After a heart-breaking experience with Terminal Tours, Michael Keever took a job teaching Creative Non-Fiction at Queen City College. Passing Through records the comic experiences of the rookie teacher until Michael is threatened by an anonymous emailer and is beset by economic problems. His only solution is to once again depart the safety of home for an altruistic life-saving mission that puts both his new life as an academic and his life itself in jeopardy.
A pre-publication reviewer said of Passing Through, “If John Updike had sent his Rabbit to college, he might have written as funny—and as heroic—a book as this.” A reviewer for the New York Book Review: “Think of Richard Russo’s Straight Man as true but retitled Crooked Man and you will have a sense of how an academic may need to deceive to teach extraordinary life lessons.”
Below is the first chapter of this very amusing and very courageous life story. To view a printer-friendly version, click here.
Michael Keever was through with the dead and the dying and was happy.
Terminal Tours, the company that got him in all his recent trouble, was now his estranged wife’s business. For a year, Michael had escorted the terminally ill on trips they could not manage alone. Then a client that Michael took to Lourdes unexpectedly died there, and the pilgrim’s son sued Michael for neglecting due diligence. When Michael lost the suit, he lost his house and wife and daughter. He felt his daughter, Sara, would come around when she started at Queen City College where Michael would begin teaching in the fall.
He had a one-bedroom apartment close to QCC and was through with the house that began his problems with his wife. A decade ago Ann agreed to move to Greece for Michael to play in the pro basketball league there because she thought his year-end bonus would get them the house they hadn’t been able to afford. When Michael was exposed as lying about his Greek “heritage” and they lost the bonus, Ann wrote Passing Off, supposedly Michael’s autobiography but actually an eco-terrorist thriller, to make enough money in Greece to buy the house in Cincinnati. It was ten years before Michael replaced Ann’s portrait of him as a dumb, deceptive, and money-obsessed athlete, but his actual autobiography, Passing On, the account of Terminal Tours, corrected Ann’s version of him. Though not a commercial success, Passing On also indirectly got him into the job at QCC and away from the dying. He’d still have to travel for the “Worst Places on Earth” column he wrote for Hell: The Magazine, but covering possibly risky places was much better than escorting certainly dying people, so Michael was happy.
The old newspaper-insulated and wind-tunnel house with the roots-strangled plumbing had never felt like a home, not like the new apartment did. Now that Michael was through with basketball, he wanted home to be like a locker room—small, overheated, great water pressure, his own comfortable seat, big screen for the games, a place to change clothes. Easy to leave, easy to return to, no lawn to have mowed when he was reporting on the famine in Chad or interviewing the stolen-car kings of Albania. If Sara would agree to move in with him, he’d get a two-bedroom in the building. Terminal Tours had been uninsured, so the lawsuit damages were making money very tight. Although Michael’s new job was only half time, he had managed to negotiate tuition remission for Sara. But Ann insisted that Sara live in an expensive dorm, a quarter mile from Michael’s apartment, two miles from Ann’s new apartment.
“If she has to go to Quick Change College because of you,” Ann told him, “at least she can get the real university experience in a dorm.”
Sara had been accepted by the University of Michigan, Ohio State, and Miami, but the expense of transporting a dead man from Lourdes to Cincinnati meant she had to take the free ride at QCC.
“Think of yourself as an athletic recruit,” Michael told her.
“Except that Queen City doesn’t have any teams,” Sara said.
“Then think of the Q as standing for quality,” her father said.
“Quality Country Club?” Sara said.
Just because QCC was new, Ann and others in the city thought it was one of those distance-learning profit-turning scams, a school today, a telemarketing operation tomorrow. But the college had a “campus” in a remodeled three-story auto-transmission factory visible and easily accessible from Interstate 71 close to downtown. The college motto—“Shift Your Life”—was on the building to remind Cincinnatians of its former use and to demonstrate QCC’s retraining mission. The classrooms all had computer consoles, Internet access, screens for PowerPoint presentations, and ceilings almost high enough for a basketball hoop. The library, mostly CD-ROMs and terminals, occupied a decommissioned Episcopalian church. Sponsored by AOL, the library had the company logo up on the steeple where the cross had been. The dorm, also visible from the Interstate, was a rehabbed residential hotel with an awning in front, a New York touch, and a Holiday Inn billboard on the roof. “After college,” the billboard said, “a great room of your own.”
Given Ann’s interest in environmental issues, Michael thought the college’s recycling should please her. But she said “the Q,” as it advertised itself on AM radio, was a drive-through school that would soon be gone. Sara could have had tuition remission at the University of Cincinnati if Ann hadn’t given up her low-paying job writing grant proposals there to take over Terminal Tours. She wanted another house for an empty nest, and the web site was still bringing in the dying and their new pre-mortem access to their life insurance. Ann had assumed that Michael would return to Key Security, his one-man surveillance business, and that the two incomes would get them out of debt. But with all the bad publicity from the lawsuit, Key Security was moribund. Although Michael was a U.C. alumnus, neither a former All-American nor a critical success could get a position or a tuition break at U.C. He might have applied for an assistant coaching job there, but he was through lying to “bones,” the high school kids he used to recruit. At QCC he would “coach” writing but wouldn’t have to scream or solicit. By specializing in schools of Information and Dissemination, QCC had plenty of future-oriented young students and a good supply of older students trying to shift into new jobs. The innovative M.C.A. program--Master of Communication Arts--drew from all over the country, from all over the world. According to Ann, some professors at U.C. said it was because Queen City used its name to cater to gays. U.C. students who had been rejected were cruder and called the school Queer College.
The Communications Department chair and the director of the M.C.A. program who interviewed Michael brought up the school’s reputation in the first five minutes. The chair, a short chunky man about forty, who was wearing New Balance sneakers and a tie more expensive than Michael’s suit, held up his left hand to show Michael a thick wedding band.
“We don’t ask if our students or faculty are straight or gay,” he said, “but here’s where my heart is.”
Michael’s right hand moved to his left, to feel the finger where his ring had been for almost twenty years. He missed it, even if he didn’t miss Ann.
“Oh, Richard,” the director said, folding her long bare fingers in the lap of her burlap dress, “No need to administer one of your little tests. Anyway, Michael, we take students away from U.C. because they’re stodgy, not because they’re straight. The faculty over there insist on the old fiction and poetry tracks. Creative Non-Fiction is the future for books, and that’s why we hope to add you to the staff.”
“Forget about books,” Richard said, “They’ll disappear in ten years. The future is hypertext, the Internet, virtual reality. Objectivity, economy, speed, collaboration. I really love what you’re doing with your web site, not just disseminating your own writing but offering a place for others to post their narratives. Like your motto says, the site could go `on and on and on.’ And will in the future.”
“Well,” Michael said, “I want you to know the truth about that site. My wife began it, and she’ll be kind of the co-proprietor in the future. She needs it for Terminal Tours, and I want to keep it because I’ll be traveling to terminal places. So we’re going to have a dual entry page.”
“Now there’s a future marriage for you, Richard,” June said. “People may throw away their rings and find new consorts, but will keep their URL forever.”
“Well they should, well they should,” Richard said, “The address stays the same but quick changes, quick changes in content. That’s where CNF is going in the future. Books just require too much lag time, say nothing about reading time. All those labored expositions and thick descriptions to justify charging thirty bucks. We need to close the gap between writing and reading, get closer to real time and real language. You see, Michael, QCC embraces the insult `quick changes.’ I actually prefer `speed shifts.’”
“You could even use `automatic transformations,’” Michael offered.
June laughed. Richard chuckled and went on: “June and I are the only full-time faculty in the department. Everyone else is a field service instructor. This way we have web-like flexibility in adjusting to student demands. We continually poll our students for their interests, even when we’re recruiting them. We may be the only college that asks students when they’re juniors in high school what they would like to take here. When we find demand, we go out and hire someone to teach the course. That’s why we have lots of undergrads.”
“And why we may be able to offer you a position,” June said.
“I’d love to teach here,” Michael said, “but I’m not anxious for any more shifts right now. I’d like to settle down a bit. I’m through with Passing On.”
Neither Richard nor June registered the reference, and afterwards Michael assumed they hadn’t had time to read his book, though it wasn’t long. Probably just as well, he decided, since he’d confessed there to lying about writing Passing Off, Ann’s creative fictionalizing of his experience.
“You will keep traveling for Hell, won’t you?” Richard asked.
“I’ll have to. I can make the necessary trips during breaks here.”
“If you ever need a new hellhole and guide,” June said, “I’ll be happy to show you around.”
Michael wondered just how serious this ringless young woman was. In her baggy dress and Birkenstocks, she didn’t look much like an adventure-travel guide. She also lacked the guide’s tan, though she did have squint lines around her eyes, either from gazing into equatorial sunsets or reading too much.
“Where do you have in mind?” he asked.
“Centerville, Ohio, my hometown, a never-changing hotbed of repression in every season.”
“You haven’t been to the ice of Ludlow, Vermont, my hometown.”
“Richard,” June said, “We must hire this man. It’s so rare that an applicant alludes to anything earlier than Dave Eggers or Paul Theroux.”
To Michael, June said, “Which translation do you prefer?”
Michael had no idea what she was talking about. He’d been in the transportation business but that couldn’t be it. June assumed the best about his blank look and asked, “Are you really able to read The Inferno in Italian?”
Michael remembered about a hundred words of Italian from his two years playing for Lottomatica in Rome, but he knew better than to pretend to know a language June might speak even if her sandy hair, green eyes, and narrow features didn’t look Italian.
“I prefer the Greek translation,” Michael said. Since he knew fewer than a hundred words of Greek, he strung together the insults that came to mind, “Malaka pousti aigamisou palio adelphi” roughly translated as “masturbator faggot, go fuck yourself old queen.”
“Beautiful,” June said. “Dante in Greek. Imagine that Richard.”
“Impressive,” Richard said with a grin. “You must have been working on your Greek since Panathinaikos,” the team Michael had played for in Athens.
So Richard was a basketball fan, a reader of Passing Off. But Michael was used to responding to questions about that book.
“I knew more Greek than I let on. You know, part of the deception.”
“Right,” Richard said, “cunning.”
“The Inferno in Greek,” June said, still shaking her head as if cultural dissemination traveled only east to west.
Michael wouldn’t need to know any literature, ancient or modern, to teach the courses that dominated the QCC curriculum: New Life Writing, Memorable Memoirs, Innovative Journal Keeping, Experimental Blogging, Poetic Advertising, Postmodern Imaging, The Formal List. Though only forty, Michael felt like a graybeard while reading the catalogue descriptions. When he was a General Studies major, U.C. didn’t offer any courses like these, not even for scholarship athletes. At his age, Richard was running the show, and June was probably no more than thirty-two or thirty-three. Good, Michael then thought, no graybeard superiors would be coming to his office and asking him to arrange for a hooker on a Terminal Tour to Las Vegas.
QCC did move fast. Michael was interviewed in June and began teaching in September, two workshop classes: a graduate course called Future Autobiographies and an undergraduate course entitled New Travel Writing. He knew this would be a full-time load at U.C., and he knew half time at QCC paid a quarter of the salary at the university, but along with the crucial tuition remission he negotiated benefits and a two-night a week teaching schedule. He’d have a lot of time at home. Traveling with the soon-to-be dead, he’d missed too many NBA games on TV. Now he could catch up, give Sara relief from cafeteria food whenever she wanted to come over, and maybe help her with her homework.
The week before classes began Michael felt like the day he’d been called up from the C.B.A. for his ten-day contract with the Celtics. Back then Ann used to call him “Cal,” for his Vermont homeboy, Calvin Coolidge, man of few words. Michael worried about what he’d say to Larry Bird and his other heroes, but Larry put him right at ease when he shook Michael’s hand: “Don’t fuck up,” the legend said. That advice wouldn’t get Michael through a three-hour session. He’d had a year of American Literature but never taken a workshop; in fact, he thought workshops were for the dumb kids in high school, the guys who learned how to run a lathe or tune an engine. Michael had never taught anything either, unless one counted blowing the whistle, signaling violations, and assessing fouls when he was a referee. If a player yapped too long or loud, Michael tossed him off the floor. That probably wasn’t the best model for education. He had been taught a few things about punctuation and sentences and organization by the woman who edited Passing On, but she was in New York and wouldn’t be on call. He’d read The Inferno (in English) in case he ran into June. Now he knew the bottom of hell was ice, but that didn’t mean he’d go to Antarctica or Ludlow, Vermont, any time soon.
Michael spoke to Richard about his anxieties.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We don’t mind some rough edges. We want authentic practitioners. Originals, Michael, not those literary weaklings fleeing fiction and poetry, desperately trying to power up their careers with CNF.”
Put this way, CNF sounded to Michael like one of those illegal dietary supplements sprinters and sluggers used.
Richard also said, “Just be yourself. Tell them stories from your life. Live it, write it. The first couple of sessions use your height. Don’t sit down. Intimidate them.”
“That sounds like the power-forward school of instruction. I was a point guard.”
“I know, but if you stand up throughout the class, you’ll look like a hardass to these kids. Then you can ease up later in the semester.”
Richard also suggested a couple of books about teaching CNF and gave Michael an article entitled “Nothing But Net,” about writing for magazines like Hell. Richard’s advice in the article was be objective but personal, minimize descriptions, use plenty of dialogue, and keep the language clean.
The day before Michael’s first class, he went to check out his office. It was a basement room with no windows, four desks, four chairs, four file cabinets, one computer, and one large woman in a chair, so large Michael feared the desk chair would stick to her hips when she got up to introduce herself.
“Brenda Basso,” she said and stuck out a surprisingly dainty hand.
“Are you new?” she asked.
“Yes, and you?”
Brenda laughed. “I’ve been here three years, but of course you couldn’t know that. And for all I know, you could have been here from the origin.” She waved at the desks. “If you were a beginning-of-the-week and morning tenant, we’d probably never cross paths. `Optimize the space,’ the administration says. So you’ll be sharing this room with at least seven people. But don’t worry. They all have other jobs and just come in to meet their classes.”
Brenda pointed to a large pile of mail on her desk. “Or read three months worth of mail,” she said.
“What do you teach?” Michael asked.
“Technical Writing. Two sections, two nights a week.”
“Just like my schedule.”
“Some work mornings or afternoons, but we’re all field niggers. Ah, sorry, make that field service niggers.”
Brenda had the splotchy complexion of some obese people, liquid-paper white with patches of red where capillaries had made it to the surface. Michael had never heard a white woman use “nigger.” Some black women and just about every black man he’d played with but not a woman and not a college teacher.
Michael must have shown his surprise because Brenda said, “Maybe you’re getting paid more than the rest of us.”
“Probably less. I’ve never taught before, and I’m sure Autobiography and Travel courses don’t draw like Technical Writing.”
“You’ll get the young ones. I get the old ones trying to turn over their lives.”
“Turnover” was just about the world’s worst word, right after undercut, for the point guard.
“Don’t you mean `shift’ their lives?”
“You’ve been reading too many brochures. The undergraduates are shiftless. The older students want us to turn around their lives. They don’t realize the school’s business is rapid turnover—move the students through, turn the faculty out to keep salaries low. Last semester I lost a course at the last minute. If I weren’t married, I’d have starved.” Brenda laughed and slapped her hips. “You should have seen me before the course reduction.”
Michael decided he should have eaten more on the Tours. He was six inches taller than Brenda, but she looked twice his weight. He wondered if Richard had advised her to put on the pounds to intimidate her students.
“Why do you stay here?” he asked. “I’d think a tech writer could do well out there.” Michael looked for a window to wave out. He had to point up first, then to the right and left, as if his hand were a periscope trying to get above ground level.
“Stupidity, pure and simple. That’s one answer. Another is that I wanted to be a college professor when I was going to Iowa State. But I don’t have an advanced degree, so QCC is the closest I can get.”
“So, professor, you really love the teaching.”
“That must be it. It’s like street-corner prostitution. Transient and low-paid work, but at least the students don’t squirt semen in your face.”
“What does that make me?”
“Hard to say. You look kind of old to be a boy toy. Just hope you don’t have any old men with bad vision in your classes.”
Brenda was right about Michael’s demographics. The undergraduate Travel Writing students had just come from Abercrombie and Fitch, part preppie, part ragged. Most were a couple of years older than Sara, but looked alarmingly young and wonderfully healthy. In the early September heat, they were wearing shorts and tee shirts, displaying their knotted calves and tanned arms muscled by carrying trays at summer jobs. Their hair was blonde, not white. They curled into their seats without Michael’s assistance. Even from the back row they could hear him and see what he wrote on the whiteboard. No one hobbled with a cane or dragged around an oxygen tank or needed to be pushed in a wheelchair. Yes, Michael thought, these were his people, full of energy like his former teammates the first day of training camp, anxious to be back exercising those young bodies. There was one difference: not one of his fifteen students was black. Michael’s questionnaire found that most had gone to Cincinnati private schools--Country Day, Summit, Seven Hills--or suburban high schools in Columbus and Cleveland. Maybe the rich had a way to keep their offspring dewy. Many of the students had traveled to Spring Break destinations, to Hawaii and Mexico, and to Europe. A couple hoped to write for Let’s Go next summer, but some already had glossies in mind, Islands, Conde Nast, and other magazines their parents, presumably, read. Travel Writing was one of the courses they’d identified as cool when QCC was recruiting them.
The graduate students in the Autobiography class also seemed young to Michael, more Urban Outfitters than Abercrombie, but still young to be thinking about telling their life stories. He wondered if his year with the dying geriatrics had aged his perceptions. Though in their early twenties, the grads didn’t look as healthy as the undergrads—more pallor, more stiffness, and, it seemed to Michael, a post-season feeling of defeat (rather than pre-season enthusiasm). Michael did have one African American man and a Pakistani woman who could have passed for African American if she didn’t speak with a sing-songy British accent. The students were from colleges all over the country, and had traveled to many of the same places as the undergrads. The grads, though, were fixated on the nuclear family’s ground zero, the horrible home, the hated siblings, the detested parents, the gurgling and pawing grandparents, the doofus uncles and cackling aunts. Listening to the students give brief synopses of their projects, Michael vowed to patch things up with Sara before she became a graduate student and signed up for Autobiography.
In both classes, Michael followed Richard’s coaching and gave a digest of his travels and occupations—player, assistant coach, referee, surveillance provider, tour guide just in the last few years. Having told much of the background in Passing Off to Ann, Michael believed that writing should stay close to oral storytelling. He got his undergrads to share their best and worst travel anecdotes, which often involved getting wasted in some city not their home. The grads were asked to tell one lengthy episode from their projected work. Michael was shooting for an atmosphere of collaboration, of teamwork, and was enjoying listening. Pre-season coaching required a lot of hard work—screaming at guys out of shape, walking through plays everybody had forgotten, two-a-day practices—but the first weeks of teaching extended summer vacation.
When the work began, when students brought their writing to the workshops, Michael was surprised by the grad students. Work had pulled him around the world and dictated his writing, but the students wanted their work to be their writing. This seemed backwards to Michael, perhaps because he had just started writing. Ann said he had keyhole vision, looking out upon the world from inside the gym, from inside his athlete’s body. He didn’t expect the undergrad travel writers to have an aperture to shape their perceptions as basketball did his, but he assumed the graduates would have some lens through which they’d view their experience. If the lens wasn’t work, then recreation—music, movies, cars, drugs, sex. But their eyes were clear and wide, and they blurted down on paper their conflicts with the people paying for QCC. If the autobiographers couldn’t change the ordinary facts of their young lives, Michael thought they might at least imagine a perspective that would make those facts distinctive.
The students’ work was “Creative” Non-Fiction, they implied in their first essays and chapters, because they had created it. Michael missed the more demanding athletic meaning of “creative.” “Creates in the air,” coaches used to say of his ingenious passing. As a point guard, Michael’s job was to control the ball, invite the double team, squeeze through tight spaces, mislead the remaining defenders, and, near the hoop, leap into the air, look one way and deliver the other way, send the ball passing through empty spaces only his eyes could see, passages between and among the bodies and extremities clogging the way, passes fans mistakenly called “blind” rather than x-rayed. Most players knew the fundamentals of passing off, but Michael had coached himself in creativity. He analyzed hundreds of hours of himself on videotape—run and re-run and re-run again--to learn how to deceive opponents, surprise teammates, find holes in the moving picket fence of other bodies, fake a shot, make a pass, and get his players easy baskets (if they caught the pass). Ann said his videotape was the only thing he remembered. She was probably right, but tape was his edge, the key to his creative unpredictability that demanded close attention from teammates when he had the ball, made opponents look foolish, elicited special appreciation from hometown fans, and pissed off everyone else. “No game, no gain” was how Michael summarized his approach, the games within the game, deceptions inside deceptions.
When Michael offered passing as a model for writing, no one responded. Students at QCC didn’t want to study the “videotape” of other writers’ techniques. The students also didn’t want to consider their readers as opponents or fans. QCC writers would create and the readers would come. The students felt entitled to their readers. While the writer’s point of view was always “I,” the prose assumed a “you” like a doting parent or nurturing high school teacher or encouraging roommate. The page was, like the computer screen, a transparent pane of glass: student on one side, reader on the other, real life passing through like a glance, words invisible because predictable, words like the words all the other students used. Any quirks were in behavior, not in the writers’ eyes and ears.
After receiving his travel writers’ first assignment--“Recall a place you’ve visited and discuss what more you need to know now”--Michael wanted their next essay to create a different perspective on a new place. He asked them to imagine what he had been doing for the last year: pretend to take a dying person to some local site and describe the place through that person’s eyes. The Mr. Abercrombies and Ms. Fitches resisted. Jody Dalton, either a fine-boned WASP or a girl with an eating disorder, was the most vocal, unintimidated by Michael’s six feet and three inches. Her comments reminded Michael of Sara’s when he started Terminal Tours, but Jody wasn’t his daughter, and this assignment wasn’t going to embarrass her as Michael had Sara.
“Please don’t ask us to do that, Mr. Keever. It will just spoil the place I want to go to.”
“Where are you going?”
“The amusement park at Kings Island before it closes for the winter.”
“That’s perfect. Don’t you think a dying person would like to be amused? Imagine how he or she would feel about a scary roller coaster ride or the haunted house.”
Michael could see Jody shiver, her blunt-cut blonde hair tremble.
“But it won’t be fun for me if I have to imagine I’m dying. And if it’s not fun for me, how can I describe it as a fun place for others?”
“Maybe travel isn’t just about fun.”
“Then why bother to do it?”
“To learn something about a place or someone else or yourself. There’s a difference between traveling and travel writing.”
“We know that, Mr. Keever,” Jody said, emboldened by other students’ nods and murmurs to speak for the class, “but we don’t want to spend our lives walking around with dying people. It’s really morbid, and it’s not what we came to college for.”
“Nice to know I have a reader, Jody,” Michael said, hoping to calm her down. “You haven’t by any chance just lost someone close to you, have you?”
“No, and I think that’s kind of insulting to assume that my opinion is just personal. Ask the other students.”
None of them wanted to do the dying person exercise. As a beginning teacher trying to be “sensitive to QCC students’ needs and expectations,” catalogue copy that may have been written by Richard or June, Michael suggested a grandparent or parent’s perspective. This also was deemed too “limiting.” How about a younger brother or sister. “Not really.” How about someone in a wheelchair? “Oh no.” So the students spread out across Cincinnati and reported back just what anyone, experienced teacher or not, would expect from a bunch of nineteen-year-olds who took travel writing to have fun.
Surprised by the undergrads’ resistance, Michael asked the graduate students to write a chapter of their self-driven narratives from another family member’s point of view. Maybe because QCC was paying some of the graduates to attend (and teach Communication One classes), they were less direct in their response than Jody and her cohorts, whose parents were footing the bill. Gary Gallagher, who had three studs in his tongue and a noose tattooed on his neck, wondered, “Wouldn’t that move our texth over into ficthion?” Michael knew the lisp was a product of Gary’s studs, rather than some sign of gay affiliation, because Michael had read Gary’s page-long description of how his first girlfriend moaned when that metal touched her clitoris. Michael did wonder if that might be fiction and was looking forward to what women in the workshop would say when Gary presented his work. But Michael couldn’t bring that up now.
“Don’t autobiographies make assumptions and statements about the minds of characters other than the narrator?” Michael asked.
“Yeth, but wouldn’t a chapter make that obviouth?”
“Think of it as an exercise. Maybe not something that will be in your finished work but a way to understand others more clearly. Or if you’d rather, write about yourself in the third person.”
“That would be difficult, and it juth wouldn’t be real, would it?”
“What about that noose around your neck, Gary? That must have been difficult to bear. It’s not rope, but it’s real--real ink following a real design and implying a real meaning.”
Gary fingered his tattoo. “Thith wath a mithtake,” he said.
“That’s the nice thing about writing on paper, Gary. If you make a mistake, you can revise it.” Or replace it or cover it up, Michael thought but didn’t say, just as he didn’t say “revith” though he felt that the studs were a mistake that Gary should revise even if a non-metallic tongue diminished the pleasure of Gary’s sex partners.
Michael looked around the seminar table. All nine students were studying their laps or preparing to say grace. Michael feared he had unwittingly imitated Gary’s “lithp” and thought he should probably put one of Key Security’s surveillance cameras in the room to keep track of a rookie teacher’s faux pas. Used to locker room bantering among healthy equals, Michael worried he had crossed some professor-student line by calling attention to the lines around Gary’s neck. Every coach Michael had ever played for would have immediately asked Gary if he planned to wear a turtleneck on court.
“Other questions about this exercise?”
More silence. Then Michael’s international student, Rakhshanda from Pakistan, said, “I do not believe fiction or non-fiction is the issue. I am afraid that such a chapter would interrupt the narrative momentum.”
Rakhshanda’s autobiography had begun with her two sets of impoverished grandparents. She had shown Michael the first fifty pages, and her parents weren’t born yet. The narrative was slow in developing but insistently chronological, right down to dates and days of the week for critical events in her ancestors’ lives which, now that Michael came to think of it, she must have been fictionalizing.
“Since the narrative is not moving,” Michael the athlete-literalist said, “but only the pages, what do you mean by `momentum?’”
“Reading should be like falling down stairs. Once you start, there is no place to turn off.”
“Just tumble and hurt, tumble and hurt. I like it, Rakhshanda,” Michael said, thinking of Terminal Tours.
She flapped her hands in front of her face, possibly a Pakistani negation.
“Please allow me to change the metaphor,” Rakhshanda said.
“Simile,” Michael said, using some of his new knowledge or old knowledge regained from reading the books Richard had recommended. He was against figurative language, but Michael thought it, like Dante, might come up.
“Yes, of course,” Rakhshanda said and again flapped her hands, which couldn’t be a negation but was a mystery to Michael, just about as opaque as the difference between synecdoche and metonymy, which he’d been trying to remember earlier that afternoon.
“Reading should be like one of those water slides, where all you get is a little splashed at the bottom,” Rakhshanda said.
Michael realized he’d been missing something doing Terminal Tours. Amusement parks. Roller coasters and water slides. He believed “no game, no gain,” but his students preferred fun and entertainment, the writer’s and reader’s easy downhill plunge to a harmless end. Then on to another ride. Yes, on and on and on. Michael had believed in or hoped for that once and at an age more advanced than his students, but now that he was responsible for the shape of their minds and narratives he felt the player he’d been speak to him. Sure, the ball passed through thin air and, if well shot, passed through the net with a swish. But the bodies on the court were zigging and zagging, colliding and near-missing, stopping and going, fighting their way through picks and screens for open spaces. The autobiographers, though, weren’t training to create this kind of CNF, Competitive Non-Fiction that would challenge readers’ expectations. The students wanted their straight-line narratives of self to fit the commercial sluice they knew was out there, the sluice Ann had sent her craft down when she wrote Passing Off.
Going home after the graduate class, Michael thought changes at QCC might be slower and more complicated than he’d initially believed. But no matter how much resistance he met, Michael was happy with and for his students because, given the most recent statistics, even the oldest of the grads, even the Pakistani woman with her impoverished grandparents and their rickets, had fifty more years to live and to learn the modest lessons Michael was trying to teach. He remembered an old phrase—the quick and the dead. Only the dying had to be quick, hustling finally to take the tours they’d put off. In a park Q students frequented, Michael saw some girls and boys throwing a Frisbee, making sure the harmless disk reached the other players, receiving in turn easy throws, ambling to catch the floating disk, enjoying the sweatless play. Watching the Frisbee sail back and forth, Michael thought maybe his students were right. After the pain of Terminal Tours, why not have some fun and give some pleasure? Why not be happy to be through with the dead and the dying?