After seeing a photo in the local newspaper of Ms. Rodgers coaching girl’s soccer, Wyatt decided to visit his former teacher, a favorite in elementary school. He will have time after school to catch a bus back to his university for the new semester.
Wyatt is on his way to Chico State University, a minor school in the vast agricultural expanse of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Yes, it is Trump country, which could make it difficult for Wyatt to have a life in print and he hasn’t, as yet, met Ms. Rodgers.
If Wyatt was on his way to Berkeley or Stanford, élite destinations with corresponding assumptions about identity as opportunity, he could be resuscitated, if necessary, with the right interaction with Ms. Rodgers. After all, in this élite version of Wyatt, he might be your boss some day and you may want something from him, even if he is undeserving.
In the hallway, a teacher gives Wyatt directions to Ms. Rodger’s classroom; she should return shortly. On her desk, Wyatt finds a photo of her on the beach with her dog. She is youthful, hardly changed in ten years. Wyatt tries to remember if she has a third-grade teacher voice. If she does, it will make his visit uncomfortable.
If Ms. Rodgers arrives, she will have to say something about herself that changes the nature of Wyatt’s visit. It is not enough to expose him as a callow and unsuspecting youth; such a character is a relic and there is no market for nostalgia. Her revelation will require a longer story which includes Wyatt. But the story will almost certainly end badly for her, which would be good for her if it were her story.
A teacher and former student of legal age hooking up has some promise given the number of tawdry and criminal encounters between teachers and students. But there is no reason to involve Ms. Rodgers in Wyatt’s life. She could eventually marry and have children without ever having had a preposterous encounter, like sex with Wyatt on the reading rug. She does not need to be thrown into the world that includes Wyatt standing in her classroom wanting something that he is unable to name.
The drug free zone, the classroom, does not stop Wyatt from using his cannabis inhaler, as if he were a respiratory patient. Medicated, he begins a tour of the student work hanging from the classroom walls. Their bios are surprisingly diverse and promise a wide range of identities in their global reach. Wyatt drinks from his large water bottle that he filled with an IPA for the bus ride. He has a vague sense of inviting scorn as a cliché from a party school but he can’t help himself. After all, he is not aware that he is a test case for representation.
Wyatt is relieved that Ms. Rodgers has not returned. He had been up for the encounter but now he’d rather tally the number of students who love pizza, more boys than girls. The family photos lead Wyatt into an imagined story in which he takes Ms. Rodgers to Chuck E Cheese, a notorious location for fights between parents attending parties. Wyatt finds himself in the parking lot with a heavily tattooed parent, both wearing MAGA hats, ready to fight. Ms. Rodgers is so taken with his gallantry that they return to her apartment where they enjoy each other on a reading rug she has at home and unrolls for adventure with returning students.
Wyatt does not wear a MAGA hat in Chico. He had been in a protest where MAGA hats were burnt on the ends of tiki torches, a mixed and disturbing metaphor. An extra hat needed to be disposed of after the protest. Before tossing it in a dumpster on campus, Wyatt smeared it with a fresh wad of dog shit. He was out without his phone, so he could not include the hat smearing on social media. Later, he saw a homeless person wearing a soiled MAGA hat around town and regretted his antics.
Wyatt jumps out of his trance when Javier, the night custodiam, pushes his cleaning cart into the room. Javier claims to know Wyatt from their student years at the local public high school. They reminisce about students and events with increasing enthusiasm. This camaraderie leads to their sharing the inhaler.
With a change of mood, Javier begins talking about the classes he is taking at community college with the intention of becoming a sheriff or suburban policeman like his father. He asks Wyatt if he knows anything about the Criminal Justice program at Chico State. Wyatt does not, but he does remember Javier’s father cruising the school parking lot after classes let out. The friendly cop bantering with the students.
Eventually, Wyatt reveals his reason for being in the classroom. Javier confirms that Ms. Rodgers is a babe but restrains himself, which relieves Wyatt; he does not want to have a discussion about Ms. Rodgers appearance.
With his aspiration of joining the police force, Javier (not his real name) disqualifies himself as a character of interest. He is an unapologetic nice guy. His family has lived in California, the Bay Area, for generations. He could make it to print if he had a police record or involvement in more progressive politics, which could lead to a police record. Even the commonplace of having a wife, children and trouble providing for them would be better than Javier as a policeman stopping at Starbucks in Palo Alto.
Wyatt has a chance to become a villain by patronizing Javier’s policing dream or revealing himself as a progressive with a taste for conspiracy — anything with George Soros in it.
A viable story finally presents itself. Wyatt is a fellow in the Stegner Fellowship program at Stanford. Dave, his brother and tweaker from the Valley, arrives in Palo Alto needing a place to hide out. He has wandered Highway 99 for years buying and selling meth, now fentanyl. His arrival and behavior at Stanford threatens Wyatt’s fellowship, yet enables the story — if Wyatt has the wherewithal to finish it.
In Wyatt’s story, his other siblings are Stanford graduates and successful in Silicon Valley. Wyatt betrays his family for its history of exploiting farm laborers, Javier’s relatives, and exposes the wealthy tech class for their conventional greed accumulated under the peculiar dodge of lives without a story, which Wyatt plans to chronicle with more salaciousness than accuracy — at least in the first draft.
After more inhaler, Wyatt raids Ms. Rodgers snack buckets and fills the pockets of his windbreaker with animal cookies and pretzels. Finally, he is in character sitting in Ms. Rodger’s reading chair with several picture books on his lap. A favorite book of his, The Stinky Cheese Man, is on the top of the pile. With the help of Lane Smith’s illustrations, Wyatt enters a trance state where the world looks like the illustrations in the book. He begins to misremember a Ted Talk in which the scientist claimed that the adaptations our species made to get to its present state have left us with a flawed and inaccurate reading of the world through our senses. What we experience is not what is happening. When Wyatt’s hyperfluid state begins to include the Buddhist teaching of not-self and its implications for identity, he has to stop in a moment of panic thinking that he will have to explain why he believes that he is sitting in a chair. He takes a big gulp of beer as if it will glue himself back together.
I read The Stinky Cheese Man to Wyatt when he was a boy, so I’m not surprised he found it in Ms. Rodger’s bookcase. As the story begins, the Stinky Cheese Man has little in the way of an identity having been put together by two old people. He starts out on his ill-fated journey hard wired to outrun those who object or at least remark on his smell, which is everyone he encounters. A fox, playing against type, offers to ferry him across a river on his back, but SCM falls off and dissolves in the river, a life of hours lost. Wyatt imagines himself dissolving in the bus into a pile of cheese on the seat.
Another fox, not playing against type, appears in William Stieg’s, The Amazing Bone. It’s too long for Wyatt to read but he has a vague memory of Pearl the girl pig. He is at ease with the familiar pictures. Pearl wears a dress and bonnet for an outing where she finds an amazing bone that speaks and makes valuable intercessions, which will be needed when Pearl is taken captive by a fox. She has a harrowing time as a captive in a cottage suitable for a horror movie. The fox sharpens his knives, comfortable with the understanding that it is in his nature to eat her without feeling responsible for the red in tooth and claw.
At the moment of slaughter, the amazing bone erupts in unexpected sound, glossolalia or experimental poetry. The fox shrinks to a mouse-sized threat allowing Pearl to return home safely with her talkative friend, the amazing bone.
I’ve had similar experiences with “amazing bone talk” in church as a child and at avant garde poetry readings in the late 70’s where shrinking, at least for the preacher, and a hole in the baseboard would have been welcome.
Wyatt wakes up with a start. He can’t believe that he has fallen asleep in the reading chair, a hapless nobody. His visit has become a very bad idea with its unintended trespass and risk of embarrassment. He is like SCM making a stop on his run. Fortunately, Javier steps in and offers him a ride. He just makes it to the bus.
Wyatt is being sent back to a university that has no record of his enrollment. He doesn’t know that he is being sponsored as an identity or what the intentions of his sponsor are in a densely crowded space.
Wyatt first appeared to me as someone who would get stoned in the classroom, eat the kid’s snacks and sleep on the rug until Ms. Rodgers returned in the morning and demanded an explanation. But that was clearly not enough for him to rise to the occasion or even protest his prospects. If Wyatt is to become Dave sleeping in a getaway car, I would not subject him to the shell game of identity and submission.
David Gilbert’s writing has appeared in Mississippi Review Online, Blip, New World Writing, Caliban, First Intensity and other magazines. He has two books: I Shot the Hairdresser and Five Happiness. This year he will publish Overland, stories of traveling to India overland in the early 70’s. The collection will be available on Kindle.