The 2017 Fiction Issue

'Intimacy,' a Story by Joyce Carol Oates

A celebrated visiting writing professor regrets her decision to hold office hours after sunset when a male student—an outlier who writes graphically violent, autobiographical stories—comes in and demands more attention than she wants to give him.

by Joyce Carol Oates
Dec 4 2017, 3:30pm

All photographs by Hannah Price

This story appears in VICE magazine's eleventh annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

No reason to believe that he wishes you ill. That you are in danger.

No reason to think that as you speak carefully to him, respectfully, smiling your kind smile, he is not really listening but staring at the movements of your mouth with an expression of muted rage.

No reason to believe that he is carrying, inside his loose-fitting clothes, partially zipped parka, khaki work pants with multiple pockets, or in the soiled canvas backpack on his knees, any sort of weapon.

Yet: You are alerted. Vigilant. Even as you instruct yourself, No—of course not. Don’t be absurd.

You are an individual who prides herself on being enlightened. Calm, poised, inclined to compromise and arbitration. Not alarmist.

It’s the intimacy of the situation that is unnerving.

Intimacy—two individuals, middle-aged (female) professor, (male) student-writer/US Army veteran in his late 20s, strangers to each other finding themselves sharing a cramped space of approximately six square feet in a basement university office.

Intimacy enhanced by the hour that is late afternoon of an occluded November weekday so that by 5:15 PM it is dusk outside the scummy half-window of the office and the austere old sandstone building known as the Lyman Hall of Languages is near-deserted.

Intimacy so stressful to you, your heartbeat has quickened, pinpricks of sweat are breaking out on your upper body beneath your clothes though the air in the office is cold from the drafty, ill-fitting window.

Yet: No reason to believe that G***n K***f (as he has identified his writing-self on his manuscripts) is hostile to you specifically, still less that he will act upon this hostility, though the prose works of G***n K***f you have seen are steeped in violence, cruelty, sadism, and he has hinted to you, in a previous exchange, not in this office in the basement of Lyman Hall but in the corridor outside your seminar room on the third floor, that he has done some things, impulsive things of which I am not proud, Pro-fes-sor.

† † †

Pro-fes-sor. Uttered in a low drawl, with a twist of his lips meant to resemble a smile, and a belligerent shifting of his gaze to your face.

Sometimes adding, as if he has just thought of it— ma’am.

† † †

Twenty minutes late for the scheduled conference. So that you have been thinking with childlike naïveté— Maybe he won’t come...

Kroff has missed a previous conference with you, in this office. He has missed a recent class. He has hinted of a life of complications, responsibilities—(is Kroff married? Is it possible that Kroff is a husband, a father?)—from which he can’t easily detach himself for the fiction-writing workshop in which he is enrolled meets on Thursday afternoons, which conflicts, to a degree, with something else he is doing, or should be doing, which might have something to do with his status as a veteran (VA hospital therapy? Rehab?) at an overlapping time.

Why then is Gavin Kroff taking the workshop, if it represents a hardship for him?

Answer is, bluntly delivered, bemused pale-blue eyes and twisty smile, You, Pro-fes-sor.

† † †

Sharp rap of knuckles on the (opened) door of the office.

“Hello! Come in…”

Your greeting is friendly, matter-of-fact. Crucial for you to maintain a distance between yourself and the aggressive young man who has indicated in many ways that he wants nothing more than to collapse the protocol of distance between professor and student, annihilate borders, establish intimacy.

Yet Gavin Kroff lingers in the corridor stooping and staring. Though he has knocked on the door, and the door is open, as the door is always open during your office hours, and you have greeted him and invited him inside, still he appears hesitant, diffident-seeming. His face that is almost attractive at a distance seen close-up is creased, suspicious. As if he were thinking— Am I too early? Is this the wrong time? Do you really want me?

“Come in, please. Gavin.”

Forcing you to speak louder. Smile harder. Utter his name— Gavin.

A name that is strange in your mouth, like a swollen tongue.

It is not an era in academic history when professors address students by their surnames: Mister, Miss. In this quasi-democratic era, first names are obligatory.

Assuring the frowning young man that yes, this is the time you’d set for your appointment. He is not early, nor is he (very) late.

Guardedly Gavin enters the office. He is tall, well over six feet, but moves with a slouch, head lowered and shoulders hunched as if entering a force field intent upon repelling him, against which he must be vigilant.

(Because he is a war veteran? Because he has not fully recovered from being in combat? Because it has become second nature to him, to distrust and fear his surroundings? Unless it was always Gavin Kroff’s nature to behave with such unease and suspicion, before joining the US Army and being shipped to Afghanistan.)

Muttering what sounds like, “Thanks, Pro-fes-sor. Ma’am.

If this is mockery, you don’t acknowledge it. Truly you are feeling hopeful, optimistic about this conference.

Conference is the preferred term. Students drop by an office, make an appointment with a professor, for a conference. Pointedly, Gavin Kroff requested a conference with you this afternoon, following an awkward exchange with him in class the previous week.

A faint, hairline pulse of a migraine has begun somewhere in the cerebellum of your brain, triggered by the ugly fluorescent lighting you’d been obliged to switch on a few minutes ago. Otherwise you and Gavin Kroff would be conferring in a shadowy office in the sepulchral quiet of a university building at dusk.

Clutching his soiled backpack (which appears to contain something heavy), Kroff comes to sit in the chair beside your desk. He sighs, as if releasing a burden. His uneven, discolored teeth are bared in an inscrutable smile.

So suddenly, so close—only a few inches from you across the corner of the desk. Even as you shrink from seeing you cannot help but see the young man’s blotched skin, stiff dust-colored hair receding at his temples, unshaven jaws and brash tawny eyes like cracked glass.

To the left of his mouth, a thick white worm of a scar. Hard not to stare at this scar, that seems to be staring back at you.

In one of Kroff’s prose pieces a child is mutilated and maimed by an elaborate piece of machinery into which he is pushed by an older sibling; especially, his face is mutilated. Though you know that you have no right to assume an autobiographical intent, you have assumed that this is more or less how Kroff’s face came to be scarred.

Unless it is a scar from a war injury.

In which case: You wonder if Gavin Kroff is scarred elsewhere, inside his clothes.

And what of the scars hidden from sight?—these are the ugliest.

If the basement office were larger, the aluminum desk would be positioned differently: You would be seated behind it, and students would be seated in front of it. A discreet distance of several feet between you. But the office isn’t large; two bulky desks take up most of the space. Since you are a visiting professor, however distinguished the title a transient hire, your assigned desk is nearer the door; your students are obliged to sit in a chair perpendicular to the desk, facing you at a slant.

The full-time faculty member who shares the office, whom you have yet to meet, has the desk at the rear, a preferred space beside the drafty window. This individual has filled a bookcase with books relating to the Renaissance and stacks of printed university material, most of which is several years old. On a dusty windowsill is a bust of William Shakespeare of the sort one might buy at a cheap souvenir shop at Stratford-on-Avon, of the size of a small cat, and on one of the walls a faded poster gaily advertising Shakespeare in Love.

Your workplace, you think. A seminar room on the third floor of the building, and this bleak subterranean office to which you’ve been assigned.

Of course, you do no work in this inhospitable workplace. It is used for student conferences solely.

So far this semester, few of these. Except for Gavin Kroff who seems determined to extract from his relationship with the university, and with you, as much as possible.

If it were daytime, and not dusk! You would not be so uneasy. If Lyman Hall were not so quiet…

During the day, the old building quivers with life, as a corpse may quiver with electric currents coursing through it: thunderous young feet on wooden stairs, that tremble beneath so much youthful energy, weight. Upraised voices, laughter. At such times the bleak anonymity of the human race is muffled; the vanity of human wishes signaled here by the cheap, campy bust of Shakespeare and the faded poster kept at a distance.As you wait patiently—(for what choice have you?—you are captive here)—Kroff has been rummaging in his backpack. His head is lowered; he is breathing noisily through his mouth. A faint sheen of perspiration on his blemished forehead.

You feel a thrill of apprehension—an absurd apprehension, you are sure: that in the backpack, or on Kroff’s person, he is carrying a weapon.

Gun, knife. His knobby hands would be adept with both.

In one of his impressionistic prose pieces, a three-foot length of wire.

And what is the purpose of the length of wire?—you’d asked him.

Kroff had shrugged, laughed. A pleasurable flush came into his face, and his eyes filled with moisture.

What could possibly be the purpose of a length of wire, Pro-fes-sor?

Isn’t the point of literature to inspire readers to imagine?

(This exchange had taken place in a previous conference, weeks before.)

Kroff will not intimidate you, you think. No.

Politely, with a kind smile, you ask the young writer what you can do for him?—a formal question that seems to trouble him, as if it were a riddle.

“Thanks, Pro-fes-sor! But I think you know.”

“Think I know?

This is a surprise. This is a thinly veiled threat. (Is it?) (Yet Kroff continues to smile at you.) In his perpendicular position at the desk, Kroff manages to twist his neck even further than necessary, as if indeed he were caught in some sort of crippling machinery. Still he is panting, breathing through his mouth. You wonder if he is medicated: If the medications have calmed him, or heightened his intensity. Could he be on steroids? Cortisone? His skin looks heated as it has looked in the seminar, when his work is being (carefully, discreetly) critiqued by the other young writers, and, eventually, when the others have spoken, you. Boldly Kroff fixes you with his tawny cracked-glass stare, like the stare of a glass-eyed doll.

Brazen familiarity in the gesture, you can only try to ignore; you can only tell yourself that Kroff isn’t fully conscious of the way he looks, the manic fixedness of his stare.

Intimacy in the way he regards you.

Intimacy you are determined not to acknowledge.

Intimacy—knowing too much about the other while knowing nothing essential.

Indeed Kroff entered the office in the sidelong manner in which he enters the seminar room, as if he were looking in two directions at once, like a creature with eyes on either side of its head; you have wondered if perhaps he has some sort of neurological impairment, though it could also be just ordinary clumsiness, a kind of obstinacy. Here I am! Take me or leave me.

The sort of individual, prevalent (you recall) in high school, usually male, whose awkwardness spills over from him and onto others in his vicinity, as if he were carrying a bowl of something viscous that spills onto others’ feet; or rather, for Kroff inspires in you such aggressive metaphors, he is like one who sneezes without troubling to cover his mouth and nose, sending an explosion of bacteria out into the air, infecting all within range.

A subsequent impression is that Kroff’s very awkwardness is calculated, as he usually manages to enter the seminar room to arrive after the other (14) students have taken seats around the long, oval table; so the only available seat is the one nearest the professor at the head of the table. (By some sort of consensus, students will not take seats close to a professor, if they can avoid it. To come too close to the figure of authority is to violate a taboo—if but a minor one.)

Yet in his way that might seem, to the neutral observer, blundering and wayward, Kroff maneuvers to sit beside you for the three-hour workshop. Skidding a chair along the floor, beside your chair. (But not too close. Even Kroff doesn’t dare intrude too obviously into the professor’s private space.)

Three hours! In your worst imaginings it’s like elementary school—a jeering kid beside the teacher, and just slightly behind her, making faces to provoke mirth in other students.

But Kroff isn’t so crude. Nor does Kroff think much of his fellow students.

Nor would the other students—all of them quite serious writers, one or two genuinely gifted (you wish to think)—appreciate Kroff misbehaving in this way.

More likely, Kroff sits beside you because he wishes to share the authority you represent in the seminar room. Gazing toward you, the others must take note of him.

And, though you are reluctant to acknowledge it, Kroff seems somewhat fixed upon you…

See? I sit beside you. Could reach out to touch you—your wrist, arm. Hair. Cheek.

And so Kroff sits beside you at close quarters gazing, staring, blinking and staring, at the side of your face, for three hours each Thursday afternoon as, as the year wanes, the sky darkens ever earlier, and it is dusk by the time the workshop disbands. Often he nods in agreement with your words, if you are speaking, sometimes, vehemently. Though occasionally (you surmise: You don’t turn to look at him if you can help it) he shakes his head in disagreement. He may even mutter to himself, and grimace; shift restlessly in his seat; take fevered notes as if your every remark is priceless, or, pointedly, cease taking notes. He may even lapse into a trance of seeming stupefaction, open-eyed, mouth slack. (Not boredom, he has explained. No! Sleep deprivation.)

While his work is being discussed, Kroff is very still. Even his restless legs become stiff. His gesture toward disguising himself—identifying the author of the manuscript as G***n K***f —is meant to be a joke. (Maybe.) (But is it funny? No one has smiled.) Once you glanced sidelong at him as one of the student-writers was speaking in an earnest pained way trying to say something nice, encouraging and inoffensive, and you saw that Kroff’s face was taut with fury. You would swear, you’d heard his back molars grind. The most intimate of sounds, you might hear a lover grinding his teeth in the night, his head on the pillow beside yours as you lie awake unable to sleep.

Unbidden the thought came to you— He would like to tear out all our throats.

† † †

It is an old (urban) university, by American standards. On the bank of a river that has become mythic—“majestic”—in the American imagination.

Of land-grant, public universities it is not the largest, but it is one of the most prestigious, or has been until recently. Now a Republican governor and a Republican legislature have cut the state education budget by millions of dollars and boast of “holding professors’ feet to the fire”—a metaphor the media finds amusing.

In the (approximate) middle of your life, you find yourself a visiting professor here for the fall term. Your title is “visiting distinguished professor in the humanities.”

Because you are new here, and because there are few creative-writing instructors on the faculty, more than 100 students applied for your Advanced Fiction Workshop, for a mere 15 places.

Very carefully, you read through these applications, and their attached fiction samples. You read, reread. Coolly professional you ignored pleas by students claiming desperation if they were rejected for it was their senior year, for instance, or they were longtime admirers of your work; you hesitated before accepting an older, general student named Gavin Kroff whose writing sample verged upon the obscure, for you’d seen that he had identified himself as an army veteran, and wanted to give him, as you might have said if queried, the benefit of the doubt.

And so now you may tell yourself— You brought this on yourself. Indulging in a cliché. No one else to blame!

† † †

Says Kroff in a quavering voice, he’d like to speak frankly.

So naturally you concur . Of course.

“What I think is—in our seminar— Pro-fes-sor—I am not being treated justly by the other writers. And by you.”

To this blunt charge you can think of no reply. Not justly! The very words are unexpected.

It is true, you have withheld superlatives from Kroff. On principle you don’t believe in lavishing writing students with excessive praise, though (you assume) it is not very difficult for them to determine whose work you think is superior; usually, it is the work others in the class believe to be superior. In Kroff’s case, you are not condemning, for you never condemn; but neither do you praise his work. Your commentary is terse, diplomatic. You dwell on sentences, paragraphs. If there is praise, it is for a certain “originality” of language Kroff exhibits.

But now Kroff is incensed. Saying he’d been God-damned grateful to be accepted into the seminar with a world-famous professor, meant so much to him he’d (almost) gotten down on his knees and gave thanks—like you’d reached out and touched his bare, beating heart.

Now, he feels differently. He’s disappointed—disillusioned. Since his first piece of writing he’d given to the seminar for criticism, there’s been a kind of, he’d call it a kind of prejudice—“Like racism, almost.”

Racism?

“Like, I am a white man—a kind of minority right now in this country…”

Quietly you try to point out that, in the workshop there is a majority of “white” students. Out of 15 students, at least 11.

But Kroff dismisses this with a wave of his hand. Frowning severely.

“Like, a ‘white’ woman takes their side, you can count on that. All of you ganging up against me.”

Takes their side? Whose?

You tell Kroff that you don’t quite understand what he is saying. But—“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t tell me you are sorry! That is not enough.”

“But—I’m not sure that I know what…”

“Then listen! Listen to what I am saying. Don’t interrupt me please, Pro-fes-sor.

Kroff’s voice is quavering with—is it resentment? Rage? The white worm beside his mouth is writhing.

Very still you sit at your desk hoping the fury will pass.

If you are calm, this incensed individual will be calm. If you breathe normally, this individual will breathe normally. You tell yourself.

(Quickly your mind calculates: Could you get to the door before Kroff seizes you? No.)

(Is there anyone in the nearest offices? Anyone in subterranean Lyman Hall at 5:55 PM?)

Hot-eyed Kroff relents. Seeing (possibly) your look of alarm, fright.

Saying, “OK it could be unconscious. It’s maybe not conscious. The ignorant bigoted things they say about my writing, narrow-minded and banal, they’d say of the prose poetry of Rimbaud, or Rilke. They’d say of William Burroughs. Wittgenstein. Because they are not themselves writers—artists. Except for three or four of them they are all younger than me, and for a long time I was the one who was young.

Kroff makes a snuffling sound, indignant. “So I’m saying, what they say of my writing is maybe not fully conscious. Not knowing what real writing is.

In a raw aggrieved voice, Kroff proceeds to list examples of bigoted criticism leveled against his work in the class. He has recalled every remark however hesitant or innocuous. No one has even tried to understand what he is doing, he claims. No one has been sympathetic.

“They think they’re better than me—cause I enlisted in the army. Cause I served my country and got shot up, and that’s for suckers in the US now.”

Quickly you protest. Try to protest. That is not—true…

Kroff shoves manuscripts across the desk for you to examine. The pages are crumpled and torn as if they’ve been retrieved from the trash.

(Hardly any need for you to reexamine these prose pieces. You’ve read them more than once, more than twice, annotating them for Kroff’s benefit, and that is enough.)

Prose poetry he calls it. Not fiction, not poetry. Not real-life, not invented.

Difficult to determine if Kroff is genuinely incensed, or coldly calculating. In the midst of a tirade, he seems to draw back to observe how his words, his heated manner, are affecting you.

Pro-fes-sor. Ma’am.

Is he furious with you? Does he feel betrayed by you? Is it—(though you are certain it is not) some sort of sexual animosity? Or does Kroff simply hope to manipulate you?

Does he want something from you?—or does he want nothing at all from you?

(Yes, you have seen Kroff, or someone who closely resembles him, in Lyman Hall after class has ended. You have seen Kroff at a little distance in the corridors, slyly observing you. Perhaps Kroff hides in a men’s lavatory on the third floor, and after you start downstairs, he descends behind you in no haste, noiselessly. You have seen: Kroff avoids others in the workshop after class, unless it is others in the workshop who avoid him. Perhaps he dares to follow you into the basement of Lyman Hall, to this very office. And then perhaps he dares to follow you out of the building and to the parking lot where lights glimmer at the tops of tall poles...)

(Perhaps all these sightings, if that is what they are, are but coincidences. Perhaps there is nothing to your concern, it is but the concern of a woman who is alone in a world not so very hospitable to a woman alone as if aloneness were a brazen and unwomanly choice. You will not inquire for it is not your way to be an alarmist.)

(Also, you believe that Kroff is enthralled with you. Despite his rudeness, arrogance. The fact that a work of fiction by you is included in a popular anthology of American literature you are using in the course— very impressive! Not that Kroff has read anything you’ve written or that he cares enough to consider the editorial criticism you’ve offered him, attached to each of his compositions; but rather that he reveres the title visiting distinguished professor in the humanities and would hope that some of its luster might rub off on him, as your most talented and audacious student.)

In the workshop Kroff is often isolated, silent. His height, his manner, his status as an Afghanistan War veteran, to which he has only peripherally alluded in his prose poems, has made the other students wary of him, respectful and guarded. If he were friendly toward them, they would melt, and exude friendliness toward him; they would ignore, or try to ignore, the nature of his writing, so different from their own. But unlike them and unlike their professor, Kroff does not readily smile.

When one of our kind does not smile, we are disoriented. We don’t know where to look. We feel threatened.

In the workshop Kroff rarely comments on others’ work. His responses are lofty shrugs, indifference— OK. Not bad.

Indeed Kroll is one of the older students in the workshop and (so far as you know) the only ex-military service member; he is the only student not enrolled in the college of liberal arts, but rather in a heterogeneous division called general studies, where admissions are open to state residents regardless of grades. You assume that, as a war veteran, Kroff pays no tuition and may even have a scholarship.

Occasionally for some inexplicable reason during class Kroff will heave himself to his feet, mutter an inaudible excuse, seize his backpack, and stalk out of the seminar room—(for he would never leave the bulky backpack unattended; he appears to guard it with his life); he may be absent for as long as 40 minutes, but he eventually returns, with another inaudible excuse, reclaims his seat in the skidding chair. You are likely to think— He is barely holding himself together. And you think— Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Not that you would utter this phrase to Gavin Kroff who sneers at what he calls tired old clichés.

(But is not tired old cliché a cliché itself, the more clichéd for being tired and old?)

At the first workshop meeting it was clear that Kroff was a serious writer for unlike the others he’d brought with him a swath of material that, he said, he carried around with him everywhere, and never let out of his sight.

He slept with it, in soiled and dog-eared folders. There had to be computer files of Kroff’s work for he handed in his assignments via email as the others did yet, to hear Kroff speak of his modus operandi (his word), he could not trust the electronic world, he could only trust the world of hard copy.

Saying, “If there’s a power outage worldwide, some folks will be devastated, wiped clean. Others will have planned ahead like squirrels burying their food. It will be survival of the fittest. I plan to be in that category— fittest.”

Kroff seems never to be satisfied with the work he hands in, yet Kroff is not receptive to criticism. From you, he will accept some editorial suggestions, with grudging thanks; when others make suggestions, he becomes stony-faced, resentful. Promising—others have said, cautiously. Strong material, hard to understand, “controversial”—they have said uneasily, searching for the right words.

No one has said to Kroff what all of us are thinking— Cruel, awful, obscene. Unreadable. No more!

It’s a memoir he has been assembling a memoir, Kroff says. But it is simultaneously fiction—his theme is the incursion of fiction into real life, and the incursion of real-life into fiction. “When you are a soldier there is half of you that is your old, real self —but there is half of you that is some other, stranger self.” When the credibility of his prose has been questioned Kroff says in triumph— Sorry! It happened just like that. Or he says in triumph— Sorry!—it’s fiction, see? Invented.

Kroff insists upon reading aloud from his most recent prose work, material taken up the previous week in the workshop. You are dismayed, near-desperate. This is one of his least comprehensible pieces, breathlessly cascading stream-of-consciousness fantasy that appears to be evoking the futile struggle of an individual (child?) who is being strangled while at the same time he is being sexually assaulted (?). (None of this is definitive for Kroff aligns himself with Rilke and Rimbaud and will not be tied down to banal concrete fact.) Quietly, stoically you sit at the desk with your hands clasped tightly together; your head is slightly bowed, to deflect the imminent migraine that radiates out from the fluorescent tubing, and to suggest the gravity with which you are listening to Kroff’s agitated voice. Your facial expression doesn’t show the pain you are trying not to feel just yet—it is one of teacherly solicitude, attention. There comes, like a tic, the kind smile.

In truth you are furious with him. You are frightened. You are hoping to stave off the migraine attack until you are alone. (The last thing you want is Gavin Kroff’s pity, or even his sympathy. You are in dread of fainting, and being dependent upon Kroff picking you up from the grimy floor.) It’s as if Kroff has given you a rude push with the flat of his hand, not hard, but hard enough to stun, baffle.

Kroff’s major subject seems to be the protracted abuse of a child. There has been whipping with a leather belt, and there has been binding with wire, and there has been the elaborate machine. (Sometimes the mechanism appears to be an escalator with gears exposed, into which a child is pushed.)

Sometimes it seems that Gavin Kroff is the abused child, and sometimes, more horribly, it seems that a younger brother of Kroff’s the abused child, and that the abuse is not past tense but present, ongoing.

This evening in your office Kroff reads beyond the section with which you are familiar, which was taken up in a recent class and had not elicited much commentary from the other students. For what is there to say about a child being tortured, in such obscure “poetic” prose? No one can doubt the seriousness of the writing, or the commitment to his subject of the writer. But no one knows how to respond except in terms already aired in the workshop— Hard to understand, couldn’t follow all the sentences, had trouble figuring out what was going on and who was who…

The new material, which Kroff reads with breathless relish, is even more graphic and painful than usual: a depiction of a garroting, at poetic length, as if Sade, William Burroughs, and Jean Genet had collaborated. In the voice of the eight-year-old victim, there is recounted a ghastly torture scene, strangulation by garroting. Each time the boy (Kroff?) loses consciousness the strangler (Kroff?) releases the pressure of the garrote to allow him to regain consciousness; when the boy has regained consciousness, the strangler again exerts pressure… On and on this goes in the most excruciating “poetic” language so that after a time it isn’t clear if there is a (actual) child being tortured, or if the prose piece is sheer fantasy. Or (as Kroff has himself suggested) is it an exploration of simile?

It is pointless to inquire of Kroff if the material is meant to be interpreted as “real”—or “surreal”—for when Kroff is asked this question he is likely to say, with a scornful laugh, in reference to one of his idols (Wittgenstein, Derrida, Bernhardt), that he has created a pseudonymous self— G***n K***f—in order to create a text and that a text has no ontological existence apart from letters, words, sentences displayed on a page.

(But she feels so sorry for the little boy!—Caitlin, one of the young women in the workshop, has exclaimed. What Kroff has written might be merely a text, but it has the power to terrify her, and to bring tears to her eyes.)

Of course, all this is true enough. As a writer, a creator of texts, you can’t disagree. Kroff has a naturally analytical mind, it seems, along with a naturally perverse, sadistic, and masochistic imagination, and all that he claims is plausible enough, as his use of profanities, obscenities, and racially tinged insults in his prose is merely textual. His ecstatic flights of prose are texts primarily, assemblages of words. That the words are often impenetrable, and the material often discomforting, is also true, but perhaps not the primary issue.

How to “criticize” such a writer? If he wished, Kroff could (probably) write as clearly and engagingly as others in the class, on other, less upsetting subjects; but he seems to have no interest in replicating reality, and it has been a cause for wonderment in the workshop (expressed not to Kroff himself but to you, by other students) that he has so little interest in writing about the army, his fellow soldiers, Afghanistan. Perversely, his prose is set nowhere recognizable, like the prose of Edgar Allan Poe, and his “characters” scarcely exist except as vehicles for impressionistic descriptions of mental states. All is (maddeningly, exhaustively) interior and introverted, lacking psychological depth and dialogue: There are screams, groans, sighs, and utterances in Kroff’s prose, but no conversations. No discernible plots or stories in his prose, only dire existential situations.

Time seems never to pass in Kroff’s writing, except as it is measured in the torture of a body, or the fleeting emotions of a torturer. Indeed, in Kroff’s typical work time is flattened, stopped. The worst has already happened: Both child and torturer have ceased to exist while at the same time they are just about to begin their encounter.

The child is always eight years old. The torturer is of no fixed age, but from internal evidence seems to be in his late 20s and has been discharged from the US Army after serving two deployments to Afghanistan.

When Kroff first presented his work to his fellow students, it was clear that they were shocked, discomforted. One of the young women writers excused herself and left the room, and returned an hour later, when it was safe to assume that discussion of Kroff’s work was over. (No one in the workshop has complained to you about Kroff’s writing, and, so far as you know, they have not complained to your departmental chair or to the dean. Perhaps, you think, they are sympathetic with you as a woman professor, a visitor at the university.)

Yet you believe you can discern in the other students a measure of admiration for Kroff for his having created so obsessive a counter-world. His prose is like no one else’s—like a text that has been translated from another language. Words seem inadequate, the structures of sentences finicky as a spider’s web, requiring many commas, semicolons, and colons in the construction of a single paragraph. The prose is exhausting, like running up an escalator with steps that are moving down. (To borrow one of Kroff’s tropes.) It is possible to make progress in such running, but it is not an easy progress, and as soon as you cease running, you are rapidly descending.

You have given much thought to Gavin Kroff, far more thought than you’ve given to any other student of yours through your teaching career of 12 intermittent years. You resent him for this reason, and you are not likely to forget him. He is not naïve, you think, but he is primitive. His brain is a sort of machine that has been mis-programmed. His insistence that readers should interpret his work as merely textual, and not “real,” is maddening to you, though as a writing instructor you are not sure to what degree you have the right, still less the obligation, to refute him.

“Ma’am?”

Kroff is looking at you expectantly. He has asked you a question, or raised a query, you must respond.

“So you are saying, Gavin, that the subject of your work is— simile?”

“No. The mode of my work is simile.”

Looking at you with an air of disdain, disgust. As if (he knows) you are only pretending to be stupid.

“This disquisition on the torture of a child is—what? An examination of—?

(You are speaking without irony. The threat of migraine vanishes all irony.)

“—of perception.”

Kroff is smiling angrily at you. Or rather, his mouth is twisted in a grimace of a smile.

Kroff has become very warm, and has unzipped his parka. You feel a thrill of dread. There wafts to your unwilling nostrils the thick coarse smell of a male body, clothes not recently washed.

Intimacy—the smell of another.

Intimacy—all but unbearable when it is unwanted.

“Like, scenes for a memoir. From real life I am drawing material, like van Gogh looking at a landscape, and painting not what his eyes see, which is what any ordinary person’s eyes might see, but what his van Gogh brain sees.”

To this you have no immediate reply. It’s a telling phrase—v an Gogh brain.

(Does Kroff align himself with van Gogh? With genius? Or with the madness of genius, in van Gogh’s case?)

“Look, Pro-fes-sor—I can accept that others in the class who are basically ignorant don’t ‘get’ when I am doing—but you, Pro-fes-sor—ma’am—you should. You most of all.”

You resist the impulse to apologize. You have nothing to apologize for.

Telling Kroff that you will have to be leaving, soon… Glancing at your watch, signaling to him— Please! Please leave.

Yearning to be free of him. This terrible intimacy.

So that you can rush to a women’s room nearby, cup water in the palm of your hand, swallow two powerful migraine pills. Hurry!

“OK, Pro-fes-sor. Guess I should leave…”

Roughly Kroff thrusts his manuscripts back inside the backpack.

Slowly then, Kroff rises. Now he is looming over you.

That smell of his body again. That strange grimace of a smile.

You are trembling. Not smiling, not even that weak, kind smile. Only just waiting for Kroff to leave.

Please, please, please, please. Leave me.

And then Kroff says, as if he has just thought of it, “What I’m thinking, actually, is—I might drop the course.”

To this you have no reply. Your natural instinct is to protest— No, but why? But you say nothing.

“Yeah. That’s what I’m thinking. Why I came to see you, actually, Pro-fes-sor.

Looming over you. Knowing that he is intimidating you, threatening you, for how can he not know?—and you are on your feet also, desperate, though trying to remain calm.

“Whatever you decide, Gavin, that is—that is up to you to decide… But now, I have to leave. I’m afraid that…”

Gavin. That name. Weakly your voice trails off.

“That’s what you advise? That I drop the course? But I won’t get the tuition back—will I? It’s too late. Too late to drop. I’ve been treated like shit. You can’t just—civilians can’t—treat us like shit.”

Numbly you tell the aroused Kroff that you are very sorry. Perhaps you could intervene on his behalf, with the dean…

Kroff interrupts: “You told us on the first day of the workshop that we should try to write ‘memorable work’—right? So that is what I have done, and nobody else has done—yet, you are trying to tell me, I think you are trying to tell me, that my work is not— memorable.

“Well, no—I didn’t say that, Gavin. I wouldn’t say that. Your work is—it is—it is memorable. Yes.”

“So—what’s wrong, then? You don’t—” (pausing unable to blurt out the words of hurt, anguish: You don’t praise me) “—‘get it’—I guess?”

“Maybe I don’t, Gavin. I’ve tried…”

“You have not tried. Did you think what I wrote about my brother was real?—or wasn’t real?

No idea what to tell him. This angry incensed young man. (Had he killed in Afghanistan? Was that his secret—he has been a killer and can’t bear it?) Wondering if there might be someone—anyone—in the corridor outside this office, who might hear you if you called for help.

“He isn’t eight years old. Not now. He’s older. He didn’t die. I’ve got him trained. If I raise my fist, he pisses himself. He’s that scared. When he was a kid, I told him, he’d never become courageous if he doesn’t stand up to me, but he never did. He can’t. A beautiful baby, they called him. But no longer.”

Kroff is on his feet, grinning. Kroff can see you’re distressed by what he has said, which is either a revelation, a confession; unless it is a further obfuscation.

“His name is Luke. He’s what you call ‘learning disabled.’ He loves me. He’s forgiven me for everything. It’s like a joke—I’m God to him.

Kroff pauses, breathing audibly. “Also, know what, ma’am?—I’m his guardian. Just nine years between us, but I’m his guardian. He is in my control.

With a grunt Kroff slips on the backpack. Clearly he is enjoying your distress. “Did you think I was writing about myself, Pro-fes-sor? Me and my brother? Guess it’s pretty convincing, if you and the rest of those assholes believed it.”

Waiting for him to leave. Calmly gazing at him, trying not to surrender to the pain gathering behind your eyes.

“Y’know, I don’t think I will be returning to the ‘workshop.’ Fucking waste of time. Imagine Rimbaud in a ‘workshop’—Nietzsche! Fucking funny.”

At the doorway, Kroff lingers as if he expects you to call him back.

“Disappointment. Waste of time. You’ve been a disappointment. Damned glad I didn’t run out and buy some shitty book of yours, ma’am. You and those assholes.”

Waiting for him to leave. Waiting for this ordeal to be over.

Almost you are counting the seconds, until he will have left.

Thinking, with a thrill of fear— He still has time. Whatever he has in the backpack, he can take out to use against you.

“Fucking cunt. Like all of them.”

Kroff has stepped out of the office but pauses outside the door. You can hear him panting. You hold your breath praying he will not suddenly turn back.

But after a moment Kroff walks away… You stand very still listening beyond the pounding of your heart to him walking away.

It’s a trick. He isn’t gone. He is waiting.

In case he is listening you take out your cell phone, pretend to make a call. In a loud bright voice saying I’m leaving now, I’ve been delayed. No—fine. I should be home in 20 minutes…

Hesitantly you approach the doorway. Peer out into the hall, which is dimly lighted. Your eyesight seems blurred; you can’t see clearly. But thank God, no sign of Kroff.

And so you gather your things with shaky hands, switch off the overhead light. Still your heart is beating painfully.

Before you leave, you cast your eyes over the bleak subterranean room. Two aluminum desks, books crammed into a bookcase, a faded poster for Shakespeare in Love. You will never meet the individual with whom you share this melancholy workplace.

A discomforting odor here, of moldering old books, a young man’s heated skin, your own animal panic. You will never return, you think. If you have office hours, you will schedule them for the seminar room, immediately following the workshop.

Shut the door, which locks automatically. Make your way to the women’s restroom. Inside, trash containers are overflowing. There is a smell of drains. Timidly you cup your hand to a faucet, swallow two migraine pills. Ecstatic pain has already begun to blossom behind your eyes.

Soul-sickness. The migraine deep inside the brain.

One day you will discover that Kroff is not a veteran. You will make inquiries, for Kroff has imprinted his fury deep upon your soul. Where no one else has entered, in that (secret) place of migraine pain, yet Kroff has entered. You will learn that he is 32 years old. You will learn that he did not serve two deployments in Afghanistan; he did not see combat anywhere. You will learn that 12 days after arriving at basic training in Columbia, South Carolina, Gavin Kroff was discharged for “medical reasons” and shipped back home to Minnesota.

When at last you dare to leave the restroom you hear footsteps on a stairway—but it is only a young woman in jeans, a stranger to you. And voices elsewhere, for Lyman Hall is not entirely deserted: Evening classes are scheduled for 7:00.

On your way to the parking lot you walk quickly. The air is cold, wet, unfriendly. You have neglected to button your trench coat. Your head is bare; your eyes are leaking tears. You have an impulse to run. And there on the shadowy path is a tall figure awaiting you.

Ma’am—I’ll walk you to your car, OK? I was thinking, it might not be safe for you here, a woman alone like you are.”

© 2017 by The Ontario Review Inc.

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