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MY FIRST BIG ASSIGNMENT had been in my home state, Illinois, an interview with a man who might some day be President. I went down from Chicago to Springfield on the St. Louis Flyer. That was in 1951, over twenty years ago. The man, of course, is dead without ever having been President, and some who became President are dead. I have covered these deaths. I have written about so much violence. Everybody knows that violence makes news, but now it seems news makes violence. That is today's difference, I think.
In the intervening twenty years I had not had an assignment, I had not free-lanced a story that—how shall I put it?—very simply, made me feel so good. So when Mike Fischer, the editor of Saturday Magazine, asked me what I knew of Illinois, I wanted to say several things at once, and wound up saying only that I grew up there.
"Know anything about big Steve Higgins?"
"He's the last of something they're always saying somebody's the last of."
"Baron, boss, or bullshit artist?"
"Probably all of them," I said.
Mike tried to see clear through me. That's the feeling I get when he's about to pin me down to an assignment. "There's a story, don't you think?"
"It's old hat, Mike."
"Not when it's filed by Kate Osborn, it isn't."
I made a gesture of demur, and asked him when he expected me to leave. He looked at his watch. It was a silent gag that ran through our relationship.
We went downstairs and had a drink while Mike told me what had put him onto Steve Higgins, the rumor of a power struggle between him and the mayor of Chicago. A battle of dinosaurs, Mike said, and quickly added, "Nevertheless." We went over the Higgins interests that we knew about: a couple of radio stations, a newspaper chain, coal mining, oil, vending machines, and the downstate farm where he lived most of the time. It was called The Hermitage after Andrew Jackson's home in Tennessee.
I said, "Do you know anything connecting him with the State University at Venice?" There was something at the back of my mind but I couldn't dig it out.
"You'll find it," Mike said. "And then there's the blacks and the whites down there. A powder keg. It would be interesting if that blew up while you were on top of it."
He suggested that I fly to St. Louis and then drive back to Venice when I said I proposed to headquarter there. But I wanted to start the assignment, going down by train from Chicago, and I told Mike why.
"A sentimental journey," he mocked gently.
"The perfect warm-up," I said. "What's more sentimental than politics?"
"There's more down there than politics, Kate. If there wasn't, I wouldn't make the investment. I think it's another big one for you, gal."
There was a run affectionately called the Night Train leaving Chicago in the late afternoon. It carried a combination diner and club car. The porter, taking charge of my luggage, advised me to get a table early. It was the custom of the regulars to settle in there as soon as the tickets were collected and stay throughout their journey. Dinner was served out of Champagne-Urbana.
I did go into the diner early. It was like walking into a men's club where all the members turn at once to question the presence of a woman. The hostility eased off as soon as I was taken over by the headwaiter, the danger of my intrusion on preserved ground presumably averted. The headwaiter, a cheerful, gold-toothed black man in a white coat that rustled, seated me by the window at a table set for two with an arsenal of silver at each place. He gave me the option of facing forward, which meant going toward the sun, or riding backward. I chose the prairie sunset. It is one of the things I have missed, sometimes achingly. I ordered a Bourbon Presbyterian.
"Oh, yes!" He said it as though it were a concoction for which he had himself nostalgia.
The whole staff was pleasant and courteous, and briefly I forgot the black man's anger, to which I had grown accustomed in my America. The bourbon was Old Taylor. The waiter wrung the neck of the miniature bottle and uncapped the ginger ale and soda. I don't drink bourbon anymore, and I occasionally use ginger ale to baste ham during baking, but my father used to drink the mixture, and the aroma took me back to the farm living room on a Sunday afternoon. In this context it tasted fine.
I found myself picking out the native faces among those before me, men I would have said were returning home downstate. "American Gothic" could have been painted of any generation. Pitchforks may be obsolete and collarless shirts out of fashion, but those stern faces mounted on necks like fence posts are as durable as the plains against the sky. I speculated on their households and occupations and what their wives were like, and on why I was not married to one of them instead of to an archeologist I had met in an Israeli bomb shelter. I did not have the answer, but it was a question I never failed to ask myself in one way or another whenever I passed that way.
The waiter came and asked me if I minded sharing my table. I did, but I said No. The dining car had become crowded. The man he brought was ramrod straight, gray-eyed, and his blond hair was cut to the old convention. I judged him to be in his early or mid-forties, not much older than myself. His thanks were more a sound than a word, and I merely nodded my welcome. Neither of us was committed. He ordered Scotch and soda. I returned to my contemplation of the setting sun: with its spangled rays, a great wheel of chance.
For a time I was aware of him only as a reflection in the windowpane—an intrusion there also—who for his part was staring at his own thoughts, his eyes hard on the saltshaker or some other object on the table. Now and then the trace of a down-turning smile played at the corners of his mouth. He had to work to make that mouth seem strong, I thought. He kept trying to toughen it. I kept trying to see through his reflection to the sunset, but it was no use: a human struggle was going on across the table from me. Or the replay of a struggle: I clearly remember thinking that before we had spoken a word to one another. I took for granted, despite the conservative business suit and the grooming, that he was connected with the university at Venice. Then he too looked out the window, and it was only a matter of a second or two before our eyes met in the glass. I turned my head and met his gaze directly.
"Venice State?" he asked, as though wondering where he might have seen me before.
"No ..." I tried to make it sound tentative, not terminative. "But you are, aren't you?"
A little arch of the eyebrows: I had hit it straight on and he was pleased. "Randall Forbes, physics department," he said, and raised himself an inch or so from the chair.
"My name is Osborn," I murmured. "What kind of physics?"
"The one with the big bang."
"Or the big bust—in today's perspective."
"I suppose you are out of fashion," I mused. His chin went up. "But then I should not suppose fashion to be of great concern to the scientist."
"I'd go so far as to say fashion is corruptive. Of course, some people would say the same thing of three meals a day."
I laughed. His drink came. He said Cheers, drank, and sighed at the pleasure it gave him. I was trying to place his accent: educated; I caught no trace of regionalism.
"Does the name Daniel Lowenthal mean anything to you, Mrs. Osborn?" His eyes had moved briefly to my wedding band.
"The Nobel Laureate? Oh, yes."
The slightest change in expression, no more than a sniff, the contraction of his nostrils: he had hoped I would have recognized the name Randall Forbes also. "I took my doctorate under Lowenthal ... in the days of fame and fashion. We were a great team, every man in the group a theorist worth the name. All scattered now—like our science—except for the old man and me. He's chairman of the department at Venice State. Or did you know that?"
I shook my head. "But I might have if I'd thought about it."
"Then you are at the university?"
Again I shook my head that I was not.
"I'm reasonably sure you don't sell cosmetics," he blurted out, his color rising. He tried to amend: "By which I mean, I don't mean ..." He threw up his hands.
"That I should go and put on some lipstick?" I prompted mockingly.
"Oh, God." Then: "Maybe you do sell cosmetics—to those who need them."
"You're safe," I said, smiling. "I'm a newspaper woman, Professor Forbes."
He refrained from comment, taking no more chances. We both ordered another drink when the waiter brought us menus. "I did meet a woman on the train once who sold cosmetics. I was married then, and, do you know, she arrived at the house the next day and told my wife that I suggested she call?"
"She made the sale," I said.
"You're right, where I'd have said she hadn't a chance to make a nickel. I really don't know women at all." He studied the menu and then glanced up at me. "Order something on the dark side and I'll stand us a bottle of wine. Please, don't protest. I have something to celebrate."
"I wouldn't dream of protesting."
This time I omitted the ginger ale from the mix when the drinks came. We both ordered Louisiana oysters and the prime ribs of beef.
I lifted my glass. "To whatever it is that you're celebrating, Professor."
"I wouldn't want this to get in the papers yet."
"It's off the record," I assured him, trying not to be solemn.
Still he hesitated. Two small points of color remained in his cheeks, the rest having drained away. He plunged ahead: "I'm celebrating three hundred thousand dollars, a research grant to the department which no one would have given us a microscopic chance of getting. I went after it."
"And got it?"
He rocked back and forth and smiled as he nodded. He did not smile often or easily and the smile looked forced, but the flush rose again to his cheeks and his eyes were dancing; even his shoulders quivered as he said, "Today."
"Congratulations," I said. I had not known three hundred thousand could be so significant a sum in current research. "What will you do with it?"
"Gain tenure," he said, and then broke into laughter at his own impromptu response. "You see, the truth will out. If anyone else had said that of me, I would have chewed his head off. Why, we'll finish experiment in progress, I think. Whatever the chief decides. My own qualification—if I'm permitted to impose it—nothing useful. Do you know what I mean? Nothing deliberately useful."
"Exactly. So Goddamned pure ..." He thought about that for a moment. "I wish I could tell you what it was like when the old boy was my age and I was his student, the propositions we worked out together, the fantastic combinations we'd throw at one another ... It was like playing tag among the stars."
"Is it that much different today?"
I wished I had not asked that, for he became quite glum. "Oh, yes. I have a graduate student who refers to his thesis as a pile of shit."
"Nevertheless, he wants his degree," I said.
"Who knows what they want nowadays? The communication lines are down. It's an accident when we reach one another at all."
"Then why do you teach? Your interest is in basic research."
"I must!" he said, an impatient crescendo to his voice. "The two things are inseparable."
"I wasn't baiting you," I said quietly.
"I know ..." He gave a dry little laugh. "You must understand also: neither government nor industry is competing with the university for my services."
I nodded sympathetically.
He ordered a half-bottle of Chablis to be served with the oysters, and a Médoc '64 to go with the beef. "One wants something without too much bottom since it's been traveling," he explained. "Not that there's a great choice."
"Anywhere," I said, and returned to the subject of physics. "Yet the whole business of fusion remains to be opened up, yes?"
"Yes," he said with a mixture of surprise and tolerance. He had not expected even that of me. I was put in mind of Sam Johnson's woman preacher and the dog who walked on its hind legs.
I said, "I speak out of a kind of controlled ignorance."
"And I out of a limited knowledge. Such humility makes us unique, wouldn't you say?"
"It ought to put us in tune with the young—who think themselves so honest."
"It ought," he said, "but it don't."
Presently I asked, "How do the kids today feel about Lowenthal?"
"How do you mean?"
"Politically. When I was in college he was more famous for his leftish politics than for his science almost."
"I have no idea."
The question rankled, I supposed because he was not himself political. Instinctively I knew that of him. I was sorry to have dampened the little glow which seemed to have ignited between us. I said, "He will be pleased at your success ... in Chicago."
"Good God, yes." He came to life again before my eyes. "I hope he won't make too much of it. After all, he's been recipient to grants of considerably larger sums than that ... and from rather more distinguished foundations than the Bernard Reiss." He thought about what he had just said. "That's ungrateful of me, isn't it?"
I finished my highball. The waiter took away the glass before he opened the wine. He ceremonially poured a few drops. Forbes crinkled his nose after tasting the wine.
I said, "What do the foundation people really expect of you, Professor?"
"Ha! How did you know?"
"My husband is often dependent on grants. He's an archeologist."
"Clean heat. You had it right away," Forbes said, about as interested in my husband as I had been in the cosmetics saleswoman. "That's what fusion means to them. They want ecology and energy in the same package. It's quite a trick. And yet, you know, the Russians have come up with a conversion advance, which if it works"—he shrugged—"they're way ahead of us."
I could imagine him using that argument on the foundation, and I thought, the purer the purpose, the more practical the pitch.
"Does it trouble you, as a scientist, that the Soviets are ahead?"
"It troubles me not to know what they know. Yes. But that's all. This nuclear converter of theirs is out of my field, but one wants to know. Nowadays one has to know. It seems like they have bypassed the pollutant-making phase in transforming energy to power ... I'll explain if you like."
"Please do," I said, and I was sure as he went on, that in informing my ignorance, he was reliving one of his best moments with the foundation representatives.
The oysters came, shimmering and icy cold on their half-shells, and we commenced a dinner that proclaimed us both sensualists, something neither of us would have expected of the other. We talked of music and the movies. We did not expect to meet again, and were therefore more personal than we might otherwise have been. We were enjoying an intimacy all blossom and no roots, I felt, satisfied in the transience of our meeting.
We were having coffee when Forbes looked at his watch. "I must pull myself together," he said. "We're less than a half-hour out of Venice. You know, when I first came down here, I always said, Venice, Illinois, there being but one Venice that could stand on its own in my opinion. Now I say, Venice, Italy, when I mean that other city."
"And I am glad to have met it first through you, Professor. Shall we ask for our checks?"
"You're getting off at Venice also?" he said slowly, as though picking his way from one word to the next, as though in fact he felt that I had deceived him.
I wanted to assure him that I did not expect anything of him in Venice. I said, "Yes. There isn't any secret about my assignment, Professor. I work for Saturday Magazine. We're expecting to do a story on Steve Higgins."
He put on that downward smile again. Then he laughed aloud and said, "Good luck!"
"I didn't think he would be your man," I said, trying to make light of it.
"Nor I his, you may be sure."
"That part I didn't know."
"You'll see. You'll see."
We exchanged amenities after paying our respective bills, and parted with a handshake when I offered my hand and it would have been rude of him to ignore it. But he had quite turned off.
The train stopped in Venice a few minutes later. It wasn't nine o'clock, but the railway station was closed. I soon saw that it had been that way for years. Nor was there any sign of a cab. Forbes, leaving from the dining car, was the only other person on the platform. He strode alongside the train as it moved out and helped me haul my luggage to the taxi phone box. The phone had been pulled out by the roots.
"That's a familiar sight, but I didn't expect it here," I said.
Excerpted from Shock Wave by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1972 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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