The Loves of Franklin Ambrose By Joyce Carol Oates


The Loves of Franklin Ambrose
By Joyce Carol Oates

A decade before the phrase “Black is beautiful” became popular, Franklin Ambrose knew that he was beautiful. But his beauty had nothing to do with being black. He was naturally handsome in a small, neat way; he cultivated a thin mustache and a very black, rugged, almost savage goatee; his shoes were so shiny that they looked varnished; he wore Pierre Cardin shirts of various peacock-gay colors, expensive silk-twill ties and ascots, and suits whose notched and peaked lapels expanded and narrowed according to fashion laws totally unknown to Frank’s mundane, hard-working colleagues at the university. He took an obvious, healthy pride in physical appearances and was critical of his wife’s clothes, which always seemed shapeless and dowdy. “Do you want to embarrass me?” he sometimes asked in exasperation.

But most of the time he was cheerful and very energetic. He hastened to put all white people at their ease, immediately, by emphasizing the scorn he felt for anything “black” (he hated that modish word; he preferred the more sanitary and middle-class “Negro”). In fact, he accepted a position at a small university in southern Canada, near Hamilton, because he suspected-correctly-that there would be few Negroes in the school. He had only one real rival-a popular professor of psychology who sported an Afro haircut and love beads; but Franklin put him down by saying, whenever the man’s name was mentioned, “There’s a real professional black.” This made his white friends laugh appreciatively.

Franklin was not “black,” but he was very professional. His degrees were all from Harvard and he had spent a year in England as a Fulbright Fellow; during that time, he had developed a faint, clipped English accent. At Harvard he had been very popular with Radcliffe girls, especially a kind of bright, intense Jewish girl who shared many of his interests in literature and music. But he wanted to marry another kind of girl-he didn’t know why, exactly-he had his heart set on a Wellesley girl whose father was a judge in Boston, a sweet girl, not very intelligent but gifted with a pale, smooth, almost porcelain complexion, Their marriage was violently opposed by her family, but Franklin won, and in 1965 he accepted a position at Hilberry University and took his bride to a small city in southeastern Ontario: with great anticipation, a sense of drama, for he was the only Negro in the English department and the only Harvard man.

Frank became the department’s most popular professor at once. And yet something began to happen in the second year: He felt a strange, aimless melancholy, his classroom successes came too easily, he noticed that he and Eunice, out together, no longer attracted the attention and the occasional outraged glares they had attracted in the past. No doubt about it, Eunice was becoming dowdy, her waist and hips thickening; she was not even very pretty. The only happiness in Frank’s life was his twin sons, wonderfully light, almost fair little boys; with beautiful features- especially their dark, thickly lashed eyes, At times he stared at them as if unable to believe the miracle of their physical beauty. How had anything so wonderful happened to him?

As his wife’s looks dwindled and Frank began to sink into the ordinary routine of teaching in an ordinary university-no overwrought, neurotic, brilliant Radcliffe girls to stir the adrenaline! – he felt at times a sense of panic. What, he was 28 years old? What, already he was 30? For his 32nd birthday he gifted himself with a white MG, though his family could obviously not fit in it, He bought an elegant, rather Beau Brummellish smoking jacket to wear in his study at home and a sueded-calfskin belted coat that drew all eyes to it as he strolled across the gray-lit campus. He began going with his students to The Cave, a popular pub, crowded and noisy and merry; the majority of his student friends were boys, who eagerly appreciated his wit and his friendliness-most of the other professors nervously avoided all personal contact with students-but a few were girls. They were all the same type, more or less: intellectual, casual, a little brazen, a little sloppy, and they seemed to appreciate Frank evenmore than the boys did.

A possibility dawned on Frank.

Yes, he was attracted to the girls as if to searing, caressing rays of light: their pale skins, their moving, twisting, smirking, giggling mouths, their tight, thigh-high skirts, their nervous writhing mannerisms when they came in for “conferences” to his office. They brushed their long hair out of their eyes and smiled at him. Frank would feel at such times an intoxication that forced him to lean forward, gazing at them, his own eyes bright and his flesh livened by their closeness. They complained to him about their families or their other professors or their boyfriends: “My boyfriend is, I don’t know, he’s so dumb compared with someone like you, Dr. Ambrose. …I mean, he’s so dumb when it comes to conversation that I just sort of blank out and think about, well, you, I guess. I mean I think about how funny you were in class or something and…well …I think about you when I’m with him, you know, when the two of us are…you know. …I feel real rotten about it, because it isn’t fair, I guess, to him, because we’re really sort of in love…and. .. and. …” And they would gaze at Frank with their eyes sometimes misting over. At such times he felt his heart beat with certainty: Unmistakable!

The girls were so sweet, with their kisses and their sudden, rationed tears, that Frank went about in a perpetual daze, more genial than ever before.

Being a gentleman, he made no more than the most subtle of allusions to his colleagues in the department, most of whom were prematurely weary, slowed down with families, balding, thickening, and yet still fired feebly with hopes of romance; they were temporarily freshened by stray rumors of secret liaisons, even though the liaisons never happened to them. They appreciated Frank, who was, after all, black (the word began to be used, cautiously, around 1969-1970), so trim and handsome and elegantly turned out, and they quipped that he was their liaison man with the students.

“Frank will bridge the generation gap for us,” they said with wistful, encouraging smiles.

But then, in the late Sixties, an essay with the title ‘The Student as Nigger” became widely circulated; it was even published in the student newspaper. Frank was aghast. He couldn’t believe it. Colleagues and students began talking quite familiarly, openly, of the oppression of students and “niggers” -often in Frank’s presence, as if to demonstrate to him how liberal and understanding they were. The word nigger! On everyone’s lips! Frank was furious, demoralized, befuddled; he would not explain his moods to his wife; he went out one evening by himself to a cocktail lounge far from the university, where he got drunk and had to be sent home in a taxicab. At such times, when he was very drunk, he had the confused idea that some white man-any white man at all-was trying to appropriate his twin boys. “They want to take .my babies away, my babies,” he would weep. “They want to take my babies because I’m black and my babies are white. …”

He knew he was not a nigger, and yet he wasn’t sure that other people, glancing at him, knew. He recalled with horror the evening, at a faculty party, when the slightly drunken wife of a colleague had cornered him to ask whether he planned “to go back to the ghetto to help his people,” seeing that he himself was so successful. That white bitch!

But his young girl students fawned over him, even pursued him, singly and in small packs. There was no doubt of his manhood with them. Their names were Cindy and Laurie and Sandy and Cheryl; they passed in and out of his arms with the rotation of the academic semesters, some of them wise and cynical with experience, others incredibly naive and therefore dangerous; they were like figures in the most riotous, improbable of his adolescent dreams, somehow lacking substance, lacking souls, because of their very eagerness to oblige him. “But, Dr. Ambrose, you’re a genius from Harvard and all that, I’m afraid to talk to you, I’m afraid you’re giving me a grade when you just look at me!” One of the Cindys or Sandys whose bold stare had misled Frank nearly caused a scandal by confessing to her parents, who in turn called the university’s president and several members of the board of trustees; but after a four-hour conference in the president’s office, Franklin managed to be forgiven. He promised not to be “indiscreet” again

That was in the winter of 1969. In the spring of that year, the appointments and promotions committee (called the hiring and firing committee) of the department interviewed applicants for the position of lecturer in English. Franklin was the youngest member of this powerful committee and he grilled candidates for the job seriously. He was not very impressed with a young Ph.D. from Yale nor with a young Indian student from Oxford; he was very impressed with a young woman named Molly Holt, who rushed in 15 minutes late for her interview, wearing a very short leather skirt and bright-gold boots.

Franklin stared at this girl. She was no more than five feet, one or two, and therefore shorter than he. She was very pretty, with a small, pixylike face, blonde hair snipped short and puffed out carelessly about her face, so young, so pretty, with impressive recommendations from the University of Chicago! It was hard to believe. Frank’s interest in her grew as he glanced through her application and saw that she was a divorcee with a three-year-old son. She was answering questions pertly and brightly. Obviously an intelligent woman. Frank was careful to ask her questions that might lead her to admirable statements: “I am deeply committed to literature and to teaching, yes,” she said. “And to the future, to the struggle for equality between men and women.” Hastily, Frank asked her about her doctoral thesis, which she had just begun: “It’s called Crises of Sexual Identity inTrollope and Dickens,” she said. “It grew out of my fascination with the role of women in Victorian literature. Imagine, Charles Dickens created Edith Dombey! – and yet in his personal life he was such a bastard, a real male chauvinist pig-”

After this, it took Frank several hours and several meetings of the committee to hire Miss Holt: He had a lot of talking to do.

When she arrived in September, he drove her around in his neat little white sports car, helping her locate an apartment, helping her unpack books (she had a small mountain of books); he lent himself out as her escort at university functions for the first few weeks. Someone sent his wife an anonymous note that said, “Your husband is extremely attentive to a certain young lady professor,” but Frank tore it up with such contempt and such finesse that his wife could not help but believe him, though she wept. Frank, in Molly Holt’s company; was careful to be polite and witty and distant, never staring too boldly at her nor taking up her vivacious comments – she was always complimenting him on his clothes – as if he feared what might happen might happen too quickly. Molly herself dressed rather flamboyantly for a young lady with her rigorous academic background (before Chicago, she had gone to Bennington); she was always hurrying through the department’s corridors in miniskirts and serapes and boots and then, as the fashions gradually changed, in pants and a blouse that clung tightly to her firm, intense little body. At department meetings she was a little arch; she sometimes interrupted people, even the head of the department, a small white-haired man named Barth. “We must all learn to be more contemporary,” she urged.

Frank had lunch with her every day, hung around her office, drove her to her apartment in bad weather, talked her into joining him and his students at The Cave. But she was always anxious to get home, to relieve her baby sitter and to work on her classroom preparations; she was so serious! At times Frank’s patient grin began to ache, waiting for her to get through. With all this seriousness and talk of literature and “relevance.” They sat crowded together in pub booths, arguing and complimenting each other; from time to time a sharp, almost searing glance flashed between them and Frank would £eel a little dizzy with certainty…But always she had to get home, always she was gathering up her big leather purse and striding away, and he would be left with his gaggle of students.

At home, he sat in his study, in his big black-leather chair, and thought about Molly. His wife’s comfortable, bovine presence annoyed him; even his boys distracted him from his dreams of Molly. Sometimes he went out late at night, saying he needed cigarettes (he had begun smoking again, after meeting Molly, breaking his five-year period of abstinence); he telephoned Molly to ask how she was. She always said, “Very busy! My head is whirling, I have so much to do! But I love it.” Frank could not decide if she were being deliberately coy. She really confused him. So he would ask if she needed any help, if she needed a mature, male viewpoint…he would be glad to drop in. …

But she always said, “No, thanks! It’s very thoughtful of you, though.”

As the winter deepened and the Ontario sky became perpetually smudged, pressing low upon the spirit, even Molly began to slow down. Frank noticed that her stride was not quite so energetic, and one of his colleagues commented zestfully: “It looks like Molly is coming in for a landing, like the rest of us.” Frank took her out for coffee and asked her if anything was wrong. She wore an outfit that seemed to be made of green burlap, hanging dramatically about her and highlighting her small, serious face.

“Well, I’ve been working very hard this semester,” she said slowly. “I have so many student compositions to correct. I’m way behind on my dissertation.”

“Anything else?”

Molly hesitated. “Well, I’m having trouble with my ex-husband. He’s trying to get out of the child-support payments. He is such a bastard, you wouldn’t know. Or, yes, maybe you would know,” she said, raising her eyes dramatically to Frank.

They were sitting in a small, grimy coffee shop; Frank dared public attention and patted her hand. It was a very small, delicate, pale hand, and the sight of his own dark hand on it pleased him, excited him. Unmistakable

“Maybe I would know; yes,” he said, wondering what he meant by this.

“You and I understand each other. We have so much in common, so much…” Molly said, her large brown eyes filling with tears. “Oh, sometimes I could scream, this whole university is filled with fossils who don’tunderstand, they just don’t understand.”

And then, as if she’d confessed too much, she hurried away to a class. Frank was left sitting there, stunned, wondering if he were falling in love.

Obviously, he had never been in love before.

She avoided him for several days after this; he asked her to lunch and their conversation was interrupted by the intrusion of the department’s would-be poet, Ron Blazack; Frank called her one evening when his wife was at a meeting of the Faculty Wives’ Association, told her he had something to say to her and talked her into letting him come over.

“All right,” she said reluctantly, “but give me time to put Jimmy to bed …he hasn’t been feeling well.”

When he got there, he was a little disappointed at the way her apartment was furnished. “I’m trying to live within my means,” she said dryly. She offered him a drink, though, and Frank smiled happily. He believed he could feel how dazzling his smile was.

“Let’s talk,” he said. ” Are you happy here?”

“Yes. No. Not really,” she said.

Such a pretty young woman, in spite of the circles of fatigue under her eyes! She wore black net stockings with a diamond design that made Frank lose track of the conversation now and then. She was complaining about her ex-husband and then about the heavy teaching load. “But, Frank, this job means more to me than anything right now. Thank God you people hired me! So many universities turned me down…I was getting desperate. My son has this allergy problem I told you about, and I don’t have medical coverage for him, and I was really getting panicked. I think that some English departments wouldn’t hire me because of my appearance, maybe, or my views on things,” she said, looking Frank in the eye, as if he might not believe so bizarre a statement. Frank nodded slowly. “And of course there’s the male chauvinism to fight. God, what a fight it’s going to be! Centuries of discrimination and prejudice. Men have got to be reeducated if it destroys them.”.

She stared down at her polished nails and her several big, metallic rings. Frank wondered why she had referred to men as “them” in his presence, as if she weren’t talking to a man. This was strange.

“Have men exploited you very much?” Frank asked.

“God, yes.”

He got up and went to sit beside her. She laughed bitterly.

“Why don’t you tell me about it?” he said in a gentle voice.

“Thank you, but I’m not a self-pitying woman. Thank you anyway,” she said, drawing back from him. “But you know what it’s like.”

“What it’s like?”

“To be discriminated against.”

Frank stared at her.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

Frank began to stammer. “Just what – what did you mean by that statement? Would you kindly explain that statement?”

“What statement?”

“That I-I’m supposed to know – supposed to know what it’s like to be discriminated against-”

“Well, don’t you?” Molly asked. “Being a black, you’ve been treated like dirt by the white male establishment – haven’t you? Haven’t they victimized you? Blacks and women are both-”

Frank could not believe his ears. He grabbed her arm.

“Well, we didn’t get together tonight to talk about that kind of stuff,” he said hotly; and as she tugged away from him, he felt his accent slipping, growing richer, thicker. “There’s anything I hate, it’s a woman who talks too much-”

“What? You’re crazyl”

“You’re crazy!” Frank yelled. A flame seemed to burn in his brain, he was so angry. “Look, you been givin’ me the eye now for four months an’ I been tailin’ around after you as if I got nothin’ better to do, when Jesus Christ, there are little girls waitin’ in line – I mean waitin’ in line, sister – so don’t hand me none of this crap-”

Molly jumped to her feet. She yanked his pale-yellow ascot out of his shirt and up onto his face, so that he was blinded for a second.

“Get the hell out of here! Go home to your honkie wife!” she cried.

He went home, furious. He was never to speak to her again.

For weeks he went around muttering to himself, avoiding Molly in the hall, avoiding even his students. When a red-haired freshman dropped in to chat with him about the “erotic symbolism of T. S. Eliot,” he did not trust his assessment of her sweet little smiles. No, he couldn’t trust his judgment. Was the girl really smiling so deeply at him? Or was he being fooled again? .

One day Frank put on his neatest, grayest suit, asked the head of the department, Dr. Barth, to call an emergency meeting of the appointments and promotions committee, and explained in a terse, quiet voice that his “special relationship” with the student body allowed him to know things that the rest of the department did not know.

When the meeting was convened, Frank spoke first. “The students have no respect for Miss Holt,” he said sadly. “They laugh at her – evidently, she mispronounces words. She doesn’t prepare her lectures. I’ve overheard her talking with students in the coffee shop and she actually gives them misinformation – it’s just pathetic, unbelievable. I’ve put off telling you this, because the situation is so ugly. But it was on my strong recommendation that she was hired last year and it’s my responsibility now to tell you what is going on.”

“No complaints about her have come to me,” Dr. Barth said slowly.

“The students are reluctant to talk to you, Dr. Barth,” Frank said, “because you’re – well, you’re so obviously above their trivial problems, so they think. They come to me because there’s – well, I suppose less of an age difference.”

Dr. Barth nodded gravely. “Yes, I know I’m out of touch with this generation. I know. But about Miss Holt: There may be trouble dismissing her. She’s going to be awarded a Ph.D. from Chicago, after all.”

“No, she hasn’t been working on her dissertation all year,” Frank said. “I don’t know what she’s been doing. Actually, I wonder about her professional commitment.”

The other members of the committee murmured agreement.

Frank went on solemnly. “It comes down to the preservation of our professional standards. We cannot afford,” he said, looking from face to face, “in this time of disintegrating values, to have so casual and uncommitted a teacher in our department. Miss Holt is just not respected by her students. Evidently, she refers to the rest of us, in her classes, as fossils.”

“Fossils?”

“I told you it was an ugly situation,” Frank said softly.

Dr. Barth called a special meeting of the entire department for Monday morning. Molly came in late and Frank did no more than glance at her, nervously; She pulled out a chair at the far end of the big oval table everyone was seated around and the giddiness of her outfit – really, she had gone too far, wearing a loose-knit black tunic over violet-jersey pants to school! – seemed to show everyone how hopeless she was. Dr. Barth began the meeting in his usual grim, paternal voice, his hands clasped in front of him. He spoke of unpleasant reports, of an unfortunate situation, of the rigorous standards of this particular department, etc., etc. He was the only one who was looking at Molly, who in her turn was glancing around, curiously. Frank stared at his own manicured fingernails. His heart raced. Why, the old man sounded so sorry for her, was he going to change his mind? Maybe just reprimand her?

Dr. Barth said, “Because of special circumstances, the committee on appointments and promotions has been forced to suggest that the contract of Miss Bolt not be renewed for next year. This decision was reached after many hours of anguish, after many, many hours of discussion. There are budget problems, also, which might involve our slightly reducing the salaries of other department members, unless the lectureship held by Miss Holt is terminated. But this should in no way, of course, influence your vote on the matter. Under the terms of our bylaws, I have therefore called this meeting of the department to request that you support the committee’s recommendation and terminate Miss Bolt’s contract.”

Molly was gaping at him. “What?” she said faintly.

No one dared look at her. Many of the department members had been told by Dr. Barth of the reason for the meeting; the others stared at one another in disbelief.

Molly, sitting so pertly at the far end of the table, seemed suddenly to shrink.

“But why? What are the reasons? Can’t I defend myself?”

“Under the terms of our university bylaws,” Dr. Barth said gently, “no reasons for nonrenewal of contract need be stated. Only in the case of nonrenewal of a tenured faculty member need reasons be given.”

“But I …I don’t understand. …”

Frank glanced down at her. That small, pale face! That white bitch!

“If you would like to say anything, I’m sure we would all listen with sympathy,” Dr. Barth said.

“I…I…”

She fell silent. After a minute or so, Dr. Barth said, “Then we really should get on with the vote. Some of us have eleven-o’clock classes we must teach.”

Stiff white slips of paper were passed around for the vote.

Frank scribbled “Dismissal” on his ballot at once, folded it neatly in two and then in two again.

Next to him sat old Miss Snyder, a back number from the university’s really mediocre years; with her billowing gray dresses and her stern, medieval nose, she had always disliked Molly Bolt. No problem there. On Frank’s left was the poet, Blazack, who kept shifting miserably in his seat. Around the large, highly polished table everyone sat in silence, staring down at their ballots. They seemed reluctant to vote. The only people who sat with their heads up were Frank and Dr. Barth and Molly; whose ballot lay before her, untouched.

“Really, we must hurry. It’s a quarter to eleven,” Dr. Barth said.

The ballots were collected by the departmental secretary and counted out. Frank could overhear the count:For dismissal. Against dismissal He began to sweat, wondering if he might lose. What if…? What if…? What if that bitch had managed to win the votes of the other professors? What if she’d told the committee about what she had told him? What if they refused to believe him? His nostrils flared. In that case, he would quit. Would quit. Would quit with dignity. Yes, he would quit. He would not remain in this department if his professional integrity were doubted.

Dr. Barth announced the results: “The vote is sixteen to five for nonrenewal of Miss Holt’s contract.”

Molly pushed her chair back clumsily and got to her feet. “But I … I still don’t understand. …”

“I will be happy to talk with you and to make suggestions about where you might apply for a new position,” Dr. Barth said at once. “In fact, we would all be happy to help you.”

Molly snatched up her big leather purse and hurried out of the room.

Relief.

Frank lingered with some of the others, shaking his head gravely as they shook theirs. He had to admit he’d been taken in by her…he had admit he’d made a mistake. The whole ugly mess was his fault, he said.

“No, don’t blame yourself, Frank,” everyone said.

Dr. Barth patted his arm. “Frank, we belong to a profession with extremely rigorous standards. Personal feelings shouldn’t enter into it at all “I’m sure Miss Holt will be happier in another university, with less demanding criteria of excellence.”

But Frank found it difficult to be comforted. He felt really down. Instead of going out to The Cave with his students that afternoon, he went right home. His wife was frightened by his dour, peevish frown. ”

“You’re not sick, Frank?”

No, not sick. He put on his smoking jacket and went to sit in his leather chair; he wanted to be alone. His wife opened his study door to ask meekly, if he wanted dinner delayed. “Yes. Maybe an hour,” he said. She then asked if the twins could come play with him for a few minutes – they’d been waiting for him to come home all day.

Frank considered this.

His eyes traveled up from his excellent shoes to his slim, checked trousers, to the casual richness of his navy-blue smoking jacket. He had knotted a white ascot quickly around his neck. He sensed his totality, his completion – a man who did not need anyone else, certainly not a woman. But he had lived through a certain emotional experience -there was no doubt in his mind that it had been an experience – and though he had triumphed, still he felt a little melancholy. It was a delicate, sensitive melancholy and the twins were so healthy and noisy that they might destroy it.

Finally, he said, “No, not right now. I want to be alone. I feel a little melancholy and I want to be alone.”

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