Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 33

Pinball Machines

A few days after Barbara's return to school from her abbreviated vacation, she called Amanda at Orrville College. They first spoke of Margaret, and Amanda concluded,

"At least we've done our best. If she can't manage in the long run without Sister Rose, she'll just have to go back."

Barbara then brought up another matter.

"There's a message for you from my mother. It seems that Daddy took quite a liking to Chuck, and is thinking of putting him in charge of a string of nursing homes. It would mean a lot of money, and would be a hard offer to refuse. But it might change your life in ways you wouldn't like. She wanted you to have warning."

"That's kind of her to ask. I'm all in favor of it. Chuck and I had a good time in St. Louis, but I think I'm still going to turn him loose. I'm going to visit my parents tomorrow, and, when I come back, I may take a place here in Orrville. But I don't bear him any ill will. It sounds like an excellent opportunity."

That settled, Barbara had to wait until almost dinner time to see Sister Rose. They hadn't spoken alone together for some time, and Barbara had an entirely irrational, but nonetheless real, fear that Sister Rose might know how close Margaret had come to returning. In fact, the older woman, for once, didn't seem to read Barbara's thoughts. She did, however, say,

"I can see that you've got something on your mind."

"Yes. I thought we could do some financial planning. The income on the quarter million would probably be only about twelve thousand a year, and, in growth stocks, it wouldn't be even that much. But, I've arranged with Daddy that, if we take it all in the stock of one of his companies, Illinois Investors Financial, he'll make it three hundred thousand."

Sister Rose looked surprised.

"I'm delighted to hear this, Barbara. I had just about decided that you weren't going to give the school more than half the money, if that."

"So I fooled you, for once. Why did you think that?"

"Well, you now know how hard your job is. You might reasonably feel that you're already giving us plenty without adding your father's money. I also heard that Mrs. Winton has a position in the fund-raising department of Orrville College. Aren't you giving some there?"

"I would if she needed it to keep the job, but she's doing fine on her own. Apart from that, it's not much of a college, and another building wouldn't make it any better."

"Would another building make St. Monica's any better?"

"I don't think it makes any school or college better unless you're down to having classes in tents or crowding people in the dorms so much that they can't study. There certainly isn't a space problem here."

"No, but, if your father were to make an unrestricted gift, the board would almost certainly put up a building. Their reasoning would be that a prettier school impresses prospective parents, and gets more students and money."

"Amanda says that similar arguments are used at Orrville College to put money into the football team."

"Almost no one in a position to control educational spending has any understanding of education itself. Some of them like football and some like pretty buildings."

"And they can then argue that, since most of the students are as foolish as they are, they'll be attracted by the same things?"

Sister Rose shrugged.

"I'm so used to such things that it doesn't shock me any more. But I would like to put money into lay teachers' salaries. If we're given stock we aren't allowed to sell, that would be perfect."

"Your board isn't going to like the stock. Daddy is regarded with suspicion and loathing in the financial community. No trust officer would buy or tolerate IIF. But, for that reason, it's undervalued. The dividend would be at least eighteen thousand a year, and it's likely to go up."

"Is it very risky, do you think?"

"It's speculative, certainly. I have no idea exactly how risky it is. I don't suppose anyone really does."

"But you know your father, and you think he isn't reckless."

This was a statement rather than a question. Barbara nodded and replied,

"I imagine he'd be wiped out in a complete crash, but, short of that, anything he runs will bury the competition."

Sister Rose tapped her fingers on her desk.

"Eighteen thousand a year, at the going rates, would hire three full-time teachers, and then some. Or, better, we could hire three and raise the salary scale for all the lay teachers. One of them would be someone to replace you after this year."

"Yes. I'd also like to make life a little nicer for Mrs. Hanrahan."

"We could make her senior lay teacher and raise her salary by fifty per cent. She'll guess that you're behind it, but that shouldn't cause much embarrassment. It's no more than she deserves anyway, particularly considering that she's been underpaid the last eight years."

"Yes. She's such a matter-of-fact person, I think she'll accept it without any fuss."

"So, apart from your replacement, we could still hire another teacher, and have a good deal left over."

Barbara said,

"Perhaps some help for the library."

"You could be our permanent library consultant. You could come here once a year, look things over, and spend the library fund for books and other materials."

Barbara knew that she was being offered friendship on a permanent basis. She could imagine now the annual weekend spent, quite possibly, in her own present room. She could also imagine the current occupant being put elsewhere for that weekend. There would be walks in the countryside, introductions to new teachers and girls, and long talks with Sister Rose. Barbara found it an attractive picture.

After her last class that day, Barbara went over to the health office to meet Chuck and help him with a physical. When he arrived, it was with the news that Amanda was divorcing him.

Barbara didn't know to what extent, if at all, she should pretend to be ignorant of events in the Winton household. She therefore confined herself to expressing sympathy. Chuck continued,

"The darndest thing is that she wants me to visit her and make love to her, frequently she said. Meanwhile, she'll have other lovers."

"That doesn't sound so bad for you. You were never a great one for monogamy anyway, were you?"

"No, but it would be entirely different if we weren't married."

Barbara, puzzled, indicated as much. Chuck, obviously upset, continued in a voice she had not heard from him before.

"I wouldn't know whether to love her or not. If so, it'd be too risky. She might marry one of these other men. If not, why bother? I could find sexual partners who wouldn't present all these complications."

Barbara changed the subject to what she thought would be a happier one.

"Did you know my father is trying to reach you? I've had several calls from my mother today."

"No. I had no idea. It must've been after I left the office."

"I know what he wants. It's to make you the director of a chain of nursing homes with headquarters in Chicago."

"By God! I'd love to get out of Bollinger just now. I don't know anything about nursing homes, but I guess I could learn."

It was quite affecting to see how much he was cheered up. Barbara added,

"I imagine Daddy will offer you quite a lot of money. So there you'll be in Chicago, divorced, in a good position, and all the freedom in the world. If you do want to re-marry, you'll have quite a pick."

"I really hadn't thought of that at all. There also won't be any possibility of blackmail. Your father already knows, and I won't actually be practising medicine."

Barbara remembered when she had first met Chuck, and had thought he might be a bit foolish. It amused her now to see things slowly clicking into place in his mind. She knew, by this time, that he was intelligent, in some areas very much so. But there were other areas in which he seemed a British version of a hillbilly. In this he was unlike Howie, who, despite a lack of experience, was never really caught off guard.

The girls soon arrived for their physicals. By this time, Barbara was quite accomplished and efficient, and it took them only an hour to do four girls. Afterwards, they settled down with coffee. Chuck said,

"Nursing homes will be quite a change. I'll be examining eighty five year old women instead of fifteen year old girls."

"Will that be difficult?"

"Not really. And there won't be any temptation. I don't find most of these girls very fetching, but I do have a couple of patients in town who are very attractive. One of them is also quite responsive, and my resistance is wearing down."

"Then it's an extra good time to leave town."

Standing at the door, Barbara watched Chuck drive briskly over the little bridge and head for the highway. Having been confided in by both Wintons, she was in a position to evaluate their ideas. Amanda, full of optimism, looked forward to a glamorous future. It was, in fact, rather dubious.

Orrville College wouldn't pay even its deans enough to keep Amanda's wardrobe up to its present standard. She would get something from Chuck, but he would undoubtedly be represented by a lawyer from the Bowen company. Amanda wouldn't get much there. She'd have to scrabble just to maintain respectability. As for affairs, Barbara thought Sergeant Olafson a very poor start. Other men would be married, and Amanda wouldn't like having dates cancelled because wives had changed plans. It seemed likely that Amanda would soon be forced to marry again. Barbara wished her luck, but thought it likely that the next husband would be much less desirable than Chuck.

Chuck, while now feeling abandoned, would gradually find himself sitting practically on top of the world.

The offer from Bob Bowen was even more remunerative than Chuck had imagined. It appeared that there was gold in nursing homes. Chuck was relieved to learn that, in the Bowen chain, money was to be made in keeping old people alive rather than killing them off. He was sure that many would be kept alive far longer than their families, or they themselves, wished. However, such a policy could hardly give rise to scandal. Bowen also had a curious idea for prolonging life.

"We'll put in lots of pinball machines, run bingo games, and encourage them to gamble with each other on cards, sports events, politics, and everything else. A lot of them will keep going just to see how their bets turn out. Of course, we can't profit directly on the gambling, except for the pinball machines, but we'll have lots of high profit items related to it for them to buy. If anyone questions the gambling, we'll say that we're providing something for people who've lost their health and almost everything else. We'll be making it possible for them to still win."

It sounded plausible to Chuck, and the idea of having a community of elderly people feverishly betting on everything from elections to who would live the longest rather amused him. Bowen also provided a cash advance to cover moving expenses which was more than generous.

The hardest thing for Chuck turned out to be telling Mrs. Badgett that he and Amanda were separating, and that he was closing up shop. She was quite upset, less, he thought, because of losing her job than because her picture of himself and Amanda was proving to be a false one. He did say,

"Of course, I'd like to have you with me in Chicago, but I don't imagine you'd want to move. If we do open up a nursing home anywhere near here, I'll be more than happy to offer you a good position."

"You don't have to worry about me, doctor. I can teach part- time at the school or do other things. And we aren't short for money, anyway. It's just that we've been so happy here."

Chuck agreed. Except that they hadn't made much money, it had been the nicest practice he could imagine. He suspected that his new position would be in a very different atmosphere, and told Mrs. Badgett about some of Mr. Bowen's ideas. She rejoined,

"The pinball machines sound like a good idea. They're fun, and I imagine they could be adapted for someone in a wheel chair. The rest seems rather depressing, though. It makes it sound as if all other desires and interests are superficial compared to greed and the urge to gamble."

"Yes. Someone may be three quarters dead, but the idea of winning five bucks will make him sit up and take notice. I wonder if it's true."

"I'm afraid it may be for a large number of people. What about the ones who lose most of the time, though?"

"I suppose they'll keep hoping to win enough to come out even."

"Good heavens, what a man Barbara's father must be! He may end up doing some good, but he'll be doing it for the worst of reasons."

"That seems to be his usual style. At least, there's no hypocrisy about him."

"No. I suppose not. But that was also true of Al Capone. Barbara seems much nicer. I hope so, anyway."

"I think she could be ruthless, too, but not just to make money. Something else would have to be involved. Anyhow, it looks as if I may have to learn to fix broken pinball machines. I've seen enough of Bob Bowen to know that he's going to want to own them himself."

"In Chicago pinball machines are usually owned by the Mafia. You may have some interactions with them."

"Yes. I can see that life is going to be entirely different and more exciting."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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