|Pomp and Circumstances, chapter 4: Homework
||[Sep. 3rd, 2008|08:49 pm]
Pomp and Circumstances
“Well,” Randall said, not at all perturbed, “looks like Jack had somewhere else to go. Too bad, because he’s going to miss the best part of all: the assignments for this semester.” He stepped backward a couple of paces, until he was standing outside the circle, looking them over speculatively. “Now then, how’s everyone feeling? Did we establish trust bonds with our fellow participants?”
“I don’t know what you did, Randall,” Lureen said sourly, “but I think the rest of us just got felt up a little in the dark.” She glared around the circle at all of them. “Doesn’t pay to wear the leather when people can’t remember to keep their hands off it, I guess.”
Charles snorted a little, but sobered up when Lureen crossed her arms and flared her nostrils at him. Ennis couldn’t help but notice that he was the only one in the circle not to benefit from the full weight of her angry stare. In fact, she couldn’t seem to look anywhere in his direction at all.
“All right, all right.” Randall made winding-up motions with his hand. “Let’s go back to our chairs. This didn’t go exactly as I thought it would, but—not a total loss. Progress is being made.” He turned and began to waddle across the room to the folding chairs. Francois trailed behind him, trying ineffectually to catch his hand.
The rest of them made their reluctant way back to the first circle. Ennis found himself walking next to Lureen, who continued to stare straight ahead, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. On his right, however, Alma seemed to have emerged out of her habitual daze and was chirping something about subcommittees.
“That’s the best part,” she reassured him, fiddling with the tangle of nylon scarves looped around her neck. “You get to know people a lot better that way, than going to all these long meetings with Randall telling us what to do. I really hope you and I can work together!”
Ennis gave her a small smile, repressing a shudder, and found his seat. Lureen sat next to him and bent to retrieve something from under her chair. She pulled out a black binder and began to flip through the pages, sniffling occasionally. Ennis stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye. Her hands were larger than most women’s, muscular-looking, with blunt-cut nails. He’d heard she played the piano; maybe that was it. But still . . . those hands looked very capable. Of some hanky-panky. In the dark.
Suddenly Lureen turned to face him, and Ennis jerked sideways, startled. “Jack’s a nice guy, you know,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “He and I’ve been close ever since he started working here.”
“Yeah,” Ennis said, feeling defensive. “He seems like a really nice person. And I, uh, heard he’s a good teacher too.” He looked down and saw that his hands were clasped together so tightly that his fingernails were leaving red half-moons on the tender flesh.
“What I mean is that you shouldn’t take him the wrong way.” Lureen slapped the binder shut, seemingly oblivious to Randall’s meeting agenda, a multi-page handout circulating among the committee members. “Storming out of the meeting like that, it’s just one of the things he does. When he’s got something else on his mind.”
“Like what?” Randall was talking now, droning on about some course revisions they needed to write, but Ennis needed to hear everything that Lureen had to say.
“Well, for one thing there’s his history with Randall.” Lureen quirked an eyebrow at him, opening to the second page of her handout as though she were following along.
“History? With Randall?” Ennis fervently hoped she wasn’t telling him what he thought she was telling him.
“Mm hmm. With Anita, too.” At Ennis’s open-mouthed amazement she spared a small smile. “Oh yes. She’s had a thing for Jack ever since he started here. The only question is—”
“Question is what?” Ennis’s voice was a little louder than he’d intended. Everyone in the circle turned in unison to stare at him.
“Just the thing we need to discuss.” Randall’s voice was brittle, laced with acid. “And here I thought you weren’t paying attention. What, that is, each of us will be expected to do this semester.” He pursed his lips and looked down at the sheet attached to his clipboard. “I think our best use of you, Ennis, might be on . . . the revision of the Literature and Film course. Yes, that’s it. Spend some time thinking about adaptation theory, new book and film pairings to suggest. And you need a partner there, anyone want to volunteer?” He looked around, his hooded eyes giving him a reptilian appearance.
Alma’s hand shot into the air. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said eagerly. “I got a lot of experience last year, doing the revision of Shaking Up Shakespeare.”
“Excellent, Alma,” Randall said smoothly. “I can’t think of a better match.” He looked around. “Well, I think that was our last agenda item. Anyone have anything to add? No? I suggest we adjourn, then. I’ll see you all next week, same time, in the faculty lounge.” He stood up, and everyone else stood and began frantically gathering their belongings.
Ennis grabbed his jacket and dashed across the room to catch Lureen, who was already striding toward the exit. “Lureen!” he panted. “Wait!”
Lureen slowed down and turned her head to look at him even as she was pushing open the huge metal fire door. “What?” she asked him. “Didn’t get everything you needed?”
Ennis shouldered the door open and stepped in front of her, blocking her path so she couldn’t walk past him. “It’s not that, it’s just . . . what did you mean by Jack’s history? With Randall, I mean?” He felt himself smirk. “It’s already obvious that he doesn’t care about Anita.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge,” Lureen said slowly, tapping one finger against her black binder, now held tightly against her chest. “Jack and Anita have always been close. Sure, she wants something from him that he’s not going to give her, but . . . they’re allies. In a fight, he’d definitely be on her side.”
“Fight?” Ennis was flabbergasted. “Nothing physical, right? You mean political shi—uh, stuff?”
It was Lureen’s turn to smirk now. “That’s right, Ennis. All things verbal are fair game in this department, but nothing more. Although there was that showdown between Jack and Ted years ago, probably the first semester that Jack was teaching here. Ted asked Jack something, and Jack misunderstood what he was asking, and, well, next thing you know they’re standing nose to nose in the middle of the hallway with about twenty students cheering them on. Anita came out and dragged them apart and then I guess everything was fine.” She sighed. “Took them at least a year before they’d speak to each other again, though.”
Ennis’s spine zinged with electricity. “What were they arguing about?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. Something to do with Jack’s office key. Or was it his car key? Ted had it and wouldn’t give it back or something. Anyway.” Lureen shrugged. “I’ve got a million things to do. Get out of my way.” She gave Ennis a playful tap on the arm and cocked one eyebrow at him.
He moved to one side obediently and stared after Lureen as she marched down the hallway. It wasn’t until she’d slammed through the door leading outside that he realized he’d never found out about Jack’s past with Randall.
Back in his office, Ennis slung his latest stack of papers onto his desk and sat down to check his email. His earlier days of anal-retentive neatness were quickly disappearing; it was almost impossible to keep your desk clean when people constantly insisted on sending you memos and updates on obscure topics that you were expected to keep but couldn’t yet categorize. So approximately three reams of paper were now collected in messy piles on his desk and computer table. While he was waiting for his laptop to fire up, he spun around in his chair a few times, enjoying the sensation of freshly oiled castors whipping him soundlessly through space. On his third revolution, however, he encountered an unexpected face peering around the doorjamb at him. “Jack!”
“Hey, Ennis. Having fun?”
Ennis put a foot down to stop himself and pitched forward onto his desk, scattering papers in all directions. “Hey, uh, yeah. It’s been great.”
Jack bent to retrieve a few sheets that had fluttered to the floor at his feet. “I’ve been waiting for you to get back for ages. Did the meeting drag on that long? I’ve got something to show you.”
The skin on the back of Ennis’s neck began to tingle; he hoped the hair there wasn’t standing up as though he were, again, a skinny, nervous teenager paralyzed by nerves and anxiety about the odor of his breath. “Yeah? What is it? I, uh . . . never mind.”
“What?” Jack looked back at Ennis with bright eyes, the irises a deep and drowning blue. “Were you wondering where I went?” At Ennis’s nod, he laughed and leaned over to punch his shoulder lightly. “C’mon—that’s what I wanted to show you.”
They strode down the hall together, ignoring the drone of voices coming from open classroom doors and the sign posted on the door of the faculty lounge proclaiming “English Coffee Hour—Get to know your new colleagues—TODAY at 4 p.m.” Once they were outside, they headed for Jack’s car on the far side of the faculty lot. Ennis was impressed by his car, a burnt-orange MG with Wyoming plates. “What year is that?”
“What, the car? Uh . . . 2002, I think. The year they switched the models over. Don’t know too much about cars, really. My Uncle Harold gave me this one.” Jack got in and flipped the rearview mirror to a jaunty angle, adjusting his sunglasses and giving his hair a quick once-over.
“Where are we going?” Ennis fastened his seatbelt carefully. Letting other people drive always made him nervous.
“Oh, a little someplace I go when things get rough. Helps me relieve stress or whatever. Know the owner, too, like to help him out when I can.” Jack cleared his throat and his forehead settled into a frown as he merged into traffic and turned onto the road leading out of town.
Ennis let the silence stretch out between them. He could tell that Jack had something on his mind, but he also felt comfortable with him, without needing to air the stilted witticisms often on the tip of his tongue. They were driving into a part of the countryside Ennis hadn’t yet explored, one marked off by neatly cultivated green or yellow farm fields, tiny cemeteries, and picturesquely ruined brick houses, each set on its own lush plot of land. After about fifteen minutes, Jack flipped on his left turn signal and pulled into narrow gravel road marked only by a small painted sign reading “Malone’s Stables.” At the end of this path they came upon a group of large barns set around an enormous parking lot. Ennis rolled down his window, took a deep whiff. Sure enough, the familiar scents of fresh shit and hay filled his nostrils. He would never want to go home again, but still—there was something wonderful about being here.
“Goddamn it,” Jack said in a low tone, the first words he had spoken since they left the college parking lot. He was looking across the stretch of black-topped parking lot at a black pickup truck parked at the other end, its lights on. There weren’t many cars here at this time of day, on a weekday afternoon, but there were at least ten or twelve cars scattered across the lot.
Ennis began to hope, seeing Jack’s grip tighten on the steering wheel, that the distance between the MG and the truck would be enough to deter him. “Why the hell they need such a big parking lot?” he asked, hoping to distract him.
“Shows,” Jack answered through gritted teeth. “Lots of folks around town bring their kids to lessons here. They also host the regional roping and barrel competitions. Got some huge arenas around back, behind the far barn. Some of this is for horse trailers.” He gestured vaguely, but Ennis could see his mind was on other things.
“I used to—” Ennis began, but he was interrupted by the sound of Jack gunning the motor. Uh-oh. “Wait,” he pleaded. “I thought there was something you wanted to show me here.”
Jack smiled—a slow, feline grin that bared his teeth from the side. “This will only take a moment,” he breathed, and they were off, the MG slaloming around the parked cars positioned at random intervals throughout the lot. Many of the cars actually contained people, as Ennis discovered, probably waiting to pick up Little Ken or Sarah from a lesson. Jack brought the car dangerously close to several of these waiting vehicles, earning himself two middle fingers, several gasps of surprise, and once—when his side mirror came so close to a navy Ford Focus that Ennis could hear the metal whine along the paint—a beautifully eloquent “Slow the fuck down, fucking motherfucker! There’s fucking KIDS in here!” All the time, however, they were heading toward the black pickup truck, its lights still on and its owner apparently oblivious of the danger that Jack’s ferocity posed. Finally they cleared the last car, and Jack turned the nose of the MG straight toward his target. “Hold on, Ennis,” he said under his breath.
Ennis gripped the pull-down handle on the ceiling near the passenger door and braced his feet against the floor. His breath came in short gasps, but he was, he realized, energized by the chase. So what if he didn’t know who Jack was going after or why? This afternoon already seemed like the most important of his life.
Jack leaned on the gas just a little more as they arrowed toward the black truck. Ennis shut his eyes at the last moment, unable to face the actual sight of impending death or dismemberment, but he was recalled back to himself when he was slammed abruptly into the side of the car, apparently without contacting any external obstacles. The car’s gradual slowing was accompanied by gales of maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. Ennis opened his eyes to find that Jack had swerved at the last moment and drawn the MG up onto the grass next to a barn painted in dark green with bright yellow trim. Turning his head, Ennis saw that the black truck was still parked in the same place, but the passenger door was now standing open. Randall Malone stood on the grass next to the truck, hands on his hips, glaring at them.
“Ha ha ha, you crazy motherfucker!” Jack chortled. “Teach you to fuck around with me at work, you and your Stephen Covey bullshit.” He shoved open the MG’s sunroof and popped his arm through to give Randall the peace sign.
To Ennis’s surprise, Randall didn’t react with anger or even the fussy, fat man’s pique he commonly assumed at work when things weren’t going his way. He looked at Jack a moment longer, then shook his head and turned back to his truck, shutting the passenger door before climbing in the other side and driving away.
“I’m guessing,” Ennis said after a moment, “that there’s probably a story there.” He waited for his heartbeat to come back down to its normal rate, content for the moment to sit in the car and share a peaceful interlude with Jack.
“Yeah, isn’t there always.” Jack seemed tired now, heaving out a big sigh as he followed the progress of Randall’s truck through the rearview mirror. “Truth is—Randall’s folks own this place. Only one in the area. So when I moved here, I had to have a place to board my horse—Twilight. Think you’ll like her. Anyway, I, uh, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash when I was first starting out—student loans and all. I get to talking with Randall one day, he tells me about the family stables, and we start hanging out a bit. From time to time. I guess we were . . . friends, of a sort. Of course,” he gave Ennis a searching glance, “he was in much better shape then. Not that that matters, I’m not that shallow, but he wasn’t married either and was a hell of a lot nicer. But I started getting busy with stuff, as people will, didn’t have as much time for him, he started spreading nasty rumors about me. Things I wasn’t really comfortable having people know about me. Or believe about me, I mean. I—probably shouldn’t have done this, but I had a little thing with Anita, just a couple of months, and he started talking lawsuits, non-renewal of contracts, etc., etc. Was a real dick to his folks, too, never helped out with the business at all, and after he and I stopped . . . hanging out, he got even worse.” Jack sighed, ran his hands back through his hair, scrunched up his nose. “Now he just comes around here when he wants to pretend like he’s the proverbial good son, doing nothing but fucking up relationships with their clients and everything else.” He coughed briefly and pulled his keys out of the ignition. “Remember last week, when I was late to the department meeting?”
Ennis nodded. They hadn’t gone to get a beer that evening either, Jack muttering something about previous obligations before he slid out of Ennis’s office and practically ran down the hall.
“Yeah, well, Randall apparently came by and said he needed a loan, wouldn’t take no for an answer when his father told him they didn’t have the extra cash. This place takes a lot of moolah to keep it running smoothly. I guess Randall and Francois overdrew their bank account and she was at home cleaning the house—this is when she also had six classes to teach that day, mind you—so that Randall could have a peaceful worry-free evening after his tough day at work. He got loud and belligerent with his dad, and Mrs. Malone called me to calm her husband down. He’s got high blood pressure, she doesn’t want anything worse to happen to him.”
“No. Way,” Ennis exhaled. “But Randall was at that meeting—I thought—”
“Yeah, he’s pretty good at acting like he’s calm and collected, no doubt. But under all those precious habits and fat cells, he’s a mess, a raging control freak who can’t stand to see anyone around him feeling satisfied about anything that doesn’t involve him directly.” Jack sighed. “I had to get out of there right away so I didn’t have to deal with the raft of bullshit I knew would be coming my way. I mean, imagine how embarrassing it must be that your own parents would rather talk to one of your colleagues about their problems. Your old . . . friend, even.” Jack spun his key ring once around his finger and put his hand on the door. “You ready to go?”
Inside the green-and-yellow barn, they found Jack’s Twilight, a dappled, dark-gray mare with an inquisitive look and the softest mane Ennis had ever touched.
“OK, Ennis,” Jack said, grinning. “This is my baby. She’s—she’s real special to me.”
“She’s gorgeous, Jack,” Ennis said, stroking her nose. “How old is she?”
“Eight.” Jack sighed. “She’s always been in good shape. I take care of her, even when the rest of the world’s gone to hell.” He opened the door to her stall and moved to the back wall, taking down a brush and a polished, worked-leather saddle. “Ready to ride?”
Panic stiffened Ennis’s spine, and he stuck one hand in his back pocket, clenching his fingers around his wallet as though to protect the picture hidden there. “I don’t. . . I haven’t ridden in a while,” he said quickly. “It’s been ages, actually. Don’t really ride anymore at all, I guess.”
“What are you talking about?” Jack turned back to him, brush in one hand, his blue eyes wide with disbelief. “You grew up on a farm, boy. That means you grew up on a horse! Just because you’ve became an academic superstar, that doesn’t mean you can’t get down and dirty with me once in a while.” He gave Ennis a wink, then turned back to his work again.
“It’s just . . . something happened, that’s all. I . . . lost someone. It’s been hard for me to get out there again, ever since then.” He saw Jack’s back tighten as he stood up straighter, clearing his throat as though about to speak. “But I guess—maybe it’s time for me to try again.”
Jack put the brush away and gave Ennis a brilliant smile. “That’s the spirit! I already reserved one of the stable horses for you. Let’s get out there, and you can show me what you’ve got.”
Ennis led his rented horse, Lightning, out to the practice ring, Jack close behind him with Twilight. Once they had entered and secured the gate, Jack swung himself easily up into the saddle, the play of his muscles clearly visible in his close-fitting jeans and his ass rounding perfectly into its seat. He was a natural. Ennis tried to follow, but froze. He couldn’t get up, couldn’t back away. He just stood there, holding onto the reins with one hand and a stirrup with the other. The horse was patient, standing quietly, an occasional fly producing ripples in the powerful muscles of its sides.
“What’s wrong?” Jack was peering down at him, his eyes squinted against the late-afternoon sun.
“I don’t know, I just—”
Before Ennis could finish, Jack had swung himself back down onto the ground and was standing behind him. “It’s all right,” he whispered, so softly that his words were barely audible, “it’s all right.” His lips ghosted against the back of Ennis’s neck. Ennis felt the barest trickle of saliva on his skin, the wet underside of a slightly parted lip perhaps, and a shiver ran across his belly. Jack put his hand over Ennis’s, the one holding the stirrup, and rubbed back and forth gently. “Just relax,” he said. “I’m right here. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. I’ll hold onto you, and you’ll get up there with no problems at all.”
Ennis’s mouth was dry. He could feel Jack’s body lined up against his, his chest and stomach against Ennis’s back, his arm lying along Ennis’s, his crotch pressed up against Ennis’s rear end. His belt buckle felt cold even through Ennis’s jeans. Ennis’s nipples were suddenly hard, swollen, catching on the thin fabric of his dress shirt in a way that was both irritating and unbearably erotic. “Um, OK,” he said carefully. He shifted his hand a little, so that the pads of their fingers were touching. This was a deliberate caress, nothing accidental or comforting about it. Jack sighed again, shifting his weight so that his boots crunched a little in the packed dirt. Ennis started to turn, and—.
“What the hell is that?” Jack’s voice was rough and low.
“My cell. Sorry. I really gotta—“ Ennis dug his phone out of his pocket and checked the screen. Shit. The English department office. He could feel Jack release his arm and step away as he slid the phone open. “This is Ennis Del Mar—” Turning his back to Jack, he talked quickly. “Are you sure? Right now? But—well, if he says we’ve gotta get it done. All right, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He hung up and swung around to face Jack. “I’m really sorry. But I’ve got to go back to work. Apparently Randall says our course revision can’t wait. Alma’s waiting in the office for me.”
The ride back to campus was silent, excruciating. Again, Jack didn’t speak, but this time Ennis couldn’t feel the thrumming energy that had spun out between them on the ride to the stables. Jack punched the radio on, then jabbed the search button, running through the entire listing of possible stations at least three times before they reached the parking lot. He didn’t say anything even when he stopped the car at the edge of the lot closest to the English department, just sat there looking through the windshield at the students streaming in and out of buildings.
Ennis put his hand on the door, then looked back one more time at Jack, unsure how he should leave things. “Thanks,” he finally said. “Sorry it got cut short. Maybe we can try it again sometime.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, still not looking at him. “Maybe.”
Ennis got out and shut the door, bending down to say something more meaningful, he wasn’t sure what, but as soon as the lock clicked into place, Jack was reversing away, spinning perilously close to a perky green VW bug as he turned around, and peeling out of the lot.
Ennis stood there, on an autumn afternoon so unseasonably warm that he could see the heat rising off the blacktop in shimmery waves, looking after Jack’s car. He could still feel the weight of Jack’s hand on his shoulder, the press of his body up against the length of Ennis’s own. Lines from an old Paula Cole song drifted through his mind as he wished for a way out, any way out, of the next four hours. The time he would have to spend tied to a chair in the department, away from home and time off. Away from Jack.
Oh you get me ready in your 56 Chevy
Why don’t we go sit down in the shade
Take shelter on my front porch
The dandy lion sun scorching,
Like a glass of cold lemonade
I will do the laundry if you pay all the bills
Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie son?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?