Authors: Neil S. Plakcy
Tags: #Mystery & Crime
I remembered conversations I’d had with the Wicked Witch of the Valley. We’d talked, off and on, about getting a dog, but she worried she’d get stuck doing all the work. “You’re just not a caretaker, Steve,” she’d said.
“I can take care of you,” I said, leaning down to scratch behind Rochester’s ears. “Don’t you think so, boy?”
In answer, he rolled over onto his back so I could rub his stomach. I got down on the floor next to him. “I know I’m not as self-centered as Mary thought. I can take care of a dog.” He squirmed under my touch, and his head lolled to the side, his long tongue rolling out. “I can take care of you. What do you say, boy? You want to stay with me?”
Rochester rolled around to his feet and started to climb on me, licking my face. “I guess that’s a yes,” I said, laughing.
I’d forgotten how much snow fell in Eastern Pennsylvania during the winter, and it was disorienting to navigate familiar roads when they were covered in white. Landmarks disappeared, and cars without snow tires skidded on the ice. That weekend, the snowfall was so heavy that Eastern almost closed down, only deciding to open after Sunday was sunny.
Driving to Eastern on Monday morning, River Road was still dangerous, and I narrowly saved myself from a skid on a patch of black ice. It was with great relief that I pulled into the newly-plowed parking lot, where a group of two dozen students, bundled in down vests and colorful knit caps, waved signs which read “Olive Us Love Olives” and “Bring Back the Olives.”
The week before, the administration had announced that in a cost-cutting measure, olives would no longer be available on the salad bar in the dining hall. The saving to the college was estimated at $100,000 a year.
I didn’t even eat olives when I was in college, and I marveled that these students were giving up sleep time or study time, cutting classes or jobs, to march around in the parking lot protesting about olives. As I got out of my car, a campus police patrol car pulled up and two cops got out, wielding polyethylene shields and metal batons, as if they were breaking up a demonstration in Watts or South Central rather than Leighville, PA. One of them spoke into a microphone, though the words were garbled and unintelligible.
The group’s chant changed to “Down with Pigs,” and for a minute I thought it had morphed into some kind of anti-bacon demonstration. Then I realized somebody was channeling the SDS, circa 1969. Since that was even before my time, I hurried on toward Blair Hall, as the two campus cops began banging their batons against their shields, and I heard sirens approaching.
I had been back at Eastern three months by then, but it still seemed like an alien world. I’d be walking along, talking to a student, and look up to realize I had no idea where I was. The bookstore had moved, the student union expanded beyond recognition. The concrete sidewalks were often icy, and the grassy shortcuts full of unsuspecting dips.
I walked to my freshman comp class, which meets in a second-floor room in Blair Hall. Tall, gothic-arched windows along one side let in the light and give students the chance to look outside in case I’m boring them. Fluorescent lights hang on pendants around the room, and a rich wooden wainscoting runs around the perimeter of the room, a legacy of our long history of deep-pocket alumni. The chairs, though, are a relic of the seventies, with a slanted arm attached to one side just at the right angle to dump an unsuspecting student’s laptop into his lap.
From outside the classroom, I could hear raised voices, though I couldn’t tell what the arguing was about, and as soon as I opened the door the voices stopped. Tension hung in the air, until Menno Zook raised his hand and said, “Are we allowed to bring animals to class?”
Menno had a short beard, and often wore overalls and white t-shirts. Give him a straw hat and a horse and buggy, and he’d be at home in the Amish country.
“He’s not an animal, he’s a dog,” Tasheba Lewis said. Since I wasn’t there to teach biology, I didn’t think it necessary to correct her.
Tasheba is one of my sharper students, which is like saying there were worse dictators in history than Nero or Attila—weak praise, at best. She has skin the color of cinnamon and straight brown hair, and carries herself with an air of privilege. “This is Romeo,” she said, lifting him out of a Burberry traveling bag on the chair next to her.
“One of the great lovers in literature,” I said. I decided not to address Menno’s question, but instead to shift our emphasis back to something close to English composition. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” I turned and wrote that phrase on the blackboard. “Notice that there’s no comma after the word thou,” I said, when I turned back to the class. Romeo the dog sat next to Tasheba, who wore a matching Burberry tennis visor, as if she was planning to head from English class to her next match. Like most of my students, she paid more attention to her attire and her social life than to her class work. “Anybody know why?”
No one seemed to know why there was no comma. “Let me repeat it for you,” I said, and I did. “The key is in the word wherefore.” I put the chalk down and brushed the dust off my hands. “In Shakespeare’s time that word meant ‘why.’ So Juliet’s asking ‘Why are you Romeo?’ not ‘Yo, Romeo, where are you?’”
The class laughed. Take a forty-something white-bread English professor, and drop in a word or two of urban slang. It’s a sure laugh-getter, and sometimes it wakes them up.
“Can someone tell me the basic plot of
Romeo and Juliet
Open-ended questions like that are always iffy. Is anyone awake enough to consider it? Did any of them study Shakespeare at the expensive private schools that are Eastern’s biggest feeders? Did they recognize the undercurrents of violence that ran through Shakespeare’s works were the same ones that passed through our lives—parking lot protests, court cases, jail time and death?
I looked around the room, which had filled up in the last few minutes. By then, I knew all the students by name, though the two slim girls with matching long dark hair who sat next to each other tripped me up. One was Dianne and one was Dionne, and I just marked them both present if at least one was there.
The lovebirds in the back row were Billy Rubin, who wanted to be a doctor, and his girlfriend, Anna Rexick, who wanted to be a nurse, specializing in eating disorders. She was painfully skinny, as if she lived off bird seed and water.
There were three Jeremys, two Melissas, two Jennifers, and two Jakes. Almost all of them looked like generic, interchangeable college students, distinguished only by piercings and hairstyles.
Jeremy Eisenberg raised his hand. “Romeo loves Juliet but their families don’t get along so eventually they kill themselves,” he suggested. He had a shaggy mop of brown hair, shorn close to the scalp on both sides, a torn Butthole Surfers t-shirt, a studded dog collar around his neck and many earrings, as well as an eyebrow ring and a tongue stud.
“Close enough,” I said. “So Romeo has gained this reputation as a great lover.” I walked over toward Tasheba, whom I always imagine was named after the Japanese electronics manufacturer. She’s the kind of young woman who always has a brand name plastered across her body, whether it’s Juicy Couture, Rocawear, or whatever’s hottest at the moment. “Tell me, has Romeo been neutered?”
“Ah, irony! The great lover can’t consummate his love!” The class laughed. “But who can define irony for me?”
Melissa Macaretti disapproves of any antics in the classroom. She’s a bulky young woman with mousy brown hair, wearing kilts and Fair Isle sweaters—the kind with the embroidered yoke that was popular back when I was a student—and she’s often frowning. “
The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning,” she said, and I suspected she had some kind of electronic dictionary stuck away in her purse. But then, she always spoke that way.
“Exactly. So Romeo’s name is ironic. He’s a lover who can’t love. Let’s think about the readings in our description unit. Where else have we seen irony?”
There was a general restlessness, as students stared down at their desks, holding their bodies rigid, as if the slightest movement might cause me to call on them. At times like that I felt like my class was full of wild creatures, and at the slightest provocation they could turn on me. Joaquin and Wakeem, athletes who lurked in the back row, always wore T-shirts with aggressive sayings on them, things like “Fuck Authority,” and other phrases that were probably the titles of hip-hop songs. Though I was only forty-two, they made me feel as old and frail as a 90-year-old with a walker.
We made it through the rest of the class, though I can’t say for sure what else we covered. Part of my brain was still focused on the student demonstration, and another part was obsessing about Caroline Kelly.
Just as I was gathering my papers, Menno raised his hand again, and without waiting for me to call on him, said, “Professor, you never answered my question. Are we allowed to bring animals to class?”
Everyone stopped their hurried packing to look up at me. “I don’t know what the college’s policy is, but as long as Romeo is quiet, it’s OK with me.” I waited a beat, then said, “But I’m not grading his papers.”
Everyone except Menno laughed, and they all scurried out, like shaggy, pierced rats leaving a sinking classroom. On my way up to the third floor, I overheard a student in the hallway say, in a plaintive voice, “I can’t believe he smoked crack. We made a new year’s resolution.”
The faculty lounge is a sunny room on the top floor of Blair Hall, lit by metal-framed skylights. The department secretary, Candice (“Don’t call me Candy”) Kane, a Wiccan whose love for the natural world exceeds any tiny bit of affection she might harbor for humans, has a green thumb, and she tends a series of spider plants in hanging baskets. Cabinets full of coffee filters and paper plates hang over a sink, with an adjacent refrigerator. A half-dozen round tables, with straight-backed wooden chairs, complete the room.
I joined Jackie Devere at the cappuccino machine and began preparing myself a café mocha. “I had a new student in my freshman comp class this morning,” I said.
“Three months into the term?” she asked. “Let me guess. He had some kind of elaborate excuse why he hasn’t come to class. His dog ate his computer?”
“Close. The new student is a dog.”
She looked at me. “Now, Steve. I know that you are not trying to tell me that you have some butt-ugly girl student in your class. Because if you are, butt-ugly is a much better term than dog.”
“No, a real dog,” I said. “In a Burberry carrying case. He even has a matching plaid bow in his hair. I’m not sure what breed he is; one of those little fluffy things.”
“Are you sure it’s a boy dog?”
I nodded as I pulled the hot water for my tea out of the microwave. “Yup. His name is Romeo.” I paused. “And he expressed his opinion of the class with a lifted leg on the way out.”
Jackie grew up on the mean streets of Newark before escaping to Rutgers and the world of English literature. At twenty-nine, she’s petite and slim-hipped, a mix of street-smart woman and super-educated college professor. If not for her brain, you might even mistake her for a college senior.
“He’ll probably end up being one of your smarter students,” she said. Jackie was quite a coup for Eastern; our department chair, Lucas Roosevelt, had been plagued by the lack of diversity in his faculty, and no matter how hard he’d tried, it was tough to convince smart, well-educated African-American or Hispanic faculty to come to the Pennsylvania countryside for a second-tier college.
Jackie’s family still lived somewhere around Newark, and she thought Eastern was close enough but not too close. She also said she preferred Eastern’s emphasis on teaching over research, but I’m sure Lucas opened the department’s wallet, too.
We retired to her office once our beverages were complete, a room that might have been considered spacious had it not been lined with overflowing bookshelves, the floor a minefield of piled books. Two gothic-arched windows, similar to the ones in my classroom, framed one wall of Jackie’s office, with the original leaded panes. They were poorly sealed, and let a stream of cold air float into the office, which Jackie counteracted with a very illegal space heater under her desk.
I knocked into one of the piles as I followed her in, and a couple of books toppled to the ground. “Occupational hazard of teaching six courses a term,” she said. “You don’t get much time to organize.”
The standard course load for a full-time professor like Jackie was four courses, though Jackie had told me she’d taken on the extra load for the cash.
As an adjunct, I could only teach three courses, or the IRS would think of me as a real employee instead of an independent contractor and demand that the college give me pesky little benefits like life and health insurance, a department secretary to do my photocopying, and lunch on Eastern once a semester. That was a shame; adjunct pay barely covered my mortgage and car payment. If I had a full-time teaching gig, Santiago Santos would stop bugging me about my future plans. But then, if I didn’t have a felony conviction, I wouldn’t have Santiago around at all. So all in all, my problems were more my fault than Eastern’s.
I moved a torn jiffy bag to the trash, spilling nasty gray fluff as I did, and sat across from Jackie. In the background I saw a photo in which she cuddled with her black dog, a mix of German Shepherd and woolly mammoth.