While Vic had no regrets about leaving his family, he was still curious about them. Every couple of months he would go to a phone booth in a different city and place a collect call under an assumed name. The operator usually didn’t say where he was calling from, and, of course, his mother or father would refuse the call from the unknown person. But he could guess, to some extent, how things were going from the tone of voice.
There was also the hope that Sue would answer. If she did, he wasn’t really sure whether he would risk talking with her or not. Anyhow, on a Saturday in late November, he took a train down to Providence.
Passenger trains had lost ground to the private automobile, and were rapidly losing more ground. Since the trains now lost money, the railways were widely suspected of trying to drive away the few remaining passengers in order to have a justification for cancelling the service altogether. The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railway, serving Boston and Providence, was no laggard in this procedure, and the stations, in addition to the trains, got the treatment. After all, if potential passengers could be deterred before they even got near the trains, their numbers would drop ever more quickly.
The eastern terminus, Boston’s South Station, had once been rather glamorous. People were excited with the idea of going to New York, and the art deco interior was tricked out with lots of bright chrome. Unfortunately, the fancier the original, the worse it looked after a few years of not-so-benign neglect. Indeed, the maintenance and cleaning crews had obviously been radically reduced in their numbers, if not banished outright.
Despite all this, the railways were not succeeding as quickly in their endeavor as they might have wished. There were people who were afraid to fly. There were others who didn’t want to be crowded in with strangers in busses. The fewer people there were in a railway car, the more these people liked it. There were men married to hyper clean and neat housewives who felt more comfortable with candy wrappers on the floor. There were people who needed excuses for being late, and they could always blame the railway. Finally, there were people like Vic who loved trains.
He was almost the only person in the station who was young and healthy, but the grumpy ticket agent fortunately didn’t question his right to travel on the train. Boarding, he picked a seat on the left side of the largely empty car, and settled down. Nothing happened for some twenty minutes after the scheduled time of departure, and the few passengers began calling to one another with complaints about the train, the railway, and, in one case, President Eisenhower. It seemed to Vic that, if asked, the president would say that he wanted the trains to run on time.
There was no warning before they started, and the diesels that had replaced the steam locomotives had enough starting power to create a significant lurch. The man who wanted Eisenhower to do something was standing in the aisle to make his point, and he fell flat. An obvious Boston Irishman with curly white hair who was sitting nearby laughed heartily. Vic, used to not laughing at the wrong time in the wrong place, contained his amusement.
There was remarkably little scenery on the way down until they got to the outskirts of Providence. It struck Vic that it was a rather pleasant place. When they passed a schoolyard, there were children with many colored hats and mittens playing peacefully instead of beating one another up. He wondered if, somewhere along the line, he had missed normal childhood.
The Providence station was better kept than the one in Boston, and Vic made his way to a row of telephones which looked as if they might work. He chose the one on the end to make his call, and, after a little confusion with an operator whose accent he had trouble understanding, the call went through. It wasn’t Sue, but Vic’s mother, who answered, and, to his surprise, she spoke in an unusual quavering voice to accept the call from Sam Johnson. Too curious to hang up, he listened as she blurted out, “Do you know where he is?”
On impulse, Vic identified himself, still with no intention of saying where he was. She again surprised him by saying, “Oh you! You ran away ages ago. We figured you just didn’t like us.”
In the confused conversation that followed, it turned out that Mr. Bleznic/Hartman had disappeared a week ago. His mother had accepted the call, thinking that the caller might be a kidnapper. It immediately occurred to Vic that, in anticipation of such a call, the FBI might have the phone tapped. Just as he was hanging up, his mother screamed that he was a thief.
That was a surprise. He hadn’t thought that his mother knew about his rolling of bookies and thieves. But then he remembered. There was a more immediate justification for the thief accusation. In leaving, Vic had looked in the drawer where his mother kept important papers for his birth certificate, which he would need sooner or later. She also had money stashed there, and he had taken a hundred dollars, more or less with the idea that it was his share of the family fortune.
Having distanced himself from the phone quickly and speedily, Vic moved toward the center of town. Providence was a funny city, somewhere between little and big, and he wandered around with his thoughts. He was almost sure that his father would not do what he himself had done. The man didn’t have that kind of initiative or self-confidence.
He was also aware that his parents had disregarded almost all of the WPP rules, and had been maximally indiscreet. While they had certainly been located in an obscure place, Las Vegas, which was mob controlled, wasn’t that far away. Worst of all, Mr. Bleznik, a compulsive gambler, might well have taken one of the free busses which the casinos ran from San Diego. There were people in those casinos who looked closely at all strangers.
Vic knew that he had somewhat compromised his own security for no good reason. Just curiosity. The phone bill would show that the call had been made from Providence, and that fact might get to the wrong people. But, still, better than Boston. If someone guessed that he was at or near a university, they might think of Brown instead of Harvard.
A little later, wandering near the waterfront, Vic’s mood lightened as he noticed a cheap jewelry store, of the sort that sold engagement rings to sailors, next to a pawn shop. He could imagine a drunk sailor stealing a ring and taking it next door to pawn, only to discover that the two shops had the same owner, one who recognized the ring.
That evening, before work, Vic was due to have dinner with Swede and Joan Hanson. He had initially been surprised when Swede invited him to dinner with his wife, but had nevertheless been pleased. The restaurant was a little Greek one on the ground floor of a building near Swede’s office. Its business was mainly at lunch time, but it did stay open for the workaholics who wanted to eat before returning to the office.
Joan Hanson appeared to be six feet tall, even without high heels. Together with Swede, they made a statement. However, she was lithe and athletic looking, where he, because of the thickness of his body, looked less athletic than he was. She was as blonde as he, but, where Swede looked as if his little remaining hair had been cut with kindergarten scissors, her luxuriant hair seemed to have benefited from professional attention. Vic was aware that wealthy men sometimes married much younger women who looked like models. But Joan didn’t appear to be very much younger, and, while quite attractive, she didn’t look like a model. Upon being introduced to Vic, she said, “Swede told me that you’re advanced way beyond your age.”
“I’m good at finding places to sleep in vacant lots and under bridges.”
“No, not that. Are you a musician or a mathematician?”
Surprised, Vic replied, “I’m certainly not a musician. I don’t have rhythm.”
Swede said, “He’s a mathematician. How did you know, Joan?”
“Prodigies are generally one or the other.”
As they chatted on, Joan spoke quite a lot in an amusing way. She wasn’t overbearing, but was obviously curious. Almost everyone was curious about Vic. Some asked, “Where the fuck did you come from?”
More elegant people, particularly women, were likely to say, provocatively, something like, “You must have had many interesting adventures.”
Joan was nearer the latter. Vic was wondering how she and Swede could have met when Joan, seeming to sense his wonderment, said, “Swede and I met on a cement outdoor basketball court. We kept playing basketball for a few years, but the jumping is hard on the knees. So, now, we’ve switched to tennis, swimming, and rowing.”
Vic asked, “What do you think of Swede’s football?”
“Probably not for much longer. He’ll eventually injure something. Anyhow, his level of violence is decreasing.”
After more discussion of sports, Swede finally asked, “Vic, what’s going on with you?”
“There’s something strange. What is it?”
It was a cleaned up version of , “Where the fuck did you come from.”
But it was harder to resist. Vic hesitated only briefly before letting go the story at some length. He then found out why Swede had brought Joan along. She turned out to be an excellent questioner, but still in a humorous and pleasant way. When Vic remarked on this, the Hansons laughed and Swede said, “I bring her to chat with anyone I’m thinking of promoting.”
“Are you thinking of promoting me?”
“In one way or another. We’ll come to that.”
In the meantime, Joan found out about the Brownsville boys at Harvard, and, more painfully, about Vic’s call to his mother that morning. Swede reacted, “This is a hell of a lot messier than I’d guessed. But we’ll figure out something.”
Joan asked, seemingly irrelevantly, “Is the young lady, Vicki, your girl friend?”
“I don’t think we’d describe each other as boy and girl friend.”
“Could that come to pass?”
“Probably so. We are getting closer in a semi-intellectual way.”
“Well, that’s natural enough. You are intellectual. You described meeting her friends. What are they like?”
That was easy. Ken and Yuri and the others were compelling people. When he had finished, Swede said, “There’s the solution. Those people can help you get where you need to go.”
Vic registered bafflement, and Swede explained, “A few years ago, Joan and I went to Oxford. I would have bought the kind of education I didn’t have if such things were for sale. As it was, we spent a year going to lectures and hiring undergraduates as tutors. I also bought up some residential real estate.”
Joan said, “We met people and learned how the system works. Idiosyncratic, but also effective. You can’t just be an undergraduate if you don’t already know Greek and Latin, but there are lots of alternatives.”
Swede pointed out, “For one thing, there’s the B. Phil degree.”
“Is that like the A. B. at Harvard?”
“No. It’s a graduate degree, probably put in for Americans and other foreigners. You don’t have to know Latin.”
“But you must have to have a college degree.”
“No. Oxford and Cambridge only recognize each other’s degrees, so it doesn’t matter if you have an American one. What you do need is a letter of recommendation from a well-known academic.”
“I see. I think Ken would give me that. Later on, maybe even Yuri.”
“The point is that we need to get you away from here before your security breaks down.”
Joan said, “You’re about to ask how to pay for this. Swede can give you and Vicki jobs and places to stay in his little empire in Oxford.”
It turned out that it was hard for Americans to get actual work permits in England, but there was nothing to prevent them from working for a foreign company, such as Swede’s. The job consisted mainly in collecting rents and doing handyman repairs.
“I’ll have to see how Vicki might feel about that.”
Joan replied, “One upshot of this is that you’ll end up being closer to Vicki. Is that all right?”
“I suppose that I do have occasional fantasies of some beautiful and glamorous woman. But Vicki is a lot smarter and more interesting than such a woman is likely to be. And I certainly like her a lot.”
“You’re awfully young to go around giving up fantasies.”
Swede interrupted, “Most kids his age can probably afford them. But Vic can’t.”
Everyone seemed to agree on that. Joan asked, “Would you object if I invited Vicki out for lunch and explained everything?”
“That would be good. She might not believe it, coming from me.”
Vic wrote down Vicki’s dorm’s phone number and remarked, “I’ll also have to be careful.”
Swede replied, “You have one advantage over the mob. If they find you, they won’t want to shoot you. They’ll want to take you as a hostage. While they’re trying to do that, you can hurt them badly. We’ll have you practice thrusts to the eyes and things like that after the next game.”
Joan added, “We had a go-round with the mob when we were in the garbage business. When a man came around to threaten Swede, he left with two broken arms.”
Vic could see that working for Swede would be exciting.
Two days later, Vicki had already been with Joan. She said, “This lady called me up, totally out of the blue.”
“Yes. Is the whole thing a fantasy?”
“No. She and her husband are very rich. They can do anything they want. We’re invited to dinner to go over things.”
“Well, tomorrow night, we can talk with Ken and Yuri about it.”
While the whole thing seemed fantastic to Vic and Vicki, and even Ken, Yuri was more accepting. He said,
“This sort of thing has always been more common in Europe. Talented young people find patrons among the rich and powerful. While it’s most common among composers and artists, there have been many other cases. Even I once had a patroness.”
This last was said with a smile, and Ken asked, “Was she a Russian countess?”
“A White Russian one in Paris who, before the revolution, had had the forethought to do her banking in Switzerland.”
“How did you meet her?”
“Most of the Russians in Paris were almost penniless, and some of the young women had to resort to prostitution. Countess Olga, an older woman, was often able to intervene. One of the young ladies, without quite suggesting that I might be in similar case, recommended me.”
“And, all the time, you were proving theorems?”
“I suppose so. A couple of years later, I migrated to Oxford, where I met my wife.”
“Do you think these youngsters will feel comfortable in Oxford?”
“It can be lonely for foreigners, but we’ll give them letters of introduction. That’s also an old-world convention that lingers on.”
Walking Vicki back to Radcliffe, Vic found that she still wasn’t exactly thrilled with the project. “I had an awful time with my family, and I’ve achieved peace here, particularly with Ken and Yuri. I’m not about to leave them.”
“It would be a bit like a junior year abroad. I’m sure Ken and Yuri wouldn’t forget you.”
“No, of course not. I could also get my job back. But it’s a big step.”
“You could come back after a month if you didn’t like Oxford.”
“The question is also whether I want to tie myself to you to that extent. There’s a lot I don’t know about you.”
“I guess I’d better tell you the rest of the story.”
It was the second time in recent days. Vic reeled it off. It had been safe with Swede and Joan, but Vicki knew people, like Sy, who shouldn’t know. That being the case, he told her about Sy and his reasons for not meeting him.
At the end, Vicki’s reaction was much like that of Swede. She said only, “I knew that there was a lot I didn’t know, but I never would have imagined this much.”
“Are you horrified?”
“Not exactly. My story isn’t pretty either. But it’s simpler. I was seduced by my father when I was thirteen.”
“It wasn’t exactly rape, but it was ugly. As a result, I ran away from home. Other bad things then happened. However, I couldn’t maintain myself for long, and went back.”
“But, now, you don’t want to go back?”
“Not if I can help it. My father’s still there. So I do need to expand my opportunities as much as possible. This might be a chance.”
Dinner with Swede and Joan was a new experience for both Vicki and Vic. She wore her new dress and Vic was outfitted in a jacket belonging to Swede. It was too big, but not absurdly so. Joan announced, “We’re going to two restaurants, one for appetizers, and the other to really eat.”
That was different, but Vic was ready for almost anything.
The first restaurant, with a lot of open space and large arched windows, looked like something out of a romantic novel or movie. The widely spaced tables made of strange exotic wood were complemented by chairs of unusual design that might have come from a museum of modern art. It was all part of a consciously Italian atmosphere with wraith-like black clad waiters shimmying and swaying among the few diners.
As they were seated, with great ceremony, Vic felt almost as if he were an actor playing a part, all set to spout the required lines. Swede, smiling enough to show his gold teeth, did things his own way. The waiters grimaced, but bowed and scraped just the same.
The menus had only three entrees, and Joan said, “The portions are so small that we get the main dishes and eat them for appetizers before we go to dinner at the other place.”
They all ordered what turned out to be steak under an exotic Italian name. After a modest interval, a waiter slid in front of Vic a large ornate plate, some ten per cent of whose area was taken up by a sliced piece of meat. There was a blob of creamed spinach which could be encircled with thumb and forefinger on one side. On the other, there were a few little thumbnail sized bits of baked potato and some almost invisible fragments of mushroom. There was no soup or salad, or any indication that the restaurant served such things. Swede, laughing loudly, popped a bit of potato into his mouth and said,
“The people who eat here hardly get anything to eat, but they’re so cowed by the surroundings that they feel lucky to get anything at all.”
Joan explained, “It’s like high fashion clothing that’s meant to be looked at, but which no sane person would wear. Food like this is meant to be looked at, but not disturbed, much less eaten.”
It was actually quite tasty. Then, when it was done, and Swede summoned the waiter for the bill, they were quite hungry enough to eat.
They left in jolly good spirits, which also seemed to deepen the dyspepsia of the owner, whose black costume was tricked out with a red sash. Joan explained, “You’re supposed to exit with a show of reverence, as in leaving a funeral.”
The next restaurant was also Italian, but a small family-run one in a nearby district with a more mixed character. They were welcomed heartily, and Vic and Vicki were introduced to mother, father, and daughter. They then crammed into a booth with low seats and a high table. The daughter, Maria, explained to Vicki, “There isn’t much distance between food and mouth, so you can shovel away without dropping pasta on that nice dress.”
The newcomers were advised to order a hot penne dish, but, when Swede ordered a dish with a light cream sauce, Maria poked him playfully in the ribs and countermanded his order. Joan congratulated her, saying, “He always rejects my food suggestions, but that’s because I’m only a wife.”
The food turned out to be substantial and very good.
As they were on the MTA on their way back to Harvard Square, Vic remarked, “That’s the first time I’ve been to two restaurants in a row.”
“That was a lesson for you. Didn’t you realize it?”
“No. How so?”
“At our little meeting Joan and I talked about you. Your hankering for elegance was mentioned. She obviously told Swede.”
Vic had to laugh.
“So the point was that elegance is both absurd and likely to leave you hungry.”
“As opposed to a place that feeds you very well without any bullshit.”
“There was certainly a dramatic contrast.”
“As there was intended to be. But don’t worry. We’ll eventually find a kind of elegance that isn’t stupid.”
A week later, Ken and Yuri had written their letters. With some difficulty, Vicki had persuaded her dean to give her the necessary leave of absence. At their next dinner with Swede and Joan, this time at the Greek place, Swede summed up, “Then it’s all arranged. Vic can go immediately, and Vicki at the end of the semester.”
Addressing Vic, he said, “There’s an empty bed-sitter on Pusey Street for you to occupy. The original idea was for you to do maintenance on the buildings in and around Oxford, but the wiring and plumbing on those old buildings is really weird. It would take too much time and effort to learn it, besides which you might get electrocuted on the two twenty volt house wiring.”
Joan interrupted, “I suggested that you concentrate on collecting rents. You’ll learn a lot more about the culture and general situation by going house-to-house as a rental agent.”
“Do I beat people up if they don’t pay?”
Swede replied, “Definitely not! Almost all will pay when asked, and, anyway, I hardly care about the rent money.”
Vic looked questioningly at Joan, who replied, “The rents only amount to a few dollars a month. This is all part of a larger project to study English values and attitudes toward real estate and other things.”
“Will you want reports and answers to questionnaires?”
Swede replied, “Maybe later. For the moment, just dive in and get comfortable in England.”