(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Las Cruces, New Mexico, May 1970
[Al and Kate struggle to be happy, and Al is forced to make an unhappy decision.]
Al stared out the study window into the back yard. I’ll go out and mow the lawn just as soon as I’ve written this letter, he thought. The instant his mind went back to the task of letter-writing, however, he felt a change in the momentum of both his thoughts and actions. He sat down at his uncluttered desk and leaned on his elbows. He stared at the wall and then turned to the typewriter resting on the desk extension, which looked as though it were waiting for Al to finish his task, just as Kate was waiting in the living room to see the results. This was the desk where he had studied for his Ph.D. This was the typewriter on which he had written his dissertation. This was the study where he had spent twenty years giving all his talents and expertise to a university he had come to love. Al’s heart was not up to the task. I can’t resign, he thought. It isn’t in me. This is not who I am or what I am. I’m 55 years old and I’ve given my life to education, twenty years to this institution. I must be crazy to even think of quitting. And all because of Kate.
Kate. Al realized that, after all of these years, he thought of his wife with mixed emotions of love and....was it hate? No, he told himself, I don’t hate her. But sometimes I hate what she does. And I’ve tried and tried to make things right for her. What do I have to do to convince her that I love her? I’m not having an affair. I’ve never even thought of having an affair. Yet she grills me every day. She has not one whit of trust in me. I can’t work, he thought. I can’t think. What am I going to do?
When Al had brought Kate home from the hospital in El Paso six years before, Al had to admit that Kate had been better for a while. However, not many weeks had gone by before the old Kate returned to her old habits, and Al had been helpless to prevent it. He kept thinking about what Dr. Riley had told him: Kate’s problems went back to her childhood and her father. Well, Al had no doubt that Lars Jacobsen had contributed to Kate’s paranoia. But, Al thought, even if Lars Jacobsen had created the demons in Kate’s mind, were they ever going to be free of him? Lars Jacobsen had not been in their lives for seventeen years now. When could they just enjoy each other? No matter how hard he tried, he just didn’t understand.
He stood up and began to pace the room. Al knew that he wouldn’t be allowed to complete any other tasks today until his letter was written. But this was the hardest thing she had ever asked him to do. And he had done so many things for Kate. How many more times, Al thought, will I be in this position again, just to please Kate? He rolled his eyes heavenward and whistled lightly. Forever, he thought. Absolutely forever.
His mind went back to the moment, just yesterday afternoon, when his world had fallen apart. How he would love to take back that moment, to relive that conversation, to remove the anger and humiliation of that minute. A minute. That’s all it took. One minute to cause his entire life to change. One minute that should not have ever happened. Not only should Kate never have come to the office and aired their troubles in public, but he had done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve to be humiliated so. How could she have been so stupid? he thought. Doesn’t she see that I have to work with these people every day? Doesn’t she understand that I have a job to do, that the job I do is important? Why does she do this? he thought. What in God’s name is wrong with her?
Al’s heart pounded. To remember that moment in the hallway was to remember a living nightmare. Yesterday, Kate had lost all control right in the hallway of the administration building, in front of the president of the institution. What a change from the early years! When he had first brought his family to Las Cruces, he had felt that he finally had an administrative position in a vibrant and growing post-secondary institution. He had been right in his first estimates of NMSU’s potential and, in return, New Mexio State had been good to him. He had established a good reputation with his colleagues and gained popularity with both students and faculty. He had enjoyed the challenges and the rewards. NMSU had grown steadily, and one president had been replaced by another. But everything had been stimulating, and Al had always enjoyed the work. As well, the children had grown and flourished, succeeding academically in school, falling in love with their future spouses, and starting families of their own. He and Kate had bought a home and worked hard to fix it up. Kate had taught school for seventeen years, earning some spending money for herself and some extras for the children. Looking at just one side of the coin, Al thought, many would never have thought that there were any problems in the Cullen family.
But Kate’s problems never went away. Paranoia. Mistrust. Jealousy. How many times had he tried to reassure her? Al slammed his right fist into his left palm. Damn! he thought. She never gives up! She never stops! Then he paused in his pacing and silently apologized to his mother for swearing.
There had been a good chance, at one point, that Al would be chosen as the new president for the university. Al recalled now the many arguments they had had at the time over the decision to place Al’s hat in the ring or not. Kate had been furious and determined. She had told Al that she would not move into the president’s home, that she would not be able to handle the social responsibilities of a president’s wife and also be a full-time teacher. Despite Al’s sincere desire to become president, he had not sought the position. In his heart of hearts, he knew that Kate would never be able to cope.
Al’s thoughts returned again to yesterday and the events which had unfolded. To be humiliated in front of this president for whom he had no respect seemed the ultimate betrayal to him. Why did Kate have to do that? It was as though she cared no more about other people’s feelings towards her, and she had no concerns about embarrassing Al.
Al couldn’t remember just when it had started but at some point Kate had begun just showing up at Al’s office — always on the pretense of wanting to help — but Al had always known that she was just keeping an eye on him and his behaviour. Al had tolerated Kate’s quirkiness in order to keep the peace, but sometimes it had drained him both emotionally and physically. It had not always been easy to find tasks for Kate to do and he often felt uncomfortable at the office when others would come in and find his wife working there. As well, their arguments at home would sometimes spill over into the office. Even with their voices low and the door closed, Al knew that others had been aware of the tremendous tension between them.
About a week before, Al had been told by the president that Al was not to allow his wife to work in his office any more. “This smacks of nepotism,” the president had said. “I think you can understand why the university can’t allow you to do this.” Al had returned home with a heavy heart. He didn’t really like having Kate at his office, but he knew that Kate would be angry. He had not been able to find the courage to tell her what the president had said before the incident yesterday had occurred.
Again, Al’s thoughts returned to that fateful moment. Kate and Al had argued in the morning. Al couldn’t even remember now what it had been about, but he had left for work to end Kate’s badgering. At mid-morning, he had stepped out into the hallway to run several errands. Not three steps away from his private office door, he met Dr. Bugle, the president. Al never enjoyed a conversation with Bugle but he always attempted to be civil. They had exchanged a few quick words and then parted, going in opposite directions. As Al had turned, there was Kate, right in front of him. Without the slightest warning, she had slapped him hard across his face. Al, though stunned, had remained focussed, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bugle quickly move into his office. He knew that Bugle had heard it, even if he had not seen it.
“Kate. What was that for?” Al remembered hissing at her. Then he had grabbed Kate’s elbow and pushed her towards the door of his private office. Kate’s anger had been palpable and she had told Al, as soon as they got into his inner office, that she was tired of his lies about Annette Simpson, a young English professor. Al had not been surprised that this was about another woman — again! Although the source of this argument had been similar to a thousand before, Al could not remember a time when he had been more ashamed or humiliated. He had not deserved this treatment from her, and he had told her so right then and there. He had told her to go home immediately and, surprisingly, Kate had agreed. She had seemed to understand that this incident had gone beyond the level of Al’s tolerance. Her anger at Al had been genuine, but her embarrassment at her public display of anger had also been, apparently, real.
After Kate had left, Al had spent the rest of his day in a confused state. He kept busy but eventually he had to go home and face Kate. Their discussion that evening had lasted for hours and had been tortuously inconclusive. Kate had become more and more insistent that it was time for Al to keep his word about leaving Las Cruces. “I have asked you over and over to leave, Al,” she had reminded him. “You promised me we would leave when Allison graduated from high school and that was six years ago. When are we going to leave? When are you going to get us out of here?”
He had sighed almost with relief, and finally said in defeat, “All right, Kate. You win. I’ll tender my resignation tomorrow.”
As Al thought of that moment late last night, he realized now that there was no turning back. Not only had he promised Kate he would do this, but he was certain he could never face the people at work if he didn’t use this incident as a reason to leave. The blank piece of paper lay like a dead thing on his desk, neither frightening nor inspiring him. I’ve promised Kate that I will do this, he thought, and my primary purpose in life has been to please Kate. But this is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, even if it is for Kate. Writing this letter symbolizes the end of my career.
Al picked up the piece of paper and rolled it into the typewriter. He placed his fingers on the keys and started to type. Within five minutes, he had written the words that would end his twenty-year career at NMSU.
Dear Dr. Bugle:
It is with great disappointment that I must tender my resignation to New Mexico State University. I make this decision with great sadness, as I have given twenty years of my career to this institution. However, my reasons for resigning are primarily personal. I hope that you will accept this request, effective at the end of the summer session, August 30, 1970.
Al re-read the letter. Is it too short? Too long? Does it say enough? Or too much? He decided that it didn’t matter. He was weary to the bone and he just wanted it over. He had spent long enough drowning in his own self-pity. He dreaded when he would have to face Bugle and tell him his decision, never mind handing him the letter, but he decided that it was time to get it over. The letter was good enough. No point in getting melodramatic or syrupy. No reason to go into details. Just make a break — clean and swift, he thought.
He typed a closing and his name. Then he rolled the paper out of the typewriter and, placing it on his desk, he signed it. He carried it into the living room where he handed it to Kate. After quickly glancing at it, she said, “So, you really mean it?” Her voice held a tone of doubt. “You’re really going to do this?” she asked. “Do you think you can find another job?”
“Yes, Kate. I’ll give it to Dr. Bugle today. My responsibilities to Western will be over by the end of the summer.” And to reassure her, he said, “I can find a new position by September. I’m 55 years old with a Ph.D. and thirty years’ experience in education.” As he said the words, he wasn’t as sure in his heart. Deep down, he was actually concerned that his age would work against him, but he wasn’t going to say that to Kate.
“You’d better be sure you have a copy of that,” Kate said, as she handed the letter back to Al.
“I will,” Al said.
Al returned to his study. He sat down in his chair at his desk and suddenly it hit him: I’ve quit. Where will I be a year from now? He was stricken with a profound sadness. The word “failure” came to his lips though he did not speak it. He thought of his father and mother and how disappointed they would be in him. Thank God, he thought, they are not alive to see this. All the years he had struggled to be a good husband and father, to be a good administrator and student advisor, seemed irrelevant, all for naught. Al placed his hands in his face and tears rolled down his cheeks. His sense of desolation was total and complete. He did not move for nearly an hour.
- Continue to Chapter 33.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.