Escape Goat is in your office again. You secretly call her that because the thesis on her first draft was: In “Sense n’ Sensibility” by Jane Austin, chivalry is just an escape goat for the problems of society. You imagine a goat with big goggles and a parachute strapped to its back, standing courageously by the open door of the plane, waiting for the red light to turn green while the chilled wind whips by at fifteen thousand feet.
You also call her that because her name is Kristen, and you have seven Kristens in your classes this semester. You also have four Megans, four Brittanys and three Alyssas. You would eat a bowl of nails just for a kid named Hortense or Martha or Mabel to walk in here. You could have a real conversation with a Mabel. Nothing against Escape Goat, she’s a good kid, and besides she’s pretty much the only student who comes to your office hours under her own power.
You do not know how long you have been staring at the ceiling when you look down and realize she’s still sitting across your desk, her face frozen with a look of concern. You blink your eyes and say, “How long have I been daydreaming?”
“Not long,” she says. “But you do it a lot.”
She is here to show you her new thesis: In “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austin, Eleanor Dashwood is taken for granite by her sisters and mother. You picture the Dashwood women walking down a quiet country lane in their fluffy dresses and frilly bonnets, passing a block of stone on the side of the road and starting up a conversation, mistaking it for Eleanor. You sit back in your office chair and smile. You say in an English accent, “Dare I say you look rather stoned this day, dear sister.”
She gives you a puzzled look. Mabel would have laughed at that, you say to yourself.
Obviously, this was not to yourself because Escape Goat says, “Who’s Mabel?”
God, you used to love to read. There must have been a time when you loved teaching, too; halfway through your boilerplate lecture on Jane Austen you decide to mention Texas named a city after her because after she was done writing novels she moved to the American southwest and gained fame on the frontier as a killer of grizzly bears and lover of lonely cowboys. No one noticed.
“Are you okay?” Escape Goat says. “I heard about the last professor who had this office.”
There are a lot of stories floating around campus about Dr. Kitty Poon, the last Creative Writing professor. From what your friend Diego tells you, she was a poet who moved here from Los Angeles after her fiancee cleaned out her checking and moved back to Argentina. You do some internet snooping and find out she published her first book of poems a couple years before she came out here; the title is My Year of Loving the Vampire but when you buy it off Amazon you don’t see any vampires. It’s a beautiful book actually, full of sunny poems about a girl sitting up in bed while her lover is in the kitchen, singing songs in Spanish while he makes them coffee.
She managed to put out a second book after her first semester at West Dakota A&T; they have a copy down in the silo and when you read it you realize the mood of her writing has completely changed. This is a chapbook called Kill, Kill Kill and all the poems are about feeling trapped. You make the mistake of reading this book in the same office where she probably wrote it. If you look close enough at the walls you believe you can see fingernail marks where she tried to claw her way out.
Escape Goat touches your arm. “Are you sure you’re okay, professor?”
“Your thesis sounds great,” you say to her. “Maybe check the spelling on the author, but that’s about it.”
West Dakota A&T, formerly the Western Dakota College of Dairy Sciences and Mines, must have been even more desperate than you because they hired you over the phone. The job description was obviously rushed onto AWP: Assistant Professor of English, tenure track, 4/4 teaching load, Creative Writing (Fiction) focus; minimum requirements of MFA or Creative Writing PhD, experience teaching both workshops and lit surveys, minimum one book. You see yourself as a master of meeting the minimum requirements. In the phone interview the hiring committee only told you the last Creative Writing professor experienced some personal problems. The committee failed to mention there have been four Creative Writing professors hired in the last four years and none had been fired. They failed to mention that it’s common knowledge on campus that the position is cursed. They also failed to mention the last one, Kitty Poon, ran out of her office — your office — screaming and naked one day and disappeared into the desert, never to be seen again.
You do not complain because there are a few things you fail to mention, too, like NYU firing you for holding the last five weeks of class in “the fourth dimension” which at the time meant something deep and ethereal to you, but to your students it simply meant there was no class at all. The breakup with your girlfriend didn’t help; you were a mess, or as the police report likes to say, an “incoherent nutbag” when they got a call about some guy crying and humping one of the barrels outside McSorley’s on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.
It’s a fairly new campus, built on a former Air Force compound on the edge of the Badlands, about seventy miles northeast of Bismarck. The closest town is a little sprawl of twenty clapboard houses along with a pizza parlor/hair salon, a post office, and a Winnebago on concrete blocks that serves drinks on weekends. A lot of the original military buildings on campus are still standing. The library is underground, built inside the concrete husk of the old missile silo. When you check in with the Dean on your first day here, he points out his window on the top floor of Spitznagel Hall down to a little tin shack behind the recycling bins.
“There’s the library,” he says proudly. He laughs when he sees the confused look on your face. “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just the stairs.”
You ask him why they put the library in a missile silo. “Why not use it for the cafeteria, or the gym?”
“Because students use the cafeteria and the gym,” he says, winking his eye like a singing cowboy.
You ask, “How many books does it have?”
“You know something, I don’t rightly know,” he says. “Haven’t made it all the way down there myself.” He sits back down and shows you a photograph of him shaking hands with both Hall and Oates at the same time.
When you go behind the recycling bins and open the rusty tin door to the shack, you see a short ladder leading down to a catwalk. The catwalk connects to stairs spiraling down the sides of the silo. When you stand at the top you can’t see the bottom, so in the right mood you picture yourself standing at the mouth of Hell. There are a few books at the bottom, along with the unisex bathroom, computer lab, and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Club meeting room. There are plenty of surplus PCs in the computer lab but it’s not a great place to study, since most days the hockey team uses the stairs for conditioning and when they clatter up the metal helix of stairs in full equipment the noise reminds you of gladiators rushing up from the bowels of the coliseum into the sunlight. The school colors are black and brown; the mascot is the Fightin’ Butterchurn.
Editor’s Note: Author Tommy Zurhellen wrote this Dakota-themed short story while he was researching and working on Nazareth, North Dakota, his debut novel, now available for sale at the Atticus Books online store.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tommy Zurhellen, whose novel Nazareth, North Dakota is scheduled for a spring 2011 release, has been teaching creative writing at Marist College since 2004, and serves as director of the Marist Summer Writing Institute and the Writer-in-Residence program. He received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Alabama in 2002. His short works have been published in Quarterly West, Carolina Quarterly, Passages North, South Dakota Review,The MacGuffin, Crab Creek Review, Apalachee Review, River Oak Review, Red Mountain Review, Iconoclast, Coal City Review, and elsewhere. His website can tell you more.
Photo Source: ISEM