The teacher didn’t so much enter the room as glide, all lean and languid, dressed in black. His face was ashen, eyes sunken, bread mould for hair. Somebody was already there, a lumpen fellow in grey polyester, taking root in one of the chairs.
“Professor Gill, Peter Gill,” said the teacher giving the fellow a curt nod. “Which one are you?”
“Burr, Norman Burr,” came the answer, and Gill crossed Burr off his list.
The classroom was in the basement of the high school, the school board having decided to offer night classes to raise money. The building certainly needed the funds: merciless fluorescent lights exposed the raw cracks in the walls; the loose floor tiles skittered when day students ‘tripped’ — a favorite learning activity — and the paint was a bilious green. The basement rooms were the worst. The air was musty and clacking noise from the upper floors punctuated from time to time. The one saving grace of Classroom B101 was the canteen just outside the door, where coffee and pastries were on offer from world-weary Ana Marie.
Gill took the chair beside Burr and pulled a clutch of books from a plastic bag along with his lecture notes. He arranged his books artfully, priced and pre-signed.
He was the kind of man, Gill told his friends, who weathered life with heroic stoicism. Teaching, he claimed, was a time of confession, an act of penance. His friends were soothing: They clapped him on the back and praised him for the stiff upper lip.
“You’ve had your share of bad luck, old chap,” one said. “The money problems, the women who never stay, all the marriages—can’t these gals see what a stand-up guy you are? And now writer’s block. Why, that can happen to any of us.”
“Maybe the teaching gig will be a boost,” another said helpfully. “Certainly a little pay check is helpful, and the department provides the notes. All you have to do is read a couple of paragraphs at each session, something remotely relevant, listen to deadly prose, and you get paid.”
But inspirational conversations like that were seven years ago, and now his friends were publishing books and doing stints on television; one had gone to Hollywood to write screenplays after Coppola had discovered his novel. The old gang didn’t invite him to their parties anymore.
The rest of the students began to arrive. Gill peered over his reading glasses as he checked their names: Yariko Zadel, Hanna Geiger, Darius Finn. There was still one missing.
“Molly Erwin is late. Aha, I see a theme,” said Gill, raising a dramatic arm to the fluorescent lights. “Her fate is sealed. I predict she’ll drop this class and never write anything again.”
The students frowned but said nothing. Then Hanna Geiger spoke up.
“Mr. Gill,” she said, twisting manicured fingers, “the storm tonight has made traffic pretty nasty.”
“Sorry, Miss Geiger,” Gill said flatly. “Everything in literary fiction is symbolic. In a short story, when someone misses a bus, his life is over.”
Hanna looked at her hands. Darius and Yariko stared straight ahead without meeting Gill’s eyes. Norman Burr opened his plastic case and took out a yellow notepad.
When Molly Erwin finally arrived in a flurry of bright scarves, shopping bags, and apologies, everyone turned to look and cringed to see what would happen next. She sat down, a plump woman with smooth chocolate skin, blithely unaware of her fate.
“We predicted you won’t be here next week, Miss Erwin,” said Gill.
“Oh no, Mr. Gill.” Molly fluttered a hand to her chest in alarm. “I’m paying for this program and I be getting my money’s worth.”
Gill waved a hand dismissively and launched into his lecture. He was an award-winning author, he told them, who had pledged to give back to society by teaching. He enumerated the titles of his books, holding up each one from the little pile on the table, making sure that his photograph on the back flap flashed at them.
“Can you circulate them, please, Professor Gill?” asked Hanna.
Gill beamed at her and handed his books around.
“And now, everyone, tell me in twenty-five words or less why you signed up for this course. Why not pottery or flower arrangements or Japanese cooking?” Gill smirked at the very thought. “You first, Mr. Zadel.”
Yariko Zadel said he was a city policeman. A solid chested man with round cheeks, ruddy from the street beat, he sat with his hands perfectly folded on the table, shoulders squared. “Sometimes, professor, I might come here in uniform. I have duty right before. I hope nobody wouldn’t mind.”
The students nodded soberly. Gill gave a mock shudder of horror and said that would lend the classroom a certain “frisson of excitement.” Yariko frowned in confusion and Gill explained that uniforms lend a sense of occasion that would be welcome in this Board of Education wasteland.
Yariko continued his introduction. “Why I am here? I want to be Dostoyevsky of North America. I write big novel, book with wars,” he said, flashing a broad smile at everyone.
“That’s a tall order, Officer Zadel,” said Gill. “You might want to begin with short stories or with exercises in composition before you tackle the big leagues. Now, Mr. Finn, why are you here?”
Darius Finn braced one hand on his chair and swiveled his long limbs around with a Scandinavian elegance to face the professor. He was a lithe lad with blond hair, smooth skin, white teeth. He said he was still in high school and was taking this course to upgrade his marks to get into a decent college.
“Not a bad reason, Mr. Finn,” said Gill. “A classical education in the arts is a solid foundation for life.”
“Actually, sir, I’m thinking of switching to science. I need an elective and this is it.”
“Oh,” said Gill, pressing his lips together.
Darius went on. “I work part-time in the Chemistry Department on the second floor. I’m in charge of locking up the labs at night and sometimes I might be late for class. I can’t leave until everyone is out and everything is locked.”
Hanna Geiger went next, a sleek figure in a fine wool pantsuit with leather-tooled pumps and expensive honey-colored hair. She said she was twenty-eight, a junior executive at her company, and her boss had sent her on the course. As a prairie girl, her hobby had been performing in the children’s tournaments in the rodeo contest out west. Now she was practicing for the lasso tournament at the master level in the Western Stampede.
“I want to write about animals for animal lovers. I’ve written a story from a dog’s point of view and I hope you like it.” She flashed a confident smile at Gill.
Molly Erwin spoke with smiling eyes and an Island accent. She had five kids and worked part-time from home for a specialty catalogue company, assembling centerpiece brochures and stapling them into the magazine spines. Foreman’s Catalogues had supplied her with the equipment she needed and she liked the job. But she wanted a change. She had suffered a health scare the preceding year and she hoped the course would move her into the writing end of the business.
“Less stressful,” she said to Gill, who shook his head disapprovingly.
“Writing isn’t a recreational sport, Mrs Erwin. It is a robust calling with unforgiving rules.”
“Yes, Mr. Gill. That’s why I’m here.”.
Norman Burr was last. “I’m with Star Life Assurers.” His voice was a whisper.
“Speak up, Mr. Burr,” Gill was crisp. “We can’t hear you. Can the rest of you hear him?” Hanna Geiger nodded. Darius shrugged.
Norm shifted uncomfortably in his shiny suit. “I’m with Star Life,” he repeated, “and most of the writing I do is drafting policies. But I like pens and I have a set of special ones. I like to give every new customer a pen when they sign their contract.” In the vest pocket of his polyester suit was tucked a case of ballpoint pens. Their colored plastic barrels winked like war medals.
“That’s lovely, Mr. Burr,” Gill said. “So again, why did you say you joined this class? What are you planning to work on?”
” I don’t have an idea for what I will write in this course. I was thinking, though, about telling the story of a famous person’s life.”
“Again, a tall order. You have to live a little before you presume to tell the story of someone else, Mr. Burr. You might like to start with compositions, like Officer Zadel.”
Norm took a pen from his pocket to make a note.
“This is a workshop class,” Gill said scanning around the table slowly, looking at each student. One by one their eyes fell.
“You bring to class ten pages of a story or a chapter of a novel about your deepest passion. Each week we review a manuscript from one student and critique it. Now, I don’t want you to hold back on your comments. That’s how you learn. And I have the first and last word at each session.”
Five heads bent lower over their notebooks.
“Mr. Zadel, you agreed with the office that you would be first. Will you be ready to read for us next week?”
Yariko snapped up and squared his shoulders. His brisk nod was like a salute. Gill then listed the order of the others: Hanna was to read after Yariko, then Darius, then Molly. Norm Burr would be last.
“Now this is an advanced class,” continued Gill. “You have all taken Short Fiction One, so I’m not going to lecture on the fundamentals. You know all those. But after coffee break, I want to show you a documentary to review the basics. Now, let’s take fifteen minutes, then I’ll set up the equipment.”
The canteen lady brightened as the teacher and students trooped out.
“Hello Professor Gill. Nice to see you back again. Bagel?”
“You and me, Ana Marie, in this dingy corner again.” Gill accepted his bagel with the breezy flair of a regular expecting the usual. “How do you and I, the best canteen and the best teacher, win the worst spot in the building?”
Gill looked around to see what effect this had had on the students lined up behind him. Officer Zadel grinned. He knew about dingy corners: he spent his days and sometimes nights treading the pavement in dark alleys of the city. The others peered into the glass case at the packaged pastries.
“Luck of the draw, Professor,” Ana Marie said and turned to take Hanna’s order of raw cashews and herb tea.
Gill went back into the classroom to set up the video equipment.
“So you’re a police officer, Yariko?” Hanna said conversationally, blowing the steam from her hot drink. “What’s your passion?”
Yariko relaxed his stance slightly but said that law enforcement was his passion; he took his officer training seriously and was very careful with his firearms. Darius Finn said his passion was also his job: his biggest responsibility was securing the dangerous chemicals and locking them up each night. He had just finished doing that before coming down to the class. There were several acids he knew could poison and even kill someone if just one drop were ingested—say, if a kid drank from an unwashed beaker.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell,” he said. “Some chemicals look like harmless water—colorless, no smell at all. You could spill a drop by mistake into a coffee cup or a can of Coke without a trace. It would look as if the person just choked to death; maybe the pop went down the wrong way and they just sort of drowned.”
Everyone “ew-yewed” at the thought.
Molly Erwin said she liked her magazine-assembly job but she lived in dread of her kids getting at the equipment that Foreman’s Catalogues supplied, especially the formidable staple gun. Sometimes, she carried it with her, just to make sure it was out of their way. The thing could easily go wild, if her oldest grabbed it in fun.
“Why, he could aim staples like spears into the little one’s chest.” Molly’s face crumpled at the thought. “My poor lamb.”
Hanna longed to win the lasso tournament at the Western Stampede, as she had said in the classroom, but she was terrified she might maim the calves she caught. “You can kill an animal if you don’t loop the rope just right. Crush its windpipe or worse.”
Molly eyes widened in horror. “You mean, you’d strangle them or something?” she asked Hanna.
“Oh, yes. The neck is vulnerable if you wrench it the wrong way.”
Yariko agreed vigorously and described the anatomy of injuries he’d seen on duty.
After these confessions, they turned to the last one who hadn’t spoken yet, Norman Burr. Well, Norm offered, he had this pen collection. Everyone waited patiently.
“But,” he said, “what makes my pens really special is what they aren’t. Watch.” He reached inside his jacket and took out three pens: a green one, a yellow, and a red. With a deft snap, he clicked opened the green one and out popped a small but serviceable umbrella, not large enough for a major storm but substantial enough for a light mist. Molly chuckled in appreciation. Then Norm clicked on the yellow pen and up sprang a plastic drinking glass, shaped like the bowl of a champagne flute. Hannah said “ooh” and opened her eyes wide. Then Norm turned to one side, aimed the red pen at open air and twisted on the end. A flash of steel swished out. It was a switchblade, tiny but sharp. Everyone jumped, except Yariko, who held his ground and whistled a low note.
“It works,” said Norm. He clicked the pen shut then tore a sheet of paper from his yellow pad with its “Star Life Assurers” printed at the top and sketched the head of a person, the neck and shoulders. He held the page up and brought the red pen close, as if offering to hand it to the sketchy man on the paper. With a flick of his wrist, the pen snapped open again and sliced through the paper neck. Norm let the head flutter to the floor.
“Awesome,” whispered Darius.
“Dood,” said Yariko, elongating the vowel in “dude” like a street-smart hood, “that’s illegal: prohibited device, concealed weapon. Criminal Code.” Norman smiled.
At that moment, Gill peered around the door of the classroom, gulping at his cup of coffee. The students stopped talking and stared. Like many tall men he had a long and thin, rather tenuous neck.
Gill cut the ceiling lights and the screen flashed the logo of a TV show popular years ago called “The Fripp Report.” The program was a documentary about Peter Gill and his life and work. He was shown at a book launch, at home working, out walking his dog, and then getting on a plane to go somewhere. He had been nominated for some big award overseas. The program never explained exactly what the prize was, as it had been produced before the award was granted.
Colin Fripp was a serious young man with sharp collar points who spoke with a British accent and asked Gill impudent questions about his life. Gill looked younger and rumpled, a little rough-hewn. He answered the questions in an offhand, bemused way, as if the whole process was numbingly boring and all so unnecessary. The cars in the streets dated the program to about seven years ago.
“You are now on your fifth wife,” said Fripp. “Is art a more compelling mistress for you than any woman could be?”
Gill looked into the TV camera. “Look, I’m a writer and I cherish my fear and my pain,” he said with a grin. “My fourth wife made me go to a shrink or she threatened she’d divorce me. So I went. But the therapy with the shrink took the fear and hurt out of my writing. So I quit the shrink and the wife divorced me. Cost me money but my writing got better. My advice to writers: keep those dark secrets alive. Put simply: don’t heal.”
“Do you think artists need periods of latency, the same way farm fields must lie fallow every few years to regain their fertility?” Fripp asked, leaning forward, warming to his own literary creation. “Forgive me for continuing the analogy, Professor Gill, but do you think, just as farmers practice crop rotation, that writers should vary their output —maybe journalism one year, fiction another, or poetry? Or even teaching?” The camera caught Gill’s grimace at the mention of the last option.
And so the interview went. Was Gill’s teaching a financial windfall or the repaying of a debt? Did he learn as much from his students as he imparted? What words of wisdom did he have for young artists? What was he working on now?
At the end, Fripp asked Gill for the literary principles he valued most.
Gill ticked them off like a nursery rhyme: show, don’t tell; use active voice; strive for minimalist sentences; strip out the modifiers; write what you know; write what you don’t know: develop mental muscles. Write as you speak. Write as you breathe. Show your dark side. Paint irony. Give us realism. The rules came at the students in the darkened room like pellets, pounding at their consciousness. The documentary took up all the rest of the class time. With the lights back on, Gill summed up. “You came in here tonight frightened deer caught in headlights. You will go out at the end of the course still frightened, but I hope you will have learned something. You still won’t get published, but at least you’ll know why not.”
With that, Gill gathered his pile of books and melted into the autumn night. The students tugged on boots and wrestled with coats.
“What did you think of the documentary?” asked Norm, pushing his arm through the sleeve of a wrinkled trench coat.
Yariko shrugged and said nothing, just zipped up his police-issue parka.
“I think he’s a great man,” said Hanna. “My mom had him as a teacher years ago in Calgary and she says he’s a good writer.”
“I think he’s a tortured man,” said Molly. “Did you see that little face of his when Fripp asked about his wives? How he looked like he wanted to cry? All puckered up like dried fruit, like a little boy.”
“I think he’s a hunting man and we’re just fish in a barrel and he’s standing over us aiming,” said Darius. “Remember what he said about the workshop next week? We are all supposed to criticize you, Yariko. Gill gets the last word. No way you can win.”
“But how else do we learn, Darrell?” said Hanna. “Sorry, Darius.”
Yariko shrugged. “This is shop works. All they go this way.” He had the authoritative manner of someone experienced in classroom etiquette. He had taken enough English language classes to know. He made it sound like the traffic code—obligatory, non negotiable.
Norm wished Yariko luck with his story. They braced themselves for the sleet outside.
On Week Two, Yariko Zadel cleared his throat and clicked his heels together. He smoothed pages of foolscap printed by hand.
“This was hurt to write,” he said, “because is close to my hurt.”
From the context, they realized that he meant “hard to write” and “close to his heart.” Everyone nodded solemnly and Molly smiled at him in encouragement.
“In the household of Stanislov Smirnovsky,” he began in a sonorous voice, “it was the best time and worst time. Every family has good day and bad day, and the Smirnovskys are too. The good days are the same. The bad day are different in each its way.”
Gill let loose a long, stuttering sigh.
“But,” continued Yuri, seemingly unaware of Gill’s discomfort, “this was a bad day. Nothing is good in house. The mother is in the bed with headache. The children were stolen hubcaps in East End and the husband is a letter to his mistress. Something is going to happen. The cleaning lady was eating jam on parlor.”
Yariko paused. “So it starts with the cleaning lady.”
“That’s fine for now, Officer Zadel. I think everyone can understand the gist from here.” Gill stood up and went to the front of the room. “I’ve read your piece and I have some comments for you.”
The students waited and Officer Zadel sat up straighter. Norm opened a fresh page in his yellow notepad.
“Did you consider a plot outline, Mr. Zadel? Or did you just copy somebody? Because that’s a fine way to start, whatever it takes to get you into writing the story. But it has to go somewhere original. I need to see something of your own creation happen, Mr. Zadel, preferably something shocking. Headaches and hubcaps don’t count.”
Darius gave an ‘I told you so’ look at Norm. But Norm kept his gaze down on his notepad.
“Your characters are bland, Mr. Zadel,” Gill thundered. “We want your dark side. We want your miserable secrets; we want your tragedies, we want your wicked stepmother. We want sad, unhappy problems, not the antics of a cartoon. An interesting story is built of realistic misery.”
Yariko sat very still, his arms and hands clasped like a fortress on the table in front of his broad chest. Norm took a pen from his vest pocket.
“Give me reality, Mr. Zadel.” Gill continued. “Give me color, give me light, texture, and smell. I want the scent of flowers, the roughness of tree bark, the rasp of bees, the taste of that jam. You’ve given me a bad hair day, instead, Mr. Zadel: the air humidity is ruining everyone’s coiffure.”
Zadel looked puzzled. “Coffer?” he said.
“A weather report, Mr. Zadel, that’s what your story is. Everyone feels bad and nothing really happens.”
At the end of class, Norm stayed behind and made notes while everyone else, even Gill, departed in silence.
On Week Three, they had to wait to hear Hanna’s story because Yariko Zadel was late. He arrived in full uniform and sat down heavily with a perfunctory nod at everyone.
Darius nudged Norm and pointed to Yariko. Buckled at his waist was a thick leather holster. Norm whipped his eyes away quickly. Molly stole a glance and pulled her shawl more tightly.
Hanna Geiger rose and went to the front of the room.
“I looked up a lot of words in the thesaurus to write this story,” she said softly.
“Speak up, Miss Geiger.” Gill was watching from the back of the room.
“I’ll read my best pages. ‘I am Harold Andrew Edwards Prince. I am a German Shepherd, prairie born and prairie proud, paterfamilias to a noble canine bloodline. I detest the abomination of city life. Urbanity is my misery. Oh, that I might return to the pantheism of the open range. But first, I have a score to settle.'”
Hanna’s voice grew more confident as she told the story of her dog’s adventures against enemy foes, mainly his owners, who blocked his escape.
“Hank had a problem with authority . . . ” Hanna began in conclusion. There was a smothered snicker and she looked up to see Gill’s eyes rolling.
Reddening slightly, she stumbled over the last words: “‘. . . but he triumphed in victory over all,” and took her seat quickly.
Gill moved to the front of the room and looked sternly at her.
“You’ve used a lot of Greek and Latin, Miss Geiger. Remember what I said in that documentary on the first day: use short, punchy words. Use the language you speak every day. Throw out your thesaurus. Give us solid, earthy language, not those jawbreakers, the abstractions.”
Hanna clenched her long fingers. Darius sat back in his chair and watched with eyes half-closed.
“You’ve fallen into the trap, Miss Geiger, of saying to yourself: ‘Oh, now I’m writing. I have to be literary. I have to make a grand introduction here.'” Gill swept his arms in a spectacular arc and paced the room. “Don’t do that. Just show me the emotions of your character; make it visual. Your protagonist is an animal and he has feelings.”
Yariko Zadel listened intently. Norm took a pen from his pocket.
Gill rose to a crescendo and summed up handily: “You value competence in your day job, Miss Geiger, don’t you? Simply put, this is not competent writing. Your so-called good pages are not that good, Miss Geiger. Sorry.”
Hanna swung her smooth blond hair forward, obscuring her face from view.
Gill addressed the whole class. “Here’s a rule of thumb, peee-pulll: cut the lines you love because they’re not that great. See? Look what happens when we cross out the modifiers in Hanna’s story.” He held up his copy and flicked the pages. Thick black slashes on each page flickered like the frames of an old movie.
“Cool,” said Darius. Hanna wasn’t watching. Norm began a note on his pad of paper.
“Adjectives and adverbs are your enemy, not your friend,” continued Gill. “Lose them. Believe me, your work will be better. It forces precision.”
Norm made another note and underlined it.
At the break, Hanna said to the other students, “You know why my boss wanted me to take this course? My temper. I got fired from a summer job once because I told the HR people what I thought of their hiring policies. I hate to lose.”
“Me too,” said Darius. “I’m a competitor: extreme sports, marks, anything.”
“But it’s worse,” said Hanna. “See, I not worried about losing at the Western Stampede. That’s not a problem, given all the practice I’ve had. I have lots of ribbons from shows both out west and here in the east. I figure I’ll place, take second, probably first.”
She rescued her tea bag from her cup with manicured nails and held the wet mass above the trash like a dead mouse.
“Nope,” she said, pausing for effect. “It’s the violence that scares me.”
“Oh, child, I know what you mean,” Molly shuddered. “I know violence. Rivers of red in the streets.”
“No, Molly, it’s not what you think. What I’m afraid of is not the violence itself, but enjoying it. Doing it on purpose. Really going at it, ripping those dogies, wrecking their faces, breaking their necks.” She let the dripping mouse fall with a splat. “You see, I’ve got this ‘anger management’ problem. I love animals, I do. I just get crazy stupid sometimes. Basically, my boss says, I have a problem with losing control.”
Gill appeared. He was chewing a bagel as he walked toward them and his mouth worked furiously. They watched in fascination as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. It was a particularly large one.
On Week Four, it was Darius Finn’s turn.
“Okay, I have a novel in my mind,” he said. “This is the first page.”
“Fine, Mr. Finn. Let’s hear it.” Gill sat at the front with his back to Darius and examined his fingernails.
“‘Fred is a nice guy,” began Darius, “except he hates a lot of people and he likes to hurt them. His jokes are awesome. You know what I mean? Fred orders takeout for addresses that don’t exist. Fred asks little old ladies for directions to the porn shop. Usually his jokes are harmless. But this is the story of the day that Fred went too far, the day he burned his parents’ house, and murdered his grandmother, and stole his brother’s money.’ That’s what I have so far, Professor Gill.”
Everyone watched as the teacher rose and stood at full height. Gill immediately launched into lecture mode.
“You need to learn to leave the blood and gore out of your stories. These things simply do not happen in real life, Mr. Finn. Learn realism. Paint a world that is believable.” Gill paced the back of the room.
Molly opened her mouth to say something but thought better of it. Norm unsheathed the cap of his pen.
“Look, Mr. Finn,” Gill went on, “readers don’t believe gore. Horrible, exaggerated things like that don’t happen to ordinary people. We want to see something real, not something fanciful. This is a bad fairytale about witches and ogres. It isn’t plausible. Give me gritty realism, not exaggerated horror. Don’t trick your readers, Mr. Finn. Blood and guts simply don’t happen in real life. Too artificial, too contrived. Readers hate that.”
Molly frowned. She looked like she would burst. Norm began his notes.
Gill declared a break. Since he was already at the back of the room, he was the first to the doorway. As he left, he called out over his shoulder, “Hey, it would be nice if someone helped with cleaning the blackboard. Could someone give me a hand?”
Darius raised his arm.
“Finn? Thanks, guy.”
When Gill came back, all the students were there except Darius Finn. On Gill’s desk lay a hand. A human hand. At least, it had skin and fingernails that looked like a human hand and even some fine hair at the wrist where straps and buckles were fastened. The students stared as if waiting for a sign of movement. No one breathed, not even Gill. Darius came in last and everyone could see that his jacket was limp at the end of one arm. Gill recovered first.
“How did it happen, Finn, were you born with it, was it an accident, did it hurt, how old were you, who did it, how did it feel?” Gill’s questions came in a rush, and he flapped around Darius in excitement.
Finn was silent.
“You simply must write about this,” Gill pronounced.
The young man looked steadily at the teacher and said in a deliberate voice, “I put on my shirt in the morning the same way everyone else in this room does, one arm at a time.”
“Yes, Mr. Finn, and so did Proust, who wrote fifty pages about turning over and over in bed before falling asleep. You, Finn, you must write about getting dressed in the morning.”
Darius lifted his prosthetic arm and smacked it on the desk. Norm turned to a new page in his notebook with an energetic snap.
Week Five was Molly Erwin’s turn. Darius was late coming from his job in Chemistry upstairs. He rushed in just as Gill was shutting the door and took his seat with one long stride, setting a small paper bag under his chair with great care. The bag settled with a glassy clink. Hanna smiled at him.
Once everyone was settled, Molly rose and dragged herself to the front of the room. She hooked one foot behind her ankle and held out a shaking page.
“‘In my land, the sky is tall and the water wide’,” she began in a lilting voice. “‘The sun gleams her smile on the breathing tides and the afternoon rain washes the palms. Flowers in my father’s trees sway like lampshades.’ Do you want me to continue, Professor Gill?”
Gill revolved his hands in a “speed it up” motion.
Molly read on. “‘Mamie picks along the path to the market house with her basket on her head, the market where she sits all day to sell her vegetables and sing her songs. The market house be dark and hot. No windows because then the people bake. Mamie’s stall is small.'”
Molly paused, uncertain of the effect.
“Go on, Miss Erwin, go on. You’re doing well,” said Gill.
Molly continued. “‘Every stall is tiny. The women are packed in market house like cod in a bucket. Sometimes, Mamie want to yell instead of sing. She want to shoot vegetables at people, at grand mamma, at auntie, at the customers. She is looking for something hard. She is looking for something sharp.'” Molly’s story went on for some time until Gill stopped her.
He stood to full height and looked down at her. “You’ve written two hundred and fifty pages, right? Well, I say, cut two hundred and forty-nine and start again. Your first page is fine; gets us started. But to keep us reading, you have to convince your readers that these events really happened. What do the rest of you think? Would a mother really say that? Would a child really do that? Mr. Finn, what do you think would be the exact reaction of the boyfriend at this point in the story? How would this character really behave?” Darius squirmed.
Gill didn’t wait for an answer. “See. Finn doesn’t know. That’s because this is a story about a character who’s basically nuts, Miss Erwin,” he thundered. “This Mamie character in your story has no plausible personality because she’s crazy. And this strange way of talking, all these angry sentences: they suggest stress, they say this is how the character feels, but why? Gimme a reason for Mamie to lash out like that. What’s her problem? Low pay? No overtime? A bad performance appraisal? There’s gotta be a ‘click’, where the reader says, ‘oh, yes, I can see why this woman goes berserk like that.'”
Molly folded her arms and set her face like stone.
“This story is refracted light through broken glass. It’s about a crazy person and it’s a story that could only be the product of a cracked mind. Sorry, Miss Erwin, but that’s how it appeared to me. I said to myself, this author must be off their meds. You did a good job: the violence and the point of view changes are totally nuts. Gave me the willies. Madness, Miss Erwin: your story is about madness. That’s what I think.”
Gill announced a break and decided to clear the blackboard himself this time. As the students left for the canteen, Gill called after them.
“Be nice if someone got me a coffee.” He spotted the last one leaving. “Darius? Would you do the honors?”
In the canteen, Hanna came over with her elegant hand in a tight fist that she offered to Molly with a wink.
“Here, Molly, I think you need these.”
Molly looked at her blankly then relaxed into a weak smile as Hanna uncurled her hand to reveal a nest of round candies.
“Your meds, dearie.”
Molly began laughing, a nervous giggle at first. Then she threw back her throat and they all joined in, launching a great group guffaw into the dingy canteen and through the doorway to the classroom where Gill was readying his notes.
“You don’t know how funny that is,” Molly said. “You see, what I said at the first class about having a health problem wasn’t the whole truth. What really happened was I couldn’t take it anymore—the kids, no money, the work—and I swallowed a bunch of pills. In hospital they kept asking why I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t; I just wanted to escape the world I was in and find another. I just wanted to aim my staple gun at the pain and move on.”
When the break was over, Darius carried an over-full cup of coffee into the classroom for Gill. They watched Gill’s face as he took the first sip. When Gill pronounced, “Perfect, Finn, perfect,” Hanna’s shoulders slumped a little.
On Week Six, Norman’s night for critique, Molly lugged more shopping bags than usual. One had children’s toys poking out the top. Another was stuffed with sacks of food. Another was crimped at the side by something sharp; it seemed to be a piece of machinery.
Hanna leaned over. “The staple gun?” she whispered.
Molly shrugged and half-closed her liquid brown eyes. “What can I do?” her hands and shoulders said. “Lord knows what could happen.”
“I don’t have a big piece to read tonight,” said Norm. “I was busy signing contracts with new customers. I gave away a lot of pens this week.”
Gill shot up from his chair. Molly held her breath. Hanna’s face brightened and she leaned forward.
“But I do have a small piece,” said Norm. The students relaxed and Gill sat down again.
Norm’s story was about a young boy who had found his calling early in life, caring for animals. The boy wanted to be a veterinarian and Norm chronicled the obstacles, putting in lots of comedic touches. The story ended on a message of hope and triumph. The students figured that Norm’s piece, of all so far, probably best met Gill’s literary principles. But, as Darius had predicted at Week One, Gill consulted his notes and took aim.
“What’s this story about, Mr. Burr? Loss? Love? Grief? I’m not clear what you’re trying to say. Are you trying to say anything? This story does not speak to me; it has nothing to say. Don’t leave your characters at loose ends, Mr. Burr.”
Gill shifted from second into third gear. “You can’t have weak characters. They need to add something; they need to do something to advance the story. You have a lot of abstract ideas here. I want to see concrete action. Give me movement, not philosophy about good and evil.”
Gill was at full throttle now. “I want to see that evil in action, Mr. Burr. Show me your dark side. Make me feel it. I want to experience the chaos.”
Norm selected a pen from his lineup and smoothed his yellow pad of paper.
“I need a sense of inevitability, Mr. Burr.” Gill was truly excited now. “You need to build a sense of urgency. Why does the boy in your story go back into the burning building? How much time before the roof collapses? Give me suspense. In a good story, seeing is better than hearing about it, and doing is always better than thinking. Give me action, not intention, Burr.”
Gill was practically breathless from this aria of passion. He flung one arm toward the window and the other to the fluorescent glow above.
Norm’s pen poised over the notepad.
“Your soul on the page.” Pacing at the back of the room, behind the bent heads of the students, Gill cast his voice like an orator and flung a dramatic arm above their heads. “I want your soul.”
The phrase echoed in the bleak classroom, bumped around the walls, and settled like ash on the hunched shoulders.
At the last session, Week Seven, Norman Burr came in last. He was dressed in blue polyester this time and carried his vinyl case with “Star Life Assurers” embossed in gold at one corner. Everyone said, “Hi, Norm,” in as casual a voice as possible. He sat down quietly and methodically pulled items from his case. He neatly arranged his desk top with his pad of yellow paper, a red handkerchief, and a carved wooden pencil box. He opened the box. It displayed his colored pens lined up in rows. Darius smiled.
Everyone stared when Hanna Geiger arrived, even Gill. Instead of her usual executive suit, she wore a rustic denim ensemble with cowboy boots and matching belt. She carried a duffel bag instead of her shiny briefcase. The end of a rope peeked out. Darius nudged Yariko, who put his hand to his belt.
“Well, peee-pulll, this is my summing-up class,” Gill said. “Here is where we get to the real deal, where blood meets bone. This is the night we cut to the raw essence. But before we move to my summary, do any of you want to share your feelings about the course?”
“Let me go first,” Hanna said. She dove under her desk toward her duffel bag. The room went still—except Gill, who was busy at the blackboard. Hanna rasped the zipper open and emerged with an envelope that she held high in one hand.
“This,” she said, making a triumphant “Vee” sign with the other hand, “is a promotion. From junior executive to Corporate Secretary.”
Everyone clapped, except Gill, who turned momentarily from the board.
“Not literary writing, Professor Gill,” Hanna said. “More like, ‘We the party of the first part and Campbell of the second part’. But at least it’s writing. And this course helped. So, thanks, everyone.” She gave them all a smile.
Molly also had news. As a result of the course, she too had a promotion of sorts, from magazine stapler to copy editor: “It’s not writing, Professor Gill, but it’s close.”
Yariko told them that he had signed up for remedial English. He still wanted to write the novel, but he wanted to write perfect beat reports, especially the ones about violence. Last night, he had had to handle another homicide and he was working on that report now.
Darius said he was changing his major from arts to chemistry.
Norm Burr was the only one who did not appear to have news. He fiddled with his pens and smiled.
Gill launched into his summary. “Remember what I said in the video at the first class: Write what you know, peeee-pulll. Use your own life, rob the cradle, yours and your family’s. Rob the grave, too. Don’t make up fantastic worlds you don’t know. Write what bothers you.”
Norm arranged the items on his desk more neatly.
“The higher the stakes, the better the story,” Gill said. “When shelter or food is the issue, that’s good. Even better is when a life is at stake. Use your own life. Break up parts of your own personality and show me that, or take someone you know and write about them.”
“But isn’t that fodder for the libel lawyers, Professor Gill? ” asked Hannah. “Won’t you be sued?”
“Artists have to take risks, Miss Geiger,” Gill said airily. “As a great author once said, every good writer is always selling out their best friend.”
Norm stared at his case of pens.
“My last word,” said Gill, “is to keep writing. The important thing is to get something down on paper. Go forth and write,” he concluded in a flourish.
The classroom stirred with the scraping of chairs and the rustling of coats. Darius and Molly left first, followed by Yariko and Hanna, both of whom hesitated at the door, peering at Norm, then disappeared. Gill glanced up as he gathered up his little bundle of books. Only he and Burr were left.
Norm sat there in silence, staring fixedly at his lineup of pens, winking under the fluorescent glare. His hand wafted up and down the row of colors, hovering for a moment here and there. Finally, the hand left off deliberating and selected the glossy red one, raising it like a prize to catch the light.
“Night, Burr,” grunted Gill. The red barrel rotated slowly as Norm finally looked up. Like the rest of him, Gill’s neck was mainly gristle, not much muscle, just sinews stretched taut inside papery skin. The Adam’s apple bobbed.
Norm licked his lower lip.
Gill clasped the plastic bag of books to his chest and secured the flap. He pulled on a winter hat and took his fuzzy plaid scarf from the coat hook.
“Night then, Mr. Burr.”
Norman was silent. The pen stood vertical in his hand, a miniature spaceship perched on its launching pad. Slowly, the shiny cylinder tilted—rocket third stage. Norm closed one eye.
Gill wrapped the red scarf around his neck. “Night,” he said, for the third time.
Peter Gill’s early pieces have lived a well-examined life, in his biographer’s pages in public and private library collections across the land. You may know him better as a teacher. Burr’s body of work, on the other hand, has lasted much longer. On that last day of class, however, no one could know that it would be several decades before the critics ceased their debate about Norman Burr’s first work. In the context of his considerable oeuvre, argument has persisted about whether that first piece was well crafted or poorly so.
The paper sat on the table under the bluish-green lights, a thick yellow pad, smooth and pure as a promise, in a room resounding with the echo of Professor Gill clacking down the hall, kicking at tiles. The pen found purchase and began.
He didn’t so much enter the room as glide, wrote the pen, all lean and languid, dressed in black, ashen face, bread mould for hair. He noticed there was someone already there, a lumpen type of little promise . . .