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Still Life with Python


"I'll bet you're not ready for bed."

"No, I guess not," I said, blinking. Will Leander was standing by his car, looking at me over the roof of mine. I'd been in Dallas less than a month–a long, hot August, and I was still finding the Texas-intellectual style a little odd. And I was bored. Will and I had been part of a semester kickoff party for the English department at Constantine's, an upscale Greek restaurant with bad food, authentic ouzo, and a wonderful belly dancer. It was eleven, and there was no one waiting at home. Ashley would not arrive until the middle of September. She was finishing dissertation research at the University of Arizona. We had planned to come to Dallas at the same time, but something had come up just the day before we were to leave.

"Doctor O'Brien wants me to read the section on Hispanics at the NHA in January. I need to stay a few more weeks and get the revisions done," Ashley had told me. Randolph O'Brien was her dissertation advisor, an oily Bostonian, a Yale man a few years older than I–a good ten older than Ashley–with three important books in print. He smiled like a jowly cat. He looked a little like General Phil Sheridan in his Indian-killing days. An unexpected vacancy had occurred in a session that he was chairing at the National History Association, and he had arranged for her to fill it. Our apartment had already been rented, but we unpacked her necessities and she moved in with a friend. I drove to Dallas alone. The weeks had stretched a little, but she was making great progress with the dissertation, and we talked nearly every night. She was writing on the history of the Civil War in the Southwest, and she had been excited when I got a teaching job at Texas Methodist University, with its fabulous history collection, the Conagh Library. It was my first fulltime position, and I was excited to be making a living at last.

I'm from Socorro, New Mexico; big-league college life is something of a mystery to me. Texas Meth was a far cry from Arizona or New Mexico. The Methodists had dissociated themselves from the school years ago–apart from some connection to the Bum Whitney School of Theology. Small wonder. According to coffee-room scuttlebutt, big TMU benefactors could choose from a select group of co-eds on a special, unpublicized work-study program whenever the fat cats were on campus. The program was primarily for football and basketball recruiting. I don't know that this amenity was extended to the alums, but late in the semester at least two football players, independently, assured me that the program was a source of rapid financial advancement for an enterprising woman. One linebacker indiscreetly named for me a young lady from Cherry Hills–the upscale community adjoining TMU–who had been accepted into the program in her sophomore year and earned a Mercedes 550 in three years of service to the school.

"Well, David, you follow me and I'll show you another side of our lovely city." Will Leander flashed me a smile and stepped down into his car as if that were settled. His car was a Datsun 280Z, pristine white. Will is a small, spare man; he dresses all in expensive whites, like Tom Wolfe, whom he resembles a little. His engine kicked over smoothly, and he pulled out a few feet, then stopped, waiting for me. I got in and when my lights came on he gunned his engine, a pure, animal sound, and rolled away.

In a moment we were on Northwest Highway. He led me a couple of blocks, then began signaling a left. I glanced over. There were two nude dance parlors set back across an optimistically large dirt parking lot. One place was called the Silver Spoonful; the other Kitten's; they shared a glittering sign that said "Nude girls NUDE." There were pickups and a couple of older American cars outside the establishments.

Will was standing at the ticket booth when I got there. Trash was blown up against the wall–a McDonald's bag, some beer cans, what looked like a wadded-up grocery bag. The light inside the open door was grey with smoke that extruded a horizontal column of yellow-grey into the night. A Country-and-Western song I didn't recognize was pounding the walls. I could see some chairs and the corner of the stage. There was no light in the ticket booth itself; I realized as I arrived at the counter that the woman in the booth was naked from the waist up. Her breasts were little cones, about the size and shape of Anjou pears. Her nipples were plump and relaxed. Admission to the Silver Spoonful was ten dollars. A soft drink was another three dollars, she said.

Inside was a small, bare room with a polished wooden riser in the center. About three feet from the riser was a circle of plastic cafeteria chairs, most of them empty. Except for the bored-looking date of one guy, the audience was all men. Will waved to someone who did not respond, as near as I could tell.

We took seats along the wall. A woman was circling the room, collecting tips in her G-string. The woman on the platform was naked, a tiny lump of dark fabric on the floor beside her discarded spike heels. She had a long black pony-tail bound high on her skull like a topknot. Her lanky legs were concave above the knee, a marathoner's thighs. Her breasts had a pronounced crease at the bottom when she was upright; they swung away when she leaned forward, pendant pears, the largest circumference closer to the tip than to her chest. She was leaning forward, almost horizontal at the hips, presenting her naked rear to a segment of the audience, when we sat down. Three jury-rigged household floodlights illuminated the makeshift stage. I noticed later, the second time she performed, that she was always careful to assume this pose in such a way that one of the floods cast a deep shadow across her rump–so that shade withheld the view that the pose offered.

When the woman working the audience arrived at my chair, I slipped a dollar into the top of her G-string, just below her belly button. I glanced at her face; beneath a mask of makeup she looked about thirty. The dancer wriggled to the music, rotating slightly on the riser until she was facing a new part of the room. Then she leaned forward again, her hands on her knees. Her buttocks were round, white as a baby's bottom. Once she was bent over, she slid her hands back and then up, her fingers making their way up the backs of her thighs, but shifting direction at the last minute and coming to rest on her hips. The effect was compelling but not remotely sensual. As the music thumped to a conclusion, she squatted on her heels. Rocking on her knees and the balls of her feet, her groin shadowed, her torso upright, her hands brushing not her breasts but her ribs, she mimed intense, syncopated intercourse.

The music ended. She picked up the handful of cloth, stepped into her shoes, and left the platform, her heels clicking. "That was Tracie," a man said from the door by the ticket booth. "How about a hand for Tracie?" There was tired applause. Tracie stepped behind a curtain.

"She's Tracie till about three a.m." Will had touched my forearm to get my attention, a delicate, vaguely Oriental gesture. "At three, they start calling her Cherry. I asked one time, and this cowboy told me why. She brings out a little basket of cherries and fills her cunt with them–" The next song began with a sudden blare that interrupted him for a moment, then he went on to describe a rather bizarre auction. I listened with half an ear; Will seemed to find the story amusing. "Ecco il mondo," he concluded. The music was a driving rock song, more percussion than music, really, another piece I didn't recognize.

A woman came from behind the curtain Tracie had stepped through. She was wearing a big, loose fishnet tank top that came down to her thighs. She was a little olive-skinned brunette; her hair was done up in a bundle at the nape. She was barefoot. She began to slow-dance, moving to half the pounding beat. Once she had a rhythm established, she slowly stripped off the tank top. Under it she wore a black bikini panty with a tass le on one hip. Her head and arms caught in the ascending tank top. She stood still then for an instant, firm-bodied as headless statuary, her breasts beautifully solid hemispheres. Her waist was so trim that her hipbones made a shelf of flesh on this side, then that, when she swiveled and turned. She dropped the tank top and raised her hands again to release her hair. It fell halfway down her back.

The woman in the booth and the dancer who had been circulating when I came in passed each other at the door to the ticket booth. The woman from the booth was wearing a flowery garter belt and textured nylons. One leg had a bad ladder run down the back, I noticed as she disappeared behind the curtain. Across the room, a fifth woman was sitting between two guys in jeans, boots, and cowboy shirts. She had her legs crossed, her ankle on her knee, and a cigarette in one hand. The guys each had a tall dark drink–a Coke. She looked utterly at ease in a pair of high-cut bikini panties. I was distracted for a moment, watching the lift and roll of her naked breast as she gestured with the cigarette. Smoke was a tangible presence in the room, a dirty grey stratum at ceiling height. The two men laughed, and she joined them, leaning forward and then raising her face toward the ceiling, open-mouthed. Like the other girls, she was trim but fleshy, and vaguely pretty. Her neck and her chest above her breasts were pocked with acne scars.

"Hi." My eyes had drifted back to the little dancer on stage. Tracie was standing just to my left, collecting tips. Her voice was higher and younger than I expected. I looked up. Her hard eyes had no friendliness in them, and her tight mouth was slashed with red lipstick; it was a face that said, "If you wanna touch it, it'll cost you, buster." I fumbled out a dollar. She tilted her pelvis toward me. The G-string was festooned with dollar bills like little erect green trophies. I pushed my dollar in solidly, pulling the elastic away from her right hip. She had an ugly appendectomy scar just above the panty-line. I shied a way from it a little, toward the center of her belly; my fingers brushed hair. I glanced up at her face, embarrassed. Her eyes were knowing, triumphant. I started to apologize, then I realized it would just make things worse.

"You want a drink?" she said.

"No." Before I could say more, she had stepped away, facing Will. He was holding a dollar bill folded into a tight flat shape like a popsicle stick. He pushed it into her waistband without touching her. I turned my attention to the woman on the riser. The first song had ended, and she toweled her chest with the tank top while the man from the booth approached carrying a wicker basket which he set down near her. She kneeled beside it and the next song started. Writhing a little in time with the music, she opened the basket and extracted a thick diamond-spotted snake about six feet long. She played with the snake, kissing it and fondling it against her face, and then lifted it over her head and settled it across her shoulders as she stood up. She danced back to the center of the riser, stroking the snake's head.

The snake moved lazily, bobbing and weaving. She reached down to her hip with one hand and pulled on the tassel which, as it turned out, held a slip knot. When the knot slipped, the fabric collapsed; the crosspiece ran through a loop in front, and now nothing held it in place but the friction of her thighs. Her pubes were shaved. The next shift of her weight released the black swatch of cloth from between her legs, and it hung like a black silk hankie from the tassel in her hand. She dropped the panties and for a minute or so, she danced naked with the snake.

After circling the stage once, she sank to her knees at the center, then lay on her back, folded back on her calves, her thighs together, still moving rhythmically to the music, and the snake, thicker than my arm, made its sleepy way down her torso, a meandering, disembodied penis, I thought with a start of recognition. It rested for a moment, looped on her thighs, and then she stroked its spine with one finger, and it turned back on itself in a fluid motion and crawled onto her stomach. She moved in place then, dancing with shoulders and hips while the snake rode her lap. Once, a few years ago, I killed a rattlesnake half its length, down near Carlsbad. That snake had weighed, I guess, two or three pounds, so this one, with its trunk thick as a strong man's forearm, weighed at least ten, probably more. The mass of a snake is deceptive because we think of long thin things as hollow or light–hoses, ropes, PVC pipe, feather boas. She moved effortlessly under the snake's weight, but the resistance gave tone to the muscles of her thighs and abdomen. The effect was electrically sexual. The snake began to make its way up her body again while she moved to the music, sliding between her breasts and up and around her neck. She adjusted the angle of her torso subtly as the snake shifted its weight, so that she was nearly upright by the time it was settled again around her shoulders. Then she leaned back again, nearly vertical, her left hand stabilizing the snake against her chest. Its head rose and hung in the air beside hers. The music stopped and she was suddenly motionless, her hair touching the stage, the snake's head erect above her mouth.

She sat up smoothly and shifted to her knees, then sinuously to her feet, careful not to throw the snake off balance. She lifted its dry weight off her neck, dropped it gently into the basket, swiveled to gather up her bikini and tank top, dropped them on the basket lid and left the stage, clutching the heavy basket to her stomach like a cumbersome grocery bag.

"That was Trish. How about a hand for Trish?"

The woman who had been sitting with the two guys was next.

"You liked that, huh?" Will murmured beside me. I wanted him to shut up. My groin had hardened against the tight stresses of my jeans, though. I thought of something tough and trashy to say; let it pass. But I didn't look at him, either. He lit a cigarette. "I love the smell of semen and smoke," he murmured.

Trish brought the snake with her when she circulated. It was wrapped around her waist like a knotted towel, casting a shadow that covered the black panties. It would be difficult to put money in without bumping the snake.

"You want to pet him?" she asked the woman a few seats from me. I looked at the couple. The woman was flushed, her mouth a little open; her boyfriend was floridly drunk. She ran her hand over the snake's body in an unmistakable if unconscious mime. Her boyfriend managed to slip a bill into the black panties.

Trish had an athletic body, firm and muscular, smooth as marble or butter, without an ounce of fat but shapely as a Michelangelo nude. I had studied every square inch of her while she danced. Twice we had made eye contact; the second time, she had executed five or six smooth, seductive undulations, watching me, one hand lifting her hair from her nape and the other stroking the snake's head that hung like a monstrous, half-turgid glans a few inches above her bare groin. Her hairless labia were there and gone in the shadow and shift of her body, naked as a child's.

Now I watched her approach, her breasts swelling and sinking as her weight shifted. They were small, round breasts, scarcely hemispheres, the nipples rosy-brown, almost dark as raw liver. She had no tan lines. When she arrived in front of Will, he did his trick with the stick-dollar; the edge made a little scratch going down her thigh, but she didn't flinch. Releasing the money, he trailed his knuckles gently along the chin of the snake, following its contour clear to the belly where it rested on her hip. Then he turned his head and looked at me, his eyes heavy-lidded and his smile ludicrously sinister. I looked at Trish's face. She was looking at me, expressionless. In the haze, and the augmented sensibility provided by three pungent ouzos, she seemed beautiful.

I was holding a dollar when she stepped in front of me. That firm belly, scarcely a foot away, the navel carved and shaded dark marble, made me suddenly, almost tearfully hungry. On an impulse, I slipped my fingers into the panties from below, touching the hollow beside her pubes and, for an instant, the soft, lightly bristled labial flesh.

She leaned forward until her face was a few inches from my ear, on the side opposite Will Leander. Her breath was warm and damp. "Is there anything I can do for you?" she said.

Without thinking, I said, "No." I stayed for more than an hour. She danced twice more; she didn't ask again, but she looked at me while she danced, gazing with the empty expression of statuary. I tipped her each time she made her round. When I left, Will stayed behind.


Ashley and I had talked nearly every night during first long week, and most nights of the second. Then student orientation began and I felt less like a scrub jay in a gilded cage. I had told her the next night, my narrative punctuated by her protests at my "naughtiness," about Will Leander, the Silver Spoonful, and Tracie's crude sex display. I neglected to mention the girl with the snake.

"Well, you'll just have to take me, when I get there," she said.

"What for?"

"Well, I have to scope out the competition," she said archly.

"The EPA should close the place down for air pollution," I said. "You could get cancer from tertiary smoke!"

"So I let you out of my sight for two weeks, and already you've got fairies trying to jump your bones."

"Well, at least you don't need to worry about what might happen," I said.

"I certainly hope so!"

Ashley was a native Texan, so it would be homecoming for her when she arrived, even if it was only Dallas. She is a Houston girl; she takes football, prestige, and money seriously. We had been married for a year. Ashley tasted and smelled of money; she was not, like me, a scholarship and assistantship student, even though she had the grades. When we met, I had thought her name was a little exciting, Hemingwayesque. Now, after three weeks of lecturing to disinterested little models for Seventeen named Ashley, Heather, Kimberley, and, in one case, Standish, the novelty had paled for good.

I had been at Texas Meth about a month when Ashley finally hopped a Southwestern flight to Dallas. I met her at Love Field. She threw herself into my arms, then handed me her luggage and wrapped both arms around one of mine. We staggered off to the car. The rest of her things were coming air freight.

"So have you been naughty any more?"

"Well, I fed a parking meter yesterday. And I failed to genuflect outside of Saks when I went to get your housewarming present."

"You know what I mean!"

Her gift was an expensive blouse I'd had the saleswoman select with a photo of Ashley and the necessary statistics to guide her. We made extravagant love, Ashley and I, as soon as we got to the condo, and then she wore the blouse to dinner at Constantine's. Ashley hadn't noticed the nude dancing parlors on the way to the restaurant, but coming back, in the deep dark, she couldn't miss the conspicuous lights across the frontage road.

"Let's go!" she said when she saw them.

"Not tonight. I have other plans."

"I'll just bet." She put an arm up and around her head and shook her chest. "We'll put on some raunchy rock and roll and see who can get down and dirty."

When we got to the condo, I came around to open the passenger door: old habits. I noticed that Ashley was squirming in the seat just before I opened the door; she slipped something into her purse.

"It's as hot as I remember it," she said as I handed her out. The air was moist and sticky. She preceded me up the stairs to the second floor. The wide-necked blouse had fallen from one shoulder, and her black skirt was thigh-high. As she climbed the stairs, she swayed her backside like a trolling streetwalker. At some point, she had taken off her pantyhose; her legs looked powdered. When I reached up and touched a flank, she jumped with a melodramatic squeal.

I unlocked the door and flipped the light on.

"Sit," she said, pointing at the couch. I sat. "Stay," she said.

She crossed the room to the stereo, tossing her shoes off in the general direction of the bedroom. She punched a button on the stereo, and it flashed to life, pumping classic rock courtesy of KIQX, "your ecstasy connection." She did a couple of bumps facing the orange lights of the stereo, ground her hips, and then put her hands on her thighs and pushed her skirt up until it was barely street-legal, rolling her hips as the fabric climbed her legs, looking over her shoulder at my reaction. Then she was doing something to her chest, her hands under her blouse. When she turned and strutted over to me, her strapless bra came away in one hand. She sat on me. I sprawled on the couch, hard as stone with a pulse. With one hand she unbuttoned my shirt; with the other she guided my hand up the back of her thigh until it was where she wanted it.

"You like your girls nasty, huh?" she whispered.

It must have been her panties, the thing she had put in her purse.


Patty Durham, in my eight o'clock composition class, was on a scholarship. She stood out academically despite the level of competition. She was surrounded by class presidents and homecoming queens. They were all, except for the random few whose parents were so wealthy that the registrar had recalled this or that loophole in admissions policy, exceptionally bright and articulate. Patty was unarguably the brightest and the best writer, when she wanted to be, that I had ever taught. And unlike the rest, she was engaged in her education. She was always visibly, deliberately thinking.

My new colleagues were right, I was forced to admit after a few weeks: the students were a boring bunch, for all their exceptional educations, proof that it took more than intelligence and verbal competence to make a mind. We had some uncomfortable moments, my students and I, while they tried to figure out how to reach me. They were B-plus students used to getting A's. Ordinarily, they knew what was the right thing, whether the subject was politics, religion, flattery, or vermouth. They knew what they wanted and how to get it. They were willing to do what it took.

Patty Durham had a familiar prettiness rather plain in that environment. She would have seemed beautiful, I think, among a more typical group of students. Here, of eleven girls in the class, six were gorgeous, sculptured beauties, with porcelain teeth and the best noses money could buy. Patty was at Texas Meth because she had been offered a full tuition scholarship. The scholarship had put the cachet of a TMU diploma within reach. The Durhams lived in Brinkman–a respectable Dallas neighborhood, but not a place to live.

Patty was about five-two, with brown eyes and dark hair that she wore chopped boyishly short. In a room where female eyes glittered with contacts, she wore owlish glasses. Her one obvious vanity was sunglasses with the same frame. She was a chunky kid, not fat but heavy-looking, like a small swimmer or a gymnast. She wore a lumpy black hat in class, and for the first few days she glared with a sullen look that dared me to protest. She had a sizeable chip on her shoulder. She knew how welcome she was at Texas Meth. The athletes were hired to win games; the bright kids from the wrong neighborhoods were hired to do their part for the overall GPA. Like the linebackers, she was a valued employee. She sat in the back right corner, volunteered nothing but always had an answer if I called on her, and wrote A papers effortlessly. She watched me as if I taught in sign. She almost never took notes.

Stephanie Moore was more typical. She always took notes. She was embarrassingly attentive, always laughing at my jokes, always ready with the question that would fix her participation in my mind. It was not like her to miss a week of classes, but at toward end of the semester she did. The story emerged in bits of fact and gossip. She had been given a lesson in what it took to get what you wanted. She wanted a place in a sorority, and that meant being a good little sister to the boys of Tau Lambda Chi. It meant a grotesque exercise involving three big brothers in one brother's room. She had been drunk enough that night and eager enough for her pin to buy the scene. She hadn't known about the hidden video camera until rumors of Stephanie Does Dallas surfaced. I don't know if she actually saw the video, but a week later she had slashed her wrists ineptly, and then she was home. I never saw her again.


It was toward the end of the semester that I was summoned to the Rhetoric Director's office. Professor Gutman, Katherine, was a tall, lean woman in her forties. I found her hard to talk to, because her eyes always seemed frightened, even when she chaired meetings. It was the kind of fear that made you want to go away rather than help.

After inviting me in, she shut her door. She circled around her desk and sat down before speaking to me. "Have you been frequenting the more disreputable local establishments?" she said. Her office has a big arched window; it framed her silhouette. She had her hands clasped just below her chin, in a surreal parody of prayerfulness.

"Like what?" I said, after a puzzled moment. "You mean, cathouses?"

"Let's be candid, Professor Montoya," she replied. She usually called me "David"; her voice was clipped and professional. "I think you know what I'm talking about."

"I don't," I said. "I really don't."

"Your car has been seen outside a nude dancing parlor on the north side. Did you loan it to someone?"

"Those places on Northwest Highway?" My eyes were adjusting to the light.

"Have you been to others?" she replied, with a tight look of triumph.

"No," I said. "Is that all?"

"Isn't that enough?" She barked an ironic laugh. "Is that normal behavior in Arizona?"

"Well, it's not abnormal behavior. Those places are legal. I was curious."

"Well, your students must think you are a fine example. It is one of our roles on this campus, you know, setting a moral example? For our students?"

"Did a student complain?"

"Do you think this sort of thing can happen and not get into the students' little gossip network?"

"Look, I went there once, weeks before the semester even started, mainly out of curiosity and boredom. It's just a burlesque house, for Heaven's sake."

"Just a burlesque house." Her tone was magisterial. She was looking at me like a judge listening to a feeble excuse for a speeding offense.

"I can't believe my students would care about this, beyond being mildly scandalized." In fact, I had considered describing it one day last week, while we were discussing alienation experiences. I didn't say so.

"And their parents?"

"Some of them would be upset, I suppose." I paused. It was my first semester, but my pride was feeling a bit clawed. "Is that an important consideration?"

"Isn't it?"

"Most of their parents would be upset to know that some of us write Marxist tracts for the local papers, I suppose. And Bruce Devlin makes no secret of his relationship with Michael Billings."

"Bruce Devlin is a Full Professor. He does not teach Composition." Her voice was full of capitals.

"I haven't been back," I said then, and was immediately ashamed.

"And won't be, I hope," she said, widening her eyes a bit.

"No," I said, striving for an even tone. "I won't be." It was no use. "Is it all right, though, if I continue to take my wife to Constantine's occasionally? They have belly dancers and loud music."

"Your personal life is none of my affair," she replied.

"Precisely," I said, wishing I could shut up. We faced each other silently for a moment. I wondered if I had just settled the question of next year's contract. I think she knew I was wondering that. I knew she didn't have the final say. A committee would evaluate my teaching; the head of the English department, Neil Dahlberg, would make the decision. He had interviewed and hired me on the strength, I think, of my scholarly accomplishments rather than my teaching skills. My dissertation, a study of Spanish literature of pre-statehood California, was being read by Oxford University Press.

"I had my doubts about how you would fit in here," Katherine Gutman said in a level tone. "Texas Methodist isn't really your sort of place, is it?"

"I like my students," I said. It was too late for capitulation.

"I'm sure they like you," she replied. Her mouth bounced up into a flicked smile, as if someone had pulled a string abruptly and it had broken. I felt suddenly, insanely, in control of the situation.

"Ashley is really pleased with the facilities at the Conagh Library," I added, as if we were having a casual chat after concluding our business.

"I'm sure I have students waiting," she said then, standing up. I departed. For two days, I rehashed the conversation to myself, wondering what, eventually, it would come to mean. Neil remained cordial. I wondered if I should have mentioned Will Leander to her; I had not, from a childish impulse of honor.

"You didn't really tell Killer Kate to go fuck herself?" Ashley asked at dinner a few days later.

I sketched the conversation for her.

"So you didn't," she said when I was done.

"No. I didn't."

"Good," she said, returning to her baked potato.

That night, while we were waiting for sleep, she said in the dark, "What did you tell her? Exactly."

"I told her I was really sorry I had been bad, and I would never do it again, ever ever."

"Seriously." She paused. "Did you tell her about the little faggot taking you there?"

"No. I neglected to confess that part."

"I'll bet he's the one that told on you. He 'saw your car'," she added in a mocking whine. "He certainly wouldn't go into a nasty place like that. Not when there are lovely boys in every bus station, looking to make lunch money in the men's room."

"Maybe one of my students did see the car. It would have had Arizona plates. Some guys going into the other place. Or maybe somebody who was there has seen me on campus. It's possible," I said.

"It was Leander," she said. "Why didn't you just deny it? Then you wouldn't have been in any trouble at all. How could she be sure?"

"I didn't deny it because I didn't do anything wrong."

"You call going into one of the sleaziest joints in Dallas doing nothing wrong?" she said with a merry laugh. I felt patronized.

"Yeah. I've got a student who was gang-raped on videotape. Five of my colleagues in a department of about twenty are gay, and a couple of others are lesbians. Dan Bussey supposedly applauded the assassination of Kennedy and joked with one of this classes, "Where's Lee Harvey Oswald when you need him?" after Ann Richards was elected. Two graduate students deal coke–but not out of their carrels. Jeremiah Houston picks a concubine from each semester's class rolls and fucks her brains out for a semester. What did I do 'wrong'? Besides get caught, of course."

She was silent for a least half a minute. Then she said, "That's what your students would say."


"That's what you did wrong," she said.

"You think that's what Gutman meant? I can do what I please, as long as she has full deniability?"

"I think you should care about what people think. About what people say. That story about you telling Professor Gutman to go screw herself is getting around. A few more of those, and you'll be driving a cab next fall."

"It isn't true."

"So? It's true enough that you have to explain it rather than deny it. People don't remember what's true; they remember what they hear."

"So it isn't what I do and say that matters; it's what I appear to say and do?"

"Don't be a smartass. It's what gets you by."


There were rumors that a snuff film was circulating in the dorms. I brought it up one morning in class.

"It's really gross," Dana Marie Dillard said.

"You've seen it?"

Her expression became guarded. "No. One of my girlfriends told me about it."

"Has anybody seen it?"

Three hands came up, all boys'.

"It's just a movie," Doug Langley said. "It's not very realistic."

"You mean the woman isn't really killed?"

"I dunno," he replied.

"I heard she was a prostitute in Tijuana," Andrew Conagh said. "Mexicans make these movies. They con white girls into coming to, like Juarez, and film killing them."

"Gross," a girl muttered from near the door.

"And you think the killing is real?"

"Sure," Andrew said.

"Doesn't that bother you? That you witnessed a murder?"

"It's just a movie."

"But it isn't just a movie," I said. "You think it was real. Would you have stopped it if you were there?"

"What could I do?"

"No. What would you do?"

Andrew just glared at me.

"It's all over now," Patty Durham interjected. Startled by her uncharacteristic participation, I glanced at her. She was looking at me with that intensity that often troubled me when I caught her eye. "That's why it's just a movie." I started to reply, but she went on. "What you would have done if you were there doesn't have anything to do with seeing it now." I started to speak again, but she added, cutting me off again, "That's all."

The class talked about the difference between real and realistic. Patty stayed out of it when the discussion was moving through the class. But she kept her eyes on me, as if more interested in my reactions than in her classmates' observations. I let the discussion roll on for a few minutes, then I stepped in again.

"Movies are different from writing in that the filmed event exists on two levels. If I write a story in which, say, a woman is forced to do something degrading, that's just a story. But if I make a movie, and the movie is very explicit, then a real woman has to do something that resembles the pretended event. If she does exactly what the story described, then she is degraded while pretending to be the character being degraded. If a movie depicts someone's death, then you witness two events: you see what you are pretending it is, and you see what really happens. Now think about this snuff film. It's not interesting at all on the fictional level. It's not a 'good movie.' Right?" I waited for a few nods. "People go to see it because of what really happens, not what it depicts. A woman is really killed."

No one said anything for a minute.

"You think it's wrong to go see this kind of movie," Dana Marie said.


"How is it different from going to a Clint Eastwood movie where some horses get killed in a chase?" Patty said. Her expression suggested my answer was important, and I could think of nothing to say. I started to say that Eastwood's films were notably SPCA-approved, then realized that wasn't relevant to her point.

"Or that Twilight Zone movie, where that actor got killed?" Andrew said. "There's somebody really getting killed."

"But you don't go to see him get killed. Do you?"

"I never saw it," he said. "I heard it was pretty dumb," he added smugly.

The bell rang and we fled from each other.


Over semester break, in January, Ashley went to the National History Association meeting in Miami to give her paper. I stayed in Dallas, an economy I had agreed to reluctantly. I called her hotel the first night. She was not in at nine. I called again at eleven, and there was still no answer. I assumed a party was keeping her up late. I called again at one; no answer.

"You must have been up all night," I said when we connected, finally, early the next evening.

"You know these NHA conferences. Parties every night. I'm going to bed early tonight. My paper is tomorrow."

"Knock 'em dead."

"I'll call you tomorrow night and tell you how it went. OK?"

We said goodnight. I should have been used to living alone. At ten–eleven her time–in a fit of sentiment, I called again, to hear her voice. There was no answer. I called again at twelve and then around one. I watched some television. At two, I called once more. Randolph O'Brien answered the phone.

"Yes?" The patrician voice was tired, but his rich vowels were always unmistakable.

"Can I speak to Ashley?"

Ashley was on the phone almost before I finished the sentence.

"David?" she asked, some urgency in her voice, a breathless quality it took me a moment to place.

"Yeah," I said.

"Hi, darling." There was a silence on the line. "Randolph and I have been going over my paper all evening. Have you been calling?"

"No. I just got lonesome all of a sudden."

"We've been here grinding through this paper for hours. Rand wants me to shift the focus of my dissertation."

"Well, you guys get some sleep," I said. "You want to be fresh tomorrow."

"Yeah. We're just wrapping it up." After a long silence she added, "Love you."

"Uh-huh," I said, watching the shadows on the wall. The lights in the bedroom were out. A tree outside made abstract patterns across a poster we'd bought together. Georgia O'Keeffe. A ram's skull. "Take it easy," I said then.

I hung up. I sat in the dark for about half an hour before I got dressed and went out. I wasn't going anywhere in particular. Dallas air is cold in winter, brisk but windless, damp and cold. I drove north and ended up headed toward Grapevine, out on Northwest Highway.

It was three o'clock when I got to the Silver Spoonful. I paid my ten dollars and sat through the gyrations of a couple of girls I didn't recognize from before. Then Tracie did her raunchy posture-girl routine. She didn't auction cherries. Maybe later. But she was a lot more careless about the light and where she put her hands. I wondered if Trish would be next. She was. The floods cast strange shadows, but I realized at once why Patty Durham had looked a little familiar. Clothes change everything. The long hair was a fall.

My presence didn't have a noticeable effect on her performance. Passing through the crowd afterward, she stopped in front of me a bit defiantly, the snake draped around her shoulders, her hand cradling his head. I smiled, politely, as if we were meeting in a supermarket, and slipped a dollar into the side of her panties. She moved on.

Later, when the next girl circulated, I signaled her with two fingers, a ten-dollar bill between them.

"You want some drinks?" she said with a smile meant to be seductive.

"No. Just do me a little favor." I tucked the bill into her G-string, at the center. Her belly was glittery with sweat and peach fuzz. "Tell Trish next time around to ask me if there's anything she can do for me."