As I pushed through swinging doors into Miss Kitty’s, half the faces at the tables and the bar swiveled toward me, as if to shout: “At last, it’s Writer Man.” The other half looked away from me and frowned, as if to reply: “Who cares?” Miss Kitty’s was the nicest place in town, decent food, good booze, and great entertainment. A typical night there included a punch thrown, or a chair broken, or a knife pulled, but normally in fun. Politicians and pickers felt equally at home, so it was the perfect spot for a faculty party in honor of my first book to be published.
Hanging behind my back, the gunny sack full of advance copies held the swinging doors open and allowed cold night air to slap at the patrons. The community college where I taught had a proper name, but you could have done an aerial photograph of it (surrounded by vegetable fields and scrub pines), put that photograph in the dictionary beside the caption “third world country,” and no text would have been needed to complete the definition. I spotted an empty chair saved at a table by two of my friends. I hobbled over to it and dropped the gunny sack onto the worn plank flooring.
“Hardly a proper way of treating new masterpieces of ‘faction,’” piped a nasal voice from the bar, a voice set inside a squat male body swathed in a white, three-piece suit. Scholar was typical of our newer faculty, focused on arcane research but unable to secure a position at a four year institution, forced by a glut of PhD’s to slum at a community college until a suitable vacancy occurred at a prestigious institution.
“New masterpieces of the ‘nonfiction short story.’”
“No four letter words, I trust,” intoned a wan voice from a nearby table, a voice set inside an emaciated female body encased in a floral print dress. Venus taught creative writing. She was typical of our faculty, high school veterans hired in spite of the fact that most of our students were non-traditional and thereby unable to relate, either to such teachers or to anything which they attempted to convey.
“One four letter word, ma’am, I’m sorry to say. The most taboo four letter word in American English. I’m addicted to it: W-O-R-K.” Several patrons snickered.
“Signed copies are in the gunny sack. Come and get one whenever you like, whether or not you’re associated with the college.”
The first two takers, sitting at the bar, were employed by the D.O.T. Hard of body and weathered of face, they walked over, opened the sack, and peered inside as though it contained a bunch of rattlers waiting to be passed around during a Sunday service.
“Decisive Moment.” Foreman slowly pronounced the words of the title. “Like candid photography?”
“Exactly. You a Nikon man?”
He laughed. “County pays for the equipment. You’d be surprised what you can capture around a work site.”
Digger reached in, pulled out two books, handed one to Foreman, and kept one for himself. “These stories read good with beer and whiskey?”
“Some folks claim they’re much improved by beer and whiskey.” We all laughed as they returned to the bar and their glasses.
Miss Kitty strolled over to our table, handed me a ginger ale on the rocks, and reached down for one of the books. “You’re becoming famous, Writer Man. They’re saying nice things about you in big city newspapers.” She had a concerned expression. “Your head looks the same size. You still writing about real people?”
“Real as I know how.”
She went back behind the bar and laid the book on a dry spot. She looked like your grandmother, if your grandmother ran a saloon.
Deacon leaned back in his chair and reached down to take a book. “Your first book. A run of 3,000 copies. Distribution in Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.” He grinned: “Writer Man, you’re an overnight success.”
I grinned back at him. “Folks who talk about overnight success have no idea how long the night was.”
Deacon was the bursar at the college and an elder in the handsome Episcopal Church, whose steeple towered above the town, the vegetable fields, and the scrub pines. He claimed to be mystified how a man of my supposed intellect could choose to attend a Holiness Church, set in deep woods, half a mile down a dirt road off narrow blacktop, eleven miles south of town. From my point of view, if King David could dance in praise and celebration, naked before the Lord and everybody else, then I could shake and shout to make Jesus feel welcome at my church.
“Any healing in that book?” Dean leaned sideways in her chair and reached over to take a copy.
“Healing’s where you find it.”
“I’m glad you’re still on the faculty. You’ve healed a lot of students.”
“Helped them to find their own healing.” My classes were filled with students whose school and life experiences had been negative. Whatever their past, I insisted, they could learn to succeed on their own terms.
Dressed like the wife of a Spanish aristocrat, Dean was a multi-cultural humanitarian, miscast by academic bureaucracy as Dean of Liberal Arts & Languages. She and I seemed the only two members of the faculty to recognize that our first priorities were to lift the self-esteem and to widen the horizons of our students. She had nodded in agreement, the first time she popped in to observe me and spied the two sayings which I kept on the blackboards of all my classes in remedial and basic English: “Each person has thoughts, feelings, and opinions worth sharing. Each person can learn to share them in clear, concise, and effective English.”
The tall fleshy man across the table from me coughed. “I believe you’d be late for your funeral, Writer Man. We’ve been waiting for you at this party given in your honor.” He swept his gaze back and forth across the saloon. “Of course,” he coughed again, “you’re an asset to this college, and we do appreciate that fact.”
I had come to the party after a four-hour, once a week, Friday evening class in grammar which no other instructor would touch. I was notorious for staying late with any students interested in talking about anything.
I stood up and addressed all the patrons while focusing on that tall fleshy man who was president of the college, the ideal head for an institution of higher learning in this state, a politician with a graduate degree, adept at manipulating tight-fisted legislators. He reached up to shake my hand. As his right palm slid through my fingers, I felt as though I was absorbing a week’s worth of cholesterol.
“I do appreciate your appreciation, Mr. President. Now, I’ve got to leave for Shoney’s. My students expect me by midnight.” It was seventeen miles north over twisting blacktop to the county’s only 24 hour restaurant, set in the county seat. Sometimes, we saw the dawn before we were all talked out.
“Leaving a party, given in your honor, to talk to students. Isn’t that excessive?”
“They want to learn how to write. They want to learn how to live. Writing is excessive. Living is excessive. Our time together is excessively brief.”
“They ask you questions. You give them answers. How can you be so almighty certain that your answers are the right ones?” The spider veins in his nose were throbbing.
“I’m not always sure I’m right. That’s for my students to decide. If they want to ask me questions, I’m obliged to give them the best answers I know.”
The president pounded the table with his fists. “Writer Man, you’ll be insubordinate one time too many.”
“Once in a while, after our fourth or fifth cup of coffee, we stumble together onto a profound observation, an enduring truth.”
I turned around and hobbled out of the saloon, leaving behind the gunny sack of books for patrons who would take them after I departed. In my battered old truck, I had additional copies for the students who were awaiting me.
Dick Michener's fiction and nonfiction pieces have appeared in the USA, Canada, Australia, and England. Most of his work tackles serious subjects but leavens them with humor.