I knew from Gloria’s breathing that she was still awake. That meant the likelihood that she had something on her mind and that she wouldn’t get to sleep until she talked it out and transplanted it to mine, at which point I’d be the one unable to sleep. But that would be my problem and she’d be snoring away, which she denies doing.
I had been lying awake myself, mentally working on a short story in progress. I didn’t say anything, hoping she might let whatever it was go until morning. Silly me. I felt an elbow in my side and heard, “Honey?”
I’m usually in for it when she calls me Honey.
“Did you have a good time at the party tonight?”
“Terrific time,” I said.
That was a lie. Dinner parties with enlightened, evolved people of the kind who name their pets to show off their erudition or their ironic sensibility are my idea of tedium. Gloria knew that, but she was leading up to something. I could have responded by reciting the alphabet and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
“Me too,” she said.
For about two seconds I thought that might be the end of it. I took a breath and held it; before I could exhale, here it came.
“Still here,” I said.
“What made the evening special for you?”
“Everything. The food, the wine, good conversation, friends.”
By this time I had an idea where this was headed, but I knew better than to press; she’d get there in her own oblique way. My role was to play straight man until she did.
“Does it ever bother you,” she said, “that we’re the only ones among our friends who can’t host a proper dinner party?”
She had dropped the Honey, which meant she was down to business.
“Not a bit,” I said.
“I’m being honest.”
I might as well have been talking to myself.
“We need a house with a dining room, David.”
“No we don’t.”
I was hoping that a clear, direct, unambiguous approach might put the matter to rest, if not once and for all, at least long enough for me to get back to my story and then to sleep. No such luck.
“What would it take to add a dining room to this house?”
“More expense and bother than I care to deal with,” I said. “We’ve been over this before. The only place we could put a dining room is south of the kitchen, and to do that we’d have to violate the city code on setbacks. And to get around that we’d have to request a variance. If it’s granted, we’d then have to search for a reputable and affordable contractor. And if we’re lucky enough to find one that we can work with, we’d end up living for months without a usable kitchen.”
“How does one get a variance?” she said.
One? Who did she think she was kidding? I’d be the one doing whatever it took to line all this up.
“One gets a petition from city hall,” I said, “then goes hat in hand to the neighbors for their approval and signature, in our case neighbors to whom we never say boo and who probably think we’re snobs because we teach at the university.”
“Is there some reason we can’t do that?”
“Theoretically no,” I said, “but why should Roger next door agree to an encroachment so that we can host dinner parties to which he’ll never be invited?”
“Does he have to know the reason?”
“Maybe not. But what if he asks? Should I be honest and tell him you’re worried over falling out of favor with a group of precious, self-appointed intellectuals?”
“There’s more to it,” she said. “Mostly I’m tired of eating in the kitchen. Aren’t you?”
“Nope. It’s that much quicker from the stove to the table. I noticed tonight that by the time that orange stuff got served it was lukewarm.”
“It was Moroccan pumpkin soup.”
“Whatever. By the way, when you request a variance, the city plants a sign in front of your house with a big V on it. It’s got smaller print below explaining that the V stands for variance and that you’re requesting one. But people don’t read the small print. All they see is that V, and not everybody knows what it means. For years, I didn’t. And these days V is loaded with connotations. We might have people showing up for the Vagina Monologues.”
“You’re being silly,” she said.
“You’re right. And now I’m being serious. You’ll never convince me that this isn’t about keeping up with the Joneses, the Joneses in this case being Sarah Lefler and her ilk.”
“Sarah Lefler happens to be a very bright and accomplished woman,” she said. “I hope you don’t have a problem with that.”
“Not at all,” I said. “What I have a problem with, for one thing, is that she’s not content to be evolved, but must be more evolved than the next person. I guarantee you, after we spent all that money and went to all that trouble to prove that we can entertain in acceptable fashion, she’d find a way to outdo us. She’d throw a party and invite Branjelina and the French ambassador. And they’d come.”
“‘For one thing.’”
“That’s right,” I said. “She’s also an ideological twin to Tara Snider, who drove Tom Ewing from the department for the crime of refusing to goose step with her to war against God, country and the traditional family.”
“I was never clear about that business with Tom Ewing,” she said. “Are you sure about Tara Snider’s role in it?”
“Very sure. Tom’s version is that she and her comrades targeted him with sneering disdain and character assassination in the name of social engineering. When he couldn’t take it any more, he played into her hands and went off on her. He was like a basketball player who gets caught retaliating for a cheap shot that the refs missed.”
“Does he have any proof?”
“Of course not,” I said. “The sneer is the perfect means of stealth harassment. And if you’re its target and cry foul, you open yourself to the charge of being paranoid, which we all know is the mark of a disordered personality. But I believe Tom because he’s an honorable guy and because she’s been trying the same thing with me. Too bad for her I’m thicker-skinned than him.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Because she’s decided that I'm counter-revolutionary. Because she enjoys it. Because . . ."
“Okay, okay. I admit Tara Snider’s not exactly a favorite of mine, either, but . . .”
“But nobody takes on Her Bolshevik Majesty the Queen of Darkness.”
“Except you,” she said. “In every story you’ve written lately there’s a sneering radical feminist. I sometimes wonder if you’ve lost sight of your artistic purposes.”
“Art holds up a mirror,” I said. “In this case one that shows the dirty little secret in the hollow halls of academe—the withering intolerance of the tolerance crowd in the cause of ideological cleansing. But since you brought it up, you might as well know that the piece I’m working on is about a guy in Tom’s position, only this guy packs a .357 magnum. I’m still trying to decide if he uses it.”
“I wish you’d tone it down,” she said. “I have a stake in this, too, in fact more than you realize. More than I realized until I learned what I learned tonight.”
“Let me guess. You’re going to be the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.”
“No, but you’re warm. I’m in line for the assistant deanship that’s opened up. Liz told me at the party, sotto voce, which I take to mean that it’s still unofficial.”
“I was feeling a little sotto myself after the third glass of wine,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me when we got home?”
“I guess I forgot.”
I doubted that but I let it pass.
“Is that what this is about, that this house and this working class neighborhood are unworthy of an assistant dean?”
“Maybe a little,” she said. Sleepiness had crept into her voice.
“If you want to upgrade,” I said, “let’s get some Martha Stewart napkins and placemats from K-Mart. People will think we’re to the manor born.”
She was silent for a moment. When she answered she seemed to have to rally herself.
“What people?” she said through a yawn. “One couple is the most we can have over at a time. And we almost never do that.”
She turned onto her side, with her back to me. After a minute I heard what sounded like a little laugh and then, in a sleepy voice, “Queen of Darkness.”
“May she live forever,” I said, then returned in my mind to my story.
Gloria was right—artistic purposes ought to trump everything else, and having my protagonist murder a fictional version of Tara Snider, although satisfying on one level, was the wrong artistic touch. But if he was writing a story . . .
I considered testing this out on Gloria, but by then she was snoring. Which of course she denies ever doing. DSS
Jim Courter, 65, of Macomb, IL., is a retired writing instructor at Western Illinois University. He's a Pushcart Prize nominee and a winner of an Illinois Arts Council award for short fiction. He has written three so-far unpublished mystery novellas.
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