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“Valerie Miner’s characterization of professors is a merciless delight.” —Rita Mae Brown
“A totally compelling and utterly modern mystery . . . A sparkling, hope-giving book.” —Judy Grahn
CHRISTMAS IS ALWAYS LIKE THIS, Nan complained to herself as she steered through the last-minute shoppers on Mission Boulevard. Bloody Christmas morning and they're racing to Gemco or White Front for a bar of Jean Nate soap or some special ratchet screwdriver.
Nan took a deep breath and tried to exhale her irritation. She observed the local decorations. Here at the intersection of Mission and Mendez, the First Baptist Church and St Martin's Methodist Hall competed for holiday converts with garish nativity scenes. This Baptist Virgin looked as blissful as the cocaine lady Nan had met at the faculty party two nights before. Methodist Mary seemed more the Valium type. Nan didn't plan to share these impressions with her sister Shirley who still believed in sacrilege. Who still attended Mass, for heaven's sake (either for heaven's sake or for Joe's sake. Polish Catholics die hard). Nan had politely declined the invitation to attend nine o'clock Mass with Shirley, Joe and the kids. She promised to get to the house by 11.30, traffic allowing.
'Jesus Christ, Jesus H Christ,' Nan yelled out the window at the broad-shouldered jackass driving the truck with a red bumper sticker: 'Cowboys Do It Better'.
'Watch your driving, brother,' Nan called. But the cowboy had already made his left turn, and she was stuck in front of a stubborn red traffic light which just a minute ago had been green enough to take her straight to Calle d'Oro and her sister Shirley's turkey dinner.
Merry Christmas, eh? Nan glanced at herself in the rearview minor, at her new, classy-wide spectacles which Shirley claimed made her look like a deep sea diver. Frankly, Nan thought they did a lot to liven up her face, thin Anglo features set against her black hair and brown eyes.
The ride out to Hayward always put her in a ratty mood. 'Some of these strings of lights are up all year,' she spoke to Isadora, the old, red Chevrolet. 'They use the red ones for Fourth of July. And that tinsel hanging from the telephone poles there—it looks like the leaves of an electrocuted palm tree!'
Sometimes Nan worried about this habit of talking to her car. She wasn't worried about being crazy, no. She was forty-seven years old and by now she realized that a little craziness keeps you sane in this world. But what if someone looked through Isadora's windows and saw her chattering away by herself? Ah, let them look, she was more interesting than the Methodist nativity advertisement. And if a cop pulled her over? Well, she could always say she was taping a lecture on the cassette recorder. Nan had it all figured out; she had a lot of things figured out. They wouldn't arrest Dr Nan Weaver, Professor of English at University of California, Berkeley.
Ah, what the hell, she wouldn't mind being pulled over. She had heard that Robert Wendel, Class of '50 star jock, had joined the illustrious Hayward Police Force. She relished the idea of telling Robert Wendel what had happened to 'the girl brain'. He had always made her feel like some genetic mutation. 'Hello, there, Officer Wendel,' Nan would say, craning her neck at the giant basketball star. 'You still cruising the strip like you used to? Only now you've got yourself a siren and a twirly red light. Yes, sir, Robert Wendel, I always knew you would go places, your daddy being a quality supervisor at the cannery and all.'
Nan thought guiltily how she even hated the smell of this town—the sweet fumes of ketchup and tomato soup oozing from the cannery all day long. Berkeley wasn't Athens, but it was thirty minutes over the hills and a breath of fresh air away from Hayward. 'Damn mist.' Nan turned on the windshield wipers. A horn sounded behind her, and another huge pickup idled loudly, so close that the GMC was almost mounting Isadora. Once again, Nan found herself stranded in the Land of the Yahoos. She shifted into first and Isadora sputtered across the intersection.
Hayward, Nan reflected, was one of those city-towns forever lost in the shade of the Californian dream, over-populated by ladies in hair rollers and men in checked Bermuda shorts who never quite made it. Hayward was founded in 1848 by a failed gold miner who gave up prospecting to open a shoe shop.
Classist, she thought, I'd be called classist by my favourite communist student, Susan. And theoretically I'd accept the criticism. But Susan grew up in Beverly Hills. She didn't spend eighteen years in Hayward as 'the girl brain'.
The tinny treble of 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' blared through the fog from loudspeakers above the Superway Center. At the crosswalk, a Volunteer of America Santa was mindlessly clanging his bell. And the Winchell's window was stacked with green and red doughnuts.
Vulgar, is what Sister Marguerita Mary would call it. ('So very vuuuulgar', Sister had warned when she caught Nan painting her fingernails in grade school.) Nan had survived a whole childhood of Christmases in this town. She knew she was a snob. And she did have some good memories. Family things like November evenings, everyone snuggled around the radio. But she also remembered those summer days sitting at the Hayward Plunge waiting for something to happen, anything, her blood to boil over, anything.
OK, OK, Nan checked herself. Berkeley isn't much better. She was thinking about the English Department's Yule and Sherry Party.
Old Angus Murchie was leching around like there would be no new year. He was a thickly set man—looking all the more formidable in a bright red shirt.
Angus greeted her with his usual wit, 'If it isn't the shortest English professor this side of the Rockies.' He offered her a styrofoam cup of cream sherry with one hand and brushed her ass with the other.
'I have no doubt,' Nan said, discreetly moving back against the wall, 'that your perception of my mere five-foot height is accurate. No doubt, in fact, that you've tape-measured every English professor and not a few graduate students from here to Denver. However, couldn't we move on to a more appropriate conversational gambit like that new article in the Publication of the Modern Language Association on Milton's fear of Dianic cults. Or,' she paused, drinking the sherry too fast for tact, 'if we wanted to be informal, we might discuss where you found that fine Stewart tartan tie to match your red shirt and navy pants.'
Matt Weitz was nodding to Nan from across the room. Relax, he was mouthing silently. He would remind her later that ladies coming up for tenure could not afford to drink so much sherry nor to spill so much sarcasm.
'Ah, yes, ever the ironic lass,' Angus said, his Scottish accent surfacing briefly.
'Your sense of humour will take you a long way, my love, a long way.'
A long way, yes, thought Nan. She could see herself next year exiled to Natchez Junior College. Before she could regain professional poise, the conversation detoured. Marjorie Adams had walked up and captured Murchie's foetid attention.
Nan always felt more like Marjorie's student than her thesis adviser. Statuesque Marjorie with her long, blonde hair as elegantly coifed as any daughter of Augustus Caesar. Marjorie, who looked as if she had been born in a silk blouse and a velvet skirt. Marjorie, who always seemed to be wondering—behind her dutiful questions about course requirements and bibliographic techniques –-'Are you sure you're the real Professor Weaver? Are you sure you're in the right place, Shortie?'
'And good afternoon to you,' leered Angus Murchie, scratching the hair on his earlobe. 'How nice it is to have new faces around these dreary old faculty gatherings,' he nodded confidentially to Nan. 'I'm so glad we've broken through our stuffiness to include fresh blood—teaching assistants and so on—aren't you, Professor Weaver?'
'As you may know,' Nan said, 'Ms Adams is doing a fascinating dissertation on "Power and Love in the Novels of Irish Murdoch".'
'Quite.' Murchie stifled a yawn. 'You are the lucky devil, tending to all these fair maidens and their theses on women's literature. Ah, if I had only perceived the rewards of that vogue before I chose Milton. All I ever seem to meet are nervous young men.'
Nan realized there was no use trying to have a serious conversation with Murchie while he was soused. As he neared the end of his career he often seemed sad and desperate. After a few glasses of wine he grew irascible or predatory. Nan thought wistfully that she had never been able to have a good talk with this man who was one of the most impressive critics of his generation. What she really wanted now was to walk over and gossip with her friend Matt. But she felt reluctant to leave Marjorie in the clutches of seventeenth-century Puritanism, remembering how they also serve who only stand and wait.
Matt rescued Nan from her own virtue. Good old Matt, armed with a bottle of Calistoga Water, news about his research on E M Forster and departmental chitchat. As he steered her into a quiet corner, Nan thought how hard it was to believe that this tall, balding, distinguished professor was only forty, seven years younger than herself. Matt was one of the few faculty who sympathized with what Murchie had labelled Nan's 'feminist tendencies'. And she was the only one who knew Matt was gay.
He guided her across the grey carpet to a seat by the window. Nan looked back ruefully for a moment as Murchie leaned over, pretending to smell the mistletoe on Marjorie Adams's ample bosom. She nodded to Matt.
'Listen, Nan,' he said kindly, 'this is not the place to conduct your Sexual Harassment Campaign.'
'It's not my campaign,' said Nan. 'Two dozen students and teachers have been active ...'
'Yes, yes,' he nodded, 'but you're identified as the one who started it, as the ring leader. And departmental cocktail parties are not the place for discussing sexual harassment.'
'Better tell Murchie that,' she said, still glaring at him as he leaned over Marjorie.
'Listen,' Matt spoke more patiently, 'I think it's a decent political cause. But wait until you have tenure. Please. Then you can take any warpath you want.'
'We're not discussing a sport,' Nan flared back. She hated how anger showed red on her face, always advertising her feelings in meetings, in situations her mother would call 'polite company'. Oh, well, maybe in three or four years they might dismiss the blushing as menopause. And today they could assume it was the drink.
'Do you have any idea,' she continued in a lower voice, 'how many women come to me, complaining about professors making passes—touching, fondling them, writing lewd suggestions on their essays?'
'Well, you can hardly blame me,' smiled Matt, adjusting his tortoise-rimmed glasses as he always did when he was nervous.
'Matt, this is serious,' said Nan. 'Rapes on campus increased one hundred per cent this year.'
'Yes, pet,' Matt said with concern. His dark blue eyes held her, caressed her.
Sometimes Nan imagined that if she were younger, if Matt were straight, and if they both believed in romance, they might try a love affair. But she needed solid friends more than distracting lovers in her life right now.
Matt continued, 'Je comprends. It is a crisis. But let the students carry the torch for a while. If you don't get tenure, you lose this job. Colleges are so tight now you'll never get another. You'll have to go back to high school.'
'Perhaps,' she sighed, 'my ten years teaching at Pacheco High School were less prestigious, but they had a lot more to do with education.'
'Of course, sweetheart,' Matt traded her emptied sherry cup for a cup of mineral water. 'Of course you're a better teacher than all these clowns put together. But get your tenure before you do more politicking.'
'You know I've always been political,' said Nan. 'They knew that, too, when they hired me.' Often Nan wondered why they had hired her, forgetting the critical acclaim her books had received. Self-effacement came too easily. That's why she wanted this tenure. It was more than job security. It was a passport, an identity card.
'Political, yes,' said Matt. 'But affirmative action is very different from rampaging on about bodily assault.'
'Matt,' Nan's voice rasped across her tight throat, 'I just cannot believe you're making fun of this.'
She stood shakily.
'Oh, friend, I'm not making fun.' Matt eased her back into her chair. 'I'm just saying that it would be ever so lonely around here without you.'
Nan bent her head back and stared at the car's beige, naugahyde ceiling. It's just when I'm alone, she thought, that all the parts of my life make sense. The English Department is embarrassed by my conscience. My friends think I work for a boring, stuffy academy. And my family sees me as some kind of hippie. Shirley hasn't pretended to understand since I gave up my precious marriage to Dr Charles Woodward. God knows what she thinks of me retrieving my maiden name or going back to college for another degree.
Nan's oblong face lengthened now as she considered the bosom of nettles to which she returned every few months for family celebrations. Her younger sister Shirley, in her early forties, was already sagging into plump middle age. Sweet, kind Shirley, brimming with good will, never knew quite how to treat her eccentric sister. Hmm, if Matt thought Nan was a den-mother, he should meet Shirley. On second thought, he shouldn't meet Shirley, considering what she and her husband Joe said about queers. Queers were the main reason they didn't want their daughter Lisa to attend Berkeley.
Nan could see the Gomez overpass now. It would be ten, twelve minutes to Shirley's house.
Meanwhile, Lisa, Joe and Shirley's only daughter and youngest child, was the main reason Nan was making this Christmas trip. God, she loved the child hugely—more, probably, than if Lisa were her own daughter. Sometimes Nan's only pleasure in a day of committee meetings and footnotes was a cup of coffee with Lisa at the Terrace. When Lisa had enrolled at Berkeley last year, Nan had been delighted.
She winced now, remembering Lisa's first visit to the student hospital. Nothing much, Lisa had insisted, just this funny butterfly rash on her face and sudden fatigue. Nothing they could trace. Maybe she was allergic to strawberries. Nothing much, but she had been in and out of the hospital so often last year that her parents were reluctant to allow her back to college. Briefly, Nan had played with the idea of a solitary Christmas in Mexico. She could not contain her worry for Lisa. As usual, Nan's protectiveness vied with her ambition and independence. How could she desert her niece to face a Christmas of Hayward cowboys and hospital tests?
Nan switched on Isadora's radio and swished the dial for distraction. It looked like this traffic wasn't going to unsnarl until the Desert Palms turn-off. All the stations—even FM—were clogged with carollers: 'Deck the Halls', 'Good King Wenceslaus', 'Jingle Bell Rock'. And a new disco version of 'Frosty the Snowman'. She switched back to
Good King Wenceslaus looked out On the feast of Stephen ...
Nan's mother Ruth had always preferred these religious carols. She had had a fine singing voice, something Nan definitely did not inherit, and a great memory for lyrics. Mom would be washing up in the kitchen, singing away while the rest of the family napped under bellies stuffed with turkey and mashed potatoes. Nan dearly wished Mom could be here today. She had loved these big holidays. She had such joy and faith in the family. Mom never gave up hope about Pop's promotion at the cannery. And she always said Nan would go far 'with all that will power'. At least Pop had lived long enough to see her hired at Berkeley. 'Imagine,' he said, 'Jim Weaver's kid, a big time university professor. And neither me nor your mom going past sixth grade.'
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night ...
Nan checked her watch. 11.45, Jesus god, Shirley would be steaming. Her sister probably had the entire day organized. Eggnog from 11.30–12.30. Dinner at 12.45. Presents opened at 2.30. And poor Lisa. She must be thinking Nan had deserted her.
Excerpted from Murder in the English Department by Valerie Miner. Copyright © 1982 Valerie Miner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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