fiction

by Quinn Grover


A Month of Wednesdays


Dorthea Reynolds encountered the Salinger story while preparing for her first semester teaching English at Blackfoot Community College. She was in her office inside the Raymond M. Smellner building. Dorthea’s office was in the humanities wing where humanity was signified by doors papered with poems and cartoons, ironic pictures of Ronald Reagan wearing sunglasses, and the occasional declaration: “If door is closed, don’t knock!” She shared an office with two other adjuncts whom she had never met, women who had been teaching at the college as a second job for a dozen years each. The office had three desks and one bookshelf, a computer they all shared, an Epson dot matrix printer, a tank-like copier that spewed heat and ink fumes, and a swing-arm paper cutter that looked and sounded like a medieval weapon. The copier was shared by three departments and before the semester began it was easily her office’s most popular occupant.


This was 1990 and the Salinger story turned up as part of her pre-semester research as she tried to assume this secondhand version of the life she had once imagined for herself. Hayden Reynolds, Dorthea’s late husband, had been dead for fourteen years and the last of her two children had left for college that same fall. After Hayden’s death, she had nursed the money from the life insurance and worked in public relations, and then Hayden’s parents died and left Dorthea enough money to make things relatively comfortable. The teaching job was a pay cut from her public relations job. She was working more hours than she was used to and buying books she hadn’t read since graduate school. Canonical stuff written by men that she had given up on but now would need to know how to explain to various twenty-year-old third sons of local farmers, boys who weren’t going to get the farm and needed a backup plan, and eighteen-year-old first daughters of local bank tellers who had—for some reason—chosen community college over dental hygienist school.


She had been assigned two sections of freshmen writing and one evening section of literature. Before she married, Dorthea had occasionally envisioned herself growing old as an academic at a major university—single and gray-haired, several books on her CV, feared by most students but secretly loved by the best. Then came Hayden and marriage and kids, all of it happening at once in her memory. They had been happy together. She helped Hayden run his engineering business, doing advertising and letter writing, but mostly she had dedicated her time to the children, volunteering at schools and church, serving as a den mother in her son’s Cub Scout troop and coaching her daughter’s sports teams. It had often been a pleasant and challenging existence, and she had loved Hayden fiercely. She taught music at her kids’ school and volunteered after school teaching reading to kids who were behind. They had good friends and it was a good life, even though it often felt like a sham, a performance in front of a green screen or a cardboard backdrop held together with repurposed paper clips and masking tape that—with the next strong wind—would break apart and blow away.


Once, while Hayden was in Ohio touring some air conditioning equipment plant and the kids were staying with Hayden’s parents so that she could have a weekend alone, Dorthea entertained fantasies of leaving, starting over alone in New Hampshire or Guam or somewhere. The Northeast had a network of liberal arts schools, and she felt a strange confidence that she could disappear into the academic milieu there. It was silly, she thought, a fantasy that had left once Hayden returned. And of course, Hayden’s death two years later had changed everything. She spent fourteen years trying to do the job of two parents. She ignored anything unrelated to getting her children off to college as reasonable, well-adjusted adults. Now they were gone, and she found herself drawn back to that once-entertained fantasy life. A phone call to the community college after a tip from a friend and she was putting together a reading list for English 223, Introduction to American Literature.


The Salinger story was in the literature anthology the department had mandated she use because they got some sort of discount from the publisher. Eastgate Academic was not a publisher she had heard of, but it wasn’t like she kept up with the academic textbook industry. At least it was a brand-new edition, she thought, as she plotted out her syllabus, plugging in Willa Cather between Faulkner and Hemingway, as if it were important to keep them apart. And she put Salinger in there too because the story surprised her.


It was titled “A Month of Wednesdays” and, at first, the title seemed familiar but she never could place it. In her grad school days, she had decided against Salinger’s work, and she thought the academy had mostly abandoned him to the high schools where they still taught The Catcher in the Rye. She remembered that Salinger’s main characters were sulky men who got all the best lines. Men who were too clever for their own good, who had figured out everything except how to avoid being insufferable jerks. But here was this story in the Eastgate Academic Anthology of American Literature, and it wasn’t horrible. The protagonist was an older woman whose children had all been prodigies and appeared on some radio quiz show in the 1940s. The kids were grown and they lived close to their mother in New York City, and she spent the story doting on them and worrying in a way that seemed both clichéd and unique. The woman was sad and predictable and utterly charming. For two days now, Dorthea had found herself thinking of this story whenever her mind wandered.


Ellingsford, who had been adjuncting at the college for several years, poked his head in the doorway. She knew him a bit through the local humanities council and also knew that he thought she shouldn’t have been hired. Dorthea found this out because Ellingsford had complained to the department secretary, and the department secretary—who was openly dismissive of Ellingsford behind his back—told Dorthea that he was claiming she wasn’t qualified because her master’s degree had “expired.” He had spent the last week or so pretending he and Dorthea were great pals (“we adjuncts have to watch out for each other,” he said) so that she would ask him for advice. She wasn’t sure if this was to boost his own ego or so he could sabotage her, but she was unconcerned either way. She had no ambitions here beyond surviving the first week.


“What book are you using for your writing class?” he asked.


The Seagull Reader,” she said. “Do we have a choice?”


“I wasn’t sure if maybe something changed, maybe they told you something different.”


“They told me to use The Seagull Reader.”


He lingered. “I hear you got a section of literature.”


“Yes, Wednesday evenings.”


“I’ve taught that. You’ll get some adults, I mean real adults, in that class. I always liked the adults in a class like that.”


“Have you read this Salinger story? From the anthology?” she asked him.


“Which one?”


“'A Month of Wednesdays.'”


“No, which anthology?”


“Eastgate. Why, which one do you use?”


“Norton. I like the Norton.”


“They told me to use this Eastgate.”


“Ah, well. I like the Norton.”


Then Ellingsford’s phone rang, and he ducked out as if someone more important were calling. She closed the door and went back to her syllabus feeling a little spark in her gut, a little twinge of anxiety that had arrived with the news that she had got the adjunct job and had never left.


During her first week of teaching she felt utterly exposed. She was sure the two middle-aged women—who seemed to be friends going back to school together—and the construction worker in his late twenties could tell right away that she hadn’t taught since graduate school, that she hadn’t kept up with the discipline, that she didn’t know Washington Irving at all, couldn’t remember these stories from graduate school and had spent the summer cramming. Her fears were nonsensical, she knew. These students didn’t think much about her at all beyond her position as grade allocator. But some part of her also felt sure that they could detect a fraud.


When she felt especially nervous, she thought of the Salinger story as a means of escape. The protagonist’s name was Ethel Wahl, and Dorthea found herself smitten and wondering why this story had remained hidden from her for so long. How had she missed Ethel Wahl in all her years of reading? She purchased Salinger’s only book of short stories, but the story was missing. She read Salinger’s entry in a literary encyclopedia looking for editorial information but found no mention of it. At the end of his career, Salinger had written about the interminable Glass family, who bore a surface-level resemblance to the family of Ethel Wahl but failed to transcend their own philosophical neuroses. Why had Salinger published just this one story with this incredible woman? Of course, for all she knew Salinger had a shelf full of Ethel Wahl novels in his bunker back in the Northeast, stories better than “A Month of Wednesdays” that would never see the light of day because Salinger couldn’t transcend his philosophical neuroses. She felt that this story might have made some profound difference in her life had she encountered it at the right moment of the right day, although she had no idea why she felt that way.


Two weeks into the semester she found herself seated on a chair in the office of Henry Bingham, Professor of English, during his office hours, as if she were an undergraduate again. She had asked around and learned that Bingham was the department’s expert on American Modernism.


“So, you’re wondering about which story?” he said as he sat down across from her. Bingham was younger than her, she realized. He wore a tweed jacket and a stubble beard, but he couldn’t be more than mid-thirties. This both terrified her and filled her with confidence. His office was the same size and shape as the one she shared with the two ghost-like adjuncts and the copier, but three of his walls were divided into bookshelves. His desk sat under the square window of the fourth wall. To one side of the window was a print of a painting. The subject was a woman whose eyelids didn’t quite line up. She was a burly figure and her hair was pulled back tight and she wore brown clothes and a white scarf while sitting in a corner and looking away from the artist. Dorthea felt like she should know the painting, that either the subject or the artist (or both) were famous, but she found the image disquieting and she spent her time in Bingham’s office trying not to look at it.


“This Salinger piece,” she said, “it’s in the anthology that they told me to use for my American Lit course.”


“You’re teaching a course in American literature?”


“Yes, an evening class.”


“I see. And you’re an adjunct?”


“Yes, it’s my first semester.”


“I see.” He pursed his lips, annoyed, even though Dorthea knew none of the permanent faculty taught in the evenings. It occurred to her that Hayden would find this entire conversation laughable.


“So, this Salinger story,” she said, “it’s called a ‘A Month of Wednesdays.’”


“Hmmm. J. D. Salinger?”


“Yes.”


“And it’s in the anthology you’re using?”


“Yes. The Eastgate anthology.”


“Eastgate? I haven’t heard of them. I prefer the Norton.”


She supposed that everyone did. “Well, they told me I had to use the Eastgate.”


“I see. What’s the title?”


“The Eastgate Academic Anthology of American Literature.”


“No, the title of the story.”


“Oh, sorry. 'A Month of Wednesdays.'”


“I see. I don’t know that one. J.D. Salinger? You’re sure? I didn’t think anyone was still teaching him except the high schools.”


“That’s what I thought, too.” She felt a bolt of pride even though Bingham seemed unable to believe she knew the name of the story’s author. “But this story doesn’t read like his other stuff. It’s, I don’t know, it’s different. More . . . considerate.”


“Considerate?”


She felt that explaining the story would be futile. “It’s not in his book of stories,” she said, “and I thought maybe you could tell me something about it. Like where it came from.” She handed him the copy of Nine Stories she had purchased, even though the story was not in Nine Stories, a fact she had just stated. The Eastgate was on her lap, a yellow sticky marking the page, but he didn’t ask for it and, for reasons the eluded her, she didn’t offer it. He leafed through Nine Stories as if she might be mistaken, which she supposed she had encouraged by handing it to him.


Then a voice from the door spoke pensively: “Dr. Bingham?” It was a student, a girl who looked like Dorthea’s nineteen-year-old-self. “We had an appointment.”


Bingham looked up at the girl. “I see,” he said.


Dorthea thanked him and left, smiling at her younger self on the way out and forgetting to retrieve her book when she looked inadvertently at the painting of the woman and felt disquieted anew.


It wasn’t as if the life of Ethel Wahl was somehow a mirror for her life. No, there was some other reason why she couldn’t shake the story, a reason that escaped her even as she became aware of—and a bit concerned with—the way Ethel Wahl would slip into her thoughts at odd hours, churning through her mind and pushing out whatever had been occupying her. It seemed strange that the story would have such a grip on her. It contained uncertainties that puzzled Dorthea. Ethel was longing for something, but was fixated on the lives of her children and seemed unaware of the longing. Dorthea had always been one to focus too much on what she didn’t have and not enough on the present. Her mother had often complained that Dorthea was too scatterbrained, that her mind wandered, and it had bothered Hayden at times, too, though, he would also marvel at her memory—the way she could remember the names of friends from college and bizarre details from movies they had seen together. He didn’t treat it like an oddity or a circus trick or wonder why she could remember what he was wearing when they saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but couldn’t find the pencil she had tucked behind her ear. No, he appreciated it even if it was unpredictable. He once told her that he wished he could live inside her head to remind himself of all the places they had been.


What would Hayden think of Ethel Wahl? For her, Ethel was familiar, as if they had been in graduate school together or they were distant cousins who had met once at a family reunion and spent a wonderful afternoon talking over potato salad and fried chicken. She wondered if Hayden would somehow recognize what it was in Ethel Wahl that fascinated her so, if he could somehow explain her fascination with the story the way he would sometimes divine what was bothering her before she could say a word.


In the story, Ethel spent her days out walking the Upper West Side streets of New York City, going to bookstores and coffee with one child or another, and once a week going to ice cream with her daughter and only grandchild. These trips took place on Wednesdays. Ethel looked forward to Wednesdays with a mix of obsession and fear. The child—a little girl named Sylvia—was exceptionally smart for her age, a kind of tiny adult who said things more interesting and clever than any of the actual adults in the story except Ethel herself, whose dialogue and narration seemed so true and yet so sad and delicate that Dorthea couldn’t decide if the character was a brilliant parody or an uncanny truthfulness.


By the time she finally taught the story in her American Literature class, four weeks after her meeting with Professor Bingham, Dorthea had read a biography of Salinger and as much scholarly research as she dared request through the tiny community college’s interlibrary loan system. Yet she found no mention of “A Month of Wednesdays” in any of it. It was as if the story only existed inside the Eastgate Academic Anthology of American Literature.


Initially, the students reacted to Salinger just as they had reacted to Faulkner and Edith Wharton, with a mix of apathy and confusion.


“I like the little girl,” said Maria, whose comments always left Dorthea unsure if she had actually finished the reading or just read far enough to fake her way through class.


“The little girl seems too smart for her own good.” This was Jed, the late-twenties construction worker finishing an associate’s in business management. “I thought the grandmother should tell her to pipe down on occasion, let the adults talk, you know?” He had a habit of ending his comments with questions that encouraged agreement.


“But is the story about Ethel’s relationship with Sylvia?” Dorthea’s question was an attempt to steer the conversation in a healthy direction and lined with the hope that someone might reveal how the story was working. For all her obsessing about “A Month of Wednesdays,” Dorthea still didn’t understand it. For as much as the story fascinated her, she also felt it lacked a resolution. It seemed that Salinger owed Ethel something that he was refusing to provide.


A hand went up from the back of the room. It was Mallory, who looked like she was too young for college and had only spoken once during class, when Dorthea had faced a long silence in response to a question about “Young Goodman Brown” and decided to wait it out. Finally, Mallory had raised her hand and asked if she could go to the bathroom.


“Mallory?” Dorthea asked hopefully.


“I think Sylvia is too smart, but in a different way,” the girl said. “She doesn’t seem real to me. I mean, she starts talking about Taoist meditation when they are in the ice cream parlor and gets so distracted that she forgets to look at the flavors. Then she orders vanilla. What kid eats vanilla ice cream because they are so wrapped up in Eastern religious meditations?” She said this without sarcasm, almost apologetically.


The students seemed to take this comment as a kind of permission. For the next hour, Dorthea found herself defending Salinger’s story against a barrage of complaints. The students—who had spent the semester cowed by the very presence of the word “literature”—felt free to voice their disapproval. Not because they didn’t understand the story, simply because it didn’t measure up to what they had read before or what they wished it had done.


“This guy could learn something from Hemingway, you know?” said Jed, as if the thing that could be learned was self-evident.


Eventually the time was gone and the students filled their backpacks and wandered out, satisfied as if they had just enjoyed a meal together. Dorthea packed her things and turned out the light, feeling sore and exhausted, like the day she and Hayden had painted the basement and she had fallen from a chair while trying to paint the ceiling. She encountered Dr. Bingham in the hallway.


“Ah, Ms. Reynolds, I was hoping to see you.”


She was surprised. “Oh?”


“I heard the end of your discussion in there and I remembered that I have some information about your story,” he said.


“The Salinger story?”


“Yes. The one your students didn’t seem to care for.” He smiled at this. “I have a friend who studies Salinger, or who used to anyway. He’s switched to Virginia Woolf now. Anyway, I mentioned your story to him.”


“Yes?”


“Well, he knew something. Said it was complicated and he wanted to know what anthology you were using. I didn’t have time to talk with him but I checked with the office and they reminded me you were using the Eastgate. Anyway, he said you should call him. I left his number in your cubby in the office. Alan Siegenberg. He’s at Marist.”


A week later she prepared to make the phone call, but she was nervous, which both embarrassed her and confused her. Why should she be nervous about what Alan Siegenberg might tell her about “A Month of Wednesdays”? She forced herself to remember that the story was not connected to her in any fundamental way. She was simply curious. Yes, she liked the story, perhaps a bit more than expected. Yes, her students’ complaints had felt somehow accusatory. Yes, she sometimes caught herself wondering what advice Ethel Wahl might give her about her latest phone call with her daughter, who was considering a tattoo and had stopped attending church. But to be nervous was nonsensical. She worried about what her nervousness meant. And she couldn’t help but wonder what Ethel Wahl or even the little girl Sylvia would make of her predicament.


She called Siegenberg from her home on a Wednesday afternoon because she didn’t need to be on campus until class time that evening. He picked up on the third ring.


“Hello, this is Alan.”


“Hi, Dr. Siegenberg. This is Dorthea Reynolds from out in Idaho. I believe you know my colleague, Dr. Bingham.” She realized that she was sweating.


“Yes. The Salinger woman. I was wondering if you had decided not to call.”


She frowned at the label but pushed forward. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bother you.”


“It’s no bother. I am actually quite intrigued about your experience with this story.”


She wasn’t sure what that meant. She stayed silent.


“Dr. Reynolds?”


“No, I’m sorry. It’s not—I’m not a—you see, I only—it’s Mrs. Reynolds. Dorthea, actually. You can call me Dorthea.”


“Okay, Dorthea. Call me Alan. Anyway, I am intrigued that you have found this story. It's big news for Salinger folks that Eastgate has done this. This was news to me; it was the first I had heard of it. You should hold on to that book, I think.”


A mix of excitement and confusion rose in Dorthea that rendered her silent again.


“Dorthea?”


“Yes, I’m sorry.” She regained her composure. “You see I have no idea what you mean. Has no one else read this story? Is it new? I’m confused.”


“It’s not new, no. It’s old in fact. Salinger is probably livid out there in his fortress.” He chuckled at this. “It’s not even really a story, at least the way he tells it. It’s a draft, a draft of a story that he never finished. He claims, or his lawyers do in the court documents, that it was one of the things that later turned into these Seymour Glass stories he was writing there at the end before he stopped publishing. I mean he could still be writing them, I suppose. There are probably dozens of unpublished Seymour Glass novels in a safe at his house.”


Dorthea felt a mix of betrayal and deflation. “Court documents? Is someone in trouble?”


“Yes, your textbook publisher. Eastgate. Those crooks. You really should use the Norton, by the way. You see, Eastgate somehow got a hold of this story, which Salinger has been trying to reel in for years, and they snuck it in there, who knows why, to save money or make pages or something. The story’s been floating around since the Sixties when someone first got a copy, but it was never published. Just a rumor like so many things Salinger, you know? And then it went silent. Sometimes at conferences I would hear of a friend of a friend who had read it. I finally read it a few years ago when a bootlegged copy started getting faxed around circles of Salinger critics. It’s a letdown, of course. Well, you know. I can understand why he is suing because it’s not his finest work. That little girl, c’mon.” He let out a snort. “I hadn’t thought about that story in ages until I spoke with Henry. Anyway, can you do me a favor?”


She had to sit down now. She felt like she needed to eat something, or maybe lie on the couch with a damp rag over her eyes. “I guess,” she said.


“Could you photocopy the title page of that anthology, and then photocopy the story itself and send it to me? Unless you guys have an extra copy of that anthology? An exam copy that Eastgate sent? If so, just send me that. Those might end up being worth some money. I will pay for the postage if that’s a problem.”


Another week went by and she found herself waiting to teach another evening session. Because evening classes were scarce, Dorthea had one of the nicest rooms for English 223. Room 139 in the Schmitz Building with its thirty-four desks, huge chalkboard, and overhead projector. She had arranged twenty-two of the desks into an egg shape. The idea was to reduce the classroom’s spatial hierarchies. Dorthea was not convinced that any such hierarchies were reduced, and if they were, she wondered if that was the best thing for her. At this point she felt as if she could use a hierarchy or two to fall back on.


Dorthea knew that she had an ethical obligation to explain to the class that they—correction, she—had been duped by a less-than-reputable publisher. If she were a student in this class, she would want to know that “A Month of Wednesdays” was not a story like “A Rose for Emily” or “Young Goodman Brown.” It was not a staple of American literature. It was more like a footnote in one fading American author’s bibliography. It wasn’t even really a story, or so Siegenberg had said. Such an explanation seemed like the right thing to give her students, but Dorthea was not about to provide it. Not until she could explain it to herself. How was she to make sense of her experience with this story? Who was Ethel Wahl and why had she haunted Dorthea? Why hadn’t Dorthea been able to identify her as a fraud?


Five minutes before class began, Dorthea Reynolds sat at her desk at the top of the egg and felt very much alone. She watched the clock pull time forward. Students filed in and took their normal places, but she didn’t acknowledge them unless they said hello, which none did. A pair of girls chatted about Death of a Salesman, the text for the evening. She thought that maybe this would be her only semester playing at this business of teaching. Maybe Ellingsford was right about her, maybe they should have hired someone else. She couldn’t even tell the real literature from the rough drafts. She would see out the semester and not come back.


For the first time in years, she felt herself missing Hayden. While she thought of him often, she rarely missed him. His absence was a presence in her life that she could not escape and didn’t really want to. She had told him once—when the kids were small and she would count the minutes until he came home because she very much wanted to converse with an adult—that he had a gift: he could make people feel as if they hadn’t been abandoned by life. But he didn’t think that was the case. “And if it is,” he had said, “I don’t particularly care. I only care about making you feel that way. Other people can go screw.”


As the clock ticked toward seven, Dorthea imagined Hayden sitting there in one of the desks that lined the back wall of Room 139, in a desk that had been left out to create the egg. His book was out, a pencil and a notepad next to it. She had never seen him like that in her life, but there he was. She felt a little better, in spite of herself, but then worse for needing an imaginary version of her dead husband. Then—to her surprise—Ethel Wahl came in and sat at the desk beside him, and the two of them said hello as if they were old friends. Dorthea smiled at this, and Ethel, who was removing her white gloves and whose cheeks were pink with cold, saw Dorthea and smiled back and waved. They seemed so real, although she was aware of their unreality. She knew she had conjured them, and she wondered if such conjurings were something to be worried about. She decided that she didn’t want to know. She looked down at her Eastgate Academic Anthology of American Literature and felt herself begin to silently weep. The class didn’t notice because they were talking now. They were great friends at this point in the semester and Dorthea supposed that she could take some pride in that at least. She looked up again, to the back of the class, but her eyes had filled with tears, and she couldn’t see if the shade of her dead husband and this fictional character she had spent the semester thinking about were still present. She blinked away her blurred vision, forced her composure back into place, and looked at the clock. It was one minute past seven. She stood and smiled at her students.


“Okay,” she said, “let’s begin.”


Quinn Grover’s work has appeared in Cirque, Juxtaprose, Fly Fish Journal, and other literary and popular publications. His book of personal essays, Wilderness of Hope: Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West, was published in 2019 by the University of Nebraska Press. He teaches English at a private university in Idaho.