FROM FAR AWAY the trees at Bentley College appeared as if on fire, crowns of nuclear leaves dotting the skyline. Professor William Lansing knew it meant that fall had firmly arrived. Once October hit, the Connecticut campus became festooned with brilliant yellows, deep reds, and Sunkist orange nature. People traveled for miles to witness the foliage, rubbernecking up I-95 and flocking to nearby Devil’s Hopyard, a giant park where the students might perform Shakespeare, or enter its forest gates at nighttime to get high and wild. William had taken a meandering hike through its labyrinthine trails that morning before his seminar on Existential Ethics in Literature. It had been more than a decade since he’d entered its tree-lined arms, but today, the very day he was reaching the part in his long-gestating novel that took place in Devil’s Hopyard, seemed like a fitting time to return.
His wife, Laura, hadn’t stirred when he left at dawn. He slipped out of bed and closed the mystery novel propped open on her snoring chest. He often wrote early in the mornings. Before the world awoke, he’d arm himself with a steaming coffee and a buzzing laptop, the wind from off the Connecticut River pinching his cheeks. His chirping backyard would become a den of inspiration, or he’d luxuriate in the silence of Bentley at six o’clock when the only sound might be a student or two trundling down the Green to sleep off a fueled night of debauchery.
He’d been at Bentley for more than twenty years, tenured and always next in line to be department chair. He refused even the notion of the position for fear it might eat into time spent writing his opus. His colleagues understood this mad devotion. They too had their sights set on publications, most of them well regarded in journals, only a few of them renowned beyond Bentley’s walls like William dreamed to be. Notoriety had dazzled him since he was a child—a time when his world seemed small and lifeless, and dreams of fame were his only escape.
His colleagues often questioned him about this elusive manuscript he’d been toiling on for years, but he found it best to remain tight-lipped, to entice mystery. It was how he ran his classroom as well, letting only a few chosen students get close, keeping the rest at enough of a distance to regard him as tough and impenetrable but fair. Maybe he’d made a few students cry when a paper they stayed up all night to finish received a failing grade, or when his slashes of red pen seemed to consume one of their essays on Sartre’s Nausea, which he found trite and pedestrian, but that only made them want to do better the next time. They understood that he wanted his kingdom to be based on fear, for creativity soared in times of distress.
William’s legs were sore after his hike that morning through Devil’s Hopyard. The terrain was hilly and its jagged trails would challenge even a younger man, but he kept fit, wearing his fifty-five-year-old frame well. He had been an athlete back in school, a runner and a boxer who still kept a punching bag in the basement and ended his day with a brisk run through his town of Killingworth, a blue-collar suburban enclave surrounding Bentley’s college-on-a-hill. He had all his hair, which was more than he could say for most of his peers, even though silver streaks now cut through the brown. He secretly believed this made him more dashing than during his youth. Women twenty years younger still gave him a second glance, and he often found Laura taking his hand at department functions and squeezing it tight, as if to indicate that she fully claimed him and there’d be no chance for even the most innocent of flirtations. He had a closet full of blazers with elbow patches and never wore ties so he could keep his collar open and expose his chest hair, which hadn’t turned white yet. He had a handsome and regal face, well proportioned, and although his eyes drooped some due to a lifetime of battling insomnia, it gave him the well-worn look of being entirely too busy to sleep. People often spoke of him as a soul who never enjoyed being idle, someone who was always moving, expounding, and expanding.
“Hi, Professor Lansing,” said Nathaniel, a tall and gangly freshman, who after three weeks into the semester had yet to look William in the eye. Nathaniel’s legs twisted over one another with each step. William guessed that the boy had recently grown into his pole-like body and his brain now struggled with how to move it properly.
“Nathaniel,” William said, wiping the sweat mustache from his top lip. He could smell his own lemony perspiration from the intense jaunt through Devil’s Hopyard. “How did your paper on The Stranger turn out?”
Nathaniel’s eyes seemed to avoid him even more. They became intent on taking in the colorful foliage, as if it had sprouted overnight.
“Well…” the boy began, still a hair away from puberty, his voice hitting a high octave, “I’m not totally sure what you meant about Meursault meeting his end because he didn’t ‘play the game.’”
William responded with a throaty laugh and a shake of his head. He placed a palm on Nathaniel’s shoulder.
“Society’s game, Nathaniel, the dos and don’ts we all must ascribe to. How, even if we slip on occasion, we’re not supposed to admit what we did for fear of being condemned. Right?”
Nathaniel nodded, his rather large Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in agreement too. He stuffed a bitten-down nail between his chapped lips and chewed away like a rat, leaving William to wonder if the boy was on some newfangled type of speed. He liked Nathaniel, who barely spoke in class but once in a while would give a nervous peep filled with promise. The students he paid the most attention to weren’t the heads of the lacrosse team or the stars of the theater productions; those students would have a million other mentors fawning over them. He looked for the hidden jewels, the ones who were waiting for that extra push, who’d been passed over their whole lives but would someday excel past their peers. Then they would thank him wholeheartedly for igniting a spark.
“Is that why Camus didn’t personalize the victim that Meursault killed?” Nathaniel asked, wary at first, as the two entered the doors of Fanning Hall past a swirl of other students. “So we sympathize with him despite his crime?”
William stopped at the door of his classroom, its cloudy window offering a view of a haze of students settling into their desks. He stood blocking the door so Nathaniel had no choice but to look in his eyes.
“Did you sympathize with him?”
“Yes … umm, it’s hard to penalize someone for one mistake,” Nathaniel said. “I know he shot the Arab guy, but … I don’t know, sometimes things just happen. I guess that makes me callous.”
William stared at Nathaniel for an uncomfortable extra few seconds before Kelsey, a pretty sorority girl with canary yellow hair, fluttered past them.
“Hey, Professor,” Kelsey said, without looking Nathaniel’s way. William could feel the boy’s sigh crowding the hallway.
“Come, Nathaniel, we’ll continue this debate in class.”
William led the boy into the room. The students immediately became hushed and rigid.
Nathaniel slumped into a chair in the back while Kelsey cut off another girl to get a prime seat up front.
William placed his leather satchel on the table, took out a red marker, and scribbled on the board, I didn’t know what a sin was. The handwriting looked like chicken scratch and the students had to squint a bit to decipher it, but eventually the entire class of twenty managed to correctly jot down the quote. They had gotten used to his idiosyncrasies.
“At the end of the novel, Meursault ponders that he didn’t know what a sin was,” William said. “What does that mean?”
A quarter of the class raised their hands, each one eager to be noticed. Kelsey clicked her tongue for attention, as if her desperation wasn’t obvious enough. She looked like she had to pee. In the back, Nathaniel was fully absorbed in a doodle that resembled Piglet from Winnie-the-Pooh.
“Nathaniel,” William barked, sending the pen flying out of the boy’s hand. Nathaniel weaved his long arms around the desk to pick up the pen and then gave a slack-jawed expression as a response.
“Why does Meursault insist to the chaplain that he didn’t know what a sin was?” William asked again.
Nathaniel silently pleaded for William to call on someone else. He let out an “uuuhhhhhhh” that lasted through endless awkward seconds.
Kelsey took it upon herself to chime in. “Professor, while Meursault understands he’s been found guilty for his crime, he doesn’t truly see that what he did was wrong.”
William turned toward Kelsey to admonish her for speaking without being called on, a nasty habit that happened more and more with this ADD-addled generation than the prior one, but a red-leaf tree outside the window captured his attention instead, its color so unreal, so absorbing. The red, so vibrant like its leaves, had been painted with blood.
“Professor … Professor.”
The sound came from far away, as if hidden under the earth, screaming to be acknowledged.
Kelsey waved her arm in his direction, grounding him. She gave a pout.
“Like, am I right, or what, Professor? He doesn’t truly see that what he did was wrong.”
William cleared his throat, maintaining control over the room. He smiled at them the same way he would for a photograph.
“Yes, that’s true, Kelsey. Expressing remorse would constitute his actions as wrong. He knows his views make him a stranger to society, and he is content with this judgment. He accepts death and looks forward to it with peace. The crowds will cheer hatefully at his beheading, but they will be cheering. This is what captivates the readers seventy years after the book’s publication. What keeps it and Camus eternal, immortal.”
Kelsey beamed at the class, her grin smug as ever.
William went to the board, erased the quote, and replaced it with the word IMMORTAL in big block letters, this time written with the utmost perfect penmanship.
* * *
THE REST OF William’s day included a creative writing class that he’d had to beg the department chair, Dr. Joyce Yancey, to give him, and an independent study on Edgar Allan Poe, which two seniors took. Mondays were his busiest, since he booked all his classes that day and then took the rest of the week for writing and office hours. Dr. Yancey had been hesitant about offering him a creative writing class, simply because he hadn’t had a novel published yet and prospective students might want a “bigger name.” Brooks Jessup, a newer hire, had a lockdown on the creative writing seminars after publishing a literary thriller to some acclaim that he liked to obnoxiously describe as a “modern Faulkneresque journey.” But this semester, Brooks had gotten a nice deal for his second novel, so a freshman seminar opened up. Unfortunately, the class was available for anyone to take, and most of the students were just there to express themselves or fulfill a requirement rather than actually displaying talent.
When William returned home, his house was eerily still. His twin children, Alicia and Bill Jr., had lived there while going to Bentley, so it’d been only a few years since they moved out. He hadn’t entirely gotten used to their absence yet. They’d purchased a ramshackle bar in the next town over and chose to room together in the apartment above. Laura thought it best that they stayed at home to save money in case the bar went belly-up, but William advocated for their independence. Ideally, he wanted them to live apart and forge separate lives, but they always had a close symbiotic relationship he assumed one could have only from sharing a womb. As an only child, he had to admit being jealous. He couldn’t think of anyone he was that close to besides Laura, and he was twenty-five when he met her. Twenty-five years of experiences that she’d never be able to share in so they could fully understand each other like twins would.
The glass door to the backyard slid open and Laura entered with a basket of squash blossoms. She wore heavy gardening gloves and had a swatch of dirt across her forehead, often from combing her hair out of her face after digging into the ground. Four years older than him and pushing sixty, she was beginning to slow down but she still had a youthful face. The long New England winters kept her away from any excess sun exposure and her skin was porcelain smooth, the color of pearls. Her light blond hair had thinned out some and turned off-white, but she maintained it with weekly trips to a salon in Old Saybrook. She’d always been a nervously thin woman, prone to being spooked, and her gray eyes took on whatever color she wore. She dressed simply, matronly, but no one would ever say she didn’t have style. Sweaters were tied around her neck, a cross necklace often sat above her heart, and white gold bracelets usually jangled from her wrists. She might be described as quiet, which William liked. The two of them never worried about lulls in conversations. Dinners were sometimes spent silently reading the papers, occasionally remarking on the news of the day. She was a loving and doting woman, and after all these years the couple still appeared drawn to each other.
Laura was humming an indecipherable song as she stepped inside, likely from her church choir. The choir took classic songs and updated them by inserting the Lord for baby, love, or honey. She leaned forward and squinted at William before a warm smile broke out. She fumbled with her glasses and hung them low on her nose.
“Oh, William, I didn’t even see you. Been home long?”
William pointed to his leather satchel, still in hand. “Just got in.”
She fixed the basket of squashes on her knee to get a better grip and then hoisted it onto the dining room table.
“Cabbage worms have been gobbling these up,” she said. “Hit them with the Spinosad but had to spend the day watching over them like a hawk.”
He never envied her days. It seemed as if she spent too much time finding ways to fill up her time. She had the church and did charity work for it, lunched with a smattering of friends, and of course her bookcases were full of mystery novels, but William always felt he was the most exciting part of her life, which saddened him. They’d met studying literature in grad school, and he’d tried to get her to start writing her own novel too. She gave the excuse that she could only write what she knew, and few would want to read what she knew these days.
“I was thinking spaghetti squash with marinara sauce, maybe some turkey meatballs to cut down on your red meat intake like the doctor suggested.”
William frowned. Besides his opus, red meat was one of his other true passions. He liked it as rare as possible, practically raw.
“I’m reaching a major part in my novel tonight, so I might just eat in the study.”
She clapped her hands and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Oh, William, how exciting. I’ll cook up some mixed beef and pork meatballs, then.”
She gave him a pat on the butt. “Well, go now, scoot up there and get to finishing.”
He kissed her on the lips and wiped away the smear of dirt on her forehead. Her cheeks reddened.
“The novel’s really good, Laura. I mean … I feel like I’ve finally figured out the snags.”
She fiddled with her cross necklace.
“Of course you have. I married you for your brain, not your body.”
She gave a harder pat on his butt, shooing him away and humming louder than before as she removed the squash from the basket.
He retreated upstairs.
That night, he furiously typed for hours, demented in his strokes. He had devoted more than ten years to these words, and tears crinkled at the edges of his eyes as he reached the midpoint of the novel. A melancholic aura filtered through the room, the frightening notion of what might come next when the project was done. He assumed that this was what all novelists wrestled with, the desire to elongate their works to avoid saying farewell to the characters. Saying good-bye meant killing them; it meant finality, and this weighed heavy on his heart.
The next morning, the sun baked through the window as he reveled in the solitary bliss of a creation born from his mind alone. This meditation was interrupted by a thwack against the front door. He cocooned himself in a bathrobe, slid on slippers, and headed downstairs. Opening the front door, he swiped the Times and the local paper, the Killingworth Gazette. A biting breeze rustled his bones as he closed the door. Winter would be arriving soon. He tossed the two bound-up papers on the dining room table and brewed a pot of coffee. Sitting down, he picked up the Gazette and read the article on the front page: “Former Bentley College Student Strikes Gold as an NYC Editor.”
A massive picture of Kyle Broder, handsome and chiseled with stylishly messy dirty-blond hair and sea blue eyes, stared back at him. William was shocked to see his former student, one he knew well. At thirty, Kyle had just brokered a megadeal at Burke & Burke Publishing for his debut author, Sierra Raven. Beyond being Sierra’s first novel, this was her agent’s first client and Kyle’s first acquisition as an editor. The book had gone to auction and ultimately Sierra got an unreal $500,000 advance before the novel had even been finished. Film rights had already sold to a major movie studio for another $500,000.
Wonderful fate had delivered this news to William’s door. If this girl could get a deal with Kyle before completing her novel, then he certainly had a shot too, especially since he already had an in.
He sat back with his hands laced behind his head and couldn’t help but smile.
Copyright © 2017 by Lee Matthew Goldberg