Lonely and bitter, Larry Gaffney skulks about in the mudflats and dying townships of central Pennsylvania. His many literary honors include the Stump Merrill Award for Baseball Tanka and the Grace Foster Prize for Poetry about Menstrual Unease, which he snagged by submitting a manuscript under a fake name and a photo of Chrissie Hynde. Fearing legal action, however, he did not cash the $50 check. His memoir, Garage Sales of the Northeast, will be published in 2013 by Adenoid Press.
The Ants of Destiny
She was tall, but so what? Tall girls, short girls, skinny girls, any girl would do if she had a certain quality. He would speak to her, then.
“Have you been to the exhibition?”
“I like those shoes,” he countered.
“Now you’re talking!” she said.
She worked at the library, and was tall. The latter has been noted, but is worth mentioning again. It is also worth mentioning that the previous brief exchange never actually occurred. But Charles (for that is his name) imagined it might involve blather about shoes and an exhibition of something or other, for he was neither charming nor skilled in the ways of chit-chat.
Outside the library it was not winter anymore, and gigantic trees pulsed with the life of many small creatures. Charles sat with his back against one of the trees and hoped the tall girl would walk toward him. Then he might stand and talk to her. He stared at the library entrance. As he stared, large black ants left the tree to crawl upon his shoulders. Since he was wearing a shirt, he didn’t notice the ants until one of them found its way to his neck. At the precise moment that he felt a tickling sensation, just as he was moving his hand to his neck, a colleague walked by and said “Hullo, Charles. Be careful that the ants don’t get you.”
Charles had a secret longing for cosmic revelation. He kept it secret because otherwise his colleagues would smile at him. They were intellectuals, all of them, hardened by discourse in the classroom and by the rigors required for the assemblage of papers, to be presented at conferences in places like Houston and Orono. Charles had never attended one of these conferences, but on a few occasions had announced lines of poetry—his own poetry—at readings where he was not the primary poet. The bookshelf in his office held the works of deconstructionists and other frauds, but also of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. He hoped they, and not the deconstructionists, were right. He knew of a colleague who literally licked his chops before tucking into a discussion of Lacan or intertextuality. Charles had more delicate responses to things that pleased him, but would certainly feel a flutter in his giblets when paging through The Holographic Universe or some such exploration of the world beyond.
Some four hours previous to the crawling of the ants upon his shoulders and neck, and the concurrent jocularity—about ants—tossed at him from the passing colleague, Charles had recounted, to his Dimensions of Literature class, an anecdote concerning Edwin Arlington Robinson. At the MacDowell Colony, Robinson had stood watching one day as a ridiculous young poet threw himself to the ground in a fit of melancholia. While languishing thus, the poet was encircled by his fellow writers, solicitous of his condition. All except Robinson, that is, who said, Don’t worry, the ants will get him.
We may assume, then, that Charles is a professor of English?
–Yes. But a poor fish flopping about in the shallows of the tenure stream.
Meaning what? His colleagues don’t like him? His work has been substandard?
–Not quite. He is thought of as okay. Nothing more than that. Not special. He has no wife to bring to social functions. He is not overly friendly. His student evaluations are so-so. Fresh out of graduate school he published a chapbook, and it was properly blurbalized by half-a-dozen working poets. But it didn’t matter because everyone in the poetry business knows that blurbs attach themselves to chapbooks like blowflies to a dead possum. The chapbook was all he had in him, it seems, because in the last fifteen years Charles has published a grand total of nine poems in three obscure magazines: Floating Spider Review, Dark Hamburger, and Cthonic Boom.
Will the girl be impressed that Charles is a poet? And why mention that she’s tall?
–Probably not. The girl, Susanna, is a senior and knows the ropes. She has met other poets, has been to a couple of readings and was not impressed. Her height—five-foot-ten—is significant because Charles is only five-foot-seven. He is intimidated by, but also very attracted to tall girls.
Speaking of which, why doesn’t he already have a girlfriend?
–In addition to being short, Charles is pudgy and baldish, with a splayfooted, ignoble style of perambulation. He lacks confidence. He’s forty-five and starting to decay. Susanna, by the way, is twenty-one, much too young for him.
So what happens now?
–He is about to write her a letter.
Sometimes you are at the circulation desk, and with gentle hands you process my books for me. Sometimes I see you in the stacks, and we exchange the briefest of smiles.
I thought of you today while an ant crawled upon my neck. No, I’m not losing my mind. There is meaning in this. Let me explain.
One day the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was in session with a patient who told him of her dream in which there had appeared a sacred scarab beetle. Presently Jung heard a knocking at the window. A large beetle was attempting to fly into the room. Jung suffered the arthropod to enter. Catching it in his hand, he noted that it was of a species similar to the Egyptian scarab beetle mentioned in the girl’s dream. He also noted that the creature was not usually found at the high altitude of his Alpine retreat. At that moment, so the story goes, Jung formulated the theory of synchronicity, which may be defined as a coincidence so steeped in cosmic import that it cannot be attributed to mere chance.
Today I experienced such a moment. I was sitting under a tree watching the library steps, hoping you would appear. I figured it was time for us to have a conversation, and not at the circulation desk with your Argus-eyed coworkers in attendance. While you were in my thoughts, and at the exact moment when the aforementioned ant walked boldly across my neck, a fellow-professor called out to me something about ants. Now—and here is where it gets trippy—earlier in the day I had been speaking about ants in my lit class. Not only that, but I had used the same phrasing that this professor used. Is it possible that he had walked past the room during my disquisition about the ants? No—I checked his schedule; he was himself in class, on the other side of campus. Your part in this mystery is quite clear: had I not been thinking of you, been waiting under that tree for you to emerge from the library, the ants of destiny would not have marched into my life.
I am convinced that the Universe is trying to tell me something. I think it is telling me that I should give tongue to the feelings I have for you. This I would prefer to do in person, perhaps in a booth at Finster’s over a pleasant meal of beef tenderloin with anchovy butter, a house specialty I have sampled with pleasure on many an occasion.
Yes, this is a rather old-fashioned way to court a lady, but as it happens I am rather an old-fashioned sort of man. Which is not to say that I am not “up” on the latest trends in music, art, and literature. In fact, as I write this letter the sweet strains of Belle & Sebastian fill the air.
But I am going on more than I intended. I hope, Susanna, that you will favor me with a reply. I will include my phone number beneath my signature. And of course you can always write to me here on campus.
I have never done anything like this before. It feels strange. But it also feels right. Cosmically correct, let us say.
Susannabanana: hey girlfriend
Punkerslut: whutup bitch?
Susannabanana: omg you wont believe it
Punkerslut: tell me!
Susannabanana: i got hit on by a prof
Punkerslut: finally! you go girl!
Susannabanana: no its a real drag
Punkerslut: izy cute at least?
Susannabanana: ugh no way total dorkhood
Punkertslut: sorry to hear whud he do, try to snag you after class?
Susannabanana: im not even in his class he sees me at work
so he writes me this letter, asks me out for a steak dinner!
Punkertslut: holy fuck! dja tell him ur a vegan?
Susannabanana: yeah i wrote him back already tried to keep it nice told him i don’t eat meat & i have a boyfriend who plays rugby havent heard anything since
Punkerslut: thats gotta be uncomfortable when he comes into the liberry
Susannabanana: well, I’ve seen him a coupla times, but he ducks behind the stacks i don’t think he’ll be checking out books while im at my perch hey i made copies of his letter I’ll send you one
Punkerslut: do it!
“About Charles ______,” said the Dean, “I feel it would be in the best interest of the university not to offer him a contract.”
“I tend to agree with you,” said the Chair, tamping a plug of Red Stag deep into his pipe.
“His publications are nil, after all,” said the Dean. “And if he fights us we can bring up that other matter.
“Yes,” said the Chair, trying not to grin. “What a silly business. Definitely unprofessional.”
“Definitely,” said the Dean. “We can’t keep a professor around who’s become a figure of fun. What’s the name of that site again?”
“Clowns of Academe,” said the Chair, no longer bothering to suppress a grin.
“Yes. Well,” said the Dean. “Frankly I think he should sue them. It can’t be legal to publish someone’s letter like that without permission, can it?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” said the Chair.
“He should sue their asses,” said the Dean. “Not ours, though. We are perfectly within our rights.”
“No, not ours,” said the Chair.
“You’ll write him an excellent letter of recommendation, of course,” said the Dean.
“Of course. An excellent letter,” said the Chair.