About the Author

Robert W. Fuller identified the problem of rankism in Somebodies and Nobodies and described how societies can promote universal dignity in All Rise. With Pamela Gerloff he created the handbook for the Dignity Movement: Dignity for All. His most recent books include Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?, Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, and Belonging: A Memoir.

The Rowan Tree: Chapter 5

The following is the fifth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. The author welcomes your comments.


CHAPTER 5

Rowan had cleared his calendar for Thanksgiving week so he could give his full attention to the dedication of the Mike Marlborough Men’s Gymnasium. Marlborough and his wife were coming in Monday for a banquet with alumni and current athletes. He still looked fit and dashing, like the athlete he’d been in his college days. His wife looked like a former model. Tuesday was the ceremony, with ribbon-cutting, speeches, and competitive sporting events.

All was routine, except for one thing, and handling that one thing had obsessed Rowan for days.

At the recommendation of the athletic director, and in response to a petition signed by more than two-thirds of the student body, Rowan had given the go-ahead to dividing the locker room of the new gym into separate but equal parts—half for men, half for women. As long as women’s athletics lacked a comparable facility, Marlborough Gym would be equally available to everyone.

Women students and faculty had long lobbied for a new women’s gym to replace the dilapidated one that had housed women’s athletics for as long as anyone could remember. A proposal to take over Walker Gym when the men abandoned it for Marlborough had been rejected in what proved to be a short-sighted bid to force the trustees to build a gym for women as up-to-date as Marlborough.

The division of the locker room had been accomplished prior to the gym’s dedication by the simple device of adding a wall down the middle. By the time Marlborough arrived on campus for the big event, male and female students were using the facility in equal numbers. He was outraged to discover that men and women were showering on opposite sides of a single room divided by what he saw as a breach of the blueprint he had approved.

But the pressure of events left Marlborough no chance to lodge a meaningful protest. The repurposing of the gym was a fait accompli, and to resist it would have spoiled the greatest day in his philanthropic life. Before long, Marlborough was swept up in ceremonies celebrating his largesse.

The next day, however, he dropped by Rowan’s office. Giving full voice to his displeasure, he added ominously that the president’s high-handedness had prompted him to question his philanthropic priorities.

Rowan’s suggestion that he consider another grant to fund a separate but equal gym for women was met with a sneer.

§§§

Rowan and Sara spent a leisurely Thanksgiving holiday with her parents. It proved to be a respite from the tension between them over the reforms, and Rowan returned to Jefferson with his vitality restored. To wrap up before the Christmas break, the Commission on Jefferson’s Future decided to meet every day in December beginning at four in the afternoon and running into the evening.

One evening, their work ran late, and it was ten o’clock before he and Easter began their walk across the empty campus. Christmas lights winked at them through the bare branches of the trees on Jefferson Square. It was snowing lightly and Rowan offered Easter his scarf.

She took it, thanked him, and covered her head the way Muslim women do. Then she said pensively, “There’s something on my mind, Rowan. I don’t know …”

“Try me.”

“Something’s changing.”

“Oh? How so?”

“It has to do with Obea. He took me under his wing freshman year. I saw him as a mentor, but he saw me as his woman. That was okay with me…then.”

“And?”

“Well, he graduated six months ago and he’s still in town.”

“He probably stayed for you.”

A snowflake fell on Easter’s nose. She rubbed the spot.

“I can’t respect a guy who just hangs around waiting for me.”

“He’s still a political force in the College, and in town.”

“I know, but once I graduate, I’m out of here. I’m applying for a Fulbright, and if I get it I’ll spend the summer in Africa before I go to Oxford.”

“You’ll get it. Is Obea planning to go with you?”

“I don’t know what he expects, but I want to do this by myself. He makes fun of my work on women’s rights, says it’s for white girls.”

“That’s short-sighted.”

“He was against opening the new gym to women. We had a big fight about it. Why can’t I care about women’s issues? Or Native Americans’? Or Siberian tigers’ for that matter!”

Rowan laughed, fantasizing that her mention of Siberia meant she wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway, possibly with him.

“Sometimes I feel guilty for not identifying more exclusively with blacks,” Easter continued, “like Obea does. Freshman year, he really opened my eyes to the importance of backing up black pride with black power.”

“He’s right, of course.”

“But that’s exactly why I want to see the women students support the women faculty. There are lots of us and very few of them, but together we’d have real power. Obea is against black women putting energy into the women’s movement. He says overcoming racism is the number one priority. I don’t disagree with that, but I see the two movements as complementary, not opposed.”

Easter took a breath and, as Rowan was silent, she continued.

“In grade school, teachers used me as a poster-child, and now Obea wants to do the same thing. At first I went along, but I can’t anymore. Sometimes I feel like I don’t quite belong anywhere, and at the same time that I belong everywhere. Does that make any sense?”

“Complete sense.”

The wind blew cold and Easter moved closer to Rowan until their shoulders brushed. “I know I’ve had it easier than most of the blacks here, growing up in a professional family. I’ve been trying to persuade Obea to go to law school.”

“He’d make a good lawyer. I’d be glad to recommend him.”

“He’d see that as an attempt to get rid of him.”

They were approaching the spot where their paths usually diverged. They stopped and faced each other.

“Thanks for listening,” Easter said.

“Anytime.”

Easter suddenly reached up and brushed the snow from Rowan’s hair. Caught off guard, he took her hand and, squeezing it, slowly lowered it to her side.

“Till next time,” she said.

“Next time.”

He hadn’t gone far when he heard her call his name, then she was running back to him. “Your scarf, I almost forgot,” she said breathlessly.

“Keep it if you like.”

Easter lowered her eyes.

“I’d love to,” she said through a veil of softly falling snow.

§§§

The following evening Rowan ate his dinner, as usual, in the nook off the kitchen. Afterward, he stretched his legs along the bench and leaned back against a large pillow. The fallen snow outside his window reminded him of Zhivago’s snowbound sojourn with Lara in the dacha at Varykino. His thoughts were interrupted by the shadowy emergence of a human shape crossing the lawn toward the house. From the silhouette, long before he could see a face, he knew it was Easter. She hurried up the stone steps to the terrace where, in the heat of summer, they’d sipped iced tea.

He opened the back door and invited her into the warm bright kitchen. She was wearing his scarf. He tried to help her off with her coat, but her arm got stuck and he fumbled awkwardly.

“Would you like some coffee?” he asked, indicating the pot.

“No, thanks. I wouldn’t have just come without calling but…”

“No, it’s fine. Here, have a seat.”

“My mother just called and I’ve got to go home right away. My dad had been having chest pains, and his doctor put him in the hospital for observation. My mom wants me there. I wanted to see you before I left.”

Someone pounding on the front door made them freeze.

“Stay put,” Rowan said, jumping to his feet. “I’ll see who it is.” When he opened the door, a dozen student carolers launched into “Good King Wenceslas.” Relieved that his visitors didn’t expect to be asked in, he stood in the open doorway shivering, and trying to look appreciative.

“Joy to the World” echoed through the yard as the singers trundled off. When he went back to the kitchen he found Easter gazing out the window at the snow-covered yard. Her melancholy filled him with a powerful urge to wrap his arms around her, but he asked, “How long will you be gone?”

“Just till Monday. I’ll miss the next commission meeting.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Rowan playfully took hold of the two ends of her scarf as if to prevent her from leaving, and quickly let go. “Thanks for coming over.”

They smiled their goodbyes and he watched as she crossed the yard. Just before she disappeared through the hole in the hedge she turned and waved goodnight.

He sat down in the breakfast nook and the smile on his face froze. My god, what was happening to him? He was married to a woman he respected, admired, and loved. He held a position where even a hint of scandal could be disastrous. He was getting closer to Easter than he should, but every time he tried to distance himself, he ended up doing the opposite. He felt his back break out in a cold sweat.

Before heading upstairs he phoned Sara to suggest that they get tickets for the New York City Ballet performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker during the holidays.

§§§

Once he was back in New York for Christmas, he and Sara settled into their familiar routine. On an impulse, they invited their Columbia friends to an impromptu dinner party, and spent the afternoon preparing for it. While Sara dusted and vacuumed, Rowan went shopping for the ingredients of the one dish he knew he could produce without a hitch—pasta alla puttanesca. He also bought the makings for a green salad and picked up some vanilla ice cream and frozen strawberries for dessert. To make sure the party of eight would not run out of wine, he picked up five bottles of cheap Chianti, the same label they’d served when they lived on an assistant professor’s salary. He wanted this party to be like the ones they’d had when they were all starting out.

With the salad made and the sauce simmering on the stove, he went to look for Sara. The living room was immaculate; he found her on her hands and knees scrubbing the grout around the bathtub with a toothbrush.

“What are you doing? No one’s going to inspect the tiles.” They’d had conversations like this before. Although neither was unhappy with their division of household chores, Rowan believed Sara spent too much time striving for unattainable perfection.

“Women notice these things.”

“Our friends won’t.”

“I hate mildew. You worry about the food.”

“There’s nothing more to do, and I can’t sit while you work. Come on, the house looks fabulous. Let’s go for a walk.”

“I’ll relax once this is done. Read the paper. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

§§§

Not until he brought out dessert did his guests ask about his new job. With the mention of reform, his former colleagues either turned serious and skeptical or breezy and superficial. As at Jefferson, the conservatives were full of questions but didn’t want them answered, and the liberals were full of answers and didn’t want them questioned.

Rowan tried to steer the conversation back, to rekindle old friendships, but a subtle change had crept into his relationships. He detected in his former colleagues that same curious blend of deference and dismissiveness he was shown by the faculty at Jefferson. What was it about his new job, about the title president, that seemed to distort things? He didn’t feel any different. He didn’t see the job as putting him above others. Rather, the longer he did it, the more it seemed like a detour that was separating him from the world of ideas. Not a few times, he’d recalled trustee Rideout’s take on the job as carrying water, but his old friends saw his attempts to dispel the glamour of the role as false modesty.

“Come on, Rowan,” said George, a recently-tenured associate professor of physics at Columbia. The brown turtleneck sweater he wore seemed to accentuate his habitually stooped posture. “Once you’ve grown accustomed to the salary and the perks, you’ll be hooked. And before long, the Ivy League will come calling. You’re on the gravy train, man. I’ve never seen anyone get off voluntarily. Just look at Karp.”

Karp was the former Chairman of the physics department who’d hired both Rowan and George. A recent Nobel Prize for work he’d done as a young man had put him in the running for several university presidencies, and he’d just resigned to accept one of them.

“His wife is thrilled about the mansion they’re getting,” George’s rail-thin girlfriend interjected.

“If I know Karp,” Rowan said, “he’ll pay no attention to what the students want. Within a few years they’ll be barricading his office.”

“I can’t see why anyone would give up physics for administration,” remarked John, a young mathematical physicist with eyes as quick and blue as Rowan’s. “Holding students’ hands and massaging faculty egos must get old very fast. Why’d you do it, Rowan? Not for a mansion, I’m sure.”

“I thought I could help put things right.”

“Like how?”

“Well, for example, I think students are better served when faculty are not always telling them what courses they must take.”

“If you don’t come back soon, there’ll be no return,” John continued. “Physics is moving on. I think the department would still take you, but…”

“I’ve got to finish what I started,” Rowan interjected. “Besides, I’m already obsolete in physics—with two years in the dean’s office, and now this, that part of my life is over.”

“We’re going to miss you,” John said.

“But he’s not going to miss us,” George countered. “He’s already making twice what we are, and the sky’s the limit.”

Rowan took George’s third person reference to him as an excuse to clear the table. From the kitchen he could hear Sara questioning George about how he’d won tenure at Columbia, and soliciting his advice on how she could do so at NYU. As Rowan added her empty plate to the stack in his hands, she didn’t look at him.

“There are always more bodies than there are tenured slots,” George said, “and it’s often impossible to tell whose research is going to pay off. So the senior professors ask themselves: Can I live with this person for the next twenty years?”

“That’s just what I’m afraid of,” Sara said. “It’s not going to be easy winning them over, especially if they see me as an extension of Rowan.”

“I would have thought that was an asset,” John chimed in.

“He’s more liberal than the chemists at NYU,” said Sara.

Rowan, who’d returned to clear away the salad bowl, said, “So I’m in the enemy camp, huh?”

When no one responded, he went to load the dishwasher. From the remove of the kitchen he felt like an alien, eavesdropping. He’d always seen professors as otherworldly in their commitment to truth and excellence, but now he began to see them as any other professionals, as members of a guild. For the first time he sensed that this tour of duty as an administrator would not only mark the end of his days as a physicist but, eventually, his exit from academia.

Later that evening when the guests had gone and he and Sara were alone, he tried to explain the nostalgia he’d felt for the times when their parties were gatherings of peers.

Sara admitted to some of the same regrets, but ended up insisting that the change was simply part of growing up. “It’s not just ‘Love and Learning’ anymore,” she said. “The name of this game is ‘Careers.’”

Rowan’s heart wasn’t in this game, never had been. He was glad they’d be spending the coming week away from friends and relatives, cross-country skiing in the Berkshires. A cabin with its own well and a propane generator had been in Rowan’s family for more than a century and, throughout their marriage, had provided them periodic respites. No one would bother them there. At Rowan’s insistence, the cabin didn’t even have a phone.

§§§

This year he took Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet to the country but found no solace in its complex tale of illicit love. While he read, Sara graded chemistry exams and prepared her lectures for the spring term. For her, this wasn’t a chore. She loved teaching.

“Walk me through your typical day,” Sara said one evening. They were sitting at opposite ends of an overstuffed, hand-me-down sofa that Rowan had hauled to the cabin when he was a graduate student. They leaned against its arms, facing each other, their feet touching. “I have no idea how you spend your time.”

Rowan reached for her left foot, pulled off the wool sock, and began rubbing it.

“My workday begins at seven in the morning and usually runs till ten at night. Over breakfast, I often meet with individual faculty and staff, or with trustees or donors, but I get up several hours earlier and have tea by myself in the nook off the kitchen. Without that time alone, I’d go nuts. By eight, I’m in my office, and at nine there’s a staff meeting. After that, I have appointments with faculty, students, administrators. Lunch is usually with a departmental chair or dean.”

“It sounds monotonous. Evenings?”

“I’m often invited to dinner by a faculty member or by students to their dorm. Afterward, I go back to the office. It’s like that every day, even weekends. When I don’t call it’s because I’m sucked dry. Sometimes I hear myself saying something I’ve said a dozen times before, and it’s like hearing myself on tape.”

“Are you thinking of leaving?”

“I promised the board five years,” Rowan said weakly.

Sara dragged herself up from the sofa and announced that she was going to bed. Rowan lingered uneasily for a while, then put on his parka and stepped outside to look at the stars.

§§§

They spent New Year’s Day back in the City, walking in a frost-covered Riverside Park, attending a concert in Carnegie Hall, and dining at the Russian Tea Room. Over dinner he extracted a promise from her to visit Jefferson more often. He was proud of Sara, his ambitious, successful wife. By the end of the evening he felt bravely optimistic about their commuting marriage.

§§§

When Rowan returned to Jefferson he passed the first days of the new year in solitude. With no students, the campus felt like a ghost town. From his office window he could see across the flat landscape to the barren trees on the horizon. In their summer greenery, they’d looked happy, but now, raising their naked arms, they seemed sad.

Once, through his window, he saw Obea leading a group of children across Jefferson Square toward the new gym. Easter had told him that he was working for the county’s Social Services Agency and had petitioned the college to open the gym to town youth during vacation breaks as it had done in the summer. From his unseen perch, Rowan felt a wave of sympathy for this driven young man.

Easter was in Washington pursuing her honor’s research at the Library of Congress, and he was relieved that she wasn’t around. He had an appointment in Washington the following week, but had decided not to mention it to her.

His reverie was interrupted by a buzz on the intercom.

“You have a call from Easter Blue,” Chloë announced.

“I just called to say Happy New Year,” she said cheerily. After he asked her about her father’s health, he steered the conversation to the reforms the committee was working on. As they neared the end of the call, Easter said, “It’s awfully dreary here. Just work, work, work…all day in the library. I miss our talks.”

“Look, the U. S. Commissioner of Education has asked me to brief him on our reforms. I’ll be in Washington next week.” He immediately regretted saying it.

“Oh?”

“Would you like to come along when I meet him?”

“I’d love to.”

Why had he told her? So much for his good intentions.

“Your presence could work to Jefferson’s advantage,” Rowan continued. “The combination of a white college president and a black student leader would get his attention.”

“When are you getting in?”

“9:30 Wednesday morning at National. The meeting’s at eleven. Afterward, I’m off to New York.”

“I’ll pick you up. I’m staying with a girlfriend who lets me use her car.”

“I could take a taxi and just meet you at the commissioner’s office.”

“I’d like to rehearse during the drive into town.”

§§§

Easter was waiting for him when he got off the plane. She was wearing a dark green wool suit over a creamy silk blouse, and with her black leather attaché case she looked every bit the young professional.

They approached each other without touching—a handshake seemed too formal, a hug too intimate. As they walked to the parking lot a voice called out, “Hi there, Rowan. What are you doing here?”

It was John Rideout, the trustee whose advice he’d sought about the threat to Walker Gym.

Caught off guard, Rowan managed a Hi, John, then babbled “I’m on my way to see the commissioner of education. This is Easter Blue, a student working with us on the reform commission.”

“Good to meet you, Miss Blue. Good luck, you two. Gotta run.”

Rowan tried to hide his discomfort at running into a trustee, though he sensed that Easter had noticed.

Their meeting ran far beyond its allotted half-hour. By the time they left his office, the over-worked commissioner, who’d given up the teaching he loved to manage an unresponsive government bureaucracy, had remembered why he’d once deemed the classroom a noble calling.

§§§

It was an unusually warm winter day and they strolled along the Mall toward the Washington Monument, rehashing the meeting.

“How about some lunch?” Rowan asked.

“I’d love some, and I know a good café a few blocks away.”

After sharing a tuna-melt, they took alternate bites of a strawberry shortcake. Then, Easter brought up Obea, concluding, “I wrote him last week that I’d rather just be friends.”

“How’d he take it?” With his fork, he guided a bruised strawberry to the side of his plate.

“He phoned and asked if I was with someone else. It’s not going to be easy for him, but I know it’s the right thing for me. I can’t be what he wants. I won’t be…” Her voice trailed off and she looked away. Rowan leaned across the table and gently touched her hand. He thought he noticed a slight bronzing of her neck and wondered if it could be a blush. Better not to know, he thought.

§§§

Before he left Washington for his weekend with Sara, Rowan called Chloë to see if anything had come up that required his attention. She said that Mike Marlborough had phoned, insisting on seeing him. When she explained that the president was in Washington, Marlborough replied, “Then tell your boss that I expect to see him at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning in his office.” Chloë added that Marlborough had rebuffed her attempt to schedule the meeting for the following week, and had refused to say what was on his mind.

Rowan called Sara and explained that instead of getting in Friday night, he’d arrive Saturday afternoon. “I shouldn’t stand up the College’s biggest donor, at least not the first time he commands my presence. Chloë says Marlborough is very worked up.”

“Couldn’t you just phone him?”

“Not at this point. He’s already en route and can’t be reached. I’m really sorry about this Sara, but it gives you Saturday in the lab, and we’ll still have two nights.”

§§§

One aspect of his job that Rowan had not anticipated was that he often became privy to information that ought to have remained private. The latest incident of this kind, and by far the most serious to date, had arisen before he’d left for Washington in the form of a phone call from a bail bondsman. He was inquiring about an officer in the admissions office, George Harvey. He’d been taken into custody, along with all the other patrons of a gay bar in Detroit, and had given Jefferson College as his employer.

Rowan had assured the bondsman that Harvey was an employee in good standing, and received the bondsman’s assurances that he would be released on bail within the hour.

Only minutes before arriving at his office Saturday morning did Rowan connect this incident with Marlborough, and why he’d insisted on their meeting.

After the barest of pleasantries, Marlborough asked him if he’d gotten wind of the arrest of a college employee in Detroit.

“My understanding is that Mr. Harvey is free on bail.”

“That’s all very nice, but what I want to know is, why you haven’t fired the faggot?”

“Innocent until proven guilty.”

“Admissions officers are Jefferson’s face to the world,” Marlborough continued. “We certainly can’t have a queer filling up the College with homosexuals.”

Rowan avoided a direct reply by asking Marlborough how he’d come by his information.

“I have my sources.”

Marlborough was a VIP in Detroit, known as a fervent Jefferson alumnus, and Rowan surmised that he’d been tipped off by someone in the police department. In an attempt to calm him and avoid making any promises, Rowan told him that he’d consult with the College attorney and be in touch early in the following week.

“This is not a legal question,” Marlborough responded heatedly. “It’s about Jefferson’s image. Having women in the gym is bad enough, but I draw the line at catering to pansies. I expect you to take the appropriate action over the weekend.”

“I’ll get back to you as soon as possible,” Rowan said, rising from behind his desk and leading Marlborough toward the door. “I understand your feelings, but I have to tell you that I regard dismissal as a penalty of last resort and, from what I know, Harvey’s detention by the Detroit police does not rise to that level.”

“I made this trip to give you fair warning, Mr. Ellway. If it is not gone by Monday, I will have no choice but to bring the matter to the attention of my fellow trustees.”

Rowan understood that this was Marlborough’s way of threatening his job, and countered with, “I’ll be consulting with the board myself, Mr. Marlborough. You’ll hear from me shortly.”

As soon as Marlborough had gone, he asked Chloë to book him on the next flight to New York, and left immediately to keep his date with Sara.

§§§

“Well, out with it. What did Mr. Mike want?” Sara asked as he took off his coat. One of her hats covered his usual hook in the hall closet. Their apartment smelled musty and unlived-in. She poured them some wine; he took his usual place on the sofa and recounted the Harvey story.

“Marlborough played football for Jefferson, graduated in the fifties, and went on to make a fortune in the tire business. There’s no doubt that he’s a very influential trustee, but his clout is based on money, not the respect of the other board members.”

“Wasn’t he pissed off when you opened his gym to women?”

“Yes, but he was virtually alone on that one. When no one would join him, he shut up.”

“You probably made an enemy then and there. What are you going to do about his ultimatum?”

“I thought about it on the plane. I’m going to inform chairman Wilfred Knight, and John Rideout, the trustee who advised me on Clay’s threat to the old gym, that I will not fire Harvey. If the board agrees with Marlborough, they’re going to have to fire me first, then remove Harvey themselves.”

“Are you sure you want to be that confrontational?”

“Marlborough will be sounding out trustees this weekend, trying to round up enough support to force the issue. He’s utterly determined, and he’s made it a test of wills. I don’t see any other way to back him down.”

“How do you feel about this, apart from the test of wills? I mean, I understand that a president can’t let individual board members order him around, but what do you think of Marlborough’s concern about a gay admissions officer?”

“I think straights have treated gays like whites have treated blacks. We’ve assumed we’re superior, and it’s got to stop.”

“Same with women,” Sara added.

“Exactly. I’m not innocent myself, but now I’m in a position to refuse to go along with this kind of thing. If the board disagrees, they can take this job and shove it.”

“Don’t get too self-righteous, Rowan. Just stand firm. By the way, how’d it go in Washington?”

“The Commissioner seemed impressed with our plans. By the time I left, he was looking for a way to give the College a grant so he could take credit for what we’re doing.” Rowan noticed that he’d omitted any mention of Easter.

“What was he interested in, specifically?”

“Cost containment, productivity, and broader participation in governance. Our goal is to not turn applicants away on financial grounds any more than we would because of race or religion.”

“Or, homosexuality.”

“Or, that,” Rowan agreed. “No discrimination other than that based on academic promise and performance.”

“It’s going to take time to bring everyone along,” Sara noted.

Rowan couldn’t express these ideas without getting excited, and as he elaborated on his plans, his enthusiasm grew.

“You know, Sara, the only reason I ever got into administration was to do something about this. ‘All men are created equal’ doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t mean equal access to quality education.”

“You’ve got history on your side,” Sara said. She pointed to the Tiffany lamp hanging over the easy chair. Their mascot was dangling from the shade. “Gumby seems to approve of what you’re doing,” she said.

“Good. I couldn’t deal with his rejection. I’m sorry if I sometimes get carried away, Sara.”

For as long as he’d been conscious of such things, Rowan’s sympathies had been with the underdog. Recently, he’d caught himself getting short with a conservative faculty member, and now he was preaching to Sara.

“Where does your passion come from? You didn’t have a deprived childhood.”

“True, but I remember lots of kids who did, kids I grew up with, like Arlene.”

“You never mentioned her. Who’s Arlene?”

“In second grade I had a teacher who started each day by inspecting our fingernails. There were poor kids in the class, kids like Arlene, from families who worked the dirt farms that used to dot New Jersey. She wore the same faded red dress to school every day, and she spoke in a whisper. She was so tiny and frail, I wondered how she made it up the steps of the school bus. One morning, her nails were dirty, and the teacher told her to go to the hall and stay there until they were clean.”

“Is that it?”

After he pushed back the lump in his throat, Rowan said, “I remember wondering how Arlene could clean her nails in the hall, with no soap or water. Later, on our way out for recess we saw her slumped against the wall, her hands over her face. She peeked at me through her fingers. The image of her huddled there—helpless and humiliated—haunts me.”

As she got up to go to the kitchen, Sara said, “Maybe I missed something, but that doesn’t quite seem to explain your passion.”

No, it doesn’t, Rowan thought. What was the source of his concern? he wondered.

To be continued…

 


Read the complete novel on Kindle and other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>