March 3, 2008


At exactly one a.m., Ellen Hayes quietly turned the key of her front door and pushed it open slowly. She waved at Roger and he flashed his headlights, then moved off down the street, passing Beaumonde Academy before making the corner.

Ellen slipped her high heels off, sighing with relief to have them off at last. As she bent down to collect them, she realized that the kitchen light had been left on. She tiptoed quietly towards the kitchen, but when she got close she saw that the light in Josephine’s bedroom was on as well, and the door was open. Ellen stood still in the hallway. She lightly licked her lips, then spit away a phantom hair from Roger’s moustache that she knew would be bothering her all night. The house was quiet.

On the kitchen counter was the Latin dictionary they kept with the phone books, a note from Josephine, and a single pill.

The note was written on a scratch pad that Ellen’s brother-in-law put in Josephine’s birthday package every year. At the top it read “From The Fevered Imagination Of Josephine Brooks.” Every year he changed the header; previous incarnations had featured The Elegant Mind, The Frightening Intellect, and The Tortured Soul and of his niece.

Ellen ran a glass of water and swallowed the pill her daughter had put out for her, a woman’s once-a-day supplement that she would consistently forget to take if not for Josephine’s vigilance. She picked up the note and sat down on one of the two stools by the counter. The metal foot-rest, cool and hard, felt wonderful in the arches of her feet.

Abive cum Davide ut natermus. Fortasse apud eum pernoctem itaque mensorem meum mecum tuli, si forte necesse sint. Mane te videam.

She re-read the note, translating it in a mumbled whisper as she read. “I went with David…to swim. I might spend the night with him…so I brought my…measurer?…my meter with me…in case I need it. I will see you tomorrow morning.”

Ellen Hayes had been studying Latin since before she met Oliver Brooks, Josephine’s father, but she had never achieved the silent fluency of her husband. He could read, write, and speak in Latin (and ancient Greek) (and Hebrew) with the ease of a native speaker, but Ellen had to give voice to the words as she translated.

When Ellen was twenty-one, she was taking a bus across New Haven to her dorm and struggling with the Petronius excerpt she had been assigned. She read the words slowly, translating in a low whisper as she worked: “I saw her Cumae…I saw her at Cumae with my eyes hanging in…I saw her hanging in a jar with my eyes at Cumae. Ok. With my own eyes I saw her, hanging in a jar, at Cumae…”

The boy sitting in front of her gave a start and removed the headphones he was wearing. He turned around slowly with a look that combined both curiosity and fear. There was no nice way to put it: he looked like a wonder-struck Muppet—just an oval head with a tuft of curly hair at the top, bisected by glasses that were too small for his face—but he had looked at her with an intensity few had ever directed towards Ellen. Without introducing himself, he stared into her eyes and chanted, almost as though he were asking her a question: “…and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’, she replied, ‘I want to die.’”

He convinced her to get coffee with him, ostensibly to help with the Petronius, but really so he could fall in love with her. He was a senior, and she had seen him before in the Classical Studies building, always wearing his Walkman. (He claimed that it was for language tapes, but she soon discovered that it almost never held tapes or even batteries…he just didn’t want people to talk to him.) Soon, poems written in ancient languages would be pushed under her door for her fiance to find by mistake.

Back in the kitchen, Ellen opened up the Latin dictionary and looked at the inscription: Oliver Brooks, it had originally said, along with his address back home in Bangor. Eight months after they had met—after the broken engagement, after the admittedly pitiful late night scuffle with the former fiance that Oliver referred to for decades as a “duel at dawn”—she went to every book in his apartment and added a BA after his name. Two years later, as she packed up boxes for the move to Ellen’s hometown of New Orleans, she had added an MA. And three years after that, with baby Catherine crying in her crib in their small apartment, Ellen appended a Dr. and a Ph.D. to his name while he taught his first Latin classes at Beaumonde.

She closed the Latin dictionary and stood up. She folded the note from Josephine; under her bed were three rather large keepsake boxes. They read Catherine, Josephine, and Oliver. And, like all the other notes she’d gotten from her family, this one would be secretly deposited shortly. She took the ticket stubs and the program for the play out of her small silver purse and looked at them. There were other, much smaller, boxes under her bed, and she wondered if it was time to start a Roger box. She decided against it, and tossed the stubs and program into the trash. A few seconds later, she dug them out and placed them on the kitchen counter.

The play had been a broad comedy from a local writer and talk show host, the husband of one of Roger’s many nieces. He was known as “a character” and “a true New Orleanian.” The play was a gloss on Shakespeare, featuring caricatures of local stereotypes, called A Midsummer Yat’s Dream. It was put on at a cabaret nightclub, part of a “cocktail theater” series designed to get people to come to a show during the brutal summer.

Four of Ellen’s students had been at the play, and were by far the best-dressed group in the nightclub. They looked like they were attending a Broadway premiere during the Jazz Age. Ellen, along with everyone else in the cabaret, watched them take their seats at a small table towards the stage. One of the boys held the seat for his girlfriend, and pushed it in for her. The other boy, not to be outdone, quickly pulled out his pocket square and lightly dusted off the seat of the chair he was offering to his date. At this, the first girl gave her negligent boyfriend a chilly look as she lit a long pink Nat Sherman with a mother-of-pearl lighter, pointedly ignoring the gold Zippo he offered her.

These were typical Beaumonde upperclassmen. They weren’t particularly close with The Darling Budds or anyone else in The Gang, nor were they very well-known among their peers. (In fact, Ellen could barely remember one of the boys’ names.) This was just how her students behaved…she imagined all the restaurants, coffeehouses, and movie theaters across the city that were, at the very moment, being infiltrated by the exquisite aliens who attended Beaumonde. Other principals and headmasters had to deal with teen pregnancy and drug use; Ellen Hayes had to deal with Alexander Budd, and the culture he had created.

It was always awkward to run into her students in public, so at the play’s intermission—after the star-crossed lovers Boudreaux and Cherie had escaped into “da bayou” to elope, but before the Nick Boddum, a rude mechanic, was magically given the head of a giant nutria—she approached their table to say hello. The two boys immediately stood upon seeing her approach, and remained standing during the short conversation. After the play, Roger discovered that their drink tab had been paid by the four high school students who, with polite waves in their direction, had left just after the curtain call.

Ellen brushed her teeth, then turned off her daughter’s bedroom light. She walked through her dark house for no reason at all. It occurred to her for the first time that, in just a little over a year, Josephine would be in college and Ellen would end all of her nights like this, in a dark house by herself. She went back to her purse, which she’d left on the kitchen table, and found her cell phone. She used the screen to light the way towards the bedroom.

(Three doors down, Josephine and David were asleep in his sunroom, watched over by the dim glow of a muted home shopping channel. On the low coffee-table in front of them sat a half eaten pizza, and two plates: David’s plate held three crusts, and Josephine’s held the pepperoni, sausage, and cheese that had been carefully picked off her one slice. Josephine was growing more and more horizontal, though she could still be said to be upright. David, though, was thoroughly curled up on the couch, with his head in Josephine’s lap and her wrap thrown over his shoulders.)

Ellen got down on her knees and, feeling under her bed for Josephine’s keepsake box—it was actually a large cake box covered in contact paper—slipped this most recent note in with the others. She was feeling sentimental, probably because of the wine she’d had at the play, and she thought about pulling Oliver’s huge box out and reading through his old letters. She quickly decided against it, because no good ever seemed to come from that.

She stood up and sat down on the edge of her bed, feeling suddenly dizzy. Definitely the wine. She already knew what all of Oliver’s letters said anyway, having re-read them so many times, even the ones she had to translate, in the ten years (ten years!) since he’d died.

Oliver Brooks had been sick for so long before he passed away, and he’d used the time to write annual letters to each of his girls—Ellen, Catherine, and Josephine—that were taken out of the safety deposit box each year on their birthday. The third letter Ellen had gotten, three years after his death, had included this unexpected advice: “Take off the black veil, my PenĂ©lopĂȘ, and fashion it into a mini-skirt.” The next year’s letter had included a humorous personal ad she could run, and a rigorous essay exam to weed out the insufficiently educated among her potential suitors. But she had waited another year, after Josephine had started junior high, before she began going on not-quite-dates with a few of her student’s divorced fathers, and a couple of teachers from other private schools.

Thinking about the letters, reminded Ellen of Josephine’s upcoming birthday, and she felt a quick rush of guilt and sadness. She turned on the bedroom light and opened her phone. She punched in the ten digits of Roger’s number, having always thought of speed-dial as cheating. Roger lived across Lake Pontchatrain, and would probably still be on the 24-mile bridge headed towards home. He answered almost immediately, but she had to wait as he closed the sunroof and turned down the classic rock so he could hear her.

“No,” Ellen said, “everything’s fine. … I just wanted to call and say goodnight. … It turns out that Josephine is spending the night with a friend, so- … No, sir, you are not turning around. You’re heading home, same as before.” She laughed. “You’re right, that is my teacher voice. … I’m serious! I won’t even let you in the driveway. … But I’ll make you a deal: you can talk to me while I get ready for bed.”

Ellen Hayes turned off her bedroom light.

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