Steven Lee Beeber (M.F.A., U of Massachusetts, Amherst) is a freelance journalist and writer. His articles and stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Paris Review, The Habersham Review, Bete Noire, Playboy and elsewhere. He is currently completing a novel loosely based on the Atlanta child murders. This is his second appearance in Weber Studies.
The screwdriver fits into the top end of the screw and turns in a clockwise direction, five or six times, till tight.
He put an X in the margin and then looked out the window, wondering how his students could have gotten everything so wrong if he were teaching them anything.
Across from him his wife sat picking at her cuticles then spreading her fingers apart as if trying to stop them from such foolishness. Her hands looked like peacock feathers fanning. Or spiders in silhouette. And as she picked up a sheet of paper and began tearing it into small pieces, he had an impulse suddenly to reach over and slap her.
"What are you doing?" she said.
"Didn't you want to get those done?"
"Well, are you?"
He stared at her and didn't say anything.
"Just don't complain to me later when you can't get to sleep," she said.
"Um hm," he said. Then his eyes drifted once more out the window.
For three months now they had been living in this apartment, and for two months and just as many weeks he had felt himself growing increasingly annoyed in her presence. It had something to do with these long afternoons in the kitchen, and something to do with his feeling that it was dark again before he was even awake—and the more he thought about it, the more he thought he couldn't stand it, and the more he wondered what he was doing here, in this kitchen, in this town, in this world of private schools and privilege so far from everything he was familiar with.
Texas to New England. Frontier to the past. It was a conglomeration of things in his mind, a conglomeration made all the more complicated by his mixed feelings about this place. It was somewhere between Puritan and urban—"Puriban" as he sometimes put it. Soho in Salem. The witches gone to discotheques. The fratboys in their spectacles looking like ministers as they checked out the library for good books and better coeds.
Everyday he would get up and go to the community college where he worked. And every afternoon he would come back to their apartment to find Iris sitting there, smoking, the chair she sat in surrounded by pieces of paper, her sweater or overshirt dotted down the front with flaked off bits of dried and curling flesh. She looked like someone who had aged overnight, some picture of a migrant mother in a Depression Era photograph. And as he stood there in the doorway he'd want to reach out and shake her. To reach out and shake her just as he'd wanted to only moments before, sitting here across from her in the kitchen.
How could she not see how much he wanted to find a place here? When he heard her go on about the travesty of the architecture on Main Street, he'd want to take her to the mill town where the community college was, to show her how depressing it could be, how downtrodden, like graduate school, like Texas.
She, however, said it lacked integrity, the brick storefronts with their bright awnings incongruous to her eyes, the businesses that probably once sold farm implements now trading in comic books and CDs and silk smocks.
"But that's the point," he'd say.
"What's the point?"
"The brightness. The luxury."
"And you prefer something more realistic?" he'd say.
"More honest," she'd say. "Or, at least, less ridiculous."
Yes, she was cynical, as cynical as she'd always been, perhaps even more so, she never crying now as she had after that first time they'd made love, she never seeming much to ever want to make love at all. She simply wanted to bitch, he thought, to go on and on about her knowledge of architecture, her awareness of history, her damn Ph.D. She was so much better, so much smarter than he was. So much better, so much smarter than everyone, she thought. She was the cream of the crop, the top of the heap. Even if she couldn't get a job. Even if she was wasting away in this house. Even if she was starting to look more like forty than thirty, those young girls from the nearby women's college—at least superficially—putting her to shame.
"What are you looking at," she shouted suddenly.
"That! That look on your face. Like there's something wrong with me, something growing on my nose!"
"I'm not doing anything."
"Oh yes you are," she said.
He sat there for a moment, taking in her pained expression, her lines, her jowls.
"I can't take this," he said.
"And what about me?!" she cried.
"I'm going out. I'm taking a walk."
"But what do you mean? Where are you going?"
"I'll be back. Later on."
But it was too late. With that he got up and headed out of the room, and walked out of the apartment without even looking back at her.
It was October in New England and near twilight, so as he walked there was an almost otherworldly glow over everything. It was as if the sun above shining through the trees had been bleached and broken and turned to something Byzantine. As if the colors that were usually found in a more typically developed American town had been left to fade and grow sepia-tinged. And as he walked, he found himself troubled by it—troubled and wishing almost that he had never left the house to begin with.
And yet, as he turned from his own neighborhood and began to approach the main street where the shops were, his foreboding at being out began to leave him. From gothic and frightening, everything began to turn modern and metropolitan, the black-silhouetted chimneys against the sky giving way to window displays filled with splattered paint and track-lit shadows, the thin-hipped and jutting cheek-boned mannequins looking like robotic heroin addicts as they stared down at him unsmiling.
Of all the shops that intrigued him as he walked along, perhaps the most enticing was a bookstore called The Binder. It had a sign above its brick dark front with a picture of a man in suspenders working above a press. And as he passed beneath it he pretended to look up at it, just as he did every night, hoping as always to catch a glance at the girls from the nearby women's college as they lingered there between the stacks in their red lipstick and black turtlenecks.
Up until now he had never actually gone in there before, something about the way the books were pressed up against the window, as if staring at him, always making him nervous and scaring him off. They were all so "outré" and far removed from the sort of thing he would have usually read, "alternative" books about gay rights and socialist causes that were nothing like the historical novels and Civil War dramas that he normally kept by his bedside. And yet, each time he passed, he found himself looking through the glass. And today, for some reason—perhaps the fight with his wife—he decided before he was even aware of it to head inside.
Almost as soon as he came through the door he realized how truly far he had come from Texas. At various intervals around the store there were life-size cardboard cut outs of Beatniks and other types of writers, their black and white visages capped in each case by cartoon-like balloons that were filled with magic marker-scrawled quotations from their books. These, meanwhile, stood near various subject areas which themselves were designated by clever names. There was one named "Dead White Males" and another called "Flipniks and Pinkos" and in the corner, beside an old lounge chair in which sat an inflatable sex doll, a small pink-lettered one that read "Sexperts and Self Help."
He stood there in the doorway, looking around him, taking it all in. And when the clerk—a peroxide-blonde youth with an earring dangling almost to his shoulder—asked if he needed any help, he found that he was so flustered for a moment he could barely speak.
"Yes…I mean no…I don't know," he stammered.
Across from him, at the opposite side of the bookstore, a girl of about 20 or so turned in his direction and smiled. She had a hairdo like something out of a movie, one of those '20s flapper jobs with a bob in front and a dark black sheen. And as he looked at her, he thought he saw something in her eyes, something that was both wild and vulnerable at the same time.
"Yes, I was wondering if you had any Margaret Atwood," she shouted then, almost as if she thought the clerk had been speaking to her.
"Atwood? Certainly," the clerk replied, coming around the counter. "Let's see, let's see. Here it is. No, heeere…ah yes!"
He glanced over at the two of them as he pretended to look at books, wondering as he did so what his wife would have said had she been here too. She would have called the girl "trendy" as she took in her horn-rimmed glasses and backless top and tattoo. She would have acted as if she were disdainful and amused—when in fact she was just threatened by her youth.
"Thank you," he heard the girl say. And glancing up, he saw she was looking directly at him.
There was a funny, cock-eyed expression on her face that made the quizzical smile on her lips seem all the more appealing, a look as if she were trying to make sense of his slipshod appearance, trying to decide whether she were disdainful or intrigued.
And then, suddenly, she stepped toward him.
"Excuse me," she said coming so close that her tank top-covered breasts almost tickled his nose.
"Were you trying to reach this?"
Her eyes narrowed suddenly, like a parody of someone sizing a situation up.
"This book? Were you looking for it?"
He held out a copy of "The Edible Woman," the first one on which his hand happened to fall.
"I just thought…I mean…," he stammered, seeing the nude pictured on the cover.
"Look, it's not the one, but it looks interesting. I just might get it. Can I see?"
He held out the book to her, having the distinct impression as he did so that there was something in her reaching toward him too—an emanation like light, heat, like when you turn your face up to the sun on a summer day. A strange reaction considering his first impression.
"Mmmm, hmmm," she mewed, flipping the pages with her red
"Yes," he said, though he didn't know why.
"Yes?" she echoed looking back up at him oddly. "Yes, I guess so. Yes."
And so they met, she buying the book, he telling her about the class he taught ("Technical Writing, such a joke"); she laughing, assuring him it was no joke to teach, the thrill of it, the excitement, all she desired as an English major, even if it was so uncertain, everything so uncertain, her life so much of a buildup and let down, "You know what I mean—but of course you do, of course," she went on, walking out of the bookstore and down the street, following him really—of course, of course, her head held high and chin thrown back, and the leaves under both his and her feet clicking and crunching like so much chattering accompaniment.
At the corner she stopped, the wind forcing her to continuously push her hair away from her eyes.
And he looked back at her, the sun through the leaves lighting up her hair as if with a match.
"So, maybe we should continue over coffee," she said smiling.
"Come on. What have you got to lose? I won't bite."
And then she turned and began to walk across the street—and as she did so, looking back at him over her shoulder so that the sun setting in the distance seemed to catch in her pupils with a quick spark—he thought, why not? What have I got to lose? Indeed, what does it matter anyway? It's not like I've got anything to go back home to after all. It's not like I'm doing anything wrong. Even if I'm not being perfect.
The place they ended up going—The Fire and Water—was a combination coffee shop and bookstore much like The Binder. Here the emphasis was more on politics than humor, the walls covered with pictures of labor leaders and political writers, and the bathroom decorated with a vintage-style newspaper account of a famous railroad strike, which hung—laminated and framed—directly above the toilet.
As he stood there urinating, it occurred to him how different people were here than in Texas, how different in their priorities from him and his wife, with their penny pinching, their bickering, their constant nagging and fighting over jobs lost and jobs won. It made him almost cry out, in fact, as he began shaking his penis to rid it of its last bit of dribbling. He wanted to enjoy his new success. And she was always picking at him. He wanted to enjoy it for just a while. But she never seemed able to forget about the past.
"So, all better?" the girl said as he came toward the table.
"You looked a little sick when you went into the bathroom. Are you feeling alright now?"
"Oh yeah, fine," he said looking away from her. "I just had a little stomach trouble…some heartburn or something." And he sat down.
Across the table, the girl sat staring into his eyes, and it seemed to him for the first time that he was able to take her completely in. She had on a Smiley Face button and a pair of ripped jeans, and he could see that in addition to the black sheen in her hair, there were also slight purple tints to it—all of this meanwhile was capped off by a line of sparkling studs that covered the entire length of one ear, she clearly the kind of girl who aimed to impress.
"So what's your name?" he said.
"Ophelia. My parents were those literate hippie types."
"Yeah. They both teach now. Or, at least, I think my Dad still does. I haven't talked to him in a while. I guess you could say we're kind of distant."
For a split second the girl seemed as if she were going to cry or maybe even spit at him, and he wondered suddenly what he had done by coming in here. He wasn't used to these northern intellectual women, these women who hated parental success, even when they were in youthful miniature. He started trying to remember all the Woody Allen movies he'd ever seen so that he'd be ready with some witty rejoinder should she say something neurotic or frightening-sounding again.
"So, fight with the missus?" she said pointing at his ring.
"Yeah, how'd you…"
"Oh, it's so obvious. You should see your face."
"Really?" he smiled.
"Yeah. Men. You're all so funny. Though I must admit, I can't imagine what it would be like to be married. It seems so all encompassing, so total and final about what you were. I'm just getting used to living on my own. I can't see myself living with someone else."
"You don't say?"
"I mean, I plan to go to grad school, but there's just so much I want to do now. And I need to rest a little. Or at least that's what my analyst says."
At that he paused and looked more closely into her eyes, noticing that her pupils were huge, like there were two wet marbles in the middle of her face.
"Yeah, I'm on Elavil," she said as if reading his thoughts. "It helps make me calmer, yet happier. My mother, the writer, says she has plenty of colleagues who are thinking of getting on it now. How about you?"
"Then maybe Prozac? Or Medavine?"
"I don't do drugs," he said.
"Oh, a regular Texas cowboy," she smiled warmly. "Yee hah and all that. Don't want to get knocked out of the saddle."
He sat there, looking at her, frowning only until he realized what she was doing. She was leaning over more and more as she talked, her breasts, taut and triangular-shaped, pushing against the edge of her shirt and coming increasingly into view.
"Eyup," she said as he caught a flash of nipple. "Don't drink and don't smoke, so what do you do?"
"I do okay," he laughed.
"Oh really," she said, pulling back, pretending momentarily to be shocked. "My my. A married man on the prowl. And me a defenseless college girl. A coed waiting to be corrupted. How literary."
He smiled. And she smiled. And then they sat there suddenly engulfed in silence. They sat there. And as they did so, he began to think he should think of something else to say. He should think of something to break the tension that was building around them. He should think of something to take control of the situation, he thought—he should think of something, anything, so that they wouldn't just sit there staring at each other like that.
Less than an hour later he was following her up the stairs to her room, the darkness all around them forcing him to lean against the wall.
"Well, this is it," she said flicking on the light. "My little lair away from the world. Take off your coat and get comfortable."
And he followed her inside.
As he sat down, she went over to a tape deck by the bed and rustled through a number of cassettes while whistling quietly under her breath. He noticed postcards completely covering the walls, black and white postcards of famous figures like John Lennon, Pablo Picasso and Che Guevara. And on one of the side tables a holder for incense. And across the room on a cinder block, a lava lamp, the metal base beneath it covered with stars.
It was a student room, a soon-to-be graduate's room, the room of someone no longer focused on school, but not yet focused on the world beyond. It was with it and of the moment and filled with kitsch reminders of the past. And he realized she was desperate to seem current, to seem part of the zeitgeist. The present her mission. The future hers to create.
He realized as well that he was only here now because she saw him as part of that, that she had invited him back to her place because she saw him as a connection to some place too. He was not only an adult, a bonafide one, he was also a professor. He was an intellectual. Like her father. Like she wanted to be. Like she hoped to be in her most hopeful moments.
He was an experience for her, just as she was an experience for him too, one of those women's college girls he had been staring at, even if she wasn't long-limbed and beautiful, even if she wasn't perfect and poised. She was something, and that was all he wanted now, something to take his mind off his limited existence. He was going somewhere, even if no one else thought he was. He was going somewhere. Even if it was only step by incremental step.
"So, want to get stoned?" she said.
"I told you, I don't do drugs. And I thought you were on medication?"
"There's medication and then there's medication. I need to self-medicate. What did you think I was inviting you back here for anyway?"
He colored a deep shade of red, then blurted out, "I thought you said a drink…and to look at your work."
"A drink?" she laughed. "Oh, you're so southern and cute. What did you think? I was going to show you my etchings?"
"Oh, alright," she said, changing her tone, suddenly looking bemused. "I'll get you something. A drink, like you say. Here…while you're waiting you can look at this."
She dropped a sheaf of papers into his lap, then bounced out of the room and down the stairs as quietly as could be expected given the aged creakiness of the house. He could hear the faintest hint of music—perhaps Grateful Dead—coming through the walls from one of her unseen housemates. And he could feel himself becoming increasingly self-conscious as he felt the bass throb. So for lack of anything else to do while he waited, he picked up the story and began to read.
Almost from the start he could see it was a moody atmospheric piece, the kind that might be expected from an undergraduate. And almost from the start he could see that it was predictably overwrought, in perfect keeping with a girl her age. There was something about lightning bugs, and a night of gin and tonics on the porch, and flashes of heat lighting overhead. And it seemed to him she was setting up some tension between the principals, two couples, middle aged, all of them academics, and all of them long since grown cynical about their professions, and bored.
"You mean you never loved her," he read.
"No, and you will never know her either. My daughter."
"Your slut you mean."
"You like it?" he suddenly heard. And looked up to see her standing before him with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a glass.
She suddenly seemed pathetic, childlike.
"Yes," he said again.
"Good…because I thought…well…I don't know…maybe it's just stupid."
"Stupid?" he smiled.
She sat down beside him, and he looked into her eyes, and as he did so he felt her looking back desperately into his. It was as if she were trying to see something there, as if she were trying to see how she appeared to him, and as she began to grow closer to his face, he felt himself grow warm. It was as if he were looking into his own eyes suddenly, as if he were seeing himself approaching himself, and it shocked him. And embarrassed him. And then, almost simultaneously, made him excited. It excited him. And before he knew it, he was pressing away that thought, and pressing her closer to his own body, trying to enjoy the feeling of her and the excitement. He was pressing her to him, and she was pressing him back, her lips and hair and eyes over his own, her mouth covering his own mouth as if she were trying to swallow him.
It was wrong what had happened, wrong yet enjoyable, and that night as he walked home, he tried to push out the bad so as to retain only the good thoughts.
He wasn't an adulterer, a cheater, someone who had betrayed his wife, someone who had done something immoral. He had just fallen into something, fallen into a situation, the whole thing happening so quickly he hadn't even had time to think about it.
She had had her way with him, had taken him almost it now seemed, her feet with their warm little toes kicking below him, her lips and hair and eyes everywhere without him being able to escape them. She had had her way with him, and as he walked beneath the streetlights, yellow and soft, seeming to be surrounded by halos, he could feel the faintest cool within the wind, and he pulled up his coat to help fight the chill.
Still the neighborhood looked beautiful all around him, more beautiful than he had perhaps ever seen it, the candles in the windows blinking behind a canopy of brown and dappled leaves, the autumn thinning the branches so that the coming winter seemed ready to open up and let even more light in.
It was a sign of how maybe things were changing for him too, a sign that he
too could become more open if he became more "cool." He could see that
Ophelia, or maybe any of the other women in this town if he only
let himself. He could let himself become more open to them, open to his students, all of them looking at him with wonder, if he only allowed it.
He felt in his pocket and pulled out the matchbook she had given him, placing it on his chest as he'd lain there afterward in a semi-doze. It had her number and a Smiley Face made to look like a cupid's, complete with a comical arrow through its head. And though he knew it was stupid, he also felt touched by it, touched by it and for a moment suddenly quite warmed.
It was like she'd tried to create some image that he would remember after he left her, like she'd taken those burnt matches which she'd used to light her joint, and scratched them on the surface of that matchbook so as to give him some way to get back to her through the phone.
As he thought this he remembered how her hair had smelled as she'd leaned over him, a mixture of woodsmoke and incense, a mixture that smelled almost like burning leaves. It was like the smell that was coming to him now from somewhere nearby, a smell like someone raking up what had fallen in their yard, raking up the last vestiges of Autumn and burning them in one final phoenix-like blaze.
He put the matchbook back and began walking again, and as he did so he began to smell that smell even more clearly. It was thick, thick as musk, almost suddenly, thick as dead possum or skunk, and as he turned the corner he wondered who could be having such a bonfire this time of night.
Then he saw what it was, the flames from the windows leaping, the hands of the neighbors reaching up as if trying to catch some angel falling into their human net.
"Iris, Iris," he began calling, running toward his house. "What have you done? What have you done?"
It was as if he were in a dream, suddenly, as if he were sinking beneath the sky with each step, and as he opened his mouth to call again, he realized it was useless.
His apartment was burning, and a chapter in his life was ending, and there was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all.
He was trapped here in this moment, this continually unfolding moment.
He was trapped here in the present. While his wife was being consumed in the past.