As I lean over the counter for another drink, gin blossoms scarring my bulbous schnoz, a crumpled eviction notice falls from my back pocket. It blows out the door and strikes the ankle of a passing young man in a gold and blue U. Bumfuck sweater. Hesitating, he pats his car keys, looks over his shoulder, and then, at last, notices the propped swinging doors of the bar on the right.
"Woah, look at her!" he exclaims, nudging his friend. "Isn't that the lady that teaches Intro to Grisham in the old chem building? She's totally wasted!"
"What's that?" asks his buddy. Bending, he finds the fallen paper in an island of red neon that flickers across the pitted sidewalk. "I think she just threw your term paper back at you, yo."
Staggered, the young man grabs for the wizened slip. "No way!"
They fumble for control of the dire missive for but a pair of seconds before the young man gives up.
“Dude!” laughs his friend. “Listen to this, yo--'for your second failure...exercise our option to...by the thirtieth of the month’! She’s getting tossed out on her ass!”
Arm in arm, they guffaw. The paper falls to the sidewalk, catches the wind, and blows north along 12th Avenue, its contours catching, every second, a different shade of neon. Red; white; pink; blue; green; the flickering yellow from the statuette in the bookstore’s front window.
Bitterly, I spill out of the doorway. “Gimme, gimme that,” I order, summoning up my most menacing classroom tone. “You’s the, for what I, cranilort the--!” I catch my ankle in a gap in the cement. With a cry, I fall to my knees. Not just the landing, but the sudden descent itself hurts like hell; I haven’t gotten much exercise in the past twenty years. My purse jumps open, scattering too many pens and three paperbacks across the sidewalk. Head reeling, I begin vomiting, loudly and painfully. Half a liter of the store-brand vodka I snuck in, and two acrid mouthfuls of the tonic water I actually bought from the bar, spills over my patched paisley skirt. “Oh...! Oh, Enya!” I curse, tears filling my eyes.
Stunned, they stare down at me. “Muh, muh,” sputters the second man.
“Muh, Miss Cue?” asks my student. “You...you all right?” He has the decency to let a little pity--just a little, but it’s definitely there--creep into his voice.
Sniffles break from my ruined visage. “Don’t do it!” I choke out, feeling the vomit soak through my pantyhose, and onto my unshaven knees. “You have to not...!” I shook myself. “Brian, right? That’s your name, right? Brian?”
He shook his head. “Uhh, it’s ‘Steve.’”
“I know a Brian,” offered the other guy, but I wave him to silence.
“Don’t do it!” I begged Steve, grabbing him by the thighs of his jeans. “I already lost my car, I’m getting kicked out of my third apartment this year, I blew the Department Head and he still wouldn’t fund my trip to Memphis to do just two weeks of work at the Grisham Memorial Library, and, and all my friends who got real jobs are, are, this one woman married a guy who works at a bank! A real bank!” My voice broke. “And Francie’s teaching English at this school in China that the government pays for, and my best friend from high school is the senior maintenance scheduler at a Toyota dealership, and she has a retirement plan--a retirement plan!” Again, my voice broke. I struggled to recover it. “I told you, I know I told you, on your last paper, that you could write well, and that you should think about, about furthering your education. But don’t--don’t!”
“Last paper?” Steve echoed, scratching his head. “Oh, the one about ‘Pelican Brief’?” He gave me a sheepish grin. “I just, uh, just actually sorta copied that from this chick, this girl I met at the rec center. She had you last year, and she seemed kinda smart an’ stuff, so...”
Tears stream down my face. “Kelly Henderson?” I croaked. “Oh, oh God! She went to Duke! She went to Duke!” Racked with guilt and pain, I fall against Steve’s shoes to cry harder. “She went because I told her to!”
Ignoring me, Steve shook his head. “I just, kinda, can’t stand watching old stuff with Julia Roberts. You know?”
“Her mouth!” pronounced the friend who knew a guy named Brian. “It’s so, so frickin’ big, you know? I dunno why anyone ever said she was hot!”
I hurled myself to my feet. “You didn’t write it!” I cheered. Steve winced as my breath passed over him, but I grabbed his sleeves in a death grip, keeping him close. “You didn’t write it!” I couldn’t have been happier. “Don’t go,” I sobbed. “Don’t ever, ever go to graduate school. Never let anyone tell you to!” Shaking my head right in his face, I said, “I mean, he just wrote a few books about someone suing someone else, using about an eighth grade vocabulary, and he’s not even dead yet! Why the hell is my entire department studying him?”
“Whuh?” stammered Steve. “Graduate school? I never--"
Steve’s friend gestured madly. “It’s like, like someone teleported the mouth of a dude who’s 6’6” right onto her face, and she’s all, ‘if I just put lipstick on it, no one’ll notice.’ I mean, she’s frickin’ all outta wack!”
“Just don’t go!” I wailed at Steve. “Promise me you won’t go!”
“I mean, I’d do her,” his friend continued, hands cycling. “It’s not that bad, yo. But she just, just, she don’t deserve to be in movies.”
Finally, Steve pushed me away. “Get off! Miss Cue, I get it, all right! Whatever; I’ll watch the movie and write it over, okay? Go, like...” He studied me. “Go to an AA, or something. They helped my little brother--that's Tommy, you know, he’s going here next fall--they helped him, and he doesn’t even believe in, you know, God, or any o’that, yeah? You know?”
I give a final sniffle as I watch the boys depart, shoving the card for some AA representative into my jacket pocket with the promise that I’ll call the gentleman if Steve turns in a revised paper. They continue down the sidewalk, but me, I head right back into the bar as soon as they’re not watching any longer. I’ll get a nice little table, near the hallway to the bathroom, where the lights are mostly broken. Down there, down in the back, no one can tell I don’t have a home to go to at closing. Over the alcohol and noise, no one’ll be able to tell the scent of vomit and failure is coming from me. If I fold the classifieds up just right inside an old manila folder, no one’ll be able to tell I’m looking for a job. Maybe they’ll think I’m successful. Maybe they’ll think I just stopped in like I might’ve on this same night five years ago, to grade a hundred and thirty-eight papers about The Client. Back when I was naive enough to pretend I had a chance at tenure. Back when I could grade papers on my own strength, without sipping generic vodka from a gatorade bottle and hoping people thought it was one of the clear flavors. Back when being awake didn’t mean thinking about suicide.
I didn’t know why I’d ever decided to become an academic, but one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to let Steve, or any other young, bright kids like him, head down that path. No longer would I--
(Just logging for posterity a response to some of this one's many detractors from another blog.)