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By Michael Burns


The Montréal Review, November 2011





Gabriel Hunt filched one of the stuffed grape leaves his wife, Caroline, had made for the dinner-dance tonight. He bit into it and discovered that it contained a rice-raisin filling. He threw it in the garbage and searched for one filled with lamb. Caroline came back into the kitchen singing an off-key version of one of the songs from the movie Saturday Night Fever.

"Night fever, night fever," she sang and slapped his hand away from the platter of grape leaves. "Those are for tonight, Gabriel."

"Why ruin perfectly good food with raisins?"

"Because some people-people with taste-like raisins. Oh, I can't wait for tonight!" Caroline grabbed her husband in a dance position and attempted to move him through some disco steps. He refused to be moved.

"Have you had a look at the common room?" he asked her.

"No, darling, no, no, no," she sang, executing dance steps with an imaginary partner. Gabe leaned against the sink to watch her, arms folded across his chest.

"Who did you say you put in charge of the decorating committee?" He glanced at his wristwatch. "It's close to four-thirty and they haven't begun to clear out the furniture, roll up the carpet. What time is this thing supposed to begin, eight o'clock?"

"Stop worrying, Gabe. It will get done. All you have to concern yourself with is the ice."

Nothing could daunt her now; she had conceived and planned, and was now in the process of executing the whole affair, practically by herself. Her "committees" couldn't really be trusted to follow through. Part of him doubted that she even cared whether they did or not. Maybe she secretly hoped they wouldn't; then it would have been all her doing. He had never seen her quite so excited over a dormitory activity before. He was uneasy about it, though he'd never admit it to her. Thrusting a girls' and boys' dormitory together in such a fashion could invite disaster. All of that sexual energy together under one roof quite frankly gave him pause. His argument against the idea had been a bit feeble, his chief reason being that Norm Spillane would never go for it. Norm was head of Driscoll House, the girls' dormitory, across the quadrangle. Nonsense, Caroline had said, and had got on the phone at once and beguiled Norm into agreeing that it was a marvelous idea. Of course, Gabe was the one who really opposed the affair, for reasons he didn't fully comprehend.

"I could nudge whoever you put in charge of the common room. Just to be on the safe side."

"Paul Carpenter's in charge; he'll take care of it." Caroline put the finishing touches on a guacamole dip. "Gabe, please stop worrying."

"Do you really expect them to appreciate all this exotic food? They subsist on pizza and fast food. You ought to know by now how pedestrian their food tastes are. And don't be upset when they don't dance. They'll stand around all evening and not dance. It will be awkward, and the night will drag on forever."

"They will dance, even if we have to lead them, which I am certain we will not." She took Gabe's hand and made several turns under his raised arm.

"I refuse to dance to that stuff."

"You refuse because you don't know how to dance to that stuff as you call it. I shall teach you. Come into the living room."

"No. I refuse, on principle. The music is boring and degenerate. You've seen the T-shirts kids are starting to wear. Disco Sucks, they say. Well, they've got that right. I'll have nothing to do with it."

"You're beginning to sound like such a stuffed shirt." There was a knock on the door leading from their living room to the common room.

Neddy Koch, a sophomore and a victim of severe acne, was at the door. "I was wondering," he began in his halting way of speaking, "if . Mrs. Hunt, need . needed any help in the kitchen." Neddy seemed always to show up in their kitchen when food was being prepared for dorm activities. He had few, if any, friends among his peers, and Caroline was perhaps the only person in the School with whom he felt comfortable. He certainly was never at his ease in Gabe's presence. Consequently Gabe saw to it that their relationship was as cool and detached as possible. Sometimes he wished he had assigned Koch to his colleague's advisee group instead of his own. Caroline was patient with Neddy, and tolerant of his personality, which in Gabe's mind was as sebaceous as the glandular chaos under his skin. He would never forget the night he'd observed the boy skulking along the corridor on his way to the shower, a towel wrapped around his meager loins. Boils the size of walnuts festered on his shoulders and back. In a school that placed a premium on appearances, Neddy Koch was held in low esteem.

"I could use some help in here, Neddy," Caroline sang from the kitchen.

"Go on in," Gabe said to him. "I'll be in the study," he shouted to his wife.

"Don't stray. I may require your services later."

Gabe used the narrow, high-ceilinged room off the common room, with a floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcase, as a study. He could do his work in here and keep an eye on the dorm at the same time. If a kid wanted to talk with him about anything he wouldn't have to deal with him tracking his muddy feet into the living room. Caroline had no such qualms about the sanctity of their apartment; kids could be found in the house at just about any time of the day or night.

A couple of stacks of compositions were on his desk waiting for marginalia, for letter grades. On the best of days Gabe had little stomach for correcting essays, and today he had none at all. He turned a pencil end over end and stared at his desk calendar, wishing this day were over, the dinner-dance history. Friday the fifteenth he had circled in red. The kids would not have been gone on spring break for a week before he would have to deal with his father's biannual visit. Gabe was in his eleventh year at St. Luke's School, and in those ten years his father had not ceased to try to lure him away from teaching and into what he termed a "respectable" profession. In his father's eyes the only respectable professions were ones in law and medicine, even if he had a grudging respect for a man of business. He had been bitterly disappointed in his son when he left Suffolk Law School before completing one-L. Contract law had been too much of a bore to endure, and the next unit of tort held no more appeal for him. On his father's last visit the conversation had gone something like this:

"I like teaching, father. Haven't you heard? Teaching is considered in some circles as a noble profession."

"Any fool can stand on his hind legs in front of a bunch of kids and call himself a teacher, so don't hand me that profession nonsense. There are no standards in teaching, no quality control. When was the last time you had a choice of the students you taught?"

"We've got good faculty representation on the admissions committee."

"And this dorm life you lead. Why you're no better than these overprivileged snots' servants. You've no privacy, no life of your own. I'm concerned about your lack of ambition, Gabe. God forbid your mother should have lived to see how you turned out."

"So why don't you write me off? Or better yet, just leave me alone; give it a rest?"

"You're still young, Gabe, but you won't be forever. You still have a chance to do something with your life. Get up off your rear end! If not for me, then for your mother. For yourself, damn it!"

His father might as well have suggested that Gabe, at age thirty-seven, begin training for a career as a professional boxer. No argument he could offer for the virtues of teaching was able to convince his father that he wasn't wasting his time and talent.

Gabe heard a tentative knock on his partially open door, followed by the appearance of Paul Carpenter's large head peeking in the room.

Gabe had to work to hide his annoyance at this interruption of his reverie, however unpleasant it was. "What can I do for you, Mr. Carpenter?"

Carpenter came into the room smiling, and took a seat in the wicker chair Gabe kept beside his desk. "Pysched for the dance tonight, Mr. Hunt?" Carpenter gave him a sly, insider's wink. Gabe could only guess at what conspiracy the boy imagined existed between them. It no doubt had something to do with the personal invitations he and a few of the other dorm studs had sent out to the Driscoll girls, contrary to Caroline's ground rules. It was all supposed to happen according to room match-up as Driscoll and Fiske-Gabe's dorm-were identical, as were the other two dorms that constituted the "quad," and therefore the room numbers were also identical. This unbiased dating arrangement, Caroline reasoned, was designed to spare the feelings of the less attractive kids (whom Caroline referred to as the "less socially skilled"). Most everyone agreed that this would be preferable to letting the boys choose their dates. Carpenter and his friends had other ideas. Gabe had seen a copy of Carpenter's personal invitation boldly tacked on his door, and had been slightly embarrassed at the explicit promise it had made, however exaggerated and in obvious jest. He'd been more shocked by what the girl had written in reply, and which Carpenter had also tacked on his door. He thought of his own eleven-year-old daughter, innocent and chaste (and tucked safely away for the evening at a friend's house), realizing that this condition had not much longer to last. It seemed that concupiscence was virtually lurking at the next corner. Some of the boys had even purchased corsages for their dates, another breach of Caroline's guidelines for insuring an impersonal and grief free evening. All her precautions to spare the tender feelings of the Neddy Kochs and their female counterparts would be for naught. How many of them were bound to wind up in the boys' rooms to smoke pot, drink alcohol, and fornicate?

Carpenter riffled a stack of compositions on the edge of Gabe's desk. "Graded our papers yet, Mr. Hunt?"

"You know how I feel about that question."

"Right. Sorry, Mr. Hunt. No problem." Carpenter smiled again. "I think I did a real good job on this one. I figure it ought to be worth at least a B+."

Carpenter was among the least gifted of his seniors. His papers were invariably dull, his values materialistic, his style colorless. He once half-seriously considered assigning him to write a piece about his sexual conquests, which, if rumor was to be believed, were prodigious. He was in fact quite handsome; his facial bones at seventeen appeared matured; he was square-jawed and blue-eyed, with a thick shock of wavy blond hair. And what was more he was a varsity athlete in three sports, and captain of the hockey and lacrosse teams What he lacked, in Gabe's view, was character. Last Saturday night, for example, when Gabe had been on duty Carpenter had checked in smelling suspiciously of alcohol; his eyes looked a trifle glassy, and his speech seemed a bit slurred, but just a bit. Not wanting to embarrass him in front of the other boys, Gabe had waited until the next morning to confront him. He'd gone to his room in mid-morning to find Carpenter sitting on the edge of his bed, his face buried in his hands. This tableau removed any doubt he had had the night before about his condition, and Gabe knew he should have confronted him then, if for no other reason than for Carpenter's own safety. He almost felt sorry for the boy with his gray face and bloodshot eyes, but when he challenged him Carpenter lied to Gabe with such straight-faced guile that for a moment he was stunned.

"You must believe that I'm feebleminded," Gabe had said to him. He tried unsuccessfully for a half hour to get him to confess, to tell the truth; when he finally left the room he slammed the door behind him.

Now here was Paul Carpenter relaxing in Gabe's wicker chair without a flicker of remorse or guilt. He wondered what precepts ruled this boy's life. And this was the young man Caroline had chosen to head the decorating committee, to prepare the common room for the evening's event. He didn't like to think about the effect Carpenter might have on his wife.

"Do you have any plans to deal with the common room?" Gabe asked him, avoiding his eyes.

"No problem, Mr. Hunt. Me and the guys will take care of it right after the game. I'm coping."


"Yeah, we're scheduled to kick some faculty butt in the gym. Don't sweat the common room; everything's under control. I better get over to the gym."

"Just a second. Do you have a theme in mind for decorating the common room?"

"Theme?" Carpenter scratched at the side of his head. "Do we need a theme?"

"You must have something in mind. Maybe you'd like to adorn the walls with images of nymphs and satyrs." Gabe had in mind the content of the invitation and its reply attached to Carpenter's door.

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Michael Burns is a retired teacher living in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of three novels in print, "Gemini", "Where You Are", and "Gemini's Blood." His fourth novel is being edited at present.




Ian McKenna's brother-in-law, Brian, was suddenly in the doorway of his study, a cigarette in one hand, a slab of Eleanor's homemade pizza in the other. Ian looked up from his typewriter, startled. When he saw that it was Brian, he sighed... | read |


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