Michael went off to college, and stayed away a long time.
He got one degree, then another, then another.
By the time he was through, he had more
than anyone else in town. What, folks asked his dad,
was he going to do with them?
He’s trying to find a teaching job somewhere,
his dad said, and from the look on his face you could
tell that the hunt hung heavy on the old man’s head.
They opened up a new junior college on the western edge of town,
something new, so kids wouldn’t have to pay for a dorm
or commute thirty miles just to get an education. It didn’t
look like much, just an extension of the fairgrounds, but
it was something a lot of folks were proud of, or felt
they were supposed to be proud of.
Why don’t you try to catch on out to the junior college?
his dad asked as Michael sat on the couch one day, reading
a paperback, smoking a cigarette. “Only as a last resort,”
Michael said. “I’ve got a lot of resumes out.” “Well, don’t
wait too long and pass up a chance,” his dad said. “I don’t think
it’ll be a problem,” Michael said. “I think they’ll take anybody
who can fog a mirror.” “Don’t get cocky,” his old man said.
By the time the fair started up Michael still hadn’t heard from
the places where he wanted to teach—far away. “You’d
better get an application in,” his dad said. “All right,” Michael
said, and drove out to the juco with a curriculum vitae. He
dropped it off at the dean’s office. “We could use somebody
to teach English and Writing,” the dean said, his short-sleeved
shirt billowing a bit from the window air conditioner behind him.
“When do you need to know?” Michael asked. “Next week,”
the dean said. “All right,” Michael said, and each day thereafter
he’d walk in dread down to the mailbox in fear that he wouldn’t
hear, or that he would. When he was down to his last day, he
met the mailman at the box. There was a letter, from a college
in Oregon. “We regret to inform you . . .” and so on, and so Michael
took the long drive, bitter with resignation, to the junior college.
His students were dull, but he liked having a little money in his pocket.
He started hanging out nights at a bar downtown, the Fireside Inn.
Every night he’d bring a book and sit and nurse a drink at the bar,
feeling a little superior, watching people come and go.
His new role amused him, and gratified him at the same time. He was one of the first
professors ever resident in the town—that was a distinction, however small,
and people seemed to look up to him, to consider him a curiosity.
He figured that he lent some air of distinction to a town sorely in need of it.
Some of the men he knew from the Country Club growing up would stop
by and ask what he was reading. Their wives were glad he’d come back
to town instead of leaving like so many of the others had.
Some of the female students would wave to him across the room, then
fawn over him and grow enthusiastic when he told them what he was reading.
He decided that while he didn’t want to stay, he was enjoying himself.
The owner of the bar—Pam—had inherited it when her father died.
She was trying to freshen the place up. She put in plants and
encouraged some of the local bands to work on their acts
so she could have live music. Learn a little something for everyone
she told them, and they did. Some country, some rock, “In the Mood”
for the old folks. Things were always slow to get going, but by the
third set, everyone would be up dancing until last call.
After a while, Michael thought, a wave of bohemia seemed to be
crashing over his little home town, and if he hadn’t started it all,
he was there at the beginning! He thought of putting out an
underground paper at the college, one that would satirize
small-town life and narrow-minded people. He’d sit and smile and look at the overfed couples
and think of how they wouldn’t even realize they were the butt of the joke.
He’d smile and sometimes couldn’t keep himself from laughing out loud.
One night, Michael said something to Pam at closing time, and she
gave him a gentle little push on the chest and told him to go home.
He wasn’t drunk, but she said he was, and that she’d call a cab for him
if he wanted. “No, I’m okay,” he said, and he drove to his apartment
thinking maybe he and Pam could—you know—have a fling.
He went to sleep that night thinking of her, how she was different
from the other women in town, someone he could talk to.
The next week, he was sitting in the student lounge talking to a couple
of kids who were in his classes. “What does an old guy like you do
for fun in this town?” one of them asked, and Michael told them he
liked to drink at The Fireside. The two boys looked at each other
with sly grins. “Another notch on Pam’s headboard,” one of them
said. Michael knew what that meant, and he didn’t want to appear
naïve. He composed himself, then–trying to sound jaded–he spoke:
“So Pam’s a wild one, huh?” he asked, as calmly as he could.
One of the kids looked around the lounge slowly, counting, his
lips moving while he smiled. “I count six guys here right now
who’ve slept with her, and it ain’t even lunch time,” he said.
Michael’s guts churned, and his face burned with an anger he
hadn’t felt in years. He wanted to hit the kid, but it had been
two decades since he’d been in a fight. His mind restrained
his heart, or rather undid it. “Yeah,” the other kid said. “She’s like
the town slut, and a cheap date, too. You drink her beer all
night, then sample the rest of the menu upstairs,” where she had
an apartment over the bar. Michael’s misery was deep, and his
temporary peace with the town and his life now undone. He
excused himself as breezily as he could, walked back to his office
and shut the door. The woman next door heard him kick something.
That night he took a seat at the bar and paced himself, drinking water,
then beer, laying off the hard stuff. He smiled at Pam from time to
time as she pulled the taps, biding his time, making small talk.
When it was last call, he ordered a tall boy, a sixteen-ounce
bottle of beer, and nursed it ‘til he was the last one in the place.
Finally, Pam said “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,”
the line she used when it was time to close the doors.
“But I want to stay here,” he said, trying to sound sensuous,
but coming off as pathetic. Pam look at him, surprised.
“Why?” she asked. “Are they painting your bed at home?”
she joked, assuming he was drunk and hoping he wouldn’t
turn mean. “No,” he said, narrowing his eyes, which he
had trouble bringing in to focus. “I want you,” he said, as Pam
dried an Old Fashioned glass. “I want to sleep with you.”
What he didn’t say was this: You’ve slept with every other man
in town; I don’t understand why you wouldn’t sleep with me.
Pam was silent for a moment, and stopped drying.
“Well this is a surprise,” she said, in a tone that
suggested a school teacher who’s caught a
good boy smoking, not a woman who wants to make love.
“When did this crazy idea enter your head?” she asked;
“it’s the first I’ve heard of it.” Michael realized that
she didn’t share the feelings he’d had for her.
“Well,” he said, looking down. “I just thought it was
time I said something.” She looked at him skeptically;
“No, you just want to get laid, and I’m the last woman
standing,” Pam said. “Like the song says, ‘Don’t the
girls all look prettier at closin’ time.’” She turned around
and started drying again, hoping he’d get the message
and go away. He was too committed to his folly to move.
“I’m serious, Pam,” he said as she went about her business,
closing out the cash register, starting the dishwasher.
“You and me—we could be great together,” he said. “We’d
be the hippest couple in this two-bit town. It’d be cool.”
She turned around and looked at him as if he were some
4-H kid’s cow she was thinking of buying at auction:
a sad little scene that she weighed solely for its practical value.
Moments passed, their eyes locked, neither blinking, but
Michael flinched after a bit under the glare of her gaze.
“C’mon,” he said. “It’d be good—you’ll see.”
She seemed unconvinced. “I guess I might as well,”
she said. “It’s not like I haven’t done this before.”
She flipped off the lights, locked the front door, then
took him by the hand and led him upstairs to her room.
Michael stood there, still holding his last beer, while Pam
went about the business of preparing for love with the
same efficiency she displayed downstairs. “The bathroom’s
down the hall,” she said as she took off her blouse and
unhooked her bra before slipping into a nightgown.
Michael put his beer down, then excused himself.
He walked to the bathroom and closed the door behind himself.
He looked in the mirror, and thought “What in the hell am I
doing?” Then he smiled at himself, in admiration of his
enterprising spirit. “Some things are worth making a fool
of yourself for,” he thought. He rinsed out his mouth and
returned to the bedroom, where Pam was already under
the covers, looking for all the world as if they’d been married
for forty years. “Turn off the light switch on the wall,” she said.
They made love, not wonderfully but well enough. Michael
had enough beer in him to make him passionate, but not
enough to unman him. He rolled off of Pam, then lay there,
looking upwards in the dark, and tried to put together in
unspoken words what had happened. He was still breathing
heavily as the thought came to him: “My God—I could
write a novel about this!” Then he fell asleep.
After a while, Pam got up and went downstairs. She thought
she’d heard somebody trying to jimmy the back door lock.
From “Town Folk & Country People”