News I can use...
by Greg Swann
When the doorbell rang, Evan didn't answer it, not right away. He'd
been expecting it, had been sitting there in his chair dreading it. He
knew it was coming, but he wanted to put it off for just a moment more.
Even as he walked to the door he found himself hoping that it was a
false alarm, that it was some misty-eyed zealot bearing Good News about
the undying love of Jesus, or a schoolkid selling overpriced candy bars
to help fund the annual class trip to the Sonora.
But it wasn't. It was Hair Minus, Walter Dobbins that is, precisely four minutes late. Evan nodded to the boy and tried to pretend he felt respect for him. For the first time in his life he knew what Janet's father must have felt--was it?--twenty-five years ago. That thought almost made him smile.
"Doctor Wilkes?," Hair Minus said in that breezy, breathless way of his. "I mean--is that you? Are you...?"
"Yes, Walter. I'm that Doctor Wilkes, Kelly's father." As much as he would pay to avoid this encounter, it had its satisfactions. "Come in, son. I do my best to keep the desert outdoors."
The boy breezed in, half confident, half tentative. Evan sized him up in a glance and did not like what he saw. Hair Minus could grow hair, but that seemed to be all he could do. He had a shoulder-length mane of the stuff, the exact color and texture of blowing wheat. It was gorgeous hair, proudly possessed of that elusive quality Kelly's magazines called "body". He had hair any girl Kelly's age would kill for.
But that was the last of his good points, as far as Evan could see. His eyes were as green as a stagnant pond, as green and as murky. His face was nothing, really, half sly and half fearful, and it was obvious that the boy spent a lot more time on his tan than on his studies. He was skinny, not just thin, and sparrow-chested. It looked as though his rib-cage was trying to collapse around his sternum, and that seemed appropriate; nothing should collapse upon itself and disappear. Immediately, if possible...
And his clothes didn't help. If anything, they hurt. He wore beat-up docksiders with no socks and a pair of lightweight floral-print pants that couldn't quite decide if they wanted to be shorts or trousers. They hung at his knees as if waiting for someone to make their life's decision for them. Which is to say they were the only pants in which Hair Minus could be fully himself... But the shirt was the worst of it. It was tank-top, gleaming white, and the boy wore it large and loose to hide his disappearing chest. Inscribed upon it in furiously bright colors were these immortal words: "Arizona State University--Sun, Sex, Suds!"
"Is that the way you dress for a date?!," Evan wanted to ask--no, demand. But he didn't, because he knew the next question was, "With my daughter?!" And standing there, looking at this incomparable piece of nothing, he heard in his mind the question after that: "What in the name of hell is wrong with you?!"
And that wouldn't do at all. Such as he was, he was Kelly's date, as much a guest in his home as if he'd invited him himself. Which he would never do, not voluntarily, not even to scrub the bathrooms, a task he was sure Hair Minus couldn't handle anyway. But want it or not, he was a guest, and like Janet's father so long before him Evan bore up to it.
"Sit down, Walter," he said. "Kelly will be out in a moment."
Hair Minus plopped down on the sofa, the one that Janet had loved so much that she didn't care that it was too soft and too low to the floor. He said, "...uh, people call me Buzz."
"I'm sure they do, Walter." Evan knew the boy thought he wanted to put him in his place, but this was untrue. What he wanted to do was put him in a cage. And put the cage in the middle of the desert. And leave it there. For the first time in his life he could admire Janet's father's forbearance, but he knew he had never taxed that man's calm the way Hair Minus was taxing his own. Still, a guest is a guest. "Can I get you something?"
"Unh unh," Hair Minus replied, seeming to know that it would be too unlike him to speak in real words. Or to express gratitude for the offer.
Evan sat back down and picked up the copy of Town he had been using to fight his dread of this meeting. He held it now like a shield, to protect his eyes if not his sensibilities from the spectacle of this poor excuse for a vagrant who was his daughter's first real date. Fortunately, Hair Minus had nothing breezy or breathless or even semi-verbal to say, so he was spared the trouble of trying to think of something to say in response. He spoke English beautifully and could hold his own in Latin, but he knew somehow that he had nothing to say to a boy who spent thousands of his parents' dollars to attend a major university in pursuit of sun, sex and suds...
And fortunately, Kelly did not keep him waiting long. She was simply stunning, and she swept into the room as though to complete it, as if the walls and lamps and furniture gathered the meaning of their existence from her alone. Her hair was straight and glowing, neither red nor brown but auburn, the color of finely finished chestnut. She wore it parted on the left, with that side pushed sternly behind her ear while the other hung playfully over her eye. Her eyebrows were full and they made her prominent nose seem not like an accident of genetics but a gift from god. Her eyes were gray and very large; they would have been somber, but they were flecked with a palette of joyous colors. Evan could remember trying to count all those different colors, when she was still a baby.
She wore a white linen dress that left her sun-browned arms exposed. And showed too much of her figure, Evan thought, a figure too full for a girl of fifteen, though there is nothing a father can do about that. She spun once in the middle of the room, proud of the efforts she had taken to make herself this beautiful. He knew it was no effort at all, really, that Kelly would be beautiful in the middle of a hurricane, but that didn't stop him from being proud with her--even despite her choice of companions. And she made him proud again when she stopped first before him, not the ever-tentative Hair Minus.
There was a moment of greeting and gathering up, and then they were going. "Eleven o'clock," Evan called as they were passing out the door.
"Oh, Dad! Come on!"
"Eleven o'clock, Kelly. You know it's a school night." But they were already gone. And Evan was left alone to fear a father's fears and worry a father's worries. Again he found himself admiring Janet's father, how well he had borne up to it. And then he did what he was now sure that quiet man had done: he looked down at his copy of Town and tried not to think about it...
Sander Evan Wilkes was a quiet man, a contemplative man. But he was not meek or frail or seemingly fearful, the way many college professors are. He was not loud, but he carried himself with such authority that he didn't need to be loud to get what he wanted. He had stared down thirty-four semesters of Freshmen without once losing control, without once giving an inch of ground to the lippy students who demand "news I can use". He gave them the real news, and if they came away from his class with no more respect for literature than they had when they entered, they knew better than to make an issue of it.
He was tall even for an academician, a profession that attracts more than its share of the extremes of gangliness and portliness. He seemed even taller, because he held himself very straight, and one of his strides was equal to two of the shambling students. His hair had been blonde once, but, at forty-three, it was drifting year by year to a steely gray. The blue of his eyes looked like the sky reflected in that cold metal and they were very lively, though they never seemed to laugh at all...
He dressed the same way every day, the same way he always had: oxford shirts, corduroys and penny-loafers. On the few rainy days he switched to sturdy cordovans and added a light golf jacket. He felt that clothes exist to protect the skin and for no other reason, and he did not feel the need to impress that other members of the English department did.
At department meetings he stood out by being the only one who did not try to stand out. Symmons would sneer from within his layer upon layer of heavy earth tones. And Haliburton would wheeze and sneeze behind the armor of his herringbone, a style Evan guessed that blustering man affected as much because it hid dirt as because it made him look more properly British. Which he wasn't, anyway, though he fooled most of his students; he would stand before them and say, "Litracha!," as if he expected them to kneel at that command. And poor, prim Rhoda Erskine would chide him afterward, pointing to the example she set in her impossibly garish polyester skirt-suits.
But none of it meant anything to Evan. He did things the way he had always done them, and saw no reason to change. You stood a fair chance of being noticed by him if you were a printed word. But not otherwise. People existed to create and print and read words, and what they did with the rest of their time seemed pretty meaningless to him.
But not tonight... He sat there as he always sat, with the magazine in his lap and the lamp over his shoulder. But he could not read. There were back issues of Town all over the sprawling apartment. Evan would not begin a new one until he had finished all he had wanted to read in the one he was working on. Which could take a while, because very often he was bored by the stories the magazine published in each week's issue. But he would force himself to finish them eventually--or conveniently lose that copy. He called it a discipline, his method. Kelly called it a mess, and she would complain good-naturedly about the magazines stacked everywhere. "Ah," he had said once. "But you don't understand. There's a method to my mess." "Madness," she had corrected, not knowing that it was Shakespeare and not a cliche she was restoring.
And Kelly was out there with that... thing. She did not share his passions, but she was his daughter. And she was all he had...
Once more he tried to focus on the words before him, but he knew it wouldn't do. His mind kept wandering to too many other nights spent in this room, nights spent reading his back issues of Town while Kelly lay stretched out on the carpet, propped up on her elbows, poring over her back issues of Miss Muffet. But then her tastes changed to Kid's Time, then to Teen Scene, then to Tease... She had grown before his half-averted eyes, there on the floor, and he hadn't always liked the things she grew to.
He remembered a horrid four months when she had first discovered cosmetics, when she had gone around with her eyelids painted so thick that she looked like nothing so much as a corpse. Evan had known it was wrong, but he hadn't known quite how. He knew about make-up in the same way he knew about auto-repair; it was something someone somewhere undoubtedly understood and cared about and he was content to let that person handle it. But for those four months he looked at every woman he saw, to try to discover what they were doing right that Kelly was doing so obviously wrong.
There in his chair, his face reddened again as he recalled a particularly bad encounter. He had been wandering through the Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale, the offspring of an unplanned marriage between a cathedral and a car-wash, as visually and spiritually appetizing as home-made ice cream smothered in brown gravy. He had looked at one woman too long and too carefully and by the time he finally noticed her, her face was shocked and more than a little fearful. "Oh, I'm sorry," he had said. "I thought you were someone I used to know..." And he had shuffled away embarrassed for himself, then was shamed even worse when he realized that there are no people one used to know, most particularly not the ones who are dead...
And the woman had looked like Janet, a little. Or maybe they all did. And even though he couldn't blame Janet for anything, still he blamed her for putting him in that awful spot, for making him into an ersatz mother when he was unfit even to be a father...
And if you must think about Janet, he told himself, then think about the good times. Which wasn't hard to do; there were so many good times, at least at first. He smiled to himself, thinking about the car. Avery Burke, Janet's father, had a big Buick sedan, a monster of a car that looked like it had been poured from molten glass. He was an officer of a bank and the car was part of his compensation package. At night Janet would drive Evan around in it and he would charm her endlessly with the wonders he found in his books. They were two shy, quiet lovers, and it took them a while to get around to things. But once they did, it would have taken an earthquake to get them to stop... And Evan smiled again at Mr. Burke's self-restraint. He'd wondered at the time, and didn't dare ask, what the poor man thought--and what he said--driving the bank's clients around in a car that reeked of adolescent sexuality.
And of course they had gotten caught. Even today, with The Pill, there's still a law of averages. But it wasn't a tragedy, or at least it didn't seem to be at the time. Their parents took it in stride and they were married respectably, with not a whisper of gossip heard in the church. Evan went to college as planned and Janet went along with him, working to pay their household expenses until she got too big. His parents took care of the tuition and hers paid for the doctors and for the inevitable emergencies. Though his classwork took up a great deal of his time, they were a happy couple, and he kept her as charmed as he could under the circumstances.
But the baby was a still-birth... Evan tried hard not to remember how much that had hurt him. He had been afraid, really, afraid to be a father or even a husband. But he had stared all that down, intimidated his intimidation, and by the time Janet was "ready", he was, too. Janet had seemed to handle it much better than he did. The doctors had warned her it might turn out that way, that with a first pregnancy it wasn't uncommon. If, afterward, she had wine with her dinner a little too often, and a little too much of it when she did, it didn't seem to be a problem...
And Evan had problems of his own. He was trying to get an education while the rest of the world seemed to be trying to self-destruct. The sixties sped by him and he didn't really notice, except when an occupation force kept him from getting to the library or to his classes. He was in love with the word, and he was too busy to worry about The War. And too busy to worry about Janet, too, Janet who worked at those awful dead-end jobs and never once complained. Janet who was always ready for him when he was ready for her, sometimes just a bit too ready...
They had gotten caught again when he was in graduate school. They wanted children, but not then, not when they still had to pinch every penny until it bled. Evan had watched her cycle pretty closely, but maybe he had made a mistake. Or maybe she had. Or maybe it was no mistake at all. He didn't resent it, either way. He had too little time for her, and he knew she needed something, something that would mean as much to her as his work meant to him. It would be a strain for him, taking a job as a teaching assistant on top of his course load, but he knew they would manage. They always did.
But again the baby died before birth. And again the doctors were consoling, pointing out that nothing was fundamentally wrong with Janet, they were just having bad luck. But Evan was ashamed for himself, because he wasn't nearly as hurt this time, and he caught himself feeling almost relieved... But this time he did notice the wine, noticed it when he couldn't find good Burgundy he'd bought only a week before, noticed it when the trash he carried out weighed a little too much and clinked a little too loudly. He didn't say anything, but he noticed...
But not for long. He was too caught up in his own life, and he was convinced Janet could take care of herself. If he had ever thought to ask himself, "Is my wife becoming an alcoholic?," he might have done something about it. But the question would have seemed absurd, even if it had occurred to him. The alcoholics were on the other side of the quad, the places where the Hair Minuses of the world feel at home...
And in the rush to complete his thesis, an analysis of the novels of Herman Melville, it was easy not to think about Janet. For the PhD candidate, the whole world becomes furniture, a thing to be brushed past or sat upon but never to be thought about at all. He saw-but-didn't-see her during his hurried breakfasts, then saw-but-didn't-see her again when he crawled into bed, exhausted from another late night at the library. He saw-but-didn't-see that things got done around the house, that the bills got paid, that there was always food in the refrigerator. And he heard-but-didn't-hear the clink of the heavy bottles in the trash...
And then his thesis was tendered and he was Doctor Evan Wilkes. And then it was published by an academic press and he was Doctor Evan Wilkes, author of the most comprehensive study of Melville since the twenties. And the best selling, too, though of course it sold nothing like a commercial book.
And for a moment in the eons of art he was famous, as famous as one can be in academia without whoring truth to the simpleminded. And then he was ready to do something for Janet. He had a great many offers to teach, but he waited for the right one, the one that promised security, then money, then research time. Any other scholar would have put time first and money last, but Evan felt that Janet deserved a rest after all she had done. Arizona State made the best offer, but he haggled with them anyway. He knew they were trying to buy prestige, and he knew his fame could be a fleeting thing; he might never be able to wield that kind of hammer again. In the end he settled for an associate professorship with tenure, one undergraduate section and two graduate level courses, all at a very comfortable salary.
And then, finally, they were ready to conceive a child. So, of course, they couldn't... They laughed about it, and they were happier in those years than at any time since their marriage. He told her to go out and spend every cent they had, so they couldn't possibly afford a child. That way, she'd be sure to get pregnant. He had more time for her than he'd had in eight years, and they tried at every opportunity. Their happy efforts paid off; she caught in the first semester of his second year of teaching.
She took it very seriously. She ate carefully and did all the exercises her doctor recommended, and there were no more wine bottles in the trash. Though she would never say so in so many words, Evan knew she thought that this baby would live, because it wasn't an accident, because it was as carefully planned-for as a new addition to the faculty housing they were living in at the time.
And that was how they got Kelly, a somberly beautiful baby born with a full head of thick, auburn hair. The name "Kelly" was Janet's idea, and Evan had never really liked it. His mother--a tiresome, shallow woman who had never let his father forget that she had married beneath her proper station in life--had instilled in him a respect for names that is perhaps irrational. She felt that a name is something one should live up to, and she demonstrated her belief by christening her only child "Sander Evan". Though he agreed with her about almost nothing, Evan agreed with his mother about names; he felt that he had had to live up to his name, that he might be a very different man if his name were "Bill" or "John". It seemed to him that girls named "Kelly" and "Tammie" and "Joanie" never amounted to anything, were handicapped at birth by names that forced them into a mold of lifelong stupidity. But he knew this was nothing more than a prejudice, so he said nothing. Besides, the baby was Janet's far more than it was his. The thesis had been his, and now it was her turn to have what she wanted.
And she did want Kelly, Evan knew she did. It was the kind of thing he couldn't say on campus, not in the seventies, but Janet had been born to be a mother. She took it very seriously, as seriously as he took his career. There was nothing too small for her to worry about, no cough too faint to be treated with a mother's concern. She watched over Kelly the way a mother cat watches over her kittens, not letting anyone get too close, not letting anything hurt her reckless child. She was anxious about everything, but she managed to keep her anxiety hidden, so that Kelly grew up thinking that every mother was that conscientious, that attentive, that loving.
But when Kelly went off to school, something went out of Janet. Before she had her jobs, and even if they were meaningless jobs they kept her mind occupied. Now, for hours at a time, she had nothing of importance to do. And that was when the almost-forgotten clink had come back to the trash bag. You can't hide the truth from yourself, Evan knew, not for long. But you can hide your awareness of the truth from yourself, if you try hard enough, if you look away at just the right moments, if you whistle through any sounds you don't want to hear...
But he hadn't known what it was he was hiding from himself until he came home one day to find Janet, beautiful Janet, the buxom brunette in the big-boss Buick, lying peacefully on the bed, dead from an overdose of sleeping pills...
He bullied the family doctor into putting "coronary arrest" on the death certificate. Janet was a suicide and both of them knew it. But Kelly didn't have to know it, didn't have to go through life wondering how she'd failed her mother, didn't have to worry that it might happen to her someday, whatever it was that made Mommy kill herself... Evan was a professional champion of truth in a society of cynical liars, but there are some truths you cannot impose upon a child, no matter what. There is a difference between being honest and being brutal, self-indulgently vicious. He made a decision and he stood by it, stood by it impassively, unwaveringly, forever.
But the thing that tore at his heart was that there was no note. There should have been, he was sure of it. He knew that sometimes there isn't, but he felt that Janet must have left one, that she had to have been that thoughtful, that it was the least she could do... In the months after her death he would catch himself talking to her in his mind, saying, "Okay. You did it. You had to do it. It was just too much, or not enough, or something I don't understand. But at least you could have told me. If not before, then after..." But he did understand, the way one always understands everything as soon as it's too late to make any difference...
And he would have horrid dreams, imagining that there was a note, that it was somewhere in the apartment they'd moved to after Kelly had been born, that someday Kelly would find it, find out everything. He would wake up in a cold sweat, as often as not finding himself clawing at the overstuffed cushions of that too-low sofa or peering between the leaves of the dining room table, even though nothing larger than a postage stamp could be concealed in that space.
If not for those dreams, the university would never have known about Janet's death. He'd kept it out of the papers the same way he'd kept the fact of the suicide secret, by bullying, by making it abundantly clear that, while he might not win a suit, he could cost the paper an awful lot in losing. But then, as a matter of routine, the pharmacist had called the school and left a message asking about a prescription for a sedative Evan had gotten, a drug to numb him into a sleep deeper than his awful nightmares could plumb.
The department chairman had been sympathetic and shocked, shocked that Evan would keep something like the death of his wife hidden. He offered him a sabbatical with no strings attached. "Go and write that biography of Melville you've always talked about," he'd said. "Rehabilitate him with the public the way scholars have rehabilitated him among scholars. You've said that Melville is the only important voice in American letters. Tell it to the world!" But Evan had declined, of course. The last thing he wanted was time to think, to dwell on the things he hadn't done but should have, the things he had noticed but pretended not to.
And for years he did little other than teach and sit in that chair reading Town, while Kelly sprawled on the floor with her magazines. He knew she didn't share his love for knowledge, but he never resented it. She might not be everything he could have wished for in a daughter, but she was everything he had...
But then her tastes had changed again and the magazine she pored over was Coquette, which he thought was much too old for her. And she began to look very mature, very wise, very sophisticated. And where before they had sparred good-naturedly over their differences, now they squabbled, sometimes even shouted at each other. Evan smiled to think that in class he was "Doctor Wilkes" or even "Doctor Wilkes, sir", while at home he as "Dauhd!", a word of two syllables conveying everything but respect. No one ever gets respect at home, he had observed to himself once. Because no one ever gives respect at home...
And after a while Kelly had taken her copies of Coquette to her room. And stayed there. And where before they would mutter to each other while reading, now they barely passed pleasantries in the hall. She was never rude to him, she wasn't that way at all. But a distance had grown between them, a gulf born of the differences in their ideas of what was important. Evan had his beloved words and Kelly her glamor, but they didn't have each other, not much, not anymore...
Sitting there in that old familiar chair, Evan recalled lecturing her on words. He was appalled at her vocabulary. He had read somewhere about a "pioneer" who was trying to reduce all of English to five thousand icons, little pictures to be used instead of words, as if the idea were something new and had not been perfected by the Sumerians five thousand dismal, poverty- stricken years ago. But then he would listen to Kelly and her shrieking girlfriends and think, maybe the man has something after all... Because those girls got by on far fewer than five thousand words, yet never seemed to run out of things to say.
"The beauty of English," he had told her in the voice he used before students, "is that it enables you to say precisely what you mean, with no gaps, no ambiguities, nothing lost in the translation from thought to sound. If you trouble yourself to learn the language, you'll always be able to identify exactly what you are feeling."
And yet, he didn't need a PhD's vocabulary to identify what he was feeling that night, the night of Kelly's first real date. The words that had been coming to him for months were within easy reach of any moron, even someone quite as moronic as Hair Minus. Words like "abandoned" and "hurt" and "angry". Words like "jealous" and "confused". And "lost". And "lonely"...
A cold pizza was the first offense for which Evan resented Hair Minus. That was how he had come to give the boy his nickname. He had called a take-out place the night before the start of the Spring term, and he and Kelly had gone over to pick it up. He waited in the car as he always did while she went in to get the pizza. He had watched her through the window, watched as she had flirted with the blonde-maned boy. It seemed she spent all her time flirting lately but he knew it would do more harm than good to say anything. So he took revenge by thinking up a vicious name for the boy, one he would never say aloud but which would still give him a quiet satisfaction. The name of the restaurant was "Pizza Plus" so he dubbed the boy "Hair Minus".
It had been his private amusement for years to give nicknames to his students. A girl who was overdoing it completely might be "The Pineapple Polisher". A boy who was simply too cool would become "Absolute Zero" in his mind. A student who never brought materials to class and was always surreptitiously borrowing pens and paper would be "The Secret Schnorrer", an expression he'd read somewhere and admired because it worked two ways.
So it amused him a great deal the next day to find that "Hair Minus" worked two ways. For breathless, breezy Walter Dobbins was in his class. He was tentative even in his selection of seats; not the front and not the back and not quite even the middle, as if even that much commitment was beyond him. "Hair Minus" as a description, and "Hair Minus" as the only score he could possibly deserve. Evan was very privately delighted with the serendipitous appellation.
The class was "Literature 103: The Novel in the Industrial Era", and it was popular. The elective alternatives were "Literature 102: The Pre-Industrial Epoch", which students resisted because the books were hard to read, and "Literature 104: Modernism", which they shunned because the books were impossible to read. Evan had never taught the prerequisite, "Literature 101: The Western Tradition", because he felt it was fraudulent. It was as though a tour guide took a gaggle of Chinese peasants to Rodeo Drive, to The Loop, and to Midtown Manhattan, then said, "Now, then. You've seen America. Go home and tell everyone all about it." Two sections of literature were required of every degree candidate, and every member of the English department had to teach at least one. Seventeen years before Evan had selected the one that was least offensive to him.
And taught it his way. At the time he started, he was a "star" and no one dared challenge his loose regard for the terms of the syllabus. Later they could have but didn't, inertia being the one sure motive of a university. Besides, by then he had too much clout with the alumni. To the students he was "Wilkenstein" and he was endured only because he was said to be very fair as well as very tough. But to many of the alumni he was thought to be a godsend, a major turning point in their lives. He had a drawer full of letters from old students, letters that praised him by damning past damnations of him. Though many of them were poorly written, Evan took a certain pride in them, knowing that he had left a seed of his passion in the loutish boys and over-preened girls, gave them a brief glimpse, at least, of the world that really did exist before yesterday and really will exist beyond tomorrow.
The syllabus promised Goethe, Dickens, Dreiser and Zola. Evan taught Dostoevsky, Hugo, Melville, Conrad, Ibsen and Twain. The syllabus required four books and two papers. Evan demanded nine books, nine essays on those books, and three books read independently with a ten-page paper on each. And an in-class reading of a play, usually Ibsen's Master Builder or Enemy of the People, but he let the students decide which play they wanted. Amid the groans he heard when he described this regimen, he felt it was the least he could. Once a particularly morbid class had opted for Strindberg, and he hadn't resisted. And another group had wanted to do Ghosts, which had caused a stir among some religious townies until one boy--without cracking a smile or even making evident that he thought such might be appropriate--had solemnly pointed out that the play is about "sexually transmitted disease".
He always enjoyed the first lecture of the semester, when he detailed his program. He knew many of the worst students would drop out of school that very day, and it pleased him to think that in his small way he was doing something to slow down the gradual corruption of the value of the bachelor's degree. He was never malicious after the first day, though he was always tough. But he wanted to weed out all of the students who couldn't cut it, force them to drop or transfer or go back to wherever they came from, wherever they belonged. To stop pretending that a university is some kind of free clinic for intellectual charity cases. He was never an egalitarian, not on any day of the term. But on that first day he was every bit a snob and he delighted in his performance, even if no one else did.
He had done it thirty-three times before the day he made Hair Minus groan breathlessly and tentatively, and he knew it by heart. Nearing the end of the period he would say, "Now I know the question that is churning sluggishly through your minds, and I'd hate to think that one of you might have to work up the courage to draw breath and pollute the air with sound, so I shall answer it without your having to ask. The question: what is a ten-page paper? First, ten is the integer between nine and eleven. I want no less, and, please, no more. There are thirty of you, at least today, and that means I'll be reading nine hundred pages of papers. Nine hundred pages would make four good-sized books, but not four good books, so, I beseech you, don't make me endure any more than I have to." That always got a laugh, at least from the brighter students, whom he noted.
"The next word in the construct 'ten-page paper' is 'page'. A page is eight-and-one-half inches wide and eleven inches deep, no smaller, no larger. It should be covered with typewritten symbols in reasonably well-ordered English. The margins should be set for sixty-five characters per line, double-spaced. If you try to sneak triple or quadruple spacing past me, I will find you out and you will fail. Many students think this is a clever way to pad an insubstantial paper, and I agree to an extent. It is as clever as the rabbit who tries to elude the hound by leaving his spoor in new-fallen snow, which is what papers done this way look like." Laughter again, but from fewer students. It was another weeding-out.
"The last word is 'paper'. What is a paper? A paper is an analysis of a book and an argument. If you deliver a mere synopsis, you will fail. You may choose whatever novels you want, so long as they were published in the nineteenth century. But I'll warn you that you'll have a hard time carrying on for ten pages on a book such as Notes from the Underground. A thicker book will give you more room to hide your lack of understanding. As to what constitutes an argument, it's too much to ask that it be original. I would be very surprised if anyone here said anything that has not been said ten times before and is obvious and trivial to begin with. So I ask only that it originate with you, that you detail your response to the book and not something you read somewhere. A final note: there is not a single bookstore in all of Tempe that does not carry the full line of Cliff's Notes. I have them all. Do I make myself clear?" And saying that, he would watch to see who looked guilty in advance, which so-called students saw their avenue of escape cut off.
And then he would wait them out, let everything sink in. He was coming to his favorite part of the lecture and he knew he couldn't rush it. Finally he spoke. "One last bit of definition and then I'll let you go. I promise you this will be the last time you will leave here early. What I want you to consider is this: what is literature? It's a burlap bag of a word and it seems to contain just about anything anyone wants to stuff into it. The insurance companies call the wastepaper they use to scare you out of your premiums 'literature'. Advertising men everywhere call their studied lies 'promotional literature', as a means of borrowing prestige they can't possibly earn. Even newspapermen have been known to call their output 'literature', right up to the moment that it is put to a better use by parakeets." Rarely did a student get that one; the joke was there for Evan's benefit alone.
"But literature is art, and if all printed matter were rendered as sound, real literature would be music and all the news and advertising would be no more than noise. But literature is the news, in a sense, the on-going chronicle of the culture. Good art of any kind is the record of the life of the mind, and good literature is the real news."
And then he waited. He knew it was coming, had spent forty minutes setting up for it. Somewhere in that classroom was a boy, never a girl, who could not resist that juicy bait. Evan didn't know who, but he knew what to expect, a boy brusquely business-like and coolly casual at the same time, the perfect mixture of affected attitudes resulting in the perfect superciliousness, the studied delight the "college man" takes in being not quite anything at all. He found himself hoping it would be Hair Minus, Walter Dobbins. And he knew it was a hope for revenge, but he wasn't sure if it was revenge for the cold pizza or for the attentions he didn't want displayed toward his daughter.
And it was Hair Minus who spoke, making his breezy breathlessness known to Evan for the first time. He knew the boy thought he was saying something daringly original, and he smiled to think he was hearing virtually the same words for the thirty-fourth time. "Oh, come on!," Hair Minus said. "Give me news I can use, man."
Evan applauded himself silently for his unbroken streak, his thirty-fourth success at bringing forth those same sad, tired, simpleminded words. Some of the girls were shocked, as they were at any impropriety, but many of the boys looked as though they wanted to clap out loud. And he was ready for all of them.
"News you can use?," he asked. "I have just the thing for you." He picked up the book he had waiting on his desk, a paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov, and tossed it to Hair Minus. The heavy book thumped against the boy's non-existent chest. "That is news you can use. Everything that can be known about humanity is in that book. If you study it carefully and well, you will never be surprised by people again. If you approach it with your whole mind, it will make you wise. And, if not, at least the experience will teach you to be polite." That always got a nervous laugh from the other students. "I'll expect a twenty-page paper on Karamazov and you will have to do only one other paper, instead of two."
It was a domination, a bullying, a brow-beating. It was everything he had hated about teachers when he had been in school. And it worked. The students who didn't drop or transfer would know he meant business, that this wasn't a silly rap-session in the Sociology department, that it was every bit as serious as the hard sciences. He didn't like having to do it, but he didn't want to put up with what he'd get if he didn't, an endless geyser of wise remarks from so-called students who confuse speech with spouting off. It was their parents' fault, really, but he had no way to improve their parents retroactively...
It usually gave Evan a great deal of satisfaction to think about that introductory lecture. But not tonight, and he wasn't quite sure why. Contempt was always his ready ally when he thought about students and their vacuum-skulled parents, the kind of fools who were always active in their children's athletic programs, always ready to jump in and help out with some meaningless crafts project, but were never seen at home with a book, a real book, in their hands. Like pediatrics and orthodontics, education was something they left up to the "professionals", thinking perhaps that a child learns to use his mind by means some drug or machine. And then they were shocked and dismayed that their children adopted the Junior Auxiliary versions of their own mindless pursuits: sun, sex and suds...
But the question that plagued him, the question he had to fight continuously to keep safely submerged was, "What kind of parent have I been...?"
"But Kelly is a good girl!," he protested to himself, without admitting what argument he was silently refuting. "She may not be the brightest child, but she's not stupid, like Hair Minus." But thinking about that useless boy led him in a direction he didn't want to take, but couldn't manage to turn from: "How would I feel about Kelly if she were not my daughter, if she were just another student in class...?" And that was just too ugly, because it pointed not to her failure, but to his own, his by the very logic he used to damn the parents of every student he'd ever had, or all but the rarest few...
He took revenge upon that logic by thinking up new insults to apply to Hair Minus. Words beginning with the letter "S", just to make things more difficult. It was a game he played often in his mind, insulting people silently with words that began with a certain letter, or had similar sounds, or were rooted in the same foreign tongue.
So how about "silly"? And "senseless". And the old stand-by, "stupid". But those were too easy. Evan could think of insulting S-words Hair Minus couldn't even mispronounce, much less comprehend. There was "superficial", for example. And "supercilious". And "superfluous", and he felt that a truer word was never left unspoken...
And though he thought to congratulate himself with a quick "superlative!", he knew it was no good. Coup-counting on a straw man, which, though an entirely appropriate mixing of metaphors, was coals to Newcastle. It amused him to play these games in his mind, but he saw without wanting to that that was all they were--games. Nicknames, unuttered insults, even Town, they weren't life, they were ways of avoiding life. And without having summoned them, he found himself assaulted with A-words. Words like "apprehension" and "anxiety" and "alienation"...
And he knew Kelly had told him the same things, in her own way. She couldn't speak with Evan's precision, but she got her messages across more forcefully than he could ever manage. All he could convey was scorn, vitriolic hatred for every concern not his own. But she could speak of hope and beauty and eager anticipation. She had tried for years to get him to go out, to do things, to see the world that was passing him by as he stared into one corner of one tiny little Town, a place he'd never lived and never wanted to, a place that was safely and comfortably nowhere...
"And what have I done to her?!," he cried out, for once making his deepest emotions manifest. "What have I given her besides scorn and neglect?" It was Janet all over again, only worse, because there had never been a time that Kelly wasn't furniture to him, and there had never been a time that she had rejected him, no matter how much he deserved it. "Do I despise her glamor, her poise, her social confidence? Or do I hate the fact that they were never mine? Is my world of words a lush resort, or is it the last redoubt of a desperate man, a man too absorbed with the pain of loss to reap the joy of gain?" Self-awareness can be a hellish thing, sometimes the second-worst pain a man can endure. But the worst, Evan knew and acknowledged consciously for the first time in his life, the worst is self-neglect...
And at some point exhaustion had rescued him from self-flagellation. He fell asleep in his chair, but the victory was a small one. He had a dream. Not a nightmare, but not a good dream either...
It was a costume party of some strange kind and Evan saw a few people he knew and many he didn't. But it wasn't really a costume party, because everyone was wearing what they normally wore. But still it was, because no two people were dressed alike. And there was a big white card pinned to each person, each inscribed with a few words.
Not wanting to, fighting hard against it, Evan drew nearer. He saw that the inscriptions on the cards were the names of magazines. Here was a stuffy man in a charcoal gray suit and his card read Blue Chip. And over there was a tired-looking woman fussing at a stray hair. Her card said Homemaker's Companion. Not far from her was a scruffy boy in jeans and a smudged tee-shirt, and he was Tomahawk. And next to him was little girl with red pigtails, dressed in a plaid jumper; her card said Miss Muffet. And in the corner was a stooped-over couple, both with hair the color of cotton. They were pinned together by the same card and it read Senior Set.
There was a strange young woman who couldn't seem to stand still. She was dressed in very expensive clothes, worn blousy to hide her overweight. Gobs of gaudy jewelry dripped from her earlobes, her neck, her wattled wrists. She was dancing around the room, going from one man to the next. She would embrace each man, then kiss him passionately, then slap his face. Evan hid from her, but he saw that her card said Vixen.
He shrunk away from a filthy man in grimy jeans and a denim jacket cut off at the shoulders. There were chains draped from the jacket, like the chain mail of a scrofulous, impoverished knight. He wore black boots and a thick black beard and there were spiked dog collars on both of his wrists. His sign read Hawg. In the dream Evan blanched and realized that there are fates far worse than Hair Minus...
And there was Hair Minus himself, wearing a sign that said Awesome. And there was Kelly, dressed to the teeth, her poise complete and unendurable. Her sign said Coquette. And here was Symmons, buried beneath his earth tones, as Squire. And beside him was poor, pitiful Rhoda Erskine, primly proper in an outlandish lime green. Her sign said Poetess.
And fat, wheezing Haliburton was flouncing all around the room saying, "Litracha!, litracha!, litracha!" Evan recalled a question he'd half-wanted to ask the man for years: was he saving all the "ur" sounds he omitted from "liturachur" to interject at inappropriate places in his lectures? But as he came face-to- face with him, he saw that Haliburton's sign read Town...
But if Haliburton was Town, then what was he...? He began to walk around the room, trying to find a mirror, to see what his own sign said. If it wasn't Town, then it must be The Globe Literary Supplement or The New York Review of the Arts. He was sure of it, but not sure enough to stop looking for a mirror. He tried to look at his own chest, but for some reason he couldn't see it. He tried to lift the sign with his hand, but he couldn't seem to see his hand, either. His movements became more frantic, more desperate. He had to find a mirror...
And then he did, a full-length mirror mounted to a door. But then he was afraid to stand before it, afraid that there might be nothing reflected back to him, nothing at all... He steeled himself and looked into the glass. He was relieved to see that he was all there, looking just as he always looked, light blue oxford shirt and navy blue corduroys. And penny loafers. But his card was blank, at first. Then it changed as he watched, words coming slowly into view. It took him a second to decipher them: "Twenty-five years ago today..."
He scowled and looked away, not wanting to know what the inscription meant. And when he looked back the sign was gone, replaced by a letter in Janet's hand, a hand that had been trembling as she had written. "Dearest Evan," it said. "I love you, and I'm sorry to hurt you this way, you and Kelly. But--" But at that word he turned away again, horrified, a cry of anguish bursting from his lips. It was the note, the note he had known must exist, and he knew he had to force himself to read it. But when he turned back the letter was gone. The mirror was gone. The door was gone. And the people at the party had vanished... And from far away he heard a sound, a sound that was one of the deepest undercurrents of his life: "Dad?"
Even before he was fully back from the depths of the dream he knew it was Kelly. "Dad" was one of those words she could use in place of a hundred others. In the declarative it could mean anything she wanted it to, anything or nothing, and he always understood. In the imperative it meant everything from "I love you!" to "Butt out!" In the interrogative, anything from "Are you all right?" to "Am I all right?"
"Dad?," she said again and he saw that she was standing beside him. He glanced at his watch: barely ten.
Evan yawned and stretched. He felt wrung out and he was clammy with sweat, but somehow he was satisfied, almost serene. "Did Walter run out of things to say? He rarely does in class."
"He's a jerk, Daddy. I hate his guts."
But you can't hate the guts of the gutless, he thought to correct her, but didn't. It was cheap and easy, it was every cruel trick he'd played on her for too many years. And it was beside the point. If you want to be a father, he told himself, then be one... But, still, it took him a moment to think of the question he should ask: "He didn't... he didn't try anything, did he?" Without quite knowing why, he stood up, as if standing up would be an act of defense of his daughter's virtue.
"He never stopped trying things! Finally I got sick of it and hit him where it hurts."
Evan cringed involuntarily, as every man must.
Kelly laughed and it was a sound as joyous as songbirds at the dawn of a new day. "Not there, Daddy! In his ego! I told him he was a dork and a pinhead and a phony. I told him he was stupid."
Evan wanted to agree with that analysis, to add some expressions of his own. But instead he said, "I'm sorry it didn't work out, Kelly."
"I'm not. You were right about him, Daddy." Evan tried to protest but she stopped him. "I know you never said anything, but I knew what you thought. And you were right." She hugged him impulsively, hitting him with a force that surprised him. Suddenly quieter, she said, "I was thinking about how right you were on the way home. Maybe you've been right about a lot of things..."
Holding her, holding as he had never really held her before, with his whole mind, his whole commitment, Evan found that his voice wasn't working. The best he could manage was something between a croak and a whisper. "Maybe you've been right about a lot of things, too..."
And saying it, he knew it was true, true in a way he couldn't back away from, couldn't pretend not to see. He didn't know what he would do, not yet, but he knew he would do something, something different. Maybe just trousers at first, real trousers for a real adult man, not silly college boy's corduroys. It wasn't much, but it was a start... And all those back issues of Town, get rid of them, give them all to charity... It scared him a little, to think of cutting the leash that bound him to his chair, but he was through being bound, through being half a man and less than half a father...
Kelly was watching his face and though she couldn't know what was going on in his mind, she seemed to know it was something good. She kissed him on the cheek then danced around the room, the skirt of her white dress swirling around her. "I do look gorgeous tonight, don't I? Even if it was just for a jerk like Buzz, I look great, don't you think?"
"Absolutely and utterly exquisite," he said, for once using his vocabulary to the end for which it was intended, to enrich, to elevate, to enshrine. And not to destroy. "Simply stunning," he added, using the words he'd left unsaid before she had gone out. And in saying them, he knew they were true, that she was lovely in a way he'd never noticed, lovely not just in her skin but in her spirit. She didn't share his passions, but she didn't have to, she didn't need to be just like him to be worthy of his love. She had passions of her own, and she was as much a perfectionist as he was, as much a worshiper of her ideals. Maybe more...
She laughed again and he joined her, knowing without being able to see them that his eyes were laughing, too, laughing for he first time in years... He wished he could step back into that dream for just a moment, so he could show his laughing eyes to that mirror...
When he noticed her again, Kelly was gazing at him with those somberly joyous gray eyes, small lines of concentration drawn on her forehead. "Daddy? Would it be all right if I read one of your books?"
"I'd love it if you read them all," he answered, an excitement hidden behind the simplicity of his words.
"Just one for now," she said, smiling. She strode over to the bookshelves that lined one whole wall of the living room and pulled down a heavy, hardback translation of The Brothers Karamazov.
"Kelly, are you sure you want that one?" He was almost aghast at himself for saying it, but he was a father now, for a change.
"Yup. Buzz says it sucks. So I figure it must be pretty good."
He had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at that logic, and yet he couldn't argue with it. He was certain that anything Hair Minus said "sucks" must be pretty good. When he was sure he wouldn't chuckle, he said something he would never say in class: "Take it slow, Kelly. And talk to me if anything disturbs you."
"Okay, Daddy," she said around a half-stifled yawn. She came back and hugged him again, then walked toward her room, unconsciously glamorous even when there was no one but her father to notice, the heavy book cradled like a baby in her arms.
"Now there's some news I can use," Evan thought when he sat down again. Kelly, reading Karamazov! At the beginning of this night he would not have believed it. He wasn't quite sure he believed it now, though he knew it was true, that and so much more. There were a great many things to think about, about Kelly and about himself, but it was enough for the moment just to sit there and pleasure in it.
He looked down at his shirt and was surprised to see a dark spot of wetness there. It was only then that he realized he was crying, crying for the first time since Janet... But he knew his eyes were still laughing, laughing around the tears, and he wished Janet could see it. He wanted Janet and Kelly and that haunting mirror and the whole glorious world to see his laughing eyes...