Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 24

Fraud for a Good Cause

One problem about rowing was that Kent's absence would have to be explained to Blake. As it turned out, Blake had read about Kent in the paper. There were brief condolences, and they were off. Jimmy wanted to talk, not about Kent, but about a scheme to more or less defraud his father. Tom asked,

"Are you running out of money?

"Not yet. I've always saved part of my allowance, so I have a cushion. However, Elaine's very expensive."

"But worth it?"

"Yes, certainly. But she likes to go only to the best places."

"It's a good thing she's in Portsmouth. The best places can't be all that expensive."

"She also likes gifts."

"Do her parents know about that?"

"I think they encourage it. They think it's the American way for a girl to get her boy friend to buy her as much as possible. And they think that, my father being who he is, I must have almost unlimited sums."

"So they realize who he really is?"

"I'm sure they do."

Jimmy's idea was that, if he were admitted to some club, preferably a prestigious one, his father would understand that he needed more money to respond to hospitality and entertain in his turn. Jimmy added,

"That's the kind of thing he understands."

Tom asked,

"What if you told him about Elaine?"

"My allowance would stop forthwith, and I'd be summoned to return home immediately."

It was obviously pointless to counsel honesty in such circumstances, and Tom turned his attention to clubs. The real ones took boys recommended by the headmasters of prominent prep schools, and certainly wouldn't take a Chinese boy. However, since Jimmy's father was a professionally suspicious man, a bogus club could well be fatal.

They had formed single line to go through the arch of a bridge when the answer came to Tom. He tried to shout it to Jimmy, but there were only echoes off the arch. When Jimmy came out, he said,

"Join Phillips Brooks House."

Phillips Brooks House was actually the umbrella organization for any socially-minded Harvard student who wanted to teach in poor neighborhoods or otherwise do good. Tom had taught some algebra in Boston's North End the previous year, and he remembered that there were periodic fairly formal dinners at the house. In some of its brochures and associated literature, the house would sound very like an exclusive club. Tom pointed out,

"It'll say somewhere in the literature that any student can join, but you can omit that from the stuff you send your father. A picture of a dinner with everyone dressed up and Senator Leverett Saltonstall at the podium ought to suffice."

"What will I have to do?"

"They'll accept any reasonable proposal. You could volunteer to tutor the children of Chinese families who are having trouble with English. Some of them would be in Portsmouth, New Hampshire."

"Elaine does have some Chinese friends, and neither she nor they are learning much in their high school. It's not that they lack English, just that they don't have very exciting teachers."

"You could remedy that by teaching science or history in Dr. Sun's house on Saturdays."

"Yes. I think he'd like that. He's a great one for combining activities, all in his home."

Jimmy was getting excited, and one oar barely dug into the water on his next stroke. As Jimmy's boat, just astern and to Tom's left began to roll, Tom, greatly alarmed, could only remember Kent's boat, one out-rigger sticking straight up, as it ejected Kent into the river. The water was really cold now, and Jimmy might lose his ch'i. What would he have to do with Elaine to regain his ch'i? What would Blake say?

Just before all these things happened, Tom, by backing his oars, was able to put his stern where Jimmy, canted at a dangerous angle, could grab it. Jimmy did save himself from capsizing, but he took on a good deal of water. It took some time to maneuver both boats to the bank, where they had to jump out into the mud. However, they dumped the water out of Jimmy's boat and scraped off as much mud as possible. With luck, Blake wouldn't notice anything amiss.

Blake did notice, but asked good humoredly whether they were still landing at Watertown to go to the diner. Tom lied glibly, realizing at the same time that Blake considered them to be bereaved. He seemed willing to overlook such things as muddy boats.

Having finally gotten the mud off at K-entry, Tom and Jimmy proceeded up to Frank's for a snack. There was a large Cadillac parked outside, which was unusual. When they went inside, they found that the only customer was Sharon.

Confusion reigned in Tom's brain, but Sharon and Frank both seemed to be quite comfortable. Frank said,

"She came in here and said she was escaping from a mental institution in one of its own cars."

Tom, shocked anew, looked at Sharon, who replied,

"I exaggerated. The director was having coffee with your mother, and I asked him if I could borrow a car to do an errand as I slid by. He couldn't have refused without compromising his image in front of Mary Ellen."

Gradually, everything made sense. Sharon was in jeans and a sweatshirt with a pink rabbit on it, and it must have seemed that she was headed for a local store. More surprising, and yet not so surprising in retrospect, was her obviously favorable impact on Frank. He liked and valued people whom ordinary people didn't want or tolerate. His principle applied to plain girls at a dance, but it also applied to people shunted off to mental institutions.

From the dirty dishes in front of her, it was clear that Sharon had been there some time. Frank had known that Tom had a very tall pre-college girl friend with whom he was publishing a philosophical paper, but he had probably imagined someone academic with very thick glasses. He couldn't have been ready for Sharon when she announced herself as the girl friend, but she must have been sufficiently eccentric not to offend him.

It was in the middle of this scene that Jimmy looked at Sharon, as if seeing her for the first time, and said,

"My father would hire you to spy for him in Washington."

That stopped everyone, but Tom, seeking to fill in another gap in Jimmy's worldly information, explained,

"Spies are usually sort of gray nondescript people that no one notices much."

But Jimmy, seeming to know more then he, replied,

"Those are saboteurs. Spies are people who, without even trying very hard, can get others to divulge secrets."

There was something to that. Frank nodded and said,

"I've been telling her all sorts of things about all of you."

It was a bit of a joke, but then Sharon said,

"I feel much more sympathetic toward Kent than I did before."

The story came out in pieces from Frank as he waited on a customer who had just come in.

Kent had originally decided to kill himself soon after his brother's suicide a year previously. He had thought that, whatever he did, he couldn't possibly please his father. That being so, it would be better to concentrate the disappointment, as opposed to stretching it out over the years.

Frank had apparently reacted to this intention in the way that most people would have, arguing that the shock of two suicides would be extremely destructive to all concerned. Frank said,

"After about a month, I began arguing, as usual, that being unappreciated by the world was, if anything, a good sign. That view was pretty congenial to Kent. He was also seeing a psychologist at the student health service, who seemed to keep him going."

Tom hadn't known about the psychologist. It now seemed that, contrary to appearances, there was a lot that Kent hadn't told him. Tom now asked Frank,

"Did he say anything about the dinner he and I had with his father and another man?"

"Yes, something about an air force officer. He came in the next morning. He seemed unusually depressed to me, but he denied it. He said it had been a difficult dinner, but that he was gradually doing the things he had to do."

"By which he probably meant preparing for suicide."

"Yes. Kent really did want to die, consistently and over a long period of time. The opposite of Eric."

As they left, Sharon suggested to Tom,

"Why don't you come back with me to Allwyn? I'm pretty sure that your mother will still be there, and you can spend the might at home. A change from K-Entry."

"Okay. I guess she can get up early enough tomorrow morning to drive me back."

Mary Ellen was still at Allwyn, in fact, having her second tea with the director. Before he could be introduced, the director stood up and introduced himself as Jim Campbell. He was certainly impressive in appearance and manner, and, as he and Sharon sat down, Tom felt some confusion. Sharon's "sweetie of a director" allowed,

"In this position, I don't do much psychiatry. It's mostly a matter of hiring gardeners and trying to get the roof fixed. A lot like running a hotel."

Tom laughed and replied, looking at Sharon,

"Some of your guests seem to insist on every amenity."

"Oh, she's not difficult. She's happy as long as I heat the swimming pool and lend her a car occasionally. The ones who insist on the best sterling and china at dinner are much more expensive."

Mary Ellen remarked,

"It's fortunate that Sharon's so young. Women learn to demand increasingly expensive things as they get older. It's a rare teen-ager who has to be bribed with a diamond necklace."

"Yes. Of course, we do maintain an artificial environment here. But, when some patients leave, they go back to one that's hardly any different. There are a lot of ladies' maids who are quite clever at keeping their employers on an even psychological keel."

Tom replied,

"I bet they're still paid as maids, and not as psychiatric nurses."

"Certainly. Their employers don't even realize what's being done for them, and still throw fits if they can't find their earrings."

Sharon said,

"I appreciate the kind of peace and serenity that there is here, but I do try not to become a hot-house flower."

Tom said to her,

"I have a pre-med friend who takes summer jobs as an orderly in a VA hospital to find out what health care is really like on the front lines. You could do something like that."

Everyone laughed at Sharon's expression, and the director replied,

"We believe in gradual adaptation here. Perhaps a job as a clerk in a dime store."

Mary Ellen said,

"Sharon would get all the other clerks gossipping about the manager in the back room, and no one would wait on the customers."

That had a ring of truth about it, and they went on to explore other possibilities until Sharon said,

"I'm afraid that I'll end up as some kind of academic. I met some of the graduate students when I went down to Harvard with Tom, and they didn't seem to be totally isolated in ivory towers."

The director replied,

"The academic world is great for a talented person who wants to flout the sillier rules of society. I was quite happy as a graduate student and young professor."

The question of what had happened then hung in the air, and was answered in degrees. The director said,

"I married another academic person, and we could still live more or less like bohemians. We didn't quite fit with the others because we were paired and they weren't, but they were tolerant."

The implication seemed to be that the bohemian group hadn't included free love, but, no doubt, there had been some recitation of original poetry by candlelight. The director then revealed,

"It all ended when we had children. It was off to the suburbs. Then, we had to conform so that our children wouldn't be singled out and beaten up at school."

Sharon said,

"I think something like that must have happened to my mother."

"It happens to most women. What about you, Mary Ellen?"

"I didn't have any sort of talent or career that had to be given up or compromised. Marrying foolishly had the effect of setting me more or less free after a few years. But, then, I was under a cloud and had to be super respectable for Tom's sake."

Tom knew that the director had been divorced for some time, and it occurred to him that he and Mary Ellen could marry and be bohemian together. He asked,

"Doesn't the director of a place like this also have to be super respectable?"

It was a somewhat pointed question, but the director didn't seem to mind. He answered,

"Horribly so. But I'm only good for another year here, at most. By then, I'll have enough money to engage in activities that don't pay as much."

Tom now had an image of his mother and her new husband writing and reading poetry by candlelight. It was amusing, and somehow softened the image of Mary Ellen having her panties pulled down by a man called Jim. He looked at Sharon, who was looking at Mary Ellen. The latter looked as if she might be about to announce an engagement before thinking better of it. She instead said to the director,

"I've just realized that I have to leave for a meeting. Would it be possible for Sharon to drive Tom back?"

It was very unlike Mary Ellen, who seemed somewhat rattled, but the director agreed. She departed, blowing kisses which seemed to be directed to the group at large.

After she was gone, Tom said to the director,

"Even the little group of people I live with has its rules and conventions, but we drifted together because of similar attitudes, and don't have to make much effort to conform."

"Universities are practically the only organizations that allow that. Most companies, for example, have lots of rules. They're usually not quite explicit, but might as well be. They range from a dress code to having the right kind of car and having the kind of wife who can effectively promote your career."

Sharon pronounced the prospect disgusting, but Tom rejoined,

"I'm gradually losing any reservations I might have had about becoming a professor."

Just then, a nurse came up to announce an emergency in whispers. The director stood up and apologized while gesturing with his hands. It was easy to imagine that there was a woman in her bedroom screaming and lashing out at the staff.

On the way back, Sharon said,

"Did that surprise you?"

"Well, yes. He's really quite likeable. It also sounds as if he's going to marry Mary Ellen."

"He obviously thinks so. But she went off suddenly. I think she has reservations."

"If they do marry, will he stop flirting with Ann and others?"

"Probably not entirely. But Mary Ellen will still flirt. She was doing it with General Owens, but I think he scared her with his talk of war. That's probably what drove her back to the director."

"Of course, one or the other of them may get involved with someone else in the meantime."

"That's certainly possible."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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