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Chapter 3 — Away from Therapy and then South and West (Excerpt)

Outside, limping briskly away from psychotherapy, or whatever that was, Duffleman checks his watch. 11:17 a.m. When he rushed out, he must have been only forty-seven or so minutes into class. He considers going back to the room to check on the Afrocentrist, but he trusts she is in good hands with that young boy, Julian, a take-charge type, who might get ahead in this world. He imagines Julian even earning a salary protecting the animals, the environment, the black people, or even part-time instructors of university English.

So instead, Duffy limps as fast as he can back to his office. He picks up steam as the pain in his knee dissipates and he regains his hazy sense of an independent self. As he strides, he vows a return to routine; he’ll gather his departmental mail, check e-mail messages, let the undergraduate chair in on the case of Eileen, and reassert his right to a quiet hour in a cramped office with but two other names on the door.

In the process of purchasing his orange juice, he regains some confidence by returning the food cart’s overpriced breakfast bar to its proper place as he remembers that he has brought his own from home, one of two dozen purchased at discount in bulk. Ah, the man who can save a dollar can save a life, or is it the other way around, and what exactly does the proverb mean, and where did he read it? Montesquieu? Not Nietzsche? Some daily rag’s quote of the day? A freshman essay? No worries, its recollection somehow contributes to his self-esteem, and so by the time he reaches Althusser Hall he feels almost forty and slightly normal, waiting at the elevator among the masses of undergraduates seeking a lift to a higher floor of enlightenment. His usual claustrophobia from the crowded floor-by-floor elevator squeeze lacks its bite today, and Duffy uses the delay to meditate on how he will approach his immediate supervisor.

At all costs, he must not come across as unnerved by the incident; to keep his job, any of them, he must show he can handle his students, in all makes and models, regardless of their irregular categories and conditions, be their illness mental, physical, emotional, or socioeconomic. Course descriptions and syllabi count, but his first duty is to control the situation. And yet his bosses will need to see some emotion; for if he comes across as too calm and rational about the matter, it may appear that nothing is to be done because nothing seems to be too terribly wrong. Above all else, he wants to wipe his clean. There ought to be someone else in this university who can take charge of the matter. Disheartened to learn that the counselor could not swoop in and grab her, and certainly of no mind to call the cops on the poor girl, he cannot imagine that the mentally ill should be left entirely under the jurisdiction of an adjunct instructor of the English department, educated in creative writing and comparative lit, teaching a class in business writing. The university must offer a full-time job and health benefits to an expert, someone, somewhere in this vast labyrinth of a not-for-profit higher educational facility, who attends to such extreme moments of education, thus ensuring that the cheap labor, the teachers, could meekly subsist and go about their specialized duty, which is, at least presumably, to effectively educate the remainder sane enough to function within the societal confines of normal classroom behavior.

By the tenth floor, Duffy has breathing room, and so he strides out of the elevator in a civilized fashion, not at all like the students who slid, popped, and fell out floors below. On second thought, he feels better off eschewing this false bravado of upright posture and firm gait—if he were to appear too forward-walking, or positive, he risks allowing the tenured faculty to see him as content, dumb, happy, perhaps even barefoot, and yes, with his gut pregnant-looking adjunct working for scrub wages sans benefits. He cannot bear to allow them this view of him. At the same time, it is risky to keep the rich, landed gentry convinced they should pity his condition. He doesn’t want them overwhelmed by a sense of guilt at the sight of his poverty and sadness sulking down the corridor. Most often, a meek smile and gentle approach to interacting with the tenured is enough interaction, but even here lies danger, for it is unclear how these job-secure professors would interpret any facial expression at all. And so, by Duffy’s estimation, the best way to navigate the English Department is as an invisible man. To have the permanent faculty pay him no mind at all ensures that nothing he does produces in these touchy teachers any emotion whatsoever. When all else in life fails, he could still focus on the American cultural rite and obligation of putting forth effort to keep his job. To get rehired remains an adjunct’s end in itself.

So he slinks toward the mailroom, trying to disappear, sucking in his midsection to further reduce the possibility of detection. He keeps his eyes slanted forty-five degrees toward the ground; head down and no eye contact means no chance of communication. In the mailroom, he finds his slot among the hundreds for English professors, graduate students, fellows, other adjuncts, and administrative assistants. Just one knowledge worker among the masses, he reaches in and pulls out five sheets. All are departmental or university-wide fliers, advertisements for this reading or that reminder; the top sheet is the Memo on Respect for Religious Observation in the Classroom, which quickly and oddly enters his psychic churn as an image of the Rastafarian whiteboy and the Afrocentrist, buck naked, dancing around a fire in the middle of his classroom, roasting the offending ball-capped pig stuck high above the heat.

Duffy madly darts his head left and right, praying no mind readers have trespassed through his less than PC, rather catholic imagination. Both coasts appear surprisingly clear. Relieved when the vision passes, he makes another grab and feels something harder shoved toward the back. There are two actual letters in his slot—each with a stamp and filled out like regular mail. He finds himself in the rare position of having received not one, but two pieces of personal correspondence. A light blue envelope and a forest-green envelope, both are in the shape of greeting cards. He decides not to press his luck by opening either one; instead, he stuffs them in the left back pocket of his trousers, leaves the mailroom, and averts all eyes down the hall to the undergraduate English department.

At first, Duffy hides his body and exposes but one full eyeball and a third of his head as he peers into see if his boss is at home in the offices for undergraduate English. At the desk, he sees a work-study student—dark and delicate, of the Desi diaspora—stapling forms together, no doubt another paper reminder, mass circulated to faculty, mass thrown away or recycled straight from each mail slot. A few students sit and stare at course-listings booklets, searching for that perfect complement to a career track—that intriguing liberal-arts course. Some of these are no doubt the few and proud English majors, those seeking to go where no man save the odd Duffleman—and, yes, truth told, millions of other lost souls—have gone before. Whenever he catches himself grumbling about the illiteracy of “students these days,” he must remember that Urban State has over one hundred English majors per undergraduate class to its credit. Even Liberty Tech, Urban State’s practical peer, has added the major to its curriculum. Not quite an escape but the retreat to the humanities is alive and well! Duffy shudders in fear.

Beyond these hole-in-the-jeans-and-nose types lounging in the lobby area, Duffy sees that his boss, Harold “Call me Harry” Van Oyle, is indeed at home. His obesity sits two-thirds obscured behind a fat, oak desk, covered with thick clumps of paper inches deep and even atop the computer monitor and keyboard. The life of the tenured overseer of undergraduate-course instruction is no easy one; the combined overflowing paperwork and overeating fat man fills the office as if it were the six cubed feet of storage space the city provides its homeless. Duffy likes Van Oyle but fears the paperwork swamp and the boss’s spittle known to fly at random during any conversation. The unique feature of Van Oyle’s “spray it while you say it-ism” is, at times, how far the spittle flies when the course disher sits silently, pie trap shut.

Duffy lumbers past the work-study migrant and straight for the boss’s open door.

“Harry?”

Van Oyle looks up, squints through his bifocals, and chirps, “Hey Cyrus. What can I do for you?” From eight feet, Duffy should be safe from the spray. But due to the seriousness of the matter, he is prepared to brave the sea.

“May I have a seat for a moment?” In his head, he estimates the chair opposite Harry’s on the other side of the desk is still four feet from the spit factory, enough room for most human error.

For a moment, Harry appears disturbed by the request, as if prevented from slaying a goat because a berry gatherer has just interrupted his more important travail. But then he chirps, “Sure Cyrus, have a seat. What’s up?”

Duffy slides into the chair opposite Van Oyle. He tries to exude the confidence of a man able to handle his charges; the coordinator should see an instructor who looks calm and in control.

“It’s about a girl.”

“I see.” Van Oyle nods ever so slightly. Duffy sees lust in his eyes. In fact, the boss’s wise leer seems to imply it is always a matter of the bedroom even if it seldom occurs there. Duffy detects a tiny thread of spittle slinkying out of the far-right corner of Van Oyle’s mouth. He’d like to resist this fusion of topics; sex and saliva should remain as separate strands of discourse. At least at this early hour of a working day.

“She told me she was raped by her boyfriend.”

“I see.” Now Van Oyle almost glows, nodding repeatedly and solemnly, as if he has heard this before. “How’d you get on that topic?”

“She screamed it out; she sounded angry.”

“What did you do to make her mad?”

Van Oyle’s glow wanes. Duffy sees he has gotten off, quite easily, on the decidedly wrong foot.

“No, I mean she screamed it out, at me, but to the whole class. Everyone was there.”

“Wow! What’d you do to make her so angry she’d yell at you in front of the whole class?” Harry’s fleshy mug shows concern for the children—all of the students in English classes and specifically the one the Duffler has wounded.

Duffy wishes he could start all over, reenter from the hallway, or perhaps somehow have decided wisely not to come at all. “It has nothing to do with me. It seemed like a reaction to class conversation about race.”

“That’s tough material for undergrads, Cyrus.”

Duffy feels a brief shock of moisture snap him just below the left eye. He tries to ignore the moist gift, his mind transfixed by Van Oyle’s baby blue tissue box, half hidden below a stack of papers. Would the boss be offended if he were to ask for a Kleenex?

“I once had a kid whip out a starter pistol and shout he was prepared to use it if necessary.” What Duffy doesn’t need at this moment is an anecdote about a more serious threat trivializing his own problem. But Van Oyle continues, “Of course, what your situation reminds me of is the girl who flopped on my desk looking for a father.”

“Whah,” is all the lesser man can manage, as he wipes with his balled fist, just as another spit sniper grazes his right ear. As a survivor of Van Oyle’s graduate seminar, Duffy is acclimated to the greater man’s tangents.

“She was pregnant. Seven months. Looking for a Daddy and figured I’d do as good as any.” Ten to fifteen years Duffy’s senior, Van Oyle is lucky to be alive; in the seminar, he introduced himself as a survivor of severe maladies—the trifecta of stroke, heart attack, and cancerous polyps, found in his colon, detected in a palliative stage. Thrice defiant at death’s door, and protected by tenure, Van Oyle could shoot the breeze in any direction he pleased. Along with the spit juice, one could never know what would egress next from behind his yellow and pink curtain of teeth and lips. “She told me she’d do everything necessary to make me happy, and she gave me a look like she meant it.”

Van Oyle appears caught in reverie. Duffy experiences the tingling of terror down his spine as he finds himself wondering if Van Oyle grows a bone from the memories of seductions past. Duffy would like to keep matters professional and memories under the desk and out of view; he omits an audible sigh when Van Oyle returns to his supervisory role.

“Okay. Let’s go over this again. You’ve got a girl in class screaming she was raped by her boyfriend. Did you think of taking her to counseling services?”

“Yes, I tried to do that but she wouldn’t go.”

“So you did the best you could. No worries.”

“But the girl is a disturbance to the class. Something is wrong with her. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I could tell the girl is not okay. It’s possible she really did get raped by her boyfriend at knifepoint, in which case this is a criminal matter.”

“Well, maybe we should call the cops?” Even while trying to maintain an anxious look equal to the severity of the problem, Duffy can’t help but feel relieved Van Oyle is trying to help, and for the moment, even doing so without salivating.

“The counselor I spoke to at services said that they do that when the student is a genuine threat to herself or others. It seems extreme to call the cops when she hasn’t threatened anyone physically. If she is mentally ill, then the rape at knifepoint could even be a fictive incident. Or the rape could even be the trauma that triggered the mental illness.”

“Hmm.” Duffy spies what could be a dangler. “I see.”

It doesn’t seem to register to Van Oyle that his adjunct instructor leads the charge here, while the boss lags a step behind him in each turn of discussion. On paper, if it came to documentation, it would appear the opposite, mirroring in fact their publication record. Van Oyle’s prolific scribbling of literary texts—short stories, film theory, critical analysis—surpasses his massive production of spittle, and this quantity in print amazes and intimidates Duffleman. Harry is a kick-ass writing machine while Duffy has no publication credits at all on his curriculum vitae. Thus, in Van Oyle’s frothy presence, he feels meaningless and soft. Truth be told, he has never composed a CV; he uses a two-page resume full of the minutiae of part-time employment if he needs to search for more of it. In a publish-or-perish world, Van Oyle has produced text and made progress while Duffleman stagnates in student concerns, an academic dying on the roadside. To V.O. and his C.V. go raises and health benefits; to the lesser man, a life grading papers.

As an exclamation point, a long, thin strand of Harry’s good stuff now dangles from the left corner of his lower lip. “Hold on, Cyrus. I’m in over my head here. Let me go talk to Seward.”

Van Oyle rises, and as he does so, Duffy is amazed to discern no old harpoons and netting stuck in the backside of this white whale of a man. He does see high waters, mud-brown slacks three inches off the shoe, and underwear posted an inch above the belt. Van Oyle waddles out of the room, leaving the teacher alone and at peace, with no audience at all to impress with patience and reasoning skills. He breathes in deep and exhales with a sigh half the size of Van Oyle’s office. He looks around at the papers all over the desk, the two wall-sized windows beyond Harry’s wide, wooden chair, and then over at the walls of bookshelves to either size. It is tempting to walk to the window, peer below, and gaze down at all the kinds of Urban Staters mingling under a spring sun that has burst out fiercely, in defiance of morning rain. But this would seem too odd, if the department chair and undergraduate secretary were to return together, and find an adjunct gazing down below as if it were his office, and not a greater man’s. They would no doubt take him for an impostor, a “wannabe” as the students coined it, and only further the suspicion created by his contract status. Duffy knows his story would be less likely believed because he is among the office sharers of the lowest rung and thus seen as less capable of communicating or understanding anything at all. Van Oyle might be a fat idiot who compares genuine student problems to his tales of sexual seduction by pregnant coeds, but as such, he lacks the capacity to look beneath his status for knowledge or understanding.

So he slides a few inches down in the chair and waits for fate to return in this matter, wishing he would remember to wear a watch so he could see precisely how close he is cutting it to winding up late for his Liberty Tech class at one p.m. For a moment, he considers peering behind Van Oyle’s desk to see the time on his computer screen, but should they walk in and catch him in this act, the consequences could be extreme. So instead, he slides in and waits and finds himself in the process of trying to remember the third line of a childhood prayer—Jewish or gentile, he is unsure, but he craves more than the 62.5 percent chance it includes a concept of heaven—when Van Oyle returns with Dr. Seward.

Duffy has never met Seward and so he fears the worst of the natural habitat—a feminist with talent, ambition, and lefty politics who will see in his subsistence-wage status the failings of the capitalist system, and yet blame him for his own problems because he is part of the patriarchal structure of society; in fact, he is a classic type, a white man handed everything and amounted to nothing. Beat a dog when he’s down, as they say, and better yet, reclaim the cliche´ from the patriarchy in the process.

Van Oyle squats in his seat; Seward stands and looms over both men, but Duffy must admit she looks kind and perhaps motherly in a nonsmothering way.

“So Harry tells me you are having trouble with a student.”

“It’s not my trouble, really, but the trouble she seems to be having. She shouted out in an extreme way about being raped at knifepoint by her boyfriend. It seemed far beyond normative student discourse.” His life sentencing to the prison house of business comm is a fate more obscure even than the ghettos of English comp, but in the department chair’s presence, he feels obliged to toss in a bit of academic jargon.

“So she said those things to you at your desk?” Dr. Seward’s tone and brow show genuine concern. For his student or for her teacher? It is hard to say.

“To the whole class, not just to me.”

“So did you take her to counseling services?”

“She wouldn’t go.”

“In the past, some teachers have guided their students to counseling.”

“I tried but she resisted. She ran off before we got there.” Duffy feels like a man who has repeated himself too many times. First counselor Michael, then Van Oyle, and now Seward. Each time the inquisition implies he could have done more and reminds him of the dangers of going public about anything.

“Well, it sounds like you’ve done all you can.” Ah, relief.

“But what do I do about the class? Her comments were entirely out of order and racist too. I was shocked. Generalizations about all black people based on this horrible experience, that perhaps drove her to insanity, or perhaps due to her insanity this event she has entirely invented.” Duffy rushes his words and hates himself for delivering a runon fragment in place of a sentence; nevertheless, he feels more confident that he is the diagnoser and not the diagnosed.

“Well, if she’s been violent, you can call the police.”

“But she hasn’t been violent. There should be someone at this university who can remove her from the class. Not the police. Someone must have a job or function like this at the university.”

“Well,” and now Dr. Seward adopts an administrative tone, “by law, we cannot remove students from classes they have enrolled in unless they have committed a criminal action of some kind. The students have legal rights to attend our courses. We’re a state university that provides opportunities for nontraditional students.”

By seating a class of thirty in front of a guy paid for the course from the tuition’s share of just two? How the other twenty-eight get their money’s worth is what Duffy would love to know.

“So there is really nothing that can be done. What happens if this girl routinely impairs my ability to teach the class?”

“Then, we can have campus police remove her as an obstruction to teaching the others.”

Seward has all the answers, but Duffy, slow learner, is catching on. Unless he calls the cops on the girl, he’s stuck with her in class. Her rantings were so disturbing that he feels immediate dread at the prospect that she would stay and continue to participate in this way. He isn’t paid enough for such hassle and pain. But before he gets visibly angry and verbally abusive, he remembers his top priority is to appear as if he can handle the situation. Duff must play the man capably in charge of his charges, so he sucks in, smiles, and delivers.

“Well then, thank you for clarifying my options. I wanted to bring this matter to your attention, just in case this particular student, or perhaps another, complained about the situation. If she speaks out further in such an inappropriate manner, I’ll again attempt to guide her to services. Up until this point, she has been silent, so if she returns to this previous behavior pattern, then she will be no trouble at all.”

He doesn’t want to minimize the severity of the situation, but he feels he must show calm and resolve. He might be paid peasant’s wages, but he needs to be as strong and confident as the king. Under the desk, his anxiety leg, his left, thrashes about like a rodent’s tail caught in a trap. He sees Dr. Seward return his smile, evidently pleased with his final thoughts.

“Very well, then. I appreciate the fact that teaching brings us into these difficult situations, and I admire your willingness to reach out to help this student. We in the profession must remember that this dedication to student concerns is a primary motive for our choice to teach at Urban State.”

“We in the profession,” Duffy interprets with subtitles: you of the six-figure Department Chair’s salary, and me of the two-grand-per-course adjunct instructor’s pay. Then, he prays a Red Sea of shame that his thinking in crass dollars hasn’t washed across his face. But he is almost out of the situation, and as with the meeting with the counselor, he has a chance to extricate himself from any thoughts that he is the one who has the problem. Both times, he went to address her problem, and both times, he feels lucky to escape without ranting, yelping, getting fired, whining, begging, or otherwise blaming it all on his mother.

“Well, I just wanted to be sure I addressed this matter with the department. Thank you for your time.” He stands up, nods politely, and ignores the known known that he will be instructing a psychotic girl for the rest of the semester. A bit of pee trickles out at this thought, and he can only hope its stain fails to mark his pants. He’ll check in the lavatory on a foreign floor, not this administrative one nor his own.

“Nice to meet you. Thank you for expressing your concerns.”

“See ya, Cyrus,” chirps Van Oyle, seemingly oblivious to all that has come to pass.

Duffy walks out into the main room, where the nose rings are still perusing course guides. A particularly anorexic bleached blonde stares up at him, blank more than mysterious, but that’s all. In her eyes, no pity for his fortieth birthday or acknowledgment of his basic predicament. He experiences a strong urge to about-face, reenter Van Oyle’s office, and get it off his chest. He’d give the two of them a piece of his mind on just how much hypocritical bullplop it is that adjuncts are the cannon fodder in this preemptive strike against the confused, alienated, or otherwise disturbed that Urban State steals from with college-catalog lies of wealth and career. Duffy kills himself with worry while those two stroll into graduate seminars and pretend to know a thing or three about Lyotard, Lacan, or some other sacred cow, kosher or not.

And the Duffler does it!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Kudera has survived a decade of adjunct-teaching overloads but in some circles is better known for his mysterious injuries. He has bussed dishes and tutored English in two countries and fondly recalls writing in museums, parks, and zoos on several continents. A lifelong Philadelphian until fall 2007, Alex currently teaches literature and writing at Clemson University in South Carolina. Fight for Your Long Day is his first published novel, but he has promised several more.

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Fight for Your Long Day