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American Dream Serialization (Early Chapters)
Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Maurice Stoker
Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Tom Bradley
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: American Dream Title Page by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 1 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 2 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 3 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 4 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 5 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 6 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 7 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 8 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 9 by Jim Chaffee
01-01-2015
Modern Tragedy, or Parodies of Ourselves by Robert Castle
01-11-2014
Totally Enchanté, Dahling by Thor Garcia
01-04-2014
Hastini by Rudy Ravindra
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 5 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
01-01-2014
Unexpected Pastures by Kim Farleigh
10-01-2013
Nonviolence by Jim Courter
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 4 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
07-01-2013
The Poet Laureate of Greenville by Al Po
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part VI by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 3 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
04-01-2013
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part V by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part IV by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 2 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
01-01-2013
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part I by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part II by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part III by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 1 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
10-01-2012
DADDY KNOWS WORST: Clown Cowers as Father Flounders! by Thor Garcia
RESURRECTON: Excerpt from Breakfast at Midnight by Louis Armand
Review of The Volcker Virus (Donald Strauss) by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
01-07-2012
Little Red Light by Suvi Mahonen and Luke Waldrip
TEXECUTION: Klown Konfab as Killer Kroaked! by Thor Garcia
Miranda's Poop by Jimmy Grist
Paul Fabulan by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
01-04-2012
Operation Scumbag by Thor Garcia
Take-Out Dick by Holly Day
Patience by Ward Webb
The Moon Hides Behind a Cloud by Barrie Darke
The Golden Limo of Slipback City by Ken Valenti
01-01-2012
Chapter from The Infinite Atrocity by Kane X. Faucher
Support the Troops By Giving Them Posthumous Boners by Tom Bradley
01-10-2011
When Good Pistols Do Bad Things by Kurt Mueller
Corporate Strategies by Bruce Douglas Reeves
The Dead Sea by Kim Farleigh
The Perfect Knot by Ernest Alanki
Girlish by Bob Bartholomew
01-07-2011
The Little Ganges by Joshua Willey
The Invisible World: René Magritte by Nick Bertelson
Honk for Jesus by Mitchell Waldman
01-04-2011
Red's Dead by Eli Richardson
The Memphis Showdown by Gabriel Ricard
Someday Man by John Grochalski
01-01-2011
I Was a Teenage Rent-a-Frankenstein by Tom Bradley
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Fred Bubbers
10-01-2010
Believe in These Men by Adam Greenfield
The Magnus Effect by Robert Edward Sullivan
Performance Piece by Jim Chaffee
07-01-2010
Injustice for All by D. E. Fredd
The Polysyllogistic Curse by Gary J. Shipley
How It's Done by Anjoli Roy
Ghost Dance by Connor Caddigan
Two in a Van by Pavlo Kravchenko
04-01-2010
Uncreated Creatures by Connor Caddigan
Invisible by Anjoli Roy
One of Us by Sonia Ramos Rossi
Storyteller by Alan McCormick
01-01-2010
Idolatry by Robert Smith
P H I L E M A T O P H I L I A by Traci Chee
They Do! by Al Po
Full TEX Archive
Side Photo for The Big Stupid Review

Ghost Dance

By Connor Caddigan

1

Unlike the other faculty members, Batya Pinter doesn’t live in the city but in a cottage of timber and stone located at the end of a long stretch of gravel road many miles from the school, far from the violent protrusion of its gothic tower. Late at night, alone in her bed, her head pounding, her back aching from her peripatetic strolls up and down the rows of desks, she leafs through the latest batch of term papers and sips her medicinal tea. So far only one essay has captured her attention. The prose is more than merely refined, it’s positively Nabokovian. The student has even gone so far as to cite Charles Kinbote and Vivian Darkbloom as his sources. Twenty years as an educator have sharpened her instincts for catching cheaters, but this writer has plagiarized so flagrantly that she finds herself laughing out loud at many passages. In the empty house her laughter sounds a bit sinister, slightly loony. It can’t be helped. At the bottom of the reference page, in big block letters, Batya gives the boy this ultimatum: “If you wish to pass my class, you must submit a new paper!” Here is the bait, the lure. Tomorrow there will be a reckoning.

She puts the paper aside and pours another cup of tea (her third). The stuff makes her lightheaded, a little nauseous. Her breathing becomes shallow, her skin clammy and slick with sweat. Her body is in revolt. Suddenly the night feels like a tomb of hoarfrost and glowing cinders, cold and hot, hot and cold. She throws the blankets off. At what point, she wonders, does medicine become poison? When will it pull her down a dark tunnel, dreamless and black as oblivion? She doesn’t have to wait very long. Already her eyes are heavy. She turns off the light, and in that strange place between waking and sleeping she hears the insistent scratch of branches against the pane, the faint rustle of dead leaves tumbling across the ground, and the high quavering howls of coyotes coming from the valley floor.

The coyotes have trekked vast distances, some from the hardwood forests in the southern part of the state, others from the lonesome prairies further west. Each day brings them closer to the city limits. At night they plunder nearby farms to feast on the abundant livestock — goats and alpacas and bleating sheep. Police warn residents to keep their pets indoors after sundown, but their advice often goes unheeded. At daybreak the hazy autumn light reveals the carnage. Little remains of the unfortunate yorkies and toy poodles. Along the edge of the sandpit lake the police find scattered bits of bone sucked of their marrow, hides so bloody and mangled that no one can identify them with any certainty. Trying to keep their burning guilt at bay, the owners take their sniveling children by the hand and lead them into the backyard where they place simple stone markers next to hastily dug graves. From the window of her den Batya sometimes watches these rites, such as they are, but she feels no sympathy for the mourners. What do they know of loss?

Batya tosses and turns in bed, too tired to sleep. The coyotes are very close by. They lope up the mole-colored hills to spar under the gas lamps in the village square. She hears a siren, the crack of a gunshot. She sits up, her hands badly shaking. Her room is flooded with moonlight, the ceiling glowing blue like phosphorescence. A tall figure slowly stalks through the doorway, his eyes hooded with indifference. In life her husband had always been a stoic man whose passions were confined to and perhaps even restricted by his strange compulsion for the most arcane books on botany. In this regard he hasn’t changed at all. Not even the vastness of eternity can alter the monumental edifice of his brooding demeanor. Only the sad exterior remains — the stooped shoulders, the weak chin, the outdated tweed jacket, the gray flannel slacks. Poor man, he never had any sense of style, preferred to wear his old bow ties to the new silk ones she bought him in the city. But this is what she’d loved about him — he had absolutely no pretensions. Few men were ever more genuine.

Where, she wonders, does he go when he leaves her? To heaven or hell? Or does he simply retreat to his cold mahogany box in the ground? And why is it that the dead are allowed to visit the living and not the other way around? Why can’t the living ever visit the underworld like the heroes of old — Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante? Though she wants desperately to ask him these questions, Batya knows why he is here and can sense his displeasure. She tries to reason with him, tries to explain how she needs the heat and hunger of a man and still aches for something tactile, raw, carnal. It’s been two years since that horrific day when the gunman stormed into the classroom, and it’s time he stop haunting her, let her get on with her life, but he remains incommunicative, scornful, unconvinced.

Overwhelmed by grief, she reaches out to embrace him, but as her fingertips caress the angry wound where the bullet blasted through his skull, he recoils from her touch and vanishes without warning, without saying goodbye, with delivering some ominous portent. The ghostly blue light turns purple and bruised, and once again Batya finds that she is stranded here, alone in her bed. This doesn’t trouble her for too long, however, because she has learned that to vanish, whether by slow degrees or all at once, in an instant, is the only enduring and natural fact of the world.

2

An hour before daybreak she pulls on her jeans, a fleece jacket, a sturdy pair of hiking boots that she laces up to her ankles. She grabs the half empty bottle of tea on the nightstand, then unlocks the drawer and takes out the new .38 revolver. She runs her fingers along the white handle of polished ivory. Made from the tusks of African elephants. Harvested by poachers of unimaginable cruelty. A gun of devastating political incorrectness.

With flashlight in hand and cigarette clamped between her teeth she stumbles along the narrow trail that she and her husband cleared with hatchet, rake and hoe two summers ago. The path, now overgrown with giant hogsweed and big clumps of bluestem flowers, winds along a slope that leads to the valley floor. Along the way she traverses a narrow ledge of soft gray shale and walks beneath a precipitous wall of bog iron and jagged siltstone bejeweled with sea lilies and brachiopods and mysterious things yet to be named by the scientists who come here to excavate great armored fish and razor-toothed leviathans, monsters imprisoned in these rocks for eons and all but erased from the memory of the world and the imagination of man.

After hacking through the brush with a stick, Batya manages to find the partially uprooted stump of a sycamore where her husband carved their initials in careful Gothic script. After two years, the letters are beginning to fade away, the B and P of her name now indistinguishable from one another. The massive tree that once stood here was an ancient one. The rings indicate that it was already two hundred years old when the Whittelsey Indians briefly settled in this valley in the 17th century. After walking around the stump three times, the magic number, she sits down, crushes out her cigarette and uncorks the bottle of tea. Through the creaking limbs of oaks and elms she can make out Venus and Mars, distant worlds that rise just before the dawn.

Across the river, peering through the rough grass at the edge of a meadow, a dozen eyes stare at her with curiosity and desperate hunger. Batya turns the alien lance of light on them, but the coyotes do not scare easily. They stand their ground and paw at the earth. She recognizes them for who they really are, the shamans of old, medicine men and shape shifters still reeling from their magic potions. After many centuries of exile they have returned to this place to perform their sacred dance. When they lived in this river valley, the shamans would emerge from their wigwams to the accompaniment of drums, rattles and flutes. Whirling before the embers of the evening fires, they chanted tales about the trickster Coyote who night and day obsessed over his painfully engorged penis and devised clever schemes to penetrate the nubile and slick skinned maidens who bathed in the clear waters along the riverbank. But an older woman was always present to interrupt Coyote’s good time. Whenever she caught him in the act she boxed him on the ears and violently yanked his penis out of these maidens who, despite being taken by surprise, seemed to enjoy their chronic victimization. Frustrated and ravenous for love, Coyote decided to take his revenge.

On a moonless evening, amidst the flutter of bats and the buzz of insects, he sidled into the old woman’s tent while she slept, and with a howl of unbridled merriment he mounted her. In the morning, the old woman awoke with a vaguely familiar sense of fulfillment, and for many nights after this encounter she left prizes of strangled hens and geese outside her tent, hoping to lure Coyote back, but he never returned, and in the months and years that followed, the old woman faded away into the austerity and solitude of old age without ever again experiencing the pleasures of youth.

Batya knows the tale well, a cherished fragment of a much larger storytelling tradition that by some miracle survived the expurgation of the prudish and easily scandalized Jesuit missionaries who conquered this land for Christendom. Legend has it that the pope’s foot soldiers, bearing shields of silver emblazoned with gold crosses, battled their way through the wilderness to this very spot, but the Indian holy men were able to evade capture and escape into the brush by drinking the magic tea, transforming themselves into coyotes and black rat snakes and red tailed hawks.

Listening to the river rush toward the city, Batya daydreams of such liberation. Above the rim of the valley, a thin band of steely October light stretches across the eastern horizon and turns the leaden clouds into hazy pink ribbons that look like chalk gently smeared on a blackboard or blood seeping slowly through loosely wrapped gauze. She finishes the last of her tea, but before making the journey back to the house she draws the .38 from her pocket. She unlatches the safety, lifts the gun above her head and fires once into the air. Across the river, still watching her from the meadow, the coyotes cry out in alarm and bolt into the woods.

3

She showers, then changes into the most conservative ensemble she owns—a sleeveless ruched top, wool pencil skirt, gray blazer, red silk scarf. The priests do not approve. They frown as she marches through the halls in her platform shoes, but she is brilliant and they pity her. This puts them on equal footing since she pities them, too, especially when she catches them lingering in the doorways, their eyes moving across her plentiful breasts.

Before leaving the house she stands at the kitchen counter and drinks a mug of scalding black coffee, tries to get her head straight. At seven o’clock she drives to school. Already the bisecting vapor trails of a hundred jets obscure the sky like the crisscrossing telephone cables and the tangled grid of electric lines suspended above the neighborhood streets, corralling her within this gilded pen like some mindless beast of burden and inspiring her, as it does every morning with ritualistic inevitability, to light her first official cigarette of the day. She inhales a gratifying lungful of smoke, the one and only drag that tastes any damned good, the rest merely a form of habit and imprisonment like much else in life. The idea of ritual pleases her, however, because it suggests something communal, an agreed upon set of beliefs, values, collective grievances, and it gives her great comfort to know that all across the country millions of addicts are simultaneously taking that first puff with a fanaticism that is if not exactly religious then certainly sacramental in nature.

For nearly thirty minutes she sits in the faculty parking lot with the engine idling. Fumes from the tailpipe threaten to kill her once and for all, making quick work of what the cigarettes will take another decade or more to do. At ten minutes to eight, students make their first appearance on campus, some of them dressed as if for a drunken masquerade. Along the sidewalk a boy shambles like a zombie, his clothes in tatters, his face painted in a death mask of pale green. Another is dressed as a cardinal or grand inquisitor. Not to be outdone, a figure with a mangy tail and pointed ears comes bounding across the quad on all fours. Buffoons one and all with no sense of decorum. She finds it puzzling that the Jesuits tolerate this sort of mischief. Don’t most clergymen regard Halloween as an abomination, a mockery of their most cherished beliefs?

Scanning the plaza to see if anyone is observing her and feeling not unlike the femme fatale in the final scene of a film noir, Batya removes the .38 from the glove compartment. The Jesuits would be aghast if they knew of it, but Batya is prepared with a reasonable response. This neighborhood is a dangerous one, the streets are teeming with lunatics, and she has every right to protect herself. At the beginning of the semester she wrote a letter to the editor, arguing that teachers should have the option of carrying a side arm into the classroom. Full-time faculty only, of course. Substitutes are clearly too inept, not to be trusted. When they read her op-ed, the priests laughed at her candor, thought she was joking, being satirical. No one took her seriously. Only the strange little clerk who sold her the gun showed her any deference. With a smile that revealed a long history of dental neglect, he placed the gun in her hand and said, “You’ve selected a fine weapon indeed, miss. Short recoil, good accuracy.”

She checks her watch. Almost time. She flicks the smoldering butt out the window and slides the pistol into her purse. For a moment she stands in the parking lot, breathes the city air poisoned by the blast furnaces of the nearby mill. A flock of ugly blackbirds, common grackles, slide feverishly between the telephone lines and drop their heavy white payloads on the hood of her car before disappearing into the yellow sky. With fury and revulsion she stares after them but stops herself from taking aim and firing.

4

It’s just a short walk to the main building. With its Doric columns and great sandstone gargoyles it looks not unlike a cathedral, smells of incense and candle wax, echoes with the imagined sound of vows yet to be broken, and because its small lead glass windows face west, the building is for most of the day encased in the kind of pre-dawn gloom one might expect to find inside a medieval cloister.

She climbs the creaking stairs to the sixth floor and fumbles against the wall until she finds the light switch. The sound of a hundred fluorescent bulbs buzz like things alive, agitated, angry, seconds away from showering her in white dust that stings and burns, choking her with a cloud of argon and mercury. The hallway becomes a long tunnel of flickering light. Someone once told her that florescent lights cause certain people to have seizures. Saint Paul, they say, was afflicted in just such a way and had intermittent episodes ever since his blinding vision while on the road to Damascus. Strange that god would prefer fluorescent lights to some other, but then god afflicts his creatures in the unlikeliest of ways.

She, for instance, is afflicted by the spectacle of dozens--maybe an even hundred, who knows, she never bothers to count them--World War II army soldiers, plastic men in green fatigues lobbing grenades, firing howitzers, hoisting bazookas on their shoulders. Some crawl on their bellies, others shout into walkie-talkies. All are assembled in a wide arc around her door so that she is forced to tiptoe around them like Gulliver among a maniacal horde of Lilliputians. They look as though they might storm her office, pillage her shelves, pin her to the wall, and one by one commit vile acts upon her before filling her torso with a million rounds of miniscule ammunition.

She has never been the victim of a prank, not on a scale like this, and she feels somewhat unsettled by its sick immaturity. Perhaps she’s made the mistake of being too political in class, of having said some disparaging things about war, the ridiculous myth of manifest destiny, upsetting the more unendurably ideological and reactionary students. “Mind you,” she tells them as they shift restlessly in their chairs, “I do consider myself a true patriot.” The sincerity of this statement is not to be questioned. There is the gun after all--can anything be more American than that?--and she has a permit to carry the gun, even to conceal it on her person. To her the law still means something even if it doesn’t to the delinquents who find their way into her classroom at the start of each day. She is also a staunch believer in self-reliance and cringes at the idea of calling campus security, a lethargic bunch of retired cops better suited to writing parking tickets than dealing with an unstable and potentially dangerous seventeen-year old stalker.

With a broom and dustpan she sweeps the army figures from the floor, tosses them into a trashcan, then locks her office door. After adjusting the mirror that hangs on the wall behind her desk she begins her daily exercises--smiles, frowns, pulls the skin tight against her cheekbones. She tries to ignore the faint lines at the corners of her eyes and how the makeup seems to accentuate rather than camouflage her age. In the soft light she still looks youthful, certainly younger than her forty-three years, but there is no way to disguise her sun damaged hands, the roughness of them, the flat brown patches, the wrinkles, the veins and tendons that stand out so prominently through the thin skin. She applies another daub of lotion and works it vigorously over her fingers and wrists. Today she wants to look her best, wants to be prepared for the confrontation that has now reached a boiling point.

5

“Good morning!”

Rarely does she greet her class with such mawkish enthusiasm. Usually she snaps terse commands (“You will now turn to page 237 of your text!”), this has always been her way, and the more diligent students, the handful of overachievers, the ones with the instinct to sense trouble, bury their noses in their books as if for protection. A few ogle her with smoldering lust, their bodies steamy fumaroles oozing musk and sweat. They dream of a torrid love affair, an imbroglio that ends in madness and death. Most of the boys are crass and guileless and take no interest in her at all. They sit with their arms folded, their chins drooping, their eyes puffy and crusted over with sleep. Among the latter is the culprit, the plagiarist. He slouches low in his chair, yawns, sighs, snorts with contempt as she begins to speak. She can accept their boredom. It’s their lack of respect that she finds so irritating.

“I finished reading your essays last night, gentlemen. Most were adequate. But I was particularly disappointed in yours, Mr. McSweeney.”

She shoves the paper at him and searches his eyes for that defiant glimmer of the psychotic, a quick flash of boiling, seething fury, a glimpse of the wild animal that thrashes around inside his skull and yearns to feast on her bones. They call him the Minotaur and for good reason. His shoulders are enormous, monstrous really. Too much time pumping iron at the gym, not enough time studying at his desk. A child with no priorities and overactive genitals. She has watched him from the bleachers, has seen the carnage he leaves behind on the football field, has heard the screams of agony from his opponents as they are trampled under his powerful legs. She wonders if he will grab her by the throat, strangle her, toss her body beneath the floorboards, brick her up inside a wall. No, he isn’t so imaginative as that. When it comes to death, Americans prefer their guns. Guns are simple. A quick bullet to the head and it’s all over. No one has a sense of the romantic anymore, a flair for the exquisite details of murder.

After handing back the essays she begins her usual routine, pacing up and down the rows of desks, reciting a passage from a composition textbook in a deliberate monotone. Though it has taken many months she has finally learned to accept the dreariness of this new curriculum. The gutless and unprincipled administration, after much “soul searching”, decided that because the majority of her students are primarily, and often exclusively, destined for the worlds of business and law (or, with god’s grace, the priesthood), there is no need for a course that analyzes the bawdy tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer. “Our students require a practical writing class,” the priests explain. “A refresher course on grammar and mechanics. You understand.”

Yes, she understands. Remediation is what they need. Now instead of teaching the great books she finds herself analyzing the hastily written essays and editorials of partisan hacks. It makes no difference. She lost her passion for teaching long ago and isn’t naïve enough to think she can cure these prep school boys of their indolence by injecting them with a healthy douse of intellectual curiosity. They are immune to learning. Regardless of the topic, most students pay no attention to what she has to say. Their intellects have shriveled and turned to dust like old turds baking on the pavement under a blinding white sun. Their interest in academics extends no further than seeking new ways to cheat their way to a C. It occurs to her that she doesn’t run a classroom so much as captain a sinking ship cargoed with uneducated peasants from steerage who shudder at the thought of plunging into the deep sea of ideas.

As the hour comes to an end and the students begin packing up their books, the principal makes a surprise announcement over the public address system.

“Men, as you know we face a great challenge tomorrow night, and I’d like us all to take a moment to pray for the team and for our quarterback. He is perhaps the most gifted athlete our school has ever produced. In order to set the proper mood for the game I ask you to keep an all night vigil. Remain absolutely silent. Speak to no one. Save it for the game. At kickoff time I want our opponents to hear you erupt with school spirit. Calm before the storm, gentlemen, calm before the storm. Now let us begin our vigil by bowing our heads and saying the words our Lord taught us… Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur Nomen Tuum…”

The boys cast glances at the Minotaur and then join in the unintelligible chorus. A few minutes later the bell rings and the boys scramble into the hallway, relieved to survive the torments of yet another English class. But Batya won’t allow the culprit to leave, no, not before she lustily chastises him.

“McSweeney!”

He swaggers toward her desk, frowns, feigns innocence.

“Did you read my comment on your essay? I’m giving you until six o’clock to submit a new essay.”

He sneers. “I can’t have it done by then.”

“Then I suggest you enroll in this class again next semester. At this point you cannot possibly pass.”

“I’ll turn the paper in on Monday.”

“No, that won’t do.”

“You don’t understand. The big game is tomorrow night—”

She crosses her arms. “Mr. McSweeney when I was in high school we had a thing called standards. My teachers weren’t so accommodating, especially with students caught cheating on their term papers. No, I had to submit my own work, and in a timely fashion, or face harsh disciplinary action. Plagiarism is a very serious offense. The worst kind of crime. Expulsion is not out of the question.”

Why is she boring him with this? She’s starting to sound like some confused spinster, rattling off a string of clichés. There was a time, and not so long ago either, when just by sitting at the corner of her desk, crossing her legs, adjusting the hem of her skirt, lowering her voice, batting her eyes in a certain way she could manipulate a boy like McSweeney, make him do her bidding, but her powers are fading fast.

“But I can’t lose my scholarship…” he pleads.

“Very well, Mr. McSweeney, I’ll give you one more chance.”

“Great. See ya Monday.”

“Not so fast, young man. Bring your essay to my office. Tonight. After school. You have until six o’clock. No later. I have plans this evening. I do have a life outside the classroom, you know.”

“Six o’clock tonight? But I have to study the playbook and—”

“That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it. Well? Go on. You’re dismissed.”

As he leaves the classroom and walks through the long tunnel of blue light he seems to shudder. This boy doesn’t see deeply enough into life to understand that she is still a force to be reckoned with. To him, aging is a myth, beauty eternal. He will never grow old, never wear on his soft face the hardened scowl of defeat and resignation. For the young there is no future just as there is no past. How easily they shed their memories, these boys, like snakes shedding their skins. But life soon leaves an awful and indelible mark, and experience is the great teacher.

6

After the final class of the day, rather than join the priests in the teachers’ lounge, she retreats to the gray silences of her office on the sixth floor where she stands at a window overlooking the city’s disfigured industrial valley. There she smokes cigarettes and drinks tea and watches the ghostly blue flames dance atop the tall vent stacks and singe the sky, turning the clouds back with ash.

Most conversation she finds tedious, especially since the small talk these days centers around which aging faculty members have been whisked away to the clinic because Death has dropped by for an unexpected visit, perhaps not with glimmering scythe and hooded robe, no, but with a sly “Boo!”, just enough to put the fear of god into them, make them sink to the floor with a minor stroke, leave them with a noticeable slump to their shoulders, an angry downward scowl to their lips. To everyone’s relief the clinic employs a battalion of overpaid and self-important quacks who know their trade just well enough to keep Death temporarily at bay, oblivious to the fact that Death will wait good-naturedly for the inevitable, silently paring his talons and stoking the fires of hell in preparation for the multitudes who have failed to seek redemption before the final hour.

Perhaps by harping on the ubiquitous nature of suffering and loss, the Jesuits hope to alleviate the anguish she has experienced these past two years, but if they fail to cheer her up it’s because they are always talking of the mysterious workings of god. But god is no mystery, not to these men. God they can explain with the greatest confidence. They can go on and on about what happens to a person after death. It’s life that mystifies them, it’s life they can’t explain. “Only through divine revelation,” they say, “can humanity hope to comprehend the present world.” A nonsensical idea. To her all religious experience is a matter of concealment, not revelation. Faith is a metaphysical game of repression, self-deception, a way to disguise deep-rooted fears and weaknesses.

But how can she possibly begrudge them for having these beliefs? Batya is an alien among them, an outsider, an exotic creature from an ancient bloodline immune to their medieval scholasticism, and she suspects that the Jesuits deep in their hearts, beneath their gentle words of consolation, they secretly despise her and feel that some form of cosmic punishment has been meted out.

7

At precisely six o’clock there comes a knock at the door. McSweeney stands in the hallway, a bit disheveled, out of breath, his shirt, damp with sweat, clinging to his arms and back. He holds the essay out to her.

“Please come inside for a minute.”

He shuffles toward the window and sits on the sill.

“Would you like something to drink? Tea perhaps?”

Her voice trembles when she asks the question. She doesn’t want to know how ridiculous she looks right now and is careful to avoid walking by the mirror. In the top desk drawer she finds two dirty mugs and the bottle, all a prelude to the wondrous dance men and women have been performing through the ages without much variation. Only the gun is new to this otherwise ancient ritual. Not that she needs it, of course, but these days one can never be too sure. She touches the handle and closes the drawer before he can see it.

“The great books tell us that intoxicants are beneficial to the soul,” she tells him as she pours the tea. “They have transformative powers. Nectar of the gods, manna from heaven, nepenthe, opium. Indian tribes once lived in this valley. A forlorn place now. They brewed a tea made from a plant whose scientific name is Pedicularis densiflora. It’s not actually a plant at all but a parasite that attaches to the roots of other plants. The Indians claimed it had magical properties and could turn men into birds and coyotes.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Cool.”

She pushes a mug across the desk toward him. He picks it up, sniffs it.

“During hikes in the valley, my late husband and I occasionally came across a few specimens growing at the river’s edge. We made batches of the tea. It’s absolutely sublime. Excellent for strength and performance.”

He seems skeptical but eventually drinks it. She watches to make sure he swallows it all down, a good little boy taking his medicine.

“My husband was a botanist by training, a high school teacher by profession. He taught chemistry and biology for fifteen years. A brilliant man. Misunderstood maybe. The students never cared for him. There was one boy in particular. A former pupil of mine. Very violent. A sociopath. Maybe you read about the case in the newspaper?”

McSweeney glances at the clock on her desk. “I have to go to this party tonight…”

“Oh, then we better drink quickly. I have a party to attend as well. It’s Halloween after all.”

Already, after only one cup, his pupils are big and bright, like two shiny black marbles wobbling around a bowl. She pours him another mug. This time he gulps it down. Ten minutes later he won’t shut up. He tells her all about his cowardly father who has no ambitions of his own and his overprotective mother who is oblivious to the fact that he wants to do something truly unique with his life. “She thinks I’m a dumb jock. But I’d like to be a writer one day. Maybe I can study journalism, become a sports columnist, give people an athlete’s perspective of the game.”

This is the part of the charade she hates most, playing shrink to these misfits who vomit up all of their inconsequential problems and yearn for someone to dissect their souls with the precision of a pathologist, unraveling the tangled threads of character and conflict, one from the other until their lives are nothing more than a heap of nonsense piled on the floor at her feet, words without greater context, bled of their significance. At moments like this Batya truly misses the tactics of a more experienced man--dirty movies flickering on the television screen, lubes, gels, battery operated toys. Cheap and tawdry, that’s how she likes it. Dirty. Vile even. Crudeness turns her on, it always has. Of late the men she has been involved with are excruciatingly polite, overly cautious, frightened of life. The Jesuits have yet to hire a fallen theologian or a mad scientist who yearns to conduct radical and lascivious experiments on a middle-aged female subject.

She’s running out of patience. The boy is just standing there, blabbering on and on about nothing at all, another amateur of intimacy unwilling to make the first move. It isn’t natural for an eighteen-year old boy to be so timid. She decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands. The tea has emboldened her, and once again she finds that she’s willing to live with the consequences of her actions. Desperate for intimacy, she must either face the brutal emptiness of another lonely night or seek consolation in the unlikely companionship of these boys. For her the choice is clear. She is no priest, and celibacy has never been an option.

She rolls her chair away from the desk until she brushes up against the boy’s legs. He doesn’t flinch or stammer or turn away, and this she takes as a good sign. She touches him with her fingertips then begins to massage him through his pants. He presses up against her hand, another good sign, and lets her unbuckle his belt, pull down his zipper.

“There’s no work on your part,” she assures him, “none whatsoever. Just relax. Relax and enjoy.”

“What if someone catches us?”

“No one visits my office. Least of all the Jesuits. It’s six flights up.”

“I don’t know.”

“Trust me. Here. Let me help you with that.”

“I’m not so sure about this.”

“You want to pass my class, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Just. Oh, hell.”

“Wait. Let me take it out. There. That’s no petseleh you have there, gunsel.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

“This won’t take long, will it?”

“That’s all up to you.”

She marvels at his size. Like a king cobra charmed from its basket with a few erotic licks on a flute. Initially, he is nervous, wooden, almost cadaverous. With the exception of the rigor mortis that sets in below his waist, the boy remains motionless, his hips frozen, his legs shackled by the pants around his ankles. Even his face has the look of mute absence. She is not surprised. Most of these schoolboys are a little too tidy, too polished, their lips delicate, their hands soft and white. Despite their claims to be otherwise, she suspects they are not sexual absolutists. This doesn’t trouble her. Even the most heterosexual man is capable of buggery, and she often wonders how many of these boys are closeted homosexuals.

“The hell was that?” the boy whispers hoarsely.

But she’s too consumed in her work to notice anything unusual. After arousing him, she opens her blouse and lets him have a look at those things the sculptors and painters and poets through the ages have either avoided or ignored altogether.

As the first beams of moonlight filter through the window the boy becomes suddenly aggressive. He hoists her effortlessly from the chair and pushes her onto the desktop with more force than she would like. Flashing a crazed grin and with a mouth ravenous and eager and almost dangerous with its snapping jaws and gnashing teeth he lifts her skirt and starts tasting every inch of her, his wet tongue lapping at her navel and thighs. He lifts her again, turns her around, stretches her out across the desk so that her legs splayed. She shudders with gratitude, caught up in the thrill and pandemonium of his unrelenting punishment.

“Oh, hurt me!’ she demands. “Hurt me!”

Regrettably, as they both near climax, he tarnishes things by calling out her first name. Despite the intimacy of these encounters she prefers to be addressed in a formal manner, and after he’s finished and they both collapse glistening on the desk, she makes a point of correcting him on this matter in a voice that is at once stern and breathless.

8

A man’s presence often lingers long after he is gone, and sometimes it’s best to erase all evidence of him. She intends to feed the boy’s essay to the shredder the moment he leaves her office. Even to use it as kindling would be taboo. She studies his face and finds that he looks not unlike the student who is still in prison for her husband’s murder, but then all of these boys look alike — the same simian forehead sprinkled with acne, the same unintelligent eyes that cast a hubristic gaze over the world, a stranger who snorts and scratches himself and unleashes a pestilential cloud of stale breath. But ghosts of the living as well as the dead haunt the imagination, so it’s only natural that she sees the killer everywhere she turns — in the newspaper, in her classroom, even slumped over her desk with a stunned expression on his face. At least this boy has enough sense to pull up his pants and start making excuses.

“The party…” he murmurs.

“Yes, I must be going, too. People are expecting me.”

He slinks toward the door but doesn’t leave right away. Instead he lingers at the threshold, his shirt untucked, his zipper still down. When he looks back at her his face is drained of color. He steps into the hallway and slides up against the wall as though afraid of falling into a black pit. Something is out there, something that frightens him. Her husband’s ghost? Has he followed her here? Has he been watching them? The boy stumbles over his own feet, regains his balance, and then races down the stairs.

Fully aware that she’s been ensnared in some kind of trap, Batya checks her makeup in the mirror, the mascara, the royal blue eyeliner. She buttons her blouse, straightens her skirt. There is no need to hurry. It’s not quite eight o’clock, time enough for a little more tea. She drinks straight from the bottle until all that remains are the dregs. From her desk drawer she retrieves the .38. Only then does she walk to the door. What she finds makes her smile, and she almost applauds the menacing stagecraft.

Like an infestation of scuttling green bugs, the plastic soldiers swarm in the hallway outside her office, a hundred battle-hardened men, wounded, scarred, disfigured, their torsos crisscrossed with heavy belts of ammunition, their eyes fixed on a distant point in space. They’ve been sent here on a secret mission and are determined to achieve their objective. But what exactly is the objective? To kill the ravenous cougar that prowls these halls, attacking innocent boys? Since the Church can no longer use coercion as a tool it must rely on intimidation. It’s just as well. After all, it’s not violence but the threat of violence that has proven so effective the world over. People are driven by fear and self-preservation, and powerful men exploit this weakness to achieve their own wicked ends.

Batya refuses to be guided by these base emotions. It’s a decision she made long ago. She raises the gun and puts the steel barrel to her head. She has done this many times before, has contemplated squeezing the trigger, and never once has she experienced even a fleeting moment of mortal terror. In this regard the gun has been very instructive, a pedagogical tool unmatched by any textbook; it’s a way to test her willpower, her soundness of mind, but it isn’t something she can teach others.

She counts backwards from ten and then lowers the gun. The test complete, she puts the gun in her purse and grabs the broom and dustpan. It’s become routine for her, sweeping up these soldiers, and after she throws them in trashcan she turn off the lights and leaves her office for one more day.

pickling cucumber

© Connor Caddigan 2010