The momentum of plans I had already made carried my resolve along, sparing me the need to argue with my heart. The realtor met me at my house on Monday afternoon at noon for a walk through and appraisal. She wore a hideous amount of perfume and jingly bracelets, and sported acrylic nails that clicked like crab's legs on Formica every time she wrote something on the paper on her clipboard. I hated her on smell. I opened every window, even though the marine layer had settled in to stay for the day and the wind was cold enough to warrant a heavy coat. "Oh, you like it brisk, I see, Mrs. Renoir."
"No, do forgive me," I said with my most false social accents, "I just don't want my furniture to pick up the scent of your ... fragrance."
Her lips pursed, making creases that radiated from her mouth. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said insincerely. "I wasn't aware of your allergy. I've never had a client so sensitive before."
You've never had a client who couldn't give half a happy horseshit about the appraisal before, then, I thought uncharitably.
"Everything is in perfect condition, Mrs. Renoir, just simply perfect. We will have no difficulty showing this house."
"Well, I'm a control freak, and I like things to work smoothly," I said, by way of conversation and threat.
"Let's check outside," said the clawed realtor, and we walked out the back doors onto the patio. I let her clamber around in the iceplants and grasses by herself, hoping that the narrow heels of her high sandals would sink deeply into the under-mulch. "You have an unusually large lot here, Mrs. Renoir, just prime for renovation and expansion. Shall we go indoors to sit and go over my figures?"
"No, once again I must offer my regrets. Shall we sit outside, here, you can sit on this chair, out of the wind. I fear that the fragrance is just too much." Well, I thought, feeling abruptly sorry for her, here we see one more person who has to put up with Augusta's conniptions, and has no idea why. "When I was a little girl," I said to her, moving her chair into the relatively calm air space beside the house, "all perfumes and colognes were made from natural sources, from essential oils of plants to ambergris and real musk. But they were expensive, and chemical companies were encouraged to research cheaper, artificial replacements for the natural scents. I'm a child of an earlier age, and the chemicals used to make perfume at this time make me truly physically ill."
"I didn't know that," said the woman. She had just the faintest tinge of a leftover southern accent, which somehow made her sound a little kinder. Hooching around in the deck chair, she flattened the worksheet on her clipboard. "Mrs. Renoir," she started.
I snickered a little. "That's Doctor Renoir, by the way. I'm unmarried."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Somebody should have put that in my notes. Dr. Renoir, I believe that we can offer your property at $925,000 at bid. That would mean that within a specific period of time, potential buyers could offer that amount or upwards. Do you have a specific final time frame?"
$925,000. Nearly a million dollars, enough to pay off the mortgage and a hell of a lot left over. Shit, I didn't even need a university job in Ohio to keep me alive. I could go back to teaching high school, or become a secretary, or sell under-wear in a retail store and still pay off a new house with retirement income to spare.
"June," I told her. "I don't want to be pestered by potential buyers until the end of the semester, so let's look at putting the house on the market in May and see if we can get it sold by the end of June."
I returned to my office to finish up correcting the morning assignments but was interrupted by Margaret Wills, triumphantly bearing an arrangement of light blue delphinium, dark blue larkspur, and white snapdragon. "Look what arrived for you over lunch break," she crowed. I allowed her to set it on my desk.
"Thank you, Margaret."
When she'd left, I shut the door and opened the card. "The blue of your eyes," said the familiar handwriting. "V."
He just doesn't get the picture, he doesn't think I'm serious about this, I thought, making the snapdragons say "Ahhh" by squeezing their sides. The only time I could remember my ex-husband bringing me flowers was when he'd bought himself a new car without consulting me, and thought that flowers could be my compensation for his selfishness. And Moersgard was a red roses man, regardless of what the lady's favorite flower might be. How insulting could Fate be, sending me a creative mind that I should never have become involved with? I looked at the blend of colors for a while, and then thought about years and what they meant. Had I become pregnant when I lost my virginity, Valentine would still be too young to be my offspring. I put the bouquet on the windowsill, out of sight of my desk.
On Friday, I returned to the department after class to find Neil Radigan sitting on the corner of Margaret's desk. Margaret beamed and handed me a small parcel.
"A thin man with black curly hair was by and left this for you," she said. She was plainly amused and titillated by the sight of my secret admirer; feeling as though my territory had been invaded, I tore the brown paper off the box. The lettering on the lid proclaimed an origin of "Port Laughton Diamonds", which stunned me so much that I opened it without hiding first.
On black velvet, two gold earrings nestled, heart-shaped. I unfolded the long, thin strip of parchment paper that lay beside the earrings to read "The colors of our hair together on your pillow." I gasped and snapped the box shut, looking up to see that Radigan had peered over my shoulder to see. He raised his eyebrows, and then looked down the hallway. "Well, that explains a great deal," he said in his driest drone.
I fled to my office, burning with embarrassment, stricken with sudden desire. That does it, I thought to myself, any more little packages go right into the trash. I jammed the box into the bookcase on top of a row of reference books about Central American cultures. Absolutely I have to get out of this town.
I picked up a new box of sleeping tablets at the store, and started taking them at night so that I would not lie awake and think about black and gold, or about the circles under his eyes, or about what he should be fed to fatten him up a little. The drug made me a bit slow and stupid and dull in the early morning, but that was actually helpful when the florist's runner showed up at nine in the morning Monday with another bouquet, this time of tall green bells of Ireland, and deep burgundy chrysanthemums, with black corkscrew willow twigs and droopy hellebore, salted with white statice to liven the dark colors. A veritable feast for the eye, a combination of unusual color and variety that he knew I'd love. I didn't open the card, and just sadly put the whole thing on the floor in the corner.
Classes had become less interactive. I was marking time, waiting for each day to be over, and my teaching showed it. Students were leaning on their hands during the lecture, or doodling, and one girl actually dozed off during an afternoon class, jerking herself awake with a start and knocking her text and pencil onto the floor.
Another Friday, and having eaten my lunch on the court outside our building, I went to gather my papers for the next class. Fatzer (my mind immediately supplied KC's latest alliterative insulting phrase: That Feckless Fuck Fatzer) and a grad student named Marcie Van der Poole stood before my office. Fatzer was glaring with his usual rage, his chubby jaw clenched as though grinding his teeth, a habit which revolted his department in every meeting. I hope they don't hire some idiot for his job, I mused. These people deserve a break. I was already separating myself; the Anthropology Department is they, not we.
"Van der Poole is taking your afternoon class," Fatzer said tightly. "Dean Moersgard wants to see you in his office as soon as you can get there." His pinched lips indicated clearly that the summoning to Moersgard was a way for me to get out of work free for the immoral connection to the dean.
I unlocked my office, opened my desk, and handed Van der Poole the copies and the lesson plan. She'd been one of my students years ago, and was familiar with my teaching methods. In fact, I admitted, she would probably do a better "me" than I'd been doing.
Moersgard's office was in the next courtyard around the corner to the left. I'd been there on numerous occasions, occasionally summoned, but always under agreeable circumstances. This was the first time I'd ever had a class pre-empted for a meeting.
His secretary greeted me with hatred in her eyes, as she always had. I treated her as if she were a throw rug in return, hesitating when she opened Moersgard's door for me, until she moved out of the doorway entirely. Wouldn't want to trip on you, dearie, I conveyed without a single word.
But Moersgard didn't rise from his desk this time. He gestured towards the leather chair by his desk. "Have a seat," he said, uncharacteristically brusque, and I instinctively let my face drop to stillness. "I've been informed that you've put your house up for sale."
"What?" I exploded, forgetting stillness for the moment. "Who the hell told you that?"
"Jensen, in the English Department. His realtor called him with an 'exciting new prospect' that was coming up for sale at the end of the semester. She dropped names, Augusta. And so he called me to ascertain whether or not he should re-allocate his monies to purchase your house."
"That bitch," I frothed.
"I thought we had an agreement that you would not be leaving, but would be applying for Fatzer's job," he said, with his eyes under his snowy brows speaking, Don't try to play me for the fool.
My eyes answered him before I spoke: Don't push me. I own myself now. "An agreement? I don't recall an agreement. You asked me to reconsider my move, and I said I would reconsider. But my reconsideration didn't change my mind. I'm going to move back to Ohio."
"To get away from the emotional upheaval from your young friend the musician."
"Yes, Jacob, I trust you enough to admit that. I want the last years of my life to be in peace, not pain."
"Then don't move. Instead, I'll call up Steven Mosscoli, he's the Superintendent of Schools. How long has Mr. Teshenko been in the employ of Port Laughton School District? Less than a year, isn't it? He's got no tenure, he will be an ex-PLSD employee in a matter of weeks. He will be gone, you will have peace."
"You can't do that!"
"Of course I can. Steven and I belong to the same fraternity, and at one time were tennis partners. He's a good friend."
"I don't want Teshenko to lose his job! He's a good teacher!"
Moersgard's eyes took on an examining glint. Why are you protecting a man who left you?
"He's a good teacher," I repeated, trying not to look at him.
"He's insulted a friend of mine," said Moersgard, with a tone of voice that made me look at him in alarm. "I could hardly let that pass."
He'd set out bait, and I could ignore it and run away. I am the wolf in the forest, I thought. I can turn my back and take my own path through the trees, and to hell with all the others. "Don't make that call. Jacob, he's going to be good for kids and local education!" Some of all those others I can't abandon, not to whatever hells may exist.
"Is that right," he said, as firmly grounded as a missile installation. He looked me squarely in the eye. You're still in love with the little bastard, aren't you? A little jealousy flickered in his stare, a little anger -- but not even a hint of pity. In the continued silence, his enormous personal presence seemed to grow larger, until there was no other existence besides Moersgard and his will. The hair on my neck began to prickle. I'd seen him reduce others to stammering fools by this trick, but had never been on the receiving end before.
I left the chair and walked to the windows, which faced east, looking at the tall pines as though I could see through them to the flat lands of Ohio. "I was planning on retiring back there some day, anyway. I'm just going sooner than later. Burlie wants me to build a house on land adjoining his place." I made my voice mildly cheerful. Ready to face him again, I breathed deeply and relaxed my shoulders. I'm already out of your reach, said the secret language. "So there wouldn't be any point in getting Teshenko fired."
Moersgard's eyes narrowed suddenly, and glittered with victory, making me freeze in a spurt of fear. I'd made a misstep, given him a weapon somehow. He actually smiled a little gloating smile, his look telling me, I've found the key. Now let's back you against the wall, Augusta.
"Consider him gone, my dear Doctor Renoir. But that won't bother you, you'll be smoking pot and baking cookies with your friends. Leave him your new address -- perhaps when he finds himself unemployed he'll find you more attractive."
Reddening with the implied insult, I nearly shouted at him. "Why? Why would you do that? Just for spite?"
He smiled, a lion who has just swallowed an antelope without having to share. "Now Augusta, you don't think that I would tolerate the continued employment of a man whose sexual scandal drove one of our best professors to resign and move out of state, do you?"
Trapped! I grabbed the back of the chair, feeling faint. You son of a bitch, I thought, you manipulative monster. "That's blackmail!" I gasped at him.
"Not blackmail, Augusta. Consequences! You've brought your situation on yourself, and him as well. My job is to keep my college running as smoothly as I can, and losing both you and Fatzer at once from Anthropology is unacceptable." He raised his eyebrows to silently ask, Does your little friend keep his job or not?
I studied his pale eyes, hunting for any shred of evidence that he had a heart. None. He was content knowing that he was going to see his machinations work, the coincidental creatures with whom he shared the Earth doing his will. A sharper glint of his eyes told me that I was taking too much time to decide, and I reached for his phone.
Calling from memory the number I'd seen on the realtor's card, I dialed as he watched approvingly. "You know, I've always loved seeing you do that. You get such a charmingly intense expression on your face when you call something to mind. What a remarkable memory!" Moersgard purred hatefully.
"Hello, this is Augusta Renoir. I've had a change of situation and no longer wish to put my house on the market. Certainly, I'll keep you in mind when the time comes. Goodbye." Blabbering idiot, I'll keep you in mind as a candidate for Moron of the Month. "There, Jacob, are you happy now?"
"Yes, I am. And one day you'll even thank me for this. I'm still your friend, after all."
Sure you are, I thought, as long as I'm doing your bidding. I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my blazer. He might just skin me and send in the taxidermist.
"Sit back down," he instructed me. "You look like you've been eviscerated." He stood and went to an oak cabinet against the wall, from which he produced two glasses, and poured a shot of vodka into each. Returning to the desk, he handed me a glass. "Have a sip of that and get out your comb. Don't give my secretary the satisfaction of seeing you beaten."
"Well, I pretty much am, though, aren't I?" I said bitterly. "I thought I'd found a solution. Seems pretty damned unfair to lose it again."
"Unfair? As unfair as your beauty and sexual abilities were, ten years and some ago, to the other candidates for your position, who were equally talented? Oh, yes," he said with mocking sarcasm, "I remember how you told me, 'Now Jacob, just because I'm in your bed doesn't mean you should give me preferment over the mousey and uninteresting Miss Oates. It just wouldn't be fair.'"
Against my will, a snicker bubbled up. "All right, all right. We're both villains. I was just trying to be the good guy for once."
Puzzled, he said, "How so?"
"I wanted to leave so that Valentine could get on with his life. Port Laughton is too small to avoid seeing each other, and it's been tearing us both to emotional pieces."
"I thought you told me he'd left you."
"I thought it was over. We each misunderstood what the other was saying." My vodka was gone. Moersgard was staring blankly at me as though I had sprouted an extra eyeball. "He's eighteen years younger than I am. Right now that may not matter, but eventually it will. I was trying to spare myself the greater heartbreak down the road when he realizes that being stuck with an old woman isn't really part of his program."
"More likely you'd be the one to get bored and leave him."
I said nothing, which of course said it all. You don't know how much I love him.
He shook his head and finished his vodka in the quiet. "My grandfather used to tell us this story when we worried about our tests at school. I know I've told you about Grandfather before.
"Once upon a time, a woodcutter lived in the forest with his wife. One morning he went off to hunting, and to let his wife know he wasn't chopping wood, he stuck his axe in the thick lintel above the door where she wouldn't miss it. And she certainly didn't. In fact, when she saw the axe over the door, she wailed, 'That's so dangerous! What if my husband returns, and when he walks in the door, the axe falls on his head and kills him? I'll be a widow, and I shall starve to death!' And sat down and cried and cried, all day long, in grief for the terrible fate.
"When her husband came home, he found her sitting in front of the house sobbing, with no dinner cooked, and the fire gone out. 'Why are you weeping, wife?' he asked.
"'The axe over the door! If it falls on your head and kills you, I'll be a widow and starve to death!'
"The woodcutter walked to the door, grabbed the axe, and pulled it out of the lintel. He put it safely near a stack of wood, and then found a stick and gave his wife a beating for being so silly."
"And that story helped you and your brothers, did it?" I asked drily, standing up.
He smiled, and walked me to his door. "Don't forget the faculty luncheon next week, Augusta."
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