It took me an hour to edit each student’s essay and I had 20 students this summer. Each week I spent 21 hours teaching: 1 in class, 20 in my office. Wal-mart stockers worked more and they made less in a week than I do in a day. So to add to my work, I had students turn in a second draft of their short stories. I graded them for their re-writing skills. I often wrote the same comments on the second draft that I had on the first. Vague. Weak ¶. “my mom” lowercased, “Mom” uppercase. Awkward. Et cetera. It doubled their work and mine. Many of them spent only an hour each week writing their story, and I, the reader, spent an hour mulling through it.
I finished a student’s first page when my pen died. It was a sign from The Universe. I didn’t believe in The Universe except as an excuse to end work. And my comments had gotten nasty: “What is the point besides how hopelessly average your life is? Get to the plot.”
The English Department was in Bates, an old building of brick and memories. It was once a mental hospital, an asylum. The Penguin Lady—some called her The Nun—haunted it. She appeared at the fifth floor window at night, threatening to jump. I wish she would flatten a frat boy. My office is on the fifth floor too—some say The Penguin Lady appears in my window. I walked down from my office, balancing the second drafts of student stories in one hand while texting Amalia with the other. She had gotten into my phone last night and changed her name from Molly to Amalia. I’d fix it during the drive home.
Or so I thought. Instead I skipped the second step of a flight and fell. I tumbled down the wooden stairs. The carpet runner didn’t soften the edges. My elbow smashed against a stair. My chin hit; my jaw clamped down, clipped my tongue. My legs flailed over my head. My shoe came off and stopped before I did. My hand reached for the railing but got caught in the iron slats which bent my fingers the wrong way. The iPhone cartwheeled from my hand and into the wall. Papers flew and drifted to the floor. Whichever landed on the highest stair would get an F; whichever landed nearest me got an A for suffering the same fall I did.
Bates was empty at this hour, 3 PM. But Maria rushed from her office and looked over the railings and saw me, contorted against the wall; she raced to help.
My knee pressed against my nose.
Amalia was also in the building, but coming from the bottom, strolling with her hands on each railing, calling out, “What fell? What broke?”
I mumbled, “I did.”
Maria hushed me. “Don’t talk now. Don’t joke now. I’m going to roll you on your back. Let’s lie you flat.”
“Lay,” I said, correcting her grammar. “You lie yourself. You lay others. You’re going to lay me.”
Her hands hovered over me—she was unsure what to do. “Where does it hurt?”
She rolled me on my back and straightened joints that had bent the wrong way. I looked okay now. I felt okay too.
“Let’s get you home. Maybe to a hospital. Which would you prefer?” she asked, always polite. “Never mind. You’ll go to the hospital. It was a short fall, but the hospital is close and they’ll check you out; they’ll dismiss you. Insurance will cover it. Kim will insist. She won’t want you suing the department. We might move offices though.” Maria was always eating foreign fruits. Today she had a granadilla, a purple passion fruit, but it was slathered in peanut butter, like most of her foreign fruits. She set it and its napkin on the carpet. She was careful not to let the peanut butter touch the napkin.
“Did you think I would fall first?” I groaned. The lights above shimmered and whined. “So many old men with canes and the spring chicken falls.”
“Isn’t that a cliché? You’d knock your students a point for that.”
“I’d knock them with a textbook if we used one.”
“That’s why the last generation insists on one. They’re old-school.” She smiled at me but her face was a silhouette except her white, crooked teeth. The front two overlapped. It was a cute deformity.
“Leo?” Molly said and bounded the last two steps. “What’d you do to him?” she yelled at Maria.
“I fell. I’m fine. It was a new grading technique. Whosever paper landed nearest me gets the highest grade for suffering the same torment.”
“You’re lying there—dying—and you’re thinking up jokes?” Molly put a hand on my heart. She must’ve been checking that it was still beating.
“I don’t think he’s dying,” Maria said meekly.
“I actually thought it as I fell,” I told Molly.
“I was just about to take him to the hospital.”
“He just needs to rest. I’ll take him home.” Molly lifted me by my collar and the back pressed into my neck. Years at the desk eating Cheetos had thickened my neck just enough that it didn’t hurt too much. Her fingers slipped however and she dropped me to the floor.
Maria winced. “I can take him if you have other work to finish. I need to return Pickles anyway. Dog slobber heals all wounds, right?” She laughed and brushed her bobbed hair towards her ear. It was too short to stay tucked however and it fell back in her eyes.
“Keep the dog for the night. Leo needs to rest.”
“You know I love Pickles, but my husb—”
“LOVE?!” Molly snapped. She knocked Maria’s peanut butter granadilla from its napkin. It rolled and stopped, the peanut butter sticking to the carpet. A hair stuck up from juicy bitten-into section.
“Who wouldn’t love Pickles?” I said. Dust swirled in the light. It never landed. I held my breath and tried to let it fall, but it was too slow and I had to breathe. “One of you ladies has a knee on my thigh,” I told them. “It hurts more than the fall.”
“Sorry,” Maria said.
Molly moved off my thigh.
“Do you need help getting him to your car?” Maria put her hands near me but was nervous to touch.
“I got him.” Molly tugged at my arm, trying to pull me up. She couldn’t lift me so she stood up to get a better view of the situation.
While she assessed and formulated a plan, I got up on my own. “You’re too klein to support above my hips,” I told Maria, tossing out German to make her happy. Though I wasn’t tall, I felt so compared to her. “Plus I’m fine. I don’t need any help hobbling to the car, unless Anne Hathaway is around. I’ll always take her help.” Molly insisted I put an arm around her neck, for support I guess.
Maria pouted and glared then smiled and waved goodbye. She followed us down though and opened the doors for us. When we got to Molly’s Oldsmobile, Maria opened the backseat door for me. Molly lay me on my back in the car. I didn’t fit and had to keep my knees up.
Maria handed me my students’ stories. “I’ll have to bring Pickles by tonight. Then vacuum so Geoffrey doesn’t need his EpiPen.”
“Come by as late as you want,” I told her.
The car was hot from sitting in the sun. The AC blasted louder than the stereo. The ceiling had been sprayed by Coke carelessly dumped from the window. The wind had tossed it back in the car. After scrubbing, the stains were faded but there. The air was stale and smelled like the French fries buried between seats. The car was clean except for those. And her Diet Coke cans, but those were tossed to the foot-room of the passenger seat.
I got an earful in the car ride home. It was only a minute-long drive.
“Why is she always around? She’s married. It’s practically cheating.” She clutched the steering wheel and twisted it like she was revving a Harley.
“I haven’t so much as seen her bra since she lost a button ten years ago,” I groaned from the backseat. I was fine from the fall, but Molly swerved into potholes and ramped off speed-bumps.
“You’re an English professor. Why is she in your building?”
“We’re the humanities department. Technically we’re literature, not just English literature, but French and German too.”
She blew past a stop sign and someone honked so she banged on the window. “That’s stupid. This is America!”
“She’s from New York. Calm down. You’re being stupid.”
The car jerked to a stop. She parked along the street in front of my house. Her tire was in the yard. “I just—Do you have to see her so often?”
“I could go to work blindfolded. Or we could gouge out my eyes like Oedipus, but you know, for different reasons. But she’s married. And still in love.”
Molly was quiet in the driver seat. The radio mumbled a tune. A school bus passed. It squealed to a stop one block down and the students walked one block back or one block forward to their streets. No one lived on the street where the bus stopped.
She stared at the kiddos walking towards us. One boy dragged his JanSport book bag by a broken strap along the grass and sidewalk. A girl veered into the street without realizing because she was texting on an iPhone with a cracked screen. Another girl wore booty shorts and a camisole; both matched her braces and the stuck food particles.
Molly smiled at them though they couldn’t see her through the glare on the windshield. She was only happy to see them because she couldn’t hear or smell them. They were middle-schoolers—they stunk. “It’s not a coincidence you fell when you did. I was headed to rescue you from slaving away at work. Why were you headed home early anyway?”
“The Universe sent me home.” Though if anything, it had tried sending me to my doom.
“That’s what I’m saying! He always has a plan so He sent me the message too. He knows you never listen,” she talked excitedly.
“I do ignore voices in my head.”
The three schoolchildren passed us, looking in the car. Molly waved. The kids looked away, pretending they hadn’t seen her. None of them talked with one another. They kept their heads down, staring at their cell phones or their untied shoes. Their faces were pimply. Their clothes were bright but wrinkled. They were pale except the girl with the phone and she was overcooked with highlights in her hair. The boy walked several paces behind the girls. He glanced up constantly. They departed from one another without a word or a wave.
“While you’re lying there…” Molly said. “We haven’t done it in the car for a while. Want to?” She hopped in back before hearing my answer.
I shifted on the hot seat. The leather had gotten stuck to my arm. “Sure.”
She tugged at my shirt but the buttons didn’t rip off. She had to undo each one. She kissed me as she did it but she was impatient and didn’t like kissing much. When my shirt was open, she ran her hands down my soft belly, down my happy trail.
She tossed the flap of my shirt off my side. “You got a tattoo? When?”