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So the teaching associate, we called him “Teach,” but we meant no disrespect by that, it’s just that the name sort of fit because he’s sort of a funny-looking guy, pretty short, I’d say 5’4, and he’s got these big bushy eyebrows and he sits on the desk when he lectures and leans forward in a way that invites the whole class to – how shall I put this? – have an earnest “we’re all adults” kind of conversation about the matter under study – it was that kind of a class, you know, a special multidisciplinary exploration of multidimensional approaches, with emphasis on highly subjective interpretive treatment – so Teach says, “Based on just the little bit we’ve read and the records we’ve listened to, what I would like you to do this week is to compare and maybe contrast D.H. Lawrence and Charlie Mingus. Don’t worry so much about analyzing, I’d like to read your impressions, what your instincts tell you.”
I remember something about how Mingus really hated being called “Charlie” because he said it was a name for a horse and not for a man, but Teach always called him Charlie, and I wasn’t going to correct him. I would just refer to him as Charles Mingus whenever I had occasion to mention him in class, and maybe that way quietly set an example. I don’t want to be obnoxious.
Anyway, in answer to his question I wrote:
“In Mingus, sex organs pulsate and in D.H. Lawrence, they either refuse to or learn to. Actually, I’d say that Lawrence is more about sex and that Mingus is sex itself, by which I don’t mean that sex is all there is to either one of them but it’s a pretty good place to start in both cases. When I smoke a little weed and read The Rainbow, which I’ve been off-and-on reading on my own for some time now, it’s a somber, almost a spooky experience. I feel like I’m being engulfed by the whole cosmos. But I don’t get hot, whereas when I smoke and listen to Mingus I get randy even before the record starts to play.
“’E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too,’ if you know that piece, it’s on Blues and Roots, is a very good example. When I’m stoned and listening to it, I fantasize I’m dancing naked for a bunch of guys. My hips are churning and I’m calling out and panting and begging for it. [Honestly, I did think twice about whether or not I should be graphic like this and the reason I thought twice about it was that I certainly did not want Teach to think I was trying to shock him or, perish the thought, seduce him. But while I did think twice about it, I went ahead anyway, what the hell, I’ll admit I was also a little bit curious about how he’d react to what I wrote if he reacted at all.] What’s interesting is that when something is so sexual, the sex permeates even the stuff that’s not meant to be sexual. Take, for example, Tijuana Moods. Really, “Ysabel’s Table Dance” is the only hot number on the album but the whole album feels hot anyway.
“Another thing that’s interesting is that there’s no tragedy in Mingus, not tragedy per se, even if there are sad mournful tunes like ‘Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.’ But Lawrence is all about tragedy because in his books life is always fighting against death and death is always winning even if, as he says, we refuse to take it tragically. I don’t think there are a lot of other English writers that you can call tragic. Of course, there’s Shakespeare but I for one like his comedies better. Anyway, I just wonder if Anglo-Saxons really have much of a tragic sense of things. A lot of the Anglo-Saxons I know, if they’ve got problems, all they think about is fixing them and that’s all there is to it. They’ve got these can do attitudes.”
The next week this teaching associate aka Teach folds his arms while he’s sitting on the desk and he glances quickly up at the ceiling and smiles just a wee bit as if to suggest to us and to the world that he’s entertaining a very interesting line of thought, ah yes very interesting indeed. Teach says, “Now I’m imagining that, given the world we live in, you all have at least one and maybe multiple friends and acquaintances in therapy of one sort or another. Man, I sure do! In fact, sometimes it seems to me I don’t actually know anyone who’s not in therapy. So here’s what I’d like you to write about this week: first, is mental illness contagious and, second, are there fundamental flaws in the very concept of therapy?”
Since Teach and I were developing such a nice rapport – I really felt that he’d begun to appreciate the way my mind works – I decided that in response to these questions I would push the proverbial envelope a mite. Specifically, I would give him a straightforward answer to one of his questions but then, as an answer to the other question, I’d offer up a kind of parable. Here’s what I wrote:
“To answer the second question first – ‘Are there fundamental flaws in the very concept of therapy?’ – there sure are! Even Freud understood that and I don’t think he was at all comfortable about it. If the whole world is a bunch of hysterics, what are you going to make your patient well-adjusted to? If all of Germany is going Nazi, like it did when he was there, what does being healthy mean anyway? It’s very obvious, the point I just made, but I’ll say something else as well. The self itself is sickness and cannot be cured with more self.
“Now, as to the other question – ‘Is mental illness contagious?’ – I’d like to answer like this, which is that one day nice Miss Crabtree is giving a vocabulary lesson to the children in her class and she writes the word ‘contagious’ on the blackboard.
“’Who can pronounce this word and then say what it means?’ asks Miss Crabtree.”
“Little Gloria Williamson raises her hand and Miss Crabtree calls on her. Gloria pronounces the word and says, ‘Contagious means that when you have a disease other people can catch it. When my brother had measles, I wasn’t allowed to play with him for the longest time.’”
“’You’re totally correct, Gloria,’ says Miss Crabtree. ‘Good work, and I do hope your brother is over those measles by now.’
“But then little Timmy O’Toole lets out a little cry of protest and says, ‘But that’s not what the word means.’
“’Oh no?’ asks Miss Crabtree good-humoredly. ‘And what, Mr. O’Toole, do you think it means?’
“’Well,’ says Timmy O’Toole, ‘on Saturday Daddy took us out for a long drive in the country and we drove past this big, big house and in the front close to where we were driving there was all this grass and these trees had fallen down and there were big twigs and branches and there were weeds that were growing everywhere and growing over everything. And this woman who had sort of a cloth wound around her hair which was all beautiful and gray, this woman was looking hard at all the broken twigs and things and she kept looking hard at all the weeds, and then she started to cut at them with these really really small scissors, I mean they were really small, so Daddy says, “Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph, it’ll take the contagious.”’”
The week after that Teach – don’t they call teachers “Teach” in all those movies about teachers, you know like when Glenn Ford or Sidney Poitier has to tame a class of hooligans, the hooligans all call him “Teach” until the day he finally wins their respect – now that I mention it, Teach does bear some resemblance to Glenn Ford – Teach really went out on a limb, for which I respect him. He said, “I’ve got a challenging question for you this week, likely more challenging for some of you than for others. Do your best and try to give me your best honest answer but I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. Just remember, no one is going to judge you, no matter how you answer the question. The question is, ‘Could you still be a Catholic if you were molested by a priest?’”
I was sorry to hear the question because I figured my answer, if it were an honest one, would disappoint Teach, and at the same time I certainly did not want to curry his favor by being dishonest. I felt funny because I figured Teach was particularly interested in me and my thoughts and in whatever answer I was going to come up with; I mean, he had no idea what religion if any I grew up with, and from some of the other students I figured he’d accept and maybe even enjoy their professions of faith however sorely (no pun intended) tested, but I just knew, I mean I just knew that he thought I was different, in a class by myself, and that from me because I was so special he looked forward to something unique and scathing that would make civilization itself shiver in its bones. Maybe it was all just vanity on my part, but really I don’t think so because, like I say, we had developed this rapport. I did contemplate making some effort in the direction I imagined he wanted me to go, especially since, to be honest, it wasn’t just rapport, I was really getting to like the little guy.
But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t fudge the question, not this one. All that evening I worked on my answer, eventually concluding that it would have to be as brief and as concise as my others had been expansive. But the brevity worried me too, I guess; worried me because he might take it to be dismissive, which I certainly did not want to be, not of Teach.
I came up with two separate answers, knowing I would finally only show him one. The first read:
“The vile criminality of the Catholic Church is inextricably part and parcel of its sacrosanctity.”
I was pretty proud of that pronouncement but I couldn’t submit it because it wasn’t really me, it wasn’t my voice, it was something verbal I hacked out of marble, and I figured I owed Teach more of myself, not something that was ominous and oracular in tone like this was. So here’s what I submitted instead:
“The Catholic Church is the body of Christ on earth. Bodies aren’t perfect. Bodies belch. Bodies fart. Bodies butt-fuck little boys. So what can you do?”
Unfortunately, I was right because things were indeed different afterwards. The knowing looks he used to flash in my direction, no more. The little eye sparkles that bespoke our complicity, no more. Now there were only furtive glances, even a reluctance conscious or otherwise to make eye contact with me. I guess Teach just lied, I mean he just lied when he said we would not be judged for our answers. At least he had lied to me about that. But I was ok with it, I mean it’s the human condition. Oh poor little Teach, don’t you know that everybody judges everything all the time? Maybe I had deflated him somehow, I sure never wanted to do that but maybe that’s exactly what I did, because he did seem kind of deflated after that, because his last question of the semester to the class was altogether lame. It had something or another to do with Bob Dylan.
Larry Smith’s story collections, A Shield of Paris and Floodlands, were published in 2019 by Adelaide Books. His novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published in 2016 by Outpost 19. A Pushcart-nominated writer, Smith's stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Serving House Journal, Sequestrum, Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, and [PANK], among numerous others. His poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others. Smith lives in New Jersey. Visit Larrysmithfiction.com.