J. T. Townley, 4/27/2015
Current Occupation: professor of writing
Former Occupation: bartender, French teacher, paint striper, street sweeper, landscaper
Contact Information: J. T. Townley has published in Collier’s, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
It’s Tuesday p.m., and I’m elbow-deep in a paper jam when there’s this knocking, soft but steady, across the hall. My office is cattycorner from the copy room, but I figure whoever it is can’t be here to see me. How could they be? I’m brand-new, though not freshly minted, and it’s the first week of the semester, which they refer to around here as a quarter. Why the emphasis on coinage, I’ll never know, unless it’s simply meant to underscore the prestige and expense of a Santa Maria education.
After doing the adjunct shuffle for what seems like eons, cobbling together classes at State and Valley and any other campus in a fifty-mile radius, I’ve now found my place, for the time being anyway, carved out my niche, at least for the year my contract lasts, a full-time job with benefits at a private college I never could have attended, more for the cost of tuition than the rigor of admissions standards.
Of course, I’m moonlighting at State. And I’m still known as an adjunct.
No matter how much I ignore it, that knocking seems to grow firmer and louder. I focus on clearing Area D3, twisting knobs and pulling levers, ink smeared all over my hands, a little finding its way to the striped V-neck collar of my favorite red sweater vest. And then I hear it: a coed’s soft voice, calling, “Professor Nauer?” When nobody responds, meaning me, she starts back in with her banging.
I can’t help but wonder who could be so clueless or desperate, only to remember the department secretary, Jocelyn or Jessalyn, posted my office hours, which apparently are underway this very minute, on my office door. Unlike the shared cubicles or semi-converted broom closets at Valley and State and everywhere else I’ve taught during my academic vagabondage, it’s actually an office—even if, in a previous life, it was a dorm room. It’s also actually mine, at least for the short term, since I don’t have to share it with other part-timers who’d just as soon slit my throat with the special cutlass they carry in their book bags as look at me, since we’d all be vying for the illusory prospect of a full-time, benefits-carrying position. No, this space is mine, all mine. As long as I’m employed here, at any rate, or until a new tenure-track professor is hired.
When the coed calls my name again, curiosity gets the best of me. I drop to one knee, plant my right hand on the matted shag carpet, and lean towards the door. I hitch up my khakis, but they sag from my hips. A slender brunette in a short, ruffled skirt and form-fitting halter top stands in the corridor, a backpack between her sandaled feet.
“Professor Nauer?” she says. “Are you in there?”
Early autumn sunlight glints from her jewelry. Looks like another rich kid, which, around here, is par for the course. At least she wears her money well.
Though I know I shouldn’t, especially given the scandal a few years back at Valley, I can’t help fixating for a moment on her derrière, which from this angle looks like a perfectly shaped heart.
I’ve already ogled her for ten or fifteen seconds when someone blusters through the door behind me and hollers, “Holy Toldeo! Full moon’s out, and it’s the middle of the day!”
I feel the blood rush to my face.
Jim Jimson, the Lawrence “Larry” Page Professor of Critical Theory, peers down at me, his eyes a pair of slits.
“Thing’s on the fritz,” I mumble. Then I hitch up my pants and drop to both knees in front of the open copier service door.
“You’re a dumbass lardass,” says Jimson, “and I will crush you like a filthy cockroach.”
I gaze up at him, tongue-tied.
“Earth to Adjunct? Did you hear me? It was working fine when I used it ten minutes ago.”
“It’s just a paper jam,” I say.
“Well, clear it and move on. You’re wasting my time.”
I pretend to locate the problem, shut the copier door, and hoist myself up. Then I pretend to collate my incomplete set of photocopies, pretending everything’s in perfect order. You have to put on a good face around these academic prima donnas, who, like Jesus, a comparison that may be appropriate given the Catholic context, believe they’re the only path to salvation. But it’s all for naught, since Jimson’s rifling through a dusty issue of Postmodern Theory that must be years out of date.
Before I stumble out the door, Jimson glares at me over his reading glasses and says, “Just a moment.”
I stop and pivot back towards him. He stares past, or through, me.
“Log out when you’re finished using the copier, lummox.”
Jimson forces a thin, squinting smile. “And find some pants that fit,” he says.
I nod, then scurry across the hall to my office. The slender brunette has already disappeared.
It seems like whole epochs of time pass before I meet her two days later. She sits in on my Introduction to Literature course, though from everything I can tell, she’s not on the roster. Towards the end of class, I assign their term paper, answer a few questions I’ve already addressed, then let them go. As I gather my notes and textbook, stuffing them into my old leather satchel, someone approaches the desk and says, “I’m really enjoying your class.”
“Great.” I don’t look up.
“And I like your teaching style a lot.”
“Glad to hear it.” I fasten the buckles on my bag and sling it over my shoulder. Then I finally see her. Afternoon sunlight pouring through the stained glass that’s so ubiquitous in this place backlights her so, for a moment, she appears to be wearing a halo. Her beauty knocks the breath out of me. After staring at her like a deaf-mute for longer than would be comfortable for even the deafest and mutest, I finally say, “Can we walk? I have to be somewhere in an hour.”
We stroll across campus. I let her make her plea to enroll in my class, and I ask questions at appropriate moments, pretending to weigh her argument carefully. As she babbles, I steal glances at her long fingers and study the surprisingly elegant star tattooed just behind her right ankle. I haven’t felt this dumbstruck since the first time I saw Angie stepping barefoot across a sunlit campus lawn almost twenty years ago.
I tune back in just as we enter Saint Jude’s Hall, where the English Department is housed. She rattles on about her troubled academic history and desperate family situation.
“I’m a transfer student, and—”
“Really? I used to teach there.”
“No kidding? What a small world.”
Apparently, she needs this class to complete her core requirements before she can take courses in her major, which, I’m not exactly shocked to learn, is business. She doesn’t love literature, she tells me, she’s not even sure she likes it, but she’s a hard worker, and she’ll do almost anything for an A. She knows the class is technically full, but is there any possibility I might be able to find space for her?
As we climb the stairs to the third floor, I try to ask some inane question, just to keep her talking, but I’m winded, actually sweating and gasping for breath, so I wait until we make it to my office. I fumble for my keys and eventually manage to get the door unlocked. I’m about to invite her in when I realize that’s a bad idea.
We take a few steps down the hall, where we stop in front of a glassed-in bookcase displaying recent faculty publications. Front row center is Jim Jimson’s latest tome.
“There are other sections,” I say once I’ve caught my breath. “Why mine?”
“Because it fits my schedule.” Her smile is radiant. “Plus,” she says, affecting her best bashful eye flutter, “you’re cute.”
I study the carpet like there’ll be a quiz on it later. I just hope no one overheard her comment. It’s an obvious ploy to curry favor, but coming from her I want to believe it. On a good day, most people would describe me as stodgy. I’m forty pounds overweight, all of which I gained when Angie left.
“Well,” I say, “I’m sure we can find a seat for you.”
“Really?” She cocks her head to one side. “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Miss—?”
“White. Tiffany. Everyone calls me Tiff.”
“Okay—Miss White? Bring the paperwork on Tuesday, and I’ll give you my John Hancock.”
“Great,” she says, then wheels around. She’s already bounding down the stairs when she hollers, “Thanks, Professor!”
I nod, check my broken watch, and hold my breath. I need to get back to the City, since my class at State starts in a couple of hours. It’s been the way of things for my entire career. The codgers and curmudgeons and administrators who don’t know any better, along with the smug and self-satisfied and tenured who do, call us “freeway flyers.” Not only is it insensitive, it’s also inaccurate. I, for one, always take the train. Anyway, before accepting this position, I’d finish class at State, then shoot over to Valley, or vice versa. Rather than quit both jobs when I landed the one at Santa Maria, I took a partial leave-of-absence from State. Academia is a tough racket, especially without a “terminal degree,” which sounds like an illness but is actually the mana that opens the golden gates of tenure. So I’m playing it safe.
When Tiffany’s out of sight, I exhale, then count silently to thirty, despite the odd looks various professors, administrators, and secretaries give me as they navigate the corridor. Maybe I’m actually counting aloud? When I’m finished, I blunder down the steps, slipping more than once on the slick marble, then dash through the lobby and out the door. As best I can, I sprint for the station.
I hit the Santa Maria student union for a jelly donut and cup of coffee this a.m. before heading over to Saint Jude’s. I climb the stairs up to my office, huffing and panting. My vision still hasn’t cleared from the exertion by the time I make it to my door, and I almost run smack into Professor Jim Jimson. He has a red felt pen in one hand, and he appears to be emending my posted office hours.
“What are you doing?” I say before I know what I’m saying. “I mean, is there something I can do for you?”
“Lardass dumbass,” he says, capping his pen. “Just the filthy cockroach I was looking for.”
“Excuse me?” I say. I wonder if I’ve begun hearing voices.
Jimson can’t restrain the smile overtaking his head. “Know how much I’ll make this year?”
I blink a couple of times.
Jimson leans against the wall, fiddling with his pen. I glance at the paper sign on my door, but I don’t notice any red ink.
“Come on, Mr. Narr.”
“Nauer. But, please, call me Dennis.”
“Whatever. Now don’t be a candy-ass. Take a guess.”
There’s nothing to do but play along. “I don’t know. Seventy-five? Eighty thousand?”
He clucks his tongue at me. “Not even close.” Jimson can’t hide his smirk; he probably doesn’t even try. “One-hundred sixty-seven thousand dollars,” he says. “Check my math, but that’s almost four times what you make.”
I fish my keys out of my pocket and lean towards the lock. “Why are you telling me this, Jimson?” Irritation, like alcohol, can dampen a person’s inhibitions. “Is there a point?”
He flexes his jaw. His eyes narrow to a squint. “You have a PhD, right? Figure it out.”
“I’m ABD, actually.” That’s academic shorthand for “All But Dissertation.” Though I started strong, I never finished my study of tramps, hobos, and vagabonds in American literature.
“Typical,” he says.
Then, all swagger, he disappears down the corridor.
It doesn’t take long to realize Tiffany White isn’t quite the student she claims to be. Her attendance, for example, is erratic at best. For the first couple of weeks of the semester, she comes to every class, even if she’s a few minutes late most days. As time passes, she seems more harried, less prepared and put together. I make the mistake of calling on her two or three times, trying to draw her into the discussion so I won’t have to give her a goose egg for participation, but she has nothing to offer but incoherent mumbling or awkward silence. I try to focus on how beautiful she is and ignore the under-the-breath insults a few of her peers mutter.
Then the absences begin. At first, she misses every other class; soon, though, I’m lucky to see her once every two weeks. I miss her so much I begin grinding my molars in the night, and tearing out small chunks of hair, which isn’t a good idea, since it’s already thin enough. Other than dock her, though, there’s nothing I can really do.
As she’s leaving class one day, I say, “It’s good to see you’re back, Tiffany.”
She gives me a meek smile. “I’m really sorry, Professor. But life gets in the way sometimes, y’know?”
I nod, holding in a sigh. I can smell booze on her breath.
By midterm, I’m convinced she’s going to drop. If she’s not overwhelmed by the rigor and work load of Santa Maria classes, she must have an unforgiving work schedule or serious family issues. Before the scandal, I taught enough Valley students to understand the difficulties most of them face.
Then, with about a month left of term, she comes to see me during office hours. I’m trying to finish grading this monstrous pile of exams before I leave for the day, since a mound of essays from my class at State awaits me at home. No such luck. A knock outside, then my door opens before I can do much more than look up, trying to get my eyes to focus. I figure it’s probably Jimson dropping by again to lord it over me.
Her eyes are bloodshot, and even that thick eye makeup can’t disguise the luggage she’s carrying. She smells like booze and cigarettes, masked by a thin layer of sweet, floral perfume.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Don’t be silly,” I say, clearing blue books off the chair.
“You look busy. I should’ve made an appointment.”
“Have a seat.”
Tiffany closes the door behind her, then takes the chair I offer, tugging lazily at the hem of her lavender miniskirt. It’s clearly a habit, but it draws my gaze to her bronzed, sculpted thighs. I linger there longer than I intend to, tracing their lines up into the lovely shadows. When our eyes meet, Tiffany’s smiling. She fiddles with her long hair, which looks auburn in this light, pulling it out of a pony tail, draping it over her shoulders.
“You haven’t been to class in a while,” I say. “We’ve missed you.” That’s the royal we, of course. Tiffany doesn’t seem to connect with many, or any, of her classmates.
She reaches into her overlarge purse for something, then seems to think better of it and places the bag on the edge of my desk.
“I was hoping we could discuss my term paper?”
She takes off the tight jacket she’s wearing, only to reveal an even tighter halter top. I try, though not hard enough, to avoid staring at her breasts.
“You sound a little surprised, Professor Nauer.”
“It’s just that,” I say, “I figured you needed me to sign a withdrawal form.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“Wait, no, of course not. If you’d like to stay, you’re more than welcome.” The last thing I want is for her to drop. “But it’s not going to be easy to pass since you’ve missed so much.” I point at the heap of blue books. “Both exams, for example.”
Tiffany slides forward in her chair and gazes over at me. She’s hauntingly attractive. Without warning, she touches my left leg and asks, “Isn’t there anything I can do?”
I sit bolt upright. I’ve been subjected to enough long-winded, mandatory trainings to know how vulnerable I am right now. I should ask Tiffany to leave, then report what just occurred. Only couldn’t she just as easily claim I touched her? The office door is closed; it would be my word against hers. The best thing I can imagine happening is I’ll be fired—which, in the adjunct world, simply means my one-year contract won’t be renewed. Given my history, I don’t even want to consider what the worst might be. At any rate, I feel a hot bulge in my pants, so I can’t even stand to open the door without making a complete ass of myself.
“I could help you with that, y’know.”
“I’m sorry?” I say. My grin couldn’t be more sheepish.
“Don’t be embarrassed. With your stiffy.”
Without thinking, I say, “You’re ravishing, Tiffany.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re—really hot.”
My response seems to please her. She places her hand back on my thigh. This time, I don’t move away.
“Just tell me what you want,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Anything, Professor. But I need help, too.”
“That’s hard to imagine, Tiffany. A girl like you.”
“Will you help me, Professor? Please?”
I know this conversation has gone beyond the limits of any reasonable person’s sense of decency. Memories of the scandal even flash through my mind, the accusations and headlines and TV news coverage, the three days I spent in jail with Jamaal and Roscoe. But she’s just such an angel, which, I conclude, is one of the perks of teaching at a Catholic university. I can’t help myself. And after all I’ve suffered as an academic gypsy, the last-minute course assignments and shitty schedules, the terrible pay and scorn of students and faculty, don’t I deserve her?
“I’ll do whatever I can,” I hear myself say. “Anything.”
She leans forward, cupping her breasts, and says, “Will you touch me here?”
Tiffany slides a hand slowly up her thigh. “And how about here?”
“Good,” she says. Then she reaches forward and unbuckles my belt. She struggles a little, given my gut. “But first let me make you feel good.”
She stands, then slips two fingers between her pouty lips. She sucks and slurps on them so noisily, I suspect students in their dorms and colleagues in their classrooms and the university president himself in his office on the far side of the quad can hear her.
“Do you like that?”
“Do you want some more?”
“You know it.”
Tiffany smirks and holds her breath for a moment, then she giggles to herself. It breaks the spell. I know I’ve missed the punch line, and, though it’s nothing new, this time it terrifies me. She reaches into her purse again. There’s a click. When she pulls her hand out, she’s holding a small device I can’t immediately identify. She presses a button. I feel the blood drain from my face as she replays our conversation word-for-word. My hands and feet feel frozen, and some invisible ghoul begins hacking at my temples with an ice pick.
“So what I really want,” she says, “is an A for the term. No exams, no term paper. And I won’t be coming to class again.”
“When the quarter’s over and I see my grade, I’ll give you the tape.”
“Why are you doing this?”
Tiffany just cocks her head and offers a vacant smile.
After picking at, but not eating, Chinese takeout, frustrated because the kung pao chicken smells delicious but somehow I don’t have an appetite, I guzzle a glass of ginger ale, then pick up the phone and dial Angie’s number. She moved back to L.A. after the scandal and divorce to be closer to her family. She answers on the second ring.
“Okay,” she says, “what happened?”
Cacophony of honking horns and shouted curses in the background. Angie must be stuck in traffic.
“Everything’s fine. I just needed to hear your voice.”
“Come on, Denny. Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I’m in a pickle, Angie.”
“What else is new?”
Static crackles through the receiver. She must put her hand over the mouthpiece so I won’t hear her screaming at the driver in front of her. It doesn’t work.
“Don’t tell me,” she says. “You shtup another student?”
“That’s not fair, Angie. If you recall, there was an investigation. They found that nothing improper transpired.”
“That doesn’t mean you weren’t shtupping her, Denny.”
“I barely even knew the girl!”
Angie snickers. I can see her wagging her head now, exhaust-heavy wind blowing through her amber tresses in the dying toxic twilight. “Let’s not go through all this again. Why are you calling me?”
I explain the situation in as flattering a light as I can manage.
“What’d I tell you? You men are all the same. You never learn.”
“Is that why you go for women now?”
“Not ‘women,’ Denny. Just Kate. We’re soul mates. Haven’t we already gone over all this?”
“She join the family business yet?”
Angie snickers again. “This is California. Real estate’s where it’s at. You ever want to get out of that academic racket, let me know. I’ll help you get set up.”
“So?” I say. “What should I do?”
“Listen, schlemiel. Give the little trollop an A. Get the tape back. Get on with your life.”
Through the receiver, tires screeching. The crash, pop, and tinkle of fenders colliding, headlights bursting, glass shattering.
“Are you okay?”
“Some schmuck fishtailed into a light pole,” she says. “I’m fine.” A pause fills with a chorus of L.A. traffic. “Anyway, now’s the time to worry about yourself, Denny.”
One afternoon, I’ve just begun a lesson for my composition class at State when a student I’ve never seen before slips in and leans against the back wall. He probably wants to add my class, though it’s too late in the semester. Happens all the time. Unlike Santa Maria students, who have a gaggle of advisors holding their hands every step of the way, kids here can get lost pretty easily—though they’re all expert navigators compared to those wandering, often misguided Valley students. I consider doing him a favor and interrupting class to tell him he shouldn’t waste his time. Only these students are easily distracted; I am, too, considering how many times I’ve taught this syllabus. So I let him stay, assuming he’ll clue in eventually.
It’s a mistake. The guy stands there the entire time, arms folded across his chest. Looks like a surfer out of water, with that flat-billed cap and gaudy t-shirt, sagging skinny jeans and flip-flops. Plus, he’s come totally unprepared: no notebook or paper or pen. But at least he’s not carrying a bag, so unless he has a firearm tucked away in those droopy drawers, he’s not a shooter. Still, his surly look is disconcerting.
After suffering for half an hour, I dismiss class early, forgetting to make the homework assignment. But the surfer guy doesn’t leave with the rest of the students, and he appears to be guarding the only exit. From this more or less safe distance, I say, “Did you need something?”
I buckle and unbuckle my satchel.
“Because I’m in a bit of a rush.”
“I can see that, bro.”
He ambles towards me. Sweat trickles down my back.
“You Nauer?” he asks, approaching the desk.
“That’s right. And you are?”
His lip twitches for a moment, then he laughs. He’s got to be six-four, broad of shoulder and thick of chest.
“I’m the guy who’s here to school your stupid ass.”
He tries to stare me down, but I busy myself with my bag. Then I say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And as I said, I’m in a bit of a rush.” I make for the door.
“Name’s Bobby.” He lopes after me. “Tiff ever mention me?”
I trip over the leg of a desk, staggering to keep my balance.
“She’s a manipulative little bitch,” he says, then laughs as if he’s just given her highest compliments. “Guess it figures.”
I shuffle to the doorway, peek out into the hall, then close the door.
“How’d you find me here?”
“I asked around at Valley.”
“You’re a student?”
“Now and then.”
I have trouble imagining what he might study, besides surf breaks and gravity bongs.
“You used to teach there, right? Till you got fired, is what I heard. J’accuse and all that shit, man. Anyway, they told me you mainly work here.”
“I don’t mainly work anywhere.”
Bobby puzzles for a moment at my venom. Then he says, “I heard the tape, bro. Now your ass is in a sling.”
“Did she send you?”
“Why would she?” He seems genuinely confused, which is probably a familiar state. Then, apparently recalling why he’s here, he says, “Keep your fucking molester hands off her, understand?”
They sound like lines from a movie, almost. Next I expect him to slam me up against the wall. For whatever reason, though, he doesn’t.
“It’s a simple message. Hands off. Got it, motherfucker?”
Bobby shoulders me out of the way and pulls the door open. He’s already strutting down the hall when I say, “Wait, does she know you heard the tape?”
He spins back towards me, grinning. “Hell no, bro.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“What can I do?” he says, popping his right fist against his left palm.
The end of the quarter comes quickly, and I’m on the train to Santa Maria, trying to finish grading a stack of term papers before final exams. I have trouble focusing, though, distracted by this predicament with Tiffany and Bobby, who has to be her boyfriend. What, I wonder, could she possibly find attractive about that surfer mimbo? Besides his ripped body and insatiable libido, not to mention his endless, free-flowing supply of mind-altering substances? Suburban sprawl blurs past the window as we lurch down the peninsula. I’ve just turned back to a plodding analysis of love motifs in The Great Gatsby when who should slip, wraith-like, into the seat beside me but Tiffany White.
“Professor,” she says, breathless, “we need to talk.”
“Tiffany? I didn’t know you rode this train?”
“I live in Baley City.”
I gaze at her in profile. She’s really caked on the makeup today, so it takes me a moment to realize her right eye is swollen and ringed in purple and black. Her lower lip is angry-looking, too. Her hair sways as the train shudders into the next station, revealing a deep gash behind her left ear.
“My God.” I have no idea why I say that. “What happened to you?”
“My boyfriend Bobby. He found the tape.”
“I know.” I explain how. “He did this to you?”
“It doesn’t matter, Professor. The point is what he’s going to do to you.”
“That’s not the point at all,” I say. My voice sounds high and strained, as if I manage a bank and wear my tie too tight.
“Look, Professor. I told him we’re having a thing.”
“I told him we’re fucking.”
“Why would you do that?”
Tiffany studies the plastic headrest of the seat in front of her.
“Maybe I wanted to make him jealous.” She’s not really talking to me. “Seems like I catch him with a different blonde bitch every other weekend.”
I don’t know what to think. Maybe Tiffany’s a compulsive liar and complete sociopath? “Was this before or after he paid me that little visit?”
“I’m not sure. After, I think.”
Then the train staggers to a halt and the conductor announces Terrence Station. All at once, and for no logical reason whatsoever, I say, “We’ve got to get off this train.” I crumple the term papers together and stuff them in my bag, then grab Tiffany’s arm and lead her through the car to the exit. Only we’re not quick enough, because the doors have already closed by the time we reach them.
“Too late,” says Tiffany.
As the train pulls away, the conductor says, “Our next station stop will be Santa Maria. Santa Maria’s next.”
Rather than sit back down, we stand by the doors. Tiffany fiddles with her purse strap, while I stare out the window. At some point, I realize I’m gripping her arm as if clinging on for dear life. She doesn’t complain, as if she can’t even feel it, but I let go anyway.
As we pull into Santa Maria station, there’s no sign of Bobby. The train stops, the doors open, and we step out onto the platform. A small crowd of students and a couple of other professor types exit the train here, too. I lead Tiffany to the automated ticket kiosk for cover. She glances at me like I’m losing it, or perhaps it’s already lost, but I have this gut feeling Bobby’s lying in wait for us, or me.
Yet all the other passengers clear the platform, and, miraculously, there’s no sign of him.
“Come on,” I say. “He’s not here.”
We step out of the kiosk. I lead Tiffany swiftly towards campus. I keep checking left and right, glancing over my shoulder.
When we’re safely across the parking lot and on the edge of the palm grove, I make a wobbling one-eighty and survey the scene. As far as I can tell, it’s business-as-usual, meaning there’s no one around. I take a deep breath and try to control the adrenaline surging through me like electricity. I’m about to tell Tiffany everything’s going to be okay when someone says, “Hey, babe. Did you miss me?”
Bobby emerges from behind the trunk of a palm. He’s sporting a chocolate brown sweatshirt with the hood pulled up.
Tiffany says, “You can’t say you didn’t have this coming to you, Professor.”
“Why would you say that?” I ask.
“That’s how it goes. You get what you deserve.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Shut up, bitch!”
I’m not sure which one of us Bobby’s talking to.
Then he snatches Tiffany by the arm and slings her to the ground.
Words spill from my mouth like sand: “You can’t treat her like that, Bobby.”
I glance over at Tiffany, only she’s not there anymore. I feel a little frantic as I scan up and down Palm Drive, only to see her scampering away across the parking lot and ducking behind a giant pickup.
“That shit was her fault, bro. Always is.”
“I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”
“You’re not too quick for some big-time college professor.”
“I’m just an adjunct,” I say. “A nobody.”
Bobby gives me a hard shove in the chest, and I lurch backwards into a palm tree. I know what’s coming, and I think I’m ready for it, but the crack of his fist against my cheekbone knocks me to the ground and sends a shockwave of pain down my spine. He picks me up and leans me against the tree. Then he lands three quick, hard punches to my abdomen, and I double over with pain. At which point he gives me an uppercut to the mouth, then pops me in the side of the head, which sends me sprawling into the grass again.
I lift a hand in defense and say, “I wouldn’t have touched her.” Blood from one or both of my lips tastes like dirty copper.
Bobby snickers, massaging the knuckles of his right hand. “You’re kind of a dumbfuck, aren’t you?”
Pain sears through me as I wrench myself up onto an elbow. I wonder if a broken rib has begun to puncture my lung.
“Get up, bro.” Bobby clears his throat and spits into the grass. “We’re just getting started.”
I backhand blood from my mouth. “I’ve learned my lesson, Bobby. I won’t say anything to anyone.”
He grabs two fistfuls of sweater vest and hoists me up again.
“You haven’t learned shit, bro,” he says, then lands a quick jab to my gut.
I grunt and gasp and try not to vomit.
“First, let’s get your story straight. You took the shortcut from the station to campus. Three Mexicans smoking bud jumped you. They kicked the shit out of you and took your wallet.”
Bobby takes my wallet and hurls it deep into the palm grove. But not before pocketing the cash.
“Then repeat it back to me.”
I tell him his Mexican story, which is now my Mexican story. I wonder if there are even any Mexicans in Santa Maria.
“Good.” He clamps his jaw and squints at me, then takes a quick glance around. “It’s like Tiff said,” he says. “You kinda asked for this.”
Then the real beating begins. The pain’s worse than any I’ve ever experienced, including when my appendix burst. It’s worse than all the scorn and mockery and disdain I’ve suffered as an adjunct for the past ten years. It’s even worse than when Angie left me. Bobby may not know much, but he knows how to inflict pain.
Soon, though, I’m surprised to feel myself surrendering to it, even embracing it. And it’s no longer Bobby doing the beating, either. Instead, it’s this scary, sexy woman in skin-tight, studded leather standing over me. I wouldn’t mistake Tiffany’s face, even behind all that eyeliner and mascara. She’s strapped a studded collar around my neck and keeps yanking on my leash, calling me “Naughty Boy.” Soon she begins flogging me relentlessly with a bullwhip. Over and over, she smacks me with that whip, screaming something I can’t quite understand.
I must black out at some point, because I awaken to the drone of traffic. How long was I under? I squint at my watch, but it’s still broken. Then I prop myself up against a tree and assess the damage. My clothes are ripped and splattered with blood, my body aches all over, and my lips and cheeks feel so swollen they’re about to burst. My left eye won’t even open.
Someone out in the street honks, then honks again. I look up, and with my good eye I can just make out a giant Ford pickup idling near the curb.
“Hey, bro, you okay? Can we call anyone for you?”
I wave to the concerned citizen before realizing it’s Bobby. Is he just leaving? Or has he come back to make sure I’m not dead?
Then Tiffany leans across him and hangs out the window. “You’ll get the tape when I get my A.” Sunlight streams through her hair as she flashes me that angelic smile. “Thanks again, Professor!”
Then Bobby shoots me the finger and guns it out into traffic.