The next day, as he was getting back from class, Tom found the members of K-Entry going over the fence for an impromptu game of touch football. Since he wore high-topped Converse All-Stars almost all of the time, he was able to join them without changing.
It was the upstairs against the downstairs, and it was always fun to play on the same team as Peter. The latter's speed and general athletic ability made him almost impossible to cover for any pass defender. In fact, it had always seemed to Tom that Peter would have a better chance of making the NFL as a pass receiver or defensive back than the NBA as a guard who couldn't shoot.
On their first play, Tom and Eric ran into each other while trying to block for Peter. On the next play, Sid broke through Jimmy's block and batted the ball as Tom tried to pass it. The third down play was actually based on a coherent plan. Jimmy would only pretend to block Sid, who would come roaring through. Tom, moving quickly to his left, would dodge Sid, and then throw the ball deep, so that Peter could run under it.
The play started very nicely. Sid did come charging up the middle, and Tom did dodge him to the left. The only trouble was that Sid, with his agility, would be back on him quickly. Tom, still moving to his left, hurried his throw. He couldn't throw a football nearly as well as he could a baseball, but he could still get it fifty yards down the field with indifferent accuracy.
On this occasion, it went some ten yards as something ripped in Tom's upper arm. The pain was quite considerable as he fell to his knees, but he nevertheless found himself laughing. As Eric came rushing up, Tom said,
"It looks as if I'm destined to be a professor."
Tom was able to finish the game, confining himself to blocking, or attempting to block, Sid. This was particularly difficult since Sid, having recently resigned from the football team, had extra energy to expend.
When they got back to K-Entry and examined Tom's arm, almost everyone claiming medical expertise, Tom said,
"It's whatever was always wrong with it, only much worse."
It turned out that the rowing motion didn't hurt Tom's arm, and he set out with Kent and Jimmy the next morning as usual. Tom and Jimmy might have talked about their girl friends if Kent hadn't been with them. However, Kent still didn't have a glimmer of one, and was continuing to adhere to the neuter gender ideology. Indeed, it was ironic that Eric, the originator of that doctrine, was, apart from Peter, the only K-resident actually sleeping with a woman.
The topic was instead that other concern which was seldom talked of, but which everyone thought of every day, the strong possibility of war. They had all missed the Korean War by a scant margin, but, as a reminder, young men who had been in it now began to appear at Harvard.
The comedian Mort Sahl called the Korean War "World War 2.6", and it was obvious that 2.7 could appear almost anywhere at almost any time. If it came soon, the K-Enters would probably be participants, and, in that case, it might not matter much who had a girl friend or whose baseball career was viable.
Overshadowing 2.7 was, of course, the big 3.0, the "full nuclear exchange" between the United States and the Soviet Union. In view of the former's policy of never striking first, it didn't sound as if much of anyone in America would enjoy his Wheaties the morning after, or, indeed, remain with most of his or her body parts intact. New Hampshire was putting "Live Free or Die" on its license plates, and, at times, it seemed to Tom that most of his countrymen were perfectly happy with that posture.
Jimmy was an optimist of a bizarre sort. He had been greatly impressed with the efficiency the Japanese had displayed in their conquest of China. He thought that, when they transferred their energies from war to trade, they would show the rest of the world that national aspirations could best be achieved by peaceful means. It seemed unlikely to Tom, but it was hard to know how to argue against something that was so speculative.
Kent was the pessimist. Of course, things were going badly for him, and, if Tupolevs started dropping the hydrogen bombs the Soviets had just developed, things would go equally badly for everyone. But there was much more to it than that. The sorts of incidents that were occurring had led to world wars the last two times, and the burden of argument was placed on anyone who claimed that, this time, it would be different.
As the son of a capitalist, Kent beliveved that the United States would win the economic race with the Soviet Union. However, as he put it,
"When the men in the Kremlin see that they're going to lose, they'll launch a surprise nuclear attack on us. There's nothing else that they'll be able to do."
They were now at the Watertown bridge, and were laboriously turning their shells. Kent was more or less daring anyone to disagree when, in backing an oar, he got it twisted. The oar blade went under, and then, in slow motion, the outrigger followed. Kent was making peculiar noises, hardly relevant to either economic or military policy, when his whole shell rotated ninety degrees in stately fashion along its longitudinal axis. Kent, trying to postpone the inevitable, clung to the upraised outrigger. Then, losing his grip, he disappeared underwater briefly before coming up spouting water from his mouth and nose in what Tom thought was a rather unseemly display.
The water in the Charles was chilly in November, and Kent needed no protracted urging to take hold of the stern of Tom's boat. Shells weren't designed as towboats, and it took some time to get Kent to shore, During this time, Kent was looking goggle-eyed at Tom with his mouth turned down in a comical way. He didn't look frightened, but as if his mild discomfort was surving the greater purpose of confirming his theories. Noticing that his plastic-framed glasses were missing, Tom asked whether they might float, in which case Jimmy could track them down. Kent spluttered a bit, but was, on the whole, as pessimistic about his glasses as he was on the prospects for the long-term survival of American civilization.
Tom and Jimmy had to immerse their feet and ankles in water and mud to get their boats beached, while Kent's boat, swamped with one outrigger raised in a symbolic gesture, floated gently down the middle of the stream.
Kent himself, blobs of mud obscuring his shoes and his hair plastered to his face, was shaking, not quite uncontrollably, but sufficiently to suggest a significantly lowered body temperature. There was nothing for it but to take him to the little diner where they had met Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Those latter gentlemen were not there, and Tom realized that he and his friends, each plopping mud on the floor with each step, must constitute a restauranteur's nightmare. He also remembered that he and Kent spoke an exotic tongue while only Jimmy spoke halting English. To remind Kent, Tom said to him,
"Babalatchi cumin tesorgonda."
Kent replied appropriately, although it might only have been that his fluency in English had been impaired, hopefully only temporarily, by his recent experiences.
Jimmy was trying to get it across that they had fished a half-drowned man out of the river before the semi-barbarian Greek who owned the diner threw them out. Just then, Mrs. Greek emerged from the kitchen much as, in another setting, Mrs. Sun had emerged from her kitchen to assist with a difficult case. Mrs. Greek, like her Chinese-American counterpart, took in the situation quickly and took Kent into the kitchen, presumably to dry him off with dish cloths and thaw him out in front of a stove. Jimmy then set about ordering the most expensive possible breakfasts for all three of them, evidently with the idea of mollifying Mr. Greek.
It wasn't terribly long before Kent returned from the kitchen, dressed in a white cook's outfit. He looked a little pale, but was smiling and ready to eat. He had on horn-rimmed glasses, which turned out to be an old pair belonging to Mr. Greek, and they converted his natural near-blindness to an improved state in which he recognized his friends and only bounced off the occasional coat-tree. Mrs. Greek stood in the background gesturing to her husband, evidently well pleased with Kent's transformation from large half-drowned marsupial to a rather gentlemanly foreign student, evidently from a country in which they habitually jumped from bridges into lazy tepid streams.
After eating, Kent took a taxi back to he boathouse in order to get there before his boat drifted past. Tom and Jimmy again waded through the mud to get underway and headed downstream. Jimmy said,
"If it's any consolation to you, I've also decided to be a professor."
"You've been in so many fields. Which will you choose?"
"Probably economics. I can get my doctorate quickly and easily, and it has good employment prospects."
"When did you decide this?"
"I've been thinking of it for some time, but it came to me definitely last night. American government service is out for me because I'm an alien, and business is too risky. Becoming a professor is the simplest and most reliable way of turning intelligence to practical advantage."
It was just what Tom didn't want to hear. He hardly wanted to think that he was following the safest possible course, the ideal thing for a man who was afraid of any risk. Jimmy evidently sensed some of this and replied,
"You have to remember that I'm a refugee."
"Yes, but, since I'm not, it doesn't seem that I should always do the safest thing."
"You'll always do adventurous things, most of which will be more dangerous than playing professional baseball. But you don't glorify gambling at Las Vegas, do you?"
"No, that's just foolish."
"So you don't approve of risk for its own sake."
"We usually admire people who risk all their money and time on some improbable commercial enterprise that ultimately succeeds."
"But that's not something you personally admire very much is it?"
"No, I suppose not very much."
They briefly formed a single line to go through the arch of a bridge. When they came out the other side, they saw Blake, in a small motorboat, towing Kent's shell back to the boathouse. Kent, still in his cook's outfit, was standing quietly on the dock. Blake was not one who expected his oarsmen to come back in clownish outfits minus their boats, and it looked as if he might have had something to say.
When Tom called Sharon and informed her of his injury, she asked,
"Does it hurt?"
"Not much. I can do almost everything but throw. I'm pretty well convinced that, even if it recovers, the same thing would happen again.
"So you'll have to refuse the offer?"
"Yeah, if it ever arrives."
"Have you told Mary Ellen?"
"You could say nothing about the injury, but claim to have made a rational decision."
"That's tempting. Should I also give you credit for helping me make it?"
"What a good idea!"
"I bet you thought of it before I did."
"Okay, I admit to manipulation. Alternatively, you could wait and let our sweetie of a director persuade you."
"That's a dramatically bad idea."
"Then you'd better let me persuade you."
"Yes. It's a fairly white lie as lies go."
"And, of course, Mary Ellen may drop the occasional white lie herself."
"The only trouble is that she's extremely good at seeing through prevarications. I doubt that I could pull it off."
"Even if we rehearsed it?"
"It'd be amusing to see you try to be Mary Ellen, but that wouldn't help much. However, you could be the one to give her the news of my career change. You wouldn't even have to claim to have influenced me. She'd assume it."
"Wouldn't she be upset that you didn't tell her first?"
"You could call her up, as if I'd just decided while I was with you."
"I'm not sure I could carry that off."
"Better you than me."
It was Sid who took Mary Ellen's call later that day, and he fortunately didn't spill the beans about Tom's injury. But Mary Ellen always liked to talk with K-Enters, and Sid reported,
"She's talked with Sharon, and she thinks maybe you won't always be a bum after all."
"Did she mention my father?"
"No, but she said it'd mean a lot to you if the rest of us supported you in your wise decision."
Sid was laughing, as many people did after a conversation with Mary Ellen, and he added,
"She's afraid you might change your mind."
When Tom called her, Mary Ellen said,
"Tom, you've finally grown up!"
She didn't sound like a woman who was afraid that her son might suddenly back-slide into teen-aged craziness, and Tom found himself giving her Jimmy's reasons for being a professor. That obviously puzzled the hell out of Mary Ellen, and she replied,
"Yes, dear, that's very nice. Sharon just called me, and it was so sweet of her to keep me informed. She's such a wonderful girl, Tom!"
"You know, she'll be out of Allwyn soon, and you'll have a chance to meet her parents."
"I suppose so, when I go to her house to pick her up."
"And then, after a bit, we might invite them all to tea here."
Tom agreed vaguely, wondering alarmedly what sort of interchange might take place between Mary Ellen and Sharon's parents, whatever they might turn out to be like.