Friday, March 30, 2007

New Fiction From Tom Hazuka

Editor’s Note: From the Cellar of the Ivory Tower appears in the Spring 07 edition of Connecticut Review.
Tom Hazuka is the author of over 30 short stories, former co-editor of Quarterly West magazine, and author of two novels, including In the City of the Disappeared (Bridge Works Publishing Company, Inc., 2000), which draws on his experiences in Chile with the Peace Corps between 1978 and 1980. A professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, Mr. Hazuka has co-edited two short story anthologies. He is also co-author of A Method To March Madness: An Insider’s Look At The Final Four.

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  • From the Cellar of the Ivory Tower


    My crisis of faith began rather typically, with a horrendous incident that made me wonder how any loving God could permit such a thing. But upon further review (not being predestined to believe in Calvinism), I took theology off the cosmic hook: the Almighty should not be the fall guy for my quixotic quest to find employment as a college teacher. It's my own damn fault.

    My old college friend and bona fide human horsefly Chesterman looked at me pityingly. It was Saturday night at T.G.I. Friday's, and he was bemoaning over his third pint of microbrew the fact that he had slaved fifty hours that week. I was nursing my second mug of the cheapest swill on tap. I didn't get paid again until next week, and the rent was due on Tuesday.

    "Not that I'm complaining," he said. "How could I, with the green I pull down?"

    "Not that I ever stop complaining," I said. "But I work at least sixty hours a week."

    Chesterman peered at me like I'd suggested boogeying naked on the bar. He ran his hand through hair that was receding almost as fast as mine. His face crimped into a mask of irritating dubiety, like the time he gave me forty bucks to write a history paper for him, then worried that it sounded too smart and the prof would flunk his cheating ass. He got his girl friend to retype it, with spelling mistakes and semiliterate grammar for authenticity.

    "Spare me, you lazy bastard. You teach twelve stinking hours a week. Talk about the gravy train. My tax dollars at work."

    I could have popped him one, but physical violence is not the way of the untenured academic. Intellectual violence, of course, is no-holds-barred, a sad necessity for us who live by our wits, and crumbs fallen from the master's table. (For proof, don a flak jacket one fine day and check out the vitriolic epistles at the back of The New York Review of Books.) So I dragged him through the straight facts à la Joe Friday, figuring they contained enough mayhem for even this jaded fan of Schwarzenegger.

    "You want to know about the gravy train, old pal? OK, here goes, a typical day in the ivory tower. Up at six, skim newspaper, grade godforsaken freshman comp essays and prep for class, drive to the university to teach at ten and eleven, then office hours with a line of students bitching that their shitty essays that should have failed got C's instead of A's. A couple hours in the library writing and researching a new article, because if you don't publish you have no prayer of ever getting a tenured job. Then drive half an hour to the community college to teach more comp at three, where the students whine because you don't have their papers graded yet. Office hour there, where if you're lucky you can do some grading and prepping for tomorrow, but most likely a bunch of students will show up. Leave at rush hour, or work for another hour or two at school and wait for traffic to thin out. At home you can try to relax, except nights when you have to teach another class, but chances are you can't forget those stacks of essays still to grade. Don't worry, there'll be plenty of them left to kill your weekend. And in the fall like now there's another delight: applying with thousands of other desperate, equally qualified people for a 'real' full-time job."

    "What do you mean, 'real'?" Chesterman was dry and trying to catch the bartender's eye. I still had a few tepid ounces to my name, and I was determined to make them last.

    "I mean a tenure-track job that pays better than two thousand dollars a course--"

    "Two measly grand? You gotta be shitting me."

    "--and actually has medical benefits and a retirement plan."

    "You don't have any insurance?"

    "No way, Massa. Part-time teachers get no benefits, just the shaft, like temp workers in industry. We're the Kelly Girls of academia."

    Chesterman let out a low whistle, shaking his head.

    "Hey," I told him as snottily as possible. "What do you expect for only twelve hours of work a week? But at least I'm on the short list at Southwest Appalachia Tech. I might get an interview."

    "Never heard of it."

    "Neither had I."

    "What's it pay?"

    I know I'm a man of the mind, to whom material objects are immaterial. Still, I felt a dyspeptic pang to admit the paltry truth. "Almost thirty," I said, exaggerating by only three thousand.

    "Thirty K! After six years of grad school? Our interns make that much. Man, your life really sucks. Let me buy you a beer."

    "I don't need your charity," I responded nobly.

    Chesterman put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. "Don't kid yourself, Malone. Of course you do."

    High above the dinosaur spine of the Appalachian mountains, Chesterman's question echoed in what remained of my Ph.D.-brutalized brain: "Why do you do it?" He had asked it later that night in the bar, before we moved on to less depressing topics like how we'd been celibate since the summer (actually for me it was early spring--but close enough), and at the time I had no more coherent answer than the truth: Because it's the job I want. Because I love teaching. The plane hit another air pocket, and my stomach lurched. Why in the name of all that is holy did I eat those verdigris sausage links on the last flight? Had I no sense of self-preservation? With that existential question foremost in my mind I peered out the horribly scratched window of the bucking commuter deathtrap, one of those eight-seat torture tubes where you have to duck low just to crawl to your seat. But it was the only connection I could find to Blackwater County Airport, twenty-one winding, switchback miles distant from the metropolis of Anthracite City, population 12,301 and falling, proud home of the Southwest Appalachia Tech Fightin' Canaries.

    I'm not sure who I expected would pick me up at the airport, but it definitely wasn't a sixty-year-old woman with cat's-eye glasses and a blue beehive hairdo, expertly rolling a cigarette with one hand while the other displayed a hunk of cardboard with my name scrawled on it. The "E" at the end was tiny and crooked, and still barely fit. I wondered whose secretary she was, and how they had bribed her to make this trip.

    "You Malone?" she asked, as if hoping I wasn't.

    Seeing no alternative, I admitted as much.

    She scoped me critically, head to toe. "Gladys Rupp," she said. "How's it hangin'?"

    "Fine," I lied.

    She nodded at my crotch. "Barn door's open."

    Blushing furiously, I zipped up. Meanwhile she commandeered my suitcase and refused to relinquish it, striding out the tiny terminal and across the acned landscape of the parking lot, me fighting to keep up and feeling hopelessly unchivalrous carrying just a garment bag containing the only suit I own. With her in front I surreptitiously checked my fly again, just as she turned around and caught me. She squinted and wrinkled her nose.

    "A guy in Sociology got fired for that stuff," she said.

    Her red, mid-70's Ford pickup looked like it had seen major use at the local quarry. Gladys swung my suitcase up and into the bed without bothering to lower the tailgate. "What are you waitin' for, an invitation? Get in 'less you're plannin' on stayin'. It ain't like we lock our doors 'round here. Ain't like the city--folks is friendly."

    She tossed the sign with my name on it on the seat between us, and I saw it had been hewn from an Old Milwaukee twelve-pack. Behind the wheel, she relit her cigarette and puffed up a huge cancer cloud before starting the engine. Gladys looked at me sidelong as she crunched into first gear.

    "At least you're not quite as peaked as the last one they brought in. I've never seen such a sickly snippet of a girl. 'Take your nose out of a book once in a while, child," I says to her. "Get outside and fill your lungs with the fresh air the Lord Jesus gave you.'"

    Gladys sucked on her cigarette. The cab was beginning to resemble a scene in a Cheech and Chong movie. As someone who'd do almost anything for a job, suffer almost any indignity--and bereft of any other interviews--I fought to maintain and didn't tell her about my asthma.

    "Do you mind if I crack my window?" I asked.

    "I'd rather you just rolled it down." Gladys guffawed and slapped her blue-jeaned thigh. Which was one thing. But then she reached over and slapped mine. "Hell no, suit yourself, Tony!"

    I cringed. My name is Anthony. Call me Ant if you're absolutely in the grip of a nickname fetish, but not Tony. Never Tony. Tony Malone sounds like a guy you'd hire to break some schlub's kneecaps, and though I was desperate for a job I wasn't that desperate. The only nickname I've ever had--The Bong Show--I earned in high school, but I gratefully outgrew that a couple million brain cells ago.

    We drove for miles on a winding, pitted two-lane road, steadily climbing through some of the lushest, most gorgeous mountain scenery I'd ever seen.

    "God's country," Gladys said, smoke trailing like two tails from her nostrils. "I ain't never wanted to live nowhere else."

    I rolled down the window another six inches and edged my nose farther into the breeze.

    "So you're from around here?" I asked, figuring the odds of it being otherwise were roughly equal to having Yale and Stanford locked in a bidding war for my services. Lighter teaching load, Dr. Malone? Consider it done. An endowed chair? Generous moving allowance? Anything else we can do for you? Free T-shirts from the bookstore? A masseuse between classes? And of course fly first class on your campus visit.

    "Born and raised in Blackwater County, Tony. Course I grew up in a holler in the hills, on a two-horse tobacco farm, but I always wanted them bright lights. So as soon as Ma and Pa wasn't big enough to hold me down no more I lit out for the city. Been livin' in Anthracite ever since."

    Heavenly Father, deliver me from evil. For solace I looked down the embankment to the river, riffles and pools everywhere, a fly fisherman's delight. That could be salvation enough, I mused, idyllic Thoreauvian hours spent flailing the water, stalking the wily and elusive piscene prince, the native brown trout. Could one's soul truly need more?

    "How's the fishing?" I asked, with a nod toward the ravine.

    Gladys shrugged. "Decent in the mountains. Down there in the Blackwater the fish was all poisoned by runoff from the mines. Gits 'em like the Black Lung gits people, only faster. Nothin' in there now 'cept maybe a carp or catfish by the dam, but you won't catch me eatin' 'em. No sir, they's already enough cancer in my family."

    We drove along in silence--blithe on her part, stunned on mine--until a string of peeling billboards blotted the landscape. ANTHRACITE CITY, proclaimed the first, WHERE THE FOLKS DON'T BITE, THE FISH DO.

    Gladys spit a few flecks of tobacco on the dashboard. "You don't much care how many fish go belly-up, if your alternative is a pink slip."


    I realized I was sitting on my hands, and liberated them against their will.

    The third sign was possibly the most intriguing:


    "Who," I inquired, feeling like a trout rising to a badly-tied fly, "is Bobo Kilgore?"

    "Who's Bobo Kilgore!" Gladys sounded as nonplussed as the department chair would be if I asked during my interview, " Who's this Shakespeare guy you keep talking about?"

    "Don't you listen to country and western, Tony? Torch and twang? The music of the people?"

    "Not much," I confessed, assuming that was a more politic response than, "Not unless I've had a lobotomy lately."

    Gladys reacted like a true Christian, a fundamentalist one I was sure. "Well, you've got a Ph.D., I guess you can learn. Bobo hit number one on the country charts in '64 with "When I Said Send C.O.D., I Didn't Mean A Fish." But the Beatles came to America and siphoned off a lot of his fans. It happened to many a talented artist at that time. Timing is everything, Tony. Everything."

    She nodded sagely, and lowered her voice as if the cabin of the pickup were bugged.

    "Like you," she confided. "You've got timing. The department secretary misplaced the ad for your job, so it only went in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, not the Modern Language Association job list, and barely 125 people applied. The search committee had been expecting more like 600."

    Nothing like being lucky enough to duke it out with just 125 candidates instead of five times that many. If you get the impression there are more qualified English teachers than places for them to work, you're not mistaken. I was going to ask Gladys a couple of pointed questions, such as "Aren't you the department secretary?" and "What happened to your Beverly Hillbillies accent?", but we hit the city limits, as announced by our passing beneath an ersatz Arc de Triomphe constructed entirely of gleaming hubcaps. ANTHRACITE CITY, read the sheet-metal letters curving along the crown of the arch. HUB OF BLACKWATER COUNTY.

    "All done with donations on private time," Gladys crowed with civic pride. "Not a penny of public money."

    "Very, um, nice," I said, fighting not to choke on my own spit as the grim reality speared me that yes, no matter what, in the unlikely event they offered me this godforsaken job, I would take it. At a certain unmentionable point, a person will take anything. Almost. Anything.

    Gladys interrupted my cheery ruminations. "You up for seeing the campus now, Tony, or should I just drop you off at the motel?"

    It was an easy decision. Wouldn't you want to shower and look your best to meet your potential new colleagues? I stood naked on the mustard shag carpet, toweling off as I marveled at the shiny orange foil floral wallpaper, festooned with two-dimensional garlands of glaucous orchids hanging from Corinthian columns. If nothing else, I comforted myself, I had learned something today--before entering that room, I never knew such a commodity existed. I was a more complete person now. Maybe I would be a better teacher, especially to students who hailed from a place where such decoration was presumably considered normal--in the name of all that is holy, possibly even highbrow.

    I surveyed the faded lemon chenille bedspread with its fusillade of cigarette burns, upon which twenty minutes ago Gladys had stowed my bag and plopped herself for a hearty couple of bounces. She grinned lubriciously.

    "Not too squeaky, Tony. In case you get lucky."

    I was still damp when someone knocked at the door. I rushed to finish drying myself.

    "Who is it?" I asked, fairly certain it wasn't a representative of the hotel management with a complimentary fruit basket or mints for my pillow.

    A tired voice seeped into the room. "You don't know me from Adam, but I might be the most important person you'll ever meet. Open up."

    The weird thing was, those words that should have seemed so urgent, didn't. They were like a sickly flashlight beam from nearly dead batteries. Replace, I thought. Replace or recharge before sinking into darkness. Before the night takes over.

    "Be right there. I just got out of the shower."

    "Don't worry. I'm a male. There's nothing untoward here." Then, lower, so low I couldn't be positive I heard it, a muttered, "There never is."

    I threw on some clothes (nothing casual, all I had was dress-up, interview stuff) and opened the door--a cautious crack at first, then wide when I saw that the most important person I would ever meet had the demeanor and appearance of a basset hound. Even his command was timid.

    "Let me in," he said. "Before Gladys sees me."

    As I stepped back and he slipped inside, I noticed again the imposing, purple neon-rimmed sign in front of the motel.


    I shuddered and closed the door behind me. Basset hound man cowered in front of the black and silent TV screen, non-existent tail drooping flaccidly between his legs.

    "Listen, friend, don't do it."

    "What are you talking about? I'm here to interview for a job at the college."

    "That. That's what I'm talking about." For the first time, a hint of anguished energy tinged his voice. "You don't want to come here. It's death. Don't make the mistake I did. Choose life."

    "You work at the school?"

    I wondered if the tic twitching his cheek had just started, or had been there all along and I somehow hadn't noticed.

    "Seventeen years," he intoned morosely. "In the history department."

    "Those who don't learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them," I said to make small talk.

    Spasms rippled the left side of his body. "You do understand! Flee while there's still hope!"

    "I appreciate your concern," I said, not so discreetly edging him back where he came from. "But you'll have to excuse me. The chair of the department is picking me up any minute."

    "Gott im Himmel," he said, making for the exit under his own steam. "Gladys!"

    I must admit that surprised me. "Will she be there too?"

    "Oh, you naif! You innocent! Gladys is the chair of the English department!"
    Horrified incomprehension must have disfigured my face. My savior placed a trembling hand on my shoulder.

    "Come to my room for whiskey later. You'll need it. The water of life--I never allow my supply to run dry. Number 14. This place is like an elevator--no number 13. We don't want any ill luck now, do we?" With a dispirited cackle he peered out to see if the coast was clear.

    "You live here?" I said, mortified to a degree I would not have thought possible twenty-four hours ago.

    "It was a promise to myself, a symbol that this was just temporary. That I would move to a better job at the first opportunity." A heart-rending groan escaped his lips. "That was seventeen years ago. The opportunity never came, for me or for anyone else, and it never will. We are all entombed here, the walking academic dead."

    He made his weary escape without looking back. I had never seen shoulders so stooped, so battered by gravity. He looked like one of Dali's melting clocks, with legs, wandering the earth as the seconds ticked off louder and louder in his head, one by one by one.

    I woke the next day with the wretched feeling that life would improve, at least marginally, if I could only manage to vomit. But I couldn't achieve that feat at The Strip Mine, despite plunging several fingers almost to my uvula, and during my morning interviews with the dean and the president it did not seem good policy to continue the effort. I acquitted myself more or less sensibly with them, I think, despite my plague-like symptoms and an inability to dispel a question hammering my brain in syncopation to a colossal headache: What in God's name happened last night after Winston Pulpo, the department poet who had not been published since the Nixon administration, ordered that second pitcher of kamikazes? From that moment until regaining consciousness at dawn on the motel bathroom floor, still wearing my suit and wing tips but somehow no socks, the evening was a jagged, mossy blank.

    Please do not assign Freudian implications to any of this, subconscious desires to sabotage my candidacy or whatever. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, and sometimes one flirts with self-destruction in one direction in order to avoid it from another. We had hardly been seated at The Ground Cow, when groin-punch remarks about earlier candidates and their "sissy" (the politest of a plethora of adjectives) insistence on liver salvation made it plain that without a wholesale Hemingway imitation, I had no prayer of impressing these people.

    Melvin Gastric, the department medievalist, chortled at my response to a question about exercise that I occasionally jog a few miles. He exhaled a fumatory stream from his Tiparillo, lifted his third beer and bore it aloft like the Olympic torch.

    "Me pump iron," he said. "Twelve-ounce weights."

    I considered pointing out that he was hoisting liquid and glass, not iron, but catching the search committee chair in a mixed metaphor is not high on the accepted list of things to do to get a job.

    "Pump this, Gastric," said a surly guy in a bad toupee whose name already escaped me. "You make me sick."

    "Now boys," Gladys said, blowing smoke in Toupee's face. "Let's be on our best behavior for Tony here."

    Gastric drained his beer and groped behind him for the waitress. "Why?" he asked, genuinely puzzled. "Is reality too much for him?" He turned toward me. "Is reality too much for you?"


    "Kamikaze time!" Winston Pulpo sang out. He lit yet another Chesterfield with the butt of his last one. Nudging me with his elbow he whispered unctuously, "Kamikazes smooth everything out. You'll see. It's not so bad. It could be worse. Really."

    Who was I to call a man I'd never met before--a man who might one day be my colleague--a liar?

    "Lies, damned lies, and statistics!" growled Gladys, apropos of nothing I could discern. She took a lusty quaff of her Bacardi 151 and Cherry Coke.

    Gastric narrowed his eyes. "What's your take on the Socratic Method, Tony?"


    "If he doesn't take at least twenty-five percent off the top, he's an idiot!"

    The table roared at Toupee's witticism, then drowned their collective mirth in booze on the taxpayers' tab. Whenever my alcohol consumption failed to meet expectations, muttered imprecations about Oscar Wilde and lack of cojones assaulted my ears. It wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't usually Gladys talking. I wanted to order a chef's salad, but under the cirumstances opted for a sanguinary slab of prime rib--ordered, à la Gastric, "Still mooing." I hadn't eaten beef in five years, and for all I knew the next morning my streak was still intact, because the second pitcher of kamikazes arrived before the entrees did, and that's the last thing I remember.

    I left the president's office after an intellectually challenging chat about how his new set of golf clubs had shaved five strokes off his handicap. When he asked if I liked to "chase the little white ball around the links" I judiciously lied and said yes, but the truth is I loathe the game. According to Einstein golf is "a good walk wasted," and I think he was smart enough to know. On my way back to the English department I wandered around campus, trying to regroup body and soul. Imagine every generic circa-1965 brick and glass classroom building you've ever seen, scatter a dozen of them on the remnants of a hillside that must have been gorgeous before the strip mining, and bear in mind that when the state legislature takes its annual cleaver to higher ed funding, the maintenance budget is the first to feel the blade. I saw squirrels and birds nesting in the rotten eaves of the administration building, frolicking as if some generous God had designed it just for them.

    The English department was on the fourth floor of Bobo Kilgore Hall; you needed a key to take the elevator so I trudged up the steps, fighting vertigo and nausea while struggling to recall if I'd done anything last night that would make today's hoop-jumping a big fat moot point. A bell rang infernally close to my ear and students poured into the stairwell, most wearing caps turned backward in order to resemble what were called, in my naive and politically incorrect youth, "retards." The only difference between them and my current students was that instead of baseball or university logos, these caps advertised seed companies and tractor manufacturers.

    I exited the horde a floor early to try again to purge myself, but at a discreet distance from the English department. The third floor housed Modern Languages, and I've never seen a school yet where it mattered to anyone what those people thought. I gave my tie an Isadora Duncan fling behind my neck to protect it and probed deep with two fingers. But to no avail. I could not spew, and ceased my vain gagging when a voice entered spouting angry phonemes in a language I couldn't identify, but surely came from a land where men have slaughtered each other since the Dark Ages to convince their neighbors to worship God correctly. As I left the stall a back as broad as a sack of cement was hulking over the urinal. Words--I assume they were words--were still hurtling like righteous bullets as I got out of there.

    I was supposed to go to lunch at noon with some teachers at the Faculty Dining Room, and to my churning belly's horror the hour was fast approaching. I climbed to the fourth floor and began the Long Walk down the hall to the chair's--or as Gladys insisted, chairman's--office. Suddenly I heard a hissing sound.

    "Psst! My friend!"

    I peered into the office to my left, and saw an assegai and leopard pelt on the wall but no owner of the voice.

    "Do come in," it said, sounding like a Congolese James Earl Jones. "I do not bite."

    I did as I was bid--anything to postpone lunch for a while--and discovered behind the half-open door a long Black ectomorph dangling head-down from a pair of gravity boots. His dreadlocks trailed on the stained linoleum. He extended a hand that required several contortions for me to connect with. It was the first time I had shaken hands with a man while at eye-level with his crotch.

    "How did you see me?" I asked.

    He nodded toward the corner, where a convex mirror rested on a file cabinet.

    "I want to know if I am about to be assaulted. As a Black and a foreigner, the regional Ku Klux Klan chapter has no love for me."

    "Why not close the door?"

    I'd never seen an upside-down sneer before.

    "Politics," he almost spat. "Some malcontents bitched and now we not only have to hold office hours, we have to leave the door open and unlocked. Next they will expect a goddamn welcome mat and lollipops for being good boys and girls."

    Such seemingly irate sentiments were delivered in a very un-American fashion: without heat, in a sonorous basso profundo.

    "Friend," he said. "I have terrible news. They like you. They're going to offer you the job."

    "If it's so bad, why are you here?"

    "Because if I return to my country I would be shot on sight. That is if I am lucky. More likely I would be tortured for many months and then hanged."

    That revelation certainly gave me some perspective. "Seems like an excellent reason to me," I said.

    "You, on the other hand," he continued. "Surely you have options."

    I briefly considered them. They brought me no joy.

    "I need a job," I said. "Bad."

    "Don't do this to yourself. You will be teaching three freshman composition sections per semester. Plus huge sophomore surveys."

    "I do that now."

    "But not to these students!"

    "Oh, come on. I've dealt with the bottom."

    He trembled in his upside-down boots. "You have a great distance to drop yet. Behold! Feast your eyes!"

    I followed his ebony finger to a stack of papers on the desk. I picked up the top one, a little cocky despite my queasiness. When it came to student essays, after all, I'd seen everything.

    Until now.

    The Poeple Off My High School

    There are many diferent types of groups off poeple in the high school that I atended. thier is basicly four diferent types off groups of poeple that can all ways be found to-gether. Namely; they are the Jox, the book-Worms, The stoners, and the neegros.

    I couldn't continue. "Good God," I told him. "You win."

    "I may be an animist," he cried. "But as the local Bible-thumpers say, I feel as if I have just done a Christian thing."

    "Shalom," I said as I walked out.
    * * *

    At lunch Skeeter Gilchrist, who applied himself to linguistics, regaled me with tales of his deviant fraternity days. At least that's what I initially thought, until several sordid references indicated half this stuff had occurred after he was on the university payroll. Like Gladys and a dismaying percentage of the overall faculty, Skeeter had acquired his B.A. and M.A. at SWAT (a Ph.D. had only become requisite in the past decade, so fewer than twenty percent of teachers held them). He was innocent of any other academic environment, and could conceive of nothing finer. Skeeter was a lifer.

    The table had just erupted in guffaws at his anecdote about switching the temporary markers at two freshly dug graves, leaving a pair of corpses to rot misidentified for eternity, when my belly staged its final rebellion. I know not whether it was the tuna melt or the side of creamed spinach, but the consequences were Vesuvian. I excused myself and bolted. Fortunately the men's room was right next door, and after voiding my system in a torrential upchuck I did feel slightly better.

    Until I walked back into the Faculty Dining Room.

    The place had fallen silent as the tomb. Then it came--scattered snickers, a few unbridled yucks--and the awful truth hit me like a hurled assegai: that bathroom wall was neither thick nor soundproof. Skeeter was red-faced from trying to stifle his mirth. He gave up, and started spluttering.

    "Don't worry, Tony, it's happened to all of us, even Iron Guts Gladys. They don't call this the Faculty Dying Room for nothing!"

    Cissy Sue Gummoe, who taught fiction writing on the strength of having published two stories à clé in now-defunct literary magazines I'd never heard of (and who, she proudly informed me, had once received a signed rejection note from Playboy), sympathetically stroked my thigh beneath the table.

    "At least he didn't make it the Faculty Whining Room, like most of us," she said. "Without a word of complaint, Tony went off and did his business in private."

    Despite a Herculean effort, Skeeter couldn't control himself.

    "Oh, right," he said, tears leaking down his cheeks. "Real private!"

    Woe was general over all dire land. I excused myself on the pretext of a meeting with Gladys, but Cissy Sue insisted on escorting me across campus, hanging heavy on my arm in the process. I quickly learned she was president of the local Bobo Kilgore fan club, though the artist himself seemed to have forsaken the area, and currently ran an empire of used car lots and exotic dancer emporia in Alabama.

    "Bobo played his first gig right here in Anthracite City," she said breathlessly, as a man-mountain lumbered by in a sweatshirt with a football and an assault rifle silk-screened beneath the words SWAT TEAM. "And the folks loved him. It was in the Grange Hall, at a KKK rally. I'm not saying that's the ideal venue, but a young man on the make has to seize his opportunities where he finds them."

    Ms. Gummoe tightened her grip on my arm. She winked at me, then again with the other eye in case I hadn't caught it the first time.

    "Beggars can't be choosers," she said. "If you know what I mean." And winked once more.

    The sad fact is I knew exactly what she meant, and I thought about it all the way to the airport. I did not want this job, this sojourn in academic purgatory--but knew that I'd accept it in a heartbeat if the offer came. No matter what anyone claimed, there was always the possibility, however tenuous, of eventually moving on to something marginally decent. At least I wouldn't have to commute among three campuses any more. And I'd have health insurance, in case I caught a dreadful disease. Or, more likely, needed a sojourn in a padded cell.

    "Please don't feel as if you have to escort me to the gate," I told Gladys.

    "Don't worry," she said, "I don't," and drove straight to the terminal curb.

    "It's been a pleasure," I forced myself to say. "I was very--impressed."

    "Don't call us, we'll call you."

    My crest must have fallen, because she grinned and slapped me on the shoulder.

    "Just kidding, Tony, just kidding!"

    Her face went serious. Yesterday's Tobacco Road accent suddenly reappeared.

    "Ironic, ain't it? A gal like me from the backwoods with somethin' you and a slew of other city slickers would give your left you-know-what to have."

    "What's that?" I asked, expecting some corny ear-bath about peace of mind or the sweet smell of cow flops in the morning.

    Gladys hesitated a strategic second, cigarette erect in her teeth like FDR in a Huck Finn phase.

    "A tenured college teaching job, Bubba. Have a good flight."

    I watched the windsock spastically swirling on its pole and knew better. I noisily filled a distress bag and made a handful of lifetime enemies on the commuter flight, then pulled a repeat performance on the jet home.

    "I'm back in the U.S.S.R.," Paul McCartney kept crooning somewhere behind my eyelids. "You don't know how lucky you are, boy...."

    Then came three weeks of neurotic agony. Every day I waited for The Call. Grasping at every conceivable straw, I even crafted a new message with a bit of a drawl for my answering machine. Finally, returning to the apartment at nine-thirty after teaching my night class, I saw the SWAT school seal--De Profundis Profunditas --among a pile of bills and offers from stock gurus to make me a millionaire.

    Instead of exulting, my heart sank. A letter meant I was an also-ran; a letter meant someone else had taken the job. Hoping against hope, I ripped open the envelope.

    Dear Applicant:

    Anticipated funding for the tenure-track Assistant Professor position has not been realized and the search, regrettably, has been discontinued. Thank you for our interest in Southwest Appalachia Tech, and we wish you continued success in your academic career.

    That was it. Not even a handwritten "Sorry" from Gladys, not even a signature. "Continued success"! Whose idea was it to insert that dagger? Oh Cosmic Joker, show some mercy.

    Maybe I'll see Chesterman at the bar this weekend and engage him in an eschatological discussion. Or at least a scatological one. Maybe I'll find some answers to The Meaning of Life. It can't be any harder than finding a tenure-track teaching job. In the meantime, if you ever buy a used car from Bobo Kilgore, please wish the man continued success. And if the spirit moves, go next door and stick a dollar in a G-string for me.

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