The letter. Its soft white blade cleverly slices through the epidermis, between the atlas and axis vertebrae, cleaving the basilar and carotid arteries, severing the longus capitis, and on out through the esophagus and larynx, the blade still remarkably white, no pools or spatterings of blood, yet my head neat on the salver of a large oval oak table that broods in the grey dusk of the winter afternoon. I read the letter again just to verify how clean the slice had been. It is very well done.
I sit in a small chair by a large table, in a small room in a large building, that is a small part of the whole place that has, with razor indifference, just told me I no longer have connections, just tender resignations. "Dear Stewart, we regret to inform you..." I drop the letter. "...from all considerations given us by your committee, the dormitory report, and student evaluations, we cannot renew your appointment for next year..." I can hear the letter. I smile, spin the letter on its folds. My committee. All with tenure, that alchemy that turns small-mindedness into authority. I review what they might have said as they knotted the noose -- like a director I set the angle of their faces, the archness of their smiles, their code words: department quality, standards. Etcetera. So now I am out.
A sound in the next room pulls me around. Her room, of course, she of chocolate hue, the one who happily played the blade while the others gladly hid behind her hilt. I am certain it was her poison: black, woman, poet, irresolute and afraid. I hear her door close, her heels clack down the empty hallways. Unmet revenge settles in for its long tenure.
Miriam had called the group meeting for 11:10 in her room, and Stewart arrived just as the 11:10 bell clanged in the Academy tower. He found her alone, posing over some essays, her glasses perched sturdily on the end of her nose, her eyes cast haughtily through them onto the paper in front of her. She most resembled, he thought, Torquemada as he read the charges. Or (a picture he knew would gall her, and he verged on saying it for that reason) a 19th-century Reconstruction librarian, in a tintype labeled "Miss Miriam Looking Into Chapman's Homer." If he'd said it he would have had to suffer "the lecture" about her being a published poet (he knew her present manuscript was still looking for a home), a person more in demand that some just-out-of-school Ph.D. (as he most certainly was), and more vibrant and sexual (a premise untested by him) than women of that era. The first time he'd gotten this lecture he'd been embarrassed until he realized that she was simply giving him enough information so that he could perform a proper obeisance before her. Since then, obeisance was the farthest thing from his mind.
So, instead of saying anything to her, he plumped his briefcase down on the table, slumped into a chair, and gazed at the poster of small black children in tattered sweaters with a poem by Langston Hughes scrawled in white across their chests. Her ferocious insecurity was like the third rail of a train: harmless when untouched, but will kill the man who embraces it with nothing more than a whisper and an obligatory spark.
She said nothing to him, ignored him, continued to make her spidery marks on the student's paper. The room soon filled. The Academy bell struck 11:20, the reveille for the next class. Hartt, his bow tie neatly pinned like a butterfly to the flower of his Adam's apple, said in what he though was his expansive Oxfordian style, "Well, Madame Chairman, when do the proceedings begin?" She said nothing to him, finished her comments on the paper, and, as she straightened the pile of essays, pulled a manila folder to her. "Where's Brad?" she asked leaning back into her chair, her hands lightly poised on her lap. No one answered as they quieted down. She paused. "We'll start without him."
She had just started her "Today we have a lot of business" when Brad walked in, shambling as usual, grievous sweater and faltering corduroys, shapeless tie, and sneakers, telling something to the newest member of the department about James in a voice sure not to be checked by anything like a meeting he was late getting to. He smiled ingenuously at her as she sat down, and she picked up her interruption. Stewart examined the newest as he sat strictly in his chair, locking onto Miriam with full attention.
"For the benefit of our newest member," here she turned her full high-cheekboned face to his. "We try to get together and share ideas about teaching seniors. That is what these meetings are for," her face still cocked toward his. "I assume everybody has introduced himself to you." She smiled at him. Then, as quickly as she'd netted him, she abandoned him, and he sank back into the arrangement.
The meeting proceeded slowly, most of it beamed the newest member's way. "Now, to the last item -- grades."
"Miriam." This from Brad, his hands thrown up slightly in mock despair. "We do this every semester and every semester we get nowhere. I, for one, grade the way I grade and I don't think anything this august group has to say is going to change my mind." All said in a voice smooth and without static.
"Brad," Hartt said, "far be it from our mortal powers to tell you what should be done." A few people laughed. "We have to have these meetings, so lets have them peaceful --"
"I'll remind you both," Miriam said, her voice in ice, "that I've been charged with chairing these meetings and making them useful."
"No one said they weren't useful," Brad replied, "it's just grades."
"Susan." Miriam's eyes followed the dismissive cut of her voice as she spoke to Susan, the teaching intern for the year. Susan, as if she'd been marionetted, pulled a sheaf of papers from a manila folder and passed them around. Miriam then faced the group as if she now though them her entourage and started to speak. "I've asked Susan -- "
Brad shot out, "We're not going through papers, are we? That's not an accurate way to -- "
"We're not trying to be accurate," Hartt said. "We're just going to grade papers, not do your AP research for you. "He," indicating the newest member, "needs to get a feel for how we think about grading." He paused, then added, with a smile for the room, "And to see how anarchic we are."
"I don't think -- "
"Brad, enough." Miriam's eyes launched their grappling hooks in the deadly arc of that three-syllable trajectory. Brad, far from being hooked, made a large "X" across the papers in front of him and turned it face down.
They read the essays. Everyone agreed the second was inferior to the first, and the group had just begun to debate its merits when Miriam, with pointed seriousness, asked why the student writer used "he." The question, oddly, was addressed directly to Susan. It hung in the air. Susan finally stuttered out that the writer was being generic.
"Generic? Why not 'she'?"
Brad leaped to mediate, voice unsheathed. "I think Susan's right. It doesn't need to be 'she' to include a woman's voice."
Miriam, instead of responding to Brad, still glared at Susan. "How did you grade this?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, did you make the writer -- I assume a boy -- take notice that he was being racist and sexist?"
"I don't think that's relevant in grading this paper," Brad interjected, "certainly not for your, excuse me, I mean our newest member."
"I have no trouble seeing that narrator as 'she,' and neither should this student. What is the student's name, by the way? After all, we know that the author, Sanchez, lived with Eldrige Cleaver -- "
"This is the language," Brad said, "that we -- should I add 'we honkies'? -- have been led to think black men speak. It's not erroneous to assume the speaker to be a black male. Indeed, why shouldn't it be an Hispanic hermaphrodite?" The tension snapped into laughter then tightened again as Miriam, her gorgon eyes roving, scanned the table.
Stewart saw that Susan's face was pale. The other members of the group doodled or looked at their vestcoat buttons. "I, for one," Miriam intoned, "would grade this harshly."
"Why?" Brad asked. "Because the writer -- in this case a writer 30 years your junior -- didn't launch a diatribe about cultural oppression and the glories of the Yoruba tribe?" Everyone heard the unvoiced "Aren't you just as racist?" in his words. They waited.
Miriam answered, eyes cold and level. "I would grade it harshly because it is badly written."
Brad retreated, aware of the boundaries, abandoning Susan. He crumpled the paper and aimed for the wastebasket. Everyone's face seemed to bear apologies to Susan, though no one said one word.
The 12:00 knelled across the brick like a stone skipped over a pond. The halls outside the room filled with people and the group gathered books and papers together hurriedly. As they left, Miriam pulled out the essays he had been working on and calmly proceeded to read them, the calm, Stewart noted, of someone sated. As he walked down the hall to his own room he noticed the newest member walking back to Miriam's room. So, he thought, the squire's initiation has begun.
My second-semester class on Greek myths had just ended when she appeared in the doorway. Spring had uncoiled and the fulgent light laved the windows and walls. I was still speaking with a few students when she sauntered into the room and sat at my desk, behind me, the whole attitude of her face and body affectedly regal. Nothing changed physically in the room -- no clouds curtained the sun, no books flew around with poltergeist clumsiness -- but the air matured considerably, as if we were all suddenly inside a confessional. An errand was in the air, a favor waiting to be hatched, and I suddenly felt snared. The students and I finished our conversation, they left, and with a face as bland as I could make it, I turned to meet hers.
"Stewart, please close the door." I noted, as I walked past her, a large mailing envelope on the desk, unclasped, full of paper. I assumed my fate was listed there. When the door was closed, she picked up the envelope and held it, babe-like, in her arms. "Stewart, I know you have a lot of work to do, as we all do, but I want you to do me a favor."
"What is it?" I answered cautiously, trying to ignore the net.
It was as if she'd not heard. "I am aware of your academic qualifications. You went to Harvard, Cornell, you have review space in several journals. I have tremendous respect for your knowledge." She went on in this vein, but I scarcely could hear her for the shuffling of pawns.
She handed me the envelope, thick as a quahog -- I didn't look inside. "I want you to read my new manuscript over, tell me what you think of the poetry." It was too late to say no, but I riffled through the papers to gain time. "Really, Miriam, I don't think -- " I threw up my inadequate reserves.
"Your poetry isn't the issue." I paused, wondering how to phrase it. "In some sense you are my superior in this department, and I don't think I should be the one to pass any kind of judgment. Surely there are others -- "
"I want 'you' to read them."
"I'm flattered. But I don't think I should."
She sat silent for a moment. I could hear the clanking of the siege machines.
"I suppose you know what the others say about you?"
I tried not to show too much surprise at this jab to my testicles. Of course people talked -- they talked about everything, including her, calling her "the black hole." But she did have tenured ears -- was there something I should be paying attention to? I wanted this position badly, wanted to keep it badly. I felt the sappers underneath my "no." "No, I don't know what they say about me. I don't much care."
"I don't blame you. You know how people talk."
"Miriam, I'm not sure what all this had to do with -- "
"Did you know the Library of Congress has asked me to read my poetry later this spring?"
I sighed. "No, I hadn't heard."
"My name has just been entered in Who's Who, the headmaster has offered me an administrative post, and I've got a play ready to produce next year, here. Did you know all that?"
I knew all of it. She waited for it to soak in.
"Just read the poetry, to please me." The hour bell rang. "I've got a class. Take your time with this, but please be careful with the manuscript -- you've got the only copy."
She got up and walked to the door. My back was to her and I expected, moment by moment, to hear the slam of the closing door. I didn't. I turned to her and saw her standing there, waiting. She wanted the door opened for her. I opened it. I could hear the scream of tumbling walls.
The rehearsals for this-year's Miriam's play had already begun full tilt and the theater, usually abandoned in the afternoon, was buzzing with the mayhem that characterizes a production in mid-careen. Stewart had come to the rehearsal to see what was going on, and as he sat in the back row of the theater, he saw the newest member, script in hand, off stage right, just out of the circumference of light, watching two actresses on stage stumble through a scene. As Stewart caught it, it was an argument between mother and daughter, the daughter black, the mother white, with the daughter accusing the mother of all species of absent-minded racism. The newest member looked bored -- Stewart commiserated. They finished, the air refreshingly quiet after their shrill exchange, and the newest member, stepping into the light, went over some notes he'd made. One girl, the daughter, began arguing with him.
Stewart looked around for some distraction, and he found a crumpled sheet of paper in the crook of one of the chairs. He picked it out, smoothed it, and read the heading: For All Cast Members of Black Rainbow. He read through it -- something about the "quintessence" of the play -- then crumpled again, sailing it off somewhere into the darkness.
Then Miriam came in, dressed in a coal-black sheath dress, belted in red. She called to the newest member and the actresses that she wanted to see the scene they'd just rehearsed and that she wanted the newest member to come and watch it with her. Stewart leaned forward, in full shadow, to listen closely to what he'd only half-listened to before. The actresses took their positions while Miriam and the newest member sat in the front seats, Miriam regal as usual. They began and were barely launched when Miriam abruptly stopped them. "Why do you sound like that? I thought that we established that you, as the mother, were fighting a battle between your love for yourself and the love you say you feel for your black daughter. Selfish, we said."
The girl, stung just a little, looked at the newest member, then to Miriam, then back again, and the newest member shrugged his shoulders to the girl in a way that plainly said he didn't agree but to go on. Miriam, watching the interplay, just caught the tail-end of his gesture.
This start-and-stop continued through the entire scene, Miriam halting the speeches, asking why the revisions, the other three looking criminal, and then proceeding. Finally, when the scene was done, Miriam asked the actresses point-blank why they'd changed so much of what she had told them to do.
They glanced at each other, to the floor, at the newest member, and one finally said, the mother, "I didn't like the way my character was going. She didn't seem like a real mother. So the three of us talked it out just before you came in."
The newest member added, "I suggested the changes."
"And why?" Miriam responded, the chill in the voice, as small as it was, reaching where Stewart sat.
Now the newest member looked abashed. "It wasn't working. The characters, I mean. We thought the mother was too overloaded, that she just wasn't believable."
"That's right," the girl added.
"So we played with the scene some, trying to bring a little more ambiguity into the emotions. I mean, a mother who has had to fight for her daughter for so long isn't going to throw her to the wolves without some second or third thoughts."
At that point a full ice age descended on the scene -- Miriam was pure clamped outrage. They must have felt it too: all three petrified into silence. Then Miriam, voice level, asked the two girls to leave. Stewart watched them go off stage, where they hid behind a flat. Miriam couldn't see them, but Stewart could.
The newest member, to gain some advantage, stood up. He walked to the stage, turned, and sat on the apron, his face partly in shadow.
Miriam let the silence hang for a moment longer, then asked in an acid voice why he changed her instructions.
"Miriam, what do you want me to say? Your play is good, but not all of it. I saw something that I thought needed to be changed. So I changed it. It's not that big a change."
Stewart could see the young girls trying not to laugh -- one of them, the daughter, mimed a scolding mother, shaking her finger imperiously.
"Why didn't you consult me?"
The newest member threw up his hands in exasperation. "Because that's all you want me to do. I worked on this play, even rewrote parts of it, because you promised -- "
"I never promised! You worked on it because you know it's good." The two girls were waddling around like two overbosomed ladies running into each other. "Do you realize what you've done? You've ridiculed me. You've made me lose respect in those girl's eyes because you didn't have the decency to ask me if what you were doing was all right."
"Miriam!" The man's voice leaped out of him and for a moment Stewart, perched above them, watched an intense struggle in the man's body as he fought to restore his voice. Stewart wondered if Miriam were smiling, figured she was. The two girls were boo-hooing into their hands. "The play needs work, more work than you're willing to admit. You asked me to do this play because you wanted someone to consult. You said you trusted my judgment. So I said yes. But every time I try to tell you something, you get angry. I know how to write plays. I've had them done. This is your first."
Miriam, instead of replying, stood up and slapped him across the face. "Don't you talk to me like that," she said in a whisper that barely reached Stewart. "This play has my blood in it, that's my mother onstage, and you're telling me you know better how to play my life?" She was shaking -- Stewart could see it from the frosting of light on her black hair. The newest member seemed fixed between bewilderment and sadness, seemingly incapable of moving out of her range. The girls had disappeared.
Finally, standing up, he conscientiously put his hands in his pockets. "Miriam, I'm out. It's your play, take it as you want it."
Immediately her tone of voice changed. "You promised and you'll stick with it. You have to."
Stewart was struck by how incapacitated the man was, how, with his clean declaration and her slap, he still stood there, hands in pockets, head bowed, as if waiting for the axe. Miriam gradually straightened herself and walked across the stage, the red of her belt slashing murderously across the black dress.
On opening night Stewart noticed the newest member's name under the title of assistant director. The play later drowned with a national troupe.
I sat for what seemed hours peering at the manila envelope as if it were Pandora's box. Part of me saw a labyrinth in it, but other parts of me couldn't resist seeing what was there. Finally, I opened. I worked on the poems every day, bit by bit, writing commentary that splayed around the margins of the page until each poem resembled an illuminated manuscript. I finished them about two weeks after she gave them to me.
I told her that I finished looking at the poems. She made as if she'd forgotten she'd given them to me, then made an elaborate masque of remembering. She invited me into her room.
Once away from the crowd in the department lounge, with the door closed, the woman's who'd put on the show of recollection became a woman crassly eager to know what I'd thought. Were they good, she asked, were they good? I removed the envelope from my briefcase, faintly yet menacingly aware that the stakes had just been anted higher. She was convened in her chair at the head of the table and I had to bring the envelope to her. She pulled out the sheaf of poems and proceeded to read. I retreated to my chair at the other end of the table, waiting for the jury.
She read for half an hour, without comment. I moved from indignation at being made to wait through disregard to boredom. Finally, she slammed down the page she was reading. The pile had been barely plumbed. I made ready to leave.
"So, you don't like them?"
"I didn't say that."
"Then what's with all this unnecessary commentary?"
"You asked me to read your poetry. I did. I tried to be helpful. Some of it's good, but not all of it." She didn't reply to that, and I missed the cue of her silence. I continued speaking. "I thought that's what you wanted. I read them as an editor might, an editor sympathetic to -- "
"What do you know about writing?" She spoke with little rancor in her voice, which made me feel an out-of-place sympathy for her. But instead of retreating, I advanced, straight toward that black figure wearing the ebon dress and red belt. "I certainly know enough to do what you asked me to do."
"It's clear you didn't like it." She turned her face to me. "Why?"
My exasperation should have firmly ushered me out the door, but I still felt the need to explain myself to her. The Academy bell knelled the hour on my lack of an appropriately humble sacrifice.
"Have you ever had poetry published?" I shook my head. "I have. I know what goes and what doesn't. I don't need your prejudiced criticism. I know my poetry is good."
"Then why did you ask me to read it?"
The hall filled with students changing class. "We've no more time to speak. Or need. I have a class." She turned away, getting up to pull a folder off her desk. I could scarcely move for anger and embarrassment. I gathered my briefcase and left. My class suffered that morning.
Later that month, in the Atlantic, one of Miriam's poem appeared, one that I immediately recognized from the pile I'd read. Every change I'd recommended had been used, down to the punctuation. I heard later that the manuscript had been published and evenly, if not glowingly, reviewed. I, of course, received no royalties. Instead, the classroom observations by my committee increased in number, the bad reports sprouted like fungi. I battened my hatches.
It was June, the last unpurposed days of Stewart's sojourn at the Academy. Even the dour brickwork blossomed in the sun. He'd finished his last class for the day and was on his way to the department room for ditto masters when, passing Miriam's room, he saw the newest member seated at the table, with Miriam planted in front of him, her deep-bosomed body bridled with what she was saying to the man. She had a manila envelope in her hand. Stewart backed off, able to see the scene in the reflection of the display case on the opposite wall. She asked him to take it. He refused. She insisted. Stewart heard the scraping of a chair, and, not wishing to be caught eavesdropping, moved toward the department room. Behind him passed the newest member -- Stewart telescoped him quickly: no manila envelope in hand. He felt a pricking jealousy for a breath or two, then doused it.
Miriam walked into the department room, scarcely glancing at Stewart, resolutely slid the envelope into the newest member's mail box, and walked out. Stewart looked at if for a moment with a pleasant sensation of confusion. Certainly he owed the newest member no favors -- everyone had to suffer his (or her) own thorny path. Yet, there was also no need for unnecessary suffering. He let his fingers playfully linger on the envelope, sliding it partly out, then back in, before he finally slipped it out of the box and into his briefcase. He deposited it in the wastebin downstairs. Good deeds go unrewarded, he thought as he walked across campus, guardian angels go unseen, and wondered who, in all creation, would be there to help him tide over the future.