The Faces of Macbeth
Imagine the ripple that passed through my world when Marion Goode barged into my first Comp and Lit class of the fall semester twenty minutes late, popped open a can of Dr. Pepper, and announced to everybody that she hoped I was better than the "stiff" she had for "writing" in the summer. "I would’ve gotten more out of staying home and watching Barney with my kid. And I can’t stand that purple freak."
"Now look here," I said, trying to make a joke, "I'm sure Barney has always spoken well of you."
"Whatever," she said. "You're the teacher."
That was the last time Marion was in any way deferential to me. She liked to hold forth in a way my father would have called "loud-mouthy." More tolerant fellows of his generation might have called her "sassy." She had spunk, all right, and a repertoire of blunt opinions. I guessed her age to be about twenty-eight, which made her a decade older than the other students, and a decade and a half younger than I. Her personal style, however, was timeless or, more accurately put, unencumbered by any allegiance to a particular era. Her outfits were theatrical, extravagant style collages. She'd wear a clingy, forties style cashmere sweater with beaded belts or long, flowing skirts, the kind favored by Stevie Nicks. Sometimes her eyes were framed by dark lines and shiny with glitter.
When she talked, she liked to poke at her flaming red hair and squint. Every feature on her face would narrow, as if her face had to form a point before she could make one. And my part, as I saw it, was not to discourage her in any way, even when she announced that the only poets who mattered were the confessional ones. Except for Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton, poetry, she said, sucked.
"What about Robert Lowell?" I asked. "There's some real unburdening going on there. Look at 'Skunk Hour.'"
"And you’re certain Sylvia Plath never pretended?"
By mid-semester, I found myself wanting to stop her. In one of her essays, she had written about "Acquainted with the Night," snatching the body of Robert Frost's sad, conflicted narrator as soon as he got to the outskirts of town. She volunteered to share her thoughts with the class.
"Are you sure the paper’s ready?" I asked.
"What? It's not?"
Her face narrowed, and she poked her hair. "Are you saying I can't read it?"
"I am not saying that," I sighed and returned the essay to her, "but I think you ought to consider my comments first."
"Well," she said, "these are my comments, and they came first."
Her classmates started to stir in their seats. We were turning into a vaudeville act.
"Read it if you want," I said.
Marion was convinced the guy in the poem was Frost himself, hurting from a breakup. He had been thrown out of his place, maybe by his lover, and was probably living in that "sad city lane." Every now and then, she continued, he liked to walk out of town. Look at the stars. He might not be into astrology, but he could read the stars and "stuff" in them. Stuff like hope. The luminary clock was the face of a god or a goddess.
Clearly, I thought, Marion had based this line of reasoning on someone close to her, maybe herself. When she finished reading, I suggested she write about the poem again and this time, focus on the things Frost put in it.
Maybe that was wrong.
Her face sharpened to a point. "Why? Wasn’t it good, what I wrote?"
The young woman who sat behind Marion stood up. "I thought her paper was very honest, Professor Charles. And I agree with her, I thought the clock could be God, too."
"I didn't say the clock wasn't God; I am merely saying that as a symbol, it's not that explicit. It's the moon maybe -- a heavenly body. The idea is that the protagonist looks to the heavens for answers and finds none."
"That's what Marion said," the young woman countered. "You’re just dressing it up."
Marion, who had been standing there, paper in hand, suddenly advanced on my desk. She thrust her paper at me. "What kind of grade would I get on this if you graded it?"
"But I didn't consider grading it, Marion," I stuttered. "Look here, I want to give you another chance."
"It would've been crappy, right?"
"I can take a crappy grade, professor. Only this paper isn't crappy. It's got my soul in it."
She pulled the paper back and left the room. By this time, some of the other students had sidled up to my desk to ask if I had "killed" their essays, too. My impulse was to follow Marion and try in some way to placate her, but the other fish were swimming around my desk, reminding me that we were still in school and had work to do.
Marion never came back to my class. Instead, she transferred into Esther Pinsky's section of Comp and Lit. Esther was the department’s free spirit. She brought Marge Piercy and James Redfield to campus for readings. She ran seminars during which women formed power circles and beat on drums. She liked to talk about healing therapies and "sharing," as she put it.
It took Esther about a week to see me about Marion, our "mutual friend." She told me that Marion had been "really down" after the setback in my class, an event which followed closely on the heels of her being sacked from her job as a beautician. But, as she explained, she was getting back on her feet. She had a job on campus, cleaning faculty offices at night and a new boyfriend, who was helping her "heal" from her breakup with her husband.
Wow, I thought. All that in a week.
And since everybody who came into Esther's orbit was special, gifted, and fabulous, that rarified circle now included Amber, Marion's little girl, whom Esther had invited to come and read to her Children's Lit class. She sang a few more hosannas about Marion's interest in crystals and astrology before she drove the nail home.
"I think you truly underestimated her, Warren."
"I was supposed to be at a standards committee meeting ten minutes ago," I said, while I picked up a folder, tucked it under my arm, and stepped toward the door.
Esther moved aside, and as I brushed by her I felt a twinge, a discreet ripple of something, I didn’t know what, an undercurrent. The hair on the back of my neck stiffened. Reflexively, I envisioned Marion puttering around my cluttered office with a dust cloth and a broom. She sprinkled little puddles of glitter here and there to remind me that she was still around and still a force, despite the way I had treated her.
So, I shouldn't have been shocked when just before the Thanksgiving break, I noticed a coating of sparkly stuff under the mirror where I check my teeth for stray bits of lunch before I go off to afternoon classes. To the right of the mirror hangs a framed enlargement of a snapshot. In the picture, my colleague Jeff Blackstone and I lean against my little blue Hyundai. Standing stolidly between us, the poet Don Miller smiles through his Walt Whitman hair and beard. He'd done a reading on campus earlier that evening and was a friend of Blackstone's. We were taking him out for drinks and baseball talk.
Something was off about the picture. I removed it from the wall and brought the glass close where I could see in one spot a smudge or a blurred pencil line. In any event, a blackish sort of thumbprint drooped over my head. This is what auras must look like, I thought, a kind of barely visible gas, and somebody thinks mine is black. I felt my heart sink and my stomach rumble. With my handkerchief, I wiped the smudge away and wondered if someone had been poking around in my stuff. Had they taken things? Read my notes? Gotten into my journals? My heart was pounding when Esther Pinsky barged in.
I stood up quickly, and my handkerchief fluttered to the floor. I bent over and scooped it up.
"I know you must be busy, Warren," she began, "trying to finish up before the holiday and all, but I just wanted to update you on our mutual friend."
Already flushed from the business with the handkerchief, I could feel sweat breaking out on my forehead. Then I recalled Esther saying something about Marion Goode cleaning faculty offices.
"Are you all right?" Esther said.
"Sure, sure. What were you saying?"
"I thought you’d like to know that besides doing fabulously in my course, Marion has taken on something else, with Marty Michaels over in Theater Arts. She's doing makeup and hair for Macbeth. I told you, Warren, she's an amazing and resourceful young woman."
"Yes, you did," I said.
"Well, that was all except to say, have a lovely Thanksgiving."
I tried to make nice. "You too," I said before asking her to close the door on her way out.
On Thanksgiving Day, my mother-in-law asked me if when I chose the books I taught, did I just choose the ones I liked?
I said, "Maybe," which aggravated her, but I was a little drunk and not particularly interested.
"I mean," she continued, "do you leave room for kids to tell you what they like? Aren't there new things all the time?"
My father-in-law shushed her and told her to stop asking foolish questions.
But it wasn't a foolish question. At least Marion Goode would not think so. My spirits began to sink.
Then it was Sunday, and I volunteered to unearth the cartons of bulbs, ornaments, and Christmas lights from the basement. Occasionally, my wife Beth called down to me from the top of the basement stairs, asking me if I needed any help and if everything was all right.
Everything was fine.
There was some old furniture in the basement, a bookcase full of musty paperbacks, a decrepit stuffed chair that managed to survive countless yard sales, a battered night stand and a lamp made from thread spools. My kingdom. At some point, I put a box of ornaments aside and sat down to read from an anthology of short stories.
I knew the story well, but had not looked at "The Gift of the Magi," for some time. Reading it again, I got caught up in the poignant twists and turns of O. Henry's plotting, his endearing characters, the sappy ending.
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. It was Beth. "Look, Warren," she said, pushing an envelope at me. "Someone left this in the mailbox. There's no stamp, but it's addressed to you."
"Huh," I said and tore the thing open. It was a handmade Christmas card, the work of a child, something maybe drawn in school for the holidays. A bulbous snowman stood next to a brightly colored Christmas tree, tossing handfuls of powdery glitter at the evergreen boughs. Typical, I thought to myself, except for one thing. Where maybe a top hat would be, a dark smudge floated over the snowman’s head. Upon closer inspection, the smudge resembled, at least in outline form, a crown.
Written in large and loopy letters, the greeting said, "Thinking of you at this special time of year." And it was signed, "Best, Amber and Marion Goode." I snapped the card shut and glitter tumbled to my feet.
"What is it, Warren?" said Beth.
"Nothing much," I answered, "just a card from a student and her daughter."
"That's sweet. Funny, they didn't mail it though. Maybe they live close by and wanted to save the stamp."
I knew my wife wasn't trying to frighten me. I knew she wasn't in on it, but something very dark began to ball up inside of me just the same.
Beth didn't notice. She had other issues. "What’s been keeping you, anyway? Your daughter and I are in the mood to decorate."
"Sorry," I answered, "I got to reading."
"O. Henry, 'The Gift of the Magi,' you know."
"Oh, that old thing," she snapped. "Put it away and come upstairs, will you?"
That old thing, I thought to myself. She didn't mean it. I'd made her impatient was all.
I tried to bury the feeling that my world wasn't sufficiently insulated from Marion Goode by burrowing into the closing weeks of the semester. I tore through final papers and amiably played out the round of breakfasts, luncheons, and visits from students that usually finish things.
On the final day of work, I drove to campus through a light snow. By mid-afternoon, I had finished reading the last of the essays and calculating grades.
Elated, I gathered together all the things I planned to look at during the next five weeks and closed my office door behind me. I needed only to stop at Davis Hall to drop off the grades.
My car was parked in the lot next to the building.
By now, the snow and wind had picked up, and the cars were blanketed. I began to look for mine. I circled the lot. No car. My keys, I thought immediately, and felt for them in my coat pockets. I found them right away.
I made another loop of the lot, scanning license plates, which I could barely read through the flying snow. I was soaked. My daughter waited for me at home.
A Public Safety cruiser rolled into the lot. Waving my arms, I ran toward it. I must have looked ridiculous, like some deranged snowbird straining to fly but unable to lift off the ground.
The car slowed, and an officer asked what he could do for me through a half open window.
"I can't find my car," I gulped.
"Why, where'd you leave it?"
"Here," I said. "Right here in this lot."
"Was it locked up?"
I had to tell him I seldom locked the car when I was here.
"Hmmmm," he said, "maybe you just didn't see it in all this snow. Hop in the cruiser, and we'll take a spin around. If it's not here, I'll drive you into town to file a stolen car report."
"We can't do that here?" I asked.
"No boss, sorry. We can't do anything about that here on campus."
We did a blizzard-in-our-teeth loop of the lot, our faces hanging out of the windows, scanning license plates for number RI AA 625, and coming up with nothing, Then I took a ride with Officer Billy Renfro into town to file a stolen car report.
"No worries," he said. "We’ll get you straightened out."
"Good, I'd like that," I answered, sinking deeper into despair and the soft vinyl folds of the cruiser's front seat. Riding in a police car, with the windshield wipers making fat, flapping sounds, and the police radio squawking, I felt ten years old again, standing under the hulking shadows of Officer Franklin and my parents, who were assuring me that no problem was ever solved by running away from it.
But I was not running away from any problems now, was I? On the contrary, I was in a Public Safety vehicle with Officer Renfro, and he was going to straighten things out.
"I'll wait for you here," he said, pulling up to the bona fide police station. "You know the facts. Just tell them what you know."
"Sure, sure, thanks," I said, and once again I was out in the weather, sloshing through an ice field. I had almost reached the front door when Renfro started leaning on the horn. I turned halfway around and saw him waving at me.
"Professor Charles," he bellowed, "come on back. Your car just showed up at the lot."
I slipped and slid across the walkway.
"What?" I shouted.
"Your car, license plate number RI AA 625, right? Someone just drove it into the lot."
"I dunno," he shrugged, "but my O.I.C. says it's there."
The trip back to campus was interminable. The weather slowed us, of course, and I didn't
trade a word with Officer Renfro. Mostly, I sat in a stew of melting ice and roiling anger.
Pulling up to Davis Hall, I saw it immediately, my little blue Hyundai parked in front of the
Public Safety Office.
"Who? Where?" I shouted once inside.
And there, standing in front of me, with her dark and shiny eyes, bone dry, was Marion Goode. Next to her stood a little girl, Amber presumably, all decked out for Christmas. She was chimney red, beautiful. Snow flecked her little knit cap. She wore a kind of novelty nose too. It blinked like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer's.
Marion's and my eyes locked and we both said, "You—it's you?"
"But how?" I asked.
Officer Renfro leaned in. "You know each other?"
"I'm so sorry, Professor," Marion started. "I thought, I mean, Marty, my boss over in Theater Arts, let me borrow his car to pick up Amber. I mean, he gave me the keys to his car. It's a blue Hyundai like yours, and in the snow and all I guess I got into your car. It's strange, but his key worked in your ignition. I guess we stayed out a little longer than I planned."
"Isn't that strange," Officer Renfro said.
"I've heard of that happening with keys," said the O.I.C., "but this is the first time in twenty years I’ve seen it."
"It's a fluke," said Renfro, and as if he were agreeing with himself, he nodded and said, "It's a definite fluke."
My face burned. I didn't know what to tell her. What to say. I was furious. I thought of the picture in my office. I thought of her on the front steps of my house dropping that card into my mailbox. I thought of Marion Goode defacing my car.
"You planned this!" I shouted. "Just like you planned to get into my office and mess things up."
Her face formed a sharp point. She placed a protective hand on her daughter's shoulder and pulled her close.
"Listen, I'm sorry about the confusion, but I don't know what you're talking about."
Amber began to cry and point at me, "Mommy, who's that man?"
"That's one of the grownups you made a Christmas card for, honey," said Marion.
She turned to me and added, "School project, don't you know, professor."
I forged on. "What about my car?"
"Honest, I didn’t know it was your car. And I don't remember your office except that it was sloppy. I tried my best to tidy it up. What, do you want to give me a crappy grade for that too?"
I didn't get it. Was she playing dumb? I considered her eyes. They were so busy with eyeliner and glitter, I couldn't read them. Her penciled-in brows were as dark as the smudge over my head in the photo next to the mirror. And it occurred to me suddenly and completely, that the smudge could have been an accident, just the errant stroke of a grease pencil. Something done in a hurry when she was supposed to be doing something else, like cleaning. Maybe she was experimenting on herself, making the faces of Macbeth. Trying to get them right. I broke out into a sweat. But despite my doubts, doubts that shook and rattled my bones, I wanted to crush her.
She shook her head at me, looked away briefly, and then pulled something out of her pocketbook. "I'm sorry for your trouble," she said, waving a ten-dollar bill at me. "Here's for gas."
I didn't need her money, and I didn't want her money, but I took it anyway. I snatched the bill out of her hand and rumbled right out of the building, heading for what I knew would be the glitter-wrecked refuge of my car.
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