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By Michael Burns


The Montréal Review, November 2011




"Care to dance, Mr. Hunt?" Rosemary Gilliam, one of his better students, was beside him. She was petite with short blond hair, a little turned up nose around which bloomed a saddle of freckles. Tonight she wore a very grown-up evening gown, and Gabe was surprised to discover she had a grown-up figure to go with the gown. Her figure seemed always to be obliterated by the bulky tops and corduroys she wore to classes.

"Is that what everyone is doing out there, dancing?"

"Sure. Come on."

"I'm not sure I'd know what to do. It seems to lack that. je ne sais quoi. rhythm."

"So make your own rhythm. Come." She had hold of his hand and was towing him gently to the dance floor the way Caroline had done earlier.

Gabe tried an imitation of this jumping action; since there was little other motion possible they were wedged so tightly on all sides by all the bodies on the dance floor. He felt awkward and rather silly. He caught sight of Caroline in the crowd; she looked as though she were enjoying herself. He tried catching her attention by waving his arms, but it seemed everyone was waving their arms The frenetic music played on interminably. Gabe promised myself that he would not be lured to the dance floor again.

The next tune was a slow number. Gabe bowed to Rosemary Gilliam, thanked her for the jump and looked for his wife. He saw her disappear through the door to the vestibule, followed by Neddy Koch.

"You called it," Gabe said to her in the kitchen.

"Called what?" She handed Neddy Koch a tray of canapés. "Would you take these out to the serving table, Neddy?"

"The dance, of course. It's a huge success. Everyone's dancing, or at least moving their bodies after a fashion. What is this music? I've never heard anything like it in the dorm."

"Punk or some such thing, I think. Isn't it fun?" She stood back and measured him. "You aren't having much fun, are you, Gabe?"

"Don't be absurd. I'm having the time of my life." He pulled her toward him. She surprised him by resisting.

"You might try rising above yourself tonight, for the kids' sake."

"Do you really believe they care whether or not we have a good time?"

"You might do it for me, then." Neddy Koch was back. It was obvious from the anxious look on his thin face as he looked back and forth at Caroline and Gabe, that he had been eavesdropping.

"The punch is a hit, as are all the hors d'oeuvres. Everything is being devoured," said Neddy Koch, like a prim little caterer.

Caroline said, "Oh thank you, Neddy. Thank you for all your help."

He said to Gabe, "You're going to join the party, I trust."

"At the moment I'm having a word with my wife." Neddy Koch shriveled before retreating.

"Did you have to take that tone with him, Gabe? And please stop looking so.tragic."

"It would be easier if there were some decent music to dance to."

"Why don't you bring down some records later? Maybe Jamie will let you play one or two."

That he should require Jamie Willard's permission to play a record in his own dormitory he let pass unchallenged. Caroline's advice on food service was needed, and she hurried out of the kitchen leaving Gabe by himself. He hadn't been treated so like a child since his father's last visit. Like a child, he felt a little hurt, a little petulant. He considered sitting out the rest of the evening in front of the TV with a glass of bourbon. That would be childish enough. Instead, he sat at the kitchen table and tried to work a Times crossword puzzle, but noise from the common room made it difficult to concentrate. He wandered into the living room where he was ignored by a small group of smokers. Out in the common room the party was going strong. There seemed to be fewer kids, however, than there were at the beginning of the evening. No one was supposed to leave the general area except to use the bathrooms. If they had taken to the boys' rooms he'd be damned if he'd go looking for trouble. He searched the room for Paul Carpenter, for if any of them had succeeded in seducing a young lady this early in the evening he would be the one. But there he was, dancing with Holly Nesbitt, the resident wallflower. She seemed to be having a good time, as did Carpenter. And there was Andrew Arlen, another notorious stud, dancing uninhibitedly with a winsome brunette. Frankly, Gabe wondered why he should even care if they decided to sneak off to a dorm room for a little sexual adventure.

The Spillanes lingered on the perimeter of the dance floor, nursing glasses of punch. Spillane was one reason he might want to make a quick room inspection. If he discovered that one of his birds had been violated he'd make a stink to the administration, say he was against the whole affair from the beginning but had to knuckle under to pressure from Gabe Hunt. He had always had the impression that Norm judged him as morally slack. He turned to go into his apartment. He was startled by Edna's sudden presence at his side. She touched his sleeve lightly.

"Are you all right, Gabe? You look a trifle pale."


"Yes, a bit. Aren't you feeling well?"

"I feel fine. It's been a long sunless winter. I tend to grow pale in winter." Gabe tried to reassure her with a smile.

"You should go south on spring break. Get some sun."

"I don't like the South, with or without sun."

"This is just wonderful, Gabe." Edna looked out at the swarm of bodies in the common room, a little misty-eyed. "Norm says this is the best thing that's happened at the School since we've been here. A stroke of genius, and I probably don't need to tell you he wasn't sold on the idea at first."

"I don't imagine he was. Frankly, neither was I. Caroline gets all the credit for this; it was her idea from the beginning."

"I'm not really surprised. Don't get me wrong," she added quickly, placing a hand on Gabe's sleeve, "it's not that you're incapable of bringing off such an affair, but it does have Caroline's signature, her." Edna searched for the word that defined Gabe's wife's "signature."


"Exactly." Norm signaled for Edna's return; he was in another dancing mood.

Gabe reconsidered touring the dormitory, but in the end decided against it. The evening did seem to be going well in spite of his forebodings. Then, remembering what Caroline had said about bringing some records to Jamie Willard for him to play, he headed upstairs to the closet where they kept their old pop records.

In the closet they seldom used Gabe was suddenly face to face with himself in the unflattering full-length mirror. He noticed, perhaps for the first time, that the suit he'd owned since coming to St. Luke's was starting to fray around the collar; the same with the cuffs. The lapels all of a sudden looked grotesquely narrow, and his necktie was probably out of date as well. The mirror seemed to accentuate his paunch and make his skin look as sallow as it no doubt appeared to Edna Spillane. He was showing a lot more forehead of late; the gradual thinning and ultimate total loss of his hair on top was a hereditary certainty. His mouth turned down at the corners. He bared his teeth; they reflected back slightly discolored and a bit uneven. Or perhaps it was the closet's low-watt bulb that made it seem so. His middle was growing thick, his ankles thin. He looked more like his father than he could ever remember.

He dropped to his haunches to search for record albums on the bottom shelf. The closet wall adjoined Craig Lyell's room off the second-floor landing. In this painful crouch he thought he heard voices. He put his ear to the wall and listened to the muffled sounds on the other side, which were all but shut out by the noise from the music in the common room. He listened hard, feeling uncomfortably like a pervert, a kind of voyeur, conscious of his own deep breathing. He thought he heard Craig Lyell's voice, then what sounded like a female's laugh. He soon grew dizzy in this cramped position; he sat down on the floor. When the dizziness passed he pulled out two albums and returned downstairs to find Neddy Koch in the foyer.

"Oh, there you are, Mr. Hunt. Could I possibly have a word with you?" he said, looking over his shoulder in the direction of the living room.

"What is it, Neddy?" He flinched and looked away. "Out with it. What's on your mind?"

"Could we speak in private, Mr. Hunt? I shouldn't want anyone to overhear." Again he looked over his shoulder.

"All right. Come into the kitchen."

In the kitchen Neddy Koch wrung his hands and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I hope you won't get the wrong idea, Mr. Hunt, but I feel you ought to know what I have just seen." Neddy kept his eyes directed at the floor. He said no more.

"Well?" Gabe tried to conceal his impatience.

"This is very difficult for me, Mr. Hunt." Gabe put his hand on the boy's meager shoulder, and nearly recoiled as he remembered the boils he'd seen on those shoulders that night in the hallway.

"It's all right, Neddy, come out with it."

Neddy took a deep breath and proceeded. "A few minutes ago I was in the first- floor bathroom, in the first stall, when one of the Driscoll girls came in." Neddy stopped, looked at the ceiling, and chewed on his lower lip.

"I thought the first-floor bathroom was reserved for the girls."

"I must have forgot. Living on the first-floor and using it all the time, I guess it's kind of a habit."

"Go on. This girl came in."

"Well, as you might know, Mr. Hunt, there's a pretty good crack in the first stall door, and I could see her fairly clearly." Gabe wasn't aware of a crack in the first stall door. He seldom went into the bathrooms Neddy faltered again, and Gabe was about to dismiss him. How serious could it be? Had poor Neddy caught a glimpse of some feminine secret he hadn't even been capable of dreaming about, or could the girl have discovered him watching her, like a creepy little voyeur? But this would hardly compel him to report it to his adviser and head of house.

"Neddy, I suggest you go back to the party and enjoy yourself."

"Mr. Hunt, the girl was drunk!" he blurted, as if he had witnessed the abomination.

"Drunk? How do you know that, Neddy?" His stomach suddenly felt queasy.

"She was swaying back and forth, and talking to herself quite incoherently, and then she threw up in one of the urinals. And there was a strong smell of alcohol, Mr. Hunt."

"So what did you do after the girl got sick?"

"I didn't know what to do. I just sat there. Pretty soon two girls came in and found her. I think they must have taken her back to Driscoll because I heard one of them say she was going to get her coat. I know how it sounds, Mr. Hunt, but I felt you ought to be told."

"Yeah. Neddy, I'd just as soon you not say anything about this to anyone else. Not to Mrs. Hunt, not to Mr. Spillane, not to anyone. Understand? I'll take care of this, so just forget about it, all right?"

"All right, Mr. Hunt. I hope you don't think I."

"I said forget about it. Now go back to the party."

Neddy backed out of the kitchen wringing his hands, perspiration standing out on his forehead.

Alone in the kitchen now with two record albums under his arm, Gabe considered his options. He could bring the dance to an end now, even though it was scheduled to last until midnight. He could claim that a few irresponsible types had failed to live up to the rules and had spoiled it for the rest of them, send the girls back to Driscoll with Norm and Edna and be rid of it. He would be within his rights as head of house, even from the administration's standpoint, and it would be the kind of mean-spirited action that Norm Spillane might even applaud. Or he could go directly to Spillane, explain to him what Neddy Koch had witnessed and let him call a halt to the evening. If he were not having such a good time himself, he might even enjoy playing the heavy. On the other hand, if Norm wanted to press the matter it wouldn't be difficult to get Gabe's boys implicated, and the whole thing could end in a silly confused mess.

He hadn't made up his mind what to do when he went back to the common room with his record albums, and sought out Jamie Willard. The stereo system was set up in his study where he found Jamie fussing with the controls of his amplifier.

"How about spinning these?" Gabe asked Willard. A blast of sound filled the room.

"Those are records," Jamie shouted.

"Yes, and very good records, something the folks might be able to actually dance to. Ever hear of Aretha Franklin?"

"Of course, Mr. Hunt, but we're rigged for tape. I haven't got a turntable handy, and some of the guys spent hours on this mix. If we'd known you wanted to play records we could have come with a turntable, whatever."

"That's okay, Jamie," Gabe yelled above the din of some frenetic piece of music, and shrugged his shoulders. Caroline was out on the dance floor moving purposefully to the music. She apparently heard something in it that was lost to him. It was impossible to tell who her partner was, though Paul Carpenter was inside her perimeter. The music ended and Caroline made her way across the floor to her husband's side.

"I see you brought some records. Is Jamie going to play them?" She was perspiring and a little out of breath.

"Afraid not. He's rigged for tape, not records."

"That's too bad, Gabe. I'm sorry." Another tune started up and Caroline pulled him out onto the floor. He didn't offer any resistance. She kept him out for three more songs. By this time he was numb in body and mind, his movements mechanical. Some of the helium filled balloons had dropped from the ceiling, and Bino Bascomb, whose date had no doubt abandoned him early in the evening, was jumping on them, delighting in the explosions, and the shrieks the noise elicited from the girls.

"Bino, you fucking cretin!" Gabe overheard Jamie Willard yell, "Knock it off before I turn your pasty face to cat food." Then, to Gabe's astonishment, Bino lowered his trousers and mooned Jamie Willard before taking off out of the room on the run, Jamie in close pursuit.

"Eeew. Gross!" said Meg McFarland of Dallas, Texas. Gabe wasn't surprised to see that Paul Carpenter, with his keen nose, had picked up her scent and now had her in his clutches.

"So, Meg, what do you think of Bino's alabaster ass?" Carpenter asked her.


"The evening is turning into a bacchanal," Gabe said to his wife. "Did you see what Trevor Bascomb just did?"

"No." Caroline's eyes darted around the room as if she were looking for someone, someone in particular.

"He flashed a moon at Jamie Willard, right here in mixed company."

"Trevor?" She laughed.

"Yes, Trevor."

"Have you seen Todd? I've been looking for him for nearly half an hour."


"I asked him to say a few words at the end of the evening; you know, thank the Driscoll girls for coming, thank Norm and Edna. I hope he hasn't forgotten."

Gabe looked at his watch. "It's quarter to twelve."

"Sweetie, would you mind looking for him? I want this evening to end as splendidly as it began." Caroline poked a finger in his belly. "Everyone has had such a good time except you, you old grump." Then she took his face in her hands and kissed him.

"All right, Mrs. Hunt," Paul Carpenter shouted. "Go for it!" This brought on a few catcalls and some scattered applause. Gabe felt his face burn. Caroline smiled and hugged him.

"I'll look for van Buren," Gabe said, slipping out of her embrace.

Todd lived on the third floor, at the other end of the building. God only knew what he might encounter in that long journey. He had let Neddy Koch's information float out of his mind as effortlessly as those balloons had drifted to the floor. Coming upon misbehavior face to face would be a different story.

"How's it going, Mr. Hunt?" It was Craig Lyell whose voice he thought he'd heard across my closet wall. Gabe scrutinized his face for evidence of ill doing, but his eyes looked clear and his speech was normal.

"Okay. Listen, have you seen Todd around? Mrs. Hunt needs to see him right away. It's important."

"Yeah. He's in your living room. Been in there quite awhile."

"Thanks." He wondered if Craig was covering for van Buren. Otherwise why say that Todd had been in my living room "quite awhile"?

Todd van Buren was indeed in the living room, holding court with four girls, and probably in the middle of a salacious joke because he fell silent when Gabe came in the room, and the girls' cheeks looked flushed. Or perhaps this was all a figment of his puritanical imagination: the blushing faces, the voices across the closet wall, Neddy Koch's anxious testimony. Bino Bascomb's plump ass he hadn't imagined, and Todd van Buren, a cigarette poised at his fingertips, looked no less like Bacchus than if he were holding a goblet of wine to his lips. His eyes, however, were clear, and if his speech was affected it wasn't slurred.

"How are you, Mr. Hunt? Have a good time tonight?"

"A ball. Todd, Mrs. Hunt would like a word with you. She's in the common room."

"Oh yes," Todd said, getting quickly to his feet. "I promised her I'd say something at the end of the evening. Thanks for reminding me, Mr. Hunt." Todd rushed off to the common room with his mincing gait, the four girls following in his wake.

Gabe went into the kitchen to check his watch against the stove clock. Ten to twelve by his wristwatch, seven to twelve by the clock. Either way, he had survived the evening only a little the worse for wear. He leaned against the stove, folded his arms across his chest and surveyed the mess the kitchen was in. If the cleanup committee ran true to form he and Caroline could expect to spend the better part of tomorrow cleaning up, by themselves. With this rather niggardly observation Gabe realized, perhaps for the first time, how out of synch he really was with the life in this School to which he'd given ten years of his life. Perhaps his father had been on to something all along. He supposed he owed everyone an apology. Would Paul Carpenter ever forgive him for his unyielding skepticism? Should Craig Lyell and Todd van Buren, guilty or not, be told of his suspicions? Norm Spillane he'd treated unjustly, if only in his thoughts. And Caroline, whose buoyancy, good humor, and love for him, by which he was sometimes so thoroughly overwhelmed, had endured his crabbed spirit, certainly deserved more from him.

"Mr. Hunt. Mrs. Hunt asked me to inform you that everyone is waiting in the common room to thank you." It was of course the hand-wringing Neddy Koch, Caroline's obsequious little messenger.

Gabe couldn't be sure what it was poor Neddy Koch saw in his face that made him recoil slightly after delivering his message, but in his eyes Gabe thought hef saw fear.

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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.





Ian McKenna's brother-in-law, Brian, was suddenly in the doorway of his study, a cigarette in one hand, a slab of Eleanor's homemade pizza in the other. Ian looked up from his typewriter, startled. When he saw that it was Brian, he sighed... | read |


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