On the Cusp

by Lee Zacharias


They wanted a woman. In particular they wanted a woman around thirty with a book of stories coming out. That, plus the recommendation of Fred Chappell, who met you when he came to Arkansas as a visiting writer while you were finishing your MFA, was how the writing faculty at the University of North Carolina Greensboro chose you.

How you chose them is not quite so straightforward. A lot of schools wanted a woman around thirty with a first book of fiction coming out, and at the MLA meeting in New York that December, 1974, you felt like one of the prettiest girls at the dance. Never mind that you used what was to be the entirety of your divorce settlement, something like four hundred dollars, half the savings you and your first husband had accumulated over eight years of marriage, to pay for your plane fare. You weren’t one of those legions of young women in the ladies rooms of the conference hotel sobbing, “I blew it! It was the only interview I had, and I blew it.” You had a fistful of interviews and enough ignorance to mistake for confidence. Ignorance, I might point out, was something you shared, for in those days the Modern Language Association still permitted schools to interview for positions that hadn’t been funded, and a number of those sobbing young women had spent their last dollar or even borrowed money to interview for a job that didn’t exist. That spring you too would receive a letter informing you that X university had closed its search without a hire because the request for funding had been denied. Never mind. Never mind that you too blew your first interview, when the department head or chair of the search committee or whoever he was said that he understood you’d had a number of unusual experiences in the classroom and asked you to talk about them. Your letter had stressed the variety of your teaching experience, the fact that as a T.A. you had taught not just freshman comp but also literature, creative writing, a summer section of E.S.L., and a junior level essay course. You hadn’t said anything about unusual experiences, though of course you’d had some; everyone does. On your first day of classes you’d backed into a stove on the stage of the home ec auditorium assigned to your section of freshman comp and sent a flame shooting toward the ceiling. Uniformed officers had dragged a student from another class in a drug bust. Weeks later a mouse skittered through your classroom, which might not seem all that unusual, but just try getting students back on task after that. Only two weeks before a young man had come late to your 8 a.m. final dressed in a short red velour bathrobe, overalls slung over his arm, toothbrush in hand. He made a show of yawning, slipped into a desk in the back of the room, wrote for a few minutes, and then, when you looked up, stood, stripped off his robe and made as if to put on his overalls, causing you to gasp, “Mister Smith, will you please complete your toilette in the men’s room down the hall?” It was the image of that naked man at the back of your classroom that led you to stumble, “Well, I don’t think I actually meant unusual, I mean unusual probably isn’t the best word,” as you tried to find your way back to the professional little paragraph that stressed what an asset the variety of your experience would be to whoever hired you, and mentally crossed that school off the list. Never mind. You had other interviews.

Your next was with Tulane, your first choice—you could just see yourself finishing your first novel at a typewriter in a charming old carriage house off a cobblestone courtyard in the French Quarter. When you arrived, the hotel bedroom, that awkward space where all MLA interviews take place, was packed with men, at least a dozen it seemed, perched on the beds, the chairs, cross-legged on the dresser, which had been laid out as a full bar.The first thing they did was offer you a drink, which you thought prudent to decline, though when they asked if you had any questions and you responded, “What’s it like to live in New Orleans?” it was clearly the right one. Tulane wasn’t interested in anyone who cared more about health insurance and course loads than food and drink.

You didn’t have to ask what it was like to live in Greensboro. The department chair was still engaged with the previous candidate when you knocked, and he dispatched a colleague into the hall to fill you in while you waited. You would like Greensboro, the soft-spoken, blinking, bland, fifty- or sixty-something scholar volunteered. It was a great place to raise a family, good schools, lots of churches, not much crime, plenty of new suburban neighborhoods, hardly any bars. Most of the restaurants didn’t even serve alcohol. “It sounds nice,” you said weakly. When the chairman was ready, he invited you to sit on the sofa as he read the course descriptions from the university catalog out loud, pausing briefly after each to ask if you could teach that. You said yes to every one and promised yourself that Tulane would invite you to campus.

Tulane did invite you to campus, but you were sick when your plane landed in New Orleans, which was experiencing one of the bone-chilling winter rains that make it seem as if surely Alaska would be warmer. There was a nasty strain of flu going around Fayetteville that winter, and you had felt the first symptoms as you boarded the plane, which arrived so late the person who picked you up dropped you at the dorm where you’d be staying without dinner. You spent the night huddled on a plastic-covered mattress in an air-conditioned room without a thermostat or a front desk. By morning you had pneumonia, and you dragged through two days of meetings repeating, “I’m sorry, but I’m really sick,” meaning please take me to a hospital. “You’re fine,” your hosts insisted, meaning they wouldn’t hold it against you, though by then you were too sick to care about the job, which you knew you’d lost when you declined a tour of the French Quarter in order to go to your room and sleep. When you got back to Fayetteville you went straight from the airport to the infirmary. And that was that—you were out for the season. You chose Greensboro because it was the only job you could get without a campus interview. Greensboro didn’t want a campus interview. The job was not a tenure-track appointment but a one-year lectureship, which the chair had tried to present as an advantage at your meeting in New York: You would have a full seven years instead of six before the tenure decision. This “advantage” meant nothing to you, tenure seeming as remotely in the future as retirement—but you needed a job, and you were too sick to travel.

Besides, you had no intention of sticking around. What you didn’t know was that neither were they determined to keep you. At the first department party you attended you would learn that you’d replaced someone who didn’t get tenure; a couple who had been friends with your predecessor took you aside to tell you it wasn’t your fault, they didn’t blame you, so often it was clear that they did. Apparently the experience had been so traumatic for all concerned that the Writing Program faculty had requested a one-year position over the tenure-track slot in order to get rid of you quick if they turned out not to like you. From them you would learn that the unfortunate assistant professor’s sins had been social; “give parties” was the singular bit of professional advice they offered. More than once they would tell you about the time he left Stanley Kunitz stranded at the airport; their vote on your tenure would rest not on the books you published or the classes you taught but on the quality of your bar and the promptness of your shuttle service. They did not tell you that the Coordinator of the Writing Program and Editor of The Greensboro Review had just been granted tenure, a fact that would greatly diminish the glamour of his administrative duties, though after you’d been assigned both positions, they would confide that they had been looking for someone to take them over. You could complain—no one said anything about that at the interview—but it’s a little late now, and you know as well as I do that you were so naïve the information probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Knowing that you would not be allowed a research leave as long as you held those positions or that you would remain the junior faculty member for fourteen years, that you would spend your summers and Christmas breaks in the office and have to get another job offer in order to step down, might have given pause, but in those days graduate students in writing received very little in the way of career mentoring. They graduated and took jobs knowing next to nothing about the realities of the profession they were entering. Don’t go thinking your case was special.

And so you set out for Greensboro in August of 1975. It was not a smooth move. Your boyfriend had to take his son to Virginia and couldn’t make the trip with you. Your friends deemed the five hundred dollars quoted by the mover to cart your few possessions to Greensboro outrageous, with the result that you spent fifteen hundred dollars and did the work yourself. There was the U-Haul, the gas, there were the strangers you would pay to help unload it at the other end, the return plane ticket you bought for the neighbor who was supposed to drive it while you drove your car, though when his vacation days were switched he ended up driving your car out early and you had to follow in the truck. You got a late start because the ten-foot that you’d reserved had transmission trouble when you arrived to pick it up, and you had to wait around the office all day until a twenty-four foot came available. It was early evening by the time you had it loaded and tried to back it down the ditch-flanked narrow driveway onto the steep and equally narrow street. At the corner you sideswiped a tree and tore a hole in the side that you were not honest enough to report; the puppy was carsick before you reached the city limits. By the time you got to Little Rock and tried to check into a motel, it was midnight and there were no vacancies. According to the desk clerk there were no vacancies the entire length of I-40; he’d been calling ahead all evening. And so you spent the night with the sick puppy in the hot, fouled cab of the U-Haul at a truck stop on the outskirts of the city. The next night you made sure to get a room by stopping early, which left you with a long haul on the third day. You crossed the dense mountains on the Tennessee/North Carolina border in twilight and descended Black Mountain in the dark, disappointed to feel the road flattening beneath you. You had spent the last three years in the mountains, first in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, then in the Ozarks, and you had hoped that Greensboro would at least have hills. (You were not exactly an expert on the layout of your country; when you moved to Fayetteville from Virginia you had to stop at a gas station for a map to find out where the state was.) You arrived in Greensboro at midnight, claimed your car, and drove off in search of a store, cruising miles through the dark suburbs until at last you located a 7-11. It was when you read the sign on the cooler—“no beer or wine sold after 12 p.m. on Saturday”— that you cried.


You felt isolated. You had moved into an apartment in a new complex on the western outskirts of town because you arrived too late to find a place closer to the university, where you might have found some community. Also, you had two dogs, which limited your options. You’d left your old dog with your first husband when you moved to Fayetteville, and on the day you were to drive to Richmond to pick her up your car broke down. It broke down again the first day of classes, which was also your boyfriend’s birthday. It was hot, your dog was panting in the backseat because you hadn’t dared leave her alone with the puppy in the apartment all day, and the icing on the cake you’d picked up at the grocery was melting all over the upholstery, but you couldn’t take your foot off the brake because you’d coasted into a driveway that ran uphill and your emergency brake was defunct. When a man finally stopped to help you roll the car onto the grass, he turned out to be a sales rep who seemed to think that a visit to his room at the Rodeway Inn would be a nice way for you to say thanks. A Renault, the car spent the next two months in the shop waiting for a new drive axle. When you got it back, you and your boyfriend celebrated with a weekend in the mountains, where the brakes went out; you had to leave it at a garage in Asheville and take the Greyhound back to Greensboro. A month later, when you picked it up, you got only as far as Hickory before it broke down again. All that fall you rode a bus that ran from Guilford College Road to downtown twice a day, getting off at a stop on Friendly Avenue and walking the remaining blocks to school. Often the afternoon bus was late; you stood waiting in the rain, and though logic says it can’t have rained every day, the impressions memory insists upon are stubborn.

Your boyfriend, who had cobbled together a living as an adjunct instructor, was commuting to Elon College nearly thirty miles east. He too left at seven and got home after six. You fixed dinner, and then you went back to work, grading papers, preparing classes. You were both working too hard to write. You’d worked hard in graduate school too, but there you had worked on behalf of yourself. Years later, when I—the I you had yet to become—accepted the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching, I drew a laugh of recognition from the faculty audience when I acknowledged that I had not initially intended to stay, had not even been certain I wanted to spend my life in the classroom, for though I liked teaching, like all young writers I had anticipated a career that would be more about me.

You did like teaching. You loved literature and language, and you felt comfortable with students. You had just been one, after all. It was among the faculty you felt out of place.

In those days you wore your hair very long and your skirts very short. When you asked for the department head to let him know you’d arrived, his secretary called into his office, “Do you have time to see a student?” The other fresh face was a woman your age, a medievalist so academic, so professionally correct she seemed a generation older. Though you were the first new hires in half a decade, the first women to be hired in more than twenty years, the faculty seemed oblivious to your presence. It was not a young department. For weeks out of duty you accompanied one of your colleagues in the Writing Program to a brown-bag lunch in the Faculty Center, until you realized with some relief that the graying white males didn’t want you there. There were two female professors, both around sixty and never married—women of their generation who wanted academic careers married the institution, though the institution often failed to reward them. One was bitter, the other remote.

You were lonely. Your boyfriend missed his son; you both missed your friends. You missed the camaraderie that blooms among students. You didn’t know where to buy pot, though otherwise you lived like a student, sleeping on the floor because the furniture your ex-husband put in storage hadn’t come yet, and you didn’t know whether it included a bed. You were clearing less than twice what you had cleared as a T.A. and couldn’t get a credit card—not because your salary was low, but because your credit record had somehow accrued to your first husband, although the card had been in your name and you had put him through grad school. You didn’t want to feel sorry for yourself—after all, you were lucky to have a job, unbelievably lucky to have a job in one of the country’s oldest and best MFA programs, though you had yet to meet the graduate students—but outside of the classroom you felt invisible. You didn’t know yet that much of the loneliness you felt was simply the loneliness of adulthood.

You gave yourself a year. A year, you and your boyfriend agreed. In the meantime you enjoyed teaching—at least you enjoyed two of your classes, the early American lit survey and the introductory fiction workshop, both full of lively, enthusiastic students. It was the third class that made you wonder whether you were cut out to teach, a large introduction to narrative taken by freshmen to fulfill a university requirement. Jokes that produced a roar in American lit drew only silence in English 105. Later you would learn that everyone on the faculty dreaded 105, which invariably enrolled just enough unengaged and sullen students to poison a room, but at the time you were certain the dead air was your fault, and you beat yourself up after every class until the day a big dog ran into the room, lifted his leg, and peed down the leg of the table on which you were perched. No one laughed; no one even smiled; in fact no one seemed to notice. And though you went home relieved of your guilt—those people are brain-dead, you told yourself—you also went home thinking about what a long career of teaching freshman English you had ahead of you.


And now it’s over, I’ve retired. Neither you nor I will ever teach freshman literature again—you who are not me because you were only on the cusp of the career I carried through. What separates us, you there at a beginning that was also an ending, and me, here at another beginning that is also an ending, is the long haul of the middle. Fiction writers know about middles; stories, they learn, must have a beginning, middle, and end. But fiction, like memory, gives life a shape the daily business of it lacks. A story’s middle is the bridge between the beginning and the end. The middle of a life is a thing in itself, a thing so encompassing, so familiar, so ordinary, that we inhabit it in the way we inhabit our skin. It is what there is. Yet memory tends to privilege beginnings and ends. Think of a former spouse, and you remember the courtship and the parting. What’s hard to reconstruct is what you said to each other every night over dinner.

Shortly before I retired I ran into an emeritus colleague who told me, “It will all go away. In a few months you won’t even remember the university, and then you’ll wonder what you did with your life.” His chuckle sounded ironic, though I have yet to figure out whether he was pleased with his amnesia or wistful.

A piece worker never wonders what he did with his life. The writer Doris Betts’s father once told her that he didn’t understand how a teacher could know if she’d done a good job; he worked in a textile mill, and he measured his accomplishment each day by the length of cloth that came out of his machine. My father loaded and unloaded tankers; he measured what he had done each day in drums of oil. When they retired they might have looked back at their lives and added up the yards and the gallons. A believer in anonymity and the status quo, my father saw no merit in standing in front of a classroom or putting one’s name on a book. His attitude toward higher education was skeptical, for he suspected that it not only failed to impart practical skills but might actually rob one of them, and to the end of his life I believe he held my ability to repair a faucet or replace a toilet flapper in higher esteem than either my teaching or writing. To subscribe to his view would be to add up the students I taught, but teaching doesn’t parse out that way; despite the academy’s obsession with accountability and assessment, it resists quantification. Teaching is a pebble in a pond. Each ripple knows only the ripple beside it though it owes its swell to the pebble, which disappears beneath the surface long before its disturbance is done. A teacher cannot know where the circle of her influence ends anymore than she knows where the spring that fed her began. The result of every lesson is mutable and fluid. In that sense no teacher knows what she did with her life, but that is not the same thing as doubting.

“How does it feel to be retired?” everyone asks. I feel like a bride asked what marriage is like before she’s left the reception. I don’t know. It’s too soon. I’m too busy to say. “Tell me about it,” younger friends respond with a dismissive wave that takes in their parents’ whirlwind schedules of travel, crafts, dancing, and golf, and there’s no use responding, “Not that kind of busy.” My mother’s confused. To her retirement meant take this job and shove it. One day she went to work as usual, and the next day she didn’t, her pension was in the mail, and that was all there was to it. For her retirement is a yes-or-no question, true or false, this or that, on the clock or at leisure. When is she supposed to send my husband’s retirement card? How can he be retired if he’s teaching a class part-time? What do I mean he’s not getting his pension? I try to explain: we retired in a different economic climate; there are bureaucratic hurdles to claiming his TIAA-CREF that she didn’t face with her city pension. He retired from High Point University, but over the course of his career he taught several other colleges, each of which has a different contract number, each of which has to sign off on his employment, though many of their records don’t go back that far, and his negotiations with TIAA have sometimes felt like dealing with an insurance company determined not to pay. Over and over he has filled out the forms he was sent only to be told they’re the wrong forms, though the forms TIAA sends to replace them never turn out to be the right ones either. In the meantime the stock market has plummeted, and we’re waiting to learn how much of his retirement funds have been lost. But when I try to summarize, my mother interrupts. “Well, I don’t know about all that,” she says impatiently and asks again what he’s getting, whether he checked the box for the high, middle, or low option. To her that’s the only variable in the process.

Because I worked for the state, collecting my pension was much simpler, but even so some papers went astray and my application was canceled; I spent weeks on the phone to get it reinstated. And though my pension doesn’t depend upon the market, I too am waiting to see if any of the money I invested for old age will be left. I’m behind on the obligations that stacked up while I taught summer school during the last push to the finish. We’re still sorting the stuff we decided to keep when we cleaned out our offices, which required a month’s full-time commitment. My space in the university library was piled floor to ceiling with drafts; the files in my departmental office held thirty-three years worth of teaching materials and correspondence, and though I dropped the two bulky 105 files into the recycling bin with the satisfying sense of a dramatic gesture, I still had to sort through the rest—every piece of paper, every letter, every handout, every critical essay, every bibliography, every syllabus. There were teaching materials I wanted to keep for writers’ conferences and an occasional graduate course—and not just keep, but file where I can find them. Tucked among the hundreds of letters asking for recommendations or requesting information about requirements was material that needed to be given to the library—notes from John Cheever, John Irving, Elizabeth Bishop, and Grace Paley, among other writers. Ditto the manuscripts by former students who went on to distinguish themselves as writers. When I started to pitch the remaining stacks of student fiction, I stumbled on stories by students who’d died and couldn’t make myself throw them away. (In the end I kept them and the first page of the hundreds of other student stories with a vague notion for an essay yet to be written titled “First Pages/Last Words.”) Though I delivered more than forty boxes of books to the Salvation Army, I had to reshelf all our books to accommodate those that came home, and it made no sense to do that without painting the walls behind them. Officially I retired two months ago, but I’m not in retirement yet. I’m in transition, on the cusp between the known arc of the past and uncertain curve of the future, just as you were at the beginning of your career that first year in Greensboro.

A year, you and your boyfriend said, the boyfriend I later married, but Greensboro grew on you, it changed, you changed, the university changed, you found your vocation, and the year you gave yourselves stretched into thirty-three. Thirty-five years in front of a classroom if I count my years as a T.A. And now I’m no longer in the classroom at all. But those years, that long middle, the career you began in your transition from you to me, are too recent to be forgotten—if, as my emeritus colleague predicted, they will, which is hard to believe. They’re too recent to be a story–they’re still a fabric, a feeling, a texture, a rhythm, and because I can’t tell that story yet, I’ve told yours.

After a year or so there was no more talk about leaving, and then at some point the talk turned to retirement. It was not that we were unhappy with our work; there was just too much of it. We were tired of bringing papers home every night and working all weekend. My husband wanted out from under the grueling schedule that advising the High Point student newspaper entailed; he no longer wished to occupy the hot seat between a conservative administration and liberal student editors. We wanted more time for our writing. I wanted time to return to photography, something I practiced when I was young and took up again in the ’90s, this time as a nature photographer, but again had to put on a back burner. I was working on a series of miniature American landscapes in Polaroid transfer that I’d titled “Because the Land Is Big and Art Is Small,” which was to have one hundred images when finished, two from each state. I made lists: states with completed transfers, a process that uses Polaroid film to print a photographic slide on hot press watercolor paper; states for which I had appropriate slides; states I’d never been in, states I would need to revisit. I wanted to travel. We wanted to travel; we wanted to be free to travel off season, to visit friends when we felt like it, to see our children more often. My husband wanted more time for his volunteer work with Hospice. I looked forward to more time to read, something that had become increasingly difficult even though I read for a living—what I read were student manuscripts, manuscripts by colleagues, the thousands of pages of writing samples submitted to the MFA Program each spring, books I was teaching or thinking about teaching, books about books I was teaching, books by visiting writers and colleagues and former students but very few books I picked up just because I wanted to.

Until the stock market soured in 2001 we intended to retire earlier than we did. Undoubtedly we retired earlier than we would have had we known how dark the economy would turn in 2008—it’s a terrifying time to have given up one’s career, in the midst of a global financial panic, especially when the retirement paperwork’s not done. But we were ready to go. Though we enjoyed being around young people, the generation gap was widening (Who’s Gregory Peck? my students wanted to know when his name came up, who’s Bob Dylan, what’s a carriage return?), and the territorial politics of English departments, the tensions among literature, theory, rhet-comp, and creative writing and their competition for prestige and funding, have become increasingly fraught. There were so many technical annoyances that made me feel old—no longer could I wind a videotape to the brief sequence I wanted to show in class; the print on the online roster was so small I had to cut and paste it in order to get a readable class roll. And when I taught my last 105 this past summer (105 because those classes that fulfill a university requirement always enroll enough students to make), I stumbled into a new generation of challenges I’m just as glad to leave for younger colleagues to meet. During the final exam I caught a young woman cheating by texting. It was the first time I’d taught in a room wired for laptops, one of those mini-Senate-chambers with its long rows of table-desks up on risers, the first time I’d faced a class in which eighty percent of the students were sitting behind open notebook computers. I enjoyed the class, in part because it was my last one and in part because it was a lively group, as summer school students tend to be, though I realized that all through our discussions the students were also instant messaging, playing solitaire, and surfing the web—in my words goofing off, in theirs multi-tasking.

Years ago I taught a student whose anthropology professor was dying of cancer. “It’s hard to make an appointment,” the student complained to me. “I mean I can feel sorry for her and all, but what about me?” I came to enjoy a career that was more about students than about me because teaching gives so much back, but no one wants her death to be about her students too. And though actuarial tables give me twenty more years, there are no guarantees, and after two melanomas, a nasty case of shingles, and a bout of pneumonia in my last year, I want to claim whatever is left of my life for myself.

Some people look forward to retiring only to discover they have too many hours to fill; they’re bored. Others feel dejected. I have a friend whose father sank into a serious depression. He had been an executive with a utility company in New York—had been somebody as he put it; he was accustomed to giving orders and having others obey. For him retirement brought a loss of power and prestige so devastating he felt as if he’d lost his identity, and though he adjusted and went on to enjoy his retirement, for him the period of transition, that end in the beginning and beginning in the end, was painful.

Unlike my friend’s father, I don’t feel a loss of power or prestige. When I finally get to the time when I have time, I don’t think I’ll be bored. I’m a writer after all. I have a creative temperament—I’m always making something, as my husband points out, an essay, a book, a photograph, a piece of jewelry, a scarf, a new flower bed, an untried dish for dinner. That should fill the hours. There are disappointments, of course. We don’t feel the elation we expected—the process has simply been too complicated, the transition busy, and the economic future too unnerving. Polaroid went out of business last year, and I can no longer get the film to finish the landscape series that I wanted to complete. We don’t know yet whether there will be money to travel. On the other hand, though we understood that we would miss the fellowship of colleagues and the classroom, we did not expect to miss grading papers, department meetings, self-studies, searches, external reviews, committee work, new mandates, arguments over concentrations vs. tracks, or annual reports, and we don’t. (I don’t miss writing recommendations or reading manuscripts either, but that’s because I’m still doing both.) The university and the department changed enormously while I was there. It’s a bigger, more vibrant, much younger place, and there are plenty of women. But though I envy the junior faculty a level of camaraderie that wasn’t available to me, it’s a much busier place too, and I’m glad to leave that sort of busy-ness behind.

Because I taught summer school this year, I’m too recently out of the classroom to miss it yet. What I do feel is a sadness for the loss of community. Writing programs are all about community; there are the visiting writers, the dinners, the parties, the informal conferences at the coffee house or the bar, all those social engagements that counteract the solitary hours of the writing. I felt this loss first when I had to go into the office to collect some mail and to FAX—stripped of my parking permit, I circled the streets and realized that the campus is largely walled off to me. I can park on the weekends, of course, but the building no longer opens for my ID. “You won’t,” my friends in the program promised when I said I thought I’d feel strange at the weekly after-workshop gathering at a nearby bar they urged me to continue attending, but already I do. I don’t know the new students, and the daily business of my former colleagues is no longer mine. When I meet those I am closest to elsewhere—and I do—there’s no distance between us, but there in the collective company I’ve begun to feel an outsider. It’s like relinquishing the parking sticker or letting a club membership expire. It doesn’t matter how many years you belonged; you can’t swim there, your locker’s been reassigned.

On the last day I taught I was gathering exams after the last student left, and when I looked up there in front of me was the empty classroom, desks up on risers, an abandoned stage set for a play that had finished its run, and above them, behind them, the clock. For several minutes I simply stood there taking the significance in. Then I stuffed the last tests into my folder and turned out the light. Upstairs I told my boss, who hadn’t wanted me to retire, about the impact of that empty room.

“Good,” he said. “I hope that image haunts you for a long time.”

I remember its force. But its force was made of its moment, and to remember it is to acknowledge it, not to relive. What I felt in that moment was the overwhelming emptiness, but what I remember is the hand of the clock moving forward.


LEE ZACHARIAS is the author of a novel, Lessons, and a book of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It through the Night. She has published numerous essays, short stories, and photographs and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council.