By Jed Wyman
On the first full blazing-blue sky day of spring you stop by her office at the university’s Humanities Center, where, as well as teaching writing at the local community college in the neighboring town —- where you also teach — she works as a secretary. The Humanities Center, its red brick exterior fringed with ivy, you call Hotel Charlie, a holdover from the phonetic alphabet you use when talking on the radio during your summer job on a trail crew with the National Park Service. She likes this moniker you have given the Humanities Center, Hotel Charlie. She says it makes her job sound dangerous, clandestine. You like it that she likes this. You wish her liking this made her like you more.
You make sure to whistle softly before you round the corner and step into her office doorway. On a couple of occasions, you have startled her, arriving unexpectedly, and this brief fright has hampered the conversations that followed. Now you whistle softly to let your presence be known. She sits behind her desk, alert and beautiful, her hands evenly splayed on stacks of paper before her. Around her neck she wears a rakish scarf. She is meticulous in her dress, wearing outfits that convey, what you consider to be, professional élan. You are wearing a gray flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded jeans, and worn Vans.
“Hello,” she says. She appears glad to see you.
“Hello, Alcatraz,” you say in a slightly theatrical voice, leaning against the door jam. You started calling her this after she visited San Francisco over Spring break and took a tour of the infamous island. You had wanted to go with her on this trip, the two of you had talked about it, but she had opted to go alone.
“It is a beautiful day,” she says.
“It is. Are the screws going to let you visit the yard today?” you say. This is your new joke, that the Humanities Center is a brick-walled, polished-wood-floored penitentiary, where she is a prisoner.
“I hope so.” She laughs. “Actually, I have to leave to go out to campus today to take my van driving test.” She has decided to take her creative non-fiction class to the new mental health museum in Salem, another one of her incredible ideas and, for this, she will need to drive one of the college’s vans.
“How are you getting out there?”
“I’m taking the bus.”
“Why don’t you let me drive you?”
“That’s not necessary,” she says, her voice sweet and appreciative.
You ask twice more and she relents. You are thrilled.
On the drive out to the college, past green fields dotted with sheep, you play two songs for her; “Do You Love Me?” by Kiss, and “Stuck on You,” by Rose Tattoo. She is receptive to both. The latter you play for her because she told you she likes sad songs, which “Stuck on You” qualifies as, since in it the singer laments heating up the water in a fish bowl so that his fish, Sam, wouldn’t get cold and, in doing so, kills the fish.
This, to you, is very sad. The mournful slide guitar accentuates the loss of Sam. You like playing the Kiss song because it often surprises people who write off Kiss as garbage, people who have never heard anything other than, “I Wanna Rock n’ Roll All Night.” These songs remind you of your freshman year at Bard and how people, in an urgent surge of enthusiasm for the final warm days of autumn would cluster on the wooden balcony of the dorm, the girls, your girlfriend included, unabashedly peeing over the railing in full view of everyone. It was amazing none of them ever fell. You want to play her “Don’t Touch Me There,” by The Tubes, but you arrive at the campus before you have the chance.
At the campus you sit in the sun at a stone table in the quad while she takes her driving test. Because it is late in the afternoon on a Friday, the campus is nearly deserted. You find yourself wishing you might see one of your students, or rather they might see you wearing your non-teaching garb; faded jeans and Vans. You want them to know that you have a life too, a life in many ways considerably crazier than theirs. Certainly, you believe, when you were a freshman in college you were crazier than they are now as freshman at Flynn-Renton Community College in Hardawl, Oregon. It shocked you when you first began teaching there, to discover how many of them were Christian. That was something that did not factor in at the liberal arts college you attended in upstate New York.
Sitting at a stone table in the quad with Rose Tattoo stuck in your head you are remembering your first year at college, how in the dorm a neighbor’s pet ferret used to escape from its cage, once climbing into another neighbor’s bong and how, when the bong’s owner returned to his room to find it capsized, he cursed and set it back upright, only to have the ferret leap backwards out of the top of the bong, like some furry, inverted jack in the box. You laugh remembering this. It has been a long time. When a cloud covers up the sun you decide to head to your office to check your email.
The first email is from your E.A.P. (Employment Assistance Program) representative. As was the case with the surprising prevalence of Christians when you started teaching at Flynn-Renton, the number of ridiculous anachronisms also surprised you. In his message the E.A.P. writes that he is very proud of you and feels you no longer need to be monitored and is considering “closing the case.” This is in regards to the incident the previous fall when a campus security officer, who unlocked one of your classrooms for you, later reported how you “reeked of booze.” As a result, you have had to meet regularly with a counselor -—as well as pee in a cup — in order to keep your job. It has now been five months since you’ve had a drink. You are not sure what exactly “closing the case,” means. You hope it means you will no longer have to pee in a cup.
When she is finished with her driving test she meets you in the quad. She has passed, with flying colors you are sure, and you find it funny that she still wears her snazzy scarf. You think to yourself she may be the most overdressed person to ever take that driving test. How out of place she must have looked driving that dark blue utilitarian-box of a van with the college logo on its side -— as well as the school mascot, a grinning, big-beaked bluebird sporting sunglasses -— while wearing that regal scarf. You wish you could have seen it. Her, all aces of poise, putting around the parking lot, in between orange cones, in the blue van. You hand her a copy of the email. She reads it and smiles, “Congratulations,” she says. “Do you realize your, ah, person…”
“E.A.P.”, you correct her.
“Your E.A.P. misspelled ‘no.’”
She hands you the paper and you look at it again. It reads. “I know longer feel the need to monitor you.”
In your excitement you had missed this.
“I did not,” you say, embarrassed.
She laughs and chirping twice, like a bird, says, “Eap. Eap.”
On the drive back from the college the two of you talk and you do not have a chance to play “Don’t Touch Me There” by The Tubes. The fields, which on the way out to the driving test were full of sheep, are now empty. “Where did they go?” You ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Those sneaky sheep.”
She holds the email, which you handed her when the two of you got in the car. At one point she sings a song, “Jeepers, peepers. Where’d you get those eapers?”
She is pleased with herself. You tell her she is ridiculous. The sun is beginning to set. She asks you to drop her off back at Hotel Charlie so she can finish up some work. You say she should come to your place for dinner. She declines. This is okay, you decide. It has been a sun-filled day. You are driving with one of the most beautiful women in the world at your side. You may no longer have to pee in a cup. It is okay.
Back at your place you cook dinner by yourself and, as usual, set your plate on a cutting board that sits on top of a black milk crate containing LPs. You sit cross-legged on the floor and eat in this fashion. You realize this primitive dining design may have something to do with her reluctance to join you for dinner, although, on the rare occasion when she does come over to eat, you bring out two milk crates and put a board across them, creating some semblance of a table. And when you put a candle in the middle of this board, it strikes you as very romantic.
While you eat you hum Rose Tattoo. You think about Sam the fish, swimming faster and faster in his bowl as the water heats up. Poor Sam. You wonder where all the sheep went and whatever happened to your neighbor in the dorm your freshman year at college who found the ferret in his bong. You wish you could have watched her take her driving test and, though you know it didn’t happen this way, you picture her scarf and hair blowing wildly in the wind as she careens between cones in the community college parking lot. You hear the screech of tires. You think that, tomorrow, if you have time, you might drop by Hotel Charlie, and leaning against the door-jam, say, in a slow and inviting voice, “What’s up Alcatraz?” And, not wanting to jinx it, you remind yourself not to get too excited about possibility, which appears to be as erratic as the course of ivy on a brick wall, or those fleeting sheep.
Copyright 2018 Wyman