photo by Jackie Rhoades

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.

A Laurel Greener                                  

by Robert Wexelblatt

It was a summer wedding, one of those festivals of the wealthy that can go on for two or three days, the climactic oaths squeezed between brunches, cocktails, and dinners. Even when ferociously tasteful they are gaudy, with guest lists toted up in hecatombs, enacted in resort hotels, municipal libraries, on wooded islands, aboard cruise ships, with credits as thick as Hollywood’s:  caterers, musicians, florists, dressmakers, bartenders, décor consultants. For the exalted perfection of a few regal moments—intensively recorded if not really memorable, also like Hollywood—fortunes are as gaily spilled as the champagne. Life’s few sublime moments are brief as a matter of course, no less so at prodigious weddings. The small calamity is that in most cases they are not lofty enough to escape the weight of orchids and damask, that they briefly twinkle then dissolve into soiled napkins, crumpled carnations, indigestion, hangovers. But perhaps I’m being too critical, since excess is the least dispensable feature of these nuptial dramas, and the solemn exchange of vows must be followed by a ruinous and raucous aftermath, like a satyr play. I’ve read that there are still villages in Europe where peasants scrimp meanly for twenty years then blow every sou and dinar on a daughter’s wedding; and if the show succeeds in raising a neighbor’s eyebrow they will live contentedly in squalor ever after, comforted by an album of fading photographs or, these days, a discolored videotape. It’s simply not true that the rich never count the cost of these affairs, that money is no object. On the contrary, every item is carefully priced, not only by the hosts but by the guests. A figure is set on each perfect rose and labeled bottle, and a ghostly tag hangs even from the bridal gown itself. I’ve heard how the rich talk, keeping the books. Well, after all, what use is flaunting without accounting? These carnivals are planned the way great powers prepare for war, and, overlooking the remains of the day, one almost believes that joy can wreak as much devastation as combat. I’ve seen mothers of the bride surveying reception likes a victorious generals. Perhaps all this grandeur is a bribe, a propitiation offered up to Fate, in the hope that the sheer opulence of the launch will guarantee the safety of the voyage.
    This particular shindig happened to be an island wedding. It was also a reunion, thanks to our old and prosperous friend, the father of the bride, who invited us on a sentimental whim at $180 a plate. The rush of surf, never far off, marked time, and time, best defined by its depredations, was bound to occupy the thoughts of the half-dozen of us who had, with a few exceptions, not seen one another for thirty years. When we had all been graduate students together, we and the father of the bride, before he married into an empire. Official reunions to which, with a mixture of affection and avarice, the University invites its undergraduate alumni at regular intervals never included graduate students. They do not have official reunions.  Perhaps in this way the University means to deny responsibility for the souls of its masters and doctors, though more likely they reckon we would be as likely to show up as to swell the endowment. We grad students went our own ways with unmothered souls.
    It was getting to be late on Sunday but the celebrations were by no means over. Handsome young couples, chiefly Manhattan friends of the plutocratic newlyweds, twenty-somethings accustomed to this sort of bash, still danced boisterously on the terraced lawn, trudged from the beach glowing with excellent prospects, grinning in the faith that the business cycle had been quietly lobbed on the dust heap of history. To us they seemed at once innocent and jaded, as we probably did to them. As usual, the young and the old were both right.
    We had bunched together, the six of us, in a little circle on the broad porch that skirted the hotel. This venerable pile—you couldn’t look at it without thinking “white elephant”—had been built in the years before air-conditioning. We sat on the west side, out of the Atlantic wind. In a while the sun would set behind the headland. We looked across the bay at a scene so determinedly picturesque that it too might be a commodity with a brand name. The water coruscated with silver highlights about to be transmuted. 

    We had begun catching up hours before, of course, in the shorthand way people do after too much time has passed. Those who had them introduced their spouses; each of us presented the others with a sort of mini-c.v., radically abbreviating our lives, foreshortening here, expurgating there. We knew we were being superficial and none of us really liked it, but what were we to do after thirty years of knotty divorces and circuitous career moves? On the other hand, while skimping on ourselves, we recalled defunct professors, archaic seminars, and ancient parties in such nostalgic detail that we drove the spouses into a provisional and defensive bond of their own. Hoarding up their resentment for later, they moved off to the outdoor buffet.

    We had all started out wanting, even yearning, to be historians, as if to be an historian were an existential achievement rather than the mark of a certain kind of painstaking labor. Children of our the sixties, the most romantic of us had begun by envisioning ourselves as heroic revisionists, riflers of the past, intent on lighting up the world with explosive, liberating truths. It was, after all, a time when sipping a Pepsi rather than a Coke was a political act. No doubt we terrified our professors with our hair and revolutionary rancor. Heaven knows we wanted to. We had all heard the vocation. Each had his or her idols and nurtured glorious dreams; but in those days even the humble aspiration to a dull career in some liberal arts backwater became a glory beyond reach. The job market collapsed well before the ‘73 recession and aspiration collided with demography. Baby boomers and draft evaders had swollen the Vietnam-era graduate programs whose directors gave no thought to the imponderable question of whom we would all teach. Or, with the casual indifference of people with tenure, four percent mortgages, and cozy cottages on northern lakes, our mentors simply didn’t care. They held fast to the convenient fiction that they were training scholars, not schoolteachers.
    “Remember Louie?” somebody said. “Whenever he heard somebody got pregnant he’d say ‘Good for business.’”

    We all recalled funny, wild Louie with his ironic optimism, dead of an early glioma. There was a somber moment.
    “Hey!  What about Gradstein?”
   We all groaned and in chorus pronounced the old judgment via his sobriquet, “Oh God, Gradgrind.” 

    Even after that famous afternoon when we were assembled and rather gleefully told by the department chairman that we could look for nothing but unemployment Gradstein had been infuriatingly undismayed.
    “What was that thing he used to say over and over again?”
    “There’s always a job for the best.”

    We broke up.  “That’s it!” 

    Gradstein’s Emersonian boast was invariably delivered without any redeeming tinge of self-doubt; his arrogance was of the impregnable variety. He relished being detested; he thought it a distinction.

    No one was able to say what had become of Gradstein. Nobody cared. Three decades had done nothing to soften our antipathy, and recalling it, feeling it afresh, drew us closer, obliterating lives which, there was no need to admit, were not the lives we had once sought—except for one of us, except for Vasary. The rest of us had accepted the situation, renounced a foolish dream, had mostly prospered too, in hi-tech, insurance, law. Vasary alone had managed an academic career, served his time as an exploited adjunct, cobbling together part-time jobs here and there. Then he caught a break, a tenure-track assistant professorship, turned his dissertation into a well-received book, dazzled in the lecture hall, volunteered for all the department’s scut work while pumping out a second book. We knew the story without his having to tell it. In the fullness of time, he was tenured. No one resented him and, what’s more, no one envied him either. It may do us no credit but the truth was that we were all satisfied with our lives; we may even have sensed that we had been saved from something toilsome and petty, as if that post-adolescent disappointment had really been a narrow escape. Moreover, I suppose we had become cynical enough as people, and sloppy enough as historians manqués, to believe that among choice, necessity, and chance it’s the last that does the heavy lifting. This is a convenient way of judging lives and easy enough to support; but in the end it’s not chance but choice that fixes character. Where you work and whom you marry can be put down to happenstance, but not the way you labor, not how well you love. 

    Vasary had never been either sloppy or cynical. What absorbed him were not the accidents of history or the constraints of fatality. Character was what he liked to contemplate, in its way an idea as antiquated yet substantial as the huge white hotel whose porch we occupied. Yet Vasary was no anachronism; he understood very well that, even if we ignore the process, character is forged between the hammer of luck and the anvil of inevitability. His métier was biography; it was the individual that roused him and this he demonstrated to us that late afternoon on Wedding Island.

    The raised voices and resounding bass of the amplifiers seemed to quiet down as the gabled shadow of the hotel lengthened over the terrace. We had arrived at the point in our conversation where mere recollection was no longer gratifying. There was a silence, as if we had agreed on a transition even if no one knew to what.     

    Then one of us asked Vasary to tell us a little about the life we’d missed, the snare we’d escaped.  “But don’t talk about your books, for God’s sake; we’ve all read them.”

    Vasary squirmed, I think out of embarrassment both for the gratuitous rudeness of the speaker and also for himself, for having made good books while we had merely made good money. Or perhaps he was simply surprised that any of us had read his work.

    Vasary had always been subtle and, I now realized, the only real moralist among us. Oh, we were all moralistic aplenty once upon that time, certain of our goodies and baddies, having properly lined up the ducks of politics and the geese of ideology. But Vasary had been different, some even called him suspect. He had the skeptic’s infuriating reluctance to assent to collective conclusions, even obvious ones, and he could not conceal his disgust with slogans. It seemed to some that Vasary could be pedantic; in class he would turn a fact over like a jeweler appraising the facets of a diamond while most of us were happy to see only one side. Even at twenty-two he lacked impatience. Maybe that’s why he persisted when we did not.

    Why then did he choose to tell us just this particular story? Was it because he sensed hovering over our little circle some middle-aged scruple about untaken roads? Did we attend to him because the tale was emblematic, an obscurely rueful response to questions nobody had the nerve to ask? Maybe Vasary had no such purpose at all, was simply suffering from a shock of which he was made mindful by our indulgent sentimentality and the lightly borne pain of yet another generation that relished the self-pity of thinking itself lost.

    “There is a something I’d like to tell you about. It’s a story, actually. But I want you to know in advance that I really don’t understand it, I mean personally, for myself. Institutionally, so to speak, it’s as plain as a pancake. In cases like this there’s always some kind of unofficial official explanation and I can’t honestly say it’s wrong, only that it’s . . .  that it’s crude.” This was the Vasary of old, the one who had always resisted bluntness.

    “You make it sound portentous,” somebody said lightly.

    Vasary laughed. “I’m sorry. It doesn’t portend anything at all.  It’s all over now, like Caesar’s assassination.”

    “We can take it that this isn’t about you?”

    “No, not about me. I suppose you could say it’s about a book—or two books. But mostly it has to do with a young colleague. I call him colleague though now he isn’t and he wasn’t even in my own department, which means that, unofficially, my responsibility doesn’t amount to much. Still, he was worth watching, worth helping too, and since I did both I can’t help feeling it. Helping is always a way of being responsible, a sort of vouching . . . .  Don’t you think?”                                 

    Nobody answered Vasary.

  “Well. Maybe you can imagine him: a political scientist, mid-thirties, hard-working, intelligent, level-headed, decent, a good listener but with views of his own as well—if not a paragon then as good as. At least that’s the way he looked for six years and five weeks. His name—though I suppose I can’t be absolutely sure of it—is Alexander Brach. He came with an Ivy League degree and, I was told, references well beyond solid. Brach’s chairman called the recommendation from his thesis advisor an intellectual love letter. That was the phrase his chairman used, and nobody would accuse Ralph Marburg of being effusive. Brach was an expert on Central Europe which is where he came from, apparently. Story is the family moved from Slovenia when he was twelve. He preserved a slight accent, exotic but intelligible, exactly the kind that impresses Americans.”

    Somebody chuckled,  “Like Kissinger’s.”

    “The first time I saw him was on the tennis court. I still play a hacker’s game once in a while.  I guess it was September of his second year. Brach was hitting with the school’s top scholarship-grade singles player, a lanky Floridian—a pro now. Colossal serve. When they began a set my partner and I decided to watch. Brach didn’t have the kid’s power but he had a lot more than you’d expect, and he was faster on his feet. He disguised his shots and he kept hitting lines. The kid got frustrated, especially by all that line-hitting. He started to make bad calls. It was interesting, seeing how Brach handled it. He just smiled and nodded. Of course he knew the kid was cheating but he never called him on it; in fact, he helped him. Brach called balls in that were clearly out on his side. It was, well, a remarkable thing. You see, he shamed the kid without saying a word.”

    “Did he know you were watching?”

  “Oh, we weren’t the only ones. There was a regular little knot of us, seven or eight, and behind the fence a couple girls who probably followed the stringbean hero around.”

     “So, who won?”

   “I don’t remember; anyway, that wasn’t what interested me. A few weeks later we were introduced by Phil Marsh, a modern European specialist. Apparently they’d become pals.  Marsh told me later he was thinking of asking Brach to collaborate on a textbook. He called Brach brilliant, said he knew all kinds of amazing stuff, inside dope on Eastern European politics, juicy anecdotes. Apparently he’d gotten some terrific interviews for his dissertation which was due out in a year from one of the top presses.”

    “Real golden boy, eh?”

   “Not to look at. Short and muscular, built more for soccer than tennis. Apparently, he’d been a star forward on his college team. He smiled all the time, not in a silly way, but as if whatever you happened to be saying to him was just about the most wonderful thing that could ever be said. He looked a good bit older than he was thanks to a little goatee and heavy glasses. But despite the facial hair and horn rims Brach had a peculiarly open face. He’d hold his head a little to one side and look up at you while you talked. Easy to see why those interviews went so well. Not handsome, but a real charmer. You could tell he liked being where he was, loved his work. He looked as if he adored every statue in the quad. And he really did have the goods. I sat in on a couple of his lectures. No notes, walked around the room, plenty of humor, engaged his students by name and knew his stuff. I still remember his lecture on Metternich. He brought that old monster to life, like Dracula rising from the crypt at dusk, gave him his due, and then talked rather nobly about amorality in policy, the limits of Realpolitik, the long-term demands of justice.  ‘Next time,’ he told me afterwards, ‘we get to 1848. And so the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’ That’s right, a political scientist from Slovenia who nonchalantly quotes Shakespeare and, best of all, assumes you’ll get it. As I said, a real charmer.

    “His department loved him. I think it was the one thing they ever agreed on. Brach offended nobody, deferred to everyone, avoided every tincture of pettiness, steered a safe course through rough waters, and all that’s no easy thing in any department, but in Political Science it’s unheard of.

    “The students went for him too, but quietly, without the sort of hero-worship his elders would have resented and found suspicious. No invidious contrasts, no easy grades either, nothing facile or pyrotechnic. Brach wasn’t a comet—comets burn out fast. No, above all, Brach was steady. You could see that he was already mature and would stay that way. You could see it in the way he taught and in his articles—solid, thoroughly documented things. I read a few of them. I had to ask him for them. He wasn’t the sort to impose himself on senior faculty, especially if they could do him some good. On the contrary, he preferred to ask if there were anything he could do for you. I wouldn’t call him a flatterer but, as I say, when you talked to him he managed to make you feel good about yourself. I asked for those articles because he dropped me a note about one of mine. It was on the Mortara case. I was surprised he knew of it—not just my article, I mean, but the case. You see? Of virtue all compact. Not too unlike what we all wanted to be, but without the aggressive hair, the apocalyptic posturing and all that Oedipal pugilism. Actually, Brach was going prematurely bald and, what with the goatee and the glasses, he had a really substantial air about him; in fact, he looked about a decade older than he was. You’d never guess at his athleticism, his agility. When you looked at Brach you thought things like four-square and solid through . . . 

    “I suppose he was in his fourth year when the Dean appointed us to sit on a committee together, a tribunal actually. I was to chair the thing. Now, in our day these situations were handled differently—”

    “What situations?”

    Vasary made up for the euphemism. “Cheating,” he said.

    “Am I wrong or in the bad old days wasn’t it guilty even if proven innocent?”

    Someone laughed, but, like the evening sky, Vasary wasn’t about to lighten up. “The case was complicated and the Dean had good reason to know it was going to be trouble. I suppose his putting Brach on the panel could be interpreted as a test, to see if he could have confidence in him. But deans don’t go in for risks, especially when there’s litigation in the air. I think he already had confidence in Brach.”

    One of the two lawyers among us had perked up. “Litigation?”
  “A common threat nowadays. Students sue over grades, lectures that offend them, harassment. You don’t dare close your office door during conferences and, if a student’s liable to be hostile or amorous, you’d better stow a witness around the corner. Insurance companies have found a good market for academic malpractice policies. As I remember it, in our day protests were often silly but at least they were collective; we thought about social change, solidarity with the vaguely imagined masses. Now the protests are all private, sometimes aimed at private rights but just as often at personal advantage or revenge. No offense to you, counselors, but our generation spawned a lot of lawyers, and they need work. Any kid in trouble these days is likely to have one, or to be the child of one, and lawyers have transformed the system. The ones with kids tend to love the child more than justice. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Let’s just say any doting parent can be easily persuaded that the original sin was perpetrated by small-minded professors with paltry incomes and profound prejudices, never by their offspring. Those who like the new procedures call them constitutional; those who don’t say they’re ridiculously bureaucratic. Either way, what’s the result? Cheating’s more common, but that’s mostly because students often don’t see cheating as cheating. They mix it up with what the experts call collaborative learning. Anyway, cheating’s hardly rare but its prosecution is. The disincentives are hard to overlook. Unless you can get a signed confession, preferably notarized and in triplicate, you might have to devote most of a semester to the matter and you could wind up being sued for three of four times the value of your pension.

    “All right, no sermons. Our little court had to rule on an accusation of plagiarism. The case was brought by a senior man in the English department, not as big a shot as he thinks himself but an institution all the same, name of Sarnoff. And Sarnoff had fouled things up.

    “The student’s name was Melissa Wasserman and, to start off with, under the title on the paper she gave to Sarnoff was the name Melissa Wasserstein. This title page was also in a different font from the rest of the essay, a term paper on Tennyson, by the way, whose name was spelled correctly. And there were other things that bothered Sarnoff. You should know he doesn’t like teaching introductory courses and that’s what this was. He’d been roped into it when somebody had a bike accident and went on disability. It’s also why he assigned only the one paper, to minimize his own work. He couldn’t get the grader he asked for because of budget cuts. Grad students today cost a lot more than we did—which, I think, was next to nothing. Sarnoff isn’t good at suffering fools gladly and—at least as regards English literature—Ms. Wasserman was a dunce. She’d never gotten above a D on any of his quizzes and she flat out flunked the midterm where, according to Sarnoff, she referred throughout to a poet named Coolidge and his good buddy Wadsworth.

    “The Tennyson paper was too good. Sarnoff didn’t recognize any of the obvious sources, though. It was getting to the end of the first semester and I guess he was rushed. This is where he made two mistakes. First, he didn’t file the four required copies of the form for reporting unethical practices—one for his department chairman, one for the Dean, another for somebody called the Coordinator of Student Life, and, of course, the one for Ms. Wasserman. The second goof was giving Wasserman an ‘F’ for the course. Her father, the attorney, was on the phone with everybody starting January third. He demanded to know how his lovely and talented daughter about whom all the English teachers at her private school used to rave could possibly have flunked English 125. He said she’d told him that 40% of the grade was for a term paper she’d never gotten back but on which she’d worked very hard and knew was pretty good. Had Professor Sarnoff, who wasn’t answering the phone in his office, failed this paper and if so why? Oh, and was the Dean familiar with the case of Freed versus the Regents of the University of California?

    “Well, these days deans are a little like summer camp directors. Around the turn of the century Stephen Leacock—the economist and comedian—observed that universities would be all right as long as they believed students needed them more than they needed the students. Elitist and arrogant, just the sort of sentiment that rubbed us the wrong way, I know, but I have to tell you, not altogether false. Anyway, the Dean phoned Sarnoff at home. Sarnoff wasn’t pleased to be called at home, even by the Dean, and said he was pretty sure the paper wasn’t the student’s work and that she’d flunked the midterm and got a D on the final anyway. I’m not sure what the Dean had to say about being pretty sure but whatever it was it got Sarnoff’s back up. He said his grades were nobody’s business but his own. Which, of course, isn’t true any more, especially if said grade has to be defended in a court of law. The Dean pointed out that Sarnoff had never confronted Ms. Wasserman, never accused her, never returned her paper, and neglected to file the requisite form before the semester ended. He just went ahead and flunked her, and the Dean explained why all this was wrong in the way that deans do.

    “But this is beside the point. The point is that by the time the case got to us in March Wasserman père was loaded for bear and Melissa had put together a story. She said that she knew she did poorly on Professor Sarnoff’s tests—well, on most tests actually, because she ‘tested badly.’ So the paper was going to be her salvation. That’s why she worked so hard on it, and that’s why the night before it was due she took it to William Whitmarsh, a pal of her boyfriend’s, a computer science major. Whitmarsh helped her, she said, but only with grammar and spelling, nothing else. They worked from her disk on his computer and then printed out the final draft. The following morning, when she was on her way to hand in the paper, she realized it didn’t have a title page, that her name wasn’t on it. She didn’t want just to write her name on it, she said; it wouldn’t look neat, and there weren’t any computers available except at the library at the other end of campus. So she phoned Whitmarsh and asked him to run off a title page and bring it to her before nine o’clock when the paper had to be submitted. They met outside Sarnoff’s classroom at five of nine and, in her rush, she just clipped the title page on without looking at it.

    “Well, there were more details but this gives you the idea. Sarnoff didn’t back down. He’d finally filed the forms in February—backdated—basing his case on the title page and the high quality of the paper relative to Wasserman’s dismal other work. He wound up his statement rather pompously, I remember. Stuff about ‘stretching credulity’ and ‘beyond the bounds of reason’ and the improbability of a student, ‘even one who couldn’t tell Coleridge from Coolidge,’ misspelling her own name. The Dean wasn’t delighted but Sarnoff forced his chairman to approve the charge and so a formal hearing had to be called. Procedures, you know.

    “We met in the Dean’s conference room. Present were three tape recorders, Brach, a chemist named Dolores Murray, and me; then there was the proofreading computer major Whitmarsh, Wasserman, her father, who bullied the Dean into letting him sit in, Sarnoff, and a young colleague of his named Bright. Bright was Sarnoff’s third mistake. He’s a flashy sort, the kind people used to admire for telling students to call them by their first names. I had no idea what he was doing there until after Sarnoff finished restating his case. He turned triumphantly to Bright and asked him to tell the tribunal something he believed highly pertinent to the case.  Bright claimed that he’d been told in confidence by another student that Melissa Wasserman had bought a paper for Professor Sarnoff’s course. Daddy turned the color of a mandrill’s bum and sputtered. I asked if this student was willing to come forward and Bright said no. When he heard that Wasserman just about went through the ceiling. I had all I could do to get him under control. For a minute it looked as if he might actually go for Bright, and I can’t say I blamed him much. I thanked Bright and told him to leave. Sarnoff looked daggers at me, but also—you couldn’t miss it—scared.

    “It was at this point that Brach asked me if he might pose a couple of questions to Whitmarsh. I told him to go right ahead.

    “He was great, though I didn’t realize it until later. We’d only had the file for a couple of days, you see, and the chemist hadn’t even read it before the hearing.  Not so the diligent Brach. He asked Whitmarsh if he was indeed a junior majoring in computer science.  Whitmarsh, who hadn’t said a word so far, answered yes, with a British accent. Brach asked if, being a Brit, he had studied English poetry much before becoming a computer science major.  Whitmarsh didn’t hesitate; he was upper-crust, supercilious and brazen. No, he said, he’d pretty well managed to avoid studying poetry. He really didn’t care for the stuff.  

    “‘So then it wouldn’t be possible for you to have written the paper Ms. Wasserman submitted to Professor Sarnoff?’“

    “‘That’s right,’“ said Whitmarsh.

    “‘Final question,’ said Brach with that endearing smile and upturned face of his. ‘Since Ms. Wasserman is the girlfriend of one of your closest friends and you knew her well enough to do her this favor, why did you type Wasserstein instead of Wasserman on that title page?’

    “Whitmarsh missed maybe half a beat before he said that, after all, she’d just awakened him with her phone call and he had to rush to get the title page to her before nine. So he’d made a mistake. No big deal.”

    “Brach thanked him and looked over at me. I was on the point of summing up, saying that we would deliberate before reaching a decision, when Wasserman broke out again. ‘Look,’ he said, actually pulling one of the microphones closer, ‘to find my daughter guilty you not only have to believe she’s a liar but that Mr. Whitmarsh here is lying too. I just hope you Ivory Tower bastards don’t try to cover each other’s asses because it’s obvious that the good professor screwed up royally and got that other jerk in here to save his rear end and I want you to know that if you try to punish my daughter for his mistake I’ll sue your asses too.’ Or something along those lines.

    “Nice fellow,” somebody whispered.

    “Concerned parent,” someone else replied facetiously.

    Vasary continued. “I thanked him for his candor, adjourned the hearing, asked the witnesses to leave, and switched off the tape recorders.

    “As soon as they were out of the room Brach took a computer printout out of his briefcase and laid it in front of me and Dolores Murray. He didn’t say a word. Instead he stuck his hand back in his briefcase and took out the University Bulletin and laid that beside the printout. On top of these, still without saying anything, he laid his copy of Wasserman’s paper, turned to page 17, where he had highlighted two words. One was honor spelled honour and the other was civilization spelled with an s instead of a z.

    “‘It’s obvious Whitmarsh wrote this paper,’ he said, ‘and here’s the proof.’  Dolores Murray, looking only at the paper, said that a couple of Anglicisms didn’t actually prove Whitmarsh had written the paper since he might, in checking the spelling, reasonably have spelled like the Englishman he was. Brach didn’t reply; he just removed the paper and the Bulletin and pointed to the printout. It was Whitmarsh’s university record, and it showed clearly that, while the young man was indeed a junior computer science major, he’d only been one since January.  For his first two years he’d concentrated in English literature. Among the courses he had taken in his first year was English 125, then taught by the cyclist for whom Sarnoff was filling in.  Brach—and this is my point—was conscientious. Later, he said to me that he felt Melissa Wasserman’s dishonesty, her impudent persistence in it with Whitmarsh’s assistance, was a betrayal of the trust on which all our work depended. He knew Sarnoff had fouled up, but he also saw the old man was suffering, and that the Dean wouldn’t mind hanging him out to dry.  Brach grasped the whole situation and the strangest thing of all is that I believe he really meant what he said about trust.”

    By now it was growing dark. Inside the hotel someone switched on the porch lights, then, thinking better of it, turned them off again. Perhaps they noticed us and didn’t want to attract insects. In the few moments of illumination we could see that the expression on Vasary’s long face was grave, even morose. Nobody interrupted him.

    “Brach was a married man. I had him and his wife to dinner a couple times. Oh yes, we became quite friendly after that hearing. Well, I was bound to be impressed, wasn’t I? The wife sold real estate. One of those short intense women whose vitality can be a little irritating.  I think she was very proud of Brach, her husband the intellectual. Around her he was quiet, content to let her do the talking. She wasn’t a frivolous woman, just one with more words than knowledge. I suppose you’d call her ambitious. As I remember the evening, she talked about a great many things the way children sometimes do, not asking questions but trying out answers to see if the grownups will contradict them. I had the impression that Brach never contradicted her. She laid out their plans, or rather hers, where and how they would live once ‘Alex got his tenure,’ as she put it. The big Victorian house they would buy, the two perfect children she was going to bear, the trips to Europe they would take for the sake of his research. She asked me quite a few questions about the tenure process and made it clear that she would have liked to hear how secure his chances were, as if I had a say in the matter. I learned that they had met when she was a senior and he was in graduate school, finishing up his dissertation. She wanted me to know how terribly hard he had worked on it, as if no one had ever struggled with a thesis before.” Vasary shocked us by raising his voice, “And he smiled, even at that!”

    He paused, then asked us elliptically, “You don’t mind?”

    No, we said. Go on. We didn’t mind.

  “Well, of course his chances were good, could hardly have been better, really. No natural predators, adoring colleagues, a proud chairman and, after the Wasserman affair, a grateful dean, not to mention five years of sterling evaluations from his students, and the book from the good press. There were plenty of encouraging noises in the corridors too, where these things generally get decided, including, as you’ve probably guessed, some from me.”

      Vasary sighed. “‘This laurel greener from the brows/Of him that uttered nothing base.’ That’s Tennyson by the way. Well, I had gotten to know him and that’s what he was like, nothing base.  As I saw it Brach more than merited the single gift academics have it in their puny power to bestow, the right to cross that bar and join the fleet outside the harbor. Brach had been scrutinized as sharply as anybody else, you understand. Oh, we were sure of him, sure that what you saw was what you got—that he was indeed solid through and through. And he was happy to be among us, which counts for more than you’d think. He told me once that he could think of nothing else, could love nothing more, than what he was doing. I wonder if you know how rare that is? I wonder whether, if you hadn’t escaped yourselves, any of you would feel that way. Academic talk sometimes seems to me to consist in nothing but idealism expressed in a context of cynicism or the reverse, of complaining doubly distilled like cognac, backbiting and the gasps of a baffled will to power. There was absolutely nothing of this in Brach. Nothing.  He wanted to teach and study; the furthest his ambition went was perhaps to contribute a little to the future happiness of a melancholy people and to inspire a handful of students. Even after five years of probation his laurels were still as green as the grass on that terrace over there . . . .


    “. . . Well yes, that was our judgment. And I sometimes I wonder if we really were fooled.”

    “Fooled?” somebody said in the dark.

    “Oh yes, that’s what everyone said, of course. Huge deception. A humbling lesson, terrible thing. Shake your head and then forget it or, worse yet, turn the whole mess into some general principle or future prejudice. In a year or two people might recall the lesson but they’d forget the man. Alexander would be cast into a nice deep oubliette loaded down by his mortal sin.  That’s what it was, completely lethal, and it left us breathless. For weeks those of us who knew him just looked at each other and, if we spoke at all, did it in whispers. It came down as suddenly and irrevocably as the guillotine . . .” Vasary stopped, perhaps to catch his breath.

    “What came down?” somebody asked impatiently.

    Vasary chuckled bitterly. “I suppose it was the whirligig of time,” he said, and again paused for a moment or two. “If we tried we could probably see a shooting star,” he said in a dull voice, then went on. 

    “During that last year I thought I came to know him—well yes, I did know him, which is the worst of it. It was just a fact I didn’t know, a secret. But not all secrets are consequential. Not knowing where somebody was born is trivial; not knowing they have a terminal disease is another matter.”

    “Brach died?”

    “Yes and no. That is, like many other people, he’s gone on living after he died, or became as good as dead. I don’t feel confident enough to say exactly what happened; all I can tell you is the facts. You’ve been very patient with me and I appreciate it, truly. It’s not so much like old times as it is therapy. I’m sorry.”

    There’s nothing like being congratulated on your patience to make you lose it. “Come on, Vasary,” somebody said with exasperation. “So what did happen?”

    “What happened I can tell you, but not why. All right, Brach’s tenure review began at the appointed time, last September. It took about five minutes for his department to record a unanimous vote. Then his chairman composed the requisite encomium and sent the file on to the Dean, who was to make his recommendation and pass the dossier on to an all-university committee, after which it would go to the provost, the president, the trustees. It’s set up like a steeplechase, as you know. Jump the hedge, leap the water, then there’s the brick wall. But Brach was golden. When I ran into him the first week of classes he seemed to me humble enough but altogether confident, justifiably too. I suppose his wife was already keeping her eye peeled for that big old Victorian.

    “It was the beginning of a new year and everybody was busy. I didn’t think about Brach for a couple of weeks. Then one afternoon I ran into Ralph Marburg, his chairman, in the parking lot. Marburg looked as if he were the one who’d just gotten the terminal diagnosis. ‘Have you heard yet?’ he asked me. And then he told me what had happened the previous afternoon.  That’s all it took; not even a whole afternoon really. All over in an hour, a little longer than a guillotine takes, but not if you count the ride from the prison.

    “When Marburg got back from his eleven o’clock class there was a message waiting for him; the Dean wanted him in his office instantly. Poor Marburg, the Dean sat him down and laid everything out. That morning he had gotten a call from the graduate dean of the university that had proudly conferred on Brach his doctorate. He thought the Dean ought to know they were withdrawing the degree. This decision was taken after the University Counsel received a fax from the press that had published Brach’s book. The publishers had heard from a lawyer representing a certain Croatian scholar who taught out in the Midwest. This man claimed, and what’s more proved, that nearly forty pages of Brach’s book—pages which had likewise appeared in his doctoral dissertation—were lifted straight from a monograph he had published eight years earlier in Holland. The press was calling in all unsold copies of Brach’s book and notifying every library that had purchased a copy to remove it from their shelves. It was a non-book. I still have the copy he gave me, by the way. On the flyleaf he wrote ‘The first of many things I hope we can share.’ The Dean informed Marburg that obviously Brach’s tenure case would be terminated immediately but, on top of this, he wanted Brach off the campus by the next day. He didn’t give a damn how his classes got covered.

    “Marburg told me he was deeply upset and had staggered over to Brach’s office but he wasn’t there. He was still hoping for some explanation, some words that would undo everything the Dean had said. Brach had no classes that day, so Marburg telephoned him at home. Marburg said, ‘I had to tell him it was all over.’ I asked if Brach had put up any kind of fight. He said that’s what he had expected, but there was  no such thing. It occurred to me that Brach wasn’t surprised, that he’d probably been waiting for the guillotine all day. By then he would certainly have heard about his degree and he’d doubtless have heard from the press as well, or their lawyers; very likely the Croat’s as well. I imagined him sitting by the phone waiting for Marburg’s call, like some marquis in his cell waiting for the tumbrel. According to Marburg the only thing Brach said was ‘All right.’

    Vasary paused, tapped on the arm of his rocking chair, leaned forward.

    “ . . . It really is the mortal sin, you know. Academics insist on their property rights as fiercely as any rancher with a Winchester. Professions draw lots of lines around behavior—from sexual harassment to how colorful your language can be in a meeting—but these are all, in a sense, negotiable, flexible. Allowances are made, excuses can be found. But no one could ever forgive what Brach had done and he knew it. So he said ‘All right.’ Just like that. Nothing more. Marburg thinks he must have been relieved, glad to be caught, but I can’t make myself believe it. I think he had contrived to put it behind him, absolved himself, simply forgot about it. After all, he didn’t even need those ripped-off pages. They weren’t crucial. So, why did he steal them? What could have pushed him? Did he even need a push? His wife’s ambition, the pressure of time, some idiotically misplaced wish to perfect the thesis, the insanely hubristic notion that he’d never be found out, revenge on Croatians? Or did he somehow delude himself into thinking that what he was doing, the sin he was committing, was, to use his own horrible phrase, all right? Like Wasserman . . . .  Was the sin just some awful lapse or rooted in him, a momentary desperation? Was it a crack in the foundation?”

    “What happened to him?”

    “Oh, I never saw him again. Nobody did. The Dean got his wish. The next day Brach was simply gone. Those of us who knew him best, liked him most—and there were quite a few of us—were floored. Much worse than a death, to tell the truth. How could we have failed to see such a flaw, we, the professionally . . . perspicacious? We looked at each other with a kind of shame. The truth is we didn’t feel so much betrayed as humiliated. For him we felt, well, we felt a lot of things, all unmentionable. When we met and whispered together about Brach we’d ask if anybody knew what had happened to him. It was painful to ask, actually. There was a rumor that his wife had left him which I can’t think of any reason to doubt. But that was it. Brach was more than dead. Even Marsh hadn’t heard from him or been able to get him on the phone. The line had been disconnected . . . .”

    “This still bothers you, the not knowing?”

   “What bothers me isn’t the not knowing or even that I misread Brach—that hurts but it’s only vanity and I can accept it. What disturbs me is that I might not have. Your professions all have their ethical standards; their unpardonable sins too, no doubt. Imagine one of your own young colleagues, a steady and reliable one full of promise who’d been nothing but decent for half a decade; imagine such a person not merely crossing some line, but violating the one rule that can’t be broken without being forever branded, doing the one thing—having done the one thing—beyond any possible forgiveness or redemption. Can you imagine the finality of it?” 

    The question was rhetorical. Vasary fell silent. Perhaps he had terrified himself in trying so hard to make us feel that Brach’s disgrace was a tragedy, evoking horror beyond remedy so as to draw us together, middle-aged people on a dark porch watching young couples meandering over green lawns, leaning on one another, privileged, expectant, happy, just a little drunk. 

    “So?  Nothing else, then?” someone asked at length.

    “A couple weeks ago I had a doubles match. Marsh was on the courts. He called me over and told me he’d discovered that sometime during the winter Brach had found a job a few towns over managing a newly opened tennis club. According to Marsh’s source, the owners fired Brach in May when they discovered he’d been embezzling. He said Brach had given the money back, most of it anyway, and no charges were filed. Then he disappeared.”

    One of us rebelled, spoke up indignantly. “Disappeared is too kind a word, Vasary; worse, it’s a romantic one. I’d say your friend went on the lam, looking for his next scam—maybe his next wife.”

    “That’s what I meant by the unofficial official view, that Brach was a cracked egg from the first. It doesn’t matter that he was born elsewhere, may have had some trouble in childhood—no, it really doesn’t. The unforgivable sin is. . . unforgivable, I know. What I wonder about is whether redemption was what he was after all along.”

    “You mean tenure, not redemption. If I’m a good boy and make nice to all the heavy hitters then it’ll go away and I’ll be fixed for life. That sounds more like it.”

     “I don’t know,” sighed Vasary. “It sometimes seems to me that if he put up no defense it’s because he’d already convicted himself. I really don’t know. But other things are certain such as that Brach’s beyond the pale for good, outside the gates. In a sense, he really is decapitated.”

    By now the island was dark. On the porch we fell quiet, no longer straining to hear Vasary.  Instead we listened to the party that was still going on and, below that, the insects calling to one another and, underneath everything, the waves breaking against the rocks.