Ben Long got his first potential client and his first real girlfriend on the same day in June 1952. He’d opened an accounting office on the second floor of a Nassau Street building above a clothing store. The hum of the store’s customers drifted up through the ductwork in a vaguely companionable way during the new firm’s early, idle days.
Ben wasn’t worried about the slow start to his business. He had a clear-eyed sense of the man he was, and that man would be successful. He’d graduated from a prominent West Coast business school, and his proximity to Princeton University would burnish the sophisticated and confident image he aspired to project.
During Ben’s lunch hours, he took long walks through the university campus, studying the buildings and the easy manners of the students—all male, then—lounging on the steps and lawns in their cardigans and pale trousers. Some wore straw boaters, just like his, though as a businessman, he wore a suit. Plenty of young women were about. They poured out of the administrative offices and the professors’ lairs, carrying their lunches and spreading their skirts to sit on the grass.
He attracted unexpected attention as he criss-crossed the campus, so he kept a ready smile as he sped forward on his long legs, loosening his tie and tipping his hat to the ladies. On that memorable day, he was in a bit of a rush because of that impending first appointment.
“We’re all talking about you,” said a Breck-girl blonde, who hurried up beside him, striving to keep up. She looked like a midwestern kid—clear-skinned, bright blue eyes, illusions intact, like the freshman girls at his alma mater.
“Really. Why?” Was his outsider status so easy to detect? He plowed ahead.
“We all know you,” she said and, when he gave her a quizzical glance, added, “or feel we do.”
“Oh?” He took a second look at her and slowed.
“I mean, we know who you are.” She blushed and fluttered her hands.
He’d never seen her before. He would have remembered. “You’re sure about that?”
They were about to reach University Place, where he would turn back toward his office.
“Sure. You’re Jimmy Stewart.”
That stopped him. Her blue eyes radiated sincerity. He couldn’t meet those eyes with a lie, tempting though it was. Smiling, he said, “Hate to disappoint you, but I’m a CPA. I have an office on Nassau Street.”
“Oh, certainly.” She laughed. “Jimmy Stewart, Class of ’32.”
“Sincerely. My name is Ben.” He stuck out his hand.
She held it as if it were glass. “If you say so,” she giggled. She giggled enchantingly.
“And you are?”
“Cathy.” He could imagine her mother saying, “Speak up, dear.”
He still smiled. He still held her hand. The day was warm. The breeze made the sky-blue hydrangea heads bob agreeably. They were the exact shade of her eyes.
“Cathy, I’m pleased to meet you.” Awkwardly, he gave her hand a parting squeeze. “Well, goodbye. I have to go.”
“Sure. I know you’re busy,” she paused, “Jimmy.”
Back at the office, he studied his reflection in the men’s room mirror. Tall and lanky. Long neck with a head blobbed on top—like a safety match, his brother said. Brown hair, blue-grey eyes projecting a hefty dose of sincerity. Bland expression. Too bland, in his opinion, but perhaps it was a face on which people could project what they wanted to see.
Maybe that’s why people on campus stared. Did they really mistake him—even briefly—for James M. Stewart, Princeton ’32?
His first prospective client, Charlie Caputo, certainly did not look like a movie star: dark, compact, a little paunchy, face sweating on the warm day. Caputo launched into a long convoluted explanation of his money woes. Ben had to keep lassoing his mind, pulling it back from thoughts of Cathy and how she thought—or pretended to think—he was the famous actor, a man whose films he had seen many times.
“If I understand you correctly,” Ben broke in, “you want an accountant who will make sure you don’t pay any taxes.”
“There’s loopholes. Find them. Next time I’m in town we can discuss it further.”
He ran into Cathy nearly every day after that. They’d walk together across campus, at a slower pace than he preferred, but he didn’t mind. They started eating their lunches together. He brought a blanket. She brought two five-cent Cokes from the vending machine. Under the summer trees they talked about everything and nothing. Her friends from the office sometimes joined them, and it was hard to believe they all could laugh so much.
Like Cathy, they persisted in calling him Jimmy.
“Ben,” he’d say.
“That’s not what she says.”
“Hey, I’m only twenty-four! Do I look in my forties to you?”
“Remarkably well preserved.” Cathy pushed a deviled egg into his gaping mouth, silencing him.
Business picked up. Ben hired a secretary. He joined the Rotary Club and attended testimonial dinners. He took Cathy to a Rotary picnic, and she was amazed at how easily he talked to people, how many friends he had.
“When you’re in business in a small town like Princeton, you have to have friends,” he said.
“You sound like a character from one of your movies!”
He glanced around to make sure no one had heard. “Cathy, please stop doing that. People will think—”
“They will think you’re a success at whatever you do? You can’t help yourself. You’re just so pleasant.”
“Sure.” To himself, he quoted Elwood P. Dowd’s mother: “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Under his breath, he added, “For years I was smart, I recommend pleasant.”
“Wasn’t that a line from Harvey?” she whispered.
“You may quote me.”
On their first real date, Ben took Cathy to dinner and a movie, Bend of the River, featuring, naturally, Jimmy Stewart. Ben had read the book and thought it might help Cathy appreciate the part of the country he came from.
“I know where you’re from,” she said, humoring him.
“Jimmy,” she said, as if to a small child with a tall tale. “Western Pennsylvania.”
Maybe if she weren’t so darn cute, he thought, I’d make a stink about it, but it’s all so ridiculous, why bother?
Instead, he said, “What is it you want, Cathy? What do you want? You want the moon?”
As if summoned, the moonlight pooled in the tears forming in her eyes. “You know,” she said, “it’s a wonderful life.”
One hot day in August, when they sat close together on the campus lawn, she said, “Having fun?”
Half of him knew it was dangerous, but the other half wouldn’t stop, and he said, “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”
She laughed. “That’s definitely from Harvey. You’re too funny!”
He sighed. Being with Cathy was becoming more than a habit, it was something he needed. Like a drug. But this day he couldn’t linger. Mr. Caputo was expected.
That meeting didn’t go nearly as well as lunch with Cathy.
Caputo slapped Ben’s tax plan on the desk. “The loopholes you found aren’t enough. Not nearly enough. Why report all my income? I got enough problems without forking money over to Washington.”
“Well, I don’t know, Mr. Caputo. There’s ways to reduce your taxes and there’s ways to get into trouble.”
“You remember what I said I’d pay you?”
“Yes, I do. You said ten thousand dollars a year. That’s a lot of money, Mr. Caputo. I’m not sure—”
“How much would make you sure? Twelve thousand? Fourteen?”
“No, now, come on, Mr. Caputo. Maybe you need some other kind of accountant.”
“You think about it. When I come back, I’ll want your answer.”
Fourteen thousand dollars a year! Ten, even, would make marrying Cathy and starting life together possible—no, perfect. Ben tapped out a thinking rhythm with his pencil.
September approached, and posters appeared advertising a forthcoming talk by famous alumnus James M. Stewart, ’32, sponsored by the University drama club. “Public invited.”
Here was his chance to put Cathy’s embarrassing fantasy to rest. He couldn’t be Jimmy Stewart, sitting next to her in the audience and watching the real one on stage. But as the date of the lecture approached, he hesitated to mention it. It was a harmless delusion, and did she truly believe it? She’d introduced him to her parents as Ben, and that’s what they called him.
“So I’m Ben now,” he said that night as they walked home arm-in-arm.
“You don’t think they’d let me go out with a movie star, do you? I couldn’t tell them that.”
Once again, his mischievous side won out. “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules, if behind them they didn’t have a little ordinary everyday human kindness,” he said. “In this case, helping us be together.”
She sighed. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. My favorite. One of them.”
The light of the streetlamp, hidden among the sycamores, barely lit the walk up to her house.
“I’m going to your lecture next Wednesday,” she said. “All the girls in my office are going. We’ve got our tickets.”
Increasingly nervous about the lecture, he’d decided not to go with her. Maybe he wouldn’t go at all. The likelihood of disastrous disillusionment was too high. “Are you sure that’s wise? What if you don’t like the guy? Where does that leave me?”
At the top of the steps, he embraced her, and all five feet two inches of her strained upward toward him. “But I do like you. A lot.” As she said this, someone inside switched on the porch light. They kissed anyway.
The rest of the weekend was agony. What did she really believe? Whatever it was, it was bound to come to a crashing conclusion. He’d lose her, just as he was realizing how desperately he wanted her. “It can’t be anything like love, can it?” he asked himself, Philadelphia Story-style.
On Wednesday, Ben closed his office at two and walked across campus to the lecture hall where his alter ego—or was it his nemesis?—was scheduled to speak. A crowd already filled most of the seats, and he saw Cathy and her friends about halfway down. He’d thought about joining them, but instead leaned against a pillar and tried to distract himself by reading the newspaper.
After a hushed moment, the most famous member of Princeton’s Class of 1932 strode onto the stage. In his homey drawl, he charmed the audience. They applauded, they cheered, Cathy and her friends were on their feet. It was over. People streamed up the aisle past him, talking and laughing.
He hid behind the newspaper again as Cathy and her friends approached. Someone called to her. “Cathy, what did you think?”
“He was great!” she said, “But he’s not my Jimmy.”
Mr. Caputo came to the office at five, and Ben handed him a neat stack of papers. “Here’s the tax plan I worked out for you,” he said.
Caputo skipped to the end and looked up, fuming. “This isn’t what I asked for!”
“These strategies are all legitimate.”
“It’s not what I asked for.”
“So you’re asking me to lie and cheat?”
“If you say so.”
“And you’ll pay me well to do it too.”
“Ten thousand a year.”
“I just want to be clear about all that.” Ben imagined himself looking in the mirror again, but it was Jimmy Stewart looking back. Jimmy Stewart as Tom Destry, Jr. Big dented hat, drooping neckerchief, six-pointed sheriff’s star. He let Tom Destry speak for him: “You know what I have to say to your offer, Mr. Caputo? ‘Nobody’s gonna set themselves up above the law around here, understand?’ You go to hell.”
This story was published in U.S. 1, Summer Fiction Issue, July 27, 2016.