Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 1

June 17, 1935

Dr. Leland Stowe, a small retired dentist, addressed his golf ball. Although he could see it only fuzzily as it lay wobbling in the grass, he tried to focus on the middle of the wobble.

Dr. Stowe seldom missed the ball altogether, and, even when he did, he was good at disguising the swing as a practice one. On the other hand, despite his golferly mannerisms, his swing was not one likely to produce consistently accurate shots. Indeed, the balls, hit or grazed in odd ways, tended to go in odd directions. Moreover, they were so often lost that it was almost impossible to keep score. But, then, the only person who ever inquired about Dr. Stowe's score was the club's affable professional, Mr. Hal Hinterburger. Even there, it seemed likely that Mr. Hinterburger's interest owed more to professionalism than to sincerity.

Not keeping score led to some other departures from the norm. In particular, there was no need to putt. Dr. Stowe, on account of his erratic vision, had trouble lining up putts. It was discouraging, having finally reached a green, to putt off it into a sand trap. Not only that, there was an air of pettifoggery about putting, bringing to mind the group of old codgers who played croquet on a little lawn in front of the clubhouse.

As there was consequently no reason to play to the greens, Dr. Stowe often played the course backward from green to tee. Waggling his brassie, he was now hoping to crack his ball another hundred yards.

There had been some problems with the caddy. The club, one of the best in suburban Boston, hired caddies who could claim to be "professional." In practice, that often amounted to nothing more than a false servility and a tendency to steal golf balls from the bags of their clients. This caddy was seedy and middle-aged, and looked as if he might have been fired from a touring carnival. Still, whatever embarrassments he might have suffered in the past, he seemed to have trouble reconciling his present professional status with playing the course backward. At the moment, he was sulking to the extent of not warning Dr. Stowe that a twosome, consisting of a man and a woman, was coming up in front of him, that is, in the usual direction.

Since Dr. Stowe was left-handed, it looked, when he addressed the ball, as if he were a right-handed golfer playing in the usual direction. Even when he went into his backswing, in the "wrong" direction, most people in his line of fire had only a vague feeling of uneasiness. It took a moment to discard the usual assumptions and accept the idea that Dr. Stowe was a left-handed player playing backwards. In the event, he stung the ball sharply. The ball, in turn, hit the male half of the twosome in the ankle, causing him to curse horribly.

Dr. Stowe, taking in the situation quickly, hastened forward with a bright smile. He was used to inflicting pain in his dental career, and he had found that many patients could be persuaded that the pain they were feeling wasn't real. As the twosome came into clear focus, the young lady turned out to be Mary Eliot, one of his neighbors. Her companion, a man of thirty five or so now hopping on one foot, seemed to be a friend, or perhaps an admirer.

Mary was obviously much more amused than the gentleman, who stopped hopping long enough to be introduced. Mary assured Dr. Stowe that her friend wasn't seriously hurt, and went so far as to say,

"Such a well-hit ball, Dr. Stowe! Was that a spoon shot?"

"No, my dear. I find that I can hit a brassie to good effect on these nicely tended fairways of ours."

With that he brandished the club he was still holding in a gesture rather like one of Mussollini's captured on the front page of that day's paper.

Dr. Stowe had long hoped that Mary and his son, Sinclair, would become close, and perhaps marry. Mary's mother, however, made it fairly plain that she intended her other daughter for Sinclair. Mary, divorced with a young child, was grudgingly allowed to attract other young men, at least as long as they came from reasonably good families. This one looked like a bond salesman.

Since the stock market crash six years previously, well- bred young men of limited mental agility had often been persuaded to go into bonds. After all, the ones of good quality were supposed to be safer than stocks. This quest for security often had, as a side effect, a certain stuffiness. Of course, it might take more than a shot to the ankle to deter this inadequate young man from Mary. However, if he continued to grumble, she might put him down as having low moral fibre and dish him.

On arriving at the front tee of the almost empty week- day course, Dr. Stowe was again asked by Mr. Hinterburger whether he had had a good round. Dr. Stowe replied,

"One of my best, a seventy one."

This score was pure invention, but the pro, evidently not surprised, nodded approvingly. Dr. Stowe then walked past the busy tennis courts and the senility of the croquet lawn to the large oval flower bed in front of the unnecessarily ornate club house. Some of the younger people wanted to replace the flowers with a swimming pool, but they were consistently outvoted by the older members and, most particularly, by their wives. These last, apart from liking flowers, didn't want people cavorting shamelessly in skimpy bathing suits within their visual fields.

Dr. Stowe would have encouraged people, particularly the young ladies, to cavort in exactly that manner. However, knowing that he didn't have the votes, he let the issue lie. After charging through the lobby and ascending some stairs in a remarkably spry fashion, he entered a rather luxurious lounge with a bar at one end. He there encountered Dr. Sam Woodger, a retired, but still vigorous, ear, nose, and throat man. Since they had specialized in abutting areas of the human body, they were never at a loss for conversation.

The two men had also had Mary Eliot and the other members of her family as their patients. Since the Eliots had endemic sinus problems, they had come to think of Dr. Woodger as their primary physician. When something had gone wrong with other parts of their bodies, and even their minds, he had consented to give advice. Fortunately, Dr. Woodger was a man who could solve almost any problem.

There was something that always had to be got past in any conversation with Woodger. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler, the new German leader, and, if not deflected, the doctor would go on and on. On this occasion, he said,

"You know, Lee, there is order and disorder in the world. The way you play golf represents disorder. Hitler represents order. No one could run a country the way you play golf."

"A country that I ran would be lots of fun and full of surprises. You'd enjoy living in it."

That broke the other man's train of thought, and, while he was still making peculiar noises, Dr. Stowe told him about Mary Eliot's new companion. Despite his still strong desire to talk about Hitler, Woodger, a lover of gossip, was successfully side-tracked. They then went on to speak of Dr. Stowe's son, Sinclair "Sink" Stowe. Woodger, a thick-set muscular man with a red face, blurted out,

"This can't go on, Lee."

"I think it may, Sam."

"But he's almost forty, and the only job he's ever had was working in a second-hand bookstore."

"I suppose he could go back to the bookstore, but there's really no point. He'll be comfortably off the rest of his life even if he does nothing."

"That's because of money that you've made. Sink can't take satisfaction in that."

Dr. Woodger was leaning aggressively over the table in a way that might almost be described as bullying. Dr. Stowe smiled pleasantly as he moved his highball out of danger. Like many dentists used to talking to people with their mouths full of apparatus, he was inclined to monologues. It was a useful corrective to be with a man who couldn't possibly be subjected to one.

Woodger, for his part, had spent a lifetime giving orders to people. Even though those people hadn't usually had their mouths immobilized, little backchat had been tolerated. Dr. Stowe, in no real danger of being dominated by anyone, was flattered that Woodger cared enough to try. On this occasion, he parried by remarking,

"Sink just got another paper published in a mathematical journal. Proving something, I don't know what."

"Well, that's an accomplishment, certainly. But it's something almost no one can understand or appreciate. A man has to be recognized as a something or other when he goes down Main Street. We've had that."

"Well, there's Mary's father, Warren Eliot. I don't think he's ever worked, but he's certainly respected."

"That's because he's a millionaire, even after the crash. The usual rules don't apply to the rich, and the fact that Warren is so quiet and modest doesn't fool anyone."

"Of course, Sink hasn't had a mother that he can remember. I think that may have something to do with it."

Dr. Woodger paused, perhaps considering whether mothers were worth having. He then responded,

"More likely, he's just seen that you'll support him if he doesn't work. So he doesn't."

"I suppose I would've done the same thing in Sink's place. It must run in the family."

"When I was eighteen, my father gave me a hundred dollars and told me to make my way in the world. He did say that I could always come back and help with the chores on the farm. But he didn't say anything about spending money."

"So you worked your way through college and medical school. Sink might have taken his hundred dollars to a South Sea island and spent his life proving theorems on the beach."

"With native girls catering to his every whim?"

"Very possibly."

"So you're saying that he's resourceful enough to have avoided work no matter what?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Well, you're supplying the beach. But what about the girls? Will he ever marry?"

"He'll have enough money after I go. For that matter, I'd be willing to take in a wife of his right now. Most particularly, Mary Eliot."

"But she's a compromised woman, divorced with a child."

"I don't think either Sink or I would subscribe to the damaged goods theory. And the child isn't bad."

"You've forgotten what it's like to have a child in the house, Lee. They cry and scream. Later, they whine and sulk."

"Well, it's just fantasy anyhow. Mary and Sink don't seem to be particularly close."

Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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