By: Stephen A. Geller
Today, leaves just beginning to turn, Henry is scheduled to lunch with the new department chair. Henry’s brow furrows when he thinks about the chairman’s agenda for the meeting; there is none.
Henry, however, plans to discuss slowing down. Not retire completely—not this year or the next, he will emphasize—but likely in the next five years. No, not likely, he admonishes himself. Definitely. Definitely in the next five and definitely not past his seventy-fifth birthday. He feels perfectly well, but he has some things he wants to accomplish in his remaining years; one more try at a novel, maybe put his teaching experiences into an article or perhaps even a book devoted to the craft of writing, travel to places he and Kathy never visited. She would want him to be adventurous.
Lunch with the chair, Dariush Teherani, will be in his office. Teherani came to America with his family when he was twelve years old. After undergraduate studies at Yale, he earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago where he stayed on faculty, rapidly rising to the rank of professor. A widely acknowledged expert on sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century British poetry, his biography of John Donne was highly praised, as was a novel based on presumed common acquaintances of Keats and Shelley. The Provost described him as “a force in academia” in the memo announcing the first interview. Offered other chairs around the country, Teherani decided to come to Brooklyn because his wife, almost twenty years younger and a native New Yorker, accepted a position as flautist with the New York Philharmonic. They live in Manhattan, near Lincoln Center, with their teenage children.
Teherani developed innovative internet-based teaching modules when that approach was almost unheard of in university English departments. The programs, adopted at a number of colleges both nationally and internationally, made him a little wealthier and much better known. He also pioneered the forging of alliances between academia and industry, including publishers. He was on Oprah’s show after the success of his novel. The Chicago housewives in the audience loved him, in part because he was distinctly handsome with appropriately graying temples reminiscent, to the few much-older women in the crowd, of a mustache-less Ronald Colman. Glassy-eyed stares came from younger women who imagined George Clooney.
Some years the September air can be crisp and cold enough for some mist with each breath—today is one of those days. These are fine days for Henry, although some colleagues are already muttering the same annually voiced plaintive clichés: “summers get shorter and shorter” and “another winter around the corner.” Soon the too-brief after-Thanksgiving ennui will evaporate, replaced by spasmodic torrents of student anxiety as term papers become due and faculty hurl threatening hints about approaching final exams. Muttered expressions of woe, including repeated “damn MCATs” and “fucking LSATs,” hum from many library carrels.
Henry has lived here almost his whole life except for three years in Iowa City—the first time he left Brooklyn—where he earned his doctorate. He thinks of himself as having grown up, matured, and, yes, aged right on this campus.
The diary he started the first day of his freshman year now includes more than fifty volumes, one for each year since he began college. The major events of his life, including the Iowa years, are in those books. Browsing through them now and then, he refreshes his memory about some event or reminds himself about a former student whose name he sees in a newspaper or magazine. When Tod Wiseman’s second novel was displayed in the college bookstore, Henry recalled he hadn’t enjoyed Tod’s style when he was a student in Henry’s advanced writing class. “Very talented but thinks he knows it all—you can tell from the prose,” he noted that year after giving Wiseman an “A” grade. Years later, after reading Wiseman’s fourth novel, he added: “Still full of himself. Needs a different P.O.V. about life.”
When those books of reminiscences looked uncomfortably crowded on a cherry-wood shelf in his home office, Kathy wouldn’t let him put the notebooks in basement storage. “So many old friends in those pages,” she protested when he started to box them. She made room for them in the den.
Younger than most of his classmates when he started college, Henry recognized, many years later and with some regret, that he wasn’t mature enough. Coming from an all-boys high school, he was abruptly immersed in, and confused by, a world of attractive, well-to-do and well-dressed young men and women at least as bright as he was but, in contrast, socially clever. Henry’s family was blue-collar, and it seemed that all of his college peers were at least upper-middle-class. Very few college friends were as shy and unworldly as he. Without any effort or planning, Henry finished his undergraduate years almost as naïve, and definitely as virginal, as the day he started.
When his first short story and a few poems gained a junior high school teacher’s encouraging approval, Henry irrevocably decided to study English. To be a teacher. To be a writer. Those were his goals, his needs. There were no other choices for him. Strong recommendation letters from college professors, coupled with solid grades, earned him admission to excellent graduate programs, some offering significant financial support. His parents provided some savings and he took a Greyhound to Iowa City, where Warren, Lowell, Frost, and John Irving once taught.
His affordable rented room on East Davenport Street was a long walk from campus. That first winter was unusually cold for Iowa and the coldest Henry ever experienced. The landlady kept the temperature too low for his comfort and, from January to mid-March, he read, studied, and slept wrapped in a sleeping bag covered with the comforter.
The sleeping bag purchase depleted most of his bank account, and he ate only one meal a day for almost five weeks. You could refill your plate as much as you wanted at the late evening cafeteria meal, and he only lost three or four pounds. One weekend, it was too exhausting to even think about walking through the mounting snow banks that obscured the streets—the wind so cold that his ears, his nose, and even his gloved fingers hurt—and Henry stayed in his room, managing on tea and Ritz crackers with peanut butter.
But he learned important things: he could get by with only a little food, at least for periods of time; he could manage by himself although he was often lonely until the second semester when friendships developed; he missed Brooklyn. Living in Iowa was okay, but it wasn’t home.
Henry had part-time jobs. Two evenings a week at the used-book store. Every other weekend the campus library. He washed dishes at a small restaurant the weekends he wasn’t in the library. The few extra dollars in his pocket let him splurge every now and then, without too much guilt, on a newly published novel or a collection of poems.
The isolation, especially after the leaves fell and it got cold, allowed him time to read and think and write and study more than ever before. He understood why many of the great universities were at about the same latitude, in a belt with winters and rain and snow, the climate strongly encouraging significant time indoors.
He happily accepted a teaching assistant position in his second year, grading examination papers and providing tutorial services for undergraduates. That’s when he knew how much he loved teaching, even more than writing. He was elated every time he helped a freshman understand the meaning of Emerson’s essays, or when a junior ran up to him in the corridor to say how much she enjoyed reading Maugham. Once, an excited exchange student from Sweden, Ingrid, shrieked, “Professor Goode, Professor Goode, wait for me. Wait,” as he was passing Macbride Hall. She put the stack of books she was carrying in her arms on the ground and recited a part of Leaves of Grass, showing newfound understanding of the innate rhythm of the poem as well as the literal and figurative meaning of the stirring words. That night Henry was so happy he treated himself to dinner, including a glass of red wine, at Gibby’s, a warm and cozy restaurant on East Washington Street. He briefly considered inviting Ingrid to accompany him but didn’t think that would be a good idea. Besides, she tended to giggle a lot and Henry was not much of a talker; he just wanted to eat a really good meal in peace and quiet.
He also learned at least a little about women. Some attractive undergrads deliberately sought him out in the library or during study hall, often with the flimsiest of explanations. A few, surprising to him, were bold enough to eventually invite themselves into his bed. In January of his second year, he and Annie Robinson, another graduate student, were inseparable until, a year ahead of him, she graduated and took a junior faculty job at Berkeley with promises to come back as soon as she could. Three months later, she wrote to tell him she met someone. She didn’t give a name but said he was on the faculty and “a few travel-filled years” older than she.
Until that letter, Henry thought he was in love with Annie, but then he knew he wasn’t. He missed her but he was happy she met a man she liked—a man she would eventually marry—and he was ready to date again sooner than he expected.
And he came to understand—at about the time he was preparing “Melville: the socioeconomic, cultural, and political forces shaping his life and his writing,” the dissertation he would successfully defend for his PhD—that he wasn’t going to write the great American novel. Or even come close. Still, he was content, expecting to be completely satisfied spending his life teaching, intending to carry out enough research to steadily, if slowly, move up the academic ladder. He would try to get a short story or essay published every now and then, but teaching was his passion. He still dreamed about writing a novel, even if it wasn’t going to be the novel.
At the start of his senior year in Iowa, the day the leaves first fell, he received a letter from Professor Astrachan, the undergraduate faculty advisor who had strongly supported his graduate school aspirations. Written in Astrachan’s elaborate, almost calligraphic script, the message was short, bordering on abrupt. “Henry, I will retire in May. A new instructor-level position is posted. I’d like you to take it.” Henry immediately submitted his name and, three months later, gratefully accepted when offered the job.
Five times in seven years, he won the department teaching award voted on by the students. After the fifth time, he insisted he shouldn’t get it again for at least five years, no matter what the vote was. “We need to encourage new faculty, don’t we?” he said to Michael Flaherty, his department chair at that time.
Henry kept track of former students, especially those who became writers or educators, taking special pride in the ones who once were teaching assistants as well as those who became high school teachers or college professors. He made sure his colleagues and current students knew of alumni accomplishments, posting notices of publications or other forms of recognition on the department bulletin board. Each year he invited an alumnus—Tod Wiseman was one—to visit and talk to his classes. No one ever refused. Most invitees added, in their letters of acceptance, how pleased they were to hear from Henry, reminding him how his support, encouragement, and sage advice meant so much in their careers, in their lives. He lingered over those notes, especially proud to call himself “teacher.”
A month before his thirtieth birthday, about to be promoted to associate professor, he met, fell in love with, and soon married Kathy Colley, a new librarian from Ann Arbor. Five years younger than Henry, Kathy was a spirited, joyful woman with reddish-brown hair and a pretty face, her cheeks decorated with freckles. Henry first thought she was a student until he learned she was head of the recently created section on new media––which then included mostly videotapes and DVRs––later renamed “the electronic media section.” He especially loved the sinews of steel she showed for issues in which she passionately believed; Eugene McCarthy, women’s rights—including abortions, despite her Catholic upbringing—as well as civil rights. She insisted, despite Henry’s evident concern and anxiety, they walk through Harlem with the hundreds following Mayor Lindsay the night Martin Luther King was killed. Inconsolable for weeks after the June day when Bobby Kennedy was murdered, she refused to watch television news until election night more than four months later, and then wept when Nixon won.
Kathy supported Henry’s love of teaching, only rarely jealous when it took more time than expected, only rarely complaining about the modest salary he supplemented by writing reviews and tutoring. When he occasionally fretted about money, she reminded him, “With our two salaries, we are really quite comfortable, you know.”
Henry and Kathy hosted “Academia in Literature,” a non-credit elective, in their home once a month. Students, including a few TAs, would discuss a novel or play that featured a teacher. Over the years, Brideshead, Possession, and many others were considered. Seven students participated the first time it was offered. After word spread about the enthusiastic discussions and the good food, more signed up until they had to limit the group to twenty.
After dinner, students lingered in Henry’s book-stuffed office enjoying his Tennyson collection or a first edition of Leaves of Grass Professor Astrachan had given him—Henry hovered close when students handled it—or the rows of Cheever, Updike, and Irwin Shaw first editions. They asked about the framed photographs: the picture of Jackie Robinson Henry took with his Kodak Brownie when that hero visited Henry’s junior high school; a young Henry and his brother at Mount Rushmore; Henry in front of the Iowa state capitol; Kathy and Henry at the Medici Fountain in Paris; Kathy, a broad smile on her face, and Henry, serious as usual, at Nathan’s in Coney Island, holding half-eaten hot dogs, their cheeks obviously stuffed, the big sign proclaiming “famous” and “original” directly behind them. A few students looked closely and pointed to the large smudge of mustard at the corner of Kathy’s mouth. She had proclaimed it the best hot dog ever. And the best fries. And the best orange drink. “Why haven’t I ever heard of this place?” she added, putting her arm in his. “Let’s come again next weekend.”
Unhappily, there were two miscarriages, and Kathy never again became pregnant. They cried together after the first and cried even more after the second. On his fiftieth birthday, Kathy reminded Henry that he really had hundreds of children, none of them his own, just like Arthur Chipping, also a teacher and another, albeit fictional, hero. After toasting each other with wine at dinner, they reached across the table with a napkin to wipe the other’s tears. Quietly and deeply devoted to each other, he and Kathy travelled wide and far. She loved Paris more than any place but made sure they visited the Galapagos and New Zealand, safaried in Kenya, and so much more.
On Henry’s fifty-ninth birthday, Kathy was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Two years later, on a chilly and gloomy late September day, with the first of the season’s leaves falling, and despite the caring efforts of the best oncologists at Mount Sinai and Sloan-Kettering, she died. Henry wasn’t sure he could cry without her reassuring him, consoling him, and then he wept.
Henry took a leave of absence that semester and the next. Kathy often urged him to take a sabbatical to study and work on his writing, but he never found a project that interested him more than teaching. Now, her death forced him to stop. To think.
At first, he just walked all day, day after day, up and down the streets of Flatbush and Midwood, sometimes to Manhattan, sometimes to Coney Island, just as he and Kathy had done together on many a weekend. He bought a hot dog at Nathan’s but couldn’t eat it. He didn’t write in his diary for many months after she died, except for the day of her funeral: “I’ve lost Kathy. What do I do about this block of ice in my chest where my heart was?” Staring at the page with just the two sentences, he knew he had much more to say, but crying and sobbing kept him from continuing.
He came to the office weekends to check his mail but mostly to get out of the house. The office was always very quiet, the phone rarely rang, and he struggled to rekindle his writing efforts. A novel tried to recapture Kathy in prose, but he was never satisfied with it, never able to portray her warmth, that special smile. He sensed how he felt when he held her, but he couldn’t write those moments down; it hurt too much. He tried poetry, but those key first lines never came. Sometimes he just stayed until late afternoon, reading or doing crossword puzzles. Sundays might be a museum or, more often, home with the New York Times and a good book, Beethoven, Bach, or Dvorak in the background.
When the first crocuses started to sprout, he decided to get away but he couldn’t decide where to go without Kathy’s help. Finally, in late April, the time of her birthday, he visited some European cities she loved most, including Dublin, Venice, and, of course, Paris. He thought of her, saw her, felt her presence everywhere he went and was at peace by the time he returned home.
He dated one woman or another, some for a few weeks, most for the one date alone. Two years after Kathy’s death, he renewed his friendship with Annie Robinson, now also a professor, when they met while taking summer courses at Oxford—she was studying Victorian novelists and he Arthurian legends. Her husband, the novelist Tom Sydenham, had recently died. After Oxford, Henry and Annie shared five rainy but wonderful days in London. Every few months, Henry flew to Berkeley to be with her and she came to Brooklyn a few times, but, despite strong affection for each other, neither wanted to relocate from either their homes or their academic positions. He was happy but knew he wasn’t in love with her. While patting his cheek and kissing him gently on the lips, she told him, the corners of her mouth deliberately turned down, he wasn’t her Tom. And he was okay with that, because she wasn’t his Kathy.
Henry never earned a significant national reputation, but he was content to be an effective and admired teacher. He was especially pleased when students, some with careers in teaching or writing or both, remembered him with Christmas cards and occasional letters. In recent years, Facebook invitations came urging him to “friend” this or that old acquaintance; he almost always did, reminding himself Kathy would want him to keep up with the times.
Michael Flaherty, Teherani’s predecessor, a renowned Sherlock Holmes scholar, had published an important annotated version of the Holmes stories. Robust and big-bellied, Flaherty even smoked a large-bowl Meerschaum pipe and wore a deerstalker cap. His dandruff fell like volcanic deposits, more from his bushy beard and his unruly eyebrows than from the thinning hair patches on his scalp. He drank a little more scotch than necessary. A gentle soul, the faculty enjoyed his company and friendship and knew they were lucky to have such an easygoing chief. Students loved Flaherty, loved his gentle Irish accent, loved his exuberant and disorganized lectures filled with stories and jokes that had nothing to do with the course, loved when he showed old black-and-white Holmes movies and, not least, loved the fact that he was a generous grader.
Presiding over a meeting of the local chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars, the lapels and vest of his dark-blue suit coated with white flakes, smoke lazily curling from the darkened bowl of his pipe, Flaherty began a toast to Irene Adler, in honor of her 150th birthday. “Don’t forget she’s from New Jersey,” he rumbled with a full brogue. Then, waving an oversized stein filled to the brim with dark lager, and spraying a few suds on his neighbors, he dropped the earthenware mug and collapsed to the floor, clutching his chest, dying almost instantly from a massive heart attack.
Interim chair for almost two years, Henry didn’t make any major changes, kept his usual teaching schedule, and still oversaw the TA program.
Teherani’s exceptional qualifications, his great confidence and charm during interviews, and his knowledge of industry, business, and day-to-day economics, uncommon among the academics on the search committee, made him the early favorite among applicants, and he was strongly supported by the Provost. Despite online ratings by former students that were uniformly unfavorable, including comments such as “cold,” “demanding,” “dictatorial,” and “arrogant”—one had crudely penned, “He’s a bully, colder than tits on a nun, and I bet he’s a crook”—he was selected to lead the department. As Walter Frobisher, the chair of biology, noted, “He won’t be the first chairman who is a lousy teacher and offends students. He can still create a first-rate department if he attracts and nurtures young faculty and simultaneously brings in some money.”
At Teherani’s first department meeting as chair, he employed a colorful and carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation to help illustrate his plans, alluding to what he described as “increasingly necessary” and “inevitable” activities to bring significant new revenues to the department. In contrast to his old boss, Flaherty, Henry was quite comfortable with computers, but the skills he had learned from Kathy were gradually declining now that she was gone. A presentation as dazzling as that of the new chair seemed beyond him.
“I don’t have to tell you these are tough times for higher education,” Teherani emphasized. “We want to preserve the department’s strengths, but we also need to grow, to expand our scope, to develop new expertise. We may have to compromise on some outdated goals, some old, cherished programs, for the greater good.”
Before the meeting ended, Provost Fleissner slipped into the back of the room. When Teherani finished, Fleissner stood and told the group, “Professor Teherani will revitalize a department with excellent faculty, a department that has languished for too long.” He, Fleissner, would lend the full support of his office.
Afterward, discouraged faculty members strolled to Farrell’s on Nostrand for a beer and an unofficial faculty meeting, sans the new chairman.
“Fleissner retains his non-exalted and hypo-esteemed standing as a class-A jerk,” Mort Davidson said.
“Maybe if that asshole Fleissner hadn’t cut Mike Flaherty’s budget year after year,” shouted Ken Sugimoru, “more than any other liberal arts department, we wouldn’t have ‘languished,’ whatever the hell that means.”
“Henry, where are you, Henry?” Lily Klein stood up to look around. “Oh, there you are. You should have applied for the job. You have some great ideas.” Lily was followed by a few shouts of “that’s right” and “you bet,” but Henry knew he was too old to be considered and, further, he was sure his ideas were not those needed by a modern academic English department. Most importantly, he no longer had the energy or ambition required to be chairman. Kathy would have understood.
Teherani always treated Henry with respect and Henry isn’t sure what to expect as he enters Teherani’s office for their lunch meeting.
“Professor Teherani will be a few minutes late,” his assistant, Adele, half-whispers as she escorts Henry into the inner office. “He’s coming from a meeting and called to say he’s on the way. Sandwiches are here, and he said you should start eating.”
Before Henry can say he’ll wait, Teherani rushes into the room, hand extended. “Henry, good to see you. Thanks for coming up. We haven’t had a chance for a leisurely talk since I got settled.” He waves at the round conference table. Their sandwiches are on fine china plates decorated with a floral pattern. “Limoges” comes to Henry’s mind but he really doesn’t know. An open bottle of French vin blanc is in the middle of the table and a small Perrier bottle and stylish wineglass at each setting.
Henry is startled by the changes in the office since he, and Flaherty before him, occupied it. Neither of them liked overhead fluorescent lights, preferring the warm glow of incandescent lamps. Flaherty’s décor was dark and distinctly Victorian, with red velvet drapes covering the windows. Henry once jokingly suggested there should be gas lamps on sconces or maybe even candles. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of that, laddie.” Flaherty seemed very serious as he wagged his pipe at Henry. “Just haven’t figured out how to get around the damn fire regs.”
Partly because he liked it and partly because he did not want to use department money for what he expected to be a short tenure as acting chair, Henry kept the old, dark furniture, including the two burgundy-red leather armchairs. Mostly, he wanted the memories. How many pleasant late afternoon chats in those chairs talking about everything and anything? Flaherty puffing on his pipe and an open bottle of Glenlivet in front of them. Henry had the drapes removed so he could look out on the campus whenever he wanted, but he still relied on desk and floor lamps when the sun went down.
The refurbished office Teherani now occupies is bright and sterile; the blond-wood desktop empty except for a white pad, three sharpened pencils, and a shiny wide-screen computer with a wireless keyboard. Four contemporary tan leather and chrome chairs surround the table where they now sit. Ceiling lights are on although it’s midday and more than enough sunshine pours in through the windows. Diplomas and awards cover the walls. Dozens of photographs—Teherani and Chicago’s Mayor Daley, Teherani and a former Undersecretary of Education, Teherani and a saffron-robed Buddhist monk, Teherani and Oprah—vie for space on the bookshelves, along with a few family photos.
As they eat, Teherani asks questions about Henry’s summer, how he is managing back in his old office, about his classes, about any good books Henry recently read, movies he has seen. When the sandwiches and potato chips are gone, Teherani refills their wineglasses and pushes his chair back a few inches.
“Henry, I need your support on a few things.” Teherani’s slight accent is mostly Midwestern with only the barest trace of Farsi from his childhood.
“Please.” Henry eases the empty plate aside, clasping his hands before him.
“I don’t have to tell you, money is scarce.”
“I’m spending a lot of time looking for money. You know as well as I do that the budget is getting tighter and faculty salaries are already behind the national scale.”
“We have some great plans for this department, plans to put us on the same page as the best English departments in the country.”
“As just one example, we’ll recruit three new faculty members this year. Two more the next.”
Henry hears this as a prelude to his being asked to retire and surrender his salary. He’s prepared to teach for nothing, but he’d like to keep his office. All he says is, “Wonderful.”
“I’d like you to sit on the search committee for all three. You bring a perspective no one else offers. I’ll chair and we’ll have three other members, as well as someone from the Provost’s office for the one full professor position.”
“Of course.” Surprised at not being pushed into retirement, Henry looks directly into Teherani’s gray, unrevealing eyes. There was always a little sparkle in Mike Flaherty’s glance, as if he was chuckling over a good joke, often fortified by the bottle kept on the bookshelf behind Shakespeare’s Complete Works. Henry refocuses his attention as Teherani continues.
Henry moves his hand to cover the rim of his glass. “No, no, thank you.”
Teherani, clearing his throat, crosses one leg over the other. “Henry, I’m cutting TAs.”
Henry senses his jaw falling, almost before it happens. After a deep breath, brow wrinkled, half-squinting, he leans forward and says, “I don’t understand.”
“The teaching assistants.”
“Yes, I understand that. What do you mean by ‘cutting’?”
“We’re going to remove at least eight positions from the budget. Maybe ten. The trade-off for getting some money for new faculty was to cut whatever wasn’t necessary.”
“But the TAs?” Henry hears himself stammering. He forces his hands to his lap when he thinks they might be shaking. “The TAs are a part of the program. They provide considerable help. They, they …” He coughs twice, a closed fist in front of his mouth. “They’re integral to our program.”
“Yes, well, the faculty will just have to take up the slack.”
“Possibly all of them next year.”
“The TAs depend on that money to continue their studies.”
“I know.” Now Teherani leans forward. “But ten fewer will help support the new faculty. Fleissner is putting up some money, but not all of it, not the extra ten or twenty thou to let us be competitive. We had to come up with at least some dollars.”
“Some of our TAs have gone on to wonderful careers in teaching. In writing. After their TA experience. This can mean a lot to them. It means a lot to me.”
Teherani sits back again and places his left hand, palm down, fingers flared, on the table. “I know, Henry, why do you think I’m telling you first?”
“Shouldn’t we discuss this at a department meeting?”
“I’ve been over the numbers, Henry. I made the decision.” His voice is completely flat.
Henry takes another deep breath. “I’ll retire. That’ll free up some money.”
“Henry, I need your experience this first year. I want you to be vice-chair, at least for now. I’m not a hands-on type administrator, and you’ve run the place for two years. I need you to take care of the day-to-day. We’ll talk about whether you retire or don’t retire at the end of the academic year.” He fills his wineglass. “The cold reality is we just don’t need them as much as we used to before the computer age. Almost half of my lectures are already available online. I’ll have the rest online by the end of the year. I really don’t care if the students show up. I expect all of the lectures, all of the department courses,” he pauses and stares at Henry, “to be online within two years. TAs are going, Henry. If not this year, next. But,” lowering his voice a little, Teherani separates the words, “at least ten this year.”
Henry has nothing to say. He feels a distinct chill and aches to talk with Kathy.
“Everyone will be a little busier, and there may not be time for frills such as after-hours electives.” He stands up, signaling the end of the meeting—before Henry can explain that those “frills” weren’t paid for with department money—and then says, “I won’t tolerate objections on this.”
Heading for the door, shoulders slightly bent, Henry thinks about all those commercial ventures and wonders why they couldn’t support the TAs.
At home that evening, Henry pours some red wine, the glass fuller than usual. He puts Mahler’s second symphony in the CD player, knowing the beginning will depress him even further but hoping the last moments, as usual, prove uplifting.
As music fills the room, Henry asks himself if now is the time to draw a line. He says aloud, as if Kathy were there, “What kind of line can I draw anyway? Does it matter? If I don’t quit, am I approving or just complying? Shouldn’t somebody protest?”
He suddenly misses Kathy more than he has since the first month after she died.
He dashes into his library and pulls out his well-worn volume of Irwin Shaw stories, suddenly wanting to again read The Monument, to again see McMahon tell Mr. Grimmett, his boss, that he refuses to have the salesman Thesing’s inferior private stock served at the bar. Shaw was a student where Henry studied, where Henry now teaches. Henry often provides copies of this story to students when they discuss Mockingbird, Atonement—any story in which moral issues and ethical decisions are integral. As the wine begins to warm him, Henry again reads Shaw’s tale about setting standards, maintaining integrity, about doing the right thing.
After a long swallow of wine, almost draining the glass, he loudly says, “Is this as big an issue as I am making it? Should I stand up to Grimmett? That is my question.”
Kathy would gently ask if he was making too much of too little, while encouraging him to follow his heart. On the table is the photograph of Kathy in front of Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino. They were there celebrating her fiftieth birthday. “You look as young and lovely as when we married,” he said to her then, and he meant it. In the photograph her jacket is open. Small-boned, she looks both delicate and strong. That flat belly, the marvelous sunshine grin on her face—she looks like a dancer. The sprawling lawn, blanketed with layers of fallen leaves covering her boots to the ankles, glistens with morning dew. Streaming rays of sun dance off the red in her hair, strands just beginning to gray. When they change places for her to take his picture he says, very seriously, his forehead wrinkled as if it were something never before considered, “I think you are so beautiful.” She snaps his photo and then runs the few short steps to fling her arms around his neck and kiss him. “Your secret is completely safe with me,” she whispers in his ear.
Henry’s thoughts return to the present. Should I walk out on the place I’ve been my entire life? A job I love?
We’ll still have some TAs. The program won’t disappear completely. These are tough times. Teherani will bring us national recognition. The faculty will be stronger, better, more renowned.
Maybe not. Maybe it’s the TAs that give us time to publish, time to prepare first-rate lectures. They help us with our research. Isn’t the TA program part of what attracts students to come study with us?
He refills his glass, holding it up to the light to enjoy the rich burgundy color. The Mahler is not yet at the exhilarating finale.
What choices do I have?
Henry heads upstairs to his office to call Phil Carey. Phil, a TA almost twenty years ago, now chairs the English department at Kingsborough Community College close to the far-east tip of Coney Island. He came as a guest speaker three years ago.
I wouldn’t be able to walk to work anymore.
The subway ride will give me more reading time.
I’m just exploring.
Phil may not have anything.
Maybe he does.
Perhaps an opening for a part-timer, an adjunct professorship?
That bright smudge of mustard on Kathy’s smiling face, so many summers ago, pops into Henry’s mind.
I’ll be close to Nathan’s hot dogs. That’s not so bad.