There was no mistaking what truly ended my night’s sleep. The clock radio got us up with local news at eight o’clock on the public radio station. The unctuous voice said, “An SUM professor was found dead on campus early this morning. He has been identified as Professor Perry Cross of the English, American Studies, and Rhetoric Department. Campus Police have released no other details.”
As the announcer went on to some item about the state legislature, I rolled over to find Stefan staring at me.
I stared back. “How can he be dead?”
Stefan frowned, shook his head as if he hadn’t really heard me and wasn’t even sure he was awake.
“He was just here at dinner last night!” I shook my head. “And now he’s dead?” I sat up, leaned back against the headboard. “It was Perry, wasn’t it? You heard it too? I’m not dreaming this, am I?”
“We’re awake,” Stefan said, and reached back to shut off the radio.
I didn’t know what to say. Just before falling asleep, I’d joked about killing Perry; I felt disgusted to have said it.
My mind was full of flickering images of people in movies and on TV finding out about a death: they were usually shocked, they screamed, cried, rushed around, stuffed fists into their mouths, stumbled backwards into a chair, quivering— did things that seemed extreme, no matter how limited the compass. But I was just dumbfounded.
I guess Stefan was too.
Suddenly, last night’s dinner felt retrospectively eerie, a portent of even worse things to come.
We had been eating dinner with a corpse. That’s what it seemed like here in bed this morning. I felt deeply ashamed of how upset I’d been to have Perry over— that seemed trivial now when weighed against his death.
“I guess I don’t have to share my office anymore,” I brought out. “Or not for a while.”
Stefan grinned a little strangely, and I realized that joking was definitely not the right tack.
We got up. We showered and ate breakfast without saying much at all. I felt as if I’d taken too many antihistamines: my vision, my hearing, my thinking were all clouded and dull.
Stefan had an early class and left before me. Luckily I didn’t have to teach that morning. I only had a long stretch of office hours, and it was somewhat too early in the semester for students to have questions, problems, or even feel like coming in to chat.
Usually, I went to the department office first to check my mail, say hi to the secretaries and whoever was there, plugging in to the prevailing current. But today I headed right up to the third floor of Parker. I didn’t want people reminding me that I’d seen Perry the night he died, had made dinner for him. It seemed embarrassing and grotesque to talk about him at all, especially since he wasn’t a friend. How could I mention his name withoutsome of my antagonism leaking through? I could imagine Serena Fisch’s smile when she met me. It wasn’t that long ago that we had acknowledged how much we despised Perry.
I felt guilty somehow, as if saying good night to Perry Cross had sent him off to death. It was weird that I was so affected, but perhaps I was responding to Stefan’s heavy silence.
If you’ve lived with an introvert, then you know that they can have many different levels and kinds of silence. You become expert at tuning in, listening, interpreting. Or sometimes ignoring. But I didn’t know what to make of Stefan’s silence at breakfast, and felt sucked into my own.
Unlocking my scarred office door, I shuddered at the two cheap black and white plastic nameplates, mine and Perry’s. Someone would have to remove his, I thought. And I pictured his mailbox right above mine in the department office.
Inside, at my desk, with the office door open just a crack, I was glad that Perry’s desk and file cabinets were not in my immediate sight line but behind my back, where I could ignore them. I would have to make an effort to either inspect what was on his desk or to take in the still life his death had left behind.
I knew the student newspaper was downstairs and wondered if there was an article in there yet— or was it too soon? “Found dead on campus”— what did that mean? Where did it happen? Who found him, and when? How did he die? Was he wounded? Were there witnesses?
I sat at my desk, unable to take out any papers to grade, unable to push my thoughts in some productive direction.
I hadn’t liked him even before I knew what he had done to Stefan, so I wasn’t sorry Perry Cross was dead, but I wasn’t relieved. His dying so soon after dinner even made me feel cheated, a little. Lying in bed with Stefan last night, I’d imagined many scenes of quiet but vindictive triumph in our office. Like heading off up north to our cabin on Lake Michigan for a weekend. Or coming back from an opera in Chicago. I’d be casual as I shared information about our good times with Perry, a nasty kid holding a scrap out of his hungry dog’s reach, waving it back and forth hypnotically.
I was also ashamed of myself for being so vindictive. Perry was dead; nothing that I felt, nothing that had happened really made a difference now.
Perry’s death was bound to create confusion in our department, and not just because of the need for someone to cover his classes. Broadshaw would probably take Perry’s death personally, and storm around kicking desks and shouting. I dreaded the chaos our chair would make. I’d seen him enraged last year by a snowstorm that kept some faculty members at home in their rural towns. I felt sorry for everyone who’d have to put up with Broadshaw, which of course included me.
There was a knock and Stefan came in. I checked my desk clock; he had another hour before his next class. He was pale and more out of it than he had been at home. Today his clothes looked incongruously good on him— they fit so well that the dark green and black checked shirt and black slacks only heightened how miserable he looked.
He sunk into the comfy chair I had bought for my students (since I couldn’t requisition anything from university stores that was acceptable). Students are usually nervous enough talking to a professor, and watching them twitch and stretch in a stiff-backed unsteady chair would have been distracting for me.
“They found him in the river,” Stefan said.
“The river? How? What the hell was he doing?”
Nick Hoffman has everything he’s ever wanted: a good teaching job, a beautiful house, and a solid relationship with his lover, Stefan Borowski, a brilliant novelist and writer-in-residence at the State University of Michigan. But when Perry Cross shows up, Nick’s peace of mind is shattered. Not only does he have to share his office with the nefarious Perry, who managed to weasel his way into a tenured position without the right qualifications, he also discovers that Perry played a destructive role in Stefan’s past. When Perry turns up dead, Nick wonders if Stefan might be involved, while the campus police force is wondering the same about Nick. Originally published in 1996, this first book in the Nick Hoffman Academic Mystery series is now back in print, with a 2019 foreword by the author.
About Lev Raphael
Lev Raphael has wanted to be an author since he was in second grade, and he’s not only achieved his dream, he’s published twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery to erotic vampire tale; had his work translated into fifteen languages; seen one sell close to 300,000 copies; appeared in two documentaries; won various prizes; done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents; sold his literary papers (92 boxes!) to the Michigan State University Libraries (MSUL); been the subject of scholarly articles, papers, and book chapters; and seen his work taught at colleges and universities around the country. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew?
After close to twenty years of university teaching, he now offers creative writing workshops as well as editing at http://writewithoutborders.com.
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