Straight Man by Richard Russo


  Still, even though teaching was not a significant part of his responsibilities in his new position, the university must have been surprised, given its modest expectations, to learn upon his arrival that my father was unable to perform. I know my father was surprised. What befell him was unprecedented. He arrived at his first class in September, read the names of his students off his roster, opened his mouth to begin a lecture he had delivered half a dozen times before, only to discover that his mind was completely blank, that he was unable to speak so much as a pertinent syllable. He was not confused about what he wanted to say, nor had he forgotten how he’d meant to begin, or the lecture’s key details. His mind was simply voided, as if the thoughts in his head were composed of iron filings and he was standing too close to a magnet. He scanned the expectant faces before him and felt complete panic descend upon him. He had all he could do to find the words to excuse himself for a moment and duck out into the hall for a drink at the water fountain, his throat having become a valley of cinders. There in the dark hallway my father’s entire lecture returned to him intact, but the panic did not dissipate, so he found a nearby men’s room and drew a brown paper towel from the wall dispenser. On this dubious parchment he wrote out in longhand the first two sentences of his lecture as a hedge against repetition of the strangest event of his life, and then he returned to his classroom, not without misgivings for all his sensible precaution. There behind the lectern he unfolded his paper towel and opened his mouth to begin, only to discover that the words, the very letters the words were composed of, had become scrambled. They swam before him merrily, rearranging themselves for his entertainment. This quickly, all understanding had fled. He couldn’t have identified the letter B for a free trip to Sesame Street, this despite the fact that he had written a long chapter on that program for his book on pop culture. A new wave of panic crashed over him, and he knew there was nothing to do but plead illness, cancel class, tell students to return on Thursday, at which time he hoped to be himself.

  Word of this incident traveled, as academic gossip always does, at warp speed. It had been an early afternoon class, and by late afternoon everyone on the faculty seemed to have heard of William Henry Devereaux’s strange paralysis at the lectern. And, as is the case with most academic gossip, most of the facts had gotten skewed. My father’s colleagues seemed confused by the fact that he was able to communicate with them in the hallways. At a department cocktail party that evening they were amazed to find him not only present but charming and eloquent on the subject of his bizarre dysfunction, turning his still fresh humiliation into a comic set piece in which he described everything swimming before his eyes, words suddenly devoid of meaning, letters of phonic significance. It was as if, he explained, he had been transported back through time to a point before the invention of written language. He had a memory of what it was and how it worked, but it all seemed rather foolish. My father’s colleagues laughed appreciatively at his recounting of the event, but he could tell that they were horrified, that what he was detailing for them was their worst nightmare come to life. Unable to talk? A failure of discourse? A confession of sexual impotence could not have struck them more forcefully, and the fact that my father was able to make light of such a circumstance elevated him, if possible, in their estimation. To be so brilliant, and yet be unable to speak. This was the stuff of classical tragedy. How wonderful that he was able to come back from hell and tell them about it. What good luck it was that his affliction was confined, apparently, to the classroom, that it did not bleed over into faculty cocktail parties.

  Of course, the reason that my father was able to be glib and entertaining regarding his affliction was that he was convinced he’d seen the last of it. In truth he had been terrified to attend the cocktail party, afraid that he would be struck dumb there as well. What a relief to discover that his verbal acuity had not deserted him in the company of his colleagues. He had feared that his paralysis might be a manifestation of stage fright associated with the fact that he had a new job, his first in over a decade where he was expected to stay on for more than a year or two. The cocktail party suggested this was not the case, since this was the more difficult venue, and his performance here was more demanding, a poor performance judged more harshly than a botched lecture in an undergraduate classroom. Actually, he hadn’t even botched the lecture. He’d simply been unable to deliver it. No matter. He would deliver it Thursday. For the experience he was richer by one story, not poorer.

  Except that when Thursday arrived and my father returned to class and took roll, he felt, as soon as his voice fell on the last syllable of Miss Wainwright’s name, the blind panic descend, and once again the words and letters began to rearrange themselves playfully on the page before him. Abandoning his lecture notes, he returned to the roster of his students’ names. There, moments before, the letters had made sense, but now these too were scrambled. He knew that the last name in the column was the name of Miss Wainwright, and with difficulty he located the bottom of the column. Did these letters spell Wainwright? How were you supposed to tell? He looked up and located Miss Wainwright without difficulty. He studied her nose first, then an ear. This last thing—this ear—was it too a letter of the alphabet? He couldn’t remember. If you put it together with a nose, did it make a word? Did it spell Wainwright? Couldn’t be. In that case every student in the class would be named Wainwright. It was all too much. He felt his knees buckle, and he had to be helped from the lectern to an empty chair next to Miss Wainwright. He couldn’t stop looking at her nose. “Wainwright,” he cooed at it.

  After this second occurrence, his affliction was no joke. My father wrote out all his lectures in advance and came to class prepared to deliver them, but once he’d read the roll, the same thing happened, and when it did he turned the lectern over to his research assistant, who then read the lecture while my father waited in the hall, sick with fear and humiliation. Out there by the door he could hear the manner in which the lecture was read, the vacillating timbre and skewed emphasis of the words as they came out of his assistant’s throat, and he understood more poignantly than ever before the difference between delivering information and teaching. Worse, separated from his authoritative personality, his observations—even the ones he was most proud of—seemed not … terribly profound.

  This circumstance could not go on, and he knew it. He’d have to resign. He’d have to explain the whole humiliating mess to the dean. The worst part of it was that he’d be able to. He had no trouble talking to deans. It was students he couldn’t talk to.

  This continued through the rest of September and most of October, until one day my father made a discovery that astonished him. Entering the classroom from the hallway, he started talking. Actually, he started in the hallway, where things always made sense. He began his sentence out there with his hand on the doorknob, then just continued as he entered. The class was on Dickens, a writer my father particularly despised for his sentimentality and lack of dramatic subtlety, and never did a scholar lay more complete waste to a dead writer than my father to Charles Dickens that day. Never was intellectual contempt more coolly disguised behind a thin veneer of urbane wit than that afternoon. As he talked, my father gained confidence from his own strong voice. He had given the same lecture before, but never like this. In a fit of unplanned dramatic ecstasy, he read Jo’s death scene from Bleak House to such devastating comic effect that by the time he’d finished the entire class was on the floor. Then they got up off the floor and gave him a standing ovation. This was what they’d paid their money for. Finally, they felt themselves to be in the presence of greatness, as they slammed Bleak House shut with contempt.

  News that my father had at last spoken in the classroom and received a standing ovation swept through the department, whose patience with him, truth be told, was beginning to wear a little thin. They’d hired what they imagined to be a cleanup hitter, only to discover that he lacked even the warning-track power of all their other hitters. Why hadn’t somebod
y demanded a physical? It was one thing to be an uninspiring teacher, even a downright piss poor teacher, but you couldn’t be a mute, even if you were William Henry Devereaux, Sr.

  A few members of the department were secretly disappointed to learn that their distinguished colleague had hit the long ball at last, and envious too, because the Dickens lecture was being discussed everywhere, as if it were the only one that mattered, as if no one else had given an important lecture at Columbia in the last decade. And they were disappointed as well that they would no longer be able to raise a skeptical eyebrow at each other when my father appeared in the office to gather his mail. (My father required two large boxes to accommodate the volume of correspondence he received from readers and other scholars seeking his advice.) You could tell just by observing my father’s stride that William Henry Devereaux, Sr., was back. After the Dickens lecture he looked like a new man. He looked like a man who’d just gotten laid by twins.

  His altered appearance notwithstanding, my father was not convinced his trials were over, and the next class after the famous Bleak House lecture proved they weren’t. Halfway through the roll call he felt the now familiar creeping dread coming on, and so he excused himself in the middle of the M’s, went outside into the hall, and spoke the first few words of his lecture out there, reentering when he had made his beginning. Today’s lecture was on David Copperfield. Out in the hall, his hand on the knob, my father said, “Dickens didn’t care, you see …,” and then he turned the knob and reentered the classroom. “… about the working conditions of the poor. David Copperfield doesn’t object to children working in dark, squalid, unhealthy factories. What seems wrong to David is that such a situation should befall himself, a bright, sensitive child. Dickens’s hero was no crusader after social justice, and neither was his creator, though he didn’t object when he was confused with such crusaders.” And he was off. My father focused on a point midway up the tall seminar-room windows, considerably above the heads of even his tallest students, trusting that, from where they were sitting, he would appear to be looking not so much “up” as “back,” into nineteenth-century London. From the depths of the blacking factory where David Copperfield was employed, my father could hardly be expected to notice a twentieth-century hand raised in question or objection.

  As my father talked, he was full of inner marveling that the remedy to his affliction should be so simple, that it could have evaded him for so long. All he needed to do was not take roll or stare directly at the expectant faces of his students. Miss Wainwright had dropped the class the same day he cooed at her nose, and he felt bad about that, but he was back and functioning, and that was the important thing. William Henry Devereaux, Sr., was back.

  There.

  I hope the above will satisfy my readers’ curiosity about the doings of William Henry Devereaux, Sr., subsequent to the events of my last column. It is, I’m sure everyone will agree, a happier story than the last, which had a dead dog in it and which caused more than one reader of this newspaper to stop and consider the whole issue of mortality, never a pleasant thing to do. The above tale is more optimistic in every way, and I hope readers of this column will take heart from the understanding that even complex problems like the one faced by my father often have simple solutions if we keep our minds open. An open mind, I need not remind readers, is the key to a successful university life, and may even have indirect applications to those living and working outside the Academy.

  CHAPTER

  21

  When the telephone rings early Monday morning, I decide to let Julie answer it. She’s been on the phone all weekend, so it’s probably for her. I’ve not wanted to listen in on her conversations, so I don’t really know who she’s been talking to or what she’s been saying. But I’m pretty sure she hasn’t made any of the phone calls she should make. She hasn’t called a realtor, for instance, to put their house on the market. And I don’t think she’s talked to Russell, though in fairness that may be because she doesn’t know where he is. What she seems to have done is talk about Russell, to everyone she knows. “It’s called a support system, Daddy,” she explained yesterday afternoon. “When bad things happen, it’s not smart to try to be the Lone Ranger.”

  “Well, sure,” I concede. “A Tonto or two, but …”

  But my daughter belongs to a talk show generation that seems to be losing the ability to discriminate between public and private woes. She sees no reason she shouldn’t tell her friends about her marriage, even encourage them to take sides, pass judgment. It’s not even the knee-jerk confession mode that worries me most. It’s my daughter’s fear of silence and solitude that seems unnatural. If she weren’t talking to her friends, she might be listening to other voices in her own head, voices she might benefit from hearing out. Instead, she telephones. When she runs out of people to call, she opts for electronic company, the television in one room, the stereo in the next. She may even consider these part of her support group, for all I know.

  I know without looking that the large suitcase she’s brought with her, which contains what she imagined she’d need to survive a weekend at her parents’ house, does not contain a single book. My daughter has never found a moment’s comfort in a book, and this provokes in me a complex reaction. She has done, without apparent thought or effort, what I myself once intended to do. The offspring of two bookish parents, I made up my mind as a boy that I would be as unlike them as I could. I was determined not, as an adult, to look up from a book with that confused, abstracted, disappointed expression that my parents shared when jolted out of book life into real life. I may even have thought that becoming a writer of books would be a kind of ironic revenge on people like my parents. They’d be taken in by my tale spinning, whereas I would not. I’d know how the dream was made, how the trick was done, and so it would have no power over me. The joke, of course, was on me. For three years during the writing of Off the Road I lived between worlds, not really in either, perhaps to the detriment of both. My father read the book in the hospital the night before he was to have a kidney stone surgically removed, and he confessed afterward that my novel had not distracted him as thoroughly as he might have wished. He kept noting how it was put together, he said. At the time I was wounded, although now, at nearly fifty, I realize how a stone can focus a man’s attention, how it may even diminish the power of literature.

  This morning, like every morning for a week, I have awakened needing urgently to pee. There’s no use denying it. I have inherited from my father most of what I had hoped to avoid. When all is said and done, I’m an English professor, like my father. The most striking difference between him and me is that he’s been a successful one. Karen, our older daughter, is another apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree of academic knowledge. She tried a few nonacademic things after college, but then suddenly she decided to go back to graduate school, where she’s recently concluded both her dissertation, on Matthew Arnold, and an unwise affair with her dissertation director, though I learned of this only recently, the same way I learn so many things. From Lily. After the fact.

  No, it’s Julie who’s the wonder. A child who’s made good on her childhood oath not to become a fool of books. People magazine perhaps, but not Moby-Dick. Her ambition I understand, but how has she been able to pull it off? Also, why isn’t she picking up the ringing phone?

  I almost recognize the voice on the other end of the line when it asks for Dr. Devereaux. It’s thick and slow and dogged sounding, the voice of a man who thinks he knows something you don’t. It sounds a little like Lou Steinmetz, of campus security. Since I can’t imagine why Lou Steinmetz would be calling me at—I peer over at the alarm clock on the nightstand—six-thirty on a Monday morning, I try to think who else I know who sounds like Lou Steinmetz that might have a reason for calling me.

  “This is Lou Steinmetz,” the voice says. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to come in to campus.”

  Something about the way he says this makes it sound as if I’m being
asked to surrender to the authorities. Like he wants to know whether I’m going to give myself up peacefully or whether he’s going to have to come get me. I can almost imagine him saying we can do this the easy way or the hard way, it’s all up to me. “Lou,” I say. “I come in every morning, just like you.” This is not precisely true, of course, but pretty close, since I took up the reins of abusive power in the English department.

  “We’ve got ourselves a little campus incident is why,” Lou explains.

  “An incident?”

  “I’m not authorized to say more at this time.”

  “I’ll be in.”

  “When would that be?”

  “I’m not authorized to say, but soon.”

  The phone rings again before I’ve even had a chance to put my feet into my slippers. This time it’s Teddy. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “You really did it. I can’t believe it.”

  “It’s six-thirty in the morning,” I remind him. “I haven’t even had my coffee. What have I done?”

  “Are you saying it wasn’t you?”

  I hang up on him and sit there on the edge of the bed trying to clear the NyQuil cobwebs. I’ve spent the entire weekend in bed, watching television and dozing and trying to draft on my laptop computer a short piece for the Railton Mirror about my father at Columbia, and discovering as I did so that a strict diet of broth, cold remedies, and nasal spray is not especially conducive to good prose. This morning, I don’t feel too bad, considering. If the phone would just stop ringing, I’d be fine.

  “Don’t hang up,” Teddy pleads.

  “Okay,” I agree easily. It’s a promise I won’t mind breaking if I need to.

  “Somebody killed a goose and hung it from a tree branch on campus. Lou Steinmetz thinks it was you.”

  “How would you know what Lou Steinmetz thinks? How can you be sure that he thinks?”

 
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