THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM NO IVORY TOWER, BOOK THREE OF THE MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS SAGA
It was three o’clock in the morning and Mitch Michaels was wide awake.
Ordinarily the two Vicodins he had swallowed at midnight would have taken him all the way to six o’clock, and then there would be the limo ride to the studio where, as soon as he leaned forward into the mike, he’d imagine all those people nodding their heads, guys mostly, driving to work all over the country, their shoulders relaxing because they were hearing what they already believed, and his pain would melt away. But there was no show today because it was a holiday weekend and he was not in his New York apartment; he was in his summer house on the beach in Madison, Connecticut, and without the daily morning rage vent to look forward to and with the disturbing presence just down the hall of Claire Nelson, his daughter’s long-legged, willowy guest with the raven hair and deep-set, innocent eyes, he knew that, in another half an hour, if he didn’t take another pill, the electricity that was then a mounting tingle at both sides of his lower back would pulse down through his buttocks and explode in his hamstrings and toes like bombs going off every minute and a half. Ninety seconds exactly. He’d counted them. It never varied. The worst part was waiting in between.
He didn’t need to turn the light on to find his way down the hall to the bathroom past the room where his daughter Amy and Claire were sleeping because it was just a little shingled cottage, which he and his wife had bought when he was still a sportscaster for seventy-five thousand dollars. Seventy-five thousand! It was worth six hundred thousand now. He knew because he’d had to pay her half that to buy his half from her when they divorced—which he was happy to do—until he figured out that it made her rich enough to enroll their daughter in that school. “How would you feel,” he’d asked on his show, pretending he was talking about some other family, “if you had no say in what kind of a school your daughter goes to?”—forgetting that most of his listeners sent their kids to public schools and didn’t have any say either. The more he’d learned about Miss Oliver’s School for Girls in Amy’s freshman year—how the students addressed their teachers by their first names—or even nick names! How the kids were allowed to dress like savages and read books like Catch 22—as if they knew enough by then to know why we fought that war and what guys died for—the more cheated he felt. It didn’t help that his ex-wife, as sole custodian of his daughter, in total control of when and if he could visit with her, had obtained a court order prohibiting him from stepping foot on the campus.
In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and reached behind the row of bottles containing aspirin and ibuprofen and vitamin C and Barbasol Shaving Cream to where the one containing the Vicodin pretended to hide, opened it, and shucked two into his palm. Only ten left. He put one back and swallowed the other. He’d learned to take them without water because water was not always handy, and besides, if he drank water now, he’d have to get up and pee when what he needed was to be obliterated in sleep. The doctor in Madison didn’t know there was a doctor in New York who filled out prescriptions too—or, anyway, pretended he didn’t.
On the shelf beside the sink sat his daughter’s guest’s toilet kit. Toilet. What a nasty name for what’s in there: toothbrush, toothpaste—lipstick maybe? What else? He reached, touched the soft leather, ran his fingers where the zipper was slightly opened, then, shamed, pulled his hand away. Never before in his life had he imagined that a teenager would stir him. Girls that age, especially if they were as beautiful as this one, were people you needed to protect! He didn’t understand that this one’s ability to stir feelings very near to lust in him was a purposeful application of power, in this case just for the hell of it, and he was as addicted to being around power as he was to painkillers—because maybe they were the same. But he did understand that when the Vicodin kicked in and he was back in bed in the dark, not counting the seconds until the next explosion, he might dream of her, and because he hoped he wouldn’t and still wanted to, he was shamed still more.
An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaelsstephendaven2022-05-19T21:33:37+00:00
On the June morning of my son’s tenth birthday, I woke up in a surge of joy. For three days it had been raining, but now the Sunday sun poured through the window onto my face. We wouldn’t have to postpone the birthday party after all.
“At last you’re awake!” my wife said, reaching for my hand. “I’ve been waiting for hours.” Her head rested on my shoulder, and her body touched mine all along its length.
“Yes, it’s Siddy’s birthday,” I said. “And the weather’s fine.”
“I know. I’ve been watching the sky through the windows.” She turned and planted a kiss on my chest. “Mmmm. Nice.” And moved my hand under her pajama top.
“Peg, we better not. Siddy’ll wake up early today.”
“We’ve got time,” she murmured, then kissed me again and began to unbutton her pajama top.
Of course it was just then our bedroom door burst open and our son charged into the room and up to the side of the bed. Peggy pulled back from me just in time. “Happy birthday, Siddy!” I said, and under the covers, Peggy buttoned her top again.
The sun coming in through the windows lay on the lovely roundness of Siddy’s head and lighted his blond hair and I reached out to hug him, but Siddy was jumping up and down and was unhuggable. “Hey, get up. It’s my birthday and it’s not raining!” he said.
Peggy sat up in bed and sang, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Sidereeeeno, happy birthday to yoooou.” She leaned over me and I looked straight up at her round and pendulous breasts under her pajama top while she kissed our son on his forehead, and I was overcome with happiness at the day that stretched out splendidly before us: I would paddle Peggy and Siddy and Siddy’s friend, Petey McLaughlin, in the family canoe across the Barkhamstead Lake Reservoir to a picnic site where we’d cook the hot dogs and eat the birthday cake and give the presents. And tonight, after our beloved son was fast asleep, what he had just interrupted was a promise Peggy would keep.
An hour later, I got up from the breakfast table to carry the canoe from the shed behind the dorm Peggy and I parented at Miss Oliver’s School for Girls to the station wagon parked in the driveway. Peggy stood up too. “Wait, we’ll help,” she said, glancing at Siddy.
“No, I can do it myself,” I said, tossing my napkin on the table.
“Daad! Its eighteen feet long,” Siddy exclaimed. “And you’re just a little guy. It’s too heavy for you.”
“Sit down, Son. Have another pancake,” I said in my jauntiest voice.
“Are you kidding?” Siddy said.
I pretended I didn’t hear him and went out into the spangling June air, and bounced happily across the lawn to the shed. There, I flipped the canoe over, righting it, put one hand on the nearest gunwale, the other on the furthest, lifted, then kicked upward with my knee on the underside of the canoe, and lo and behold: the canoe was precisely balanced, inverted above my head, the middle cross brace resting on my shoulders. I carried it triumphantly toward the family station wagon parked in the driveway. Halfway there my arms began to quiver and the middle thwart hurt the back of my neck, but I glimpsed my son watching me through the kitchen window, surprise stamped on his face.
Then there was the sound of tires on the driveway’s gravel and I turned my head under the canoe to see the McLaughlin’s’ Volkswagen bus delivering Petey for the expedition, and Petey’s father, Hugh McLaughlin, at the wheel, grinning. With a grunt, I raised the canoe higher to slide it up on the roof rack. But I failed to lift it high enough and the bow hit the roof of the car and the canoe lurched out of my hands and crashed to the driveway just as Hugh slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop inches away. I saw Siddy’s I told-you-so expression in the kitchen window, and then Hugh poked his head out of his bus and said, “Jeez Fran, ya ougta take up weight lifting!”
Hugh’s son Petey jumped out of the bus without even looking at me and ran into the house. “Wow, look at him run!” Hugh exclaimed, unfolding his six and a half feet from the bus. “He’s gonna be a star.” Hugh had been a basketball hero at Ohio State, a hulking force beneath the boards. Today he was wearing a red sweatshirt with Ohio State Basketball emblazoned on the front and his crew cut was even shorter than usual. I liked to joke that Hugh’s academic major at Ohio State was putting on his jock and his minor was tying his shoes, but Peggy always reminded me that all Hugh’s real estate developments made a lot of money and they always reserved the best land for open spaces. “Without even being asked.”
Hugh gazed down at the canoe. “Whasamatter? Can’t ya get it up?” He laughed. Then he bent down, picked up the canoe, and in one smooth movement slid it onto the rack. “Now I gotta run. Got to get duded up for church. Too bad you’re skipping.”
“Well you can go for us both,” I said. “You’re big enough.”
Hugh laughed again. “Really, though. Today’s the Sunday Father Woodward’s gonna talk about reaching out to the ghetto.”
“Oh he talks about that every Sunday.”
“Yeah, well this time we’re gonna do something, not just talk. You’re gonna love the plan.” Hugh put his arm around my shoulder. “We get these two basketball teams, see. One’s black and one’s white, naturally, and we play on each other’s playgrounds.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “I don’t know a thing about sports.”
“You don’t have to know anything about sports, for cryin’ out loud, Fran. These black kids are born knowing. Ever seen one of them jump? Makes one of our kids look like he’s tied to the floor. Obvious racial characteristic.”
I have to admit: I smirked at Hugh. “Being tied to the floor is an obvious racial characteristic?”
“Very funny, Fran.”
I didn’t answer. A vision had just arrived in my head: tall beautiful black people were leaping up toward the distant roof of a huge gym. While some came down slowly, others floated up. All over the gym, a lovely, soothing, up and down grace, a liquid, vertical dance, and I was sitting in the stands, watching. The dance would go on forever and I didn’t care. I would stay there forever too, watching these wonderful people play with their brand new medium: air.
“Fran?” Hugh said. “You here?”
“Sorry,” I murmured.
“Like I said, I’ll take our kids into one of their playgrounds. And you pick up a team of black kids in there and bring them out here to play.”
“Hugh! That’s absurd. They’ve got good playgrounds in there and we don’t have any out here. You’re just trying to have it both ways. You just want to live in the suburbs and not feel guilty.”
“That’s a pretty crappy thing to say, Fran,”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I was really talking about myself.”
“Forget it,” Hugh said, and turned away toward his bus.
“Really, I was,” I insisted, trailing after Hugh. “When I think about how much the kids I teach already have –.”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Hugh was squeezing his huge body under the steering wheel now. He leaned out the side window and said, “The real reason is just the idea of walkin’ into one of those projects and saying, ‘Hey let’s go play some hoops!’ makes guys like you wet your pants. Right, Fran? Or would ya try to read ‘em poetry?” He hit the ignition, gunned the engine, shot the lumbering bus into reverse all in one motion and was gone.
At the lake a little while later, the two boys and I carried the canoe to the water’s edge while Peggy unloaded the station wagon. I was determined to regain the ecstatic mood I’d been in before Hugh’s arrival, but the instant the canoe was in the water, Petey McLaughlin grabbed a paddle and waded on the right side of the canoe straight to the bow where Siddy had made it clear he wanted to sit. “That’s where I sit,” Siddy said from the left side of the canoe. “I told you already I want to paddle, not just sit in the middle.” He started to wade forward too. But Petey got to the bow first and put one leg over the gunwale into the canoe. Siddy looked at me for support.
“Petey, it’s Siddy’s birthday,” I said mildly. “I think we should let him paddle.”
“But I’m the guest,” Petey said, climbing the rest of the way into the canoe and sitting down on the forward seat.
“I don’t care if you’re the King of England, you’re going to sit in the middle,” I blurted, surprised at myself. Normally, I was good at negotiating with children.
Petey hunched his shoulders over and grabbed the seat with both hands beside his hips. “My dad says that guests—.”
“Your father has let out enough hot air already this morning,” I retorted. Petey looked as if he’d just been slapped in the face.
“Daaad! You shouldn’t have said that,” Siddy said, scowling at me just as Peggy arrived carrying the box with the birthday cake.
“Which one of you boys wants to hold the birthday cake so it doesn’t get wet?” she asked.
Petey stared straight ahead. Siddy looked down as if trying to find his feet in the muddied water.
“Maybe you should, Siddy. It’s your cake,” Peggy offered.
Siddy looked up at me. I shrugged. “Siddy, you can paddle on the way home.”
“Oh all right,” Siddy relented. “But don’t forget!” Petey flashed a victorious smile at me, and Siddy climbed into the middle and sat down. Peggy handed him the cake and got in too, right behind him. She leaned back against the center thwart and put her arms around him.
A few minutes later, we beached the canoe on the other side of the lake and carried the hot dogs and the birthday cake and the presents up a steep rise to level ground and a lean-to. It was set just far enough back so we could see out across the lake from in front of it, but could not see the canoe at the foot of the incline.
When I built the fire, it lighted immediately. We roasted the hot dogs on thin green sticks, only burning a few of the hot dogs – which were delicious anyway. Then Siddy opened his presents: a Swiss army knife from me, a compass from Peggy and a New York Yankees baseball cap from Petey, which Siddy donned right then. As Peggy lighted the ten candles on the cake and Siddy blew them out in one easy breath to get his wish, my spirits grew bright again. None of us noticed that behind us, to the west on the other side of the lean-to, the sky was darkening.
After the cake, the two boys told some knock knock jokes and Petey agreed that Siddy told the best one: “Knock Knock, who’s there? Orange juice. Orange juice who? Orange juice glad to see me, Baby?” And then, with perfect timing, as if the passengers waving at us were applauding Siddy’s joke, a sleek old fashioned Chris Craft with shiny mahogany sides and a snapping American flag went zooming by just far enough away for us to see it over the rise, leaving a marvelous wake behind.
Then Petey pointed at the ridge behind me. “I think it’s going to rain,” he said. Sure enough, a line of dark clouds that had just passed over the ridge was coming at us fast.
“Oh well,” I said. “The party is almost over anyway and we’ve had lots of fun.”
“And besides,” said Peggy, “It’s almost four o’clock, and, Petey, we told your dad we’d have you home by five.” She put the remaining birthday cake in the box to take it home. “If we hurry, we’ll beat the rain,” she said, and stood up facing the lake. A second later, she said, “My, my, look what I see,” and we all jumped up and looked.
A hundred yards from shore, the canoe was sailing away down the lake.
“Oh,” I said. “the canoe’s gone.”
“How observant!” Peggy said. Then she started to giggle.
Petey stared at me. “You didn’t tie it up?”
“Why should he?’ Siddy said.
“He was the last one off the beach,” Petey said. “He shoulda tied it up.”
“Yeah, well there’s no tide.” Siddy said.
“It was the wake from the Chris Craft,” I said. “I didn’t think about that.”
“You didn’t?” Petey frowned.
No I didn’t and either did you, you little shit, I thought.
“Well, I wish my dad was here. He’d catch up to it in a minute. He’s a champion swimmer,” Petey said.
“So’s mine,” Siddy announced.
“He is?” Peggy said.
“Yeah, he is,” Siddy insisted, looking directly at me.
I watched the canoe. It really wasn’t very far away yet. Maybe I could catch it. I took off my sweater and started walking down the slope to the beach. Peggy and the two boys followed. “Francis, it will blow up against the shore somewhere,” Peggy said. “We can walk to it,” but I paid no attention. A minute later, I was at the beach, arriving precisely when the rapidly approaching clouds obscured the sun. I peeled off my T shirt.
“Hurry up, Dad,” Siddy urged.
“I am,” I said, as the cold breeze arrived. I unbuckled my belt and took off my jeans.
“You goin’ skinny?” Petey asked. Some of the contempt had melted from his tone.
“Naw, he’ll swim in his underpants,” Siddy said. “There’s probably girls around.”
“If there are they’ll all be wearing overcoats,” Peggy said.
In my underpants, I waded out to my knees. The breeze was now a wind and the canoe was departing much faster. Behind me I heard Siddy call, “I’ll count to three, Dad, all right?” Without turning, I waved an acknowledgement.
“ONE,” Siddy called and I bent my knees. “TWO,” and I stretched my arms out in front of me. “THREE!” Siddy called and I just stood there. I was imagining how much more chagrinned Siddy would be to watch his father get a cramp in the middle of the lake and drown in front of everybody. I turned to face the little group, and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” and waded back.
Peggy looked relieved. She put her arm around our son. “Siddy, we’ll just walk around the lake to where the canoe lands.”
“Yes, we’ll make it into an exciting hike,” I said.
“But Dad, you said I could paddle back!” Siddy exclaimed, and burst into tears.
Just then it began to pour down rain.
If I hadn’t broken the promise to Siddy, and if I could have stopped thinking about how humiliated I was going to be when Hugh McLaughlin would ask how the birthday party had gone, the hike we took around the lake, walking in single file in the pouring rain, would have been a lark, a funny story Peggy and I would still be telling when we’d grown old, but I knew how ten-year-olds feel when their parents break promises and I could imagine the amazement in Petie’s voice as, right in front of Siddy, he told his father I didn’t remember to tie up the canoe.
It took us at least an hour to get to the canoe where it had finally landed – several miles from our station wagon. We dragged it to the edge of the road and inverted it. I told Peggy and the boys they should get under it out of the rain while I hiked to the car. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” I lied.
But Peggy wasn’t listening to me. She was looking toward a curve in the road, her hand to her ear. “Do I hear motorcycles?”
Sure enough, in another minute, two motorcycles appeared around the curve, exactly abreast, their riders leaning sharply, water flying from the wheels. They slowed and stopped. One rider was a huge shirtless black man. The rain streamed down over his magnificent shoulders and his skin gleamed. “Hi,” he said. “A bit wet, isn’t it?”
The other rider was white. He was so tiny he had to lean way over so his foot could prop up his motorcycle and he had shoulder-length blonde hair and wore a surprised and sheepish look. I was sure I had seen him someplace before. Emblazoned in red on his soaked sweatshirt was EPISCOPAL URBAN-SUBURBAN BIKE CLUB, INC., and under that, a picture of a motorcycle.
The black man doffed his wool cap, revealing a perfectly shaped, apparently waterproof Afro. “Permit me to introduce myself. I’m Raymond Miller. We seem to be a bit lost. Can you tell us what lake this is?”
“It’s the Barkhamstead Lake Reservoir and I’m Peggy Plummer,” Peggy said, as a gust of wind arrived and the deluge increased. She introduced Siddy and Petey and me. Raymond Miller’s Afro made an arc in the rain for each of us.
“Hi,” Siddy said. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Not at all, young man. I’m having too much fun. Especially now that I know where I am.”
“My Dad wouldn’t be cold either,” Petey said. “And he never gets lost.”
“I bet your dad is a great guy. I’d love to meet him someday and give him a ride,” Raymond said. “And this is my partner in the club. We just inaugurated it yesterday. Father Michael Woodward.”
“Father Woodward?” I said. “Our minister?”
“Oh dear!” the little blonde man said. He reached up to his hair and doffed it as his partner had doffed his cap. I blinked. The little blond motorcyclist was holding a wet wig in his hand. And he was no longer blond. He was bald.
“You!” I said. I knew Father Woodward liked to ride his motorcycle. I’d seen him several times riding through our village, but in his grey suit and round collar, not a blonde wig and not in a pouring rain with a huge, shirtless partner.
“He wants to keep this part of him secret,” Raymond explained. “He thinks it is bad P.R. Too much like Hell’s Angels, and the bishop wouldn’t approve.”
“Well, now you know,” Father Woodward said. “And by the way I missed you in church this morning.” He put his wig in his saddle bag.
“Michael, you’re so funny!” Peggy said. She put her hand to her mouth. “We won’t tell anyone.”
“Oh why not?” Raymond asked. “Who knows what the bishop wants? But enough of that. You all appear somewhat wet and perhaps we can help.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, we were just trying to get back to our car,” I said. It was reassuring to hear my own voice. I’d begun to wonder if being so cold and wet was making me hallucinate.
“That blue station wagon that’s parked a mile or so up the road?” Raymond asked.
“Well get on, then” Raymond commanded. “And I’ll deliver you to it.”
I hesitated. I was terrified of motorcycles.
“Daad! What are you waiting for?” Siddy said.
“’Put your arms around me, Baby; hold me tight,’” Raymond sang as I straddled the back of the saddle. Then he gunned the engine, the bike reared back and surged forward, going faster and faster as he shot through the gears. The rain beat down on my face, stinging my cheeks, the black tar of the road made thin lines in my eyes and the roaring of the engine vibrated up through my spine. “Well, maybe not that tight,” Raymond yelled above the roar of the engine, but I continued my death grip. Trees, hillsides, parked cars, signs whizzed by. We shot past the station wagon, which appeared suddenly, a shapeless blur, and Raymond started braking and leaning hard to his right. I knew I should lean too, but I didn’t dare, and now we were in a field to the right of the road, bumping crazily, and then Raymond leaned left and we turned left in a circle over the field, and suddenly we were back on the road again, heading faster and faster for the station wagon. We were there in an instant and Raymond braked so fast that I was forced forward against his back.
Now there was only the noise of the rain, as I looked, unsuccessfully, for the keys to the station wagon. First I looked in my shirt pocket where I knew they weren’t so I could postpone the embarrassment of admitting that I had just remembered leaving them in the lean-to. Then I looked in my right pants pocket. Then I rummaged through the sticky wet ball of Kleenex in my left pants pocket, replacing each molten shred next to the drowned matches I’d lit the fire with, so Raymond wouldn’t think I was a litter bug. Then I said, “Oh! I hung them on a nail in the lean-to so they wouldn’t fall out of my pocket.”
“Lean-to?” Raymond asked softly. “What lean-to?” and, with so much to get off my chest, I discovered an urge to tell the whole story. What better confessor could I ever find than this kind stranger? I told every detail and emphasized the part about the canoe drifting off because I forgot to tie it up.
“Well, we all err,” Raymond said. “I mean we all make mistakes. I left my bike on the Staten Island ferry once. Remind me to tell you the story sometime. But right now let’s get you back to that lean-to and pick up your keys.”
Getting up on the saddle again, confessed and forgiven, I felt my fear of riding leave me. It seemed to levitate up through the top of my head and melt in the rain. I put my arms around Raymond’s massive trunk, eager to know him now that he was more than just a ride. “What do you do – I mean when you’re not riding?” I asked, as he kicked the starter.
“Me?” he yelled over the roar of the engine. “I’m in community work. Hang on again.” He shot the gear in and let out the clutch and in an accelerating roar we were off again. We zoomed through the rain and this time when we came around the curve, I leaned way over and it was all so absurd and lovely that I started to laugh. I was still laughing when Raymond slowed the bike and we stuck our feet out in the mud next to the canoe –out from under which Peggy, the two boys and Father Woodward were emerging. “He left the keys at the lean-to,” Raymond said happily to Peggy.
“Lean-to? What lean-to?” Father Woodward asked.
Raymond explained about the lean-to. Then he said, “I’ll take Francis out there to get his keys Then I’ll rush him to his car and he’ll drive it right back here in a flash and get his family and Petey out of the wet.”
“Oh please hurry!” Peggy said.
Raymond nodded. “I know. Even I’m getting cold. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll put my shirt on.” He leaned down, opened his saddlebag and withdrew his Episcopal Urban-Suburban Bike Club shirt and put it on.
“It’s about time!” Father Woodward said.
“Alright alright, get going!” Peggy said.
“No way!” I blurted. I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but I got off Raymond’s bike. “We can’t go home yet.”
“Go on, go on, get going, we’re freezing!” Father Woodward said.
“Oh Michael, put wig your back on,” I replied.
“Put your wig back on.”
“To save the day.” I looked at Raymond. “Right?”
Raymond’s face lighted up. “You have an idea?”
“Yes. We’ll all go to the lean-to and have another party.”
“All six of us!” Raymond exclaimed.
“Francis, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s raining.” Peggy said.
“Yes, but look.” I pointed to the sky. Everybody looked up. The clouds were even darker than they were and the rain was falling even harder. “See. It’s going to clear,” I said.
“I think you might be right,” Raymond said. “Siddy, hop on. Petey, you go with Father Woodward.”
Both boys just stood there. I moved to Siddy, picked him up, put him on the saddle behind Raymond. I grabbed Siddy’s arms and wrapped them around Raymond’s waist. “Hold on tight,” Raymond commanded and sped away up the trail to the lean-to.
“Francis Plummer, you’re out of your mind,” Father Woodward said. But he got on his bike. “Get on, Petey so we can get this over with.”
Petey looked at Peggy. “Really? The bike could slip in the mud.”
Peggy smiled. “Your father wouldn’t be scared.”
Petey walked tentatively to the bike and got up on it, his face ashen, and wrapped his arms around Father Woodward’s waist as tight as he could. Father Woodward leaned down then, opened his saddle bag, removed his wig and put it on his head. “Anything to please a parishioner,” he said. And sped off.
“Hurry back and get us,” I called.
When the bike had disappeared around a corner, Peggy said, “Why did you say it was going to clear?”
“Because it has to,” I replied.
A few minutes later, all six of us were huddled in the lean-to, and Raymond began to tell the story of his lost motorcycle. Both boys shivered and hugged themselves and stared angrily at me, but I was sure they were listening. Raymond seemed even bigger in his Urban-Suburban Bike Club shirt and his voice filled the dark little space.
Five minutes later, Peggy pointed upwards at the roof of the lean-to and said, “Listen!” The sound of the rain on the roof had diminished. A minute later, it stopped altogether. We all tumbled out of the lean-to.
In the west, the sky was entirely blue. The bright band of sky was getting wider and wider, its edge, rapidly approaching. “The sun always shines on the righteous,” Raymond said.
I found a flat rock to use for a plate and Peggy lifted the sodden birthday cake out of its box. It was so wet it fell apart in her hands so she dropped it in pieces onto the rock and we ate it with our hands while the sun came out the rest of the way. “I think this is the way they eat in Africa,” Father Woodward said. “I’m right, aren’t I Ray? Communing, like this?” He put his forefinger, caked with sticky crumbs and icing, in his mouth and sucked.
“I have no idea, I’ve never been to Africa,” Raymond said. “But it’s a fine way to eat in Connecticut.” He had a white moustache of icing which moved up and down as he spoke.
“I love eating like this!” Siddy said. “Much better than the other boring old way with forks and knives and all that stuff.” He picked up the last glob of cake, stuffed it in his mouth, and wiped his hands on his shirt.
“Me too. I like it best this way too,” Petey said.
“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by the sun,” Raymond said, a few minutes later, after we had sung happy birthday to Siddy again, “I lost my motorcycle for weeks and weeks,” and went on to tell how he finally remembered he’d left it on the Staten Island ferry.
“One hundred and eighty-seven trips before you found it?” Petey said. “Really?”
“That’s what he said.” Siddy said. “A hundred and eighty-seven.”
“Well, maybe a hundred and eighty-six,” Raymond said. “And guess what?”
“What?” asked Siddy, leaning forward.
“After having it gone so long, finding it was better than having it at first.”
“Oh Ray, that’s so typical of you – and why we love you so,” Father Woodard said. He lay back and pulled his Episcopal Urban- Suburban Bike Club, Inc. sweatshirt up under his chin to soak up the sun on his stomach and then put his hands under his head. “If I were you, Siddy,” he said, addressing his words to the sky, “I’d hang out with your father a lot.”
“And besides,” Raymond said, “it was a hundred and eighty-seven. I distinctly remember.”
“What a glorious afternoon!” Peggy said. “It can’t get any better.”
“O yes it can,” I said. “Siddy, Father Woodward and Mr. Miller will ride you and me to the canoe. We’ll paddle it back to the car.”
“Dad! You’re keeping your promise!” Siddy said.
“My dad keeps his promises all the time,” Petey said as Father Woodward, Raymond, Siddy and I stood up and headed for the motorcycles.
When we arrived at the canoe a few minutes later, a huge man was standing on the beach, his back toward us. He was shading his eyes with a hand and staring out over the water. I knew right away it was Hugh McLaughlin. He turned when he heard the motors. Raymond and Father Woodward braked their bikes and shut the engines. Hugh rushed toward us, a frantic look on his face. “Have any of you seen–?” Hugh began, and then saw me and stopped running and stood perfectly still. “O my God! I knew it I knew it. Oh Jeez I knew it.”
“Hugh, everything’s fine,” I said. “I can explain.”
“He’s all right? He’s all right? My Petey’s OK?”
“Yes,” I answered. “And so, by the way, are Siddy and Peggy.”
“He’s really Ok? When I saw the canoe–.”
I slid off the saddle. “Hugh, I told you he was all right. All right? Now let me explain.”
“Well then where the hell is he?” Hugh roared. “It’s seven o’clock. You said you’d be home at five.”
“It is?” I asked. I looked at my watch. “My Goodness, you’re right. How time flies when you’re having fun! Besides, I promised no such thing. I never promise things like that. I’m no good at planning, Hugh, you know that.”
“Francis, where the hell is my son?”
“He’s in the lean-to with Peggy.”
“What lean-to? What are we talking about? Will somebody just please tell me?”
“It’s a lovely lean-to. You’d approve, I know you would.”
“Francis, be careful,” Father Woodward said. “Hugh has a right to be distraught.” He climbed down off his motorcycle and took several steps toward Hugh. “I can explain,” he said.
“And who the hell are you?” Hugh asked.
Father Woodward doffed his wig.
“Huh?” Hugh said. He stared at Father Woodward as if every idea he ever had about ministers, or churches – or even God – was changed forever. “Raymond got off his motorcycle and put his arm around Hugh. He was even taller than Hugh, and his huge hand lay gently on Hugh’s shoulder. “Father Woodward will take you out to the lean-to on his motorcycle,” Raymond explained, “and Petey can tell you what a grand time he’s been having.”
“Right,” Father Woodward said. He stepped nearer to Hugh and took him by the hand. Hugh hesitated. Raymond put his hand on Hugh’s back and pushed gently. Father Woodward and Hugh moved to the motorcycle, and Hugh got on behind Father Woodward and put his arms around his waist. “Here we go.” said Father Woodward and they roared away.
Raymond and Siddy and I carried the canoe to the water and put it in. Siddy put his arms around Raymond’s waist to hug him. It was as high as he could reach. So Raymond lifted him up and Siddy hugged him around the shoulders. Then Siddy got in the in the bow of the canoe and waited, the paddle poised, while Raymond and I shook hands. “Thanks,” I said. “You and Father Woodward saved the day.”
“No, you did,” Raymond said.
I pushed the canoe further out and got in the stern. But I hadn’t pushed it far enough and now it stuck on a rock. Before I could get out of the canoe to push it further out, Raymond waded with his shoes still on to the canoe, put his big hands beneath the stern and lifted it off the rock.
“Wait a sec,” I said, just then remembering.
“What?” said Raymond, still holding the stern, with me in it, above the water.
“You said you were in community work,” I said. “What kind of work?”
“Me?” said Raymond. “I’m a basketball coach.” Then he dropped the canoe back into the water and Siddy and I paddled away.
LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE PLANNING SOMETHING ELSE
In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.
Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”
She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”
“A school? Will they live there?”
That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”
“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”
“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”
“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”
“Yes, Father. A school.”
“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”
That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.
They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.
In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”
Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.
A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!
The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.
But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.
The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?
They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.
Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.
One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.
The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.
In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New YorkTimes. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.
How Miss Edith Oliver Founded Miss Oliver’s School for Girlsstephendaven2022-05-17T22:21:04+00:00