She was a handsome woman, Raylene Thomason, not what you’d call beautiful, but with Cherokee blood that gave her a broad pleasant face with a clean jawline and steady dark eyes. She took her looks so much for granted that it seemed she paid no attention, and maybe she didn’t. Her appearance was useful for getting men interested in her, though she was not a flirt or a tease. But she was curious about men because she simply could not make them out. They were helplessly attracted, always putting moves on her—well, okay, that’s how men are—but when she took up with a man and tried to make him happy, it was only a week or two before he began treating her shabbily, lying and sneaking and cheating. Now why was that?

She was taking a continuing education philosophy class Tuesday nights at Sugdon College and the demeanor of the affable fuzzy young instructor had gained her confidence, though she hardly knew him. After class one night -in October she had waited patiently to speak until the other students departed and then had told him quietly: “I’m going out tomorrow night.”

“Going out?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, and her gaze turned inward and she nodded in agreement with some thought that Rodney Hegen knew he would never hear. Then she hitched her books against her chest and walked out of the classroom, marching away as steady as a soldier.

And because he was an unworldly fellow or maybe because he had come recently to east Tennessee from Albany, New York, and didn’t understand local custom and idiom, he could not at first figure out what in the world Raylene was talking about. Rodney knew the ideas of wise men as they are revealed in books, but he was less acquainted with emotional impulse, and he and east Tennessee were nearly strangers to one another.

Asking among his amused colleagues, Rodney discovered that for Raylene “going out” would mean cruising the casual streets of Sugdon in her shiny black Dodge pickup truck and inspecting the parking lots of a couple of hamburger drive-ins and finally settling down for a beer but not more than two at a joint called Happy Rabbit. She was taking revenge on her boyfriend for her hurt feelings and if there was a man who struck her fancy and showed some humor and halfway decent manners, well then, she might console herself a little while in the night. Probably she wouldn’t. But she might and if she did she wouldn’t feel guilty about it, not in the least, because Frank had no right to treat her the way he did. Who made him the Emperor of Women anyhow?

So then the question remaining with Rodney was whether Raylene had extended an invitation. Was he supposed to go out tomorrow night in his dinky yellow Toyota and prowl up and down the avenues in hope of accidentally encountering Raylene? It wouldn’t be a statistically improbable occurrence; the population of Sugdon numbered no more than some ten thousand-odd souls.

But if he was inexpert in instinctual behavior and local folklore, Rodney had confidence in his ability to read the finer parts of human character. Raylene had vouchsafed a confidence. She had sized him up and regarded him as trustworthy and this was her seal of friendship: Here is what is in my mind to do, Dr. Hegen. A simple declaration and no more. It would be easy for Rodney to hear dreadful things about her boyfriend Frank but she was not going to be the one to tell. Because, you see, on his side Rodney had to trust Raylene that her night out being a naughty girl was the right thing to do, a necessary stage in the relationship with Frank. She had told her philosophy teacher what she was going to do because she was a serious person. She respected him as a man who spoke familiarly of Aristotle and Descartes and to tell him about her night of indiscretion was a way to show her respect.

But why shouldn’t she take up with Rodney? Why shouldn’t they enjoy a wild, brief, passionate fling? Rodney was a bachelor and rather a hapless one, to judge by the rumpled and shapeless look of his clothing and the sunless pallor of his face. He wore the usual academic sports coat and tie, right enough, but a lower button was likely to be missing from his white shirt, revealing a demure concave navel mounted in a comfortable-looking paunch. Dr. Rodney Hegen was an academic of the ancient type: worn carpet slippers and no word processor, a devoted believer in careful thinking with a mercifully short list of publications. He could not have recognized a jogging shoe.

In short, no strings. Why then did he merely file away the salient and seemingly inviting facts about the handsome Raylene without trying to act upon them with romantic, or at least with sexual, intent?

It was because he was lucky this time and thought he understood Raylene’s motive in telling him her secret. As a general rule, he had no inkling of the duplicities, subterfuges, and arcane stratagems that infest a casual human relationship. It never occurred to him that someone might be shading the truth, or omitting some part of it, or flatly lying to him for reasons of personal advantage. But the seriousness with which Raylene spoke her sentence—”I’m going out tomorrow night”—gave him to know that there was nothing trivial about it, and certainly nothing coquettish. She was going out tomorrow night because she was at a desperate stage with her boyfriend and her going out was supposed to effect some change in their relationship, for better or worse.

So he was not surprised to find that after the next class on Tuesday night, she was again waiting until all the other students had departed to speak to him. She stood patiently by the blackboard as separate questions were asked about term papers and an approaching midterm exam. Then when the room was empty but for the two of them, she spoke with perfect seriousness: “I went out last Wednesday night.”

“I see,” he said, feeling that he did see.

“I drove by your house,” she said.


And once again she nodded in agreement with her private thought and marched steadily off, leaving him to think: this second time she spoke two sentences. If she stays to talk next week will she speak three?

Then he imagined her driving by the little stone bungalow he rented on Cambridge Street, her snazzy black pickup purring by, throbbing with power. She would have seen his lights on in the living room where he had sat reading or grading papers or sipping a glass of passable red wine while listening to the classical music station. He could not remember precisely what he had been doing last Wednesday evening, but all his nights were so similar that he was able to form an accurate idea. Perhaps he had called his mother. Once a week, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, he telephoned Albany to tell his mother that he was doing well, enjoying his classes and students, and no, he wasn’t married yet, no he wasn’t dating anyone special, no-no he hadn’t met any women who meant anything out of the ordinary to him. But yes, there were lots of nice girls in east Tennessee, it was only that he’d been so busy with his teaching and research. Then after he had hung up he wondered what his mother would think of Raylene Thomason, and decided that she wouldn’t think anything. If his mother ever met Raylene she would only gape like an awestruck Tennessee tourist visiting the Louvre.

That one vision of the two worlds haunted him, Raylene in her dashing pickup truck off to meet some muscular beery young man in his denim jacket with the cut-off sleeves; and he, Rodney, with a half glass of red wine, in one hand and an open book in the other, sitting in his soiled overstuffed chair he’d bought at Good Will and with his stocking feet propped on the cardboard box full of professional journals that served for a hassock. This vision stayed in his mind as representing with utmost clarity the two separate worlds that he and Raylene inhabited. These worlds were so close that they even touched, but they were so alien to one another that expressive communication between them seemed unlikely.

It was a situation not entirely unheard of, but he couldn’t help wondering how Raylene perceived it. Did she see their relationship as the fragile touching of separate worlds? Did she see any relationship between them at all? But she had initiated the relationship, so she must recognize it in some way. Probably it was no more than it seemed; he was her respected teacher in whom she had invested a personal confidence.

He allowed himself to dwell only briefly on the larger and more intriguing question: how did Raylene ever come to be taking an introductory course in philosophy? Not that she was unintelligent; the few times she had contributed to class discussion she had spoken clearly and to the point. Mostly she didn’t speak but watched him ravel the learned perplexities with a gaze so steady it was almost unnerving. Her attention never wavered. She wanted to know what Plato thought, she wanted him to clarify what Plato thought, she desired to know how Dr. Hegen judged what Plato thought.

The notion struck him that Raylene wanted to know the truth about the universe. She had been misled, deceived, and flatly lied to by the men in her life, so now she needed to get the straight of it. Here was a mild vexation for Rodney; he could not claim to teach the truth but only a prudent comparative analysis of ideas that are considered—or that were once upon a time considered—to point toward some part of the truth. I must tell her that, Rodney thought, or she’ll mark me down as one more man she can’t trust.

But he decided not to tell her of the modest goals of his philosophy class, fearing his explanation would make him small in her eyes. He was proud of being admired by Raylene and he wanted to stand secure in her admiration.

Today was Thursday and he began to look forward to the coming Tuesday with warm anticipation. What would she tell him this third magical time? Suppose she said to him again, as she had said two weeks ago; “I’m going out tomorrow night.” This time he would have to understand it as an invitation, wouldn’t he? And he would have to respond in the accepted fashion, driving all about in his car until he and Raylene accidentally tracked each other down. . . . But he could do that only if he wanted to meet her and enter into whatever such a relationship with her would be. An affair, would you call it, a romance?

He decided that if he and Raylene ever plunged into a genuine love affair something would be ruined. Lovers were a dime a dozen; the relationship that obtained between the two of them now was as rare as it was delicate, and it ought to be preserved for that reason if for no other. He did not want to decline in her estimation. At this moment he was unique, the only philosopher she’d ever known. But if they became lovers he would have to stand in competition with the hardbodied young men she knew, the wild boys who drove pickup trucks to match her own. He was certain that he couldn’t stack up. against the carefree Tennessee boys by their own standards.

Then—abruptly—he was angry at these nameless, faceless boys he could imagine only dimly. It wasn’t fair that they every one had a chance with Raylene while he was denied all opportunity. Of course, this situation was the result of Raylene’s predilection for the local hardasses in their blue jeans and rolled-sleeve T-shirts and shaggy haircuts, so he became angry at Raylene. Mostly, though, he was angry at himself for being such a wimp, sipping his dopey red wine and reading books that only wimps like himself had ever heard of, books that made no difference to the real business of the world.

It was a measure of how far Rodney Hegen was gone that he could say to himself such a phrase as “the real business of the world” without stopping to examine its implications. Another indication of his hazardous state of mind was the fact that he actually said the words, talking aloud as he walked up and down in his cluttered living room, listening to hear if Raylene’s truck passed by at ten o’clock or midnight or later. On Sunday night he turned out his lights and sat by the window and waited, peering out, but she didn’t drive by.

All day Monday he was restless and irritated but on Tuesday, the day of his philosophy class, he calmed down and thought soberly. Raylene was a serious person, but she was hardly a serious scholar and it was likely that she would find other more engaging interests than philosophy. She would never finish out her semester in this class; in fact, it was highly improbable that she would even attend class this evening.

But there she was in her blue jeans with the broad red patent leather belt and her blouse that looked vaguely like a cowgirl shirt. His whole being brightened the moment he saw her sitting in her accustomed seat and he plunged into his lecture with a piquant bon mot and for the whole class period, three hours without even a coffee break this evening, spoke with witty clarity and refined brilliance. It was a performance such as he’d never given before, such as he had not believed himself capable of.

When he finished he was drained but still exhilarated. He was a little disappointed too that none of the students stopped on the way out to congratulate him on his performance. But he was happy—and enormously relieved—to find that Raylene waited once more to speak to him.

“This lecture you gave tonight— ” she began.

“Yes?” he said.

“Well, it didn’t make a bit of sense.”

Unhappiness was over him then like a velvet shadow. “Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry to know that.”

“It was like you were all confused,” she said. “Like you couldn’t think straight.”

“I see.” “So I expect we’d better get married.”

“Excuse me?”

“You and me,” she said. “I think we better get married. So that you won’t be so mixed up all the time.”

“Do you think I’ll understand things better if we get married?”

“Yes. I believe that will make everything come clear.”

“All right then,” he said. “I accept your proposal.”

“No,” she said. “That’s the first thing we have to get straight. I didn’t propose; you did.”

“Oh . . . I see,” he said, but he didn’t. Not yet.