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Testing the Hypothesis, Part 1
IT WAS that, a few nights later, I waited for Patti in front of Dudley
Beaker’s house on No Bridge Road. I saw her turn the corner, walking
through the circle of streetlamp light. She had dressed in the style
of my mother’s high-school days, with saddle shoes, bobby socks, a flippy
skirt, and a sweater over a white blouse.
“How did you do this?” I asked her when she was
beside me, indicating with a sweep of my hand the head-to-toe verisimilitude
she had achieved.
“Research and rummaging,” she said. “The attics
of Babbington are full of relics.”
She turned and looked at the house. “So this
is the place,” she said. “Does anybody live here now?”
“Eliza,” I said. “Eliza Foote.”
“I guess you’d say she was Dudley’s girlfriend,”
I said, and in a whisper I added, “I don’t think they ever got married.”
“This Dudley was quite a guy.”
“You mean because of Eliza?”
“Eliza . . . your mother . . . were there others?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll bet he was filling the idle hours of women
all over town.”
“Do you think so?”
“I just said it, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” I said, “you did.”
“Where’s Eliza now? The house looks dark.”
“I’ll bet she is.”
“No. Overseas. In Europe. ‘Abroad.’
That’s the way she put it. She said, ‘I’m going abroad for a few
weeks so that I don’t have to endure all this sympathy.’”
I took the key from my pocket and started toward
Patti put her hand on my arm and said, “Uh-uh.
Let’s do this right. You go in. Get into the mood. See
if you can find any of Dudley’s clothes to put on. Get into the part.
I’m going to walk around the block, and then when I come back and knock
at the door it’s going to be a winter night about thirteen years ago, and
you’re going to be Dudley and I’m going to be—what’s your mother’s name?”
“I’m going to be Ella.”
I LET MYSELF IN and went directly to Dudley’s bedroom. I rummaged
through his closet and chose a jacket. I put it on and went downstairs
and sat in his chair in front of the fireplace and waited. Time passed,
more time than I had expected to have to wait, and I began to wonder what
had happened to Patti. I went to the front door and looked out through
the window beside it. Patti was at the curb, playing the coquette,
flirting with a couple of guys in a car. I couldn’t hear what they
were saying, but from the way Patti leaned against the car and wiggled
her bottom as she spoke, I could guess. I drew a deep breath.
I felt jealous. I wished that she would send the boys on their way
and come into the house to see me. She looked so adorable in her
flippy skirt, with her smooth calves showing above her bobby socks and
saddle shoes. I wished that there might be some reason for her to
come to see me rather than going off in that car. “Come here,” I
whispered. “Please come here. Make some excuse and come here.”
She hugged herself and made the gesture of an exaggerated shiver, and then
she flung her arm backward in my direction, and I had the thought that
she might be indicating that she was coming to see me. I felt pleased
and a little surprised. I had really come to expect her to go off
in that car.
When the car went off without her and she turned
and opened the gate and started up the walk, I felt the loneliness begin
to lift from me. I felt thrilled, nervous, eager. If I had
been Dudley Beaker, I would have felt rejuvenated.
I RETURNED TO MY CHAIR, and when Patti rang the bell I got up as if
I hadn’t been expecting her, went to the door and opened it. She
was standing there, smiling and hugging a notebook to her breast.
“Ella!” I said.
“Hi, Dud. I wondered if you could help me
with my homework.”
“Well,” I said, packing tobacco into my pipe and
trying to hide a tremor of desire, “it has been quite a long time since
I did any homework, but of course I’ll help you. Come in.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“What homework do you have to do?” I asked when
I had closed the door behind her.
“I—” She shrugged and pouted, and there formed
in my mind the thrilling thought that it wasn’t homework that had brought
her to see me, that she now had to make up some sort of homework to hide
“Do you—um—have to—ah—write an essay?” I asked,
patting the pockets of my jacket in search of matches.
“Yep,” she said, rocking on the balls of her feet.
“That’s it. Gotta write an essay.”
“Well!” I said. “An essay. I think I
can help you with that.”
Impulsively, she reached out and grasped my hands,
which held pipe and matches.
“I knew you could,” she said, and I thought that I could see
in her eyes the sort of starry-eyed admiration that young girls so often
feel for men of accomplishment.
“I’m flattered that you came to me,” I said.
“I do know quite a bit about writing essays, what with my having gone to
college and all, and also my work in advertising, of course, where I do
quite a bit of writing, as you might expect.”
“Do you have anything to drink?” she asked.
“To drink?” I asked, taken aback by such a question
so abruptly posed by such a slip of a girl.
“I’m a little nervous,” she said. I could
understand that; I was, of a sudden, feeling a little nervous myself.
“I have—I have a liquor cabinet.” I led her
to the dining room. “It’s right there.” I pointed toward it.
“Solid, Jackson!” she said when she opened the cabinet
and saw the booze. “Make us a couple of sidecars, okay, Dud?”
She got girlish and playful. “I’ve never had
one,” she said, “but I know they’re really popular now. I read that
they were the most popular drink of 1944.”
“Do you know how to make one?” I asked.
“Of course not!” she said, giggling as if she ought
to be shocked by the suggestion. “They don’t teach us that at Babbington
“Heh-heh-heh,” I chuckled urbanely. “Of course
they don’t, you sweet young thing. I was just wondering how much
experience you’ve had with—sidecars—and that sort of thing.”
“Oh, not much. There’s always a boy with a
flask at parties or dances—you know.” She winked in a way that I
thought suggested more experience with these boys and their flasks than
I might have wished her to have had.
“Ah! I see. Yes, I suppose so.
A sidecar. Hm. You know, I make my own version of a sidecar.
Will that be all right?”
I made some sort of drink, and she helped, after
a fashion, a delightful fashion, stretching to reach glasses on a high
shelf, squatting to look into a low cabinet for a shot glass and such,
and in the stretching and squatting she found many occasions to display
her charms, or at least some of them, including her calves, and even her
thighs, when her skirt somehow got caught on a cabinet knob as I was helping
her down from a precarious perch.
Her search for the cocktail equipment and supplies
required a great deal of pleasant assistance on my part. At times
she leaned upon me as an aid to balance, and at other times I was required
to grasp her around the waist and lift her to a height where she could
see into an upper cabinet. All of this would have been unalloyed
pleasure had my conscience not insisted on reminding me that I should not
be finding it quite so great a pleasure as I did to have the girl next
door here in my house, almost, at times, in my arms.
We took the drinks to the living room. I thought
that we would sit in the chairs in front of the fireplace, the obvious
and customary place to sit when entertaining a single visitor, but she
settled onto the sofa and patted the cushion beside her.
“Come and sit here, Dud,” she said. “It’s
Relaxing I suppose it may have been for her, but
it was awkward for me. Her proximity, the drink that I ought not
to have given her, the essay that I would have to help her write—these
things made me increasingly uneasy. Relaxing I did not find it.
Exciting, yes, agitating, stimulating, arousing; certainly not relaxing.
She actually drank the concoction that I had made.
I didn’t care for it much, but I sipped at it in my worldly way, humoring
this sweet girl who was pretending to a sophistication that she hadn’t
earned—surely hadn’t earned.
“Drink up, Dud,” she said. She put her hand
on mine and guided the glass to my lips, and I did as she advised, draining
Swallowing the last of hers, she leaned against
me and said, “Don’t tell my mom,” breathing the request into my face.
“I won’t,” I said, and as soon as I had said it
I was aware that I had crossed a line into a conspiracy that, in my position
as friend of the family, trusted adviser, and grown man, I ought never
even to have approached. In a moral sense, I was already lost, but
to be truthful I must admit to you that I was more concerned about my physical
situation: I was in an extreme state of desire. I will try to avoid
descending into vulgarity in this account of that night, but in order for
you to appreciate fully how I felt with her leaning against me like that,
I must tell you that I was as upright and rigid as an oak, or perhaps an
ash—one of those sturdy trees that produces the fine hardwoods so prized
in cabinetry—and I didn’t want the obvious evidence of my desire to frighten
or disgust the girl, certainly not to send her running into the night,
Swallowing hard and buttoning my jacket over my
manhood, I said, “Why don’t we go up to my study and see what we
can do about that essay?”
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
IN DUDLEY’S STUDY, I seemed to return to myself. I think it was
the memory of the hours I had spent there being tutored by him. The
subordination I had always felt during those sessions, the inadequacy I’d
felt, returned when I entered the room.
“So this is your study!” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, yes.”
She walked around the room, swinging her little
hips, poking at things here and there, then stopped at the window and looked
out into the darkness.
“That house next door—” she began.
“Your house,” I said.
She giggled. “Oh, of course. Of course
it’s my house. That sidecar went right to my head.”
She leaned forward, toward the window, her skirt
riding up so that I could see a bit of the backs of her legs above her
knees, and peered into the darkness, and she said, “That window right across
the way, what room is that?”
I went to her side and in a friendly, possibly protective
way, put my arm around her waist as I leaned in a manner similar to hers
to peer into the dark.
“That,” I said, my breath catching, “is your bedroom.”
She turned away from the window, toward me, and
as she turned I relished (and committed to lifelong memory) the brushing
caress of her hair, her breasts. Her eyes were teasing.
“Why, Dud,” she said. “What exactly do you
study up here in your study?”
“Beauty,” I said, surprising myself.
“There are nights when I sit here with the lights
out just hoping that you will come up to your room.”
“Wouldn’t you rather I came here to yours?”
“That is more than I have ever allowed myself to
hope. You see, hope is sustainable only when its object seems attainable.”
“Is that an aphorism?”
“I think it is, and I just made it up, just now.”
“And just now, here I am, attainable.”
She was looking into my eyes. I was looking
into hers. We were breathing deeply, excitedly, our mouths nearly
touching, inhaling each other’s breath, and then she kissed me, and it
was thrilling, but after a single kiss, she drew away from me and looked
out the window again, and, as Patti, not Ella, said, “Before we go any
further with this, I’d like to meet your mother.”