Nan needed a new job. She had worked behind the desk at the language lab since she’d arrived at college, and after three years, it had started to depress her. Plus, her boss, who had hired her and whom she liked, had been fired for stealing hundreds of dollars worth of office supplies and maxing out the postage machine while sending out his graduate school applications. The new boss was fine, but the job wasn’t the same—the salary wasn’t the same either; it actually went up. But not up enough. It seemed every time Nan came back from visiting her parents in Vermont, the city had gotten more expensive. One of her goals with the new job—whatever it turned out to be—was that it paid more than six dollars an hour.
Another goal was that the job had absolutely no connection to her advisor, Professor Paulson, who’d already gotten her an internship at Verbiage, the literary magazine on campus, for which he served as editor. She’d known him since she was a freshman and she supposed that they were friends—he was her biggest fan when it came to her studies and her writing—but she often wondered whether a student and an advisor should even be friends. It seemed to make sense and feel strange at the same time, like how on some days, she would look up in the sky and see the moon and sun occupying the same stretch of blue.
In the end, the most practical goal for the new job won out: the money was more than the language lab paid and had more flexible hours, too. As for her advisor, he had insisted on finding her something better than what he believed she could find for herself. Despite the infantilizing tone of his gesture, he had, in fact, found her something great, so she felt she had no choice but to be grateful.
In the new job, Nan would be working as the assistant to a writer—an author of some renown, or so she was told. Maryanne Dart had published two very successful novels in the late nineteen seventies and early eighties, but since then had written only one other book, which had flopped. Nan hadn’t known about the successes and failures of the books—she actually hadn’t known about the books at all; she’d only vaguely recognized the woman’s name from bylines in the kind of magazines she’d flip through while waiting in line at the drug store.
Maryanne Dart, she learned, had had a few tough years—all her relationships had dissolved, her agent had dropped her, her editors had stopped returning her calls. But, Professor Paulson insisted, she was on her way back: she was a talented writer with an original voice, which was relevant—necessary—in this day and age. He believed that her new book—her first attempt in more than ten years—would restore her to her rightful place in the literary world.
Nan didn’t know what to say to any of this, so, as usual in conversations with him, she deferred to gratefulness.
“Thank you,” she said, sitting across from him in his office. “But”
“It is my pleasure,” he said, smiling.
“But” she said again. “I was going to sayI hope she knows I don’t have any experience being anyone’s assistant.”
“That’s not what’s important.” He leaned back in his chair, his hands running over his chest, the fine weave of his shirt. “This isn’t the type of job that one needs obvious clerical skills in order to be effective at. In this case you just have to bewell, Nanyou just have to be you.”
Nan looked at him, confused, which made him laugh—the hearty laugh of a conjurer who never tired of perplexing his audience.
“Listen,” he said, fixing his eyes on her. “I know my sister; I’ve known her my entire life. I think I have a pretty good idea of what she needs right now.”
Maryanne Dart lived across the street from Gramercy Park, in the low twenties, east of Park Avenue. Nan was early to their first meeting, so she walked around and around the park, which was surrounded by a high iron fence. She peered through the bars into the beautifully manicured space—the still-surviving summer flowers, fluttering in their beds, the thick canopies of changing leaves, arching over the raked gravel paths. At the end of the park was a single locked gate with a sign that stated that only residents with a key could enter.
A key? Nan thought. Since when do you need a key to walk among trees or sit on a bench beside some flowers? She thought of her house back in Vermont, where every window had a view of the meadows or forest or mountains. The only keys her family used were for the front door of the house, which they rarely locked anyway. Compared to what she was used to, the logic of this park made no sense—it would be like being locked inside her house, and waiting for someone with the key to let her out.
Nan made her way to Maryanne Dart’s address—a stately brownstone at the northwest corner of the park, and studied the apartment directory in the vestibule: the name “Dart” corresponded with the top button. She looked through the glass door into the foyer and saw a gilded mirror, a marble floor, ivory-colored wallpaper, polished wall sconces. She looked at her own reflection in the pane; tired, young, and inadequate. She considered running away, back uptown to safety, but an image of her advisor came into her mind—of him sitting behind his desk, his hands rubbing his chest. What struck her about the image was the look he gave her while doing this, the obvious pleasure he felt doing it in her presence; that sly grin of his
She rang the bell.
At the top floor of the brownstone, the door at the end of the hall was ajar. Nan gently pushed it open and peered inside. The apartment couldn’t have been less like the rest of the building, with its pristine corridors, Oriental runners, and wood paneled elevator. The apartment was, in fact, a dump—the smell wafting from inside was so strong, it nearly blew her backwards into the hallway: an eye-watering mixture of cat urine, coffee grounds, toilet stench, trash.
She peered through the shadowy foyer into the living room, piled high with magazines, books, newspapers, clothing, some still in their dry cleaning sheathes; the various pieces of furniture had been moved around, turned at odd angles, as if children had made a fort from them and abandoned it years ago.
A voice called out to her from the back of the apartment, but Nan didn’t hear exactly what it said—she was transfixed by the dense network of silvery cobwebs hanging between two overgrown spider plants hanging in front of a bay window. Three fat cats lay on the upholstered window seat below the plants—fluffy, doped-looking pashas, each with a single eye opened and staring at her. Another cat, smaller, lithe, with short hair and spots, appeared between her feet and wound figure eights around her ankles.
The sound of a toilet flush rang through the place, the pipes banging in the walls. Nan heard the elevator’s ding, called back down to the lobby. The stairs, Nan thought: I’ll take the stairs. Before fleeing, she turned back for a final look at the mess, and met the gaze of a small woman standing in front of her, her hand extended.
“Maryanne Dart,” the woman said frankly.
“Hello.” Nan shook her hand, which felt bony and damp. “I’m Nan.”
The woman wore a large gray t-shirt, spattered with stains and smears of bleach, shapeless black sweatpants and dark wool-topped clogs. Her hair was fluffy and brown. Her face looked familiar, and not only because Nan had seen the woman’s photo in the contributor’s section of various magazines—retouched, she could see now, to the point of unfair impossibility—but because it bore a strong resemblance to her advisor’s: a feminized-version of his austere eyes and brow, the long, tapered nose, which gave her his same stern handsomeness, with all its implicit arrogance.
“Would you like some tea?” the woman asked, picking her way through the piles of junk on the floor into the living room. “Or coffee? Charlie told me you’re from the country, so I imagine you’re used to heartier beverages.”
What to say to that? Her advisor and this woman had discussed her to the level of detail of her origins and preference of beverage?
“No, thank you,” said Nan. “I’m fine.”
The woman shrugged. Nan stepped from the foyer into the living room; the stench seemed to ripen, burning her nostrils. The litter box must be close, she thought. The cats watched her, their heads heavy stones on their paws.
Maryanne Dart made her way toward a long wooden table by the fireplace piled with papers, mail, magazines, boxes, and plastic grocery bags. A large computer console, lying on its side, buzzed on the floor; the computer screen on the desk had a screensaver showing psychedelic colors, shifting around in random patterns.
“Please sit.” She pointed to a red metal folding chair leaning up against a bookshelf. Nan unfolded the chair and set it up in the narrow walkway carved into the middle of the room.
“Now,” she said. “What has Charlie told you about me?”
“Well,” Nan said hesitantly. “He told me that you needed someone to help out.”
She almost said clean up, but caught herself just in time.
“And,” she continued. “He said that you were working on a new book, and that you could use someone to help do researchor help with paperwork. He said you could use help withorganization.”
She tried for a tone that communicated professionalism and confidence, but she could feel the rising quaver at the end of every phrase; her eyes couldn’t help but continue scanning the room: the oil-soaked pizza box on the couch; a grouping of mugs encrusted with half-moons of dried cocoa around the rims; a blackened cat turd, lying in segments beside the hearth.
“In our family,” announced Maryanne Dart, leaning back in her chair. “There are only two of us—Charlie and me—but I’m the oldest.
“And despite the conventions of birth order,” she said, “my brother still likes to think he can take care of me. Or he’s under the impression that he has to—or that he should.”
She put her face in her hands and rubbed it vigorously, releasing it with an exhilarated gasp.
“Ahh!” she said. “I should thank him, though. He’s a very thoughtful guy. Don’t you think?”
“He’s been very helpful to me.”
“He really likes you.” Her eyes were wide. “A lot.”
The small cat hopped up on Nan’s lap, and she felt glad for the distraction. She put her hand on the cat’s head and stroked it down to the tip of its tail. It purred loudly, a little motor against her ribs.
“And so,” said Nan, resuming her effort toward professionalism. “This new book you’re writing? Professor Paulson said it’s ahistoricalnovel?”
“Charlie was right about you, Nan,” she said in a voice of pure defeat. “You are a gentle spirit. And probably too good for people like us.”
“Ugh,” she said, throwing her fingers roughly through her hair. “That’s the idea. Not that I’ve even started anything yet.” She got up from her chair and stared down at Nan with a sudden, palpable impatience. “Listen. Do you think this is going to work out for you? Do you want to do this?”
“Um,” said Nan. “Yes. I’d be happy to help out with your work, if you need it. But I have another job uptown, on campus, so I’d have to work around that.”
Maryanne Dart looked at her with an offended look.
“How much does that job pay?”
“Well. It’s just an on-campus thing”
“I asked you how much it pays.”
“Six dollars an hour,” she said. “But I’ve been working there for three years now; it used to be four—”
“Six dollars? That’s insane! How do they expect you to live on that? In this city? At that school? In this day and age?”
Nan said nothing.
“I will pay you twenty an hour,” she said. “So that way you won’t have to work at that insulting job, which is where? Where is it? Is it in Charlie’s department? If it is, I’ll kill him! That’s sweatshop labor wages!”
“No,” said Nan. “It’s in the language lab.”
“No!” she said, as if Nan had told her it was in a brothel. “This is better then, right? I can pay you more, and we can work out a schedule that fits with both our lives, okay? Does that make sense? Would that be good?”
The room was getting dark, the sun sinking below the buildings to the west. Nan stared up at the woman, whose eyes were large and brown and tired-looking.
“That sounds fine,” said Nan, resigned. “Thank you.”
Maryanne Dart sat back down in her chair and put her face in her hands again.
“Charlie was right about you, Nan,” she said in a voice of pure defeat. “You are a gentle spirit. And probably too good for people like us.”
If things hadn’t changed so drastically with Malcolm, Nan would have immediately gone back uptown and found him—most likely at the coffee shop on Amsterdam Avenue—and told him all about the interview. Malcolm had graduated from the university the year before where he had also been Professor Paulson’s advisee, but beyond the internship he’d been given at Verbiage, where he and Nan had met, he had not been the recipient of the same keen interest and support Professor Paulson had shown Nan—a fact he often attributed to Paulson’s deeper interest in her.
Nan always laughed at Malcolm’s suspicions, not only because the idea seemed ridiculous to her—Professor Paulson was, after all, married with children, and he was her advisor; but because, by that point, Nan was thoroughly smitten with Malcolm. They hadn’t been dating very long, and they didn’t know each other that well, but Nan had very little experience with dating and relationships and almost against her will, she found herself slowly succumbing to his odd, irascible charms: his mopey demeanor, livened only by the intensity he had for his writing; his love of strange, foreign movies and art exhibits, to which he insisted she always accompany him. Add to these things his apparent jealousy, and Nan felt hard pressed not to feel at least a little bit in love with him.
Regardless of Malcolm’s issues with Professor Paulson, Nan believed that Malcolm—particularly the writer in him—would have appreciated the bizarre encounter with Maryanne Dart: her trashed apartment in the pristine brownstone, her ravaged appearance, her ragged collection of cats who had seemingly enslaved her
But it was pointless to wonder about Malcolm’s reaction, because a few days before Nan had met with Maryanne Dart, he had left the city.
“Nothing’s working out here,” he’d told her the day before he left as they sat at the back of the dimly lit coffee shop.
He looked miserable. He frequently looked miserable, but there was a new gradation of melancholy this time, which Nan soon came to recognize as the coloration of blame.
“Paulson basically told me that my novel is shit.”
So, she thought. He finally told him.
She had known for weeks that Professor Paulson hated Malcolm’s novel, and she had sat through more than one awkward oratory about its many failings, which unfortunately, were usually evoked in glowing discussions of her own writing.
Despite knowing this, she’d done everything to convince him that Paulson would not only love the novel, but champion it to his most influential friends in the literary community, who would help him get it published, which is what she knew he wanted most. She felt badly about lying to him, but she felt she had no other choice, since if he had known the truth—and her role in it—he would have been devastated. She wanted to protect him from that disappointment, and thereby protect herself from whatever form it took against her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Malcolm pouted into his coffee.
“He’s only one person, though,” she said, trying to sound encouraging. “He’s only one opinion—there are tons of smart, literary people out there who might be able to help.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m just waiting for Paulson to put one of your stories in the magazine, which some editor will pick up, and then, voila, a book deal! A two-book book deal! And there you go—set for life.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” she said. “He never would. And besides, he’s not allowed; I work there.”
He scoffed, his nostrils flaring like a goat’s.
Don’t look at me like that, she thought. Just because you’re wounded doesn’t mean you’re right.
“Okay,” Nan said, squaring her shoulders, intent on at least showing resilience. “So now you’re leaving? What’s your plan?”
“I’m going home, back upstate,” he said. “There’s nothing for me here anyway.”
“Are you planning on coming back?” she said quickly, to gloss over the sting of that last comment.
He looked at her—through her; annoyed, it seemed, that she wasn’t already in tears.
“I just told you,” he said. “There’s no point.”
When Nan got home from her interview with Maryanne Dart, the message light on her answering machine was blinking: one. She knew it was probably from her parents—most likely her mother—but an unexpected and embarrassed part of her wished it would be Malcolm telling her that the point to being in the city was her, and he was a fool for not realizing it sooner. It wasn’t him: it was Professor Paulson, urging her to call him back at his office on campus.
“Professor Paulson?” she said when he picked up. “It’s Nan.”
“Of course it is.” She could feel him smiling through the phone. “I called you.”
“I know. I’m calling you back.”
“I’m dying to hear how it went,” he said. “How was the ol’ sis? Was she mean to you?”
“No,” she said. “She wasfine. She seemed nice.”
“Oh, come on, Nan,” he said. “You can tell me what you really think. I respect your insight, which is why I put you there in the first place. Tell me everything.”
I put you there:she was glad she couldn’t see his face when he said this.
“Honestly,” she said. “I thought she was nice. I mean, I guess I was surprised to find out that she hasn’t started the book you mentioned, and, surprised to see that she wasn’t thatorganized, to begin working on it.”
“Not everyone’s going to be as focused and organized as you are, Nan,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be critical—”
“I know, and you’re not,” he said. “And I’m not being critical of you. I’m just grateful for your help.”
Outside Nan’s window, men were jackhammering the street into pieces.
“Hey, listen,” he said. “How about I treat you to lunch? Wanton soup?”
Nan thought of the results of her small relationship with Malcolm—a handful of oblique conversations about books and movies, a few nice bike rides along the river, a tentative foray into regular sex. Not much of anything.
They’d had lunch at the beginning of the semester—wanton soup, exactly, which she’d never had before. It had given him the opportunity to explain the different kinds of noodles and broths, and various other options available. He wanted her to have a comprehensive understanding of the dish in order to make an informed choice, and so that he could tell her that she could have whatever she wanted, and that it would be his treat.
“Oh, come on, Nan,” he said. “To celebrate your new job! To celebrate our part in my sister’s imminent comeback!”
“I’d like to,” she said. “But I actually have to go and meetMalcolm.” He was quiet.
“He’s still around? I thought he was leaving the city.”
How would he know this? She thought. Why would he care? He’d slandered Malcolm so many times to her that the function of him in conversation seemed solely as a target, not a topic.
“He is,” she said. “Or he will be. He’s leaving soon.”
“Well, I hope so,” he said. “Since I was the one who suggested he go somewhere else—to try writing about someplace other than the city.” He snorted. “He’s not an urban writer—you know? He’s just not. He has yet to find his landscape. Where’s he off to?”
“Back home. Upstate.”
“I can’t say that’s a good idea,” he said. “I actually recommended he try south or west—maybe he’d click with those dipheads out in the Bay Area. But I see he’s not taken my advice, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to the results.”
Nan thought of the results of her small relationship with Malcolm—a handful of oblique conversations about books and movies, a few nice bike rides along the river, a tentative foray into regular sex. Not much of anything. Still, hearing Malcolm disparaged this way made her feel badly for him, like someone speaking ill of the dead.
“Are you there?”
“Yes,” said Nan. “Sorry. But I should actually go.”
“Maybe we can have lunch next week. Tell Malcolm I say hello, and maybe don’t mention anything about what I just told you, okay? I think he’s having a tough time as it is.”
Nan’s first day at her new job was so uneventful it was almost disappointing. Maryanne Dart answered the door in a light blue bathrobe, with damp hair. She ushered Nan into the living room where a small table in the corner had been set up with an old-looking laptop computer, a lamp, and a phone. The apartment was the same—the mess was intact; perhaps it had been slightly added to—but the smell, while still pungent, wasn’t as overpowering as before. The cat box must have been cleaned.
Nan was left alone for most of the morning to organize mail, pay outdated bills, balance the checkbook, and update a ledger that calculated various royalty payments and accounts. It was basic work, which was surprising, and a little tedious, but also a relief. Down the hall, at the back of the apartment, Nan could hear the sound of flipping TV channels—talk shows, news, soap operas—coming through the closed bedroom door.
At lunchtime, Nan crept down the hallway and knocked lightly on the door to ask if her new boss wanted anything while she was out. There was no reply; Nan listened closely and heard a series of light, fluttering snores threaded inside the twelve o’clock news.
Nan went to a deli nearby on lower Park Avenue and assembled her lunch in a Styrofoam box from an endless steaming salad bar. She sat at a small table by the window and ate by herself.
At four o’clock, Maryanne Dart emerged from her room still wearing her robe, her hair dry but mashed in on one side. Her eyes looked sleepy, her cheek etched with pillow creases. She looked over what Nan had done—the pile of paid bills, stamped and ready to be sent off on her way out; the ledger, full of new numbers and amounts—and yawned.
“This looks good,” she said.
Maryanne Dart shrugged sleepily. The room was getting dark; the sun came low into the windows, glazing the strands of the spider webs between the plants.
“So,” she said, slumping down in her chair by the cluttered desk. “Do you think you’ll stay?”
“Uh, yes,” said Nan. “I’d like to.”
“Really?” she looked genuinely surprised. “Then tell me something”—she rolled her chair toward Nan until a box of books and magazines blocked her progress—“Have you read any of my books?”
I could lie, Nan thought. I should lie.
“You haven’t,” she said. “I can tell that you haven’t, and frankly, I’m surprised because Charlie’s always going on about how thorough and prepared you are.”
Nan looked down at her hands.
“But you know what?” she said. “That’s okay with me. I kind of like the fact that you haven’t because it tells me that you’re not really here for me, you’re here for someone else.” She looked down her nose at Nan. “So now I have to ask you: do you have any idea of what you’re getting yourself into?”
Nan felt her face blushing, burning.
“What do you mean?” said Nan.
Maryanne Dart sat back in her chair and smirked; crossed her leg—her robe fell open and her pale calves appeared looking pricked and purple, like uncooked poultry.
“Whom exactly are you doing this for?”
“For myself,” said Nan, attempting to sound assured. “For me.”
The woman across from her looked unconvinced.
“I mean,” said Nan. “I’m grateful for Professor Paulson’s help in finding me this job, and grateful to you forhaving me herebut I’m here forme.”
She continued to stare at Nan.
“The money is better than the job on campus, and the hours are better, too”
Outside, the sky was turning pink between the buildings uptown. The rim of the moon pushed through the clouds like a blade. Nan felt a surge of honesty—or rather, the need to be honest, knowing somehow that among people like Maryanne Dart, and maybe her advisor, too, honesty was probably a rare thing, and could therefore be used as a weapon.
“You see,” said Nan. “I do some writing myself, and it’sencouraging to see what you’ve doneto see what you’ve published, your success”
Maryanne Dart rolled her eyes, but Nan could see—in the way her hands gripped her robe, pulling it back together—that a small part of her had been disarmed.
“I’ve spent all day going through your records, just as you asked,” she continued. “And, I just find it reallyimpressive.”
A strange feeling came into the twilit room, as if one of them had turned on a light—and if a light had actually come on, Nan would have seen the sudden tears in the eyes of the woman sitting near to her.
Maryanne Dart stood up and walked over to the bookshelf.
“You’re so damn sincere it’s kind of hard to take,” she said. She pulled out a hardcover book and placed it on the desk in front of Nan.
“This book was considered a failure by everyone but me,” she said. “But it’s the best writing I’ve done in years, and, despite everything, it’s the book that I’m most proud of.”
Nan took the book, which had no jacket, just the red boards and black lettering on the spine: Forgiveness by Maryanne Dart.
“You can’t keep it,” said the author. “I’m only loaning it to you.”
“Okay,” said Nan. “I’ll bring it backwellwhen would you like me to come in next?”
“Monday,” she said. “I’m off to Sag Harbor on Thursday morning. I’ll be back on Sunday night.”
“Okay,” said Nan. “I’ll come Monday, and I’ll bring the book back then, too.”
“Do you plan on seeing Charlie between now and then?” She was patting one of the cats on the window seat, but looking askance at Nan.
“I have my seminar with him on Thursday afternoons. It’s a contemporary narrative—”
Maryanne Dart raised her hand into the air; Nan stopped talking.
“Don’t tell him you’re reading this book,” she said. “Out of everything I’ve written, he hates this one the most.”
“So, how is she?” said Professor Paulson, sitting down at his desk across from her, after their Thursday seminar had ended.
“Your new employer?” he said, smiling. “My sister? Your new best friend?”
New best friend?
“She’s been asking me about you all week.”
“Oh, don’t get worried. I wouldn’t tell her anything big—just the basics, Vermont, artsy parents, scholarship student, etc.”
Listening to him, she realized that over the few years they’d known each other, she had actually told him very little about herself—nothing beyond what he’d just reeled off. This came as a relief.
“She really wants to read your work,” he said. “She’s dying to read it, actually. She leaves me messages demanding me to send it over!” He leaned across the desk with a sly look of conspiracy. “She even suggested that we don’t even have to tell you!”
Nan could think of nothing to say to any of this.
“But I wouldn’t dare! I respect you too much for that!” he said. “Your work is yours and if you want her to see it, I assume you’ll show it to her yourself.”
Funny, thought Nan, since the only reason Professor Paulson had even seen her work was because he’d gone behind her back and gotten it from her fiction-writing teacher the year before. Of course she was grateful for his support and enthusiasm, but since she’d never been given the choice to keep it from her advisor, was it really her choice now to keep it from Maryanne Dart?
“You can show it to her,” she said.
His face fell, which was what she was aiming for—she was tired of being in cahoots with him, which she hadn’t been given the choice about either. Somehow, at some mysterious point, she and her advisors had become conspirators, first with Malcolm and now with his sister.
“What?” he said. “Aren’t youyou’ve always seemed very territorial about your work, so private.”
“I know,” she said, not looking at him. “But it’s only fair”
“Fair in what way?”
“Well,” she said. “Just the other day she gave me one of her books to read.”
He stared at her.
“Which one?” he said, seriously. “Which book?”
His faced looked drained, almost frightened—he had done so much for her; he was always trying to help her, so what exactly was she doing? Her boldness instantly evaporated.
“I don’t remember the title,” she said quickly and with regret. “It didn’t have the jacket on it, but the book was red. I think. Red. Or maybe brown? Brown with black—or gold! Yes, gold lettering.”
Forgiveness was about a family that lived in New England. The specific state was never explicitly named, but there was water nearby—the ocean, and, inland, a river where the family—father, mother, daughter and son—would sometimes swim. The book began just after the main character and narrator, a seventeen-year-old girl named May, witnessed her friend’s abduction. They were walking home one day from field hockey practice. It was after a heavy rain, and there were puddles on the country road they took to get to May’s house. A car passed by and, playfully, May’s friend stamped a puddle, sending water up and onto the car’s hood. The car stopped in the middle of the road. Panicked, but laughing—thrilled at the strangeness of it all—the girls took off; May ran into the woods while her friend kept running along the road. The car caught up with her and, as May watched from behind a tree, two men got out, grabbed her and shoved her, screaming, into the back of the car. May ran after them, but the car drove off.
The rest of the book was about May trying to find her friend, and her attempts to deal with her feelings of guilt and responsibility that arose from the event. Her parents did everything they could to help—the whole town, in fact, came together to try and find the missing girl, a task which, over the three months in which the story took place, often seemed hopeless—until the end, when the girl suddenly appeared back in town, alive and virtually unharmed. In the final chapter, May went to her friend’s house and sat on her friend’s bed and broke down in tears, wracked with guilt and sorrow and apology. When she finished crying, her friend told her that she will never be able to forget what happened that day, and will never be able to forgive May for not helping her. A few days later, she and her family move away, and May is left alone.
Nan read the book all weekend. The writing was straightforward and vivid. The characters seemed like regular people—people she might know from her own town—and so she believed in them. It was a compelling story—sad and quiet and true. The thing that struck Nan the most, however, was the character of May’s brother, who for the entire story was more concerned with his college applications, his soccer team, and his friends, than his sister’s unraveling life. He was unfeeling and distant, incapable of empathy; he was the least human of all the characters in the book—even compared to the characters of the men who’d kidnapped the girl, for they at least had the compassion not to kill her.
While reading, Nan had to constantly remind herself not to interpret the book as some kind of guide to Professor Paulson and Maryanne Dart’s life and relationship. With every page she would say to herself: this is a work of fiction; it’s invention; don’t fall for it
Even so, she could see why her advisor might not like the book.
Nan went back to Maryanne Dart’s house on Monday morning. She buzzed the top buzzer in the building’s vestibule, but no one answered. She waited for a few moments, then buzzed again. Nothing. Nan called upstairs but got the machine; she left a message telling her that she was there, downstairs, waiting to come up. She ended up sitting on the front steps of the brownstone, watching people in the park—old women walking around slowly with their tiny dogs, a few couples drinking coffee on the benches. It all looked so peaceful and ideal, like figures in a painting, wandering within the confines of the fence like it was the painting’s frame.
After an hour, Nan called Maryanne Dart again. This time, she picked up.
“Hi!” said Nan, surprised. “I was going to leave another message. Ididn’t think you were home.”
“Well, okay,” said Nan. “I’m here. Downstairs. I buzzed butno one seemed to be there.”
“Okay,” said Nan. “Should Icome up then?”
It was quiet on the phone.
“Did I ask you to come today?”
“Um, yes,” said Nan. “We talked about it last week. You said Monday.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Nan,” she said slowly. “Today’s not a good day for me.”
“Okay,” said Nan. “That’sfine.”
Maryanne Dart had paid her in cash the last time she worked—one hundred and twenty dollars; one hundred of which Nan immediately deposited into her bank account. It was more than she’d have made for a week at the language lab. As she slid the deposit envelope into the ATM, she felt the hopeful excitement of growing solubility. It took three minutes on the phone with Maryanne Dart to cut that hope and excitement off at the knees.
“Well, when would you like me to come back?” said Nan, fearing that the answer might likely be never.
No reply. Nan could almost smell the stench in the apartment coming through the phone.
“To be honest, Nan,” she said. “I’m really not sure. I can’t really say. I’ll have to talk to Charlie.”
Nan’s heart sunk. What did he have to do with this? Why did he always have to have a hand in everything?
Nan could hear her breathing on the other end.
“I didn’t think you’d actually ask that,” she said. “I thought you’d justyou knowjust let it go.”
“I can’t,” said Nan, frankly. “I’m here to do a job. That’s what it is to me: a job.”
The phone was silent again. Across the street in the park, a small dog chased a toy into a flowerbed where it thrashed around, shredded petals flying like confetti.
“Hello?” said Nan.
The door buzzer buzzed loudly behind her. Nan jumped up quickly, and, before she knew it, she was in the elevator, on her way up to the top floor.
She worked all day—filing, billing, organizing, and cleaning up the hard drives on both computers. Maryanne Dart stayed in her room at the back of the apartment. At five o’clock, Nan put on her jacket and bag and knocked gently on the bedroom door to tell her that she was leaving.
Nan hadn’t been inside the bedroom before, but it was similar to the living room in that it was a mess: clothes and shoes, magazines and books littered the floor, dirty dishes scattered about the bedside table, dresser, and windowsills. A large TV loomed over the foot of the bed. It was on and showed an old black and white movie, with the sound turned off.
Maryanne Dart was under the covers, in her robe, with a towel around her neck, looking like an invalid.
“I wanted to give you your book back,” Nan said. She placed the red book down on the comforter. “Thank you for letting me borrow it. I really liked ita lot.”
Maryanne Dart looked at her skeptically.
“I did,” said Nan, earnestly. “It’s really beautifully written—and moving. I really felt for May—for her situation, her isolation in what happened to her, at the end in particular.”
Maryanne Dart closed her eyes. She reached into the pocket of her robe and pulled out a wad of bills, which she handed to Nan.
“As always,” she said. “You earned this.”
Nan took the money and put it in her pocket.
Maryanne Dart kicked at the book with her foot—a little tremor under the bedding.
“Well,” she said, almost begrudgingly. “I’m glad you liked the book. It actually does mean something when someone you think is smart likes what you’ve done. Do you know what I mean?”
Nan nodded, though she really had no idea what anything meant in the deepening complexities of this odd arrangement. But she knew she was being genuinely complimented, which she appreciated.
Maryanne Dart bowed her head. Nan saw the delicate scrawl of purple veins pulsing across her eyelids as tears matted and darkened her eyelashes. “This isn’t fair,” she said, staring down at her hands. “Not to you. Or me. Not to any of us.”
“Did you tell Charlie that you read my book?” said Maryanne Dart, looking at the TV.
“I told him you’d lent me a book to read.”
“But I specifically asked you not to!”
“I didn’t tell him which one!” Nan said. “And I haven’t seen him since I’ve read it, so he doesn’t know what my opinions about itare. I’m sorry, I couldn’t lie”
Maryanne Dart bowed her head. Nan saw the delicate scrawl of purple veins pulsing across her eyelids as tears matted and darkened her eyelashes.
“This isn’t fair,” she said, staring down at her hands. “Not to you. Or me. Not to any of us.”
Nan stood still, staring at her, utterly confused.
“He is the one who can help you,” she said. “Not me. I don’t know what he was thinking—or what I was”
Nan spied a box of tissues on the floor and placed it on the bed.
“Do you know what I mean?” said Maryanne Dart, wiping her eyes. “Am I making any sense?”
“I have to say,” she said. “I really don’t know.”
The woman looked up at Nan beseechingly and grabbed her hands.
“Charlie can help you,” she said. “And he will. He’s told me so. And he should. I’ve told him so. That’s it. What can I do? Nothing. I can’t do anything. I’m useless. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Nan looked at her, the tears running down her face, silvery in the TV screen light, where regal-looking people in period dress were riding in a carriage through the countryside. Nan stood awkwardly for a moment, and when it was clear that she was meant to leave, she walked to the door.
“Let me ask you something,” said a voice behind her. “What did you think of the brother—the character of the brother in the book?”
Nan turned around to face the bed where Maryanne Dart was clutching a tissue hard in her fist.
“I thought” said Nan. “I thought he was cruel. I thought he was horrible for not caring about his sister and not making an effort to understand what she was going through. And by comparison, it made May more likeable, more sympathetic, because of how much of a jerk he was to her.”
Maryanne Dart nodded, sniffing, and turned back to the TV, her eyes glassy and full again with tears.
Nan went to the language lab the next day to get her old job back. She’d only been gone for two weeks, and her new boss barely even noticed she was away. She was put on the schedule, full-time, for the following week.
On her way across campus to work at the literary magazine, she saw her advisor speaking animatedly to some students by the fountain. She put her head down and walked quickly along the far edge of the main quad toward Broadway, where she walked down 116th Street to the Verbiage office. The last thing she wanted to do was go into work and run the risk of encountering him, but since Malcolm had left, the boxes of mail were piling up, and Tammy, the office manager, was counting on her.
Thankfully, the day passed without disruption. Nan sat at the intern’s desk in the corner of the room and read fiction submissions while Tammy sat at her computer, typing away at lightning speed, inputting accepted manuscripts into the database.
At five o’clock, Tammy came up to Nan’s desk and placed a formatted version of a story before her. Nan looked down at it and recognized it immediately—it was her own story, now in the magazine’s familiar font and format: the title in italics, the author’s name—her name—in small caps below it.
“I don’t usually read these things,” said Tammy, putting her hand on Nan’s shoulder. “I just type them up—but, since it’s you, and it’s yours, I actually read it, and you know what? I really liked it.” She smiled down at her. “Good for you.”
Nan looked up at her with disbelief. Her entire body felt like it was being tightened to the chair with a rope.
“He?” she said. “Professor?”
“Oh, no,” said Tammy. “Not him—that’s against the rules. He couldn’t do it. One of our contributing editors got their hands on it, and sent it on in, apparently with the highest of recommendations.”
“Really?” said Nan. “Do you knowwho? Which editor?”
“Not sure,” said Tammy, sauntering back to her desk. “But that’s not what’s important. What’s important, my dear, is that you’ll finally be getting paid for all this drudgery you’ve been doing for free for so long.”
“A dollar a word,” she said, happily. “Check’s in the mail.”
Nan didn’t see Professor Paulson until her seminar on Thursday. She’d made a concerted effort to make herself scarce on campus, spending the intervening days when she wasn’t scurrying to and from class, and to work, staying in her apartment, where she’d sit, reading and re-reading her story—or even just looking at it: so polished and slick and professional. The whole situation felt unbelievable and surreal, and it made her want to cry—with relief and elation and pride; and with the sinking feeling of helplessness, and the elusive feeling of loss, and of more uncontrollable loss to come, for looking at the story, she couldn’t help thinking of Malcolm, opening some future issue of the magazine and seeing her name. From the moment Tammy had placed it down before her, she knew that whatever secret hope she might have had for them getting back together was now gone forever. She knew she’d done nothing wrong, she was innocent, but in the end, he had been right, and she knew he would never be able to forgive her.
“I’m sorry things didn’t work out with my sister,” said Professor Paulson in the hallway after class. “But as you probably could tell by now, she’s kind of a kook.”
“But,” he said, smiling down at her. “I happen to know that Tammy gave you some very good news the other day.”
“She did,” said Nan, tentatively. “And it’s a still a littleoverwhelming.”
“Well, don’t look at me,” he said, chuckling, holding his hands up like a hostage. “I didn’t do it!”
Nan tried to smile.
“You look sad,” he said. “Is it Maryanne? I knowit can get to youshe’s a sad lady.”
“To be honest,” she said. “It was her book that was sad.”
She thought this might silence him—the way the mention of the book had done before. But in the intervening time, he had somehow become immune to this sensitivity; a smug grin crawled across his face.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve forgiven her for that years ago.”
“Sure,” he said. “It was a long time ago, and I understand why she did it, particularly in the context of publishing: she was blocked, so she panicked.”
Nan stared at him.
“She needed something dramatic, and she looked close to homescooped up my story, made it her own—but only barely. I knew nothing about it until the galleys came out.”
Nan’s head started to throb.
“That’s right,” he said. “What did she tell you?”
“She told me nothing—”
“She called me May,” he said lightly, assuming lecture mode. “Which was what our parents were going to call me if I had been a girl—after our great aunt May. She made herself the brother, which, considering her behavior at the time, was both brave and accurate. The whole book, actually, is pretty accurate, except, of course, for the end.”
“What happened in the end?”
“In real life,” he said, “my friend never came home.”
Nan stared at him.
“He got murdered,” he said. “They found him in a culvert, off the highway, on the New Hampshire border. Maryanne made the part up about the girl coming home probably just to give it a happy ending.”
“But it wasn’t happy!” said Nan. “It wasn’t tragic like the real story, but it wasn’t exactly happy either.”
“And neither was the ending for the book itself, because, as we all know, it flopped!” he said. “I’m not proud to admit that I was secretly happy about that, but I was still bitter back then. I’m over it now—hence, my constant efforts to try to help her, involving her in the magazine, introducing her to you”
Nan had stopped listening. Somehow, amidst everything—all the ambiguities and uncertainties, which she was clearly never meant to fully understand, she felt she’d failed—she pictured the apartment on Gramercy Park, and the poor bedraggled woman trapped inside, staring at the muted TV, or wandering from room to room, thoughtlessly thickening the chaos that surrounded her. She wondered if somewhere hidden in that horrible mess was a key to that beautiful park, and maybe if she had found it, and convinced Maryanne Dart to come with her, they could have walked around the gravel paths together, under the trees, by the flowerbeds, safe and protected, inside the high iron gates. If only she had known more, if only she’d been told, perhaps then she might have actually been able to help
Professor Paulson grabbed her arm.
“You’re getting that pensive look on your face.”
Nan shook her head, clearing the image of the park, the fenced-in flowers, from her brain.
“You know what?” he said. “I think we need to go out and celebrate!”
“For your story!” he said. “Your first publication! You still haven’t adequately told me how excited you are about all of this!”
“Oh,” said Nan, trying to steady herself before his smiling, handsome face. “I am—I am excited. I’m just still a littleshocked. I mean I didn’t exactly plan on any of this happening”
Her advisor leaned toward her, his face close to hers, and looked her square in the eyes.
“Nan,” he said. “No one can ever really plan for things like this.”