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Ghost Dance

Kevin P. Keating

For everything hidden must be revealed, each secret longs to be disclosed, each love yearns to be betrayed, everything sacred must be desecrated. Heaven and earth conspire that all good beginnings should come to a bad end.

—Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Mirror”



1.

Not even seven in the morning and already the bisecting vapor trails of a hundred jets obscured the pale blue October sky like the crisscrossing telephone cables and the tangled grid of electric lines suspended above the parking lot, corralling her within this gilded pen like some mindless beast of burden and inspiring her, as it did every morning with ritualistic inevitability, to light her first cigarette of the day and take in a gratifying lungful of smoke, the one and only drag that tasted any damned good, the rest merely a form of habit and imprisonment like much else in life. The idea of ritual pleased her, however, because it suggested something communal, an agreed upon set of beliefs, values, collective grievances, and it gave her great comfort to know that all across the country millions of addicts were simultaneously taking that first puff of the day with a fanaticism that was if not exactly religious then certainly sacramental.

She looked up. A flock of ugly black birds slid feverishly between the telephone lines and disappeared into the sky. She stared after them with a mixture of envy and remorse. For the better part of an hour she sat there with the car idling. The fumes pouring from the tailpipe threatened to kill her once and for all, making quick work of what the cigarettes would take another decade or more to do, but at five minutes to eight she forced herself to flick the smoldering butt of her third cigarette out the window as students began to make their first appearance on campus. Only the middle of the month and some of them looked as if they were on their way to a drunken masquerade instead of class. In the distance a figure with the pointed ears and mangy tail of a coyote came bounding across the quad on all fours. A girl shambled along the sidewalk, her clothes in tatters, her face painted in a death mask of pale blue. Buffoons one and all.

Quickly scanning the parking lot to see if anyone was observing her and feeling not unlike the femme fatale in the final scene of a film noir, she removed from inside the glove compartment, buried beneath the balled up tissues, a small .32 semi-automatic pistol with a white handle of polished ivory made from the tusks of African elephants harvested by poachers of unimaginable cruelty. A gun of devastating political incorrectness. What would her colleagues in the department say if they knew about it? Unlike them she was no idealist. She’d even written a letter to the editor of the college newspaper, arguing that professors be allowed to carry side arms—tenured faculty only, of course. Adjuncts were clearly too inept, not to be trusted. Most of her colleagues laughed when they read this, thought she was being satirical. No one took her seriously these days. Only the strange little clerk who sold her the gun showed her any deference. “Yes, madam,” he said with a smile that revealed a long history of dental neglect, “you’ve selected a very sleek weapon indeed. Short recoil, incredible accuracy.”

With a sigh of resignation she slipped the gun into the pocket of her trousers where it fit snug and cold against her thigh. It was just a short walk to Erie Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. A plaque out front commemorated the historic stand taken by the heathen Indians who died in droves while trying to propel from their land and birthright the invading army of Christian settlers. Legend had it that their shamans and witchdoctors, shapeshifters of remarkable skill, possessed the ability to transform themselves into coyotes and birds, but rather than turn tail and disappear into the hardwood forests, the holy men chose to meet their fate alongside the battle hungry warriors. The great sandstone building erected on the spot of the infamous massacre paid them no homage at all—it looked rather like a Protestant chapel and seemed always to smell of incense and candle wax—and because its small dirty windows faced west the building was entombed in darkness like a medieval cloister so that as she entered through the heavy wooden doors she fumbled against the wall until she found the light switch.

The sound of a hundred fluorescent lights buzzed like things alive, agitated, angry, seconds away from bursting the filament, showering her with white dust, choking her with a cloud of argon and mercury, stinging her with a thousand shards of glass. The hallway became a long tunnel of flickering pale blue light. Someone once told her that florescent lights caused certain people to have seizures. “Modernity afflicts us in the most unusual ways,” she commented wryly. Hers was a much more serious problem.

For the past month she was greeted each morning not by some invisible force that shoved her to the ground and made her foam at the mouth but by the strange spectacle of dozens—maybe an even hundred, who knows, she never counted them—of World War II plastic army soldiers, military green men lobbing grenades, firing howitzers, hoisting bazookas on their shoulders, some crawling on their bellies, others shouting into walkie-talkies, all of them assembled just outside her door so that she had to tiptoe around them like Gulliver among a maniacal horde of Lilliputians. They looked as if they might storm her office, pillage her shelves, pin her to the wall and one by one commit vile acts upon her before filling her body with a million rounds of miniscule ammunition.

She’d never been the victim of a prank, not on a scale like this, and she felt somewhat unsettled by its sick immaturity, its rabid patriotism. Perhaps she’d made the mistake of being a little too political in class, of having said some disparaging things about war and genocide, the ridiculous myth of manifest destiny, upsetting the more unendurably ideological and reactionary students. “Mind you,” she told them as they doodled caricatures of her in their notebooks, “I do not consider myself un-American in any way.” She believed in the sincerity of this statement. After all, there was the gun—could there be anything more American than that?—and she had a permit to carry the gun, even to conceal it on her person. To her the law still meant something even if it didn’t to the rabble that sifted through the public education system and found its way into her classroom. She was also a staunch believer in self-reliance and cringed at the idea of calling campus security. Those lethargic old men, newly retired from the municipal police force, were better suited to devising clever speed traps than to dealing with an unstable and potentially dangerous eighteen-year-old stalker.

With a broom and dustpan she swept up the army figures and tossed them into a trashcan. Then with her office door secured she studied her face in the mirror, made minor adjustments, brushed her hair again, applied another daub of makeup. At eight thirty she trudged into the classroom, trying to avoid the cool gaze of her students. They sat in a state of boredom akin to death, their arms folded, their eyes bloodshot and crusted over with sleep. Her students seemed not like human beings at all but ghosts and her classroom a sinking ship cargoed with petulant changelings. The school psychologists certainly had their work cut out for them. Well, so be it. She wasn’t naïve enough to think that she could remedy the situation, and for the next fifty minutes she paced up and down the rows, reading from a composition textbook in a deliberate monotone.

Her specialty was Native American mythology and folklore, but the gutless and unprincipled administration, after much “soul searching” as they put it, determined that because most of her students were primarily, and often exclusively, business finance majors there was no real need for classes that analyzed Iroquois creation stories. “Today’s students require practical writing courses,” said the dean, “refresher classes on grammar and mechanics.”

It made little difference to her. Regardless of the topic, students paid no attention to anything she had to say. Their intellects had shriveled and turned to dust like old turds baked on the pavement under a blinding white sun and their interest in academics extended no further than looking for new ways to cheat their way to a C. Few succeeded. Twenty years as an educator had sharpened her instincts, and she still had a knack for catching plagiarists. In fact, one student had plagiarized so blatantly on his last writing assignment that she found herself laughing at many passages. His prose was more than merely refined, it was positively Nabokovian; he’d even gone so far as to cite Humbert Humbert as one of his sources. At the bottom of the first page in big bold red letters she wrote, “If you’d like a passing grade, please submit a new paper by the end of week.” Here was the bait, the lure.

He always sat in the back of the classroom, the culprit, slouched low in his seat and flanked on either side by two pretty girls who giggled at the things he whispered, the funny faces and crude gestures he made. Though she should have been incensed by these antics she found the behavior of the two girls to be even more irritating—their yawns, sighs and coughing fits, the way they sized her up, rolled their eyes and snorted with contempt every time she spoke. Secretly she wondered if the girls shared the boy as they might a smutty how-to manual, use him like a sex toy. They were pretty, yes, but their features were almost grotesque in their perfection. Like those priceless jewels borrowed by Hollywood starlets to attend awards ceremonies, theirs was a rare beauty on loan from Mother Nature, only Nature had a cruel habit of allowing lustrous objects to fade over the slow course of time. With their heavy makeup and short skirts and shiny blonde hair, the girls seemed oblivious to what life had in store for them. Two porcelain dolls destined for the rubbish heap.

She recalled how, as a child of six or seven, she’d been presented with the gift of two dolls from an old maid aunt who had an almost visceral distaste for the books that she read, her strange niece who avoided the company of children her own age. With a mock innocence that even then was not wholly convincing, she murmured a quick thank you to her aunt and then rushed up to her bedroom where, using a pair of scissors, a letter opener and a coat hanger, she methodically dissected the dolls, taking them apart not in some haphazard fashion, cruelly and stupidly as a boy would, but with genuine curiosity, piece by piece, thread by thread, to see how they’d been manufactured. So engrossed was she in her labors that she failed to notice that her doddering aunt had stumbled into her room without knocking and, seeing the neat piles of arms and legs on the floor and the coat hanger in her niece’s hand, cried out in horror. Years later, at some faculty lunch, she joked to an acquaintance (there was no one she felt comfortable calling a friend anymore) that “I probably looked like some back alley abortionist. Caught red handed. And by a religious zealot to boot.”

The boy, of course, didn’t see deeply enough into life to know these things. To him aging was a myth, and the two beauties at his side would never grow old, would never wear on their soft faces the hardened scowls of defeat and resignation. After class she stopped him before he could escape. The twittering girls cast pitying glances in his direction and then fled the building.

“You haven’t turned in a new essay,” she said.

The boy slunk toward her desk. His shoulders were enormous and she took a step back. Her eyes wandered across his face, arms, chest. Too much time pumping iron at the gym, not enough time studying at his desk. A child with no priorities and overactive genitals.

“Yeah, well, my computer crashed last night.”

“Then I suggest you drop my class immediately. At this point you cannot possibly pass.”

“Uh, maybe I can turn the paper in tomorrow.”

“No, that won’t do.”

“But I need to keep this class or I won’t have enough credit hours to qualify for loans.”

She searched his eyes for that defiant glimmer of the psychotic, a flash of boiling and seething fury, a glimpse of the wild animal that thrashed around inside his skull and yearned to feast on her bones. Would he grab her by the throat, strangle her, toss her body beneath the floorboards, brick her up inside a wall? No, he wasn’t so imaginative as that. When it came to death, Americans preferred their guns. Guns were simple. A quick bullet to the head and it was all over. No one had a sense of the romantic anymore, a flair for the exquisite details of murder.

“Please. Give me another chance.”

“I gave you an opportunity already and you chose not to take it.”

“But you can’t flunk me.”

She smiled. “When I was an undergraduate, young man, my professors weren’t willing to make such accommodations, especially for those students caught cheating on their term papers. No, I had to submit my own work in a timely fashion or face harsh disciplinary action.”

Why was she boring him with this information? She was beginning to sound like some confused spinster rattling off a string of clichés. There was a time—and not so long ago either—when just by lowering her voice and batting her eyes in a certain way she was able to manipulate these boys, make them do her bidding.

“Give me your pen,” she said.

“My…oh, yeah, sure.”

“Hand it to me. Quickly. Before I change my mind.”

He reached into his pocket and found it.

She scribbled an address on a piece of paper. “Bring your essay to my house this evening. By eight o’clock. No later. Do you understand? I go to bed early. I live way out on the valley road. Do you know where that is?”

He nodded.

“I’ll see you tonight then.”

She watched him and noticed how he was unable to conceal a small smile of triumph as he left the classroom and walked through the long tunnel of ghostly blue light.




2.

Unlike her colleagues who enjoyed city living, she had no real desire to visit Severance Hall or the Museum of Art or those quaint corner cafés blazing with streetlights. Symphonic music, especially the unceasing bombast of Bruckner and Mahler, made her a little nauseous, and Impressionist seascapes with tiny gray men in wooden dinghies bobbing along pale waves of pink and gold bored her to death as did all of those ancient Greek serving bowls with unexpurgated depictions of pederasty between nubile boys glistening with oil and their erect wrestling coaches wearing only lecherous coyote grins.

Insipid conversation over a cup of espresso also failed to stimulate, especially since most of the small talk these days centered around which faculty members had been suddenly rushed off to the Cleveland Clinic because Death had dropped by for a characteristically unexpected visit, perhaps not with glimmering scythe and hooded robe, no, but with a sly “Boo!”, just enough put the fear of god into them, make them sink to the floor with a minor stroke and leave them with a noticeable slump to their shoulders and an angry downward scowl to their mouths. They needn’t worry. The Clinic employed battalions of overpaid and self-important quacks who knew their trade just well enough to keep Death temporarily at bay, oblivious to the fact that Death would wait good-naturedly for the inevitable, silently paring his talons and stoking the fires of hell in preparation for the multitudes who’d failed to seek redemption before the final hour.

Maybe by harping on the ubiquitous nature of suffering and loss, her colleagues hoped to alleviate the torment and anguish of these past two years, but if they failed to cheer her up it was mainly because beneath their gentle words of consolation and pity she knew that they still despised her and felt vindicated by her loss. Though her colleagues would never confess to harboring any kind of mystical beliefs (all were staunchly secular, proudly so), most couldn’t help but feel that some form of cosmic punishment had been administered. And how could she possibly begrudge them for having these feelings? Over the years she’d managed to alienate all but a few of the professors in the department. To engage occasionally in lascivious behavior with undergraduates may have been forgivable, at least on some level, but to prey on the spouses of one’s colleagues? Well, that was an unpardonable crime.

As a married woman she had an insatiable craving that other women in the department didn’t seem to have (or at least never gave voice to) and one that her reserved and stoic husband never could fulfill. Philosophers made for inadequate lovers and so she sought pleasure wherever she could, in the occasional peccadillo with a visiting writer or a prominent sociologist or a fallen theologian, but she soon discovered that undergraduates were much easier to manage, or so she initially believed; they had no epistemological reason for existing other than to make her squirm with pleasure. True, they were awkward and self-conscious, and she found the hurried nature of their lovemaking nearly as uninspired as their writing. Most were a little too tidy, too polished, their lips too delicate, their hands too soft and white, and despite their claims to be otherwise, they were not sexual absolutists. But then even the most heterosexual man was capable of buggery, wasn’t he? She often wondered how many of these jocks and aspiring scholars were closeted homosexuals. Some tried to disguise it by roughly squeezing her tits and biting her neck, but others clamped their eyes shut and seemed grateful when it was all over. One boy even rolled toward the wall and whimpered in the darkness. At times like this she truly missed the spontaneity and experimentation that a man brought to the table, the dirty movies flickering on the television screen, the lubes and gels and battery operated toys. Cheap and tawdry, that’s how she liked it. Dirty. Vile even. Crudeness turned her on, it always had.

Surely such men still existed on campus—maybe they were tucked away in gloomy research labs and cavernous lecture halls—but because she thought it pointless to salvage what remained of her old social life she never had an opportunity to meet them. She chose self exile instead, retreating to the muted gray silences of her home, a cottage of limestone and timber, built over a century ago by a laborer who worked on the Erie Canal (an enterprise doomed to failure even before its completion), situated at the end of a lonely lane on the cusp of a gentle slope overlooking the national park. All of the windows faced the sweeping expanse of valley that for fifty miles followed the crooked river between Cleveland and Akron. In the summer she smoked cigarettes on the patio and watched the birds roost in the trees—yellow warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, meadowlarks, brown thrashers—but in the fall she much preferred the company of her eighteen-year old pupils. Thus the invitation she’d extended to the boy this morning. As a student he may have been a lost cause, but when it came to the art and science of fucking he seemed to show some promise. Why else would those two girls follow him around day after day?

At eight o’clock the doorbell rang. She straightened her dress, put Paul Desmond on the stereo, dimmed the lights, finished her second glass of cabernet—all of it a prelude to the little dance that men and women had been performing through the ages without much variation. Only the gun in her dresser drawer was new to this otherwise ancient ritual. Not that she would need it, of course, but one could never be too sure these days.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

He looked disheveled, out of breath.

“I rode my bike. I don’t have a car.”

“It’s a long ride from campus,” she said. “Ten miles.”

He shrugged.

“Well, come in. You must be exhausted.”

He held the essay out to her.

“What’s this? Oh, yes, right. Thank you. Do you want something to drink? A glass of wine? Sorry, I don’t keep beer in the house.”

“Water.”

“Please sit down.” She went to the kitchen, found a dirty cup in the sink and rinsed it out. “You know, the great books tell us that all intoxicants are beneficial to the soul, all have transformative powers—nectar of the gods, manna from heaven, nepenthe, opium. The Erie Indians once lived in this valley. They brewed a tea made from a plant whose scientific name is Pedicularis densiflora. It’s not really a plant at all, you see, but a parasite that attaches to the roots of other plants. Anyway, the Eries claimed it had magical properties and could turn men into coyotes. During some research I was conducting for the college I came across the recipe in a book of lore and decided to make a batch. As a kind of experiment you might say. It’s absolutely sublime. Maybe you’d like to try some?”

He shifted uncomfortably on the couch and glanced at his watch.

“Just a taste,” she said and poured him a generous cup.

She sat beside him on the couch and made sure that he drank it all down like a good little boy taking his medicine. His eyes grew big and bright, almost translucent, like two marbles that wobbled back and forth on an uneven surface. An hour later he wouldn’t shut up. He told her how much he respected and admired her as a teacher; then he spoke of things that bored her utterly—his demanding father who had big plans for him to attend law school, his overprotective mother who was oblivious to the fact that he wanted to do something risky and adventurous—a trek across the American southwest, a hike through Alaska’s Denali National Park. He loved wildlife, wanted to work as a zoologist some day, study wolves and coyotes. She feigned interest.

Seduction could be tedious at times and this was a part of the game that she hated most, playing shrink to these misfits who so desperately yearned for someone to listen to their tales of woe. She no longer had the patience to psychoanalyze these boys, dissecting their souls with the precision of a pathologist, unraveling the tangled threads of character and conflict, one from the other until their lives were nothing more than a heap of nonsense piled on the floor beside her feet, words without greater context, bled of any significance. No, she preferred just to listen as they vomited up all of their inconsequential problems.

At some point (she was no longer sure about the hour but it must have been getting late because she kept yawning), she moved closer to him on the couch and when he didn’t inch away she touched his face and when he didn’t stammer or make excuses she unbuttoned his shirt and chewed on his ear.

His lovemaking, at least initially, was cadaverous. With the exception of the rigor mortis that gradually set in below the waist he remained motionless, his legs dangling over the side of the couch, pants around his ankles. Even his face had the look of mute absence, but beneath that blankness she sensed a kind of pandemonium ruling over him, and as the moon’s white light filtered through the windows he became much more aggressive, pushing her face into a throw pillow with a little more force than she would have liked. Nevertheless, she found herself yielding to him and crying out, “Hurt me, oh hurt me!” Regrettably, as they both neared climax, he tarnished things by calling out her first name. Despite the intimacy of these encounters she preferred to be addressed by her title, “Professor”, and after he’d stopped panting and heaving and collapsed glistening on top of her she made a point of correcting him on this matter in a voice that was at once stern and breathless.

For a long time they listened to the distant howl of coyotes in the valley. Over the past few months the animals had infiltrated the park from the forests of Appalachia and made forays to nearby farms to feast on sheep and chickens and the occasional cat or dog. Park rangers went to the trouble of warning residents to keep their pets indoors at night but their advice went unheeded and a half dozen terriers met with premature ends. A heap of bones and blood-matted hides were all that remained. Overwhelmed with guilt, the owners took their sniveling children by the hand and placed simple stone markers in their backyards and bowed their heads in solemn prayer. From the window of her cluttered den she sometimes watched these rites, such as they were, and chuckled with amusement. Now as the coyotes crooned their lullabies of hunger and death in the dark valley her eyes grew heavy with sleep.

Late that night, while dreaming fitfully in the boy’s arms, she was visited in her dreams by the ghost of her late husband. Maybe because he’d always been a stoic man whose passions were confined to and perhaps even restricted by his strange compulsion for reading books of the most obscure ontological arguments, he hovered above the scene of her latest conquest in grim silence, his eyes hooded with indifference. Her voice wavered as she told him that she could find no comfort in the books that lined the shelves and covered the floor of his den, stacks of them, new and old, and an endless supply of sharpened pencils with which to mark them up. She told him that even now, after the horrific events of the past two years, she still needed to feel the heat and hunger of these wild boys, something tactile, raw, carnal. She tried to reason with him, but he was just as incommunicative and neglectful in death as in life. Not even the vastness of eternity could alter the monumental edifice of his brooding demeanor, no light could pierce the perilous path that led to the treasures he hoarded deep within his impenetrable mind. Only the sad exterior remained—his ghostly pallor, stooped shoulders, outdated clothes. He’d never been one for style, and his patented paisley ties and corduroy jackets and ridiculous pipes made him a favorite target of the cartoonists on the college paper.

Overwhelmed with grief, she reached out to embrace and comfort him, to profess her love (she still loved him very much), but as her fingertips grazed his face she felt the wound where the bullet had entered his skull, blasting through both hemispheres of his brain, forever erasing the secret contents of his soul, but her caress displeased her husband who in life had always recoiled from any physical contact, and when she begged him to stay a little longer he vanished like jets of smoke that spiraled from the blackest depths of her lungs.

She woke with a start and once more found that she was entangled in the arms of a stranger who scratched himself beneath the sheets and unleashed a pestilential cloud of stale breath. She studied his face. He looked very much like the student who was still in jail awaiting trial for her husband’s murder, but then all of the college boys she brought home looked alike; they shared the same simian forehead sprinkled with acne and the same stupid eyes that cast a hubristic gaze over the world. But ghosts of the living as well as the dead haunted the imagination so it was only natural that she saw the killer’s face everywhere she turned—in the newspapers, in her classroom, even in her own bed—but she took some comfort in the knowledge that sooner or later every ghost vanishes because to vanish, whether by slow degrees or all at once, in an instant, was the only constant in this world.




3.

Mornings tended to be awkward. Nothing was so foul as sunlight and sobriety, and after she opened the blinds some of the boys actually expected her to play the role of mother—doting, attentive, sexless—and were always shocked when instead of donning a robe and slippers and marching off to the kitchen to make them a hot breakfast of bacon and eggs she lit a cigarette and said, “Your clothes are on the floor, honey.” Normally, they had no idea what to say, but this boy was different.

He initiated the conversation by asking, “Do you mind if I stay here for a few days?” He smoked one of her cigarettes, brazenly ashing on the floor.

“Stay here? Do you think that’s wise?”

He shrugged. “After awhile the frat house gets a little old. Place is a real shit hole, you know. I can never get away from the goddamn noise. I need a break. Just a couple of days.”

“I don’t think that’s very sensible.” She finished getting dressed. “We’re going to be late for class. Aren’t you coming?”

“Naw, I don’t think so.”

Beneath the sheets she could make out the outline of his sex.

“Fine, you can stay. But only for an hour or two. And please lock up before you go.”

She said the words but knew that he would still be there when she returned home. As she walked toward the door she made a point of tossing his essay in the garbage. Even to use it as kindling would be taboo. A man’s presence often lingered in a house long after he’d gone and sometimes it was best to erase all evidence of him.

The drive to work was an oddly pleasant one, she watched the blackbirds without resentment, and after parking beneath the telephone lines and extinguishing her cigarette she walked to class, waving cheerfully to the ghouls, the goblins, the trolls that sidled out of the shadows and crept to their first classes of the day. Inside Erie Hall the toy soldiers were gone, the long hallway empty, a most auspicious sign. Even though she was already five minutes late she went into her office to check her hair and makeup one last time.

“Good morning,” she said as she entered the classroom. This was unprecedented. Rarely did she greet her students with such a warm smile, and the more diligent among them buried their noses in their textbooks as if for protection. After a moment she understood why. In the back of the room, glaring at her with barely restrained fury as if knowing that she was responsible for the boy’s absence, sat the two girls who this morning were not costumed in their usual attire of plaid shirts, navy blue knee highs and thin white blouses but instead wore woodland-colored battle fatigues, their faces camouflaged with dark paint, their hair concealed beneath olive green helmets, their shoulders draped with ammunition belts, their desktops cluttered with spent shell casings. Instead of pens, they clutched plastic machine guns. Instead of cell phones, they carried walkie-talkies that hissed with static.

For reasons she couldn’t explain, their anger gave her an enormous sense of pleasure, made her positively giddy in fact, and she burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. This made the girls snarl at her all the more. It took her a few minutes to regain her composure and start the day’s lecture, but by that time many of the students had excused themselves, trying to avoid eye contact with her, and with a clatter of pens and pencils hurried out of the classroom. But the two girls stayed put, scowling and sneering for the whole hour.

When she arrived home later that day and saw the boy sprawled across the couch, watching television, drinking her tea and using one of her husband’s books as a coaster, she nearly launched into a tirade about the inappropriateness of his conduct, the sheer audacity of his behavior—there were limits to these sorts of things, rules, subtleties, didn’t he understand any of that?—but before she could demand that he pedal away on his bicycle, the boy stood up and pinned her against the door and asked stonily, “So did you grade my paper yet, Professor?”

She tried to think of a sharp reply, but then he laughed and lifted up her skirt and started tasting every inch of her with a mouth ravenous and eager and almost dangerous with its snapping jaws and gnashing teeth. With a crazed grin he bent her over the arm of the couch, his powerful hands tearing her blouse and clawing her back, his wet tongue lapping at her shoulder blades. She considered screaming for help but wondered how she would explain the situation to neighbors. In the end she accepted the relentless driving rhythm of his punishment and shuddered with an inexplicable mixture of gratitude and disgust. Afterward, naked, bruised, aching, she went to the bedroom where she slipped into her robe and huddled against a rack of clothes in the dark closet. The boy stalked off to the shower without saying a word. She wasn’t sure if she should ask him to spend the night or tell him to get the hell out of her house and to never again step foot in her classroom.

The sound of an approaching car came from far off. Maybe her howls of anguish and pleasure had startled the neighbors, and now the police were on their way to investigate. She went to the living room, calmly lit a cigarette. The boy took his time showering and getting dressed. When he emerged from the bedroom he was no longer wearing his college sweatshirt and jeans but a collared shirt and corduroy jacket two sizes too small for him and a paisley tie.

She crushed out her cigarette. “Where the hell did you get those clothes?”

“Pretty funky, huh? I found them in your closet. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Yes, I do mind.”

“Well, I didn’t bring a change of clothes, and I gotta look my best.”

“You look ridiculous.”

“You think so?” He seemed proud of the fact.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Big costume party tonight.” He glanced out the window. A car pulled into the driveway, blared its horn. “My friends are here to pick me up.”

“Who? Which friends?”

He reached into the pocket of the corduroy jacket and produced a pipe. “Hell, I should win first prize with this get up.”

Through clenched teeth she said, “You’re not going anywhere.”

He laughed and went out the door, deliberately scuffing her husband’s penny loafers as he hurried across the gravel driveway.

From the car windows the two girls whistled at him, sexy soldiers waiting to be drilled by a tough taskmaster. “Hey, baby! You look hot.” They wore more camouflage now and had cigars in their mouths.

It was all such a joke to them. How easily they shed their memories, how effortlessly they disposed of their experiences. Because they had no frame of reference, no way to measure the importance of things, good or bad, they couldn’t begin to guess that life would soon leave its awful and indelible mark on them. She decided to be the first to leave them with an experience they would not soon forget.

In her dresser drawer she found the modern day totem for warding off evil spirits, and though she understood how insensible all of this was, how utterly stupid, she stepped outside into the early evening gloom where she cringed at the sudden gust of icy October air and the uproarious squeal of the two girls who pointed at her, their faces turning red with laughter, tears streaming from their eyes. She even let her robe fly open in the wind, what the hell, let them get a better look at those things the sculptors and painters and Don Juans through the ages had avoided or ignored altogether, and like some grotesque dervish in a ritualistic danse macabre, she twirled round until she stumbled with dizziness, but if this was a ritual it certainly was a poor one because a ritual was the re-enactment of a myth and thus demanded that blood be spilled. But bloodshed had never been her aim. She wanted only to teach, to instruct, to provide a valuable lesson—myths were capable of bestowing wisdom as well as scars. So she stopped twirling and slowly lifted the gun, tapping three times, the magic number, on the passenger side window with the glimmering barrel, and in her most professorial voice demanded that the boy get the hell out of the car or face the consequences.

Covering his head with both hands and sinking low in the seat in hopes of escaping death, the boy shouted, “You crazy bitch!”

“Ohmygod!” cried the driver. “What should we do?”

“What do you want from us?” the other girl whimpered.

But she wanted nothing from them, nothing at all. It was enough to hear those bitches sob and beg madly for their pathetic lives. Lowering the gun she turned away and walked to the patio where she watched the sky. At dusk bats flitted through the air to devour the mayflies that swarmed off the lake, and she hoped to spot a few now. The woods had already come alive with the sounds of nocturnal creatures foraging for the last morsels of food before the first serious blast of artic air swept down from the north and buried them all under the wretched snows of winter. Behind her, the engine revved loudly, the car lurched violently forward, fishtailed in the gravel driveway, then barreled toward the main road, leaving a thin spiraling cloud of blue exhaust that lingered in the air and drifted slowly over the valley.




4.

It was nearly dark when she went back inside the house. She found some jeans, a fleece jacket, an old pair of hiking boots. With a flashlight in hand and a cigarette clamped between her lips, she made her careful way along a narrow path behind the house that she and her husband had cleared with hatchet, rake and hoe one autumn afternoon not long after they were married. It was overgrown now with weeds and tall grass, she rarely had an opportunity to walk the path these days, and she stumbled across roots as she made her way between the heavy oaks and elms down to the valley floor where giant hogsweed and large clumps of sawtooth and big bluestem flowers still grew late into the fall. Here and there she spotted the stout, reddish Indian warrior whose buds she harvested and smoked for its medicinal effect.

Breathing in the autumn air she listened to the mournful voices of coyotes, animals skeletal and mangy and cunning, and she felt a hundred eyes glowing on the edge of the open field. They were not easily scared away by the alien lance of light and the crackling of leaves beneath her feet. Through a grove near the river they approached in silence. With frank curiosity and desperate hunger they observed her, tongues lolling.

She knew the old stories well, fragments of folktales from the Erie that those prudish and easily scandalized Christian settlers had either sanitized or tried to obliterate altogether, tales about the trickster Coyote who night and day obsessed over his painfully engorged penis and looked for opportunities to penetrate women, especially those nubile and slick skinned maidens who swam naked along the banks of rivers and streams. Always it was an older woman who interrupted Coyote’s good time, violently yanking his penis out of the maiden who, despite being taken by surprise, seemed to rather enjoy her victimization, but when the occasion—and his implacable desire—called for it Coyote wasn’t beyond mounting even the older woman. While she slept in fits and starts, troubled by nightmares, he crept into her tent and, lapping at her shriveled paps, entered her with a low howl of unbridled merriment that lasted through the night.

In the deepening twilight she walked three times around the stump where a large red maple once stood and where so many years ago her husband, a little drunk from the flask he always brought along with him on these hikes, had carved their initials. Through the clattering branches she gazed up at the stars and thought about the ancients, those shamans of old, reeling from their potions, trembling with animal spirits, performing their sacred Ghost Dance in a final effort to regain all they’d lost over the years, but when they looked deep into the evening fires they saw hovering in the crackling and hissing embers visions and phantasms that did not bode well for the future of their people.

“In the morning,” said the shamans, “the woman wakes up with a feeling of great warmth and contentment but believes the whole thing to have been dream. She believes this, yes, but for many days she can think of nothing else but Coyote, and each night before falling asleep she leaves prizes of strangled hens and geese outside her tent, hoping to lure him back to her bed. The weeks and months and years go by, but Coyote never returns. And the woman finally vanishes into the austerity and solitude of old age without ever again experiencing the pleasures of youth.”


Kevin P. Keating's
work has appeared in many publications, including most recently the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Identity Theory, the North Coast Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Exquisite Corpse, the Stickman Review, the Avatar Review and many others. His short story "The Black Death of Gentile da Foligno" (published in Perigee) has just been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He teaches English at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Ohio.