The department chair sits at a u-shaped workstation. Piles of papers line all three sides of the u. In the leg that is closest to the wall, a nook in the paper has been hollowed out. A portable black and white television sits in the niche. It illuminates the chair’s ashen face. He fingers the side of a stained cup. I stand at the open door and knock on the frame. He glances at me and then returns his gaze to the screen. A mosquito throws itself against the digital artifacts that distort the face of a TV judge.
“No classes have opened for the spring. Sorry.”
I take a slow panicked breath. My graduate degree allowed him to hire me as an adjunct instructor, but it gives me no security. The staff and students call me professor, thinking this title has meaning. But my full-time colleagues are always quick to draw the distinction between us in socially awkward situations like this one.
“Thanks,” I say in a half voice. My lease ends the week before the semester. I’ll have to move. After the term, I can crash with my cousin Vera downstate. For now, I’ll have to make other arrangements.
He waves me away. “Something will open in the fall.”
A two-drawer file cabinet is wedged under my desk. Plastic utensils and age-brittled rubber bands litter the top drawer. In the bottom drawer, newspapers from five years ago sit on a stack of papers the office’s previous inhabitant forgot to grade. But this pile has provided a perfect place to hide a bottle of Old Crow and some cans of RC.
Gray synthetic carpet stretches across poured cement floor. Sour sweat perfumes the carpet. I pull my wrinkled blazer from underneath my head and press it against my eyes. The fluorescent lights tucked in the small flat corner of the ceiling blaze coolly. The bodies of flies and mosquitoes speckle the plexiglass covering.
Sleep continues to evade me. For the first few nights, I was able to rest in my office relatively well. But students have stolen projectors from some classrooms, and now the guards patrol the halls more diligently. These patrols have made my temporary homelessness more uncomfortable, preventing me from sleeping soundly.
Footsteps whisper down the hall. I tuck my legs to my chest, hoping the guard won’t see me under my desk. A flashlight taps against the window. My heart races, and I feel jealous of the tenured dyspeptic who controls my life.
I cup my hands under the faucet. The electronic sensor spits out a thin stream of water. I dump it over my hair and dampen my face. Damp fingers pry loose the dry residue of sleep from my eyes. Rivulets trickle down my neck and chest. I pull a light blue French cut shirt from my satchel. It clings to the moisture on my body.
A thud resounds from the door. I glance back. The brown doorstop I kicked in remains snugly wedged. I button the shirt and rush to remove the rubber wedge.
The ball-like departmental chair brushes past me. I lose balance and bang my shoulder against the paper towel dispenser. The automated sensor sends a rough paper tail around my neck.
Rain piddles. It smears the outside of the windows. A moth bangs against a sealed porthole. The shadow deepens across the entirety of the city. The classroom is quiet.
Students shudder subtly as I walk past, carrying a stack of Xeroxed tests. The smell of warm ink excites my nostrils as the edges of the scantrons slide across my fingertips. I slide the papers onto the desk. I unwrap a cherry cough drop and suck it from its wrapper. Hoping it will cover the smell of spirits on my breath.
Dave, a Lutheran High School graduate still active in Boy Scouts, sits nicely at a desk in the front row. His smile is insufferably pleasant. The awkward boy was born in the city but openly projects his redneck identity by wearing tight blue jeans that hug his blocky ass. He tucked these jeans into a pair of brown work boots. Frequently he wears a tight T-shirt with Boss Hogg’s face on it. I ask him to write the date on the board as I pass out the tests. The tightness of his blue jeans distracts me. He is so small in a room filled with students pursuing hard pleasure. His aw-shucks wholesomeness is a challenge to the urban sexuality that pulses through the classroom. The others sing in the hallway as he sits quietly waiting for class to begin. He is someone who I can’t imagine as having any sadness in his life beyond grief over a dead grandparent.
He is a solid B student, but I know he sees himself as an A student. On most of his assignments, I will spend an hour scrapping together imagined points to give him the grade he wants. I always look for ways to get his attention to turn that respect into interest. I long for him to lose his composure and break into a genuine smile. I wonder if such a boy could imagine sex without love.
Other students slowly start to file in. Deeper throbbing hatred accompanies the ill shaven or heavily mascaraed faces of the eighteen-year olds. My mind reflects their shallow, shitty horror of the oncoming week followed by a lack of financial security.
I sip tepid, bitter tea from my travel mug. I hope that it will keep me going for the next hour and twenty minutes. The mug hits the table with a loud thud as I try to get people’s attention. I flick a few drops of tea from my fingers to my pants. It stains.
“Put your notebooks away.” I call the homework forward. A few students pantomime looking through their bags, they haven’t completed it. Most just stare blankly. Five papers (single sheets typed) are passed forward. They (and I) would like to leave. But mindless midterm exams have been mandated from the department head. He says everyone must be accountable.
I pass the tests and scantrons to Dave. He passes them out.
Dave walks into my small office squeezed between the stairwell and bathroom. Even though he is short, his short brown hair is pressed against the angled ceiling that intersects with the floor. His left thumb is hooked in the front pocket of his skintight Wrangler jeans. His right hand holds a crumpled essay—the corners folded to hold it together in lieu of a staple. On the front page, my handwriting spells out, “95% Nice Work.”
The essay was average quality. But his bright eyes never close as I lecture. The smell of musky cologne mixed with his body odor weakens me. I lean in to smell him as I stand stooping to motion him to the chair next to my desk. He shakes his head, but holds out his small hand. I take it. The warm flesh sweats as it is pressed into mine.
“Can I take your class in the spring?”
I try to conceal a smirk and shake my head. I loosen my grip but do not let his hand fall.
Behind him, the emergency exit glows. The chair, never shy about announcing his irritable bowels, waddles down the hall. His gut knocks the boy into me as he passes. The boy’s brown work boots smash my feet, and the racecar on his large belt buckle bruises my hip. My free hand moves to the small of his back as he rights himself.
A fly lands on my fingers as they traipse over the small of his back.
Through the back window, the sky stretches past low red brick buildings. I would like to pass the time quietly. I stroke my beard. I would like it to be soft and even. Currently, it smells like Cheetos. I burp quietly into my hand.
Barracuda clouds twist in the darkening sky, full of meaning. I grow anxiously into each moment. Misery culls my flitting attention. I have nothing to say today. Perhaps one of my taciturn students will inspire me.
But Dave is absent.
A few women stretch their bare arms under their chins lean forward. Cleavage spills from their tank tops. A needling pain stabs my temple. I had a drink or two too many, last night. I can’t stand the light.
Boys slump over their desks. Their jeans slip past the gym shorts they wear underneath. I do not know how to generate energy to start the discussion. Of course, their contempt distracts me. But I am not the center of gravity that brings them to this room—fantasies about degrees and jobs hold them here. I am just a hurdle many cannot clear.
I would like to know if I should say anything before class begins. I check the clock on my phone I have a few minutes. I take a sip of tepid tea. I twist my thumb, and it cracks. Pleasures of sharing have long sense been abandoned. Next week final grades are due. After I grade the exit exams, I can leave town to stay with my cousin.
The clock clicks over; the last class begins. In this school, I have no place to create a majestic presence. Clerks and rest room cleaners who make more than I do surround me. I stumble forward and call roll. The placement of my feet is narrow as I walk down the aisles. I cough, signaling students to move their feet or bags.
Whiskey sick, I drown in a review of the essay form and desert myself to live in my fantasies. After I speak, they respond slowly in terse huffs. Clusters in front mutter in Spanish; clusters in back mutter in Polish. A couple in the far corner strokes each other’s hands.
I put a few words on the back of the board and draw a conceptual map not bothering to flesh out.