Edward drives Nola to the west edge of town, skidding, almost purposefully, down unplowed, unlit streets. He turns onto the main street—lit hotels, coffeehouses, a bookstore selling two of his books. For driving in winter, he wears a badger fur hat that matches his beard, and he’s petting her ear, so small it’s almost nothing.
There’s a public garden, dense with roses in spring and summer, a cast stone fountain, and then a foreclosed house not lived in for years. They’ve passed it many times; this is when Nola invents something for him.
She says, “You know who lived there.”
He says, “No.”
“The town witch.”
“Is that right.”
“Oh, yes. She grew trees with poison berries. All the birds died. She made pies and gave them to her neighbors.”
“She didn’t bring me any pies,” he says.
“That’s because this was too long ago,” Nola says. “Before you were born. She would have liked you, though, I think.”
Despite Edward’s distaste for the cliché of the professor-student romance, he’s thirty-two years older than Nola, whom he met last spring in his undergraduate seminar on the 19th-century novel. She graduated in May.
“Are you coming over?” he says.
“I want to.”
He lives in a house he bought with his first wife, when he smoked in his study and ashed on his lectures, lectures he cared for, boxes of them, hadn’t he? He has a daughter, just here at Thanksgiving, studying law in California, the daughter of his second wife Christina, Christina who’d turned slightly maniacal, the descendant of suicidal Spanish rich.
On his desk are the stacked Russian hardbacks, frigid Cyrillic he’s read with his not quite prizewinning mind. There’s a photograph here of his mother. China-cut eyes flecked with Spain. Postcards from Christina. In the kitchen, Ivan the White barks to be let into the yard full of frosted pyracantha stems and thorns.
“He needs to quit,” Edward says. “I’m not chasing him again.”
“You’re both very bad,” Nola says.
They’ve gone up the stairs. The housekeeper’s made his bed. The room, with its corner lamps and heirloom armoire, has a carpet badly damaged by the dog. Now it’s snowing harder, the window an off-white screen. They’ve established an order to this. She lies on her stomach, a short while for him to get hard, a short while to come. Afterwards he makes a little joke, one line, meaningless, to indicate they’ve shifted from whatever world of primate ritual into another of comfortable, unextraordinary postcoital lightness. He half-sleeps for ten minutes; she’s in the tub. By the time he takes her home, his breath is an old man’s.
She cracks her knuckles in what he thinks of as little carvings of sound, delicate, swift, a pianist preparing to practice, and he tells her so.
“I ordered too much food,” he says now. “You’ll take some with you.”
“Sure you will.”
In an act of mild perversion, he’s invited her to lunch at the faculty club, knowing it becomes, this time of day, a haunt of his department. It’s an old-fashioned banquet room with gloved waiters carrying trays of pastry and silver teapots in priestly silence.
“I can’t force myself to do things I’m not good at, like play piano,” she says. “That’s what you’re supposed to say’s the trouble with my generation, right?”
Her youth, her trump, but she worries her precocity has only a few more years, that in order to act older, one must be young.
“Don’t feed me more,” she says.
“It’s plump you have, not fat. Mere plump. Squirrels pack away for the winter. I’m not complaining. We’ll eat the crabs, and you take home the lamb.”
The department’s fellows and one new hire, insular as a Greek chorus, sit at a nearby round table and glance over intermittently. Nola holds her palm above the table’s candle. Sleet mud streaks the ankles of her stockings. A short solemn skirt. A plastic barrette. In certain moments, he’s convinced she needs gifts. Last year, he bought her a computer, a set of dishes, many books . . . because he is, almost certainly, taking something from her, a little youth, a few of her twenty-two years, along with her unironic inquisitiveness, for which he implicitly asks, and reverence. Reverence he seems to return. He knows the union consummates his narcissism, his unspoken belief he is not the age he appears. She mirrors his true age, his untrue age. He tells himself he most admires her strangeness, which he tells himself he’s not invented.
“I had this colleague (he’s dead now, but he would have liked you),” he says. “He was in Political Science. He hated this place, but he always ordered crab and lamb.”
“I thought it was a weird combination.”
“I think of it as a memorial.”
How will she sit on the bus after this, what will she do in her apartment? When will you nap, play with your cat, who’s “shy and doesn’t like men.” I don’t believe you. You’ll eat the lamb as soon as you’re home; you eat even more than Christina. You eat rolls and butter like an orphan from Dickens.
“Why would your friend like me who died?”
“He had exceptional taste; it’s why we were friends.”
She knows how he thinks of her, and this is what she takes from him—his myth of her, his subtle romanticization that cements her self-assurance. She hated Edward’s class; it was trite, and he too tired of it quickly. On her first paper he’d written, “Adept.”
She says, “You only talk about dead people.”
“I don’t like to gossip.”
Remnants of snow dissolve in the carpet. Some snow still at the ends of Nola’s hair, black, from her Italian father. She’s cracking her knuckles again, quick hands, nothing like Christina’s.
“Tell me about your witch,” he says. “I like stories while I eat.”
“But we aren’t driving.”
“Pretend. I suppose she’s lovely?”
“Well I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“What’s her coloring?”
“Edward.” It’s Charlie, his department chair, elected to that rank for his malleability, standing at their table like a well-bred dog in a suit. “Hello, Nola. Edward, I thought you hated the food here.” He says this quietly.
“It’s the only kind I can eat. I need bland food, my doctor says. No spice, no salt.”
“Can we have a talk sometime?” says Charlie. His little suit is brown, old-fashioned. “Today, maybe. It isn’t about yesterday.”
“Which was embarrassing for everyone. We’ve got to have a real agenda at meetings.” This comes out sterner than Edward meant, but he likes it and makes his hand into a fist on the table. “Some of us were just sitting there wondering what was happening.”
Charlie looks at the new hire and fellows, sitting with some composure as two waiters serve many plates of food.
“I agree,” says Charlie. “And I’m working on it. Anyway, there’s something else we need to discuss. Can you come to my office later? Or maybe we’ll talk at the Lucy party. You’re coming, aren’t you? It’s set to snow four more inches tonight.”
“I’ll see you tonight.”
“All right, let’s talk then. Goodbye, Nola.” Charlie walks to the fellows’ table, who lay down their forks to greet him.
“What’s a Lucy party?”
“I thought it was a Christmas party we were going to. What’s he going to talk to you about?”
“Spenserians are fastidious. Stay away from them. Charlie’s a fucking prince.”
“Who’s he fucking?” And it comes out wrong, the last word awkward, so she folds her hands on the table.
She doesn’t take the bus—he drives her to the bookstore, promising to pick her up at her apartment for the party later. Crab and lamb swing in a bag in her hand as she wipes her boots on a mat. “That’s weird,” she says, as the door shuts behind her. “I just saw your father.”
“Not weird.” Charlie’s son, usually away at a small, isolated New England college similar to this one, stands just now at the front of the long store with a red winter nose and a graphic novel.
He lacks his father’s obsequious habits, Charlie’s little bows during greetings, his nods and demonstrative eyebrows. She’s met him several times, most recently two years ago at a fraternity party when he introduced himself as Craig and his friend as Schindler.
“Nola, is it right?” he says.
“You look much older than last time I saw you.”
“Colder?” she says.
“OK, why not? You were graduating. So was my sister. I sat next to your parents.”
“I know, they told me about you.”
“Sure. I remember that day because I gave my sister a flower necklace to wear—a real flower necklace that I’d just made of the wild flowers I’d picked on the way to the auditorium, you know, a nice gift, I thought—and it was so hot that day that the flowers melted down the front of her dress. Of course she wore white because she reads stacks of wedding magazines, and so her dress was stained orange from the flowers. It sounds rather pretty, but she didn’t think so. She thought it was one of my little jokes.”
His frugal smile contrasts with his long story, and he’s looking at the buttons of her coat while the windows rattle from the wind, which has chilled her ears and mouth into what Edward calls “frozen treats.”
“What book is that?”
“Just rubbish,” he says.
“I like graphic novels. Well, a little,” Nola says. “Only if they’re well done.”
“That’s easy. I like almost anything well done. But people read these for the wrong reasons. Your friend agrees. Ask him.”
It’s an invitation, or even a faint request, to know more about her understanding with Edward (as if she might answer, “We don’t talk about books, we just screw”), but with anyone, friends, Edward’s colleagues, it remains her poker hand, not to be shared.
“Are you going to your father’s party?”
“His Lucy party?” He says it slowly. “I could show up. I don’t know. I’ve been around those people most of my life. To be blunt, I think my father doesn’t want you there.”
“That’s not what I was told.”
“Suit yourself. I might be going to a house party on Hoffman.”
“House parties in this town are ‘rubbish.’”
“Yes, well, we should meet up. I’m friends with lots of professors’ kids, you know. We’ve got a merry little gang. They’d probably like you. Anyway, we all come in for winter break, only I’m back a little early. Nobody knows that yet.”
He’s been tapping the toe of his boot against the bookshelf, making little scuffs at the bottom of the blond wood. He’s shorter than Edward and more animated, in small ways.
“By the way, don’t tell my father you saw me here.”
“Of course he knows I’m in town. I live with him. Just don’t tell him I was at the bookstore. I’m not ever supposed to be here.”
“What? Why can’t you be at the bookstore?”
“Long story,” he says, rubbing his weak beard.
Charlie’s house—cold floors, dark shellac, art deco mirrors. A square table in the hall with a bowl of Brazil nuts, bottles of rum and wine. Roman faces Eric, who leans on the back of a chair on which three small tabbies sleep in curled nines and sixes.
“Why not?” Roman’s unzipping his jacket, taking off his hat. His hair went white a few years ago. “I’m going to bring it up next Tuesday. I mean, no one’s stopping what’s-her-name from teaching a whole course on—”
“You know her name,” says Eric. He’s a short man in saggy pants and shirt. He’s known Roman since he started teaching, years before.
“If Amy insists on teaching a whole course on—”
“You mean Sex and—”
“—television, then why not? She told me she received an undie paper, a—she said—‘delicious paper’ linking cunnilingus, Woolf’s hemline, and the eyesight of Milton’s daughters . . . Besides, Jesus, look. Look at that. Edward’s undie has nothing but cookies on her plate.”
Nola’s at the dining room table—spiced apples, apple candles, turkey, glazed ham, stuffing with apricots, miniature truffles, Scottish tea.
“She’s graduated,” Eric says.
“All that’s going straight to her rear.”
Nola passes the bathroom, inside which, unknown to her, Edward, having urinated, out of a hypochondriacal habit he now frequently indulges, inspects his penis, but nothing is ever unusual, in spite of his having taken chances. Maybe he should get married. Once, between his first and second marriages, while sleeping intermittently with a colleague, a pimple caused weeks of loss of appetite. When his longtime physician and college friend refused to take a sample, claiming the mumpy bump was too small to concern him, Edward shouted something to the effect of, “millions of angels might in fact copulate on the head of a pin.”
In Charlie’s living room, a large, red-faced man with tartan socks holds a plate of turkey and ham on his lap and a cranberry in his cheek. One of two women in wobbly, doll-like chairs turns to Nola.
“You came with Edward, right?”
“Charlie invited you? I’m Molly, Eric’s wife. This is Katherine.”
“It’s so cold in here,” Katherine says, hunching, pushing her skirt down over her knees. There are dark red veins in her eyes.
“And I’ve got some kind of cramp. Excuse me, but I do,” says Molly. She overpronounces her words, as if giving a slight performance for Nola.
“Christ, how weird,” says Katherine. “I have a cramp, too. I wonder if it could be that our cycles are aligned.”
“I don’t know but I’m ready for the Lucy rolls.”
“What’s Lucy?” Nola says.
“It’s Charlie’s Lucy party,” says Molly. She looks like she might say something else but then finishes her eggnog and places the glass between her knees. She buttons the top button of her sweater.
“What’s a Lucy party?”
“Saint Lucy. Nola, sit down,” Molly says. “We’re curious about Edward—he’s very unpredictable, we think.”
From the corner, a 75-year-old Chaucer scholar Nola didn’t notice clears her throat in two ascending notes, the second with a slightly whimsical adornment, while holding her mouth in a curious bassoonist’s embouchure, her tensed cheeks powdered skull-white. Saint-Saens’ “The Dying Swan” plays on the stereo. The red-faced man with tartan socks looks up.
“I drink tea,” the Chaucerian says. “It’s full of antioxidants.”
The man nods politely.
“I’d love tea if I didn’t drink it every day,” she says. “But I drink it every day because I like it so much.” Sipping eggnog from a china cup, her mouth gives way to slight spasms at its corners; anyone who knew her well might think she seemed unusually tired or clumsy tonight.
“That’s very true, Diana,” Katherine says a little loudly, with unintended condescension, as if speaking to a great-aunt from whom one stands to inherit a small house or large jewel.
“The paintings are awful.” Molly gives a little hissing sound. She squeezes the tassels of her scarf, and wraps the whole scarf around her neck. “But I’m not going to say that to Charlie. It would hurt him. I wonder if he has some kind of muscle relaxer. I really do have a cramp.”
Nola walks by a side table with a photo of Charlie’s son in profile, his nose pointed toward the constellation of wary new fellows and their husbands. She enters the screened-off patio. She would like to have the gothically slanted mind Edward says she has . . . she tries to think of descending lines of snow as lines of spells and chants.
“Hello.” Roman’s out here smoking in a wicker chair. He’s wearing a T-shirt. He’s stuck his long legs out so that Nola must walk over his feet to the other side of the patio. “Are you eating? What good things Charlie has. I like turkey very much. Do you?”
“I do,” she says.
“Oh, you do?” He’s encouraged. “You like turkey?”
“Yes, with stuffing.”
“I like stuffing. All that with rum. Dark, Christmas rum sent down from Jesus. Cookies, you like those?”
“You sound like Edward,” she says.
“What about . . . bread and butter?” Roman sits up in his chair.
“Bread with butter?”
“It’s simple, I know, but it’s overlooked. I try not to overlook anything.”
Edward’s at the doorway. “I didn’t know you were out here. Aren’t you cold?”
“We were just talking about our favorite foods,” Roman says.
“Foods?” Edward comes to Nola and says the word softly, drowsily, resolving to take her home soon.
“Nola seems to like all foods equally,” Roman says.
“I didn’t say that,” Nola says.
“No? I thought you did.”
“This is an odd misunderstanding,” Edward says.
“There’s no such thing as an odd misunderstanding,” Roman replies. “No such thing as a normal one.”
“We were having a conversation,” says Roman. “And I don’t even like conversation.”
“Doing all right?” Edward talks in her ear. She’s a year younger than his daughter, similar in a few ways—occasional reclusiveness and frequent feigned naiveté. In certain self-indulgent moods, he imagines Nola descends from a line of fertile women; her body looks as though it can withstand a “decadent brute” (what he once called himself in a letter to an old friend) or a mythical, near-fatal fall. At night, she has a newness, a satin-like, alien sheen to her back, her face. “To turn a strange woman over then/ over again/ in your head . . .” What poet said that, and what student had called the poet chauvinistic in class, only to be shocked to learn the poet was a woman? “Still. A chauvinist,” the student had said.
“Edward.” Charlie’s at the porch door. He’s in the same brown suit as before. “Hello, Nola. Roman. Edward, I need to speak with you,” working his jowls, “Let’s come inside.”
“Not tonight,” Edward says. “I’m feeling a little funny just now.”
“I don’t mind leaving early,” Nola says.
“Charlie,” Roman says, “that meeting the other day. It was. . .not to be repeated, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Well I’ve spoken with Edward about it, haven’t I?” Charlie says. “Spoken with a few others. We’ll figure it out. Edward, let’s come inside and talk.”
“Charlie, what is this?” Eric shouts from the house.
“That isn’t the point,” says Roman.
“Charlie?” Eric shouts from inside the house. “Where’d you get this?”
“Let’s go in.” Edward takes Nola’s elbow. “You coming?”
“In a minute,” she says. “Should we go soon?”
“I’m fine,” Edward says. “Just very tired.”
“Hey, Charlie!” Eric says. “Come in here a second!”
Eric’s in the dining room, a plate of food in his hand. He’s in front of a shelf the length of the wall, examining an antique pistol in a faux velvet cushioned case with a glass hatch, when Charlie, Roman, and Eric walk in.
“It’s a funny thing for you to have,” says Eric.
“It came from my grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania,” Charlie says, extracting the pistol from its transparent coffin. “I asked for it when he died.” Edward takes the gun in his one drinkless hand and grasps the barrel tighter than he intends.
“I’ve heard about these Pennsylvania farms,” says Roman. “I knew a man who had one, in fact. On a Pennsylvania farm, you’ve got to have a certain number of animals to have the privilege of calling it a farm. You’ve got to have that amount. No matter what. So this man I knew lived in New York. He hired a couple of ne’er-do-wells to look after his Pennsylvania farm. A couple of rascals, a couple of punks. I met these guys in Pennsylvania.”
“You met these guys?” Eric inserts an entire dreidel-shaped cookie into his mouth, chewing it quickly while readying his right hand with another from his plate.
“I spent a weekend there. Anyway, there were these punks looking after this farm, but there weren’t enough animals. Now the man with the property—this was a smart man, a lawyer in New York—needed a farm for tax purposes. So how do you think he did it? How did he have enough animals, and with these ne’er-do-wells who could hardly take care of themselves?”
Katherine leads Diana, shuffling clumsily, toward the bathroom.
“Goodness, a gun,” says Diana. Her long skirt’s stained with cranberry. “No, I don’t feel well at all. Not one minute of it or any of them.”
“Please, it would be a good idea to calm down,” says Katherine. She’s dabbing at Diana’s skirt with a red, crumpled napkin as they walk. Katherine’s eyes are hazy, without focus. She shuts the bathroom door.
“Enter the goats,” says Edward.
“Not goats,” Roman says. “How do you think the lawyer did it?”
“Hired more ne’er do wells,” says Eric. “Humans are animals.”
“Rabbits.” Roman’s already puggy eyes become puggier. “Rabbits.”
Edward finds himself fixated on the stripes on Roman’s sleeve. “Where the hell did you get that shirt?”
“What do you mean?” says Roman. “This is my boring shirt.”
“Before I forget,” says Charlie. “Time for these.” He uncovers a tray of saffron rolls. “Lussekatt, Lucy buns. I made these. We’re a week early now for Saint Lucy’s Day, but that doesn’t matter.”
“It occurs to me,” says Roman, with a slow lilt. “Every year we have little Lucy buns, but aren’t we supposed to have a procession? With a little Lucy to lead us? Charlie, you’re the mongrel half-Swede, isn’t that what’s done?”
“Yes, there’s a Lucy,” Charlie says. “She wears a crown with candles.”
“Well it’s our first Lucy party,” says Roman, “where I believe we have a Lucy, gentlemen.”
“That isn’t a good idea.” Charlie pulls apart an S-shaped roll and squeezes it nervously into his mouth.
“Roman,” says Edward very loudly, sloshing a bit of the nog from his cup, the new hire and her husband looking over. “That’s not the point. I’m talking about your shirt.”
“Are you all right?” Charlie asks.
“I don’t sleep well.” Edward says.
“Charlie,” says Roman. “You ought to be grateful. We finally have Lucy. She’s out on the porch.”
“I’ll get her,” says Eric.
“As long as nobody sings,” Edward says. “I don’t want anyone to sing.” His thoughts feel clear, yet he watches Roman’s shirt make kaleidoscopic patterns, dizzying arrays of stained glass petals.
Having lapsed into an ethereal quiet on the porch, Nola enters on Eric’s unsteady arm, her eyes a little electric from the cold, her face mottled with a damp red prettiness.
“Nola,” says Roman. “Charlie’s people are Swedes, and in a week it’s Saint Lucy’s Day. You’re our Lucy.”
“I know,” she says. “I don’t really want to.”
“I told her.” Eric stumbles on a furry cat toy.
“Lucy was a virgin, they took her eyes out with a fork, and so we drink,” says Roman. “All right, now what you’re going to do is walk around in a circle while we sing. Eric was a chorus boy, an asthmatic chorus boy, but nevertheless. So, Nola, walk all around. There you are. We don’t have any candles. Charlie, start singing?”
“I don’t want Charlie to sing,” says Edward.
“No thank you, Roman,” Charlie says.
“But what are the words?” Roman says.
“I remember,” says Eric.
Edward bites a saffron roll and suffers “Santa Lucia” sung in Eric’s countertenor, while the flame of the lighter Roman’s given to Nola to hold is another stained glass petal with something not right at the center of it. Nola walks the perimeter of the room, laughing a little.
“Roman, you sing, too,” Eric says.
“No thanks. Quite winded.”
“All of us,” Edward says. “Sit down.”
“Edward, please.” Charlie takes Edward’s arm. “Edward, come now. Time for our talk.”
They go, coatless, through the porch door, under bare branches, into the snow, not vanishing as it hits the ground, but the flakes seem to turn upon themselves, small pointed wheels, each one too large to be real, melting a little, strobing, hemorrhaging points of water from its angles. Edward no longer feels drunk; this is something else, more severe. In the house what sounds like a wineglass breaks.
“What was that?” Charlie says.
“Not your pistol.”
“Edward, I’ve been wanting us to talk. You can probably guess what it is.” Charlie walks ahead to a shrub covered in long flanks of snow and stops, and Edward sways as he walks in what he perceives as a straight line in swaying grass.
“No, Charlie,” says Edward. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“Charles, what’s this?” He points to Charlie’s head.
“It isn’t even your color. It isn’t even yours.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Right there. I guess I have to try to pull it off.” With spread hands, he grabs Charlie’s head, as if to heal a sinner at an evangelical revival.
“Edward, really, what the hell?”
Edward lurches back. Human shadows cartwheel on the snow in purplish parabolas beyond the shrub, which seems to Edward to suddenly melt in time-lapse. Charlie is talking. Edward sprints to the house. There are yelps from the house.
“They’re spotted. It’s just bad art.” At the center of a small crowd, Molly makes large, vague swipes at each hand with its opposite. Her sweater’s on the floor. Both straps of her dress have fallen from her shoulders. “Eric, let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go.”
“Molly! Molly, you’re hysterical.” Eric whispers in her ear. “I need you to put your cup down.”
“Little bits of cinnamon, I swear. I tried to lick them off at first, didn’t I, Katherine? Katherine?” Molly begins to weep. “What ages me?”
Nola looks at her own hands. Several freckles. “Edward,” she says.
“Eric, do you feel all right?” Charlie asks.
“Who the Jesus put so many mirrors in this house?” says Roman. “Fifty, forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven . . . It’s like an orgy in here, so many redundant bodies, no sex. But never the sex. Never the sex? Christ, something’s finally wrong with me.”
“Roman, please,” Charlie says. “What in God’s name is happening here? What’s wrong with Edward?”
“Strange cock,” says Edward. “Very strange cock. I swear it isn’t even yours.”
Everyone looks at Charlie, except the fellows and the new hire, and their three husbands, the six of them standing together, largely mute, until the new hire’s husband, a young, stooped man, after looking around the room as if for a bit of confidence, raises his right arm triumphantly and shouts, “My ribs are swollen!”
“I know what I smell—it’s opopanax!” says Edward. He attempts to unzip Nola’s purse, hanging from her shoulder.
“Someone’s put LSD in the eggnog,” says the husband with swollen ribs.
“Christ, he’s right,” says Roman. “It’s fucking LSD. I said this eggnog tasted shit-like.”
“Calm down, please.” Charlie’s holding Edward by the wrist. “Nobody’s spiked your eggnog.”
“LSD! It’s LSD. I’m a fucking kid again. In the middle of the living room,” says Roman.
Molly sits on the sofa, crying with both hands over her mouth.
“You’re insane,” Charlie says. “You think there’s LSD?”
“Look at all these jerks with cups of nog,” Roman says.
The bathroom door slams open. “I’m taking Diana to the hospital,” says Katherine. “Someone needs to come help me with her. Eric. Do you hear me? Diana’s in the bathroom. Eric.”
“Jesus Christ,” says Charlie, watching Molly try to stand up. “Jesus Christ, my son. My son. He thinks I won’t have him arrested.”
The Saint-Saens recording restarts, and the man in the tartan socks, now alone in the living room, with a new plate of turkey and ham, says, “My first wife used to love this piece.”
Nola’s never driven his car before tonight. Edward takes his badger hat from the glove box and reclines his passenger seat. The roads are full of coarse tracks of snow.
“Your hair is my wires.” He puts on his hat.
“Close your eyes,” she says. “Lie back down.”
“Your eyes are witch way hazel. Your witch with berries.”
“But I’m not the witch,” she says.
“I want to tell you what I’m seeing right now.”