Wednesday, April 3, 2013

In the Depths of the Valley

Here is another excerpt from In the Depths of the Valley, my current project. 

Chapter One
            Sex can be a very good (and a very evil) thing.
I am speaking to about twenty sixteen-year old kids in a poorly-lit high school classroom. The general odor is one of repression, disinterest, and asbestos. If I position myself just so, I can see miscellaneous particles of dust moving through the air, illuminated by the weak outside light. I have fought with these ancient blinds for about a year, and I'd rip them from the windows if such an action wouldn't result in an audience with my superior, Principal Kepleski, a humorless man with a spud-shaped cranium and an implacable visage. Thaddeus Pencilton is looking at me as though he can see through my lesson plan and spy the death of my ambition and the carrion remains of my youthful promise. Dwight Howard is fixated on Pamela Jean Harvey's legs, and Pamela Jean Harvey is staring at me like I am something worth looking at, which is certainly not true. I am in a special class of men, positioned somewhere between Danny Devito and Jason Alexander in stature, rotundity, and baldness. I am a small, plump man with thinning hair, though I am told that my eyes are handsome. The chalk board is covered with my scribbles and analyses, and to foreign eyes as incomprehensible as hieroglyphics. This is an AP English course, and we are discussing James Dickey's Deliverance. I lecture about the poetry of Dickey's prose, how the words flow like the story's river; I ask them to consider the irony in how Lewis, the muscled outdoorsman, suffers a broken leg, forcing soft graphic artist Ed to become the leader. All they want to discuss is the rape scene. Bobby Ashley, a girl whose intellectual abilities are lacking even by this group's meager standards, wants to know why the rape happens between two men, which she considers disgusting. I tell her that rape is inherently disgusting, but in the context of the book, it is meant to be emasculating, as well as unimaginably horrible. Pamela wants to know what's disgusting about two men having sex; she has a homosexual brother and is particularly sensitive to homophobia. Bobby Ashley crinkles her face and snarls like a bulldog. She has curly hair and a perpetually sour expression; she utters some remark, terribly insensitive and politically incorrect, and now Pamela is telling her that she's a bigot; Bobby snarls some more, but I am not certain that she is familiar with the word. This is a rural school, though I'm certain that it is no more backward that any other. I tell the girls to be quiet or I will send them to the principal's office. I have nothing else to threaten them with. Jasper Toblé snickers in the back; he's stabbing a pencil at Trent Lott. Jasper has a mullet straight out of the 80's, as well as a thick mustache that belies his sixteen years. His skin is tan and his clothes are dirty. I have to chastise him about the thick clods of mud he tracks into the class room. He is something of a genius when it comes to electronics. He is a competent English student, though I sense that he's bored with my class. It bothers you when the intelligent students are bored with what you are saying.
            What I mean about sex: it's something that, just like these students plagued by raging hormones, I cannot get out of my head. I am a young, single man. There is another teacher, a Miss Mendez, whom I fancy. Like Mr. Howard, I am silent yet always staring. My longing has taken on a malevolence, though certainly nowhere near the malevolence of poet Dickey's characters. She is tall, bronze-skinned, with long brown hair and an elegant face that speaks almost as much as her sepia-colored eyes. I have not Dickey's mastery of language; those who teach, well, at least at the high school level, cannot do. There is a small volume, a tome of twenty-thousand words, devoted to this Mendez woman. It is bad poetry, though I feel that it gets harder with age to truly separate the good from the bad with regards to poetry. I dread the thought of giving these students poetry, but the syllabus requires it. What will these cretins make of T.S. Elliot, not to mention Gertrude Stein? Judging from their essays, some of these children might have a talent for free verse.
            "This is your homework," I say, trying to get everyone's attention. "I want you all to write a poem that resembles some feature of the environment in its flow. The subject of the poem must allude to this feature in some way. Study Deliverance for help. Two to four pages, double spaced, one-inch margins, twelve point font, Times New Roman. Have fun with this assignment. Thank me that it's not an essay."
            They are all looking at me with horror. Miss Ashley crinkles her face, revealing long incisors. "How do I write a poem?" she spits out with venom.
            "I guess it's pretty hard for you to rhyme words," says Pamela Jean.
            "You're such a bitch," replies Bobby Ashley.
            "No cursing, Miss Ashley, or you're out of the class. No rhyming stanzas please. I want you all to express yourselves creatively. Play with language, don't give me sing-songy nursery drivel. Don't be derivative. Don't be cliché." I rest my elbows on the podium and stare calmly at the space just above their heads.
            "What if your style is clichés?" asks Katarina Giles. Howard and the Pencilton boy are snickering, yet Katarina continues. "I mean, that would be different, right?"
            Katarina Giles has an enormous ass for such a thin girl. She is sixteen-years old, I note, while trying to not think of her gigantic bottom, which will likely only grow larger with age. This is the evil I was talking about, although I can say with certainty that I think of my students platonically the majority of the time. Miss Mendez is another story.
            "No, it wouldn't be different, that's the thing about clichés," I tell her.
            "But what if you were doing it on purpose, like, to show how cliché most poems are?"
            "You mean like irony? Satire? A bad poem is a bad poem, and a poem consisting of clichés would be a bad poem." These children, they always try to steer you in a stupid direction, if they can help it.
            "What if you were a master poet and you wrote one poem filled with clichés?" asks Katarina.
            "What if?" I say. "None of you is a master poet, as far as I am aware. Avoid clichés. I will give bad grades for clichés. Now…"
            "I don't know how to write a poem," blurts Jasper Toblé, not raising his hand. You can fix any computer but you can't write a poem? I think. Our network guru, Herman Goerner, wore track suits and drank Mountain Dew constantly, and basically depended on Toblé's advice in order to perform his job.
             "That's the beauty of poetry. You are playing with words. There are no rules to adhere to, as long as your poem conveys some sort of emotion. I could talk about meter and iambic pentameter, but I'd rather see what you all come up with on your own."
            "How do we know we've written a good poem?" asks Pamela Jean.
            "You're not teaching us," whines Bobby Ashley.
            I look at my watch and see that the period is almost over and decide to let them out into the hallway early.
            "There's no time to answer your questions, I'm afraid. You all can leave now, please."
            "Huh?" says Dwight Howard.
            "Go to your lockers. Go purchase a snack from the vending machine. Linger amongst yourselves. But please, everyone leave the classroom."
            They move nosily, shuffling their feet, hauling their backpacks, lurching out of their desks with crooked spines, no questions asked, eager to escape out into the hall. I tell them to be silent while out there. When they've gone I go to the window and look out into the parking lot. The glass is warm but filthy. There's no reason not to sit here and relax for the next hour until my final class. Styrofoam ceiling tiles have pencils stuck into them like harpoons. I look at the chalk board and consider erasing what I've written, but I make no move to do so. Sit in the chair, I think. The one that swivels around and leans back. There are papers to grade. Don't leave.
            I turn away from the desk and walk out into the hallway. The hallway is a lengthy corridor with doors at the end, white lights shining through the door glass and looking like a portal to another world. I move swiftly, head looking at the floor beneath me, taking a left down another long locker-filled corridor. As I pass the shop-room I hear Mr. Hindenburg speaking in his country drawl, his middle-finger extended to all the students, doubtlessly telling the tale of how he accidently sliced off the aforementioned digit through negligence. Table saws can be dangerous things, is the message, and I try not to stop and witness the students' reaction. Other classrooms are infinitely more interesting than my own, I find. This school has enough material for two or three novels, had I the talent to write a novel. Every English teacher has a weathered manuscript stashed somewhere; my volume of poetry devoted to Miss Mendez is my shame and secret.
            I pass through the twin doors at the end of the hall and exit out into the light. I am behind the school, the graveyard before me, dumpsters to my left, parking lot and water tower to my right. The graves go back for about half a mile until they vanish with the receding elevation. There's a ranch house and a dump past them and a little bit of woods behind that. I walk past the dumpsters and lean against the brick of the school, the shade of a pine tree cooling me from the hot sun. Maybe it's not hot enough, I think. Birds sing, cardinals darting about. I want to walk along the headstones and feel their mossy decomposition, but I remain against the wall like a hoodlum student, albeit without a cigarette. The old science teacher smokes, a Mr. Palpatine, wrinkled and hunched and whitened from the horrors of war and tobacco. I bend down and pluck a blade of grass from the earth and place it in-between my teeth. What will I do if it doesn't come?
            Something stirs in the dumpster beside me. I look down and see it as it comes slouching through the rotten holes in the metal; a rough beast, black and covered in long hair, short legged and slow of thigh, its slender head a mass of darkness, with white teeth glaring out occasionally. I hold my breath before it; I can only look at it out of the corner of my eyes. It wheezes and snorts; its low-hung belly brushes the earth, souring it. I look up at the sky and wait for it to speak.
            It tells me many things as I drag my foot through the pine needles. This brown bed is as flammable as nitroglycerin. The voice sounds like the rain-soaked earth. I let myself see only its paws, matted and laced with filth. Sometimes I smell its breath, and I have to crinkle my nose. When it’s done speaking I see its dark frame moving out among the headstones, weaving between them like a snake.
            It’s clear to me now. Changes have to be made. I need to get into shape. 

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