A New Development
Since Chuck Winton worked Saturdays, and Howie didn't, it seemed the best time for him to make his approach to Mrs. Winton. He had, as promised, drawn up a petition to ban the dirty bookstores. It might actually become useful at some point, and, to warm up, he tried one other house first. He there received short shrift, but felt that his act had been plausible.
Howie punched the Wintons' doorbell with quite clear expectations. She would be extremely good-looking, perhaps beautiful. She would be tall, blond, and imperious. She might well dismiss him with half a dozen words. The door opened quickly. The woman revealed was tiny, hardly five feet, and wasn't beautiful. She had a little upside down mouth below a prominent nose and rather small deep set eyes. On the other hand, she had glossy dark hair, a clear light complexion, and a slim elegant figure. Howie introduced himself, slurring his last name, and went into his spiel. He didn't disclose the fact that he was himself prosecuting the case, and instead sought to give the impression that he was a small-time political hack who was given jobs such as this one.
It was when Mrs. Winton spoke that Howie got another surprise. His first, momentary, impression was that she had a lisp. His thought was that Chuck couldn't possibly be married to this woman, and that, if he was, he should have given his friend a warning. It also briefly flashed into Howie's mind that this might be the cleaning lady. A brief glance down at her costume dispelled that idea. She was beautifully and expensively dressed, probably about to undertake one of those trips to Orrville.
Howie soon realized that Mrs. Winton didn't have a speech defect, just an unusual, and rather crisp, way of pronouncing her words. It was solemn, possessed of dignity, and really rather charming. She replied,
"I'm not much interested in the issues surrounding adult book stores, but I'll be happy to read your petition."
She didn't so much invite Howie in as open the door wide and walk slowly away. He hesitated, but, when she looked back expectantly, he came in and closed the door.
Now getting a better look at his hostess, Howie was impressed with her grace and posture, and with her obvious social confidence. Carefully managing her skirt, she sat lightly on a rather straight and uncomfortable-looking little chair. Across from it was an unusually large easy chair, obviously belonging to Chuck. She waved Howie to it, again without any words. As he sat down, it struck him that this was an absurd household, containing, as it did, a giant and a midget. Everything, he supposed, would be either extra large or extra small. It was like the home of the Three Bears, except that there was no middle-sized bear.
Despite her promise, Mrs. Winton made no move to read the petition, merely placing it on the table beside her. Howie began to discourse on his brief. He had always been conscious of having the gift for gab. He could pick any starting point, no matter how ridiculous, and make a case for it. Mrs. Winton started by looking directly at him, as if wondering what species of animal he was, but then smiled at one of his back-handed allusions to conventional morality in Bollinger. He could see what Chuck meant. She didn't smile easily, but it was nice when she did.
At one point Mrs. Winton remarked,
"But suppose that the adult book store is replaced by one that sells only Bibles. The present clientele might discover the erotic passages in Scripture and carry on just as disgracefully as they do now."
It was impossible not to laugh, and Mrs. Winton joined him. She then apologized for not offering him coffee. When he accepted her belated offer, she moved toward the kitchen. In such circumstances, Howie would have expected the average midwestern visitor to accompany his hostess to the kitchen and continue the conversation while she made coffee. However, there was still an aura about Mrs. Winton which suggested that he should stay where he was. He therefore spent the next few minutes observing the books and objects of art in the living room while restrained noises came from the kitchen. It seemed to him highly unlikely that this lady indulged herself in extra-marital affairs.
Mrs. Winton soon returned. When she was in the act of handing him his cup, she said,
"Chuck sent you here to test me, didn't he?"
Howie jumped perceptibly, fortunately before he had taken hold of the cup. He knew immediately that he had given it away. There was no point in pretending that he had no idea what she meant. He instead asked how she knew. She gave her little smile and replied,
"Several things. I've seen you with him in town. You're also not the type to circulate petitions as stupid as this one. Besides, he did this once before with someone else."
"I know this is very weird. But he's done me some good turns, and I thought I owed it to him to just come around."
"It's not an original idea. He may have gotten it from Shakespeare, but I'm sure it's much older than that. Did he also tell you why we left New York?"
For the first time, Mrs. Winton showed irritation.
"I wish he wouldn't noise that around. You're the second person he's told. It's not my scandal, but I'll suffer for it if it gets out."
Howie then attempted to explain things.
"There's a little less here than you may realize. He didn't tell me to test you or try to seduce you, or anything like that. What he really wanted seemed naive to me, but I'm sure he was sincere."
"What was that?"
"He wanted me to tell him what you're like."
Mrs. Winton gave a little laugh and made a wry gesture. She didn't look surprised. Howie added,
"I told him I wouldn't possibly be able to tell him anything of importance that he didn't already know. But he insisted. He thought my view would be objective. Actually, while I wouldn't claim objectivity, I can guess at some ways his perception of you might be twisted."
"Dare I ask?"
Howie knew that it was too late to go back.
"From his description, I expected you to be more beautiful and less intelligent than you are."
She nodded decisively.
"Yes. As you can see, the only beautiful thing about me is my clothing. And, of course, I am intelligent. I think he's one of a great many men who make the same mistake."
"You mean, they make their wives into goddesses, but leave out the brains?"
"Yes. Perhaps because they feel that they make better goddesses that way."
Mrs. Winton then paused, crossed her tiny feet, and spoke in a somewhat older, more tired, voice.
"There is something else about Chuck that's not so common. While many men have extra-marital affairs, not so many pick women who are too sedated to distinguish between having sex and being given an enema."
She then looked at the toe of her pointed shoe, and continued,
"He also wants you, and perhaps a good many other men, to make love to me. As I said, you're the second one he's sent. I caught the other, too, and confronted Chuck about it. I was irritated. I'm sure he knew that I wouldn't be fooled by you either. You walked into a trap. I'm glad you don't seem too discomfited."
"Why did he do it?"
"He thought I'd be exasperated enough with him to oblige. He may also want to know what you think I'm like, but he wants you to have more to go on."
Howie was now way out of his depth.
"My God, I didn't dream of anything like this. I'm really inexperienced. I just didn't guess that Chuck had all these quirks."
"Don't worry, none of this is going to amount to anything. I've always been faithful to Chuck."
Howie, now quite confused, replied,
"Oh, I thought .. "
He then stopped himself, but, again, too late. She said,
"Chuck probably told you that I had a sexual adventure the night of the incident. He may really believe that. In fact, I got dressed up, went to the Plaza, and spent the entire afternoon and evening reading. They finally asked me to leave the lobby, probably thinking I was a prostitute."
"You know, if you told him that, it might calm him down a bit."
"Well, Mr. Slattery, you're probably right. I can see you're not married. This is one of those ornery things about marriage. I want him to think I gave myself to every man I met on Fifth Avenue. We'd still be in New York if he'd acted in anything like an adult way, and this is my revenge. You won't tell him that, I hope."
It struck Howie that that was the first time Mrs. Winton had looked soft and yielding. He replied with something like his lawyer's voice.
"That raises the large question of what you or I, or both of us, are going to say to Chuck."
"Yes. The simplest thing would be to say that you came here with your petition, and that I wasn't interested. You could then tell him that I'm not beautiful. If you want to throw him a few bones, tell him that I invited you in to explain your petition. You could then tell him that I'm both intelligent and not beautiful."
"What would happen if we told him the whole thing."
"It would depend on our reactions. If we both told him we thought it was juvenile, he'd be put properly in his place. I wouldn't mind, but it might be hard for you to go on being friends with him."
"What if we were a little gentler? Suppose we gave the impression that we laughed about it."
"That wouldn't be true. You may be laughing, but I'm not. Besides, if we said that, he'd take it for a signal that we're ready for all sorts of sexual frolics. There's only one thing that would make him happier than that."
"For you to have an affair with me and tell him all about it, but for me to pretend that I thought he didn't know. Watching me get dressed for a secret tryst with another man would send him into absolute ecstasies."
"Poor Chuck! He's obviously vulnerable in this area."
"Well spoken, Mr. Slattery! Your sentiments do you proud, sir. He is vulnerable, oh my yes. Why, you wonder, does a woman so indifferent to her husband's suffering stay with him. I will tell you. Chuck is the only man who has ever thought, from the very beginning, that I was beautiful. That means a lot to a woman."
Howie made a helpless gesture.
"Now, Mrs. Winton, you're twisting what I said. From what Chuck said, I expected someone like Marilyn Monroe. As a matter of fact, that's not really the kind of beauty that I like."
"I'm sorry. I'm teasing you in a way that's rather mean. I'd better just come out with it. The long and short of it is that you can have me if you want me. The only condition is that Chuck not know."
Howie was overwhelmed. He suddenly felt that there were a number of things that had to be said immediately. He burst out,
"I do want you. I don't want to deceive Chuck. I've never had sex. You're beautiful."
Mrs. Winton giggled. She also waved Howie away as he started to approach her.
"I didn't say that you could have me here and now. I also didn't say that I was in love with you. It's simply that you're interesting and I'd enjoy being with you. As for your being a virgin, that's no problem. We all start out that way. It's kind of you to reconsider about my being beautiful, but that's not necessary."
"You've spoken to most of my concerns. But what about deceiving Chuck?"
"Was there ever a man who so asked to be deceived?"
Howie nodded silently.
"You'd better go now, Mr. Slattery. We don't want the neighbors to wonder."
On the way out, Mrs. Winton asked about his schedule, and said that she would call or send him a note.
Howie walked back toward the center of town, taking the route that he supposed Chuck to take every day. He felt oddly drained, happy over the main outcome, but disturbed about some other things. It looked as if he were finally going to get what he had wanted for so long, but he wasn't entirely convinced. There was clearly much more to Chuck than he had realized. Mrs. Winton was at least as complex. They were so busy playing games with each other that any opening for Howie depended on the latest twist. If there was a new development in the next few days, as there might easily be, that opening could close quickly and permanently.
A little further on, he ran into Sturgis Caldwell, improbably attired in boots, an ex-army jacket, and a peculiar hat. He was headed in the opposite direction, and said that he was going walking in the prairie. Howie replied,
"I never heard of anyone doing that."
"Well, everyone else hunts, but I don't want to kill things. So I go out without a gun and enjoy the prairie. I know that no respectable man would go out there without some purpose, so I do have some binoculars for watching birds."
"I don't think any instrument that doesn't shoot would make you very respectable in Bollinger."
"Perhaps not. You should come out with me some time, Howie. It'd do your stomach good. If you insist, we could take dime store bows, arrows with suction cups, and shoot them at animals."
After they had parted, Howie realized that the other's route would also take him past the Chuck Winton household. He hardly dared wonder what Sturgis would think if he knew what had just happened there.