Read In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs Online
Authors: Tobias Wolff
“Tub. Tub.” Frank shook his head. “Come on.” He took Tub's arm and led him into the restaurant half of the bar. “My friend is hungry,” he told the waitress. “Bring four orders of pancakes, plenty of butter and syrup.”
When the dishes came Frank carved out slabs of butter and just laid them on the pancakes. Then he emptied the bottle of syrup, moving it back and forth over the plates. He leaned forward on his elbows and rested his chin in one hand. “Go on, Tub.”
Tub ate several mouthfuls, then started to wipe his lips. Frank took the napkin away from him. “No wiping,” he said. Tub kept at it. The syrup covered his chin; it dripped to a point like a goatee. “Weigh in, Tub,” Frank said, pushing another fork across the table. “Get down to business.” Tub took the fork in his left hand and lowered his head and started really chowing down. “Clean your plate,” Frank said when the pancakes were gone,
and Tub lifted each of the four plates and licked it clean. He sat back, trying to catch his breath.
“Beautiful,” Frank said. “Are you full?”
“I'm full,” Tub said. “I've never been so full.”
Kenny's blankets were bunched up against the tailgate again.
“They must have blown off,” Tub said.
“They're not doing him any good,” Frank said. “We might as well get some use out of them.”
Kenny mumbled. Tub bent over him. “What? Speak up.”
“I'm going to the hospital,” Kenny said.
“Attaboy,” Frank said.
The blankets helped. The wind still got their faces and Frank's hands but it was much better. The fresh snow on the road and the trees sparkled under the beam of the headlight. Squares of light from farmhouse windows fell onto the blue snow in the fields.
“Frank,” Tub said after a time, “you know that farmer? He told Kenny to kill the dog.”
“You're kidding!” Frank leaned forward, considering. “That Kenny. What a card.” He laughed and so did Tub. Tub smiled out the back window. Kenny lay with his arms folded over his stomach, moving his lips at the stars. Right overhead was the Big Dipper, and behind, hanging between Kenny's toes in the direction of the hospital, was the North Star, Pole Star, Help to Sailors. As the truck twisted through the gentle hills the star went back and forth between Kenny's boots, staying always in his sight. “I'm going to the hospital,” Kenny said. But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.
rofessor Brooke had no real quarrel with anyone in his department, but there was a Yeats scholar named Riley whom he could not bring himself to like. Riley was flashy, so flashy that even his bright red hair seemed an affectation, and it was said that he'd had affairs with some of his students. Brooke did not as a rule give credit to these rumors, but in Riley's case he was willing to make an exception. He had once seen a very pretty girl leaving Riley's office in tears. Students did at times cry over bad grades, but this girl's misery was something else: it looked more like a broken heart than a Câ.
They belonged to the same parish, and Brooke, who liked to sit in the back of the church, often saw Riley at Mass with his wife and their four red-haired children. Seeing the children and their father together, like a row of burning candles, always made Brooke feel more kindly toward Riley. Then Riley would turn to his wife or look around, and the handlebars of his unnecessarily large moustache would come into view, and Brooke would dislike him again.
The Sunday after he'd seen the girl come out of Riley's office Brooke watched him go up and take communion, then return to his seat with downcast eyes and folded hands. Was he praying, or was he trying to remember whether he'd checked his collar for stains? Where did Riley find the time, considering his tireless production of superficial articles and books, for romancing girls who had not yet mastered the English sentence, who were still experimenting with hair styles and perfumes? Did Mrs. Riley know?
Brooke raised these questions with his wife after lunch, after their children had left the table. They often talked about other people's infidelities, not in a mean or superior way, but out of a sense of relief that after sixteen years they were still in love. Brooke's wife said that a crying girl didn't mean muchâgirls cried all the time. In her opinion Brooke should not make up his mind about Riley until he knew more. Brooke was touched by his wife's innocence and generosity, and pretended to agree.
In November the regional chapter of the Modern Language Association met in Bellingham. Professor Brooke had been invited to take part in a panel discussion on the afternoon of the second day, and though he did not enjoy literary carnivals he hoped that he might bring some sanity to the meeting. He knew the work of the other panel members and judged that there was a real and present danger of the discussion becoming a brawl.
Just before he left, Brooke had a call from Riley. Riley was scheduled to read a paper that night and his car was on the blink. Could he have a ride? “Of course,” Brooke said, but after he hung up he complained to his wife. “Dammit,” he said, “I was looking forward to being alone.” It wasn't only the loss of privacy that made him cross; he and Riley had quarreled at a tenure committee meeting the week before and he feared that Riley, who had no tact or sense of occasion, would renew the argument. Brooke did not want to fight his way to Bellingham with a man who wore powder-blue suits.
But Riley was taciturn, preoccupied. As they were leaving Seattle he asked Brooke to pull into a filling station so that he could make a telephone call. Brooke watched him in the booth, frowning at the receiver and gesticulating like a man practicing a speech. When he got back in the car he wore a theatrically tormented expression and Brooke felt obliged to ask whether there was anything wrong.
“Yes,” Riley said, “but you don't want to hear about it, believe me.” He said that he was having difficulties with the editor of his latest book.
Brooke didn't quite believe him. He wondered if it had something to do with the girl. Perhaps Riley had gotten her pregnant and was trying to dissuade her from having an abortion. “Let me know,” he said, “if there's anything I can do.”
“That's nice of you,” Riley said. “You know, you remind me of a guy I knew in high school who was voted Nicest in the Class. No kidding.” He hooked his arm over the seat and smiled at Brooke in a special way he had, curling his handlebars up and showing a flash of teeth. It looked as if he had somewhere come upon the phrase “roguish smile” and developed this expression to match it, and it drove Brooke absolutely crazy. “Tell me,” Riley said, “what's the worst thing you've ever done?”
“The worst thing I've ever done?”
Riley nodded, showing more teeth.
For some reason Brooke panicked: his hands got wet on the steering wheel, his knees trembled, and he couldn't think straight.
“Forget it,” said Riley after a time, and gave a little laugh, and hardly spoke again for the rest of the trip.
Brooke finally calmed down, but the question persisted. What
the worst thing he had ever done? One night when he was thirteen, and home alone, and had just finished off all the maraschino cherries in the refrigerator and gotten bored with sighting in the neighbors on the scope of his father's hunting rifle, he called the parents of a girl who had died of leukemia and asked
to speak to her. That same year he threw a cat off a bridge. Later, in high school, he unthinkingly used the word “nigger” in front of a black classmate who considered Brooke his friend, and claimed that he had seduced a girl who had merely let him kiss her.
When Brooke recalled these things he felt painâa tightening at the neck that pulled his head down and made his shoulders hunch, and a tingling in his wrists. Still, he doubted that Riley would be very impressed. Riley clearly had him down for a goody-goody. And, in a way, he was; that is, he tried to be good. When you tried to be good you ran the risk of seeming a prig, but what was the alternative? Brooke did not want to know. Yet at times he wondered if he had been too easily tamed.
The panel discussion was not a success. One of the members, a young man named Abbot from Oregon State University, had recently published a book on Samuel Johnson which attempted to define him as a poet and thinker of the Enlightenment. The thesis was so wrongheaded that Brooke had assumed it to be insincere, but this was not the case. Abbot seemed to think that his ideas did him credit, and persistently dragged them into conversations where they had no place. After one very long tirade Brooke decided to set him right and did so, he thought successfully, with few words.
“Excellent points,” said the chairwoman, a Dryden scholar from Reed College who wore sunglasses and blew smoke out of her mouth as she talked. Turning to Abbot she said, “Is your speech finished?”
Abbot looked at her sharply, then nodded.
“Good,” the chairwoman said. “To quote Samuel Johnson, that paradigm figure of the Enlightenment, âNo one would have wished it longer.'”
Abbot was crushed. His face went stiff with misery, and he sat without speaking for the rest of the discussion. Brooke felt embar
rassed by the chairwoman's treatment of Abbot, not only because she was unkind but because her unkindness was so distinctly professorial.
When the panel ended he chatted with a woman he'd known in graduate school. They were joined by an athletic-looking fellow whom Brooke supposed to be one of her students until she introduced him as her husband. The disparity in their ages made Brooke fidgety and he soon drifted away.
The room where the discussion had been held was actually half of a long hall, divided by a folding partition. A meeting of some kind had just begun on the other side. All the voices were male, and Brooke guessed that they belonged to a group of scoutmasters who were holding a convention in the hotel. He stood at one end of the refreshment table and ate little sandwiches with pennants sticking out of them onto which someone had typed literary quotations about food and drink. He saw Abbot at the other end, looking out over the room and smirking to himself. Brooke hoped that he would not become the kind of academic who believes that his ideas are not accepted because they are too profound and original. He went over to Abbot and showed him one of his pennants.
“What did you get?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Abbot said. “I'm on a diet.” He stared into his coffee, the surface of which had an iridescent sheen.
“Tell me,” Brooke said, “what are you working on now?”
Abbot drew a deep breath, put the cup down, and walked past Brooke and out of the room.
“Ouch,” said the woman on the other side of the table.
Brooke turned to her. She was striking; not beautiful, really, but very blonde and heavily made-up. “You saw that?”
“Yes. You tried, anyway.” She reached below the table and brought up a fresh platter of sandwiches. “Have one,” she said. “Salami and cheese.”
“No thanks. Those quotations are hard to swallow.”
She lowered the platter, her face as red as if she'd been slapped.
Brooke turned one of the pennants with his finger. “You did all these, didn't you?”
“I'm very sorry I said that. I was just being clever.”
“It's all right.”
“I'm going to keep my mouth shut,” Brooke said. “Every time I open it I hurt someone's feelings.”
“I didn't really understand what the panel was all about,” she said, “but he was the one who kept interrupting all the time. I thought you were nice. I could tell, listening to you, that I would like you. But that woman. If anybody ever talked to me like that I would die. I would just die.”
She leaned toward Brooke and spoke quietly, as though imparting confidences. Her lips were unusually full and, like the Wife of Bath, she had a gap between her front teeth. Brooke was going to tell her that in Chaucer's time a gap between your teeth meant that you were a very sensual person, but he decided not to. She might take it wrong.
On the other side of the partition the scoutmasters were saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Where did you get all the quotes?” Brooke asked.
“From Bartlett's. It was a dumb idea.”
“No it wasn't. It was very thoughtful.” Brooke meant to end the conversation there, but the woman asked him several questions and he thought that he should ask her some questions in return. Her name was Ruth. She was a nurse at Bellingham General and had lived in the town all her life. She was unmarried. The local waiters' union, to which the caterers belonged, had gone on strike and Ruth had been asked to help out at the conference by a college teacher who belonged to her literary society.
“Literary society,” Brooke said. “I didn't know they had them any more.”
“Oh yes,” Ruth said. “It's the most important thing in my life.”
At that moment another woman ran up with a list of items for Ruth to collect at the hotel kitchen. As Ruth turned away she looked over her shoulder and smiled.
By this time there were several people standing in line for sandwiches. Brooke moved to make room and soon found himself in a corner with a graduate student from his university who had just completed a dreary thesis on Ruskin. “Well,” said the student, a tall boy with a stoop, “I guess the good doctor is turning over in his grave today.”
“What good doctor?” Brooke asked, uncomfortable with this person who had spent four years of his life reading
The Stones of Venice
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Brooke said.
Riley, holding several sandwiches, joined them and the student had no chance to explain. “You really went after Abbot,” Riley said.
“I didn't intend to go after anyone.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“It was a panel,” Brooke said. “He spoke from his point of view and I spoke from mine. That's what we were supposed to do.”
“You mean,” Riley said, “that you spoke from the right point of view and he spoke from the wrong point of view.”
“I think so. What do you think?”
“I don't know the period as well as I should,” Riley said, “but I thought his ideas seemed original. They were interesting enough.”
“Interesting,” Brooke said, “in the way flat-Earth theories are interesting.”
“I envy you,” Riley said. “You're always so sure of yourself.”
The student looked at his watch. “Uh-oh,” he said. “I have to be going.”
“I'm not always sure of myself,” Brooke said. “But this time I am.”
“I wasn't just thinking of the panel.” Riley reminded Brooke of the tenure committee meeting the previous week. He wanted to know how Brooke could deny work to a woman with a sick husband and three children. He wanted to know how Brooke justified that to himself.
“We were asked to consider her professional qualifications,” Brooke said. “She's a terrible teacher, as you very well know, and she hasn't published anything in over four years. Not even a book review.”
“It was that simple, was it?”
“It wasn't simple at all,” Brooke said. “If there was anything I could do for her short of giving her tenure I would do it. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going out for some fresh air.”
A cold, salty breeze was blowing in off the water. The streets were empty. Brooke walked around the hotel several times, nodding to the doorman as he passed the entrance. The street lights were on, and some mineral embedded in the concrete made it glitter in a false and irritating way.
He decided that he was right and Riley wrong. But why did he feel so awful? It was ridiculous. He would have a bite to eat and drive home that very night. Riley could find another ride.
As he left the hotel restaurant Brooke saw the blonde womanâRuthâstanding in the lobby. He was about to turn away but just then she looked in his direction and smiled and waved. She was plainly glad to see him and Brooke decided to say hello. Not to do so, he thought, would be rude. They sat side by side in chairs that had, for some reason, been bolted to the floor. In the chairs across from them two scoutmasters were arm-wrestling. Ruth's perfume smelled like lavender; it came over Brooke in waves. He wanted to close his eyes and breathe it in.