I WAS ON SABBATICAL and dropped by my department for no better reason than to rub it in. Making the rounds office by office I listened to the latest, inquired about projects and remembered to mention families. Asked what I was doing with my free time, I would confess to reading those books I never had time for when I was grading papers. There was envy among my colleagues naturally, but everyone I spoke to either had a sabbatical coming up or had just finished one, so we were all conspirators.
I ended the morning at Walt Beery’s office. Walt had been a medievalist of some reputation once upon a time. For the past decade or so he filled in as the department’s last bad boy. When I had arrived on campus eight years before, Walt had befriended me while others on the faculty were still considering it. I valued that about Walt.
‘I was thinking about getting out of here for some lunch,’ Walt announced after the surprise of seeing me in his doorway. ‘What do you think?’
Over the years Walt and I had stolen an afternoon or two in various taverns, and though I was not drinking at that time I suspect the very sight of me made Walt thirsty. That’s a bit egotistical, I suppose. Around noon, almost anything could make Walt thirsty. I had gotten all the news that was fit to broadcast. It was time for the good stuff, which Walt always had in abundance. Still the junior prof in the presence of an Olympian, I shrugged agreeably. Lunch sounded good.
We went to Caleb’s. A new menu, Walt assured me as we walked across the cindered lot to the back door. What he meant by that was they were now carrying Beck’s. I had been to Caleb’s too many times over the years to really see it anymore. It was hardly more than a big dark room with lots of tables and beer signs, eight ball at one end, a short order grill at the other. At night it catered to locals. By day Caleb’s was strictly hard-core: serious drinkers only. There was the inevitable stink of spilt beer and as usual our choice of tables, mute testimony to the quality of the new lunch menu.
I ate greasy fries and a leathery hamburger washed down with oily coffee. Walt drank longnecks, which came two-by-two, so as not to wear out the bartender. We talked about campus politics, the sexual intrigues of various campus perennials, recent scandals (a bit of plagiarism in Education, the miracle being that anyone noticed) and the latest charges brought against various profs, including a complaint against Walt himself. A wave of the hand at this. Purely a misunderstanding.
Having buried these issues and four Beck’s in rapid succession, Walt eventually turned to that subject dearest to his heart, his desperate need for a divorce. ‘Anytime you need a place,’ I told him without letting him see the worn tread on my smile, ‘you’re welcome to move in with Molly and me.’ This seemed to satisfy Walt, and I could see him working out the details, which mostly involved hiding from Barbara while he entertained swarms of nubile co-eds. ‘But you know,’ I added, as I always did when we had come to this juncture and Walt was looking a little too pleased with the fantasy, ‘neither one of us is going to stand up to Barbara when she comes out to the farm and shoots you like the rabid dog you are.’
His eyes going out of focus, Walt shook his bald head sorrowfully and patted his considerable paunch. That was the problem, he said. Barbara wasn’t going to handle it well. An open marriage would be the solution, he said at last, but that was out too. ‘She’s scared to death of disease. Thinks I’ll bring something home.’
‘You probably would,’ I told him.
After his fashion Walt began a Chaucerian exposition in the original on the joys of infidelity, or at least serial marriage, the Wife’s ruminations, I think, and from there he expounded Beery-style upon the siren call of youth and the golden time not too many years past when penicillin could cure everything but the bark of an angry husband’s handgun.
‘Why did AIDS have to come along anyway?’ he moaned.
‘I’m against it,’ I told him, ‘and always have been.’
‘It comes from monkeys,’ Walt said. ‘Did you know that, David? Monkeys!’ His laughter had a nervous bit of chatter to it.
‘I was reading in the Times it actually comes from a subspecies of chimpanzees,’ I answered.
Walt shook his head. ‘I’m as liberal as the next guy, but I mean what kind of a man could do it with a monkey?’
‘Chimp,’ I corrected, ‘and I’m not at all sure it wasn’t the other way around.’
Walt’s laughter exploded, and I couldn’t help myself. I went into an impromptu routine about the good chimp gone bad, tossing quarters on the shower floor.
Walt howled. Another reason Caleb’s stayed mostly empty by day.
As a drunk I had discovered the world was forever young in the presence of Walt Beery in his cups. He had a hair-trigger laugh and an old man innocence that let him enjoy it unabashedly. Sober, I had to admit Walt had become the kind of friend best enjoyed without witnesses.
While he was still imagining the cunning of chimpanzees, I checked my watch. Hated to say it, I told him, but I needed to get back to the farm. I thought this might get a question or two about Molly and Lucy, but instead Walt pointed toward a young couple just then entering Caleb’s. ‘You’ve got to meet this guy,’ he said. ‘One of our new TAs.’
‘NAME IS BUDDY ELDER,’ Walt whispered as the couple stopped to let their eyes adjust to the bar’s light. ‘The girlfriend’s a stripper at The Slipper. Can you believe it? The guy is bedding a stripper on a teaching assistant’s salary!’ The woman had dark hair. She was trim, certainly, but to be honest almost plain. ‘I went out to see her dance last week,’ Walt confessed. ‘Gave me a free lap dance you wouldn’t believe. HEY!’ The teaching assistant and his girlfriend looked our way. ‘We don’t want any!’ Walt shouted, and that brought them across the shadows of the big room, grinning like old times.
Buddy Elder had the look of a flush graduate student: a bomber jacket, faded jeans, worn flannel shirt, slightly scuffed Wolverine boots. Neo-Bohemian, or as Molly would say, working-class without the work. He was in his late twenties, a bit old for the game, but still plenty game. About six feet and one-eighty-plus, Buddy was roughly my size, though a good ten pounds heavier. That spring I was down to my fighting weight, six-one, one-seventy. Buddy’s hair was his great pride. I knew this because he didn’t bother to comb it. It was a dirty blond, thick and naturally curly. According to the style, he kept it shaggy at the top, carefully trimmed along the neck. Having the beginnings of Walt’s disease, tonsured, as Walt put it, I kept my hair short over my entire skull. At Buddy’s age I had worn it longer, and I too had once nurtured the perpetual two-day beard.
Buddy had a nice smile, the kind that creates friendship in a moment. He appeared to be a man who enjoyed life, and I guessed that his sleepy brown eyes never quite came into focus unless a beautiful woman happened by. I might have liked Buddy Elder, maybe even have seen a bit of myself in him if he had bothered to recognize my existence. Instead, when Walt made a half-ass introduction Buddy let his eyes slip my way without bothering to pass along a smile. He gave a cursory nod, and that was it. I took an instant dislike to the guy.
Buddy pointed at the Beck’s lined up like bowling pins in front of Walt. ‘We’ve got class tonight, big guy.’
‘Have you read your assignment?’ Walt snapped. Even with the remnants of his grey hair standing on end Walt looked old-school, one of those profs who knows everything and enjoys the fact that the rest of us don’t.
Buddy’s grin told me he hadn’t. I guessed him to be a poet. Those of a certain age all have the same air about them. They will never be rich and are therefore convinced they will never compromise themselves. They are penniless and proud, rebels lingering under the mothering wings of the university. This one wrote the book on it. Or so I thought. It was only the first of several miscalculations I was to make about Mr Elder.
‘Buddy’s a novelist!’ Walt told me. ‘Right? You’ve got a novel you’re working on?’
A pump of the head, a wry grin that didn’t exactly spell big money but could if his genius got recognized by the right folks. I knew the feeling. I’d written the book on that one.’
‘The Great American Novel and pulling an A in Chaucer!’
Buddy Elder gave the woman with him a look I had no trouble reading. ‘Maybe an A,’ he said good-naturedly, ‘and maybe my prof turns into a hard ass.’
I looked at the woman steadily now. There was a bit of duty behind her flat brown eyes, and I decided Buddy Elder’s appearance at Caleb’s was not entirely an accident. A fleeting thought really, nothing more, but I was fairly sure of myself. Buddy was having a little trouble with the Middle English. Who didn’t? He could work at it or he could take care of it. Having an agreeable girlfriend sure beat cramming for a final exam, and after all what’s a free lap dance or two among friends?
Of course Walt Beery was a professor of the highest integrity when he thought about it. Trouble was Walt hadn’t thought about it in years. Payoff? Not as such. Walt would have been outraged at such a suggestion. No, he had just been to see the woman dance and took the gratis without thinking about it. And today drinks and some artless innuendo. But no bargains made, no exchange of favours. Any hint of quid pro quo would have killed the deal for Walt. No, this would play out with nothing more than a good ol’ boy’s wink.
As I was making these calculations, Walt pointed at me. ‘David is the guy you want to talk to!’ His wet lunch taking hold, Walt was talking about me as if I sat across the room.
Buddy Elder gave me a speculative glance, the first since he had sat down, and I realized he had mistaken me for a towny. ‘Why is that? You know Chaucer?’ This came with a smirk. I was definitely working-class, or maybe a grad who hadn’t left town. Failure to launch, as they called it. Certainly nobody worth taking seriously, at any rate.
‘Intimately,’ I lied.
‘David doesn’t know Jack about Chaucer!’ Walt shouted affectionately. Walt knew his Chaucer. It was life after 1400 that left him mystified. ‘He’s a novelist!’
Cautiously, the way of a dog meeting another at the junkyard social, ‘A novelist?’
‘Prof,’ I said. ‘Writing’s an avocation.’
Like the holy of holies, Walt added, ‘Published.’
A prof with a published novel that Buddy Elder didn’t know? He couldn’t imagine it. I could see the calculations sparking in his bloodshot eyes. Maybe I was something from Mathematics or one of the hard sciences writing sci-fi with my left hand or a guy from the school of business taking a turn as Sam Spade. Probably getting rich to boot. People in English hate writers who make money.
‘What department are you in?’
‘English,’ I answered.
‘Here?’ He was baffled, certain I was lying. I actually lie quite a bit, if only to keep my hand in, but as it happened this was one of those rare moments when truth was exquisitely more rewarding.
I nodded and got a don’t-mess-with-me look with just a bit of a grin to cut the edge. Buddy Elder was in English. He had been in English since August. What was I trying to pull? He knew all the writers in the English department. He gave a quick glance in Walt Beery’s direction, still green enough to be uncertain of his ground.
‘I’m David Albo,’ I said. ‘I’ve been on leave this year.’
Buddy Elder threw his head back like a man laughing, but all he did was smile. ‘I’ve got you for Advanced Fiction Writing next fall,’ he said.
‘Can’t wait,’ I said with an icy smile I’m sure he had no trouble reading.
I LEFT SHORTLY AFTER THAT. I even got a sweet smile from the dancer with no name. Now that I held Buddy’s fate in my hands, I was worth that much. Come autumn I expected I might even get offered a lap dance or two, if she was still in play.
I bought them a round as I was heading out. It is the only way to leave folks without getting the worst of your stories told right off. Outside, the daylight was something of a surprise, as was my sobriety. A good feeling, I decided. Clean. Like being fully alive for the first time in years.
I was not to see either Walt Beery or Buddy Elder again for several months. I did hear a few stories about Walt though. I had my sources. Seems he had begun telling some tasteless homosexual monkey jokes at the faculty club. There was talk of it being the last straw, but talk was all it would ever be. Walt Beery had a good lawyer and pockets deep enough to pay the fees.
I don’t recall so much as a fleeting thought about Buddy Elder or his girlfriend. Buddy belonged to that other world I had inhabited in that other lifetime. While my sabbatical continued I wrote each morning and spent my afternoons at Molly’s side turning the last rooms of an early nineteenth century plantation-style mansion into a showpiece. I fed and groomed my stepdaughter’s two racehorses. I baled hay twice and once a week or so mucked stalls solo like an old hand. I mowed the pasture a few times with a new John Deere tractor. I indulged in a midnight swim with Molly on one occasion with nothing but a full moon covering us, and even told a ghost story to Lucy and a gaggle of her girlfriends who were ‘camping out’ on our third floor one night in July. Well advanced into adolescence, they had imagined they were far too grown-up to get spooked by anything short of Stephen King, but I told the story as true with the indifference of a man relating an article from the newspaper. In the dark, far from the sounds they knew, I rose up devils those girls had never quite dreamed of. All in good fun, of course.
Lucy told me later they said I was cool, for an old man. I turned thirty-seven that summer, older than Dante when he toured Hell, but only by a couple of years.
© Craig Smith 2009