Chapter Four continued

Later that afternoon, I mentioned Ray's interest to Claudine. Her reply was noncommittal. Playing frisbee with Sam that evening, I realized how awkward it would be if Burke published her piece and not Peter's. I hadn't mentioned Peter's essay or Ray's assessment.

It was Thanksgiving week, and Margaret was hosting the yearly departmental party. I'd always tried to go; it's the only social event I share with many of my colleagues–that, and the dean's Christmas party three weeks later. Claudine was there with Peter. He wore a light cast that encased his thumb and ran a couple of inches up his wrist, like a knight's gauntlet. He and I had talked occasionally in the few months I had known Claudine. Tonight, I studied him over the shoulders of my conversation partners, looking for the monster behind the mask. When they came in, Claudine had sought me out immediately, leaving Peter at the wet bar.

"Thomas, Peter had a paper accepted for WSSA!"

I glanced over at Peter, who was mixing a drink and trying to interrupt one of Jack Oates' animated harangues. Annabel Springer and her husband were coming into the room, her hand in his. We smiled.

"Is that good?"

"Don't be a shit, Thomas," Claudine said after a moment. She walked back to her husband and wove both arms around one of his. I thought of Bierce's definition of love: "A temporary insanity curable by marriage." Not always.

When Claudine and Peter left, a few hours later, I watched them go. I watched his hand steer her out to Margaret's porch, his palm on the small of her back, an inch below the cut of her dress, a green party dress, bright as her eyes, accented with a wide leather belt. Her shoes were a matching green.

I was sitting on the couch, sipping the remains of an Irish whiskey, when Margaret appeared, two brandy snifters balanced in her hands, a tired smile on her face.

"Trade you for Christian Brothers?"

"'Kay." I set aside the small glass and took a brandy. Margaret moved my little glass of ice to a TV tray nearby, then dropped with an undignified thump to the couch. I realized we were alone. I had been thinking about, of all people, Ellen Ardechea, and paying no attention to the departures after Claudine and Peter. It was Wednesday night. I could drive over to Winnemucca. If I took Sam, I could leave that night. I'd get there Friday; drive back Sunday. Sixteen hours wasn't bad with company. Sam and I could discuss old love stories and other moral anecdotes.

Margaret was a solid woman, with the look of a great actress brilliantly playing a peasant matriarch. When I first met her, I thought of Una Jeffers. Jeffers would have loved Margaret for the hard, hawkish face, a Judith Anderson without meanness around the eyes, a Georgia O'Keeffe mellowed by years of tending roses.

"What a semester," she offered. "Ben would have been on me to quit by October."

"He was a good chairman."

"Yes. And as soon as I was elected to succeed him, half the department decided they'd made a mistake and began muttering recall."

It was true. Liver cancer had taken Ben Deakins, a noisy Augustan extrovert, in eight weeks. Margaret had been the director of the Freshman English program, and Ben had insisted in a meeting of senior faculty that she was the logical person to head the department. I seconded him, and two others, Burns and Springer, agreed. It was an uncomfortable situation, because Ben was right. It was like discovering that the best short story in a writing contest had been written by the child of the school's key benefactor. How to untaint the award? We decided that the selection of Margaret was self-evident, and we took our recommendation to the dean, who agreed.

But reason never rules. Margaret recommended Annabel Springer to run the Freshman English program, and a couple of the older men started grumbling about women taking over. Roughly a third of the department was making polite but pointed noises about interim chairmanships and the need for a change. Amos Burns had shifted camps with the facility of a windsock. He mentioned to me twice that Margaret had been a very good comp director. "Her Ph.D. is in rhetoric, you know, not literature. And Annabel is so limited in her perspective." Annabel had no truck with outmoded teaching methods. Amos still taught from the notes he had taken in graduate school at Tennessee.

"You're doing a good job, Margaret," I said.

"Thank you, Thomas."

We talked about the sabbatical situation. Money was tight, and twice as many people applied as there were places for. It was like Social Security–the time was owed, but how to keep from admitting that you couldn't pay everyone? It was no secret. The dean was working on a proposal....

"How's Claudine?"

The question startled me.

"Fine." We had never discussed the incident. I wondered how much she knew.

"Is Peter leaving her alone?"

"I don't know. She lies to me. I ask occasionally how things are going, and she says fine. I even asked her once if he had stopped hitting her, and she said she had strategies for avoiding it. She goes bicycling when he boils over. But last week she mentioned almost casually that he had knocked her down outside a bar downtown." I sipped the brandy. "I don't know what to say," I continued. "She talks about being brutalized the way other women discuss shopping."

"She loves him."

"Yes, I know. I'm learning to hate the word. What is it about women, that they love men who don't deserve it? Men don't do that."

"Don't they?"

"Oh, all right. Men do. But it isn't characteristic of men. Men are the ones who want divorces. Men are the ones who cheat on spouses. Men fall in love for two weeks or a month, maybe a couple of years. The insanity is temporary. Women fall in love forever."

"Some women."

"Am I being sexist? I suppose I am. But it isn't sexist to recognize that men and women are different. And sex is the difference. Don't you buy the idea that sex itself is different for men and for women? You know, men want the explosion of release, women want the slow tidal pleasure. Men want penetration, women want foreplay–that stuff."

"I'm not denying what you say, Thomas."

"But you aren't agreeing either."

"I haven't thought it through. I think you have."

"This thing is driving me crazy. I'm not a violent man, and I suppose Peter would put me in a hospital if I hit him. He's fifteen years younger than I, bigger, and in better shape. But it would give me great pleasure to hire a couple of football players to give him plastic surgery, and I wouldn't even be ashamed that I didn't do it myself. Does that shock you?"

"A little. But I know you wouldn't do anything like that." She was looking at me, maintaining a kind of disciplined, unjudging eye contact, utterly attentive, utterly opaque.

"Why doesn't she leave him?"

"I don't know."

"He's going to kill her some day." She said nothing. "No, that's stupid and melodramatic. More likely he'll put her in the hospital, perhaps with some crippling injury or disfigurement. She's had her nose broken twice."

"By Peter?"

I realized I wasn't sure. Once, she claimed, was a bicycling accident. "I don't know. But it's coming. It's inevitable."

"We can hope not, but we can't make her decisions for her."

We sat silent. A CD was finishing on the stereo. Strauss? Mahler. No; it was Strauss. The symphony ended, and after a minute or so, Margaret put on something else–Bach, I think. The sound was calming, meticulously Baroque–the divinity of math and music blending. We sat enjoying the music for two, three minutes. The orange lights on the front of the stereo pumped like a calliope registering peaks and valleys of tone.

"Love," I said. "Can I tell you how my divorce came about? It was while I was at Grand Forks." I had taught at UND for nine years. After finishing my dissertation, I had advanced to full professor while generating the requisite bibliography and grants.

"If you like." She settled back, sipped her brandy, and scratched her leg inelegantly, just above the knee, through her heavy cotton skirt.

"Dorothy and I had married during my first year of graduate school, after more than a year of passionate courtship. I knew within six months that marriage was the wrong conclusion to that marathon. I would ask her, sometimes, why she stayed with me. Women never answer that question in those circumstances, you know. They're too angry to compliment you, and they won't lie. I always asked the question honestly. I really wanted to know."

I sipped the brandy. Margaret was watching my face.

"I want to know how you make a woman stop loving you. What does it take? Dorothy supported me through graduate school, then I took her through her BA and an MA in Political Science before it all came apart. We had a reasonable friendship, on and off over the years, and enough irresponsible passion to make two children, but I never loved her after those first months, and I tried for ten years to get her to let go of me. I asked her to leave me. Literally. She said, 'Why?' as if I was talking nonsense, and I said, 'Because we don't even like each other any more. We're the kind of people neither of us would talk to, if we weren't married.' And it was true. She despised people like me–creatively disorganized, sentimental, more infatuated with the sublime than attuned to the correct, passionately and ineptly ethical. I would wash the dishes in a gesture of conciliation after a savage argument, and she would rewash them, thanking me for the gesture but fixing my sloppy performance."

I laughed. Margaret smiled. It had been a long time ago.

"She was from Duluth, so moving to North Dakota had a home feel for her. We did well for a year or so, but I was unfailingly dissatisfied with my life. I was thirty-two years old and ready to throw my life away. I wrote most of Mother Love in college; it was published my first year at North Dakota. Then I began Hummingbird. She read parts; she had liked Mother Love. She hated Hummingbird."

I took a sip of brandy. The rest I'd never told anyone but Dan Fussell, one night at an RMMLA party when we were both plastered enough to be honest.

"The next act is the old commédia. I fell in love with a graduate student. Not pretty but attractive, bright. And, of course, awestruck by my brilliance and wisdom. She took a night class with me–Contemporary Fiction. We talked, longer and longer, after each class. One night we talked for two hours, till nearly midnight, and then she realized that the last bus would have gone, and I offered to drive her home. At her door, she suggested that I come in for a glass of wine and an end to our talk. I made clumsy excuses and fled for home like a virgin from a stag party."

I smiled, thinking what I fool I must have seemed to Leslie.

"Then we went to a conference, separately: me, to give a paper, Leslie.... You know, she never told me why she was there. It was in Lincoln, so not hard to get to. Bill Stafford was reading, and she loved Bill's poetry. In any case, we encountered each other at a party, mutually surprised. We talked. We went to her room. We made the clumsy beast, all jerking arms and legs, till nearly dawn. And my marriage was over."

Why am I telling you this, I thought. I went on.

"Back in Grand Forks, we met secretly. When we weren't together, I threw myself into Hummingbird, and Leslie became a central character, the girl who kills the werewolf. I worked on the novel at the office. It gave me excuses to be gone at odd hours. I worked Sundays. I wrote passionate letters across town. Surely Dorothy knew, though she said nothing. Our relationship was as cold–and warm–as ever. I didn't want to hurt her, oddly enough. I told Leslie one night that if I could give Dorothy a man and say, 'Here, love him instead,' I would, and gladly, and pay the cost. I just wanted her to be through with me, as I was with her.

"I gave Dorothy nothing for six months. We barely spoke. We walked around the house like it was full of gasoline fumes and we were trapped inside. I denied her even the bare decencies of human custom–sympathetic eye contact, acknowledgment of a kind word. I willfully refused her kindness, I denied it even when I wanted to offer it. I was good with the children, as if for contrast. For what good it did. I don't think Martha–my daughter–ever forgave me. I think this may be the sin against the Holy Ghost–to hoard up charity that could be freely given, to refuse an act of kindness that you actually want to do, to refuse to give when giving would cost you nothing."

I took a breath. "Did she love me, or was it just that she had nothing better to trade me for?" I looked at Margaret then, for the first time. She raised her eyebrows a bit, a subtle reminder that the question was, after all, rhetorical.

"I suppose I should have told her I was done, that I wanted a divorce. I couldn't say the words. I said them in the novel, and she read part of it and, I'm sure, knew what it meant. When I tried to get her to fight, so we could meet in rage and the words would be appropriate, she slid aside before the crisis came. She complained sometimes of my thoughtlessness, and she was right. Except it wasn't thoughtlessness, it was deliberation. I was teaching her, best I could, not to love me. And I was failing. I asked once, having been accused of being a pig, why she didn't leave me. 'I love you,' she replied, like a brick smashing me on concrete.

"It ended in sheer stupidity. We had the Steiners to dinner. Robert was my best friend in the department. They brought dessert–Fran's fabulous cheese blintzes. I made a big fuss over how good they were. Fran stayed to play chess till midnight. Robert walked home; Dorothy went to bed at eleven. When Fran was ready to go, I walked her to her house–six blocks. When I got home, I went to bed and when I was half asleep, Dorothy said, 'I thought you liked my blintzes.' We discussed it, as if it were a subject that interested both of us. Then she said, 'Did you ball her in the bushes on the way home?' I was flabbergasted. Dorothy was fastidious in her language, almost Victorian. I protested and the conversation turned ugly.

"I tried to defend Fran's virtue–the idea of adultery with her had never crossed my mind–but the conversation turned inevitably to my unhappiness, and I told her I wanted to leave for a while. She was not fooled. 'There's someone else, anyways,' she said. I said yes. 'Some pretty little airheaded freshman,' she said. I was cruel one last time. I said yes. I moved out the next day. I took Andy and Martha to dinner that afternoon and told them what was happening, the best I could to little children. I think Dorothy expected me to come back after a few weeks. Or try to come back; I don't know how she would have handled it if I had tried. I didn't."

The Bach was ending. I stopped to think through the coda. I remembered how differently Andy and Martha had reacted. Andrew was furious. I had touched his shoulder as we were leaving the restaurant and he jerked it away without looking back and walked more quickly to the car. He was seven; Martha was nearly ten. She had looked at me, just watching, her face so coolly her mother's as a child. She had just looked at me, registering nothing, never looking away, facing me down. Andy began a guerrilla war against me that lasted most of a year; Martha treated me with a civility usually reserved for strangers. She still does. She would greet me, on visitation days, as a man she tolerated but had been warned about. Andrew, eventually, accepted loving me. For Martha, I had become a person of no consequence, a man rumored to be her father, an occasional presence she tolerated.

I drank my brandy. Margaret was silent. I recognized the next piece. One of the Brandenburgs. I wondered, as I often had, how much of the unhappiness I gave my children was avoidable. I wondered if I had sold them for my own selfish desires. I sipped the sharp red liquid, savoring the burn in my throat.

"In a way, I left her for Leslie. It's ironic. Leslie and I went on for another month or two, then she took an assistantship in Lincoln. We wrote occasionally; she fell in love with an engineer, I resigned when the film option for Mother Love came along. I took a year off, finished Hummingbird, started another novel. I took a job in Utah, I left; here I am."

"Here you are."

"Why am I telling you?" I looked for an answer; her expression gave me none.

"I'm thinking too much about love. Love is a transaction, an exchange. For me anyway. For men. Women love men the way they love children. Is that God's little joke? Giving women so much of the unqualified love enzyme that they squander the excess on adult boys with no real interest in any attachment except the one that lasts five or ten minutes and leaves them sweaty and evacuated?"

"One gets lonely." The music was galloping elegantly, like a well-gaited Tennessee Walker. Margaret was watching the lights. She went on. "Women aren't as awful as that, of course. Men either. Men think they want a beautiful woman, a movie star with a mind like Diane Trilling. They're wrong, though. What they really want is someone who'll be there the day they get laid off. Women are the same way. A girl becomes a woman the day she realizes that a man who'll help her through a mascetomy is more sexy than one with a leather jacket and a motorcycle. We need friends. Ben and I were always friends." She smiled at the stereo and spun her glass gently. "It comes down to that, finally, to make a good marriage, not love. Friendship can last. Marry your friends."

I thought of my second marriage. I was not ready to talk about that. The delusions Margaret described struck close enough to make me wince. There was no friendship with Megan, just incandescent mutual hunger; it had burned up and then out with the intensity, brevity, and pain of a magnesium flare. That night, sipping brandy, Margaret seemed wise. It was the brandy swilling into the whiskey, I suppose. I seemed to be thinking about her idea. Had I been listening to myself, I'd have known it was no answer at all. We sat quietly for five minutes, through the concerto, enjoying each other's company, or oblivious to it.

"You talked to Ruth."

It was as if I had awakened her. She shifted her weight.

"Yes. It went quite well. She didn't tell me anything specific about her father, but clearly she is worried about her sister's welfare, for reasons she evaded identifying. I talked to her about agencies that could help her, depending on what help she needed, and I warned her that there could be some unpleasantness. She seems quite sensible. I got the impression that her reluctance to be explicit with me was more a sense of propriety than an act of denial. It isn't the sort of thing one discusses with an English professor, you know. And a stranger at that. We'll see what happens."

I got up to go, placing the empty snifter on her coffee table.

At the door, muzzy with drink, I smiled and took her hand theatrically; I kissed the back with clumsy politeness.

"Why Thomas A. Phelan! Quel galant!"

"Aquinas."

"What?"

"A for Aquinas." I explained. "My sainted mother was hoping for a priest, maybe a nice monk. All she got was me. Big disappointment."

"I doubt that." Her smile was friendly. Maternal.

"No. Really," I concluded, stepping onto the porch and then turning to negotiate the steps. I would have to find my car.

"Will you be all right?" she called to my back.

I wasn't drunk, just softened around the will, my discretion fuzzed a bit. I turned to her again and waved, steady on.

"I'm fine. Thank you, Margaret."

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