Monday, May 13, 2013

Valley Chapter 5

This is the last chapter I'm going to post for a while of In the Depths of the Valley. I might post a few more as the book ends; this isn't going to be a 134,000 page work like Black Box.

Chapter Five
It is noon, and while the children lunch I find myself engaged in a conversation with Mr. Lurch, the other English teacher at Hillsdale High School. We lean against the lockers, Mr. Lurch clutching a diet soda, gesticulating with his free hand. People think that Mr. Lurch and I look like twins, since we are both short, stocky men; Mr. Lurch's stockiness, however, is resultant of his weightlifting regimen, to which he is extremely dedicated. He also has more hair on his head than I, a fact which I resent deeply. He is something, however, of a bozo.
            "Sometimes during a lecture, I fade off and walk to the trash can, just to make sure that my fly's not unzipped," says Mr. Lurch. "You ever stop halfway through a lecture and discover that your pants are unzipped? I swear, the kids will never let you forget."
            I find myself always being cornered by a faculty member, usually at times when I'd rather be alone. People tell me things that should be kept private—I know which marriages are in trouble, whose kids are probable psychopaths, which teachers have criminal records. Mr. Lurch is eager to discuss his wife's infidelity, I can tell, since it is the subject we always discuss, and despite my disinterest, my innate politeness keeps me from walking away.
            "I'll tell ya, Will, she did it again, I can tell," says Mr. Lurch. "I got home the other day and she wasn't there, even though it was her day off. So I pace around, debating what to do. I'm thinking I should go out looking for her, hit the bars, you know, when I see a sweater lying on the couch. A man's sweater, but not one of my own. It's got a low cut neckline and it's light pink. I don't have any V-neck pink sweaters, Will. I wouldn't wear pink if you put a gun to my head. It's an effeminate color. It saps testosterone, drains it right from the skin. I pick up this pink sweater and smell it. That's my first instinct. It smells like a man's sweater, by which I mean it smells like cheap cologne and body odor. There's even a little bit of moistness in the armpit region. No woman would sweat in a sweater, am I right? That's just not a possibility in this universe."
            "You are sure it was a man's sweater?" I say, telling him what he wants to hear.
            "Oh yeah, the shoulders were stretched out. It was too broad for any woman. And like I said, no woman would foul an article of clothing with her body fluids. You learn these things, Will, when you're married. As far as some women are concerned, they don't sweat, fart, belch, or do anything remotely unladylike, except for cheat on their husbands."
            "Did you confront her about it?" I ask, leading him along. The locker I'm leaning against is cold and slick, and I'm getting whiffs of a foul odor like unwashed gym shorts coming from its vent.
            "I need more evidence," he says, shaking his head. "You and I know that there's no way that sweater belongs to me. Logic dictates that it belongs to some bastard that's cuckolding me, but it's not the kind of evidence that would stand up in court. She'd deny it, say it was either my sweater or her own. I just looked at her when she got back around nine that night. Just looked at her and didn't say a think. 'How was work?' she asks, like everything's a-ok. I don't reply and keep staring. You can't sleep in the same bed with a woman like that. I stayed on the couch."
            I have no idea whether Mr. Lurch is delusional or if his wife is a floozy. I don't particularly care; herein lies the irony in people seeing me as a confidant. I have my suspicions regarding Mr. Lurch's intelligence: for example, how can he be certain that a pink V-neck sweater, a sweater that he admits as a man he would never wear, could not belong to a woman? False bravado surrounds Mr. Lurch. He had some sort of failed athletic career in football or baseball, I can't remember, and it seems that his failure to realize his dream of playing professional sports has resulted in a palpable sense of inadequacy. He puffs up his chest, talks tough, struts down the hallways, yet he confesses his fears to me while no one else is around. His students snicker at him during class while he checks his zipper. It is best that he does not know this.
             I tell him to hang in there, that his worries may be unfounded. He looks at me uncertainly and then hits me hard on the back, a friendly gesture, to be sure, but it hurts. The bell rings and the hallways flood with children. I walk quickly back to class, standing in the doorway, smiling as my AP students walk inside. I give Katarina Giles extra room for her wide ass. They slouch into their chairs, throw their books onto the floor, whisper amongst themselves as I give them a minute to adjust. Illusions die quickly for teachers; I know these children only desire to pass the class. I don't want to make it too hard for them, but my integrity prevents me from making it too easy to pass.
            "So, how did your poems go?" I ask. The students immediately understand that it is to be a casual day, and they relax. No hands will be raised. My intention is to approximate the atmosphere of a college classroom. Too few of the teachers here treat these children like adults.
            "It wasn't too bad," says Pamela, smiling. Her legs are bare and crossed, her black hair in a pony-tail. She is certainly the prettiest girl in the room.
            The boys in the back mumble and look down at their desks. Most likely, they devoted about fifteen minutes before class scrawling something down. I decide to make them confront their fear of public speaking.
            "I want everyone to pull their desks into a circle," I say, my words immediately eliciting a chorus of groans.
            "You're not going to make us read our poems out loud?" whines Bobby Stevens, petulant as always.  
            "Why is that a problem? This is an advanced placement course. You will receive college credit upon completion of the final exam. You don't think you'll ever have to speak out loud in college or in life? I don't ask much from you people." I furrow my brow, trying to approximate an implacable expression.
            "What's that supposed to mean?" says Katarina, who occasionally mirrors Stevens' attitude. They are teenagers, after all.
            "Mr. Toblé, will you please read your poem?" I ask. Jasper looks up with heavy-lidded eyes, purple circles hanging beneath. He slouches and comes to life slowly, like a creature just waking from hibernation. I consider taking him aside after class and advising him to shave that unkempt mustache, hinting that he will perhaps see more attention from the females of his age if he were to do so. Such behavior, however, would be inappropriate.
            Mr. Toblé pulls out a crinkled piece of paper from a weathered Trapper Keeper binder that is on the verge of falling to pieces. He takes his time to smooth the paper, clears his voice, and then looks at me. I nod and he begins to read.
            "My poem is called Explosion. Here it goes…"
            I look out across a grassy knoll and see a drum of metal
            It speaks to me as I walk with heavy footsteps
            My hands burdened with matches and implements of tiny destruction
            It asks me to spare its life
            But I am deaf to its words.
            How can metal speak?
            How can it be heard?
            I'll tell you: You fill up the drum with paper and childhood toys
            Prized possessions of your younger brother
            And you add some kindling and about half a quart of kerosene
            Then you light your firework and toss it in.
            You run like hell, your feet stumbling over one another
            Snorting like a pig, air sucking into your hungry mouth.
            You turn at the right moment and see the now air born drum
            Fifty feet high and smoking
            And you cry out loud like an infant
            Raising your fist in celebration
            Waiting with anticipation for the coming crash and the flames.
            They will spread, sowing destruction and Indian signals,
            Sent to gods that you will never know.
            "Well that wasn't too bad, was it, Jasper?" I say, a little shocked. "I don't know if you wrote two pages worth of material, and you were a little off subject, but I am impressed. This is a hypothetical event you wrote about, correct?"
            Jasper shrugs, a little embarrassed.
            "You're not going to blow up the school some day, are you?" asks Bobby Stevens.
            "Probably not," replies Toblé.
            "You all know there's no kidding around about that subject." I have Bobby Stevens read next, and her poem commits all the errors I warned against. It rhymes, is concerned with a nebulous subject unrelated to any feature of the environment, and seems to be composed entirely of clichés. There are better poems, but not everyone gets to read as time dwindles down. I tell them all to read another three chapters of Deliverance and to be prepared for a quiz.
            I sit at my desk for a while and move the papers around, thinking of William Burroughs' cut-up technique. I could take a pair of scissors and remove lines from my students' poems, rearranging their phrases, creating something new and fresh out of the cliché and hackneyed, and then present the poem to them, challenging them to notice anything particular about it. Would they recognize their own clauses? Would they know their own words? Is it possible to teach anyone anything?
            I turn to look out the window and see Miss Mendez walking across the parking lot to her red sedan. She is a math teacher; we operate on opposite sides of the narrow spectrum of secondary education. The intelligent students here are either math wizs like Jasper Toblé or future English majors like Pamela Jean Harvey. They are either logical, square thinkers or round-about daydreamers. I feel as though the gulf would close if Miss Mendez and I were to unite—such whimsical thinking is characteristic of the daydreamer, and I have always been a daydreamer, a space cadet, a foggy-eyed seer of hypotheticals. I want to tell her about the graveyard, but I know she could not understand.
            A word catches my eye from one of the papers. The paper is Dwight Howard's. Goat Belly it says at the top, and I start to read it while gooseflesh prickles my skin.
            When there is no one left to give names or define characteristics, or say what exactly makes an entity alike or different from another, then the realm of possibility becomes vast and black and empty with promise.
            You could say that it was a thing and that it was vast and black and empty with promise. Maybe it was like a dog except for the hooves and the horns and the sour barren pits where eyeballs should be. In its mannerisms it probably most closely resembled man's best friend, that is, if a dog could be both friendly and hateful, both loyal and independent. It was like a dog except for it might lick your hand while sucking your blood. It loved and hated, it courted while killing. It was not a very pleasant creature.
            This isn't a poem; it's some sort of strange short story. Goat Belly resonates with me; it's the word on the tip of my tongue that I have never dared to speak. Has he seen me? There are no coincidences or happy accidents. I crinkle the paper up and shove it into my pocket and make my way outside, my heart in my throat, sweat beading on my brow. I can't ask it. I can only show it the paper and hope that it will understand. 

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