The Humbling

The Humbling by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online

Book: The Humbling by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Roth
morning and called her numerous times during the night to shout at her and insult her and demand an explanation. Once she phoned from a local cemetery, where, she announced, she was "stomping around in a fury" because of the way Pegeen had treated her. She accused Pegeen of exploiting her to get the job and then opportunistically dropping her within only weeks of taking it. When Pegeen went to the pool to work out with the swim team twice a week in the late afternoon, the dean turned up to swim at that hour and arranged to take the locker next to Pegeen's. The dean called to invite her to a movie, to a lecture, to a concert and dinner. She called every other day to tell Pegeen that she wanted to see her that coming weekend. Pegeen had already made it clear that she was busy on weekends and didn't want to resume seeing her again. The dean pleaded, she shouted—sometimes she cried. Pegeen was the person she could not live without. A strong, successful, competent woman of forty-eight, a dynamic woman touted to be Prescott's next president, and how easily she could be derailed!
    One Sunday afternoon she called his house and asked to speak to Pegeen Stapleford. Axler put down the phone and went into the living room to tell Pegeen the call was for her. "Who is it?" he asked her. Without hesitation, she replied, "Who else could it be? Louise. How does she know where I am? How did she get your number?" He returned to the phone and said, "There's no Pegeen Stapleford here." "Thank you," the caller said and hung up. The next week Pegeen ran into Louise on the campus. Louise told her that she was going away for ten days and that when she came back, Pegeen had "better do something for her" like "make her dinner." Afterward Pegeen was frightened, first because Louise wouldn't leave her alone even after she once again clarified that the affair was over, and second because of the threat Louise's anger embodied. "What's threatened?" he asked. "What? My job. There's no limit to the harm she can do me if she sets her mind to it." "Well, you have me, don't you?" he said. "What does that mean?" "You have me to fall back on. I'm right here."
    He was here. She was here. Everyone's possibilities had changed dramatically.
    ***
    T HE FIRST ARTICLE of clothing he bought her was a tan close-fitting waist-length leather jacket with a shearling lining that he saw in the window of a shop in the upscale village that lay ten miles through the woods from his house. He went in and purchased what he guessed correctly to be her size. The jacket cost a thousand dollars. She'd never owned anything that expensive before, and she'd never looked so good in anything before. He told her it was for her birthday, whenever that fell. For the next few days, she didn't take it off her back. Then they drove to New York, ostensibly to have some good meals and go to the movies and get away for the weekend together, and he bought her more clothes—by the time the weekend was over, more than five thousand dollars' worth of skirts, blouses, belts, jackets, shoes, and sweaters, outfits in which she looked very different from the way she looked in the clothes she'd brought east with her from Montana. When she'd first showed up at his house, she owned little that couldn't be worn by a sixteen-year-old boy—only now had she begun to give up walking like a sixteen-year-old boy. In the New York stores, after trying on something new in the dressing room, she'd come out to where he was waiting for her to show him how it looked and to hear what he thought. She was paralyzingly self-conscious for only the first few hours; after that she let it happen, eventually emerging coquettishly from the dressing room smiling with delight.
    He bought her necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. He bought her luxurious lingerie to replace the sport bras and the gray briefs. He bought her little satin babydolls to replace her flannel pajamas. He bought her calf-high boots, a brown pair and a

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