fiction

– Barbara Biles

When Andrew encountered
Rosemary it was mostly déjà vu. He could not reason why. It was the morning of
the Spring Equinox, in East Campus Parking. Piles of grimy snow leaked onto the
pavement and students wended their way around slippery ice patches and stagnant
puddles. Andrew strode, oblivious to the grime and to the notion that the sun’s
illumination was equal to southern climes. He carried, in his brown leather
case, a copy of Civilization And Its Discontents, a tattered article on Thomas
Aquinas Revisited
and an Egg McMuffin wrapped in moisture proof paper

Brown hair, soft curls. That’s what he noticed.

“Today is my day for gratitude,” she said, “so I have a gift
for you.”

“Uh, I think I need my coffee. Your name has slipped my mind.”

“Rosemary,” she said. “And I can’t tell you how much I love
your class. I’m just auditing, in case you don’t know.”

“Ah. That explains it. So what is this?” He dangled the gift,
sprigs tied together with a yellow ribbon, in the air.

“Herbs,” she said. “With meaning.”

“Uh huh?”

“Parsley, sage, rosemary and Marjoram

“Not parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?”

“Oh, and basil too. Ha ha, thyme. I get you. Well, thyme can
give you courage, that’s for sure, but not what I wanted to convey.”

“Uh huh?”

“Marjoram is a symbol of joy and happiness. It is one thing I
wish for you.”

***

Andrew considered himself lucky, even if not joyful. Lucky
because his mother Grace died when he was only four and he remained convinced
by his brother Eddie that they had been spared the tyranny of careless
mothering. As a result they had learned the value of independent thinking and
logic, suited to the dialectical
methods of Plato. They both, as professors, employed
dialogue successfully in their classes.

He had just one photo. The black and white picture revealed
nothing about Grace’s health. Light and shadow evoked a vulnerable woman with a
generous mouth and smiling eyes. Her hair fell down in soft waves. He couldn’t
remember the color. Their father gave no explanation; a muted witness so it
seemed.

Grace held Andrew in her arms and out toward the camera so you
could see his eyelids shut in baby bliss. Eddie stood right at Grace’s extended
elbow, looking straight into the camera and their sister Margie was on the
other side, leaning on her mother’s leg and looking offside. The brothers always
wondered at the wayward paths that Margie took back in Buffalo before her own demise.

It is therefore inexplicable that a man who prided himself on
academic thought, who was perhaps stoical about his early life, a man with tenure
and a wife and three kids, after four days of resistance, lifted the limp aromatic
posy from his middle desk drawer and began to google the meaning of each sprig.
He remembered to search for parsley, apparently a symbol of useful knowledge, for
sage, obviously a symbol of wisdom, and for rosemary, meaning remembrance. Oh
and basil: something about love spells.

***

The sun is three quarters up and a jet stream curves up and
over to the west, to encapsulate sky and earth together, then disappears to
nowhere. Andrew studies the narrow gravel road more intensely than he would
city pavement. There are ruts to negotiate and they are sometimes obscured by the
grassy shadows of east side ditches. Yes, there are open fields of grain, green
tinged with brown, alternating with sections of yellow canola but bushes along the
wooden and barb wire fences probably harbor mice and snakes and he’s not sure
what to expect over each rise of a hill as vehicles tend to favor the middle of
the road.

There is the dead end sign that she described. He stops on the
hilltop to solidify his view. There is the red barn with green shingles and a
cluster of smaller sheds to match but one shed defies convention. It is painted
white with turquoise door and window frames and shutters. The house is fifties
style two-tone, with brown on the lower half and cream above. There is no
movement: no cattle grazing, no animal of any kind wandering in this yard yet
it must be the right place.

He eases downhill to where large tractor tracks have dug up
the grass and soil, and where a steel gate is secured with a padlocked heavy
chain. The trees are thicker here and the farmyard is out of sight. There is a
second wooden gate inside joining a second barbed wire fence and serving entry
to a dirt road with grasses and clover in the middle of the tracks. He gets out
of his car. What the hell is he doing here anyway?

Suddenly dogs are barking and coming down the lane with them
is Rosemary on a bike. He can hear her voice but can’t tell what she is saying.
He feels a rush of excitement. There is no turning back.

“Hello!” she calls, slightly out of breath.

“How are you?”

“Country style security.” she explains as she opens
the wooden gate and proceeds to unlock the metal one.

“What are you keeping out? Wild animals?” he jokes.

“Just unwanted traffic. It’s not my arrangement. Just
following through for Jill and Otto.”

He nods. “The owners I presume.”

“Yes. Go ahead, bring your car through.”

He drives through the gates and waits for her to lock up
again.

“Meet you at the house,” she says as she leans into
the car window then pedals down the lane. The black lab bounds parallel to her
and the border collie circles ahead and back as though Rosemary is the center
of the universe. Andrew idles slowly behind. Her buttocks move rhythmically against
khaki shorts.. He is oblivious to everything else along the way.

She stands at the top of the wooden steps and motions with a
hand.

The dogs bounce around him, scrutinizing him willy nilly.

“Thelma, Louise, stop that.” she orders and the dogs
settle down.

“Very funny,” he says. “Thelma and Louise?”

“Oh, you have to know Jill and Otto,” she laughs.
“It’s their sense of humor.”

“Am I safe here?” he jokes.

“Safe as anywhere. Come on in. I’m just making us a
lunch. We can take it on our hike.”

She resumes preparations at the kitchen counter, assembling
and wrapping up egg salad sandwiches, oatmeal cookies, green apples and bottled
ice tea. “Hope you like all this.”

“Sure, fine. Anything’s fine,” he says as he eyes the
V-neck of her T-shirt downward to hidden cleavage.

She moves quickly from counter to sink and back again and
looks over at him periodically to confirm their conversation. They talk about
the fact that Jill and Otto are not really farmers; they are artists who
maintain the farmyard and lease the fields out to neighbors.

The city, more specifically the university, recedes in a flash
as does Lois, his wife. This kitchen, with its oak table and pink cupboards and
smooth black counters, possesses him. There is room for a large family and
extras at harvest time but it is now just allotting for two. He needs to make a
move but something holds him back.

Birds sing a cantata through the window, punctuated by the
sound of flies jotting on the screen. Time ticks away with the clock on the
stove and floats out the door, swirls around the sheds and sails over the open
fields and down to the creek that apparently runs at the property’s bottom edge.
Life as he knows it, his immersion in books and constant family dilemmas, the
strain of appeasing Lois, it all floats away.

      “Are you ready?” she says.

      “I am!”

      “I’ve got a couple of back packs. Here you take the lunch
in this one. I need mine for flowers.” She drops a pair of blunt end
scissors into the bottom of her pack.

      “That’s all you’re taking?” he says.

      “I’ll have plenty to bring back.”

      They head down a mowed path toward the tree line where the
creek is hidden from view. They reach an open meadow. Butterflies, radiated by
sunlight, flit from a stack of logs to grass and back again. They walk past dry
ant hills and listen to skretching grasshoppers then hear water trickling
further down. They look down a steep bank to the muddy creek and negotiate
their way through low lying scrub and young poplars where wild raspberries and
strawberries and mushrooms abound.

      “Have a raspberry.” It sits like a gemstone in her
hand.

      He drops it in his mouth. “Barely a taste. A teaser!“

      "Oh here, forget-me-nots!” She pulls out her
scissors and snips a stem. The flower is composed of sky blue petals and a
yellow eye.

      “There’s a legend about them,” she says.

      “And what is that?”

      “Well, there was this woman and her lover walking along a
river when she spied a beautiful blue flower and she asked if he would get it
for her, and of course he wanted to please her. However, he lost his footing
and fell in, crying out with his dying words – forget me not, forget me not.”

“Aren’t you the romantic.”

They move closer to the water, on boggy clay, amongst
horsetails and a crop of white daisies. They have to watch their step. A beaver
dam explains the delay of moving water. She pulls out her scissors again.
“I want the best daisies I can get. Here let me hand them to you.”

They move further down where larger rocks create a gentle
rippling in the water and flat rocks invite them to walk across to the other
side. “Shall we try it?”

He hears movement in the bushes. Some small creature. It
causes him to pause.

“Come on. Don’t be shy.” She heads across the water.

He lurches after her and slips, losing balance, his arms
flying with daisies in one hand, his legs slashing the water, his bottom resting
on the rocky bed.

“Are you alright?”

“Jesus.” he replies.

She sounds like a pan flute when she laughs.

He pulls himself out of the water holding the sopping daisies
up to dry air. “Here, come and get your flowers.” He is looking full
of mischief now. Egging her on.

She reaches for the bouquet while he takes a step away. Her
foot slips, just as his had, and she takes the plunge. They giggle like
teenagers and splash each other with uncoordinated swipes. Daisies float in all
directions.

“Hey, what about our lunch?”

“Oh yeah.” he replies. “Better save our lunch.”
And he gives her one last dose of water in her face. “Here, take my hand. I’ll
help you out.”

“No way!” She scrambles out herself. Her clothes cling
nicely.

They move to higher ground.

“So much for daisies,” he smiles and takes off his
shirt. His khaki pants cling heavily on his legs. “Well enough of
this.” He takes off his pants, his boxers still dry in places. “Feel
free to do the same.”

“No, that’s alright. The sun will dry me.”

He hangs his pants over a branch and clenches his arms in a
body builder’s pose.

“Oh you.” She zips open the back pack and pulls out
the bag of food. “It seems okay.”

They sit side by side and look back across the creek to steep
banks. It is like someone with a giant knife has sliced straight down,
revealing layers of clay and rock and coal and eroded soil.

"It must have been a deep river eons ago,” he says.

A bird interrupts, horning in on all the others with two clear
long whistles followed by three quarter notes. It repeats itself.

“You hear that?”

“What?”

“That whistling?” He whistles out the tune.

“White throated sparrow,” she says, “Dear old
Canada Canada Canada, he’s saying.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Positive.”

He smiles to himself and listens some more. “Could be
saying dear old America America America you know.”

“Absolutely not. Too many syllables.”

“Hmph. And I suppose you want to look for daisies
again.”

“I am counting on them.”

“Or counting them. Isn’t that what you do? Count daisy
petals? He loves me, he loves me not.”

“Ha. Actually those aren’t really petals. Each white
so-called petal is an individual flower and the yellow center is made up of
tiny florets that contain both stamens and pistils. When you pick a daisy you
pick a bouquet.”

“Just the same. I’ll bet you’ve done that.”

“Well, sure, when I was young. Until I learned that, like
many things, it can be fixed.”

“How so?”

“There are usually an uneven number of white
petals.”

“I thought you said they weren’t petals.”

“Just for the sake of communication.”

“Fine.”

“As I was saying there are an uneven number so if you
start with ‘he loves me’ you end up with ‘he loves me’. Kind of takes the fun
out of it, don’t you think?”

“Well I wouldn’t be counting on that sort of thing
anyway. How about you? Any big romance in your life? Seems a woman like
you…”

“Want to know more about daisies?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“The name comes from day’s
eye
because a particular English variety closed at nightfall and opened
again at sunrise. It was also called ‘thunder flower’ because it was always
around during spring showers and was thought to be protective. People hung
daisies indoors for protection from lightning.”

“Thunder flower. I like that. Now I know why you’re
really collecting them.”

“Definitely. Protection from any storm. You might want to
take some home for yourself.”

“Oh ho. You think my home life is stormy? You think I’ll
be struck by lightning?”

“Perhaps.”

Time shifts in unknown currents. Memory, caught in a sluggish
pool, is suddenly released. Visions of Grace with tender eyes and ephemeral
embrace flash uninvited. Grace, his mother, appears like lightening. This is
simply trumped up memory, he thinks. Childish wishful thinking. He is not taken
in by it. Truth trickles like water down the creek, sometimes resting stagnant
in a pool, sometimes bubbling into eddies and ripples of light, always on the
move.

She smiles and looks somewhere far away. “A little bit like
heaven here, don’t you think.”

“Yeah,” he whispers and turns his head away. A tear
drop is forming unannounced. He quickly wipes it away.

“Something on your mind?” she says. “Anything I
can do?”

“Nah.”

She offers another forget-me-not that she has plucked from the
grasses just within her reach. “There’s another story. You might like it
better.”

“And what is that?”

“It’s an old German folk tale. A young man spots a little
blue flower in the mountains. He veers from his path to get it which then brings
him to a cave of treasures. As he stuffs his pockets full of gold and jewels, a
beautiful lady appears. Why she has to be beautiful is beyond me. However, she
warns him by saying, ‘Forget not the best.’ He, of course, leaves the little
blue flower, the forget-me-not, behind not realizing it is the best treasure of
all. As he leaves the cave, rocks from the mountain come crashing down, killing
him and closing up the cave forever.”

“Well that’s very uplifting.”

“You talked about Plato’s cave in your class. Consider it
another cave story.”

“Hah.”

“I really would like to get more of those daisies since
they are in such good form right now.”

They gather up the remains of lunch. Andrew pulls his pants
back on even though they are still damp and they head back to the creek, moving
in unison, offering a hand when it is needed, reaching and clipping and
gathering day’s eyes in abundance.

They head to the white shed, the one with the turquoise trim,
with daisies peering out of their open back packs and cradled in their arms. It
is cool and shadowy inside. The windows are shuttered but some light manages to
creep in. Along the walls flowers are hanging upside down, bundled together
with twine and hanging on protruding nails.

"Here, bring those over here.” She sets her daisies
down on an old chrome table. “I need to prepare them for drying right
away. Have to preserve the freshness.”

“Kind of contradictory, don’t you think?”

“What’s that?”

“Drying to preserve freshness?”

“Well nothing lasts forever. I’m just preserving
something at its peak.”

“Is it really the same though?”

“Of course not. But it has its own beauty. When you think
of it books preserve someone’s ideas, and even if they become outdated they can
still illuminate a certain truth. It’s all fleeting but some moments in life
just need to be preserved.”

“Getting philosophical?”

“Here you, I’ll put you to work.” She demonstrates
the trimming of stems and the binding together of small bouquets with twine for
hanging from the ceiling. “See you just clean off the lower part.” She
holds a daisy up for him to see, her eyes searching his.

He must make a move but he feels short of breath, a little
tipsy. He is nervous but he can’t figure out why. “I’m going to have to run,”
he says.

“Of course,” she replies. “I’ll open up the gates.”

***

He plays Arrowsmith’s Dream
On
as he makes his way back to the city. Steven Tyler is singing his own lyrics
and Andrew tries to sing along. “Half my life’s in
books’ written pages. Lived and learned from fools and from sages.”

At
night he dreams that he is at a restaurant with Eddie. The restaurant has
private booths laid out in labyrinthine fashion. They choose a booth that is
isolated from both customers and staff. There are copies of The Republic of Plato at each table. The brothers seem to be waiting for
someone. They have not ordered any food. A woman finally arrives and focuses
her attention on Andrew although she remains standing closer to Eddie. As they
talk the woman becomes more and more like Rosemary. She is Rosemary. Suddenly Andrew
realizes that she has arranged to meet Eddie, not him. Then Eddie says,
“Are you my mother?” Andrew realizes, with clarity, what he should
have known all along. This mother abandoned Eddie and now has agreed to meet him
again. “I’m so sorry,” says Andrew. “I didn’t realize that you
have been without a mother all this time.”

***

He woke up with the strangest feeling. The picture book, Are
You My Mother?,
is on his bedside table. He read it to his children the
night before. The little bird, who had fallen out of his nest and become
separated from his mother, went around asking the strangest characters both
animate and inanimate, “Are you my mother?”

It became an ear worm, like a pop song being recycled on the
radio. He made a game of it in an effort to control his thinking. Like the
little lost bird he chose the strangest objects and said under his breath,
“Are you my mother?” He asked the Manitoba maple at the end of his
driveway, the neighbor’s pregnant Irish Setter taken out for a short morning walk,
the girl pumping gas at Turbo on the boulevard, the poplar being pruned in
front of St. Anthony’s, the traffic light at the intersection, and the gas
light on the main drag with its never-ending flare.

He listened to certain predictable melodies of Mozart and
Haydn to drown out details of the dream but it persisted and haunted him for
several days.

Was it was all a mistake, dallying with a student, even if she
was mature and had simply audited his time? He easily had affairs in the past
but this time it remained platonic. For days in a row tears appeared at the
oddest moments which made his behavior unpredictable. He finally decided to revisit
Rousseau and Kant with his summer students, persuing the notion of
self-contradiction. Rosemary didn’t attend. At the end of the day, as he headed
to Parking, he stopped to observe skittery sparrows as they flew out from green
hedges, down to patches of water and back up again. And a white throated
sparrow, which he now could identify, whistled Rosemary Rosemary Rosemary. He
was certain of that.


Barbara Biles lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is a graduate of the University of Alberta and a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. Her stories have appeared in several Canadian and international magazines. Her latest publications were in FreeFall, The Steel Chisel, (WPN) Words, Pauses, Noises and one is upcoming in The Nashwaak Review. This is a second appearance in Turk’s Head Review.

image

– 

Tommy Partl 

I need to slow down my breathing.

I can’t slow down my breathing.

The subway car rattles, whipping me side
to side in my orange, flimsy plastic seat. It screeches to a halt. All trains
in New York have the same howling brakes. A soggy newspaper sticks to the
floor.

I focus on the
positive. It’s only noon. I’ve already applied to ten jobs. I can apply to ten
more tonight. I’ve written twenty pages of work already, which I did before I
applied to jobs. God created me to write. Creating stories happens so naturally
to me that I have to write them down or they’ll swell up inside my head. It’s a
mental anaesthetic. An escape from this world to a place where I can control
things. And I’m good at it—better than any published author. I can weave
sentences together to awe. I’m going to be remembered millennia from now. I
know this in my bones. It’s a certainty I’ve built my life around.

To distract myself, I read over the
texts I sent to Laura.

                                           So we doing the career fair?

Will
there be McDonald’s?

                                           McDonald’s will be there.

Cool.
Meet me at the Kimmel Center.

A Hispanic woman in a brown coat boards
the train. She stands at the center pole, eyeing everyone in the car. Harsh
wrinkles curve around her frown. The doors shutter shut; the car jerks forward.

She speaks out in a prepared drone.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry for bothering you, but I’ve just
lost my job and become homeless. I have two beautiful daughters, and I’m trying
my best to support them, but times are very hard, and we’re living a shelter
with little food to eat.” Her voice wavers as she realizes that everyone is
doing their best to ignore her. People with headphones close their eyes and nod
their chins to a rhythm. Others just stare out the window at the darkness
flashing past. “Fact is, I’ve not eaten at all today. I’m just trying to keep
my girls okay. So if you could find the kindness in your heart, please donate
anything you can, a quarter, a nickel, a dime, anything to please help me feed
my girls. Once again I’m sorry for bothering you all but I really need help.”
She starts meandering slowly through the car.

Our eyes meet. “Anything, please help,
quarter, nickel, dime…”

My stoicism quivers, and I look away.
She keeps going down the car.

She gets out at the next stop. As the
subway car stutters forward again, a recorded announcement plays from the
speakers. A friendly man’s voice reluctantly says, “Ladies and Gentleman,
asking for money on the subway is illegal. We ask you not to give. Please help
us maintain an orderly subway.”

At 42nd Street, I transfer to
the N train and take it down to 8th Street. I weave through the
tight blocks that surround Washington Square Park until I cut through the park
itself. Crowds conglomerate around street performers drawing murals in sidewalk
chalk. The circular fountain flushes out water in a wide spray. The grass
smells like spring. The Kimmel Center is a beige, smooth building across the
street from the park. Like all college buildings, it has the sleek sheen from
renovated wealth.

Laura appears down the street wearing an
orange-knitted beanie, a smatter of scarfs, and a black t-shirt. She carries a
blue folder under her shoulder.

“What is this?” I gesture to her general
person.

“This is the
just-rolled-out-of-a-dumpster look I’ve been sporting this week,” she replies.

“That’s hardly professional.”

“Exactly. All these dumbasses are
wearing formal attire, whereas I will stand out with my grungitude and Oprah
Chai-scented body odor.”

“You should’ve at least come here Classy
Casual.” I dress in a smart black-and-grey-striped shirt with a black vest and
windsor-tied tie. Unlike most boys, I understand fit.

“This fashionista phase is adorable.”
Her eyes sparkle with a sibling’s mischief.

“This is how I dress now. Like an adult.
A fashionable adult. I’m a new person.”

“Sometimes I straighten my hair and
become a new person.”

I roll my eyes. “I roll my eyes. I roll
my eyes at you, Laura Donoghue.”

She scoffs. “I scoff. I scoff at you,
Calvin Donoghue.”

We enter the Kimmel Center. Students
herd inside a stuffy meeting hall compact with tables topped with corporate
displays. Grinning HR people advertise their company. They spread pamphlets,
free pencils, buttons, and business cards over their tables. Video
presentations play on Macs. Long lines hound the biggest names—Starcom, Morgan
Stanley, Wrigley.

You can taste the awkwardness. The kids
dress in uncomfortable suits and dresses. Their suits are baggy and sloppy.
They try to appear formal, but their faces are pinkish red. They speak
hesitantly with quivering smiles. Their arms move stiffly at their sides. Each
movement has slow trepidation. They shuffle through the aisles of tables in a
lethargic, laborious procession.

Laura folds her arms over her chest.
“You lied to me. You said there’d be McDonald’s.”

I point across the hall. “McDonald’s has
a display right here. I didn’t lie. I mislead you. It’s like lying, but more
manipulative.”

Laura glares at the red-polo-shirt-clad
men manning the McDonald’s stand. “It’s just a mass of sociopaths.”

“No, that’s the HR department.”

“Like I said. Mass of sociopaths.”

We join the slow Bataan Death March.
Laura opens her blue folder. Her resumes stuff the right pocket. “I spent an
hour formatting this thing. I had no idea what I was doing. Professors need to
get their heads out their asses and realize they need to teach us more about
getting jobs.”

“Especially at $50k of debt a year,” I
reply. “I get the frustration. I apply to 20 jobs a day.”

“It’s bullshit. Such bullshit.”

“We go to college because we’re promised
high paying jobs, but all we get is a mountain of debt.”

She brushes a dark bang off her eye. “Our
parents valued a degree so much because it was rare in their day. Now it’s so
common it’s useless.”

The herd slows to a near halt as it
winds around a corner.

“And the only difference is where you
got it from,” I add. “Yale’s better than Indiana. Harvard’s better than
Hawaii.”

“The rich will always find a way to put
themselves above the rest.” She rubs her palm over her cheek. “God, I need an
espresso. This is why we are a wasted generation, Calvin. We are more educated,
intelligent, and better off than anyone in the past, yet all our potential will
be wasted in cubicles, making money for some dying old man.”

A dozen kids wait to hand a clumsy resume
to an overstressed HR coordinator for Cheerios. We angle our way around the
long line disrupting the aisle.

“Maybe that can change.” I slide through
two people. “Technology is going to automate most jobs, and surely there’s
enough money to provide a basic income. Maybe, in like, 30 years, we’ll only
work for what we want.”

She shrugs. “Calvin, the rich will
squeeze the blood from the poor like leeches. That’s the way it’s been since
biblical times.”

“I don’t know about that.”

Laura smirks. “Let’s say for
illustrative purposes that I am wrong. That is ridiculous. I am right. Nothing
changes.”

I pause as I squeeze through more crimes
against formal fashion. I brush into Laura’s shoulder. “Back in Waukegan, I
needed a job. So I applied to every store—Hot Topic, American Eagle, Best
Buy—got none of them. Those managers relished it when they turned me down. Seeing
a college grad apply to be their employee justified their decision to settle
for a high school diploma. I got a job in Whole Foods’ meat department. But
that didn’t pay enough, so I looked around for months, and got a full time job
at EconoLighting. You know how boring it was to field call after call from
moronic electricians trying to order lights? But I did get $15 an hour. And I
got to play around with my phone cord. It was the fun spiral kind. I got enough
to move to New York. I kept trying. I moved forward. Things change.”

She returns her signature shit-eating
grin. “And as you know, I just transferred to another Starbucks and was totally
fine. I get it, Calvin, you’re got this epic story of yourself, but you’re just
as mundane as everyone else.”

“Most people live within fifty miles
from where they were born,” I reply.

Laura groans as we’re separated again by
the panicky seas. “Let’s divide and conquer. Meet you outside in a bit.”

I nod, and we part ways. I survey the
displays as the crowd moves forward in stuttering paces. Most tables just
advertise the company, but not actual jobs. Barclay’s display discusses vague
things about Corporate Culture, accompanied by the office basketball team photo.
I don’t fancy just working for a corporation because it has a big name.

Just for the hell of it, I approach the
woman at the Pepsi table, who’s standing alone by herself. “Hi, so what sort of
jobs are you offering here?”

She wears a pixie cut, a nervous smile,
and a generic white sweater. She holds a clipboard against her stomach. “Well,
I’m Pat. What’s your major?”

“Calvin. I majored in English.”

Here face scrunches in reluctance.
“English? Well, I don’t have anything for an English major. You can maybe be a
truck driver and check on the displays in stores and make deliveries.”

I stare flatly at her.

She withers in the silence.

“Not interested, thanks.” I leave. She has
no idea how much she insulted me. I didn’t go to school to be a truck driver.

I walk to the conference hall’s fringes.
I watch the students’ nervous faces and the stoic expressions the HR people
offer in reply. A frustrated rugby player nearly pushes me into the wall. He
storms through the crowd, using his physicality to nudge aside anyone in his
way. Even still, he ends up stuck in a winding line behind the American Express
table. The gyre crawls through the hall, widening and tightening in between the
aisles.

I edge my way to the door.  I cross the street and collapse in a bench in
Washington Park along a path winding through the greenery. I toy with the my
tie’s tip.

Five minutes later, Laura collapses onto
the bench beside me. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life or when
I’m going to graduate and this whole ‘Career Fair’ thing is just rubbing it in.”

“I need drugs,” I reply.

“Let’s get McDonald’s.”

“Fuck yes.”

We both get McWraps.

McDonald’s
holds more nostalgia for me than any food. I always remembered that warm French
fry and McNugget scent coming from a greasy bag.

We
sit at a tiny plastic table with green and red seats. I down my wrap’s last
bite and start on the fries. Laura isn’t orderly in her eating like I am. She
has half the wrap eaten and half the fries consumed.

“Did
you read my short story yet?” I ask her.

“Yeah,
it was okay,” Laura replies. “I’ll send you a Word doc with all the comments
later tonight. I don’t know how I feel about it being present tense.”

“I’m
wobbling back and forth between that and past tense.”

“I
can tell. There are a few tense errors. I pointed them out.”

“Thanks.
I just feel like, the character is experiencing all of this right now, so it
needs to happen in the present tense. Past tense only works when you’re
narrator is coming from a future point.”

“And
if he was looking on it from the past, he definitely would be viewing the whole
situation in a different light. He might be blaming himself for leaving her alone.”

“Right.
The story would be a whole regret, about leaving his mom alone, and there would
have to be more foreshadowing. It would just be natural.”

“You
also get way too abstract in the scene where he describes finding the body.”

“I
was hoping to show how his mind couldn’t process it. He’s grasping for ways to
compare it to his established knowledge, but he can’t.”

“Don’t
do that. Go Hemingway. Be extremely stark and matter of fact. That way, it’ll
seem like he’s detaching himself from the event. The detachment will suggest
that he can’t process the emotions around it, so he only describes the feeling.
Remember, you’re not in your character’s subconscious. You’re in his conscious
mind, which, from what I can tell by his actions, means that he only focuses on
the facts of the situation.”

“You’re
right, I’ve been feeling like I need to rewrite that scene.” I twirl a pale
yellow fry in the blood red ketchup I’ve pooled on my napkin. “It’s good that
my instincts can start picking out my mistakes ahead of time. I guess that
means I’m getting better.”

Laura continues, though. “There was one
part I really didn’t like. You said ‘Mom’s alone tonight because Ryan’s out
driving an Amazon shipment up to Madison, but at least she has Macaroni to keep
her company,’ and you don’t really go into describing the situation. You just
act like the audience knows she’s divorced and has a pet French bulldog and a
boyfriend who drives truck.”

“Yes they will. When you say, Mom and
Ryan, people know that’s the situation, otherwise you’d say Mom and Dad. And
Macaroni is clearly a pet. It’s too weird a name to be anything else. And the
audience knows they’re not wealthy because Ryan is a trucker. It’s subtext,
Laura.”

“No one’s gonna understand it.”

“Just because you need to be spoon-fed
doesn’t mean everyone else does. I’ll assume my reader is intelligent, not
dumb.”

“That’s a bad assumption.”

“Well, you’re not a writer, so just let
me write.”

She scoffs at me, but eats a
ketchup-dappled fry instead of responding.

I feel the need to apologize. “I
appreciate the advice, though. I know you’re straight up with me. It’s why I
can’t really value anyone else’s opinion. I feel like they’d just compliment me
to avoid offending me, or skip over the flaws, thinking they’re not smart
enough to understand that section or something.”

“Then take my advice.”

“I’m taking your advice, just not all of
it. And if the section about Ryan and Mom is shit, you can tell me you told me
so.”
           “It’s shit. Do you want my
opinion or not?”
           “I want your opinion, but I’m
writing the story, not you. If you want to write the story, go write it
yourself.”

Laura locks eyes with me. She’s on the
verge of replying, but then, she grits her teeth. She looks down at a fry,
stabs it into the ketchup, and swallows it.

I take the 1
train one hundred blocks to one-hundred sixteenth street. I pass by a Duane
Reade on the way to my apartment. Generic cucumber music plays over the speakers.
I think it’s Sara Bareilles. I make things quick. I nab milk, bread, cheese
slices, and bologna.

I head through the liquor aisle towards
the coolers, looking for a soda. A tag catches my eye. Jägermeister is on sale
for only five bucks. I debate whether to get it or not. Really, I mean, it’s
the cost of two sodas, and I’m already planning to buy a soda, so if I just
don’t buy another tomorrow, I’ll equal the cost. I buy it and leave with a
paper bag.

The cashier rings me up for $15.91.  I do some quick math. 15 times 5 is 75, plus
$1 for a banana at Starbucks to get to use its Wi-fi every day, 106, and plus a
$113 monthly Metrocard is $219. 2,000 divided by 219 is about ten months. May,
June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February.
March 1st is D-Day. But by then I’ll have a job. Even if I’m making
sandwiches for middleclass white women in under five minutes at Panera Bread.

My apartment is a creaky building. The
lobby’s marble flooring is cracked. The elevator has an old black gate behind a
thick blue door. It’s mostly seniors and Columbia students here. I’m subletting
for an Indian grad student, Amey, who’s off interning for Facebook this summer.

I approach the apartment door, and the
closer I get, the stronger nasty Indian spices burn my nostrils. When I enter
the apartment, it’s almost overwhelming.

The apartment is a one bedroom. The
bedroom has two beds, each with a makeshift desk and dresser. I sleep in the
living room on a cot. Another roommate, Jai, sleeps in the cot across the room.
There’s no furnishings. My bulky suitcase is the only decoration. The walls are
dull white. The wood floor is dusty. I take out my groceries and grab two
bologna slices from their package. The rest I stack up. I’ve carved out a niche
in the fridge for myself, a small corner on the top shelf. Spoiled meat,
dripping juices, and crusty stains fill the rest of the fridge. I stuff the
bologna in the corner and shut the door, but the smell wafts into my face. I
tear off a paper towel to use as a plate. The plates in the sink are weeks
dirty and colored in yellows and oranges from Indian dishes. Fruitflies hover
around the sink. I open a tightly packed bread loaf and slide two slices out.

I pull my laptop out of my backpack and
sit on my cot’s edge. I start searching through jobs, moving my cursor with one
hand and holding my sandwich in the other. I think while I chew.

As the sun sets, my insect roommates appear.
I wasted an entire Raid can my first night here. The roaches sneak along the
ceiling and walls. I know they like to hide in the cupboards, so, with Raid
held tightly in my hand like a revolver, I snatch open the drawers and spray as
the roaches wildly try to crawl away. I’ve become quite good at exterminating
them. Maybe it’s the German in me.

I’m thirsty and sick of the metallic
tinge in the water from the kitchen faucet. I unscrew the Jägermeister bottle.
The drink tastes like a sharp mint—not at all what I was expecting. I take
another sip out of curiosity. I return to my nineteenth application of the day,
arduously filing out my contact info, work history, references, and phone
numbers, knowing full well they’ll be ignored. I don’t even have references. I
list my stepdad as a “mentor,” as well as a few of my friends as “former
coworkers.” I also throw in a few coworkers from my internships who honestly
might not even remember who I am. I type out a cover letter with help from a
little Jägermeister. I attack my resume. I hit some Jägermeister. I upload my
resume. I take a hit of Jäger.

I click “Send.” Instantly, I’m
overwhelmed with the feeling that I just sent my resume into space’s black
void, where it will float undisturbed for eons. I open a document called “List
of Applications.” I scroll down to the bottom.

296)               
Copywriter, GrubHub,
5/8/2014

297)               
Junior Copywriter,
Bloomingdales, 5/8/2014

298)               
Junior Copywriter,
DraftFCB, 5/8/2014

299)               
Junior Copywriter,
PartyEarth, 5/8/2014

300)               
Junior Copywriter,
Bloomingdale’s, 5/8/2014

301)               
Junior Copywriter,
Bloomingdale’s, 5/8/2014

302)               
Production Assistant,
R/GA, 5/8/2014

I
add #303, Account Executive, Sawyer Studios, to the list. May 18, 2014.

I take a hit of Jäger. I’m lightheaded,
and thoughts flow weightlessly through my mind. I sip on Jäger rhythmically as
I lay on my cot. I have no idea where my roommates are. They often disappear
for days. I close my eyes.  

I
had a small mental breakdown ten days ago, and I wasn’t able to look at an
application for a while. I got so discouraged that it swallowed me whole.

Originally,
I wanted to be a copywriter. And not because I’ve seen every season of Mad Men.
I’m a writer, and writing for a living would work for me. I think getting a
career is simple—you find a skill and you become elite at that. Whether it’s
plumbing or sales or writing, you find what you like, develop it, and become
exceptional at it. That’s how you get money.

Still,
breaking into copywriting is next to impossible. You need a dense portfolio to
get an internship at a major ad agency. At the very least, maybe I can get a
job that’s in advertising that’s not that stressful, like an account executive
or something, where you just talk with clients and leave at five. There has to
be a job out there that I’ll enjoy. I used to think I’d just have to buy my
time at a job and write in my breaks and afternoons, but now, I think I can
actually have something that makes me feel fulfilled.

I see the horde turning and turning
around the career fair. The confused, frantic expressions.

I open my eyes. I run my hand through my
hair. My forehead feels warm. I take Jäger. I sit up. I’ve only applied to 19
places today. One more. I search Indeed, weave my way through purple links
until I find a blue one. It’s a copywriter for Huge. I saw it posted a couple
weeks ago, and I applied to it. I guess they didn’t find anyone, so they’re
trying again. I click through.

Their career page begins with “Get paid
for giving a shit.” I give a shit. I have a plethora of shits to give.

I start filling out my cover letter
using the same old forced formal writing.

Dear
Huge,

I
am writing in regards to your copywriter posting. I believe that I have the
writing ability and marketing experience that makes me the ideal candidate.

As
you can see from my resume, I am a very experienced writer. I have written for
everything from a theater blog to an ad agency. Although I am still a recent
graduate, I have spent the last four years honing my craft in creative writing
classes and internships. My wide variety of experiences means that I can come
to Huge with a fresh perspective that an older copywriter will not have.

Copywriting
is my dream job, and I will work hard to become an asset to creative team at
Huge.

     Thank you for considering me.

     Sincerely,

I stop. I hold down the backspace button
until the whole thing disappears. I start again.

Dear
Huge,

I’m
writing again to apply for your copywriter position. I applied before, but I’m
doing it again. I shouldn’t be overlooked.

In
college, I barely qualified for financial aid, and I worked 40 hours a week. I
biked between class, internships, and work day after day (Even in the snow.
It’s worse in the Midwest). I can do this job. It’s just writing
advertisements. I’ve dealt with much heavier things in life.

I’ve
written every day of my life for the last four years. I’ll have a class taught
about my works in every university 500 years from now. I know that my writing
experience isn’t what you want on paper, but I know that I can be a great
copywriter. It takes hard work to master a craft, and I put in those hours
every day of my life. No one you have on staff writes as well as me or is as
strong a writer as I am. That is a fact. I’m developing early carpal tunnel
because I write so much by hand.

I
give a shit. I should get paid for that.

     Calvin Donoghue.

I stab the submit button. I feel clarity
wash over me. I toss away the empty Jägermeister bottle. I shower. The summer
heat dries me almost immediately. I decide to go to bed, but really, I just lie
there, my mind racing with thoughts. Finally, I can’t bear it, and I reopen my
laptop. I find the cover letter I sent to Huge and read it five times.

Reluctantly, I swivel to my side and
fall asleep.

I wake differently in the morning. I
swiftly pack up my notebook and laptop into my shoulder bag. I make another
meager sandwich. I wear my blood-red shirt, with my black hat, and
black-and-white-dotted tie. Black jeans match everything else. I step outside,
my Converse vigorously taking the sidewalk beneath them.

Laura meets me at Herald Square.
Broadway and 23rd and 4th cut together into an awkward
intersection beside Madison Square Park. The Wafels and Dinges cart takes over
a curb by the Flatiron building. We munch on chocolate-bathed Belgian waffles
with strawberries.

“You’re in a good mood.” Laura has
become eternally frazzled. I can’t tell if it’s from late nights or early
mornings at Starbucks.

“Yeah,” I reply with a mouthful of
waffle.

     We
head down Broadway. I want to ask her opinion of my Huge application, but it bubbles
up within me and doesn’t release. I know she’ll think it was idiotic. I just
don’t want to deal with the reality. Broadway opens to a short street before
reaching Union Square. We whip around the corner and into the four-story Barnes
and Noble, which, despite its size, seems to contain the same amount of books
as any Barnes and Noble.

“Don’t you feel weird in here?” Laura
asks as we pass by the new releases table, which is layered with books that
have minimalistic cover designs, following the latest design trend.

I reply, “It’s a little masochistic, but
seeing all these crap authors reminds me that I will be published, since I’m
better.” Of course, if I’m in the right mood, they discourage me rather than
encourage me.

Laura picks up Factotum from a table. She flips through the thick pages and smells
them. “I have so much nostalgia for Barnes and Noble. Even the smell. Remember
when Mom would drop us off here while she ran errands? We would take books off
the shelf and read them in the back because we thought it was stealing.”

“We were hardcore.”

“Downright gangsta.”

I sigh and just get it off my chest. “I
got drunk last night and sent an emotional breakdown of a cover letter to
Huge.”

Laura shrugs. “We’ve all been there,
don’t feel bad about it. You haven’t lived until you’ve sent a resume coated in
your own dried tears.”

I pluck On Writing off the table just so I have something to play with.
“Their HR motto was, ‘Get paid for giving a shit.’” I flip through the pages,
letting them swiftly run under my fingertips. “I give a shit. I give so many
shits I have diarrhea.”

Laura chuckles. She holds the Slaughterhouse Five’s edge and leans it
out from the shelf. “But they don’t want diarrhea. They want a ninja coder.”

“A rockstar designer.”

“A social media guru.” She releases the
book, and it plops back into the row. “Somebody wrote that with a straight
face. I can’t fathom the lack of soul it requires to do that.”

“But I’m proud I did it.” I say, “It was
me. It was desperate, awkward, painful, but it was me, and when HR reads that
letter, they’ll know I’m a real person.”

Laura shrugs. “They might even give you
advice on being a copywriter.”

“Exactly. I’m sick of business-speak
because it takes away who you are as a person and replaces you with this
faceless employee.”

“You’re not afraid it’ll embarrass you?”

“How?”

“That business-speak lands people jobs. Business
is built around turning humans into capital. By showing you’re a real, feeling
person, you probably won’t get it.”

“They’re not corporate. They definitely
want people, not androids.”

“I guess. I don’t really know. I work in
food service.”

“Corporate structures are changing. Look
at Facebook. They value their employees as people. It’s totally going to be a
thing now.”

Laura looks me in the eyes. “You’ll be
fine.”

I sigh. “I’ll believe that when I’m
dead, after living a fulfilling life.”

We head for the second floor. Laura
leans against the escalator’s side, holding the sliding railing. “A four year
degree and 50k in debt, and all I can get is a job as a barista.”

I stand on the step below her. “I’m
unemployed.”

“How much savings do you have left?”

“Enough to last until March. Then I’m
kaputt here and return to wonderful Illinois.”

“At least rent is cheap. Dave even said
we could stay at his new place.”

“But the boredom withers you away into
nothing.” We reach the second floor. It’s only pastel children’s books. We head
up the escalator to the third floor. I pass by Laura and stand on the step
above her. “I mean, there is always the money from the policy.”

Laura looks down at the YA shelf as it
disappears beneath us. “I don’t want to touch that money.”

“Her debt barely took a chunk out of it.
We even splurged on the ceremony and still have a lot left.”

She keeps staring at the white wall
below us. “Then have it all, Calvin.”

“I’m not going to use it unless I’m
really desperate. And I’ll get something, even if I have to work two jobs.”

She looks up at me. “Be prepared for it.
I am.”

I roll my eyes. “You haven’t even
graduated yet, and you’ve given up.”

“It’s
not like you’re a ringing endorsement for post-grad life. How many applications
is it now?”
“318. Not a single interview.”

“Yeah.”

We aimlessly wind through the nonfiction
aisles. My phone vibrates. A new email.

“Shit.” I stop. I sit down in a
windowsill.

Laura looks over her shoulder. “What?”

“Calvin, Thank you very much for your
interest and enthusiasm in Huge.  At this
time, we do not have an ideal role suited to your experience and skills.  Please check in with us from time to time as
our needs evolve.  We will keep you in
our records for future potential opportunities. We wish you the best of luck in
your job search and please feel free to apply again in the future. We’d love to
keep in touch, you can find us at: Twitter.com/hugeinc.
Facebook.com/huge.  
Linkedin.com/company/huge_1 .
Warm regards, The Huge Recruiting Team”

“What did you expect?”

“A human being.” I start reading over
the email again.

“Despite their legal status,
corporations aren’t humans.”

“I don’t think they even read my letter.
They probably put my resume into a filing program, saw that it didn’t have
enough keywords, and booted it out.”

“I’m sure someone read it.”

“And if they did, then they ignored me.
They couldn’t just help me out with a little job search advice?”

“Nobody cares, Calvin.”

“Maybe if I bomb their offices, they’ll
give me attention.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. They can’t hire
you if they don’t have an office. Send anthrax to the senior copywriter.
Assassinations create job openings, not terrorism.”

I tap my phone against my forehead and
groan. “Now I need liquor, and job applications blew my budget.”

“I’ll pay. But next time make sure to
budget for the pre- and post-application binges.”

We
move towards First Avenue, where we find a tiny corner liquor store on 15th
street. Laura buys me a small Jack Daniels flask. She purchases Jim Bean for
herself. Brown bags cover both bottles, expect for the cap. “The liquor nulls
the pain in my legs after a shift,” she adds. An old customer lingers, talking
to the old cashier behind the counter. Regulars always mill about these delis
and shops and bodegas.

Outside,
we turn down narrow 15th Street. Laura quickly glances around,
unscrews the cap on her bottle, and, clutching the brown bag tightly around the
bottle’s neck, leans back for a swift, but deep, swig.

It’s
a quiet street, for New York. There’s only five people on it. We pass by a
corner bar, then apartments, whose window lights are vivid in the night.

“I’m sorry I bitch a lot. It’s just that
I want things so badly.” I decide to join Laura in the no-fucks-given party and
unscrew my Jack Daniels. “Especially just getting published. It burns in me. Do
you, like, have a passion?”

“I have goals and a passion.” Laura
takes another sip before shuttling across the street.

I catch her as we hit the next block.
“What are they?”

“I don’t really want to tell you.”

“You can trust me.”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“But we’re twins.”

“So what?”

“We’re supposed to open up.”

Laura stops. She stuffs the brown bag
under her arm as she fishes out her lighter and Marlboros. She lights a
cigarette. She puts her lighter and cigarette box into her pocket. She holds
her brown bag against her chest. She takes a deep drag.

She stares at a faraway place.

I’m about to talk before she cuts me
off.

“I feel like my leg is cut off, and I’m
begging for death so that the pain and agony and bleeding can finally end.” She
falls back against the brick wall behind her. Her head cocks to her shoulder,
and she stares at her sneakers. “The whole world isn’t at our feet. It’s out of
our grasp.”

I shake my head. I know where she’s
going. “I can’t quit. I can’t entertain the thought. I’ve had to scratch and
claw for every shred of happiness in my life, and I’m becoming very good at
scratching and clawing.”

Laura looks up, her head still cocked to
the side.

I pace, burning off energetic
frustration. “I just want to end the struggle. I’d love to be mundane. I’d love
to be normal and have a wife, two daughters, and a big house in the suburbs.
Just live in financial and emotional security, never really having to struggle
for anything anymore.”

Laura traces her cigarette like a crayon
on the bricks. “I just want a peaceful oblivion.”

We walk in silence
back to Union Square. It gets busier. Now, there’s swarms on the sidewalk. A
homeless man prowls the curb. He chucks incoherent babble at passerby. He
throws his entire will into each scream, his body rippling as his voice gutters
out from his throat. “YOU. I SEE YOU KID. I SEE YOU. YOU DON’T WALK AWAY FROM
ME. YOU HAVE A RED SHIRT ON. YOU DON’T GET INTO ANY TROUBLE.” Laura and I join the
crowd in passing him without a glance.


Tommy Partl has been published in Illumination Magazine and The Pennsylvania Literary Journal. He also writes for A Place To Hang Your Cape and NY Theatre Guide.

image

Ron Burch

At the Red Lion, you lean away from me. It is getting close to closing time and we are all drunk here, given how we have entered a new day. You and I spoke for awhile over cool tall mugs of Spaten. We laughed at our lives and spoke of details and even added specifics for each other. You sit at the bar next to me and you seem to be content with my company. I bought you a beer, yes, but I buy one for anyone who spends the time to talk to me so I don’t have to go home to my empty apartment with the one room. But then you catch the time and I suddenly see the worry on your face.

You want to go home with someone. It’s clear as you scan the crowd. You want to go home with someone other than me. I understand. It wouldn’t be the first time. You are 12 years younger than me. Countries collapse in that time. A pet can grow and die. Your once new car stops running. I understand how big the difference is. Yet I cannot help for the conversation that we had – it was smooth and easy. It was natural and not forced full of awkward sentences, not prodded like a cow toward a ramp he didn’t want to take. I made you laugh. Many times. You wiped the tears from your eyes while I looked away to the bartender that I know too well, to the TV screens with the replays of today’s sports.

I will not push. If you choose to spend more time with me, I will take advantage of it and enjoy it. I will luxuriate in your attention because I find it so welcoming and warm. But you still glance around, trying to meet the eyes of that younger man there or that young one over there, better-looking men than me, I admit, but ones who are not returning your looks.

You want to go home with someone tonight, you need that, but you are afraid it will be me. If it is me, perhaps it means that you have lost or lost something or are losing the great fight against that which we really cannot stop. I understand. I lost that fight a few years ago but you get used to it. But fight on, fight on. It is a hard battle to win.

You stand up, unsteady from your wooden seat at the bar, the chipped, black-painted nails of your fingers grasping the bar edge for security, and another man steps to your side. He is young with a full beard and an earring in one ear that bends low beneath his curly brown hair. His tattoo is of fire and I wonder, for a brief second, if he is a firefighter, and I realize that you two do not know each other at all even though he takes you by your hand and leads you out and I know that because it was something I would have done 12 years ago but now I only turn back to the televisions and the reflecting mirror across the bar and the bartender whose name I know well, and, instead, I merely gesture for the check.


Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, Eleven Eleven, Pank, and he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Bliss Inc., his debut novel, was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. Please visit: www.ronburch.com.

– Robert Wexelblatt_

On the way back from the chapel I walked between Gregory Jankowski and Professor Prasad, a member of my thesis committee.  We just happened to fall in step with one another and didn’t say much.  It was just the second week of February but already the month felt endless.  The snow that looked festive in December had long ago outlasted its charm and, reinforced many times since, had turned gray and looked permanent.  The wind that day was hardly user-friendly either.  Even had we been less solemn and bundled up, it would have whisked our words away.  

As we reached the library, the diligent Jankowski raised his hand and turned right.  He’d been away from his carrel a whole hour and was probably suffering separation anxiety.

Professor Prasad and I stomped our feet in the lobby of Rheinach Hall, where he had his office and I had a class to teach at two o’clock.

“Hungry?” he asked suddenly.

“Well, yes.  A little.”

“Got time for a bite?”

“Sure.”

“Good.”

We headed back into the blustery cold and trekked to the Food Court.

The professor surveyed the colorful concessions.  “Panda Express for me,” he said.  “Not exactly the funeral baked meats.”

“Sounds good.”

As it always was at midday, the food court was mobbed.  We wandered about bearing our food and drink.  When some undergraduates dashed off to their one o’clocks we grabbed their booth and settled in.

“You didn’t know Professor Kalish, did you?”

“Only by reputation.”

“Then it was decent of you to come.  You didn’t have to.”

“It’s a very good reputation.”

“I miss him.  He was a remarkable man.”

“Even more than I knew, judging by the eulogies, especially Professor Freyvert’s.”

“That was the one that stood out, yes.”  Professor Prasad smiled and recited the five words on which Freyvert had organized his speech:  Rectitude, compassion, patience, wisdom, kindness.  

“One of the things he said intrigued me.”

“What was that?”

“Well, I’m sure Professor Kalish was a magnificent teacher—”

“He was.”

“Yes, but Professor Freyvert said he had a particular reason for knowing it.  He didn’t say what the reason was.  It sounded personal.”

The professor lay down his plastic chopsticks and briefly stared me.  It was disconcerting, as if he was trying to imagine what I’d look like in forty years.

“There is a story, isn’t there?” I said with the graduate student’s courtier-like nose for academic gossip.

The professor took a drink of his iced tea.  “Okay.  There’s no reason you shouldn’t hear it.  In fact, today’s the very day to tell it; it’ll be a sort of coda to the memorial service.  You can make up your own mind whether the story has a moral or not.”

The court was emptying out.  I checked my watch and saw that I still had a good forty minutes before I’d have to face the twenty-seven second-semester freshmen, all of whom had put off taking their required writing course and none of whom respected teaching assistants.  Moreover, they were certain that they’d mastered the art of writing prose, perhaps while composing their application essays.  I think they expected fanfares and exemptions once the faculty got a look at the brilliant papers they wrote first semester.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, I thought, and sat back to listen and learn.

“Most people fortunate enough to get tenure are pretty happy about it—for a few years, anyway.  I know I was,” said Professor Prasad, who usually seemed pretty happy.  “Not Louis Freyvert.  When he told me about that year he said he went off the rails. His mother died the very day he got word that his tenure was approved.  His marriage—the first one—was crumbling. What do they say—crashing and burning?  As if marriages were like airplanes or Zeppelins.  

“Professor Kalish was in his last year as department chairman.  He was the one who prepared Freyvert’s tenure case and nursed it along which, by the way, is like a second job. When the Provost balked, Kalish was the one who braved the Olympian heights of the Ad Building to argue for Freyvert.”

“Did Professor Freyvert know about that, the business with the Provost?”

“Not at the time.  Kalish would never have told him.  It was actually the Provost who told him when they ran into each other at a reception a couple years later.  He wanted Freyvert to know because provosts like to put faculty in their place which, of course, is well below a provost’s.”

“I see.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference if Kalish had told him.  Freyvert wasn’t grateful.  On the contrary, he resented that his fate depended on Kalish and people like him.  Old ones.  He was ambitious and, by his own admission, conceited. He hated being an assistant professor on probation and when he was promoted it went to his head.  That’s what he said to me about it, anyway; and, since it does him so little credit, I suppose it’s true.  In his opinion the senior faculty had too much power and their ideas were hidebound, outmoded.  He thought he ought to have a lot more power, of course, and that his ideas entirely à la mode.  Tenure, promotion, divorce, becoming an orphan—all this brought out the worst in him.  Unleashed my demons.  That’s how he put it to me.”

“He told you all this?”

“How else would I know?  He told me when I got tenure.  I think he made a point of it.  A cautionary tale and a confession.  He said everything went wrong with him that year.  He turned on his students and their evaluations were brutal.  His research stalled.  He didn’t write or publish anything.  Despite his getting tenure, the merit committee recommended only a token raise and Kalish approved it.  Quite properly, of course.  But that was apparently the last straw.  It galvanized Freyvert’s demons.”

“He was aware of them, the demons, even at the time?”

“I believe he was, in a way.  Perverse impulses can be irresistible even when you’re aware they’re perverse.  They can make a man—what can I call it?—deliberately wicked?  The worse it got the further in he plunged.  I think losing his wife and his mother robbed the man of all the joy he’d anticipated from getting tenure.  He felt victimized, cheated, underestimated.  His blocked work, the students’ criticisms, the humiliation of that merit review… it turned him vengeful and nasty.  Maybe paranoid, too.  And all these feelings he focused on Professor Kalish.”

“Yet it was Professor Kalish who saved him?  Amazing grace?”

Professor Prasad frowned.  “Not in the way you’re thinking.  Be patient.”

I looked at my watch.  “Ouf!  I’ve got a class in five minutes.”

“Can’t be late for class.  Better scoot.”

“Ah, the suspense!”

The professor laughed.  “It’s a precious commodity.  Playwrights sweat for it, crime novelists kill for it.  I’ve got a class of my own at three but I’ll be in my office at four, if you’re free.”

I was already on my feet.  “I’ll be there.”

“One thing,” he shouted after me.  “Do you know the legal definition of slander?”

“I think so.”

But of course that word “legal” made me doubt.  And so, after class, I went online and found a definition whose archaic language pleased me.  It made me think of Edward Coke and William Blackstone whom I’d never read but knew to be great figures in the law.  The words conjured up a scowling judge with big wigs and a Scottish accent.

SLANDER, torts. The defaming a man in his reputation by speaking or writing words which affect his life, office, or trade, or which tend to his loss of preferment in marriage or service, or in his inheritance, or which occasion any other particular damage. If slander be spoken of a peer, or other great man, it is called Scandalum Magnatum

    The want of integrity or capacity, whether mental or pecuniary, in the conduct of a profession, trade or business, in which the party is engaged, is actionable, as to accuse an attorney or artist of inability, inattention, or want of integrity; or a clergyman of being a drunkard is actionable. 

    Malice is essential to the support of an action for slanderous words… . Malice is in general to be presumed until the contrary be proved.

        John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary, 1856

Professor Prasad’s office was small but uncluttered.  There were full bookcases on two walls and a bulletin board with lots of post cards pinned to it, mostly souvenirs picked up in museum shops.  Next to the bulletin board hung a pair of small, faded pictures.  These were icons of the goddesses Tara and Shakti.  It took a few visits to his office before I got up the nerve to ask about them.  When I did Professor Prasad had picked up his Mont Blanc fountain pen and held up like a magic wand.  “My other link to tradition,” he joked.  

When I arrived at four o’clock, the professor was paging through an edition of Plato.  “I was looking up exactly what Socrates said to Meletus,” he said, “and then got interested.”

The Apology?”

“Right.  Socrates speaking for all of us.  But I needn’t have looked.  It isn’t the sort of advice you forget.”

He put down the book.  “So, how was your class?”

I shrugged.  It had gone about as usual, which is to say exceedingly slowly.

He leaned back.  “I once bumped into the poet laureate of the United States.  He’d just come from a running a workshop.  He looked so dejected I asked what was wrong and he said, ‘Trying to teach those kids to write poetry is like trying to teach penguins the theory of flight.’  It sounded like a line he’d used more than once.  You know, I couldn’t decide if I felt worse for him or for his students.”

I took his point.  Professor Prasad was himself the sort of teacher who inspired perfect attendance.

“Have a seat and I’ll finish that story.”

“I looked up the legal definition of slander,” I confessed.

“Good.  Slander’s what the story turns on.  It’s what Freyvert sank to.  He started a rumor among the junior faculty.  He may even have believed himself it for a while.  He told them Kalish had appropriated most of the merit money for himself and his senior cronies.  Junior faculty are never slow to see themselves as the exploited proletariat of the spirit, so they believed it.  They looked to Freyvert as their champion, their fifth column among the tenured because he was still one of them, their hero.  All this went to his head and he piled on more accusations.  Kalish played favorites among his students, flattered the President, Provost, and Dean to their faces and said horrid things about them behind their backs.”

“Everybody believed this?”

“Not all, but most did.  Kalish, as you said, enjoyed a very good reputation.  The colleagues who knew him best didn’t believe Freyvert.  At least they were skeptical.  But now that he was tenured and spreading bile they didn’t dare cross him.  You see?”

I did see.  I thought of what I’d read in Bouvier.  Malice to be presumed.

“Did Freyvert say any of this stuff in public.”

Prasad nodded, sadly.  “He brought up the merit money at come committee meeting.  Kalish wasn’t on the committee so he wasn’t there to deny anything.”

“But found out?”

“You know what it’s like.  Plenty of people to tell him.  Freyvert said he got scared but also that he didn’t care.  He went back and forth, I suppose.  The department was well, unsettled.  Some of the senior faculty said openly that it had been a mistake to tenure Freyvert, that now they were stuck forever with an unproductive and toxic colleague.”

“So Professor Kalish had to defend himself against both Freyvert’s lies and his colleagues’ questioning his judgment.”

“Kalish didn’t defend himself.  He didn’t say anything at all.”

“Really?”
“What he did was ask Freyvert to spare him half an hour, at his convenience and in his office, if he wished.  Freyvert could hardly refuse. When Freyvert told me about that meeting he went all red.  Or maybe I should say he lit up.”

“Lit up?”

“With shame and also, I think, humor.  So, they met.  Kalish told Freyvert right off that he’d heard he’d been telling untruths about him.  ‘But please consider,’ Kalish said with what Freyvert called ‘the most gentle irony,’ since these things aren’t the case you’re putting yourself at risk. So Kalish offered him a proposition.  Let me tell you about all the bad things I’ve said and done. Then when you inform people about them you’ll be on safe ground.  Nobody will be able to contradict you.”

I took this in slowly, like hot tea.  “Did Professor Kalish tell him about anything really bad?”

“I think he did.  Of course really bad’s subjective.  But it wasn’t a matter of praising himself by admitting to trivial faults.  Freyvert was clear about that.”

“Did he give you any examples?”

“Several.  Most of them I forget.  There was something about plagiarizing a source in a seminar paper he wrote for a graduate class.  He confessed to attending a conference in Montreal with a former graduate student.  A female.  He said he’d passed students who’d failed because of deaths in their families or divorces but also that he passed one obstreperous moron just so that he wouldn’t have him in class again.  He allowed that on one point Freyvert wasn’t altogether wrong.  He had called administrators parasites, but not behind their backs. He’d said it to the Provost.  I remember Freyvert laughed when he told me about it.”

“Kalish called the Provost a parasite?”

“The Provost we had back then liked to use the phrase ‘you people’ whenever some faculty member disagreed with him.  I like to imagine Kalish’s tone was like the one Socrates used with Meletus.  Anyway, he told the Provost it was a good thing that administrators had such high salaries and offices with high ceilings and lots of minions.  It made up for their knowing they were parasites.  Apparently Kalish put it to the Provost that if we had faculty and students but no administrators we’d still have a university.  It would be a messy place, like the first one in Bologna, but it would still be a university.  But if we had administrators and neither faculty nor students, we wouldn’t have one.  Hard to imagine the Provost was well pleased.  He really was like Meletus; the fellow had no sense of humor at all.”

“By any chance was this when Kalish argued with the Provost about Freyvert’s tenure case?”

“It was.  But of course he didn’t mention it to Freyvert.”

“And this conversation turned Professor Freyvert around?”

“Transformed him.  Shook his soul, he said.  Afterwards, he went around apologizing to everybody.  Abjectly.  Professor Kalish had to talk him out of resigning.  He told me that  nobody else could have.  So, you see, that encomium to Kalish and his teaching that Freyvert delivered this morning was as sincere as any eulogy you’ll ever likely hear.”

By then it was after five o’clock, and outside the window of Professor Prasad’s office the world was already dark.

Kirbee Veroneau

Henry
was ten years old, rambunctious and invincible. He had a vast imagination. He
loved to play make-believe games and explore all day long when he wasn’t at school. He loved stories, and
fairytales were his favorites; he loved reading about castles, dragons,
knights, and damsels in distress. He would often be found roaming around near
his home in Long Island, brandishing a stick that he would undoubtedly call his
sword and chasing a fierce dragon that would undoubtedly be his incredibly
gentle Golden Retriever, Max. On the bright, clear Saturday afternoon, Henry
ran through the forest near his home. His mother had made a crown of twigs and
leaves for him that he wore with such pride it could’ve been made of gold. His light blonde
hair shone brightly in the sun and his clear blue eyes bore the expression of
hunger. Hunger for adventure, that is. He tapped on the trees with his long
stick as he ran farther and farther, not paying attention to exactly where he
was going until he came across a beautiful cottage. Max was panting, loping
lazily far behind him. When Max finally caught up, Henry turned and looked at
his golden friend. He pivoted back to look at the cottage, which was decorated
with a huge garden, filled with flowers and vegetables. The house itself was a
pale yellow with white shutters, and Henry thought it looked like something in
one of his stories. An iron gate encircled it, and so naturally, Henry was
determined to climb it.

Neither
walls, nor gates, nor anything else could keep Henry out, as his mother had
learned with a resigned smile when he was merely six years old. She had barricaded
Henry’s birthday presents in
their basement, stacking as many things as she could find in front of the
presents so as to be sure Henry wouldn’t come across them while he was playing. Henry, of course, had
viewed this as an obstacle course and climbed through the multiple chairs,
tables, and various other junk items that had been in the basement until he got
to his presents. Unfortunately, he had knocked things down on his way through
and was unable to find a way out. His mother heard him shouting and when she
came running, she smiled to herself. “You silly boy,” she would always say.
Henry remembered it fondly. He loved when he outsmarted his mother, because she
was the smartest lady in the whole world. Henry smiled and knew he must climb
over that gate. Knights were adventurous after all, weren’t they? He was going
on an adventure.

And
so it was with some effort that Henry hauled himself over the gate, swung his
legs over the iron bars and let go, landing with a thump onto one of the flower
beds. He stood up, brushing the dirt off of himself and when he looked up, he
noticed a man standing there with a trowel in a gloved hand. He wondered if the
man had been standing there the whole time. Surely not, no one outsmarted
Henry, after all. Did they? The man looked old, with graying hair and
lots of wrinkles. His eyes were a deep blue and he found himself looking
anywhere but at them. Henry felt very uncomfortable standing before him, as if
he had done something very bad. He half expected his mother to come up behind
him and shake her head playfully saying, “You silly, silly boy.” But she did
not. He twisted his fingers together nervously and stared at his feet. He
turned his head and looked at Max who was whimpering behind the gate. His
cowardly dragon. The man cleared his throat and Henry snapped his attention
back to him. The man then said, “You’ve ruined my flowers.” He did not seem angry; it appeared to be
more of an observation, like it’s raining or today would be a nice day for a picnic.

Henry
stared back down at his toes and said in a small voice, “I’m sorry.” There were many things his
mother could say, but she could never call him impolite.

“What
are we going to do about this, then, hm?” The man said in the same nonchalant
tone. Henry shrugged. Then the man said, “How about this? I have a hobby of
painting, so if you let me paint you, I’ll call it even, and you can run along home. I haven’t had a person to paint in years now. You’d be doing me a favor. I’m a lonely man.”

Henry nodded, sneaking a glance up at
the man’s face. He met his
gaze with those piercing blue eyes and Henry was forced to look away.

“What’s your name then, son?”

“I’m Henry.”

“Henry,
that’s a nice, strong name.
Yes, I think you’ll do just
fine. I’m Mr. Calhoun.” There was a pause that
seemed to go on for hours before Mr. Calhoun added, “Here, why don’t you follow me inside and we’ll get started. It’ll
just take an hour or two.” The old man placed a very firm hand on Henry’s
shoulder, steering him inside the house and closing the door carefully behind
him. Henry remembered his mother saying something about not trusting strangers,
but surely that only applied to normal boys. Henry was a knight; he could
defend himself if need be. A small voice in the back of his head told him to
run but Henry pushed it away; he would not be rude. Knights weren’t rude. “Chivalry is dead,” his
mother would say sometimes at the end of a particularly bad day after she’d had sip or two from her Grown-Up
Cup. Not with Henry, no sir. Chivalry was very much alive.

Inside,
the house was very bright. Sunlight poured in from all over, yet even in the
warmth, Henry found that he had goosebumps. Paintings were hung up all over the
walls, containing vast landscapes and towering buildings. Henry gaped at the
skill of the man. He wished he was good at something. “Everyone has talents,”
his mother would tell him, “but not everyone knows what they are right away.”
The more he thought on it, the more he missed her. He wanted her to cradle him
in her arms and read him a story. Max would lay at their feet and Henry would
say, “You are my best friends,” as he ran his fingers through Max’s thick coat, tightly nestled in his
mother’s arms. His mother
would smile sadly at this, for reasons he did not understand. He would kiss her
on the cheek and she would hug him tightly. Sometimes, she would cry and hug
him so tightly that he almost couldn’t breathe. Right now, he wanted to cry and hug her so tightly that she
couldn’t breathe.

Henry
didn’t know why, but he
wanted to leave this place. Mr. Calhoun opened the basement door with a slight
creak and Henry looked toward him.

“Come
on, son, the materials are down here,” Mr. Calhoun said and began to descend
the stairs. Henry followed cautiously and as soon as he was all the way down,
he saw the dozens of paintings hung all over the walls, just like upstairs.
These were of people, children mostly. As Henry looked up at them, examining
the incredible detail, they seemed almost too real. The boy he was looking at in the painting had light
blonde hair like him and was sitting just outside of the cottage. A breeze
appeared to be blowing through one of the trees, and Henry noticed that the boy’s hair seemed to almost blow in
the wind. “This way, Henry,” Mr. Calhoun said, before Henry had time to explain
what he had seen. He saw that Mr. Calhoun was holding an easel, brushes and
some paint. His lips were drawn in such a smile that Henry was reminded of a
crocodile. He turned and followed the man into the center of the room. There
was a stool placed there, and Mr. Calhoun motioned for him to sit down. Mr.
Calhoun sat down across from him, preparing himself to paint.

“Turn
your head a bit to the side there Henry, yes that’s it,” he said. Henry had turned his head,
and he could see the children now, staring back at him through the paintings.
He felt very unnerved. They appeared distraught, their eyes wide and their
mouths turned down in frowns. Some even looked like they were screaming. He
glanced back at the blonde boy he had been studying before and was surprised to
see that the boy had moved. Now, his slight smile was turned down in a
look of disgust. He was standing, and his face seemed to take up almost all of
the frame. It almost reminded him of one of his stories.

Henry
blanched and exclaimed, “That boy…he moved!” He turned his head back to look at Mr. Calhoun.

The
old man looked angry for only a second before his features smoothed back over. “You have quite the
imagination, Henry. Come, why don’t
we go outside?  The lighting will be much
better, don’t you think?”

“Okay.”
Henry stood up and was almost to the stairs when Mr. Calhoun called him back.

“Henry?
Can you grab that stool and bring it upstairs?” Henry nodded and doubled back
to pick up the stool. He grabbed it, hoisting it up and ascending the stairs.
He could hear Max barking from outside, a loud howling sound. Max never barked
like that, maybe something was wrong; maybe he should go check on him. Just as
Henry was about to go out the front door to check on Max, Mr. Calhoun looked
down at him and smiled that crocodile smile again. Then he said, “Henry, go out
through that door there,” he pointed at the back door, “I think we’ll go out onto the patio in the
back yard. I’ll be right
there, I just want to grab a glass of lemonade. Would you like some?” Henry
shook his head and quietly replied, “No, thank you.” His mother had taught him
never to accept food or drink from strangers. What if Mr. Calhoun was an evil
wizard, trying to fatten him up so he could eat him like in Hansel and
Gretel
? Instead, he walked to the back door, opened it, and went outside.
He could still hear Max barking when he sat the stool down on the patio. After
what seemed like a long tim, Mr. Calhoun reemerged, and Henry noticed that Max
was no longer barking. Mr. Calhoun wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, and
Henry noticed that he had no lemonade in his hand. His mother always told him
how observant he was, how smart he was. It made him feel like a detective when
he noticed things that others didn’t,
which was quite often as it just so happened. But today he was not a detective;
today he was a knight. Even so, his stomach tightened, and he felt very nervous
again. Mr. Calhoun set up his easel and mixed his acrylic paint together,
creating some very vivid colors.

“To
the side again, that’s it.”
Mr. Calhoun said as Henry turned his head to the side once more.

“Mr. Calhoun?”

“Hm?”
Mr. Calhoun said, his eyes on his paint.

“Where’s Max?”

Mr. Calhoun licked his lips and stopped
mixing his paint for a moment before he looked
up at Henry again, “Max?”

“My
dragon. Well, only he’s not
really a dragon. He’s my dog,
Max. Mom always laughs and says he’s a cowardly dragon, but he’s not.”

Mr.
Calhoun smiled, only it didn’t
quite reach his eyes. “Oh, Max. Maybe he went home.”

Henry pondered this. Max had never left
him before, never gone home without him. Cowardly as he might be, he was the
most loyal dragon — dog — in
the whole world. Henry said nothing for a while until he asked, “Where is your
lemonade?”

“My
— oh — I drank it inside. Why, would you like some?”

Henry
shook his head again and then, remembering his manners, said, “No, thank you.”

“You’re a very well-mannered young man,
aren’t you?”

Henry
nodded, “Yes, my mother taught me all my manners so I can have  chivalry.”

“Oh
yeah? Chivalry, is it? And where’s
your mother now?”  

Henry
shrugged, “Home, I guess.”

Mr. Calhoun nodded, his mind on his
work, and the subject dropped. Henry looked out over the yard and saw the wind
rustling through the trees. This reminded him of the boy in the painting and he
asked, “Mr. Calhoun?”

Weary
of questions, the man replied, “Hm?”

“Why
did those children in the paintings move? I saw them.”

Mr. Calhoun stopped and raised his eyes
to meet Henry’s. He had a
hungry look in those piercing blue eyes that the boy had not seen before and in
response all he said was, “Make sure you hold very still, now. You’re going to make a lovely addition
to my — ah — collection.”

Laura Ortega

I’m sitting in one of
the classes inside the English department building on the south campus of NYU.
It’s late morning, but that doesn’t prevent many stifled yawns. Most are
slumped and generally unkempt, including me, but attentive in that
pseudo-intellectual, undergraduate way. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage
tuition this semester, much less stomach the antics of frat boys and sorority
princesses. The smell of draft beer still stems from the pores of the guy
sitting next to me.

British poetry, and
we’re in the latter end of the semester. The professor wants to create a
graduate aura, so we are sitting on desks arranged in semi-circle. “We are all
scholars and equals,” and that sort of nonsense. Each has a stack of books
piled on our desk, the “Used” stickers, in various colors, sizes, and
conditions, boldly face their consumers as a symbol of subculture. Our graying,
still hot professor is propped on top of his desk, facing the class. He strokes
his chin in thought like a parody of his profession. Looking at each of us in
turn, he drums his fingers against the open page of Keats: Collected Poems
and Letters
.

“Why do you think Keats
wrote women as agents of destruction?”

The class avoids making
eye contact with him. Many delve back into the text in search of a witty
response.

Professor Abel prompts
further.

“Take into
consideration the last assigned poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, for
instance. Look at the way she seduced the knight, then rendered him a ghost.”

Blake, the
quintessential quiet kid in the corner, musters up the courage.

“Well, I’m not sure,
but—“

“Don’t qualify your
answer, Blake, just give it.” Abel is anything but coddling.

Blake exhales
nervously, visibly regretting his self-imposed martyrdom.

“I think Fanny Brawne
made him that way.”

The class reacts with
ill-concealed dissent. The girl across from me visibly rolls her eyes and
scoffs. But Abel seems interested.

“I see. So you think
Fanny Brawne was to blame for Keats’s misogynistic tendencies?”

Blake scrambles to
re-direct his inadequacy.

“Not directly, no. And
certainly not intentionally. I just think that—maybe—Keats couldn’t handle his
feelings for her. You know, sleeping in the next room and not being able to
touch her. It must’ve been unbelievably frustrating.”

Some students lean back
to consider this.

At the penultimate word
his gaze shifts momentarily to Cam, sitting next to him, and then back to his
laptop screen.

Cam was short for
Cameron. She was the prototypical college boy’s wet dream. Thick strawberry
blond hair that cascaded in artful waves against her chest. Actually enjoyed Monday
night football and quipped with the best of them who the next draft pick should
be. Snorted white lines like a genuine cocaine cowgirl. In short, a girl that
practically patented the effortless cool.

Cam bites her lip as
she looks at Blake. He sees her and swallows hard. Then she looks at Abel with
a smirk plastered to her face.

“Personally, I think he
was tripping off all that laudanum.”

Class laughs on cue.

Abel betrays a smile
while shaking his head.

“Alright, alright. Ever
since Mark and Courtney gave that presentation on Keats’s unfortunate affair
with opiate derivatives, the general consensus has been that he wrote
everything on a bad trip.”

Several in the class
guffaw.

Mark quips, “You got
that right,” then directs his response to Abel.

“Well, doc, it does
explain a lot. C’mon. Ode on Indolence? It’s like reading a
junkie’s journal. If they were awake long enough to write, that is.”

Again the class erupts
into gratuitous laughter. What a mindless herd, I think. Meanwhile
I am writing feverishly in my notebook, transcribing some lines from the ode by
memory, whispering as I write: “how is it shadows, that I knew ye not? How
came ye muffled in so hush a masque?…benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and
less…” 
It’s always been a strange habit with me—whispering to myself.
I’m startled out of my audible transcriptions when Abel calls on me.

“And you, Margot? What
are your thoughts?”

He raises an eyebrow,
expressly looking in the direction of my notebook. I stifle a gasp and try to
wet the inside of my mouth but my tongue is suddenly parched. Stupidly, I look
to both directions for an escape route, or maybe as a silent plea for someone
to jump to my rescue. No such luck. I purse my lips and look down at my
writing, which doesn’t help at all.

“I—uh, think whatever
Keats had inside of him was more powerful than any drug.”

Bullshit, but the class
sobers. Though some roll their eyes. Just then, Abel gets a phone call. He
looks briefly at his phone, fully intending to ignore it, but a wave of fearful
recognition passes over his features and he pales.

“Sorry everyone. I’ve,
uh, really got to take this.”

He goes outside to take
the call. The door latch is broken and allows to overhear his conversation, but
no one is interested. Something compels me to listen in, but the whispering
between Mark and Cam forecloses any possibility of eavesdropping on Abel.

“So, you going
tonight?” says Mark.

“Depends.”

Mark presses.

“On?”

Cam whispers something
muffled in Mark’s ear. As soon as she is finished, Mark abruptly leans away
from her, voice rising.

“Oh, no. Not that. You
said we wouldn’t have to anymore.”

Some ears, including
mine, perk up like Meer cats.

“Keep your goddamn
voice down!” Cam hisses.

Mark looks at her in
consternation. Cam looks to her sides, but everyone is back in discussion about
the odes and acid trips. Everyone except me, who is ostensibly trying to bore a
hole in the middle of my desk. She returns to meet Mark’s gaze and furrows her
eyebrows. She takes the notebook off his desk and I’m able to glean her large,
slanted, hurried letters: “It won’t be someone you know this time.” She passes
it to Mark. Mark reads and studies her. She rolls her eyes, takes back the
notebook, and adds: “Promise.” Mark chews at his bottom lip. Cam narrows her
eyes, frustrated with his hesitation. In her large, confident penmanship, she
adds: “You’re acting like someone who has a choice.” Mark looks up at her in
undisguised dread and she just arches her eyebrows. Finally, looking down at
his desk, he nods. The chatter from the class, previously reduced to the
background, presently seems to rise.

The guy a few desks
down nods eagerly.

“Mine’s was a bad trip.
I thought the piss on the floors of the club restroom was sodium hydroxide.
It’s like it had a mind of its own, coming to melt my flesh. I ran out of there
so fast I didn’t even have time to zip up my pants.” He chuckled. “My boys
thought I had gotten some.”

The girl next to him
looked confused.

“What the hell is
sodium hydroxide? An acid or something?”

“Actually it’s a base.
Saw it on a show once. Mix it up with some water and throw it on a corpse. In a
few minutes, all you’ll have is something resembling horseshit, and smelling
worse. Totally unidentifiable.”

Something compels me to
look at Cam at that moment. My intuition is rewarded.

She raises an eyebrow
at Mark, evidently interested. He looks back at her uneasily. My mind started
to unravel the knots of possibility that brief exchange just tied. What was she
involved in? Whatever it was, it was enough to emasculate Mark’s frat boy
pretenses, so it must’ve been heavy. I needed some air. I ripped out and
crumpled a page from my notebook and shuffled out of my seat. As I do, I get
that prescient feeling that someone’s gaze is on me. I look back quickly, and
see it’s Cam. Only she doesn’t turn away as most people would, she merely
smirks at my discovery. My face burns as I find my way back to my desk.

Abel re-enters the
class, looking at his watch.

“All right, everyone,
it’s that time. I know you’re devastated,” he adds in mock regret. “Make sure
you finish the Odes and a reflection paper on one of your choosing by next
class.”

The class files out.
Some hang back for predictable extracurricular planning. As I debate whether I
should ask Abel a nagging question about one of the Odes, everyone has shuffled
out and I decide to leave it for an email. Emails are my preferred method of
contact with people that are much smarter than me; it makes me feel less inadequate
since I can deliberate on my diction for a quarter of an hour before hitting
send. As the door closes behind me I realize that I’m actually the second last
to go. Cam is still in there. For once, I sing praises to the University
Commission that opts for board member kickbacks instead of fixing the
facilities. I squint to see through the sliver in the door frame.

Cam bends over to pick
up something that she probably knocked over in the first place. The neckline on
her airy tank is, of course, low enough to reveal her snug fitting pink bra.
She purrs in faux innocuousness.

“How long do you want
that paper, again?”

Abel is making himself
busy with the papers sticking out of his tattered books, but the bra was not
lost on him.

“As long as an
effective argument calls for.”

Cam turns up the smug
factor as only she can.

“Well, you know how
pithy I can be—”

Abel seems amused but
wary. “Go on! Don’t show up with a paragraph or I’ll drop you from the course.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Cam
says, grinning. As she squeezes past the desk where Abel is standing, she
intentionally brushes her breasts along his back.

“Oops. ‘Scuse me.”

Cam is the kind of
predator you can’t help but watch, enraptured. Abel goes rigid but says
nothing. The last thing I see as Cam walks in my direction is Abel furrowing
his eyebrows and smoothing his paisley tie in an effort to recompose himself. I
turn the corner just as Cam pushes the door open and slinks out in her glorious
“fuck-me” stride. I am still reeling with my bewilderment when she stops
abruptly, about fifty paces from me, and turns in my direction. She looks
directly at me, but I cannot read her usually transparent expression. I am
rooted to the spot. She walks toward me in an uncharacteristically neutral
gait. Standing in front of me now, she studies my features at leisure.

“Listen, I was
wondering – do you have something in mind for the group project on Keats? Like,
are you working with someone yet?”

There is detectable
condescension in the tone of this last question, which is meant more as a
formality than anything else. I bristle a bit.

“No, but I was thinking
I would just ask him if it’s okay to work alone. It tends to be better for
everyone that way.”

Cam waves off the
rejection like a winged pestilence.

“Oh c’mon! I never see
you talking to anyone. It’d be good for you. Plus, I haven’t read so much as a
sonnet all semester.”

“Keats didn’t write
sonnets.”

“You’re missing the
point, Margot. The point is, we can help each other out.”

I consider a
not-so-subtle reply, like walking away, but then I remember her earlier
conversation with Mark.

“Fine. Where and when?”

“Coffee shop on the
south side of campus. Noon tomorrow.”

I nod and turn to go.
Her voice stops me again.

“By the way, me and
Mark…we’re heading over to Clap tonight…you know, the place in Williamsburg…”

She spoke slowly,
making sure I’d get all the details. Had she noticed me reading their notes?

“Can you can make it?”

The more dignified part
of me that wants to say no, fails miserably.

“Sure.”

As soon as I give in to
her, she disengages.

“See you tonight. Say
my name at the door,” she adds, already halfway down the hall. She disappears
behind a corner and all at once, I hear the gaggling of people all around me.
Had they been there this whole time?

***

I’m mildly dolled-up,
at the club in Williamsburg. I’ve gotten past the bouncers and I spot Cam.
She’s wearing a silver sequin top, cropped right below the bust, along with
tight black jeans. Just like after class, she somehow catches me looking at her
and turns to face me. She waves me over with her erotically charged smile.
Anything but reassuring, it feels like she’s going to eat you alive. The music
is pounding, a combination of indie punk and techno. Wall to wall–it’s crammed.
I have to squeeze through a series of gaping guys and girls who reluctantly
move aside for me. The club has a kind of Shoreditch hipster vibe to it, where
everyone exhibits the kind of modern sprezzatura that allows
you to wear a $40 skinny tie and still appear indifferent. Treading leisurely
down the dim hallway like she’s in her house, Cam indicates a space for me
right by Mark. He looks at me and smiles in a way he’s never done before. Must
be the alcohol. Cam stops by some people lounging on the adjacent couch with a
few bottles of gin on ice in the center table. A couple of them are smoking
menthols and have a sleepy disposition towards everything. Two newbies are
looking antsy, watching the writhing crowd below spilling drinks while
attempting to dance. They are both wearing, with only the slightest variation,
The Bandage Black Dress—the one so short and stretchy it hardly allows one to
dance but gets the right kind of male attention, which, in their cases, clearly
takes precedence over comfort. Their heels, in keeping with their dresses, can
best be described as impossible. Cam smiles wanly at the sight of them as she
sits down between them. They are surprised by this intrusion, but Mark quickly
introduces them.

“Girls, this is Cam.
She tends to pop in out of nowhere.”

As he says so, he gives
Cam a knowing smile and a wink before returning to his drink and
self-deference. He ostensibly leaves their names out of the introduction. The
girls are now smiling up at Cam, not even noticing the omission.

“You girls smell great,
like vodka and bubble gum. What are you wearing?”

Girl One seems all too
eager in what is apparently her area of expertise.

“Something by Vera
Wang. “Princess,” I think it is?”

A look passes between
Cam and me, and just like that, we’re confidants—at least for the time being.
Cam sidles over to me and whispers in my ear, “Figures.” Her warm breath makes
my follicles stand in alert. How can she do that? Then, returning her attention
to the girls with faux delight, she says, “You wanna dance?” Girl One nods
maniacally and Girl Two exclaims, “Oh-my-God, we’ve been dying to get out
there!”

Cam rises indolently,
grabbing my hand as she does so. The girls are already teetering down the steps
like drunken flamingos. The four of us enter the fray of thrashing bodies,
dodging bouncing behinds and flailing arms to find an adequate space.

Cam starts dancing with
the girls to some fast rhythm, gyrating and pumping, sandwiched in between
them, when a well-dressed young man approaches. Just as he does, the song
transitions to a slower beat. His hair is closely cropped and light brown eyes
twinkle in sharp contrast to his dark olive skin. His friends are already there
to take care of the two girls, and me, though I less-than-politely decline. He
asks Cam with his eyes, and encircles her waist. She makes her body pliable to
his as they start dancing. I remain close and listen in.

“I hate to go for the
obvious, but what’s your name?”

He means to purr in her
ear, but with the music so loud it’s more like a scream.

“Isabella,” Cam lies
smoothly.

“Don’t you want to know
mine?”

Cam laughs blithely.
“Sure. Why not?”

He seems to enjoy her
irreverence. “Arihant.”

Cam looks genuinely
interested, for once. “Is that Hindi? What does it mean?”

Arihant matches her
earlier laughter. “Now look who’s predictable?”

Cam playfully narrows
her eyes at him.

Arihant smiles and
presses her closer. “One who has killed his enemies.”

Cam raises her
eyebrows. Then, catching me off guard once again, she leans over and whispers,
“We’ll see,” to me as if I’d been part of the conversation all along. What was
she playing at? How did I turn into her unlikely ally?

“Did you say
something?” Arihant asks her.

Cam smiles
reassuringly. “No, nothing.”

She looks over to the
two girls and sees they are in consensually binding positions similar to her
own. Smiling again, she glances at her friends on the couch and catches Mark’s
eye. He has been looking at her the entire time. She gives him an almost
imperceptible nod, which he returns. He doesn’t seem to notice that I am privy
to the whole exchange, or else doesn’t care. Taking a small baggy from his
pocket, he slips it into one of the mixed drinks on the table. The powder turns
the liquid a blackberry red for a few seconds, before returning to its original
color. The song starts coming to a close. Cam grabs Arihant’s face and slowly
kisses him, just enough to leave prospects dangling. As the kiss progresses,
slowly, the last third of “Tricksy” by Lark is amplified.

“Come. Have a drink
with us.” She includes me in this proposition by tenderly tucking a loose
strand of hair behind my ear. Arihant looks at both of us appreciatively and
nods his assent. She leads us by the hand to the table where Mark is. When she
arrives, she ducks down and whispers into Mark’s ear.

“I’m Isabella tonight.
We got ourselves a live one.”

Mark laughs.

Immediately I notice
the change in Mark as he introduces himself to Arihant. He is playing the
colorfully gay friend.

“You two were quite the
item on the dance floor.” He stops to cross his legs and then remembers
something. “Oh my God, I just had this brought out, (indicating a drink) but as
you can see, I’m already done for!” He laughs and slaps Cam’s thigh for
emphasis. “Ahh-ree-hant,” he over-stresses every syllable, “Do me the honor.
You do like G&T’s, don’t you?”

“Not my first choice,
but a close second. Thanks.”

Arihant takes the drink
and raises it in cheers, taking a generous gulp. Cam and Mark smile at one
another knowingly, then Cam includes me in their web with a long-lashed wink.

She knew I
couldn’t—didn’t want to—stop her.

Before long, Arihant
was slurring every other word and nodding off. Cam nodded at me and Mark, and
stood. Mark flanked Arihant at his right, propping him up under his arm. I
followed suit on the left side. We follow Cam to a private room behind the red
floodlit bar. To everyone, it must appear like we’re graciously helping our
debauched friend. The room is lined with royal purple velvet from top to
bottom, accented with brushed gold baseboards and crown molding. Mark and I
deposit Arihant on a single armchair with leather pincushions resembling
Morpheus’s from The Matrix. From the shadows, a group of five men
in tailored suits emerge. They approach Arihant, who by now is catatonic and
slumped over the armrest. One man, the eldest, nods at Cam and hands her a
briefcase. She returns the gesture and the men carry Arihant out of the room,
leaving the three of us alone.

“Cam, what are they
going to do—“ I begin.

She shushes me gently,
placing her forefinger on my lip. She opens the briefcase, and I quickly
estimate about twenty stacks of crisp Euros inside. I recognize the image of
the Baroque arches on each note; one hundred.

I stifle a gasp, but my
breathing quickens at the sight.

Cam grabs four stacks
and hands them over to Mark. He takes them, stuffs them inside his blazer, and
gives her a quick kiss on the mouth before taking off. Cam says nothing and
divides another four stacks from the lot.

“Cam—“ I start again.

Before I know it, she
stuffs her hand, along with the money, down the front of my jeans. She pushes
me to the wall and I feel the soft velvet against my neck and the pressure of
the money on my lower abdomen. Her thumb latches onto my panties and stretches
them up, making it unbearable. Her lips graze against mine as she speaks.

“Are you in, or out?”

She continues to stroke
her thumb against me, waiting.

“In,” I whisper,
closing my eyes.

Fall tuition: Check.

– Michael Aronovitz

I got in trouble at
school. I cut French class and went to hang out in the bathroom on the second
floor in the lower atrium by the cafeteria. My friend Wally Finnigan was there
by the sinks smoking an E-Cig. When I’d come through the door he’d straightened
and folded his arms, turning the cigarette up into his palm. The “cool look”
made you look stiff and uncool, but he was a sophomore.

“You scared me shit,” he
said.

“Don’t burn yourself.”

“Won’t, no worries.” He
took another drag, his prop-hand back on the rim of the sink area, his butt up
against it as well. Behind him, the depression in the chipped porcelain up by
the faucet had water build-up with soap residue floating the skin like an oil
slick. One sink away someone had jammed paper towels in the drain and left a
scum-pond, and the sink to my right was speckled on one side with curly hairs
that looked pubic. Made me think for a sec about why I was noticing this stuff
and wonder why I was noticing my noticing and all that.  Maybe I was O.D.D. or something.

“You going to take Patty
Marsh to the Spring Formal?” I said.

“Naw.  Ginny Finster.”

My eyebrows peaked up.

“Ginny Finster?  The junior with the pink-tipped bangs and
fuck-me hips?”

He winked, but it was
because he always did that while inhaling.

“The one and the same.”

“She’s good looking,
bro.”

“Yup.”

“You’re kicking past your
coverage,” I said, but he didn’t respond. Thinking about it, when we played
video games on X-Box they were always war related, like Call of Duty – Black Ops 3. I didn’t even know if he watched sports
come to think of it, let alone if he played them.  I’d met him a month or so ago at lunch. He’d
had on a funny black hat that looked like he’d borrowed it from some dude named
Pierre, painting out in the mountains of France or whatever. That took balls.

“Is she sweet or stupid?”
I said.

“Mysterious.”

“You got wheels?  You gonna do her?”

He looked at me.

“She plays clarinet.”

In a crazy way that
defined things.

The door came open with a bang making us jump because
the steel door handle smacked against the block wall by the yellow industrial
trash can. It was Mr. Tulley, the campus aid.
He had a bent over, crooked look to him, he walked bow legged. He had
thinning silver hair and a round baggy face, one of those older guys who
couldn’t admit he didn’t look quite natural in jeans anymore.

“Gimme that,” he said, grabbing Wally’s cig. He paused
to get all deep and look at it like a chemistry professor staring at a beaker. Then
he palmed it meaningfully. “Still warm,” he said. He licked his lips. Wally looked
down at the floor. I felt bad for him. That was a Vuse. He’d gotten it at the
Funky Monkey, not some gas station.

“You’re coming with me,” he said, grabbing Wally’s arm.
You could tell Wally wanted to yank it away, but he didn’t. “You too,” Tulley
said, jerking his forehead my way.

“Why?”

“You’re in this.”

“How?” I put my thumbs under the straps of my backpack
and switched my casual stance from the weight on the left with the right toe
pointed out to the other way around. He blinked and his cheek twitched.

“You’re cutting class.”

“Am not.”

“Where’s your pass?” He
was still holding onto Wally’s arm like a toddler at the zoo.

“You’re kidding, right?”
I said. “I don’t need written permission to take a squirt, yo.”

He moved his mouth a
second and nothing came out. It wasn’t as easy to grab me around, because I was
a senior. There were unwritten rules. I was eighteen and I was bigger than
Wally. It was late April. I was ready for my senior project where I was going
to student teach 4th graders in my mother’s district where she ran
special ed.

“Come with me or it’s
your ass,” he said.  His face had gone a
funny shade of red.  He’d picked a hill
to die on.

#

When Dad got home I was
sitting on the couch button-mashing on my tablet, making Deathstroke beat the
living shit out of Spiderman. Ma was knitting with her glasses on the end of
her nose, lips pursed and sour.

“Hey,” Dad said.

“Hey,” I said. I turned
the tablet up sideways and was tapping so hard my tongue was poked out the side
of my mouth.

“Are the soda cans still
scattered up in your room?” he said.

“Yup.”

“How about the paper
trash?”

“Same.”

“Bed made?”

“Naw.”

He walked past to the
kitchen to get a beer.

“I’m glad we had this
discussion,” he said over his shoulder.

“He got written up by
Bagley,” Ma said.

Dad was back in the
archway quicker than I anticipated he would be. A Heineken was in his hand even
though he preferred his Sam Adams. They’d been out at the drive through
distributor yesterday and he’d gone with his second choice, his stand by, but
they’d changed the recipe. Piss-water he’d said. I didn’t drink, but I knew
every time he took a sip he’d be more and more annoyed as the night went on.

“Do tell,” he said.

“I was searched because
they thought I had drugs.”

“What do you mean,
‘searched?’”

“You know.  Strip searched.”

“What?” His voice had
gone quiet, like hushed. Ma put down her knitting and folded her hands in her
lap. She was going into story telling posture.

“Mr. Bagley called me in
the middle of an I.E.P meeting I was having with Andre’s mother, and you know
how tough she can be. It was a mess. I was on hold for ten minutes and when Mr.
Bagley finally came back on, I begged him not to suspend him, you know, because
he’s worked with us before…”

“Katherine?” Dad said,
almost a whisper now.

“Hmm?”

“Do me a favor. Go on the
computer upstairs and find me Bagley’s email address, no better yet, the
Principal’s email.”

“Oh,” she said. Now it
was her turn to talk quietly. She made for the stairs rather quickly.

“Talk,” Dad said, still
in the archway. I put my feet up on the coffee table. My shoes were off. I have
knobby feet and they looked awkward, so I pulled them back down.

“I was in the bathroom
with Wally. He was smoking an E-cig.
Tulley the aid came in and made us go to Bagley.”

“Go on,” Dad said, coming
in to sit across from me in the space Ma just vacated. He didn’t like Bagley;
he’d never met Bagley; they had history, the kind where they knew about each
other indirectly like dogs chained up at opposite ends of the block. When I got
caught cutting a bunch of classes earlier in the year Bagley had sent a note
home claiming I needed to see a social worker. When Dad saw that statement he’d
almost blown a gasket, because Bagley was no “social psychologist.” And I
wasn’t cutting class to piss in the pool and chuck pencils into the drop
ceiling either. The fact was simply that I’d racked up so many hours working at
the Pet Valu that I went to the maintenance closet near the pool to sleep on
the wrestling mats sometimes, during dumb-shit classes like cooking and
environmental studies.  Dad called the
school for me, to basically tell Bagley he had no right to judge whether or not
his son needed to see a social worker, but Mrs. Juniper the attendance lady
took care of it, erasing the suggestion from the record.

“No one likes Bagley,” I
said. “He bullies teachers and disrespects students. He makes comments to the
girls. He used to teach gym. How he got to be Vice Principal is the biggest
mystery on the planet.”

“What did you have on
you?”

“A couple of empty Hookah
containers.  I wasn’t carrying a Mod or
anything like that –“

“English please.”

I folded my arms up high
like a kid.

“I didn’t have a tank and
a canister and a battery or anything. Just replacement bottles.”

“You shouldn’t smoke that
shit.”

“I know. But I like it. I
do smoke tricks. I can do like forty of them – like variations of Ghosts, O’s,
French’s, and Tornados. Gets me chicks.”

He smiled in a thin line.

“You like being old
enough to tell me this shit, don’t you? Well, bravo. I can just feel the moment
of empowerment in the air.  Is it
illegal?”

I laughed.

“They don’t know what it
is to tell the truth. I don’t think so.”

“You like smoking your Hookah
bullshit so much you don’t mind being on this asshole’s radar?”

“Yeah. You keep drinking
beer and eating noodles with white clam sauce even though your asshole doctor
says it flares up your gout?”

Our eyes laughed and
twinkled back and forth for a second. It was good being eighteen.

“So tell me about
Bagley,” Dad said. “What did he do exactly? And don’t leave anything out. Go
slowly. Think. Your retells are always all over the place and I need details in
the right order.”

“Yeah,” I said, “so he
gets me in that small office and starts joking back and forth with Tulley all
about me but in the third person, like, ‘These seniors sure are cocky and
stupid, aren’t they, Mr. Tulley? Just walking around thinking they own the
place, acting like scumbags, sliding through the system like sewage’ and
what-not. Then he empties my bag and finds the juice canisters. Then he has me
take off my sneakers and he smells them.”

“He what?”

“He smelled them, like
putting his nose deep inside and inhaling like it’s a flower and he’s a poet on
first day of spring and all that. Said it smelled like weed. Gave it to Tulley,
and he sort of held it away and sniffed at the general area. Said he couldn’t
smell anything, but Bagley told me to take down my pants.”

“Oh, he did, did he?”

I looked over like you
did when you realized you were talking to someone but saying it to the wall,
and sweat broke out on my forehead, because Dad was a bit psycho about stuff if
he got riled enough. He’d taught English for years in the city and always
struggled with Principals and authority figures and bullies. He especially
didn’t like big bullies, physically big, like Bagley. Even though I was five
foot eleven inches, Dad was small, like five foot five and three quarters, not
small enough where you look at him and say, “Whoa, that guy is short!” but
short enough that big guys with attitudes could present a problem in certain
circumstances.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “So I
take down my jeans, and I’m not wearing undies, but instead I have on my
flannel jammies, the black ones with the stars on them. So he frisks up the
sides of them, grabs at the pockets, and suddenly I got paranoid thinking he
was going to pull them down and shit. I grabbed the top band and said, ‘Get off,
Bagley,’ and then he went to call Ma.
Gave me a detention.”

Dad got up without
another word.

He emailed Principal
Larraby. He showed me the email. He was mostly bitching about the shoe
sniffing, but he claimed he wanted a meeting with everyone involved, especially
Bagley. Larraby got back to him saying they were allowed to search students
suspected to have illegal substances. He said he was at a conference and if Dad
wanted a meeting to email his secretary. He said I would have to be there and
that my Dad would have to face Bagley…he said it just like that too, as if my
Dad wasn’t the one to have made that suggestion in the first place.  The secretary gave us an appointment Tuesday
of next week, and Dad sent another email saying that Tuesday wasn’t good enough
especially since he wanted to discuss “an administrator’s improper conduct with
a child.” Larraby agreed to a meeting tomorrow at 4:00.  Dad asked if Larraby was going to have
Bagley’s union representative there and counsel. Larraby said, “No, will you
have counsel?” Dad answered casually, “No.”

Larraby and Bagley were
counting on the helplessness parents felt when put in a board room to face authority
figures. They were counting on unspoken rules of custom and decorum.  They were bullies, ready to prey on the
instinct most people had to be courteous, to listen, to do what they were told,
to be team players and rational adults.

Dad retired from public
schools last year. He taught a couple of courses at community now. He had been
a good father to me, and if there was ever anyone who believed in decorum, it
was Dad.  

He’d also never won the
boardroom; we’d heard his war stories. Said they were snake pits, no place for
anyone with an ounce of decency even though everyone talked in these soft silky
voices.

The next day after my
detention I went down to the lobby for the meeting.

Dad was waiting.

#

He was in the waiting
area, sitting in a chair facing the hallway, staring blankly through the big glass
picture windows. His feet were together and his hands were in his lap. He was
wearing his black dress pants, a black sweater, and his purple tie. He’d gotten
a haircut and the sides were buzzed nearly to the scalp. He was staring
straight forward and his eyes were stone. His hands were folded in his lap and
his knees were together, almost as if he was trying to make himself look
smaller than he was. The stare was unnerving and weird. I knew the offset was
purposeful.  He looked like a little
psycho.

I took a seat next to
him.

“I hear Bagley went canvasing
my teachers today,” I muttered through the side of my mouth. “Asking whether I
was late all the time, sleeping during lecture, you know.”

“That’s fine,” Dad said. I
had to strain to hear him. “When we go in,” he continued, “don’t speak unless I
invite it, clear?”

“Yeah,” I said. This was
important on a whole new level, I could tell. Dad usually joked about things, all
sarcastic and shit, especially when he first saw me after not seeing me for a
day at school or a sleep-over or whatever, but there was no joking now. He’d
told Ma to stay home.  She’d been
disappointed and he’d said there would be no place for her in this boardroom. What
he’d meant was that it would be no place for cooperation, discussion,
commiseration, compromise, or listening.

And the little guy
sitting with his hands folded and his little leather bag at his ankles was
going to be underestimated. In fact, he had been counting on it.

Someone walked behind us,
and I turned to look. It was Principal Larraby. He’d been in the nest of offices
back here all along, probably noticing us through the slit in a door or
something, but not positioned close enough to listen, at least it didn’t seem
so. He was wearing a dress shirt, a brown tie, and dark pressed slacks. He had
pointy administrator’s shoes that were shiny and an identification card in
plastic fastened to a lanyard around his neck. Larraby was a little guy too,
but a different breed than Dad.  Larraby had
a sharp and skinny lawyer’s sort of a face.
He had a wiry stance, and that sober expression that always defined the
smartest guy in the room, the one who came from money, the captain of the
debate team, the one who aced all his college classes, the little guy’s guy who
always knew how to win over the thugs, speaking for them and laughing at those just
outwitted behind closed doors. He was bald up top and had one of those pronounced
ridge bones going front to back on his skull like some warrior’s helmet,
perfectly shaven and shining under the lobby fluorescents.

“I’ll be with you guys in
a second,” he said, all “friendly coach,” the confident camp counselor, walking
briskly past the front desk and to his office behind it back to the left.

In front of us two men
were approaching from the hall, talking to each other, but you couldn’t hear
anything through the glass.  

“That’s Bagley,” I
whispered, “the bigger one. The older guy is the campus aid, Tulley.”

Dad might have looked but
I couldn’t tell because he wasn’t moving his head. I believe he flicked his
eyes for a glance, but I couldn’t be sure.

Tulley looked like the
eager side-kick walking alongside the reigning school bully. Bagley was wearing
loafers, khakis, and a green golf shirt. He was six foot five with thick black
hair slicked back. He had those flat hard eyes that sneered at you, letting you
know up front that he might not have been Ivy League material, but he had a
lifelong track record of being cunning and cutting and personal and mean,
making people submit. He was the big kid who threw a kickball into your face at
recess, the creep who took your lunch money and shoved you hard against a stall
door in the bathroom, the big drunk at the Phillies game wearing a cap turned
backward and his collar up, thinking it was cool to get out of his seat, groove
to the music between innings with his eyes slitted and his lips puckered, and then
yell at some quiet guy five seats down, saying he was a faggoty-ass Red Sox fan
who needed to go shave his armpits or what-not.

When he came through the
door I saw him size Dad up and smirk. He’d already seen Dad through the glass,
so this close up display was for show, for us, so we’d sweat. He shook his head
ever so slightly, all cocky and subtle, looking at something he picked up on
the counter and letting breath come through his nose. Before he went off to the
office, he hitched up his pants and rubbed his nose. In his mind it seemed he
was bathing himself in the roar of the mob as an announcer reeled off his
corner color, his weight, and the fact that he was currently undefeated.

They called us in right
off, and Dad told me later that this was a huge mistake. Trick number one was
to make parents sit and sit and sit, minimum of forty-five minutes so they
would rethink things, out-guess themselves, let their argument lose focus and
venom.

But they had already made
a plethora of errors.

Similar to the above,
they’d granted Dad a meeting soon after the fact instead of a week later, when
he would have had time to think and rationalize and measure the idea of making a
stink, slowly wearing down to admitting to himself that he “just didn’t want
any trouble.” Larraby had insisted on email that they didn’t do strip-searches
and had divulged the fact that he was not bringing counsel.

I followed Dad into the
boardroom.

#

Tulley moved to the head
of the table on the near side, and Larraby was set up at the far end.  Dad and I had the left side and Bagley was
across from us. We were all standing for a second behind our maroon cushy
chairs. Larraby leaned forward and shook Dad’s hand. Then Bagley reached across
the table. Dad shook his hand with the old grip-firm and one-pump, but he
looked away when he did it, letting Bagley’s hand go with a cast-off just hard
enough to send a message like calling a guy “pal” or “chief” when everyone and
their mother’s knew you weren’t talking “friend” or fearless leader” or
anything.

We sat. Larraby had papers
in front of him, two piles. Bagley had a manila folder open on the table at his
elbow. Tulley was sitting a bit back and away with his forearms on his thighs,
hands folded. He had a smile in his eyes, the bench player on the team stacked
with hardened veterans. Larraby sat back, legs crossed, pen up by his ear as if
he was about to click it for punctuation.

“This is Mr. Bagley, our
Vice Principal and Dean of Student Discipline,” he said. “And this is Mr.
Tulley, our head campus aid. He retired from the police force three years ago
and we’re fortunate to have had him come aboard.”

Dad hadn’t moved. He was
on the edge of the seat cushion, knees together, looking quiet and small. Larraby
sat forward with purpose then, all business, eyebrows furrowed as if drawing
together his concentration for the next phase where the going got tough and he
was the man to put all the ducks in rows. He put down his pen and spread his
hands over his papers, looking at them.

“Ok,” he said, “We’ll
start with –“

“It’s not Ok,” Dad
said.  Larraby’s eyes flashed up.

“What?”

“It’s not Ok,” Dad said. “This
isn’t your meeting.  I called this meeting.
I’m not interested in your papers and your agenda. I’m interested in telling
you what I’m after. I’m going to tell you how this is going to go, and you are
going to sit there and listen.”

“Really?” Larraby said, sitting
back, eyes wide. He was amazed and smiling a bit with amazement. Bagley started
to say something.  

“Quiet!” Dad said to him,
pointing across the table. “Nobody’s talking to you!” He said the word
“talking’ with percussion, with force, making the “a” sound have an “h” before
it, like “t-haw-king,” almost yelling
but not crazy yelling, more like a crisp spanking, a scolding, the start of a
hard lecture. Bagley bit his bottom lip hard and pushed back from the table
looking away, rolling up his eyes. Dad’s tone went up a notch.

“And stop making faces.
You’re disgusting. You put your nose in my son’s sneaker? What are you, a
pot-sniffing dog? Do they hook you up to some special machine where there’s a
reliable measurement for levels of marijuana they track from your nasal
passages? What if you thought he had pot in his underwear? You gonna sniff his
drawers? There’s a guy who used to do stuff like that up in Grays Ferry in the
90’s. They called him ‘Fast Eddy,’ and he’s in jail now.”

He turned back to
Larraby.

“This can go two ways,”
he said. “Option A is that we talk about the strip-search incident and that
incident only.  At the end of that
conversation, this disgusting person will be made to stay no closer than fifty
feet from my son, like a restraining order.” He calmed his voice, but only
slightly. “And I have some advice for you, Mr. Larraby.”

“Really?” he said, eyes
still hot and grinning with amazement, but the fire had withered to embers.

“Really,” Dad said. “Were
I you, I would contact my pit bull in Human Resources and launch my own
investigation into this disgusting member of the staff.”

“Now wait a –“ Bagley
said.

“Shut-it!” Dad said,
putting up his palm like a stop sign, eyes closed. “Keep your place, Bagley,
grown-ups are talking.” He opened his eyes. “Distance yourself from this…person, Mr. Larraby, and contact the
state because now I know that you know and I would testify that I do, is that
clear?”

Larraby didn’t answer
right off, and Dad pounced on his moment.

“And now, sir,” he
continued, working himself up again into a rant again, “I’m going to tell you
about Option B. You don’t want Option B. You want to avoid it like the plague,
see?  Because this is the version where I
go nuclear. This is the version where you bring out some mysterious file on my
son with all kinds of issues and professional observations that would indicate
that you feel he might be a drug dealer or killing people up in North Philly on
the weekends, and let me tell you, if you decide to assassinate his character I
will hold you criminally responsible for each and every detail I wasn’t
informed of prior to this moment. I will look at it as a cowardly, spineless
attempt to attribute blame elsewhere, and I will go to the Superintendent, the
State, and then I’ll do a nice community outreach through social media and all
the parents I know, those who will cringe by the way, when they hear about the
shoe sniffing, bank on it, I’ve already told a few and they’re not pleased.”

The room was ringing.

“Can I talk now?” Larraby
said.  It was sarcastic, but there was no
way to avoid the fact that he was asking permission. It was a deek too, a hit
he took to divert attention from the fact that as he’d said it he’d casually
turned one pile of his papers over, probably the official record of my class
cuts earlier in the year. Bagley also oh-so-casually closed his manila folder,
and I would have laid similar odds that it contained the one-sided, edited
results of his little teacher poll. Larraby put on his reading glasses and read
Bagley’s report of the incident. His voice was shaky and you could tell he
hated that fact, but he couldn’t make it stop wavering. The report was short
and full of lies. It said stuff like Bagley politely asked me to empty my
pockets, and I volunteered to take down my jeans. It also said that Tulley
corroborated the fact that my sneakers smelled like weed. At that point, Dad
interrupted the read, turned to Tulley and said smoothly,

“You’re backing the wrong
horse, champ. I don’t know how many parking tickets you wrote in your day, but
this is a different world. If I put you in front of a panel put together by the
state and you are found to be lying, it’s perjury and you’ll do time, look it
up.”

Tulley put his hands up
like, “Oh, I’m at my wit’s end with you!”
but it didn’t look like the hard-ass baseball coach fed up with a batter
who kept lunging, seeing a strike out of the hand and getting caught with all his
weight on his front foot. It looked like Tulley had become a housewife. Like he
burned dinner. Larraby tried to save it by switching tactics, talking to me
directly, bringing me into the ring.

“Why were you in the
bathroom in the first place?” he said.

“I had to go.”

“Your friend had pot on
him.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“He had a pot brownie on
him.”

“Yeah.”

“So why were you in the
bathroom with a guy who had a pot brownie on him?”

It was Dad’s turn to put
his hands up, but he didn’t look like a housewife. He looked like the thug in
the bathroom about to slam you up against a stall door.

“Yeah,” he announced. “So
according to this thread of logic, Bagley walks into the bathroom when some
tenth grader has a brownie in his book bag and Bagley’s a pusher now by
association. So, Larraby, why don’t I drop my drawers and walk in front of your
secretary, buy a dime bag from Bagley, and we’ll all smell each other’s
sneakers?”

“Enough,” Larraby said.

“Oh, is it?”

“We are allowed to search
students.”

“And frisk them?”

“In some ways we have
more power than law enforcement, yes.”

“I feel like I was
sexually assaulted,” I said. “I felt like Bagley was gonna pull down my
jammies.”

That one silenced the
room. Dad sat back and said,

“Slam dunk.  I have a copy of Mr. Larraby’s email claiming
in bold print that you don’t strip search students. You have a white-washed
version in writing that splits hairs, claiming you can if it’s voluntary. You
just said you’re more powerful than the police, and my son feels sexually
violated. Game changer, boys. I’m thinking S.V.U. and Channel 3.” He got out
his cell phone. “Stay put fella’s. And don’t touch your Samsungs. I’m sure
they’re going to want to see your emails to each other before you have a chance
to delete them. They’ll probably get a warrant for Bagley’s PC at home too,
maybe do a scan of the hard drive.”

“What do you want?”
Larraby said. Bagley leaned in toward him and tried to indicate that he was
dying to defend himself, and Larraby moved his palm across like he was
polishing a table in slow-mo, his eyes never leaving my Dad’s. “Well?”

“Option one,” Dad said.
“Fifty feet away, no closer. Like a restraining order.”

We got up and left. No
one shook hands. I never really thought I was sexually molested, just
humiliated, and everyone knew this I think. I hadn’t planned to interject when
I did, and it wasn’t a lie. Not quite, I don’t know. I did get paranoid and
grab my jammies when he was frisking me. I did feel uncomfortable, but I also knew
he wasn’t going to actually pull my pants down. It wasn’t a lie, but it was,
sort of. It was the truth when you looked at it one way and not so much when
you looked at it another. It was complicated and I wanted to forget about it. I
would have loved to have been a fly on the wall after we left, and then again I
was glad I’d never know. I should have been happy that Bagley just got
ass-fucked probably worse than ever before in his life, but I wasn’t. It’s not
that I was sad or anything, but it wasn’t cut and dry.

We didn’t talk in the
car. There were no high fives.

When we got home there
were no war stories. Dad just told Ma it went fine and his expression nixed all
her questions. I went upstairs to play Madden Live. It felt weird. Dad should
have been pumped. He kicked ass. He took no prisoners. He won.

That night I heard him
get up like five times. It’s a small house, we live in a twin. Usually I don’t
wake up when he wakes up down the hall. It’s like assumed privacy you program
yourself for, it just happens, same as any given day in an assembly in the
auditorium, where there are probably at least a tenth of the girls that have
their tampons in but you don’t think about it that way, that’s all I’m saying.

I heard Dad get up five
times. He had to keep taking a shit. He got stopped up when things weren’t
right with him, when he was thinking about things, and I thought about it now even
though I usually blanked that stuff and rolled over.

He’d protected me today,
but more, it seemed he’d initially done all this as a favor, like a goodbye
before college. It wasn’t even the idea that Bagley stuck his nose deep inside
my sneaker and inhaled, as gross and strange as it was. It’s that he talked
down to me. I think that Dad didn’t want my last days around here to be
darkened with that shit gnawing at me, but go figure, now I’m thinking about it
more than I would have done otherwise. It brought up all the weird “people-math”
Dad was always so good at, only this was the one time I couldn’t ask him to
help me decode it because he was too close to it, living it, wearing it,
smelling it beneath his own skin.

I’m sorry for getting in
trouble, Dad. Sorry I got you dirty, turning you inside-out making you look at
how far you could go. I just wonder, now that I’m eighteen, half out the door
to college and grown, what the lesson was here and who was supposed to be
learning it.  Did you teach me that as a
parent you sometimes have to make a spectacle of yourself for the sake of
family?  That men like to fight?  That in the end no one wins?

Or is the real message
here not to smoke Hookah, that every time I blow out a trick from now on I’ll
see you in it, a shifting vapor shaped like a snake in the grass, clamped permanently
to Bagley’s heel and making it so he’ll have to go the rest of his life
swearing to himself that you were nothing in the end but a cheap nightmare that
leapt from the dark, fought dirty, and bit him down low when he wasn’t looking…

Issue 5 In Print, Now Available!  We’ve been busy selecting, compiling and editing some of the best poetry, prose and artwork published online at the Turk’s Head Review site in the past year. And now our latest print issue is here in full bloom.   Inside Issue 5 you will discover fine writing from Terry…

Read More (Untitled)

John Gorman

Denny and I could spend hours duking it out. Pick a game. We did it with ping-pong, Parcheesi, and especially with Donkey Kong. Then there was the infamous Revolutionary War playset that Denny got in the mail. We broke it out one balmy March afternoon. Denny had been yapping about it for weeks. I told him he was a doofus for wasting a perfectly good X-men comic, splicing the ad from the back page, not to mention the fact that he paid for the shipping and handling in nickels and dimes, but he kept insisting it was coming. 

I was gobsmacked when it arrived. Of course the figures were a crummy batch of plastic patriots, a couple steps below the army men you’d get at Woolworth, but we were excited to put the American Revolution into practice since we were studying it in school. To spice things up, we used the weapons from Crossbows and Catapults, an anachronism to be sure, but it showed how resourceful or clever we were. We even used the Knights and the Orcs as reserves. Whenever I landed a potent shot, I’d pump my fist and shout, “Way to go Georgie Boy.” (When I was the Americans). If I had the redcoats, I shouted “Way to go Corny!” (for General Cornwallis). Either way this drove Denny nuts.   

We barbed wherever we could, but I preferred playing at Denny’s place since he had a house, and a huge front lawn, his backyard dwarfed my Little League outfield. Inside the house, we had to be careful not to destroy the precious vases, stony figurines or the Louis XV style furniture. Sometimes I think I had the upper hand playing at Denny’s because he seemed cautious about his surroundings. Sometimes he was a savage.        

Denny was a wizard at catapulting. He had a built-in protractor in his noggin, coupled with the feel of a first-rate pool shark. I took the battering ram approach. There was actually a battering ram in the arsenal, but I preferred my crossbows. For me, they packed a bigger wallop, and they were easier to use. I was a maven of destruction whereas Denny was a dogged tactician, to his own detriment. Funny how much a stupid kid’s game can teach you, if you’re willing to probe.

We had an ambush set up on his carpeted staircase. Denny was really in the zone, everything he launched was a bull’s eye. A couple of times, by pure accident, my elbow got in the way of his shot. These things happened. Denny didn’t blow a gasket or accuse me of playing dirty. He remained cool, focused on the task at hand, coiled into a catapulting machine. He had me right where he wanted. My crossbows were practically deadweight on the staircase, and the carpeting took away all their inherent zing. I had no other choice but to make do with the catapults.

I kept mulling over the fact that General Washington beat Cornwallis, not by brute force, but by a delicate series of retreats. It was a lot for a ten-year-old to swallow, but it was worth a shot. I needed a chance to redeem my good name since Denny had been on a hot streak. I kept up the smack talk and let Denny take riskier shots. After a series of my own retreats, Denny sabotaged a good chunk of his men with his big fat knee when he was regrouping on the stairs. Not the prettiest way to win, but hey. We took a snack break.           

Denny was always stocked to the gills with candy, chips, cakes, and sodas. By my math, he never had less than a dozen bottles. They’d loaf by the bar across from the Steinway, and the bust of Beethoven. Most were half-empty and flat. Besides fizz-less Pepsi, my compadre was forever pushing his grandmother’s meringue on me. It always looked so pitiful, Smurf hats made of chalk, and tasted like it too. I never grabbed any unless his mom happened to be checking up on us. She filled my plate with so much junk: cookies, candy, and cakes, she was either the greatest host for a ten-year-old twerp or she was getting kickbacks from Dr. Derkasch (Denny and I had the same dentist). Personally, I think she was tired of the meringue and was trying to unload it. 

That balmy March afternoon Denny’s mom plunked herself down beside us and played hostess. She was equally adept at delegating and made Denny refill my Waterford glass to the brim. He took exquisite delight in watching me suffer because he knew how much I hated flat Pepsi. I had to practically swandive to the lip of my glass before the cola stained their embroidered family heirloom, a hand-woven tablecloth from some village in eastern Transylvania. 

Mrs. P and Denny argued in their family tongue, and I could see my pal was milking the situation because he probably wasn’t nearly as cavalier without company present. A foreign language made a family spat so much edgier. Because I was trying my best to be well-behaved, Denny decided to let loose a stinkbomb. Of course he blamed me, but his mom was familiar with his unique scent.

Denny told his mom I didn’t drink flat soda. She seemed unperturbed, for the moment. Mainly, the term flat didn’t register since English was only her second, no, make that her third language. Denny stayed the course and insisted that I didn’t drink bubbleless Pepsi. This struck a chord with Mrs. P.

“What happened to the bubbles?” she asked.

“They’re gone,” Denny reminded her, “They’re old bottles.”

“Old bottles!”

I emphasize the exclamation point in lieu of a question mark since this is how it sounded plus the look on Mrs. P’s face screamed insult. A hostess, of her caliber, didn’t serve old cola. She held her jaw tight for a good eight seconds then she dropped her signature “puh”. 

“That good for nothing father of yours,” Mrs. P said. “He’s a chip off the old bark.”

I knew better than to laugh, but Denny seized the chance to rib his mom, correcting her idiomatic flub. I tried to change the subject and even complimented her poofy hair, my fingers crossed under the table. She eked out what could pass for a smirk then told her son to open a fresh bottle. Denny didn’t miss a beat, informing his mother, bubbling with giddiness, that none of the bottles were new. She got up right then and inspected each one only to learn, much to her abundant chagrin, that Denny was right.

“Look at all this wasted soda,” she said.

She could’ve been chastising me directly. I was the cause of at least five freshly-cracked Pepsis. Mrs. P raised her finger and began yelling. First, in Romanian, then in English. Her consistent, catchy refrain, “Good for nothing,” still echoing as she stormed out of the room.

Denny proceed to tell me that his Pops was the critical nugget of his mom’s agida. As if I didn’t know. It seemed that Mr. P would buy, without fail, twice as much stuff as they could ever consume without going bad. Unlike his wife, who had been born with money, he grew up a dirt-poor peasant, the oldest of five children. He became the family breadwinner at age fourteen. Denny told me his father would freak out if he heard anybody’s grumbling belly, would rush out to stock up on eggs, milk, and Scooter pies. It drove Mrs. P bonkers, but he kept his family fed.   

She’d been gone for a while, and I’d been hankering to duck out without anybody seeing me. I wasn’t exactly sure where Mrs. P had gone and I didn’t want to be rude, lest it get back to my folks and have hell to pay. Mrs. P did return, a bit harried with flush cheeks and a sweaty brow, a dusty two-liter bottle of Pepsi in her hand. Some feeble attempt had been made to wipe clean the shoulders. A caramel-like gob of gunk slithered down the neck of the bottle. Maybe it was rubber cement or caramelized cola. The bottom of the bottle looked as if it had swooped down a chimney. There may have been a cobweb, dangling from the side, but Mrs. P flicked it off, whatever it was, before I had a chance to get a better squint.

More than anything, I wanted to get out of there, but I was stuck like an amber-doused insect. Pepsi spurt all over when Mrs. P whisked open the bottle. She licked some off her knuckles. Rather than retreat, I sat there and had my old Pepsi which was beyond syrupy. It did have bubbles. Caveat emptor. Mrs. P may well have dug up the relic from somewhere in the basement or possibly even from the backyard by the begonias. I grabbed my chalice and slurped a bit off the rim then slugged back the ancient cola. Mrs. P seemed very proud of herself, and poured me another round.

I nursed the second one, sat back and tried to tune out the bickering. With each sip, the flavors and my sentiment kept evolving. The syrupy sensation turned medicinal. I’m not sure if that was the old cola or the family fracas, but while they argued in Romanian, I drank my Pepsi both glad and a bit glum I didn’t exactly know what they were saying, the whole while pretending I was swigging a cold glass of tap water. 

Anna Kuszajewski

I remember when I was a young
boy my mother had a favorite pew in the tiny St. Mathew’s church just down the
road from our home. Opposite the pulpit, about halfway back, she’d park my
younger brother and I every Sunday and every holy day of obligation, with
little deviation. Occasionally, a family would file in, a few rows in front of
us, with their adult daughter in tow, ill-equipped for the responsibilities of
those her age. She was guided into the pew by her mother and care taker,
careful to keep her from tripping over the kneeler. She sat and stood, slightly
slumped over with her right arm curled in front of her. Her long, thin hair
gathered in a ponytail on top of her head and flopped over pathetically with
each movement. Her mother would take care to wipe up any mucus that drained
from the girl’s face with her embroidered handkerchief and turn back to the
service.

My dear mother, with her perfect church attendance
record, could not stand the sight of this and one day, quickly and quietly
moved my brother and I out of our unofficial family pew and up two rows in
front of the wretched family. I gave her a questioning look upon sitting which
she then whispered behind her white satin glove that she refused to sit through
another mass watching someone clean up snot and drool from an adult. I was only
thirteen then but old enough to appreciate the irony.

We sat, stood, knelt, and then sat some more for each
mass, my own mind wandering around through the pews and beyond the church,
desperately awaiting the grand close of the altar doors, signaling my freedom. My
little brother, George, was still permitted coloring books and crayons to stave
off the boredom. No such luck for me. Dad never went to church—ever. After his
return from France from the Second World War, shell-shocked, a chest full of
shrapnel, and an amputated leg, he didn’t have much to thank god for. I envied
him there in the pews.

Later on in my teenage years, I would defer to his lack
of piety to defend my own growing atheism and refusal to attend any more
church. Quite often, this would descend into a screaming match on both sides
with me shouting my refusals from comfort of my bed. It never worked though, I
still had to go. Her only comfort seemed to be that my dad must believe in a god in order to hate him.

My own descent in to godlessness, as my mother
contemptuously referred to it, did not begin with any sort of intellectual epiphany
as I might now like to think. I didn’t have Russell or Nietzsche hiding under
the bed, I read those later. No, initially, it all came down to a very low
threshold for boredom and a complete lack of respect for authority; traits that
would eventually get me into trouble later on.

But even now, I’m sixty-eight now, and as much as I hated
the place, the clearest memories I have from that far back are in that stuffy,
miserable church two blocks down from the Vogel household. I often wonder, like
others, how much I’ve really retained and what scenes in my head have been
involuntarily invented. Can anyone be really sure their memories haven’t been gently
altered over time to soothe the conscience? A lot can go wrong in a lifetime;
if we could remember everything
there’d be more people offing themselves. I look back through the old albums
occasionally and I find the same, lanky flat-capped teenager staring back. The
label on the back insists that this is indeed Charles Vogel in 1959 but I don’t
recognize him. However, I can recall very easily the boredom, the day-dreaming,
the people, and the choking incense that clouded the church. I remember it all
with such clarity perhaps since my whole adult life seemed to have begun there.
What made me what I am now, whether I like it or not, came from those cheerless
Sunday mornings.

It
would take the third or fourth, “Get up, now!” before I’d even bother
pretending to wake up. I’d go through my morning routine of dressing, eating,
brushing my teeth all with an air of self-pity over the injustice of being
deprived of a sleeping-in. The three of us walked to church as we did for any
trip or errand. We couldn’t afford a car and we hadn’t had one until my uncle
gave us his old ’53 wagon when I was seventeen, saving us from having to rely
on the bus. Trips outside of town were few anyway, only made to shuttle my
father to the city hospital and back.

Though it was only two blocks from our home to St.
Mathew’s, that route would be taken in any kind of weather. Mother wouldn’t
stop at the market to pick up eggs or fruit if there was only a steady rain but
it didn’t matter come Sundays. There could be three feet of snow, hail, ice, the
fucking Russians could be swarming around over-head but never mind, we’d make
it there for 9:30 mass.

We’d file into our usual seats after the obligatory genuflection.
I managed to pull this off with a stiff nod of the head and half-hearted wave
of my right arm into a lopsided cross. I was a rebel. We’d get there forty
minutes before it even started with the only other people there, the altar boys
and the half-dozen or so widows who made up the rosary group. These women sat
scattered throughout the church and chanted that prayer as if it were a
competitive sport. If one of them missed their cue or fumbled their assigned
mystery, it would invoke the ire of the rest which would be duly punished by a
slow, turn in the pew and a steady glare at the offending parishioner. The
flustered old widow would then clamber to find her place before their leader invoked
the ultimate shaming. This was usually employed when one of them actually dozed
off, but the tiny, frailest of the bunch sat right up front and would
half-shout the missing mystery which would then incite an even louder Hail Mary
from the group afterwards. Most who had suffered through this humiliation would
quietly resign from the competition and mutter the rosary to herself from then
on.

The only way to pass the time was to observe those filing
in around. For this, I wished we had sat farther back. Little did they know, I
was silently observing, recruiting, and casting them all in my own stories and
daydreams. Who were these people anyway and why were they here? The grown-ups had no one nagging them out of bed, they
came on their own. Some of the couples didn’t even have children and some were ancient.
I resented them because they had a choice and I didn’t.

My favorite participants would arrive just before the
start of mass, planting the whole clan of their family in one whole pew. These
were the Brazdas, even more catholic and conservative than my own mother with
their brood of eight children. Katherine was the oldest and the star actress of
most of the plays that I acted and directed in my mind. She always had her
blonde hair neatly curled beneath her hat. Her neck was long and thin with the
gold clasp of her necklace just visible above her starched collar. She sat up
straight in her pew; aloof from everyone. She knew how pretty she was.

Often enough, the roles I cast us in would morph into
something out of control. Showing Katherine off on my arm in front of others
and rescuing her from a bore at a party quickly turned pornographic. Discreetly,
I’d try to cover up the swelling bulge in my pants with the liturgy book and
try to think of something else. A glance at the rosary ladies usually did the
trick but occasionally the pressure was too much, the story too lurid, and I’d
sit there miserable trying to ignore the pain and realizing we hadn’t even made
it to the fucking Nicene Creed yet. I’d start whining to my mother that I had to go to the bathroom. I really had to go. She’d shake her head
curtly and pretend she couldn’t hear me. It would take me at least five more
minutes before I had her thoroughly annoyed, me ready to burst, before she’d
finally relent.

I’d carefully slide out of the pew with the liturgy book
strategically covering the bulge and absolutely failing to look natural. I
stared down at the wooden floorboards on my way to the back of the church,
meeting no one’s eye, and feeling the back of my neck steadily burn. Safely out
of sight, I made my way, painfully, down the steps to the basement bathroom.
Nothing really needed to be done at that point and I would consider myself
lucky if I could walk away from it all with spotless trousers and a non-defiled
liturgy book (that did happen once). I’d make my way back up the steps with
shaking knees, relieved yet carrying an annoying tinge of guilt. I’d glance
over at my Katherine, no longer inspiring, and resume my idle dreaming.

She never did notice me.

The one who did eventually take notice of me, but only by
accident, sat five pews in front of us. She was rarely involved in my
theatrical productions since I found her rather plain. She would sit, stand,
and kneel between her parents, the only child. Her wiry orange hair was only
slightly tamed by a ribbon tied at the back of her neck. The few times I saw
her face, usually after communion, showed a pale white face peering out through
a swarm of freckles. This was Judy, my future wife.

I found her later on when I was nineteen, at the party of
someone I kind of knew. She stood around with her fat friend, slowly sipping
her drink and looking about her through the thick smoke, seemingly bored. It
took me a while to recognize her since I hadn’t been to church in quite a
while. She was pretty, her awkwardness faded away with her freckles with only a
few dotting her high cheekbones. She smiled when her eyes rested on me, one of
relief. Having no one else to talk to we gravitated towards each other among
the already-acquainted and newly paired. I forget what we talked about but we
got drunk rather quickly. The sickly sweet punch we both sipped had a kick that
neither of us noticed. As the night went on, she leaned up against me for
support, her arm around my waist with a finger holding onto my belt loop to keep
from falling over. I felt her warm breath as she giggled into my neck and I
slowly guided her free hand down to my swelling prick which she duly grabbed
and giggled some more. At some point we stumbled our way out of the house and
into the old station wagon where she lost her virginity and we both lost a
whole lot more.

A few weeks later, I received the call. Through the heavy
sobbing I was able to piece together the fact that Judy was pregnant. I asked
her several times if she was sure.

Yes, she was quite sure.

We found ourselves back in church two months later with
our first son, Thomas, steadily growing in her womb. It was a shotgun wedding,
of course, the knee-jerk reaction to unplanned pregnancies at the time;
completely unavoidable. I remember standing there in front of the altar, in my
borrowed suit, sweating from the heat, beside my teenage wife with our small
families in attendance. The old beast who presided over the ceremony, the same
old priest, didn’t even bother hiding his contempt for us and practically spat
out the marriage vows as if delivering a curse. At one point, Judy looked even
more pale than usual, the heat combined with the heavy incense was making her
nauseous and she swayed where she stood. The old virgin must’ve picked up on
this and twice went back to refill the burner with more noxious fuel.

Rather than let this dampen her faith, this shaming only
stayed with her throughout her life rekindling her guilt long after the
ceremony. She took up the family tradition of taking our two boys to church
every Sunday and holy day just like my mother and, like my own father, I stayed
home. From Thomas’s complaining, I learned that she even managed to join the
rosary club and chanted on with the old widows before mass.

I got off easy I suppose. College was not an option but I
had a decent sales job at the used dealership, one that I would later own. I was
also the sole income for a small family which kept my ass out of Vietnam. We
played the domestic parts well, our roles carefully defined. Our marriage
existed, as was expected, and Judy and I loved each other as we felt that we
should. I was the husband, she the wife, both content but not in love. She
seemed to have resigned herself to her life, her role, supported by her
irrational guilt. The wall was up between us early on and her unwavering,
unquestioning faith kept us from being a couple. Years later, I fell in love
but not with her.

I blamed Catholicism. I blamed the asshole priest who
married us, our parents, all religious ideologies, tradition and authority. I
blamed them all for my indiscretions. We married in order to placate everyone
from our relatives to the tyrannical imaginary man in the sky who just so
happens to take an interest into where I insert my prick, you know, when he’s
not busy elsewhere giving babies cancer and permitting genocide. I was beyond
annoyed by the church, I actively hated it. I hated, its arrogant monopoly on
morality, its demand for blind acceptance, the demand that I should
simultaneously love and fear this creator-god in order to get in to some sort
of Disneyworld after I die was crude and appalling. I loathed its insidious
influence in my godless life and for what it did to Judy. I tried to “save” her
in my own way. I tried discussing and exposing the backwards, hypocritical
nonsense she held dear but it only seemed to strengthen her convictions. She
would sit through these rants smiling as she shook her head. She never bothered
arguing with me. I often wondered if she felt like her savior in the desert,
and I the tempting devil, smiling in the belief that someone up there was taking notes of our
conversations and recording her unshaken resolve. Despite her devotion, she
never felt forgiven, and carried her guilt and her faith, to the grave.

I had affairs, of course. Early on in our marriage and
after the birth of our second son, Fred, I was careful and kept them casual and
few, but I got careless later on. I fell in love with someone who was also
married and managed to keep a relationship going for two years until her
husband found out. She confessed under the burden of her own guilt. She was
made to promise to cut it off with me in order to keep her marriage and her
children. Any further attempts to contact on my part would result in a lengthy
letter sent to Judy.

I got caught as well.

Another party, a Christmas one, in the early eighties. I
had a few women I was meeting then which also included the receptionist in the
parts department. She was young, twenty-two, and I disastrously hooked up with
her right there at the party, with Judy in attendance. She managed to corner me
in the host’s kitchen, pressing her body against mine and telling me she’d be
waiting for me in the upstairs bathroom. I was careless, over-confident in my
discretion, and followed after her after what seemed to me, an acceptable
amount of time. After we finished our brief and rather disappointing interlude,
she cleaned herself up and left the bathroom first. I was still zipping up my
pants when Judy walked in. Neither of us spoke for a while, completely frozen,
eyes locked in fear, and without the slightest idea of how to process the
situation. Our life was reorganized in this lengthy silence and our identities
altered and transfigured. She was determined not to cry, resisting the urge to
blink which would release the tears gathering on her lashes. In little more
than a whisper, she told me she was going home then left, closing the door
behind her.

A divorce was out of the question, the very word not a
part of her vocabulary. I apologized profusely back at home and tried to get
her to talk to me, yell at me, anything! I felt awful; I knew that I hurt her
but her quick withdrawal and resignation infuriated me. I blew up on her.

“I’m sick of you acting the fucking martyr! You take
everything that happens to you as a punishment from god. You can’t let yourself
enjoy anything; you won’t even let yourself hate me for what I’ve done because
you, in your warped-fucking-worldview, think you deserve it. It’s not noble. It’s
fucking pathetic!”

My tirade had little effect on her. Not a single word
incited any sort passion. I would’ve felt better if she screamed at me or threw
my clothes out on the front lawn. Instead she sat there on our bed in the dark
and refused to look at me. I could barely see her face. I couldn’t tell if she
was crying or had cried at all. I was close to tears myself from exasperation.

That night she moved her things out of our bedroom and
into the small guest room, a room barely big enough to fit a twin bed. I spent
what was left of that night drinking the last of the brandy and beer and passed
out, face-down on the kitchen table. In the morning, I awoke with my face glued
to the table in a puddle of drool redolent of the sickly mixture I consumed
only hours before. Judy was already up, cooking breakfast, the smell of frying
eggs made my stomach churn.

She was pretending not to notice me there, sloppy and
pathetic surrounded by half-crushed Budweiser cans and an empty bottle. When
her back was turned, I wiped the slime off my face with the back of my hand and
asked her what her plans were.

“Plans,” she said dryly. She continued to bustle about
the kitchen as if serving breakfast was her most pressing concern, the state of
our marriage, a minor intrusion. “What’s the point? You’ll do it again and I’m
pretty sure you’re been doing it all along. What does it matter what my plans
are?” I chose not to argue and figured I’d find out soon enough. I left her
there in the kitchen with her breakfast and went to work. It turns out her plans
were to do nothing and we carried on just like before. We shared our home but
lived our lives privately and separately.

Immersed in our own troubles, Thomas’s marriage was a
pleasant diversion. There was a brief coming together between Judy and me, if
only for collaboration. The wedding was in the summer of ‘94, an elaborate
affair that was thankfully not our financial burden and one of the few times I
favored tradition. They had what we hadn’t, a duty-free engagement. They
married because they loved each other. Thomas had just finished medical school
and his fiancée, Stacy, just started teaching at an elementary school. Judy
adored her and seemed perfectly, genuinely happy throughout all the planning
and on that very expensive day. It was as if she finally allowed herself to enjoy
something, looked past her own misery, and permitted herself to live. She
talked more, even with me, and made friends with our new in-laws, making
holiday plans and baby showers. I encouraged her and found her new-found happiness
attractive. I was in turn permitted a kind of friendship with her, more
rewarding and satisfying than anything we had before. We talked about
everything. The self-pity no longer seeped from her, her smile came easily and
naturally, no longer forced and her shoulders lost the stoop of submission and
resignation.

I hope it was enough for her. If I were the sort of
person to pray or believe in heaven, I would ask this deity that she find her
rightful place among the angels. Or more selfishly, beg him or her to give me
some sort of sign to reassure me of her happiness in those few years.

I visited her grave for the last time this morning. I can
no longer drive or walk very far so my kid brother, George, drove me over to
St. Mary’s Memorial Park. It’s been eighteen years since the aneurism that
burst in her sleep and I’ve been visiting her regularly since. Once a month,
I’d let a morning pass and talk with her. I’d tell her about my life since she
passed and all the joys and pains of some girlfriend that seemed important at
the time. I told her about her boys, her new grandchildren. She would listen
and I would come up with some sort of response that she might say or only she
could say. I admit, shamefully, that I hadn’t much to go on using our own past,
our own history together, so I built a new relationship for us, one that I now
wished we had. I was far too late; I know it. These things happen all the time
though, right? I’m being mocked by a tiresome cliché. The fact remains is that
she’s gone and it’ll soon be my turn.

George, obscenely young for only sixty, offered to wheel
his old brother around for one last date with Judy. She already knew about my
cancer last year, but I downplayed the danger. I told her she was very lucky
not to have to see me now since the chemo robbed me of hair and weight for some
time. I told her that Thomas and Stacy had another baby, a girl this time, she
would have loved her. Fred also married last year to his long-time partner. I
carefully assured her that Fred is very happy and in love; I suspect she’d
disapprove of his husband.

Just before the early joggers showed up and when George turned
the bend on his last lap around the park, I apologized for deceiving her. I
explained that the cancer is much worse than what I had been letting on. I told
her that I loved her very much but I wouldn’t be seeing her again. I have
little more than a week left.

George was waiting by the car just behind me waiting for
me to finish. The goodbye that I had to give stuck in my throat as if she were
the one dying and I was holding her hand hoping for just a little more time,
ten minutes, with my love. I didn’t cry at her funeral but I cried this
morning. I cried for her; I loved her much too late.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this all down now. It’s
tiresome, exhausting work. I have to give my hand a break after only a few
sentences. I doze off when the drugs kick in and the hospice nurse constantly interrupts
with her invasive chores. The boys are flying in soon for the death vigil,
grandchildren in tow so I must finish.

I don’t believe in the existence of a soul. When I’m no
longer able to breathe, it will shut down my oxygen-deprived brain and I will
cease to exist. There are no last rights; it would be pathetic to even pretend
to be catholic now. Nevertheless, bless me for I have sinned, this is my last confession.