“David.” His wife’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Did you call the plumber?”
Shit. His fantasy evaporated abruptly. E. had been bent over his desk, sundress pushed up around her back, panties on the floor, legs splayed, and he’d been fucking her from behind, plunging into her warm, wet pussy, hands cupping her ass cheeks to spread them wider.
“Can you hear me?” Sarah’s voice was getting closer. She must be walking through the dining room to his study.
“Yeah. I left a message on his voicemail.” He’d call the plumber now.
E was a checker at Trader Joe’s. Pear-shaped, with a generous ass, long brown hair she wore in a braid, and a friendly smile. She wore faded jeans and Sierra Club t-shirts and he imagined her life was simpler than his. She probably rented, for one thing, and didn’t own so much crap that had to be fixed all the time. She rode a bike to work. He’d seen her once on the boulevard, legs pumping as she pedaled up an incline, her braid hanging down her back under her helmet. Her quadriceps must be something.
“Maybe we should call someone else. Tell them it’s an emergency.” Sarah was standing in his doorway and he tried to focus. “I’ll get on it,” he said, closing the composition book he’d been writing in. He slid it onto the desk and put a pile of student essays on top of it.
“Damn, I’m really swamped,” he said. He made a wry grimace, inviting Sarah to commiserate with his workload. She didn’t look sympathetic.
“Have you got any ideas for dinner? I’ve got to pick up Tommy at tee ball practice in ten minutes. I’ll stop by Safeway. Can you put the wash in the dryer while I’m out?”
David didn’t have any ideas for dinner. His shrinking hard-on stirred. What if he said, “Fuck dinner. Let’s ball.” She wouldn’t be amused. There was Tommy. And the stopped-up toilet.
“I don’t know. Mac and cheese? Frozen lasagna?” There were only a few entrees that Tommy would eat without complaint.
Life with E. would be different. He’d write. She’d give him full body massages and cook healthy meals without bothering him about what he wanted for dinner. Quinoa, kale, lentils. Once in a while they’d barbecue a steak and laugh about it. She’d walk around the apartment naked reading Whitman aloud. He pictured her small but firm white breasts, marbled with faint blue veins. Pale pink nipples.
Sarah wrinkled her nose. “I’ll take a look at the deli counter.”
He pulled out his notebook after she left and jotted down some notes for his prospective novel. “E. Pearly pink nipples. I Sing the Body Electric. Bike rider. Likes sex on top?”
David sat in his cluttered office at Crown Country Day nursing a hangover. He’d taken two aspirin and gulped down three cups of coffee but it didn’t seem to be helping. Keith Aldrich lounged in the chair by his desk, eyes wide and guileless. Keith was his best writer, and lazy as fuck. He hadn’t looked at the short story manuscript marked up in red that David held out to him.
“Hey man, plagiarism is like kind of a strong word for it. You know I’m a good writer. Why would I do that?”
At the moment David didn’t really give a shit. He’d plagiarize from Bukowski too if he thought he could get away with it. Right now his writing was stalled. All he did was jot down scraps of ideas in notebooks.
“It sure seems that way, Keith. How about this paragraph where you forgot to change Henry Chinaski’s name?
“Ever hear of a mashup? I mean probably you’re too old to know about mashups.”
David was miffed. “Of course I know about mashups. I taught Reality Hunger when it came out. This is not a mashup, Keith.”
David prized himself on being avant-garde, something of a maverick. A popular teacher, he invited his students to call him by his first name and said “fuck” and “balls” in the classroom. The administration tolerated him because none of the boys’ parents had complained. They’d asked him not to teach Naked Lunch again, which secretly pleased him, as it added to his outlaw rep. They hadn’t objected to Reality Hunger, a manifesto that had completely confused his writing class, though his students had gleefully cut pages 210 to 218 out of the book, as the author instructed. He’d been wondering ever since if that was the way to go. Quotations stitched together. Attributions that you could simply cut out of the book. He could do that. He’d started saving quotations. But the fashion seemed to have passed already.
“Whatever. I mean that’s just your opinion.” Keith crossed his arms in front of his skinny chest, his expression sullen. “I’m going for early admission at Stanford and I need an A in this class.”
“I want you to go home and think about this,” David said. “Bring me a new story next week and we’ll talk some more. If it’s A work, I’ll think about giving you an A.” Let the kid squirm a little.
Keith didn’t look too worried. None of the sons of privilege in this overpriced prep school ever worried about anything their English teacher could do to them.
Later that afternoon David saw Dori Rinner in the hall.
“I’ve got an academic dishonesty thing I need to run by you,” he said. His mouth felt like cotton. His head was throbbing.
Dori had sent out a lengthy memo on academic dishonesty in September. “Consult me immediately before proceeding to the penalty phase. We need to be on the same page here!”
While she’d reiterated Crown Academy’s no-tolerance policy for plagiarism and cheating, Dori’s memo had not been about penalties, but about how to head off academic dishonesty so they didn’t have to deal with it at all. “Distribute more than one version of your test so students can’t look at their neighbors’ answers. Vet successive rough drafts of essays. Be sure to run your students’ last rough drafts through our Turnitin plagiarism service before they hand them in!” Students weren’t penalized for plagiarism in the rough draft, just warned they would be penalized if they handed the paper in that way. Consequently there were few or no plagiarism cases because plagiarists were warned in advance of their infractions. Crown students worked on elaborate paraphrases of papers that had flunked the Turnitin plagiarism detector test. “We’re proud of our boys’ integrity at Crown,” Dori wrote. “Let’s keep it up!”
Dori’s features sharpened. She looked up and down the hall, leaned toward David, and lowered her voice. “Who was it?”
“Keith Aldrich.” He watched her face relax. Clearly Keith wasn’t going to be in trouble no matter what he’d done. He wasn’t one of the “troublemakers” or one of the scholarship boys. His father had made a generous donation to the fund for the new theater. The Aldriches were on the sports booster list in the “Angel” category.
“Was it in your AP class?”
“No, creative writing.”
“Well, an elective. A creative class. I hope you warned him not to do it again.”
Dori smiled. No parents to placate. David smiled. No paperwork to fill out. The little asshole was off the hook and so were they.
“A Bukowski mashup?” David wrote in his notebook. “Bukowski meets Henry Miller in Paris and has threesome. Do mashup with three authors, one female. Anais too obvious a choice? Buk lifted her skirt and jammed two fingers up her cunt. I swooned, breathless, shivers passed through my body. I hate broads who talk too much, Buk said to Henry.”
He leafed backward through the notebook, looking for the Henry Miller quotation from Tropic of Cancer he’d copied. Maybe he should use note cards instead of composition books. Then he could lay them out in different patterns on the desk, really study them. He finally found it. “You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn’t have to have brains. They’re better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she’s brilliant, even if she’s the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn’t put meat on their arms or juice between their legs.” Under the quotation he’d written, “Misogynist yes, but HONEST in a way p.c. contemporary authors are not. What man doesn’t dream of the young cunt with juice between her legs?”
He imagined slipping his hand down the front of E.’s jeans.
Maybe he should do footnoted commentary in the novel. Or footnoted mini-scenes.
The door to his study was closed but unlocked. He wasn’t sure whether Sarah was going to call him for dinner or not. She was still pissed off about the wet laundry on Sunday. Well screw that. He couldn’t remember everything. He’d gotten the oil changed, hadn’t he? He’d picked up Tommy at school twice this week. And made three shopping trips to Trader Joe’s.
It was February 14, and unseasonably warm for Northern California. David hadn’t forgotten Valentine’s Day. He’d bought a joke card for Sarah, and some chocolates that he’d probably eat himself. He’d gotten Sarah a pair of transparent red lace bikini panties that she wasn’t going to like, but if he was lucky she’d wear them once. Now he was at Trader Joe’s for roses.
The store was fragrant with flowers. Everyone bustled about pushing their carts, lots of old people, and middle-aged boomers in Birkenstocks. Sarah said Trader Joe’s was too expensive, but hey, it’s cheaper than Whole Foods and it’s healthy, he told her; we can’t spend too much on Tommy’s health.
He angled to get into E.’s line, even though two others were shorter.
“Roses for your wife?” she said, her smile cheery.
Her nametag read E. Gardner. He still hadn’t mustered the courage to ask her name. He kind of liked the anonymity of E. Like a naughty eighteenth-century novel or The Story of O.
“I’m old school,” he said. “A romantic.” He paused. “So what have you got planned for Valentine’s? Big night out?” His tone was too hearty, forced. She didn’t seem to notice.
“I don’t know. My boyfriend and I are going hiking on Mount Diablo in the afternoon.”
“Hiking.” Of course she’d like hiking. Of course she’d have a boyfriend, a young girl as gorgeous as E. He pictured a strapping mountain climber and grimaced.
“Maybe he’ll buy you roses too.” David winked, and immediately felt like an old fart.
“I’m not much for cut flowers,” she said, handing him his change.
Of course not. She was in the Sierra Club. She wouldn’t want cut flowers. David cursed himself for not thinking of that. Sarah liked flowers, but, come to think of it, she didn’t like red roses. Too late. He had them now.
“Maybe I’ll run into you on the trails some time,” he said casually. “I like to hike, read a book in the sun, get away from it all.”
He’d need to practice, do some walking in the neighborhood. Maybe he’d take off some pounds that way. What if he invited her some afternoon, just off the cuff. “I’m going to Lake Chabot later. Maybe we could go together when you get off work.”
“Let me guess your name,” he’d tease her, when they set off on their hike. “Emily? Eileen? Ermengarde? Eve?” His innocent temptress, bagging apples.
The car was hot. By the time he got home the roses were already wilting.
“Daddy, can we get pizza?” Tommy jumped up and down in excitement. “Pepperoni, pepperoni, pepperoni.”
“Daddy’s on a diet,” he said. “Let’s think of something healthy. Remember the food groups game you played in kindergarten?”
“A diet?” Sarah looked at him curiously. “Since when are you on a diet?”
She was wearing sweat pants and a baggy t-shirt. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a scrunchie. As far as David could see, she’d given up on losing weight and switched to wearing oversized clothes instead. She was stockier than she’d been before Tommy was born, but not really overweight in David’s opinion. She thought she was.
“You’re the one who said I’m getting a paunch,” David said. “That’s the word you used. Paunch.”
“Since when do you care what I think?”
“Jeez, Sar. Can I do anything right?”
“Well if you want to go on a diet you could start by cutting out the booze.”
Notebook entry. “A man misunderstood by his wife finds solace in mountain hikes. ‘He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
David had taken to wearing hiking boots all the time, which were surprisingly uncomfortable. Hiking boots, newish jeans, black t-shirt, casual sport coat. A Bay Area look, like a young Berkeley prof. He admired himself in the rest room mirror, sucked in his gut.
Keith had turned in his second story and they were slated for another conference. As if there wasn’t enough bullshit involved in teaching without this.
Keith was waiting in his office, slouched by the desk, when David got back from the bathroom. He looked bored. David handed the story to him and said, “Read the first paragraph out loud please.”
“The girl jumped up on the coffee table. Her jeans fit tighter than ever. I could see the slit in her crotch. She flung her long brown hair from side to side. She was insane; she was awesome.” Keith was clearly into it. He raised his voice a notch. “For the first time I considered the possibility of actually fucking her. She began reciting poetry. Her own. It was very bad. My buddy tried to stop her, ‘No! No! No rhyming poetry in this house!’ ‘Let her go,’ I said. I wanted to watch her wiggle her ass. She strode up and down my parents’ coffee table. Then she danced. She waved her arms. The poetry was terrible; the body and the madness weren’t.”
David had circled “the girl, I could see the slit in her crotch, awesome, fucking, my buddy, wiggle her ass, my parents” in red marker.
“The circled words are yours, Keith. The rest is from Bukowski’s Women. Good book. Not yours.”
“I don’t get it,” Keith said. “I could see the slit in her crotch is fucking perfect. What do you want, man?”
David sighed. What did he want? What did he want?
“What do I want? I want you to write a goddamn story.”
He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Now get out of here. Write something.”
The meeting with Keith had interrupted David’s newest notebook entry, and he hadn’t had time to finish before class.
“Imagine living in a bungalow in Berkeley with E., overgrown yard, roses by the door. We sleep every day until noon, drink black coffee in bed, read poems to each other. Fuck like rabbits. Study a tantric sex manual and try everything. If Sarah and Tommy were suddenly to die, would E. leave her boyfriend for me? I think she might. If I quit my job, could I write my novel? With E. behind me, yes.
“Dreamed we did it on the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s on Valentine’s Day. Night-time. No one there but us. Smell of roses. No condom. She gasped as I …”
David chose his own readings for the creative writing class, but AP American Lit had a set list of texts. Red Badge of Courage. The Scarlet Letter. A handful of classic twentieth-century short stories. Today’s was “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Not what he would have chosen.
“The pounding of the cylinders increased,” he read out loud: “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” David prided himself on reading with dramatic flair.
“What literary device is Thurber using here?”
Kippy, the smarmy ass-kiss in the front row, raised his hand. “Alliteration?”
“No, not alliteration exactly. Good guess, Kippy.” Crown faculty members were encouraged to give positive feedback as often as possible. Dori Rinner had a handout on “Building Your Students’ Self-Esteem” that she distributed every September at Faculty Orientation.
“Well, there’s repetition, that’s true. Anybody remember the term we use for words that sound like what they’re describing?”
Their faces were blank.
“Onomatopoeia.” He wrote it on the board and dusted chalk off the sleeve of his sport coat. “Come back on Wednesday with four examples of onomatopoeia.” He knew they’d just Google onomatopoeia to find their examples, but it would keep them busy.
He remembered liking Thurber when he was a kid, but now Walter Mitty’s daydreams seemed hopelessly jejune. Surely kids of this generation were too cynical and sophisticated for Mitty’s heroics, though the henpecking wife got some laughs. Who dreamed of performing miraculous surgeries or piloting a Navy hydroplane? Maybe piloting a plane with a naked girl in your lap, legs straddling your waist, tits brushing your face, moaning in your ear. “Walter. Walter.”
He did the dishes without Sarah asking. Score one point. Took out the garbage. Two. Read a bunny story to Tommy at bedtime. Three. Only drank one beer. Four. David was feeling pretty good when he locked himself in his study. He arranged the essays he had to grade in two piles, opened the short story anthology to tomorrow’s reading, and rummaged through his backpack for his notebook. No notebook. He felt around again, and then dumped the contents of the pack onto the floor. The notebook wasn’t there. He unlocked his desk drawer, just in case it was there, though he was sure it couldn’t be. It wasn’t. Had he left it at work? He’d written in it that morning, his Berkeley cottage reverie. He remembered that. He tried to picture it on his desk at school. Had he shoved the notebook in the file drawer? His backpack? Did he pull it out at home? Had Sarah been in his study before dinner? She hadn’t been. She never came in his study, not even to clean. His heartbeat had accelerated and he breathed deeply to slow it down. He knew he was worrying too much. He’d check at school tomorrow.
He jotted down some ideas on a scrap of paper. “Add to notebook. Man hiking alone happens on girl who’s been bitten by rattler. He smashes snake with large rock. Slashes snake bite on her bare leg with his knife, sucks venom from wound. Licks her skin. Slowly moves his tongue up her inner thigh to crotch of her tight shorts. Picture E. here, strong biking legs, soft white skin, braid down to her ass.”
Keith’s newest story was on the floor when David unlocked his office door early the next morning.
There was a note at the top. “Hey David. I’m going for one of those 100-word flash stories you were talking about in class. Using all the senses. Also, could you write me a letter for Stanford? Form is attached.”
He plagiarized, then wanted a letter of recommendation? The gall of these kids. David skimmed the page.
“It was past closing time at Trader Joe’s on Valentine’s Day. The smell of roses overpowered the faint odor of rotting vegetables in the produce section. Pyramids of toasty oats loomed, ghostly in the semi-dark. E. had turned off all the lights and stripped off her clothes. She pushed D. down onto the checkout counter and lowered herself onto his bare cock. ‘I sing the body electric,’ she gasped. He didn’t care that he could lose his wife and kid. That he could lose his job. All that mattered was this moment. Hot, wet, all consuming. It was worth it.”
David’s gut clenched. Jesus Christ. He took a deep breath. Jesus.
He should have just flunked the little shit for plagiarism.
Was Keith threatening to take the notebook to his wife? Did he know where David lived? What if Keith told Dori Rinner? Could he really lose his job? He probably wouldn’t lose his job. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the classroom. But there was a morals clause in the contract. They could fire him for pretty much anything if they wanted to. Years of his disparaging remarks about the principal and board weren’t going to help.
His vision of the shared bungalow in Berkeley was fading. E. wasn’t going to take him in after this. They weren’t going to lounge in bed reading poems to each other. She probably didn’t even like poetry. Nobody was going to take him in. Nobody was going to hire a forty-something English major who’d been let go from Crown Country Day with no references. He’d end up working at McDonald’s to make his child support payments. He’d see Tommy two days a week if he was lucky. He’d live in a grim efficiency apartment somewhere in industrial Hayward, in a converted motel with sagging balconies and peeling paint.
Even in the midst of his panic, he couldn’t help but admire “the faint odor of rotting vegetables.” The kid had potential. He’d managed a finished piece from jottings, which was more than David had accomplished lately.
His stomach churned, and he put his hand on it, trying to still its gurgling.
Maybe all the kid wanted was the grade.
“‘A’ work,” he scrawled on the bottom of the story. “I knew you could do it, Keith. I’ll get to that letter today.”
He sat at his desk, looking at the story, and thought about how trite his sexual fantasies were, laid out on the page. This was going to be about more than the grade. The notebook was a gold mine for a wily bastard like Keith. How many more stories could Keith manage out of the notebook entries? Would he pass it on to his friends? Would they pass it on to the next generation of Crown students? Would he be reading this crap for years? They probably wouldn’t tell the principal. Why ruin a good thing?
“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck a duck.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Dog turd. Puppy biscuit.” He was losing his mind. Damn Walter Mitty and his puppy biscuit. He sniggered. “I am really up shit creek now, Walter.” Wherever that expression came from. Was there an onomatopoetic word for how he felt? Finito. Done for. Fucked.
When he’d taught the end of Walter Mitty he’d mentioned Hemingway’s “grace under pressure.” Okay, it was just Walter Mitty’s fantasy, but there he was, a hero in front of the firing squad, “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” He refused the blindfold. He had some dignity. David imagined a crowd of spectators, E. sobbing among them, and straightened his shoulders. That’s how he would play this. He raised his chin and narrowed his eyes.
But there was no firing squad. There were no spectators but himself and a snotty teenager. Walter Mitty was still in fantasyland at the end of his story. Maybe he and E. would laugh about it all later, but David was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. He needed to buy another notebook. He pulled a memo pad out of the drawer and started to write. “The night was dark, but a streetlight shone through the window and he could see them in the faint illumination. She was sprawled on the desk, her long braid brushing one of her milky white breasts, her muscular legs wrapped around the boy’s ass. The boy’s red and white Stanford t-shirt was drenched with sweat as he pumped vigorously, butt cheeks clenching and unclenching. Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. ‘K.,’ she gasped. ‘E.,’ he moaned. ‘You’re awesome.’ Yes, it was E. And it was too late to do anything but write about it.”
About the Author: Jacqueline Doyle lives in the East Bay with her husband and son. Her fiction has appeared in The East Bay Review, Confrontation, Bluestem Quarterly, Toad Suck Review, Monkeybicycle, Tampa Review Online, Vestal Review, and is forthcoming in PANK. Find her online here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.
Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.