THE NEW HIRE
This would be Hampton Davie’s third academic job in as many hard years since he’d got his Ph.D. in poetry at Winston. He started out prestigiously enough, teaching the introduction to American poetry and a seminar on Wallace Stevens at Bisby University, but that had not worked out. He’d quickly got another position, a little farther down the rankings, at Rolling Rock, but that, too, had dissolved in his hands. Now, he was at Button College, determined to hold on.
He had always loved the campus at Winston, with its old period stone buildings and the ivy on the walls. Even Bisby had evolved through various architectural trends, colonial with columns in one part, Victorian towers in another. Button was a different story. A new community college, the buildings were all the same – square, flat, stucco, and efficient.
The custodian had shown him his office that was on the fifth floor of what he had at first thought was a parking garage. He had come in over the weekend to unpack the few books he now travelled with and to arrange the gray metal and plastic furniture to look as much like a professor’s office as he could.
Standing there now, in the middle of the windowless room, just before his first Monday class, he swallowed down a bilious reflex and looked at his lecture notes in their tidy manila folder.
As he put the file in his briefcase, he thought back to that horrible morning in the big lecture hall at Bisby. He watched himself walk out onto the stage where a simple lectern with a microphone faced the audience of 300 chattering undergraduates. He opened the folder and stared at the first page of notes; they blurred, he adjusted his glasses, and looked up over the notes at the sea (literally a sea, he remembered, despite the cliché) of faces.
“Anne Bradstreet,” he read, leaning forward to get his mouth closer to the microphone, “was the first poet to be published in North America.”
The chatter in the auditorium continued, and he realized the microphone was not turned on. He clicked the little switch and heard a loud hiss, then a horn sound, and, finally, a bang that reverberated around the hall. Everyone looked up at him.
He leaned forward to repeat his opener, but he got only as far as the word “first,” when his teeth and tongue and lips failed him. He strained, but all that would come out was a rough stutter – f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f – and then nothing, as his breath ran out. He swallowed and took a breath and tried again, leaning into the microphone.
“Anne Bradstreet,” he said, “was the f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f,” and nothing more.
As he thought back now, he wondered whether someone hadn’t turned the brightest of the stage lights directly on him. The students were silent and tense (he could feel them ravenously tugging at his shirt, pulling his hair). He leaned toward the microphone again, rigid and desperate, but his mouth and throat would not even form the breathy stutter.
Silence fell to the floor and oozed away from him as if he had wet himself, but then a twitter of laughter started in one corner and spread throughout the hall. He waited for what felt like a long time but was really only a few humiliating seconds, and then he picked up his folder, kept his eyes in front, and walked off into the wings.
He was roused from his daydreams by a series of bells ringing out in the hall, and he looked at his watch.
Christ! He was going to be late.
He locked the office and hurried down the stark stairway, coming outside into the parking lot. The Button campus was laid out on a grid, absolutely geometric, and when you put this together with the identical facades of all the buildings, you really did need a map to get around. He fumbled in his briefcase for the college brochure and unfolded it. His class was held in something called “B-2,” he found it on the map, and headed out.
He walked past the Library and noted its location for future reference. All the buildings looked the same except for the names, which were stenciled on wooden signs over the doors – “A-3,” for example, or “MATH” in another case. The buildings were connected by several narrow asphalt pathways, bordered by recently planted trees held up by big wooden stakes.
Every so often he would consult the map, note the name of the closest building, and go on. After several minutes, he realized that, for the second time, he was passing “B-22, which the map indicated was devoted to “Social Science.” Where was “B-2?” He stopped along the walkway and tried looking around in all directions, but it was the same everywhere.
He started to jog, as if being quicker could make up for not knowing where he was going. After three random turns and a long stretch uphill between rows of identical buildings, he came at last to one with the sign – “B-2.”
“Finally,” he sighed, walked up to the entrance, and went in.
A hallway extended both ways but he could hear the low murmur of voices at the one end, the one on the left. He hurried in that direction, but as he arrived at the door a bevy of students strolled out, talking to one another.
“English 200?” he asked.
“Class must be cancelled,” one of the students said.
“Professor never showed up,” said another.
“I got lost,” he said. “I’m Professor Davies. I’m new.”
“You must be an assistant professor,” a girl said. “We only wait five minutes for an assistant professor.”
The students hesitated for an awkward moment and then they drifted away. One of them called back over his shoulder.
“See you Wednesday,” he said. “Everyone will turn up then. Welcome to Button College.”
While they disappeared out the door at the end of the hall, he continued into the classroom. It was not as big as the lecture hall at Bisby, but there was the same kind of lectern in front of the student chairs. When he saw it, a subtle spasm rose in his throat and his lips involuntarily formed the unuttered – “f-f-f-f-f-f.”
It was cool and dark in “The Owl Cocktails,” even though it was only eleven in the morning. Hampton Davies stepped into the shady oasis and waited for his eyes to adjust. Then he crossed to the bar.
“Double shot Corby’s and a Bud,” he said to the bartender when he came up. Once the drinks were poured, he moved down to the end of the bar, under the television where reruns of “Law and Order” were playing.
He was on his second round, when a gray-haired and bearded man came and sat beside him.
“You mind?” he said, gesturing at the stool beside Hampton Davies. “Name’s Sheldon,” he said. “You’re new in here.”
“Huh?” Hampton Davies said, and then, “oh, yea, I’m new.
“Up at the college?” Sheldon asked.
“Yea,” Hampton Davies said into his beer.
“I used to be up there,” Sheldon said. “English Department, ‘til I got fired.”
“Me, too,” Hampton Davies said. “English, I mean.”
“Well, good luck with those bastards.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just don’t go stirring things up, is all.”
“My plan is to teach my classes, do my research, and keep my nose clean.”
“In my experience….”
“That won’t cut it. You’ll need to “fit in.”
He looked away down the bar. “Hey, Bobbie, another couple of drinks over here.”
“Be on the team, you know.”
He waited, looking down into his drink.
“Look, this is not any big-time university, you know. It’s Podunk city, and research, even teaching, don’t count for squat.
Hampton Davies was drinking beyond his limit now.
“What is zat mean?” he asked, his speech slowing.
“It means being a team player.
“It’s ze same everywhere,” Hampton Davies said “Here, or Bithby (he lisped), or Rolling Rock, it’s all zuh same””
“But, you could always resist,” Sheldon said. “Take them to the dean.” He laughed.
“That what you tried to do?”
“Win some, lose some.”
Hampton Davies stopped talking and looked up at “Law and Order,” where Lenny was just clicking the cuffs on a suspect. You couldn’t hear what they were saying over the music from the jukebox.
“Know what my father says?”
Hampton Davies was now in full slur.
“He says get the fuck out while the getting’s good.”
“You can always join the gang here in the Owl,” Sheldon said. “Teaching is optional.”
Copyright ©2013, by Charles D. Tarlton
Charles D. Tarlton is a retired college professor now living in San Francisco with his wife, Ann Knickerbocker, an artist. After retiring from political theory research, he began writing poetry, shifted to tanka-prose for a long while, and is now experimenting with flash fiction. He has published several dozens of poems, some extended tanmka-prose reflections on the Navajo Wars, the art of Picasso and Matisse, and a series of improvisations on Pablo Neruda’s Macchu Picchu. Muse-Pie Press nominated some of his poems for the Pushcart Prize