Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 11

Mary Ellen and Malki

The next K-Entry event was a mass blind date, arranged by a Lowell House acquaintance who had a girl friend at Wellesley. They were to proceed out there in a caravan of cars, and the high point of the evening was to be a hay-ride in horse-drawn wagons loaded with real hay. Some fifty couples would be involved, and it was hoped that allergies could be kept under control. It was suspected in K-Entry that they had been invited at short notice to provide dates for girls whom no one else wanted. But, as Jimmy said,

"They may only have ugly faces. One gets used to a big nose or asymmetries of feature quite quickly, and most young women conform to the bodywise norm acceptably."

Jimmy's British English had been affected by American academic and advertizing jargon in peculiar ways, but everyone understood what he meant. And, of course, he was excited because it was to be his first real date. Tom only hoped that the girl wouldn't sneer and complain about being paired with a little boy.

There was a slight problem because, for the first time, Howie had a high-school girlfriend coming to visit him from Cleveland. A call was made, and they were assured that Howie's friend would be welcome on the hay-ride.

As he listened to D. C. Williams making fun of Thomist metaphysics and, by implication, his colleague Soames, Tom had half his mind on Wellesley. Not even Peter had been out there, and, even though Tom's mother had gone to Wellesley, there was a mystery about it. On the one hand, Wellesley's faculty and general academic resources were almost nothing compared to those of the Harvard-Radcliff combination. But Wellesley still wasn't to be scorned. The academic standards were high, and they only took reasonably smart girls. Moreover, the faculty, chosen for teaching skills, might, on average, give better courses in a limited range of subjects than the Harvard faculty. The latter taught practically everything, but with a notoriously uneven level of competence, enthusiasm, and even sobriety. It would be no tragedy if even Sharon ended up at Wellesley. That thought triggered another set of Sharon thoughts, and, since Williams had long since reached the overkill range on St. Thomas Aquinas, Tom indulged himself.

Concluding a series of images, interspersed with fragments of conversation, he decided that he was at least as fascinated by her as before. But it couldn't be denied that there was something basically wrong. Ann Barnes had hinted at it. He had observed it himself. And Eric, noticing something quite different, had confirmed it. He guessed that Ann, if asked directly, would say that Sharon could, and would, be cured. But professionals in the field would naturally be optimistic, quite apart from Ann's obvious feeling for Sharon. And, anyhow, it was a matter of degree. What if Sharon ended up as someone who, always nervous and tense, hovered perpetually on the edge of a breakdown? It would certainly do no harm if he met a Wellesley girl, who, psychologically speaking, would be virtually guaranteed to be in the normal range.

On Thursday night, the night before the date, Tom's mother came down to take him out to dinner. Mary Ellen, abandoned by his father many years previously, was much sought after by men. And that wasn't only, or even mainly, because of her money. She was, of course, distinctly attractive. More important was her ability and willingness to say to each person exactly what that person most wanted to hear. Even her refusals of marriage proposals had been so delicately couched as to make the rejected suitor feel that he must be a very fine fellow indeed.

All this was a somewhat mixed blessing for Tom. Mary Ellen said some of the same things to him that she said to others, but, of course, he didn't believe them. On one occasion, she had joked to him,

"Oh Tom, I'm afraid there's just no truth in me."

Tom hadn't explicitly agreed with that sentiment, but she knew that he knew.

On the other side of the ledger, Mary Ellen often had strong negative feelings about people. These were expressed only to Tom and a few close friends. Moreover, they sometimes concerned his own deficiencies. As there were no siblings to share the load, he never approached her without some misgivings.

Mary Ellen, was already at the restaurant, perched brightly on a bar stool like a bluebird about to sing. She waved delightedly to him as she hopped down to give him a hug. After they had moved to a booth and he had ordered a large steak at her insistence, he told her that they were going out to Wellesley. She was pleased, of course, and replied,

"You may laugh at the social graces, dear, but they amount, really, just to making sure that guests have a good time."

"These young ladies may face a challenge. K-Entry is a bit gun-shy about dates, and, of course, it isn't very civilized. It might not appreciate good manners."

"Even jungle tribes often have very elaborate manners. They appreciate traders who are gentlemen and observe the local forms. Particulatly when they don't cheat them."

"Is it better to be cheated by a gentleman or not cheated by an insensitive ruffian?"

"You feel better when you're cheated by a gentleman. That was the trouble with the missionaries. They didn't cheat, but they've made the English, and to some extent the Americans, hated all over the world."

"But the missionaries were gentlemen, weren't they? They were hardly insensitive ruffians."

"But that's just what they were! Ruffians! At least on the level of feeling. They ignored native customs and traditions, and tried to impose a rather stupid religion by main force. The Wellesley girls won't try to convert you to anything."

Discussions with Mary Ellen often took a peculiar turn, but, by the time they got to dessert, she was back on a standard theme,

"Dear, I hope you marry a nice cheerful girl, one with a good sense of humor who doesn't feel slighted at every little thing."

"Will she get up an hour before I do, have breakfast all ready, and smile up at me as she thrusts a cup of hot coffee into my hands?"

"Or you could marry a strange Jewish intellectual who'll set the children into competition with each other and push them all so hard that they'll become violently neurotic."

"Sid's Jewish, but I don't think his mother pushed him."

"She must be abnormal."

"His father, Sam, might have done some pushing. He's a junk- man, and he may have wanted Sid to be one too. Once, when Sid dropped his end of a refrigerator they were carrying, Sam ripped the door off and threw it at him."

Sid and his father didn't fit Mary Ellen's image of a Jewish family, but she rallied,

"I think you do wonderfully to get on so well with all these kinds of people."

She was about to suggest that marriage would be a different matter with greater strains, but, before she could, Tom asked,

"How do you think the Wellesley girls would do with Sid?"

Mary Ellen had met everyone in K-Entry and replied,

"He's really rather a dear. There won't be any problems."

"Actually, he isn't going. He wants to study instead."

While Mary Ellen was pretending to admire someone who preferred studying to going to parties, Tom had an idea for testing the waters concerning Sharon. He said,

"Kent's now going to see a girl who's in a mental institution."

"I'm not surprised. He's in such difficulty himself that it may be comforting to be with someone whose problems are even more severe."

"You've only met Kent a couple of times. How did you know that he has problems?"

"It doesn't take much insight. He's very nice, of course, but he takes refuge in the rules of etiquette. Without them, he'd be totally lost."

"Still another advantage for good manners. If you don't have anything else, you can get by on them."

"It works even better for the feeble-minded. There's a retarded boy in our town whose sisters have taught him beautiful manners. Everyone's nice to him, but they wouldn't be if he got into bad company and started to swear."

"Kent's far from retarded."

"Oh, I know. He's brilliant, isn't he?"

"Unfortunately, he's not quite smart enough to do what he needs to do, which is to revolutionize anthropology."

"Why does he need to do that?"

"Parental pressure. But only implicit. Kent's father probably doesn't even realize that he's applying pressure."

"There are advantages in marrying a man who turned out to be a criminal. You probably don't feel compelled to follow his example."

Tom smiled and replied,

"I've managed to resist so far."

"But what about Kent? Will he hold together?"

"He does sometimes joke about suicide."

"Oh dear! Are you the one who's holding him together?"

"No, I shouldn't think so."

"Does he consider you his best friend?"


"Then you are holding him together. That can be terribly draining for you."

"It was a little much when he went to sleep on the floor of my room fully dressed one night."

"And slept there all night?"


"That's a terrible sign. Like a dog beside the bed of the master. Was he so depressed that he couldn't move?"

"He may just have been very tired."

"I've been tired millions of times, but I've never collapsed for the night on someone's floor. I bet you haven't either."

"I suppose, next time, I could kick him gently until he gets up."

"I would, actually. Depressed people are like addicts. They'll take advantage of anyone who's nice to them."

Tom had always found it simplest to agree with Mary Ellen, and then, later, decide what to do. As he humored her, he wondered whether Sharon was considered to be depressed. She certainly didn't seem it, but he had no idea what her official diagnosis might be.

As they were about to depart, Mary Ellen said,

"I think Eric's the best friend for you. He's so happy and humorous, and has such a healthy attitude."

She didn't know that Eric had cancer, and Tom wasn't about to tell her. Mary Ellen usually wanted him to sacrifice everything and everyone for his own good, but would she really want him to distance himself from Eric? He rather thought that she would recognize that it would be harmful for him, quite apart from Eric, to do any such thing.

The next evening, they set off for Wellesley in non-K- Entry cars. The outsiders with whom Tom and Kent were riding in a smooth powerful Buick were greatly optimistic. After all, in a hay ride, everyone bundled together, more or less on top of one another. Intimacy beckoned. It was surprising only that Wellesley girls had proposed such a thing for couples who hadn't yet met one another. The driver of the car explained,

"The organizers all have boy friends, and then the thing grew to include lots of girls who don't. But they signed up willingly, so they must be ready to cuddle."

Tom had been taken to Wellesley as a child a number of times, but this was his first adult approach to one of the reputed centers of civility in the western world. Very likely, he would be paired with a younger version of Mary Ellen. That would, at any rate, be interesting.

The girls milling around in the dormitory lobby were all in slacks and sweaters in view of the evening's entertainment. While the potential for elegance was reduced by the informality, everyone seemed friendly and cheerful. There was one very beautiful blonde girl who stood out, and it turned out that she was paired with Peter. Tom assumed that this was by design, but Eric, who had some inside information, told him that it had happened by accident. He added,

"In addition to good looks, Peter has good luck."

Tom's girl, who had been in the background somewhere, was then brought forward. She was vaguely blonde with glasses, but was tall and looked athletic. As with so many girls who were neither plain nor pretty, it would all depend on the personality.

The young lady's name, "Malki," was one that would always have to be explained and spelled. She was from a small town in Iowa, and was in her second year at Wellesley. They were soon mixed with other couples, and the conversation was spirited and amusing without being at all controversial or revealing much about the participants. The young ladies were good hostesses, and Mary Ellen would have approved.

Malki smiled at times, but said hardly anything. The English would have said that she "didn't utter," and Tom knew from novels that girls and women who were too shy and awkward to utter were consigned to a special, inferior, place in society. Tom's luck seemed to be the opposite of Peter's. But it did occur to him that this was just another girl who didn't want to be with him. He caught a look of commiseration from Eric, who had quite an attractive and vivacious girl. It did seem unfair. Malki or Whalki, or whatever her foolish name might be, hadn't had anything close enough to a boy friend to invite to the hayride. Beggars shouldn't be so choosy.

It wasn't long before Eric's girl made a special attempt to involve Malki in the conversation. From the way in which it was done, Tom could see that Malki had a reputation for being heavy in the hand socially. Mary Ellen could never have been accused of that, and it was ironic that her college had just provided Tom with such a girl.

Dismissing the idea of running away from Wellesley and walking back to Cambridge, Tom decided to persevere. Malki probably didn't want to be with anyone. But Eric's girl, Jane, announced,

"Malki is one of few of us who has a career in mind. She wants to be a newspaper editor."

That was an undodgeable opening. Lots of people had attitudes toward newspapers and editors, and one young man asked,

"Are you going to recommend nuking our supposed enemies before they nuke us?"

That was, of course, the essence of the cold war. General Curtis LeMay thought America could "beat the Soviets to the draw," and wanted to give it a try. Others thought that such an action verged on the immoral. Still, the question was put humorously on this occasion, and only demanded a clever answer. Malki seemed to be short of clever answers, and, for that matter, seemed hardly to understand the question. Indeed, it turned out that she wanted only to edit a small town weekly, preferably the one in her home town in Iowa. The young man who had asked about nukes looked as if he had stuck his finger in melted butter by mistake and commented,

"It looks as if you'll be printing notices for births and deaths, and keeping close track of the prices for hog bellies."

That, unfortunately, seemed to be Malki. Even her friend gave up, and Tom, estimating that he was hooked for something like four hours, set to work to try to amuse the girl.

It was hard to get more than a wintry smile from Malki, and, when they finally clambered on board one of the hay wagons, she wedged herself unapproachably in a corner. There was, however, a diversion.

Kent was even more unsuitably matched with "his girl," a fluttery little thing from Mississippi. Whenever she chirped in a really rather fascinating accent, Kent became darkly sardonic, quoting something from one of his own midnight conversations with Tom. These things usually made a sort of sense in context, given that one shared some of Kent's rather perverse assumptions about human nature. But they would have baffled anyone who hadn't known him for some time. Mississippi, undeterred, would giggle and encourage him. Then, Kent, lying on his back near the bottom with his legs in the air, would orate upwards in equally obscure terms. Others, up on top and partially out of his sight, were also amused. Soon there was applause. Kent seemed to think that people were applauding the rightness of his views, and was encouraged. Tom intervened by engaging Mississippi in a conversation which quickly turned to the romantic qualities of the various stars in view in the night sky.

After a bit, Tom wished that he had been paired with Mississippi. She was little and pretty, and he was used to fluttering from Mary Ellen. Justice would be served by inflicting Kent, who was being obnoxious, on Malki, and vice versa. However, before Tom could get busy on a switchover, another youth, sensing a vacuum, had moved in on Mississippi.

The date wound down, degree by lugubrious degree, until they got into the cars to go back to Cambridge. This time, Tom was in a car with Howie and his girl friend from Cleveland, a rather pretty but hard-looking red-head named Sandy.

Sandy seemed to be a little drunk. In any case, she hadn't liked the Wellesley girls, and thought them snobby. Tom had happened to witness a few interactions involving Sandy, and it seemed to him that the Wellesley girls had been quite friendly and welcoming. Howie evidently thought the same, and argued with Sandy. She responded by beginning a flirtation with the boy on her other side, the driver.

As Howie and Sandy became more acrimonious, Tom found it depressing. Howie was, in a way, one of Tom's heroes, a young man with such self-discipline that he could study ten hours a day, day after day. Moreover, it had always seemed that he could solve almost any practical problem with his usual placidity. But, now, he seemed really quite bothered and angry when Sandy said,

"Even your mother says you're not the same since you came east."

It might have been a low blow, but it was probably true. Howie had, figuratively, moved half-way from some industrial suburb of Cleveland to Cambridge. He hadn't moved far enough to be comfortable at Wellesley, but he had come too far to be comfortable with Sandy. Tom interjected from the back seat,

"It's been a wonderful evening at Wellesley. Let's top it off with orange juice in the alley in front of our house."

Everyone laughed, and Howie and Sandy stopped fighting.

The next day, telephone calls were exchanged between Harvard and Wellesley. It was established that Peter and his beautiful date liked one another. That was good.

They had lost track of Jimmy during the hay ride, but it had apparently gone fairly well. The girl, when questioned, said that Jimmy was very nice and extremely interesting. However, he was, she thought, a little too young for her. Jimmy seemed to be only mildly disappointed.

The Mississippi girl liked Eric, but, since she had theoretically been paired with Kent, Eric was embarrassed and sent no message back.

No one liked Kent, but he fortunately wasn't present at the post-mortem. A few people made clucking noises, and there was a raised eyebrow or two.

The big surprise concerned Tom. Malki had arrived back at her dorm shaking, convinced that she had had a narrow escape from a homicidal maniac.

After a certain initial shock, K-Entry's reaction was one of amusement. Since the whole group had been together the whole time, it was known that Tom hadn't done anything weird, and that it was, indeed, Malki who was weird. But it was still wondered what could have set her off. The intermediaries in Lowell House were contacted, and further calls were made. The answer eventually came back that Tom had, among other things, said,

"That horse has spots on it, so it must be sick."

Tom didn't remember saying that, but allowed,

"I was trying real hard to make conversation, and I guess I must have been digging pretty deep at that point."

Eric replied,

"I suppose a very literal-minded girl might not perceive humor, and think that you'd have to be crazy to say that. Anyhow, you'll do better with girls who are more urbane and sophisticated, Tom."

"Yes. Sharon may have a few problems, but they're as nothing compared to some others we've encountered lately."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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