Authors: Harold Robbins
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We were not supposed to play cards for money in our dorm rooms. We were not supposed to drink or smoke. We were not supposed to have copies of
We were not supposed to jerk off. We were not supposed to sit around in our underwear, without robes.
In fact, we were not supposed to gather in groups of more than three.
When the loud knock sounded on the door, this is how we were—
—I was playing poker with Joe and Lou and Bill, which was not allowed, even if we had almost no money on the table, and we sat in our T-shirts and shorts, without robes.
—Gus and Ted had their cocks in their hands while staring at a copy of
They were talking about how far they had gotten with girls the last time they were home—lying, of course, but making it sound very exciting, how they had touched this one’s bare tit and that one’s curly crotch hair. Ted claimed he had some pussy hair in an envelope at home but had not brought it to school. When they heard that awful knock, Ted had just come and had to jam his spurting cock down in his underpants.
—A bottle of gin sat on the poker table.
The gin went out the window.
went under the mattress. Robes were tossed in all directions, one in mine, fortunately.
* * *
Bill opened the door, confronting Brad, the dorm monitor for our floor.
“Cooper. Headmaster’s office, on the double. Get your goddamn clothes on.”
Called so abruptly to the office of the headmaster, I knew something was terribly wrong. I went over in my mind what I might have done this time but couldn’t think of anything so bad as to have me called from the dorm to confront the headmaster.
I mean, having been reported for masturbating in a toilet stall would not have produced such a summons. Besides, I had put a dark blue lump on the forehead of the last boy who had pretended he had seen me doing that. The word had gone around—beware of your back if you make bad words about Len Cooper; don’t bend over the faucet when brushing your teeth; you may find your forehead slammed hard against the plumbing.
I was in my final year at Lodge. It was a boarding school, good enough I guess, but not in a class with schools like Choate, Groton, and Andover—the famed New England prep schools that my father held in contempt. Some Lodge graduates claimed the title “preppie.” Most didn’t. I didn’t and wouldn’t.
Anyway, the headmaster liked to be called Dr. Billings. He also liked to appear in academic regalia for chapel and assemblies—gaudy hood and mortarboard with gold tassel.
Chapel. That I was a Jew didn’t excuse me from compulsory chapel. It was an excuse, though, for reading during the prayers. I had made peace with Episcopal Christianity, and Episcopal Christianity had made peace with me. So long as I read textbooks and not novels.
Catcher in the Rye
was okay classroom reading but not chapel reading.
I arrived at the walnut-paneled office of Dr. Billings, a big fellow with a square face and looming eyebrows. He tried to affect a mixed persona of kind and understanding, plus stern and disciplining. He did not entirely succeed in affecting either, much less the difficult mixture.
He wasn’t wearing his academic gown now but only a dark gray suit spattered with cigarette ash. He came out from behind his desk and shook my hand: also an ominous sign.
“My dear boy,” he said. “I am afraid I have the most terrible news for you.” That oversized old man was on the verge of tears. He handed me a telegram:
PLEASE ADVISE MY SON THAT HIS MOTHER PASSED AWAY THIS AFTERNOON IN LYON STOP ADVISE HIM ALSO THAT I WILL FLY TO NEW YORK ON THE EARLIEST AVAILABLE FLIGHT AND THENCE ON TO VERMONT TO BE WITH HIM STOP COMFORT THE BOY AS BEST YOU CAN UNTIL I CAN BE THERE STOP
Lodge School kept a VIP suite on the second floor above the commons. Officially it was for the bishop when he made his occasional visit. Mostly it was for distinguished commencement speakers and for generous contributors. But it had a more ominous use. When a boy suffered the death of a parent, or both parents, he would be moved into the VIP suite, where he could cry alone, absent his roommates. We called it the funeral parlor.
I was moved into the funeral parlor. My masters came. My friends came. The boy whose head I’d banged on the bathroom faucet came. I had to hold back my tears, which was no easy thing to do; I was genuinely devastated by the death of my mother, which would force me to live with just one parent: my forbidding father.
I was in shock. My mother
be dead! I was young. I should have been more sensitive. I should have understood the symptoms that had been there for me to see.
I should have read them more in my formidable father than I read them in her. Formidable. Yes, he was. She weakened before my eyes, but she was brave and did not let it occur to me that I was about to lose her. He was brave, but this required more than courage. When they went off to France on that final visit, I had no idea it was a final visit to her homeland and her family.
I suppose it was something my mother and father meant to spare me. I would learn of it soon enough, and it would be bad enough when it came; no need for me to suffer until it was necessary.
“Got somethin’ for ya, Len.”
He had something for me, all right. His name was—God help him!—Beauregard, of course called Bo. He was not one of my roommates, but he was the only boy I ever mutually jerked off with. You know what I mean? Boarding-school ha-ha. Boys thinking they were being bad.
Anyway, Bo had brought me something. It looked like a bottle of hair tonic. It wasn’t. It was a little bottle of
And, God, did I need that!
Old Dr. Latrobe came. The school chaplain. He was an Episcopal divine and offered to pray with me—and took no offense when I said thank you, no. He was well meaning but I couldn’t take him right now. His doctorate, as I learned later, was phony. He was a D.D., doctor of divinity.
He had brought a tray with a pot of tea, cups and saucers, sugar and cream. I hadn’t drunk my Scotch, but I was compelled to sit there and listen to that old man talk about life and death. I shouldn’t be too hard on him. He was inoffensive.
“Death, you see, is only a part of life. It awaits us all. Mourning is painful. Sometimes it seems more than we can bear. But think of this—there is a certain way that we can avoid the agony of mourning, and that is never to love. Because we don’t mourn because our loved one is dead; we mourn because we loved that person. So, if you would never mourn, you can escape it easily. All you have to do is never love. But, you know, we will go on loving and go on mourning, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I thanked him when he left. It was the only decent thing to do.
I know something about funeral customs, now. They are designed to keep people from being alone in their grief. You can’t very well cry in the company of others. So … wakes and all the rest of it. The religions know something.
They brought me dinner in the suite—pot roast and mashed potatoes, string beans, tossed salad, and chocolate cake. With milk. They did not suppose I drank coffee.
What the hell? I’d tossed off half the Scotch in the hair-tonic bottle as soon as the chaplain left—saving the rest for later when it would help me sleep.
The headmaster came, and two masters—so called. My roommates came and sat uncomfortably.
The headmaster encouraged me to talk about my mother. It would be good for me to talk, he said. I did talk, if only to get rid of these intrusive men.
I could tell them this much—
She was French, from Lyon. Her name was Giselle. My father was her second husband, and I have half-siblings in France named Martin—pronounced Mar-
in the French manner, not Mar-tun, à l’Americain. The French Martins were quite wealthy. They were, in fact, the original bottlers and exporters of Plescassier Water, which rivaled Perrier and Evian and was sworn to by many, as a benefit to the skin and overall good health, not just when drank but when poured over the face and body. I have tried it. In my experience, Plescassier Water has a mildly laxative effect, and if that is what you need for your overall good health, God bless you.
At one point in his life, my father had been the American importer of Plescassier Water. That is how he came to know my mother’s first husband, Jean Pierre Martin, and how he came to know her and marry her after M. Martin died. They never really told me much about it, and there was a great deal more to the story that I didn’t know.
“I loved my mother,” I said tearfully. “She was a
My mother was a saint.”
* * *
When all of them had gone and I was at last alone and free to sob, I tossed down the remainder of the Scotch from the hair-tonic bottle. It did little good. More might have done better.
A saint … Yes. She was, really. My mother had been a saint. But how little I knew!
I would rather have been on my own cot, with my roommates, in the dormitory. But that choice was not open to me. Bereaved boys were condemned to the VIP suite.
I undressed. All my life I have slept nude, except in those dreary pajama days in dormitories.
I lay down.
A knock so quiet and discreet I decided to answer it.
It was Brad. I never did know Brad’s last name, though I could have learned it easily enough from the school catalog. He was a master—which is to say an instructor without academic standing, which he could not have attained in a boarding school—in history and political science. His ambition, I knew, was to achieve academic status in a college, any college—to be, in time, a professor.