I’m just saying he’s not everything you think he is, that’s all.” Alexis sighed and closed her eyes. Why did she allow Lucy to pull her into these conversations? “And how would you know what I think he is?”
Lucy sat at her desk, primly tapping at her keyboard, her lips compressed into the tight, holier-than-thou stamp of disapproval that inevitably made Alexis want to throw something. She stared at Lucy for a long time, long enough that she finally decided the conversation was over.
She should have known better. As she turned toward her office door, Lucy said, “I’m only thinking of you, Dr. Hartnett.”
Alexis turned slowly to face Lucy. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Tap, tap, tap. “Oh, just…you know. This campus is like a small town. People talk.”
“And what do they say?”
“Now, don’t get all upset—”
“I asked you a question.”
“I’m just the messenger, Dr. Hartnett.”
“Fine. What’s the message?”
In the silence that followed, Alexis could hear the ticking of the second hand on the wall clock behind Lucy’s desk. Despite herself, she began to count the ticks. She was up to twelve when Lucy gave her a guilty look and cleared her throat with a noise that sounded to Alexis like an actual “ahem.”
“It’s just…some people in the departments… That is, I’ve heard…”
“Lucy, why don’t you just tell me what you’ve got against Dr. Barnes?”
Lucy looked at her, and for an instant, Alexis could have sworn she saw something like anger in her administrative assistant’s eyes.
“Dr. Hartnett, everybody knows the university is in a budget crunch. And you’ve missed the last two deadlines from the provost for your final allocation requests. You have a lot to think about these days, and I think you ought to ask yourself if you’re really focused on the College of Arts and Humanities, or…or something else.”
So. There it was, out in the open. Or as close to the open as Lucy was likely to venture. Lucy was efficient, reliable, punctual, responsible…and, at times, thoroughly irritating. For some reason, Alexis habitually thought of her as older—from a previous generation, even—though Alexis knew Lucy was probably about her age. She had been the dean’s administrative assistant before Alexis had occupied this position. As far as she could see, Lucy appeared from nowhere each morning and disappeared the same way each evening after work. Alexis had never heard her mention friends, family, co-workers—none of the normal small talk that usually oiled the wheels of days and weeks spent in the same working space.
Lucy was the master of the emotional Trojan horse. You got mad at yourself because you didn’t know how to get mad at her; she gave you no fingerholds. Alexis now asked herself, was she thinking about something else? Did Lucy, in fact, have a point? Did Lucy suspect that in Alexis’s more self-aware moments, she had noticed she was thinking of Joe Barnes in those little, out-of-the-way instants scattered randomly in her life, like the corners in her house that accumulated dust, unnoticed until a mother-in-law’s visit?
Drinking her juice in the morning, Alexis would catch herself wondering what he was having for breakfast. Or in the middle of a committee meeting, she would think of him in his classroom, trying, in that kind, non-blaming way he had, to inch his students toward knowledge. And anytime she ran across a passage from Hawthorne…
Alexis dug in her heels. She was going to give Lucy an answer, so she grabbed the first one that seemed handy.
“Lucy, I hardly know the man. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
Lucy shrugged but kept her eyes on Alexis’s face. “Well, then. Fine.”
Lucy nodded and shrugged again—probably for emphasis, Alexis guessed.
Alexis went into her office. Maybe the door shut behind her a trifle harder than she had intended. She sat down at her desk and sifted through the stack of papers on her blotter: a memo from the VP of finance, reminding all deans that budgets for the next year were due in a week and a half; a printout of the registration numbers for the semester—slightly below budget, as usual; an abstract of the latest departmental self-studies, which she was supposed to sell to the accreditation team coming in next month; and yet another copy of the proofs for the college’s new brochure, with a plea attached—slightly more urgent than the one paper-clipped to the proofs she’d received three days ago—for her final comments and approval. Then there were the manila file folders stacked on the front edge of her desk.
Alexis looked at them for a few seconds and shuffled the papers again. She spread them across her blotter with the idea of putting the most urgent one on the left and working her way to the right. It was no use; Lucy had successfully planted the burr under her saddle. Or, more accurately, she had reminded Alexis of the persistent, low-grade irritation of a burr that had been there for longer than she was willing to admit. Alexis swiveled her chair to stare out across the quadrangle. She watched the students ambling to and from class. A couple passed just below her window, draped around each other. For an instant she wished the dean of students would make good on his threats to put some teeth in the dress codes. At least the slouchy jeans and haphazard hair might actually stand for something. But then guilt hushed her inner neo-conservative. Though her undergrad days at Berkeley ended in 1971, she had never quite managed the reverse pilgrimage to the right made by many of her peers. A part of her still believed in “power to the people,” even though the last couple of decades had demonstrated to her that most people were more interested in comfort than empowerment. Especially the couple walking past her window.
Alexis looked at the pair in their loose T-shirts, flip-flops peeking with each shuffling step from beneath the ragged, trailing edges of their denim pants. Maybe what she was feeling was a sort of wistful longing. She could understand the wish for comfort. A little soothing company once in a while, an occasional oasis of congenial companionship could go a long way. She guessed that was close to the center of what lodged Joe so firmly in her mind: he seemed to offer comfort— at least when she watched him interact with his students, he did. Each time she heard him speak, the sound of his voice evidenced engagement and interest: in his students, history, politics, literary conversation, and—she sometimes dared to think—in her. It had been a long time since she’d seen anything like a spark in a man’s eye, but with Joe… Well, she thought it was possible at least.
Probably the imaginings of a spring chicken who’s staring down the muzzle of late October.
Oh, Dr. B., she thought, why did you wander across the stage of my life right when I was almost comfortable with the idea of a gradual slide into retirement, Tuesday-afternoon bridge, and no surprises?
Tielman fumed, standing outside Joe’s door. What a lousy night to be out doing a favor for a guy whose music was so loud he couldn’t hear the doorbell!
“Come on, Joe! Turn it down already!” Again Tielman slammed his fist against the door, staring uselessly through the pane at the back of Joe’s head. Tielman could hear the brassy roaring of an orchestra and chorus coming through the locked door. He might as well be sending smoke signals. He slapped his palm against the door.
“Joe, open up for Pete’s sake.”
With his luck, Tielman figured the neighbors would call in a complaint about the guy making all the noise in the stairwell outside 777.
Miraculously, Joe’s head swiveled toward the front door. He squinted, smiled, gave Tielman a little wave, and aimed a remote at his CD player. The tidal wave of sound vanished. The deadbolt snicked back, the door swung open, and Joe reached for Tielman’s hand, pulling him into the apartment.
“Hey, Al! Man, it’s cold out there. What are you doing standing outside? Come on in.”
“I’d have come in about five minutes earlier if you hadn’t cranked your stereo up to the pain threshold.”
Joe gave a sheepish grin. “Sorry, Al. But you can’t listen to the Verdi Requiem at low volume.”
Tielman slid off his gloves and stuffed them into his coat pockets.
“How about something from the Windham Hill catalog—George Winston maybe? Especially on an evening when it’s freaking cold and you’re expecting a guest.” He shrugged out of the coat and handed it to Joe.
“How about some coffee?” Joe said, tossing the coat through a bedroom doorway.
Tielman sat on the couch. Joe had his place set up pretty well, especially for a guy who wasn’t married. Lots of solid-color fabric upholstery and pillows decorated with subtle patterns. Framed art prints on the walls. Blond wood bookshelves that looked like something from one of those online decorating stores. Canned uplighting in the corners. A tasteful blend of Pier 1 and Crate & Barrel.
“You sure you’re not gay?” he said as Joe handed him a steaming mug.
“We’re college teachers, Al. Stereotypes are off-limits, remember?”
“This place is so organized, though. How do you ever get anything done?”
“Concentration, my friend. Pure concentration.”
“This what you were talking about?” Tielman picked up the sheaf of papers lying on the cushion between them.
“Yeah, I was just looking it over.”
The double-spaced text was hash-marked with editing notations; both margins bore scribbled notes.
“I’d like to get your impressions before I redraft it for submission,”
Joe said. “I’m the new guy around here; I figure you can help me avoid the shoals.”
“Wouldn’t guarantee it, but…”
Tielman scanned the cover page. Between Heaven and Earth: Shame, Grace, and Redemption in the Writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. A proposal submitted by Dr. Joseph Barnes…
He looked up at Joe. “Your dissertation was on Hawthorne, right?”
“I thought I remembered that from your CV. So why do you need me? You’re the department expert.”
Joe laughed and ran a hand through his hair, shoving a thick, graying lock out of his face. “Well, it was a long time ago, Al, and I haven’t done much on him since. You know how it is with faculty committees: you can gore somebody’s ox without even knowing it. I don’t need to get off to that kind of start.”
True enough, Al thought. There were still some sore feelings among the deconstructionist cadre at the end of the hall over the approval of a summer stipend for one of the assistant professors to go to England to research a new biography on C. S. Lewis. Tielman thought he was never going to be able to enter the faculty commons again without having to listen to five or six nasal choruses about the department’s regrettable lack of commitment to the postmodern ethic. Bunch of misplaced philosophy hacks.
“Why’d you let Hawthorne drop, then?”
Joe stared into an empty place just over Tielman’s head. He wore a funny little half smile. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, finally shaking his head. “I can’t really go into that with you now, Al.
There isn’t time.” Tielman gave him a sideways look. “Whatever, man. It’s just words on a page.”
Joe wouldn’t look at him. “Yeah, Al. That’s all it ever is.”
Tielman shrugged and flipped through the pages of the abstract for a couple of minutes. He felt the vague beginnings of discomfort that usually came when thoughtful silence descended. Long gaps had never been his preferred conversational moments. He had the sense such wasn’t the case with Joe. When Tielman couldn’t stand it any longer, he cleared his throat and gestured at the page he was reading. “You might tighten the language here a little bit. And this stuff about constructive remorse as a declining fashion is probably a little heavy handed too. Or could seem that way to certain people.”
Joe nodded. “I can see that. Some years ago one of my students compared me to Harold Bloom.”
“No kidding? What I wouldn’t give for a student who’d even heard of Harold Bloom.”
Joe grinned. “On the course-end evaluation, he said I was ‘too sure of the correctness of my conclusions to permit honest, intellectual inquiry.’”
“You aesthetic Nazi, you.”
“Probably overstated his case. But you have to admit, Jonathan Edwards isn’t getting many party invitations these days.” “Which brings us back to Hawthorne.”
“I don’t see anything here that’s too far out of whack. Your edits and notations are on, for the most part. I’d say just redraft it, get a couple of readers to look it over, and you’re ready to present.”
“Okay, great. Need more coffee?”
Tielman stared into his cup for a few seconds. “Decaf ?”
“You kidding? This late? Of course.”
“Are we really turning into our fathers?”
“That or our mothers,” Joe said. He took Tielman’s mug and walked toward the kitchenette.
“Just a half,” Tielman said as Joe reached for the coffeepot. “I told Barbara I’d be home in time for dinner.”
“Hey, take off if you need to. You’ve already been tons of help.”
“Nah, I can stay a couple more minutes.”
“Okay. Say, you think you could recommend a couple of readers for this once I’m ready?”
Tielman reached for the mug. “Bill Schuman has a good sense of what the committee’s looking for, and he did some work in nineteenthcentury American lit before he specialized in medieval. And, um… Sophie Namath maybe. Wouldn’t be bad to have a woman look this over. Sophie’s got inclusive-language radar.”
“Sounds great. I’ll talk to them.”
Tielman slurped some coffee. His eyes roved Joe’s bookshelves.
“Ayn Rand, Eudora Welty, Kate Chopin, Joyce Carol Oates… Why didn’t they get you to teach the women’s lit section?”
Joe gave a little smile and wagged his finger. “Stereotypes, Al.” “Regular Alan Alda. How’d a sensitive, straight guy like you stay single all these years?”
Joe stood up and walked toward the kitchenette. “Sure I can’t get you some more coffee?”
Tielman raised his eyebrows and watched Joe’s retreating back.
“Hey, Joe, I didn’t mean—” Joe gave a tight little shake of the head. “Forget it.” He lifted the coffeepot toward Tielman with a questioning look.
“No, really. I’ve gotta go.” Tielman set his mug on the kitchenette counter. He crossed to the bedroom and retrieved his overcoat. He slid his arms into the sleeves and fastened the buttons, then dug in the pockets for his gloves. Joe was still standing by the coffeepot, staring at the countertop.
“Say, Joe, Barbara and I keep meaning to have you over. She can’t cook anything to speak of, but she loves Hawthorne—no kidding. And I can toss on some steaks or something.”
Joe tugged his eyes away from the countertop. He was a little slow on the draw with the smile he showed. “Yeah, sure, Al. That’d be great.”
“Okay, well… Guess I’d better get going.”
Bracing himself for the blast, Tielman tugged on the door. Poor guy. Wonder what her name was.
He clutched his collar, ducked his head, and jogged toward the parking lot. As he navigated against the biting wind, he had a vague sense that he ought to warn Joe about something…but he didn’t know what.
Maybe it had something to do with that open, vulnerable moment following Al’s chance remark about Joe's being single. Clearly, there was a wound that hadn’t healed. It was none of Al’s business, of course. But he couldn’t help wondering…
Joe was fabulous in the classroom, no doubt about that. On the few occasions Al had passed his doorway, the kids seemed focused, involved—as much as kids did these days. Joe Barnes was clearly an asset to the department. And there was no reason a guy like him shouldn’t be on the tenure track; a Thomson fellowship would be just the thing to get him moving along.
But something was nagging at Al. A guy like Joe who looked so good, both on paper and in person… Maybe it was just superstition, but Al had a feeling something was bound to go wrong. It made no sense, and he promised himself that as soon as he got home, he’d rinse the notion out of his mind with a glass of something or other. He got in his car and slammed the door, cursing the cold under his breath. He backed out of the parking space, then gave a final glance at the brightly lit windows of Joe’s apartment. He shook his head and drove off into the night.
“So, what are the connections between the Twain of, say, Huckleberry Finn and the Twain of Letters from the Earth?” Joe waited. Eventually the silence would flush somebody out. Yes, there: front row, left side. The serious girl who always wore socks with her sandals.
“Well, Dr. Barnes, it seems to me that Letters from the Earth is more about Twain’s cynicism toward religion than anything else. I mean, there’s a little of it in Huckleberry Finn, but, like, um…”
Such a promising start, Portia. An A for effort…
“Okay, the cynicism, sure. We see hints of it in the earlier work, don’t we? Anybody think of an example?”
Oh, come on, kids. Even if all you did was see that dreadful movie with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, you ought to be able to dredge up something. The jock in the back of the room. Mirabile dictu! “Yes, Jamal?”
“Well, uh, like…the king dude, he scams the people with religion.”
“Good! Not just in Huckleberry Finn but in many of his short stories, Twain ridicules both religious shysters and the gullible people taken in by them. Great! What else?”
Joe kept poking and prodding, by turns cajoling and cheering them on, until the class’s collective consciousness, moving with amebalike grace and speed, subsumed the few concepts he had determined to introduce during today’s session. He glanced at his watch.
“Okay, that’s all the time we have today. Remember, your essays are due by the end of class Thursday,” he said, raising his voice to ride above the sound of books slamming and backpacks being unzipped. “Oh, and if you haven’t decided on an author for your midterm profile, be sure to see me by the end of the week. The list is in your syllabus.”
Joe tucked his notes into his valise. He sucked in a deep breath and let it puff out his cheeks.
“Good day, huh?”
She was standing in the doorway, smiling at him in that offhanded way that he found so unaccountably affecting.
“Oh, hi. Well, I think we struck a few blows in defense of Brother Clemens’s literary heritage.”
“Well done. Freshman lit and comp isn’t the terrain most favorable for such a battle.”
He smiled at her and shrugged. “Ours is not to question why.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Office hours, then lunch, I guess.” He paused, then buried his eyes in his valise.
Why don’t you say it?
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” she said, starting to turn away.
No. Don’t let her get away—not yet.
“What brings you around this way?” Joe picked up his valise and walked toward her, then flicked the light switch and closed the classroom door behind him.
“Oh, the newest mandate from the provost. We’re supposed to be implementing the Sam Walton school of organizational supervision.”
“Management by walking around?”
She shrugged and nodded.
She shook her head and smiled at him, thrusting her hands into the side pockets of her blazer, and for an instant Joe saw with heartwarming clarity the young girl she had once been.
“No, I think you did an admirable job of tugging it out of them in there.”
“Well, thank you. I consider that worthy praise, coming from my dean.”
“Oh…why not think of it as coming from a friend?”
He looked at her, and her eyes didn’t shy away. “All right. I think I like that even better.”
She gave him a little wave. “Office hours, then.”
He walked away, down the hall. And then lunch—alone. You despicable coward!
She strolled back toward the administrative wing, trying to ignore the flush creeping up the back of her neck like steam crawling up a cold mirror. She felt brazen and foolish and young. What did she imagine she was doing, trolling his hallway just before the class break?
Something shoved against her shoulder, spinning her halfway around.
“Oh, my gosh! I’m sorry, Dr. Hartnett, I…I guess I wasn’t paying
She collected herself and gave the shaggy-haired, stocking-capped boy what she hoped was a placid, guilt-free smile. “It’s all right. Don’t be late to class.”
He gave her a quick nod, spun, and hurried off.
Watch where you’re going, old girl. Your bones aren’t young enough to be mooning about in a busy hallway.
Excerpted from Blameless by Thom Lemmons Copyright © 2007 by Thom Lemmons. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.