12 April 2015

The Creative Writing Teacher

“What should your expectations be when you write?” After introductions and distribution of the course syllabus, Mrs. Lemmings liked to ask this question on the first day of her adult education creative writing class.

There were 13 students in the class, one over her limit. Two students raised tentative hands. One was an elderly woman named Miss Ashby. Mrs. Lemmings was doubtful that Miss Ashby would live long enough to complete the eight week course as the poor old woman seemed to have one foot firmly in the grave and the other making its way in that direction. The other hand was raised by a student who was the polar opposite of the aging Miss Ashby. This was a young man who appeared a good ten years younger than the next oldest student and about three score younger than Old Lady Ashby. This was Tom Blake who Mrs. Lemmings would have a hard time not thinking of as Little Tommy Blake.

Seeing no third hand go up she opted to call on Mr. Blake, fearing that Miss Ashby might expire mid answer. “My expectation when I write is to create something special. Like I have to have a high, really high standard for myself. Every time I’ve got to do my best. I wanna be a great writer someday. Soon. I wanna be like Kerouac.”

“Thank you, Mr. Blake.” Really Mrs. Lemmings wasn’t all that thankful for young Mr. Blake’s answer. He sounded to her like an idiot. Frankly most students did and very little of worth came out of the question but it got students to think and had the added benefit of killing some class time.

“Okay who else will share?” With the ice broken several other hands shot up but Mrs. Lemmings felt duty bound to call on the nearly deceased Miss Ashby.

“I expect that I am going to be able to tell more of my story, more about my life. You see I’m trying to leave behind a record of what I’ve done and seen in my life. I take a creative writing class only to make my writing more interesting, you know. I want to add a little spice so that people will actually enjoy my stories….” Mrs. Lemmings quickly realized that Old Lady Ashby was one of those elderly people who would just ramble on if given half a chance and what she had know was a full chance.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Lemmings cut in when Miss Ashby took a breath, it was either that or watch as other students began to doze off one by one. She called on a few more students including a Ms. Regent who said she was going to write a revenge novel to expose her dirty, cheating, lying ex-husband Curtis and her expectations when she wrote was to work towards achieving that goal. Though of course she didn’t say so, Lemmings thought that was not only the best answer of the evening but one of the best she had ever heard. Unlike Ms. Regent, Lemmings had not been cheated on by a lying scumbag of a husband. Rolf Lemmings had taken the coward’s way out and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge leaving a ton of debt, a cat named Angus and a note saying: “Can’t face another day. Sorry all. Rolf Lemmings.” Not much of an explanation or a legacy. That was three years ago and Angus was still around and so was most of the debt but the grief had passed surprisingly quickly. It took her husband jumping into the Pacific Ocean to realize that she didn’t really love him anymore. So now she was 43 years old, childless and without a steady beau and teaching at a community college five days a week and adult ed once a week. None of her writing was selling and hadn’t in over 15 years. Still Priscilla Lemmings (nee Ashcroft) was happy. Maybe it was because her health remained good owing to a rigid diet, daily runs and frequent backpacking trips. Maybe it was because those backpacking trips afforded her an escape from the city and into the wilds of California, Nevada and Oregon where fresh air and beautiful vistas were plentiful. Maybe it was because she had a wide circle of friends and a sister, brother and assorted nieces and nephews and cousins. Maybe it was because she had a huge personal library of poetry and literature much of which had been bequeathed to Lemmings by her late father who had been a long time professor of literature. Or maybe it was because she had availed herself of the assignations possible from a website called Affair Alert through which one could find members of the opposite — or for that matter the same — gender for no-strings-attached sexual liaisons.

It had been a year now since her first “hook up” and Lemmings had since met with nearly two dozen men for individual nights of sex. Only a few of those of nights had been disappointments for one reason or another. That was more than out-weighed by the six or seven nights of pure sexual bliss. Lemmings had never been promiscuous, having only three lovers previous to Rolf who she married at age 27 and had been exclusive with for two years prior. In fact, Lemmings had been something of a prude when it came to sex, at least compared to her friends. Now she was making up for lost time. She kept to a strict rule of seeing none of these men a second time no matter “how good it is.” Frankly, Lemmings told her best friend Dora, she feared forming an emotional attachment to the type of men who would cheat on their spouse (as most admittedly were) or would need to use such a website to find a sexual partner (never mind the apparent hypocrisy of her position, she would say). Plus knowing it was for that one night only made it extra thrilling.

Lemmings refused to meet men at her house, which created problems with the ones with a wife at home. Usually men would spring for a room or had an available room, and if not Lemmings was willing to split the cost of a room. Several times she had been house sitting for a friend or relative and thus had an available place to use.

Only Dora knew of Lemmings occasional nocturnal activities and being saddled with an overweight husband and four children she was thrilled to live vicariously through Lemmings. Dora was only slightly disappointed that Lemmings never had anything kinky to report. It was always the usual kind of foreplay, a bit of oral sex and then a few standard positions of love making. Often with encores. Still it beat the hell out of Dora having to talk about her fat husband and whining children.

Lemming was neither proud nor ashamed of her sexual escapades. She viewed them as necessities. They were no different than a brisk hike in the Sierras or a morning run through her Berkeley neighborhood. They were a damn sight more interesting than teaching this adult ed class, though minus the monetary compensation. Lemmings frequently thought she’d like to re-marry but she was in no hurry and didn’t currently see any prospects. It was enough right now to be the boss of her own life with the only real burden being the debt that was years away from being vanquished. When the debt was gone she could bid adieu to teaching adult ed. Meanwhile….

“I’d like you to start out by writing one strong paragraph that describes an imaginary place. It doesn’t need to be a fantasy, you can be describing a realistic place, as long as it is only one that exists in your imagination. Please take your time with this. You have 15 minutes so I really want you to give this some thought.”

Two and half hours was too long for a class. Lemmings had tried to convince the acting director of the adult ed program that two classes a week at an hour and a quarter would be better. But the acting director reminded Lemmings that the word acting was affixed to his title and there would be no schedule changes until he was permanent or a new person took over and even then space limitations would probably prohibit such a change. Lemmings hated bureaucracy  She especially hated bureaucrats. They were generally both spineless and heartless and lacking any imaginative.

Mercifully the clock finally neared the class end time of 9:30 and Lemmings was able to give the homework assignment and tell everyone how nice it was to meet them and how she looked forward to working with them. It was total bullshit but obligatory. The teacher was not surprised when the decaying Miss Ashby approached with a question before she could get out the door. After her question was answered Miss Ashby tried to launch into a monologue. Lemmings saw that the old bag was going to talk well into the wee hours so -- as politely as possible -- made her excuses and got into her 1999 Audi and drove home little expecting what would await her.


When Priscilla Lemmings pulled into the driveway of her North Berkeley cottage she immediately knew something was different. She got out of the car hurriedly anxious to discern what was amiss. It wasn't until Lemmings was on her porch with her key that she realized that there was a man sprawled out in front of her front door.

It was difficult to be sure because she'd forgotten to leave the porch light on but the man appeared to be asleep. Lemmings leaned forward using the light from her cell phone to illuminate the man.

"I am the fucking king of Sweden!" he bellowed, scaring the bejeezus out of Lemmings in the process.

She stepped back dropping her phone in the process and nearly tumbling down the three steps of the porch. The man stood. It was Rolf. Her late husband. In the flesh. Or a ghost. Priscilla Lemmings gasped, her right hand reaching for her heart. A heart that was now beating very fast.

"Didn't expect to see me, did you?" Rolf asked.

Priscilla felt a wave of panic. She gulped, blinked and physically steadied herself. It occurred to her that this was not a nightmare despite very much feeling like one.

"Relax, let me explain." Rolf then paused and wiped the dust off his suit. Priscilla felt calmer, she liked the idea that an explanation was forthcoming. One was certainly required given that she had identified Rolf's body. It had been picked up by the coast guard just a few minutes after hitting the water as a trawler happened to be just 100 yards away from impact and a few on board had even seen Rolf's swan dive.

As Rolf continued to tidy himself and delaying his explanation,  Priscilla finally managed to speak: "You can't be Rolf. I saw you dead. You were cremated --"

Rolf caught it."Yes about that cremation, I never said I wanted that. Then again I left no instructions at all so I can't say as I blame you. I trust the life insurance was enough to make things comfortable for you?"

"There was no life insurance!" Priscilla had accepted that this was her late husband -- just like that. "You lied to me. You told me a couple of times you had life insurance and I believed you."

Now Rolf was the one who was surprised. "I didn't have life insurance? What the hell was I thinking. It seems eons ago."

"Yes and very little in the savings," she added.

"Yes I suppose I didn't plan very well. I'd been feeling blue for a long time but only decided to end it all a few days before. Say can we go in? It's getting a little chilly."

Priscilla somehow couldn't think of any reason why they shouldn't go in. She immediately sat in her usual spot on the sofa. Rolf sat in a chair opposite.

"It's nice to be home. The place looks spiffy." Rolf was being pleasant and enthusiastic. More so than Priscilla could ever remember him being.

"I could go for something to drink. Got a beer?'

Something had been bothering Priscilla -- aside from the fact that the ghost of her husband was sitting across from her -- something wasn't right. Even if she accepted the idea that Rolf -- dead these three plus years -- was sitting across from her, there was something phony about the whole scene. The request for a beer was what did it.

"You're not Rolf! Rolf never, ever drank beer. I hope you're not going to suggest this is something you picked up in heaven or hell or limbo or wherever you've been. And Rolf never said the word 'spiffy' and you also said feeling 'blue' another expression Rolf never used. And the birthmark on your cheek seems to have disappeared. Who are you and why are you doing this and you better talk fast because I've got the police on speed dial and can scream pretty fucking loud." Priscilla had gotten angrier with each word she spoke.

"Ahh shit...I'm Rolf's cousin Yale. From back east. We met a couple of times..." Yale's voice faded. He slumped, he studied his lap.

Now Lemmings felt empowered. Her confidence was back. Her eyes were like slits as she studied the impostor. "I remember you were at the wedding and an anniversary for Rolf's parents. I also remember how much you looked like Rolf. But why this, this sick joke -- and it better be good."

Yale explained that it he was in San Francisco for a few weeks and instead of just popping over for a visit or calling first he thought it might be fun to play a little trick. It had especially helped that he'd been drinking a lot all day. He'd come to the house several hours earlier not realizing that Lemmings was teaching a night class. He'd fallen asleep where she found him although he actually woke up when she closed her car door. Yale said the declaration that he was the king of Sweden was based on a childhood game he'd played with Rolf.

"Can I crash here tonight? It's kind of late to make it back to my hotel in San Fran."

The weary Lemmings agreed adding that she'd be up about seven for a run before getting ready to teach a 10:00 am class at the city college. "Try to be gone as early as possible. Maybe we can have lunch before you go back. Assuming you're sober." Lemmings made a bed for Rolf's cousin on the bed and then retired for the evening. That night she had a very vivid dream.

The dream took place that very night in which she was sleeping. In it Lemmings got out of bed and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Standing there was the ghostly apparition of her deceased husband Rolf. He'd poured two glasses of water, one he gave to her. There was a very serious tone to their encounter. She talked with Rolf updating him about her life and Rolf in turn explained his suicide and the terrible depressions that had plagued him and gone untreated his whole life. Both of them cried. They hugged, then Rolf vanished. Lemmings returned to her bed and awoke from the dream. She was quite shaken by the dream and the whole experience of Yale's stupid practical joke and her first prolonged dream of Rolf.

It was near time to go for her morning run so Lemmings put on her shorts, running shoes and sweat shirt. On her way out the door she noticed that Yale had already left. Oddly there was no sign he'd slept on the sofa at all. Maybe he'd thought better of it and made his way back to the city right after she went to bed.

It was a particularly good run. Some are better than others. Occasionally she'll feel like superwoman as if she could run forever and had infinite speed and strength. This was such an occasion.

Lemmings showered and ate breakfast and thought about her teaching day. It was a Thursday which meant two classes, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.

Lemmings started to pick up around the house and what she didn't notice bothered her -- the bedding. What had Yale done with the bedding she'd laid out on the sofa? Lemmings double checked but sure enough it wasn't there. He couldn't have known what closet to put it in, but just the same she checked. It was there. Folded. Why would he put it back an without washing it, unless he didn't use it? This made no sense. Lemmings remembered that Yale said he was staying at the Commodore Vincent Hotel. It was an easy name to remember, especially since she and Rolf spent a night there one New Year's Eve. She called the hotel and asked for Yale. No one of that name was registered there. What the fuck?

Priscilla Lemmings was sure she had seen and talked to Rolf's cousin Yale the night before. In her house. It wasn't a dream. Rolf's visit was in the kitchen was a dream. The beer bottle. Yale had drank a beer. But there was no bottle in the living room or in recycling. But she's served him one. Or had she? How could I? I never have beer in the house. Lemmings was scared.

She thought to check the kitchen again. There was a glass of water. Not hers. Where Rolf had stood. in her dream. Priscilla refused to believe she was cracking up. But the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise.

The phone rang. It was an administrative assistant from the city college. "Mrs. Lemmings, we need you to drop off your keys," she said.

"What on earth for?" Lemmings couldn't imagine why.

"Why, you can't have keys when you're no longer employed with us. We discussed this last week when you were let go."

Lemmings sat heavily onto her sofa. She vaguely remembered a conversation with some people at the school including a dean about her no longer being able to fulfill her duties adequately and her classes being taken over by someone else. This must mean she had no classes to teach today. How could she have forgotten that something, she wasn't sure what, had caused them to let her go. "And again Ms. Lemmings, I'm so sorry about your loss, I realize that the shock of your husband's sudden passing last Summer was still too fresh in your mind to allow you to return to the classroom."

Last Summer? But it was three years ago, not six months. Wasn't it? Had her mind fast forwarded two and half years?

A memory. Rolf coming home unexpectedly from a business trip. Finding her in bed with a man she'd met on Affair Alert. Discovering that she'd been using the site to meet men. A week later jumping to his death.

"What now, what do I do now?" Lemmings asked aloud. "I'm so goddamned confused!" she added in a shout. Lemmings shuffled into the kitchen. Yesterday's newspaper was still on the table. Above the crease there was an article about a home invasion on Regent Street in Berkeley. An old woman named Ashby had been attacked, but the assailant, whose name was Tom Blake, had been arrested.

Lemmings began to weep. Those were names from her writing class last night. Or had she made up the class just as she had made up Yale's strange visit? Lemmings realized she was cracking up. She needed help. The only real thing that had happened was Rolf's visit. But he was dead. Lemmings looked out the kitchen window and noticed a hummingbird.

Over by the sink was her new butcher knife. It was stainless steel. Long, sharp and beautiful. Lemmings held it up letting the overhead light reflect off the blade.

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