A Kind of Jesus Figure

Here’s another passage I had to cut from The Grievers when I changed Charley’s job from being a teacher to being a human dollar sign. Of course, I probably would have cut this passage regardless. I think it’s a little to “meta,” since Charley and his students are discussing his life as if it’s a text they’ve read for class.

A Kind of Jesus Figure

Karen was right. I did need to talk to someone about Billy Chin and Frank Dearborn and everything else that was going on in my life. What she failed to realize, however, was that over the course of the semester, I’d drifted further and further away from the syllabus I’d devised and was spending more and more time talking about my own problems. Billy, Frank, Rick Beecham, Neil Pogue, Greg Packer, Sean Sullivan, Dwayne Coleman. Even Anthony Gambacorta. My students were all more or less familiar with the whole motley crew, and more than a few were working under the assumption that my friends were all characters in a book they’d have to read at some point before the final exam. Among them was a girl named Dana who sat in the front row of my Early American Literature class and always wore military fatigues under a pink and yellow tutu. She played bass for a campus punk outfit called Mommy’s Busy and had, back in September, intimidated all of her classmates into shelling out ten dollars a pop for silkscreen tee shirts emblazoned with the group’s logo. Now a day didn’t go by when at least one of my students didn’t show up for class in a black shirt with a white line-drawing of the mother from Bill Keane’s Family Circus cartoons shooting up in a bathroom stall, eyes crossed, legs splayed, head lolling to one side.

In addition to her military fatigues and fairy skirt, Dana wore sneakers that never matched each other and thick tortoise-shell glasses that made her look like a cross between a cat and a batty old librarian. My guess was that she was no more than nineteen years old, but the smoldering glares she shot at me whenever I interrupted her incessant doodling with petty questions about the texts we were supposedly reading had the world-weary glint of someone who had either spent too many nights sleeping in bus stations or watched enough movies to imagine she had. Though I had no doubt that she’d turn into the kind of corporate stooge she professed to hate within weeks of graduating from college, I tried to tailor every assignment, lecture and class discussion to her cynical tastes. It wasn’t that I was interested in her in a Greg Packer way, but my guess was that if I could win the girl over, the rest of the class would fall into line. She was that cool. Or at least everyone thought she was.

Dana never read, as far as I could tell, and the pages of her notebook were all adorned with intricate and perfectly balanced geometric patterns. Following her advice, three frat boys had gotten their nipples pierced, a sorority girl invested in a septum ring, and an older woman was trying to decide between tattooing her breasts or her buttocks with a pair of barcodes. Sure, some of my more conservative students resented the obvious sway the girl held over my attentions and those of her all-too-eagerly corrupted classmates, but the unspoken agreement between us seemed to be that they’d keep their objections to themselves as long as I kept their grades in the upper B range. So as long as Dana didn’t mind, everyone was perfectly content to drift away from the standard syllabus from time to time to spiral off into the dim, dusty reaches of my personal life. And as long as she and her followers were willing to mistake my own ramblings for a synopsis of the material they should have read the night before, we could all pretend to some degree that my classroom was still a place of learning.

“I think of Billy Chin as a kind of Jesus figure,” Dana said when I called on her the Monday after my dinner with Frank. “Not in a religious sense with God and angels and all that bullshit, but in the sense that even though he’s dead, his spirit lingers on and he wants revenge.”

A handful of students scribbled her observation in their notebooks. Others nodded judiciously. One or two stifled laughs in the back row; apparently they were using their Norton Anthologies as more than doorstops.

“Revenge,” I said. “I like that.”

“Like in that play,” one of the frat boys said. “With the ghost and the guy who’s sleeping with his mother.”

Most of the class nodded vigorously while the students in the back of the room rolled their eyes and slid their books into their backpacks. Apparently I wasn’t fooling everyone, but I had to keep going. After all, I did promise Karen that I’d talk to someone about Billy’s death.

“But who’s the culprit?” I said. “Who has to pay for Billy’s death?”

“Frank?” another frat boy guessed.

I started to nod, but Dana shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she said, betraying her petit bourgeois leanings. “I really don’t see why Frank’s so bad. He’s just doing his job, isn’t he? The same with that other guy.”

“Beecham?” I said. “Are you nuts? Those two are the devil incarnate.”

Dana shrugged. “But they didn’t actually do anything, so you can’t really blame them.”

“Well, no,” I said, looking to the frat boys for help. “You can’t really blame them, but that’s only because the situation transcends blame. We need to examine our assumptions. We need to look at economic factors and think about things like capitalist ideology and the fascist jeu d’esprit. Think about Billy Chin’s entire cultural milieu and ask yourself how people like Frank Dearborn and Rick Beecham might be symptomatic of the larger problems of society.”

By now, any of my students who had so much as glanced through their anthologies had packed their bags and were heading for the door, followed by anyone with a vested interest in catching a few winks before their next classes or hopping an early bus home. The few that remained seated were leafing frantically through their books, searching in vain for some hint that might clue them into the context of the discussion. With words like ideology and milieu thrown into the mix, everything I said was bound to show up on an exam sooner or later.

“But it’s still a tale of revenge, isn’t it?” I said as Dana closed her book and led her minions out of the room. “I mean, Billy still demands vengeance, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,” she shrugged. “You’re the teacher.”

Getting Far

In an earlier draft of The Grievers, the narrator’s life was closer to my own than in the version that eventually found its way to publication. One major similarity was that Charley and I were both teachers — a detail I changed for both dramatic and comedic effect when I gave him a job as a human dollar sign. Of course, this change meant I had to make some major revisions and cut a number of passages in which Charley talks about his ambivalence toward teaching (among other things).

Getting Far

You could probably make the argument that I hadn’t gotten very far in life. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition at Russell Conwell University that summer, and I could see the twin spires of Saint Leonard’s Cathedral from my office on the tenth floor of the liberal arts building.

Technically Saint Leonard’s wasn’t a cathedral insofar as no bishop had ever made his home at the Academy, but we called it a cathedral anyway because no other word would suffice. In fact, just as we called our school the Academy, we simply referred to the Church of Saint Leonard as the Cathedral. Towering over the rundown neighborhood a few blocks west of the concrete quadrangles and redbrick dormitories of Conwell U, it was the fourth-largest place of worship in the Delaware Valley and the only survivor of the fire that gutted the rest of the Academy back in 1968 when my father and Buddy Dever were juniors there and my uncle Frank was a freshman. Two years later, my uncle Joe would enroll, and two years after that, my uncle Rich.

All told, my grandparents sent four sons to the Academy, and my grandmother was still making regular payments to the place as if they were all still enrolled. That’s the kind of pull it has, the kind of loyalty it engenders. Even so, I hate telling my students where I went to high school because they always react with an odd mixture respect and disappointment. On one hand, all the smart kids from their grammar schools went to the Academy, and now they were attending big-name universities like Princeton, Georgetown and Duke. On the other hand, these were the same kids my students used to beat the shit out of on a daily basis, a fact I happen to know because I used to be one of the smart kids myself, and between the ages of nine and thirteen, I suffered three black eyes, a chipped tooth, a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder, a scrape running from the inside of my elbow down to my bellybutton, two near drownings (one in a swimming pool and one in a toilet), a mild concussion and countless noogies, wedgies, Indian burns and wet willies. All in fun, of course, but it made me one of them. How in the world could I expect my students to take me seriously when they’d only finished beating the shit out of their grammar school equivalent of me a scant four years earlier?

The worst, however, was when the odd Academy boy who hadn’t made it into the ivies ended up in my classroom. Suddenly I’d have a new best friend who always sat in the front row in a hooded SLA sweatshirt and baseball cap, kept all his papers in a crisp, clean SLA folder, smiled with perfectly straight SLA teeth and without fail started doodling SLA RULES! in the margins of his SLA notebook with an SLA pencil the minute class started, lest I forget our unshakable bond. And every day there was always the obligatory conversation about how the librarian was a closet sadomasochist and the gym teacher was always hung over and the religion department was full of communists and Shane Kirkland had a million half-baked conspiracy theories and the crew team was a bunch of assholes and the stage hands all jerked off in the light booth and the track team was on steroids, and on and on for what seemed like an eternity, each of us adding lie after lie to the million or so bits of hearsay we both knew were ninety-percent fabricated in the first place, and all I could think was Jesus, this is the same damn conversation I’ve been having with my buddies for the past ten years. Something’s gotta change.

The Whole World Can See You

April may well be the cruelest month, but I’d also argue that it’s the sneakiest. I feel like it just came out of nowhere — and just when I was getting used to March. Needless to say, May is just around the corner, which also means that the print edition of The Grievers will be available fairly soon. To celebrate, I’m continuing with my series of occasional samples from the cutting room floor — bits of narrative that didn’t quite make it into the final version of the novel. In this one, I think I was trying to reveal my protagonist Charley Schwartz for the exhibitionist he truly is, a man who, despite his claims to the contrary, likes being the center of attention. I ultimately cut the passage because it interrupted the flow of the larger narrative, but if you really like it, you can splice it into the novel somewhere around page 90.

The Whole World Can See You

Karen and I lived on a narrow, unpaved road that was sandwiched between Route 30 and the railroad tracks that carried me to and from work every day. There were three sets of twin homes on our block, all on the same side of the street. Across the street from us was an empty lot that was overrun with weeds and tall grass. Next to that was another lot, which Karen called the poopy lot because a doggy daycare center on Route 30 used it as a toilet.

Technically the area where we lived was called the Main Line, so named for the tracks that hemmed us in on one side, but our little corner of the world bore no resemblance to the land of massive homes and manicured lawns people imagined when we told them where we lived. Which isn’t to say that we lived in a bad neighborhood at all, only that our zip code gave telemarketers and mass-mail hucksters the mistaken impression that Karen and I had somehow managed to ascend to the status of landed gentry on the combined salaries of a high school teacher and a grad student.

For as long as we’d been together, Karen and I had been engaged in an ongoing debate as to how much of the neighborhood could see me when I forgot to close the blinds before undressing. According to Karen, the answer to this question was that no less than everyone on our block—both residents and passers by—could catch a glimpse of me and my particulars every night between ten and eleven-thirty as I got ready for bed.

While there was certainly merit to this argument, I was respectfully inclined to disagree. First of all, every house on our block was adjacent to our own, so the only way our neighbors could possibly spot me naked would be to set up a meticulously angled system of mirrors in the empty lot across the street; if that were the case, I added, how could I, in good conscience, deprive them of the view they worked so hard and inventively to obtain? Second, the people who passed through our neighborhood at that hour—and by this I mean the drunken college students who wandered in a perpetual haze from bar to bar along Route 30—were usually too far gone to ever notice what was going on right under their noses, let alone in the narrow window of a second floor bedroom in a quiet house on an unpaved street on the fringes of their parochial little maps of the world. Third (and perhaps most important), regardless of whether I closed the blinds, I always undressed with the lights off; as a result, our bedroom window operated on the same principles as the one-way glass in a police lineup: I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.

Despite the fact that science was on my side, however, Karen persisted in her belief that my subconscious refusal to close the blinds was a sure sign that she had married a pervert.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said, preempting her first strike as I undressed that night. “And I’m no pervert.”

“I’m not saying anything,” Karen said.

“But you’re thinking it.”

“The whole world can see you, Charley.”

“I told you before, this is science.”

My shadow stretched across the wall as a passing car lit up the room with its headlights.

“Science,” Karen said.

“If they’d seen anything they would have honked.”

“Would you just get in bed, please? I’m cold.”