Saturday, September 7, 2013

Nurse in Acapulco

By Jane Converse
(pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1964
Mrs. Breckenridge’s maniacal possessiveness had turned her handsome son into a peevish playboy, her daughter into a shrill, contemptuous and cheating wife, her son-in0law into a drunken failure. When it seemed as though one of her captives might break away, Mrs. Breckenridge had another heart attack and threatened to change her will. In accepting the wealthy hypochondriac as a patient, special nurse Donna Walton had no way of knowing that she was to be used as bait in the old woman’s devious scheme to keep her son by her side … forever.
“They close the bullring and jai-alai court for the summer. The really chic parties don’t get off the ground before December. Prepare to perish, Miss Waldron.”
We’ve been to Acapulco before, in Beauty Contest Nurse and the other Nurse in Acapulco. This trip is about as successful—which is to say, not very—as our last two expeditions, I’m sorry to say. Here, it’s Donna Walton who is stalking the moonlight beaches and feeling “deeply touched by the warm, trusting simplicity of these people, by their unsophisticated love.” Donna’s come to Mexico to care for an aging (but not old, she’s in her 50s) hypochondriac Grace Breckenridge, who keeps her children, Enid and the unfortunately named Buzzy, on a short leash that they dare not slip, lest she cut off the funding for their louche lives of luxury. Donna has only agreed to take this job because she’s come off a particularly demanding case, caring for a terminally ill cancer patient for the past seven months. For once, this dying patient is actually broke, and Donna received no pay for her final nine weeks of work when he ran out of money. So she needs a vacation, and she needs to replete her bank account; this job, which pays twice her normal salary, seems to fit both bills.
But at what cost? There’s the small matter of her conscience, soon smote when she’s called to help an actual injured patient, the grandchild of the hacienda’s gardener. When she delivers the boy to the local medico, Dr. Emilio Camargo, who has a garden full of impoverished patients waiting hours to be seen, he asks her, “You will come again, no? When you have nothing of greater importance to do than that which you are doing from day to day?” Her agenda thus far has been no more taxing than learning to surf, attending parties, and playing bridge, and she thinks, “I wish he’d had reason to respect me as a nurse, instead of looking at me as though I was a conscious parasite.”
Then a houseguest arrives, an old friend of Enid’s husband, Kenny. Dr. Stanley Sherwood, a psychiatrist practicing in New York, went to medical school with Kenny before Kenny married Enid and decided to switch careers and become a kept boy and gin aficionado, though I’m sorry to report that he appears to prefer his cocktails served in a coconut shell rather than in a coupe, so low has his self-worth fallen. For Dr. Sherwood, Donna decides after one day with him, “she herself had waited all her life.” But how does he feel? Ah, if only these women of the 1960s actually had the gumption to just initiate an honest conversation. One night, when a drunken Enid accuses Donna of running after Buzzy, Kenny, Dr. Camargo, and now Dr. Sherwood, the latter overhears, but she takes no action at all. “If he had heard Enid’s vicious accusations, there was no way of knowing what conclusions he had reached. To throw a robe over her nightgown now, to deliberately run out into the corridor and deny the accusations Enid had made, might only give them credence.” Really?
So while he goes off to a conference for five days—and will he ever return for her?—she works in the evenings at Dr. Camargo’s clinic to buff up her conscience and reputation. The days pass, and pass, and no call from Stan, though when she learns that Stan is staying at a nearby hotel, she actually manages to pick up the phone. He’s not in, though, and she’s just hung up when an earthquake strikes! Because there’s nothing as redemptive as a major natural disaster to improve everyone’s character! The hacienda’s idle rich leap into action: Enid opens the house to wounded victims and cares for them to her best ability, Kenny forcibly drags his brother-in-law from under a chandelier that collapses moments later and then labors with Enid to tend the wounded, Buzzy taps his ham-radio hobby to contact San Diego for a pint of “rare” blood, AB positive (though in fact they can receive blood from about 92 percent of the population; it’s AB negative that’s the rarest blood type, carried by only 1 percent of the population). Stan and Donna, of course, work with Dr. Camargo at the clinic, and sad, hysterical, screaming Mrs. Breckenridge is left untended—indeed, she’s told to “mix yourself a drink and relax” while everyone else works tirelessly. When the crisis has passed, Enid and Kenny are plotting to buy a house near the University of California in Berkeley, apparently unaware that the otherwise stellar educational powerhouse has no medical school, and Stan is suggesting that instead of returning to her job in Oregon, Donna might instead consider New York. But that’s it for redemption; Buzzy’s emancipation is anticipated but not witnessed, and we never learn whether the histrionic Mrs. Breckenridge rebounds from her abandonment.
Jane Converse can be a very fine writer (see Surf Safari Nurse, Nurse in Crisis), but most of the time she settles for mediocrity, as she does here, perhaps opting for quantity over quality (indeed, she was a very prolific writer). Now and again we get the slight sparkle of her sharp wit, but Mrs. Breckenridge, the screaming matriarch character—one I usually enjoy and one of Jane’s usual stock in trade—is no Angela Di Marco, the gin-soaked faded movie star with running mascara and bedraggled marabou from Nurse on Trial; rather, here our grande dame just lamely clutches her heart and sways with eyes closed when her brief screaming harangues are not meeting with success. Donna’s concern that Stan isn’t going to come back to Acapulco after hearing Enid’s slander seems completely silly; after becoming acquainted with both women during his stay, if Stan doesn’t realize the relative substance of each, he’s not worth Donna’s heartache. But I am never impressed when the heroine worries excessively about a ridiculous “crisis” yet fails to take any action whatsoever to set the situation to rights. Nor do I enjoy a ham-handed resolution to everyone’s problems, where personal growth seems more contrived than earned. So while I will always regard Jane Converse as a talent, little is in evidence in Acapulco.

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