It’s that time again, friends! What time? Time to post another chapter from my novel, Impossible Monsters, of course! Por que? Por que no!?
Okay, all silliness aside, this chapter again focuses on one of the central characters, Richard, as he goes to meet with one of his professors, Bernard Nesbitt, to talk about his future (or lack thereof) in academia. I quite like Bernard, and almost wish he showed up in the book more than once, but I think this chapter does a fine job in showcasing his rather strong personality, and I think if he were to show up again, it might be too much.
And, if you like what you read, check out my book of short stories available for purchase on Lulu right here.
Wednesday, about eleven-thirty in the morning, gray sky peppered with grayer clouds, drips of rain that came in hurried storms always at points when I had just dried off, the bus running five minutes late, and I’m wearing a white oxford shirt with a blue veeneck sweater over it and my black wool coat—even though it’s not that cold out—and some skinny jeans and these new loafer-type shoes I bought from a clothing store called Hartevelt’s, some Dutch superchain that caters to the casually chic—they cost me about £40, not too bad—and I’m sitting in Bernard Nesbitt’s office, watching his bulbous frame fumble a small electric water boiler on top of a small mosaic table decorated with long-leafed ivies that twirl down to the floor. The room is lined with bookshelves, like actually lined, and where there is no longer room on the actual shelves he’s managed to place more books atop the old ones, lying them flat and stacking them tall, also placing the largest of his tomes on the very top of the oak-looking bookcases looking like they could teeter and fall off and kill a man at any moment, and I’m seated right below such a book and can just make out the scraped lettering on the scraped binding that reads Mind-Mapping for Creativity. I realize at this moment, even though I’ve only been in this country for less than three months, that everything here is done over tea or coffee, usually tea, and it’s funny but sad, kinda. The moment I walked in the office, even though it’s November and still not that cold, Bernard complained about the freeze as he called it, and like clockwork asked me if I’d like some tea because he was going to put some on. I replied yes then wondered if Englishmen only drink tea when someone else is around, it doesn’t seem like a solitary drink because you’re always being told “I was just about to put some tea on” when you walk into a room but you never actually see cups of half-finished tea in their hands…weird. He’s humming a tune now and the organized list of bullet points I had memorized and was going to race through with him is leaving me quickly all because of this…stupid tea. He turns, finally, placing a small cup of steaming gray water in front of me at the edge of his overworked and paper-soaked desk, retreating back to his comfy chair across from me, the weight of his swollen body causing the thing to groan. He takes a sip without even testing its hotness. The porcelain cup is decorated with red lines that make a nonsense pattern and it’s hot in my hand as I try to sip. The large window behind Bernard’s desk has no blinds and overlooks a courtyard between two of the buildings, I think the library and Fenn Hall, where I don’t have any classes. He sips again. He’s wearing a blazer the color of peanut butter, some gray slacks and a white oxford like me. He’s notably bald.
“Alright?” he asks finally as if the previous ten minutes were a blur that didn’t happen, only now coming into a sort of mannered consciousness.
“Fine, thanks,” I say curtly.
“The tea?” he says and sips simultaneously.
“Great. It’s very good.”
“So, you said you wanted to talk. Having difficulty with the paper?”
“No, that’s not it…in fact, I’m finished with it already.”
“Ah, well, you’re a quick one, eh?”
“I don’t mean to be, I just write quickly, it’s just how…I’m wired, I guess.”
“Nothing wrong with that, just make sure you’re asking questions if you don’t understand anything, I know how studies here can be quite different than America.”
“Yeah, it is different,” I say, echoing him.
“So…what’s on your mind?”
“Well, I’m working on my dissertation and—”
“And remind me again, who is your advisor?”
“Liz Damon, she’s a fellow over Bowden College but does some work here at Ayers too.”
“Don’t think I know that one,” he says almost shocked that the world doesn’t revolve around him.
“She’s really great. She wrote a paper on American modernism, her doctorate thesis, I mean, so I can see why I was pointed in her direction.”
“And it’s going well?”
“Have you told me before about your thesis?”
“I…don’t think so, but if you’d like—”
“Yes, would be nice.”
“Um, basically I’m examining the emergence of modernism in Europe and later America, not as two different movements, but rather as one large movement that spanned the Atlantic,” I say and after I utter the words I feel silly. I hate describing my dissertation, and looking at him, his eyes glossed over, the tea cup glued to his fat lips, this man I respect, I feel even more silly, like I’ll be losing that respect any moment, like he’s on the verge of telling me something horrible even though I’d like to hear something great.
“Go on,” he says, thinking. Mulling.
“Well, I really think that American novelists were influenced by their European counterparts more than they realized,” I say almost painfully, drinking some more of the tea, wishing I had said yes to a sugarcube. “I’d like to explore that aspect.”
“Sounds very…ambitious,” he says slowly.
“I didn’t think so, at first, but then Liz told me the same thing, so…who knows. Besides, I loathe the idea of writing another paper on Shakespeare or Chaucer or something,” I say a bit smugly then scan the bookshelves and notice there’s bookcase that seems devoted to nothing but the works of Shakespeare, different printings and editions, collections and single works of various conditions, and I feel embarrassed so add, “I mean those are great writers, obviously, but I just really want to try something…new.”
“Yes, I see. Well, I wish you the best of luck,” he says, holding up his tea cup in a gesture I can’t quite figure out. “What’s on your mind, then?”
“Well, I wanted to get your…advice, actually.”
“Next year, after I’m done here, I want to get my doctorate, so I have to start applying like now, actually.”
“Have you begun your applications?”
“Not yet, but that’s partially why I was here, wanted to ask you a few things.”
“Oh, right,” he says drinking again, slurping loudly this time, and I notice a copy of his book Creatively Thinking About Being Creative on the desk next to a keyboard next to a computer monitor that I have a feeling he doesn’t use, and I wonder how someone has the audacity to require the reading of a book they wrote, but then think once I become a famous writer I’ll probably teach my own stuff too.
“First I was hoping you could write me a letter of recommendation, then I was also wondering if you could just…give me advice, I guess, on how to talk to the admissions people in my statement of purpose…uh, that’s it,” I say, forgetting nearly everything else I was going to ask him, figuring I’ll just email the rest later when it comes to me.
“Well, can I start by asking you how much thought you’ve given this?”
“Quite a bit, I guess. Been thinking of things I can do with my degree, when I get done, of what I want to do, I mean, and this…teaching, I mean, seems to be something I really think I’d be good at. Teaching college,” I say elegantly, with poise, smiling, looking him directly in the eyes without looking away, noticing he looks away from me twice.
“Oh,” he says and hangs on to the syllable.
“Uh, did I say something…wrong?” I say, confused, suddenly gripping the teacup more firmly and closer to my chest.
“Well, I’m thinking about this decision of yours, and I just don’t see you pursuing this academic…track, Mister Presley,” he says, setting his teacup down then picking it up and using his tongue to smack the remainder of the tea into his mouth. “I think you’re incredibly capable, talented in a great many ways, but I just don’t think you have the proper…analytical…mindset to move on further in this direction.”
I set the teacup down at the edge of the desk, my eyes wide and focusing on my new shoes and seeing a dark spot on the left shoe, a stain that turned the brown leather black which infuriates me and I want to tackle him, punch him and cut him, slice his nose and dissect the skin on his hands while he watches, after peeling his eyelids off, punching him again until he pukes…but I’m polite, sitting there, quietly, then cough. He takes my cough as a sign and reaches into a stack of folders on his desk and pulls out a stapled bunch of papers, shifting through like playing cards. He holds one up and slides it across to me.
“This one’s yours, the last assignment, will be handing them back tomorrow,” he says.
“Okay,” I say self-consciously.
“You did an excellent job with the creative part. I really enjoyed how you wrote Crusoe in the style of Faulkner. You really do have a gift in that regard.”
“It’s just, you can tell…I can tell, reading through your work, that you’d rather be doing this creative aspect, that the more academic side of the assignment bores you. It feels very rushed.”
“It’s not that I rushed it, per se, it’s just…you’re right, I love the creative aspect, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like this analytical side too.”
“Well, liking it and loving it are two different things, my boy. If you proceed to the doctorate, you will be working upwards of six years in some cases getting your thesis prepared. It’s a great deal of work, of hard work, for something you just like. See what I mean?”
“So…you won’t write me a letter of recommendation?” I say, confused, flabbergasted, confused.
“I will, if you want. I’m just saying, you asked for my input. This is what I feel. Have you thought about a creative writing program?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess. I mean, I just want the doctorate, first, then I figure I can…you know, teach both.”
“You might want to give it more thought, the creative writing aspect,” he says, letting a small burp out. “Don’t think I’m here to belittle you, Richard. I’m not at all. I just…would hate to see you go down a road not…meant for you. Understand?”
“I guess, yeah.”
“Good, excellent. I’m glad we cleared everything up. You really did manage to craft a readable southern dialect in your piece, almost completely accurate. Perhaps even put me to shame, my boy,” he says smiling then yawning and stretching like a large fat cat, the sun hitting his fat oval face and creating geometric shadows angled from his features, his skin glistening and his fat lips chapped, his fists balled then resting back on the desk, then, “Another spot of tea?”
Later, after I leave his office, I feel vulnerable and have a sudden urge to call Jen and it rings three times then goes to voicemail and I sigh into the phone and hang up without leaving a message.