Post Road Magazine #27


Kenneth Calhoun

First Fraser left, then Samantha Woo, so that Tim Beckman was all who remained on the roster. Richard called for an emergency college assembly and Carolyn returned from her yoga class with two everything bagels.

"Lox?" Richard asked.

"Cream cheese only," Carolyn said. "Times like these."

"Times-like-these cheese," Richard said with a sigh.

They sat across from each other, the two of them, waiting for the ding of the toaster. Together they were the administration, staff, and faculty of Summer Street College. The campus was their 1,560 square foot loft, with the exception of the east corner, where their Murphy bed folded out of the wall. That was off limits—the faculty lounge. They had a satellite campus, which was the Starbucks on the corner. The small private college, from which they had preemptively resigned, had switched to for-profit status and was now conducting business entirely online. Packaging bogus degrees not unlike the bundling of toxic mortgages, Richard insisted.

It had been nearly eight months since they made their exit during a faculty assembly. "I'm out," Richard declared, following the announcement that the impending cuts will be deep and especially unkind to the arts and sciences. Whole departments—Visual Arts, Journalism—were being cut entirely.

Carolyn, the chair of the Humanities Department, followed him out into the bitterly cold day, the air like iced metal pressing against the flesh. This act of solidarity was expected, given that Richard was her dean, and her secret husband—their three-year-old marriage concealed to dodge accusations of favoritism. The two of them, suddenly institutionally liberated, would now make good on their threat to start an experimental school of their own.

Until this morning, they had three students whose combined tuitions added up to about $90k per year—some paying more than others. The total take amounted to little more than half their combined previous incomes, but they were able to consolidate by selling off Richard's house in Andover and openly cohabitating in the Leather District loft. Now that there was no need to hide their marriage, they had announced their union to former colleagues with the U.S. Postal Service's change-of-address kit postcards—procured just two days before the USPS itself went belly-up and resurfaced as the privatized PostAmerica, Inc.

Between bites, they discussed their two-pronged plan for the College's retention crisis. The first matter of importance was to make sure their only remaining student, Tim Beckman, stayed on. Carolyn, who was his advisor, would speak to him that afternoon, affirming his commitment, while Richard would try to persuade Samantha, and maybe Fraser, to come back. Fraser would be a tough sell, since he was paying his tuition himself and no longer saw the value, claiming everything he needed to know was online—as MOOCs and SPOCS, whatever—or available at the so-called learning collectives that were popping up around town. But Sam's parents were covering her expenses and Richard believed he could count on them to send Sam back. It was Fraser who had poisoned her, Richard believed, the creep. "Well, we will re-poison her!"

"I wouldn't position it that way," Carolyn said.

"Of course not," Richard assured her, poppy seeds stuck between his teeth like dead pixels in the screen of his smile. "I can be scarily subtle, you know."

With Richard off to woo the Woos, as he couldn't resist putting it when pulling on his coat, Carolyn prepped for Tim Beckman. She checked her planner for the two courses in which he was enrolled—Logic Lite and Poetry with Pictures. Tim owed her a syllogism worksheet and a revision of his illustrated chapbook proposal, since his earlier draft contained too many redundancies. You don't want the images to merely illustrate the verses, she had explained. If you say the leaves are red, no need to show us red leaves. She had found that the challenge for young people wasn't coloring inside the lines. Straying outside the obvious was where their limitations showed.

In this area, Tim was typical. They had found, however, that his ability to learn was further hampered by a number of unique learning disabilities. For example, Tim had an aversion—some would say phobia—to syntactically sequenced words, or sentences. This aversion was most pronounced at night. He could read with some degree of comfort around noon, when shadows were shortest, but his symptoms increased as the day wore on. By late afternoon, he claimed that the relentless lines of text stung like lashes to the eye. Other obstacles to learning included sporadic odd number blindness and heightened test anxiety, sometimes known as emotionality.

It wasn't all challenges. They found that Tim had excellent appropriation skills. Indeed, the C and V keys of his laptop were well-worn from his uninhibited copy-and-paste approach to research. Among other, newer literacies, he excelled at concept collage and transmedia navigation, especially jumping between his phone and tablet. Plus, he was the sweetest kid in the world, Carolyn always warmly insisted. So innocent and vulnerable. Richard found Tim's awkwardness and low blink rate more unnerving than disarming, yet he, too, harbored some genuine affection for the boy. Consequently, he feared for Tim's future.

Tim arrived on time and Carolyn sat him at the big table, after he shed his snow-crusted boots by the door. His pinky toe extended from a hole in his sock like a newborn mouse. He sat, backpack at his side, and looked at her, waiting for instruction to begin, his wet eyes held widely open. The corners of his mouth twitched, and she had learned to read this as Tim's way of smiling.

"How are things?" she asked, sliding into the chair next to him.

"Okay," he said. He wasn't a talker and his default mode of composure was a rabbity nervousness, but he seemed a little more anxious than usual.

"You sure you're okay, Tim?"

"Yeah. I'm sure." He threw in an unconvincing shrug.

Carolyn looked him over, but decided not to probe. Maybe she was just reading into things, believing that Tim knew of Samantha and Fraser's departure. They were all on Facebook, members of the College's group page. And Richard had long suspected they had created an alternate page, somehow blocking them from even detecting its existence.

It was pretty apparent that Fraser had convinced Samantha to walk out. The two seemed to be dating, after all. Or was it called hooking up these days? Maybe he had also gotten to Tim, but they believed it was unlikely he would leave. They had fashioned such a comforting quilt of a curriculum for him, accommodating all his quirks and hand-feeding his more evolved competencies. The college fitted him like a perfect pair of pajamas. Carolyn was prepared to say this, if it seemed necessary. But she didn't want to do so prematurely. That would look desperate, they had agreed. Better just to see if Tim brought it up.

He said nothing at all as they looked at his syllogisms on his iPad, his leg jittering under the table. She was pleased to see that he had completed the assignment. He had done so using the least amount of words possible. The constructions were logically valid, though many were factually off, or odd. For example, he established that all reptiles are purple; snakes are reptiles; all snakes are purple. No matter. This wasn't a zoology class. So long as he demonstrated an understanding of major and minor premises resulting in a conclusion. She moved on, introducing him to the notion of universal and particular affirmatives and negatives, which he seemed to silently absorb.

Or maybe not.

"You're getting this, right?" she asked.

He nodded slowly, his blemished brow furrowed under the straight line of his Roman Emperor bangs. An odd style choice for an otherwise okay-looking kid.

She assigned him a new exercise and some reading, then, after a short break—during which he tapped out what seemed like a novel on his phone—she transitioned into the poetry class. When she asked to see his chapbook proposal, she set off a spasm of mouth twitching. He eyes darted around the room before returning to hers. He said nothing, though his right leg shifted from a tremor to a bounce. He made no move to open the file.

"Tim? The proposal?"

"Don't have it," he said.


He shook his head.

"Did you run into trouble?" she said.

He shook his head again.

"So what then?"

"I didn't do it."

"I can see that. What I want to know is why," she said as gently as possible.

There was a long silence.

"Well, when I sat down to do it I thought maybe I'd quit," he finally said.

"Quit what, Tim? Creating the chapbook?"

"No. Quit school."

So there it was. She pushed back her chair and turned it so she was facing him directly. He squinted as if she had shone a bright light into his eyes.

"Why would you do that?" she asked. "You've come so far."

He shrugged. She waited.


"I don't know," he said, then added, "because it won't mean anything."

She studied him. He was clearly parroting Fraser, but lacked total conviction. "Why wouldn't it mean something, Tim?"

"I don't know," he said, looking down at his hands. "It's not like I'm going to use logic in real life."

She glared at him. Never mind the absurdity of his utterance. There was nothing she hated more about young people than their tendency to start sentences with the words I don't know.

It was warm underground. Richard descended to the outgoing tracks of the subway, moving away from bright, cold surface, where the snow sat in ashen heaps along the streets. The Woos lived in Newton, and according to his navigator app, close to the T-stop. Richard opted to train it, rather than risk the unsalted streets of the suburbs. The night's storm had delivered more than the dusting promised by meteorologists.

Standing trackside, he stuffed his knitted hat in the pocket of his overcoat. The air was balmy enough to grow orchids, he speculated. Wonder how much you could make selling orchids?

He focused his mind on the mission at hand and sighed. Even before the election outcomes, they had anticipated days like this. They had watched as the state schools were wiped out, or sold off to corporate bidders, due to budget implosions. Meanwhile, the small to mid-level private schools—those with no significant endowments—were fatally wounded by the recent collapse of the loaning institutions. The bubble had burst for all but the top-tier institutions, ushering in a new era of education.

Good riddance, Richard liked to say. That model for higher learning, concocted in the industrial age, was unsustainable without a middle class. Besides, the mind is different now, he insisted. The machine has rewired our heads!

Despite these progressive outbursts, usually delivered over the rhythmic squeak of the Murphy bed into Carolyn's lightly freckled shoulder or glistening cleavage, the boutique college they had fashioned retained some traditional fixtures of the liberal arts model. Richard handled the math and sciences, drawing on his multiple degrees and Einsteinian eruption of prematurely white hair, and Carolyn covered the humanities, placing great emphasis on philosophy and literature and the writing of sonnets. A tidy organization on paper, but only the bodies of students made it real.

At the transfer station, the train doors released a rush of bodies, hustling and bustling to the cheery pluck of a nearby banjo. It was an oddly rural sound to hear in the bowels of the city. The source of the music grew closer as Richard pressed forward, until the crowd thinned and the player was revealed—encamped before a large column, black instrument case open for tossed bills, a couple CDs on display.

The musician nodded his way and Richard recognized him as Dr. Martin Flincher, an associate professor of communications. His former colleague stopped mid-song and announced, "I saw your hair coming at me from forty feet away!"

"Ha!" Richard said, embarrassed at the encounter, but curious, too. They shook hands. Yes, he recalled that Martin was quite the accomplished banjo man, performing in the faculty talent showcase. "So you're doing this. That's fantastic, Marty."

The print media scholar performed an ambiguous nod, his head bobbling side-to-side. "Living the dream," he said, grinning. "Actually, it's a lot like teaching. I stand here performing my shaggy balls off and no one pays attention."

They talked briefly as the current of citizens flowed around them, the trains easing in and out of their slips so that the walls seemed to move. Richard stopped short of asking Martin the specifics of his daily take, fearing the answer would sadden both of them. And, anyway, it was apparent from his rapid-fire questions about Summer Street College that Martin was angling for a job. "Things picking up?" he asked.

"We've definitely seen some developments."

"Oh, good enrollment then?"

"Well, it's all relative," Richard told him.

"I checked out your site, you know," Martin said, his face going unattractively earnest. "I'm strongly aligned with the philosophy behind it. Strongly."

Richard started to say what he usually said in these situations—send the CV, suggest a course, mock up a syllabus—but Martin cut him off. "Whoops," he said, looking beyond Richard's shoulder. "Here's a guy that's always good for a five."

Martin launched into a song that Richard had either never heard before or it had been banjo-fied beyond recognition. With an encouraging nod, Richard moved away.

"Got to keep the regulars happy," Martin called after him.

"Yes," exactly, Richard told himself as he darted into the plastic interior of the waiting train.

Carolyn finally got a call through to Richard when his train emerged into the muted sunlight of Fenway. Don't disappoint the regulars, her husband said as a greeting. But the regular they had was already disappointed, she explained. He was humiliated, too. And, at the moment, he was locked in the bathroom.

"What's he doing in there?" Richard asked.

Carolyn listened at the door, then retreated out of earshot. "I can't tell," she whispered. "It's pretty quiet."

"I mean, why is he in there?"

Through the phone, she heard the train's brakes screech like a dying prehistoric beast, the last dispatch from the tar pit. Carolyn explained what had transpired. The boy, apparently not as stunted and sexless as they had always assumed, tried to leverage the moment. If they were so desperate to keep him, maybe he could be convinced to stay—this seemed to be his line of thinking. He articulated this by putting his hand in Carolyn's lap and allowing his gaze to drop to her chest. He took in one breast, then switched to the other. She sat there for an elongated moment, stunned, with his hand heavy on the canopy of her skirt, before removing it by the wrist. She tossed it in his own lap and then surprised both of them by following through with the momentum and punching him hard on the chin. Tim's head snapped back. He blinked rapidly. More blinks than all his blinks heretofore, she told Richard.

"Wait," Richard said, "you hit him?"

"On the chin," she confirmed. Then he fled to the bathroom and locked the door.

"Oh, boy. That's, uh, bad."

She slowly shook her head, seeing already where the ship was pointed. "Look, I know that's not going to look good on my student evaluations, but maybe you missed the part where he tried to grope me," she snapped.

"No," he said. "No, you're right! Absolutely!"

She waited for it. Richard was really very mechanically simple. Sometimes his transparency astonished her—or, rather, it amazed her that he had built a significant, grown-up career for himself out of such basic blocks. Despite his earlier boast of subtlety, he was often no less direct than Tim plopping his hand in her crotch. It was true that his bald ambition and predictable desires were usually attractive to her, though she often wondered how he had managed to survive into his late fifties, two decades her senior. Their marriage, for example, could have been disastrous for them both, given that he had promoted her to chair and weighted a number of grants in her favor. It was her idea—no, insistence—they keep it secret. It took every fiber of self-control in his body not to crow about landing such a youthful hottie—as the kids say—from the rooftops.

She pressed the phone to her ear, anticipating his response. She could hear the thrum of the train, or was it the gears in his head?

"It's just that—" he started, then tried a reversal: "Do you want me to come back? I should come back, right?"

"If you have to ask—"

She hung up.

He called again. "I'm coming back. The next train."

"If my panties are hanging on the doorknob, don't come in," she said before ending the call. Whoops. She wondered if Tim had heard that.

He called back. "That was out of bounds. I'm certainly not suggesting that you—"

She hung up.

He called back.

"Maybe I'll continue on," he said. "Give you some time—"

She hung up.

When he called again, she turned off her phone and collapsed onto the couch. The ancient heater pipes hissed and clanked. She took in the space, scanning the shelves of books, now half occupied by his personal library. When she allowed herself regret, as she was doing now, it was like an alcoholic saying yes to just a small glass of wine. What she regretted at the moment, staring at the books, was having to give up shelf space. The shelves of books were an extension of her mind, of course, a map of her interior. Now, the unfamiliar spines, like gaps in her memory, presented an infographic of all she had surrendered.

She sighed, savoring the small allotment of bitterness, then went back to the bathroom door and listened. "Tim?" she called. "I suggest you open this door. Now."

He said nothing on the other side. She wondered if there was anything in there that could hurt him. You couldn't slash your wrists with disposable razors, could you? There was the his-and-her Zoloft, but overdosing on it would be tough, she knew. Richard's Cialis was exactly what Tim didn't need, apparently.

"Okay, listen," she said in her most commanding classroom voice. "You open this door right now, Tim, or I'm calling the police. We can talk our way through this like educated adults or you can have a cop's knee in your back."

After a long silence, she heard him shuffling to the door. He opened it and peered out at her. "Come on out," she said gently. "Come back to the table."

Inviting him back to the workspace would telegraph her intention to find that teachable moment, she hoped. She led the way, feeling him follow, his socked feet padding on the floor. He sat and hung his head. She studied his chin for evidence of her fist's impact. Richard will be pleased to know she didn't leave a mark, like a good dominatrix or the savviest of wife-beaters.

"Well," she said, "I'd like to know what you were thinking."

He sighed.

"I mean, seriously, what was the thought process behind your actions?"

He started to shrug and she cut him off.

"No! Don't you dare say you don't know!" She was again surprised at how accessible anger had become. They both hated and loved these kids, their students. The relationship was inevitably manic. It wasn't unconditional, as it would be with offspring. There were many conditions, complicated ones. The tone of the relationship was largely based upon the shape of disappointment when held up against the luminance of promise. The resulting shadow on the wall told them how to feel.

Carolyn and Tim sat for a long time, enduring a couple of false starts—his mouth opening, his brow furrowing and the words failing to materialize.

She waited, now pitying him, feeling the urge to help him by providing sentences he could climb like a rope ladder up out of the hole. But she resisted, genuinely curious about what he might come up with.

Finally he said, "You're the ones who are always talking about new ways of knowing."

Carolyn took this in, staring at his impossibly young face, then erupted with laughter. He crumbled before her. She saw his resolve leave him completely as he sunk down in his seat, eyes darting to the door. She reigned in her mirth; she hadn't meant to be cruel. On the contrary, she was genuinely delighted, so much so that she leaned forward and gently pressed her lips against his chin. Then his surprised mouth.

Richard could see himself reflected in the oval stained-glass window of the Woo's front door. Nothing of his youthful self remained in his face. A middle-aged man had erupted all over his exterior, particularly from the neck up. Every cell had been swapped out many times over, he figured, and exchanged for shittier cells. The erosion of his surface area was no doubt hastened by the bitingly cold weather. His nose and cheeks were reddened from walking three blocks from the station, and his loose neck was concealed by a wool scarf the color of oxblood. He rang the bell a second time and waited, blowing into his cupped hands and thinking, Life is almost over already.

Mrs. Woo did not recognize him until he removed his knitted cap and his white hair sprang up with the crackle of static. Once inside, he stepped out from behind his scarf and coat. She sat him in the parlor of the massive Victorian, and while she was making tea in some distant kitchen, he gave Carolyn's phone another try.

Still nothing.

He himself was in hot water, he knew that much. But he hadn't yet been able to determine just how hot it was, and what kind of word-count would be required to douse the flames. No, he hadn't gone home. He was only three stops away from the Woos when she had called, after all. Too close to simply turn back. But that wasn't the angle to take. It had to be more about her handling it, about empowering her. And, come on, they both knew Tim was harmless. The important thing was not to chase him off. She knew this, he was sure. She would remember this, even in her anger.

Meanwhile, why risk letting Samantha slip away as well? Retention studies show that a certain percentage of quitters can be turned if you can get to them, or their parents, within twenty-four hours of the attempted resignation. And getting to them meant personal contact from administrators, faculty, even other students. Everyone had to do his or her part.

Mrs. Woo returned with a tray. The steam rose from the delicate cups, which rattled faintly against the saucers.

"Is that not one of this world's most pleasing sounds, Mrs. Woo?"

She listened as she handed him his tea. "It depends," she said, settling into an armchair. "Context is everything. It could signal the onset of Parkinson's or the tremor of alcoholism before the first drink of the day. But I agree. The general unsteadiness of the hand speaks to the fallibility of the human machine, and in modest measures, can indeed carry a certain charm."

"My thoughts exactly," he said with a wink.

Mrs. Woo was quite the dimensional thinker, it seemed. So unlike her daughter, Samantha—a really great kid, brilliant but distracted. The girl possessed a mind that had surely been scrambled by Internet addiction. Yet, it was easy, and affirming, to imagine that he was sitting before her thirty years from now, since the daughter was a nearly perfect clone of the mother—a pleasant roundness to her face, small, swollen lips, smart forehead and straight black hair, a part as white as paper.

"Where is Mr. Woo?" he asked.

"At home," she said, frowning as she sipped. "And by home, I mean the office."

"Oh, a bit of a workaholic?"

"The times demand it, wouldn't you say?"

He nodded thoughtfully, and saw an opening. "Given that, Mrs. Woo," he started, "what kind of world do you imagine when you think of Samantha's future?"

She looked down at her tea, eyes closed. She sat that way for a while, finally opening her eyes and saying, "I can't imagine it. I'm not convinced that where we are now is in any way connected to it. That is, it feels as though the future will not be spawned by the present." She looked up at him, her eyes now imbued with prophetic certainty. "It will be a virgin birth," she continued, "by a species of now that we don't yet perceive—that we aren't equipped to perceive, like ultraviolet. You are the scholar. Tell me if it has been this way before."

He blinked, reeling inside at her response. Somehow knowing, at that moment, that Samantha would not be coming back to Summer Street College. The arguments he had lugged along—the importance of creative and critical thinking, the instilling of ethics, the eternal value of storytelling skills, the incubating of a life of the mind—seemed suddenly ludicrous and hopelessly flimsy. It would be like trying to build a house of obsolete business cards on the hood of a moving limousine. The world had moved past the liberal arts moment and Mrs. Woo knew it.

"It certainly has happened before," he feebly offered in response to her question, "but probably not to such a pronounced degree."

"Perhaps not."

She studied him and he did his best not to look defeated.

"If it's of any comfort," she said, "we will continue to pay Sam's tuition through the end of the year. Whether she attends classes or not."

At that, the rattling of his cup against the saucer was, at least to his ears, deafening. It was her charitable tone, and his inability to refute it, that broke him.

"Professor," Mrs. Woo said gently.

He looked up as she offered him a tissue, which he used to dab at the creased flesh under his tired eyes. He was a mess all along, really.

On the T-station platform, Richard spotted Fraser and Samantha, intertwined in each other's arms. Mouths joined in a chewy kiss.

So, there, suspicions confirmed.

Richard tucked his head into his collar and scarf, and steered for the nearest pillar. From behind it, he watched his former students reluctantly part. Samantha waved back at Fraser as she pushed through the exit turnstile. Fraser, hands shoved in the pockets of his puffy coat, watched her disappear from sight, then turned toward the tracks. Richard withdrew behind the pillar. He didn't want to confront that smartass now, certain that there was still some residue of emotion on his face.

But his effort to evade was in vain. No less than ten seconds after pulling away from the station, Fraser dropped into the seat next to him.

"Hey, Richard," he said. "I thought that was you."

Richard turned slightly and gave a single nod. "It was," he said wearily.

He glanced at the young man's face, quickly taking in the headphones worn at the neck. Then, moving up, the hard line of his jaw, stubble there on his chin, the pierced nostril and the always-so-goddamn-serious eyes.

"You okay?" Fraser asked. "You don't look so good."

"Nice of you to notice," Richard said, leaving his bitterness raw. He clenched his teeth. The muscle in his jaw twitched. He would make every effort to say nothing else. He could practically hear Carolyn—whom he suddenly intensely wanted to pull close, to inhale the sweet scent of her neck—telling him to keep quiet.

They rode in silence—or, rather, the Greenline version of silence. The thump of the cars passing over the tracks, the creak of the couplings and the long scrape of brakes. Snow and trees slid past the windows, a frozen pond, a dog tromping a trench into the flatness. Houses flashed close to the tracks, or sat like bunkers in the near distance, rooftops thick with wedding cake icing, deposited the night before. He could feel Fraser studying him, trying to incite contact with his persistent stare. Richard thought maybe he should get up and leave. Move to the other car or get off at the next stop. But that would have felt like a retreat, and he had done enough of that for today.

"Wow," Fraser said eventually. "Really? Okay."

Richard could see him shaking his head out of the corner of his eye.

After another long stretch of silence, Fraser coughed into his hand, then started talking. "Your anger says a ton," he said. "Says it all, really."

Richard wouldn't take the bait.

"You know what it's like?" Fraser continued. "It's like the music industry. When it collapsed, the only people who were pissed were the cheese-dicks—the fuckers in suits and celebrities—not musicians or music lovers. And now music is more alive than ever. There's more of it—more variety, too. It's easier to get. Maybe less people are making bank like the old days, but more people are making enough."

He looked over at Richard, seeing if he had succeeded in drawing him out. But Richard stared ahead, giving no indication that he had even heard Fraser's protracted comparison.

"What I'm saying," he went on, "is that if you really cared, you would be psyched. People who are really interested in knowledge know it's out there, and they'll never stop trying to get it. All the fucking posers will fall away or realize they can have great careers without college, just by learning a trade of some kind. Others will get hungry and realize they really want to know what there is to know. Isn't that what you professors are always looking for? Students who are hungry? That school of yours. That doesn't help the hunger. It just perpetuates the myth."

What the hell do they want? Richard thought. How much could you cut from the mix and still be offering anything? He tried to imagine a world without books, without constant reading and writing—a visual world, a world of more immediate gratification and smart surfaces—but his twentieth century mind, his 1.0 mind, as it had been called, simply could not go there. Not truly. Not beyond a marketing level.

"This is a clean-slate start," Fraser said. "Exciting times."

Richard couldn't resist. "That's a young man's way of seeing things," he said flatly, without turning his head. "A person with time and health," he added.

"Hey, you ain't dead yet. You got to have some kind of game to land such a cool wife. Carolyn, man, she's the bomb."

"You, too, eh?"

"Your problem is that you don't want to be a student again. Even though you're always preaching about lifelong learning and whatnot."

Richard turned to the window. He didn't want to process anything that was being said. He failed to connect with Fraser's enthusiasm about the latest and greatest end of the world. If he was going to dare look at the bright side, he needed sunglasses, maybe a welding mask. In the cave of his career, his eyes had become overly sensitive to all forms of illumination.

The buildings outside told him they were nearing Brookline Village. Maybe he would get out and go to that little Russian place. A little vodka would be nice—or, rather, a lot of it. He could call Carolyn, have her meet him there. She was his rosy tint. The bomb, indeed.

At the next stop, Fraser beat Richard to his feet and held out his fist.

"Well, good luck," he said.

Richard denied him the bump. It was a stupid gesture anyway. Gone the way of the handkerchief and pocket comb was the firm embrace of hands.

"No?" Fraser said. "Okay."

He moved toward the exit as the train slowed, then came back.

"What you need," he told Richard, "is hope. You can find it at the old post office—the loading docks at the Fort Point Station."

Fraser exited the train, but called through the window as it moved off: "Scope it out, man! You'll see."

Carolyn came down in her coat and, after a flurry of mutual apologies on the sidewalk, walked with Richard to the Starbucks. Over espressos, hands touching on the table, they talked. She was relieved to hear that Samantha's parents wouldn't leave them high-and-dry, but like Richard, would have felt better if Sam were actually attending classes. They could count on Tim, too, she reported. He had apologized for his clumsy attempt at extortion, or seduction. She wasn't sure which it was.

She described how he broke down, confessing that he thought about her all the time. That he had never been with a real woman, as he put it, and didn't know how to go about it. She pounced on the ambiguity of this statement. Had he been with fake women, she couldn't help but ponder—a manikin, a doll? She riffed on for Richard's amusement, since it was clear he needed cheering up. Was it a reference to her age, maybe? Woman as opposed to girl? Or maybe he meant a physical being versus a virtual lover.

He smiled warmly, but distantly, at her contemplations, then sunk down into his upturned collar and scarf when the door was opened and the cold air rushed in. He looked beat. The trip had worn him out. She wanted to take him home and put him to bed.

"You should have driven," she said, reaching out and smoothing his scarf. "It's such an excursion on the train."

"If I had driven," he said, "I wouldn't have had the pleasure of chatting with Fraser."

"Fraser? You talked to him?"

"More like he talked at me."

"What did he say?"

"Nothing, like all idealistic young men. Slogans and sentiment."

She pressed him, but he remained vague. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he said, "Let's go for a walk."

They bundled up and stepped out into the cold. She studied his profile. He was tense. Just tired or distracted, probably. Tangled up in Fraser's audacity and presumption. Maybe he was still mad at her for hanging up on him. Or maybe he thought he sensed something else, that she was leaving some details out of the picture, indeed, coloring outside the lines.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"To the post office."

"The post office is gone, honey. It's just an empty warehouse now."

He said nothing and pushed on against the wind as they rounded the corner of South Station. When they reached the channel, where the patches of ice drifted in the dark water, he led her to a spot along the railing where they had a view of the long row of former loading docks. There they saw clusters of people—men and women spanning their own ages, dressed in heavy coats and gloves. Some paced alone, others formed small groups. Lined up against the wall was an assortment of weathered brief cases and satchels.

"Who are they?" Carolyn asked. "Former postal workers?"


"Who then?"

Richard watched. Eventually, a car came down the access road, driving through the abandoned guard post, and pulled up slowly. The passenger side window lowered as people gathered around it. A call went out: "English Comp? Anyone?"

A heavyset woman got into the car and it drove off.

"What's happening here?" Carolyn wanted to know.

Richard didn't answer. He waited, wondering when the hope Fraser had promised would present itself. If it was on display before him, he couldn't see it. But, he reluctantly allowed, that doesn't mean it isn't there.

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