These Winters in Pittsburgh are Making Us Strong

By JANE MCCAFFERTY

Ah, last day of the semester. The professor goes on a long walk into the winter woods near the Highland Park Reservoir, her pale face chapped with cold. She’s had one glass of wine.

OK two and a half. It’s perfect out here! The sky looks pink, sweet and pillowy as seen through bare black branches, and she’s touching as many trees as possible. This is a ritual that had been given to a character in one of the student stories she’d read this term. The story had moved the professor to tears, partly because the kid who wrote it was such a sincere person, so full of effort. He was Italian-Latvian, from South Philadelphia, used a flip-phone, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, watched ancient re-runs of The Waltons on his laptop, and was the most brilliant of students—like nobody she’d ever taught before. A double major in writing and physics.

The character in the kid’s story was an old monk who lived to bless trees. Trees who sang to him. In the end, all the trees die and the character believes it is his lack of enlightenment that killed them. He keeps his hands fisted in his brown robe’s pockets after that, for the rest of his life. The story ends: And his hands grew tired, so tired, tired from all they had not done.

She wanted to call the student-author on the phone and talk, but of course you don’t do this, not when you are an associate professor in your forties, some would say late forties, in the heart of winter, single and playing around with online dating. The last possibility had been a guy her age who was great on paper, but when they met, though he was attractive enough for someone with the low standards she was proud of maintaining, he had the unsettling habit of nodding his head appreciatively at everything she said while muttering, beast.

***

In and out of shadows and light, the professor traverses the winter woods in her black coat, humming. Does she think she’s in a fairytale?

She stops on the narrow path of frozen leaves and twigs. Through the trees she can see the Allegheny River below, an old barge pushing a mountain of coal.

***

At home she prints a new copy of the student’s story and cuts out certain paragraphs to tape to the refrigerator. 

The Franciscan sits at the edge of the road in the town of Jubilee. Jubilee where all the yellow reeds are bending toward the earth. As if in supplication. The monk had carved his begging bowl years ago. Now it is silk-smooth! His long fingers like the feel. Yes, he thinks, it is a good bowl. He watches a hawk for a moment, wonders if the blue line in the air connecting himself to the hawk can be seen by others. He will not ask! He does not wish to be “hauled off.” Circling the monk are stones he’s collected from the river. He wishes to have something to hand to the givers. Every time a giver drops a coin into the bowl, the monk reaches for a stone. The stones are blue, or blue-grey. And each one contains a star. Stars to be released. This will certainly happen and the giver will feel it but will not understand it.

Another paragraph she tapes to the wall by the kitchen sink:

The monk understands the light is lapping at his feet like water as he walks to the Elemental diner for his daily rice pudding. Many unseen doors hanging in the air around him. He knows each door is leading to something vast. 

Vast as love! 

But he cannot enter and there are many reasons. 

And on the back of the apartment’s front door:

The monk listens to the great choir of trees. Each branch, he sees, is a voice trying with all its power to reach the exasperated heart of the Creator. 

For days, each time she washes dishes she makes sure to zero in on the line Vast as love! She wants to find that vastness somewhere, somehow.

***

On a brittle January day where the grey sky looks hard as the rind of a fruit, a rind that will never again split open to reveal the inside of the fruit—their very own sun—the professor decides that she is strong enough to read her student evaluations. She is hoping to read one from the writer of the monk story, of course. She fixes a cup of black tea, and sits down on the couch in a robe, legs curled beneath her, snow falling in the window behind her, radio on for company. She looks at the painting across from her—scavenged from a thrift store—a dark ship at sea under a brilliant moon.

***

A few things make reading student evaluations harder than it used to be. The University, founded a hundred years ago as Carnegie Tech for working class kids in Pittsburgh, has jacked up tuition to 50 grand a year. Somehow this has become acceptable. The students, understandably, are now seen as customers, and the professor understands this, after doing some math that told her it was costing each of them about 250 dollars to sit in one of her classes. She wants to apologize all the time, even as she gave up apologizing a few years ago after taking the popular online class called Stop Apologizing, Bitches! 

She takes a sip of the hot black tea. 

Generally, the evaluations are pretty good, or, as some would say, mediocre. Unlike the professor’s friend, an adjunct who also worked as a barista and editor, and who liked to tell the story of one of her evaluators proposing.

This was a great class. Marry me. I’m not even kidding. If you’re interested, I’ll be waiting.

She calls the adjunct now, but there’s no answer. 

Last year this same adjunct had an evaluation that said, You have totally changed my life! Please, let me change yours! And then a phone number.

The professor would die for one of those.

Well, the adjunct was only thirty and looked a little like that old model from the eighties—Elle MacPherson. The professor was fifty or so pounds heavier than she’d been in high school, but thankfully mentions of her size had not appeared in an evaluation for three years—really that had only been one cruel comment—but it still rang in her head sometimes.

The adjunct was actually a better scholar and writer than the professor, and more organized. The younger people all had to be better—it was brutal out there for them—and the professor sometimes thought if she were a deeply ethical person she would leave her job and make room for the adjunct. But she’d given her heart to the job, and wouldn’t quite know who to be without it. This did not mean she wasn’t haunted by the sense that she didn’t deserve any of it. And grateful to all the adjuncts in the world who didn’t resent her as much as they should.

***

After another walk in the woods, the professor called the adjunct when she got home to her apartment. “Read your evals yet?”

The adjunct cried, “Marian fucking died!”

“Oh no. I’m really sorry. I’m no cat person, but Marian was so sweet. Really sweet.”

“You expect sickness to lead to death. You don’t expect a normal day in the life to lead to death. She wasn’t sick at all, and now—”

“Well, she was pretty old, right?” The adjunct’s cat was 23.

Silence. “That’s not a helpful thing to say.”

“Sorry. I’m really sorry.” She tried to think of a helpful thing to say, but couldn’t.

“Anyhow,” the adjunct finally said. “Read my evals last night. The funniest one said I was pretty awesome but I shouldn’t pretend to know shit about hockey.”

They laughed.

“Read yours yet? I suspect not. First you need to have an anxiety attack, right?”

“That was the old me. I don’t care anymore.”

“Don’t get drunk if they’re bad. Call me. OK? Like if you get a wardrobe critique again from some little fucker.”

“I am not dumping emotional labor on an adjunct,” the professor says, and means it, even as she secretly feels the adjunct is more privileged due to her beauty, height, youth, organizational abilities, grasp of social media, and several other innate talents.

“I hate that talk about emotional labor!” the adjunct cries. “I know it’s supposed to be feminist but to my ear it just sounds like bullshit. Like be more like a man, and stop listening to people.”

“Gotcha.” The professor admires the adjunct’s capacity to know her own mind. How emphatic she can be. Often the professor thinks, when talking to the adjunct, “Yeats was wrong. The best do not lack all conviction.”

“Anyhow, go read your evaluations, and remember all you need to do is keep your middle finger on the ready.”

The professor laughs. 

***

She doesn’t tell the adjunct that all term long she’d suffered insomnia and the dark edge of depression; her estranged father had died. She hadn’t seen him in years, so the unexpected grief was muted and inexplicable, but inwardly derailed her. Maybe she’d been secretly hoping they’d meet one year and become friends? She’d faked her way through the months, plastering smiles on her face that nobody recognized as willed. Didn’t tell the adjunct it was probably the second-worst semester of her life, except for the boy who wrote the fisted monk story. Oh, if she could only see him now. If she could only take a walk with him and tell him how she would never forget the beautiful monk he’d created.

***

The evals were above average this time. Quite. She put the tea aside and went to fetch some wine—the wine of relief. She came back to read the comments.

There were only seven, none of them too bad.

Decent class! Doesn’t follow syllabus, but cool. Don’t believe her when she says “no late work accepted” 

Professor H is high key sweet in office hours but can’t find shit in classlol totally lost one of my papers. Not as bad as some professors lol. I wish we could read better stuff like more fantasy but some of the stuff was good

Professor Holly is pretty sweet. I learned point of view techniques and we read good stuff. She makes you write maybe too much but it’s cool since that’s why we’re here. Pretty deep.

Professor Holly listens to what you say but she should keep her politics to herself. I don’t pay good money to be preached at by a left wing freak. Keep politics out of the classroom! It doesn’t make you cool! It makes you old and angry.

I love this prof! What a hoot! Taught me poetry belongs in prose and in life! gives good trigger warnings to some of the depressing shit she makes you read. She doesn’t let herself be confined by society’s view of how women should look. Thanks, Holl ! ! xo

She thinks she’s great but she never even read Philip K. Dick. Get a job “Professor”!

She was sure none of these were from the writer of the monk story. She would know his writing voice anywhere. She’d asked him if he wouldn’t mind filling one out, and he’d smiled his awkward smile and said he would, but must have forgotten. He handled a lot of medication, had to work out hours a day, and sleep eleven hours a night. Even if he had no excuse for forgetting to evaluate her, she’d still love him. She’d love him forever for his great effort and his brown-robed monk with the blue stones. She’d love him for his brilliant dark eyes and because once he brought cupcakes to class like he was in second grade. He had made the cupcakes himself in a baking therapy group held in Squirrel Hill. She imagined if he had written an evaluation, it might have said something wonderful.

The Philip K. Dick kid was angry at her for not recognizing his genius; his comment didn’t sting too much because he was mean in class, and everyone had grown annoyed when he managed to always bring discussion back to his hero, Mr. Dick. Nor did the left-wing freak comment hurt—she knew who that was—Bella May Twist-Howe, not a very lovable person at all. Nobody had said anything cruel like, Ugly bitch goes off on tangents, thinks it’s cute but it’s pathetic, hope she gets bulimia and cuts her hair. She’d never figured out who that student was. She had no idea who to pin it on, so it had become an amorphous voice, and sometimes in the middle of the night she’d hear the words repeating as if sounding from the heart of the universe. Why didn’t the good comments stay with her? She knew that was just how people were built, but why?

***

Snow fell gracefully to the earth as dusk claimed the city of Pittsburgh. The professor drank another glass of wine and decided to go back out under the moon—not to the woods, but just to walk in the streets, feeling grateful for many things. The old brick houses with their slate roofs received the snow, windows brimming with light. Most were nearly a century old, and so well built it seemed they’d outlast an apocalypse. A man in a black parka and red hat was out on the sidewalk of Callowhill Street, shoveling, his face bright red. It had snowed five times in January, including one storm that shut the city down for two days. The man shoveling stopped and stepped back so she could pass by. “Don’t work too hard,” she said. He smiled. He was maybe sixty, with deep lines in his face, and his eyes were wet with tears from the cold. “These winters in Pittsburgh are making us strong,” he said.

“They are,” she agreed.

“Hey. Aren’t you the gal who lives near the guy who has a turkey?”

“I’m the gal,” she said, smiling.

“I saw you talking to the turkey one day.”

“Oh! Well, not really talking. Just you know, saying hi.”

He nodded. He had nothing more to say. He went back to shoveling. But his initial words—these winters in Pittsburgh are making us strong—rang in her mind, and she carried them into the next day, when she woke to the house muffled into silence by the weight of the snow. She did not turn on the radio to listen to stories of refugees. She did not call her mother who was recently unemployed and required pep talks and money. Instead she lay in silence and remembered being a child; one year it snowed so much she and her sister had jumped out the second story window and not hurt themselves. Her father had been gone by then, but at that age she still had to work to not think of him.

***

Above her bed, taped to the wall, were the last few lines of the student’s story.

It was the trees that told the cold truth in song. His fists in his robe’s pockets grew tighter. Tighter. It was the pale green sky that whispered “you tried.” And his hands grew tired, so tired, tired from all they had not done.

***

That evening, she couldn’t resist. She emailed the student.

Hello Anthony,

Just wanted to wish you a good break. So nice having you in class. Let me know if you need a letter of recommendation down the road.

H.H.

***

She checked to see if he wrote back no less than 25 times that night and the next day, but always there was nothing. Email was a wasteland. Mostly ads or requests for money to stop school shootings. A student wanted her B changed to an A or she wouldn’t get into med school. We’ll work something out.

She went out for a walk in the snow that night, and filled her lungs with cold light from the moon. For a moment her shadow beside her had the clarity and mystery it had once held in childhood. She wished for a lover who might care about such a fleeting perception. Didn’t care if the lover came in the body of a man or woman or something in between. Maybe someone not unlike Gloria, her last lover from over four years ago (who still texted the occasional emoticon) would appear around a corner one day, if she kept taking these long walks.

***

The next morning she woke to an email from Anthony.

He had typed out the lyrics to an old song that had been on a Beatles album her mother had given her in high school.

There were bells on the hill but I never

heard them ronging no I never heard them at all til

there was you.

There was no salutation, there was no signature. He had typed it quickly—thus ringing became ronging. She would tell the adjunct about this, and she would tell her mother, and maybe a few friends. But not yet. For now she just sat with it. For any bad evaluation coming to her in the future, there would always be this, this lyric handed over especially to her, from an artist who’d made her love a despairing monk, whose fists she badly wished she could unfold.

 

Jane McCafferty is the author of two novels, One Heart and First You Try Everything, and a collection of stories, Thank You For the Music, all from HarperCollins. Another collection of stories, Director of the World, won The Drue Heinz prize as judged by John Edgar Wideman. She’s finishing a third novel, and a collection of stories centering redemptive human connections forged in unlikely places. Recent stories appear in The Sun, Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, and Catapult. Her work has received several awards, including an NEA and two Pushcarts.

These Winters in Pittsburgh are Making Us Strong

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