Fiction Fiction Issue

Horseman

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

“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?

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