The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.1 (Winter 2007)
The Ghost of Caesar’s Wife
Mr. Davies regularly contributes to Praesidium stories dealing with the intricacies of contemporary academe. Most of his compositions–but by no means all–range somewhat less far from empirical reality than this extraordinary tale.
Lisa had learned about hiding choice library books from the aunt who was her namesake, and who had pursued a doctorate (with eventual success) throughout most of the seventies and some of the eighties. Lise (as the aunt had re-christened herself upon entering the academic job market) had regaled her niece with many such stories long before the little one possessed sufficient years to understand them, and always with the moist-eyed nostalgia of some fat-and-unhappy divorcee recollecting her Homecoming Queen days. Not that Aunt Lise had ever been either fat, divorced, married, or Homecoming Queen… but the unhappiness was particularly in evidence by the contrast which any grad-school reminiscence invariably struck with her usual mood. Maybe it was just such gilded evidence, in fact—infinitely more than her mother’s nagging to “be somebody, like your aunt”—which had made Lisa shoot for grad school herself as early as sixth or seventh grade. When classmates had gossiped about their intended future or counselors had intimated that life might profit from being planned, Lisa had adopted the line, “I’m going to graduate school,” for as far back as she could recall, as if that destination were a terminal objective. Amazing, how often people had tended to shut up once the line was out—as if, perhaps, it were an answer to the career question. It had been so for Aunt Lise, somehow. More or less. An assistantship here, a lectureship there… a year’s contract later, then a tenure track, then… then a lot of feints and dodges of which Lisa had only the sketchiest notion, even now, and which Aunt Lise had only rarely discussed, ending in a job at the State Department of Education—a triumph lubricated by an influential grad-school chum. So grad school was a career, then: or its aftermath was, anyway. “What are you going to do with your life?” “Go to grad school… get my doctorate. And the rest.”
When fragments of such conversations percolated these days over Lisa’s long strides about campus, however, irony tartly seasoned the brew. She was not happy. Well, neither was Aunt Lise—but then, Lise had been happy at grad school. Maybe it was just the tides and the customs (or however that saying went). Maybe it was easier to be happy back in the seventies, when there was plenty of student aid, no AIDS, no terrorism (except… well, they only hijacked planes instead of blowing them up), no huge Gay movement siphoning off all the sensitive men and leaving only frat-boy keg-kings…. In general, it just seemed to her (and Aunt Lise’s stories had done nothing to refine the impression) that you could get a lot more traction out of refusing to turn the treadmill in those days. Old Lise… Lizzie the Lizard. Nowadays, some of Tin Lizzie’s favorite buzz-words—“capitalism”, “imperialism”, even “feminism” (God, she even said capital-e “Establishment” sometimes!)—felt like they belonged in one of those “dress-back” days that her private high school would use as a theme for a mixer (Elvises and Far Side glasses for the Fifties, Afros and bell-bottoms for the… whatever). Frankly, sometimes Lise’s generation sounded like a bunch of losers.
Who would want to sleep around with a bunch of guys, for instance? What would that accomplish, even if you made them all wrap themselves in plastic at the door? (They might as well: refrigerator bags were made for oozing, slimy leftovers.) What-na-hell kind of freedom was that? The guys just got all they ever dreamed of out of it, and what did women get? Why did Aunt Lise think that was such a great victory? It was bad enough to get robbed of your last penny—but to let somebody talk you out of your money, and then to come away smiling about how you bought lakefront property on Mars? Losers….
But, of course, it was Aunt Lise’s generation that ran the grad schools. At least in the departments like Interdisciplinary Studies. One of the nation’s only doctoral programs in Interdisciplinary Studies, and she had to land herself (at Aunt Lise’s instigation, with her blessing, and probably because of her string-pulling) right in the middle of it. What-na-hell was she going to do with a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies? The brochures said she could teach History or Politics and Government or Literature or Foreign Language… so, yeah, be a friggin school marm. She sure wasn’t going to be any college professor like her worthy, esteemed mentors, because a) there were virtually no Interdisciplinary Studies programs to employ her, and b) college History departments would go for a Ph.D. in History. (Lisa had only lately been apprised of these hard facts by an older grad student concurrently job-hunting and finishing her dissertation: the perspective had knocked her inside-out.) Or maybe she could follow in Lise’s footsteps—get the taxpayers to support her handsomely for life while she churned out new regulations that made educating kids more impossible than ever.
Was that… anger creeping up her throat? Was she ready to uncork a burst of epithets in her sainted aunt’s direction?
She took her bearings beyond the graduate library’s main entrance and security gates. Not that she didn’t know that cavernous foyer well, the names of dead white guys (The Lizard’s phrase) written duskily in tile under a cornice to make spiders dizzy—not that she didn’t know even those forgotten names like the first scene of a recurrent nightmare… but she wanted to make sure that nobody was in the cavern. Nobody of the several people she didn’t want to meet. Most of the few moving bodies were the poor sods (or the lucky stiffs) who worked here. She hunched her way (the backpack being particularly full this time) to the elevator, whose doors were sucked away instantly when she mashed the button. Safely inside, she punched the sixth floor with a residue of that stewing anger; and, as soon as the doors (irritatingly patient, as if waiting on some friggin wheelchair) sighed themselves shut again, she fell straight back, allowing her heavy load to thump the capsule’s rear wall.
Loser. Doctor Loser. “Doctor Hooter,” she had once been called—just once!—by Doctor Loser. Working at Hooter’s was probably the one thing she did—the one thing she regularly did, these past two years—which lifted her out of her gray mood. She could switch off her brain… not that she didn’t switch it off in class; but she could shift it to an entirely different gear, one where she didn’t have to be post-lobotomy clever, jargonal-perfect, revolutionary-zealous. Yeah, it was that zeal she could lose: going to class was like going to some church where she had to be constantly ready to spring up and give her testimony, to wave her hands and wail on cue. And she wasn’t a believer any more, if she ever was. At Hooters, she could actually be treated like… well, almost like… it was like respect. Men came in after a day’s work—men in suits, attorneys and executives—and they eyed her, sure. It was Hooters, wasn’t it? But most of them eyed her with the cutest little smile, like they wanted to apologize—like they just had to feast their eyes because Mother Nature had given them such a hunger, but they still knew (something in them knew) that their appetite was humiliating, and they were embarrassed. The few unequivocally male grad students she ever came into contact with had never been guilty of such a hung-up, bourgeois smile (more of Aunt Lise’s words). They just considered her an hors-d’oeuvre on the plate, waiting for them to consume or not as the whim took them. It was just it: they could browse a little in a spare room at one of Professor Menninger’s soirées, or flop down at one or the other’s apartment on a slow Saturday night. They were far, far above Hooters. They had transformed society, starting with themselves, and they didn’t need to wear a suit or lay out lots of cash to get it. As far as she could tell, that was really the one big difference between bourgeois capitalism and Marxist utopia: in the latter, you got it for nothing, if you were a man.
As the doors slid apart discreetly, her body was already in motion, having intuitively measured the rate of deceleration somewhere beneath her protruding hip pockets. She was a well-built woman. That was what had steamed up Dr. Flannigan so much about the discovery of her job at Hooters—not all that dino dung about her betraying the sisterhood. And to dump on her about it in class, yet—God, in front of six other grad students! To talk to her like that in class! IS 4265: “History and Her-Stories in the Late Eighteenth Century”… might as well be a bunch of fishermen’s wives gossiping at the stream where they wring out their wet laundry. Doctor Loser. Lisa hadn’t ever actually called her that in public, but she had come close when sarcastically dubbed “Doctor Hooter” before her six peers. She had contented herself with firing off, “So why don’t you pay my rent? Why don’t you pay my tuition? Or how about taking a cut in salary so people like me can afford to enroll and hear you bunch of wise-asses all day long?” Okay, so that had been more than a fair-to-middling rebuttal (though certainly no rhetorical gem)—so that had not only won her peers instantly back to her side, but had so cowed Doctor Loser that she had wilted into an apology. (Just wilted: you could see her as it happened, her eyes darting back and forth between Lisa and the other students, trying to size up the extent of her lost credibility. Loser.)
But none of all that was worth an ounce of glory any more. What drove Lisa crazy was trying to figure out if Dr. Flannigan had started doing Jeremy before or after the incident. Not that Jeremy was much of a loss: as a boyfriend, his deficiencies were apparent even before he had moved in with her—which Lisa should never, never had let him do, even though the River Street Rapist had her scared half to death when she came home late from waitressing (like Jeremy would have heard her screaming in the parking lot from his slug-dumb sleep, or like he would have come running even if he had heard)…. But the thought that really, really pissed her off was the whole “sisterhood” thing. The Professor of Sisterhood, the Prophet of Pink Power, a woman who might easily have been one of Aunt Lise’s classmates… and all she could do was point her sorry ass in the direction of one of her students’ boyfriends! Had it been in revenge—a stereotypically female passive-aggressive revenge—for being bested in a classroom shouting match by a mere second-year grad student? Or had she learned about Hooters, in the first place, from Jeremy—had she already roped him in (any woman with more hips than waist could rope Jeremy in with a thread) and then discovered, via pillow talk, that his girlfriend was a Hooters girl? (Jeremy would have confessed it almost like a boast, as something he was very proud of—as something to establish his stud credentials before this professorial conquest.) The timing… the timing of it all drove her crazy, and she didn’t really know why. Because it didn’t matter. Either way, Doctor Loser was signaling her (for the “accidental” discovery couldn’t have been more obvious if it had been posted on the university website’s home page)—signaling her and all the world—that the Hooters girl who had humiliated her in class couldn’t keep a boyfriend, boobs-in-tank-top notwithstanding, if she decided to steal him.
What mattered… what drove her crazy… was the hypocrisy. Yes, it was the flagrant hypocrisy of it all. Flagrant. In flagrante delicium, or whatever it was. Or maybe it was just not knowing how many times she had slept with Jeremy after The Loser had started working him out. How many times had she been… cuckolded?
Once among the stacks, Lisa began to grow a little less reflective, a little more aware of her immediate surroundings. Her current enterprise made her slightly nervous, or at least eager not to be seen by any staff member re-shelving books. Besides, she had pulled out Beginning Russian from the second stack and mis-shelved it up here only last month, so the trail to the hiding place required conscious focus. (At semester’s end, she would buy her own copy if she had scraped together some spending change; but for now, Aunt Lise’s old trick proved useful. For some reason, such texts were much in demand and not subject to renewal—probably because of all the diehard patriarchal types busily importing Russian brides to provide them with stay-at-home slaves and sultry, mute sex partners. Now her thoughts were sounding like Doctor Loser’s, who had once dribbled some bile from her ample reservoir over the mail-order bride phenomenon. Maybe that particular rant session had spurred Lisa on, perversely, to pursue Russian—that and the gloomy, jobless doctoral candidate’s remark that French and German were worthless for finding real employment now.)
The sixth stack quickly worked its standard magic on her nerves, however. It was more than a quiet place: it possessed the silence of the tomb. Most of the books up here seemed to deal with—or even be written in—dead languages: Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Old Norse… what fun it must be looking for a job in one of those fields! Most definitely, here was the place to hide something: a book, a body, or oneself for a night. If she could just evade whatever quick sweep was made by library staff before closing time at ten, she had quite enough in her backpack to pass a relatively comfortable evening. No cars screeching in the parking lot, no doors slamming, no shouting and noisy sex on the other side of a thin wall, no phones (she had turned off her cell)… and no Jeremy. Nor any possibility of Jeremy. A library! He didn’t even know such places existed—Daddy’s monthly check was sufficient to pay off someone to write his term papers in Business Administration—and, in any case, the building would be locked up like a nuclear generator in meltdown. And, in any case, she had left no word—absolutely none, not even with Cheryl—where she might be found. Jeremy would come home, find all his stuff piled neatly outside a door with a fresh deadbolt on it (very neatly: Cheryl had once tossed her boyfriend’s stuff over a second-story rail, only to be hit later with an expensive lawsuit)… Jeremy would pound the door and howl for a while, someone would call the cops, Jeremy would look like the pampered idiot he so completely was with his CD collection on one side and his sports car on the other… and she would have to witness none of it. She might just stay here tomorrow night, too, if she could get off from her shift at Hooters in time to beat the closing hour. Maybe she could call in a favor… maybe Lindsay, or Shantelle….
There was her favorite Russian primer, safe from the fat, groping fingers of lonely computer nerds. She had discovered this spot before in her first year, when she had hidden both copies of a classic work about Moroccan women in composing a research paper. (“It’s not enough to have all the best stuff,” her auntie had explained more than once. “You have to be sure that the other guys don’t have it.”) But the ploy had been dated and ineffectual—everyone who wanted the text was thumbing it within a week, either through interlibrary loan or Amazon.com—and it had left her, besides, feeling low and sneaky. In fact, she could no longer understand her aunt’s having urged such a sordid strategy with such joy upon an innocent young niece. Maybe that was part of the seventies’ lost art, as well: an inability to perceive one’s own complete absence of principles.
She wanted to deposit her heavy pack somewhere, but she didn’t dare do so just yet: she might have to retreat into hiding suddenly, leaving her load behind. Then the dutiful drudge pushing the little book cart might haul it off to the lost-and-found, and…. Lisa glanced at her watch. Only ten more minutes, and she could spread out in peace. Where would be the best spot? There were cushioned chairs over by the windows.
Not quite on cue, a very mild voice filtered through the stacks from an invisible ceiling-speaker: “Ten minutes to closing time. Please gather your things and prepare to exit.” A mother might have used the same tone to tell an infant that sleepy time had come.
If there were any sort of physical check for malingerers, it would come very soon. Lisa rose to high alert. Even if she were caught in the innocent pose of poring over Russian grammar, the checker would not withdraw without seeing her enter the elevator bodily. She eased her nose beyond a final shoal of shelves and into a broader passageway. Nothing from the interior’s dense archipelago of book-islands. Maybe the intercom alert was the only one given… how shoddy! She veered 180 degrees on the thick heels of her Nikes, landing with infinite care against the opposite row of shelves so that her pack’s buckles would not create a stir. My God… there was actually someone reading at a table near the windows! Someone besides herself had actually discovered the sixth stack! A male, in a white shirt… a dress shirt, but without coat or tie, and the sleeves rolled halfway up to his elbows, a head of bushy but well-groomed hair bent low over an opened volume. He might have been one of her better customers—one of the more generous tippers—at Hooters. But for the fact of his being in a library, that is….
If the girl hadn’t spoken, Lisa would have been nailed for sure. As it was, she knew she still had a chance only because the voice was too muffled, too distant, to have been aimed at her. The words were not intelligible.
She back-pedaled down her aisle, not even daring to risk a turn in such a tight space with her ungainly pack, both hands thrust out stiff-fingered to keep her positioned between the two rows of shelves. She wasn’t going to make it—there wouldn’t be time to reach the aisle’s far end and melt into the shelf-line just as the checker passed. Instead, she simply froze. Maybe if she just didn’t move… she was already pretty far back from the main passage. Even with her immense pack preventing her from going flat against a cliff of titles, maybe she wouldn’t draw attention if she just didn’t move a muscle.
“But you can’t tell her anything!” the voice confided, rising, just as a petite girl with her hair pulled back in a tail flitted past the aisle’s opening. The cell phone clapped upon her right ear might have helped to block Lisa’s quarter from surveillance. In any case, the danger was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.
Lisa sighed heavily, clasping the Russian primer to her chest like a book of prayer. All this just to shake that little vermin Jeremy out of her bed sheets… she should have just put up at Cheryl’s place. But then, Cheryl was all caught up in some new guy, and there was no telling how far that had progressed… and, anyway, Lisa was too embarrassed about it all even to let her best friends in on the situation. And then, Jeremy knew all her friends and would be bugging them to find out where she’d gone to roost. He’d probably slept with some of them, at one time or another… or probably thought he had.
Having allowed her mind to idle for a few more seconds—a couple of minutes, at least—Lisa began a very deliberate stalk back up the aisle, still conscious of her pack. (A little ping could carry a very long way in an empty library.) There was something else holding her back, too. She grew more aware of it as the carpet of the main passage fell nearer and nearer to her advancing foot, until—finally—she found that she could not take that last step into the open. Something was wrong… something temporarily immersed in the shallow, bubbling surf of her stupid fretting about Jeremy. She waited for the surf to recede, and at last it did.
The man. The man reading. He had been seated not thirty feet away from her spying eye. The checker couldn’t possibly have missed him… and yet, not a word had been spoken. Maybe… maybe that petite chick on the cell wasn’t staff.
Lisa flipped her wrist to bring to hour into view again. Perfectly on cue this time, the lights overhead dimmed silently to a mere star-glow. She had done it: the sixth stack was shut down, sealed off, and she was still inside. Her right hand reached out to lean heavily upon the bookshelf’s last vertical support—the one facing the main passage, with Dewey decimals sure to be plastered over it just inches from her hair roots. It had been a long day… a long week.
But that man! Maybe he had just nodded at the girl and followed her meekly, leaving his book behind, absolving her from interrupting her cell-phone conversation with some polite, obedient gesture. (There were men like that, sometimes, in libraries.) Or maybe he was one of those sad types known to all the librarians and staff who seemed to spend every waking hour in the stacks—who didn’t seem to have any other life. Maybe he and the girl had exchanged a usual closing-time nod. “Yes, Mr. Smith, it’s that time again. Up with you, now. See you first thing tomorrow.”
It was as if she had needed to rehearse all these scenes before looking—as if she had hoped, against hope, that two or three rational explanations might erase the stark fact of an irrational occurrence. When she did peek out again at last, a little groan escaped her—the kind that a sleeper releases in turning over, in shaking off a bad dream. Except that she had turned head-on into the bad dream.
For there was simply no way to explain how he could still be there. Or maybe one. Only one—but one was enough. The chick on the cell hadn’t been staff at all. No, they didn’t even check before they locked up—a voice just purled a lullaby over some distant loudspeaker. Very, very shoddy.
Yet just as Lisa, somewhat heartened, was about to launch herself into full view, another consideration gripped her shoulders. Here she was, locked up for the night with a strange man… not a very menacing man, but still a man. Did she want to let him know of her presence? She could easily slip away to the stack’s far side. There were cushioned chairs over there, too…. Yes, but could she sleep like that, knowing a stranger to be locked up on the same floor with her? Knowing that he might stumble upon her in her sleep… could she sleep, knowing that such a thing might happen? She knew herself too well… and she needed at least a few hours’ sleep.
In the end, she adopted the opposite approach. The best defense is a good offense.
Plunging boldly into the carpeted corridor (where the saddle-grunts of her pack compensated for the lack of warning in her muted footsteps), Lisa was already feeling for the proper tone of chirp. Would she slightly scold (“What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear the closing announcement?”), or would she instantly be more conspiratorial (“So… you’re doing an all-nighter. Well, I won’t put you out if don’t break any more rules. Absolutely no booze”)…. Most certainly, she would pull out her cell and pretend to phone in downstairs. (“It’s okay, Stephanie. You can tell security I’m here, just don’t tell the big boss. I’ve got to get through this cataloguing, and you know what happens tomorrow…”.) Yeah, something like that. Not too thick, though.
Yet as she neared the man, her resolution melted away. Not melted, exactly… not at all melted, but something like the reverse—like a stream freezing into a rivulet, and then into a prostrate icicle. She physically felt herself getting colder—between her shoulders, up the back of her neck, through her scalp and into her nostrils. Her fingertips and toes. Her ribs… her heart. Somewhere just short of the table’s far end, just against a chair which had been left thrust out in the walkway, the balls of her feet grew so cold that they stuck to the carpet, right through her jogging shoes. The light, though already dimmed, grew dimmer still—and in the most artificial, unnatural manner, as if the incalculably remote neon bulbs had rotated to some odd angle behind the shelves, or even under the floor. The only thing that appeared stable, at the her line of sight’s precise focal point, was the reading figure, forever reading, its slender shoulders forever slouched under an open collar, its head of ruffled hair forever bent in deep study. For some reason, she realized that it was the most tragic figure she had ever seen, or ever could see. So much intensity, as the eternal sun was finally flickering its last and as the great empty universe was poised to snuff out the candle in a puff of absolute-zero breath. So much absorption, or indifference. Or despair.
She was aware that she was still breathing only by the chill which passing air created on her lips. She must have been gaping.
And then he looked up at her. It was the simplest movement in the world—too simple, simpler than any movement in the living world. For the direct lift of the head was aimed straight at her, and the deep, deep, immeasurably deep sadness in the black eyes held neither greeting nor indignation nor discomfort nor surprise nor hope nor fear—nothing in the least of any of these—but a geometric power, instead, of some hurt from far, far beyond their meeting. A hurt which had nothing to do with her, with this meeting… and so a hurt which must have been sitting there all the time, even as he was reading and reading, and which must have overshadowed everything he read and resisted everything he read. A hurt without age, as old as the world. And yet… and yet, a very young hurt, like a child’s after being told his first great lie.
Despite the fit of shivering which now shook her from ear to toenail, Lisa felt moisture welling in her eyes. Those other eyes seemed to communicate it to her, like a dark flame. “Why?” she inhaled, almost in a sob; and then, with faintly more sense, “Who are you?”
He couldn’t possibly have heard her, even across six or eight feet of tabletop. But he had, of course: for the limits of possibility had become a mere memory.
“I have to read every book in the library. I have to. I read, all the time. Before, when I was alive, I wanted to be a scholar. It was all I ever wanted in the world. I read then, too. But it didn’t seem to be enough. Once, when I was very far along in the program, I put into a paper everything I had read about and thought about for years. It was the best of my dissertation. It was the best of everything I had ever done. I had people look at it, and they said that it was good. They called it scholarly. So I sent it to a scholarly journal, a journal I had read for years, where great scholars were published. They sent it back. They wrote that it was disturbing. They wrote that I had made big mistakes and small mistakes, too. The big mistakes, they said, were disturbing. So I took my paper and came up here. I checked all my facts again, and I read more books and articles. But still I couldn’t understand why they had written what they had. The more I read, the less I understood. I read so much that…”
The words stopped, although the eyes continued to search her (or search for something through or beyond her) without ever blinking. Lisa had the sensation—the wholly outlandish sensation—of time having stopped, as well. She felt that he would begin to speak again if she gave him the faintest nudge, just as an old grandfather clock may need a nudge at the pendulum to resume ticking.
“What did you do?” she whispered over her frozen tongue, her teeth never touching.
“It was Christmas. It was Christmas break.”
“Yes. There was nobody here. The library was all shut up. They hadn’t noticed me, and I hadn’t thought about that. Christmas. And they didn’t come and open up, and I didn’t try to get out. It seemed like the perfect chance to read more. And I still tried to read, even when I couldn’t sit up any more. Even when I couldn’t see any more. I could see the words better in my mind than on the page, after a while. So I closed my eyes and read them in my mind.”
“And… no one missed you?”
He didn’t seem to hear the question, or perhaps to understand it (for he seemed to hear everything). She tried another. “When did this happen?”
His eyes appeared to concentrate upon her, ever so slightly. She thought she could almost distinguish black pupils from huge, very brown irises. “When?”
“… did it happen? How long ago?”
“Just now. Everything is now, just now. That was the first thing I realized, when I opened my eyes again. I saw them take my body away. And then I sat down and started reading where I had left off. Only I knew now that the words were saying nothing. They go in circles, like birds. Like a flock of restless birds, they circle and circle. Always around the same point. Once I knew that everything is now, I could see the arcs of all the circles. And the more I read, the more I see the arcs. Over and over, the same circles. For centuries… writers of all times, all places. The same restless birds. Everywhere, in all kinds of scholarship. The historians, the scientists, the ones who turn people into numbers… the numbers, too, make circles, Especially the numbers. And I have to count them all, over and over and over. Until, at the end, I end up where I started. Which is now.”
Lisa labored for several seconds before she could draw enough breath for her next word. “But… are you in hell?”
The huge, dark, sad eyes found her still more precisely, deepened until they hinted that softness was depth’s final stage, and strangely embraced her in one of their circles—the circles they embodied, and studied in print, and traced in objects. She could feel them tracing—ever so softly—the arc of some circle around her hair and shoulders and shoes, like a sidewise halo.
“Even here, the books are not infinite.”
Now her breaths were drawing so much air, every one, that they almost deafened her. When she tried to slow them down, they only broke into saw-toothed edges. The moisture in her eyes had spread to her throat: the frozen core within her was thawing.
“Then why… why don’t they let you go? You’ve… you’ve learned your lesson!”
“It’s not a lesson. It’s something to be done. Something I must do—”
“But why?” she actually interrupted. “Doesn’t… does no one mourn for you?”
“God in heaven. He mourns for me.”
“Oh.” Finally Lisa caught her breath, nodding as though she had understood. The nod carried her gaze infinitesimally downward. When she looked back up a split second later, he was back at his reading.
She fitted together a couple of cushioned chairs at the far end of the tabled section. From her headrest, peeking between her lashes from time to time, she could see his slumping, white-shirted shoulders. At one point, she started up from a half-sleep and called, “I’ll mourn for you!” And then she fell off into a dreamless slumber.
All the same, Lisa would have expected herself to wake up the next morning with the sensation of having dreamed a great deal, and very creatively. She was faintly shocked at her lack of shock. Grazing on cold Pop Tarts, brushing her teeth and straightening up in the Women’s Room, reading behind a thickly booked set of shelves near the elevator until five minutes after opening time, she was somehow accompanied by a feeling that he (whom she could no longer see, or at least did not see in her morning rambles) was more real than any of the solid objects casually passing before her eyes. She even thought to do an Internet search of local news stories on the monitor near the elevator—for the computer system was apparently never shut down. She went back twenty years, then thirty, then forty (his sideburns, which she only now recalled, suggested that she should have started at around forty: Seventies Day at her high school had taught her that much); and she used keyword phrases like “library suicide” and “Christmas tragedy”. Nothing. He was as invisible online as he was, apparently, in person to others except for her.
It was that certainty of having been specially chosen, perhaps, which made her cling to the experience throughout the day. The staff person on the cell phone had not seen him, at any rate—and there were definitely no rumors circulating about the library’s being haunted. That meant that she herself… yes, she had been selected. She had special powers, or special potential. It was an exhilarating sense, but also a solemn one. Suddenly she was taking her life very seriously. It occurred to her that she should think about her own choices and selections over the next few months very carefully.
Then, too, she discovered the pride (was it a joy, even?) of mourning for someone, and particularly of being the only mourner. She remembered that drowsy promise, for some reason, with piercing clarity as she was turning instinctively from the sun’s first shafts on her borrowed cushions. It didn’t seem much like mourning, those smiling sighs she heaved from time to time. (She knew that the sighs drew smiles, because she surprised one of them in the mirror of the library’s restroom.) Were you not supposed to smile when you mourned for someone? But it was a sad kind of a smile (she studied it in the Ladies’ Room at Hooters that evening: the merest thought of him immediately brought its ghost to her lips). She didn’t really know anything about mourning… but it seemed to her that she was going about it the right way, if only because all of her emotions were unforced. She felt so sorry for him, sorrier than she had ever felt for anyone. Why, then, was there that hint of a smile? She hadn’t time to figure it out. She decided simply that she wouldn’t try to suppress it—she wouldn’t suppress anything, where he was concerned.
If she had only known his name, she could have gone to a cemetery and put flowers on a grave… something like that. In one of her afternoon classes, she discreetly asked another student who, she knew, worked in the Main Library whether she had ever heard of a young man starving to death over Christmas break in the Graduate stacks. The girl didn’t wait until their class met again, two days later. Lisa took a call on her cell between waiting tables that evening and was informed that she had very nearly cost her classmate a good job. “He was like, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and then, ‘That’s the most disgusting thing I ever heard!’ and then, ‘If you ever breathe a word of that to anyone, I’ll have you kicked so far off this campus you won’t be able to find it with a map.’ He’s, you know, like about fifty or something. Really old. It’s like Nixon, or something. You know, how they’re all going to cover it up. God, was he pissed! I could kill you, Lisa! But I was, like, thinking, you know. It might be one of those things where they start promoting me, because I know too much. You know, like the old Soviet Union , or something? That would be so cool! Every time he gets mad at me, I’ll just say, like, ‘Well, okay, guess I’ll go find an empty shelf and lie down and die.’”
It was the most solid confirmation they could have received—her classmate was right about that.
And the confirmation made her still more… more secure, more solemn yet smiling—more happy—than ever. She now had objective poof that something incredibly out of the ordinary, something absolutely unique, had chosen to make her its center. And she was grateful, so grateful to be special, even though she couldn’t quite pinpoint anything special about herself or her life. But that itself, no doubt, was the point: she was going to be special. If she only remained alert to opportunity, she was going to have a life that neither her mother nor Aunt Lise nor Doctor Loser had ever dreamed of.
Her conduct assumed a new note of confident daring, as a result. Not that any daring was needed to make Jeremy’s banishment stick… he had apparently shown up at the apartment thoroughly soused on the night of her “experience”, and the inevitably summoned security guard had dispatched a call to the metropolitan police, who had in turn invited Jeremy to their place downtown. One of the lesser vertebrates at the best of times, Jeremy could manage to muster no more of a presence in her life now than the occasional “homeless puppy” routine in an empty booth at Hooters—a bid for reconciliation doubly doomed to failure. In the first place, he couldn’t very well apologize for sleeping with one of her professors when he had no reason to think her wise to the adventure and, therefore, had every reason to sustain a “What did I do?” attitude. In the second place, the sight of so many ripe busts in so many tight t-shirts made the puppy’s whimpers turn to panting within minutes. The poor slob was simply overpowered by his surroundings.
A far more significant triumph occurred when the departmental chair called Lisa in for advising at the end of the week. No ordinary advising, this, but an exhortation to think ahead to the thesis, or maybe the doctoral option where the thesis was skipped and the dissertation approached at full speed. The Chair took a personal interest in such matters, since the department was small (as in “tiny”… as in “about to wither away and leave me unemployed”).
“Dr. Flannigan has expressed an interest in being your thesis director, having followed your work closely,” said the woman who had once been an expert witness for seven seconds on Dateline.
Lisa had been bowled over by this testimonial to Doctor Loser’s good will—but only briefly. What better way both to save face and to create chances for further revenge upon the “upstart undergrad” than to become her official mentor?
“Dr. Flannigan… no. No. She and I don’t hit it off.”
The Chair looked most sincerely surprised. “Really? May I ask why? Perhaps it’s something that we can… perhaps if I could mediate…”
“No. No mediation, please. Just don’t try to put us together. In any circumstances.”
The Chair wrung groans from her chair as she squared her hips and leaned dramatically forward over her desk. Lisa couldn’t help but be impressed by the new atmosphere of “hush, hush” urgency in these movements, as if a top-secret plan to replace all male administrators with females had just fallen on the blotter between them.
“Now, Lisa, you really must tell me… what has happened? You know that you graduate students have always come first with me—you’re our hope for the future! Come on, now… it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard reports about Carol—Dr. Flannigan. You owe it to your peers…”
“No,” Lisa resisted, “it’s really not something I care to discuss.” Yet she was aware that a mine field was gathering about her even as she stubbornly stood in her tracks. The all-but-dissertation grad student whose brain she had been picking lately had alerted her to some of the intricacies of academic chess. This seemed to be one such match. One moment Flannigan was “our department’s rising star”: the next she was “that loose cannon, that saboteur”. With a sisterhood like this, who needed snipers? And, if Lisa wanted to be part of The Sisterhood, her next words, she realized, must be chosen very carefully.
Then, as her eyes fluttered uneasily among the Chair’s bookcases, she saw—only in her mind, but saw clearly there—a gaunt young man in a white shirt, his bushy hair perhaps bent over one of these very books, digging the circles out of the dense rhetoric. It was in that instant that she discovered how much meaning the heady sport of career-chess had lost for her.
“Actually, Dr. Ketzer, I’m seriously thinking of doing something else. Of leaving grad school, I mean, and doing something else.”
The top-secret plan on the desk had released a colorless, odorless nerve gas: the Chair, paralyzed, sank limply back upon her groaning leather cushions.
“Oh, I might finish the Master’s, since I already have most of the hours. But… I might take some more Russian classes, and then go for a job in the State Department. Or maybe even a private firm. Oil companies are looking for bilingual contract-negotiators… something like that.”
Checkmate in one move. And the move had consisted of her merely refusing to play.
Yet the most influential effect of Lisa’s new confidence was neither deliberately planned nor decisively enacted nor, for that matter, clearly perceptible to her. It had to do with men, and sex. Jeremy, of course, was history—not “her-story” (please!), and far more myth than chronicle, and far less myth than bland, bleached-out lie. But the days turned into weeks, and nobody jockeyed for the lead in the race for her newly available favors. Or they did, actually: that was an unstated part of employment at Hooters (a necessary pain or an added perk, depending upon your perspective)… but she seemed to stop seriously noticing any of them. Not even that, really—because she did mildly respond, seemed to respond (she had the sensation of watching herself like a third party throughout this overture), to an older man who always came in alone, always neatly but not showily dressed in a cardigan and tie or a dark suit, and usually carrying some envelope or manila folder whose contents he perused over a filet. He was cordial with her to the point of awkwardness (the cute little embarrassed smile so common among the forty-something executives was supplemented with an occasional stammer and blush). Yet he would not hesitate to ask after her if someone else caught his table—a presumption which was quickly common currency in the kitchen (“Lisa—your man’s here!”), as he must have known it would be within minutes of his first query, and which justified his extra trace of nervousness; for asking after a particular waitress was taking it to another level. At least he had the discretion not to tip too heavily.
But was “it” the same thing as it? For Lisa, not in the least. She allowed herself to be “uncled” by the man precisely because he was polite and discreet, because she hardly ever caught him ogling her t-shirt like part of the filet, and because… because his name was Frantisek Something-Or-Other, and he spoke with an Eastern European (but not quite Russian) accent. His considerable bald spot didn’t bother her: on the contrary, it emphasized his formidable cranium. As for his little mustache, it was alright in an uncle. She wasn’t sure how she would have taken it in a lover, and she couldn’t shift Frantisek to that rank in her imagination… which was proof, after all, that she wasn’t seriously flirting with him.
The only reason why anybody might have suspected otherwise was because of what did not go on in her life any longer. Weeks grew into months, and still there were no acknowledged leaders in the Jeremy Replacement Sweepstakes. Lisa never even thought about it. To the extent that she thought about any young man, she thought about him, with her mourning smile (not the embarrassed smile of a Frantisek, but… God, could it have been called mothering?). When she could manage a quick visit to the Graduate Library—which was seldom more than once a week—she would wander about the whole place, hoping for a glimpse of him. She was usually disappointed at first: indeed, she took her failures pretty hard when they began to include several visits in a row. She eventually figured out, however, that her error lay in concentrating on the sixth stack. His reading was not systematic in any way which someone from her world could have identified: on the contrary, it appeared entirely haphazard, taking him from floor to floor and from corner to corner as the hour hand slowly ran its circles around the clock. She at last discovered that the most reliable procedure was to look for a nook where no living humans were seated. Then, if she went to the area and began to feel very chilly all of a sudden, she would turn and find him at her side, reading away. Sometimes she would even follow verbal clues overheard from snatches of conversation (“The air-conditioning won’t shut off on the second floor”… “Let’s sit in the sun—it’s too cold over there”). Sometimes, with about the same success, she would just “feel” her way, with as little conscious reflection as possible, to the loneliest, saddest spot she could find—which, miraculously (or not so miraculously, for those like her who understood), would physically shift by day and by week.
Whenever she finally found those frail, white-clad shoulders and that studiously bent head of curls (“Brother Patrick”, she now styled him in her mind, harkening vaguely to the image of some not-yet-tonsured medieval monk), her first impulse would be to reach out and stroke the shoulder blades, the disheveled hair. A bubble would well up in her throat to the size of a balloon, despite an inevitable onset of the shivers, and she would want to cry something like, “My poor Brother Patrick”—but even more like, “My son—my boy! My sweet boy!” And she would stop just as her fingertips twitched and her lips parted, both because she knew that people might stare and also (primarily—for there were never any people close by) because the contradictions in her near-utterances always brought her up short, puzzling her deeply, even shocking her.
“Virgin Mary,” an unsatisfied customer grumbled at her one night (a few too many beers into the night) after she had resisted his attempt to nestle a twenty against each of her breasts. The bartender had a meaningful discussion with the frustrated donor shortly thereafter, and she had supposed the incident dead in its tracks along with a hundred others of its kind. The next week, however, a blond beanpole who had composed part of this frat-rat band used the same phrase behind her back. She heard it: “Virgin Mary”—and then a couple of sniggers. Not one, but a couple. From then on, the words cropped up at least once a week around the fringes of her service: at her back as she turned away with an order or at her elbow as she briskly passed with a laden tray. A certain contingent of the clientele, apparently, had come to regard her as an exceptionally hard “score”—not that she had been more receptive before. But now that Jeremy was long out of the picture and no one else had stepped into the frame, her eligibility seemed to draw comment. It annoyed her. She had never realized either that she had briefly worn some man’s “brand” or that certain men—certain boys who hadn’t yet made landfall on the shores of manhood—fixed the number of points attached to various targets with such precision.
Yet it was really just the magnitude of this new interest in “having” her (or of this new resentment that she was not to be had) that took her by surprise. She had known the ground rules since eighth grade (when her scalp was first taken). Cheryl’s meltdown had been something else again. It soon became clear that things were not progressing at all well with her new man. She arrived at work dangerously late too often, had rings under her lids which make-up couldn’t hide, broke dishes at a suicidal rate, resumed smoking, and could sometimes be seen to emerge from the restroom with red eyes. One rainy Wednesday, just before closing, the restaurant was all but empty. The waitresses, fearful of being caught sitting down, leaned heavily against bars and counters. Lisa was in such a posture when Cheryl flopped up beside her, elbow to elbow. Lisa tried not to tense when a “been meaning to ask you” conversation started up, complete with broken-off sighs that belied the casual lead-in. Cheryl had never hit her up for money before… but there was always a first time. She quickly tried to recall how much was stashed in her bank account.
“I… do you think I’m cute?”
This was different! Lisa snorted, faintly relieved. “You’re very cute, Cheryl. Too cute for most of these slobs.”
She was going to add something like, “You should get out more—I’ll bet work is the only place you ever go.” But what she had just said seemed to bring down whatever leaky dam was holding her friend back.
“Do you want me? I mean… I mean….” And Cheryl’s arms began to quiver so visibly that Lisa thought of her ghost. “Maybe I’m not… I’ve been thinking after this last one, Lisa. I’ve been thinking a lot, I mean a lot. Maybe I’m not… you know. Straight. Maybe I’m not meant to be straight. I keep trying, but every time is worst than the last. I think this time was my limit—I don’t think I can go through this again. And so I thought… I mean, I’ve been noticing that, since Jeremy… I mean, maybe we should at least try. Maybe it would turn out to be just what we’ve always been looking for. You think?”
Three guys stomped in noisily out of the rain just then and headed for Lisa’s beat. It was brutal to leap up and leave Cheryl that way, but…. She almost patted her friend on the wrist, yet drew back at the last instant; and that faint gesture, as luck would have it, was even more brutal. She couldn’t find Cheryl again that evening and couldn’t raise her on her cell. It was terrible, so terrible. Her best friend… she thought about driving over to her place. But… but would that send a message which she would only have to take back?
The tragedy’s implications regarding her own appearance to others only struck her as she showered before bed. So now this Virgin Mary thing had her being gay… all because she had ditched Jeremy and didn’t want one of his clones. Had Jeremy himself, perhaps, circulated the story to cover for being tossed out on his ass? Then she started wondering about the department chair, Dr. Ketzer, who was openly gay (and whose split with Flannigan was probably centered on their sexual orientations, as rumor had it). Her solicitous concern over what Lisa would choose to do with her life… was it just a bureaucrat trying to keep her office from being closed down, or was there something more? How general now was the perception of her own gayness, and how long had it been out there?
It was quite possible that such gossiping (which did not offend her in its content so much as in its severe trespass upon her personal life) helped to nudge Lisa into an affair with Frantisek. On one occasion, as she hovered about his politely bowed head so officiously that her shirt’s tightest-stretched points almost buffed his shiny crown, he murmured an acknowledgment in some foreign language. It was just a couple of syllables—or maybe three… but for some reason, she murmured back over his clear cranium, “Spaseebo.” She instantly started to blush: she should almost certainly have said “you’re welcome” instead of “thanks”. But the murmur held its own justification, faintly intimate in its almost inaudible soothing: no point in trying to edit it now, which would create an absurd awkwardness. Just collect the empty plate and beat a retreat.
To her wonder, however, he reared his head back, his eyes widening at the ancient football helmets over his booth, and drew so deep a breath through his nose that she looked back in alarm, vaguely summoning her memories of the Heinrich Maneuver. He was smiling, however… or trying to keep from smiling.
Having glanced at her twice to establish that she was truly delaying her departure to gather whatever wisdom he might impart, he explained, “You mustn’t speak Russian to an expatriate Czech. ”
And then he did smile—he actually laughed—with a busy wave of the fork. “No, no, it’s—it’s excellent! Excellent that you should know these words! Remarkable. And there are no more Czech expatriates, anyway—only Czechs who come for the American Dream. Everybody now, they all come for your American Dream… and the younger ones have all forgotten their European nightmares. Or never knew them. Only the older ones, like me.”
“I’ll… I’ll get you some mustard.”
She was upset with herself for having failed to respond in some manner that signaled her interest. Yet when she returned, he asked her bluntly if she would care to attend a campus lecture on Saturday evening by a former East German diplomat.
“It is sure to be very sparsely attended,” he mused sadly; and then, shaking himself, “but, of course, you must work on Saturday night—”
“I can switch shifts with someone,” she interrupted earnestly. Her eagerness brought them around a difficult bend in the road which her earlier lack of wit had left unchallenged.
Beyond that point, the path to his bed seemed downhill and straight. He had not told her beforehand that he would be deserting her briefly in the audience (an audience of about two dozen, sure enough) to participate in a panel discussion after the lecture. She decided that his finely clipped mustache was both very serviceable and rather becoming: it gave his upper lip the appearance of a determined, masculine fixity (how few males she had known who could remain fixed upon anything!), and it also kept his broad brow from utterly dominating the rest of his face. When he asked her, after the modest reception (wine and cheese), if “you wish me to take you home now,” she had answered without expression (she could feel her chin lift, as if she were about to announce a head of state’s death), “You can take me anywhere you like.”
Their love-making was similarly solemn, almost ritual. He seemed to pause several times after ushering her into his pricey bachelor apartment, no doubt preparing himself to say, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But each time he recollected himself just before a fatal word or gesture escaped. Modestly, almost apologetically, he removed his clothes and hung them neatly over an armchair as she watched (having slipped out of her dress and underwear in half the time) from under the bed sheets. Then he turned out the only light. For long minutes, he merely held her hand and stroked her flank exploratively, tentatively. At last he came to her like a boy who had decided all at once to unveil a dark secret to his mother. He clasped her ribs tight to him, as a drowning man would a floating oar, and the inarticulate sounds that he called into the pillow at her ear had the plaintive note of a deep hurt—an outrage or a shame or a fear that had kept the boy off the playground. All she did was receive him: his caresses, his lunges, his grasps, his whimpers. It was all she had to do—it was what he needed most, the only thing he really needed. Someone to hold onto him. If it had been otherwise—if he had suggested that they assume odd postures, as the ever-inventive Jeremy always did (inventive in that way, though in no other), she would have thrown her clothes back on faster than she had discarded them. The “old enough to be my father” factor suddenly would have trumped everything else, and she would have breezed out with the word “pervert” on her mind, if not her lips.
Yet she must have suspected instinctively, without understanding why, that she would find a boy in this middle-aged man once she, the college girl, received him as a woman. Somehow it was the most natural thing in the world for their ages to flip-flop. And, more surprising still, she discovered a fully natural pleasure in giving him pleasure. The pleasures she and Jeremy would wring and wrestle from each other were all local and carnal, and ironically left them more distanced as human beings, since both of them knew that the other had tasted and grazed in a self-centered pursuit. This was… it was the ultimate hug for a different kind of male in her experience, one who was aware of being nearer to the grave than the cradle, and who had supposed his final chance for love to be long, long past. She could feel all this as if it were being whispered in her ear. She had thought it all out before he had even released her.
And, just before he released her, as she closed her eyes and hugged tight, she was astonished to find—inside her lids, and on the dark ceiling when her lids popped open—a curly-haired, jet-eyed man-child trying to lace his soul through her ribs.
In her stupor (for, at that instant, she lay staring as if paralyzed into the penumbrous ceiling, its shadows even deeper than the gray fed from a mist of street light around the drapes), she didn’t notice Frantisek reaching for a cigarette. Only the sulfurous scent of a struck match alerted her.
“Do you have to smoke?” she murmured flatly, reflexively.
“No. No, of course not. Forgive me. I had forgotten that you Americans…”
And then his gently exhaled, almost silent laugh. He didn’t finish the remark.
Lisa tried to rouse herself from her hypnosis. She was growing dimly aware that, even in the dark, her sluggishness would be perceptible, and would be interpreted as disappointment. She found his arm with her fingers—a thin, hairy arm.
“That we Americans… what?”
“Oh….” And yet again, the laugh. “It doesn’t matter. You’re quite right. A disgusting habit.”
She thought of all the European novels she had read where the characters smoke after making love, and then (without logical connection) of how many indulgences she and her countrymen allowed themselves to compensate for a few carcinogenic drags. No doubt, he had been on the verge of raising some such inconsistency. (“Second-hand smoke is a crime here, but you all have to own sports cars”… touché.) She squeezed his wrist: she liked it that he had refused to carry through the observation.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” she heard herself asking the ceiling, alert to any new tension in the wrist.
But the flesh beneath her fingertips remained entirely limp… and there was no laugh, either. Of all the times not to laugh! She listened to him breathing regularly for a few moments. Then he began what instantly, incongruously sounded like some sort of confession or reminiscence. “When I was a boy, our neighbors two houses over… they had a ghost in the attic. Not a very friendly ghost, either. It was well known that the attic should be avoided at certain times. The old urban residences rise quite high in my part of the world, by your standards, for they are also very thin. A pair of rooms stacked upon a pair of rooms, like a rectangular slice of wedding cake. And the houses on our block shared walls, so you could hear the ghost at certain times from the attics of the adjoining houses. But it was quite possible simply to avoid him. A male ghost, of course. The females are rarely violent. You see, Americans… forgive me to be mentioning Americans in this vein again, but I am not being critical. I am really quite… quite full of admiration. Of envy, perhaps. But… you are all so young! A ghost is something from a cartoon to you. You do not live upon the soil where your great-grandfather’s great-grandfather once attended his great-grandfather’s funeral in the ancestral cemetery. And neither do I, now. For I, too, am becoming an American. Except that it is too late, in my case. I have no American dreams, only European ghosts and nightmares. I cannot drink of the fountain of youth.”
He drifted into a silence so profound that it awoke Lisa from her spell as no fuming match or fidgeting on the mattress could have done. It seemed, indeed—that silence—to build an enchanted bridge to the ceiling’s dark recesses, where the other face (a face of ancient youth, or of young antiquity) continued to echo.
“Lisa,” he said at last, across this bridge which had now grown firm, “listen to me carefully. I have thought about you constantly in recent days. Not as… not as an American male thinks about a ‘hot date’, but as a man with very little to live for any longer thinks about an extraordinary chance which has suddenly crossed his path. A chance to pull another human being from the water. You think you are the only castaway left alive, and you curse fortune for leaving you alone in an open boat over the abyss… and then, quite suddenly, you realize that you are in a position to pull another person to safety. A young person—young, and talented, and beautiful, and sensitive… a person infinitely better suited than you were at her age to live an extraordinary life. Or perhaps I was not so unsuited, at your age… but there was no one to pull me out, do you see. And… I want to pull you from this… please forgive again, but from this infantile box-top billboard culture to which an accident of birth has condemned you. You do not walk into your workplace wearing a headset—what do you call it? An X-Pod? You do not sneak into a corner during business hours and prattle on your cell phone. The other girls, yes… but not you. There is a natural grace and modesty in your movements… a maturity. An immeasurable potential. You are a pearl among swine. Forgive me—of course, I do not know your friends, but… but I speak very broadly. For such is the truth of the matter.
“Now listen. I want to do some very important things for you. I want to be your benefactor. I do not say this because… please, please do not imagine for an instant that this is a quid pro quo for… for tonight. I should have made this same proposal in… in other circumstances, later on. And, even worse, you must never think that I am attempting to bribe you for… for further demonstrations of kindness such as you have shown to me tonight. It is highly unlikely that a beautiful young woman would take an interest in a withered, balding man. It is not in the nature of things. I should like to see you have better success, in that regard. But there is something unnatural, as well, about a man who lives his whole life and then has no heir, nobody to favor with the wisdom and power he has painfully amassed—and at what cost! God, at what cost! But… so, you are to be my… my protégée. You must let me do this for you.”
Into the ceiling’s darkness, from her end of the bridge, she asked very simply (for his suggestion brought no solid images to her mind whatever), “What is it that… that you see me doing? What would I be good at?”
“Youth!” She could detect his smile in the exhalation. “What was it that Christ said? ‘This generation… they must have a sign!’ No, I cannot tell you precisely. You see… it’s a matter of putting yourself in a position to take advantage of opportunities. I can introduce you to people… but it will help that you have some interest in other languages. And it would help more if you would continue your Russian. What I can supply for you that no diploma or curriculum vitae can do is vouch for your discretion—for your general freedom from the frivolity which has undermined your generation and your countrymen. And that character reference, if I may say so, is of inestimable value in these circles.”
“So… it’s… are these government jobs you’re talking about?” She was having difficulty navigating between her invaluable reputation for being discreet and a ravenous curiosity—a tug-of-war thrown further off balance by the citation of Christ. This man’s strange past… who in Interdisciplinary Studies would ever have cited Christ? “Would I work for the government, then?” Which government?
“You see… I hate to answer ‘yes and no’. it is perhaps more a matter… at least in the early going… of working with governments. No, it does not involve carrying a laser gun. No, you will not be required to sleep with drunken diplomats and heads of state. No, you will not have a suicide pill hidden within a hollow tooth.”
He laughed, and then she began to laugh—which put a voice into his laughter, which made her laughter peal until her flexing diaphragm forced her halfway through a sit-up.
“No Jamie Bond?”
“Jamie Bond! No, my dear! I am afraid it is nothing so Hollywood-esque. Neither Double-O Seven nor Natasha Lisovnova. You will still be Lisa—your sweet, wonderful self—and you will get vacations and a pension, and all the other bourgeois perks. But eventually, you may also have a high-level security clearance, and you may well chance to meet some diplomats and heads of state. As you did tonight, indeed. Whether you want to sleep with them will be up to you—I’m sure they will all try for your favors. But you would be wiser to find some blond All-American running back who has graduated to selling insurance. He will be healthier for you, and you will be far happier.”
Lisa was further advised (when Frantisek revisited the subject the next morning) that she should put her Hooters t-shirt—“which you wear most magnificently”—into moth balls and set her sights on some sort of internship (“the sort of thing your graduate program would already have done for you if its directors were not incurably outraged against all of life’s basic realities”). He appeared to know rather more about her qualifications and interests than she had ever told him directly (it was the one thing about him which truly bothered her), and he intimated that something in the state senate offices for this spring was a distinct possibility.
It was happening: before her eyes, she was becoming special. Was it merely a couple of months or so ago that she had been squirreling books away in the sixth stack and letting a career frat boy watch sports channels from her sofa, run up her cell-phone bill, and show her off at his orgies? That was all changing now, already—and it would never be the same again. She was even creating a budget for new clothes. You couldn’t prance around the senate offices in a Hooters shirt and Nikes… or maybe some interns did, but she wouldn’t be one of them. It would be nice to put on something that actually made her feet look good (a part of her body which the big tippers didn’t know existed); and, as soon as she got out of waitressing, her soles wouldn’t be sore all the time.
The sixth stack… she guessed she wouldn’t be hanging around libraries much longer. Was she putting that—putting him—behind her, as well? Or wasn’t he fulfilled, rather, in all that was happening now? Wasn’t his promise of specialness to her coming true… hadn’t he made such a promise, by implication—by appearing to her and no other?
She felt an urgent need to… to “check in” with him, to feel the chill of his proximity shooting up her spine once more, and to see his head of bushy hair bent over a book as a young monk would bend over his breviary. (Even her vocabulary was filling out: the words had already been there—but now that her company was improving, she didn’t have to communicate in monosyllables.) It seemed a strange notion: looking forward to that horrid chill. She couldn’t think of anything else in her experience that had ever repelled her so much while also… not delighted her, certainly, but… but made her proud. Made her feel special. Maybe it was like church, for people who really believed. Maybe Brother Patrick was something like her religion. Was that changing about her, too—was she starting to believe in things unseen? It would be pretty stupid not to, when you regularly visited a ghost!
Yet she couldn’t seem to arrange an encounter with her private specter the next week—not on any level. She couldn’t even locate a particularly chilly or abandoned corner in the stacks. There was probably too much coming and going: some sort of big display for next Saturday. A placard outside the entrance had announced something about the Holocaust. The foyer and much of the first floor were the scene of hurried heavy lifting, dusting off, and taping up. Casements for documents had apparently been brought in for the occasion, many shelves had been collapsed upon each other to make room for chairs, and bulky reference books overflowed through the elevator into higher stacks. Brother Patrick could not have cared much for such hustle and bustle, whose effects were felt even in that attic of unsought volumes and traditions, the sixth stack.
Lisa grew sincerely flustered after her second try in a week turned up no traces of “presence”. Frantisek was urging her to leave her job as soon as possible, insisting that he could find something for her immediately. (Was he worried about “competition” from the Jeremy set, or… since that seemed unfair, did he, perhaps, really grieve to think of her in a tight, thin shirt and high cut-offs, the way a father would—the father who had been absent for most of her life?) She certainly wasn’t averse to his suggestion—but she didn’t like trusting him (or trusting anyone) to such an extent, either. How could you leave one job without having another firmly in the bag? If she had only had someone to consult, some reliable sounding board… and Brother Patrick was hardly a Dutch uncle, but his electricity had already guided her this far in her transformation. As weird as the thought appeared in so many words, he was the being she trusted most in the world.
After her second fruitless visit, on Thursday morning between classes, she noticed one of the elder librarians (the quintessence of the “school marm” type she never wanted to be) looking especially hopeless over a pile of postal cartons. An inspiration struck her, and she obeyed it. She would volunteer to help with the final arrangements on Friday afternoon. Kent would not like letting her have another evening off so soon—especially a Friday night—but, if necessary, she would toss out a “Fire me if you want.” (Not likely: “Virgin Mary” brought in too many customers, like pilgrims hoping to wring a miraculous smile from a statue.) The work here would be sure to keep her late, as well as giving her a perfect excuse to putter around all the stacks. If she hadn’t found him by the time everyone was being summoned to the exit, she would simply melt into the shelves again, as she had done before. That would almost be better: no one but the two of them in the whole place, and a quiet night’s sleep in a couple of soft chairs.
As had all her plans lately, this one ran like a well-oiled machine. Her boss had at first put his foot down firmly; but, as soon as she had sighed philosophically, “Well, then, I’m afraid I’ll just have to quit,” he almost fell on his knees (“Don’t get so upset… why didn’t you say it was important?… Cheryl is coming apart at the seams, and that cow Rhonda’s pregnant, but… take two days off, if you need them”). Abject surrender. She actually enjoyed it. At the Graduate Library, pizza was provided in the break room for staff and volunteers (two of whom, surprised at her generosity, asked her if she was Jewish). She managed to draw assignments which sent her far and wide through the stacks: no corner was left unprobed. To that extent, at least, she was able to execute her design to the letter.
But Brother Patrick was not cooperating. She casually raised the subject of the self-willed air-conditioning once in the break room, but only one girl rose to the bait (the petite employee, in fact, who had unconsciously trespassed upon her first encounter with the ghost)—and the response was not encouraging: “I’ve noticed that too, off and on—Rena and Chad and I were talking about it just last week. But I’ve been down here most of this week. Maybe they got it fixed for the conference… did you say it was acting up again?”
So the final phase of the plan had to be initiated shortly after the few patrons were hazed out the exit. Lisa announced quite audibly to the school marm, “I’m going to head out after I powder my nose,” so as to cover her tracks if any of her colleagues-for-a-night should ask after her. She took care to escape everyone’s detection when slipping out of the ladies’ room (a token visit timed just long enough to let two figures with arms loaded vanish down the corridor). She managed to open and shut the fire escape’s self-locking door with scarcely a click, and proceeded to make her way up six flights of stairs. Not only would the sixth stack be least frequented, but… well, she had an intuition (she was starting to convince herself these days of her extraordinary intuitive powers) that he would have retreated to that far remove, as well.
Jamie Bond. No female version of Double-O Seven could have slithered more adroitly into hiding, until—within fifteen minutes—the lights dimmed dramatically. For an instant, Lisa wondered what on earth she had done. It was enough to have pulled off this trick once before, in flight from Jeremy: that was serious business. But to come back for more, just for the pleasure of seeing him… the experience was, after all, pretty spooky. Extremely spooky. And what could he possibly tell her? What did she intend to ask him… if the ghost two doors down from Frantisek’s childhood home, perhaps, could vouch for the young Fran’s character?
She found herself nervously walking around and around the sixth floor, always taking the same aisles. Every dozen steps or so, she would shiver and pause… but they must have been shivers of expectation (or dread, or dreadful expectation), because they didn’t grow ominously or appear to emanate from any direction. After a short spell of such fitful stopping and starting, she also found herself speaking… talking to herself in mutters, then raising her voice and addressing herself to him.
“I don’t know why… why you’re avoiding me. We had… I thought we had something special. You… you must not understand how much you mean to me. You have to understand… something about me. Maybe you already do… or maybe I just happened to be around when you decided to come out of hiding. But… well… we’ve got all night together, so… so let me tell you something about myself you probably don’t know. I’m a lot like you… I’m sure I must be a lot like… like you were. Nobody ever made much over me. I was kind of a wall flower in grade school, and in high school. Not popular… a bookworm. I read a lot just… just to create a space for myself, you know. I read more than my classmates, anyway. I’m sure I didn’t read like you did. But… it was like the whole world just ignored me. There was my mom and Aunt Lise, but… but the girl they saw when they looked at me was this great scholar, this high-power, successful professional… you know? I was going to—to be Mom’s life, like. The life that she never had. Vicariously, as they say. Well, I… thanks a lot for that high opinion of my future, Mom, but… but what about me? Who am I? I… oh, God, for some reason I thought you could help me figure that out! I thought that’s what you were doing. I thought maybe you had been through the same kind of stuff, with people… people pushing you aside and walking over you—when you were alive, I mean—and that that… that was what drove you deep inside, maybe. To climb above them all with your brain since you couldn’t do it with your body. I… that’s really me, too! And now I’ve just about done it! I mean, I think I can do it! But… oh God, I so wanted you to come out and tell me I was doing good!”
Lisa shouted these final words into as many books as she could confront in one sweeping motion, standing still, her fingers releasing her tremulous elbows and reaching for thin air.
“Be here for me, will you?”
She would never recover a very clear recollection of the next few hours. She must have been asleep for many of them, until a huge thud nudged through her unconsciousness like an iceberg fatally shouldering the hull of a ship. Could she actually remember the detonation, or was the supposed memory owed to what she later learned? Certainly there was nothing informative in what immediately followed. With a start, she opened her eyes upon… oblivion. Chaos, pitch black and deathly silent. She probably could not recall where she was for several seconds that seemed like minutes. There were no visual clues—not until her eyes adjusted enough to their inky surroundings to discern fairer shades of black softly tending toward the rectangular where the library’s windows should be. Even then—even when she must have begun to reconstruct the story of this ill-conceived adventure—there was nothing to be done at once. To grope about among the shadows of towering book cases would not have led her to light: she was as well off closing her eyes again upon a black void as upon a faintly lit storehouse of bound paper, since her plan all along had been to sleep through the night.
Then the smoke alarm screamed, and screamed again, and in two seconds had established an invariable pattern of murder-at-midnight screams. She must have tumbled out of her drawn-up chairs, either in shock or in a reflexive effort to progress toward an exit; for when she in fact began to smell the acrid, throat-tickling odor, she was already in motion on her hands and knees. For some reason, she was sure of that—perhaps because she had been thoughtlessly bound for the elevator’s vicinity before then, not yet awake enough to account for the power outage, but at that point realized the urgency of getting to the sealed-off fire escape. The terror of suffocation, and the obvious evidence that she had already entered the first stages of being unable to breathe, chased the cobwebs from her mind and made her break out in a cold sweat.
Fortunately, the air was not yet so thickly clouded—and her progress not yet so disastrously far—that she could not look back and distinguish the windows’ gray reference points. She was able to use them and her memory of the door through which she had sneaked the previous evening to reach the fire escape, eventually, feeling at her side (book spines, a metallic shelf, a stuccoed wall) until the exit’s smooth surface at last met her touch. These were her clearest memories, oddly enough, recalled with an alarm shrieking at her neck, her body in vigorous motion, her life on the line, and her head as yet relatively free of inhaled fumes.
She had apparently exited the stairwell on the ground floor and then been unable to find her way back to its comparative safety. A firefighter found her lying senseless under heavy wreathes of tar-like smoke in the foyer. Some doctor or attendant would tell her the next day (or that same day, with sunlight glinting through a hospital window) that she could probably not have been revived if the discovery had been delayed another five minutes.
As it was, her only other clear recollections from outside the hospital room were of the scrambling turmoil glimpsed over an oxygen mask. She must have been sitting up by that time on the edge of an ambulance, because she could see clearly a bright red fire truck and a steady silver stream of water pouring down the empty library parking lot. The day’s dawn was much farther along than her memories of the dim sixth-floor windows would have implied. Either fumes had already gathered before the explosion woke her up (which made no sense at all) or else the whole transit, from falling out of her chair to collapsing in the foyer, had consumed about an hour. Perhaps she was already trying to piece this puzzle together, still sucking from the mask, when a man in a dark uniform started blaring something at her, eventually grabbing her by the shoulders. At that point, medics extricated her from him and made her lie down—which she did gratefully, shutting her eyes at once.
But she noticed the same Navy-blue uniforms loitering about her door after groggily reviving to headache-white sheets and silver surfaces. She drifted in and out as sunlight migrated patiently across the far wall through a slit in the blinds. She could hear a lot of murmuring, less at her bedside than just beyond the door. More than once, she entertained the notion of a bad dream from which she could not quite seem to awaken.
Frantisek was there in the afternoon, as she became fully conscious. There was no more gear strapped to her head (though a tube was in her left wrist), and they let her drink some fruit juice and, later, go to the bathroom. (She was shocked at her pallor in the mirror… what would the Interdisciplinary Studies crew have said if they had known how much she longed for a lipstick?) Frantisek sat silently, placidly, as a nurse settled her back in and checked her over. Only when they were alone did he speak.
“Do you know what happened?”
“A fire. There was a fire… the alarm. I was in the library, and…”
“But what were you doing in the library, Lisa?”
There was little of the placid in his tone now, though Lisa had the feeling that he was fighting to conceal his anxiety. When she looked him in the eye, the image of the uniformed man shaking her flitted between them briefly. Then she turned toward the door, through whose small glass panel she could see a blue shoulder, and sank back onto her pillow.
“I… I was helping. Helping with the exhibit. There was supposed to have been…”
“Yes, yes. I know all that. But why did you not leave with the others?”
“Well, I….” She didn’t even think her response over: she shut her eyes, and it spilled out quite naturally. “I left something upstairs. I went back up to look for it, and then… then the lights went dim, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’m locked in. I’ll have to get to a phone.’ But then I thought, ‘Hey, what the heck! I’m already behind on my reading. This’ll be the perfect time to catch up, and no one will bug me.’ See, I didn’t even have my cell. I’d left my purse in the car. So I read a while, and then I… I guess I must have dozed off. The next thing I know, the smoke alarm is going off… no, wait a minute. No, there was some kind of big thud, and I opened my eyes, and everything was all black. And then the alarm went off.”
“Okay… okay.” His tone was already infinitely more mellow. “But why would you do such a foolish thing as to stay in the building alone? Are you not aware that such behavior constitutes trespass?”
She laughed easily, still not opening her eyes. The answers came smoother this way. “Students do it all the time! I’ve done it before myself. If they don’t want us to do it, why don’t they tell us not to? The really good schools have their libraries open all night…”
“Okay, okay. That will suffice.” His words were condescending, but his tone seemed more satisfied than ever.
He had her repeat her account immediately to two of the uniforms. (As they were ushered in, one of them was saying, “And you are her…”—to which Frantisek had muttered in reply, “Her legal counsel, yes.”) She had the feeling that the man who had shaken her was not among this pair, for they very politely registered everything she said. It occurred to her, even, that she might complain about that bit of police brutality… but it wouldn’t come out. Frantisek had always said that she was discreet.
When they were alone again, he nodded approvingly. “Your insurance should cover your bills, since there is no criminal liability. I told them from the beginning that it was completely innocent—a childish error on your part.” That word child again…. “In fact, the fire marshal has already determined that the bomb was ignited by a timing device. If it had been your work, you would not have remained on the premises, and so on, and so on.”
He swallowed this final hasty sentence in a sigh, and then raised his voice with a hand’s flourish toward the window. Strange, that she had never noticed how much his manner resembled an attorney’s. “The modus operandi is indeed very similar to that employed by saboteurs in Chicago last month who were betrayed just before their attack was to occur. The explosive is smuggled in by tiny amounts over a period of months, perhaps a year. Since the event has been announced well ahead of time, such a procedure is feasible. Then, at last, the detonating device is attached, which need be little more sophisticated than a wrist watch.” He laughed his silent laugh. “Probably the time for this explosion was to have been five o’clock this evening, the hour when closing ceremonies were to conclude and when all the visiting dignitaries would be sure to be assembled in one place. But the poor novice set it for five in the morning!”
Here Frantisek could not restrain an audible laugh, or even a lingering of that laugh into something uncharacteristically like a fit. His mirth exceeded now what she had heard as they lay in bed together, weighing the notion of her as James Bond.
“Forgive me,” he choked, “I am being quite tasteless. You almost lost your dear life in this… this fiasco. But it is so amusing to see how cleverly these people plan something out, and then how foolishly they frustrate themselves. They are, after all, little more than… what’s the word? Busboys! Busboys with a crash course in electronics.”
Frantisek laugh once more—the almost inaudible exhalation through his nose—then smoothed his suit and reseated himself next to her bed. He opened his mouth to speak again at least twice that she observed without arriving at the right first word. The incident’s amusing aspects were no longer under consideration.
“Unfortunately… even though your involvement in this affair is entirely innocent… it complicates our project tremendously. Oh, I can still get you the internship for the spring—of that I do not speak. But that, after all, was nothing. Or it was to be nothing, a mere stepping stone. Now, however… your involvement with a terrorist incident…”
“But there was no involvement!” Lisa protested, struggling to climb her pillow. “You said it yourself! I was a completely innocent bystander—I was almost killed!”
His heavy sigh, so very full of Old World resignation, did not bode well. “Alas, my dear, we are not talking now about criminal culpability. The circles for which I had imagined you to be destined are very sensitive to the least little whiff of… of souillure. They cannot run the risk. Caesar’s wife, and all that…”
“Caesar’s wife?” she rebelled openly—for she had not sat through two years of Interdisciplinary Studies for nothing. “We’re in the twenty-first century, and you’re giving me that old thing about Caesar’s wife?”
“Now, now,” he calmed commandingly, with another attorney’s lift of the hand. “The image is sexist, no doubt, but the… the issue is not gender-specific. It would be the same for a man. Attendance of a certain rally as a college freshman… being roommates, even, with a certain person who is later implicated in subversion… it is grossly unfair, of course. But when security is of the essence, one seeks assurances where and how one can.”
Lisa sank heavily back down the pillow. “So that’s it. That’s my… my chance. It’s gone.”
“Of course it isn’t gone! The most direct path has been encumbered, perhaps sealed off… but we will find other paths. Indeed, it strikes me that we could make this incident work for us. You will be thought by certain parties, no matter what the official story, to have been implicated in the affair… and this will actually dispose some of these parties well to you, even as it alienates others…”
Lisa tried to rotate her head from the pillow’s thick embrace, widening her eyes to bring Frantisek within her field of vision. “You want me to learn Arabic? You want me to…”
“Oh, Lisa! Of course not! You must never come near those who in fact hatched the plot, for they alone would certainly know you for an imposter. But… I believe you have studied French extensively?”
She was starting to tremble, and she felt that she would like to scream; but she contented herself with almost whispering, “How do you know so much about me, anyway?”
Perhaps he truly had not quite understood her words—or perhaps another long sigh was the only response he was at liberty to make. She heard his steel-framed chair creak, as well: a sigh and a recoil. Bad girl… she had been indiscreet!
“I shall try this evening, at any rate, to convince a certain member of the Israeli diplomatic corps that, far from being a conspirator, you were very nearly a victim here. His delegation is quite upset. Priceless documents were ruined, damaged irreparably. Not just by the fire, or even primarily, but far more by the smoke and, later, by the water innocently sprayed throughout the building by the firemen. One might as well include them in the conspiracy! Indeed, one wonders if these stupid busboys could have been so subtle as to realize the damage to history that smoke and water would do, for the charge was pitifully insufficient if the objective were to incinerate the whole building… fortunately for you, I might add thankfully.”
Something strange stirred in Lisa as the sliver of sunlight danced across a light switch. “So… so there was a lot of damage to the books?”
“The books? You mean…”
“I mean the books in the library. Not the documents on display, the books.”
“Oh….” She heard a rustle, and she could picture his shrug. Suddenly she was glad that she hadn’t given her notice at Hooters. “I believe I heard it mentioned… I believe the figure was seventy-five percent.”
“Seventy-five percent of what?”
“Of the books. The holdings. Damaged beyond use. Mostly smoke, of course.”
And now Lisa did tremble. She rose upon her pillow, and her breathing deepened until it labored. Three out of four books… and over forty years or so, he would already have read… what? At one hundred, two hundred books a year, over forty years, and now three out of four gone…
“Lisa, my dear! Are you… are you feeling quite all right? Just… just be still now, and let me fetch a doctor! Try to be still!”
She raised her wrist to her wide-open mouth, and thrust it in—to stifle a laugh, or maybe a wail. He was gone! He was free! He needed no more mourning… and she had no one to mourn for.