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Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3

Fiction

 

Ron McFarlandPhoto of Ron McFarland.

The Hullabaloo, or A Kind of Good Time Was Had by Almost


Ron McFarland is Professor of English at the University of Idaho, where he serves as faculty advisor to the University of Idaho literary magazine, Fugue, and to the soccer club. His most recent books are a critical study, Understanding James Welch (University of South Carolina Press, 2000), and his new & selected poems, Stranger in Town (Confluence Press, 2000). Catching First Light, his fiction and nonfiction from Idaho, is tentatively slated for publication in 2002.  

Read other work by Ron McFarland published in Weber Studies Vol. 8.1 (fiction)Vol. 12.1 (poetry)Vol. 15.2 (poetry)Vol. 17.0 (essay)Vol. 17.1 (fiction),  Vol. 22.2 (essay), Vol. 23.1 (Fiction).

 

Driving the twenty miles out of town and contemplating the five miles of graveled and rutted country road to come after that, I interrupt my wife's monologue about some foreign film she watched with her friend Lorna about a month ago to say, "This is a pain in the butt."

"You said that already," Cindy replies. "You have established that point." She is annoyed with me for having dragged her out here and especially for having forgotten about it until just this morning. She'd planned to spend the day lounging around the house in her sweat pants and grubby tee-shirt, maybe grading a paper or two, or reading a novel.

The landscape of late summer blending into early autumn is either a condolence or a consolation. Which is it? Rolling hills, alternating pasture, wheat stubble, and plowed volcanic soil, all of it broken occasionally with dramatic patches of trembling aspen and pine, the varieties of which I feel I should know even from a distance and feel a little guilty not to be able to name with any confidence after living out here for more than twenty years. White pine, Douglas fir, blue spruce, western cedar, hemlock, tamarack—the patch on the right could be any of them, so far as I know. When my sister visited from Atlanta ten years ago, I identified a distant stand of trees along a small stream as willow, only to realize when we drew closer that it was cottonwood. I did not correct my error.

"We didn't have to come out here," my wife says. And I know she means not just the party, but "out here" altogether. She means Out West in general and Idaho in particular.

"Noblesse oblige," I say, and instantly the image of Jim and Nancy's pretentiously modest, custom-built log home (He calls it "The Cabin Wentworth.") flashes on my mind. They have chosen to rusticate themselves in the ostentatious fashion that is becoming popular all over the inland Northwest—buy a dozen or so acres, erect a pricey edifice, and give it a name: Windy Knob, Tamarack Ranch, Aspenlight, The Lennard Farm (1986). That one always gets me, the premise that attaching a year, discreetly but very legibly, would confer historical value on the twenty acre "farm" that Phil Lennard, Associate Dean of the College of Education, has someone mow for hay once or twice a season. Their is a whole generation of academics who see themselves as gentlemen ranchers and farmers and who live on the cutting edge of cyberspace, commuting to campus two or three grudging days a week to teach their classes, holding a couple of office conferences, attending a meeting, and then high-tailing it back to the boondocks. It's giving the boondocks a bad name.

"Okay," Cindy says resignedly, turning her attention to a handful of math papers she's marking for her eighth graders. She considers Jim Wentworth to be almost hilariously arrogant and Nancy to be at least comically precious. You do not leave their house without being well aware of his latest scholarly publication and of his most recent poetic coup, "a suite of poems," Cindy has already been advised, forthcoming in the Georgia Review. If the evening transpires as we anticipate, someone will beg Jim to read his poems. He will, of course, absolutely refuse. Someone else, in all likelihood Amy Perrine, a graduate student who is rumored to be having an affair with Jim, who is directing her thesis, will plead with him. He will modestly acquiesce. But no, Cindy is wrong about that. This is the annual Hullabaloo, so no one will be obliged to coax his host into reading his latest poems: By definition The Hullabaloo is an event intended to showcase the creative talents of selected graduate students and faculty of the English department, chief among the latter being Wentworth himself.

"We can leave early," I offer, speaking as much to myself as to Cindy. Two sleek magpies feeding on a dinner of roadkill that has lost its identity, probably a marmot, cause me to think of Nancy Wentworth's watercolors. Birds are her passion, and she sees herself as something of an abstract, postmodernist, feminist Audubon. She paints her wrens, hawks, siskins, ducks, waxwings, robins in various stages of imminent death or decomposition: a sparrow about to strike the windshield, a magpie feasting on a cock pheasant. The results are certainly unique (she prefers "original"), if not outright repulsive (she prefers "disturbing"). Jim's latest boast is that his wife has been invited to contribute some recent work to an exhibit, juried of course, in Seattle. Nancy's into polymers now, Jim will say, implying that this is something of an artistic breakthrough. "It's The Hullabaloo," I announce lamely, mostly to keep myself from thinking of Nancy's objets d'art, "The Fourth Annual Hullabaloo."

"And we haven't missed one of them, have we?"

"Nope, not a-one." I fuss with the radio, but the NPR channel has faded to static, leaving nothing but a country-western station out of Lewiston, Willie Nelson moaning about how his heroes have always been cowboys. I make a last, futile effort to catch what's left of the Brahms Symphony #1 in C Minor, then turn it off.

I'll be asked to read something myself, of course. Such is the nature of The Hullabaloo. When I object that I haven't produced a story I'm at all proud of lately, which is the truth, Wentworth will suggest I read one of my old pieces, the implications of that invitation being all too obvious. Of course, I could do what Tom Greiner always does, which is to read a few poems or a story he's "discovered" in a literary magazine, usually the Paris Review. That's a safe way to go, and as often as not, most of the crowd, faculty and grad students alike, are so bored they end up thinking Greiner has written the stuff himself. Greiner and Wentworth are "thick," which is not surprising, as Wentworth has a way of being in tight with the guy in charge, whoever it is. Anyhow, reading someone else's stuff is one way to get off the hook. Another way, a better way, is just to be somewhere else at the time. In the back yard by the beer keg, for instance.

"Besides," I remind Cindy, "I've got to write up something for the departmental newsletter." This was among Greiner's first decisions when he became chair three years ago, to resuscitate the old newsletter, this time with illustrations drawn from the net and on glossy paper, costs to be siphoned from the department's nearly nonexistent travel budget. The editorship rotates, and this is my lucky year. I've been dallying with possible opening lines for the past week: "Jim and Nancy Wentworth's Hullabaloo was a smashing success once again this year"; "The weather gods again smiled on Nancy and Jim Wentworth's Hullabaloo last month"; "We all had a blast"; "The multifaceted talents of this department were once again demonstrated at…." Somehow the passive voice seems especially appropriate to the occasion. I plan to conclude the piece with a cliché that will speak volumes to those who care to read between the lines: "A good time was had by all."

"Big debate at the office yesterday," I say, deftly shifting the subject. "Why were Jack and Jill climbing up the hill to fetch that pail of water? I mean, the point is, what was the pail of water doing up there on the hill in the first place? Lousy location for a well. Someone submits a poem like that to a literary magazine and it won't get past the first reader. So Wentworth says…"

"Aren't we going a bit fast?"

"Just a little over sixty." I subtract five or ten miles per hour from reality and ease off the gas. "Do you want to drive?"

"I imagine I'll be driving back."

"I don't plan to drink that much this time."

"You never plan to drink that much."

I turn onto the gravel road, noting that Raven Creek is trickling at its typical late summer ebb. If you hit the little stream early in the season, you can catch a few nice brookies and an occasional cutthroat, but by this time of the year, they've migrated to bigger waters. I allow myself to reflect on how much better off I would be if I just kept going out the state highway until I hit the Little Tamarack. A nice mothy dun ought to be about right by the time I'd be getting there. I'm framing up an idyllic photograph of myself making an improbably elegant back-cast when a sharp horn blasts my image and sends me swerving into the soft gravel heaped to the side of the road. I check my impulse to brake, ease off the gas, and struggle briefly to control the skid. A faded red Geo fishtails past, showering our recently polished Camry with gravel and dust.

"Who the hell was that?"

"Couldn't see," Cindy says.

"Bill," I answer myself. "Bill O'Dell."

"Was anyone with him?"

"Didn't see anyone."

Cindy means Janice Fain, of course. Janice and Bill have been "an item," as Cindy likes to put it, for about four years, but they've broken up recently, and Bill, who at first declared what he called a "barbaric yawp of independence," has been suffering for at least a month. Cindy likes Bill, at least up to a point, in "moderate doses," she says, and she worries about him. "He thinks because most of the students love him, all of them do, and he thinks because a few of the profs hate him, all of them do," she says. Still in his thirties and never married, Bill O'Dell is what she would call "an attractive man," physically in shape, bright without being either arrogant or sardonic (I, on the other hand, am sardonic, too bitter by far, and she has told me so on occasion, but it only seems to encourage me), and reckless. Bill, that is, not I, who am anything but reckless. "Bill O'Dell," she says admiringly for my benefit, "is almost certainly the last reckless man in the English department."

"Him and Bailly Potts," I agree. Potts is the custodian in our building, a former acid-head who strobes the neon lights as he pushes his dust mop down the hall and babbles random lines from Wallace Stevens. It's said that Potts has done time for auto theft and indecent exposure, and it is rumored (the evidence is convincing) that he prefers to turn out all the lights when he cleans the halls. Potts calls himself "the roller of big cigars" and "Chief Iffucan." One semester he actually enrolled in one of my classes, claiming to have a deep affection for the poems of John Donne, but he dropped after just a couple of weeks, much to my relief.

But I like Bill O'Dell. He's one of our veteran instructors, a resident oddball, former Berkeleyite, granola, and tree-hugger extraordinaire. Genuinely extra-ordinary. What is ordinary, as I complain periodically, are instructors who take a master's degree right here at Idaho Northern University and then hang around. They like the area, they like the town, they don't want to go on to a Ph.D. somewhere at the end of the rainbow only to find themselves overqualified and jobless, so here they are. You can graduate from an Idaho high school, get an undergraduate and graduate degrees from an Idaho college, and then go on to teach at that Idaho college, and your students will mostly be Idahoans, and so on. Something about all of this does not seem quite right to me. So I put a premium on the extra-ordinaries, weird as they might be, and Bill O'Dell is one of the weirdest. Drinks too much, was arrested early on in what amounted to a barroom brawl at the Sasquatch Tavern, has been twice divorced, is rumored to do a variety of drugs, has survived two automobile wrecks (one with an elk, one with the old Fort Frenzy monument that was perched on the corner of Maple and Taft), fraternizes way too openly with undergrads of both genders, parties with them, has been warned at least twice over the fifteen years or so he's been at Northern not, repeat not, to hold classes or office conferences in his apartment, which is just a block off campus. Bill O'Dell is idolized by the undergraduates, especially the jocks, respected by a few professors, and distrusted or openly disliked by about 80 percent of the profs in the English department, including Tom Greiner, an old-school philologist and a bishop in the large and influential Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. I think Bill O'Dell's days at Northern are numbered, but then I thought that ten years ago.

"Poor Bill," Cindy says, which is what she almost always says when O'Dell's name comes up. She admires his rough edges. I'm not sure why she doesn't admire mine.

"Poor Bill damned near ran us into the ditch," I growl.

I steer cautiously around the next bend of the road, the graded ruts now giving way to a passage of washboard, half expecting to find O'Dell's Geo tires-up in a ditch. But the little red car is out of sight, leaving only a choking plume of dust in its wake. Cindy begins to sneeze, her allergies acting up.

By the time we reach Jim and Nancy's cabin the driveway is lined with cars, so we have to park as far off the gravel road as we can get, which is not nearly as far as I'd like. I envision showers of sharp-edged stones whipped by some farm kid's muddy four-by-four into the side of our two-year-old and about half-paid-for Camry. I pull out our two six-packs of microbrew. The party's BYO of course, with the Wentworths providing chips and dip and a tray of cut vegetables that I can visualize right down to the last clipped carrot and sculpted radish, bracts of broccoli, slivers of celery and that's that. No olives or pickles, no cheese or salami, no spiced crabapples—just the basics. Whatever is left will be fed to the Wentworths' rabbits.

"They spare no expense," I mutter.

"What?"

"Never mind."

"If you're going to have that kind of attitude, let's just forget it," Cindy says, coming to a halt. I can see that her earlier attitude toward the Grand Fête has now become mine, and it is I who must be reprimanded.

But we're already at the door, where we encounter the predictable jumble of shoes. One does not wear one's shoes inside The Cabin Wentworth, which Jim and Nancy regard as a sort of Buddhist temple. Inside is a predictably intellectual mosh pit, a conventional party-of-its-type with almost everyone trying hard to impress anyone and not succeeding. One knows, for example, that Professor Thomas Greiner is doing seminal work on some obscure ancient Greek dialect, that Ed Hosely is writing a second book, this one dealing with sexual fantasies in Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction (his first concerned sexual fantasies in Edgar Allan Poe's fiction—he is said to be "on a roll"). Mara Jacobs is applying for a grant to write a book proving definitively that A. E. Housman, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden were either homosexuals or latent homosexuals, so she avoids talking with Ed Hosely. But everyone avoids talking about what is on his or her mind anyway, and, of course, the classroom and departmental politics are regarded as taboo, in bad taste, and boring. Predictably, those prove to be the main topics of conversation.

I haven't the vaguest idea what I'm working on at the moment, but I've decided that if anyone asks, I will just say I'm "between projects" and hope no one asks what my previous project was. The fact is I have come to something of a crossroads in my career as a supposed Renaissance scholar, having written exactly enough to get tenured and eventually promoted to full professor and then stopped dead. I am contemplating the possibility of either an elaborate study of an obscure writer like George Wither, or an even greater challenge, a postmodernist reading of Books Five through Eight of Paradise Lost, whereby I will prove that far from being the most tedious books of the epic, they are in fact the most exciting. My efforts at writing fiction are not encouraged, as I was hired to be a Renaissance scholar. Under the circumstances, I am relieved to talk about what nearly everyone else is talking about—the ineptitude and recalcitrance of my students.

I've just finished exchanging anecdotes concerning tardiness and bad attendance with Mara Jacobs when I notice Bill O'Dell standing alone in a corner of the living-room, almost as if he were being punished. There's no love lost between O'Dell and Wentworth, so it is not surprising to see Bill off by himself; it's more surprising, in fact, to see him out here at all. When I get closer, I can see that Bill is examining one of Nancy Wentworth's paintings, a recent vintage, apparently, as it is decked out in lurid polymers: A large blue heron is draped over the fender of a dusty, faded blue pickup. The driver's face is not visible, but his hairy hand dangles out the window, and between his grimy fingers he holds a heavily chomped cigar butt. Smears of blood from the dead bird streak the dust on the fender, and when I look more closely, I can see that the bird's head is nearly severed from its graceful neck. A small bronze plate indicates the title, "Open Season: Blue Heron."

"Art," Bill says flatly, once he realizes I'm there.

"'…does more than Milton can, / To justify God's ways to man,'" I offer, quoting Housman.

"That's 'booze,'" Bill O'Dell says.

"Whatever," I say. I can tell that Bill has gone a good way toward justifying God's ways, so I don't bother to point out that it should have been "malt." O'Dell has not taken off his denim jacket, into which he has plunged both of his hands. The Wentworths tend to keep their cabin a bit on the chilly side, especially if you are among those who comply with the shoeless dictum, as I notice Bill O'Dell has not. Cindy always gets cold when she's at the cabin, even when she wears heavy socks, as she is now.

"Friggin' dead crane," Bill rasps.

"Heron."

"Friggin' dead heron then."

I'm feeling uncomfortable. "Can I get you a beer? Coffee?"

Bill looks at me as if he's thinking it over, and I note that he apparently has not shaved for several days, and his eyes are bloodshot. "They got anything to drink in this freakin' place," he says, almost shouting. "Can a man get a goddamn drink here for chrissake?"

Bill O'Dell is wearing a tattered, dingy pair of orange Converse high-tops, which he most likely picked up at the local Goodwill store, along with the denim jacket which, I now observe, is out at both elbows. As usual, Bill wears faded blue sweatpants emblazoned with a Cal-Berkeley logo. Being out at the knees, they are a good match for the jacket. He prides himself on being the very emperor of studied neglect, and what he's wearing now is one version of what he wears in the classroom, to the distress of the new dean, the old provost, and, of course, Professor Thomas Greiner.

O'Dell's attire transcends "studied neglect." "Studied neglect" is Ed Hosely's unpolished shoes, unironed shirt with badly tied, grease-stained necktie (Harvard), baggy slacks, and threadbare herringbone sports coat. O' Dell's regalia is something like vagrant casual. Greiner has spoken of "insubordination" at a meeting of the Executive Committee, of which I am a member. O'Dell's reaction was to present himself one Monday in a splendid, freshly dry-cleaned, three-piece business suit, vintage 1955, after which he promptly reverted to his customary wardrobe. "Like he just walked in right off the streets," Greiner complained.

Greiner wrote to the dean. The dean inquired whether the department had established a dress code. Greiner confessed the department had no such code. "Well then," said the dean, who had more important matters to deal with, including a starting wide receiver who cheated on a history paper and a secretary in the math department who was filing a sexual harassment complaint.

But I have to admit I've never seen O'Dell look quite as shabby as he does just now. I motion Cindy from her chair at the coffee table, which she leaves reluctantly, predicting correctly as it turns out, that she will lose her place, specifically to one of the select graduate students, the belle of the program, Amy Perrine. "Have you talked with Bill this evening?" I thumb toward the corner, from which the instructor has not budged; in fact, he has not withdrawn his hands from the pockets of his Goodwill jacket. "He's pretty screwed up. Surely doesn't have any business driving back."

"What'd he say?"

"Not much of anything. Just stands there staring at that god-awful painting of Nancy's. Have you seen it?"

"No." Cindy sighs. She is not an admirer of Nancy Wentworth's masterpieces. "I'll go over there."

But before she can get there, Bill O'Dell pulls his right hand from his pocket, licks his index finger, and begins to rub at some spot on the painting as if he were trying to erase something. No one else appears to notice. "Jesus," I whisper.

"He must be nuts," Cindy says, stifling a giggle.

"Drunk."

Cindy takes a step in the direction of the corner, but at that instant Jim Wentworth clangs the old cowbell he uses to signal the start of the reading. It's one of his bucolic traditions: "Ringing in the poets." He declares as much now, and everyone crams into the living-room trailing threads of interrupted conversation.

"Silence," Wentworth intones. He holds up his long, slender, white fingers, and I am reminded again of how effete the man can be and of how I despise effeminate men, particularly when they are, like Jim Wentworth, pretentiously effeminate. Jim lifts his well-crafted chin and stares beneficently over the assemblage as if he is about to bless us all, then spreads his arms, turns the palms of his hands downward and gestures for us to sit. He is tall and thin, with the exception of a small paunch that is beginning to develop, and I entertain the notion, not for the first time, that short and out-of-shape as I am, I could beat the crap out of this guy. Somehow that makes me feel much better. When I look back at the corner, I notice that Bill O'Dell has left. Good, I tell myself silently.

"Where's Bill?" Cindy whispers.

Wentworth clears his throat meaningfully, a warning against any interruption of the proceedings.

"Don't know," I mutter, intentionally elevating my voice just above Cindy's whisper. "Maybe worshipping the porcelain god."

Wentworth glares in our direction. One of his graduate-student groupies sitting behind us says "shhh," pretending to direct her scolding at another student, but obviously intending it for us. It's Amy, of course.

"We are reminded once again as we start this new academic year," Wentworth says, his voice assuming its usual high, nasal pitch, "of how fortunate we all are here at INU…"

I've heard the speech before, the exact words of the ritual with which The Hullabaloo proper will commence, always just a few minutes after sundown, with "festive readings," as the invitations indicate. And as always, the lead reader will be Tom Greiner, who has "come upon," as he always puts it, " a gem of purest ray serene" that might "elsewise" have been compelled to "waste its sweetness on the desert air." The text in this event is a poem by Lyn Lifshin who, Greiner understands, is the most widely published poet in America today.

"Right after Susan Polis Schutz," I mumble, hoping my sotto voce will not be too sotto.

"Shhhh." It's Amy again.

I glance over my right shoulder into her reproving glare. It's more of a grimace, really—the young woman is actually pained at my sacrilege. She is an almost attractive woman, sensual in some vague and slightly disturbing way. I can see how Jim Wentworth might be tempted.

As usual, Greiner reads the mediocre poem badly, thus setting the stage for three or four graduate students, including Amy, from the creative writing program, whose very worst poems, read nervously, would sound far better than Lifshin's. One of the students, in fact, reads an impressive passage from a story in progress, and another reads two poems, either one of which would eclipse Lyn Lifshin's, no matter how well Lifshin's poem might have been presented. The young prof who has been hired just a year ago to teach fiction writing reads an engrossing story that fetches genuine approval, warm applause (even from me), and two or three yelps from grad students in the creative writing program. When Wentworth gestures to me to come up to the podium, actually a music stand, I shrug, and smile sheepishly, and show my empty hands, indicating that, alas, I have nothing with which to regale the captive audience. Wentworth tries to insist. That's part of the act. "Sorry," I alibi, "I had something all ready but left it home on the table." This is also part of the act. Wentworth glowers—he does not like it when someone refuses to play his games—then goes on with the farce.

As usual, Jim Wentworth has saved himself for last, the "climactic event, the dessert, the cherry on top." This way, one is to assume, the rest of us need not fear invidious comparisons, nor does anyone have to face up to the terrifying prospect of following the great one himself.

"This evening…," Wentworth begins. He is about to thank everyone and to tell us all what a privilege it has been for him to have us trek out here to The Cabin Wentworth. He is about to tell us how fortunate he has been to have heard just last week from his agent in New York that his next book will be coming out soon and is likely to be nominated for a major award. I glance at my watch and realize, as usual, that The Hullabaloo has been perfectly timed. It started right around 7:00, just after dinner, so that no one would drive all the way out into the country and expect to be fed, and it is going to end right around 11:00, which will give everyone time to drive back home and get there before midnight. There will be no malingerers, no clusters of grad students or half-inebriated professors lolling around in hopes of a nightcap. There will just be Jim Wentworth's splendid reading, and then farewell, a clean break. "…it has been Nancy's and my privilege…"

"There are thirteen ways!" a man's voice suddenly breaks in.

Wentworth stops, turns his magnificent head around slowly, but he cannot identify the voice or tell where it came from. He clears his throat.

"There are thirteen friggin' ways of looking at a blackbird!"

It's Bill O'Dell.

"…our mutual privilege to welcome you all…"

"One! 'Among twenty snowy mountains, the…the eye of the blackbird.'"

"Bill? Where are you? Would you like to…"

"Two! 'I was of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds.' Is a Hegelian blackbird."

People are whispering, mumbling, getting to their feet, looking around. No one seems quite sure where Bill O'Dell is in the crammed room.

"Bill, if you'd like to participate in this evening's reading…"

"Three! 'A man'a'woman 'nd a bla-, bla-bird 're one.' See? 's like unity in the trinity. Dante'd love it." Bill's voice is beginning to slur badly. "Or tha' was four…maybe tha' was four, oh thin man of Idaho. Or two. 'Do you not see how the blackbird walks all around the feet of the women about you?' Don' you see that? All aroun' their freakin' feet?"

"Now just a minute here." It's Tom Greiner, clearly speaking with the administrative authority of the chair. "I think you know from our dis-…"

"'I know that the blackbird is involved in what I know." This time Bill's voice is clear and unslurred, and he bursts into the room, seemingly from nowhere, but on closer consideration, from the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms, terra incognita for all guests. Nancy and Jim have gone so far as to draw a velvet-covered rope across the stairwell similar to what one might find at a theater. Now Bill, not quite staggering and not quite walking, call it reeling, appears from the shadows of the stairwell and confronts Wentworth and Greiner at the podium. I note that Bill's hands are still buried in the pockets of his grubby denim jacket. He takes a step forward, so that his whiskery, red face nearly collides with Wentworth's emaciated chest. It seems impossible that their faces could be so close without some sort of physical contact, Wentworth's paunch, for example, with Bill O'Dell' s muscled, well-toned, angry torso. But just when it looks as though the furious instructor might throw himself into the poet with a full-body block, he suddenly lurches two or three steps backward so that he stands just a few steps to the left of me and Cindy.

A buzz of rumors, advice, and concern fizzes through the assembly: "I heard he got canned!" "Somebody should do something!" "Someone should call the police!" "Jim reported him, that's what Mara said." "Reported him to Greiner, to the dean." "He's drunk!" "…said he was using drugs…in his office…" "…heard it was cocaine…dealing meth…to students!" "I saw him at a party once…"

"'Even the bawds of euphony,'" Bill croaks, "'Would cry out sharply.'"

"What the hell's he talking about?" someone behind us asks.

"He's out of his gourd," the grad student I recognize as Amy sneers.

"He rode…he rode all over…all over Idaho in a glass coach," O' Dell shouts, and the room grows quiet again. No one knows what to do. We are all people of ideas and words, not people given to action. "And he lived in a…in a glass house, and once he was pierced by fear, he was, he was… terrified because he mistook the shadow of his…of his own body for blackbirds!"

"He's delirious."

"He's crazy."

"Someone do something." It's Amy's voice again, frightened, almost shrieking.

Suddenly, both of Bill's hands flash from his pockets and come together around the butt of a bright, silver automatic, which he holds out stiffly, but correctly, at arm's length, as if he knows exactly what he's doing, as if he has practiced, perhaps in front of a mirror, or watching his shadow on the ground, to make certain it will look right. Steadily, he moves the pistol left to right, then right to left, panning from Greiner to Wentworth and back. No one says a word, but someone is sobbing quietly, Nancy Wentworth, I think. And then O'Dell stops and takes aim at Jim Wentworth. Abruptly, the sobbing stops. I can see when it happens: the sudden halting of the oscillation, and then the slight elevation of the pistol, and then the lowering to lock onto the target just a few feet away.

The whole bizarre event strikes me as not simply absurd, but irresistibly laughable and literary. It reminds me of the scene in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when the hapless history professor, George, played by Richard Burton in the academy-award-winning movie, pulls out a rifle and aims it at his obnoxious and overbearing, scathingly sarcastic wife Martha, played by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her finest performances, and out pops an umbrella. I more than half expect a rose to bloom from Bill O'Dell's silver automatic. I suppress the huge laugh that is welling up, so when I laugh, it comes out as a half-swallowed snort. At that instant, I am propelled forward into Bill O'Dell. Someone, Amy Perrine, Cindy tells me later, has shoved me into action. A shot rings out.

O'Dell does not struggle, but collapses into a pathetic heap of insensibility. Someone calls the sheriff, and a deputy appears in surprisingly good time. The subdued instructor refuses to utter a word, and the evening ends in confusion. Before everyone leaves, Nancy Wentworth tearfully, nearly in hysterics, reveals that the errant bullet has destroyed her most recent masterpiece, "Open Season: Blue Heron."

 

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