MARIETTA, Georgia. Hiram Walker College here is known as something of an academic backwater, and so the announcement that Professor Ted Gomes had won a prestigious McNiece Fellowship was cause for celebration. “It’s not a MacArthur Fellowship, but it’s a start,” says the college’s president, Orel Fundy, Jr. “A MacArthur is worth $625,000 and certifies that you’re a genius, while a McNiece means you’re a pretty smart guy and you get $35,000.”
The winner is a specialist in comparative literary analysis, linking the verse of different nations, languages and eras through close textual analysis. “My main area of focus is Elizabethan love poetry,” he tells this reporter as he looks anxiously at his watch outside the faculty dining club. “‘Love gave the wound, which, while I breathe, will bleede,’ and all that jazz,” he says with a distracted air that is dispelled when two bottle-blonde women showing extensive cleavage approach and ask if he is the man who ordered the double-escort service for the night.
“I love poetry!”
“That would be me,” he says with a leer. “I don’t think any of the dweebs in there would know what to do with a real woman!” he adds as Dean Morton Weiner, a bespectacled man in an ill-fitting maroon blazer, approaches with a look of concern on his face.
“There’s a reporter waiting inside,” Weiner says nervously. “Are these two–women–friends of yours.”
“Hi–my name is Candi Barr,” one of the escorts says as she extends her hand.
“And I’m Tiffani Broach,” says the other.
“Is that your real name?” Weiner asks suspiciously.
“Of course not,” the first woman says. “It’s ‘Candace’ with two a’s.”
The group enters the oak-paneled room with vaulting ceilings and chandeliers where members of the Hiram Walker community have gathered to honor one of their own. Gomes looks at the buffet with distaste: “Cheese and crackers? Deviled eggs? Pigs in a blanket?” he sneers at Weiner. “I win a big prize and this is all you do to celebrate? Where’s the booze?”
“Kinda cheap if you ask me,” says Broach as she uses a toothpick from an hors d’oeuvre to remove hot dog gristle from between her teeth.
The risks inherent in “no strings attached” grants become apparent after awhile as Gomes calls from his cellphone to order pizza and two cases of beer. “I’ve never had $35,000 to play with in my whole life,” he says as one of his “escorts” feeds him a slice of green pepper and onion/thin crust. “Did they expect me to spend it on new leather elbow patches for my tweed jacket?”
“Don’t look now, but they’re doing an ap-lay ance-day over there.”
As Gomes dives further into the newly-arrived drink his tongue is loosened and he waxes academic. “There are numerous parallels between the Elizabethan Age and the Age of Disco, which ran from approximately 1973, when the first disco club opened in New York City, until 1979, when an anti-disco riot erupted in Chicago,” he says in a professorial tone that seems fitting for a professor. He gets up on a table to demonstrate some of the dance moves he perfected as an undergraduate at NYU, and adds some impromptu disco-Elizabethan poetry as he gyrates:
She likes to party, she likes to disco
She likes to boogie down from here to San Francisco.
Ask not how long my love will last,
For in the asking we make love past.
This travesty is too much for the Chairman of the English Department, Merlin Mattoni, who rushes over and demands that Gomes knock off the cheap versifying and get down off the furniture.
“Fine,” the big prize winner says as he climbs down, but before he exits with his two rented lady friends a thought occurs to him. “What’s the poem by Yeats?” he asks, recalling the last two lines of “The Scholars“: “Lord, what would they say/Should their Catullus walk that way?”