In the Courtyard of the Jester

Steven Ostrowski

Featured Image: Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Vincent calls to whoever’s knocking to hold on a sec. Jesus, somebody at the door every fucking five minutes. He goes back to composing the email, but his train of thought has gone off the rails.

“Come in,” he mutters.

Hair piled high and swirly, Teresa stands in the office doorway. Dressed in an elaborately-patterned scarf and flowing, bronze-colored dress with brown leather boots, her presence throws a bouncy light across the room.

Mi amore.” Vincent’s eyes lift from the screen. He smiles.

“I came to take you to lunch,” Teresa says in her throaty, northern-Italian accent. “My department meeting was canceled. Nobody in Modern Languages wants to meet on such a nice day.”

“Good,” Vincent says, “but let it be my treat.”

Dismissing the offer with a flick of her thickly-braceleted wrist, Teresa strides to Vincent’s desk. It’s too late to close the window; she’s already peering over his shoulder at the screen, angling her chin in that haughty way of hers. “Oh, Vincent. Why did I know this is what you’d be doing?”

“No, Teresa. Not ‘Oh, Vincent.’ I email him once a day. Almost always just once. Why does this bother you so?”

The judgment in her smile pisses him off more than he wants it to. As always.

“I worry,” she says. “I worry about what it means about you.”

Means about me. Ridiculous. It means I tell my best friend about my day, what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling. It means I critique Bob Dylan’s latest album or show him a draft of a poem or essay I’m writing. And he does the same with me. Tells me about his daughter’s love dramas. Sends me photographs he’s taken. Right now he’s photographing faces that depict what he calls complicated emotion. They’re fascinating. You should worry about things that warrant worry.”

“Yes,” she frowns. “I know. But every single day? Every single day of every single year? For how many years? That’s unnatural, Vincent. Obsessive. Compulsive. The man has lived on the other side of the planet for thirty years and you’ve been emailing him every day since before email was invented. Strange. He’s like cigarettes to you. Worse. Heroin.”

“No, he’s a dear friend. There’s a difference between a good relationship and an addiction. No?”

“You should think about what drives your addiction to this man.”

Vincent’s face heats. He knows he might do or say something he’ll regret, so he turns and faces the window. The autumn afternoon shimmers and the south quadrangle teems with students who eat and drink, flirt, play hacky-sack. One or two of them are probably even studying. Obsession. Compulsion.  Addiction. When she uses these words it makes him want to destroy something. He has explained that his correspondence with Rick sustains him in a way that nothing else does, that he sees it as a satisfying daily ritual, akin to journaling or exercising. She must feel threatened, though. It baffles him, this strange form of possessiveness. And she can’t be reasoned with. She can’t be made to see.

“So, what are you telling him today?” When she crosses her arms her bracelets jingle. “What new thing is there to say that you have never said to this man, in thirty years of writing to him every day?”

“He’s planning to travel to Wyoming in January. To photograph sites in the West.  He wants to meet for a week, probably in Cheyenne. I’m just telling him when I’ll be available.”

“For him, you’re always available.”

Vincent sits and watches Teresa. She wants him in some exclusive way, and yet she won’t marry him. She won’t even move in with him. They’ve been together a year and eight months. For a week it feels on, then it feels off. She’s bright and in love, then she goes dark and isn’t sure. She gives him everything, then holds back, cautious and fearful. Finally he says, “You can think whatever you want, Teresa. I can’t be inside your mind to correct your misjudgments. I’ve given up on that.” 

“Nor I in yours,” she answers. “So, are you available for me right now, or are you only interested in your letter to Rick?”

Another knock on the door. “Jesus,” Vincent mumbles. “I’m available to everyone on campus, apparently.”

“You’re in a mood.”

“I am now,” he says. “It’s open,” he calls. 

Vincent’s friend and office neighbor, Evan Kamus, steps into the room. Evan and Teresa hug.

“What’s up?” Vincent says.   

Before Evan answers, Teresa says to him, “I’m warning you, you better not disturb him. He’s writing an important letter to his special friend in Australia. Very urgent.”

“Evan has met Rick, Teresa. They sometimes exchange poems, too. And he knows I write to him regularly, and he doesn’t judge me for it. Need something, Ev?”

“No, actually. Just got tired of reading student villanelles. I’m aimlessly wandering the halls.”

Vincent laughs.

“They’re good kids,” Evan says. “Earnest, sweet-natured, but man, this group just doesn’t take to poetry. It’s math to them. The technical parts they get, sort of, but their poems are soulless. I don’t know. Maybe it’s me.”

Vincent listens, but reads something else in Evan’s discouragement.

“Oh, well,” Evan says. “I’ll let you two be. I may pop back in later, Vincent. Good to see you, Teresa.”

“Hey, wait,” Vincent says. “How are things with Rebecca? Any better? Back to normal?” 

“Is something wrong with your lovely wife’s health?” Teresa asks.

Evan pauses near the doorway. “No, her health is fine.”

Vincent gestures for him to come back in. “Teresa doesn’t know anything about what’s-his-face. I don’t know if you want to tell her. I haven’t said anything.”

Stepping back into the office, Evan sighs. “Long story short: she was asked by a guy from Yale to participate in a research project. On dementia and balance. It’s great, potentially useful to the world, not to mention good for her career. The problem is, the guy is, well, a divorced and pretty famous researcher and I think she’s smitten with him.”

“Ah,” says Teresa. “Smitten is a good word.” She frowns at Vincent.

“They met a few years back,” Evan goes on, “when he guest-lectured at a seminar she was taking for her PhD. I guess they had a drink together after the lecture. Rebecca says they talked about her career options.”

“I’ll bet they did,” Vincent says, then regrets it, because Evan doesn’t need fuel for his angst.

“Yeah.” Evan nods. “Then this past August, out of the blue, after two years, he somehow knows where she’s working, contacts her, and asks if she’ll partner with him on this project he’s doing. Turns out they’d stayed in touch the whole time, which she never mentioned. He tells her he wants to do the research at the assisted living facility where she directs the physical therapy department. Of course she says yes.”

“Okay,” Teresa says, touching the corners of her chin. “I don’t see any real problem here, Evan.”

Shrugging, he says, “Look, I’m not saying she’s having an affair with the guy, at least as far as I know. And I don’t think she would do that. Although I do think it’s an emotional affair of sorts. I mean, she practically runs out of the house in the morning on the days she’s working with him. And I think she’s—I feel silly saying this—but I think she’s dressing up more since she started the project. I think she wears a redder, glossier lipstick, too.”

“Oh, she’s a woman, Evan. Give her leeway for that.”

“Okay yes. But I’ve also seen an email or two. The tone’s a little too intimate for my taste. Nothing overt, but intimate.” Evan shakes his head and his voice goes to gravel. “It’s fucking tough. I hope I’m just being paranoid, but my gut says something’s not right. You’d think after all these years of being pretty happily married this kind of thing couldn’t happen, but—”

“You’re naïve if you think that,” Vincent says. He has an ex-wife, and he’s had his share of complicated involvements. By comparison, Evan’s marriage has been a fairy tale of fidelity. 

“Listen to me,” Teresa says. “That woman loves you. Anybody with two eyes can see it. You two are as well-matched as any couple I know. You’re joined at the heart, at the soul. Trust her, Evan. Don’t worry yourself sick over this. It’s research. Good, important research. God knows we’re all a little out of balance. So maybe she’s fond of this man. A little crush even. So what? That’s no threat to you. I hope they succeed wildly and cure dementia and sell books about their findings by the thousands. Then maybe you can retire early and write poetry fulltime, eh? No more villanelle correcting.”

Vincent nods. “I agree that you can’t let this asshole get you down. Fuck him. Enjoy your life.”

Teresa throws her head back. “Oh, you. Is that what I’m saying to him?”

It’s pretty clear to Vincent that Rebecca is infatuated with this bigshot Yaley. When they chatted recently at a cocktail party, Rebecca gushed. “The man is brilliant, Vincent”; “He’s so caring about these poor, demented people,”; “I can’t believe how hard he works.” She is smitten. Maybe so smitten that she’d cross the line.

“Are you eating?” Teresa asks Evan. “You’ve lost weight. Come over to my house and I’ll fatten you up. Pasta for the body, good company the soul. Look at what I’ve done to this guy. Look at that heft.”    

Vincent finishes punching a sentence into his email, updating Rick on Evan’s marital situation. “Thank you for yet another compliment, sweetheart.”

“Bring your wife and come to my house on Saturday evening. We’ll eat pasta and drink good wine and laugh.”

“That sounds like something we both could use,” Evan says. “I’ll see if she’s available. Her availability these days is limited. But Saturday night should be clear.”

“Call her right now,” Teresa says. “Tell her I insist she come.”

“Wish I could. But she’s meeting with the great and powerful Caleb Lutz as we speak. I’ll ask tonight.”

Vincent’s not satisfied with the email; his thoughts are fragmented, poorly articulated, and he imagines Rick will be disappointed. Reluctantly, though, he pokes the send button, lifts his gaze to Evan, and says, “You know what, you have to stop worrying about her so damn much.” He says this with too much impatience, but the guy needs a kick in the ass. “She’s not stupid, your wife. If she’s willing to throw away what you guys have had for twenty years over some asshole that she happens to be infatuated with, then maybe you deserve a woman who can control her enthusiasms a little better. And you should tell her as much.”

“She knows how I feel. She says there’s nothing there.”

“You and your brilliant insights,” Teresa says to Vincent. “Throw away a twenty-year marriage because the woman has a little crush. Maybe not even that. And this from a man with a thirty-year infatuation of his own.”

Vincent bites back a fuck you. The last time that phrase slipped out of his mouth, she wouldn’t sleep with him for three fucking weeks. Glancing down at his screen, he sees that he’s already received a reply from Rick. 

“Please look at me, Vincent, and not at your stupid computer. You’re agitated because you haven’t finished your love letter and now I’m here to take you away to lunch. Is your friend expecting your letter by a certain time? Or else he breaks up with you?”

“Stop it, Teresa. You know I hate when you get sarcastic, but you do it anyway. You shouldn’t comment on things you don’t understand.”

“Things I don’t understand,” Teresa repeats calmly. “Evan, darling, I’m taking this strange bird to lunch. We’re going to the faculty dining room. Come, join us. My treat.”

“Thanks,” Evan says. “But I’m going to take a walk, put some Vitamin D into my body. Maybe meditate under a tree. This could be one of the last nice days. They’re talking about a cold front tonight, rain. You guys enjoy. I’ll let you know if we can make dinner on Saturday.”

“I’ll expect you there. And, listen to me, don’t lose sleep. She loves you. And eat or you’re going to disappear.”

When Evan leaves, Vincent says, “Give me one minute. I just want to read something.”

Teresa makes a small sound of contempt, lifts the new critical study of Dante from the front of his desk and pretends to examine it. Her looming presence makes concentrating on how to respond to Rick’s cryptic email—all it says is “WTF???”—difficult.   

“You know, Vincent, you talk about us moving in together. But you’re enmeshed with Rick. I don’t like being a third wheel, darling. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe love is for two, not three.”

His jaw has begun to throb. “Damn it, Teresa. You’re relentless. Let’s forget lunch.”

“I’m taking you to lunch.” Teresa doesn’t raise her voice. “Just tell me, please, honestly, what is your real desire in this strange relationship with this man? What part of you is fulfilled? I’m curious. Tell me honestly and I’ll drop the subject.”

“First of all, it isn’t about desire.”

His rock-like fist pounds the desk, making his mustard-colored coffee mug, day planner, and can of pens and pencils leap into the air. 

“They have weapons” shouts a voice from the quad. Shouts of alarm rise. “Get the fuck out of here!”

Vincent’s hand flies to his chest. “What the fuck?”

“What’s happening?” Teresa says. “What’s going on?”

Vincent goes to the window. Down below, people bound in every direction away from the quad; they trip at curbs and leap over benches.  The repeated cries of panic sound close, amplified by urgency. In the center of the almost-empty quad, stands a young guy in sunglasses. Bizarrely, on his head is one of those colorful, three-pointed jester hats. He’s got one arm wrapped around the chest of a dark-haired woman in black tights and a University hoodie. With the other hand he presses a short-barreled pistol to her temple. Mesmerized, Vincent doesn’t realize for a few seconds that twenty yards from the man in the jester hat, near the flagpole, another man, also in dark glasses and a goofy hat, points a bigger gun—a machine gun?—at a small huddle of people, mostly women.

Except one, who just moments ago stood in this room brooding about his infatuated wife, and now has an assault weapon aimed at his heart. 

“Teresa, they have Evan.”

Teresa, who has retreated to an inside wall, says nervously, “What do you mean, they have Evan? No they don’t. Who has Evan?”

The campus lockdown system kicks in: a staticky, loudspeakered voice tells everyone to remain inside, to lock all doors and lower shades and stay away from windows; emails and texts arrive. Rick’s terse, explosive email suddenly makes sense.

“Come here, Vincent. Away from the window. Is it terrorists?”

Already, Vincent sees, campus and local police officers are taking positions at a circled periphery, perhaps seventy yards from the gunmen. The captive woman is weeping and pleading, Please, please Ryan. Her captor doesn’t move a muscle. The other gunman looks antsy, keeps glancing over his shoulder at his partner as if waiting for an order. Evan, along with two chubby white women, a thin, short black woman, and a taller black woman, have been made to stand a little apart from each other, hands at their sides. Evan glares at the gunman. The tall black woman falls to her knees and begins to pray.     

“Vincent,” Teresa says, “close the blinds and come away from the window. They’re not that far away. They could shoot you. Come away right now.”

“Don’t talk.” Evan knows which window is Vincent’s; he might glance up. If he does, Vincent wants him to know he’s there. He does duck a little, and moves the curtain a few inches closer to himself.

“And if they shoot you, what happens to me?”

“They’re not going to shoot me. They have hostages. But we should call Rebecca. She needs to know about this.”

“Yes,” Teresa says. “Oh, God. Do I have her in my phone? Have I ever called her?” She fumbles her cell phone, steadies it, searches. “Yes, I have it.”

“Look, try not to alarm her,” Vincent instructs. “Tell her what’s happening, but don’t say it in a panicky voice.”

“Oh God.” Teresa presses numbers. “How can someone get news like this and not panic?”

Out on the campus road, cordons have been strung to block the various entries. News trucks have arrived with their satellite dishes on long poles, more police cars and emergency vehicles, a fire brigade. Up on the roof of one of the nearby dorms, three sharpshooters hustle into position.

“It went right to voicemail,” Teresa says. “Should I leave a message?”

“Yes. Tell her to call you back.”

In a shaky voice, Teresa informs Rebecca that there’s an incident at the college, and that Evan’s involved, and that she should call her right away.

“She’s with that fucking researcher, isn’t she?” Vincent says.

“What? Yes.”

“Well, she’s going to regret that, isn’t she?”

“Don’t say that, Vincent. It has nothing to do with this.”

“If something happens to him—”

“He’s cashing in on his credentials, if you ask me. I’ve known guys like that.”

“Vincent, come away from the window.”

He turns. “Mi amore, I want him to see that I’m here.”

“They can kill you.”

“They’re not even looking anywhere near here.”

The praying woman is wailing about her baby at home who needs his mother. Evan, palms upturned, is trying to reason with the gunman, who turns and says something to his partner. When he gets a reply, with a wave of his rifle, he shouts “Okay, go,” and the praying woman, startled by the good news, stands and stumbles to the periphery, where she’s taken away by a policeman. Evan makes a small gesture of thanks with his left hand, and the gunman nods.

“Unreal,” Vincent says.

***

He hasn’t left his position by the window. Evan and the three women have been permitted to sit on the concrete. They stare numbly at the man with the machine gun, who’s on one knee facing them, though every few minutes he turns his head to look anxiously at his mate. The other gunman and his hostage have barely moved for an hour, though they both appear to be wobbling slightly.  

Vincent turns from the window. “No word from Rebecca? Jesus Christ.”

“Not yet.” She goes back to watching news footage on Vincent’s laptop. She’s been telling him what the reporters have been saying to viewers. Little by little, details have emerged: the first gunman is an ex-boyfriend; the woman he’s holding broke off the relationship last week. Both are seniors at the University. All they’re saying so far about the other gunman, Evan’s captor, is that he’s not registered at the college, and that he lives with his divorced mother in a nearby town. The conjecture is that the two gunmen are friends, but details are sketchy.

“Vincent, if I ever lost you,” Teresa says, “I would never even attempt to love again. Enough. Enough of love for this life. For almost forty years, since I’ve been sixteen, I’ve tried love. It’s too much pain. Sometimes I wish I’d have become a nun like my sister Eva. She’s the most content person I know.”

“You aren’t going to lose me, mi amore,” Vincent says. “We’ll get married. We’ll retire on Lake Como. I’ll die in your arms at the age of a hundred and nine, reading Pound.”

“Maybe this is how it should be,” she says, and Vincent, a little guiltily given what’s going on out there, lightens with hope.

***

The hostage negotiator, a powerfully-built man, , stands twenty feet from the first gunman, speaking through a megaphone. He tells him that he understands what he’s going through, that his own wife left him “for a guy with a prettier face and a fatter wallet.” He says it all worked out for the best, though—that he found somebody better, more loyal, honest, and intelligent.

“Look, Ryan,” the negotiator says, “the same thing that happened to me can happen to you.” Vincent likes the guy’s soulful, avuncular voice. “What do you say we get this day behind us so you can start over again? You’re a young dude. You can turn it all around, man. No bullshit. You do a little time, maybe, but you can change your life. I’m telling you man.”

The other gunman is half-turned, listening intently. He doesn’t seem to notice, or mind, that his hostages are talking to one another, or that Evan’s patting the back of the dazed, heavyset woman sitting beside him.  

When the campus chimes gong two o’clock, the posture of the gunman with the pistol suddenly softens. Bending at the knees, he cries “Fuck everything,” and moves the gun from the woman’s temple to his own. The pop sounds like a plastic bag full of air being stomped on and a spray of red splatters the concrete.  The man crumples, though his jester’s hat somehow stays on his head. For a moment, his hostage can only stand numbly. Finally, at the negotiator’s urging, she runs to safety.

Evan’s captor looks utterly baffled. His rifle is still pointed at his hostages but his gaze swivels from his fallen comrade to the sharpshooters on the surrounding roofs. “Don’t kill me,” he shouts. Slowly and deliberately, he places his rifle on the ground, kicks it away from himself and raises his arms. In seconds he’s taken to the ground by six uniformed men.

Evan and the heavyset woman embrace. They rock back and forth in each other’s arms.

***

This one’s more subdued than their usual get-togethers. Rebecca, Evan, and Vincent are seated around Teresa’s dining room table, salads finished, sipping red wine. Teresa’s in the kitchen readying the main course.

Rebecca arrived this evening with a conspicuously nervous energy, and it’s still going strong. After describing a scene in a novel she’s reading, which she thinks Vincent would appreciate because it takes place on Robert Frost’s former farm in New Hampshire, she says, “By the way, how’s your friend in Sydney? I have a new patient, a lovely elderly man with advanced dementia named Mr. Provincia. He’s originally from there. I couldn’t remember who I knew that lives there. Then I remembered it was your friend. Ryan, is it?”

Teresa enters the room wearing oven mitts and holding a steaming bowl of pasta. She places it on a large ceramic coaster in the center of the table and removes the mitts. “Not Ryan,” she says, “Rick. Vincent, tell us all how your dear friend Rick is doing.”

Vincent grips the bottle of wine that stands beside his salad plate. He could lift and slam it, of course, and everybody would be startled—though not shocked, because that’s what he does sometimes—but tonight he feels almost blissfully removed from his various peeves. He refills Evan’s glass, then his own.

“Rick is doing well,” he says. “Couldn’t be better. As a matter of fact, I just finished writing to him before you guys got here. I was giving him more details about our little campus drama.” He doesn’t mention including the detail that Rebecca was indisposed while her husband sweated out what could have been his final hour. 

“Horrific,” Teresa says. “The extent people go to for what they think is love. To die in that way. And, oh, my God, to have a big ugly gun pointing at you like that, Evan. I can’t imagine. I simply can’t. How in God’s name did you not lose your mind?”

“I prayed,” Evan says, then chuckles.

Evan’s been quiet, half-present. He offers Vincent a brief, taciturn smile and sips his wine.

Rebecca shivers. “I don’t want to talk about or think about that day ever again.”

“It’s a perversion of love,” Teresa says. “To feel so desperate that you take your so-called lover hostage and then, and then, you shoot yourself in the head. That cannot be love. I’m sorry.”

Evan lowers his glass. He places it on the table as if it will spill if he isn’t careful. “Except,” he says, “why didn’t he kill the woman first? That’s what he said he was going to do in the note. Kill her and lots of other people, then himself. What made him change his mind? I mean, in a way—”

“Oh, no, don’t you turn him into some hero,” Vincent says. “Don’t romanticize this, Evan. He threw the University into chaos and traumatized a lot of people in the process. No, he didn’t kill the girl, but he’s damn sure messed her up for life. He’s no hero.”

“I agree,” Rebecca says. “He made one good decision not to shoot his girlfriend, or ex or whatever, but it’s not as if he did something brave. And, right, that poor girl—”

Teresa comes around the table and stands behind Evan. “But it’s a fascinating point. I hadn’t even considered it. Why did he not do what he planned? Something inside that boy’s mind changed, and that spared a young woman her life. No, he’s no hero—Evan’s not saying he is. But something, some kind of grace—” For a few seconds, her hands rest on Evan’s shoulders.

What a strange smile, mi amore, Vincent thinks. My beautiful enigma.

“Okay,” Teresa says finally, “we’re all hungry. And we all love each other here.” She smiles at Evan as she walks back into the kitchen. In a moment she returns holding a bowl of red sauce. Its pungency fills the room and the diners make sounds of approval.

Vincent stands to help serve. As he ladles spaghetti onto her plate, he says to Rebecca, “How’s the research going? I forget your partner’s name. You guys getting along well? Learning a lot about dementia and balance?”

Rebecca’s cheekbones flush; her eyes fall to the table edge. Teresa glares at Vincent before heading back into the kitchen.

“Let’s not talk shop tonight,” Evan says. “Do you mind, Vincent?”

“No. Not at all.” As Vincent continues serving, Evan lifts Rebecca’s hand and kisses it. The gesture seems to take her by surprise. Her eyes water and blink.

Glass of wine in hand, Teresa returns. “Something, some impulse, told that boy to be merciful. This was a little miracle.”

Evan, staring, nods.   

“If you say so, mi amore. Why not?” Vincent wants to enjoy the way the steamy pots have raised a blush on the face of the woman he loves. She and Evan, he thinks, are two of kind, trying to make comprehensible that which is simply absurd. People are violent, or possessive, or impulsive—to irrational and dangerous degrees. There’s no grace in such behavior.

As he twirls a first hearty forkful of pasta, Vincent anticipates writing to Rick, well before sunrise, describing this evening’s gathering in great detail. He can hardly wait to see what his friend makes of it all.


Steven Ostrowski is a fiction writer, poet, painter and teacher. His work appears widely in literary journals, magazines and anthologies. He is the author of five published chapbooks–four of poems and one of stories. He and his son Ben are authors of a full-length collaboration called Penultimate Human Constellation, published in 2018 by Tolsun Books. His chapbook, After the Tate Modern, won the 2017 Atlantic Road Prize and is published in 2018 by Island Verse Editions. His short story, “Even on Good Nights,” was a finalist for American Short Fiction’s shorter fiction award and will be published on their website in the spring of 2021. He is a Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University.