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Confusion City

by Alice Mattison

Kitty DeCarlo taught Western Civilization and US History at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Connecticut, and for two years she had lived with a roommate in a rented house in the neighborhood. The house had a narrow front yard where a previous occupant had planted red and yellow tulips. In the fall, a single maple turned scarlet, then abruptly bare. A few times a week, Kitty went running after work: it calmed her. One day in November she started late, and by the time she turned toward home, it was dusk. As she ran, Kitty's eyes took in tree after tree on her route. She studied the bare black branches intertwined against the gray sky.

It grew dark. Listening to her own footfalls as she made her way up Orange Street, Kitty imagined being mugged - jumped from behind - and suffering just enough injuries to miss a couple of weeks of school and be cared for by friends bringing pans of lasagna. Kitty was conscientious; her mind moved on to the instructions she'd give the substitute teacher. Whatever she said, some of her students, for whom everything was already hard, would suffer.

In the dark - and in reality, not her fantasy - a passing car made a swift u-turn, but then recrossed the street and angled toward the sidewalk near her, facing the wrong way. A man got out, leaving the door open, and stepped quickly toward Kitty, and what came to her was advice she'd once read in a newspaper article on crime prevention. She was passing a house with a light in a downstairs window, and Kitty ran straight up the porch steps, punched the three doorbells she saw there, and shouted, "Mom, I'm home!" in a phony voice that sounded to her own ears - even then, when she was still frightened - like something out of bad children's television. The man got into the car and drove away, while the door in front of Kitty opened. There stood a young man with reddish, fluffy hair and a reddish brown tweed sport coat. His hands were large, sticking out of the jacket sleeves as if he were outgrowing it as he stood there. He looked sleepy, and Kitty blurted out, "Did I wake you up?" although he'd opened the door so quickly, she could have awakened him only if he had been leaning on it, asleep standing up.

"Oh, no," he said.

Kitty told him why she had rung his doorbell.

"Do you want to call the police?" said the man.

She was sweaty, and beginning to feel chilled. She could see into the man's living room: bookshelves and more bookshelves, lamplit. "No, thanks," she said. "Maybe he just wanted to ask directions."

"I guess you'll never know."

"He was driving strangely," Kitty said.

"Maybe you'd better come in," said the man. "He could be waiting for you."

"I suppose so," said Kitty, and followed him inside.

The man said his name was Martin Corman. Kitty was shaky, and Martin went to get her a glass of water, motioning her to sit. Library books and papers were lined up on his couch, and there were so many that when Kitty sat down she started a small landslide. "Confusion Street," said Martin sadly, coming back with her glass of water and kneeling to pick his books off the floor. She noticed one title: Technology and American Economic Growth. She drank the water and sat holding the glass. Her heart was beating hard.

"Are you all right?" said Martin.

"Yes," Kitty said. "I'll go in a minute. I have piles of quizzes to correct at home." She felt foolish as soon as she said that.

"Are you a teacher?" said Martin, and within moments they learned that they had someone in common. Martin was a graduate student at Yale, a social historian finishing his dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in a big course taught by a visiting professor from Georgetown, where Kitty had gone to school - taught by Henry Gradstein, of all people, her undergraduate advisor and graduate thesis director, and - for a few giddy, tempestuous weeks, toward the end of her time at the university - her lover.

"We're both just talking ourselves into this," Henry had said to her, five years ago, the last time they'd slept together.

"I'm not," said Kitty, before she thought.

"Of course you are."

Now, to Martin, she said, "He was my thesis advisor."

"Did you know he was here this year?"

Kitty hadn't known.

"Gradstein's a great teacher," Martin said.

"The best," said Kitty. "May I use your phone after all? I think I want my roommate to come for me with the car."

Martin led her into another room, in which books and papers lay not only on the furniture but all over the floor. She picked her way to the telephone and Martin watched her. "Confusion city," he said, gesturing at the floor.

Kitty's roommate, Ida, showed up in five minutes. "Did he have a weapon?" she said, as Kitty got into the car.

"I hardly saw him," Kitty said. "I was stupid to panic. For all I know it was one of my own students."

"Checking on an assignment, I suppose."

"I ran up on a stranger's porch and shouted 'Mom.' I don't even call my actual mother 'mom.'"

Ida glanced at Kitty. "He wanted to steal your money," she said. "Or rape you." Ida was fat and dramatic, with long blond hair that fell to her waist. She taught English at Wilbur Cross.

"Not every man who stops a woman wants to rob her or rape her," said Kitty.

"Of course not," said Ida. "But still."

"The man who let me in knows Henry Gradstein," Kitty said. Ida had reached their street and was parking the car. Kitty had told Ida about Henry long ago. "He's at Yale this year."

"You mean he's in New Haven and he didn't get in touch?" said Ida.

"I suppose he's busy."

"He was always thoughtless, from what you said."

"He's complicated," Kitty said. She liked to think she and Henry were still friends.

"He should have called you," said Ida.

Kitty held an essay contest in her history classes, offering the winners a trip to the movies at her own expense. Her students had complained that they'd been writing essays about Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King for contests since they learned to spell, and surely there must be someone else to write about. Kitty had made some suggestions, and in the end fifteen essays were submitted and she selected three winners, one on W.E.B. DuBois, one on Gandhi, and one on Simone Weil. The York Square Cinema was showing Au Revoir Les Enfants, about the Second World War, and one night, Kitty drove around town picking up her three winners, Josh, Tyrone, and Lakeesha. She stood behind them in the line at the movies, shooing them along when it moved - they were so busy talking they didn't notice - and guiding them back when they strayed. They were all taller and wider than she was, and they talked with such animation, Kitty couldn't keep up. "No, no," Josh was saying. "Not just one of them - all of them!"

"All of them," Tyrone chimed in, nodding rapidly. "All of them, man."

"All of what?" said Kitty gamely, but they didn't hear her.

Just then she realized that the older man in a bomber jacket standing alone in front of them was Henry Gradstein. "Henry," she said, and then, louder, "Henry!"

"Who's Henry, Ms. DeCarlo?" said Lakeesha, in a voice loud enough, finally, that Henry turned around, looking perplexedly into all four of their faces.

"Henry," said Kitty. "Kitty DeCarlo."

"Katherine!" He'd always called her Katherine. Henry's hair was grayer than Kitty remembered, and under the lights of the theater lobby, his face seemed slightly unfamiliar. He stepped forward, grasped her shoulders, and kissed her cheek. Henry too was smaller than any of Kitty's students, and in contrast to their smoothness and youth and air of being about to slide off, or up, or out, he seemed a little battered yet firmly planted on the floor, his feet in neat brown shoes held somewhat apart as if to steady him. "I'm at Yale this year," he said with some excitement.

"I know." She was terribly glad to see him.

He beamed at her. "I have five T.A.s who follow me into the lecture hall, one step behind me."

"I met one of them," said Kitty, and then stopped to introduce her students. Henry shook their hands and repeated their names. "She's a good teacher, yes? I taught her everything she knows. If she gets anything wrong, you call me." He stabbed his chest with his finger. Lakeesha giggled like a child.

"You met one of them?" he said then, turning to Kitty once more. "Which one? I don't have them all straight."

"Martin Corman."

"Oh, I know which one he is. The sleepy one."

"I thought he looked sleepy, too!" Kitty said.

"Where did you meet him?"

She had to tell the story. "I was running one night," she said, "and suddenly a man got out of a car and came toward me, and I panicked."

"My T.A.?"

"No - just a man. I ran up on the nearest porch, and the person who opened the door was Martin." She was not required, she decided, to put in "Mom, I'm home."

Her students listened attentively. "This guy have a gun?" said Tyrone.

"I don't know - I don't know if anything was really going to happen."

"Any man messes with me, I don't wait around to find out," said Lakeesha.

"A black guy?" said Henry, and Kitty thought she saw Lakeesha's face grow tense. She and Tyrone were black; Josh was white.

"It was dark," she said. "I couldn't see him."

"My cousin," Lakeesha was saying in a low voice. "He got shot. He was killed." Kitty drew in her breath. It was time to go into the movie.

"Wait - give me your phone number," Henry said.

After Kitty and the students sat down, she thought of popcorn and soda, and sent Tyrone out with money. She had lost Henry in the dark. The film began. It was harrowing, and somehow it kept reminding Kitty of Lakeesha's dead cousin; Kitty had to work hard so her students would not see her cry.

Martin Corman called Kitty some weeks later. "I live on Orange Street," he said.

"I remember you."

"Henry wants to know the name of your dentist," he said.

"My dentist? Why didn't he call me himself?"

"Do you mind?" said Martin. "He seems to think we're friends."

Kitty didn't mind recommending her dentist.

"We could be friends," said Martin.

It was a Saturday in January and it had snowed - the first significant snowfall of the season. "Do you want to go for a walk and see the snow?" he said. Kitty and Martin walked to Edgerton Park, almost a mile away, and then tramped around its great curved paths. Children were sledding on the hill, while parents watched and scooped them up when they rolled into snow banks. The sun was out and the snow was dazzling. It was warm, and Kitty untied her muffler and pulled off her gloves. They talked about Martin's dissertation. "I read census reports and tax reports," he said. "Not very interesting." Kitty protested that she loved reading old documents. Her master's thesis had been on American schooling in the mid-19th century, and she had read ancient rollbooks and budgets, fascinated even when they told her nothing.

"I know what you mean," said Martin, who was working on the demographics of the early American shoe industry. "But it's not like Henry's work." She understood. Henry had begun his career studying early factory life, but his most recent book had been on race relations in the automotive industry after the Second World War, and he'd been turning up as an expert, quoted here and there, on race relations anywhere, anytime.

"I'm having a similar experience, in a small way," said Martin, when Kitty had told him about seeing Henry's name recently. "My former landlady thinks I know everything. She's talked me into speaking to her senior citizens' group - I'm afraid they'll be expecting something more up-to-date than they get." Martin taught a section of Henry's course on labor history now - a different course; it was already the spring term.

Kitty didn't let herself talk about Henry anymore. "Do you like teaching?" she asked.

"I'm not good at it," said Martin. "But I like the students. I think I like them more than if I knew the same people for a different reason. I go in there and look at them - I don't know - my little chickens." He blushed.

Kitty laughed. "I have chickens, too," she said.

They went back to Kitty and Ida's house and draped their socks and gloves on the radiators. Ida wasn't home. Kitty made coffee because Martin looked sleepy now. It was getting dark. Carrying the coffee pot, Kitty glanced out the kitchen window. The snow was dusky and purple in the twilight, and she stared, then slipped the look of the purple snow into a sort of mental pocket. They'd walked far, going back and forth on Edgehill Road, and it had been hard, walking in the snow. Though she was a runner, her thighs ached.

Martin looked a little silly. He was wearing the same tweed sportcoat he'd worn the day they'd met, but his feet were bare, with his stretched-out fuzzy tan socks steaming on a radiator behind him. His feet were big and pale like his hands. His wavy hair was mussed. Even with the coffee, he looked sleepy. What had Kitty expected - that he would lead her to Henry, tell her secrets about Henry, or tell her Henry spoke only of her? He drank his coffee. Suddenly, Kitty thought she might like Martin to be her lover.

It took three more walks, followed by three more visits, before he was. On the intervening occasions Ida was home, and they all drank coffee and talked. Once they had beer. Ida owned a collection of jazz records and the day they drank the beer, after Kitty and Martin had walked so long it grew dark and felt too late for coffee, Ida played a Miles Davis album for Martin, who stretched out, listening, sprawled over a chair in their living room, his hands and feet in four separate parts of the room. Kitty had to step over Martin's right leg to hand a bottle to Ida. He'd been talking about a troubled student, and now Ida was talking and Martin was listening to her as well as to the record. Kitty looked at him. He listened like someone with room inside him for what he heard.

Martin and Kitty became lovers not on a Saturday but on a Thursday, the day of Martin's talk to his landlady's senior citizens' group. He'd asked Kitty to come along to give him courage. Kitty didn't know what sort of public speaker Martin would be, but it turned out that though he was neither lively nor up-to-date, he was interesting. After the talk, several people lingered to comment, and one woman borrowed a book from which he'd quoted, about blacks in New England in the 19th century.

Kitty had imagined that Henry might also show up to hear Martin, but of course he didn't. Kitty had left two messages on Henry's answering machine, but she hadn't heard from him. She was angry with herself, as she waited for Martin to be ready to leave, for thinking about Henry at all, but she felt like brooding about him, or just brooding - not like riding home with Martin.

When they reached her house it was not quite dark, and when they got out of the car, the early evening had a touch of warmth to it. Spring was coming soon, but Kitty resisted it. She almost didn't ask Martin in; then she did. Her house was cold and dark. Martin followed her as she went through the rooms turning on lights and nudging the thermostat up a degree or two. In the kitchen she found a note from Ida, who had gone out to dinner with friends. After Kitty read it, Martin suddenly began to kiss her, giving comforting kisses, as if to console her for the dark house and Ida's absence, or even for Henry's shortcomings.

"Do you want to stay?" she said. They were still in their coats.

"May I?" He took his off and waited while she took off her own and then he kissed her harder. "You're - lovely," he said in a choked voice, then blushed and shook his head, tossing away the inadequate, sentimental word.

Then they went to bed ("Maybe this is what I want" she almost said out loud) and after that day, there he was - around their house all the time.

When it was time for him to go home, he leaned on the wall talking. Kitty would stand opposite him glancing at the door, his coat in her arms.

"But he's kind," said Ida, one night after he left. Martin had come for dinner and it had taken hours to get rid of him. It was a school night and Kitty had work to do.

"He sits there," Kitty said, "as if he's growing roots into the furniture. He likes me too much. I did get robbed that night. Martin robbed me."

Ida was cleaning the counter in a long apron, almost to the floor. She flicked her hair back. "You look glorious," Kitty said. What did Ida look like - the Statue of Liberty? No, a portrait by Rembrandt Kitty remembered: Saskia as Bellona, a grand woman with a shield, a helmet, and Ida's long hair and double chin.

"Pardon the question," said Ida, "but what's he like in bed?"

Kitty didn't mind the question. She'd heard about Ida's lovers. "He's kind of serious in bed, but that's fine," she said. "But every time he put down his fork at dinner, I didn't know if he'd pick it up again. Then, at last, he did. Well, I'd think, that much has been accomplished."

Kitty often visited Martin in the afternoons, and after a while she learned to dress in sweatclothes and running shoes. He cleared papers, welcoming her, and they perched in rare bookless spots in his apartment like hikers resting on stones in a tangle of underbrush. When she was tired of him - after they made love and had coffee and talked - she tightened the laces on her shoes and took off. Martin would be making some observation or other as she walked out the door. She'd step off his porch, already running, running as if she had something to run from, or something to run past, a damp fog that had a boundary, with cool sunshine behind it.

When Henry called Kitty - because for God's sake it was the end of April already and he was leaving in May - she was so pleased that she invited him to dinner. She suggested a Saturday in May. If the weather was good, they could have a barbecue on their little front lawn. There might be tulips. "I'm a city boy," said Henry. "I don't need tulips."

She decided to serve barbecued chicken. She and Ida had bought a small grill the summer before. She invited Martin. The day of the dinner Kitty was nervous, but there really wasn't much to do, and when Martin called right after lunch she agreed to run an errand with him. "You'll calm me down," she said. It was a warm, sunny day.

"Remember the woman who borrowed the book?" he said. Martin needed it, but the woman, whose name was Lee, wasn't well and couldn't drive. He was going to her house for it, near Guilford. "She lives in the woods," he said. "It's about 25 minutes away."

Kitty figured out loud. "I can make a salad later. I have biscuits for strawberry shortcake. I just need to buy strawberries."

"We can get some on the way," said Martin.

He drove over for her. "I wouldn't expect someone interested in race relations to live in the woods, somehow," said Kitty.

"I know, she seems urban," said Martin. "She told me she was active in the civil rights movement."

Martin drove on Route 1, which was slower than the turnpike, but there was plenty of time. He stopped at a fruit and vegetable stand and Kitty bought strawberries and put the boxes between them on the front seat. Martin was a deliberate driver, and at times Kitty couldn't help pressing her foot into the floor, as if to add her force to the gas pedal. He gave everyone the right of way, and at four-way stop signs he all but took a nap. Kitty tried to turn her attention to the faint smell of the strawberries and to Martin's woolly smell - even when he didn't wear the sportcoat he seemed to give off its aroma - and to the look of the sprays of white blossoms they passed here and there, stippling the new bright green of the woods. Martin took out the directions to Lee's house and handed them to her.

They missed the first turn. Martin made a cautious u-turn. They found the right road, and then there were several miles of woods, two more turns, and a fork in the road. Lee's house was on a private dirt road with a mailbox at the end of it. They bumped along until the house was suddenly before them - a modern, weathered wooden structure under the trees.

"I'll wait here," said Kitty, but Lee - a small, white-haired woman in jeans - came out to the car. "I brought you all the way here just because my stupid knee is keeping me from driving," she said. "The least I can do is ask you in."

Kitty explained about the dinner she had to prepare, but followed when Lee led Martin through the house. A wide window faced the woods, and when they came to it, all three of them fell silent, and Lee slipped backwards into a chair, just watching what she saw out the window, the play of light on green.

"I grew up in tenements," she said. "I didn't know what a woods was. When I read fairy tales about children lost in the forest, I pictured evenly spaced trees with grass underneath. When I saw my first forest, I didn't recognize it."

"What did you think it was?" said Kitty. Lee's voice was quiet, and she spoke quietly herself, in turn. She too stepped backward and sat down, and so did Martin.

"I guess I thought it was an accident - a bunch of trees." She spoke as if to herself. "Now I love the undergrowth and moss. I love to look at the scraggly stuff under the trees."

Martin and Kitty looked at the scraggly stuff. Where sunlight broke in, the leaves on shrubs and maple weeds turned in a breeze and caught the light. At last Kitty shook herself and stood up.

"Did you like the book you borrowed from Martin?" she said - and finally Lee went for the book.

"I learned a lot from it," she said, handing it to Martin. "I wish I'd read more in my civil rights days. Did you know that in the 1830s Connecticut didn't allow blacks to vote?"

"What did you do in the civil rights movement?" said Kitty, though she knew they should hurry now.

"Oh, not much, really, but I made a lot of friends. Walked my feet off with a lot of other ladies, black ladies and white ladies. We were not at the center of power. Mostly we talked about kids. But we surprised one another, quite a bit. . . ." Her eyes brightened. She offered to make coffee for them, then remembered they had guests coming. It seemed just then to Kitty - but only for a second - that making dinner for Henry didn't count much after all. She wanted to stay and drink coffee with Lee and Martin in the room facing the woods.

"I'll tell you a shortcut," Lee was saying, but although Kitty didn't listen to the directions, she was glad about the shortcut. Her mood had shifted again in a moment; now she wanted to be home getting things under control, slicing the strawberries' tops off, cutting up radishes, and planning the evening - what she would say, what Henry might say.

Martin got lost. After two turns on the narrow woods roads, he couldn't remember where to go next, or be sure the last turn had been correct, and neither of them knew how to make their way back to Lee's house. And then, after a sputter, a false recovery, and another sputter, the car stopped. Martin managed to get it to the side of the road, but it would go no farther, and he sat there, looking as if he were listening hard for it to tell him what was wrong. But he knew what was wrong. "It's out of gas, I suppose," he said. The sounds of the woods - birds, the wind - suddenly seemed ugly to Kitty. She began to cry, as if she thought they might lose their lives out there, like the lost children in fairy tales of whom Lee had spoken.

Then Martin began to move and talk. He was not apologetic, and didn't seem to notice her tears. He was livelier than usual, more awake, rather pleased on the whole. He got out and walked around the car, then tried to start it several more times, as if he thought it might have been joking before.

"We'll have to find a phone," he said. He couldn't remember passing a house, so he suggested they walk in the direction they'd been driving. Kitty had stopped crying after a couple of seconds but she was furious. She got out of the car and walked beside him, not speaking.

At last they came to a mailbox and a driveway, but when they walked all the way to the house, no one was home. The same thing happened a second time. It took a long time to walk down the driveways. At the third mailbox, Kitty stopped and waited while Martin walked in. "Maybe a car will pass," she said. "I'll flag it down." But she was so angry she sat down under a tree a little way back from the mailbox, where she wouldn't have had time to flag down a car.

This time Martin returned in a car with a man who had offered to drive him to a gas station. Kitty walked back to Martin's car and waited there for a long time, reading about New England blacks in the 19th century. She took off her watch and put it into her pocket. Her wrist ached with a sort of consciousness.

When Martin came back, he was excited. He shook hands with the friendly man who had helped him, and waved as the man drove away. Martin had a can of gasoline, which he poured carefully into the tank. He was talkative now.

"Such a decent person, to give me a ride," he said. Kitty had climbed out of the car when he arrived. When they got back in, he reached across the strawberries - which were becoming a little soft - to take her hand, but she pulled it away. They drove for a while. Martin talked about the woods, about Lee. He'd liked this day with Kitty.

When he paused, she said, at last, "You're selfish."

There was silence for half a mile. "You mean because of Henry. Dinner," he said then. Again there was silence. "You're right," he said finally. "I don't like him. I'd rather stay and have sex under the trees."

"Well, we're not," said Kitty.

He didn't answer for a while, then he said, "I know it."

When they finally drove up to the house, Ida and Henry were sitting in the yard on kitchen chairs drinking beer. Ida jumped up when she saw the car. She met Kitty and took the boxes of strawberries from her hands. Martin walked past them, smiling at Henry, who remained seated, tipping his chair back like a man in a general store telling a yarn.

"I was worried," said Ida.

"How long has he been here?"

"Forever. He came early. What happened?"

"We got lost and we ran out of gas." Telling the story, Kitty looked past Ida, who was holding the strawberries to her breasts like a goddess of spring, and watched the men in the yard. It had to be close to seven o'clock. Their shadows were long. Martin had stopped to greet Henry and was still standing. Henry was speaking and Martin was listening placidly, while three yellow tulips waved behind him.

"That was some dentist you sent me to," Henry said in greeting to Kitty, when she came toward him. "I'm still suffering."

Kitty had forgotten he'd asked for the name of her dentist. "Didn't you like him? How are you, Henry? I'm sorry - " She waved at the car, Ida, and the strawberries.

"No problem. Ida has been looking after me."

The dentist, it turned out, had sent Henry on to a gum specialist. "A gum fanatic. He's still working on me, when I give him a chance."

"Do you want another beer, Henry?"

"Not yet," he said. Martin was still standing there. Kitty excused herself and went into the house.

Ida followed her. "Shall I start the fire?" she said. "I brought the grill up from the basement and washed it."

"You've been good to me," said Kitty.

She hoped Henry would come inside and talk to her while she got the food ready. She invited him, stepping out again with some cheese and crackers, and he nodded, but kept on talking to Martin. Kitty went back to the kitchen, took out the salad bowl, and washed the lettuce leaves. She could hear her three friends outside. Ida laughed once.

Then she heard Henry say, "I'm going in search of another beer." She grew fluttery, and became conscious in an exaggerated way of what she was doing, how her hands were tearing lettuce. She was afraid that Ida or Martin would offer to come inside for the beer, but they didn't, and in a moment Henry came marching down the hall into her kitchen. He put his empty bottle on the kitchen table and stood tapping his elbow with his middle finger, a gesture Kitty remembered. Kitty opened the refrigerator and took out two beers and gave one to Henry, and Henry raised it in a rudimentary toast, but said only, "Ran out of gas, did he?"

"I'm sorry," said Kitty.

Henry rubbed his forearm thoughtfully, and Kitty thought that the moment - they were alone for the first time in years - might be difficult for him, too, not just for her. "So how are you doing these days?" he said. "In general."

"Fine," said Kitty. "I really like teaching." She started to peel a cucumber. Now that she had him to herself, she didn't know what to do with him. "Did you like meeting my students that night?" she ventured.

"Your students? Oh, at the movies," said Henry. "Nice kids. Of course, they had a little con game going - the usual student con game."

"A con game?" said Kitty.

"I'm afraid they weren't interested in teacher's serious little film," he said. "They were there for the popcorn." He took a drink and put the bottle down.

"Of course they were interested!" said Kitty. "They're good people, my students." Henry must have seen them eat popcorn. He'd watched them when they couldn't see him. He was probably lonely that night.

"Good people, bad people," he said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. "I guess you haven't changed, Katherine. I seem to recall that you had a rather idealized view of me, too, at one time."

She looked at him, vegetable peeler in hand. "I don't think so," she said.

"Don't look so shocked," said Henry. "Your students wouldn't be. Kids in a city like this - they know life isn't perfect. Look, you were angry with me that night for asking if the mugger was black, but the kids weren't angry. They already knew he was black - or they knew I'd think he was black." He laughed shortly.

"But I didn't see the mugger," said Kitty once more. "And the kids - some of them are babies -" She broke off. "Chickens. . . ." Henry was hungry and it was making him difficult. "Go wait on the lawn," she said at last. "I'll cook faster if I'm alone." He obeyed, taking his beer with him. "But I loved you," she said as the door closed behind him.

When they ate the chicken and salad, it was almost dark, and getting chilly. Ida had brought out two more chairs. Kitty balanced her plate on her lap, shivering a little, relieved that the chicken tasted good. She remembered she'd just spoken of her students as "chickens," and she smiled. Well, there were days when cannibalism seemed too good for them.

"What are you laughing at?" said Henry.

"Just my students."

"I'm glad you find them funny," he said. His voice was gentle now.

"Oh, I do," said Kitty, suddenly eager to talk. "Or the whole situation can be funny - the administration. . . ."

Ida had gone into the house and now she came out, pulling her arms through the sleeves of a sweatshirt. "Speaking of funny," she said, "we should tell him about the latest infraction."

"What's that?" said Henry.

"Some kids pick up another kid and take him down to the river and throw him in."

"What river?" said Henry.

"It really isn't funny," Kitty interrupted.

"There's a small river behind the high school," said Ida. "Anyway, this particular brand of deviltry hadn't been tried before, so the authorities didn't know what to do about it. Finally the principal came on the p.a. system and said, 'All right. Ten days' suspension for river-tossing.' I love that. River-tossing. What a way to put it."

"At least they don't do that at Yale," said Martin. "They'd probably throw me in."

"They don't do it because there's no river," Henry said. "You have a river, sooner or later someone gets thrown in. It's human nature. They'd think of it at Yale - they're pretty smart."

"They certainly are," said Martin. He leaned over and took another piece of chicken from the plate Kitty had placed on a tablecloth spread on the ground. "Smarter than I am. Most of the time, I don't know what I'm doing, teaching them."

"Well," said Henry, "there's a lot you don't seem to know. How to read a gas gauge." His voice was a little rough. "Of course, it does take ability to teach."

"I guess that's so," said Martin calmly, but Ida, who had just stood up, whirled around to face Henry and stood there in the growing dark, a sturdy, bulky figure, certain of herself and angry. "How can you say such a thing?" she said. "Martin is a splendid teacher!"

"How do you know?" said Martin, as Henry looked up at her, shrugging, embarrassed.

"I don't know how I know, but I know," said Ida, unfazed. "The way you talk about your students - the one whose father died, and you listened to him for hours?" She looked straight at Henry now. "Some people - some teachers -don't know students have feelings. They don't know students

are real." She stood before him in her sweatshirt, arms at her sides, scolding Kitty's old teacher, Kitty saw, for his misdeeds and malefactions toward her. But Henry -uncomfortable because Ida was angry - would not guess what she meant.

They had the strawberry shortcake late at night, inside.

They'd all drunk a lot and laughed, and Henry had talked a great deal. Ida calmed down and talked about jazz with him. She knew Beatles songs, too, and she and Martin sang songs from the White Album while Ida played the guitar. She told more stories about the school.

It was good strawberry shortcake. Kitty sat on the floor with hers. She was tired. The other three were done with their cake, and she thought she should carry the plates to the kitchen, or offer more, or something. Then Henry stood up. He was leaving, and suddenly Kitty knew she would never see him again - knew it as if it were knowledge, and was just drunk enough to believe she could be sure.

"Well, good luck, all of you," Henry was saying. Apparently he'd had the impulse to make a short speech. "Good luck with your teaching," he said to Ida, with a nod. "What was that you get ten days for?"

"River-tossing," said Ida.

"River-tossing," Henry repeated. "And you, Katherine . . ." he said, and then he didn't seem to know what to say. "Well, Katherine," he said again. He looked at her hard and shook his head and turned to Martin, and Kitty turned, too. "Geez, you're a sleepy son of a gun," Henry said - and at last, Kitty got over him.

Originally published in the December 1993/ January 1994 issue of Boston Review



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