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I was teaching a class called Advanced Fiction II. My ex, who was one of my students, had a story up for discussion. We were trying to be grown up about things.
The story was called "Wrath…?" with an ellipsis and a question mark. It was about a nameless older man who went into an elementary school taken over by local thugs and executed them all. It seemed like it was about me, and I was the gang. There were problems with the point of view, the setting, the time frame, pretty much everything. First sentence: “The man, who was named Will, or William, by his father, whom he called Paw but whose given name was also William, grew up hard."
I asked my ex to read a passage for us, if he would. He chose the moment when Will surprised a gang member when the gang member was pleasuring himself in the bathroom. My ex had once surprised me pleasuring myself in the bathroom. Pleasuring oneself was the story’s term of art.
As my ex read, I stared at him. He had a lazy eye and looked like a young George Washington, but in a charismatic way that worked for him.
When he was done, I thanked him and looked around the table. “Any comments?” I said. “About…” I glanced down at the story. “‘Wrath…?’?” No one wanted to begin.
“Alright,” I said. “What is a quickdraw mag?”
A woman raised her hand uncertainly. She was writing a multigenerational saga about her great-great-grandmother, who “came from County Cork, Ireland, on a boat.”
“Yes?” I said, as pleasantly as I could.
“It’s like a whip,” she said. “Right?” She looked to my ex.
Several others nodded.
“Is it a type of ammo?” I said. “Or is it an ammunition holder or what?”
County Cork had a friend, Vampire Mike. Vampire Mike had written a trilogy about a coven of vampires who worked as night-duty police officers and prison guards. Because this trilogy was unpublished, he decided to begin a second trilogy, which he promised would be more erotic. He said he thought a quickdraw mag was like a custom thing, but wasn’t sure.
Another student, Poet Boy, had his head on the table. “Does it matter?” he asked. Poet Boy came to class 20 minutes late when he came. He really wanted to be a poet, but the advanced poetry workshop was full, alas.
“It’s a small detail,” I said. “I just wanted to know if we could picture this—this world.”
Vampire Mike said, “I think it’s kind of cool that I don’t know exactly every word.”
I looked around the table. Nobody seemed to share my interest in picturing anything. My ex smiled at me, or maybe he was smirking.
County Cork raised her hand. “I liked the whole swampiness of the writing,” she said. She looked mystified by her own words.
“The what?” I said.
“The writing,” she said, “it’s like a swamp in a way. Isn’t it?” She looked around the table.
“You mean,” I said, “how it’s confusing?” I leaned back in my chair. I sat at a small desk, which I wedged under the end of the table, because the table alone was not large enough.
“I mean,” she said, “it just feels like how being in a swamp feels.”
“Perhaps we should talk about sentences,” I said.
Nobody wanted to talk about sentences.
“OK,” I said. I read the first sentence deliberately. “What do we think of that?” I looked around the table.
“Good,” Poet Boy said.
“Is it?” I said. I waited. “Is it a sentence?” Nobody said anything. “Or is it a collection of words?” I paused, letting this sink in. “A sentence is more than a collection of words,” I said. “A sentence has force.” I pushed my hand out like I was surfing across the table. “A sentence moves forward. It carries us to the next sentence. And the next. Right?”
County Cork raised her hand. “I liked the woman guard,” she said.
I might have laughed. I put my hand to my mouth like it was a cough.
“Totally,” Poet Boy said, “the descriptions are really… interesting.”
I flipped through the story, reading stray words, words like “firing position” and “spatter” and “reload.”
“I had a teacher once,” I said. I paused to remember him, picturing his gabardine slacks, the mothballs he kept in his pockets. “He had a theory of fiction that he called the species recognition theory.”
Vampire Mike was writing this down.
“Does anyone know what species recognition is?”
Nobody did, or if they did, they weren’t saying.
“Species recognition,” I said, “is how dogs know dogs. You recognize your own kind,” I said. “You want to fuck it. You want to fuck your own kind.”
Vampire Mike put his pen down and looked at his notes.
“So,” I said, “when I read, personally, I pay attention to people, to the characters. I like people. I like people a lot. I like them a whole lot more than fucking ammunition.”
My ex spoke then. The writer was not supposed to speak, but whatever. He said, “I’m sorry you couldn’t find someone to fuck, Allen.”
Poet Boy laughed.
I got up from my chair, and then—I really did this—I flipped my desk over. “Fuck off,” I said.
I started toward the door, wanting to run, but then I stopped and went back for my papers. Then I left. I could email them later and try to patch things up.
I needed to self-soothe. I went to a place I know nearby, a little triangle of dirt surrounded by concrete walls, stairs going up one side. I climbed over the wall and sat on a pipe. Then I rooted through my bag. Where were my goddamn cookies? It felt private there, my own little park. Only my head showed. On the sidewalk, people passed by.
I heard voices, laughter. It was my class. They were down the street, coming this way. I thought about screaming at them, and then I thought about hiding, but I didn’t move.
County Cork spotted me. “That the professor?” she said. She pointed.
Everyone looked. I waved my cookie in the air, and they all came over. My ex stood in the middle of this scrum, surrounded, like a celebrity or a dictator.
“You look like you’re going to the bathroom,” he said.
“I am,” I said. “That’s what I do. I come here after class and go to the bathroom.”
“We’re, uh, getting pizza?” County Cork said. She looked at everyone. “If you want? To come, I mean.”
I abhorred politeness. It was like wallpaper in a shit shack. I made some excuse about needing to get home and said I would see them next week.