Fiction Fiction Issue


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

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?

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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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