Hard Looks

w.t. pfefferle


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.