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A.C. Koch

These Are My Demands

 

1. No Work Tomorrow

This is number one on my list of demands. It's snowing right now, a very cold snow, and if this keeps up there exists the possibility that school will be cancelled tomorrow. I'm a student teacher. That means I work full time at an elementary school, teach a full load of classes, grade papers, call parents and negotiate with administrators all day long, for no pay. In fact I'm paying tuition for the experience. I am filled with rage. Seeing myself in the snowy reflection, I glow with rage. Stirring the honey in my tea, my hand quivers with rage. No work tomorrow: this is my first demand.

*

My list of demands is short and concise. Some you may find to be inappropriate for an elementary school teacher, someone whos supposed to be totally dedicated to his job. But I won't apologize for anything because each of my demands is entirely honest and they flow from one another. I don't expect all of them to be met. There's only so much I can do, wishing for more snow, as if wishing equaled some kind of action that would result in me not cursing my life as I drive to work in the morning.

 

2. Whiskey

This one is easy enough. I'm not picky about the label or even if it's bourbon or scotch. I keep a bottle around and use it rarely. Merely the presence of it is comforting. But here's the rub: if I wanted to get loopy tonight and stay up till three in the morning draining the Old Crow down to the bottom, I couldn't. Why? Work tomorrow.

You'll see, it always comes back to that.

*

Illustration: An old friend of mine, Greyhawk, blew into town. He called me on a Tuesday night and I recognized his rasp right away, though we hadn't spoken in years. He wanted to meet for a drink, of course.

First it was coffee at a downtown diner where I bummed his cigarettes and listened to his wild stories of hitching around the country doing poetry readings, making a thousand bucks in St. Paul and losing it all in Fargo. "Women! Dammit! Fuck 'em, but fuck 'em! Know what I mean?"

Then we were in Don's Mixed Drinks putting away whiskies. I let loose a tirade on my job, my Sisyphisian boulder, my five in the morning wake-up bummer. By now it was midnight. Greyhawk was entertained by my zeal, but there was no way he could understand my position. He had to worry about when he was going to eat next, or where he was going to sleep, or if one of his enemies was going to knife him under some bridge -- but he never had to worry about getting up on time, or oversleeping, or having to behave professionally with a hangover.

Many times I tried exit lines but conversation had taken us away. It was two, we were sloshed, I had a long walk home. But Greyhawk knew of a couple Mexican chicks who lived just around the corner.

*

Don't think I'm nave enough to believe in Greyhawk's promises of women. He believes himself and that's why he's a toothless hobo shuffling across the continent. But he's also powerfully charismatic, a mesmerizing talker, and he really does get what he wants most of the time. I was at the point where I was convincing myself that I could stay up till dawn then drink a pot of coffee and go straight to work and fake it all day. First graders are clueless anyway. It would never occur to them that their teacher had been out all night on a whiskey binge with a crazed Injun prowling for Mexican girls in the shady part of town.

Amazingly, the girls were home. There was an argument right away, some complex drama I knew nothing about, and Greyhawk got slapped. But he pleaded and moaned and cooed and finally they put on some coffee and let us watch tv with them. Everyone shared a spliff but I declined. I was sobering up and beginning to panic. Neither of the girls was attractive, nor did they seem to give a damn about me. We sat in a brightly lighted livingroom strewn with toddler toys and junk food garbage, and my head ached. Greyhawk soon disappeared into the bedroom with the very girl who had slapped him. The other girl and I stared at each other. She said this to me: "Boy, you gonna get in trouble hanging around with him, believe me."

"I know."

"Why did you come here?"

"I don't know. It was his idea."

"You wanna do it? Or you just wanna watch tv?"

"No, no. Let's just watch tv."

Then she moved over close and leaned against me so I had to put my arm around her shoulders. She traced her fingertips over my knee and smoked as we stared dumbly at car commercials and talk shows. Later, as I was dozing to the sound of static I heard her say, very close to my ear, "Why don't you wanna do it, man?"

And I said, "Work tomorrow."

 

3. More Leisure Time.

This is a corollary of the first demand. No work equals more leisure. If I didn't have to work the next day, would I have just done it with that girl? I don't think so. But I would've enjoyed those talk shows a lot more -- and maybe shared that spliff. When you can sleep in tomorrow, you can do anything today. But instead I'm at school, writing a letter to an old flame during my planning period.

Dear Nicolette,

Heard from Greyhawk that you've finally made it back to Barcelona. I'm sure you understand that the very idea of that fills me with rage. You're spending your days walking the Ramblas, lolling in the Park Gull, playing guitar for a hatful of pesetas in the Plaza Real, and spending your nights God knows how -- while, on this side of the world, I'm up at 5am, commuting to work in the suburbs, returning home in rush hour, putting myself to bed by ten, doing exactly the kind of thing we once declared to be punishable by death: suburban careerism.

This will be very difficult for you to believe, but I'm working as a student teacher, on my way to earning a degree in elementary education. I guess I just sort of slid into it. The idea is I'll have summers off, time to do the kinds of things that really matter, like staying out till dawn, sleeping till dusk, throwing fearsome parties of crossdressing and binge drinking, punkrock singalongs and kung fu movies. But who will join me for these diversions? Has everyone grown up and moved on? Gotten married? Dropped dead? Probably they're all just like me: having to go to bed early and sober, to go to work tomorrow.

I know, I know, Work, schmurk, why don't you just pick up your guitar and go play for your living on some streetcorner?

I admit, my reasons are pathetic: my rent is high; I need the student loans; it's better than working in an office; its good experience. To tell the truth, none of these reasons feel true, but it's what I tell myself when I'm driving to work in the morning crunch.

In the meantime I'm telling everyone I meet that I'm busy writing an opera. Isn't that a beautiful fantasy? That instead of spending my days wasting away in a sterile classroom showing children the proper way to carry scissors, I'm actually devoting hours and hours to the creation of a full-blown tragedy on an epic scale, a spectacle which will fill the stage with galloping Cossacks, thundering elephants, pillars of flame, a murderous hero with flashing swords and a levitating harlot who commands armies with the heavings of her chest! I could go on and on and on!...but today, I'm afraid, is a working day, and I have lessons to write. No time for opera. This letter has been my one plunge into leisure time, and it's been sweet, but the bell's about to ring, and I have to get back to work.

yours,

A.

4. Extension of Youth

Listen: Friday afternoon I get two unexpected phone calls. The first is from an old high school buddy, Randy Slattern, inviting me out to his place to "drink some beers and watch the game." I have no idea what game he's talking about, that's how much I give a shit. I give him a half-assed answer. "Hey, great, I'll try to stop by later on..." I get him off the horn when another call mercifully comes in.

"Hiya! 'Member me?"

Of course I do. I haven't talked to her in years but I know that voice anywhere, the way there's always a smile behind it. "Cora! What're you doing? Where the hell are ya?"

*

Turns out she's been living just a few blocks away from me. That's what happens when you live in the city. We dated in high school, Cora and I, and haven't seen each other in years though I can practically see her bedroom window from mine as we speak.

"What are you doing tonight?" she wants to know.

"I don't know, you tell me." How can I say that so easily? Simple: no work tomorrow.

*

We're walking through the Asian floor of the art museum, the same place we went on one of our first dates when I was a senior and she was a sophomore. After ten years, it's perfectly natural to hold hands.

"I've been a waitress in this town for too long." She's looking at an etching of a woman in a kimono in front of a mirror painting her eyelids. "I know everyone and how they tip."

"You don't know how I tip."

"Yes I do. You're a good tipper, all goodlooking guys are. Old people are a crapshoot, and middle-aged women, forget about it!"

She says it 'fuggedubowdit.' It turns out she's picking up and moving to Brooklyn next week, where everyone talks like that.

"Yeah, a friend of mine has a dance company, and she wants me to come out and choreograph with her. Not like I'll make any money, but hey pal, I'll be in New York City, and I'll be doing something real for the first time ever."

"What's 'real?'"

She stops and turns to me in front of a misty landscape painting, some Chinaman's idea of Spring. "I'll tell you what real isn't. Real isn't working at a diner five days a week to make the cash to pay for a crappy apartment where your mooch-ass boyfriend smokes pot all day and watches tv. Real isn't spending your evenings in art classes that teach you nothing you don't already know and get you a degree you don't need and can't use. The only thing real as far as I can tell is a wide open dance floor, and as much time as you need to do anything you want."

I'm watching her. How could we have known each other all this time and never crossed paths? Why did I never dig her number out of some old yearbook? How did we get here, at the edge of thirty, and only now do I realize what an amazing woman she is? We've come across a decade, alone, to stand here again, exactly the same but better. "You can have your dance floor. Me, I'll work on my opera. Then your fantasy and mine are the same."

"Fantasy? Sorry, bub, mine's not a fantasy. That's why I'm going to Brooklyn. It's waiting for me."

And I imagine it is. I imagine a dance floor in a darkened studio, the wood soft and smooth and scattered with chalk dust, the mirrors dark, the doors locked on a busy street, waiting for the key that Cora wears around her neck like a jewel.

*

My old car, the one we used to make out in, has long since gone to the junk heap. We're riding around in her Bug, through the familiar suburbs. She says, "Remember when we got all dressed up for Prom, and went to dinner, and drove down to the hotel for the dance, and then just stayed in your car all night necking in the parking garage?"

"Hmmm, no, I don't remember that."

She turns to me, wide-eyed.

I hold up my hands. "Cora! Of course I remember. But as of this moment I forbid the use of that word."

"What word? 'Remember?'"

"Right. I don't want to hear it. We never used to have any need for it."

"Okay, then. I also don't want to hear 'used to.' Deal?"

"Deal."

I have an idea. "Tonight I got a call from Randy Slattern. Remem--I mean, Do you know who I mean? He's having a little get-together tonight. You want to stop by and raid his beer and freak him out?"

To that end, we hit the Salvation Army on the way over and do a little shopping: a velour sportshirt, white corduroys and suede blazer for me; a bell-bottom flowerprint pantsuit and curly blonde wig for Cora. On the way out we grab a couple pairs of oversize sunglasses and slip them on. Like extras in a Seventies cop show we strut across the parking lot singing the theme from Shaft, giggling all the way. "Can you dig it?"

*

Randy Slattern still lives in the same suburb where we grew up. He and his wife bought a house and I'm not joking right on the same street where his parents still live. A block from where my parents still live. The more I think about it, the more I think how funny it will be to show up with Cora. Randy was always crazy about her. Even in high school he thought I should marry her, just like he was marrying his girlfriend. Because that way, he figured, nothing would ever have to change.

When we show up there are a handful of people in the livingroom in front of the tv. Everyone is astonished to see us come in, and I'm astonished to see who's there. It's Randy and his wife Paula and a bunch of couples from high school, married alumni, people Randy and I never hung out with but who have sort of washed up together now like the rest of the world never existed. I can't remember any of their names, if I ever knew them, but the faces are familiar despite layers of fat and receding hair. Handshakes go all around. Beers appear in our hands. No one says a thing about how were dressed they surely think its for real. Instead Paula says, "So, are you guys engaged now?"

Cora and I look at one another and laugh. "Not yet," she says, half-moon eyes smiling.

Some basketball game is on, and conversation is muted. During a commercial Randy asks what I'm up to lately.

"Actually," I say, "I've been working on a big project. It's an opera. Marin Alsop is doing the score and I'm writing the libretto. You have no idea how time-consuming that is."

"An opera?"

Cora jumps in. "Oh, it's wonderful, Randy, you should hear it. I'm working with them on some of the choreography, for the grant proposal."

"Right. We're waiting on the grant. But we should be starting rehearsals soon for next year's season at the Denver Center if everything comes through."

Cora is watching me. "It's such a beautiful story, the libretto."

Randy has no idea how to take this. He doesn't ask any more questions. (How could you not wonder what the opera's about?!) Instead he tells me, in commercial intervals, how he's moved up to the same management position at AT&T that his father held until the lay-offs of the '80's.

"Be careful," I say.

"Oh, I am. If they pull that on me, I'll go in with a gun."

The thing is, I don't know how serious he is. Randy and I, we've completely lost the ability to read one another.

After the game we're all standing on the deck drinking our hundredth beer. Cora has squeezed in beside me at the railing, and my arm goes around her. The conversation hits on mortgages, cars, Seinfeld, the President's blowjob, and crazy days at Lakewood High School when that dirty fuck Ronald Reagan was president. "Remember Winjum?" Randy is saying, and everyone laughs. "How he used to chuck a piece of chalk at you if you weren't listening?" And then he chucks his bottle cap out into the darkness of the backyard. We were all, every one of us, in Winjum's class, and hated it. Now here we are, older, fatter, balder, and laughing about it.

"Hey," I say, "let's go shoot him! Randy, get your gun!"

More laughter, but nervous. We're all a bunch of fucking strangers.

*

Cora lets the VW roll at a snail's pace down the block and around the corner -- she's way too buzzed to drive, and my parents' house is right here. We sneak in the back door and creep through the hall in the darkened house. I can see a bluish tv light under my mom's door. It's excruciating getting down the stairs without creaking the old boards. Finally we slip into my old bedroom and collapse on each other in silent giggles. We lie right there in the dark, wrapped up in our coats, faces pressed together. We're just a couple of kids, and kissing is easy.

*

The hard part is rousing ourselves at sunrise to sneak out of the house before my mom gets up. In fact, she's already sitting in the sunny kitchen nook when we creep up the stairs. The smell of coffee fills the house.

She's shocked at the sight of us, like she's seeing a couple of ghosts. "Hi, Mrs. Koch," says Cora, sweet as can be, "can we join you for a cup of coffee?"

Cora ends up making french toast for all three of us. She and my mom chatter at a hundred miles an hour while I brew more coffee. Cora's talking about moving to Brooklyn next week, how it's time for a new thing. Watching them, I see that my mom is getting the same kick out of this that we are: nobody has grown up, we're still in high school, Cora is still my girlfriend, everyone is young, everything is in the future. And it feels so real that I expect my mom to ground me for the stunt I've pulled -- and I'm almost disappointed when she doesn't.

 

5. (Untitled)

Does anyone ever come back from Brooklyn?

I'd like to add Cora to my list of demands, but I know I shouldn't. Would I really want her to stay? And would that just turn me into another high school refugee?

I think about everyone I've said goodbye to. Nicolette and I had breakfast at a sidewalk caf on a summer morning. We walked slowly together across the Plaza Real, and parted at the corner where she hailed a cab and rode away. I stayed there, leaning on a palm tree and watching the front of the caf. After a few minutes the waiter came to clear away our table. He took the cups and saucers, and the half-eaten croissant, and pocketed the change we'd left. Then he wiped the crumbs to the ground. He pushed the chairs in. The table was clean and new, ready for someone else. That is the saddest thing I have ever seen.

*

If I could channel the energy I expend dreaming of lost loves into some creative pursuit, I really would be able to write a fricking operatic libretto. I'd be able to master Spanish. I'd write all the letters I should, study abstract mathematics, swim laps till I was rock hard, read every book that passed through my hands, save a lot of money. I have no doubt that I could achieve all of these goals, but I'm driven to distraction by love. Where is it? Who has it? How do I get it? This, I suppose, is the final item on anyone's list of demands.

It's late. I'm just finishing up my list when the phone rings. It's Cora. "Hey, babe," she says. "How's the opera coming?"

"Oh, don't you know, I think it's a tragedy."

The snow is coming down out my window, but not enough to make a difference. I'll have to get up a half hour earlier to warm up the car and scrape the ice off the windshield.

"Don't say that. I don't choreograph tragedies."

"It was great to see you."

"Well, listen, I'm taking off tomorrow, so how about a drink tonight? I want to say goodbye."

But you already know where this is going. My alarm clock will go off in five hours. I close my eyes. Where's my Brooklyn? How do I get there? It's an ugly way to end: "Sorry, girl, I have to go to work tomorrow."


A.C. Koch has lived in southern Europe and eastern Asia, and presently resides in central Mexico on the high plains desert, subsisting as a jazz guitarist in the group Clean & Sexy (www.cleanandsexy.com).  Koch's short stories and novel excerpts have appeared in Rocky Mountain Arsenal of the Arts, Nexus, Tower of Babel and River City.  Contact:  www.zacatecas.org 

 

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