Hope and Despair
Pete Helton was an optimist. As well he might be. He liked his new apartment, and his program ran. It was meant to up-date the inventory on the stocks of paper tape and flexowriter paper that Complab maintained, and he had needed only a little help from Bruce, no more than five minutes' worth to be exact. Ted had gotten Matthews off the machine early, Pete suspected by sabotaging his program, and had then waved to Pete, who had been standing by. There was some little trouble at first, but Ted had flipped switches so fast that Pete could hardly follow him with his eyes. And then it ran. When they were done, Ted had pencilled in a few changes on Pete's coding form.
Pete had hardly walked away from the machine when Anna came up with congratulations and hugged him. She was certainly a very nice lady. She wasn't much appreciated at DRI, but that was mostly because Jews like Goldstein didn't know a real lady when they saw one.
It was with Anna that Pete had a secret understanding. It wasn't a sexual understanding. It concerned work. Anna was also an optimist. Neither of them believed that there was any possibility of nuclear war. Anna had said to him once,
"You need only look at frumpy old Khruschev and his tubby little wife. They don't have any grand ambitions. They just want things to go on as before. They're ordinary people."
Pete agreed. Khruschev might bluff and bluster, but he didn't really want to kill anyone, much less a hundred million. And, on their own side, there was President Eisenhower. As Anna had also said,
"He's the most fundamentally decent man we've ever had for a president. And that includes Abraham Lincoln and George Washington."
Anna knew a lot. A lot more than the intellectuals at DRI. She'd been married to a senator, and she still knew everyone who counted in Washington. If there really were danger, she'd know before anyone.
On the other hand, you had to realize that DRI only existed because people worried about war. You couldn't go around being an optimist or people might think you wanted to eliminate their jobs, your own included. You definitely didn't want people to think you were crazy. Anna and Pete also agreed on that. So they agreed to keep what she called their "subversive little secret."
There had been the temptation to tell Jacky and Ted, the other members of their group. But they decided not to. Pete felt closest to Ted, but Ted hoped openly for war. Not nuclear war, but a good old-fashioned conventional war. He had been in tanks the last two times, and was itching for another chance. Anna smiled when Ted talked in that way. When they were alone, she told Pete that Ted didn't quite realize that the years were sneaking up on him.
Jacky might actually have agreed with them. But, as an escapee from the communist bloc, he was a little weird about politics. Anna thought that, since he was employed in a secret organization, it was best to keep Jacky's mind as far from politics as possible.
Of course, they gossiped with Jacky and Ted about other things, mainly the people at DRI. They all liked and respected Sam Harris and Bruce Hammond, and they all disliked Goldstein. All the men lusted after Sid, but Ted had funny protective feelings about his co-worker. He made it clear that, since he managed to keep his hands off her, no one else had better try to fucking touch her. On one occasion, Pete was actually afraid that Ted was going to beat him up. But that was forgotten now.
At first, it had seemed as if Tom Williams might be okay. Since he looked only about seventeen, Anna's maternal feelings were aroused. Anyhow, there was no harm in having the kid hanging around as long as he didn't put on airs. But it didn't take them long to see that he sucked up to every big-wig in the organization, from the director on down.
Ted thought that, as far as programming went, Tom was just faking his way. In fact, Ted had told Pete that he, Pete, was better than Tom. About then, Jacky said that, when you saw Tom walking up and down the corridors, looking like he was deep in thought, you could see that he thought he was smarter than everyone else. Pete was used to intellectuals who were full of their own bullshit, and he didn't mind that so much. If you approached them in the right way, they could be useful. They'd solve your problem for you just to prove they were smarter.
The final straw came when Jacky saw Tom coming out of that ritsy little cafe in Chevy Chase Circle with Goldstein and an ugly little kike-looking woman who must be Goldstein's wife.
Besides being part of a good bunch of people at work, Pete had another big reason to be optimistic. That was Miss Tracey Tannenbaum. The name did sound Jewish, but she wasn't, some kind of German or something. She was little, dark-haired and pretty, in fact the cutest little thing Pete had ever gone out with.
The last time, in the movie house, Pete had snaked his arm all the way back around her shoulders, with his hand on her bare arm on the other side. She hadn't exactly snuggled, but she hadn't resisted. Walking along on the street afterwards, he'd had his arm around her waist. He made a big thing of how little it was and how great she looked. She liked being talked to like that, and, for the first time, she didn't take his arm and hand away. Not only that, by moving his fingers gently and carefully, he'd felt the ridges of her underclothing. She did try to dodge when he kissed her good- night, but all the girls did that. It was because they thought their mothers might be watching from the window.
The night-time development of FRACE LIP was a slow process. It was easy to think of sophistications, and Tom and Sid could together program them fairly quickly. But each improvement added length to the program and necessitated a greater use of the sluggish magnetic tape units, thus slowing down the simulation. As Tom asked jokingly of Sid,
"Is it wrong to have our simulation of the change in price of black market shoes take longer than the actual process?"
"Maybe not, but, if it's too slow, FRACE LIP is going to get bumped off the machine by some lip that works faster."
"Don't you like the name of the model?"
"I'm sure you didn't invent either the name or the acronym, Tom. Who did?"
"Well, actually, it was Ellie Goldstein."
"So you're not taking my advice."
"Goldstein was with us when she suggested it."
"I'm not sure that's good. You'll get burned."
Tom let that pass, and they got back to work, trying to save a few steps here and there. Tom's style was to create a separate loop for everything, as opposed to trying to do two or more tasks in the same loop. Sid insisted on combining his loops, but that was almost a guaranteed way of generating errors, and it took a good while to eliminate each. Sid said at one point,
"This is great practice for me. I've never had so many opportunities to fool around with a program."
"It is for me, too. I'm almost at the point where I can claim to be doing something for Mac Hollins. You'll be the operator for that too, and that'll carry enough priority so that we can do it in the daytime."
"I've never really met him."
"You will. He'll want to watch at times, and you can impress him with your skills."
Sid had taken to giving Tom a little hug and kiss when they parted in the early mornings. It was the sort of thing she would have done in front of Cliff, but Tom wondered if she were trying to counteract Ellie's influence on him. In any case, he went to sleep happily on Bruce's old sleeping bag on his office floor.
Tom had been bringing in a bag of clean clothes so that he wouldn't have to go home after night shifts, and, when he awoke a bit after nine, he got cleaned up reasonably well in the men's room. It was when he came out that he caught sight of Anna. She had an expressive face, and she looked absolutely destroyed and devastated. She was actually crying as she rushed past Tom without a word. He was puzzled, but he already knew that Anna was extremely vulnerable, and that all sorts of things might shatter her shaky morale. He returned to his office and began to sketch out some ideas for an improved model.
Tom didn't really talk with anyone that morning, but, just seeing people walk down the corridor past his open door, he got a peculiar sense that something had happened, and that it wasn't good. In those circumstances, his first thought was whether the the Russians had done something. It was gauche to keep running to the War Gaming Room, but Tom had a small radio in his office, owing to the fact that his predecessor had liked to work to music. He turned it on just loud enough to hear.
The station didn't matter. When there was a crisis, it was discussed between songs or items of local news. The station Tom got was playing, "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and it did just occur to him that the quasi-martial music might be being played for a purpose. There was no music particularly suited to the taking off of heavy bombers loaded with nukes, and cavalry music might have been called in to fill the gap.
Tom also knew that, if the crisis were severe enough, they would break into a song with news and go on with news until there was at least some initial clarification. Even the disk jockey would add his view of the situation. So, in another way, it was good news that the Yellow Rose was continuing. Then, when it finished, the announcer began talking about a forthcoming open-air concert. The Russians hadn't done anything serious, and Tom went back to work.
It wasn't until almost lunch time that Sid stopped by. She said quietly,
"Have you heard about Pete?"
"He shot himself, but he's not dead, only badly injured."
That was a jolt. Before Tom had put together any sort of coherent reaction, Sid continued,
"I've never liked him, but I certainly never hated him or hoped for this. We've worked together, and he's been okay at times. He must now be in quite a pitiable condition."
"Is there any kind of note or explanation?"
"A girl he liked was going out with someone else. He waited in front of her apartment building until she returned from a date, and then shot himself on the street in front of the girl and her date. I suppose he said to himself, "She'll be sorry now!'"
Sid swore under her breath as Tom continued to process information and feelings. Then he laughed. Sid closed the door and said,
"There is something funny about it in an awful way. But don't let anyone see you laughing. Anna would probably go for your eyes with her nails."
"I guess it's just that Pete has always been so hopeless, and here he's done just about the stupidest thing anyone could do."
Sid agreed and added,
"I dare say it did make quite an impression on the girl. For all we know, she may, at this moment, be screaming uncontrollably in a psychiatric ward."
Sid and Tom both burst out laughing. She said,
"We're both of us dreadful. But we'd better pull ourselves together and go out and mingle."
Predictably enough, Jacky and Ted and Anna were all standing together in the corridor. Sid joined them. Tom was about to go over to Janet and Eileen when Bruce plucked him by the sleeve and said,
"Let's go across the street for something to eat, Tom."
Tom was happy to oblige. Somewhat ironically, Bruce chose the same restaurant Pete had taken him to. Once they had settled into a corner booth, Tom said,
"I just now found out about Pete."
"Sam's away today, and I got a call just as I came in at seven thirty. It's a hell of a mess."
It was Bruce's responsibility, in Sam's absence, to do whatever needed to be done. Tom asked,
"Is there anything that anyone can do?"
"Surprisingly, yes. The police have already charged Pete with carrying a concealed weapon and illegally discharging a firearm within city limits. So I have to get him a lawyer. I also have to decide whether to try to get in touch with his parents."
"What kind of condition is he in now?"
"They've assured me that he'll live. But he's blown one eye and half his face away. It's all covered in bandages now, but he'll be considerably disfigured."
Tom just then realized that Bruce had been to the hospital to see Pete. He asked,
"Was he conscious?"
"Sort of. He seemed delirious. I couldn't understand anything he said. But what worries me is the long-term problem. One day he's going to come back to work with half his face missing and God knows what kind of attitude toward the rest of the world. How are other people going to react? How would you feel?"
"It'll certainly be a shock to see him, but I've never had much contact with him in the past. I'll try not to show anything and go on as before."
"That's good of you, Tom. I'm not sure that everyone will do as much. But the other part of the problem is that we had decided to let Pete go. We were going to tell him today or tomorrow. As it is, we can hardly go over to the hospital and fire him."
Tom knew that Bruce shouldn't have told him that. It showed how upset he was, and Tom replied, frankly enough,
"As far as I could see, keeping Pete on the payroll was always a charitable enterprise. I guess it's just a question of how charitable DRI wants to be."
"My present feeling is that, granted we made a mistake in hiring Pete, it's something we now have to live with."
"It's hardly DRI's fault that he tried to kill himself to impress a girl and botched it."
"Oh, I think this has been coming for some time. Remember that night at his apartment?"
"That was a total debacle. I should have intervened."
"You did. You kept the police from arresting him."
"Yes, but it might have been better if they had. What I mean is, I should have insisted that he see a psychiatrist. It didn't take any great insight to see that he was falling apart."
"I've never lived in a world in which people were each other's keepers to that extent. I've generally just worried about my own problems."
Bruce smiled indulgently and replied,
"But you've never been a supervisor. Suppose that it was my mistake. I act for DRI as an official. I make mistakes, but I also do good things. The organization has to live with the mixture. In this case, it's responsible for whatever mistakes I may have made in dealing with Pete, and is obligated to continue to employ him. Now, what I wanted to ask you is simply whether there's anything wrong with that argument."
Bruce smiled. Despite the seriousness of the occasion, there was a little bit of a joke in this question. Both he and Tom were trained in philosophy, and they both knew that academic philosophy didn't primarily concern itself with the making of such low-level moral judgments. But, Tom could, of course, evaluate the argument. He replied,
"The premises defining your position and function go way beyond anything I would have suggested. But if you really do assume that it's part of your official function to take reasonable precautions as to the mental health of everyone in Complab, I guess it could be argued that DRI is responsible for Pete's present condition."
"Well, it's bound to be vague exactly what the position of Assistant Director of Complab encompasses, but I guess that I should at least have a say in defining my own position. There's also another aspect of the matter that might touch on you."
Tom made the necessary noises, hoping that Bruce wouldn't expect him to help tutor Pete in programming when he returned to work. It turned out to be something else.
"This case is already in the papers, and it may generate a good deal of publicity. The upshot is that the final decision on Pete will almost certainly have to be made by the director. I hardly know him. Have you any idea how he'll react?"
Then it hit Tom all of a sudden. Bruce, straight-forward as he always was, wanted to talk with him, a junior member of his group, because he happened to have a connection with the Big Boss. He wasn't asking Tom to intercede, but just provide information. It was most unlike Bruce, but Tom was willing to co-operate to the best of his ability. He replied,
"He's an easy man to deal with in many ways, relaxed, intelligent, and good-natured. But he's certainly no sentimentalist. He might be liberal about severance pay, and even try to arrange for psychiatry for Pete, or something like that, but I think he'd definitely want to get rid of him."
"He'll know that you know Pete, and he may ask you what you think of him. I guess I should say that neither Sam Harris nor I would dream of trying to put any pressure on you in that respect. What you may think fit to tell the director about one of your colleagues is entirely your decision, and we won't ask what you say, or even whether you're asked."
That was all well and good, but, of course, Tom now knew that Bruce wanted to be charitable. If Tom did now say something negative to the director about Pete, he would feel badly about it. Did Bruce realize that, too? Probably. Above all, it was odd to hear Bruce talking in these ways. The man Tom had known, who seemed to be pure programmer and not much else, was turning out to have an entirely different sort of subtlety, the sort which could easily put him in charge of an organization. Tom was somewhat uncomfortable at that level, and was happy when they started talking about his model.
When they got back, Tom was immediately cornered by Anna, who said,
"We're getting together people to go to the hospital to visit Pete. I'm sure he'll want to see you, Tom."
Tom's inward reaction was, simply, "Oh shit!". He thought quickly, and asked,
"What are the visiting hours?"
When Anna told him, he replied,
"I'll probably go over with Sid and her husband at a time that's good for them."
Sid had fortunately disappeared by this time. As he got away from Anna, Tom had a reprieve, he hoped an indefinite one.
Nothing happened on the Pete Helton front for a couple of days. The people who had been over to the hospital said that he'd be there for about two weeks, and the lawyer Bruce had retained got the charges against him dropped. There was less talk about him with each passing hour, and things returned to normal.
A few days after Pete's initiative, Tom ran into Mac Hollins in the lounge in the main building. Hollins said,
"You folks at Complab seem to have a real zest for drama. You produce as much as the whole rest of the organization put together."
"You mean, the Pete Helton episode?"
"Yes. The man who decided to call it a day. And then do it in such a way as to impress his girl friend. It confirms something I was telling you the other day."
Tom could hardly imagine what, and, before he could ask, Hollins said,
"I checked the FBI reports on Helton, and he's an Anglo- Saxon, the same as you and I. His father went to Groton."
"You'd never guess it from the way Pete speaks."
"Well, some people do go radically down the social ladder for a variety of reasons. Helton's father evidently did. Anyhow, Helton junior's action was quite typical of our little sub- culture. The gesture means everything and justifies anything. There's a cultural affinity with the Japanese ritual suicides. Of course, only stupid Anglo-Saxons carry it to that extreme. It's a good thing you aren't stupid. If you were, I might wake up one morning and read in the paper that you'd disembowelled yourself to impress some trollope right in front of the Bethesda Hot Shoppe."
Tom had hardly seen Hollins in such a good mood, and they sat down at a corner table with coffee. He was asked a good many questions about Helton, in the course of which Tom indicated that Bruce wanted to keep Pete. Hollins replied,
"I've mostly admired Bruce Hammond from afar, but I know he's one of the best men we've got, very possibly the best. So he wants to keep Helton. So does Wes Harrison. I guess we can afford to if the man promises not to shoot himself when he's standing next to the computer. A load of buckshot would raise hell with all those tubes."
In response to further questions, the story of the moving party came out. Hollins got laughing harder and harder. Finally, with tears in his eyes, he replied,
"We need that man at DRI. I'll have to make a point of meeting him when he comes back. Perhaps we could put him on the reception committee for visiting dignitaries. It might impress them that we mean business."