“No thanks, it’s too early in the day for me,” Dean Nakamura told the waiter, raising her eyebrows a bit; so of course Stephen Ferris couldn’t have a drink, either. But food attracted him more—it always did—and now he was ordering the most voluptuous foods on the faculty-club lunch menu: fettuccine Alfredo and garlic bread. “And oh, yes,” he added before the waiter could turn away. “I’d also like cream of tomato soup, a bowl, please.”
“Nice to see you have such a hearty appetite, Professor Ferris,” the dean said in a pleasant tone, and Stephen, conscious of the paunch that made him sit conspicuously back from the table, wished he had the courage to say equally pleasantly that it was nice to see his appetite being so carefully monitored. He glanced around the room, wondering what else was being monitored. Maybe people thought the new dean of faculty was eating alone with him because she wanted his experienced advice about some university matter. And maybe she did; why shouldn’t he tell himself that as long as he could? It might even be true, and besides, he had found that if he imagined something tenaciously enough, he could often come to believe it. In a way. It worked best when he was at ease, though.
“So when can we expect to see your Tennyson book?” Dean Nakamura was asking. Her face had an anonymous, generic prettiness that reminded Stephen of how, when he had come to California from the Midwest thirty-one years ago, all Orientals really did look alike to him. Now it was all deans who looked alike, all three of the university’s women deans, anyway, with their well-tended haircuts, efficient, attractive faces, and slim, ostentatiously healthy bodies. Probably they all were joggers, certainly not smokers like him. And they were all over a decade his junior, and any two put together quite possibly weighed less.
“The book will be finished soon,” Stephen said, hoping she wouldn’t ask how soon or point out that it had already taken nearly fifteen years. But of course she did both these things, her tone pleasant as ever; so he said, “A life’s work is supposed to last a lifetime,” only to realize that this didn’t sound right at all. Hadn’t the dean published her two-volume study of sociological survey techniques before she was forty? Through the window behind her head, he could see a high cloud, soft and white as a bedsheet. As his bed-sheet. A wave of exhaustion threatened him, and it suddenly seemed almost miraculous that before the sun rose again, he would have a whole night under the covers, where even in his dreams he could smell the honeysuckle outside his bedroom. How lucky he was; how incredibly fortunate was everyone in this room, everyone in the world, to be able to spend one-third of life in bed! He felt sorry for poets who called sleep oblivion. His dreams, so often, were wonderful and vivid. So many nights he was important and powerful, admired and loved, and now the prospect gave him strength to tell the dean he had a number of Tennyson articles about to be sent off for publication, and to assure himself he wasn’t actually lying; zero was a number.
“Why don’t you send me copies? I’d like to read them. I’m fond of Tennyson myself,” said the dean, and Stephen silently replied, I’ll bet. But then she gazed past him with a strange little smile and recited softly, “ ‘But who hath seen her wave her hand?/Or at the casement seen her stand?/Or is she known in all the land,/The Lady of Shalott?’ ”
So I was right that there’s nothing to fear; she just wants to talk about Tennyson, Stephen thought with such a rush of giddy relief that his voice trembled slightly as he supplied the next lines of the poem. And soon the waiter came, bearing Stephen’s soup and garlic bread like a gift. Immediately Stephen took a spoonful of soup and felt warmth course through his body; at least in this way his circulation could hardly be better. And who were those fools without the sense to see why heart patients broke their diets? Once he had read an Ann Landers column headlined “A heart-attack survivor with a death wish,” and he’d been tempted to write and tell her how ridiculous it was to suppose you needed a death wish to eat T-bone steak and chocolate cream pie; didn’t she have any taste buds? Didn’t she know that rich food made bad days bearable and good days glorious?
“I’ve been betrayed by time,” he said, dipping his spoon into the soup again.
“Is that also from Tennyson?” the dean asked.
“Oh, no,” said Stephen, but now he was holding his spoon unsteadily in mid-air, sending orange soup droplets onto the white tablecloth. He put the spoon hastily back in the bowl. “Did it ever occur to you that one could write a social history of academic life by studying changing patterns of faculty-club eating behavior over the past half-century?” he said.
“No,” said the dean.
Stephen was sorry he had started on this line. He particularly regretted the “half-century,” which might suggest he had been hanging around faculty clubs for that long, although, he reminded himself, surely the dean would know better. “In the good old days, you could look fifty-eight when you were fifty-eight,” he said. “You could be overweight. You could smoke.” He had been aiming for the detached, urbane air of a social critic, but he heard his voice coming out bitter and almost whiny. He took a deep breath and tried to lighten his tone. “You didn’t have to live as if you were in training for the Olympics. Intellectuals cultivated the mind, not the body,” he finished, and resumed eating his soup.
“The good old days weren’t so good.” Dean Nakamura’s voice was flat as a slap. “I was born in an internment camp in Arizona.”
“How terrible,” said Stephen, thinking how unfair it was of the dean to play such a trump card. Was he really expected to consider this hotshot an underdog because of where she was born? Clearly, the conversation had been going downhill since “The Lady of Shalott.” “Do you know ‘Idylls of the King’?” he asked, starting on his garlic bread and realizing a moment later that he could have pointed out that having a paunch didn’t exactly mean you were the type to lock up Japanese-Americans in internment camps. He considered saying this anyway, accompanied by an ironic little remark about how he was apt to come up with a rejoinder just a trifle too late. But he quickly discarded the idea. This obviously wasn’t his day for ironic little remarks.
“Very apropos of this conversation,” the dean was saying. “ ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new.’ Not that I’m pretending to be a Tennyson scholar,” she added with a disarming flutter of her hand. “You’d catch me out in a flash. I’ve just been quoting some bits I know.”
Stephen had read about police interrogations that paired a nasty cop with a nice one. Now he wondered whether the dean was trying to play both parts herself. He watched her spear a mushroom in her salad and noticed that she wore a moonstone ring. The sight gave him a jolt. A moonstone ring had been his fourteenth-anniversary present to his wife—now his ex-wife, another way time had betrayed him. He had married Paula expecting to take care of her in the old manner, and she had wanted that, too. They had both wanted a life of poetry, privacy, and possessiveness about each other; his good fortune had amazed him. When she decided to take up painting, it had seemed an extra blessing. He loved her paintings. He was surprised they never sold, but he grew to enjoy comforting her. But then the 70’s had come, and Paula joined a women’s consciousness-raising group and started graduate school, turning slowly but implacably into a feminist art-therapist who in the end announced that she was leaving him. “I want to support my sisters,” she said, and for an instant there he thought she meant her own sisters, who were older and prettier and had never been kind to her. “Why would you want to support Isobel and Barbara? When did they ever support you?” he had nearly asked. “Why did you decide to become a dean?” he asked Dean Nakamura now. “I mean, speaking of the old order changing. . . .”
“There were two reasons,” said the dean, stabbing an olive. Academic administration had always interested her, and she wanted greater visibility as a role model.
Stephen managed not to wince. “Role model” might be everywhere these days, but he’d heard it first from Paula. Had she learned it in her consciousness-raising group? They had certainly learned plenty from her. Somewhere in the Bay area there were half-a-dozen women who knew that Stephen Ferris’s blood-pressure pills made it difficult for him to maintain an erection.
“I try to keep one day a week for my own research,” Dean Nakamura continued, “but it’s no easy matter combining research and administration. Do you find it hard to combine research and teaching?”
He almost smiled. Whenever he gave examinations, he included one question any idiot could answer, and now the world was returning the courtesy. “I find that teaching and research complement each other,” he said, feeling as if he were giving a speech at Parents’ Weekend. “I love teaching,” he said, and it was true. Who wouldn’t love expounding on his favorite subject to his sole remaining audience, an audience that was not only captive, but obliged to be at least minimally polite and attentive? And that asked just the right kind of question—stimulating, but answerable without undue effort. He had not prepared new lecture notes in more than a decade. Year after year, his lectures hardly varied; they were an annual celebration of his favorite poetry. And the students had seemed to like them and like him. Until last spring. But he wasn’t going to think about last spring. Their waiter was approaching, this time with the main course. But no sooner had he set the plates down and gone away than the dean remarked, in the sort of carefully even tone Stephen’s father had used for explaining sex, that she gathered Stephen hadn’t published anything in over ten years.
“I am not the type of academic who believes in publication for publication’s sake.” Stephen took a forkful of fettuccine. “Besides, I told you, I’m about to send off a number of articles,” he added, thinking that his current moral code held that misleading statements weren’t as bad as outright lies. A compromise in order to deal with a world of hostile questioners, he frequently reassured himself, and sometimes almost an interesting challenge, although not today. “Did you hear about the university where they stack every professor’s publications in a pile and measure each pile with a ruler? Somewhere in the Midwest, it’s supposed to be,” he said, watching the dean eat her chicken.
“Yes, that’s a popular story,” said the dean. Her eyes were shiny and dark, like pebbles under water. Break, break, break,/On thy cold gray stones, O Sea! Stephen thought. It was the first Tennyson poem he had ever learned, back in seventh grade, when any verse you memorized turned into a jingle. “Why haven’t you been publishing?” the dean was asking.
Stephen knew why. He had always delighted in the start of a project, when ideas swirled like colored streamers and anything seemed possible, before revising and refining became as tedious and exhausting as swimming in a weed-choked pond. For years he had managed to see his papers through to the end, rewarding himself for each completed article with a special meal or weekend trip with Paula. Then she left him, and he decided he wasn’t going to be one of those ferociously well-adjusted paragons who took adversity in stride, getting on with their lives as if disaster hardly mattered. Certainly he hadn’t wanted to look for another woman as though Paula could be replaced like a cat that had died. And he’d felt entitled to take a break from publishing. Why compound catastrophe with drudgery? Shouldn’t misfortune justify self-indulgence, at least for a while? But later, when he tried to get back to publishing—and he still sometimes tried—he found that he couldn’t. He supposed this meant that on some level he no longer wanted to, not enough to get him through the hard parts. He had grown too accustomed to languor and to spending his free hours daydreaming, reading poetry, and eating. And imagining endless future paths for his research; often he could still believe he would one day find the magic topic that would not clog his mind with a gluey layer of fatigue once he got past the agreeable early stages. In the twelve years since Paula’s departure, he had gained seventy-five pounds, started a dozen never-finished articles, and developed a repertoire of fantasies that were enticing and always ready for consumption, like fresh pastries on a tray. Most were fantasies he could tell himself would someday come true, fantasies about discovering lost Tennyson manuscripts, writing important books, or being reunited with Paula, wondrously transformed into the old Paula, who read poetry with him and painted fields of flowers on the bedroom walls. Other fantasies were too preposterous for any sort of belief, but irresistible nonetheless. Frequently he imagined having tea with Tennyson, who was gently amused to hear that nowadays it was not enough to enjoy poetry; you had to write critical studies of it as well. Or instead. And when Stephen told Tennyson that the latest fashion was to center these critical studies on race and what people seemed to like to call gender, Tennyson assumed this was a joke and replied that as long as Stephen still had his sense of humor, the situation could hardly be unbearable. All these scenes Stephen would envision in detail, down to the expression in Paula’s eyes and the color of Tennyson’s cravat. And often, after teaching his classes, Stephen would go driving along the coast, giving himself over entirely to his daydreams, and for hours he would be happy, so much happier than anyone glancing at the surface of his life would ever suppose. Just when had the idea slithered into his head that the contempt of his colleagues might be a small price to pay for doing whatever he wanted, all the time, for the rest of his life?
“I believe in perfecting my work,” he said. “I am not the type of academic who is willing to compromise his standards in order to publish.”
And was the contempt of his colleagues such a small price to pay? There was no shortage of contempt; that much was certain, even if he usually managed to avoid thinking about it. Once he had overheard another professor call him a mental and physical wreck, and he’d felt like screaming that he wasn’t, really wasn’t, a mental wreck, and as long as the blood was circulating adequately to his brain, what business was it of his colleagues if he was a physical wreck? But he knew the obvious rejoinder: the blood wasn’t circulating adequately to his brain, not in the only way that counted here, the way that resulted in publications. Soon after that, he got into the habit of pretending he had to use the second-floor men’s room on the way to his third-floor office; he hoped this would hide his wanting a break before tackling the next steep flight of stairs. He decided against combing his hair over his bald spot, though. People couldn’t blame you for going bald. And just last week, he had learned about the graduate students’ joke that ending up like Stephen Ferris was the worst thing that could happen to a professor; so all the English-department big-shots probably hung pictures of him in their studies at home to keep themselves plugging away.
“I am pleased to be able to tell you,” said Dean Nakamura, “that we can offer a special arrangement for faculty in your situation,” and for a moment Stephen actually thought she would offer something good—an extra sabbatical, maybe, or a reduced teaching load at full pay. But she was offering to reduce his teaching load to zero. At retirement pay. And it wasn’t exactly an offer.
It was like being pushed underwater; you had to make it to the surface before you could begin to focus on who had shoved you below and why. Stephen’s fork clattered from his fingers to the floor, but he ignored this except to put his suddenly shaking hands in his lap. “I don’t want to retire,” he said. His voice, at least, was fairly steady. “I need the stimulation of teaching in order to do my research. I love teaching. I’m a good teacher. . . .”
“Oh, come now.” The dean’s face was calm, reminding Stephen of a quotation he had once read and never forgotten: “We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.” “After last spring, . . .” the dean was saying.
“Last spring wasn’t my fault.” Stephen longed for more fettuccine, but, with his fork on the floor, what could he do? Requesting a replacement would call the dean’s attention to his clumsiness, and besides, no waiter was nearby. He took a gulp of water and felt oddly invigorated. “What I said was true. My feminist students did turn in paint-by-numbers papers like the parodies in that book, One Hundred All-Purpose Essay-Question Answers: C- Guaranteed or Your Money Back. Instead of going, ‘Blank is a major part of our civilization. Blank has been important since the time of the Greeks,’ the feminist papers I got went, ‘Blank has been construed exclusively on the male model. We need more awareness of women’s contributions to blank, more awareness of the female, relationship-centered approach to blank, instead of the male, rule-dominated approach.’ ”
“Yes, I know what you thought about those papers,” said the dean with what struck Stephen as an exaggerated display of patience. “The whole country knows.”
“And am I to blame that one of those students had a brother who wrote for Newsweek and needed material for an article on conflicts on campus?” Stephen replied as sharply as he dared. “You can’t push me into early retirement for that. It’s political suppression, not to mention, uh, age discrimination. It used to be the Left that got suppressed. Now it’s the Left that’s doing the suppressing. Do you know what the definition of moral courage is nowadays? It’s going for a job interview at a big-name university and wearing a button that says ‘Stop Abortion.’ ”
“Let’s just focus on what came out about your teaching in the aftermath of the Newsweek story.” She looked at his plate. “Do you need a fork?”
Yes, and I also need a dean who isn’t trying to force me out of my job. Stephen still felt surprisingly energetic. “When people start hunting for dirt, they’re bound to find it,” he said. “No one’s life can hold up under that sort of scrutiny. It’s like—like what happens in political campaigns when candidates go digging for dirty secrets about their opponents, and of course they come up with something. If—”
“The cases are hardly similar.” Dean Nakamura had finished eating and was laying her utensils quietly on her plate. “Do you deny that you’ve been giving the same lectures for over ten years and that you only make sketchy comments on students’ papers?”
“Yes, I do deny it.” And that wasn’t strictly a lie, because it was true that he was making a denial, wasn’t it? “I . . . give each paper the comments it needs. Some papers need a lot and some don’t.”
“What about your not keeping your office hours?” the dean went on.
“That’s a lie!” Stephen said truthfully, but so loudly that two people entering the room turned and stared. One was his chairman, a small man with large, light blue eyes, and the other was the chairman of the history department. Stephen pronounced the second “chairman” defiantly in his mind, since the history chairman was a woman, and he had never been willing to say “chairperson.” Not only was the term a symbol of the new order that had betrayed him, but its obtrusiveness made him irritatingly aware of its structure. He pictured a chairperson on the model of a centaur—person from the waist up, chair from the waist down. And did he just imagine now that his chairman and the dean exchanged glances across the room? Of course his chairman would know the agenda for this lunch. He had undoubtedly been in on it from the beginning. “I always keep my office hours,” Stephen said. He was struggling to speak in a normal tone, but knowing that people would lie to destroy him shocked him deeply. It meant there was no check on what they would say. “That’s a perfect example of how people who want ammunition are apt to make up—”
“And what about the minority students who say you’re insensitive to their point of view?”
“I treat them the same way I treat everyone else.” Stephen’s hands were twisting his napkin under the table. He wanted a cigarette but figured he was in enough trouble already. “There’s a Mark Chen in my department who’s probably going to write his Ph.D. thesis on Tennyson,” he said, not mentioning that if Mark asked Stephen to direct his dissertation, he would be the first student to do so in nine years. “Someone asked him why he was studying English literature instead of his own heritage, and he said, ‘Everything is everyone’s heritage.’ Do you think he would say I’m insensitive to his point of view?”
“That’s not the point of view I mean.”
“Well, the kind of student you mean just doesn’t like me since I was quoted in the Daily as saying that students should be admitted here without regard to race,” Stephen said. “Since when does saying that something should be done without regard to race make you a racist?”
“Since about 1970,” said the dean. “ ‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new.’ ”
So I’m supposed to be a racist, am I? Stephen thought, glancing at the dean’s serene, lovely face. Well, if I have the name, I might as well play the game, you . . . gook, he imagined saying. But the word seemed nonsensical, an empty syllable, and come to think of it, maybe the term wasn’t “gook,” after all. Maybe it was “geek.” He couldn’t even make it as a racist! He didn’t know the words! And now the dean was gazing past him, surveying her domain: table after table of productive and politically correct professors. “Why did you decide to do this here?” he asked abruptly.
“Excuse me?” said the dean.
“Why here as if this were just a nice social lunch? Was that supposed to . . . to smooth it over or something? Or did you just figure it would go smoothly here because I’d be afraid to make a public scene? Well, I’ll have you know. . . .” His voice rose, but the thrill of release lasted only a moment. “You can’t force me out,” he said softly. “I have tenure.”
The dean took a long drink of water.
“That’s the point of tenure,” Stephen said.
“We’re prepared to offer you very favorable terms,” said the dean, “the same pension you would get if you retired at sixty-five, continued health coverage, and—”
“The only terms I’ll accept are terms that will let me keep my job.” Stephen’s burst of vigor had faded. His exhaustion was returning and his eyes stung, making him feel as vulnerable and exposed as a peeled tomato. He had a wild impulse to throw himself on the dean’s mercy and say, Please, please stop right now, and we’ll pretend this never happened. I’ll write my book. I’ll watch what I say. I will do anything. But who would have mercy nowadays on an aging white male professor, a mental and physical wreck, who for over a decade had published nothing and barely even altered his lectures? Paula hadn’t had any, eight years ago when he had the heart attack and telephoned her, begging her to visit him in the hospital. “It could be the last time you ever see me. Can’t you even pretend you care?” he had said. “You don’t want me to live a lie, do you?” she had replied.
“Actually,” Dean Nakamura was contemplating her half-empty water glass with apparent fascination, “tenure guarantees only so much. Nothing in the university rules says how many classes you’ll have to teach, or which ones. Your course load can be doubled. We can give your literature courses to other people and never let you teach anything but freshman-composition classes. We can—”
“But how could you want to treat me like this?” Stephen cried.
“I don’t want to.” Dean Nakamura was still looking at her water glass, but her face was becoming faintly flushed. “Please believe me that I don’t like doing this.”
“Then don’t do it,” said Stephen.
“But it’s all for the best,” said the dean.
“For whom?” said Stephen.
“For everyone,” said the dean.
“Then why don’t you like doing it?” asked Stephen.
“Because you can’t see that it’s all for the best,” said the dean. “Believe me, there’s no place for you here anymore.”
“Only if you deny me one.” Stephen’s throat felt gritty and dry.
“You’ve denied yourself one through your own behavior,” said the dean, “although of course the economy also plays a part. You know about the budget crisis. You know we have to reduce our faculty by 10 percent. So we have no choice but to . . . encourage early retirement in cases where it will be mutually beneficial. What would you have us do instead, institute a hiring freeze or deny even our best young people tenure?”
“Yes,” Stephen said. “I already have tenure. It’s supposed to protect my job, and I don’t want to retire.”
“I understand how you feel,” said the dean, “but—”
“No,” Stephen said, “you don’t understand. Anyway, who wants understanding without . . . ?” But he had decided not to mention mercy; there was no mercy for the unworthy, he thought dizzily. “You won’t be able to get away with this,” he said. “I’ll go to the AAUP and my lawyer.”
“We’ve already consulted ours.”
“I have a class now,” Stephen said. J. And he rose from the chair and walked out of the room, out of the faculty club, and out onto the campus. Above the hill, the sun blazed yellow, the color of brilliance, the color of light. I’ll fight it, he said to himself; I’ll fight and I’ll win even if my lawyer loses, because a fantasy life always wins; mind over matter; the brain is wider than the sky, Emily Dickinson says. But mightn’t self-deception need some small basis in the facts—a job, at least, classes, an office to go to? And without these, what would there be to keep him from spending all his days in bed, until the bed became his enemy and his dreams turned into nightmares? Perhaps he should leave this city, Stephen thought, starting up the hill toward the classroom that now seemed fiery and remote as the sun; perhaps he should leave this place with its inevitable reminders and go where he could set himself up as a distinguished retired scholar, Costa Rica, maybe, where he had read the warmth was eternal and Americans lived like kings. But he wanted to be a professor, not a king. He didn’t know Spanish. He loved his house with its view of the hills and with Paula’s wildflower murals still on the bedroom walls. Besides—how could he have forgotten—wasn’t he supposed to be a racist? What color were the Costa Ricans, anyway? I’ll work it out, he told himself, panting; fantasy never fails me. The brain is deeper than the sea. But then he felt thunder in his chest and lightning down his arm and terror everywhere, too much terror to walk, too much terror to breathe. And who were those healthy thirty-year-olds who said you weren’t supposed to be afraid of death? This is it, his mind gasped, and he tried to think: at least, Dean Nakamura will be sorry. But he couldn’t really believe that; he could even envision her saying it was all for the best, just as people had said when his father died after the stroke, when his mother died after the cancer, just as they said about the death of anyone who had no reason left for living except for wanting to, so desperately wanting to.