AN INTRODUCTION BY REBECCA SCHIFF
It makes sense that I’m introducing Deb Olin Unferth for Recommended Reading because I spend a lot of time recommending Deb Olin Unferth. I recommend her to students. I recommend her to friends. I recommend her to other writers. I recommend her because she’s one of the few fiction writers working today whose work is both poetic and funny, because she’s a sentence-level dazzler who knows how to tell a story.
“Wait Till You See Me Dance,” the title story in Unferth’s second collection, has elements of her earlier fiction — thought riffs about existence, sentences that remake the language — but takes those elements and gives them new force and meaning through subtle, Unferthian storytelling. In this story, an adjunct professor keeps repeating to her English 99 class that their final “will be graded by outside sources,” a phrase that absolves her of responsibility. Yet, she confides in the reader: “These outside sources were supposed to be mysterious, were maybe not even people, were maybe just God, but I happened to know were simply whichever teacher or two the office assistant lined up to do it.”
She’s a sentence-level dazzler who knows how to tell a story.
The idea that God is an outside source would be funny on its own, but the question of who gets to grade the final exams, of whether we are responsible for each other’s fates, of whether human beings can affect each other at all, becomes central to the story. The professor, for her own reasons, decides to change one student’s fate. What happens next keeps surprising, turning and turning again on Unferth’s distinctive logic. She even weaves in references to It’s a Wonderful Life (without ever mentioning it by name), a movie that I now realize deserves a closer reading, an Unferth reading. I feel lucky to be alive at the same time as Deb, to be in the same field, because her writing reminds me of what’s possible in fiction. Suspense can grow out of sentences. Being playful on the page can be a matter of life and death.
Author of The Bed Moved
A Story of a Murderous Adjunct Professor by Deb Olin Unferth
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“Wait Till You See Me Dance”
by Deb Olin Unferth
I know when people will die. I meet them, I can look into their faces and see if they have long to last. It’s like having a knack for math or a green thumb, both of which I also have. People wear their health on their faces.
There was a time I lived alone in the crappiest neighborhood I would ever live in and had few friends and worked at a place where the people I saw were all quietly abandoning their plans, like I was. I had the faces of dying people all around me. One day the office assistant called me over to her desk and said she was an Indian dancer and how would I like to go to an Indian dance?
This same office assistant had once said to me, “You know what I think every time I look at you? Guess. Guess what I think.”
“Here comes the bride,” I said.
“Wrong,” she said. “I think about that movie where the angel comes to earth and shows a man the future and how bad it’s going to be, and the man looks at the future and says, ‘But what about Mary? What happens to her?’ And the angel says, ‘You’re not going to like it, George.’ And George says, ‘Well, I have to know. Tell me, Angel.’ And the angel says, ‘She’s an old maid! She works at the library!’ And the man says, ‘Nooooooo!’”
“I don’t know that movie,” I said.
“‘She’s an old maid! She works at the library!’ You should put that on your voice mail.”
“I don’t work at the library.”
“People would know they had the right number.”
After that she called me Mary and soon had them all calling me Mary.
This office assistant sat at her desk and handed out notices about forms that people had forgotten to fill out. She wrote down on slips of paper chore lists, reminders, disclosures she’d received from above: Tag your food. Turn in your book orders. You have been chosen for a special assignment. I didn’t like her. She was young and hard to talk to and not nice. She wasn’t the only office assistant. There were two others, who were locked in an eternal battle and fought every single day. A partition had been raised between them in the hope that if they didn’t see each other they would each cease to believe in the other’s existence. It hadn’t worked. All it did was make them think they each had their own office, which they protected fiercely. The entire setup was confusing and inconvenient. If you wanted anything done, you had to depend on the first office assistant, the one who had asked me to the dance.
So this assistant was a lot of things but she certainly was not Indian, and on the day she asked me to the dance I said so. “What kind of an Indian are you supposed to be?” I said. Then it turned out she meant Native American — or American Indian. But she wasn’t that either.
“You have the cheeks of a cowgirl,” I said. “You have the face of a cowboy.” It was true. She was both pretty and masculine.
Well, she had learned how to dance some Native American dances and her own mother had sewn her a Native American costume. It was beautiful, the costume, she said, and if you drove out of the city, you could find the land the Native Americans once lived on and still do today and where they dance still. She had a flyer about it, look.
“I never heard of this place,” I said.
“Do you want to come or not?”
“I don’t know how to dance any Native American dances.”
“They’ll teach you, everyone will. They’re very nice out there.” I didn’t know why she wanted me along. Maybe she wanted more friends, which might not be so bad considering the way things were going just then.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go.”
“Great,” she said. Her eyebrows went up. “You’ll drive? I don’t have a car.”
At this job, four times a day, thirty people assembled before me, and it was my duty to tell them some useful fact about the English language, a fact they could then take and go out into the world with and use to better their positions in society. There were no grades in the class. It was a pass/fail class and whether they got a “pass” or a “fail” depended on an essay they had to write on the last day, which was read and evaluated by outside sources. These outside sources were supposed to be mysterious, were maybe not even people, were maybe just God, but I happened to know were simply whichever teacher or two the office assistant lined up to do it. It was a probationary class, intended for the students so illiterate that it was almost unseemly to have them there. It was the last-chance class. It went by the number 99. Anyone who passed got to enter college for real, sign up for 101. Anyone who failed had to leave. The students from 99 were all over the hallways. They didn’t care about any useful facts to take out into the world. They cared only about the essay graded by outside sources. Thirty percent failed most years and everybody knew this. The students in 99 disliked me with a vigor and a courage that were kind of amazing. I stood at the front of the room on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and said, “The test is graded by outside sources.” I used this to respond to every complaint, defense, and plea.
The test is graded by outside sources.
The test is graded by outside sources.
The test is graded by outside sources.
That day, after I agreed to bring the assistant to the dance, I went and stood in front of my third class of the day. It was nearly the end of the semester and they had that unstrung look to them — gaunt, spooked, blaming. “Let me remind you,” I told them, “I don’t grade the tests. And I can tell you this much. Any essay without a proper introduction will not get a ‘pass,’ so let’s turn our attention back to the board.”
I was what is called an adjunct: a thing attached to another thing in a dependent or subordinate position.
The assistant had it a little wrong about the movie, by the way. It wasn’t the future that George got to see. The angel’s job is to show George what the world would be like if George had never existed. The premise of the movie — because of course I’d seen it, everyone’s seen it, if you were born in America you’ve seen it — is that George is unhappy and has been for many years, his whole life nearly, and he is so full of regret and fear that he wants to die, or, even better, not to have been born in the first place.
Some months before the assistant asked me to the dance, the associate chair called me into his office. This was a man whose face held the assurance of the living: he’d hold up a good long while yet.
“Do you have room in any of your classes?” he said.
“No,” I said, “I don’t have any room. I certainly don’t have room two weeks into the semester.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mary, because we’ve got this kid here.” He pointed to a kid in the corner whom I hadn’t noticed yet. A thin boy who clutched several plastic grocery bags to his chest.
“My name’s not Mary,” I said.
“He missed two weeks,” I said. “Forget it.”
“He’s here on a visa.”
“Does he speak any English?” I said.
We looked at him. He looked back at us as if he might startle himself off his chair.
“Take the kid,” the associate chair said.
Once a visa student in 99 wrote me a poem about how much I was helping him improve his grammar. One of the lines of the poem went:
Thou laid really strong excellent basement.
The kid was a worse-than-average 99 student. He couldn’t write a sentence. He turned in his first jumbled essay and I thought: There is no way this kid is going to pass. And I thought: What a bother for him to fly all the way across the world to sit in my class and then to fly back home. And by the time I finished those two thoughts he was already shifting to the back of my mind, he was already taking a seat amid the blur of other students, whose names I would never know, whose faces I’d forget, and whose passing or failing grades were like changes in the air temperature, were nothing to do with me.
Every semester I went through this. I’d had the job two years. I had local city kids and a few foreign students, all of them ready for certain destruction. Some brought me fruit baskets. Some tried to bribe me into passing them. One threatened me, told me his “alliances” would look me up one day.
By the third week of the semester what this kid was to me was nothing to do with me.
By accident I heard him play. I was walking down the hallway toward another tedious day and a strange sound stopped me. Strands of violin and piano were coming from behind a door. I looked in.
Did I mention that this run-down school, this flat barrel-bottom place, was run between the walls of a building designed by a very famous architect? Yes, it was. It had been the high point of the architect’s career. It was while making this building that the architect had come up with his very best ideas about designing buildings and had summed these ideas up in a short catchy sentence that he said aloud and that was later written into books that were read all over the world and that was now familiar even to the layperson. After saying this catchy sentence, the architect succumbed to his drinking problem and never straightened himself out and eventually died bankrupt and alone, but this building still stood, and now somehow these people had gotten their hands on the place and were ruining it as fast as they could. Water damage, broken tiles, missing doorknobs, and, worst of all, modern rehab: linoleum floors, drop ceilings, paint over wood. Catastrophe was setting in, but this one room had been preserved — perhaps because the public still encountered it on festive holiday occasions. The architect’s one mistake had been to put this room on the seventh floor. The public had to be ushered in past the wreckage to reach it, up the new fake-wood-paneled elevators, over the colorless hallway carpet that had been nailed down there. But once inside, an auditorium opened up overhead and it was flawless. It marked that thin line of one artistic movement shifting into another, one great artist at his best.
On the stage the kid from my class was on the piano. Another student was playing the violin. The kid kept lifting one hand, keeping the left hand going and conducting the violin with his melody hand. Then the violin stopped and the kid continued to play and the sound I was hearing was formal and sad and peculiar. I myself had studied piano for years. I’d wanted to be a concert pianist in high school, which is its own separate bad joke now, but I knew this guy was super good. The piece had a density and a mathematical oddness, an originality. He stopped playing and looked up. I ducked out the door.
I stood in the hallway, thinking. How had such a talented kid wound up at our school? The school was no great music school. There were better music schools up the street, not to mention all over the country and the world.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe for a moment, like my lungs were being pressed. I saw the emotional deadness in me and I saw it lift. It was temporarily gone.
Another paper of his landed in the pile. I couldn’t understand any of it. Something about cars. The color of cars. Maybe about the color of cars. Something about the advent of America, of bank machines and microwave sandwiches. That afternoon he sat in the back of the class, wrote down whatever was going up on the board. I told him to talk to me at the end of the hour. He came and stood in front of me, his plastic bags in his hands at his sides. He was the same height as me, and he had sharp, dark good looks, though his nervousness shaded them. “Yes, miss?” he said.
“Why don’t you explain to me what you’re trying to say here,” I said. I had his paper in my hand, and he lifted his eyebrows over it.
“Is it not right?” he said.
I dropped the paper onto the desk. “This writing is horrendous,” I said. “What are you doing at this school? Didn’t you apply anywhere else? Proper music schools?”
He said nothing.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed. “Well?” I said. “Well?”
The room was washed-out that day. Even the fluorescents were dim.
“You’re never going to pass this class,” I said.
He turned and walked toward the door.
“I heard you in the auditorium,” I said, shaking. “I saw you.” He stopped at the door and looked back at me.
You think it’s so easy doing what’s right?
Once I had a student from Mexico who’d crossed the Rio Grande over and over and had always been caught. At one point he’d been lost for three days and nights, alone in the Texas desert. He’d thought it was the end of him for sure. At last he found a road and thought, My God, I am saved. The first car that came down the road was border patrol. He was back in Mexico in an hour. Another time he had tried to cross and had been sent back and had been so frustrated that he decided to use all his money and fly to Canada that same day, which he did. I don’t know why he didn’t just stay in Canada. I never asked him that. What’s so bad about Canada? But he had that American addiction, I guess. He tried to cross at Niagara Falls, had been caught again, and was sent back again — so two times from two sides of the country in thirty-nine hours. Well, he’d made it to the United States at last and the only reason he wanted to be here, he said, was to get an education. (“What, they don’t have schools in Mexico?” I’d said, and he’d been annoyed.) Here in the United States he’d gotten fake papers, he told me. He’d gotten a job with those papers, was working under a fake name. The job paid for him to go to college, so he was getting a degree under a fake name and would have to give up his identity forever, but he didn’t care. If he didn’t pass the class, the college would make him leave and the job wouldn’t pay for school anymore.
He didn’t pass.
Frankly, I knew it didn’t matter if he passed or not, because I knew he wouldn’t live for long. I had no idea how he would die but I knew.
I went into the chair’s office to find this kid’s file. The music kid, not the Mexican kid.
“What are you doing in there?” the office assistant called to me. “You’re not supposed to be in there.” She followed me in and watched me pull open a cabinet drawer.
“Those are confidential,” she said. “That is strictly administrative.”
“I need to see something.” I took out the kid’s file.
“What do you need to see?” she said, coming up behind me and leaning over my shoulder. “You don’t get to see.”
“Could you shut up for two seconds? For God’s sake.”
The name of his country was at the top of his file and it surprised me. It happened that his country was in a civil war that year. We’d been bombing them for reasons that had become suspect. It was all over the news. It was a mess.
The file had several notes in it. There was his acceptance date and his refusal letter. He’d received scholarships from several schools. He’d not chosen our school, the letter said. But thank you. Next there was a note from admissions, dated a year later. He wanted to come after all. He’d lost his scholarship from the school of his choice. He hadn’t been able to get out of his country. He was of drafting age. There was a freeze on his passport. But this year, this week, there was a temporary reprieve. He could leave if he had sponsorship. Would we sponsor him? The date of the note put it two weeks into the semester, three days before he’d joined my class.
Any other school would have said, Come spring semester, come next year. But he couldn’t come next year. It was leave then or be drafted and surely die. Probably his second choice and third choice had refused him. Fourth choice. Who knows how low on the list we lay. All I know is our school said they would take him — not out of generosity, it seemed from the paperwork, but sheer incompetence. If he failed this class, he’d have to go back, sign up for the war like everybody else.
The odd thing was, I looked at him, and I couldn’t get a read on him. He could live another month, or he could live eighty more years.
I went to his musical-composition teacher and asked him what he planned to do about this kid.
“‘Do?’” said the composition teacher. “Explain ‘do.’ Can you guess how many students I have?” he wanted to know. “Look, I’m not a blood donor. Do I look like a blood donor?”
“I’m an adjunct too,” I said.
“Okay. You know what I’m talking about.”
The adjuncts were always tired. Our classes were over-enrolled. The school didn’t give us health insurance. Every year there was a Christmas party and the adjuncts were never invited. All the adjuncts shared one big office in a space like a spaceship, full of desks and boxes and books. We worked under contract and we were paid nearly nothing. Below minimum wage. People were shocked when they found out how much I made. I hated the other adjuncts, some younger, some older, each with their own cowardly reason for being there. And I hated the associate chair and the smug new-world music he played with his suburban band on weekends, and how he assigned me 99 semester after semester, somehow slotted me in there without even knowing my name. And I hated myself for hating all these perfectly reasonable citizens who were just going about their lives.
I needed to just pass him myself. Put a big P on his paper and move him through.
I guess I was in love with him a little. I didn’t want him to go back.
I wasn’t used to being in love, not with anyone and certainly not with a student, certainly not one eleven years younger than I, one I barely spoke to. It was horrible. I had to wait for our class and then hope to see him in the hallway beforehand, maybe walk in at the same moment, and I had to wonder whether he’d be going to some performance at the school that night and therefore whether I should go too. I had to puzzle out where he’d be rehearsing and which group he hung around with (the other foreign musicians: the Chileans, the Russians, the Japanese) and where they might be and whether I could sometimes be nearby, watching. I tried to do an especially good job in his class. I stopped reading aloud from the textbook. I required the students to visit the writing center. The papers came back even worse.
I was giving it up, had given it up. He wasn’t even going to pass the class.
“That’s some lousy job you’ve got.”
This was the office assistant talking. I was stapling sheets of paper together. I was pulling out staples from papers I had incorrectly stapled and restapling the papers to the correct ones. I looked over at her and could suddenly see that she was doomed. I could see it as clearly and abruptly as if I’d reached over and stapled right through her jugular, put six staples into her neck.
“What else do you do,” she said, “walk dogs? Clean up their crap? This job’s not for you. You should quit.”
A staple lodged under my fingernail. “Hey,” I said, “do you have anyone lined up to do the essays yet?”
“Oh, crap. I was going to bribe someone.”
“I’ll do it.”
“No one wants to do it.”
“Put me down.”
“I can’t put you down.”
“Go ahead. Put me down.”
“Can’t do that. You’re not an outside source.” She was right about that. The outside sources weren’t from outside the school or the country or the planet but from outside 99. The 101 teachers read the 99s. The 205 teachers.
I said, “Who checks? Does anybody check?”
“I check. I’m supposed to check.”
“I’m not putting you down.”
I was surprised by this. In previous semesters, I’d been on the receiving end of mass emails begging someone to volunteer. Anyone not teaching 99 could expect to get asked to come in on the last Saturday of final-exam week. I had thought it would be easy to convince her, that she would be relieved.
I’m not saying it’s proper or right to love a student, and I’m not going to pretend I never did anything about it, because I did, but I can say I didn’t do much.
All I did was to bring the office assistant to the dance and threaten to kill her.
In the movie about George and the angel, the angel shows George what the world would be like if George had never existed. It turns out that without George the world would be a cold, dark place. Without George people would be poor and lonely. Some people would be dead because he hadn’t been there to save them. Others would be older than they would be if he had lived. Without George a dark force would be in control, and the population would be suppressed and subdued by it. People would walk, bundled against the fierce winds, to their coal stoves to eat their bland Christmas dinners alone.
The moral of the movie is that, well, it’s too bad that George is so unhappy and that he never got to do the things he wanted to do, that he never even got to form a clear idea of what he might want to do, had instead carried with him in his heart all these years a vague longing, a sense that somehow this was all wrong, that there was a shimmering ship bumping around out there in the dark that he’d wanted to board, not knowing where it was headed but feeling so trapped and helpless where he was that he had to believe the ship would bring him someplace better. It’s too bad that’s how it was for him, that his life had been so sad, but on the upside, look how much his misery was doing for others. His daily struggles, his failures, his defeats, somehow held in place this delicate system, so that while the population wasn’t happy exactly, at least they weren’t despondent or dead.
It was toward the end of the semester. We were rushing toward winter break, zooming around the hallways. Outside, the city looked as if it had been tacked up and smudged with a thumb. It was the days of early darkness, a few sprigs of tinsel. No snow, but somehow we had slush or something slushish and damp on the streets.
“How would you like to go to an Indian dance?” the office assistant said to me.
“What kind of an Indian are you supposed to be?” I said.
On Saturday morning I drove to her neighborhood. It was the first clear bright day we’d had in weeks. Her neighborhood consisted of a set of small streets squeezed between two enormous bridges. She lived at one end of a long brick street that started out luminous, with shiny storefronts and upscale groceries, and smoothed out into pretty little residential three-flats, painted matte colors or made of brown stones. As I drove down it, I could see glimpses of the river between buildings. I pulled up and waited.
I had known my brother would die young and he did. I had known my neighbor would die. I had known about a high school friend and about another friend who became a lover and then went back to being a friend and then was dead.
This was the kind of neighborhood where people live long lives.
The office assistant came out of the building. She was carrying a large black case, like for a cumbersome instrument. “What is that?” I said.
“Our costumes,” she said.
The dance turned out to be incredibly far. It took hours to get there. We drove on roads leading out of the city and into the vast land of America. It was a hell of a lot of highway out there unreeling beside the median strip, dry fields behind chain-link fences, antenna towers, tollbooths, flagpoles, sky. It was the kind of drive where you pass a series of billboards and road signs that promise there will be snow cones, there will be rest in forty-eight miles, God is on the way. There was a sudden insane rainstorm, clear out of a drained day. The rain drummed down so hard on the car it drowned out our voices. All we could see were stars of water on the windshield. We were driving through outer space, through a comet.
“I’m going to pull over,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Go.”
After a while the rain dried up, and we were once again going over the empty land, passing an occasional spray of houses, the lost communities of our citizenry. A line of fat white birds flew by overhead, making it look like real work to get where they were going.
“Is the dance on a reservation?”
No, what did I think, the assistant wondered, that the reservations were just there for anyone to go in and steal out of their wigwams?
Well, I’d see, for God’s sake. Now would I quit asking questions and listen to the story the assistant was trying to tell about her mother, something about the costumes, how her mother had sewed them with her own fingers based on a Native American costume description. Her mother had supported her through everything. When she drew comic books her mother had always been the first to read them. When she had love problems she could always bring them home. She’d had drug troubles, she’d suffered rejection from her father, but her mother had always been there.
I still hadn’t told her that no matter how great her mother was I wasn’t wearing any fucking Indian costume.
Another note about the movie. The office assistant had not been comparing me to George, the lead, who at the end of the movie cries out that he is grateful for his bad life and enjoins his daughter to get over to that piano and play them all a song. I was being compared to Mary, his wife, who, if she were not around, nothing would be much different — George would have married a different lady, that’s all — and I have to say I do see the connection. Nothing would be different if I weren’t around. I haven’t caused anything, good or bad. Even if I have done something inadvertently, as, say, in the movies when a man moves a cup and a thousand years later all of humanity explodes, it’s likely that if I hadn’t been born, my mother would have had a different baby around the same time and that baby would have been somewhat like me or mostly like me and would have made similar choices, probably the very same ones, and she would be here right now instead of me, feeling the things that I feel in my stead. And any ill or beneficial effects that I may have caused would be caused by her, not me. She’d take care of moving or not moving any cup that I would have or not.
“You should quit that job,” said the office assistant. “You’re no good at it.”
“I do all right,” I said. “You might let me help you out with those essays.”
“Not this again.”
“Did we talk about this?”
“What makes you think you have any reason to ask me for a favor?”
“Not a favor. I’m doing you a turn. A friendly turn, friend to friend.”
“You think we’re friends? Why do you think I asked you along? You have a car. I asked five other people before you.”
“I’ll pay you a hundred dollars,” I said.
This made her laugh. “You think I’m going to risk my job for
a hundred bucks?”
She looked over at me then, and I could see she knew I had my secret reasons for wanting to do this, reasons that were in some way shameful. And she knew it because she had her own dark, shameful secrets, all you had to do was look at her to see them, lurking behind her face, old pains, secrets having to do with the ancient beginnings of her life — with the end of it too.
“Pull over,” she said.
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
“No way,” she said. “I just have to pee.”
We were on the blankest, bleakest stretch of road of the whole trip so far. I don’t know why she chose that moment and not twenty minutes back at the gas station and not twenty ahead into whatever was up there waiting.
“All right, all right,” I said. I eased to the side of the road. “Hurry.” She got out and ran over the brown earth.
I stared out the windshield at the flat land. Bits of rain and mud were still coming down. I waited. I considered dumping the costumes on the side of the road where she wouldn’t see.
The thing about the kid’s music was that you didn’t know what was going to happen next. You’d think you knew where it was going but you were wrong. There are very few parts of life like that.
What was she taking so long for? I stretched my neck around, saw nothing. The land around me seemed pressed into the ground, the blades of grass crushed, the few trees bent and barren. I noted the time on the dashboard. She’d been gone twenty minutes. I turned off the engine, put on the flashers. Got out. It was damn cold. Was she playing a trick on me? Had somebody picked her up out there? Was I supposed to wait here for hours and then, after dark, drive back lost, run out of gas, wander around on these roads with a gas can, which I didn’t even have, only to be made fun of on Monday? I knew there was a game that went something like that, but in the version I knew, the person in the field was the one left behind. The one in the car was the one who laughed.
I called to her. I locked the car, took a few steps in the direction I thought she’d gone. It was early afternoon by this time but the sky had turned a heavy dark gray. I stepped into the field and looked back at my car to be sure she wasn’t springing out, breaking a window, hot-wiring the car, and speeding away without me. The wind swayed the antenna. I walked farther into the field. It was when I came to a little block of cement, no higher than my knee, that I finally heard her.
“Where are you?” I said. On the other side of the cement was a hole. I leaned in and saw her. “What are you doing in there?” I said.
It was a well that had been partially filled in. The sides were smooth. Her face was turned up to me, and in that moment her death came at me so strongly and vividly I felt dazed. “That’s the stupidest question anyone has ever asked me in my life,” she said. “Didn’t you hear me screaming?”
The fact is, no, I hadn’t, until I was almost upon her. The wind, I guess. From the road I hadn’t heard a thing. The well was far too deep to climb out of. She could have been out here for days. She could have never been found.
“Are you hurt?” I called down.
“I’m wet. There’s mud.”
“Did you break anything?”
“I don’t think so. Get help.”
I hesitated. If I left, went driving down the road, I was pretty sure I’d never find her again.
“Maybe I have something in my car,” I said.
“Well, go look.”
I ran back to the car, studying the angle so I’d find my way back. I had so much crap in my trunk — crates of books, laundry detergents. I had a board she might be able to grab onto. I found a piece of rope from when I’d tied my mattress to the roof and moved over two blocks. I ran back to the well.
“I’ve got this rope,” I said. “Might be long enough.” I crouched down on the wet ground.
“Toss me an end.”
I almost tossed her an end.
I didn’t toss her an end.
I dangled the rope out of her reach. “You’ll put me down?”
“Put you down?” She jumped for it, missed.
“The 99s. You’ll let me read?”
“For fuck’s sake,” she shouted.
“Will you?” I waved the rope between us.
She thought about it. “No,” she said.
“Suit yourself,” I said. I pulled the rope out of sight. So it turned out her death was by my own hand, or lack of, it appeared. I walked away.
I heard her call, “You don’t scare me . . .” and then her voice was gone. I went back to the car.
It may seem like I was being heroic here, trying to save this kid, but the truth is I was just grateful to be feeling something.
I started the car. If she was gone, paperwork would jam up for weeks. There’d be an administrative breakdown. Next week was finals. They’d be grateful to me for volunteering to do the essays.
“Don’t worry about 99,” I’d say. “I’ve got it covered on this end.”
If, at that moment, someone had been strolling along, they would have thought I was checking my map, not leaving a life in a hole. And if someone were looking in from overhead, she, in her hole, would look completely separate from me. What was really going on was a fact she and I would share and no one else would ever know, because there was no one looking down from the clouds. Civilization settled on that a century ago. It would be her word against mine for all eternity, and who would ever believe a person would do something like that?
I shut off the car. I got out of the car and went back. “You still there?” I said.
“No, I left,” she said.
I didn’t ask her if she’d changed her mind, if she was ready to beg. I just lowered the rope and she grabbed it.
I had done this for a kid who’d never even looked my way. I grasped the rope with all my might and, inch by inch, I pulled her out.
Something she had on me, this assistant, which I didn’t know at the time, was that I had been fired already. Or not hired back. The next semester’s class assignments were sitting in our boxes. There was nothing in my box. I just hadn’t realized it yet. There’d been complaints about me, poor evaluations. The students in my 99s had the lowest passing rates. For two weeks now she’d been trying to tell me and I’d ignored her. I’d thought she was just being mean.
Me? If I had been her, I would have agreed to anything. I would have let her assist in whatever she wanted if she had assisted me just then. And assuming she did lift me out, there was no way I would have still gone to the dance with a nut like that, but she was. The fact that she was capable of that, of refusing me and now of brushing off the dirt, hopping into the car, slamming the door, and saying, “We’re almost there!” made me a little afraid of her.
We arrived. It was a regular grade school and the dance was held in the gym. And, yes, she had been telling the truth. Regular Native Americans were coming in and going out. And, yes, they had on their regular traditional outfits, just like she had said they would, and some of them had on a piece of a different outfit — from when the British came galloping across the land and the Native Americans knocked them over with a spear and took their jackets and then passed them from hand to hand until today, when one showed up wearing a Benjamin Franklin jacket and another showed up in a white wig, and isn’t that interesting? Yes, it is.
Everyone started dancing. There were a couple of men on the side with some drums.
“Now, look,” I told the office assistant, “you don’t have to stick to the story. Everybody here knows that we’re not Native Americans and that they all are, and what do you think they’re thinking about us?”
“But I have our costumes.” She patted her box.
“All right, let’s see them,” I said. “Let’s have a look, but even in traditional Native American outfits we are not going to look like Native Americans. Nobody’s going to believe it.”
“But wait till they see me dance,” she said.
She opened the box. Inside were two giant pom-poms, that’s what they looked like. Each costume was made out of bright orange yarn, long strings of it, and it covered your whole body and even had a flap for the head. She put it on me. I stood there and let her. Then she put on her own costume. The other dancers had on animal hides, beaded dresses, but no one tried to keep her from dancing. They just stopped and stared as the assistant, in her orange outfit, walked out onto the dance floor. No one seemed able to believe what they saw. Of course, I did not dance. Then she came back and got me.
They’d had meetings about me, my name was on the table. There was no way she could have assigned me to do it. So that part I understand. But this is what I wonder: Why had she asked me to drive her to the dance? Was she that nervy? Or was it possible that she meant to warn me, give me advice?
So she got me into the costume, she had me beat on that, but the fact was: she was still going to die. Pulling her out had done nothing. I’d win in the end — not a race I was particularly excited about, a pain-in-the-ass race, one I hadn’t asked to be in, one that was far lonelier than I’d expected. But she would be gone and I’d be going on. So we each had something on the other, the office assistant and I, when we went out onto that dance floor.
The kid would not die young. He would live on and on, much longer than the office assistant, much longer than I. He’d live almost forever. I know that because the next semester I had to find out if he’d passed the class and made a life in these United States, or if he’d failed, returned to his war-torn land, fought, and died. I snuck into the school several times after I’d been let go, skulked around the cafeteria looking for him. Finally one day I saw him coming out of the elevator, saw his face, and I hurried back outside.
The office assistant must have slid his paper into the “pass” pile a week before she died. She’d seen me with his file. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to put it together.
Two weeks after the dance she leaped off the building, made the papers.
Okay, so what, so we look crazy in these pom-poms. Leave the poor assistant alone. Imagine what she must have been through to wind up looking like that. Imagine what her life must have been like, having a mother who would make something like these. Imagine what suffering she has had that I will never know. Just clear the floor for her. Everybody get out of the way — can’t you see the office assistant wants to dance? Would you give her a little space? Give her a little music too? A little bang on the drum for her to stomp a foot to? Well, the Native Americans were ready to see something like that, so they took seats in the bleachers to watch. And as for me, I may be an old maid, and I may spend my life loving people who never loved me, and loving them in ways that aren’t good for me, but I stepped around with her. I danced.