Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 27

A Misunderstanding

The first real snow storm came on a Sunday in late November, the wind driving the snow hard against Barbara's window all through the night. At dawn it was still snowing, and blowing even harder. It was easy to feel like a resident of an isolated fortress as the road disappeared from sight and drifts piled high against the walls. There was no question of Mrs. Hanrahan being able to make it over from Orrville, so Barbara and Sister Rose, struggling along paths dug by the Hunsletts, divided her classes.

The snow also disrupted some other plans. Amanda had been going to stop by for late afternoon tea on her way back from Orrville, but she called in mid-morning to state the obvious. Barbara, in fact, wondered if she herself would be able to get to the station Wednesday night to begin her Thanksgiving vacation.

The snow stopped by noon, and, by nightfall, there were bright lights and great roaring noises from the direction of the highway. In the bright moonlight, reflected by the white expanse, there was visible a great shower of snow being shot upward as a huge rotary snowplow inched along. Barbara, exhausted by the extra teaching, watched fascinated from an easy chair in front of one of the large windows in the lounge. She hoped very much that the plow would succeed in opening the way for Mrs. Hanrahan in the morning.

The dawn was clear and bright with, for once, no wind. Barbara dragged herself out of bed and noticed, to her delight, Mrs. Hanrahan's car proceeding cautiously along the driveway. The Hunsletts had done well to open it at all, but it was still slippery, and her car slid gently into a snowdrift. Barbara threw a heavy coat over her pajamas, put on her boots, and went downstairs. She then collected several other girls in the lounge and set out with her rescue party. Mrs. Hanrahan was out of her car, trying ineffectually to push. She greeted Barbara,

"Boy, am I glad to see you."

The latter replied,

"I'm even gladder to see you. Teaching Latin isn't the easiest thing for me."

"You're becoming ever more versatile, Barbara. You should ask for a raise."

After they pushed and guided the car to a convenient resting place, Barbara returned to the fireplace. It was then not long before Amanda called, saying that she was driving to work that day. Barbara replied,

"We've just pushed Mrs. Hanrahan out of a snow drift. I could catch a ride to Orrville with her this afternoon. If you'd like, we could have dinner there, and you could drop me on the way back. Or is that abandoning your husband too much?"

"That'll be fine. He needs to be abandoned more than he is."

Barbara hung up feeling quite pleased. It would be her first 'grown up' dinner with a woman in some time, her last one having been with her father's mistress.

Even without the extra teaching, the day was a strenuous one. Barbara fortunately had a free hour in the afternoon to get herself ready. She knew that Amanda would look her over much more carefully, and critically, than Howie or Chuck would have. On the ride over, Mrs. Hanrahan insisted on treating her as a colleague. Barbara knew better, but was pleased anyway. It also helped build up her confidence, which, with dinner with Amanda in prospect, was not all it might have been.

They arrived just before five, and Mrs. Hanrahan dropped Barbara at the college, whence she proceeded to Amanda's office. As she was about to go in, a man came out, looking as if he would have wolf-whistled if he weren't so well educated. He then held the door for her with exaggerated courtesy. Amanda, alone in the office, greeted her enthusiastically.

"I've got something interesting for us."

She went on to explain that her office, in addition to handling fund raising and relations with alumni, also dealt with parents.

"There are a lot of folksy little things this college does, which a better one wouldn't, to make parents feel comfy about their kids. One of the things is to have us take surprise birthday cakes to their sons and daughters in the dormitories. It falls to me to do it in the case of the girls, and I even manage to sing "Happy Birthday." The one time I've done it, there were other girls around, and I didn't have to sing it alone. Guess who's getting a cake today?"

Barbara, not totally thrilled with the idea, registered ignorance.

"Miss Danny Richards is who. I waited for you to help me deliver it. Are you ready?"

As they crossed the campus, Amanda carrying the cake in a box, Barbara became increasingly convinced that she didn't want to go to Orrville College, or anything remotely like it. It was pretty enough, as far as physical appearances went. Moreover, on her previous visit, she had found the library to be a fairly decent one. However, the expressions on the faces of passing students couldn't be misread. In fact, the students at St. Monica's, despite the relative poverty of their academic resources, seemed more likely to open and read a good book than any of the students presently in view. As if picking up on her thoughts, Amanda said,

"You know, Barbara, even though you're about the right age, I think anyone looking at you would know you're not a student here."

Barbara would have thanked her for the compliment, but hesitated. While Amanda obviously had no high regard for the college or its students, she might not want to hear other people say bad things about it or them. As they went up the steps of Thayer Hall, Amanda remarked,

"These little visits are supposed to be total surprises. Sooner or later, I'm going to catch someone on the toilet. I'll march up singing Happy Birthday, pull open the stall door, and lay the cake right on her lap."

In this instance, Danny had just taken a shower, and had on only a slip. Barbara immediately noticed how lovely her coloring was, a hundred different shades of pink, rose, and gold. Some of it, no doubt, was traceable to her recent shower, but by no means all. Danny's face, while pretty and possessed of a kind of serenity, was empty even by the standards of Orrville College. She didn't immediately grasp what was going on, but her room-mate, probably the one Howie had encountered, popped up and explained matters. Danny was then delighted, more than a child would have been. Not only that, her pleasure was instantly transmitted to the large group of girls who gathered around her. As the two visitors left the hastily convened party, now in full swing, Amanda said to Barbara,

"Did you see the way the others almost worship her?"

"She's lovely, but, I'm afraid, quite dumb."

"Oh yes. But she's a vision of innocence and beauty. Even I want to protect her."

Barbara nodded,

"We ought to kill Howie for taking advantage of her."

"Maybe that's why those ruffians knocked him around and took his pants. They may have known what a good girl she is."

Amanda paused a moment, and then added,

"I can also imagine Danny fighting tooth and nail to protect Howie from them, even under the circumstances."

"The trouble is, who's going to protect her when that little circle around her breaks up?"

Amanda half laughed in a cynical way.

"No one, probably. Another little tragedy among all the others."

"You never know. A circle like that may form around her wherever she goes."

As they were speaking, Barbara happened to be aware of something that might easily be another small tragedy in the making. She decided to wait before mentioning it. After all, she wanted to be fun for Amanda.

They then returned to Amanda's office and went through some of the more humorous files of actual and potential benefactors. Amanda said,

"Incidentally, if you should ever get the idea, I would advise you not to direct any of your father's money in this direction. The Claxton affair put me in like Flynn, and I don't need anything else."

Barbara felt herself flush as she said,

"Thanks. I would have done it if you'd needed it, and still will if things change. But, I'd prefer not to. Among other things, I'd like to help Mrs. Hanrahan somehow."

At that moment, Barbara came upon the file of a man named McNulty who wanted to present a medal for Christian Manliness. Among the qualifications were "a well developed physique, a pronounced respect for ladies, and the habit of vigorous exercise." In order to guide the selectors still further, Mr. McNulty had provided a pen and ink sketch, evidently by himself, of the sort of man he had in mind. It featured a gentleman reminiscent of John L. Sullivan, but, instead of being stripped to the waist in a classic boxing stance, he had swept off his straw hat to bend low in the direction of a passing lady. Barbara said,

"You should give the McNulty Medal to an illiterate athlete who follows girls around the campus and whispers sweet things to them."

After some more fun with the files, they proceeded to a restaurant near the campus. Amanda explained,

"It's a campus hangout at times, but, when they're all eating in their dorms, it becomes quite good."

It wasn't until dessert that Barbara told Amanda the bad news.

"I got a call from Margaret today, and all the things you predicted seem to be happening. The teaching is harder with less docile students, and the boy friend is gone. She's developed an enormous sense of guilt, and she's coming back here for Thanksgiving."

"Has she quit her job?"

"No, she'll be on vacation, but she wants to come back and fess up to Sister Rose. I can imagine Sister Rose telling her she should go back and finish the term at the public school. But, even if she does, Margaret will end up pledged to come back here."

"I haven't met her, but I do feel sympathy. You like her, and Chuck's nurse, Mrs. Badgett, was quite struck with her. Mrs. Badgett's a nice lady herself, and might be able to help."

"Yes. I remember her well. She was really the one who supplied the spark. I'd a lot rather Margaret got a pep talk from her than from Sister Rose."

There was a brief silence while both considered the matter. Amanda broke it.

"I know! When Margaret arrives, bring her to stay at our house rather than St. Monica's. We can then get in touch with Mrs. Badgett. I bet you haven't told Sister Rose yet."

"No, I haven't. Of course, I was planning to spend Thanksgiving with my family, but this seems to take precedence."

"You mean, you aren't going home for Thanksgiving?"

"I'm just not sure at the moment. I don't think I can go and leave Margaret here."

"If you stay at St. Monica's, Sister Rose will smell a rat. If you don't go home, you'd better stay with us, too."

"You don't have room for both of us."

"We have an extra bedroom, and I can borrow a mattress from the neighbors. It'll be fun. Besides, the only turkeys I can get are so big that it takes us a week of eating nothing else to finish them. Invite your family down from Chicago for Thanksgiving dinner."

Barbara laughed,

"Daddy would never come. I bet he's slated to spend part of the day with Yvonne. He'll probably have to eat two dinners."

Amanda replied facetiously,

"Bring Yvonne down separately and put her in the Bollinger House. Then he could sneak off after the turkey and be back for coffee."

"You're closer to the truth than you realize. Life in the Bowen household is now down to the level of domestic comedy."

"So is it in the Winton household."

"Is it? Chuck surely doesn't have a mistress now, does he?"

"No. The Incident scared him. Now that he's not so scared, he'll probably find one. But it's not whether he does or not. The trouble is that he'll always be thinking in those terms. Laura MacLeod told Sergeant Olafson that he's not bad, just a real big kid."

"He does remind me of Daddy in some ways."

"So I can look forward to someone like Yvonne?"

"Well, part of it is that Daddy can buy anything he wants. Yvonne costs a lot. If he had to do with someone cheaper, he'd be ashamed of her and he'd want to keep her out of sight. Then she wouldn't be as much of an embarrassment to my mother."

"Yes. Well, the fact is, I don't really know whether I still want Chuck."

"I hope you're not thinking of exchanging him for Olafson."

"Not exactly. I want to support myself with this job and be, well, free. Then I'd like to make friends and take lovers as I want. There's Olafson, perhaps. My boss seems interested, too, though that might not be wise. There's also Chuck himself. He makes love beautifully."

"That's interesting. I don't think I would have guessed it."

Amanda then leaned forward over the table and said,

"If I'm turning Chuck loose, there's no reason why you shouldn't let him initiate you. I'm sure he'd love to do it, and there's no one better."

Barbara hardly knew what to say. Amanda asked,

"Have I shocked you?"

"I guess probably. I'm having trouble adjusting to all these changes in my life."

Amanda, still in the same position, said,

"I hope you won't hate me for this, but I've had Howie. It was before you met him, but I bet you still don't like it."

Barbara felt a little dizzy, and wanted to speak. Then it came clear.

"I don't know why you're telling me this. What are you trying to do?"

"Remember when you danced with me? Well, it looks as if we might end up sharing a man."

Amanda smiled at her. Barbara felt fear and fury in roughly equal proportions. It didn't lessen her fury to think that, yet again, Sister Rose had been right. She got up suddenly and, without bothering with her coat, rushed outside. She was well down the block when she heard Amanda running behind her.

It was amazing how little force it took. One push and Amanda was over the hedge, her skirt caught, her feet waving in the air, and her head and shoulders in the snow on the other side. Barbara, now somewhat amused, ran quickly around the hedge. Amanda wasn't amused, and was trying to extricate herself from her predicament. Instead of helping, Barbara gently pinned her shoulders and spoke down at her.

"Amanda. I've got some things to say, and this seems a good position. First, I feel like screaming and telling everyone that I'm a teen-ager. I can't cope with everything and everyone at once. Ok?"

Amanda had stopped struggling and made a sort of grunt. Barbara continued,

"Second. I wish the hell you'd left Howie alone. He's another innocent like me, and he doesn't need whatever you and Chuck do to spice up your sex life."

"I hear you, Barbara, but I'm cold. Would you please let me up?"

Once righted, Amanda did what she could to straighten her clothes and get the snow out of her hair. She then said,

"Quite frankly, I'm embarrassed to go back to the restaurant. I did pay before leaving, but you'll have to go back for our coats."

Barbara did so, trying to give the impression that it had all been a joke. When she returned, Amanda said,

"I feel like slapping you."

"Don't. I'm bigger."

As if by mutual consent, they walked silently toward the town center, where the sign of a small coffee shop promised a respite from the cold. Amanda finally said,

"It wasn't anything about Howie that made you so mad, was it?"

"No. It was the other part. Girls have had crushes on me, and a couple of the ones in my class do now. I can handle it, but it was your bringing up something like that at that moment. It was just too much. I'm calmer now."

"I did hear what you said before, even if I was upside down. If you want, I'll see that Chuck and I, at any rate, leave you alone."

"I don't want that. I just don't want to be pushed into sex with anyone. Are you still willing to take in Margaret?"

"Certainly. Let's go in here and get some hot coffee. Could you try to do something with my hair first?"

Amanda stepped under a street light while Barbara went to work with a comb. As she did so, she began to feel sorry. Amanda was so little and pert that Barbara felt as if she had wantonly attacked a cute little animal. Indeed, once they were inside the cafe, she apologized with some feeling. Amanda replied,

"You didn't really mean to push me over the hedge. You were just trying to push me away and make me stop bothering you."

"So you really are thinking of divorcing Chuck and setting up on your own."

"Yes. The only thing he's really good at is sex, and that isn't enough. But it's too bad to waste him. He might even be available for Margaret, if that's what she needs to pull her out."

"Unless he settled down with her permanently, that would probably work only temporarily."

"Are you sure she's better off on the outside?"

"No, I'm not sure. But I think, having gone this far, she ought to give it a fair try. She's only been out for a month or so."

"This is probably her first crisis on the outside. If you can't make it through crises, you might as well join a convent."

"So far, I've had more crises inside the convent than I ever had outside. But I realize that that's not typical."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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