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“Don’t Mistake Tenderness for Weakness” by Kate Gray

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Don’t Mistake Tenderness for Weakness

By Kate Gray

If you really want to tell your story, you shouldn’t teach, honest to God, and besides, students don’t want to hear a middle-aged professor drone on and on about his sad sack of a life. You may think that by telling them, you’ll spare them something awful because you’re that kind of guy, but when it comes right down to it, keep it to yourself.

That’s what you should’ve done, but you didn’t.

At Clark Kent Community College, no kidding, a college named after a man whose parents were obsessed with Superman, when midterms happened every quarter, you got sick of everyone’s grandmothers supposedly dying and them skipping class for the funeral or elk season and their uncles taking them to eastern Oregon to bag this year’s meat, their saying, will I miss anything important? and you knew you couldn’t keep them from the thing that fed their families, and you thought, what are you, an animal trainer or something? Do you need to stand up there with a whip and a chair and make them write about an event that changed their life, like marriage or a hunting accident or yet another childbirth? No. You were not that kind of teacher.

You should have known from the start of class that the day was going to tank. You’re the type of teacher that puts students in small groups, kneels beside them when reviewing their thesis statements, actually gives a shit. At least according to what students write on Rate Your Professor sometimes. Other times they write about late papers and preferential grading. Never a chili pepper. Your students think you’re too geeky since your glasses are round like John Lennon’s and your hair’s parted in the middle. Blue button-down cotton shirts tucked into jeans and a belt don’t yell sexy, you guess. Who rates a professor according to hotness anyway?

So, when you were passing out blank sticky notes for students to write their thesis statements on, one note slapped on to each rough draft, 4 rough drafts to a table, and the third sticky had DickButt printed in pencil on it, and everyone at the table read it before you crumpled it in your sun-spotted hand, the day could do nothing but go to hell.

DickButt could have been meant for you, could have been some Holden Caulfield moment, but you’d taken the yellow sticky notes from the supply cabinet in the department workroom, and you had meant to take it home with you along with some pens and a whole ream of copy paper, and since you do so much work at home, you’re not really stealing school supplies from the college. But since you left them in your bookbag and today you spontaneously decided to collect the thesis statements from the lame paragraphs your students were writing and post them on the whiteboard, you pulled them out. Someone in some other class must have written DickButt four stickies in and returned the pad back to the instructor, and that instructor had returned the notes to the cabinet. Lucky you.

The three girls at the table, all twenty-somethings with their blond hair in ponytails, jerked their heads back from the table and, you swear, took in their breath collectively, like three elephants sucking in water from a trough. The fourth person at the table was more thirty-something and had tattoos down both arms, the swirly kind with reds and teal, and he was doodling on his paper that had one sentence and no paragraph. His pencil carved into the paper a big rose, since you’re outside the Rose City. Your eyes went from DickButt to that rose in no time. The rose had raindrops between the petals, little ones, and with the collective gasp of the three ponytail-girls and your hand crumpling the note, you leaned toward the drawing, and that’s, sure enough, when you saw the scream in each drop, Edvard Munch’s scream-face in each little drop.

“Just write your thesis statement on the sticky,” you said, not anything else. And whoever named those notes sticky must not have been a man. A man would have named them something understated and staccato, the sound of the word so damn young and effeminate, and a man with tattoos who drew roses with screaming drops doesn’t question the words he uses and probably, you think, says sticky without questioning himself.

You put a clean sticky on James’s paper and knelt beside him.

“Good save,” James said. He gave you a wink like the two of you knew each other from the gym or something.

“Nice drawing,” you said and pointed at the rose, “How about a thesis statement?”

He shrugged.

“Come to my office hour after class,” you said and got up despite your knees. Then you worried about what else might be written in the stickies when you stuck them on the rest of the papers.

But James did come to your office hour. When he entered your office, you thought a whole bookshelf had walked in. His leather smell mixed with tobacco told something truer than Moby Dick, the book you couldn’t bring yourself to read again, but your mother had bound for you when you finished your PhD. You didn’t do your PhD on Moby Dick, but it was her favorite book, which meant something. You’re that kind of son.

James had written a total of ten sentences since the beginning of WR 95, a developmental writing course that was supposed to help students connect sentences into paragraphs. For each of the five assignments, he turned in two sentences. The two-sentence paragraphs generally had to do with baking. Waking up for class after the graveyard shift at what used to be Kettleman’s, then Einsteins, now Spielman’s Coffee Roasters with some of the only boiled bagels in Portland, he stretched out in the undersized chairs, plastic and cheap, the kind of furniture that the college bought in the 90s, orange chairs and tables, furniture you hoped would reveal another identity and supersize themselves, but they didn’t. James stretched his legs out and rested his massive arms on the table, his forearms all muscle and tattoo, showing the way he rolled and shaped dough and turned doughnuts into perfect boiled bagels, crisp on the outside and malty and chewy on the inside. Chewy is another one of those words.

“Getting enough sleep?” you said.

“Plenty,” he said.

Why you expected more than one word from him was a lot like chasing a whale in a sailing ship.

“Sorry about the sticky note.”

“It sucks, doesn’t it?” he said. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and the smile he gave you made the dark part of his cheeks move, a little like wheat when the wind is blowing.

“Oh God, not at all.”

“My writing sucks. I know.”

“No, really,” you said.

“No, really,” he said.

It did suck, but that wasn’t the point. You asked him about baking, and what he wanted to do with college. And he told you about his grandfather baking bread in Nebraska and getting to work someplace besides in the cornfields, and later, his grandfather raising him in Eagle Creek where he milled his own timber, and the two of them were all they had. And he told you about his girlfriend, how she wants to write, but he’s the one taking a writing class. She reads everything, especially dark novels by crazy writers, like Plath and Joyce Carol Something. And he asked you why you write since he knew you wrote poetry because his girlfriend wants to write something she calls savage, something so harsh and violent that people will know what they’ll get out of life.

“She’s been through a lot,” he said. “Tried to kill herself once with a shotgun blast through the gut. But she woke up. Spent months in rehab. Can’t digest right.”

“Ouch,” you said. And nothing you could say would be the right thing to say.

“Maybe she could talk with you.”

And nothing you could say would make her life right. You said, “Sure.”

“I got this for her,” he said, and he stood up so quickly in your little office, you had to lean back in your chair. James turned around and lifted up the back of his tee shirt exposing his skin. One big tattoo covered his back with writing like what you saw on bald men with beards who rode Harleys. It said, Don’t Mistake Tenderness For Weakness. The lettering on his skin was thick and script and intricate. “She’s been with a lot of bad guys, you know. Beat the crap out of her. She takes meds because her chemistry’s screwed up, but for now, she’s off them, trying to make her head right. She wants me strong, not wrong.”

With that slogan you couldn’t help but think of all the students who came to your office and rattled off the Big Book: it works if you work it, keep coming back, one day at a time. At Clark Kent Community College students showed up for class with cellophane between who they were in front of you and everything they were outside of class, the things inside them that threatened to burst through. You could see the strain and bubbles of the transparent film barely holding them together, and for James, he was trying to hold together two people. You knew that he had two people’s pain carved into his skin. And even more painful was knowing he was an artist, someone who could take on what other people felt, not just take that on, but feel it himself so deeply he could mix it inside himself and make it beautiful. He was someone who turned loneliness and terror into raindrops between rose petals. When he put his shirt back down, you thought, easy does it.

Maybe your eyes were cellophane. They filled and stretched to spilling. Something about a man trying to make up for the wrongs done to a woman stuck a plug in your throat. Your breathing got fast and shallow.

“iProf, you OK?” All the students called you that since your last name was Apple. James looked at you like he was trying to decide whether to call 9-1-1.

“Fine,” you said. “It’s that sticky note and how badly I feel about it.” And when you got flustered, you started talking, and pretty soon you told James about each of your wives, how both of them had been students, the way they looked at you like you were the first novel they had ever read, how proud they were of the story they finished, how you waited till they graduated, and for a few years, you shared words and sinks and rides to the grocery store. You were that kind of husband. But when it was over and you lost the houses and gardens, they said they never felt equal even though you put their names on everything, paid for their BAs, hyphenated your last names. They said you used your power over them. They left you for men their own age, both of them, and they didn’t keep in touch. You heard from colleagues about their marriages and children and advanced degrees, how happy they were that they weren’t with you. And you drank and drank until the pain was in the resistance to pain. And it wasn’t until you told James about your cat, his way of sitting at the window like a great horned owl, which is why you named him Archimedes after Merlin’s talking owl in The Sword in the Stone, the very first novel you finished as a kid, and he’s the only thing that talks to you in your condo, that you realized you’d been talking.

“Damn, iProf, sorry,” he said, and what you should tattoo on your back came clear to you with James filling up the office: Don’t Mistake Talking for Teaching in thick cursive, lots of ink. Teachers at a community college aren’t supposed to show students the cellophane holding their insides in.

For the second time you apologized to him, and you figured you ought to do something nice.

“How about the three of us have coffee?”

“Really?” James said. “You would?” He stroked the beard growing on his cheek.

“Sure.”

“How about Trails Inn at 3 tomorrow? My girl waits tables and gets off her shift then, and we could meet you.”

“In Estacada?” On Thursdays your last class ended at 2:00, and the drive was only 45 minutes to the small timber town.

“We live on my Opa’s land a few miles out, for now. We’ll meet you then.”

On the drive the next day to the Trails Inn Café and Timber Room in Estacada, the curves came too fast in your old Honda Civic. The cedars along the river crowded out the light, and even though you knew Ray Carver didn’t grow up there, you could see him scaling trees, using words like ballhooter and choker hooks. Teaching students who lost their jobs when the timber industry tanked meant reading paragraphs filled with longing for work, for ways that men used to use their arms, for things they did together that made a difference to their wives. James and his opa from Nebraska used to take down these trees. Driving to Estacada, honest to God, was like driving into another century, one with homesteaders and feuding cousins and old women in rocking chairs on the front porch with shotguns in their laps. Everyone in Estacada knew guns and lumber grades and pickup trucks.

The Trails Inn Café and Timber Room wasn’t hard to find, and before walking in, your nose plugged with smoke, and your gait slowed so you could catch your breath. Maybe restaurants in Estacada didn’t have to be non-smoking like those in the rest of Oregon. You didn’t mind so much since every AA meeting started with smoke from everybody nervous and lighting up outside before they walked in.

James stood up from a small table in the back to shake your hand.

“iProf, thanks for coming. This’ll mean a lot to her.”

“My pleasure,” you said. “Where’s your girlfriend?”

“Marian just texted. She had to pick something up. She’ll be here in a minute.”

The waitress in jeans and a cutoff top that showed her white belly came to ask what drinks we wanted, and not bothering to ask if they made lattes, you figured spending $4 on some Starbucks wouldn’t happen here, so you ordered coffee black, and so did James.

“Have you been drawing a long time?” you said after the mug of coffee arrived and coffee splashed on the table, and the waitress didn’t wipe it up. James said you should try the maple bars because everyone knew the ones made here were the best in the world, and he wouldn’t let you refuse.

And then he said, “I’ve been doodling as long as I can remember.”

“You’re really good,” you said and tried to look him in the eye so he’d know you weren’t saying something you’d apologize for later. “You should take art classes.”

“What for?” he said. “Can’t make a living by doodling.” He looked at the mug between his hands.

Neither of you saw Marian until she was standing by the table. She was skinny, swear to God, like a tree limb is skinny when it’s dead on the tree, all twisted and gnarled, and even from a few feet away, the cut marks on the inside of her arms made stripes. Women in my classes who wrote about cutting said they cut themselves where nobody could see the marks, and you knew what James told you was understated and true. Marian had it rough. Even James might not know how very rough Marian had it.

“Hey,” James said to Marian, “you made it.”

“Fuck,” Marian said, and she didn’t sit down. Her legs in tight jeans looked like they could snap at any minute, and she shifted between one white running shoe and the other.

“What’s the matter?” James said. He stood up and reached toward her shoulder.

She jumped away from his touch. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said, and both her hands shot up to her forehead, and she spun around, and that made her elbows go out, and she looked like a beater blade of a blender turning round and round. “I can’t believe he’s here.”

Beyond the truth that you were no chili pepper, you didn’t know how to take this. When you stood up, the chair pressed against your calves. In the back of the café, you had no room to back up.

Before you, in the flesh, was the scream that the raindrops contained. Here was the rose that only James could turn into more blossom than thorn. His reason for drawing, for going back to school, for two-sentence paragraphs was twitching in front of you.

“Glad to meet you,” you said, and you weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. James wanted something from you, and his tenderness was worth a drive to Estacada, a talk with a twitchy girl. Marian looked at the hand you extended until you put it down.

“How about we sit,” James said. And the three of you sat, but Marian looked at the coffee mugs, the window, the other tables, the walls. Her legs jumped like jackhammers. The waitress returned with two maple bars, said hello to Marian who didn’t look at her when she said hello back.

The smell of the maple bar was so sweet that, honestly, it was almost crunchy. When you picked up the maple bar, it was moist between your fingers. You had it almost to your mouth when Marian yelled, “Don’t eat that!” and her hand slapped the maple bar across the room.

“Marian!” James said.

The Trails Inn Café went silent, and the other customers stared at the maple bar on the wood floor and then at Marian and then at you.

“Fuck it,” she said, and she stuck her hand in the pocket of her raincoat and leaned across the table. “I want you to listen to me, Dickbutt, listen close. We’re going to walk out of here and get into James’s truck, and you’re not going to make a sound.” From the hand in the pocket, from the bulge of it, she gestured the direction you were to take.

“What the fuck?” James said.

“Shut up, James.”

You swear to God you thought you were in a movie. Cameras and lights must have been behind the walls or outside the door, but you didn’t see them. And since you were that kind of customer, the kind that doesn’t stiff a waitress, you reached for your wallet. Marian spun toward you with her hand pointing the thing in her pocket, but then she saw you, and she said, “OK.” So, you left your only cash, a 20, and the three of you walked out of the Trails Inn Café in a line, you first, then James, then Marian. James took the lead to the truck, and Marian said, “Get in James. iProf in the middle, don’t try anything.” And you did what she wanted you to do. “Drive the old reservoir road, James.” He started the truck, backed out of the lot, and pulled on to the road.

“What the fuck are you doing, Marian?” He pulled himself toward the windshield and tried to look two places at once. Sitting in the middle over the engine, you blocked most of what he could see of her. She leaned against the door a little to keep an eye on both of you.

“You’ll see,” she said. And she drew her hand out of her raincoat, and in it was a .38 Special, something you had seen only in movies, but up close, honestly, it was something beautiful and animal and so awful it clogged up your throat. There it was, the black barrel and the wood handle and the curve that fit her hand. You didn’t know enough about guns to see a safety, whether it was on or not, or anything except how the revolver seemed muscular like a shark, and more deadly. Your breath got short.

“Calm down, iProf,” James said.

“Can’t,” you said, “breathe.”

James pulled over. On the old reservoir road the pavement was all ruts and cracks, and, you know, ever since the highway bypass went in, nobody went there anymore.

“Not here,” Marian said.

“We have to,” James said. “iProf can’t breathe.” He opened the door and slid off the bench seat. Before he took another step, Marian opened her door and faced you with the gun.

“Get out, DickButt.” You realized she meant you, and you slid toward her to get out the door. Your hands were in the air in case she thought you might do something. There was nothing you could think of doing, your mind running through the last day, through colleagues who might live out this far in the woods, through stories with bad endings. As soon as your feet hit the ground, you doubled over like somebody who finished a run and tried to catch their breath except your knees were too bad to run.

“Hands up,” she said and pushed the gun closer to your chest. “That’ll help you breathe.” And when you raised your hands, your lungs cleared, and you really could, believe it or not, breathe better.

“What’s going on, Marian?” James said. He was on your left, the two of you facing her.

“Fuck, James, fuck,” she said. “How could he do that to you?”

“Do what?”

“How could he call your writing something so bad?”

“What’re you talking about?” James said. She pointed the gun at him. His hands shot in the air, and he backed away. “Easy,” he said.

“He wrote it on the post-it note and stuck it to your writing. Your writing. Your writing. Something you created. How could he?” Any time she said the word he, she jabbed the revolver at you.

“That’s not what he meant.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No,” you said, “mistake.” Each word took one whole breath.

“Shut up,” she said and aimed the gun higher, at your face. Her hands were shaking, and she leaned on one foot, then the other.

“Tell me this, Mr. Professor Apple. Do you believe that all writers must suffer something savage in order to write something lasting?”

“Not necessarily,” you said.

“Wrong answer,” she said. And the gun popped, and a bullet hit a tree 50 feet away with a thud. “Think before you answer.” The gun had recoiled, but she handled it. With nothing to her arms but bone, nothing to her face but flesh, she knew guns the way someone without a watch knows what time it is: by living out of doors, by doing whatever you have to do to live, by defending your life with your life. All you could see was the black barrel, the shine of it, the curve. Honest to God, the eye of the gun was looking into your eyes, and what it saw was nothing. You were that kind of scared.

“Marian, listen to me,” James said, “iProf didn’t mean it. A kid wrote that note and stuck it back, and iProf didn’t know it was there.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

“And you believed him,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t you listen to me? You can’t believe what people say, James.” And she spread her feet, took the gun in both hands. “Next question.”

“Cut it out, Marian,” James said. “Stop.” He stepped toward her.

“Back off,” she said. And she aimed the gun at his chest. The revolver was in both her hands, which were steady for the first time since you met her.

And James kept coming.

And she fired the gun, and the pop sounded fake, but James spun, and he fell, and blood poured out of his chest.

“Oh my god,” she said, “Oh my god. James.” And she ran to him, and stood over him, and both of his hands were on his chest, and the blood was pumping between his fingers, and when she kneeled down beside him, she put her hand on his chest and said, “James? James?” And he tried to pick his head up, and she leaned a little toward him, and she said so softly, “Don’t.”

And she said so softly, “I’m sorry.”

And when she lifted the gun to her mouth, stuck it in, and pulled the trigger, I said, “Wait,” but it happened so fast.

You’ve read about moments after moments like these, that there’s some weird quiet, some way that the cedar branches sway, and peace fills the gap left by violence. But that’s not this story. In this story there was no silence. James yelled, and his chest made sucking sounds, and 9-1-1 kept you talking, and you rolled your shirt into a ball and pressed it into the hole in James’s chest, and sirens filled up the reservoir, and men in uniforms made you move out of the way. The gurney clicked when they raised it, and the doors to the ambulance slammed, and the sirens echoed through the hills when they took James away.

You’ve wanted to tell this story, but if you did, you’d start missing the students who couldn’t connect sentences into paragraphs, the ones who couldn’t figure out how to hide parts of themselves, wrap them up in cellophane and keep those parts out of class. No kidding, you’re the kind of sad sack that could keep some things secret if you had to. Lucky for you you don’t have to.

© 2013 Kate Gray

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