from Spring 2005 [Issue No. 6]
Horse Trading (Part 1 of 8)▪► John Repp
Peter Mogull was braying again. He smiled as he brayed, square teeth slick with saliva. He held a fountain pen several inches above his notebook, a bead of ink trembling on the gold nib. A quarter-sized blot marred the monogrammed pocket of his Oxford shirt. Three others fouled the cotton-rag pages spread before him. He was ready, but he had no idea what for.
Peter loved the notebook because his father had brought it home from Paris. He was Papa’s “college boy,” and he loved that, too. He clutched the notebook to his chest wherever he went, occasionally bringing it to his nose to sniff the cover—split-grain cowhide the color of the paneling in Papa’s study. As he breathed the aroma, he’d whisper, “Smells like a saddle.” Though until a month ago he’d rarely seen and almost never touched an actual horse—except for the barn-sour Belgian his uncle James kept at the summer house in Maine—he wanted to ride and train and breed them, and his father had discovered that the Equine Science Program at the College of Mount Alice was just the place to learn how.
Trouble was, Mount Alice made you do things you didn’t want to do. In fact, to take the Equine Science courses he craved, Peter had to do two years of things he didn’t want to do. Even worse, until he qualified for the major, he couldn’t groom or feed or even talk to the creatures he heard stamping and snorting whenever he walked past the stable to the student center, couldn’t do anything but lean miserably against the corral fence as upperclassmen used crops and spurs to make those sleek beauties prance.
So here he sat in English class. The professor had told the class to write. But what had he told them to write? It had only been a couple of minutes, but Peter had forgotten, as usual. Everyone found this quirk funny, even teachers, or at least the teachers he’d known till now. Someone would ask a question, a perfectly clear question that Peter would understand completely, but in the seconds it took to compose an answer, the question would dissolve into its constituent sounds, leaving him to shrug and laugh along with everyone else. The important thing, though, was to keep a sense of humor, and to get the help you needed, no matter how you went about it.
He lowered the pen to the page and watched a new inkblot bleed into the paper. He looked at the clock, counted the lines on the dial, double-checked the positions of the hands: 8:09. He gazed at his classmates curving away on either side around the perimeter of the room, most of them writing, a few sullenly tapping their pens, one dead asleep, head lolling against the wall. He looked at Dr. Madison, bent in half over his desk, scribbling away. Why hadn’t he asked what was wrong? Until now, being funny had made Dr. Madison come right over. Peter decided to try again.
“Perfesserrr! I’m goin’ nuuuts!”
A deaf-mute halfway across campus could have heard The Moron bellow, but Frank Madison kept writing, though he stopped writing about how the morning light dappling the birches’ bright yellow leaves reminded him of a bittersweet dawn in Vermont and began writing No because No was better than nothing. Write No or I’m bored or gibberish long enough, and you give the imagination a chance to rev up again. If he believed anything he told his students, he believed this, so he watched his right hand inscribe one No after another and waited for the next imaginary whiff of balsam-tinged air.
Within seconds, he was back in the cabin on Coal Hill, Belinda combing her fingers through the hair on his chest. He nuzzled his face in her curls, and she snuggled closer. Still frayed from the mushrooms and black hash Greil had pulled from the icebox just past noon the day before, Frank nibbled the fruit of each sensation. He traced Belinda’s shoulder blade with his index finger, admiring the Martian canal of her spine, the muscled roundness of her buttocks, the ruby polish on her toenails. The tiny breeze of her breathing tingled his left nipple. The loft reeked of their wordless, almost night-long coupling, and the guilt he should have felt sat far off, twiddling its thumbs because—
Another bellow sucked him back into the basement classroom, where The Moron had begun bouncing his head against the wall, moaning and chuckling all the while. Realizing he had an erection, Frank crossed his legs, put down his pen, and folded his hands over his lap, grateful he wore the pleated chinos Rachel had given him for their anniversary. He arranged his face into a benevolent mask and scanned the room, bracing to begin the talk on paragraph development chemically imprinted on his brain.
Everyone had stopped writing. The three Haitian girls who always sat directly to Frank’s right stared at Peter, fingering the crucifixes around their necks. Amy Weinberger, whose slumbers The Moron had broken, smacked her lips and shuffled the bunny slippers she wore to every class. With the exception of Larry (“Call me ‘Dog’ ”) Sampson—a parolee whose adventures at Framingham State had left him with a wrinkled crater for a left cheek, a body so ludicrously muscled he couldn’t fold his arms, and an encyclopedic knowledge of detective fiction, Arthurian legend, and the physics of the internal combustion engine—none of the twenty-three students looked ready to hear what Frank had to say.
Trouble was, he had nothing to say. As the seconds passed and the seasoned, professional smile hardened on his lips, he found it impossible to start the paragraph-development tape or the how-to-behave-in-a-college-classroom tape or the if-you-just-get-out-of-your-own-way-you’ll-be-a-better-writer tape or even the get-the-fuck-out-of-my-sight tape he’d played only once during an otherwise unsullied odyssey home to the Ph.D. Thirteen months into his first full-time, tenure-track academic appointment, and Frank Madison’s tank had run dry. Eight years of junk cars and no dental care and tenement apartments and weekends hunched in a tenth-floor carrel with a quart thermos of coffee and a grocery bag full of crackers and cheese and half-blackened bananas; eight years of parties featuring chili, onion dip, wine by the gallon, and pick-up lines on the order of “Benjamin? I love Benjamin! Nobody gets to the heart of things like Benjamin!”; eight years of seminar preening, dissertation-committee jockeying, fellowship-recommendation-letter pleading, and king-of-the-starving-scholar-hill dissection of every last unreadable, post-Freudian onanist had not only not broken him, but each genteel humiliation had made his need to pickaxe a place in academia all the more acute.
No more. Erection wilted, love-in-the-mountains fantasy gone, face wrenched into a grimace, Frank swept his gaze once more around the semi-circle of pie-faced illiterates he was paid to salvage and knew all the way down to the soles of his feet that he couldn’t, and that he loathed them for it. Four sections a semester of English 001, Developmental Reading and Writing, made him want to find Dorothy Blumfeld’s grave, exhume the revered author of Developing Developmental Writers: A Langerian Perspective, with Case Studies, prop her up in front of Mount Alice’s finest, and whisper, “Get ready to die all over again.” Had any of the Cape Verdeans whose syntactically mangled but subtly intelligent scribblings Blumfeld immortalized ever asked to “go potty,” as Amy Weinberger did at least once a session? Had even one of Dr. B’s bright-eyed immigrants bellowed like a castrated bull when asked to freewrite, as Peter Mogull always did? Had a single eager, mellifluous islander ever composed an essay comparing the carburetor of a 1969 Chevelle to the Holy Grail, as Dog Sampson once did? No, no, and no. The dead eminence worshipped by every Composition and Rhetoric graduate student who’d stuck a wet finger in the professional wind wouldn’t have survived the maw of Mount Alice a second longer than Frank had.
So it was that at 8:14 on a crystalline New England morning—the College horses high-stepping round the training ring, three sections of neophyte dog groomers snipping and combing and lathering, maintenance workers wielding huge vacuums on the pristine hillocks and lawns, a cataract of words tumbling from the mouths of his thirty-six colleagues—Dr. Frank Madison wiped away the tears that had squeezed out the corners of his eyes, cleared his throat, and said, “Please go away.”
Go away? Why had the professor told them to go away? Why was everybody leaving? Peter couldn’t go away. He hadn’t done anything yet, didn’t know what Dr. Madison wanted him to do, so he had to stay because he couldn’t be Papa’s college boy if he didn’t. Mogulls stuck it out, no matter what.
“Perfesser?” Peter whispered. He lowered his pen to the page, another blot spread outward, and Peter, noticing, clucked and snorted, turned the page. “OK, Perfesser,” he said. “I’m ready now.”
Lips parted, breath rasping, the teacher stared. His notebook lay open, pen clipped to the spiral. His hands dangled off the arms of the chair. His knees sagged outward. Muffled laughter came through the back wall, died out, rose again, louder, then quieted for good. Birds hopped and pecked in the rustling leaves piled halfway up the window.
Peter waited. He was good at waiting. He was so good at waiting, no one but him knew how long he could sit without moving or speaking: till he got what he wanted, and if that meant night came and the two of them fell asleep where they sat, no problem. If it meant Dr. Madison recited word by word what Peter needed to write to get one class closer to the stable, no problem. He’d fill the whole room with words, the whole building, the College, whatever it took. He was a turtle in a world of rabbits, an owl blinking on a branch the whole night long, an eagle perched a mile above the only mouse in the desert.
A horse whinnied. Peter turned toward the window, the clopping of hooves coming closer and closer until the animal—or at least its legs, the calf-length black boot of its rider—appeared for an instant, snorted once, and then was gone, a few leaves skittering in its wake along the asphalt walkway.
Jaw slack, a saliva teardrop trembling from his bottom lip, Peter gazed out the window as the professor’s instructions sounded again in his mind: “Fill the page with words. If you get stuck, list every single thing you want.” Peter grinned, licked his teeth, and began to write.
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