The Hole We're In
By Gabrielle Zevin
Paperback, 288 pages
List price: $14
A June and Six Septembers midway through his son's graduation from college, somewhere between the Ns and the Os, Roger Pomeroy decided that he owed it to himself to go back to school. He was forty-two years old, though people told him at least once a week that he looked younger. Last Christmas, a salesgirl had mistaken his then nineteen-year-old daughter for his wife. Last week, a different salesgirl had mistaken his fortyone- year-old wife for his mother. He knew it wasn't flattery, because in both instances the salesgirls had already made their sales: respectively, a flannel nightgown (wife's Christmas) and a leather fanny pack (son's graduation). And, at work — Roger was an assistant principal at the same Christian high school that his two older children had attended — all the girls flirted with him no matter how much he discouraged the practice.
His wife, George (nee Georgia), nudged him. "You're supposed to be standing." Roger looked at the crowd, then past it to the dais. A flag was being raised. Everyone was standing, so Roger stood.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to do it now. Roger had completed a master's in education while working full-time, but if he wanted to get really serious (that is to say, a PhD) he would have to take leave. He had three children: Vincent, the son who was graduating; Helen, who would be a college junior the following year; and Patricia, age ten, the baby of the family though hardly a baby anymore. In any case, the kids were mostly grown, which meant two fewer mouths to feed. And if George had to work a couple of extra hours — here, he paused to smile at his wife. The smile was meant to acknowledge the official magnitude of the occasion, A Son's Graduation from College, but George immediately detected the ulterior in it. She grinned back.
Roger lowered his thoughts to a whisper. If George had to work a couple of extra hours, it would ultimately be for the best. With a PhD, Roger would earn more money, which meant the wife could retire altogether. Based on the time it had taken him to complete his master's, Roger estimated three years for a doctorate. He had been a family man for twenty-two years, over half his life. He had never cheated at anything, marriage included. He was an honorary pastor at their church and considered himself to be a better-than-average Christian. He had made sacrifices for others and now, he reckoned, sacrifices should be made for him. George squeezed her husband's hand. "Earth to Roger," she whispered. "Your son's next."
They called Vinnie's name, and Roger applauded. He had missed his own graduation from college because George had gone into labor with the boy. It seemed fitting and good that he had come to this decision on this day. Caps flew through the air and Roger's eyes filled with tears. The youngest, Patsy, was standing on the other side of him. He lifted her over his shoulders so that she could better see the show.
"Daddy," Patsy said. She placed her doll hands on his cheeks. "Are you crying because you're still mad at Vinnie?"
"No, I'm just happy, baby."
Fifteen months later, Roger moved his family from Tennessee to Texas and began the PhD program at Teacher's College, Texas University. He loved being full-time and working forms of the word matriculate into casual conversation. He was a sucker for anything (mugs, mouse pads, tube socks) with the Fighting Yellow Devils logo, despite the fact that these items were sold at a premium. If he could have afforded and gotten his wife to agree to it, he would have lived in student housing.
No doubt about it, the first year was difficult financially. The move alone had drained a good portion of their savings. But, by the second year, Roger had a decent teaching stipend amounting to fifteen thousand dollars per annum — less than a third of what he had taken in as an assistant principal, but combined with low-interest student loans, high-interest credit cards, a cashed-in retirement plan, and George's job, not bad. And besides, he wouldn't be a student forever. Just three years. Or four. Certainly no more than four.
After a summer of soul searching, Roger settled on a topic for his dissertation September of his fifth year. He would study the differences between kids who had attended schools with a religious component and kids who hadn't. The topic was near to his heart: Patsy, now nearly sixteen, was going to a public school because no acceptable religious one had been found within a thirty-mile radius of Texas U. Roger's standards for such an institution were very high indeed.
For the record, it was not an extraordinarily slow pace at which to complete a PhD. It was on the fast side of average, though it had obviously exceeded Roger's initial estimates.
George asked him if he might consider going back to work fulltime while writing the dissertation. Roger declined. He had a lot of research to do, and he believed the whole enterprise would go more quickly if he could just focus. One other thing: upon reading his proposal, his adviser, the distinguished professor Carolyn Murray, had commented, "There just might be a book in this, Rog." He was embarrassed by how many times he'd repeated these words to himself.
Despite the comfort he took in them, Roger chose not to share them with his wife. Instead, he imagined the following scene:
Roger, who has not yet turned fifty but regardless looks much younger,
has taken Georgia to the nicest restaurant in town.
"Can we afford this?" George asks after a cursory look at the menu.
Roger nods and encourages the woman to order whatever she wants.
"Well, if you're certain . . ."
"I am, George. I am."
After dessert is served, Roger casually reaches under the table and pulls
a published book out from under it.
"What's this?" she asks.
"It's a book," he says. [Alternatively, he says, "It's all our dreams come
true," though this line effectually ends the scene, and Roger prefers to draw
George looks at the book. "But, it has your name on the cover."
"That's because it's my book, George. It's our book, and it's going to
make us very, very rich."
"Why, Roger," she says, "I didn't even know you were writing a book!"
"I wanted to keep it a secret until I was sure," he says, turning back the
cover with a jaunty flick of the wrist.
Reprinted from the book The Hole We're In by Gabrielle Zevin. Copyright 2010 by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.