Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 25


Amanda, as promised, had her meeting with Vic Olafson. He came to her house for a little party she gave to celebrate their rescue from the blackmailers, and also Howie's rescue from Wellington Sykes. Amanda was fascinated to see what sort of man could so readily deal with such varied and unusual difficulties, and she wasn't disappointed. She was particularly pleased that he paid more attention to her than to Barbara. He certainly looked at Barbara, as any man would, but he treated her as a girl, not as a woman.

While Olafson had no problems with Barbara, it was clear to Amanda's practised eye that Barbara was having some problems with Olafson. He was, they both knew, a violent and ruthless man. Barbara, while capable of a degree of ruthlessness herself, had only begun to learn how to deal with it in others. Indeed, Barbara kept looking as if she were about to speak to him without actually doing so. Then, suddenly, Amanda saw what was bothering her. Barbara thought he needed to be thanked. How to thank someone for having killed someone was a problem which might have given pause to Ann Landers, and even to Emily Post. Barbara finally said to Olafson,

"I was terribly worried about Howie. It looked as if that awful man might shoot him until you solved the problem."

While the phrase "solved the problem" sounded like the sort of euphemism that the Mafia might have used, it did seem to Amanda that Barbara had managed it as gracefully as any lady could have. Olafson, who probably hadn't previously been thanked for having so masterfully shot down Wellington Sykes, was delighted. Amanda thought that only she could see that Barbara, having charmingly done her duty, was now intent on withdrawing.

Amanda also knew that Barbara was aware of the reason for the present dinner. Indeed, it seemed likely that Chuck now kept nothing from her, including his suspicion that Amanda was having an affair. As Barbara stepped out into the kitchen to help her with the pre-dinner drinks and bits of food, Amanda remarked,

"We both seem to have reason to be grateful to Sergeant Olafson. He's an extremely efficient person."

Barbara, as usual, caught Amanda's tone. This time, she spoke with less reserve than usual.

"I can see that you like him. He makes me nervous."

"You aren't made nervous easily. Perhaps I ought to be, too."

As Barbara carried the dip and potato chips out, Amanda placed Olafson in the proper category. He was, she thought, a man of action. She would have been embarrassed to say so, even to Barbara. It sounded the sort of thing Jane might say about Tarzan, but it was undeniably true. Chuck's notion of action was limited largely to getting involved with other women. Howie, while resourceful, was no more than Olafson's youthful understudy when there was a certain sort of work to be done.

This idea in her mind, Amanda returned to the living room. In a white silk blouse and black velvet skirt, she was aware of looking young and innocent, perhaps younger and more innocent than Barbara. After all, the latter often looked a worldly twenty five. Amanda had had to choose her clothes before meeting Olafson, but she now felt that her intuitions had been correct. There was obviously a strong streak of puritanism in him.

According to Howie, Olafson had wallowed in the softer core literature seized from Mike's Adult Book Store. However, Amanda knew something that Howie evidently did not - that such forms of perversity are possible only if based on strong moral principles. The man who feels comfortable on nude beaches doesn't devour photographs of ladies purportedly caught by surprise without their outer clothes. That being the case, Amanda tried to approach him as virginally as possible. The fact that her figure showed to good advantage in the delicate blouse was, of course, beyond her control.

Amanda had known in advance that Olafson would be in an odd position, one that, without careful management, could become uncomfortable. For a start, he was the only person present who wasn't well educated, at least in terms of books. Moreover, he differed from the others in social class more than they differed from each other. Amanda knew from experience that the easy lunch-time comraderie of people who work together can disappear quickly at a dinner party, to be replaced only by excruciating silences. When people had to play host and guest in front of spouses whose attitudes might be uncertain or ambiguous, differences that hardly mattered in the egalitarian atmosphere of the office could become gulfs that no one dared cross. She solved the problem by making Olafson the guest of honor to whom they all owed so much.

At first she did it in a rather public way, with all attention focussed on him. Olafson, a sensitive clever man, was able to affect just the right kind of modesty. It was considerably removed from the 'Aw shucks, folks' school of self-deprecation, but there was still an appealing common touch to it. All the while, his eyes shone fiercely in his cavernous face.

The next phase was that where Howie and Chuck were allowed to play with Barbara, but in which Amanda gave her full attention to Olafson. She had, she said, never really gotten an account of what had happened. This was, in fact, true. Chuck had been as reticent as possible, and Howie, apart from explaining the advisability of the three hundred dollar payment, had said little. Olafson now made up for their reticence.

Beginning his account with Laura's arrival and call to Chuck's office, he then explained about eavesdropping the meeting in the Courthouse Cafe. Chuck had told Amanda a little about it, but without giving her a clear picture of either Laura or her boy friend. Olafson, his tongue now loosened, did much better. It seemed to Amanda that he had more feeling for individual differences and subtleties than did Chuck. He came to a halt when, so to speak, about to burst into the hotel bedroom. It was the puritanism again. Amanda still hoped to hear all about it in lurid detail, but, out of deference to his feelings, didn't press him. He started talking again, in a somewhat different tone.

"I've been reading Field Marshal Rommel's diaries. He says that in war you've got to start shooting first, even if you don't know what you're shooting at. The other side gets panicked and disorganized, and then you take advantage of them. It's the same in police work. You bust in on the enemy with all guns firing and make sure they don't get a chance to recover. In this case we didn't shoot, but it's the same general idea."

This was not a way in which Amanda was used to thinking, but she rather liked it, particularly when the young woman who had caused her so much worry was in the enemy camp. She replied,

"I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Chuck's various girl friends, but I'm curious. What's she like?"

Amanda realized that it was an odd sort of request for information, but, in the circumstances, a natural one. Olafson looked a little flustered. When he paused, Amanda laughed and said,

"It's all right. You don't have to make her out an ogre if she isn't one."

"Well, she's not really bad. She's pretty and kind of wholesome looking. She wouldn't have done anything if it hadn't been for her boy friend."

"I do wish Chuck had been faithful to me, and I was very angry when I first found out. But a woman has a simple choice. She either has to leave her husband, or to accept him the way he is. She's fooling herself if she thinks she can change him."

"Laura did say something you might find interesting when I questioned her. She said she was mad at your husband for dropping her, but, when she got here and saw him again, she couldn't stay angry. She said he wasn't bad, just a real big kid."

Amanda fought back her fury. It was certainly not Olafson's fault. She had encouraged him to tell all, and now couldn't take it when he did. What bothered her most was the resemblence of her situation to the ones described in the country songs that were played on the local radio station. There would often be a triangle with two women, and they would get together to reach an understanding. She could imagine Laura and herself agreeing that Chuck was, indeed, a real big kid, one who needed both of them. In fact, just like Barbara's father. On the other hand, the mere idea of her having so much in common with a trollope was infuriating and humiliating.

Olafson saw that something was wrong, and started to apologize. Amanda said only,

"Could you take my drink and steady me just for a minute?

As he took her arm and removed her drink, probably without anyone else noticing, Amanda felt herself wobble on her high heels and breathe extremely rapidly. She knew she was close to hyperventilation and would have liked to sit if she could have made it gracefully to a chair. Pressing her knees together and hanging on to Olafson, she avoided collapsing on the floor. A few seconds later, she regained her breath and successfully took a tiny step. She was then able to take her drink back. She said, in something near a normal voice,

"Thanks. I felt dizzy for a minute. I'm all right now. Did you manage to break in on Laura and her boyfriend in the middle of things?"

"Well, yes. One of my men was listening at the door for the right moment. It's much more of a shock to them that way. We collared the man, but Laura flopped down on her face on the carpet and wouldn't move. I hadn't run into that before."

"What did you do?"

"Covered her with a coat and tried to talk to her. It took a long time before she reacted."

"I suppose, short of being attacked, that's the most shocking thing that could ever happen to a woman. Even one with fairly loose morals. Chuck has given me some unpleasant surprises, but nothing on that scale."

"I was surprised. Most of the women we arrest would take off their clothes for five bucks or so. Besides, I knew that she'd been with at least two men, and was close to blackmail. I guess I expected her to stand there and curse us the way her boy friend did. When she reacted the way she did, I realized that she was a nicer girl than I'd figured."

"You got to like her, didn't you?"

It gradually became evident that Amanda had understated the case. Olafson had had breakfast with Laura the day she left, and it seemed as if only a failure of nerve had prevented him from asking her for her phone number. Part of it was that he had been sorry for her. The rest had been a calculation: she was prettier and nicer than anyone he had expected to be available, and he, in turn, was far superior to Arnie. It was, however, the old story. The man of action who fears little else may fear rejection too much to approach a woman, even one in the fairly desperate straits in which Laura had found herself.

It seemed to Amanda that they had been talking a little too much about Laura, and she gestured to the others across the room.

"Barbara is more mature than either Chuck or Howie. She only occasionally acts like a teen-ager."

Olafson nodded,

"I'm used to Howie. I never know what's going to happen when we go into court. He may win a tough case that nobody else would've, or he may throw away an easy one."

During this time, Amanda had been posing her body carefully. By inhaling deeply and pressing out against her clothes, she could give her figure definition, particularly when she had one hand behind her unobtrusively taking a little tuck in her blouse. Sometimes she would move slightly back on one foot, leaving the other out in front as she twisted her ankle back and forth. Several people had told her that her feet and ankles, particularly in expensive little shoes, were her most attractive features. This was fortunate since they could easily be displayed with a hundred little mannerisms which looked natural, and which no one could call vulgar. Amanda had occasionally vanquished women who had to roll their eyes or contrive to get their skirts up to look their best. Barbara didn't need any tricks at all, but it had now been established between Amanda and Olafson that Barbara, Howie, and Chuck played in a different league, one that was younger, less mature, and less sophisticated.

Amanda then told Olafson about her new job at Orrville College, including the episode of Clarence Claxton. When he heard that Claxton had just ponied up a hundred thousand, Olafson congratulated her warmly, putting his hand briefly on her shoulder. It was a nice touch, reminiscent neither of a locker room slap nor of the insidious tickle of a would-be Lothario. Amanda went on to say that she thought the techniques of fund-raising were quite a lot like those of the standard con games, only with a more noble object. Olafson replied,

"The best con artists, ones who don't often come to Bollinger, use the simplest approaches. They put the victim in exactly the right mood, and then ask for money on hardly any pretext at all. Generally, the money is supposed just to show trust. I've interviewed people in Chicago who've handed over ten or twenty thousand, often their life's savings, and weren't even able to tell me what the money was supposed to be for, or how they expected to get it back."

"Our donors often hardly know what the money is for, not in any detail. I suppose they think that generations of students are going to be grateful to them."

Olafson was amused.

"The people who give the dormitories, and have them named for themselves, better hope their names can't be turned into something obscene."

"We're unfortunate enough to have a Richard Koch Lounge in one of the men's dorms."

"How do things like that get to a lady like you? I know what it'd be called, but I wouldn't come up to you and tell you."

Amanda again touched his arm, a little more affectionately this time, and said,

"Perhaps, Vic, you're a little more sensitive than some people."

They were then distracted by loud laughter from Chuck. Turning to see what was going on, they discovered that there was a point at issue among the others. She knew that Barbara and Howie had agreed to write a wedding night scene for the principle characters in Henry James' A Portrait of a Lady. Barbara had finished her version, and had brought it with her to give to Howie. Chuck had found out about it, and was attempting to get Barbara to read it aloud. She refused flatly, but was being prevailed upon to let him read the several typescript pages she held in her hand. Amanda was sure that they would shortly be passed around the company, and, indeed, Barbara gave in. Since Chuck hadn't read the novel, Barbara explained,

"Isabel Archer is an American girl in Europe. Her rich old relative took a fancy to her and left her his money. Gilbert Osmond is an American, about forty, who's lived for many years in Italy. He paints a little, collects bargain antiques, and has just enough money to live the life of an intellectual without specific portfolio. An old mistress of his comes across Isabel and decides that her money would solve Gilbert's problems. He does manage to marry her, but, once he gets hold of her money, he's so cool to her that she concludes he must hate her. Anyway, this is the wedding night, and things haven't fallen apart yet."

Chuck started reading while Howie, who had already read it, said to the others.

"I haven't quite finished my version, but Barbara's is better. It sounds a good deal like old Henry, but it's probably funnier than he would have been."

Chuck seemed quite pleased with it as he handed it over with the words,

"It wouldn't have been evidence in Howie's pornography trial, but it's a lot more fun than Henry James."

Amanda and Olafson then read it together. Barbara had obviously identified closely with Isabel Archer, and Amanda guessed that she had begun by describing the way she herself would like to be made love to. Not surprisingly, Barbara had resisted anything approaching sentimentality, or even romance. Then, at a certain point, her sense of humor had taken over. Gilbert was defeated by Isabel's corset and sulked in the corner while her maid got her out of it. He then performed his duty, but was quickly exhausted by the effort. Isabel, deflowered and somewhat disillusioned, again called for the maid, this time in order to help her revive Gilbert. Having had a glass of water, and another of wine, he berated the maid for the inferior quality of the latter.

Olafson seemed to like Barbara's little piece quite a lot, thus encouraging Amanda still further. Her greatest reservation about him had been his reported liking for literature which, in addition to being pornographic, was probably couched at the sixth grade level. If he liked Barbara's decidedly elevated style, there was hope for him.

Sensing that one phase of the party was ending, Amanda asked if anyone was hungry. Everyone was. The invitations had only been for cocktails, so she wasn't under any pressure to supply anything very elaborate afterwards. She was sure that the large pot of soup, and the several pizzas ready to go into the oven, would be sufficient. Barbara again came into the kitchen to help, saying,

"I hope I'll be more help than hindrance. I had two drinks, and I'm a bit woozy. I'm not used to it."

"It's better not to get too used to it. It's probably illegal for us to give you anything to drink, but, the way you're going, you'll have to make some decision about it soon."

"Yes. No one in my family's an alcoholic, but I've known them. I'm sure I don't want to be one, even if it means drinking hardly anything to be on the safe side. I gather that Howie's stopped drinking, which probably means that he drank too much before."

"Just about all those lawyers do. He probably picked it up from them."

"People who stop often start again. I wonder if he will."

"If he does, I'd make him stop again."

"And then, if I can't get him to stop permanently, it'd be a sign that he's too far gone and I should forget him?"

"That's a difficult thing to say. But I suppose, really, yes. If you couldn't get him to stop, he probably never would. One trouble was Chuck. He told Howie not to drink, but then went drinking with him. Chuck still drinks, but I think that he'd now be careful not to tempt Howie into taking it up again."

Barbara considered a moment and replied,

"I think it's kind of nice to have a glass of wine sometimes, but I guess it would be inconsiderate for me to do it in front of Howie."

"Yes. Well, you and I can go out drinking occasionally and see who we pick up."

There was a pause as Amanda opened the oven and put in the first pizza. As Barbara started to ladle out the bean soup she said,

"Speaking of picking people up, you seemed to be doing a pretty good job."

"Was I obvious?"

"I noticed, but I'm not sure that Chuck or Howie did. Is that what's called flirting? I've never been sure exactly what it meant."

"I guess it would count as that."

"I'll have to try it some time."

Dropping her voice to a whisper, Amanda replied,

"All the time I was talking with him, I was imagining things."

"That must have been what gave you so much color."

"You know, it's one of Chuck's things that he watches a woman's face when he makes love to her. There are a few moments, he says, when a woman looks only half her age. That would make me a year younger than you. I wonder if pretending to be made love to takes off a few years. Say, about five."

"That would make me look twelve. That might not be so good."

When it came time for everyone to go home, Amanda had the impression that Vic Olafson thought he had been properly thanked. She invited him to drop in any time he was in the neighborhood.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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