Fiction Fiction Issue

Horseman

“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.

Almost a decade earlier, on the morning of her first conference with the great Marcus Bellamy, Janet had parked in the dusty, unpaved X Lot on the farthest reaches of the university campus, the only place graduate students could afford to park in, and trekked across campus in the sweltering Southwest heat to Modern and Romance Languages. The Faculty Lot was right across the street. She saw Bellamy arrive in his vintage Mustang and then, in a breathtakingly confident move, stride off, leaving the convertible’s top down. She checked to see if anyone was around who knew her and might be watching, and then she altered her course so she could pass by the Mustang for a closer look. Amazing! The front passenger seat was littered with cassette tapes, jazz mostly, and she could see the corner of a box that likely contained a dozen or so others. Did the man have some reason to believe his music would not be stolen? Everyone knew Marcus Bellamy, of coursehe was the department’s one true academic superstarso maybe he felt protected by his reputation. Or perhaps the F Lots were monitored by cameras. She’d never noticed any, but it was possible. Even so, afternoon thunderstorms were predicted. Did Bellamy believe his status warded off not just music thieves but the elements themselves?

She had a full day before hera comp class to teach, her Henry James seminar to attend, a stack of essays to start grading if the entire weekend wasn’t to be ruinedbut she could think of little but her conference with Bellamy. At lunch Robbie had remarked on how preoccupied she was, and as the afternoon wore on she’d felt increasingly light-headed, at times almost ill. Robbie also had a conference with Bellamy that afternoon, and Janet was glad his and her own weren’t back to back. No doubt Bellamy had noticed she and Robbie were a couple, but she preferred he not think of her as part of anything. For this first conference she saw no need for context beyond the essay they would be discussing. She’d spent a long time on it, and they had a good deal to talk about. She’d signed up for the last conference slot of the afternoon, so they could run long if they needed to.

Bellamy’s office was the largest on the corridor, its most ostentatious feature a large, working fireplace. Janet’s first thought upon entering was that if things went well this semester, maybe by the holidays she’d be invited in forwhat?brandy and eggnog before a roaring fire? Probably it would never get cold enough in the desert to justify that, but the fantasy was pleasant enough. The rest of the office was crammed with books and periodicals on floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves. In the unlikely event she ever managed to snag an office like this one, she thought, she’d stay put. What possessed a man with such a cushy life to pack up all those books and move every couple of years, as Bellamy did? He’d no sooner arrived on this campus than the speculation had begun about how long he’d stay, where he’d go next, what would be needed in the way of salary and perks to lure him away. Brilliant black English professors were in demand, as Bellamy well knew, and some students whispered he was already receiving and weighing offers for the year after next. That was why Janet had wanted so desperately to study with him now, this term. His class in proletarian fiction was wildly oversubscribed. Even the linguistics and creative-writing majors wanted in. And so far, the course had been electrifying.

Bellamy greeted her at the door with a warm smile, but they were no sooner seated than he said, rather ominously, “Ms. Moore, in conference I always like to be forthright.”

To which she murmured something silly, pretty close to the exact opposite of the truth. She said that she assumed he would be forthright, or hoped he would be, orworsethat she was always grateful for any honest, rigorous appraisal of her work.

“Excellent,” he said, handing back her essay. “Because though it has much to recommend it, I have serious misgivings about your work.”

So it was true. Yesterday she’d overheard one of her classmates claiming that Bellamy was reading not only the papers they’d just turned in, but previous efforts from other courses as well, everything he could get his hands on. She hadn’t believed itwho but a madman would take on so much extra work?but there it was, on the desk between them, a big blue Graduate Office folder with her name on it, containing, by the look of it, a dozen or so of her essays from past semesters. When he said he had misgivings about her work, could he possibly mean all of it? Work that had already established her as perhaps the most promising scholar in the program?

She examined the essay he’d just handed her. She saw no letter grade on the cover page, and Janet had marked enough freshman compositions to know what this could portend. She herself always put a poor grade, along with her reasons for awarding it, on the back of the last page, safe from prying eyes. Though it was probably the wrong thing to do, she quickly turned the essay over to see if Bellamy handled weak efforts in the same fashion, only to discover that the back page was blank as well. As were all the others. If he had found “much to recommend” in the essay, weren’t those things worth mentioning? “ ‘Misgivings’?” she said finally, her voice sounding strange, distant, whiny, frightened.

Bellamy had risen and was now scanning his bookshelves, and he didn’t answer immediately. Turning his back on her had the effect of compounding her fears. “I’ll try to explain, but it’s going to be easier to show you ...”

“Actually, I thought my essay was good,” she ventured. “I spent a long time on it.” She couldn’t believe she was saying this. How many times had she told her own students that the amount of time you spent on something was immaterial?

“I’m sure you did, Janet. It’s meticulous. Flawless.” He stepped back for a better angle at the books and periodicals on the top shelves. “It’s just not really yours.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied, swallowing hard. “Are you saying it’s plagiarized?”

“Good heavens, no. Relax.”

As if.

“Actually,” he went on, still not turning around, “theft would have been more revealing. Then at least I’d have known what you admired, whereas I can’t locate you in what you did write, anywhere. The same is true with your previous essays. It’s as if you don’t exist ... Ah, here we are!” The volume he’d been looking for was on the top shelf. Bellamy was a tall mana skilled basketball player, according to Robbie, who’d reported this fact half apologetically, as if he felt personally responsible for perpetuating a stereotypebut he still had to use a footstool to reach it. Stepping down again, he placed the journal, a twenty-year-old issue of American Literature, on the desk between them, then sat back down.

“But I do exist,” she offered, suddenly unsure that she was entitled to this opinion. Would he attempt to reason her out of it? Would he succeed?

“Indeed,” he said. “Here you are. In the flesh.”

The word flesh, spoken in such an intimate setting, in a room that contained a leather sofa in front of a fireplace, made her apprehensive. Earlier that morning, stepping from the shower, she’d imagined this meeting with pleasure. Nothing sexual, of course, or even terribly intimate. She’d imagined neither the fireplace nor the sofajust that their conversation, the first of many, would go well, and that Bellamy would admire her, as she admired him. He’d certainly seemed responsive to her in classthough, it was true, he was no more responsive to her than to her classmates. He obviously knew better than to display overt signs of favoritism. In conference was where you let your guard down a bit, showed your enthusiasm for good work. She’d felt confident that this was what would happen today. Maybe after they were done he’d suggest a beer at the Salty Dog, where grad students hung out and Robbie’s band played on Saturday nights.

“I thought,” she said carefully, rubbing her moist palms against the cushion of her chair, “that was the whole idea of literary criticism. Isn’t the ‘I’ supposed to disappear? Isn’t the argument itself what matters?”

“That’s what we teach,” he conceded. He’d taken his glasses off and was cleaning them with a handkerchiefunnecessarily, it occurred to her, an affectation. “It’s what I was taught, and I used to believe it. Now I’m not so sure. The first-person pronoun can be dispensed with, it’s true. But not the writer behind the pronoun.”

“I guess I don’t know what you mean, then,” she said, aware that this was the second time she’d resorted to those exact words. Oh Godshe “guessed” she didn’t understand? If one of her freshmen had written that, she’d have scratched “Can’t you be certain?” in the margin.

“It’s true the writer shouldn’t intrude upon the argument,” Bellamy admitted, “but that’s not the same as saying he should disappear, is it?”

She caught herself this time. A third “guess” would have been disastrous. “Isn’t it?”

“Okay, let’s back up. Why did you write about Dos Passos?”

“I was interested

“But why? Why were you interested?”

Now she was squirming, angry. Because he’d interrupted her? Not given her a chance to explain? Or was it the challenge implied in his question?

“Did you choose a topic you had a real connection to? Or just one you knew I was interested in?”

Well, sure, Bellamy’s enthusiasm for Dos Passos had been the main reason, but to her way of thinking that merely predicted a good starting point for their ongoing dialogue. Wasn’t the study of literature supposed to be a dialogue? a series of dialogues between writer and reader, reader and teacher? Why was he challenging a conversation so recently begun? Had he already concluded that it would go nowhere? What evidence might have led him to such a conclusion? She tried to concentrate on what he was saying, to not personalize, to not be overwhelmed by disappointment. But with each new questionWhat are you risking in this essay? From what passion in your life does it derive? Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? Did you attend private school or public?she felt herself flushing. What had her life to do with anything? She’d come prepared to argue her essay’s nuances, to accept her professor’s suggestions for bolstering its thesis, even to hear him to question its validity, but here he was, wanting to talk about her, as if what she’d produced didn’t matter. It was as if he’d asked her to take off her clothes.

“Look, Janet,” he said, perhaps sensing her distress. “The truth is, I can teach you very little. You have a lively intellect and genuine curiosity, and you work hard. You read carefully, you synthesize well, and you know how to marshal evidence. If a scholar’s life is what you want, you’re well on your way. That’s the good news. But one last piece of the puzzle is missing. The bad news is that it’s a big one, and for some people it can be elusive.”

Still a big piece of the puzzle missing? She didn’t want to believe that. Her other professors all agreed that she was close, probably ready to start submitting her work to academic journals. (Bellamy knew the editors of these journals personally, and a word from him ... ) And if the piece she was missing was “big,” how could it be elusive? The charge didn’t make sense.

Then again, what if what he was saying was true? Hadn’t she sometimes worried, in the aftermath of extravagant praise, that something was missing? Hadn’t she sometimes had the distinct feeling that what she’d really succeeded in doing was fooling them again? Was that what Bellamy was getting at? Had he seen something in her work, or the absence of something? He was arguingshe understood this muchfor some kind of passionate, personal connection, but what if that connection wasn’t there? What if what she possessedwhat her other professors admiredwas merely a facility? What if she was just doing what she was good at, and nothing deeper? “This elusive thing?” she heard herself say, in a frightened, childlike voice. “I won’t succeed until I find it?”

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

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.

By the time Janet emerged from Modern and Romance Languages, the sky had grown menacingly dark and a hot desert wind, full of electricity, had sprung up, auguring rain. Good, she thought. In the air conditioning of Bellamy’s office she’d not sensed the gathering storm, which probably meant that he hadn’t either. Otherwise, he’d be headed for his top-down Mustang at a dead run. By the time the rain hit his office window, it would be too late.

She held in her hand the old issue of American Literature. He’d turned down the corners of the two articles he wanted her to read. One, he’d explained, was his first published essay, written when he was a grad student, a careless effort that contained, by his count, no fewer than six errors, every one of which had been pointed out to him over the years by fastidious fact-gatherers who seemed to believe that mistakes, no matter how innocent or inconsequential, were unforgivable. He hoped she’d see why the essay, despite its flaws, had been worth publishing. Though he hadn’t said it in so many words, her assignment, apparently, was to look for the signs of the Bellamy passion that had led, inevitably, to greatness, to the best office on the corridor and the vintage Mustang in the F Lot.

The other essay he suggested Janet look at was by one Patricia Anastacio; in this one (here again he had more implied this than stated it) she would find admirable but distinctly minor (feminine, no doubt) virtuesindustriousness, organizational skills, attention to detailthat were predictive of a workmanlike but uninspired scholarly career. (“You read carefully, you synthesize well, and you know how to marshal evidence.”) Really, the man’s arrogance was breathtaking. He’d cast himself as Tennyson’s Ulysses, fearlessly sailing uncharted waters, while she (like the other girls?) would remain behind like Telemachus, blamelessly tending the household gods. Okay, Telemachus wasn’t a girlbut the gender prejudices at the core of Bellamy’s assumptions would have been infuriating even coming from a white man. How much worse to have them served up by a black one, who should have known better.

At the bottom of the steps was a metal trash can, and Janet had to restrain herself from tossing in the periodical. What prevented her was an even better idea: she’d drop it onto the front seat of the Mustang. When the skies opened, it would swell up like the man’s bloated ego. If he said anything later, she could claim innocence, tell him she’d xeroxed the essays and was simply returning the magazine to its owner. That story didn’t really track, but nothing about it was grossly unbelievable, nothing he could call her on.

She was still so worked up when she arrived at the F Lot that she was totally unprepared for the strange sight she encountered there. Standing next to Bellamy’s Mustang was a young man dressed in brightly mismatched clothes. He had a large shaved head, and his arms were flailing about wildly, as if he were doing battle with invisible demons. As she drew near, he let out a startling howl. Had his eyes not been clamped shut, he’d have been looking right at her, which was no doubt why she briefly entertained the irrational notion that it was her own approach that he was so determined to fend off. He looked like some sort of demented, idiot genie summoned by her proximity for the express purpose of protecting Bellamy’s car.

These were, of course, the impressions of an instant. Later, guiltily, she would try to reconstruct exactly what had happened and why. The young man was a frightening apparition, his arms thrashing about his head, as if he’d just received an electrical charge. (Did he mean to share that jolt with her if she came close enough to touch?) But by the time she’d taken her first, instinctive step around him, she’d known the truththat he was blind, and that the hot wind, gusting fiercely and carrying all manner of grit, had frightened and disoriented him. His white cane lay under the Mustang’s bumper. Why, then, once she’d apprehended the truth, was it so hard to banish the original, clearly false impression of the young man as someone to be feared, someone determined to transfer his demons to her?

And then, as if a switch had been thrown, his howling and gyrations stopped, and he cocked his head. Did he sense her nearness? Did he mean to cast a spell? To grant her a wish she’d later come to regret? Slowly, he turned toward her. Had his eyes not been clamped shut, he’d again have been looking right at her, and the two of them stood there frozen, a couple of feet apart, until the young man finally threw back his head and howled, “Pleeeeeease!”

As if in answer, the rains came, the first fat drop hitting Janet on an eyebrow, releasing her, and she ran.

Robbie looked up and smiled when she came in through the garage and hung her shoulder bag on the wall hook. Marcus was sitting next to him on the sofa. They were watching cartoons, which Robbie, at least, seemed to be enjoying. Marcus’s face was blank, as usual, but he was caressing his father’s earlobe between his thumb and his forefinger, as was his habit when he was calm. The significance of that gesture was one of the many things Robbie and Janet couldn’t agree on. Robbie thought it was sweet that their son found his earlobe comforting. Until recently, Marcus had forbidden touching of any sort, so Janet supposed that, yes, it might be an encouraging sign, but she was troubled that Marcus still didn’t like to be touched, and also that Robbie’s earlobe was the only one he seemed comforted by. When she’d pointed this out to her husband, he’d reminded her of their doctors’ repeated admonitions. “And besides,” he’d said. “Have you noticed it’s only my right earlobe? I’ve tried putting him on the other side of the sofa and letting him play with the left one, but no dice. It’s the right one or nothing.”

“He doesn’t want either of mine.”

“I’m the one who’s around. If you were here all day, it’d be you.” When she replied that she didn’t think so, he said, “I guess we’ll never know.” He said this without sarcasm, a simple fact, one of the many simple facts that made up Robbie’s life, none of which he seemed to resent.

In graduate school, he’d been a year behind her. Though universally well liked, he was generally considered the least-gifted student in the doctoral program. The others had all done their master’s work elsewhere, but Robbie was a holdover, admitted at the last minute when a more highly regarded Ivy Leaguer had backed out. At least once a term, he’d had to be persuaded not to drop out of the program. Since Janet had accepted her tenure-track position at the college, Robbie had been writing grants for local nonprofits, a job he could do at home while taking care of Marcus. The year before, when she’d been up for tenure and working long hours on the book that would justify the college’s awarding it, they’d seemed to be drifting toward divorce, but now that her job was secure, things seemed a little better. They’d found a morning-care program for Marcus, which meant Robbie could finally finish his dissertation—though so far he’d shown no such inclination. His rationale was that the college already had someone with his specialty, so what difference did it make? Even if a better position at a research university came along for Janet, he’d still be considered baggage. To Janet the idea of not finishing something you’d worked on for so long was beyond baffling. But that was Robbie.

“The grant came through,” he told her, nudging Marcus gently. “Move over, sport. Let’s make room for Mom. She looks like she’s had a rough day.” And she’s late, was what he didn’t say. Late coming home on a day when she might have been expected to return early.

“That’s okay,” she told him. “I’m going to change. Which grant? How much?”

“The Contemporary Art Institute. Seventy-five K. They’re over the moon.”

“They should be. Congratulations.” And how much did you get? she thought. Why do you let these people take advantage of you, working for peanuts, making them look good?

In their bedroom she shed her work clothes and pulled on a pair of jeans. Outside it had begun to rain. The bedroom blinds were drawn shut, but she could hear the first raindrops hitting the window in wind-driven splashes. Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Why had she returned to the F Lot? She remembered telling herself that she just wanted to make sure that the young man was all right. If he was still in distress, she’d call the campus police, who, after all, were paid to handle such situations. But even at the time she’d known she was more curious than concerned. Had he tried to cross the street and been run over? (Would that be her fault?) Or, in his literally blind rage, had he assaulted the next passerby (proving how wise she’d been to steer clear of him)?

At least ten minutes had elapsed, so she wasn’t surprised to see that someone had the young man in hand now. But she hadn’t expected it to be Bellamy. He had the boy (he looked younger now, for some reason) by the elbow and was preparing to help him cross the now-flooded street. She considered just driving by, but what if Bellamy recognized her? Did he know her car?

“Janet,” he said, when she pulled up next to them, “you’re a lifesaver.” He led the boy around to the passenger side of her car, helping him into the front seat, an accusationSee how harmless he is?

“God bless you,” the boy muttered as Bellamy, still out in the rain, got him situated, fastening his seat belt. “God bless you.” Was she included in this blessing? The boy faced forward, as if unaware of her. Did he imagine the car drove itself? Or had he caught a whiff of her in the lot before she darted off, and recognized her scent now? Another possibility also occurred to her. What if the boy was only partially blind? Maybe that was why he refused to look in her direction.

“Here,” Bellamy said, taking the boy by the wrist and putting his cane in his hand.

“God bless you.”

“William here needs a lift to the Newman Center,” Bellamy said (he already knew the boy’s name?), and then he slid into the backseat, dripping, diamonds in his hair.

“Where’s that?”

“Turn right on Glenn. Two blocks, on the left,” Bellamy told her. Was he Catholic? Why else would he know where the Newman Center was? She tried to picture The Great Bellamy on his knees, praying.

The rain was falling even harder now, but straight down; the wind had abated some. “Do you want to put your top up?” she asked, indicating the Mustang.

Bellamy regarded her curiously, perhaps surprised that she knew which car was his, then burst into laughter. “That’s hilarious,” he said.

"Everything okay?” Robbie wanted to know. He was standing in the doorway, regarding her wistfully as she sat on the edge of the bed in her bra, and she felt a wave of something like nausea pass over her as past and present merged. “You looked like you were about to cry.”

She rose, went over to the dresser, took out a sweatshirt, and pulled it over her head. “I’m fine. Just had to deal with a plagiarism.”

“Those are always fun,” Robbie said. “Did he come clean?”

She nodded. “Then, to make matters worse, I ran into Tom Newhouse.” She wouldn’t mention that this had happened in the Hub Pub. One of Robbie’s complaints, back when it looked like they might divorce, was that except for the rare dinner party, they never went out anymore. He loved live music, even the kind of junky garage bands that played loud blues in the mill-town dives that ringed the campus, the kind he’d played in himself back in their university days.

“Turns out my plagiarist is taking a class with him too, and Tom starts raving about this Joyce paper the kid wrote. Then he gets mad at me when I suggest he might want to look into it.”

Robbie frowned. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

He just shrugged.

“No, what are you saying?”

“Don’t get angry. I was just remembering high school. I always hated it when the nuns compared notes. If I got into trouble in one class on Monday afternoon, by Tuesday morning they were all pissed at me. It didn’t seem fair.”

“The solution to that problem was not to fuck up with the first nun.”

He shrugged again, unwilling, as usual, to take the bait. “You want me to cook something, or go out for pizza?”

“Whichever.”

“Pizza, then. Marcus can come with me. He loves Pizzoli’s.”

Really? How can you tell? Not saying this, of course. Because it probably wasn’t the real reason he was taking Marcus with him. It was just better not to leave him alone with her.

“It’s the greatest of mysteries, I think,” Bellamy said later. She’d waited in the car while he walked the boy into the Newman Center, then she gave him a lift back to his waterlogged Mustang. Though she’d run all the way to the X Lot, she’d been soaked to the skin by the time she got there, and she was aware that her shirt was now semitransparent. If Bellamy noticed, he gave no sign. “What it’s like to be another person, to be William. What it feels like, I mean. Literature. Life. They give us little glimpses, leaving us hungry for more.”

When she said nothing he finally glanced over at her, then away again. “I’m sorry I pushed you so hard today,” he said. “I like to know who people are, but I sometimes forget it’s none of my business.”

Go away, she remembered thinking. Please stop talking and go away. His kindness toward the blind boy had stolen her righteous anger, leaving her hollow, in need of another emotion, though she couldn’t think of one she was entitled to, unless it was despair.

She was sobbing now, her body shaking violently, and for a long time she could not stop. Only when she quit trying did she feel herself begin to come out the other end. How long did the jag last? She wasn’t sure, but probably no more than half an hour, or Robbie and Marcus would have returned with the pizza. The face that stared back at her from the bedroom mirror—pale, swollen, naked—was barely recognizable as her own. It wasn’t a face she wanted Robbie or Marcus to see. Their son seemed to have no emotions of his own other than anger and fear, but those of others often upset him. She did not want to be in the house, looking like this, when they returned.

Backing out of their driveway, she had no idea where she was going—didn’t know, in fact, until she got to the end of their street and turned left onto College Avenue. Was she losing her mind? What could she possibly hope to accomplish by returning to campus? James Cox and his friends were probably long gone, the pub locked up. But she knew now what she wanted to say to him, what she should have said earlier. And suddenly the idea of waiting until after the Thanksgiving break was insupportable. The resumption of classes was too far in the future. She couldn’t risk forgetting, couldn’t risk the return of her sanity, her emotional equilibrium. Given time and opportunity, she’d reason herself out of saying the words. For her own sake more than his, she needed to say what she believed, this very moment, to be true: that his dishonesty wasn’t a condition; it was nothing but a habit, and habits could be broken. Just cheating once didn’t make you a cheater, not if you stopped. He could begin his new life by writing a new essay. Something by James Cox, not some long-forgotten fraternity brother. Maybe in the writing he’d locate a James Cox who wasn’t lazy or incompetent, sullen or belligerent. Maybe he could find a better self. “Don’t hold back,” he’d advised her, and she didn’t plan to. She would make him understand.

But by the time she arrived back at the Hub Pub, James Cox and his friends were gone, and the disappointment she felt was crushing, out of all proportion. To make matters worse, Tom Newhouse was seated right where she’d left him at the bar. He hadn’t seen her come in. She could slip out, and he’d never know. You could do that in life—just slip away before you were noticed. What was the term Tony had used? Effaced. You could become effaced.

“Moore,” Newhouse said when she slid onto the barstool next to him. “You’re back.” His smile suggested that either he’d forgotten she’d recently angered him or he’d already forgiven her.

“Would you like to join us for Thanksgiving dinner, Tom?” she heard herself say.

He blinked at her, and didn’t answer immediately. “What are you serving?”

She laughed out loud. “What do you mean, what are we serving?”

“Sommelier!” he called over to the bartender. “A glass for the lady. A clean one. This is Professor Moore. You know Professor Moore? Our rising star?”

The boy behind the bar put a glass in front of her, which Newhouse proceeded to fill to the brim and then over.

“What I mean is, I’m weighing several options. I assume you’re serving a roast fowl of some sort?”

“Turkey, yes.”

“Will it be a stuffed turkey?”

She said yes, she thought it probably would.

“Will there be cranberries? Yams?

“Why not?”

He regarded her seriously with bleary-eyed benevolence. “Well, then. It all comes down to pie, doesn’t it?”

“What kind of pie do you like, Tom? What would seal the deal?”

“Mincemeat.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Pumpkin would be okay. What time?”

“Midafternoon?”

“And I can bring what?”

“A mincemeat pie, if you really want mincemeat pie.”

When she slid off the barstool again, he said, “You’re leaving? You just got here.”

“Robbie and Marcus went out for a pizza. I forgot to leave them a note, so ... ”

“I’ll see you Thursday.”

“I should warn you,” she told him, feeling her throat constrict, “my son has good days and bad. If he’s having a bad one, you may wish you hadn’t come.”

He lumbered down from his barstool then and gave her a hug. She didn’t resist. “You’re okay, Moore.”

It did not escape her that her professional life at this moment was bracketed by two scholars, one a legendary critic, several of whose books were still considered classics, the other the local Mr. Chips, a man who was struggling to not let alcohol and loneliness undermine his legacy. Two men with nothing in common but an innate generosity. Each disposed, for reasons both mysterious and profound, to think better of people than perhaps they deserved—whereas her own inclination had always been to think less of them. Bellamy had tried to warn her. He’d seen how skilled she was, how coldly persuasive she could be; he’d known that she would use the study of literature to distance herself. Maybe he even foresaw how things would go for her and Robbie, how she’d win every argument in their marriage until finally the marriage was gone.

“I’m sorry,” she said, when Tom Newhouse finally released her. “I must look awful.”

“You’ve looked better,” he conceded. “I’ve looked better. We’ve all looked better.” Then, after a beat: “So James Cox didn’t write that essay.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s possible he did,” she admitted. “But no, I don’t think so.” The accusation was the same one she’d made before, but it felt different this time, and Newhouse seemed willing to accept it now.

“Well, shit,” was all he said.

“You were right about one thing, though,” she told him. “I am a good dancer. Or I was. When I passed my prelims, Robbie invited everyone in the department to help us celebrate. His band played, and they were so great that night. I used to sing one song with them—Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love.’” Newhouse had clearly never heard of either the song or the group. The very thought of Grace Slick had Janet on the verge of tears again. “We ended up at a biker joint at three in the morning. I danced on the bar.”

“That must have been something,” he said. “I wish I’d been there.”

“Yeah, well, you missed it,” she said.

“Hey,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead. “Just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean I can’t remember it.”

Back home, Robbie’s car was in the driveway, and when she got out she could see her husband and her son through the dining-room window. Robbie was opening the pizza box and Marcus was closing his eyes, breathing in—re-creating, perhaps, every single detail of the pizza parlor that, according to Robbie, he loved. So this, she thought, was heartbreak. She’d read about it, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to get any closer. She’d always suspected that epiphany was overrated. Even now her inclination was to remain right where she was, the dining-room window between herself and her husband and child, safe from them and they from her.

The night she’d passed her prelims and danced on the bar, Bellamy had been there, and when the biker bar closed they’d all adjourned to a truckstop, where they’d ordered huge breakfasts. Waiting for the food to arrive, they’d argued, the way only happy, drunken graduate students can, about which was the greatest lyric poem ever written. You could nominate a poem only if you were able to recite it, start to finish, from memory. Then you had to make the case for its greatness. Robbie had surprised her by reciting Kubla Khan in its entirety, to wild applause. When it was Bellamy’s turn, he’d recited “Windy Nights,” a children’s poem everyone but Janet remembered. He emphasized its childish iambic downbeat by slapping the table so hard the water glasses jumped, and by the time he finished the entire group was weak with laughter. “Okay, okay, okay. Now the explanation,” someone insisted. “Tell us why that’s the greatest poem ever in the English language.”

“Because,” Bellamy said, suddenly serious, his eyes full, “when I speak those words aloud, my father is alive again.”

He left the following year, as predicted, and went back to the Ivy League, but not before he’d recommended her for a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, a much-needed port in the academic storm for her and Robbie. Why had he done it? Maybe for Robbie. She’d come to believe that Bellamy knew, that he’d arrived on the scene that afternoon in time to see her flee from the blind man. If so, he’d apparently not held her cowardice against her. Could he possibly have wanted, like Tom Newhouse, to express through the fellowship his optimistic view that in the end she’d be all right? If that was what he had truly believed, could she be certain he was wrong? Tomorrow she’d find the journal Bellamy had loaned her all those years ago, containing the essays she’d stubbornly refused to read. She already knew what she’d find in them. In Bellamy’s, she’d find Bellamy, the man they’d all known, his human presence tangible in every word. Authorial. What he’d learned, from literature and life, made him hungry for more, and this hunger was what drew people to him. Robbie had wept when he read her Bellamy’s obituary from the Times the same year she accepted her tenure-track position at the college, and Robbie had wanted to name their son in Bellamy’s memory. She’d argued for other names, names that originated in her family or his, but she couldn’t make him understand. “What’s wrong with Marcus?” he kept asking, until she finally gave in.

In the other essay, she’d find what Bellamy had found in hers: an absence. An implied writer. A shadow. A ghost. “But I am real,” she’d insisted that day, imagining that he meant to talk her out of it, when in reality he was merely urging her to find that last elusive thing, a self worth being, worth becoming, and, finally, worth revealing. Yes, even though she knew what she’d find in those two essays, she would read them. She owed Bellamy that much. He’d given her an assignment, and she’d finish it. After which, she suspected, he’d haunt her no more.

Robbie was peering out the dining-room window. He’d no doubt heard her car pull in and was wondering what she was doing out there in the dark and wet. He had set the table for three. Tonight they’d eat pizza. Tomorrow she’d find out what the hell mincemeat was. Then they would celebrate Thanksgiving. After that, who knew?

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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