On March 31 I flew to Reno, rented a car, and headed for the Driftwood. Ellen met me at lunch time. I realized, watching her get out of her Camaro and walk toward the coffee shop, that it was the first time I'd seen her in daylight. Her hair was redder than I remembered, highlighted by the desert sun. We talked for two hours.
"I could use a swim," she said after we'd worked through the draft of the contract. "You bring trunks?"
"Yeah, I did, actually."
"I got a suit in my car. Let's hit the bar and the pool."
We swam for an hour and hung around the pool. She wore a demure one-piece, but she had the figure for the string bikinis on the two girls who were alternately in the pool and the jacuzzi. While we lay draped in lounges, I mapped out the story I would write once the research was solid.
"I want to take something you said, about men shopping for wives in the brothels, and work with that. I want to get the human side of the girls. Sometimes I think they're like their own minority group. You read about how people look through blacks and can't identify with Chicanos because they can't see the real people through the stereotype: what's more stereotyped than a whore?"
She was watching the two girls, staring at them from behind her drink. "Look at them. Whores?"
"I guess," I said, glancing at them.
"Yeah, you guess. Me too. Maybe they are, maybe not. You know, when I was a kid, a guy told me boys could tell who did it, who wanted to, and who didn't. He said girls who've been screwed walk different, and you could see it in their eyes."
She continued to watch the girls, less surreptitiously. One noticed her; she glanced warily at us a couple of times. Once she said something to the blonde girl, who gave us a quick glance and then snapped something to the other. The next time they returned to the jacuzzi, they sat facing away from us. The darker girl was bony, lanky as a foal. From behind, the blonde had the Titianesque curves of a guitar. When they walked to the jacuzzi, she had reached into the elastic of her bikini bottom and popped the fabric loose from between her buttocks with a quick, professional snap.
"What crap," Ellen said.
"I remember that. We were sure we knew who wasn't a virgin."
I examined the girls, a bit furtively. All I could see was their heads and shoulders, the arms of one draped along the rim of the hot tub. Ellen was staring at them coolly. "How can you tell?" I asked finally. Before she spoke, I realized I'd been had.
"Because I know them, dummy. One of them's Al and Connie Felt's girl. Kimberly or something. The blonde with the round butt is the daughter of a local rancher. A regular, by the way. He likes my Linda; she's blonde and pretty broad-beamed."
I told her about Ruth.
"You got great taste in women, Professor," she said when I was done.
"I have no taste in women," I replied.
She picked up her gin and tonic and toasted me. "I'll drink to that." The ice was gone, and a bit of lime had settled to the bottom of the glass, frazzled and a bit cloudy.
"Let's get back to work," I said.
"I got tonight off," she said. "You're taking me to dinner. In Battle Mountain."
"Battle Mountain?" It was a little town fifty miles away. "I had reservations in a little Japanese place in San Francisco."
We took her car. The place where we ate served Basque foodsausages spiced in something I couldn't recognize and lamb cooked in, according to Ellen, squid ink. I kept the menu, savoring the alien vowels in the names of the foods.
"I bet you can't eat like this in a one-horse town like Winnemucca."
"Hush up," she said. "This is soul food."
When we got back into the car, she startled me by driving east. "I want to show you something," she said as we rolled onto the freeway. After about twenty minutes, she turned the car around in an emergency access and she pulled off the road in the middle of nowhere. She made me climb a low bluff. The sun was nearly down. The view to the north was endless desert, shading off into haze. What might be low hills bounded the horizon. To my left the sun was a half-circle of brilliant red. I rotated three-hundred-sixty degrees. There was not a cloud anywhere to make the least spectacle of sunset.
"Pretty frightening, huh?"
"Pioneers crossed this in wagons," I said incredulously.
She had her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. When she turned to face me, there was a delicate lace of sweat on her upper lip. Looking at me, she didn't speak. She turned north again.
"What you have to remember," she said, as if addressing the desert, "is that there's water out there." I looked north. She glanced at me, then pointed emphatically, a short, quick gesture like pointing and dropping a gun. "That line of trees," she said, as if that were what she meant. "You have to know where to look," she added. She turned and walked back to the car, not waiting for me. I scrambled after her, nearly losing my footing on the loose hardscrabble.
When we got back to the Driftwood, I gave her my room number and she pulled up next to my rental car.
"I need to use your facilities. OK?"
We got out and I unlocked the door. She walked purposefully to the bathroom. I checked the message light on my phone. I glanced at the ice bucket; a couple of cans of Diet Coke were floating in tepid water. The toilet flushed.
"Are we done?" she said when she emerged, her voice all business.
"Well, good luck tomorrow."
For a bizarre moment, I thought she was going to shake hands. We faced each other awkwardly as teens. It passed, and she headed for the door. I listened to her Camaro roar and depart. I emptied the water from the ice bucket and replaced the ice. It wasn't quite eleven p.m. I lit a cigar and walked nearly all of Winnemucca, up and down the dark streets. I got a cup of coffee at the Circle-K. At one, I was back in my room. I wasn't tired. I threw my luggage back in the car and returned to Reno. I got a room at the Motel Six and slept four hours before going to campus.
I spent the day meeting with faculty. In the afternoon, I did a two-hour Masters class with a group of creative writing students. I had a meeting with the dean at five, dinner at seven at the chairman's home and a night-owl flight home, close to midnight.
"We may seem to be moving precipitously," Dean Anderson said after we'd talked for a half hour. The faculty had met briefly after the class. "We've had a few interesting applicants, but there's a lot of feeling that you are the right person."
I thanked him.
"I need to know what it will take to interest you."
"I am interested."
He looked politely sceptical. "We don't have much to offer. A half-time position, not much of a salary. Our students are not budding Hemingways."
"You never know."
He smiled. "I know," he said.
"I confess I'd have to think about it if you asked me," I said. "It's not the salary or the quality of the students. The salary is adequate, and I think students are what you make them. But I'm wondering what I would have here that I don't have in Denver. The question is more 'Why should I?' rather than 'Why shouldn't I?'"
Anderson said nothing. I continued.
"I'd be happy here. I'm happy at Red Rocks. If you do offer me the job, I'll have to decide then where I'll be happier."
He studied me silently, then seemed to reach a decision. "Well, that certainly spells it out pretty clearly. I suppose we'll see what happens."
At dinner that night, Dan asked me how it went.
"He didn't offer me the job."
"He has to wait for the faculty's recommendation."
On the flight home, I thought about the two girls in the jacuzzi. Ellen's firm mature body beside me had made the one seem boyish, the other seal-sleek and pudgy. I thought of the thing we had imagined in the eyes of girls, worldly boys passing judgment on the girls we feared and held, therefore, in wary contempt. It was true nonetheless, I thought a bit defiantly. You could tell. The blonde, with the guitar for a bottom, she was ripe and, as a Gallic roué would have said, "amourous." The scant green of the bikini disappeared at my imagination's suggestion, and my groin stirred furtively in the dark cabin of the plane. Then I fell asleep and slept dreamlessly till we descended into Stapleton.
The Western Social Sciences meeting was in Oklahoma, in the third week of April. Peter Lindheim planned to be gone a week. The meeting was in Norman, Oklahoma; it started Tuesday. He left Friday. He was going by way of Amarillo, scarcely a direct route, but he would spend the weekend with old friends. He dropped Claudine at work on his way to I-25. That afternoon I mentioned that I was going to be in the office Saturday, and she asked me to pick her up, too. She didn't have a computer at home, and she wanted to work on the new essay. I came by her house early Saturday morning. I had spent nearly the entire night writing.
"So, out partying all last night?" she said, grinning at my rumpled face.
"Right, that's me, king of the party animals."
We drove a few blocks in silence. Then she said, "Peter didn't call me last night."
"Can you call him?"
"If I need to. Did you call your wife to tell her you were OK, when you took trips alone?"
"Yeah. But Andy does that. I told him once how unsettling it is, to have someone you love drive off into the freeway system and not hear from them for a week or so. He'd leave for Seattle and not call me until the next weekend. I figured he was thinking 'Why call if nothing's wrong?' It's a kind of solipsism."
"I'm sure I can call Dick and Toni's number in Amarillo if I have to. And I have the conference motel number. He's taking pot luck on a place to stay, though; so the best I can do is get something put on the message board. If they have one."
"I'm sure they do."
She was silent. She watched a white Cadillac go by. "He said he would call once he got a place," she said to the window.
We arrived on campus and walked to Swallow Hall. I planned to grade research papers. I had a rule that classwork stayed on campus. Home was for research and writing. We shared the office silently all morning, the click of her keyboard an intermittent monotony I drowned with my radio. The phone rang three times. The first was a wrong number: Eddy was not there. The second was a computerized, taped ad for carpet cleaning. At noon, Margaret called and talked briefly with me about a student who was challenging his grade. After that call, we walked over to the cafeteria for a sandwich and a break.
"You want to work Sunday? I'm kinda on a roll now, so I'd like to keep writing through the weekend. I don't have a car."
"OK. But I better bring Sam. She's getting jealous."
When I picked her up Sunday morning, I thought for a moment she was drunk. She laughed too hard and talked like a parrot, all merry nonsense. She had been up all night, at a graduate student party over at DU.
"I haven't done anything like that in years!" she said, laughing. "Arguing about Joyce's women with two gay men!"
"Ah, yes, I haven't done that in some time either."
"Pooh. You know what I mean."
"Yeah." I hadn't started the car yet. "Are you sure you want to go in? Sam and I could go home and go back to bed."
"Not together, you nasty-minded witch. Bite her, Sam." Sam lolled her tongue amiably and did not obey.
"Well I hope not. No offense, Sam." Sam thumped her tail agreeably and put a paw on the back of Claudine's seat. She grinned at us in the rearview mirror.
"Oh, fuck research," Claudine said. "Let's go play."
"Play what? And watch your filthy mouth."
"Fuck fuck fuck."
"What do you want to do?"
"Picnic. 'Kay? Somewhere where I can swim."
"Come on, let's get some stuff." We went inside her house and came out a few minutes later with two armloads of picnic stuffutensils, bread, a half-bottle of wine, a couple of lawn chairs, her swimming gear. While she was throwing things together, she mentioned that Peter still hadn't called. As we left the living room, she said, "I bet he'll call today," and she flipped a switch on the answering machine. "Fat lot of good it'll do him," she said triumphantly. I wondered if she'd turned the machine on or off.
We drove to a Safeway and loaded up with cheeses, a couple of avocadoes and a lemon.
"We need these too," she said, holding up a box of Milkbones.
"Sam prefers brie."
"Good for her. Let's get her some." I grabbed her arm as she started away. She threw out a foot, halting with a cartoony exaggeration of being restrained, and said, "Hey, I like it too."
"I hate the stuff. And I won't sleep nights if you feed it to my dog."
"Sleep. I've heard of sleep. People do it. Together, separately. In Australia they rate the cold by how many dogs you have to sleep with to stay warm. Ever had a two-dog night, Thomas Q. Phelan?"
We got back to the car and headed for Chatfield Dam. It was the only place I could think of where she might be able to swim in April. Dillon Reservoir would kill her in thirty seconds. I did not mention that we hadn't been by my house; I didn't have swimming trunks. I did not plan to swim.
"The McCullers essay was accepted by The Southern Review."
"Really? That's great!"
"Yeah." Her agreement was grudging, at best.
"Peter doesn't think so?" I said at last.
She barked a laugh, hardly a sound at all. "He says a woman academic writing about a woman writer..." she let her voice trail off.
"That's crap. That's absolute crap. That" I didn't complete the thought.
"Thanks for your help with it."
"I didn't do much. Suggested a few new angles."
"No. I rethought the whole essay after you pointed out how wrong I was about Faulkner. Your comments were a big help."
"Baloney. What do you mean, wrong about Faulkner? I read the new draft. Some of the wording was new, but the ideas were all there, just supported differently. The new paragraph about 'The Bear.' One paragraph. It just broadens the essay a little."
"It wasn't worth publishing until I made those changes."
I was becoming angry, which seemed irrational. I tried to keep my tone reasonable. "Why are you saying that? Do you think I want to take credit for your work? This is ridiculous."
"I'm just trying to thank you for being supportive instead of a contrary shit, OK?" Her face was at once hurt and angry.
"OK. Come to think of it now, maybe I wrote that essay myself. It is pretty good for a girl."
"Oh, go screw yourself with a ten-foot pole!"
"Same to you."
We both laughed, and Sam barked appreciatively.
We spent four hours at Chatfield. It was too cold to swim, try though she and Sam might; all they could endure was brief aborted immersions. Sam charged the water occasionally, but only ventured out to any depth a couple of times. When she returned, she always waited considerately to shake off near us. I sat ashore and read Dickey, clutching the book to my chest to protect the interior from Sam's vigorous showers. Sam chased seagulls, then slept in the shade of my chair. Claudine lay on a towel beside me, reading a novel. She was a bit self-conscious about a pair of green stains on her shoulder, bruises the size of plums. Our eyes had met when she was twisting around to settle onto her stomach; she shrugged, almost petulantly.
After a while, she rolled over and lay as if dead on her back, an arm draped across her eyes. Once when I looked down at her, thinking she was asleep, I was startled to find her looking at me, her arm raised to her forehead. Her bathing suit was no more than a layer or two of Spandex; her nipples stood up like berries, one on the mound of each breast. I did not find my sudden hunger amusing. If she had asked me to oil her back, I would have done it, wishing she hadn't asked.
"What are you thinking?" she said, her eyes shaded but intent. I thought, what a cruel question.
"That you look happy," I saidlamely, I'm sure.
She moved her eyes to look at Sam, who was sitting in front of me. She smiled sleepily. "That's Sam," she said, lowering the arm over her eyes again. When her breathing had the regularity that suggested sleep, Sam and I went for a walk. When we came back, half an hour later, she was sitting in my chair reading the poetry book I'd brought. I sat down in the sand beside her. She looked angry, I realized. Before I could ask why, she said, "Those men."
She pointed with a quick glance. Three guys in cutoffs were sitting not far from us, maybe a hundred feet away. Almost earshot, easy shouting distance. "They were looking at me," she said.
"I can understand that," I said, making light of it.
"Not just looking. That one, the short hair? He said things."
I looked at them. They were looking at us. One of them leaned toward another and said something that made the other laugh, a sound that carried along the beach.
"I'm glad you came back. They've been watching me."
I wasn't sure what to do. I wasn't sure what she wanted me to do. The way I was positioned, I could not see them without turning conspicuously. She had them in front of her. She continued to read, but kept glancing at them and looking perturbed. A couple of times I turned to see them and each time I made brief eye contact with one or another of them. The one with short hair got up and went into the water. While he swam a bit, the other two moved down to the water's edge on a diagonal that brought them closer to us. Sam meandered close to them and one put out a hand and called her. She approached him hesitantly, then glanced at me and ran back to us.
Claudine stood up and stretched, raising her arms over her head. "I'm all oily," she said, and she leaned down from the hip to take up a towel. The short-haired man had left the water, and he was staring at her. I stared at him; he didn't seem to notice. He said something to the others and they turned, one furtively, to look. Claudine was stroking herself with the towel, wiping away the suntan oil. The towel moved in slow, careful strokes along the contours of her naked belly. I looked back at the men, and one of them saw the movement of my head and glanced away. The other two were watching Claudine. She rubbed the towel down the muscles of her inner thigh, then turned away from the water to raise one leg, bent like a water bird's, and leaned forward to clean her calf and ankle. She did not look at the men. They were talking about her; I could tell from the direction of their looks and the motions of their faces. And their body language. I stood up, looking straight at them and feeling, suddenly, like I needed to do something.
Then I grinned and turned to look toward the mountains, feeling wonderfully foolish. What was I going to do? Confront them for insulting my woman? I looked at them once more as I turned to Claudine. She was rubbing her ribs with the towel; the motion jostled her breast gently.
"What are you going to do?" she said.
"About what?" I said.
She glanced furiously at the men. Two of them looked elsewhere. The short-haired man held a moment of eye contact with her, and then spoke sidelong to one of the others.
Claudine had picked up her tee shirt. In my peripheral vision, I saw her wriggle into it. It was one of Peter's, I suppose, much too big for her. Her hands disappeared under the shirt and after a peculiar feminine struggle, emerged with her bikini top. I looked away then, and she dropped it on the towel, which she had thrown down a little behind me. I bent to gather up our things and then heard a second plop. She had stripped off the bottom as well. The men had been talking, walking back along the same diagonal to their things, the angle moving them closer to us. Just before the bikini bottom fell behind me, they had fallen silent.
"Don't look," Claudine said. I heard the sound of fabric on skin and looked. She had her shorts on; I could see the fabric peeking from beneath the tee shirt. And she was struggling with the zipper. The zipper closed and she turned abruptly and snapped up the towel, rolling the bikini into it deftly.
"So wet," she said.
One of the men spoke. All I could hear was the distinct burr and pitch of a male voice, no words.
Claudine shot a look at them and continued to gather things from the sand. I looked at them again when we were ready to walk back to the car. They were back at their cooler, all three of them facing away from us.
Claudine took a step toward the car. Without looking at me, she said, "Aren't you going to do something?"
"No." I felt like I was believed a coward and I realized that I half believed it myself. But they hadn't done anything, for Heaven's sake.
"I guess," she said as she walked, "you didn't hear what he said." When I didn't inquire, she added, "He called you ... something."
Sticks and stones, I thought, but I was not ready to say so. I felt strangely guilty, as if I had let her down. For a manic instant, I considered confronting them. About what? my sane side kept repeating quietly, About what? I said nothing. Claudine dropped it as well. We drove silently north, the atmosphere a little tense.
When we reached the first city streets, heading past the race track toward Broadway, Claudine said she was going to walk up to the YMCA pool and go swimming.
"I'd rather you didn't."
"Well, that's something. That's something, anyway."
"Claudine, you need some sleep." She closed her eyes and put her head back on the seat; as if on demand, she fell asleep a few minutes later. I woke her gently in front of her house, speaking to her twice, then tapping her arm.
"I'll sleep here. 'Kay?" She didn't open her eyes. The sultry sleepiness of her voice reached deep into me. In the world behind my eyes, I took her inside, laid her gently on her own bed, touched her still face.
"Wake up. You'll wake up a cripple if you sleep in my car."
"All right, you mean old man." She crawled dramatically out of the car, stretching, then leaned back in to get her forgotten purse and smiled sweetly. "Not really."
I got out, grabbed an armload of her stuff from the back seat, and came around the car. We walked together to her door.
She unlocked it and I opened it to usher her in. Tiny things, the gleaming diamonds of experience, are eternal as stone. I touched her back with the flat of my hand. It was a casual gesture. It was not meaningless, because it was an expression of affection. It was not something I'd have done to a male companion, but to any woman I liked, in the circumstancesmy own grandmother, my daughter. No. That is an evasion. It was a gesture of affection.
She flinched. I jumped a bit, taking my hand away. She went entirely inside, flipping light switches. I stayed in the doorway, waiting for her to come back. When she returned, I handed her my load of stuff and went back for the rest.
"I can help," she called after me. I did not want to see her again.
"I'll get it," I cried. In a moment I was back with her other things, and most of the remaining food. I handed it to her, said good-bye quickly, and returned to my car again. I started home. Sam had moved to the front seat while I unloaded the trunk. She persuaded me that we needed a long drive. We took 287 down through Sedalia, over to Castle Rock, then got on I-25 and drove on to the Air Force Academy, an hour away from Denver. I left the freeway and drove up into Black Forest. It had been a real forest, thirty years ago, when my father wanted to buy a cabin up there. My mother envisioned murderous rattlesnakes and dragging water from a well. That dream smothered under her protests. Driving through the general's houses that stood now where the trees used to be, I thought of the irony of it. Dad would be appalled at what they'd done to the forest; Mom would be appalled that they'd missed out on a bonanza through my father's bad judgment.
We drove on into Colorado Springs and up to Austin Bluffs, and from the south rim I showed Sam where our house used to be, two miles south of the bluffs we used to hike to three or four times a week. I told her about catching black widows and dropping them in red ant nests. She wagged her tail and lolled her tongue approvingly. She felt no empathy for spiders. She lurched off after a squirrel.
"Fickle bitch. What's he got that I haven't?" I lit a cigar, wondering briefly if smoking was allowed in the park, then wondering if Sam was supposed to be on a leash so she couldn't give the squirrels lessons in survival. I decided I didn't care much. I was careful with the cigar ash. An hour later, the sun a red disk in the clouds over Pikes Peak, I crushed the butt under my heel, grinding it to flakes of brown leaf on a plate of reddish sandstone. I sat another five minutes, stepped on it again, tossing dirt on it with my foot, then sat a few minutes longer.
My brothers and I had told each other horror stories about hikers and climbers who surprised rattlers under rocks and in crevices. Nails in the hand; lethal injections to a surprised face: I'd never actually seen a rattlesnake at Austin Bluffs, the two years we'd lived in Colorado Springs, nor since. Sam and I went home. Sunday night I went to a movie. I don't remember what it was.
Monday, I picked Claudine up at seven-thirty. We had breakfast together. No classes till nine.
"Did you go swimming?"
"Are you kidding? I fell on the couch and slept till midnight. Then I woke up starving. I considered calling you and inviting you to early breakfast, but I am merciful." She batted her eyes, innocent, merciful.
"I read a few hours. About five o'clock, I went for a walk."
"You're nuts. You could have been mugged."
"OK. How about raped?"
"Ditto what?" I glanced at her. "I worry about you."
"I know. Thanks."
We spent the week together. I picked her up every morning, and we both worked lateten or twelve hours each daythen I took her home, waited for her lights to signal she was inside, and returned to my own empty house. Once Ruth came unexpectedly to my office. Seeing me sitting against Claudine's desk, talking to Claudine, she stopped in the doorway and stared into the office. She made excuses about seeing me later and left hurriedly. Claudine watched Ruth go, listening to the fading sound of footsteps. When she was gone, Claudine murmured, "She's in love with you, you know."
"Well, yes. A crush."
I took Sam to Claudine's house Wednesday evening, and we played till ten in the backyard. She mentioned Peter once, to say that he had finally called on Monday night before leaving Amarillo. She had complained about his not calling sooner as he'd promised. He had hung up on her.
"Hung up on you."
"He does that. He'll call to talk to me at the office about something we fought over the night before. He states his side again, then suddenly while I'm talking he'll say, 'I don't have time for this,' and hang up. Sometimes I don't even know where he's calling from. If he's home, he'll get right on the phone with someone else, so if I call him back I get a busy signal."
I wondered if he didn't just take the phone off the hook. None of my business. "When's he coming home?"
"I dunno. He said Sunday afternoon. Maybe Sunday. Or Saturday night. I'm invited to a party Saturday." She paused. "I'm going."
"Good. Have fun."
That was Thursday. Friday she got a ride home with Margaret. Ruth had not come back to my office after that morning; Friday she brought me her poems, finally, giving them to me shyly after class. They were in a spiral-bound notebook, thirty or forty of them. Debris in the spiral suggested that some pages had been ripped out, one with rather clumsy violence that left a triangle of paper behind. A quick glance showed me her poems were more than doggerel, and I took them home with me Friday night.
I read them twice, the second time Sunday afternoon, lying in the sun in my backyard. They possessed flashes of imagination interspersed with sophomore intellectualism. Two or three were about boyfriends, parties, dances. Obligatory horse poems. Three of them were love poems addressed to an older man. I was uncomfortable, thinking they were about her father, who never figured explicitly in any of the poems. One of them surely was. But in another she wrote, "I long for you to come to me like a hummingbird to a flower, to taste the nectar of my heart." It was my image, I realized suddenly, from my own novel. I read more carefully those poems about her father, and I despaired of God. I did not want this gift, the soul of this child; not now. Not never.
That night, I called Claudine's house. If Peter hadn't come home, she'd need a ride Monday. The line was busy. I called again, fifteen minutes later. Still busy. I did not get through at 8:30. Again at 8:45; I gave up.
Cute, I thought, feeling paternal. He got home, and they took the phone off the hook to catch up on their loving. Good. I was, at the same time, happy for her and, I confess, disappointed. She wanted thisthe good of their relationship. I knew it wouldn't last, but I didn't want her unhappy. I had other unhappinesses to cope with. At ten, I went to bed, thinking of Ruth. How to return the gift gently? I thought of calling Ellen, felt foolish, fell asleep.
Claudine didn't call before I left in the morning, and I went in alone. She arrived a few minutes after me. We talked about classes. I told her about my problem with Ruth. Talking about crushes and projection, the lies we tell ourselves out of loneliness, especially when we are young, I happened to glance at her legs. I saw an oblong bruise, black as a avocado and about the same size, on her calf. At its elliptic center was a green scab the size and roundness of a quarter.
"What happened to your leg?" I blurted.
"What? Nothing. Never mind."
"Did Peter do that to you?"
"Yes." She met my eyes defiantly. Her face, then, was a Goyesca filled with dark truth, the face of the Goddess saying, absolutely, the truth. It was the face of a woman caught in bed and unashamed: dark, honest, and cruel. She said nothing else, but merely watched me as I started, stopped, then started again to break the silence with some protest, some judgment she would listen to, some comfort she would accept. Her face asked no comfort, and I gasped, gulping like a grounded carp, all in the slow motion of rational discourse.
I got up, said, "Excuse me," and went outside. I stood in the hall. For the benefit of wayfarers, I appeared to be examining the Remington on the wall by my office. I thought, as deliberately as I could, of nothing. I returned to my office. Where else? What choice did I have?
I could not look in that face again. "I have a class in a few minutes," I said, picking up my anthology and gradebook. I had half an hour.
"Later," she said to my departing back.
I went outside and sat under a tree. I watched squirrels and students. That day's lesson was on folklore. I'd had my students gathering urban legends for a week, and we were comparing them to folk tales. We had had a few moments of confusion at the beginning of the assignment, when I discovered that many of them had never read a fairy tale. I had been tempted to assign Grimm or Andersen's collections. Instead, I required each of them to read one fairy tale and tell it in class. Sitting under the tree, I thought, how easy it would be take Ruth, in all her earnest hunger and affection.
When class began, I called roll. Ruth saw that I had her poems with me, and looked expectant. She had begun responding to me in class as if every word was directed at her specifically. It was, at first, gratifying and flattering. She was herself that day: cowgirl jeans, boots and pearl-stud shirt, her hair in a rubber band and her skin unblemished with makeup. At the beginning of the last class, while I was handing out papers, Ron Williams had made a crack about her "duding up" for class. She had blushed and snarled a mild, uncharacteristic vulgarity at him, catching the whole class off guard and causing a burst of laughter at his expense. Embarrassed by her own obviousness, I suppose, she was making a point this morning.
We began story-telling. About five of them had not told their stories yet. I listened with half an ear to "The Little Mermaid," "The Tinder Box," "Snow White and Rose Red." One boy told the story of Perseus and Andromeda. I listened, thinking of Barth. The funhouse. Come one, come all. Another told "The Little Goose Girl."
When they were done, we had about five minutes left.
"I'm going to finish the class by telling you one I'm sure you've never heard. You'll never hear it again, either.
"A gallant knight was vaunting on the plain," I began. "He was seeking adventure and sure enough, he found it. He heard sounds of violence in the forest. Couching his lance, he rushed to the tumult. In a clearing, he found a beautiful, you know, princess. There are always princesses to spare in fairy tales."
Ruth and Ron, and a couple of other students in tune with my ironies, smiled. Some others were taking notes.
"She was on the ground all disheveled. Standing over her was a great hairy brute of a knight beating her with a whip. This being a reality-based fairy tale, the beating didn't just hurt like the dickens, it also tore her skin and her occasional screams were not at all theatrical. 'Unhand that hapless wench,' our hero shouted, as required by folk cliché. The villain turned to face him. The knight, an honorable sort who would no sooner charge an unhorsed adversary than stab a baby in the back, cast aside his lance, dismounted, and drew his sword. The evil knight kicked the woman out of the way, threw down the whip, and drew his sword as well."
I paused. I was sitting on my desk. I crossed my ankles, trying to seem relaxed.
"They fought for the requisite hours, pounding each other into mutual exhaustion. The evil knight attempted some devious trick that backfiredtrying to trip our hero and falling himself, something like that. The heroic knight found new strength in his righteous anger and beat the fellow to the ground. Then he rared back, his sword in both hands, for the final blow."
I paused again, this time for effect. I had crossed my arms. Now I opened them in a scattering, broadcasting gesture.
"And somebody whacked him on the head with a tree branch. It was the princess, and she hit him again, crying, 'Leave him alone, you brute!' The former hero retreated in some confusion, and she fell to the evil knight's side, where he lay bleeding and moaning. She took his helmet off, cradled his head in her lap, and crooned, "Poor baby. Poor darling. Are you all right?'"
I smiled. "The gentile knight lingered long enough to hear her beloved growl, 'This is all your fault, bitch.' Then he ripped off his armor, abandoned his snow-white charger, and ran naked into the forest. There he lived on grubs and roots for decades and eventually died an exceptionally holy man."
There were a few giggles when the story was done. Ruth looked stricken; I did not meet her eyes.
"OK. That's the story. Now, why does that story never get written? Why isn't it in the story books?" They were silent. The bell rang. They shifted uneasily. They knew it was a trick question. They were unsure if I was joking, most of them. Ruth had watched my face through the story. Now that I was done, she began writing something. Those who took me seriously were at a loss to reply.
"Because it's dumb," Ron Williams suggested. I ignored him. Diane looked puzzled.
Finally Ruth spoke up, tentatively. She said, as if to the paper she was concentrating on, "Because men write the stories?" Ron looked at her, and then at me, as if searching for clues. His eyes I met. He didn't say anything; it was as if we were staring each other down. I raised an eyebrow and smiled a little with one side of my face, and he looked back at Ruth.
I dismissed the class. Ruth did not get up; she sat as if still waiting for me to speak. I had not answered her question. Any of her questions. But I knew what I wanted. I wanted to taste that hair that smelled of cinnamon. I wanted to touch the delicate, atavistic fur that ran in two light stripes down the back of her neck and disappeared into her shirt. I wanted to see if it continued down her spine to a golden triangle at the triple dimple of her sacrum, and see the color of the skin I'd never seen. I wanted her hands on me and her body beneath me. And I wanted that job in Reno very much.