by Paula Gail Benson
Another version of this story appeared in Writers Who Kill in December 2014.
It’s wonderful to have a book released at Christmas time. Unless you’re me!
My name’s Ham Richards. I’m a recently tenured film professor with a tendency to view my life as a movie. For instance, I can imagine my book’s arrival memorialized in a grainy black and white.
“I’m home,” I call out cheerily, entering the front door of an elegant hallway, wearing a tweed suit with patched elbows and carrying a pipe. A Christmas wreath’s looped over my arm like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
From the kitchen, Daphne, channeling Mary Bailey and wearing a cute ruffled apron, rushes forward to greet me. “Darling,” she cries as her arms wind around my neck. “The most wonderful news. Your dream has come true.” She plants a big one right on my kisser.
“Ewwwww.” The long derogatory wail comes from our precious daughter Jessica, aged twelve, who has snuck in from the kitchen. As Daphne and I look at her adoringly, she says, “Cut out the smoochy stuff and let’s open the box.”
So, we do just that, taking a short interval to ooh and aah at the cover and author photo on the back, again me in tweed with patched sleeves and pipe. Then, Daphne gets our Polaroid and takes a few candid pics of Jessica, me, and the book, all coming out the camera’s front slot and developing before our eyes.
Finally, I tell her, “Let’s see if we can all get together in the shot. Jessica, you hold the book.” I bring my two girls in close beside me, stretch the camera at arms’ length, and snap the very first selfie. As the photo appears, we see ourselves centered and smiling, with Daphne’s arms around my neck and her lips pressed against my cheek.
After squealing in delight, Daphne declares, “That’s our Christmas card photo.”
Perhaps, it might have happened that way if we were a happily joined together family in some alternative stuck-forever-in-the-mid-20th-century universe. As it was, the only part of reality that matched my imaginings was my author photo in the tweed jacket with patched elbows. Even that was minus the pipe.
In reality, the box of books arrived in the main office of the English department. Our department head, Walt Chatsworth, gathered two faculty members, who happened to be checking their mail slots, our office manager Mrs. Dutton and Selma Grant, a graduate student who had spent the last month either flirting or pleading with me to supervise her Jane Austen thesis as audience for the announcement.
My colleagues were briefly polite and congratulatory before slipping away with their messages and correspondence. Selma branded my cheek with her signature fuchsia lip gloss, whispering in my ear that she would love to work on her thesis with an author published by a major house. “Professor Montgomery’s better suited to your field of study,” I reminded her.
“But, they’ve made movies of all the Austen books,” she replied, scooping up a handful of the postcards I’d paid for to publicize my book before heading toward the door.
“Great job, Ham,” Walt Chatsworth told me as he clasped my shoulder. He leaned in to say, “Don’t forget Selma’s family gave us Grant auditorium. Wouldn’t you like an endowed chair?” Then, he grabbed a half-inch stack of my postcards, saying he was headed to an administrative meeting and wanted to rub the news in the other department heads’ faces.
Mrs. Dutton loaded the books, remaining postcards and a sheet with information about my scheduled signing at the university bookstore into my arms and then sent me unceremoniously down the hall. I reached my door with the stack intact. Monty, Professor Hal Montgomery, who had the office next to mine, dashed past me on his way to a class – or maybe hoping to avoid Selma Grant – and didn’t even offer to open my door.
Somehow I managed to get myself and my bundle inside my office and deposit the items on the corner of my desk. I turned to close the door and came face-to-face with Daphne, who taught Victorian literature, primarily poetry, in the department. I greeted her with a smile, but saw that she was staring daggers at my open box of books.
“The only reason you ever wrote that book was to flaunt a woman’s betrayal in my face,” she yelled as she pointed toward the offending volumes.
“You know that’s not true, Daphne,” I said as gently as I could. “I’ve been writing about noir for years. This is just a culmination of my efforts.”
“A book about deceptive women called Femme Fatally Yours.”
I had been rather proud of that title and truly fascinated in how femme fatales could dominate cinematic imagination, even to the point that they didn’t need to physically appear, like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca who’s dead before the story begins. Of course, that author’s name brought me back to the Daphne before me, now my ex-wife, and made me wonder if subconsciously I wanted her out of my life before she entered it. Yet, I knew that wasn’t the case, because I would have missed out on having Jessica.
Still I felt my teeth set into a grind remembering how Daphne left me for Dorian the Lay, a hunky graduate student who became an adjunct professor in the department. Dorian, who caused Daphne to stray, thus destroying my beautiful family and leaving me perpetually worried that Jessica would be scarred forever by our split. Dorian, who kept Daphne from turning gray. Dorian, she will obey. Oy vey.
Perhaps I should have felt triumph over Daphne’s fury. I had a full-length book and signing schedule, while she continued to toil away on articles that would be hidden in literary journals, of interest only to scholars and grad students seeking footnotes. Part of her stress and frustration came from the fact that it was her promotion year, meaning she was constantly putting together packages for review by jaded faculty committees looking for reasons to deny a candidate elevation to a more exclusive club. As Monty had told me, “Be glad you only have to tolerate her tirades here at work. Can you image what hell it would be to live with her and celebrate your book’s launch while she’s undergoing academic scrutiny?”
I opened my mouth to respond when I heard another voice from just outside the doorway. “Chill, sweetness. We could hear you down the hall.”
Dorian, the man I had vowed never to like appeared to be on my side. When he walked into the office, he held Jessica by the hand. My teeth returned to grind.
He walked up to my desk and picked up a book. “Is this your tome, Ham? How rad is that? Congratulations, man!”
Jessica had inched beside him and reached for a postcard, carefully eyeing its featured silhouette of a slim, shadowy woman with a cigarette holder between her fingers. “Is this the kind of lady you like now, Daddy?”
I felt the contents of my stomach flip as I looked directly into her earnest face. I remembered too well the night I told her that her mother and I would no longer be living together. We had a daddy-daughter date at our favorite hangout, the Study Break Café and she wore her Cinderella Halloween costume. She never wore that outfit again. Sure, the next Halloween she said she’d outgrown it, but I feared she associated it with the loss of her family.
“A femme fatale’s a character that appears in a lot of the movies I watch, so I wrote a book about how filmmakers have depicted her,” I explained. “You remember we bought all those different books and movies about Cinderella when you were little? And you liked each one of them, even though they were different? Well, it’s something like that.”
“Is a femme fatale like Cinderella?” Jessica asked. “Does she always get her prince?”
“That’s probably a topic your father can write his next book about,” Daphne said. “Come on now. We need to get you to your piano lesson, then pizza for dinner.”
I gave my daughter a kiss and watched her leave with a different family. Wondering if my life would ever seem normal again, I sat at my desk, ready to address some postcards to colleagues. As I reached for one, I noticed that the stack seemed to have dwindled lower.
Throughout the next week, I began finding my postcards in odd places – my mail box in the office, inside a copy of the student newspaper placed on my desk and tucked in the flap of the portfolio I carried to classes. Each one was decorated with a sticker that looked left over from Valentine’s Day and carried a message of love or devotion like one you would find on a candy heart: “U R 4 Me,” “Please Be Mine,” “Luv U 4-ever,” “Hugs and Kisses.”
I was in a dilemma. Did I have a stalker? Should I report the theft of my postcards? Was this the message of a secret admirer or a cruel trick? I began watching those around me carefully. Walt Chatsworth was a straight-forward guy, not given to teasing. Selma Grant hadn’t pestered me about supervising her thesis, but every time she passed me in the hall she wore an enigmatic smile. Daphne either frowned at me or ignored me. Besides, she should have been busy enough compiling her promotion packages not to have had time to send me bogus love notes.
The week following exams, I had my signing at the university bookstore, which was empty except for the staff and a few students either selling back textbooks or meeting at the coffee lounge. No wonder Mrs. Dutton was able to snag this prime time. I took my place at the signing table figuring I would be spending my time smiling as people passed me by or answering questions about where the bathrooms were located.
But, I wasn’t destined to be alone. Selma Grant waltzed in with an armload of books and her father in tow. “Daddy,” she said as she brought him over to my table. “This is Professor Richards I’ve been telling you about. He’s just published the most fascinating book about female characters in noir film. Why don’t you get to know him while I return these texts? Maybe you can convince him to supervise my thesis.”
She flounced off toward the customer service counter, leaving me feeling my frozen smile crack a bit at the icy reception I received from her father. He frowned and picked up a copy of my book, flipping through the pages, stopping at the photographs to shake his head. “My daughter has talked about you a great deal,” he said. He had a neatly trimmed gray mustache that inched upward as his lip took on an Elvis-like smirk. “Seems like she took a shine to you while in your class.” He slapped the book closed, making me jump. “Frankly,” he continued, his steely gray eyes looking straight into mine. “I find it hard to believe the university pays you for what you do.”
I gulped, sure he must have seen my Adam’s apple bob and then, with the memory of Walt Chatsworth’s voice saying “remember Grant auditorium” running through my mind, I gave him my most placating smile. “Mr. Grant, I couldn’t agree with you more. I must be the luckiest man in the world to do what I do and get paid for it. Having a true student of literature like your daughter in my class brought that fact home for me. Her thesis will definitely be a respected work in the field. To ensure it receives the attention it deserves, she needs a real scholar to supervise her work.”
“Who do you suggest?” Mr. Grant asked, the Elvis smirk becoming more prominent.
“An unsung hero in our department whose work has influenced the lives of young people across the country – Professor Hal Montgomery. He’s worked for years compiling the textbooks used to teach English in tenth through twelfth grades. He’s a recognized authority, who’s been asked to speak at conferences throughout the world, a lonely bachelor, totally focused on his books and classes. A brilliant student like your daughter would be a true inspiration for him.”
Mr. Grant’s lips were now pressed together and poking out from beneath his mustache as if he were considering my words carefully. “Does he make good money putting these school books together?”
“The best,” I whispered, seeing Selma headed back in our direction. “He was in his office grading exams when I came over to the bookstore.”
“Has Daddy convinced you?” Selma asked as she approached the table.
“Professor Richards has made an excellent suggestion that I tour the department building while I’m on campus,” her father replied. He dropped my book on the table and took her arm. “I want to meet some more of your professors. Haven’t I heard you mention a Professor Montgomery?”
“Well, I want to hear about him.”
I watched them walk away. I wouldn’t begrudge Monty that endowed chair.
After an hour and a half of smiling without sales, I thanked the bookstore staff for arranging the event and wished them a happy holiday. I walked home, knowing that I would be facing an empty apartment. I had decorated a tree for the time Jessica would spend with me there, but I’d agreed that she could stay with her mom and Dorian for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I planned on looking for a channel featuring a Christmas movie marathon until she arrived to be with me the day after Christmas.
“Ham,” my landlord called as I entered the home converted into apartments. “You had a special delivery while you were gone. I let the lady into your apartment. She said to give you this.” He handed me one of my postcards with a sticker that said: “Luv U Truly.”
He held up his hands. “I’ve been asked to say no more. You’ll have to check this one out yourself.” Then, he went back into his first floor digs.
I pocketed the postcard and walked up the stairs wondering what surprise awaited me. As I reached the landing, I saw the door open a few inches. I walked up and announced, “I’m home,” which sounded as dumb as I thought it would.
From inside, I heard a dear, familiar, childish voice say, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.”
The words were followed by a trio of kazoos playing “Auld Lang Sine.” I pushed the door open and saw Jessica, Daphne, and Dorian standing before my tree playing the instruments. Jessica wore an outfit from the forties with a wide brimmed hat. She ran forward to give me a hug.
“I asked Mom if I could dress up as a femme fatale for you. Can you guess who I am?”
“Well …” Even though she recited Lauren Bacall’s lines, she didn’t exactly look like Slim Browning from To Have or To Have Not.
“Do the lines with me. You start.”
“What should I say?”
She prompted. “That’s some dress you got on there.” I repeated the line and she replied, “This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” Her hand bounced against her shoulder length curls.
“I’m still not sure.”
She gave her hair another flounce. “Excuse me. I think I got a date. But, stick around fellas just in case.”
“More and more familiar.”
She sighed. “This one will give it away.” Still, she leaned toward me and let me have the line. “I’m glad I know you George Bailey.”
I smiled. “Violet Bick from It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“What do you think?”
“Why don’t we get a few pictures of you by the tree?” Daphne asked. “Here, you and Jessica hold your book.”
After Daphne took a few candid shots, I said, “Let’s take one together.” I had my girls on either side of me, when I noticed that Dorian held back. I could have snapped the photo without him, taking the attitude: Dorian, you caused the fray now keep away. But, it was Christmas and I felt more like Tim Allen in The Santa Clause than James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Motioning for Dorian to join us, I took a selfie with my phone. Of course, we were perfectly centered in front of the tree, Jessica and me with my book beside Daphne and Dorian, cheek-to-cheek as they blew their kazoos.
I’ll keep the memento, but I’m not sure I’ll use it on my Christmas card.
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