Pamela MacIsaac

St. Augustine's Mother

When Beatrice Hughes thinks of her students, she feels her throat close, her chest clench coldly. Her hand rises automatically to fan her face, as though to wave away a cloud of troublesome insects. The introductory classes for swarms of over 100 students are the worst. The students in these classes hover around her like fat houseflies, buzzing loudly, feeding rapaciously on her precious professional foliage. They infest her office. The senior students are easier. Medieval history is not a popular field, so the students cluster in smaller numbers, rarely more than ten. Graduate students groups are even smaller, as the Greek and Latin language requirements begin to push out all but the most eager, the most accomplished. She can begin to distinguish between students in these latter stages of their educational life cycle. Butterflies they are not, moths perhaps. Some are so dissimilar to herself as to seem another species altogether, but at least they take on a distinctive form.

Not all of her students affect her this way. Some of them she respects, slightly, the serious ones who turn in competent, grammatically pure and properly footnoted papers on time. But these students are often personally unlikable, socially inept or physically unfortunate in some way, stunted or overgrown. Asthmatic, thick-spectacled Phil, with his translucent, purplish skin and impossibly narrow chest visits her regularly, wants desperately to attend graduate school, become a professor of medieval philosophy. Beatrice sits uncomfortably through her sessions with Phil, advises him kindly, takes him seriously because he takes history, takes Beatrice, seriously, but she can't wait for him to leave, remove his agonized breathing, his spotty glasses. She can also expect periodic visits from Mara, whose huge, tightly bundled breasts, and rippled, jiggling thighs are disgusting to Beatrice. She is horrified by her own unkindness, her prejudice, but cannot help contrasting her own narrow shape, the visible cartilage of her face and knees with Mara's. Mara's bulges appear in exotic places, at the base of her neck, even around her wrists, flesh overlapping like bracelets of white dough. Beatrice feels like a needle or a rocket by comparison, shooting up from her tendony feet, her trajectory unimpeded by excess flesh; she cannot imagine how thoughts can escape from Mara's mind, imprisoned as it is in her stifling corporeal self. But Mara is undeniably a good student, a competent and solid A minus. She wants to be a teacher and is, intellectually, entirely suited to this profession. So Beatrice fights down her contempt, the urge to interrupt Mara in mid-sentence, do something for her, help her rid herself of her handicap, tell her, "You need self-control, in this world, self-control and self-respect ."

Beatrice's graduate seminars are both better and worse, better because most of the students attend classes regularly, listen carefully to what Beatrice has to say, paying extra attention when she talks about Augustine of Hippo, her specialty, worse because the struggle for grades is so much tighter. Crying, desperate M.A. students are a common sight just before Christmas vacation, when they receive their first set of marks, and in April, when final grades are distributed. But not everyone is meant to be an academic, Beatrice is compelled to remind them. They do not have the right to become a professor. Some people are meant for other things, other work. Her words often fail to comfort, but most of the lesser graduate students go on to other careers anyway, become teachers and even lawyers, bolstered in the end by her honest advice. There's no point in encouraging the second tier to fight their way in. She marks papers fairly and objectively, never changes a grade, feels no guilt when she gives a failing grade or disappointing grade, because she knows herself to be just.

Every year, there are graduate students who arouse her antipathy. They are not pathetic like Phil or Mara; they are sharp, shallow, ready to pass judgment, certain of their entitlements. They possess a particular set of traits, smugness, an under-the-breath refusal to acknowledge her expertise, her right to be there at the head of the seminar table, leading them through their fumbling analyses, wincing at their fractured English, their atrocious Greek and Latin. They rest their skeptical eyes on her while other students talk, glance at each other with veiled amusement when she corrects pronunciation, cuts short a tortured presentation. This year, she is particularly troubled by Gwen, an M.A. student. To start, Gwen is extremely large for a woman, not fat, but tall and solid with strong arms and legs, intimidatingly wide-hipped in perpetual jeans, blousy tops and scarves emphasizing an impressive bust. She is a mature student, a former stay-at-home mother with two children and now an undergraduate degree in Women's Studies. In her introduction on the first day of class, Gwen defines herself for the rest of the group, claiming to have been radicalized by motherhood.

"So, I said to myself, what kind of role model are you, lying down and just taking it from men all these years? So I came back to school as a mature student and found out that I kicked ass." Gwen waited for laughter, which came. "Now I'm planning on becoming chief shit-disturber in the history department. I've done all I can over at Women's Studies." She smiled around the room, ending with a nod for Beatrice, who flinched at the obscenities.

To Beatrice's irritation, Gwen's Latin and Greek are practically non-existent. She has bypassed this requirement, finagled her way into Beatrice's course by promising to acquire these languages as quickly as possible. Her registration in the course was accepted, despite Beatrice's objections, because Gwen is considered a very gifted student, as the Graduate Chair told Beatrice. She brings funding with her, some special scholarship for women. This information does not mollify Beatrice, in fact irritates her further. She did not need special funding to get where she is. Gwen often seats herself immediately to Beatrice's right at the seminar table, a restive presence, crossing and uncrossing her long legs, bunching her frizzy, greying hair on top of her head, then leaning back to let it tumble untidily across the back of her chair. Gwen does not attack or even approach at first, but undermines subtly with a show of evident boredom, loud, slow exhalations of breath. She laughs boisterously at small jokes, sighs frequently, lets her head fall on her desk with an unnerving thwack. Beatrice finds herself cutting the seminar short, minimizing her own contributions, her voice growing clipped and even more rapid in response to Gwen's puffing and jingling. In the third week of the course, Gwen lifts her head from the desk, and asks her question, in a voice of pained exasperation and quiet drama.

"But what I'm wondering is..."

"Yes, Gwen?"

"Where the hell are the women?"

Beatrice smiles, pleased that she has an answer. "Well, Gwen, if you look at the course outline, you'll see that we'll be devoting an entire seminar to female theologians and philosophers. You'll be reading..."

"Well, yeah, I can see that. But why only one week?"

"We have a limited amount of time for each topic..."

"But why all together like that? Why are women studied as a clump, why are we a topic? I mean, we're a part of everything right? How do you separate women and study them as a unit?"

Beatrice feels herself begin to tremble. "If you take that view, all things are inter-connected, and it would be impossible to do a close and in-depth study of any topic. Human experience is inter-connected, but we compartmentalize in order to understand each part of the whole."

Gwen nods. "Okay, yeah yeah, I know the argument, but can't you see that women are part of the whole? I mean, for example, when we talked about Augustine, we barely mentioned his mother, St. Monica, but I recently read an article about Augustine's ideas about women, which are the main reason women aren't priests now in the Catholic Church. I mean, for God's sake, Augustine's mother was abused by his father, that's totally formative, and Augustine praises her for submitting to that..."

Beatrice takes a deep breath. "Gwen, yes, I'm familiar with the theories about St. Augustine and his mother. That's something we can certainly talk about later in the term. I'll be happy to discuss your ideas then."

Gwen sits back in her chair, mouth open, ready to speak again. Beatrice shuts her file folder with a slight slap, and slides her chair back, cutting the seminar short by ten minutes. The other graduate students looked surprised, and a few snicker quietly, whether at Beatrice's dismissal of Gwen or Beatrice's obvious discomposure, it is not clear. Gwen narrows her eyes at this merriment, but then throws her own head back and laughs her loud laugh, joining in the joke that is only partly at her expense.

Gwen begins to quiz Beatrice weekly. "Why aren't we discussing Radegund now or St. Hilda?" She offers Beatrice references to articles, suggests Beatrice talk to one of her professors in Women's Studies who is familiar with the period. Beatrice bites back her anger, makes her answers mild by comparison to her inner irritation. When she passes Gwen in the halls, she is hard pressed to hand out even the most cursory of professional smiles, has to stretch her lips into a bow shape that will pass for the semi-friendly greeting due a graduate student. Gwen grins broadly whenever their paths cross, waves madly at Beatrice across the quad or shouts out a raucous greeting at the coffee stand in the basement of their building, driven mysteriously to antagonize, to tease, perpetuating much mirth among her fellow graduate students, who seem, constantly, to surround Gwen.

Beatrice knows that they are well aware of the strange game Gwen is playing. They relish her antics at one remove, careful not to participate but closely observing her campaign to discomfit Beatrice.

Beatrice's anger boils and spills over in October, after six weeks of heat and stirring, when Gwen begins to call her by her first name. In other departments, Beatrice knows, graduate students are on a first-name basis with the professors, particularly the more junior members of the faculty. In History, however, graduate students are expected to address the faculty with appropriate titles, unless directly requested to do otherwise. Gwen begins to break this unspoken rule outside the classroom, shouting out "Hi there Beatrice!" in a tone of great friendliness. Beatrice cannot quite find the opportunity to approach Gwen and ask her to stop. In the classroom, Gwen avoids confrontation by refusing to use Beatrice's name entirely.

Contrary to Beatrice's expectations, Gwen turns in her first two papers, 10-page book reviews, on time and without fanfare or evident angst of any kind. Beatrice expects Gwen's papers to show evidence of her sloppiness, is convinced that Gwen's writing will be spotted with slipshod thinking, like stains from tomato sauce or a late-night coffee. But Gwen's papers are neatly and accurately typed and competently written. She uses paragraphs and writes without colloquialisms. She has a tendency to use fragmented sentences and excessive jargon, a flaw that she corrects in her second paper, without arguing or mentioning the criticisms to Beatrice. Beatrice is puzzled by the dislocation between Gwen on paper and Gwen in person, but finds that she is softened, somewhat, by the seriousness of Gwen's papers, able to suspend her personal dislike for Gwen, quell the agitation she feels in Gwen's overwhelming physical presence.

Two days before the seminar's third paper is due, Beatrice opens her door at the start of office hours to find Gwen among the usual crowd of frantic undergraduate students. The undergraduates rush the door while Gwen hangs back, one broad shoulder braced against the cinder block wall. Beatrice deals quickly and effectively with the others, all of whom desperately need, and are, of course, denied, a change in the grade of their mid-term exams. When Beatrice ushers the last downcast undergraduate through the door of her office, she finds Gwen seated on the floor, back slumped, knapsack a puddle around her feet. For the first time, she feels a small pang of concern, even pity for Gwen, who is obviously unwell. She also feels slightly sickened by Gwen's wretched posture, the unusual weakness of her bent neck. "Gwen?" Beatrice says with more asperity than she feels, opening her office door wider. Gwen looks up at Beatrice with red eyes.

In Beatrice's office, Gwen seats herself, lapsing immediately into her previous posture, as though holding up her large head requires too much effort. She stares at the floor. "I came to ask for an extension on the historiography thing."

Beatrice takes a deep breath. "You know my policy, Gwen. No extensions."

"Yeah, I know, but see, I've had a really hideous week." Gwen drags her hands through her mass of hair. Beatrice notices that it is greasy at the roots, matted in the back. "My daughter is sick, she's got this truly awful chest cold, and I've hardly slept in days, much less had a chance to work on anything. I thought you might make an exception."

"I'm sorry, Gwen. No exceptions. Other students in the seminar have asked and I've said no to them as well."

A small slash of red appears like a welt on each of Gwen's pale cheeks. "The other students don't have three kids and a useless prick of an ex-husband."

"Personal circumstances do not factor into my decision, unless an individual's situation is very serious."

Gwen puts her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. Beatrice forces herself to say nothing. She will not be drawn into counselling Gwen.

After a few minutes of silence, Gwen stands up. "Okay, fine. I get the point."

"I hope your daughter feels better soon."

Gwen laughs sourly. "I'll tell her you said hi."

Despite this request, Gwen turns in her historiographical paper on time. She shows up halfway through the seminar, even paler and wild haired than before. Gwen says nothing in the second half of the seminar, and, at the end, silently places her paper in front of Beatrice. She leaves by herself, rushing down the hall toward the exit.

On the following weekend, Beatrice settles in to mark the graduate papers, a cup of steaming tea in front her. Unlike most of her colleagues, she enjoys marking more than teaching, possibly because she is able to give vent to her ill feelings, letting loose with a hiss of intellectual frustration or an outright cry of grammatical despair. During her quick flip-through of the papers, she sees Gwen's is flawlessly typed and well presented on plain bond paper, stapled at the corner, with a proper title page, no plastic covers full static electricity, or amateur, paper-mangling duo-tangs. This first cursory reading reveals the paper to be of an unexpectedly high quality. Perhaps, Beatrice thinks, she works well under pressure. But something catches in Beatrice's brain as she pages through Gwen's paper, a faint, distant echo.

This echo, this ringing of textual bells, grows louder with the second, more careful reading. Beatrice stops part way through Gwen's paper, and sets it aside, thoughtfully. After marking several more papers, none of which could possibly have been plagiarized because they are too poorly written, Beatrice picks up Gwen's paper again, and leafs through it, knowing now that she has read some of it before, not whole pages or paragraphs even, but certain phrases, chunks of text, the underlying ideas that link her arguments. She marks these sections lightly with pencil and places Gwen's paper in a special folder.

Gwen's paper continues to trouble Beatrice throughout that Sunday afternoon. It comes to her as she is chopping onions for her stir-fried chicken and vegetables; knife stilled, she stares at the kitchen cupboard, unseeing. She sets down the knife, wipes her hands quickly with a towel, and hurries up the stairs to her study. In her study, she jiggles one foot impatiently as the computer dials and connects with agonizing slowness to the Internet, and a bookmarked University of Iowa web site. The site contains a bibliography of journal articles, which Beatrice consults frequently, as well as several brief related articles, all mild in tone, intended, she assumes, with disapproval, to stimulate interest in the topic among the general public. Reaching for Gwen's paper, she compares the suspicious text to the web site and does not find what she is looking for.

Disappointed and relieved, she sits and watches the screen, then, seized again by memory, clicks to the links page and calls up another site, this one developed and edited by a respected authority on women in medieval history. On this site, Beatrice finds her match with Gwen's paper, and begins to underline the offending passages, this time with red ink. At the end of the paper, she writes "Sources?" in large red letters. Holding Gwen's paper, she contemplates the clumsiness of Gwen's deception, and decides that this is deliberate, a sign of Gwen's contempt. She feels an agitated, fretful triumph.

In seminar that week, Beatrice is nervous. At the end of the seminar, she hands back all the papers except Gwen's, and, as the other students are leaving, she asks Gwen to follow her to her office. Gwen is subdued, her face unusually still. She walks a few paces behind Beatrice, keeping her distance. In the office, with the door closed, they sit, Beatrice safe behind her thick wooden desk.

"Well, Gwen. I'm sure you're wondering what this is all about."

Gwen nods. "Well, yeah."

"I have a couple of questions about your paper, and I wanted to talk to you before I finish grading it."

"What kind of questions?"

"Frankly, I'm troubled by your paper, Gwen. I'm troubled by the similarity between your text and another that I'm familiar with. I wondered..."

"What did you wonder?"

"If you held onto your research notes."

Gwen contorts her face pursing her lips and sucking in her cheeks ruefully. "No."

"Well, then, we have a problem. In the course outline, I request, specifically, that students retain their research notes after submitting papers for this very reason, in fact."

"So now what?"

"We can just have an honest talk about it."

"Well, I don't have much to say. I wrote the paper and if there's any similarity between the texts, then that's just a coincidence."

"It's quite an odd coincidence. I have the text printed, and I can show you." Beatrice reaches for her briefcase.

"Okay, look, I may have missed a footnote or two. It happens, but I certainly didn't copy deliberately from the site..."

Beatrice tries not to smile. "Did I say it was a web site?"

Gwen's face pales. "You said you printed it off, so I just assumed..."

"I think I have my answer, Gwen."

Gwen stares at Beatrice, hands working in her lap. Her previously pale face flushes, but she keeps her voice low. "You've had it in for me from the start; you never liked me, so much for solidarity..."

"That's not true, Gwen." Gwen laughs, harshly.

"Which you're obligated to say, according to the script. You don't like me, so just admit it. As if I can't tell from your face..." Gwen catches her tongue between her teeth, resting it, curled like a snake, on her bottom lip. Beatrice watches Gwen's wet mouth, the disturbing position of her tongue, the glisten of furious saliva on her chin.

"So what now?" Gwen asks.

"I'm afraid I have to report this to the Department Chair. He'll then deal with the discipline aspect of it."

Gwen shakes her head. "Look, I asked for an extension and you said no. I needed more time for this, my life isn't like..."

"It's out of my hands, Gwen. I have a duty to report any suspected cases of plagiarism. And, in your case, it's a confirmed case. If I didn't and it came out later, that wouldn't look good for either of us, would it?"

"For you, you mean. Anyway, who the hell else is going to read that paper except you?"

"I'm sorry, Gwen. I have no choice."

"So I'm screwed." Gwen stands up, and leans on Beatrice's desk with both hands. "I know what the penalty is for this, and I'm screwed."

"If you knew what the penalty was, why did you do it?"

Gwen stares at Beatrice. "You know what? I don't have the bank of mommy and daddy to bail me out here. Once my funding is pulled, I'm going to have to get a job and fast. So, it's waitressing or data entry or some other shit job for desperate old Gwen."

Beatrice stares back at Gwen. "That probably makes you happy, doesn't it? You probably figure that's where I belong anyway."

"You did this to yourself, Gwen."

Gwen strides out of the room, leaving a cloud of sweat and anger behind, polluting Beatrice's environment. Beatrice gets up, shaking slightly, and closes the door to her office.

That night Beatrice lies in her bed but cannot sleep. She has put it off, but the next day she will have to visit the Department Chair and Graduate Chair, inform them of Gwen's breach, begin the process by which Gwen will likely be expelled and certainly forever barred from an academic career. Despite completing all of her nighttime rituals, locking and bolting the front and back doors, checking the window locks, Beatrice cannot sleep. Cleaned and moisturized, brushed and flossed, she climbs into bed in her most comfortable pyjamas, checks her bed-side telephone for a dial tone, felt briefly for the reassuring baseball bat behind the headboard of her bed, and settles under the blankets to read for 15 minutes before flicking off the bedside lamp. She has trouble falling asleep, drops for minutes at a time, wakes during dreams of large, falling objects, loudly crashing to the ground, jerking awake at the imagined sound of the doorknob being turned, windows smashing. She moves from side to another breathing deeply, but nothing helps.

She wakes during what she thinks is another dream, to the sound of feet on her wooden front steps and porch, a drumming on the front door, and, with a rush of blood, a shock of adrenaline, realizes that the sounds are real. Instantly and fully awake, she sits up, back stiff with anxiety, scalp tingling, and listens closely to the noises, a muffled voice, more footsteps. Just as she climbs out of bed, she hears the screen door being slammed shut. She shrieks and drops to all fours, scrambling across the floor like a spider, arms and legs refusing to obey her properly as she scuttles to the window.

Kneeling, she draws the curtain back slightly and peers out, sees a dark figure pacing on her lawn. As she watches, paralyzed with fear, certain that she will finally encounter her worst fears, rape at knife or gunpoint, a slow strangling death in her own restored sleigh bed, the figure makes a sudden bolt for the front porch and disappears from her view. The doorbell begins to ring, loudly and repeatedly. Beatrice shrieks again, then calms herself. Rapists and murderers do not ring doorbells, she reminds herself. She stands up and attempts to gather her dignity. She looks around automatically, as though someone might have been observing her humiliating reaction, smoothes her nightgown with trembling, wet hands. She picks up the portable telephone from the bedside table, poising her thumb over 9, and then, after a moment's thought, pulls the baseball bat out from behind her headboard and carries it with her down the stairs, wrist bending painfully under its weight. At the bottom of the stairs, she switches off the hall light hanging over her head, and makes sure that the outdoor light is still on. She looks out through the peephole and sees a tall, broad figure, a halo of fuzzy grey hair against the porch light. She knows, instantly, who it is. "Gwen!" She shouts to herself.

Gwen, on the porch, hears her voice, stumbles slightly then stands up straighter than previously.

"Drunk." Beatrice says to herself. She feels strangely excited, elated even. Gwen says something that is inaudible through the door. Beatrice reflects as to whether to let Gwen in. She considers, briefly, calling the police, but then cringes at the ensuing complications, Gwen in the back of a police car, discussions at the next departmental meeting, formal complaints. She feels tired in advance, decides to speak to Gwen at the very least, and end it all as quickly as possible, go back to bed. Beatrice reminds herself that Gwen's academic career is already destroyed. She does not need to be personally vilified. Beatrice places the baseball bat in the umbrella stand, sets the telephone down on the table, and unfastens two of the three locks on her front door. She will tell Gwen to go away, and Gwen will go home and sleep, waking in the morning with only a shameful memory rather than a police record. Beatrice will make note of this incident, but mention it to no one for the time being. She congratulates herself on these merciful intentions.

She opens the door a crack, leaving the chain attached. "Gwen," she begins. "Let me in, Beatrice. I really need to talk to you."

Beatrice sighs in exasperation. "Gwen, how many times have I asked you not to call me..."

"Alright! Alright! Jesus H. Christ. Dr. Hughes can I come in? Please?"

"Gwen, it's late at night! This is not the time for a discussion."

"It's not late. Only 11:30."

"Well, that's late enough for me. And, regardless, this is completely inappropriate. You do not approach a professor outside the university on a matter relating to your academic performance!"

"But this isn't about my performance, really, is it? It's personal. It's about you and me, and how we feel about each other." Beatrice stiffens.

"Gwen, having you been drinking?"

"No!"

"Really?" Beatrice voice is skeptical.

"No, well, not really. I mean, I had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, which I couldn't eat, incidentally. I've been so freaked out by everything that's going on."

It occurs to Beatrice that Gwen is too composed and articulate to be drunk. She slides the chain off the door and opens it. "Come in."

Gwen looks shocked. "Really?"

"Just for a cup of tea, then you have to go."

"Great, great. Thanks."

Gwen rushes into Beatrice's front hall, filling the small space. Beatrice shrinks away from her, compressing herself into the corner. She reaches down to tighten her robe and realizes that she does not have one on. Her nightgown is a thick flannel, but she feels bare, in need of another layer of protection.

"Just a minute. I'll be right back." She backs up the first three stairs, then turns and climbs rapidly.

"I'll put the kettle on." Gwen says.

"No, no!" says Beatrice, stopping halfway up the stairs in order to ward off further invasion.

"I'll do it."

"That's okay," Gwen says with a shrug.

"I don't mind."

"But I do, Gwen."

Gwen makes a face. "Okay, whatever."

Beatrice rushes up the stairs, grabs her robe from its hook on the back of the bedroom door, and wraps herself in the thick terry-towel. She ties the robe tightly, bracing her mid-section with the thick belt. She stands for a moment, considers getting fully dressed, and then pulls on a pair of slippers quickly, unwilling to leave Gwen alone downstairs for any longer than is absolutely necessary. Disliking the frantic sound of her slipper soles flapping against the wooden stairs, she slows her pace, trying not to rush into the living room. Summoning serenity, she enters the living room, finds Gwen examining the bookshelves.

"Interesting collection." Gwen says.

Beatrice cannot make out her tone. She clears her throat. "Is herbal tea fine?"

"Sure. Whatever you've got."

"Let's see, I've got chamomile, raspberry, lemon, um...mint, and possibly some others. I'll check, and then you can decide once the water is..." Gwen laughs.

"Whatever. Seriously. I couldn't give a rat's ass."

Beatrice winces and turns to walk out of the room. She stops and faces Gwen again. "Do you do that on purpose?"

"What?" Gwen says, too innocently.

"Do you use these phrases, these obscenities and vulgarisms, because you know they bother me? Do you use them to shock me?"

Gwen laughs again, less condescendingly.

"Does it amuse you?"

Gwen smiles, but doesn't laugh.

"Because, in fact, it's not doing your case any good. I mean, I assume that you are in my living room at midnight to argue your case, and I'm not sure why you would want to annoy me, given the circumstances."

Gwen stops smiling. "You're absolutely right." She says seriously.

Beatrice thinks about thirst and raspberry tea, but knows that by leaving the room, particularly to perform mundane, female kitchen tasks, would destroy the advantage she has gained over Gwen, who appears to believe she has gained the upper hand through her admittance to Beatrice's house.

"I think you should bear that in mind, Gwen." Beatrice tells her. "As we discuss this problem - and your future."

Gwen nods. Beatrice studies her, measuring the sincerity of her humble expression. Judging the appearance of humility sufficient at this stage, Beatrice decides to leave to make tea.

When Beatrice comes back in with the steaming pot and two cups arranged carefully on a tray, Gwen is seated at the piano, plunking tunelessly at the senile instrument.

"God," she observes. "That's out of tune. I take it you don't play."

"Not really."

"Why would you buy a piano then?"

"I didn't buy it. It was willed to...me."

"By who?"

"Someone I knew a long time ago."

"Oh, c'mon. Who?"

Beatrice feels a strange urge to tell Gwen the story of her long extinguished marriage in its humiliating entirety, and bites her lip, hard, to stop the words from escaping. "My ex-mother-in-law, if you must know."

"You were married?"

Beatrice smiles, drily. "Surprising as it seems, yes, I was."

"Hmmmm. Your ex-mother-in-law leaves you a very expensive piano that you never tune and no longer play."

"Yes, well."

Gwen plays a quick chord progression. "Aren't you going to ask how someone like me knows an expensive piano when she sees one?"

"That hadn't occurred to me, actually."

"That's crap." Gwen sighs, heavily, and spins around the piano bench. "But anyway." She stands up and begins to examine the photographs arranged along the back of the piano. "Who's this?" She asks, pointing to a man's picture.

"My nephew." Beatrice says shortly and untruthfully."Gwen, if we're going to talk, let's talk and get it over with."

"Okay."

Beatrice is incensed at Gwen's petulant tone. "Gwen, I don't even want to be having this conversation at my house, in my bathrobe. I'm getting the distinct impression you don't realize how lucky you are, that I even let you into my house in the first place, much less made you a pot of goddamn tea and am sitting here chatting with you at this hour!"

Gwen nods. "If you'd said 'fucking chatting' with me, you'd feel even better now."

Beatrice sets her mug of tea down and sits back against the sofa.

"Alright, that's it, Gwen. We're done. Let's make an appointment for tomorrow morning and then you'll leave."

"No, no. I'll be good! I promise." Gwen passes her hand across her chest. "Cross my heart. Well, I may be good. It just depends on what you have to say."

"It's simple. What you did is wrong. I have no choice but to report it, and you have no choice but to face the consequences of your actions."

"I know it was wrong. I'm not a complete moral idiot. But I think you should cut me some slack. I think you should give me a second chance."

"Why?"

"Why? Because I'm good at what I do, and you know it. Because I have a contribution to make, something to say, more than the all the other spoon-fed, bullshit spewing brats in the program. Because I'm a fucking special case, that's why!"

"I cannot make exceptions..."

"Why? Why can you not make exceptions?"

Beatrice takes a deep breath and marshals her arguments. "If I start making exceptions, then I will have to take each individual student's personal circumstances under consideration each time I make a decision about..."

"So what?"

"That's just not feasible, Gwen. Really, it's not. Believe me. I've been doing this a long time."

"Maybe that's the problem!" Gwen and Beatrice stare at each other.

Gwen stands up. "I've gotta go. I don't know what the hell I was thinking, coming here. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. My kids are with their sperm donor for the night, so I guess I needed a little drama to distract me."

Beatrice walks Gwen to the door, making sure to keep a good three feet between their bodies. At the door, she reaches past Gwen to slide back the bolts on the door, and accidentally brushes the side of her face against Gwen's broad back. Gwen turns around and looks down at Beatrice, who keeps her gaze on the wooden floor of the vestibule.

"Beatrice..."

"Goodnight Gwen."

"Beatrice, wait, let me just..."

"Goodnight Gwen!" Beatrice uses all the strength in her thin arms to push Gwen through the front door and into the night. As soon as Gwen is across the threshold, Beatrice slams and locks the door. Unable to catch her breath, she stands, gasping, waiting for Gwen to begin knocking. Gwen can knock all night, she tells herself, and Beatrice will not open that door again. After a few minutes have passed, Beatrice leans her head against the door to look through the peephole. Sadness seeps into her blood like poison, as she sees the yellow circle of outside light, shining uselessly and stupidly on the empty porch boards.

Pamela MacIsaac lives, writes, and tries not to breathe some days in Toronto. She has published poems and short fiction in a variety of journals, including: Jones Av., paperplates, hangdog, Another Toronto Quarterly, and The Breath.

 

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