Chapter one of The Lecturer's Tale
Crossing the Quad on a Halloween Friday, as the clock in the library tower tolled thirteen under a windy, dramatic sky, Nelson Humboldt lost his right index finger in a freak accident. Someone called his name three times out of the midday press of students, and as he turned to answer, Nelson stumbled over a young woman stooping to the pavement behind him. Falling backwards, he threw his hand out to catch himself, and his finger was severed by the whirring spokes of a passing bicycle.
Only minutes before, in the shadowy office of Victoria Victorinix, the English Department’s undergraduate chair, Nelson had lost his job as a visiting adjunct lecturer. He had sat on the far side of Professor Victorinix’s severely rectilinear desk, his hands tightly clutching his knees, while she told him with a cool courtesy that the department was forced by budget necessities to terminate his appointment at the end of the semester, only six weeks away.
“You have our gratitude, of course,” she said, folding her slim hands in the icy blue light of her desk lamp. “For all your efforts on behalf of the department.”
Professor Victorinix was a small, slender, thin-lipped woman with cropped, silvery hair, and a bloodless manner barely masked by a disinterested politesse. Even during the day she kept the blinds of her office drawn, and today she sat in the shadows just beyond the direct glare of the lamp. The reflected glow off her desktop emphasized the sharpness of her cheekbones, the deep groove between her eyebrows, the smooth skullcap curve of her forehead. She regarded Nelson with a gaze that seemed to him aristocratic, ancient, bored.
“Under the circumstances,” she said, “I realize that our gratitude may not mean much to you.”
Nelson swallowed hard and tried not to cry. His own gaze, in order to avoid meeting hers, darted all over the office. His blurry glance took in pale grey walls, rigorously ordered books in steel and glass shelves, a muted etching in a silver frame of the Countess Bathory in her bath. Nelson appreciated that Professor Victorinix looked at him as she fired him, but couldn’t she turn away, just for a moment?
“I, I’m sorry.” Nelson cleared his throat. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I’d be happy to write a letter for your dossier.” Victorinix began needlessly to adjust her pens and rearrange the papers on her desk. “We’ll do what we can for you, Nelson.”
Even more than most senior members of the department, Victoria Victorinix was immune to the self-pity of wounded young men. After twenty-five years of ostracism, and worse, because of her sexual preference, she had outlasted the genteel bigotry of deans, chairmen, and senior colleagues to end up as a tenured full professor at a prestigious research university. Even more remarkably, she had survived three or four paradigm shifts in literary theory. All her books were still in print, from Rhythm and Metonomy in Coleridge’s “Christabel” to Daughters of the Night: Clitoral Hegemony in LeFanu’s Carmilla. In the academic world, this approached immortality, and her pitiless gaze told Nelson that in all that time she had seen dozens if not hundreds of young men just like him come and go.
“I, I, I,” stammered Nelson, “I’m just grateful you kept me on as long as you did.”
Nelson was short of breath. He wished he could retreat to his office and break down in semi-private. Perhaps Vita Deonne, his office mate and the only person in the department who still talked to him willingly, would turn her attention from her own real and imagined professional terrors and comfort him. But he had a class to teach in ten minutes. He would have to compose himself in public as he crossed the Quad.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said again. He stood. “Gosh.”
Professor Victorinix stood also, and Nelson stooped to pick up his battered leatherette briefcase full of student papers. He straightened to find Professor Victorinix gliding smoothly around the desk, regarding him with her relentlessly indifferent gaze. He backed away, clutching the briefcase to his chest. Nelson was taller even than most of his students, and he towered above the undergraduate chair. But when Professor Victorinix offered him her hand Nelson felt as if he came only to her knees, looking up at her like a defenseless child. Still, he met her cool, dry palm with his own. No pressure was applied by either party. Nelson had learned long ago that the handshake of his Iowa upbringing--what his father had called a “manly grip”--was not appropriate in academia. This was a mere brushing of palms, free of any gender typing.
A moment later Professor Victorinix’s door closed silently behind him, and Nelson stood in the hall, unable to remember coming out of her office. He felt drained, and he looked woefully down the corridor, wondering if he had the energy to make it to the elevator. This was the highest floor in Harbour Hall, the headquarters of the English Department, where the department’s elite had their rooms with a view of the wooded hills surrounding Hamilton Groves, and of the antlike undergraduates on the Quad below. Once upon a time Nelson had aspired to an office on this brightly lit and expensively carpeted hallway. Back when he had been a visiting assistant professor he had ascended briefly as high as the fifth floor, where he’d had a grand view of the Quad, the Gothic clock tower of Thornfield Library, and the wide, glassy V of the library’s underground Annex. Back then, all the secretaries had known his name and had laughed at his mild, self-deprecating jokes. Back then he had traded invitations to lunch with his colleagues while waiting to use the photocopier. Back then Morton Weissmann, his erstwhile mentor, had greeted him every day with a two-fisted handshake and a hearty “How go the wars this morning, Nelson?”
Now Nelson ascended to the eighth floor only to have another pint of his professional lifeblood drained off. Now the secretaries peered at him warily, watching for the homicidal rage of a disgruntled postal worker. Now the copy machine and its good fellowship were off limits to him, and he carried his lunch in a paper sack and ate alone in his office. Now he floated above the deep carpeting like a ghost. Colleagues he used to call by their first names didn’t even make the effort of averting their eyes. They simply looked right through him, repressing a shudder as he passed at the sepulchral chill of failure trailing after him, at the feeling that someone had just stepped on their professional graves.
Nelson swallowed and started down the deep carpet. It always took more effort to walk up here, as if he were treading sand at a very high altitude; the gleaming doors of the elevator seemed to recede the closer he came to them. He heard the whirr of the photocopier and a deep, avuncular laugh coming from the copy room halfway down the hall, some professor deigning to share a joke with a work/study student. Nelson’s knees began to tremble, his cheeks began to burn, and he trudged toward the elevators as if ankle deep in the plush pile, ducking his head as he approached the door to the copy room.
With a theatrical gust of laughter, Morton Weissmann, almost an emeritus and the man who had brought Nelson to the university and then abandoned him, stepped into the hallway ahead. Weissmann was a large man, once strikingly handsome but possessed now of the sagging good looks of an aging movie star, his tailored suits hanging a little too loosely off his frame. Still smiling, he lifted his eyes from the sheaf of copies in his large, spotted hand and met Nelson’s darting gaze. Nelson, rabbit-scared, caught his breath and sank further into the carpet. But Weissmann, who had not so much as said good morning to Nelson in a year, gave him a rictus of a smile and a flip of the hand, like Gregory Peck diffidently acknowledging a fan. He shouldered past Nelson and headed down the hall toward his office.
Nelson, flushed and trembling, waded to the elevators, where he stood knee-deep in the carpet and pushed the button. He lifted his eyes desperately to the little red light climbing through the floors and prayed that he might have the elevator to himself. But someone wafted alongside him and pushed the button again. The elevator climbed so slowly that it might have been hauled up by hand, and Nelson was aware of someone scarlet and slender next to him, radiating like heat. Nelson smelled expensive perfume, but if his life had depended upon it, he couldn’t have said what it was.
Don’t look, he told himself, don’t meet her eye, but without lowering his chin, he slid his eyes to one side and glimpsed Miranda DeLaTour, one of the star performers of the department. She was poised and strikingly featured—cheekbones, chin—with an artfully unruly mane of black hair and a red silk suit that showed off her legs and her narrow waist. She ignored Nelson without any effort at all, as if he simply weren’t there. She was rumored to be the lover of the department’s chair, the flamboyant and forceful Anthony Pescecane, but Nelson, even in his distress, forced himself to remember that rumors of that sort trailed every attractive woman in the academy. She lifted her hand to her hair, brushed a strand off her padded shoulder, and sighed. Nelson held his breath.
The bell dinged, number eight burned red, the elevator door slithered open. Professor DeLaTour stepped into the car, her heels clicking against the floor. Blinking at Nelson without a trace of recognition, she pressed the button for her floor without waiting for him to get on, and the doors slid shut on Miranda DeLaTour regarding her reflection in the elevator’s control panel. Nelson breathed out at last and turned to the stairwell.
The stairs at least gave him a few moments respite from further embarrassment. He descended with heavy, echoing footfalls, drawing in shallow breaths of dead, stairwell air. In eight years at the University of the Midwest in Hamilton Groves, Minnesota, Nelson had fallen from a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, at the rank of assistant professor, to teaching three sections of composition and one of study skills as a visiting adjunct lecturer on a semester-to-semester contract. Now he was about to become a former visiting adjunct lecturer, on his way to failed academic. At times like this, when he was in need of a spiritual buttress, some inspirational line or scene from English literature often came to him unbidden; an unusually thorough memory of the canon was Nelson’s chief attribute as a teacher and a scholar. But today the canon let him down, and all he heard in the leaden reverberation of his descending footsteps was tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
At the foot of the stairs he paused among the dust balls and crumpled candy wrappers. He squeezed the dampness out of the corners of his eyes with thumb and forefinger, lifted his gaze to the concrete ceiling, and sighed once, twice, three times. Losing his position meant that his income would stop on the last day of the year, just after Christmas. His health insurance for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters would be cut off, along with their eligibility to live in university married housing. All this would happen a short six weeks from now. Nelson had no savings and no prospects, and now he was about to have no job, no insurance, and no home. The loss of his finger in a few moments would merely add injury to insult.
He squared his shoulders, adjusted his grip on the briefcase, and thought of having to face his tough-minded wife with the news.
“Screw your courage to the sticking place,” he murmured, and he pushed hard at the battered metal door of the stairwell, swinging it wide into the lobby. It promptly swung back and slammed in his face. As Nelson jumped back he saw through the square little window the furious, bug-eyed glare of Lionel Grossmaul, the chairperson’s administrative assistant. Nelson had swung the door open in Lionel’s path.
“I, I’m sorry!” Nelson shouted through the smudged glass. His voice reverberated up the empty stairwell, as high-pitched as a girl’s.
But Grossmaul swung the murderous beam of his black-rimmed glasses away from Nelson, and beyond him Nelson saw the leonine head of Anthony Pescecane as he swept by. Grossmaul followed, passing out of sight of the window, and Nelson gingerly pushed the door open and peeked out. Chairperson Pescecane swung into the elevator, shooting his expensive cuffs and clasping his powerful hands before his tailored suit coat, his dark gaze fixed in the middle distance. Nelson stepped into the lobby, his arms wrapped around his briefcase.
“I didn’t see you,” he said.
But Grossmaul moved between Nelson and Pescecane. Lionel Grossmaul was a pear-shaped little man in discount store khakis and a too-tight polyester shirt, and he stepped backwards into the car and viciously punched the button. Lionel was Pescecane’s sidekick, bitterly loyal, following in Pescecane’s train while the more successful man ascended from department to department. In Nelson’s few encounters with Grossmaul, the chairperson’s assistant had never yielded a kind answer to Nelson. As the elevator doors clapped shut, Grossmaul glared at Nelson with the open contempt he reserved for his institutional inferiors.
Unnerved, Nelson hurried across the lobby, and the outside door was wrenched out of his grasp by a cold wind blowing out of the north. Nelson was fairly sucked out of the building into the chill, and he staggered to a stop. Ominous, ragged blocks of cloud ground together low over the Quad, trailing windblown shreds of grey. The narrow, redbrick clock tower on Thornfield Library, erected not very symmetrically at one corner of the square old building, seemed to glide against the moving clouds, the glaring white face of the clock set against the wind, the ornate black hands pinching together toward twelve. Today was the last day of October, and just as Nelson looked up the clock began to toll noon.
One, tolled the clock, in a long, resonant stroke of the bell, and Nelson was caught in a little dust devil of dry, crackling leaves. The bony fingers of leafless maples were black against the overcast sky, crones swaying to the slow rhythm of the bell all around the Quad.
Two. Nelson put his head down and closed his eyes and clutched his briefcase as the freakish little wind beat around him.
“Professor Humboldt!” someone called.
What an odd thing for someone to call me, Nelson thought. Under the circumstances.
Three. The dust devil pulled at him like a pair of cold, insistent hands. Nelson planted his feet and opened his eyes to see a young man in a hooded black cape just turning away from him in the stream of students moving toward the Quad. Nelson opened his mouth to call after the boy, but he didn’t know who it was, and anyway, the kid was walking away, his cape billowing after him. Urged on by the wind, Nelson headed toward his twelve o’clock composition class in the Chemistry Building on the far side of the Quad.
Four, tolled the clock. The tower seemed to sway vertiginously against the rushing clouds, so Nelson kept his eyes down and matched his pace to the rhythm of the bell.
Five. This was the busiest class change of the day, as students entered the Quad from all four corners at once in a slow maelstrom of complex currents and eddies. Out of the eddies little knots formed, students meeting friends or roommates or lovers, talking loudly in the brisk wind, book packs slung over their shoulders. Today a good many of them were in costume.
Six. In spite of his troubles, Nelson loved this scene. It reminded him that he was looking forward to taking his daughters Clara and little Abigail trick or treating at dusk tonight, through the cul-de-sacs of married housing. Even in his distress, the gentle riot of students across the Quad seemed to Nelson the epitome of what life at university ought to be: bright, good-humored, energetic young people in a hurry to be somewhere else, chattering happily about their classes, their lives, their loves. Seven. And on Halloween they were parading their secret faces across the Quad. Some were costumed traditionally, as ghosts, vampires, witches. Some were ironic representations of the working people these students of a prestige university would almost certainly never be: nurses, firemen, cops, carpenters. Some were recognizable to Nelson as movie stars or pop singers, some were made up in abstract masks of red and yellow and green. The Bride of Frankenstein walked beside Marge Simpson, their columns of hair, white and blue, bobbing in counterpoint.
Eight. This was more restorative to Nelson than sobbing in his office. Unlike many of his colleagues--unlike most of them, truth to tell--Nelson liked his students. He believed himself to be a fundamentally cheerful man. He counted another stroke of the great bell—nine--and it seemed to him that all of life should have such heedless momentum, all of life should be so full of hope.
“Professor Humboldt!” someone shouted again, a little louder, a little more eagerly. Nelson twisted to see the boy in black, cape flying, beckoning to Nelson from a corner of the Quad between the steps of Thornfield Library and the narrow, glassed-in gully of the library’s underground Annex. Or was it a boy? Nelson had already drifted through the densest part of the Quad into a lane of traffic where kids on bicycles, skateboards, and roller blades darted through the fringes of class change, and at this distance, over the heads of the shifting crowd, the caped figure looked like a young woman, with a bosom and hips and shoulder-length hair. The sky was churning overhead, the blocks of cloud clashing together, drops of cold rain spitting into Nelson’s face. As the girl in black turned away, Nelson glimpsed a red, grinning mask with horns, and he was reminded of the undergraduate tradition that the old library was haunted--by the ghost of a suicide, if memory served. Ten. Nelson lifted a hand and waved to the figure--boy? girl?--in the cape.
“Professor who?” he called out, uncharacteristically ironic, and stepping backwards he tumbled over a young woman in a witch’s costume who had stooped just at that moment to pick up a pen. Nelson fell spectacularly, wide-eyed, his long arms thrown out, his briefcase turning slowly above the heads of the crowd. He seemed to fall a very long time, long enough in fact to count off one more slow stroke of the bell—eleven--and as he landed on his back the wind was knocked out of him. At the same moment he thrust his right index finger into the spokes of a passing mountain bike, which sliced it cleanly off and sent it flying. The bicyclist skidded squealing to a stop. The girl rose from where Nelson had knocked her over, her pointed black hat still improbably in place, her kohl-rimmed eyes wide, her hands pressed to her red mouth. Nelson sat up breathlessly at the center of a gawking circle of undergraduates, and he saw his severed finger still rolling in a little arc against the pavement.
Whoa, he thought. He felt no pain, but lifting his right hand he saw thick blood welling at a slow boil out of the stump of his finger.
Why am I not surprised? he thought. He lay back slowly as if moving through water, until the back of his head rested on the cold, gritty pavement. He knew he was about to pass out, and he blinked up at the clock tower leaning over him, silhouetted against the clouds roiling overhead. Twelve, tolled the bell, the hands of the clock stabbing straight up like blades. Why is this happening to me? thought Nelson. Isn’t getting fired enough? How will I take care of my family? Won’t anybody help me?
Someone was shouting. There was slow movement at the edge of his vision. Then, just before he passed out, Nelson thought he saw, framed by the white clock face of the tower looming against the churning clouds, the figure in the black cape bending over him. The mask was gone, and Nelson saw, or thought he saw, within the hood of the cape, a faceless face, a silvery oblong with no eyes, nose, or mouth. As he blinked up at this apparition, the clock tower tolled one last, impossible beat. Thirteen.
“What can I do for you, Professor Humboldt?” said the empty face, and then everything went black.
Nelson awoke again briefly, flat on his back, opening his eyes to fluorescent bars of light flashing by above him. Squinting against the glare he glimpsed uniforms ahead of him and on either side. A black paramedic wearing a white plastic glove held Nelson’s injured hand upright by the wrist, while a woman with blonde hair tied in a bun carried his finger in a plastic bag like a leftover, the plastic sagging from the weight and smeared with blood. The black paramedic saw that Nelson’s eyes were open.
“Do you want me to call your sister?” he said.
“My sister?” Nelson said. His mouth was very dry. He didn’t have a sister.
“I don’t know, man,” said the paramedic. “You said something about your weird sister.”
“Where am I?” said Nelson, and he passed out again.
Hours later Nelson struggled up out of a narcotic haze, and found himself tucked up to the chin in a hospital bed, wearing a backless gown. His right hand rested on the covers, swathed to the elbow in bandages and a splint. He blinked at the dead grey eye of the television suspended beyond the end of his bed, then turned to the window. There, before a handsome nighttime view of wooded hills and the streaming red and white of rush hour traffic, he saw his wife Bridget dozing in a chair. She was nearly as tall as Nelson, but more slender and a good deal more graceful, a former dancer, in fact. She had folded herself into the hospital chair with her long legs under her and her head propped up on her hand. Her face was paler than usual, and there were lines in her neck and around her eyes that Nelson had never noticed before. He tried to speak to her, but his mouth was parched. As he watched, her eyelids fluttered and she shuddered, and Nelson felt another pang of guilt and terror at their future. She opened her eyes and saw he was awake, and she unfolded herself and came to the bed, stooping to kiss his forehead and run her hand over his thinning hair. She poured him a cup of water and held it to his lips.
He swallowed and said,“Where are the girls?”
“With Rachel.” She meant their neighbor in married housing, the wife of an Israeli postdoc.
“Are they upset?” He let her give him another drink.
“Oh honey, they don’t even know yet.”
“Trick or treat.”
Bridget widened her eyes, and Nelson wondered if he had been delirious. He struggled to sit up a little higher.
“I was supposed to take them,” he said. “Trick or treating.”
“Sh.” Bridget touched his lips. “Rachel took them with her kids. How do you feel?”
He lifted his right hand, swathed like a mummy’s, palm flat, fingers together. His right index finger seemed to be in place, though he couldn’t feel it at all; in fact his whole body felt as if it were wrapped in cotton. Painkillers, he decided.
“Let me get the doctor.” Bridget smoothed his hair and headed for the door.
“Oh Bridget, we can’t afford this,” Nelson said weakly, but she only smiled and went into the hall.
She came back a few minutes later with a trim Asian-American man, younger than Nelson. His name tag said “Dr. Gee.” He told Nelson jauntily that they were able to reattach the digit, that Nelson would have some movement in it, not much, but that he would never feel anything in his finger again.
“We’ll let you out of here tomorrow,” Dr. Gee said. “We can take the bandages off in a week to ten days. The stitches’ll come out later. You’ll look a little like Frankenstein for a while.” The doctor smiled. “From the knuckle down, anyway.”
“My husband is an English professor.” Bridget sat on the edge of the bed, her arm around her Nelson’s shoulders. “He teaches Frankenstein.”
“Really.” Dr. Gee’s eyes dulled, and Nelson wondered if this young man had read a novel, any novel, since his freshman year. Having heard that his patient taught Frankenstein, Nelson supposed that the doctor had a mental image of a classroom full of enormous, pallid men with flat heads and bolts in their necks, wedged into little classroom desks, with Nelson up in front declaiming, “Water good. Fire bad.” As he thought this, Nelson felt something the doctor had just said he shouldn’t, a twinge in his reattached finger like a pinprick. He winced, forcing the little fantasy away. Nelson disapproved of sarcasm, especially at the expense of students. No doubt he was affected by the drugs.
"Sweetheart, are you alright?” Bridget moved aside while Dr. Gee peered into each of Nelson’s eyes with a penlight and checked his pulse and offered to increase the dosage of his painkillers. Nelson declined, and he thanked the doctor for saving his finger. He offered Dr. Gee his good hand, and they shook awkwardly. As soon as the doctor left, Nelson said, “I have to check out of here tonight. We can’t afford this.”
He sat upright and swung his legs out of the bed, and Bridget tried to gentle him back against the pillow. He didn’t struggle, but he wouldn’t lie back down either. He took both her hands between the fingers of his good hand.
“Bridget, I have to tell you something.“
“It can wait.“
“No it can’t.” Nelson tugged his wife back down on the bed next to him.
“I’m not a professor anymore,” he said.
“Okay, a visiting adjunct lecturer,” she said, with a bitter smile.
“Listen,” Nelson said, and he squeezed her hand and told her about his meeting with Professor Victorinix just before the accident, that he had lost his job today, that they were about to lose their health insurance and their home as well. He kept his eyes on hers as he told her everything, but even in his cottony cocoon of codeine he had never felt so ashamed in his life. In Bridget’s eyes her concern for him struggled with her anger at what she saw as his ill usage by the department. His wife’s anger was never far below the surface; she was an Irish girl.
“Sweetheart, please don’t say anything just now.” He squeezed her fingers with his good hand. “I know I’m still insured, but there’s the deductible to consider. What if one of the girls gets sick? Think how much even one night in this room is costing us.”
She followed his glance around the bright little room, and he saw that he nearly had her convinced. He squeezed her hand again.
“Please help me get dressed, and then you can drive me home.”
Bridget opened her mouth to speak, but she kissed him on the cheek instead, and helped him to his feet. The light in her eyes withdrew immediately, though, and he knew she was enduring their humiliation in silence, worrying it like a sore tooth. She’d never completely understood the life of the young academic: why he taught four classes a semester for a fraction of the salary of professors who taught two, why he was never paid for the articles he published, why he stayed up till all hours of the night writing comments on the papers of students who would only throw them away after looking at the grade. But for now she held her tongue and went to fetch his clothes from the closet. Nelson stood and wobbled away from the bed. He leaned unsteadily against the window, his breath misting on the glass. He watched the cars rushing by in the road below, a white blur of headlights coming one way, a red stream of taillights going the other, and he was grateful for the numbness of the drugs.
Copyright © 2001 by James Hynes