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A Selfish Woman
By Christopher Brookhouse
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2001 Christopher Brookhouse
All rights reserved.
The river runs shallow. Dragonflies hover and dart above the silver water. Bees hum at the yellow centers of the asters. Fallen apples darken softly in the grass. Ironweed sways along the lane that ascends the hill to her house. She glories in the days, bares herself to the sun, walks undressed. I have no shame, she says to the light, to the dust, to the black snake stretched across the warm slate of the terrace. Well, almost none, for she can see anyone approaching the house, anyone driving up the lane, can quickly pull on her shirt and jeans. She loosens a tomato from its stem. She feels the buzz of pollen, the prickle of the tiny hairs of the vine. She bites into the warm, red flesh, juice trickling over her lips. She works her tongue into the crevices, pushing the fruit against her teeth, the juice running down her chin, down her throat, between her breasts, her new one and her old one. The new better than the old, her surgeon says.
Deer emerge in the bottomland on this side of the road along the river, browsing the stubble of the hay field. In the slant of light, the little farmhouse along the river, the one she rents to the visiting music professor, changes from white to rose, and she thinks she can hear him playing his piano. She hoped he might be interested in her. The day he signed the lease she wore a top revealing the tattoo on her shoulder, a tiny purple lyre. The man with his inks and needles and decorated all over like an islander she might meet in a Melville book had never heard of a lyre, other than the human kind. She showed him a picture. When he finished, he dabbed her skin with alcohol. You have easy skin to work with, he said. The surgeon had said the same thing.
She planned to invite the music professor to the house for drinks and supper, but she lost her nerve and was brusque and almost unfriendly until she learned to her relief that the man's companion was on his way west with the rest of their furniture.
Lights come on in the farmhouse and in the towers of the college on the hill on the other side of the river. Wearing a silk blouse, white, and a skirt, orange, the summer color of the fox whose den is in the bank by the locust trees, and silk as well, brushing her thighs, feeling like someone's breath on her skin, she strolls across the grass. She pauses to watch a car turn into the lane and begin to climb the hill and knows from the two yellow headlamps, one flickering on and off as the wheels bounce over the stones, that Julian Bristol in his ancient Beetle is paying her a visit.
The door slams. A tinny sound. She stands on the front steps. Julian wears a jacket over his white T-shirt, this department chair who idealizes James Dean, whose eyes glistened as he leaned forward attentive to the screen, the narrator's voice summing up Dean's thoughts just before his car collided with another on the gray California highway in the flat glare of late-afternoon sun. The other driver's name, spoken by the highway patrolman solemnly reading from his notes, was Donald Turnipseed. The students tried not to laugh. This generation has no soul, Julian said.
"Caroline, you're looking extremely well."
Julian kisses her cheek. His fingers drift across her back.
"Come inside, Julian, and have a glass of wine."
She holds open the door. He follows her into the kitchen. "Danke," he says when she hands him a glass, his eyes scanning the room, scanning her blouse.
"It's my night for leftovers," she says, answering his curiosity about her tidy kitchen. Naomi, Julian's wife, is surely at home with her sleeves rolled up chopping and dicing.
He follows her again, into the living room to the couch. Their reflections and one of the lamp behind them appear on the glass, imposed on the hillside beyond. It reminds her of a playful perspective in an Altman movie.
"Cheers," Julian says. He tings the rim of his glass against hers. "Is that the house down the hill you didn't rent to Gerald Hanks?"
"What do you mean, 'didn't rent'?"
"I mean someone else, not Hanks, resides there."
"He didn't file a complaint, did he?"
"Does he have reason to?"
"Absolutely not. The remodeling wasn't finished. I told him if he waited a couple of weeks, I'd rent to him."
"I suppose you're so well off with rents you haven't given a thought to teaching again."
"Yes, Julian, I am, or think, or hope, I am well off. Rents have nothing to do with it. No one asked me to teach."
"Do you want to?"
Julian swallows more wine. "Hanks is sensitive, you know. People in Connecticut gave him all sorts of reasons not to rent to him. He doesn't understand how different we are out here. How much he's wanted."
"Wanted? 'Dead or alive'?"
"How much we need him. Better?"
"I'm sure he knows why."
"Filling our need for minority faculty isn't demeaning, not in my opinion. I hired him and I'm glad of it." Julian crosses his leg over his knee and tries to see out the window, past his own reflection and Caroline's. "I suppose the rumors have started already. Tell me what you've heard."
"Julian, if I did I'd be back in a person I don't want to be in anymore."
"I'm here to ask if you would join us again, Caroline. We're overenrolled in freshman comp and understaffed."
She bends forward as if hiding from Julian's words.
"Julian, I don't know. If you were offering the film course, that might be different."
"Caroline, are you bargaining with me?"
That time at his party, walking her to her car, asking her if she was all right to drive home, offering to take her himself. Naomi would want me to, he said, slipping his hand into her trousers, sliding his palm across her hip and breathing warmly against her cheek, that time he had offered her the film course.
"We've been down this road before."
"Interesting choice of words. I would have said 'up this road before.'"
"Julian, you're not helping your cause."
Julian raises his hand, opens his fingers, a peace sign.
"Think about it. Two sections, no more than thirty students, I can offer you five thousand."
"All those papers, Julian."
"It's not the money, Julian."
"I suppose Bob is paying you something."
"Bob doesn't pay me anything he doesn't want to or can't afford to."
"It's none of my business. By the way, how's Ellen?"
"She's working in Los Angeles. Doing well."
"I remember her fondly. Cheerful student."
"You liked the short skirts she wore."
"Of course I did. I'm not ashamed to admit it. See. Admire. Don't touch."
"Can we turn this conversation in a different direction?"
"Caroline, what are you going to do with yourself?"
"Besides continuing to get well, besides getting up every day and not having any plans except to delight in being alive?"
"All by yourself, up here on your hilltop."
"Julian, being by myself isn't a problem."
He sets his glass on the table. "Such a waste," he says.
His hand is warm. She takes pleasure from it.
"You mean I was a good teacher?"
"That's part of what I mean." He stands up. "Consider my offer, will you?"
His finger presses against her lips. She can't remember the last time a man kissed her.
"I will," she says.
"How many sections does Hanks have?"
"Let him take one more."
"He's got two lit courses."
"I suppose you can't hire a minority and dump two comps on him."
"Not and keep him."
"I notice the film course isn't being offered this year."
"The department is debating it."
"Movies are too popular, I suppose?"
"Historically, we're a literature department. That's our mission. However, we may find a compromise."
"Are you bargaining with me now?"
"Caroline, I'm not here to bargain with you at all. I'm asking for your help. I hope you will give it."
Outside the crickets chorus. Moths fly to the light Caroline turns on for Julian to see to walk to his car. Eyes glitter in the grass. The tinny sound of the door again. Caroline watches the Beetle's taillights dim and disappear.
Another glass of wine. I should have told him about the book, she thinks. But she doesn't want the community to know what she's doing. A film book, someone will sneer. Really, a woman with a Ph.D. in literature more interested in popular entertainment. When Caroline mentioned starting a film course, her mother, dead now, remarked, You certainly have gone downhill.
Caroline looks out the window at the starry sky. Up the hill, Caroline says, remembering Julian bringing her home, his hand moving from the gearshift to her thigh. Caroline turns on some music and goes into the kitchen to warm leftovers in the microwave.
The night cools. Deer snort among the apple trees. An owl hoots nearby. The air is full of smells, the pungency of leaves and roots and loam. Even the rocks give off fragrance. She can smell iron. She can taste blood.
The town fills up again. New students with their families. Lines at the post office, the bank, the bookstore, where Caroline buys The New York Times, where she once sat staring at the cancer books in the women's section, sat too afraid to do more than contemplate the pale faces of the authors, read their bios, their survival stories, and wondered why should she consent, why she should not opt out of the cutting. There was comfort in knowing how one was going to die. She cannot reach down into those days of panic and despair anymore, cannot grasp precisely the calm moment of resignation when she chose to give in, when she buttoned her coat and drove herself to the hospital, where her doctor waited behind brick walls full of black winter windows. That's all behind her now.
She sits in an armchair by the bookstore window, the paper folded on her lap, and drinks coffee and watches the students consult maps and schedules, watches them follow the arrows pointing down the street to the academic building appropriately awash with light. Julian sees her and comes inside.
"Look. One of the sections is the remedial course. I'll give you an assistant. It's mostly marking spelling and punctuation mistakes. The person I have in mind will do a good job. You can spend your energy on the regular students."
Julian leans toward the stack of Styrofoam cups on the coffee table. A card propped between the pot of decaf and the pot of regular says HONOR SYSTEM. There's a bowl to put money in.
"Whom do you have in mind?"
"Marion Marsh. Very qualified. Interested?"
Julian fills one of the cups with coffee.
"Could be. I should meet her first. Before I agree to anything."
"I'll arrange it."
"At the house."
Julian holds his coffee cup in one hand, the other searches his pockets for change.
"Name a time."
Julian kisses Caroline's cheek and scurries out the door without paying for his coffee. Caroline's hand follows the orange magic-marker squiggle that leads from the card to the bowel. She had followed the yellow line down the hospital corridor that led to oncology. Yellow, the color of daffodils and kitchens. Why not red or brown? Enough, she says. She drops two quarters into the bowl and goes outside into the blue air.
Marion Marsh. Caroline cannot remember a face, but something about the name sounds familiar.
Ten minutes in the grocery store, mostly checking the new videos. Slashers and peepers. Not for her. Home. 11:30. Caroline opens a V8. She pours the thick juice into a glass and carries it to the pool. Too early for the black snake. She wishes she had the courage to touch it. The slate is cool as a sheet under her feet. She drinks the juice, then stretches out on a towel on the cement above the water, the air scented with chlorine. She thinks of piles of clean laundry. A tiny plane drones overhead, silver and patient in the cloudless sky. The first drops of sweat dot her forehead. She pulls off her jeans and underpants, leaves her shirt on because today she feels less sure of herself than she did yesterday. In town so many strangers looked her over. The depth changes by inches. The water covers her knees, the hem of her shirt, her ribs.
Halfway back to the shallow end she notices the shadow. Her heart jumps. Even before she sees the man standing there she is pressed against the side of the pool where she can reach her towel.
"Exactly what do you want?"
"I'm sorry. Julian Bristol said you expected me around noon."
"Gabriel Marion Marsh."
Caroline shakes her head. Why had she assumed Marion was a female? She bets Julian was counting on it. He'd enjoy seeing her cowering against the edge of the pool. Protecting herself from what?
"I can come back."
"Does Mr. Bristol always call you Marion?" she asks as she walks toward the steps at the end of the pool, keeping her back to him and pulling the towel across the cement. Two steps up. The water slides down her legs and soaks into the cement. She wraps the towel around her hips.
"People usually call me Gabe."
Caroline wishes he wasn't standing where she abandoned her jeans and underpants. She doesn't want him to touch her underpants with his eyes.
"This is awkward," she says. "I told Julian one o'clock."
"I can come back."
Caroline dislikes her girlish modesty before this man, this person, who is half her age. She bends her knees, scoops up her clothes.
"Wait here," she says. "I'll be dressed in a minute."
Inside the house she dries off, changes shirts, pulls on her jeans, pokes her feet into sandals.
Gabe has been watching the shapes of clouds reflected in the water. He looks up and takes Caroline in. Her gray shirt matches her eyes. Her hair is damp and parted in the middle. She pushes it behind her ears.
"Gabe, I haven't made up my mind to teach the sections Mr. Bristol offered."
"He told me that."
"What else did he tell you?"
A blush, just a hint of one; Caroline wonders if he's editing Julian's words.
"He said, Go up there and convince her."
That sounds about right.
"Okay. Convince me."
"I'm sure I can save you time by marking the remedial papers."
"Julian already thought of that."
"I can mark the regular essays too. The basic stuff. Punctuation, grammar, spelling."
"Computers correct the basic stuff. That's why the remedial students write their essays in class."
"I'm sure I can help you in some way."
"I'm giving you a hard time, aren't I?"
"Julian warned me you would."
"Do you call him Julian to his face?"
"He asked me to."
"My daughter called him Julian. I thought it was because I did."
"Yes. Ellen. My daughter. Do you know her?"
"We're in the same class. I dropped out for a while. Now I'm making up a course to finish my degree."
"Studio arts. Photography."
"You dropped out to take pictures?"
Blond hair, a thin nose, full lips. He is handsome, in a way that makes Caroline uneasy.
"How well did you know Ellen?"
"We were friends."
Friends. Friends? Did you go out? Did you sleep together? Ridiculous questions, but they bob into her mind like a row of ducks tracking through a shooting gallery.
"Ellen's working in California."
Gabe rolls up his sleeves. The pool is in full sun now. Caroline realizes she hasn't eaten. He follows her toward the house.
"Gabe, there's cheese if you want a sandwich. I've used up everything else."
"I'm fine," he says.
"Water or tea? I don't have coffee or sodas. It's too early to offer you wine."
Gabe asks for tea.
He sits at the birch table in the kitchen. Caroline's salad is already prepared in a glass bowl in the refrigerator. She whisks together oil and vinegar and pours them over the lettuce. She brews the tea and fills two mugs. She eats her salad and pulls bits of bread from a French loaf, dabbing each piece into a jar of honey.
"Do you think Julian slept with students?"
A question out of the blue. Caroline hopes Gabe doesn't think it's a mirror of her mind—or her soul, for that matter. Still, she's interested in the answer. She thinks of the page of rules recently added to the faculty handbook governing faculty and students. There didn't used to be any rules. Now untenured faculty risk dismissal; the tenured face censure and extra hours of committee work.
"You mean with Ellen?"
Caroline doesn't know herself if that's what she means.
"Gabe ..." She takes a breath. Her tone softens. "Gabe, I was asking a general question."
Is it Ellen's life she's asking about or her own, the need to gather information she can use to get a favor when she needs one?
"I heard rumors about affairs with other faculty," Gabe says.
Affairs has an old-fashioned ring to it. In her own case, Caroline wouldn't call five minutes on the couch with Julian an affair.
Excerpted from A Selfish Woman by Christopher Brookhouse. Copyright © 2001 Christopher Brookhouse. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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