Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 16

A First Date

To Howie, St. Monica's looked like a fortress on the prairie. While it was true that none of the red brick buildings had guns sticking out of the windows, they were grouped together suspiciously, as if for defensive purposes. In front of them, acting as a moat, was a creek which cut a shallow depression in the otherwise flat ground. As his car rumbled across the bridge, Howie, having never been so close to such a place, felt like an infiltrator.

It required the presence learned in courtrooms to enter the lounge, crowded with girls having their Sunday afternoon tea. Some were in uniform, but most were in expensive dresses. They did not, fortunately, all stop talking as he moved among them, nor were there more than a few veiled glances. He hadn't gone far before a tall blonde girl approached him smiling. Howie had had some doubts about Chuck Winton's ideas of feminine beauty, but there was no doubt whatever in this case. Even though Barbara was in uniform, none of the others, despite their expensive outfits, could begin to compete with her.

Howie also knew, with the first words that they exchanged, that, despite his advantage of a few years, Barbara had more general social sense than he. As she led him through the tables, she said,

"I hope you won't mind if I introduce you to Sister Rose."

"Not at all. I've heard a lot about her from Chuck."

"It's the conventional thing here, and, even though my status is rather ambiguous, I'm trying to follow all the rules."

Sister Rose turned out to be gray-haired, squat, and sixty or so. She was friendly without being effusive, and asked,

"Have you been here long, Mr. Slattery?"

"A little over a year. When I finished law school, I found that there was a position as an assistant district attorney here, and I took it. I also have a troublesome stomach, and Chuck tries to keep it under control."

"You look very young for such a responsible position. I dare say you skipped a few grades in school."

Howie ordinarily denied any such imputations, but, seeming now to be in a world entirely cut off from Bollinger, he replied,

"There were a couple of jumps. They put me rather out of phase with things. Even now, the criminals that I prosecute often laugh when they first see me."

Barbara said,

"I bet they don't laugh when you convict them."

"No, they're often angry. More so, I think, than they would be if one of my older colleagues were sending them away."

Sister Rose added,

"It's unreasonable of them to be insulted because you're young, but very human. The insult that's added to injury often hurts more than the injury."

Howie, thinking of Wellington Sykes, nodded and replied,

"I'm not thrilled with the idea of being hated all over the meaner districts of Bollinger, but I'm getting used to it."

"I know how you feel. At this school I'm combined prosecutor and judge, and we don't bother with defense attorneys. No one's assaulted me, but it's not for lack of feeling."

Waving at the lounge full of girls, she added,

"Girls are often rather subtle."

Barbara asked Howie,

"Have you prosecuted any murderers yet?"

"A couple, but they were really only people who won bar-room fights with something to spare."

The conversation then shifted to the prosecution of the adult book store. Howie explained his case and concluded,

"Practically everyone thinks I'm going to lose the case, and that I should have shown the jury all the dirty pictures."

Sister Rose replied,

"If you do win it, with that kind of book as evidence, you may threaten Barbara's supply of reading material."

Barbara responded,

"Sister Rose has borrowed some of my books, so she's also an interested party. I do hope you don't try too hard to win."

"I don't suppose I really am. Even my police colleague, Sergeant Olafson, admits that the store has a certain usefulness. It attracts every deviant, allowing the police to identify them and keep track of them."

Sister Rose laughed and said,

"I have the feeling that that's not an argument the defense can use."

"There's almost nothing that some defense attorneys wouldn't try, but this one is Sturgis Caldwell. He'd hate the idea of rounding up and questioning all the deviants in town every time there's a certain sort of crime. The irony of it is that he's the most complete gentleman I've ever met, and he's much more offended than I am at the things the store sells. He'd be delighted if the store burned down, but he feels morally obligated to defend it."

The nun tossed her head and replied,

"It's too bad he hasn't had a Catholic training. We're quite comfortable in those sorts of positions."

Howie treated her remark as a joke and laughed. He added,

"Sturgis also wants to lose so he can appeal and make a civil liberties case. So we have both sides really wanting to lose."

Barbara concluded,

"Then, if you're losing, you're winning, aren't you?"

"I suppose so. Victories in law are often of a rather peculiar kind."

It didn't take Sister Rose long to elicit from Howie an admission that he was fed up with being a prosecutor, and with law in general. He finally said,

"I once took a course in logic in college, and we covered the various fallacies. Most of them were so silly that I couldn't imagine anyone using them or being fooled by them. They were things like: 'Nothing is up my sleeve, nothing is a dinosaur, therefore a dinosaur is up my sleeve.' Well, arguments as bad as that are actually used in the courtroom."

Sister Rose asked quietly,

"What are you going to turn to instead?"

"I don't know exactly, but I'd like to go back to economics."

"I'm sure you will."

She then excused herself with a smile and left Howie with Barbara. Howie said,

"She's nice, isn't she?"

"She's certainly interesting and exciting to be around. But I hardly know what to think of her."

"I thought the principal of a place like this would be rigid and narrow. I knew from Chuck that she wasn't like that, but I didn't expect to end up talking about pornography with her."

"Sister Rose will talk about anything. She's also better than anyone I've ever met at getting you to tell her things you hadn't intended to."

"The police sergeant I mentioned who helps me is also good at that. They have these third degree sessions with two interrogators taking turns. One is the hard man, and Vic is the soft man. He's the one who actually gets the confession."

"We also have that system. Sister Mary Joseph is the hard one. When Sister Rose was away I had a little confrontation with her."

"What happened?"

"I was forced to bend over that couch over there while she saw to my rear end with a leather strap."

Although Barbara spoke in a tone that was almost offhand, Howie was shocked. He looked in the indicated direction, and then back at Barbara, but could hardly imagine the scene.

"Chuck told me you were in trouble when that nun ran away, but I didn't dream it would come to that."

"I didn't think it would either. Then, when I saw I was for it, I decided that I was going to take it like a lady, with a British stiff upper lip and all. I found out that it's almost impossible to do that."

"Sister Rose didn't approve of your being whipped, did she?"

"She wouldn't have done it or had it done, but she's like your soft policeman. She takes advantage of what the hard one does."

When Howie remained silent, Barbara smiled and asked,

"Do you like your soft policeman?"

"I don't know. Vic Olafson is a complex quirky person. He's about twenty years older than I am, and, even without legal training, he might be more effective in the courtroom."

"You're very modest. I bet that isn't really true."

"It might be. He knows exactly how to maneuver a jury emotionally, and that counts for more than legal scholarship. Anyway, even though I've never known him to lie or do anything dishonest, I still don't trust him."

"I could say exactly the same thing about Sister Rose. She also seems to be able to talk me into doing almost anything she wants. Like taking a job as combined student, teacher, nurse, and chauffeur."

"Well, that does sound interesting. I'm sure I would've taken it in your position."

"It's meant to disarm me."

Barbara then told Howie the story of her father's gift to the school, giving the impression that it was, perhaps, a thousand dollars. She concluded,

"The day after Sister Mary Joseph assaulted me, I was so mad that I took a taxi over to Orrville College. Fortunately, the library was open and I hunted for an anti-Catholic cause I could give my father's money to."

Howie, raised in a vague Protestant way at the orphanage, had never been religious. While he had nothing against Catholicism, he understood Barbara's feelings. He asked,

"Did you find anything?"

"Yes. It turned out that Pope Pius sold out to Mussollini before the war. The Vatican effectively agreed not to give him any flak. In return, it got many things, including title to lands it didn't really own. There are historians studying this episode, and I figured they could use some money to aid them in their researches."

"Are you still going to give them some?"

"I'm not sure. You see, Sister Rose doesn't know about that, but she sensed something. And, once you're voluntarily teaching in a school, you feel less inclined to try to destroy the things that are connected with it."

Barbara then suggested a tour of the school grounds.

"The most exciting thing is the place in the creek where one of the nuns landed with the car when she missed a turn. There's also the nearest thing to a hill for a good many miles."

Following Barbara as she threaded her way through the room, Howie admired the elegant cut of her ankles and what he could see of her legs. No one he had ever been around had been anything like this. He wondered if he would ever dare touch her, and decided not.

Outside, Howie found himself telling Barbara about the football game at Orrville, and about his encounter with Danny. He was perfectly aware that, on any reasonable standard, it was the worst thing to tell a girl on a first date. But he couldn't seem to stop himself. In the event, it seemed to have a rather good effect. Barbara, not informed of what had happened with the football players afterwards, thought it was funny. She said,

"I know a girl who does that after a few drinks. Then she got a bad reputation, which is too bad because she's not a bit bad, just sort of nice and warm-hearted."

"Danny is probably like that, too. Anyway, I learned a little about girls that day. What with looking younger than I am, and actually being too young for wherever I was, my experience was practically nil."

"That's better than the other way around. Most high school boys are awful. They're always trying to grab you and undo your buttons and zippers. It never seems to occur to them that the girls might like to do a few things if they weren't so busy fending off assaults."

"I'm afraid I was like that, too. Once in a while a blind date would be arranged for me, and we'd go out, a group of four or five couples. I'd know that the other guys would be watching, and so I'd make clumsy advances. They were always rebuffed."

"I'm sure the girl knew that the other girls were watching her. She would have lost standing if she hadn't rebuffed you."

"I suppose so. The boys and girls gain and lose points for opposite things. I wonder how they ever do get together."

Barbara said,

"I never did, but I have friends who've made love to various degrees on the beaches of Lake Michigan. It was approved to be in love with a boy as long as he didn't say the wrong things about you, and if you did whatever you did in private, not on one of those group dates. I think the official assumption was that the girl never quite went all the way. Anyhow, none of my friends have gotten pregnant."

"The boys, of course, are young men of vast experience and many seductions. There may even be some who aren't lying."

Barbara replied whimsically,

"Well, now you can get started with Danny. It may take a little alcohol, but that can be arranged. Are you going to call her?"

Howie found himself hardly hesitating at all.

"Not if I can go out with you."

"I'm delighted to have you come over, and I can probably get out to go to a movie occasionally. But Sunday afternoons at St. Monica's are a far cry from dates with Danny."

"I'm afraid that she isn't very bright, and she might not even remember me or anything that happened after her fourth or fifth drink from the flask. Besides, some other things happened afterwards."

Barbara then got out of him what had happened after the game. She was sympathetic about his physical abuse from the football players, and touched him lightly on the arm. After that, there appeared on her face a peculiar expression which he hadn't seen before. When he finished by describing his arrival at the Winton household, she said,

"Your story reminds me of one I read recently. The narrator is a young Englishman whose father was killed in a peculiar way in Naples. It seems that they raise pigs on balconies there, probably in the slums. It sounds rather disgusting, and I bet they throw the slop into the streets. Anyway, this was the sort of Englishman who has to explore everywhere.

The pigs keep getting bigger, and, occasionally, one of the balconies will collapse and drop the pig several storeys into the street. This man was under one at the wrong time, and was squashed. The narrator's problem is to find a girl who won't laugh when he tells her how his father was killed. He keeps telling the story in different ways, but it doesn't do any good. You might have a problem a little like that."

"You haven't laughed."

"No, but I'm about to."

When Barbara had finished laughing, she said,

"I saw Doctor Winton the other day, but he didn't say anything about it. Is he really your cousin?"

"No. How did you know?"

"You don't look or seem at all alike. I know that some Americans do have English cousins, but it doesn't seem terribly likely somehow."

"He's just a good friend. But he liked you, and, with the nun right there, he thought he had to improve the story a little."

"That was Sister Margaret. He needn't have worried."

"Are you going to tell Sister Rose?"

"Absolutely not. I'm determined to have at least one secret from her. Preferably more. I noticed that she got it out of you that you don't like law. You don't tell everyone that, do you?"

"I hardly realized it myself. You know, there's a certain thrill when you go to a new place and perform successfully, particularly when you start winning cases. But it hasn't taken long for it to wear off."

The day was cloudy and unseasonably warm, enough so that it was comfortable to be out without a coat. Although there was only a light breeze, the clouds were moving fast, apparently bringing in a change of weather. Barbara stopped in the middle of a little curved ornamental bridge over the creek. When Howie came abreast of her, she took his arm and said,

"Let's enjoy the view from the bridge."

Howie had noticed that there was often a half joke in what Barbara said, and, in many cases, a literary allusion. This time, it was to the play, 'A View from the Bridge,' which Howie had seen performed. Remaining there, they moved on to other books Barbara had read. Howie, though an economics major in college, had read a good many of them. At one point, he said,

"You take novels a lot more seriously than most people. I don't think I've ever known anyone else who wrote extensions and additional scenes to them."

"Of course, what I write isn't any good, and it's a sort of sacrilege to happily set about altering a great novel. On the other hand, I don't think even the authors would mind as long as I keep my additions to myself."

"I'd like to see some of them just the same."

"I might be willing to trade you. Since you're so involved in pornography, we might both write our versions of a sex scene between two of Henry James' characters. The kind of thing he was too prudish to write himself."

"I believe he was homosexual. Should it be between two men?"

Barbara pulled at his sleeve, saying,

"Let's make it a man and woman just the same."

They then moved on to the far bank, where a little gravel path followed the creek. The ground was uneven, and Barbara, despite her agility in high heels, sometimes needed to be steadied. Her arm was surprisingly sinewy and hard, but still felt warm and good through her silk blouse. Soon, they arrived at the scene of the car wreck. There were deep marks on the bank where it had been dragged out, and Barbara described the event in loving detail.

"Of course, it was part of what led to my undoing the next day, but I still love to think of it."

"That could never happen again, could it?"

"Probably not. But it's a basic fact about the school. If any girl does anything the nuns really don't like at all, she'll find herself bent over a piece of furniture with her skirts up. We're encouraged to be sophisticated and float around in pretty dresses on weekends, but it's an illusion, and can be taken away quickly. That's one reason why I wear my uniform. I don't want to take part in the illusion."

"Would Sister Rose notice something like that?"

"I'm sure she has. She probably views my refusal to wear a dress as a form of protest, which it is. I imagine she thinks that, the day I put on a dress, I'll steer the money to the school."

"If you go to the movies in Orrville with me, will you wear your uniform?"

"No, but that's just because I wouldn't want to be conspicuous. That wouldn't count, and Sister Rose would know that."

Howie laughed and felt comfortable enough to tease Barbara a little.

"This money we're talking about isn't just a few hundred dollars, is it?"

"No. It's more substantial than that."

"I love that word, 'substantial.' It's used, incidentally, only by people who have real wealth. Is the money more than ten thousand?"

"Aren't we being a little nosy?"

"If it were less, you'd say so. Is it more than fifty thousand?"

"I have the right to remain silent, don't I?"

"Yeah, but it doesn't work when you're confronted with a professional interrogator like yours truly. It's a hundred thousand, isn't it?"

"All right, Mr. Prosecutor. Since your curiosity knows no bounds, I'll tell you. It's a quarter million."

"A substantial sum indeed! I bet you could buy a lot of habits for a lot of nuns with that. They might even start thinking about a little jewelry to dress up the outfit."

On the subject of nuns in general, as opposed to Sister Rose in particular, Barbara seemed much younger and less worldly than she had before. It turned out that her fertile imagination had produced a whole range of practical jokes which, if performed, would surely have reduced some of her colleagues on the faculty to gibbering idiots. She finally concluded,

"You see, that's another thing Sister Rose has done. She's fixed it so that I can't do any of these things."

"In short, she's transformed you from a girl to an adult at one stroke. A little before you wanted to be, by the sound of it."

"Do I sound young and stupid?"

"Certainly not to me. But most of the people I know think I'm young and stupid."

Barbara asked,

"Does that include Dr. Winton?"

"Probably not. He may even be a bit like me in that respect. Have you met his wife, Amanda, though?"

"No. He's mentioned her a couple of times, but that's all."

"She's very knowing. I'm sure she thinks I'm young and stupid."

"Well, I suppose arriving at her door in your underwear isn't quite the best way to impress."

"No. I'm sure she was amused, but she didn't laugh. When the story came out, she insisted on calling Orrville College to get Danny's last name and address for me."

"Women are so good at little digs like that. I can imagine doing that myself."

"Then, when I needed some clothes to put on, she was the one who chose them. Of course, anything Chuck had would be too big for me, but I think she selected them with comic effect in mind."

"I'd do that, too. It'd be impossible to resist. I'd like to meet her."

Howie felt, at this point, that he was getting on to thin ice, but, for some reason, he was impelled to go further.

"We could, all four of us, have dinner in Orrville. Would you be allowed out for that?"

"Certainly. Nothing could be more respectable. If you all came to pick me up, Mrs. Winton could meet Sister Rose. It's always interesting to see how she deals with new people."

They had, by this time, arrived back at the main building. Howie, euphoric at the realization that Barbara was actually willing to go out with him, took his leave before anything could go wrong.

It was only after he had gotten in his car that Howie was conscious of his familiar stomach ache. As he pulled on to the highway, he determined not to tell Barbara that he had cancer. He had blurted out a number of things to her, apparently without ill effect, but he would keep that to himself.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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