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the Tami Smithers problem

Acting Dean Anthony Noyes, tall and a little grayer and a little heavier, no longer being able to fit into the three-piece suits that had been his trademark, stood behind his desk and looked out the big bay window on this rainy March day, having hung up the phone. His people had told him just what he had expected. No filings yesterday in state court, and in federal court (the more likely forum) no filings either. The statute of limitations on any suit Tami Smithers could bring against the college had expired. The college was finally in the clear. At least as to lawsuits.

A relief, but not really unexpected. From all signs, she had made her peace with the college a long time ago, blaming her freshman year misfortunes on the machinations of Dean Percy Jorgon and the college attorney Henry Ross, and to some extent Nevada McMasters. Which so far as he knew was pretty close to the truth. Others who were probably culpable too had left before they found themselves in the cross-hairs. Professor Brignon. McMasters’s aides, Brendo and Mr. Zipkin. Not Homer Winant, of course, that wily S.O.B.

So now -- what to do about her?

As he looked down on the campus Tami appeared as if on cue, hefting a big bag of dead leaves over her shoulder, squishing through the grass toward the front lawn, oblivious to the cold rain that plastered her hair to her shoulders and had everyone else scurrying around in raincoats. Now she came to one tree with a branch which the brown leaves had somehow clung to throughout the winter. As if she was born to do it, she scurried up on prehensile toes and reached over, her breasts crushed against the rough bark, shaking the leaves free. Then hopped to the ground and stuffed them into the bag with her bare hands. Remarkable.

He turned and sat down at the big oak desk and pondered. The presence of a naked student had never stopped being a trial for the college and its conservative benefactors. There was just no getting around it. It had paralyzed the Dean Hiring Committee; there was no way to say to candidates, “We are a religiously based, conservative institution,” and then say, “By the way, we have a girl who walks around naked all the time.” As a result the Acting Deanship had been a hot potato passed around between him and Vanessa Congi and even Mildred George, who was 75 years old.

Tami Smithers was only two months from graduation -- but sure to get a graduate assistantship if that was what she desired. That would mean two more years of enduring her public nudity. And then what if she became an adjunct, or even a professor? She could be here for 20 years! Noyes held his forehead just at the thought of it, it was so agonizing.

The commencement ceremony itself was all too much to contemplate. She would be the valedictorian and giving her speech. It was a near miracle that the college had avoided national press thus far, but commencement exercises were always publicity magnets. “The Naked Valedictorian.” A Newsweek cover for sure. Some of the trustees had suggested canceling the commencement on some pretense. But he just could not do that. Tami had earned the right to give her speech in public just like any of the college’s 212 other valedictorians throughout its history.

It would be easy if she was a troublemaker, but she was anything but. Her behavior during her long ordeal, and ever since, had been exemplary. Tami Smithers enjoyed an immense amount of respect, from faculty, the other students, recovering fundamentalists like Rev. Stipend . . . Even the more stuck-up benefactors grudgingly admitted she was a credit to the college, at the same time as they were waiting on pins and needles for her to leave.

As far as finding out what she might do, he had run into a brick wall. He certainly couldn’t ask her directly. What would be the point? There was no way he could say, “We like you Tami but we want you to leave. Here are some possibilities . . .” Or even hint it. He had called Abu Jamal about their attempts to cure her allergy but the Chalfont people absolutely would not talk to him. He could understand their position. They had been traumatized by the fallout from the McMasters experiments and were forever in debt to Ms. Smithers for voluntarily re-doing them when their accreditation was threatened. If anything, it would be better for him NOT to know her plans. That way, if he suddenly hit upon an idea that would get her out of here, he could spring it on her more innocently.

He had similar bad luck with the Fashion people. It would be strange, but great, if she won that International competition and got sent back to Rhode Island. But Girardo would not tell him what her chances were. And he had no pull with the people running the competition, of course.

A knock on the door.

It was Tami Smithers herself, wet and muddy, though she had been careful to wipe her feet. She stood in his doorway, naked and strong, her bookbag slung over her shoulder, carrying a four-foot long narrow thing that looked like a folded-up easel. “Hello, Mr. Noyes,” she said, respectfully but with an air of familiarity.

“Hello, Tami.” He was aware, of course, of yesterday’s ruling refusing to extend the statute of limitations in the criminal matter. Tami seemed to have bounced back from what must have been a bitter disappointment. Of course, the college itself being in effect an accomplice, there was no way he could express his condolences or anything like that.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, Tami.” He glanced at her up and down, from her wild, wind-strewn hair, the tanned wet breasts, then down to the fragments of leaves in her pubic bush, finally to the widely-spread toes covered with bits of grass, as if she herself were a wet tree and her toes were the roots. “Is Omar working you too hard? Have a seat.”

“Well no, I shouldn’t, I’d mess up your chair. I’d like to ask your permission. Could I please wear something?”

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