Fiction Fiction Issue


“Oh, you’ll succeed just fine,” he told her. “You’ll just never be any good.”

Whenever the moon and the stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.

Although it was only four in the afternoon, it was almost dark outside, and the wind was blowing hard enough to set the branches of the quad’s trees in motion. The nearest branch scratched insistently, like a memory, on Janet Moore’s office window. Was it the turbulence outside that had invited the horseman to gallop into her consciousness, or the silence of the sullen boy across from her? The lines she was remembering were from a children’s poem, the one her husband, Robbie, read to Marcus, their son, every night before he went to sleep, and they haunted her with the force of a childhood memory, even though she’d first heard the poem only a decade ago, when she was a grad student at the university. Now it kept her awake nights, long after Robbie had fallen asleep beside her—all night long in the dark and wet—and sometimes she’d wake up in the middle of the night with the verses still echoing. Had they been part of her actual sleep, repeating on some sort of endless loop? Lately, the horseman had appeared in her waking thoughts as well. When she jogged in the woods behind the New England college where she taught, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence—whenever the moon and the stars are set—as if she were a horse. And then the familiar heartsickness, as if she were suddenly clomping not through the woods but through an endless cemetery.

A moment before she had been feeling both anger and self- righteousness. These were easy, unambiguous emotions to which, in the present circumstance, she felt entitled. She was angry, and rightly so, that students cheated more often in her classes than in those of her male colleagues, just as they were more often tardy, more openly questioning of her authority, and more often gave her a mediocre evaluation at the end of each term. Even worse, the fact that they held her to a higher standard was unwitting. Had anyone asked them if they were prejudiced against their female professors, not one would have answered yes. Hooked up to a lie detector, every one of them would pass.

Maybe even this one, this James Cox, seated before her now, with one sockless, boat-shoed foot balanced on a J. Crew-chinoed knee, still smug, though the fact that she had him dead to rights seemed to be dawning on him. He was studying, or pretending to study, the two typed pages she’d given him—the one with his own name in the upper right-hand corner, and the other that had been handed in to her four years earlier—with feigned astonishment, as if the similarities between them were just the damnedest thing, amazing, really, like frogs, thousands of them, falling from a cloudless June sky.

Next door she heard Tony Hope, her best friend in the department, leave his office, the door banging shut behind him. She’d told him earlier that she had a plagiarism case to deal with, and he’d offered to loiter outside, just in case. These days, all teachers were vulnerable. Cornered female students would sometimes charge male professors with having made sexual advances, while similarly cornered males would sometimes become belligerent with their female teachers. But James Cox had been late, and Tony was meeting a couple of his seniors at the Hub Pub. When Tony appeared in her half-open doorway, eyebrow arched, she gave him the sign that everything was fine, that it was okay for him to leave. Probably it was.

When she heard the double doors at the end of the corridor clang shut, Janet turned her attention back to her student, whose demeanor had dramatically changed. The feigned astonishment had evaporated. He slumped in his chair now, like a beaten fighter in the late rounds, just enough cognition left to recognize futility when he saw it up close. He met her eye for a split second. Had he held it for a beat longer, Janet would have been the one to turn away, but the branch scratching at the window attracted his attention, and he stared outside at the small cyclones of dead leaves in the windy quad.

Had he cheated before? she wondered. Was cheating the habit of his short lifetime? It didn’t really matter. Even if he’d never cheated before, he’d cheated now, in her class, and she’d caught him. She’d had to ransack four years’ worth of files to find the essay. Hours, it had taken, hours she didn’t have, not now, two days before Thanksgiving. Knowing how long the search would take, she’d almost let it go. After all, she hadn’t been certain. The essay felt familiar, but she might have just been recalling one with a similar topic and thesis. And even if she was right and the essay was plagiarized, what would her reward be for finding it? The knowledge that she had a good memory for ideas? (She already knew that.) Justification for disliking this particular student? (She already had sufficient reason.) Hadn’t he alternated, all semester, between sullen inattention and stubborn obstruction in class, and then, outside in the hall, plied her with half-apologies and assurances that he didn’t mean to be a pain in the ass? “But you are a pain in the ass.” This had been on the tip of her tongue since September.

But maybe she’d been wrong, because now that he saw he was lost, he dropped his bravado. In fact, he looked like someone who’d been waiting so long in the doctor’s office that when the feared diagnosis was finally delivered, it was a relief.

“So,” he said, handing the identical pages back to her.

She waited until it became clear that he did not intend to go on. “So?”

“So, you got me, right?” Then he made a pistol of his thumb and forefinger, put the barrel to his temple, and pulled the trigger, his head jerking, as if struck by an invisible bullet. Sure, the gesture was symbolic, but she was still startled by the boy’s willingness to metaphorically off himself.

Finally she said, “Do you want to tell me why?”

“It was easy. My fraternity keeps files.”

“So do professors.”

Again he made her wait. Then he asked, “What do you want?”

The question, so direct and simple, caught her off guard. “What do I want?”

He shrugged. “Well, this is where I get what’s coming to me, no?”

“And what do you think you’ve got coming to you?”

“Not up to me, is it,” he said, getting to his feet, terminating the interview. How brash males are, she thought. How controlled, even in defeat. “Whatever you decide.”

At the door he paused, his back to her, his head canted at an odd angle, as if listening for something. What he said then surprised her. “My advice? Don’t hold back.”

And then he walked out.

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Richard Russo is the author of a collection of short stories, five novels (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls), and several produced screenplays. He is currently at work on a new novel.

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