Once when I was in college I asked one of my professors at a restaurant—I’d slept with him a lot—if he could buy me something, anything, to eat. I was passing through the restaurant to see if I knew anyone on the other side who could help me. For four and a half days I hadn’t eaten anything but popcorn. I promised to repay my professor as soon as I was able. There were two other professors with him, and in my memory the restaurant was very loud and dimly-lit and my professor was hunched over a plate with brown gravy puddled on it. My professor turned his head to look at me and said, No. He repeated himself. Then he said, Scat. The way you talk to a cat.


Don’t you hate humility? he used to say in class, and I tried to think what he meant by that. I took notes that looked like this:


Humility = Boring.

Very boring.

Infinitely boring.

Low energy masquerading as virtue.

False modesty = everything conceited people hope to be accused of.


Adultery isn’t any fun, my professor told me in private, unless it’s like a very involved practical joke. He said that at a certain point the wife in our example suspects something, and then the game becomes more rudimentary. Nevertheless, the wife must count to four million before she admits what she knows. Until then she walks around blindfolded and thinks the furniture keeps moving.


He taught literature. What else? Under his influence I began to admire Keats, even though he had “deep reservations” about Keats. We were here, he said, to conduct an interrogation. I kept seeing Keats with a bare light bulb hanging over his head while my professor barked into the poet’s little frowning face. Keats’s poems are about breathing, my professor said. He was coughing blood while he wrote those lines. He was more aware of breath than any of you will ever be, my professor said. We can at least say that much. He could have been far more remarkable, my professor said, but his early death inhibited a certain attainment of greatness. My professor didn’t entirely like Yeats either. Keats. Yeats. In my mind, he told us, they merge into Yeast.


Remember the Vikings? he asked me, using a peculiar sing-song voice. It was after my third class with him, after Keats had been grilled for the most extensive period. (Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Lovely in its way but a dead-end. Part of the problem with the romantic sensibility. The dry river bed must be cleared for the surging tide, he said.) Like permafrost, chalk streaked the front of my professor’s jeans. (I work in the chalk mines, he liked to say. I’m in danger of chalk lung, he liked to say.) But that day after he asked me about the Vikings he said, What do the Vikings possess that you don’t? Confidence! I can tell you have the goods, kid. You could raid and pillage with the best of them.


A week later I was on assignment for the entertainment section of the college newspaper and walked in on Joe Cocker in the Plymouth Stadium dressing room. One of the band members was wearing tight blue briefs. I remember that now—electric blue briefs that flashed. I saw the briefs more than the man in them. The instant the other men in the band saw me they shrieked like fifth-grade girls at a pajama party. It was painfully embarrassing, but after they stopped shrieking all of them nodded at me in a good-natured way. And then Joe Cocker came out from somewhere and shook my hand. I took out my pad and pen and asked him questions (who was your greatest influence? what are your future plans?) and was amazed at how much he looked like my professor—as if he never slept through the night once, eyes red as if from a permanent case of impetigo.

    I told my professor about his resemblance to Joe Cocker and he said, You can’t be right. You will never meet anyone like me, you can count on that, kid.


You need to develop an imagination, he said. Start small. At least lie a little. Lying is a start. Just don’t lie to me. Remember this: Great liars in history, they’re countless. Tacticians, strategists, managers of any land beyond the size of an acre. Liars, all of them.

    In class he turned out the lights and narrated a slide show. Aldous Huxley. Virginia Woolf. D. H. Lawrence. Hilda Doolittle. Virginia Woolf again, looking like a beautiful ferret and wearing around her neck what appeared to be an actual ferret. At one point I wasn’t watching the slides because my head hurt, and so I was resting my head on my desk. Suddenly the class gasped like one mammoth lung sucking in air. I lifted my head and saw: a slide of my professor, staring at the camera, wearing nothing, in front of a cottage said to once have been inhabited by Katherine Mansfield.                 


He gave me a photograph not long after that. The whole time I held the photograph I could feel his eyes studying me, heating up the side of my face.

    The photograph was taken by someone looking down at a woman—someone leaning over a railing, most likely. A blue and gold blanket appears melted underneath her. But the woman in the photograph isn’t relaxing on the blanket. She seems stunned, knees drawn up to her naked chest, hands at her ankles to pull herself inward. She is trying to take up as little space as possible. It had to be his wife. Keep it, he said. It’s yours, he said. Photography is my avocation.

    I knew even then that as soon as I got back to my room I would tear the photograph of his wife into little bits, as if that would absolve me of the crime of seeing her exposed in that way. But as I first held the photograph I didn’t tell my professor what I planned to do. I said, This is beautiful.


One night before he had to drive home to grade papers my professor said, Tell me a little about yourself. Go ahead. I’m listening. Help me avoid the responsibilities of due employment.

    I told him about Texas, land of the armadillo, my home state. The armadillo is the dirt bag of the natural world, I said.

    I told him I was raised by people who collected people. In the end my adopted parents wound up with twenty-four kids and almost made the cover of Ladies Home Journal. Throughout my entire childhood I was only allowed to wear yellow socks—to make sorting laundry possible. We had three deep freezers in the basement. The woman pretending to be our mother hung a pair of her own pantyhose on the outdoor faucet. Stuffed with bars of Ivory soap for us to wash with. She wouldn’t drain the water from a pot of noodles—she was so afraid of losing nutrients. If any of my family saw me now they would call me a fallen woman.

    Is that so? he said. They must be the salt of the earth. They’d be pretty shocked, huh? Good. Shock is good.


By the fountain, the day after he told me at the restaurant that I ought to scat, I saw my professor again. We were outside the library and the fountain was turned off. It looked like a big cement dog dish. My professor trotted up, sending dry leaves scattering off the path, his coat flapping. There was a nip in the air. As he opened his mouth a little spout of a cloud puffed out. Are you still hungry? he asked. The space under his nose lengthened, his lips twisted in a snarl, and I couldn’t figure it out. Then I understood: He was trying to make his face leer. It was an almost convincing leer—a self-conscious leer. As if it had all been a joke, as if I was playing a trick on him the day before when I passed through the restaurant and stopped at his table, as if my hunger hadn’t been real.

    When I didn’t say anything, he groaned and said, You’re a cute kid, but we’ve got to stop this.

    I know, I said. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I said.

    Take somebody else’s class next semester. It doesn’t look right. Your being in any of my classes. Not good.

    I was surprised at myself. I asked him why he cared about how things looked.

    He laughed and said, Guess what? I quit smoking.

    Again? I said. I could see my breath hanging in the air.

    Cigarettes and speed—who needs both? he said. I pulled my head back before he could tap my forehead. See you later, my professor said, his coat flapping out behind him when he took off.


I changed my major to demography. The study of populations, rather than individuals. But after I withdrew from my professor’s class, I still caught glimpses of him. I even took pains to sit in the auditorium so that he was in my line of sight at lectures by visiting scholars. He never went to the readings by poets or fiction writers, only the scholars. He was often with a sophomore who looked immensely proud of herself, although sometimes he was with his wife. She didn’t look like the woman in the photograph. Even so, it took me a while to realize that the woman in the photograph wasn’t his wife.


During the winter before I tried and failed to transfer I sometimes saw him off in the distance, walking across the snowy quad. The girls in one of the off-campus apartments had started a nickname for him: Dr. Dracula the Pure Creep, but it never did him justice, even though he started wearing his black coat on his shoulders without putting his arms in the sleeves. Years later when I saw his obituary in the alumni news bulletin I still didn’t know how to think clearly about him. I knew, of course, what I was supposed to think. But even after so many years I felt the same enormous sadness for him that I had felt by the time I left college. As if he was the one who had missed the opportunities, as if I was the fortunate one.

    Less than a week after I saw the obituary I dreamed that I was leading a tiny man out of a terrible room where he had been held captive for a very long time. The man was blinking and gasping. His hand in mine was moist and trusting. As soon as I woke up I thought the man must be my old professor. But then, a second later, I knew better: it was Keats.




Lee Upton is the author of ten books, most recently Undid in the Land of Undone, from New Issues Press.  Her poetry, fiction, and essays appear widely.  She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.






photo by Theodora Ziolkowski




Back to Freight Stories No. 1

 

Lee Upton

Dr. No