The Age Of Anxiety

Short Story by Willard Manus

She knew words like tryptich and ouevre, and she threw them around in English class unselfconsciously and confidently. She was also quite fetching--small and shapely with dark hair that fell soft and lustrously down to her shoulders. He was powerfully attracted to her.

Trouble was, she didn't show much interest in him. She'd chat with him briefly after class, but no more than that. Perhaps she already had a boyfriend, he thought. Hence the diffidence, the coolly maintained line of demarcation.

Still, as time progressed, he persisted in his pursuit, waiting for her after class and making small talk as they ambled across campus together. Encouraged by the revelation that she was unattached, he began to flirt more boldly in an attempt to try and soften her up. Finally, he summoned up the nerve to ask if she wanted to go for a coffee.

"I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"I'll be honest. I don't like football players."

"We're even. I don't like them either."

That got a laugh out of her and, finally, a change of heart.

Sitting at a table in the student lounge, she sipped her cappucino and stared at him with those watchful brown eyes of hers.

Then, "What position do you play?"


"That explains it. Quarterbacks are the only players with any brains."

"Why do you hate football so much?"

"It's all so militaristic--the formations, the barking out of orders, the love of violence and brutality."

"You're right about that," he said. "But it's an exciting game to play. And it's been good to me. I'm here on an athletic scholarship."

"You can't talk me into liking the game--or going out with you," she added, a touch smugly.

But a week later, she suddenly came over after class and offered an apology. "I'm sorry for the way I behaved," she said.

"I'm afraid I came off as a bit of a snob."

"You sure as hell did. But hey, nobody's perfect."

She smiled gratefully, then changed the subject, asking him about the letter he had written to The Adelphian, the college newspaper, about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the married couple who had been accused by the U.S. government of stealing the secrets of the atom bomb and slipping them to the Russians. After a contentious trial in Manhattan, they had been found guilty of conspiring to commit espionage and had been sentenced to death by electrocution.

In his letter, Selwyn had raised several questions about the trial. First, no physical evidence of espionage, no documents, film, or drawings, had been produced by the prosecution. Second, because Russia and America weren't at war when the alleged spying had taken place, the Rosenbergs shouldn't have been given the death penalty; the espionage statute didn't call for the execution of those who had spied for America's allies. Third, numerous legal scholars had pointed out that the government's case against Ethel Rosenberg was demonstrably weaker than the one against her husband, and that she was merely his accomplice, not a mastermind. As the mother of two small children, her life should have been spared.

Finally, such renowned physicists as Harold Urey and Albert Einstein had signed a petition for clemency. Even Pope Pius XII had pleaded for mercy.

"It was a remarkable letter," Sylvia said. "I admire you for the thought you put into it, and above all for your courage. How come you never talked about the Rosenberg case before?"

"I never had the chance. I was too busy defending myself for being a jock."

"A jock with a social conscience. It's an unusual mixture. You also write very well."

"Not half as well as you do. You know words that I never heard of before."

"Language and music are the two things I care most about."

"Well, if music turns you on, you should come with me to the Blossom Lounge."

A newly opened bar, the Blossom had a huge jukebox that was stuffed with the latest
r & b records by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bobby Day and Bill Haley. It also served dollar pitchers of beer.

Sylvia met him there that night, though she was more interested in talking to him about the Rosenbergs than in listening to pop music.

"Everybody's up in arms about your letter," she said. "All the girls in the dorm were on the phones to their parents and friends. Nobody can really believe you're taking the Rosenbergs' side."

"It's only a letter," he said. "And I'm only pointing out that even if the Rosenbergs are guilty, they shouldn't be put to death. In my opinion they were tried because they're Jews and communists, not because they gave Russia the bomb."

"How do you know about these things? Where do you get your information?"

"My aunt is an old lefty. She sent me copies of a newspaper called the National Guardian. They've been running a series of articles that poke holes in the prosecution's case."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Sylvia said. "This could really land you in trouble."

"I doubt it. The fuss'll blow over in a few days."

"Don't kid yourself," Sylvia said. "You've written more than just a letter. It's an attack on the entire judicial system. It's another J'Accuse! Emile Zola would be proud of you!"

Sylvia took a sip of beer, then stared narrowly at him, taking his measure. "Aren't you just a tiny bit afraid of what might happen?" she asked finally.

"Why should I be afraid?"

"Stop being naive. People are uptight these days, thanks to Joe McCarthy and all the talk about the communist menace in the USA. There's a lot of hysteria out there. You must've known that when you wrote the letter. You're sticking your neck out--way the hell out!"

"Do you think I was wrong to have questioned the government's case?"

"Not wrong--just foolhardy."

"Same thing."

"Dammit, Selwyn, I'm not trying to put you down. You're doing something gutsy--and reckless, I'm afraid. It's you against the world, my friend."

"I beg to disagree. I've got an important ally on campus."


"Dr. Klosterman."

He described what had happened when he first submitted the letter to The Adelphian. Donald Klosterman, the paper's academic advisor, had immediately asked to meet with him.

"The letter's a bombshell," he said. "If we publish it, it'll cause an uproar on campus. We'll both be attacked viciously for it."

"What are you saying? That you don't want to publish it?"

Klosterman, a tall, lanky man with a grave, deliberate air, shook his head. "That's not the case," he explained. "I believe in the First Amendment and in your right to express yourself. But I'm protected by tenure. I can weather the storm. But you're an undergrad, made more vulnerable by the fact that you're attending Adelphi on a football scholarship. The authorities could easily revoke it."

"Professor Klosterman, I feel very strongly about the letter. I'd like to see it published."

"You're sure?"


"All right, then. Let's get ready to do battle! I'll give the okay to print."

After Selwyn had brought Sylvia up to date, she didn't say anything, just stared at him from over the rim of her beer glass. Then, finally, she gave a sigh and said, "You're mad, stark raving mad. Let's dance."

* * *

Just as Sylvia and Professor Klosterman had predicted, there was a swift and hostile reaction on campus. Selwyn was summoned to a meeting with Adelphi's athletic director, William Binder. "What the hell is going on?" Binder shouted. "What's with you, kid?"

Binder was used to dealing with players' problems, mundane things like drunkenness, rowdiness, shoplifting. But politics? Atom spies? He was lost here, completely out of his depth. All he could do was scream, "What in God's name made you do a stupid fucking thing like that?"

Dr. Jasper Andrews, the president of the college, was equally upset, but managed to keep his voice down. "This is a conservative institution, located in a conservative part of Long Island," he pointed out to Selwyn. Then, tightly, disdainfully, "We can't have any leftwingers, any subversives, on campus. I'm placing you on suspension until an investigation into the circumstances of this letter is concluded."

That night, as Selwyn and Sylvia headed toward Manhattan in his dilapidated 1939 Hudson Terraplane, he did his best imitation of Dr. Andrews' high, pinched voice. It not only got a chuckle out of her but made her inch a bit closer to him, so close that their thighs touched, warmly. She seemed to be in good spirits. She had also dressed up for the occasion--a tight, sexy dress instead of her usual jeans and sweat-shirt, mouth a pink slash, jewelry at her throat, hair washed and sweet-smelling. He felt immensely happy to be out with her, a girl he loved in a deep, intense way.

They had dinner in a Times Square Italian restaurant: a bowl of tomato pasta and a chunk of garlic bread: 99 cents. Then they walked the seven blocks to City Center, where Leonard Bernstein was conducting the premiere of his new symphony, "The Age of Anxiety."

Sylvia knew quite a bit about the symphony and was eager to show off her knowledge. It was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem by W.H. Auden, she explained. She liked Auden but loved Bernstein--absolutely loved his work. He was a boy wonder, a youthful and charismatic pianist and conductor, and a multi-talented composer as well, one who had written classical works, sacred music, and the joyously hip Broadway musical, "On the Town." Selwyn had heard of Bernstein, had even watched him on TV with his "Young People's Concerts," but he'd never seen him in person.

In fact, he'd never even been to a symphonic concert before (a fact he didn't reveal to her).

So he let Sylvia do all the talking, admiring her all the while, a sophomore sounding off like a professional music critic. You'd think she was a rich kid who'd been been educated at a private high school with expensive teachers and facilities; but no, she was a long way from wealth and privilege; she'd grown up in an Italian neighborhood in Queens, father a fireman, mother a bookkeeper. She'd gone to public schools, been taught by run-of-the-mill teachers. Everything she knew about music, literature and art she'd learned on her own, devouring one library book after another. That was another thing to admire about her, her ferocious craving for knowledge, sophistication, worldliness.

After the concert, all during the drive back to Garden City, she couldn't stop talking about "The Age of Anxiety," enthusing over the masterful way Bernstein had put music to the Auden poem, given it a new life. She loved the way he had dramatized the series of conversations between the characters, three men and a woman in a bar in wartime New York.

"He went so deep into their subconscious thoughts, their hidden feelings, their dreams," she said. "And his music was so exciting, so varied--clarinet duets, all that pianissimo, the kaleidoscope of mood and textures. One movement was a dirge, a mournful song about the 20th century's pain and loss; then he suddenly shifted gears and found joy and excitement in a burst of jazz, an exploration of the American musical idiom."

She suddenly broke off and glanced at him. "What do you think the symphony was saying in the end?"

"Well...I'm not quite sure," he said. "I must admit I was a bit bored by it."

She practically spat at him. "Bored? You were bored by 'The Age of Anxiety?'"

"Sorry about that. I guess I didn't understand a lot of it."

"You sure as hell didn't!"

"Okay, then. Why don't you tell me what Bernstein was going for."

"It's all about faith," she shot back. "The symphony raises the question about how we in the 20th century feel about faith. Is the faith we feel real? Or is it a fake version of what faith should be like?"

"Maybe that's the problem," he said. "I don't spend much time thinking about faith."

"How could you? You're fixated on football and leftwing politics."

"Hey, don't forget about sex," he added, hoping to draw a chuckle.

Instead she just scowled, turned away and stared out the window of the car.

Things did not end the way he'd hoped. Despite the fact that he had his own room at 65 Terrace, the big house in Hempstead he was sharing with three friends, she refused to go there with him, declined to take part in a night of love and intimacy. Instead she chose to close things out by giving him a quick blowjob, as if they had been out on a mundane high school date.

When he asked her why she wouldn't sleep with him, she snapped, "I think you're a philistine. You have no appreciation of fine art!"

"You're right about that," he replied, fighting to hold back a surge of anger. "But I do love you, dammit!"

Although her response to that was disappointingly neutral, she did agree to meet him for lunch the next day. She made no mention of their date, preferring instead to focus on what had happened earlier in the morning. The local newspaper, The Hempstead Times, had run a front-page story about the existence of a communist cell on the Adelphi campus, a cell led by one Selwyn Morton, a college athlete turned defender of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the convicted spies who had betrayed their country and given Russia the secrets of the atom bomb.

That was followed by Selwyn receiving a visit from an FBI agent who sat him down in an empty classroom and interrogated him for over an hour. The same agent had also pulled Sylvia aside and grilled her as well.

"Jesus, Selwyn, he scared the hell out of me," Sylvia said later that night, at the Blossom Lounge.

"You've got nothing to be afraid of. I wrote the letter, not you."

"That's exactly what I told him, but it didn't seem to satisfy him. He kept after me, demanding to know everything about my background, my studies and political beliefs and all that."

"Sylvia, I'm sorry this has happened to you. But who knew it would ever come to this?"

"Klosterman and I warned you, dammit! But you wouldn't listen to us!" She glowered at him, eyes on fire. "Tell me something," she asked finally. "Are you a communist? Was the Hempstead Times correct?"

"Goddammit, Sylvia, I'm not a communist and there's no communist cell on campus! I'm just a guy who thinks there's something fishy about the government's case against the Rosenbergs!"

"Hold your voice down. Everyone can hear you."

"Fuck 'em all, fuck 'em where they breathe!"

Now another voice was heard, a strange voice belonging to an older man who'd been hanging out at the bar. "You're the guy who wrote that article," he said as he came close.

"What's it to you?"

"Listen, wiseguy, I'm a member of the American Legion. We don't take to people like you."

"You mean people who express their opinions."

"Opinions are one thing, communist opinions, another."

Selwyn stood up and confronted the man, who had a red, beefy face and the sagging belly of a lifelong six-packer.

"Leave me alone," Selwyn said.

"No, I won't leave you alone," the man said, making a grab for him.

Selwyn had learned his next move on the football field, a forearm smash to the jaw.

The man took the full force of it and went down backwards, hitting the back of his head on the floor and passing out.

Sylvia gave a scream, jumped up, and fled the bar.

* * *

That was the last time they spent any time together. She avoided him on campus after that, wouldn't see him when he visited her dorm, wouldn't return any of his messages, not even the one in which he said he was dropping out of school and heading to New York, where he intended to look for a job and an apartment.

He kept thinking about Sylvia as he drove toward Manhattan three nights later, hurt and sorrow tugging at the strings of his soul. When he reached the Williamsburg Bridge and began to cross it, his car suddenly tipped to one side and he heard metal scraping on concrete. Looking into the rear-view mirror, he saw that his right rear tire had come loose and was bouncing and spinning its way down the bridge's roadway. Lit by the sparks shooting up from his car's overheated wheel drum, the tire eventually banged into a guardrail, flipped over and came to a quivering halt.

Selwyn cut the engine and sat in his lopsided Hudson Terraplane, gazing out over the river at the city, the immense, floating city.