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Literature Appreciation by Man Martin

 

Man Martin’s work has appeared in the Kenyon ReviewThe Alaska Quarterly Review, and McSweeney’s Online. He won Georgia Author of the Year for his first novel, Days of the Endless Corvette. His second novel, Paradise Dogs, is in bookstores now. He writes a humorous blog at manmartin.blogspot.com.

Notable Story - Million Writers Award

Because of a morning assembly and then a fire drill during first block, first lunch was postponed; Dr. Jakes’ stomach already growled at the thought of his wife’s delicious roast chicken waiting in the mini-fridge by his desk. Second block had been cut to thirty minutes, a fact he pointed out to his 12th grade AP students as they joined him.

“We must be brief, my little angels, for time is short, and much waits for us to do.” Morris Jakes always spoke in heightened diction to his students, with an air, he hoped, of a brilliant but eccentric scholar-teacher. He sat in the comfortable armchair at the head of the class and thumbed through his students’ emails, their standing assignment each night to email a response on some aspect of the reading. In the morning he printed these as fodder for class discussion.

Rain pattered on the window, and in the cloud-dimmed light outside nothing could be seen but luminous drops tracing down the glass. A delicious day to sit in and read, even more so since a rainy day was also the setting of the story he’d assigned, “The Cannibal Chief,” a lesser-known and rarely-translated Chekhov piece that Morris had recently come across. He relished it for its outré content, its eminent teachability, and, most of all, its mystery. One reads with amusement and a dawning sense that Chekhov is baring a fundamental truth, yet Morris, in spite of re-readings, could not put his finger on it, the quiddity of the tale. The piece, like Chekhov’s most delectable work, is simple nearly to the point of defying analysis; a cannibal chief wishes to get to the succulent cold haunch left over from the previous night’s feast but is prevented until the last paragraph by interruptions, which Chekhov attenuates to humorous extremes.

Before Morris could select from the emails, Mrs. James, the Social Studies teacher next door, knocked and stuck her head in. “Do you mind if they come in to make up a test?” Two girls holding sheets of paper stood behind her in the hallway.

“Certainly,” Morris said, although the obtrusion was far from welcome. Why couldn’t she send them to the library if they had work to do? For that matter, why couldn’t they work in Mrs. James’ room? But he ushered them in, saying, “There’re some empty seats in the back you can take.”

Like Neddy in Cheever’s story about the swimmer, Morris had a modest notion of himself as a legendary figure, and it gratified him that the girls’ jaws fell as they absorbed his room’s ambience—he’d furnished it to resemble the set of a PBS book show: a wing-backed armchair where he sat enthroned at the head of a circle of student desks, an imitation Persian carpet hiding the ugly tiled school floor, a gooseneck lamp throwing an amber luster over his shoulders, his personal bookcase—dark wood and heavy as wrought iron—where Cleanth Brooks sat snugly beside Northrop Frye, the compact OED, and a collector’s edition of McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader.

A portable stereo played Chopin, the musical offering for the day. Wrong nationality for Chekhov, of course, but Eastern European at least, and anyway Tchaikovsky was too treacly to serve with anyone short of Dickens. No patronizing Garfield the Cat posters adorned his walls, which were unornamented save for pennants given him by students commemorating acceptance to college—Morehouse, Georgia, William and Mary, Duke—and a laminated poster of whimsical grammatical advice: “Eschew obfuscation.” “Remember not to carelessly split infinitives.” “About them fragments.”

“I’m considering adding an incense burner,” Morris sometimes joked to his colleagues. “But maybe that’s going too far. What’s your opinion?”

Sitting in the armchair before his smeary whiteboard, Morris leafed through the papers, pondering whose would make a suitable appetizer for opening discussion. Other teachers had high-tech SmartBoards displaying manipulatable computer images, but Morris failed to fill out the form requesting one last spring, unsure to what use he could put such a contraption and displeased with the crane-like orange structure extending from the new boards as if they were hospital imaging devices. If he’d had his druthers, and if such could be found, he’d have preferred an old-fashioned blackboard, smelling of chalk dust and showing faintly visible ghosts of previous lectures like you see in photographs of Albert Einstein. Morris was self-admittedly hidebound, a salubrious trait, he told himself, in an AP English teacher.

By the slow degrees which transform us into the things we pretend to be, Morris had become in reality what at first he had been only in affectation: High Priest of the Written Word. Had he been a character in a story, he liked to imagine, he’d be the sort that at first you’d like, then you’d dislike, and finally you’d like again.

When he started out as a teacher, his wife, Mary, protested his wardrobe choices until one August she said, “Oh, you’re trying to look that way,” and thenceforth abetted him, outfitting him in sweater vests with diamond checks, argyle socks, and his trademark bowties. Learning to tie these had cost him hours of patient self-tutorial, but he refused to stoop to a clip-on. Deliberately dressing like the formidable but beloved teacher in a tv sitcom made Morris a poseur, but in a good cause: giving students a view, even if fabricated, of a rich intellectual life open to them.

Looking through their papers, drawing out the moment before they sank their teeth into Chekhov—and of all Chekhov, this Chekhov—Morris felt a bubble of eagerness rise in his chest. His students waited with mute anxiety for him to decide. Whom to start with, whom to start with? It was a competition among them to see whom he’d select—an honor to be chosen earlier than the others, a sense of let-down or even disgrace to be chosen last or not at all.

Morris passed regretfully on Patricia Cole’s contribution. He would have dearly loved to give her first crack; as always she had written two and a half pages of eager commentary, but Patricia—though intelligent and, Lord knows, willing—was irretrievably mired in the literal. Her work deserved praise, but she never ventured beyond meticulous summary. Without prompting she couldn’t get past the what happened, and while Morris weaned his students from thinking literature has a message, still less a moral, he insisted along with Aristotle—whom he jokingly referred to in class as “my close personal friend, Mr. Aristotle”—that art transcended fact because it spoke to something universal.

He wished Patricia would see this, and he also wished she would stop wearing such low-cut blouses. Luscious a specimen though she was, he never had lubricious thoughts toward her, but he couldn’t avert his eyes from those brown hemispheres or keep from his mind the desire, just once, to slide a pencil between those tantalizing boobies and see if they would, as he imagined, hold it poised upright.

Morris noted without surprise or particular disappointment that David McFarlane had again neglected to email. David sat across from him, a tall boy, all elbows and angles, with animated gestures and an easy, pleasant laugh like a waterfall on loose cobbles, who grew his dreadlocks over his forehead and eyes so that they bobbed and danced like fat-knotted yarn whenever his head moved, making him resemble a Muppet. Morris looked at David over the tops of his glasses, raising his eyebrows and trying to look stern and displeased, but evidently failing. David shrugged and rocked his head, pushing his own glasses back up his nose with his finger. His dreadlocks danced. Maybe certain students would work harder if Morris could be the kind of teacher whose goodwill they had to earn; as it was, David rarely did the readings, bluffed his way through discussions and tests, and would no doubt fail AP.

Antarius, one of Morris’s favorites, a graceful narrow-shouldered boy who won acceptance as openly gay in a school that was vociferously homophobic, had said that the plot structure reminded him of Remains of the Day, one of the novels assigned for summer reading.

“Antarius has come up with something quite intriguing connecting ‘Cannibal’ with Remains of the Day. Antarius, perhaps you would tell us about it.”

“Yes, well, of course Ishiguro’s narrator is first person and Chekhov employs a third person particular,” Antarius said languidly, as though recalling with difficulty an offhand remark he’d made a week ago, though in reality, Morris knew, he was quoting his own email verbatim. “But both stories swirl around and around the denouement, approaching and pulling away, until they gradually close in on their inevitable conclusions,” Antarius made swirling gestures with his hands to illustrate the movement of the plot and then brought them together and clasped them, “heartbreaking in Ishiguro’s case and comic in Chekhov’s.”

“Yes,” offered Holly, the student body president who always took the seat next to Morris. “But the structure operates very differently. Chekhov is a short story as opposed to Remains where the treatment is, naturally, very novelistic.” So far she had stated only the obvious, and as she paused to think of something more dramatic to add, Holly leaned forward and twirled her pen on her thumb, a mannerism Morris associated with graduate students—an idiosyncrasy suggesting a scholar who spent so much time with a pen, it became a miniature baton, a prop in a minor juggling trick; she used it the way dedicated poker players absent-mindedly pass chips finger to finger over the backs of their knuckles. “Chekhov can only sketch episodes by suggestion, but Ishiguro can expand upon them.”

Morris nodded encouragement. Holly’s comment reassured him that she hadn’t after all completely misconstrued the story. In her own email, which quoted Socrates, “man is wolf to man,” Holly, a brilliant student, had been led astray, simplistically reducing the cannibal of the title, Orouko, to an allegory of rapacious capitalism like one of those characters in—what was the name of that one-act? “Three Men in a Boat”?

Chekhov, though, specifically precludes that interpretation. The haunch belongs to Orouko’s childhood friend, pleasant memories of whom he dwells on even as he turns to the tasty, herb-rubbed meat he is keeping wrapped in dried fronds in a corner of his hut. This meal, savored without sadness or shame, is the last time Orouko will enjoy his friend, and he foresees, without alarm or resentment, that, when his time comes, his most beloved will sit down to consume him also. The very strangeness of Orouko’s meal only underscores his essential, even blameless, humanity: a man who puts off eating as long as possible, anticipating the sensual delight of some toothsome morsel like Williams finding his wife’s plums in the icebox.

Brad, the second-string halfback who’d dressed up in a tie and jacket as the football coach required the team to do every game day, added something about the use of dramatic irony for tragic and comic effect and opened up all sorts of possibilities to explore, but before the class could dig into any of this, the intercom buzzed, and the disembodied voice of Miss Pringle, the front office secretary, said, “Hello?”

“Yes,” Morris said loudly looking at the ceiling, the better to be picked up by the unseen microphone. “Hello.”

“Hello?” said Pringle’s voice. “Hello? Hello? Is this Dr. Jakes’ room?”

“Hello,” Morris shouted, trying to keep the impatience from his voice. “Yes. This is Dr. Jakes.”

“Dr. Jakes?”

“Yes, this is he. Hello.”

The AP students smiled at Morris’ difficulty. Talking with Pringle via intercom was like chatting with a particularly dimwitted echo.

“Do you have Patricia Cole?”

“Yes,” Morris said, looking at Patricia. Evidently Patricia was expecting to be called from the room because she was already gathering her books.

“Patricia Cole,” Pringle repeated.

What were those girls from Mrs. James’ class doing? Were they looking at each other’s papers? Morris gave them a stern look to let them know he had his eye on them.

“Yes,” Morris shouted back. “Patricia Cole. I have her. Do you need her to come to the office?”

“Could you send her to the office, please?” Pringle said.

“She’s on her way,” Morris said, dismissing her with a nod.

As Patricia got up to leave, Pringle said, “Thank you,” and then evidently resumed an interrupted conversation with someone at the front desk, “so Sunday I make Bill a pot roast and,” before remembering to switch off the speaker.

Morris shook his head. “Where were we?” The vein of conversation, so fresh a moment ago, had run dry, so Morris opened another one. “We might as well acknowledge the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” A dozen perplexed faces stared. “Chekhov’s racism.” Morris expected this to get a rise, but it did not. The class stared and did not comment.

Morris’ students, along with 99 percent of TJ Elder High School, were African American, a fatuous euphemism that nauseated Morris, although he’d eventually adopted it under pressure. “What,” he used to ask, “are we to call black South Africans to distinguish them from whites? African-American South Africans? African-African South Africans?”

Everyone waited for someone else to speak. Brad adjusted his tie. Holly twirled her pen. David looked at his desk and shook his head so his dreadlocks flew back and forth. Chopin floated through the room. The students continued their silence.

“Is Chekhov a bigot?” Morris said at last. “Certainly he did not consider himself one, but are we to consider him one for his portrayal of this African as—and his possible assumption about all Africans—a benighted savage about to chow down on some poor soul? Maybe Chekhov only wanted an exotic setting to make his improbable tale probable and really had no opinions on Africans one way or the other.” He looked at Lola, whose parents were Nigerian, for support. “But is this a sign of enlightenment or a deeper and subtler form of racism?”

“Orouko isn’t African,” Lola responded at last. “He’s South American.”

“What?”

“He’s South American. It says he lives in the Oronoco River Basin.” She began looking through the selection for the relevant passage. The others were looking, too, skimming through the Xeroxed pages he’d given them the day before.

“Here it is,” Brad said, having found it first, his finger on a line. “It’s on the first page. ‘Orouko lived with his tribe and his four wives in the Oronoco River Basin.’”

Morris looked at his copy in perplexity. “I thought that was a made-up place.”

“It’s in the Amazon,” Lola explained, shaking her head. She was not smiling at his error, but the others were. Behind his dreads, David’s eyes glinted with amusement.

“Sometimes authors do that, you know,” Morris mumbled, embarrassed not to know something everyone else evidently did. At the very least the editor could have provided a footnote. “Make things up. Like in Poe. He’s always referring to documents and manuscripts that don’t exist.” Morris read the paragraph again and composed himself. Not surprisingly his class didn’t find it racist to depict a South American as a cannibal, but presumably would have had it been an African. People who fault others for harboring stereotypes are often the first to do it themselves. Morris elected not to point out his pupils’ unconscious prejudice.

How odd, though, that he’d missed that salient point. The word “cannibal” naturally brought to mind a character out of a Charles Addams cartoon, a bone stuck through his nose, living in a grass hut lined inside with human skulls, as black as India ink could make him.

Morris flipped through his other emails. Brad had made an interesting point about one of Morris’ favorite moments in the story. Orouko, impatient to settle down and eat, must wait until he arbitrates a dispute between two of his wives. The passage is—there is no other word for it—droll: Inikki and Arapi both trying to gain the moral high ground, and over such trivia—who swept the dirt back into the threshold, who left the cloth by the river leaving the other to pick it up after her un-thanked. The petty dimensions of household argument, its unvarying subject matter and its absurdly dignified diction, the tender and smarting pride, the inevitable and touching reconciliation at the end, are so wonderfully rendered that, even translated from the Russian, the scene of two African—pardon me, Amazonian—women squabbling is so comic and so recognizable to anyone who has ever had a sister, brother, or spouse—so familiar—that the reader cannot choose but shake his head in rueful laughter.

Chekhov had placed this scene, the final complication, just before the short story comes to its long-promised and inexplicably satisfying conclusion: Orouko, his mouth watering, sits down at last to enjoy his postponed repast, the climax in which Chekhov condenses all the sweetness and richness the story has been preparing us for into one short paragraph.

Morris’ pleasure at reaching this point was short-lived. The two girls from Mrs. James’ class were at it again. This time they were clearly looking at each other’s papers. Concentrating on Chekhov now was out of the question. Nothing for it but to go back there and talk to them.

Aware that the eyes of his AP students were on him, Morris rose from his chair and walked back. “Give me your papers,” he said. Automatically the two girls handed over their tests to him.

“We didn’t finish our test,” one said.

“I’m afraid you have,” Morris said. “I just caught you cheating.”

The skinnier of the two stared boldly. “We wasn’t cheating.”

“I saw you copying from her paper.”

“Mrs. James let us do that.”

“Very well, I shall give the papers to Mrs. James and tell her what I saw. If you have her permission to copy, I’m sure she’ll give you back the tests and let you finish them later.”

“It’s true, Mrs. James let us do that,” said the heavier one.

“I believe you utterly,” Morris said ironically. “But I shall leave that to Mrs. James.”

He turned back to the front of the room and a tremendous racket started up. The girls had begun stamping the floor and pounding their desks. He turned, and instantly they stopped. “I shall have you leave,” Morris said. The technically correct “shall” sounded stilted even in Morris’ ears. One of the girls crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat, manifestly unwilling to cooperate, and the other followed suit. Lord, how Morris despised this childishness. All he wanted to do was get back to Chekhov, and here he had to contend with these two fools. “You may either leave of your own accord, or I can have security come for you. Believe me; it will be easier for you if you just leave.”

Nothing. Morris went back to the front of the class again, forgetting momentarily not to turn his back—the pounding and stamping started at once. He faced the girls to stop it and pressed the call button.

“We’ll return to our friend Mr. Chekhov momentarily,” Morris promised his students. They looked their most serious and studious at this moment—even David’s head was lifted, his squared shoulders speaking volumes of contempt for Mrs. James’ girls. Holly’s pen twirled dismissively.

“Yes?” Mrs. Pringle’s voice came over the intercom.

“Yes,” Morris said. “Could you send security to my room? I have two students causing a class disturbance.”

“Security?”

“Mr. Johnson,” Morris said, so there could be no doubt.

The girls sat silent and sullen, cowed for the moment. Why did students bother challenging authority? Where was the upside for them? It was going to be hard getting back to Chekhov, of course; Morris would have to keep an eye on them to make sure they didn’t start slapping and stamping again, but still—

The bell rang. Morris silently cursed and said with a smile, “Class dismissed. We’ll pick up Chekhov tomorrow where we left him.” They hadn’t even broken the crust on Chekhov’s delicious ending. Did Brad and Holly seem unwilling to leave, or was Morris only seeing what he wanted to? Maybe they just had to go to the other side of the building and were delaying going out in the rain.

Mrs. James’ two girls slipped through the door, expecting not to be noticed, heads lowered. Good Lord, did they really imagine he was as foolish as that? He followed them down the hall until he saw Mr. Johnson’s yellow shirt, the uniform of campus security, straining over biceps as big around as Morris’ thigh. “These two,” Morris said, pointing over the tops of their heads at the offending students from Mrs. James’ class. Mr. Johnson signaled to them to come with him, and they acquiesced without complaint. Seeing the malefactors dealt with, Morris went back to his room.

Now Morris was alone.

He sighed. Oh, well. Chekhov would keep until tomorrow, he supposed. Had Brad and Holly really been genuinely disappointed that the discussion had ended so soon? Morris hoped so.

Morris took out Mary’s savory roast chicken from his micro-fridge and put the Tupperware container in the microwave. He punched in “2, 3, 4” and “start.” He always pressed numbers in a meaningful sequence of some kind, never just “2, 0, 0” or even “2, 2, 2.” The microwave’s fan hummed, and the glass tray turned in the lighted square. Morris walked over to the window and looked out into the darkness at the rain falling outside. He performed a postmortem on the class. They had accomplished so little. They had accomplished nothing. If only it had been a full period. And those damn girls from Mrs. James’ class. Had he handled them as he should have? His students had seemed to concur with him, but what did they really think? Maybe he should go ahead and take an adjunct job at a college. Of course, there’d be a salary cut, but was he really being useful here?

There was a knock at the door behind him. Patricia Cole stood in the doorway.

“Sorry I missed class, Dr. Jakes.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Morris said. “I’m afraid we didn’t get very far anyway.”

“I have a note,” she said, holding up the hall pass Pringle had written for whatever had called Patricia away.

“That isn’t necessary,” Morris said. “Do you need a pass to your next class?”

“Yes, please. Thank you. Mrs. Simmons is a real bitch about tardies.”

Morris pretended not to hear this, as they went over to his desk so he could fill out a pass. Looking down, he kept his eyes trained on the pass and away from her breasts, hanging across his field of vision like honeydew melons stretching out a white cotton sack. The notion of sliding his pen into her cleavage to test out his hypothesis made him smile. He signed with his illegible flourish and presented it to her. “Here you go.” The microwave beeped three times, and the light inside turned off. The smell of savory chicken.

“Thanks,” Patricia said, accepting it. “Did those girls cause much trouble?”

“A little,” Morris admitted sheepishly. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.” How had she heard so quickly? Information passed like lightning between students. They must text message constantly.

“I loved the story last night,” Patricia said, pointing at the copy on Morris’ desk. He’d planned on enjoying the ending while he ate a late lunch. “Did you read my email?”

“Yes,” Morris said, “it was—”

“I know it was just plot summary,” Patricia apologized. “You don’t like that. I just love the story, though. I just loved the way it ended.”

“Yes, yes,” Morris said. “The ending is very nice. Yes,” Morris said again, “yes, yes.” It seemed all he could think of to say. He felt foolishly happy. He smiled at her. Maybe he had misjudged her. What was so wrong with wanting to know what happens next; wasn’t that what drew us into stories in the first place? Tomorrow, he made up his mind, he would start with Patricia’s email, first thing, and that’s what he’d say. This was the most pure and essential enjoyment of a story, curiosity about what happens next. Will Orouko eat the haunch? Will the teacher read my email? Will the bad girls cause trouble?

“Well, goodbye, Dr. Jakes, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Morris said. Patricia left, and Morris sat in the leather chair behind his desk. A feeling of well-being suffused him. He opened the microwave door, and steam briefly fogged his glasses. He peeled back the plastic lid and lifted out a piece of chicken. He had to hold it delicately in his fingertips to keep from burning and lean forward to keep grease from spotting his shirt. He looked at the last paragraph on the final page, when Orouko at long last is alone in his hut with the meal he has awaited all day.

Then it came to Morris, the solution to the mystery that had tantalized him. The story was about the story itself. A ridiculous-seeming idea at first, but the more Morris thought about it, the more self-evident it became. What was the story about except Orouko’s longing to get to the haunch in that final paragraph, just as the reader eagerly longs to get to it? The story, all those interruptions and delays, is foreplay to reach that triumphant final paragraph, made more delicious—as Orouko and the reader both know—by the teasing wait. Morris read it through as he bit into the thigh.

There was a strong smell of sweet herbs from the meat, which he pulled from the dried fronds, and Orouko crouched on his heels several moments, wondering how it was that some things tasted better on the second day. The rain pattered against the hut all afternoon.