Vic and Vicki
In the November of the year 1953 Vic Bleznik was seventeen years old. He was, at times, homeless. His presumed father, Mr. Howard Bleznik, was, at times, a criminal. But he wasn’t violent, romantic, or swashbuckling. He was closer to being a white-collar criminal, but that suggested financial manipulation on a grand scale. Mr. Bleznik had never done anything on a grand scale, and his collars, white when new, were usually rather dingy.
The family’s original home was in Brooklyn, New York, in particular, in the rough neighborhood of Brownsville. It was important there not to have a home that was unduly vulnerable. The Bleznik flat, on the third story of an old brick building, was reached only by going through three locked doors. That wouldn’t have stopped a really motivated intruder, but it was good enough for the Blezniks.
Vic particularly enjoyed sitting on the fire escape on a warm Saturday night and watching the activity on the street below. Some of the action involved girls, and he paid particular attention on those occasions.
The elder Mr. Bleznik, a rounded and unobtrusive middle-sized man, advertized himself as an accountant. However, he had only a business degree from an obscure college, had failed the CPA exams, and had never been employed by a reputable firm in that capacity. He was known, somewhat informally, for helping small businessmen cheat on their taxes. The earlier clients were basically honest men who didn’t cheat their customers, but who needed a little help in April. The later ones were increasingly shady characters with more money and more serious potential problems with the IRS.
When Vic was fifteen, his father was indicted for activities on behalf of some of those characters. A conviction would have meant jail time, for which he was ill equipped. Vic was never fully informed on the proceedings, but his impression was that his father had copped a plea by testifying against his former clients. It turned out that they were strongly Mafia connected. It was off to the Witness Protection Program for the Bleznik family.
There was a very long train ride, a tour of much of America which Vic might have enjoyed if he had been alone. It was followed with a taxi ride which deposited the Blezniks in Claremont, California. It was a safe and sunny neighborhood of modest homes and scattered shops in an outlying part of San Diego. The people who drove through it on their way to some point of interest generally had no negative reaction, or, indeed, any particular reaction at all.
San Diego was mainly a U. S. Navy town with everything a sailor might want or need. The overall tone was typified by a remark shouted to an umpire at a baseball game, “Your mother swims out to meet battleships!”
The sailors never got very far from the shore, and, indeed, many found their brides in the local bars. They had no reason to go to Claremont, nor did anyone who didn’t live there.
There was a good deal of turnover among the residents as the more successful moved to tonier neighborhoods and the failures returned to Oklahoma. Many residents didn’t even know the names of their neighbors, and the relative anonymity was probably what had gotten the WPP to buy a little house there.
Vic and his siblings, a sister two years younger and two younger brothers, went to the neighborhood schools. The schools weren’t particularly good, but there was no community-wide movement to improve the schools, or, for that matter, to improve anything else.
In Brownsville, a number of special skills had been required. Size, strength, and athletic ability were useful, but quick hands were even more important. Vic, instead of using a standard heavy punching bag, or even a speed bag, had practiced incessantly with a heavy knotted rope tied to a clothesline. When hit, the rope and knots flew, so that it took speed and skill to keep hitting them.
While the Brownsville landscape was dominated by youth gangs, Vic was careful not to get too close to any. He occasionally fought members of those gangs, but in a particular way. After controlling the fight with his superior skill, he would land a powerful short right just under the heart. He would then smile and help his opponent up, perhaps expressing concern.
It was victory without humiliation, but the other boy’s sore ribs would quietly remind him of the event for weeks to come. Everyone wanted Vic to join their gang, but he always held out.
Claremont didn’t have the same gang structure. There were a few aggressive and obnoxious boys, whom Vic quickly discouraged, and there were youthful petty criminals, unlikely to go to the police, whom he could beat up and relieve of their profits. However, it wasn’t necessary to have a complete set of tactics, strategies, and war plans.
It was the family as a whole which really needed such plans, but Vic’s parents weren’t good at that. Mr. Bleznik, now Mr. Robert Hartman, had supposedly been a clerk in a Philadelphia department store. He was now supposedly looking for similar employment. The WPP had told him to do the necessary research to fill out the story. He did buy a map of Philadelphia, a city he had never visited, and learned the names of a couple of streets.
Mrs. Bleznik-Hartman remained a housewife, and, with her heavy features and large black-framed glasses, she tended to stare aggressively out of her front window at passers-by.
A problem, not anticipated by the WPP, was that both Mr. and Mrs. Hartman were loose talkers. They also button-holed people in the neighborhood who didn’t normally stop to chat. However, since the Hartmans couldn’t begin to keep their stories straight, their many inconsistencies caused obvious wonderment. Since the neighbors then took to avoiding them, the problem was, to a degree, self-correcting.
Ending up in something approaching social isolation, the elder Blezniks had a problem common to most of the adults in the WPP program. Not so many people could adapt easily to being suddenly ripped away from everyone and everything they had known, and dropped among strangers with a cover story. Even ones with winning personalities who could make new friends were likely to have streaks of depression. Teen-agers with tight circles of friends with whom they were forbidden to communicate often had even more difficulty.
Vic was better equipped. He had been a loner in Brownsville, and had never had a girl friend. His closest contacts had been with teachers who, in any case, changed every year. The thing that meant most to him, and which he could carry with him, was his interest in certain mathematical problems.
In geometry, a teacher had pointed out the connection between the Pythagorean Theorem, particularly as applied to a 3-4-5 right triangle, and Fermat’s Last Theorem. The sum of the squares of the sides was equal to the square of the hypotenuse. Would, then, the cubes of the sides be equal to the cube of the hypotenuse? Obviously not. Fermat, in the seventeenth century, had hypothesized that this equation would not hold true for any such three integers when the common exponent was greater than two. He also said that he had a proof which, unfortunately, was too long to write in the margin of the paper he had in front of him. That had delighted Vic. Was Fermat faking it?
This question soon led Vic into number theory, which, as far as he could see, would provide endless entertainment. He sometimes lay awake at night, working out problems in his head.
In contrast to what he took to be his real inner life, the inanities of his family life drove him crazy. Vic, without prior notification, took off.
It was a pity to leave behind his fourteen year old sister, Sue. She was bright, entirely unpredictable, and amusing. But her criminal tendencies were more pronounced than Vic’s own. Moreover, Sue’s enterprises were often impulsive and ill considered. The consequence was that, while he never got caught, she was in constant trouble. She probably would have come with him, but, quite apart from her age, there was no question. They would have ended up in police custody in a matter of days.
Six months since, Vic was still in hiding from a family which was itself in hiding. Both the Mafia and the FBI believed that Mr. Bleznik-Hartman was hiding a large sum of money somewhere. If the Mafia should find Vic, they would kidnap him and hold him hostage for the necessary information. The FBI periodically grilled his father, and, if they found Vic, he would probably also be grilled. He would certainly be taken back to his family.
In Vic’s opinion, both sides grossly over-estimated his father. Howard Bleznik had neither the intelligence nor the courage to steal Mafia money. However, if the Mafia did find Mr. Bleznik, that wouldn’t be so good. They wouldn’t believe him when he said that there was no such money.
In the late afternoon darkness, just a few weeks from the winter solstice, Vic was now sitting in a cafeteria fronting on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There had been an unseasonably early snow storm which left patches of snow and ice on the sidewalks. It was just above freezing, so that there were pools of icy water almost everywhere that one wanted to walk. Vic was with a young lady, Vicki, whom he had met in a mathematics class at Harvard.
Quite apart from the weather, the atmosphere in Cambridge was quite different from that of either Claremont or Brownsville. There was, however, a common thread, that of unease. In Claremont, people worried about their lawns. It was an extremely dry climate, and lawns depended entirely on irrigation. But there were water shortages and occasional restrictions on watering. There might come a dreaded day when the lawns would dry up.
In Brownsville, there had been different concerns. A stranger might walk down a sidewalk and meet several young gentlemen, who said,
“Hey, friend, this is our side of the street.”
Having crossed to the other side, he might then encounter other young gentlemen, who said,
“Hey, friend, this is our side of the street.”
If he looked as if he might have money, a quick retreat didn’t always solve the stranger’s problem.
In Cambridge, the concerns were sometimes more global. It caused a lot of people distress when the United States and the Soviet Union threatened each other with nuclear weapons. It was a bit like street crossing writ large. Again, the participants might be joking. But they might not.
The concerns were sometimes local. There was an ongoing outbreak of polio among the Harvard and Radcliffe students. Almost anything, including a sore throat, could be an early symptom of a disease which could put one in an iron lung. That image was not good, nor was the thought that, if one lived, one would probably be permanently disabled to one degree or another.
In all these cases, there were partial remedies. If one worked or studied hard enough, it took one’s mind off one’s worries. Sports events helped. Sexual activity, either alone or with others, worked for a while. But the unease remained.
In addition to these underlying issues, both Vic and Vicki had wet shoes, socks, and feet from wading through the slush. However, they were sufficiently involved in their conversation to ignore their greater and lesser problems.
Vicki was a sophomore math major, not exactly pretty, but slim and energetic in an attractive way. She seemed to Vic to be constantly in motion, both physically and intellectually. The intellectual activity wasn’t so surprising in a sharp-faced Jewish girl from New York, but Vic had originally been put off by someone who, as the saying went, seemed to have varmints in her garments.
They had first laughed about the similarity of their names, but now, in their second get-together, Vicki was quite curious about him. “I know you’re just auditing the class, but you never did tell me what you’re majoring in.”
Vic, smiling, replied, “Nothing.”
“Are you a freshman?”
Vic had heard the word somewhere, and liked using it. However, seeing that Vicki was confused, he added,
“I’m not registered in the university at all. I’m a free-floating auditor.”
“I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Sure. In the bigger lecture classes, I just come in and sit down. In the smaller ones, such as ours, I ask the instructors if I can audit.”
“It probably never occurs to them that you aren’t a registered student. If they care.”
“They probably don’t.”
“Anyhow, you know you’re the star of the class, don’t you?”
“Even though you don’t say much, Martz looks at you more than anyone else.”
“He also pays attention to you.”
“That’s because I know him from other classes.”
“I don’t say much since I’m only an auditor, but, after class, I do show him little proofs that I’ve put together.”
“That explains it, then. No one else does anything beyond what’s assigned.”
“My proofs certainly aren’t any big deal, just little things that’ve occurred to me.”
“How long have you been doing these little proofs?”
“Oh, even as an eight-year old, I had strange ideas. At one point, I claimed that you could never actually touch anything because you would first have to halve the distance an infinite number of times.”
“That’s equivalent to one of Zeno’s paradoxes.”
“So I’ve since found out. I claimed that people thought they touched things because the air pressure between finger and object increased inversely with the distance and produced a hard feeling. I couldn’t explain why the air didn’t slip out sideways.”
“A definite mathematician or philosopher in the making. Did you go to high school around here?”
“I ran away from home and high school before finishing.”
“Impossible family. My mother never stops talking, usually about the prices of things in the stores. My father repeats verbatim the conversations he’s had with everyone he’s ever met.”
“I have an older cousin who sounds like your mother. Her daughter, who’s a little older than me, has always had severe emotional problems. We figured it was from being around her mother.”
“That can happen. You try to tune it out, but it never stops.”
Vic just caught himself before remarking that his mother usually talked about prices in New York when she was supposed to be from Philadelphia. He was willing to be known as a runaway, but he didn’t want the rest of the story to come out. When Vicki asked about his father, he was prepared, “There’s that ‘I said – he said – I said’ style of conversation which keeps you waiting for the point of it all. But there never is any point.”
Vicki laughed, and asked, “How can you have two compulsive talkers in the same family?”
“They often solved that problem by simultaneously talking to, or at, me.”
“So you had different things coming in each ear?”
“Not exactly. When my mother wasn’t angry, she spoke quickly at low volume while my father spoke slowly at high volume. So the streams mingled to some extent.”
“As in certain musical compositions. What if your mother was angry?”
“Her speech became loud and piercing. My father, who was generally being berated, would mumble softly and incoherently.”
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of! It must have been horrible!”
“Your mental health seems amazingly good considering.”
“I distanced as much as I could, and secretly saved up money. I then hit the road.”
Vic had originally stolen much of the money he had saved, but he didn’t think Vicki needed to know that. She asked,
“Where do you live?”
“Here, I made a deal with one of the janitors. I help him with his work at times, and he lets me keep my stuff and sleep in a utility room. The Indoor Athletic Building isn’t monitored, so I work out and shower there.”
“Okay. How do you eat?”
“I’ve recently gotten a week-night job as a night watchman in a department store. I do some sleeping on the job, and I can get canned food at half price to take away.”
“Can you also buy clothing at the store at a discount?”
“Certainly. All my clothing will be coming from there.”
On intuition, Vic then said,
“I could get things for you, too.”
“Really? You wouldn’t get in trouble?”
“Not at all. Come over and pick out what you like. I can than buy it for you.”
“They won’t think it odd that you’re buying women’s clothing?”
Laughing, Vic replied,
“I won’t have to pretend to be a transvestite. I can say I’m getting it for a girl friend.”
“Great! I try to be careful with money.”
“Aren’t you from New York?”
“Yeah, Queens. All my relatives are little wholesalers. Since they’re Jewish, every daughter is given a fur coat and a nose job.”
“Do you have a fur coat?”
“No. Nor, as you can see, a nose job. College was only for boys, but I took the money and applied it to college.”
“Good move. This is the place to be.”
“A fur coat is more a hindrance than a help, and, with the boy-girl ratio around here, even an ugly girl gets dates.”
“You aren’t ugly.”
With that, Vicki did a parody of a giggle and touched her cheek with one finger.
“God, that’s the way some girls act!”
“I know. I’m a good imitator. It helps to have a savage eye.”
“I don’t think I want to know what a savage eye is, but I have noticed that you seem to be constantly in motion.”
“That’s nervous energy. It may develop into a whole-body tic. Like this.”
Vicki then demonstrated with an extremely unattractive periodic contortion. Vic, motioning for her to stop, said,
“It’s still energy, and might be converted to athletic uses. Do you play sports?”
“That’s not really a working-class Jewish girl thing to do. But I guess I might give it a try.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“I might like a ridiculous sport, such as chasing butterflies with a net. People at a distance wouldn’t realize that you were chasing anything at all.”
“Well, yes. If spring ever comes, I might accompany you.”
“In a few months I’ll start looking around for nets.”