Mrs. Schyler's Plot

W. J. J. GORDON, a lecturer in the Engineering Department of Applied Physics at Harvard, is also president of Synectics, Inc., a consulting firm concerned with augmenting the creative output of industrial research organizations. His story “ The Pares,”which appeared in theATLANTIClast year, was selected for an O. Henry award.

I ALWAYS say to hell with cocktail parties, but I keep going to them. I shave and clean up, and I go to them. Of course, Cambridge parties are different lately, with everybody in Washington. The people you see now when you go out in Cambridge are embarrassed to be there. But it turns out that most of them are “going down” in a week or so, or “have been in touch with the White House,” so I guess it’s OK.

A couple of days ago I went to have drinks with the Prices. She’s energetic, with expensive diction. She wants to be a grande dame when she grows up. I don’t know what her husband does, but I like his style. He and I make jokes about Washington and laugh like anything. No one else thinks they’re funny, so the two of us laugh louder to show everybody we don’t care.

When I came into the house, Mrs. Price took me right over to where a college boy was playing bartender behind a big table with the booze laid out on it. I tried to signal Mr. Price as she herded me by him, but she was alert and doesn’t think our jokes are funny, so I didn’t get through to him. There was a young woman standing at the bar, and Mrs. Price introduced us.

“Dr. Fairley,” she said. “I’d like to have you meet Mrs. Schyler. Mr. Schyler is in charge of the Program for Exceptional Students.” Mrs. Price wasn’t too sure about what I did, but in Cambridge you have to build up everybody as big as you can if you want your party to look important.

“Dr. Fairley is one of our most — You are in metallurgy, aren’t you, Dr. Fairley?” Then she spied someone coming in the door and took off.

Mrs. Schyler didn’t say anything, so I got interested in my martini. Her face was gay and bright as she glanced around at the other guests. I liked her.

“What is an exceptional student, Mrs. Schyler?” I finally asked.

She kept looking around the room. I figured she was trying to pick out someone better than me to talk to — maybe even a guy who really had been in the White House to see the President.

“I’m essentially dependent,” she said, still searching the room. “That means that I go for phonies and professionals.” She turned her head to me, and she was pretty as hell. She could tell I didn’t plug in to what she was talking about, so she kept talking. “I take pride in being able to tell the difference between them. I used to be good at it. But lately the difference between phonies and pros is getting so small that discrimination is tough. Maybe there’s no difference, huh?”

“Can you pick a phony for me out of this crowd?” I said.

“You find them in pods, like whales,” she said. “A true phony never travels alone. My research shows that the greatest of all possible phonies are self-protective. There’s a secret society of phonies, and when you join, you swear an oath not to rat on another phony.” She said all this in a soft, bedroom voice. She was great! I was scared someone would find us and break it up, the way they do at cocktail parties.

“Listen, Mrs. Schyler,” I said. “Let’s grab another drink and walk around.” The student bartender filled our glasses, and I led her through a rear door. The backyard was for kids and laundry. There was one of those swing-seesaw-jungle gym combines and some bath towels hanging on a bent clothesline. I guess Mrs. Price didn’t plan on her guests finding their way out here. I gave Mrs. Schyler her drink. She sat down on the low end of the seesaw, and I tangled myself up in the jungle gym. We could see into the dining room. A group of five men came in, making graceful movements with their hands as they talked. They were being very polite with each other. Only one person talked at a time, and the others listened. No one was excited.

“There’s a pod of phonies right now,” said Mrs. Schyler. “Thar they blow!” The group had migrated over to the window, and I knew them. One was the dean of a nearby college. Next to him was the director of personnel for an enormous defense-based industry in the Boston area. The third was Dr. Argus, some kind of psychologist who went into companies and told them how to make their people more productive by shifting around the organization. He makes a pot of dough. And there was Dr. Carver, who’s always lousing around Harvard Square looking for a sure-payoff project to give a grant to. He’s a spotter for one of those big foundations in New York that keep giving money to people who can prove they’re going to be great artists or cure cancer or something. I thought I knew all five men, but the last one in the pod — I mean, the group — I didn’t recognize.

“Who’s the man way over on the right?” I asked.

“That’s my husband,” Mrs. Schyler said. “The director of the Program for Exceptional Students.” She put one hand to her mouth as though she had a trumpet, and blew a fanfare. “Ta-ta-ra, ta-ta-ra!

“Mrs. Schyler,” I said. “I know those other men; they’re all real professionals. You’re way off.”

“I told you there wasn’t much difference, didn’t I?” she said.

At these parties you never know when you’ve latched on to a nut. And I’m talking about a real nut. They are fun for a while, but finally they get to you, like kids. They grow wilder and wilder. They have to keep pushing. If Mrs. Schyler hadn’t been so pretty and sexy, I would have packed my traps and sloped for Texas. As it was, I came on again with, “What is an exceptional student?”

“You’ve got me,” she said. “And you’ve got Mr. Schyler too. I bet that’s what they’re talking about.” She pointed to the men in the window. “You sneak up on them and catch some of the professional-phony talk. I’ll steal us another drink. OK?” The shins of her bare legs gleamed as she swung them off the seesaw. She took the empty glass from my hand, grabbing before I could let go. Her fingers got mixed up with mine, and we made a little game of it.

“Be on the lookout for their secret passwords,” she told me, as though I were a child going on a dangerous errand. “They don’t have special meetings or anything. They’re too smart for that. Also, they’re too smart to make up fancy passwords. Listen for words like ‘feasible.’ ‘Relationship’ is another.” She started off and came back. “And ‘correlation,’ don’t miss ‘correlation.’ There are more, but those words will give them away, and their nasty plot too.”

BY THE time Mrs. Schyler made the rear door, I was in position, crouched under the open window. I didn’t know the men well enough to distinguish one voice from another, but the dialogue went like this;

FIRST PRO-PHONY: I can tell you, gentlemen, the foundation is prepared to fund any promising program for identification of exceptional students.

SECOND PRO-PHONY: We just did a feasibility study on the interrelationship of those excellent data your people collected.

A body sneaked up close to me. I could smell Mrs. Schyler’s perfume. Every once in a while you run across a bimbo who’ll get you in trouble. She’ll crap around and giggle and yuk it up, and the next thing you know some big bastard asks you what the hell you think you’re doing with his wife.

“There they go with ‘feasibility, ” she said. “They’re off and running.”

THIRD PRO-PHONY: Didn’t someone query the validity of those statistics of the selection process?

Mrs. Schyler pulled my ear down to her mouth. I thought she was going to kiss me. “I told you this would be fun,” she said, instead of kissing me. “ ‘Validity’ is part of the plot too. This is wonderful — maybe they’ll use all of them today. You’ve got beginner’s luck.”

FOURTH PRO-PHONY: I myself wondered if any constants would show up — on a probability basis, you understand, nothing absolute.

FIFTH PRO-PHONY: When you’re working with a small sample, any correlation factor is always questionable. We had limited funds, of course.

Mrs. Schyler got another grip on my ear. This time I knew it wasn’t going to be kisses. “They were sparring a while there,” she said into my ear. “Each wanted to be sure the others were in on the plot. But ‘correlation factor’ did it. Now watch the balloon go up!” She released my ear. She’d given it a couple of good yanks, and it hurt.

FOURTH PRO-PHONY: Don’t misunderstand me. I was most impressed. It’s just that even in a preliminary feasibility study, early data should begin to show —

“Psssst,” said Mrs. Schyler. I put my ear down by her mouth before she had a chance to grab it. “See, I told you they never rat on each other. It would give away the whole plot.”

THIRD PRO-PHONY: If the foundation saw fit to offer a sizable grant, I think all of us here now could combine on a definitive program — large samples — really set up an office — get together a hard-hitting research team and —

I heard a rustle. Mrs. Schyler was creeping away. I followed her back to the seesaw. She sat down again on the low side.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“The rest is time and place for the payoff,” she said. “To hell with that! What’s important is fingering the people. We did that, didn’t we?”

“What were they talking about?” I asked.

“Who knows?” Mrs. Schyler said. “I’ve done my job. I’ve got them fingered. I always thought my husband was in on it, but I wasn’t positive until today.” She looked a little sad. “I married him to find all the secrets, but it’s good enough to finger the people. It’s dangerous work, you know.”

“Would it be too much to ask of you,” I said, “to tell me what the plot is all about?”

“If you give me a cigarette,” she said, “I’ll run away with you to your fishing camp in Canada and we’ll sit in the sun and make flapjacks and build a rocket and get to the moon before the Russians — in spite of the plot.”

I lit a cigarette and gave it to her. “I don’t own a camp,” I said. There was a snappy comeback. Here she was, full of bezazz, and me with nothing.

“You better build one, fast,” she said. “My offer only lasts as long as this smoke.” She was skinny, with those long shiny legs I talked about before. She didn’t give a damn, and she wasn’t faking. But I didn’t know whether she was even aware of me. She was too abstract. Boy! Could I get into a hell of a lot of trouble here!

“OK,” I said. “I’ll build that camp. What’ll we do when we get there?” Not a whale of a remark. Not a showstopper. But better than “I don’t own a camp.” Nicht?

“After we unpack, I’ll tell you about the plot,” she said. “You’ll lay your head on my breast, and I’ll rock you to and fro and sing a song of sibling rivalry. What the hell does that mean? It’s fun to say — sing a song of sibling rivalry.”

Now I began to plug in. This bimbo was smart;

I mean she was clever, brilliant. She didn’t know how to use her cleverness, so it came out this way. A minute ago I was contemplating hanky-panky. Now I felt sorry for her.

“Your cigarette is going out,” I told her.

“I don’t think you like me,” she said. “You haven’t even started on our dream house. Do you want details of what we’ll do?” You’ve got to get this straight. She was not being coquettish, just factually sexy.


“Well, when we’re all alone in the camp by the lake with the moon and the bugs and a mandolin and an Eskimo Pie and you in my arms—when that’s all set up, I’ll give you the whole poop, from the inside. It’ll be a scoop, and you’ll be Clark Gable and beat me to the phone with the frontpage story, and I’ll be Katharine Hepburn in my angry slacks. How’s that? Worth hurrying up with your camp construction?”

I gave her another cigarette to smoke. “I need the extra time,” I said.

“Of course you do, you poor boy. I don’t see how you can stand it, working out there on the levee in the hot sun. Come inside, honey, and let mammy fix you some side meat and a julep and we’ll celebrate Bastille Day. Just the two of us.” She was really flying now. “We’ll waltz the evening away, and the orchestra will play our song, ‘A Song of Sibling Rivalry.’ Now, you gonna build that camp, you shiffless ole no-account? You banjo-playing wife beater! Tell you what we’ll do. Throw your banjo in the canoe, and I’ll drag my fingers along in the water. You got any barracuda in these waters?”

“Nobody ever been bitten hereabouts, ma’am,” I said. It didn’t come off, I knew it wouldn’t. I just wanted her to know I was with her. I eased myself onto the upper end of the seesaw.

“Now I’m going to tell you the whole plot,” she said, and sprang up. I crashed down the moment she took her weight off the other end of the plank.

My drink spilled all over me. “My God!” she said. “What have I done? Why is it that everything I touch I smash?” She rushed over and kissed me and kissed me while I was down in the sand. “Oh, chéri! I didn’t know it was loaded. What will I tell the children?”

I had a time getting up, I want to tell you. She was skinny, but she was tough and strong. She had me pinned there for a while, kissing me like anything. Finally I made it to my feet.

“What’s the matter with you, anyway, Mrs. Schyler?” I said. “T better get your husband.”

“You’re chicken,” she said. “All that big talk about your camp in Canada! I bet you haven’t got a camp in Canada! ‘

“I told you I didn’t,” I said.

“Then start building one,” she said. “May I have a cigarette?” I gave her one and lit it. “If your camp isn’t finished by the time I’m through with this cigarette, you’re going to have to go up to that camp of yours alone. And I can tell you, it gets pretty lonely in the woods with the loons and all.”

“Let’s go back inside,” I said.

“Awww,” she said. “You don’t believe I’ll tell you about the plot. It’s simple, but let’s get another drink.”

I was all for that, because maybe I could grab Mr. Schyler. We went back in to the bar and ordered. Mrs. Schyler pushed her arm through mine. The bartender ran out of ice, and we had to wait. I heard Mrs. Price’s voice a couple of people away.

“Mr. Schyler,” she was saying, “I think your Program for Exceptional Students is just wonderful.” I didn’t look around, and Mrs. Schyler’s arm went tight around mine.

“It must be marvelous,” Mrs. Price went on, “to know that you’re really accomplishing something.” I began to figure out how to dump Mrs. Schyler back on her husband.

“I am a lucky man,” I heard Mr. Schyler say. “It is a privilege to be involved with these exceptional students.” Mrs. Schyler was listening. “But it’s quite a problem to establish a climate, a social network by which to integrate these creative boys into the harmonics of collegiate life. You see, their very symbols —”

“Isn’t he beautiful?” Mrs. Schyler pulled down my ear and hissed into it. “What an efficient saint! Four in one: ‘climate,’‘social network,’ ‘harmonics,’ and ‘symbols.’ He’s a lovely pasteurized saint!”

I got the feeling she was about to take off again. I started to inch my way through the ring toward Mr. Schyler. She grabbed me by the ear and led me back out the rear door.

“And if I ever catch you looking at another woman,” she said, “I’ll nail you like a bat to a barn wall.”