Book: Ask the Right Question

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I woke to the phone. I don’t have the sense to have it by the bed—actually to have the bed by it since the cord is short. When it rings I have to scramble. It was Dr. Fishman’s secretary, who said, “Please hold for Dr. Fishman.” In the circumstances it seemed a very complex sentence. I mumbled and tried desperately to remember what part of the room I was in and where the clock was in this room. Success was the keynote of the day; I found the clock. I read 8:05. If the phone had been by the bed I would have taken it under the pillow.

“Mr. Samson? I believe you called.”

Correct! Now leave me alone! “This is a very efficient operation you run, Doctor.”

“Yes, it is.” His voice was much younger than I expected. And strong. It did well at pulling me out of my dawn daze. “Just who are you, Mr. Samson?”

“I am writing an article on the family of Estes Graham, about past history and current members. I’m interviewing people who know and have known the family. I understand that you are their doctor.”

“I am, and my father was before me. But what was it that you expect me to tell you?”

“I had hoped for your impressions of the family, anecdotes, anything.” For openers.

“Do you have the authorization of the Crystals?”

“I haven’t asked for it,” you nasty man. “This is to be a feature for the Sunday Star. As such it’s news, and it will be written anyway. So it is considered better form not to ask authorization than to ask it intending to proceed whether it is given or not.”

“I see. In that case I’m afraid I shall not be able to help you. It would be bad form in my profession.”

“I would not ask you to break any confidences,” not ask, beg, “and it is not an unsympathetic article.”

“Mr. Samson, short of subpoena or the specific urging of the Crystal family I shall not talk about Estes Graham, the Crystals or anything else with you. Whether you are writing a story for the Star or for God is no concern of mine. I believe we have no further business to conduct.”

The irreverent bastard. There’s no accounting for people. He didn’t even say good-bye.

Or good morning. I felt spiritual lack of the communion of mankind. I felt the real lack of a breakfast. Food is a major part of my life. I like it every day. But the refrigerator provided nothing to take the bitter edge off a rude awakening and a total lack of cooperation, however justifiable. I think sometimes I am not thick-skinned enough for this job.

Ahhh, well.

I munched toast and plotted.

I had chosen Fishman over Shubert and the nurses the night before, and I had chosen poorly. So I would correct myself this morning, and triumph over adversity and discombobulation.

A quarter of a loaf of toast later I set off for school.

Central is the city’s “new” fancy public high school. Actually it’s not in the city proper, but to the north, in Jefferson Township where most of the area’s rich folks live. It has the biggest student parking lot in town.

It’s not within walking distance of my office. I went down to the alley which separates my office from the City Market and picked up my zesty ’58 Plymouth from its niche. Thence to Central.

At the door I was challenged by an elderly woman whose voice was weary at 9:10 in the morning. She did not look up as she spoke.

“You’re late, you know. You got a pass?” She sat at a table by the door, grading papers.

“Actually, I’m right on time.”

Even after she looked up there were complications. People, it seems, rarely come to the school looking for ordinary teachers. They look for principals, basketball coaches, counselors or, heaven forbid, for children.

“It’s the middle of the period,” she said.

“I didn’t know.”

She shrugged and waved me in. I looked clean. She didn’t care. She was there to put late students back on the paths of righteousness.

Prowling around the lobby I found a room labeled “Faculty Lounge,” I went in without knocking. Where better to find faculty? Inside it looked like a classroom with its dirty student desks arranged in rows. I could tell the improvement in educational methods immediately. In my day desks were bolted to the floor.

Here men and women sat smoking in the corners and there was a coffee machine in front where one might expect a gesticulating teacher.

I approached a pert, mini-skirted brunette with strands of blond carefully located in her flowing hair. She was pushing three buttons on the machine simultaneously. Coffee Black. Extra Cream. Extra Sugar.

“It’s the only way to get cream and sugar on this machine,” she said. “Are you a sub? I bet you’re looking for the cigarette machine. We don’t have one. The superintendent had them removed when the cancer stuff came out. I’d give you one of mine only I only have two left and most men don’t like menthol anyway.” She looked up at me as if it were now my turn.

“I was hoping to find a teacher here. Mr. Shubert. A biology teacher.”

“Oh, Johnny. The married one. He isn’t free until third. That’ll be after the rest of second and home room.”

“About what time will that be?”

“You’re not a sub then, are you?”

“No. I’m not.”

“Um. Too bad,” she said, trying to be enigmatic. Presumably she only put out in the profession. “Home room ends in about half an hour. He should be in then. He isn’t old enough to go anywhere else and he’s not one of those intellectual freaky types.”

“Good,” I said, not understanding the hurdles I had surmounted.

She picked up her coffee, until then cooling in the machine’s pocket, and she carried it into a group, all men, in the back of the room.

Which left me with the morning Star, sitting in the Central High School Faculty Lounge.

In the forty minutes before John Shubert made his entrance, people came and people left, but not a soul spoke a word to me.

No. That is not exactly correct. Twenty-five minutes after I sat down, as if knowing I was stuck on “soak” in three letters, a speaker in the ceiling came alive. A chime was stuck. A deep resonant voice, marred only by the heavy nasal hangover of rural Hoosier speech, greeted us boys and girls and instructed us to rise for the Pledge to the flag. The teachers in the lounge did not move a muscle. They were either conscious of not having been addressed, or just insensate to everything that was going on around them. But whatever it was, it was OK by me. I didn’t feel much like getting up.

A recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner” followed the Pledge, and the singing was led by a live, bass, hick voice.

The music stopped, but the voice did not. “That recording of our national anthem and many other fine tunes can be bought on the Central High School Band recording which is now available in each and every home room from your band-recording representative. Support your band and help get them new instruments. Only five bucks apiece. Buy two and give them as gifts. “The day’s announcements concluded with the ringing of a chime. Home room over. There was a flurry of exits and entrances in the Faculty Lounge.

I recognized John Shubert by the biology book stuffed with papers which he carried. And because he looked married.

“Shit,” he announced to the lounge in general and no one in particular. “There has got to be a better way to make a living.”

“Dedication, John, dedication,” scolded a healthy-looking man who was crammed into a student-size desk. He shuffled a pack of cards. I approached them.

“Mr. Shubert? I would very much like to speak with you about one of your students.”

“Do you mind talking over cards? This is my gin period. The closest I can get in this place.” He sat down in one of the desks and, driving it like a bump-em car, turned it around to face the shuffler, who now dealt. I squeezed into the desk across the aisle from Shubert. He nodded to his friend. “This is Clark Mace. Who do you want to know about?”

“An Eloise Crystal.” The cardsharp dealt slowly and with great concentration, as if wanting to make no mistakes.

“Aah, Eloise Crystal.” Shubert rocked back in his seat, as all the things I wanted to know came into his mind. “May I ask who you are?”

“My name is Albert Samson. I am a personnel investigator for Eli Lilly. We have a Saturday science program which Eloise Crystal has applied for a place in. There are a number of high school applicants and I am checking with their science teachers to get some idea of what they are like.

“Isn’t it usual to send a form?”

“Would you really rather we sent a form?”

“Amen, brother,” interjected the patient dealer.

“A job requiring some science,” said Shubert, savoring the idea. I thought it was a pretty good one. “That’s a surprise.”


“She has never given me much indication that she is, well, career-oriented. To be perfectly frank, I’m more surprised that she is applying for a job than that it involves science. What sort of stuff is she supposed to do?”

“We will be training in laboratory skills. It’s a matter of aptitude mostly, but a little biology would help. She mentioned that she has done some extra laboratory work with you. Blood typing, I believe.”

“Ah, the blood typing. She’s very good at it too. She has quite a taste for genetics. Hasn’t missed a day since we started it. Genetics has a lot bigger part in the course these days, you know. DNA and all that. We start on it early in the course and use it to develop ecology and natural selection. It’s a little unusual to do it that way. We’re quite proud.”

“Do you consider her a bright girl?”

“Definitely bright, but a little distracted sometimes. What strikes her fancy she is extremely good at. Things stick in her mind; she does extra work. What doesn’t strike her goes through like a sieve, or more often she just doesn’t come to school.”

“Doesn’t come to school?”

“Oh, I guess she just hangs around. What do any of them do?” He cocked his head. “Say are you sure she applied for the job?” Are you sure that her father didn’t apply for her? He set it up, am I right?”

“Her father is involved in it.”

“I thought so. He came in to see me recently. He seemed genuinely concerned about her. An only child, I believe. Apparently she has become difficult at home. Seemed a nice enough type.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t met him yet.” I was laying it on just a little bit thick. “Well, thank you very much, Mr. Shubert. I won’t take any more of your time.”

He waved his neglected cards magnanimously.

“I would appreciate it if you would not mention my speaking to you to Eloise. I suspect it would just make her nervous on the final qualification tests.”

He nodded. “For her sake I hope she gets it.”

“We’ll give her every consideration.”

Pleased with the apparent success of my little deception, I left the Faculty Lounge. Certain priority things had been accomplished. A degree of support for Eloise’s rationality; a degree of confirmation for the blood types. It was about a quarter after ten and I had plenty of time. No one was visible in the school lobby now. The main door was closed, the table abandoned.

A tight-run little ship. No need for guards. Suppressing an impulse to go to the general office and purchase a nickel’s worth of band tunes for five bucks I strode quietly and reasonably happily to my car.

How can a self-respecting cop put a parking ticket on a ’58 Plymouth? Is there no respect for age in this country? I whipped it off the windshield and then really got burned. It wasn’t even a real ticket.

It is against school regulations to park in a faculty space without an identifying sticker. Please do not do so again. Your license number has been recorded. If this is not your first offense you will be reported to the Police Department which will issue a parking violation.

Schools, I love em! So I headed off for another one.

I came into Butler on Forty-ninth Street. Past the two Butler University landmarks I was familiar with. Butler Fieldhouse, which is called Hinkle Fieldhouse now. They play basketball there. Very nice.

Then past a body of water known unto me as Stagnation Pond. In my day it was lush little pool; water came in, water went out. Clear fresh water that grew pretty flowers in the summer and made good ice skating in the winter. I used to go there with my friends when I was in high school. Lots of people used to go there. But no longer. Poor pool. Stinks all summer and even the winter ice is lumpy from the stuff that grows in it.

When I got to center campus, I just followed the signs to the Nursing College. I had never been there before, proof positive that I had gone to college outside Indiana.

By a few minutes after eleven I had located the registrar’s office and entered it.

I don’t know if she was the registrar, but the only person I saw behind a long counter was a one-armed lady in civilian clothes. I did something of a double take; one does not see many one-armed ladies in this world. It’s a reflection on our role divisions.

I approached her end of the counter as she approached mine.

“Yeah? Whan can I do for ya?”

“I hate to be troublesome,” I lied, “but a woman who used to go to this college has applied to my company for a job and we still haven’t gotten her transcripts from you.”

“Oh, yeah?” She peered; she pursed her mouth; she shrugged. “What’s the name and the class?”

“She never graduated, but she started in 1949. The name is Fleur Graham.”

From the counter she went to some filing cabinets and surprisingly quickly she returned with the academic record of Fleur Graham.

I glanced over it. It gave little information. Name; home address; campus address (same); the name of her high school; her birth date; and the list of the courses she had taken in her one and only year. The grades were all recorded as “inc” for incomplete. A fine record. I had one like that once, the first semester of my sophomore year of the first time I went to college.

“Is there any way I can find out if any of her teachers are still teaching here?”

“Gee. We ain’t got records of the teachers of the courses she took, mister. Teachers come and teachers go.”

“Well. Can I have a copy of this transcript, then?”

“Yeah, sure.” She took it and made a Xerox copy. “That’ll be a dime.”

Which I paid her, and left.

The transcript was not entirely helpful, but it had served to cut out any possibility of the one thing I had been hoping for from Butler. Friends of Fleur’s from her nursing days. The lady had lived at home, not in the residential halls. The best I could do now would be to try to contact all the other girls who started Butler Nursing College in 1949 and ask them if they happened to remember anything about a quiet girl called Fleur who might have been in some of their classes. Not a very efficient process. Not to waste time on now.

From the Nursing College I went back to center campus and parked. I had about an hour and a half before I was due at Mrs. Forebush’s so I decided to take it over a leisurely lunch. I looked around for a university cafeteria. It’s easy enough to eat in ostensibly private dining halls if they are large. You just walk in frowning. That makes it seem as if you belong there because you know what the food is going to be like.

The food was not good, but at least there was not a lot of it. I dawdled over coffee and eavesdropped on nearby conversations as best I could.

Then a couple of tootsies came over and tried to make friends. We talked for fully twenty minutes about how hard our courses were. Mine won. Nursing can be very hard on “an older fella.” They were very sympathetic and were a bit surprised when, at a quarter of two, I took my leave.

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