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It was fall at the university, and the campus teemed with life — booksellers stocking tightly bound textbooks, professors copying last-minute syllabi, and freshmen hustling into the dorms with cheaply purchased furniture. The chokecherries and honeysuckle flourished, too, and soon I would watch the orange and red leaves fall from the maple trees to the trampled grass of this little-known Midwestern campus. With the opening of a window, gone were the laws of Newton and Poetics of Aristotle. Replacing them were the sights and sounds of earthy prairie life, never far beyond the classroom in this small college town.
Copper Bluff, situated in the eastern corner of South Dakota, gave way to a river and lush bottomland. Most of the town was surrounded by fields of soybean, alfalfa, and corn, though the neighboring state had the monopoly on corn. Or so I'd been told. With more moderate weather, they had nothing to do but spread the seeds and watch them grow, an old farmer once said. He didn't have to convince me. I couldn't get anything to grow in my garden except a rhubarb plant, which I had nothing to do with. Yet I never grew tired of trying, and this perseverance was as much a part of this place as anything else. Its spirit, its sine qua non.
My house was surrounded by shade, and although I knew little about growing things, I imagined sunshine was rather important to sustainable growth. The trees on Oxford Street were so large that only stray rays of sunlight penetrated the leafy foliage that formed a makeshift canopy over the road. Hostas grew copiously around the front rail of my porch, relishing the shade of the towering pine trees dividing my lot from my neighbor's. A nice-sized bungalow, my house was a block from the campus and a beautiful shade of yellow. I took pride in the fact that I was able to purchase a house and didn't have to rent one of the split-up places at the end of the block. I had lived in plenty of those as a student. Still, my 1917 home had required a good deal of hard work when I moved in a year ago. I had pruned bushes, painted rooms, and torn out carpet, all before giving my first lecture, but it was worth it. The location allowed me to walk to and from campus, a necessity since my only mode of transportation was a red '69 Mustang convertible, a car I'd bought cheap from an uncle who owned a body shop. When my dad scoffed at its impracticality, his brother simply responded with, "She hails from Detroit. Her car oughta have character." My dad relented more easily than I thought he would, probably because the car was inexpensive, but I still hoped to restore it when time and money permitted.
Tonight my meatballs balanced precariously in a Crock Pot on the bucket seat beside me. I was headed for the biannual potluck, and the entire English department was convening at the chair's house for good beginning- of-the-year karma. Although I didn't go out of my way to avoid these events — as did Ralph Carmichael, our British scholar who had famously declined the last fifteen years because of a feud over his office hours — I didn't look forward to them either. We were an awkward bunch, better at reading than conversing, and I'm certain most of us would have been delighted to quit the gatherings altogether. The Christmas party was even more problematic, for it included alcohol and a band, and the creative writers invariably got drunk and started reciting eighteenth-century poetry, or worse, their own. I myself was not immune to the festivities and did no small amount of damage to my own reputation the previous year when I joined in with my rendition of the Stones' "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown."
This year, though, I'd sworn to avoid volatile discussions with my good friend Lenny Jenkins, our early American literature scholar, always a bad influence on me. He and I inevitably landed on the transcendentalists, and our conversation would become spirited with themes such as nonconformity. Our conversation last year had inspired my solo performance, and he'd gladly joined in at every refrain. I rolled my eyes at the very thought of it. Well, there would be no music tonight — and no red wine. I had sworn off it for good measure. I would attend the party, serve my meatballs, thank the chair, and leave.
Jim Giles was a smart man and a decent chair, and I admired the fact that he effectively ignored almost every crisis that occurred in the English department with satisfactory results. Already several cars were parked at his house, a blue Queen Anne much admired throughout the town. His wife, Katherine, was an excellent decorator and hostess who always made even the teaching assistants feel welcome. No matter what one brought, she always exclaimed, "That's just what I was looking for! Put it near the fruit salad, won't you?"
I adjusted the belt to my dark jeans and buttoned the single button on my brown jacket. I preferred my orange jacket because I favored bold colors, but the night air was muggy, so I'd stayed with the brown one, which was both lightweight and professional. As one of the younger faculty members at twenty-eight years old, I was always searching for ways to look professional. My hair — curly and resistant to all products with the words "smoothing" in them — did little to aid in my search. Tonight, most of it stayed put in an informal twist, except for several chestnut brown curls that had sprung loose from their pins while I hurried around the kitchen making my dish for the potluck.
The Crock Pot was heavy, and luckily Katherine met me at the door before I could attempt to ring the bell.
"It's so good to see you, Emmeline. Come in, come in," said Katherine.
"Hi, Kate, how are you?" I said.
She led me to the dining room, where a buffet was arranged. Several platters adorned the table, a cheese fondue displayed in the middle.
"Good, good. Glad fall is here. I'm so tired of this humidity, aren't you? Oh, your meatballs! Let's see. I don't have a plug-in that'll reach that far. Let's just put them ... here," she said, placing them on a remote sideboard. "There now. Would you like a drink?"
"Just water, thank you."
"Em Prather, I hope you haven't sworn off alcohol tonight on my account."
It was Lenny. His was a friendly young face, with wicked blue eyes, an amazing dimple, and hair that rivaled a boy-band rock star's. It was thick and blond-streaked and stuck up nicely on the top of his head. Perhaps it was our similar ages or perhaps it was our passionate talks that made us such good friends. It certainly wasn't our scholarly pursuits; he studied American literature, and I studied French. Whatever it was, it had brought me closer to him than any of the other five thousand people on campus. I tried to ignore this fact, since I was determined to focus on the important aspects of my career, such as publications and tenure. But I often wondered, if not for his haphazard dating record and my fear of losing his friendship, whether he and I could have been more than friends.
He opened the Crock Pot next to mine and stirred its contents with a large wooden spoon.
"Hey, Lenny, what did you bring?" I asked, looking over his shoulder.
"Beanies and weenies." More quietly, he added, "You know nobody brings a goddamn thing of substance to these things. I'm tired of walking away hungry. Good. You brought meatballs. Ha!"
"One glass of water with a twist of lemon," said Kate, handing me a pretty amber tumbler. "Go sit. Go sit." She motioned in the direction of the living room before flittering away.
"They've sworn off plastic bottles. The environment," said Lenny.
I shuffled toward the front room, still puzzling over the placement of my meatballs. Were they comparable to Lenny's mystery bean dish? I remembered Kate complimenting me on them last fall — or perhaps commenting on them. Now that I thought about it, I didn't remember exactly what she had said.
Lenny fell into the one comfortable armchair in the corner, leaving me to scan the room for an appropriate place to sit. I decided on the settee, small and antique and right next to Lenny. The only other option was a folding chair beside Jane Lemort, a woman I avoided whenever possible. There was no subject she didn't profess to have studied in some way, shape, or form.
"How was your summer?" Lenny continued. "I just got back from Massachusetts myself. I saw Walden Pond ... visited Emerson's grave. I told him about you. He said you missed your calling."
I perched carefully on the edge of the settee, remembering now how easy it was to become ensnared in Lenny's conversations. "And whatever would that be? Rock star extraordinaire?"
"Just add Merlot," he said, "and voilÃ! She goes from linguist to soloist."
I chuckled. "I would consider the performance more of a duet."
"If that makes you feel better. But you were definitely singing louder than I was." He took a drink from his glass, probably full of bourbon. "Hey, have you met Thomas — what's his last name — Cook? Is he going to be here tonight?"
"No, but I want to. I heard he wrote his entire dissertation over the rhetoric on cereal boxes."
"You're kidding," he said, placing his drink on the hardwood floor.
I tossed him a cloth coaster from the nearby end table. "I'm not. I read it somewhere ... or maybe somebody told me."
"Yeah, books and people are the same."
"You don't believe me."
Now he showed his dimple. "Of course I believe you, Em. It's just that more than once you've told me things that I've believed to be the gospel, even repeated them, and then came to find out you've read them in some novel."
"Well you know how it is. Reading for the Copper Bluff Review, the upcoming edition of Modern French Studies, students' essays — a novel here and there for enjoyment. It's easily done ... to remember a thing and not really know where it came from."
"You told me Jimmy Hoffa was found," he shot back.
"That. Well," I crossed my ankles, admiring my chocolate suede high heels, "that was part of a very intriguing series. Honestly, some nights I didn't know if I'd been dreaming or reading or watching the news. It was all-encompassing." I sighed. "And he was almost found. I mean, they thought they found his body once. I don't know. I remember it being somewhere north of Detroit."
"Please, please — help yourselves to the food. There is a wonderful assortment. Just everything," said Kate, swooping in and out of the rooms like a ballroom dancer.
I stood up.
"Saved by the hostess," said Lenny, following behind me.
"I'll ask him. Just wait. If we see him tonight, I'll ask him," I said.
I turned to glare at him over my shoulder. "Clever, Lenny. I meant Thomas Cook."
There were at least twenty-five people, most of them in line, and it seemed we came in last. I didn't mind, though. I was in no hurry to try Lenny's beans and weenies, and I knew he would insist.
"Lenny, welcome back. Emmeline, how are you?" asked Jim Giles, the chair of the English department. He wore a traditional corduroy jacket, with velvet elbow patches and tan pants. In his hand he carried a very large cup of coffee. To me, he looked like a person who belonged in front of a typewriter, surrounded by newspaper men and cigarettes.
"Hello, Jim. It's good to be back," I said.
"You say that now. Just wait until Monday," said Giles.
"It's not Monday I'm worried about. It's October," said Lenny.
We laughed and kept moving. A toffee-colored tablecloth covered the modern kitchen island, along with Depression dinnerware and petite vases of black-eyed Susans. I took a dainty glass plate and moved toward the archway that separated the kitchen and dining room. Several dishes filled the formal table, and I sampled everything that was left, making sure to leave room for my meatballs. Lenny was pondering the cheese fondue, so now was my chance to approach the sideboard. I opened the lid and frowned, spooning out three meatballs from the stack.
"Hey, leave some for me," said Lenny, standing behind me.
"Don't worry. There are plenty left," I mumbled, giving him the spoon.
"Jackpot," he said. "You have to try mine. It's not just beans and hotdogs. I have a spice in there."
"Ah. A secret ingredient. Sorry. No room." I shrugged.
The front parlor was full; even the settee was taken. I found an empty chair in the living room adjoining the kitchen. The space was still rather formal yet had a small stereo and speakers from which, I imagined, NPR crackled on Saturday mornings. I imagined a lot of things about a lot of people. No more than an eighth of it was probably true. For all I knew, Giles rocked out in full stereo surround sound and had a fifty-inch plasma tucked safely downstairs. People were astonishing when you got to know them.
The fondue was good and so was the tofu, really, although it wasn't as much fun eating it without Lenny around. Last year's teaching assistants were amusing, though, as they recounted their worst teaching moments — there seemed to be many and sundry — to the new teaching assistants.
A man entered with a delicate looking woman at his side. They were a good-looking couple, maybe from the East Coast, their clothing a blend of grays and blacks. The couple's plates were nearly empty, and I wondered if they had been mingling and eating or hadn't eaten yet at all. They scanned the room for a place to sit, and as if eager to please, two teaching assistants stood up and walked toward the kitchen.
"Hello," I said, sticking out my hand. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Emmeline Prather."
"Emma-leen or Emma-line?" the man said.
"Emmeline, like Caroline. French but from Detroit."
"Got it," he said.
"Hi," said the woman.
They began to converse intimately, and I sat looking on as if watching a foreign-language film. "Are you new to the department?" I broke in.
"Oh, yes. I'm sorry. I'm Thomas Cook, and this is my wife, Lydia."
"Thomas Cook!" I exclaimed, looking around for Lenny, who was nowhere in sight.
Thomas looked sort of shocked, and I immediately apologized. "It's just that my friend and I were discussing your dissertation before dinner. You wrote it about cereal boxes, correct?"
His wife smiled patiently.
"Well, I guess you could say that." Now he smiled back at his wife.
"What would you say? I mean, what would be an accurate representation of your thesis?" I asked.
He handed his wife his plate as if he were about to stand and give a soliloquy. "In short, it examines the consequences of health rhetoric, more specifically organic rhetoric, on health-conscious consumers."
I slowly chewed and swallowed my meatball as I thought of how to respond. "You must have eaten quite a few boxes of cereal."
"It was seven hundred and fifty pages by the time it was finished, and I had barely unearthed the deep tomb of a very new field of study," he said.
"He was accepted by seven different PhD schools," his wife added.
I said nothing. I was still evaluating his metaphor.
"But that was just luck," he said. "Organic was novel at the time."
I nodded. "I'd never get by with writing a dissertation on the French Romantics today."
"Yes, well, death of the author and all that," he laughed.
"No one will talk me into killing off my authors. French or not, Foucault — "
"Please tell me I did not just hear Em use the 'F' word," said Judd Turner, who taught literary criticism. "I'm going to save you right now, Thomas, and tell Em that Kate is serving red velvet cake in the dining room."
"I was just ... red velvet? I thought she saved that for Christmas," I said.
"She told me to tell you especially," Judd said.
"It is my favorite," I said to Thomas and Lydia. "You must try it. It simply melts in your mouth."
"Lydia cannot digest gluten," said Thomas.
"Well, it was good to meet you anyway. I mean, it was good to meet you. Not despite the gluten." I stuck out my hand, and Thomas shook it briskly. "I'm sure I'll see you on campus."
"Yes, of course," he said. "I look forward to it." Lydia simply leaned into him.
Kate served me an especially large helping of cake, and I balanced it carefully as I went in search of Lenny. He had somehow found his corner armchair and was in the middle of a heated exchange with Jane Lemort, our medievalist. The only clue that gave away his irritation was his bright red ear tips, which he probably could have blamed on the drink. Despite the fact that I wanted to tell him about Thomas Cook, I was about to walk away when he caught my eye and silently pleaded with me to join their conversation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Act of Murder"
Copyright © 2016 Mary Angela.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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