Rock Island, IL

Transcriber’s Note: The Bar Jester found this manuscript in an old file cabinet. He reasoned that, because The Porch has had plenty of doggerel already, and because its non-fiction is dismal enough, he ought to offer for public consideration a work of fiction, even though its author is unknown to all members of The Porch. So, herewith, part one of that serendipitously found but unattributed story, “The Way to Bliss.”

It was not the greatest of his misfortunes that Elias Ashmole was strapped from birth with the name “Elias Ashmole,” though the misfortune was not inconsiderable.

The humiliating variations that grammar school children attached to him—“Pious Asshole” was their favorite—did nothing in the way of preparing him for the whispers behind cupped hands of the college girls for whom he harbored a goat-like lust and a pigeon-livered fear.

He dreaded the first day of class, the calling out of his wretched name during the roll, the snickers that inevitably ensued.

Professor Harold Prickett, who had no grounds for abusing students on the basis of unfortunate names and who was sorely vexed by the great inconvenience of having to pause twice a day to go to class, always shouted irritably, whenever he could, the patronymics of his students, all of whom he hated with the venom of an adder’s tooth.

“Ashmole!” he would cry at eight a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as he peered out above his cloudy half-glasses, which rested at the end of a bulbous nose shaded by tempestuous eyebrows that sprouted like thick beach grasses at the base of a great dune-like forehead.

“Present!” Elias would exclaim–almost proudly, but not quite, for Elias, though ashamed of his name, was nevertheless proud of his attendance.

And if poor Elias, who was absolutely mad for medieval history, ever raised his hand to ask a question in class, Prickett, who was just plain mad—a man petulant when left alone but violently furious if anyone interrupted the great harangues against modernity he mistook for lectures on medieval life—mad, mad Prickett would pound his fist on his podium and shout impatiently, “what is it, Ashmole?”

Poor Elias, sincerely curious about Theophrastus Bombastus, would suffer the snickers again. They were the condition of his exile in life as “Elias Ashmole.”

And wouldn’t Professor Harold Prickett just have to be the only medieval historian?

He would.

Poor Elias Ashmole, in his great longing for the world of illuminated manuscripts and Papal indulgences, had almost no one else to turn to.

But even this was not the greatest of Elias Ashmole’s misfortunes.

Nor was it his teeth, which recessed on the bottom and hung like green triangular Chicklets on the top.

Nor was it that his tiny ears perched at different altitudes on his narrow blade-like head, the effect of which was that his large square glasses, thick like window block, bisected the arched bridge of his nose at an indifferent twenty-three-degree angle.

Nor was it his complexion, which a blind man could have mistaken for braille.

Nor was it his sense of fashion, which distilled to two long-sleeved onion-thin paisley shirts lending the only variety to the grey, coffee-stained polyester pants he wore every day. (Prickett, who had no grounds for abusing others on matters of dress, once called him, in class, “Missster Polyessster.”)

Nor was it his great and almost constant tumescence, which his grey polyester pants could never quite sufficiently hide.

Nor was it his seasonal allergy, a variation of which afflicted him each of the four seasons. So ubiquitous was his yellowed handkerchief, and so often did his pasty hands drag it across his pimply nose, that Dr. Lucinda Borstein-VanHocksenbergen, the prim Renaissance scholar famous in the English department for out-of-date scarves and pant-suits, unforeshadowed outbursts of anger, and for actually having published an article (coincidentally on the real Elias Ashmole), fearing that the blast of death’s incessant motion would strike her down before she could become Dean, wore rubber gloves and a surgical mask when she read poor Elias’s exams and essays.

Nor was it the fact that, although he was brighter than every single undergraduate at Flahtsam College, and although he wrote with a clarity and flare that most writing instructors weren’t capable of, his professors, without variation or compunction, gave him B plusses instead of As and A minuses. They did this in retribution—and out of unadulterated spite—for his poor hygiene, his unassailable imperviousness to irony, and his unrelenting obsequiousness in and out of the classroom.

(It was because of Elias that Professor Prickett brought a kitchen timer to his office and set it at three minutes each time the oily figure of Elias darkened his door.)

Nor was it even that, like most historians—indeed, like history itself—Elias had no future.

No. The greatest of his misfortunes was that poor Elias Ashmole, expecting (and dreading) to hear his wretched name called first in a seminar on Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, heard instead the clear ringing name of “Tenley Ackerson,” whereupon poor Elias looked up first in bewilderment, then in hormonal agitation: for when he turned his head to the left, whence in flute-like delicacy the simple word “present” rang out from Tenley’s lips like an airy obbligato, he set eyes upon the goddess excellently bright who, in answering to this name, altered the course of Ashmole’s miserable life forever.

For poor, intelligent, allergic, bespeckled, fragrant and ill-named Elias Ashmole fell for the fifteenth and final time his senior year ten thousand miles in love.

Tenley Ackerson had transferred to Flahtsam her senior year from a rival school about seventy miles away to escape the advances of Dr. Claudia Augen, a sociology professor who taught such courses as “True Femininity” and “Ecology and Emasculation.” Tenley had performed well in an introductory course Dr. Augen was obliged to teach once every three years, and for her pains Tenley spent her sophomore and junior years uncomfortably avoiding sociology in general and Dr. Augen in particular, who “truly believed,” she wrote to Tenley on the back of her term paper, that “in your heart of hearts you do not, indeed cannot, prefer men.”

But Tenley, although unfulfilled in a way she hadn’t quite identified yet, was certain she could.

Unfortunately for Elias Ashmole, however, she could not prefer him. But neither could she avoid him, for there he sat, front and center, in Dr. Gus Rottingham’s seminar on Boethius. There was little anyone could do about that, Dr. Gus Rottingham included.

Professor Rottingham, who affected to commune with The Forms as he strolled the corridors and sidewalks of campus, was fairly sensible for a philosopher, thanks in large part to his firm belief than nothing good had happened after Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy.

Case in point: The Dean of Flahtsam, a former member of the classics department who didn’t discover until it was too late that the main job of the Dean at a place like Flahtsam—after learning to say “no” to everyone—was to throw dinner parties for the president’s enemies (the more easily to gather incriminating evidence)—this same dean once asked Rottingham whether he didn’t think the music of Copeland superior to that of Strauss.

Rottingham, affecting the boredom he truly felt, answered: “Chaucer translated Boethius no later than 1386.”

Rottingham’s great mark of distinction, however, was that he had managed to teach a logical truth to L’Atrocius Brown, the star running back of the football team. “Look,” he said to L’Atrocius one day. “It is a logical truth that either you will pass this course or you won’t. If you don’t, you won’t take another hand-off as long as you live.”

L’Atrocius Brown understood this, studied his Timaeus, and passed with a D minus. Flahtsam went on to win the conference title that year, L’Atrocius Brown leading the way with a record-breaking five touchdown runs, which made his elder sister, L’Atreena, who had anchored the 440-relay two years earlier, very proud indeed.

A better English curriculum, or rather any English curriculum, might have prevented Tenley’s ever crossing Elias’s field of limited vision: Elias, of course, enrolled in Boethius out of his great love of things medieval, Tenley out of frustration that the English department required only that she take courses, not that she take any courses in particular.

“We don’t acknowledge the old patriarchal boundaries between disciplines,” said Lucinda Borstein-VanHocksenbergen, defending her new curriculum at a faculty meeting known thereafter to Rottingham and Prickett as the coup d’etwat. Though interested principally in the seventeenth century, Tenley thought she ought to know something about “that great darkness out of which the light of the Renaissance emerged,” as Borstein-VanHocksenbergen was fond of saying to the high windows at the back of the only classroom she would agree to teach in.

Medieval literature with the unprepossessing Dr. Barbara Eton-Hogg, a woman of considerable heft who was fond of such words as “aporia” and “rupture” and “contested,” did not fit Tenley’s schedule, thanks to a physical education requirement that, left unfulfilled, would prevent her graduating. So she enrolled in both Boethius and bowling, comforting herself with the thought that at least she need not worry about being relentlessly pursued by Rottingham, who was old and married and Catholic.

After the first session, both Elias and Tenley lingered to speak privately with Professor Rottingham, Elias because he was unnaturally obsequious and Tenley because she was preternaturally curious. Also, Elias, who sometimes stomped where angels feared to tread, was desperate to be noticed by this new Beatrice. He stood with his books flat across his groin, which he often (and presently) did of necessity. Tenley stood with her books resting on her forearm, topside up, as if prepared to read a speech that rested on the cover. Her complexion was as smooth and white as milk, and she looked patiently at Professor Rottingham; Elias, oil cascading down his face, stared at her without subtlety, his mouth agape.

Rottingham turned his pinkish face toward Elias, raised his eyebrows as if to say “yes?” and waited for poor Elias to speak. Rottingham’s having this unfamiliar girl also waiting to speak to him would prove useful: he could cut Elias short.

“I was wondering if you happen to know an excellent novel by John Kennedy Toole called . . .”

“Yes, I know it,” Rottingham interrupted. He wore a brown, tweed jacket that smelled of old pipe tobacco. A small chin in the shape of a lower-case U rested above three others that circled beneath it like innertubes of increasing width and circumference, the bottom-most hanging over a collar drawn tight by a burgundy tie that drew out his own natural porcine color.

“But don’t think that you can get your Boethius from it.” Rottingham turned to Tenley and gave her a similar though more kindly directive with his eyebrows. As her lips parted and she took a breath, Elias broke in again.

“What I was going to ask was whether it would be okay with you if I did something with that for my seminar paper.”

“No,” Rottingham said without taking his eyes off Tenley, who stood motionless as a statue, patiently looking up at Rottingham with her deep brown eyes.

“Then maybe . . .”

“Ashmole, it’s the first bloody day of class. Boethius isn’t going anywhere. He’s been dead these fourteen long centuries now.

Elias pushed up his glasses by bowing his head into the middle finger of his left hand. This was going badly and warranted such a gesture, save that Elias meant nothing by it.

“Please tell me your name again,” Rottingham said to Tenley.

“Tenley Ackerson.”

Shameless Elias made no effort to disguise the fact that he was writing this down on the palm of his left hand. He even mouthed the name as he scribbled.

“I’m a transfer, a senior English major,” she said. “Dr. um, oh shoot. I can’t remember her name. She teaches the Chaucer class?”

“Eaton-Hogg. Babs.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Babs—I beg your pardon: Barbara—Eton-Hogg.” Rottingham pronounced with great pleasure the name of this large and most hated colleague, who would never countenance being called “Babs” by any man and who would charge straight to the Dean if she knew of one who’d done it.

(“What she knows about the Middle Ages,” Rottingham once said to Prickett at their favorite pub, The Flask and Bugle, “could be written on the foreskin of a flea.”)

“Yes,” continued Tenley nervously. “Dr. Eton-Hogg’s class didn’t quite fit my schedule, and I was wondering if I should do any background reading to help me with your class, since I’m not really a philosopher or anything like that.”

Rottingham had Ashmole on whom to vent all his spleen, so he let poor nervous Tenley’s “anything like that” pass.

“The distinguished author whom Mr. Ashmole here just mentioned you may postpone reading until summer,” Rottingham said. “Here are the two books you will do well to know.” He scribbled down two titles on a piece of paper. Elias tried to peer over the pad to read what Rottingham was writing, and Rottingham, affecting shock and horror, swiveled away in mock outrage from Elias. Rottingham then ripped the paper out of his yellow legal pad and gave it with exaggerated secrecy to Tenley.

“Thanks so much,” she said and was gone.

“Excuse me!” Elias said, running after her down the tiled corridor of Perritt Hall, his books still broadsided against his now outrageously recalcitrant erection, eyes fixed on Tenley’s bottom, which moved back and forth only slightly, as if it were a small golden pendulum swinging inside her jeans and about to come to rest.

“Excuse me!” he said as he caught up with her, breathless in his onion-thin paisley shirt, glasses sliding at their usual angle down his glistening nose. “Do you mind if I see what books he suggested?” Tenley stood still, frightened, as if she were Dorothy, and the flying apes had just descended.

Elias barged on, impervious.

“I’m Elias Ashmole. I’m a medieval historian and scholar myself.”

Tenley didn’t move or speak or blink.

“By training, that is.” He let out a nervous, snorting chuckle.

Tenley, astonished and speechless, produced the piece of paper on which Rottingham had scribbled. She did this the way someone produces a wallet at gunpoint.

“Oh, yes. These are quite good. Quite good. I’ve read them both several times. Perhaps if you have any questions about them I could . . .”

And for the third time in ten minutes, and perhaps the three-millionth time in his life, someone interrupted poor Elias Ashmole.

“I’ll prob’ly be okay?” Tenley said, noticing for the first time Elias’s teeth, which made her think of a child-molester. She tried not to cringe, but a Vesuvius-like whitehead at the corner of Elias’s mouth drew a sour taste up her throat and into her mouth. She felt she must make an exit before one or the other erupted, so she parted with the most useful lie she knew. “My boyfriend’s waiting. See you Wednesday.”

A single basketball bouncing once, loudly, in an empty gymnasium. That was the sound of poor Elias Ashmole’s heart falling, hitting.

Nevertheless, after standing forlorn for a minute or two, he raced back to his room, more specifically to his bathroom, then into the shower, where the image of Tenley Ackerson shimmered before him.

Later that afternoon, at The Flask and Bugle, Prickett boasted to Rottingham that there were no more of his courses that Ashmole could take.

“He’s taken them all,” Prickett said, the foam of a Guinness clinging to his salt-and-pepper mustache, his eyes darkened by the shade of a great thicket of eyebrow sticking out from his Memphian tiger-like head. “I’ll almost miss him,” he said nostalgically to the bottles behind the bar. “But not quite. You, on the other hand,” he said, now turning to Rottingham, “you have not been so lucky. I do confess that as his academic advisor I did in fact suggest he take your seminar on that sixth-century statesman you’re so fond of. Signed his registration card for him on the condition that he take it, in fact.” Prickett grinned mischievously as he looked into Rottingham’s eyes.

“You know, Harry, you’re a bull’s pizzle,” Rottingham said.

The two were old career friends united by twenty-five years of common enemies. Both admired but disliked Lucinda Borstein-VanHocksenbergen, who, they both knew, was making a play to be the next Dean, who himself had announced his retirement effective the end of the following year. Both regarded Barbara Eton-Hogg as an utter fool whose stupidity exceeded even her weight. And they were the only ones at their rank who had actually published books with real presses, about which neither gave a damn, for neither of them valued anything more highly than beer and male company.

“I made sure I scheduled Boethius at the same time as Babs’s Chaucer,” Rottingham said after taking several quick drags on his pipe, which was about to go out, “thinking Ashmole would take her after the way I abused him last year in Aquinas. But the cunning linguist went under the radar and changed her time. Now I’m stuck with the little bastard. God, I hate that woman.”

“She’s in a white marriage, you know,” Prickett said with great satisfaction.

It was true. Barry Hogg and Barbara Eton joined, respectively, the Theatre and English departments the same year. So at the annual Flask-and-Bugle meeting to make early predictions about the newest crop of unpromising and unlikely faculty members, Prickett and Rottingham, hitting almost simultaneously upon the sexual inclinations of these two, designed a strategy: they put it out that success at a place like Flahtsam was statistically tied to marital stability–indeed, that marriage increased the likelihood of a favorable tenure decision. By means of intricate machinations that “only medievalists trained in the subtle Byzantine distinctions of scholasticism are capable of,” as Rottingham put it—by means of comments about how the administration looked favorably upon seeing as many hyphenated names in directories and brochures as possible, by means of anecdotes of unmarried former colleagues “alas no longer with us”—by such means as these a historian and a philosopher, medievalists both, played match-maker. Barry and Barbara agreed to marry, live together, and hope that the seven years to tenure would pass quickly, at which time they would divorce as expeditiously as movie stars.

Said Prickett, with great satisfaction, “she’s in a white marriage, you know.”

Meanwhile, at The Witch’s Brew, the campus coffee shop, where wearing black clothing seemed a requirement among students, Lucinda Borstein-VanHocksenbergen dipped a tea bag into hot water. Student art—oblique charcoal nudes, full-frontal pen-and-ink nudes, photographs of nudes—looked down on them.

“Looks like we’ve got a new star,” Lucinda said.

“A new star?” Barbara Eaton-Hogg asked, suddenly threatened.

(Prickett and Borstein-VanHocksenbergen, though enemies, agreed on this much: Barbara in particular, and fat people in general, were not subtle.)

“Transfer student named Tenley Ackerson. She likes Crashaw, but I can fix that.”

“Wherefrom?” Barbara asked, obviously relieved that the star was a student, not a rival.

“Baxter College.”

“I know someone there in Sociology, Barbara said.

“This woman could be just what we need.”

“What do you mean?” Barbara, asked, thinking that “this woman” referred to her acquaintance at Baxter. (Prickett and Borstein-VanHocksenbergen also agreed that Barbara in particular, and fat people in general, had a habit of misunderstanding the relationship between pronouns and their antecedents. But Barbara’s problems ran deeper—and wider. A year from tenure, she hoped unapologetically that her slow-witted ways would appear as they were—as a desperate need for guidance from her older female colleagues, who would thus be flattered and therefore support her for tenure, notwithstanding her sporting a species of ignorance conspicuous as her hips. Lucinda alone saw through this. Lucinda was objectionable, but she was not entirely stupid.)

“What do I mean? Women’s Studies, of course. All our graduates are baristas or babysitters. We need to place a student in a good grad school. This could be the one.”

This was the latest and official plan for the undistinguished Women’s Studies program. Speeches at faculty meetings—a litany that always included “our creative course design, our excellent record of publications, our popularity with the students” until even the Women’s Studies faculty realized none of it was true—now began to include a rehearsal of how many students they’d placed in Women’s Studies graduate programs, until someone noticed that the number was zero. This needed fixing.

“Ah.” Barbara could think of nothing else to say. She pretended to be thinking long and hard about this. Instead, she was thinking about Claudia Augen, with whom she’d shared an occasional bed both during and since graduate school.

“So long as we can keep her away from the likes of Prickett and Rottingham,” Lucinda said.

“Good plan,” said Barbara, thinking it was about time she and Claudia attended another conference on college money so they could sixty-nine each other.

Back inside the dim Flask & Bugle, a heap of peanut shells rose beneath the stools on which Prickett and Rottingham sat. Peanut skins hung in the gaps between their teeth.

“And rumor is she’s pissed at Lu-Lu,” Prickett said.

“Wait, wait. You said “white marriage.” White marriage? Whatever do you mean?”

Prickett looked around the pub to see if there were anyone who would benefit from over-hearing him. “Her Majesty Borstein-VanHocksenbergen has made disparaging remarks about Hog-eater’s prospects for tenure. Seems Babs is a bit slow at figuring out what the new official goals are of the department for studying women. Placing a good grad student, for example.”

Rottingham relit his pipe. “Forget that Babs is as dumb as a mud fence. Classic Lu-Lu.”

[Cut to the Witch’s Brew] “She has to take a fizz-ed, so she’ll be bowling instead of taking your Chaucer,” Lucinda said, pleased at the insult Barbara would be too stupid to register, “but I’ll be sending her to talk to you about graduate school. You’re nearer all that horror than the rest of us.”

Barbara took a meditative sip and said, “I’m sure I can get her in at Southern. Everyone I knew is still there.”

Southern was a third-tier graduate program at best.

“I’m sure they are,” said Lucinda. “Anyway, we can’t blow this one. Women’s Studies has to put up someone for Dean”—by which Lucinda meant herself—“in the next few years. What we need is credibility.”

“What she wants is credibility,” said Prickett, “so she can come up for Dean. Problem is, she has only her students to turn to for it, and the English majors here are as stupid as the English faculty.” He took a tug from his pint glass in a motion too quick even for his considerable maw. Foam dribbled down his chin.

An idea dawned on Rottinghman. He grinned slowly, then widely. “Why don’t we give her Ashmole?”

Prickett paused, paused again, wiped his chin, and smiled approvingly. He held up two fingers to the bartender.

On Tuesday at 8:01 a.m. Prickett set the timer. “What is it, Ashmole?” he thundered from his desk. Books and papers went flying around a dusty bust of Roger Bacon. Prickett disliked being disturbed on Tuesday mornings in particular.

“You asked to see me,” Ashmole said, somewhat perplexed.

“That’s right. So I did. Listen, Ashmole. What are you doing after this year?”

“Grad school, remember? You said you’d write a recommendation . . . ”

“Right. Listen, Ashmole. There’s no future in medieval history. You can’t get a job. You, especially, can’t get a job. You need a, ah, a sexier field.” Prickett grabbed a ready and strategically placed brochure: Women’s Studies at Southern. “Take this. Read it over. Come back to see me.”

Ashmole took it and turned to the first page. He stared at it in something like disbelief until the kitchen timer went off.

“We’ll talk,” Prickett said. “I think there’s someone here who can help you.”

Meantime: “You’re taking Boethius?” shrieked Lucinda. “Whatever for?”

Poor Tenley Ackerson, standing timidly in the doorway, was hoping to get her final registration card signed.

“I feel a little weak–I don’t know much about the Middle Ages,” Tenley ventured. I . . . I . . .”

“Who cares about Boethius except that bigoted Catholic numbskull Rottingham?” Lucinda cried. “Christ on crutches! Can’t you take photography or something?”

“I’m afraid I need a philosophy.” Most English majors were acclimated to Lucinda’s irritability. But Tenley, who barely knew her, was not. She was almost in tears.

“Here. Give me that card.”

Tenley held out the card in one hand and a pen in the other. Professor Lucinda Borstein-VanHocksenbergen took only the card and began the laborious job of signing her cumbersome multi-syllabic name to it. Long ago in graduate school Lucinda decided, out of loyalty to oppressed and married women everywhere, to affix by means of a hyphen her mother’s patronymic (Borstein) to her own hateful one (VanHocksenbergen). So the Jewish/Dutch-Calvinist union, so infrequently celebrated in her parents’ bedroom, was consummated for perpetuity. But then, when gainfully employed as an assistant professor at Flahtsam College, she discovered how much time it took to sign that elongated serpentine name to student drop slips and registration cards. Sometimes she half-longed for the days of being Lucinda VanHocksenbergen and, before that, Miss VanHocksenbergen, and before that, Lucy, and before that, Loo. But she understood that you can’t make the sort of change she had made, especially with the fanfare with which she’d made it, and go back.

Lucinda ran out of black ink at the “i” in “Borstein.” She shook her pen violently but produced no more ink. She made the “n” in red, but her red pen ran out of ink as she began the second of her surnames. “My kingdom for a goddamned pen!” she shrieked. Once again Tenley held out her blue felt-tip. Lucinda snatched it and finished the signature. “There you are,” she said irritably, handing Tenley a pen in one hand and a card with a three-toned signature in the other. “Just be careful Rottingham doesn’t ruin you.”

“I’ll ruin you for everything but Platonism,” Rottingham said to his seminar students on Wednesday. “Mark me. Mark me.”

Ashmole wrote this down verbatim, including the repetition. Then he underlined it twice. Then a third time, adding beneath it, “endeavor to become a better Platonist.”

Rottingham inexplicably asked to see him after class.

“Dear Claud,” wrote Barbara Eton-Hogg. “I wonder if you know a student we have here, one Tenley Ackerson. She’s quite good. I’ve been appointed her guardian. I’m going to try to get her into Southern. Do you think you could help—if indeed you know her?

“Also, Barry has been getting on my nerves lately. If he were more of a man, this ‘marriage’ would work a lot better. He’s on his fourth boyfriend since the 4th.

“I say we go to Madison. There’s a conference there called “Mensus-pects: Testicular Blame, Penile (Culp)ability.” I’ve got a new inter(pretive) tool I’m dying to show you.

“Write soon. Munch, munch, etc. Babs.”

Poor Elias couldn’t make it all add up. He had, on four distinct occasions, heard Professor Prickett say in class: “Children, you may quote me: the Philosopher’s Stone itself could not turn a feminist into an intelligent life-form.” And Rottingham had allowed, albeit in the privacy of his office, that “the formation of a Women’s Studies program will do more damage to this college than Vatican II did to Catholicism.”

Now both Prickett and Rottingham were insisting that he, Ashmole, child of scorn, become a “Feminist Medievalist.” Their abuse was puzzling enough; this new active interest was inexplicable. Phone calls. Messages on his answering machines. Conversations after class, none of which Elias instigated.

“You think I should study feminism? Elias asked.

“Ashmole,” Prickett began irritably, setting his timer. “Feminism isn’t so deep that it requires studying. It’s a way of talking. It’s like Pig Latin. You listen for about three minutes to figure out how it works and then you start talking and never stop.”

“Do you think this will help me develop my talents?” Elias had asked.

“Ashmole,” Prickett thundered, “they even have Feminist Archaeologists now. They travel the world and dig with non-phallic tools and get jobs the way L’Atrocius Brown gets cheerleaders.”

It was this remark that put Elias to thinking that perhaps he could move into Tenley’s orbit by showing an interest in feminism. Perhaps the way to a woman’s heart was through her head, not his. He began with great enthusiasm to fill out the application to Southern.

Dr. Claudia Augen, the Baxter sociologist, was a boney woman with small, angular features and short, talon-like hair, which she kept neatly clipped off her neck and ears. Her small cold eyes had an unsettling hawk-like color; they established a theme from which her sharp nose did not depart. In public she wore small wire-rimmed glasses, drop-waist faded cotton dresses, and Birkenstock sandals. Always.

Presently, however, she lounged in her apartment in sweat pants. She sipped green tea, ate organically grown celery sticks on which she spread Jiffy peanut butter with a plastic spoon, and read her mail. It was Friday afternoon. She opened the letter from her sometime “partner,” Barbara Eton-Hogg, who in graduate school had not been quite so substantial a specimen.

At the phrase “one Tenley Ackerson” a portion of Claudia’s green tea reversed itself. “Oh, my God!” she cried as she leapt out of her bean-bag chair, snorting tea and startling Aunt Jennifer, her cat, who ran and hid behind the free-standing, life-size cut-out of Gloria Steinem. Claudia grabbed her keys and ran to her Volvo 240. She hadn’t a moment to lose. Tenley Ackerson, her dear lost protégé, was found!

[Stay tuned next week when our predatory sociologist descends upon Flahtsam college. Intrigue ensues. Or maybe it doesn’t.]

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Peters,
    This is hilarious and goad-ful. I was curious about something. In the story you write this description of Prof. Prickett: “. . . his eyes darkened by the shade of a great thicket of eyebrow sticking out from his Memphian tiger-like head.” While reading the story, I was caused to reminisce about my undergrad days at Rhodes College (formerly Southwestern at Memphis). The characters reminded me of my professors and the atmosphere at and around this alma mater. Then, upon reading the passage referencing the “Memphian tiger-like head,” I couldn’t help but wonder whether you were there as well?

  2. As a adjunct instructor, I am not well-connected to the political culture of academia, but as someone who worked for many years as a corporate bureaucrat, serving at the feast of mammon and grateful for a few crumbs from the table, the situation you describe is not unfamiliar. Could academia really be as bad as the corporate world? But then, as Henry Kissinger observed, “Academic battles are so bitter because the stakes are so small.”

  3. Ben:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never been near Rhodes College, but then reality has a way of overruling the judgments of memory. The phrase “Memphian Sphynx,” which I think both Milton and Keats used, had probably dislodged itself and begun banging around in my head–I mean the head of the unknown and obviously witless wag who left this story–clearly based on the life and times of Bill Kauffman–in my file cabinet.

  4. “But I digress . . .” I had hunched that the allusion might be double, both “classical” and mundane. Thanks for the answer.
    Back on track: Might I suggest that you and Mr. Kauffman submit your dental records to solve the riddle of the Ashmole’s true identity?

  5. I’ve read parts 1 and 2. I think the story is very clever and well-done!

    My only minor beef with it is a personal one and subjective, that whenever I sense the author does not love his characters it detracts from my enjoyment of the story. I may be misreading the story or missing the point, but I perceive the author has contempt for all the characters, even for the lovely Tenley. Feel free to correct me where I’m wrong, I’m interested in learning.

    All the Best,
    Hannah G

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