He was a battering ram of a talker, pushing and plowing, yet watchful and indignant if her view digressed from what he was telling her was the only idea to be gleaned from the James story no one could agree on. What no one could agree on was who had done what to whom, and was the death accidental or the work of the fates. He knew the answer, but instead of absorbing it, her eyes had glazed over, and she felt it not worthwhile to tell him a second time that she didn’t like this story; that it wasn’t up to the author’s standard.
The three—two men and a woman—were arranged in a tier: husband, lover, and self. Both wanted to take the space she stood on, but why? she wondered, always a bit removed from reality, in some play zone where all values and positions could be changed in the blink of an eye, for fantasy was her guiding principle, a dry kind of fantasy: pure “what if,” with no personal investment or rich by-products. No one knew this except the husband, which is one reason he let her go anywhere, and for as long as she wanted. She could do no harm; or, if she did, it could be erased like that, and by her. Her spouse had perfect freedom and no responsibilities.
He knew everything, and she’d been the object of his study for every year of their marriage—now ten.
She wrote a few letters to answer his blizzard and had a hard time finding material, or the right material. His return to this scanty output was a long reading of things omitted or misunderstood. He knew everything, and she’d been the object of his study for every year of their marriage—now ten. Here’s who you are, he’d say, here’s where you came from, and here’s the difference. The difference is what he made. She knew that because he’d given her everything he had—his words, his thoughts, his cooking, the fruits of his doctoral studies in philosophy, his medical advice, his adoration and attendant frustrations—because, with him, and under his care, she was neither here nor there. He said, “I don’t think you know how mean I am to you. Oh, you know,” he added, “but you don’t know the half of it.”
She reached for her glasses, but he grabbed the hand that fluttered over the table, bringing it back to the bed. “You don’t need those with me here.” She arched her back, dislodging his leg, which he replaced. She covered her eyes with an arm. “I’m listening,” he said. “He didn’t know how to end it,” she said. And, with that, he was out of the bed, throwing on his clothes, the shirt still inside out. Slammed the door; then, knocked on it. “Forgot my watch,” he said. “You don’t have a watch,” she yelled from the bed, as she heard him pound down the stairs.
The day opened and closed like a time-lapse season of bud-flower-fruit. This was life in the middle years.
The day was full of phenomena, and she let this material of accident and plan produce a sense of purpose, of things begun and finished, or left unfinished, forgotten, or set aside for further tinkering. The day opened and closed like a time-lapse season of bud-flower-fruit. This was life in the middle years, which Henry had also written about, a subject (fame), and a man (writer), an aim (younger man) more to his taste. Had he divided into two? The witch was still there, and a wonderful fat woman.
Was understanding necessary, or even useful, in leading a life? she wondered. Didn’t it get in the way of what people loved: pull up your socks, close up, move on. Understanding only thickened the air: I think therefore I delay, daydream, doubt, defy.
Defy was the fresh, new morning, and a cold one, bright but cold. I’m thinking of you today, she wrote to the husband. Two days later, warmer, she received a bombardment of exegesis, accusation, judgment. The simple statement, “I’m thinking of you,” unleashed a life of fury. Who but a traitor would so unwisely hurl the bald truth that she never thought of him; to think was a novelty, a miracle! She returned fire. Well, burn me at the stake, then. Crucify me. This man must die! That’s all she said, written in pencil. And the letters stopped for a full week; then, twelve arrived, bundled in brown paper. She threw them away. Several days elapsed. “Let’s start over,” she wrote on a plain postcard.
Before going home the next day, cloudy, he found the paper-wrapped letters and put them in the washed and dried bucket. She was still asleep, in a bed like an abstract painting.
“Let me be your confessor,” he said. “Bless me father, for I have sinned—say it.” “Bless me, father,” she said. “For I have sinned!” he said. She got up to put the kettle on.
Thus began the threat to write him, introduce the third, the one who’d invaded the duet to create the harmony.
Of course, he liked the husband, and wanted to know him. Thus began the threat to write him, introduce the third, the one who’d invaded the duet to create the harmony. She laughed to hear that, because it had not, and he had not. Go ahead, she said. Try it out. “You don’t mean that,” he said, in his higher register. “You’re bluffing,” he said, in the lower.
He wouldn’t return the letters, and the postcard (“Let’s start over”) went unanswered. It was a draw.
“So,” he continued, “now you understand yourself. Is that it? You see what you have in you, just like everyone else. You’re no quietist.”
She liked the word. It put a new face on the old life.
That same boy (homunculus, she was already calling him) tracked her to her office, where he dropped into a chair, dragging it close to the desk. “You know why I never talk?” he said through the crackle. “I can guess,” she said. “I thought you’d be the last person on earth to listen. You know why?” This personal note made her get up to open the window. “No, but you’ll tell me.” “I didn’t think you liked me. None of my teachers do. I have no friends,” he said through the crackle, always renewed. She sighed. “Don’t sigh,” he said, “it’s my problem.”
“What are you going to write your paper on?” she said. “Tell me.” “I’m not ready yet,” he said, “to decide. I haven’t seen what else you have to offer—I mean, him—what he has to offer.”
“We’re only reading the stories,” she said. “That I know,” he said. “There’s enough there, wouldn’t you say?” “I would,” he said, “because I’ve read them all.” “Have you?” “A long time ago,” he said. “And the novels, too. Not all of them, but I can estimate, I can project.” “Really?” she said.
“I lied,” he said, walking to the door. “Today, I read the first one, but I read all of it, and I’m going to read it again.”
Why did that sound like a threat? She closed the window, and opened the book, but another student stood at the open door.
She peeled back the checkerboard quilt, and he entered the freshly made bed, slipped in, and was asleep in a trice. He looked dead tired, but, as she closed the door, “Don’t go far,” she heard. With that, she called the lecturer and said, “Can we postpone? Something’s come up” “What?” he said. “Tell you later,” she said, hanging up.
But, no sooner had she hung up, when the husband, whose hair was standing straight up (why was it so greasy?), said: “You look different.”
“It’s already unravelling!” he snapped, “because you are such a phony, and you like to mock me. Sometimes, right to my face.”
They were sitting to enjoy the coffee and buns. Sun flooded in the winter-dusted windows, and a robin tripped across the dried grass. “It’s nice, isn’t it?” he said. “It could be nice,” she replied. “Well, it’s nice now. We’re nice. We could be nice,” he said, “so why aren’t we? I’d like to blame you, but I know that’s a symptom. That’s, anyway, what you told me. Anger, tyranny, argument, brow-beating—symptoms, but symptoms of what? Play along with me, just do it.” So, she got out the Scrabble board, and the compact OED. “Shall we start with the word ‘symptom’?” “Not ideal,” he said, “but it might work, and anyway, it’s something to do while we get used to being together. Do you like it, at least?”
“Yes,” she said. “Thanks for coming.”
“It’s already unravelling!” he snapped, “because you are such a phony, and you like to mock me. Sometimes, right to my face. How can you say, you silly bitch, thanks for coming? Don’t you realize we’re married, and I should be here, or you with me, in Canton.”
She pondered. “Do you think your Canton is named after a China town?”
“Maybe. That was the old days when we still liked foreigners, or foreign places, remember?
“It’s before our time,” she said, “but, yes, I’ve made that deduction, considering how many towns are named for abroad, when we’re clinically xenophobic.”
“Because you mentioned symptoms! And everything can be seen that way. That’s why you hate talking to me, and made me move out.”
“I don’t remember that,” he said, “but it could be true, because we don’t live together, and yet I long for you, at times, and always remember you.”
“You’re singing my favorite song. This is the part of you I love.”
“Agreed,” he said, “and let me say what I like about you.”
“Like or love?” she said.
“Let’s start with like,” he said, “and see how far we get.”
They got pretty far, and were locked in an embrace that was only 25 percent ambivalent, 10 percent sadistic, and a full 65 percent full-bore passion, with a mix of curiosity, newness and oldness, a bit of comfort and tedium, when the doorbell rang. “Don’t answer it,” he said, smothering her with a kiss that was hard, deep, and wide. Then, he whipped off the covers, reached for her bathrobe, unlocked and opened the door. The lecturer nearly fell in, arms outstretched, closing his fists on the air. Then, younger and fleeter, with a boxer’s reflexes, he was in, while the husband teetered on the threshold, suddenly shamed by a girl’s flimsy bathrobe of rose-red fleece, and under it, big, bony feet. Something felt wrong, but it could be himself, dressed the way he was. She’d made him a clown, and not only (second thought) a cuckold. They could both hear a lock turn in the direction of the bedroom down that dark hallway, so they were on their own.
“Were you playing Scrabble?” the lecturer said, shoving a fist at the husband. “Sandy,” he said, shaking the hand, and shaking it hard. “Alec,” said the husband.
She had her ear to the door, listening to silence, or what seemed like silence. Were they whispering?
When she unlocked the door, with the yellow and blue dress back on‘but barefoot‘she saw a Scrabble game about three-quarters done, Latinate on one side, Anglo-Saxon on the other. “Don’t look,” said Sandy, covering his tiles, and “Don’t let her see yours,” he said to Alec. “She can see whatever she wants,” was the surprising answer, but she didn’t move from where she was, standing behind the lecturer’s chair. She poured herself coffee from the pot, gone cold, and sat against the wall on a broken kitchen chair. “Who’s ahead?” she asked
“I am,” they answered.
“Have you been here before?” Alec asked Sandy. “Do you live nearby?”
Sandy didn’t answer. He was transferring tiles, letter by letter, to form the word “governess,” using the S already there, terminus of Eric’s “regress.” The game was over. The Scrabble move, emptying the frame of all seven letters, tied the score.
They shook hands, and the lecturer got up to leave. “Thanks,” he said. “I love to play games and rarely get the chance. That,” he added, “plus, there’s no one up to my standard.”
“Depends how you look at it,” Alec said, closing the door on Sandy, and locking it, only to hear the knock—the lecturer, once gone, always wanted back in. It was a reflex and a defense. She wondered, watching the husband stare at the closed door, with the other behind it, whether this softened the blow, signaling weakness and inferiority.
Everywhere the couple went that day—restaurant, library, park, café, cinema, nightclub—they rode on a tide of joy, the joy of newness and doubt. Both felt the change, and waited to see how things would settle, if settle they did.
The lecturer followed them at a safe distance until, late in the day, they spotted him, and they watched the movie together, with the husband sitting in between.
The lecturer followed them at a safe distance until, late in the day, they spotted him, and they watched the movie together, with the husband sitting in between. It was The Heiress, notched frame by frame, scene by scene, to Washington Square, James’s poison-pen letter to his plain-Jane sister Alice. When they exited, reeking of popcorn, they both looked and, sure enough, she was Catherine Sloper. If only she’d stay there!
Homely, though, she wasn’t, so they both bought her a drink: Sandy, a hock, and Alee, a fine. She drank them both, sipping and telling them about “Four Meetings,” an early tale of New England meets France, and where an expat cousin fleeces a New England spinster on her first, last, and one-day trip abroad. She ends with nothing—no trip, no husband, no savings, but, like Miss Sloper, takes her revenge by becoming the governess in “Turn of the Screw.” Good girls gone wrong being the name of the game.
The husband and lecturer, sharing a bottle of Chianti, were silent. This was like listening to a jack-in-the-box after it springs, and bobbles with a silly grin, first one way, then another. It was the aftermath of a crisis—the popping out of the box. And that’s how the husband knew, because this kind of literary gab was new. Not new, but public, and that was new. With narrowed eyes and a pointing finger, he said: “I get the picture now. I’m not as dumb as I look, and this is not a novel.”
The word “weasel” didn’t come up, but it was on the tip of his tongue, as he moved the pointing finger toward Sandy. “What did you say you do?” he asked.
“Do I have to answer?” Sandy asked the woman professor giving him a tutorial on James these past weeks. It wasn’t official, but that was what it was. He resented the notion of who was giving what to whom.
“And what’s your connection to her?” the husband added. “Tell the truth.”
When nothing was said, “Cat got your tongue?” the husband jeered. And, with that, the argument began.
The old story was back out on the table, and the husband had no story to push, so she spoke for him, dealing out a fleshy, interminable novel of the late phase. “Here’s the endnote,” she said, “and the endnote is revenge of a very high order. And why? Because Henry had hopes for the future, and that future was to outstrip and outman brother William, his chief critic, who never failed to aver that little Harry had no gift for writing, and was a big, fat slob. There was hope, and there was a chance.”
For the sake of the husband, she rolled out a major novel, but let the lecturer tap away, grind away on his favorite subject: the key to the turn of the screw. He had it, and showed it to his rival.
His rival picked up the key, turning it in his hand. It was a cheap thing, but functional. It was a favorite tool and totem of males, so neither saw its role. They looked at it together, quietly, and with respect, until she plucked it out of their hands and tucked it into her rosy purse, where other things were kept, things of value.
She cleared the table, dusted it with her hand, and laid out the long, tedious, but thrilling Wings of the Dove. “In this book,” she said, “a great mystery unfolds, the greatest, and herein is the greatest witch, one who tricks her moribund friend into marrying her own lover, with the aim of inheriting her fortune and her pearls.”
Neither man was interested in a sick and foolish heiress, so they changed the subject, but she drew their eyes back to look and look again. “What do you see here?” she said.
“I see you,” one of them said, “but without the bank balance.”
“And who’s doing this to me—” she said. “What’s done to the sick heiress? Robbing her blind and eating her dinner?”
“Beats me,” they said.
The husband cleared his throat. “I get it. Henry—or, Harry, as you call him—is writing about himself. He is the sick heiress, taken for a ride, who strikes back, if I’m reading you right, my pet. So, the rich, sick woman—really a man—is me, and you two,” he said, using both hands to point at them, “are the stinkers, the cheaters, the rats, who’d take advantage—you,” he said, pointing to Sandy, “of someone you don’t even know, and you”—pointing to her—“to someone you do.”
The lecturer spoke up: “This is evil of a very petty sort,” he said, “compared to murder and child molestation, witchcraft, deceit, and mind-control, spells, curses, and poison.”
“To say that shows how young you are. Grow up,” she said to the lecturer.
“But what if he never grew up? Your Henry—or his Harry,” said the lecturer.
“He’s dead now,” she said, “so let’s set him aside.”
“Can’t be done,” the husband said. “He lives on. Otherwise, why are we here, and not cutting each other’s throats?”
“Would you really cut my throat?” Sandy said, laying a hand on Alec’s sleeve.
“Maybe,” said Alec, “if I had a knife sharp enough. For her,” he said, “a butter knife, a plastic knife would do.”
“Why, or rather, how come?” she said.
“Because—as you’d say yourself—you’re a phantom, like what the kids saw across the water in ‘Turn of the Screw.’”
“Then go home. It’s time to go home.”
They paid the bill, each throwing down a twenty like a card game, and each went home alone, the husband stopping to gather his things and drive away, the wife settling in for a long winter’s nap, and the lecturer trekking to his bedsit to brood and plot. He—and he knew this—was the cheese standing alone.
Feeling her oats as pure bullishness, she went to her class and forced each one back to the original slot at the table, just using a finger: person, place. “Lay it on the table,” she said, and discovered in the babble that each had read a different story, and was locked in the plight James had forced on them. She was the reader of this verbal dervish.
“All writers lose in the end,” she said.
“Silence,” she said to the dinning faces, alert, alive, addressing the author with alacrity, or beating a dead horse. One by one, they stilled their recitals. Last one was the crackly voice, who’d moved to “The Jolly Corner,” the card at the bottom of the deck, of a pair with the screw, a maturation of the ghostly, and the buck stops here.
“Tell it!” she said in a voice a marvel to hear: a foghorn.
He stood, swiveling to meet all eyes, raised his hand in exhausted loops, as if conducting a dirge. “Folks,” he said, “here’s where he meets up with Will, but also with the two deadbeat brothers, Garth and Wilkie, Civil War vets, and nothings. It’s the fight to the death, and being weak, and a silly, helpless boy still, Harry flees, but where to? An alien city, where nothing makes sense.”
“All writers lose in the end,” she said.
“I don’t need your help,” the student said, his voice still shrouded in the husk or nest of dried-up spittle, a question of self attacking self, which was the germ of the story, even for a free-loading gadabout like their author, their love.
“Well,” she said, “one thing he liked about the states was doughnuts. You couldn’t get them over there.”
With that, the crackling stopped, and the student sat. It was the end of the semester, alpha met omega; if the golden bowl was broken, the broom was here to sweep it away, because ends are ends, turn away, no questions asked. Each student left by the door. One was crying. Literature had met its match in them.
As he left, the crackle-voice said, “I’ll be okay now. Don’t worry.”
“Go in peace,” she said.
For him, the screw kept turning, no matter how hard he tightened it the night before. The wood was rotten, and wouldn’t grip the threads, so he forced its head into the wood, forced and forced, until the screw passed through, clattering on the floor.
It was a relic kept on his desk of a dream, a sense of the past.