“Why?” Althea leaned toward the splotchy-pale student who sat in her small office chair, his wide khaki thighs overflowing its seat. “You had to know you were doing it. And you had to know that, this time, you’d be kicked out.”
The boy’s face flushed an unhealthy plum and tears began to roll down his cheeks. He kept his eyes focused on his boots—they were leaking slushy, salty water onto Althea’s blue rug. Ever so slowly, he nodded.
Althea flung herself back in her chair. Jesus. The poor slob. The poor stupid kid. She closed her eyes. Her heartbeat was thudding in her ears again—boom, boomedy, boom, boom, boom. Her head made it into a little song, a high whining soprano melody over the imperious bass. Then, her long training forced her to scan it: dactylic, a particularly obnoxious meter. She put a hand to her chest and coughed. Coughing, she’d read somewhere, was supposed to stop it, this runaway pounding of a deluded heart. It didn’t. She coughed again. The EKG electrodes, glued to her chest, jiggled. She opened her eyes.
The boy hadn’t moved, hadn’t wiped his tears. They were running into the woolen scarf bunched around his neck.
She leaned over her desk. “Derrick,” she said. “It’s so obvious.” She jabbed one finger onto the first page of his paper, right under the bold-typed title he’d seemed so proud of when he submitted the paper last week: The Wedding Crasher in The Ancient Mariner: Why You Wouldn’t Have Invited Him, Either. “Look, here are your opening sentences.” She cleared her throat and read aloud, “‘People got married in the 19th century, too, just like today. They had weddings then, too, and just like today, no one wanted weird old guys showing up and ruining their fun.’” She glanced at the boy’s face; he had a small smile.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “That’s my thesis. I wanted to say that, you know, this guy just shows up and…”
She held up a hand, palm out. “Fine. But, then, here’s the next line you’ve written here.” She read the words slowly: “‘The ancient Mariner, bright-eyed and compulsive, is a haunter of wedding feasts, and in a grim way he is the chanter of a prothalamium.’” She stopped, letting that grand last word linger. She repeated it: “Prothalamium.”
Derrick was still smiling.
Blood thudded in her neck and throat; her palm throbbed. It occurred to her that she might have to smack him. She just might have to whap him upside his dim, tear-stained, smiling, biscuit-colored cheek. Christ. She folded her hands tightly together on her desk. “Derrick, that is not you. That is clearly not your wording.”
The boy nodded.
“Derrick,” she said, loudly. “Listen to me.”
He jumped, his smile fading slowly away, the corners of his chapped lips drifting. His eyes were a soft spaniel brown, with no eyelashes. None at all, she suddenly noticed. Not a lash. And very little in the way of eyebrows. No wonder he looked odd, like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Was he on chemo? Oh God, a sick kid and she was about to ruin his life. No, no—he’d done it himself. He had cheated. Not her.
“Derrick, what’s a ‘prothalamium’?” She waited, knowing he didn’t know. She tapped her tented hands on the desktop, in time to the beating of her heart. Hot diggity, dog diggity, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
The damp shoulders rose and fell, once. His eyes went back to his boots and to the white-rimmed puddle gathering around them.
She sighed and picked up a book from her desk and flipped to the page she’d marked with a hot pink sticky note. “It’s a wedding song. The word comes from the Greek, Derrick. You might have looked it up. If you were going to plagiarize, you might have been just a bit smarter about it.” She pointed to the page and the penciled star she’d drawn on it. “It’s not your sentence, Derrick. It’s Harold Bloom’s sentence. See? Here it is, word-for-word, page 201, last paragraph, right here in Bloom’s quite famous book on the Romantic poets. The Visionary Company. It is quite famous. The kind of book professors have read. Did you never think of that?”
His head rose and his eyes widened. “No,” he said. “I didn’t. I just—I just couldn’t say it like he does. I mean,” he stopped and smiled again, whispering, “the chanter of a pro-thal-a-mi-um. Man, it sounds so good, when he says it. And when I say something, it sucks. Right? I don’t have enough words in my brain or something, to work with, you know, and when I say something, it stinks.”
“Well. Yes.” She shook her head. “But you can’t take Harold Bloom’s words, Derrick, you know that. You can’t steal words like that.” She closed the book with a snap. She stared into the boy’s eyes. “Why the hell didn’t you just put the damn words in quotes? Why didn’t you just do that, with a citation? Why didn’t you do that, and save us both from going through all this? I called the registrar, Derrick. You have two previous plagiarism incidents on your record—proven, documented. They’ll throw you out of the university this time. You’re a senior. Four years. All that money. Jesus.” She felt her voice start to quaver, grow high with despair, harmonizing with the twanging of her heart. She was getting too excited, she knew it. She was getting angry and that only made her heart rate worse. But she couldn’t stop asking. “Why? Why? Are you ill? Do you have some sort of—condition—that is affecting your work? A disability of some sort?”
“No,” he said. One of his hands rose to his face, its bitten nails plucking at the remnants of an eyebrow. “No, I’m okay.”
“Then why? Why didn’t you just put the lousy words in quotes, Derrick?”
His lips started to tremble. “I don’t know,” he said. “I wanted to. I know it’s wrong. It’s stealing and it’s wrong. But I wanted those words to be mine, you know? I just wanted them.”
Her heart drummed against her ribs. Sad, stupid little fuck. And he wasn’t ill. He wasn’t having chemo. He just did that thing—that tripso-trichso-thing she’d read about, where people pluck out their own eyelashes. Damn.
When he’d gone, closing the office door gently behind him, his signature on the papers, confessing his crime, leaving just his salty wet spot behind on her rug, she stood up, reached under her loose jacket and shifted the weight of the portable heart monitor away from the small of her back. She swung the metal box around to her side, where she could see its digital display. Quite a thing to keep hidden, this Holter monitor—a black square buzzing box, held by a shoulder holster affair, sprouting a forest of wires that were attached to the seven color- coded electrodes stuck to her ribs and chest. The electrodes under her breasts itched. The tape, everywhere, pulled. She tried to stretch but the wires resisted. And her heart, her stupid middle-aged, fifty-four-year-old freaked-out heart that raced for no reason, that quivered in her chest like a hooked trout, kept on and on: hot diggity, dog diggity, boom.
She checked the time. Half an hour to go: she’d had the thing on twenty- three-and-a-half hours now. Surely she could find something to do for the last half hour. She turned toward her computer, but then hadn’t the energy to switch it on. She just sat still, watching the digital read-out on the monitor tick away the minutes.
At 12:53, she decided she’d had enough. Twenty-four hours minus seven minutes couldn’t really matter—close enough for government work, as her father had liked to say. She pulled the shade on the office window, locked the door, and took off her jacket and turtleneck and bra. One by one, she pulled the tape away from the electrodes, wincing as it tore her skin. Then the electrodes themselves—the blue from atop her left breast, the brown from her right, and so on down to her ribs: white, green, red, black, orange. Each disengaged electrode dripped a clear, bluish goo. She found a plastic bag in her file cabinet and dropped them in. When they were all in there, sliming together in a gluey bunch, she twisted the bag into a knot and tossed it in her wastebasket. She located tissues to wipe her skin. She lifted her breasts and tried to see the skin below them, where the electrodes had been glued—she couldn’t see much but what she could was red and swollen, puffy, damaged. Everything burned. For one moment, her eyes seemed to drift up to the ceiling and look down: she saw herself standing there, a full professor of literature in her tasteful book-lined office, Althea Roland, PhD, naked to the waist, welts bubbling up all over her torso. As if she’d been attacked by wasps. Or subjected to a long, tortuous experiment by aliens. With a strange buzzing box and wires gripped in her hands. She smiled. Well. Just like poor dumb Derrick. We smile from the midst of the hopeless, hapless messes we get ourselves into, don’t we, son?
Dressed again, Althea put Derrick’s signed papers into her book bag; she would make Xerox copies and bring them to the registrar’s office on her way to drop off the monitor at her doctor’s office. She’d told Derrick it was out of her hands now, that the process of dismissal would begin the minute the registrar received these papers, that he’d hear from the Dean shortly. All she had to do was turn in the evidence. Like a good detective, her work was done—the punishment, thank God, was not her responsibility. Oh, he’d said. Okay. He hadn’t even blinked, as he shuffled out her door. So be it. Amen. Good riddance to a bad cheater. Que sera, sera, eh?
She wrapped her head in her old gray scarf and hefted the book bag, grown suddenly heavy with evidence and a Holter monitor, still faintly buzzing. It was a good thing she didn’t have to pass through a metal detector; some half-trained university security guard would shoot her—they were allowed to carry guns these days, a terrible irony waiting to happen. She stepped out the door. But when she got outside, into the ice-slickened aftermath of the third February storm so far this semester, it was all she could do to stand up and slither her way down the sidewalks to the freshly-salted parking lot. She wasn’t risking her brittle, honeycombed bones by walking the two extra blocks to the registrar’s office. So the papers that would ruin Derrick’s life could stay in her book bag one more day. Big deal. Fuck it.
Maybe he’d get lucky and she’d die before she turned them in—her car would slide into a tree on the slick mile between the college and the medical center. Or she’d have the massive heart attack tonight, all tucked in and cozy in her bed, then suddenly struck by the unbelievable, undeniable first pain, a granite boulder dropping onto her chest, cold sweat springing from her skin. She would thrash in panic, trying to draw in air, terrified, alone. It would hurt, horribly, but briefly. Then she would become still and very, very quiet. Her old dog, her ancient, half-blind faithful dog, her very own Argos, her old sweet dog would curl himself beside her, whining, trying to warm her cooling body.
Derrick just might get that lucky, the poor shmuck. It could happen. That kind of thing happens sometimes. That kind of last minute reprieve. It does. It could. It might.
But it didn’t. She gave the monitor to her doctor’s receptionist, who tossed it casually onto the counter and said, “Here’s your appointment to talk over your results. Bye now.” So Althea went home to her normal post-divorce-times-two routine. She ate a peanut butter sandwich for supper. She graded papers and watched television simultaneously, hoping each activity would neutralize the painful futility of the other. She went to bed and slept badly, wakened over and over by her jolting heart. But she did not die.
On Tuesday, she went to her 9:30 class—19th Century British Literature— and there Derrick was, slumped in the back row, as always. She put her books down on the front desk and opened her attendance book. She checked his name off—he’d never missed a single class. And wouldn’t now, apparently, although his college career was certainly over. There are rules: Repeat plagiarists do not graduate. Have a permanent record of cheating. Don’t get a refund. Don’t get a diploma. It was over. Kaput. End of story. Fini.
But here, after all, he was. He wouldn’t speak in class—he never had. But he would take notes and use his yellow highlighter to mark the passages she talked about in his Norton anthology. And when she read some poetry aloud, he would close his eyes and nod along with the beat, smiling, happy. He would. He always did. And he would, apparently, keep on doing it until someone told him, officially, that he could not. He would not leave until someone planted a big official boot on his ass and kicked, hard. No, dear Derrick would not go gentle into that good night, not at all.
Her heart dove—took a spectacular plunge into her diaphragm. Its fall left that peculiar hollowness in her chest, that empty second when there was no beat at all, that airless moment that felt like a little death—yes, and a bit like the petite morte, orgasm, but not really, not enough—before it thudded hard against her ribs and quivered there, trembling. Over and above all that commotion in her chest, she heard herself say calmly, “Okay, folks. Today it’s Keats.” She laughed a little, flipping the rice-thin pages of her heavily annotated text. “If I’m not mistaken, today we tackle Keats’ sonnet, ‘When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be’.”
How perfect. How stupidly divine, her timing these days. Her syllabus = her life + her death, times X. Solve for X, the great unknown. She sighed quietly and began to read the poem aloud, beating along in fine iambics, her voice strong and steady, far out of sync with her crazy heart: When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain. Oh, yes, perfect. She looked up to see
Derrick’s eyes closed, his face alight with his hopeless, ecstatic listening.
On Tuesday afternoons, between 2 and 3, during her office hour, Althea always emailed her best former student, the one who himself had gone on to become a professor, to teach at another college, and so on. The one she’d been in love with but had never told, because it was against the rules to love a student. Even though he’d been a grown man, even then—the one-in-million brilliant guy who came back to school at thirty-five, after being a musician, a cook, a drunk, a carpenter, a clerk in the A&P. And she’d only been forty herself back then: not so much older. A new professor herself, back then. Divorced, twice. No kids—she had a PhD instead of kids, she liked to say. So he hadn’t been so very far away, and forbidden, had he? But she wanted tenure; she couldn’t take a chance, could she? Instead of risking it, making a damn fool of herself, she’d gotten a puppy—black and fuzzy and utterly in love with her. The World’s Best Dog, she liked to say. And, he still was.
And then, like all of the good ones, the brilliant student had graduated. He’d finished his thesis, collected his 4.0 GPA and was gone. They’d written, for a while, then not. More than ten years of not. Recently, she had Googled his name. And found that he, too, had acquired what was called a “terminal degree,” as if he, too, had gotten what would be his last disease. She emailed; they caught up. He was chair of his department and, funny thing, he’d married. One of his own bright students, two weeks after she graduated and made an honest man of him. And he’d gotten tenure, as well.
So, she’d loved and lost in silence, and the world had kept on turning, as it does. But, still, he made her laugh even now, by email. His office hour was between 2 and 3 on T/Th, too. Ah, sweet synchronicity. For weeks, they’d been trading made-up slang names for English courses. She would send a name; he would define the course and vice versa. This wouldn’t have entertained anyone else, perhaps, but it brought light to Althea’s small days—somehow, it calmed her heart. These exchanges had started simply—he had called her Literature by Women course “chick lit.” She sent back “prick lit” for his Masculinities in Western Literature course. He had come up with alternatives for the women’s lit course: Clit lit. Bitch lit. It got less and less politically correct. She kept a list of all their course names so far; it made her chuckle:
Mick lit = Irish Literature
Zit lit = Adolescent Literature
Hip lit = The Beat Generation
Stiff lit = Murder Mysteries
Swish lit = Gay Literature (Alternative: Limp wrist lit)
Crip lit = Literature of the Differently Abled
Gefiltefish lit = Jewish Literature
Whip lit = The Writings of the Marquis de Sade
Flick lit = Film Studies
E’nit? lit = The Stories of Sherman Alexie
Pip lit = Great Expectations
Nit Wit lit = The Benjy Section of The Sound and the Fury
(also acceptable: Lenny’s parts in Of Mice and Men.)
Her fingers clicked over the keyboard; she’d had a brainstorm overnight, lying awake, listening to her heart sputter and chug. “Dickless lit,” she typed. “Hint: it’s not a whole course, just one book.” She sat back and waited.
Two seconds later, his message came back. “Hard one. (Ha, ha.) Have to think about it. No time now, though. Have to fly to Maine; Gina’s father died yesterday. Suddenly—only mid-fifties. Out of the blue. Stroke. Terrible timing: did I tell you we’re pregnant?”
She sent back: “Oh no. So sorry. Write when you get back. When you have time.” She turned off the machine and held her face in her hands. She could feel that she was flushed, that blood was pumping hard into the frail little vessels of her face. Her brain. She had tears in her eyes and she didn’t know why. She couldn’t be sorry that some girl named Gina, whom she’d never seen or met or wanted to know or even know existed, had lost her father, could she? Hell, no. She could be furious, though—furious that he’d married someone whose father was as old as herself. Someone young enough to be pregnant. Oh, yes, she could still be furious. And she was. Oh God, she was.
On Wednesday, Althea sat on the table in her doctor’s examining room, paper crinkling under her. She had meant to turn in Derrick’s papers on her way to the doctor, but just didn’t have time. The nurse took her blood pressure, smiled, went out of the room, came back in, took it again, and went out again. Althea’s heart went crazy, leaping like, like what? She thought for a minute, in search of the perfect simile. Okay—her heart was leaping like a wild deer caught in the cage of her ribs. That wasn’t bad. Lines from a Marvell poem swam into her ears: The wanton troopers riding by/Have shot my fawn and it will die. It was interesting, wasn’t it? An early word for “deer” was “hart.” Surely not coincidental? Nothing was, really, coincidental. She coughed and looked at her swinging feet; they hadn’t made her take her tights off and so her feet were clad in black, with a small hole beginning on her right big toe. But that couldn’t matter here—in the cardiologists’ offices, they only cared about the parts from the waist up. She crossed her arms over her chest and rocked, humming.
Dr. Engleman’s hair was reddish today, with gold highlights. It was the most astonishing thing—a cardiologist who changed his hair color weekly. From silvery gray to deep brown to sandy blond, a constantly changing array. It was the only odd thing about him, though. He was a tiny man, near her own age, neat and thin and gentle, with round black-rimmed glasses. Today, he shook his head and put his hand on her wrist, feeling her pulse. “Althea, your blood pressure is way up. It’s horrendous. We’ll have to change your medication.”
“Oh. Yes, okay.” She never could speak well to Dr. Engleman. She lost her training, her wit, her built-in facility with words, the minute she was faced with anyone in a white coat. “Um. What did the Holter show?”
He smiled, and pulled a fat bunch of paper from her file. “Look!” he said. “If I unfolded this, it would roll across the room and all the way down the hall! Look, your heart beat 112,782 times while you had this on.” He pointed to the number of the top of the summary sheet. He giggled like a child. “112,782 beats in one day! Isn’t that amazing? What we ask that little old pump to do, every day.” He leaned over and patted her shoulder. “You know, they used to think that everyone, at birth, got allotted a certain number of heartbeats and when they were gone, they were gone. Boom, your number was up. Literally. Isn’t that funny?” He put a stethoscope on her back and waved a finger when she started to speak. “Shhh.”
So she just thought what she’d like to say: Yes, I know about that heartbeat limit; that’s why the poets, the sonneteers, declared that their love was killing them. If the woman they loved was so damn beautiful that she made their hearts beat fast, she was killing them, one lost heartbeat at a time. But at my back I always hear…
He lifted the stethoscope away. “Your heart is going like a jackhammer, Althea. No wonder you get dizzy.” He dangled the Holter report in front of her. “But there’s nothing really wrong. Look.” He pointed to the report. “It’s fine. See? It says ‘normal sinus rhythm.’ Some palpitations, the kinds called PVC’s and PAC’s. Neither of those kills you, by the way. They’re nothing—I mean, I know they might feel like they’re going to kill you, but they don’t. Everyone over fifty has them. You must just be super-sensitive to feel them as strongly as you do. Oh, and you also had some brief incidents of tachycardia. Tachycardia just means ‘fast heart.’ So, sometimes, your heart goes, like 125 beats a minute. That’s fast. But then it stops, on its own. So that’s nothing, too.”
She felt tears rising in her eyes.
He leaned closer, tapping her arm with the metal round of his stethoscope. “Do you understand, Althea? You’re fine. I think you just get scared. Your blood gets full of adrenaline and that fools your heart into going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, for no good reason. It feels like you’re in danger, but you’re not. It’s a fake warning. False alarm. You get scared. That’s all. We’ll get you started on a new blood pressure medication and we’ll recheck your heart in six months. How will that be?”
She couldn’t stop the tears; words she hadn’t even thought about came spilling from her mouth. “You know what, doctor?” she said. “You know what happened this morning? My dog peed blood. He’s the World’s Best Dog. He’s 14 years old and going blind but I still believe he’ll live forever. He’s got to. But then today, in the snow, he peed blood. Big red splatters. And he whined the whole time.” She tried to take a deep breath, but her throat was too tight. “Of course I’m scared. I’m looking straight at mortality, every fucking day. Little skeletons dancing around my head. Memento mori. Aren’t you scared, too? Aren’t you scared spitless at least fifty per cent of the day and eighty per cent of the night, doctor? Aren’t you?”
Dr. Engleman pushed a hand through his hair and backed away. He began to write in her file. “And maybe something for anxiety, too.”
At the desk, filling out the check for her co-pay, Althea stopped. She looked at the nurse behind the counter and said, “Do you know the term for the psychological disorder where people pull out their hair? You know, their eyelashes and all? I think it’s a kind of compulsive disorder? Part of obsessive- compulsive disorder? Tripso-something?”
The nurse stared. “No,” she said. “I don’t. You want me to ask one of the doctors?”
“No,” Althea said. “I can look it up.”
But when she returned to her office, she didn’t look up the condition. It didn’t matter what the right word was, did it? The perfect word wouldn’t change a damn thing.
Unless… Unless that word was beautiful, so powerful that it did change everything. Like the words people used to believe in, long ago, words so full of power and mystery that they shouldn’t even be spoken, words that summoned up the godhead or conjured the devil. She turned the key in her car’s ignition and whispered into the dashboard: “Yahweh.” Nothing happened. “Beelzebub.” Nothing still. She drove home slowly over icy, treacherous roads. “Bibbity bobbity boo,” she sang.
On Thursday, 9:30, Derrick came to class. And the following Tuesday, too. And the next Thursday, when she gave an exam, he came and took it, sweating over his blue book. And the next Tuesday, when he got his exam grade back—C+— he smiled. He hadn’t recognized all the quotes, but he’d identified the Keats one, hadn’t he? Derrick’s plagiarism papers stayed in her book bag—she still hadn’t had the time to turn them in to the registrar. Or the energy. She was so tired, all the time. Her heart leapt crazily, day and night. She hardly slept, afraid to be jolted out of dreams by the screeching false alarms that came knocking on her ribs like sly messengers, like telegrams from the front, like phones suddenly shrilling in the middle of the night. She didn’t take her pills, any of them—not the Lotrel, not the Pravachol, not the Xanax, the Fosamax, the Miacalcin, the Caltrate, or the StressTabs. Not even the herbs: no black cohosh, no soy extract, no kava-kava, echinecea, chamomile, or rue. No eye of toad or toe of newt, either. Why should she, if all she was was just scared, for no good reason? Fuck it.
Two weeks later, the vet told her that her dog had cancer in his bladder and it would be kind, soon, to put him down. But she couldn’t, she knew that. She bloody well could not destroy the World’s Best Dog. It was just too much to ask, wasn’t it?
Four T/Th’s, 2-3 p.m., went by and she didn’t hear from her former, brilliant student. He had, apparently, grown weary of their silly little game. Maybe he was too busy, supporting his young wife through her first grief. Maybe she really was that young, his wife, that fragile in her present state. That new to the world of sorrow and of death.
She sent one last email: “Dickless lit = The Sun Also Rises. Ha. Ha. Get it?” She never heard back.
All through March, it snowed again and again. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, her dog stained the snow red, deeper than pink now, splashes of surprising scarlet in the clean white. Often now, he cried in his sleep. Sometimes, he shuddered and groaned. Sometimes, his eyes would suddenly shoot open and wide and he would sit staring wildly into space, shivering.
One bitterly cold moonlit night, she urged him into his evening walk around the block. “Come on,” she told him. “We need the air.” Even her city street looked lovely in the glassy blue light of moon on snow. Her two booted feet and the dog’s four padded feet crunched along together in the diamond-hard snow, a kind of contrapuntal harmony.
But then, about halfway around the block, the dog simply sat down. He lowered his butt onto the ice and just sat. She tugged his leash, gently. “Come on, sweetie,” she said. “Let’s go home.” He sighed, and rested his front half on the ice, too. He stretched out like a flat black dog-shaped shadow, right there on the sidewalk. He closed his eyes.
Her heart flipped in her chest, then sank, fluttering and skittering against her ribs. Oh God, not here. Not now. She crouched down beside him. She held one of his silky-cold ears in her mittened palm. “Oh, please,” she said. “Come on.” His tail wagged once, but he made no effort to stand.
She knew she couldn’t lift him, couldn’t carry his weight in her arms. She held tightly to his ear and raised her face to the winter sky, a silent plea, as close to prayer as she could get. The night was still. Nothing.
Althea slid down on the sidewalk and wrapped her warmth around the old, tired dog. She lifted his ear and whispered into it, the first thought that hit her brain: “Once,” she said, “there was a poet named Elizabeth Barrett—yes, yes, later she married Robert Browning and became Elizabeth Barrett Browning— that’s the one!—and she had a dog named Flush, a dog she loved with all her heart. Flush even got dognapped once, you know, and Elizabeth, who was an invalid, left her bed to save him. She and her lady’s maid traveled into the terrible slums of London, all alone, two trembling, respectable Victorian women, and they got Flush back. Elizabeth’s brothers wouldn’t go; her father wouldn’t. It was silly, they said, so much fuss over a dog. But Elizabeth and her maid went. They gathered their little bits of money and they paid the ransom and they saved him. They did!” Her lips were numb now and she was beginning to slur her words, but she kept talking. “Oh, yes, it’s all true. Later, long after Elizabeth and Robert and Flush were dead and gone, Virginia Woolf wrote a book called Flush. Did you know that, sweetie?”
The dog’s tail gave another slow thud against the ice, so she went on, her voice misting the air and coating the dog’s ear with frost: “Yes, and this is what the book says, how Woolf quotes Barrett, who is describing Flush. This is how it goes.” Althea closed her eyes and pictured the page in the book she was teaching in her Senior Seminar. Pages glowed in her head; she could read the words right off the back of her eyelids, like magic. “Yes, I’ve got it. Listen: He was of that particular shade of dark brown which in sunshine flashes ‘all over into gold.’ His eyes were ‘startled eyes of hazel brown.’ His ears were ‘tasseled’; his ‘slender feet’ were ‘canopied in fringes’ and his tail was ‘broad.’” She opened her eyes. “Isn’t that lovely?” She sat up, her arm around the dog’s shoulders. “Come on, now. It’s time to go home. I’ll tell you the rest at home. It’s a good story. In Italy, Flush fathers puppies and Elizabeth—in her late forties!—has a son. Really! You’ll want to hear how it all turns out. Come on.”
Slowly, the dog’s head lifted. With a great sigh, he pushed himself into a sitting position. Althea tugged his collar and he tottered upwards until he could stand. Together, under the icy moon, they limped their slow way home.
The next morning, she called the vet’s office and made the appointment, for the first day of spring break. The cheery voice of the young assistant fell into somber tones when she realized what the appointment was for.
Althea wrapped the telephone cord around her arm like a blood pressure cuff, looking at the calendar on the kitchen closet door. “He hates coming to the office,” she said. “He gets so scared. Is it possible for someone to come here? He’s been your patient for fourteen years and so I thought that perhaps…”
“Wow. Fourteen years.” The girl’s voice slipped back into cheer, despite herself. “I’ve only been here, like, three months. But I’ll ask the doctor. I think she’ll come out to your house. She does, sometimes, for, ummm, you know, that sort of thing.”
Suddenly, Althea felt the urge to giggle. “Of course she does,” she said. “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me.”
“Excuse me?” the girl said.
“Nothing. Poetry. Nothing.” Althea pressed her hand to her chest, staring at the calendar. She wouldn’t mark it down, that appointment. That was just too much to ask—she would not write those words in her kitchen.
On the last Thursday before spring break, she took the plagiarist’s papers out of her book bag and, after class, she called him to her desk. He stumbled up, pale as oats. She held out the papers. “Take these,” she said, “and do whatever you want with them. I won’t say anything, either way.”
He blushed, right up to his bald eyelids, his skin turning a soft, creamy peach. “I—what?”
She leaned over, speaking gently. “Surely you remember ‘Dover Beach’: neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. All of us, all the time, we’re all just dicking around on this goddamn darkling plain. You see? There’s really nothing to be done, Derrick, nothing at all. Take them.”
He slipped the papers from her hand, then backed away.
“Oh, wait,” she said. “You’ll be so pleased. I just thought of this, just this morning and I wrote it down, right here, for you.” She smiled at him, holding out the piece of paper where she’d jotted the magic word, just as it had come to her in the icy dawn as she sat stroking her old dog’s silky head. Trichotillomania. From the Greek. Tricho = hair. Tillein = pull. Mania = madness. “Take it, Derrick. It’s your word. Perfect and it’s for you.”
The boy’s hand plucked the piece of paper from her fingers and shoved it in with the others. He gripped the whole dog-eared mess against his chest. “I have to go,” he stammered. “I have another class.”
She nodded. “Of course. Just don’t forget to read that, Derrick. It will make all the difference.” She stood up, leaning over the desk toward him. She lowered her voice. “And, Derrick, you just go ahead. Just go ahead and steal all the fucking life you can, right now.” She put a hand to her pounding chest then slapped it down on the desk, hard. “Right here. If you cannot make your sun stand still, Derrick, yet you will make him run. Make him run, Derrick.”
The boy backed farther away. He backed all the way to the classroom door and into the crowded hall, where he was swept from her sight, still clutching his papers.
Funny. He hadn’t seemed comforted, not at all, not as she’d expected. He hadn’t looked saved or even grateful, the dumb cluck. Not one bit. No, what he had looked was terrified. Yes—that was it. He looked terrified, for no good reason.