Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 9


Mary Eliot's first outing as a convention tour guide was an easy one. The group, consisting of the wives of the managers of a large corporation, was quite orderly and structured. That structure reflected the ranks of the husbands, and Mrs. Brewster, the wife of the company president, had no difficulty in giving orders. Once, in a whispered aside to Mary, she said,

"Leadership is no problem if you don't care if anyone likes you."

Mrs. Brewster decided to view the Bunker Hill monument and the preserved frigate of the war of 1812, the USS Constitution. She was there photographed by a junior wife in a dignified pose with one hand on a cannon. Mary came to realize that there was an element of humor in everything that she did, but the other wives seemed not to catch on. As they strolled down the main deck of the frigate, Mrs. Brewster said quietly to Mary,

"Mrs. Hundley, the wife of one of our vice-presidents, is particularly good when it comes to organizing refreshments. You should check with her on that, Mary."

Mrs. Hundley was practically round, and was having difficulty negotiating the various obstacles on the quarterdeck. When Mary approached tactfully, Mrs. Hundley replied that the time had indeed come for refreshments. Fortunately, there was a cafe-bakery almost underneath the ship's long jibboom projecting over the wharf.

While it might fall to Mrs. Hundley to decide when to start eating, it was Mrs. Brewster who, giving Mary a meaningful look, decided when it was time to stop eating.

When they got to the fashionable Back Bay, wives of the middle rank were allowed to lead small groups of women to the different shops. After a couple of hours of that, Mrs. Hundley marshalled them to a tea room which had a large display of pastries in the front window. Finally, when she judged that enough tea had been drunk, Mrs. Brewster led the battalion back to the hotel. Mary, who was supposedly conducting the tour, had actually been adopted by Mrs. Brewster as something between a cute little pet and an aide- de-camp.

The next convention was that of the Eastern Division of the American Association for Optometry, and it bore little resemblence to the previous one. No one was in charge of anyone else. The president was elected annually, and had almost no duties other than that of delivering the keynote speech.

The wives reflected America, at least the social spectrum from the forty fifth to the seventy fifth percentile. Some thought it a great thing to be an optomotrist's wife. A few thought it somewhat demeaning, and felt uncomfortable around the wives of doctors and lawyers. It was a question, for some, whether they should socialize with chiropractors and their wives.

Some of the wives thought that an optometry practice was a joint exercise which could be aided by judicious entertaining and church attendance on the part of the wife. Others, particularly the ones in larger towns and cities, celebrated a marked disconnect between office and home. One named Luella said to Mary,

"An optomotrist's patients don't care if he has a wife, or who she is. They just want to be able to see."

As a veteran of only one convention, the company one, Mary wasn't sure how to handle the optometrical wives. It might even take charisma to keep them from going in twenty different ways. That would have been all right in itself, but Lee clearly expected her to bring back something like the group she had led off.

Before Mary had a chance to propose anything at all, the same Luella spoke out,

"Let's go to Scollay Square."

There was some laughter, but not everyone laughed. While Boston was known as a puritantical city, its center of sin, Scollay Square, was so old that its reputation had survived many changes of mores. Mary had been earnestly warned by her mother never to go there, and, surprisingly, she hadn't.

Before Mary could do anything about it, the group split into roughly equal camps, one for the Back Bay and one for Scollay Square. But she did get them all to agree to meet for tea at the hotel late in the afternoon.

It was fortunate that Mary remembered that Scollay Square was one stop past Park Street on the subway, and there was thus no fumbling around with directions. The subway, dirty, smelly, and noisy, contrasted with the style, and even elegance, of the more adventurous of the opto wives. Still, high spirits prevailed with very little sniffing and averting of the eyes.

It wasn't a broad square, and the old brick houses and store fronts were crowded together in a multi-colored gaity that must have been typical of an earlier Boston. So, too, was the jostling and bustling which probably kept the respectable away as much as the reputation for sin. There were even a couple of pedlars and junk dealers with horses and wagons.

There was refuse on the sidewalks that people in the crowd occasionally tripped over, but it was a relatively clean brightly colored litter of wrapping papers and cartons. Since there wasn't much that was smelly or garbagy, the square, with fresh air blowing through, welcomed those just liberated from the subway.

None of the shops in view seemed to have anything to do with sex, and so the enterprising Luella asked a passing sailor where the action was. He turned out to be a rather shy boy with a pleasant smile who replied,

"Well, maam, my shipmates have all gone to the Old Howard around the corner there."

One of the wives asked,

"And you didn't go with them?"

"They wanted me to, but I don't think my girl friend, back in Tulsa, would like it."

He was congratulated on his faithfulness by the group, and they moved in the indicated direction. A few of the wives began to have doubts about such an expedition, but Mary found herself helping Luella jolly them along.

Their appearance at the ticket window seemed to upset the establishment more than anything that had happened in years. They were warned several times by a man who obviously wasn't used to giving warnings. When they persevered to file into the rather small half-filled auditorium, their effect on the audience was so great that the performers on stage were momentarily distracted.

Mary, hoping for anonymity, settled down in her seat. Two men, advertized as "baggy pants comedians", were on stage. It was an odd way to promote oneself, but it was certainly true that their trousers, held up by suspenders, were many sizes too big. Quite apart from that, the men managed to look sleazier, apparently by design, than anyone Mary could remember seeing. The effect was multiplied in a perverse way by the fact that they both had on suits and ties. Mary could hardly imagine what her mother would think and say if such a man, quite legal as far as the dress code went, were to show up in the golf club dining room.

After a joke that Mary didn't catch, but which went well with the audience, the man on the left burst out in a shout that carried to the ceiling.

"I got in trouble with my wife last night."

His companion, swaying backward with his jacket open and his thumbs hooked in his suspenders, rejoined,

"Did you put your foot in it?"

"No, but I could have."

There was uproarious laughter and applause from the house, and Mary whispered to Luella,

"These men must all be idiots."

She replied,

"Most optomotrists would think that funny. Here's your chance to learn something about men, kid."

After more jokes in much the same vein, a little band struck up. One of the baggy pants men announced that it was amateur day, and the other came on stage leading a fairly pretty young women in a full-skirted blue dress and almost-matching pumps. She affected to be reluctant, and had to be coaxed and prodded until she was facing the audience between the two comedians. There were some jokes at her expense, and, a couple of times, she hid her face behind her hands, peeking out. She was then persuaded and helped out of her dress until, with great apparent embarrassment, she was reduced to what must have been the legal minimum in Boston at that time. The audience, seeming to know the limits as well as the performers, was cheering loudly when the young lady broke free from the comedians and fled the stage. Luella said to Mary,

"She's a professional at taking off her clothes, but her acting's sub-amateur level."

"It's funny that they're so bad at what they do. Almost anyone could do better."

"Most men are so easily satisfied."

"Would the optomotrists like this?"

"They'd be embarrassed to come to a place like this, but, once here, most would be highly enthusiastic."

The following acts didn't pretend to be amateur, but they followed the same pattern. Mary and Luella became bored, and had no difficulty in persuading the others to leave. Once out on the street, one said,

"I'd never realized how embarrassing it could be to watch another woman take off her clothes."

Luella asked,

"Even though you knew she wasn't embarrassed herself?"

"Yeah, even so."

Someone else said,

"I guess we found out that we don't have what it takes to be burlesque performers."

That was agreed on all sides, but another woman asked,

"Do our husbands want us to put on shows like that in our bedrooms?"

That question was more difficult to answer. A couple thought that their optometrists were certainly above that level, but then they began to wonder. There was more discussion on this point, all the while standing on the sidewalk a block from the Old Howard. When a couple of locals seemed about to join in, they moved on toward the subway.

Arriving at the Back Bay, they happened to run into some other members of the original group in a tearoom. Descriptions were given of the trip to Scollay Square and the Old Howard for the benefit of the others. Mary noticed that the reality was hardly recognizable from the accounts being given.

There was no mention of the baggy pants gentlemen or their jokes, and the Old Howard was described as if it were not nearly as seedy as Mary recalled it. Their hearers might well think that it looked more or less like an ordinary theater. Even Luella was moved to say,

"Most of the women have good figures, and they dance reasonably well."

That was true as far as far as it went, and Mary didn't think it necessary to add that their faces, in many cases, appeared to be ravaged by decades of bad living. She really had to bite her tongue when one of the others said,

"There was one pretty young girl, an amateur, who was trying out. When she got on the stage, she had second thoughts and got all embarrassed. The others had to pretty much pull her dress and slip off, and then she ran off the stage in her bra and step-ins."

The women who hadn't been there were shocked and aghast, but it was a little too much for Luella, who caught Mary's eye. When they were mostly alone at the end of one of the long tables, Luella said,

"I think some of them have convinced themselves that it really wasn't sordid."


"Which may allow some of them to entertain their husbands in ways they wouldn't have before."

"That might have its comic moments."

"Well, good taste isn't everything, even for optometrical couples."

Lee reacted somewhat sceptically to Mary's account and said,

"It really doesn't matter what we do with the wives as long as they have a good time. Except that some husbands might complain about our taking their wives to the Old Howard."

"I didn't think of that. It wasn't my idea to go there."

"It's no big thing. With the men, of course, it's different. The art of prostitution consists in separating it as far as possible from the things that go on at a burlesque show."

"The most perceptive of this group of women told me that their husbands might be quite happy at a burlesque show if they could enter without being seen."

"That's probably true. But there are a lot of people who read good books who can also be entertained with trash. It's sometimes a struggle to preserve the distinction."

"Is that because some clients don't realize that there is one?"

"Yes, mostly. One tries to be choosy, but you can't be too choosy and still have clients."

"Is Sink your best client?"

"By far. That is, he's the only one whose company I really enjoy. He's not very good at sex, though."

"I find that surprising."

"Sink's an athlete, and he makes sex into an athletic event. But it isn't painful and it's over quickly."

"How about the others?"

"I don't take anyone I find repulsive, and I feel sorry for a lot of these men. Most of them work so hard to support their families in a fairly high style, and they get so little in return. I, at least, give them their money's worth."

"It would be a great thing if you could lift up their spirits, but skip the sex part."

Lee laughed and asked,

"Did you enjoy sex with Dick?"

"Not much. At first, it was alarming. Then, when I got used to it, it was all right. But never thrilling, or anything of that sort."

"It can be very good. One man I see really knows how. He knows very little else, and I don't really like him. I suppose, really, I should be paying him rather than vice versa, but he hasn't suggested that. He probably thinks I go into ecstasy with everyone."

"It's funny to think of the greatest lover being some greasy little guy."

"It could be. You never know."

"I'd like to be something like a Japanese geisha. They charm men without sleeping with them, don't they?"

"I've heard conflicting reports on that. Of course, anyone in my line of work would be interested in the geisha profession, and I've read everything I can find on it. My impression is that some of them, at least, sleep with their best clients."

"That's too bad."

"Well, you know, there's an American niche of that sort. Some escort services provide companions who are just that. Everyone shakes hands at the end of the evening, and that's it."

"Men pay for that?"

"Usually to impress their friends or business associates. The others don't know that the client's beautiful woman is a paid escort. At the end, the escort will allow the client to give his friends the impression that he's taking her off to bed."

"Have you done that?"

"A few times. It's harder than prostitution. It takes a long time, and it's easier to submit to intercourse than boredom."

"I could probably deal with the boredom."

Lee laughed again and replied,

"What are you trying to talk yourself into, Mary? Has being around a convention given you ideas? Or was it the Old Howard?"

Mary, embarrassed, replied,

"Certainly not that. But being around conventions really is stimulating. People are carefree and having fun. There might be more to life than living in a quiet suburb with a somewhat suffocating family."

"Yes indeedy. If I come across an interesting escort arrangement, I'll let you know."

It was time for one of Mary's 'serious talks' with her mother, and, surprisingly enough, it started on a note of approval. Mary gave an account of her guidance of convention wives, omitting, of course, the Scollay Square sequence. Her mother said,

"This is certainly an acceptable activity for a young woman, and it gives you some spending money."

"The only trouble is that it takes up so much time, and someone has to watch Timmy."

"Frieda and Helen manage with him easily. He's really quite good most of the time."

Frieda and Helen were the cook and cleaning lady respectively, and Mary was already aware of her mother's theory that Timmy was good except when his mother was present. This, in turn, dove-tailed with Mrs. Eliot's theory of a bad seed in the family, deriving from her now-deceased mother-in-law. That lady had spent the first two thirds of her life behaving badly. The last third, after a stroke, had been spent, wordlessly, cutting up bits of paper into what might, charitably, have been called paper dolls. Mary, in her mother's view, had inherited this bad seed. In Mary's view, any reasonable person espousing this theory would also conclude that Timmy had the bad seed as well. Surprisingly, Mrs. Eliot didn't make that move, and now exclaimed,

"I really don't think there's anything the matter with that boy. You just have to handle him properly."

Mary, with her bad seed, couldn't be expected to handle him properly. While some mothers might have thought this assumption somewhat demeaning, it had the advantage that Mary had almost unlimited free baby sitting. Her mother wanted her to be with Timmy as little as decently possible, so much so that she was herself willing to superintend him when Freida and Helen were otherwise occupied. They passed then to certain other considerations. Mrs. Eliot said,

"I suppose you meet only the women at these conventions."

"Mostly. But Lee and I are sometimes included in afternoon teas when both the men and women are present."

"That must be quite a crowd."

"The last one almost filled the Copley ballroom. Since most of the men don't bring their wives, or don't have wives, it's mostly men."

That was a teaser for her mother. Mrs. Eliot would be delighted if some well-established man, perhaps not so very young, swept Mary off in matrimony. But, of course, the man would have to be respectable, entirely unlike the last one. Probing in this last area, she asked Mary,

"I hope the men don't drink too much and become boisterous."

"Not that I've seen. Some of that may happen later in the evening."

"Well, of course, a normal vigorous man, not necessarily a refined one like your father, will get up to some things, particularly when he's away from home. I think Mr. Rolfe may have done a bit of that when he was younger."

Mrs. Eliot was no fool, and she didn't want to set the bar for husbands so high that Mary wouldn't get one. Indeed, she evidently had a younger version of Mr. Rolfe in mind. Mary couldn't resist replying,

"I guess what happens out of sight doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters! But some latitude has to be allowed. I don't think that Mr. Rolfe ever embarasses Gertrude."

The idea that Mr. Rolfe could embarass anyone, other than by being his usual self, was rather quaint. Mary replied,

"I would hope to end up with someone who comes above my shoulder."

Mrs. Eliot laughed and allowed,

"I was only using Mr. Rolfe as an example. There are lots of men, perhaps around forty, who've already caused whatever trouble they're likely to cause. If they make it to that age, and are single with some sort of decent position or profession, they can be very good bets."

"Yes. I have learned something, Mother. No one wild, young, and crazy, no matter how handsome."

Mrs. Eliot smiled and allowed,

"I suppose that a woman wouldn't want to say that she met her future husband at a convention. But she might become friends with one of the wives. Then, at the tea party, the husband might introduce her to one of his friends."

Mary sometimes forgot how Victorian her mother was. Finding the right gloss was everything, and Mary now wondered if her mother would be able to find one which would legitimize even Lee's activities. As it was, Mary only smiled and remarked,

"Many of the wives I take on tours are quite charming."

One didn't have to dot the i's with Mrs. Eliot. Charming wives would have charming husbands who, in turn, would have charming male friends. It might even occasionally be advisable to go to dinner with such a charming trio, returning, of course, by ten o'clock.

Catching Lee at the cafe the next morning, Mary reported on the serious talk with her mother. Lee responded,

"So you got a dose of reality?"

"I suppose so. You talked about the boredom of being a paid escort, and I'd never be able to deal with that. Or anything like prostitution. If I ever escape from home, it'll have to be by marrying something like a forty year old optomotrist."

"You're a good girl Mary, and you'll never walk the shady side of the street. On the sunny side, there are damned few careers open to female liberal arts graduates."

"So it's really a question of whether my mother or the optomotrist would be more suffocating."

"Yes. The odds might be something like even. Of course, when I eventually move into my father's company, I could hire you for something interesting."

"I didn't know you were definitely planning on that."

"I'm on my world tour. I'll do another few months of prostitution, and then move on to something else."

"What will the next thing be?"

"I'm lining up a job as a teacher in a one-room school house in North Dakota."

"Wow! I gather the world tour doesn't involve actually travelling around the world."

"No. It's different kinds of people, not places, that matter.

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