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THE HOLE WE'RE IN A Novel
By Gabrielle Zevin
Black Cat Copyright © 2010 Gabrielle Zevin
All right reserved.
Chapter One A June and Six Septembers
MIDWAY THROUGH HIS son's graduation from college, somewhere between the Ns and the Os, Roger Pomeroy decided that he owed it to himself to go back to school. He was forty-two years old, though people told him at least once a week that he looked younger. Last Christmas, a salesgirl had mistaken his then nineteen-year-old daughter for his wife. Last week, a different salesgirl had mistaken his forty-one-year-old wife for his mother. He knew it wasn't flattery, because in both instances the salesgirls had already made their sales: respectively, a flannel nightgown (wife's Christmas) and a leather fanny pack (son's graduation). And, at work-Roger was an assistant principal at the same Christian high school that his two older children had attended-all the girls flirted with him no matter how much he discouraged the practice.
His wife, George (née Georgia), nudged him. "You're supposed to be standing." Roger looked at the crowd, then past it to the dais. A flag was being raised. Everyone was standing, so Roger stood.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to do it now. Roger had completed a master's in education while working full-time, but if he wanted to get really serious (that is to say, a PhD) he would have to take leave. He had three children: Vincent, the son who was graduating; Helen, who would be a college junior the following year; and Patricia, age ten, the baby of the family though hardly a baby anymore. In any case, the kids were mostly grown, which meant two fewer mouths to feed. And if George had to work a couple of extra hours-here, he paused to smile at his wife. The smile was meant to acknowledge the official magnitude of the occasion, A Son's Graduation from College, but George immediately detected the ulterior in it. She grinned back.
Roger lowered his thoughts to a whisper. If George had to work a couple of extra hours, it would ultimately be for the best. With a PhD, Roger would earn more money, which meant the wife could retire altogether. Based on the time it had taken him to complete his master's, Roger estimated three years for a doctorate. He had been a family man for twenty-two years, over half his life. He had never cheated at anything, marriage included. He was an honorary pastor at their church and considered himself to be a better-than-average Christian. He had made sacrifices for others and now, he reckoned, sacrifices should be made for him.
George squeezed her husband's hand. "Earth to Roger," she whispered. "Your son's next."
They called Vinnie's name, and Roger applauded. He had missed his own graduation from college because George had gone into labor with the boy. It seemed fitting and good that he had come to this decision on this day.
Caps flew through the air and Roger's eyes filled with tears. The youngest, Patsy, was standing on the other side of him. He lifted her over his shoulders so that she could better see the show.
"Daddy," Patsy said. She placed her doll hands on his cheeks. "Are you crying because you're still mad at Vinnie?"
"No, I'm just happy, baby."
* * *
FIFTEEN MONTHS LATER, Roger moved his family from Tennessee to Texas and began the PhD program at Teacher's College, Texas University. He loved being full-time and working forms of the word matriculate into casual conversation. He was a sucker for anything (mugs, mouse pads, tube socks) with the Fighting Yellow Devils logo, despite the fact that these items were sold at a premium. If he could have afforded and gotten his wife to agree to it, he would have lived in student housing.
No doubt about it, the first year was difficult financially. The move alone had drained a good portion of their savings. But, by the second year, Roger had a decent teaching stipend amounting to fifteen thousand dollars per annum-less than a third of what he had taken in as an assistant principal, but combined with low-interest student loans, high-interest credit cards, a cashed-in retirement plan, and George's job, not bad. And besides, he wouldn't be a student forever. Just three years. Or four. Certainly no more than four.
After a summer of soul searching, Roger settled on a topic for his dissertation September of his fifth year. He would study the differences between kids who had attended schools with a religious component and kids who hadn't. The topic was near to his heart: Patsy, now nearly sixteen, was going to a public school because no acceptable religious one had been found within a thirty-mile radius of Texas U. Roger's standards for such an institution were very high indeed.
For the record, it was not an extraordinarily slow pace at which to complete a PhD. It was on the fast side of average, though it had obviously exceeded Roger's initial estimates.
George asked him if he might consider going back to work fulltime while writing the dissertation. Roger declined. He had a lot of research to do, and he believed the whole enterprise would go more quickly if he could just focus. One other thing: upon reading his proposal, his adviser, the distinguished professor Carolyn Murray, had commented, "There just might be a book in this, Rog." He was embarrassed by how many times he'd repeated these words to himself. Despite the comfort he took in them, Roger chose not to share them with his wife. Instead, he imagined the following scene:
Roger, who has not yet turned fifty but regardless looks much younger, has taken Georgia to the nicest restaurant in town. "Can we afford this?" George asks after a cursory look at the menu. Roger nods and encourages the woman to order whatever she wants. "Well, if you're certain ..." "I am, George. I am." After dessert is served, Roger casually reaches under the table and pulls a published book out from under it. "What's this?" she asks. "It's a book," he says. [Alternatively, he says, "It's all our dreams come true," though this line effectually ends the scene, and Roger prefers to draw it out.] George looks at the book. "But, it has your name on the cover." "That's because it's my book, George. It's our book, and it's going to make us very, very rich." "Why, Roger," she says, "I didn't even know you were writing a book!" "I wanted to keep it a secret until I was sure," he says, turning back the cover with a jaunty flick of the wrist. "Read this . . ." George puts on her glasses: "To my family, especially my wife, Georgia, without whom there would be no book. And to our Lord Savior, Jesus Christ, without whom there would be no life." George clears her throat. [Sometimes, the dedication continues: And to Professor Carolyn Murray, who supported this book in its infancy ... And sometimes not. His wife's hypothetical retort, "Roger, who's Carolyn Murray?" pushed the scene in an unusual and frankly somewhat undesirable direction.] "And look"-Roger flips to the back flap-"your name's here, too. I've used the picture you took of me at Helen's wedding for my author photo. You're a professional photographer, George!" [He considers this to be a particularly nice touch, including her in the process as it did.] George's voice is husky with emotion. "Come here, you wonderful, wonderful man!"
"Roger." The dream was deferred by Professor Murray's latest assistant: a skinny, pimple-scarred, faux-hawked, gay (or so Roger suspected), overpriced-glasses-wearing, twenty-four-year-old kid, who claimed his name was Cherish. The kid was also at approximately the same place in the PhD program as Roger. "Carolyn will see you now."
Her office was nice enough, but nothing special: furniture made of wood and not the particleboard rubbish that cluttered the offices of the junior faculty and staff; a brown leather chair with just the right patina; a Tiffany-style lamp; framed and matted reproductions by O'Keefe and Gauguin; a photograph of the professor with Laura Bush, the governor's wife; another with Coretta Scott King; a humdinger of a group shot that included First Lady Hillary Clinton, poet laureate Maya Angelou, and Betty Friedan, taken at a women's education summit in Washington, DC; a rather phallic pillar candle scented in cucumber-melon; an Oriental (Roger wondered if the term was offensive ...) rug on the floor that almost managed to distract from the gray industrial carpet that plagued even the most attractive parts of campus; a first-class view of the university chapel and memorial gardens. It really is nothing special, he thought, but it really should be mine.
He had the same birthday as Professor Murray: March 12, though she was five years older than him. This fact had been revealed under somewhat embarrassing circumstances during Roger's second year in the program. At the end of one of her famous lecture classes, her inner circle of students, a group that did not include Roger, arranged for a surprise cake. Roger stood when he saw the cake speeding through the door on the borrowed AV cart. How had they known it was his birthday? He was giddy with astonishment and pleasure. The cake made its way down the aisle, sweet and white as a bride, and he felt nearly like he had on his wedding day. And then, it passed him by. Roger wondered if he should follow it to the front: Is that how these things were done? That was when the singing began. By the third line, it became clear that the cake had never been for him. He clapped his hands and tapped his foot in time to the music as if this had been his reason for standing all along.
"Come in, Rog," Professor Murray called. "Sit."
She looked him up and down in a manner that struck Roger as not quite professional. "My, you're looking well!"
For the record, Carolyn Murray was a handsome woman, though Roger had never been attracted to the kind of women who were thought to be handsome women. She was ten pounds past slim, but she carried the extra weight well. Her suit was well cut, like her gray, curly hair, and its fabric expensive. It was not the kind of suit that often made an appearance at Roger's church or in his wife's closet. Even Professor Murray only wore the suit on lecture days, a custom in which Roger perceived gentility. At that moment, she had her shoes off and her feet displayed like a pair of knickknacks on the cluttered cherry desk. Roger could see a hole the size of a dime in her black stockings. It was just over the pad below her big toe, and its presence struck him as obscene. He wanted very badly to cover it up but settled for repositioning himself so he could no longer see it.
Although she was an ordinary enough specimen for a liberal arts college, Roger was a bit dazzled by her-that hole notwithstanding. He had spent his education (and, by extension, his life) in religious settings where the native birds tended to be of a different sort.
"So, Rog," she said, "I've been thinking of you."
Roger cleared his throat. He wasn't sure how to respond.
Professor Murray took her feet off the desk and tucked them away from Roger. She laughed a little to herself, then said, "Your work. I've been thinking of your dissertation proposal."
Roger cleared his throat again.
"Are you ill?" she asked.
Roger cleared his throat a third time. "I'm ...," he began. "What have you been thinking?"
"Well ..."-she removed the proposal from her top desk drawer-"I've made some notes." The top sheet was scarred with red ink. Roger couldn't make out the words-Professor Murray's handwriting was indulgently illegible in the style of MDs and PhDs worldwide-but he could see many exclamation points and even more question marks.
"I thought you liked it." Roger tried not to sound childish, but did not succeed.
"I do, Roger. Very much. I think I mentioned to you when last we spoke that there might even be a book in it."
He conceded remembering something of the sort.
"Though the truth is, I think this topic might be broader and require more resources than what your standard dissertation allows," Professor Murray said. "In addition to library work, I foresee you conducting research trips, and you'll probably want several grad students to conduct interviews, and of course you'll need a good statistician. Have you put any thought into a good statistician?"
Roger had planned to run the statistics himself. He had taken an introductory statistics class in college and had recently purchased Statistics for Dummies as a refresher. He sensed that this would not be an acceptable response to the eminent professor's query. "I had not," he said.
"Well, I know a good one." Professor Murray made yet another note on Roger's proposal. "The thing is, Roger, I fear you may be a bit out of your depth here."
"Oh." Roger looked at his sneakers. His wife had purchased them in a back-to-school shopping trip that had also included a backpack for his youngest daughter. If worn more than two days in a row, the shoes, which were man-made in China, began to smell.
"Now, don't look so gloomy," Professor Murray said. "I think we can help each other."
Here, the professor took off her glasses and switched her voice to tones normally reserved for the classroom. "You're no doubt aware that there's a growing movement in this country to send children to religious schools. In the seventies and eighties, we saw parochial schools closing in record numbers. And now, for the first time in decades, we're seeing a small but significant number of new ones popping up. What accounts for this? Even in nonreligious settings, they're reintroducing prayer in the classroom whilst removing sexual education and The Catcher in the Rye, and, well, I suspect this reflects larger trends in our society, yada yada yada. My point is, Rog, I think you may have hit upon something incredibly fecund here."
Fecund was good. Roger giggled. The professor had a charming bit of Brooklyn in her speech that revealed itself when she was excited and only in words like fecund.
"You're smiling. What?"
Oh, what the heck, Roger thought. "Did anyone ever say that you, uh, sound like a lawyer?"
She widened her eyes in mock horror. "No!"
"No, I said that wrong. Not a lawyer. The lawyer. From the O.J. trial"-the Jewish one, he wanted to say, but he wasn't sure if that was racist-"I don't remember the name."
The professor gathered her curly hair into a loose bun. He considered telling her that he liked her hair that way but decided it wouldn't be appropriate.
"You're a fundamentalist Christian, am I right?" Professor Murray asked.
"Well ... Yes." Roger furrowed his brow in a way he both hoped and didn't hope would be observed.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"No. It's just, we're called Sabbath Day Adventists."
"So you're not a fundamentalist Christian?"
"I am. It's the same thing really." All at once, he realized he didn't wish to be having this discussion with this woman. "It doesn't matter. Go on."
"Don't ever be afraid to correct me, Roger. If the other term is more precise, that's what I'll use. And before you came here, you taught for twenty or so years in a Sabbath Day Adventist"-she paused to receive the approval Roger was overly eager to bestow-"high school?"
"Twenty-one years," Roger said. "And for half of those, I wasn't a teacher. I was an assistant principal."
Carolyn laughed, though Roger didn't think he'd said anything particularly funny. "How marvelous," she said. "Were you aware that I am a nonpracticing Jew?"
It was Alan Dershowitz, he thought.
"And now I like to call myself a weekend Buddhist, which is to say, I go on a lot of yoga retreats."
Roger wasn't sure if he was supposed to laugh.
"The point is, Rog, I think we'd make a very good team."
"We should write this book together. I can offer you resources and experience and a different perspective and-"
In his mind, Roger crossed Jesus out of the dedication:
Revision 1 Roger casually reaches under the table and pulls a published book out from under it.
"What's this?" George asks.
"It's a book, George," he says. "Mine and this other woman's, Carolyn Murray's. You remember her from the GSE Christmas party? She said she loved your sweater, took great pains to find out where you got it. You thought it was Ross Dress for Less, but you couldn't remember for sure."
"Oh, right," George says. "Her." She cracks the crust of her crème brûlée before taking the tiniest bite. "You know, honey, I don't think she even liked my sweater."
"Well, she said she did," Roger replies. "But back to my book. It's going to make us very, very rich."
"Us and Carolyn Murray," George corrects him.
Excerpted from THE HOLE WE'RE IN by Gabrielle Zevin Copyright © 2010 by Gabrielle Zevin. Excerpted by permission.
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