Friday, December 30, 2016

Professor Middleton's Sunday Morning by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik's portrait of coldly self absorbed professor of American history Julia Middleton, too sure of her place in the world.

Professor Middleton stretched and yawned. It was a delicious feeling, tensing every muscle in her body. She liked the way her body felt. She was forty-one, a mature and desirable woman. Her husband adored her, her children idolized her. She stretched again, tightening her buttocks, and imagined being taken from behind. Then she imagined three or four men servicing her at once, their hands all over her. She was becoming aroused. She had only been with three men since her marriage, years apart, in different motel rooms, youngish, wholesome types. Afterwards, sex with her husband had been more exciting, as though he were a stranger too. If he came in now, she'd call him to the bed. She was tingling all over.

Instead, she masturbated, coming with a gasp; then she got up and went to the window, naked. She knew the children wouldn't come in without knocking. Their docility was a boon; not for all the world would she want typical teenagers in her home. They'd waited till she'd gotten her doctorate before starting a family. Then she had them fast, wanting to get the breeding done with. Charlotte was twelve, self-absorbed. Samantha was livelier. And the boy, Wally, was under his sisters' sway. Mrs. Sweeney, the housekeeper, looked after them and her husband was away at the brokerage house till evening, so she was entirely free, without a worry in the world. It was a good period for them, they were just coasting along now without an ounce of energy expended on staying alive. She was an associate professor of American history with two books that had been well received. Her husband was an amiable dolt, interested in nothing beyond closing prices and the baseball scores. That was what she had wanted in a man, a provider and lover, not a conversation partner.

Well, it was Sunday morning and Julia Middleton planned to sit outside and read a book, under the shade tree near the pool. It was autumn, a lovely time of year. The house was big, the lawn "manicured," as the saying went, reddish brown leaves were just starting to fall. She looked out the window, seeing a car pull out of a driveway up the street. As a child she'd loved long car trips with the family. Other children got cranky but she sat very still watching the world go by, even then thrilled by her sense of what it held. Consequently, in the early years of her marriage, she'd dragged Mel, her husband, all around Europe during three consecutive summers. She'd loved it. After the third summer she chalked up her first infidelity - yes, with a bronze lifeguard. The banality of it still made her cringe, but also smile. There was little in her life she regretted. She remembered him, a boy really, with blond body hair and the biggest erection she would ever see. He told her it was eight inches long and she had said, "Is that good?"

Mel was smaller but not inadequate. If he lacked an imagination she made up for it with her own. She could see also that he was just a little bit afraid of her. Mel had dutifully read both her books, though she knew it must have been pure torture for him, and afterwards he had made one of his guileless, endearing remarks. "But where are you in all this?" he had said.

She had met him in New York. She had gone there after finishing college, wanting to clear her head, as she put it, but not really knowing what she was looking for. While looking for a job she had rented a cheap room near Union Square. She would always think of this short time as the heroic period of her life. The room had a kitchenette and bath, but the tub was so grimy she wouldn't use it even after spending half a day scrubbing it down. The floorboards creaked and the paint was peeling from the walls and she was scared to death whenever she walked down the street at night. She'd wanted to find something in a publishing house but ended up working in a brokerage house, sitting in front of a computer. As she was friendly and had a healthy body and a pleasant face, men asked her out and she even slept with a few. One of them was Mel. It was in fact he who encouraged her to go back to school, once the wedding date was set, which surprised her, unless he liked the idea of having a brainy wife, which would have been very noticeable considering the empty-headed women his colleagues had married. In any case, they got along. Mel had tended to be overactive in bed at first, but soon settled into a routine, taking her every third night like a pill. She wondered if he wasn't seeing other women but wasn't really bothered by the thought. Once she had settled into the big house, she thought of him as a guest there, doing certain chores, like taking out the garbage and servicing her in bed. He was agreeable in every respect, clean and considerate, and paid the bills.

Julia kept her eyes on the street in front of the house. They were tucked away at the end of the road, at the edge of a wood, a wood that frightened her a bit, like that place near Union Square, for she never knew what might be lurking there. She'd warned the children but suspected they ignored her and played there anyway. It was more like a forest than a wood, stretching for miles into the countryside, and certainly would have a life of its own, shifting scenes and even mysteries. She hadn't been there more than once or twice, and then in a crowd, nor would she have gone with Mel alone unless he was carrying a gun like the hunters she occasionally saw. She could imagine such men sitting in a circle around a roaring fire in the night, deep in the forest, half drunk and singing drunken songs. But Mel didn't own a gun, not even against the housebreakers. They had an expensive alarm system instead.

Julia was somewhat out of sorts this morning. She played with her nipple and thought she might go back to bed. She had runs of this kind, like an animal in heat, a few days of it and then her body quieted down. The idea of being taken always excited her at such times. She wanted Mel to take her, to bend her back across a table and force her legs apart and handle her roughly while she fought against him and then surrendered as though it was a humiliation. These, she knew, were perverse thoughts, and only with someone familiar and reliable like Mel could she entertain them. Mel, however, had a conventional mind and probably thought about futures or junk bonds or whatever it was that such men thought about while servicing her. His only quirk was to pretend occasionally, when she had an itch and tried to wake him up, that she was someone he had picked up in a bar, someone he liked to call Wendy, and express surprise that she was still there and even concern that his wife would catch them in bed when she got home from wherever she'd gone. Then she'd ask him what his wife was like and he would get extravagant, describing her physical attributes quite graphically. This was Mel at his best.

Mel drank like other men but was either never drunk or a little drunk all the time so that she couldn't tell the difference. Julia drank too and flirted occasionally when she was under the influence but would not have dreamed of sleeping with any of the broker types or academic types she saw socially. Her greatest brake against seizing such opportunities was her apprehension that these men would turn out to be just like her husband. She preferred Mel, if it came to that, though she didn't take the slightest interest in his affairs, nor was she even sympathetic to his complaints, unless it was something tangible like an upset stomach for which there was a prescribed remedy - unlike general feelings of malaise, or wants or needs, that demanded a certain measure of compassion. Julia required a functioning husband, and it was his own fault if she had gotten used to having one, though it was doubtful if she would have settled for anything less.

Julia dressed and came down for breakfast. On Sundays she was treated like a queen. Mel brought her orange juice and coffee and reheated the eggs. He also made her toast and got out a jar of jam. The children hovered around her as if they hadn't seen her in a week. Mrs. Sweeney had the day off, of course, so they just piled the dishes in the sink. Julia hadn't washed a dish in years, having decided one day that it was something she would no longer do. Mrs. Sweeney did the dishes and the shopping and Mel jumped over to the shopping center if anything was missing in the house. While she was eating Mel said, "I'm taking the kids to play tennis."

"Get some fresh rolls and cold cuts for lunch," Julia said.

"What kind?"

"Plain rolls."

"The cold cuts."

"Whatever looks good. Tongue, roast beef."

"It all looks good."

"Use your judgment."

"Can I get some CDs?" Charlotte said.

"No," Julia said. "You just got some last week. They're expensive."

"Oh, Mom."

"No, I said."

After they left she picked out a book and went outside. The pool was behind the house and the big tree where the kids had their tree house and a swing hanging from a branch was right next to it. The lawn, which was robust, kept the forest at bay. Nothing grew out of the forest. The lawn came right up to the edge, neatly trimmed. If you took another step you were already in among the trees, treading on the cool, dark, pine-strewn forest floor where craggy rocks jutted out of the ground and here and there you came across a little meadow full of wild wheat and red flowers. She knew there was a creek that ran down from the other side of town, icy and clear, almost too cold to swim in, and up above the creek a dirt road that also came down from the town, so that you could drive to a certain point in the forest and feel you had a base. But other parts of the forest were unexplored, just trees and rocks and tufts of grass and wild berries and only occasionally a beam of slanting sunlight, and full of snakes, it was said. The manner in which these forest creatures lived unsettled her. Each had to be perpetually on its guard. Each was someone's food. There were no negotiations in the forest. You couldn't talk your way out of being eaten.

She found a shady spot and opened her book. It was the first volume of The Conspiracy of Pontiac, which she had neglected to read though she had the whole of Parkman in a leatherbound set. This is heaven, she thought. She hoped that Mrs. Stottlemyre, their next door neighbor, a woman of fifty or so, wouldn't see her, because whenever she did she came over for a chat, whether Julia was in the mood for one or not. Mrs. Stottlemyre was a widow but her children were always around and there were a few small grandchildren as well who made a lot of noise and sometimes disturbed Julia when she was reading outside; she had debated complaining to Mrs. Stottlemyre about it, which would have soured their relations, she believed, so she restrained herself for the time being - and sometimes she could also hear the neighbor's boys farther down the street bouncing a basketball in front of their garage where they had a basket hung and that was annoying too but only at certain times when her own children weren't around and it was absolutely quiet. Clearly it was easier to keep your own children quiet than someone else's and she had to acknowledge that other people's children had a right to make a little noise. It was part of life and she didn't wish to seem cantankerous. I am growing hard, she sometimes thought. She had been so eager when she was young, and hopeful, and sincere. It was, she supposed, the force of gravity that caused her to settle into herself and become somewhat self-absorbed, the same force that rounded out her body and made her so desirable. Sometimes she missed her former self. Sometimes she wished she could go back to that other time and begin again, as when she had taken some night classes at the New School and had become interested in a boy but they had never spoken and she regretted it and thought about him from time to time, and then her life might have taken a different turn, if she had pursued her infatuation, and she would not be living now at the edge of the woods watching expensive cars pulling out of driveways on Sunday mornings to pick up fresh rolls and cold cuts at the shopping center.

The woods were dark and deep. You could feel the primeval forest in Parkman too. You could smell the pines and hear the water rushing in the distance, a faint, tremulous sound like an avalanche gathering steam, rushing and pounding in its serpentine course. She listened for a moment but heard nothing. The woods were silent. A few clouds drifted across the sky. She couldn't really concentrate on what she was reading, putting the book down from time to time and staring into space. That was what books were for, she thought: to make you dream. She thought of her lifeguard, and the others. She was restless now. Tonight was unfortunately not one of Mel's nights so she would have to initiate contact as it were, which would throw off their schedule. Tomorrow she had a class early in the afternoon and would spend the morning in the library looking at Washington's early letters and those wonderful lists of "sundries" ordered from England to make life bearable. An essay then about the great man's self-indulgent side? But everyone was doing that. An essay then about his noble side? She liked the American heroes, but she could see something else taking shape in her mind, still vague, still undefined, a great work even, something about all the undercurrents that flowed into the American psyche, channeled by a few controlling myths.

Sometimes she saw a raccoon or even a skunk at the edge of the lawn but she had never seen a deer though the rifle shots she occasionally heard told her the woods were full of them. Sometimes hunters skirted their property to reach the road or enter the woods and she resented them, not liking the idea of killing these creatures so that you could put their heads on your wall though she supposed they ate the meat and it all amounted to the same thing, whether you killed them in the woods or in a slaughterhouse. The hunters reminded her of her father, who had been a rough type working shifts in a factory and drinking a lot and she couldn't understand how her mother had gotten involved with him though she could understand the appeal of such a man. They had never been close and she resented him too, for not giving her the affection she had needed, and it had made her somewhat cold herself and perhaps the children sensed that when she hugged them her heart really wasn't in it though they must have known she loved them. Mel of course was oblivious to such things, thinking of her primarily as a warm body with certain accessories that increased her value. She had no idea what he needed in a woman other than the obvious and didn't really care.

She picked up the Parkman again and read through the very nice catalogue of Indian tribes east of the Mississippi, the Five Nations and the others. The prose sparkled like pebbles in a stream. Her own prose had never shaken off its dull academic sheen, but at least she didn't try to dress it up with "trenchant" flourishes that never quite made the grade, as some of her colleagues did, especially in the English Department. Her prose was serviceable and what she wrote always made simple sense. It was clear to her that some of her luster rubbed off on her husband and gave him a certain status in the office, just as he might have suspected, making him a kind of broker-plus with a distinct individuality, like someone with an unusual hobby. She didn't begrudge him this and enjoyed her celebrity on social occasions though remaining somewhat aloof from the wives. She had a few old college friends and one or two faculty women whom she got along with and a younger sister whom she talked to on the phone. Once or twice a month she went into the city and had lunch with these college friends who were all successful women now and she felt at ease with them and sometimes they talked vaguely about getting away, taking a trip together and having the kind of adventures you saw in films, and Julia found the idea very appealing though while the others thought of cruises and islands and perhaps Greek men she thought of losing herself in America itself.

Julia yawned and let her hand play between her legs though more to simply scratch herself. Then she scratched her head. This was in effect what it meant to be alive: feeling things on the surface of the skin as much as inside. She thought of her mind as a kind of forest too, with rivers and thickets and gullies, and liked to wander there. The serious thinking was another matter, more like circuitry, the signals racing like cars on a highway when you sped up the film and played that music she liked. Was it Philip Glass? Mel had been bored to death when they saw the movie. She liked music of this kind that stayed where it was until it pulled you in. There was a little man down the street who was a third violinist somewhere, an Igor Something-or-other who liked to wear long leather coats like an East European mafioso and turned up everywhere surrounded by an entourage of East European sycophants. He was the only musician she knew. Sometimes, when she listened to music and read a book, she found herself thinking: this is so civilized; this is the pinnacle.

There was no music now. It was in fact almost too quiet outside, eerily quiet you could say, the kind of quiet that caused you to look around to make sure nothing was amiss, half expecting to find the house fallen in or that great crowds of people had suddenly vanished, leaving you alone in the world. The silence made her look toward the forest again, more intently than before, as though to find an answer there, or just a sign, and as if to accommodate her, as if in collusion, a bird flew through the leaves and soared into the sky. She felt relief. The world was still on track. She glanced toward the Stottlemyre house but all was quiet there too. Perhaps Mrs. Stottlemyre was gone for the day, visiting the children. One day she would have grandchildren too but she imagined she would not have changed, would always be youthful and attractive. She understood that she was one of those women who hardly aged. Mel was a good-looking man and they would always be a handsome couple. That was a gratifying thought. She supposed he could service her well into his seventies and even beyond. It occurred to her that males finished so fast in the wild because they were so vulnerable when they coupled. Just a quick squirt and it was over. Mel took his time and that was admirable. Of course, no one was looking over his shoulder. He had all the time in the world and she had more or less equipped him with a full set of instructions to put him through his paces. It was curious that none of the children resembled her. Charlotte had a square, fleshy face like Mel. A man could get away with that but it was doubtful if Charlotte would ever be thought of as beautiful. Hopefully she'd have her mother's body. The legs were fortunately already there. They all did well in school. They at least had her mind.

Julia had always gotten A's in everything. One report card always looked like the other so that if you had superimposed them you wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. Being a perfect student had meant working five times as hard as everyone else, not because she was slower but for "extra credit," as it was called: five book reports, five "papers," and so on and so forth until her teachers had told her to give it a rest. Fortunately all this had been at a stage when reports were half a page long. In the sixth grade she had been the only child in the class to understand how a fraction could be divided by a whole number and in junior high she had argued with their World History teacher about American foreign policy, calling it naive. Julia's professor had let her teach classes in her senior year in college and she had her doctorate at twenty-seven. She was free now to fly from one end of the continent to the other to attend conferences and deliver lectures. Mrs. Sweeney held the fort, though she had problems of her own, a drunkard for a husband and a boy in jail. Julia was very generous with her but had no intention of getting involved in her life.

Though it was cool outside Julia had worn shorts, which were a little tight in the crotch. Maybe that was why she kept scratching and pulling at herself down there. She undid the top button and pulled them down a bit but she was still uncomfortable so she went into the house and put on a skirt. She weighed herself too, just to make sure she hadn't put on any extra pounds, and had a piece of apple crumb cake, giggling at her own piggishness when the crumbs spilled onto the floor and not bothering to sweep them up. When they'd first gotten the house she'd been thrilled - so much space and so much privacy, a study where no one could bother her, room for an enormous bed in the master bedroom, a nursery, a playroom, a music room, a recreation room, and more. They'd had a nanny at one point and an au pair at another and Julia let Mel's eyes roam as much as they liked but would have decapitated him if she had ever caught them together under her roof. She was tempted to have another piece of cake but had second thoughts and went back outside. She didn't much feel like reading. She stood for a while facing the forest and letting the cool breeze caress her skin. It looked like it might rain later on. She liked country rain, the way it beat against their shingled roof and soaked into the thick grass and afterwards the water would be dripping from everything and the frogs would come out and maybe she'd see a rainbow which was something magical. It took her back to childhood days, watching the rain through a window and dreaming her dreams. Then she had dreamed of the whole wide world but now she thought of endless woods and high cliffs and the roaring river and human figures coming silently down the forest path like Natty Bumppo and that Indian. The sound of the river pounded in her head and she could almost feel the water rushing into her nostrils.

Julia sat down. The sun had come out again, bathing everything in bright light. Everything was green around her, even the murky water in the pool. They should have emptied it already but the weather had been mild and they'd been away too, leaving not much time to look after the house. The house had stood up well. They'd come here when Samantha was an infant and it had already been fairly old, though not really old in the historic sense, just the brainchild of some long-dead real estate developer. It was nice to have a house at the end of the road where the woods were like an extension of the property and you could imagine that it all belonged to you. Before they'd bought the house they'd looked at some upstate farms with old apple or pear orchards and that had been an appealing idea and she liked walking through the orchards when the trees were bare in winter but in the end they realized they'd be too isolated and looked for something else and found the perfect rural setting that gave them just what they wanted, or at least what Julia wanted. She picked up the book again and turned the pages without reading them, thinking of that boy again, at the New School. She might have had him then, like a book on the shelf, like Mel. She had sensed that something was there for her but also that she was not ready for it, and perhaps that he was not ready for it either, and then the effort would have been wasted, and it would have been unfortunate that they had met too soon. She felt she was ready now for whatever it was his eyes had promised, for she had looked into his eyes for a moment and seen something uncanny there.

She still felt restless. She got up and walked around the side of the house and out to the road and looked down the street to see if Mel might be coming back with the kids already, half wanting them to come, half wanting them to stay away. It was as in childhood when she had waited for things to happen and was disappointed when they didn't though sometimes when they did happen they didn't turn out the way she had wished. But it was only 11 o'clock. The kids would still be playing tennis. Julia didn't exercise but had a perfect figure. Nor did she watch her diet. People thought she was active because of the way she carried herself. The years had given her confidence. She was not self-conscious. She was light on her feet despite the pull of age. She moved decisively but with considerable grace. She liked to look at her body in the mirror. After the lifeguard there'd been a delivery boy whom she'd made it her business to look up in town, and after that, also just once, a graduate student who told her he was engaged so it was just a fling for both of them. That was four years ago and she couldn't really say why she jeopardized her orderly life in this way, other than for the excitement of the thing, and she realized that things might have become complicated if she'd picked the wrong partners. Each of these episodes had kept her going for years like those million dollar heists that you can't believe you've gotten away with and so you lay low until things quiet down or you get the urge again. Mel of course never suspected a thing and she wondered how he might react if he did. She only had films to judge from which were usually contrived or extreme, and a friend who had had an affair, but that had ended in a civilized divorce though there must have been a broken dish or two along the way.

Julia heard the phone ring and went back inside to pick it up. It was Mel. "I'm taking the kids for pizza. Do you still want the cold cuts?"

"We can have them for supper," she said. "Get some potato salad."

"Anything else?"

"Whatever you see."

She poured herself a glass of iced tea and went out back again, picking up her book. A few more clouds had gathered in the sky and weren't going anywhere despite the breeze. She thought she felt a drop of rain but must have been mistaken because nothing else came. It was going to be cloudy like this all afternoon and then in the night the rain might come in torrents. That was more or less what the weatherman had said. Otherwise it was a perfect autumn day. She remembered a day like this many years ago, before her marriage even, during the courtship, if that was what it was, when they'd walked through the park late in the afternoon and some boys were playing football and Mel had joined them, or at least thrown the ball around, and she'd known then that she would marry him because of the way he'd taken charge out there, and that had been the high point really. She'd had a brainy friend in high school who'd gone steady with a boy like that who could hardly spell but he was big and brawny while she was a roly-poly type with an ugly pockmark on her face and he had swept her off her feet and when they went out together in a crowd he had no trouble at all keeping up his end of the conversation, talking about streetfights and ballgames and the girls hanging on every word. Not that Mel had been rough-edged in any way. He'd just wanted to make a lot of money and have a lot of fun, which was what most people wanted, if you thought about it.

The breeze died down. Was this the calm before the storm? It was that same eerie feeling again, with the sky getting dark and yet a sense of peace and the air suddenly warm. The woods were dark too, almost impenetrable to the eye now, like a wall. She had a strange sense of herself sitting alone on the lawn, an isolated figure surrounded by enormous spaces as seen in an aerial view. From this grand perspective her smallness almost frightened her. She wanted to be full of herself, as big as all the universe. She wanted all things to flow through her like a giant river. She felt the pull of it, something wrestling against her, alien but seductive, dissolving her will. Something moved among the trees and the leaves rustled again. There was a man there now, and then another, near the edge, shadows almost, but then emerging. She felt terror first, but then a kind of calm, and was not afraid. They were rough-looking, unshaven, dressed like tramps. She waited, but they did not move, watching her quite calmly, and then they turned and began moving into the woods, as though expecting her to follow them, and she closed her book and stood up and took one step and then another, without really thinking, without really knowing what she meant to do. She saw them moving deeper and deeper into the forest and entered the forest too.

4 comments:

  1. Carefully observed and beautifully written. A pleasure to read - it ended with unresolved finesse. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. a fascinating read, as Ceinwen said, beautifully written, i loved some of the phrases, especially about the forest, setting the scene. In a way, although i never thought of it, the ending was for Julia a predictable and inevitable move to make.
    Mike McC

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  3. I liked the way the ending brought closure and sympathy with the character. I also liked the fact that the descriptions of the forest were much more detailed and compelling than the descriptions of Julia's life.

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  4. An empty life or a full life. I can't decide.

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