Tyler Raymond broke her one rule: he recorded her. At first, she thought he was a diligent note-taker, making pencil-sweeps across his page, but when she walked through the lecture hall, she saw his sweeps were only oars and racing shells. She read his sweatshirt: Rowing Crew XL. Another freshman rowing scholar, probably told by some advisor who could barely define the word: Ethnographic Studies is open! That should put you at fifteen credits! That was when she saw the bare iPhone between notebooks, its microphone culling the ether like a flat antenna, and asked to see him during her office hours on Friday.
NO PHONES. Dr. Geri Buckner’s one rule. It was the third bullet she wrote on the whiteboard, after Intro to Ethnographic Studies and her name, but it was the only bullet in balloon letters. She found that if she didn’t overcompensate for the tiny font of her penmanship, it was the same as whispering.
All week she daydreamed of how she would confront him. She might point and rage. Imagining it made her heart pound in her cramped ribs. When Tyler finally showed (fifteen minutes late), it was with his lawyer father, a man of considerable height and a voice like Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. The seas always parted for people like these Raymonds, she thought, no shepherd staff, no prayers required.
“Oh,” Tyler Senior said when he saw her. “Geri Buckner. With a G.”
They shook hands. Hers vanished into Tyler Senior’s. She felt conscious of herself, her five feet and one inch, her utter waifishiness. She abandoned her fantasies of guilting Tyler Junior into submission and spoke in accommodations instead. Could he maybe not use that phone during lectures anymore? Is there some way I can help you with your notes?
Senior answered for Junior. “Tell you what. We have a little family trip to the Maldives at the end of September. How about Tyler takes that break and when he comes back fresh, he doesn’t use the phone anymore?
Takes that break, Geri repeated. Technically, attendance was not mandatory, but—
“Sound good?” Senior said. “What do you say, Junior?”
Junior took in a big breath—like what he had to say was going to have to be loud and long—but Senior gave him a jab in the shoulder. The poke deflated the balloon.
“Settled, Dr. Buckner?” said Senior.
Sure, she said. Settled. Accepting defeat, her voice chirped when she said goodbye.
When she first met Martin O. Sutton, University President, he told Geri that she had the voice of a titmouse. She looked it up afterward. The comparison seemed appropriate, but the way he’d giggled made her wonder if he didn’t just enjoy that there was a bird called the titmouse. At that fall semester’s meet-and-greet—a sort of New England stewardship appeal with a live band and cash bar—she found herself in a circle of university administrators, trying to keep up, making her titmouse noises. Sutton’s glass was down to ice and a ruined lime wedge. “Gonna be a gooooood semester,” he said, pointing his staggering nods her way. When he hugged her, his fingers met the skin under her skirt. Geri hadn’t said anything. What do you say? She only made that polite excuse-me noise from her Midwestern youth—ope—before Sutton moved on to the next ass to hug.
She spent the rest of her office hours on YouTube: A Drama Student’s Secret Tips to Project Your Voice.
Tyler Raymond, Jr. returned the first week of October as promised. He kept his father’s word: the phone remained in his pocket. But he started bringing an especially fat pen on his desk while he kept doodling his oars and shells with the pencil. Geri found the pen online, down to the make and model: Digital Vice Recorder for Lectures (Black), $39.88, free one-day shipping with Prime. Not technically against her rule.
The next morning, she stopped mid-lecture, eyes fixed on Junior’s pen.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
She pulled her skirt down the way a knight lowers his visor before the charge. Yes, everything was fine. She no longer daydreamed about confronting Tyler Raymond; instead, she wondered how her life might be different if she had one in her pocket the day of the meet-and-greet. It would have picked up Dr. Salters’ comment after Sutton left: “You know, you could file a complaint.” As if she didn’t know that. As if most people don’t know that.
She ordered a pen recorder of her own and started wearing it that night.
On one occasion in late October, when the leaves were going to jaundice, Tyler Raymond and three other freshmen gave a group presentation on the Middle Passage. In Intro to Ethnographic Studies, each group presentation ended with a Q-and-A session with Geri. Usually, these questions were improvisations. For Junior’s group, she had one already written on a notecard, which she held throughout the presentation, her veins buzzing.
When they finished, she stuffed it in a pocket. “All right,” she said. “And what would four white people know about it?”
The room went quiet.
“You’re all white,” she said. “And I don’t see what four privileged white people can possibly have to say about unspeakable evils if those evils are in your genetic code to begin with.”
The words felt over-the-top coming out of her. It was like hearing your own voice—the real voice other people hear, not the better one in your head—echoing over the phone.
“I don’t know what to say,” Junior said.
“Don’t say anything,” she said. “That’s all for now.”
It was not remotely the thing she usually would have said. She was white, after all, and there were three other students in that group who deserved her questions—her real questions—but afterward, as she watched Junior sit and click his pen to mark the spot of her comments, she knew she had said the exact right thing. And if not right, at least effective.
Junior emailed the recording to his father. Ten minutes later, his phone announced a call from DAD—FIRM. Instead of saying hello, Senior played the recording back to him. What would four white people know about it…those evils are in your genetic code to begin with…
“Honestly, I’m taken aback,” Senior said in summary. “She seemed so nice in person. Genteel.” Genteel being the ultimate Senior compliment.
What should they do next? Senior wasn’t about to file the lawsuit yet, but he had plans, and just as soon as he got off from work he would contact his friends in the administration office to see what kinds of strings his annual contribution could pull. Junior left it unsaid that he was flirting with flunking the course, that twelve credits would make him a part-time student and therefore ineligible for the crew scholarship. He would have tried to tell him, but at no point during what Senior called his brain hurricane—the conversational equivalent of pulling up one half of the ping-pong table and volleying balls for practice—was it ever possible to interrupt.
Junior saw his father’s BMW on campus the next day. Senior wore his red tie, the one he always wore for closing arguments, and wiped his palms together like a fly on rotted fruit. Here, finally, was an opportunity to show Junior what leverage looked like in the real world. Junior told him about his failing grade. Senior only shrugged. “I’ve got a meeting with Martin O. Sutton,” he said. “You know who he is?”
“It’s one of those no-lose situations. All leverage, no risk. Wouldn’t worry about failing that class. At a minimum, we’ll get an exemption or a transfer. Something easier. A professor that won’t fail you.”
An assistant led them to the waiting room. A photo of Martin O. Sutton with a former President leaned on a mantle. Junior had seen the same photo when he found Sutton’s profile on Wikipedia the night before; during his stint as acting Secretary of Labor, Sutton landed in hot water for allegedly telling a reporter that she should, quote-unquote, be in Hollywood with those legs! Sutton denied it all. Wikipedia said nothing else about it. Eventually, he received the honorable discharge of a new party winning the election; he ran the university ever since.
When Sutton called them into his office, Junior saw how pronounced his small, rounded eyes were, the hook to his posture, always nudging forward. The photo was ten years old. Now, with the man in front of him and offering them bottles of water, Junior thought he looked like a badger.
“My assistant said you’re taking eighteen credits,” Sutton said.
Junior opened his mouth, but Senior spoke: “Fifteen. He can’t drop this class and keep the scholarship.”
“It’s late in the semester,” Sutton said. “I don’t think that’s an option now.”
“That’s why I came to see you,” Senior said.
“Would you play it for me?” The way Sutton unscrewed the cap off a water bottle, pinky-first, like it was a bottle of champagne and he wanted to shoot the cork, made Junior feel uneasy. It was almost obscene. Yet Sutton took a sip and leaned back, a self-soothed smile on his face. “That recording you told me about?”
Junior cued it on his phone: What would four white people know about it…those evils are in your genetic code to begin with…
“Well, that’s her,” Sutton said. “I know Dr. Buckner. It’s very out-of-character.”
“You see our problem,” Senior said. “And Tyler’s your freshman crew star.”
“As I said, it’s late in the semester.”
Senior tapped Junior with his foot, a kicking wink. “We don’t want to have to do this, but what if we were to release this to a news outlet? There’s a cable news network that would eat this up. Alumni and prospective recruits should know what kind of education they’re going to get here.”
“That would be unfortunate.”
“You could give Tyler a transfer,” Senior said. “Or excuse him for the semester without docking the credits.”
“That’s not how we do things. Tyler’s education is just as important to us as it is to you.”
Senior reddened. “I don’t like your implication. I’m an alumnus and a donor. A yearly donor.”
“That’s why I took the meeting.”
“And that’s all the donation’s worth? A meeting?”
“I won’t be blackmailed into compromising the integrity of the university,” said Sutton. He rubbed the naked lip of the bottle. No ums, no ahs—the sentence had the rehearsed quality of speaking into the mirror.
“We’ll go to the news, maybe,” Senior said.
Sutton brought his fingertips together, leaning back. It was an academic pose, nothing like a badger; it was like a chess player when he’s just delivered the decisive blow and toggled the clock back to the opponent. “I can’t stop you,” he said. “But in the end, I think you’ll do the right thing. I’ve been in the full brunt of the news cycle myself. I don’t wish it on anybody.”
Senior waited until they were back in Junior’s dorm room to unravel: the gall—the sheer gall—of that little man! It’s like he’s daring us to release the tape! Senior had been in a news cycle before, he said, he’d met his share of local reporters on the legal beat, and he knew how to find emails. That afternoon, he made phone calls to friends he knew “at the networks” as Junior, at the request of Senior, took the role of stenographer, typing a transcript of the Buckner tape for easy pasting into emails.
Tyler Junior’s inbox filled with media requests by late afternoon. The producer replied with a link to Geri Buckner’s university profile and asked if she was the woman in the tape. Then the intern came with directions to their Boston studio and, oh—ask for Liz in the front lobby. Did he have the phone numbers of the other students on his project, the ones who could confirm the tape? Could he do an interview tomorrow? Did he know the Category Five media maelstrom he was about to walk into? The news cycle worked with the efficiency of shoveling coal into the boiler and—just like that—watching the flames go up. By eight p.m., when a popular cable news show began in its usual primetime slot, Tyler’s story showed up in the bottom scroll. Senior clapped his hands and hooted the words along with the banner:
Coming up next!
That night, the television in a two-bedroom apartment in Foxden had not been set to that popular cable news show, but gave the matte reflection of a young woman spooning avocado-and-apple mush and saying: here comes the airplane. The baby fussed and, as all babies do, wore the mush instead.
Geri set her coat on the hanger. “How was he tonight?”
Anna grunted and made lifting motions with both arms.
Hunter was too young to reach any conclusions yet, but Buckner had done her homework. Some of the milestones were coming due. Monosyllabic words by sixteen months, responding to his name. Come dessert, Hunter would raise his hands and wave at both chocolate and vanilla ice cream without a decision. He wouldn’t really point; he would burst into bubble-snot tears when Geri didn’t understand what every grunt meant.
“There were reports,” Anna said. “Chased them away with a broom.”
“Not the broom part. Phone calls. Don’t know how they got my number.”
“What’d you say?”
“Still, it’s creepy,” Anna said. “It happened that fast. They’re so—I don’t know—efficient.”
“That’s just how the news cycle works. Calm, storm, calm. Tom Alcott said it would be intense for a while.”
“Yeah, but—my phone? It’s not like you can look me up in the phone book. Who has phone books anymore? Do they know I live here? What if they have questions about that?” She flicked her pointer finger, drawing an invisible rope between their hearts. “About this?”
“No comment,” Geri said.
Anna gave a frown that said not funny and set down the jar of mush. Geri dinged at it a while with her fingernails until Hunter cooed. Here comes the airplane! Anna sat at the apartment’s computer, a laptop with an abscess where they should have been a battery.
“Don’t Google,” Geri said. “Tom Alcott said to wait a year before Googling.”
“Doing the bills.”
“Don’t do bills, either.”
“I gotta do something,” Anna said. “All this waiting.”
They went out for ice cream at a place called Herbert’s Sherbets, a faux-50s stall, the kind where the staff had to wear paper hats and pretend not to know any president after Eisenhower but weren’t so stuffy about anachronisms that they couldn’t use chip readers. Anna took the orders—chocolate-vanilla swirl in a bowl and a cone of Marshmallow Rainbow Charms that bordered on copyright infringement—and returned with nothing. “Declined,” she said.
“Use the Discover.”
“That’s just for balance transfers. I didn’t even bring it.”
“B of A?”
“That’s the one I used.”
Geri handed her the Chase. Anna made a lemon-sucking face at it, knowing what it meant to buy on that card, maybe doing the calculations in her head: how many pages in a student’s overpriced textbook would the ice cream cost? Geri had seen textbooks priced over a dollar a page. Even measuring single-sided. Every spoonful of Marshmallow Rainbow Charms—what, a paragraph?
After relieving Hunter with a pair of noise-canceling headphones, Geri people-watched. An old man sat in the corner booth, a widower maybe, used to booths and not stools, spooning around the bananas in his split. Someone’s toddler smudged the glass outside the pink lumps of Bubblegum. Anna waited in line again, feet tapping.
Geri didn’t hate the act of recording. She hated the act of being recorded. She often daydreamed while in line at the convenience store when some man in his Jackson Pollack work pants would stand by the coffee machine, rubbing pennies into scratch-offs. What she did was a sort of recording: watching someone without their permission. It gave her no remorse. She only observed. She never saw the appeal of scratch-offs—or lottery tickets at all—until one day she saw a woman buying a Powerball with novelty in her voice—I never do this, you see—and slipping the ticket into her purse with a smile squinting around her eyes. What candid joy it must be to ask: what if? Then Buckner understood the appeal: not that you truly expect to win, but that you pay for the quick burst of suspending disbelief. What if?
Geri knew what if. She would move to Nice in the south of France to write a novel about a woman named Esther. This would be in reference to the Book of Esther—a woman passive and afraid at first, eventually persuading the king of Persia to bring about the death of her enemies. Buckner didn’t have the story yet. Only setting and character.
From Nice, Buckner would also send postcards to Doctor (and the one-time source of her last name) Buckner, the most generic possible postcards, the kind that might say something cheesy like It’s Nice In Nice! She would write no message in them. At least write something, he used to say, complaining of those impersonal Christmas cards she purchased, with their winter cabins and winking Santas. He used to wonder why she didn’t like to be photographed with him. What he didn’t understand was that his presence was incidental.
The indigenous peoples of the Americas and the aborigines of Australia shared a belief that something is lost the light of your body yields to celluloid. Back when she still had an account—her avatar having been a raven on a perch, not herself—Geri wondered what these peoples would think of Facebook tags and retweets.
Anna made a yipping sound at the counter. More problems with the card. Maybe Anna had pocket change. She hadn’t babysat in a while—not since moving in and taking over with Hunter—but who doesn’t forget the odd five-dollar bill? That’s what Anna joked four years in Ethnographic Studies will get you: the world’s most expensive babysitting degree.
Buckner hated that joke. It was Ethnographic Studies. So that’s what you do, you study—you get the full doctorate, you teach, you continue paying student loans until your thirty-ninth birthday and you keep a Chase card on hand for that odd student that didn’t come from a wasp nest of privilege and can’t afford two hundred dollars for a textbook. Because that’s what you do when you believe in something, Geri thought. You bleed. You bleed all the way out.
Anna came back, the sour-lemon look now in her eyes. “Declined. Used it up this year?”
“Books are more expensive every semester.”
“I just wanted one stupid little lump of dairy fat. Before the shit hits the fan.”
Instead, they went home.
Reporters gathered by the lobby of the Albie Rothbard Sociology Building to catch Geri as she came in the next morning. Her colleagues ducked their heads, said no-comment. Buckner only circled the parking lot, saw the big TV vans and throngs of attractive young people in suits and skirts and suitskirts, then completed the circle back to the gate. Some reporter who’d done his homework and knew she drove an ’05 Pontiac Grand Am threw his pointer finger in the air as if shouting: head her off at the pass!
Tyler Raymond appeared in primetime. He wore a blue blazer, a red tie, and a U.S. flag pin on his lapel. When he answered questions, he did as Senior had told him: took pauses, spoke calmly. No, he didn’t want Professor Buckner to be fired. He only wanted to share this with the world. This was not a boy out to get a professor for a bad grade; this was a young man who was concerned about his education.
You are so right, said the cable host, and it’s a shame what’s become of academia.
But like heat, money rises, its embers carrying in the wind that inevitably led to Martin O. Sutton. Albie Rothbard was still two payments from completing his obligation, and in his email, he added a gentle postscript that it had only been a verbal commitment. The football boosters were worried about next year’s recruiting class. They threatened to withdraw all support until Buckner was fired. But, Gene Akerman said, between us old pigskin boys, an extended leave of absence would sate that beast. The emails from cable news viewers were the worst. Outrage! Scandal! Off with her head! Off with UR (sic) head! None of it spelled correctly.
On Day Two, Arthur Pemberton called an emergency meeting of the board of trustees. The officers included a Nobel Laureate, a prominent attorney from New York, and one Silicon Valley billionaire best unmentioned. Pemberton was only president ex officio, but he sat at one head of the table and declared the meeting to be a good, old-fashioned jury: no one allowed to leave until reaching a verdict.
When no one spoke, Pemberton opened his palms at Sutton. “You got a plan?”
“All right, so let us help. Suggestions?”
“No, I mean—I think that’s the best course of action.”
“What? To do nothing?”
“I’ve been in the eye of the news cycle before,” Sutton said. “Most of the time, you can just wait it out. The media finds something else to chew on and soon enough you’re forgotten. All we have to do is wait it out.”
“And in the meantime?” Pemberton asked. “They chew on us until they reach bone.”
The billionaire said, “They have us in their sights. I don’t know a creature in the entire animal kingdom that doesn’t at least put up a fight.”
“I really think it’s the best course of action,” Sutton said.
“Meanwhile, the donors dry up,” Pemberton said. “Admissions dry up, and soon we’re looking up at the Ivy League from the bottom.”
“Geri Buckner has tenure,” Sutton said.
“I did some background on her. She’s awfully young for tenure. How’d she manage that?”
Sutton shrugged. “What do you want? My hands are tied.”
“I don’t understand you, Martin. Are you trying to get fired?”
“The sea cucumber,” Sutton said.
“The sea cucumber can be eaten down to a tiny piece and then regrow. And some snails survive the digestive tract of birds. Just saying. It’s not heard of in the animal kingdom for animals to allow themselves to be eaten with the hope of coming out alive on the other end.”
They looked at him as if Sutton hadn’t said the words but acted them out, peeling off his own skin and transforming into a sea cucumber before their very eyes.
“Call a meeting,” Pemberton said. “And get some rest. All this pressure’s getting to your damned head.”
Geri had only been in Sutton’s office once before. This time, she was comforted by the presence of Tom Alcott, university lawyer, a man with a horseshoe of hair around his head, neatly cut, not one strand of combover. Sutton dyed his every few months until it was ink-black, then matted the feathers of his hair down his forehead. Geri considered this an important point.
Tyler Raymonds Senior and Junior arrived last, both in red power ties.
“I’ll get straight to it,” Senior said. “We’re prepared to fight this as long as it goes. We just want action on the part of the university.”
“Define action,” Sutton said.
“Consequences for Dr. Buckner here.”
“I can’t fire her for having an opinion.”
Senior said, “What we have on that tape is less opinion than hate speech.”
“It’s not hate speech to speak against privilege,” Geri said.
“And I’m white, so I must have privilege?” Senior twisted his Rolex until it slid under his sleeve. “This is what you teach here? Goddamn it, Tyler, Dartmouth was offering a half-ride.”
“A sabbatical might work,” Sutton ventured.
Alcott blinked to life. “A sabbatical would solve a lot of problems.”
“Maybe,” Senior said. “Without pay. And the credits. Tyler needs the credits. We’re still outraged. Aren’t we, Tyler?”
Junior looked around the room, apparently surprised to find himself holding the floor. He made the words a tonal echo of Senior’s: “It’s an outrage.”
“I can’t go without pay,” Geri said. “I’m the only one in this room who isn’t rich.”
“Really? You can’t get another job in the meantime?”
“I have a baby to take care of,” Geri said.
“So take care of it. God knows you’ll have the time.”
Sutton said, “with all respect, Mr. Raymond—the university will make that decision.”
“I need this job,” Geri said. What was her line? Something about money. “This is my only source of income.”
“This won’t be a unilateral decision,” said Sutton. “I’ll have to talk with the board.”
“Does that satisfy for now?” Tom Alcott said.
“We’ll see.” Senior slapped Junior on the shoulder, that universal father-son signal for either sit up straight or let’s go, mumbling something about consequences as he closed the door. That left Geri with Alcott and Sutton.
“Thought that went well,” Alcott said. “When he hears about our decision, he’ll be satisfied, and then we just let the regular news cycle wash us out.”
“Mmm,” Sutton said.
Alcott gathered his papers while Sutton looked at her. His eyes still gave her same up-down scan as when they first met, but not lustfully. Now it was a real measurement: a carnival worker guessing someone’s weight.
She finally asked: “What?”
“I just noticed,” he said. “You were always too short for me.”
Some days later, Tyler was heard his phone ding. The Fox News app. BREAKING NEWS, it read. The scroll went on: Breaking news…U.S. Department of Defense confirms drone strikes in Yemen…developing…
He kept on reading the scroll. More on Yemen. One of the royals had taken ill. A deadly strain of Pig Flu had been identified in Mogadishu, followed by a commercial for denture implants. Then he saw his news: University Professor Given Nine Months Unpaid Leave of Absence…
YOU SEE THAT? His father texted, all caps included. NINE MONTHS. SUTTON EMAILED ME AND SAID YOU’LL GET THE CREDITS. THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PUT UP A FIGHT. LITTLE GUYS CAN WIN TOO, BABY. RED TIES.
Junior emailed the TV intern to see if she wanted his response to the news. She never responded. He refreshed his account throughout the night, finally lights out at 1 a.m., when Yemen was still scrolling on the bottom of the television.
Nine months, he thought. More than even his father had hoped for. An entire pregnancy lasts nine months. He imagined Geri Buckner combing over the classifieds with a red pen. Dishwasher wanted—12-hour shifts. He imagined her at the food bank, jacket pulled tight around her face. All that just for some credits? All they had to do was transfer him to another class and let Dr. Buckner teach on. He went to bed with this thought and dreamed of oars and shells.
The following Monday, he returned to Introduction to Ethnographic Studies. Andy Schnorenberg had taken over for Dr. Geri Buckner. He read from a textbook with the cadence of a piano novice reading sheet music by sight. Tyler Raymond eventually earned a C-minus, which was just enough to keep the credits, to keep the crew scholarship, to keep rowing in whatever direction the heavy sea beneath him would go.
On one Friday in early December, Tom Alcott escorted Geri Buckner in for a meeting. Sutton’s assistant was not outside. Sutton sat behind his desk, keyed in a code, and the shelf came out with the heavy rolling sound of cherrywood. He flipped his checkbook in front of him.
“At the risk of making a serious situation sound like some board game,” Tom Alcott said, “you both played this brilliantly.”
“You should have seen Raymond’s face when he came in to blackmail me with the tape,” Sutton said. “Shocked I didn’t offer him something. Couldn’t believe I was really pushing him to do it.”
“He’s just glad to be out of the headlines.”
Geri cleared her throat. “There’s still the issue of—”
Sutton had been sitting over his checkbook, pen flicking between his fingers. He looked at it. Frowned. He wrote it down—all those circles, Geri thought, suppressing the smile—and handed her the check. “Can’t believe I agreed to this. You’re gutting me.”
She pressed her thumbs to it. The paper seemed thick as card stock. The heavy pen strokes were still wet. Even the bank was nothing ordinary, Marcus by Goldman Sachs—who has a checking account at Goldman Sachs? Yeah, she was gutting him, but he would survive the scar just fine.
“That’s the end of it?” she asked.
Tom Alcott said, “just don’t Google yourself for a while.”
No worries there. She would winter in the south of France: no Internet, no television. She could write her novel about a woman named Esther. Geri thought maybe she’d found the story now. She had her setting: a rental near the Promenade des Anglais because it was a tourist spot where there would be gawkers and socked Americans, and could be anyone else there, a novelist even, or just a French woman in a sun hat and Audrey Hepburn glasses. A woman who didn’t want you to see her but most certainly did want to be seen.
It was how she had imagined retirement. Something far-off and well-earned. Now? There would be no guilt. She once overheard the other professors in the Sociology Department, huddled around the coffee machine like tribal elders and wondering how she got her tenure at age thirty-nine. Those tribal elders guessed, but they never got it right. It was a phone call. Sutton had called her one night, his voice so heavy with sauce that she could picture him lying on the bare floor as he spoke. Then the words became moans. Did she want to FaceTime? No. She could guess what he was doing just fine from there.
He’d been good since then. He spent one summer at the Meadows Clinic and even came by her office one night to make amends, claiming he was on Step Eight. They were cordial for a while. No midnight calls, no surprise shoulder rubs, no cornering her when she had two hands on a plate of cake at commencement ceremonies. That lasted maybe a season. No one tells you they’re drinking again, but that year, she found more missed calls from a familiar number. That October, when Sutton cornered her in the women’s bathroom in the Albie Rothbard building, she was glad to have the little recorder pen from Amazon.
She had Tyler Raymond to thank for that. Alcott to thank for the rest of it. The way Alcott explained it, no one ever questions the authenticity of bad press. That made sense to her. No one looks for monsters in the storm.
Geri folded the check, ran its sides over her palms with a papercutting motion, just to feel the reality of it. She wouldn’t have minded a papercut. The pain means it’s real, she’d heard once, and though she couldn’t say where, she remembered at the time it had struck her as an utterly cynical and depressing thing to say. Now she believed it. Papercuts heal and besides, that’s what you do when you believe in something—when you earn something whole. You bleed.
“Before the nine months of sabbatical are over, Mr. Sutton will announce his retirement,” Tom Alcott said. “Dr. Buckner will return in the fall semester next year, with her usual slate of classes. And from here on out, potential legal obligations notwithstanding, the two of you will never meet again. This will constitute your verbal agreement. Yes?”
“Yes,” Buckner said.
“Yes,” Sutton said.
It was a Friday. There was no more news van, no throng of reporters outside the security gate. The courtyard was mostly empty, Friday being the odd weekday out of most class schedules, and that left the dried-out leaves to make their scratching sounds on the pavement. Sutton said his good-bye, beeped his keychain at his Mercedes, whistling all the way. Three million dollars had hardly made a dent in his mood. Alcott’s BMW came next. Geri sat at a bench and texted Anna that it was done—go to Herbert’s Sherbets and get Hunter any ice cream he wants—and waited, savoring this picture of dead autumn. Sheets of rind were peeling off the paperbark tree in the square like a hydra shedding its skin, like the flaking after a sunburn, nature’s cycle of leaving its waste to feed the ground.