Fiction Fiction Issue

Horseman

“Oh, you’ll succeed just fine,” he told her. “You’ll just never be any good.”
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But the two cases were hardly analogous, she told herself as she emerged into the quad. James Cox, the little prick, was a plagiarist, a cheat. When Bellamy had said that her essay wasn’t really hers, she’d thought that was what he was getting at. But no. His “misgivings” about her work had been vague, abstract, spectral, whereas her objection to James Cox’s essay was concrete, clear-cut, and accusatory. The two things were similar, not parallel. So forget it. Go home.

She was halfway to her car, near the entrance to the student union, when a Frisbee whistled overhead, too close for comfort, causing her to duck. Normally, it would have run out of air and skimmed along the surface of the brown grass and come to rest there, but this particular Frisbee was riding a gust of wind that had tunneled down the quad (whenever the wind is high—the words were suddenly there), so on it flew, gaining altitude.

Her first thought was that someone must have thrown it at her intentionally (James Cox?), but turning around she saw that it could only have been tossed by one of two students who stood on the lighted library steps a good 200 yards up the hill. Apparently someone had left the Frisbee on the steps, and the boy who’d thrown it wanted to see how far it would travel on such an impressive tailwind. “Whoa!” she heard him shout as it continued on down the terraced lawn, all the way to the macadam road, where it struck a passing pickup truck in the windshield with a loud whump. The truck immediately skidded to a halt, and the driver, either a townie or someone from Grounds and Maintenance, got out, glared at Janet, and yelled, “Hey!”

“Yeah, right,” she called down the hill, though in fact she couldn’t really blame the fellow for jumping to the wrong conclusion. Except for the two figures on the library steps, an impossible distance away, she was the only person in the deserted quad.

“The hell’s wrong with you, anyway?” the man wanted to know, his voice all but lost in the wind.

“Search me,” she called back, and then, when he looked like he might want to make something of it, she made a sharp right and headed down the student union steps into the Hub Pub, a place she normally avoided, having no desire to run into students—those old enough to drink legally—or, worse, her grousing department colleagues. So she was relieved to discover that, late on the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, the place was almost as deserted as the quad. One large circular table was occupied by a group of students playing a drinking game that involved bouncing quarters off the tabletop. In the far corner, Tony Hope and his seniors occupied a booth. The students were cramming papers into overstuffed backpacks, their meeting concluded.

“Remember,” Tony was telling them. “In effaced, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re dunna dit in, dit in. If you’re dunna dit out, dit out.”

The students, apparently understanding this advice, nodded agreement, slid out of the booth, and wished him a happy Thanksgiving.

Sliding onto the bench, she said, “That was truly bizarre advice. ‘Effaced’?”

Tony chuckled, clearly pleased by her mystification. He pushed what she hoped was an unused glass in her direction and poured the last of the pitcher into it. “Effaced point of view,” he explained. “Sort of like a camera eye. The writer disappears. Just reports what the characters do and say without revealing their thoughts and motivations. No judgments. Totally objective.”

“‘If you’re dunna dit in, dit in’?”

“My father had a speech impediment. When we went to the drive-in for burgers, all us kids would get out of the car and run around. We were always slamming the car doors. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he’d yell, ‘If you’re dunna dit in, dit in. If you’re dunna dit out, dit out. No more doddamn dittin’ in, dittin’ out.’”

“And your students understand such references?”

“They know the story, yeah.”

“Teaching creative writing really is a scam, isn’t it. How do I join the club?”

“Did your father have a speech impediment?”

“No.”

“Well, there you go. Sorry. Don’t you tell your students anything about yourself?”

“No, I teach literature, remember? We have actual texts to occupy our attention. Things would have to go terribly, terribly wrong before I’d resort to personal anecdote.” Such reticence, she knew all too well, ran counter to the entire culture, but she hadn’t the slightest interest in the confessional mode, nor did she intend to Oprah her classes, to reduce the study of literature to issues, to ratchet up interest by means of irrelevant autobiography. Besides, what would she tell them? Did you know I have a damaged son? (I do!) Guess how long it’s been since my husband and I had sex? (Here’s a hint: a long time!)

“Don’t you people believe everything is a text these days?” Tony objected. “Tolstoy? Us Weekly? A tattooed buttock?”

“Oh, stop.”

“And speaking of living texts, here’s one of your favorites.”

In the entryway, Tom Newhouse, professor emeritus, was hanging his tweed hat on a peg. Forced into retirement at age seventy, Newhouse continued to teach the Joyce seminar for which he was famous among students (for his bonhomie) and infamous among his colleagues (for his critical misreadings). Turning, feet planted wide apart, he surveyed the disappointing scene before him. His white hair was utterly wild.

“Looks like he’s got his usual load on,” Tony observed.

“Don’t,” Janet pleaded, when Tony started to wave. “Maybe he won’t notice us.”

“He’s just lonely, Janet,” Tony said.

“It’s not your ass he’s going to grab when he comes over here,” she reminded him.

“That wasn’t true, in case you’re interested,” Tony replied. Earlier in the semester a young woman had accused Newhouse of inappropriate touching. (“Inappropriate,” Tony had remarked at the time. “There’s a word I wouldn’t mind never hearing again.”) The charge had been dropped after a suggestion that the victim must have been acting on an overheard suggestion, from a women’s studies professor, that someone ought to put a stop to the old fool’s groping. “Besides,” Tony went on, “you’re sitting. Don’t stand up, and you’re safe.”

“That’s your solution?”

“No, it’s yours. I don’t require a solution.”

The bartender was drawing Newhouse a pitcher of beer. Not a good sign, though perhaps Newhouse intended to send the beer over to the student table. His wife having died a decade earlier, his house and car paid off, Newhouse was famous for his largesse, especially with his seniors.

Janet leaned forward and planted her elbows on the wet tabletop, hoping that if Newhouse saw her and Tony with their heads together in close conversation he would not intrude.

“Are you going anywhere over break?” she asked. Tony usually fled for New York or Boston after his last class. When they first met, Janet had assumed he was gay, but apparently he was not. In fact, he’d dated most of the college’s eligible female faculty, as well as a few of the administrative staff, and recently she’d heard a rumor about a custodian. Which made her wonder why he’d never shown any interest in her. True, she was married, but he’d never even flirted with her, at least not seriously.

“No, I’m staying put,” Tony said, surprising her. “My brother and his wife are visiting from Utah, if you can believe it.”

Janet risked a barward glance and saw that the bartender was now drawing Newhouse a second pitcher. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“We don’t see that much of each other,” Tony said. “He and the little woman are both strict Mormons, which means that I’m not even going to be able to anesthetize myself. They’re determined to experience a genuine New England Thanksgiving, and they don’t seem to understand that such a thing simply can’t be done sober. What are you and yours up to?”

She’d been dreading the holiday all week, and now realized that this dread probably accounted for her willingness to spend all those hours searching her files for the Cox essay. The task had let her avoid confronting the awful, endless day ahead. Robbie would cook a huge meal for just the three of them. Two, really—Marcus would eat only what he ate every day: a grilled-cheese sandwich, and then only if Robbie cut off any cheese that had turned brown on the bottom of the pan. He might not eat anything at all if he was out of sorts, which he was likely to be. When his regular TV programs weren’t on, he often became agitated and inconsolable. Last year the balloons of the Macy’s parade had upset him, and it had taken forever to calm him down. Her own presence was another issue. Marcus did best when his routine was not violated. Janet’s being home on a weekday often made him restless, as if he were waiting for her to go away, for things to return to normal. Robbie claimed this wasn’t true, and swore that Marcus loved her. But it seemed true to Janet. The doctors had warned them that children like Marcus sometimes chose one parent over another. They usually chose the mother, though Marcus had not. She’d been told that it was nothing personal—but what could be more personal than someone’s preference for one person over another? Wasn’t that what the word personal meant?

“Moooooore!” Tom Newhouse bellowed as he came toward them, beer slopping over the lip of the pitcher in his hand. He’d dropped the other pitcher off at the undergraduate table. He slid into their booth—on Janet’s side, naturally—and she moved as far away from him as she could, until her right shoulder was against the brick wall.

“You know what I like about you, Moore?” Newhouse called everyone, students and colleagues alike, by their last names. His other irritating habit was dramatically emphasizing, at deafening volume, one word in nearly every sentence.

Yes, Janet thought, you like my boobs. He was always ogling them, and he appeared to be ogling them now.

“Do you know what I like about Moore?” he asked Tony, when Janet declined to speculate aloud.

“Sure,” Tony said. “The same thing we all like.”

Newhouse blinked at Tony drunkenly, then fixed Janet with a rheumy gaze. “He has a dirty mind.”

“You arrived at that conclusion how?” Janet asked, causing the man to scroll back, then break into a big grin.

“I see what you mean,” he said. “It’s my mind that’s dirty, isn’t it.” He turned back to Tony. “What I was going to say was, what I like about this lady is that she’s a good dancer.”

“That’s what we all like about her,” Tony said.

“You’ve never seen me dance, Professor Newhouse.” She was sure she hadn’t danced in public since joining the college faculty, seven years before.

“I’ve heard stories,” he said, turning to Tony to pursue his argument. “Besides, you can tell by the way a woman walks if she’s got the music in her. And this lady’s got the music.”

“Nice rack, too,” Tony added.

Newhouse absorbed this comment thoughtfully, then turned back to Janet. “Now that time it was him, not me. You can’t blame me for that one.”

“I guess you’re right,” she said. “Just this once, I’ll let you skate.”

He topped off their glasses. Thank you,” he said, fixing his eye on Tony again. “That’s the problem these days: nobody lets anybody skate on anything.” He still hadn’t forgiven Tony for serving on the committee that had recommended he take a sensitivity seminar as a condition of dropping the “inappropriate touching” charge.

“That’s one of the problems,” Tony agreed cheerfully.

“We have a student in common, you and I,” Newhouse said to Janet, leaning toward her, as if what he was about to impart were a secret to be kept from Tony Hope at all costs. His elbow came to rest against her left breast. Tony noticed and grinned. “That one.” Newhouse offered his index finger for her to sight along. She recognized one of the students at the round table, though his back was to them.

Cox,” Newhouse thundered. “James Cox. Wrote the best paper on Dubliners I ever read.”

“Who do you think wrote it?” she asked.

“He could publish the damn thing,” Newhouse went on, an alcoholic beat behind. Then: “What do you mean, who wrote it? James Cox wrote it.”

“Okay.”

Now Newhouse leaned away from her. “Why would you suspect Cox?”

“If you aren’t suspicious, fine,” she said, lowering her voice in the vain hope that he would lower his as well.

“I’m not suspicious. Why would you be suspicious?”

“Do you get a lot of publishable work from undergraduates?” Tony, bless him, asked innocently.

“You,” Newhouse said. “You stay out of this. I want this lady to tell me why I should suspect Cox.”

“Maybe I’m wrong,” Janet told him.

“You are wrong,” he said, sliding out of the booth and grabbing the pitcher. His face had gone beet red. “You are wrong. You’re worse than wrong.” He turned to Tony, then. “And you.”

“Yes, Tom?”

“You aren’t even a good dancer.”

And with that Newhouse pivoted and returned to the bar to drink alone. “What’s ‘worse than wrong,’ do you suppose?” Janet asked Tony when Newhouse was out of earshot.

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