Between Christmas and New Year’s, my wife, our elder son, and I drove to Washington, D.C., where I attended the Modern Language Association Conference and interviewed for a tenure-track job at a Catholic liberal-arts college in the upper Midwest. This dispatch is on those events and their resolution.
I’m stretched out on my back on the desert floor. Aztecs torture my feet. I wake with a shout, and the two cats wrestling on the foot of our bed flee with their tails in the air. It’s time to go.
“There are more versions of desire in American culture than apocryphal Inuit words for snow,” the scholar says. “Appetite, craving, hankering, hunger, itch, longing, lust, passion, pining, thirst, urge, yearning, yen. Compulsion, urge, zeal, liking, love, taste, eagerness, impatience, wish, want, need, avarice, cupidity, greed, rapacity. Are they really different things, or a matter of degrees?”
We drive through West Virginia. I use the mountains to help me visualize the North Woods, where the hiring college is. We’ll buy several acres and design a home to fit the site. It’ll have the hammerbeam frame of a 15th-century barn, with clerestory windows along the ridgeline to flood the upper floor with light. I’ll cross-country ski to work and have just one drink before dinner, and a lot of writing will get done, a lot of writing. It all sounds very Scott-Fitzgerald-at-Juan-les-Pins, but it’s really true.
We follow the parkway along the Potomac and cross Key Bridge. Mrs. Churm sinks into a swoon at the shops lining both sides of Georgetown’s M Street. At a stoplight, I soak a tissue with cold Snapple and dab her temples. Signs for L’Occitane, Sephora, and Dean & Deluca flicker on the lenses of her glasses, as in some tragic movie about desire.
“I want the very best of everything.”
Starbuck won’t sleep in the inflatable Spider-Man bed he insisted we bring from Inner Station, so his knees poke my back all night. For a while, I conduct a mock interview in my head, then I’m driving again, up a mountainside in West Virginia. When I look at the passenger seat, Starsky is riding shotgun. We approach the cloud-whipped summit along a crumbling shale ledge. I look over again; now Hutch is in the passenger seat. I wake and think: This is the life of the mind?
The conference is so big it takes over three hotels. I’m interviewed by a very nice man who happens to be head of the English department, and by a very nice woman, who happens to be a Benedictine sister as well as a professor of English. They explain that they need someone not only to teach but also to bring together a cooperative agreement with a very good literary press, a reading venue in a big city, and a visiting author’s series. The job is more than I thought. It’s the sort of situation I thrive in. Damn it.
“You made me love you.
I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it …
You made me happy sometimes, you made me glad,
But there were times, dear, you made me feel so bad.”
“We’ll let everyone know, either way, by January 7,” the interviewers say. I head for the Irish pub across from the Sheraton. It’s a good place, except for the TV sets over the bar and the academics on every stool and chair. “Why the devil do we portray the devil having so much fun?” a scholar at a table says. “Because he’s pure id, desire without constraint, and that’s exactly why we need him.”
“Desire is a mental house of cards, a construction that can’t bear the weight of reality,” his colleague says. “Ask all those lost souls who got everything they imagined, and more. Where is your M.C. Hammer now?”
A lone academic at the bar drinks a single pint of Bass, gets a little tipsy, pays up. He stops under the awning out front and fumbles with his raincoat, as if it’s new to him. The only other patron on the freezing patio is an older man with poet’s hair, a florid face, and a two-toned lap dog. He says to the academic, in a nearly unintelligible brogue, “You’re not leaving us already then?” The academic grins and does a little streetwise head tilt at the man. “You have to pet my doggy,” the Irishman says. “You do what now?” the academic says. “You can’t be leavin’ without pettin’ my little doggy.” There’s a hint of threat in the Irishman’s voice. The academic strokes the man’s sheltie as he’s told. I was the academic. Well-dressed and half-lit (both to the limits of my budget), I walk on, drawing admiring stares from people on the street.
The interview went well, I tell Mrs. Churm. We’re back in our suite. Starbuck jumps from couch to chair to floor to couch, Batman cape askew. “It went really well. I asked Sister Tara back here for pay-per-view and microwave popcorn.”
“You didn’t,” Mrs. Churm says. “Did you?”
I’m 8. We’re in the hotel at Our Lady of the Snows Shrine, not because we’re Catholic, or far from home, but because my mother admires Jackie Kennedy. But Mom’s not one for rules. She dips her index finger in a wall font and playfully dabs holy water on my left cheek. One minute later, I misjudge my leap from bed to chair, smack my face, and howl. Instant shiner, right where the holy water was. “All the nuns are going to think I beat you,” my mother says in the shrine restaurant.
“Would you like to talk about your dissertation?” Sister Tara asks.
I feel so at ease that I lean back, unbutton my jacket, and throw my arm across the back of their couch. For a millisecond, I wonder if the Benedictine obligation to hospitality is making me overconfident. Then I expound. “In my diss I investigate tropes of female strength in the poetry of Hunter Davis. Do you know his late work ‘Just Like Mom’?”
I recite the poem:
Mary Ann Barnes is the queen of all the
She can do the things that’ll give a guy
She can shoot green peas from her
Do a triple somersault and catch ‘em on
She’s a great big son-of-a-bitch, twice the
size of me.
Got hair on her ass like branches on a
She can shoot, fight, fuck, fly a plane and
drive a truck.
She’s the kind o’ girl who’s gonna marry
The two professors look at each other and nod almost imperceptibly. I think: I’m doing it!
The scholar sips at a whiskey-and-water and grimaces. His gastric reflux is pretty bad. “We portray Satan smirking, living it up, because we want to punish ourselves for the fun we’d like to have. We absolutely want what he’s got to sell, but believe that the consequences of desire must be suffering.”
We’re in the hotel lobby, on the way to lunch with friends. A cab is waiting, and Starbuck can’t get the Pez into his Batman dispenser. He refuses to budge and sobs as if his heart were broken. People stare at the boy’s bad parents.
“Tell us about your dissertation,” the department head says.
“Scooby-Doo is a narratological paradigm for the shift of all cultural artifacts from integrity to fragmentation,” I say. "The episode “That’s Snow Ghost” emulates a kind of realist tradition, the mirror traveling down the road. Then Bakhtin’s ‘polyphony’ emerges with the addition of a chorus—Scooby-Dumb, Scrappy-Doo—who voice things the culture wishes to say, but can’t due to the formal strictures of Scooby’s personality and his doggy speech impediment. Inevitably, self-reflexive commentary on the show’s own processes comes with the shift to the postmodern, as when Fred is forced to ride in the back of the van for the first time and says in surprise, “So this is what it’s like to ride back here.” Finally, a feminist Daphne emerges, as in “Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island,” concurrently with the literalization of the supernatural—the zombies are real now, not criminals in zombie suits, and they thank the gang for solving the mystery and releasing their souls into ‘peace.’ The text has exhausted itself, even assured its own destruction."
The interviewers beam. “You’re doing it!” they exclaim.
“You made me love you.
You made me love you, babe, made me love you, babe,
Made me love you, babe, (oh Lord) made me love you, babe …
Made me love you, babe, (said it wasn’t in my plans) made me love you, babe.
Ooh, look at you.”
I’m 10. I lust for the half-size Model A replica with the lawnmower engine in the florist’s showroom, to be given away in a drawing. It’s just as the Buddha said. Later, of course, there are many desires, which I try to knock out, like a patch of infant eczema treated with steroidal cream. But in the presence of some new temptation, desire comes raging back. This interview wakes a lust in me for things I never knew I wanted—the entire Penguin Classics library, an Egyptian dhow to sail on a nearby river, a pet Compsognathus I could walk on a leash. They’re all dreams of repose, punctuated with adventure.
Interview over, I attend a panel session on humor. One scholar has flown in from Hong Kong to talk about a parody of a joke she’s identified in her research: “I call my paper ‘The Territorial Shaggy Dog,’” she says. “It focuses on the redundantly no-point shaggy-dog shaggy-dog story.” Another speaker says humor studies is “pretty serious,” and calls his paper “What Is This, a Joke?” He explains the transmission of jokes through society and tells one himself: “What’s the difference between President Clinton and the Titanic? We know how many people went down on the Titanic.” The audience is appreciative.
“Too bad we won’t see you this trip,” I tell my friend Frenchy on the phone. “Free drinks every night in the courtyard, and we’ve got a pull-out couch.” Two hours later he calls to say he’s most of the way to D.C. At happy hour, Starbuck squeezes behind him on the settee. “You’ve got a baldie head,” he says, massaging it, then eats 14 maraschino cherries and runs through the crowd around the popcorn machine in his Batman cape. Our German friend, also here for the conference, joins us. Frenchy recalls childhood trips to the Black Forest and sings to her: “Schön ist die Welt, drum, Brüder, lasst uns reisen wohl in die weite Welt, wohl in die weite Welt …”
Just before my interview, I sit in the Sheraton lobby, memorizing pedagogic goals for composition classes. I glance up. My nemesis from Hinterland, the Little Scholar, who blocked me from obtaining job-hunting help, approaches. We nod. “No suffering laid upon us by nature or chance or fate is so painful as that inflicted by the will of another,” I say. He replies: “How’s that adjunct thing working out for you?”
Frenchy and I walk to a Vietnamese restaurant. He tells me about his great-grandfather, a French artist who decorated hotels in the American South. His son wanted nothing to do with the business and went back to France after World War I to pass off coupons out of cereal boxes as American money. Frenchy’s dad worked for the great-grandfather and remembers him standing on a ladder, painting roses on ballroom ceilings, all day long.
Disorientation of sleeplessness and stress. I’ve played too many mental games with myself, like a method actor tuning his mood. I look at the dark highway, but fantasize about Wisconsin, remember Washington, and anticipate Inner Station. I think of how long it once took to travel from the coast to the Mississippi, and how this cold rain smells like Scotland’s. It’s a long ride. In our driveway I open the sliding door on the van. Happy Meal toys spill down like sand in an hourglass. The house is Holiday Inn—not Kimpton—clean, but it’s good to be home. I’ve never been so hungry.
“Mar-arge, I’ve been watching women’s volleyball on ESPN …”
January 7 comes and goes, as does the ninth, 12th, 16th. Rationalizations begin: They’re getting special permission from the provost to skip the campus interviews and hire me directly. They’re keeping me on the hook in case the person they offered the job declines. I lie sweating into the sheets. At the door to the bedroom, my writing stands silently in the darkness, accusing.
Homer Simpson scrubs himself in the shower. “Must … wash off … stink of failure,” he says through gritted teeth.
But I’m hired. I take a couple of days and drive up to the Catholic women’s college to organize my new office. A student welcoming committee comes around as I’m putting books on the shelves. A vivacious sophomore says, “Every Tuesday we have a D.H. Lawrence reading group around the fire pit and roast weenies and ooey-gooey marshmallows, Professor Churm. Will you be my blanket buddy?” “Young lady, that’s not funny,” I say sternly.
Frenchy drinks another Bia Saigon. “We were in Plei Djerang, and Johnny and his buddy were jostlin’ each other and kiddin’ each other and givin’ each other a little shove here and there. Johnny was sharpenin’ his survival knife, and his buddy said something funny to him, and Johnny kinda grinned at him and stuck that knife out at him, and ‘course he was a little bit drunk and his depth perception was a little off, so he drove that knife into his buddy about a quarter inch. His buddy yelled, ’Damn, Johnny, you stuck me!’ Johnny said, ‘Well, hell, I pulled it right back out.’”
Starbuck and I wait for Mrs. Churm in the Inner Station mall. He spots an arcade claw game and wants me to try for the little stuffed Pluto inside. I have only $3 on me. We try, fail. Try again, fail. All this recent wanting has left me feeling that if my little boy doesn’t get that cartoon dog … Last try, the hooks catch in its scarf and it drops down the chute. Starbuck is delighted. I’m shaky and exhausted.
It’s a Thursday. Baby Churm sits up for the first time and says, “‘Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.’ Schopenhauer. Now, as long as I have the power of speech, may I take this opportunity to say … ah, what the hell, there’s time.” He sticks the cat’s tail in his mouth and gums it.
I reach for Mrs. Churm, and she reaches back. We fall backward together 13 years and land with a thump in a 1986 Toyota Corolla parked in an empty lot outside the Rainforest Café in Schaumburg, Illinois.
“I want to say that you were one of our top 14 candidates out of 165 applications. However, in that pile of applications, we had editors of major journals; we had people with many novels or volumes of poetry published; we had at least 100 applications from people who had Ph.D. as well as MFA degrees and multiple publications from houses such as Norton; in short, the competition for this position was pretty strong.”
(English Department Head)
“… he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”