The Way of the World

by Karl Harshbarger

     Jack Ammerman, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, had slept with thousands of his female students.

     Well, not thousands, but certainly hundreds.

     All right, he hadn't actually slept with them.  But in a way, in a manner of speaking, he had violated them:  He had imagined what it might be like to sleep with them.

     And - Ammerman was absolutely sure of this - these young women had also violated him.  Because certainly his imaginings weren't all that one-sided.  These girls, that is, the ones he imagined what it might be like to sleep with, had certainly maneuvered to place themselves dead square in front of his life.  They came into his office or stopped him in the hallway or talked to him out on one of the sidewalks of the university, and somehow, by the tilt of their heads, the tossing of their hair, the tone of their voices, or whatever it is that young women do in these situations, had managed to convey the message:  I am dreaming of you.

     Not that Ammerman had ever followed up on any of this.

     After all, he was a happily married man.

     He was.  He had been happily married - as these things go - for almost 12 years now.

     And, further, he was more than aware there could be consequences.  Legal consequences.  Career consequences.  Worse.

     He wasn't crazy, after all.

     Also, in addition, he understood something of the psychology of these young women - the ones who maneuvered to place themselves in front of his life.  They weren't really available.  Because these girls were essentially nice girls, the girl-next-door kind of girls, the truth being they were simply experimenting, trying themselves out, growing toward womanhood.  In that sense they were playing a game.  And like all games, this game had its rules.  For sure (and probably this is why they had chosen him) they were counting on Ammerman to hold up his end of the game.  Which meant that he was to remain unavailable.  Which meant that he was to remain happily married. 

     And, so, finally, if everyone, on his side, Ammerman, and on their side, all these girls, played by the rules, it was all very enjoyable and nobody would get hurt.

* * *

     Yet that was perhaps about to change.

     Because a female student named Cindy Carson had set up an appointment with Ammerman in his office at 10:30 in the morning.  Cindy Carson was one of Ammerman's many, many students and was taking his course, "Modernity and Restoration Comedy."  She had, Ammerman discovered by consulting his grade book, received a C- on her term paper, a paper she had entitled, "An Analysis of Congreve's The Way of the World."  Ammerman assumed she had made this appointment to talk about that C-.

     "Good morning, Dr. Ammerman," said this Cindy Carson at Ammerman's office door at 10:28.  She smiled a bright smile.  As most girls do in these situations.

     "Good morning," said Ammerman moving from behind his desk to one of the two chairs he used for consulting with students.  "Please come in."

     "Shall I close the door, Dr. Ammerman?"

     "Yes, could you?"

     "Of course."

     Ammerman sat down in one of the chairs and indicated to Cindy Carson that she was to sit in the other.

     Except she was wearing a short skirt.   Actually an exceptionally short skirt.  In fact, so short it more than occurred to Ammerman that it would have been far more decent of him to be sitting back behind his desk and not in a chair opposite.  Because how in the world was this girl going to protect her modesty as she sat down?

     "Here?" said Cindy Carson looking at the chair Ammerman had indicated.

     "Yes, please, if you don't mind."

     Of course, Ammerman didn't get up and move behind his desk.  He remained seated right where he was.  And Cindy Carson did sit down.

     While preserving her modesty.

     She managed this by keeping her legs tightly together and edging herself sideways into the chair.

     No frontal assault.

     "So," said this Cindy Carson.

     "So," said Ammerman.

     He watched her pull at the hems of her skirt perhaps moving them a fraction of an inch forward.

     Then she crossed her legs.

     And that was a frontal assault.  

     Because Ammerman saw a flash of white from under there.

     After that flash of white Cindy Carson leaned over and pulled her paper out of her rucksack.  She placed the paper on her lap, looked up at Ammerman and smiled.

     "So?" she said again.

     "So?" said Ammerman.

     "So?" she said. 

     This was not going quite to plan, thought Ammerman.

     Nevertheless he reached over to his desk for his grade book, opened it and ran his fingers down the names of the students in "Modernity and Restoration Comedy" until he came to the name, "Carson, Cindy."

     "Ah, yes," said Ammerman.

     He looked up from the grade book to her and saw she was continuing to look right at him.

     "Miss Carson, according to my grade book I see gave you a C- on your paper."

     "Yes," she said.

     "And you're here to talk about your paper?"

     "Yes."

     "Well, then, perhaps then we should proceed to the business at hand."

     "Yes."

     Ammerman replaced the grade book on his desk.

     "Probably the best place for us to start, Miss Carson, is for you to tell me what you understand to be the central point of your essay."

     "Yes," said Cindy Carson.

     She looked down at her paper, studied the first page for a while and then turned to the second page.

     And now that her attention was fixed on her paper Ammerman had some leisure to study her.  First, that short skirt.  Really unusually short.  Why in the world had she chosen to wear such a skirt to school?  Then her long legs, quite well shaped, actually, finally disappearing under her term paper into her skirt.  Then the rest of the body, very nice, very, very nice, a tight waist and the tops of her breasts showing at the scoop of her blouse.  Blonde hair, too.  But the face.  Not the most beautiful face.  But not the worst either.  Slightly pockmarked.  Chickenpox as a child?

     But overall?  Well . . . yes.

     And therefore, just for a moment, and only for a moment, and very much in the land of make-believe or other realms that would or could never happen, Ammerman wondered what it would be like to reach out and cup a hand over one of those breasts.  That is, without the unfortunate interference of the blouse.  Would he, he wondered, choose the right one or the left one?

     Cindy Carson continued to turn a few more pages of her term paper.

     "That is," said Ammerman returning to the real business at hand, "perhaps you could comment on the main argument you were attempting to put forward."

     "Yes," said Cindy Carson.

     "Your central idea perhaps.  That is, your controlling theme."

     Suddenly Cindy Carson deliberately - and there could be no question that it was quite deliberate - turned her paper over and put her hands over it in such a way as to indicate the paper was no longer under discussion.

     Having done this, she looked up at Ammerman.

     She looked at him and he looked at her.

     For 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, whatever.

     Then she said, "Maybe you should call me 'Mrs. Needit.'"

     "What?" said Ammerman.

     "Or 'Mrs. Wishforit.'"

     Ammerman wasn't sure he had just heard what he had just heard.

     But he had heard what he had just heard.

     This girl, after all, was taking his course in Restoration comedy, and these late 17th and early 18th century English plays were populated with not only the usual beautiful men and women in their sexual prime, but also by older, ugly and silly women with names like Mrs. Wantit, Mrs. Wishforit, and so forth, who hungered after lovers.

     "Or, perhaps," said Cindy Carson still looking directly at Ammerman, "'Mrs. Takeme?'"

     Ammerman kept looking at her and she kept looking at him.

     "If you understand my drift," she said.

* * *

     Needless to say the rest of the day as Ammerman went through his various tasks and duties he thought of little other than those last words spoken in his conference with Cindy Carson.  By four o'clock when he closed and locked the door of his office and left some papers to be copied with the secretaries at the English Department and he had made up his mind.

     The main issue, the central issue, he told himself as he walked down the corridor and took one of the six elevators of the Cathedral of Learning down to the ground floor so that he could catch a bus back to his house in Squirrel Hill, was how to extract himself from this difficult, and, if he thought about it, rather comic, even Restoration comedy, complication.  That is, first of all, and most importantly, how to extract himself; and then, secondly, and this was also important, how to extract himself without hurting her.  That is, how to say to her, no, Cindy, it would really not be a good idea at all to continue on this course without making her feel that he was in any way rejecting her, that is, her sense of herself as a human being.  That somewhat pockmarked face, for example.

     But, as the elevator descended and stopped at this floor and that floor to let people in and out, Ammerman also thought over the fact that Cindy Carson had, in fact, chosen him.  Not some other professor.  Him.

     Well, and he had to admit this to himself, the truth was he wasn't just any professor, some young type, for example, she had met in a disco who wanted to throw her in bed and get into her pants.  He, Ammerman, was of a quite different sort.  An older and wiser man.  Happily married.  Gentle.  Kind.  Giving.  That kind of man.

     And it wasn't completely, completely impossible to imagine the two of them agreeing to meet somewhere, a room, and apartment, a place, of course, in another part of Pittsburgh far from the university, sharing a glass of wine from a bottle he had brought, toasting each other, that sort of thing, and finally, after they had both finished their glasses of wine and perhaps were both standing at the window looking out onto the street, she in front of him, he could imagine his putting his arm around that narrow waist of hers, the first touch, and his saying to her,  "Well, Cindy?"

     Why not?

     Just why not?

     Why not?  Because the whole damn thing was crazy.  That's why not!

     Think of the consequences, thought Ammerman.  To himself.  His marriage.  His career.  Worse.

     The doors to the elevator hissed open and along with the others Ammerman stepped out into the lobby of the Cathedral of Learning. 

     "Jack!"

     Someone was calling to him.  This someone turned out to be Bill Kyte, an occasional graduate student and an occasional friend, long hair, hippie way of dressing.

     "Hey," said Bill Kyte.

     "Hey," said Ammerman.

     "I'm dumping this joint, Jack!"

     Bill Kyte threw the information at Ammerman:  He was off, shagging a trip to Mexico, maybe the rest of Central American, maybe gone for two months.  Maybe longer.

     "Really?" said Ammerman.

     "Want to come, Jack?"

     "Oh, sure.  When do you leave?"

     "Tomorrow, Jack, tomorrow."

     "Don't know.  Got some classes to teach."

     "Toss it all, Jack.  Toss it all."

     They walked out through one of the revolving doors to the courtyard outside the Cathedral of Learning.

     "And your place?" Ammerman found himself suddenly asking.  He had been over to Kyte's apartment in Shadyside a number of times to drink a beer or even sometimes share a joint.

     "My place?  Why you asking?  You need a hide-away, Jack?"

     "No, no.  Just wondering."

     "A little nest for a bird?"

     "Not at all.”

     "Come on, Jack.  No fiddling with me.  You want a set of keys?"

     "I don't think so."

     "Come on, Jack."

     "Well . . . ," said Ammerman.

     Bill Kyte pulled out a ring of keys and extracted two of them.

     "This one opens the front door of the building and this one opens my door."

     "Just in case," said Ammerman.

     "No stains of the sheets, Jack."

* * *

     All this was developing something like a novel, thought Ammerman as he got off the bus the next morning and walked toward the Cathedral of Learning along with the streams of students.  First the girl makes the blatant approach to him.  Well, perhaps not blatant, but at least an approach.  Actually, though, pretty blatant.  Then, out of the blue (how often had this ever happened to him?) he is offered a hide-away apartment.  In the novels Ammerman taught the protagonist always thinks these fortuitous events leave him no choice but to continue on the path of his adventure.  But Ammerman knew better.  The protagonist was always free to extract himself.

     As he, Ammerman, certainly was.

     Yet, on the other hand (and wasn't there always an "other hand?"), all right, here was the truth:  He did desire her.  He wanted to cup his hand over one of those breasts.  He wanted to slip his hand between her legs under her skirt.

     Walking along the sidewalk with all the other students, the tower of the Cathedral of Learning looming over him, Ammerman realized he was beginning to get an erection thinking his hand under her skirt.

     "Hi, Dr. Ammerman!"

     "Hello, Dr. Ammerman!"

     Two female students from one of his classes.

     "Hi, there!" said Ammerman.

     "Wonderful morning!"

     "Great morning!" said Ammerman.

     And, suddenly, there she was in front of him, Cindy Carson, going in one of the revolving doors to the Cathedral of Learning, carrying her books in the crook of her arm, in jeans today, but still the long legs, the tight waist, her blond hair flowing down over her shoulders, the next event of the novel unfolding right in front of him.

     He followed her through the revolving doors as if he had no choice and then followed her into one of the main elevators again as if he had no choice, even allowing himself to be pressed by other people beside her at the back of the elevator, again as if he had no choice.  Their bodies were actually touching.

     She turned and recognized him.

     She smiled.

     "Hello," she said.

     "Hello, Miss Carson," he replied.

     They rode together, side by side, bodies touching, not saying anything, the elevator stopping at different floors to let people on and off, and as it was stopping at the floor for the English Department, Ammerman said "Oh, Miss Carson, perhaps you could step into my office.  I have that paper for you now."

     He said this in what he hoped was an official enough sounding tone of voice.

     He wasn't sure she got off with him, but as he walked down the hallway toward his office he heard her following him, and when he got to his office door and stopped to insert the key, he turned and saw it was, indeed, she.

     "Won't you come in, please?"

     He opened the door, she came in, and he closed the door behind her.

     Even though she was wearing jeans and not a short skirt, she still sat down in the chair opposite Ammerman's chair in that sideways, edging-in way keeping her legs together.

     Ammerman adjusted himself down into the other chair.

     "Good morning," he said to her.

     "Good morning," she said to him.

     They looked at each other.  For 5 seconds, for 10 seconds, for 20 seconds, whatever.

     It came to Ammerman that this situation was getting a bit out of control.

     So he decided to put it back in control.

     "Miss Carson, listen to me.  I've thought about everything.  I've thought about everything a lot.  About you and me.  And I want you to know.  I find you very attractive, I do.  You are  a very, very attractive young woman.  And in another time and another place, well . . . .  But . . . and you know as well as I know . . . we can't go any further with this.  I'm your teacher and you're my student.  Do you understand?"

     "Yes," she said.

     "You understand?"

     "Yes."

     "And that's all right?"

     "Yes."

     Cindy Carson stopped looking at Ammerman and instead turned to her rucksack at the side of her chair.  Ammerman watched her as he reached into her rucksack, found a tissue, then pressed the tissue into her eyes.

     She's crying, thought Ammerman.  

     Ammerman glanced out the window of his office door into the hallway where he could see people passing by.  A girl student crying in a professor's office . . . well, that sort of thing happened.

     He waited until the crying eased, occasionally glancing at the window of his office door.

     Suddenly she looked right at Ammerman.  It was almost as if something physical had hit him:  the redness, the pain in her eyes.

     "You!" she said.

     She began to get up.

     "Cindy!"

     "What?" 

     "Sit down!"

     She sat down.

     "Cindy, I've found a place."

     "What?"

     "I've found a place."

     "What do you mean, 'a place?'"

     "A place.  For us.  For you and me.  Where we can go.  Together."

     "Go?"

     "It's a nice place.  I've been there many times.  It belongs to a friend of mine.  But he's moved away for a while.  To Mexico."

     "A friend of yours?"

     "Not really a friend.  Someone I know.  And he gave me the keys.  I've got them right here."

     Ammerman pulled out his own ring of keys and showed her the two keys on it Bill Kyte had given him.

     "Those are the keys?"

     "Those are the keys."

     "For the place?

     "For the place."

     Once more they looked at each other.

     Then she lowered her eyes.

     "And you . . . ?" she finally said.  "Do you want me to go . . . to this place?"

     "Yes, Cindy.  I do."

     "You're sure?"

     "Yes, I'm sure."

     She raised her eyes to his.

     "You're very sure?"

     "Cindy, I am very sure."

* * *

     They arranged for two mornings from then at nine o'clock.  Ammerman explained to Cindy Carson exactly how to recognize the apartment building.  He even drew her a map.  Next to Mom's Eatery on Shadyside's main street, the red door to the right.  He would get there a little early and she was to ring the bell marked for "Kyte."  Then he would buzz her in.

     And that's where Ammerman found himself in two mornings:  in front of the red door.  He'd even gone into Mom's Eatery and gotten himself a coffee-to-go.  A couple of students in there had recognized him.  "Hi, Dr. Ammerman," they had said.  "Tanking up?"  He smiled at them and said "hello."  Probably no problem there.  That is, that he was recognized.  What was wrong with dropping in at Mom's Eatery in Shadyside for a cup of coffee-to-go?  A perfectly natural thing to do.

     He inserted the key in the lock of the red door.  But what was this?  The key didn't turn the lock.

     Of course!  The wrong key.  He tried the other key, and, thank God, it worked.

     Ammerman quickly stepped in, closed the door and climbed the wooden stairway.  It curled around to the first landing, past doors which he assumed were for other apartments, then up another flight and more doors and up to another flight until he reached the top landing.  Here there was only one door in front of him and it was covered by a poster of a SCI FI version of an almost naked woman holding ray guns in both her hands.  Ammerman inserted the key in the lock (he chose the right key this time), turned the key and the door opened.

     A heavy-set woman of about forty or forty-five, wearing a pair of men's pajamas, looked up from a table at the kitchen-end of a long room where she was drinking a cup of coffee.

      Ammerman stopped in the doorway.

     "Hi, there," said the woman.  She must have just gotten out of bed because her hair was all over the place.  "You must be the prof whose having a fling."

     What in the world? thought Ammerman still standing in the doorway.

     "Not to worry," said the woman.  "I'll be gone in ten minutes."

     "No, I'm leaving," said Ammerman.

     "Leaving?  Leaving?  Hey, no reason to flee.  I'm out of here."

     Ammerman knew he shouldn't.  That is, enter this apartment.  He knew very well that he shouldn't.  That perhaps he had been compromised.

     "Hey, come in!" said the woman.

     But, even knowing that he shouldn't, knowing very well that he shouldn't, Ammerman stepped through the door into the long room.

     "Coffee?" said the woman.

     "No thank you," said Ammerman.

     He walked by the table where the woman was sitting to the more "living room" section of the long room where he sat down in one of those chairs made out of old orange crates.  In fact, all the chairs in the room were made out of old orange crates as was the coffee table.

     "Which department you in?" said the woman from the “kitchen” part of the room.

     "Humanities," said Ammerman, trying to disguise his actual department, English, and telling himself at the same time that it had been a mistake to come into the apartment and that what he should do, right now, in fact, was to get up and walk out the door.

     "I was a student at the University once.  Years and years ago.  An eon ago."

     "That a fact?" said Ammerman.

     "Things pretty much the same?"

     "Pretty much the same."

     "Same old crap?"

     "Same old crap."

     "Thought so."

     Ammerman looked at his watch.  Only five minutes before Cindy Carson would show up.

     "You got some tomato coming up?" said the woman.

     "I beg your pardon?" said Ammerman.

     "Sorry."

     The woman stood up, took her coffee cup over to the sink, rinsed it out, placed it on the drying rack and went down the hall to the bathroom.  Ammerman knew it was the bathroom because he could hear bathroom-type noises coming out of it.  Finally she emerged, now only in her underwear (the woman had huge hips), and went down the hall and into another room, most likely the bedroom.

     Ammerman had been checking his watch all this time.  Nine o'clock on the nose.  Which meant that at any moment he would hear the bell.  He knew he should leave.  On the other hand, he had to be here to answer the bell, didn't he?  He couldn't be halfway down the stairway when Cindy Carson rang.

     At exactly six after nine, finally, the woman came out of the bedroom, dressed all in black, her hair still all over the place.

     "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."  She went out the front door and Ammerman could hear her going down the stairway.

     Thank God she was gone.  Although again Ammerman told himself that he should leave.  This woman being here.  But now the damage, as it were, was done.  She had seen him.  And if the damage was done, he might as well stay.

     Even if it was all a little crazy.

     He looked at his watch.  Eight minutes after nine.

     Perhaps, it occurred to Ammerman, the bell at the front of the apartment house wasn't working.  He hadn't thought of that.

     He went over to the window on the street side of the room, opened it and leaned his head out.  He was just in time to see the woman emerging from the building.

     But no Cindy Carson.

     He caught himself.  He wasn't being careful.  That is, leaning out the window like this.  He might be seen.  An associate professor of English leaning his head out the window of student digs.

     He pulled his head in, and then timed himself so he only leaned out of the window once a minute and then for only the shortest time possible.

     At fifteen after she hadn't arrived.  At twenty after she hadn't arrived.  At nine-thirty she hadn't arrived.  At nine-forty-five she hadn't arrived.

     It was clear.

     Even Ammerman admitted this.

     She wasn't coming.

* * *

     That afternoon Cindy Carson, as usual, attended Ammerman’s class on "Modernity and The Comedy of Manners."  He noticed her in her usual seat, second row, three chairs over from the aisle.  "Noticed," was the word he used for himself.  Because he had decided that in the future that's how he would relate to her.  He would "notice" her.  No more.  She would receive the very same attention due to any other student.

     This new resolution was immediately tested because right after the class he "noticed" she was following him to his office.

     "Won't you please come in," he said.

     This time he sat behind his desk and watched her sit down on a chair on the other side of her desk.  Again she edged in sideways keeping her legs together.  But it didn't matter because she was wearing jeans again.

     "Well?" he said.

     Nothing from her side.

     "I was there," said Ammerman.  "I was there at nine o'clock.  In fact, I was there at ten of nine."

     Still, nothing from her.

     "Correct me if I'm wrong.  But didn't we have an understanding?  For nine o'clock?"

     "Yes," she said, but so quietly Ammerman could hardly understand her.

     "I didn't hear you," said Ammerman.

     "I . . . thought you didn't want me to come."

     "You what?"

     "I thought you didn't want me to come."

     "What?  Why?"

     She didn't answer him.

     "Why did you think that I didn't want you to come?"

     "When I woke up.  This morning.  I just thought . . . you didn't want me to come."

     She lifted her eyes and looked at him.  She was beginning to cry again.

     "Cindy," he said.

     She reached in her rucksack, pulled out a tissue and held it up to her eyes.

     Finally she stopped crying.

     "So?" said Ammerman.

     "So?" she said.

     "Here we are," said Ammerman.

     "Yes, here we are.

     "What happens now?"

     "Yes, what happens now?"

     "Cindy, look, I think we have to be honest with each other.  Are you listening?"

     "Yes, I'm listening."

     "Please listen carefully."

     Ammerman explained the whole situation as completely as he could.  In the first place, he pointed out, it was very, very clear that she was ambivalent about going ahead and meeting him and, well, to be frank, doing certain things together.  Which was totally understandable.  Her ambivalence.  More than totally understandable.  And, as a matter of fact, she should know that he was also ambivalent about meeting her, as well as doing those certain things together.  Which was also understandable.  Very understandable.  And, therefore, since they were both so ambivalent, since they both didn't know if they should go ahead with this, certainly the most logical thing to do was call everything off.  After all, she should understand that he was happily married, loved his wife, and there was absolutely no chance in the world that he might leave his wife.

     "Yes," she said.  "I understand."

     Then she said, "But if I were to come some other morning . . . ?"

     Ammerman looked at this girl.

     "Another morning?"

     "If I were to actually show up.  This time.  You know.  Show up at that apartment.  In Shadyside.  Well?"

     "Well?"

     "Would you?"

     "Would I what?"

     "Would you . . . also be there?"

     Ammerman knew as well as he knew anything in his life that he shouldn't say it.  Still, he said it.

     "Yes, Cindy, I would."

* * *

     Two mornings later Ammerman found himself in front of the same red door on the main street of Shadyside.  This time he didn't go into Mom's Eatery for a coffee-to-go.  Why risk being seen, he reasoned.

     After looking up and down the street to see if the coast was clear, he chose the correct key, inserted it in the lock, opened the door, climbed the three sets of stairs, put the other key in the one door in front of him at the top of the staircase and opened it.

     A bigger surprise this time.

     Two people sat at the table at the kitchen end of the long room having coffee.  One of them was the same heavy-set forty or forty-five year old woman from two days ago wearing those same, oversized men's pajamas.  The other person was a younger man, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five.  He was dressed only in his boxer shorts.

     "The prof," said the woman.

     "Hi Prof," said the young man.

     "I beg your pardon," said Ammerman.

     Ammerman didn't come in.  He wasn't about to repeat the same mistake as last time.  In fact, he turned around to go back down the stairs.     

     "Hello?  You're not leaving?" said the woman.

     "We got lots of coffee," said the young man.

     "Sorry," said Ammerman.  "My mistake."

     "Hey," said the young man getting up from the table and coming out on the landing, "friend of mine took you.  Several years ago.  Said you were a damn good prof."

     "Oh?" said Ammerman stopping half way down the first flight of stairs.

     "Jerry Balkwell.  You remember him."

     "No."

     "Well, he thought you were a great.  Most profs, you know, they just repeat the same thing year after year.  But not you.  You had a certain quality.  That's what Jerry said."

     "Well, that's nice to hear," said Ammerman.

     Just at the moment he heard someone coming up the stairs from below.

     "So," said Ammerman starting down toward the next landing.  "Thank you for telling me that."

     "You're not leaving?" said the woman who had also come out to the landing.

     That's when Ammerman saw Cindy Carson coming up the stairs.  They almost bumped into each other.

     "Someone let me in the front door and I . . . ," she started to tell him, but then she saw the man and the woman at the top of the stairs looking down, the woman in oversized men's pajamas and the man in boxer shorts.

     "It's all right, honey, we're leaving," said the woman.  "Come on, Ed."

     They both disappeared into the apartment.

     "Who are those people?" said Cindy Carson.

     "Those two?" said Ammerman.

     "Who are they?"

     "Just people.  They're leaving."

     "But who are they?"

     "It doesn't matter."

     "I thought you said . . . ."

     "It's all right," said Ammerman.

     "It's not all right."

     "It is all right!"

     "It isn't all right!"

     Cindy Carson started back down the stairs and Ammerman caught up to her at the next landing.

     She whirled on him.

     "You said!"

     "Shhhh!  Not so loud!

     She started down the stairs again and again Ammerman caught up with her at the next landing.

     Again she whirled on him.

     "Cindy, believe me.  I'm sorry . . . ."

     And what was this?  Suddenly she was sobbing in his arms.  Absolutely sobbing.  Heart rendering.  Her arms up around his neck.  Him having to support most of her weight.  Ammerman held her to her.

     "You folks don't do anything I wouldn't do," said the woman coming down the stairway and passing them on the landing.  Glancing over Ammerman saw this woman was again dressed all in black and again her hair was all over the place.  The young man followed behind her.  He had changed to jeans and a T-shirt.

     "Hey, said the young man stopping on the landing and not paying any attention to Cindy Carson sobbing or the fact that she had her arms around Ammerman, "it wasn't Jerry Backwell.  It was Tom Backwell.  Remember him?"

     "No," said Ammerman.

     "He was real tall."

     "I don't remember him."

     "He sure as hell remembers you.  Said you were the best damn prof at the university."

     "Fun, fun, fun," said the woman from down at the front door of the apartment building.  The young man gave Ammerman a thumbs up sign and went down the stairs to join her.  Ammerman could hear them go out and he could hear the door close.

     "Well, thank God!" Ammerman said.  "Gone!"

     Slowly she took her arms away from Ammerman, pulled a tissue from her purse and held the tissue up to her eyes.

     "It's just . . . ."

     "Take your time.  It's all right, Cindy."

     "It's just that those people . . . ."

     "I know," said Ammerman.  "Terrible people."

     "I didn't think they would be here."

     "They're gone," said Ammerman.

     And then he said, "Cindy?"

     He pointed up the stairs.

     She looked at him and he looked at her, for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, whatever.

     "If you want," she said.

     "I want," he said. 

     Cindy Carson went ahead of him up the stairs.  The door of the apartment had been left open.  Ammerman closed it behind them.

     Inside Cindy Carson went towards the end of the long room, the part that looked more like a living room, and sat down on one of the chairs made out of an orange crate.  She slid down in the chair this time, no edging sideways.

     "How about some coffee," said Ammerman.

     "Coffee?  Yes, that would be nice.  I guess."

     Ammerman went over to the percolator on the stove and saw there were at least two cups left.  He poured her a cup, set the cup in front of her on the coffee table, carried the sugar over and found some cream in the refrigerator.

     He sat down opposite her and watched her take her first sip.

     "And?" he said.

     "Not bad."

     "We aim to please."

     She looked around the long room.

     "This is a bit of a strange place."

     "More than a bit."

     "But interesting."

     "Student digs."

     She drank the rest of her coffee.

     "More?" said Ammerman.

     "Please."

     He poured what remained of the coffee from the percolator.

     "You know," she said after Ammerman had sat down again, "I was just thinking.  It would be so nice if you were my actual father.

     "I was just thinking.  It would be so nice if you were my actual daughter."

     "That maybe you lived in this apartment and I had come to visit you."

     "Or, more likely, that this place was yours and I had come to visit you."

     "Yes," she said, looking around again.  "I see what you mean."

     "Of course, I would be disapproving of the way you lived here."

     "I would be afraid of your coming over and seeing how I lived."

     "'And who were those two strange people, Daughter?'"

     "'Oh, those?  They were only here for a few days, Father.'"

     "'Daughter, I want you to be careful who you associate with.'"

     "But," she said dropping this little play, "it is better this way, isn't it?  Don't you agree?"

     "Yes, it is better this way."

     Ammerman got up and went over to the cupboards above the sink and found what he was looking for.  A bottle of whiskey.  He also found two shot glasses and poured a little whisky into each of them.

     He brought the glasses back to the table, but she waved hers away.

     "No?" asked Ammerman.

     "I don't think so."

     "Probably you're right."

     He sat down with his glass in front of him.

     "A question," she said.

     "A question," said Ammerman.

     "Even though you're my father, even considering our new relationship, and that it's better this way, you still find me attractive."

     "I can hardly keep my hands off of you."

     "That's nice.  That's so nice to know."

     "If I were a younger man . . . ."

     "If I were an older woman . . . ."

     "And me?" said Ammerman.  What about me?  You heard what that young man said.  Do you find me a good professor?  Or just run of the mill?

     "Oh!  I agree.  I think you're one of the best."

     "Cindy, don't lie.  You must tell me the truth.  Do you really believe that?"

     "I do."

     "Come on.  You only say that because you're my daughter.  All daughters think their fathers are the best."

     "No, no. It's not just me.  Lots of students feel that way.  Something about you.  Some quality."

     "Some quality?"

     "Some quality.  It sets you apart from the others."

     "Really?

     "Really!"

     "That's nice.  That's really nice to hear.  Because sometimes, well, sometimes I wonder."

     "Don't wonder.  Believe me."

     Ammerman looked at this girl.  This girl who up until recently had just been one of his many, many students and who had turned in an essay entitled "An Analysis of Congreve's Way of the World.  Who had a slightly pockmarked face.

     "So, do you mind," said Ammerman, "if I drink to our health."

     He held up his glass of whiskey.

     "Well," she said reaching over for her glass and lifting it up as well, "maybe also a sip for me."

     "Just this one time?"

     "Just this one time."

     They touched glasses.

     "To us," she said.

     "To us," he said.  

 

 

About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and have had over 100 publications of my stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of my stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, thirteen of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and I have just received a nomination for Best of the Net.

The Dam

by Karl Harshbarger

     Casey's older brother closed his eyes, leaned in against the big oak tree in the back yard and started shouting, "One!  Two!  Three . . . !"

     The rest of them all ran toward the house, Casey trying to get in front of everyone.  But Bobby Grettleman beat him to the back door and headed right for the furnace room which was the best place to hide.  So Casey found himself running up the stairs right behind that new girl, Sally, and when she turned to the right toward the bedrooms he turned left toward the bathroom.  

     "Thirty!" he heard his brother shout from the back yard.

     He closed the bathroom door behind him, stepped into the bathtub and slipped down in as far as he could get.

     From there all he could see was the ceiling and the higher parts of the walls.

     Well, it might work.

     He heard his brother open the back door of the house and pound up the stairs, then start down the hallway in his direction.

     Bang!  The door of the bathroom.

     Then, slam!  Shut again.

     It was working! thought Casey.  He didn't see me!

     Suddenly a scream.  A girl's scream.

     That had to be the new girl, Sally.  In one of the bedrooms.  Under the bed.  Well, she'd never been to their house before so she didn't know the good places.  And, then, too, she was a girl.

     "Home!  Home!" Casey heard Bobby Grettleman shout from out in the back yard.

     "Home!"  Another shout.  Curt Anderson this time.

     "Home!"  Still another shout.  Bob Russell.

     Casey kept lying there.  He didn't know if the game was really over yet for him or not.  His brother might still be looking for him.  Of course, he could try to make it back to the oak tree.  On the other hand, it was safer where he was.

     So he kept lying there looking up at the ceiling.

     "Ally, ally ox in free!"

     That was his brother shouting from the back yard.

     Casey was just lifting himself up on his elbows when he heard the light steps of someone coming down the hallway.  Not his brother this time, that was for sure.  He heard the steps get closer and he got himself as far down in the bathtub as he could.  The footsteps reached the bathroom door and Casey held his breath as he heard the door open and close.

     A glimpse of hair as that new girl, Sally, reached down to pull the toilet lid up.

     Casey told himself:  Be very, very silent!

     The tinkling started and went on for a while, then short squirts of tinkle, followed by the rattle of the toilet paper roller, then the cough of the toilet flushing.

     He pulled himself up to look and caught her as she was reaching down to pull her underwear up.

     She screamed, pulled her underwear up all the way under her skirt, flung the door of the bathroom open, turned around and flung it shut, then he could hear her running down the hall.

     Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  What he'd seen!  Because girls weren't the same down there as boys!  And he'd seen everything!

     "Casey!" 

     His mother's voice.

     "You come here!  This moment, Casey!"

     Right away he knew what had happened.  That new girl, Sally, had run down the hall to the living room where all the adults were.

     "Casey!"

     "Coming," said Casey getting out of the bathtub.

     "You just better come!"

     Casey opened the bathroom door and saw his mother standing in the hallway with her arms crossed.  She was in one of her party dresses.

     "Casey, down to the kitchen!  "March!”

     "Yes," he said.

     His mother started down the stairs and he followed.  She turned into the kitchen and after he had come into the kitchen she closed the door behind them.

     "Sit there!" said his mother pointing to one of the chairs at the kitchen table.

     Casey sat down on the chair while his mother stood right in the middle of the kitchen.

     "Casey, how could you?"

     Casey didn't know what to say.

     "I am so ashamed.  So ashamed.  A son of mine.  Actually a son of mine . . . ."

     Casey still didn't know what to say.

     "And, Casey, dirt.  So dirty.  To watch a girl while she's . . . urinating.  Perverted, Casey, perverted!"

     "I'm sorry," said Casey.

     "Sorry?  You're sorry?"

     "It wasn't my fault."

     "Casey!"

     When his mother shouted at him like that he knew he wasn't to say any more.

     "Casey, just for beginners, for beginners, you're not to play with any of your friends.  Not even your brother.  For at least a week.  Maybe longer.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.  

     "And for at least a week you are not allowed to eat your meals with the rest of us, but in your room.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.

     "And when your father comes home I'll have no choice but to tell him.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.

     "I don't think he'll be very pleased, Casey.  With you.  You understand?"

     "Yes," said Casey.

     "Casey, to peek at a girl while she's . . . ."

     Casey watched his mother as she brought a hand up to her eye.

     "I . . . ," started Casey.

     His mother pulled her hand away.

     "Don't, Casey!  Please just don't!"

     After his mother had left the kitchen Casey sat at the table.  Then he heard shouts coming from the vacant lot.  He got up and went out the back door and walked past the big oak tree and along the side of the house until he could see beyond the trees to the vacant lot.  All the guys were there, his brother, Bobby Grettleman, Curt Anderson, Bob Russell, the rest of them.  "Bombs away!" he heard Curt Miller shout.

     But he wasn't allowed.  For at least a week.  Maybe longer.

     So he turned and went back around the side of the house.  But when he got to the big oak tree he didn't go into the house but turned into the woods along that path which went down into the ravine.

     He had to be careful because about a month ago a landslide had wiped out part of the path.  But the guys had made another path just above the landslide.

     When he got to the bottom of the ravine he stopped at the stream where the path split up, one path continuing along the stream, another going toward the old railway bridge.

     Casey looked at the stream.

     Sometimes there wasn't any water in it at all - especially in the late summer.  Other times, like in the spring when the snow had just melted, the water churned by all muddy in color and overflowing the banks.  Today the stream was more normal, just a little trickle of water right in the middle of the streambed flowing over pebbles between small pools of water.

     Casey looked at where the water barely made it over the pebbles.

     I could dam that up, thought Casey, stop the flow.

     A second thought:  Maybe I could hold it back for a while.  Maybe a long time.

     He got down on his knees and looked over what he had to do, then wedged some dirt from the bank over to the edge of the water next to the pebbles, pushed the dirt into the water and held it there as it turned into mud.  He kept repeating the process, always pushing the new dirt on the dirt that had just turned to mud, until he'd narrowed the gap to almost nothing.  He watched the water flowing through the little gap, then cupped more dirt over and pressed it down.  He held onto it and felt its wetness as it turned into mud. 

     Maybe, he thought.

     He stood up for a better look.

     Yes, it was working.  On the far side of the dam the flow had stopped completely and on the near side the water was beginning to back up making a larger pool.

     For a while, he told himself.

     Then he saw his hands.

     He held them out in front of him.

     Covered in mud.

     He dropped down to his knees and put his hands into the water behind the dam and swished them back and forth.  When his hands looked white again he pulled them out of the water and held them up in the air to dry.

     "Bombs away!" came a shout from somewhere beyond the woods.

     Casey turned and started back up the trail toward his house, passing above the landslide where the guys had made a new path.

     "You're out!" he heard Bob Russell shout.

     He didn't even look toward the vacant lot as he went past the big oak tree to the back door of the house and went through the kitchen and up the stairs.  At the top of the stairs he turned left.

     And this time when he closed the bathroom door behind him he locked it.  So no one could come in.  Ever again.

     He went over to the tub and turned on the hot water faucet.

     Then he sat down on the toilet seat and undid his laces and pulled off his shoes and socks, then his shirt and pants and finally his underpants.  

     As he stood up to go over to the tub he looked down and saw his thing.  It hung there.  When he had his clothes on, which was most of the time, he never saw it.

     At the tub he turned off the faucet and tested the temperature of the water.  Pretty hot.

     Slowly, little by little, pausing and then going further, he slipped into the water, feet and legs first, then his bottom, then his thing, then the rest of him, until, finally, he was really in there.

     All he could see of himself was his toes sticking out down near the faucets.  And when he looked above him he could see the ceiling.

     He brought his hands out of the water and looked at them.  They were all clean.  Everything.  Except for the tips of his fingers.  Under the nails.  He saw that they were dark brown.  Almost black.  The mud from the stream.

     Dirty!

 

 

About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and, other than your journal, have had over 100 publications of my stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of my stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The Last Employee

 by Karl Harshbarger

     Ackerman was always the last employee to leave his office.  Some years ago his boss had asked him if he wouldn’t mind staying a just a little bit later than usual to make sure everything was in order before he left.  Ackerman agreed to that request, then another like it, then another, and after a while everyone assumed, including Ackerman, that part of his job was to be the last one to leave the firm.

     So, in that sense, for Ackerman, this particular evening in November, 1951, was no different than any other.  He worked at his desk entering figures in his ledger until 5:30.  By that time all his fellow-workers, including his boss, had left.  At 5:37 he stood up, made sure the ledger was in its proper place and that his papers were in a neat pile, went to the back of the office and checked that the door there was double-locked, stopped at the thermometer on the wall and lowered the temperature setting for the night, checked the door to his boss’s office to see if it was locked (one time it wasn’t), went to the front door of the office, set the burglar alarm, turned off the series of lights in the proper sequence so that the light at the front of the office was the last to be extinguished, stepped out into the hall, closed the office door and double-locked it.

     On any other winter evening Ackerman, after having stepped out into the cold and drizzly darkness, would have continued down the steps of his building, turned right along the sidewalk, at the intersection of the two main streets wait for the green pedestrian light, then cross in front of the stopped cars to the other side of the street and join the line of people at the bus stop.

     Except on this evening he didn’t.

     He didn’t because he saw something just a bit out of the ordinary:  Seven or eight people had formed a small group down on the sidewalk in front of his building and were looking up at the sky.  One man among them was pointing.   In fact, Ackerman saw other people running up to the group and now everyone was pointing upwards.

     Ackerman, of course, also looked into the sky.

     But he didn’t see anything unusual.  Just the lights of the city illuminating the low clouds.

     Suddenly the group at the sidewalk let out a collective, “Ahhhhh!”

     What in the world?  thought Ackerman. 

     As he started down the steps to also join the group the knot of people on the sidewalk visibly relaxed, turned to each other, started talking, some laughing, some shaking hands and Ackerman even saw two men hug each other.

     A small man with a rather owlish face detached himself from the group and approached Ackerman.

     “I’ll be goddamned,” said the man.  “I’ll just be good and goddamned.”

     “Can I ask . . . ?” started Ackerman.

     “Absolutely, totally, unbelievable!”

     Ackerman again looked up into the sky.  He saw the same thing he had seen before:  the lights from the city illuminating the low clouds.

     “Mind-boggling!” said the man. 

     “Could I ask . . . ,” started Ackerman again.

     “Just incredible!”

       

* * *

 

     After the group dispersed Ackerman did what he did every evening after work.  He walked back along the sidewalk toward the intersection of the two main streets, crossed the street when the green pedestrian light came on and then stood in line at the bus stop.  Other buses came and went and after a while Ackerman saw his number 45 approaching.  When it stopped he followed the other passengers on and, even though the bus was somewhat crowded, managed to find a free seat next to a window.

     Because it was cold and rainy outside Ackerman couldn’t see through the fogged-up bus window.  But that didn’t really matter because he’d taken the number 45 bus to and from his stop near his apartment so many times that he almost always knew where along the route he was.  Also, on this particular evening, Ackerman even recognized a few of the “regulars” he often saw.  That business-executive type who was always so busy, for example, sat right in front of Ackerman already hunched over and jotting notes on his tablet.  And sitting across from Ackerman on one of those side seats he saw that very sensibly dressed, middle-aged lady with the gray hair and a tic in the upper part of her face.

     After a while (the busy, executive-type had already gotten off, but the woman with the tic was still sitting across from him) the bus approached Ackerman’s stop and he pushed the red button on the railing beside him to let the driver know he wanted to get off.  The bus swung over to the curb and even dipped toward the pavement as Ackerman stepped out into the drizzle.

     From the bus stop Ackerman walked past the bakery shop and the shoe shop at the corner, turned down the next street and continued on until he came to his apartment house.  He let himself in the building’s front door, walked up two flights of stairs and let himself into his apartment.

     Immediately he smelled food smells and knew that his wife, Barbara, was preparing the evening meal.  Without taking off his hat or coat he went down the hallway to the kitchen.

     “So?” said Barbara smiling at him from the sink.  “Good day at the office?”

     “Pretty normal,” he said.  “Very normal.  That is, except for one thing.”

     “Oh?” she said.

     “Yes, except for this one thing.”

     “Could you check that pot on the stove?” asked Barbara.

     Ackerman went over to the stove.

     “This pot?” he said.

     “Yes.  And give it a stir.  And make sure the burner is on.”

     “I think it is,” he said looking down at the red light just beneath the burner.

     Barbara came over to the stove and looked.

     “Oh, yes, it is.”

     She went back to the sink.

     “You want to hear about it?” said Ackerman stirring the pot at the stove.  “This thing that happened?”

     “Of course.”

     Ackerman explained that after he left his office building he saw this small group gathered down on the sidewalk all looking up into the sky.  At first only one man was pointing, but, then, all of them were pointing.

     “But when I looked I didn’t see anything.”

     “What do you think they were looking at?” Barbara said.

     “Well, that's what I’m trying to tell you.  I don't know.”

     “They must have been looking at something.”

     “Yes, I imagine so.”

     “So what did they see?”

     “I don't know.”

     “Well, they must have seen something.  Maybe an airplane.”

     “No, I don't think so.”

     “Why not?  It could have been an airplane.”

     “I don't think it was.  Not anything like that.”

     “How do you know?  You said you didn't see anything.”  

     “That's just what I'm trying to tell you.”

     “So it could have been an airplane.”  

     Suddenly Ackerman realized that he still had his hat and coat on.  Normally he would have taken them off by now.  That is, before he came down the hall to the kitchen. 

     He gave the pot a final stir.

     “I’m just down the hall,” he said.

     “Oh, okay,” said Barbara.

     Ackerman went down the hallway to the wardrobe next to the front door.  But when he opened the door of the wardrobe he saw all the coats and sweaters jammed in there.  In fact, in a way, there really wasn’t any room for his coat.

     It was always that way.  Always had been.  He and Barbara no longer needed most of those things.  So what were they doing in there?  Why were they taking up space?  Why hadn’t they been thrown out?

     It occurred to Ackerman that someday, maybe next week, maybe even tomorrow, he'll just take the day off and clean out this wardrobe.  And other things around the apartment.  Throw out everything that wasn’t absolutely essential.

     He pushed his hand in among the coats, found a hanger, extracted it, shrugged his coat off his shoulder, placed it on the hanger and pushed the coat and the hanger back into all those other things.

     Suddenly it all fell down.

    Ackerman saw that the dowel along the top of the wardrobe had given way and everything, all those coats and sweaters, had dumped onto the floor.

     Nuts! he thought.

     He bent down to deal with this mess.  The problem was, he saw, that he couldn’t lift the dowel up with all those coats and sweaters hooked to it.  So he would have to take each coat and sweater off the dowel, not to mention the hangers, then try to fit the dowel back in its original sockets at the top of the wardrobe and finally hang up all the coats and sweaters again.

     Except to hell with it, he thought.  Just to hell with it!

     Leaving the pile of coats and sweaters right there sticking out of the floor of the wardrobe, Ackerman glanced down the hallway to the kitchen, walked into the living room, at the far end of the living room opened the door to the balcony and stepped out into the cold and the drizzle. 

     He placed his hands on the cold railing of the balcony and looked at what was in front of him.  Mostly he saw the backs of other apartment buildings, the fire escapes zig-zagging down, but in a gap between two buildings he saw the next street and heard the sound of car tires on the wet pavement.  A siren wailed from somewhere in the distance.

     That’s when Ackerman looked up into the sky. 

     He searched.  He really searched.

     But he didn’t see anything.

     He only saw the low clouds illuminated by the light of the city. 

 

 

 

About Karl Harshbarger: I am an American writer (living in Germany) and have had over 90 publications of my stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of my stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.