It was not the time to ask her what I could tell Margaret. I thought I could keep it simple, leave them to work out the details after I got Claudine out of the house. I called Margaret. What if she's not home? I thought on the first ring. It rang five times, six, and then she answered, a bit breathless.
"Hi, Margaret. It's Thomas Phelan."
"Oh, hello, Thomas. You're back. Excuse my gasps. You caught me outside."
"Margaret, Claudine Lindheim and her husband have had some sort of fight. She just called. I think she needs to leave for a couple of days. I'd consider putting her up if she asked, but she didn't, and I'm not sure it would be diplomatic, under the circumstances, I"
"She could certainly stay here a couple of days. Lots of room."
I was relieved that I hadn't had to ask.
"Is she all right?"
"She was crying. I think so. I don't know. I think" I stopped. What did I think. I thought she was in danger. I couldn't say that.
"Do you want me to call her?"
"She's waiting for me to. I'll go get her and bring her by. I don't think she has a car."
"Is Peter there? I'm closer. It might be better if I go."
"She says he's in Boulder. Give me ten minutes and then you call her and talk to her while I drive over."
I called Claudine. She was not crying. I told her that Margaret was expecting her and would call in a few minutes.
"I'll get dressed and come get you."
"No. I can take a cab. I'll be all right."
"There's no need for that. I can pick you up."
"I don't want to see anyone right now, Thomas."
"Look, Margaret is going to call you in a minute. Talk with her and call me back. OK?"
"All right." There was silence. "I'm all right, Thomas. Really. Thank you." Silence again, and then a click. I put the phone down, staring stupidly at the Dali print on my kitchen wall. Stupid Venus thing, rotting and half destroyed. I liked it, usually. Obviously. Otherwise, what was the damned thing doing in my kitchen? It was hideous. He hates women, I thought suddenly and for the first time. So why do I like it? my interlocutor rejoined. I identify with the chaosI realized I was making an essay of something I had no interest in. I got the News and the Post off the porch. I made coffee and began to read the papers. The kitchen clock doesn't tick, but its minute hand makes a click each time it moves. Old-fashioned. Obtrusive. Maddening. I looked up once each minute. Eight had passed.
The phone rang.
"Thomas?" It was Margaret.
"I'm at Claudine's. We're having coffee. Everything's fine."
It was as if she were speaking in code. I wanted to talk with Claudine but I thought, Why? Is that for her, or for yourself? Margaret could handle this. Was handling it. I was newly angry at my helplessness.
"Have her call me if she needs anything."
I read the paper. I drove out to get Sam at 9, then spent the morning in the kitchen, reading Byron. I listened to the clock. I waited for the phone. The day passed.
Next morning, Claudine was already there when I arrived at the office. Margaret is usually up early; they came in together. We made small, uncomfortable talk, delicately avoiding such newly vitalized clichés as "How was your weekend?" I remembered the time I had walked in on Isabel Fulton in the bathroom at a faculty party, the strange politeness we maintained for the rest of that evening when our efforts to avoid each other failed.
"So how did the reading go?"
"You have friends in Reno."
"Yes. The Fussells. They both teach English. Dan is Victorian; Shiera teaches Women's Studies and Black Lit."
"Shiera's a nice name."
"She's a good scholar. Maybe you'll meet her at MLA."
"Are you going? MLA."
I hadn't thought about it. "No. It's such a crock. No, I mean, once you've done it a few times, done your thing to get noticed, it's more trouble than it's worth. It's worthwhile for the graduate students, and it's good for ABD's and new professors looking to impress the tenure committee, but if you don't care about either of those things, then it's an expensive pain in the ass. The papers are either garbage or too complex and specialized to be understood while they're being read aloud, the panels are either worthless or expertly summarized in print later, and the politicking is a spectacle of trivial concerns puffed into eloquent balloons. Swift would love it. A visit to Laputa."
"Aside from that, what do you think of it?"
I realized she was smiling wanly. "I'm sorry. I think it's like going to the dentist. Sometimes, you have to, and you make the best of it. For you, right now, it makes sense. Maybe for another year or two. If you decide you want to be the Queen of Feminist Criticism, you'll have to keep going for the annual golden bough competition, but if you just want tenure, a good workload, and some reputation, say, the respect of other McCullers scholars, you don't need MLA."
Ruth took my mind off Claudine's trouble later that morning. When she came into the classroom Monday morning, she was wearing a blouse and skirt, unusual for her. Her attentiveness in class drew my eyes to her; each time I made eye contact, she smiled a little. After class I asked her again if she intended to talk to Professor Deakins about her essay.
"You don't think it's that good," she said. Her eyes questioned my face, looking for signs of my real motive. Her eyes are the color of chocolate, flecked with black.
"You don't know what I think, Ruth. Professor Deakins says you have talent as a writer. So do I. Do you want to hear me say it again?"
Before knowing Ruth, I don't think I ever appreciated the phrase "her face lit up." Ruth's smile embraced you with all the enthusiasm of an extroverted child. The room brightened if you were that smile's target, and for a moment there was no war, no famine, no child abuse; life was a Disney movie.
"Sure. Tell me again." Her ebullience made me grin too.
"All right, then. You are young and your style is immature. You write sloppy, careless sentences sometimes." Her expression sobered. "But your enthusiasm, your affection for your sisters, and your eye for detail counterbalance all that. The voice is immature but thoughtful and probing. You are thinking hard when you write, and you don't take easy answers, usually."
"Really?" For a moment I thought, you don't understand a word I'm saying. Then I met her eyes, dark and serious, and I was ashamed of my cynicism. I smiled, and again her face lit up, slowly this time. She was, I thought, more beautiful than I give her credit for. And young enough to be my daughter. My own daughter, Martha, was actually a few years older than Ruth. I had never been tempted with Martha, I found myself thinking, except in the most abstract, unconscious way. It was my definition of inconceivable; I could no more have seduced her than I could have my son.
"Please go see Professor Deakins."
"OK. Thank you, Doctor Phelan."
"Professor." If I was a doctor, I'd heal you, I thought as I watched her walk to the door, her books clutched to her chest. For a moment, I saw her twisting slowly in her father's arms. I was glad I'd never met her sisters.
That night Claudine and I had dinner at Don Fernando's. She suggested it. Peter was moving his things out; then she would go home. She didn't want to run into him. Over gazpacho and margaritas, we talked.
"We've had lots of good times, you know. We've known each other nearly four years. We got married last year, last fall." She paused, stirring her soup. I listened in silence, my eyes drawn continually to the black bruise, big as a man's wallet, on her forearm near the elbow. Where he broke his thumb, I supposed, listening to her. No, that was her leg. I thought of the bruise there, landscaping it in my mind's eye, wondering how many more there were, what sequence of them punctuated her calendar. How do you break your thumb on a human body? I tried to imagine the physics of it. I tried to put out of my mind the velvet landscape of her imagined thigh. Vainly.
"We went to Alaska together one summer, camping and sightseeing. Then we broke up and he was in Ireland for a year while I finished at Chapel Hill. On a Fulbright." The waiter arrived with flautas and guacamole. I ordered another margarita; Claudine sipped hers, untouched till then, as if my saying the word had reminded her it was there.
"When he came back from Dublin, I was living alone. Really alone. I'd thrown out my boyfriend a couple of weeks before Peter showed up. A financial planner. A vicious drunk with a computer and a modem, really." She laughed ruefully. "Boy, we had some screamers. I had him arrested once; he came after me with a knife."
She was startled. "Al. My boyfriend."
I said nothing, sipping my margarita. The restaurant was busy, and rich with piped music, some zarazuela band. She sighed, and I looked at her. She was looking at the green slush of her margarita.
"I haven't been home for three years! You know that? Three years; and that was just for my grampa's funeral, couple of days. Wilbur come to visit once," she added. She put a hand on her hair, caressed her forearm with her cheek. She looked at the cold soup. "I talked to Wilbur last month. He wants to come to Denver, work on my house. He does construction work in Wisconsin," she added. "Peter says no. He wants to hire somebody." She rotated her glass slowly in one hand. "He said he loved me and we needed each other, and he was right. He said we were good for each other and I knew how awful it had been, alone, and I missed the good we'd had before the Fulbright. I took him in and he made it good again." She stopped. She coughed a laugh, tough-sounding and self-conscious. "Love is such stupid, maudlin shit."
"Has he always knocked you around?"
"No." She paused, then hurried on, but her eyes were averted. "He broke my nose once. In Juneau. But it was an accident. It's gotten bad since he's fallen behind on his dissertation. He's under a lot of stress. He says I'm always on him. He's right. I fight dirty. He hates to talk when he's mad. I want to shout and wave my arms around. I guess I set him off."
"Do you hit him?"
"No. Not even accidentally."
"That's where the line is, Claudine. Wave your arms all you like. No hitting. He has no right to hit you."
"I goad him into it, though. When he's angry, he closes up but I keep talking. I try to get him to talk back. Instead, he blows up. Like when he busted that door."
"Is that how it happened?"
"Yeah. We were arguing about Vladimir Nabokov."
"And he got so mad he broke his hand."
"Good! I'm still paying the damn hospital bills, and now his thumb's broken again. He can't even write or type. He supposed to be working on his dissertation."
Our dinners came; we ate in silence.
"You know what'll happen," she said, spooning enchilada sauce from her plate. "He'll come back in a couple of days. I'll find him at the house. On the porch, probably, with a bunch of gladiolas, 'cause he knows I love glads. We'll mend things some, and he'll talk about his research. He'll tell me how far behind he is now because of all the stress. He won't actually tell me it's my fault; I can draw my own conclusions."
I didn't say anything. We finished the meal with flan. I watched her lick cinnamon dust off her upper lip. Knowing she was part Chippewa, I noticed that her hands and face were completely hairless, except for her eyebrows. Ruth Stroh had a nimbus of peach fuzz on her hands and face and the back of her neck, a kind of golden haze that softened her textures.
"Nothing's your fault," I said. "And whatever happens, you can't let him hit you. That has to be against the rules. He can break things, he can say anything, but he can't hit you. He outweighs you by a hundred pounds."
"I know." She spooned more of the custard. She had long fingers and short nails like a child's, chewed to the quick. There were sores, tiny scabs, rimming the nails, along the cuticle. "And he's got such a hair trigger. We were in a bar, this one time. A guy said something to me, like flirting? Peter took a swing at him, and the guy was huge and he beat Peter up so bad. He should've known better."
Later, getting into my car, she said, "His father was pretty rough on him."
"We always have excuses and explanations for who we are and what we do; that doesn't make us not responsible."
As we pulled out of the parking lot, I finally asked, "Did he hit you? That time you said you hit your face under the sink?"
"He kicked me."
"In the face? Jesus!"
"I was lying on the floor."
"He could have killed you."
"Yes." She watched the cars go by, moving both her head and eyes to follow the lights.
We reached her house. If their car had been there, I don't think I could have left her. She got out, thanking me for the pleasant evening. I leaned across the passenger seat after she got out. "Will you be all right?"
I thought of offering to come in. I didn't. When I got home, Sam and I curled up on the floor together and watched the ten o'clock news. Sam lay belly up, her head on my crossed ankles. For a while, I scratched under her chin, then she began to breathe evenly, and I leaned back against the couch while Channel Five attempted to predict the weather.
I read Hazlitt's essays for Wednesday morning. I began thinking out a short story; once I was in bed, I mapped the text in my head for an hour before I drifted off.
The next morning, Claudine gave me a progress report when I got back from my ten o'clock class.
"Claudine, don't let him hit you any more. Call the cops. Anything."
I was reading journals. I collect them Wednesday and leave them in a box outside my office that evening, so my freshmen can have them back by Thursday. That only gives them one day that they can't write in them. The fourth one down in the pile was Ruth's. She had written on Friday that she didn't believe I really read the journals. Saturday's entry was a rich Freudian cliché, gothic in its detail. Sunday she had spent the day with Ann, who had driven over with her boyfriend. I turned to Monday.
I know you cannot imagine how much I love you, Sacha. Let them say we are doomed, a child-woman and an older man. But when you come to me at midnight, and you put your arms around me, I am whole. Your breath on my neck, your rough hands on my arms, your body pressing against mine...
It went on for a page. I turned the page. After a few lines, she shifted subjects.
The best saddle still needs care, or it won't last a summer, much less a lifetime. You can tell the real Westerner from the horse-riding rich kid by their ability to tend to their own equipment. A saddle needs almost as much care as a horse. I've always thought of myself as a dopey rancher's kid good for nothing but making babies and keeping house. I can't tell you how much it meant to have you use adult language to tell me what you thought about my writing. The good and the bad. I've kept a diary all my life, but I always thought of it as just something girls are supposed to do. That's why keeping a journal is so easy, I just use it in place of my diary. Well, sort of. At first, I didn't think I should write the same silly girl's stuff for you that I wrote for myself, so I kept them separately. But I started testing you about three weeks ago, to see if you were really serious about this "free writing." Now I believe you when you say you want us to just write, not censoring or worrying about whether we'll bore you. In fact, I've gone the other way sometimes. (How'd you like Sacha, ha, ha?) I had a writing teacher in high school who used to tell me what I wrote was good when she liked it, bad when she didn't. No, that's not what I mean. She made me feel that pleasing her was good writing and displeasing her was bad writing. She liked to say things were "very nice," like "nice" was the best thing she could imagine. I wrote the fraternities essay to tick you off, because you ticked me off. That's fair, huh? I figured I'd be lucky if you didn't flunk it, but I thought you were way off base with your sneering remarks about the frat houses. (I still do, too. Not all prejudices are racial.) Anyhow, I guessed you'd flunk the essay or at least blow holes through it in that hard, cold way you have. Mrs. Winslow would have said "it's not nice to be so antagonistic to your audience." Anyhow, it blew me over when you gave me a 'B'. I'm going to try to make my sentences less predictable, and I wish you'd marked more things to tell me why it was only a 'B' paper, since you obviously liked it at least as well as I did. Actually, I don't like it all that much, and I think I know what's wrong with it, but I hoped you'd say what you thought so I could see if I was right. What knocked me over was the comment at the end, where you said I had done a good job of defending what you considered an indefensible point of view. My roommates said that was "totally bizarre." (I'm starting to talk like that too now. Is that what you mean about developing your own voice? I can hear you sighing.) Anyhow, I wanted you to know that I was really flattered that you took such an interest in my writing. I feel like you'venever mind. I'll tell you after the semester is over, when I don't have to worry about brown-nosing (or pissing you off, don't jump to conclusions). You don't really read these, do you? How'd you get that little scar by your thumb? Your fingertips are almost squareI mean cubical, with no taper. Watch for details, huh? Once you've saddled the horse, you come to the hardest part, mounting. It may seem to a city slicker that getting on a horse is no harder than getting on a fence. Or straddling a rock. Remember, the rock is eager to move, especially away from you. Or to step on your foot. And the fence just might decide to run away while you're hanging by your hands and a foot half in one stirrup. Well, that's my fifteen minutes. Bye.
Grinning, I scribbled "Yup" next to her impertinent question. The rest of the journals would be downhill. Of fifty students, only ten actually wrote reflectively, except for the rare once or twice a semester when some coincidence of event and journal-writing time lit a brief meditative fire.
Claudine and I began having lunch together more often. We would drive down to Cherry Creek, or just walk over to All-V's, Bonnie Brae, or the Union cafeteria. Sitting in an All-V's booth with a sandwich, I asked her, casually as I could, how things were going. I had been scanning her body each day for injuriesa catch in her walk, pain lines in her face. All I had seen, for about a week, were the bruised eyesockets of a person not getting enough sleep.
"Things are pretty tense. He's supposed to have the first two chapters of his dissertation to the committee in a week, and they aren't ready. I suggested that he just tell Professor Burke and get an extension. He said since it was my fault he wasn't ready, my opinion wasn't really needed."
"He says he lost nearly a week, between my throwing him out and the time getting his hand fixed up."
"It's your fault he broke his thumb hitting you?"
"Yeah." She laughed. We ate in silence. "I'm trapped either way. If he doesn't finish his dissertation, it's my fault. If he finishes it and it isn't accepted, it's my fault. If he finishes it and it's accepted, that's in spite of me." She sipped her Coke. "He's having trouble typing. It's difficult with your thumb in a cast."
Walking back to the office, we watched a magpie swagger on the walk. It stopped to investigate a McDonald's bag. Once, when her balance shifted, her arm grazed mine. When we came to the door, I opened it, and ushering her through, I fought the urge to put a casual hand on her back.
She had a class in a few minutes; she headed for the restroom instead of our office. I found Ruth Stroh waiting for me at our door.
"I talked to Professor Deakins this morning. You got a minute?"
"Sure. Come in."
She sat by my desk, knees together, a red plastic ring binder clutched to her breasts like a shield.
"Did she suggest some revisions to the essay?"
"No. Can I get into your Comp Two? It's full."
"Actually, it's better to switch teachers; you get more variety, fresh points of view."
She looked unpersuaded.
"Comp One is my best class. I don't teach second semester very well. Professor Springer is good for second semester; maybe I can get her to take you."
"I got a section already. That's not the problem."
"Who have you got?"
"Let me look." She flipped her notebook open and glanced at a computer printout. "Burns?"
Great. Amos Burns. I never put my advisees in Burns' classes if I could avoid it. I had had a second semester student, Cora Hasim, who couldn't believe I'd given her a B plus on her first essay. She told me, after getting a B minus on the second and then another B plus, that Burns nearly flunked her in Comp One because he felt that her mastery of English, "though quite good for a foreigner, was not native." Cora was born in Washington, D.C., daughter of an Egyptian diplomat, and she had spent her entire life in the capitol, going to American public schools. Her father's primary language was English, and her mother was American. English was her native language, and she used it well. Professor Amos Burns, Ph.D., would take one quick glance at my sweet little hick from Timnath and never really read a word she wrote.
"Look. Let me see if Professor Springer has room for you. In fact, I think she has a section at the same time as this."
"I don't want Professor Springer. I like the way you teach."
"Once a class is full, even the teacher doesn't have the authority to overfill it." That was bull, of course.
"No, but you can take a waiting list. Bobby Masters got into a math class this fall that way."
"Waiting lists are only for people who don't have a section. If you're in a class, you aren't allowed to hold a place in other sections, even on a waiting list."
"I'll drop this section. You must not think the teacher is any good, or you wouldn't want me to switch to Professor Springer."
"It's not that. Springer is a good teacher. Someone you could learn some intellectual discipline from. I want you to have an exceptional teacher, that's all."
"And Burns isn't. It's OK. Everybody knows he's an old fart."
I laughed in spite of myself. "Excuse me?"
"Come on. You know he's a bad teacher, and I know he's bad. That's not why I want to switch. I come from a little school in northern Colorado; I've had lots of bad teachers. I can manage with good teachers and bad teachers. I want your section."
I wanted to ask why. I thought better of it.
"Taking another semester with me could be the worst thing for your writing. You'll start writing to please me. And I have weird tastes. AnnabelProfessor Springerwill give you a new, sympathetic, demanding audience."
There was a stubborn look around the eyes that said I was getting nowhere. I began to relent. After all, she was promising, but she was no Joan Didion. A second semester with me wouldn't hurt her that much, and Annabel was the only teacher who was both good and unpopular. Chances were that the good and popularClaudine and Jack Oateswere already booked up and had their own waiting lists. My indecision must have showed; when I met her eyes again, she was wearing a pleading smile almost comically exaggerated, like an ingratiating puppy.
"All right, you stubborn little brat. But if you don't learn anything next semester, don't come crying to me. And you will be required to laugh sincerely at any jokes I recycle."
"Deal!" She clutched her ring binder with flattering excitement, the smile becoming that contagious little-girl grin. Abruptly she stood up. One pantleg had hitched up on her boot; she balanced on the other leg, popped it loose, and pulled it down with a businesslike tug. Walking out, she stopped in the doorway. "I read your essay about Grendel and astrology. I'm reading Grendel now. I really like it."
As I turned back to my work, I thought, my essay on John Gardner? What's a ranch elf doing nosing around in Studies in Short Fiction?