Straight Man by Richard Russo


  “Paul’s got one,” he says. “Professor Rourke?” he adds, so I’ll know who he’s talking about.

  I decide there must be no significance to his having mentioned June a moment ago. He’s just dropping names. He’s up for tenure next year and wants me to understand, in case I’m still chair, how well he’s fitting in. He’s on a first-name basis with all factions. I nod to show I’m with him. “Big guy. Surly.”

  Orshee ignores this. “I like his house, except I think it may be sliding down the hill.”

  I suppress a grin.

  “June thinks so too.”

  The article they’ve been working on all year, I recall, is on clitoral imagery in Emily Dickinson. The way Teddy explained it to me, June, being herself in possession of a clitoris and therefore more sensitive to its encoded appearances in the Dickinson poems, was going to draft the article, which she and Orshee would then revise, making use of his up-to-date critical theory vocabulary. “It’s weird,” Teddy confessed to me one day back in the fall semester when June’s notes were strewn all over the house. “Back when I was fifteen, I was obsessed with pussy. Now I’m fifty and my wife’s the one obsessed with it.”

  “We’ve looked at a couple houses out there, but I don’t know,” Orshee says. I must look puzzled, because he quickly clarifies his meaning. “Sally and I.”

  “Right,” I say. Sally is the seldom seen young woman who accompanied him to Railton four years ago who has reportedly been “finishing her dissertation.”

  “I mean, it’s really nice out there, and I wouldn’t mind being among the trees. But we’d, like, have to give up our dream of living in an integrated neighborhood.”

  “Right,” I say, indicating the television screen over my shoulder with my thumb.

  “We shouldn’t even be looking at places until I find out about my tenure next year,” he concedes. “Except it’s a buyer’s market right now. According to our realtor, now’s the time. Next year, who knows?”

  “Tomorrow, who knows?” I agree.

  “That’s the other thing,” he says, studying me carefully now. “All this talk about layoffs this year. If it’s last hired, first fired …”

  “April is the cruelest month, rumor-wise,” I remind him.

  “Well, if you hear anything, I hope you’ll let me know, because we really are considering taking the plunge. June thinks Allegheny Wells is a good investment.”

  “Sally, you mean.”

  “No, June. She’s been trying to get Teddy to buy out there.”

  Actually, she’s been trying to get Teddy to do this for over a decade, but Teddy can’t bring himself to spend that kind of money.

  “I just hate to see you give up your dream,” I tell Orshee.

  He looks blank.

  “Of living in an integrated neighborhood,” I remind him.

  “Oh, right,” he says. “Well, we’re looking at other places, too.”

  “And there’s always the chance that it will become integrated,” I remind him, getting up from my chair. “I understand Coach Green is looking to build out there.”

  “And it’s not like we’ll be here in Railton forever,” he adds.

  At this I can’t help smiling. “That’s what we all thought, kid.”

  Paul Rourke is collecting his mail in the English department office when I enter. He studies me over the rim of his reading glasses, and it occurs to me to wonder how long he’s had these. Also I note that there’s more gray in his hair and flesh in his cheeks than the last time I observed him carefully, which was maybe a decade ago. He has a dissipated look about him now, and I can’t help wondering if he’s become, like Billy Quigley, a solitary drinker. He looks like he could be taken in a fight. Not by me, but by somebody. Not anybody in Humanities, probably. Maybe someone over in P.E.

  “Morning, Reverend,” I say. “Another beautiful day, praise God.”

  “Hello, dipwad,” he says, returning his attention to his mail, most of which he’s tossing directly into the wastebasket at his feet, unopened. “I caught your act last night,” he continues without looking up from his task. “It needs work.”

  Rourke’s position regarding me never varies. Despite the fact that I try to make everything into a joke, I’m never funny. Rachel stops typing at her word processor and watches us fearfully. To show her that everything is fine, that an outbreak of hostilities is unlikely between us two old former combatants, I give her a wink. She remembers, as everyone does, that Rourke once threw me up against a wall at the department Christmas party, and she hates to see the two of us in the same room. Maybe, if she’s half in love with me, she doesn’t want to see me injured.

  “Look up dipwad for me,” I tell her, spelling it. “I think I’ve been insulted, but I’m not sure.”

  To my surprise, Rachel clicks onto her dictionary program and actually consults it, out of curiosity, it must be, since she seldom follows my orders. If she did follow my orders, she wouldn’t even be here today.

  “I hear we may have a new neighbor,” I tell Rourke.

  He’s finished going through his mail now, and there’s only one piece he’s deemed worth opening. He reads the first paragraph of a document that’s at least three pages long, then drops the whole thing into the wastebasket. There must be things about me and my behavior that strike Paul Rourke as being as admirable as the way he’s just dispatched his mail strikes me. If so, he keeps his admiration to himself.

  “Our obsequious junior colleague? Has he told you about his dream of living in an integrated neighborhood?”

  “Just now,” I admit. “He thought he might have to give it up.”

  “What did you advise, being privy to all our academic futures?”

  I decide not to ask what he means by this. “I advised him to buy on the good side of the road.”

  “Does that mean he’s not on your list? Or do you want to see him not just fired but totally fucked?”

  “List?” I say.

  “You want the truth?” he says. “I half-hope you put my name on it.”

  I’m about to say “what list?” again when Rachel double-clicks out of her dictionary. “It’s not in here?” she informs us. “Dipwad?”

  Rourke looks at me first, then Rachel. “Of course it isn’t,” he tells her. “It’s out here.”

  Not a bad exit line, I have to admit. “Hey,” I say to Rachel when he’s gone. “You’re my secretary, remember? I’m the one you feed the straight lines to.”

  “Sorry?”

  “How should I know if you’re sorry?”

  This confuses her. I can tell. “Let your voice fall,” I remind her on the way into my office. Meg has apparently paid me another visit, because in the middle of my ruined blotter sits a single ripe peach. I study this for a moment, then a note in Rachel’s hand that my friend Bodie Pie in Women’s Studies has been trying to reach me. I hit the intercom and ask Rachel to join me.

  “I’m sorry about last night,” I tell her when she closes the door behind her. “I mean, if you and Cal are getting back together, that’s great.” When she doesn’t say something quick enough, I chatter on. “I never should have called the house so late, and I certainly never should have said I didn’t like him. That was way out of line.”

  Rachel is studying her hands as I say all this. I wonder if she’s as fond of them as I am. They are not the hands of a young woman. They’ve endured dishwater and paper cuts and burns on the oven door, but they are fine and graceful, and I would like to take them in my own.

  “We’re not?” she says, and now I’m the one confused. “Getting back together?”

  How absurd that I should feel a powerful wave of relief. I try to tell myself it’s nothing but decent affection I feel for her, but the truth is, it doesn’t feel entirely decent. She’s too lovely a woman for this to be decent affection, though it’s probably not exactly indecent either. Is there a state more or less halfway between decency and indecency? Is there a name for such a realm? The Kingdom of Cowardice? Th
e Fiefdom of Altruism? The Grove of Academe?

  In the real world Rachel is talking to me. “Sometimes when he’s drinking, he remembers he’s got a son? Also he likes to drop by at night, to make sure I’m not seeing anyone?”

  “I didn’t mean to intrude …,” I say, a lie.

  “He ends up falling asleep?” she explains, adding, “on the couch?” But her eyes are full.

  “You want to take the rest of the day off?” I suggest. “I mean it. I’ve seen days like this before. They don’t improve.”

  She shrugs, wipes the corner of one eye on a sleeve. “He might still be there?”

  “Then stay here,” I say, trying for a grin. “Okay, I’m off to the Vatican.” Since Dickie Pope became CEO four years ago, that’s what the old Administration Building has come to be called. I see by my watch that there’s just about time to make the walk across campus to Administration Row.

  “Don’t let them fire you?”

  “Never,” I assure her. “I’d quit first. See what you can do about getting me a new blotter,” I say, slipping the new peach into my jacket pocket. I’ve been to Administration Row many times and often regretted not having something to throw. I hand Rachel the old, soiled blotter with considerable embarrassment. It looks more like a sexual act has taken place upon it than an oblique invitation extended. “You need to find a new place to hide your master key.”

  “They all get mad at me when they can’t find it?”

  “I know. It’s just that I’m the only one who’s supposed to know where it is, and I’m the only one who doesn’t.”

  “I’ve told you? You keep forgetting?”

  “Rachel,” I tell her. “You’re right. The problem is me. If Lily calls …,” I begin, but then I can’t think of what message to leave. What I would say to my wife depends upon a number of variables. Like whether she’s seen me on Good Morning America. Like whether I am the cause of the flatness I heard in her voice this morning on the answering machine.

  “You love her more than life itself?” Rachel suggests.

  “Okay,” I concede. “Why not? Coming from you she just might buy it.”

  I notice that Billy Quigley’s door is open and try to sneak by, but he catches me, insists that I come inside and close the door behind me.

  “I’m in kind of a hurry,” I explain, taking a reluctant seat. Billy’s office is an all-Irish motif. On the walls, pictures of Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey. And a bottle of good Irish whiskey in the lower drawer of his desk. He wants to pour me one, but I beg him not to. Sometimes I’ll share a short one with Billy, but not in the morning. Not after a night like last night. “I’m on my way to my own execution.”

  “Be late then,” he says. “What can they do? Kill you twice?”

  “Yes,” I say. “That’s the beauty of academic life. You get to die over and over.”

  Billy downs a short shot of Irish whiskey. “I want to talk to you about Meg,” he says.

  I study him. Billy looks completely sober, for him an unnatural state. I shove my hands in my jacket pockets, find in one of them a tender peach, quickly remove them again. The spasm of guilt I feel suggests that my father was right. You may as well eat the peach if you’re going to feel guilty anyway. According to the signals my cross-wired conscience is sending me, by flirting with Billy’s beloved daughter, I’ve betrayed him and my wife and my secretary.

  “I want you to do me a favor,” he says. He’s got me fixed with a liquid, bloodshot eye, and I can’t look away. “Tell her you can’t rehire her for the fall.”

  “That’s a hell of a favor, Billy,” I tell him.

  “Hank,” he says, his voice low now, embarrassed. “I always try to do what I can for my kids. The rest of them … I wouldn’t say this to anybody but you … the rest of them take the money and run. They’re not bad kids. It’s not that. But Meg, she’s the one that’s got the best shot. I talked to a guy I know at Marquette, and he can get her an assistantship next fall.”

  “And how much will the assistantship cover?”

  “A big part.”

  “And you’ll pay for the other big part?”

  “I gotta get her away from here.”

  “They’ve got bars in Milwaukee, too,” I point out, since I know Billy’s concerned that Meg spends too much time in Railton dives.

  But I don’t think he even hears me. “If I can just get her out of this town.”

  When his voice falls, I let silence fall with it. But in the end, he’s more comfortable with the silence than I am. “Look,” I say, “why not cross the bridge when we come to it? You know I don’t have a budget anyway.”

  “You will,” he smiles crookedly, showing me his bad teeth, teeth he might have fixed if he were willing to spend money on anything but tuition, room, and board. “You’ll kill a duck, like the good terrorist you are, and they’ll give it to you.”

  I can’t help but smile at him. “It doesn’t work that way,” I remind him. “You can’t humiliate these people. Not really. You can embarrass them momentarily, but that’s about it.”

  “Well, let me put it this way,” Billy says, his eyes turning mean. “If you don’t do this for me, I’ll never forgive you. Finny and that damn Jesuit are planning to recall you, and I’ll vote with them. I don’t give a shit.”

  That’s the first lie he’s told me, though. His voice leaks conviction as plainly as Gracie’s leaks insincerity. Billy, I’d like to tell him, if you didn’t give a shit you could throw away the bottle, skip town, head south with Finny, and sink your ass in butter.

  Finny the man, not Finny the goose.

  CHAPTER

  15

  Thanks to Billy Quigley, I’m ten minutes late for my appointment with the campus executive officer, and thanks again to Billy, this means that I have only fifteen minutes to cool my heels in the outer office instead of the twenty-five I’d have had to wait if I’d been on time. Dickie Pope—he wants us all to call him Dickie, and most of us come pretty close—provides no reading matter in his waiting room, the walls of which are turquoise fabric upholstered. But then they don’t provide Catholics with magazines outside the confessional either, and those who visit Dickie’s Vatican are either penitents or supplicants. Apparently we’re to use the time contemplating our sins and desires.

  Still, I’m not without entertainment. I’ve got a perfectly good peach in my pocket, so I take a seat on the sofa and see how close to the ceiling I can toss it without its actually touching the acoustic tiles. I’m doing pretty well until I have to lunge for one and brush a lamp. The door to Dickie’s office opens just as I grab the lamp by its shade and the peach plops onto the rug. Three men emerge, and they all stare first at the lamp, then at me, then finally at the peach. What’s wrong with this picture?

  There with Dickie Pope is Lou Steinmetz, chief of campus security, who’s taken a dim view of me since I came to the university over twenty years ago, in the seventies. At that time I had longish hair and a beard, and while the campus had had no significant protests against the war, Lou watched the news every evening, saw what was happening elsewhere, and mapped out an entire strategy for when the trouble started at the Railton Campus. Years later, after the disappointment wore off, he showed me the chart he’d worked up illustrating various contingencies. It showed several entrances to the campus blocked off. The ball fields and tennis courts at the southern edge of the campus would be used to assemble the National Guard. Then, on Lou’s command, the troops would proceed along designated avenues, forcing the rioting throng westward toward the track and grandstand area, which would be used as a makeshift holding pen. It was the early eighties when Lou showed me all of this, and I could see that his eyes were still alive with the scheme.

  Just to piss him off, I said, “But there were no riots.”

  “Good thing, huh?” Lou said, eyebrow raised significantly, and something told me that the reason he’d wanted me to see his chart was not that he thought I’d be interested but rather because in his mind’
s eye he’d imagined me leading a throng of militant students fresh from the burning of Old Main. He wanted me to see how close I’d come.

  It takes me a moment to place the third member of this unholy trinity. Terence Watters is the university’s chief legal counsel. I’ve never seen him except on television trying to obscure some fact or situation embarrassing to the university. He’s tall and well groomed, and he has the kind of face that reveals nothing. Behind such expressions convictions go to die.

  “Anyway,” Dickie says after a beat, “discretion, gentlemen,” adding, “Lou, I’m counting on you,” as if to hint at what is common knowledge—discretion is not Lou Steinmetz’s strong suit. Lou likes to make up a good chart and put a plan in motion with live ammo.

  I pick up the peach from the carpet and say, “Hello, girls.”

  Lou Steinmetz, immediately offended, scowls and actually clenches his fists. Terence Watters, on the other hand, looks as if he’s listening to a tape recording of ambient sound on a headset.

  “Terry, I don’t think you know Hank Devereaux,” Dickie says, which starts us all shaking hands. I offer to shake Lou’s first, and when he grudgingly extends his hand I put the peach in it. Instead of just setting it down, he tries to get me to take it back, but I’ve moved on to Dickie Pope and Terence Watters, and for some darn reason Lou can’t recapture my attention. I feel for him. It’s not an easy thing to be left holding a piece of fruit during introductions. This is the first time it’s ever happened to Lou Steinmetz, I can tell.

  “Hank’s not just the chair of the English department. He’s also a local television personality,” Dickie explains to his chief counsel.

  Which makes me wonder whether he knows about Good Morning America, if Dickie thinks I’m just local. The lawyer’s hand is cool and dry, my own slightly sticky from the peach, which appears to have ruptured when it fell.

  “Hank, why don’t you go on in and make yourself comfortable. I want to walk these fellas to the door.”

  Dickie’s office is lavish. Much nicer than Jacob Rose’s. My father always managed to secure such an office for his visiting scholar gigs back when I was a boy. When I go over to Dickie’s high windows to take in the view, I’m in time to see the three men emerge below, where they continue their conversation on the steps, Lou Steinmetz gesturing off in the direction of the main gate. Lou’s campus security cruiser is parked at the curb, and the three men stroll toward it. They’re seeing Lou off, I presume, trying again to impress upon him the need for the very discretion he lacks. But when they get to the cruiser, to my surprise, all three men climb into the front seat and drive off. If this is a joke on me, I can’t help but admire it. In fact, I make a mental note to employ a version of it myself, soon. Maybe, if I’m to be fired today, I’ll convene some sort of emergency meeting, inviting Gracie, and Paul Rourke, and Finny, and Orshee, and one or two other pebbles from my shoe. I’ll call the meeting to order, then step outside on some pretext or other, and simply go home. Get Rachel to time them and report back to me on how long it takes them to figure it out. Maybe even get some sort of pool going.

 
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