Joe David Bellamy

Not Very Pretty

Prof. Edgar Handler’s wife was a thin mousy woman with drab hair, but she was devot­ed to him. She pre­pared his meals on time, she did the annu­al tax­es so that he didn’t have to, she did the dish­es and the laun­dry and the gro­cery shop­ping and cleaned the house, of course, and she would do any­thing he want­ed to do in bed–some of it kinki­er than he sup­posed oth­er women would have per­mit­ted. That was for­tu­nate for Edith because if she hadn’t read­i­ly fol­lowed his orders and been so utter­ly com­pli­ant in so many ways, he thought he might have divorced her a long time ago. She was not quite pret­ty enough to be the Dean’s wife, and Edgar Handler thought that some day–if he played his cards right–he might end up as the Dean. He sup­posed that hav­ing such an ordi­nary-look­ing woman wouldn’t dis­qual­i­fy him out of hand. She was sweet and lik­able enough. It was just that he couldn’t help think­ing what an asset it would be to have a smart, viva­cious, social­ly adept woman like his col­league Erika Bishop at his side, nev­er mind that she had no inter­est in him. Whatever else you could say about Edith’s good qual­i­ties, she was not social­ly adept and she was not very pret­ty.

Lately she had start­ed tak­ing ten­nis lessons and walk­ing around the house in a cute white ten­nis out­fit with a very short skirt. The out­fit seemed out of char­ac­ter for Edith, since she had nev­er worn any­thing like it before.  Edgar did not know quite what to make of it. The skirt revealed her slen­der, beau­ti­ful legs to the world in such a fla­grant way that Edgar was embar­rassed for her and embar­rassed to con­sid­er that she might be iden­ti­fied in pub­lic in that dress as his wife. One had to con­sid­er pub­lic per­cep­tions, after all. Her appear­ance reflect­ed upon him. “Don’t you think you could find a more mod­est cos­tume to wear at ten­nis,” he said one day, apro­pos of noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar except his own mis­giv­ings.

No,” Edith said. “This is what they all wear.”

But aren’t they all quite a bit younger than you are?”

Most of them.”

Surely you could find some­thing else then, some­thing more age-appro­pri­ate.”

I’m not that old,” she said and sashayed out the door. He believed it was the most defi­ant thing she had ever done in his pres­ence! What did she think she was doing! He had made a per­fect­ly rea­son­able sug­ges­tion! He could see he was going to have to speak to her about it again–much more firm­ly next time.

*

But he wasn’t very focused on Edith at the time. His atten­tion was on more impor­tant mat­ters, name­ly, the endowed pro­fes­sor­ship com­pe­ti­tion with­in the English Department. The only two can­di­dates were, one, Prof. Ernest Strickland, the Chair and most senior mem­ber of the English Department, a man who had been asso­ci­at­ed with the College for bet­ter than twen­ty-five years, and, two, Ben Pelphrey, the upstart can­di­date, a per­son who had been hired only six years ear­li­er and had only recent­ly been pro­mot­ed to Associate Professor. No one else even had the temer­i­ty to run against Strickland because they were gen­tle­men (and gen­tle­women) enough to real­ize what bad form it was to do so. But Pelphrey, with his immense inep­ti­tude in social mat­ters, plunged ahead like the ego­tist he was. In his way, Edgar was delighted—delighted that Pelphrey should make such a crass move—but also ter­ri­bly anx­ious that he might suc­ceed.

Edgar Handler regard­ed Pelphrey as his per­son­al neme­sis, and it had become the pat­tern of his life to make mat­ters dif­fi­cult for Pelphrey when­ev­er he could. Pelphrey was ami­able enough and had tried in his own fum­bling ways to be friend­ly to Edgar over the years, but they were always pit­ted against one another–there was no get­ting around that point, in Edgar’s view–for no oth­er rea­son than the fact that they were near con­tem­po­raries, they were often in com­pe­ti­tion for the same plums of aca­d­e­m­ic advance­ment, and they were both con­sid­ered “poets.”

Edgar was irri­tat­ed because Pelphrey had def­i­nite­ly not been hired as a poet. If he had known the man wrote poet­ry “on the side,” he would have done more to pre­vent his hir­ing in the first place. The prob­lem was that Pelphrey’s inci­den­tal and occa­sion­al poet­ry was far bet­ter received than his own, which was his main schol­ar­ly pursuit—if pub­li­ca­tion was any mea­sure of accom­plish­ment. It wasn’t, in his esti­ma­tion. It sim­ply showed that Pelphrey had bet­ter con­tacts than he did. But some peo­ple did believe the fal­la­cy that pub­li­ca­tion proved the inher­ent worth of the work, and this was a source of end­less pain for Edgar. Pelphrey’s pub­li­ca­tions!

Pelphrey had undoubt­ed­ly appraised the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion and con­clud­ed that the fact that he had pub­lished so many essays, reviews, stories—and even poems—in so many estimable jour­nals would count in his favor. (Pelphrey thought they were estimable, but Edgar had nev­er heard of some of them. Well, he had heard of them, but he was going to pre­tend that he hadn’t.)  Weren’t endowed pro­fes­sors sup­posed to be well-pub­lished? Strickland had not pub­lished very much—true. The only pub­li­ca­tion he had was his own dis­ser­ta­tion, if the truth be known, which he had pub­lished him­self twen­ty-five years ago in a hand­some leather-bound vol­ume. Maybe that didn’t count, in some quar­ters, but the schol­ar­ship was impec­ca­ble.

At some insti­tu­tions per­haps pub­li­ca­tion would have been the sole cri­te­ri­on no doubt—publication that was not self-pub­li­ca­tion. But at Merit University, thank God, a man’s char­ac­ter had some­thing to do with whether or not he was to be so honored—his char­ac­ter and the many, many con­tri­bu­tions he had made to the wel­fare of the College as a whole for so many years, serv­ing on so many com­mit­tees, chair­ing a major depart­ment, and serv­ing as a men­tor to so many younger fac­ul­ty mem­bers. Strickland, for Heaven’s sake, had been elect­ed Chair of the Faculty Council, the high­est gov­ern­ing body with­in the University. And, after all, the true impor­tance of colleague’s pub­li­ca­tions ought to be judged by the qual­i­ty of the schol­ar­ship they con­tained, not by the mere fre­quen­cy of appear­ances all around the globe in a mish­mash of ephemer­al jour­nals that no one had ever heard of—or even if a few peo­ple had heard of some of them.

The coup de grâce was when a mem­ber of the Nominating Committee asked that the can­di­dates place sam­ples of their pub­li­ca­tions in the Departmental lounge for mem­bers to peruse. Ben Pelphrey actu­al­ly brought in a small blue book­case, and his pub­li­ca­tions filled every square inch of it—two shelves worth—about five lin­ear feet across of bound mate­r­i­al, most­ly jour­nals, but there were books too, most­ly edit­ed vol­umes, of course, not books he had actu­al­ly writ­ten. But to Edgar Handler it was a stag­ger­ing sight. It was mind-bog­gling and embar­rass­ing to every­one. Such pro­lifici­ty was obscene in its way. Then poor Prof. Strickland had been faced with the task of lay­ing his mod­est leather-bound vol­ume in front of this burst­ing shelf, and Edgar could only imag­ine the feel­ings that must have accom­pa­nied that hum­ble act. He thought Pelphrey’s behav­ior unfor­give­able!

No one gaz­ing upon the sheer vol­ume of Pelphrey’s out­put could argue that Pelphrey had not put in a lot of hard work, and Edgar would be the first to acknowl­edge that he deserved cred­it for that. But was this young man real­ly ready for an endowed pro­fes­sor­ship? That was the theme he hit upon in his many con­ver­sa­tions on the top­ic. Wasn’t it true—when you looked into the mat­ter carefully—that Pelphrey’s pub­li­ca­tions were nei­ther fish nor fowl, nei­ther schol­ar­ship nor art. They were actu­al­ly jour­nal­ism, jour­nal­ism of a high­er sort per­haps but jour­nal­ism nonetheless—generally slick and facile, as jour­nal­ism so often was. Even the poems were a form of jour­nal­ism, work­man­like bul­letins and excre­tions from his uncon­scious about his utter­ly pro­sa­ic and pet­ty con­cerns, which con­sist­ed main­ly of embar­rass­ing con­fes­sions about his exer­cise rou­tine, his mar­i­tal life, and eulo­gies and ele­gies of his dead father.

Nevertheless, in spite of what Edgar regard­ed as a slam dunk for Prof. Strickland’s can­di­da­cy, he had one more ele­ment to inter­ject that he thought might con­tribute to the dia­logue they were hav­ing as a Department and that was cer­tain­ly rel­e­vant; and this he made to Prof. Strickland him­self in his capac­i­ty as Chair ear­ly dur­ing the week of the elec­tion for the pro­fes­sor­ship.  Edgar steeled him­self and knocked on Strickland’s door late one after­noon and was wel­comed in and asked to please sit down. Edgar start­ed to do so, then made a ges­ture indi­cat­ing that he had best close the door first, since this was seri­ous. Then he sat.

There is a mat­ter that I thought I should bring to your atten­tion,” Edgar began, “but I’ve been reluc­tant to do so.”

Edgar, you know you can dis­cuss any­thing with me. If it’s some­thing that you’d like to keep private—just between us—then so be it.”

Well, I would leave that deci­sion entire­ly to your dis­cre­tion, of course—what to do with it, I mean. I just didn’t want to seem like a tat­tle-tale, but my pri­vate feel­ings are prob­a­bly not as impor­tant in the grand scheme of things as get­ting the facts out and con­sid­er­ing what it might mean to the Department. It’s about the new man.”

Pelphrey?”

Yes.  Pelphrey. He seemed like such a good hire at the time too.”

He’s hav­ing some dif­fi­cul­ty, is he?”

I’m afraid he has a lit­tle trou­ble keep­ing his zip­per in line, if you know what I mean.”

Oh, no! Frankly, I won­dered about that. Keeping it in the up posi­tion, you mean?”

Well, yes, I’m afraid so.”

Oh, my. Have there been any com­plaints about that?”

Well, no—not to my knowl­edge. Not com­plaints per se. But I’ve heard some rum­blings, you know—oblique things, noth­ing def­i­nite. But I can read between the lines, I think. Secrets are not that easy to keep in a com­mu­ni­ty this size. The girls seem to like him, I guess—at least so far. At least they aren’t com­plain­ing yet, and, you know, they flock to his class­es.”

Oh, but a thing like this could blow up in our faces, Edgar.  Eventually, one of them will complain—you can bet on it.”

Well, it’s cer­tain­ly not what we would hope for in the way of increas­ing enroll­ments.”

I’m oblig­ed that you men­tioned it, Edgar. A thing like this could do seri­ous dam­age to the rep­u­ta­tion of the Department as a whole, and of course there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of law­suits to con­sid­er.”

I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re absolute­ly right,” Edgar said.

Times have changed.”

Yes, they have. They have indeed.” Strickland him­self was mar­ried to one of his for­mer stu­dents, and Edgar did not know the cir­cum­stances under which this had occurred. Had Strickland and his wife become involved while she was his stu­dent?  He didn’t know, but it made him a lit­tle uneasy to think about it.

Strickland sat back in his chair for a moment and sucked on his teeth.  “At this point, I think we should fol­low a pol­i­cy of watch­ful wait­ing. We need some­thing con­crete in order to actu­al­ly con­front the fel­low about it.  But keep your ear to the ground, Edgar, and let me know if there is any­thing new on this subject—anything at all. I’ll men­tion it qui­et­ly to a few of the senior mem­bers, and we’ll keep our eyes open. Thank you.”

Thank you,” Edgar said. “That seems a wise course.”

I’m grate­ful to you, Edgar, for hav­ing the good of the College in mind, for your will­ing­ness to con­fide in me about a thing like this. I know it couldn’t have been easy.”

Not at all,” Edgar said. “I had con­fi­dence that you would know the best way to han­dle it, and your response is a great relief to me. If you don’t mind my say­ing so, it’s a lit­tle bit eas­i­er to par­tic­i­pate as a junior mem­ber of the group when the senior mem­bers are as expe­ri­enced in the ways of the world as you are. It sets an exam­ple that we all can fol­low.”

Edgar’s ela­tion as he left the Chair’s office was at a peak. For all he knew, Pelphrey was guilty as charged. He cer­tain­ly might be. But even if he were not, this lit­tle strat­a­gem might slow him down some­what, and that was real­ly all Edgar was hop­ing for—to slow Pelphrey down. Edgar did not intend to do any real injury to the man—of course not—he hard­ly knew him.  He didn’t want to know him. If Pelphrey had won the pro­fes­sor­ship, Edgar did not think he could have endured it—there was that. But he did not feel in com­pe­ti­tion with Prof. Strickland who was not unlike him, just a gen­er­a­tion old­er, and who was, at the same time, almost a father fig­ure to him and who was shap­ing up as a valu­able ally as well. Prof. Strickland was so much more deserv­ing of the hon­or than Pelphrey, it did not both­er Edgar in the least that he had gone to such lengths to assure that Strickland would win.  Within the week, the ver­dict was well-known. Strickland did win, of course. It was real­ly no con­test.

*

That evening when they went to bed, he tied Edith’s arms to the bed­posts, as he usu­al­ly did, and then whipped her, bot­tom to top. He used more force than usu­al and even smacked her ears, to show his dis­plea­sure with her atti­tude about the ten­nis out­fit, and she kept her lips tight and squint­ed up at him to see when the thrash­ing would be over. He untied her and turned her over and tied her up again and flayed her bot­tom more than usu­al with the cat-of-nine-tails, leav­ing a few marks. Usually she kicked and moaned when he did that, but this time she just lay there as stiff as a board as if she was com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous or didn’t care. “What’s the mat­ter?” he said.

Untie me,” she said, “so I can do you.” Usually she was in no hur­ry for the next step. But he untied her and lay down quick­ly beneath her as she stood above him. Much to his sur­prise, she reached down and used the same ropes to tie his hands to the head­board as he had used on her. He let her do it, though she had nev­er want­ed to before, and he had nev­er asked to have it done. He loved what came next–the sight from below of her tilt­ed pelvis and the way her hairy vagi­na looked. Usually it gave him an instant erec­tion, but tonight it did not. Something did not feel nor­mal. Something was in the air. Suddenly, she was pee­ing in his face, which was not per­mit­ted. “Hey,” he said. “Stop that this instant!”

I’m leav­ing you, Edgar,” Edith said. “I’m run­ning away with Jerry!”

What?” he said, chok­ing for a moment, and spit­ting. “Who in the hell is Jerry?” He thought she must be jok­ing.

He’s my ten­nis pro,” she said, “and he loves me.” Then she hopped off the bed and walked out of the bed­room with­out both­er­ing to untie him. As Edgar strained his neck to watch her go, he was flab­ber­gast­ed that she would just leave him there. What in hell did she think she was doing! Slowly he began to real­ize that she wasn’t jok­ing at all. Thus began his “Period of Mourning.”

 

With Edith gone, Edgar Handler’s life took a down­ward spi­ral that almost fin­ished him off. At first, he was sim­ply angry all the time–but espe­cial­ly angry at Edith and at that fuck­ing ten­nis pro, Jerry, the man who stole his wife. Jerry, for God’s sake! What kind of ridicu­lous name was that? Who was stu­pid enough to leave a man who was a full pro­fes­sor at a pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ty and prob­a­bly the next Dean to run away with a poor­ly edu­cat­ed ball-chas­er, a man with no pro­fes­sion at all? Apparently Edith Handler was!

Playing ten­nis was not a pro­fes­sion in Edgar’s book–it was mere­ly recre­ation, no mat­ter how well you did it. Where was this Jerry going to find work now any­way after com­mit­ting the unpar­don­able sin of run­ning off with one of his stu­dents? Jerry would be lucky to get a job sweep­ing floors. Edith was going to regret that she had thrown in her lot with such a poor provider. Then maybe she would recon­sid­er.

It was one thing to stand around the ten­nis court in skimpy clothes in someone’s arms whilst they pre­tend­ed to show you the prop­er swing and quite some­thing else to go through the grind of day-to-day liv­ing togeth­er, espe­cial­ly if the main bread­win­ner was an out-of-work for­mer jock who sat around the apart­ment all day drink­ing beer and belch­ing and regret­ting what he had done. Well, Edgar could state one thing with absolute cer­tain­ty. He was not going to take her back! After she had humil­i­at­ed him in front of the entire cam­pus com­mu­ni­ty! After she had left him tied to the bed­posts! After she had actu­al­ly filed for divorce and gone through with it. She was now just a mem­o­ry, and thus she would remain. His first wife. He nev­er want­ed to see her again. He nev­er want­ed to speak to her again. And no mat­ter how many times she came crawl­ing back to him, beg­ging for mer­cy and claim­ing she was sor­ry for putting him through what she had done, he was not going to lis­ten or for­give her.

Then he went out and wast­ed a cou­ple of thou­sand dol­lars con­sult­ing var­i­ous lawyers about whether or not it would be a good idea to sue Jerry What’s-his-name from here to Kingdom Come for breach of con­tract or Grand-Theft-Spouse or Using-Tennis-to-Insinuate-His-Way-into-Edgar’s-Wife’s-Underpants. But no such laws exist­ed in this con­text. According to the lawyers, there was not going to be any pay­off there at all, so, reluc­tant­ly, Edgar dropped the idea and wished he hadn’t wast­ed the mon­ey.

After sev­er­al months, when it became clear that Edith was not going to come back, beg­ging, crawl­ing, or oth­er­wise, and Edgar was liv­ing in a house that resem­bled a rat’s nest, his atti­tude under­went a slight revi­sion. He missed her. He missed her ter­ri­bly. He thought often of their ear­ly courtship –every lit­tle thing that she had done or said–and what a won­der­ful woman she had been and what a fine moth­er to their chil­dren. She had sac­ri­ficed so much for him. He hadn’t real­ized how much she meant to him. He hadn’t appre­ci­at­ed her properly–there was no doubt of that. God, he would give any­thing to see her moan­ing on the bed again, kick­ing at him and thrash­ing from side to side as only she could do. The farm­house where they had lived togeth­er was too full of mem­o­ries, so he sold it abrupt­ly, put his fur­ni­ture into stor­age, and moved into an apart­ment near cam­pus.

His class­es suf­fered, and his writ­ing did too. He couldn’t focus! All he could think about was Edith and their for­mer hap­py lives togeth­er. What had gone wrong? Why had he been such a prig and an ass­hole? He start­ed buy­ing large bot­tles of Johnny Walker Black and imbib­ing after din­ner each night, lin­ing up the bot­tles along the kitchen counter and watch­ing their pro­gres­sion through blur­ry eyes across the beige Formica as if they were mea­sur­ing the length and seri­ous­ness of his decline into the abyss. Oh, yeah, time to add anoth­er to the long, long line–it was the Johnny Walker Black Plague in Merit, New York–but at least it was help­ing to keep him sane.

Okay, maybe not. He knew he was slight­ly tight when he went into the bank that day, but it was not a big deal. He just need­ed some cash, and he wasn’t at all cer­tain how to use the ATM machine–never had used it and nev­er would. Whether he was a Luddite or not was beside the point. This was the way he always did it–he walked up to the teller as he always had. It was late in the after­noon, and so he sup­posed every­one was a bit tired and stressed out at the end of the work day, but that, in his opin­ion, did not excuse the surly atti­tude of the teller he encoun­tered. She said in the snip­pi­est pos­si­ble way that if she cashed this check his account would be over­drawn, and, in addi­tion, she hand­ed his check back to him as if it was cov­ered with bugs! “You’ve made a mis­take,” he said, as polite­ly as pos­si­ble. “Possibly you’re using the wrong account num­ber?’

No mis­take,” she said. “You have zero funds in this account, Mr. Handler.” Then she gave him the God-what-a-jerk look that sent him over the edge.

Do you have any idea who I am?” he said.

Handler, it says here. Mr. Edgar Handler. Is that cor­rect?”

Dr. Edgar Handler,” for your infor­ma­tion. “I’m Atwood Professor of English at Merit University!” She did not seem to be very impressed by that, as she should have been. “Do I look to you like some­one who would over­draw my per­son­al check­ing account?”

I don’t go by looks, Sir. You could be General Petraeus, for all I know. I have to go by the num­bers, and the num­bers say you have a bal­ance of zero. I’m sor­ry about that, Mr. Handler.”

You say you’re sor­ry, but you don’t look sor­ry at all, if I may say so. Maybe if I showed you this big gun in my pock­et, you would look just a bit more con­trite? What do you think? I just cleaned it this morn­ing too. It’s ready to go.”

That won’t be nec­es­sary, Sir. I real­ly am very sor­ry.” But Edgar was already mak­ing a bulge with his fore­fin­ger inside the pock­et of his sports coat, and already the teller was react­ing to it. Yes, indeed, she began to look as if she might be just a lit­tle bit sor­ry for offend­ing him, but she may have pressed a but­ton behind the counter at that point–he was nev­er quite cer­tain of the details.

It’s only a .45,” he said. “But I’ll bet it would blow your face off with one shot.” The next thing he knew his head was hit­ting the floor like an over­ripe water­mel­on and what felt like a 300-pound man in a guard’s uni­form was strad­dling him and pin­ning his arms above his head.

No gun,” the guard called out. “He’s unarmed.” There were voic­es all around him, and gen­er­al chaos, which Edgar thought it best to avoid. So he sim­ply pre­tend­ed to be uncon­scious, though he sup­posed he may actu­al­ly have been uncon­scious. He cer­tain­ly should have been after tak­ing a hit like that. In any case, he had sus­tained a severe concussion–that much was cer­tain. All the doc­tors agreed on that point. It was just a lit­tle mis­un­der­stand­ing, for God’s sake! Why did they have to make a Federal pro­duc­tion out of it. The teller over­re­act­ed! He was jok­ing! Yes, he sup­posed he did have a some­what odd­ball sense of humor–that much he was will­ing to con­cede. He was an egghead, har-har. Prof. Edgar Handler end­ed up in the Rome Insane Asylum, though they didn’t call it that any­more. It was the near­est bona fide men­tal hos­pi­tal to the Merit cam­pus, and he stayed for over a week at the Dean’s sug­ges­tion while his col­leagues cov­ered for him. Edgar did not see much of the oth­er patients, nor did he want to for that mat­ter, because he spent most of that time in bed, think­ing and sober­ing up. To tell the truth, it took him that long before he could stand up with­out feel­ing dizzy. What a cha­rade! What a rot­ten deal! The coup de grâce was that he did have over $5000 in his check­ing account! The shit-for-brains teller had been look­ing at his sav­ings account!

He sup­posed now he could for­get about ever becom­ing the Dean of Merit University if Dean Tim should ever decide to move on, but that was per­fect­ly okay with him. It was a relief actually–a whole lot less to wor­ry about. He had enough to wor­ry about just get­ting through the day. Why had he even want­ed it?–the Deanship? He couldn’t remem­ber. He was a poet after all, and a poet had a lot to think about and write about. Poetry and mad­ness were close cousins, of course, and always had been, so this fall from grace should not have sur­prised him as much as it did. If any­thing, this was a con­fir­ma­tion of his con­di­tion and stature, proof of his call­ing. He was a mad­man, and the world had found him out. The world was so crazy that it made every tru­ly sen­si­tive per­son crazy right along with it. A poet suf­fered and a poet wrote poems about that suf­fer­ing, and that was what he was going to do now. He was already doing the for­mer! Now this was his wake-up call. He would just give in to his inner mad­man and pro­duce works of tran­scen­dent genius, just as he had always want­ed to do.

 

In the hos­pi­tal and all that fall Edgar began to think about Lauren Landfair again–his Buffy. Buffy had been one of his best stu­dents back in the eight­ies, and for a time he had want­ed to for­get her because of the com­pro­mis­ing posi­tion she had placed him in. She was such a beau­ti­ful girl, just beau­ti­ful. Well, okay, she wasn’t that beau­ti­ful in the tra­di­tion­al sense. She was gawky and maybe a lit­tle knock-kneed; and not every­one con­sid­ered freck­les to be beau­ti­ful. But she had the kind of whole­some good-looks of the rich blonde girls in the Ralph Lauren ads and com­mer­cials and she was, in fact, a rich blonde girl from Darien, a priv­i­leged girl with a prep school edu­ca­tion, an incred­i­ble wardrobe, and a Mercedes Benz. She was the kind of girl who wouldn’t have looked at him twice if they had met in high school or grad school or any­where else but Merit University when he was her poet­ry pro­fes­sor.  His posi­tion of author­i­ty gave him some kind of momen­tary glam­our in her eyes, and he took advan­tage of that. Or she did. Who was real­ly the aggres­sor? It was hard to say.

In a way, it was Pelphrey’s fault. By then, Edgar had begun to believe his own rumors about Pelphrey. He knew this was a bit screwy. He knew that he had no real evi­dence for any such trans­gres­sions on Pelphrey’s part. Pelphrey had an attrac­tive wife he seemed devot­ed to, but Edgar chose to believe that Pelphrey was stick­ing it to every female stu­dent under his guid­ance, every one that he chose to debauch, that is. No one could have done them all, but Edgar imag­ined Pelphrey could take his share and was doing it. His sense of out­rage was equaled only by his pangs of envy. That not one stu­dent stepped for­ward to even flirt with Edgar him­self was humil­i­at­ing enough. That not one female came for­ward to com­plain about Pelphrey’s behav­ior was evi­dence to Edgar that Pelphrey was get­ting away with it, and the only con­ceiv­able way that Pelphrey could be doing that, in Edgar’s mind, was because the women were sat­is­fied!

Then Buffy appeared, so atten­tive, so bright-eyed. So flir­ta­tious. Who could have resist­ed her? Pelphrey might not have con­sid­ered her beau­ti­ful enough, and Edgar sup­posed that his own per­cep­tion of her might have been air-brushed and roman­ti­cized somewhat—after the fact. But she was beau­ti­ful to him, the way she shy­ly unzipped his fly and then took his penis into her mouth–no ques­tions asked, no per­mis­sion called for, impos­si­ble to deny–the way she knew how to deep throat his mem­ber so that her lips went all the way up to the end of his shaft. O my God! Where did she learn to do that, he won­dered? How many dicks had she prac­ticed on? Or was she born know­ing it? It did take a cer­tain tal­ent after all. He tried to teach Edith to do it once, but she only gagged and threat­ened to throw up–not exact­ly the roman­tic out­come he was hop­ing for. Poor Edith–how he would be delight­ed with what­ev­er fum­bling efforts she might make in that direc­tion now!

It had all start­ed with Buffy Landfair when he had invit­ed her to din­ner at the farm. Edith was away for the week at her mother’s. He was feel­ing lone­ly, so on an impulse after they had fin­ished going over one of her poems in his office he had invit­ed Buffy to come on out to his place for din­ner lat­er on and she had accept­ed. The farm­house on 155 acres was utter­ly pri­vate and remote. (How he missed that place now–he wished he hadn’t sold it.) He still remem­bered the sight of Buffy’s cher­ry red Mercedes com­ing slow­ly towards him up the long grav­el dri­ve­way. He stood on the porch and waved to her–the not-so-famous poet in his care­ful­ly cho­sen Orvis clothing–and when she emerged from the car, she was car­ry­ing a bou­quet of gor­geous yel­low iris­es for him. She was that thought­ful. Of course, they had had the req­ui­site wine with din­ner, but it was not drunk­en­ness that led to his affair with her but like-mind­ed­ness.  She liked to suck his penis and he liked it too. No, he mustn’t demean it in any way. It went beyond the phys­i­cal. It was pure poet­ry in itself, pure ani­mal attrac­tion and mutu­al admi­ra­tion at first. She was a fine stu­dent and a tal­ent­ed appren­tice poet who deserved the A’s he gave her. They could talk to one anoth­er with­out pre­tense or inhi­bi­tion, like equals, though she, of course, always deferred to his supe­ri­or knowl­edge. She played him per­fect­ly. She had a mediocre mind and tal­ent, but she knew exact­ly how to get what she want­ed out of him. Oh, for God’s sake!

Okay, why did she stop com­ing around for free blowjobs in the back­seat of her car after the class was over? Just as he was grow­ing accus­tomed to the intox­i­cat­ing, erot­ic scent of expen­sive leather? Why did she end it with him that way? Was it guilt on her part? Obviously not–she was nev­er guilty about any­thing. He was the guilty one. Had he ruined it with his guilt? Quite pos­si­ble. More than pos­si­ble. Had he ruined it because he could nev­er bring him­self to make love to her? She did him, and he thanked her, grate­ful but par­a­lyzed. Not exact­ly the basis for a long term rela­tion­ship! How could he have made such an over­sight? How could he have been such a klutz? He real­ized that he didn’t real­ly know how to approach women, not even one that he was ter­ri­bly in love with. He was inept as a lover. Yet he had to acknowl­edge that in spite of his dis­ap­point­ment at the time, a part of him was relieved to be free of her, and delight­ed when she grad­u­at­ed. He was ter­ri­fied that he might be found out, and if they had gone on as they were, he would have been. Somehow he had man­aged to skate through.

 

Years passed and Edgar’s life entered a peri­od of sta­sis. He con­tin­ued to live in the cramped apart­ment. He was a port­ly, bald­ing endowed senior pro­fes­sor, and the junior mem­bers lis­tened to him and were very polite in his com­pa­ny. But he was not cer­tain if they took him seri­ous­ly or not. Perhaps not. His men­tor Strickland was long gone, still liv­ing but retired and no longer a play­er. Edgar missed him ter­ri­bly. Edgar missed Edith ter­ri­bly. Edgar even missed Pelphrey! Pelphrey had got­ten anoth­er job some­where else. Now that there was no one to com­pete against, no one of dis­tinc­tion in the Department who had the cre­den­tials that Pelphrey had, the place seemed vac­u­ous to him—and lack­lus­ter. How had he got­ten him­self teth­ered to such a place? It was not good for his work to be sur­round­ed by such medi­oc­ri­ties. The stu­dents bare­ly tol­er­at­ed his mean­der­ing lec­tures. Either they were not as smart as pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had been, or he was not as sharp him­self.

There was no ques­tion that these new stu­dents were dif­fer­ent, less inter­est­ed in text that went on beyond a few para­graphs. It was almost as if they all suf­fered from atten­tion deficit dis­or­ders. They were less inter­est­ed in poems that had deep­er mean­ings too. If they couldn’t under­stand some­thing on a first read­ing, they gave up. They had no patience with the process of exe­ge­sis, or with him. They want­ed bill­boards, not poet­ry. They want­ed slo­gans, not ver­bal acu­ity. It was painful to him to feel so old and out-of-touch, and hor­ri­ble to be con­sid­ered a noto­ri­ous bore. He felt he should prob­a­bly retire soon or lose all of his self-respect, but he had no idea what he would do if he did retire. How would he occu­py him­self? He sup­posed he would write or try to write, but he had no ener­gy for it now. He did not have an appetite for the sheer labor of it. Who was he kid­ding? He had nev­er been more than a pedes­tri­an poet, and he nev­er would be any­thing more than that! It was aston­ish­ing that his col­leagues had not rec­og­nized this essen­tial defect about him, or maybe they had. He knew a great deal about poet­ry, of course. He was pri­mar­i­ly a schol­ar of poet­ry, and that knowl­edge had served him well in the class­room for many years—until recent­ly when no one seemed at all inter­est­ed in it any­more.

He was still liv­ing in this mis­er­able apart­ment and pay­ing stor­age bills for his fur­ni­ture from the farm. Maybe he should move back out into the coun­try and take long walks across the mead­ows, he thought. Maybe he should buy 200 acres some­where. He got in the car one sun­ny Saturday after­noon and went for a long dri­ve. His mean­der­ing path took him sev­er­al miles out of the vil­lage and wound back and forth along nar­row coun­try roads like the one he used to live on. Eventually he found his way to that road too. He sup­posed he had in mind to stop at the foot of his old dri­ve­way and rem­i­nisce and feel sor­ry for him­self again, as he often did these days, but as he approached the old place where he had turned in so many times in the past, his heart almost stopped because there was a For Sale sign post­ed there among the hon­ey­suck­le and bram­ble bush­es. By God, he couldn’t believe it! He won­dered how much they were ask­ing for it?

Within a month’s time, he had bought back the farm, shed his lease, removed his old fur­ni­ture from stor­age, hired a cou­ple of his stu­dents and a truck and moved in. His prospects bright­ened. He tried to put every­thing back exact­ly as it had been before his life had gone so sud­den­ly down­hill, and then he sat there and looked at it in the silence and occa­sion­al bird­song and won­dered if this had been a good idea. He bought it back for less than he had sold it for fif­teen years earlier–because real estate prices had tanked in the meantime–so it seemed like a good busi­ness propo­si­tion. But he was still ter­ri­bly lone­ly and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on the past was increased expo­nen­tial­ly.

Then one day he made his usu­al slow walk down to the mail­box at the end of his dri­ve­way and found a post­card from Edith, for­ward­ed from his old address. There was noth­ing on it but her phone num­ber, so he has­tened back into the house and dialed her num­ber.

I bought back the old place,” he told her rap­tur­ous­ly.

Well, isn’t that won­der­ful,” Edith said.

Where are you liv­ing now?” Edgar said.

Buffalo,” she said.

How in the world did you end up there?” he said. “Where’s Jerry?”

Jerry left a long time ago, Edgar. Jerry left about a month after we got here.”

And so you’ve been liv­ing there all this time?”

Yes.”

Do you live alone?”

Yes, of course.”

What do you do?”

I work as a recep­tion­ist in a doctor’s office, Edgar. It’s not very excit­ing work, but it gets me out of the apart­ment. I can’t afford a car, so I just ride the bus or walk.”

It’s so good to hear the sound of your voice,” he said.

Yours too. What are you doing? Are you still teach­ing?”

Yes, though I’ve thought about retir­ing.”

Are you mar­ried yet?”

Heavens no, of course not. You know, you’re the only girl for me, Edith, and you always have been. I’ve missed you so much. Nothing is the same with­out you.”

Oh, Edgar….  I’m sur­prised to hear you say that.”

Well, it’s the truth.

Do you mean it or are you just mak­ing polite con­ver­sa­tion?”

What a thing to say! Of course I mean it!”

Why haven’t you told me before this?”

I didn’t know where you were! I thought you were still with Jerry. I didn’t think you would want to hear it.”

Edgar, I’ve been think­ing about you a lot late­ly. I’ve been think­ing that I might like to come home now.”

Today? You mean, this home?”

That home—yes—if you wouldn’t mind con­sid­er­ing it. I mean—what do you think about that idea?”

I don’t have to think about it at all. I’ll come and get you!”

You will?”

Can I come today? I’ll get in the car right now.”

You want to come today?”

Why not?”

I don’t know. Okay, that would be okay, I guess.”

Oh, Edith!”

What time will you get here?”

As soon as I can. I’ll call you.”

I’m quite a bit old­er, Edgar. I hope you rec­og­nize me.”

I have no doubt that I will—no doubt at all.”

He made him­self a sand­wich and a ther­mos, got in the car, seized the wheel, point­ed it in the direc­tion of Buffalo, and start­ed off. He drove a lit­tle too fast because he couldn’t wait to be there. He was going to see Edith today! He was going to bring her back home!

~

Joe David Bellamy’s nov­el Green Freedom was pub­lished in 2012 by Narrative Library. He has recent sto­ries in Narrative and The Provo Canyon Review. “Not Very Pretty” is from his new nov­el Merit, which is out now look­ing for a home.