Excerpt from Dra---
by Stacey Levine

Dra--- takes its title from its clumsy, uncertain protagonist who searches during the course of the book for what will bring her the most comfort in life: a steady clerical job. She also searches , in vain, for the Nurse, a chilly, elusive figure who can never quite be located. And in the meantime, Dra--- encounters a gallery of oddball militaristic characters whose philosophies about are often baffling to her.

...A low, wide adjacent hallway caught her eye; and looking in, she saw in its center a huge bank of telephones and further on, behind opaque glass doors, the Employment Office itself. And so breathless, she ran to the phones, eager, choosing one--which was difficult, and took time, though all the phones were the same--and dialed Doctor Billy's number, an old, old number from a different era, and she wondered how such an outmoded, lengthy sequence of numbers could actually create a connection. But it did; she heard the broken buzzing tones in the earpiece, and decided to leave an urgent message with the doctor's receptionist if she could not be connected to the phone in the doctor's bedroom. Trying with difficulty to recall his kindish, looming face, she also decided to ask him, for once, just how many patients he really had, and if all of them paled in comparison to her, which she suspected they did. And at last, with relish, she would make an appointment with the doctor, and also a prefatory appointment with his nurses, just in order to spend time catching up with them--and the prospect of all this was so heartening that her heart quivered,--and she did not want to wait, but instead to soar mindlessly as if upon vapor into the doctor's dusty little set of rooms, to land on his exam table and prepare to lie still, steadying herself against the squall of curious impulses which always fell upon her while the doctor performed an exam, trying to determine what was wrong.

Blinking, eyes casting up and down the hall, listening to the receiver's continuous ringing tones, she imagined the doctor's glowing reassurance that she was, in fact, his most fascinating patient, the one whom he privately celebrated; and, smiling, she imagined asking him two intimate questions about his own oft-repeated bodily functions, just so she could know something, anything about him. But she imagined the doctor, at that juncture, hearing her questions, would become so violently angry with her that he would vanish, in effect, so she abruptly hung up the phone, staring at the faint electric glow around the stall, vaguely seeking its source.

And she realized, taking small steps away from the telephones, that she did not really want to see Doctor Billy at all. Of course she did not want to see him, but instead the Nurse--and her thoughts and wishes suddenly flew to the Nurse, the Employee Nurse whose job it was to care for employees everywhere; it was naturally the Nurse she needed, not the doctor, because the doctor knew nothing about her, really, in the end, and so her thoughts clung to the Nurse, who with her vaulting forehead and steely stare Dra--- had known for quite some time, though not long enough, but for now, she must call the Nurse now and never speak to the old doctor again.

As if frightened, she hurtled herself back to the dark, empty bank of telephones and dialed the Nurse's number, heart and body thrilling to the thought of the Nurse picking up the old, heavy, buzzing phone and speaking who knew what words, what blank, terse phrases, and Dra--- steadied herself, since the Nurse, so frequently warm, could just as often be stern and snappish. Also worrisome was the prospect of the Nurse never picking up the call, and that it might be answered by a lackey.

Yet the Nurse, with her starched-smelling uniform and sure hands, was always much more available than a doctor ever was, and the Nurse's appointment slots were far longer than any doctor's. One could stay with the Nurse up to an hour and even longer--proof that the Nurse was more thorough than a doctor, for the Nurse fielded questions, waiting long, torturous moments before answering them, and it was important to remind oneself that the Nurse might be crabby at any given time.

Not too long ago, even while still in school, Dra-- had devised various means of visiting the Nurse, taking advantage of the woman's long appointment slots, and wind up, for one reason and another, lingering whole afternoons and week-ends in the Nurse's office, reading pamphlets, daydreaming and the like while every hour the Nurse would sternly look through the crack in the door, to the satisfaction, it seemed, of them both. Often in those days she had made such visits up to two times a week; and one week, she actually had made three visits. And one time, Dra--- purposefully skipped a few appointments, a tack which proved quite effective in ruffling the Nurse; in fact, she had been so disturbed that she had even admitted, through tiny, gritted foreteeth, that she, the Nurse, had grown accustomed to Dra---'s visits and now rather missed them.

And there was no matching the sensation of this remark, nor the overall excitement of stirring the Nurse's sentiments in various ways; so after this, Dra--- had tried to draw various threads of such sentiment from the Nurse, often with subtly rich results--until the Nurse had grown severely cross and had forbidden further games--so all in all, going to see the Nurse was much more gratifying than seeing a doctor, hands down.

The phone rang on and on, but no one, not even a secretary, picked up the call. Finally she heard a click in the earpiece and a long, sonorous hum, which may have indicated something dire, such as the death of the Nurse, though perhaps the employees were just away from the desk. As a matter of course, Dra--- knew, the Nurse was extremely busy and often doled out work to substitute nurses and other coarse-facedhelpers who were wholly unfit for nursing, Dra--- knew, and who strayed badly from their tasks.

It was usually best to avoid substitutes, she reminded herself, since after all, there was no substitute for the Nurse, with her stiff, sheetlike face and well-shaped wig. It was always eminently satisfying to hover near the Nurse, waiting long hours even for a terse smile; and though substitute nurses had the potential to be amusing or to possess information about the Nurse herself, they could also be gruff, or even male.

With these provocative thoughts in mind, Dra--- quickly hung up the phone, knowing very well that she did not want to reach a substitute on the phone, but only the real Nurse. Suddenly she remembered that once, years ago, while detouring through an unfamiliar bank of offices, she had, completely by chance, glimpsed the Nurse staring gloomily through a dark window, hands on hips, wearing only a girdle.