Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 23

The Funeral

Tom hadn't realized how much disorganization a death in K-Entry would create. If an Ivy League basketball game had to be talked out half the night, with the sleep of the participants and their room-mates disturbed, there was so much more to be said about Kent's death that whole days went by when no one, not even Sid and Howie, accomplished much. And the funeral, sufficiently delayed so that all sorts of important people could attend, was still two days away.

Worst of all, Sharon had been vomiting up everything that went down, and was back in Allwyn. Tom, unaware, had called and gotten her mother. He then reacted to the news by saying,

"But she hardly knew Kent. They met only once."

That triggered a little speech.

"I'm afraid, Tom, that Sharon is thrown completely off balance by things that wouldn't much affect a normal girl."

Tom, realizing his mistake, tried to parry,

"Well, of course, the sudden death of a young person upsets everyone. And Sharon and I've often talked about Kent. She must have felt as if she knew him well."

That didn't work, and Tom was given to understand that Sharon was never far from falling off her particular tightrope. He couldn't get off the phone before the final salvo,

"Some people are fascinated by insanity, but it's unhealthy and they usually live to regret it."

When he called Allwyn, Tom wasn't surprised to be put on to Ann. She said,

"Sharon was very upset the night before last. But I think she's turned the corner. She's even talking about going to Kent's funeral."

Tom repeated Mrs. Seymour's comments to Ann, who replied,

"That's the real problem for Sharon, not Kent's death."

"It's strange for a mother to be so negative."

"It may be more common for fathers. Lots of men have whole life-plans mapped out for their sons, and reject boys who don't fit."

"Kent and his father were partially in that situation. But it's hard to imagine a woman who's destroyed if her daughter doesn't become a housewife."

"It may have more to do with mothering and the production of grandchildren."

"So she thinks that Sharon would make a bad mother?"

"Apparently. I don't think that anyone really knows what it takes to be a good mother, but many people think that she must be bland, wholesome, and lacking in ideas."

"I doubt that Mrs. Seymour herself is like that. She seems to be an interesting woman."

"She is. She's an artist who's had her work in lots of shows."

"I'd never have guessed that. She doesn't seem like an artist."

"Do you say that because she doesn't seem at all bohemian?"

"I guess so."

"She's obviously had some major twistings and turnings herself. She may even have renounced painting to be a better housewife. Anyhow, she seems to have trouble dealing with a daughter as talented as Sharon."

Only a little later, Mary Ellen called. The first sound that she produced always let Tom know what sort of conversation would follow, and, on this occasion, it was one of sympathy.

"Dear, I've just been talking with Sharon, and I'm so sorry she's back in Allwayn"

"I just called, but I couldn't talk with her."

"Sharon called me, and the whole thing is partly my fault."

"I understood that she was upset by Kent's death."

"Well, it wasn't just that."

There was a pause, during which Tom hoped that Mary Ellen hadn't found out about the curious relation between Sharon and her mother. It turned out to be something else.

"You know, Tom, Sharon and I talk quite a lot, and we had a long talk on the phone the night Kent died. Although, of course, we didn't know that he was about to die."

Tom imagined that his mother was standing up, looking rather righteous as she held the phone to her ear, and he encouraged her gently. She continued,

"As it happens, we were talking about Kent. Neither of us really liked him, you know, and I thought he was bad for you."

"Whatever you said, it certainly didn't do him any harm."

"Well, then, we got laughing. We did some imitations of Kent, and we said some things which, in retrospect, sound rather cruel."

"Poor Kent. It hardly seems that there was anyone anywhere who didn't mock him."

"Except you, dear. You were his loyal friend."

"Eric was too."

"Yes, I'm sure. But I wasn't nice, and I encouraged Sharon not to be. You know, women are supposed to be nice and kind and sweet, and we try too hard most of the time. We relapse occasionally, particularly with other women. So it was a great shock when we found out."

"You didn't sound all that shocked."

"Well, I've had more experience than Sharon. And, anyway, it's what happens after the initial shock. I felt guilty because Kent was rather a sweet thing in his own way. Sharon felt worse, but she's getting over it."

Afterwards, Tom said to Eric,

"It's nice to have your mother and girl friend get along, but I wonder if it can be overdone."

"Isn't it wonderful that you can speak of having a girl friend at all?"

"Yes, certainly. And I was also concerned that Mary Ellen wouldn't accept her."

"So now the problem is that they're ganging up on you and manipulating you?"

Eric was being jocular, but Tom told him the story. Eric replied,

"I can understand the guilt. I was just beginning to distance myself from Kent."

"I didn't realize that."

"It may not have shown much, but I remember thinking that I couldn't do much to help. I think you'll find that you were the only one who stayed the course."

The funeral was a large elaborate affair, and K-Entry was happy to fit into a small corner of it. Sharon, Ann, and Mary Ellen came in the latter's car, and joined them on a patch of damp lawn in front of the large Episcopelian church. Sharon said quietly,

"I would have expected them to keep it small and simple."

Mary Ellen replied,

"The rich and prominent are compelled to do everything on a grand scale. Otherwise, people think they're trying to hide something."

Just then, Tom was amazed when General Owens came up, greeted him warmly by name, and said,

"I hope you people don't mind if I hide among you."

After being introduced around, he said,

"This is just awful for me. I have to be here, but a lot of these people want to conduct business as usual, funeral or not."

Mary Ellen asked,

"Have you been officially seen yet?"

"Yes. I've said my carefully rehearsed little piece, not that it did any good."

Tom replied,

"I suppose we'll all file by afterwards, but there won't be time to say much. I certainly hope I won't be called on to explain anything."

General Owens then asked, quietly but apparently without embarrassment or hesitation,

"Was is it suicide?"

"I think it was."

"I could see that he wasn't a happy young man."

"Things were better a year or so ago."

"When he could still be care-free without having to think about his career?"


The general then turned to the ladies and said,

"The worst thing is that his older brother killed himself about a year ago. This kind of bereavement is almost beyond consolation."

Ann replied,

"I'm a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, and we deal with this sort of thing. Suicides do tend to run in families."

"Do the parents ever recover?"

As Ann explained that situation, it occurred to Tom that the general would, in any situation, quickly find the person who could tell him what he most needed to know.

There began to be movement on the lawn, and Sid headed for the church. He was wearing a dark suit Howie had won for being on a state champion basketball team, and the pants, much too long, were turned up at the cuffs. Although the jacket, which was too tight to be buttoned, contributed to Sid's odd appearance, he was unmistakeably the leader of K- Entry. When Tom remarked as much to Mary Ellen, she replied,

"He's experienced much more than boys from the suburbs. He also doesn't seem to be awed by the present company."

Eric reclaimed Ann from General Owens, who fell in beside Mary Ellen. Tom, with Sharon at his side, brought up the rear of their double file, walking directly behind his mother. He realized that she was flirting.

Over the years, Tom had watched Mary Ellen maneuver in many ways for many purposes with many people. But this was the first time when it seemed to him that she was actually being sexy. And, as the general guided her with his uniformed arm around her shoulders, insignia showing to advantage, it looked as if she were succeeding. The Allwyn director undoubtedly wished to do improper things to the presumably unwilling Mary Ellen, but it now looked as if she might willingly do those same things with General Owens. Tom, appalled, looked at Sharon. Sharon looked at Mary Ellen, and then looked back at him, evidently taking in the situation. She then took his arm and whispered in his ear,

"Better this than the director."

Since their projected get-together had been cancelled, Tom had never met the director. He was willing to take it on Sharon's word that General Owens was an improvement, but that wasn't the point. He whispered back to Sharon,

"Other people's mothers don't behave like this. Yours doesn't."

They were now entering the church, and there was no opportunity to discuss the matter further. Tom wound up on the end of the last pew, squeezed pleasantly against Sharon, as, no doubt, his mother was squeezed against the general. He could also, by leaning forward a little, see down the whole row.

For Eric, the proceedings were close enough to Catholic ones to count, and his face showed it. It was hard to guess what Sid, on the other end, thought. He never seemed to go near anything like a synagogue, and had never, in Tom's hearing, said anything at all about religion. He nevertheless seemed intent on what was taking place in front of him.

Jimmy looked as if he had just arrived from another planet, and the others looked straight ahead. Peter evidently didn't even think it worth while to scan the gathering for seducible women.

As nearly as Tom could gather, Ann wasn't religious. But she looked as serious as Eric, lacking only the bare hint of exaltation on the latter's face. Eric evidently believed that something was being done which would benefit Kent, and was glad of it. General Owens looked relaxed, pleased both that he was insulated from the principal mourners and potentates, and that he had ended up next to a charming woman.

Sharon had slipped off her coat, but remained sitting on it, seeming even slimmer and younger than usual in her sophisticated black dress. There was a little scrunched-up coat between her thigh and Tom's, but it was still a warm cozy feeling, comforting whenever Tom thought of Kent's last moments with the truck barrelling down on top of him. He didn't know whether she was still feeling guilty for having spoken slightingly of Kent with Mary Ellen, but he didn't think that she was ever inclined to feel very much guilt for very long. She instead looked as if she were working something out in her mind. It might be a philosophical problem, or it might concern Kent or himself.

The service had hardly gotten underway before Tom felt a strong need to urinate. He tried the usual things, even managing to cross his legs in the restricted area. It didn't work very well, and he found himself fidgeting in odd ways, eventually disturbing Sharon's concentration and prompting a quizzical look.

Tom waited, almost too long, and then slipped quietly out. He was providentially so close to the door that very few people could have noticed.

There might have been a rest room somewhere off to the side, but Tom didn't think he could risk disturbing the service with the sounds of plumbing. Once out, however, there was no sign of relief. It wasn't a district which had gas stations or restaurants, and the possibility of ducking down and pissing between parked cars was precluded by the presence of chauffeurs leaning against limousines and smoking. Tom quickly rounded a corner of the large stone church, as if he knew where he was going, and headed into a grassy alcove. Reaching a corner between the large ornate windows, he realized that no one would be in a position to see out. It might be disrespectful to piss against the side of the church in which Kent's funeral was being conducted, but Kent would have been the last to object.

In his need, Tom had trouble with his zipper and underwear, but, at last, a strong stream was bouncing off the stone wall. He backed up a little to keep from being splashed, and, in that moment, he became aware that Sharon was coming up behind him.

Sharon stopped suddenly, laughed, and said,

"I thought you weren't feeling well, so I came out to give comfort."

Tom, cutting things a little short, realized that he wasn't terribly embarrassed. He asked only,

"Should we go back in?"

"Let's not. Mary Ellen will say the right thing to anyone who asks."

"She'll intimate in a hushed voice that I was so overcome with grief that I had to leave."

"Isn't that better than the truth?"

"I suppose so. More seemly anyway."

"We came through a little shopping district with some cafes. I'll leave a note on Mary Ellen's car, and we can walk down there."

It turned out to be an upper-class version of a greasy spoon, with a humorous sign featuring a bum eating beans. But it was obviously very clean.

Coming in the door just as it began to rain, they sat in a little booth which had only one long bench facing the table, and, beyond it, a bright pink wall. On it, there were advertisements for amateur Shakespeare productions, and also an organ recital at the church they had just left. A waitress who looked as if she might occasionally have a go at playing Lady MacBeth sidled over and took their order for scrambled eggs and toast. Tom then said,

"I guess that wraps up the matter of Kent, one way or another."

"You don't have your own epitaph to add?"

"I don't think so. Jimmy said an odd thing, though. Did I tell you about Kent's tipping over and our dragging him out of the river?"


"Jimmy told his girl friend, Elaine Sun, about it after Kent's death. They apparently both discussed it with her father, and perhaps her mother as well. The Chinese consensus is that Kent lost his ch'i that day, and that he was doomed unless he did something heroic to get it back."

"Okay, I've read about ch'i. It started out being the air in one's lungs, but has come to mean one's self-confidence, one's spiritual well-being, and all sorts of things."

"Right, but it's never quite lost its literal meaning. You still lose your ch'i if you're whammed hard enough in the chest to knock you down and leave you gasping for air."

"And it was something physical that happened to Kent. He half drowned, didn't he?"

"Not quite. He really wasn't in much danger. But the aftermath was quite humiliating, particularly having to tell Blake that he'd left his boat floating down the river. In a funny way, it lessened his standing in K-Entry."

"Did it lessen his standing with you?"

"I'm afraid a little. He seemed so totally hopeless that day."

"So he did lose his ch'i. And there wasn't much opportunity for him to regain it."

Tom wasn't sure whether Sharon was serious, but the food arrived. When they slowed down after the first burst of eating, Tom said,

"I could see that you were thinking of something in church."

"Yes. Nothing to do with the service or Kent, I'm afraid. I was thinking of your reaction to your mother."

"You think it unreasonable?"

"Sort of. That's the way she always is. Why get upset now?"

"I saw the director grab her and kiss her that time, but she didn't seem to have much say in the matter."

"At other times she's encouraged him. I think she acts that way with most presentable men. You must have noticed it in the past."

"A lot of the time, I was too young to realize. And I haven't been with her a lot since I've been at Harvard."

"I bet you did notice, really. That's the area where psychiatrists have something worthwhile to say. And it probably bothered you all along."

"I do have some memories."

"The friendly enlightened thing for me to say would be that it's all right if you don't want to tell me. In fact, I insist that you tell me all about them in detail."

Tom laughed and began,

"I must have been only four or five in a crowded dime store with Mary Ellen. She wanted to buy stockings like the ones she had on, and she lifted her skirts way up so that the woman clerk could see the tops."

"And everyone else saw too?"

"It was quick and furtive, but there was probably at least one man looking the right way. You wouldn't do that would you?"

"Not unless I were playing a game with the man I was with. You, for example."

"But I was only a little kid."

"Little kids can be sexually aware. If you were to see our sweetie of a director professionally, he'd attach great importance to the fact that you remember that incident so clearly. Anything else?"

"There was the time when I was about the same age and we were shopping for me at Best's, the expensive children's clothing store. I used to wear little knitted suits with short pants, and I was standing in one out in the middle of the store. Mary Ellen wanted me to try a different one, and she came up and pulled my pants down."

"Did you have underwear?"

"Yeah, but I was shamed and humiliated just the same."

"Do you have any memories from that period that aren't sexually charged?"

"If at all, they're very vague and indistinct. According to Mary Ellen, I was once playing Mr. MacGregor out of the Peter Rabbit books. She was gardening and squatting over a plant when I took her for Peter Rabbit. I apparently came up behind her and hit her over the head full force with my toy rake. But I don't remember that at all."

"But she remembers if vividly?"

"She now thinks it's funny. She'll tell you about it unprompted sooner or later."

"I already had some suspicions which you've tended to confirm with several bucketfulls of evidence."

"I bet you're going to tell me what they are."

"In short, I think you have ambivalencies about sex roughly comparable to my own. If one of the young ladies you've gone out with had yielded to your entreaties, you might not have been at all pleased."

"It's said that, in a panty raid on a girls' dorm, the boys all ran when one of the girls stripped naked."

"Even if that story isn't empirically true, it's metaphysically true. We aren't the only ones like that."

"I can roughly guess what a psychiatrist would do with my memories, but what about a sensible person like Ann?"

"She'd be less extreme in her conclusions, and wouldn't try to give you the impression that she's a genius."

"Okay. What would an intelligent reasonable person say?"

"One like me?"


"You grew up with a very sexy woman who was still young, and she played games all over the place. Without realizing it, she included you in some of those games in one way or another, even though you were only a little kid. You resisted strongly, hitting her over the head. Is that much reasonable?"

"I think so."

"Well, then. If some woman made a sudden direct approach to you, you might not know, for a moment or two, whether to resist sexual aggression from Mary Ellen or respond as an adult man."

"We could test that by bribing some woman I don't know to make such an approach."

"What would happen if you came to pick me up and I rushed naked out of the front door and grabbed you?"

"That's a big if. But I think that, apart from having your image indelibly fixed in my memory, I'd be afraid that you'd gone completely off the rails."

"Is that because I've been in Allwyn?"

"I'm afraid partly so. But you'd wonder about any girl who did that."

"I know one I can imagine doing that as a joke."

"That's really admirable in a way. But I'm glad you're not like that."

"This particular girl even scares me a bit. It would be nice to be that spontaneous and uninhibited, but we just aren't."

When the others found them at the diner, they moved to a larger table. General Owens, who seemed to have little inclination to hang out with the bereaved family, remarked heartily,

"I know why you left the funeral, Tom."

Tom, flustered, couldn't imagine how he could have been seen from inside the church. He was beginning to ask when the general said,

"I spend half my life in committee meetings, and I can recognize the signs."

Everyone was laughing, and Tom didn't deny it. No one asked where he had gone, and, in order to deflect such questions, Tom asked,

"Have you been able to avoid discussions of nuclear strategy today, general?"

"Only because I'm here. They're probably going hard at it, and I wouldn't be too surprised if a chauffeur's been sent out to look for me."

Tom had previously told Sharon what the general and his colleagues did, but he was a little surprised when she asked cheerfully,

"What are our chances of getting nuked tonight, general?"

"Better every night for the next month or so. There's almost no daylight in the north polar regions now, and, when you combine increasing darkness over much of Canada with winter weather, the chances of interception are pretty small."

Sharon didn't seem to be particularly worried, but there was some dismay from Mary Ellen. She had apparently been sufficiently deceived by General Owens' cheerful and outgoing manner not to realize that he thought and talked of nuclear war almost as much as the colleagues from whom he was hiding. The Allwyn director might not be his equal in many respects, as Mary Ellen surely appreciated, but he could be counted on not to be upsetting. As Mary Ellen lapsed into thoughtful silence, Sharon said,

"My high-school friends and I get agitated whenever there's an incident."

General Owens replied,

"I think those times are actually safer. It would be irrational to attack when the other side is alerted."

"In the past, wars grew out of incidents."

It turned out that Sharon was more interested in history than Tom had realized, and had quite a lot of information. Despite these examples, the general argued,

"Surprise wasn't as important in the past as it is now. You couldn't take out a major power in the first few hours the way you can now. In fact, I'll be most worried if the Soviets concede a little too much in order to smooth over an incident. It might mean that they'll wait a few weeks for us to relax, and then strike."

Tom remarked,

"Kent used to worry about things like that."

"Really? The time I met him, it seemed as if he hardly cared."

"Well, his father was there. Kent actually cared about many of the same things, but he was trying to convince everyone that he wasn't good material for the Department of Defence."

"He accomplished that. I had wondered if Kent might follow the family pattern. His older brother, Ralph, did, and wasn't doing badly at the time of his death. Of course, some people find it depressing to think about nuclear war."

Tom then amazed himself by replying,

"Ralph was also having problems of sexual adjustment with his new wife."

There was something like a gasp from Mary Ellen, but even she seemed eager for details. No one seemed to realize that Tom had betrayed a deep secret, one that had probably been kept from Kent's parents. General Owens replied easily,

"I saw Ralph's young widow at the funeral today. A pretty girl. Very fresh-looking."

"She looks as if she'd be helpful and understanding in all circumstances, but she apparently wasn't."

"Sex, or the lack of it, and nuclear weapons can both affect a man's mind powerfully. Let's get the waitress and get some food."

The subject seemed to be dismissed, but Tom knew that General Owens wouldn't forget about Ralph's impotence. Probably, he was the last man Kent's father would want to know about such a thing.

When they were outside, and General Owens was paying great attention to both Ann and Mary Ellen, Sharon quietly asked Tom,

"Why did you tell that thing about Kent's brother?"

"I guess I felt like an act of betrayal. I think I gave Kent too much."

"Will you betray me if I ask for too much?"

"I hope not."

"I guess we'd better be careful to keep things equal. That means that you musn't give in if you feel put upon."

"I usually don't give in if I perceive something as an issue, or a trial of wills. But, with people I like, I often let little things go."

"Like, for example?"

"Kent was always swearing us to secrecy over dozens of things that really didn't matter. Eric thought that it reached the point of absurdity and objected, but I thought it was funny and let it go on."

"Until, after Kent was dead, you divulged one that did matter."


"I've never before had to make sure I didn't ask for too much. I usually ask for everything on general principles."

"That may be all right with your father or the Allwyn director, but they're authority figures. Even Ann is willing to give you more than she receives."

"I have learned not to ask her for things that might get her in trouble with the director. Whether I can manage a real relation between equals, with either you or Ann, remains to be seen."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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