W.T. Pfefferle ~ Hard Looks

I’ve just about had all I’m going to take from this place. In the morn­ings it’s fog­gy, the clouds come in at night, low, cov­er every­thing with dew and wet­ness. And then by the time the sun comes up it’s already hot, humid­i­ty bring­ing sweat to my fore­head. No mat­ter how many times I wipe my head more sweat comes, run­ning down in small rivulets to my chin, my neck. Sometimes, when it does­n’t mat­ter, I just let it go.

I go into my office at the col­lege and just wipe my face with a tow­el, or wave a manil­la fold­er like a fan in front of me. It’s nev­er cool enough. September 12th. What kind of a town is this with the hottest part of sum­mer still here?

Mr. Majors?”

I look up and out into the hall­way and I see Sheryl Borelli, an old­er lady who teach­es British Literature.

Yes,” I say.

Your car is parked back­wards out there,” she says, point­ing vague­ly in the direc­tion of the park­ing lot.

Wrong way?” I say.

You’re nose out,” she says, and then comes right in my office. She looks at my two art deco lamps that I have light­ing the room and she reach­es for the switch that turns on the large, gro­cery-store flu­o­res­cents.

Nose in?” I say.

Six dol­lar tick­et,” she says. “They can’t see your park­ing stick­er.” She looks behind me at a movie poster I have of a near naked blonde woman, and she turns and starts out.

Thank you,” I say, as her heels echo down the hall­way.

I’m the new guy here. I’ve just been hired to teach these American History cours­es. I don’t know if I even want the job, or if I can do it at all. I’ve only got my Master’s, and I’ve only taught one year before. They were des­per­ate, I sup­pose. To give me $25,000 to do a job that I can’t do seems des­per­ate.

I’ve just lost a girl­friend to a guy who plays gui­tar in some band. She was about the best look­ing girl I’d ever seen, so it did­n’t sur­prise me too much when she took her stuff out of the apart­ment.

Don’t let me slow you down,” I said as she left.

That’s nev­er been a prob­lem,” she said.

I can hear nois­es through one wall of my office. Through the oth­er side is the fac­ul­ty lounge. They’ve got refrig­er­a­tor and oven stuff in there. At lunch all I can smell are frozen din­ners. Lean Cuisine. Junk like that. The first cou­ple of days I was here I sat in there with them. I ordered a big piz­za and ate half of it with­out say­ing a word. Some guy asked me if he could have a piece and then start­ed telling me about Faculty Council and the raise we weren’t going to get. I left the oth­er half of the piz­za there when I went to class, and when I came back two hours lat­er the thing was still sit­ting there.

They know who I am most­ly now. I made a joke a cou­ple of days ago and one of the old guys said, “Mr. Majors has sure arrived.” They all laughed and I sup­pose I laughed, too. But I’d imag­ine all at dif­fer­ent things.

I get along with this one oth­er new guy. He’s in the English depart­ment but I don’t think he likes it. He’s got some sort of bogus degree from a col­lege in the pan­han­dle of Oklahoma that no one’s ever heard of. “Great place,” he keeps say­ing. “Top flight speech depart­ment.”

So, he and I start­ed eat­ing lunch togeth­er at this cafe­te­ria near­by rather than sit­ting in the lounge with the old-timers. I don’t want you to mis­take this. I appre­ci­ate the words of advice I get from them, but I just don’t know if I want to be sit­ting there when I’m fifty or a hun­dred and fifty, which is rough­ly the age range of the col­lege fac­ul­ty.

So this guy from Oklahoma’s name is Newton. I can’t pro­nounce his last name and he tells me it’s Indian. I don’t care. Newton and I sit at this cafe­te­ria about five miles from the col­lege and he tells me how much he hates English and I tell him how much I hate History. We talk about get­ting motor­cy­cles and dri­ving to Colorado like the guy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We won’t do it, of course. They don’t pay you here for being stu­pid.

I have this one girl in my class who likes to sleep. I swear when she nods off in the mid­dle of a lec­ture about Jeff Davis or dur­ing some dumb ques­tion about the Civil War, I just want to race over to her and slap her sil­ly.

This morn­ing when I go in she’s one of the only stu­dents not there. I rip through the class ros­ter, sev­en­ty-five stu­dents, mis­pro­nounc­ing about one out of every three names. Every once in a while a stu­dent will cor­rect me. “Her-NAN-dez,” comes a voice from the back. I just keep going. What are they going to do? Report me? I look at the names that have X’s next to them to see if I can fig­ure out who she is. The semes­ter is not very far along and I’ve nev­er been very good at learn­ing names. When stu­dents put their hands up I just point at them.

Go ahead,” I say.

I’m cov­er­ing the rise of the American South when the sleep­er comes in. She strides right in front of my desk, shoot­ing me a sheep­ish look that’s about 60% teeth. She sits down toward the back right of the room, her usu­al spot, and I swear she nods off before I get to the Georgia con­ven­tions.

Newton and I have got this notion that we’re just going to buy motor­cy­cles no mat­ter what and hit the road. I know he’s most­ly just jok­ing about it. I, of course, am dead seri­ous. One week­end we escape from our near­ly iden­ti­cal dead-end apart­ments and try out bikes at this place right in the mid­dle of town. Newton gets on a big Honda and near­ly spills it at the first turn.

Your bud­dy a rid­er?” the guy says to me, con­cerned.

Horses, I think,” I say.

When Newton gets back he’s got a cramp in his hand from the clutch. He just waves at me like he’s lost his mind and I get on the same bike.

Just around the build­ing once,” the sales guy says.

Yeah, it’s a heavy bike,” Newton says. “Take it easy.”

I look at both of them like they were bugs on my wind­shield and give the big bike some gas.

I had the bike for almost a week before the rain stopped and I could ride it to school. I don’t wear real nice clothes to work any­more so that did­n’t mat­ter. I wear jeans and a dress shirt, but I nev­er tuck the shirt in. I just let it hang out like I’m retard­ed and I some­times even wear a tie. Who cares? I wear ten­nis shoes, too. If they want to fire me over my shoes, let them.

I park the bike right in a car stall. When I called the secu­ri­ty peo­ple they told me that there was no fac­ul­ty motor­cy­cle park­ing, but I was free to park it with the stu­dent bikes out in the remote East park­ing. I did­n’t con­sid­er that an option at all.

So, this morn­ing I just parked it diag­o­nal in the stall I usu­al­ly park my Nissan in and that’s it. Let’s see them tow it or move it. I’ve got a park­ing stick­er on it so they can always check and see whose it is.

I go into the big lec­ture hall after I get some stuff out of my office, and as I walk a lit­tle across cam­pus I can see the bike. It looks beau­ti­ful and soli­tary out there.

This class is the sleep­er’s class. It’s a big one today, almost every­one there. I go through the roll and when I say ‘Lori Stone,’ I hear her voice say ‘here.’

As I teach that day all I think about is her name. I glance down at the class ros­ter and I see her name and her social secu­ri­ty num­ber and even her phone num­ber. I could just call her up at night and say hel­lo. I could tell her that there’s a seri­ous Historyproblem that only she could help me with. That’s the thing to do. In fact, it might be the only way I can ever get fired here. A small price to pay for free­dom.

So, you like it?”

Newton has come in my office and is grin­ning, lean­ing against the door jamb.

The bike?”

Yeah, pret­ty cool, huh?”

Yes. As long as you keep it upright.” I feel mean today, no big sur­prise.

Well, it’s been a while since I rode. I guess you’re pret­ty seri­ous about it. I see you ride it every day now.”

What else? You either ride it or you park it.”

Yeah, I sup­pose.”

I can tell Newton wants to come in and talk. I’d rather he went and joined the cir­cus or some­thing. He keeps look­ing at the two chairs I have in my office for stu­dents and I have them cov­ered with books for a com­mit­tee I’ve been forced to work on.

Why don’t you sit down,” I final­ly say after Newton has sighed for about the four hun­dredth time.

Yeah, okay.”

I had been grad­ing this stack of essays for one of my class­es. None of the oth­er History peo­ple do it, but I opened my big mouth dur­ing my inter­view about writ­ing across the cur­ricu­lum or some oth­er hodge­podge that I had heard about and my depart­ment chair said he want­ed to know my results. So, I slap A’s and B’s in equal num­bers. Short essays get C’s. If they’re not typed I give them D’s and F’s. When Newton came to the door I was just turn­ing the title page of Lori Stone’s.

Well, what’s up, Newton?” I say.

I’ve got to go to this con­ven­tion next week. You know? State thing. You going?”

No.”

They dock your pay a day if you don’t go.”

Let them. What is it? Ten bucks or some­thing?”

Sixty-eight, actu­al­ly. Your chair know you’re not going?”

I don’t care,” I say.

Newton just stands there and gives me one of those hard looks that sort of says, “Boy, are you in for a big sur­prise.” Which of course I already know.

That night I don’t sleep even five min­utes. At four a.m. I just get up, show­er, dress, and ride the bike around town. I need some sort of rea­son not to just go pack a suit­case and go to Las Vegas or some­thing. I ride a lit­tle and think about the day my wife left.

We had a house, a real nice one. It was out­side of the city on three sweet acres. I came home and there was a U‑Haul out front. You prob­a­bly think I’m mak­ing this up.

I make a pass through the col­lege park­ing lot and the place is qui­et and emp­ty. I park for a sec­ond in front of a big bank of glass doors that I can see my reflec­tion in.

I head the bike up the feed­er to the high­way and roll past some fast food joints, 24 hour places. At a fish place, a restau­rant with a gigan­tic whale for a sign, I get stopped at a red light. I mind­less­ly sing along to some song in my head and won­der what’s next for me. As I wait I stare in the restau­rant, watch some kid clean­ing tables. He picks up a whole tray of paper plates and sty­ro­foam cups and sweeps them with his arm into a giant yel­low pail.

And past him, right in my line of vision, that’s where I see her. That’s where I get my answer. I can see her stand­ing there behind the cash reg­is­ter of the all night fish place, smil­ing, beau­ti­ful. It’s the sleep­er.

Mr. Majors?”

She’s stand­ing in the door­way look­ing at me. I’ve got my feet up on the desk and I’m try­ing to catch a few winks.

I’m Lori,” she says. “From your 8 o’clock class?”

She sits down in the chair oppo­site me. She’s car­ry­ing her text­book in one hand and a large pot­ted plant in the oth­er.

What do you need?” I say.

You said we could come in and look at our first essays,” she says.

I look at her a sec­ond and then reach for a blue fold­er on the desk. When I find it I open it flat and begin flip­ping papers over look­ing for her name. “Stone?” I say. “Lori Stone?”

I find it and pull it out. It has a large, red ‘B’ writ­ten on it and some com­ments about con­tent and devel­op­ment. Maybe they’re good com­ments, but now I don’t even remem­ber writ­ing them.

Here,” I say. “If you have any ques­tions just ask away.”

She takes the paper from me and reads for about two sec­onds and then puts the paper back down. “Well, how’s the class going?” she says.

What? Class? Your class?” I say.

Yeah, are we pret­ty nor­mal or what?”

Yeah, I sup­pose. Normal. About as nor­mal as usu­al. Do you have a ques­tion about your grade?”

Not real­ly,” she says. “I just thought I’d ask.”

She looks at me a bit longer and I don’t have any idea what I should say next. I won­der if maybe she saw me some­how that morn­ing at the restau­rant. Maybe she knew I could­n’t sleep either at night, and that’s what made us alike. If maybe she had been star­ing out that restau­rant win­dow at the same time I was star­ing in. What would she have thought to have seen me there at 4:30 in the morn­ing, look­ing at her? Just as I begin feel­ing sweat form on my fore­head she reach­es to the ground, picks up the plant, and sets it right on the desk, on top of her essay. She gets up and waves, backs out the door.

I love her like I’ve loved nobody before.

~

W.T. Pfefferle is author of five books, most recent­ly My Coolest Shirt, pub­lished by The Word Works Press. His ear­ly poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, won the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Prize in 2007. He has worked as the Director of Expository Writing at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and more recent­ly as a tenured pro­fes­sor at Georgetown College. He co-authored Plug In: The Guide to Music on the Internet. Pfefferle also wrote Writing What Matters, a col­le­giate writ­ing text­book. In 2004, Pfefferle pub­lished Poets on Place, the sto­ry of his year-long trip around America inter­view­ing and pho­tograph­ing American poets: Mark Strand, Rita Dove, Denise Duhamel, Charles Wright, Mark Wunderlich, Henry Taylor, David St. John, and Nikki Giovanni.

Reprinted from NWW Vol 1 N 1, 1995.