Hoover University does not have a beautiful, idyllic campus. There is some pleasant landscaping and a slender clock tower that stretches two-hundred feet into the sky, but for the most part it’s a nondescript environment. All the buildings are utilitarian and brick, flat-roofed, with sterile insides and windowless classrooms. There are kids riding their bikes, walking around with headsets, moving in great crowds like the migratory herds of African megafauna. I fade in and march with the stream, flowing down the main strip, heading toward the Victor B. Tooms Liberal Arts Center, a hulking rectangular structure. There is a mulberry tree near the entrance, and a stick-limbed boy with disheveled hair is reaching into the branches, plucking berries and tossing them into his mouth. He sees me staring and nods, murmuring to himself. His lips are purplish-red, and he’s gotten stains all over the collar of his yellow-green soccer shirt. His backpack is tiny and pink, like a little girl’s. I want to punch him in the throat, but the odds aren’t with me, so I walk past and enter the Tooms building. My classroom is the first door on the right. I sit down at a desk and stare at the diminutive form of Peter Gibbons, professor of Creative Writing extraordinaire, AKA the Great Communicator, a friend to students, a lover of discussion and its inherent chaos.
“Hey Leona!” he says. We are the only people in the classroom. “I think, uuh, I’m afraid we may have an issue.” Professor Gibbons has a nasal voice, thick beard, and wide-rimmed glasses. He’s dressed in black jeans and a black turtle neck, looking quite the poet, I must say.
“What do you mean?” I ask in my most innocent voice.
“Apparently you, uumm, assaulted Chad Arroyo outside of class yesterday. I found him gasping for breath and holding his throat. He wrote your name on a piece of paper.”
“That’s odd,” I reply. “I don’t recall punching Chad, and I don’t really understand why anyone would want to.”
“Come on, you, uuuhh, you have to admit that you and Chad don’t agree on much, and your disagreements are rarely civil,” he says, his eyebrows arching. Gibbons is a frequent devotee of the filled pause, a curious habit, I guess, for a professor.
“Can you see me hitting anyone?” I ask, showing him my tiny fists. “These are women’s hands. I can rarely find gloves that fit them. They aren’t made for fighting.”
“Leona, I can’t, uuuhhh, verify this incident, but I feel like you should resolve your differences with Chad before the situation, you know, escalates.”
“Let me ask you something: did anybody see me hit Chad? Were there any witnesses? Where’s the evidence, I guess, is what I’m saying.”
Professor Gibbons shakes his head, his shoulders rising spastically. I can tell he doesn’t believe me, but other students have entered the classroom. He doesn’t have anything on me, just a scrawled name, and I’m not about to confess to hurting Chad Arroyo, who walks in and takes the seat right next to mine. He’s looking at me, trying to bore a hole through my head, but I open my notebook and begin to mindlessly doodle. “Leona,” he whispers. A featureless face has taken nascent form on the paper before me, a great head with owl-like eyes. “Hey, hey! Excuse me!” says Chad. I give the thing a bloated torso and stubby limbs. Its eyes are disquieting. They are dream eyes, eyes that stare out from blackness, empty and cold. They say things to me, things I can’t recall while conscious. A hand appears on my desk, fleshy, covered in fine hairs. It is a well-manicured hand, one that does not know hard labor, and once again a violent urge seizes me and I almost stab it with my pencil.
“What do you need, Chadwick?” I ask, still working on my drawing.
“Can you look at me while I’m talking to you?” he says.
“I would rather not,” I reply.
“Why did you hit me yesterday?” he asks.
“You must be mistaken,” I say. “I would never hit someone.”
“You know, I could’ve reported you, and then you might have been expelled.”
I look at Chad. He’s short, oval-faced, his hair combed off to the right side of his head, giving it an almost toupee appearance. His jeans are too tight, and he’s wearing skateboard shoes with no laces and no socks.
“You’d tell administration that you got beat up by a girl?” I say.
“I didn’t get beat up. You punched me in the throat.”
“So do something about it, you pussy,” I say, looking back at my drawing.
“Besides report you? What do you mean, like hit you? You think I should’ve hit you?”
“Or go tattle. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” he says, moving to another desk.
“How is everybody today?” says Professor Gibbons, his voice modulating upward. “What did everybody do over the weekend?” Gibbons always starts off class like this; he gets all excited and energetic, like he feeds off of sunny vibes and reckless youth, and suddenly the ums and uhs vanish, and his sentences rattle off like machine gun fire.
“I played the new Fallout and kind of forgot about life,” says Dexter, last name unknown, some starched shirt wearing, long-legged, wannabe poet.
“Me and my sorority sisters went up to Chicago and ate pizza and hit the bars and visited family, and like, totally drank too much, and, you know, had like a great time!” says Roxanne, clad in pink sweats, hair in a bun, her eyes too far apart.
“Fuckin’ A,” says Chad.
“To be young. Yes, the exciting adventures of youth! Language, though, Chad,” says Gibbons.
“There’s some dude eating berries off of the tree by the doors,” says Chad. “Did anybody see this weirdo?”
“Yeah, that guy does that like every other day,” says Robert or Rupert, I can’t ever remember. He’s a fat kid with an enormous toad-like head who always wears flip flops no matter the weather. I loathe the sight of his pasty white feet, large-nailed, soft and translucent.
“Let’s talk about poetry!” yells Gibbons. “This is creative writing, remember? Everyone get out a piece of paper and write twenty words. No thinking, just do it.” This is a typical exercise, one that the prof likes to use about once a week. He loves free-writing, just absolutely adores it; I am fairly certain that if given the option, he would spend his days vomiting out onto the page one disparate sentence after another, the end result being a pretentious mess of incomprehensible nonsense.
“Chad, read what you wrote,” says Gibbons.
“Punk hardcore twee remodifier, twisted at the hip, nailed to the cross, cigarette in the pocket: I’m blessed. Love: Mom.”
“Yeah, that’s good, yeah, uuummm, excellent!” says Gibbons. “This is what I tell you people: you don’t have to labor over art. You don’t have to rack your brain and cut off your ear. I mean, that might help—passion’s great and all—but the amount of time spent on a piece doesn’t necessarily ensure its quality. It’s subjective, of course, what exactly constitutes great art. People have wildly differing opinions. Britney Spears and the Beatles, you know, which is better? I have my opinion and you have yours.”
“But my opinion’s the best,” I say.
“How is it the best?” asks Chad.
“Well, you like Radiohead, for instance, as everyone here well knows. I can give you a million reasons why they suck. Thom York looks like a sleepy-eyed gnome, and he caterwauls to no end, and after Ok Computer they started putting out tuneless nonsense. Kid A sounded like B-sides married to Aphex Twin drum beats. They don’t play their guitars much anymore. Thom exchanged them for Pro Tools.”
“Leona, would you please…” begins Gibbons.
“And the Beatles are objectively better than Britney Spears, who came from the Mickey Mouse Club and MTV, and who had like a billion songwriters working side by side with marketers trying to figure out how best to sell her sex appeal to adolescents and make her record company millions. She can’t sing, she can’t write, he’s just hot,” I finish, not knowing why I’m so agitated.
“The Beatles are overrated,” says Robert/Rupert.
“I’ve never been too fond of them,” responds Dexter.
“The Velvet Underground are the indie Beatles,” states Chad.
“So what you’re saying is that her art lacks integrity,” says Gibbons. “Is that right, Leona?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I say.
“And you don’t think the Beatles made music for money?”
“Well, no, I know they did, but they wrote their own stuff and played their own instruments,” I reply.
“So all music must be written by performers in order to be good?” asks Gibbons.
“No,” I say, while knowing where he’s going with this.
“When you have a piece of art, you divorce it from its creator and the creator’s intentions,” says Gibbons. “You judge it on its own merits.”
“Why can’t you have criteria for judging art?” I ask. The rest of the class sighs; they’re tired of my arguing and my contrarian disposition. I don’t particularly care.
“A good piece of art is successful in doing whatever it was created to do. By that criterion, Womanizer is a fine song. You, Leona, obviously have your own criteria by which you judge art. Is your opinion better than mine? Who decides? Writing music or poetry isn’t like building a bridge or solving an equation. Do you understand what I’m getting at?” asks Gibbons.
“Maybe you should be a math major,” suggests Chad.
“Maybe you should stop wearing women’s jeans,” I say.
“Okay, discussion time has ended,” says Gibbons. I listen to his lecture for a while, but I soon start to drift into the hazy netherworld of the daydream. Doodles fill my notebook, surrealistic creatures and geometric shapes. I manage to draw a decent caricature of Diesel, his head a football-shaped moon, saliva dripping from his yawning maw. Most of the class is paying attention except for a boy in a green army jacket. He always wears a Stetson hat with a turkey feather emerging from the band, and he has this hat pulled down low; his hand moves fast over a notebook, a large hand with big knuckles and protruding veins. He could be drawing the same things that I am—maybe he even has a brother named after a type of engine. I read an article the other day that suggested it was possible and maybe even probable that we are all living in a simulation based on mathematical laws. Like, there’s some advanced posthuman civilization that decides to simulate life using unimaginably powerful computers. Since simulating the entire universe on an atomic level would require an infinite amount of energy, it is reasonable to assume that they would look to conserve resources, hence, this could all be a show put on for my benefit. Professor Gibbons, Chad, Stetson hat guy, they’re all shadow people, zombies, and if I go and look at Stetson guy’s notebook, drawings will magically appear. A connection will be forged on the basis of randomly generated data. Of course, maybe I’m the shadow person. Maybe I don’t have thoughts. Maybe this is the first second of my life, and as soon as I walk out of this classroom, I shall cease to be.
The rustling of papers disturbs my reverie. I hear the tail-end of a sentence from Gibbons mentioning that there will be a quiz on Wednesday, which is interesting, since we never have quizzes. I look around to ask someone what he said, but there’s no one sitting next to me.
Arroyo flicks a wad of paper at me as he gets up for the door. It hits me in the tits. I unroll it and discover a ten digit code that I presume to be a phone number. Instead of throwing it in the garbage, I stuff the paper in my pocket.
“Leona,” says Gibbons as I prepare to leave.
“What,” I say.
“We can’t have these frequent, um, distractions every, uuuhhh, class. I know you have strong views on, uuumm, art, but we can’t rehash the same conversation. I’d appreciate it if you kept that in mind.”
“What are we having a quiz over?” I ask, figuring I can’t fall any lower in Gibbons’ eyes.
“Stalin’s Mustache,” he says, looking at me shrewdly from behind his thick frames. The aforementioned volume is a two-hundred page collection of poems written by the prof about, you guessed it, Joseph Stalin’s facial hair.
“Any particular poem I should read over?” I ask.
“Just read as many as you can,” says Gibbons.
“Sure,” I replying, wondering how many cups of spiked coffee that will take.
I’m sorry to do this to you, dear reader, but I have to insert one of Gibbons’ poems. You need to suffer as I did. Imagine reading a small novel of this stuff.
Stalin’s Mustache: An Affirmation
It wasn’t unexpected, you furry wet leach, that your sexy shimmering shaking would lead to something of an affair, which, now don’t get me wrong, brotha (reduced to the vernacular, yet again) I enjoyed as much as a man/boy/woman/transvestite could, especially when considering the rather fecal circumstances that you are undoubtedly loath to remember, seeing how you shat spanked cummed your way through the interview, filthy hobo that you are, you dirty girl/boy/baby, you ridiculous fat swine, you smelly flee-bitten poopy-eared Commie, you hairy twat, you stinky taint, you delicate beautiful busty whore, I really, really, really, really want to forget/preserve/consume/digest you, but alas, the Dictator prevents it, he is always getting in the way of our bristly porcine love, and I like to think that some day, you and I shall walk together, man and mustache, hand in hand, foot in mouth, genitals joined in whiskery abandon.