Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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"Sure you're serious," Theresa said. "You should be, you're the professor."

"The word 'cowardice,' foryou, must be the worst of insults."

"I don't know. I can think of a few others."

"But certainly you would hold courage at a premium, and despise cowardice. Such would be the very fundamentals of your existence."

"I'm just a student, remember? Bed-and-breakfast."

"Please don't condescend. You understand me."

"Look, Professor Landsman." Theresa meant to say that all this was behind her and that in any case she knew no more about courage than the next person, but at her name Professor Landsman shifted and looked at her so seriously, so gravely, that Theresa found herself unable to speak. Instead she turned away and pretended to take an interest in the students crossing the courtyard. Two laughing boys sped by on bicycles, snowmelt hissing under their tires, tails of spray arcing up behind. Theresa watched them pass out of sight. A long cigar-shaped cloud drifted in front of the sun, and just like that the courtyard was in twilight. She crossed her arms against the sudden coolness.

"For some of us," Professor Landsman said, "courage does not come so easily."

"I think maybe you have the wrong idea," Theresa said. "I've never been in combat. I'm not sure what I'd do. Nobody is."

"Oh, I am," Professor Landsman said. "I wither under fire. I leave my comrades to their fate."

"Maybe. People surprise themselves. You just don't know until you've been there."

"But I have been there."

"In Iraq?"

"No, not in Iraq! Not combat with a gun-I've never so much as touched a gun-but combat nevertheless."

"Well, then... you don't need my opinion." Theresa picked up her book bag from under the chair and prepared to take her leave.

"I was nineteen, like one of these." Professor Landsman nodded at the students walking by. "At university, a happy fugitive from a boring little town known for its sausage. I had friends and I was in love. With art, with the city, with a man, a married man, so sophisticated I was-in love even with myself! Imagine! I had many friends and many daring ideas that must be shared. Talk talk talk, and of course they followed this river of brave words right to my door. An old story, to be sure. But I think you will find it interesting."

This sounded strangely like a warning. Certainly Theresa was left feeling more awkward than curious. She was getting cold and wanted to leave but didn't see how she could, not now, and of course she was flattered that her attention seemed important to this forceful, accomplished woman, her professor. But she kept her bag in her lap, holding the straps with both hands.

"So, the approach. Just one of them, the first time. A young man, quite handsome and well spoken, you might take him for a student or a young lecturer. But he knew about me. That is, he knew about my friends, and my lover, and my interest in politics-my interest in change, as he put it. He, too, was interested in change, he said. So were others whom I might imagine to be unfriendly. They could offer us certain protections. Some clarifications would be necessaiy from time to time, only to help them understand our ideas for the future, so that they might better protect us from less sympathetic elements. He was very smooth-too smooth for his own purpose. Simple cluck that I was, I could hardly understand what he was proposing. Then I was shocked. Indeed, I made a fine show of my indignation and nobly sent him on his way.

"More fool me. I should have made my pact with this devil. My God, the two who finally got their hooks in me! The man a licensed paranoiac, an accountant of meaningless facts all rendered sinister by the infinite connections he saw between them. Everything had meaning. A student goes home for a visit with her sick mama, meat-packers in the same town protest unsanitary conditions-hah! Clandestine meetings! Agitation! Case closed! And he smelled like a closet. You know-what's the word?-naphtha.

"But the woman, the woman was worse. He at least aspired to rationality. She was free of such bourgeois affectations. She required no theory and no evidence. She knew who the enemy was and what was to be done. Yes, and to do it, to frighten and compel, to put you on your knees where you belonged-that was her vocation and her pleasure."

"Where was this?"

"What?" Professor Landsman looked at her as if the question were stupid or, worse, a breach of trust.

"Where did all this happen?" Theresa was caught up now, lost in what Professor Landsman was telling her. Partly it was a habit formed in the lecture hall, where she was used to surrendering to Professor Landsman's voice. But in her lectures Professor Landsman was lively, even passionate, and highly particular. Her manner now was different, and this cool formality of expression, the absence of names, the featureless ground on which the stoxy proceeded, had all somehow delivered Theresa into a fog of abstraction. She was feeling the cold as an emanation of her uncertainty. She needed to know where she was.

"What difference does it make?" Professor Landsman said. She pursed her lips. "Prague," she said in a low voice.

Prague. Okay. Theresa read history; she knew about Prague. Wenceslas Square. The Russian tanks coming in, security police beating on kids, hauling them off to prison. The president of the country kidnapped and taken to Russia. "Prague," she said. "This was 1968, right?"

"No," Professor Landsman said. "Later. It doesn't matter, it was happening all the time, and not only in Prague. This is an old story, as I say. One believes the enemy is at one's back, somewhere-perhaps closing in. Therefore one must find the enemy at any cost, and hurt him. So. The man. At first I thought I could match him at his game, using facts of my own as counters to his. But always, always, he surprised me. No sane person could have imagined what was perfectly obvious to him. His theories, expounded over hours in that horrid little room, dumbfounded me-quite literally. He rendered me speechless. But he didn't break me. It was the woman who broke me."

"What was her name?"

"Her name? Do you think they offered their names? Even a false name would have given me some way of imagining them, addressing them. Some admission of likeness."

"You were what, nineteen?" Theresa said. "Just a kid."

"Save your pity for my friends," Professor Landsman said. "I sold them all out in the end. My friends, my lover, two of my professors."

At that moment the sun broke clear, and thick, low slants of light flooded the wet courtyard and caught both women full in the face. Professor Landsman shielded her eyes. The timing of this sunburst struck Theresa as absurdly dissonant, even mischievous. It made her a little giddy, and then contrite to have had these feelings as Professor Landsman was telling such a sad stoiy.

"What did she do to you. this woman?" Theresa asked, carefully shading her voice.

"Nothing. She did nothing to me." Professor Landsman sounded cross, as if conscious herself of some disrespect in this last bright flourish of the day.

"But you said that she was the one who, you know..."

"Yes. She was the one. But really, she did nothing to me but recognize me, and reveal myself to me as I was. Do you understand? I could see it in how she looked at me, always that look of recognition, of knowing that I was a coward and would soon become her creature, and that everything leading up to that point-the endless meetings, the harangues and accusations, the threats to my family, the promises-how can I describe it? As if these were rites that must be observed, honored to the full for all the pleasure and pain they could afford, but that the end was inevitable and already known to us both by the plain fact of my cowardice. That was her power, and how it reduced me! How it made me squirm! I needed only to look at her, that smile always in her eyes. She knew me. She simply made me know myself. So you see, here is one soldier you do not want in the trench with you."

"Come on," Theresa said. "It was just a technique, the way she treated you, how she made you feel-like a coward. They trained her to do that."

"No, you give them too much credit. But what if they had? It was still true."

"What happened to your friends?"

"I don't know. Doubtless they were watched. Perhaps some of them were turned. But nothing obvious-nothing I could see before I left. They like to let these things ripen." She pushed her hair back roughly with both hands and smiled. "You are thinking: Irksome woman! Why must I hear all this?"

"Don't say that." Theresa leaned toward her. The books in her bag pressed up against her belly. "Listen, Professor Landsman."

She held up her palm in warning. "Please, I am allergic to commiseration."

"Just listen. People can be trained to build you up, make you feel brave so you act brave. It's a regular science. Don't you think it can work in reverse?"

"No matter. What happened, happened." She pushed her chair back and stood, squinting in the light. "How I've gone on! You are too patient."

Theresa stood with her. "You were nineteen. Now you're in your fifties, right? Do you think a person your age, with all your education, all the places you've been and the people you've known-wait, now, hear me out-do you think you should pass sentence on some kid who's scared half to death, and all alone, and getting pushed around by creeps who really know how to do it? Would you judge your own child that way?"

"I have no child. More cowardice."

"I'm soriy. But you know what I mean."

"Americans!" Professor Landsman was fumblingwith the buttons of her coat. "Such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven, once understood. Really, you have no comprehension of history. Of how done it is, how historical. One may not redeem a day of it, not a moment of it, with all these empathies and tender discernments. One may visit it only as one visits a graveyard, hat in hand. One may read the inscriptions on the stones. One may not rewrite them."

Theresa shouldered her bag. "Got it. Thanks for straightening me out."

"Oh, now I've abused your kindness. I had no right to burden you with my useless old stories. You must forgive me."

"Am I allowed to?"

"Ha!" she said, and looked down, and nodded. "I would ask," she began.

"Sure," Theresa said. "Naturally. Not a word."

"Thank you."

That was when Theresa knew she would have to drop the course.

When she got home from her swim that night she made herself a tuna salad and studied her notes for an econ exam. Then, wistfully, she leafed through her art history textbook, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, lingering over Fra Angelico's Annunciation. At first her eyes were drawn to the angel, that radiance, that almost wild look of joy and promise, but it was Mary's expression that held her-accepting, yes, but sorrowful too, as if she already knew what was to befall her child in this world.

Theresa's son was good about writing, but tonight there'd been nothing. She went back to the computer-still nothing. She opened his last twoe-mailsand reread them. Here, running through the joking, witty accounts of his days and tasks, of challenges overcome, were the names of his new friends, fondly repeated, and the modest pride he took in their respect. A bookish, reticent boy in high school, he was discovering that he could be tough and competent. A man others could rely on-even look up to. Theresa was glad for all that, though she knew none of it would necessarily save him in the end. The big thing was to be lucky. Most were, after all; most came home alive-almost everyone. The odds were on his side, and so on hers. She kept this thought close by. She often had need of it.

But tonight she felt another fear, worse in its way, because there were no odds to set against it. Not what might happen to him, but what he might become. Soon enough he would be among strange people who would hate him on sight. Any of them might be meaning to kill him. In the face of so much hatred and danger, how could he escape feeling hatred himself? For all of them? Theresa had seen how the young men looked after a few months in that place; she knew how they talked, and the silences that opened up between them.

Her son was already learning the pleasure of being strong, and the special pleasure of being stronger than others. He'd been skinny and shy when young, and from sixth grade into seventh the bullying had gotten so nasty she'd had to go to the principal of his school. She hadn't thought of it for some time, but tonight Theresa remembered the look on his face after one of the bad days-the blackness of his bitterness and shame. When he came into power now over those who hated him and frightened him, how would he resist putting them on their knees, making them squirm? And then what? What would happen in some little room where hatred and power and fear came together, and there was nobody to say no? Her boy had a good heart. He had a soul. For the first time, she feared he might lose it.

Theresa wanted to warn him, but the light, meriy tone of their correspondence had become a sort of rule between them. She would have to break it, to trespass. Though she didn't have the words now, she would find them. He wouldn't like it. He'd be insulted. Good-then he might remember, when that day came.

She looked again at the Fra Angelico before getting up from her desk. No, by God, she would not drop the class. She would sit toward the front of the lecture hall as she always did, and if it bothered Professor Landsman to have Theresa watching her, listening to her pronouncements, all the while knowing what she knew, whose fault was that? Professor Landsman had a job to do. If she was uneasy she would just have to find a way through her unease, or get used to it, like eveiyone else.

Chapter 27

The Deposition

The witness was playing hard to get. Statements he had made earlier to his girlfriend, another nurse, statements crucial to Burke's case, the witness now declined to repeat under oath. He claimed not to remember just what he'd said, or even to recall clearly the episode in question: an instance of surgical haste and sloppiness amounting to malpractice. As the result of a routine procedure-removal of a ganglion cyst-outrageously, indefensibly botched, Burke's client had lost the fine motor skills of her left hand. She'd worked the reservations desk at a car-rental office; what was to become of a fifty-eight-year-old booking agent who could no longer use a keyboard?

Burke decided to ask for a breather. He'd flown out from San Francisco only the day before to take this deposition in person. He was still ragged from the unpleasant journey: delayed departure from SFO, a run through Dulles to make his puddle jumper to Albany, then the poky drive upriver to New Delft. Long trip, sleepless night. He'd shown some temper at the witness's forgetfulness, and the witness had in turn become sullen and grudging, the last thing Burke wanted. He hoped that a little time off would cool things down and allow the man's conscience to help out his memoiy, if he was still open to such influences. Burke suspected that he was.

Witness's counsel agreed to the break: forty-five minutes. Burke turned down the offer of cake and coffee in favor of a brisk walk. He left the building, a Federalist mansion converted to law offices, and started down the hill toward the river. It was a fine October afternoon, warm and golden, trees ablaze, air dense with the must of fallen leaves. That smell, the honeyed light... Burke faltered in his march, subdued by the memory of days like this in the Ohio town where he'd grown up. There was that one Indian summer, his junior year in high school, when day after day, flooded with desire, shaking with it, he'd hurried to an older girl's house to glory in her boldness for a mad hour before her mother got home from work. Julie Rose. The hourglass birthmark on her throat... he could still see it, and the filmy curtains fluttering at her bedroom window, the brilliance of the leaves stirring in the warm breeze.

But what crap! Wallowing in nostalgia for a place he'd come to despise and dreamed only of escaping.

The river was farther than Burke had thought. He was a big bull-shouldered man who struggled to trim his bulk with diets and exercise, but he'd been putting in long hours lately, eating on the fly and missing his workouts; even this easy jaunt was making him sweat. He loosened his tie. When he reached the bottom of the hill he took off his suit jacket and flung it over his shoulder.

Burke had hoped to find a path beside the river, but the way was barred by a pair of factory buildings that loomed along the bank behind padlocked chain-link fences. The factories were derelict, bricks fallen from the walls, all but the highest windows broken; these glittered gaily in the late sunshine. Splintered pallets lay here and there across the weed-cracked asphalt of the factory yards. He examined this scene with sour recognition before turning away.

Burke followed the fence a few hundred yards and then circled back uphill on what appeared to be a commercial street. A cloying, briny smell poured from the open door of a Chinese takeout, a half-eaten plate of noodles surrounded by soy-sauce packets on the single table inside. The bespectacled woman at the counter looked up from her newspaper to meet his gaze. He looked away and walked on, past an old movie theater with empty poster casings and a blank marquee; a dog-grooming salon, its windows filled with faded snapshots of a man with orange hair grinning over various pooches made ridiculous by his labors; past a five-and-dime converted to a Goodwill, and a tailor shop with a closed sign in the window. On the corner stood an abandoned Mobil station, windows boarded over, the pumps long gone.

Burke stopped and looked up at the winged red horse still rearing over the lot, then took in the block he'd just traveled. A stooped woman in an overcoat was hobbling down the opposite sidewalk-the only person in sight. It might have been a street in his hometown, with its own bankrupt industries and air of stagnation. Burke's widowed mother still lived in the old house. He visited dutifully with his wife, who claimed to find the town charming and soothingly tranquil, but Burke couldn't imagine living there and wasn't sure why anyone else did.

In fact, it seemed to him that for all the talk of family and faith and neighborliness-the heartland virtues held up in rebuke of competitive, materialistic Gomorrahs like San Francisco-there was something not quite wholesome in this placidity, something lazy and sensual. Burke felt it when he wandered the streets of his hometown, and he felt it now.

He crossed against the light, quickening his pace; he would have to move smartly to make it back in time. All signs of commerce ended at the gas station. He passed several blocks of small houses squeezed together on puny lots-no doubt the homes of those who'd spent their lives in the factories. Most of them were in bad repair: roofs sagging, paint scaling, screens rusting out. No disposable income around here.

Burke knew the stoiy-he'd bet the farm on it. Unions broken or bought off. Salaries and benefits steadily cut under threat of layoffs that happened anyway as the jobs went to foreign wage slaves, the owners meanwhile conjuring up jolly visions of the corporate "family" and better days to come, before selling out just in time to duck the fines for a century of fouling the river; then the new owners, vultures with MBAs, gliding in to sack the pension fund before declaring bankruptcy. Burke knew the whole stoiy, and it disgusted him-especially the workers who'd let the owners screw them like this while patting them on the head, congratulating them for being the backbone of the countiy, salt of the earth, the true Americans. Jesus! And still they ate it up, and voted like robbers instead of the robbed. Served them right.

Burke's pounding heart sent a rush of heat to his face and left him strangely light-headed, as if he were floating above the sidewalk. He took the hill in long, thrusting strides. A boy with blond dreadlocks was raking leaves into a garbage bag. As Burke went past, the boy leaned on the rake and gaped at him, a jarring, surflike percussion leaking from his earphones.

The whole countiy was being hollowed out like this, devoured from the inside, with nobody fighting back. It was embarrassing, and vaguely shameful, to watch people get pushed around without a fight. That's why he'd taken on his little pop-eyed pug of a client with the fucked-up hand-she was a battler. Stonewalled at every turn, bombarded with demands for documents, secretly videotaped, insulted with dinky settlement offers, even threatened with a countersuit, she just lowered her head and kept coming. She'd spent all her savings going after the surgeon who'd messed her up, to the point where she'd had to move to San Francisco to live with her son, a paralegal in Burke's firm. Her lawyer back here in New Delft had suffered a stroke and bowed out. The case was a long shot but Burke had taken it on contingency because he knew she wouldn't back off, that she'd keep pushing right to the end.

And now it seemed she might have a chance after all. They'd gotten a break the past month, hearing about this nurse's complaints to his now-embittered ex-girlfriend. The account Burke had of these conversations was hearsay, not enough in itself to take to court or even to compel a fair settlement, but it told him that the witness harbored feelings of guilt and anger. That he had some pride and resented being made party to a maiming. He was no doubt under great pressure to stand by the surgeon, but the witness hadn't actually denied seeing what he'd seen or saying what he'd said. He simply claimed not to recall it clearly.

What a man forgets he can remember. It was a question of will. And even in the witness's evasions Burke could detect his reluctance to lie and, beyond that, his desire-not yet decisive but persistent and troubling-to tell the truth.

Burke believed that he had a gift for sensing not only a person's truthfulness on a given question, but also, and more important, his natural inclination toward the truth. It was like a homing instinct in those who had it. No matter what the risk, no matter how carefully they might defend themselves with equivocation and convenient lapses of memory, it was still there, fidgeting to be recognized. Over the years he had brought considerable skill to the work of helping people overcome their earlier shufflings and suppressions, even their self-interest, to say what they really wanted to say. The nurse needed to tell his story; Burke was sure of that, and sure of his own ability to coax the stoiy forth. He would master this coy witness.

And as he considered how he would do this he felt himself moving with ease for the first time that day. He had his rhythm and his wind, a pleasant sense of strength. But for his flimsy, veiy expensive Italian loafers, he might have broken into a run.

The houses were growing larger as he climbed, the lawns deeper and darker. Great maples arched high above the street. Burke slowed to watch a sudden fall of leaves, how they rocked and dipped and stalled in their descent, eddying in gusts so light and warm he hardly felt them on the back of his neck, like teasing breaths. Then a bus roared past and pulled to the curb just ahead, and the doors hissed open, and the girl stepped out.

Burke held back-though barely aware of holding back, or of the catch in his throat. She was tall, to his eyes magnificently tall. He caught just a glance of lips painted black before her long dark hair swung forward and veiled her face as she looked down to find her footing on the curb. She stopped on the sidewalk and watched the bus pull away in a belch of black smoke. Then she set her bag down and stretched luxuriously, going up on her toes, hands raised high above her head. Still on tiptoe, she joined her fingers together and moved her hips from side to side. She was no more than twenty feet away, but it was clear to Burke that she hadn't noticed him, that she thought she was alone out here. He felt himself smile. He waited. She dropped her arms, did a few neck rolls, then hiked her bag back onto her shoulder and started up the street. He followed, matching his pace to hers.

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