The Loneliness of the Short Fiction Instructor (Part 1)
James Fitzpatrick clicked his black and gold Parker pen and looked at the watch in front of him. 6:17. Even though he was ten minutes late, he still beat his first student by five minutes. There were a few hopeful minutes where he hoped, with a dash of guilt, that no one would show up. He made use of this bonus time to go outside and smoke a cigarette on the front steps of the church that the adult ed center used for classrooms. The smoke from the New York cigarette, the old stone church, and the light June breeze made for a quiet, mild moment. The lingering good feeling crumpled like a bad metaphor when he returned to the stuffy room to see his most faithful and irritating student, Cor Arthur, furiously scribbling away on some oddly colored homemade paper.
“Hey, hi.,” he said smiling and scratching his apprentice sideburns.
“Good evening,” James replied, going for an appropriate sophisticated tone, one redolent of single malt scotch, high backed leather arm chairs, and hard bound volumes of English poetry. He realized it was more a tone of forced politeness, overcompensation for his increasing annoyance with Cor, a young book store worker with mild delusions of literary triumph. And what kind of name was Cor anyway? Well, it was short for Corey.
When James called his name the first night, he commented, “Interesting name.” If Cor was used to hearing this, he gave no indication, but rather perked up like a curious and pleased furry animal.
“It’s really Corey, but when I started writing I reckoned Corey was a little too cute, a little too 1980s. I mean, would Burroughs have made it as Corey S. Burroughs?” James was not accustomed to feigning laughter, but felt it was required here and dutifully obliged. “So my pen name, my nom de plume, is Cor. All my family still calls me Corey. I like Cor because it’s like the word core and I like to think my prose has a solid center.”
I’m sorry I asked, James thought.
As he watched, like a hapless general at a rout, his class enrollment steadily, implacably, dwindled from a robust dozen. Cor, the not so still center, remained. God please let him drop, prayed James, a lapsed mix of Catholic and Presbyterian.
He didn’t mind losing the initial trio. There was the bouyant, glasses wearing pre-school teacher who wrote a sonnet about her favorite turtleneck sweater. It was ribbed and the color of “a week of sunsets at the beach.” She was at least kind enough to send an e-mail.
“Unfortunately I have a scheduling conflict which I forgot about. I’m sure it would’ve been a terrific class! Thanks. Best wishes.”
Then the young, thin women who went missing after the second week; she who said nothing, refused to look up, and wrote highly sexual sci-fi involving androids or cyborgs or something. James felt a strong urge to wash his hands after she read. Finally there was an older man who showed up once for 20 minutes and then sent him e-mails about the nasty flu he was battling and that he loved the class and as soon as it he licked it he’d return. His e-mails stopped at week four and James hoped he hadn’t died or anything.
Though all these were mild blows to his not entirely fortified ego, it was Willamette Dell that really hurt. Like bruises and contusions and all manner of nasty scratches hurt. When James entered his first class late and buzzing from coffee, nicotine, and stage fright, and saw her, his stomach dropped. Yet he almost immediately felt renewed, as if he had purpose. He taught the entire class to her, making as much eye contact as possible (without being obvious), rejoicing when she’d smile at his jokes, nodding sagaciously when she would comment, as if to imply, “Yes Willamette, yes. We are on exactly the same wave length.”
By the second class, he was half in love with her. She went by Will and he found women with men’s names oddly sexy. She wore only black and grey and he started to think primary colors overrated. She had dusky eyes, short, dark hair, and a low, almost slurred voice; the kind that makes you lean in a bit. He didn’t even care that the story she brought in was incoherent, unfinished, and set in a yurt.
He’d taught attractive students before, but she blew them all away. She was the Cadillac of attractive female students. Like watching Citizen Kane while listening to “Stairway to Heaven.”
And she dropped. First she didn’t show up and sent a tantalizing e-mail about how she was going to be there the following week “with bells on and a spanking new story.” (The appearance of the word “spanking” made James have to take a few deep breaths.) But she didn’t come the following week or the next. Then yesterday, she resurfaced to apologize and offer excuses in the form of chaos, the job, family commitments, and boyfriend problems (hmm). James was still carrying some shrapnel , pissed at the cosmic (and perhaps comic) injustice of it; wondering what deliberately adversarial god deemed it fit to remove Will and leave a good hearted irritant like Cor. Melodramatic sigh.
It was 6:21. In the intervening minutes, James had managed to set up a mini-Maginot Line of books, papers, and bottled water. He needed few of these things, but felt it lent an air of authority and maybe intimidation. It didn’t seem to work though as Cor smiled brightly at him, blithely unaware of James’s futile schemes, unrequited desires, and less than professional thoughts.
“Could just be us tonight chief.”
“Yeah, just the two of us.” Bits and pieces of a song briefly ran through James’s head and he mustered his best fake smile, hoping none of his Captain (or “chief”) of the sinking ship mien slipped through. To stall for time, he went to the bathroom. He splashed water on his face and washed his hands longs enough to do an OCD sufferer proud. Several depressing months in retail had taught him the value of wasting small clusters of time.
Returning, he was a little dismayed to find Cor still sitting there. He didn’t know why he expected anything else. As an erratic, occasional, frustrated writer, James’s imagination sometimes spun off and he had somehow conjured scenarios of Christian rapture. Or Apocalypse. Although when he thought about it, he doubted Cor had any religious proclivities. Unless flaky avant-gardism, pointless experimentalism, and literature with a capital “l” (and pronounced with a vaguely European accent) could be considered a creed.
James sat and picked a loose thread off his gray wool pants. It was connected and he had to pull it out a little and wrap it around his finger to break it. Although most of his clothes were fashionable (if slightly retro) and flattering, all of them seemed to have some minor flaw; a fray, a small tear, faded colors, stray threads, the occasional stain, a worn spot. In his more reflective moments, he couldn’t help but think this appropriate and mildly symbolic. An ex-girlfriend had called him a “slightly gone to seed preppie.” He liked to think of himself as possessing a certain disheveled or rumpled elegance, like an alcoholic writer from the 30s.
His preferred style was older suit pants, a collared shirt (roguishly untucked), and black English shoes. The blue and white striped Oxford shirt (a Brooks Brothers) he was wearing tonight had French cuffs and collar stays. It also had a thumbnail sized black ink stain near the elbow, which was why his brother William gave it to him. William was two years younger and did something in New York involving banks and large sums of money. William could afford to be intolerant of blemishes in his clothing and so James was the recipient of his orphans and cast offs, his hand me ups. This, along with a small, upscale second hand shop close to his apartment, kept James well-dressed, even if he was always a bit shy of the cutting edge. The black handle of fashion perhaps.
6:26. James took a sip of his water and picked up a book to flip through. It was an anthology of short stories. Randomly he stopped. It was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The world had been sad since Tuesday. It was Wednesday. And the world had been more drab than sad to James’s thinking.
James had been teaching adult ed classes for about a year now. A friend of his, Deirdre, who taught photography classes there, had put him in contact with the director. The director was a pleasant, wry women who looked his age and seemed moderately impressed with his MFA from Boston University and that he had published several short stories and essays. James wasn’t entirely forthcoming on how long ago that was. Or that one of the magazines that accepted his essay on Werner Herzog (“Landscapes of Madness and Ambition”) went under before the piece ran.
Short story writing was his first class. Creative Writing Workshop (course S002) was the official title. It met for 8 Thursdays (7:00-9:00) and cost $87. A tweed blazer and a pipe was almost James’s inaugural garb, but he thought better of it. What he had learned from nearly 20 years of school was the importance of the first impression. In fourth grade, the new teacher, a Miss Tully, was shaking so badly that she couldn’t write legibly on the board. From then on, she waged a quixotic battle to win their respect and admiration. She was forever know as Shaky Tully, which admittedly wasn’t very funny, but damaging nonetheless.
James didn’t have to worry about thumbtacks on his chair or cruel schoolyard nicknames, but about being seen through. He was afraid he would walk in and everyone would peg him for what he was; a somewhat aimless, single 33 year old who had last taught politely unresponsive Japanese boys in Tokyo and whose own writing career was, to put it kindly, stalled and overheating.
But they didn’t. In fact the 5 women and 3 men (females invariably outnumbered males in his classes) seemed to rather like him. By the third class, they were laughing freely at his jokes (“An epic poet, an Irish novelist, and a gay playwright walk into a bar… “). By the fifth, he had mastered various indispensable teacher tricks. Glasses, which he hadn’t worn in years, became an invaluable prop; slowly nodding and holding them in one hand while listening, polishing, taking them off or putting them back on to underscore an important (or, more often than not, trivial) point. He had done some amateur theatrics in earlier years and this was as much acting as it was teaching.
The class was a modest and unlikely success. James even found himself enjoying some of their writing. Grad school had been awash in arch-ironists and post-everythings who didn’t even seem to like writing. So his students’ earnest, if clumsy, efforts were refreshing. And James did try to help them.
The performance evaluations passed back at the final class were overwhelming positive.
Feedback was helpful. Good insights. The instructor really seemed to care about our work. I learned a lot about craft and grew as a writer.
James was faintly incredulous and wondered if they had perhaps been attending an alternative class where the instructor really was insightful, caring, and helpful. He had just been playing at those qualities. Still, after years of working as a textbook editor, it was a bit of a rush.
6:29. Grimly, James looked down at the “playem” (Cor’s coinage) that his lone student had submitted via e-mail. In the first line a character called Oval says “Heed enervated sentinels of insomnambulism! The corpuscles of infinity have been cloven!” The playem-Cor’s chosen medium-was a kind of mangled combination of play and poem in which Cor fruitlessly and abstractly tried to probe the very nature of drama, language, and human communication. When James explained that plays had been written in verse for thousands of years, Cor looked briefly crestfallen, “But this is a playem. It’s different.”
This particular playem (James still struggled to say it) was called “Third Undulations of Vagarity: A Geometrical…” All the characters, such as they were, had shape names. For all James knew, they very well could be actual shapes. The fact that this was a play of some sort was all James could make out. He glanced further down the painfully single spaced page. “Ye obsequious arbiters, in tumescent-vicissitude…” What the hell? Cor had an annoying penchant for using a hyphen to violently yoke already obscure words together in such a way that passed incomprehensible. James had no idea how he was going to talk about this. He gave himself a quick pep talk, put down the paper, and lightly tapped the table with both palms.
“Well, let’s get started, shall we?”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED