the pillows. Or would that be too intrusive?
She forced herself not to look at that pile of discarded clothing, resisting her urge to gather them up in her arms and hang them or fold them or toss them into the overflowing hamper. From what she could observe, he liked color in his civvies; blues, reds, and conspicuously absent, any shade of green.
Now Margaret was getting a little unsettled.. He said, explore the house, right? This was part of the house, his room, his stuff...how much exploring was legitimate here, and how much curiosity was permitted before it became snooping? Well, she was not planning on raking through his underwear drawer, for heaven's sake
There was a half -finished letter on the desk. She assiduously avoided this. But the book sprawled open, pages down, was surely a fair target. Not personal. She picked the volume off the floor and was drawn to the underlined portion of a poem by his fellow New Englander, Edna St. Vincent Millay:
"Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go , the intelligent , the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."
"So very Hawkeye," she murmured, and had not realized she had spoken the words aloud.
"I spose this is where you're staying?"
The gruff voice had startled her, interrupting her search. She met his eyes, afraid he would not approve of her, or them, or her expedition into his son's room.
"Ah, no, I just came in ...to borrow a book. To read. This book-" she offered it forward, as evidence, trying not to babble, and not succeeding. "Hawkeye's gone out, he'll be right back," she said, hoping her shaky words would instantly produce his son. No such luck.
"Dan Pierce," he held out his hand.
"I am Margaret Houlihan," she recovered her composure. She had faced death, she told herself. She could face this old man, whether he approved of her or not.
"Would yeh like to see the house properly?" Even to Daniel's ears, that sounded mean. "The grand escorted tour, I mean?"
"Certainly. It is a lovely home, " Margaret remarked graciously." No wonder Hawkeye was so happy here. He was always bending someone's ear about his beloved Crabapple Cove.."
"Hmf," the elder Pierce grunted in reply and Margaret could feel his disapproval scorching her skin It had been a long time since he had been pestered to be social with a woman. His technique was rusty. He felt a tinge of guilt for behaving badly, but what did his son expect of him? Hawkeye sprung the whole idea on him, from long distance. The kid had moped around the house for nearly a year; then he makes one phone call and he ups and flies off west, and returns with this...woman from his past, from the war, for God's sakes, a woman whose name had featured prominently in his letters home, and not always in a flattering light.
A shrew, a hussy, then a divorcee, then remarkably, a confidante. Like all parents, Daniel Pierce wanted the best for his child. And since the death of the boy's mother, they had been closer than most fathers and sons, at least that is what Daniel had believed. Sherm Potter had good words for the woman. Of course, she was not dating his son.
Or were they even dating? When Daniel tried to understand their relationship, Hawkeye would hem and haw and say, 'good friends, special friends.' Exactly what did that mean, in this modern world? He sighed. Things used to be so much easier. In his day, women were mothers or sisters or wives or lovers. Or sluts. They sorted into categories, which defined a fellow's relationship with them neatly. They were rarely colleagues, even rarer, friends.
"Sorry," Hawkeye called into the room, "didn't expect to take so long. I picked up some supper-Hey, Dad..." he started up the stairs and gave his father an awkward hug. "Nice to be home. Sorry we missed you when we got here..."
"Yep, me too, Son. Got a call , had to go out across town."
Hawkeye's lips were in a straight line. "Yeah. Well, usually you leave a note or something. "
"I said I was sorry." It was a dismissive greeting that indicated the subject was now closed.
"Let's see what you brought," Margaret slid between the men smoothly and unpacked the brown bag. "Is this all for us?"
"Well, we had planned to say awhile- if that's convenient…" his voice developed a tense edge.
"This is your home, Son," the elder Pierce stated the obvious It was Hawkeye's home. And his. The end.
"Your father was just showing me the upstairs, maybe you would like to show me around down here?"
"Sure, come on, I'll show you the parlor and I'm sure Dad will be happy to start supper...?" The look that passed between the men was one of ancient warfare of the alpha pack. Hawk took her arm and pointed out some of the woodwork and fancy stuff that women always seemed to like to "ooh" at.
She tugged on his arm. "Hawk, I think I should have supper then find a place to stay."
"You have a place to stay," he said stubbornly. "Your bag is already there, and it's right next to me."
"No, really, I really think I need to leave."
"You want to stay in town?"
"No, I want to stay in Chicago." A Houlihan recognized the timing for a tactical retreat.
" Chicago, again? What is it with Chicago?"
"It's a toddlin' town-- I like to toddle-- I am a toddlin' kinda gal--." She was getting frantic. "I need to get back."
"I don't hear you say, ' I need to get home.' "
"Because I don't have a bloody home," she glared at him now. "Don't you get it? I have a flat to hang my hat. I don't have a home, in Chicago, or any place else. It's all temporary. Nothing belongs to me - and I don't belong any where..." she tried to charge past him and disappear upstairs, but he would have none of it.
"I promised you a nice visit,." he insisted.
"It's just a disappointment...I don't even keep count of them any more. It's all right, Pierce, a nice gesture, I know you tried. Please let me go now." Her voice was so bruised he dropped her arm instantly to avoid hurting her any further. He watched her stride up the steps with dignity, head high, and duck around the corner to the guest room. Then Hawkeye slammed out of the front door.
Sometime later Margaret crept back downstairs cradling her overnight bag , peering around corners for Hawkeye, to say good-bye.
"I'm afraid he's not back yet, Miss Houlihan,'' said the elder doctor.
Figuring she had burned her bridges, she no longer felt any compunction to shrink before him. Margaret stretched her posture straight to meet his level gaze. " I never meant to...to do whatever I've done to you, Dr. Pierce."
She shook her golden head. "You disapprove of me. Perhaps it would be better if we each just kept our dignity and said good-bye. I'll call Hawk and explain that...something came up and I had to go back."
"I didn't hear you say, 'I have to go home...'".
"What is it with you Pierce men?" her voice rose. " Are you simply genetically aggravating?"
He guffawed. "Now, that sounds like the Houlihan I was led to expect."
" Dr Pierce- " she continued sharply.
"Daniel," he repeated.
"Dr.Pierce-" she snapped, "we both know Hawkeye is no monk. I can't believe he has never introduced you to another female friend."
"Not one I had to share with, " he confessed quietly. "Oh, they'd come awhile and drift off. But there was never a threat that I would have to actually - share him with any one. And now there's you. And even when we're here, he and I alone, he's not all here." He looked hard at Margaret. "I think a very important part of him has been in Chicago. "
She looked away from his direct gaze. "He's not mine to share," she whispered.
"I think you're wrong about that."
Her eyes stayed steadily on the carpet. "I half - hoped something corny would happen, say, you have a heart attack and I save your life, or maybe I fall off a cliff and you rescue me...but I guess that's just not going to happen for us, Dr.Pierce. Nothing dramatic, nothing life altering. Just you and me, both loving him, both needing him, and only one of us willing to share. "
"Hmf. You run away now, you know who he'll blame. He'll be out of here so fast he won't need a plane. With his credentials he can make a life anywhere, even Chicago. Even with you."
"I"ll leave him a note; I'll call him and explain." She looked directly into the old man's eyes. "I won't blame you. I refuse to come between-"
"So, you won't fight for him,eh? Just as well you're leaving, then."
"We don't have to fight; we could both win," she made one last effort to persuade the flinty New Englander.before she stomped down the front porch stairs punctuating each step with a word. "Stubborn (step) arrogant (step) selfish (step)...Ouff!" she had collided into the younger Pierce stomping up the stairs. She dropped her bag and teetered on the edge of a step, arms flailing. Hawkeye exploited his opportunity and made a mad grab for her
"Is the job taken or can any Pierce apply?"
"Can't you see I'm off-balance!"
"And whenever you're feeling unbalanced,. I want you to call a doctor. And fortunately for you--and for me, may I add-- I happen to be a physician…who has also been unbalanced. My card," with a flourish, he offered her a rumpled scrap of paper, which she scanned.
"Pierce, this is not your address."
"Correct, Madame, that is my new address. I've rented a cottage in Old Town, just a few miles from here, but it's a start. Dad…" he turned to face his father, "I think it's time I grew up; time you let me grow up."
" And as long as we're making introductions today- -my name's Ben." He held out his hand to his father; two strong men, hewn from the same New England granite. Daniel Pierce grasped his son's hand, then pulled him close for a rough hug. The scene brought Margaret to silent tears. She turned to exit what had become a private reunion.
"Hold on there, Missy," the older doctor called her back. "Eh…Ben…I've been thinking. I really don't need this big old house. Really, I was just staying here so you'd have a familiar place to come home to. It's your home, and if you like, I could take the lease on the cottage…"
"Dad, no,this is your home…"
He snorted. " I told yeh, it's a silly big place for a pair of old batchelors to grump around in. You take it, maybe rent out part of it to..somebody. Somebody who needs a home." He looked squarely at Margaret.
"Oh, no," she lifted her hands in protest. "Certainly not. I am not coming between you two. Let me see the cottage, maybe I'll take it." She was astonished at the words coming out of her mouth, and even more, the assertive spirit behind them.
"What is this, musical houses?" Hawkeye said. "I'm not looking for a roomie."
"Neither am I," Margaret denied quickly. "It's just, a cottage by the sea…sounds so cozy. I bet I could make it really cute, too, with the right colors and –if the landlord would approve."
Hawkeye rolled his eyes, remembering how she had always managed to create a unique, comfortable nest out of a standard army tent.
"No, you don't," growled Daniel Pierce. "No frills and laces. That's where I plan to put my pool table."
"Dad, you don't play pool," his son reminded him.
"I've been meaning to start. And I'd appreciate a little privacy to entertain all the new friends I intend to make," he stubbornly staked his claim to the cottage.
"Well, how about it, Margaret ?" Hawkeye turned to her. "Could use a woman's touch…and so could I…" he admitted, "and the landlord would love you—as often as possible." He waggled his eyebrows. "It really is a nice old house," he stepped closer and dangled the keys in front of Margaret's nose. " I promise."