Prof. Harker , slovenly, distressed, distracted, shambled in, babbled at the class, handed out some splotchy mimeos. A year later he would have a heart attack, brought on by chronic anger and heavy smoking. It would not kill him.
Unable to forget his early promise, the golden boy of his family, Joe Harker had endured ten years of graduate school at Chicago, so wearing down and exasperating his professors that they finally granted him a Ph.D just to get rid of him. Unable to write anything worthy of publication, he had ended up at this public university in the far west, facing classes of mostly older students.
He particularly regretted having to teach the older women that had shown up in droves in the 80’s. He classified them either as silly sheep or as shrews, and in any case not worthy of his time and thought. He dreamed of the worshipful coeds he had hoped to initiate into the joys of 19th century poetry. He fantasized looking into their beautiful eyes and up their skirts as they swooned at the greatness of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and perhaps--him ?? Instead he got sharp questions from gray-haired overweight women in blue jeans. Too many of them looked exactly like his wife. He dismissed the class early.
Having rid himself of his unwanted burden of students, for the day at least, his head full of pointless schemes, he moved on down the hall to his office. "Sue, I want to talk to you," he addressed one of his colleagues on the way. As usual, it had to do with politics. It seemed he spent half his time just working to keep his place. His head hurt, his feet hurt, his guts hurt. The Aggie U. English department had been almost closed down twice in recent years. The taxpayers in this state hated education. All the good students went to school out of state, and he was stuck with the dregs of the academic world. He had many major enemies in the department and only two firm allies, Sue and Ponce.
"Yes, Joe." Sue Everson came in. An obedient worker bee who taught freshman English, Sue was yet another heavy-set woman in her middle years, but someone who responded to his aging charms and enjoyed gossiping in the hallways over a cigarette. She was his mole; a nosy, gossipy paranoid female. Terribly naive of course, which made her useful. All it took was a leading question.
"What's happening with Bob Fisher these days? Still trying to take over the graduate program?" As a non-published professor, Harker had been forced to carry out the most distasteful task in the whole department, next to freshman English--teaching library research methods to the fat ladies in blue jeans. They wouldn't ever get Ph.D's, he would see to that. He never let anyone with serious ambitions through, or else he broke their spirits, ensuring that they would stop with a Master's. None of them ever got good recommendations from him. Faint praise was his speciality, which he used to throw them off.
So they critiqued "Autumn" and learned the vocabulary of old-fashioned printing. Very useful, kept them off the streets and out of their husbands' hair, he supposed. A step above craft projects and needlework. Fisher wanted to eliminate the course, declaring it superfluous in the computer age, which would mean eliminating him, Harker. Harker hated computers and refused to learn how to use them. Fisher was a snotty little Englishman with a regrettable list of excellent published work, and reform-minded. He knew all that postmodern stuff, which drove Harker to fury. He couldn't think about Foucault and Derrida without getting a headache.
"I don't know, Joe. He seems to have his groupies. A lot of the grads like him, and there’s that little course for them on how to do well on the GRE. Charming them, too. You know that Vietnam Vet guy who threatened to blow Al's head off for giving him a "C" on a paper? Well, he follows Bob around. Seems to idealize him. "
"Oh, Greg, you mean. Well, he's a little funny, you know. Not really dangerous. Al just overreacted. Still lives with his mother. Little wonder he follows that Limey fruit around. Anyway, I thought Al got a restraining order on him." Sue looked astonished. As usual, he had gone too far. He sometimes forgot she was stupid, after all.
"Oh, I don't mean that. I just have so much work to do," he whined. These students don't know anything. Or if they do it's a lot of nonsense." Sue looked sympathetic. Her large sloppy heart overflowed with sympathy for him.
"That's for sure. They can't even spell." She left. Sue was a victim of burnout. She'd looked at too many undergraduate essays and couldn't judge writing any more. So she corrected spelling errors. Silly bitch.
Unsatisfied with this exchange, Joe returned to his office, lit a cigarette and buried himself in paperwork. No horrid essays to correct yet, thank god. Or office hours. But--uh-oh, here came one of the elderly females. Was there no escape? Harker strove with his features, trying to make himself look pleased, or at the very least pleasant. She bustled in and plopped down in a chair. She looked respectful, enough, anyway, and not gray, but distressingly large and offensively healthy, and with a big mouth to boot, and earnest. This one Wanted to Know. She had in mind some special project that would force him to do a lot of extra reading, and on a feminist topic too.
He hated feminist criticism, so he always gave a sympathetic lecture on it to throw them off. He'd read a couple of books, stuff his wife had recommended. They seemed to fall for it. He gave his reluctant OK to her project and decided then and there to get her out of the grad program. She left him in peace. If she came up with anything good, an impossibility, he might show mercy. He loved getting one of them worked up and then relenting. It gave him a little spurt of ecstasy , almost sexy, to experience their craven gratitude when he changed their grades from "C" to "B." Easy enough to do, it was all so subjective and arbitrary. He could always get them on stuff like leaving out commas and periods.
Down the hall, scheming away, George Ponce lit a cigarette. He did not know that he reeked to high heaven. His office, his clothes, his cloacal breath. Merely passing by his office caused migraines in the sensitive. But why should he care about no-smoking rules? So what if other people got sick? They were still better off than he was, he figured. He grabbed his papers and headed off for class. "One of these days, I have to update the syllabus," he thought. "But then--why, for these people? They don't care about Restoration drama." He didn't either, any more, if he ever had. He couldn't remember. He played a fop in one of them 40 years ago, but they all seemed the same to him now.
He couldn't read any more, either. His eyes were shot. No one noticed. He looked around the classroom. Was there anyone he could use in here? Ah. He covertly and covetously eyed an obedient-looking young woman sitting in the first row. Nice looking, too, pretty brown hair and big breasts. He would encourage her and maybe hire her as a research assistant.
He had contracted to do an annotated bibliography of a tiresome whimsical old English fraud of a playwright, but he couldn't read the stuff and damned if he'd have anything to do with computers. One of those middle-aged bitches who had come to infest English departments asked him why there were no plays by women among those he had assigned. Just like his mouthy daughter. Some such had been written, hadn't they? He gave her a stare but said nothing. Perfect proof that women like her didn't belong in graduate school, if there ever was one. She clammed up but looked unhappy. He marked her for extinction at the earliest possible date.
© 2001 Marianna Scheffer