Shafts of sunlight streamed through leaves and fell upon the row of study desks closest to the windows. Nelda stood in the door for a moment, blinking, then stumbled in as another student pushed past her. She sat down as far as she could from the windows and from the front of the room, crammed her bag under the desk after removing a dark blue spiral notebook and two pens from it along with an enrollment slip for ENG 137 SHO STO WRKSHP. Her heart pounded. She took a deep breath.
The classroom, set in a side corridor in the northeast corner of the building, contained a couple dozen desks bolted to the floor, facing front toward a battered gray metal table beneath a smeared gray slate chalkboard. A few more students drifted in, some alone, a couple in pairs. By the time the hourly chimes began to echo, a little more than half the desks were occupied, all of them near the table and chalkboard, leaving her conspicuously isolated behind a cordon of empty seats. She thought about moving forward but too late: the front door to the classroom opened and the professor walked in, a stack of stapled pages under one arm, a bulging burlap book bag dangling from the other. Or maybe not a professor: he was tall and thin, clad in denim jeans and work-shirt, youngish—the explosion of curly black hair atop his head had no more than a very light dusting of gray, if that. A TA?
He dropped the stack of paper on the table with a loud THWACK, swung the book bag onto the table with a more muffled THUMP, then rooted around in the bag for a couple of moments before pulling out a thin manila booklet, which he opened and scanned briefly. He raised his eyes and scanned the students arrayed haphazardly before him.
“Morning. Would someone want to get the blinds? We can’t let that busy old foolish unruly sun obscure your own brilliance.” He paused. “If you have any. We’ll see.”
A student halfway down the row of desks by the windows leapt up and wrestled with the cords controlling the venetian blinds, dropping them inexpertly so that the base of the blinds canted at an angle, then fumbled with the cords, trying to straighten the blinds. The tall thin man behind the table sighed theatrically. “Thank you, Mr.…”
“Moreno. Danny Moreno,” mumbled the student, golden slivers of bright light crossing his reddening face.
“Mr. Moreno. Be seated, Mr. Moreno.” The student twisted himself back into his desk, managing to knock his notebook and pens to the floor. His face grew redder as the student in front of him bent sideways, picked up one of the pens, turned gracefully further around and handed it back to him as he sat back up, clutching his errant notebook. His other pen sat, abandoned, beneath an empty desk in the row to his right. He looked at it yearningly, then faced front again.
“I’m Steve Reingold,” said the man at the front of the room. “You can call me ‘Steve’ or, if you want to kiss my ass obsequiously, ‘Mr. Reingold.’” He paused, waiting for some reaction. There was none other than some slight shuffling and the skittering noise of pens on notebook paper. “I am not ‘Dr. Reingold,’ nor ‘Professor Reingold.’ I am what the university calls a ‘lecturer,’ which is something like a professor, but without honor. However, I will rarely profess, nor will I lecture…much.” He paused again. Still no reaction. He let the silence build for a few seconds.
Nelda wrote “Reingold. Lecturer. ‘Call me Steve.’” She looked up as he continued:
“This is English 137, listed in the catalog as a ‘short story workshop.’ I interpret the ‘short story’ part of that broadly and I take the ‘workshop’ part very seriously. We’re going to do a lot of work in this workshop, and you can think of me as your shop foreman. I’m here to help you conceive and build your projects and to make sure you don’t get your fingers cut off in the process.” Finally, there was one tiny, almost inaudible giggle, from the graceful girl who had helped Moreno retrieve one of his wandering pens. Reingold fixed his gaze upon her briefly; she ducked her head and stared seriously at her notebook.
“Okay,” he said, letting a flicker of a smile bend his lips before it went out.
“You’re all here because you think you want to be writers and because you have completed the prerequisites for the course, your writing samples were not shitty enough for me to reject you, and the department gave you all permission to enroll slips. I’m going to call your names…” He paused. “This is called ‘foreshadowing’ by the way,” he went on, “and you’re going to answer me by holding up your enrollment slips when I do so I can collect them.”
He came around to the front of the table, his manila booklet open. “Angel Brennan,” he said. The graceful girl held up her permission slip. He walked over, took it from her, said “Welcome, Angel. Moreno, Daniel…ah, I already know your name! Apprentice of light and darkness.” He took the offered slip from the once-again-blushing student. “Shawna Loi,” he called next, and wandered two rows over to pluck a slip from the hand of a short Asian-African girl who smiled sweetly at him. “Your portfolio was okay, but you need to learn how to type better, Shawna. Two spaces after periods and figure out how to use tab stops. And clean the keys.”
She laughed and wrote something in her journal. “I’ll tell my dad. It’s his typewriter and he won’t let me touch it. He does my typing for me.” She smiled sweetly again.
“As long as he doesn’t do your writing for you,” said Reingold. “Carrie Beattie,” he called out. Another student raised a slip.
He called a few more names, and Nelda wrote each of them down in her notes. She didn’t know anyone else in the class.
“Zelda…is it Goody?” Reingold called. No one answered. “Zelda, are you here?”
Nelda looked up. “It’s Nelda, not Zelda. And it’s Goudy, rhymes with ‘Howdy,’” said Nelda. Her voice was low, thick, and she inwardly cringed at how angry she sounded.
“Ah, Nelda-not-Zelda. Howdy! Where’s your slip?”
She diffidently raised her hand with the slip. Reingold took it from her and gave a sharp look from beneath his thick eyebrows. “Thank you. Glen Lake! Are you here?”
A short portly student sitting near the front of the room held a slip up. “Both a name and a geographical description,” said Reingold. “It’ll be easy to remember your name.”
Again, no laughter. “I’m not kidding, by the way,” said Reingold. “I’m very good at coming up with names but not so good at remembering them, so expect me to get yours wrong at first. Your names aren’t as important to me as your work, and, besides, you may want to end up using a pen name if, by some impossible chance, you become a successful writer—especially if you have the kind of name that reviewers and interviewers are going to mangle, like Nelda-not-Zelda Goudy-not-Goody hiding over there.” He gestured with his manila booklet toward Nelda.
She looked down, feeling the tips of her ears burn and an incipient tic pulling at her mouth. “Stop that!” she thought.
In a couple more minutes, Reingold finished calling names and collecting slips and made his way back to the front of the room. He picked up the stack of paper and handed it to Glen Lake. “Mr. Lake, if you would, take a copy and hand them back.”
Reingold paused, then announced, “These, my eager aspirants, are your own personal copies of the course syllabus. Unlike much of what you and I will write this quarter, it is not fiction. The writing assignments are real, the reading assignments are real, the grading requirements are real, and the due dates are very, very real. You are going to do a lot of revising in this class, but nothing in this document is going to be revised. Think of it as being carved in stone.”
The last of the stack of syllabuses made its way to Nelda. It was at least ten pages long and intimidating: the list of recommended readings alone was daunting. For a moment—just a moment—she considered dropping the class. “I can do this,” she finally said to herself and turned her attention back to the pontificating Reingold.
They weren’t laughing gulls. His book had told him as much: those tended to live along the eastern seaboard, not here in Southern California. But it sounded like they were laughing, and he found it hard to believe that they weren’t laughing at him as they circled, swooped, and flocked on railings and pathways fronting the marina.
Arrays of boats bobbed in front of Herbert as he sat on a bench overlooking one part of the sprawling marina. The onshore flow, as it usually did, had carried in its cargo of morning low clouds, bathing the marina in gray light that gradually brightened as the morning wore on. He was finding his book harder to read with each passing minute as the growing light began to wash out the screen. At least, that’s what he told himself, but the fact was that the material was hard to read no matter the lighting conditions: obsolete interactive media taxonomy tables and charts did not seem to hook his interest as much as the bobbing boats and circling gulls, even though he could make the tables bob and swoop as he navigated through their intricacies of relationships.
Did he really want this internship?
Yes, he decided, he did.
He just didn’t want it this morning.
The thin breeze blowing in from the marina smelled of salt water, fossil fuels, and decaying sea life, which did battle with the coffee smell rising from his almost empty cup. He took a last bite of of his candy bar (chocolate and creamy nougat!) and a hit from his vaper (coffee-flavored!), then threw the cup and the candy wrappings into a bin by the bench on which he sat, alarming a gull that was just about to alight on it. Now that he’d finished his breakfast (“of champions”!), he folded the book up and stuck it in the thigh pocket of his cargo pants, then strapped his helmet on, clipped his pants cuff, and climbed onto the bicycle that leaned against the bench back. He rode off down the bike path, almost deserted on this weekday morning (though, come Saturday, even in the usual cloudy late-spring weather, it would be awash with bikers and strollers and skaters).
The building on Admiralty Way that housed the Dead Media Project these days would have been new and very modern looking back in the days when the dead media it curated and investigated were still very much alive. These days it was, to those charitably inclined, quaintly retro, and to others, old and decrepit. It stood a dozen stories tall above an intersection alive with bicycles, cars, trams, and scooters, crowned with small domes streaked with salty grime and satellite dishes that had last locked on to a signal some years before Herbert was born. Why they remained up there, subject to weather and wind and the droppings of seabirds, was a mystery to him.
He coasted his bicycle up to the racks under the awning that extended from above the building’s entrance some yards to either side, dismounted, and locked it. The thick glass doors were unlocked, as they usually were at this hour, and the guard station in the center of the lobby unoccupied as it always was, its counter covered with stacks of flyers and newspapers as it would have been fifty years earlier: the building’s exterior wasn’t the only thing retro about the place. He didn’t even glance at the headlines as he passed the station—the papers were props, nothing more, homages to simpler times before packets had superseded ink-stained pulp as carriers of the latest news.
The sensors at the station recognized his watch, and the doors to one of the lifts beyond it opened as he approached. He got in and rode up to the fourth floor, to the bullpen of cubicles and half-offices where he worked. It looked deserted.
It wasn’t, of course, because a voice hailed him as he got off the lift: “Jerrison!” He looked around and saw a tawny head prairie-dog up from one of the cubicles.
“Mr. Cove? What’s up?” Herbert wended his way past equipment-strewn tables to the cubicle farm near the south-facing windows and stood at the entrance to Ryan Cove’s litter-strewn domain.
“What have you got on your plate?” asked the thin man sitting in the cube. “Never mind. Whatever it is, put it back in the fridge: I need you to do a few things for me.” He tapped and swiped on one of the ancient pads on his desk.
“Hold on,” Herbert said, and pulled his book from his pocket. “Go ahead.”
“Get to campus and pick these things up at the library and see if you can find any references to this, this, and that in them,” said Cove. He gestured at Herbert’s book as a couple of lists appeared on it.
“Why can’t you just download them?” Herbert asked.
“Because they can’t be downloaded. Special Collections. Paper. Never scanned.”
“Really?” He looked at the first list which comprised three titles. “Special Collections?” He looked up. “I don’t have access to Special Collections. I’ve never even been through the door!” Herbert wasn’t even sure where it was in the library, but Cove didn’t need to know that.
Cove fidgeted absently, rubbing his hands over his thighs. “No worries. They’re expecting you.” He tapped another tablet. Herbert’s watch twitched. “You have access now.”
“When do you need this by?”
Cove asked, “Why are you still here?” He turned back to his desk. “Go. Do. Now.”
It took Herbert half an hour to get to campus on the campus shuttle and another twenty minutes to walk from the shuttle drop at the south end of campus to the library. The north campus drop, which would have been much more convenient for this visit, was closed because of water main repair—an ongoing problem, as century-old mains ruptured from corrosion and seismic activity. Just a month earlier the street bordering the east end of campus had become a cascading river, one that not only flooded the very expensive neighboring homes but also spilled into the university administration building’s basement and submerged the financial aid offices, an inconvenience that had delayed Herbert’s scholarship checks and made him even more reliant on the pittance that his internship provided. It had also taken out the north campus shuttle drop.
He finally reached the library, dripping sweat after his uphill hike beneath the glaring sun that had burned through the morning cloud cover. The library was cool inside, and Herbert stood beside the front doors for a couple of minutes to catch his breath and maybe let the worst of the sweat soaking his shirt dry a little. He pulled his book out of his pocket and brought up the library layout: Special Collections was in the basement.
Ordinarily he’d have taken the elevator, but all three were down today (ongoing “maintainince” said the hand-scrawled placard), so he found the stairwell and descended into a warren of windowless corridors. Even with his book to guide him he took a couple of wrong turns before he found the unprepossessing security door for the Special Collections department. It then took him a couple of waves of his hand before the door recognized his access and, with a loud snick, unlocked. He pulled the door open and walked inside.
“Inside” consisted of a small anteroom painted an industrial gray, a couple of ratty black chairs, a scuffed old end-table between them, and, opposite the entrance, a counter. On the wall behind the counter was a large translucent safety-glass window, further opaqued by black curtains or paper hanging on the other side. A second unprepossessing security door flanked the window on its right.
The counter itself was barren, except for an old metal call bell. Herbert tapped it, wondering if anyone could hear it from the room beyond the window. Apparently someone did, for the second door opened and a young woman stepped out and went behind the counter.
“I love this time of year,” she said to him, leaning across the counter and plucking something from his hair. It was a jacaranda blossom.
“I’m, uh,” he stammered, acutely aware of how disheveled (and damp) he still looked (and smelled). “Jerrison. Herbert? From the DMP? Ryan Cove sent me?”
“I’m sure you are,” she said, seeming to hold a tiny laugh hostage behind her smile as she reached under the counter and pulled out a tablet. She consulted it for a few seconds. “Ok, yes.” She looked up at him. “First time, right?”
“Well,” he blushed. “For this, anyway. I mean Special Collections.”
The tiny laugh’s escape attempt almost succeeded. “Ok, then, so read this and sign it. Read it carefully, because it’s important, and if you break any of the rules listed here, you’ll never have a second time. Right?” Her suddenly stern tone was belied by the tiny laugh that had migrated from behind her smile to her eyes.
He read over the list. “I don’t have any gloves,” he said.
“Of course you don’t,” she responded, pulling a box of fine white fabric gloves from behind the counter. “We supply them, you wear them. We don’t want any items in our collection to catch anything from you. As a side benefit, they might protect you from catching anything from our collection, too.” Then, finally, the tiny laugh made a break for it.
“Thanks,” he said, feeling just a little less awkward. “Do I put them on now?”
“Sign first.” He did, handed the tablet back, and then took a pair of gloves and slid them on.
“Follow me, Herbert,” she said, and beckoned him toward the second door.
“Thanks,” he repeated. “Um.”
“Sheila,” she replied, opening the door.
Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Cohen—All Rights Reserved