Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 7

Old Friends

Ruth and Lucy continued their detective work by having their morning coffee in a cafe near Lee Howsam's apartment building. Clean, but unpretentious, the cafe would have afforded anonymity to any customers less conspicuous than themselves.

Seated at a little table next to the window, they could usually see past parked and moving cars to Lee's front door. On the second day of their surveillance, they were rewarded when Lee herself came in. Ordering coffee and pastry, she sat two tables away.

In a suit with muted trimmings and make-up, she managed a work-a-day air, and might, at a casual glance, have been taken for a department store buyer. From her conversation with the lady behind the counter, it seemed that she came in often. That conversation was ordinary enough until Lee remarked,

"I have to take the train into Boston today. There's another convention, and I'm taking the wives on a tour of the city."

"Will it be like the last time?"

"I'm afraid so. A quick look at the Old North Church, and then a much closer look at the Back Bay shops. That's all they're really interested in."

"I didn't think men usually brought their wives to conventions."

"They usually don't, but some wives have heard rumors and come along to police them."

"How can they do that if they've off shopping with you?"

"That's just in the daytime when the men are in meetings. At night, they stick close to their husbands."

"So the husbands could get up to some naughtiness in the daytime if they skipped out of a few meetings?"

Lee laughed and replied, mockingly,

"Do you think they'd really do that?"

The lady behind the counter smiled and replied,

"With men, it's not a question of 'if' but 'when'."

Lee didn't dispute the claim as she gathered her many possessions and maneuvered her way through the door.

Mary Eliot had always been a little curious about Lucy and her string of "best friends." Ruth had been around longer than the others, and was more acceptable, not only to Mary's parents, but to Mary herself. Ruth was, after all, a lady. She wasn't dumb, she had a sense of humor, and she could be good company when she wasn't with Lucy. Ruth also knew what it was to deal with men in the various ways that women had to. But, of course, there were those times when Ruth and Lucy closed the bedroom door to give each other massages.

One day, it happened to be a Tuesday, Lucy's door was open as Mary went down the corridor. In passing, she had a brief glimpse of both looking out the window, Ruth with binoculars. Then Mary remembered. The business about their becoming detectives. Mary wondered if that idea had come out of a comic book. In any case, they were obviously engaged in spying, presumably on the Stowes next door.

Going to the window in her own bedroom, Mary looked across. She was herself used to the sight of Sink staring at a sculpture with a tool in his hand, or perhaps sitting in his funny upright way in a straight chair with a book in his hand. This time, it was a woman, almost as tall as Sink, gesturing with one hand at one of his pieces and evidently laughing. Her black hair mostly hid her face from that angle, but her slim prettily curving figure was vaguely familiar to Mary. Then, a moment later, the woman turned toward the window. It was just a little too far away to have recognized a lot of people, but Lee Howsam was unmistakeable.

Amazed that her old college roommate had turned up in such a way, Mary watched intently. Lee and Sink were talking animatedly and joking, and, at one point, Lee playfully put her hand on the middle of his chest and pushed him away. Sink stayed pushed, and Lee walked directly toward the window. Mary wasn't sure if Lee could see her, and waved tentatively just in case. But Mary was looking from shade into the sunlit room opposite, and Lee didn't respond. She instead reached behind her with both hands.

The skirt was long and full, probably silk, and the hem was out of sight below the window. Lee had always had beautiful clothes, which she treated badly, and she tossed the skirt negligently onto a chair, evidently not caring when it slithered to the floor. Sink unbuttoned her blouse in back, and, when freed of it, Lee swept away in her slip to embrace the statue of Babe Ruth. Then, posing as if for a picture with one arm around the Babe, she allowed Sink to reclaim her with a hand around her waist.

Sink seemed to want to remove Lee's lacy cream and beige slip, but she first resisted with her elbows, which Mary knew to be sharp, and then her fists. As Lee went over and bent to kiss Mary Baker Eddy on the lips, Mary could tell by the way that she moved that she was still in high heels. Then as Sink approached again, she twirled away and pointed to the window, apparently saying something over her shoulder to him. Sink laughed and replied. Whatever he said, she herself slid the slip briskly over her head and returned to Mrs. Eddy. The slip was too narrow to come down over the latter's ample figure and remained draped from her neck.

It looked as if Lee hadn't gained any weight at all since college. The step-ins covered her tummy, but it still looked to be practically concave. Sink couldn't keep his hands off her, but wasn't rough and left her in her underclothing. Lee, meanwhile, was engaged in removing Mrs. Eddy's skirt. When it dropped, revealing white bloomers, Lee delightedly threw her arms around Sink's neck. She was then carried out of the room, one slim leg ending in a high-heeled pump raised in an apparent gesture of triumph.

Mary immediately retreated to the corridor, listened briefly to the excited talk of Lucy and Ruth, and went downstairs. Her mother and Mrs. Rolfe were in the living room, but Mary went to the old oaken secretary where the telephone books were kept. There Lee was, at an address right on Main Street. By looking up the addresses of a couple of stores she knew in the center of town, Mary came to the conclusion that Lee was living in the Banks Arms. Indeed, the way she looked, she could hardly be living anywhere else.

After spending the rest of the afternoon, unprofitably, with Timmy, Mary finally got time to call. She had to go out to a pay phone in a drugstore to telephone in privacy, and she hoped that people in the store didn't think she was arranging a tryst. When Lee answered, Mary said,

"Hi, Lee. This is Mary Eliot. Do you still hate me?"

It wasn't really a joke, and there was a slight pause before Lee replied,

"No, I don't. Where are you?"

The tone was welcoming, and Mary agreed to come to Lee's place for coffee the next morning.

After embracing, the first thing Lee said was,

"I have the feeling that you aren't still married."

"No. It petered out by the end of the third year. If I hadn't stolen Dick from you, you might be married to him."

"I doubt it. I'm not sure you stole him. He preferred you for a good many reasons, not least because you aren't Jewish. Apart from that, I don't think he would have made anyone a good husband."

"Probably not. He may well be in jail by this time."


"Yes, really. My son, Timmy, resembles Dick more than I'd like."

"Where's Timmy now?"

"In nursery school, thank God."

"It looks as if I ought to thank you."

"Well, you know, I wasn't exactly trying to help you. And neither Dick nor I had the decency to leave you a note."

"He had a date with me the night he left. He didn't show up, and you weren't there. So I figured it out."

"I really am sorry."

"You were overcome. Madly in love, or whatever it is."

"There's a follower of Freud who defines falling in love as a sudden reduction in barriers to intimacy."

"A nice phrase. Anyhow, I saw it approaching, and wondered what would happen."

"What's happened to you since?"

"A long story. You didn't hear from any of our mutual friends?"

"I was ashamed to leave Wellesley the way I did, and I haven't kept up with anyone."

"Until me, just now. How did you happen to find me?"

Mary paused a little before speaking, and Lee broke in,

"You're holding something back, Mary. I can still tell."

The story came out quickly in abbreviated form, and then, under Lee's laconic questioning, somewhat more fully. Mary ended breathlessly, but Lee said,

"None of this is life or death stuff for me. I am in business, of course, and I pay off the police. But it would be awkward, perhaps more for Sink than me, if it became too generally known."

"I'm certainly not going to tell anyone."

"Okay. You may wonder how I've arrived where I am."

"Well, yes. Did something happen at Wellesley?"

"The roommate they sent me when you left put a necklace in my dresser drawer and claimed that I'd stolen it."

"My God!"

"She was a horrid little country-club girl from the midwest. Plain, stupid, and religious. She didn't want to room with a Jew, and she solved the problem in the only way that occurred to her limited imagination."

"No one believed her, surely."

Lee smiled and replied,

"The dean of women did."

Mary remembered Dean Handley vividly. An awful old bat who hated Jews, liberals, and Catholics. She approved only of virgins who, having caught husbands, would produce hordes of infants. Ambition of any other sort was highly suspect, and the dean took any sign of intelligence to be an indication of incipient rebellion. These were all grounds for hating Lee, but there was one incident in particular. Mary asked,

"Did she still remember the swimming incident?"

"Yes. She mentioned it repeatedly."

The dean claimed to be a botanist, although her botany was of a pre-scientific sort that consisted simply in memorizing the names of plants and being able to identify them. She gave a class along those lines, and led her students around the Wellesley grounds, intoning such sentiments as,

"Here, girls, is one of Wellesley's best rose gardens. The rose is a flower which has inspired more poetry than any other, and the magnificent color alone is enough to melt even the stoniest heart. I might add that the founder of this college was extremely partial to roses, and it is a condition of her will that at least three beds be kept in prime condition. When I had the honor to conduct United States Congressman Winthrop through these very grounds, he remarked that lovely roses were the best accompaniment for lovely women."

Most faculty members were embarrassed by Dean Handley, but getting rid of her was no easy matter. On the occasion of one such botanical harangue on a hot day, one of the class reacted by taking off her clothes and jumping into the nearby ornamental lake. Lee and Mary were not quite the first to follow suit, but Lee was certainly the most conspicuous. While the dean, in between cries to cease and desist, staggered against a nearby bench with the vapours, the entire class moved into the water. Now, remembering, Mary said,

"That was Janet Marsh's initiative."

"Not according to Dean Handley."

"She said you were the first?"

"Yes. She then expelled me for theft without first asking the president."

"Was that all there was to it?"

"Not really. The old bitch was in a blind rage, and I knew that she didn't really have the power to expel me without any sort of hearing. So, before anyone could have second thoughts, I went to a hotel with just the clothes I was wearing and called my father."

Mary remembered Lee's father. A tall and powerful man whom she resembled closely, he was making millions of dollars with his cut-rate department stores when almost everyone else was losing their money in the depresssion. There were Jews of German or French origin who found some acceptability on Wall Street, but Mr. Howsam was a Russian Jew who was making his money by driving traditional American businessmen into bankruptcy. He was not loved, but he preferred to be feared. Mary had herself been in awe of him until she discovered that he had a sense of humor. Lee continued,

"A few days later, Daddy descended on Wellesley with a couple of his sharpest lawyers. The college wasn't ready for that kind of assault and caved in quickly. Dean Handley resigned on the spot. The girl who accused me left under threat of legal action, and I was back in."

"A happy ending?"

"Not exactly. Of course, they were happy to be rid of the old bitch, and the younger faculty members are mostly anti-anti- Semites. But other things were going on."

"There was occasional unplasantness directed at you even before I left."

"Do you remember how many girls had to leave because their fathers had lost their money and couldn't pay their tuition?"

"Yes. It seemed like one every week or two."

"I think there were even more after you left. But everyone knew about my father's stores. They hated that kind of store, and the fact that he was getting richer while they were in danger of being poor was just too much. Even if he hadn't been Jewish, there would have been a lot of resentment. As it is, a lot of those girls and their families really do think there's a Jewish conspiracy to dispossess them."

"Like Hitler."


"I was never much impressed with the students at Wellesley. They brought in so many of those big horsy girls from the midwest to give them what they called geographical balance."

"So, anyway, it wasn't pleasant to be there. I stuck it out long enough to graduate, I'm not exactly sure why."

"Yeah, I might not have in your place. Anyhow, I've often thought of you."

"And I of you. When I came here, I assumed that you'd be gone, but I did think of calling on your family. I just never felt quite comfortable about it."

"You'll find them quite welcoming."

"You'd better warn your sister. I never did meet her."

"I'll do that."

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