I sat on the toilet seat. With the position of the shower curtain, all I could see of her was her arm draped along the rim of the bath. It was brown on the brilliant white of the porcelain, and beaded with water.
"You'n use my bathroom," she said.
"I can't see you," she said. She twisted awkwardly around, peeking at me around the opaque curtain. I got up and went to the door, where I sat down on the floor. She smiled. From my seat on the floor, she was an arm and a talking head. I grinned. "What?" I shook my head. "I was desperate." she said; "I needed a good wallow. You don't mind, do you?"
"The only thing that's off limits is my personal stuff. I'm sorry you don't have a tub of your own, but you're welcome to use this one any time."
She asked how class had gone, and we talked for a few minutes. I asked her about her job, and we talked about dealing blackjack.
"I'm a good dealer. I can't play worth beans, though. This guy tried to tell me how to win by counting the cards, one night when he was the only player at my table." She pushed a sodden lock of hair aside on her forehead. "He dropped fifteen hundred at my table, so I wasn't impressed."
"I've heard about counting. I guess it works, but it takes an accountant to keep track of all the kinds of statistics in your head."
"Yeah? Well, this guy was no accountant. And the only winners I ever saw were randomguys who hit big on the first few hands, for instance. You don't ever play the casinos," she added.
"Most locals are like that. Except for the junkies. The guys who can't stay away from the tables. The ones the radio stations run those ads for. You know: 'The Golden Ripit cashes paychecks. Get a free pull on the loosest slot in town.' That stuff."
"How did you feel about helping people lose their money?"
"It's a job. How is it different from selling movie tickets or waiting tables?"
"Well, it's not as much money, for one thing. And you get value for dollar at a theater or a restaurant."
"You know what the markup is on popcorn?"
I hadn't thought of that. She waited for a reply.
"The popcorn costs less than a penny. And the grease they call butter flavoring a little more. How much did you pay for your last box of popcorn?"
"That's not the point."
"Sure it is. Value for dollar. And how about the restaurant? You ever work in a restaurant, Thomas?"
She smiled when I shook my head.
"I figured. How'd you pay for school? Scholarships?"
"Light Construction. I worked for a landscaper a couple of summers. Highway crew. Tutoring."
"Yeah. Girls get waitressing jobs. One: you bring lots of bread at first, because it fills them up and it's cheap. Two: you push potato and rice, because they're cheap and filling. Three: you get a little toke for selling dessertnot all places, but all the fancy places. Four: you time the meal so that they don't sit at the table too long. Five: if they hang out after they've stopped spending money, you harass them as politely as possible, to get their deadbeat asses out of the seats so you start on new victims."
"Oh, come on. It's not that cynical."
"I got fired once for not 'moving my customers' fast enough. Actually, I think the manager was after my ass. But that was the excuse on the termination forms."
I was still thinking about the gambler mentality. "I've never been able to understand the attraction of losing. For me, winning is the point of gambling. When I was in graduate school, I passed through Vegas a few times on trips and got interested in gambling. But I bought a book on betting strategies and started playing with statistics, and I realized that most games are rigged beyond any pretense of giving the player a fair chance."
"They aren't rigged. That's illegal." She leaned forward to turn the hot tap on. As she moved upright, one breast rose from the bubbles, a dollop hanging on the nipple like airy whipped cream. Steam began rising from the foot end of the tub.
"I don't mean actual cheating. I mean set up to neutralize any chance that skill will pay off. When people learned to count blackjack, the casinos started playing double decks. Then some folks learned to track a hundred cards, so they went to triple decks. For a while, they did random shufflesthat destroys counting entirely. That must have generated some bad publicity, so some places quit doing it."
"We were supposed to reshuffle if we suspected a counter. Some of the dealers actually counted, and they'd reshuffle when the deck was hot. That's more trouble than it's worth; the pros don't bother; they just watch the customer's body language. If he's getting happy, shuffle. Guys are winning, they squirm around like boys trying to hide a hard on."
"In craps the paid odds are all less than the statistical odds."
"I like to watch craps."
"You wouldn't like to watch me. I win. I plod along and usually break even. One night, I played for two hours and won a hundred dollars. Hot stuff, huh? There was this guy next to me, looked like a pimp. He spent the entire two hours putting hundred-dollar chips on double-six. It pays off thirty-to-one, but it happens one time in thirty-six. He hit, I don't know, twenty timesmaybe thirtyout of a thousand? So he dropped ten or twenty thousand dollars in two hours. But all he seemed to notice was the excitement when that three-thousand-dollar payoff hit. It's crazy. People play roulette for hours, losing five bucks on each spin. They hit once, get a quarter of their money back on one spin, and they call it winning!"
"I watched a guy with a hooker on each arm and a foot-long cigar drop hundred-dollar slugs in a slot machine for ten minutes. He hit a couple of times. But I bet he got the blowjob of the century that night."
"Showing he could afford to lose it."
"What do you think of that? Were you impressed?"
"He had bad teeth."
I shifted my weight. My tailbone was getting tired. "In the baloney that people write about gambling, it's the James Bonds and Amarillo Slims who get all the admiration. But we've never admired expertise as much as we admired money. Your guy with bad teeth and my pimp are the real heroes of Las Vegas. Potlatchers and money burners."
"Hear, hear," Teresa said, pumping a fist vigorously over her head. The pistoning motion sloshed some water over the rim. "Oops! Sorry," she said. She put a hand in front of her mouth like an embarrassed child.
We sat quietly for a minute, each thinking our own thoughts. I wondered what she really thought about people who could afford to throw money around.
"I want to get out now," she said rather primly, interrupting my reverie. She waited, watching me with an air of expectation. I got up and went to use her bathroom, leaving her to dry off. When I came back, she was wrapped in a towel. She bent over in front of the mirror, leaning down to bind her hair in a second towel, an orange one. I stood behind her, watching the back of her neck and the muscles of her back in the mirror. When she came back up, she looked back at me in the reflection, her face blank. With the persimmon-colored turban on her head, we were nearly the same height. I shifted my glance to my own face; she continued to watch me. I looked, I thought at that moment, less than forty. I liked what I saw in my facevitality, amusement. She continued to stare at me, noncommittal as a deer in a thicket, and as wary. She had a delicate beading of condensation on her lip and forehead. I stepped forward so that our bodies nearly touched, passed an arm under hers and reached upward, a disembodied third hand, to wipe her lip with one finger. She continued to watch me, but her mouth slipped into a subtle smile.
"How are we doing?" I said.
"OK," she said. She turned away from the mirror and began pressing the towel around her hair. "I'm not bored. Sam and I walked down to the Albers' place today. His wife invited me to lunch. I told them I was a houseguest," she added.
I warned her about Don's fabulous bull. She was removing the towel from her hair. It was raven black, still damp. The towel tucked around her breasts slipped and she grabbed at it, deftly folding the tuck tight again.
"Oh yeah, he told me how dangerous it was. When he found out that I could ride, he offered to take me out to see it. His wife didn't like that idea much, so I said we'd come back some time and take him up on it." She paused. "I know that look."
I thought she meant Don. Then I realized she meant me. She did look delicious; I had not stared while she was in tub, not even when the breast surfaced like a porpoise. But now I probably had been. I was tired.
"What do you want?" she said. I told her. Later, refreshed, I went back to work. I wrote for an hour. When I came to bed at two, Teresa was asleep with the lights on. Hummingbird was draped over the edge of her bedstand, one-third read. She was nude beneath the covers; she slept with her mouth open slightly, like a child, facing my pillow, a thick lock of hair laying a stripe of black across her eyes just below the brows. Her hair was startlingly black. I leaned over her head to put out the light on her nightstand and noticed that the roots were less blue-black, more reddish. I looked closely, and I realized that she darkened it artificially. But it was black. I flipped the light off, mulling my odd discovery. I decided she didn't like the precise shade of her hair; it was a vanity unlike her. Childish, almost.
Her body is not a child's, I thought, hanging up my robe. I glanced at her contours, outlined in the sheets. I imagined the curves beneath the muddle of sheets. Slipping into bed, I relished the rich length of her. Not a child's body. Nor her mind. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I lay on my side, an arm curled on the pillow, and watched her sleep until I drifted off as well. I realized, as I drifted into sleep, that I was happy. It was an unfamiliar sensation; less tired, I would have mocked myself for it.
Next morning, I found her in the kitchen drinking coffee and reading Carlos Fuentes' A Change of Skin. She was wearing her glasses.
"Just for reading," she said, taking them off.
"They don't bother me," I said. She seemed apologetic about them. I wondered if her sunglasses were prescription. She always wore them in the car.
"Coffee?" she said, getting down a second cup. "We need an official story for my coming out," she said after she poured our coffee. At the beginning of the semester, Bill Wetherill and I had arranged for Carlos Fuentes to read in November, and Teresa and I decided that she would come to the reading and the party after. She had me dig up some of Fuentes' books for her. I had three novels. She had just finished The Old Gringo. She was right. We needed a story true enough that we wouldn't get caught in a lie. She wore a smug look that suggested she had one ready.
"I'm a fan. I found out that you had come to Reno, and I showed up on your doorstep."
"My office," I amended. "Let's not make it too theatrical."
"All right, your office door. I guess I didn't throw myself at you. I had planned to offer myself to you. Hopeless writer groupie."
"No, but you came to the reading I gave from my new novel back in September."
"Well, you would've."
"I'm dense. I didn't hear about you until October. Somebody could get me if they were there and asked the right questions. Let's keep it simple."
"Right now, at least, we aren't necessarily living together. Even if we go home together. I guess we could be. But wouldn't people wonder why you hadn't brought me around or talked about me?"
"Sounds good. If anybody compares notes, they might wonder why I never mentioned the gorgeous sweet young thing who begged autographs at my door. It's not the sort of thing that happens every day. Even to me," I added with a smile.
"Sweet young thing? Gee golly, Doctor Phelan."
"Don't call me 'Doctor.'" I offered to scramble some eggs. We had joked one morning that it was a good compromise. She had tried basting eggs for me, but she didn't have the patience.
No one had been out to visit in the month since she had moved in, except for once when Shiera had come by and noticed the Datsun. Teresa stayed quietly in her room while Shiera and I talked for a few minutes on the porch. Adele knew, of course, that Teresa lived with me, but she was a professional, and she and Teresa got along well, conversing past me in animated Spanish peppered occasionally with glances at me and cryptic references to "El Señor." Adele spoke careful English with me.
"Let's sit on my couch," Teresa said. She freshened her coffee, and mine, and we went in her room. I was in my bathrobe. She was in a set of sweats she liked to hang out in around the house. My books were still on the table, together now in one neat stack.
"There's a problem. Have you read Hummingbird and Hanna Glances? How can you be a fan, if you haven't read the books?" While she was eating her eggs, the Fuentes novel had lain beside her plate. The marker was in the middle of A Change of Skin.
"I started Hummingbird. I'm nearly finished, but I switched to Fuentes. I've got five days. I'll finish this tonight," she said, picking up the Fuentes novel and slipping a finger into her place, "and get them read in time. That way, they'll be fresh, too. In case there's a quiz. That one's short," she added, gesturing with the book at the slim copy of Hanna Glances on the table.
"Actually, you can probably get away with speed-reading them. I think Bill Wetherill and the Fussells, and maybe Dean Anderson, have read all of them. Hanna Glances was a bomb, sold five hundred copies. Mostly to university libraries. But a lot of my students have read Hummingbird."
"Mother Love is strange," she ventured.
She looked shocked. It took a moment to realize why.
"Not the killing. It did happen, but I wasn't involved, of course, not even indirectly. I was in college. Graduate school. It was a boy about thirteen, in St. Paul, not Grand Forks. It was like the novel; he talked a neighbor girl into taking her clothes off in a shed. She was nine. She threatened to tell, and he was so afraid of his mother's reaction that he strangled the little girl. They found the body in a couple of days. There wasn't the winter of searching I described. He helped them search, and he led them to the body, pretending he'd found it. It was hidden under the floorboards of the shed. It's funny; they moved it to Los Angeles for the movie, and then they had to take out the whole frozen body episode. That made the movie closer to the real thing."
"We've all been in that shed," she said. She hadn't said anything when she read the book.
"I wrote a poem about it. Before the novel. I made him my brother. That wasn't enough. So I wrote the novel. I finished it in a couple of months. It was published after I got my first teaching job."
"It's your mother," she said, drawing me back to the story.
"I was that boy. I just never did it." I thought about my brother Rick. He and I hadn't spoken since before my father's death. Carla called occasionally and volunteered information about him. "When I was twelve, I guess, I was playing with my sister Barb in the living room. My next brother was Mama's pet until he was eight; then she had another baby and dumped him. Just like she dumped Carla when Sharon came along two years later. He would've been eight when Carla was born. Carla was still a baby when this happened; he'd've been nine. I remember when his mother walked into the room, she had Carla on her hip. Ricky liked to rocka rocking chair, I mean. My dad was in Germany. You got extra pay for overseas duty."
"He left you with her?"
"I've thought a lot about that. I did the same thing. I left Carla and Ricky to fend for themselves when I left for college. Barb, my oldest sister, had dropped out of high school and got married. I remember thinking that a lot of their mother's anger at them seemed to come from my defending them, so I thought, maybe it would be better if I wasn't in their lives at all. I think my father may have rationalized the same way." I took a breath. "We were cowards."
Teresa didn't reply. I glanced at her; she was waiting. I went on.
"Anyway, Ricky liked the rocking chair. He would sit in it and rock and not say a word. We'd stop noticing the squeak and forget he was there. Barb and I. He started turning the chair toward the wall sometimes, like he had been sent to the corner." I took another breath. This was becoming painful; I wanted to be done with it.
"So his mother walked in, carrying the baby. Barb and I were playing on the floor. We looked up, wondering who was going to get in trouble. We hadn't adjusted to Ricky's fallen status, so we assumed it would be one of us. She was watching Ricky. She stood there oblivious to us for a full minutekid time. Maybe it was fifteen seconds. Then she said, obviously speaking to us, 'We had a boy down the street from us in Kennebunkport, used to rock all the time. One day he got up and got an axe and killed his mother.' Then she walked back out to the kitchen."
I realized that I was crying silently. Oddly, I felt no urge to pretend otherwise. Teresa exhaled through her nose, a long breath, as if she'd been holding it. We sat in silence. At last she said, "What did your brother do?"
"He still lives with her, I think. He's thirty-five. Oh, you mean then. You know, I don't remember. Some memories just stop, like the film runs out suddenly. It just stops there." One of the damned tears was tickling my nose. I could stand the nakedness, but not the indignity. I brushed it away.
"Give hugs," she said softly. We sat together for some time. "You should write a book for your father, Boss," she said after a while. She developed the habit of calling me "Boss." She was careful not to do it around other people, though I suppose it would have sounded whimsical rather than revealing. I had handed her the paychecks for the first two months. After that, I began leaving them on her coffee table.
I almost said, "He's dead," and then I understood. "I did. Just a short story."
"A whole book."
"Maybe I will."
We talked about the new novel. I had told her already that she couldn't see it until I was satisfied with it. I didn't mind talking about it.
She sequestered herself for two days and finished both my remaining novels and the third Fuentes book, Where the Air Is Clear. "Don't you have The Death of Artemio Cruz?" she said at breakfast the day Fuentes was to arrive.
"I never got around to it."
"You've read these books you have. Haven't you?"
"Just The Old Gringo," I admitted with some embarrassment. "I have more good intentions than reading time. Tell you what. I'll pick up Artemio Cruz for you, and you can have him sign it."
She got up from the table and went to her room. She came back with the three books I had loaned her. "These too," she said, as if prepared for an argument.
"Sure. You bring them. Have him sign them to you. You earned them if you want them."
"What do you mean by that?" she said warily.
"Just that if someone owns a book for years and never reads it, and then someone else comes along and gives it the attention it deserves, then maybe the person who paid for it has no further claim on it."
"I like your books too," she said reassuringly. I laughed.
"Shall I sign them?"
"Not right now," she said.
"Fuentes deserves a Nobel," I said. "It's OK."
"So I can keep them," she said.
"Please. And get them signed. To you."
"And you'll get Artemio Cruz?"
"Yes, you greedy brat. But if you want any more of his books, you'll have to buy them yourself," I added with exaggerated gruffness.
Bill would be picking up Fuentes and bringing him to my fiction class. I came home to get Teresa at six and we went to dinner with the Wetherills and Fuentes and Dean Anderson and his wife Mary. Teresa brought her hoard of novels and sat next to Fuentes. He signed the books graciously, conversing with her sometimes in English, sometimes Spanish. The reading was at eight, the party after.
Some people always look like they're trying when they dress up. That was Teresa. Her hair always had what Shiera would have called an "unfinished" look; she was so little interested in her appearance, I'd noticed that she didn't even use a mirror to brush her hair or do her minimal makeup. She spent almost no time in front of a mirror, it seemed to me. It seemed a distinctly masculine attitude, I thought. I had taught myself to shave without a mirror in the shower, and I wore my hair short enough that I didn't need to fuss with it. When she dressed up, it was always with that fey touch of chaos I had noticed the night we met, as if she had given up on looking like everyone else, and decided to make the best of looking like no one but herself. I sympathized, because I have a similar problemor perhaps I should say a similar attitude. Wearing a jacket and tie, no matter how willingly, I look like someone who's been forced to wear a jacket and tie. Over the years, I have experimented with leather jackets, interesting shirts, a variety of tie shapes and types. It's no use. I look in the mirror and I see a prisoner, a man in disguise. It was not that Teresa was not beautiful. I was learning to appreciate her beauty. It was like a deer's, delicate but filled with bones and muscle and odorous even when sweetened with perfume. There was something unique, a signature, in the smell of her hair that most shampoos couldn't touch. The more time she spent on herself, the more superfluous it seemed. I suppose it was just my point of view. Rosemary Mann and Ann Edmundson commented that night, independently, on how lovely she was. Watching her from across the room as she talked with Ann's friend, Tina, I had to agree.
"Tina and your friend seem to have hit it off," Ann said, joining me and Christine Taylor, one of my creative writing students. Teresa caught her look and smiled in our direction. She and Tina Muscone had been talking together for five minutes, the animation of their faces and the proximity of their bodies to each other excluding interruptions. They had, figuratively, their heads together. I heard Teresa's laugh from across the room, where I was standing with Chris Taylor.
"Did you enjoy the lecture?" Ann asked Chris.
"Yes, very much. I expected a reading, but this was in some ways even better."
"We pretty much gave him carte blanche for his subject. I don't think Latin Americans make the reading/lecture distinction the same way we do," I remarked. "Have you had a chance to talk with him?"
"Not yet," Chris said, looking around as if he might be approaching. Fuentes was talking with Bill Wetherill and Michael Clarke, near the front door.
"He looks like he might be leaving," Ann said.
"I hope not. Maybe I better take my chance."
"He'll be in class tomorrow. But go on," I said.
I watched Chris make her way across the room. When I turned to speak to Ann, I discovered that she was headed over to Teresa and Tina. I watched her arrive and step into the conversation. Chris was shaking hands with Fuentes. Shiera Fussell joined them, standing silently on the periphery of their conversation. Bill Wetherill peeled from the group, headed toward me.
"I thought it went really well," he said.
"Wonderful." We discussed the lecture, half my mind on Teresa, Tina, and Ann. Ann put a hand on Teresa's arm in a familiar way and laughed, tilting her head back a little. Teresa leaned forward intimately and murmured something that caused yet another laugh; this one Tina joined in, glancing at me.
"The dean wants at least one of these a yearan international writer visit. He's guaranteed funds for next year. We talked about bringing an African or Asian writer. Any ideas?"
"Let me think about it. He feels he got his money's worth, then?"
We brainstormed the selection for next year, both a little half-heartedly. Then Shiera joined us.
"Bill! I haven't met Fuentes!"
Bill grinned at me over her head. "Let's fix that." He glanced at Fuentes, then at me, and the two of them set off to where Chris, Mike, and Fuentes were still talking. I looked again at Teresa, Tina, and Ann, only to find the group had reconstituted itself: Teresa was nowhere to be seen, Tina was talking with Mary Edelman, and Ann was headed back to me.
"Well, Thomas, your friend has suggested that I bully you into joining us for the opera. San Francisco. How shall I go about it?"
"Teresa wants to see an opera? Which one?"
"She has no preference. She's never been." She looked at me as if that were my fault, some oversight any attentive beau would never have committed.
"Are you going?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. In two weeks, over Thanksgiving. Just for Les Troyens."
Just Les Troyens, I thought ruefully. The Parsifal of French opera. My operatic preference leaned toward, shall we say, shorter works. Still, I had never actually seen it, and it might be a pleasant trip.
"It's one of Tina's favorites. She loves Berlioz. Les Nuits d'Eté is in her repertoire, and she sang in the chorus for a production of L'Enfance du Christ her senior year."
"I think we could get away," I said.
"You can make four. In fact, if you don't mind being the only man, we can double up on the room and save some money!"
We discussed the specifics. They were going to drive down on Friday, spend Saturday "batching around," as Ann put it, see the opera Saturday night, and return on Sunday.
"I'll call you tomorrow to settle the details," Ann said. Teresa still was not in sight; I lost track of her for half an hour or so. Tina joined Ann and me at the bar, and the three of us talked about French opera. Tina's taste ran to French and bel cantoan odd combination, I observed.
"Not really," Ann said. "Two of Berlioz' operas are more in the bel canto tradition than the Romantic tradition. Benvenuto Cellini and Beatrice and Benedict."
"Thomas is right though," Tina said. "There really isn't much French opera before Berlioz, except for Meyerbeer. And Auber, I suppose. For bel canto, you have to go to Italy. But I like Cherubini, too," she added, her face brightening as if this realization solved a problem for her. "And Bellini, too!"
"There's Handel," I offered.
"The aria from Samson!" Tina said, and rushed into a description of her favorite performance, a Joan Sutherland rendering of "Let the Bright Seraphim" on an anthology disk. She offered to tape it for me.
"Some night we'll have to have you over for a listen to Beatrice and Benedict," Ann said. "It's based on Much Ado about Nothing. I'll bet you've never heard of it."
I confessed I had not. I liked Strauss, and some Verdi; I'd never heard a French opera I cared for. We talked a little longer, then I wandered outside for a few minutes, and I didn't see Teresa in the living room when I came back. I was thinking of going to find her when she emerged from the back parlor while I was talking with the Wetherills; we made eye contact across the room. She was with Chris Taylor and another student, Teddy Warren. As they drifted toward the kitchen, they were joined by Michael Clarke and a young woman I didn't recognize. They halted their progress to make a foursome by the kitchen door. Their voices did not carry to me in the babble of the party, but they seemed to be discussing something with great animation. Suddenly I noticed Aaron Corso headed toward Teresa. He shot me a furtive look, so I crossed the room to join them. Dean Anderson cut me off to tell me personally how well he thought the lecture had gone, and Corso beat me by nearly five minutes.
"Thomas, I was just telling this delicious creature that we had met before," he said when I came up to them. My stomach turned over.
Teresa had not panicked, but I could see something was seriously wrong. They had met; it didn't require Sherlock Holmes to guess how. I glanced at Chris and Mike. It looked like Chris Taylor considered "delicious creature" fighting words, and she was waiting for Teresa to fire the first shot. Mike was smiling politely at Corso.
"We hot-blooded Mediterraneans all look alike," Teresa said lightly.
"Please!" Corso protested. "It's your mouth, the curve of your mouth."
"I'm sure I'd remember," she said.
"It'll come to me," he said. "I never forget a beautiful face."
"Introduce me to your honey," Shiera said, making me jump. Teresa was still calm; I was ready to bolt. Shiera had come up behind me.
"Haven't you met her?" I replied, stalling, trying to listen to Aaron's conversation with Teresa. "Where's Dan?" I looked around for him. Then I remembered even as Shiera reminded me. He was at a conference. Teresa had moved subtly toward Chris, putting her between herself and Aaron. Aaron had transferred his attention to the woman I didn't know. She appeared, from Michael Clarke's reaction, to be Mike's date. She was listening to Corso's unctuous compliments with a cool expression. He reached up and held one of her earrings, a dangly Art Nouveau thing gaudy with primary colors, for a moment, complimenting her on it. She almost cringed away, flinching when his fingernails brushed her neck.
"I've been busy talking to Carlos," Shiera said. She ran an arm around mine. "Come on."
She turned me to face Teresa. Michael Clarke slipped away, ostensibly headed for the kitchen, where the Wetherills had set up their bar. His girl went with him. Corso had the look of a dog rejected by a bitch in heat. When he noticed Shiera, he excused himself gracelessly. As he walked away, I glanced at Shiera. She was glaring at him, her lips a tight purse. Teresa turned to us, dismissing Corso with a polite nod. He fled.
"Teresa," I said. "Let me introduce Shiera Fussell. She and Dan are old friends from college. Shiera. Teresa Chacon."
"One of Thomas's students?" she said, offering a hand. There was something ominous in her tone. It took me nearly a minute to realize what she was up to.
"Oh no!" Teresa replied instantly, laughing. "Just an admirer."
"What do you do?" Shiera asked bluntly, almost rudely. Teresa glanced at me. I wanted to kill Shiera in some quick, painless but effective waydropping a piano on her. Or her off the Hilton roof. She stood in front of Teresa, mercilessly waiting for an answer. Teresa didn't say anything, and Shiera added, "For a living, I mean?"
"I'm a blackjack dealer in Tahoe," Teresa said, glancing at me, her tone a little defiant.
"Tahoe? Which casino?" Shiera wasn't even maintaining a façade of polite conversation. Her tone communicated certain disbelief. I was as confused as Teresa for a moment, unable to account for Shiera's hostility, and then, finally, I realized what was up. She thought Teresa was a hooker. I thought of her suspicions about Ellen. Desperately, I tried to think of a way to divert Shiera's bulldog curiosity. My students, meanwhile, were watching the unexpected fencing match with some fascination.
"Harrah's," Teresa said. "I don't have my employee ID with me."
"You did mean an admirer of Thomas's work?" Shiera said, ignoring Teresa's sarcasm, offering a bit of her own.
"His fiction," Teresa replied, as if there were still some possible confusion.
"Well, Thomas, how did you manage to meet a literary blackjack dealer in Tahoe?" Shiera said, cocking her head at me, her tone bemused. She smiled as if she had scored a point. I was about to reply, but Teresa intervened.
"Actually, I arranged it myself," she said. She was speaking rapidly; at first, I thought she was frightened and lying badly. "I found out he was on the faculty and I came right up to meet him. I just love his books! I never met a writer before. At least, not that I know of," she added a bit breathlessly, placing a hand briefly on her cleavage. Then I understood, and I suppressed a smile. I prayed that she wouldn't exhale à la Monroe, but it wouldn't matter; Shiera's suspicions were confirmed. Shiera was being set up, if Teresa could manage it. I wasn't sure this was the best way to deal with Shiera Fussell, but I was beginning to enjoy it. I looked at Teddy Warren and Chris Taylor. Chris had turned her head in a kind of slow double-take when Teresa made her breathy starlet's confession; Teddy just looked puzzled. Shiera was hot on the scent, so to speak, and didn't notice my students' reactions. Without the benefit of knowing Teresa, she took the performance at face value.
"You've read his books?" she said with just a hint of sarcasm, looking then at the two students in turn. "How nice. Isn't the killing of the werewolf just too grisly?"
"In Hummingbird? You mean Edgar, don't you, not the werewolf?" Teresa let her voice rise and fall in a manic imitation of back-fence gossip. "Edgar's death is pretty awful, but the real werewolf is just shot. Oh, and burned; but that's hardly grisly, compared to the death of Edgar. Or the two Indian kids, for that matter." I thought of Barbra Streisand batting her eyes at Madeline Kahn after rattling off some pedantic trivia about igneous rocks in What's Up, Doc?, and I watched realization finally hit Teddy. He grinned at Chris, who looked worried. Shiera was momentarily at a loss. Of course, Hummingbird was my only big seller. Anybody could have read it, and a plot summary could be memorized pretty quickly. Shiera glanced at me; I made an innocent face.
"Hummingbird was such a popular success," she said to me. "Didn't you tell me they were going to make a movie from it, Thomas? Like Mother Love?" She glanced at Teresa. The ball was in her court, if she could see it.
"I didn't think the movie really did Mother Love justice," Teresa said. I was proud of her; she had a killer instinct. "The boy's motivations are clearer in the novel. Why do you suppose they changed the setting to Los Angeles?"
Shiera rallied. "Well, I was going to say I prefer Thomas's short stories myself. And Hanna Glances."
"Really? Well, I can see how that one might appeal to a more academic mind. It's my least favorite. Andrew Hanna has a kind of self-indulgent quality that puts me off." She glanced at me with a smug look. I was wrily amused; some pellets of scattershot meant for me. "I like Tom's story about his father," she concluded. Then she looked at me and asked, "What's it called?" as if the name had slipped her mind.
"'Coffee,'" I said. Teresa stepped closer, passed an arm around my elbow. "Yes. And the poem about the Mother Love incident." She smiled at Shiera then, a smile utterly without irony. "Oh, I don't remember, Professor Fussell; what do you teach?" I had reminded her during her pre-party briefing. I had thought of warning her about Shiera as well, but I hadn't done it.
"Women's Studies. And Black Lit."
"That's right! Tom did tell me. Now I remember why it slipped my mind. I thought you'd be black, too." Her tone was impeccably innocent. Teddy missed it, but Shiera shot a dagger at me. And then smiled. I struggled not to. Then I grinned and raised one eyebrow, and Shiera laughed. I'll pay for this in the halls and my office for weeks, I thought, as if reading her mind.
"Well, Thomas, she's quite a find, a real fan." She glanced over my shoulder. "Oh, there's Mary Edelman. I've been looking for her." Shiera headed off toward Mary. Teddy and Chris excused themselves to the kitchen; Mike was standing in the doorway to greet them. I watched their conversation; Mike grinned. Teresa and I had a moment alone.
"What was that all about," she whispered.
"She thinks you're a streetwalker," I muttered. "Don't take it personally. I'll explain later."
"That's OK, Tommo," she said, watching Shiera's back across the room. "No harm done."
"I wish," I said ruefully.
"Did I do OK?"
"Are you kidding? She'll kill me!"
"She asked for it. Was I too mean?"
"Yes. But maybe she'll think twice before she asks for it again. Tell me about Corso?"
"The little man with the mustache?" Corso was an inch taller than I, but he had a mustache. "Ely," she said.
I took a long breath.
"Not me," she added quickly. "But he saw me. I was in the lineup."
"No. I looked different. And if he does, he'll keep his mouth shut."
"I told you. Girls compare notes. Just like men," she added with a sidelong glance at me. "I remember him," she said, turning her head to look at him across the room. He was standing too close to Andrea Bester. Her significant other, Dean Fredericksnot a dean, just named Deanwas nowhere in sight. She looked crowded; she was holding her wine above her breast, almost against her shoulder. He noticed our regard, smiled, and waved to Teresa, waggling his fingers like a Parisian tailor. I got us out of there as soon as I could.
As we drove home, Teresa said, "Tina is interesting." I waited. "We were talking to Rosemary Mann, and she started complaining about the foul language her students use so casually. Tina didn't say anything for the longest time, then she said, 'It seems like there are three kinds of people in the world: people who can't say "fuck," people who can only say "fuck you," and people who can say "fuck me." They're the only really liberated ones.' Rosemary looked baffled. I think she got it, though."
I did not reply. Soon we were on the dark rural road that took us home.
"Fuck me," she said, as if tasting liberation.