An Englishman Abroad
Having escaped the courthouse, Howie Slattery dropped by the office of his friend, Dr. Charles Winton, to see if he was ready for cocktails at the Bollinger House. Winton's nurse assured him that the doctor was with his last patient of the day, and would certainly be ready for a drink afterwards. Howie consequently took a seat in the waiting room and picked up a copy of Time. He put it down in some disgust on discovering that it was the July, 1959 issue, more than a year out of date.
From his seat he could see through the slightly open door into the inner office. A woman who looked fairly young from the back was seated in front of Winton's desk. Across it, facing her, and almost facing Howie, was Winton himself. Not for the first time, Howie was aware that the doctor could have cut quite an impressive figure. Six feet seven inches tall and heavily muscled, he also had a deep authoritative voice which still had a definite English accent. This voice, even without the accent, was well suited for dealing with hypochondriacs.
Winton had been in America for over a decade, and, while he still seemed English in the American middle west, he had confided to Howie that he had actually become Americanized in so many ways as to profoundly disturb his parents. Symbolic of this process had been his acceptance of the nickname, 'Chuck,' one that would have caused any proper Englishman to wince.
Whether or not Winton was handsome was open to question. At least to Howie, he had an elusive look in the eyes and a faintly raffish aspect. Even now, in what was probably a completely above-board session with his patient, one had the feeling that he might wink slyly at her.
It was only a few minutes before the patient, a tall handsome woman with black hair, came out. Winton was out a minute later, and, seeing Howie, he boomed out,
"Counsellor Slattery. I hope you've come to take me for a drink."
Even when the doctor was at his most relaxed, as now, he sounded a little like the president of a corporation greeting a visiting dignitary. Howie replied,
"Well, I had more than a few too many last night, but I seem to be ready for another."
Winton responded by laying a hand heavily on his shoulder. It was only with Winton, a few inches taller and some forty pounds heavier, that Howie felt small, or even middle-sized. It was a joke between them that they must together look like a remnant of a basketball team that had dissolved suddenly in the middle of Illinois.
The friendship between the two men had begun almost when Howie arrived in Bollinger, just over a year previously. He had had chronic stomach trouble for some years, including an ulcer that seemed to appear and disappear. After asking a few questions about doctors, Howie discovered that Winton was the youngest. Assuming that the youngest would be the best, Howie had gone to him.
On Howie's first visit, the two had discovered that they were both Harvard graduates, the only two in town. Each had come to treat this fact almost as if it were a dirty secret. Ordinary midwesterners tended to be suspicious of Harvard and all that went on there. In addition, they often expected Harvard men to be arrogant and supercilious. At best, it took some time and effort to allay their fears. Howie discovered Winton's secret only by inspecting a diploma hanging in an obscure place, and then made his own confession. In the course of discussing the problems of life in Bollinger, they found that they had a good deal else in common. Lunch followed, and, ever since, they had met frequently.
Beginning in the previous spring, they played golf together, and that, too, had gone well. The orphanage hadn't encouraged golf, but Howie had picked it up in college, and had quickly developed a fairly competent game. Winton hit tremendous shots that often crashed into the woods or bounced off nearby houses. Howie almost always won, but Winton played more picturesquely. At one point, Winton had proposed,
"To even things up, let's let me take two strokes off each time I find a ball other than my own in the woods."
Howie agreed happily, with the result that he occasionally had to pay for the refreshments at the end of the round. It was after one of those games, one Winton had won by finding no fewer than five balls, that they began to exchange confidences.
Howie started by spilling the beans about his age and general background. Chuck was quite astonished, and replied,
"That may shed some light on your stomach problems. Isn't it rather difficult socially to be a child prodigy?"
"It can be. That's why I stopped being one."
"And I'm the only one here who knows?"
"I expect it was easier at Harvard. They must be used to prodigies."
"I did well there, and got on well with professors, particularly the ones in the economics department. Then I went to law school, which was probably a mistake. I was a kid among a lot of greedy careerists. I lost interest and did so badly that I graduated near the bottom of the class. That's why I'm here."
Chuck, fourteen years older than Howie's actual age, had a rather different story to tell. After some difficulties in England, he came to America as an undergraduate. He hadn't had an easy time of it academically, but had gradually improved his grades. He had thus gotten into a good medical school, and had graduated well. Next had come an internship and residency in internal medicine at a large and prominent hospital in New York. As he said to Howie,
"I was headed for a good medical career in the east, but I ran into some professional problems in my last year in residency, and here I am. I suppose we've come to the same place for something of the same reasons."
Howie didn't ask what those professional problems had been, and a sympathetic murmur of agreement laid the issue to rest. On the other hand, the mere admission that there had been a problem was more than one would have expected from Chuck. That, together with Howie's admission of his own relative failure, had led to an easy bantering relationship between the two men in which they could talk with each other more openly than with anyone else in Bollinger.
Arriving at the hotel, Howie led the way to the cocktail lounge, a hangout for the more affluent men in a relatively poor town. They were the first to arrive, and they settled down and ordered their beers. Chuck remarked,
"I got a call from my college room-mate this afternoon. He's been divorced a couple of years now, and he's just gotten engaged."
"Is that good?"
"I haven't met the lady. He's pretty euphoric, and I'm afraid his expectations are too high."
"I thought people were more realistic the second time."
"Most probably are, but Bob's an incurable optimist. What were your room-mates like?"
"My first room-mates were three guys from a New England prep school who definitely didn't want to get to know the product of a Texas orphanage. The fact that I was a compulsive liar may also have unnerved them. They locked things up rather conspicuously, and, as a sort of riposte, I ate any food that they left lying around. They eventually complained to the dean."
"So you got some new room-mates."
"Yeah. The next one was a middle-aged man, the only person his age Harvard had taken as a freshman in a hundred years."
"Was the idea that the very young and the very old would balance each other out?"
"Apparently. He tried to act as if he were eighteen, to the extent of wearing scuffed white bucks and following all the current fads. It was ridiculous, but I didn't mind. We got on all right until he had a total nervous breakdown. I always thought it was the strain of trying to act thirty years younger. I was trying to act older, but I didn't have as big a gap to cover."
"What happened then?"
"All this took about two months, and then they put me in Holworthy Hall with a bunch of other guys who'd been thrown out of their original dorms. They were mostly football and basketball players from Brooklyn."
"That's peculiar. I don't think I met any athletes at Harvard. I knew lots of people from New York, but I don't remember anyone distinctively from Brooklyn."
"These guys were very distinctive. They spoke a particular Jewish dialect that put 'awready' on the end of most sentences. They also said 'youse guys' and other similar things. One of them, Herby, was a guard in football. He'd line up in front of the brick fireplace and hit it with his forearms and butt it with his head. He said the other players felt soft by comparison."
"Was he an idiot?"
"Not in the least. They were all quite bright, and did well in their classes."
"How extraordinary! I had some friends from poor families who were on scholarship, but they were pretty much like everyone else. In fact, the people who spoke with bad grammar were the decadent rich boys, and it was an affectation with them."
"I never met anyone like that."
"It's almost as if we weren't at the same university."
"My group was pretty isolated from the rest of the university, but I felt so comfortable with them that I stayed with them all four years. The first day in Holworthy, Herby came into the living room and said, 'Hey, youse guys, I've just had the greatest shit of my life, and I want everybody to come see, awready.'"
"Oh yes. We all filed in to see, and there was an enormous turd in the toilet bowl."
"I gather that you flourished in this atmosphere."
"It was perfect for a thirteen year old. One day, we had a friendly pillow and furniture fight. The pillows burst, and the furniture was reduced to sticks."
"Where did you sleep?"
"We just put the mattresses on the floor in the middle of the mess. Then, the others pitched empty quart beer bottles to me, and I hit them with a baseball bat. We found that, when I hit them just right, the glass practically granulated."
"How did you get it up?"
"We didn't. The maid refused to come, and we said that was okay. We lived the rest of the year that way."
"I don't suppose there would be one person in a million who'd be comfortable in those circumstances. The dormitory people evidently chose well."
"I think they just wound up putting the barbarians together. Another of our unifying principles was that, if a stranger knocked on our door, we opened it and didn't say anything at all. We then threw him down the stairs."
"Do you miss this sort of thing now, Howie?"
"I don't think I need to have glass on the floor now. We did calm down a bit by the time we graduated. And I did have one friend who wasn't like that."
"Who was he, the son of a Mafia don?"
"Well, actually, he's the son of the chief of Chiang Kai- Shek's secret police. His father is probably worse than a Mafia don, but Shih-Ninh is quite small and intellectual, and he was the next youngest person in my class. He was the one who got me to go to law school. He said girls would never take us seriously if we didn't become lawyers. It worked for him. He got married."
Just then, the others began to drift in. They greeted one another by first name, except for Chuck, who was 'Doc,' and Judge Conant, who was addressed as 'Judge.'
The talk was general and random at first, but it tended to center on local politics and the forthcoming fall elections. One of the men, Ken Seitz, was a city councillor. The conversation was rather restrained until Seitz, a large jovial man, burst out good-humoredly,
"It's all right, Jackie, you bastard. I know you're not going to vote for me, but you don't have to hide behind Joe over there."
There was a burst of laughter, and the discomfited man, somewhat pink, joined in it himself. After a few minutes, Seitz observed,
"That goddam girls' school on the edge of town is buying the Sanders farm. They want the land so the girls can ride and bring their horses to school with them. There goes a bit more of our tax base."
Someone else broke in,
"I wouldn't mind if they had local girls in the school or contributed to the community in some way."
"None of our girls are rich or toney enough for em. It's a Catholic school, but they won't even take the local Catholic girls."
"The nuns and teachers don't shop here. They must go over to Orrville."
"They don't buy their supplies here either. So far as I know, they have nothing to do with the town at all."
Chuck then spoke,
"I'm the doctor out at St. Monica's."
Seitz looked at him appraisingly.
"That surprises me. I thought sure they'd want a Catholic doctor. Do you mean you give the girls physicals and stuff?"
When Chuck nodded, Seitz replied,
"I didn't think they'd let a young stud like you anywhere near the girls. I'd have sent them old Doc Bradley."
"They used to have him, but they were looking for someone cheaper. The girls may be rich, but the school cuts all the corners."
"The fuckin rich always do."
The group broke up presently, but Howie and Chuck remained. Chuck said to him,
"I've at times wondered how you manage to fit in so well with these people who hardly know there's a world outside Bollinger. But I can see now that they're civilized compared to your college room-mates."
"Very much so. I doubt that Ken Seitz would invite people to admire his stools."
"Quite probably not. Do you think, Howie, that this sort of outlook might have put off some of the young ladies you've approached?"
Howie laughed and replied,
"Anyhow, I'm a reformed character now."