The Dragon and The GeorgeGordon R. Dickson
The Dragon and The George
Gordon R. Dickson
At 10:30 a.m., sharp, James Eckert pulled up in front of Stoddard Hall on the Riveroak College campus, where Grottwold Weinar Hansen had his lab. Angie Farrell was not, however, ready and waiting at the curb. Of course.
It was a warm, bright September morning.
Jim sat in the car and tried to keep his temper under control. It would not be Angie's fault. That idiot of a Grottwold undoubtedly had dreamed up something to keep her working overtime in spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact he knew she and Jim were supposed to go home-hunting this morning. It was hard not to lose his temper with someone like Grottwold, who was not only one of the world's non-prizes but who had been very patently trying to take Angie away from Jim and get her for himself.
One of the two big doors on the front of the Stoddard Hall opened and a figure came out. But it was not Angie. It was a stocky young man with bushy reddish hair and mustache, carrying an overstuffed briefcase. Seeing Jim in the car, he came down the steps over to the car and leaned on the edge of the opened window on the curb side of the front seat.
"Waiting for Angie?" he asked.
"That's right, Danny," said Jim. "She was supposed to be out here to meet me, but evidently Grottwold's still hanging on to her."
"That's his style." Danny Cerdak was a teaching assistant in the Physics Department. He was the only other Class AA volleyball player on campus. "You're going out to see Cheryl's trailer?"
"If Angie ever gets loose in time," said Jim. "Oh, she'll probably be along any second now. Say, do the two of you want to drop over to my place after we play tomorrow night? Nothing special, just pizza and beer and a few other people from the team with their wives and so forth."
"Sounds fine," said Jim, glumly, "if I'm not stuck with some extra work for Shorles. Thanks, in any case, though; and we'll certainly be there if we can make it."
"Right." Danny straightened up. "See you tomorrow for the game, then."
He went off. Jim returned to his own thoughts. At the same time, he told himself, maturity dictated that he should not lose his emotional control over something like this—even though they only had two hours to get to the trailer court and return and have lunch before getting Angie back to her part-time job as Grottwold's lab assistant. He must remember that frustration was a part of life. He had to learn to live with the whole business of selfish department heads, inadequate salaries and an economy that was pinching Riveroak College here, like all other educational institutions, to the point where it seemed that about all you could do with a doctorate in medieval history was use the diploma to shine your shoes, before going to apply for a job as a grain shoveler—
Jim hauled himself up in his thoughts at this point, having noticed that, far from calming him down, this rehearsing of things to be endured had his fists white-knuckled and beginning to bend the ancient steering wheel of the Gorp. Nothing about the Gorp was strong enough to ignore that kind of treatment. For a ten-year-old Fiat, it was still a faithful little car, but no honest person could call it in good shape. On the other hand, Jim himself—like many Class AA volleyball players—was in shape with a vengeance. He stood a shade under six feet, but even professional weight-guessers usually underestimated by twenty or more his two hundred and ten pounds, which he carried mostly in bone and hard muscle. Unfortunately, that sort of physical engine, matched with an instinct for taking direct action when challenged—which was useful on the volleyball courts with the caliber of opponents Jim had been facing in tournament play for some years now, but not perhaps the best thing socially—gave Jim reason to consider that he had cause for concern about himself.
Thank heaven for Angie. The beautiful thing about her was that she could get results from people without becoming at all annoyed with them, in situations when Jim would have sworn that the other persons were deliberately looking for a fight. How she managed it, Jim had never been able to figure out. As far as he could see, all she did was to explain matters in a level, friendly voice. Whereupon, for some reason, the other people immediately stopped doing whatever they had been doing that was antagonistic and became friendly and helpful. Angie was really rather special; particularly for someone hardly bigger than a minute. Look at the way she handled Grottwold…
Jim woke to the fact that time had been sliding away as he had been sitting here thinking. He looked at his watch and scowled. Nearly a quarter to eleven. This was too much. If Grottwold didn't have the sense to let her go, Angie herself ought to have broken away by this time.
He pushed open the car door on his side, and was just getting out, when one of the two big front doors swung open again and Angie came running down the steps to the car, pulling on her light beige topcoat as she ran. Her brown eyes were bright and her cheeks pink with her hurry.
"Oh, there you are," said Jim, getting back in.
"I'm sorry." Angie got into the Gorp on her side and slammed the door behind her. "Grottwold's all excited. He thinks he's right on the verge of proving astral projection is possible—"
Jim keyed the Gorp to life and pulled away from the curb.
"Astral projection. Setting the spirit free to wander outside the body. What with the results he's been getting using advanced input on biofeedback circuitry to duplicate certain forms of sleep states—"
"You aren't letting him experiment on you, are you? I thought we got that settled."
"Don't get all worked up, now," Angie said. "I'm not letting him experiment on me, I'm helping him with his experiments. Don't worry, he's not going to hypnotize me, or anything like that."
"He tried it once."
Jim pulled the Gorp out of the college grounds onto West Street and turned down on the ramp leading to Highway Five.
"He only tried. You were the one who hypnotized me, if you'll remember—after Grottwold taught you how."
"Anyway, you're not to let anyone hypnotize you again. Me or Hansen, or anybody."
"Of course," said Angie, softly.
There she went, doing it again—just what he had been thinking about, Jim told himself. Now he was the one she'd just handled. All of a sudden there was no more argument and he was wondering what he had gotten excited about in the first place. He was also feeling half guilty for making a fuss over something that probably had not been that important to begin with.
"Anyway," he said, heading out along Highway Five toward the trailer court Danny Cerdak had told him about, "if this trailer for rent turns out to be the deal Danny said it was, we can get married and maybe, living together, we can get by cheaply enough so you won't have to work for Grottwold as well as holding down your assistantship in English."
"Jim," said Angie, "you know better."
"We could not. The only reason the co-op can get by charging us a hundred twenty apiece per month for food and board is that it makes slop food in quantity and beds us all down in double-decker bunks in dormitories. Any plac
e we find for ourselves is going to put our living costs up, not down. I can't manage meals for us as cheaply as the co-op can. No, I can't quit my work with Grottwold. But at least having a place of our own will make it seem worth while to go on. We've got to have a place of our own—but let's not fool ourselves about the expense."
"We could sort of camp out in the new place, the first few months."
"How could we? To cook and eat, we've got to have utensils, and a table to eat on. We need another table so we can each have one to correct tests on and so forth for our jobs at the college. And chairs. We need at least a mattress to sleep on, and something like a dresser for the clothes that can't be hung up—"
"All right. I'll get an extra job, then."
"No, you won't. I had to stop work on my thesis. You're going to stick with writing papers for the academic journals until you publish something. Then see Shorles keep you out of that instructorship!"
"Oh, hell," said Jim. "I'll probably never get anything published anyway."
"You better not mean that!" For once Angie sounded almost angry.
"Well, actually, no," Jim said, a little shamefacedly. "Actually, this last paper was going pretty well this morning before I headed off for class."
Professor Thibault Shorles, head of the History Department, liked his assistants to sit in on all of his classes, in addition to doing the usual work of correcting tests, reserving reference books for the students in the course, and so forth. It was a neat little whim that added eight hours a week to the time Jim otherwise required to put in to earn his hundred and seventy-five dollars a month.
"How was he?" Angie asked. "Did you ask him about the instructorship again?"
"He wasn't in the mood."
"He wasn't? Or you weren't?" Jim winced internally. Shorles had interviewed Jim at the History Association meeting last year in Chicago; and as good as promised him a recently created instructorship just added to the history department Shorles headed at Riveroak. With this prospect, Angie had tried for, and to the happiness of both of them, got, a teaching assistantship in the English Department. She was still working for her doctorate in English literature, Jim having been three years ahead of her at Michigan State, where they met as graduate students. With both of them set for jobs at the same academic institution, it had looked as if they had the future taped. But then when they had gotten here, Shorles broke the news that because of last-minute budget problems, Jim could not be given his instructorship until the spring quarter at the earliest. Meanwhile, Shorles had a teaching assistantship open…
It had taken Jim less than a month to find out the real nature of the "budget problem." Like academic departments in many colleges and universities, the staff teaching history at Riveroak College was riddled with internal politics. Two established factions in the department opposed each other on almost every point. Shorles, independent of both, had gotten by for years by playing them against each other. But an additional instructor added at this time could cause a reshuffling of allegiances and a resultant upset in the neat balance of power. On the other hand, Professor Theodore N. Jellamine, the outspoken, motorcycle-riding vice-chairman of the department, was thinking of retiring this coming spring. His leaving would mean promotions for those under him; and by controlling these, Shorles could then absorb a new instructor into a fresh balance of power hand-tailored by himself.
"I'm sorry, Angie," said Jim, contritely. "I had to sit through that class for a hour with nothing to do but look interested and think of what he's done to us; and by the time the bell rang, I didn't dare talk to him for fear I'd put one in his teeth when he turned me down again."
There was a moment's stark silence in the car as they drove along; then Jim, staring straight ahead out the windshield, felt his arm squeezed gently.
"That's all right," Angie told him. "If you felt like that, you did the right thing. You'll catch him sometime when you're able to talk calmly about it."
They drove on for a little while longer without talking.
"There it is," said Jim, nodding to the right, off the highway.
The Bellevue Trailer Court had not been laid out with an eye to attractiveness and none of its owners in the past twenty years had done anything to amend the oversight. Its present proprietor, in his fifties, was as tall and heavy as Jim Eckert, but his skin was now too large for his long face. The flesh had fallen into folds and creases, and the Prussian blue shirt he wore ballooned loosely about him. His faded maroon pants were drawn into deep puckers at his waist by a thin black belt. His breath smelled as if he had just been snacking on overripe cheese, and in the sun-hot interior of the empty mobile home he showed Jim and Angie this aspect of him was hard to ignore.
"Well," he said, waving at the mobile home walls about them, "this is it. I'll leave you to look it over. Just come back to the office when you're ready."
He took his breath outside, leaving the door open behind him. Jim looked at Angie, but she was running her fingers over the cracked varnish on one of the cupboard doors above the sink.
"It's pretty bad, isn't it?" Jim remarked.
It was. Obviously the mobile home was in the last stages of its life. The floor canted visibly behind Jim and as visibly canted toward the trailer's other end, where Angie now stood. The sink was stained and gritty, the dusty windows sat loosely in their framing, and the walls were too thin to give anything but minimum insulation.
"It'd be like camping out in the snow when winter comes," Jim said.
He thought of the ice-hard January of a Minnesota winter, both of them twenty-three miles from Riveroak College and the Gorp running on threadbare tires plus a worn-out motor. He thought of summer sessions at the college and the baking heat of a Minnesota July as they both sat in here with endless test papers to correct. But Angie did not answer.
She was opening and shutting the door to the trailer's shower-and-toilet stall. Or, trying to shut it. The door did not seem to latch very well. Her shoulders in the blue jacket were small and square. He thought of suggesting they give up, go back and check the listings at the Student Housing Bureau once more for an apartment around the college. But Angie would not admit defeat that easily. He knew her. Besides, she knew he knew it was hopeless, their trying to find anything the two of them could pay for close in.
Some of the dreary grittiness of the mobile home seemed to blow through his soul on a bleak wind of despair. For a moment he felt a sort of desperate hunger for the kind of life that had existed in the European Middle Ages of his medievalist studies. A time in which problems took the shapes of flesh-and-blood opponents, instead of impalpable situations arising out of academic cloak-and-dagger politics. A time when, if you ran across a Shorles, you could deal with him with a sword, instead of with words. It was unreal that they should be in this situation simply because of an economic situation and because Shorles did not want to disturb the political balance of his department.
"Come on, Angie," Jim said. "We can find something better than this."
She wheeled around. Under her dark hair, her brown eyes were grim.
"You said you'd leave it up to me, this last week."
"For two months we hunted around the campus, the way you wanted. Staff meetings for the fall semester start tomorrow. There isn't any more time."
"We could still look, nights."
"Not anymore. And I'm not going back to that coop. We're going to have a place of our own."
"But… look at this place, Angie!" he said. "And it's twenty-three miles from the campus. The Gorp could throw a rod tomorrow!"
"If he does, we'll fix him. And we'll fix up this place. You know we can do it if we want to!"
He yielded. They went back to the trailer park office and the manager.
"We'll take it," Angie told him.
"Thought you'd like it," said the manager, getting papers out of a drawer in his littered desk. "How'd you happen to hear about it, anyway? I haven't even advertised
"Your former tenant was the sister-in-law of a friend of mine," Jim answered, "guy I play volleyball with. When she had to move to Missouri, he told us her mobile home was available."
The manager nodded.
"Well, you can count yourself lucky." He pushed the papers across to them. "I think you told me you both teach at the college?"
"That's right," said Angie.
"Then, if you'll just fill in a few lines on these forms and sign them. You married?"
"We're going to be," said Jim, "by the time we move in here."
"Well, if you aren't married yet, you've either got to both sign or one of you has to be listed as subrenting. It's easier if you both sign. Then that'll be two months rent, the first and the last, as a deposit against damage. Two hundred and eighty dollars."
Angie and Jim both stopped handling the papers.
"Two-eighty?" Angie asked. "Danny Cerdak's sister-in-law was paying a hundred and ten a month. We happen to know."
"Right. I had to raise it."
"Thirty dollars more a month?" said Jim. "For that?"
"You don't like it," said the manager, straightening up, "you don't have to rent it."
"Of course," Angie said, "we can understand you might have to raise the rent a bit, the way prices are going up everywhere. But we just can't pay a hundred and forty a month."
"That's too bad. Sorry. But that's what it costs now. I'm not the owner, you know. I just follow orders."
Well, that was that. Back in the Gorp once more, they rolled down the windows and Jim turned the key in the ignition. The Gorp gorped rustily to life. They headed back down the highway toward the college.
They did not talk much on the way back in.
"It's all right, though," Angie said as Jim pulled into the parking lot next to their co-op and they went in together to lunch. "We'll find something. This chance opened up all of a sudden. Something else is bound to. We'll just keep looking until it does."
"Uh-huh," said Jim.
They cheered up a little over lunch.
"In a way," Angie explained, "it was our own fault. We got to counting on that mobile home too much, just because we'd been the first ones to hear about it being vacant. From now on, I'm not going to count on anything until we've moved into it."