Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 2


Mrs. Warren Eliot, Mary Eliot's mother, looked judiciously at the large box of chocolates. She was inclined to avoid the minority of pieces with rectangular outlines, saving those for her guests. She instead chose a large lubricious dark oval with a looping curvy letter that she couldn't read written on it. The box was not her usual Whitman's Sampler, and, fully aware of lurking dangers, she bit carefully. The result was excellent, indeed, extraordinarily gratifying even for a woman who popped a couple of dozen pieces a day.

Perhaps becuase of this habit, Mrs. Eliot was noticeably rotund and remarkably sedentary. She still had enough juice to make it up the stairs of her rambling old New England house, but she planned her day so as to minimize the number of ascents. Unlike her slim active husband, even now playing golf with Dr. Stowe, Mrs. Eliot believed in avoiding undesirable stresses on the body.

This was one of few areas in which she disagreed with their long-time medical advisor and friend, Dr. Sam Woodger. Dr. Woodger believed in exercise. Indeed, not content with playing golf, he went out to the course at dawn every day, when it would be empty. After doing jumping jacks and other improbable exercises next to the croquet lawn, he would race walk around the entire course at a breathless pace. Mrs. Eliot, amused at the very idea of doing something so absurd herself, was one of few whom Dr. Woodger allowed to disagree with him. Whatever he might say, Mrs. Eliot was always conscious of the history of her own family. The active ones had worn themselves out and died young, often of heart attacks. It was the physically retiring ones who had lived to great ages. She herself expected to make eighty, perhaps ninety, or even a hundred.

Mental activity was something else again. In that area, Mrs. Eliot took herself to be extremely active. Among other things, she read Victorian romantic novels in large quantities, sometimes dropping a tear or two on the rare occasions when the hero or heroine died before a suitable marriage could be arranged. It was natural enough that she should think most deeply about the institution of marriage. After a young womanhood spent in the undesirably stressful vocation of a schoolteacher, the great success of her life was her marriage.

There were originally certain marital duties whose consequences had never really been explained to either Mr. or Mrs. Eliot. One knew about childbirth, and that certain sorts of activities, ones that went well beyond kissing, had something to do with it. There was great confusion in this area on the honeymoon and afterwards, but, somehow or other, a daughter was produced. A few more such episodes then produced another.

With the nurse coming in and out at all hours with babies, sometimes screaming ones, it had become impractical for Mr. Eliot to sleep with his wife. The concept of impracticality loomed large in the Eliot household, and, since another child would have complicated living arrangements, Mr. Eliot moved permanently into the room at the end of the corridor. Since they were both born well before the end of Victoria's reign, that seemed quite a civilized arrangement, particularly for a woman who was beginning to look rather like the late queen in her middle years.

Hardly three pieces into the new box of chocolate, the doorbell rang. Jessie, the maid, showed in Mrs. Gertrude Rolfe, the rather Vikingish neighbor from across the street. Recommending to Mrs. Rolfe a large rectangular piece of chocolate to go with the coffee that would soon appear, Mrs. Eliot settled down for a chat with her friend.

Chats with Mrs. Rolfe had to be conducted carefully. It was unfortunate, and something to which neither would ever allude, that the two ladies did not belong to quite the same social class. While it was hard to know the precise origins of the elderly Mr. Rolfe, they were obviously not those of Mr. Eliot. Moreover, Mrs. Rolfe had an Irish mother, in fact the daughter of an immigrant. Not only that, Mrs. Eliot was almost certain that her friend had voted against Herbert Hoover in the last two elections. But, still, they were neighbors, lived in much the same sort of house, and faced many of the same problems. There were thus safe subjects for conversation.

The health of their two husbands was the first such subject, and assurances were given. It looked as if Mrs. Rolfe's teeth might be momentarily stuck together with some sticky caramel substance, but the situation was resolved with a quick gulp of water. Mrs. Rolfe then chose a rounder chocolate, and it might have appeared that both ladies were equally satisfied with the universe. Not only were there chocolates and coffee provided by a smartly uniformed maid, their two husbands had just been claimed to be flourishing in all respects. In point of fact, there were some problems.

When Mrs. Eliot, short and squat, was with her elegant younger appearing husband, she looked a little as if she might be his country cousin, dressed up to visit Boston. Some people were surprised to discover that they were married, while others had already concluded that the woman Warren was escorting could only be his wife. Still, the anamoly wasn't terribly unusual and didn't reach the level of absurdity.

The Rolfes crossed that line with something to spare. Gertrude, a tall, strong and quite masculine middle-aged woman, would have looked right only with a retired heavyweight boxer or wrestler. Mr. Rolfe, by contrast, was tiny and almost eighty. He was also maddeningly cheerful and given to making happy chirruping noises. While not senile, his conversation tended to lack focus. He liked everyone and everything, and pointed gleefully to mundane objects with the little walking stick that he carried. Strangers seeing the Rolfes could hardly imagine what their relation might be.

Suddenly leaning forward in her easy chair with the hand holding a chocolate poised in mid-air, Mrs. Eliot burst out,

"It would be so nice if we could get Mr. Rolfe to play golf with my husband and Dr. Stowe!"

"Yes, the very best thing! In fact, we could go out to the club with them and have lunch while they're playing."

Leaning back reflectively, Mrs. Eliot mused,

"You know, I'm a little concerned about Warren. If he plays alone, or with the younger men, he goes racing around the course and wears himself out. He also comes home and complains about his shots."

Mrs. Rolfe seemed to have seen their neighbor, Dr. Stowe, on the golf course.

"When he plays with Dr. Stowe, Mr. Eliot must feel as if he's quite a good golfer. If he played with my husband as well, he'd feel like a champion."

Both ladies laughed, but Mrs. Eliot added,

"Oh Gertrude, it would be better and more relaxed if they all played together. Over-exercise and stress is so bad for people."

Although Mrs. Rolfe could probably have thrown the discus or javelin, she nevertheless agreed with Mrs. Eliot in her theories about over-exercise. It was also assumed between them that almost any exercise was too much exercise. Mrs. Rolfe was, however, moved to say,

"I still don't think you need to worry about your husband, Eloise. He seems very healthy to me."

"I hope so. I certainly don't look forward to being a widow."

"Well, most women do outlive their husbands."

"Without Warren, I'd be a no one."

"You'll be comfortably off financially, of course. And you could do the things he refuses to do. Like visiting Europe."

"Yes, but I'd just be one uninteresting widow among a thousand others. It's Warren who amuses and interests people. Sometimes it makes me proud just to be seen with him."

This last was blurted out, and Mrs. Eliot quickly changed the subject to hide her tactless remark. No one, of course, would be proud to be seen with Mr. Rolfe. His wife nevertheless came back to the idea of his taking up golf. Mrs. Eliot wasn't surprised. Her friend would be much better off without her husband, but with the money for which she had married him. Finally, after commenting on a number of elderly men who had succombed on the golf course, Mrs. Rolfe remarked,

"You know, widowhood might not be so bad. One could live as one chose."

"The trouble will come when we're really old. Who's going to take care of us?"

"You're lucky there. You have daughters."

"Yes, but we'll have to see how things develop. Won't you have another piece of chocolate, Gertrude? That square one in the corner looks good."

Next door to Mrs. Eliot, Mr. Sinclair Stowe was also entertaining. While he and his father kept no servants, he was fully capable of making coffee for himself and his guest. They had it in the informal setting of his large studio- living room on the second floor.

Apart from being a number theorist and abstract algebraist, Sink rowed a shell on the Charles River and played rugby. Rounding out his busy life, he was an enthusiastic amateur sculptor. He was now pointing out some of his recent work in papier-mache. His rendition of a hummingbird was very small, and that of an ostrich very large. That of the infant Caligula was much smaller than his likeness of Babe Ruth. That of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, lay in the middle range. For effect, Sink sometimes placed the hummingbird on the shoulder of Babe Ruth, or on the head of Mrs. Eddy. Lee Howsam asked,

"What's your next piece going to be?"

"I'd like to do a stockbroker poised on a windowsill, about to jump. It'd be nice to be able to throw a switch and have him teeter in indecision, but that might involve more carpentry and gadgetry than I can manage."

"I'm not bad at that sort of thing. I could probably do it for you."

"You're pretty expensive, Lee. I'd rather make a different use of your time."

"I charge much less for carpentry. I might even do it free. In the meantime, I'd better get back into my dress before your father surprises us."

She walked across the room in an expensive and elaborate pink slip and picked a simpler but even more expensive dress up off a chair. Sink, looking amiringly at her, replied,

"He won't be back from golf for some time. Even if he came into the room here, his vision is so bad that he might not see you off to the side."

"Dosen't he have glasses?"

"They're a thirty year old prescription. He sees just enough to get around and not bump into things."

"He must be a menace when he drives."

"He has good glasses for that, but he leaves them in the car."

"Why doesn't he wear them all the time?"

"Well, he's quirky. He says it allows him to see the world as Monet saw it. I think he doesn't really want to see too much as a general thing."

"Am I something that he wouldn't want to see?"

"Not necessarily. He responds to beautiful women, and he wants a daughter-in-law. Besides, he's also called 'Lee'. It would be interesting to have two very different Lees in the house."

"But he wouldn't want one in my profession, would he? Even if I retired?"

"He wants one he thinks would take good care of him in his old age. It's not easy to imagine a really elegant woman with a bowl of soup in one hand, a bed-pan in the other, and a cheery smile on her face."

"No. He'd have to hire someone else for that. But I might make him feel ten or twenty years younger."

"Do you have it in mind to become my stepmother?"

"I haven't met the gent in question. But I'm always open to new possibilities. It might be better to be married to the main source of wealth, as opposed to being employed by a derivative source on an allowance."

"I suspect that you're not as interested in money as you let on. Anyway, you may reconsider if and when you meet Dad."

"Button me up in back, Sink. By the way, having buttons shows that I'm a good girl. Prostitutes have only zippers so that they can undress faster."

"What do you tell your old classmates when you go to Wellesley alumni gatherings?"

"I've only gone once. They passed around a little questionnaire about our current activities. When I put down that I was a courtesan, they all thought I was joking. I let them think so."

"What would you tell Dad if you met him?"

"That's easy. I'd tell him that I'm modelling for you. Then you'd have to produce something of me. Or you could cut Mrs. Eddy's head off and put mine on instead."

"Apart from the difficulty of elongating and slimming her figure, it'd be hard to capture your sort of irreverence. It shows even in the way you hold your hands and wrists."

"I don't often make obscene gestures."

"No, but you might. Mrs. Eddy would have the greatest difficulty in raising her middle finger provocatively."

"But that's exactly how you should have done her! Cut off her hand and give her a new one."

"You know, you may be right."

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