Forty years changed almost everything—but not the author’s gleaming, troubling memories of Miss Clark. So he went looking for her.
A stroller through the Nassau Inn down the block from Princeton University on a certain January day last winter would not have taken particular note of two people lunching in one of the Tap Room’s booths. Possibly a senior professor by the look of him, a passing student might fleetingly muse: gray hair and blue pinstripe suit. The opposite number, in slacks: a pleasant-looking woman of a certain age.
He’s having the club sandwich, she the chicken salad ordered when told there’s no seafood one. They began with a Bloody Mary apiece and are taking wine with the meal. They’ll split a serving of cake with the coffee. Our passing student cannot know that when they were of student age, to be able to do this the gentleman of this couple would have fought a lion and climbed a thousand mountains . . .
I’m a senior and in two days leave forever the University of Wisconsin. I’ve had my final exams, and now there’s a brief hiatus before the graduation ceremonies and I am in the Memorial Union’s recreational reading room going through Life magazine.
The door opens and Miss Clark walks in. I stare at her. In the years that are coming I shall as a newspaper reporter interview Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. I won’t stare at them as I do at Miss Clark.
She sees me, and transfixed, paralyzed, I see walking in my direction someone for whom, if they did not exist, the terms Ice Princess and Dream Girl and American Beauty would have to be invented. I’m on a little couch. She seats herself on the edge of it. Ten thousand memories of my college days have vanished since then, but this moment lives on. Those glittering eyes.
She’s holding a book. “What’re you reading?” I get out my glasses and look at the title. ”‘Howard Roark laughed,’” I say. It’s the first sentence of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Madison’s spring sun is shining, and outdoor tables have been placed on the patio overlooking Lake Mendota. Wisconsin is famous for being the only Big Ten university that serves beer; a 3.2 concoction is available in the Rathskeller downstairs. And they have coffee and snacks and things. I know what my next address is going to be; it’s the U.S. Army. Those big Korean War infantry divisions need replacements. So it’s a perfectly logical thing that I ask Miss Clark down to the Rathskeller. After all, I didn’t sit down next to her; she did to me.
Only once before have I ever talked at any length with Miss Clark. We were in a class in Russian history as juniors and a film was shown after normal class hours at Bascom Hall on the hill. You weren’t allowed to drive up there during class time but could in the late afternoon. I had a car—very rare among students. I went up, saw the film, a Soviet epic having to do with Napoleon’s defeat, and came out into the twilight, as did Miss Clark. I managed to inquire how she’d liked the movie. She praised the actor portraying one of Napoleon’s chief military opponents, Marshal Kutuzov, I suppose. “He was superb,” she said. Naturally I agreed.
“Are you going down the hill?” she asked.
“I’m driving down the hill.” She took this for an invitation, and we made for the Bascom Hall parking area.
As we walk, she takes out a cigarette and asks if I mind if she smokes. Let me, as we used to say in Philosophy 101, define our terms. She’s not asking if I’m against smoking . That concept is decades unborn, and the inventor of the no-smoking sections of restaurants is probably at his mother’s breast. We all smoke. What Miss Clark means is, Do I mind if she smokes standing up? There is a certain prohibition against a woman’s doing this.
I indicate that for her to do so is in my eyes perfectly permissible. (I do not add that if she grabs me by the collar, turns me around, and kicks me in the pants, that also would be perfectly permissible.) I take matches and offer a light before getting my own cigarettes. They are in their package. On Friday or Saturday nights they will be found in flat gold case snug in jacket pocket. There was never a weekend date of my college career when I was without jacket—and tie. On Saturday or Sunday afternoons students wore blue jeans, rolled up above white socks, and girls wore their fathers’ white business shirts, but such were not seen in class. Our great thick yearbook, The Badger , has numerous crowd shots of students going about the campus; not one is wearing jeans. All are wearing saddle shoes or loafers. How good-looking they are, how neat those shiny boys with short haircuts, how simply overwhelming those lovely, sweet girls in pleated skirt and blouse! So attractively clean-cut. People in the mass have never seemed in the intervening years between then and now to be so good-looking, not to me.
And now a girl who may have had campus equals in appearance, but no superiors, is getting into my car as I hold open the door. I go around the other side, take the wheel, drive about two hundred yards—and crash. A campus cop comes and gives a ticket to the other driver for being on my side of the road. An extremely bum rap. The accident wasn’t his fault, I told my roommate later. It certainly wasn’t my fault either. It was Miss Clark’s fault.
My car, which was registered in my mother’s name, had a dented fender. I called home. My father asked if I had been alone. I told him a fellow student was with me. He inquired about what today would be called the fellow student’s gender. I told him. That was bad, he said. I understood. The car was one of that middling percentage of America’s autos that were insured, and a young and single girl was the worst thing wanted around when your wife’s insured car gets into an accident. The girl’s lawyer points out that an injury impairs her chance to get married, and that means a good settlement and big future premiums for our family’s cars.
“But she wasn’t hurt,” I said.
“ You say,” my father snapped. “Call her up and find out for sure. Then call me back.” This showed the matter was really important. To send me to an out-of-town college at an annual expense, what with tuition, lodging, food, clothing, car, allowance of some twenty-five hundred dollars, was a matter of no moment—but long-distance calls were another story. They were strictly for big occasions. Some ceremony attended their placing, and serious discussions with operators. On Thanksgiving you could put in the call before noon and it might be late afternoon before the operator called to say your party was on the line. I have sometimes reflected in recent years that beyond casual profanity, music, proletarian-style attire, and long hair, here is the real dividing line between generations: Young people today think nothing of calling California—or even Prague.
My father’s demand was, as the first-graders of the day of that trifling accident would say when they got to college, nonnegotiable. I was going to have to nerve myself up to call the Delta Gamma house and ask for Louise Clark. (Miss Clark did have a first name, although no professor would ever use it, even as to them I was Mr. Smith.) She was always addressed as Weezie.
I dialed the Delta Gammas. A year or so earlier I had taken a shine to one of the girls there, Ginny, had called a few times for a date, and got instead the go-by. We always had a pleasant chat before she informed me that unfortunately she had made plans for the evening upon which I had requested the honor of her company. When, after graduation, The Badger arrived in the mail, I discovered that Ginny was the Delta Gamma president. And Weezie was vice president. There was a set-apart picture of them with the secretary and treasurer below the Delta Gamma group shot. My last contact with President Ginny was sometime before graduation when I was in one of the Quonsets, leftover Second World War Navy training quarters converted to an auxiliary library, and Ginny happened along and informed me that she was no longer just pinned but actually engaged. She was going to marry a doctor. “In ten years,” Ginny remarked, “we will be making seventeen thousand five hundred dollars a year.” I don’t know how she figured the exact amount. I remember the “we.”
When Weezie came to the phone, I told her that my father was very interested in the state of her health. She assured me she was entirely uninjured. That ended the matter.
Now we sat together on the couch in the Memorial Union library, and I did not ask her down to the Rathskeller. It was impossible that I do so, for the Weezie Clarks of this world are not for inviting down to Rathskellers. Permit me to explain, although some readers will not understand. Those readers are called . . . women. Oh please! Don’t call me a genderbiased chauvinist. I know all about it. Gloria Steinem was a guest at my wedding. She roomed with my wife on Junior Year Abroad. But what it is, there are men, a majority, I believe, who when young see selected dream girls as personages beyond reach and aspiration. This transcends time, background, personality, position, destiny. There was a young man of the last century who used to stand at a certain town square and stare each night at his Weezie Clark. He never spoke a single word to her. Once he wrote her an unsigned letter saying he was off to pursue studies elsewhere. When he returned, he wrote, they would marry. She threw the incomprehensible letter away, never connecting it with the silent kid who used to stare at her. Decades later a historian came to a widowed old lady to ask if she remembered that letter. And a fellow who used to gaze at her? The historian had talked with a boyhood friend of the young man. Vaguely it returned to the old lady. Imagine when she learned that her long-ago admirer’s name was Adolf Hitler.
Well, Hitler . How about Geraldo Rivera? Did you watch the program where he goes back to his college reunion? All he could talk about was wanting to see the blonde cheerleader who terrified him. He had interviewed the great of the universe, Geraldo let us know, but to interview Charlene! Then we follow him and his camera crew and see him almost gibber as he tells her how great she was. Then there’s the Robert Redford character in the film Indecent Proposal , who speaks of seeing a girl in the subway once thirty years earlier and that not a day has gone by since then that he hasn’t thought of her. Same thing for the Mr. Bernstein of Citizen Kane —saw a girl in white, with a white parasol, on a ferry. Never forgot. And my friend Richard, who had his Emily, and my friend Clyde with his Nell. “She didn’t walk on the ground, she floated above it,” Clyde told me. (A week later, when I had occasion to telephone his office and was told he was out, I said, “Let him know Nell called and she’s at the motel, waiting.” “What?” asked Clyde’s assistant. “Just give him the message.” An hour later Clyde called back. “You’re a dirty old man,” he said bitterly.)
I suppose such girls as these evoke in the boys who study them the imagined best of their era. And of anyone I ever took note of, Louise, Weezie, Miss Clark, then and later meant the fifties. She was, it seemed to me, so right for the times, calm, unruffled, healthy, reserved, polite, confident, serene, demure, every hair in place. Turbulence, trouble, problems—they could never touch her. In this she reflected our University of Wisconsin campus as we, the luckiest generation in the history of the country and the world, Depression and Germans and Japanese beaten by others for our benefit, went about getting something of an education although the classes were almost always deadly boring—not relevant, as would soon be said. There was absolutely no discussion of politics at all, no profanity in front of girls, no foreign food save for Italian plus Madison’s sole little Chinese restaurant, a rigid twelve-thirty deadline for girls on Saturday night, when dates ritualistically kissed before half of each couple made for dorm or sorority house and the other half went away into the night, thousands of lips meeting all over campus. There was no fear of the future. You wanted to be an engineer, go study it, get your diploma, go to work in the field as soon as you got out of the Army. You wanted to marry an engineer, go be a home economics major, find one, live happily ever after.
We were all very much of a piece, a great collection of what in Europe was once called the officer class. Miss Clark and I had some twenty-six hundred fellow graduates, and a search of The Badger ’s individual photos reveals precisely three faces recognizably black. The track team was all white. The basketball team was all white. There were many more boys than girls, for while a family might stretch itself to send a son to college, it would never do so for a daughter. Let her get a job, or married.
From our couch Miss Clark arose, returned The Fountainhead at the desk, and went away. Ten years or so later at a New York City party I fell into conversation with a young woman who turned out to be a D.W. grad of my era. She looked a sorority-girl type. I asked which one. Delta Gamma.
“Then you knew Ginny, of course.”
“And Louise Clark.”
She asked, “Were you a member of the I Love Weezie Club?”
How could I be? I hardly knew the girl. And in fact, I did not consider her human enough to know, let alone love. That was part of the equation. If I had believed she was of my genus, my species, I would have—well, who knows what I would have. But, you say, this is all so unbelievably childish . Look. I’ve been out of college since before most people were born. Do you suppose I’m going to be distressed because you think I’m childish?
I decided last year I’d find out what Weezie had been up to, these decades, the forty years.
She was a U.W. grad, a Delta Gamma, from Burlington, Iowa. “I love a good hunt,” said Assistant Editor Laura Allen of this magazine. But nothing turned up in the obvious places.
“She may have died, you know,” a friend suggested helpfully.
“Like hell she has! God wouldn’t let Miss Clark die on me!”
Laura Alien called. “She’s living with her husband in Princeton, New Jersey. No connection with the university—I checked there.” Laura had telephoned every library in Burlington, Iowa, got someone who knew someone, got a someone who knew the married name and phone number of the subject of our search. I came down from my upstate-New York home to talk strategy with a huntress no less successful than Diana.
“Call her and ask and answer as few questions as possible,” I said over sushi and sashimi at a restaurant near this magazine’s offices. How open my mouth would have fallen once, this same mouth into which chopsticks were propelling the food, at the idea, the very conception , that one day Japanese delicacies would make me a meal. “Her classmate the historian wants to discuss the old days,” I told Laura. “That’s the whole story.”
“Will she remember you, do you think?”
“Pretty unlikely. If she remembers anything, it’ll be the Bascom Hall accident. But who knows, she may have gone through half a dozen car-totaling accidents since then. Be careful. If she gets it into her bean that an insurance salesman or bond peddler is after her, we’re cooked.”
I wanted to hit her cold and with as few preliminaries as possible, I told a friend. “I hope she weighs three hundred pounds,” his wife said. “I hated those beauty queens at college.” “She’s a drunk,” confidently declared the wife of another friend. “She was brought up to be one of those television dears, so prim and sweet. Then the years come along, and she ages. Now there’s the sherry in the closet, the pills in the bathroom.”
Poor Miss Clark. The world was against her. But talk about working in darkness! All available information, and that of the scantiest conceivable nature, was forty years old. If when we were Wisconsin seniors someone had done what I was doing now, that someone when he was a senior would have grown up surrounded by Civil War veterans. He would not have been able to conceive of a world war. His town’s paved roads would become dirt after the trolley turnaround. Laura called.
“You have a date for luncheon at the Nassau Inn, Princeton, at one on January fifth. Her husband’s not well, and she prefers to meet you outside the house. She’ll see you at the entrance of the Greenhouse.”
I drove down the night of the fourth, took a room, slept, woke up, had coffee in the room, stood staring out the window for a very long while. Really, it’s true what you’ve always read: The years do fly by. We of the fifties who experienced the war as children in the very tiniest and last corridor of our minds remember England as the first nation of the world. I learned it when I was very young and can’t forget. Television—people like us, college students, the well-off, our families, we didn’t have television. It was in bars or for the poor in the slums. Their tenements spouted antennas. We didn’t have sets until years after the factory workers and laborers got theirs.
I headed downstairs in the Nassau Inn for the Greenhouse, passing through the Tap Room. My college roommate’s dead. He shot himself as a Johns Hopkins Medical School resident. It was in 1960, weeks prior to the KennedyNixon election. We played tennis a few days before. I always told myself that if I had a son, I’d name him for my roommate, but I had a daughter. I never think of him as forever young, young enough to be my son now, but as my contemporary.
I entered the Greenhouse antechamber. I’d be paying for this meal, and the hotel room, with a credit card. Of course. What else? Business expense. A tiny part of me says that’s wrong: you shouldn’t have something you can’t instantly pay for. My father never bought a car on what was called the installment plan, and in fact, he was dead before I ever permitted myself to drive a car I didn’t own 100 percent. What a way of doing things! If everyone followed that formula, the country’d grind to a halt. There was a trim woman with short pepperand-salt hair wearing a checkered cloth coat standing in front of the Greenhouse, looking in, her back to me. “Hello!” I said, and Miss Clark turned around.
Do you remember that coat you used to wear?” I asked. We sat in the Tap Room booth. It would be quieter there than in the Greenhouse.
“Coat?” We were drinking our Bloody Marys.
“It was darker than everyone else’s.” We all wore what were called storm coats, gray, with fur collars. Maybe they weren’t fur—who knows? There did not exist a soul who would have cared if they were.
“Oh, yes. It was a dusky blue.”
“Yes. Now, we were driving down Bascom hill after this movie from Russian history, you were wearing the coat, and you said to me the actor who played Marshal Kutuzov, he was superb. You know? Then I crashed the car. Remember?”
“Russian history,” she said.
“Yes, and then, you know, right before graduation, you came into that little reading room in the Union, you know—”
“Yes, the little reading room.”
“—and I was sitting on this couch, and you sat down and you had The Fountainhead , Ayn Rand, remember?”
“Well . . .”
She seemed warm and friendly, seemed awfully nice, was soft-spoken and well spoken, smiled easily—and was probably, I decided, thanking her lucky stars she’d ruled that we meet in a public place where the Princeton lacrosse team doubtless could be relied upon to appear and rescue her from the maniac of a lifetime ago. I talked about her sorority sister Ginny, how I used to ask her out.
“She was my roommate!”
“Really. Did she marry her doctor? Did they ever get up to seventeen thousand five hundred dollars a year?”
Miss Clark —Mrs. Something Else, as now she styled herself—gave me a look from eyes set behind glasses now. “At Christmas I get one of those letters that bring people upto-date. They live on the West Coast, have loads of children, and in every letter announce the birth of another grandchild.” Good Lord. Tough to visualize pretty and perky Ginny as a matriarch.
“Weezie! Nobody calls me that except for one woman I know. She asked me, ‘Didn’t anyone ever call you Weezie? I’m going to call you Weezie.’”
“So am I. Now, Weezie, you seem very polite—you’re a credit to the old U.W.—and you’re working very hard not to make it clear that you don’t remember me in the slightest, isn’t that right?”
“Well . . .”
“Don’t remember the reading-room chat, don’t remember the car crash.”
“Oh, but I do. My back still hurts.”
She was grinning. It startled me that the golden girl from yesterday had a sense of humor. “I want,” I said, “to read you something that’ll perhaps make everything clear. This is from the introduction by Anthony Goldsmith to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education , London, 1941, edition.” I opened a notebook in which I’d written the quote—and found in the dim Tap Room light that I couldn’t read my handwriting. People who graduated from college forty years ago will run into reading problems in poor light. “May I borrow your glasses?” She handed them over.
“Please remember that my intensity was somewhat less than Flaubert’s. But the tone is right. You understand? Goldsmith says: ‘The image of Elisa, la toujours aimée , perpetually haunted his thoughts, and he once described her as the woman who had “ravaged his life.” . . . This curious unfulfilled passion was in fact Flaubert’s own romantic illusion. ... It was Flaubert himself who, forced by his inner nature, invested her with ideal qualities and made her typify the perfections of his youthful fantasies.’”
I took off the glasses. “You are my Elisa.”
We had been together for perhaps twenty minutes. “Well, there you are,” I said. There had been no change in the pleasant, interested expression on her face. “Now, I don’t know the first thing about you—never did. Begin at the beginning.”
“I’ve been thinking it’s about time someone came and interviewed me,” Miss Clark said.
She was the baby of her family. Everyone impressed upon her older sister, Judy, the necessity of getting A’s, but nothing about that was ever said to little Louise. She was her grandfather’s darling. He used to call her Little Bear and was Big Bear to her. She used to run and jump into his arms until one day her mother said he was getting too frail for that. Every Sunday she and Judy and their parents went across the street to the grandparental home on a North Hill bluff overlooking the Mississippi and Illinois to the east. Of Swedish and English ancestry, Clarks had been in Burlington since the 188Os. Grandmother presided at the Sunday meal, pressing with her foot a bell under the diningroom rug beneath the table covered with pads and a tablecloth to summon the maid.
“Bell under the rug, pads under the tablecloth!” I said. I hadn’t thought of that sort of thing for decades, for the lifetime of 90 percent of the people I see in the supermarket these days, who can’t remember the war, or Truman, or mail twice a day, once on Saturday, or Joe McCarthy, Sinatra, MacArthur, Rita Hayworth. “I didn’t think they had that out in the hinterlands. What, was there a butler too?”
“There was no butler,” she said firmly. “And the maid was an Iowa farm girl. Those little Midwestern towns, you know, worked very hard to be like Back East.”
Grandfather was a lawyer and served on the Burlington school board for years and years. “Thirty-eight, I think.” When the high school put up a new sports facility, it was named for him: the Clark Fieldhouse. She and her friends in long-ago days after school used to walk down to the center of town, three or four blocks from home. There were no suburbs. Beyond town limits was rich alluvial farmland. In town were places owned by members of her family. At one she bought a bright red strapless formal. (The word was also utilized to describe a dance where the boys wear evening clothes of varied style which were uniformly titled “a tuxedo.” A semi-formal means the girl wears her formal and he wears his double-breasted navy blue suit. In both instances his presentation of a corsage for wear at shoulder or waist or wrist is mandatory. Orchids, as we say today, send a message. Carnations send a different message.) Her grandmother was shocked when Louise modeled the new high-style purchase for her.
“How did you address her?”
“Grandmother Clark? Grandmother Clark.”
There was never any doubt that she would go to the University of Wisconsin, like her mother, like Judy, both of whom had been Delta Gammas there. She was, of course, a star of Burlington High School, and when later at my request she sent me photocopied things about her past, I found that was how she was titled along with three other people of the two hundred grads of her year: “Louise Clark well deserves to be placed among the Star Seniors. Outstanding in music activities, she plays first stand cello in the orchestra. On the student council this year, Louise acted as chairman of the assembly committee, and as another Senior honor, was elected Dolphin Queen. Throughout her years at BHS she has maintained a high scholastic standard. Scribblers and Y-Teens have kept her busy, and yet, with all these responsibilities, Louise finds time to indulge in tennis or swimming and in playing her large and varied collection of records. Her gay and sweet manner has won her many friends.”
‘What is a Dolphin Queen?” I asked on the phone after reading the photocopies.
“Well, at the swimming pool you were there in a bathing suit with high heels. And a tiara.” It wasn’t her only beauty-title situation. The Delta Gammas put her up for Summer Prom Queen and went about singing a song than which nothing could more controvert the facts: “Poor little Weezie Clark/She’s our shot in the dark/Her pointed head, her bony knees/She’s deaf and hardly sees. /You’ll vote for her/Because she’s just our Weeze.”
“Do you still play much tennis?”
“Twice a week, hour and a half each session. Do you play?”
“A good deal.”
“We’ll have to go at it some time, for blood.” Once I would have questioned if blood actually ran in this creature’s veins, that she had blood, or veins either. “But what,” anxiously asked my friend Richard, his Emily no doubt in mind, “if she beats you? It would be too humiliating.”
“Don’t you worry about that!” To myself I vowed that if she played like Steffi and Martina combined, she was still going down.
So Louise goes to the U.W.—and?
“I was going there, he was sending me there, my father told me, to get married.”
“That’s what he said?”
“That’s what he said. He was, my father, a very gentle man. He was a businessman. Furniture business. He lost his temper with me only once in my life that I can remember. I was fooling with a Venetian blind or shade and I said ——! and he sat me down and gave me a lecture.”
“So where’d you live freshman year, before you were pledged?”
“Ann Emery Hall.” I’d known for certain before asking. Ann Emery girls uniformly wore dark stockings on Sunday mornings for church. And little pillbox hats.
“Don’t forget the veils,” she said. As an upperclasswoman she was made Delta Gamma rush chairman as well as vice president. “These old alumnae came in to talk to me. I had a lot of trouble with what they said, lot of trouble. They told me if I wanted, I could let in one Catholic and one Jew. I didn’t like that. Years later, when my nieces asked for recommends for Delta Gamma, I said, ‘No! I won’t give you recommends!’”
“You had to be wildly popular with the fraternity boys,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe I had social opportunities some of the other women didn’t. I liked to go to those roadhouses outside Madison where they played jazz and Dixieland. I’ve always gotten a lot of satisfaction from music.”
“Did you have any unhappy love affairs, unrewarded crushes?”
“None that were disabling.” Pinned to a boy who had graduated with a ROTC commission, she visited him at his base, lost interest, broke it off.
“Were you a virgin when we graduated?” A part of me could hardly believe that I was actually asking such a thing of Weezie Clark.
“Until I married.”
“And your sorority sisters?”
“Some of them, no. The boys they were going to marry.” (“Ah, me,” said my friend Joe after talking of his Cynthia in the days when Ike was President. “Today your questions would apply to grammar school grads.”)
After college, husbandless, typing school behind her—what else, this was the fifties—she went to live in Minneapolis with Judy and Judy’s husband and to take dictation for the University of Minnesota alumni office. She met a young man who was of a group circulating about Hubert Humphrey. She worked in a Humphrey campaign. “Adlai Stevenson came, and he gave a speech standing on my desk ! I chalked in his footprints.” She married the young man in her hometown church, with reception afterward at the Burlington Golf Club. The minister talked about love, toleration, understanding, and then at the club got loaded, had a fight with his wife, and fell into the swimming pool. They laughed about it for years.
Her husband was very successful, of course. (If you couldn’t be successful in those years, forget it.) His career took them to Washington, the Midwest, California, back to Washington. She had toddlers at her feet. She would work three days to prepare dinner parties served on her family’s china and eaten with their silver and on damask her mother had shown her how to iron correctly.
The sixties came in, and she heard there was a project in Cabin John, Maryland, to work with black children who were suddenly going to be put into integrated schools. They were completely unprepared. She went with her kids daily to be with them and their mothers.
“What— you ? ‘I’m here, blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed, there she is, Miss America’?”
“You don’t come off like that. You go in, ‘We’re all mothers, we all have kids.’ I remember those dark eyes. They wanted what we want. What we did was a model for Head Start. I’m very proud of that.” She’s kept it up to the present day—works with kids in Trenton, half an hour from Princeton, in what once was called the slums, then became the ghetto, and now is the inner city. This gun problem—a girl she’s been counseling, seven, eight years old, was recently shot in the knee.
Washington then was foaming, it seemed to her, with a thousand new impulses, as was the country, as was Burlington, where the cousin who had sold her the red formal found his store getting killed by the huge malls out in what had been farmland. Once some aunts came to visit. She drove downtown to pick them up and brought them home through a demonstration being dispersed by police. “They had come from Iowa to visit their nation’s capital, and they were wearing long white gloves. I ran up the windows because of the tear gas.”
The kids meant PTA, sports to take them to, courses, special this and special that, and her husband served a term as undersecretary of a cabinet department while the fortyish matron took classes at American University. At Wisconsin she had played, but now she was ready to do something, and got a fine arts degree as it came to her that she could do something for a living and enjoy it. “Europe has its things, we have our things,” and she got involved in folk art and antiques: weathervanes, furniture, decoys, stoneware, quilts, and primitive paintings, one of which she bought for a few hundred, soon to turn down an offer for forty-five thousand.
She felt restless in her marriage. “Did you have affairs?”
“No. I knew bored women who did that—secretive romances. I had other things. The antiques business is allconsuming, shows, promotion, travel, setting up booths; it’s very challenging and very pleasant.” The kids were in college. She had some money from the sale of her dead parents’ house. “I told my husband, Tm leaving.’”
She went to Bucks County in Pennsylvania and opened Louise Clark Antiques, lived over the shop, opened and closed when she felt like it. She met and married an executive from Princeton. After a few years he became very ill, and she gave up business. She departed his sickroom for work with the inner-city children, classes in pot- tery and ceramics, weekly participation in a water-testing program in the area around Princeton, and tennis.
Hours passed as we sat in the Tap Room. References I made to her University of Wisconsin appearance and the impression it created never elicited a response. She didn’t seem very interested. She hadn’t even kept her copy of The Badger . The week I once spent following Joe Louis around came into my mind. He’d had no interest at all in talking about his fights but spent hours reading The New York Times , asking me from time to time the meaning of words he didn’t know.
Like Joe Louis, she seemed a demon newspaper reader. She appeared to have gone through every Times story of the past ten years. She had questions about what I’ve been doing since Madison days, with far fewer about what I’d done in college although she politely listened and laughed when I described my adventures in the Delta Delta Delta house as a waiter. Sir Gawain, the Kitchen Knight, I had called myself. That to enter by the front door and not the basement meant instant dismissal was a matter frequently brought to the attention of the waiters by the Tri-Delt housemother. I violated the rule by defiantly going in to pick up one of the sorority sisters I’d been seeing unknown to the others, and then quit before the witch of a housemother could can me. I told about the time when it seemed to me best for all concerned that I grab a large paintbrush sitting in a filled can and with it slap in the mouth my volatile friend Polly G. “I gained the impression,” I told Weezie, “that it is not entirely pleasant to get your teeth covered with green paint and then have me sit on your chest and remove it with turpentine.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” she said thoughtfully. Twilight fell upon Princeton outside the Tap Room as indeed it is falling, and has fallen, upon those who knew the Langdon Street and University Avenue of the Madison of forty years ago and shopped at Renny’s and drank sodas at the Pharm and martinis at the Manor. A couple of months ago I was in an elevator with Joe of Cynthia memories, and a very pretty young woman probably born during Kennedy days came in. She struck up a conversation with us and continued it for a few minutes in the lobby. She likely would not have done that if we were of her day and her place in time, but we seem harmless now.
So it is that there isn’t a bar in the world today where Miss Clark’s entrance would stop guys dead, and as I looked at the friendly and intelligent woman, it was almost impossible for me to see the awesome girl. Yet she was there, a little. I felt rather proud of myself for being with her, tell you the God’s honest truth. I once read that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years. It’s one of those things you read. So the cells of that boy whose Social Security number is mine, whose signature still looks the same, whose writing style despite all these years of professional experience I have not improved by more than 10 percent—his cells vanished long, long ago. Yet to a certain extent I was still at his beck and call, for I could never look quite dispassionately at the Miss Clark of my youth. Did I think of what might have been? Not a bit of it. Flaubert doesn’t get Elisa. If he does, there’s no Sentimental Education .