Read Campus Tramp Online

Authors: Lawrence Block

Campus Tramp (4 page)

It was only her second day at Clifton, and here she was drinking a beer at the tavern and sitting across from her date. She was enjoying herself, really enjoying herself, and all at once she knew with an overwhelming certainty that she was going to enjoy her stay at Clifton. It was a nice atmosphere, warm and friendly, and she found herself feeling very much at home in it.

She looked up at the line of men at the bar and one of them in particular caught her attention. He was tall, with brown hair clipped close to his scalp in a crew cut and a goatee and mustache that matched his hair. At first glance the combination of crew cut and beard seemed ludicrous, but when she looked a second time they seemed to go together, as if they happened to fit this particular boy.

He was drinking some sort of liquor, drinking it straight with beer for a chaser. He didn’t talk to anybody but at the same time he didn’t seem to be alone. He drank laconically, tossing the liquor down his throat and following it with a sip of the beer. There was an air of complete self-assurance about him. It said that he didn’t give a damn about anybody or anything.

She watched him for awhile and Joe must have noticed because he stopped talking and looked at her.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“Who?”

“The fellow with the beard,” she said, pointing.

He looked around for a second and turned back to her. “That’s Don Gibbs,” he said.

“Who’s he?”

“He edits the
Record.
You know—the college paper.”

She nodded.

“The first issue comes out Friday.”

She nodded again. She knew that there was a school paper called
The Clifton Record
; it was another of those pearls of information which the catalogue supplied to entering freshmen. And, when she looked again at the boy called Don Gibbs, it seemed very logical that he would be the editor. He looked like someone important.

“I don’t like him,” Joe was saying.

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure. Nothing personal, exactly. Just a feeling. He seems phony, with that beard and all. Like he’s trying to prove something.”

“How do you mean?”

“Just phony.”

She looked at Don Gibbs again, and this time she wanted to tell Joe that he was wrong, that the beard wasn’t phony, that nothing about this boy was phony. She didn’t know why but she felt that Don Gibbs was somebody very important, somebody who was going to be important to her. And as she thought about it Joe seemed to fade, as if he was just another pre-med student who would wind up going into his father’s practice and never being very interesting or particularly exciting.

“Besides,” Joe said, “I don’t like the way he acts with women.”

She looked at him, waiting for him to go on.

“He thinks he’s a real hot-shot. He thinks he can … well, make any girl he looks at.”

“Can he?”

“I don’t know. I think he just talks a lot.”

“Does he talk much?”

“I’ve never had much to do with him. It’s just a feeling I have. Anyway—” he smiled at her “—he’s not the sort of guy you want to have anything to do with.”

She nodded, thinking how wrong he was. Wrong on several counts. For one thing, she was willing to bet that Don Gibbs
could
have nearly any girl he wanted. And that he didn’t talk about it, either.

And he was definitely wrong on the last score. He was precisely the sort of guy she wanted to have something to do with.

They had another beer apiece. Then Joe paid the waiter and they went out into the night, leaving Don Gibbs drinking his whiskey and sipping his beer. They drove back to her dormitory, and Joe parked the car in front of the dorm and walked around to open the door for her. He was the perfect gentleman, just as Chuck had been, and he opened the door for her and took her arm and led her up the path to the door.

He kissed her goodnight, but she decided that it wasn’t much of a kiss. His lips found hers and touched them briefly. Then he released her and took a short involuntary step back and grinned at her.

She forced a smile to her lips.

“I like you,” he said. “I like you, Linda.”

“I like you, too.” It struck her as a rather foolish thing to say, but it was true enough.

“Tomorrow night?”

She hesitated. “Yes,” she said, after a moment. “Tomorrow night.”

CHAPTER THREE

THE DAYS WERE A WHIRL and the nights were a jumble and the first week was gone almost before it had started. Up in the morning and a quick shower and you put on your clothes in a hurry and rush over to the caf for breakfast. The scrambled eggs are too soft and the toast is burnt and nothing is quite the way mother made it at home. The coffee is bitter and either too hot or too cold, and you have to practically pour it down your throat because you have to get to that eight o’clock English class.

Classes. English, with a tall, balding, stoop-shouldered professor named Bruce Irvine smiling sadly at you and telling you what books you were supposed to read.
Pride and Prejudice
and
Madame Bovary
and
Crime and Punishment
and
Great Expectations
and
Daisy Miller.
Five novels plus twenty poems and you had to read them all in the one semester and understand them, and each day in class Professor Irvine would talk about the books and poems as if they were old friends, his eyes sad and his voice soft and watery.

Spanish, with Professor Esteban Moreno, who looked very Castilian with high cheekbones and a thin black mustache, and who left Spain when Franco took power in 1937. He chattered at you in rapid-fire Spanish and you had to listen with both ears and your mind because otherwise you were completely lost in no time. And he spoke better English than you did, to top it off.

Western Civ, with Hugo Mills, a stubby little man who never smiled and who was very, very clever and very, very cynical as he lectured at you on the early years of the Roman Empire. You listened to him and he was extremely interesting and extremely amusing and seemed to know everything there was to know, but you couldn’t help thinking that the bitterness in his face and in his words came from knowing so much and never having done anything about anything.

Biology, with Martin Jukovsky, a quiet, mild-mannered little man who spoke so softly that you could hardly hear a word he said. But it didn’t really matter and after a while you didn’t bother to listen any longer, because you had already learned everything he was saying in high school and the class was a waste of time.

And sociology with Lester Birch. Gemeinschaft and geselleschaft, in-groups and out-groups, roles and patterns, variables and constants, normative norms and existential norms and you never had the slightest idea what in the world the tall, lean, fast-talking man with the piercing eyes was babbling about.

And afternoons reading in the room or at the school library, reading and half the time not even knowing what you were reading, remembering how you used to be able to lose yourself in a paperback novel and wishing you could do that instead of wallowing in all this incomprehensible and totally uninteresting knowledge.

And evenings—evenings that you spent studying sometimes, or maybe sitting around in the room talking to Ruth.

Or going out on dates with Joe.

Linda saw Joe Gunsway three more times the first week. One night they went to a movie in town and had a bite to eat at a local lunch counter. Another night they went for a long walk down one of the back roads, walking and holding hands and looking up at the stars in the sky. They walked slowly, a long way out and a long way back, and several times on their walk they stopped and he kissed her.

That Saturday night his hall had a party and he took her to it. She met other boys and girls and drank several glasses of a punch called Purple Jesus, an innocent-looking concoction of grape juice and grapefruit juice and vodka that was much more potent than it appeared to be. She got a little bit high and enjoyed herself immensely, taking everything in and noticing with approval how heavy her feet were and how happily light her head was.

After the party Joe drove out into the country, taking the same road they had walked along the night before. He stopped the car on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and for perhaps five minutes they sat side by side, their bodies touching. Neither of them said anything.

Then he turned to her and kissed her. She felt very passionate from the punch and from the gentle blackness of the night, and when he kissed her she put her arms around him and returned the kiss with an animal hunger she had never displayed to him before. She realized with a start that the way she felt that night she would let him make love to her if he tried, and she hoped that he wouldn’t try because she wasn’t ready, not entirely, and she didn’t want to spoil the closeness that existed between them.

There was no cause for her to worry. He kissed her again and he kissed her all over her face and throat, but after the first few times the passion went out of his kisses and was replaced by tenderness. She knew then that it would be very easy for them to control themselves. The loveplay they were going through was not the intensive frenzy that had driven her and Chuck half out of their minds, but a calm, easy-going sort of petting that never threatened to burst into flames.

When he touched her breast for the first time she felt not excited but restful, very restful. That was as far as he attempted to go that night, never fumbling with her clothing and never trying to do more than touch and feel the swell of her breasts through her dress. They sat together for a long time in the car, but for periods of time they stopped kissing and touching and sat very still together, close in each other’s arms and looking out at the night. The top of the convertible was down and the air was clean and the stars bright, and she decided that it was very good to be sitting in Joe’s arms and enjoying the night around her. Once when they were sitting like that his lips brushed her yellow hair and a warm, happy feeling ran through her body.

After he had taken her home and kissed her a final time he drove off into the night and she watched him from the doorway until the car turned off on a side street and disappeared from view. Then she turned away and walked very slowly up the two flights of stairs to her hall. The room was empty; Ruth hadn’t yet returned from wherever she had gone that evening. She turned on the light and sat down at her desk, her head cupped in the palms of her hands and her eyes staring down at the desk-top.

She sat that way for a few moments, letting her mind wander and not thinking of anything in particular. Then the first issue of
The Clifton Record
caught her eye and she opened it once again to Don Gibbs’ editorial. It was a standard piece on the surface, about sixty double-column lines welcoming the freshman class to Clifton College. But a second reading revealed another message between the lines. The editorial was a subtle slam at higher education in general and Clifton College in particular.

It was, all in all, an especially mean editorial—but there was nothing you could put your finger on, nothing that would permit anyone to censure the person who had written it. It revealed that the author was a very interesting person, a very clever person.

But she had already guessed that. No, it hadn’t been a guess. The minute she saw Don Gibbs at the tavern she knew that he would be worth knowing. Since then she had seen him a half-dozen times or so on campus but had still never met him.

She stood up suddenly and began to get ready for bed, undressing and washing her face and brushing her teeth. She brushed her long blonde hair until it glistened. Then she turned out the light and slipped under the covers of the lower bunk.

She decided, sleepily, that she didn’t want to think any more about Don Gibbs. She already had a man, and she saw that her relationship with Joe could develop into real love. He was so gentle with her, so considerate of her.

She guessed that Don Gibbs would be neither gentle nor considerate. He might not ever so much as notice her to begin with, and if he did he would probably be cruel and sarcastic and demanding. She pictured him in her mind—the crew cut, the beard, the slight wrinkles in his forehead and at the corners of his mouth. Then the picture faded and was replaced by one of Joe.

Joe was obviously the better man for her.

But she couldn’t stop thinking of Don Gibbs.

She bumped into Don Gibbs Thursday afternoon.

That, quite literally, was what happened. She was hurrying from her sociology class to the library with a pile of unreadable books under her arm and her head down. The position of her head enabled her to see quite clearly the hem of her black skirt, the white socks, the saddle shoes, and the ground she walked on.

Unfortunately, it did not enable her to see where she was going.

Halfway down the path to the library she collided with Donald Gibbs. At first, of course, she didn’t know who it was that she collided with. She didn’t know, for that matter, that she had collided with anybody at all. For all she knew she had walked into a tree. The shock of the whole thing sent her sprawling, with unreadable books flying off in all directions. When she looked up timidly and saw his face gazing down at her, she turned a deep shade of red and began sputtering unintelligibly.

“My fault,” he said. “I should have watched where you were going.”

She started to say something but before any words came out he was taking her by one arm and lifting her to her feet. Then he stooped over to pick up her books and handed them to her in a neat stack.

“Oh, yes,” she said, stupidly. “My books.”

“Probably. They’re not mine, and we were the only two cars in the crash.”

“I’m sorry. I should have—”

“Forget it.”

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“Hardly. You all right?”

She nodded uncertainly and hesitated, wanting to turn and hurry off to the library but not knowing quite how to go about it. Before she could do much of anything he smiled at her briefly and asked: “Who are you?”

“Linda.”

“That’s a start. Can you give me any more clues?”

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