Late afternoon sunlight was flooding the apartment. Pillars of dust rotated in the drowsy air. He was glad to be home after a long day, ready to put his feet up and look at the paper, but the phone was vibrating in his jacket pocket.
He leaned back on the island in the kitchen and listened to the message from Jeanne Harrison, the Head’s secretary. “Good afternoon, Sam,” she enunciated crisply. “Boris would like to see you in his office at five o’clock.”
The island was too big for the room. He and Anne had always got in each other’s way when they cooked together, which they did if they couldn’t face the dining hall. The pattern in the fake marble made it impossible to keep clean, since you couldn’t see the dirt unless you were viewing it from the proper angle. But it wasn’t their kitchen, after all. Leverett’s head of facilities had radiated pride when he showed them the house after it had been rebuilt certified LEED-Gold. It was one hundred percent energy efficient and tight as a tick. The only way to let fresh air into the place was to open the door and fan it in. But the man was blind to how ugly his state-of-the-art remake of this ramshackle old New England farmhouse was. Bixler House, one of some forty residences in the town of Leverett that had been annexed for senior faculty and staff to live in once they’d done their twenty years of dorm duty, had been handsome in a shambling, peeling-paint, splintered way. Now the new windows were out of proportion and the kitchen-dining room with its pale linoleum floor belonged in a nursing home, as Anne put it. It looked institutional inside and out—which of course it was.
Sam took an apple from an old earthenware mixing bowl, nearly unreachable in the middle of the island. Everything was apple, apple, apple this time of year: apple cider, apple butter, apple crumble, applejack. Apples and pumpkins— and those twee little corn husk decorations everyone put up on their newly hung storm doors. Fall had a way of making him crabby, intolerant, restless in his skin, and prone to regret. Those sly, ever-shorter late October afternoons every- one professes to love were bound to bring on a disorienting queasiness. Emily Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” was capable of really laying him low.
He had fifteen minutes before meeting Boris. He trudged upstairs to the rat’s nest that was his study, threw his book bag on his desk, and fell into his old chintz reading chair. English 101 had been a slog. Afternoon classes often were, this early in the year, when the new arrivals were still getting their bearings. Convincing knobs, as freshmen were called, that what a character says in Romeo and Juliet doesn’t necessarily reflect everything he or she is feeling wasn’t as easy as you might think. The kids at this point were still clinging to the literal ways of reading they’d learned at home—if they’d read at all. His job was to unclog their mental pores, encourage them to stop repeating the commonplaces they’d parroted back to get them this far, and be willing to take the risk of being wrong. English, he’d always felt, was really about everything, other than mathematics. It took a term or two for most of them to understand that right and wrong wasn’t the issue. Some never did; but inspiring that willingness to actually respond to what was there on the page lay at the heart of the vaunted Leverett way of teaching.
Sam brushed his hair, still more pepper than salt, he told himself—except when he saw the pewter-colored clippings on the barbershop floor. He straightened his tie before heading back downstairs. He could have used a shave and a clean shirt, too, but there wasn’t time.
Boris’s office was in Main Hall on the north side of the Oval, the great lawn which School Street divides from the town green, with its Congregational church, yellow-brick library, historical society, and row of stately black-on-white Federal houses—just the way the center of one of Connecticut’s oldest and most prosperous towns ought to look. To the north and east, the burnt-umber Halsey Hills lay low-slung beyond the invisible but still powerfully present Wachusett River, which rolls down from the mountains of northern Vermont through farmland still dotted here and there with old tobacco barns but otherwise largely swallowed up in the ticky-tack of suburbia. The school’s stately acreage—emerald lawns flanked by stands of hardwood and traversed by the poky Leverett River—served up a picture postcard image of a bygone, idyllic New England. The school’s forest-green flag, a golden hare embroidered in its center, flew just below the Stars and Stripes from the pole atop the neoclassical tower in the middle of the Oval, an exclamation point visible from almost everywhere on campus.
He’d spent more than half his life here. Four years of high school, back when it was still all boys, “where I got my education,” he always said. Leverett is one of oldest, richest, and most academically distinguished high schools in the country. Classes took place in tutorial sessions of no more than ten or twelve. Students were encouraged, no, expected, to have ideas and defend them, which meant that Leverett boys—girls, too, for the past forty years—were famously articulate, at times insufferably so.
The name evokes old globes in firelit libraries, striped silk ties, stiff ancestral portraits, athletes with cleated shoes and muddy thighs. The sons of presidents had gone here, if not presidents themselves, senators, secretaries of state, scions of the robber barons and investment bankers who evolved into what passed for an American aristocracy— leavened more recently with the sons and daughters of aspirational professionals who wanted their children to hobnob with the Establishment. The school boasted relatively few artists or writers among its alumni, but it had always exuded an aura of meritocratic rather than purely pecuniary elitism. No one cares who you are when you come to Leverett, the saying went; it’s who you become while you’re here that counts. Meaning that you, too, if you kissed the rod, could be instilled with Leverett values, could dress, behave, think, and feel the Leverett way.
After Harvard—which was effectively more of the same— Sam had won a fellowship to Oxford, followed by an abortive year trying to stomach deconstruction as a graduate student at Duke. Then a dozen years teaching English at Hadley, Leverett’s rival up north, before Mareike Crowley had called him home. And now he’d been here another two decades, nearly, trying to offer his students what the legendary masters, as they used to call them, of the previous generation had given him.
Sam loved teaching. True, the kids were unchanging, predictably fresh-faced and self-preoccupied while he and his peers grew ever hoarier and more crotchety. What kept him engaged was the hunger of some of them, their desire to take hold, to devour life whole, with the help of a well-timed nudge or two from their mentors. The moment when a student understands how a book makes its impact not frontally but by stealth, how it imperceptibly changes us, when it does, forever, was for him, as the saying goes, better than sex. He’d seen kids literally come alive, as had happened to him: slough off their families’ need to shroud them in security and open themselves up to riskier ways of becoming themselves, at times with spectacular results. These were the achievements he was proudest of.
The cool that descends on an office once the work-day is over had already fallen in Main. He met Jeanne, who’d been the assistant to five Leverett Heads, on her way out. She wore her hair short and frosted, and pink translucent glasses hung from a silver chain around her neck. Her Peter Pan blouse, trim A-line skirt, and no-nonsense flats conveyed a brisk self-possession.
Jeanne smiled and pointed him toward the inner sanctum. Boris was, as always, on the phone, with his feet up on the old partners’ desk that had always struck Sam as too big for him. He covered his receiver and mouthed, “Afternoon!” as he went on with his conversation.
On or off the phone, Leverett’s Head of School was invariably upbeat and down-to-earth. The alumni adored him, which meant he was always flying off to San Francisco or Bangkok to woo donors and snow potential students, making friends as reliably as the green repp tie dotted with gold hares he invariably wore.
Sam had seen the photos of Boris and Lizzie when they were everybody’s favorite young couple at Lawrenceville scattered in silver frames on side tables at the Head’s residence: hair everywhere, the toothy smiles and glowing complexions of well-fucked young marrieds wreathed by a ring of rambunctious flaxen-haired children. Nowadays Boris was a little paunchy, with bags beneath his round black architect’s glasses, and Lizzie had to be dyeing her straight-cut, dirty-blond hair. “She dresses like a guidance counselor,” Anne used to say, which was a bit rich, given that that was her own profession. But how should Lizzie dress? Sam wondered. What was the appropriate uniform for a small-town New England lawyer married to the head of a leading private high school?
“What’s up, boss?” Sam threw himself into one of the crewel-embroidered wing chairs facing Boris’s desk and dangled a leg over one arm as Boris hung up the phone.
“We are! Ten points over last year in annual giving. And how about that football team! We’re six and oh!”
Boris ignored Sam good-naturedly as he swiveled in his chair and looked out across the Oval, his fingers joined to form the usual church. He focused, a bit wanly Sam thought, then turned toward him. His owl-like face fell before he lifted his eyebrows, stretched his forehead, leaned forward, and stared into Sam’s eyes.
“This is top secret. I know I can count on you.”
Boris was masterful at appealing to Sam’s loyalty in spite of what he knew was his boss’s fundamental mistrust of him, and everyone else, no doubt. He’d always known that Boris was unreachable, but he’d never given up hope that he could somehow worm his way into his heart. Something visceral bound Sam to him, even if he understood Boris’s weaknesses inside out—just as Boris knew his. Leverett’s fearless leader was emphatically not an intellectual or an educational visionary, and he made no bones about it. What he was, was an incredibly effective cheerleader. And money-spinner. And tactician, if not strategist. Was Leverett the great school it had once been? Sam asked himself this self-lacerating question almost daily. Arguably not; it was softer, less certain of its mission, less single-minded in its pedagogy, and there were hallways-ful of administrators in Main who were interpreting Ephraim Leverett’s Deed of Gift in ways that left the originalists among the Old Guard perpetually outraged. The students, too, were blander and more predictable: cookie-cutter achievers out to make an impression. But Leverett was also wealthier, better known, more diverse, more manicured, and harder to get into than it had ever been. Much of the credit went to Boris Krohn.
“Do you remember a student named Bryden, Ronald Bryden, class of ’67? Your vintage if I’m not mistaken.”
“Vaguely. I think we were in Latin one together.”
“He didn’t return after third year,” Boris said, rifling through a pile of papers on his desk. “Any idea why?”
“I had an interesting missive from Ron Bryden yesterday.” He handed it over, pursing his lips while he watched Sam read.
3478 Madison Street
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74116
October 10, 2007 Dear Mr. Krohn:
Ron Bryden, class of 1967 here, coming at you out of the blue.
I haven’t had anything to do with the Leverett School since the spring of 1969. At the time I was dead certain I’d never want to ever hear the name again, let alone be in touch.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that the time has maybe come to try and turn that around, with a few amends made. I’m hoping you’ll agree.
I saw on the news the other week that the bishop of Kansas City is going to jail for having shielded abusive priests in his diocese. And that the church is paying out substantial settlements to the victims.
I wonder if you’re aware of a not-so-dissimilar situation at your own institution involving one of your star pedagogues, the ones you’re always touting as embodying what makes a Leverett education so unique. Imagine, faculty malfeasance at the Leverett School, of all places! And with dire and enduring consequences for yours truly.
I’m curious as to how this news strikes you, and what you think should be done about it.
I look forward to hearing from you very, very soon.
Ronald E. Bryden, Esq.
“He sounds a bit unhinged,” Sam said. “Or hurt and confused.”
“And angry.” “You think?”
“And quite possibly litigious,” Sam said. “Have you responded?”
“Not yet, but I will. Sam, I need you to find out everything you can about Ron Bryden’s career at Leverett. His academic record, who his teachers were, where he lived, why he left. Get me everything you can. On the q.t., please.”
Boris gave Sam his trademark soulful stare. “We need Ron to understand how concerned we are, above all, about him,” he added.
Really, there was no one like Boris. “Suppose old Ron turns out to be a grifter?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, as far as we’re concerned, he’s a valued, long-lost member of the Leverett family with something potentially important to teach us.
“How are you doing, by the way?” he asked.
“Bearing up,” Sam said, as noncommittally as possible. “Thanks for asking,” he added, though Boris was the last person he wanted to discuss his marital situation with.
“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“I appreciate that, chief.” Sam rose stiffly, saluted, and made his exit.
He went out and sat on the bench at the base of the Tower. At five-thirty this time of year the building lights were already blazing. If he squinted, the place looked like an ocean liner making its stately progress through the gathering dark. There was a veil across the half-moon. The air was as crisp as a Jonamac. The first frost had been forecast for tonight. It all came back like the slap in the face of an unexpected wave. Of course he’d known Ron Bryden, though he hadn’t crossed Sam’s mind in forty years. He’d been Eddie’s roommate. None of them could stand him.