Saturday, December 11, 2010

College Writing

College writing. Such a cliche. Spare me from a novel set in a university (except, perhaps, Terry Pratchett's canon) because for the most part, they're like German music -- introspective and dull.

To prove it, I offer this: A snatch of a college novel I started while attending the University of Idaho in the mid-1990s. It never went anywhere. But there are bits of it I like, particularly the bit of figuring out what kind of car people resemble. I still do that. I, for the sake of complete disclosure, look like my Dad's old 1948 Ford pickup: All nicely rounded with large, protruding nostrils.

At Janice Levy's university, nobody smiled. The cold wet walk over the railroad tracks towards town was the closest she'd ever come to an out-of-body experience. All these strange human faces walking by, some walking, some riding, some frowning, some smiling. Janice liked to look at people and think of what type of car they looked like. A bulky boy with a faded green coat, chin stubble and close-cropped hair. A Buick, 1970's style. A dark-eyed Oriental woman, face clear of blemish and expression. A Nissan, of course. The boy laughing behind his glasses next to her. A Chevy Nova.

The University, and the town it embraced. A car put together from pieces and parts bought from wrecked auto yards, glass scratches and painted ID numbers included. Each piece a record of tragic events forgotten, then commercialized like porcelain dolls and doily collections from a farm bankruptcy sale. An odd hodgepodge. Blue fender. Green door. Orange hood. A baleful mix of college liberalism and small town farmer conservatism, held together with bailing twine, surly shop owners, strip malls, duct tape, defunct grocery stores and sidewalk cracks.

Above the bank was an office. On a placard placed by the escalator, the title: Coalition for Central America. Outside on the street, blackened group of goatees and sunglasses gaggled around bicycles and showed off the rollerblades with neon green wheels. The drugstore displayed children's board games. Angry posters shouted at the eyes of passerby from the bookstore across the street. Noise was traffic and wheels and wind in the trees and the hum of electric street lights.

The red sidewalk bricks were new and coated with a winter's worth of salt, grit and filth. Everyone stared at them as they walked on their errant errands. Once a cursory glance at a store window, another quick peek across the street. Red bricks and filth and dirty shoes and sometimes sandals with socked toes poking out. Full field of vision. Eye contact tried, sometimes got a stare in return, then a suspicious or whispered howdy. Beautiful people setting out to change the world. Only the man wearing bib overalls, his girlfriend in black nylons and the dog on a leash, said hello with any gusto, and that brought a smile to Janice's wind-pinched face. Their voices and faces did not say Have A Nice Day. She hoped hers didn't, either.

"I'm not sensing any anxiety over this exam," chortled Professor Honey from behind her brown pulpit. "I miss it." Grey black hair like a witch. Eyes and personality of a drunken nun. Sun shined in the windows. "I'm content to let you go now, but you should really be asking more questions about this material. I'm giving you what to answer. Maybe you think you'll breeze through, but you won't."

Janice longed to stay in the comfort of the room, sunny though it was outside. Sun mocked the timid yellow grass, steeped with the wet stink of winter's carcass. Bushes draped with air and clinging remnants of last year's leaves. Roots smothered in the sickly brown warmth of gas and compost. Once outside, she sat on the old stone steps, feeling the lingering cold of December seep out of the stone and through her slacks to the skin. She saw bicycles and sneakers and cigarette smoke. A squirrel catting by a naked tree. She watched it as it snuffed and munched at the raggy leaves that still covered the ground. Where were the nuts is stored for the winter? Was it, too, fooled by the empty promise the February sun was showering on the winter-weary landscape? Fooled like the blind tulips that cracked their bulbs and stretched their necks in the warm air by the sun-heated foundations? Even the grass itself, pioneering bare spaces between exposed tree root, seemed ignorant of the naivete it showed in its gusty February greening. Panicky, she stood up, and raced to the basement of the Administration Building and bought a package of salted peanuts from a vending machine. She wondered about sucking the salt off them before she fed them to the squirrels. Where do they get water if they're thirsty? But do they want my spit? Left them as they were and urgently stalked out to the trees. Stood silently on the sidewalk as a cheeky squirrel peered at her from behind a tree. It clung there upside down, craning its little neck around the bark to see the odd human being in the pea-green sweater, funny concerned face staring at the peanuts in the palm. Janice held her breath as the creature thumped to the leaf-covered grass and wiggled its nose in her direction. It stood erect on ridiculously tiny feet and held its equally timid paws in front of its mouth, as if in thankful prayer for the benevolence being showed to it in the form of several salted peanuts. Janice looked at its black eyes, coaxing it forward with her thoughts. Whiskers wiggled. Outstretched palm spasmed in the effort of keeping absolutely still. "Come on, little one," she thought to herself as the odd scrap of life slowly crept forward, looking side to side at sneakers and backpacks walking up and down the sidewalk, and addressing its tail to the whims of sun and wind. "Come on. You'll need it. Winter is not over yet." The squirrel was within a foot of her outstretched hand. The sun shone bright and laughed off the spokes of passing bicycles. Hop. Three inches. Tiny brown furry fingers wrapped around a goober, and eager black eyes looked up past the generous thumbs. Comical chewing. Like an exasperated woman shouting into a telephone. More brown fingers, this time brushing against the skin. Once again, bolder this time, grabbed two. Janice let the rest of the nuts fall through her fingers to the ground, as she noticed her generosity had attracted a small crowd. More round brown faces with black eyes craned from behind trunks and branches, and the daring do of those who dared to sail from one gossamer branch to the next. Like a shepherd with his flock, like a minister with her fold, Janice stood in glowing approval of her diminutive congregation. And like a minister, when the sermon is finished, wonders if the flock will remember what was said a week come Sunday.

John found her stooped over rotting leaves and a shriveled dog turd on the Administration lawn. Had on her ever-present vacant stare. Touched her lightly on the shoulder. "Janice, what are you doing? Don't tell me you've never seen a turd before!" Nothing. Shook her shoulder this time, and cleared his throat. She straightened up with a start, blinking her eyes as she turned around. Still had that far-away face.

"Oh, Michael. Hi," she blurted.

John's brain skipped a beat. She'd gotten the name wrong, but at least she was speaking to him. Still saw something wonderful and wild in the eyebrows and tiny brown mole on the upper lip. Did something he hated. Stuttered. "Ja-ja-janice, what a-are you doing?" Willed the capillaries in his cheeks to stay constricted. Maybe with the wind, she wouldn't notice the blush. "Don't t-t-tell me you'v-ve never seen a-a-a-a-" --he gave himself a slight slap on the cheek, and his speech phonograph bounced off the scratched vinyl--"a turd before." His hilarious sentence lost in the useless and spastic stammering. Bit his tongue. Bad boy, bad boy!

She smiled, showing her teeth but hiding her eyes. "I was just feeding the squirrels. I didn't notice the turd." An odd glance from a passerby. "I've got class." She scooped up her leaf-embroidered sack and turned to leave.

"I'll walk with you, i-i- (slap) if you don't mind." Janice's faraway look was gone, and John knew she was back once again among the quick. She moved over to make room for him on the sidewalk next to her, and he eagerly occupied the space. Hoped his actions didn't appear too eager. They walked in silence, as he pretended to hold her hand, fingers intwined as he had seen his friends do before.

"I was feeding the squirrels. They've got tiny fingers"

John started at the sound. "Squirrels are cool." Duh. Way to go, Captain Roget.

"Do they have bones in there? They've got to be awfully tiny. Like grains of sand."

"Bones. Yeah. Fifteen, including wrist and finger bones." Even better, Colonel Britannica.

"Fifteen bones? How do you know that?" They stopped in front of the College of Teaching. The sun did a wonderful thing with the strands of hair statically straying from the bunch she tucked behind her ear.

Come on, Casanova. Smooth. Suave. Debonair. Opened his mouth and belched. Pastrami and pickle sandwich left over from lunch. Someone laughed. "I-i-i (slap) I'm sorry. Watching MASH. Hawkeye said that squirrels have fifteen bones in their hands." All said in one breath, mouth closed at the end to halt any other messengers from the nether depths.

Janice spoke quickly. "I like MASH. Even more than I like the Wizard of Oz." Turned and walked up the steps to the building. Stopped, turned around. "John."

He quickly lost interest in staring at his shoes and looked up the stairs at the woman who finally remembered his name. "John."

"Call me tonight. 885-8350." Gone.

Opened his backpack and scrawled in his Journal of Thoughts: Today, I turned Janice on with a pastrami belch.

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