Straight Man by Richard Russo


  By the time I park farther down the block, both women have disappeared into the house in question. I’d know which one they went in even if my mother hadn’t pointed it out to me, even if it didn’t have a For Sale sign angled crazily on the front lawn. I’d know because it’s a dead ringer for every house I lived in with my parents when I was a child. I don’t even have to go in to know what it will look like inside, or to know that it will smell damp and feel clammy.

  My mother and her realtor are waiting in the foyer next to their dripping umbrellas. The realtor still looks shaken by my mother’s near miss, evidence that she’s only just met my mother if she thinks Mrs. William Henry Devereaux can be killed when she’s on a mission. In fact, Mrs. W.H.D. observes my slow, limping approach critically. “You might have helped poor Charles with all those boxes,” she observes. “Especially since he’s such a favorite of yours.”

  “The abuse of Mr. Purty is not a subject I should think you’d want to open, Mother,” I warn her, introducing myself to the Century 21 lady, whose name tag identifies her as Marge.

  “I hope you aren’t going to blame me for that poor man’s deluded affections,” my mother says abstractedly, attempting to peer through the inner door’s ornamental stained glass. “I may be their object, but I’m certainly not their cause.”

  “You play him like a violin.”

  “Nonsense,” my mother says. “We had a very pleasant weekend in New York. We ate in restaurants of Charles’s choosing. Even a truck stop on the way home. You should have seen your father trying to eat barbecued ribs, if you want to feel sorry for somebody.”

  “I do feel sorry for him,” I assure her.

  “He needs a new denture, and it’s one of the first things we’re going to attend to as soon as we’re ensconced.”

  Marge can’t seem to find the right key to the inner door, which delay affords my mother the opportunity to observe me more closely. “Your eyes are all puffy. Have you been weeping?” She reaches up to touch my right eye.

  I deflect her index finger. “Don’t be asinine. And speaking of weeping, what’s this I hear about Dad bursting into tears?”

  “I’ll wait inside,” Marge volunteers, feeling, no doubt, peripheral to this strange conversation.

  When she’s found the key and gone in, my mother says, in a voice intended to convey confidentiality without being actually confidential, “Your father is not in the best shape. That last woman—the Virginia Woolf one—really did a number on him.”

  My mother identifies all the women my father has aligned himself with according to their academic specialties. The young woman he left her for was in his D. H. Lawrence seminar, and since then he’s taken up with a Brontë woman and a Joseph Conrad woman, before finally coming a cropper with Virginia Woolf.

  “I’m convinced she was responsible for his collapse. Did you know she cleaned out both his checking and savings before abandoning him? Your father is a virtual pauper.”

  She pauses to let me contemplate a world in which such a thing can happen.

  “And I don’t care what they say at the hospital. He’s not over it. Not that it would do him the slightest good to remain there. What he needs is normalcy. He needs familiar surroundings. He needs his books and someone to talk to about the things that matter to him. It’s a shame he can’t resume teaching until the fall, but the timing can’t be helped.”

  I blink at her. “Teach where?” I ask before I think.

  “Right here, of course,” my mother explains, as if to a child. “One course per semester is not too much to expect, I think. Who’s that little man with the ridiculous name who runs everything?”

  “Dickie Pope?”

  “I’ve an appointment to discuss the matter with him next week.”

  “I wouldn’t mention my name.”

  “There shouldn’t be any need,” she assures me. “Your father’s own name carries considerable weight, as you know. And the chancellor is an old friend. He’s promised to instruct the little papal fellow to give your father the one course. They’re fortunate to have a man of your father’s stature. He’ll have to have a designation, of course, but all that can be worked out later.”

  On this note we move from the foyer into the house, where the excellent Marge awaits us.

  “Ah, well, yes,” my mother says when we enter the formal dining room through two French doors. The room is lined with bookcases, floor to ceiling, and what she imagines, I suspect, is the room full not only of books but of people—the best graduate students (of which there are none on our campus), the occasional visiting poet or other dignitary (for which there is no budget), an adoring English department faculty to hang on my father’s ideas (Finny?). What she’s looking at is her own faith, and the smile that blossoms on her old face is pure vindication.

  “Mother,” I can’t help but say, “you take my breath away.”

  At the rear gate to the university I encounter three idling Railton police cars, as well as a campus security vehicle. My first irrational thought is that they’re waiting there to prevent my entrance, but apparently they have other business, because after I turn in, the lead car pulls out into traffic and the other three follow. In the last of these, a young woman occupies the rear seat reserved for miscreants, and as the two vehicles pass I catch a quick glimpse of her face, which is familiar, though I can’t place it. Was she among the throng of animal rights protesters this morning? Even more bizarre, that split second in which I register the young woman’s features, she seems to take me in as well, perhaps even to recognize me. Do I imagine it, or does her head turn to follow me?

  I park in the far lot behind Modern Languages. There’s a red Camaro idling in the no parking zone at the rear door. Rourke’s wife is at the wheel, apparently waiting for her husband to emerge. Even with the Camaro’s windows rolled up, I can hear music pounding inside as I approach. Barefoot as usual, the second Mrs. R. has one foot up on the dash and is wiggling her toes. Another person caught in this posture might conceivably suffer a misgiving or two, but not the second Mrs. R., who smiles at me dreamily when I wave, as if she suspects I might wish to join her, take off my loafers, and compare toes.

  Her husband comes out through the back door just then, studies me for a moment, and observes, “You look like shit.”

  I tell him thanks, then, to my surprise, hear myself say, “Listen. Don’t misunderstand this, because I’m not after your vote. But I didn’t give Dickie Pope any list.” Why I tell him this, I have no idea, since I haven’t even given this assurance to my friends.

  Rourke nods. He seems almost disappointed. “Funny thing. I believe you.”

  “Okay,” I say, and for some reason I feel absurd pleasure at being able to arrive at this simple understanding with an old enemy. I feel better about it, in fact, than I’ve felt about anything for days.

  “That still leaves the fact that you’re an asshole though,” he points out, a thin smile creasing his lips.

  “Well, sure,” I tell him. “There’s still that.”

  Could it be that Rourke is also feeling the strange, momentary camaraderie? Because otherwise this is where our conversation would end. Instead he says, “You missed the fireworks upstairs.”

  “Which?”

  “Juney and Orshee. She called him a hypocritical little putz. Shouted at him, actually, out in the hallway.”

  I’m not sure how to feel about this news. “Was Teddy there?”

  “No, he was hiding in his office. Too scared to come out, probably. Now Orshee’s hiding in his office.”

  “Thanks for warning me. I think I’ll go hide in mine.”

  He nods, as if to suggest this would be a good tactic for a man like me.

  “So,” he continues. “How does it feel to be in your final hours as chair of this pathetic department?”

  “You sound sure.”

  He snorts at this, starts for the Camaro. “I can count. And don’t worry. I’ll be back for the meeting.”

  “Tell
me something,” I call after him. “How come you never drive anymore?” It’s just occurred to me that the last half dozen times I’ve seen the Camaro, a car Rourke never used to let anyone drive, it’s been the second Mrs. R. at the wheel.

  He turns back toward me, apparently considering how, perhaps whether, to answer. His hesitation makes me realize that the question is more personal than I intended. “I’m not really supposed to,” he finally says. “I started having dizzy spells around the first of the year. Blacked out once.”

  “I had no idea.”

  “It’s not common knowledge.”

  “I won’t say anything.”

  “Don’t.” Not a request. A warning.

  I’ve got half a mind to tell him what my own doctor suspects is wrong with me, just so the words could be spoken.

  “They’re running some tests. In the meantime she drives, so I don’t hurt anybody.”

  “And here I always thought you wanted to hurt everybody,” I say.

  He snorts at this but doesn’t appear to take particular offense. “No fun hurting somebody if you aren’t even awake to watch.”

  “Right.”

  He’s grinning again. He seems as aware as I that this is the longest, pleasantest conversation we’ve had in fifteen years. What can it mean? we both seem to be wondering. “We should round up the gang and play one more Sunday afternoon game of football. Before half of us get canned.”

  “Remember how Gracie played for a while after we hired her?” I ask. “Jacob would take the snap, hand her the ball, and then tackle her himself?”

  “Fucking Jacob. I’d like to snap that little prick in two,” he says, like he means it. So much for nostalgia.

  I shake my head. “Reverend,” I tell him. “You’ve cheered me up. As usual.”

  “I never mean to.”

  “I know it,” I assure him.

  A campus security cruiser glides by, its driver peering into the illegally parked Camaro at the second Mrs. R. “Go ahead. Stop,” her husband mutters beneath his breath. “Get out of the car and say something. I’ll feed you your revolver.”

  The cruiser continues on its way. Which reminds me. “What was going on with all the Railton cops earlier?”

  “Some lunatic townie crashed a class. Took all her clothes off and started speaking in tongues, is what I heard.”

  “Whose class?”

  “That I didn’t hear,” he says. “Women ever take their clothes off in your classes?”

  “Never,” I admit.

  “Mine either. How about in your office?”

  “Not there either. Yours?”

  “Just once. Her.” He nods in the direction of the second Mrs. R., who’s now watching us thoughtfully and chewing on her hair. “I should have been prepared, but I wasn’t.”

  CHAPTER

  27

  My afternoon comp class is not persuaded. In fact, they feel ill-treated. I’ve asked their advice, in essay form, then apparently gone ahead and killed a goose before they’ve even handed their papers in. A couple of the students in this class were present for my on-camera interview this morning, at which time I did not deny that I was the perpetrator. Worse, they have heard my implied threat to continue the carnage unless I get my budget. And so they are upset with me, despite the fact that I have apparently followed the explicit advice of the majority of their essays, which I have glanced through after collecting them and separated into two unequal piles. From the larger “kill a duck” stack, I’ve read three short essays aloud, anonymously, for the purpose of inspiring discussion or, failing discussion, private misgiving. It’s my hope that if the majority of these intellectually addled young folk actually hear their words aloud, if they are forced to digest not only their advice to me but the logic that led to this advice, they will, if not change their minds, at least become acquainted with doubt.

  The three essays I have read aloud, authored by two young men and a young woman, proceed along similar lines. I should kill a duck, they argue, because I have threatened to, and if I don’t follow through, no one will ever again take my threats seriously. The writers draw foreign policy parallels. They hate it when America threatens third world nations and then, in the words of Bobo, the student I have threatened with failure if he misses another class, “pussy out.” The great thing about Desert Storm was that we said we were going to kick butt and then we kicked it. If we made a mistake, it was that we stopped kicking butt too soon. We should have kicked it all the way to Baghdad. Same way with World War II. When we were done kicking German butt, we should have kicked Russian butt and saved ourselves the necessity of kicking it later. All three writers seem to be under the impression that we did kick it later.

  I don’t need to ask my class whether they find these arguments persuasive. The more outrageous, the more historically inaccurate and fallacious the analogies, the further the essays drift from the assigned topic, the more the authors are cheered. Apparently, some form of persuasion has taken place here. The majority of my students have persuaded each other and themselves, and they’ve done so in such an enthusiastic and raucous fashion that they’ve effectively smothered dissent. Among my twenty-three comp students, I have a half dozen or so who are daring to frown disagreement, but that’s all they’re daring. My best student, Blair, who is pale and thin and has impossibly delicate hands with veins that are large and blue, is actually squirming in her seat, but I know from experience that she’s paralytically shy, and, perhaps because of this, she thinks it’s my job to show these louts the error of their ways. I’m the one who’s paid to be here, after all. Everyone else pays. There is some merit to this argument, though I disagree with it. Still, it probably is my job to start the process.

  “I’m not persuaded,” I finally tell my unworthy majority, eliciting a massive groan. They’ve suspected as much. They know me. They know that if they think one thing, I’ll think another. Their parents have agreed to pay their tuition on the condition that they major in something sensible and pay no attention to people like me, who are, they warn their kids, intent on transforming their values and undermining their religious principles. If Angelo were here, he’d assure them they’re right to be wary. Look what happened to his daughter.

  And of course the fact that I am not persuaded can mean only one practical thing—more bad grades. My handful of thoughtful students perk up a bit when I say I’m not persuaded, but they are aware that they are a small minority. Also, the majority is espousing violence, even more reason to be cautious. Blair starts to raise her hand, then lowers it again, which, for some reason, makes me angrier than the essays I’ve just read aloud. “Is there anyone besides me who is not persuaded that I should kill a duck?” I say, looking directly at Blair and letting her know that I’ve caught her gesture. The look she gives me in return could not be more eloquent. “Don’t do this to me,” she’s pleading silently. “Just read my essay at home. You’ll see what I think.”

  “Blair?” I say. Another communal groan. Not only do Bobo and company know me, they know this Blair girl. They know that she gets good grades. They know that she can spell and everything. They are convinced that if she were not in this particular class, their own grades would go up dramatically. She invites invidious comparison, and they wish to hell she’d quit it.

  Blair draws a deep breath, the kind of breath you take when you fear it’s the last you’ll get before the anesthesia brings you down, down, down. “I saw it,” she says in a voice so quiet I can barely hear it.

  “What?” says Bobo from the back row.

  “I saw it,” Blair repeats. “The goose. Hanging from the tree branch this morning. It made me sick.”

  She’s embarrassed to say this last, I suspect, not because she’ll be derided, which she will, but because the person who hung it is perhaps her instructor.

  “I bet you’ve eaten goose for Christmas dinner.” Bobo goes on the attack, to the delight of his compatriots in the back row. “I bet you went back for seconds.”

&n
bsp; Although Blair looks like she’s never gone back for seconds of anything, she does not dispute her adversary’s claim, or even acknowledge him. I can tell that she’s conceded defeat, surrendered the field. If she’s angry with anyone, she’s angry with me. Or she would be if she thought she had a right to be.

  “Blair,” I say.

  “Please,” she whispers, but she’s pleading with the wrong man.

  “It made you sick,” I repeat, noting that she looks more than a little ill right now. “But tell me. Did it surprise you, seeing that goose hanging there from a tree?”

  At first she seems not to understand my question. Am I trying to trick her? I’m not above tricking students, as they all well know. If she says yes she was surprised, isn’t she accusing me of being all talk? If she says no, she wasn’t surprised, isn’t she suggesting that, sure, she thought me capable of violence? There seems to be no way out of this without insulting her instructor.

  “Be honest,” I suggest.

  “Yes,” she says, I hope, honestly. “I was surprised.”

  “Why?”

  Another deep, painful breath. She’s already taken several since the one she feared would be her last before passing out in dread.

  “I didn’t think you’d do it.”

  At this point I could help her with my inflection. What is there that prevents me? Why not help my best student off the hook? Why let her twist? There’s another pretty good student next to her who has raised his hand. I could turn to him. “Why? Why did you think I wouldn’t? I threatened to, didn’t I?”

  She’s in the front row, and I’ve come out from behind my desk to stand over her, loom over her. She reminds me a little of Lily when she was young, when we were wielding signs together, except Blair lacks Lily’s steely combativeness. This girl’s mortification is tangible, which has the effect of taking me outside myself, seeing the whole scene as an objective observer would. I imagine Finny standing outside my door the way I stood outside his, even more aghast at my classroom behavior than I was at his.

 
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