Fiction Fiction Issue


Her abductor didn’t want money or sex. So what was he after?

“I have the right person,” he said. “Now you will please answer me.”

She was confused; she shook her head as if to clear it.

“No?” he said. “The great lady teacher has never told a lie?”

“What are you talking about? What lie?”

A sudden glint of teeth behind the beard. “You tell me.”

“Any lie? Ever?”

“Ever. Any lie or cheat.”

“This is ridiculous. Of course I have. Who hasn’t, for God’s sake?”

He rocked forward and jabbed his head at her. “Don’t curse! No more cursing!”

Maureen could see his face clearly now, the full, finely molded, almost feminine lips, the long thin nose, the dark unexpected freckles across the bridge of his nose and under his eyes, vanishing into the beard. She turned away and leaned her throbbing head against the steering wheel.

“You can lie and cheat,” he said. “That’s OK, no problem. Who hasn’t? Never mind! But for others—poof! No faults allowed!”

“This is crazy,” she murmured.

“No, Mrs. Casey. What is crazy is to destroy a good boy’s life for nothing.”

Her breath caught. She raised her head and looked at him.

“Hassan makes one mistake—one mistake—and you destroy him,” he said. “Understand this, most esteemed lady teacher, I will not allow it.”

“Hassan? Hassan is your son?”

He leaned back again, lips pursed, cheeks working out and back, out and back like a fish’s.

Hassan. She liked him, too much. He was tall and graceful and broodingly, soulfully handsome. Not very bright, Hassan, and bone idle, but with a sudden offhand charm that amused her and had distracted her from dealing firmly with him, as he well knew. He’d been getting away with murder all year, fudging on his homework, handing in essays he obviously hadn’t written, and Maureen had done nothing but warn him. She hated calling people on their offenses; her own raised voice and shaking hands, her heart pumping out righteousness, all the rituals of grievance and reproach were distasteful to her, and had always held her back, up to a point. Beyond that point she did not spare the lash. But she was slow to get there. Her sisters had pushed her around, she’d spoiled her daughter. Her husband’s gambling had brought them to the point of ruin before her cowardice became too shameful to bear and she began to challenge his excuses and evasions, and finally faced him down—“ran him off,” as Grace liked to say when she wanted to cut deep.

A similar self-disgust had caught up with Maureen this morning. After months of letting Hassan slide, she’d seen him blatantly cheating during an exam, and she’d blown—really blown, surprising even herself. She’d pulled him out of class and told him in some detail how little she thought of him, then sent him home with a promise—shouted at his back—to report his cheating to Father Crespi, who would certainly expel him. Hassan had turned then and said, evenly, “Stupid cow.” And now, remembering that betrayal, the advantage he’d taken, his insulting confidence that he could cheat in front of her with impunity, she felt her fingers tighten on the steering wheel and she stared fixedly in front of her, seeing nothing.

“Hassan!” she said.

“I will not allow it,” he repeated.

“Hassan has been cheating all year,” she said. “I warned him. This was the last straw.”

Warnings. You should give him help, not warnings. It’s hard for Hassan. He wasn’t born here, his English is not good.”

“Hassan’s English is fine. He’s lazy and dishonest, that’s his problem. He’d rather cheat than do the work.”

“Hassan is going to be a doctor.”


“He will be a doctor! He will. And you won’t stop him—you, a drunken woman.”

“Oh,” she said. “Of course. Of course. Women. All our fault, right? Bunch of stupid cows messing things up for the bulls.”

“No! I bow before woman. Woman is the hand, the heart, the soul of her home, set there by God himself. All comes from her. All is owed to her.”

“Now you’re quoting,” Maureen said. “Who’s your source?”

“The home,” he said. “Not the army. Not the surgery. Not the judge’s chair, giving laws. Not the discotheque.”

“Who’s your source?” Maureen repeated. “God, is it?”

The man drew back. “Have some care,” he said. “God is not mocked.”

Presented by

Tobias Wolff’s story in this issue is part of his new collection, Our Story Begins, which will be published by Knopf in April 2008. His most recent book is the novel Old School (2003); he also teaches at Stanford University and is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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