TO SAY THAT I wasn’t attracted to the girl—that I didn’t harbor any carnal feelings toward her—would be a lie. To tell this story right requires a certain amount of honesty that I feel the above confession satisfies. There are expectations one has when reading this kind of story—about the lonely, divorced literature professor and his schoolboy infatuation with a ravishing co-ed under his tutelage—and I wish to trump those expectations right at the start.
In short, this isn’t that kind of story.
It isn’t even about my relationship to her, or hers to me. Truth is, this story is about her relationship with my father—a man who died about ten years prior to her birth.
My father was a quiet, unassuming man who spent much of his life as a machinist in an auto-parts factory, boring three-inch holes into large blocks of burnished steel. You wouldn’t have even heard of him had he not happened upon a tattered elementary science textbook that had been hastily thrown into the gutter in front of his factory.
On its cover, the textbook displayed a faded image of our solar system from middle distance, the concentric rings of each planet’s individual orbits encircling our sun in the center, looking much like ripples in a pond, with the sun as the stone cast into its calm waters. This image prompted my father to retrieve the book—hoping, he later admitted in interviews but never to me, personally—to kindle an awareness of the heavens in his children. This awareness skipped over Alice, my sister, and would have passed by me, too, had it not been for the furor prompted by the publication of his first novel.
You see, in its explanation of the planets, that children’s text lit the spark that would engulf my father’s imagination in the form of A Geyser Moon, the first book in his famed science-fiction trilogy, Second Sol.
Yes, my father was that J.P. Silverman.
Jerome, as he was known to his friends, would often work hard to keep his literary and personal life separated. In fact, he tried to maintain his job at the factory for months following the publication of …Moon, and it wasn’t until Del Rey offered him a hefty advance for a sequel—what would, after a seven-year struggle with sudden success and genre-bound infamy, become Twin Attractors—that he devoted himself to writing as a profession. He was the kind of man who believed in industry, in creation by one’s own two hands, and I’d like to think the shift in his perception was because he realized the tactile precision in words, though I suspect, instead, he found security in the way his publisher’s checks contained so many attractive zeroes.
If you have heard of my father and his work, there’s a chance you’ve heard of mine as well. Having written his biography, as well as what’s considered the definitive critical study of my father’s first book, I’m somewhat known in the field. Granted, critical studies of mid-twentieth century speculative science-fiction is small, but I’m still known in certain circles, and that’s what matters. Anyway, because of this, I’m often invited to give talks—every seven years or so, there’s a new popular revival of the trilogy, spiked most recently by the 20th Century Fox feature film adaptation, produced, but not directed, by James Cameron. (I met the man when I recorded a commentary track for the DVD, of which they used, maybe, twenty percent, devoting the rest of the film’s runtime to the special effects supervisor. Residuals being what they are, I still made out okay on the back end.) My work on the rest of the trilogy continues to this day, and my position in the English department of Hampton College fills in the otherwise empty gaps in my finances. Which, as a way of roundabout explanation, leads to her.
Her skin was pale, freckled, and pockmarked beneath the spaghetti-straps of her tight-fitting tank top. Though fall semester had just begun, the heat persisted in the air around the Hampton campus, like a heavy, wet cloth. Because of this and due, perhaps, to the heat and bluster of repetitive motions behind the coffee bar, she kept her hair held high above her neck, tied in a careless tangle at her crown. It was such a joy to watch her work, that I had to remind myself I was staring; remind myself that my mouth was open in a dopey smile; remind myself that she was barely twenty years old; remind myself that I was pushing sixty.
Remind myself that, no matter how much students seem to enjoy you in the classroom, no twenty-year-old co-ed has the sweets for her old, fat English professor.
But this story isn’t about that.
I watched, surreptitiously now, as she took orders, prepared and blended coffee, cream and milk, made change, snapped plastic lids on paper cups. I hoped she would notice me, but the line was long and the lunch crowd thick, and I had been seated at my table since mid-morning grading papers for awhile prior to the beginning of her shift. The boy who had served my drink nodded his assent as I stuffed two dollar bills and all the coin change he had given me into the tip jar, but he didn’t offer the genuine, cheek-wrinkling smiles Lisa would flash her patrons. Apart from all the cliché lasciviousness—which I did, honestly, keep mostly at bay—it was this genuine spark of kindness over such a trivial transaction that I sincerely sought.
I would imagine the same kindness from my father, while away for months at a time on his signing tours. This unblemished gratitude, flashed for the mere kindness of purchasing his book—for simply seeking his signature. I could almost picture the expression on his face, the same as I could almost picture this same expression as we sat around the dinner table, and I passed him a bowl of scalloped potatoes. Mostly, though, I pictured the disappointment on his face as he spooned a portion onto his plate, mentally weighing it against the portion I had spooned onto my own. And then, in defiance of my youthful gluttony, he would look up at me, spooning out another half-helping.
For her part, Lisa continued serving her way through the lunch-rush, her demeanor never wavering, her gaze and her hands steady on each given task. Still surreptitious, I tried to watch her movements, to examine the grace of each minute gesture. I tried to feel the rough-hewn plastic of the cappuccino-making attachment; tried to feel the rush of steam spurt from the metal wand, which was bent from the top of the machine like a jib-arm. I tried to feel the singeing burn of a hot dollop of steamed cream and java as it landed on the thin, sensitive skin on her inner wrist; tried to feel the coruscating warmth of the coffee heating the cup heating her hand, spreading outwards like ripples in a pond.
She rushed towards the bathroom at the back of the bar area, tapping my surly server on the shoulder ash she passed. He assumed her position at the register, operating with the same measured efficiency, but only a quarter of her grace and gratitude.
Through a small slivered crack, I could see her reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink. I watched as she ran cool water on the wound, a balm to staunch the pain, her face a mixture of stinging irritation, and the sweet release of relief. As she stepped away from the sink, turning off the tap with the hand attached to the wounded wrist, she stepped out of my view.
I pitched my chair back on its rear legs, supporting myself with one palm pressed flat against the table-top. Just as she was back in view, exiting to resume her work, I underestimated the force of gravity on my girth, and against the strength of my arm, and felt the back legs of my chair slip on the linoleum, sounding a sliding that, for a split half-second, heralded my descent to the floor.
Perhaps it was the long gap between the first and second books, and perhaps it was a pronounced gap between the second and third, but the initial sales of the Second Sun trilogy dipped over the course of publication. Over the seventeen years between the publication of Moon and the final installment, The Cloud of Heaven, and it’s second and final printing at Del Rey, we moved into three progressively larger houses. I graduated from high school, lost my virginity, and married young; Alice, my sister, was arrested twice, lived with my parents until she was twenty-six, then succumbed to caner months after my father’s third book’s first printing; and my mother found her calling in the painting and firing of boutique, ceramic eggs. During all of this, my father labored in silence, advancing his craft from a dimestore, pulp vernacular, to a prosody more palatable to the literary establishment. He never did live to see his academic recognition.
That seventeen-year span was a strange time, as I felt my father grew accustomed to his moderate fame and recognition, while also growing uneasy with his family. He often spoke only in monosyllables and grunts, avoiding each of our gazes at the dinner table, hiding, instead, behind the hair he let sprout from his temples in a wiry, gray bramble.
My hair has remained cropped close my entire life, so when I felt all the eyes in the coffee shop diverted towards me, there was no follicular curtain to hide behind. Instead, I could safely disguise my embarrassment with blood-flushed cheeks and pallid complexion. After a second that seemed interminable, everyone resumed their conversations, those nearest me remarking on the attendant embarrassment before picking up the lost threads. For my part, I kept my eyes concentrating, instead, on collecting my students’ papers harum-scarum, to expedite my departure. Normally fickle for not bending corners or crinkling pages, my visible embarrassment trumped my propriety.
Just as I heard the metallic clasps of the briefcase click securely into place, I realized that standing just next to me was Lisa.
When the doctors diagnosed Alice’s leukemia, my father indefinitely suspended his signing tour for Heaven. He and my mother stayed at home with Alice, nursing her to good health, while encouraging me to finish the first year of my MFA. I was two states away, and wanted to take a leave of absence to be with the family, but they resisted, telling me I was the first in the family with a degree, let alone any post-graduate work. We’ll treat this positively, they said, and she’ll pull through just fine. And she did. For awhile. Until she went out of remission. And never recovered.
“Professor Silverman?” Her voice was tentative but friendly. I refused her gaze, aimlessly shuffling the papers in my hands. “Are you okay? I didn’t even see you over here.”
“I’m fine.” I grunted through my nose, trying for a laugh. “My ego’s more easily bruised than my coccyx.”
She giggled a little, and put her hands on her hips. After considering me for a second – how ridiculous and pathetic I was – she swiveled her hips and gave her hipper-than-thou partner a ‘five-minutes’ sign. He nodded his assent, and then she sat across the table from where I had been formerly sitting. Then, she looked up.
Then, she smiled.
Feeling my cheeks flush redder still, I helplessly righted my chair and sat down, giving her a blank look. She refastened her smile, letting her eyes droop to the table for a moment. Then, clearing her throat, she turned her eyes back towards mine and they brightened, and her smile drifted from polite to genuine. As I watched her, everyone else in the world drifted out of focus, their color blurred to streaks, as the sounds of their conversations and car horns was the echo of white noise from inside a conch shell. Nobody else in the world but…
And then, early one Saturday morning, my father shook me awake in my bed and told me to get dressed. It was an early fall – a cold fall – and a heavy mist had persisted overnight, as the storm clouds rolled in, fat and heavy, over the lake. It was the last house my parents bought – the attic study was the space within which my father wanted to write the third book, and the advance was enough for a down payment. My eyelids were puffed and heavy when I met my father on the back deck of the house. He looked down at me and breathed heavy into his hands, rubbed them together for warmth, then cued me with his eyes to do the same. The ritual finished, he walked down the porch stairs, and I followed him, my steps leaden from sleep.
“Well, I’m very honored that you enjoy my class, Lisa.”
“It’s not just that…” She sighed, and darted her eyes cockeyed towards the ceiling. “It’s more than just that I enjoy it. It’s like every day I feel like we get into so much with the books, I feel like…I don’t know…”
“That you could spend a lifetime talking about them?”
She smiled. “I guess you do know what I mean, then.”
My father and I continued on to the treeline, our feet kicking through the leaves, as a low level mist hovered around his knees and my waist. The light was dim and gray, and cast no shadows around us. We were swallowed whole by the forest that morning, our breath tumbling out between our lips in chatters.
As he helped me climb across a log that lay cockeyed over a small stream, I asked a question that he let hover as he grunted, then lifted me down to the forest floor. He nodded us forward, further into the woods.
After what, to a child, seemed an unnaturally long walk, we came upon a clearing. As the trees broke, the grass and leaves spread out into a rocky field dozens of yards across, and in circumference. Just at the edge of the wood, as we stepped out, were ribbons of yellow-and-black caution tape caught in the wind. It had been broken in the center, near where we walked through the treeline, and undulated in the breeze, like the fingers of a dancing hula girl.
We stepped from the treeline, and our feet crunched on the gravel that stretched out into the clearing. The mist still hung low in the air, and I couldn’t see the forest as it wrapped around the far side of the clearing. Towards the center of the evened-out gravel pile, as my father led our walk, I could see chopped chunks of wood, piled and blackened by old fire, lying charred and splintered and broken.
He stood before the wood pile, took a breath in deep through his nose. After a short pause, he exhaled through his mouth. A corner of his smile turned upwards into his cheek. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”
Then, he knelt down beside me. His face, close to mine, with his breath fogging the air between us as well as the lenses of my eyeglasses. “This is it,” he said. “This is where I want you to bring it. Bring it all out here when I’m done.
“I want you to bring it all out here, and I want you to burn it.”
I looked up at him with narrowed eyebrows. Bring what? Burn what?
After a moment, he stood, looking down at me, and I realized that he might have been crying. He sniffled just a little bit, and blinked his bleary eyes, refocusing on my face. I didn’t know what to do about his sudden attention, so I just looked back at the clearing, trying to imagine the conflagration he had in mind.
Soon – I don’t know just how much time had elapsed, but soon – he placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. Nodding back towards the house, he turned and led us home, where we had eggs and sausage before Mom woke up.
I was aware of her lips, and her lips only, the entire time she talked – the way her mouth seemed to form itself around each word and thought, like she were sculpting something brand new with each breath. We chatted pleasantly about class, about how refreshing she found it, particularly because of my relationship to its subject – my father.
“I mean, most professors will make a claim and, frankly, you get to thinking it’s kind of bullshit.” She leaned in for a conspiratorial whisper. “I mean, what do they know, right? But you – you lived it. And the way you can talk about your father’s work and it feels like you really know, you know?”
I lacked the heart to tell her that my access to the information was strictly through my father’s notes – later, I had hidden all my father’s papers in a cubby hole in the attic. When I returned to them – years later, and months after his death – a rat had used it as a nest, and covered a good percentage of them with offal before finding a new home.
This is what I did say: “My father was never interested in people knowing the process as much as he was interested in the stories themselves.”
“Why do the class, then?”
“I thought…” I paused for a moment, considering the cracks in the drywall where the front window met the interior ceiling. “I thought a course that would be a portrait of a Twentieth Century fable in the making would be worth teaching.”
“Despite your father’s wishes to the contrary?”
“He was a humble man, but he never thought he wouldn’t leave a legacy. He just…”
“I’m sorry.” She started to stand. “I’m overstepping my bounds.”
I held out my hand, palm down, over her side of the table. “No, please. This is interesting – I’d like to hear what you had to say…”
She looked over at Slick Boy behind the counter, who had settled into browsing a copy of the local arts magazine now that the lunch crowd had died down. Seeing that he didn’t need help, she shifted her gaze back to me, then sat again. “Okay. You know how in class you run down how the books are an allegory for the Cold War. And how your father was far more interested in portraying a political dentente than he was in working on the sciencey aspects, like Asimov?”
“Well, I can see that, all the political ramifications to his entire cosmology…” She scratched her head while glancing at the table top. “But it seems to ignore some of the personal stuff, you know? His family life? I mean, some of the biographies out there get into some heavy stuff…”
“Ah.” I leaned back, crossed my arms, and smirked. “You’ve been reading Walters.”
“I have. I have.” She blushed a little as she curled a lock of hair behind one ear. “But only because you said that, factually, he’s the one biographer your family had little dispute with.”
“Over the facts,” I said. “The influence he gives them — the weight – is what we disagree with.”
“But that’s exactly my point – you say that the influence isn’t there, but you lived through it, too, you know? So it might be effecting you, too…”
I nodded, retreating quickly from her interrogation.
“All I’m trying to say is that there had to have been things that happened that had a profound effect on the trilogy – particularly since the tone of the books shift so drastically going into the final title.” Her eyes had dodged mine until she finished her thought, then she connected her gaze to mine. “Am I making any sense?”
I tried to consider her words for a moment, but all I could see was my father standing in the middle of that clearing, his arms spread wide, imagining the blaze I would one day set with his papers and his notebooks. I remember the fire I did set – weeks of undelivered newspapers and boxes of perforated computer paper bought with my delivery salary. I’m not sure if my father ever suspected my eventual duplicity, but when I had gone into his office and had seen all the dust-covered boxes of paperwork, I felt compelled to disobey him.
It was a feeling of having already lost too much, and the thought of losing just that much more was…
“Well,” she said, crunching on the end of a biscotti. “I better get back to work.”
I nodded. “I need to finish these papers.”
“Everyone’s antsy to get them back.” She stood, then looked down at me as I gathered my things. “I hope you like my paper. My argument, I mean.”
“I think I might just.” I smiled up at her.
She turned and took a few steps, then stopped, and looked back at me.
“Your father…” Her eyes trailed off to the crack in the drywall by the front window. “He seemed like a really neat guy.”
I followed her gaze, and then our eyes met.