Monday, 3 January 2011

The Shakespearean Death: a short story

I've been writing a bunch of short stories to unwind over the holiday break. Here's another one:

Many years later, he would be found dead in the university courtyard beneath a high open window, a single sheet of paper clutched in his lifeless hand. But long before that fatal accident or suicide or murder, before his life and career came to ruin, B was a promising young Shakespeare scholar, serving a tenure-track appointment as Assistant Professor of English at Ithaca College, New York. He published his Yale dissertation, a study of metaphors of revenge in Titus Adronicus; he attended conferences and presented papers; he read the latest books and wrote reviews; he stayed up late into the night preparing classes; he began a second book on Shakespeare’s early comedies; he sat on committees and learned to drink coffee and cultivated all the right collegial relationships.

One day Ithaca advertised for another associate professor, and B found himself on the selection panel. Scouring the morass of CVs, he noticed that N, a specialist in English Renaissance drama, had applied. N seemed a capable and industrious scholar: B had met him twice at conferences, had heard his paper at last year's MLA convention, had even reviewed his book on the early works of Christopher Marlowe. He had not, admittedly, found the book altogether convincing; but how marvellous, B thought, to have another Renaissance man on faculty! In several sittings of the selection panel, he argued eloquently and methodically in favour of N’s appointment.

In the first two years of his position at Ithaca, N published a book on the comedies of Ben Jonson as well as several journal articles on Shakespeare. He collaborated with B on the revision of the introductory course on early modern literature. He had encouraging suggestions for B’s book (which would never be completed) on early Shakespearean comedy. He was invited to B’s home for family dinner. B’s wife (she was still alive at the time) got on well with him; B’s son played baseball with him in the backyard; even the family dog took a shine to him.

N’s performance at Ithaca was so outstanding that he was given early tenure, a full year before B himself came up for tenure review. By this time the two were fast friends, and B was delighted with N’s success. A year later, N sat on B’s tenure review committee.

To everyone's surprise, however, B was denied tenure. He had a year left on his contract with Ithaca, and he resolutely kept on writing and publishing. He completed another chapter of his book, thanks largely to animated lunchtime discussions with N. Every Wednesday N came to his home for dinner, where B's wife joined in their Shakespearean discussions. B applied for numerous jobs, but though his CV was impressive and his referees distinguished (including N, who was becoming a noted authority in the field), he remained without prospects. When the teaching year ended, he found himself suddenly, startlingly, unemployed.

For several months he sank into a depression. He took Prozac, he grew a scraggly beard, he watched daytime television. N visited often and tried to keep his spirits up.

One evening B’s wife announced that she was leaving him. She was in love with N, she said, and would move in with him. And our son? B asked, and the dog? His wife took their son to live at N’s place; B was allowed to keep the dog. His son’s fourteenth birthday party was held in N’s backyard. B brought two books, all he could afford, lovingly gift-wrapped. N gave the boy a laptop and a one-year subscription to World of Warcraft (a sort of videogame, N explained). It was the first time B had seen N in several months, and he was relieved to talk with his friend again, in spite of everything. B’s wife seemed happy. She drank wine all afternoon, though she never used to drink, and she asked about the dog. They talked amicably, N sauntered up and refilled her glass, the three of them talked together, just like old times.

By now B had remortgaged the house. At some point he had stopped applying for academic jobs (in fact, he would set foot on a college campus only one more time in his life, and that was the day of his death). He ate microwave dinners alone, in his pyjamas, standing in the kitchen or sitting on one of the kitchen stools or slumped on the kitchen floor with the dog's head in his lap. He began selling off the furniture, then the kitchen appliances, then his library, to settle the late mortgage payments and pay off the credit cards. He was tired all day but could not sleep at night.

Finally, bleary from Prozac and insomnia and harassed by letters from the bank, he walked one morning to the newspaper stand, stood there a few minutes in his pyjamas and slippers, trying to remember why he had come, then shuffled home again with three newspapers under his arm. He opened the first classifieds page and circled the first job at the top of the first column, and dialled the number. He found a clean shirt in the closet and went to an interview the same afternoon, and that is how he became caretaker at the South Hill Town Caravan Park in Ithaca, New York.

At first it was only weekends and Thursday mornings. He mowed the grass, swept the paths, emptied the trash, cleaned the barbecues. After two months he was entrusted with the keys and taught to manage the office; after three months he was promoted to fulltime caretaker, and he sold the house and moved permanently to an old 1950s Greyhound bus conversion, euphemistically known as Caretaker’s Lodge, in the middle of the campground. He brought with him the dog, the dog’s dish, some kitchen utensils, a cardboard suitcase filled with clothes, a razor and toothbrush, and one small box of books, all that what was left of his Shakespeare library. Everything else had gone to the divorce settlement and his debts. The converted Greyhound smelled of mould and stale tobacco. The heater was broken, the water from the sink tasted strange, the flyscreen door was crumbling, weeds grew up around the chassis, and the wheels had long ago rusted into the ground. But the afternoon light was good, and at the end of a day’s work B would sit out front on an old wooden deckchair, with the dog beside him, and would read Coriolanus or Measure for Measure or Othello, and in those moments, at least, it would not have been true to say that he was unhappy.

During those prosaic days at the South Hill Town Caravan Park, B’s friendship with N was renewed. N came to visit him several times a year, and they would sit in the bus in the yellow-green polyester armchairs and talk about N’s new book or love affair and about university politics and Shakespeare and tragedy and love and revenge. The dog would sleep at their feet or sit up and rest its head on B’s lap while the two friends talked.

N’s affair with B’s wife had not lasted long. After the breakup, she wiped the mascara from her cheeks, bundled up her clothes and her regrets, and bought a one-way bus ticket back to Topeka, Kansas, and moved in with her parents. B never saw her again. It was rumoured that she eked out her remaining years in a haze of short-term jobs, short-term lovers, and perpetual drinking. Her life ended one Christmas eve in a handful of sleeping pills and half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. There was no note.

Shortly after the death of B’s wife, N came once more to the South Hill Town Caravan Park. He brought a gift, two bottles of Laphroaig scotch, and stayed for two hours, talking and drinking. It was dark by the time he left, and as his car reversed away from Caretaker's Lodge there was a terrible yelp, and when he stopped the car they heard the small sad whimpers and found the broken body of the dog. B buried the dog out front, at the place where it used to sit beside the deckchair in the afternoon sun, listening to B's voice and the aching words of Shakespeare.

B’s son had remained in Ithaca. By the age of fifteen he had discovered his purpose in life, by sixteen he was a level 70 mage in World of Warcraft, and by seventeen he had dropped out of school to devote himself single-mindedly to online gaming. He lived on Domino’s Pizza and Dr Pepper and unemployment benefits until his early 30s, when he got his first job working at the video store in Brooktondale. He lost the job at age 38 (disabled by morbid obesity) and his virginity at 39 (a prostitute from Lansing with tired middle-aged breasts, not at all like the pictures he had seen on the internet). When he died two years later, they found delicate charcoal sketches, hundreds of them, of his mother, his father, the remembered home of his childhood, the streets and houses of Ithaca, the street seen from his bedroom window, the street on Brooktondale where he had worked. No one had ever seen him drawing, nor had he ever mentioned it. He had seen his father only twice in all those years. When his mother died, he did not attend the funeral but stayed on the sofa and ate twenty-seven Domino’s buffalo chicken pizzas over a period of five days.

With his wife and son dead and the dog buried beside the deckchair, B spent his remaining years in a sedentary solitude, as full of grief as age. The campground succumbed to weeds and decay, and one summer the gates were closed and the signs taken down, and nobody even noticed that someone was still living inside the ruined carcass of a Greyhound bus. B himself scarcely noticed that he was still there. One day he glanced up from the bathroom sink and saw himself in the mirror, and for a second he was frightened, thinking that someone else, an older man, a stranger with sad wide frightened eyes, was in the room. After that he broke the mirror and took the pieces down and spread them carefully like compost among the weeds.

In all those years, B had no visitors except N. Even after his appointment to the chair of Shakespeare Studies at Columbia University, N had kept on visiting the campground every year or two. Each time he brought news of the wider world and scotch (B found he had a weakness for it) and small gifts, usually a copy of his latest book. Once, he took B to a horse race and gave him fifty dollars and showed him how to bet. That was the first time B had gambled, though it was not to be the last. As the infirmity of age crept upon him, he spent more and more time at the track, gambling his meagre pension and whatever he could pawn from Caretaker's Lodge or the ruins of the campground. One black afternoon – he must have been nearly 70 by then – he parted with his last edition of the works of Shakespeare, promising himself to buy it back from the pawnbroker, and lost it on a chestnut thoroughbred named Kansas Jack.

That is how, with no money and nothing to eat or read, he found himself the following day hitchhiking to New York City, and making the long walk down Amsterdam Avenue, and at last to Columbia University. In all the world there was only one person to whom he could go for help, the same one who had come to visit him all those years, the one true friend he had ever had. He found his way to the Department of English and Comparative Literature, six floors up. A woman behind a glass reception window stood and looked at him nervously and asked if he needed help. He told her he was looking for the office of N, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies, a former colleague he added reassuringly, but her eyes only widened and her fingers fidgeted with the beads around her neck. He walked the corridor to N’s office, he saw the name on the door, he knocked twice, but N was not there. He went in.

It was a long opulent study, lined with shelves that climbed like ladders up to the white neo-Renaissance ceiling. A locked glass cabinet displayed early editions and small sealed boxes and strange collected artifacts of Elizabethan theatre. A mahogany desk looked out across the courtyard towards the imposing granite dome of the library. The tall windows were thrown open and a warm breeze stirred the room.

Beneath the windowsill a single shelf displayed copies of N’s own writings, bathed in afternoon light – books on Jonson, Middleton, Marlowe, Webster, plus his six thick books on Shakespeare and his Norton anthology. (B had received many of these as gifts over the years, though his own unread copies had been lost to the damp or the horses.) At the end of the shelf was a deep wooden tray filled with loose pages. B leaned closer and saw that they were photocopied reviews of N’s books. He leafed through the pile. London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Harper’s, New York Times Book Review, PMLA, Shakespeare Quarterly. Here and there, N had underlined words and phrases or jotted questions or witty rejoinders in the margins. It was at this moment that B realised, for the first time, that his friend was famous, a celebrated literary critic, “our greatest reader of Shakespeare,” as one reviewer for the New Yorker had said in October 1998 (the words were neatly underlined in blue pen).

B was returning the pages to the tray when he noticed the sheet right at the bottom, a single page, older than the rest, yellowing and crumbling around the edges, a photocopy from a decades-old issue of the Sixteenth Century Journal. It was a review of N’s first book, published nearly forty years ago, even before N's appointment at Ithaca College. B began to read. It was a typical book review, bland in description and exaggerated in criticism, yet something about it seemed familiar, like the distant echo of something he had once known. He skipped to the end. The final sentence had been underlined: “In sum, although the author has furnished his study with a formidable armoury of historical minutiae, one cannot help feeling that the result is a discouragingly superficial analysis of a disappointingly trivial theme.”

In the margin beside this acerbic judgment, written in faded blue ink in N’s meticulous cursive hand, were four lines:

The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul;
And till I root out their accursed line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell.


B had read the chilling inscription three times, slowly, before he recognised the name at the bottom of the page. It was his own name, printed in capital letters beneath the review, neatly underlined, twice, in pale ghostly ink.

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