You had a girlfriend back in New York. You meet her at the Bowery Poetry Club when she spills a drink in your lap and wipes it up with a beret belonging to a complete stranger. She writes songs for television shows. She is best known for a song called “Fart in Your Face” where a character on a popular sitcom dreams of farting in his boss’s face. She gets enough money from the iTunes royalties to buy a new Honda and fly off to Europe a few times a year. You date for about nine months but she ends it when she comes back from a three-week pilgrimage in India; she says at the end of the hike, Jesus came to her in a dream and told her to dump you. He also told her to eat more fiber and cut back on cigarettes, so it’s not all bad.
A few weeks after you break up she calls you because her car battery dies; she leaves the inside light on a lot. She lives on the other side of Brooklyn from you, near Prospect Park. When you drive over to give her a jump she tells you she’s seeing someone new. She tells you her new boyfriend is a decathlete. That’s all you need to know, really: he’s a decathlete. You are not. You haven’t tried three sports in your entire lifetime, much less at the same time. You ask her why she didn’t call her new boyfriend to jump her battery instead of you, but she says he’s probably too busy. She shows you the text he just sent her while you wait for her car to rev, though: LUV UR SEXY ASS. “God, isn’t he romantic?” she says, biting her lip.
Most nights you can’t sleep so you end up driving to campus and taking a walk. There’s online gin-rummy and Netflix but it’s mid-October so it’s still warm enough to go outside without your face falling off. Sometimes when you walk late at night you’ll see Diego trolling around campus in the white security van but right now it’s three a.m. and the campus is empty and silent; you can hear coyotes in the distance. You look out into the dark desert and think of Kitty Poon. How far did she make it? Is she still alive? Did drinking the Fightin’ Butterchurn turn her stark raving mad?
You go behind the recycling bins and climb the ladder. Sometimes you like to prowl around the empty library at night and pretend you’re in the movie Capricorn One. But halfway down the stairs you hear the echo of voices. You think you hear a girl moaning. You definitely hear a guy yell, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” When you get to the bottom of the stairs you see a bright light coming from the far side of the cavern that extends from the silo. The door to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Club room is open and you can make out various shapes moving around in the dim. As you get closer you can see Diego slouched back in a director’s chair next to a video camera on a tripod. There some stage lights and a ring of people dressed in strange costumes. Diego is the guy saying “yeah, yeah, yeah.”
You don’t stay for long, but you guess the movie’s theme is Joan of Arc, since the girl on the mattress is dressed in shiny armor. The historical detail might be a little off, since the rest of the cast seems to be dressed up as goblins, trolls and elves. There’s a dragon, too, and a guy in a wizard outfit whose head is just a big red eyeball.
“No, no, no,” Diego yells at the guy standing above Joan; he bangs the notebook in his lap against the arm of the chair. “Your line is, let me strike you with my flesh sword like David did to the Philippines.” Diego was right: he does need help with a script. You back out of the cavern, trying to go unnoticed. As you disappear into the shadows you think you recognize Escape Goat as one of the sexy background elves, but you can’t be sure.
Escape Goat comes to your office hours to discuss the grade you gave her on the last exam. She wants to know if you’ll give her partial credit for one of her answers. Question #4 in the short-answer section was: Name one of the two poets who in 1798 collaborated on the Romantic poetry collection, “Lyrical Ballads.” You would have accepted either William Wordsworth or Samuel Coleridge.
Her answer was Calvin Cooleridge.
She smiles and tilts her head. “It’s pretty close right?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “It’s closer to Calvin Coolidge than Samuel Coleridge.” You know she is a history major, though, so maybe she got things mixed up. “Were you studying for your history exam at the same time?”
“Who’s Calvin Coolidge?” she says.
You smile and tell her you’ll add the two points to her grade.
“Can I tell you something?” she says, and for a moment you’re worried she might have told the Dean about the whiskey in your desk drawer. But instead she says, “I really liked your class this semester. You’re a funny guy. And I learned a lot.”
Suddenly you feel bad, and you’re about to fess up and tell her that Jane Austen never took down a grizzly with her bare hands, and Walt Whitman in fact did not write the lyrics to an early version of “We Are the World,” when she stops you.
“We knew,” she says, smiling. “But it was never boring, I’ll give you that.” She leaves, and for the first time in a long while you feel something other than loneliness and pity in your gut. Maybe tonight will be the night you drink the Fightin’ Butterchurn. You’ll sit in the Winnebago and raise your jar high and toast Kitty Poon, who had to show you the way. You stand up from your chair and look around the room for a mirror. You start to unbutton your shirt. Somehow you’ve made it to your age without having any idea if you look good naked or not. Somehow you’ve made it almost a full year in North Dakota without really knowing how cold it can get outside.
You are in your office late again, writing comments on the stories for your last workshop this semester. You are scrounging around the desk for the White-Out so you can do the right thing and cover up your comment This Story Sucks Balls! when the office phone rings. At this hour it must be Gloria, so you pick up on the first ring and say, “No, I am not happy with my mail-order bride. You said she was a decathlete but when she takes her shirt off her stomach flops out like a stack of pancakes.” It is not Gloria. It is your ex-girlfriend calling from New York. She is calling to tell you she broke up with the decathlete. She also has a chipped tooth after a woman punched her in the face for using her hat to sop up a glass of merlot.
There is good news, though. She just sold a new song called “Queef In Your Grille” to an edgy sitcom on HBO. The producers loved the song so much they wrote an entire episode of the show titled “Jailbreak.”
“You know, if you fart in someone’s face while holding them under the covers, it’s called a jailbreak.” At first you think she is calling because she misses you, but after a few minutes you recognize from her boozy voice that she’s just drunk and lonely. You pull the bottle of Wild Turkey out of your desk so you can feel drunk and lonely, too, which is better than just being lonely because when you’re drunk at least you can pretend you’re having fun. You splash some whiskey into the warm diet soda in your jumbo Kum & Go travel mug and kick your feet up on the desk. As you listen, you imagine her voice belonging to someone else. You close your eyes and dream of a new girl, named Mabel. In your dream, this Mabel comes into your office and tells you she wants to make love to you right there on your desk while the two of you talk about books and writing. You can’t picture her at first, so you have fun making it up.
Editor’s Note: Author Tommy Zurhellen wrote this Dakota-themed short story while he was researching and working on Nazareth, North Dakota, his debut novel, now available for sale at the Atticus Books online store. You can read part one of the story here and part two here. You can also help Tommy finish his next short story by submitting your own 25-word idea to his weekly Collaborative Writing Contest!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tommy Zurhellen, whose novel Nazareth, North Dakota is scheduled for a spring 2011 release, has been teaching creative writing at Marist College since 2004, and serves as director of the Marist Summer Writing Institute and the Writer-in-Residence program. He received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Alabama in 2002. His short works have been published in Quarterly West, Carolina Quarterly, Passages North, South Dakota Review,The MacGuffin, Crab Creek Review, Apalachee Review, River Oak Review, Red Mountain Review, Iconoclast, Coal City Review, and elsewhere. His website can tell you more.
Photo Source: Weeping Cherries