David Gilbert ~ Central Casting

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.