Anger and Hysteria
Elaine saw immediately that Mamie was sober and in control of her emotions. She really wasn't a bad-looking woman, and there were times, like the present, when she was beautifully dressed. As Mamie welcomed her and they sat down to tea, it seemed to Elaine that they were both women who had relied on feminine charm to get men to give them what they, the women, thought they needed. Mamie had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, much too much so. Elaine, who had been, and remained, much more glamorous than Mamie, had also had her successes.
They now had the common problem that the charm didn't work as well as it had. But, still, when they were at their best, they could stand erect, suck in their tummies, and project a certain dignity and grace.
Mamie began by thanking Elaine for the piece she had written. She said,
"I was upset and all to pieces that day, but you can always make sense of what I say."
"Well, I knew that the president was upset, and that was bound to bother you."
The subject having been raised, Mamie went on,
"He worries so much about money. A general never has to worry whether he'll have to go into debt to pay his troops, but, in this job, the bankruptcy of the country always seems to be just around the corner."
Elaine had an excellent memory. She'd be able to reproduce that comment verbatim. It was rather clever, but could she use it without creating a stir and getting Mamie in trouble? Elaine wasn't sure, but, while she was filing it away, she led Mamie on. It was a great advantage not to have to rely on a notebook which would surely have frightened the poor woman.
As the interview, disguised as a tea though it might be, went on, there was more great stuff, most of which Elaine knew she couldn't use. It was extraordinary how much Mamie trusted her.
Elaine was even more amazed when Mamie, with nothing but tea in her, began talking about her husband's attitude toward Khruschev. Probing gently, Elaine said,
"I'm afraid of Khruschev. Some day, he'll get angry and order an attack on us."
It was hardly a perceptive remark, and Mamie shook her head and replied,
"Ike doesn't think he's like that at all. He's like the peasant who won't confront you directly, but tries to cheat you a little on every transaction. After you've been cheated for long enough, you discover that you haven't any money left."
Elaine suspected that she had a direct quote from the president. Disguising her excitement, she managed to reply casually,
"Isn't our country too rich to be bankrupted, even if we are cheated all the time?"
"It isn't always so little. Every time they feint an attack, our planes all have to take off. That costs millions in fuel alone."
That idea surely came from the president. Elaine said,
"I know from your husband's speeches that he's also very concerned about domestic spending."
Mamie nodded and added,
"A good deal of that is inevitable. What makes him so mad is that Khruschev is staying up late just thinking of ways to make us spend so that he can get ahead of us. Sometimes Ike just wants to smash him in his ugly face."
Things wound down after that, and Elaine took her leave. As she walked out the gate and smiled at the guards, she knew that she had the interview of the century. She could imagine the headline:
"Mamie: Ike wants to smash K in his ugly face."
But, of course, it would never appear. Elaine stepped quickly along the sidewalk thinking that she, alone of all the journalists she knew, had a sense of honor.
The gathering at Pete Helton's apartment drew a significant cross-section of Complab. Bruce was already there when Tom arrived, and Ted Blitz came soon afterwards. Anna Entner then arrived, explaining that, even though she didn't think she could move anything very heavy, she had brought refreshments and moral support. The remaining member of the group, Jacky, wasn't present. Anna said,
"The moving party is really an American tradition. I think it baffles Jacky."
That really wasn't it. That was exactly the sort of Americanism that Jacky had acquired. The truth, Tom suspected, was simply that, while he tolerated Pete as a follower, he just didn't value him much. What really surprised Tom was the arrival of Sid with her husband, Cliff.
Tom hadn't been there when Sid had put Pete in his place, but it seemed likely that she had felt badly about it afterwards, and was now making amends. Tom had, of course, been curious about her husband. He was a big man who looked rather rough, as if he had begun in the oilfields. He shook Tom's hand forcefully, clapped him on the back, and said,
"I don't mind that Sid goes off to meet you at one in the morning. She's hungry when she comes home and makes an extra good breakfast."
Tom was glad that he didn't seem to be suspicious, and soon learned that he was a naval architect. Sid explained,
"Cliff grew up in a fishing town in Texas, and built boats for himself and his friends as a child. One thing kept leading to another until he now designs ocean-going tankers."
Just then, two children ran up, speaking Spanish rapidly, and grabbed Sid and Cliff by the arms in an attempt to drag them off to the side. Sid, giving ground slowly, explained,
"I took our kids with me when I visited my friend in Mexico City last weekend, and I brought hers back with me. We're trading kids for two weeks."
Sid had taken the Monday and Tuesday off to extend her weekend, and had come back in high spirits without mentioning the trade of children. The latter, Juan and Esmerelda, were restrained long enough to be introduced. They had some English, and the object which so fascinated them was Pete Helton, in particular the way that he spoke the language. Sid assured them, in mixed Spanish and English, that she was familiar with the phenomenon, and, when they dashed off to hear more, she whispered to Tom,
"Their parents are hoping they'll improve their English. Won't it be awful if they go back sounding like Pete?"
Before Tom could offer any advice, Pete decided that it was time to start moving things downstairs to the truck he had rented. Tom was used to moving all sorts of things, even pianos, and he and Cliff picked up the living room couch and took it down easily. They had hardly gotten back up when there seemed to be some sort of dispute between Anna and Pete. They were alone on the landing, and she was saying quietly, but intensely,
"Pete, you can't expect these people to move things like that."
Pete was protesting inarticulately as Cliff and Tom passed by into the living room. It turned out that there was a storage room in back, and, when they looked in, they saw Bruce trying ineffectually to lift one end of a large heavy piece of automobile, probably a transmission. It suddenly dawned on Tom that Pete had moved the major parts from his wrecked car to his apartment. Ted had gotten his end a few inches off the ground, but was already breathing heavily. Tom whispered to Bruce,
"You'll kill your back trying to lift that."
Bruce agreed readily and released it to Tom. Cliff, Ted, and he got it up and were moving it toward the door when Sid came around the corner and actually gave a little scream. She said,
"Put it down this minute!"
They probably could have gotten it down the stairs, but Sid's tone was authoritative. They looked at each other and put it down with a heavy thump just as Pete entered. Sid said to him, with admirable restraint,
"Pete, these things are solid steel. Someone's going to get hurt. If you really need to move them, you'll have to call the movers."
Anna was at once trying to reinforce Sid's point and soothe the reddening Pete. Without saying anything, Pete picked up a wheel with the tire still on it, and rolled it toward the front. Juan and Esmerelda, still following Pete, seemed to sense drama in the making as they encouraged him, in Spanish, to do what he needed to do. They then cheered as Pete rolled the wheel out on to the landing and launched it down the stairs. There was a crash from below and the sound of glass breaking. Cliff asked Tom,
"Was there a chandelier down there?"
"I think so."
"There probably isn't now."
"There were also pictures on the walls."
Tom was enjoying himself considerably, and could see that Cliff was, too. Sid sucked in her breath, looked at them, and then set about collaring the children. Ted swore and Bruce looked pained and confused. It was Anna who rushed to Pete, but, before she could calm him, there was a scream from below,
"You nasty destructive beast!"
The voice was middle-aged and male, southern and almost hysterical. Tom knew that the landlord lived downstairs and guessed that, even before this, Pete had been a difficult tenant. They next heard the woman screaming. Her words were difficult to make out, but she seemed to be accusing Pete of being a communist.
Pete reacted by running to the back room and grabbing another wheel. When he came past with it, only Anna made a futile attempt to stop him. This wheel was pitched harder from further back, and it hit the ceiling of the staircase and bounded down with great force. As the ensuing multiple crashes were heard, Juan, in the throes of hero worship, gave a happy cry. Esmerelda, however, began to cry. Sid was comforting her as they heard the man below shout for his wife to call the police. He then called up to Pete in a voice which was somewhat more calm and rational,
"You almost hit my wife with that wheel. I'm a goin to charge you with assault with a deadly weapon."
Pete went for yet another wheel but Ted blocked his way. Pete then lurched out on to the landing, and, having finally found his voice, loosed off a diatribe of obscenity.
The rest of the company stood and listened with growing alarm. What had been fun at first sounded as if it might develop into mayhem. It was easy to imagine Pete attacking the older man, or the latter shooting Pete. Even Juan was looking pensive.
Sid grabbed both children and said,
"There's a back stairs and a back door. Out we go!"
She seemed to have been addressing Cliff and Tom as well as the children, and Anna replied, her voice breaking slightly,
"We can't leave Pete now!"
From Tom's point of view, it wasn't exactly a matter of coming to the rescue of a colleague besieged with enemies. If Pete was in danger, he was himself creating the danger. Tom's code of honor said little about saving people from themselves, particularly people he didn't like.
Anna, emerging as the rich lady who rescues the downtrodden, looked rather appealing as she said,
"You've got to help me break this up before it goes too far."
In fact, in those few seconds, Pete was getting louder and closer to a new breaking point. Her point was certainly not an unreasonable one.
Sid was taking the children in the opposite direction. She wasn't nearly so interested in rescuing people, downtrodden or otherwise. She said to Cliff and Tom,
"That man may go for a gun any minute, and anyone between them is likely to get shot."
Sid was right, but she said the wrong thing. The overt suggestion that the man might have a gun made it impossible for either Cliff or Tom to run. When Ted said,
"You two get his arms, and I'll get his legs,"
they followed Ted out on to the landing. Pete was descending the top step when Cliff and Tom yanked him backwards on to the floor and Ted encircled his kicking legs. Pete wasn't really very strong, but he struggled enough to make the process of subdoing him unpleasant and uncorfortable. Ted yelled at him,
"If you don't stop this shit right now, you'll end up in jail."
Pete didn't stop struggling, but, after Anna knelt and whispered at length in his ear, he calmed enough to be released. It was then that Bruce attempted to explain to Pete, stating premises and deriving conclusions, that he would do much better to remain quiet. It was almost laughable that such an account would have any effect on raw emotion, but Pete's anger did seem to be gradually replaced by something more akin to depression. The police then arrived.
The landlord and his wife were out on the porch to present their side of the story first, but they overdid it. The two policemen, both young and searching the house warily with their eyes, hardly responded at all. Mrs. Landlady, evidently disappointed in their reaction, pointed up the stairs and said,
"He's up there with his knives, waiting for us to go to sleep, and then ......"
Just then, Bruce appeared on the porch. It was impossible for anyone to imagine that Bruce was waiting with a knife for a chance to eviscerate his helpless sleeping victims. Even the policemen looked a little surprised. Bruce, speaking rather mournfully, said,
"We were helping our colleague move when he got into an argument with these people here. There was a misunderstanding over something that got loose and fell down the stairs. I'm sure he'll be willing to pay for the damage."
"Where is he?"
"Right upstairs. He was quite upset at what happened, and he's been resting."
Tom was right behind Bruce, and the police followed them up. Pete was collapsed in a chair, perhaps in the grips of a severe depression. It was almost impossible for the police to get anything out of him. Bruce explained,
"Some unpleasant things were said, and Mr. Helton is a sensitive person. It may be some time before he recovers."
One policeman gave a little laugh, more cynical than otherwise, but neither seemed particularly concerned. One look at Pete probably convinced them that there was no present danger, and Bruce satisfied them that there was nothing they really needed to do.
The downstairs couple had been halfway up the stairs, overhearing as best they could, and there were some angry mutterings as the police want down. Finally, one of the policemen said,
"You can come down to the station and swear out a warrant for his arrest if you want to."
Tom tried to hear the reply, but it seemed to be indecisive. It seemed that, if they heard no more from Pete, they were likely to do nothing.
When she saw the police arrive, Sid had come back up the stairs with the children. She now said,
"Let's get going and move everything but the bits of car out to the truck as fast as we can."
Pete remained in his chair, but everyone else, including Juan and Esmerelda, worked at a speed which must have set a record for moving. Tom was sometimes aware of being watched through a barely opened door as he went up and down, but the couple were evidently satisfied to see Pete's possessions going out. At the end, Anna and Ted had to assist Pete down while Cliff and Tom, carrying the chair he had been in, followed closely.
Pete, who was speaking only in monosyllables, was put into the passenger seat of the truck, and Ted volunteered to drive. He got the apartment keys from Pete and handed them to Tom with a smile, saying,
"You have an innocent face, Tom. You can give the keys back to the landlord."
Tom went up and knocked on their door. When it opened, he said,
"He's all out. Here are the keys."
The woman started angrily,
"What about all the damage and the mess upstairs? The deposit won't cover ...."
Tom was already moving away as she spoke, and he only gave a wave as he bounced quickly down the front steps.
The apartment at the other end turned out, most fortunately, to be in an anonymous building of good size. There wasn't very much to move, now that the auto parts and other unnecessary items had been abandoned, and it was done in a half hour. Ted took Pete with him to return the truck, and Anna followed them in her car. Bruce made no comment on the proceedings, but said he had to get home. When Sid suggested that she, Cliff, and Tom take the children out for a pizza, Tom was more than ready.