Feb 202012
 

Editor’s Note: As of this writing (November 24, 2013), The Headmaster’s Wife is on the cusp of publication. Advance reviews have been stellar. “Nothing is what it appears in this brilliant story of a life gone awry…” says Publisher’s Weekly. The Library Journal, in a starred review, called it “a riveting psychological novel about loss and the terrible mistakes and compromises one can make in love and marriage. Essential for fans of literary fiction.” You can pre-order the book here.

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Thomas Christopher Greene is President of Vermont College of Fine Arts and he remembers being in workshop with me, oh, these many years ago, before his three published novels, before he became a president. He is perhaps unique amongst novelists for his skill as an artist and his masterly and adventurous approach to college administration (one has to admit that engineering the self-buy-out of a tiny Vermont art college based, initially, on three MFA programs, is a bit adventurous). It is thus a particular pleasure to publish here a section of his new novel The Headmaster’s Wife. The passage needs practically no introduction except to say that we’re in Vermont and one character is the headmaster of a boarding school and the other character is a student and inappropriate things are done and said. The passage comes about half-way through the book and what you notice especially is how it works as a dramatic entity, beginning with anticipation, developing through conflict, and rising furiously toward a crashing climax. It is often forgotten that every element of a novel, every segment of the larger action, must also be an action in itself, dramatic and whole, and that a good novel must be built out of a succession of such passages and the rhythmic rise and fall of anticipation-conflict-climax. 

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In the open fields of campus the winter wind sweeps across with great fury and small cyclones of snow get picked up by it and spin in the air for a moment before settling back down. The wind in this part of Vermont starts all the way up on the plains of Quebec and marches south with the river until it reaches the mountains and blows back onto itself. The students pull their coats tight on days like this and walk with their heads down from building to building.  It is a cruel wind and on this day, the day after Russell Hurley has left school, Arthur braces against it but not nearly as much as he braces against the coming of Betsy Pappas, which is as inevitable as winter. She will come. He just does not know when.

Arthur considers what he will tell her. All he can do, he imagines, is to plead with her, to give her logic. Russell Hurley determines his own fate, he’ll say. You have to understand, the powers of Head of School are not fully what you imagine. There are things he can control and then things he does not.  Sometimes events are larger than any Head of school. They enter the vast stream that is the history of Lancaster, and in those cases, it is precedent that matters.

He considers all these arguments, though when she finally shows up, outside his house after dinner and before study hall, there is no argument for him to make. Betsy, as is her wont, creates the terms.

He is on the front walk. A yellowish light comes off the porch of the white house and shines on the snow. The night has lifted and the sky is bright and star-flecked. The air is cold and he has come outside as if anticipating her arrival, and sure enough, here she is. She marches down the walk with that sense of ownership that he has grown to love about her. When she reaches him, she lets him have it, as he suspects she would.

If she finds it odd that he is outside wearing only a dress shirt and chinos, she does not comment, and he does not offer anything. The chilly air feels good to Arthur and as he listens to her, it’s as if he is watching this scene from a distance, as if it is happening to someone else.

She says she knows he was the one who planted the alcohol. She says she is prepared to let everyone know that.  She says she will tell the world how venal he is, that he is evil incarnate.  She actually says that, evil incarnate. Then she says she will tell the world he has been fucking her.

When he gathers himself from her onslaught, grateful suddenly for the deeply cold night and the stiff wind that has picked up and gathered their voices in its embrace, he summons all the coldness he can and says to her, “Who will believe you?”

She whirls as if to walk away, and in that moment the long bangs she has, the ones she is always pushing behind her, fall out. She kicks her head back and the hair moves with her in the dark. He says it again, “Who will believe you?”

She comes at him then and he is unprepared for her violence. She strikes him in the chest first and then her fists are in his face. He steps back and moves away from her.

“Betsy,” he says, “Please. Think.”

 They stand in the wan porch light looking at each other. Her face breaks his heart; he finds it impossibly pretty. He is struck by the thought that one of the things he loves about it is its lack of symmetry. Her lidded eyes are different sizes, her nose slightly off-center, her half-moon Slavic features.

Too often symmetry is synonymous with beauty and it occurs to him that if people are not symmetrical on the inside than why should they be on the outside?

That perhaps everyone has it wrong: beauty should be found in things that don’t match, not those that do.

Betsy stands in front of him breathing hard. He cannot help it he smiles at her. This is the last thing he should do. She is a wild animal in front of him, all heart and bravado and liquid breathing sentience. He knows she will come at him again and when she does, he is ready for her. He wraps her in his arms.

She struggles against him. Her rage is palpable and kinetic. He feels it in her slender arms and he whispers to her, “Quit it, will you? Just quit it.”

She thrashes in his arms but he just holds her tighter. He lifts her off the ground like a child, and she squirms but he has her arms fully pinned and like this, he backs the two of them toward the front door of the house. If anyone were to happen by, they would make quite the odd sight. The headmaster with a student in his arms, clearly holding her against her will, as if she’s some spastic child who needs to be restrained.

The door is slightly ajar and when he pushes his back against it, it gives way and he falls backward into his front hallway.  Betsy lands on top of him.

She scrambles toward her feet and is on her way to the door.  He does not hesitate and when he tackles her, it is with no small measure of force. He is on top of her now, and her face is pressed into the Persian carpet. “Let me go,” she says, and he knows in this moment that this is the one thing he cannot ever give her. He will not let her go; he cannot let her go; and while part of it is pure self-preservation and instinct: the narrow selfish reason of not having his entire career tossed aside over these indiscretions, that only captures a portion of what he feels.

For the larger truth reveals itself to Arthur while lying on top of Betsy Pappas in the long hallway of this house a Winthrop has resided in for close to eighty years. She stops struggling underneath him and for a moment there is just his weight on her body, her face turned to the side, the labored sounds of their breathing coming together. And he knows then that what he wants for her is that most unreachable of human desires. He wants her to be immortal; as immortal as the great Russian novelists; as immortal as this grand old school built to endure on the flatlands of Vermont alongside the Connecticut river.

And sometimes, he thinks, the only path to immortality, paradoxically, is to die, for isn’t a life lived with nothing in your heart a greater form of death? Why does breathing and walking matter if you have died inside?

It means nothing if all you have built crumbles the moment you cannot have that thing you covet the most.

Arthur stands up and looks down at Betsy. She is crumpled on the floor, and her breathing is ragged. His heart goes out to her, and he thinks, what have I done?  I have hurt the only person I have ever loved, the only one who ever understood me. When did I become a monster?

And as he thinks this, he can no longer look at her. She shifts a little where she is on the floor, her legs twitching. She looks like she is asleep, and he hopes for this, that she is sleeping. He turns away. He suddenly has an urge to sit, and he thinks of the living room and the fireplace. Maybe he will make a fire, though this is an odd impulse. Then again his head feels foggy. He leaves her there on the floor, enters the living room and as soon as he does, he hears the sound of the front door closing and this jolts him back to the moment and he charges into the foyer to discover that Betsy is no longer there.

His heartbeat is in his ears as he rushes out into the cold winter night. The campus is deserted with evening study hall and coming out of his house he assumes she will run toward her dorm, toward home, and he rounds the back of his house and above him the sky is full of the great arc of stars and the snowy fields are draped in their white light and he scans them for any sign of her.

At first he doesn’t see her and it is as if he is alone, with only the lights from the girls dorm in the distance showing him there is even a school here. But then, halfway across the soccer field, he suddenly makes her out, her silhouette darker than the night around her, and he breaks into a run.

Normally he would not have a chance to catch her, his tired legs no match for her youth.  But in the fall inside he must have hurt her, for he can see as he runs down the slope of the hill that she is walking funny, lurching forward as if with a bad limp.  The wind is icy on his face and his fingers are cold as he runs. His chest aches with each labored inhalation of frigid air.

He closes on her.  She is near the final small hill that will lead her down to the cluster of girls dorms when she hears him behind her and turns her head and sees him coming toward her and for a moment he sees her try to break into a run but it is no use for she cannot. Instead she turns and waits for him and when he runs up to her, he says, “Betsy, please, I am sorry. I am sorry for everything.”

She stares at him but doesn’t speak. The look on her face is pained. He looks over her head for a moment and he becomes aware of the world arcing away from them, of the spin that grounds them on the earth, that glues them to this tiny patch of snow-covered field.

“I love you,” he says. “I love you more than you can ever know.”

“You hurt me,” she says.

“I know. I am sick about it. Really.”

She turns then and continues toward her dorm and this time he doesn’t try to stop her, but instead falls in line next to her. He says to her, “I need one more thing from you.”

“No more things,” she says. “I have nothing else to give you.”

“Please just walk with me for a moment. Hear me out. Please. Just a walk.”

“Where?”

He thinks for a moment. There is only one place that makes sense to him now, a place where their words will be met silently by the soft lapping of icy water.

“To the river,” he says. “We can talk there.”

To his surprise, she acquiesces. They trudge slowly down the small hill, past the dorms where girls study on beds and at their desks and faculty grade papers in their dorm apartment. They come out to the floodplain behind the dorms and the river is in front of them now and it is dark here as there is no moon and the shadows of the buildings have muted the starlight. They reach the snowy riverbank and they can see across to where the other bank rises sharply to the dark, barren fields of New Hampshire. Looking down he can see where the water flows in places and where it is still, covered with a light tarp of gray ice.

For a moment they don’t speak and he looks up and studies the infinite stars.

He says to her, “You know what I love about stars?” When she doesn’t say anything, he answers his own question. “The thing I love about stars is that we cannot tell with the naked eye which ones are alive and well, and which ones have already died but have not told us yet.”

“You wanted me to come here so you could tell me about stars?”

“No,” he says. “No, I wanted to tell you…”

He didn’t finish the sentence because next to him Betsy is gone. He has a sense of movement to his right and then she is airborne, and his mind puzzles over what he is seeing, until he realizes she has jumped into the frozen river. When she hits the ice, the sound is strangely beautiful. The ice is thin and it cracks immediately on impact. It is like glass breaking—no, more subtle than that—it crumples underneath her like the crust on a crème brulée from a fork’s pressure, and then there is the sound of the water spilling up around her, pulling her down to the bottom of the river.

—Thomas Christopher Greene

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Thomas Christopher Greene is the author of the novels Mirror Lake (Simon & Schuster, 2003), I’ll Never Be Long Gone (Harper/Collins, 2005), and Envious Moon (Harper/Collins, 2007). His fiction has been translated into eleven languages and published throughout the United Kingdom by Random House. Tom is a native of Worcester, Massachusetts. His first novel, Mirror Lake, made the Waterstone’s List of 30 Gems to be rediscovered, alongside the works of Carver, Vonnegut, Saramago, and others. He is a graduate of Hobart College, where he was the Milton Haight Turk Scholar. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College in 1996. In addition to his writing life, Tom has been a college administrator for 16 years, serving on the president’s cabinet at Norwich University, where he was the director of public affairs. He has also been a professor of writing and literature, the director of an MFA program, and a press secretary for a national presidential campaign.  He currently lives in Montpelier, Vermont, with his wife and daughter. He is the founding president of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

  2 Responses to “The Headmaster’s Wife: Fiction by Thomas Christopher Greene”

  1. Appalling,unnerving, compulsively readable. Perhaps because of the quality of the writing, perhaps because we can’t know fully the extent of Arthur’s crimes from this fragment,I can’t help feeling compassion for him.I thought of that line from Iris Murdoch — “He knew a better man wouldn’t be in his situation; yet he was sure that in this situation, no man could have acted better.,” Can’t wait to read the book.

  2. I’m going to have to read more of this! Wonderful excerpt. Compelling scene. Pulls me right into the space of this moment and also gestures wildly outward. Thanks for sharing this on NC, Tom.

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