Ben Calvin's life was full of opportunities missed, he thought that afternoon, after Marianna Furman visited him in his office. She had been a student in one of his first Freshman English classes. He was two years married and his marriage a screed of unwelcome demands, the only peace between him and his wife Nancy those intervals when they did not speak. Neither of them had the courage, or sufficient despair, to break it off. Nancy, he was sure, had had an affair with someone on the faculty. He had his suspects, but nothing concrete to worry over in the dark.
He had been twenty-two, a graduate student at New Mexico State, darling of the department with his brilliant mind and natural flair for teaching. And Marianna Furman, almost imperceptibly plump, like a puppy, as ingratiating too, had sat worshipfully in the third row and followed his every word. If he mentioned a writer he admired, she found the writer's books and consumed them as if he were handfeeding her delicacies. There had been a night, alone with her, that he had considered her. But he did not care for her, and the impulse was, he knew, contemptible.
Now she was five years older, a graduate student in history at the University of Idaho. "I ran across your name on a magazine article, and it said you lived in Pullman. I figured it had to be you. I'm just over in Moscow," she said on the phone.
Nancy was a distant memory, a year out of his life, happily remarried, to a political science professor he figured was the guy she'd been screwing. He had vetoed children when Nancy wanted them; it was too late by then. He'd heard she was happily pregnant.
"Can I come and visit? I'd like to see you, for old times," Marianna's familiar voice said. "I don't have classes Thursdays."
He was batching. English professors: They can have all the girls they wantdedicated graduate students, freethinking colleagues, nubile groupies eager for unction, desperate to screw his mind. Right. He had not spent an evening with a woman for six months, and she was older now, a woman with a right to decide what she wanted.
And the layer of puppy fat was gone. Marianna, he observed when he saw her, was a knockout. All right, not a knockout, but very pretty. She wore an understated business suit with a skirt that revealed trim legs in textured nylons. They talked in his office, and then they went to dinner. She joked about how naive she had been. Once, when he told her again how glad he had been to hear from her, she said, "I guess I had a crush on you."
Now she was gone, driving back to Moscow. They had agreed to see each other again, "some time." He was drinking alone in his apartment, a Miles Davis record in the background and a book open and ignored in his lap. He thought of the tyranny of language. He thought of how devastating the past tense could be. "I guess I loved you, then." He was not such a fool as to guess he had loved her. But. He sipped the bourbon. But she had had a crush on him. In another country and another time. He felt very old, ready to spit out the butt-ends of his days. His teeth hurt. He drank the burning acid of self-pity, over ice.
[In the margin: "So he didn't. The lying son of a bitch!"]
ms., Diseases of the Heart
Margaret Deakins took it better than my vanity would have liked.
"You'll be running their writing workshop? That should be stimulating."
"I'm a gypsy. I can't stay put more than five years at a time."
"Yes. Well, you are over-qualified for what you're doing here. I've been expecting you to decide that eventually."
"I've enjoyed teaching here. You've been a good department head. Ben left us in the right hands."
"Thank you." She looked again at the letter on her desk, my resignation. "I'll need to get with Amos and Jack about filling your Fall classes. We'll do that on a temporary basis, so we can do some interviewing and hire after Christmas."
I was scheduled to teach two composition classes, an sophomore fiction class, and a survey of American literature. None presented any real staffing problems, aside from the hassle of juggling people a little. I stood up to go.
"Good luck, Thomas." Her smile was warm. I would, truly, miss her; I wished I could say it in a way that sounded more than polite. "I'll make the announcement this afternoon," she said. As an afterthought she added, "I hope you'll be happier in Reno."
As I walked down the hall toward my office, I spotted Claudine ahead of me. I walk a little faster than she; we arrived at the door together. She was carrying an armload of books.
"I'll get it," I said, jingling my keys. She fumbled her key into the lock as if I hadn't spoken.
"I have it," she said. She walked in ahead of me.
She sat down at her desk and immediately began to read one of the books.
"I've taken a job at another school," I said.
She turned then to look at me. She was wearing an uncharacteristic amount of makeup; I saw the shadow across the left side of her upper lip, then realized that her lip was swollen a bit.
"Where?" she said.
She considered. "So that's the reason for all the trips. I thought something was up." She turned back to her book.
"I'll be leaving in June, if I can get out of my lease. That's another reason I needed to get out of the project, too. It's a creative writing position; they expect me to be cranking out novels as fast as my little hands can hunt and peck."
She said nothing. I suppose I could have lied better. After a moment, she turned back to her book, I to mine.
We sat in total silence for half an hour. The rustle of her clothes, the crackle of pages, each sound was amplified by its singularity. Once she startled me by getting up and walking out; she came back in five minutes or so, walking directly to her desk and back to her book.
When I got back from my nine o'clock, she was gone. There were two notes on the glass in the door. One was from Jack Oates taped to my door. He'd folded it in half to cover the message and scribbled my name on the outside.
"I just talked to Margaret. Congrats! Come see me about your classes, OK?" It was signed "JO." I tossed it in the trash.
The other had no signature; it was Claudine's handwriting. "Your little girl came by. She's coming back in the morning." I stared at the paper, trying to be angry, but only tired.
Jack's office is on the other end of building. I called to see if he was in.
"Tom! Great news! So you're going on to a real university!" Before I could protest, he added, "It's about time. You are wasted here. Your students love you, of course, and we've been lucky to have you. Look, can you come down? I need to talk with you about your classes."
"What about my classes, Jack?"
"Well, the transition. You know, what you've done so far, what problems you think I might have? Some idea of where your students stand?"
"Jack, I'm leaving after the semester ends. In June or July."
There was a long silence on the line. Finally, he said, "I'll get back to you," and the phone clicked. I grinned at the dead receiver and shook my head. He was the only colleague who called me "Tom."
Then, wondering whom Jack might have passed his "news" on to, I decided I'd better make a couple of calls myself. I told Annabel; she replied with suitable regrets and congratulations. I walked across the hall and told Amos Burns. His officemate, Richard Olson, was there. Amos had been in the meeting where Margaret told Jack. He seemed clear about when I was leaving, but I was careful to specify that I meant to finish out the semester. Then I called Margaret and explained what had happened.
|Chapter Nine continues...|