Fiction

Short Story: Lessons

Lessons

Copyright © Neal Eric Yeomans

Thinking of John Updike

My name is John Hopewell. I’m forty-five years old. I teach at a semi-prestigious liberal arts college in the city. Red brick buildings. Co-ed. Established in 1890. Or at least I did. A little over three months ago I was fired.

Let me explain.

I taught creative writing for a year. I had published a small collection of short stories not long before and a pleasant write-up about it had appeared in the New York Times Book Review section. When I got the call from Alton College asking me if I would want to come and teach for the semester, I graciously accepted. The Administration Board was excited by the prospect of a writer—that is a living writer—actually teaching at their small university. I was to learn much later that there were several professors (certain colleagues in the English Department who shall remain nameless) that were not very happy about the board’s decision to hire me. I was told these professors were just jealous of my success.

Anyway, my classes were well attended and I genuinely liked teaching. My students were the usual diverse, outspoken and passionately political bunch of young people you would expect on a progressive campus such as Alton College. Long hair. Goatees. Sandals. Body piercings. A somewhat peculiar tendency from both sexes to abstain from bathing every now and then. A bottle of Xanax or an ounce of marijuana probably rolled up in a clear plastic baggie in their backpacks that sat on the floor next to their desks. The majority of them supported Bernie Sanders.

I didn’t cringe as much as I thought I would when I read their stories or poems, though you can be sure that the work from some students elicited this response. I was particularly taken by some sonnets written by an upper classman, a junior with the sadly unfortunate name of Marcia Bone.

These poems were written with a clear reverence for Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. A part of me wondered if Miss. Bone might be some sort of manic depressive or at least a girl who had learned early on that life could be unfair; perhaps she had lost her twin brother at birth or maybe she had been paralyzed after a car wreck the week before her high school graduation. No such student in a wheelchair came to mind. I checked my roster. She was in my class after all. I assumed she must have been one of the few quiet ones that sat in the back. I tried to summon a picture of her in my mind and couldn’t. I was drawing a blank.

I called her up to my desk at the end of the next class on Friday afternoon. The creature standing before me didn’t conform to my own imaginings at all. There was no trace of the suicidal anorexic here or the dying college girl awaiting a liver transplant. Marcia Bone was beautiful, brilliant and had a deep healthy tan from growing up on the cornfields of Iowa.

“I was very impressed with the two sonnets that you turned in this week. Your insight into the human condition is very impressive for someone your age.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hopewell. That means a lot, especially coming from someone like you. I read your book by the way, last semester. I loved it.”

She was twirling a strand of her brown hair around her finger in such a girlish way that I was instantly smitten. “You’re doing a great job at feeding my ego. I was amazed that there were people besides my parents who bought a copy and even more amazed that it actually got reviewed. I’m surprised a college student like you would pick it up. Most college students aren’t interested in reading a short story collection about pathetic middle-aged men.”

“My heroes are the three Johns. Cheever and Updike. I want to be a writer one day. A good writer.”

“Who is the third one?”

“Third what?”

“The third John?”

She smiled. “You are.”

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I suppose you can guess how this relationship between teacher and pupil developed. I continued to stand in front of the class and expound on the literary genius of Chekhov and Hawthorne. Marcia continued to sit in the back of the room and write beautiful poetry. More and more I would have her stay after class and commend her on technique and the use of imagery in her work. It was during one such after class meeting that I asked her to dinner and she said yes, she would love to go. We decided on this seafood place off campus. She would meet me there at six o’clock, after she got out of her Anatomy class. After she left, I called Tess on my cell and told her that I had a meeting and wouldn’t be home until late.

The restaurant was located in the same plaza as a CVS and a Starbucks. Marcia talked about her classes, about her roommate that overdosed at some fraternity party (“Don’t worry, she’s alive.”) and she talked about her part time job in the university library. It was while she was stocking the shelves that she realized she wanted to be a writer; before that Marcia said she always wanted to be a ballerina when she was younger.

“I always liked to read and I always liked to dance,” she told me. “I gave up the dancing, but never the reading. By the time I was a sophomore at Alton, I knew I wanted to write books for the rest of my life. I think it’s such a glorious way to lose one’s mind.”

I was nervous. I knew this was wrong. My wife was at home putting leftovers in plastic Tupperware containers and my son was probably up in his room doing homework or watching porn on his computer. I was in a tacky seafood restaurant having dinner with a girl barely old enough to drink. I was shredding my napkin into tiny bits.

“This is a mistake,” I finally said. “We really shouldn’t be here. I have a wife and kid at home. This is wrong. I’m supposed to be your teacher.”

“So teach me.” Her green eyes sparkled.

There was a motel up the road. The old lady behind the front desk eyed us suspiciously as we checked in. I registered under a fake name like they do in the movies. I paid in cash. When we were in our room, I took off my pants and draped them over a chair. I watched Marcia as she began to unbutton her blouse. I’m going to leave you to imagine the rest of the scene. When I returned home later that evening, Tess was asleep and I took a long shower. I scrubbed frantically to get the smell of Marcia off my skin.

We continued our clandestine love affair for several weeks afterward. Marcia and I became a familiar sight at the motel and gradually the old lady behind the front desk would smile at us and say, “It’s good to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

I admit we were not very secretive about the whole thing. I’m not even sure why we were doing it. I knew nothing would ever come of the relationship. Marcia would be off to graduate school sooner or later and I would return to married life with my trusting wife, feeling drained and hollowed out. I began to suspect that I was probably a horrible husband and father.

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One rainy night, towards the tail end of the semester, I was again washing away the evidence of infidelity. When I stepped out of the shower there was a knock on the bathroom door. “Yeah?”

“Honey, are you almost done in there?” It was Tess.

I stepped into a fresh pair of boxer shorts. “Yes. I’ll be out in a minute.”

When I walked into our bedroom, Tess was sitting on the edge of the bed. My wife had tears in her eyes. The sounds of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte came from the record player in the corner.

“You care to tell me who this is?” She held up my cell phone.

I stared at the familiar picture of Marcia’s breasts. I couldn’t speak. My mouth had gone dry. My face felt numb. I thought I was having a stroke.

“Wait. There’s more.” Tess pulled up another picture, this one of a vulva that clearly wasn’t her own.

“I’m…sorry.” It was the only thing I could say.

“Who is she? How long has this been going on?”

I was in the middle of telling her that it was a girl in my third period creative writing class—a brilliant student—when Tess grabbed one of her high heels from the floor and threw it at me. I ducked. The high heel shoe smashed into the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. The glass shattered.

Her rampage had only just started. Tess grabbed anything at her disposal—the bottles of perfume on her dressing table, the remote control for the television, my records—and began hurtling them at me like rocks. I dashed into the closet and shut the door. I was hiding. I was hiding amongst my suits in a T-shirt and underwear. The music of Mozart continued to play. Things continued to crash against the closet door.

Finally, all was still. I heard my wife panting outside the closet. “I’m going to go visit my father for a couple days,” said Tess.

I heard her footsteps as she went down the hall. I came out of the closet when I heard the front door slam. The bedroom looked like a bomb had exploded. Glass was everywhere. Beethoven and Pachelbel lay broken at my feet.

I looked up and noticed Justin, our teenage son, standing in the doorway. He was in nothing but a pair of boxers, a younger and skinnier version of myself. He yawned, looked around the room. “Did you guys have a fight?”

“Go back to bed,” I told him.

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The following day, I resolved to end things with Marcia. This had gone on long enough. I had texted her earlier in the morning and told her to meet me in my car before the start of classes. I know I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done many things now that I look back on it.

“Don’t you think this is a little suspicious?” asked Marcia after she got inside. She handed me a brown paper bag. “I stopped at Dunkin Donuts. You’ll like those. They’re cream-filled.”

“I have to end this. Look…”

I told her about Tess, about the pictures she found on my phone. I told her that my wife had walked out on me the previous night and now I was alone with my teenage son who could never stand me anyway. I told her everything.

Marcia didn’t respond. “I didn’t mean to ruin a marriage,” she said.

“No,” I said. “You didn’t. This was all me. I fucked up. I take total responsibility for all of this. I just can’t see you again.”

“What about class?”

“I’m still your teacher. That is all I ever should have been.”

She slid over to me and put her hand on my crotch. “You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

The parking lot was filling up. Students walked past my car. Marcia unzipped my fly. I wanted this. I wanted this goodbye. I didn’t want it.

Then it happened. A boy—curly hair, a goatee, struggling with several binders in his arms—passed by the window. He glanced at me for a split second and walked on. When he got in front of my car, he suddenly stopped. We locked eyes with each other through the windshield. My heart skipped a beat.

The boy started to laugh. Several other students stopped to see what the boy found so funny. He waved down a buddy in the gathering crowd. The laughter was building towards a crescendo it seemed. I told Marcia to stop, stop. She asked me if I was going to come.

There was a knock on the window. Marcia looked up, startled. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. Another boy—sunglasses, wearing an Alton College sweatshirt—gave me a thumbs-up. A girl next to him was recording the whole thing on her phone.

I snapped. I opened the car door, screaming at the kids, trying to grab the girl’s phone. The boy and girl ran away from me. Most of the other students surrounding the car did the same. I waddled a few more steps before looking down.

My pants were around my cordovans and my penis, still erect and glistening with Marcia’s saliva, stuck out in front of me. I stood in the middle of a very wide circle. The silence was deafening. It was at this time that Mr. Davenport—the head of the English Department and a huge supporter of mine—pushed his way through the crowd of students to see what the matter was.

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Thus my time at Alton had come to an abrupt and humiliating end.

I was placed on leave that afternoon and early the following morning I received a phone call from the Dean of the college informing me that I was fired. He went on to tell me that Mr. Davenport would be overseeing the rest of my classes. When I put the phone back on its cradle, I poured myself a shot of Bourbon and put my head down on my desk. I had fucked up big time.

The days passed. Incredibly the days continued to pass. I thought about how Justin and I would go on. We could live off the minuscule royalty check from my book for a while. Then what? We could sell the house and move into an apartment. I called my wife’s cell phone every now and then. I only got her voice mail. I left pathetic messages.

One night I went on a long walk around our suburban neighborhood. The streets were deserted. The stars were out. I touched the green leaves of old Mr. Whitmore’s privet hedge as I walked by his house. I could hear the lonely sound of a dog barking. Few cars went by. I continued down the street. My footsteps seemed very loud on the macadam. The lawns were immaculate, recently mowed. The day had been hot, summer was fast approaching, but the humidity had given way to a cool evening. Children’s voices could be heard every now and then, laughter carried on a sudden breeze. The glow from television sets, that familiar ghostly blue, could be seen in the window of every house I passed.

I was thinking of Marcia. She had texted me earlier in the week. Her one message had left me feeling strangely empty. It read simply: IF I DON’T SEE YOU ANYMORE, HAVE A GOOD ONE. I didn’t text her back. I couldn’t.

I went around the block and arrived back at our house. I stood out on the lawn. The light above the garage had burned out sometime ago. I thought of death. I thought about going into the garage, getting in the car and starting up the engine. I would sit there with the windows down and fill my lungs with the noxious fumes.

Instead I went into the house.

The television was on, the spectral light throwing a blue shadow over Justin. He was asleep on the couch. An empty pizza box was on the floor. It had been take-out again. I thought of carrying him up to his room, but then decided to kill the T.V. and leave him where he was. I covered my son with a blanket before going upstairs.

I undressed and got into bed. I sat looking up at the ceiling. I didn’t sleep. I thought of Marcia. I pictured her on the bus back to Iowa with her suitcase beside her. I saw in my mind’s eye the bus growing smaller and smaller as it traveled down the interstate highway.

A tree branch scrapped against the window. A car pulled into a driveway. Another dog was barking. The front door opened and then shut. Footsteps on the carpeted stairs. Justin? Maybe an intruder. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t getting up. The bedroom door slowly opened. A dark shadow crossed the room. In the glow from the streetlight I saw my wife take off her clothes. She got into bed without saying anything. We lay there.

“The light above the garage is out,” said Tess.

“I’ll take care of it in the morning,” I said.

Loved what you read?

Discover Neal Eric Yeomans’ debut:

Houses and Backyards: A Collection of Stories

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