All five of us arrived in Cincinnati on a particularly unpleasant day in the January of 1946. It was raining hard as we emerged from Union Terminal. Wherever I looked, there was mud with patches of dirty snow left on it. I looked secretly at the others as we stood under the narrow roof waiting for taxis. Ralph looked amused, I can hardly imagine why. Jane did not look amused. Maria stood by her side, rather like the assistant hostess of a party which was showing signs of deterioration. I could see her looking for something on which to comment favorably, but, in all that dismal landscape, not even she could find anything appropriate. Brenda, of course, had seen the city before, and knew that it would look better in the sunshine. Even so, she looked a little out of patience.
We piled into two taxis with our luggage and headed for our new home. I had rented a large slightly decayed house on the opposite bank of the Ohio River, directly facing downtown Cincinnati. Although the house was in Covington, Kentucky, it afforded a good view of the Public Landing, a cobbled sloping area directly behind which Robert Mott Rogers had had his store. There were a number of other reasons for the choice of house. It was relatively cheap, which was a consideration. We wanted to spend the income from Brenda's money on more productive things than luxurious accomodation. Then, too, I wanted a large house. We had never lived all together under the same roof, and it seemed that space might minimize friction. On other hand, a large dark house whose roof undoubtedly leaked wasn't quite what one wanted on a night such as this. I thanked God I had called ahead to the jack- of-all-trades I had hired. The house had fireplaces, and, with luck, he would have at least one of them going.
We crossed the Ohio River on an old stone suspension bridge whose massive steel cables curved from the top of one tower to the arched deck, and then back again to the top of the other tower. In the lightening rain, the great river below us stretched out into the gathering night beneath shifting vapours which were caught in the lights. Maria pointed out some old-fashioned steamboats spewing out quantities of black smoke into the murk as they maneuvered slowly. I felt a certain drama myself, and hoped that it would make up for the discomfort.
I am persuaded that, when people live together, no matter what the relation, someone must change. In this instance, contrary to what one might have expected, it was I. During most of my life, all of it except for that post-war American interlude, I have been craggy, hard to please, and iconoclastic and unyielding in my opinions. For some reason, unclear to myself as much as to anyone else, I suddenly became the conciliator, the man who tries to please everyone. Not to put too fine a point to it, I became something like a superior sort of butler or secretary, the man to whom people come when something needs to be put right. I became, as Jeeves would have put it, the man who endeavors to give satisfaction. The arrival at the house was thus, for me, a critical moment.
The most important thing, really, was that the house had good lines. It was, I suppose, a copy of a southern plantation house with a high curved porch roof supported by tapering pillars. Such copies can be disasters, but this was a good one. There were appreciative sounds as we got out of the taxis. Then, as we went up the first of two separated sets of steps, I saw that the house was well-lit, an extremely encouraging sign.
The actual entry was somewhat anticlimactic, with Jane catching a heel and sprawling full length in the entry hall. My man, Dawson, quickly righted her and conducted us to a large room with a crackling fire in a stone fireplace.
The room was a gloomy one, with dark panelled corners hardly lit by small lights in sconces, but we gathered around the fire like weary adventurers after a long trek Mrs. Dawson provided coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.
In those first months, the moves that we made, like the staging operations for a military offensive, were kept as secret as possible. Money was massed, and the farms around the college were acquired. But very few people attached any special significance to Brenda's entry into Cincinnati. Many plans were drawn up, some of them by architects, but neither the tanks nor the bulldozers were ready to roll.
It was also during this period that Ralph began to teach mathematics at Hiram Mason University. He was quite enthusiastic, not only because he got to exercise some of his learning, but because he would be our advance agent, something like a spy. Brenda remarked to me,
"I hope he enjoys spying. The students we saw there aren't going to want to learn about infinite numbers."
"No. I've been offered the "chair" in poetry by our friend, Lefty, but I declined the honor."
"We may still have to press you into service in the fall. That's when we expect the invasion. Jane and I may end up teaching, too. There's a definite risk of being overwhelmed."
We put Maria into a private girls' school in the best section of the city. It was, as far as we could see, quite a good school. Among other things, Maria started writing poetry, in both German and English, but not in Polish. If one hadn't known, one might have taken it for a translation of Japanese poetry. Quite light and fanciful in tone, it had virtually nothing to do with her past life. But, then again, that was Maria. She would twitter, rather beautifully, about flowers even if the Red Army were about to burst through the door. However, it must also be said that her poetry, despite its lightness, was quite good. She had the analytic ability that even some fairly decent poets lack. She could glance at a poem, either by herself or someone else, and say instantly which line was bad, or where the triteness lay.
The first parent-teacher conference was, of necessity, an unusual proceeding. We couldn't all go without appearing ridiculous, so it was decided that Brenda and I would attend the first time. The teachers, most of them women, were a little younger than one might have expected. There was not, I should have judged, a single teacher who supported himself or herself entirely on the salary paid by the school. That, of course, is the usual pattern. A certain percentage of the graduates of such schools like the life in them enough to teach in one. As they generally have some money of their own, the low salaries don't prevent them from doing so.
Mrs. Whyte, Maria's English teacher, was a small engaging lady in her mid-thirties. We later discovered that her husband, an international businessman, was almost never home, an arrangement that seemed to satisfy both.
Brenda introduced herself as Maria's adoptive mother, and explained that there were four of us who constituted, in effect, her family. Mrs. Whyte was very pleased with Maria. When Brenda told her that I was a poet myself, we quickly got into a discussion of Maria's poetry, and of poetry in general. At length, probably to include Brenda in the conversation, Mrs. Whyte said to her,
"She has such a fascinating background. She makes her girlhood in Prague sound so interesting, and then those years in Paris must have been exciting, even under the German occupation."
Brenda almost snorted. I wasn't so terribly surprised, and gave her a little nudge. In explanation, I might say that there's little love lost between Poles and Czechs. The former were happy to take a slice of Czechoslovakia while Hitler was carving it up, a little before he turned on Poland. There was probably little difference between the pre-war residents of Warsaw and Prague, but it's one of those many cases where the residents of neighboring countries hate each other over largely imagined grievances. It was therefore shocking to Brenda that Maria should represent herself as a Czech. The true stamp of complete cultural transition is the acquisition of the blind hatreds.
Mrs. Whyte was sharp, and, despite my attempted cover- up, she said,
"It very often happens that young people give us a rather imaginative version of the facts."
Needless to say, we ended up by giving Mrs. Whyte the full story. I summed up,
"Maria has probably been to a hundred different schools, most of them in Germany, with a different cover story for each. I imagine it's second nature for her to fabricate something the minute she gets into a school."
When all was said and done, we were the last of the visiting "parents". Mrs. Whyte, for one, was more impressed with Maria than ever, and I was sure that the latter would have an ally if she encountered any obstacles at the school. On the way back, I convinced Brenda not to make a scene over the Czech business. I said,
"She probably started claiming to be Czech because they're so much less likely than Poles to be Jewish."
Brenda relented a bit and replied,
"Anyhow, she seems not to have stolen Mrs. Whyte's purse."
Jane's approach to Cincinnati was less predictable, although, there, too, one could understand it after the fact. Jane had always had nice clothes. Although she had never talked much about such things, even with Brenda, she must always have spent a good deal of time shopping. Cincinnati was hardly a mecca for women's clothes, but it was a fairly typical American city, and a vast flood of consumer merchandise was filling the shops. There were days when, as far as I could see, Jane did little but go from one shop to another.
One of these was the first day on which Brenda couldn't leave her room. I had been warned of this phenomenon, but found the reality sufficiently disquieting to accompany Jane on her tour. I suppose I wanted to be told that Brenda was really all right, but Jane seemed hardly to give it a thought. We started proceedings with a visit to the H. and S. Pogue Company. Aside from shopping for herself, Jane was looking for something for Maria to wear to her first dance, an event scheduled two weeks hence.
As I sat in a reasonably comfortable chair, I couldn't help noticing the many women pecking at the clothes like so many chickens. Most of them had strayed so far from any norm of attractiveness that mere clothing could make little difference. More precisely, a wise choice would render them relatively inconspicuous, while an unwise one would produce an appearance either bizarre or ridiculous, or both. Despite these plain facts, they acted as if virtually any goal could be achieved if only it were approached by a woman, of whatever shape, in the right dress. When Jane reappeared, I mentioned this extraordinary phenomenon. She replied in a tone rather too light for such a serious subject,
"Oh, it's the same everywhere. They're desperate, but they can't bring themselves to give up."
"Why should they be desperate? Most of them are probably settled housewives."
Jane looked at me as if I had said something absurd and replied,
"That's hardly enough. The sort of woman you have in mind knows that her life would change markedly if she could suddenly produce a madly glamorous appearance. Other men, better than her husband, would want her. There might even be career opportunities."
I answered, pointing to a woman some distance away,
"That's probably true, but it's going to take more than a new dress to make that woman madly glamorous."
"I expect she imagines the dress to be only the first step. There'll be a weight reduction programme, a new hair style, and so on."
"That's the wrong order. The dress won't fit after the weight reduction."
"Oh Thomas, it's all just fantasy. She never will actually lose weight. But she wants the dress now. She thinks it'll start her on the right road."
It struck me that a great many ordinary women were actually crazier than Jane. Jane didn't have absurd fantasies about herself. She was exactly what she wanted to be.
The next day, Brenda was functioning again. She didn't look terribly well, and approached me rather quizzically, as if unsure whether to make direct reference to the previous day. I asked her how she felt. She replied,
"How do I look?"
"Much as I used to in the throes of a hangover."
"Well, Thomas, I didn't drink anything, but it may come to much the same thing."
It seemed to me at the time that, in her obviously weakened condition, Brenda was more likely to take my suggestions seriously than she might otherwise have been. I took that opportunity to suggest continuing our former sexual arrangment. She smiled wearily,
"You've been working up to that for some time, haven't you, Thomas?"
I admitted as much, knowing from her tone what the answer would be. She continued,
"Yes, I've seen it coming, but I'm afraid the answer is negative. I don't believe that arrangement reflected very well on either of us."
I agreed in a grumbly sort of way, actually not at all. Although I didn't say so, I thought it had been a very fine arrangement. Now, evidently, it was to be a source of shame. Brenda tried to cheer me up, failed conspicuously, and then suggested,
"Why don't you and Ralph bring Muggs over?"
"I thought that, since Jane and Ralph have adjoining rooms, they might now ..."
"Not our Jane."
Brenda then gave me a different smile, a truly compassionate one, and said,
"So it looks as if the ladies in our group aren't being very co-operative. Are you still in touch with Muggs?"
"Yes. We're working on a project now. I may go over to see her when we get to the final stages."
That settled things for the moment, but nothing of that sort was ever really settled in our little group. Anyhow, I was approaching the stage of life at which money becomes more important than sex.
I didn't mention Muggs to Ralph becaue he had become possessed by a degree of idealism the like of which I have seldom seen.
Many young men have come home from the wars wanting to create a new world. And, to some extent, they do. Their force is felt for five years or so, after which they become like everyone else. But, with Ralph, it wasn't just that. He was also returning to his own country after almost ten years of what amounted to exile. During that time, he had become much more irritated with the English class system than any of us had realized. I happened to trigger the release of some of this feeling when I remarked that things were so much more vulgar in America. Ralph smiled gently and told me about some of his experiences in England.
"Being compulsively early, I'd almost always be the first one in a railway compartment, and I'd take a seat next to the window. If the next person in was a gentleman, he'd sit down across from me and begin a contest to see who could get the most leg-room. If he had a friend, he'd converse loudly with him. However, if the second person in was at all working- class, he'd slink into the compartment and sit in the opposite corner. If he was with another person, they'd speak together very softly."
I saw where this was heading, and made gently demurring noises. One of the things I have always liked about England is the fact that, unlike America, the lower orders know their place. Ralph tapped me on the shoulder and continued unsubdued,
"I particularly remember a train to Oxford before the war. There were two dons in the compartment, myself, an Indian student, someone who might have been a coal miner, and two nuns. Before they were through, the dons managed to loudly say something unpleasant about foreign students, about Americans, about coal miners, and about people who were too religious. That, in itself, is one kind of vulgarity. The other kinds are absent in England just because ninety per cent of the population is too cowed to express itself."
In my new role as conciliator I didn't say, "Jolly good thing, too." I only pointed out that the American scene, where anyone felt free to express himself loudly and stupidly, might go to the opposite extreme.
It turned out that Ralph believed in education, particularly higher education. He thought that, if disseminated widely enough, it could reduce or eliminate vulgarity without having to tell people that, if they must have opinions, they should keep them to themselves. He concluded with the statement,
"Only a miniscule percentage of the English get sent to university. In this country, it seems likely that half the young people will soon be attending college. That's a far greater commitment to higher education than there's ever been anywhere, in all of history."
What Ralph said might have been literally true, but I knew that many of those colleges, some run by people rather like Lefty Hotchkiss, wouldn't have anything like the impact he imagined. However, as the Americans say, I didn't wish to rain on his parade. I instead spoke of the proposed new communities.
These, too, appeared to be part of Ralph's grand design. These communities, he thought, would be egalitarian beyond anything ever imagined. There would be virtually no social barriers as the people in them struggled to educate themselves with the help of the local college.
I again had a strange feeling. These communities of young people would, indeed, be highly egalitarian. But they'd be only way stages. The minute the residents got their hands on some money, they'd move to more exclusive communities. Ralph didn't have, among his accomplishments, a sense of history. He had no idea how hard it is to change anything. But, then, he was still young.
Despite these pretensions, Ralph remained what he had always been, the most pleasant young man one could imagine. When I did finally mention the possibility of bringing Muggs over, perhaps to teach history at the college, he laughed delightedly and wondered out loud whether she could be hidden from Jane. It didn't seem likely that we could actually pull off that maneuver, and we both knew it.
There was, however, another reason for Ralph's continuing good humor. He had recently had two papers accepted for publication by mathematical journals. For an English literature major who had taught himself mathematics, that was something very rare.
Yet another thing that bucked him up was his success in finding a couple of students interested in pure mathematics. I was more sceptial of this achievement. Both students were girls, and Ralph was quite an impressive young man. It seemed likely that some of that interest was manufactured to gain his attention, but I was the soul of tact.
Of course, in addition to his formal teaching, Ralph was also teaching Maria mathematics. She, with a mind more like her mathematician-logician father than her literary ancestor, took to infinite numbers as if they were things one encountered casually every day. That was satisfying for both of them, but, as Ralph said, the process was so natural and relaxed that it wasn't really the sort of thing one celebrated.
More generally, I wondered how Ralph's idealism was blending with Brenda's more worldly outlook. I brought the matter up in only the most indirect way, but Ralph saw immediately what I had in mind. He regarded Brenda's desire to rebuild the Sanderson fortune as a harmless eccentricity. He then said,
"As long as she creates a community centered on a college, I don't much care what her motives are."
I left Ralph, somewhat pensively, to attend a meeting of the building committee. It consisted of Brenda, Lefty Hotchkiss, a rather jolly architect in late middle age, and myself.
The basic motif was that of a series of concentric circles of low-lying buildings with the present college in the center. As Brenda put it,
"We can't afford to build a traditional college quadrangle, so the best thing is to make it look like an entirely new and different sort of thing."
The first circle was to be of classroom buildings. Lefty had some connections in the contracting world which assured a special price on buildings if they were made mostly out of concrete with very few windows. It sounded to me like a hilltop surrounded by pill-boxes, but Brenda approved.
"That sounds quite futuristic. If they're only one storey, they can be lit with skylights."
"That'll violate the building code, but we can get past that by spending a little money."
Lefty said this as if there wasn't the remotest possibility that any of us would object to bribing a public official. I might have shown some surprise, but Brenda only nodded as if there was no need to be concerned about a solvable problem of secondary importance. I did expect the architect to make some objection, if not on moral grounds, at least to the hideous little structures being proposed. He didn't. Indeed, it became quickly apparent that he was entirely a creature of Lefty's. It was my function to give sage approval to whatever Brenda and Lefty wanted, and the architect's to draw up the plans with no back-chat. Matters thus proceeded at a break- neck pace.
The next circle consisted of what would ordinarily be dormitories, but they would be owned by Brenda. Since many, perhaps most, of the returning veterans would be married, these two storey buildings would contain small apartments, each two of them sharing a kitchen. I pointed out that most married couples would get tired of sharing a kitchen rather quickly, particularly if the other family had children. Lefty smiled broadly and replied,
"She don't want them to stay there long. After a semester or two, they'll be ready for the next circle."
The idea was that newly arriving couples would have no money but their government benefits. Rents in the shared-kitchen second circle would be set so as to be just affordable to such people. However, it wouldn't be long before the wife got a job. Or, if she were too burdened by children, the husband would get a part-time job. Such employment would make it possible to move into the third circle. This much larger one would consist of two storey buildings of four apartments, each of which would be completely independent. These buildings would be so constructed that pairs of apartments could be combined to form flats of generous size. The design of such buildings would be no mean feat of architecture, and I glanced at our man, wondering if he were up to it. He again offered no objection. We passed on to the fourth circle.
This was the beginning of Valhalla, small single family homes which would be owned by the occupants. Since the college would have no national reputation, most of its graduates would be employed locally. Indeed, many of the students would belong to that large class of Cincinnatians who can hardly be persuaded to leave the city for any reason. Many of these people would form life-long friendships in college, and there would be real sadness when it came time to graduate and go their separate ways, even if those ways separated them by no more than a dozen miles. According to Brenda, they wouldn't have to leave at all. They could buy homes in the fourth circle from her on the favorable terms she would extend to them and commute to their jobs. Their present neighbors and friends would help them move.
One could easily imagine a procession of young people carrying couches and chairs, and pushing a refigerator on a dolly. There would be quantities of beer at the destination, perhaps only a couple of hundred yards distant, and there would be a party on the bare floor of the new living room.
The financial terms would be perfectly straight-forward, with no deception, but they did play on a certain vanity. The houses would be bought from Brenda on land contracts. The down payments would be very low, again pegged to what the veterans would probably have been able to save. The interest charged would be the highest legally allowed. It was a feature of land contracts that, if the buyer missed a payment, the house quickly reverted to the seller.
That was standard in most land contracts. But, unlike most of them, there would be a clause allowing Brenda to buy the house back at a sliding rate if the occupant chose to sell the house at all. Hence, she could, in theory, sell and buy the same houses many times. The upshot was that, while the occupants could think of themselves as home-owners, Brenda would, for all practical purposes, be in firm control.
There was talk of going to a fifth and sixth circle. But, while Brenda owned, or had options on, the land, she hadn't been able to borrow enough money to build that far out. It would also be some time before the demand built up sufficiently to sell the larger houses that would be built there.
The meeting ended in less than an hour. Over the years, Brenda has probably spent less time in meetings than anyone else of her financial accomplishments. Her instinct has always been to involve as few people as possible in her operation, and then to allow them to function autonomously for long periods of time. The method works very well as long as one unerringly chooses the right people.
On the drive back in the little car we had acquired, I had a rather ambiguous discussion with Brenda. It was obvious from the meeting that the returning veterans were going to be treated as something less than conquering heroes. I remarked gently that they weren't going to have much spending money left after paying for meals and rent. I wasn't sure whether Brenda would be defensive on that point. So far as I knew, she might even joke about it. She took a middle ground, replying,
"Oh yes, but people often look back on the period when they were scrabbling along on very little money as the best time in their lives. And then, after a few years of that, they'll have their degrees and start to make money."
I humored her by replying,
"Ralph thinks that this kind of college atmosphere will promote a great deal of equality and good fellowship."
"I hope so. Crowded conditions can also produce intrigue and back-biting. But, if they're all convinced that they're going to make lots of money after they graduate, we may be able to hold that to a minimum."
As I turned into our driveway I couldn't help but think how much difference there was between Brenda and Ralph in their assumptions about human motivation. For the time being, their very different goals seemed to be compatible, at least as far as the college was concerned. Still, I was glad Ralph hadn't been at the meeting.