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by Valerie Z. Lewis

      "Let me guess," Raja says, leaning over her brown metal desk. "You were once a bright-eyed optimistic educator, full of ideas, yes? But something turned you hard and bitter." She brushes some of her black hair behind her shoulder. "Your wife died? Left you?" She tilts her head to the side. "Maybe you lost a child."
      I flick my cigarette ash onto her desk, and the draft from the school's ancient windows carry some of it onto her pretty, white, Indian-style blouse. "Sorry, foreign chick," I say. "I've been fucked up since I was an adjunct."
      She blinks. "I'm in love with you."
      "That only proves you're a moron." I drop my butt to the floor and grind it out with my foot. When maintenance finds it, they'll blame the students. "Which I suspected anyway after your first lit analysis paper."
      Post-Modern Wallesian Symbolic Literature is an umbrella term for everything written by a select group of men on the Upper East Side in the late Fall of 1965. Post-Modern Wallesian Symbolic Literature is a term I made up five years ago during an alcohol and Xanax binge when I blacked out and published a paper on the third level of symbolism of Gabriel Walles' "The Ceramic Vase". The clear symbol is the vase as the poverty of the neuvo-intellectuals. The second level metaphor is the empty shoes of a dead soldier. I argued that the third-level metaphor was a vagina. When I woke up next to a dumpster behind a Denny's, hallucinating spiders crawling up my urine-stained pants, I had an honorary doctorate and two night classes to teach.
      I've always been a high-functioning alcoholic.
      This year, my second as full-time faculty, the students are just as stupid as they've always been. I remember the Indian girl's paper specifically because she called Gouger's tub of water a phallic symbol, which would've made me laugh had I not been on Valium while I was grading. The truth is, everything's vaginal. Fredrickson's washing tub? Vagina. Locher's orchids? Vagina. Mullen's empty swimming pool? A giant, gaping vagina.
      But I can't just say, "everything's a vagina" and dismiss class, so I teach four sections of Post-Modern Wallesian Symbolic Lit four days a week. I ask the students for their interpretations and grade them on how close they are to "vagina". Breasts get a B. Women's stockings, a C. Ovaries are an easy B+. But abstract concepts are usually a D, and penis is always an F.
      Raja turns her head toward the window, and her eyes sparkle with unshed tears. "I will save you, Professor Mackey," she says. "I will save you from yourself."
      I pick up my bag. "I'll see you in class. And by 'class' I mean 'hell', and by 'see you', I mean 'die in a fire, bitch'."
      Raja lets out a fake-sounded sob as I turn and walk into the hallway.
      The next day I have a fuck of a hangover, since grading papers always means a bottle of Scotch and a handful of unlabeled pills. The classroom is all fluorescent lighting and vomit-colored cinderblock walls. "Good morning," I mutter as I turn off the lights and sit at my desk.
      One of the students who already has his textbook open says, "Aren't we going to read, sir?"
      "New plan," I say. "Today you're all going to write as silently as possible."
      There's a shuffling sound as the students all put their textbooks away and take out paper. I pinch the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger and close my eyes.
      "Uh ... Professor Mackey?" a girl near the front asks. "What are we writing about?"
      I wince as I stand and take a stack of papers out of my briefcase. "Crohn's moist birdbath," I say. "All your theories are crap." I hand the papers to a girl in the front, and she dutifully stands and begins distributing them.
      "You have fifty minutes to rewrite your analysis," I say, the sound of my own voice making me nauseas. "I have an important meeting with the board of directors, and when I come back I want at least ten papers on my desk that don't make me want to shoot myself in the head."
      The students all rush to get pens and begin writing. I walk out of the room, go to the bathroom, take a crap, and vomit. When I come back all the students are in small groups critiquing each other's papers. I sit at my desk and put my head down.
      As retarded as my Monday/Wednesday morning class is, my Tuesday/Thursday morning class is worse, mostly because of the dark-haired, teary-eyed foreign girl who's in love with me. Instead of handing back papers, I throw them on the floor and tell the students to start over with ideas that couldn't have been generated by monkeys. The class works quickly and silently, and each students hands in a paper stating that the moist birdbath is everything from loneliness to death. There's one that says it's a womb on the eve of menstruation, so I give that one a B and give the rest Ds.
      The following Tuesday I do two lines of coke before class, and enter the room buzzing with energy. "Panek's half-full glass is a metaphor for what?" I bark out as the students rush to take notes. "And if anyone says 'hope' I will stab you in the face with chalk. You!" I point at a boy in the back.
      "Um..." he fiddles with his textbook, flipping the page back and forth. "Desire?"
      I pick up a small piece of chalk and throw it at him. "No!" I pointed at the girl next to him. "You!"
      Her face pales and her eyes turn into perfect circles. "Optimism?" she squeaks out.
      I put my hand over my face. "That is the worst possible interpretation. You should be dragged out in the street and shot." I look up and point at the Latino kid. "Jorge!"
      "Carlos," he corrects.
      "Wrong answer."
      The foreign girl raises her hand tentatively.
      "Yes, and please say something that doesn't make me want to kill myself."
      "Well," she says in her accented voice. "Since Mrs. Temeny was mourning the loss of her youth, could the half-full glass represent her withering ovaries?"
      I pause, my lips pursed, and survey the sea of expectant faced before me.
      I look at my fingernails. "It's dull and unimaginative, but it's the best I've heard yet, which only proves how pathetic you all are."
      She smiles. "Thank you, Professor Mackey."
      "No problem, foreign girl."
      "My name is Raja."
      "No one cares." I look down at my lesson plan, which is a take-out menu from Peking Palace. "By next class I want a five-page paper from each of you about the many symbols of Mrs. Temeny's aging in the story." I look up. "Now get out."
      The foreign girl — Raja — stays at her desk until the classroom is empty, then rushes to the door to block my way out, holding her arm across the doorframe.
She leans her head back and looks up with dark eyes. "Make love to me."
      "Go fuck yourself," I say. I knock her arm out of my way. "It's the only way you'll have an orgasm when I'm around."
      Her eyes narrow as she watches me leave. "My wet candle burns for you!" she calls out.
      I turn around, still walking, and give her a half-smile. "Now that's a fucking symbol, sweetheart."
      The next Monday I drop acid before a faculty meeting, and spend most of it convinced I'm watching Hamlet. At the end of the meeting, the department head asks me to stay and speak to him.
      The department head is a balding, forgettable man named Dr. Oliver who wears off-the-rack sports coats and clears his throat excessively as he speaks. His head also looks exactly like a radish, and there are bees coming out of his nose.
      "Mr. Mackey," he says, folding his hands in front of him. "There have been some statements made by a Raja Patel about yourself and your classroom."
      That bitch.
      He opens his day planner, and a giant cricket jumps out and dances across the table. As Dr. Oliver continues to speak, the cricket sings a short rendition of "Ain't That a Kick in the Head", tips his hat, and disappears.
      "Does that work for you?" Dr. Oliver asks. "Thursday at ten in your office?"
      "Fine by me, sir."
      Dr. Oliver smiles. "Then I'll see you then."
      I go over to the refreshment table and make myself a cup of coffee. It's been a fun few years, but it's about time I'm found out. I'm not upset. I take a sip of the coffee, but miss my mouth entirely, and it splashes around my shoes.
      The following Thursday I burst into my classroom three minutes early and painfully sober. The students instantly go silent, and all heads turn toward me. I blink at them a few times, shocked at how young they look.
      "No wonder you're so stupid," I say.
      Two students immediately write the sentence down in their notebooks.
      I toss my bag on the desk, and it slides onto the floor.
      "Look," I say. "Let's make this as painless as possible. What's Ross, long, damp vase represent?"
      Several hands went up.
      "You're all wrong," I continue. "It's a vagina. Tell this to your next professor and you'll be fine."
      The students' eyes all widen. "Our next...?" one girl begins. "You're leaving?" another whispers. "Professor Mackey!" a boy shouts. Raja looks up with big eyes. "You can't...."
      I silence them all with a wave of my hand. "I'll leave you with all you need to know," I say. "Buy clothes on sale but stereo equipment high end. Never buy weed from a white person." I falter, unsure if I have any other wisdom. "And it's always about the vagina." I pick up my briefcase. "So long, idiots," I say, and I walk out of the room.
      When I get to my office, Dr. Oliver is standing outside. He starts when he sees me. "Professor Mackey," he says. "You're early." His gaze darts to the door. "You can't go in there."
      "I figured," I say. I dig a crumpled piece of paper out of my pocket and slap it into his hand. "Send my last check care of Soft Hands Massage Parlor. I'll be there."
      Dr. Oliver puts the paper into his pocket. "I suppose we can start now, though Miss Patel will have to be here for the photo op."
      I shove past him and open the door. "Let me just get my cigs –"
      Inside my office, there are three men, one holding a complex-looking camera, and one holding a large, cardboard check. They look up when I enter, and the oldest of the men sighs happily.
      "I'd love to get this done by lunch," he says. "You must be Professor Mackey." He takes a step toward me and extends his hand. "Richard Langley. We spoke on the phone."
      I have no recollection of speaking on the phone with him, but I also have a quart less Scotch in my house than I had two days ago, so anything is possible. I shake his hand.
      "This is Wendell and Ryan from The Journal News. If Miss Patel is with you, we can get started."
      Dr. Oliver steps up beside me, puts his arm around me, and smiles. A camera flashes.
      "This college is proud to have a noted scholar like Dan Mackey on staff, and proud to have students like Raja Patel," Dr. Oliver says.
      "That's P-A-T-E-L," comes a soft female voice from behind us, and I turn to see Raja in the doorway.
      One of the men gestures at her to enter. "We need you, Mackey, and the check," he barks out. "Then Langley and the girl and the check."
      Raja comes up beside me, puts her arm around me, and smiles. A camera flashes.
      "Raja's essay about Professor Mackey was chosen as the first prize winner, is that right?" one of the men asks.
      "Grand prize," Dr. Oliver corrects. "A ten thousand dollar scholarship to Miss Patel, ten thousand to the school, and ten thousand to Professor Mackey."
      I turn to Dr. Oliver. "What the fuck?"
      The camera flashes.
      "Don't print that," Dr. Oliver tells the reporter.
      "Higher, higher," the photographer says, gesturing to the giant check.
      "You must be very proud, sir," one of the men says as he vigorously shakes my hand.
      "I need a smoke," I mutter. I push past the photographer and retrieve the pack from my desk, then go out the door and into the men's bathroom, where I light up in one of the stalls.
      It's barely a minute before Raja saunters in, all dark hair and curves, still holding the giant check. She leans it against the wall and approaches the open stall.
      "I told them you were a great writer and a great man," she says.
      "You're a true bullshit artist," I tell her. "Which I suspected anyway after your first lit analysis paper." I take a drag and exhale in her face. "Still not gonna fuck you."
      She takes a step forward, plucks the cigarette out of my mouth, takes a drag, and immediately begins coughing.
      I snatch it out of her hand and toss it in the toilet. "You're a novice, sweetheart, and I mean that in every way."
      Raja shrugs, still coughing. "But I have new knowledge now, yes? It's always vagina." She takes a deep breath and wipes her eyes.
      I fish half a joint out of my cigarette pack and light it.
      "Except in the Pre-Wallesian Symbolic Literature period," Raja continues.
      I take a drag off the joint and exhale through my nose. "There is no Pre-Wallesian Symbolic Literature period."
      Raja unzips her backpack and withdraws a bundle of papers. "There is now," she says. "You will like it. Everything's an unrepentant dick."
      I take the papers from her and scan the title page. "Drinks and lines at my place. You bring the booze." I push the papers against her chest. "And if it's anything cheap I'm throwing you out on your ass."
      Raja smiles. "I'll be there at nine." She turns and walks slowly out of the bathroom, leaving her giant cardboard check behind.
      I finish and flush the joint, then check myself in the dirty bathroom mirror. I still have my afternoon class, then dinner with the Assistant Department Chair, but if I hurry I'll have time to shave.
      "Fuck it," I say, and I light another cigarette.

Valerie Z. Lewis has a BS in English Education from New York University, an MFA in Writing from Goddard College, a diagnosis of Bipolar 1, and a low-wage job in a comic book store. Her stories have been published by The Pitkin Review, Torquere Press, and Fresh Boiled Peanuts.

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