Gloria calls from New York and leaves a message on your office phone, something about an indie film company thinking about optioning your book. You know this is a lie; she hasn’t given you a real piece of good news about your writing in five years now, ever since you moved out here. She has your cell number but she always calls your office extension late at night to make sure you won’t answer. One time you were grading papers around midnight when she called; you pick up and she sputters for a moment before putting on a vaguely French/Australian/Slavic accent to ask if you are satisfied with your mail-order bride. Zis eez not Mishoor Goldschmidt? Am zo zorry. Then she hangs up. You don’t mind because you don’t like talking to her either, since hearing her voice reminds you of how many people in the world feel sorry for you.
After grad school, you moved to New York City for full-time adjunct job at NYU; the pay was lousy, but it gave you time to finish your novel. You landed an agent who worked out of her apartment in Washington Heights and specialized in cookbooks and time travel fantasies. This is Gloria. Whenever you talk on the phone she calls you kiddo. That first manuscript was a love story set in SoHo between a society girl and a working class guy who end up running a flower shop together. You name it Blood and Roses after the old Smithereens song, but the publisher changes the title to Flowers for a Vampire. There are no vampires in your book. Gloria tells you the market was trending heavy towards vampires that year.
“Next year,” she says, “who knows? Werewolves? Princesses? Mummies could make a comeback. Maybe horses will finally get hot again. You know, kiddo, if you wrote a book where a horse learned to travel back in time, I could sell that in a heartbeat.”
You tell her you’re working on it. “Is it even better if the horse is a vampire?”
“Don’t get cute,” she says.
The truth is you’re not working on anything. These days you treat your laptop like a lump on your neck, scared to touch it because you’re afraid you might find out things are worse than they already are.
On Friday afternoons you let your workshop out after a half-hour so you can get to the Winnebago early and nab one of the captain’s chairs that face the television. A retired rancher named Dale Larsson runs the place, and he takes the job very seriously. He even has a signature drink in honor of the school, the Fightin’ Butterchurn, which consists of whiskey, buttermilk, and a dash of A-1 steak sauce stirred up in a mason jar and served at room temperature. You have not worked up the courage to try one yet, but you are constantly reminded by the regulars that Kitty Poon did. On the little shelf behind the bar, Dale keeps the mason jars of the people who have finished an entire Fightin’ Butterchurn without throwing up. There are four total, each signed and dated. Kitty’s jar is in the middle. Her uneven handwriting on the glass seems so frantic and sad; the signature isn’t much more than a series of jagged loops in black magic marker, and wrapped around the jar are the words everything i have is blue. The date scrawled on there is last April, a few weeks before the end of the spring semester; it couldn’t have been long after that when she ran out of Spitznagel Hall and disappeared into the Badlands forever.
“Doctor Poon is kind of a hero around here, you bet,” Dale tells you with a straight face. At first you think these guys at the Winnebago would have a field day making fun of her name, Kitty Poon, but then you realize this is the same state where no one seems to notice the gas stations are all named Kum & Go. But now that you think of it, no one back in Brooklyn would probably care, either; the guy down the hall was named Ace Diablo and the woman in the apartment above you went by Candy Gunns. You didn’t see either of them much, though, since they both worked nights.
Diego Lunez comes in the Winnebago and sits down next to you. He works security at the college but every couple weeks or so he’ll come up with a new scheme to get rich and retire. Last time the plan was domesticating prairie dogs to sell to celebrities as the next thing in pocket pets.
“Two words,” Diego says this time. “Christian porn. I mean, it’s real porn, but when you write the script, everyone making love in the movie is married and they’re only having sex to make babies. No condoms, no birth control of any kind. And they could sing hymns and quote Bible passages while they’re doing it, too. Anyway, I’m still working on the details. What do you guys think?”
Dale slides a beer in front of him. “You got a title yet?”
Diego nods. “Cum All Ye Faithful.” He sucks the foam off the top of the beer. “Talk about an untapped market, right? But we need a place to film the thing. Someplace quiet.” He pats your shoulder. “I figure you could help with the script, seeing as how you’re a writer and all.”
“Not lately,” you say, eyes trained on the dirty Mason jar on the shelf in front of you.
You have Escape Goat in your office again. She changed her thesis and now it’s: In “Sense and Sensibilty” by Jayne Austin, Colonel Brandon has symptoms of post-dramatic stress disorder. You picture a dozen or so actors trying to come down after after a really bad dress rehearsal of King Lear, passing around the lithium tablets and Wild Turkey backstage while they tell each other horror stories from their time doing community theatre. Actually, that doesn’t sound so far off; you used to hang out with actors in Greenwich Village. Before her songs started selling, your ex-girlfriend landed a part in an off-broadway production of Fight Club: The Musical. You remember doing a few plays in high school yourself: you were in West Side Story but you couldn’t sing or dance so the teacher gave you the role of Officer Krupke. All you had to do was stand center-stage and twirl your nightstick while the rest of the kids surrounded you and laughed at you. But on opening night the stick slipped out of your hands and pegged one of the Shark girls in the eye.
You still can’t sing or dance. In grad school you tried to start a band called Judas Presley, which would only play metal versions of Elvis songs, or Elvis versions of metal songs. It was a melodramatic idea — but this was grad school, everything was melodramatic. Judas Presley had one gig, unpaid, on a Wednesday afternoon, at a local hangout called the Chukker. You didn’t manage to play any songs because the drummer got in a fight with his girlfriend before the show and she called in a bomb threat.
You realize you are singing “In the Ghetto” pretty much at the top of your lungs when you remember Escape Goat is still sitting there. How long were you zoned out? You don’t own a watch. You realize only now Spitznagel Hall is like Vegas: no clocks on the walls. They want to keep you inside as long as possible. They want you to lose track of time. You have never been to Las Vegas yourself, but you do have a great aunt who spent so much time sitting at a slot machine she urinated on herself. When she stood up to find a bathroom she passed out because all the blood had pooled in her legs from sitting there for seven straight hours. She capsized like that statue of Saddam Hussein, invisible ropes pulling her down onto the ruby red carpet.
The story does have a happy ending: she won $25 in casino coupons.
Once again, you come back from your daydream and see Escape Goat sitting there. You stare at her for a moment, but it’s long enough to realize she’s a very pretty girl, and she deserves better than you.
“The new thesis sounds great,” you say. “Maybe check the spelling again, but otherwise it’s awesome.”
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. You can read part one of the story here.
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: Chessalee