A Red-Haired
From the kitchen window he saw that the intruder was a tall, thin, redheaded woman dressed in jeans and a navy blue ski jacket. She was peering into the living room through a front window. As he was still uncertain whether or not she was alone, for the moment he froze, the gun in his hands. Soon she began to move from one window to the next, stopping long enough each time to get a good look at the room inside. He slipped out of the house through the back door and, without her seeing him, came to within ten feet of where she was absorbed with staring into one of the living room windows on the south side of the house.

Aiming the rifle at her, he spoke.

"What can I do for you, lady?"

"Oh!" she cried when she turned and saw him. "Oh, I'm sorry."

"Are you alone?"

"Yes, I'm alone. I'm Louise Renner."

"You're the dean."


She did not look much older than Pegeen, but she was a good deal taller, only inches shorter than he was, and what with her erect carriage and the red hair pulled back from her high forehead and knotted severely at the back of her neck, there was a heroically statuesque aura to the woman. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked her.

"I'm trespassing, I know. I intended no harm. I thought no one was home."

"Have you been here before?"

"Only to drive by."


"Could you lower that gun? It's making me very nervous."

"Well, you made me nervous, sneaking around the property and peeking into my windows."

"I'm sorry. I apologize. I've been stupid. This is shameful. I'll go."

"What were you up to?"

"You know very well what I was up to," she said.

"You tell me."

"I only wanted to see where she goes every weekend."

"You're in a bad way. You drove all the way from Vermont to find that out."

"She promised we'd be together forever, and three weeks later she left. This has never happened to me before," she said. "I apologize again. I should never have come here."

"And it probably doesn't help much, your meeting me."

"It doesn't."

"It makes you boil with jealousy," he said.

"With hatred, if you want the truth."

"It's you who phoned last night."

"I'm not completely in charge of myself," she replied.

"You're obsessed, so you phone, you're obsessed, so you stalk. You're a very attractive woman nonetheless."

"I've never been told that before by a man with a gun."

"I don't know why she left you for me," he said.

"Oh, don't you?"

"You look like a red-haired Valkyrie and I'm an old man."

"An old man who's a star, Mr. Axler. Don't pretend to be no one."

"Would you like to come inside?" he asked.

"Why? Do you want to try to seduce me too? Do you make a specialty of retooling lesbians?"

"Madam, it isn't I who was the Peeping Tom. It isn't I who phoned her parents in Michigan at midnight. It isn't I who phoned 'Mr. Famous' last night. You needn't take the accusatory tone so quickly."

"I'm not myself."

"Do you think she's worth it?"

"No. Of course not," she said. "She's not at all beautiful. She's not that intelligent. And she's not that grown up. She's an unusually childish person for her age. She's a kid, really. She turned her Montana lover into a man. She's turned me into a stalker. Who knows what she may be turning you into. She leaves a trail of disaster. Where does the power come from?"

"Take a guess," he said.

"Is it that that makes for disaster?" the dean asked.

"Something about her sexually is very potent," he said, and saw her cringe at the words. No, it could not be easy for the loser to stand there and confront the person who had won. The sick desperation of facing the new lover must be all but overwhelming.

"There's plenty that's potent," the dean said. "She's a girl-boy. She's a child-adult. There's an adolescent in her that's not grown up. She's a cunning naif. But it's not her sexuality on its own that does it --- it's us. It's we who endow her with a power she really doesn't have. Pegeen's nobody, you know."

"You wouldn't be suffering so if she were nobody. She wouldn't be coming here if she were nobody. Look, you might as well come inside. Then you can see everything up close." And he could hear more from her about Pegeen, seared though her observations might be by Pegeen's having left her. Yes, he wanted to hear her speak out of the depths of her wound about the closest person on earth to him.

"This has been more than enough," the dean said.

"Come inside," he repeated.


"Are you afraid of me?" he asked.

"I've done something foolish for which I apologize. I've trespassed and I'm sorry. And now I'd like you to let me go."

"I'm not holding you. You have a way of trying to turn the moral tables on me. But I didn't invite you here in the first place."

"Then why do you want me to come inside now? Isn't it because it would be a triumph to sleep with the woman that Pegeen used to sleep with?"

"I have no such ambition. I'm satisfied with things as they are. I'm satisfied with what I have. I was being polite. I could offer you a cup of coffee."

"No," the dean said coldly, infuriated, as he would have expected, by his telling her that he was satisfied with what he had taken from her. "No, you wanted to fuck me."

"Is that what you want me to have wanted?"

"That is what you want."

"Is that what you came here to try to get me to do? So as to pay Pegeen back in kind?"

All at once she could conceal her misery no longer and burst into tears. "Too late, too late," she sobbed.

He did not understand what she was referring to, but he didn't ask. Giving way completely to her vulnerability, she cried with her face buried in her hands while he turned and, with the gun at his side, went back into the house through the rear door, trying to believe that nothing Louise had said about Pegeen, either there outside the house or the night before on the phone, could possibly be taken seriously.

When he called Pegeen that night he made no reference to what had happened that afternoon nor did he tell Pegeen about Louise's visit when she came for the weekend, nor, while they were having sex, was he able to keep Louise Renner out of his mind and the fantasy of what hadn't happened.

--- From The Humbling
© 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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