Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 36


I was in Huntington when the contracts were signed, but was on a brief inspection trip to Virginia Point when the GER stock dropped and the storm broke. Vignis called, from New York actually, to tell me that they were on their way. Mac came on the line briefly to say,

"You're in charge now, son. If anyone gives you trouble, call on John Henry. He'll organize an action that'll look very threatening and potentially violent, and that'll set them back on their heels."

I didn't really understand what he meant, but, before I could ask, Vignis was back on the line. She said,

"Look for a letter explaining some things when you get back to Huntington. I'll get in touch with you when we get to Europe."

I got back to Huntington just as a mob of angry shareholders was besieging the GER headquarters. I found that Sam Hanks had also resigned, and had left with Mac and Vignis. It seemed odd that he hadn't mentioned his intention when we had talked a couple of days previously, but I had other things to worry about.

Sidonie and I were still living with Mac and Vignis, but there was no one in the house, and it had a "For Sale" sign in front of it. I discovered that Sidonie's clothes were gone and concluded that she had sensibly moved out when the trouble started. Assuming that she had gone to one of the hotels, I headed for the largest one with the idea, not only of finding Sidonie, but of setting up a temporary headquarters if ours became unusable.

This wasn't the first angry mob I had seen, but it was the first one I had seen that was constituted largely by automobile dealers, main street merchants, and undertakers. In their way, they were very nasty indeed, more so than striking railway workers. I was glad that they didn't know who I was.

I watched from a block away as a crowd of a thousand or so gathered around the headquarters building. The Huntington police controlled them easily enough, or so it seemed. When the Rotarians discovered that Mac wasn't there, they dispersed. What was unexpected was that they later gathered at Mac's house and burnt it to the ground. It was insured, and it didn't matter much that it was burnt, except that the mob might not have known that there was no one inside.

Late that evening, after searching vainly for Sidonie, I got into our building. Odie was still there, and he had a letter from Vignis that had come in that afternoon. It had apparently been written aboard ship and sent ashore at the last moment.

Dear James:

Sidonie should have written you herself, but she just couldn't. She's here with us, going to Europe. I don't think she means to leave you, really. If you can be patient, she'll grow up a little. The trouble is just that she's so terribly young.

With much love,


Apart from shock, my only immediate thought was that Vignis obviously thought that Sidonie was behaving badly. I hardly wanted to know why.

I left Odie abruptly and went back to my railway car. I then acted peculiarly, to say the least.

There was a bottle of Tabasco sauce that I kept on the table to add a little excitement to the rather cautious cooking of my stewards. Removing the cap, I threw my head back, and, looking stright at the ceiling, I shook sauce into my eyes. The pain was searing beyond belief. Dropping the bottle, I staggered into the dining car screaming. I suppose I must have been clawing at my eyes. Anyway, one of the stewards had the wit to fill a large bowl with water and place it on the floor. Dropping to my knees, I immersed my eyes in the cold water. That gave a measure of relief, enough so that I could think about what was happening and communicate with the steward. On the other hand, the pain was still so intense that, for the next twenty minutes, I didn't think about Sidonie.

In the next few days, all sorts of things were happening. For a start, I received a personal letter from Frances Perkins congratulating us and saying that, since many people had mis-judged us, she was happy to see us vindicated. She didn't include herself as one of those who had misjudged us, which made me smile, but I thanked her for her letter. I also said in my reply,

"I think we have now made good on the implicit promise we made to thousands of young southern field hands in the past six years."

While thoughts of Sidonie were with me almost constantly, I did feel a certain pleasure as I finished writing that letter. It was good to be in charge again, and to do things in my own way without a massive presence lurking behind me.

In those weeks, John Henry was a great source of strength. He was credited, as much as Mac, for the new contracts by virtually the whole work force. His power over the men was now so enormous that his slightest suggestion was taken as law. All I had to do was co-ordinate my moves with him, something that was easy for both of us. The resulting directives were followed more quickly and more enthusiastically than any ever issued by the president of any company. In short, the GER was a dream to run.

John Henry was now in Huntington at least half the time, and, neither of us having a functioning wife, we generally had dinner together. My friend never mentioned Sidonie directly, but, one night, he said,

"I know you're under a great deal of pressure these days, James."

He might have been referring to the pressure of my new duties, but we both knew that he wasn't. I smiled and spread out my hands in a gesture of resignation. He then added,

"It's a dangerous time, a time when things could go terribly wrong."

Again, he sounded as if he might be talking about the railway. But, of course, the GER was probably in better shape than any railway had ever been. John Henry was afraid that, in my bereavement, I would go around dropping my pants in front of every woman I saw. I had indeed done it once or twice, fortunately without adverse consequences. I didn't admit those incidents to him on that occasion, but, of course, he knew me well enough to know what I would do. He said,

"I think we'd better get you someone quickly."

"Yes. I'd call Cindy Lee, but she's happily married in Eugene, Oregon."

I then added,

"Do you think she'll ever come back?"

I couldn't have mentioned Sidonie by name, but he knew that I wasn't talking about Cindy Lee. he replied,

"I've always thought that she was fundamentally unsound. I can't guess what she'll do, but, even if she comes back in a month, we've still got that month to worry about."

John Henry obviously thought that I would be in a jail cell within days if he didn't act. On inspiration, I asked,

"Did Vignis write you?"

He replied easily, in that great calm way of his,

"She did. But I would have been concerned even if she hadn't."

I nodded, and he continued,

"I suppose it's just a matter of whether you want to find someone or have me do it for you."

"Yes. Well, even if I weren't pretty busy these days, I wouldn't know how to begin."

"I think it should be someone with very different virtues, someone who won't seem a poor imitation."

I laughed and replied,

"How about a middle-aged female book-keeper who wears thick glasses, and who cares only about balancing budgets?"

John Henry also laughed. But, when he changed the subject, it was as if he had settled something in his own mind.

The woman who joined us at dinner the next evening answered surprisingly closely to my joking description of the woman I needed. She was, indeed, an accountant of about forty who took care of union business for John Henry. Since we were setting up a retirement fund which would have to be acceptable to the union, she would have her work cut out for her on that issue alone.

Ostensibly, it was a business dinner to discuss that very fund, and Mavis Kellerman was there as the technical representative for the union. However, after a good three quarters of an hour of fairly intense discussion of pension possibilities over drinks, we ordered our food.

We had been handing documents back and forth, but, when we put them away to eat, I was particularly struck by the way Mavis looked when she took off her glasses. The image of the tough school-mistress vanished, and it was replaced by the hurt yet brave look of the recent widow who is determined to make something of the remainder of her life.

I had to admit that Mavis Kellerman was not at all like Sidonie. At one point, when she found that I had long lived in Scranton, she asked me,

"Are you a fan of the Yankees or the Athletics, Mr. Witt?"

Even before I replied, rather shamefacedly, that I knew nothing about baseball, she looked at me provocatively and delightfully. She knew that I knew nothing about major league baseball, but she wanted to see how I would deal with the question. And then, as so often with Mavis, I was allowed to share in the joke. I knew that my attempts to be a normal red-blooded American bordered on the ridiculous, but, in her presence, they constituted grounds for amusement rather than shame.

Unlike Sidonie though she was, Mavis was decidedly attractive, fairly tall and quite slim. When she got up to go to the ladies' room, I noticed her remarkably good posture and bearing. She looked a little like Marcia, but there was no suggestion of hypochondria or related craziness. When we finally parted, I had the impression that Mrs. Kellerman might be receptive to a dinner invitation from me in the near future.

After his very large role in my marriage to Sidonie, I was actually embarrassed to rely on John Henry more than was absolutely necessary in my relations with another woman. I didn't call him to find out if Mavis liked me. Moreover, I never did find out exactly what he thought it would take to keep me out of trouble. Did he think a sympathetic feminine presence would be sufficiently stabilizing, or did he think it would take some pretty intensive sexual activity? For that matter, did he expect me to divorce Sidonie and marry Mavis?

The first time I went out to dinner alone with Mavis, I was absolutely determined not to talk about Sidonie and my own troubles. I made this resolve only partly out of good taste. I also knew that no woman worth having can respect a man who whines and begs for sympathy. Instead, we talked mostly about the railway and the union. Indeed, it looked as if the purportedly business dinner with John Henry might have led to a purportedly romantic dinner which was, in reality, more businesslike than the business one. It might have ended that way if Mavis hadn't said,

"I'm not sure that it's proper, Mr. Witt, for the president of the line to have dinner with the executive assistant of the union. There might be conflicts of interest."

She was teasing again, with her mock gravity. I pointed out that this particular company and union had practically merged, and we then went on to discuss much more personal matters.

For the occasion, Mavis wore a dress of light pink wool. Underneath it, she was obviously rather hard and bony, but the softness of the material, and something in her face which matched it, helped produce a quite different, and very appealing, effect. By the end of the evening, when Mavis shook my hand with a smile, I felt much better. I could see why John Henry thought her much more suitable for me than Sidonie, but, even if I agreed, there was much more to it than that. It was still Sidonie who was featured in all the images which moved through my mind.

It's often said that women mourn a lost spouse while men simply replace her. Surprisingly many men look up the last woman they went with before they married, even if decades have passed. The woman has probably married in the meantime, but, if she is widowed or divorced, he will show up on her doorstep with flowers in his hand. It seems to be, more than anything, a matter of economy. If an old one is available, why trouble to find a new one?

I've already noted that my first thoughts were of Cindy Lee. I must admit that, at one point, I even asked myself whether Marcia might be receptive to a renewed approach. It was only when I imagined the look of loathing that would greet me if I knocked on her door with a smile on my face and a single rose in my hand that I jettisoned that scheme.

Mavis, of course, was new. But she was the next best thing to an old girl friend. John Henry, as with Sidonie, had done the necessary preparatory work. I was sure that he had told her about my past, and, at various times between the two dinners, I tried to guess how Mavis had taken it. She would certainly not have been amused, like Sidonie, nor would she have regarded sexual perversion as a fairly common by-product of modern life, as did Cindy Lee. It seemed to me that Mavis might have felt, with Vignis, that my foibles were a terribly unfortunate consequence of pressures which had become too much for me.

The other question was what John Henry had told Mavis about my marital status. Here, I was fairly sure that he had told her that I had an unsuitable much younger wife who had run away and abandoned me, and who would never return. Mavis was much too respectable to go out with anyone she perceived to be a married man.

After my second date with Mavis, I realized that she had more charm than Sidonie. She didn't have to do anything complex, forbidden, or violent to fascinate. All it took was Mavis' own kind of humor, a little smile, and a quick rotating movement of her fine straight shoulders. It was then, on the very next morning, that I received, of all things, a postcard from Sidonie.

It was from London, and said very little. It was as if nothing were wrong and she were on a short trip abroad. I was addressed as "Dear James", and she said,

"Am particularly enjoying the Turners in the Tate Gallery."

She didn't quite say, "wish you were here", or "looking forward to seeing you soon", but one felt that such phrases weren't far from the tip of her pen.

I, of course, attempted to interpret her intentions. Was she implying that nothing, really, had happened, and that she would be back soon? That was certainly consistent with what she had written. But so were many other things. That postcard might have been her way of saying that, while I would never see her again, we could easily settle into a re-alignment of feelings which would allow an annual and enthusiastic exchange of Christmas cards. I knew, only too well, that, with Sidonie, anything was possible.

The sensible thing was obviously to proceed slowly with Mavis until I had more idea of what Sidonie might do. In any case, Mavis' company seemed to be enough to keep me out of trouble.

By the beginning of 1938 I had come to be considered almost as much a betrayer of my class as Mac on Wall Street. I was also hated almost as much as Mac by the group I have called the Rotarians, not the big men of business, but those thousands of petty professionals and businessmen in whom greed and avarice had reached amazing proportions.

In the circumstances it was inevitable that my past would be blazoned across the front pages of the tabloids. I had previously lived through shame and scandal in Scranton, but that was localized because I had been president only of a relatively unimportant railway. The scandal was now spread to the four corners of the nation, and church people everywhere were asking each other how such a man could occupy such an important position. It was now discovered that I wasn't the communicant of any organized religion, and, to many people, that seemed to explain a good deal. One headline put it,


While the publicity was painful, extremely painful at times, I had expected it. Indeed, I was as well prepared for it as anyone could have been. Although I could hardly venture outside the precincts of the railway without a disguise, these developments made very little difference within it. My past had there been known for years, and, with things going the way they were, no one cared. Unfortunately, there were certain added dangers.

In the course of digging through my past, a good many financial irregularities during my tenure at the Lackawanna had come to light. I hadn't stolen company funds, but there are many grey lines in corporate finance, particularly with respect to the financial moves of the officers, and I had crossed a good many of them. This time, the headline of the same tabloid was,


Suffice it to say, I was being actively investigated, and had little idea whether charges would be preferred against me.

The other danger was a twist on the one that Vignis and John Henry had foreseen. It was not so much a matter of what I might do next but of what I had done in the last few years. There had been a good many women whom I had approached in my customary way. The closest shave had been the one in Portland, where Sidonie rescued me, but there had been others. A good many women had gotten a good look at my face as well as my lower parts. With my picture and reputation being splashed all over the place, it seemed that at least one would come forward with new charges.

One thing I didn't have to worry about was losing my job. Mac still controlled the company from Europe, and I was sure that he didn't care what had happened on the Lackawanna. In fact, I had always believed that he guessed it from the beginning. At first, I had been kept conspicuously distant from the finances of the GER, and it was apparently only later that he came to trust me in that way. On the other hand, I could easily land in jail as either a sex offender or a swindler.

As the pressure mounted in January and February, I often went out with Mavis. Sometimes we went to dinner with John Henry and one or another of his rotating lady friends, and sometimes we went out alone. One night, we directly discussed my problems. Mavis asked, in a disarmingly frank way,

"Why have you exposed yourself to women so much?"

"I've certainly wondered about that. In the end, I always end up admitting to myself that I don't know."

It turned out that she already had an opinion.

"I think it's basically adolescent. There's the thrill of doing something forbidden and also there's the shock value. You're immature in certain other ways, too."

"I am making some progress. But I'm worried that what I've already done will catch up with me."

"Have you stopped doing it?"

"I haven't done it for a couple of months."

"But you still want to at times?"

"Yes. Being with you helps."

Mavis laughed, touched me lightly on the arm and asked,

"Do you want to expose yourself to me or make love to me?"

"Mainly, I want to undress you right now."

At the time, we were sitting in the lounge area of my car. I had hardly touched Mavis in all the time we had been together, mostly because I had been uncertain of her reaction. However, she had become to me almost as fascinating as Sidonie. At that moment, she moved to the sideboard for more coffee. She was wearing the pink dress that I liked best, and my eyes were fixed on the outlines of her long straight legs. She, to my surprise, seemed to be actually giving the matter thought. When she turned, she said,

"I've never had sex outside my marriage, and I really don't want to, particularly with a married man. But I will if it's necessary for you."

It was, really, a quite nice way of refusing. I had, by that time, established that I wouldn't beg or whimper. To say that I needed sex would be to do just that. I replied,

"No, I don't need it. And, of course, I don't know what's going to happen with Sidonie. I've had a total of three postcards, explaining nothing."

Mavis laughed.

"She sounds rather sweet, really. I know it's hard on you, but a girl who could go off like that and still write chatty postcards must be delightful in a certain way."

It was the first time we had ever discussed Sidonie directly. I admitted that Sidonie was delightful in a certain way, and then kissed Mavis. She kissed back enthusiastically, but then picked up her coffee and sat down with it in her lap. I got mine and sat down in my chair across from her.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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