Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 10


As they ascended the drive to the Allwyn Institute, Tom said to Eric,

"I know this is a little weird, but I've talked with Miss Barnes, and we're expected."

"Stop the car!"

Tom stopped immediately, at which point Eric threw open the passenger door and vomited out on to the grass. It was a rather violent procedure with his whole body shaking and convulsing, but, having finished, Eric reached for a bag he always carried and took out a water bottle and wash cloth. Having flushed out his mouth and washed off his face, he asked,

"Do you think they could see that little episode from the building?"

"You were shielded by the car door. But it doesn't matter. I told Sharon you had tummy troubles."

"That's good. Anyhow, I'll be safe now for some time."

Tom again found an inconspicuous place to park, and he and Eric formed up and proceeded to the main building in good order. As they approached the entrance, Sharon and Miss Barnes were already visible on the large front porch with its many pillars.

Probably an addition to the original building, the porch, looking like something out of "Gone with the Wind," might have been intended to make mental illness glamorous, the sort of thing one expected in people of talent and cultivation. Sharon might have been equipped by nature to fit that image, and Miss Barnes, while looking entirely sane, was quite glamorous in her own way.

While the long dresses of the Old South were absent, perhaps blown away by the frequent hurricanes of the region, the ladies' brilliantly colored full-skirted dresses coming just below the knees left little to be desired. Moreover, as Tom and Eric mounted the steps, their eyes on a level with hems fluttering in the light breeze, they were greeted by brilliant smiles.

Tom was just thinking that Eric must be greatly impressed with their welcome when Sharon, instead of simpering in the manner of a suthern hostess, came suddenly at him, as if to knock him back down the steps. While he defended himself from the laughing Sharon, Miss Barnes greeted Eric in a more conventional way. She then asked them what they'd like to drink as she led them casually inside. Tom noticed that she exchanged a somewhat meaningful glance with the receptionist as she passed.

When they were seated, Sharon said,

"We noticed that you stopped on the drive. Did you have car trouble?"

It was easy to imagine that the K-Entry car, which had backfired loudly right in front of the building, was subject to sudden illnesses and halts. But, before Tom could allow that impression to take hold without telling an outright lie, Eric replied cheerfully,

"We just stopped for me to vomit. But I promise not to do it again for at least three hours."

Sharon replied,

"I also vomit a lot. In fact, I was doing it last night."

As Eric and Sharon compared notes on vomiting, Miss Barnes said to Tom,

"A lot of people who are upset have stomach difficulties. Nothing serious, of course."

"I've noticed that quite a few people in our little house have been vomiting lately."

"Well, you know, it's almost as if it were infectious. When one person does it, others are likely to."

"Really? It looks as if we've got the infection."

"In your case, it may arise out of sympathy for Eric."

"My room-mate, Peter is funny about it. He knows a half hour in advance, and he removes the little sieve thing on the drain in the shower stall with a screwdriver. Then I go in to give comfort while he gets down on all fours in his underwear with his head over the drain. He says it's lower than the toilet and gives him a better angle of ejection and more freedom of movement."

"I didn't know anyone cared about angle of ejection and freedom of movement at such a time. He must be making a game of it."

"I suppose we play a good many peculiar games in our house."

Under Miss Barnes' questioning and encouragement, a number of K-Entry's eccentricities were disclosed. Tom gradually realized that she was a very attractive woman substantially younger than his mother. Even though he knew that such things as the skirmishing line would best be kept hidden, he could hardly help himself. He finally said,

"I suppose you think that all of us should be kept in here."

"You'd be too wild for us. But there's an institution for the hopelessly insane just down the road."

Miss Barnes spoke enthusiastically, as if anyone would want to enter such an institution. At the same time, he heard Eric telling Sharon about his, Tom's, career as a baseball pitcher and wrestler. That was amusing in its way. A man's friends were supposed to tell his girl friend good things about him, and Eric, now with Miss Barnes' attention as well, was dutifully fulfilling that role. The only trouble was that, however high sports might rank in the K-Entry value system, Tom suspected that neither of the ladies present cared in the least who was on what team. Indeed, while Miss Barnes showed some polite and possibly insincere appreciation, there was a definite satirical look on Sharon's face. It then came out that Tom would have quit Harvard for an opportunity to play minor-league baseball. That had its effect, and Miss Barnes looked aghast at Tom. Sharon said,

"I understand that kind of thing. I'd fly off to Hollywood if I thought I had the ghost of a chance of becoming a movie star."

Tom was pleased, and replied,

"Of course, the reality behind the romance is usually another matter. Minor league ballplayers spend most of their time bouncing around the rural south in broken-down busses."

"Girls who want to get into the movies probably have to sleep with fat middle-aged producers. And then find that it hasn't done them any good."

Even Miss Barnes laughed. Nice girls weren't supposed to talk about sleeping with people, even to deplore it, but it was evidently something that Sharon could get away with. In fact, she looked at Miss Barnes and said,

"Ann says it's all right for me to have fantasies as long as I recognize them as such."

Tom hadn't realized that Sharon was on first-name terms with Miss Barnes, and the latter, noticing his surprise, said,

"I'm not really old and austere enough to be Miss Barnes, even though the director would like it. Everyone calls me Ann."

In the rush of informality that followed, it was decided to invade the ice cream parlor down in the town square.

Not having expected this development, they hadn't cleared the junk out of the back seat. Sharon and Eric insisted on getting in back out of deference to Ann, and Sharon said,

"I bet there'll be female underclothing somewhere back here. If a poor girl discarded it in a moment of passion, she'd never find it again."

Tom quickly replied,

"If there is, it'll be my roommate, Peter's, doing. He's the only one of us who has a girl friend, and he does use the car for his dates."

He could hear Sharon searching through the various debris, and Ann called back,

"Sharon, your room's no neater than this car, but you'd scream and yell if someone tried to order it, much less search for compromising material."

It wasn't quite the tone of a mother, a friend, or a psychiatrist, but more like a combination of those things. In that moment, Tom suspected that Sharon paid far more attention to Ann than to whatever male psychiatrist might be assigned to her. It still didn't prevent her from finding a white lacy bra and holding it up triumphantly with the words,

"It's thirty four B. Does that sound right for his girl friend?"

Ann simply covered her face with her hands, but Eric answered,

"Peter has quite a few girl friends, some of whom don't seem to last very long, so it's hard to say."

"You mean, they get taken home without their underwear, and are never asked out again?"

Tom replied,

"He's not really someone who intends to take advantage of people. I suspect that the girls supply at least half the initiative in these things."

"He must be very charming indeed."

"I don't think I'll introduce you. Once a man has that reputation, there must be a temptation to find out just how charming he really is."

"Oh, I'm safe. I have a big mouth, but I'd go beserk if someone really made a move on me. After all, I nearly put a boy's eye out for trying to kiss me."

Ann said,

"Sharon talks in ways that girls aren't supposed to, but, if she's let alone, things usually come out all right."

Sharon spoke, evidently to Eric and Tom,

"She means that I sound like a slut, but eventually manage to explain that I'm really not one."

Tom replied,

"I bet you'd like to keep that bra to mount in a collage. The caption could be 'Bra of Fallen Woman.'"

"You do understand me! Can I have it?"

Eric assured her that she could, adding,

"In the unlikely event that Peter asks for it, Tom can assure him airily that he found someone the same size who needed it."

The arrival at the ice cream parlor was quite exhuberant, almost rowdy, and Sharon commented in whispers on the appearance of some of the other customers. These might have been overheard by the parties concerned, and, for the first time, Tom could see that there really was something wrong with Sharon. It was, he thought to himself, that there just wasn't the normal amount of inhibition.

A glance at Ann suggested that she was acting in a professional capacity. She wasn't embarrassed by things that patients did, but she also guided the conversation toward philosophy. Once Tom and Sharon were well started, she asked Eric about his pre-med studies.

Tom had been intrigued for some time by something MacDuff had said in class, but which didn't appear in his published work. As he said to Sharon,

"It often seems that lecturers downgrade the most important things they have to say, offering them as asides when they're talking about something else."

In this case, MacDuff had remarked that a theory of meaning is always a metaphysical theory. Tom had been used to "big noise" metaphysics, such as those of Aristotle and Spinoza, which made large bald claims as to what does, and does not, exist. But, if MacDuff were correct, a theory as to the way in which words and sentences can have meaning could also be metaphysical. Sharon asked,

"Is the claim that what exists depends on what we can talk about meaningfully?"

"Perhaps a little weaker. What we can believe to exist depends on what we can talk about meaningfully."

Sharon laughed and asked,

"Does it depend on what we think we can talk about meaningfully?"

Sensing an infinite regression, Tom replied,

"If we have a viable theory of meaning that tells us what we can really talk about meaningfully, we'll then be in a position to set up our beliefs."

"Are we completely at sea if we don't have a viable theory of meaning?"

"We'll go on talking, of course."

"But without any assurance that we're making sense?"

"People are usually pretty convinced that they're making sense."

"But without any philosophical foundation for that assurance."

"That's why we need a theory of meaning."

"Having that, we could parade a series of objects, possibly including God, as a sort of smorgasbord. We could then choose whether or not to believe in the actual existence of these various objects."

Eric, overhearing, smiled at Sharon and said,

"I bet you're a natural atheist, just like Tom."

That was a surprise. Eric had never said anything like it before, and Tom wasn't even sure that he was an atheist. He had also been uneasy about getting into philosophical discussions with Eric for fear of upsetting the faith on which he seemed to depend. But now, as Sharon indeed declared herself an atheist, it was obvious that Eric wasn't at all threatened. Ann added,

"I would have known that Sharon would be an atheist, even without knowing anything about philosophy."

Some people at the next table appeared to be considerably alarmed, probably because they associated atheism with anarchy (another 'a' word) and, hence, the tossing of bombs. Eric asked simply,

"Why do you think there couldn't be anything that we don't know how to talk about?"

Sharon replied,

"We can't say that there couldn't be. But, if we believe in such a thing, we can't have any concept of what it's like, only that it exists."

Before the discussion could proceed further, Ann got up suddenly from the table and rushed out the front door. Tom couldn't imagine what was wrong, but, as he followed, she knelt on the sidewalk and threw up into the gutter. She was holding her skirts up and back, well above her knees, as she continued to retch, and Tom gently took her arm to steady her. Sharon and Eric then came up with a glass of water and paper napkins. As Ann was cleaned up, she said,

"It wasn't the philosophy. I must have eaten too much ice cream too fast."

Sharon replied,

"There was also all that talk of vomiting earlier. It may have suggested the idea to you."

"I've certainly made quite an exhibition of myself, but I think I may have managed to keep my dress out of the muck."

As Ann was helped to her feet, there turned out to be only one spot, near the hem in front. Sharon bent and attended to it with a napkin, lifting Ann's skirt somewhat in the process. That done, Sharon said,

"I suppose it's my turn now. Or Tom and I could get down and barf together to entertain these onlookers who seem to have gathered."

Ann replied,

"Don't you dare, Sharon. You're a very elegant young lady at present, and our director wants elegance to be preserved at all costs."

"How does he feel about atheism?"

"He hasn't said anything about that, but I'm sure that he'd prefer an atheistic young lady who keeps her clothing and the contents of her tummy together to a theistic one who does what I just did."

It was decided to brazen it out and finish their ice cream as if nothing had happened. Even Ann had some more, eating more slowly and sipping water at the same time.

On the way back to Cambridge it was agreed that the outing had been a complete success. But, of course, Tom wanted to know what Eric thought of Sharon. He answered carefully

"She's extraordinary and wonderful in many ways. But I think she really does have some serious problems."

"She doesn't seem to be inhibited in the usual ways."

"I saw it partly in her mannerisms. She shows the whites of her eyes above the pupils often, and she can't seem to visually focus on anything for very long. But she obviously has a wonderful mind, and she can focus intellectually without any difficulty."

"I hadn't noticed the visual thing. I wonder what that means."

"It's probably just a sign of nervousness and tension. And, anyhow, you'd expect a certain amount of that in anyone that smart."

"Do you think she has much sexuality?"

"Yes. A number of things she said were rather suggestive. And, of course, she's very attractive, beautiful in a way."

"I have the impression that Sharon does things to get boys started, and then can't handle it when they reciprocate."

"But you're steeped in neuter-genderism, and so you're the ideal boy friend for her."

"In a way. Anyhow, that combination of looks and brains is hard to resist, even if I can't touch."

"Incidentally, I thought Ann was terrific, too. I loved her when she threw up."

"She's a great woman. It's too bad she's so much older."

"I think I may call her and ask her for a date."

Tom was somewhat shocked, and asked,

"Can you do that?"

"Sure. She's unmarried, and it's a compliment to a woman to ask her out. If she doesn't want to, she'll find a kind way of refusing."

"Yes. That's the difference between Ann and a college girl. Ann certainly won't make you feel like a worm if she thinks it's inappropriate."

"We also talked a bit about stomach cancer while you were philosophizing with Sharon. She seems to have a lot of medical knowledge."

"Probably more than the doctors."

"Yes. There still aren't many lady doctors, and most of those so inclined end up as nurses."

"I think that Ann is, in fact, acting as Sharon's psychiatrist."

"I can imagine that Sharon might not be inclined to say much to an ordinary male psychiatrist."

Tom replied,

"She probably won't give him the time of day, even while she's telling Ann everything."

"One advantage of Ann's not being an MD is that she hasn't had the full dose of AMA propaganda. She's probably more imaginative and flexible than a regular psychiatrist would be. Ann also has some unusual ideas about cancer."

At that point, Eric began to laugh. When questioned, he asked,

"In the course of your Chinese studies, have you ever heard of anything called acupuncture."

"Yeah, but I don't know much about it. Jimmy would know more, at least if it isn't included in the Chinese culture that he's so busy rejecting."

"It involves sticking tiny needles into critical places, and it's used for anaesthesia. But it also has other possibilities. These are mostly unknown or unconfirmed in the western sense, but Ann thought it might be worth a try."

"Sure. Are you going to?"

"There's a Chinese practitioner she knows of in Portsmouth, New Hampshire."

"That's not far. Let's go there. I bet the car will make it."


Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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