Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #General Fiction
wenson waits for his students to complete their private
rituals, adjusting zippers and caps, arranging the pens and notebooks so painstakingly chosen to express their tender young selves, the fidgety ballets that signal their weekly submission and reaffirm the social compact to be stuck in this room for an hour without real food or TV. He glances around the seminar table, counts nine; good, everyone's here, then riffles through the manuscript they're scheduled to discuss, pauses, and says, “Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?”
The students stare at him, appalled. He can't believe he said that. His pathetic stab at humor sounded precisely like what it was: a question he'd dreamed up and rehearsed as he walked across North Quad, past the gothic graystone cloisters, the Founders Chapel, the lovely two-hundred-year-old maples just starting to drop the orange leaves that lie so thickly on the cover of the Euston College viewbook. He'd hardly noticed his surroundings, so blindly focused was he on the imminent challenge of leading a class discussion of a student story in which a teenager, drunk and frustrated after a bad date with his girlfriend, rapes an uncooked chicken by the light of the family fridge.
How is Swenson supposed to begin? What he really wants to ask is: Was this story written expressly to torment me? What little sadist thought it would be fun to watch me tackle the technical flaws of a story that spends two pages describing how the boy cracks the chicken's rib cage to better fit the slippery visceral cavity around his throbbing hard-on? But Danny Liebman, whose story it is, isn't out to torture Swenson. He'd just wanted something interesting for his hero to do.
Slouched over, or sliding under, the seminar table, the students gaze at Swenson, their eyes as opaque and lidded as the eyes of the chicken whose plucked head the hero turns to face him during their late-night kitchen romance. But chickens in suburban refrigerators are generally headless. Swenson makes a mental note to mention this detail later.
“I don't get it,” says Carlos Ostapcek. “What other stories about animals?” Carlos always starts off. Ex-navy, ex-reform school, he's the alpha male, the only student who's ever been anywhere except inside a classroom. As it happens, he's the
male student, not counting Danny.
Swenson talking about? He suddenly can't recall. Maybe it was some other year, another class completely. He's been having too many moments like this: a door slams shut behind him and his mind disappears. Is this early Alzheimer's? He's only forty-seven.
forty-seven? What happened in the heartbeat since he was his students' age?
Maybe his problem's the muggy heat, bizarre for late September, El NiÃ±o dumping a freak monsoon all over northern Vermont. His classroomâhigh in the college bell towerâis the hottest spot on campus. And this past summer, workmen painted the windows shut. Swenson has complained to Buildings and Grounds, but they're too busy fixing sidewalk holes that could result in lawsuits.
“Is something wrong, Professor Swenson?” Claris Williams inclines her handsome head, done this week in bright rows of coiled dyed-orange snails. Everyone, including Swenson, is a little in love with, and scared of, Claris, possibly because she combines such intelligent sweetness with the glacial beauty of an African princess turned supermodel.
“Why do you ask?” says Swenson.
“You groaned,” Claris says. “Twice.”
“Nothing's wrong.” Swenson's groaning in front of his class. Doesn't that prove nothing's wrong? “And if you call me Professor again, I'll fail you for the semester.”
Claris stiffens. Relax! It's only a joke! Euston students call teachers by their first names, that's what Euston parents pay twenty-eight thousand a year for. But some kids can't make themselves say
the scholarship students like Carlos (who does an end run around it by calling him Coach), the Vermont farm kids like Jonelle, the black students like Claris and Makeesha, the ones least likely to be charmed by his jokey threats. Euston hardly
any students like that, but this fall, for some reason, they're all in Swenson's class.
Last week they discussed Claris's story about a girl who accompanies her mother on a job cleaning a rich woman's house, an eerily convincing piece that moved from hilarity to horror as it chronicled the havoc wreaked by the maid stumbling through the rooms, chugging Thunderbird wine, until the horrified child watches her tumble downstairs.
The students were speechless with embarrassment. They all assumed, as did Swenson, that Claris's story was maybe not literal truth, but painfully close to the facts. At last, Makeesha Davis, the only other black student, said she was sick of stories in which sisters were always messed up on dope or drunk or selling their booty or dead.
Swenson argued for Claris. He'd dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgment. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn't judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson's pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.
After the workshop on her story, Claris stayed to talk. Swenson had groped for some tactful way to tell her that he knew what it was like to write autobiographically and have people act as if it were fiction. After all, his own second novelâ¦As hard as this is to believe, he hadn't realized how painful his childhood was until his novel about it was published, and he read about it in reviews.
But before he could enchant her with the story of his rotten childhood and his fabulous career, Claris let him know: Her mom is a high school principal. Not a drunken domestic. Well, she'd certainly fooled Swenson, and done a job on the class. Couldn't she have dropped a hint and relieved the tension so thick that it was a relief to move on to Carlos's story about a dreamy Bronx kid with a crush on his neighbor, a tender romance shattered when the hero's friend describes peeping through the neighbor's window and seeing her fellate a German shepherd?
That was the other story about animal sex. Swenson hasn't imagined it, and now he remembers the one before that: Jonelle Brevard's story about a Vermont farm wife whose husband keeps calling out his favorite cow's name in his sleepâ¦. Three animal sex stories, and the term's just begun.
“Your story, for one, Carlos. Was I imagining the German shepherd?”
“Oof,” says Carlos. “I guess I forgot.” The class laughsâsly, indulgent. They know why Carlos repressed it. The discussion of his story had devolved into a shouting match about sicko male fantasies of female sexuality.
This class has only been meeting five weeks, and already they share private jokes and passionate debates. Really, it's a good class. They're inspiring each other. There's more energy in this bestiality thing than in years of tepid fiction about dating mishaps or kids with divorced dysfunctional parents drying out from eighties cocaine habits. Swenson should be grateful for student work with any vitality, any life. So why should he insist on seeing these innocent landscapes of their hearts and souls as minefields to pick his way through?
Why? Because they are minefields. Let his colleagues try this. The ones who think it's easyâno lengthy texts, no lectures, no exams to grade. The ones who envy him this classroom with its panoramic campus viewâlet them open those windows before some student faints. Let them spend class knowing their careers depend on finding a way to chat about bestiality so that no one's feelings get hurt. It's not as if someone couldn't write a brilliant story about a young man finding solace with a chicken. A geniusâlet's say, Chekhovâcould produce a work of genius. But it's unlikely that Danny will. And for this class to pretend that Danny can turn his dead chicken into art should be an actionable offense.
The room has fallen silent. Has someone asked a question? It's come to seem possible that Swenson could just lose it and sit there, mute, while the class watches to see what happens next. When he first started teaching, he'd settled for nothing less than the whole class falling in love with him. Now he's content to get through the hour without major psychic damage.
“Uh.” Swenson smiles. “Where were we? I must have blinked out.” The students' laughs are forgiving. Swenson is one of them. Their chemistry teachers don't blink out, or don't admit it. Alcohol and drugs have taught the kids about consciousness lapses. Quick, inclusive half-smiles all around, then Danny says, “Do you think weâ¦could we talk about my story?”
“Of course. Sorry,” says Swenson. “What did the rest of you think? What did you like? What engaged you?” Long silence. “Who wants to begin?”
Begin? No one wants to be here. Swenson doesn't blame them. They look like cartoon characters hearing birdies tweet. Swenson was raised a Quaker. He can handle silence.
At last, Meg Ferguson says, “I liked how honest it was about how most guys can't tell the difference between making love to a woman and screwing a dead chicken.”
“Well!” Swenson says. “Yes, sir. That's certainly a beginning. Thank you, Meg, for breaking the ice.”
There's never any predicting. Swenson would have guessed that Meg would see the story as a hateful celebration of phallic dominance imposing itself on a defenseless bird.
The guys never answer Meg directly. They let a moderate woman start, then they jump in. Shy Nancy Patrikis, who has a crush on Danny Liebman, says, “That's not what the story's about. The boy cares about his girlfriend. And she really hurts him. So he's, like, taking it out on the chicken.”
“Yo, Meg,” says Carlos, “trust me. Guys can tell the difference between sex with a woman and sex with a chicken.”
“You better hope so, girlfriend,” says Makeesha. “Otherwise we all be in trouble.”
“Excuse me,” says Swenson. “Do you think we could find our way back from the male's lack of sexual discrimination to discussing Danny's story?”
“I thought it was disgusting.” Courtney Alcott purses her lips, meticulously outlined with dark brown and filled in with pale pink. Courtney is Boston Brahmin. Back Bay Barbie, Swenson thinks. Her homegirl makeup and fashion statement, a misguided protest against the fresh-faced Euston tree-huggers, annoy Makeesha and Claris.
“Disgustingâ¦” Swenson ruminates. “Could anyone be moreâ¦exact?”
Courtney says, “That part where Danny did it to the chicken.”
It's not lost on anyone that Courtney said
, the character's name.
,” says Swenson. “The characterâ”
“Whatever,” Courtney says.
“Not whatever,” says Swenson. “It matters. I don't think Danny wants us to think he did that to a chicken.”
“Well, he thought about doing it to a chicken,” says Meg. “Otherwise he wouldn't have put it in the story.”
“Thinking isn't doing,” Swenson hears himself starting to lecture. “Mystery writers aren't murderers. Necessarily. And we've gotten into trouble whenever we've assumed that the character is a stand-in for the writer.”
When did they get into trouble like that? Then they remember: Claris. The little girl and the cleaning lady. Everyone looks at Claris, a situation she defuses by hauling the conversation back to Danny's work.
“Iâ¦liked the story?” Claris says. “The last part just came as a shock? I mean, that scene in the kitchen kind of came out of nowhere.”
There's an agreeing murmur, as always when Claris speaks. The students are swayed by her persuasive chemistry of intuition, authority, and common sense. Swenson should just go home and let her run the class.
“In that case,” says Swenson, “what does one do to make the last scene seem less shocking? No matter what, it's going to beâ¦a surprise. But it should be plausible and shouldn't, as Claris says”âhe quotes the students whenever he can, it gives everyone a positive feeling of partnership in a group projectâ“appear to come out of nowhereâ¦. If, in fact, you think that it doesâ¦come out of nowhere.”
Swenson suddenly can't recall very much about the piece except for a few disgusting details. Occasionally he'll suggest another ending for a story, only to have the students look puzzled until someone gently informs him that the story already ends with the event he's suggested. Well, no wonder he thought of itâ¦.
“I don't know exactly,” says Nancy. “I'd maybe change the boy's character so we know he's the kind of person who could do something like that.”
The class can get behind this. That's precisely what's needed. Connect the maverick chicken-rapist with the seemingly normal Long Island teen who, in the story, takes his girlfriend out for pizza. During the meal she tells him that she's met an older guy who works at a Northern Italian trattoria in Manhattan. She says that this new guy invited her to stop by his place, where he'll serve her their signature dish, polenta with mushrooms (“You hate mushrooms,” the hero says, in the story's best line) and steak grilled over an open fire.
“Make the kid moreâ¦violent,” suggests Meg. “Do we see the waitress in the pizza place? Make him be mean to the waitress. So then later when he goes homeâ”
Swenson glances at Danny, who has that stupefied look students get when their work is being discussed and, to compound the ritual sadism, they are not allowed to speak. Danny
the boy in his story. He would never mistreat a waitress.