by REBECCA LARTIGUE
Judy had overdone it again, she realized, assessing the large sheet cake; she’d be eating leftovers for days. But it didn’t matter. Everyone was having fun, talking in their version of Early Modern English: “Wilt thou cut me a piece of cake, Professor Allan?”
That’s when she noticed him in the back of the chapel, wearing an Ask Me About the Earl of Oxford t-shirt.
She seethed. It was too vexing, and it was absolutely the last offense. This particular insult had commenced some weeks ago shortly after she’d posted her flyers: Shakespeare’s Birthday Party, campus chapel, noon. She organized the gathering each spring. Her Shakespeare students, some colleagues, and a few of the area’s retired teachers came together to recite passages from the plays and sonnets. And to eat birthday cake—mostly to eat cake.
By the end of March, new flyers had manifested next to every one of hers. In the block caps of a scandal-rag headline were the words WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE DIDN’T WRITE THE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE, and below, footnotes from websites that it took little scrutiny to see were bogus.
Judy hadn’t noticed the new flyers until the beginning of April, and so at first she’d thought the campaign must be the work of disgruntled students: likely that trio of young baseball players who talked through class and always tried to get her to change the rules for them. But then on her way out of her building, she had passed her colleague’s office door and seen the flyers taped all over it: Professor Higgins, the Emily Dickinson scholar with the British accent.
Despite his efforts to undermine her, this year’s party had still attracted a collegial crowd. The choral professor and a history teacher had stepped up for a spirited reenactment of the thumb-biting exchange from Romeo and Juliet, and a few students had been brave enough to read their favorite sonnets. Now the reference librarian was boasting about sharing William’s birthday (a few years ago Judy had stopped explaining that the birthdate, in contrast to Shakespeare’s baptism date, was a fact about which scholars couldn’t be completely certain) when Professor Higgins and his heretical t-shirt began making their way down the chapel aisle toward her.
Judy didn’t want to do this now. She kept her head down.
“Professor Higgins, I think this is the first year we’ve seen you here,” she heard from the biology prof.
He answered provocatively, “There’s a good reason for that.”
“Is this the first year the birthday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday?” Judy muttered, not quite quietly.
“Interesting shirt,” the biologist continued, pointing with her fork.
“Fancy it?” Professor Higgins said gleefully. “I bought it on Etsy.”
The offending shirt was beside her now. Judy cut one more deliberate slice before setting down the knife. She picked up the paper plate.
“For me?” he asked.
Pompous ass. She eyed the dull knife blade, smeared with icing, but did not relinquish the cake. “When is Earl Oxford’s birthday?”
He grinned. “You know, I’m sure I couldn’t tell you!”
Nodding, she turned her back on him and busied herself with collecting the left-behind programs to be recycled.
She maintained a placid physiognomy, but Judy was seething as she went to teach her Intro to Shakespeare class. There, as could have been anticipated, students wanted to know what that had been about with Professor Higgins, and she’d been compelled to give class time over to explain that not even Wikipedia, much less the respected scholars in the field, took the Oxford theory seriously. The most rabid writers on the topic hailed from fourth-tier institutions…or were (Judy shuddered) “independent scholars.” All their “evidence” was based on gaps in the historic record, and that was just bad reasoning. Proponents of the theory simply refused to understand the circumstances affecting document survival in the Early Modern period! None of the medievalists she knew had needed it explained to them; but a handful of actors (a thousand curses upon Derek Jacobi!), and some kooky modernists—those scholars absolutely spoiled with archives full of drafts and diaries to use as crutches to their interpretations—these gasbags were dissatisfied with the (all matters considered) rather extensive life-records of William Shakespeare and chose instead to embrace a fanciful conspiracy theory.
Certainly Judy could understand the need for correctives to “Bardolatry”—the fabrications and conclusion-jumping that had passed for biographical scholarship in centuries past. But she was quite content believing that the contemporaries who spoke and wrote about William were right.
Thanks to the unplanned digression, Judy did not get through what she needed to that class period, so it was with sharp rage that she trudged back to her office at the hour’s end. She chose the entrance that allowed her to avoid passing Higgins’ office, but even from her vantage down the hall she could not fail to notice his closed door; over the Oxford flyers was a new posting in the secretary’s scrawl noting that Professor Higgins’ classes and office hours were canceled for the rest of the afternoon.
She kicked her door shut behind her, and the glass rattled angrily in the doorframe. She had actually tracked it last fall: Higgins canceled an average of one out of every four classes. He claimed he was attending workshops and conferences, but Judy had googled him, and he wasn’t listed on any college or university programs as presenter, moderator, or participant. She didn’t know how he was getting away with it! If he were a student missing that much of her class, he wouldn’t pass. And for him to have caused her to waste her class time correcting his misinformation, and then to disregard his own teaching responsibility—!
Judy had attempted, countless times, to talk with her department chair Simone about Nigel’s absenteeism, but the chair had not been receptive. Higgins had somehow duped her and the other administrators. Judy already knew what Simone would say if she were to mention Nigel’s little stunt today. Of course Judy understood that there was room in Academia for different perspectives, but how was Higgins possibly meeting his responsibilities to students and to the department? How was there a place at the college for such vagrant disregard for critical thinking?
When it came to that, what exactly was he contributing to the academic mission? In her ten years at the college, never had Judy witnessed a student leave his class exhibiting anything other than resignation. And he was a pill of a colleague. He never signed any of her advisees into his courses when they closed, even if the students were graduating seniors. When his turn came to serve on committees, he was inflexible about meeting times. And then there was the whole Monday, Wednesday, Friday issue. He neither came to campus nor taught on those days—if you could even call what he did teaching: old-school lecture, followed by exams where he removed points for misremembered prepositions or articles in the titles of literary works.
“He gets good evals,” Simone had shrugged, and so Judy had begun forwarding her article after article about the flaws of student evaluations as measures of teaching effectiveness and student learning.
Why did so many students speak reverently of him? Because he had an English accent? Because he accoutered himself in tweed coats and argyle vests? Because his speech was fustian and abstruse, and students assumed he was smarter than they? Or because he had, in response to the grade complaints that used to shadow him, made it transparent that those who repeated his interpretations back to him earned As, and those who didn’t earned Bs…or B minuses, if they were women who insisted on raising gender issues.
She threw herself in her office chair. Why did she have to work so hard for students’ respect? Sure, she’d made novice mistakes. Inviting students to call her by her first name. Wearing her contacts, instead of glasses, and wearing makeup. Putting too much thought into her clothes, or not enough. Making cookies for the class.
She might do those things differently, but she didn’t regret having standards: giving challenging assignments, and the Cs and Ds that went with them. Designing interactive classes in which students scarcely noticed she was guiding them to enlightenment; so deftly did she bring them to deeper thinking, they imagined they authored it all themselves!
But Nigel Higgins: he’d been hired some years before her—a one-year instructor who slipped in first to a tenure-track position, then to tenure, and then to full professor status during the dotage of the previous dean. She’d had a less smooth path, and Nigel had been much of the reason for that. Indeed, semester by semester, he’d grown more openly disdainful of her work. He was why she’d had to reapply for tenure and promotion—a friend serving on the status committee that year had broken confidentiality to tell her. Higgins had opined that her teaching evaluations were worrisome and her research contributions minor. She needs to initiate a more substantial, creative research project, and she should be less afraid to take chances in her work, he had written. The best scholars are not afraid to go their own way.
There were personal slights, too. Higgins was undoubtedly the one who’d put a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnet 2 in her mailbox on her 40th birthday—the one that went, When forty winters shall besiege thy brow, / And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field… She had recognized the handwriting and complained, but Simone had merely told her to lighten up. Her friend Meg in History said she should have gone straight to HR; but then HR hadn’t done anything about Meg’s stalker student.
Judy reached into the back of her desk drawer for the bottle she kept there for emergencies—sherry that Meg had brought her for housesitting during her last trip abroad. Judy found the cleanest mug on her desk and poured a dram. She was tired of Higgins getting away with it all. Tired of the offenses, insults, and arrogance. Tired of waiting for others to realize what she could so clearly see. The Bard’s birthday stunt was only the final insult.
Imbibing the smooth Spanish sherry, she indulged in feverish daydreams. When he left his door ajar to go to the bathroom, she would hide food in his office to attract the building’s rat. She’d write anonymous bad reviews of his book on Amazon and Goodreads. Set up a dozen phantom accounts on Rate My Professor and destroy him. But after wasting an hour creating multiple fake accounts and a spreadsheet to track her avatars’ log-ins and passwords, she realized none of this was retribution enough.
Success in Circuit lies.
The words came to her mysteriously, like the voice a madman hears. She could just google the phrase, but instead she took down her grad school copy of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. She paged through the Emily Dickinson section until she found the poem, read its first line: The Truth must dazzle gradually.
Judy emptied the rest of the sherry into her mug and quaffed it.
She must be patient, and she must plan; but she would certainly be avenged.
During one of her infernal bouts of insomnia, inspiration came. The weaknesses that she could exploit were right before her: Higgins’ arrogance, and his susceptibility to fanciful stories.
The characters: Emily Dickinson. Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Emily’s confidante and friend, and wife of Emily’s brother, Austin. Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress. The opportunity: the mysterious occasional periods of estrangement between Emily and Susan, and the (less mysterious) enmity between Susan and her husband’s mistress, who first saw Dickinson’s poems into print, thereby thwarting Susan’s own editorial efforts.
As the fan blades whirred above her sleepless bed, Judy imagined the narrative possibilities that would be too tempting for Nigel to ignore: authorship and authority, and a new theory that played off dark family secrets; the chance to change Dickinson studies, and to win to himself the international adulation he felt he deserved.
If her plan succeeded, when it was all over, Higgins’ name would be famous: as the punchline to literature grad students’ jokes. Too worked up to sleep, Judy slid the DVD of Gaslight into the player to watch once again.
There was reading and researching to do. She had to craft theories that were just plausible enough. She needed resources that her college’s sad library didn’t have, but she used her public library card so Higgins would have no chance to stumble across her efforts. Over a feverishly busy weekend, she wrote the master narrative for her project, what fantasy authors and show-runners call The Bible; hers was already sixty single-spaced pages.
From the time she got home from campus until two or three in the morning, she worked. As soon as she had enough to start with, she registered the domain name Tell_It_Slant.com and began posting materials there.
“Did you grade our papers yet, Professor?” one of the baseball players asked.
This kid—did he even know her name? Though she should be grateful he didn’t demote her to a high school teacher, or friend’s mom, and call her Mrs. Allan.
“No, Josh,” she forced the smile up from her tight jaw. “I haven’t finished yet.”
The English department gathered for its final meeting of the term. Seated, waiting for the others, Judy felt a hand on her shoulder. Higgins. She restrained the impulse to cringe. They had not spoken since the birthday celebration.
He leaned over her, too close, and whispered, “I thought you might be nursing a grudge.”
“Whatever for?” she said brightly.
“Your little gathering.”
Oh, how dismissive he was, how smug! How he condescended! But she controlled herself. “Oh, that? I haven’t given it a thought.”
He patted her avuncularly and took his seat. She smiled as she passed him the tray of cheese and crackers. Fool—he suspected nothing.
As if fated, the opportunity to put her plan into action came that very afternoon, when Simone appointed Judy and Nigel to attend the local college consortium in Amherst the next Friday.
“Sorry, guys—it’s your turns to represent the department. I’ll get you everything you need—will that work?” Simone looked to Judy, pointedly. So someone must have told her about Higgins crashing the Shakespeare event, after all.
“Of course,” Judy acquiesced. She smiled over her shoulder to Higgins: “I don’t mind driving.”
He nodded, expecting such deference from a junior faculty member.
Once the meeting adjourned, Judy acted.
When she called her old friend, Matt, he was surprised to hear from her; and he was, initially, reluctant to accede to her request. Hadn’t they agreed to turn over a new leaf and go straight—? But her memory of what he owed her was detailed and precise. She knew things that could make his life very difficult, and so, in the end, he really had no choice.
She made sure to run into Higgins on Wednesday before the consortium meeting. Her manner was light and bubbly: she must help him underestimate her.
“Oh, Professor Higgins—I meant to ask you. A friend of mine is in the Amherst chapter of the Emily Society…”
When she saw him tense, her confidence rose. Nigel belonged to the national organization and had run for office, but the inner circle (such Amherst bluebloods!) had heretofore denied him—for his research being insufficiently ground-breaking, as Simone, who must have received the confidence from a solace-seeking Nigel, had in a moment of misjudgment shared with Judy.
The lie unspooled easily from Judy’s mouth, “…and for my birthday she gave me this gift certificate for a tour of the Homestead. It’s been such a busy semester, I lost track of the time—it’s about to expire. I’m sure you’ve been there a bunch of times, but would you mind terribly going with me, when we finish at the consortium?”
The hook dangled, but she must make the lure dance a little: “It’s a private tour, a look at the rooms not usually open to the public.”
At last he nodded, and she felt the old flush of triumph.
She walked with Nigel past piles of brick and construction materials—renovations to the Homestead were always ongoing—and called out to let Matt know they’d arrived. He was there in the welcome area to meet them. She had to give Matt credit: he may have been out of the game for a while (the Denver gig had really spooked him), but he certainly had committed to this part. He’d even fabricated a plastic name tag from somewhere. When he saw her note the museum’s security cameras, something she hadn’t foreseen, he nodded slightly—he’d taken care of that.
Fingering the many keys he’d lifted from his mother-in-law, he gestured them into the first chamber and started the script, for it all must begin like the usual house tour. Sitting room, kitchen, stairs, landing, Emily’s room…then an administrative office or two, to complete the illusion that this was in fact a “behind the scenes” tour. He led them down to the basement, damp and cobwebbed. Eyeing the shovels and trowels, Judy waited as Nigel peppered Matt with a half dozen questions (comments, really—oh, how Higgins loved to hear himself talk!). Finally, she said, “We should really be getting back, Nigel.”
“Did you say Nigel?” Matt the docent acted surprised. “Not Nigel Higgins—Professor Higgins, I mean?”
Higgins puffed and confirmed it, and Matt declared himself a fan of the professor’s scholarship. He rambled on about his favorite articles by the professor (more of Judy’s careful preparations for him) and in the process managed to let slip that he was a bit of a scholar himself and had spent a lot of time in the Homestead’s archives.
Nigel’s interest when Matt spoke of his own work was barely civil, but as always, Judy admired the way Matt could make a mark draw information out of him: how (Matt hinted) he might have uncovered something in the letters and diaries of Susan Huntington Gilbert that would forever change Dickinson studies.
As they made their way back to the pokey gift shop where they’d begun the ersatz tour, Judy wasn’t certain the whole act had been quite enough to set the plot in motion, until she saw Higgins reach into his breast pocket. Like a priest distributing Eucharist, he passed his business card to Matt: “It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow scholar. If you’d care to continue the conversation…”
“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine!” Matt effused. “To talk to a real scholar—unlike the retired-librarian volunteer squad, right?”
Higgins chortled. “Well, we should get back. Is that the toilets, there? If you’ll just excuse me.”
Matt waited to hear the roar of the electric hand-dryer before rasping to Judy: “So we’re square now, right? I’ve gone straight since Colorado, and I thought you had, too.”
Judy assured him there was no need to argue. She would manage all the rest.
“Did I misplace your self-evaluation and work plan?”
Judy deftly shrunk the window on her desktop and looked up to find Simone at her office door. “Ah, no,” she prevaricated. “I’ve been really snowed under; I haven’t finished them yet.”
“I was so sure I must have lost them! You’re always the first to get them in.”
“Things just got away from me this semester,” Judy smiled wanly. “You know how it is.”
“Boy do I.” Simone was already continuing down the hall. “Well, as soon as you can, okay?”
Judy turned back to her computer and pulled up the window she’d been working in to logon to the new email account she’d registered, DecentDocent. In the persona of Matt, she wrote to Higgins, inviting the professor to check out the website he moderated called Tell It Slant.
When she passed Higgins’ office later that day, she glimpsed the site’s banner head on his monitor, and she smiled to herself.
As anticipated, Higgins promptly engaged “Matt,” making half a dozen challenges to his authorship theories. Judy crafted each response carefully, peppering the messages with just enough flattery and deference to keep Higgins writing back. When his interest seemed to wane, Judy had “Matt” confide how he’d tried but failed to cultivate a relationship with Professor Lucas, another noted name in Dickinson studies; and indeed, this baiting resulted in Higgins communicating with renewed vigor.
By the fifth exchange, Higgins had come up with his own reading of how a “Dickinson” poem betrayed its dual authorship. He used anagrammic evidence and word-frequency statistics as “proof.” Furthermore, he proposed, it was almost certainly Mabel Loomis’s publishing of the dually-authored works as “Emily’s,” rather than Emily’s and Susan’s, more than her affair with Austin, that conceived the acrimony between Mabel and Susan Dickinson.
Judy could hardly contain herself. It was everything that she had been hoping for: a completely risible interpretation. Of course “Matt” encouraged the professor to share his theory on the website, where Judy ensured it was received well, though not completely without challenges; for professors like Higgins love the opportunity to make a spectacle of their erudition.
When within the week Higgins had identified another poem as being co-authored by Susan, Judy knew that she had him.
The Friday of finals, Nigel encountered Judy by the faculty mailboxes. He waved an envelope at her, explaining: “Ballot for the Dickinson Society election.”
“Ah, good luck,” she smiled.
“I am quite confident,” he beamed, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Then he lowered his voice a bit, conspiratorially. “You know, I’ve been corresponding with that docent that we met at the Homestead. But it’s the strangest thing—for the last few days I haven’t been able to reach him.”
Of course she knew this. At the end of last week, she’d had “DecentDocent” disappear from the site. Only yesterday she’d overheard Higgins on the phone: Yes, I’m holding for a docent named Matthew Fraser. She already knew what the volunteers were telling him: We’re sorry, no one of that name works here, or ever has.
She frowned with concern: “Well, I’m sure spring is busy for them at the museum. Isn’t it fieldtrip season for the public schools?”
Higgins shook his head vehemently. “We’ve been emailing back and forth, regularly, and it’s as if he’s…disappeared.”
“Oh, surely he’s just on vacation or taking a break from email or someth—”
“No,” he interrupted her. “I have searched. Thoroughly.”
“So you think—what?” she asked.
Nigel hesitated, nonplussed; she would have to step carefully.
“Have you brought this to your American Lit listserv?” she added, helpfully. “Maybe that prof at UMass knows him—Lucas, is it?”
At the mention of his rival, Higgins’ hauteur returned. “Never mind,” he conceded, stalking back to his lair.
Creating material for Tell It Slant required so much time and attention that Judy didn’t get through grading her students’ final research papers in time, so she ball-parked final grades and threw together her end-of-year reports. Over the summer, when she didn’t have classes, she had much more time to dedicate to the work. She added new posts from various users daily, and monitored Nigel’s growing entanglement in his new theories.
And yet Judy was not prepared for the message that Simone forwarded to the department at the end of June: a note from Nigel, sharing that he’d been accepted to present his newest Dickinson research at an Early American Lit conference that July in Concord, Massachusetts. He was quite proud of the work and promised it would bring a lot of attention to their college and department.
Judy hadn’t thought it possible, but she’d underestimated his hubris; he’d moved much more quickly than she had expected.
She quickly found the conference he’d alluded to in his message. It wasn’t quite the venue she’d hoped for, but it should work. She picked an alias and registered as a day attendee in order to witness his humiliation. Fortunately she hadn’t gotten rid of all her wigs—she chose one, a pair of sunglasses, and clothes that would make her disappear—and checked in to the conference just before his session, so he wouldn’t notice her.
His was the last paper of the panel, and her knee bounced uncontrollably as she waited for his humiliation. Finally he began reading—and oh, his smirking smugness as he laid out his theory and evidence! He ran five minutes over time (of course), but finally he concluded and sat down, and the moderator opened the floor to questions and comments. Judy waited, pressing her lips together to keep a grinch-like grin from escaping.
But the challenges and doubts she had expected to be directed toward him were not expressed. Rather, the audience members effused praise and flattery! Ground-breaking, invigorating, vital—the compliments were piled upon his work, and upon him, and he grinned and bantered with each scholar in turn.
This couldn’t be happening.
Judy looked hopefully to the man a few seats over from her. His name tag identified him as Prof. Lucas, University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She tried to read his face, but it was inscrutable. He was too far away to discretely whisper any snide provoking, and so she could only try to will him to say something…anything. But he remained cross-legged and reclined far back in his chair, saying nothing.
The session ended, and Higgins was swarmed by eager acolytes. Dazed, Judy staggered out of the conference center and asked her phone to find the closest bar.
The lounge had Wi-Fi, and so as she drank glass after glass of Rioja, she watched, horrified, as users not of her inventing joined the discussion board of Tell It Slant: professors and graduate students from the conference seizing on Higgins’ theories, offering their own arguments about which other poems were likely collaborations and which were (in fact) primarily Susan’s work, not Emily’s. Oh, the ridiculous, specious arguments! What had she done?
The next morning she checked out of the sleazy motel where she’d had to crash, found a CVS and some aspirin, and started the drive back home. She replayed the previous afternoon in her head, unable to believe that no one had been able to see that the emperor had no clothes. Her knuckles whitened on the wheel. What if this ridiculous theory took wider hold? What if Nigel were in fact lauded and published for his audacious theory? The notion was so preposterous that she had not entertained it before, but the horror of the possibility consumed her now. Worst of all—she had authored it all! She had given Higgins everything that he wanted!
She was laughing and crying hysterically when she stopped to pay the turnpike toll. She had to lie to the attendant, saying she was listening to a comedy podcast.
Judy continued to read every posting to the website; she could not stop. And she haunted the abandoned department halls, watching the outgoing mail bin in the faculty mailroom, until early in August, when it appeared: a nine by twelve envelope addressed in Higgins’ handwriting to Nineteenth Century Studies.
She could feel the binder clip through the envelope and the weight of the article manuscript pages. Thirty pages or more, laying out his “groundbreaking” new theories of co-authorship for the Dickinson oeuvres.
She held the envelope over the recycling bin for a long breath but realized that such an act wouldn’t change anything. Sighing with defeat, she placed the envelope back in the outgoing mail and returned to her office to start prepping her fall courses. It would soon be time to teach Othello again.
Summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and so Labor Day approached and the college’s professors convened for their contractually-required back-to-school workshops. In the foyer of the conference center, over coffee and danishes, colleagues swapped stories of family visits, travel, and research.
Judy’s heart quickened when she saw Higgins. He was wearing a new t-shirt, from Cafe Press—the one she’d designed that read Susan: The TRUE Belle of Amherst. He held his tea in one hand and a pastry in the other, and he was speaking to the biology prof. Judy could not hear their conversation, but the pastry waved excitedly. The biologist, a well-read woman who ran one of Amherst’s most selective book clubs, listened with what seemed to be skepticism.
Just the day before, Judy’s spirits had been quite restored from their early-August nadir. A grad school friend of hers, now a copy editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, had forwarded by email a piece she was working on, with the message Is this guy talking about your colleague?! The forwarded draft was a column by UMass’s Professor Lucas—a savaging, vituperative screed addressing “spurious internet rumors, hack ‘research,’ and puerile conference presentations” that “blemished and besmirched the Humanities” by claiming the works of Emily Dickinson were not, in fact, composed by E.D. but were co-written, or even written, by her sister-in-law, Susan.
Its derision was virtuosic. This excoriation would in time become legendary, and Higgins had no idea it was coming.
The provost ushered the faculty into the auditorium, and Judy and the others took their seats. Lights dimmed, the inevitable PowerPoint came to life, and the room sighed with resignation, but Judy felt her triumph approach its zenith. When she was supposed to be listening to the opening remarks, like a naughty student she used her smartphone to logon to Tell It Slant. She removed all evidence of the website, closed her eyes, and felt her whole body go electric like it hadn’t since Denver.
The pasquinading of Professor Nigel Higgins was about to begin.
Rebecca Lartigue’s work has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Storylandia, and Clementine Unbound, and she has a short story forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle. She teaches early English literature and composition at Springfield College in Massachusetts.