Binghamton University Crew photo
COXSWAINby Susan Taylor Chehak Do I have a drinking problem? Just wine, mostly. By the bottle. And here at these things I’m at my worst. I teach a class, conduct a conference, show up for the dinner or the lunch or the reading or the meeting, then head back to my room on the attic floor of the rooming house. Narrow stairs. Slant ceilings. Windows all around. Height, privacy, remove. No neighbors in the hall. Air-conditioning on. Windows open. A happy mix of manufactured chill and fresh Midwestern heat. Wine. Bed. A book. I’m an old drunk author, long past my prime. The empties pile up under the sink. Sleep eludes. I go for a walk in the dark. If Alexander knew, he’d be beside himself. His anger makes his hair stand on end, and all the shiny bits of baldness glow red like he’s on fire. Ember. Match head. Candlewick. The flame blown out and just that red-hot tip glowering my way. “You stupid girl. Look at the stupid girl.” But I’m no girl. Far from it. Long time a woman. These days a crone. Stupid all the same. I see no danger here on a ramble though a college town at night. There’s security everywhere, keeping the coeds safe from the frat boys. Rabbits gambol the grass. Birds warble the trees. Young women troll the streets. Arm in arm they stagger, shockingly bare-legged. Their tight shorts pinch the most private of their places. Laughter rings. A boy leans on a lamppost. He smokes. He watches. He snarls, like an animal in the zoo.
* * *Once upon a time I was to be met here by a poet who had a crush on me. He’d been young in my class, and afterward we kept in touch. I hadn’t seen him again since, but he called me now and then. My memory was weak and filled with other faces, so he quickly turned into a figment, and I went out like this on the night before our rendezvous, to see if I could find him. There was music somewhere. I shouldered my way through a crowd, looking into the eyes of strangers, guessing, Is that you? Or that? Summer heat and streetlights and a girl alone, dancing with herself, in another world.
* * *Once upon a time Alexander and I broke the neon sign above the famous bar, then ran off. Bad boy, bad girl, hiding in the alleyway, laughing like we’d never grow old and bald and scrawny, the wizened figures rolling on the rug that we’ve since become. The drunken swirl of it all. The here and now and there and then. Memories collide: the shattered neon glass falling all around us, stinging rain. Like a painting. Like the kaleidoscope of the dancing girl’s tattoos.
* * *These are summer classes. A vacation, if you can call a stay in a muggy Midwestern college town in summertime a vacation. I’ve been given twelve students, mostly women, a couple of men. I try not to get to know too much about them. It ruins things I think, their stories. They’re to be writing fiction, but almost always that means some glamorized version of their dull and dumb reality. They don’t go far in imagination and would be insulted if I were to try to push too hard in that direction. Offended to learn that the real story is somehow not enough. What can they do? Change a few facts. Add imagined elements. Trolls and princesses, for example. Wishes come true. It’s cold in this basement room, where the air-conditioning settles. You have to wear a sweater. They buy sweatshirts at the bookstore. My headache is a fierce white light; my clenched jaw is interpreted as a passion for the work. In the evals they will go on about how much I care about them, but it isn’t true. I don’t give a fig. Middle-aged men with a twinkle in their eye, looking for more accomplishment in their lives. They’ve always wanted to write, to publish, to be famous. Lawyers, accountants, boys from the back room with families grown up, wives gone to scandal, big empty houses, failed marriages. While the women are like the women who were those wives. Their side of the story begs to unfold. His infidelity. How he left her for another, younger woman. Or her mother’s story. Her father’s. Something in there that must be told, and I grit my teeth and bite my tongue. I tell them, I don’t care so much about the content. It’s only the form that I can teach. The rest is up to you. They think that means I trust them. There’s almost never anyone younger than fifty, but this time I have one who seems to be somewhere in her thirties. She’s as fierce as I am. Her story is true, she says. She’s made it fiction for protection, she explained. Not of the innocent, but of herself. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Her name is Mary. She’s planning to be famous one day. Clear eyes. Shiny hair falling straight from a center part. No jewelry. Simple clothes, warm enough. Sweater. Jeans. Tennis shoes. Boyish, except for her breasts. A dimpled cheek. Furrowed brow. Furious pencil taking notes on graph paper, in pads she stows in the canvas bag that never leaves her side. Feet square on the floor. Back straight. She takes down my every word, so I drift, talk on and on, work her hard. Be tough with me, she said the first day. I can take it. It’s what I want. What I need. Yet in a certain light Mary is older than she thinks she looks or than she’d like to be. I take some satisfaction from that, scanning her, head to toe, and then facing that bright smile. She doesn’t suspect that I hate her with this much depth. Me, the withered witch, snickering and smacking: I’ll eat you alive, dearie. She glows. She flatters me. What you said, what you’ve done, I admire, I love, I want. She supposes I’ll be moved.
* * *I sidle out the door. The others have bunched up in the hallway and Mary is smiling, “Let me take you to dinner. Can’t we have a drink? Let me buy you a drink. A glass of wine. I know a great place. Will you join me?” I eye the others. One looks over his shoulder, waiting. “Yes, of course,” I say. “I’d love to.” Because, I think, what harm? Really, we’re all grown-ups here, aren’t we? Let her admire me then. I’m fine with that. And I need a drink. We trudge along the path from the backside of the building. Excreted thus. Farted out into the heat and already sweating, already damp in the creases. Why do I come here? The sun is harsh and it’s everywhere. Mary chatters. I pick up a word, here and there. Inspiring. The ideas. The terms, syntax and chronology, all the planning. I have no idea what she’s trying to tell me, and I don’t care. The wine is the carrot. The sun the stick. I trudge. I consider jumping off the bridge into the river, just to cool off a bit, that’s all. The rowers glide past, the coxswain calling from the stern. We stop at a light, and I realize she’s not talking to me anymore but to another student who’s tagged along. I don’t remember his name. Sam or Ron or Howard. Another hopeful face, though this one has a cunning to it too. Like he’s got my number. He writes mysteries. Dead women in junked cars. Kids at play with old shotguns and rusted cans.
* * *At least the restaurant is cool. The neon sign outside is intact now. We ran through the streets, chanting for justice and an end to the war and peace on earth and love, and he held my hand and I threw the rock that smashed the sign. There was darkness then and he kissed me then, he shattered me like glass. The man—Howard, Harold, Frank—orders an expensive wine. His smile is slant, like he knows something he shouldn’t. The junkyard glitter of broken glass. The sweat running down my back and into the crack of my ass.
* * *Honestly, I’m not hungry, but Sam or Ron or Dan has ordered a cheese plate. Fancy, with olives and nuts and fruit and what are we, squirrels? And a plate of fried calamari, which I won’t touch. And another bottle of wine. I smack my lips and smile and eye the family at the next table with their sullen daughter, here for orientation, in from the farm and both parents bewildered but proud. Under the table, he takes his wife’s hand and squeezes it. They’re in this together. She pats his knee.
* * *Mary is talking. She’s telling us the story of a man she met in Aspen. The mother at the table looks over at us. The daughter seems to be listening in. She has her own hands in her own lap, clenched into fists. The man in Aspen was rich, of course, or what else would he be doing there. Sam or Dan or John pours more wine. I nibble at a nut and smile. The waiter has a tattoo of a crab on his forearm, and I wonder if his shoulders are sheathed in flowers. “He was a gray fox,” Mary says, smiling. Her lipstick gleams. Sam or Ron or Dick laughs at this. In his story a young woman has been found strangled in the hayloft of a barn. I suggested she be stabbed instead, multiple times, because blood on hay would look more interesting than her purple tongue, wouldn’t it? And dust motes in a slant of sunlight beaming down on her from above. Pigeons and so on. “Write the scene!” I told him. “See it!” The gray fox bought Mary a car, she says. Silver, with black leather. I would turn that around and phrase it another way: Mary accepted the gift of a silver car from the gray fox. Because it’s all about Mary, isn’t it? And what she did or didn’t do? Said yes? Did not say no? Her story is thinly disguised autobiography, she told the class. Something about her father and a custody dispute and drugs, and he kidnapped her and kept her hidden for years. Her life, but concealed. To protect herself, she said, because there are people who would be angry if they thought it was about them. I didn’t say, But won’t they know? Sam, Dick, Henry did. The family at the next table listens in, rapt. They’ve stopped eating. Mary glances at them, then barrels on. The waiter trips past, pauses, looks at me, so at first I think he’s going to pick me up and carry me away, but of course he doesn’t do any such thing. I wonder if there are snakes around his waist. I smile, but he doesn’t see. I’m an old hag. I could be his mother. I could teach him a thing or two about life. But too late, he’s moved on.
* * *When I look at Mary, it’s clear by the way she twirls her knife and jiggles her knee and flares her nostrils: she’s lying.
* * *I can walk all right. I’m fine. I know the way and I love the dark, but here’s John, Thomas, Peter, Dick, walking me home. He knuckles the small of my back. Steady now. Catching me at the curb so I pull back my shoulders and straighten my spine, steady now, and plow on. At the door he stops and smiles and I almost think…but all he wants is for me to unlock the door, and then he’ll help me up the long staircase to make sure I don’t fall. “Here, let me help,” and he’s the one who gets the damned key to fit the lock, like that means something. I lean into him, feel his warmth and sag against it, tipping my chin. What? Maybe just a kiss? I totter and teeter, weeble and wobble, and he’s got my elbow, he’s holding the door open, but no way, it can’t be, so I pull away from him. My strength surprises him, I guess. He goes soft and lets go, so I fall back and land hard on the landing inside. I kick the door shut. He calls my name. At first I say nothing. Close my eyes and slip away, but when he hammers on the door, I have to get up and open it a crack and smile and glow and say, “Thank you. I’m fine. Go away now, please. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And softly close it and bend and sit on the stairs and wait for him to take me at my word.
* * *I don’t know how I got up those stairs. Or got my shoes off or brushed my teeth or poured one more little teeny-weeny drop of wine, but I did all that. Pajamas even, the old silk set, a turquoise sheen, and earrings off and music on, to lull the brain into a nightmare’s sleep where a cardboard box folded over me and there was an animal out there, with a huge paw on top, so hold still, don’t breathe, play dead, until the sun came slamming in to find me wide-eyed flat on my back, staring at the ceiling-fan wings turning lazily in the heat and someone shouts outside, but they aren’t shouting at me.
* * *With no class until Monday I have the weekend free. I’m out walking, and it’s early. The sunlight bright, the heat only just beginning to gather itself up to bear down again with its full weight. Brick streets. Small houses. Bikes on porches. Curtains pulled. Laundry on the line. Students walking. Scientists, I guess, hurrying off to their labs.
* * *When Alexander and I were students here, I lived in a place that was so famous—or anyway notorious—for the parties and the people and the work that came out of it that there was a waiting list. You had to pull strings before Blackie would let you live there. You had to be somebody, know somebody, be going somewhere. I forget the address. The streets all look like each other, but nothing like my memory of them, so maybe I’ve got it all wrong and I’m lost as I tumble along the cobbles of these old streets until now here’s a corner and a familiar stone house and a familiar iron fence and here’s the gate and, huddled between old trees, the row of low boxy buildings, with Blackie’s big brick house at the end and the asphalt drive and the oval of grassy lawn out front. The gate will be locked, of course. I hold the bars and peer through—caged out here, on the wrong side, craving the freedom of the past and memory on the other side, but the inside is outside and it’s all backward and upside down. The ceiling is the floor, the sky is the ground, the shadow is the light. I shake the bars until the gate flies open and I spill through and tumble onto the drive, on my back and blanketed by heat. Silence. A bird maybe. Not a cloud up there. I pull myself up. Shake myself off. Look around. No one has seen me. Close the gate. Kick aside the rock that kept it cracked—some secret rendezvous, no doubt. Blackie would have had your head for that back then. I do my best to look like I belong here. Like I know what I’m doing. Like I’ve paid my rent and signed my lease. No one is around; it’s early yet. These aren’t science students, they’re artists and writers and they sleep in. A plaque with famous names engraved. Gaslights. The flowers tended. The big house where the parties were. A man emerges from a shadowed door. He checks his watch and rabbits off, a nod to me in passing, but no surprise or question. He’s got problems of his own. A smell of bacon cooking. Blackie used to make breakfast for us on Sundays. You could pay for an invitation, but it wasn’t everyone who could manage to be up and about on a Sunday morning unless you’d not gone to bed at all the night before. The hedges have grown tall over the years. The trees have thickened at the waist. The path around the back of the house leads to the lane and a cluster of smaller cottages that we called pins. I lived in a single pin, small and neat and all my own. Number 27. Third on the left and here it is. Bike on the porch. Prayer flags in a line. There was a fireplace and in the winter the snow was deep. The trees were made of ice, the sky was glass. I had a yellow door, now painted brown. It opens and a young man appears. Not Alexander. Of course not Alexander. He doesn’t see me. I step aside as he hurries past, moving steadily, like a boat through water. His clothes are sloppy. His chin unshaved. His hair stands up in tufts. He’s just rolled out of bed. In the doorway behind him, a shadow moves, and she runs out in her white nightgown, her hair all down, her bare feet, her face fallen to pieces, a fist in the eye wiping tears away, brutal. At first she doesn’t see me, but then she does. She turns. A look of surprise and pain and misery and our eyes meet. It’s Mary.
* * *I walk on, confused. When I turn to look back, the sun is fully up and blinding. Heat bearing down and not a soul in sight. A silence ringing in my ears. Clouds gathering force at the edges of the sky. At the back of the property a gate breaks terms with the iron fence. Once this was a passage through, and he and I, we’d slip away. Here there are bugs and sticks and squirrels and birds, as if a hand has cranked the mechanism and got the world up and running again. The trail is here where it belongs, and I follow it back, moving through time, to before the before, when we rolled around here in the primeval soup of our own juices. Alexander’s eyes as blue as the sky, his hair as ragged as the bare branches of the trees, his hand as hard as packed dirt, his lips as soft as fallen leaves. “You’re a lousy poet,” he said, and it was true. His words were fingers, delving further, digging deep.
* * *By the time I get to the fallen tree that blocks the trail, the mosquitoes are eating me alive, and I have to fight my way back. The trees shake with laughter, jolly old trees, and the gate hangs open like an idiot’s mouth, the pins are smug in their self-containment, and the grass is closely mowed. A yardman is pissing his hose upon the flower beds. He leers as Mary rushes past, late for an assignation. She sees me and checks her watch and gives a wave and hurries on.
* * *On the morning after, I met that young poet at a corner café. He looked nothing like the figment I’d dreamed up the night before. That is, tall and lank, with soft hair and delicate hands, a heart-shaped face, eyes sharp, nose long and dignified, lips full, with bit of a twist, like a secret shared. The air-conditioning was on the fritz. Fans turned in the open windows and the espresso machine squealed and music pounded from the speakers and smoothies whined in the blenders. His eyes slid away. He spoke so softly I couldn’t hear him. He held his hands in his lap and didn’t touch his coffee. He looked around the room and then at me, and I thought he was going to say my name, but instead he reached into his bag and brought out a silver flask, unscrewed the top, tipped it over his own cup first, then mine.
* * *It’s so cold here in this basement room. The windows are sealed shut. Ice crawls up the glass. I meet the hopeful faces of my students. I feed them the lies they pay me to tell, and they lick their plates clean, ravenous to be anyone other than who they really are.
* * *I took the poet for a walk along the river, where the air was fresh. The crew boats passed us by, headed upstream, as the coxswain called out, “Row.” He called out, “Row.”
About the Author Susan Taylor Chehak has published several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony, and her stories have been published widely in journals. Susan’s most recent publications include a collection of short stories, It’s not About the Dog, and a new novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Susan is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and have taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.