Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 15


Belmont Center, whether or not it centered whatever it was originally meant to center, now centered a conglomeration of wealth in the western suburbs of Boston. Tom's prep school of unhappy memory was nearby, and it was a favorite shopping place of Mary Ellen. Wandering along the street, which curved down to go under a railway bridge, they passed many shop windows filled with dresses, hats, and shoes. According to Sharon, these were designed to make the women who wore them stand out from the crowd without seeming ostentatious. It sounded like a neat trick, and Tom noticed that they themselves were attracting the attention of the passers-by, either because of their combined height of well over twelve feet or because of Sharon's youthful elegance. In any case, it looked as if they were succeeding easily at something at which the Belmont women seemed to work rather hard. Sharon remarked,

"When I go into shops like these, the saleswomen swarm all over me with greedy fingers to take my clothes and put me in their outfits."

"I should think that they'd have trouble finding things long enough for you."

"Each one will have just the thing for me in a back room. The dresses are usually too short, but they seem to have hems that can be lowered endlessly. I'm always urged to imagine what I'd look like if a particular outfit were altered in various ways."

Tom liked the idea of the women touching Sharon and fussing with her clothes, and there was one shop that was still open. Sharon needed little encouragement.

As they entered, a saleslady, probably the owner, was busy with a customer. Sharon whispered to Tom,

"In a minute, she'll desert that frumpy woman and come charging up to me. I'll soon be taken by the arm and urged gently into one of those little fitting rooms over there. She'll then be in and out with all kinds of clothes."

The saleslady just then gave them a broad professional smile and assured Sharon of her imminent attention. The frumpy woman, who was actually fairly attractive, was then led briskly to one of the rooms. The curtains were only half closed as the woman was hastily undone. Sharon whispered,

"She'll be lucky if her slip stays down when her dress comes over her head. It's safer to undress yourself."

"I've been with Mary Ellen in shops like this. She embarrasses me by coming half out of the fitting room in her underclothes to call instructions to the saleslady."

"I can imagine it. But she's petite and vivacious, and most people would think that she can pull off that kind of thing."

"I guess most people do think so. Your director, for example."

"But not her son! I guess it is awkward to have a sexy mother."

"Yeah. I don't think she realizes it."

"It probably never occurs to her. Does she go around the house in her slip?"


"And you've never asked her not to?"

"I couldn't very well."

"No. That would imply that you're interested, or could be interested, in her sexually. The big I. So big that it can't even be mentioned."

"You manage to."

"I manage to mention just about everything. Does it bother you?"

"Not in this instance. Mary Ellen is obviously attractive and flirtatious. But I manage all right when we're home alone. It bothers me more when we're out in public."

"Interesting. Anyhow, I won't cause you any problems. I'll stay entirely in the room when I'm out of my dress."

The frumpy woman's fastenings seemed to be giving trouble, but, when she was all loosened, the saleslady, evidently to make up for lost time, whisked the dress over her head in full view of Sharon and Tom. The woman's slip was up almost above her girdle before she could get it down. Sharon whispered,

"That woman's being humiliated because she's not a valued customer. I won't be treated that way."

"She looks all right to me."

"She does have pretty legs, as we've just seen. But she doesn't look expensive enough for the store."

Sharon floated around with an austere look, rejecting a number of dresses before she was persuaded to try one on. She was then guided to the fitting room next to the frumpy lady, who could be seen struggling in and out of clothes.

The curtains in front of Sharon did remain closed, but taking a seat in a little plush chair, Tom could see her feet and ankles below the curtain. They moved as she twisted, probably to be unzippeed or unhooked, and then, a little later, he could hear a slithering of material. There was then more slithering and Sharon opened the curtains to display herself in a full-skirted green dress whose color reminded Tom of that of a pool table. She was still being fastened in back, and her slip showed a row of lace beneath the hem as Tom complimented her. However, when Sharon walked across to the large mirror, she flushed and said angrily,

"It's too short as usual."

The saleslady then pointed to a white dress on a hanger, and was about to allege that it was long enough when Sharon said,

"It looks like something a woman might wear for her third wedding ceremony."

The saleslady looked unhappy, but turned to the frumpy woman with her renewed smile. The latter, too proud to risk being spurned again, was in the act of leaving.

Tom, with the image of her in girdle and stockings in his mind, watched her go. Sharon, standing close to him, said,

"You're leering, Tom."

"Surely not."

Not contesting the point further, Sharon said,

"Let's eat."

They soon came upon an attractive restaurant. It was one Tom had heard Mary Ellen talk about, and as they were seated, he said as much to Sharon. She replied,

"It must be good then."

"I suppose so. People think she has good taste. What do you think of Mary Ellen?"

Sharon, looking surprised and amused, said,

"I hope you aren't looking for a supposedly objective opinion of your mother."

"I probably am. Why not give it a shot?"

"I think anyone would say that she's bright, charming, and delightful. The patients all love her, and she seems to have done quite a job on our sweetie of a director."

"I may soon be asked if I want this sweetie of a director as a stepfather. How would you advise me to respond?"

"Oh, I don't imagine that you'd want to throw down any major roadblock. He's very civilized and much too sophisticated to think he could boss you around. I already know that philosophy impresses him, and I imagine that he'd be delighted to have a philosophical stepson."

"So we install this sweetie in the master bedroom with the charming Mary Ellen while the civilized stepson sits downstairs with the Philosophical Review in his lap and a big smile on his face."

Sharon suddenly reached for Tom's hand and said,

"I'm sorry for being so offhand about this."

Tom, delighted at her touch, replied,

"It's okay, really."

Sharon then whispered,

"Are you being bothered by the image of our director fucking your mother?"

Tom dropped his roll in his lap, but quickly recovered it. He then replied,

"Yes, I think that's exactly what's upsetting me."

"Of course, it may well not happen. You did tell me that she's refused other suitors. Were you bothered when they came around?"

"No. I was mostly a little kid. I liked them because they played ball with me, and things like that. I suppose I didn't know what they wanted to do to my mother."

"The phrase, 'do to your mother', is rather revealing."

"I know. I'm twisted about sex."

"No more than I am. But I suppose, really, that we're both twisted in relatively normal and very common ways."

Tom felt better and laughed. He then asked,

"Why am I twisted?"

"Becuase your mother might also want to do things, not so much 'to' as 'with', the men. Anyhow, she's an adult woman who has every right to marry and have sex with her husband. Actually, at this point, I don't see why she shouldn't have sex with someone who isn't her husband."

"I suppose people with functioning fathers are used to the idea of their mothers having sex. But, with Mary Ellen turning away anyone who seemed at all interested, I must have gotten the idea that she was a virgin with one exception, so to speak."

"She doesn't seem very virginal to me."

"Is she sexy?"

"Yes. In a modest and well-bred way. But I'd say that she's provocative in the way that she dresses and moves, even when she's with other women."

"I saw her hug you before. Is there a lesbian element?"

Sharon laughed and replied,

"That's just the way women are. I'm not at all a hugger, but even I do it sometimes. Your mother would be profoundly shocked if I propositioned her."

"I wonder how she'd handle that one."

"She'd go to her friend, the director, and she'd say that, while I'm a delightful girl, there are certain tendencies, which she'd rather not discuss for the moment, that could cause difficulties. She'd end up with a different visiting schedule which didn't include me."

"Yes, that's quite possible. You've certainly honed in on Mary Ellen."

"I suppose I've made something of a study of her. She's far more interesting than the other volunteers. I've even considered adopting some of her moves as my own."

"I don't think you could. But, anyway, it may be useful in a practical way if she's taking up with the director. She'll have difficulty in suggesting that I shouldn't see one of his star patients."

"She may have difficulty suggesting it, but she'll still find a way."

After some serious eating, the conversation shifted to an issue that had come up in a linguistics course Tom audited, but which had obvious relevance for philosophy. As he put it,

"Semantic nominalism says that meaning attaches primarily to a particular utterance by a particular speaker on a particular occasion. A different speaker may attach a different meaning to the same sentence, and the same speaker might utter it with a different meaning at a different time in different circumstances."

"How do we communicate if we can all mean different things?"

"Because, mostly, we mean very similar things. And that's partly because the conventions of a language encourage us to keep our meanings aligned."

"So there's always a certain amount of misunderstanding, but it's held to tolerable limits?"

"Right. And the meaning of a sentence in English is just an abstraction, a statistical median."

"Okay. What's the opposed view?"

"That an utterance makes no sense in isolation. It's like a move in a game like chess. It has meaning only because its governed by a whole network of rules and conventions. You have to understand the game before you can understand the moves."

"I think I can make up some words, decide what kind of meaning I'm going to give to them, and use them effectively in my secret diary."

"Then you're a nominalist. So am I."

"What hinges on this?"

"I think it leads to scepticism about most things. It may make it possible to construct a whole world out of one's own feelings and sensations. Let's write a paper on it."


"Sure. MacDuff wants me to submit something to a journal. He said there's nothing to lose."

"It would blow the mind of my principal back at the school if I got something in print. I wonder what your mother would think."

"I have no idea, but we'd better get busy. Journals only accept a small proportion of the papers they get."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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