Story — From the December 2013 issue

I Can Say Many Nice Things

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Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.

A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

And yet, when Fleming thought about it, this welcome packet, fucked-up though it was, even though he hadn’t read it, most certainly had more readers than he did. More people, for sure, read this welcome packet than had ever read any of his books or stories. This welcome packet commanded a bigger audience than he ever would with his sober, sentimental inventions of domestic lives he’d never lived, if that wasn’t too flattering a description of the literary product he willed onto the page with less and less conviction every time he sat down. Maybe he’d actually learn something about writing if he read the welcome packet.

The room spun and he clutched the bed. It would be two straight weeks of this seesawing, punctuated by mind-raping workshop sessions in a conference room and the occasional blitz of tropical sun if he could stand it. He had planned to get in shape for this trip, just to medicate a minor quadrant of his self-loathing apparatus, but when that hadn’t happened, when instead he had fattened further, he went out and bought new T-shirts, one size larger than last year. He looked okay in them. Not really that bad. He would just make sure not to take one off in public. Even in private, actually, he had cut down on the nudity. These days the shame followed him indoors.

His wife and baby had stayed home, thank God, even though Erin had wanted to come with him, wanted to bring the baby, made a case that it would all be so fun for little Sylvie, even though little Sylvie had not shown an aptitude for fun, or, well, happiness in general. Don’t blame the baby, though! Don’t blame the baby, you monster! He wouldn’t, if he could help it. The baby would be blameless. Cute little thing.

Anyway, if he’d brought them, and paid for them, because their passage was not included in the deal, they’d be going home in the hole, financially. Don’t let’s go home in the hole, he’d sung, trying to be funny. Erin hadn’t laughed, because that wasn’t even a line from anything, and that wasn’t how jokes worked. She’d just looked at him beneath bangs of razor perfection, the whole of Erin so fatally sharp that he was silently criticized by her appearance, for more or less everything he’d ever done, even things from before he knew her, rebuked by the mere sight of her, and she didn’t have to say a word.

So he was alone, with nothing much to account for except, of course, the morning’s reading, the prep, and then the fucking horror of holding a class on this ship.

But he was so lucky! This was so great! How amazing to go on a cruise. His colleagues had stood around pretending to be jealous, and he’d held his ground pretending to deserve it, swallowing his dread. He’d had no choice in the matter. His student evaluations stank. Wouldn’t this trip be a chance to collect a batch of raves from his little cruisegoers, who would surely be more susceptible to joy, with all the sunbathing and cocktailing and theme dancing, and therefore more likely to pass on that happiness to him?

Or are the happy just more profoundly stingy with their mood, having finally arrived at bliss, clinging to all of it and in no way inclined to transfer such riches to the likes of him? Maybe so. But this time he had a strategy. Some old-fashioned hoo-ha from the school of please-don’t-hate-me. He would get his students to praise him by stroking their egos so hard — relentlessly stroking the shit out of every region of their egos, stroking them down sleek and smooth — that the students would curl up and mewl like stuffed animals with robotic voice boxes, purring and saying gaga and dada and yes, please, give me some more.

Up on deck nothing was happening. It was dark. The ocean, the sky, the ship. Sweet hell the silence was nice. Whatever waves had gripped them earlier were gone. Everything was still. Not even the waiters were awake. Something was doing in the kitchen, though. A light burned under the door. Powdered eggs were getting mixed in water by a big industrial paddle, maybe. Frozen planks of scored sausages, ridged like washboards, getting knifed into singles.

He sat by the pool, leaning against the railing because the deck chairs weren’t out yet. The boat felt much steadier now that he was outside. They’d left New York Harbor yesterday, so where were they now? He had no idea how fast they were going, or how you would begin to calculate whereabouts, and it didn’t really matter. It was, actually, pretty great to be surrounded by dark space and dark water and nothing real. A fairly delicious portion of wind pumping off the sea at the perfect temperature. He wanted to thank someone for that and say, Nice going. You nailed it. Perfect use of wind in this setting. Erin would, of course, really love it here, on her way to the islands, the occasional dirty coast threatening in the distance, but mostly just water. Hot, salty air in the afternoon, stinging her sunburn. She’d be out on the deck early — not this early — swimming laps before the kids took over the pool with their savage games. Even little Sylvie, if you could keep the fast-crawling gal on a leash so she wouldn’t splash overboard and disappear forever, even Sylvie, his daughter, wrapped in so much flotation she looked like a life raft, would very certainly, if he had only let her come, have had lots and lots and lots of fun on this boat.

He was supposed to have ten students but he only counted nine. Nine of them leaning forward on the conference table, staring at him, waiting. When he looked in his briefcase for the roster, the one document he actually needed, he couldn’t find it.

Probably it was in there. He had to pee. The room lacked a clock. His chair was no good, and somehow he was sitting at the seam between two crooked tables. Already he’d sweated through his T-shirt into the button-down he thought he should wear. Everyone waited. They weren’t dressed up. His glasses were smudged. The students wore bright shirts made of parachute material. Cruise clothes. Was this even the right class?

Fuck it. This would get worked out. He said hello and welcome, making the obligatory comment about how weird it was to be studying writing on a cruise ship, of all places, which no one laughed or smiled at or even acknowledged facially. Perhaps they didn’t know they were at sea. Was there a certain percentage of people at sea who lacked the knowledge that they were at sea?

Really, anyway, Fleming insisted to them, location shouldn’t matter, because this was serious work they were doing, and this was a serious class. If possible, they should, you know, forget about the outside world when they were in here and just focus on literature.

So, great. His first lesson to them was to ignore the outside world, which he had just said had nothing to do with real literature. Splendid advice for writers. And it would be fairly easy to follow inside this airless kill box.

They went around the room and said their names, along with some other data he’d requested — favorite books and writers, past classes taken — which they surrendered with quiet hostility, as if they were corpses who had been fed some rejuvenating pulp that allowed them to release a few more sentences before dying again. You brought me back to life for this? their bodies seemed to say.

The first story they considered was by Timothy, who had an amazing beard. This didn’t disguise the fact that he was no older than twenty-two. Even with a white beard, even with white hair, even with a cane and maybe pushing along an IV bag on a stand, this boy would look young. Yet somehow he had raised a beard of Bunyanesque density, and the sight of it reproached anything facial Fleming, maybe thirty years the boy’s senior, had ever attempted.

In Timothy’s story an old man sat on a bed and thought back on his life, which featured some activities he regretted, which he would now tell us about at great length. The end.

A woman named Shay started the critique. She shrugged, said she had trouble believing it, and then paused, failing to elaborate.

That did rather sum things up, Fleming thought. A brave piece of thinking. Maybe true of almost everything created ever: paintings, books, houses, bridges. None of them are finally believable, when you really think about it. But, well, there they are. Whole schools of philosophy had fought with that one. Looking at Shay and the confidence she projected, it was clear that belief was her holy grail and she probably rarely found it. She didn’t believe this, she didn’t believe that, it was all so unbelievable. Many years from now Shay would be dying somewhere nonspecific — Fleming’s imagination couldn’t piece together a good deathbed location — and she would declare that she just couldn’t believe it.

Did Shay want to suggest anything Timothy could do to make his story more believable? Fleming asked.

“No. I don’t believe in meddling with other people’s art. No way. And I don’t want anyone to meddle with mine.”

Well put, and good on you, he thought, but then what the fuck are you doing here?

He almost said, Okay, so what do other people think of that? The classic workshop whirlpool everyone might happily drown in for a while. Let’s all go down together! But he stopped himself, because that would be like asking, Who else believes that we have no purpose here whatsoever?

Fleming waited. It was about the only trick he had when he was in the gladiator pit. Ride out the silence. Stare the fuckers down. Someone else in the room was likely to find the pause unbearable before he did. And, sure enough, up stepped Timothy’s defender, Rory. Cheerful, permissive, simple, friendly, handsome, healthy, well-adjusted, insane: someone who could never be a writer.

Rory thought the story was great. So great! That man, on that bed. Wow. Rory could just see and feel him there. The whole thing was so real and he wouldn’t change a thing. This was perfect stuff. It almost could have been a movie! Rory smiled, and it was clear that no one had ever disagreed with him, ever. Or, more likely, people had disagreed with Rory but he wasn’t aware of it. The bliss it must be to be Rory.

So the poles had been set, approval and dismissal of Timothy’s story, and now it was Fleming’s duty to string critical latticework between them, ricocheting between praise and criticism until everyone had gotten their money’s worth. Later, Timothy could pick from this web of provocative suggestion as he got going with his revision.

Over the next hour, the workshop roles slowly emerged. There were the miniaturists, who wanted to look at a certain line on page five and wonder if maybe, just maybe, it shouldn’t be airlifted earlier, which might seismically alter the story and bring the whole thing scarily to life. Mightn’t it? There was the person who said that the story really began halfway down page two. Apparently these people were everywhere, even on boats. The your story starts here people. What about just saying that the story begins right after it ends, right here, on a page you haven’t written yet, and then sliding some new, clean paper over to the writer? There was a young woman named Britt who felt the story should be switched from first person to third. First person, to her, at least in this story, allowed confessional overtones that seemed to let too much self-pity creep in, which defeated a reader’s ability to care for this man. If he feels sorry for himself, she explained, it makes it harder for us to. Not bad, Britt, Fleming thought, keeping his face neutral. A strange dose of reason on the high seas. But her comment was ignored by one and all, and then there was the person who confessed that this story really wasn’t his thing so it wasn’t even fair for him to try to evaluate it. He’d better pass. He tried to pose this response as an apology, like saying he was sorry, he just didn’t read French, so what could he do? I’m sorry, man, your shit just isn’t my thing.

Ah, one of those guys. The one from last semester was named Sean. This one, the cruise version, was Carl. Exempted from value exchanges because of his immensely idiosyncratic place in this world. Not really his world, just a world he is grumpily visiting. That’s what Carl should have said: I’m sorry, I have to pass, I’m not actually a human being. Whatever Carl’s real thing was would be a closely guarded secret until he turned in his own story, and everyone — or so it usually went — once they saw it, would strain to detect the slightest difference between Carl’s writing and everything else they’d read.

Fleming jumped into the discussion and said that Timothy was brave to write about something so distant from his life, and for this he should be commended. This was powerful material: A man who will die soon, wondering what went wrong in his life. And he’s alone. His mistakes have left him alone. He’s done this to himself, it’s his fault, there’s no one else to blame, and yet we somehow, potentially, feel for him. It’s really tragic. Cheers, really, to Timothy, because this stuff is big. But could the story maybe, who knows, use a scene? Sometimes an actual scene carries feeling really well, at least if that’s the goal here? Possibly not. Possibly not. Expository narrative can be really, important pause, interesting. Can anyone think of examples of this?

Of course they couldn’t, and he panicked, because suddenly he couldn’t, either, even though he’d once taught a whole class on the subject. But no one seemed to care. They didn’t want examples. The era of illustrating a point was long gone, which made teaching easier, if lonelier. Years ago Fleming would recommend other books, describing their plots, their styles, their techniques, why they were important, and no one would ever make a note, even to write down the name of the author or the book. They would just blink at him, waiting for his seizure to flare out. Later Fleming would learn that students viewed these endorsements not as the kind of deep resource sharing that universities were meant to enable but as digressions, beside the point. Stalling. And so instead he talked and talked and talked about Timothy’s story itself, devoting more language to it than it contained, a body of criticism already outweighing a work that would never be published, trying to praise Timothy without alienating his classmates, most of whom sensed that the story was muted and unreal, an exercise. It was like Timothy was trying to throw his voice, but he’d thrown it so far that no one could hear it. But Timothy couldn’t be shut down here, Fleming knew. He needed to be encouraged. Get the young man on his back, lift up his shirt, and rub that fucking belly. And yet at the same time Timothy’s classmates could not think their teacher was an idiot pushover who simply praised whatever he read, particularly guff like this, because then what was his praise worth if it ever actually came their way?

Fleming walked the little tightrope, tossing coins to each side of the line. If Timothy did not actually purr out loud, at least he seemed content. Fleming’s neutrality in the end must have only made him seem spineless. A politician of the classroom, pleasing precisely no one.

There was time at the end for Timothy to ask questions, and he just thanked everyone. He really appreciated it, nodding through that amazing beard, rubbing his hands together.

“No questions? That’s it?” Fleming asked.

“I mean, yeah,” said Timothy, sitting back, pleased. “I wrote that story in like two hours, so I’m surprised anyone liked it at all.”

Lunch was a buffet. Fleming loaded his plate with cold pasta, rolls, salad. What he wished was that he could take the food to his room. The walk would be long, the elevator ride conspicuous. He’d have to carry his plate through telescoping dining rooms, up carpeted stairs, then out across the sun-blasted pool deck and along the railing, where you had to practically tiptoe single file or else go overboard. By then his shame would be complete, his plate a mess. The package he was on didn’t include room service, which meant eating above decks, and that risked eating with students. Or being seen eating alone by students. He wasn’t sure which was worse.

They found him at the kiddie pool, on dessert. There was pretty good-looking pie here, so he’d gone with a piece of chocolate cream. The kiddie pool had a shaded canopy, so he could eat without getting reamed by the sun, which was on a tear today. Large men his own age with very different lives stood shin-deep in the pool holding barrel-size drinks, their shoulders boiling and blistering like the surface of a distant planet.

“Hey, Professor Fleming.” There were maybe five of them, hovering awkwardly.

“Hey, guys, sit.” He welcomed them as if this were his own little porch.

They pulled up chairs and sat and looked at him, waiting again. He couldn’t really eat chocolate pie under that kind of scrutiny. Jesus, he thought, did he have to just keep entertaining these monsters, even though class was over? This was break time, which meant he needed to replenish his stores of fraudulence for the next round. How could he summon his artillery of deceit without some pretty serious alone time? He needed a different body to wear around when he wasn’t in the workshop. Or, at the very least, a T-shirt that read: i’m off the clock, bitches!

“So what do you think of class?” one of them asked. This would be Franklin, the quiet, anemic one, with that kind of gerbil-clear skin. Franklin was a thin, pink person who was either a genius or, well, not one.

“I should ask you guys that, right?” Fleming tried to smile through a mouthful of chocolate.

He knew he shouldn’t do this, but he couldn’t help it. It was like asking Erin if she loved him, the conversational sugar he sought out like an addict. What was she going to say? It looked so desperate, so helpless. Maybe because it was. Class had hardly started and here he was groveling for student approval.

“Seriously,” he said. “Does class seem okay?”

They burst out laughing and looked at each other. A merry laughter, he supposed, but still. Already with the knowing looks! They’d hardly even met and here they were being conspiratorial at the fucking kiddie pool.

“We never know when you’re joking,” explained Helen, as if they had discussed this issue at some length. Maybe Helen was the spokesperson.

He smiled. He had yet to joke with them a single time that he could remember.

Here’s a clue, he should have said: I haven’t been genuinely funny in a very long time.

They were back at it in the afternoon. The story was a pastoral, with a nameless man walking through the landscape — the powerful, moody landscape — thinking. The writer, George, was older than the others. He had a large, sad face and he was bald. These men were everywhere. The cattle in our lives we hardly even see. Slowly they are herded into the dark shed to be killed. Fleming hoped he didn’t look like George, but he suspected he looked far worse. Older, sadder, balder, one of the cattle who’d gotten out alive, survived the bolt gun to the head. A little bit soft of brain, but holding his own. To look like George would be lucky, probably. If he went home looking like George maybe Erin would be intrigued. Maybe she’d smile and throw her arms around him, yelling, “Sylvie, your handsome father is home!” The force field around Erin would lift. Love would surge through the house, and people in the surrounding neighborhood would fall to the floor in spontaneous orgasm.

On the first page of his story George had written a note for the workshop:

Hey everyone! I can’t wait to meet all of you. Thanks so much in advance for reading my story. Your time means a lot to me. I’d love to hear what you all think.


“I don’t know,” said Franklin, cautiously. “It doesn’t seem like anything happens.”

“Can that be okay?” Fleming asked, eyeing the room for a taker. “Do things need to happen?”

Franklin blinked little gerbil crumbs from his eyes. He seemed to decide the question was not for him but for the group at large. He retreated in his chair, started to doodle. He must have been exhausted from that amazing opening comment.

Timothy jumped in. “It’s landscape porn.”

Everybody laughed, except George, who seemed bewildered. Was this a compliment?

“What’s landscape porn, Timothy?” Fleming asked.

“It’s just masturbatory images of mountains and lanes and creeks and desert and there’s no drama to any of it. It’s not a story.”

Said the young, bearded man who himself had not written a story.

“Like, what if I described a teacup for five pages? Would anyone care?”

More laughs. George was scribbling notes, as if this was the most helpful critique he’d ever had.

“Okay,” said Fleming, looking at George across the table, determined not to mention the nouveau roman, which by now had grown quite forgotten and old, and perhaps should be renamed the old novel, or the novel that recently died but that once mattered to a few people he knew, themselves also old. “But maybe instead of diagnosing what it is and isn’t, let’s try to talk about the experience of reading it, and maybe see if that discussion might be of use to George.”

This the class didn’t much want to do, and Fleming carried the weight of the thing. Frankly it was George’s fault. He had written some passable description, and he’d made the whole thing pretty moody, but, it was true, nothing happened. Could this, Fleming ventured, be the descriptive intermission in a story that hasn’t been written yet? Perhaps we are only looking at the thigh of the beast. We can say nice thigh, but beyond that we are in the dark. His metaphor was out of hand, running amok. Maybe they hadn’t noticed.

Britt alone picked up on Fleming’s desperation, while George transcribed the discussion ever more furiously, and she tried to help, reminding everyone of the inherent drama of landscapes and how charged they could be, how story resides in the land — had she really just said that? — and our best stories come from our relationship to nature.

“That’s your opinion,” snapped Shay, suddenly bothered.

Britt didn’t flinch. “Right,” she agreed cheerfully. “Am I meant to be representing someone else’s opinion?”

“Do what you want,” said Shay, apparently not sure whether Britt’s response was an insult.

Carl made a cat sound, clawing the air, hissing.

“Oh, shit,” said Rory, and he suddenly seemed at a loss with no friends around to high-five.

George raised his hand, usually taboo for the writer, who was not allowed to speak during a critique of his work, but Fleming seized on it. Saved by the sad sack.

“Yes, George, how can we help you?”

“This is all really incredible. Thank you, everyone. I really appreciate it.”

So this was George’s shtick, thought Fleming. He was a professional thanker.

“I guess,” said George, “I just have one question for you all, given the remarks.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“If this was set in a city, instead of out West,” asked George hopefully, “do people think that would make it better?”

Britt followed Fleming out after class. He wanted to stand in the sunshine, look at the sea, and maybe let the salty air purge him of the useless things he’d said.

They were at the railing and the boat was really hauling ass. Behind them a terrific whooping arose from the pool, where kids had lined up at the slide and were zooming down the bright chute into the water. How amazing if he could get an hour alone with that pool, guarded from all spectators, streaking down the slide, exploding against the water, only to pull himself back up the ladder to do it again.

“Why’d you start with two men today?” asked Britt.

“What do you mean?” Dear God what did she mean?

“The class is half women and you could have discussed one of each today, a man and a woman. Wouldn’t that have been more fair?”

He had no answer. He’d given no thought to this.

“It’ll balance out,” he said lamely, trying not to look at her.

Britt struck a puzzled look, falsely naïve. “It just seems to indicate clear bias on your part, to let two men go first, and I don’t see how that won’t disrupt the whole balance of the class going forward, if the women collectively feel that you do not think highly of their work. So much so that you’ve delayed its discussion in favor of the work of two men who hardly seem — in my opinion — talented enough to have gone first. I just wanted to pick your brain about that.”

Very crafty, little Britt. Let’s solve the problem of your bias together, you old, sexless fossil. I care about you and want to help. Now just drink this poison and lie back while I scissor free your expired genitalia.

Britt had pale hair, wore no make-up, and seemed so at ease with him it was disturbing, like one of those precocious children who is friends only with adults. Even Erin adopted a more formal tone than this, seemed a stranger to him sometimes when they spoke. He liked Britt. Clearly, though, the feeling wasn’t mutual.

“Look,” he tried to explain, though he had no explanation. “Going first, as you call it, is no big deal. Certainly it’s not a privilege. I’d say it sucks to go first, actually, because no one knows each other, we have no rapport, and we’re not at our best, critically, yet. We haven’t vibed as a group. People who go first are at a disadvantage, actually.”

This sort of sounded half believable to him as he said it.

Britt took this in, winching her eyebrows as she formulated her rebuttal. He braced himself.

“So today, if I’m hearing you correctly, you were punishing Timothy and George by making them go first? You deliberately put them at a disadvantage? Perhaps I misread your bias. Maybe it’s men you have a problem with. I will say reverse discrimination is no less worrisome. It is, arguably, more hidden, more sinister.”

“Sinister?” He sighed, starting to protest, but Britt bent over, laughing.

“Oh my God, I totally had you!” she shrieked. “You totally believed me! I wish you could see your face!”

Fleming had seen his own face enough times, for this life and for the next one.

Britt threw herself into him, spasming with laughter, claiming she really had him going.

“What?” he said quietly, trying to push her from his body, even though the contact felt good. “Which part was a joke?”

Britt grabbed his arm, tugging rather hard on him while she recovered from her fit of laughter. “You are hilarious,” she said. “Oh my God, you are so funny!”

She kept crashing into him as if she couldn’t stand on her own. Was he meant to hold her up? People would be watching them.

“You thought I was one of those insane feminists,” she gasped. “You actually thought that!”

“Why wouldn’t I?” he snapped. “Not insane. Maybe it was a reasonable point. Am I not supposed to believe what you say?”

Just then Helen found them, walking up with a sly smile on her face.

“Hey, you two,” she said. “What are you up to?”

You two? You two? He took a step back from Britt, but she threw an arm around him and told Helen it was nothing, a silly joke, and they were just hanging out watching the ocean go by. Wasn’t the ocean amazing?

Helen looked out at the water, frowned, and carefully agreed that it was. It seemed she was really on the fence about it. This ocean, she told them, reminded her of a story, in fact, a very long story, slowly told, that got hung up in a complicated preamble about the first time she had told the story and who was there and why it had been a hard story to tell. Apparently it still was.

He begged off, saying he needed to go work, which wasn’t true. He had no intention of doing any work on this boat, but maybe there was something good on TV. Or something bad on TV. Or maybe the wall in his room was doing some interesting shit that he could stare at while he held his balls. Anyway it was clear that if he wanted to escape his students — yes, yes, he wanted to — about the only place he could do that was in his room. As he left the pool area he heard Britt shouting his name. She caught up, breathless, beaming at him. It was just that she was curious what room he was in, on what level, because such-and-such was her room number, on the such-and-such level, you know, just in case, and was he going to be around at the bar later?

Fleming told Erin about it over the phone. This was the best way to defuse all prospects. Confess before it happens, then it won’t happen.

“It was so awkward. And on the first day! Right on the deck where everyone could see us.”

“What am I supposed to say?” asked Erin, sounding tired. “That it’s cool a student is attracted to you? Good for you?”

“No, of course not. I just think it’s funny. I mean, me. She can’t really be attracted to me.

Erin let that one go, because apparently she agreed.

“Okay,” she said, in the classic way she ended her phone calls. As in, Okay, I’ve had enough, this is over.

“Well, I miss you,” said Fleming. The phone was sweaty against his head. He wanted out of this conversation, too. But it seemed dimly important for them to exchange intimacy, however rotely.


He broke. “You can’t say one nice thing?”

“I can say many nice things.”

“All right, well, I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry.”

“How can you apologize if you don’t know what you did?”

Here we go.

“I’m not sure how, Erin. But I apologize, I really do. I want things to be better between us.”

“We’ll talk when you get back.”

“Let’s talk now.”

“I really, really, really, really can’t.”

Really? He wanted to say. But he couldn’t honestly blame her, because he didn’t want to talk, either.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Fleming said. “I hope you feel better.”

Fleming was asleep when someone knocked on his door. He tried to ignore it. What time was it anyway? The knocking persisted. It was a quiet, polite knock, which he found amusing, because there was nothing polite about being woken up in your cabin. Ever since he’d boarded this ship he’d been systematically chased into a corner as he searched for privacy. Now they’d found his corner too.

The knocking continued. The knock of someone who knew he was in here. The knock of someone who wasn’t going away. The knock, no doubt, of a crazy if highly attractive person named Britt. He hadn’t told Britt his room number, but it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out. Maybe when she saw him in his big-and-tall sleep shirt, with the ring of puffy hair sticking up from where his sleep mask was, maybe then her resolve to seduce a corpse would, as they say, wane.

It wasn’t Britt. At the door stood one of the ship people, a young man in a strange white suit holding a clipboard. The purser, perhaps.

“Mr. Fleming?” he asked.


“Okay, good,” and he checked off something on his pad. “Is there anyone else in there with you?”

Peering in, snooping, the little perv.

“No,” said Fleming, hesitating. Why did he feel nervous if it was true? Oh, because maybe it wasn’t? Because maybe Fleming had been up to some evening blood sport without knowing it, partitioning his overdeveloped psyche in order to, uh, tolerate the unbearable moral strain of his secret passions: abduction, captivity, taking his pleasures from people wearing hoods. How amazing if it were true. How dull that it wasn’t. Fleming was fully, finally alone. If he had a secret life it was a complete secret.

“Do you want to come in and search?” Fleming offered. Come on into my cabin, smell my sleep.

The man looked at Fleming with alarm. “No, no, that’s fine, thank you.”

Fleming had just behaved like a suspect when there obviously hadn’t been a crime. Maybe he wanted to get arrested. Maybe that was the only way off this boat. Ship.

As the purser walked off Fleming asked what this was about. You don’t just knock on someone’s door in the middle of the night without explaining yourself.

“Just a head count,” the man said.

“A head count.”

“A head count. Don’t worry. We’ve counted you. You’re here. We’ve got you.”

At breakfast the students were buzzing. Someone had, they speculated, gone overboard. The ship’s crew had been to all their cabins. They were trying to figure out who was missing. Perhaps, Fleming thought, this was the only good thing about the Midwest. You couldn’t go overboard. Except for the lakes. There were the lakes. The virtues of the Midwest shrank back to zero again.

Franklin was chiding Carl, who sat there grinning, looking otherwise like sheer hell, as if he hadn’t slept at all. Come to think of it, Carl had on the same outfit as yesterday.

“I saw you at the bar all covered in sex,” teased Franklin. “How many heads did they count in your cabin, you little faggot?”

Carl nodded proudly, gave a lazy thumbs-up.

Fleming must have looked pale, because Franklin grabbed his arm.

“I can call him that because he’s not one, and I am.”

Sort of like if I called you a writer, Fleming thought. Oh, except that wasn’t fair. Be nice to these people, he reminded himself. And he knew that his assessment of others had never borne out over the years, with the least likely of his students always, always, enjoying the most success. In fact, he had better be nicer to Franklin.

Class went okay. Britt’s story was disappointingly good. Talented writers can also be sexy little nut jobs who play mind games on boats. Her story described the seven or eight houses the narrator had lived in from birth until her death as an old woman. The writing was cold and beautiful, executed with severe control, and Britt leaped through the years of her narrator’s life, changing continents, changing marriages, until the narrator was alone again, inside a house not that different from the one in which she was born, thousands of miles away. It was effortless, formally original, and Fleming was a little bit jealous.

Rory didn’t really get it. “I guess,” he said, uncomfortable, as if he had never said an unkind thing to anyone in the world, “it might have been more interesting if it was the same character who lived in these houses, rather than so many different people of all different ages in all of these different places. I couldn’t keep track of them, and I wasn’t sure what held them all together.”

Shay cracked up.

“What?” said Rory, blushing.

“Nothing,” said Shay, drunk on schadenfreude. “That’s just awesome.”

“It’s the same narrator,” sneered Carl, who still looked debauched and exhausted from whatever he’d done last night. Not too tired to trounce the dumb blond man across the table, apparently.

Fleming felt that this called for a vote. “Did anyone else think there were many different narrators throughout the story?”

No one else raised a hand.

At lunch, arranging his papers, Fleming found the class roster. There were indeed supposed to be ten students in his class. The missing student’s name was C. L. Levy. He emailed the university office from the ship’s public computer terminal, which was embedded in a wall of naval ornaments, as if long ago pirates had stood here and checked their Facebook pages, yelling to the next pirate in line to wait his fucking turn.

A reply popped into his inbox a few minutes later, saying that all ten students were paid in full. No one had canceled at the last minute. No one had written in for a refund.

That was a lot of money to be paid in full, only to not board the ship, or to board the ship and not attend class. In the afternoon session he asked his students if anyone knew of this C. L. Levy, but none of them did. “Man or woman?” asked Helen thoughtfully, as if that might determine her answer. He didn’t know. “Alive or dead?” she asked. And that he didn’t know either.

After dinner Fleming went to the front desk to see if C. L. Levy was on board. Of course they couldn’t give out that information.

“Isn’t there a passenger manifest?”

Yes, there was a passenger manifest, but it wasn’t for passengers.

Back in his cabin, Fleming told Erin about it on the phone. The missing student, the possibility that someone had gone overboard last night, and the ensuing head count that woke him up.

“Huh,” she said.

“Weird, right?”

“I guess. I mean it’s not really that weird. It’s normal for them to do a head count. Is that what you said was weird? Or was something else weird?”

Dear Jesus what was going on between them?

He took on the overly patient tone she hated. Explained it all. Offered a short course on the uncanny for his wife. Theories and origins of strangeness. And then, when he was done, Erin had been proved right, again without speaking. None of it seemed weird. When you put it that way. He tried another approach.

“I feel concerned, that’s all.”

This surprised Erin. Had he never expressed concern before? “I don’t know why you’re telling me. If you were really worried wouldn’t you have done something about it, instead of calling me?”

“Okay, I won’t talk about this to you anymore, I promise.”

“Oh, you’re going to pout now?”

“Gosh, Erin, I still haven’t stopped pouting from last time. But I have more pouting in store after this pouting is finished. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when the new pouting starts.”

She hung up.

Britt was waiting for him in the hallway, waving a black glove.

The little stalker had found his room.

“How come you’re not writing?” he asked, as if he’d run into her in public somewhere. Some cheerful patter, instead of screaming his head off in fright.

“How come you’re not, Professor?”

Did Fleming have this to look forward to every time he came and went?

“What’s going on with the glove?” he asked.

Britt gave him a weird smile. There was food in her teeth. He didn’t know her well enough to mention it. “This, sir, is a brand-new glove. I just took it from its package.” Britt flopped the glove against her face — a gesture of, what, self-harm? — then added, blushing, almost too quiet to hear: “No one’s penis has been in it yet.”

Fleming studied the glove, leaned in and pretended to sniff it. “That you know of,” he said, in his scientific voice.

Britt laughed. “You are funny. We’ve been debating this. I’ve had to defend you. They all think you’re so serious. But you’re not! You’re not serious at all. You, my friend, are catching on.”

She swished the glove at his face and he leaned away from it.

“I am catching on, Britt. You might try that glove on someone else. Go all throughout the longship, trying it on all of the young oarsmen.”

“But I don’t want to go all throughout the longship. I have traveled far, good sir. I am home now. I have found the owner of the glove.”

She baby-pouted up at him.

“No thank you, Britt.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing!”

“I know,” he said, walking off.

What Fleming was missing was a home and family and self that had never quite come to be, which was maybe why he was on a boat now with strangers, pitying himself. How could you miss something that hadn’t happened? There was a certain feeling at home with Erin and Sylvie that sometimes, rarely, despite the prickly ways they fought, swept through them, for reasons he could not understand, little gusts of unexamined happiness when he and Erin smiled at each other for no reason and when they stretched out on the rug and played blocks with Sylvie and when Sylvie would roll over and suddenly yell “Pants!” kicking her naked legs in the air. A serious call for pants from his young daughter that made them laugh so hard. That’s what he missed, but it stood alone. Had it really even happened that way? And if something like it happened again, who knows, Fleming or Erin or both of them would react differently, would look away from each other, embarrassed that they’d suddenly been caught living while poor Sylvie shrieked with joy under the cold gaze of her functionally dead parents.

From the house phone outside the restaurant Fleming dialed the ship’s operator and asked to be connected to the room of C. L. Levy.

“I have no such passenger,” said the operator.

“As of when?” asked Fleming.

“I’m sorry?”

“Did you ever have a passenger by that name?”

“You mean ever on the ship? That’s not really something I can look up.”

“I mean up until yesterday. Was there a C. L. Levy yesterday and now there is not one today?”

“But we haven’t put into port yet. No one has left the ship.”

Fleming paused. “It does stretch the imagination,” he admitted. He pictured C. L. Levy, just a shapeless shadow in his imagination, standing on the ship’s railing, tilting out of sight. They say you can’t hear the splash. He bet to hell you could hear the splash. Something that awful could never be silent.

“Sir, I apologize, I’m not sure I can help you.”

“Thank you,” said Fleming. “I understand.”

But he didn’t, and he wouldn’t, and he couldn’t. The encounter joined too many others in the bottomless gunnysack he lugged around for situations that didn’t, maybe never would, make sense. He’d become a bit of a collector, but was the material worth anything? Everything unbelievable in his whole life that had nevertheless still happened. It would need to be probed for secrets. Out on deck it wasn’t dark enough to hide. His students would be roaming the ship, drinking, waiting in whatever counted for bushes so they could jump out at him when he walked by. The stars were close tonight. Not just exquisite pricks of light leaking through a tear in the fabric of some other world, to quote a writer he loved. These stars seemed to have fallen lower. They looked shapeless and dirty. Cast-outs, perhaps, from the world of finer stars that knew enough to keep their distance. Or maybe the ship was climbing, lurching straight up out of the water like a slow rocket. He could close his eyes, feel the air rushing down on him, and believe that. Why was that so easy to believe, and it wasn’t true, yet what was true was so finally impossible and unconvincing? The stars — close and dirty and shapeless and false, the sort a child might draw, and what did children even know — were not credible. The sky, the whole night, and all his conversations. These things did not fucking ring true anymore, they needed work. What happened to him needed to be revised until he could find it believable. Or he needed to be revised. Fleming. He needed to change himself so what was real did not seem so alien and wrong. Do you do that with tools, with your hands, with a bag over your head? Do you do that by standing on the ship’s railing at night? Fleming would tuck himself over behind the pool, behind the games floor, where the umbrellas were rolled up, stacked, and chained. It was a kind of bed. It wasn’t so bad. The dark night was a kind of room, and it would do better than where he was. This was just the place to miss out on the next head count, should it come. No one would find him here, at least until morning. They could never check off his name. Maybe that was what was called for, for the next head count to go around, for the ship and its rooms to be searched for its living, viable people — its human beings! — and to be finally, once and for all, counted out.

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is the author of The Flame Alphabet. His next book, Leaving the Sea, will be published in January by Knopf.

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