by John Mandelberg
When I was serving time in a California state prison for grand theft, I decided to take an English class from a college correspondence program. Then a woman teacher from a community college came to give a writing class and I decided to sign up. Everybody in the class wrote about themselves and their hard lives, except me. I pretended to, but actually I borrowed the stories of other men’s childhoods and wrote as if they were my own. My real childhood was too empty to talk about. When the teacher found out that my stories weren’t really about me, she was surprised and confused. But then she gave me special attention, because I was more like a real writer.
She was in her late fifties, and seemed very calm and unafraid to be coming into prison. But also she seemed sad and worn-out. I started to talk to her more than I thought I would. She was not attractive or pretty but she had a look of peaceful listening that made me want to talk more. Her eyes were very full and honest. Sometimes when the only guard who did not forbid us to use the copy machine was there, I walked with her to the office down the hall and talked to her while we copied things.
She always answered my questions in a serious and respectful way without talking about herself. Once we were talking about poetry, and she said she had published a book of her own poetry. But she didn’t seem proud of it and didn’t want to talk about it.
After I was released, I went back to Los Angeles where I had lived before. But I had trouble finding a job. I got the idea that I could make money by writing a book of stories. I wrote to that English teacher asking her for advice. For a long time, I did not receive an answer. I thought she probably didn’t want to be in touch with any ex-prisoner. But months later, I got a note from her in the mail. She was now teaching at a different community college, further north in the San Joaquin Valley. She said she couldn’t give me much advice about writing a book, but she wouldn’t mind if I sent her my stories to read.
This letter was the only touch of humanity I had felt for many months. I decided to go visit her, even though I expected that I would frighten her and that I would end up depressed and hating myself.
It took me eight hours to drive up from L.A. to that town, much longer than I expected. It was already getting dark when I arrived. I didn’t have much money so I slept in my car. The next morning I tried to clean myself up and called the community college to find out when she was there. I rested in the city park. Then I went to see her in the afternoon.
I waited on the asphalt outside a bungalow classroom where she was teaching, and met her when she came out. She was surprised to see me, but still seemed calm and patient. She smiled at me. We talked out in the haze, then she invited me to a little office she shared with some other teachers. I asked her if I could see her book of poetry. She hesitated but then pulled it out of a bottom desk drawer. Though the tiny office was crammed with books on all sides, she did not keep her own book in sight.
I don’t remember the exact title of the book, but it was something about smoke, landscape, and a color – like “Smoky Landscape with Yellow” or maybe “Landscape with Amber Smoke.” I looked through it and thought it was interesting at first. But the poems were long and complicated. I had trouble concentrating on any one of them. I noticed that the book had been published twenty years ago. I asked her if she had written another, or planned to.
“No,” she said.
I asked why not.
She sat and thought about it. It was after three o’clock. The other teachers had left, but students were laughing in the hall. She stood up, shut the office door, and sat back down.
She said, “About twenty years ago, I was an instructor of English at Cal State University at —. I had just divorced my husband, but I was happy. I had hopes of becoming a tenured professor, I had many good friends, and I had just published this book – my first book of poetry.
“The poems were mostly about a trip to Italy I had taken with my husband while our marriage was strained. I had enjoyed the trip and the beautiful Italian landscapes with such intensity, perhaps because I also sensed that the end of our relationship was coming. I did not write any of the completed poems in Italy, but I was constantly scribbling fragments and phrases in notebooks. Then when I came home, I looked at the California hills and cypresses and olive trees, which kept Italy close to my mind, and I worked very hard at assembling the poems from all the scattered pieces I had collected.
“I had planned to dedicate the book to my husband, because I was grateful to him even if I no longer loved him. After all, he had supported me through college when I was already in my thirties, and he’d taken me to Italy. But after we separated, I changed the dedication to acknowledge a good friend, an old professor of Italian who had helped me a great deal with Italian words and historical references.
“I felt so happy that fall, full of hopes for a good career, proud of my little book, confident that I was now beyond the difficulty of my divorce . . . Then one day a strange woman came to see me in my office. It was late afternoon, just about the time it is right now.”
She looked at the clock for a while, then went on.
“This woman, with thick dark-rimmed glasses and snowy white hair, knocked loudly on my door and came in. She seemed agitated. I asked her, ‘Can I help you?’ I did not recognize her at all. She held out a copy of my book, and I was flattered to think that she might want me to autograph it – she would be my first fan! ‘Is this your book?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I said happily.
“Then she said in a cold, angry voice, ‘Do you admit that you have committed plagiarism, that you have stolen every one of these poems?’
“I burst into laughter. I saw instantly that this was a joke or prank, and my mind raced to guess who might be behind it. But the woman only became angrier. ‘Why do you laugh?’ she shouted. ‘I am giving you one last chance to admit you are a plagiarist! Do you admit it?’
“‘No, of course not!’ I said, still laughing. The woman threw a thick envelope down on my desk. ‘I gave you a chance to admit it, and you did not,’ she said. ‘Now you’ll be very, very sorry.’ Then she ran off down the hall.
“I felt puzzled, in a pleasant, amused way. I curiously opened the envelope. Inside was a folded wad of photocopied pages of verse, much of which seemed to be in Italian. When I unfolded the pages like a book, I saw Italian and English versions of poems very similar to my own, on opposite pages. It appeared that someone had made slightly altered versions of my poems and then translated each one into Italian. But each Italian poem was credited to someone named Maria della R—, and each English version was labeled, ‘translated by Ellen T—.’
“I laughed and shook my head in amazement. Someone had undertaken a vast amount of work just to play this joke on me – who could it possibly be? The only person I knew well whose knowledge of Italian could’ve allowed him to do this was the old Italian professor. But he had left after his retirement for an extended trip to Italy. Surely he would not have had time to translate all my poems while preparing for his long-awaited trip, and anyway a prank like this would’ve been completely out of character for him.
“I just sat in my office and marveled at this strange homage to me and my poems. I kept laughing in disbelief. And as long as I sat there, I felt completely sure that it was nothing more than a joke.
“But when I finally stood up to leave, and locked the office and walked down the deserted corridor, I began to feel a little disoriented and frightened. I knew I had written all those poems myself. I distinctly remembered the trip to Italy, the golden landscapes, the cypresses – I remembered scribbling the phrases in the notebooks, on hot nights next to the open hotel windows while my husband called for me to come to bed – and I remembered the months of work I spent back in California, in my new apartment after I left him, staring at the pale yellow-brown hills from my window, going over these phrases again and again, trying to stitch them together – working with iron concentration so as not to think about my broken marriage. How could anyone dare to say, even as a joke, that I had not written every word of these poems myself?
“But – what if I had imagined the trip to Italy, the notebooks, everything? That seemed impossible, but –”
She stopped here, and looked at me steadily.
“Since I am telling you the whole story,” she said, “I should also tell you that I . . . I had mental problems when I was younger. I had delusions, and terrible fears about things that were not true. I was hospitalized when I was twenty. It took me . . . it took me years, to, to feel that I belonged in the healthy world again. So you see, I could not be completely sure that what I remembered was real. In fact, as I drove to my apartment, I thought the appearance of the white-haired woman might have been a delusion, and I expected that when I came home and opened the thick envelope that now sat beside me on the car seat, I would find that it contained course outlines, or tax information.
“But when I opened the envelope again, it still had my poems, slightly reworked in English, then translated into apparently fluent Italian. It was not that a few lines were similar here and there, or that merely the overall narrative or shape of any of these poems was the same as mine. No – every line of every poem corresponded to mine, both in English and, as far as I could tell, in Italian.
“That night I managed to calm myself. Already the strange white-haired woman seemed like a creation of my own imagination, and if that was troubling – but perhaps you won’t understand this – it also meant she couldn’t really hurt me. When I noticed that my eyes kept turning back toward the brown envelope on the kitchen counter, I put it into a cabinet, out of sight. I felt pretty relaxed then, and I slept well.
“But the next morning, as I remembered the woman’s accusation, I suddenly felt a weird sense of dread. I arrived at the campus, and found a note in my mailbox telling me to see the department chairperson immediately. When I went to his office, the secretaries stared at me and whispered, and the chairperson looked very grim. He pulled out a brown envelope just like the one I had been given. My heart began to pound and I saw spots in front of my eyes, and I had trouble hearing what he was saying. It was a very serious matter: I had been accused of plagiarism.
“After that, my memory is blurry,” she said. She looked out the small dirty window, to a sidewalk that crossed the dead lawn toward the parking lot. “I remember vaguely that over the next few weeks, I was interviewed by the dean, by representatives of the faculty senate I think . . . by the vice-president for faculty or someone, and by lawyers for the university,” she said. “They confronted me with a letter, written apparently by the same white-haired woman who had come to accuse me on that strange afternoon. In this letter, the woman, Ellen T—, claimed that she had met me at a specific writing seminar four years ago, and that she had shared with me her translations of an Italian poet, Maria della R—, who died in the 1950s.
“I had actually attended that writing seminar, and admitted it, but I had no recollection at all of meeting Ellen T— there, nor of ever hearing the name of Maria della R—. Someone did some research, and ascertained that Maria della R— was a real Italian poet, known in her own country but untranslated. The name of Ellen T—, who claimed to be a doctoral candidate temporarily away from her studies, wasn’t known to any specialists in English or Italian literature, but that was not unexpected, since she had not yet published any of her translations. There was no Internet yet, it was simply impossible to quickly check out any of her claims in detail. And of course she supplied transcripts and letters and certificates from her college in New England to prove that she was who she said she was.
“Soon I also heard from the small press that had published my book. They had received material from Ellen T— also. They were withdrawing my book from their catalog and threatened to sue me as soon as she sued them.
“The university gave me a hearing, and let me try to defend myself. All I could say was that I had never heard of Maria della R— or Ellen T— before, that I had written all the poems myself, that I had no idea whatsoever who Ellen T— was or what motive she would have for inventing this story, or for forging dozens of letters and documents in order to slander me.
“After terrible indecision, I brought in some of my original notebooks to show them. This was so very embarrassing for me, because those notebooks also contained my, my . . . most private thoughts about my husband and my marriage. But the members of the committee just glanced through the notebooks, looking skeptical. They seemed to think it would’ve been easy for me to have written all these notebooks, just to cover myself, long after stealing the ‘real’ poems – perhaps even in the last few days.
“I was completely humiliated. They suspended me from teaching, without pay, and then cancelled my contract.”
She stopped speaking and sat quietly. She played with a pen on her desk.
Then she resumed in a calm patient voice, “I felt I was in an endless nightmare. It was bad enough to lose my job and my teaching career, but to feel that I had lost my sanity too, that I could no longer be sure what was real and what was not, that my roots in reality, which had once been so difficult to grow, had all been torn away . . . well, I . . . I felt very strange . . . Do you know what I mean?” She looked at me in her honest way.
I said I knew what she meant.
She went on, “None of my new university friends would see me, none of them believed me. I think they had all been surprised by how learned and classical my poetry was, since I’d seemed so dumb and innocent to them at first, and now they felt justified in their earlier opinions of me. I was frightened that I was having another mental breakdown – I can’t tell you how frightened I was. I went to a therapist, and then to a psychiatrist for tranquilizers. I wrote a long desperate letter to the old Italian professor, enclosing samples of the Italian poetry, begging him for help – but he did not answer me. I even went to my ex-husband, sobbing and pitiful, and he would have nothing to do with me. He shut the door in my face.” She smiled faintly and distantly.
“When I told the therapist that someone must want to hurt me very badly by spreading these lies about me, she asked me who that could be: my ex-husband? a colleague? a former student? But I could think of no one. Either I had committed plagiarism without remembering it, or I was having paranoid delusions.
“Maybe I had absorbed all those poems into my mind, blocked out the memory of the woman who had given them to me, then regurgitated them, word by word, on the trip to Italy. But then I had to wonder: did I ever really go to Italy? Was I ever married? Had my whole life been a delusion, and was I still twenty years old and in the psychiatric hospital?
“All I could do was to spend my days in a stupor of psychotropic drugs and daytime television. After a long delay, the psychiatrist was able to get me on disability, but I spent all my savings. I could no longer read, write or think. I was afraid to go to the store, I was hardly eating. Then one day I received a letter from my old friend, the Italian professor. He was back in Sicily, after traveling for almost a year, and had just now found my letter.
“He wrote urgently to tell me that the poetry ascribed to Maria della R— was a fraud. She had been from northern Italy, and the poetry was written in southern dialect and with modern, even americanized slang that she never would’ve used. In fact he suspected these Italian poems were not even written by a native speaker of Italian. He urged me to see a lawyer.
“By this time I was so depressed and numb that I didn’t want to see a lawyer. But my therapist was so surprised – I suppose she had never believed me before – that she finally dragged me to a lawyer’s office herself. The lawyer sent a private investigator to see me, and he said immediately that Ellen T—’s white hair and thick glasses were probably a disguise. When the lawyer received all the papers from my hearing, he noticed discrepancies and repetitions in the phone numbers and addresses Ellen T— had supplied for her references. The stationery from her college in New England was not authentic. And by now nobody was able to contact Ellen T— by phone or certified mail.
“I had saved all my old class rosters and teaching records, and the investigator was able to get additional information from the university. He found out that a certain female student of mine from several years ago had since been arrested several times for stalking an ex-boyfriend. I only slightly remembered this young woman, and had forgotten that she was an Italian major. But I recalled that she had been disproportionately angry at me when I gave her a B instead of an A. She was probably the student whose very hostile anonymous evaluation of me turned up in my personnel file, and if so, then her handwriting looked just like Ellen T—’s handwriting.
“The investigator tried to locate this student,” she continued, “but he –”
Suddenly she was interrupted by the loud ring of an old-style beige telephone, which was on one of the other desks. The coarse buzzing sound startled us. “That phone doesn’t usually ring,” my teacher said. She sounded unusually nervous. She let it ring several times as we looked at it. Then she stood up, picked up the handset and said in a tense voice, “Hello? Who is this? No, I’m sorry. What was the name again? She’s not here. I don’t know. I really don’t know who she is. You’re welcome.” Then she sat back down in her chair. I heard her sigh softly.
“The investigator was unable to find her,” my teacher went on. “She seemed to have vanished along with Ellen T—, and it was reasonable to believe that they were the same person. The investigator’s report, a letter from the Italian professor, and a statement he obtained from an Italian journalist who had known Maria della R— and who said she had never written any poems like mine – all these convinced the university’s lawyers, finally, that the charges of plagiarism were false.
“I quickly agreed to a settlement, since I was desperate for money, and after paying the lawyer and the investigator, I received about $17,000, most of which I paid to the therapist and doctors. My book was never put back in the publisher’s catalog, though. But my mind cleared, and I was able to get off disability, I worked part-time as a cashier. After three years, I was able to resume teaching English, but I have stayed at the community college level since then, mostly here in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I’ve never heard again from the woman who called herself Ellen T—. I think she may be in a psychiatric hospital herself, or dead. But I still feel frightened of her. I like to think she could never find me here.”
The teacher was quiet again. I realized she was done with her story, as far as it went.
I said this ex-student must’ve been obsessed with her.
“Yes,” she said. “I can’t understand why. I will never understand it.” She blinked her calm, full, peaceful eyes.
I asked her if she’d ever written poetry since then.
“No,” she said. “I’d be afraid that it wouldn’t really be mine.”
But, I asked, she couldn’t still doubt that her trip to Italy, her months of writing, her poems and her life were real, could she?
“It’s hard to explain,” she said softly, “but once that fear came back into me, it never went away.”
The haze outside the window was turning to dusk. I thanked her for her kindness in seeing me. I invited her to dinner, as if I had any money to pay for it. But she politely declined. I gave her a folder of my bad half-written stories that I had so much trouble finishing. We said goodbye. I drove back to Los Angeles in the misty night.
In a couple of weeks, I received back in the mail the stories I had left with her. She had written nice but very general comments. I was a little annoyed that she hadn’t been more helpful. When I was in her office, I had copied down the number of the office telephone without her noticing, and now I decided to try calling her in the late afternoon, the same day of the week as when I visited her, thinking she would be there. She answered the phone, and sounded surprised to hear my voice. But she agreed to talk with me for a few minutes.
She said she wasn’t really qualified to give me detailed criticism, but she encouraged me to keep writing. She said that it would be good for my imagination, even if I couldn’t get anything published. She said I should not have unrealistic plans to make money from writing fiction, because almost nobody does. And even if I did get something published, it would have to be in some obscure literary magazine which couldn’t pay me anything anyway.
I said that I had been thinking a lot about her plagiarism story. I asked if she would be offended if I used it in a story of my own.
She paused a long time and then said, “No . . . no, I’d rather that you didn’t.”
Why not, I asked her.
“Well . . . because it’s not really finished,” she said. “We don’t know why this former student did what she did, or how she managed to do it, or what happened to her. We don’t know what it means. It’s just an odd anecdote, and it’s not realistic – it wouldn’t work.”
But I replied that I could make up new details if I had to.
“No,” she said. For the first time she seemed a little impatient. “You asked my permission, and I am telling you no. If anyone is going to write about it, I should be the one. It’s really my story.”
In a month I decided to call her again. I had finally found a job but I hated it and was feeling a desperate frustration. I needed some goal to desire, I wanted something to want. I told her that I really wanted to get something published, even if I couldn’t get paid for it. But now I couldn’t think of any more ideas to write about on my own. My stupid job was fogging my brain. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her story. I told her I was becoming almost obsessed with it. Again I asked her if I could write it.
“No, please don’t,” she said. “Please. This crazy woman, if she is still alive, could read it and remember me and come after me again. Please – you’re frightening me. Don’t make me feel sorry that I trusted you. It’s my story, it doesn’t belong to you.”
I begged her.
“No!” she said. “Please – I’ve tried to help you. You have to realize that there is nothing more I can do. You have a false impression of me, you think I’m important somehow – but I’m nobody, I’m nothing! Please don’t write about me. To bring up all this humiliation from the past – I couldn’t bear it. I’ve suffered just like you have – please promise not to write about me!”
Now her calm quiet voice was full of anxiety, passion, and desperation.
“OK, I promise,” I said.
But then I decided to write this anyway.
John Mandelberg’s short stories have appeared most recently in Prick of the Spindle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Santa Monica Review, and Storyscape. Apparently nobody wants to publish his novels but so what, he’ll keep writing more anyway. He lives in Los Angeles and usually doesn’t like any movie made after 1950.