Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 21

Malki Revisited

Sharon's eviction from Allwyn took place suddenly in mid-November, the result of a conference between the director, Sharon's parents, Ann, and Sharon herself. She was to be a weekday boarder at a well-known girls' prep school nearby, and would spend week-ends at home. The boarding was said to supply what the director called "structure," but there was actually another, unstated, reason. According to Ann, most young people in institutions were there, at least in part, because their family life disturbed them in one way or another. Hence, it was usually judged better to return them to that family life only by slow degrees when possible.

On Sharon's first Friday night at home, Tom arrived to take her out to dinner. Sharon hadn't talked much about her parents, hardly more than the K-Enters talked about theirs. Tom knew of her mother only that she had had a hysterectomy, and had thus been unable to provide Sharon with any siblings. Of her father, Tom knew only that he made a lot of money and had called her high school principal an idiot. That suggested a powerful character, but not much else.

Sharon's father was a big man, almost as tall as Tom and much heavier. He introduced himself as "Joe Seymour", which was pretty low key for a captain of industry. It was, unfortunately, impossible to tell whether he really wanted to be addressed by his first name. In any case, he waved a hand toward his wife and introduced her as 'Barbara', 'locally known as Bubbles.' From her expression, it was obvious that she wished to be addressed as 'Mrs. Seymour', and in no other way, thank you very much. Tom found himself momentarily confused. Sharon's parents were both good- looking, generally impressive, and, in appearance, went well together. But they obviously expected their guests to behave in radically different ways.

Mary Ellen had once commented on such a couple, saying,

"If other people are present, I get the wife isolated and talk to her in the way that she likes. Then. I switch gears and go over to the husband."

It was easy to imagine Mary Ellen doing just that, but Tom found himself floundering and mumbling. Sharon intervened quickly and, drawing him to a window, pointed out a large pool, almost as attractive as Allwyn's. She added casually,

"Daddy hasn't, as yet, agreed to heat it in the winter."

"Sharon, you have no idea how much..."

Sharon interrupted,

"The director said the same thing about the Allwyn pool, but I asked him very nicely ....."

"I bet he turned the heat off the minute you left."

While father and daughter continued in like manner, Mrs. Seymour said to Tom,

"I hope Sharon isn't going to insist on being taken to the Ritz."

"No, she wants to go to my friend's hamburger joint."

Mr. Seymour then addressed Tom loudly with evident good humor,

"Isn't this director chap the one who wants to marry your mother?"

"Sharon and I are making plans to discredit him in her eyes."

"How are you going to do that?"

Sharon replied,

"He's come close to making indecent suggestions to Ann."

Although his wife was trying to restrain him, her husband said to Sharon,

"Tom's mother might not believe you if you told her that. You'll have to arrange it so that she herself sees him with his hand in the cookie jar."

It gradually became apparent that, while Sharon didn't talk much about her parents, she had told them everything she knew about Tom and his friends. A little later, Mr. Seymour addressed Tom,

"Bad luck about your arm."

"Well, I was off balance running to my left and tried to throw to my right."

"No wonder it let go. But, you know, I don't think a young pitcher who really wants to make a career of it would risk his arm in pick-up football games."

"We're giving Mary Ellen the impression that I made a rational decision not to be a ball player, so perhaps I was more rational than I knew."

Mrs. Seymour said,

"Sharon, I hope you're not deceiving Tom's mother, even to put him in a good light."

"No. I just called up and told her that Tom had definitely decided not to be a professional baseball player. Which was true."

"She didn't ask why?"

Tom replied,

"Once Mary Ellen gets started, she supplies all the reasons she, or anyone else, could need."

"She sounds charming. I bet you've got your intelligence from her. We'll have to meet her."

Mr. Seymour said to Tom,

"We'd better take your mother, and everyone else, out to dinner. Otherwise, we'll get trapped in a ladies' tea party with cucumber and watercress sandwiches cut in perfect octagons."

While Mrs. Seymour was busy objecting that she had never inflicted such sandwiches on anyone, Sharon waved toward them and exclaimed loudly,

"The only thing they agree on is their joint hatred of the neighbors."

Mrs. Seymour, turning from her husband, replied,

"I don't hate the neighbors. It's just that certain things your father does have made relations difficult. If ...."

Mr.Seymour replied,

"People who can't deal with a man's having a sailboat occasionally in his driveway ought to be sold into indentured servitude in a third world country."

At that, his wife punched him playfully, but rather hard, in the stomach. She then said to Tom,

"I understand that you have the advantage of having only one parent to deal with."

"Well, yes. But my mother often mentions my absent father, who happens to be a criminal. She thinks I've inherited certain tendencies."

"Is he really a criminal?"

"The genuine article. He left the country when he was being pursued by the police, the FBI, the Mafia, and a motorcycle gang."

Mr. Seymour seemed impressed, saying,

"That suggests a high level of activity and imagination."

"Yes. No one seems to have ever denied that."

Mrs. Seymour replied,

"So you've got intelligence from both parents. And you're putting it to good use now that you've given up baseball."

Sharon replied,

"That sounds boring. I'll see if I can't move him off the straight and narrow."

By the time that they finally left the Seymour household, Tom had become part of the unusual, always partly humorous, interactions that occurred there. Sharon immediately said,

"They like you."

"I like them, too. They're fun."

"Of course, it's impossible to really get through to Daddy. You can do it only a little at a time."

"I'd love to have been there when he had his talk with the high-school principal."

"That was kind of scary, actually. He'll defend me to the end."

"I'll bear that in mind. Let's go somewhere with good food. We can go to Frank's another time."

"You're afraid he won't like me. Or is it that I'm too dressed up, and he won't like that?"

"No. It's just that I can only deal with so many intense interactions on any one day."

Money had never been a problem for Tom. Mary Ellen had inherited goodly sums, but she was happy to live in an ordinary house in a rather unfashionable suburb of Boston. She also spent surprisingly little on clothing, getting much of it in second-hand shops. She was evidently aware that she could fascinate in a dress that another woman had worn without such satisfactory results.

Tom followed the same pattern, banking most of his generous allowance and spending almost nothing outside of restaurants. It was thus that he was able to suggest to Sharon a place at which good steak could be obtained. She replied,

"I hope you can afford it. Unchecked, I spend money like water."

"I gather that you've always been provided with it."

"I've been bribed to be good since babyhood. That's my real problem."

"That's not what they thought at Allwyn, was it?"

"No. The director thinks it's normal for women to be spoiled brats who scream and cry if they're not given everything they can imagine wanting. It may be cute in pretty young women, but it's really obnoxious in old ugly ones."

"I never thought about it, I guess since Mary Ellen isn't like that. But, since you see the problem so clearly, it can't be a serious one for you."

"There, Tom, is a great fallacy. Ann tells me that most mental patients know exactly what their problems are. But they can't or won't do anything about them."

"You did learn a lot at Allwyn, didn't you?"

"Actually, yes. More important things than I could have learned in school."

When they were seated in the generous padded chairs by a smiling headwaiter in the dimly lit atmosphere of tablecloths and wine glasses, Sharon let out a kind of sigh of relief and pleasure. She said,

"Here's another kind of very nice escape from the real world."

"I like it too, but it's only an interlude, not an escape."

"It may be an interlude for you, but I'll have to accomplish some things on the outside before I can say as much."

"There's our little paper."

"That's mostly you, really. But I am working hard at my new school."

"How is it?"

"Some good teachers and a lot of pissy girls. That's okay. Better than the other way around."

"After Ann's company, not to mention that of Mary Ellen, you may not have much patience with teen-aged silliness."

"Speaking of Ann, I had a long talk with her on the phone last night. She thinks Eric may have been mis-diagnosed."

"You mean, he may not have cancer?"

"She's pretty sceptical of most doctors, and particularly of their reading of X-rays. The persistent vomiting indicates that he had some problem, but it could be any one of a hundred different things."

"He hasn't vomited for a long time now. Very little since he's seen Dr. Sun."

"Dr. Sun may well be curing whatever is, or was, wrong with his stomach."

"Eric hasn't mentioned this."

"Ann just suggested it to him yesterday."

"Does she recommend any other action?"

"No. If he went into a hospital for tests, they'd test him to death, possibly literally, and probably still come to no conclusions. She thinks that American doctors can set bones and take out appendices, but not much more."

"That's great news! I do think all of us have gradually come to assume that he'll survive, but it's nice to have a more expert opinion."

"She claims that there are no experts, including herself."

"Of course, any of us could come into the grips of some horrible disease at any time. And probably will, sooner or later."

"It makes deep friendship and marriage risky, doesn't it? You not only have to worry about yourself but others."

"I'm used to that with Eric and Kent. I guess I could extend myself further."

"To me?"

"I think so."

"I bet you don't know it, but I've worried about you."

"Really? About baseball?"

"No. About that skirmishing line craziness."

"We haven't done that lately, in fact, since Jimmy almost got run over."

"I didn't know about that."

"We came across a driver who seemed actually to want to hit someone."

"So you won't do it anymore?"

"I think that's the consensus. K-Entry might regard it as a moral defeat to formally give up skirmishing, but no one'll propose it."

"And you won't substitute something else? Ann found out through Eric that you sometimes talk about rowing small boats across oceans."

"That's an exaggeration. I only have in mind rather modest projects."

"I can imagine how modest! But I know I can only push you so far. It's your style to agree to anything and then do what you want, isn't it?"

"So Mary Ellen says."

After eating, they decided to go for a walk in the grounds of the nearby Wellesley College. It was odd for Tom to return so soon to the scene of the hayride, and under such different circumstances. After he had given Sharon a brief account of the outing, she remarked,

"That's amazing. She really thought you were a homicidal maniac?"


"Great! Do you realize what that means?"

"I doubt that it's very good."

"Yes it is. There's someone who thinks you're crazier than anyone thinks me to be."

"Nice for you. I'm having a little trouble finding the silver lining myself."

"Can you remember which dorm Malki lives in?"

"I think so, but I don't think I'll renew acquaintances."

"You can sit in the lobby and watch girls for a half hour while I have a talk with Malki, without mentioning you."

Tom, quite alarmed, asked,

"How are you going to approach her?"

"I'll say that I'm a high school senior interested in coming to Wellesley and found her name on a list of Wellesley students willing to advise prospective freshmen. I happened to be here with a friend, so I'm stopping by to get acquainted."

"Is there such a list?"

"Perhaps. If not, she won't know that there isn't."

"She may not be home on a Friday night."

"I suspect that the people who were getting her dates will have given up after the fiasco with you. The other girls would've known that you aren't a homicidal maniac."

It took a while, but it was interesting to sit, relatively concealed, in the corner of the lounge. Tom had always had fantasies about being a spy, and he could now imagine himself as one, taking in every detail. There were a good many large plants in pots teetering on little stands, and through the leaves of one he could see the housemother, a middle-aged woman in a flowered dress.

Most of the girls were slim and attractive in dresses and heels, but they looked a little uneasy as they brought their dates, who were here called "beaux," up to meet the housemother. The girls, arching their backs and gesturing, seemed to be explaining something. But it wasn't clear whether they were explaining the beau to the housemother or vice versa.

In the middle of this, Sharon, much more impressive than the girls who came only to her shoulders, descended the staircase. She then smiled at the puzzled housemother and gestured to Tom to join her. When they were outside, Sharon said,

"That was informative, and a little pathetic. I don't know if Malki believed my story, but I overwhelmed her. She hardly had anything to say at first, but her room-mate was there, getting dressed for a date. The room-mate had quite interesting things to say about Wellesley, and, when she left, Malki continued to talk. She's quite miserable here with high-faluting easterners and almost no one of her own background. Even the midwestern girls are from the big cities, and they have wealthy college-educated parents."

"I hardly got her to say anything at all."

"That's because she thinks that anything she says is likely to reveal her as a hick."

"Yes. Her answers to questions about her future career in journalism didn't much impress the hayride crowd."

"She also doesn't like her classes. She doesn't think a knowledge of the metaphysical poets will help her edit her paper."

"If I'd been prepared, I suppose I could have learned something about type faces and grades of newsprint."

"That's the kind of thing she knows about. And, then, she mentioned the hayride and you."

"Really? Am I still the maniac?"

"No. She said it was a disaster of a date and she over- reacted. But what interested me was her saying that you talked for the sake of talking, without caring whether it had to do with anything."

"Do I do that?"

"That comes close to being a caricature of philosophy. We both do what she objects to. We really are talking about something in the end, but it's way beyond Malki. She's not very bright, and she has practically no intellectual patience or curiosity. She just thinks that anyone who talks that way must be crazy. Adding the extra premise, which she didn't state, she probably believes that all crazy people are dangerous. Hence, you may be a homicidal maniac."

Tom, pleased and laughing, replied,

"I'm happy to have it so clearly demonstrated."

"Anyhow, it got me started thinking about limitations, our own included. Malki's are painfully obvious, but I suspect that hers dove-tailed into some of yours to produce a really bad date. In particular, I wonder if you can deal with people who aren't pretty smart."

"I manage just fine with clerks at dime stores and soda fountains, thank you. Some of them proabably aren't very smart."

"That doesn't count. I bet you carefully avoid dumb people. Your friend, Frank, may be uneducated, but I'm sure he's smart."

"Okay, but I doubt that you're a virtuoso in this area."

"But I am. There was a woman at Allwyn who was a perfect idiot, but we tried on each other's dresses, and I could chatter mindlessly with her about clothes and the price of flatware for hours on end."

"Is that a virtue?"

"I think so. It can be useful at times, and it's not good to be cut off from half the human species."

Tom put his arm around Sharon's sholders and tried gently to steer her off the path into a flower bed. She responded with an elbow to his ribs and said,

"Even in heels I'm no pushover."

"What are your limitations, then?"

"My mother is waiting for a chance to tell you all about them. When Daddy isn't there, of course."

"Wow!. I'm glad he was there. Do you know what she wants to say?"

"Pretty much. That I'm not a complete person, just a one- track intellectual who shouldn't marry or have a family."

"That's awful! It may not be a good thing to marry and have children, but it's wrong to list the incapacities of someone who's seventeen. People develop and mature."

"That's pretty much what Ann thinks. I may now have trouble with, for example, being touched. But I'll manage a lot of things in a few years."

"Does Ann know what your mother thinks?"

"Yes. It disturbs her, even though Ann is one of few women who doesn't think having children is the greatest thing in life."

"I gather that your mother does think that."

"Very much so. She feels profoundly inadequate because she had only me before her hysterectomy."

"Why did she have it?"

"A large benign tumor the size of a grapefruit."

"She didn't think of adopting?"

"A couple of her friends had disasters with adopted children, and that scared her. Besides, Daddy was apparently satisfied with just me."

"Good for him."

"Whenever there's a party, the women all gather and talk about children. The one with the most has the highest status."

Tom knew better than to criticize other people's parents, even when they did so themselves, and he asked only,

"Was Ann worried about your being with your mother?"

"I think so, but she needn't have. Mother's not an active ogre, pushing or pulling, or even saying nasty things. She thinks there's no hope of changing me."

"She seemed quite nice to me, but it was as if she were trying to keep you and your father in check and within the bounds of respectability."

"That is her function. I'm no help because I encourage the wilder side of Daddy."

"A dull and dreary bookworm wouldn't do that. She wouldn't look up from her book."

"Mother's not very consistent. But, whatever the reason, she wants to keep me from getting serious with a young man, warning him off if necessary."

"Ann certainly wants us to keep physical intimacy under control, and I can understand that."

"I may be able to allay mother's fears by telling her that holding hands is our limit."

"You kissed me last time."

"But, Tom, you never tell your mother the whole truth. I'm following your example."

When they finally got back to Sharon's doorstep, there was another little kiss, this time combined with a touch on the arm.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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