I smooth my hair into a bun, pull a lint brush from my desk and run it over my sport jacket. I like to dress conservatively these days; one can conceal a lot more in professional attire, I find. I start down the hall, my modest brown pumps punctuating my stride like gentle commas separating items on the long list I’ve just posted to my blog.*
At The Leonard T. Gertz Room, named for its benefactor and decorated with his forbidding oil portrait, I make my way immediately toward the drinks. Because the English department is rife with political unrest—when not teaching, the senior faculty devote them- selves to loftier pursuits, like getting their colleagues’ Distinguished Professorships revoked—parties are often scheduled in the middle of the day. If they weren’t, no one would show.
I’m uncorking a bottle of Yellow Tail—the standard fair, as it’s the cheapest—when Veronica, a teaching assistant with short black hair, a lip ring, and a large tattoo that says “VEGAN” (encircling her neck where a string of fake pearls decorates mine), appears beside me. I look up from the bottle and freeze as if caught.
“I didn’t eat breakfast,” she says, her eyes fixed ravenously on a tray of assorted cheeses.
“Me neither,” I say, motioning to the wine. She spears a cube. “Such a waste,” Veronica says, holding up a purple, cellophane-tipped toothpick. “Think of how many trees we could save if everyone brought their own forks.” She goes on about her new magazine, which she’s going to call Fork. “It’ll be like nothing else. We’re going to publish fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.”
“In the future,” I announce, “everyone will edit a magazine for fifteen minutes.”
“How’s yours going? Are you and Janice going to do a print issue?”
A thunderous burst of laughter breaks nearby—a professor from the speech department.
I refill my cup, casting an eye right and left like a thief. Though drinking in the English department is not uncommon, only those with tenure do so openly. Because I’m an adjunct, when I bring a six-pack into the building, I can’t throw the cans in my own trash, but must dismember the six-pack in the style of a mob killing and scatter the empties in bins throughout the building.
I move over to the fruit plate and run into Howard, sixty-eight years old, with flames of white hair. Howard has been the on/off Creative Writing Chair since the department’s inception in the mid- ’70s. He has “ink for blood,” he likes to say, and regularly transfuses it into the pages of his once prominent literary magazine.
Filling close to one-third of every issue, his fiction catalogues the sexual fantasies of an aging writer/professor who, like Howard, has not published a book in almost twenty years. In his most recent story, which he modeled on The Inferno, Howard’s alter ego “Professor Moshe Blum” is a modern-day Dante who believes salvation lies in the penetration of Beatrice’s fiery vagina—Beatrice is a redhead undergraduate in Blum’s creative writing seminar.
I like Howard. He drinks too much, frequently devolves into tears, and has a form of Shakespearean Tourette’s that makes him explode into occasional soliloquy. Mostly I like him because he seems to like me.
“Again with the beret.” “It’s my look!” he answers. Howard wears berets. At the last party, a bit drunk off Yellow Tail, I plucked one from his head and, poking him in the chest, told him, “You can’t just go around wearing a beret, Howard!” “I’ll give you a beret,” he slurred, grabbing my finger. Later, when his back was turned, I snuck down to the mailroom and hid it in the English department microwave.
I ask him if he knows how to erase a Google memory queue. “Every time I type something beginning with f, ‘free porn’ pops up.” I tell him about an article on pornography I’ve just read in a new scholarly journal/lit-mag hybrid. “What kind of pornography do you like, Howard?”
“The Collected Musil,” he pronounces carefully.
An attractive brunette in her thirties joins us and says something that sounds like, “My book is made of porcupines and I find myself often shiny about this.” I’ve no idea what she’s talking about and after making a few requests for her to repeat herself, I nod as if in agreement. Howard remarks on her exotic accent and asks where she’s from. “School of Ed,” she answers.
Howard launches into a speech about his “ink for blood” before Jerry, another adjunct, interrupts. Jerry is upset because he suspects one of his students of having plagiarized. He rings his hands and asks us all what he should do.
“Count your blessings,” I answer. “I wish my students would plagiarize. It would certainly make for better reading. Unless a student actually hands me the book from which he’s copied with the page dog- eared and the exact words underlined, what do I care? I’m just happy to be able to give out an A.”
I plop down in an armchair and cross and uncross my legs impatiently. A woman across the room wonders aloud if she’s hearing cicadas. Howard stares.
Our circle widens to include a female Melville scholar (the White Whale as feminist icon against which Ahab’s wood is impotent, etc.) and a gay black Gender Studies professor. I knock back what’s left of my Yellow Tail, feel myself becoming intolerably charming, and rise up. “Duty calls!” I say to Howard.
“‘Reflection is the business of man,’” Howard booms, “‘a sense of his state is his first duty: But who remembereth himself in joy? Is it not in mercy then that sorrow is allotted unto us?’”
I tap my watch. “Class in five.”
* Names of Women Jack and Larry Met at The Regal Beagle: Olga, Diane, Tanya, Shelly, Sheila, Audrey, Kate, Sally, Francesca, Linda, Agnes, Lauren, Lucy, Lydia, Betty, Beatrice, Marsha, Mandy, Sandy, Lucia, Allison, Henrietta, Shannon, Sharon, Beatrice, Claudine, Christine, Sherri, Simone, Cynthia, Susan, Madeline, Meghan, Felecia, Charlotte, Jennifer, Leigh, Samantha, Terry, Clarice, Dana, Carrie, Karen, Anna, Jane, Beth, Lulu.
Iris Smyles has written for numerous publications including Nerve, New York Press, McSweeney’s and BOMB. She was awarded The Doris Lippman Prize for fiction, The Adria Schwartz Fiction Award, The Geraldine Griffin Moore Short Story Award and is a frequent contributor to Splice Today. She lives in New York.
Adapted from Iris Has Free Time, by Iris Smyles. Copyright © 2013 by Iris Smyles. With the permission of the publisher, Soft Skull Press.