Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 30

Mr. and Mrs. Bowen

Thanksgiving Day dawned bright and clear, but there were few movements in front of the fireplace until the morning was further advanced. Amanda and Margaret were up first, and the latter reported feeling fine. Amanda asked,

"So you're not off to rejoin the convent?"

"Not now, anyway. I think the trouble was really just that I was getting worn down teaching. I must have needed a vacation. A public junior high is a hard place to teach. There isn't nearly the discipline there is in a Catholic school. I might want to get a master's and teach high school."

By the time everyone was up and organized, Amanda and Barbara were ready to go to meet Barbara's mother.

This time, with few trains running on the holiday, the station was locked tight. Not wanting to risk asphyxiation by running the engine and heater while parked, they drove slowly up the road which ran parallel to the track. They had gone only a mile or so in the blinding sunshine before they could make out the train in the distance. Unfortunately, the cleared road between snowbanks wasn't wide enough to allow them to turn around. They eventually reached a ploughed side road they could back into and turn.

Barbara and Amanda reached the platform just as the train braked to a halt. When the woman who could only be Mrs. Bowen hopped lightly down in a fur jacket, black skirt, and fashionable boots, Amanda could see why Barbara was so proud of her mother. Then, to Amanda's surprise, Barbara's father, carrying a large basket, came down the steps after his wife. Barbara, apparently speechless with surprise, embraced her mother while Amanda introduced herself to Mr. Bowen.

After the round of introductions had been completed, Amanda led the way to the car with Mr. Bowen walking beside her. Amanda's sharp ears allowed her to hear Barbara quietly ask her mother,

"How did you ever get him to come?"

"He had a huge fight with Yvonne and came to me for solace."

"Is it all over, then?"

"Apparently so. Be nice to him today. He's walking wounded."

Amanda was always interested in meeting captains of industry, even when their affairs were proceeding badly, and she wondered whether Mr. Bowen had more money than Clarence Claxton. After only a few minutes with him, she realized that she could ask directly, but didn't. Her first surprise had been to see how young he looked, even younger than his wife. While it was obvious that Barbara got her beauty from her mother, her father, if not handsome, was big and craggy with a crooked nose that might have been broken in a fight or sports event. He caught her looking at him and told her,

"I've been called a crooked-nose son of a Slovak coal miner."

"That's a good phrase. It sounds as if it's going to be obscene when it starts out."

"Yeah, I was going to hit the guy who said it, but then I realized it was true."

Mr. Bowen was placed in the front beside Amanda, supposedly because of his size, but really because he was used to taking precedence in all things. Amanda took a roundabout route home, during the course of which she was asked whether there was anything worth buying in Bollinger. Amanda at first didn't know what he meant, but then realized that he had in mind a factory or other large property. She replied,

"I doubt it, but we can drive by what there is."

The largest factory, the one that made cardboard boxes, looked terribly ramshackle. Mr. Bowen said,

"Even something like that can be a little gold mine if it has a well-established local market. I doubt it in this case. It's too easy to ship knocked-down cardboard boxes from one region to another. That means they have national competition."

Amanda then drove by the Bollinger House, saying,

"This place has a local monopoly."

Mr. Bowen was amused.

"I dare say it does, but it's too small to be worth the trouble."

"I can see, though, that you'd like to take home something as a commercial souvenir. There's Margaret, the nun your daughter is saving from the convent. She's now teaching school in Chicago, but I imagine you could hire her away for one of your enterprises."

"Is she pretty? My girl friend just gave me the air. I could use someone."

Amanda had to look at Mr. Bowen to see that he was joking, and only then laughed. She had the impression that Barbara and her mother were too engaged in conversation to have heard him, and replied,

"I think your chances of finding anyone as attractive as your wife are very slim."

"Ann is nice. I was forced to choose between them, and I chose her. But you can't get along with just one woman."

"That's what my husband thinks, too. I'm on the point of telling him he'll have to manage without me."

Amanda had spoken in a humorous tone, but Mr. Bowen engaged her in argument as if he were trying to convert a dangerous radical to a position of sanity and reason. As they arrived at their house, Amanda let him convince her of his position, adding only,

"Of course, a woman needs more than one man, preferably three or four."

When the Bowen basket was unpacked, it appeared that, all combined, they had an enormous amount of food. Ann Bowen insisted on installing herself in the kitchen with Amanda, replacing Margaret, and said,

"You young girls can keep the men entertained while we see to the food."

After Margaret had left, Mrs. Bowen said to Amanda,

"She looks as if she'll be all right. I've talked with her on the phone quite often, and had lunch with her a couple of times. She never seemed to be in desperate straits."

"I don't think she usually is. The trouble is, she only has to weaken once, enough to call Sister Rose, and then it's all over. She apparently came close to it a couple of days ago."

"I only met Sister Rose briefly when I brought Barbara down to the school, but I keep hearing about her. Is she really that formidable?"

"Yes. She can hold her own, and then some, with Barbara. That's a recommendation in itself. She's very bright and interesting, and she can be as charming as the situation seems to require. She also thinks I'm a bad influence on Barbara."

"On the contrary, I've been extremely glad that Barbara had you and your husband to look to when she got into trouble with the nuns. I gather that they actually whipped her."

"Yes. It was apparently an awful scene. And before that, they made her whip another girl."

"When all this began to filter through to us, I made a scene with Bob and made him agree to take her away from there. But Barbara and her father are close, and they made some sort of arrangement about money, I don't quite understand it."

Amanda explained it to her. Mrs. Bowen shook her head, but also laughed.

"It's awful in a way. I don't want Barbara to grow up with Bob's attitudes about money. On the other hand, it's so typical of both of them. I'm powerless to do anything about it."

"I gather that Sister Rose's only defeat on record is with your husband. She tried to out-flank Barbara with him."

"I could have told her not to bother. No one could ever do that."

Mrs. Bowen then paused, laughed nervously, and said,

"Incidentally, I heard him telling you all about his break-up with his mistress. I hope that wasn't too embarrassing for you."

"No. As I told him, my husband is essentially similar."

Amanda poked her head out the door and then reported to Mrs. Bowen,

"In fact, our husbands seem to be getting along well. I guess they're discovering how much they have in common."

There was soon nothing to do but let the turkey continue to roast. Amanda felt on much more familiar terms with the other woman than the length of their acquaintance would have made likely. It was partly, she supposed, because the extraordinary revelations of Mr. Bowen had led them into a discussion of their husbands. The other part was that they had so much overlapping and inter-locking information about Barbara. She thus felt comfortable in asking,

"Would you like to go out and have a drink with the others, or have some tea with me first?"

"I'd love to have tea first if they won't miss you."

As they sat down at the kitchen table, Amanda said,

"I'll put you next to Howie at dinner. I think you'll like him.

"Barbara hasn't really had a boy friend before. He seems quite nice, but hardly older than she. Is he really a prosecutor?"

"Yes. He's a very effective prosecutor, but his heart really isn't in it. Howie's really an economist, and wants to get back to it. I imagine he will."

"I have very little idea what Barbara might want to be, and I try not to push in any direction. Parents are necessary when you're young, but, from the teens on, they so often seem to be negative influences. I do little more than listen to what Barbara wants to tell me."

"Does she ever ask your advice?"

"Very seldom, and only on the most important things. Oddly enough, she often takes it on those occasions."

"I think that's the way I'd want it if I were a mother. But I probably won't be."

Ann looked at her questioningly, and Amanda replied,

"We tried several times without any luck. Anyway, I don't think Chuck would be a good father."

"Are you sure? Bob's been a better father than a husband. He's always out doing rough and tumble things with our son, and Barbara adores him."

"I'm afraid he won't like Howie much."

"Why is that?"

"Howie doesn't seem much interested in anything that makes money. He'll probably end up as a professor."

"It's true that Bob isn't thrilled about professors, but I'd just as soon she didn't pick someone just like her father."

Amanda agreed, but could hardly say so. Instead, she said,

"Of course, the pickings are slim here, and Howie is about all that's available. Once she gets to college, she'll be able to have any sort of man she wants."

"She spoke quite seriously about Howie in the car. She's stubborn, too. If she settles on Howie before she gets to college, she may be completely impervious to all attempts by other boys to charm her away."

It seemed to Amanda that Ann was even more beautiful than her daughter. Amanda asked,

"Doesn't your husband produce any jealousy when other men show interest in you?"

"No. He can't imagine that anyone else could really compete with him."

"That is unusual. Maybe we'd better go out and help Howie make a good impression."

When Amanda and her guest joined the others, it was obvious, as Amanda had expected, that it was Chuck who had made the good impression on the great man. Howie was talking, happily enough, with Barbara and Margaret, but had probably not exchanged a dozen words with him.

Just before it was time for dinner, Amanda turned on the record player and stacked on the changer a Vivaldi record to be followed by an early Mozart symphony. She had discovered that, whatever they might say in the abstract, everyone liked this kind of classical music. Having got the volume just right, she then whispered to Barbara,

"Could you monopolize Margaret at dinner? I'd like to talk with your father, who'll be on the other side of her. Your mother should also get a chance to talk with Howie."

Barbara whispered back,

"I don't think Daddy likes him."

"I'll work on that. Meantime, I think your mother will like him."

The dinner began exactly as Amanda hadn't intended, as something like Down Home Week on the farm. However, an initial aura of good feeling was established. And, anyway, Thanksgiving was supposed to be like that. Once everyone was served, she, Barbara, and Mrs. Bowen gradually transformed it into something more personal.

Mr. Bowen, on closer inspection, turned out to be more like Clarence Claxton than he had first appeared. Both rich men ran on their own internal logic, with unpredictable changes of subject and little concern for the thoughts of others. Amanda did catch him looking down the front of her dress. Claxton, on their recent meetings, had most often attempted to look under her skirt. Even that difference might be illusory. She was generally seated across from Claxton, thus affording him a different opportunity. Mr. Bowen might well have acted similarly in like circumstances. Indeed, as he told her about Yvonne, Amanda could sense a certain fetishism concerning parts of women's bodies, one with which Clarence Claxton would have been right at home. After a while, Amanda spoke to him in the quietest and most matter- of-fact voice possible,

"We've just been blackmailed by one of Chuck's old girl friends."

She had wondered whether it would get through to her companion. It did. He nearly dumped a spoonful of soup into his lap. Enjoying herself, Amanda continued,

"Of course, that's bound to happen sooner or later isn't it? Or is it only because Chuck's a doctor?"

It seemed that a man who discussed his mistresses with virtual strangers would be the world's worst target for blackmail. It was nevertheless clear that the whole notion made him nervous. He wanted details, and wasn't shy about asking questions. Amanda let him slowly tease information out of her. Finally, she said,

"It was the man with her, someone named Arnie, who was really the problem. He told Howie that he couldn't do a thing to him without blowing Chuck away, which was true. Howie told Arnie that he could put him in jail for a couple of days on other charges, and then told him what would happen."

Amanda, as a lady, was extremely reluctant to go into detail concerning water hoses and the nether parts of the human anatomy. But eventually, in quasi-medical terms, she gave Mr. Bowen the general picture. She then let go the punch line.

"Howie threatened to tell the other prisoners that Arnie had raped the four year old daughter of the Baptist preacher. After that, there wasn't any trouble at all."

Mr. Bowen actually pointed at Howie.

"He did that?"

"Oh yes. Howie's very resourceful. Don't tell anyone I told you, though. It's supposed to be a secret."

"He seems so young. It's hard to imagine him dealing with a hardened criminal."

"He and Sergeant Olafson work together, particularly in interrogations. Olafson is a man about forty. But Howie is the boss."

"Well, when you get in a position like that, you have to grow up fast. I was hiring and firing people when I wasn't much older than Barbara. On the other hand, a guy like that may burn out by the time he's thirty and spend the rest of his life sitting on a river bank with a fishing rod in his hand."

Amanda replied,

"You make it sound attractive. Is that what you plan to do?"

While Mr. Bowen was denying any such intention, Amanda passed him a plate of nuts, letting her dress drape open as she reached in his direction.

It was after dinner, when Mrs. Bowen was helping her clean up the kitchen, that Amanda asked her how she had liked Howie. She replied,

"I liked him. I found him very interesting, and quite amusing too. But I'm worried. We talked about his orphanage, and it sounded so terribly grim."

"I'm sure it was. One in Texas would have to be. But he's come through it all right, wouldn't you say?"

"Intellectually, certainly. But, so far as I can gather, he got no love, and practically no affection. How can someone who's never been loved love anyone else?"

Amanda was suddenly very concerned, and had little idea how to answer. Finally, she said,

"You'd also expect someone who had that little, and probably had to snatch whatever was loose just to survive, to be very acquisitive, perhaps a thief. But Howie doesn't even seem to want material things very much."

"No, I could see that. I imagine that he's just found things of the mind that attract him much more than fancy cars and clothes, and so on. It's on the emotional level that I'm worried. Barbara seems to need so little support that it hasn't been a problem. But she will, sooner or later. And then, will he have anything to give?"

Amanda really had nothing to say, and the other continued,

"It was only when he mentioned a dog they had at the orphanage that he spoke of anything there with any warmth. But I don't think you can learn to love and be loved just from a dog, can you?"

"I don't suppose so. Of course, there are an awful lot of us who haven't had a good training in that area, myself included."

"I was loved as a child. That's one thing I do have among my many deficiencies. Perhaps I overestimate its importance."

As they talked about other things, Amanda was sure that Mrs. Bowen's doubts remained. It looked as if she might have converted the father only to lose the mother. She also rememembered that Barbara sought and took her mother's advice when she perceived anything to be important.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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