Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 22


That evening, when we were gathered in the kitchen, Sidonie came in and chatted briefly. I was more than a little disturbed to see that she was smoking. I have always hated cigarettes. I hate the smell of the smoke and the way they look when attached to people's lips. I hate it when people gasp and suck at them, and I hate it when the ashes droop. I hate it when they crush them, and I hate the butts in ash trays. Smoking seems to me to be a far worse habit than anything that has ever tempted me. On the other hand, it was inevitable. The only girls who didn't smoke were those who followed their grandmother's injunctions not to engage in unladylike behavior. If even a single one of Sidonie's relatives had told her not to smoke, she would certainly have done so. I usually look away from people when they smoke, but, in this case, I found my eyes drawn to her just the same.

Sidonie seemed to be in fairly good spirits and showed, I thought, some interest in John Henry. But she also asked where I came from and what I did. When I showed interest in the University of Cincinnati, she replied,

"It's a rather funny little place. It hardly seems a university, but it does have some clever and knowledgeable people who do interesting things."

It turned out that, while she was in her first year at Cincinnati, her work at the Parisian lycee had put her well beyond the freshman level in an American college. She had been allowed to test out of certain courses, and was now majoring in philosophy. I immediately responded,

"I work for a man who's fascinated by philosophy. I have a strong interest in it myself."

"If you have nothing else to do, you might come up and sit in on some classes tomorrow."

I would have agreed with alacrity even if she had proposed attending a lecture on mid-Victorian furniture. It was fixed that I would accompany her on the bus the next morning.

When I came down to breakfast, Sidonie was already there, seated at the table and talking with Mrs. Hawkins. I wondered if she were really as wild as everyone thought. With her cousin, for example, there seemed to be an easy familiarity which didn't suggest rebellion on one side or a desire to regulate on the other.

A certain amount of fuss was made over me by Mrs. Hawkins. I was probably the first white boarder she had ever had, and it seemed to appeal to her not inconsiderable sense of humor to treat me as if I were J. P. Morgan himself. When I then addressed her in my quite passable French, both she and Sidonie sat up and took notice. Unfortunately, my accent, acquired as a child, has always been better than my comprehension. When Mrs. Hawkins said that she wished she had croissants to offer me, I smiled and responded that, in that case, I would have two.

Sidonie was delighted by that answer, and, as food was put in front of me, we conducted an extremely rapid three- cornered French conversation with a full complement of gesture. I hardly knew what I was saying half the time, and, when I reverted to English to apologize for the disconnectedness of my remarks, Sidonie replied,

"On the contrary, you make even more sense in French than in English."

We then returned to French. It was particularly fascinating to watch Sidonie as she adopted what amounted to a different personality to suit the language. She could have been a throughly cultured young French lady, right out of one of the best lycees, but there was also a teriffic energy in her face, her voice, and her body. Not even the Parisians were capable of such verbal animation. That, or something related to it, had apparently gotten her thrown out of her lycee. But one felt that, if the lycee had only been able to cope with it, the French might have found that they had produced someone who could send them off in new and exciting directions.

Then, suddenly, the conversation slowed. Mrs. Hawkins, still speaking French, wanted to know what sort of trouble John Henry was in. I gilded the lily slightly, saying, in English, that he had been attacked by a drunk, and, in defending himself, was afraid that he had killed the man. I assured them, however, that there was now no cause for concern. It would be well to keep John Henry in Cincinnati for a little, but he could then pick up where he had left off.

Just as we were about to leave, John Henry himself came down. It seemed that he had had enough of rest and relaxation, and was now anxious to start surveying ways for the C&O to get through Cincinnati. I told him,

"I think we'd be willing to construct overpasses, or any reasonable civil engineering projects, if we can avoid level crossings with other railways."

Sidonie asked him,

"When the work starts, are you going out there with a big hat and walking stick and order people around?"

"I'm not going to supervise the work. We're just doing a feasibility study."

As Sidonie continued to raise humorous objections against John Henry's goals and probable procedures, it seemed to me that she belonged with him, just as Vignis belonged with Mac. In fact, I might easily do things, consciously or unconsciously, that would bring them together.

I was aware of having something of the perpetual matchmaker in my personality, always helping the woman I wanted to a union with some other man, the man of her choice. I hoped not to repeat that pattern again. This time, at any rate, the man didn't seem to want the woman.

Sidonie walked like a European woman. In a full-skirted plaid dress and medium heels, she took steps very quickly for one of her length of leg. The result was that I had almost to run as we shot down alleys and emerged on to the main street. It was only then, when we slowed momentarily, that I had a chance to appreciate that it was a beautiful spring morning.

Sidonie wasn't the only elegant young woman in view, but everyone looked at her. Some of the looks were admiring and some appraising, but there were also some friendly greetings which she returned without stopping. A man selling flowers called out to her,

"Take a flower to your teacher!"

Sidonie replied casually,

"My professors only want boys."

The man had only been joking, but looked as if he weren't sure whether she was also joking. Whatever his reaction to Sidonie, neither that man nor any other gave me any odd looks. I could hardly imagine who they thought I was.

The bus appeared suddenly, teetering and roaring around a corner in a cloud of noxious smoke. Sidonie started running, constrained a little by her clothes, but still at a speed I could maintain only with some difficulty. Needless to say, we made the bus.

The driver, while probably not drunk at eight in the morning, made one wonder. Apart from a series of remarks in doubtful taste, addressed to all and sundry, he drove in a way that threatened to shake the bus apart. I was first thrown hard against Sidonie, and then she, laughing, landed almost in my lap. When we touched, she had a lean muscular feel that excited me, and also reminded me how young she was.

The bus ride was short, and we transferred to a trolley that ran down one of the main streets of Cincinnati. After crossing a canal, we entered a crowded district which, I was informed, was populated largely by Germans. It was almost a slum, but there was enough orderliness and cleanliness to preserve a certain respectability. With bell clanging and clattering noises coming from beneath the floor, we sedately poked our way through the traffic and the crowds of pedestrians.

Sidonie chatted with others on the trolley, evidently people she saw almost every day. In the course of these little conversations, I found that she could change her manner and speech to a surprising degree. Gone for the moment was everything French, to be replaced by a variety of American accents and sets of gestures. At times, she even sounded like a Jewish girl from New York City. I immediately asked her where she had learned such fluent and idiomatic English. She replied,

"We learned British English in school, but I always liked to hang around with the American marines who've been occupying the country almost since I was born."

"Are they much disliked in Haiti?"

"Not really. Most people like them. Now, there's even a voodoo god who speaks with an American accent. He demands corned beef sandwiches and whiskey."

I thought, but didn't say, that Sidonie's family could hardly have wanted her to consort with marines. She seemed to read my mind.

"Of course, good girls weren't supposed to go anywhere near the marines. In fact, they aren't really supposed to even go around the streets without a chaperon. When I was about thirteen, and given a chaperon, I'd just start running. The chaperons were never able to keep up."

"I can imagine it. I wasn't sure that I'd be able to keep up with you enough to make the bus."

We then began to ascend a hill which seemed much too steep. No railway could have begun to go up such a grade, and there seemed to be no cable pulling us up. When I remarked on it to Sidonie, she replied,

"It sometimes slips a little, but we've always gotten up, even with snow on the ground."

I could tell from her tone that she had no great respect for technology. On the other hand, she seemed to have been amused at something for some time. It did occur to me that John Henry might have told her something about me, and that I might myself be the joke. However, I had been with him almost all the previous afternoon and evening, and Sidonie had come through only twice, each time briefly. Surely there had been no opportunity for any revelations about my humble person. Either she was amused at what she could see of me, or at the general state of the world.

We got off the trolley at the very top of the hill. There was no sign of a university, and we confronted only a street of rather modest shops and residences. The only people visible were middle-aged and rather worn down in appearance. As we walked along, we did pass something called, "The Bearcat Lounge", with a prominently displayed and improbable mascot. My companion explained,

"That's the mascot of the football team, but that place has no connection with the university. Students do sometimes wander in there by mistake, and they sometimes get beaten up."

"So the only thing that looks as if it might be connected with the university is really hostile to it."

She laughed and replied,

"A lot of things in Cincinnati are like that. Haiti's supposed to be backward, but it's hard to compete with these people when it comes to plain unimaginative stolidity."

We then came around a corner, and there were suddenly revealed a few buildings, one with a sort of steeple. Sidonie said,

"There it is. My nine o'clock class is in the building with the steeple."

The instructor, a Mr. Richards, was standing outside the class room when my friend swept up to him with myself in tow. As she introduced me and asked if I could sit in, he looked up at her in a hang-dog way. Of course, he could hardly refuse, and, in fact, he agreed readily enough. However, in that instant, I recognized two things. First, Sidonie alarmed and disturbed Mr. Richards. Second, he was a man of my own persuasion.

I couldn't have said how the latter fact had percolated through to me. Perhaps there was a suggestion of degeneracy in the way that he stood, a little stooped but with an odd bounciness. In many countries, Mr. Richards and I are the sort of men who expect, at any time, to be taken behind the police station and beaten. On the other hand, we do survive, partly because of our flexibility and partly because we don't constitute a sufficiently grave threat to make people want to kill us.

As against this rather depressing picture, I remembered that it wasn't clear that I was not a hero. The same doubt should, no doubt, be extended to Mr. Richards. As we filed in to the room, I wondered if he would talk about Kierkegaard.

Instead of Kierkegaard, we got one of Descartes' proofs of the existence of God. Mr. Richards proceeded slowly and lugubriously, and I was sure that he didn't believe a word of it. He said,

"According to Descartes, we all have in our minds the idea of an infinite being."

Richards pronounced the word, "infinite", with a subtle derision, and then went on to explain that no finite set of finite ideas could ever be combined to produce an infinite one. Indeed, in Descartes' terms, there could be no finite cause for an infinite idea. I could see the punch-line coming well before Richards, after some judicious sashaying, concluded distastefully,

"Therefore, God must exist."

It was the sort of class where there was supposed to be discussion, and, after a fashion, there was some. Some of the students had the look of the rather earnest people who peer out from the back rooms of business establishments, but aren't ordinarily allowed to meet the customers. They asked questions which were at once naive and quaint. It seemed to be assumed that God's existence lay more in the province of faith than reason, and they were a little puzzled by anyone who set out to prove it. Other students, presumably the members of fraternities and sororities, were much sleeker and slicker, and seemed to know better than to say anything at all.

Finally, someone asked how there could be evil in the world if God was all powerful. The questioner was a red- headed boy who seemed rather angry. He didn't appear to be at all intellectual, and I took him to be motivated in much the same way as the medieval German peasants who shouted out,

"If there is a God, why does he remain silent?"

The red-headed boy, at any rate, wasn't questioning anything. He was just calling on God to get busy and get rid of the evil.

Richards, of course, intellectualized the boy's remark. Instead of replying,

"By God, I hope God gets on to that evil right away",

a response that would have given satisfaction, he said,

"It's often pointed out that the five following propositions can't all be true at once."

He then wrote the five propositions on the board:

1. God exists.

2. God is perfectly good.

3. God is omnipotent.

4. God is omniscient.

5. There is evil.

The proposition Richards wanted them to deny was #1, but, knowing that most of the students were good German Catholics, he would enjoy watching them squirm as they tried to believe that #5 was false. Then, when they finally did manage to convince themselves that there was no evil, he could have a little of the sort of fun Voltaire had had in Candide.

I could easily imagine Richards producing all sorts of baroque and steamy examples of evil, and leering at the students as they tried to explain them away. Unless I was much mistaken, some of those examples would have some interesting sexual overtones.

It was then that Sidonie spoke, this time with a British accent. The class looked uneasy. She asked simply,

"Do you believe that there is evil in the world, Mr. Richards?"

There was, I felt, a convention that students didn't ask professors questions that were at all personal. Moreover, she pronounced "evil" with a slightly elongated 'e', as if she were talking about something naughty. Richards, a bit nonplussed, answered,

"Er well, yes. There are things, you know..."

"Do you believe that there is a God, but that his power is limited?"

"Well, I don't think hardly anyone has held that, at least in recent times."

"Is there a God, but one who isn't altogether good?"

Richards was far from the sort of man who believes in a mischievous God who plays games with the world. He again made negative noises. She finally asked,

"Is there then a perfectly good and all-powerful God who doesn't happen to know what's going on?"

That brought a scandalized titter or two from the room, and this alternative offered Richards little opportunity for escape. When he passed on it, Sidonie brightly concluded,

"Then, you must be an atheist, Mr. Richards."

Richards, extremely uncomfortable, must have been wondering what the good burghers of Cincinnati would do to a man who proclaimed himself an atheist in class. He had wanted the students to deny #5, and then discover, whoops, that the foundation of their religion was gone. It was the evil Sidonie who had turned his procedure against him. In the event, Richards, without ever denying her assertion, said,

"It will be useful here to compare the Cartesian notion of God to that of Spinoza."

In the remainder of the class, Sidonie was concerned to prove to everyone, perhaps myself in particular, how smart she was. Richards was also smart, and, once they got off sensitive areas, they had a good discussion. I followed it with interest, but was sure that the other students had no understanding whatever of what was being said. As we were leaving the room, I overheard one student say to another,

"I'm glad to find out what that word, "Cartesian", means. I've seen it, but I thought it had to do with geography."

The other replied,

"Yeah, I've seen it too, but I thought it had to do with drilling wells."

After class, Sidonie had a free hour, and we drifted off to a little cafe, still discussing the class. I then told her of Mac's Platonism and my own flirtation with Kierkegaard. She replied,

"I didn't know there were people who tried to apply philosophy to daily life to that extent. Most philosophies don't have much application to anything."

"What kind of thing are you studying, mostly?"

"The rage right now is to say that physical objects are only logical constructions out of sensation. The existence of the object consists only in the fact that you would have sensations, visual and otherwise, which are characteristic of it if you were located in the right position. A tree really does fall unobserved in the jungle because we would hear crashing noises and see a great commotion if we were there. None of this makes any practical difference. The tables and chairs are still here, even if there isn't anything that Descartes would have called substance behind them."

I hadn't heard of this kind of explaining away the kinds of things we thought we believed in, but it was the sort of game I might have expected philosophers to get up to. Wondering whether there were any philosophies that amounted to more than that, I asked,

"Apart from my friend's version of Platonism, what kinds of philosophy would make a practical difference?"

"Well, there are some of the people Plato argued against. Heraclitus, for example. He held that everything is constantly changing. You can't even step in the same river twice because it doesn't continue to be the same river. In more modern terms, we might say that the rate of change is so great that it isn't worth trying to identify objects over any length of time."

"So it would be a mistake to attach undue importance to the uniqueness of any object or person?"

I knew that Sidonie was twisting philosophy in ways that would make it unrecognizable to Mr. Richards in order to make it relevant to my concerns, but I shamelessly encouraged her to continue to do so. She smiled and replied,

"I guess you might say that it's a mistake to try to hang on to people and things that are going to change in ways that you don't like. Instead, you could find new people and new things whenever you get tired of the old. These new persons and things might be closer to the original persons and things than the supposed present embodiments of them."

"One of the problems on the railway is that men get attached to their homes. It'd be more efficient if we could keep train crews constantly circulating around the system, taking home to be wherever they happen to be. If they were convinced that their original homes had changed beyond recognition anyway, they might be less attached to them."

Sidonie started laughing so hard that hiccoughs threatened. After a long drink of water, she said,

"I was thinking that you could have a crew of men constantly painting everything a different color. Then, if all the homes were identical in shape anyway, no one would recognize his home. More seriously, though. Why don't you just do what you want without trying to find a philosophy to justify it?"

"Well, I suppose Mac got us into that. He started talking about philosophy the first time I met him. His wife also has a philosophy, and so does John Henry."

"I know. Sometimes Marx and sometimes Stoicism. I don't think either is at all appropriate for him."

"I wonder. In my case, the value of philosophy seems to be just to keep me from coming to too many conclusions about myself. A dash of Heraclitus might also do me some good. I might turn out not to need a good many things I think I need."

"Except, if your boss is a Platonist, he's not going to like that. We'll have to find something better for you."

I then asked Sidonie what she thought of Mr. Richards.

"I like him. Considering what most of the students are like, he does a pretty good job."

"Why did you force him to admit that he's an atheist?"

"I guess that was bad of me. He does irritate me sometimes. There's something just a little bit wrong with him, and there are times when I want to kick him in unpleasant places."

I was delighted with her response for several reasons. For a start, it tended to confirm my own intuitions. Richards and I are the sort of men people do wish to kick in unpleasant places. More important, her view of Richards was essentially favorable, marred only by minor irritation. She might gradually come to see that I was similar. A little later, she said,

"Sometimes I talk with one of the other girls in the class, the little blonde who sits in front. She thinks Mr. Richards is creepy."

"Did she say why?"

"Girls generally don't try to explain things like that. It probably meant that she doesn't want Richards to touch her, but thinks that he might try."

"But you don't think he's creepy?"

"If I say not, are you going to conclude that I do want him to touch me?"

"That doesn't quite follow, does it?"

"No, but, as a matter of fact, I wouldn't particularly mind. He may have a little something wrong with him, but most people think I've got more than a little wrong with me. I don't see why we deviants shouldn't stick together, the intelligent ones, anyway."

"Well, I've always felt a bit like that myself."

Sidonie then gave me an entirely different look, one I hadn't seen before, and said,

"Well, since you've mentioned it yourself, John Henry said that, sometimes when you meet a lady, your pants fall down. I've been amused by it all morning."

Even though I had commissioned John Henry to tell her that, I must still have blushed scarlet. Sidonie said,

"I wouldn't have said anything about it, but he said you told him to tell me."

"Yes. I just hadn't thought that he'd had a chance to. He and I were together practically the whole time yesterday."

"Oh. Well, you might as well know the rest. I often come to his room at night to visit him. Poor man, that's probably why he was late getting up this morning."

That was another shock. But, then, not such a shock. Sidonie obviously had few inhibitions, and, after all, what better man could she have found? On the other side, what man could have refused Sidonie? As I tried to say whatever I thought was appropriate, she put her hand on my arm and said,

"I know he told you that he thinks that I'm crazy. He does think that. He doesn't want any part of me on a permanent basis."

"But you're wonderful and you're not crazy."

"I don't think I'm wonderful, but it's true that I'm not crazy. However, you have to look at it from John Henry's point of view. He started with nothing but his native intelligence and his remarkable body. He's done all the rest against great odds. I started with all the advantages that money can buy, and some others besides. From his point of view, I'm not accomplishing much. Furthermore, I'm living dangerously, and could easily come to a bad end. He couldn't possibly respect that. Of course, like all men, he doesn't object to a little amusement."

"I'm sure he doesn't take you as lightly as that."

Sidonie laughed and replied,

"I think he does. Among other things, I'm too thin for him. I also have some decadent tastes that he doesn't approve of. What he really likes is for me to read to him, particularly philosophy, but just about anything. Sometimes, I read to him for hours."

"I have noticed that he wants me to tell him about things at great length. He never seems to get bored."

"No. I don't think he ever would."

"He and I may not have much in common, but we communicate well and easily. I think part of what he meant when he said you were crazy was that you might not be totally repelled by a man such as myself."

"I also gave him a message for you. As soon as he gets a chance, he'll tell you that he and I have slept together, but that there's nothing serious between us. That may embarrass him, so, when you next see him, you might cut him off at the pass before he gets to it."

The significance of that message was quite clear to me. Excited though I was, I thought it necessary to tell Sidonie about Vignis and Cindy Lee. She replied simply,

"Those are all things that can be worked out. I have some special needs, too. I don't want to go back to Haiti, and I can't go back to Paris. America's okay even if you're black, as long as you have some sort of protection from white society. If you'll marry me, I'll have everything I need."

Flabbergasted as I was, it didn't keep me from assenting immediately. I then added,

"I wanted to from the first minute."

"So John Henry told me. I liked you from the beginning, and I liked you a lot more this morning. The best thing about you is that you don't let things demoralize you. You've had experiences that would've destroyed a good many men."

"If you're used to John Henry, I can't possibly satisfy you."

"Don't worry about that. All you need to do is touch me in the way that I need to be touched. You don't have to be John Henry to do that. Besides, I have a feeling that you'll be more willing to follow directions."

"Won't he miss you terribly?"

Sidonie laughed and replied,

"He does like me, but I don't think he'll miss me for a single minute."

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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