The St. Croix Scandals

Chapter Four

 

At three thirty Friday afternoon, Theodore Vincent sat in his darkly paneled, heavily draped office at the St. Croix Bank and Trust. He stared at a picture of his recently deceased wife, Doris Melrose Vincent, for a moment and sighed. Then he picked up and reread a letter from his oldest child and only son, Thomas Melrose VincentóRoss to everyone in the family, thanks to the boyís younger sister, Maggie. The picture of Doris was three years old, taken just before her last major cancer surgery and the three rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which followed. She looked much like Vincent wanted to remember her: her black hair had but few strands of white, her face was round and full with few wrinkles. "Not bad for 55," he could hear her say with that little, endearing laugh that said she didnít take her looks too seriously.

The letter from his son was an invitation to move from the eastern Minnesota river town of St. Croix to the warmer climate of Phoenix, where his son and daughter-in-law and, more importantly, his two twin grand daughters now lived.

With Doris gone, his sonís offer was tempting. He would have to sell his house and the bank. But Stillwater Bank and Trust approached him about that very thing not more than a month ago. The big bank made him that offer at least once a year. He was, Vincent admitted, almost ready to retire from the day-to-day stresses of money management.

Harder to do would be to step away from St. Croix College, where he had been a regent for thirty years, the past ten as chairman. He was reluctant to leave that post and the school he loved. He had let so much happen at the school through his inattention during his wifeís sickness. He had to do something about that before he could leave. Besides, the current administration was aging; he wanted to be in on the selection of the new president, a president who would reset the course of the school which had suffered under DeWitt Hamiltonís handling of affairs.

Of course, Vincent sighed, laying the letter back down on his desk, he was partly to blame. He gave away too much control when Hamilton first came to St. Croix nine years ago, and lost what little control he retained during Dorisí prolonged decline.

Worse, in Vincentís eyes, was that Bidwell and Wilson, the two vice-presidents, had in turn managed to wrest most of the presidentís power from Hamilton. Both seemed to be jockeying for the presidency, even though Hamilton had given no indication he would be retiring soon. Why should he, at only 60? And both of them were really too old now to consider. St. Croix needed long-term leadership.

Vincent was determined to correct the mistakes of his past poor judgment. He had told Hamilton as much after the regents met earlier in the week. And Hamiltonís condescending dismissal, that Vincent didnít know what he was talking aboutÖ. Heís hiding something, Vincent thought. So, the question now was, what could he do to take control of the mess, and how quickly could he do it?

The phone rang. "Vincent," he said curtly, then listened.

"Well, DeWitt," he said, relaxing his tone. "You sound a bit tired."

"Yes, I just got back from Duluth. I met with Dr. Pendleton up there."

"Oh?" Vincent replied.

"I know youíre concerned about faculty raises, so I thought I would share Pendletonís plan with you. It involves a tax referendum if the state doesnít give us any money, and that will only get about a 1.5% raise across the board."

"Only 1.5%?" Vincent asked.

"I know it doesnít sound like much, but thatís only if the state doesnít bump up the salary appropriations at all."

"I see," Vincent replied, turning the idea over slowly in his own mind.

"I need to meet with Dr, Wilson now, but I do want to talk to you about this. Maybe Monday Morning?" Hamilton didnít wait for an answer. "Iíve got Mrs. Sullivan making a copy of the proposal for you right now, and one of the student workers will bring it right over."

"Okay," Vincent replied. "And, thanks, DeWitt. I think this is an important issue. Especially this year."

"I know. Youíre right," Hamilton said. "Iíll call you Monday."

After hanging up the phone, Vincent thought about how the faculty senate and, especially, how its president, Dr. James Crawford, would react to the proposals. A smile played across his lips. He signaled his private secretary, JoAnn Franklin. "Get me Dr. James Crawford over at the college, will you JoAnn?"

I hope heís not in class, Vincent thought to himself.

While he waited, Vincent reread Rossí letter:

"Pop,

I know we talked about it even before Mom died, but I want to bring it up again, and I donít want to do it on the phone, because I know youíll change the subject. Katy and I both want you to retire and come down here to AZ.

Brittany and Courtney would love having PawPaw right here. And with the jobs we have, itís hard for us to get back up to MN to see you. The girls are still too young to be away from home, and they would be too much for you to handle by yourself. I know youíre saying you could do it. But you know that was Momís department, not yours.

Think about it, will you, Pop? Promise me you will. And we can talk about it in a few weeks.

Love,

Ross, Katy and the girls

When he first received the letter two days ago. Vincent was furious. He had asked Ross to let the girls come last summer before Doris died. But Ross said that they were only three, and he couldnít handle them and Doris at the same time.

Now they were four, and they were still too young? And, well, with Doris gone, he could devote all his time to them.

But then he remembered how hard a time he always had dealing with Alice and Maggie, his two strong-willed daughters, when they were small. If either one of them cried, it broke his heart. Yet, when he tried to help, to calm them down, to fix what was wrong, he inevitably did the wrong thing and made things worse.

"Dr. Crawford is on line two," JoAnn said on the intercom.

"Oh, thanks, JoAnn," Vincent said, reaching for the phone.

Picking up the receiver, Vincent punched the line and said, "James?" He didnít wait for an answer. "I just talked to Hamilton. His worst-case scenario sounds like 1.5% across the board. He says it may take a local tax increase to get it. I havenít seen the exact proposals yet. But that sounds like the bottom line. I thought you should know."

After listening for only a few seconds, Vincent said, "Slow down, James," raising his palm and pushing out gently toward the telephone. "I only wanted you to know whatís happening. I know the faculty isnít often in on the administrationís plans. But since this deals directly with you and the rest of the faculty, I thought I should call you."

Vincent replied to another question. "Well, if the appropriations are finalized by the April meeting, then we could make plans to discuss taxes in May. But, in all likelihood, the tax issue and a vote, if oneís needed, wonít happen until this summer."

"Oh," Vincent said. "I didnít know you were meeting today. One thing you ought to discuss is a faculty presence at these next several regents meetings, especially the ones this summer."

"Well donít let Wilson intimidate you. You have a right to attend these meetings. We do not meet in closed session except to vote on certain sensitive issues. But the discussions we have about any issue are part of the public record." Vincent sighed. Well-educated people often had woeful gaps in their common sense understanding of the way the rest of the world works.

"Yes, I can send you a copy of the proposal, James. Talk to me after youíve looked it over."

Crawford noted the time and excused himself for the faculty senate meeting.

Just as Vincent hung up the phone, JoAnn signaled him. "Mickey Court, from the presidentís office at the college has some tax material for you."

"JoAnn," Vincent replied into the intercom, "would you make a copy of the material right away? Iíd like Ms. Court to take the information over to Dr. Crawfordís office. Pay her ten bucks. Tell her sheís not to tell anybody sheís made that delivery unless sheís specifically asked. I donít want her to lie. But I donít want her to volunteer information, either."

"Yes, Sir," his secretary replied. "Anything else?"

"Not right now," Vincent said. "Thanks. And thank Ms. Court, too."

* * * * *

Phyllis Reagan Bidwell sat on the couch, cuddling her twelve-year-old Skye terrier, Fortune. Her husband, Harry, was across the room, mixing his afternoon gins and tonics; he always poured her one, which she barely sipped, while he consumed the rest of the pitcher. Harry Bidwell fussed and fumed about his day at St. Croix Collegeóespecially his frustration with President DeWitt Hamilton, largely based on the presidentís growing reliance on Avery Wilson whom Bidwell despised.

"Donít let Daddy upset you, Sweetheart," Phyllis whispered to her tiny pet. "When heís had his third drink, heíll settle down in his chair and we can go and get you some dinner." She tickled Fortune behind his left ear. "Now, Dear," she said to her husband, "youíre going to kill yourself worrying about what DeWitt does or doesnít do. And all you can do is tell him what you think. You canít make him accept the advice. Thatís his decision. Thatís what heís paid to do."

"But I always get caught in the middle," Bidwell complained.

Phyllis nodded, "I know, Dear. I donít know what to tell you." The ash-blond haired woman kissed Fortune on the top of its head.

"Glenn Coombes," he continued, pointing a finger out the window in the general direction of the college, "the Artist-in-Residence, is denied tenure." Bidwell gulped the rest of his first drink and refilled the glass. "Itís my job to tell him why. And I donít know. The committee approved his tenure. But it didnít make it past Wilson to Hamiltonís desk. And all Hamilton can tell me is he doesnít meet the criteria--which are vague as hell. Especially for someone in sculpture. True, all he teaches are the sculpture and ceramics classes. But we have his statues and friezes displayed all over campus. And he just won a project at the new state office building in St. Paul...."

"Didnít that statue for that Minnetonka park just win some big award, too?"

"Yes," Bidwell replied, "The Minnesota Arts Councilís Sculpture of the Year, which not only put Coombes name on the map, but the collegeís, too. Do you know that we have five students coming here next year just to work with Coombes, and this tenure thing may mean he isnít even here. And weíre not talking unknowns, either. Two of these guys are already displaying their work around the country."

"Did you tell Coombes it wasnít your decision?" Phyllis asked him.

"So far, the tenure list isnít official. I put Stouffer off when he called and asked about it. And I know Stouffer has talked to Hamilton about it. But Hamilton hasnít come to me. I bet Hamilton knows it was Wilsonís call. How did I ever let that beady-eyed basó"

"Harry," Phyllis interrupted. She held her hands over her petís ears and fixed her blue eyes on her husband. "You know better than that."

"Sorry," he replied, drinking about half the contents of his glass.

"So why not tell Wilson heís wrong, and just tell Hamilton what you think."

I wish it were that easy, he thought. He looked at his wife through the bottom of his glass as he polished off his second drink. He had kept so much from her. And now, he couldnít dig himself out by confessing to her. He was stuck. She knew he was gutless. But if she only knew how little strength he really had.

Four years ago, when he discovered the bogus paper charges, he confronted Wilson. Wilson didnít deny them. He cut Bidwell in. It had been too easy. Now it was impossible to get out. I canít do anything to that basó He stopped himself out of habit. If I try, heíll drag me down with him. And I am too old, at fifty-nine, to try and go anywhere.

"It wouldnít make any difference what I said to Hamilton," Bidwell said, pouring his third drink, leaving one more in the pitcher.

"But why not?" she asked him.

"Because he wonít listen." Bidwell crossed the room and fell into his chair. His hazel eyes were beginning to glaze over.

"Have you really tried talking to Hamilton about it?"

"About Coombes? Or about anything?" he asked.

She didnít reply.

"Not for more than a year now," he admitted, swallowing most of this third drink.

"A year?"

"I tried to talk to him when Wilson fired Harper. I tried to talk to him when McWhorter leftóyou know she would have stayed if we would have reduced her load. But no. He didnít listen to me. Wilson had already decided. And then Stouffer comes after me. He doesnít even know Wilsonís making the decisions, not me. I could almost laugh; the situationís so funny. I mean, I dislike Stouffer. But I respect him. And, a lot of the time, I agree with him."

Phyllis started to say something about working with Stouffer, but her husband didn't stop long enough for her to interject a comment.

"He comes in and demands to know why this or why that. What can I tell him? Thatís the decision we have reached. And then I canít explain it to him because I donít know how Wilson ever came to the conclusion in the first place."

"Well, I donít think thatís fair," Phyllis sympathized. "Is it, Fortune? Poor Daddy."

"No. Itís not fair. And there isnít a thing I can do about it," Bidwell said, throwing back the last of his third drink. He got up and moved unsteadily back to the wet bar to refill his glass. He sat down on one of the stools, resting his head on his hand. "Iím sorry, Honey," he said in a deflated tone. "I shouldnít be haranguing you with all of this...."

Phyllis set Fortune down on the floor before getting off the couch and crossing to her husband. She rubbed his shoulders while standing behind him. "You have to talk to someone about it," she said softly.

Bidwell could only shake his head slowly.

A few moments later, Fortune let out a single yip.

"All right, Sweetheart," Phyllis said, leaning down and rubbing the dog along its spine, "Iíll get you some dinner. Anything special you want, Harry?" she asked her husband.

Again, he shook his head slowly. "No," he said. "I donít care. Iím not really hungry."

"Well, Iíll fix you something anyway. You have to eat."

Phyllis went to the kitchen and took two-minute steaks and some eggs out of the refrigerator. She mixed up an egg batter and put the steaks in to soak. She put some flour, salt and pepper into a pie pan and whisked the ingredients together, before dredging the steaks in the seasoned flour, and put them on to fry. Then she reached up and grabbed some dog food for Fortune, who gave an excited little yip when Phyllis started to open the can.

Phyllis held her breath as she dumped the liver flavored meat into Fortuneís dish. She wondered what it was about the stench of decay that she associated with the food that drove her dogóall dogsówild. "I donít know how you can stand this stuff, Sweetheart," she said as she placed the food on the floor by the back door. "It smells awfully bad." She mussed the hair at the nape of her petís neck as it began to devour the food. "Donít eat so fast," she said, as she returned to preparing dinner. "Youíll get sick."

The minute steaks were not ready to be turned, so Phyllis began to make a salad. She sliced some mushrooms and tomatoes, and placed them into two bowls with lettuce. She crunched up a slice of leftover bacon and put it on top of her husbandís salad. After turning the steaks, she made some instant, mashed potatoes and brown gravy. Early in their marriage, Phyllis liked to try and fix fancier foods, but her husbandís tastes were simple. Not only did he not appreciate her efforts, he rarely liked the concoctions she made. Now, Phyllis kept things like minute steaks and chicken breasts in the refrigerator, and fixed simple things like instant mashed potatoes and minute rice. It wasnít challenging. It wasnít fun. At least Fortune appreciated her opening up cans of food.

When she brought the salads to the dining room table, she was surprised that her husband was already seated. As she set the salad in front of him, Bidwell gently caressed her hand, then clasped it tightly. "Iím sorry, Phyllis," he said, looking deeply into her blue eyes. "I know I havenít been a good husband, especially these past few years. Not since Wilson took control of the finances of the school. I saw him cutting back, cutting corners. But I did nothing. I saw him gain Hamiltonís ear and didnít interfere. Now I donít know what to do."

"Oh, Harry," Phyllis replied, "I just wish we could forget about the collegeóeven for one night.

"I know, Dear," he said. "And Iíve been thinking about that." He released her hand.

Phyllis set her salad down, then slipped into her chair to the right of her husband. She watched as he pecked at his salad. Fortune, panting at the edge of Phyllisí seat, could not distract her. Phyllis waited for Bidwell to say more. But he ate in silence.

* * * * *

Chet Hickerson walked into the Golden Timbers at precisely 6:30. The restaurant was a little pricey for the small, river town of St. Croix. But it was a nice restaurant, with white tablecloths and real napkins, with silverware set at oneís plate rather that rolled in paper. Barbara Crawford served as hostess.

As the middle-aged woman approached to greet him, Hickerson thanked his good fortune that the lights were dimmed for intimacy. In the soft golden lights by the entry, Mrs. Crawfordís hair looked dark, mostly, with a hint of purple or some other hue. Her makeup looked almost black.

"Professor Hickerson," she tried to whisper in a husky voice, "so good to see you." The only thing missing was a darlink at the end.

"Yes," Hickerson replied, trying not to laugh. "And how are you tonight?"

"Fine. Fine," she replied, moving closer, winking. "Will you be dining alone?"

"No," Hickerson replied. "Iím here to see Mr. Vincent."

"Oh," she said, her voice normal. "I think he went into the bar."

"Well, Iíll just catch up with him there," Hickerson said, half-bowing, and crossing into the small tavern through an arched doorway to the right of the restaurant foyer. The tavern occupied the northwest corner of the building. All the walls were covered in eight-inch planks of golden pine. Rough-hewn beams trussed the ceiling.

Hickerson could hear Barbara Crawford go into her routine just as he stepped into the bar. He was tempted to turn around and watch the spectacle, but Vincent had already seen him and was waving him over to a table."

"I made reservations for seven," Vincent said as Hickerson took a seat. "But Barbara said we can eat whenever we want."

"Too cold for most people to get out," Hickerson said.

"Yes, I suppose. Especially after some mild weather early in the week."

"Itís good to see the snow meltómostly melt," Hickerson said. "I always feel better when I see the first green blades of grass peak through the snow. I know thereís hope for something better to come."

"For me," Vincent said, "itís the budding leaves on the aspens. Thatís what means spring is here."

"For Mary, it was the return of the songbirds," Hickerson said.

"Oh, for Doris, too," Vincent agreed.

Both men were silent for a moment. A waiter came over to the table. "Oh, Professor Hickerson," the young man said. "What can I get you?"

"Winthrop, isnít it?" Hickerson replied. "Spring, three years agoÖIntro to PsycheÖB?"

"Wow, thatís pretty good."

"Business major?" Hickerson asked.

"Yes, Sir," the tall waiter replied. "Graduating in May."

"Going to grad school?"

"Maybe. I donít know. I think I might just look for a job."

"Grad school could help you," Vincent said, entering the conversation for the first time.

"I know. But I already owe a lot of moneyÖ." The boyís voice trailed off.

"Come in and see me about it," Vincent said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out one of his business cards. Maybe I can convince you to borrow a little more money now to improve your chances down the road."

"Wow. Thanks, Sir," the senior said. He started to turn to leave.

"Donít you want to take our drink orders?" Hickerson asked.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry. I guess I forgotÖ."

"Iíll have a double shot of scotch, no ice," Hickerson said. "And heíll have a brandy."

"Coming right up."

"Nice kid," Vincent said as the waiter left.

"Yes, and a good student, too. I sure hope you can help him get to grad school. I wonder why Crawford hasnít gotten on to him," Hickerson mused.

"Crawford," Vincent said, reaching out and grabbing his friendís forearm. "That reminds me. Did you go to the faculty senate meeting today?"

"Yes. Why?" Hickerson asked. "I didnít know you kept track of such things."

"I talked to Crawford earlier, and he mentioned it. I just wondered what was said," Vincent replied.

"It was quite a meeting, Iíll tell you," Hickerson said. "We havenít had one that interesting in a long time."

"Oh?" Vincent said, to encourage his companion.

"Of course," Hickerson continued, "part of the excitement was because most people already had the commitment letters for next year."

"I thought you were supposed to get contracts at this time of the year," Vincent said.

"Oh, we havenít gotten those this early in years, Hickerson replied.

"I knew you didnít get them last year," Vincent said.

Itís always because the legislature is too slow in getting the appropriations bills passed, and the college canít really set a budget until it knows what the state is giving it. One year, we didnít get official contracts until Octoberóa month after classes started. But at least we got a raise that year."

Their waiter returned with their drinks. "George said to tell you heís giving you real scotch tonight. Not that stuff you usually drink. Itís twelve years old," Winthrop remarked.

Hickerson smiled. "I donít know how you convinced him to give me something decent, but thanks."

"So what happened at the meeting?" Vincent asked after the young waiter left them alone?

Hickerson sipped his drink, closed his eyes and tried to picture the scene as he relayed it.

The meeting room was about as crowded as it had ever been for a faculty senate meeting, making the room unbelievable hot. Usually, it was hard to get a quorum of the representatives. Today, people were standing around the edge of the roomóHickerson included. Crawford was trying to call the meeting to order, but the mathematician's own excitement and his growing frustration with the crowd caused his voice to rise register by register and become softer and softer. When Crawfordís dark, brown eyebrow arched above his left eye, Hickerson helped out by shushing from the back of the room.

Once order was acknowledged, Crawford detailed what he knew about the current commitment letters and the possibilities of raises.

"He told us not to sign until we had official contracts. And then, only to sign if we were satisfied with the raises we were given," Hickerson said by way of concluding his tale.

"What do you think will happen?" Vincent asked.

"Well, for someone like me, Iíll sign. Why not. Iím not going anywhere from here except retirement, and retirement is just a few years away. There are a few more like me on the facultyóthe dinosaurs left over from the early sixties before the college really started to grow."

"But what about everyone else?" Vincent prodded.

"Oh, I donít know. There are some young, single faculty who certainly could leave and find greener pastures. But they would have to start applying right away. A lot of good jobs have already been filled by now. And married couples without children, or those whose kids are all grown up, could probably leaveóthatís maybe another third of the faculty."

"The rest," Hickerson sighed, sipping his scotch, "are probably stuck here, like it or not. They have kids in school they donít want to uproot. Whether they can force a raise or not, I donít know. I do know that it would be almost impossible for us to try and replace all of those people at the same time. Iím not sure thereís a big enough pool of college teachers in the bi-state area to cover all of our current needs. So, the administration canít really afford to let them all go. It will be interesting to see what happens. Perhaps, if none of them sign those lettersÖ. As for the faculty senate, it has never wielded much power."

"You think it could come down to thatóa large number of faculty not signing the commitment letters?" Vincent asked.

"It could. The faculty is underpaid here. And the salary structure has gotten worse over the last several years." Hickerson said, finishing his scotch.

"I didnít realize things were so bad," Vincent said. "Do you want another drink?"

Hickerson considered the question, noting that his companion hadnít touched his brandy. "No, I think we ought to eat. I canít drink this stuff the way I used to." He threw a twenty on the table before standing. Vincent rose and limped ahead of the aging psychology professor to the entryway of the restaurant.

After Mrs. Crawford sat them at their table, Vincent asked, "Youíre retiring soon. Have you made any plans?"

"No, not really," Hickerson replied. "My older sister, Joanie, asked me to move down to Eden Springs with her. Sheís been there ever since her husband died two years ago."

"Eden Springs?"

"Itís one of the new housing communities for retirees theyíre building out by Phoenix," Hickerson said.

"Phoenix," Vincent repeated. "Thatís where my boy, Ross, lives.

"Oh," Hickerson replied. "Now that you mention it, I do remember his saying something about Phoenix when he was here for Dorisí funeral. I just never put my sister and your son in the same locale."

"So, do you think youíll move down there when you retire from teaching?"

"I might. I havenít given it much thought. I really do need to start thinking about my retirement though. Itís only a few years away."

"My son, Ross, wants me to move down there."

"For you, it might be harder. I know your son is down there," Hickerson said. "But you have family here, too. Me, I donít have anybody up here. None of my family ever lived this far north, and all of Maryís has died or moved awayÖ."

"Yes, itís easier when you donít have any people attachments." Vincent agreed. A moment later, the old banker asked, "Whatís Eden Springs supposed to be like?"

"I havenít been there yet, so I donít know anything about it first hand. But Joanie sure likes it. She tells me it wasnít quite what she expected. Young doctors and dentists and their families were recruited to serve the retirees, and all sorts of other businesses run by younger folks are there for the asking. I think the biggest difference is that houses are built with the elderly in mind. Joanieís place has a ramp up to the front stoopóshe doesnít have to worry about steps, which have been a problem since she broke her hip. The doors have lever handles instead of the old fashioned knobs. There are a whole bunch of apartments designed for peoples in wheel chairs and walkers."

"That does sound nice. I know getting down those basement steps at my house takes all my energy," Vincent said. "And I never go upstairs anymore. I live in the guestroom, downstairs bath and kitchen."

"I know what you mean," Hickerson replied. "After Mary went into the nursing home, I couldnít stand sleeping in our bedroom all by myself. For a while, I just fell asleep on the couch. In the morning, Iíd go upstairs and shower, shave and dress. But I never spent any time up there. At Christmas time, I finally made the official move to the downstairs den. I had some of my students help me move the couch out and a bed in. Like you, I only live in three rooms. What a waste of space."

"But what can you do?" Vincent wondered.

"I guess you do what weíre doing."

Both men were silent for a moment. Barbara Crawford came back over to their table. "Has your waiter been here to take your orders, Gentlemen?"

"No, not yet," Vincent said.

"Can I order you some stuffed mushrooms on the house while you look at menus and place your orders?"

Hickerson shrugged at Vincent.

"Sure. Why not?" Vincent said.

"Coming right up. And I promise you a waiter in no time."

"I wonder if someoneís sick?" Hickerson said. "Thereís been one bug after another going through the dorms this winter. Itís amazed me no end I havenít come down with something."

"Me, too," Vincent said. "Although I do try to wash my hands a lot during the cold and flu season."

"Good Evening," a perky college coed said, taking a position between the two men at a corner of their table. "Sorry you had to wait. Weíre a bit short-handed tonight."

"No problem," Hickerson said, placing the girl in his Tuesday-Thursday eight oíclock development class. "Nancy Kilbourne, isnít it? Nursing major?"

"Yes, thatís right. But I didnít think you even knew who I was," she smiled. "I try not to say anything in class. I hate it when you make that buzzer sound telling someone theyíre wrong."

"I only do that on review days," Hickerson said. "You could add to the discussion at other times."

"But I donít know anything. Iím an only child. Iíve never even been around a baby."

"But you have lived," Hickerson said, his voice rising. "And by the time we get to development of six- and seven-year-olds, I would think your experience was worth sharing with the class."

"But people would think it was stupid," she said.

Vincent cleared his throat.

Hickerson looked around and noticed several diners were looking his direction. "Sorry," he said softly. "I just hate to have people dismiss their experiences that way. Maybe I better order something so you can go to the back and die from embarrassment."

Although her face was tinged in red, Ms. Kilbourne said she wouldnít die.

After the two ordered their dinners, Hickerson said, "You know, Iím sorry I wonít get a chance to have your nieceóyour grand nieceóin class before I retire."

"Gail?"

"Yes, Gail," Hickerson said. "Now thereís a girl that the school system hasnít turned into a mouse."

Vincent laughed. "Thatís about as diplomatic as one can say blunt and forward. But thatís my Gail. How did you meet here."

"You probably donít know how much time that girl spends on campus, do you," Hickerson said.

Vincent shrugged.

"Sheís always at our library using the computers to look something up. And, when she canít find what she wants, she goes to the librarians or to the faculty for information. Does she have a boyfriend?"

"Not that I know of," Vincent said. "Why?"

"She wanted to know about fidelity the other day."

"Fidelity?" Vincent asked.

Hickerson nodded. "You know, most kids donít start there. What am I sayingómost kids never get there. She wanted to know why someone would say he or she loved someone else when he or she really didnít. Why someone would stay with that someone else even though he or she ran around with somebody else. Maybe she was just trying to understand the plot to some movie or soap opera. But she was deadly earnest in finding answers to those questions."

"Yes. Maybe. I wonder what brought that on," Vincent said.

"No telling with young teens today. Everything they see deals with sex in one way or anotherómostly with casual sex, at that," Hickerson replied.

"Still, I hate to think of that little girl dealing with a boyfriend whoís two-timing her."

Ms. Kilbourne brought out the complimentary appetizers.

"It may be one of her friendsÖ."

"Speaking of Gail," Vincent said, turning to look directly at his long-time friend. "She asked me if she could use Dorisí ceramics."

"What did you say?" Hickerson asked.

"I told her she could. I thought Doris would have wanted somebody to use them. But then I started to worry that she might expect me to help her with it. And I donít know anything about that stuff. That was strictly Dorisí area. Not mine."

"If I know Gail, sheís already asked Coombes to help her. He works in the lab all afternoon with his students on their various projects. Iím sure he wouldnít mind helping one more person learn. I doubt heíll care that sheís not a college student. Iíve never seen someone so eager to help people learn his craft. And, at the same time, Iíve never seen someone so patient, so willing to accept people at their level of expertise. Mary took ceramics from him the first year he was here, and she loved him. She wasnít real good. But she had fun, and he encouraged her to do the best she could and be satisfied with it. Heís a hell of a psychologist."

"You know, I donít think I really know him," Vincent admitted. "I know Doris met him right after he moved here from the twin cities. She talked of working with him on some major project she wanted to do for the music building. But then she got sick."

"Iím sure he would have worked with her. Although I donít think Doris really needed his help. She had such a gift," Hickerson said.

"She really did," Vincent agreed, wiping his eyes on his napkin.

Their dinners arrived. Hickerson dug straight into his angel hair pasta and sautéed vegetables.

"You must be hungry," Vincent laughed. He seasoned his steak and baked potato with salt and pepper before lifting his silverware.

"Mary always made me taste something before I added salt," Hickerson said around a mouthful of pasta. "But I have to watch my blood pressure."

"I probably should taste it," Vincent replied. "But I want to see the salt and pepper on the meat before I slice into it. I donít know why I do. But I donít plan to change."

As the meal continued, their conversation turned toward their mutual passion, baseball. Hickerson was a die-hard Orioles fanóhad been since he lived in Baltimore when he was a teen. Vincent tried to be faithful to the Twins, but the team made that loyalty difficult.

 

End of Chapter Four