Elizabeth Sloan Tyler Award for the Literary
Exit, Pursued by Bear
By Jacqueline Kolosov
See all the winners in the 2017 Special Winners Edition
In the coming years, walking his daughter to daycare, or holding her hand as they cross the street, Peter Fricke will find himself asking if it was serendipity or fate that brought Agnes Kurowsky into his Shakespeare seminar that year. They’ve just broken into May, and the bougainvilleas in the courtyard are a riot of scarlet and coral. The once burly Peter, who played college football at Notre Dame, has lost more than forty pounds in the wake of Helen’s death. Unimaginable still, that his Helen, seven months pregnant at the time, was shot at Albertson’s at eight twenty-two p.m. on March thirteenth. These days, instead of her pasta salads and curries, he relies on tea and peanut butter sandwiches to see him through the long afternoons at the college.
This afternoon he sits rereading The Winter’s Tale, his favorite of the late romances. He is teaching the play, and the stage directions—Exit, pursued by a bear—replay in his mind; not quite tragic given the play’s joyful ending; but given how much Helen loved The Winter’s Tale, more than a little sad.
Fourteen months have passed since her death, and Peter continues to linger in his office long after his colleagues have gone home. Sometimes, hunkered down in his armchair by the single lead glass window, Peter almost believes he will look up to find Helen standing in the doorway. “Peter Pan,” he can almost hear her say. “You didn’t think I’d really leave you? How could I?”
Now footsteps in the department hallway fracture the silence, and Peter looks up. The late sun blooms through the window obscuring Agnes’s features so that it’s her very pregnant silhouette and frizzy, golden hair that Peter sees first. “Oh hello,” he says. “You caught me just in time. Come in.”
Not only is Agnes Kurowsky beautiful in a timeless way, as if she’d stepped out of a Thomas Hardy novel—Tess of the D’Urbevilles or The Woodlanders—more than this, Agnes’s ebullient hair and the heart shape of her face remind Peter of Helen.
She smiles, revealing the gap between her front teeth. “My grandmother used to grow these,” she says, gesturing at the Christmas cactus on the windowsill which has unexpectedly flowered. “Are you good with plants?”
“Not really, but this one manages to thrive anyway.” He motions to the chair in front of his desk. “What can I do for you?”
“I saw my doctor today,” Agnes says, easing into the chair. “I’m not due until May twenty-first, but she thinks, based on the examination, well,” her green eyes brighten, “she thinks I’ll go into labor before then.”
“And you’re afraid this will coincide with the exam?” Peter says, startled by Agnes’s directness.
Agnes nods. “I’ve read everything at least twice, so I’m already prepared. Could I take the exam early? I could even be ready tomorrow.”
“Slow down,” Peter says. He has not yet written the exam. “Let’s say Monday, say one o’clock.”
That evening Peter stands in his small kitchen and fixes dinner, his terrier mixes, Lorelei and Milly, and Taco, the overweight Chihuahua, watching his every move. When Helen was alive, the two of them used to linger over dinners on the patio they’d built together after buying the house in Silver Lake, a small 1930s ranch they gradually refurbished. Though they hadn’t met until their late thirties, marrying within the year, it had seemed then as if they’d all the time in the world. Over long dinners, they’d talk about the years ahead as they ate salad from the garden, poured more wine, and tried to remember not to overcook the fish or burn the rice.
Is it possible, Peter asks, looking out at the leaves gathering on the patio, that man was me? With Helen gone, Peter rarely eats outside anymore. Weeds have sprung up between the paving stones, and the flower and vegetable beds are hopelessly overgrown. Only the bird bath Peter tends with some care, for Helen had loved watching the grosbeaks and warblers and an occasional Western Tanager bathe there.
After fixing scrambled eggs and a salad with a heel of sourdough bread, Peter sits at the Formica table, the collected plays of Shakespeare beside him. There are twenty-three students in the class, and of that number Agnes Kurowsky has not especially distinguished herself. Her essays are clear and at times insightful, but she isn’t quite up to the level of analysis he expects from a senior seminar. Yet Agnes will make the occasional remark that lingers within Peter long after class.
There was what she’d said about Hermione, the dead queen who returns to life at the end of The Winter’s Tale, thanks to the healing magic of her most trusted friend. There is an art that doth mend nature, change it rather, and yet the art itself is nature. Peter had asked the students to interpret these lines which he’d committed to heart during his first Shakespeare course at Northwestern more than twenty-five years ago. After Helen died, he’d sit in his dark office repeating the words over and over again, as if they were a mantra, though he’d known, even then, that Helen, unlike the queen in the play, could never be brought back.
“Love is the art that Shakespeare’s talking about,” Agnes said when the others stayed silent. “Love is an art, but it’s also natural, a part of us; the most important part.”
Pierced by the dead-on-rightness of these words, Peter stood before the class, and suddenly, terrifyingly found himself catapulted back to those first weeks after Helen’s death, the paralysis that struck him every time he neared the nursery door. How he’d almost wished then that he could shut off—the way a nerve could be severed—that loving part of himself.
More than a year later, Peter catches himself thinking about what his daughter would be doing now, if she’d been born. Sometimes he dreams about this little girl he so wanted. In the dreams she is a newborn in a cradle, and he sits beside her, singing a lullaby; or she is a toddler on unsteady legs, and he is kneeling on the floor, his arms outstretched calling to her. Always, Peter wakes from these dreams weeping.
“It’s not my baby,” Agnes tells Peter when she shows up on Monday to take the exam.
Peter rubs his beard, squints in the bright sunlight. “Sorry?”
“I’m a surrogate.” She shifts her weight, self-conscious now, for she hadn’t anticipated his furrowed brow, the confusion in his expression. Not that she’d planned to tell him this. It was the way he looked at her when she came in. She couldn’t explain it; but just then she’d felt some likeness between them, some “affinity,” a word he liked to use.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I’m not quite sure why you’re telling me this.”
She looks down at the exam, and all at once the reason is there. “‘The art that doth mend nature,’” she says, pointing to one of the questions. “The couple whose baby I’m carrying, well, the woman hasn’t been able to carry a pregnancy to term. I feel as if those words speak to what I’m going through now, you see?”
He doesn’t answer, and she takes in the perspiration prickling his brow, reminded of the newspaper article, the way he lost his wife. “Dr. Fricke?”
“Take two hours. Then bring the essay back to me. And yes,” he adds, “you can use your laptop if you like and print out a copy in the library, okay?”
“Thank you, I will.”
She stands in the hallway, just outside his office door for a while after that, wishing there was some way she could make him understand. I’m his student, she reminds himself. He probably thinks I’m crazy to have confided in him like that. Another professor walks by, and the woman’s eyes linger on Agnes, so that she knows she must wear all that she is feeling in her face. Hurriedly, she turns and makes her way towards the stairwell.
“You aren’t serious,” Helen’s older sister, Marianne, says when Peter meets her for dinner at the Japanese restaurant down the street from her apartment the following Saturday.
“Perfectly.” Peter wishes that Marianne, who was hard-nosed even before her divorce, could muster some enthusiasm just this once. These weekly dinners aren’t the same without Helen. Always, she was the glue that held Marianne and Peter together. Not that Marianne and I have a whole lot in common, Helen used to say.
Except for the fact that you were raised by two parents who adored you, Peter always replied.
True, Helen would say, hugging him close.
“But Peter, this is crazy,” Marianne says, once the waiter has brought their sushi.
She tucks her silvery hair, recently cropped to chin-length, behind her ears. “You’re still grieving.”
“It’s been more than a year,” Peter says, poking at an eel roll. “You’re the one who’s always telling me to get on with my life.”
She lays down her chopsticks, fixes him with her blue-gray eyes. “I’ve encouraged you to date, to travel—you’ve talked for ages about going back to England; but I never said you should have a baby. What are you thinking anyway? That you can somehow replace Helen? Clone her?” She laughs bitterly. “A sort of mini-me like in that absurd movie you dragged me to see?”
The couple at the next table, both of them dressed all in black, look their way.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Peter says quietly. “And that movie was funny. You laughed as hard as I did. You just won’t admit it.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Marianne says, the lawyer in her coming through despite her recent move into real estate.
“That baby would be a part of Helen,” Peter says, his voice firmer now. “It would be her child, the child we should have had.”
“If Helen were still alive.” She sighs, swishes the wine around in her glass, drinks. “I’m sorry, but the whole idea’s just too much. It’s crazy, totally crazy.”
Peter holds her gaze. “Stop saying that.”
“No.” Marianne props her elbows on the table. “Think about it. A pregnant student comes into your office and tells you that she’s a surrogate for a childless couple, and now you want to find one of your own.”
“We have the embryos, Marianne, don’t forget that. It’s not like this wasn’t our idea in the first place.”
“But Helen was going to carry the child, her child. She was the mother—” Only now does Marianne’s voice waver.
“And she did carry that child, our daughter. If that fucked up kid hadn’t—” If Helen hadn’t been in the supermarket at eight forty-five at night, buying butter, apples, and a tin of tuna, she would still be here, and they would have their daughter, Louisa Marie. Peter, despite every reason not to, still keeps the picture from the last ultrasound in the nightstand drawer.
More staring from the couple in black.
Marianne sinks back into the red leather booth, closes her eyes. “Oh Peter.”
“Don’t talk to me about moving on,” Peter says, a razor sharpness coming into his voice. “Every single day I wake up, and I can’t believe she isn’t here. I reread the books she loved, trying to find her in the margins. People say it’s going to get easier, but,” he glares at the couple at the next table, “that’s bullshit.”
“God, Peter, I miss her, too. But raising a child on your own? Really, you need to give this more time.” Marianne reaches out, covers his hand with her own.
“That’s another phrase I’ve had enough of.” Peter pulls his hand away, reminded of that awful night, some three weeks after Helen’s death, when either he or Marianne reached for the other, and for a few moments they were in each other’s arms. Thank god, one or the other of them had the presence of mind to stop things from going any further, for what a disaster that would have been.
Marianne’s elbows are back on the table, and she is scrutinizing him closely, her eyes as blue as Helen’s, though Helen alone had those dazzling gold flecks. “Tell me this: how are you going to pay for a surrogate? It’s going to be phenomenally expensive.”
“I’ve already considered that,” he says, though in reality his calculations have been pretty minimal. “I’ll forego my sabbatical next year and take on summer teaching. The Subaru’s old, but it’s in good shape. I could even take in a renter,” he adds hurriedly, though this he has in fact not considered.
“You can’t possibly do that,” Marianne says.
Peter frowns. “Why not?”
“You love your privacy way too much.”
“I want a child, Helen’s child, more.”
They stare at each other for a while, and Peter senses that Marianne is waiting for him to look away first. Another lawyer’s tactic.
“I don’t think I told you that I didn’t give away the cradle,” Peter says at last, his gaze still riveted on Marianne. “It’s in the walk-in-closet in Helen’s study, along with the other things I could not bear to give away.
Marianne looks down at her hands, very briefly, and then back at Peter again. She was with them when they bought that cradle, having found it in an antiques store in some small town outside the city. And Marianne, with her elephant’s memory, must remember the care with which both Peter and Helen refinished the cradle, even stenciling in a moon and stars along the headboard.
“Really, Marianne, how could I have given up that?”
Agnes Kurowsky isn’t given to gossip, but she did read about the shooting at the grocery store, the one in which Peter Fricke’s wife, seven months pregnant and out for a few items, had been killed. There are days when his eyes flicker over her face and body, not with desire, though there is hunger there, and sorrow so deep Agnes believes that if she looked too long, she could get lost in it. Agnes herself has known sorrow; it lingers in her sister Beth’s house, and at times it seems to cut through Beth’s fury to reveal something purple and bruised with longing.
Even though Agnes isn’t majoring in English, she signed up for the seminar because she’s determined to read the great writers while pursuing her nursing degree. It’s the one thing her largely self-educated grandmother believed every person should do. And because Agnes loved her grandmother, who looked after her and Beth while her mother had to work, the advice stayed with her, became her own.
What Agnes never expected is the effect Shakespeare’s plays would have on her. So young, my lord, and true, Cordelia tells Lear when he is disappointed, then enraged by her inability to flatter, her inability to heave my heart into my mouth. Agnes doesn’t entirely understand everything in these plays; yet lines like this one burrow deep beneath her skin, becoming part of her blood stream. She thinks of her own father, who left when she was seven, the way she knew, even as a very small child, this wiry, broad-shouldered man who took off on his motorcycle on Saturday mornings, would not stay. Like the loyal daughter in King Lear, she’d tried to hold her father, to keep him, with her love. And she failed, just as her mother had.
I am a feather for each wind that blows.
Two weeks later, on a rainy morning just after the semester’s final exams are over, Peter sits in the office of Dr. Rayan Murr. The last time he saw Murr was at Helen’s funeral. Peter had looked around at some point, a little amazed the man had come, though of course Murr had heard about the shooting. His office had sent flowers: a dozen white roses and a card that Peter can’t remember having read.
“You look different somehow,” Peter says, startled when the doctor steps into the office, and Peter stands to shake his hand.
“It’s the hair,” Murr says, shaking Peter’s hand. “I had a transplant.”
“Ah, well.” A smile creeps over Peter’s features, remembering what Helen used to say about their endocrinologist, how certain she’d been that he was more high maintenance than the vainest woman. And yet there is no denying that Helen had liked him. Hell, Peter himself had always liked him. After all, he’d made it possible for Helen and Peter to have a child, and they would have— Peter slams closed this door to his thoughts.
“How are you?” the doctor says, once he opens a folder dating back to their first appointment nearly three and a half years ago.
“Surviving,” Peter says, then realizes this is probably not the best way to proceed given the reason he’s here. “I’m tenured now at the college. I published my book on Shakespeare’s romances.”
Murr congratulates him, the vague look in his eyes suggesting he has no real idea of what Peter’s book is about, and will therefore not press him further. For this Peter feels only relief. “So,” Murr leans back in his chair, his fine hands folded in his lap. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to talk to you about finding a surrogate.”
“That’s a considerable undertaking,” Murr says carefully.
“I know.” Peter looks the doctor directly in the eye. “If Helen hadn’t died, we’d have a baby girl right now.”
“She would be a year old,” the doctor says, not even looking at the folder.
“Yes,” Peter says, swallows. “I’m here because I want to have a child, Helen’s child.”
Murr, who has aged in the interim despite the gorgeous head of hair, the lines around his mouth and eyes having become more deeply ingrained, remains silent for a good while.
And Peter, who’s been so keyed up about this meeting since he arrived at the decision, takes some comfort in the space between them, for it lets him breathe.
A few minutes later, Dr. Murr quotes the cost of using a surrogate, explaining that the legal documents will be more elaborate and therefore significantly more expensive. “Each prospective surrogate is subject to significant psychological screening, but we must take precautions. We need to ensure that there is no way a surrogate could try to keep the child at the time of the birth. There have been incidents, though very few, elsewhere of course. You see the reason for the safeguards.”
Peter nods, rests his large hands on his knees, Agnes’s lovely face swimming up into his memory. It’s been nearly two weeks. More than likely, she will have had the baby by now. “And the procedure?”
“It will be like the last time. The surrogate will take the hormones, just as Helen did. The main difference will be that this time we will use thawed embryos and not fresh ones. The chances of pregnancy are significantly lower, so I would recommend implanting four, perhaps even five, depending upon the quality of the embryos. Your file says there are six in storage. We won’t know their viability until we thaw them all on the day before the implantation.
“But,” Murr says, his cheeks suddenly flushed, “we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, we must find a woman to carry this pregnancy.”
Agnes’s obstetrician expected her to go into labor early given the extent of her dilation at thirty-eight weeks, but it doesn’t actually begin until two days after her due date. She is standing in her white nightgown in her sister’s kitchen fixing breakfast for her niece and nephew when she feels a warm whoosh of fluid down her legs. “Oh, oh,” six-year-old Tulia says. “Aunt Aggie had an accident.”
Staring down at her soaked gown, at the puddle on the floor, it takes a moment for Agnes to register what’s happening. “No, Tuli dear,” Agnes says, “my water broke. The baby’s coming.”
Tulia stands there blinking in the bright light, and then she says, “Should I get Mommy? Maybe you need Brown Bear to help. Are we going to go to the hospital now? I can get your pink suitcase.”
Agnes smiles, relieved it’s happening at last, despite the fear that courses through her. “Yes, we are,” she says. “Wake up your mom, and yes, please get my suitcase.”
Within the hour, Agnes is admitted to her hospital room which looks more like a hotel suite with its pull-out sofa, gilt-framed pictures, not to mention the television opposite the hospital bed, as if she could even think about television right now. Leo and Rochelle Goldman, whom she phoned before leaving the house, are already waiting for her.
“The baby’s coming,” Leo says to Agnes, who nods, smiles, allows him to take her hand. His own is warm, sweaty. Rochelle, a wispy blonde with pale skin and equally pale, green eyes, takes Agnes’s other hand. And soon the doctor is there, and the nurses, and within the hour she is squatting on the floor in the throes of an experience she will never be able to describe afterwards. Eight hours in, Rochelle produces popsicles for Agnes to suck on, the too-sweet grape and strawberry reminding Agnes of running through the backyard sprinklers all through the heat of summer when she and Beth were small.
These images are pierced by wave after wave of contractions that cut deep into her, so that she screams with a primal force. Fourteen hours later, she doesn’t think she can hang on any longer, but Rochelle squeezes her hand, and speaks in the most soothing tones, “You’re almost there. Just keep breathing.”
For a time it seems as if the two women are breathing together, and all the while Rochelle, her fine flaxen hair grazing Agnes’s cheeks, keeps sponging Agnes’s forehead with a cool cloth that smells of lavender. And then it gets agonizingly hard again, and the nurse and Rochelle help Agnes into an almost upright position, and the nurse tells her “to push with all you’ve got.” Agnes doesn’t remember much after that, until, at eight pounds two ounces, Joshua Leo Goldman comes crying into this life just before dawn on May the twenty-fourth.
How much time passes before Agnes is gazing at the wrinkled, purplish face of this tiny human being who grew inside her for nine months, she doesn’t know. All she knows—all she remembers later—is the love that fills her when she nurses him that first and only time, a love so complete she almost forgets that she must surrender to this couple this brand new person whose kicks and turns she felt for so long they became a part of her.
Three days later, Agnes is back in her garage apartment at Beth’s house on an un-gentrified street on the fringes of Westlake. Friday evening, Agnes stands at the stove making scrambled eggs for eight-year-old Zach and little Tulia, who loves Aunt Aggie’s comfort food far more than her harried mother’s crock-pot chili and crunchy salads.
“But where is the baby?” Tulia asks again, once Agnes sits down beside them at the picnic table in the postage stamp-sized garden.
“She’s already told you ten times, Tulip-head,” Zach says, stabbing at his French toast.
“Mom said not to call me that,” Tulia shouts.
“Please, Zach,” Agnes says, more tired now than she was at the end of the pregnancy. “I could use a little help here.”
Zach rolls his eyes. “Fine.”
“Thank you,” Agnes says, and returns to her meal, aware that Tulia’s big blue eyes are still fixed on her. “Like I said, Tul, the baby is with his mommy and daddy.”
“But he grew in your tummy,” Tulia insists. “You let me feel his kicks, his little ‘hellos.’”
“Oh Bumblebee, I told you that he was going to live with his parents.”
“The real parents needed Aunt Aggie’s body, Tul,” Zach explains. “She isn’t the real mommy.”
“Zach’s right,” Agnes says, amazed that this is the same boy who put gum in Tulia’s hair an hour ago. “I just gave the baby a place to grow because his real mommy couldn’t.”
Tulia crinkles her brow, bites her lower lip. “Mommies give birth to babies. I waited and waited to meet him. I set up a tea party in my room. Ella Funt and Brown Bear are waiting.”
Agnes smiles, trusting it will all sort itself out, though it’s astonishing that Tulia, who knows all about her father’s new family, just can’t wrap her head around the idea of baby Joshua, as Agnes calls him, going to live with someone else. “It’s a little like Mary-Katherine,” Agnes finally says, thinking of the eight-year-old tomboy who lives next door, as she gathers Tulia up into her lap. “Mary-Katherine’s parents brought her home from the hospital, but someone else gave birth to her.”
“That’s because her first mommy didn’t want her,” Tulia says.
“Mary-Katherine didn’t say that, did she?” Agnes asks.
Tulia doesn’t answer, just fiddles with Agnes’s napkin.
“Mary-Katherine’s parents love her a lot,” Agnes says, wrapping her arms around her niece, “just like your mommy loves you.”
Agnes meets Tulia’s earnest gaze, feels the tug at her breasts and remembers what she felt after Joshua latched on and sucked and sucked, the tiny eyes with their butterfly lashes closed or opened just momentarily to gaze into hers—he seemed not quite of this world. In that time, the dreamiest peace washed over her, a cocooned calm radically unlike anything she had ever known. Now there are two damp spots on her t-shirt, a sign she will have to shower, press out the milk destined for a child that was never hers to begin with.
“Listen, Tul, I gave birth to him,” Agnes says eventually, “but the people who waited for him, the Goldmans, they’re his parents.”
To her surprise, Tulia nods and goes back to her chair. Soon she is asking Agnes to play Candyland with her after dinner, and can she have marshmallows in her hot chocolate, her worries about the baby and Mary-Katherine and perhaps even herself forgotten, for now anyway.
Agnes clears the dishes and thinks about her tired, unhappy sister who, at thirty-six, seems more disillusioned than almost anyone she knows, her own husband having left nearly two years ago now. And oddly enough, she thinks about another pair of lines from The Winter’s Tale, which she reread after coming home from the hospital. What’s gone and what’s past help/Should be past grief.
“I married an asshole, Aggie,” Beth told her when the child support was late again. “Remember that when you start looking around. Or better yet, get your nursing degree, focus. You’ll graduate at thirty-three as long as you don’t get distracted. Just don’t be like me—or Mom. God, what a fucked-up mess I made of my life.”
“But you have Zach and Tulia,” Agnes replied.
And for a moment Beth’s face, her tense body, softened at the words, the truth of them.
Agnes received twenty-five thousand dollars for carrying Joshua Leo Goldman to term. Initially, she planned to use that money to pay for her final year of nursing school, to buy a car that would be reliable enough to drive more than twenty miles, and maybe even to take a trip this summer. Always she has wanted to see Ireland, and at this point, she hasn’t been anywhere other than the West Coast.
But she decided to put some of it aside for Tulia and Zach. An educational IRA, she told Beth.
“How do you even know about that stuff?” Beth asked.
“The Goldmans told me,” Agnes said, reminded of the hours she spent with the couple who counseled her on her future and invited her to come to their house later this summer, though she doesn’t think she will.
“Sometimes,” Beth said, “it’s really hard to believe that you and I have the same parents.”
“You’re right,” Agnes replied.
“Sometimes it is.”
The last day of May draws near, and the campus empties out. Peter plans to come into his office only once more before the summer holidays begin. The previous evening, he emailed his students in the Shakespeare seminar to say they could pick up their exams on May twenty-ninth. “After that, I won’t be around much before late August.” Though he doesn’t expect most of them to stop by, for their grades will be posted online, he does expect Agnes to come. Not that her essay is exceptional, only thorough with the occasional glimmer of real insight. She took his earlier advice and steered clear of too many personal asides or “digressions,” as he called them, and wrote a perceptive analysis of the role of those lines in The Winter’s Tale, all the while referring to others, thereby demonstrating her conversance with the play. The queen returns to life because the king has finally recognized his wrongdoing. The spider in the cup that he talks about in the first act, the spider he believes to be his wife’s unfaithfulness, is his ‘fatal error,’ and he sees this. And that action saves him—saves all of them. The queen was loving, and true, and their child is miraculously restored to them. (And here I find the fact that Shakespeare kept her alive to be really sweet but not entirely believable. I mean, a shepherdess who is really a princess? Was Shakespeare reading fairy tales? Were there fairy tales in the sixteenth century?—‘A sad tale’s best for winter,’ the king’s son says. Not that I don’t love that ending. Who wouldn’t?)
Peter laughed when he read Agnes’s parenthetical statement, even though he’d gone over all this in class, the fact that the late romances are so very different from the tragedies because in the romances what should have ended disastrously—in this case the king’s order that the queen be put to death—turns out well, thanks to magic, or a miracle. The queen isn’t really dead, nor is their daughter. There is an art that doth mend nature, change it rather, and yet the art itself is nature. The art that Shakespeare is secretly referring to, Peter told the class, is Art with a capital ‘A.’
I understand that a romance is the total opposite of a tragedy. What I find impossible or at least amazing is that Shakespeare didn’t end with the tragedies. He was an old man when he wrote The Winter’s Tale. Why didn’t he end on a play like King Lear’s ‘Is man no more than this?’ That’s what astonishes me. Most people I know are unhappy or at least resigned—that’s the word, right?—by the time they’re fifty. If I can look at the world like that when I’m old, at this world with all its violence, well then…
And here, Peter realizes, Agnes strays from the topic significantly. At the same time, she is pointing to the marvelous, unanswerable question no one can answer, though many, Peter included, have tried. What made Shakespeare’s late vision possible?
Peter’s own father was nearing forty when Peter, his only surviving child, was born. By the time Peter was thirteen, his mother had died of cancer, and his father, whose red hair grayed early, had arthritis in his knees and hands, and had moved as far up in the railroad hierarchy as he was ever going to. Now that the old man’s in the nursing home, he dwells on What Should Have Been.
What’s gone and what’s past help/Should be past grief. Peter actually said these words to his father once, the context, though, he’s forgotten. “What in the hell are you quoting that mumbo jumbo to me for?” his father had said. And Peter had wanted to say: ‘Because truth can be found there, maybe even solace.’
Exit, pursued by a bear. That’s how he often felt leaving his father at the nursing home; he’d told Helen this, long after she, too, knew The Winter’s Tale almost as well as he did.
Helen had cried over these exit lines when he first read them to her in the weeks after they bumped into each other, literally, while buying apples at the farmer’s market. “Those lines mark the change from tragedy to comedy,” Peter had said. “The baby doesn’t die. She’s found by a shepherd and kept safe and ultimately restored to the king, her father, and to her mother, the queen.”
“That’s why Shakespeare called it a romance then?” Helen said, twining her slender, freckled arms around his neck. “Because of the happy ending?”
“Precisely why,” Peter replied, sliding the blouse from Helen’s shoulder to kiss her neck.
By the time Peter finishes rereading Agnes’s essay, it’s nearly five o’clock. He has a dinner date with Marianne at six-thirty. He plans to discuss with her the two prospective surrogates who’ve risen to the top of the list in the nearly fifty profiles he’s read. Not that Marianne fully backs him up on this idea now. She remains wary; but Peter trusts, he believes, she will come around. She’s already agreed to help out during the first few months, and she’s begun to inquire about nannies—“My financial contribution,” she told Peter when she brought the nanny up, “should you decide to go through with this, and should it actually work.”
Marianne moves much slower than I do, Helen used to say. She always has.
At five-thirty, Peter checks his email, just in case. But there is nothing except a memo from the department chair reminding faculty to turn in grades by June first. Peter leans back in his chair, plucks a dead blossom from the Christmas cactus which surprisingly continues to put forth more blooms. He arranges the exams in a neat pile and then stores them in a folder in his cabinet with Agnes’s ‘B+’ close to the top. Outside his window, the bougainvilleas in the courtyard bloom as brilliantly as ever. He switches out the light on his desk, takes one more backward glance, and closes the door.
Jacqueline Kolosov is a professor of English at Texas Tech University, where she directs both the undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs, and works in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and in hybrid genres. She has recently published work in Boulevard, The Southern Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Sewanee Review. She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the NEA; a residency at the Banff Centre; and a $47,000 grant from The CH Foundation to create the 2018 CH Foundation Arts for Healing Programming & Workshops, which will establish multi-modal arts programming with populations including at-risk teens, veterans, pediatric patients, palliative care patients, as well as their families, and the doctors, nurses, and staff who care for them.