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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Virtuous Husband

Category: Issue 7, Short Story Winners

“Bob Trencher married Susan Soderborg!”  Jim Burke could never remember how this news had reached him.  It must have come at least half a dozen years after his family had moved away from Canterbury,  because that’s how long it would have taken for the two to graduate from college and get married.  The news must have come to him with a certain insistence, irrespective of the time and distance that now lay between him and the old town, because it was a kind of apotheosis.  Whatever else one might say of Canterbury, no one could now insist that a certain kind of virtue went unrewarded there.

Susan Soderborg was the younger, less accomplished, and more insipid daughter of the woman who gave Jim, and others in his neighborhood, piano lessons.  Susan was Jim’s age and a classmate at school.  The older daughter, Kathleen, had shown sufficient promise at the piano that her mother had farmed her out to a different teacher, although Kathleen still continued to perform at the recitals which Mrs. Soderborg gave for her own students.  Kathleen was older than they were, but even allowing for that, the difference was unmistakeable.  Susan’s aptitude for the piano, on the other hand, had apparently proved so limited that she did not perform at the recitals at all.

“The Soderborgs are Swedes,” Jim’s mother had told him once, apparently in answer to a question. “Swedes are very clannish.”  Whatever the justice of this remark, it proved descriptive, even predictive, as it applied to the Soderborgs.  Lest there be any misunderstanding, the Soderborgs were not spiritually tormented Swedes, as one finds in Ingmar Bergman films, nor socialist, free-loving, suicidal Swedes, as one might expect from the stereotype of Swedes who live in Sweden.  The Soderborgs were North American bourgeois Swedes, who, though they had never visited Sweden itself, nevertheless felt that those segments of humanity that were not Swedish were slightly beneath them. 

Mrs. Soderborg gave piano lessons to the children of all who applied, notwithstanding none were Swedish.  This included Jim Burke, who at least learned to read music as a result, though he faltered in music theory, and despite having the times of his piano practice at home strictly enforced, never did well.  Mrs. Soderborg had a way of sucking air through her teeth whenever Jim hit a wrong note, which was often.  She probably did this with all her students, or at least the less promising ones, but Jim always thought it was aimed specifically at him. On the other hand, as far as I know, she didn’t suck air through her teeth at Susan, who apparently, once her utter hopelessness at the keyboard became known, had an easier time of it.

Jim’s lessons were timed so that Mr. Soderborg got home from work in the middle of them.  He would come in the front door, having walked from the railroad station, and greet Jim and Mrs. Soderborg in their living room as though he were speaking the lines of a dull husband in an Ibsen play.  “Hello, Jim,” he would say.  “Hot.  Hot today.”  His wife would say nothing, and he would wander upstairs.  The living room was a very formal place; Mrs. Soderborg was fully aware that students might report any seeming disorder to their parents.  There were crystal pieces here and there on mahogany tables, overstuffed chairs and sofas on which no one sat, and a glass bowl with a lid on it that held candy no one ate. 

Once, when Jim had to wait while Mrs. Soderborg finished with another student, he leafed through the only artifact in the room that showed any signs of use, an ancient, tattered copy of Collier’s on a side table.  It was apparently preserved because it had lurid artists’ conceptions of American cities in the wake of a nuclear attack.  Everything the Soderborgs had built up for themselves, it appeared, could disappear in an instant.  Stern measures were called for – had, in fact, been called for since even before the distant date of the Collier’s piece.  It was a popular sentiment in Canterbury.  The Bolsheviks being too far away for mere sternness, everyone was stern with everyone else, especially children.

Now and then, even as a pre-pubescent, Jim felt a tingling on the back of his neck when he was at the Soderborgs for his piano lesson.  He was the same age as their daughter Susan.  The tingling felt as if he were being evaluated, not as a piano student, but as a potential match.  But as soon as he felt it, he also seemed to get the message that he wouldn’t do.  The Soderborgs had higher expectations, it seemed.  But this was before Bob Trencher’s family had even moved to town.

Since the Soderborgs lived only a block from the Burkes, Susan and Jim went to the same school, and most years, they were in the same class.  Susan had long, blonde hair and always wore very clean white blouses.  She was standoffish, especially with the pubescent boys, and she made a show of never taking notice of their raucousness and crude jokes.  She was, in fact, turning into something of a prig, and over those years, her stoniness at puerile displays mutated into something more like a basic lack of humor.  Her expression seldom took on any aspect other than a serene hauteur.  She was developing an average figure, her features were average, but their lack of animation detracted from what she had, and some observers might have suspected that it also covered up for a certain lack of mental sharpness. 

Bob Trencher and his parents moved to Canterbury when Jim and Susan were starting junior high school.  Bob, the same age as they were, turned up as a new face in their class on the first day of school.  His family lived out on River Road, which was the last street before the Watchung River and the eastern borough limits.  The other side of the river was just a swamp then.  River Road was unusual in the otherwise affluent town.  It was lined with cramped duplexes and second-story walkups with outside stairs.  Some of the teachers in the local school systems lived there.  Jim already had several friends on River Road, and such people always seemed to turn up as new faces on the first day of school.  River Road had lots of turnover. 

Bob was a good looking guy, well-built, with curly brown hair.  He was smart, which eventually would prove out on his SAT scores.  He was eager to fit in, which was natural enough, but Canterbury wasn’t an easy place for that.  He found that Jim Burke was the most sociable of his new classmates; Jim was something of an outsider himself.  They quickly became friends, and they reinforced each other’s interests in areas like classical music and reading.  Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons, they would take the train in to New York together and buy standing-room tickets for operas at the Metropolitan.  But Bob, living as he did on River Road, didn’t take piano lessons and didn’t go to dancing school like other Canterbury boys his age.  It was something Jim didn’t notice; he wasn’t old enough.

Nor did he notice, really, how tiny Bob’s room was in the duplex on River Road.  There was barely room for a bed, a desk, and a bureau; there was no room for a chair.  Bob had to sit on his bed to work at his desk.  Even so, he had in one corner a small monaural record player on which he played a treasured gift from his parents, a set of light classical selections on LP records.  They relied heavily on Strauss waltzes and overtures by Franz von Suppé.  Bob and Jim sat side by side on his bed and listened to them over and over. They spoke to two boys in early adolescence of chivalry, intoxicating grace, and the possibility of romance, all unavoidably bound up in the social atmosphere of Canterbury, New Jersey, and the young ladies in the junior high school there.

But if the two were close, the closeness went only so far.  Bob was acutely aware of what people thought about River Road, and even though Jim often visited him there and got to know Bob’s parents, Bob himself said very little about them.  Jim never learned, for instance, what Bob’s father did for a living, and his father volunteered almost nothing about himself.  For that matter, Bob went to great lengths to conceal that his mother worked: at that time, in Canterbury, it was social death to have your mother work.  That implied your family was so poor it needed the money.  If your mother was at loose ends, she could apply herself to the candystripers or the League of Women Voters. 

Indeed, Bob was coy about this sort of information.  “One of my parents wears dentures,” he announced one day. 
“Which one?” asked Jim, mildly curious.  Bob’s parents couldn’t have been more than 40.  Didn’t everyone in Canterbury have great teeth?

“I’m not going to tell you,” said Bob, a little primly.  In fact, he seemed offended at the question. That began to be a pattern: Bob would prompt Jim with something on which he was sensitive, and then when Jim followed up, Bob would take offense.  But their friendship continued, notwithstanding bumps in the road now and then.  Bob’s sensitivity over his family’s social standing in fact went along with what Jim thought was a certain overeagerness to be accepted in Canterbury.

One day the school band was loading onto a bus to attend an away game at another school.  Bob, taking German in the language lab, broke into the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth as he watched the process.  Loudly, in German.  It was, as far as Jim was concerned, over the top, not something that was going to work in the general understatement of Canterbury culture.  In fact, right then, Jim was embarrassed to be standing next to Bob.  He edged away and tried to get him to stop singing, which only made Bob mad. 

It wasn’t so much that Bob’s singing wasn’t how things were done in Canterbury.  Jim’s reading preferences had begun to shift from H. Rider Haggard to Sinclair Lewis, and he was less and less sure he liked what he saw around him in the place.  What Jim found disconcerting was Bob’s apparent eagerness to fit in, however badly calibrated his efforts may have been.  He was so eager to buy into the town that he was willing to fall flat on his face until he got things right.

As a result, their relationship began to have more ups and downs.  Bob was so sensitive about being an outsider in Canterbury that he almost seemed to fish for slights from Jim, who wasn’t really an insider himself, perhaps to confirm his sense that the town was unjust in excluding him.  Nevertheless, as they moved into high school, they remained friends, and they even began to double date together.  That meant, as well, that they postmortemed those dates – the gaffes they made, their episodes of being tonguetied, the times now and then that things went well.  By the time Jim’s family moved away from Canterbury, after his sophomore year in high school, he’d decided it was high time to leave.  Bob stayed. 

They wrote letters to each other about the same sorts of things they’d talked about together, especially dating and women.  The exchange continued for several months, but then Bob didn’t reply.  Not thinking much of it, Jim wrote him a few more letters, but the replies had simply stopped.  Well, maybe Bob had become preoccupied, or perhaps Jim had taken some kind of bait and made one last, unforgivable slight.  It was sad, but soon enough Jim moved on.

But with both of them well into high school, the long and intricate college application process had also begun for them.  Canterbury High School sent its annual contingent of seniors to Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, Wellesley and Smith, Cal Tech and MIT.  Jim’s family had moved to the same sort of place a few hundred miles away, such that the graduates there, come that autumn, inevitably found themselves living just down the hall in the same schools as the students from Canterbury.  So as it happened, both being bright kids, Bob and Jim wound up at elite institutions not far from each other.  Once Jim found out where Bob was, he looked him up, and he visited him one weekend.

Their first conversation, on making their re-acquaintance, was tentative, but soon enough, Bob got to the point.  “I stopped writing you.  Do you remember?”

“Of course,” said Jim.

“The reason was that you wrote me a letter about some girl giving you a hard on.” Jim didn’t quite know what to say.  This was what adolescent boys talked about.  “My mother opened the letter and read it.  My parents read all your letters.  They really raked me over the coals about it, and they forbade me from writing to you again.”

Jim still didn’t know what to say.  If you got right down to it, it was pretty unusual for parents to read their sons’ mail.  Jim tried to envision the scene, the two parents hysterical over the dinner table, waving the evidence of Jim’s normality in the air, denouncing him to Bob.  Did they screen all the mail Bob got, he wondered, or was it just the letters from Jim?  Maybe they’d suspected Jim was less enthusiastic about fitting in at Canterbury than he should have been, and they’d been fishing for an excuse to ban him all along.

It was nice,  in fact, that the two of them could get together one last time, but Bob wasn’t doing a very good job in concealing his distaste for Jim.  Maybe his parents had forbidden him to write, but it didn’t sound like Bob had taken much persuading.  Mightn’t someone in that position at least have sneaked off a quick note to his friend explaining the problem?  They’d both, years before, been eager to talk about anything with each other; now Bob seemed chary of revealing anything at all about himself. And he seemed to have turned into something of a goody two-shoes.

The most Jim really learned from the visit was that Bob was in a fraternity.  He’d finally fit in someplace.  There wasn’t, he decided, much to renew in that friendship.  So he heard nothing more of Bob until, years later, he got the news that he’d married Susan Soderborg.  All that work to get into an Ivy League school – he very much doubted that Susan had gone to such a place – all that study, all that living in a place that wasn’t Canterbury – and the upshot was that Bob had married the Soderborgs’ dull daughter.  It was his way of proving he’d risen above River Road.  And Jim was sure that in Canterbury, it was regarded as proof that virtue of a certain sort did not go unrewarded.

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