January 17, 2014
I walked into the empty auditorium pausing to look at the refreshment table filled with the requisite punch bowl, cookies, grapes and tooth-picked cheese chunks and a large coffee pot.
"Don't touch that food Mister. It's for after," a voice called out from somewhere in the slanted amphitheater. I looked up and saw a not so old as the voice black woman in a blue housekeepers coat advancing the dirt down in front of her with a straw broom.
"Just looking,” I said smiling up at her.
I had gotten to the Reading early to get my choice of seats and to relax and read for a while in quiet. I didn't come for happy hour. I chose a center aisle seat seven rows up and looked down at the stage. Classic. Stage left, a podium; stage right a card table with paper cups and a water pitcher and three uncomfortable looking wooden folding chairs set in a row about three feet apart took center stage.
"You can probably take a glass of punch — just don't eat nothing til after." The sweeper said.
"That's O.K." I said. "I was just looking. I'm fine."
"Really don't make me no never mind. I was just passing the message as I was told to do."
"Thanks. Don't worry."
"Coffee's 'bout ready."
"Suit yourself." The lady said and walked out of the auditorium.
I waited a few minutes and then walked down and grabbed a handful of grapes went back to my seat and took out my book.
Slowly the college auditorium filled to about half full and the Readers walked in to polite applause and took their seats. Most of the audience was comprised of students and friends of teachers. These Readings took place monthly and these three Readers this evening were all regulars. Sometimes there were as many as five or six.
Howard P. Dunphy, sixtyish, poetry and English professor with the looks of a longshoreman; Bill Danvers, baby-faced, a second year teacher in his mid-twenties and married to the third reader, Margo Somers, the thirty year old head of the English Department. She was my teacher.
Margo was an animated person, walking back and forth and changing voice tones in the classroom reading our stories. She had been vivacious and energetic, but in the past few weeks she seemed depressed and unreachable. I was a few years older than her and was just taking that one creative writing class. I also had a crush on her and chatted with her after class frequently and innocently. I was hoping to see her come out of her funk during the Reading.
Bill and Margo had come to the college as a package deal. The school really wanted Margo, she had confided in me one evening after class. Bill did an adequate job of teaching freshman English and was an unpublished avant-garde poet. They made a good-looking couple.
Howard sat between them on stage.
Bill Danvers got up and walked two steps and said, “A Poem Of Unrequited Love.”
A Poem Of Unrequited Love.
I love you — love you — you . . .
He turned and walked back to his seat to a smattering of applause. Then Howard P. Dunphy hefted his bulk from the chair and shuffled to center stage with a handful of books stuffed with place marks. He pulled his glasses down to the tip of his nose and opened a well-worn book.
"In 1959 when my daughter had just been born I was moved to write Lillian Oh Lillian. He then read three poems with dedications to his three children and sat down as Margo Somers, backpack in hand walked to the podium.
Margo, an often published and talented short story writer was always trying something new and experimental. Tonight she announced that she was entering her fortune cookie stage. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a baggie of fortune cookies and selected one.
"Vows Broken Have No More Value Than Sea Shells Broken."
Margo sat down.
Bill Danvers looked over at her and rose.
"Oh light of my life. Oh vow-mate. Things are not always what they seem for . . .if they were then . . . why would we need so many words?
Pain and suffering!
Pain and suffering and remorse!
Pain and suffering and remorse and TV dinners!
Spare me. Spare me! Spare me, my love.
For better, my love, or for worse."
Howard read two poems dedicated to his late cocker spaniel, Ampersand, and yielded the floor.
Margo popped open another fortune cookie while still sitting. Glaring at Bill she read, "Infidelity is the incontinence of the corrupt."
From his chair Bill Danvers stomped his foot loudly three times and then went down on one knee.
"What was once good can be better.
What is now better can be better yet.
A learning experience is the price of knowledge."
Howard sat impassively and Margo took it as a turn skip. She stood and placed her backpack on her seat, took another fortune cookie and walked center stage. Breaking it in half with two hands she read, "Guilt is the mother's milk of prior transgressions."
Bill Danvers was up and walking before she sat down and they passed without looking at each other.
"Frigid . . . Frigid . . . Frigid . . .a man forced into the cold frigid sea without a lifeboat will avail himself of the most jagged piece of driftwood could it possibly be a lifesaver."
Howard P. Dunphy obviously uncomfortable stood and read his Ode to a Cardinal. It was two pages, single-spaced, and dedicated to an aunt in Nebraska. He was about to start another poem when Margo walked by him to the podium. Howard scratched his head and sat down.
Margo's cheeks were crimson. "There are no frigid seas — just inept sailors and cloudy days." She flung the cookie to the floor and ground it into the stage. She took her seat.
Howard took out his handkerchief, mopped his brow, took a glass of water and his books and walked off the stage and sat down in the first row. He got a round of applause.
I applauded with the others.
Margo didn't move as Bill Danvers stood and faced her.
"Punishment is for children.
Spank! Spank! Spank!
Sometimes bad children have to be tied up and spanked.
Spank! Spank! Spank!"
He remained standing.
Margo blushed a brighter crimson now and cracked a cookie open with one hand held high above her head. Crumbs fell as snowflakes. She ignored Bill and looked at the audience.
"If words fall on deaf ears are they really spoken?"
She cracked open a second cookie the same way.
"How much should a teacher teach a student?"
Bill faced the assembled.
"Spank! Spank! Spank!
She Begs For More.
Margo picked up her backpack and purse and crossed the stage to the stairs. Halfway down she turned around, reached insider her purse, and took out a hairbrush and brushed her long red hair. Then slowly she applied her lipstick.
Bill Danvers had taken several large strides and stopped in front of her, staring down defiantly. Margo ignored him. She had one foot on the step above. She took out another fortune cookie, broke it open, and pulled out the thin strip of paper. Margo looked up at Bill Danvers and then down at the paper and then back up at Bill Danvers and read, “Get out of my face you motherfucker you." She turned and walked out of the auditorium.
There was a loud round of laughter and applause and then Bill Danvers hopped off the stage and sat next to Howard P. Dunphy and both looked wordlessly straight ahead. I watched the audience as they waited for the Readers to return to the stage and take their bows; but as it became apparent that it was not to be --they applauded politely and slowly drifted over to the punch bowl and chatted amongst themselves. Howard P. Dunphy joined them.
Bill Danvers remained seated until long after everyone but me had left. The cleaning lady returned with her straw broom. She poured herself a cup of coffee and walked to the top of the amphitheater to begin her sweeping routine.