Updated: Mar 28, 2022
By Rosalind Goldsmith
It is five past three. David Besant picks up his knapsack and heads out. Miss Callan stops him just as he reaches the door.
“David? A moment?”
The others push past him. Some snicker.
“Yes, Miss?” He turns, shrugs his knapsack onto his shoulder.
She pulls out a slim sheaf of papers stapled in one corner, lays it on the desk. Stretches her arm out towards him, almost lovingly. He drags a loose metal chair up to the large oak desk. Sits. “What is it, Miss?”
She holds the papers with both hands. He notices that although she must be approaching forty, she looks younger, even her hands look young.
“My essay? Which essay is that, Miss?”
“The essay I gave back to everyone this afternoon.”
“You mean the one you didn’t give back to me? That essay?”
“That’s the one.”
“Oh, ok. I know which one you’re talking about now, Miss.”
She studies the front page of the paper. “’Holden Caulfield – C – o – l – field. An Escape from Loneliness.’”
“That’s my essay. Right. That’s it.”
She looks at him. “Well, David.”
She speaks slowly. “Your essay – if I can call it that – is ninety-eight percent conjecture.”
“No it’s not.”
She takes a deep breath, flips through the three printed pages. “David – who is Norman Fish? And just what is it you’re trying to – I mean, what is your intention here?”
“Norman Fish – it’s like it says.” He leans over and points at his paper. “Norman Fish is an old friend of Holden’s – from that other school he went to before. He’s his friend and when he sees him, he’s like: ‘Oh my God, Holden’, and Holden’s like: ‘Norman. Oh my God. Norman Fish.’”
There is a long pause. Miss Callan looks up at the clock. She has invited guests for dinner this evening. She wants to go to the market to buy the dessert and arrive home before five. She is probably not going to make it in time. “This – Norman Fish – appears in the lobby of the hotel, and…”
“That’s right, Miss, that’s right. Outside the Lavender Room, when Holden sits down in the ‘vomity chair’. That’s when old Fish shows up.”
“Fish, Fish. Norman Fish, I mean.”
“I see.” She peers at page two of the essay. “Then, when Holden goes through his address book, there are not three numbers, but four. Norman Fish’s number is there, but Holden doesn’t call him, is that right?”
“That’s right, Miss.”
“And why is that?”
“The reason is because he’s just seen him at the hotel in the lobby and they’ve had this whole conversation already and so it only stands to reason he can’t call him again. Even if he wants to.”
“It only stands to reason.”
“Like I said.”
“And at the museum?”
“Well, Norman’s at the museum because he used to go there too, and because he’s there with his nephew – just like it says in the essay.”
Miss Callan closes her eyes. “But Holden doesn’t talk to him there, either.”
“Right. No no no no. He doesn’t talk to him because he’s already had this conversation.”
“This – conversation – which you say you – quote – in your essay…” She can feel the lobes of her ears turning red. She holds on to them, maybe for balance. “An entirely fictional conversation.”
“Well, it would be fictional, wouldn’t it, Miss?”
She catches a breath – exhales. “I mean invented. You invented it. You invented this conversation and this entire character. What – what in God’s name do you think you’re doing?”
“I just – that’s how the essay came out. That’s my essay. That’s it.”
She goes back to the first page, lays her right hand on the desk. Steady. “Why – why did you – how – who is – how did you come up with the name Norman Fish?”
“Well, that’s an interesting story, Miss. Norman – that’s the name of my father’s business partner. Norman. They had a drywalling business together back when we lived in North York. They did all kinds of things – drywalling, cabinet-making, kitchen tiles and stuff like that all over. So. Norman. Yeah, Norman.”
“Fish – well, you know it’s like – I totally thought – it was so random – that story about the goldfish frozen in the ice that the taxi driver tells – that I decided on Fish, that it would be a good name, you know. You don’t like the name?”
Frowns. “Yes, Miss?”
“Never mind. Look.” She lays the paper down, lining up the edges of the paper with the edges of the desk. Her left hand goes down on the paper. Slow, calm. “This conversation that Holden has in the lobby with – Norman –”
“Yes, that’s right.” David is frowning a little but leaning forward in his chair, intent, eager.
“Norman says, and I quote – that is – I don’t quote – what do I do? I quasi quote: ‘Holden, bro. You gotta chill and quit feeling so sorry for everyone, you know – n-o-w – what I’m saying?’”
“Right. That’s what he says.”
“What do you mean by that, David?”
“Well, what I mean is – Holden Cawfield – you know, he’s kinda pathetic in a way and he shouldn’t care so much about that guy in the room next door.”
“Holden should not care about him?”
“No, he shouldn’t – that’s what I’m saying. I don’t get Holden there. He oughta just chill and – and go and see a movie or something.”
“I believe he doesn’t much like movies. I believe that’s something he wouldn’t do to – chill – as you say.”
“Yeah, but that’s the other thing Norman tells him, right?” He leans in close to her. “That there’s nothing wrong with Hollywood, you know. That’s why he says: ‘If there wouldn’t be a Hollywood, there wouldn’t be any Avengers, and there wouldn’t even be any Iron Man.’ That’s why he says that to Holden. In the lobby.”
Miss Callan stares at the thirteen percent mark she has written in red at the top of the page and the “Please see me about this” underlined below. She breathes in slowly. Out. Controlled.
“The fact is, I appreciate your imagination.”
David smiles. Brightens. “Beautiful. Thank you, Miss.”
“And I’m trying to understand what you’re aiming at. But really. You can’t do this.”
Frowns. “Why not?”
Her left hand curls into a fist. “Because you can’t you can’t you can’t rewrite “the Catcher in the Rye”. It’s already been written.”
“I’m not rewriting it, Miss. I’m responding to it. Just like you said in class.”
“Yeah. You said – it’s a reader’s responsibility to respond to the text and to – to bring their own experience to their reading. That’s what you said. And to fill in the gaps when they’re not sure, you know, with their own life experience. And that’s what I did. I filled in the gaps. I responded – like you said, and where I saw a gap, I filled it in. I’m just following your instructions, Miss Callan.”
Her cheeks are beginning to flush. She turns a page of the essay. “Here on page two…”
“Yeah? Page two? What about it? Page two.”
“You have Norman – Norman –”
“Fish is the name.”
“You have Norman Fish sitting in the lobby on a – a – chair.”
“A piss-stained chair. To go with ‘vomity’. Vomity, piss-stained. Piss-stained, vomity.”
“On a – chair. And he answers his cell phone.”
“That’s right. He does that because it’s his girlfriend calling him.”
“’The Catcher in the Rye’ was written in 1949. It was published in 1951. They didn’t have cell phones then.”
“No, you’re right about that. Cell phones are a more recent invention. You’re totally correct on that one, Miss Callan.”
“So tell me.” She looks straight at him now. “Is Norman Fish – a time traveler?”
Dinner will have to be late. Will have to be postponed or even cancelled.
“No. He’s no time traveler.”
“Then why does he have a cell phone?”
“Because Norman takes his cell phone everywhere. He even sleeps with it. Under his pillow. So he can watch videos if he wakes up at night.”
Miss Callan tries to twist a piece of her hair around the index finger of her right hand. But it is too short to twist. “You see that all this is – is – what. Willful destruction.”
“No. That’s not true. I’m not destructing anything. I’m just doing what you said. When we’re reading, we can bring our own context to the text and that’s what I did, that’s all. A cell phone is my context. It’s my life. It’s how I see it. And I’m just following your instructions, Miss Callan. ‘Cos you’re the teacher, you know what I’m saying, you know about reading and that – things like that. And you said once a text exists it doesn’t really belong to anyone – it only comes alive when a person reads it. And so, if it don’t belong to anyone, that means it could belong to me, right? And if it belongs to me, I can do what I want with it.”
“I think you’ve misunderstood.”
“No, I misunderstood nothing. Uh-uh.”
“Your character is an invasion – even a violation.”
“No. Norman’s not an invasion. And I wouldn’t call him a violation either, if I was you, Miss. Norman is like – he could be a digression. A little bit.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yeah, because you know what Holden says about digression, Miss? About how you never know when you’re going to come up with something interesting when you start to write or speak, you know, so you just start anyway. And I just started to write this essay and this guy Norman just popped up and he was a good way to fill in those friggin’ gaps you always talk about when we don’t understand something, and he was what was interesting to me about the book. So that’s why he’s there.”
“You can’t just invent a character and insert it into a book and then write an essay about it.”
“You can’t, Miss? You’re telling me I can’t do that.”
“But Miss. Remember that essay I wrote on Romeo and Juliet?”
“You do? Well I emailed it to you, and you inserted lines into my essay – in red – how the words should fit together with the grammar in the right place and all that. Remember?”
“Yes, I do that sometimes when it’s necessary.”
“Necessary. Yeah well, that’s what I did. ‘Cos it was necessary for me.”
“That was an essay. This is a book.”
“What’s the difference?”
She opens her mouth, ready, she thinks, to say something in response, but he stops her. “I just inserted something. That’s all. It’s not a friggin’ catastrophe. It’s just what you can do now – change things around – with, you know – like, photoshop?”
“You can’t photoshop a book.”
“Why not? Because you say so?”
“Because a book is an original creation and cannot be tampered with.”
“You mean like my essay?”
“Your essay needed correction.”
“So does this book.”
She does not respond to this.
He leans in, lowers his eyes. “You know, I could photoshop you, Miss. If I would photoshop you, I could change your hair grey or scraggly white and give you a real long witchy nose and pouty lips like Ariana Grande and a body like hers too and nobody would know it wouldn’t be you. I could morph you, Miss, and you wouldn’t even know it.”
Miss Callan glances at the clock. The hallway outside is quiet. All the students will have left by now and most of the teachers. She looks at him. He holds her look. She notices his eyes. Dark. She glances down, folds her hands carefully and lays them on top of his paper. “A book is not something you can morph,” she says.
“That’s your interpretation, Miss, but it’s not my interpretation. You know what I’m saying?”
She doesn’t look at him.
“You wanna know my interpretation of this little conversation, Miss? It’s that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Half the time you’re talking in class you don’t. You think you do, because you’re standing up here talking, and you can hear your own voice, but you don’t know what you’re saying, you know what I’m saying? Because you don’t think. You think you do, because you’re a friggin teacher. But you don’t. You – you –” He stands, leans over the big desk, his hands spread flat on the surface. “You tell us these things – these things and that – but what the –”
“You’re telling me I can’t put Norman Fish in that book. You’re trying to tell me he can’t exist. But he exists, he exists! You understand? You can fail me – I don’t care – you can do whatever you want, but you can’t kill Norman. He – he – he’s –”
She holds out the paper to him. “David, calm down. Just – rewrite the essay. Just – write about Holden Caulfield. That will be more than enough.”
“No. Norman Fish stays. He stays.”
“I’m giving you another chance.”
“I don’t want another chance. I don’t care, you know? I don’t.”
He turns and leaves the room, slams the door. Miss Callan lays the essay on the desk, picks up a black briefcase beside her chair, sighs. Just as she is about to drop the essay into her briefcase, the door opens.
David slips into the room, closing the door behind him. “Miss Callan?”
She turns her face to him. “Yes, David?”
He strides towards her, hand in right pocket. She tries to move. Can’t. Pales. All blood gone from her face. A matter of seconds, this. He takes his hand out of his pocket. He holds his cell phone up. Stretches his arm towards her, almost lovingly. He taps the screen and pockets the phone, grins. “Thank you, Miss Callan. Thank you so much.” Winks.
He turns and leaves the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Rosalind Goldsmith lives in Toronto and has recently retired from teaching literacy in an adult education program. She has written radio plays for CBC Radio Drama and a play for the Blyth Theatre Festival and has also translated and adapted short stories by the Uruguayan writer, Felisberto Hernandez, for CBC Radio. Her short stories have appeared in journals in the USA, the UK, and Canada, including Litro, Filling Station, the Blue Nib, Fairlight Books, Chiron Review, Stand, and Fiction International.