Fall 1987, Volume 4.2
Ron Carlson is a fiction writer who teaches at Arizona State University. His latest work includes a collection of short stories, The News of the World (xx, 1986); a novel, Truants (xx, 1986); and a story in the Best American Short Stories 1987. He is currently busy writing a screenplay of his short story "Life Before Science" for Columbia Pictures.
The second week of the summer we were down at the V. R. after faculty meeting, drinking beer and watching our department head, Renny Austin, show off for the new teachers, Hal Phillips, who would teach study skills and who was nodding like mad, soaking it all up, and Nonie Andreison, who would teach photography, and who tonight was the only girl in the bar.
Morgan filled my glass and asked me, "You start your progress letters yet?" He smirked.
"That's not a joke."
"What?" Renny leaned over from where he was telling war stories to the new kids.
"I'm going to copy your progress letters from last year instead of breaking my brains this August, okay?" Morgan said to Renny. Morgan insulted the chairman at every chance, but Renny didn't always get it.
"Listen," he palmed the air at us: "You write progress letters for ten summers, you'll be a xerox machine yourself." He made the face of an expert and turned back to the new guys.
The advisee letters are the toughest part of Morrow. The summer is a sweet six weeks, then the last week: reports, due on Progress Day. There are only two teachers who breeze through the letters, one is Captain Wyberg, the Headmaster, because he can write like a genius and has been doing this for twenty-one years; and the other is Renny Austin, the composition head, because he can't write at all, and doesn't care. I've read his letters from last year: fluff. The rest of us suffer. Last year, my first summer teaching, each letter took just over four hours; it was worse than college.
Morgan smiled at me and sipped his beer. I watched Renny. He lived for nights like these when he could lord it over the novice teachers. He'd been at Morrow for fifteen years, summer and winter, but it was clear he'd burned out about ten years ago. When he didn't get to be Headmaster, he gave up.
Tonight he was going on and on about the progress letters, that he'd help them through it, how they were no real problem, that summer school wasn't a big deal anyway. Hal and Nonie frowned in concentration. Renny had done the same thing to me and Morgan last year: brought us down to the Village Restaurant, called it the V.R., sat us down and told us all the real stuff.
Nonie Andreison was already the darling of the summer school. One year out of Brown, she taught photography and ran the waterfront. In the classroom she was good and she was tough and the kids liked her. In a small summer school like Morrow, word gets around. By the second week everybody knew that photography was not going to be a gut course this summer. And, Nonie was the prettiest person on the hill, even prettier than any of the forty coeds. Her short, off-center haircut gave her sunny brown hair the appearance of being about to take off. She had a no-nonsense manner, which always seems affected in women her age, but to see her at the waterfront whistling kids off the raft for horsing around, was to believe it. She wore green shorts and a gray Brown University sweatshirt.
I wanted to stay, to interrupt Rennie, ask Nonie her plans, where she was going to be this fall, but I couldn't do it. She was terrific, clearly, but something about her reminded me of lots of girls I'd known in school, young women who were so pretty and brainy, so delicate and able that it mystified me. They were, for a guy like me, hard to approach. I'd studied with them and so I know—as an empirical fact—what I am talking about. I watched her with Renny. And finally I stood up.
"Don't you want to wait until he gets into his Princeton stories?" Morgan said, nodding at Renny. "He's telling about the jobs he turned down now; Princeton is inches away."
"No. I've got a set of comps, remember? See you tomorrow."
Nonie Andreison had transformed the waterfront. Last summer, it had been a wasteland: the old dock, the two old canoes. Geese moved onto the old raft and there weren't ten kids who got wet all summer. When Captain Wyberg had announced sports assignments for the new faculty and said, "Waterfront: Eleanor Andreison," the entire faculty had applauded her misfortune. Morgan had hummed the theme song from "Twilight Zone."
And then it all changed. Twelve kids signed up for swimming: a record. My advisee Walker Hamilton broke his arm in softball and, rather than be off-sports asked to become Miss Andreison's assistant. Groups of others suddenly interested in swimming started showing up. Renny, shirtless and gleaming from touch football, paced the entire football contingent down the dirt road half a mile to the waterfront every day after the games.
After sports, I took my hiking group to the waterfront about once a week. The only kids who sign up for hiking are the misfits, but the great misfits. I had a small group, five: two Vietnamese students, Tui and Vi Pranish, Bobby Miner, the tallest kid in the entire township, Ral, a boy from Kuwait who looked older than I did, and one girl: Courtney Firestone, who had signed up for hiking because, she said, she was a writer not an athlete.
Four days a week we met in the foyer of Main after lunch and set off. The Morrow campus itself is surrounded by woods, so we had plenty of territory. My original plan for the summer was to work our way around the school clockwise in two dozen hikes, but that fell apart the first week when we got lost in the ravines behind campus, wandering casually in the thick deciduous growth until well after dinner, when Bobby Miner was able to spot the cupola on Main from a small clearing.
My reputation was made. And the irregular terrain and thick growth confused me every time we went out, though we only became really lost twice after that. One time in the hills across little Route 29, I became turned around and after two hours I finally stopped and had the kids eat wild raspberries as if it were a picnic while I climbed a tree. I was able to see the campus flagpole, and I climbed down and made the hikers hook pinky fingers and promise not to tell. So it turned out all right, except for the raspberry cramps they all had for two days.
The second had worse results. One day in the woods below the school, I let us get too close to the lake and we ended up slogging through the swamp for half a mile, finally emerging into the lake itself, walking in water up to our necks. I remember Courtney Firestone calling out to the dock, "Hey, Miss Andreison! Hey! Lost again!"
I could see the green shorts as Nonie bent to steady a canoe, then she stood and tried to figure out what in the world we were doing. Her student assistant, Walker Hamilton, my advisee who followed her everywhere, started laughing. I led my band of soggy hikers to the dock.
"Hi," I said to her. "We hiked down through the swamp."
"Mr. Wainwright believes in survival hiking," Courtney said. "If you don't risk your life, it's not real hiking."
That quote was the caption for the photograph that appeared a week later in the Dining Room Gallery. In the photo, arms up, I lead the six hikers through the thick water-lillies toward the camera.
I didn't see Nonie take the photograph, but it became a sensation, especially among the faculty. In meetings, Renny said things like, "Only Wainwright would dare take our Vietnamese students into the rice paddies." He always got a good laugh. After the faculty meeting, I was going to say something to Nonie about the photograph, some joke, and I had my courage up and I was waiting for her by the door, when Captain Wyberg called my name. Well, the moment got away. I went to the Captain's desk and I felt her pass behind me and go off with the gang.
Captain Wyberg asked me to advise Eastwind, the literary magazine, which was an amazing compliment (Rennie had done it last summer), but as I stood there nodding, I literally felt my moment to talk to Nonie Andreison disappear.
I didn't go to the V.R. that night, and after that I let my work keep me at school after the meetings. I missed drinking beer with the gang, but it wasn't worth it to be around Morgan while he was picking on Renny and while they were both competing for Nonie. I'd been to college and I'd had fun, but I knew—as an empirical fact—that I was not the guy who gets the girl. I didn't want any more lessons in that.
Besides, I had graduated in June, and so I spent my Monday nights writing job letters and thinking it over. I sent dozens of letters to schools featured in Sargent's Guide to Preparatory Schools, studying the descriptions and dwelling on the photograph of each, Old Main or the New Gym, maybe a cluster of students carrying books on the sunny walkway, and though I didn't know exactly where I was this dizzy summer, I did know one thing: I wanted to be there, in the photograph, carrying my books, headed off to teach.
I was busy. I worked hard on Eastwind, with Courtney Firestone and Bobby Miner, and I herded my comp classes through the weeks like a worried sheep dog. Their folders grew thicker and thicker. Sometimes it was such clear, centered work, but there were lots of times when I was just groping in the dark. I didn't trust my assignments or the way I corrected them or what I said to kids there at my desk. I felt lost. I thought of Captain Wyberg. He was a great teacher and he made it look easy. There were lots of nights when I thought Morgan might have the right plan for the fall: business school.
Tuesday's Morgan would tell me what I'd missed at the V. R. the night before. He laughed at Renny for coming on to Nonie so blatantly, but I never asked him how she responded. I knew she wanted to be a teacher and that she might listen to Renny, the veteran. And it bothered me that after the V. R., they'd all go out to the waterfront and play Raft Baseball, a game I had invented last summer. And afterward, Morgan told me, he and Hal Phillips would strip and go swimming in the dark. Renny Austin and Nonie did not swim, but leaned against the car, Morgan said, whispering.
Raft Baseball was born last summer after one of our first nights at the V. R. Morgan had wanted to go swimming, and had driven down the one lane dirt road to the waterfront. When we pulled into the clearing by the boathouse, we could see two dozen geese on the raft.
"Lovely," Morgan said.
As we stood out of the car in the new quiet dark, we could hear them rising, walking into the water, swimming away. Morgan threw a rock. As soon as I heard the splash, I knew every rule of Raft Baseball. You lob a rock into the dark, hoping to hit the raft. Wood: a run. Water: an out. We played and played that night, throwing rocks until I had won the world series, four out of seven, and setting a record that still stands: eight runs in a row. We didn't even go swimming. But from then on, after the V. R., we'd stop and play a few games, and then swim. It was really my favorite part of the week. We'd stand there, full of beer, throwing rocks into the void, and talk.
"You really want to teach?" Morgan would always ask me.
"We are teaching, Morgan."
"No, really, end up like Mr. Renny Austin, forty, mediocre schoolman."
"Not all teachers end up like Renny." I threw a round stone up in an arc and listened to it smartly knock wood. "That's four."
"Two outs, four runs. Another massacre."
I hurled a rock out over the water; we heard a muffled splash.
"Top of the fifth. Good luck." I said.
"But none of them end up with any money. You want to live at Morrow year round, become Mr. Chips in the village? You know what it's like here in the winter?" We heard the quick splash.
I picked up a stone the size of a goose egg. "Bottom of the fifth inning," I said. "Play to win."
I knew—as an empirical fact—that I wanted to teach. But I remember most the feeling of uncertainty I had those nights, of wondering if I really would be a teacher, if I would make the grade.
The night before Progress Day, I was half way through my second advisee letter when I heard a rumpus, six voices and two doors, and I thought it was Cray and Stevens playing furniture tag in the Common again, but when I looked it was the whole dorm for the last pizza feed. So I went down and had a piece and talked to Hamilton whose report was half way through my typewriter at that very moment. He had a clever way of flopping a slice of pizza up so that the tip of it balanced on the forearm of his cast for a moment until he could swing the wedge up into his mouth.
"How would you describe your progress this summer, Walker?" I asked him. The wrist of his cast was greasy; evidently he'd been eating pizza this way all summer.
"Significant," he said, his mouth full. "This has been a significant summer."
"Wonderful," I said, already trying to figure how to work that into his report. "What was the best part?"
"Waterfront with Miss Andreison." He smiled proudly.
"Of course," I said, "but what about classwork?"
Walker jammed the pizza into his mouth, and said: "No question: photography." He nodded seriously. "I learned a lot."
"Such as simplify, limit the frame, use available light."
"You like Miss Andreison, eh Walker? You've had a good summer."
"I never had a teacher like her." He waved his pizza. "It has been a great summer."
I stayed around, avoiding the reports long enough to have another piece of pizza, and then the 9:30 bell rang, and for the first time I knew—as an empirical fact—that this was going to be an all-nighter, just like last year.
"Okay, everybody," I said aloud to the group. "Plenty of sleep tonight; we all see our parents tomorrow. Lights out, mandatory, eleven o'clock."
There were a few obligatory groans, but the boys all went out the door happily, headed for the lobby of Main and their last half hour evening chat with the girls at Morrow Summer School.
I was able to nail down one more paragraph when the ten o'clock bell rang, and I went out and checked everybody in. The rooms looked a little funny, bare, most everything packed into the trunks which stood in the middle of the floor. Cray and Stevens, however, hadn't even started to pack.
"I'm leaving this poster as inspiriation for the lucky guy who gets this room in winter school," Cray told me, pointing to his Vector Motorcycle poster: a naked girl riding away from the camera. Cray was moving about the room in his boxer shorts, stepping over the debris, sorting things.
"You guys better get this mess cleaned up. Lights out at eleven. And I don't want to hear any noise. I've got reports to write."
Stevens lay snarled in his bedding, his elbows behind his head, his feet crossed on a pizza box. "Are you always a grind?" Stevens said. "I mean, next week at this time, will you be writing reports somewhere?"
"No, Stevens, next week I'll be . . . . "
"Cray, has this guy been a grind all summer, or what?"
"He's got you, sir," Cray said. He was spreading photographs on the bare mattress of his bed, putting them in groups. "Compared to other faculty, you are a mega-grind."
"Hey, I think it's fine," Stevens said again. He had still not moved. "I just wondered why a guy like you would grind the whole summer away."
I leaned against the doorway and looked at these two bohemians in their nest of dirty laundry, books, and discarded potato chip bags. When I didn't speak, Cray turned to me. He must have seen something in my face, because he said, "It doesn't mean you're not a good guy."
"No way," Stevens added from the bed. "A lot of grinds are good guys too."
I stalled on Hamilton's report and put it aside. But then in a burst, I finished Tui Pranish's report by midnight, and got a good start on the next one, Courtney Firestone. It was going to be easy; she was a golden girl who had done ten things right, including an ace job on Eastwind. As soon as I started, the phone rang. It was Nonie.
"These are tough," she said.
"Did Renny get you lined up?"
"I haven't seen him. He called about seven and said when I finished to meet them down at the V. R. I guess he's done."
I was going to say: I thought he was going to help you, but I changed it: "What can I do for you?"
"I could use ten minutes, if you've got them. That would be great."
My dorm was quiet, just a lamp on up in Cray and Steven's room, so I slipped down the hill to Payson. As I passed Memorial, I could hear typing, Morgan cranking out his letters. As I entered Payson I could see Nonie at the end of her corridor in a ball of hot light, typing away. When I approached, she smiled at me, ran one hand through her terrific hair, and crumpled the paper from the typewriter with the other and threw it over her shoulder.
"Help!" she laughed. "Help me!"
I'd never been in her apartment before, and I was arrested for a moment as I scanned the walls which were covered with photographs, hundreds of them from the summer.
"You're over here," she said, standing and pointing to a section above her desk. And there I was, in at least a dozen shots, three more of the famous survival hike, but others of me at the blackboard in class, sitting with Courtney and Bobby Miner in the faculty office talking over the lit. Walking across campus with Courtney, my hand open in a gesture as if describing how easy something can be. Courtney was laughing in the picture.
"I've enjoyed your photos this summer," I said. "Even if I was in some of them."
Nonie reached past me and unpinned the photo from the wall. "Here," she said, handing it to me. "It's for you. I already gave a copy to Courtney. She pestered me to death about it. You're her favorite teacher ever, you know. I think she's got a little shrine to you in her room."
I stood with the photo in my hand. "Thank you."
"Oh, yeah, about two weeks ago I heard her on the corridor phone to her parents. Mr. Wainwright this. Mr. Wainwright that. You'd have thought that you walked on water."
"In water," I said, pointing out the photograph of our hiking fiasco. "She likes me because I'm the first teacher she's had who walks in water." I turned from the photographs and looked right at Nonie. "It's been a funny summer," I said. "A grind." I moved some of the loose papers on her desk. "Is this your report?"
Her report, the one she had done, was almost ready. It was eight pages instead of five and repeated itself generously. I edited that aloud with her and then we composed outlines for her two other letters (she only had three), and by that time it was almost one, so I stood up and said good luck.
"You're good at this," she said. "Thanks a lot."
She walked me to the entry. The corridor was very quiet. We heard the coke machine kick on down at the other end. "You run a tight ship," I said. "My dorm is never this quiet."
"It is quiet tonight," she said, "but what a mess." And then she whispered, "Look in here." She opened the door next to the entry and the hall light revealed piles of clothing, books, papers, and the bare mattress on the bed. No one was in the room. Nonie turned on the light. "Penny?" she said.
"There's no one here," I said.
There was no one on the floor; even Courtney Firestone was gone.
"Where are they?" Nonie asked me.
"Just a minute." I ran up a flight to Marie Del Sandro's room. Our shy foreign student would have to be sleeping. I found her in her bed and touched her shoulder.
"Marie. Where is everyone? Where did the girls go."
Marie Del Sandro looked scared. "Swimming," she said, barely opening her lips. Then she turned and pulled the covers up over her head.
Nonie and I jogged down the waterfront road in the dark without speaking. I could hear her breathing beside me. Halfway down, we began to hear voices, and a short while later, I took Nonie's arm and stopped us.
"Let's walk," I whispered. We could now hear voices distinctly. I could hear Cray calling "Marco!" and a group calling back, "Polo!"
"They are swimming!" Nonie whispered back to me alarmed. "They're all going to get in a lot of trouble." She started to move ahead, but I took her hand this time and slowed her down.
We walked to the edge of the clearing at the waterfront and stopped behind the last three trees. In the small reflected starlight, we could see shapes out on the raft, shapes in the water, and we could hear them talking.
"What do we do?" Nonie whispered to me.
Then I was surprised by a movement near us, just below where we stood. I caught it in my peripheral vision and it startled me, a figure moved and then disappeared. I squeezed Nonie's hand to be still and I squinted where the shape had been. Something strange was happening. I heard a car door slam. It was a car, and then with a raw snort, an engine fired up. Nonie jumped and took my elbow with her other hand. I recognized it instantly as a Volkswagen, purring there in the clearing, and in a flash so total as to seem unearthly, it's lights went on, illuminating the swimmers on the raft.
Four girls sat on the near side dangling their legs in the water. They were naked, as was the boy who immediately dove off the far side, his little white rear end disappearing into the murky lake. The nearest girl was Courtney Firestone, who sat with one knee drawn up to her breast casually and one hand over her brow to cut the light.
"Walker!" she said disgustedly. "Enough. Turn them off."
The lights went off and we heard Walker Hamilton call out, "Hey, come on. Anyone who wants a ride has got to come now!"
"Walker's got a car!" Nonie whispered.
We heard several splashes and the sound of people clambering onto the dock. Walker had turned on his parking lights and we could see shadows dressing on the dock.
I pulled Nonie back from the trees. "Come on," I whispered and turned and began to jog up the road. I had calculated it all: curfew, off bounds, swimming off hours, and a car. If they caught us now, we would catch them, and Progress Day would be a royal mess. We didn't get far before we heard the engine sound of the Volkswagen change, drop into gear, and approach. Rays of light bounced in the trees above our heads. For a moment, we ran faster, sprinting into the dead dark, the approaching lights glancing lower and lower, fragments shooting through the brush. Finally, I grabbed Nonie's forearm and stopped her. When she turned, the light was in her face. I pulled her into the thick bushes five feet off the road.
The Volkswagen bounced slowly up to where we hid. Arms and legs and towels stuck out of every window, it rocked past jammed full of our students. We crouched, breathing hard, trying to breathe softly and listen for voices, footsteps. Nothing.
Nonie rose to her knees and took my other hand, and pulled me up on my knees. She was warm and her mouth kind of fell against my face, then her arm went around my neck and we kissed. It was so warm there in the bushes, and I closed my arms around her hard back, and we softly fell over. I opened my eyes once, but she was too close to see, so I lifted my one hand the way I'd wanted to all summer and I ran my fingers up into her hair.
The Progress Day ceremonies are held on the back porch of Old Main, and they consist of three speeches and about twelve prizes. I sat with the faculty in the front row listening to Captain Wyberg explain the fine history of Morrow Summer School, but all the while I could hear the tides rushing up and down my eustacian tubes. My head was full of lake water from swimming the night before with Nonie and then teaching her Raft Baseball and then swimming and possibly sleeping for a moment or two on the raft itself and then jogging home to beat the dawn, and then typing for four hours in the most beautiful and articulate session of my writing career, ending with Walker Hamilton's report and the phrase: "This has been a significant summer for Walker" and then going down to Payson and having coffee with Nonie Andreison who looked more beautiful than ever because she hadn't slept either and because she pinned me to her kitchen counter for twenty minutes "in order to get our hearts started for the new day."
Morgan had been up to my apartment later in the morning, dressed in his banker's suit, ready to meet the parents, and he watched me shave.
"You didn't finish until seven? That's hideous. I had mine in the folder by one a.m. I tried to call you."
"I wasn't taking any calls. How'd Renny do?"
"Renny's in a little trouble, I think. He and the Captain were having a little tete-a-tete at breakfast. I think Renny actually used a letter from another year."
When I lifted my head and wiped my face, I could hear water sloshing around in my head. "Of course he did."
Morgan helped himself to some of my aftershave, handing it then to me. "Seven in the morning! Still want to be a teacher?"
"We are teachers, Morgan. This is the last day of summer school."
At the Progress Day Ceremonies, I was called on to say something about the Eastwind and to give the fiction and poetry prizes. Courtney Firestone won the fiction, for a story she wrote about a group of hikers, and Bobby Miner won the poetry for three poems about families in his home town, Providence, Rhode Island. When I called their names, I looked over at Nonie quickly and she gave me back a squint full of hilarity. Courtney and Bobby came up the steps, accepted their prizes, which were wrapped copies of David Copperfield and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, respectively, and received a little applause. Then Courtney moved in front of me to the microphone and said, "There is a prize we hikers," and she waved her hand and the other four hikers stood in their seats, "would like to give to Mr. Wainwright for all the unexpected education he's given us this summer." She handed me a bright blue box and she and Bobby descended.
I heard Tui call, "Open it!" and I lifted the lid to find a glass compass. I picked it up and held it aloft.
"A compass," I said, dizzy in that high space, my ears roaring with lake water. "Thank you," I said and stepped down the stairs, knowing—as an empirical fact—for the first time in a long summer I knew exactly where I was.