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 Chapter 15

Return to America

We embarked at Southhampton in November, and landed, after five stormy days and nights, in New York. Maria and Jane were curious about the city, and, even though the rest of us were fearful of running afoul of the many remaining Sanderson relatives, we remained for a few days. We then split up into two groups to scout various cities and discover in which ones we could best set up our operation. It happened that Brenda and I investigated Cincinnati while the others visited Cleveland.

Having enjoyed our separate repose on the night train, we arrived at the Union Terminal early one morning. We immediately engaged a taxi for the day. Our first stop, high atop a hill just north of downtown, was the University of Cincinnati. We hadn't expected much, and weren't much surprised. A sleepy mid-sized institution with a folksy feel, it did have some quasi-vocational components that could be expanded, but it was too big to transform overnight with our resources. Our tour of the neighborhood was equally discouraging. A district called Corryville, it was packed with narrow brick houses which teemed with ill-kempt residents. The children, we were informed by a friendly mailman, were known as "Corryville rats." There was, fortunately, more to the city than that.

Built along the north side of the Ohio River, the city is almost bisected by a creek in whose wide valley the railways lie. Everything of note is on the eastern side. The almost purely residential western side was, according to our cab-driver, the preserve of the "dumb dutch." The city did, indeed, contain a great many persons of German origin, and, reasoning that many returning veterans would also be of that persuasion, we directed our driver thither. More important than the Germans was the presence of Hiram Mason University which, despite the name, was only a small independent college. Our college directory told us that it had six hundred students, a program in business administration, and one in fashion design.

When we crossed the valley, we first encountered more streets lined with those same brick houses. Beyond them, a number of small apartment buildings were under construction. We weren't the only ones with that idea. I hoped, however, that our idea was a better one.

On yet another hilltop we found the college, an island surrounded by farmland. It was almost exactly what Brenda had imagined back in London. Indeed, she was now so excited that nothing could have restrained her. We took a quick look through the buildings without introducing ourselves to anyone, and made our way into the student lounge without being questioned. Brenda there found a pay phone and put through a call to the realtors who advertized themselves as the largest in town.

After that, we stopped to collect ourselves. An approach must be made to the president or executive officer, and it would be unwise to do so without knowing more about his college. Most people in our position would have spent a week doing research, but Brenda was extremely impatient. She was just as I had remembered her that day before the war when she had gone to Southampton to purchase a share in the manufacture of the Spitfire.

Brenda began, quite shamelessly, by approaching a little group of female students in the corner of the lounge. She represented us as the parents of a prospective student, and asked some questions. There wasn't much enthusiasm in response. One girl was waiting to transfer to another college. A second said that there wasn't much "social life." I took that to mean that she didn't think herself likely to find a suitable husband at the college. The third girl was there, taking virtually a secretarial course, because her sister had done the same, and now had a job "downtown." A couple of boys then came in to join them as Brenda and I drifted away.

By this time, I was acquiring a certain intuitive feel for the city, with special reference to its institutions of higher learning. No one hurried or showed much excitement, the very opposite of New York. That was partly a matter of location, almost in the south. There was also a marked tendency, probably semi-rural, to think things were pretty satisfactory as they were. Whenever a native referred to the city as "Cincinnata" and smiled hopefully in a way that invited victimization, I knew that we would have a pleasant, but not very productive, interchange.

This atmosphere would have boded ill for us, except that the returning veterans would be a quite different matter. In any case, our talk with the three girls in the lounge gave Brenda sufficient pause so that I was able to persuade her not to do anything rash. As I got her back to the cab, she complained,

"The last time you went hunting with me, I went right to J. D. Detlinger, and had everything settled within the hour. Look how that turned out."

"Yes, but this is more complex. For one thing, the college isn't any good unless you can get the land around it. For another, we'll have to take in a local real estate agent, almost as a partner. We shouldn't just pick one out of the phone book without some attempt to find a good one."

By the time we had arrived back at the Netherland Hotel and put our feet up, Brenda agreed to a little exercise. We would pose as a married couple looking for a house, and would have a number of realtors show us houses. In the course of this activity, we would assess their honesty and intelligence, and also pump them for information about other realtors. Brenda always liked subterfuge, and I knew that the idea of posing as my wife amused her. It was a warm beautiful afternoon, and there was still time to arrange a showing. I asked a few questions of the desk clerk and got on the phone.

The lady from J. D. Evans Company was waiting for us in front of the house we had selected from an ad in the paper. As Brenda and I got out of the cab, the agent smiled commercially. She was tall, blonde, and about thirty five. From the noises Brenda made, I gathered that the woman's skirt, blouse, and shoes were extremely expensive, and that the pearls around her neck might even be real. Oddly, the agent didn't approach us. She instead stood almost transfixed, like a sentry, as we approached. Finally, as we came up the walk, she took a couple of tentative steps toward us, being extremely careful not to catch her heels in the flagstones.

Mrs. Plochman, as her name proved to be, then led us to the house. Walking behind the two women, I watched Brenda, having fun, bounce quickly up the steps. Mrs. Plochman, by contrast, planted her feet carefully on each step while firmly grasping the railing. Despite her obvious physical caution, there was a certain fluidity to her body as she twisted inside her tight skirt. I could imagine her on the tennis court, returning the ball strongly from the baseline.

When Mrs. Plochman spoke, it was with a nervous breathlessness. Perhaps this was her first assignment. In any case, whenever she drew breath, her chest expanded to stretch her delicate blouse tightly. I have always liked big powerful women dressed in light lacy things.

Mrs. Plochman had hardly started to show us the house before she complained of the heat and suggested a glass of water in the kitchen. It really wasn't hot, and Brenda and I declined. Our companion drank greedily in great gulps, almost bursting her waistband. I noticed that her slip was showing, and that there were deep wrinkles in her stockings around the ankles. Returning to the tour, it seemed that Mrs. Plochman could hardly move without pulling her blouse half out of her skirt, with the result that she was constantly tucking it in again.

After we had seen the house, we were asked to sit in the living room while Mrs. Plochman, standing erect in her sentry posture, gave us the facts. These were recited quickly, apparently by rote, with such a tense air that one feared, as with a novice actress, that she wouldn't be able to get through her lines. She did succeed, at the end sighing with visible relief. Brenda gave me a look. She meant, I was sure, that we should clear out before this extraordinary real estate agent fell utterly apart. We thanked her, and I, feeling uncomfortable and searching for something else to say, remarked,

"It's been very nice to meet you, Mrs. Plochman. We'll be in touch with you later. You know, it's odd, but I had the impression from Mr. Evans that a man was going to show us the house."

"Oh no. Mr. Evans has only women agents. He says they're much better at selling homes."

Once we got safely out of range, Brenda caught my arm for support as she gave way to her laughter. She finally said,

"That was a man in women's clothing, wasn't it?"

I was shocked.

"Mrs. Plochman? Surely not."

"I've never met a woman who had such trouble walking in heels and keeping her clothing together. Her voice was funny, too."

"But why would anyone do that?"

Brenda replied only indirectly.

"You were delightful, Thomas. You found her attractive, didn't you?"

I muttered negatively, but Brenda ignored me, adding,

"I almost wet myself when you asked her if they hadn't meant to send a man."

"I still don't see why a male agent would pretend to be female."

"She, or he, practically told you why. The boss only hires women, so he dressed up as one to get the job. No wonder he was so nervous."

I remained unconvinced, but could see that I was getting nowhere. Brenda concluded,

"Much as I enjoyed this little experiment, I think that's enough, Thomas. The lady I spoke with at the other place sounded very good. I'll go to see her in the morning."

While I could hardly be blamed for Mrs. Plochman, I could see that my attempt to do a little serious research would, in Brenda's mind, be permanently associated with a ludicrous episode. I resigned myself anew to my role as jester.

Looking back, it seems to me that one element in Brenda's eventual success was just plain luck. It could have been nothing else. The agent Brenda happened to call, Mrs. Dunlop, turned out to be exceptionally able, intelligent, and honest. Those qualities, most especially the last one, cannot be taken for granted in a realtor. It all reminded me of the affair of J. D. Detlinger. Brenda had that knack of going to the one person who could help her most. In the event, Mrs. Dunlop saw to almost all the land acquisition, allowing us to concentrate initially on the college.

The president of the college was a Mr. J. C. Hotchkiss. He presently had a visitor, but the receptionist assured us that he would soon be free. Brenda and I sat down in the rather sparsely furnished outer office, conversing quietly. It wasn't long before a red-faced gentleman came out of the inner office, waved to the gentleman within, and called,

"Thanks for the info, Lefty. I'll call you in a couple of days.

When Mr. Hotchkiss himself emerged a moment later, he stood in sharp contrast to the informality and down-home aspect of his recent visitor. A large erect older man in an immaculate blue suit and subdued silk tie, he smiled pleasantly at us with obvious curiosity. I suspected that, if I had stepped forward with hand outstretched and said, "Put it thar, Lefty", he would have responded in the best tradition of the Elks' Lodge.

Brenda, however, was in one of her cool beauty roles, the one that involved an occasional sidelong glance and a little questioning smile. Hotchkiss, his day obviously improved, expanded immediately into his position as college president. The only flaw consisted of certain habits of speech, and, more generally, the impression that a quite vivid personality was, for present purposes, being covered by a more cautious one.

As Hotchkiss led us into his office and seated Brenda with some ceremony, I conceived the idea that, having originally had no notion of what a college president is expected to be, he had settled on the role of banker. It wasn't a bad fit. Both are supposed to be solemn, and both are thought to have a certain disciplinary function. Hotchkiss produced a good deep voice as he spoke to us.

"I'm extremely flattered that you're so interested in our college, Miss Sanderson. I'd be delighted to provide you with information and show you around."

He then added quickly,

"And you too, Mr. Thomas. I imagine you'd be most interested in sitting in on some of our classes."

My respect for Hotchkiss increased. He had spotted that Brenda was the one who counted, but also that I might have academic pretensions. He reminded me of a vacuum cleaner salesman who, having impressed the wife by cleaning up the dirt he has thrown on the showroom carpet, rounds on the husband with,

"And you, sir. With this attachment here, you can clean out the interior of your car in a jiffy."

I responded lamely, much as the target of the vacuum-cleaner salesman might have, and left the field to Brenda and Hotchkiss. She sensed the spark in him, and engaged it, but the result was a partly flirtatious exchange of compliments in which absolutely nothing was revealed on either side. It was I who broke the impasse,

"What business were you in before you were a college president, Mr. Hotchkiss?"

He laughed outright.

"Until two years ago, I was in the business of distributing and installing furnaces in the Cincinnati area. The Schmidt Heating Company. We did quite well, but I turned it over to my son when I took this position. Just to prove I wasn't too old to change."

I now had an image of Lefty Hotchkiss in a basement with a flashlight and screwdriver, subtly sabotaging a furnace before convincing the homeowner that it needed immediate replacement. There would be hints of the possibility of fire, and of carbon monoxide filling the house. If the man wasn't frightened, his wife would be. I said,

"Would it be too brash for me to surmise that the college got into financial trouble and sent for you to pull it out?"

Hotchkiss again laughed, this time sensing an opportunity. He replied,

"As you're astute enough to see, Mr. Thomas, I'm more concerned with finances than academics. I've had some success here, and I can say that the existence of the college is no longer threatened. I'd like next to find a way to put it on a really solid footing."

That was all Brenda needed. She spoke of the debt we all owed the returning war veterans, and of the necessity of providing college space for them. Hotchkiss agreed wholeheartedly. He added

"Unfortunately, the government subsidies aren't likely to cover the true costs of a small college that has to expand to absorb the veterans."

He then spoke of classroom buildings and housing. Brenda said she might be able to help with residential housing adjoining the college. Hotchkiss quickly responded,

"I can see that you're a businesswoman, Miss Sanderson. Have you done any housing developments before?"

Brenda responded that she had, but in England under rather different conditions. Hotchkiss was still holding on to the solemnity of the banker as he assured her of his cooperation. But, then, there was a definite entrepreneurial tone to his voice as he added, with some firmness,

"Of course, I can see to the classroom and other buildings if we get the financing."

It was then that I saw where he would profit. Any contractor who built anything would have to kick back something to Hotchkiss.

As we left, I teased Brenda a little.

"It looks as if you can have your high moral position as benefactress to a college, but being in association with a man named 'Lefty' may diminish it a bit. I wonder what the Poles, if there are any in Cincinnati, will think."

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