Distance Learning

 

“Anyway, I think if we route the grant money into the primary fund we’ll be alright. Actually, we’ll be more than alright as long as we don’t spend another dime before fall.” Merton Swinn, the English department’s most recent acquisition, took a measured sip of brandy without blinking or looking away from Van Adler, the department chair.

Van Adler sighed and stared into the mouth of his empty beer bottle. His suit jacket was wrinkled and his feet already hurt. He’d been at the faculty party now for 45 minutes—15 minutes more than he normally preferred to spend at these things. But sometimes escape was impossible. He wished, above all else, that he were at home having a bath while his wife, Myra, blasted the Late Show downstairs in the den and laughed out loud.

He tried to smile at Swinn, but the effort felt unnatural. Lately he’d caught himself grimacing even when he was not upset, as if his face had become perpetually fixed in a transition between dismay and rage. Moreover, his hands ached horribly. Van Adler could no longer ignore the arthritis that had announced itself two semesters before and now visited him regularly with sudden jolts of pain from wrists to fingertips.

Van Adler looked at Swinn, who was starting to purse his lips, and said, “Right. But how will we account for the fact that we now have only seven tenure-track lines? Are you recommending that we forego the new one opening up? Missouri mandates at least eight full-timers in an academic department.”

Swinn’s eyes darted to Van Adler’s face, down to his brandy, over the crowd of graduate students and professors, and then to the carpet. “Well,” he said, “is that so monstrous in a recession? We have the adjuncts. And we’re not being evaluated for another two years. Who’ll complain?” He was a short, compact man who wore heavy multi-colored sweaters and round rimless glasses. At age 35, Swinn was already balding with a wispy tonsure of blonde over his ears. His eyes moved with his thoughts, which were quick and numerous.

Swinn’s dissertation at Rutgers, which he’d published shortly before being hired by Hauberk College, had been a study correlating the rise of the novel with the expansion of private leisure space in middle class English homes. Everyone on the hiring committee had agreed that it was inoffensive and at least mildly interesting. But for an expert on the literature of leisure, he seemed rather consistently ill at ease. Which was understandable, thought Van Adler, seeing that Swinn did not yet have tenure.

Van Adler sighed, shook his head, and again tried to smile. “Do you want a riot, my friend? We’ve announced the position. There’s no un-announcing it. The part-timers are already massing like flies.”

“That’s another thing,” Swinn said, following Van Adler’s gaze around the room. “We have 32 adjuncts. With a distance learning component in place, we could do with about half that.”

Swinn put his empty snifter down on the piano behind him. It was a baby Mason and Hamlin and it, along with the rest of the two-story Victorian townhouse, belonged to Juliette Lezerski’s, the department’s resident medievalist. She’d held her graduate classes in Chaucer and the bi-annual departmental get together in her large sitting room for over 30 years. Most of the furnishings in the house were historically accurate to mid-nineteenth-century Missouri, except for the piano, which Juliette tuned herself and otherwise kept in a state of factory perfection. She also played beautifully and, being slightly deaf, very loudly—always a miraculous respite at these functions. Van Adler turned, but didn’t see her. He wished Juliette would come over and start playing right now.

“There is something to be said for departmental morale, Merton. How many composition classes would you like to teach?”

“I’m teaching three at the moment.” Swinn crossed his arms, then caught himself and relaxed, clasping his hands at waist level like a boy heading to communion. Then he also smiled. Van Adler thought Swinn did a better job at smiling; though, Swinn’s eyes stayed level and his smile was nervous and tight in the bottom half of his face.

Van Adler could remember being like that years ago (before tenure), practicing a “warm, humane yet humble” smile in the mirror when Myra wasn’t around. It was something he eventually programmed into himself to an exact degree as if he’d carved it out of wood. And he held that wooden smile in reserve for those unforeseeable moments when true feeling threatened to rise and lay waste to his carefully sculpted professional image.

But that was years ago. Times were different when Van Adler had been a young assistant professor, teaching four to five sections a semester and spending the weekends writing in the humanities research library. There’d been 16 full-time lines back then and only a handful of adjuncts. Still, he’d served on more committees than he could easily count. This was his second and thankfully final term as department chair, since he planned to retire in two or three years. And Van Adler felt he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In fact, he was thinking of buying a boat.

“I know how hard you’re working.” He patted Swinn lightly on the shoulder. “And everyone thinks you’re doing a really fantastic job.”

Swinn raised his eyebrows, a flicker of anxiety and contempt in his face. Then the smile returned. “Well, thank you, Jim. It’s only been a year, but I already feel at home.”

“That’s great, Merton. That’s just what we want.” Van Adler flexed his left hand. He felt a hideous electric current dig into his knuckles and shoot down his fingers. He supposed it was time to take Doctor Whitehurst up on that prescription. He didn’t want to. It felt like giving in, like he’d lost. But maybe this kind of pain meant he already had. That’s how it was with everything, he thought. You didn’t know what you’d lost until it was gone and then your only recourse was to numb yourself and wait for the next catastrophe, the next unavoidable disappointment.

When Swinn left to get another brandy, Van Adler saw an opening. There was a small servant’s door in the pantry where a housekeeper could discreetly bring in supplies without disturbing anyone in the other parts of the house. And the door between the sitting room and the dining room had been propped open, revealing a straight unobstructed shot into the kitchen. Such moments of grace were few and far between. He felt that it would be the essence of hubris, an affront to all the gods of fortune, if he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. No one would blame him for cutting out after an hour of fielding meaningless pleasantries and enduring Merton Swinn’s considerable angst.

And he was almost successful. He shuffled around the baby grand slowly, keeping his gaze on the fringe of Juliette’s authentic Boston Sego Bicentennial piano rug. There was a technique to fleeing a party: one walked easily yet quickly, avoiding all eye-contact, stepping cautiously as if barefoot in a room of scorpions. One kept a Zen mind, blank and empty, and did not congratulate oneself until safely in the car and away. Such was the discipline. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury emerged from across the sitting room at the last moment, sealing off his route to the kitchen and the pantry. Sheila was an adjunct with two kids and a husband who was out of work, and she radiated desperation in the best of times. When she saw Van Adler, her eyes lit up and he knew there would be no escape.

“Oh Jim! How wonderful to see you. Did you get my emails?”

“I’m sure I did, Sheila, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m on my way—.”

“That’s fantastic. Then you know I’m planning on applying to the new full-time position everyone’s talking about. There is a new opening, right? It’s not just a rumor?”

He tried to flank her to the right, but she adjusted, holding her glass of chablis to the side for extra blocking width.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been advertised nationally. You can find it on the MLA job list, for example.” He put his hands in his pockets and glanced over her shoulder through the dining room. Apart from Sheila, the way was still open. But this was now a bad situation. They were very visible. And, not unlike flies, one adjunct talking about job prospects attracted others. An accurate, if unfortunate, analogy, Van Adler thought to himself, given what usually causes flies to swarm. Before long, he would have to start lying and prevaricating, making him the proverbial turd. It could get bad. It had before.

“My goodness.” Her knuckles turned white around the stem of her wine glass. Van Adler thought it might explode in her hand unless she did first. “How many applicants do you think there will be?”

“Sheila, I really—there’s no way to be accurate about something like that. Those things go up and down year to year. You know. Many factors. Hard to say.” But no less than 100, he thought, 100 if there’s one and potentially twice that many. Swinn’s job search had been a nightmare. They’d begun with 233 applications—an impossible number for a hiring committee of six professors with full teaching loads and other administrative duties. And so they’d made wide cuts, rejecting off-hand anyone who didn’t have multiple publications or an impressive pedigree. That brought it down to 50, which was where the hard work of actually reading the applications began. And there was nothing to indicate this process would be any less brutal. Sheila had a MA in English from Northern Missouri State University. What could he tell her that she shouldn’t have realized already?

She grasped his arm lightly, just above the elbow, and leaned into him. “Are you going to your car? Can I walk you out? I have a few more questions.”

Van Adler scanned the room. Three creative writing students had cornered Swinn, eliminating the possibility that he’d want to come back and revisit the budget apocalypse for another hour. But two adjuncts, whose names escaped him, were starting to move through the crowd in his direction. He had a vague memory of them. Former graduate students at Hauberk, now husband and wife. They certainly looked like adjuncts—Walmart wardrobe, disheveled hair, and a certain air of exhaustion, maybe exasperation. They must have had kids, he thought. The ones with kids were the worst off—the most scared, the most desperate, the most likely to have a psychotic episode at a faculty party. If there were a universal handbook for temporary academic employees with no benefits and no future, Van Adler felt the first line should be: if you’re going to lead that life, get sterilized early. Sadly, the best advice was always hard to give and even harder to hear. He’d definitely be calling Dr. Whitehurst about those pills.

“Jim? Are you alright?” Sheila looked up at him with her big blue eyes. She had set her wine glass down so she could hold onto his arm with both hands.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I really have to go.”

“Sure. Of course. I’ll come with you.” She tightened her grip.

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

Juliette had appeared at the piano and began a baroque interpretation of “Blue Hawaii” loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention and prevent all conversation. The perfect diversion. Without another word, Van Adler turned, went through the dining room, and into the kitchen as quickly as possible with Sheila right behind. He unlatched the pantry door and pulled the little metal chain on the overhead bulb. It hung down at eye level on a green safety cord.

The pantry was well-stocked and looked like a cave of canned food with wicker baskets of onions and potatoes lining the bottom shelves. The door at the far end was made from polished oak planks with black metal bands. Its top rose to a minaret peak, making it look like a hobbit door or something out of the The Thief of Bagdad. It had a simple tumbler lock set in an ornate black face with an inlaid leaf design. And its shiny brass key hung from a loop of red yarn beside it.

Van Adler realized that there had never been a time when the key hadn’t looked perfectly new. Juliette must have polished it regularly. But who polishes their house keys? Only a medievalist who plays Elvis standards as if they’d been written by Antonio Scarlatti and who lives in a house on the National Register of Historical Places—someone interesting to know about but someone you didn’t want to get stuck next to on the plane.

That realization, plus the roar of graduate student cheering when she finished “Blue Hawaii” with a trill and two motets, made him feel slightly unsettled. The normal degree of strangeness was heightened tonight. There was more than the usual morose faculty party energy in the air. It was as if the impending job search had fueled a frenetic current, a wild, wavering voltage that might quadruple into something very unpleasant for the chair of the department if he were cornered by a group of drunken angry part-time instructors.

He was wiggling the key into the lock when Sheila closed the door behind them and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

She was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse designed like a man’s button-down with tails out over jeans and scuffed brown flats. One more of the buttons on her shirt was undone, plunging her neckline lower than it had been a few minutes before. He looked at the V of smooth white skin there between the slopes of her breasts. She caught him looking and smiled.

“Jim. I know you’re going to go out that door and get in your car. And you’re never going to respond to my emails.”

He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand and let it drift down to rest lightly on the front of his shirt as if she were radiating a magnetic force through her palm that held him in place.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, moving closer to him, almost whispering. “I know everybody wants this job. But it would really, really mean a lot to me, I mean, I’d be so grateful if you could help me out.”

Van Adler could feel her breath on his lips. It smelled like the cheap white wine Juliette provided at the faculty parties. He wasn’t a young man anymore. It seemed like he’d stopped being a young man earlier than most—maybe sometime in his PhD—where, like Swinn, he’d decided to get serious about his future and quit playing around. Marriage to Myra had been an advantage, solid closure on the question of romance and loneliness. He’d gotten that handled with alacrity and moved on to more important things. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury was a good looking woman. Was there anything he could do for her?

“I don’t think—“

“I’m not asking for a miracle.” She pushed him against the door and slid her hands up around the back of his neck. “But, you know, I find you very attractive.”

She was lying, of course. But did that matter? How many lies had he already told this evening alone? How many half-truths, evasions, duplicitous omissions? How many lies was he obliged to tell in a standard academic week—as chair, as a professor of American lit., as a mentor to a group of neurotic, hopeless graduate students, half of whom needed prescription mood stabilizers to get through the day?

“It doesn’t work that way. I’m not even on the hiring committee.”

“But you could be on it if you wanted. Isn’t that right?”

It was there, at age 65, in Juliette Lezerski’s pantry, with the light bulb swinging back and forth at the end of its green safety cord, that James Van Adler was kissed by the first woman since he’d married his wife, Myra Chambers, 33 years earlier. Kissed, that is, by a desperate woman two-and-a-half decades younger than him, who had a son and a daughter and a husband who used to be a dispatcher for a garbage truck company and who, rumor had it, now spent most nights with a bottle instead of his wife. Moreover, Van Adler sensed that Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury found kissing him vaguely repulsive, which, in a strange non-personal way, he could understand. Some days, actually most days, he felt the same way about himself.

“Sheila. Honey. There’s nothing I could do for you that you can’t do for yourself by applying. I’d be glad to write you a letter of reference if you need one. I could be honest and say you do good work. Because you do.”

She pushed him hard with both hands. He’d moved forward, away from the door about two inches, when she’d kissed him. And now he connected with the surface again, exhaling a sharp burst. A jolt of agony went through Van Adler’s hands and he cried out softly.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said, stepping back and sizing him up. The light bulb bounced against the back of her head. “You have health insurance. You can get your teeth fixed. When my son needs the doctor, what do I do? We’re on fucking food stamps.”

He nodded, turning the key behind him with his right hand. The situation that moments ago had seemed quite pleasant was now scandal-worthy. An intoxicated tirade by Sheila in the pantry and the rumors would reach Myra in less than a day. Above all else, Myra hated being talked about. It was what made her the perfect faculty wife. It would also be what made her perfectly insane when Bethany Lyon called to lay it on and enjoy her suffering.

“But I do know what it’s like, Sheila. I was an adjunct for years.” Actually one year. “I paid my dues in a time when there were no social programs in place to help me lead the academic life.” Actually, Myra’s income as a CPA would have disqualified them for state aid had they looked into it.

Van Adler’s hand complained horribly as he turned the key and pushed the little pantry door open. He put one foot on the pebble walk outside. The walk ran through Juliette’s rose garden to a small wrought iron gate in the six-foot hedge that went along the sides and back of the house. It was a windy night in Hauberk, Missouri. The trees wagged and swished, their shadows dancing through rectangles of light. Next door, a dog started barking. And inside, Juliette had started playing a mashup of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

He looked back at Sheila. She was standing in the center of the pantry, arms at her sides and the light bulb hanging down behind her head. She was about to start weeping. And the radiance from the bulb made it seem as though she had a halo—a white-shirted wingless angel with blue eyes who’d lost her way.

“I have two children,” she said.

He smiled. “They’re very lucky.” And he stepped outside, closing the pantry door behind him. He took a deep breath. When he got around to the front of the house, Juliette had segued into “Great Balls of Fire.”

Van Adler looked up at her grinning and pounding away at the keys. Her trifocals had slid down to the tip of her nose and the strap of her glittery blue dress had slipped off her left shoulder. A group of drunken graduate students pressed in around her, singing and egging her on. In another window, Swinn concentrated on his Blackberry, a concerned look on his face, texting with both thumbs.

It was only after Van Alder was halfway home that he realized he was still smiling and that it was the old wooden smile he’d developed years ago to get out of bad situations. His face seemed to be stuck like that, the muscles overtaxed and somehow charlie-horsed in place. And he couldn’t, for the life of him, stop.

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About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

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