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The Spirit Wood
By Robert Masello
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Robert Masello
All rights reserved.
Sullivan's hand went up, just as Peter had expected it to.
"Yes, Mr. Sullivan?"
"Will the exam be open book?"
"Yes, Mr. Sullivan, the exam will be open book. You can use anything you're capable of carrying in on your back, including a grad student if necessary."
The rest of the seminar laughed, somewhat obligingly, and started to gather up their books and papers. The bell tower clanged the end of the period.
"And anyone who hasn't turned in his second term paper yet, please drop it off by Thursday at the departmental office."
As the class shuffled out the door, Peter pulled his own books and papers into a pile. With the spring term almost over, each class period seemed to last longer than ever. And about midway through this one, his left arm had started hurting him again. He moved it now, gingerly, in its sling. There was less pain in the hand than there'd been, the purple bruises on his knuckles had disappeared, but the ache in his forearm hadn't let up much. He wondered if, on cold or rainy days, he'd always have that ache to remind him of the accident, and its aftermath. Then, before he could stop himself, he thought again of Meg. What sort of ache would she have? How long would it take for her to get over what had happened?
He took off his glasses, cleaned the lenses on his sling, then slipped them back on again. Forget it, he told himself. Just get on with things. Just get on. He picked up his books with his right hand and locked the seminar room by kicking the door closed behind him.
Outside, in the last of the afternoon sun, his friend Byron was waiting for him. Tall and gangly, with a thatch of brown hair that seldom saw a brush, Byron always reminded Peter—though he'd never say so—of Ichabod Crane. Ichabod Crane, with a Ph.D. in classics and a golden retriever named Diogenes. With whom he was right now playing fetch.
"Hail, Lazarus," Byron said as Peter emerged into the quadrangle. "Ready for a little celebration?" He lifted from the pocket of his tweed sport coat the top of a wine bottle.
"So you accepted the offer?" Peter said.
"Yep. Not one hour ago, I called Omaha and said that after reviewing all my options, I'd decided to accept the job after all."
"Wise decision," Peter said with a smile. They both knew that Byron's only other option was to return home to Georgia and live above his father's pharmacy.
Diogenes, the stick clamped between his teeth, raced up to Peter, his bushy tail wagging furiously.
"Sorry, boy, I don't have a free hand to throw with."
"When will you?" Byron asked, falling into step with Peter. They walked around the campus sundial, littered with undergraduates cramming for their finals, and headed toward town. "Is the arm going to keep you from finishing the dissertation this summer?"
"No way," Peter said. "I got a note from Chairman Dunlop telling me I had just one more semester left on my fellowship. I've got to finish this summer."
They passed through the main gates and onto Garrison Street. Peter kicked a can past the bank, the grocery, the shoe repair shop. With his books under one arm, his curly black hair, his boyish good looks, he could easily have passed for one of the college seniors; at some stores in town, he was automatically given the student discount. With what he earned, he was glad to get it.
But Byron couldn't help seeing the subtle changes that had been wrought in him, the toll that the last couple of months had taken. Where he used to talk all the time, now he was silent for minutes at a stretch. Where his dark eyes used to hold your own and draw you out, now they avoided your gaze, or stared vacantly, as they were just then, at the crumpled tin can. There was a hollowness to him that cried to be filled up. Byron didn't envy Meg the job of doing it.
The grad student housing was about a half-mile from campus; it was laid out like a long, low motel, each apartment unit getting a street door and one parking space in front of the building. Diogenes, who'd been there many times before, was already waiting impatiently for them on the front stoop. Before Peter could put his key in the door, Meg opened it with a grand, theatrical sweep. She was wearing her white Mexican 7dress, the one she reserved for especially festive occasions.
"Ever since Peter called from the office, I've been waiting to congratulate you," she said to Byron. "Congratulations."
Byron, looking pleased but embarrassed, accepted a hug. Diogenes barreled past them all and into the apartment. Peter dropped his books by the door.
"What can I get you?" he asked Byron. "A beer?"
Byron produced the wine bottle from his baggy sport coat.
"That will have to wait," said Meg, bending down to scratch Diogenes on the top of his head. "In honor of the occasion, I've made a special treat—mint juleps. Just like you grew up with, By." She stood up. "Let me go and get them." But as she passed Peter, he touched her lightly on the elbow.
"Not for me," he said in a low, admonitory tone. "Just a club soda."
"Oh, honey," she said, also in a low voice, "one mint julep won't hurt—"
"Not for me."
Byron, pretending not to notice, sat down on the sofa; it was missing one leg and wobbled dangerously.
"So what kind of classics department have they got out there?" Peter asked Byron, to change the subject. "I can't say I've heard too much about Cumberland University."
"Nobody has. It's not exactly Oxford." He was telling Peter what he'd managed to glean from the brochures in the grad school office when Meg returned with the drinks—two mint juleps and one club soda. Tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder, she lifted her glass in a toast. "I don't know what we'll do for a best friend," she said, "but here's to your new job anyway." She started to sip from her glass, then suddenly stopped. "You did take it, didn't you? Peter just said you'd had the offer."
"Yes, yes," Byron assured her. "As we used to say down South, I did them the honor."
"Then we can have dinner as planned," she said, and sat down beside him, so lightly the sofa didn't even wobble. Diogenes, as was his habit, laid himself ceremoniously across her feet. "Did their offer come as a complete surprise, or were you sort of expecting it?"
"A total surprise," Byron said. "The chairman of the department interviewed me for about twenty minutes at a classics conference last February. We talked a little bit about my dissertation and a lot about the sherry. He introduced me to his wife—the spitting image of Henry Kissinger, by the way—and that was about it."
"Maybe Mrs. Kissinger put in a good word for you," Peter said, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
"Pray God she didn't. I'm about ready to give up on romance as it is." He rubbed one finger along the rim of his glass.
"But what about that woman in the astrophysics department," Meg asked, "the one you went out with last week?" She felt so bad for Byron; she knew he was lonely, but most of the time he was too shy to do anything about it.
"Another disaster," he said. "Her idea of a really good time is listening to intergalactic static over the headphones in the observatory. I tried it, twice—it's not for me."
Who else could she fix him up with, Meg wondered. All the other women in her pottery co-op were either married or seriously attached. Was there someone she'd been overlooking?
"Not that it matters," Byron was saying. "It wouldn't be fair to toy with someone's affections now that my ticket's been punched for Omaha. Maybe when I get out West, I can send away for a mail-order bride. You think they still do that?"
Meg laughed and laid one hand on his arm. "I wouldn't count on it, By." Diogenes stirred and raised his head. "Someone here knows that it's time for dinner," Meg said, gently drawing her feet out from under him. "If you all would care to take those drinks into the dining room with you—"
"Otherwise known as the kitchen," Peter interjected.
"The oysters Rockefeller are served."
She glanced over at Peter, who looked surprised. Oysters, she knew, were a real stretch for their budget. But she'd wanted to make this night special. It had been so long since they'd had anything to celebrate ... not since she'd gotten the news from her gynecologist, in fact. So when Peter had called that morning, she'd taken twenty dollars from their general operating funds, kept in a blue glazed pot she'd made just before their wedding, and gone out and splurged, on oysters and asparagus and fresh chicken breasts cut by the butcher. After her bath, she'd put on the Mexican dress, long and full enough to cover the laceration still evident on her knee.
The kitchen table looked as elegant as Meg could make it, with a big bowl of flowers and the white linen tablecloth that her Aunt Alice had given them as a wedding present. Byron, the guest of honor, was seated in the chair that still had both arms on it. Over dinner, he regaled Meg and Peter with familiar, but always welcome, stories of his Dixie boyhood, of his father's drugstore and his own Aunt Theodora, who coated everything she ate, from ice cream to steak, with a generous layer of chunky-style peanut butter. He enjoyed telling the stories, that was true, but tonight he was especially conscious of their effect; he knew he was providing his friends with some much-needed relief. At one point, he noticed Peter, caught up in a story, absentmindedly interlace his fingers with Meg's, just as he might have done months earlier. Now if only he could be made, consciously, to forgive himself ...
Dessert was Byron's favorite treat—Twinkies, with a little colored candle stuck in each one. "I know it's not your birthday," Meg explained, "but I really felt these needed a little dressing up." Peter gave him a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. "You never know," he said, "it could help you to get tenure." When they were all through, Peter tossed the silverware into the sink with his good hand and told Byron he'd meet him the next day, at their usual table in the student center, to find out how the rest of the classics department greeted his job news. Meg walked him to the door; Diogenes scooted outside to inspect the garbage cans at the curb.
"Thanks for everything," Byron said. "It was nice to have someone to celebrate with."
"Thank you," Meg said, leaning her head back against the doorframe. Her hair, in the light from the streetlamp, appeared almost silver. "This was one of the few meals Peter has managed to eat sitting down lately. Even in an apartment the size of this, half the time I don't know where he is." She hooked a stray wisp of hair behind one ear. "Give me your honest opinion," she said. "Do you think he's getting over it? I mean, you see him when I don't, when he's teaching class, or up at the library. Does he seem to you like he's coming around again, like he's coming back to life?"
"I think he did tonight."
She stood, considering. "I think he seemed better tonight, too. But that's because you were here. Most of the time it's still like I'm living with a shadow; I can see him, I know he's there, but no matter what I do, I can't really touch him. It starts to make me feel a little like a ghost, too. I can't even get him interested in the oldest sport of all anymore," she said, with a little self-conscious shrug. Then regretting that she'd said it, afraid that she might have made Byron feel uncomfortable, she quickly went on. "But maybe when the term's over, and he can get back to concentrating on his dissertation, things will pick up. I think he'll feel a lot less pressured then."
"I'm sure he will," Byron said. "He's got a lot on his mind right now."
Diogenes barked from across the street, where he'd finished with the garbage cans. "I think you're being paged," Meg said. "Congratulations again on the job."
Byron leaned down and pecked her on the top of the head. "Buck up," he said, tucking one finger under her chin. "He'll come around." Her eyes, he thought, were the blue of Dresden china. Turning quickly, he walked away, each of his steps punctuated by the soft, rhythmic thwap of a loose sole on one of his shoes. Diogenes disappeared around the corner.
The moment the door was closed again, Meg could hear the sound of the shower running. Peter had always been a fan of the hot shower, but lately it seemed as if he couldn't get clean enough no matter how long he was in there. And he locked the bathroom door, which he'd never used to do. By the time she heard the water turned off, she'd undressed, put on her nightgown, and slipped into bed with an Agatha Christie mystery. Peter came out wearing a faded pair of blue pyjamas. That was another manifestation of his new-found modesty. The most he used to wear to bed had been a pair of loose boxer shorts; now he always had on pyjamas, and a robe, too, if he got up for a midnight snack. Anything, it seemed to Meg, to discourage intimacy.
"I left all the dishes to soak," he said, and dropping his sling on the night table, got into bed. "You really pulled out all the stops tonight. I don't think Byron's had a feast like that in years."
"Neither have we."
Peter pulled the sheet up onto his chest and gently laid his left arm across it.
"How's it feeling today?" she asked.
"Better. The hot water seems to help." Then he turned his head on the pillow to look directly at her. "How're you doing?"
She closed the book and turned on her side. "I'm fit as a fiddle, I think. Tomorrow I'm going to call the pottery shop and see if they've got a wheel free for me. I'm dying to get some work done again."
"The knee's okay, then?"
"Um-hum," she said, raising her leg beneath the sheet, so that it lay across his own. She nestled herself closer to him, and when he didn't seem to tense up, she raised one hand to his face. She gently stroked his cheek, and then wound her finger in one of the soft black curls of his hair. His eyes closed. She slipped the earpieces of his glasses free and laid the glasses on the night stand; she flicked the lamp off, so the room was filled with just the faint, silvery light from the street.
Please, she thought, please.
As if in response, his right hand gently descended the outside of the sheet, and came to rest on her knee. His fingers lightly enclosed it, as if it were something very precious and fragile.
Her hand slipped beneath the sheet; she delicately unfastened the buttons of his pyjama top, and spread it open. The hair on his chest was as black and curly as the hair on his head; it spread across him, just beneath his collar bone, in what had always appeared to her as two neat and symmetrically extended wings. Her hand roamed across him, before gliding down to follow the trail of fine black hair that ran the length of his abdomen. When she unsnapped the lower clasp of his pyjamas, she felt a sudden, slight tremor pass through him.
Please ... please.
Gently, in ever increasing circles, she stroked his body. His hand moved from her knee to caress her thigh through the sheet. She felt his breathing quicken, but his eyes remained shut. Squeezed shut, it seemed, as if he were trying to concentrate, to think of only one thing—this—and forget about everything else.
With her feet, Meg drew the sheet down to the foot of the bed. His hand grazed across her smooth, bare thigh, and then slid upward, deftly but absently, as if it were operating somehow independently. Peter's eyes remained closed, and but for his one hand, he lay perfectly still. Meg raised herself and allowed the nightgown to slide up to her waist.
She wanted to say something, even if it were only his name, to tell him that she loved him, that she wanted him, that she needed him to make love to her. But she knew she couldn't do that, that to say anything at all would break the spell, that her only hope was to somehow slip silently past the barriers, to infiltrate his senses and arouse him to the point where he could no longer stop himself, where sensation—immediate, passionate, all-consuming—could drown out memory and guilt and sorrow.
Excerpted from The Spirit Wood by Robert Masello. Copyright © 1987 Robert Masello. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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