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Allen Woodman

Saved by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was George who first told me about the nudist woman.

"There's no modesty left," he said, as he picked me up after work at the bookstore. And he was right. Even in the bookstore, a job I liked because of its slow pace and few customers, women were opening their blouses and suckling their babies right in front of the Motherhood shelf. George called them walking chuck wagons. It was enough to keep me from dozing.

The nudist woman's apartment was just a few doors down from mine. We pulled up in front of it in George's pickup truck. It was a little, foreign truck, the kind that's now being made in the USA. At the time, George couldn't afford the full-size American version. He couldn't even afford to put a radio in it. This was one of the reasons he had become so observant. "See," he said, pointing, "she's got her curtains pulled all the way back." I looked at the house and, sure enough, there was a woman sitting there, in the downstairs apartment, as silent as a fish in a tank. Through George's binoculars, you could even make out that she was naked from the waist up, sitting at a table, eating creamed corn straight out of an open can. "George," I said, "this woman has just moved into this house. It's been vacant for a month. She probably hasn't even had time to put up her window dressings."

"That doesn't explain her chest," he said.

"It's hot. Men go topless all summer long."

"Yeah," he said, but I could tell he was thinking. He took his binoculars back, and took another long look. "You've got to meet her for me. Tell her you're from the Welcome Wagon or something."

This was how it always started. George would see a woman. Get me to meet her. Then we would introduce him into the picture in a real natural way. He said it made them more open to him, more receptive. But it never worked out too well.

The last woman, he saw in the bookstore. She was in the Psychology section, thumbing through a book on schizophrenia. I was just about to tell her that the bookstore wasn't a library when George motioned me to meet her. I tried to think of something nice to say. "My mamma forever told me as a child that it's OK to be schizophrenic as long as both your hearts are in the right place."

She looked up and smiled a sort of funny smile. Turned out she wasn't nutty at all. She just enjoyed reading books about people who were ill. Not just books about mental stuff, but any disease. The bookshelf at her house was filled with books on everything from Alzheimer's to zoophilia.

Her name was Jackie, and the initial part of George's first date with her went fine. They drove around in his truck, and she smoked a pack of Virginia Slims cigarettes. She had this fancy Zippo lighter that had a clear body that held the lighter fluid. Suspended in the flammable fluid was a pair of miniature dice. Every time she lit a smoke, she would shake the lighter and call out the number. "Seven," she'd say, or "Four," and she'd always follow the number by saying, "that's my favorite number." Then she talked about her classes over at the Auburn University extension college. She was in general studies, but she was thinking about changing her major to nursing. The word nurse was always a green light for George. It meant a woman knew something about anatomy and other things.

Then she told him how her brother had been run over in the street in front of her house and how when her mother had seen his body she had screamed that she had wished it had been Jackie instead. George didn't know how to respond to that, so he pulled the truck over to the side of the road, real slow and easy. Then he put his arm around her and tried to touch her breasts.

She took a felt-tip pen off of the dash of his car. It was a pen he had borrowed from me at the bookstore. She started writing on his jeans. It was too dark for George to read what she was writing. I would have wondered whether the ink would come out in the wash, but love makes you stand for funny things.

After he dropped her off, he came by my house and stood under my yellow bug-away porch light trying to read his pants. When I heard him whistle long and hard, I opened the door and let him in. "Look at this! Just look at this!" he was shouting, and pointing at his pants.

He explained to me how he came by the marks. He was forever telling me what happened to him. Right there emblazoned on his inner thigh in a pretty script was the word copulation, as plain as day. Above it, as if floating on a cloud, was the caricature of an intertwined couple that looked a lot like George and Jackie.

He wasted no time in driving around to the open service stations, searching for an appropriate condom. There was something about all those books on disease that had prompted him, but, after all, he said, a nurse would expect him to be professional. The service station choices were limited. The French Tickler, with its octopus-like extensions, seemed too personal for a couple's first time, and yet, to George, the plain old rubber Trojan just didn't seem sophisticated enough. Those were the days before glow-in-the-dark prophylactics or condoms with miniature batteries and moving parts. He felt optimistic enough to purchase one of each.

He entered her apartment filled with expectation. She had some piano music playing in the other room. He came right out and asked her if he could sleep over. At that moment, her daughter came out of the back room. She was waving her hands and screaming. The girl had the longest fingers George had ever seen. They were twice as long as normal fingers. She was waving them in front of her like she was warming them over a fire.

Jackie hugged the girl to her and told her to hush. She took her back in the other room and the music started again.

When Jackie came out, George was just sitting on the couch. "She's my daughter Jenny. She's an idiot savant, just like her dad."

"Her dad?"

"Met him over at the institution. I was doing volunteer work. He liked to play the piano. He was good with his hands. He and Jenny's one of the reasons my mom wished I was dead when she saw my brother was the one she backed over in the drive."

George didn't know it had been her own mother who had run over her brother. He wanted to say something about it. He also wanted to ask about Jenny's fingers, but just then he felt some other hands going to work up and down his leg. He cleared his throat. "Well, ah, what did your dad say?"

"I only heard my dad speak about once a year. He'd grab his shotgun on New Year's Day, walk out into the front yard, and fire a shot into the ground. Then he'd say the words 'Bad earth, bad earth,' over and over, like the lawn was a truant child."

"Things didn't go too right for him?"

"The earth finally won," she said. "Mom gave me the gun to keep. It's the only thing I have left of my father's. I keep it right by my bed, just in case."

Somehow the hand on George's leg felt a bit rough.

"You want to turn in now?" she asked. "Jenny normally stays in the bed with me, but she'll be asleep in a few minutes. You just wait a little bit out here on the couch."

Only the fact that she had recently installed one of those double-deadbolt locks on her door, the kind that takes a key on the inside to open it, kept George from slipping out into the night. He sat on the couch and decided to pull the old I'm-Sound-Asleep ruse. He stretched back on the couch, full-length, and commenced to lightly snoring. As facts often follow fiction, he was soon really asleep.

When he woke up, he imagined he was still dreaming. He saw Jenny, the little girl, waving her long fingers in front of her like she was warming them over a fire. Only this time he could really see the fire. Then he saw it was his pant's leg. She had set his pant's leg on fire with Jackie's fancy lighter, and his flaming pants were setting the couch on fire. "Two," Jenny said, "that's my favorite number."

When the fire truck came, George drove off without saying his goodbyes. His leg wasn't burned. Only the hairs had been singed, and his good jeans ruined. He could see Jackie in his rear view mirror, still talking with a fireman about all the different types of burn cases that he had seen.

George got me to introduce him to a nice Christian girl after that. She was a member of my Baptist church family. But that relationship didn't last too long because of his record collection. He would get a special price at The Record Shop on albums that didn't sell too well. One Sunday he made the mistake of playing a new Yoko Ono album on his stereo, just as his Christian girlfriend came walking up his drive. She told me that she didn't have to listen twice to know that the moans of ecstacy were coming from an Oriental woman he had in his house with him.

---

I pondered the question of how I could meet the nudist woman for George for several days. Finally, the bookstore answered for me. She entered the store fully clothed, but I could still tell it was her. She went back and started looking around in the fiction section. I walked over and asked her something I rarely said, "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for a book by Mr. Fitzgerald."

"What?"

"You know, that author that lived in Montgomery."

I was taken a bit aback. The store's bestseller had consistently been the Bible, followed a close second by Gone With the Wind. In fact, in front of the Baptist church there was a sign that proclaimed "Montgomery, Alabama, is #1 in Bible reading!"

"You know, Zelda's husband."

"F. Scott Fitzgerald."

"Yes, he's the one. I live in his house. Well, just the downstairs part. It's apartments, now."

This was my chance. I didn't know that Fitzgerald had lived down the street from me. I guess he had to have lived somewhere. "Oh, yes, I know your house very well. Yes, the Fitzgerald place."

"My landlord told me that it's the last house left standing in town that he and Zelda lived in. That's why he doesn't allow tenants who smoke."

After the Jackie incident, I knew that George would be glad to hear that the nudist woman didn't smoke. "Books by F. Scott Fitzgerald," I said, trying to remember what I had learned in the freshman English course I took before dropping out of college, "ah, yes, Gatsby, The Great Gatsby." My teacher was always going on about that book, something about some doctor's eyes and a green light. It was still the age of the great literary-symbol hunters.

"Gatsby?"

"Yes, he looks something like Robert Redford." Luckily I had seen the movie. "He's rich. He's got lots of shirts. That's how he attracts the girls. They like to see his shirts."

"Did he write that book in Montgomery?"

Now it's a shame that people expect folks who work in bookstores to know something about books. I didn't know where Fitzgerald had written the book. "The biscuit of it is that critics aren't too sure," I confided. "He was very secretive. Drank a lot, too." I was losing her interest. "But I have done my own study, and yes, yes, that's the book he wrote in your house." Her eyes opened wide.

"Do you have a copy of it?"

The plan came into focus. "No," I said, "it's a classic work of literature. It's very hard to come by in bookstores. But I'm sure I have a copy of it in my home library." I lied. Actually, the only reading material I was sure of having around the house was a Bible and a two-month old copy of Playboy. George had loaned it to me from his collection. He had every issue ever printed, cataloged and filed in their own special cabinet. "Why don't I drop a copy of it by your house on Saturday morning?"

"Can you make it Saturday night? Saturday's a busy day. I work at City Florist. I'm a funeral designer."

"A funeral designer?"

"You know, I make the flower arrangements for the funerals. Blankets of carnations to go on top of caskets. Broken wagon wheels cut out of styrofoam and covered in chrysanthemums."

"Now that must be an interesting job." I thought about my dull surroundings.

"It is, it is. Once a woman came in and wanted me to make an arrangement to look like a shotgun. I cut out the styrofoam to look just like one. I spray-painted the flowers brown for the stock and silver for the barrel. It was pretty."

"The deceased must have been a big hunting enthusiast."

"No, she told me he was a suicide."

"Oh." I didn't know what else to say. I wondered if she ever went to funerals, just to see how her work affected people, kind of like how a playwright might sit in back of a theater during a performance.

"I'd better be going. I'm gonna be late to work," she said, before I had time to ask.

---

George couldn't have been happier if I was making him a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. George must have said more good things about Mr. Fitzgerald and his book than a whole room-full of college professors. When he had said his final "God bless Gatsby and Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald," he turned to me and asked to see the book.

"I don't have a copy of it," I explained.

His face fell. "But your home library?"

I held up a copy of my Bible in my right hand and Playboy in my left. "This is the entire contents of my home library," I said.

George looked at the Playboy issue lovingly, the way a student looks at a test question he had actually studied for and could answer with ease.

"The bookstore?"

"Can't order it in time."

"The other bookstore?" There was a chain store at the new mall.

"It's a literary classic."

George looked downcast, but George was always a thinker. He ran to my phone and called the public library, not that either of us had a borrower's card. He waited while the reference librarian checked the status of the book. When she came back on the phone, his whole body looked like it was sucked down into the ground all the way to China. He slammed the receiver into its black cradle.

"Out!" George hollered. "Out for two weeks. Why would someone check out a book that isn't even new?"

"It's OK," I said. "I'll just tell her I couldn't find it."

"Don't you understand? This isn't just a book. It's the first thing she's asked of us. It's . . . it's a quest."

George always liked to use that word quest. He picked it up where he worked at the King Arthur Burger Court. George had advanced in the last year to assistant manager, his uniform had the name Sir Lancelot emblazoned over his pocket, and the word quest was used repeatedly in his management training manual. He used to be a student at the Methodist College and Seminary in town, until he kind of snapped one day, dressed up in their basketball team mascot hawk outfit, and started preaching across Montgomery, saying the words to all who would listen, "Oh, Israel, that I could gather you up like a hen gathers her

chicks . . . ." The hawk outfit was just old enough and in poor, sagging shape to give George the look of a giant mother hen.

He sat down on my one good chair, a La-Z-Boy. He pushed his weight back all the way and his feet shot up in the air. Somehow, the way he was sitting there, all sprawled out like a tire with no air, made that chair look like the world's saddest recliner.

Finally, he said the only words he could muster, "We have been betrayed by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald." It was a melancholy exclamation, born of mental exhaustion, and that's the way he sat for about an hour.

I had only seen him like this one time before. We had gone up to the Lake Jordan Dam, to do some fishing. We waited for hours with our cane poles in the water, watching the red and white bobbers floating up and down with the wind. The fish were not biting. We were just drowning one worm after another.

A man walked up to us and asked us how we were doing. I said I hadn't caught a thing, but George's imagination did not live on a small budget.

He started to tell the man how he had been catching catfish all day, so many, and so quick, that he had to just keep letting them go. He was just about to go into great detail about how one was bigger than me, since I'm about a foot shorter than George, when the man asked to see George's fishing license. He was a game warden. He wrote George a ticket for fishing without a license, but he let me go, since I hadn't caught anything.

After the man left, George just sat on the bank, looking the same way he did about this Gatsby business. Finally, I had to just load all of our stuff back in the car. George followed along, quiet like, and didn't say another word on the drive back to Montgomery.

---

I barely had spoken the words, "I wish I'd finished my freshman English course and not sold my books back to the college," when George shot up out of the recliner like Jonah from the whale's belly.

"College!" he shouted.

"But, George, I went to school out of state."

"Not yours, mine. Professor Peter J. Dickinson at the seminary. He has his own collector's library." George grabbed me by the arm like a fishing pole on a sunny Sunday afternoon. He deposited me in the driver's side of his truck and screeched down the street towards the Methodist College and Seminary.

---

The Methodist College and Seminary parking lot was a busy place to be on a Friday night, all because of the Red Lady. Years before, a rich woman attended the college. She was obsessed with her money and the color red. Her room was decorated in red. Everything she wore was red. She didn't make friends easily. When she received a letter from her father saying that they had run out of money, she hung herself in one of the top-floor rooms. It is said that if you watch long enough after midnight, you can still see her unearthly, crimson image in one of the rooms on the top floor of the building. It was the traditional Southern date suicide story. For some reason, women in the South expected you to tell them a horrifying story before you attempted to unsnap their bras. This was one of the reasons for the popularity of the parking lot in front of the main building of the Methodist College and Seminary. It's also the reason for the proliferation of Southern authors.

The building was laid out simply. The first floor was administrative offices and the chapel. The second floor was classrooms and faculty offices. The third floor was the men's floor. And the fourth floor was the women's.

We got out of the truck and walked past a row of cars with fogged windows.

When we arrived at the office door of Dr. Peter J. Dickinson, there were signs of life coming from it. There were more than signs of life, there was genuine liveliness, from the smell of burning hemp coming out from under the door to the giggles of a person considerably younger than Dr. Peter J. Dickinson.

George knocked on the door. There were the sounds of furniture and clothes being rearranged. Then there was chanting. "Ommmmm."

Eventually, the soft words of the good doctor called to us, "Enter in peace."

The room was heavy with the medicinal smell of Lysol air freshener. Dr. Peter J. Dickinson was sitting cross-legged on the floor, next to a beautiful, raven-haired coed, the kind of young woman whose clothes must be grateful to so perfectly contour her body. Things seemed a bit blurry to me in the room. I felt funny. They both had their hands raised in the air, as if they were trying to attract signals from some Far Eastern radio station. "We can continue our meditation session tomorrow, Mary Lee. The incense seems a bit strong, in here, but . . ." the professor was saying, until he looked up and saw it was just us and not some official group of administrators and parents.

"Dr. Dickinson?" George said.

The mixed emotions of relief and irritation fought to gain precedence over the professor's facial features. "What? Who? Young men, you have interrupted a very important religious experience." He paused and looked right at George.

Maybe it was the incense that was doing the talking for Dr. Peter J. Dickinson, but he started laughing. Not just an ordinary laugh, but the kind you laugh when you finally get grape jelly at McDonald's for breakfast, instead of mixed fruit, or you find real paper towels in the bathroom, instead of one of those hot air blowers. It was the laughter of small miracles.

"Chicken Boy!" he howled.

George's face went red.

"You're Chicken Boy!" The professor turned to Mary Lee. "This is Chicken Boy!"

Then Mary Lee started laughing. "Why," she exclaimed, "you're more famous than the Red Lady. All my teachers talk about you in their classes."

"Everyone wanted to know what happened to you," Dr. Peter J. Dickinson, said, "after the incident and all."

They were alluding to the chicken-suit preaching incident. George had to go up to the hospital in Birmingham for a while.

"He's in hamburger," I blurted out.

"I didn't expect him to be at Kentucky Fried Chicken."

"The quest," George threw in. I could tell he did not want me to go any further into his current occupation.

"Quest?" the professor asked.

"We are in dire need of a copy of The Great Gatsby."

Dr. Peter J. Dickinson's eyes were bright. He tasted a story bigger than a King Arthur Burger Court Royal Burger, the kind of story professors dream of finding to one day top those told by their colleagues in faculty mailrooms and lounges.

"As it so happens, I do have a rare, first edition collection of American Authors." He pointed to a fancy, glass-fronted bookcase. "These books are priceless," he said, more for the benefit of Mary Lee.

"We only need to borrow your copy of The Great Gatsby."

"Fitzgerald's masterpiece of preposterous love and the superannuation of traditional American belief. . . " again, Dr. Peter J. Dickinson waxed a bit for Mary Lee's sake.

"Right," George said. "About the book, can we . . . "

"I'm sorry, but it's far too valuable to loan out. It's inscribed by the author, you know."

George looked through the glass at the book the way a hungry dog looks through a butcher's window. The professor unlocked the case and took the book out. It was sealed in plastic, so you couldn't open it. He handed it to George to look at. I had only seen a moment like it one time before. It was an exhibition of trained German shepherds. These big dogs were made to stand very rigid and still, while their trainers placed dog treats on top of their noses. Their look of desperation and anger reminded me of the look in George's eyes.

"Note the dust jacket," the professor said, no longer for Mary Lee's benefit, but more in the celebration of knowledge itself. "It was painted months before the book was finished." The cover had a pair of these big brooding eyes. "The artist thought he was painting Daisy's eyes, but when Fitzgerald saw it, he wrote them into the book as the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. Hemingway thought it was the ugliest thing he'd ever seen."

I wanted to ask about the shirts. I thought I remembered Robert Redford throwing an armful of beautiful shirts up in the air and Mia Farrow crying into the glorious pile because it made her so sad that she had never seen such beautiful shirts before. I wondered whether that had been in the book or just the movie. I thought maybe I'd better read the book, it being a classic and all, and that way the next time someone came into the store asking about it I'd know something to say, but George's hand on my sleeve interrupted my reverie.

In the background the professor was still talking, something about colors and symbols and the American Dream. But George was pulling me from the office. Pulling me from the thing he most desired.

George's heart was breaking into about a million pieces and falling into the wasteland of accumulated King Arthur Burger Court soda cups and burger wrappers on the floorboard of his truck. George believed in his quest, but that Fitzgerald book kept receding before him. To have it in his hands and then . . . no matter. George was always one to say, "Tomorrow, I will run faster, I will stretch out my arms farther . . . ."

"Boats against a current," George said, as we slowly drove back to my house.

I wanted to say the word persevere, but it wasn't a word that came naturally to me. It was a word I had seen in the title of several self-help books at the bookstore. When I finally managed to speak, I said the word "preserves."

"With hot biscuits," George said. I guess I couldn't have said anything better. Food was the small consolation for life. "Or sausage gravy." George smiled.

Right at that moment it became clear. We were just a few doors down from my house, and there was the sign. The nudist woman's lights were on. No, it wasn't her lights. She was sitting in a chair in front of a television set. The curtains were still not up. Her naked body was bathed in the blue light coming from her TV. The National Endowment for the Arts couldn't have funded a more artistic vision.

"She is an angel on Earth," George said. Then he hit the gas pedal, and I knew where we were heading.

If there was one thinking spot in Montgomery for a love-sick man, it was Hank Williams' grave. It was the place that the local police always visited to drink beer and celebrate a big drug bust. It was the place George and I always went to when his heart was falling apart like a dropped jigsaw puzzle.

The songwriter's grave was in the oldest cemetery in town, just behind a row of Confederate graves. This was actually his second grave. His first plot was too small for a fitting monument, so they dug up a couple of French pilots who had died in a crash at Maxwell Air Force Base and moved Hank to their spot.

The monument was a respectful marble slab, and on top of it was a stone cowboy hat. The titles to some of his songs were etched into the slab. George always read them out loud like a litany, "Your Cheatin' Heart . . . I Can't help it if I'm Still in Love with You . . . ." At the top of it, it read, "Praise the Lord, I Saw the Light." Then there were clouds with giant sunbeams breaking through them. Beside Hank's grave, there were marble benches for the weary to sit on and think about life and death.

After George recited the song titles, he would start to sing. As the night wore on he really did begin to sound more and more like Hank himself, wailing away. George would sit on the slab and sing, and I would fix the drinks.

I dropped a whole aspirin each into two bottles of Coca-cola, although I preferred to pour a package of salted peanuts into mine, but it was a Southern form of dope used since the miraculous invention of the dark elixir in Atlanta.

George finished his bottle in one long gulp, and started singing about a whippoorwill who felt too sad to sing. I nursed mine along a bit. Hank Williams' stony white monument shimmered in the night. All was still, giving the place a kind of serene beauty. The scene was communicating something to us. Something about how you needed to live life. Thinking about Hank's body reclining on the ground below me made me want to spend as much time as I possibly could standing up.

George stood up, too. He touched the red artificial roses that filled the two marble vases beside the grave. It was one of those swift moments of decision that would lead him irrevocably towards ruin or salvation.

It was only after we had gotten back to the car that I realized that the Gatsby business wasn't over. Now I'm a bit gentle-witted, but I'm also one of the few honest people I have ever known. But what George proposed would end all of that. I would have to become wise and less than honest. George wanted me to provide a diversion. "That bookcase, it's right in front of the window. All of those necking fools out front, waiting for the Red Lady, would see us up there."

"We will need your red dress," George said. I knew what he meant. It was really Scarlett's red dress in Gone With the Wind. Rhett made her wear the dress to Melanie's party, after a group of old biddies put the word out about how she was seen hugging Ashley.

George had entered a Southern Costume Contest at the National Guard Armory. George wanted to go as Rhett Butler, but his girlfriend at the time had walked out just as they were getting dressed for the event. She had found a pair of women's underpants in his laundry basket. George tried to explain that he had dropped off his laundry at his mother's, that there must have been a mix-up in the dryer, which was true, but George was never too lucky in his explanations to women. George pleaded with her not to desert him until after the contest. He had spent a lot of money on the costumes, but she used Rhett's own words against him. "Frankly, my dear," she said, "I don't give a damn."

I will not tell you anymore about that night just now. Suffice it to say that I would be recreating the role of Scarlett for the second time in my life.

---

They say that practice makes perfect, but my second performance as Scarlett was tinged by a certain world-weary quality. I guess I had gained a bit of weight since I had last suited up. In the dark, inside the Methodist College and Seminary building, George helped me pull up the zipper. I had to almost completely hold my breath in order not to bust out of the gown.

George's part of the mission was to climb through the window over Professor Peter J. Dickinson's door and steal the book. He had a tiny penlight to use to help select the correct volume.

In the dark, I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. If the dress hadn't been so tight, someone could have heard me wheezing. George had told me that at the center of the floor was a laundry and ironing room that had windows that looked out towards the front. He gave me a candle to light and carry in my hand, while I pranced back in forth, up and down, in front of the glass, pretending to be the ghostly Red Lady.

When I entered the room, I could barely see. The windows were open, so I walked towards them. I lit the candle and started my distraction. Then I heard a voice.

"Professor? Peter? Is that you?"

I stood as still as death. My heart pounded in my chest. I gasped for a breath. The restrictions of the tight dress made the quick intake of air impossible. I did what any other normal, corseted, Southern Belle might do. I fainted.

When I came to, I was in the arms of Mary Lee. She recognized me as the friend of Chicken Boy from our visit to Dr. Peter J. Dickinson's office. She thought it was the sweetest thing that I had dressed up like a woman to sneak all the way onto the fourth floor to see her. She also said she found the idea of making love to a man dressed up like Scarlett O'Hara kind of exciting.

My mother told me that as a baby, she read GWTW, as she calls it, to me in my crib, but I could not remember anything from the book to prepare me for the rest of that night.

George waited for me outside, but when I didn't show up, he decided I could find my own way back. The quest could not wait.

---

He drove over to the nudist woman's house.

She answered the door wearing a Japanese kimono. George explained how I had asked him to deliver the book. He was sorry he was so late, but he had seen her light on. He said it was his own copy. It was a signed first edition.

She invited him in. He sat in the same chair where he had so often seen her sit. She unwrapped the plastic cover that the professor kept around all of his collectable books. She touched the jacket cover gently.

She opened the book to the first page, but something was wrong. Something had changed in her expression. The title on the first page read The Illustrated Kama Sutra, even though the cover had proclaimed it to be The Great Gatsby, and, under the title, there was a picture of two people intertwined in a way that would seem humanly impossible.

George wanted to explain that somehow the cover must have been on the wrong book, but the woman started screaming something about him being a pervert. Then she started hitting him with the book. George's hands flew out in front of him. His hands were shaking. He told me later that his fingers looked real long, waving out in front of him, defending against the potency of literature.

George went running out into the dark night, his arms outstretched in front of him. He jumped in his truck and drove all the way through town, back to Hank's grave.

He started singing again, a forsaken cry went up among the graves. Then, in the moonlight, he saw her. She was beautiful. She was the first woman he had ever met without my help. She was drawn to his song. She was a stripper down in one of those New Orleans clubs. She said she always did it to Mr. Williams' music. She was wearing her tiny work clothes. She was on her two-week vacation, and she said that she just wanted what was left of Hank to see her act, and, by George's account, it was enough to raise the dead.

George helped her get a job at a local Dairy Queen. Later that month George was promoted to full-time night manager at King Arthur Burger Court and got to wear a real crown. Over his uniform pocket, they embroidered King Arthur. You might say that George and his new girlfriend became the king and queen of Alabama fast food.

---

I didn't see George but a few times in the months that followed, but it didn't matter because I always knew that there were people like him left in the world, people of honor who would follow their quest to the end, steadfast and ceaseless. About the others? For understandable reasons, Professor Peter J. Dickinson never mentioned the break-in or the loss to his extensive pornography collection, and the nudist woman bought some unbelievably thick curtains.

Me, I'm actually reading that book, The Great Gatsby, and those shirts are really in there. I'm also thinking about going back to college. Mary Lee has convinced me that there's a real benefit to education. So you see, in a way, we were all saved by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

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