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Life Sentences

ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

The bitter internecine wars of the faculty were long past, consigned to reminiscence and hallway anecdote, and Jeremy Fox missed them. No longer did his colleagues bellow and spume at one another over adding women’s studies to the curriculum (and women to the faculty), or while staunchly defending the verities of Plato, Shakespeare, and Keats.(And sometimes threaten too: when begged, Fox would recite the tale of a certain wild old man who, after one such debate 30 years before, had rushed home to fetch an ancient service revolver. He’d waggled the gun in a rival’s nose for some little while before firing at last and mortally wounding a commons-room sofa.) Often enough in their youth they’d threatened the dawn as well, with bourbon and cigarettes and argument over things that mattered.

In these latter days of the century, however, Fox could only retreat after a department meeting to his office on the third floor of the humanities building. His gut would be rumbling in outrage and despair, aroused not by some principle worth blood on the floor, but by the petty scurrilousness of younger colleagues.

On a gloomy February afternoon Fox was doing just that, trudging heavily up three flights of steps. Despite himself, he halted on the second landing, panting for breath. A door burst open somewhere overhead, and a moment later he heard, then saw someone descending awkwardly toward him. Naturally, it was Ryan McKnight—it was Ryan McKnight whose future the department’s tenured members had just been debating with considerable passion. Because of the diabetes he’d developed as an adult, McKnight’s balance was uncertain and his legs stiff. Each step on the staircase was an effort. On level ground he could treat his cane as a jaunty prop. But the stairs demanded he lean heavily on it. Fox hoped he would have the good grace to keep going with a nod.

Instead, the black man paused one step above the landing and flashed a wry grin. “Come from deciding my fate?”

As usual McKnight was wearing a beret, an affectation that Fox had early on expected to despise but found himself rather envying. He pursed his lips. “Can’t discuss it—you know that,” he said. “Besides, nothing’s decided yet.”

McKnight laughed a booming laugh that rocketed through the stairwell. “Six years waiting for a secret decoder ring and still not there yet. Well, I guess I can be a good boy a few weeks more.” With a salute of the walking stick at his senior colleague, he resumed his labors down toward Ascension Hall’s main door.

Fox paused a moment longer to gaze after him. McKnight was cocky, sure of himself—full of himself—with a sharp disdain for certain others on the faculty hidden not at all discreetly. Some wanted to kill him for slights real and imagined. Famously, at McKnight’s very first public presentation—while visiting the campus on an interview—a member of the search committee had offered a question. It glistened with theoretical fashion. Dialogic this. Discourse analysis that. Lila Wallace was merely preening, of course, a demonstration for the small audience that she remained intellectually hip. Very likely she didn’t even expect an answer. Others in the classroom wearily endured her little pretensions—they’d been similarly guilty often enough. Ryan McKnight gazed at Dr. Wallace for a moment with that wry grin of his, sizing her up along with the question. “I can talk that talk,” he said at last, stroking a goatee that already showed streaks of grey, “but I won’t walk the walk. It’s not what I do.” Thus dismissed, the woman flushed and laughed shrilly. Intentionally or not, McKnight had made an enemy for life.

But students adored McKnight. He gave himself up to them for conferences and extra study dates and simple bull sessions in a way that few colleagues would imagine any longer. Too much pressure to publish these days. Too long a commute, since new faculty rarely chose to live in the college’s remote village. But Ryan McKnight, though junior in rank, didn’t fit in among the younger crowd. He was nearly 50 and had no spouse. No, when it came to his teaching and his students, the man seemed something of a throwback, and Jeremy Fox respected him for that.

By the time he reached his office, dusk was already gathering beyond the window. He yanked open the bottom drawer of his file cabinet. A wad of old exam books jammed between two bottles kept them from clanking. One was mouthwash; the other, vodka, was the safe bet. As far as anyone knew, he’d been on the wagon for five years, and he had no intention of disabusing them. But he’d only just splashed the bottom of a coffee mug when someone jerked the handle on his door and then bothered to knock.

“Hold on,” he cried gruffly and jammed bottle and mug into a wastebasket behind his desk.

The chairman of the department was hovering in the hall as Fox tugged the door open. “Jeremy?” said Martin Crandall, his head cocked mischievously. He actually put his hand on Fox’s shoulder as if they were still intimate friends—as Fox had once been foolish enough to imagine. He’d hired Crandall 12 years earlier, had taken him under his wing, nursed him through the nearly botched conclusion of his dissertation and then a failed marriage, all the way to tenure. Punished for such deeds, Fox had seen their relationship cool in recent years. He wondered what Crandall would be sidling for this time.

The visitor settled himself on a wooden chair. He leaned back, hands behind his head. “I think that went pretty well, don’t you? Another session and we should know where the department stands on McKnight.”

“Haven’t you already made up your mind?” asked Fox.

“Oh, well—I do have my opinions, but I’d rather not force them on our friends. I’d prefer we reach a consensus everyone can live with. Obviously, your own position will be—influential.” His mouth twitched. His eyebrows twitched above sleek eyeglasses designed for a younger profile.

Fox didn’t respond.

Crandall’s usual modus vivendi was to snag people in doorways, to lobby them across the copier, to hammer an agreement that suited him well before any general meeting. This time, however, about McKnight’s prospects for tenure, the chairman was being uncharacteristically coy. Of one thing alone was Fox certain—that Crandall would ultimately cloak his own preferences in the garb of duty and selflessness.

“Actually, Jeremy, I didn’t drop by to talk business. Last night Meri and I decided it’s simply been too long, ages, since you’ve come by. We know how hard it must be, you alone in that big house. We really should have managed something before now. But you of all people understand the Chair. Paper work, petitions. It never stops, does it?” He sighed dramatically. “No rest for the wicked. Anyway. What say you drop by for dinner tomorrow? Just the three of us, just family. Men’s dying to see you.”

Fox nodded and pursed his lips. He didn’t much care whether his distaste showed. As little as he longed to spend time outside the office with his former protégée Crandall, it was true he’d love to see Meri. And her husband knew it perfectly well.

“That would be grand, Martin, just grand,” Fox conceded with a sigh of his own. All he wanted at the moment was to shoo the fellow from his office so he could liberate mug from wastebasket.

She was shaking her finger at him, eyes alight. “You’re nearly an hour early, and I’m not half finished. You wanted time alone with me, didn’t you?” she asked, bobbing up on her toes for a quick peck at his cheek. “Ashamed of yourself, Jeremy?”

“Terribly, yes—terribly ashamed,” he said, attempting to sound gruff, and failing. “You’ll have to punish me with vegetable peeling or noodle straining—whatever help I can be.”

“There’s a pretty picture,” she laughed, grasping his hand and leading him to the kitchen. In a moment he was safely ensconced on a ladder-back chair, no paring knives within reach.

Meri attended to her cooking. Her print dress, its small red-and-white blossoms slightly faded, made her seem more willowy even than she had as a girl—tall and slender and fair, her fine reddish-blonde hair gathered into a simple fall by a tortoise-shell clip. She might still be the favorite student—Fox half-closed his eyes—a young woman of light and fierce wit. Here she was, playing grown-up again, inviting her mentor over for dinner. The first time had been such brilliant fun—a perfect dinner in every meaningful way.(Though the ancient dormitory oven hadn’t quite cooked the duck through. Fox and his wife Barbara played-acted happily, never betraying the secret of the too-pink flesh.) Better than ten years ago that little game, and Barbara long gone, and Meri, her doctorate abandoned for love, married to Martin Crandall. He’d been a mentor too, it turned out, of a different sort.

Fox grimaced at the thought.

Meri sliced spring onions with flashing precision, tip of her knife hinged against the cutting board. “Having you here seems the most natural thing in the world,” she was saying, “which only makes me feel worse it’s been so long. Why don’t you ever come by to see me?”

He resented—suddenly and with a hot flush that flared into his cheeks—her putting him on the spot, her forcing him to lie for the sake of good manners. “Oh, well, I’ve imagined how frantic you must be—now that you’re catering half the dinners in the county. And I’m up to my ears as well with students demanding more and more. They’re consumers, as the Admissions people keep reminding us. I’m merely, what?, another service provider attending to their needs.”

Meri darted him a quick smile. Her hands never ceased moving, but she seemed entirely at ease as she prepared the meal. “Yes, and we were such scholarly angels in comparison.”

Fox smiled too in sheer fondness. “You and your friends presented other sorts of challenges.”

“And anyway,” she said, mischief and a stabbing seriousness playing in her eyes at once, “busy-ness has nothing to do with it. That’s just bull. You don’t visit me because you can’t stand Martin anymore.” She smiled again, off-hand and devastating.

For a long moment neither of them spoke. Fox’s lips remained pressed together; he wasn’t going to lie again, not to her. At last he shrugged. “But here I am, one way or the other. You’ve invited me and we’ll have a splendid evening.”

“I didn’t invite you,” she said. “He did.”

Her fierceness in renouncing the responsibility stung him. Fox sighed, almost asked her for a drink, thought better of it. “Which of you is playing games with me, Meri? I’m an old man and feel it more every day—I’m too slow for this dance.”

She came and stood next to him, hands on her waist, and then leaned over and kissed him again on the cheek. The sensation was delightful, the whiff of her, the caress of youth, and yet the gesture made him feel more a relic than ever.

“In case you haven’t guessed it, Martin and I have reached that stage where it’s games we’re playing with each other, and you, dear friend, are snared in the middle of it.”

“No.” He clutched at the edge of the counter and rose. “No. It’s none of my business and I don’t want any part. Tell him I called—something came up. A root canal. A summons from the Provost.”

She patted his sleeve. “There’s no easy escape for you, Jeremy. This isn’t about just Martin and me. It involves your department and the recommendation you’ll be making on Ryan McKnight.”

He said nothing—what could he say? The dance was spinning quick and dizzying and he couldn’t even try to keep up.

“Didn’t I know how you disapproved of Martin and me after you found out?” she said brightly, twirling the talk off in another direction, baffling him. “Or how furious—how disdainful—you were when I gave up on the degree and returned to be with him here?” Men turned her back on him and fled to the stove as if for protection, seizing a ladle and thrusting it into a pot. “How could I not know? You meant so much to me. And your opinion—I didn’t dare ask what you thought outright.

“I couldn’t explain it to you then, and I’m not sure I can even now. He, well, Martin was older and so dazzlingly smart, and yet he could be so young and playful and passionate too, more passionate than the fumbling college boys. Maybe that’s what’s changed.”

Fox was shaking his head. Anything not to hear this. “McKnight. What’s this got to do with Ryan McKnight?”

She lifted the ladle and seemed not to notice a thin spittle of brown sauce crawling toward her arm. “Let’s hope I can face your opinion now,” she murmured as if to herself. “Okay. Jeremy. Here goes. Here goes.” The ladle plunked heavily again into its pot. “I’ve been sleeping with him. Seven months now.”

“With whom?” he blurted, coming to understand even as heard his own absurd noise, desperately searching for rhyme or reason, a way out of knowing.

She swiped awkwardly, miserably at a strand of pale reddish hair near her eyes. “I know this must be hard for you. It can’t make any sense. But Ryan is who.”

A black beret twirled airily in the shadows. He seemed to hear McKnight’s booming laugh, to spy his grin.

“You think I’m too old for this sort of thing?—I think I’m too old.” She snorted. “Wild passion of all things—it’s ridiculous, I know. But it’s become the breath in my lungs, the blood in my veins, what I feel for him. Still, I’m watching myself and I can’t quite believe it. Maybe that’s the difference when you’re past 30. But I didn’t look for it to happen. I sure didn’t ask.” Her eyes grew dark and impatient with herself, haunted by her own lack of control.

“Why are you telling me this? Why did I need to know? I don’t need to know.” He stopped, ashamed of his own whining.

“Who am I to tell, if not you?” she asked.

That puzzled him. He didn’t know what to make of it. But it vaguely pleased him.

“And besides,” she went on, “you do need to know, at least I think you do, given the tenure decision.”

“Ah,” said Fox. “Ah.” The dance slowed, and now he could spy the pattern of steps ahead. He was almost disappointed that Men’s design should be so humble.

“Martin knows?” he asked.

She nodded and bit her lip. “I couldn’t stand the lie—it was worse than all the rest.”

“Well, he’s been brilliant, I must say. I’d no clue he was out for McKnight’s scalp. Of course, he’s not alone in that.” He paused and looked at her, but she gave no sign. “And you want me to engineer a way to get the man his tenure.” He felt stern and benevolent, revitalized by this position of fresh influence—slightly elevated just now and gazing sagely down at this young woman.

But Meri was shaking her head, lip still caught between her teeth. Her eyes had grown red, though she wouldn’t wipe at them, not yet. “No,” she cried softly. “Don’t you see—I couldn’t stand that. Ryan wants to stay, wants me to throw Martin off and live with him here.”

She paused, panting lightly. “He deserves his tenure—he knows it and wants it, odd as that may seem. But that’ll be the end, for me. I’ll go with him somewhere else, anywhere. But not here. No more of this for me.”

Fox felt himself reeling once more. “And this part you haven’t told Martin.”

She shook her head again.

“So. Martin wants to chase McKnight away. And so do you.” Fox sat again on the hard chair.

“Some of them in your department hate him—Martin’s only too happy to keep me in the loop as far as that goes. Ryan’s no diplomat, God knows. Partly it’s because he won’t play the status game—who’s hot, who knows the trendiest theory, who deserves to be some place more famous. Even the Provost does it. The assumption being you aren’t really good unless some other university is trying to lure you away. As if he couldn’t get an offer, a flood of offers, simply picking up the phone.”

She put a hand on her hip with a sneer for them all. “They like that he’s black, of course. It makes the college seem so hugely progressive. But he should be a good boy and play the game just as if he was white.”

“What do you want from me?” Fox demanded impatiently.

“Don’t I know you?” she cried. “I know what matters. My guess is you’d decide that Ryan deserves to stay, that it’s better for the college if he’s here.” She shrugged. “And you’re Jeremy Fox. Whichever way you come down, your voice matters—you’ll carry enough of the others.”

“Ah,” he said once more, hopelessly. “But that’s not what you want. You want me to trust your husband’s judgment, rather than my own.”

She stood silently before him, her hands ungainly and limp without the knife to focus them, as her friend struggled again to his feet. “Tell Martin I wasn’t up to dinner tonight,” he said. “I was feeling my age.”

After four hours of fitful sleep, Jeremy Fox woke in the night. There’d be no falling away from himself again without resorting to a pill that would leave him groggy through the coming day. Yet neither could he seem to rouse himself. His legs felt heavy, his head and arms leaden, wide awake though he lay in the darkness.

It occurred to him that he hadn’t been dreaming of Meri, or at least he didn’t think so. It was only lying here awake that he realized he wished he could. He groaned and pushed the thought away, but it pushed back.

Her confiding in him, beseeching his aid, had stirred other demons of loneliness and despair, familiar visitors who’d come occasionally to him in the night all his life. He’d always hoped the prospects of extinction would grow easier to bear with age. Tonight they only seemed more pathetic, casually at hand, grimmer. For the first time in a long time he felt the physical absence of Barbara’s warm heaviness, her steady, reassuring breathing, under the covers next to him.

He lay in the darkness, needing to pee. Frustration and fear and longing swept over him. Why shouldn’t he be the one to catch Meri up in his arms and rush off to another life? He shook his head on the pillow in silent debate or explanation. It wasn’t a fantasy of sex—that would be too easy. To some degree it wasn’t even Meri who mattered, love her though he did and had all these years. It was the fierceness of her grasp, the way she bit her lip, the life she still wrestled because the wrestling was the living.

Fox switched on a lamp, and in the bathroom peed gratefully and with all the fervor he could muster.

“You available for a chat?” Ten a. m. and Martin Crandall was already poking his nose inside the office.

Fox was exasperated more than surprised. He wanted to be left alone. “Office hours,” he said. “Students will be dropping by to complain about grades on their last essay.” He wasn’t eager to have this or any conversation with Crandall.

“Fine by me—I’ll leave your door on the crack in case they show up.”

“What’s so confidential?” Fox demanded. Something cavalier about Crandall’s attitude bothered him, a risk taking, an exhibitionism. Had he left his own door on the crack in the old days when Meri came to visit?

“Entirely hush hush for the moment. Can’t go any farther than us. I’d intended to mention it at dinner—sorry you weren’t well, by the way. Better now?”

Fox might have nodded.

“The Provost and I were having a drink recently,” Crandall said casually, always glad to let drop his entree with the administration. He tugged at the sleeve of his stylish fawn-colored jacket. “She suggested something rather out of the blue, but I think we—you— had better grab it before she’s time to discover other priorities.”

“What the devil are you talking about, Martin?” Fox asked impatiently.

“No need to take that tone with me, old friend. Not with the gifts I’m bearing. Listen to me: there’s a college trustee who’s interested in a smidgen of immortality. He’s endowing a Chair in his own name—the check’s already signed. Got it? The Provost is suggesting you be the one to assume it. Yours until you retire.” Hands behind his head, pleased with himself, Crandall tilted his ordinary wooden chair back on two legs.

Fox said nothing. He was startled by the sudden swoop of delight that nearly set him trembling. He struggled to remain stern before Crandall. An endowed Chair was no small bauble. Less teaching, more time and support for his writing, for travel. Not to mention the honor itself. He wished he didn’t care about that, but he did—the college acknowledging his years of service. None too soon, he thought.

He rubbed a hand across his face. “How much does this have to do with the McKnight decision?”

Crandall sat forward and the chair legs banged against the floor. “You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s something I have to ask.” said Fox with a shrug. “Since you’re doing the offering.”

“No, damn it—it’s like I said. The Provost asked what I thought. I thought it was a pretty good idea. McKnight is totally separate.” He sat glaring at the older man. “Naturally, I assume—I hope—we’ll find a way to agree on that in any event.”

“Will we?”

“You tell me. I’ve tried to keep my opinion under wraps on this one. But let’s face it, Ryan McKnight is a loose cannon.” Something restraining Crandall seemed to give way abruptly and he leaned forward. “The man’s dangerous. Unreliable. He creates dissension whenever he so much as shows his face at a faculty meeting.”

Fox remained calm, dispassionate, as if this were no more than the collegial discussion it might have been. “What about the students?”

“Okay, sure—some of them worship the guy. But not everyone, let me tell you. I’ve seen the evaluations. He never gets his essays graded on time. He’s cavalier about meeting classes, and dismisses half of them early. And he’s got this edge—you know, that sarcasm of his. Some kids can’t handle that stuff.” He waived a hand dismissively. “As for his own work? What he’s published may be pretty good, but there’s precious little to show. He ought to have more in print.”

Crandall paused, haughty. “Okay, you want to know where I stand—now you know.”

“Does the endowed chair depend on my standing there too?”

“Why are you being such a prick? You don’t want it, you don’t want it.” Crandall’s face flushed with anger.

“Of course I do. But I did have this talk with Meri.”

Crandall barked an angry laugh. “You think I don’t know? Oh no, my Meri tells me everything, whether I want or not. Did I want to know Ryan McKnight is fucking my wife?”

Fox lurched quickly to his feet, thrust his head into the hallway to make sure no one was loitering, shut the door firmly, As he turned back, Crandall was glaring up at him, face flushed and twisted, his hair awry.

“This shouldn’t matter to me in my professional decisions,” said Crandall, “that this old goat is fucking my wife? Or to you? It’s your darling Meri we’re talking about.” He ran both hands through the tangle of his hair. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you care? Or, is this the point for you?—that it’s no worse him doing it to her now than me doing it before?”

“Stop it,” Fox snapped.

“You like he’s humiliating me this way?—coming here, stealing her away, mocking me. Doesn’t he deserve tenure as a reward? And I should deliver it. Have it ground in my face the rest of my life.”

Crandall’s head dropped. “God knows I’ve tried to keep quiet, let others take the lead. What am I supposed to do?” In an instant he’d tumbled from anger and outrage into a raw pleading that was at once painful to witness and pathetic.

“I don’t know.” Fox pursed his lips. “I honestly don’t know.”

There were easier ways both of keeping fit and of providing for his fieldstone fireplace, but in recent years, years alone, Fox’s principal exercise had become an hour every day splitting firewood in the yard behind his house. He liked the rhythm and rough precision of the axe, the partnership with gravity and steel. He raised the head easy and slow, only so high. Sliding down the barrel, his right hand met its mate, driving the blade into the heart of the grain. His shirt was already damp under an ancient tweed, and he could feel the reassuring thump of his heart as he breathed deeply into the work.

“Professor Fox!”

Reluctantly, he turned and saw Ryan McKnight picking his way. Why would the man, six years a colleague, make such a point of calling him professor, and even out here?

But for once there was nothing playful or mocking in McKnight’s eyes. He was breathing hard as well, as if he’d been hurrying much farther than merely from the street. Something was strange in the way he looked too, but Fox couldn’t put his finger on it. Only when he realized, a moment later, that McKnight’s black beret was missing did he become alarmed. Was this something to do with Men’s confiding in him? Had her lover learned that she’d shared their secret? What if this bare-headed McKnight attacked? Despite his infirmity, he was a big man, powerful in the shoulders. The heavy axe against his leg only made Fox feel helpless. He imagined a ludicrous scene: McKnight cudgeling him to the ground with his cane.

“Tell me—what’ve I ever done to you?” McKnight cried, his voice surprisingly shrill.

Fox stared at him. “Nothing.” He shook his head. “Nothing—what are you talking about?”

“Story’s around that you’re sabotaging the vote. They say you’re out to screw me. What makes you think I don’t belong at your damn school anyway?” He halted only an instant. “Is it that I’m black? Are you one of them after all—pretending you’re just fine with some of us coloreds around, but only if we’re not too loud? I didn’t expect it, Fox, not from you.”

He was already shaking his head. He held up a hand and shook it no as well. The accusation stung. How could McKnight not know his record?—that for years he’d been one of the righteous few, struggling to open the doors of this faculty, battling the Mr. Chipses and the outright bigots who preferred a comfortable country club. Good wars, worthy fights. And here he was being accused. Men certainly was aware—hadn’t she bothered to testify?

Still Fox was wagging his hand no. Yet his outrage cooled to a faint nausea as a dirty little doubt seeped into his consciousness—was this perhaps what did bother him after all? Not that Meri betrayed her husband, but that it was with a black man. He didn’t want to be haunted by such visions, but he’d imagined them together—yes, he had. White flesh and dark, plunging and twisting, sweating and crying out. Yes, he had, though he fought not to. Was it the color of flesh that haunted him? He wasn’t sure. He considered asking McKnight himself here in the chilly afternoon—was this why, was it as simple and nasty as this?

At least he could answer the easier challenge the man had put to him. He tipped the axe against a broad oak stump. “You’ve been here long enough not to trust those sorts of rumor. As a matter of fact, I haven’t tried to persuade anyone of anything. I wish I could tell you—I won’t lie—that my own mind’s made up, but it’s not. You’re not an easy man. . . .” He was going to go on, to qualify that observation, but the words opened out with no easy resolution.

“Damn right,” muttered McKnight with an angry laugh. “I’m no easy man. My friends are usually the ones to point that out.”

Curiosity nudged Fox to a question of his own. “Why do you want it?” he asked. “Tenure would only tie you down, make it harder to move.”

McKnight gave an angry bark of a laugh. “Because I’ve earned it, damn it. What do I care if some of your friends don’t want me? Hell, that’ll be true here or anywhere. That only makes it the sweeter.”

Fox nodded and remained silent.

McKnight nodded too. Lifting his cane in salute, he turned away, wading gingerly toward the road again through fallen leaves and the last isolated patches of the season’s snow.

Fox’s damp shirt had grown cold, chilling him. As he reached for the axe it seemed impossibly heavy. Looking up, he glimpsed a last flicker of McKnight’s bare head as he stepped onto the street. And something, maybe the way the man’s cane tapped out before him onto the asphalt searching for better purchase, or maybe it was the slant of light through the trees, or simply the chill in the air— something made Fox shiver. And he realized then that he’d made up his mind after all. That last glimmer of shadow as McKnight disappeared only sealed it. He grimaced with annoyance. Rather than allowing him to sit down and calmly, sanely, mull the merits of this difficult decision, the answer had ambushed him, an intuition from so deep in the bone that no merely intellectual exercise seemed adequate. It belied the impression he hoped others had of him: a man of care and thoughtful deliberation.

Instead of starting again on a fresh log, he angrily stacked the dozen quarters already on the ground. Had self-doubt, maybe even a splinter of guilt at McKnight’s initial assault on his motives, maneuvered him away from what he might otherwise decide? He paused, a shank of red maple in his hand. No, it didn’t feel that way. He didn’t think so. Nor had the dramatic (and mildly terrifying) appearance of the visitor in his backyard wrought some more profound transformation of his character. Bending one last time, he grunted at the untidy mysteries of the human soul, not least his own. On the whole he preferred dealing with the safely mediated passions of literature, no less and, ultimately, no more than words on a page.

Finally, he too retreated from the yard, unhappy with himself and the thoughts he’d discovered. He wondered what price he’d pay for them.

Perhaps Jeremy Fox had witnessed such transformations before, but no scene came readily to mind, none where he knew the source of secret poisons—and felt partly responsible for their effect. In a little under two hours Martin Crandall publicly withered with bitterness and rage. His face grew haggard, its creases deeply scored. Despite his quiet diplomacy on a broad front over recent weeks, despite his outright and finally nearly hysterical lobbying during this meeting, after much discussion and on a close vote, the English department decided to recommend tenure for Ryan McKnight.

Meri had been right. Once Fox shared his own thoughts on the matter, laying out the reasons for his hesitation, his ambivalence, his final conversion, four votes from old friends and one even from Lila Wallace had swung with him like sails waiting for a steady blow.

Fox knew the consequences would linger for years, long past his own retirement. Among them now at all future meetings McKnight would take his place, he and Crandall forced to bear one another to the end of their careers.

The last week had brought no further whispers of an endowed chair from the administration. Perhaps Crandall had only been toying with him. Much as Fox yearned for that distinction, however—a nagging, childish, burning want that embarrassed and harassed him—he decided not to broach it personally with the Provost. She could let him know when the time was right.

About Meri, Fox also waited—all of 12 days. He sensed—he was certain—she would come to him or summon him herself. Not that he actually looked forward to a confrontation. But talk, he believed, they must. Better the initiative should come from her.

From that quarter, however, rang only a deadening silence. The spring semester continued on its course, and in the last week of March spring actually forced the first shoots of green through muddy soil and gravel paths. Still no word from Meri. At last, impatient, curious, beaten, late on a Thursday afternoon while Crandall was harnessed with other department heads, Fox walked the half mile from his office through the village.

The neat little clapboard house with dormer windows yielded no sign of telling change. Meri’s aging station wagon sat empty in the drive. Before knocking, he peered through a window. As his foot sank into the soft garden for a better angle of spying, Meri tugged the door open, hand impatient on her hip. He jerked back and scraped the mud from his shoe on the flagstone path. She didn’t seem surprised, said nothing, merely stepped aside so that he could slide guiltily past.

Inside, nothing seemed amiss either. Far from it: the house shrieked its own tidiness. Not a paper was out of place in the living room, no book astray. Without her invitation, he fled directly toward the kitchen. But it too was cold and terrifying, no pots bubbling, no pies in the oven.

“My bags are upstairs,” Meri, following, said simply. “You’ve come just in time.”

“This is crazy,” he said.

“You don’t expect me to stay here,” she said. “How could I stay in his house any longer?”

Fox’s heart lightened. “Then you’re not going away?”

“I am going.”

“But is that what McKnight wants?”

She glared at him with exasperation. “Ryan hasn’t any clue what he wants, certainly not about me.”

A surge of panic—of despair and loneliness—startled Fox, stealing away his balance. He grasped the back of a chair, hoping she wouldn’t notice. The prospect of Meri disappearing from his life was more terrifying than he’d imagined. “Don’t go,” he pleaded, his voice betraying him. “Stay with me then. I’ve plenty of room. Too much. Settle yourself for a while, decide what you need.” He was rushing, rushing. “You’ve still got the catering—why not take over my kitchen?”

Meri laughed in scorn. “My business is a joke. It’s make-work, the land of thing you give lunatics to distract them, so they won’t grow violent.” She pressed both hands to her forehead. “This place is hell, Jeremy. You’re so deep into it you can’t even make out the truth. I’ve always imagined that’s why Barbara left.” She darted a quick glance at him, perhaps surprised she’d spoken it aloud. Fox stiffened.

“I used to think it was you, that maybe you’d done something wild and terrible while I was off in grad school,” she said. “Barbara was just, well, gone when I came back. I wondered—I kind of hoped— maybe you’d fallen for a student or a colleague’s wife. Some glorious passion. But you wouldn’t do that, would you?”

He stared silently, her words bruising as body blows. He sagged and kept his grasp on the chair. She was far, far off the mark, of course, yet close enough in truth. He was willing to endure. He could endure.

“I suppose she had to save herself. Did she give you any warning? I picture Barbara in her garden, just dropping her spade one day. She’d dust her knees, pull on a jacket, and fly. Was it like that?”

Something had hardened about Meri’s mouth and at the corners of her eyes over the last weeks. “This nice village with its nice college and all the nice residents watching your students come and go, generation after generation ‘til the end of time—it’s a smug little asylum. But you don’t even know your own misery until something wakes you from the nightmare. For me it happened to be love.”

“Don’t go,” he murmured again. “I don’t pretend to understand any of it, least of all myself. It’s all such confusion, it’s all so unknowable.”

“Unknowable?” she wailed at him in fury, her arms trembling, the skin across the bridge of her nose stretched white. “Unknowable? You made a choice, didn’t you? You arranged Ryan’s tenure, didn’t you? Why, Jeremy? You couldn’t do me the one favor? How much have I asked, ever?”

“How can I ignore what he swears he wants, or what I think is best for the school?” Fox spread his hands helplessly, despising all the while the whine in his own voice.

“Screw the school. And him? Screw Ryan too. Like I said, he doesn’t know what he should want.” Her eyes brimmed, cruel and full of despair. “Have you been here so long, fighting the good fight, serving on your committees, you’ve forgotten what love is?”

He flailed a hand, lamely protecting himself. The world seemed to be reeling away, the very ground beneath his feet not to be trusted. And yet, the ground didn’t give way and neither did he—he held steady in the face of it all. Steadier than he might have expected. Numb and sad and lonely, yes, he remained a still center as the emotional chaos of these people swirled about him, destroying so much.

Meri said nothing more. As if this moment were as good as any—or as if the last exchange with Jeremy Fox, her mentor, a man who’d loved her close on 15 years, had danced her a final step beyond the precipice—she fled the kitchen to fetch two small bags, pulled on a raincoat too light for early spring, and, still without another word, with no gesture at all, climbed into the battered station wagon in the drive and pulled away.

The silence in the house wasn’t empty. It rang with shouts and accusations that Fox could only imagine, but did not, did not, did not want to imagine. From an antique cabinet in the dining room he drew a bottle of Martin Crandall’s expensive scotch, poured some into a tumbler, took a long pull. But the whisky hit his stomach hard and angry. It threatened to rise again into his throat. Bottle and glass he abandoned in the open, but he did bring himself to shut the door of the house as he left, making his way slowly into the village. At the cross of gravel paths he halted, unable to return to his own house, unwilling to retreat to Ascension Hall, lost.


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