Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 10

Sunday Dinner

Mary knew what was normal for Lee. She fascinated only by being what she effortlessly was. At Sunday dinner with the Eliots and their neighbors, the Stowes, she would converse casually, at the level of the others. She would occasionally amuse, and allow herself to be amused. That was all it ever took.

Was there a mystery about Lee? Not really. Mary had known her to have almost no secrets, and, even though her present mode of employment must be confidential, one nevertheless had the feeling that she might, at any moment, give a thumbnail sketch of a client or two. It was other people who created the mystery. They wondered who she could possibly be, and couldn't accept as final any simple truth about herself she might let drop.

Sink looked as if he had been inflated beyond normal pressure with a small but efficient bicycle pump. All his features seemed to bulge, and his chest looked like that of a pigeon. He had pretended, along with Lee, to be newly introduced to one another, but he hadn't managed to seem casual about it. In any case, seated between Lucy and Mary, he was surrounded by enough conversation to allow him to respond appropriately and inconspicuously.

The hero of the hour turned out to be Warren Eliot. That is, Lee made him the hero.

Mary had read all about Parisian women, and had met a couple in Paris. They wore perfume as carefully chosen as their dresses, sat close to men to maximize its effect, and touched them lightly, usually on the arms. Words such as 'fantastique' and 'formidable' were always within easy reach, as were admiring glances at calculated angles relative to improved eyelashes. Lee normally engaged in none of these activities, except in jest, but she was now deploying something like forty per cent of the Parisienne's arsenal for Mr. Eliot's benefit. A mere twenty would have been more than sufficient.

It was, Mary supposed, a form of retribution. Mary had stolen Lee's boyfriend. Even though that had turned out to be a net gain for Lee, there had to be a response. Instead of stealing a man from Mary, it was typical of Lee's sense of humor to show Mary that she, Lee, could cut Mary's father loose from his moorings on any given Sunday. Mary, amused, took it in good grace. After all, what was the harm in it?

Warren Eliot seemed not at all harmed. Whatever his original romance with his wife had been, Eloise could never have been exotic. In fact, the pictures in the family albums revealed her as a rather plain, if improbably slim, young woman. Mary supposed that she had been available, and that the young Warren Eliot wouldn't have competed for a woman another man might have wanted. He was just now being given a small taste of the real thing, insincere and artificial as it might be in its present performance.

The immediate tip-off was that Mr. Eliot, having carved the roast, was too occupied to eat. He was never a "big eater" and was certainly too much of a gent to eat in a showy or conspicuous way. But he did like food, and the meat was usually cooked well-done to the point of being burnt to satisfy his finicky tastes. Now, even though his slice of beef bore no resmblence to any previously existing animal, it was entirely untouched. How long would it remain so, Mary wondered, before he noticed? Lee might, in her sardonic way, be counting minutes. Mary looked demurely down, not wanting to catch her eye.

It was a little later that Sink said to Mary,

"Have you noticed that your father hasn't eaten anything?"

"He sometimes has tummy troubles that interfere with eating."

"I don't think it's that."

"Well, you know, he's really a vegetarian at heart. He does eat meat, but he has conflicts about it. He may now be imagining happy animals in the pasture who don't know that they have a date with the executioner."

Sink smiled and seemed to be returning to normal. He allowed,

"Your friend, Lee, is really quite striking."

"She's also very smart. Wellesley didn't have the faintest notion of how to deal with her."

"But you're also smart. They didn't seem to have any problems on that account."

"Until I took my initiative, they thought I was a good girl. Nobody thought I might be a communist or anarchist."

"Is Lee?"

"I don't think she's at all political, but she did help me sneer at the big bouncy bovine girls from the midwest."

"I never associated Wellesley with girls like that."

"There were a lot of them, and their big bouncy bovine fathers gave the college a lot of money. The fuddy duddier faculty members enjoyed the challence of turning the cows into ladies who could be plausible at tea parties."

"I bet you and Lee also sneered at the tea parties. She's either a princess in disguise or a very rich man's courtesan."

That brought Mary up short. Was she supposed to resent such a characterization of her friend? Or did Sink wonder if Mary already knew of his relation to Lee? She replied,

"I really don't think she's a White Russian princess going incognito, and I don't know of any very rich admirer in the offing."

"No, I wasn't serious, just indulging in fantasies."

"Lee does inspre fantasies. I suppose that was what made Wellesley so uneasy."

Just then, Lee seemed to take pity on her admirer, pointing to his food. They both laughed, and Warren Eliot started to eat.

As the conversation at the table became more general, Lee began to slip in, fairly unobtrusively, references to Warren's accomplishments. These were actually quite impressive, certainly 'formidable' if not 'fantastique.' He had gone to M. I. T., and could discuss mathematics with Sink. He had played two seasons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a bassoonist. He had even won a golf championship before too much theorizing had destroyed his game.

Ruth, for one, had not been fully aware of these things, and even Dr. Stowe seemed somewhat surprised. As Mr. Eliot colored, with both pleasure and embarrassment, Ruth led the cheering section. Her performance, while much less subtle than that of Lee, was probably entirely sincere. Moreover, there was nothing wrong with all that blonde hair framing a face with good features. But, of course, Mr. Eliot was a thinking man. The compliments that really counted would have to be more muted.

After dinner, the group moved into the living room. Since there wasn't quite enough seating for eight, the party became a stand-up one and spread into the adjoining parlor. There was now the opportunity for more private pairings, and Lee and Warren did drift together. But, then, after the exchange of only a very few sentences, they separated, smiling, to find other conversational partners.

Not long afterward, the Rolfes arrived. Eloise knew Gertrude well enough to explain that, while there wouldn't be room for them at the table, she and Mr. Rolfe would be welcome after dinner. There were, in compensation, many little bowls of candy scattered about. Not only that, Eloise slyly led Gertrude to the bowl with the best chocolates.

Mr. Rolfe began making his chirping noises the moment he saw Lee. During the subsequent introduction, spanning a height difference of almost a foot, he chattered gaily. Mary, overhearing, found it impossible to understand anything he said. Was the little man actually speaking gibberish? Lee didn't seem to have any difficulty, and responded humorously with surprising animation. By the time that Mrs. Rolfe came up to snatch him away, Mr. Rolfe seemed not at all baffled by any mysteries surrounding Lee. Mary had always wondered if Mr. Rolfe were not simply stupid, and she now wondered more than ever.

When Mary and Lee were eventually thrown together, Mary remarked,

"I remember your meeting mother a number of times. Did you meet my father before today?"

"No, it was always your mother who came over to college."

Lee smiled, but didn't seem to be about to make any commments about Warren Eliot. She instead asked about Timmy. Mary replied,

"He's being baby sat. He usually does come to Sunday dinner, but we didn't want to inflict him on you just yet."

"I bet he really isn't that bad."

"He recently kicked a lady in the ankle and brought her down."

"Now that you've warned me, I can probably prevent that."

"Apart from Timmy, and occasionally Lucy, the main danger at these little parties isn't violence. It's being cornered by a bore. I was sorry to see you introduced to Mr. Rolfe."

"Oh, he's all right."

"You seemed to understand what he said, but I couldn't make any sense at all out of it."

"Well, actually, I'm a bit used to him."

"Used to Mr. Rolfe? Oh, Lee, I hope I don't understand you!"

"I think you do, Mary."

"But, surely ..."

"He's rather amusing in his way, a young boy who simply hasn't changed much in seventy years."

"I'm having creepy crawlies at the thought of his getting that near to me."

"You should give him a try, Mary. He's very clean, and, surprisingly, rather virile."

"At least he isn't threatening. How did you ever get together?"

"I was having breakfast at the little place near my building. He came in to get a doughnut. Then, when he saw me, he sat down opposite and casually asked me how much I charged."

"God! How could he possibly have known?"

"He's very sharp in some ways."

Glancing over at Mr. Rolfe, whe was babbling happily at Warren Eliot, Mary replied,

"I've never had the idea that he was senile. It just seemed that he'd always been rather dim. He can't really be intelligent."

"More a kind of cunning. He's spent a lifetime negotiating prices, and that's how he began with me. Just recently, he wanted an old-age discount."

"He does giggle a lot, but I didn't know he had a sense of humor."

"I'm not sure he was joking. Perhaps partly. Anyway, he was perceptive enough to spot my profession."

"It must be because you're too elegant for the town. He may have thought that there was no other explanation for your being here."

"That's also what the policeman on the beat thought. But he said that he was a businessman, and so he has proven to be."

At that moment, Eloise Eliot rushed up, full of admiration for Lee. It seemed a little forced to Mary, and she assumed that her mother had noticed Lee's captivation of her husband.

Eloise soon asked Lee how her parents were. It might have been a way of reminding Lee that she was Jewish, or it might have been that Eloise had sensed a rift. In fact, Lee answered,

"I don't see them very much. I'm trying to see if I can make it on my own with my business here."

"Oh yes, Mary has told me about it. It sounds very interesting."

"It mostly amounts to taking the wives of conventioneers on trips to the shops in the Back Bay."

Lee spoke humorously, but Mary could imagine her mother wondering whether there might be entertainments for the conventioneers themselves. Eloise had a talent for saying entirely conventional things in ways that probed, and, when she remarked that Lee's parents must miss her, Lee replied,

"My mother's gone back to Germany to visit relatives a couple of times, and the Nazis have really frightened her. She imagines that I'll be put in jail as a dangerous criminal if I'm caught dropping a gum wrapper on the sidewalk. She's so full of warnings that it's hard to live with her."

Eloise responded,

"We mothers do tend to fuss and worry. You'll have to be patient with us."

As Eloise moved on to talk with Sink, Mary said to Lee,

"At least, your mother is fairly straight-forward."

"Yes, it's a different sort of problem. Fathers are better, aren't they?"

"If you cut short your world tour, I bet your father would support you at the Ritz."

Laughing, Lee replied,

"The schoolhouse in North Dakota is going to be a lot more educational. In particular, I need to make myself more interesting. Only then will I have any influence with people."

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