The Cider House Rules

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Authors: John Irving
year of medical school young Wilbur carried a bacterium that so offended and pained him that he was driven by more than scientific curiosity to discover its cure. He had gonorrhea: a gift, indirectly, from his father. The old man, in his beer buzz, had been so proud of Wilbur that he sent him to medicine school in 188_ with a present. He bought the boy a Portland whore, setting up his son with a night of supposed pleasure in one of the wharfside boardinghouses. It was a present the boy had been too embarrassed to refuse. His father’s selfish nostalgia allowed him so few gestures toward his son; his mother’s bitter righteousness was selfish in her own way; young Wilbur was touched that his father had offered to give him anything.
    In the boardinghouse—the wood dry with salt and a sea-damp clinging to the curtains and to the bedspread—the whore reminded Wilbur of one of his mother’s more attractive servant-colleagues; he shut his eyes and tried to imagine that he was embarking on a forbidden romance in a back room of the mayor’s mansion. When he opened his eyes, he saw the candlelight deepening the stretch marks across the whore’s abdomen; he didn’t know they were stretch marks, then. The whore seemed unconcerned whether Wilbur noticed the stretch marks or not; in fact, as they fell asleep with his head on her stomach, he was vaguely wondering if the woman’s wrinkles would transfer to his face—marking him. A sharp, unpleasant smell awakened him and he moved quickly off the woman, without disturbing her. In a chair in the room, the one where she’d put her clothes, someone was smoking a cigar—Wilbur saw the end glow brighter with each inhalation. He assumed that a man—the whore’s next customer—was politely waiting for him to leave, but when he asked if there was a fresh candle to light (he needed to locate his clothes), it was a young girl’s voice that answered him.
    “You could have had me for less,” was all she said. He could not see her distinctly but—since there was no fresh candle—she lit his way to his clothes by puffing earnestly on her cigar, casting both a red glow and a haze of smoke over his search. He thanked her for her help, and left.
    On the morning train to Boston, he was embarrassed to meet the whore again. A chatty woman in the daylight, she was carrying a bandbox with the authority of a chronic shopper; he felt obliged to give her his seat on the overcrowded train. A young girl was traveling with the whore—“my daughter,” the whore said, indicating the girl with a jab of her thumb. The daughter reminded Wilbur that they’d already met by breathing her astonishingly foul cigar breath into his face. She was a girl not quite Wilbur’s age.
    The whore’s name was Mrs. Eames—“She rhymes with screams!” Wilbur’s father had told him. Mrs. Eames told Wilbur she was a widow who lived a proper life in Boston, but that in order to afford such a life she found it necessary to sell herself in some out-of-the-way town. She begged Wilbur to allow her to keep her appearances and her reputation intact—in Boston. Wilbur not only assured her that her reputation was safe with him; he also, unasked, paid her more money of his own, on the spot, than his father had originally paid the woman. The amount of the original payment, he learned later—when his father told Wilbur that Mrs. Eames was a proper Portlander of good reputation who occasionally was obliged to sell herself in Boston so that she might afford to keep up her appearances in Portland. As an old favor to Wilbur’s father, she had allowed—“Just this once!”—the exception of lowering herself in her hometown.
    Wilbur’s father didn’t know that Mrs. Eames had a daughter, who—by her own confession—cost less than her mother and made no pretense of keeping up appearances in either Boston or Portland. The sullen girl never spoke on the train ride into Boston’s North Station; her cigar breath and her scornful

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