Trajectory by Richard Russo


  Bellamy, who’d stood up and was scanning his bookshelves, didn’t answer immediately. Turning his back on her like this had the effect of compounding her fears. “I’ll try to explain, but it’s going to be easier to show you.”

  “Actually, I thought this essay was good,” she ventured. “I spent a long time on it.” She couldn’t believe she’d said that. She was always telling her own students that this was completely immaterial.

  “I’m sure you did, Janet. It’s meticulous. Flawless.” He stepped back for a better angle at the books and periodicals on the top shelf. “It’s just not really yours.”

  “I don’t know what you mean,” she replied, swallowing hard. “Are you saying it’s plagiarized?”

  “Good heavens, no. Relax.”

  As if any such thing were possible.

  “Actually,” he went on, still without turning around, “theft would’ve been more revealing. Then at least I’d have known what you admired, whereas in what you wrote I can’t locate you anywhere. It’s the same with your previous essays. It’s as if you don’t exist…ah, here we are!” He’d found the volume he was looking for on the top shelf. Bellamy was tall—a skilled basketball player, according to Robbie, who’d reported this fact almost apologetically, perhaps fearful of perpetuating a stereotype—but he still had to use a footstool to reach it. Stepping down again, he set the journal, a twenty-year-old issue of American Literature, on the desk between them, then sat back down.

  “But…I do exist,” she offered, suddenly unsure if she was entitled to this opinion. Would he attempt to reason her out of it?

  “Indeed,” he said, “here you are. In the flesh.”

  The word flesh, spoken in such an intimate setting, in a room with a leather sofa in front of the fireplace, made her apprehensive. Earlier that morning, stepping out of the shower, she’d looked forward to this meeting with pleasure. Nothing sexual, of course, or even terribly intimate. Ignorant of the sofa and fireplace, she’d assumed their conversation, the first of many, would go well, that Bellamy would be as fond of her as she was of him. He’d certainly seemed so in class, though no fonder than he was of her classmates. He obviously knew better than to display overt signs of favoritism. It was in conference where you let your guard down a bit, showed your real enthusiasm for good work. She’d felt confident this was exactly what would happen today. Maybe after they were done talking he’d suggest a beer at the Salty Dog, where grad students hung out and Robbie’s band played on Saturday nights. Or perhaps he’d want to go someplace else, a bar that played jazz, not rock and roll, and wasn’t crawling with university types. Would that have been so wrong? Wasn’t it the equivalent of the intimate access to Bellamy that Robbie and the other guys had in their Sunday-afternoon basketball games?

  “I thought,” she said carefully, rubbing her moist palms against the cushion of her chair, “that was the whole idea of literary criticism. Isn’t the I supposed to disappear? Isn’t the argument itself what matters?”

  “That’s what we teach,” he conceded. He’d taken his glasses off and was cleaning them with a handkerchief, unnecessarily, it occurred to her, an affectation. “It’s what I was taught, and I used to believe it. Now I’m not so sure. The first-person pronoun can be dispensed with, it’s true. But not the writer behind the pronoun.”

  “I guess I don’t know what you mean, then,” she said, aware this was the second time she’d made that observation. Also, she guessed she didn’t understand? If one of her freshmen had written that, she’d have scratched Can’t you be certain? in the margin.

  “It’s true the writer shouldn’t intrude upon the argument,” Bellamy admitted, “but that’s not the same as saying he should disappear, is it?”

  She caught herself, luckily. A third “guess” would’ve been disastrous. “Isn’t it?”

  “Okay, let’s back up. Why did you write about Dos Passos?”

  “Because I was interested in—”

  “But why were you interested?”

  Now she was squirming, angry. Because he hadn’t given her a chance to explain? Or was it the challenge implied in his question?

  “Did you choose a topic you had a real connection to? Or just one you knew I was interested in?”

  Well, sure, Bellamy’s admiration of Dos Passos had been the main reason, but she’d considered that a good starting point for their ongoing dialogue. Isn’t that what the study of literature was supposed to yield—a series of dialogues between writer and reader, reader and teacher? And why was he challenging a conversation so recently begun unless he’d already decided it wouldn’t lead anywhere? What evidence could there possibly be for such a conclusion? She tried to focus on what he was saying, to neither personalize nor be overwhelmed by disappointment, but with each new question (What are you risking in this essay? From what passion in your life does it derive? Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? Did you attend private school or public?) she could feel herself flushing. What did her life have to do with anything? She’d come prepared to argue her essay’s nuances, to accept his suggestions for bolstering its thesis, even for him to question its validity, but instead it was as if what she’d produced didn’t matter. This was almost like asking her to take off her clothes.

  “Look, Janet,” he said, perhaps intuiting her distress. “The truth is, I can teach you very little. You have a lively intellect and genuine curiosity, and you work hard. You read carefully, synthesize well and know how to marshal evidence. If a scholar’s life is what you want, you’re well on your way. That’s the good news. But there’s one last piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, it’s a big one, and for some people it can be elusive.”

  A big existential something she hadn’t even noticed? She didn’t want to believe that. Her other professors all agreed she was probably ready to start submitting her work to academic periodicals. (Bellamy knew the editors of these journals personally, and a word from him…) And if what she’d overlooked was so big, how could it be elusive? That didn’t make sense at all.

  Then again, what if what he was saying was true? Hadn’t she sometimes worried, in the aftermath of extravagant praise, that something was missing? Or had the distinct impression that what she’d really succeeded in doing was fooling her professors yet again? Is that what Bellamy was getting at? Had he seen something in her work, or just noted the absence of something? He was arguing for some kind of passionate, personal connection—she understood this much—but what if that connection wasn’t there? What if what she possessed—and what her other professors admired—was merely a facility? If she was just doing what she was good at, and it didn’t go any deeper than that?

  “This elusive thing,” she heard herself saying, in a frightened, childlike voice, “I won’t succeed until I find it?”

  “Oh, you’ll succeed just fine,” he told her, waving that concern aside. “You’ll just never be any good.”

  —

  But the circumstances were hardly analogous, she told herself as she emerged into the windy quad. James Cox, the little prick, was a cheat, a plagiarist. True, when Bellamy had said that the essay wasn’t really hers, she’d thought at first that was what he meant, but no. His “misgivings” about her work had been vague, abstract, spectral, whereas her own objections to Cox’s criminal essay were concrete and clear-cut. There was no parallel whatsoever, so forget it. Go home.

  She was halfway to her car, passing the student union, when a Frisbee whistled so close overhead that she ducked. Normally, it would’ve run out of air and skimmed through the brown grass before coming to rest, but this Frisbee was riding a gust of wind that tunneled down the quad—Whenever the wind is high, the words were suddenly there—and it flew on and on, actually gaining altitude.

  Her first thought was that it must have been thrown at her intentionally, perhaps by James Cox, but she turned around and saw that the Frisbee could have been tossed only by one of the students standing on the lighted library steps over a hundred yards up the hill. Ap
parently they’d found the thing there, and somebody was curious to see how far it would travel on such an impressive tailwind. “Whoa!” she heard him shout as the Frisbee flew on down the terraced lawn, all the way to the macadam road, where it struck a passing pickup truck right in the windshield with a loud whump. The truck immediately skidded to a halt, and the driver, either a townie or someone from Grounds and Maintenance, jumped out, glared at her and yelled, “Hey!”

  “Yeah, right,” she called to him sarcastically, though she couldn’t really blame the guy for jumping to the wrong conclusion. Except for the kids on the library steps, an impossible distance away, she was the only person in the deserted quad.

  “The hell’s wrong with you, anyway?” the man wanted to know, his voice all but lost in the wind.

  “Search me,” she called back, and when he looked like he might want to make something of it she made a sharp right and headed down the steps of the union into the Hub Pub, which she normally avoided, having no desire to run into students or, worse yet, grousing department colleagues. So it was a relief to discover that late on the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving the place was almost as deserted as the quad. A large circular table was occupied by a group of students involved in a drinking game that involved bouncing quarters off the tabletop. Tony Hope occupied a booth in the far corner, where his seniors were cramming papers into overstuffed backpacks, their meeting concluded.

  “Remember,” he was telling them. “In effaced, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re dunna dit in, dit in. If you’re dunna dit out, dit out.”

  The students, apparently understanding this advice, nodded their agreement, slid out of the booth and wished him a happy Thanksgiving.

  Sliding into the booth, she said, “Well, that sounded truly bizarre. ‘Effaced’?”

  Tony chuckled, clearly pleased by her mystification. Pushing what she hoped was an unused glass in her direction, he poured the last of the pitcher’s beer into it. “Effaced point of view,” he explained. “Sort of like a camera eye. The writer disappears, just reports what the characters do and say without revealing their thoughts and motivations. No judgments. Totally objective.”

  “ ‘If you’re dunna dit in, dit in’?”

  “My father had a speech impediment. When we went to the drive-in for burgers, all us kids would get out and run around, always slamming doors and making a ruckus. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he’d yell, ‘If you’re dunna dit in, dit in. If your dunna dit out, dit out. No more doddamn dittin’ din, dittin’ out.’ ”

  “And your students understand such references?”

  “They’ve heard the story, yeah.”

  “Teaching creative writing really is a scam, isn’t it? How do I join that club?”

  “Did your father have a speech impediment?”

  “No.”

  “Well, there you go. Sorry. Don’t you ever tell your students any stories about yourself?”

  “No, I teach literature, remember? We have actual texts to occupy our attention. Things would have to go terribly, terribly wrong before I’d resort to personal anecdote.” Such reticence, she knew all too well, ran counter to the entire culture, but she hadn’t the slightest interest in the confessional mode, nor did she intend to reduce the study of literature to issues, or ratchet up the interest by means of irrelevant autobiography. Besides, what would she tell them? Did you know I have a damaged son? (I do!) Guess how long it’s been since my husband and I had sex? (Here’s a hint: a long time!)

  “Yeah, but don’t you people believe everything’s a text these days?” Tony said. “Tolstoy? Us Weekly? A tattooed buttock?”

  “Oh, stop.”

  “And speaking of living texts, there’s one of your favorites.”

  In the entryway, Tom Newhouse, professor emeritus, was just then hanging his tweed hat on a peg. Forced into retirement at seventy, Newhouse continued to teach his Joyce seminar, famous among students for his bonhomie and infamous among colleagues for his critical misreadings. Turning, he planted his feet wide apart and surveyed the disappointing scene before him, his white hair crazily wild.

  “Looks like he’s got his usual load on,” Tony observed.

  “Don’t,” she pleaded, when he started to wave. “Maybe he won’t notice us.”

  “He’s just lonely, Janet,” Tony said.

  “It’s not your ass he’ll grab when he comes over here,” she reminded him.

  “There was nothing to that at all, in case you’re interested,” he replied. Earlier that semester a young woman accused Newhouse of so-called inappropriate touching. “Inappropriate,” Tony had remarked at the time. “Now, there’s a word I wouldn’t mind never hearing again.” The charge was dropped when the committee learned the victim had overheard a professor of women’s studies suggest that someone ought to put a stop to the old fool’s groping. “Besides,” Tony went on, “you’re sitting on your ass. Don’t stand up, and your dignity will remain intact.”

  “That’s your solution?”

  “No, it’s yours. I don’t require one myself.”

  The bartender was drawing Newhouse a pitcher of beer. Not a good sign, though it was possible he intended to send it over to the coin-flipping students. His wife having died a decade earlier, his house and car paid off, Newhouse was also famous for his largesse, especially with his seniors, the only students on campus old enough to drink legally.

  Janet leaned forward on her elbows, hoping that if Newhouse saw the two of them having a possibly intimate conversation he wouldn’t intrude. “Are you going anywhere over the break?”

  Usually, Tony fled for New York or Boston after his last class. When they first met, Janet assumed he was gay, but evidently not. In fact, he’d dated most of the college’s eligible female faculty, as well as a few of the administrative staff, and recently she’d heard a rumor about a custodian. Which made Janet wonder why he’d never shown any interest in her. True, she was married, but he’d never even flirted with her, at least not seriously.

  “No, I’m staying put,” Tony said, surprising her. “My brother and his wife are visiting from Utah, if you can believe it.”

  Janet risked a glance and saw the bartender was now drawing a second pitcher. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

  “We don’t see that much of each other,” Tony said. “He and the little woman are both strict Mormons, which means I won’t even be able to anesthetize myself. They’re determined to experience a genuine New England Thanksgiving and don’t seem to understand that these celebrations can’t be done sober. What are you and yours up to?”

  She’d been dreading the holiday all week, and it now occurred to her this probably accounted for her willingness to squander all those hours hunting evidence of Cox’s plagiarism. Anything was better than contemplating such an awful, endless day. Robbie would cook a huge meal for just the three of them. Two, really. Marcus would eat only what he did every day, a grilled cheese sandwich—and then only if Robbie cut off any cheese that had turned brown on the bottom of the pan. It was possible he’d eat nothing at all if he was out of sorts, which he was likely to be. When his regular TV programs weren’t on, he often became agitated, inconsolable. Last year, the balloons of the Macy’s parade had upset him terribly, and it had taken forever to calm him down. Then there was the matter of her own presence. Marcus did best when his routine wasn’t compromised, and her being home on a weekday—Thanksgiving or any other—could make him restless, as if he was waiting patiently for her to go away and for things to return to normal. Robbie claimed this wasn’t true and swore that Marcus loved her, but it certainly seemed true to Janet. The doctors had warned that it wasn’t unusual for children like Marcus to prefer one parent over the other. Usually the mother, though not in their case. It was nothing personal, they’d told her, but what could possibly be more personal?

  “Moooooore!” Tom Newhouse bellowed as he approached, beer slopping over the lip of the pitcher he was holding, having dropped the other
off at the undergraduate table. Now he slid gracefully into their booth, on Janet’s side, naturally. She’d have bet the farm on that one. She slid as far away from him as she could, until her right shoulder was flush against the brick wall.

  “You know what I like about you, Moore?”

  Newhouse called everyone, whether students or colleagues, by their last names only. His other irritating habit was dramatically emphasizing, at deafening volume, a single word in nearly every sentence, not always the one you might expect.

  Yes, Janet thought, you like my boobs. At least they were what he was always ogling, as he appeared to be now.

  “Do you know what I like about Moore?” he asked Tony, when she declined to speculate.

  “Sure,” Tony said. “The same thing we all like.”

  Newhouse blinked at him drunkenly, then fixed Janet with a rheumy gaze. “He has a dirty mind.”

  “You arrived at that conclusion how?” Janet said, causing him to scroll back, then break into a big grin.

  “I see what you mean,” he said. “It’s my mind that’s dirty, isn’t it?” He returned to Tony. “What I was going to say was, what I like about this lady is that she’s a good dancer.”

  “It’s what we all like about her,” Tony repeated.

  “You’ve never seen me dance, Professor Newhouse.” She was sure she hadn’t danced in public since joining the faculty here, seven years before. Longer, probably.

  “I’ve heard stories,” he said, again presenting his argument to Tony. “Besides, you can tell by how a woman walks if she’s got the music in her. And this lady’s got the music.”

  “Nice tits, too,” Tony added.

  Newhouse absorbed this comment thoughtfully, then turned back to her. “Now that time it was him. You can’t blame me for that one.”

  “I guess you’re right,” she said. “Just this once, I’ll let you skate.”

  He topped off their glasses. “Thank you,” he said, fixing Tony again. “That’s the problem these days. Nobody lets anybody skate on anything.” He still hadn’t forgiven Tony for serving on the committee that required him to take a sensitivity seminar as a condition of his inappropriate-touching acquittal.

 
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