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By Michael Burns


The Montréal Review, November 2011




"That's an idea. We'll come up with something. Not to worry. Catch you later, Mr. Hunt." And Paul Carpenter hurried off to "kick faculty butt."

"Was that Paul Carpenter I just saw leaving the dorm?" Caroline asked him, coming into his study, her hair wrapped in a gingham bandana.

"Yes, I'm afraid it was."

"Why afraid?"

"Because he's supposed to be preparing the common room, and instead he's off to a student/faculty basketball game. That's why I'm afraid. What do you want with him?"

"He's my wallflower weapon."

"How's that?"

"I plan to ask him to see to it that all the girls get asked to dance."

"Isn't that the responsibility of the girl's date?"

"You know how they are."

"Carpenter. Isn't that a lot like putting the fat kid in charge of the candy?"

"I've got to get back to work. If Paul happens by again send him to me. Okay, darling?"

Gabe was once more left alone with his compositions. He sorted through the pile until he found Carpenter's; he had chosen to write on why art had become obsolete in modern society. He had entitled the essay "Art, Who Needs It?" Gabe read the opening sentence: "Man reached the peak of artistic achievement in the caves of Altamira, and it has been on the decline ever since." His curiosity was stirred by the promise of the first sentence, but the piece soon began to falter, and finally yielded to the prosaic drivel that he had come to expect from Paul Carpenter. The main thrust of his argument was that Man, through high technology, had conquered his environment and therefore no longer required art, which Carpenter saw as a kind of analgesic at best. Gabe was ashamed to admit that he was grimly pleased that it had failed, that Carpenter offered no surprises. He scribbled some comments and gave it a grade of C only because his sentences were grammatically correct for the most part.

He had heard several knocks at his apartment door while he had been reading Carpenter's essay, and pretty soon music from the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever came from the living room. Caroline would be holding dance class, teaching some of the boys those tedious disco steps. It was now after five o'clock and no one had come near the common room. He considered getting a start on it himself, because as much as he dreaded the evening ahead he didn't want Caroline's well-laid plans thwarted.

From the doorway of his study Gabe contemplated the big room. In days when gentility played a bigger role in the life of the School than it did now, the common room was part of the married master's quarters, where he and his wife entertained the boys (girls were a fairly recent acquisition) at afternoon tea, and perhaps played bridge with his colleagues in the evening. Lately, the younger and somewhat more militant faculty had campaigned to have "objectionable" terms removed from the School's vocabulary. The term "master" was one of the first to go, having, at least in the minds of the more radical opponents, too much of an association with "slave." Headmaster Burdick had tried to argue that the term had no association whatever with slavery, unless one considered the relationship between student and instructor a form of enslavement. Men and women who supervised St. Luke's classrooms these days were called merely "teachers."

It was a grand room: two wrought iron chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and a bay of leaded glass windows opened onto the well-groomed lawns of the quadrangle. But the room was showing signs of deterioration: the plaster was infected with mildew, the fine pieces of Victorian furniture were broken and scarred, the sofa leaked its stuffing, and the fireplace flue was clogged. The rug had suffered insults of ground-in food and spilled drinks; it gave off a rancid odor. The new generation of students appeared to be less mindful of property than its forbears, a legacy from the sixties, Gabe supposed.

He often wondered how Caroline would perform at a formal afternoon tea with the boys dressed in dark coats and stiff collars, sitting rigid and proper. He could think of nothing more alien to her nature. Gabe doubted that he would fare much better than she. Nowadays, with the senses almost constantly under assault from stereo systems, and living in an atmosphere of moral relativism, he could almost understand the yearnings of his older colleagues for a return to gentility, ritual, order.

At six-thirty, admitting to himself that he could not bear to read another composition, Gabe retreated to his living room to find Caroline attempting to show Todd van Buren a disco turn. Todd was a thin senior, considered a bit of a pansy by the jocks in the dorm. His hands in particular seemed to have a life of their own, the way they held cigarettes, found their way unfailingly to his narrow hips, or hung limply from his thin wrists. The girls loved Todd, and if the jocks had tried their best to give him grief, Todd showed them such disdain that even they had given up trying to bait him. For all his looseness of wrist, and willingness to display his comical gestures in public, Todd had absolutely no sense of rhythm. The most strident backbeat would pass through his slender body without touching him. And no one was more aware or more unselfconscious of his clumsiness on the dance floor than "odd Todd" as he was affectionately called.

"You don't need a sense of rhythm to dance to disco music," Caroline explained. "Just learn the turns and walk through them." Todd attempted a few tentative mincing steps, but it was plain to everyone that it was hopeless; hopeless maybe, but no cause for despair. Todd was in good humor and cracked wise with the kids sitting around the living room watching his antics.

Gabe signaled to his wife to meet him in the kitchen. "It's after six-thirty, sweet thing. The basketball game has to be over by now and there's still no sign of Carpenter and his crew. Shall I step in?"

"Stop worrying, Gabriel. He's probably at the cafeteria. It will get done, trust me."

"And what about this sound system Jamie Willard threatened to rig? That must take a fair amount of time to set up."

"Jamie's an electronics genius; he'll get it done."

"I don't have to tell you who'll get the blame if this thing crashes."

"Ice, Gabe. Can you pick it up from the cafeteria, right now? I've made room in our freezer."

Having closed the subject of the preparation of the common room and all predictions of a failed evening, Caroline went about her dance instruction, and Gabe headed for the School cafeteria to fetch ice for the punch.

He returned at a little after seven o'clock to find a crew of boys in the common room. The furniture and rug had been removed, and Jamie Willard was busy running wire along the baseboards to four enormous speakers, positioned like heavy artillery in the four corners of the room. Several boys were busy making aluminum foil graphics on the walls. Someone had "borrowed" stage lights and dimmers from the Drama Eepartment. Chris Popper, who claimed to have an in with the Science Department, had secured a canister of helium and had filled close to one hundred balloons and let them float to the ceiling. An old bicycle with a twisted frame and crumpled wheels was wrapped in foil and hung in the bay of windows. Caroline, coffee cup in hand, directed the operation from the middle of the room. She grinned at Gabe as he stood in the doorway of their apartment admiring all the meaningful activity. He shrugged his shoulders and gave her two thumbs up.

"Told you we'd get our shit together, didn't I, Mr. Hunt!" Paul Carpenter shouted from the other side of the room. Gabe waved and went into his apartment. Caroline had designated some of the boys the task of preparing their living room for the smokers. Ashtrays were distributed around the room; the good pieces of furniture had been removed and some of their cherished breakables packed away. The food committee was busy in the kitchen arranging Caroline's exotica on platters and in bowls. The food was to be served buffet style in the dorm foyer.

In the living room, Craig Lyell, who had an encyclopedic reservoir of useless facts at his disposal, was having fun at the expense of Trevor Bascomb, a pudgy freshman who, because of his fine light hair, bleached eyelashes and general pallor, had been nicknamed "Bino."

"No shit, Bino," Lyell said, winking at his companions who were trying not to crack up, "even famous southpaws like Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, and Bobby Shantz-you ever hear of those guys, Bino? Well, trust me, every last one of them used the old right hand to beat off."

"That's bull," said Bino, although he was generally impressed with anyone so much in command of arcane facts and statistics, especially facts and statistics related to baseball, as Craig Lyell. "I'll bet anything Sandy Koufax didn't . doesn't do it righty."

"It's a medical fact, my friend. Every male on the planet uses the old right hand. No exceptions. Who knows, maybe it's true of all higher primates."

One of the other boys said, "You don't suppose Bino is the only one who spanks his monkey lefty, do you?" Bino Bascomb's pale complexion turned suddenly crimson.

"Don't you guys have things to do?" Gabe said. The boys dispersed, snorting obscene laughs.

Having stowed the ice in the freezer, and with no further assigned tasks, Gabe felt aimless and out of sorts. Part of him had a lingering foreboding of an ill-fated evening. The plan was for the boys to leave together as a group for Driscoll at about five minutes to eight. Each boy would collect the girl whose room number corresponded to his own and escort her back to Fiske. Caroline and Gabe would receive the couples at their front door. The escort would take his guest's coat and dispose of it in an area designated for wraps before leading her into the common room. "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees would be playing at high volume during the time couples were arriving. Caroline was sure this would get everyone in a dancing mood at once. Gabe had his doubts. The music certainly didn't inspire him to take to the floor.

After he had showered and put on his dark suit (some of the boys had rented tuxedos) there was nothing left for Gabe to do except wait. Caroline had put on a white evening gown for the occasion. He felt a little shabby next to her, a little obsolete.

"Cheer up, sweetie." She took his face in her hands and kissed him. "Everything is going perfectly."

"I look like I need cheering up?"

"Well, no. Not if looking like you're preparing to witness an execution is your idea of cheerful. And don't get upset if kids start going into the fridge. The food committee has its instructions. Now, what have I forgotten?"

In the common room the boys had gathered to get "psyched" before going after the girls. They were boisterous and obscene and Gabe considered going out there to calm them down, maybe even accompany them to Driscoll. Norm Spillane would be alert to any display of libidinous behavior on the part of his boys, and not hesitate to hold it up to him whenever he saw an opportunity to gain advantage. Or perhaps he judged Spillane unfairly. Actually he saw him as more fatuous than vindictive, even if he had had little to do with him these past ten years. If Gabe went along with the boys Caroline would not be pleased, and in the end he didn't really want to interfere.

At eight o'clock the boys set out for Driscoll, contriving to be fashionably late, to let the girls pant a little in anticipation. Gabe watched them from his front steps as they marched in two columns, like soldiers, to Driscoll House across the quadrangle. The early March night air was cold. The moon was veiled in thin clouds; the air offered no resistance to their high-spirited voices. He felt a chill right through his overcoat.

Caroline and Gabe took their stations at the front door and waited for the couples to arrive. First to appear was Neddy Koch escorting a pouting redhead whose ball gown's hem hung below her camel hair coat. She made no effort to conceal her displeasure at being stuck with the likes of Neddy Koch who, in a rather pathetic attempt at appearing trendy, had greased down his hair, put on dark glasses, and wore a safety pin on the knee of his trousers. This did not appear to redeem him in his date's eyes, for who could not notice how his frail hands protruded from the sleeves of his ill-fitting jacket, and his bony ankles clad in lime green socks rose from his bucks like stalks of asparagus? He was smiling, however, as he led his date up the three stone steps to the front door.

"Mr. and Mrs. Hunt, I believe you know Meg. She lives in Dallas now, but her family is from Houston. The McFarlands are ."

"How nice of you to have us. This is such a marvelous idea!" Meg McFarland extended a dainty, freckled hand; she wore a rather insincere smile on her pretty, freckled face.

"Welcome, Meg." Caroline went through her spiel about where coats were supposed to go, where smoking was allowed, and when food would be served. The couples began arriving steadily, so they tried to keep the small-talk brief in order to avoid a bottleneck outside in the cold.

Behind him, Gabe could hear kids gathering in the living room. He smelled cigarette smoke. He whispered to Caroline, "They'll spend the whole evening in the living room, chain smoking." Caroline touched his hand lightly, but said nothing. Paul Carpenter turned up with a short fat girl on his arm. He looked smug, full of his own magnanimity. Under her open coat the girl had on a floral print dress with a little white lace apron. She wore saddle shoes and her hair was fixed in pigtails. This would be one of Caroline's wallflowers whom Carpenter had been appointed to "take care of." Was it mere coincidence that his room number matched a wallflower's?

"Mr. and Mrs. Hunt, allow me to introduce Miss Holly Nesbitt." Carpenter winked at Gabe for the second time that day. He stared back at him, striving for his coldest gaze. Carpenter smiled and pulled Holly Nesbitt through the door, probably to abandon her to a dark corner of the common room as soon as he caught the scent of a prettier, more pliant guest.

"That appears to be the last of them," Caroline said with a little shiver of pleasure, not cold. "Come, darling. Let's join the party."

In the living room several girls were smoking cigarettes and chatting. They were decked out to the nines in expensive evening dresses (the exception being Holly Nesbitt), and Gabe was struck at once by the generosity of bare shoulder and bosom. That they were very poised was not so surprising to him, as many of them were no strangers to the New York City social milieu; no doubt alumnae of Gold and Silver events. It was difficult sometimes for him to imagine them now as only a few years older than his daughter Christine. Most of the gathered boys and girls were in the common room dancing to the strains of "Stayin' Alive." There seemed scarcely room on the floor for one more couple.

Caroline pulled on Gabe's hand. "Come on, Gabe, let's dance." She practically dragged him to the arena where he performed, wedged so tightly among those flailing arms and gyrating torsos that it was impossible for him to do anything but remain in place and be moved by the crowd's ebb and flow. The song finally ended, and he slipped away before the next one began. In the gauzy, rose-colored light he caught a glimpse of Caroline's head bobbing in the middle of the crowd. He hated to abandon her, but she was well aware of Gabe's mild claustrophobia. He returned to the living room to discover Norm and Edna Spillane getting out of their coats. The girls were gone, their crushed cigarette butts smoldering in a single ashtray.

"Sorry we're late, Gabe," Norm said, offering his hand. "The girls got here all right, I see, thanks to your boys."

"Let me have your coats," he said to Spillane.

"Don't trouble yourself. Edna will take care of them." Gabe didn't object. It was fairly well known among the faculty that Edna was Norm's "slave." But she seemed like a cheerful slave, and not without intelligence and some charm. She marched forthrightly to their hall closet, a coat in each hand.

"It's a bit claustrophobic out there," Gabe said, nodding toward the common room.

Undaunted by claustrophobic conditions, Norm Spillane rubbed his hands together and called to his wife, "Come on, mother, let's get out there and shake a leg."

Edna Spillane had on a blue, tight-fitting dress, out of fashion now for a couple of years, which was not a tribute to her figure. Gabe tried to picture her shaking one of her heavy legs.

"Be careful out there," he called after them as they headed for the common room.

The music now coming from that room had a fast tempo and a beat he didn't recognize as disco. He went out for a look. The couples (he assumed they were paired) were jumping straight up and down, and the fact that music was playing seemed only coincidental to their movements. He spotted Norm and Edna on the edge of the dance floor moving in what he gathered was their interpretation of the "twist." At least they were attempting a semblance of form.

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Michael Burns is a retired teacher living in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of three novels in print, "Gemini", "Where You Are", and "Gemini's Blood." His fourth novel is being edited at present.


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