The building might as well be covered in light yellow vinyl siding, Harold Scheer thought. He was losing some breath, dragging his feet up the grass slope from the parking lot on the east side of the single three story brick building that made up Ohio University Eastern’s campus. He wondered how he ended up working in such a non-entity of a building, something that conveyed non-consciousness more than anything else. The undistinguished building stood on top of a hill of blank grass above Interstate 70. The plain brick making up its walls was vaguely defined in its front by four cheap white pillars rising up into a quasi-governmental architecture. Its design and presence commanded just a portion of respect, just as the branch itself received a portion of respect from the main campus in Athens, Ohio.
Harold was going to his job, which was teaching at the branch. There were a few years where being a professor seemed right in line with what he wanted to do: English, writing, distilling a confusing life into convey-able strands of words. At the moment, though, it felt like he was about to clock in for a shift. Even the windows, he continued to notice, had shutters without any semblance of aesthetic – not so much in a mute-dignified Colonial style, but as though the building’s contractors had added them as an after-thought to make it look “nice”. He had to ask what he was doing still teaching here.
He paused as he approached the top of the hill and the entrance most people used: a door, a bare single storm door, next to a loading dock at the bottom of a sixty foot wall. The late October light, suddenly more frail and temporal than it was just a couple weeks before, was too attractive of an alternative to leave just yet. He had to glance through something meaningful to justify a professorial mood for his class. He thumbed his way through his Norton Anthology of American Literature for the Sherwood Anderson he’d bookmarked: a dozen snug pages, 1,781 through 1,794, lost within the 2,700 page tome. He felt compelled to search for some lines that gave off the subtlety and homeliness of Anderson’s writing that could stir him so greatly. The blankness of Ohio needed such an affecting treatment. But the effect wasn’t one that was apparent at a glance. (He hoped his students had actually finished the slowly revealing stories.)
Harold taught English Literature, usually 208J (American Lit. II, 1865 – 1920) and 315J (Creative Writing I) at OUE in St. Clairsville, Ohio, a modest town set an equi-distant two hours from Pittsburgh, Columbus, or Cleveland. His schedule was two classes from 5:10 to 7:10, Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday. The evening hours suited him well. A major perk of his job was watching the sun spread its waning, fractured rays over the classroom: it added poignancy not always otherwise there. The other perk was not having to talk with as many people after five.
He scoured for his notes alongside the stories while making his way through the non-descript hallway leading to room 316, from which he could already hear the banter from his 208J class. Although he’d long since notated everything useful he had to say about Sherwood Anderson in those tissue-textured margins of his Norton Anthology, his notes still couldn’t stand out from the vast tangles of red and black ink that had preceded his ownership of the book. His underline, made in sympathy, of the words “tall and gaunt and her face was marked with small pox” seemed but a reference for a previous exclamation of “butt ugly!” written to the side of the passage. As his head mulled over this thought, it occurred to him that this observation would work as an analogy for his life (if anyone should ever write his biography): just as he couldn’t seem to out-notate the previous owners of his Norton Anthology, he had tried to write something lasting, something of permanent significance, yet he still wasn’t able to publish and establish himself as a writer.
He might have written down that analogy. He could have started with it as an introduction to a piece on, say, the strife in a writer’s life and tried to publish it in the many how-to books on writing. Or he could have transferred this observation of anxiety to anyone else’s life and then seen where the piece would lead. But he doubted the line’s significance; he found the line too obvious, too blatantly “written”. So he left this thought and returned focus to room 316, which he’d just entered.
The anti-landscape of the classroom momentarily captured his thoughts more than his students did. He’d been spending indefinite hours in them since he was five. (He was now thirty-eight.) And now he worked in one, on the teacher’s end of the perpetually mis-aligned miniature desks, committing himself to an environment in which he was never able to concentrate in the first place. On impulse, he scanned the bulletin board for the minor satisfaction he felt when it’d been updated. But it retained its same fliers: for student union pot lucks and hopelessly irrelevant local arts events. The sterility of the classroom finally associates itself with wandering thoughts. There’s only so much to occupy yourself with in a classroom, even while it’s being taught in (even, in fact, when you’re the one doing the teaching). They seemed designed to inspire not learning, but ambition: ambition for everything that was outside of the classroom. After taking in the absent walls, the naked glare of the tract-lit ceiling, the muddle of students, the mind instinctively, out of self-preservation perhaps, wanders elsewhere.
But the moment, if not the class, awaited his words as he had entered the room nearly two minutes before without really acknowledging the twenty-some other people present. The students themselves were waiting on his lead without fully caring. They could just as easily talk until 7:10.
“How’s everybody doing?” he asked no one and everyone. His face partly shown with the half-smile of someone who wanted to be warmer, more present than he really was. He had interrupted concurrent discussions about highway construction, asshole middle school principals, about who drinks coffee and who doesn’t. A girl’s suddenly-amplified voice continued as everyone else hushed down: “Oh, yeah, my family’s such a trip! The girls were born in January, February, then March. But it’s like the boys were born in all different months. Hi, Mr. Scheer!”
“Did I miss anything momentous?” he asked.
“Oh, no, we were just talking about you behind your back, Mr. Scheer.”
It was a joke, but too feckless for him to contribute to. All that came out was an absent, “oh.”
“… Just kidding. Geeze. You need to chill out, you think?”
He had no words to respond to something so negligent. The class had started awkwardly with this inadvertent abrasion, this accidental biting of the tongue, but he wasn’t present enough to try to win back face. His mind was elsewhere. So it came across like he was so old he couldn’t begin to relate with his students: a real square dad.
This girl, Nan Wichiewski, was thirty-four. Her sickly narrow and sexless legs, two femurs surrounded by enough muscle to walk to a car and back, and her hair, dirty blond with a curled-in wave in the front and an aged perm that gave up in a defeated flop, might have allowed her to pass for a teenaged girl still awaiting puberty. But when her eyes squinted, as when she permanently complained of how cold she was, the deep smoker’s wrinkles betrayed her age, which was absolutely baffling compared with how uncouth she was. She never took off her light pink jacket with baby blue Santa Fe designs (diamond shapes surrounding other diamond shapes) around its middle, which seemed like a cranky protest when everyone else was in short sleeves. Underneath the jacket she wore a green OU Bobcats sweatshirt with a white turtle neck (adding some watered-down kind of formality) and rose colored jeans. Outside of the most rote conversation, he had no idea how to talk to her.
Even disregarding its model-sized resources, the branch campus had an entirely different feel from its larger parent. That exuberant optimism of most student bodies, of inexperience ready to lay claim to history, was absent from its hallways. The students here never sought out OUE in a state of ambition: they simply stayed here, in their own town’s backyard, by default. The kids weren’t just eighteen and nineteen, twenty, twenty-one and twenty-two. They were eighteen and nineteen, and then, at least overall, they leapt to forty. Burned-out moms and dads went back to school at a branch campus to get a business administration degree, which guaranteed many occupations a raise. Sometimes they just wanted to fulfill long-ago ditched desires to be “creative” or “educated”. The eighteen year olds that were here were the ones who actually didn’t want to move to a city, who didn’t want to get out there at a hundred miles an hour and over-extend themselves until they fell apart at the seams just to see what happened. So they went to the branch campus to play it safe with the rest of their life. Either that or they were the eighteen year olds that had simply applied too late to get in anywhere else. When there were interesting people at the branch, and there were almost always a couple odd interesting faces in his classes, they moved on quickly.
He really didn’t have much else he wanted to say to the class besides starting in with the lesson plan. Today, they were approaching Modernism through Sherwood Anderson, and finally moving away from the Reform-Realist-Naturalism of Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells. He asked his class if they’d all had a chance to read and compare Crane with two Anderson stories, “Mother” and “The Egg”. And as soon as he did so, he saw their faces drop in a near-coordinated sigh. They had wanted to coast until 5:20, if not 5:25, on non-academic conversation.
He’d meant to say a little more before delving so directly into the day’s readings. But, instead, his narrow focus on the weighty content came across as terribly cold to his students, who thought he was devoid of any interest in what lived outside this bulky $49 Norton Anthology he made them buy. It came off as so remote, he knew, not to chat and joke with the class before committing to work. But at the moment he had so little to say. Today wouldn’t do for glucking it up. His mind was so noticeably elsewhere. (Even to his own head, his mind was somewhere else entirely.)
He just wasn’t impressed by his 208J group this time around, nor his 215J, which was mostly the same students anyway, getting their English requirements out of the way. The more engaging students, trenched in there somewhere, buried in the back rows usually, had let the louder ones dominate the aural stage. Every other student, ones who might contribute to a more meaningful discussion, had to be prodded and called upon to offer a thought. So far this quarter, he hadn’t been able to coax any of the back row students into dialogue. The last time they’d met, on Tuesday evening, he’d asked Darryl Fulton what he’d thought of the Stephen Crane passages. A sigh and a good two, three seconds to sit up in his chair before saying “I don’t really know” is all he got back. He thought: should I just come in, lecture, and leave then? They reacted to his nudges to communicate as though he’d asked for something embarrassingly intimate, as if he’d asked to kiss them. Harold felt this reluctance to open up was at least in part due to the mood of the class being diluted by the front row students’ inane chitchat.
Until recently, Harold had always seen himself aspiring towards the more jovial, accessible type of professors, the ones that came up in students’ conversations twenty years later as an enrichening influence. He actually told himself: be inspirational, be up-lifting like Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society; be profound, “open their minds” like Lawrence Fishburne in Higher Learning. And don’t, God don’t, be suffocatingly “conservative” like John Houseman in The Paper Chase. Wear tweed and navy blue; stand on desks and give your lectures from the poetic clouds. Better yet: wear t-shirts and jeans to class and be like Mr. Halliegh, the take-her-easy professor who plays a Bobcats’ football game at the end of each quarter along with a pizza party and gives you extra credit if you remember the final score. Be the hip professor and you’ll get some “cool guy” remarks on your teacher evaluations.
All this tripe might have really gotten him somewhere. Except that he just couldn’t do it. The most talkative members of his class, like Nan, or Shawna Muelnik, Todd Young, and half the rest, never really registered in his consciousness. It didn’t remotely occur to him to bother to impress them with some truffled-up winning personality because he’d already been through quarters with these students before. If not specifically these students, then he’d already had their type, which were so limited and so repetitious that they might as well have been the same people. He’d already called Nan by the name Crystal twice. Brandon seemed inter-changeable with Nathan. This was an unfair and rash judgment, he had to admit (and a blunt disqualification for having an “open mind”), but this sense had nearly always been born out.
They all had that same light look of jeans and sweatshirts. Light jeans, still stone washed like VHS static, with alma mater sweatshirts and huge glossy white sneakers. Their whole light demeanor gave off the impression that they were ready for a good time. That’s it. As though the crux of their persona was to convey that they were ready for some nachos. (He had this distinct impression from the gravity with which his students approached the vending machines.) They were ready for a good time and any station on the radio is all it’d take. (“It’s like, I really live for music and can get into anything — except rap and heavy metal.”) What else was required? They could laugh with anyone. The same universal topics sufficed as chit chat over and over again. He knew what became of conversations with them before he had them.
(He could have written a science fiction story about the human genome being a computer program that was repeating a small array of static functions for designing human personality. But he thought science fiction was merely writing in its most blatant form, morphing and warping everything until it stole your attention from exaggeration, instead of really expressing anything. He preferred to think of that malicious computer program as a more organically outlined entity, nature, which made it all the more terrifying in his mind.)
But the students that depressed him most were the ones ostensibly closest to him: the “artistic” ones, the “intellectual” ones (quotation marks very much emphasized in his snobbish mind). These second-tier sophisticates at the branch weren’t as urbane as sophisticates elsewhere, just relatively, comparatively interesting. Instead of white jeans, they wore black jeans. Sometimes they were oblivious enough to actually wear a beret into class. They talked too fast as they offered their piddling opinions. They fondled their goatees as they’d speak of how “rich Hemingway’s use of language was”.
One of these “artistic” students, Michael Guenther, came up to him during break the previous Tuesday and asked, “So, did you read what Jerry Falwell said yesterday?”
“Say that again?” he responded, not really wanting to hear what Jerry Falwell had said. He could tell immediately what was about to transpire. The student assumed since Mr. Scheer was bright and “artistic” that he’d naturally be a raging, easily indignified liberal. In fact, he couldn’t care less what Jerry Falwell said. He felt him and Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Jessie Helms and all the rest of the left’s uber-villians were just ready-made news stories. They were like the evil greedy corporate men that wanted to demolish an underprivileged neighborhood’s park so they could build a hotel chain: they were too easy to hate.
“Did you hear what Jerry Falwell said yesterday?”
“No, what’d he say?”
“Well, alright, get this.” Michael’s hands found his hips and his eyes never stopped rolling. “He said, well, you know how he thinks homosexuality is this big sin and everything … Well, okay, apparently now he’s offering a chance to be on TV to anyone who’ll claim they’ve broken their so-called â€˜gay addiction‘ and become heterosexual again. And, I mean, it’s like, this guy is so far removed from reality … that it’s just frightening to hear the media falling for this hook, line, and sinker …”
The mee-d-i-a. Harold wanted to say, “Well, that’s what dumb fucks will naturally say. And the mee-dia will cover it because concerned souls like yourself will get all pissed off and read the story.” Then he wanted to go off about how unchallenging and stagnant he thought the left’s preoccupation with the worst of the right was. But he doubted he could convey this neatly and with tact. (A strong part of him, weaker perhaps than his naked opinions, was still young enough not to want to be called “conservative” either.) And it was admittedly a rather stupid – flagrantly stupid – thing for Jerry Falwell to say.
So he responded with the limp and predictable:
“That’s pretty typical, isn’t it?”
And they bonded, slightly, enlightened and incensed as they both were.
Stagnation: it makes a person wish for something overly-lush, decadent, grandiloquent. He actually found himself wishing for more “radical” students just for the mix, some naÃ¯ve waifs more versed in Marxism – or Maoism for all he cared, just something more charged and tumescent than what he saw each day. There weren’t even any loutish gutter punks here, no chain-walleted skinheads with dents in their head, no Gothic basket cases, let alone anyone more urbanely grandiose. So fuck it, he thought: he wanted to see some Simbianese Liberation Army, some S.C.U.M. members causing a fuss … he wanted to see a couple of complete aesthete dandies, right out of Oscar Wilde, outrageously queer young lads who’d make out in the hallways … just so this dormant branch campus could see there were much more exotic specimens out there than him. Just so he didn’t get insipid comments from the school admins for committing such harmless acts as having soup in a coffee cup. (“But aren’t you supposed to use a bowl to eat soup, Mr. Scheer?!”)
The students themselves had forever mixed opinions on him. The consensus was that he was an out-and-out oddball, as he was acutely aware. But while most of them agreed that he was fucking weird, very few thought he was a fucking dick, a modest distinction that he utterly clung to. His saving grace among students was his leniency. He had a lax attendance policy: he didn’t care if you didn’t care to show up. Should you walk in late to class, he wouldn’t embarrass you with a half-assed quip about a “hot date last night?” And he let you turn your papers in late, always offering help if you were having trouble. He was pretty fucking awesome that way. In fact, he had an obvious soft spot for helping with lost-cause papers, as if you were giving a collector a discontinued specimen he’d been unable to find. When you brought him even a half-conceived, stitched-together paper, Mr. Scheer empathized. He’d had some considerable intimacy with writer’s block himself. He hadn’t scored points with his inspirational blatherings, but he had with his willingness to write a student’s paper for them … and then give them an A for his efforts.
But he trudged on with his lesson plan and fell into the routine he’d become practiced at. He conducted his classes exactly the way he’d hated them conducted when he was a student. He’d generically ask the group if they’d read the assignment, then have several students read various passages to re-introduce the context (and to make sure that the passage had at least gone through their ears this once). And then he’d ask them what they thought. When no one answered on their own (a likely outcome), he’d pick someone at what he hoped seemed like random and they’d usually give an answer showing they’d glossed the work but had no real take on it.
He’d always hated this process because it seemed, in its actual practice, not to resemble “teaching through involvement” so much as it seemed like teaching by process of slowing everyone else down to the dimmest student’s reading level. And being chosen at random to suddenly speak in front of twenty other people always made Harold ill-at-ease, just the same as it made his back row students suddenly tense themselves upright. Still, if no one offered their take on a piece, how else could one teach but to grab someone to speak? Of course, he could simply lecture; he could read from the books himself, much quicker and without getting stuck on – or laughing at — words like “extraneous”, and then simply give them a summary of everything he thought they should think about the piece. He could do this, and he often felt it’d communicate much more to his students. But then what teacher hasn’t felt strongly about “learning as much from the students as they learn from the teacher”? What professor was against “involvement”, against “empowering” students with the skills to “learn how to learn” rather than through old-fashioned, rote education?
Oh, involvement wasn’t such a terrible idea, he had to remind his dangerously cynical mind. Except when it immersed you in such soft intellect as this:
“Kevin? Would you mind reading a passage for us? The Stephen Crane from the first paragraph on 1,610 through the end of the section on 1,613 in your Norton Anthology?”
“Okay. Yeah.” He looked around his desk a moment. “But I didn’t bring my book today. What do you want me to do?”
“Can someone loan him your book for a minute? Who’s … Alright, wait, Brian, can you just read the passage?”
“Alright. Yeah, that’s cool. We got page … okay, 1,510 …”
“Alright, 1,610. Here we go. From “‘None of’ … â€˜None of them knew the color of the sky'”?
“Okay, â€˜None of them knew the … color … of the sky. Their eyes … glanced … level, and were … fastened … upon the waves … that swept … toward them.'”
And so Brian stumbled through 1,610 until Harold finally called on someone else to complete the passage. It took a full twenty minutes to “involve” the class in reading three and a half pages. It was 6:14, four minutes past break time, and he’d already lost their attention to the clock on the wall behind him. They broke for a ten minute break (fifteen minutes, really, as they slowly ambled back in).
“Barb, could you pick us up again with the Sherwood Anderson from the second to last paragraph on 1,783 to the last paragraph of 1,784?” Caught up in her gabbing with her friends during their smoke break, Kathy read her sentences in a flurry that took no recognition of periods, or commas, not even paragraph breaks.
So the class had now been “involved”. If the dean had requested transcripts of the class, if he had been secretly video taped, he could be said to have “empowered” his 208J students. His job was secured.
He asked his class, strolling as professorially as he could: “Is the development from the first authors we read this quarter to Stephen Crane and then to Sherwood Anderson fairly obvious to you guys? … With a century of over-exposure in every kind of style and movement in writing, film, all the arts, between us and these writers, I think it’s hard to put our modern selves into this nineteenth century context where writing so directly, even so plainly in Anderson’s case, was actually a new and compelling way of approaching fiction.”
No one said a word, or even gave him a particularly present look, until he broke down and grossly simplified the subject matter by writing “Realism” on the chalk board. Then the pens came out; his students started scribbling. “I mean, I know realism has gone through so many incarnations that it’s hardly a … a cutting edge concept in itself anymore.” He said this even though his students would have no idea it wasn’t a “controversial” new idea, much less of its centuries-long presence in the arts. “But the power of realism, or of naturalism, still applies today in that it has a great ability to move us by presenting the very world we live in, rather than some melodrama that’s about as believable as a cartoon. To … to describe in a believable way what you see and what you go through … rather than simply presenting huge sweeps of action with one-dimensional characters … makes you relate to a piece of writing … by exploring … the small pieces of life that we’re all affected by far more than any chintzy bad guy plot to blow up the world.” A small number of heads nodded in a slight enlightening gesture, even though he was dead positive they preferred the sweeps of action in their entertainment.
He’d later note that his own bents of opinion would come back to him in the mimed theses his students turned in on their papers: “While, strictly speaking, not really a new idea, realism nevertheless has the power to make you relate, greater than any other artistic style in history.” “Although realism is really old hat as far as high art things go it’s still a relevant part of our everyday reality.” “Some say realism is yesterday’s concept. But I say its sheer power to blow minds has never been greater than today.”
It was so blatant, paper after paper, that it was actually funny. (Or at least he laughed once his wife showed him the humor in the situation.) They were plagiarizing (bastardizing, really) the very words of the person who’d be reading their paper. He wanted to write back to them via notes on their paper, “Outstanding, Nan! Your innovative take on realism really made me … think! But wait, isn’t your family such a trip? The girls all having been born in January, February, then March?” But he knew this wouldn’t do anything except spurn a conversation in the next class that — yes! — the girls were all born January, February, then March. Isn’t that off the hook?
To read through a heavy stack of twenty-some papers and not be genuinely engaged by a single line in any one of them makes anything but nihilism seem naive. Nearly half the papers he graded simply outlined the story assigned, as though he had never read the works they’d discussed in class and simply wanted to know what happened in the end. Papers that did argue a thesis were likely to re-state the anthology’s commentary, some using its same examples. The ones that never ceased to grotesquely fascinate him were the ones with terminal flaws in the grammar, not just “theirs” for “there’s”, but periods and commas randomly peppered throughout as some kind of obligatory decoration, absolutely oblivious to their function. Sentences began and ended with “In other words.” In other words, period.
He’d read innumerable empty-text papers before, of course, as all teachers are destined to do. When this happened in his very first year at the branch, when some of his earliest students turned in such parroted topics on their papers, he was dumb struck. But there were also good papers in that first stack he brought home so many years ago. There were a handful of papers that said as much as a teacher could hope for from students who had likely never sought out Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edith Wharton on their own. (Hell, he had never sought out some of the authors he taught on his own time.) But something was working when plain but astute papers were turned in. Something was getting across. Someone was listening.
This quarter, though, he just didn’t have that handful of interesting students, one’s capable of even partially stimulating statements. There were only ever a bare few in each class, sometimes less depending on the contrived ways you might measure whether a person was interesting or not. So it was inevitable that he’d find himself in classes that felt pointless to teach. Something about this quarter, though, accentuated his remoteness.
Disappointments build up on a person. They stack like clutter on a desk until a tiny piece of bric-a-brac can knock down layers of more substantially moored matter. When so little else in his life seemed to be working, a vacuous look from a transient student, just there to fill a requirement, turning in whatever they thought would get them a passing grade, seemed to say something irrevocable about his prospects. His unremarkable station at the branch seemed to represent his entire being … which was local and minor.
He was taking the disappointing class this quarter more personally than he should have. When he started to feel pressed against a wall, stuck in the most wrong of places, he had to make conscious efforts to remind himself that he’d been happy here for much of these years. The academic environment at the branch always resembled high school as much as an actual college. But there were aspects that still warmed him greatly. On innumerable evenings he’d gone home positively beaming with a giddy buoyancy to his step. All it took were a few understanding nods of the head, where just a couple students realized something he was teaching, where just a few people “got it”, whatever it was he was teaching. That’s all it took to give him an uppity optimism during his drive home. He’d even twirl Liv around at the kitchen sink and surprise her with amorous laughter that evening. There were occasional students he really loved (quietly, of course; he never seemed to show anything approaching “love” in class). There were plainly dressed plain thinkers, varsity jacket wearing guys whose depth of character, whose deep home grown sense of responsibility, even their ability to see through all kinds of horseshit, he really adored. After reading Anderson’s short story “A Death in the Woods”, about a small town woman whose forgotten life had consisted of feeding animals and feeding men and whose meaningless death ended up providing fodder for animals, a student had responded by saying, “it’s just not right; it’s not right that her life didn’t mean anything”. The small town sense of ethics endeared itself to him greatly.
The sole reason he taught James Fennimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales in his Early American Lit class was for its immediate connection it made between our time and an earlier one. After sentencing himself and the class to reading such a grossly heroic story, he’d have that moment where he’d explain, “Do you see how this story, no matter how exaggerated … in fact, explicitly because it’s so exaggerated … is a forerunner to our contemporary action/adventure movie? Genetically, we’re the same people now as we were two hundred years ago. And with no TV or movies … this is what entertained people … heroic stories of an impossibly well-skilled hunter.” And faces would light up at the connection. That’s all it took to give him that cheerful glow during his drive home.
But there was so much else he’d wanted to do with his life. His ambition was so tempered now, so restrained compared to its former self. When he thought back on his early adult consciousness, his world-view at eighteen or nineteen, he’d been absolutely sure that by the age of thirty-eight he’d be well-acquainted with fame; he’d have a history with fame. “First published at twenty-one, Harold Scheer has since published over … “. His younger novels having been “flawed yet beautiful”, his older works “inscrutable masterpieces”. A veritable current event in and of himself, he’d be seen ducking away from admirers for a lunch alone.
The boundless heights of that early ambition, Ambition regally capitalized, surely couldn’t bear descent into such a soberingly grounded life … in a state so far from fame’s residence, at a branch campus of an already small university, teaching someone else’s writing to students who had no need of ambition themselves. That vain desire for the regard, the renown, the hushed listeners when you spoke … it all seemed as naÃ¯ve as believing you’d never have to work again once you were discovered. Yet, without that explosive reach of ambition, was success still possible? Or had it been the untethered ambition itself that had failed from inability to compromise for more a modest course?
Simply being in the classroom kept him busy. There was a certain obligation to being in front of twenty-some students four times a week. This obligation kept him from feeling his weeks and months were empty of accomplishment. But if he wasn’t so much teaching as he was going through with a job … then he was left with no other diversion but to reconcile with where his life was. And his standing, after thirty-eight years, was … he had no book published to his name.
He’d tried, at least. He had to admit to himself that he hadn’t tried as hard as he probably could have, but he’d made years of attempts. He’d actually written a book, completed a book. It was still there, in his closet underneath a pile of old coats in the back, its un-numbered pages still mostly in order. The product of two intermittent years of typing and re-typing wasn’t able to withstand the non-responses and graciously considered form-letter rejections from publishers. He never started another.
Other than that, he had a brief resume as a writer. If you couldn’t count long-winded letters to friends, if grandly conceived though unfinished notes weren’t presentable enough, then he had only two stints to mention. His strategy of unsolicited mailings had managed to find sympathetic ears with the Topeka University Press’ semi-annual journal The Muse at Midnight, where he’d published three stories (at a cost of eight dollars per submission) until they’d closed their press. (Its undergrad editors had graduated). And he’d had a freelance journalist run with The Indianapolis Star, sending in anything they needed to fill-out their Lifestyles section. A week of evenings and a weekend of work days were spent picking away at each thousand word piece, trying to say something witty and significant on assignments about safety while using ATM’s. Creative compromise seemed to mean total collapse of your artistic sensorium at that age, too self-obliterating to even consider. Before he was able to adapt to the job, before he was able to learn how to make forgivable concessions while working his way to better things, they found a more negligible writer able to type umpteen thousand words without doubting a single one.
Harold had to ask himself: was it a mistake to stay here at the branch these nine years? Did he throw this irreplaceable time away? Should he have kept trying? A few good students, a few nodding, understanding heads had kept him placated here. If it had been just a little worse, just a little more clear that he shouldn’t stay at OUB, where Bobcat Fever was inexplicably strong despite not having a field here … if it had mercifully been worse he might have left years ago.
He sought excuses, and there were plenty. You’re tired week nights after work. There are so many endless chores and responsibilities to attend to. You have a conversation here or there to sustain a friendship, and an evening’s suddenly shot. You spend Saturday out wandering about because of the gorgeous weather and Sunday you have to go see family. And suddenly your week’s gone. And months and years follow suit.
And when Liv came into the picture. Simply living, waking up to togetherness, suddenly appeased him, kept him content in ways nothing else ever had before. Together-slumbering in bed, out and around the town together-shopping, together-walking down those lost dirt roads. It all suddenly seemed enough. That cozy current that togetherness added to the most routine errands made simply living worth while in such a basic way. His life was satiated, mostly. Until he remembered his ambitions. Perhaps the rosy ending, the woman he woke up with, the convenient job, came too early for him, before he’d been discontent enough to struggle for more. But it’s not fair to think that way.
He should have written more. He should have held the course even as his sails went limp, just written any old thing simply as practice for something better. After those let-downs, the optimism to send another short story out to forty magazines, to scope out the thousand miniscule details of another novel, had dried up. The weariness of those non-meaningful jobs he’d held during those years, as well as the self-fulfilling weariness of continually fretting over his non-existent career, made it so very hard to keep churning away at the writing. Harold finished his doctorate to bide more time outside of the work force just as much as to assure some profession in letters. His plan then was to teach, to enjoy the setting, and to keep writing. It wasn’t just a matter of leaving. He’d come here for a job; he’d had far, far worse jobs and was hesitant to return to anything less comfortable. What he’d never been able to tell anyone other than his wife, was the sad fact that he’d taken this job at the branch because it was simply the only teaching job in the entire country offered to him. Never, ever, did he think he’d still be in St. Clairsville nine years later. Once you’ve pulled yourself through some awful vocations, a comfortable living can be impossible to leave, no matter how half-fulfilled it leaves you. And he could write here. He could write almost anywhere. He certainly had the time here. And he’d certainly sat down to that pen and paper enough times. The crux of the matter was that it wasn’t necessarily the town or the school or the students: it was him; it was his own charge to do what he needed with his own life.
It was Thursday evening, his Friday night. It suddenly occurred to him that as soon as he tied up his instruction, he could go home, blessedly home, taking a long solitary drive the back way, along the now golden hills along the old strip mines. And then he could do whatever he wanted until Monday afternoon. He and Liv had no other plans or obligations, just the three day expanse of the long weekend. They could make a trip to Pittsburgh, go out somewhere nice; they could do nothing but read in bed. Or: he could pick up where he’d left off on some short stories years back. Maybe he could manage to finish one before the weekend was out.
While he was talking, as if teaching from a state of somnambulism, he turned his gaze towards those broad windows just past his students’ heads. He looked out at that reddening, waning light (it was getting dark so early now) and paused to listen to the hum coming off of Interstate 70. Where ever he’d lived over the course of his life, there’d always been a highway you could hear at night, once all the other sounds of the day had gone. You could always hear that distant transience of cars, the hauling of trucks. That passing, thrumming pressure of air as each car goes by. The audible presence of something else: the ether of ambition.
He’d grown up in an insular, tiny town like this in Indiana, essentially the same place. You grow up staring up from your bed hearing that highway sound at night because the rest of the town is literally dormant and you wish to God you could be somewhere where people were conscious and wanted something from their life, where there were bright, compelling people with taste who didn’t roll their eyes at the stupidest things. He had always wanted out but had started to feel a pull to revisit everywhere he once lived, played, wasted time, every gas station he’d once puttered around at. Was he so saddened by these small towns because he had such contempt for them, because he wanted at some level to completely forget them but never could, like an urge to leave a down-syndromed child you’ve given birth to — but obviously never can?
That light, that sentimental autumn light was streaming in. That withering evening light made everything seem perfect, even cinematically orchestrated. It never failed to affect him. As deeply, almost ideologically opposed to all forms of the clichÃ© as he was, he never failed to pause in snugly arrested thought when he saw evening light. The few young pine trees partially lined down the huge blank hill of grass in front of the building, still only ten feet tall (a bald reminder that a twenty million dollar university design had slated $5,000 for beautification on the campus), now had shadows reaching perhaps fifty feet, longer than your eyes could usually take in with one sight, and much more captivating than the trees themselves. Walking along the sidewalk from the building to the parking lot was a pony-tailed girl, dressed in white jeans and a white wind breaker with the bright red and blue colors of the flag draped across its back, nearly glowing from the light’s rays. Her gravity seemed to be holding a charmed, magical hue around her. The light had laid a Technicolor veil over a negligent part of the world. Everything looked wonderful for a couple hours. An aesthetic was provided: the most hopeless shit now looked momentarily gorgeous.
He needed to distill these heady emotions swimming through his head. They kept pinging against the insides of his chest, bogging him down in a half-pleasant but clingy sentimentality that he’d been through hundreds of times before and wasn’t sure he could handle once again. His heart strings were being pulled by different pairs of hands with opposite agendas. He loved and hated this place. Loved its lost quaintness that no one around here felt and hated the non-consciousness, the blank sterile architecture, the unaware signs outside churches that read, “THE BEST VITAMIN FOR A CHRISTIAN IS B1” or those outside small businesses that read, “NO CATCH HAIR CUTS 5$ FRI 9-4 PERMS 25$ BY NOVA”. So little was awake here, but this is where so much of his life had already been laid out.
He hadn’t completely gotten through all of his intended remarks on Sherwood Anderson, but the 7:10 end-mark had come. Students unsubtly shuffled about their belongings, placing books in bags, as a direct hint that it was time to go. So he called the class quits and started to gather his own things.
Once the rustle of students had left the room (there were no approaches, no confiding admissions, not on a Thursday night), he left the classroom and strolled downstairs, down the bare flights with grey cinder block walls, and out that utterly utilitarian door. As he walked down the grass to his car, gratefully alone now in the brisk evening air, the sky over the nearly empty parking lot was under going its theatrical changes before settling into night. He had the wondrous sense of being able to discern the massive slope of the sky’s ceiling. There was a charmed tinge to creation at the moment, a humming coming from the atmosphere above him, a deeply affecting omni-present aura. Despite wading through such doldrums of failure the last two hours, Harold stepped into his car in an absolute swoon of positivity.
Driving along Route 40, passing the expanses of fields, the homes with trinket decorations proudly kitsching up their yards, his thoughts turned over in his head. He hadn’t become anything that he thought he’d be, or he hadn’t yet become these things by this late year. Or perhaps, and perhaps he should accept this, he never would achieve that status, that renown. (So few lives ever do.) Life wouldn’t continue indefinitely. He’d lost his footing at some point in his life and he wasn’t sure if he could continue in the wet-dreamed belief that he’d one day make it.
But the anxiety over failure paled for the moment. The tingling oscillations of possibility, of a sensorium full of stimulation, were purring in the air. Colors were metamorphosing into muted shadows on the passing Ohio landscapes. Light had ceased to offer itself from all directions and now had to be narrowly emanated from telephone poles, from passing headlights, from the cable TV glow of living rooms, or else the darkness of unmediated existence overtook all perception. Against the black huddle of trees and hills, precious lamp glow rendered a cozy chiaroscuro allure onto the most starkly featureless ranch homes. The elating rush of thoughts seemed capable of capturing every marvelous fleeting ephemera he’d ever wanted to express. All those things he’d wanted to to say and become were suddenly, momentarily, in the clasp of his consciousness. What Harold had, and what he’d always have, was this: sentience. He would always at least have his sense of the world, consciousness, of meaningful art hidden underneath of all the tripe and clutter.