"I've talked to the dean," she said when I was done. "I'll get the memo out now. Thank you, Thomas." I heard someone approaching my office. As I hung up the phone, Jack appeared in the door. He waited politely for me release the phone and acknowledge him, then he came in a rush to my desk. I was reminded of training a dog to stay.
Jack is a potato man. His arms and legs are sticks flailing from his lumpy torso. When he walks, he burns as many calories with his arms as with his legs. In everything he is extravagant. Once I called his home and waited three minutes for his answering machine to play through his rambling greetings, apologies for being unavailable, and instructions for leaving various types of messages.
He was wearing his usual blue jeans and cowboy shirt; his hair looked like he'd combed it by standing behind a plane. He flopped into my visitor chair, grinning broadly.
"Sorry about that," he said, then went on before I could accept his apology. "Margaret said something about us needing to do something about your classes, and I thought she meant now. This semester's classes. I thought, I don't know, maybe they were going to need you right away because the writing workshop was in May or something. Anyway, I hope I didn't startle you too much, trying to steal your students like that. I suppose it would be easy enough to take over your comp classes, actually. I've had some of your first-term students, and it seems like you teach pretty much the way I do. Not like taking students after Amos is done with them. Walking wounded! Zombies! I want to start by throwing a bucket of water in their faces! You ever have Amos' students in your classes?"
"Annabel's at least are awake. Little accountants, ticking off their modifiers like so many debits and credits. But I like your students. I had one, what was his name? Don't tell me. Oh, Ron something, from Galveston, black kid. Basketball player. Great kid. Street grammar, butBalsam. That was it, Ronnie Balsam. Not built like a basketball player. He told me once that guys on the team called him Ronnie Balls. Balsam. He had a real feel for story telling. He ever tell you about the time he nearly got killed by a pimp?"
"What a great story! One of the sorority types in class insisted that he made it up. She couldn't believe that things like that happened to real people. That's life in TV land. What a great story! He and his buddy got picked up by this girl. They think she knows who they areRonnie Balsam and ... whatever the other guy's name was, the other Galveston high school basketball star; and they think she wants to screw them because they're hot-shot athletes. Then she gets them in this place and she wants up-front money. They tell her what they thought and come to find out she never heard of them!" He didn't tell the story as well as Ron had in his journal.
"So the pimp's going to blow them away," he concluded, "and then he recognizes Ronnie because he was interviewed on some coach's show, and he wants their autographs! Great! She could not believe it. Outrageous!"
"It's a good story," I said. A bell rang. Jack asked me to tell him about the Reno program, then went on to tell me how different Red Rocks was from the last place he'd taught, the University of Wyoming. Claudine came in. When her heels came clicking down the hall, Jack murmured, "Have you told Professor Lindheim?"
"Yeah," I whispered back.
"Claudine! So what do you think of our deserter? Off from the floundering ship, huh? Think we can go on without him?"
"Hello, Jack," she replied.
"Did you know he was off interviewing at Nevada? I bet you did."
"You really played it close to the vest, huh?" he said to me.
"That's usually best," I said lamely, glancing at Claudine. She turned away and sat at her desk.
"I was just telling Tom how much I enjoy getting students he's had in Comp One. Have you ever had any of his students in your Two classes?"
"No," she said. Then she added, "Not that I know of."
"They're great! So full of life! Eager to write! Can't stop them!"
I glanced at my watch.
"You have to be somewhere," he said, as if that was the only explanation for looking at my watch. I took the opportunity.
"I'm expecting a student. He should be here."
Jack looked at Claudine's back. She was examining papers she'd brought with her. "Well, I've got to get back to my office. We're doing end-of-semester reviews," he said, standing up. "I've probably got students piled up."
I shook my head sympathetically.
"Teaching would be so much better if we didn't have to deal with students, huh?"
"Thanks for coming by."
"Sorry about the mixup." He fled. I waited a few minutes for my invented appointment, silence like a minefield in the center of the room. Then I too fled; I went to the library and read magazines for an hour. When I returned, Claudine was gone. Her briefcase was gone; she'd left for the day. I graded papers till five, then went home to write.
I was back at work on the novel, stimulated by my conversation with Ellen. It was ten o'clock when Ruth called. I was sitting in front of the computer. I hate phones; the one by the computer was a speaker phone that I could answer by punching a button. I had it tricked out with a shoulder rest so I could hold a conversation without interrupting my hands at the keyboard. I punched the speaker button. "Hello?"
"Hi, Ruth." My students often called me at home. Not, usually, this late at night. I glanced at the phone.
"I didn't get you up? I hope." Her voice was metallic, distorted a little by the cheap phone speaker.
"No, I work late." I scrolled a few pages back and read what I had written, listening to the phone. "Can you hear me OK?" I said.
"Can I talk to you?"
"A few minutes. I'm pretty busy." There was silence on the line. I glanced at the phone. "Right now, huh?"
"It's kind of important."
"OK. Talk on."
"If you're busy...."
I picked up the handset. "No," I said, trying to let my tone say she had my attention. "Really, go ahead. I had you on speaker. Now I can hear you better. I was just proofreading something; it'll keep a few minutes."
The phone was silent. I thought perhaps I'd lost her; I nearly said her name, but she spoke. "You know about the Honors Program picnic?"
"It's this weekend."
"I wasn't going to go, but I think maybe I might."
I waited. In the silence, my eyes focussed on the screen. I spotted a spelling error, cradled the phone on my shoulder, and fixed it. The phone was silent too long, I realized.
"I'd like you to go. With me."
"That's against school rules, Ruth."
"Professors dating their students. Conflict of interest, just for starters."
"People do it."
"People do. I don't," I said gently.
"I don't know anybody else I want to go with. You could just come and be there."
"Don't," she said before I could finish. "Don't tell me I'm a sweet girl and I should find a nice boy my own age. That's horseshit."
"OK. What should I tell you?"
"If it weren't for the rules, would you go with me?"
"I don't think so."
There was another long silence. Then she said, "That's what you should tell me."
"OK. It's said." I took a breath. I thought of the cruelty of phones, listening to the unreadable silence. I lifted the phone off my shoulder, taking it in my hand again, an act at once symbolic and, I thought, guilty. "Ruth, I like you. You're a nice kid, intelligent and attractive, and there are probably intelligent, attractive guys within, oh, two or three years of your age who'd pay to spend the afternoon with you. I hate social gatherings. I don't like crowds of more than two."
"Why do you teach then?"
"That's different. It's me against them; I'm not one of thirty people making Brownian swirls around the buffet."
"I thought you liked your students?"
"I do. But they are adversaries. Teaching is a contest. It is more fun when it's between friends, but it's still a contest."
"I thought I'd be too proud to tell you how lonely I am," she said then. "I wish you'd talk to me."
"I do. Ruth, we talk at least once a week."
I took a long breath. "That's dangerous."
"Why?" she said. "What could happen? If we just talked?"
"We 'just talk' in my office. Why is that a problem?"
"It's so impersonal. I feel like an intruder, sometimes." She paused. "Your office partner. Maybe it's like what you said once. About territory. It's like, you're in control."
"I'm supposed to be." I meant it to be a warning, hoped she would think about the double meaning.
"But why does control have to have anything to do with it? Why can't we talk in a park, for instance?" I was aware of the buzz under her voice. It was a cheap phone, my speaker phone; I had bought it for features, not quality. The earpiece was as static-ridden as tinny car radio speakers. I shaped my answer in the silence.
"Listen to this list," I said. "In no particular order. One. As I said, we can talk in my office as well as we can anywhere else, so 'just talk' sounds just a little dishonest. That worries me a little, that you don't really mean what you think. Two. Let me finish," I said quickly as she started to reply. "Two. Even if we meant to 'just talk,' you are an attractive and vulnerable young woman, and that could become a problem for me."
"I'm not through. I'm saying I might be tempted to take advantage of my power over you, as your teacher. Three. I don't want to get involved with anyone, and I don't want to end up in a position where I am tempted to break that resolution, even if you weren't off limits for ethical reasons. Four. Even if we just met and talked, say in coffee shops or my back yard or some park, we would be violating a universal ethical principle of teaching, and I would feel badly about that. I would feel that I had violated my own personal principles. And five. Even if that was all we were doing, if anyone saw us doing it, there's a good chance they would think it was the tip of the iceberg, that something was going on that we didn't do in public."
"I don't care"
"But I do. Not if I'm not doing something wrong and people think I am. But I would be doing something wrong, by my own rules. So I would care, because those people jumping to conclusions would not be wrong about my guilt, just about the degree."
"Isn't a rule that keeps people apart a bad rule?"
"Of course not. Lots of people should be kept apart. You mean, a rule that interferes with people giving each other what they both want, right?"
"If you say so." Her tone had an edge of sullenness. It was painful, straining to communicate on the phone. I was listening for subtle nuances of her voice, pushing feeling into my own, wishing I could read her body language, her facial expressions.
"The rule keeps people apart because the two people are not equalsin terms of power, I mean. A teacher who dates a student is de facto committing sexual harassment."
"What's de facto?"
"Per se. I'm sorry. It means, automatically, 'by the very fact.' If I ask you out"
"I asked you out."
"I'll get to that. If I ask you out, you have to wonder how it might affect your grade or your treatment in class if you say no. You have to wonder, if you say yes, how what we do together may affect our classroom relationship."
"There's only two weeks left."
"That's enough. Even the night before the final. Hell, the night before I turn in the grades. If you ask me out, I have to worry if my grading will be influenced, even by your asking, certainly by what we do, how much we enjoy each other's company, and so on."
"Teachers have their wives in class."
"And that is a stupid, unethical thing to do. It's Nazi logic. The rule doesn't say no wives or children, so they do it with a clear conscience, even though it's obvious that the same ethical problem exists with a family member as would exist if you had a more temporary personal relationship with a student. So they do it."
"But not you."
"No, Ruth, not me."
"Can I say something? May I," she corrected.
"First off, I understand the rule, and I'm really sorry I put you in a bad spot by even asking you. Really. Now about your list. I know you can't do anything different than what you've been doing with me, while the semester is going. But you know that talking in your office isn't the same as sitting outside"
"We can do that."
"Great," she said dismissively. "What bothers me is your two and three. Why is being friends bad? Not teacher and student, but friends? What's wrong with having a personal relationship? And it's really sad, not wanting to be, like you said, 'involved' with someone. It sounds like a pair of criminals." She paused, but I let her finish. "I know you like me; and I like you. You know I do. It's no big secret: I think you're a great writer and a great man, and I want to know you better, to really know you, like a friend, not an impersonal teacher who meets with me three times a week plus office hours. That's all I want. Really. Why should two people who like each other be kept apart by some stupid rule meant to protect students from bad teachers?"
"It's my turn." She waited for me to protest, then she went on. "I know you like me. One day, Jeanne said she thought you were going to eat me up. When I wore my blue-jean skirt. You know you don't look at all the girls in class that way! We aren't a couple of superficial people who'd bop each other for a few weeks, but weanyway I." There was a silence on the line, then her voice came back, edging out of control. "It isn't just sex," she added. "It isn't just sex. I don't want. Anyway, I'm not pretty. And I'm sure not sexy." She laughed in a way that made me want to protest; I waited. "I have a chest like a pigeon and frizzy hair and my eyes are too small."
"What?" she cried.
"Jesus, I hate telephones."
"See me. Tell me face to face."
I stood on the edge of that cliff for what seemed an eternity. "All right," I said at last. "You can't come here, and I won't go there. Where?"
"We could drive somewhere."
"I'll come there."
"My car." I stopped. What about my car?
"I'll come there."
"I know the address," she said, and hung up before I could react to that. I poured myself a drink, rum on the rocks, while I waited for her. She was at my door in fifteen minutes. I came outside when she rang the bell, wondering where she had called from. I brought Sam. She fussed with the dog while I stood aside. I had her wait outside while I got a cigar. It worried me a little that I didn't want her in the house, but she didn't seem to make anything of it. When I came back, Sam was prowling the yard in the purposeful way that precedes urination. She squatted near the roses. She turned her face toward us with that worried look dogs wear when they are eliminating. Ruth was sitting on the porch steps, looking toward the street. I sat opposite her on the same step, placing my drink beside me.
"Do you drink?" I said. "Can I get you something?"
"No," she said, to my relief. She hesitated a moment; then she sat down on the steps. "Aren't we going somewhere?" she said.
"I don't think so. This is OK, isn't it?" I began lighting my cigar. It takes two, sometimes three wood matches to do it right. She sat silent; Sam came up two stairs, assessed our interest in goofing with a dog, and passed us by with a polite wag. She curled up in a corner of the porch dark enough for sleeping.
"For one thing," I said, as if twenty minutes had not passed since we hung up our phones, "the fact that I find you attractive in no way requires me to do anything. I find women attractive who are married, on billboards, and otherwise unavailable. It would be shitty to say that you're too young for me, because that isn't inherently true. Some men could adjust to a relationship with a woman twenty-five years younger. I can't. Add ten years to your age, subtract five from mine, and get the semester over with, and we'd be a little better off." I drew on the cigar.
"I don't trust your motives," I said finally. "Worse, I don't trust mine."
"You think I'm looking for a father figure."
This terrain, I thought, is all cliffs. "IYeah. I think so. But that may be OK. That's not it, really. It's that I think you have an imaginary Thomas Phelan fixed in your mind, and I'm sure it ain't me. You think I'm a great writer. Thanks. I'm flattered. But I'm not; when I'm doing my best, I'm just a little better than average. John Fowles is a great writer. Leslie Silko is a great writer. Not me. I trust my professional opinion in this."
I drew again on the cigar. "Secondly, being a great writer wouldn't make me a great man. Many very great writers were absolute pigs personallyMilton, Dante, Dreiser. As men go, I'm not much. All the required parts and behaviors, but nothing extraordinary. Next, the presumption that I'm a great writer doesn't give us something that we can share. Getting to know me isn't getting at that side of me. That side is private, unshared, and unavailable. Great writers are notoriously egomaniac shits, and great men are monomaniacs with holes in their emotional underwear."
She was glaring at the sidewalk. I tried one last point. "You think I'm a good teacher. I think so, too, but the persona I wear in the classroom isn't me. You don't know me at all, any more than you know a movie actor from his films, a rock singer from his music, a car salesman from the way he treats his customers. You would find the persona I am on my own time boring."
"Why don't you let me decide?"
"OK. What's your favorite group?"
She looked suspicious. "The Cult."
"Never heard of them," I lied. "Go to their concerts?"
"I never go to rock concerts. They bore me."
"They're not much, actually."
"Know what the best movie I saw this year was?"
"No," she said, sullenly.
"Ran. Akira Kurosawa. Japanese King Lear."
"I liked it."
I was surprised that she'd heard of it. Never underestimate your adversary. "OK. What do you do Saturday afternoons?"
"I see what you're getting at."
"I know you do. You're too intelligent to need your nose rubbed in it. Imagine us going out together. What would we do? Where would we go?"
"A basketNo," she said warily. "You hate sports. A movie. Ran."
"OK. And afterwards, I want to talk about how Kurosawa blends the conventions of Noh and Elizabethan theater. I want to discuss the influence of John Ford on Kurosawa's camera angles. I want to talk about how differently Kurosawa presents the Bushido code in this film, compared to The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and Yojimbo. I want to talk about why Lear's daughters are presented as sons and the wife of one of them is the most evil character in the story."
"When do I listen?"
"You see? If two people have a relationship modelled on marriagelike datingor on brother-sister relations, like friendship, rather than one that mimics a parent-child relationship, like teaching and students, then they have to have some sort of equality. They both get to talk, but more important, they both get to listen."
"We could go riding. I could teach you to ride. Or ride better, if you know how."
"OK. That's one."
She was thinking. Twice she nearly spoke. I waited, perhaps brutally. At last she said, "OK. You don't want to know about calving or branding. You aren't interested in things I enjoy. I bet you don't even watch TV."
"Some movies. Not even the news. What do you think of the situation in Iran?"
"I know about Iran," she said with some heat.
"OK. Do you think Neruda would have supported the Shining Path?"
She said, "Stop it," in a voice that took me back to days I had teased my sister until she cried. I felt mean.
"Ruth, it's a reality check. It hurts to do this to you, because I don't enjoy making you feel inadequate. You aren't, after all. You are bright, you are creative, but you and I have very little in commonnot because I'm better than you. In fact, it's partially because I'm boring and stodgy and narrow-minded in my interests. It's partially because you have the normal interests of a person who's lived the life you lived. I have a childhood of Beatles and Ed Sullivan and Dobie Gillis; my childhood movies were Fiend Without a Face, The Thing, and Rio Bravo."
"I've seen Rio Bravo. And The Thing."
"With Kurt Russell," I said.
"That's a remake. I mean the original. James Arness's first film."
She was about to say, "Who?" The intake of breath and the shape of her lips betrayed her. I was merciless. "Gunsmoke," I said. "Matt Dillon." She looked sullen.
"None of that matters," she said. I drew on the cigar. "There's a guy in Greeley. His brother served in Germany and married a German woman. At first, they couldn't even talk to each other because he didn't speak German!"
"Doesn't that seem a little strange to you? I grew up with that stuff; my father was in the Army. We knew people like thatGIs who had married Japanese, Korean, German, Panamanian women with whom they had to communicate in some sort of pidgin dialect they improvised. Sometimes the men learned the women's language. I remember hearing some white guy having an animated conversation with his Japanese wife in Japanese. I remember how strange it seemed. I was about thirteen, probably."
"I don't want to marry you. I just want to be friends!"
"But people don't 'be friends'! They become friends. You discover that your dental hygienist goes to the same church you do, or you end up on the same political action committee as your plumber, and that evolves into a relationship more complex than the economic one you had before that happens. Friendships evolve. What troubles me is that you know that. You have to understand that you don't become friends by calling someone in the middle of the night and declaring that you want to be their friend. So I don't know if you're deceiving yourself or just me, but I don't believe you."
We sat for a long time without speaking. She looked at me a couple of times, looking up from her study of the sidewalk. I tried to project an air of completion, a sense of finality.
"You think I want to sleep with you." The pain in her voice moistened my eyes; I was grateful for the shadows of the porch light.
"I don't flatter myself." She struck an eye with her fingers, almost a slap rather than a wipe. "I honestly do not think that," I added, and I meant it.
"Maybe I do," she said defiantly.
"Yeah. But you asked me what I think. I don't think you do; I don't think you don't, either. I don't think it enters into the situation. I don't think you are talking about sex, and I don't think it's excluded."
We were silent again. I tried to allow her some privacy, aware from the sound of her breathing that she was weeping silently. My mind wandered away from her, looking for some other focus. What it found made me angry. I found myself wondering what I had already done in the last hour that would create trouble back at school. The student affairs gang, who took workshops on how to touch people ethically, wouldn't approve of this conversation. I didn't care. The rules don't cover this: a beautiful girl, someone I could love, offering herself to me for, I was sure, the worst reasons. This was for us to work out. What I had told her before, that I wasn't concerned about appearances unless I had indeed violated my own principles, was true. It was not a consolation, just a fact.
How fragile the evening felt. I wanted to say pleasant things. There were fast clouds passing the moon; it was drifting through the clouds then, a half disk obscured and, very seldom, clear and sharply detailed. Someone was watering nearby; the air smelled of fresh, clean water. And cottonwoods, the distinctive odor of cottonwoods. Another time, I would have said something.
Once, when I was in graduate school, a neighbor's puppy had run into the street and been hit by a car. Its back was broken, but it was not knocked unconscious. The boy and his mother were crying and helpless; the father was at work. The dog lay in the street. I took a shirt and picked it up. It tried to bite me. I carried it and we drove to the vet, where it was killed gently. Sitting here, trying to balance between decency and truth, I remembered how it felt to hold so much delicate pain in my arms and try to protect us both from more. How tempting it would be, to make the evening good.
"What can I do?" she said at last.
"Tell me about your sister."
"I like the sound of her."
She looked puzzled. She began describing Marie's physical appearance. I let her talk for a few minutes, then I interrupted.
"Make her a character. Tell me about her. What is she good at?"
"Gymnastics. Swimming. She wants to take ballet." She smiled. "You name it, Marie can do it."
"Is she good in school?"
"She does OK. She doesn't care much about school. She's a real jock."
"Is there a ballet program she could get into?"
"If I brought her to Denver." She thought about it. "Maybe there is, in Greeley. I never looked."
"There'd be dance schools in the phone book. My daughter took ballet in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The school was somebody's basement, floored with parquet tile, and the teacher was a Russian lady married to a cellist in the local symphony."
"Grand Forks had a symphony orchestra?"
"Sure. It couldn't have without the support of the university, and it wasn't anything fantastic, but they gave good concerts, and the music students had a local place to train and perform. I'll bet there's a ballet school in Greeley. What kind of trouble does she get into?"
"That's an English-teacher question," she said. Her smile was relaxed, her tone a bit ironic.
"So I'm an English teacher. I want to know about Marie. I might have asked you to write about her, and I'd want the same things."
"Why? Why do you want to know about Marie?"
"I might use her as a character."
"Write about her? Would you write about me?"
"I might. But it wouldn't really be you. It would be a woman I made out of a bit of my sense of who you are, some mannerisms of someone else, the childhood ofI dunnoprobably my sister. Or the girl she played with all the time. Characters usually aren't people in disguises, even when the writer thinks they are."
"You make them more interesting."
"Or less. In a sense, they are just as real as people. They have their integrity. You can't make them do things they don't want to do, or they do it in a way that lets your readers know you made them do it. They're less interesting than people because their integrity and their unpredictability are imaginary, when you get right down to it. When I ask you to write about your sister, you have an obligation to keep to the facts, to try to capture who she really is. That's actually harder than inventing."
"Because it's so hard to keep facts and judgments straight."
"Yeah. And to avoid projecting your own motives and interpretations. Biography and fiction are opposites in that you strive to discover and represent the facts of someone's life in biography but you invent them in fiction. But they are the same in that whether the characters are real or imaginary the narrative line fails or works because the characters are true, independent entities."
"Should I be taking notes?"
"Tell me about Marie, smart mouth."
We talked about Marie for more than an hour. I pointed out the spectacle of the moonlight, and she said, "I've been watching it."
"Shouldn't you get home? I need to get some sleep."
She stood up. For a moment, I was lanced with regret for what I had foregone. How easy it is, I thought. A step forward, a subtle movement of the arms. I thought of the cinnamon smell of her hair, imagined how light she would be, and wanted to weep. The shadows, I hope, were my friend once more. I stood up as well. I was two steps above her. I realized suddenly that she had no purse. She put her hands in her front pockets, balled into fists.
"Thanks," she said.
"Take care," I said.