Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 28

Crossing a Bump in the Road

Howie was surprised when Barbara called him. She had, in fact, called only once before, when she had heard on the radio that he had been shot at. On this occasion, she came right to the point.

"Amanda says she had sex with you. Is that true?"

Howie hesitated. His first instinct was to deny it. He was just reaching the point of admitting it when she said,

"I guess silence means that you did. Right?"

"Yes. It was before I met you."

"But after we'd talked on the phone. I don't blame you for doing it. On the other hand, I don't think I would've gone to Willow Grove with the rest of you if I'd known. You've also been giving me the impression that Danny was the only woman you'd ever gotten anywhere with. I can't remember if you told me that in so many words."

"You asked if, apart from Danny, you were the first girl to be nice to me. Amanda isn't exactly a girl, and I'm not sure if she was being nice to me. But, anyway, I admit that I was deceiving you."

"I'm glad you said that, Howie. I was going to explode if you took refuge in technicalities."

"I don't know exactly why I hid it, but I had a strong feeling that you'd take it extremely ill."

"I did, even though it happened before I'd met either of you. I also suspect strongly that it was mostly her doing. Her reason for telling me was to try to draw me into some kind of grouping with herself and Chuck, maybe even three in bed, or four in bed for all I know. I pushed her over a hedge, and then held her down in the snow."

"Wow! How mad are you at me?"

"It's not so much a matter of being mad. I've just come to realize that you lie, probably about other things as well."

"I always have. I've been trying to hold it down, particularly with you."

"Well, I guess you're not lying when you say that you lie. What fooled me was that you also blurt out things that most people would keep to themselves."

"I haven't always done that. I certainly didn't at the orphanage. That's a more recent thing."

"I see. So there are two conflicting tendencies working in you at once. Maybe you can arrive at a reasonable compromise."

"I hope so. Will you still see me?"

"Yes, but it's back to square one. First date rules according to Ann."

Howie agreed and said goodbye with strong mixed feelings. He was angry at Amanda for telling Barbara. He also felt something close to despair. Barbara had already refused to marry him, and to be caught lying about such an important thing could forever put an end to any such possibility. On the other hand, there was an element of relief. She hadn't refused to see him, and it was conceivable that he could really become more honest and convince Barbara of it. He wondered if he could build up honesty in something like the way in which he could build oneself up physically.

The next day, Howie started down a path which he thought had probably been travelled by a great many others. Like those others, he decided to continue with white lies. There was no point, for example, in telling the people at the Courthouse Cafe that their food was no good, even when they asked him how it was. It was what it was for quite a number of good and sufficient reasons, and nothing he said would have any significant effect. On the other hand, there were some areas in which he could be more open.

He started by telling the prosecutor, Mr. Hardin, that he would be leaving in June. Howie had hesitated to take that last step, even after making up his mind definitely. He had noticed that people who announced their intention to leave the city were quietly but thoroughly ostracized by groups such as those who met at the Bollinger House Bar. They took it personally that anyone should want to leave Bollinger, and reacted accordingly.

Indeed, when Howie did tell Mr. Hardin, the latter wasn't very gracious. There was only an unpleasant grunt and some grumbling about having to advertise for a replacement. When Mr. Hardin didn't even express any hope that Howie would be successful in his chosen career, the latter did wonder whether he wasn't practising honesty to excess. He could, after all, have waited a few months, and then given a month's notice. But, still, honesty, like so many other things, would be a matter of building up a habit.

The next step was, of course, Chuck. Howie caught him just as he left his office, and, as they stood on the sidewalk, Howie said abruptly,

"You may want to kill me, but I've had an affair with Amanda."

Chuck actually did look dangerous for a fraction of a second, but he then smiled, put his hand on Howie's shoulder, and said,

"I certainly implied to you to go ahead if you could."

"Well, it didn't happen that day, and, when it did, Amanda insisted that I not tell you."

"As a matter of fact, Howie, I suspected it strongly that night we went to Willow Grove. Where should we go for our root beer?"

It no longer seemed appropriate to go to the Bollinger House for drinks. The first time they ordered root beer, it had created a minor storm. The second time, when it was realized that they weren't joking, there was actually some hostility. He now pointed out to Chuck,

"Now that I've let it out that I'm leaving Bollinger, I'll certainly be unwelcome there. They may even have their doubts about you for associating with me."

"I dare say. The high school students will have left the Krazy Karavan by now, won't they?"

Howie allowed that the place would probably be reasonably approachable, and they soon found themselves installed in a booth there. Chuck put a quarter into the Wurlitzer for three western songs, and they settled back with their root beers. Chuck said,

"I wouldn't mind if you continued with Amanda, but, of course, Barbara wouldn't like that."

"No. Amanda told her, and I had quite a session with Barbara on the phone last night."

"That's a pity. Can it be repaired?"

"Perhaps. Even before that, she refused to take seriously my marriage proposal. She wants to sample the world, including other men, before she marries."

Chuck considered briefly and replied,

"The girls who do marry at that age are generally in desperate circumstances of one sort or another."

"Sure. It's only reasonable. It just means that, if we're both at Harvard, I'll have to make damn sure I'm more interesting and exciting to be with than the competition."

"Well, that'll keep you up to scratch, Howie. We could probably all do with a challenge like that. Incidentally, have you gone over to the hospital for your X-rays yet?"

"No, I'm going over tonight."

That evening, Howie found that Dr. Torgeson had left instructions, and, once again, he found himself arrayed in a gown and led through corridors. The X-ray technician, like others he had encountered in the past, was a cheerful young woman. Howie was good at assuming the peculiar positions that were required, and he was soon finished. He was dressed and ready to leave when a young man, evidently a resident, popped his head in the door and said,

"I've just had a look at your X-rays, Mr. Slattery, and I think it might be a good idea if you had a word with Dr. Bradley. He happened to be here, and I showed him the pictures."

Howie knew immediately that this was a departure from routine, and that something must be wrong. X-rays would go to the doctor who ordered them. While a resident might look at them en route, they would never be sent to another competing doctor. He didn't have long to wait.

Howie had met Doc Bradley casually a couple of times, and recognized him now. A slight, rather stern, older man who gave the impression of efficiency and reliability, he came into the room quickly and sat down opposite Howie. He said,

"Mr. Slattery, I have no business doing this, but I happened to be here, and I read Dr. Torgeson's notes on your case. I also looked at your X-rays. I can only say this. Dr. Torgeson is a brilliant man, perhaps a genius. None of the rest of us can begin to match him intellectually. But his diagnoses are often eccentric and sometimes mistaken. In this case, I would recommend a second opinion."

Howie really had only one question, and, in the light of his honesty project, it was easier to ask.

"Do you think I have cancer?"

"It's impossible to tell from these X-rays, but it's certainly a possibility. I would recommend that you go immediately to the Mayo clinic, or another comparable place. There! I've said it. I shouldn't have, but no one with such a potentially serious disorder should depend on just one opinion, no matter who it comes from."

Doc Bradley left immediately, and Howie remained for a moment. He was now convinced that he did, after all, have cancer. Much as he liked Torgy, Doc Bradley was much more professional. He was a man who didn't deal in theories or speculations, but only in established facts. He had gone way out on a limb to do something that violated one of the most sacrosanct rules of medical practice because he thought that Howie's life might depend on it. Howie was certainly not going to tell on him. Even to Chuck. If he did go off to Chicago or the Mayo Clinic, he would say only that he had gotten worried and decided to go on his own.

When he got home, Howie called Barbara, and asked her to go out to dinner the following evening. She sounded a little hesitant, but Howie said,

"I won't propose again, and I'll go by all of Ann's rules. But there are some new developments that I'd like to talk about."

Barbara didn't ask what they were, and agreed quickly.

Late the next afternoon, when Howie arrived at St. Monica's, Barbara was waiting by the window. She came out even before he had gotten out of the car. She was in her uniform and said,

"I'm sorry I didn't get fixed up. I'm just too exhausted with teaching."

"Are you learning enough to justify it?"

"Well, once you know high-school algebra, there isn't any more to learn in that area. I am learning a little science, but not really very much. I'm learning a lot about the problems of teaching, but I'm also getting pretty well convinced that I don't want to be a teacher."

"It never attracted me much. That was really why I went to law school instead of graduate school in economics. But, of course, professors don't spend most of their time teaching. I think it'll be worth it. Do you still want to go to Radcliffe next year?"

"I don't know. I might not want to go to college at all next year, and just spend a year reading and writing. I'm going to need a rest, or at least to work at a comfortable pace determined by myself."

"You know, you could do what I've always fantasized doing. You could come to Harvard unofficially, live near the university, and audit any course you like."

"Can anyone do that?"

"Sure. In large courses, auditors aren't even noticed. In small ones, you ask permission of the instructor. They were always pleased when I asked them."

"That does sound nice. The only thing I'd miss would be writing papers and getting comments on them."

"I dabbled in a number of fields, and I found that I could learn the most from the right kind of graduate student. If you choose carefully, you can find a future luminary in the profession, but he'll be much more accessible than the professors. Besides, graduate students are almost always broke, and you can hire them as tutors."

"That sounds like Oxford. I could listen to the most knowledgeable people in the world in lectures, and then get tutored by the future best people. Could you help me find them?"

"Sure. I got good at wandering into one of those big offices full of teaching fellows and getting into conversation with them. They argue over issues in their field, and it really takes very little discernment to see which are the best."

It also occurred to Howie that he could choose tutors who would be unlikely to compete with him for Barbara. She seemed delighted with the idea and said,

"I think Daddy would agree to that. We both like to have control over any operations we happen to be engaged in."

Barbara then said,

"I gathered over the phone that there was something specific you wanted to talk about."

"I've started my honesty campaign, and there are some things that you ought to know."

Howie then gave Barbara a brief history of his stomach problems. Even as he watched the road ahead, he could see her react at various points. At the end, when he told her about Doc Bradley, she looked quite upset. When he finished, she replied,

"I know how tired of being examined you must be, but you can't go wrong with a second opinion. I'm surprised Dr. Torgeson didn't suggest it himself."

"When Torgy gets an idea, he's not very quick to question it. He's the same in the Literary Society."

"How much and how often does your stomach hurt?"

Howie laughed and gave her, in general terms, some idea of the problem. He concluded,

"I wasn't going to tell you. I was afraid you wouldn't want to have anything to do with a defective."

"A defective! Stomach problems don't make someone defective."

"Well, mine might easily suggest that something is seriously wrong. Torgy gave me hope, and he may still be right, but I'm at least somewhat discouraged at this point."

Howie was aware that Barbara was looking at him fixedly. After a pause, she said,

"So you thought you had something fatal, and you thought I'd ditch you if I knew because I wouldn't want to have to deal with it."

"I didn't think you cared enough about me to let yourself in for that. No sensible person would."

"It makes me sound pretty hard-hearted just the same. I suppose I'll have to talk with Sister Rose about this. Am I really like that, and how do I appear? And then there's the matter that you don't seem to trust me much."

"I think I decided right off that you were a toughie. You described everything, including being whipped, in a pretty cool detached way. That's all right with me. I like toughies. I grew up with them. I suppose I'm one myself."

"You must be if you're disguising pain half the time. I wouldn't have guessed, except, perhaps, for a funny look you get now and then. But I don't think I want to be a toughie. Can't I be a warm wonderful human being?"

Barbara laughed as she finished speaking, and Howie laughed too. He then asked,

"Does that mean that you won't abandon me if I do have cancer or some other hopeless thing?"

"No. I realize that that could be awful beyond words, but I'm not weak. I'd do what I could to help, but I probably would distance in some ways to preserve my own sanity. Anyhow, speaking of preserving sanity, let's go somewhere other than Amanda's restaurant."

They found a much more expensive place which had some French dishes, and which was obviously patronized by the leading citizens of Orrville. When they were seated, Howie whispered,

"The people around us look fairly homogenous in terms of interests, values and general life style."

"Amanda's been meeting a good many of them, and she says they form a pretty tight circle. Most are in business, and they think any sort of controversy is bad for business."

"I don't see anyone here who looks at all like Ken Seitz. But they must have politicians."

"The bankers and owners of companies may just take turns being mayor, and so forth."

"So there wouldn't be anyone who's a real political animal like Ken?"

"I guess not. Would you find it dull if you lived here?"

"I think so. I also doubt that the other Bollinger elite, which contains people like Sturgis and Torgy, has any counterpart here."

"Well, Mrs. Hanrahan lives here. But she's not happy about it. She's evidently almost as starved for good company as Amanda. Of course, she has Sister Rose, who certainly is good company, but there are some drawbacks there."

"I guess the moral is that it's almost as much a mistake to settle in Orrville as in Bollinger. You don't get the Wellington Sykes syndrome, or even the Vic Olafson one, but there's nobody who's interesting to watch."

Barbara laughed and replied,

"You do love watching people, Howie. I'm surprised that you don't want to be a psychologist or sociologist instead of an economist."

"The final accounting of personality comes out in the way that people spend their money. All of economics comes down to trying to guess how people will behave with their money on the line."

Barbara, looking particularly beautiful and at least twenty five, replied,

"Isn't there a little more to me than my economic behavior?"

"You're probably too young to fully reveal yourself economically. But your father may."

"Yes, I dare say he does. I know I'm a daddy's girl, but I hope I can manage to make a few adjustments."

The steak au poivre then appeared, and Barbara declared it the best thing she had eaten in the combined Bollinger- Orrville metropolitan area. Howie liked it, but not really any better than the hamburgers at the Krazy Karavan, at which point he wondered if his new honesty obliged him to reveal as much to Barbara. That reminded him of the other aspects of the program, and, after they dispatched the steak, he told her about his disclosures to Mr. Hardin and Chuck. She was amused by the prosecutor's reaction, but rather alarmed by his telling Chuck. She responded,

"I don't think Amanda wanted me to tell you that I know, and I'm pretty sure she didn't want Chuck to know."

Howie then explained some more aspects of the relationship between the Wintons, some of which Barbara had not already known. She concluded,

"If things have reached that pitch, it hardly matters which of them knows what. Or, for that matter, who sleeps with who."

"Before, you thought it mattered a lot that I'd been with Amanda."

"You're not going to again, are you?"

"Definitely not."

"Well, let's just put that down as a training experience for you. I can see why you didn't want to tell me about it."

"Am I forgiven for lying?"

"Partially. You can kiss me by the front door of my dormitory."

"Don't the other girls hang out the windows to watch?"

"There's a roof over the porch."


Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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