Paul F. Griner's novel The German Woman will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June, 2009. His previous books are Follow Me (stories) and Collectors (a novel). His work has been translated into half a dozen languages. He's the Director of Creative Writing at The University of Louisville.
Standing before Mr. Howard's desk, Jeannie thought he'd somehow found out. When the paper had been assigned it was still blueberry weather, the second or third week of September, and in the woods the first shed walnut leaves were noisy underfoot, gathered in buttery drifts, the air winey with the scent of their decay. If she'd picked, she couldn't have gathered enough for a pie—that time of year, she had to hunt from bush to bush to find any—but they were there, enough to make muffins or to sprinkle on cereal, and September gave the berries a lustrous pewtery sheen she loved, surrounded them with bunches of fading tiger lilies. Long ago, she'd decided that orange and blue was her favorite color combination, and even now, closing in on seventeen, it still was.
She'd been faintly embarrassed to be called back from that childish reverie by Mr. Howard's voice, even more embarrassed when she realized he'd been repeating her name mockingly, as if hailing her from a great distance. Usually she enjoyed his teasing but she'd stared then at the blue binder on her desk, the looks of those around her hot on her skin, the rims of her ears reddening, and put her hand to her throat to hide the rising flush. At the bell people began shifting in their seats, closing their hefty English books, working them into their backpacks, though no one dared get up; Mr. Howard stood rooted in the center of the floor and he was new, the limits of what he'd accept not yet established. If she was lucky, she thought, people would attribute her flush to the warmth trapped in the high-ceilinged room, Indian summer that had drifted into a heat wave, making everyone drowsy.
Not trusting her voice, she re-crossed her legs, loafer clacking on the terrazzo floor, and glanced up at him.
"Miss Duprez," he said, waving his stack of papers. "The question remains, can you stay after?"
"Houston, we have a problem." Denny spoke through joined hands, warping and amplifying his voice, and half the kids laughed.
Mr. Howard turned toward him. "Mr. Needle. You have your own problems to attend to, primary among them spelling. Beginning with the correct spelling of your name."
More laughter. Released from their spell, the unfolding drama of the star student stumbling, the others got up and began to leave, and Jeannie was glad to have Mr. Howard's focus shifted elsewhere, grateful that he hadn't exacted a greater tribute than a bit of squirming and some eye contact. From her, at least; Denny's scalded look tempered her relief.
"Sure," she said, her voice coming back.
"The rest of you, get yours on the way out."
Chairs scraped, sneakers squeaked, a desk shuddered across the floor when someone bumped against it. Mr. Howard stood by the open door handing back papers as the students filed past, wearing a red-checked shirt and green tie, sage-colored pants. Fall colors; too early, Jeannie thought, given the weather, though they did look good on him.
Annabelle Scioria's cloud of blonde hair blocked her view and when Mr. Howard said, "Nice job," she felt a surprisingly sharp stab of envy, and then Natasha pushed against the stream of traffic to reach Jeannie and squeezed her forearm.
"You all right?"
Yes." Jeannie concentrated on Natasha's glossy nails, then looked up at her, managing to laugh, not wanting to betray her nerves. "Just tired. I drifted off. This heat."
It was hot. The whoosh of passing traffic had been lullingly hypnotic and class had dragged, everyone fitful as old clocks whose works were winding down, and Mr. Howard's voice had become an uncharacteristic drone. The bridge of her nose was damp with sweat, her neck, the undersides of her forearms, a great butterfly of it spread across her back. Natasha still hovered, so Jeannie made herself smile.
"Okay," Natasha said. "See you at lunch. Good luck." Another squeeze and she turned away.
Natasha stopped to get her paper and murmured her thanks as the heels of her slides tapped out into the bright, echoing hallway where Denny was waiting, and Jeannie was alone with Mr. Howard.
She watched him now, his brown head bowed as he sorted wordlessly through the diminished pile, so different from his effusiveness when he really liked something. She'd seen him joke with Dana and a couple of other girls, sitting on the desk corner, one leg bobbing, crescent-shaped wrinkles at the corners of his mouth when he smiled, but now his full lips were set in a straight line and his silence seemed angry, as if he was narrowing the possible punishments to the appropriate one. Perhaps it would be best to just admit it; he might go easier on her then.
But she wasn't sure what to admit to, exactly. Not plagiarism. She'd edited the paper, rewritten most of it, titled it, done the footnotes and bibliography. Some of the original idea had been her sister's, a bit of the research, a few of the nuances, but not the crucial point, and not the best ones. Borrowing? That wasn't really an academic crime. And then there was the embarrassing story behind having to use her sister's work in the first place. A party, vodka and drambuie and crème de menthe, a boy's fumbling fingers as he pulled off her blouse and bra. The waterbed had been fitted under a slanting pine ceiling in someone's attic, and the room had smelled of mothballs and brick dust. They'd kissed, he'd cupped one breast in both hands and bent to suck the taut nipple, then rolled aside and retched, managing to throw up on his own forearms and fisted hands and then, copiously, into her shoes. Too much liquor, she thought, followed by a fatal dose of tit.
No, she wasn't going to explain that, or the party's disastrous aftermath. She'd snuck home and slipped into bed stifling giggles so as not to wake her younger sister, congratulating herself for having made it across town without shoes or blouse, and thinking she'd gotten off Scot free, then awoken to two days of the kind of headache she'd only read about. Light hurt, and noise, and for the first eight hours even moving her head. She told her mother it was cramps.
That had worked, for a day. Ministrations of tea and aspirin, frequent applications of a heating pad and ice packs, demands that her father and sister be quiet as they moved around the house. But by the second day her worried mother had leapt to conclusions.
That morning, as she brought Jeannie the day's first pot of tea, she'd burst out with the question Jeannie guessed had been troubling her all night. "You haven't had sex, have you?"
"Mom." Jeannie lifted the ice pack from one eye. "Is this how someone looks after sex? I hope not, because I'm still a virgin, if you want to know. And if it is, I don't think I ever will."
Her mother tried to explain away her concern. "It's just that I've never had a period like that. My cramps aren't that bad."
"Lucky you," Jeannie said. She dropped the pack over her eye again and pushed her head back into the hot pillow, reminding herself to get up more frequently, to make it seem that she was changing tampons. The rest of the pain she still wasn't faking.
Her mother fiddled: the porcelain lid clinked against its rim, the spoon crunched in sugar, and Jeannie worried that more questions were coming, but at last her mother patted Jeannie's shoulder and murmured another apology, then whispered that perhaps her periods wouldn't be so bad—or so irregular—if she ate better. To seal the apology, she said she was going back to the kitchen for fresh ice and a bowl of Jeannie's favorite: oatmeal. Jeannie recognized the switch to contrition and over-solicitousness, which usually followed the successful parrying of one of her mother's wild surmises.
Her guilt at taking advantage of it was offset by her relief at not having lied about her sex life, but both feelings were soon overtaken by a growing unease. Every time she tried to concentrate on the book beside her, her eyes hurt more, and by Sunday night she knew she wasn't going to be able to whip off a paper. To focus on something other than the pain, she tracked a drop of water from the melting ice, traveling from her forehead while it circled her ear and tucked under the fold of skin beneath her earlobe, hung trembling, then broke loose and dropped to the sheet, joining a growing wet spot. When it was gone she had another few minutes before the next one came and she turned again to something else, magazine headlines, her old favorites, the way she liked to envision her life. It added glamour to see herself as the fitting object of others' gaze, and where was the harm in that? First time failures, she thought. How do you cope? It didn't take her long to decide. She wouldn't fail. Don't. Monday she'd wake an hour early and copy over the paper she'd been editing for her sister Bev, who was in college. Art to Commerce in a Flash, The Selling of Ansel Adams. The security of knowing she could do that dissolved the tightest knots of pain behind her forehead and allowed her to sleep, but she wished now that it hadn't. Then she wouldn't be standing before Mr. Howard, awaiting his decision on her fate.
He flipped through the first four pages. On the fifth, he ran his index finger down the lines until he came to the one he wanted.
"Yes. Here it is. Original prints," he read. He had beautiful long fingers. A thin leather bracelet slipped from beneath his sleeve in lieu of a watch, its single turquoise bead rolling over his tan skin. Strange that she'd never noticed it before.
"The ultimate frauds." He held his place and looked up at her. "Have you seen any of these? The original prints?"
"Well, no." She felt herself blushing, the detested heat spreading from her chest to her throat, and wished it were cooler out, that she'd worn a turtleneck to hide it. "But I don't know that it matters," she said, hurrying on, trying to keep his attention focused on the work. She knew what would happen if he noticed; she'd blush more, her ears would darken, and then her voice would shake, the ultimate betrayal. "It's the idea of them that's so phony, the notion that early prints from the same negative are purer than later ones. Adams himself never believed in the distinction. Just the opposite, in fact."
Mr. Howard made a noncommittal noise and leafed through another five or six pages. She wasn't able to read his handwriting upside down, though she tried; he never remained long enough on any page for her to get the gist of it. None of the notes were more than a few lines long though several were heavily underlined, so darkly that the penciled markings might have been charcoaled.
Was that a good thing? Hope stirred in her stomach—maybe he'd kept her after because he liked it—but it was quickly extinguished when he closed the paper and looked up at her. "What are you doing here?" he said.
"I'm sorry?" She shifted her pack to her other hand, sweat prickling under her arms. "I thought you said I had to." She hated her trembling voice, her inability to control it. Why did she so often give herself away?
His glance seemed to pause at her chest but it was so brief a hesitation, the beat of a hummingbird's wing, that she could have been imagining it. Still, she felt her blouse tighten and a distracted sense of calm began to fill her; if there even was the least bit of sexual interest she knew how to control that.
"No. I mean, in this class."
"Oh, that," she said, trying to sound casual. To her ears it worked, but then she couldn't say more. Was it going to be like Parisienne's all over again? Fifteen and two weeks of training before, on the last day—when she'd already decided to spend her first paycheck on a forest green suede skirt, had tried it on three nights running after training sessions were over, first with a crisp white blouse, then with a low-cut beige sweater, and finally with a black crepe turtleneck, which had won, as her chest looked amazing in it—the trainer had said, "Now girls, one last question. Everyone here is sixteen, correct?"
"No," she said, raising her hand and waving it like the over-eager schoolgirl she was. "I'm fifteen." Weren't they going to be surprised they had such a good worker who was only fifteen! But it had been she who'd been surprised. No job, it turned out, not for another year. Too young, the two words she hated most, words that she spent day after day erasing letter by letter from others' vocabulary in reference to her. She'd never looked at the skirt again. Now that she had the job and could afford it she was glad she hadn't bought it, a matronly choice, really, an error she didn't often make.
Bad taste she found herself thinking. You can outgrow it.
"This," Mr. Howard said, tapping the paper. "It's off-topic, really, and at first I was just going to turn it back to you, but I couldn't, not without talking to you."
She felt as though she'd been punched in the stomach; this was far worse than she'd thought.
"It's fantastic." He stood up swiftly, ending up closer than she'd expected, close enough that she picked up the faint scent of his cologne, which she didn't recognize. Neither the Brut nor musk that most of the boys seemed to roll in each morning before school, nor the citrusy Old Spice that clung to her father and his friends; something subtler and more expensive smelling, something darker and of greater sophistication. She resisted the urge to lean closer, to smell it so thoroughly that later, at work, she'd be able to go through Men's Fragrances and find it.
"I mean, what are you doing here?"
"Yes. Here." His gesture took in the room, the gas stations on Elmwood through the room's long windows, the tidy houses and the still pines and the drooping willows beyond them. "With these other students. You should be in with the Seniors. The advanced class. And even there you'd be held back."
"Pardon me?" As she spoke she had to ignore the voice in the back of her head castigating her for her responses. Here? Pardon me? You sound like an old lady somebody just called fat. After all, she'd done it, had impressed him with one of her papers, what she'd been hoping for since the very first class, so much so that he'd singled her out. "Really? You think so?" God, another inane comment. She stood straighter and this time there was no doubt that his eyes flickered down to her breasts before floating back up to eye-level. It made her push them out more. "I," she started, hesitated, went on. "I'm glad to hear that. I thought you might like it."
"Like it? Oh no." He handed it to her and she felt the heat of his body when their forearms touched. She let her own arm linger before taking the paper and glancing at the cover, which was unmarked. She'd have to wait to see his handwriting until later, and the thought made a small shiver run through her shoulders. "It's magnificent, really. And quite a leap."
"Thanks, I guess."
"No." He laughed. "It's a compliment. You did well on the newspaper drill, wonderfully, in fact. The best of anyone in class. But this." He nudged the paper. "It's just spectacular. With a few small changes, it might be publishable."
"No," she said. Now it was her turn to laugh, and she felt good to be relaxed. "The school paper doesn't take papers."
He frowned. "Not here. I mean published. In a journal."
His gray eyes watched her while his words sunk in. "It's better than a lot of the work of people I went to school with. Graduate school." And then, as if realizing that sounded a bit absurd, he smiled and looked out the window. She followed his gaze. A line of trucks was passing on Elmwood, amusement park rides collapsed on the flatbeds, as the last of the season's carnivals was over and church parking lots had all returned to their intended purposes. This was the first year that she hadn't made the carnival rounds, and though she'd missed taking a few of the rides, the Ferris wheel especially, on the whole she was glad to have worked instead. At some point she'd realized the carnivals were the provenance of either the childish or the coupled—going steady, engaged, or already married — while she floated somewhere in between, her place not yet fully defined.
"Well, it's certainly clearer and better argued than many of my peers' papers," he said. "If not yet argued deeply enough." He looked back at her. "But if you're willing to do the work, it can get there. I'm convinced of it." He put his hand on her shoulder and she felt each of his fingertips separately. Thumb at the base of her throat, index finger just above the collarbone, ring finger and pinky sliding over to her back. Why not the middle one? Her bra strap, she realized. It seemed to burn suddenly, up her back, over the shoulder where it depressed slightly beneath the pressure of his touch, down her chest. "Think about it. But if you're interested—and I hope you are—I'll be happy to help you revise it."
"Oh," she said, hearing only part of what he'd said. "So it still needs work?"
The thought was terribly disappointing. He must have seen it on her face and laughed again. He had beautiful teeth, white and even, and a pink tongue that darted out to touch the top ones when he laughed. "Yes and no."
He squeezed her shoulder and let go. "For here? No. It's the best paper I've seen yet from a high school student. For publication at the graduate level? Yes. But not a lot of work. Hard work. Thinking work. But not writing work. You write beautifully. And it should be exciting."
The second bell rang, giving her an excuse to leave before her body betrayed her again, with another blush, a second, more extravagant quaver. She thanked him and kept herself from hurrying to the door, which might cause her to stumble, feeling his gaze on her the entire way. She wasn't imagining it; she saw his reflected image with the blackboard behind him in the door's glass pane, studying her, which made her happy, the movement of his eyes. Her hair, her shoulders, the small of her back, her ass. Then the back of her knees where it seemed to linger before drifting like sand over her calves and ankles.
H. Howard, she read on her way out. Herman? Herbert? Harold? She'd wondered since the first day of class, but now, as she slung her pack over one shoulder in the glare of the waxy-smelling hallway, she settled on Hugh. She liked it more, and none of the others seemed to fit.
Natasha was still on the dairy diet. One day a week she ate nothing but yogurt, cheese, ice cream and frappes, though today she'd added carrots.
"Fiber?" Jeannie asked.
"Yup." Natasha snapped one in half and ate both halves. "I read about that, too."
"Please," Jeannie said. "Don't get me started." Jeannie had told Natasha that she was going to clog her arteries when Natasha began the dairy diet, but Natasha said she'd read about it in a magazine.
"Which one?" Jeannie had asked. "Dairy Farmers' Wet Dreams?" Her own diets came from magazines, too, but if they didn't seem sensible she didn't try them.
"So," Natasha said, switching the subject. "You in trouble with Mr. Howard?"
"Oh no. He liked my paper."
"It was good," she said. "Strong." She shrugged, not wanting to say more, since talking about it might ruin it. But the truth still made her stomach warm.
"You're lucky. Denny has to re-write his."
"Let's see." Natasha ticked off the reasons on her fingers with another carrot. "No introduction. No conclusion. And no intelligible point in between."
"But other than that it was fine."
"Yeah." Natasha laughed and finished the carrot. "But don't joke with him. He's worried he'll be off the team."
Denny appeared, his tray loaded down with two sandwiches, two servings of meat loaf and peas, and four glasses of milk, followed by two smaller versions of himself, Josh and Ned. Mother duck and her two ducklings Jeannie had once called them, which they'd never let her forget, but it was true; if Denny wore a white shirt, they did too. Blue. Green. It didn't matter. All three of them tucked the cuffs of their jeans into their untied high-tops and wore woven rope belts with gold clasps as if they were surfers. Before they were even sitting they began to eat, and if Natasha wasn't finished with her cheese and carrots when they were done they'd consume those, too. The amount they ate never failed to amaze her. Hollow legs, she thought. Yes, Natasha had said. All three of them. Jeannie laughed, remembering it.
Ned lifted his head from his tray at the sound. "Do you like sea food?" he said.
His face distracted her. Or rather, what his face would become in a few years. She'd caught a glimpse of it as he looked up, the handsome man he'd be when the last layer of clinging youth slipped away.
"Pardon me?" she said.
"Why? Did you fart?" Ned said. "Don't you know that old expression? Like children, a great ass should be seen and not heard?"
He was still angry with her. She'd let him take off her blouse and bra so easily, and then after he'd thrown up on them she wouldn't give him another chance. One time offer, she'd said at the next party and walked away.
"How original, Ned. And so mature."
"You're right. Sorry. Apology offered. Accepted?"
Hardly genuine, but she didn't want to ruin her mood, the glow from her paper. If she engaged him now it might slip away. "Sure."
"Good. So, I asked if you liked sea food."
She rubbed her neck, trying to determine what he was up to. "Of course."
He opened his mouth and showed her his half-chewed sandwich.
She sighed and lowered her head. Her backpack was in her lap, her notebooks inside it, in one of them her paper with Mr. Howard's comments. She hadn't dared look at what he'd written. He'd been to Brown—the only teacher in the entire school with a Ph.D.—and the rumors were that his wife was a model and that he'd had photos shown in some small Boston galleries. In one class he'd let drop casually that he knew Irving Penn. A photographer, then, an artist, even though he taught Social Studies and English. She'd wanted desperately for him to like her work and now he did.
She decided to look at the paper. Her one worry was that the passages he had singled out—and she'd seen a few of them as he flipped through it—would be those her sister was responsible for. That would be a great blow, though it seemed an unlikely one to fall. She'd taken her sister's thoughts and sharpened them, brought them to the shine of profundity through incessant polishing, a profundity she believed entirely her own. She worked best that way, getting someone else to generate ideas and then having hours and hours to sort and organize them, to clarify them, to put them in a sensible and eye-catching order.
She had to pull out the tan history notebook to get at the green English one. On the cover, someone had drawn a big round W and written a message. She flipped the notebook over and didn't immediately recognize the drawing for what it was, not a W but a pair of balloon-shaped breasts, the nipples the smallest of black dots. Beneath them was her name, or a version of it, Jeannie 'Tits' Duprez, and beneath that the words I love you for more than your jugs. The handwriting was unfamiliar.
Without thinking, she said, "Who did this?"
She held up the notebook. Ned squinted to read it and Denny said aloud "Tits Duprez." He turned to her, his face the blank bovine mask he preferred, which always mystified her; she'd seen a keener appreciation around his eyes at times, a realization that all the attention paid him was ephemeral, brought on by the use of a body that might someday betray him.
"Hi, Tits," he said.
Josh glanced over. "Knock it off, Ned."
"Oh, what? Like suddenly you're Mr. Moral?"
Josh shook his head and turned away.
"Don't call me that," Jeannie said.
Denny's eyes flicked over her chest. "Hey, if the shoe fits, wear it. Especially when it's so well filled out. C cup, I'm thinking."
"It's a bra, Denny, not a shoe. And if you weren't so busy letting your little head think for your big one, you'd realize that."
"Ouch," Josh said. "Cold."
Natasha slapped Denny on the back of the head, a surprisingly strong blow.
"She's right," Natasha said. "And stop looking at her chest."
Ah, Jeannie thought. Domestic violence: its secret hidden sources.
She put the notebook on the others piled on the table, her enthusiasm for her paper temporarily gone. It would come back, but she didn't want to ruin the paper for good by looking at it in the wrong mood.
Josh finished two glasses of milk and began pouring the last one into the others, trying to make all their levels even.
"Here," Denny said. He dropped a French fry and a handful of peas into the smallest one. "See if that helps."
"You asshole. I was going to drink it."
"What do you care?" Denny said. "It all gets mixed up in your stomach anyway."
Insufferable, really; she didn't know why she stayed, or how Natasha could ignore so much of it. She had unzipped her pack to put the notebooks in when Josh picked up two of the glasses and held them over Denny's head and poured the contents from one to the other. The dropping peas shimmered like a jade necklace in the winding translucent ribbon of milk.
Denny didn't bother looking up. "If one drop of that gets on me, you're dead."
Jeannie could have told him that was almost a guarantee. How could someone resist it? She sat back to watch it happen.
Ned reached behind Josh and jostled his hand. The milk twisted wide of its mark, cascading over Denny's hair and shoulder, and the rest of the lunch room went immediately quiet, as if at each of the other tables a bell had gone off, warning of an impending fight. For a few seconds Denny sat pushed back from the table, milk dripping from his lank hair, staring down at his soaked shirt and lap with a look of wild disbelief, and then he stood and picked up Josh by his shirt and slammed him on the table.
"I told you, you fuck. Now you're dead."
He grabbed food to repay him with, knocking milk and pasta onto Jeannie's lap, but just as he was about to bring down his fist crammed with meat loaf, Josh rolled to one side and blurted out, "It wasn't me. It was Ned. I swear."
"Bullshit," Denny said, his red face distorted by Josh's hand on his jaw. He glanced around. "He's not even here."
And he wasn't. Jeannie, standing and staring appalled at her own dirtied state, realized now that he was gone, fled so quickly that she hadn't even noticed.
She saw her books. Soaked. Ruined, probably, her paper among them. "You assholes," she said, picking up her notebooks and scraping them dry on the edge of the table. "It doesn't matter who it was. Do you have to be so juvenile?"
She couldn't stand it. She wouldn't. She gathered her things and left, pushing through the crowd of people swaying to get a better look. At the lunch room door some who'd already gone were turning back, hoping to witness whatever happened, and as they parted for her lead shoulder, their hips and arms brushing against her skin like minnows slipping past her in the sea, she thought, Perfect, that they should all want to go one way and she another. Sure signs your life needs to change.
She emerged into the dim cool quietness of the empty hallway, where her steps echoed from the cinder block walls and metal doors. She trailed her fingers over the smooth yellow paint, leaving behind the murmuring voices and clattering silverware, the whirring kitchen fans and the cloying scent of fried food, and climbed the first set of stairs, pushed the iron bar to open the door, and stood on the warm pavement near a pile of spent mustard packets as it banged shut behind her. The blue sky, the benevolent light pouring down on the houses, trees, and streets, the slightly acrid but still pleasant scent of burning leaves that tickled the back of her throat, they thrilled her. And why shouldn't they? Her life was about to change. She had her paper after all, another ticket to adulthood, and she was going to work on it with Mr. Howard.