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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

A Scholarly Thirst
by Mark S. Weber ||
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We filed listlessly into the classroom and took our choice of seats. We were mostly English majors. Dull looks were exchanged among us. It was Shakespeare four-0-something and we sat and awaited the entrance of professor Heatingstone.
     Heatingstone soon arrived and he strode into the room, dropped some things on his desk, looked at us and frowned. He was shiny bald except for a halo of close-cropped hair around the sides. He was rather short, stocky and he stroked a thick moustache. He turned suddenly and began writing something furiously on the green chalkboard. The chalk broke. He picked up another piece and finished writing "SHAKESPEARE WAS A FAG" in huge letters.
Some students giggled nervously while Heatingstone turned to us, frowned and spoke:
     "I know, I know. You've all heard it before. Shakespeare was a fag. When I was in graduate school they told me Shakespeare was a fag. But it wasn't Shakespeare who was a fag! It was just that they were fags and they wanted Shakespeare to be one too!"
     After a minute of profound silence he took roll call and launched into a lecture about the depravity of Shakespeare's time, some of the writers who might have hung around with Shakespeare and how Shakespeare might not even have been Shakespeare at all. Some experts even went so far as to say he was really Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, the latter of whom, Heatingstone said, was definitely a fag.
     Then he gave us an assignment, stroked his thick moustache and dismissed us.
     We filed listlessly out of the classroom. English majors. But I noticed something flicker in some of the student's faces. Perhaps Heatingstone had awakened some real interest in them for Shakespeare, maybe even for the whole time period in which he may or may not have lived.
     But it could have just been the fluorescent lighting.

I intensely disliked fluorescent lighting wherever I found it and here at Northern Pike University I found it everywhere and felt it emanate through and around me from the ceiling tubes as I walked through the institutional cinderblock hallways to my next class. It was a history class about ancient Greece. I gazed at the faces of my colleagues floating past. They were much younger than me. Pinker. Meaner. They wanted things. Motorcycles, cars, clothes, jewels, jacuzzi's, cell phones with somebody interesting to call...I didn't really want anything but a small shack in the woods, a dog and something interesting to drink now and then. But so far this simple dream had proven nearly impossible to attain. After a protracted and dismal stint of bumming around the country, I finally decided to go back to school and finish my degree. I was 34.
     Now walking the halls, it felt like I had suddenly been transported back to high school, a place for which I had few fond memories. Many of the students milling around and walking by were dripping with fresh matriculation from high school juices, a kind of afterbirth. They had all earned their places of varied status and importance there and they had brought these things with them into college. It was the only thing they had so they held onto it tightly and carried it with exaggerated pride. It was easy to spot the high school football hero who got to fondle the breasts of the prettiest cheerleaders as if they were themselves smaller, softer footballs; the high school comedian, still sporting his funny hat, thinking he was still funny now that he was away from his high school friends and trying desperately to build up a new entourage. And of course there was the ubiquitous nerd, snapping his head around in a bewildered frenzy thinking "Oh noooo! It's just like high schoooool!"
      There were very few of the sullen intellectual types at Northern Pike, seen elsewhere haunting the corridors and shadowy cul de sacs of more prestigious institutions. This was far too easy a college from which to gain entrance and it was too small. But there were a few intelligent looking students here and there, probably too poor to go to the more highly esteemed schools. They looked pissed off, like they had been cheated out of a good education because of money. And they were right. Old Northern Pike University, situated smack dab in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula Michigan welcomed them all, rich/poor, pretty/ugly, smart/dumb.
     Somebody with a little wit somewhere coined the theorem that you can tell the quality of a university by how many pretty girls are attending. The prettier the girls, the lower the quality of school. And here there were some very pretty girls roving about. These were the high school beauties. They were the least worried. This was what they had been waiting for. Now they were away from home at last and they laughed loudly throwing their heads back, all that beautiful over-treated hair spilling around them like laurels.
     They were not local girls. I could tell by the way they were dressed. They were from the southern part of Michigan and other states but all the world was their oyster bar. For some reason I wondered if any of them had ever had a pasty before. Perhaps I did not have my finger on the pulse of my generation as did Kerouac, Hemingway…Balzac.

Pasty Interlude

Pasty is not pronounced like Pastry, a common and telltale mistake of the outsider. The "a" sound is pronounced like the "a" in black. Pasty. It is such a well loved dish in Michigan's Upper Peninsula that it is a wonder nobody has yet chosen it for the name of their child.
     A pasty is a mixture of ground beef, chopped potatoes, rutabaga and onion plopped into a circle of dough that is then folded over into a half-moon shape, pinched into a thick seam along the curved edge and then baked. It was a practical dish among miners since it could be warmed easily on a shovel. Some orthodox pasty eaters still warm them on shovels, but they are a thinning breed, both secretive and virtually unintelligible.
     A lot of groups of people in the Upper Peninsula will claim the pasty's origins as their own. They are Finnish, Cornish, Irish, even Italian. Who knows what the truth is? Who cares? You either liked them or you didn't. But while you were in the U.P. you did well to pretend that you liked them. To do otherwise meant you risked assault and even battery.

I located the classroom for Ancient Greece and found a seat near the back. I always sat near the back. It made me feel more like an observer than an actual participant. This is the way I liked it. It also reduced the risk of any professor smelling the booze on me. I had only recently moved from the gutter into the classroom. I had given up the old ways I had come to know. Life on the streets of America had ground me to a pulp. Now I wanted to join society. "It's time to join society, son," my father had told me. I was ready now. I felt I was ready. But I still drank like a fish.
     The prof came in, gave us a handout and dismissed us. He had a very old face marked with rivulets of age. In the middle of the face protruded a great bulbous nose, red and prone to flaring. From an exceptionally large dome hung greasy strands of silver gray hair. He looked like he was hungover. This put me at ease, as if we were kindred spirits. Brothers of the bottle so to speak. I even gave him a little friendly nod on the way out. He just eyed me stonily. Professor Klemp. German. I liked him.
     Outside I stood for a minute letting the sunlight bounce off my face. I lit a cigarette, unlocked my bike and rode slowly through campus, enjoying the red and yellow maple leaves. I rode without any hands when I saw a pretty girl approaching on the sidewalk. It seemed to be the only thing to do if you didn't have a car. Just take your hands off the handlebars and tilt your head back while releasing a stream of smoke. It made you appear philosophical, beyond reproach, beyond material things like cars that were doing so much to pollute our precious environment, instead of what you really were--some jerk-off who couldn't afford a car.
     She didn't even lift a pretty eyelash and I sailed past her.
     I figured it was probably better not to own a car anyway, the way I drank and I licked my lips. The educational process always built up a mighty thirst in me. But it was a scholarly, genteel kind of thirst as opposed to the raging barbaric one that comes after a day of mindless labor. After my first day of classes I felt like I deserved a few. So what if it was only 10:30.
     I weaved the beat up rock hopper down the Marquette side streets until I came out by a little watering hole called The Wooden Nickel. During the summer it became a biker hangout and I avoided it. Harley riders from the world over would congregate there. I knew they were supposed to stand for renegade freedom, wind blowing through the hair with a middle finger pointed at society and all that shit, but I got the same feeling around them as I did around a bunch of frat boy yuppie types. They were conformists too. They just wore a different uniform.
     The Wooden Nickel was just a crappy little one room dive with wood slat flooring, some tables set in back, a jukebox and pool table in the middle. I locked my bike against the scaffold of steps that led to the entrance and mounted them slowly. I opened the door, glad to see Nutmeg behind the bar. A few local drunks occupied some stools.
     "Hey Nutmeg," I said.
     She smiled and brought me a cold draft. It was a very old varnished oak bar, tattooed with thousands of carved in names. I leaned into it. Nutmeg was a biker herself but she seemed to break the mold in every way, a raw and truly beautiful spirit. She came down and stood in front of me smiling.
     "So what're ya up to today?"
     I took a long drink of beer and smacked my lips.
     "I started school today," I said with weight. I began meditatively peeling the label off the bottle.
     "Up at Northern Pike?"
     "No shit. Whatcha studyin'?"
     "Welp, I'm studying English and History with a minor in pizza delivery."
     "Shoot high I always say. Hey, did you ever think Shakespeare was a fag?"
     "I don't know anything about Shakespeare. From the little that I've heard he uses enough thees and thithers... but I 'spose that's the way they talked back then."
     I noticed a cadaverous, unshaven man in black leather jacket at the end of the bar staring at me with what appeared to be a smoldering hatred. I decided to speak to him.
     "I say old chap? Do you think Shakespeare was a fag? Wot?"
     The man flushed and grunted and looked down at his beer, wagging his head slowly from side to side.
     "Better leave him alone," Nutmeg said confidentially. "He hates college students."
     "You mean, any college student in general?"
     "I guess so."
     "Yeah. 'Nother beer?"
     "Hey Nutmeg." It was a short heavy-set man in greasy Carharts down the bar. "Could ya play 'Free Bird?'"
     "Free Bird" was the anthem of the trapped and doomed and it played often in The Wooden Nickel. Nutmeg moved to the tape deck behind the bar and I sat down on a stool and stared at the colored bottles of booze and the pictures of bikers on the walls. A small television in the corner featured a talk show. Teenage sluts and what their parents thought about it. The abysmal deadness of the place began to seep into my bones and I started to drink faster. After my third beer "Free Bird" finally ended and I got the hell out of there.
     I hopped on my bike and headed up Third Street, Marquette's strip. It had five restaurants, three bars, a flower shop, an adult video store, two liquor stores and various other shops that gave it the impression of a large town struggling in labor pains to be born a city. I had just decided to stop at White's Market for some booze when I saw the milk truck up the street pulling into Jack's Party Store so I rode up there instead.
     The little boxy truck with the brightly colored logo on the side was backed up to the side of the store, its metal doors swung open. The truck shook a little and I heard curses and metal crates being slammed against the wall. I peeked around the corner. In the semi-darkness an enormous blonde-headed man was up on tip-toes straining for something over stacked up metal crates filled with dairy products. He looked very much like a bear looting a tree for honey, and getting stung in the process.
     "Having problems Bear man?"
     Terry turned and grinned.
     "Hey Mike. Yah. I can't find the fuckin' chock two percent. I know I put it on the truck dis morning."
     His voice had the dopey sing-song rhythm that made the Upper Peninsula dialect, doomed forever to be the butt of humor nationwide.
     "What happened to that guy you just hired?"
"Hold on a sec Mike."
     Terry jerked a stack of milk forward using a metal tool with a hook on one end. He peered down the side of three other stacks.
     "There the fucker is? Sschroist! All the way in back!"
     He pulled the stack forward with the metal hook and wiped the sweat away from his meaty red face. He leaned down toward me.
     "Now whadja say?"
     "Didn't you just hire some guy?"
     Terry's golden head dropped. He thought for a moment scratching his temple with a knuckle and then he laughed and shook his head. "Yah, but I couldn't unnerstan' da fucker."
     "What? How?"
     "I couldn't unnerstan' him. He was from somewhere down sout' an his accent... Sschrist. He'd say shit like 'So yall won may go on move it ovah yonda?' What the fuck is yonda I asked him. But he coo'nt understand me neither...so…finally…"
     "You had to let him go."
     "What else could I do?"
     Terry was red faced, sweating and grinning at the absurdity of it. He looked like he could play the son of Santa Claus, if anyone ever decided to make something like that into a movie. And if the movie had a violent plot and an "R" rating.
     "Well christ. How fucking hard can it be to communicate this job to somebody," I said. "A goddam chimpanzee could do it."
     "Oh yah!" Terry roared. "Whaddya think yer word power man now that
ya started college again?"
     "All I know is you need to work on your communication skills."
     "Schroist. Help me get deez chock two percent otta here…John boy."
     "Wait. Redi-whip."
     Terry laughed. "Hold on."
     He located two canisters of whipping cream and I worked the plastic cap off of one. I put the nozzle in my mouth and slightly tilted the spigot so that only the gas was released. This I inhaled deeply and watched Terry do the same. I held my breath and waited. A dizzying rush swept over me and I held onto a stack of crates so I wouldn't fall. Frenzied colors and shards of white light slashed across my vision. I saw a surreal Terry leaning against the ice cream freezer in the corner shaking his head. A minute later the effects dissolved.
     "Fuck, izzat intense!" he said pursing his lips and shaking his head violently. His face had turned a light shade of purple.
     "I know. Can you imagine if you never came down?"
     'Whaddya mean? If you just stayed like that?"
     Terry's expression turned from placid to stormy and then his eyes grew wide. "It's too fucked up to think about Mike." He shook his head and pulled a stack of crates forward. "Jes shoot me if it ever happens."
     "Same here."
     We unloaded the crates of milk and I wheeled the stack through the front of the place on a dolly. That was often how I ended up working for Terry. I needed the money so there was no complaint. Inside the owner Jack raised his eyebrows and grinned. `
     "Ya got him workin' for ya again Terry?"
     "Ya. Got a special deal worked out wit' social services. Day pay me to hire da mently handicapped."
     Jack turned pink with laughter. Another Finn. Christ.
     "At least I can form sentences," I muttered and moved the stack to the back of the store where I started pulling outdated product from the shelves and then took inventory of what was needed in the back cooler while Terry flipped through some pornos at the magazine rack. I was now officially going back to college, 34 years old and making five bucks an hour as a milkman's helper. Compared to the last few years I was moving and shaking.

Much later that night Terry stopped the truck in front of the little brick house I rented a room in. He dug a roll of bills from his pocket and looked off thoughtfully. Then he peeled some bills off and handed them to me.
     "Allright monster, call me if you need me?"
     "I will," he said. "Lissen, let's go nail some partridge sometime this weekend."
"Sounds good."
     I was a little drunk and tired from the brutal milk work so I stepped carefully out of the truck into the dark street. One of the perks in working for Terry, besides free meals, was that I could drink on the job and the booze was free, donated unwittingly by the stores where we delivered. I approached the house cautiously. No lights were on. That was good. I was having a difficult time with one of my roommates. I went in quietly, locked the door and mounted the steps to my room. I put some melodic jazz on softly, undressed and got under the covers. My body felt jarred and bruised from shifting and hauling milk all day and I did a swan dive into sleep.

I awoke to the screeching voice of my roommate Finn's girlfriend. They were arguing again. I looked at the clock on the dresser. 9:30. I decided to start looking for a new place after my 11 o'clock class.
     I grabbed a clean towel and wrapped it around my waist. In the hallway I glanced at Richard and Darlene, moping in their room with the door open. They were quite a pair. Darlene blushed and smiled, then looked down.
     "Morning Mikey," she said in her whining sing-song.
     I mumbled some greeting and crossed the hall into the bathroom where I locked the door. I heard Richard bawling her out in that nasal drawl of his.
     "Darleeeeene...leave Miiike alone. Who wants to hear you flapping your gums first thing in the morning."
     "Oh be quiet Richard. Mikey don't care if I say hi."
     She was right. Beyond that though I wanted to steer clear. Darlene did her best day and night to involve me in her life and I did my best to keep as distanced as possible. The worst thing about it was that she had found out that my father, a successful attorney in Marquette, had handled her divorce years ago. She thought he was the greatest man alive.
     As I lathered up my face to shave I thought about the picture she had shown me of when she was a high school beauty, a homecoming queen and captain of the cheerleading squad. Then she went crazy. I suspected that it had something to do with an inherent creative intelligence that had never been allowed to flourish.
     For her craziness they gave her drugs and the drugs made her crazier. They also made her gain weight. She had cut off her long beautiful hair so that it was short and fit tightly to her head. She slouched perpetually and retained only the slightest resemblance to the beautiful young woman she had been. Now she looked like she could have been Boris Yeltsin's twin sister, if he were younger. She was a creature that inspired pity and caution. After her divorce she had been effectively ostracized from her family with the advent of Richard. Her father hated him.
     Richard was a piece of work all his own. He had shoulder length dishwater hair and was as tall as me, a little over six feet. Facially he looked very similar to one Zippy the pinhead of comic book fame. He spoke with a nasal twang and slightly southern, Indiana accent. But one of the oddest things about him, among an assortment of oddities, were his lymph nodes. The area just under his ears and below the mandible of his chin seemed to be swollen so large that they interfered with his ability to move his head around.
     The first impression I got of him a month earlier, when I first moved in, was that of a harmless stoner who was playing out some personal fantasy of the sixties. Then I began hearing things about him. Apparently the last occupant of the room I was renting had been pushed through the window of his bedroom. While it was closed. I asked Richard about this when we were sitting in my room one day smoking a joint and he told me it was true.
     "Why though Richard? Why'd you push him."
     "I dint like him. He was a jerk."
     I noted the steep incline of the roof.
     "Did he fall from here?'
     "No. I grabbed holt of him and dragged him back in."
     The more I came to learn about Richard the more I realized that, just beyond the benign, comical burn out was a dangerous, possibly psychotic man. Then came the ultimate revelation. One drunken night, while my downstairs roommate Jon was talking about his experiences in the Korean War, Richard let it be known that he had been a Special Forces Marine. From the detailed descriptions of the action he'd seen I knew he wasn't lying. But this information still left me doubtful. He must have sensed this because he showed me his discharge papers and a certificate that proved it.
     I took a hot shower and dressed quickly. Downstairs I saw Richard twirling my butcher knife expertly between his fingers at his side. The big sharp knife was a blur of flashing metal. He appeared to be lost in thought.
     "That's a neat trick," I said, coming into the kitchen.
     He wheeled and put the knife down. "It's easy. I'll show you how to do it some time, Miiike."
     "Oh Richard, quit showin' off," said Darlene from the kitchen table.
     "Darleeene, you can just shut the fuck up," Richard drawled. His nasal voice had risen in anger and his lymph nodes puffed out like a bullfrog.      "You know what she did, Miiike?"
     "No, what?" I found a filter and fit it in the coffee maker then spooned in some grounds.
     "We were living in a tent down by Gaines rock last summer..."
     Richard described the scenario. I knew the location. It was right down past the railroad tracks next to a small creek that poured into Lake Superior. A rocky beach area near the ore dock. I knew of it because Lyle and I often checked it in the fall for rainbow trout when they were running upstream to spawn.
     "...Anyway, Darlene took my k-bar and gave it to the pigs."
     "I was scared Mikey," whined Darlene. "He was always flipping it around. I was scared he was going to kill somebody." She had a pleading, helpless look on her face.
     "Darlene, you are some kinda stupid," said a red-faced Richard. His lymph nodes had swollen even more. An angry bullfrog.
     "Why can't you just go get it back?" I asked.
     "I tried but they won't give it back. And you know whaaat, Miiike? Darlene's cousin is a cop here in Marquette. And he don't like me. These fucking Finnlanders have relatives comin' out their asses. And Darlene goes down and flaps her gums to him every time she's pissed at me."
     "Fuck," I said. I felt a little sorry for old Richard.
     "How's your dad Mikey?"
     "He's fine, Darlene. Just fine. Pretty much the same as yesterday when you asked."
     I cheated and poured a cup of coffee before it was finished brewing and felt Darlene's bovine stare on me. I tried not to look at her. Richard had taken a seat across from her at the kitchen table.
     "Mikey, I know what you're going through with your parents."
     An electric rush shot through my body. I nodded and smiled at her.
     "I know how it is to be different," she said with a look of tortured compassion. "But they do love you. You have to remember that. No matter how much different you are from your brothers."
     I sipped some coffee and studied her for a moment. Her big eyes were like blue smoke. She had a strange empathy and a sincere compassion in her nature but she was crazy and her craziness never took long to present itself. I watched a smile grow on her face and she looked at Richard who was looking down at the table.
     "And Richard's parents love him too...it's too bad he can't keep his little cock out of my butt." She smiled and blushed, fluttering her eyelids coquettishly.
     "Darleeene, why don't you shut your mouth!"
     Her voice became a shout. "If I would have known how much you liked anal sex, Richard, I would have had the doctors install a little combination lock on my asshole!" Darlene turned pink with delight and her whole body shook with laughter.
     "You know whaaat, Miiike?" Richard looked at me through his small angry pig eyes. I was riveted to my leaning position against the refrigerator. "I wun't never have even tried anal sex if Darlene hadn't brought this book home one day called The Joy of Anal Sex. The Bible says it's wroonnng. But she was the one who wanted to try it. An you know what else?"
     He stared at me until I answered.
     "No, what?"
     "She liiiked it."
     "Oh Richard I did not!" Darlene protested. Her chubby face flushed bright red and she was grinning.
     It was too bizarre to be funny. I just shook my head and lit a cigarette and sipped my coffee. Richard left the room and came back in with a tray with some pot on it. He sat down and manicured it with a small scissors.
     "Oh Richard. You have such nice hands. You could've been a doctor. Don'tcha think Richard has nice hands Mike?"
     "Darlene, leave Mike alone. He don't care about my hands. Do you Mike?"
     "Not particularly. Wel,l I gotta go to class. I'll catch you folks later."
     "Bye Mikey. Study hard and you'll make your parents proud someday. I just know you will," said Darlene.
     "I'm fixing to roll a joint here Mike if you want to wait a minute," offered Richard.
     "No thanks, Richard. Maybe later though." I headed for the door with Darlene's voice trailing after me.
     "You will Mike! You'll make them proud someday..."
     I stepped into the bright morning sunshine with a feeling of relief followed by a rush of panic. My bike was gone. Then I remembered the meeting with Terry and having locked it up at Jack's. I sighed and began walking that way, growing more enthusiastic with each step, thinking eagerly about my first class of the day-----Anthropology 201.

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