Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 22

An Ending

Buddhism had arrived at a crisis point within the Buddha's own lifetime. It had an extremely pure and subtle philosophy which seemed paradoxical to the average person. How, for example, was it possible to deny the existence of the soul and, at the same time, uphold the traditional Indian belief in transmigration?

The answer, anticipating western philosophy by some fifteen hundred years, was that, while there is no mental or spiritual substance apart from the sequence of conscious experience, there are causal laws linking later experiences to sets of earlier ones. This being the case, the last experiences of one "life" might be causally linked to the first experiences of a new "life", in just the way that the experience of eating chocolate in excess might be linked to the later experience of a stomach ache. Tom nodded approvingly as Dr. Hsiang laid it out. He didn't believe in transmigration, but it was nice to see good philosophers at work.

On the practical side, even though the Buddha advocated what he took to be a middle way between the extremes of asceticism and the enjoyment of luxuries, he laid down a way of life which seemed to most people much closer to the former than the latter. For example, a monk wasn't supposed to sleep twice under the same tree on the grounds that he might come to feel too much at home there.

It was all very well to have a community of sophisticated philosophers who always sought out new trees for their sleeping arrangements, but the Buddha wanted to spread his religion. He was, indeed, interested in numbers.

This, said Dr. Hsiang, was the germ which led to radical changes. At first, as the doctrines were carried into northwest India and the ancient trade routes reaching into Central Asia, there was no perceptible degradation. Other philosophers, whose views Tom found characteristic of the much later Descartes, Berkeley, and Hegel, entered the fray. There was a lively competition of ideas, and, if Buddhism changed, it wasn't necessarily for the worse. However, it looked as if the deluge might be on its way.

As the class ended, and Dr. Hsiang chatted with them about his Belmont neighbor who mysteriously had more cars than his family could possibly drive, the little Sanskrit library with its amazingly intense concentration of learning seemed comforting. The citizens of Belmont might take to roaring through the streets of their town in twelve-wheeled armored cars, but their whole existence would count for nothing in the infinity of time.

Tom was walking to the elevator when he was stopped by a uniformed policeman who asked him if he were Mr. Williams. His first instinct was to deny that he was any such person, but he then realized that he hadn't stolen anything, or committed any other crime, for a good many years. Having admitted his identity, the policeman came right to the point,

"There's a wrecked car out on Route Two, and it's registered in your name. The driver's dead, and there's no identification on him."

Tom did remember that the K-Entry car was registered in his name, and he explained that they shared it. The policeman, a Sergeant Toski, asked,

"Is anybody missing since last night?"

Tom had been in the bathroom with Eric and Peter, and had seen Sid and Steve in the downstairs hallway. That left Jimmy, Kent, and Howie. He gave Toski the information and asked,

"What kind of accident was it?"

"The truck driver said your car turned right in front of him. He didn't even have a chance to hit the brakes. And he was going fifty, so there's not much left of the car. The body had to be cut out."

"We can go down to my house and check."

"Can you come with me now and identify the body?"

In that instant, Tom realized that, while he just wanted to find out who it was, the police had to have someone to formally identify the body. He hardly wanted to do that, and he didn't want to miss classes. On the other hand, he couldn't imagine learning anything while this matter was unresolved.

Toski turned out to be a state trooper, a big man of about forty who led Tom quickly to an illegally parked state police cruiser. As they got in, he remarked easily,

"You gave a Harvard address on the registration, and the people at the university looked up your classes and told us where to find you."

"Yes, I suppose it's a good thing. Although I guess this is going to be pretty gruesome."

"I haven't seen this body, but it'll be covered with a sheet. They'll pull it back enough so that you can see the face, and that's usually enough."

Tom, pursuing his own thoughts, first thought of Jimmy. He was so young and under pressure in many ways. But his roommate, Eric, would surely have mentioned it if he hadn't come home the previous evening. Just to make sure, he said,

"One of the people I didn't see today was a young Chinese boy. But he doesn't even know how to drive."

"The report said male Caucasian."

"Yeah, I didn't think it would be him."

"You know, people don't often turn right in front of semis by accident. Maybe an old person who can't see properly or someone having a violent argument with his wife, but not a healthy young guy out by himself."

In that moment, Tom wondered how he could ever have thought that it might not be Kent. It wasn't Jimmy, and Howie would never have done such a thing. He replied,

"I'm pretty sure who it is."

"Was he suicidal?"

"I think so."

Sergeant Toski said nothing as he sped through an intersection and Tom added,

"I wonder why he didn't drive into a bridge pier. This is unfair to the truck driver."

"There could be several reasons. It's not so easy to swerve off the road at high speed and hit a bridge pier at right angles. You might think it would be easy, but you'd realize when you came to do it that the car might bounce all over the place and hit partly sideways. And the driver might survive a glancing blow."

"It would be awful to attempt it and wind up crippled for life."

"That could easily happen, but the truck makes it a little less likely. And, then, there's the other reason."

"That it might not appear to be a suicide?"

"Yes. Lots of people are killed in accidents with trucks."

"Will the people who investigated the crash know?"

"Probably. And you'll know. But why would any of us tell the family that?"

"I'm afraid they'll already have their own suspicions."

"They always do. But I try to avoid confirming them."

"Will there be an inquest?"

"There isn't usually in highway deaths. We've already established that it wasn't the truck driver's fault, and that's all that matters."

They drove in silence for a while. Tom eventually remarked,

"Of course, it could be that someone stole the car, and then wrecked it."

"Stolen cars are often wrecked."

Toski didn't add that they weren't wrecked in that way, and Tom knew that he was being humored.

When they finally got there, the morgue turned out to be a low building that smelled like a hospital. But there weren't any nurses running around, and the waiting room where Tom was asked to sit had only battered old straight chairs. It wasn't a place where anyone was encouraged to make himself as comfortable as possible in the circumstances.

It happened as Toski had predicted. The face was Kent's, and he didn't look so terribly dead. It was as if he had awakened in the middle of a nightmare, and was too disoriented and frightened to speak. Tom turned away after one good look and asked,

"Did he die quickly?"

The man in the white coat who seemed to be some sort of official, perhaps even the coroner, replied,

"Yes. At least he was probably knocked unconscious right off. No matter how badly you're broken up, it takes a while to acually die."

They returned to the waiting room, where Tom was seated in front of a desk. There were forms to be filled out, and Tom's signature was witnessed by Toski, who then said,

"That's it. I'll drive you back now."

It was good to be with a somewhat older man whom he hardly knew, particularly when Toski said,

"Police forces have more suicides than you might think. A young man who assisted me recently killed himself with his pistol. We all saw it coming, and his wife even came to talk with me about him. But none of us could do anything."

"I guess I did what I could, and so did a couple of others. The rest of the guys in our house thought that Kent was getting weird and kept away from him."

"I'm sure he was getting weird. A young guy with everything in front of him would have to be weird to do that."

Tom guessed that Toski thought that any Harvard student had it made for life. He didn't know the half of it, but Tom wanted, for once, to talk about Kent with someone who didn't know that he had been rich. By the time he was dropped back in the square, he felt better.

For reasons that he himself didn't understand, Tom went to a phone booth and called K-Entry, just a few blocks away. Peter answered, and Tom told him. Peter sounded serious, but didn't emote. Tom said that he would be back before long. He next called Mary Ellen. She seemed to know that it was a suicide even before he described the accident, and replied,

"At least it was quick. He might easily have agonized for ten years, and then killed himself."

She was, of course, relieved that Kent would no longer be an emotional drain on Tom. She did, however, manage not to sound pleased.

Tom made his next call to Ann Barnes. Even though she had never met Kent, she sounded greatly shocked and upset. He said,

"Sharon met him only briefly, and she remarked afterwards that he was having difficulties. But, still, I didn't want to just hit her with the news."

Ann, he was sure, would handle that in the best way.

The reaction of K-Entry was various. Howie and Steve were very angry, and they were angry at Kent. Howie, among other things, mentioned the truck driver. In retrospect, it seemed odd that people so different from Kent had ever become his roommates on the ground floor of K-Entry. If they had ever understood Kent, they certainly didn't now.

Sid was a little different. He had been living in even closer quarters with Kent, but they had had a sort of ironic and humorous relation, partly based on their both being from New York. He wasn't angry, or as surprised as the others, but a little sad. It might, Tom thought, take him a month to get over it.

Eric and Jimmy had been upstairs during these conversations, and they now came down to the downstairs hall to lift weights. Tom drifted out of the room that was now Sid's alone to join them, and was somewhat relieved to find that they weren't talking about Kent. Taking turns doing the presses, all of them were on the point of breaking their own records. Jimmy did it on his last press, even though the bar swerved alarmingly just before he managed to straighten his arms.

Eric, evidently full of optimism, loaded the bar as usual, and then added the little two and a half pound weights to each end. The rule was that if you added any weight at all, and did eight repetitions, it was a new record. He looked shaky at six, but, with Tom and Jimmy standing by to grab the bar, Eric actually looked stronger on the eighth press than on the seventh. When, amid cheering, it was suggested that he try for nine, Eric replied,

"That'd give me too much to match the next time."

Tom then added the same little weights to his normal press, aware that even the tiniest difference could make the whole difference. But, by this time, he realized that something special, probably having to do with Kent, was going on. The bar felt heavy on the first press, but Tom knew better than to be discouraged. Sometimes, when it felt light, he did badly. And vice versa. He was gaining power with the fourth or fifth press, and the routine clock-work feeling didn't fail until the seventh. However, the first painful lift was only a warning, and there was always one or two left. The eighth wasn't really so bad, but, like Eric, Tom decided not to try a ninth.

When they finished, Eric and Jimmy were off, saying that they were going up the street to Frank's to eat. Howie, Steve, and Sid had already left for the dining hall, and Peter came up to Tom and said, rather ironically,

"It's roommates' time."

Tom laughed. Within K-Entry, they were housed two to a suite, each consisting of a front and back room. Even though Tom and Peter had a somewhat mixed and ambigous relation, it seemed that, when it came to a crisis, roommates were still closest to one another. Peter said,

"Eric and Jimmy don't want to talk about it at all."

"So I gathered. Were they together when you told them."

"Yeah. Eric had a strange look on his face and Jimmy looked at Eric."

"Did they talk about it then?"

"Only to make sure that there was no mistake. Eric went back into his room and said he had some work to do. Jimmy hesitated, and I would've talked with him, but then he also went back to his room. I think they must have talked. Eric surely couldn't have memorized biochemical reactions at such a time."

"I think Eric handles a lot of things all by himself. Then, when he gets it together, he's charming with us."

"This is the first time he's gotten bad news in front of us."

"By tomorrow, he'll have figured out how to take it."

"I wish he'd tell me. How are you taking it?"

"I hardly know. My mother's secretly pleased that I won't have Kent on my hands."

"There is that."

"She was afraid that he'd agonize for ten years, and then kill himself."

"Are you sure he did kill himself?"

"The cops seemed to think so. Didn't I tell you that?"

"Not exactly. But we suspected it. Why else would he go out driving in the middle of the night? He never did before."

"I suppose his parents will reason the same way."

"Are we going to have to interview them?"

"I suppose we'll have to go to the funeral. I think I'm going to take the line that I don't understand it at all."

"Is that because you don't?"

"I may have some inkling. But I surely don't want to try to explain it."

Peter laughed and replied,

"Maybe we can just let Eric say the right things while we stand around like big dumb oxen."

"Sid has the advantage. People are so quick to think he's big and dumb."

"The only trouble is that, in other circumstances, it takes them a while to realize how smart he is."

Tom agreed and added,

"I wonder if he'll get a new roommate, or just take advantage of the extra space?"

"I think we'll soon be joined by another football player from Brooklyn. Sid's through messing with billionaires."

"I guess we all are."

"Was the identification bad?"

"Not as bad as you'd think. The policeman and the officials were nice."

"Could you tell from Kent's face what was going on?"

"In a sort of way. It seemed like the end of a nightmare."

Peter shook his head, but not really in disbelief. Tom said,

The police sergeant has seen a certain amount of suicide. He says it's as if a disease takes hold of someone. Everyone can see that he's got it, but, no matter what anyone does, it wins out."

"It sounds a lot like cancer."

"I'm afraid so."

The talk with Eric came the next evening when no one else happened to be around. Eric said,

"I guess Kent decided to call it a day."

"Yes. There was a little additional prompting in which I'm afraid I may have been involved."

Tom then told Eric about the evening with Kent's father and General Owens. Eric asked,

"So Kent's father didn't say anything unpleasant to him the whole evening?"

"No. There was one comment to the effect that some people were too immersed in their own problems to take any interest in the outer world. But I'm not at all sure he had Kent in mind."

"I think we can assume that Kent took it to be directed at him, whether it was or not."

"I suppose he did."

"So that was all it took."

"There's one other thing. Kent was supposed to make a good impression on General Owens, but he was mostly silent and somewhat grumpy. I was relaxed and enjoying myself, and had nothing at stake."

"So you were the one who made the good impression."

"Again, whether I did or not, Kent probably thought I did. That might have been the final straw."

"But he couldn't reasonably have expected you to make a fool of yourself to make him look good despite himself."

"No, but I bet that's exactly what he did want, really."

Eric paused a minute, and then said,

"I'm afraid it's true that I don't miss him as much as I would have if he'd done this six months ago."

"That's true of all of us. He used to be really interesting and reasonably outgoing. There was also something objective about him that wasn't constantly being affected by changing circumstances and moods."

"Yes. He was a good judge of many things. Until he lost his balance."

"What a price to have to pay for things that seem so trivial!"

"Of course, death doesn't seem such a big thing to me. Most animals, including ourselves in the state of nature, live from minute to minute, never knowing when a predator is going to get them. It's that feeling that you aren't going to die for a real long time that's abnormal."

"Things are looking a lot better for you now, aren't they?"

Eric laughed and replied,

"Ann's optimistic, but I think she's a natural optimist. I don't know myself, but I'm continuing to rely on the same strategies I have all along."

"I didn't know you had strategies, apart from seeing Dr. Sun."

"Yes. For example, there's the morning strategy. It's possible to forget that you have cancer overnight, and then be reminded of it in the morning. That's unpleasant, so I have a pretty frenetic waking up routine replete with stretches and push-ups. Reality sinks in gradually and can easily be handled."

"I wonder if some routines would have helped Kent."

"He would've needed ones that lasted all day long, and most of the night. They're very useful, but you've got to have something beyond them."

Tom had never asked Eric about the extra element that he obviously had, and he didn't on this occasion.

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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