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Authors: Stephanie Fournet

Fall Semester

BOOK: Fall Semester
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Fall Semester

 

 

Fall Semester

Stephanie Fournet

 

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

Copyright © 2013, 2014 Stephanie Fournet

 

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN-13: 9781500244910

ISBN-10: 1500244910

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014911336

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

North Charleston, South Carolina

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

For John

You are my beloved and my friend.

Chapter 1

Malcolm

M
alcolm Vashal didn’t make a habit of looking in the mirror, not directly, anyway. He would give his reflection a downcast focus at the medicine cabinet when he shaved each morning, but while brushing his teeth or raking a comb through his chestnut-brown hair, he seldom glanced at himself.

So in the rare times that he made eye-contact with the mirror, as he did on the last Sunday morning before the start of another fall semester, he had to admit that it surprised him every time: any stranger who saw him would affirm that Malcolm Vashal, 34, was a handsome man.

He smirked at his own reflection, wishing for the blessed ignorance of such a stranger. He looked down in the sink at his loaded AMT 6mm. Admittedly, the handgun looked surreal in the white porcelain stand-alone; somehow both deadly and ridiculous at once.

Malcolm deliberated about leaving it there, but finally opted to put it away on the top shelf of his hall closet, lest the convenience of its presence coincide with a moment of conviction.

He had chosen the bathroom this time because clean up there—for whomever—would be the least involved. And if, by some cosmic joke, the thing had gone poorly, and Malcolm had survived to face his own humiliation as a suicide failure (and God knows what kind of vegetative future), then at least he would be spared the offense of having to buy new furniture and carpeting.

The morning had been one of real panic—but without panic’s trap-door of uncertainty. This panic was firmly rooted in a base of assured dread. The semester would start tomorrow, and so would the tedium and mediocrity and general loathsomeness of Malcolm’s “career.” The start of term would be like stepping back into a pair of coveralls, caked in grime from the day before.

There would be his colleagues—no more freshly invigorated than he in the weeks since early May—but at the department head’s fall party, they would all describe pedagogical innovations they had been taught at such-and-such a conference; or how much they were looking forward to teaching William Carlos Williams after having finally visited Paterson; or how, now that their youngest had flown the nest (and gone to some
other
university), they would have time at last to write a collection of critical essays on
Moll Flanders
or, even worse, draft that Neo-Austenian novel that had been their life’s dream. It would be all Malcolm could do to keep his eyes from executing a derisive roll.

And the rare occurrence that someone, usually a new adjunct or recently invested associate professor, pointed his glass of pinot grigio in Malcolm’s direction and asked, “And Dr. Vashal, what did you do with your summer?” Malcolm would throw back whatever was in his glass and say, “I read.”

Out of politeness, the new professor would always inquire and would receive for his curiosity a list of tomes that numbered near 20 before Malcolm held up his empty glass as a reason to end the interview. The mark of whether the person was worth returning to was if he or she recognized any of the titles. Usually, no one did. In addition to being one of the several members of the faculty with specialization in American literature, Malcolm was the only professor in the English department of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who was an expert in Central and South American literature. He even had a small list of translations to his name, laurels that had helped him land his tenured post—and helped him to stagnate for too long. He had published a well received translation of poems by a Colombian poet three years ago, shortly before Malcolm’s marriage had ended, but, apart from one or two scholarly articles a year to keep his professorial head above water, he had nothing else to his credit.

So the start of term was, indeed, a source of panic. To be striving to hold one’s own at a university with some prestige was expected—admirable—but to do so at a school that was only marginally academic was nothing short of unforgivable. Two years before, Malcolm had tried to claw his way out, applying to other southern schools with more promise, Rice, UT, Austin College, University of Florida at Gainesville, Florida State, and Eckerd College—schools that would have larger Latino studies, but he never made a third interview. Those posts had gone to professors with more recent books on their vitae or—as Malcolm bitterly observed—to applicants with last names like Marquez, Gomez, or Santa Maria.

After his attempt at FSU had gone thus, he resolved to give up the search until…well, until something happened that he could count on. So he remained, but he had spent more than a handful of evenings staring into the opaque finish of the AMT. Taking it down from the closet shelf had almost become a joke, one that left him sweating, cramping, and sick with himself for his own cowardice.

And leery of the power that moved him to put the gun away again.

Was it something as prosaic as faith that suicide was wrong, that things would get better? Or just mechanistic, biological self-preservation? He didn’t respect either impulse.

But this Sunday, by 4 p.m. the gun was put away, and Malcolm took a light blazer out of its dry cleaning bag, found a clean shirt in the laundry, ironed it, and changed into a pair of jeans that weren’t damp with near-self-annihilation sweat.

In the kitchen, he opened the double cabinet over the dishwasher that served as his bar. If he had to go to the damn fall party, he could at least go with help. But nothing too fragrant. Best to have a couple of glasses of wine instead of the double scotch that was his first choice.

Malcolm uncorked a chilled bottle of Garnacha Blanca
and carried it and a glass to the back porch. The heat was brutal, a living thing, even with a live oak shading much of the yard. Malcolm turned on the small ceiling fan that blew hot air around and confused the mosquitoes who’d managed to buzz in through small tears in the screen.

He sat on his cane bottom rocker
and poured his glass. He could feel perspiration begin to dot his upper lip and the back of his neck. The wine was crisp on his tongue, mellifluous, and he hoped the heat would put it to work faster.

Ricardo, his Siamese tabby, batted once at the kitty door at the corner of the porch and jumped through. He loped to Malcolm with the expectation of being stroked. Malcolm picked up the bottle before it could become covered with tawny hairs and tucked it between his legs. He reached down and scratched Ricardo on the head. The cat reared back and put a tentative fang on Malcolm’s pinky as though to scold him and then pushed his head harder against Malcolm’s palm.

“I suppose I deserve that. I guess I should find a guardian for you before offing myself, hadn’t I?”

Malcolm found the human tendency to talk to animals a moronic practice, but in the three years he’d had Ricardo, he found that some moronic pastimes were warranted—even necessary. Malcolm took comfort in the fact that, even though he might be suicidal, he still had not observed Ricardo talking back, so he concluded he was not too far gone. And though he knew it was anthropomorphic of him, Malcolm couldn’t help but approve of Ricardo’s refined air of general disdain. They were, Malcolm smiled at the thought, kindred—if not blithe—spirits.

Malcolm drained his glass and poured another once Ricardo had had his fill of head scratching. The cat climbed to an empty tier on a wrought iron plant stand and proceeded to bathe himself.


Eres un cabrón afortunado.

Malcolm envied the cat his unobligated existence, heeding the only the most base demands, never suffering from the onus of performance or homage.

The wine buzzed on his lips, and he drank until 5:30. The party would be a half hour underway, and Malcolm would arrive in a wave of guests, free to say a quick hello to Dorothy Sheridan, the department head, and find whichever grad student had the honor of manning the bar.

Malcolm drank at such faculty gatherings, not to make himself more comfortable, but to make other people more bearable. He intended to make himself drunk, and he looked forward to it with a playful smugness because he was good at being both drunk and subtle. He was neither loud nor clumsy (if he watched his step) and drinking if anything, made him more quiet, so the few words he spoke rarely came out slurred. The only aspect of his inebriation he had to keep in check was his tendency to snicker at the other guests, for drink made his usual observations of their foibles that much more amusing.

Making sure to take as many side streets as possible between his house in the Saint Streets and Dorothy’s sprawling two-story in Bendel Gardens, Malcolm made his way to the party.

Although some of the houses in Bendel Gardens were dreadfully dated 1960s ranch-style homes, most of them, especially those closer to the river, were enticing characters on Lafayette’s only hilly terrain. Gathered in the shade of oaks and pines, they breathed, they glowed. Malcolm knew that it was Dorothy’s late husband’s oil money—and not her department-head salary—that provided her address.

Her wide lawn was edged with nearly a dozen cars, and faculty and grad students had parked all the way to the end of the block. Malcolm followed suit, taking his time to let the couple who’d arrived just before him get far enough ahead to make a verbal greeting awkward. (Was that Dr. Rainey and his wife? Yes, that was his white bowl cut and oafish gait. The old goat seemed to look even less energetic than usual, if possible.) Jasper Rainey was a retirement deferred.

 

What happens to a retirement deferred?

Does it clot up

Like a crap in your bum?

Or blabber like a bore

Till minds go numb?

Does it stink like Rainey’s feet?

Or rust and corrode

Like his C.V.?

 

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

 

Something that will never go home.

 

Malcolm had to shake Hughes’s rhythm from his mind before he could walk through the front door with a straight face.

Grad students crowded the foyer, all of them dressed in the least amount of acceptable clothing: shorts, tank tops, T-shirts, and sandals, a girl in a sleeveless dress here and there, but nothing more formal. Malcolm knew most of them, and he strode through the cluster, nodding to the respectful—if occasionally lukewarm—greetings he received. Meeting the new students could be considered the highlight of the fall party for Malcolm. With tuition embarrassingly low, a master’s and Ph. D. program, and—the department’s one claim to fame—being one of only a few dozen schools in the nation that offered a doctoral degree in creative writing, UL was actually able to attract some reasonably interesting students.

Of course, most of them were from the area with undergraduate degrees from UL, which, as Malcolm had grimly noted for years, did not adequately prepare them for graduate level scholarship—even at their own alma mater. This was a subject that came up at departmental curricular meetings but led to little more than shoulder-shrugging on the part of administrators. The Dean of the College of Humanities and the Dean of Students made it clear that UL already had a serious problem with attrition, and making undergraduate courses more rigorous would jeopardize the whole university.

So the result was that Malcolm had graduate students in his classes who had never studied Shakespeare at the university level, and yet they were students who’d maintained all A’s in their major. Last spring, he’d had a graduate student—a local girl—in his Realism and Naturalism survey who had managed to get through twelve years of public schooling, four years of college, and one semester of graduate school—not to mention at least 22 years of living on the planet—without having read
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The fact that the girl had been reduced to tears when Malcolm made the same observation was incomprehensible! Rage at her local education was the appropriate response!

Malcolm scanned the living room and found Dorothy, ever-present Eve 120 in hand, talking to Tim Morris, the rhetoric professor who could not have looked more like a Sesame Street Muppet if he’d had blue skin made of foam rubber. (His brush-like mustache was positively cartoonish.)

Malcolm approached them, smiling.

“Well, good evening, Malcolm,” Dorothy croaked, blowing smoke over her shoulder in what Malcolm guessed was an attempt at being considerate.

“Hello, Dorothy…Tim,” Malcolm nodded, silently dubbing his colleague “Henson.” He suppressed a snicker. “How are you both?”

Dorothy took another drag.

“We…” Dorothy always began a speech with a little pause and head jiggle, “were just discussing Dr. Wilson’s manuscript,
Twain and Howell.
” Dorothy paused to cluck her tongue. “Scholastic is picking it up.”

Malcolm felt his eyebrows leap and tried to recover.

“Scholastic?…That’s wonderful,” he managed. His voice dropped. “What an honor.”

“Yes, indeed,” Morris began. “I think they are shooting for a debut at the MLA Conference in San Francisco next April, which would be
perfect.

“Yes, of course,” Malcolm uttered, weakly. He forced a smile. “That’s very good news. Good for him.” The blood in Malcolm’s ears began to drone, and he tried to ignore the sensation that his intestines were weighted down.

“I’ll have to congratulate him,” Malcolm began to step away from Dorothy and Tim. “Lovely party, Dorothy.”

And he edged away, veering down the hall to the drawing room where Dorothy kept her tremendous bar. Malcolm’s collar was damp, and he at once regretted wearing the jacket. It seemed to weight 30 lbs now, the damned thing.

As expected, a Ph. D. candidate, Rob Terrence, was tending bar and holding court with a few other grads. Two girls talking to Rob turned when he entered. One was Helene Coulter; the other, who smiled, Malcolm didn’t recognize.

Rob gave Malcolm a conspiratorial grin, as though they were familiars.

“What’ll it be, professor?”

“Crown,” Malcolm said, scowling. “Lots of ice.”

BOOK: Fall Semester
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