Dora stashed her snowpants and backpack on the floor under the rack full of tailored coats and fluffy scarves too long for a bicycle ride. Sweaty from her day in the anatomy lab and the bike ride through the snow, she let steam rise off before entering the room. She had left the letter from the tenure committee unopened on her desk, afraid it would spoil her weekend. Slim envelopes frightened her. But tenured or not, boyfriend or not, friend or not, she was going to party down.
A ballroom that lived up to its name only in size, the walls had no decoration, the furniture looked like it was about to fold up again, and the lighting made the inhabitants look jaundiced. In the dim light and she scanned the groups clustered around tables and at the bar. Most were pure as Ivory soap, more than 99% English or Philosophy or Sociology, except for Classics because there was only Melvin so he latched on to the English table. Not a single scientist. This would be tough, but she wanted those little cracker fish as much as any English professor, so she approached two of them at the nearest table, fashionably tall so you could tarry a bit without committing to sitting down.
“Hi Gloria, Alan, got your Christmas shopping done yet?” Unoriginal, but she had to start somewhere.
“What I do with a student who doesn’t contribute to discussion is call on him and make him squirm. It takes grit,” said Gloria, who tipped her wine glass half empty with one gulp.
“Yeah, but I can’t wait for one laggard to say something stupid, it takes up too much class time,” said Alan puffing cracker crumbs thru his beard.
She tried again. “I just give them cats to skin and they all have something to say about that.”
Gloria looked at her for the first time, and actually rolled her eyes, then turned back to Alan.
Burned that bridge, but it was her own fault. Just wish they’d take their eyes off their navels and look around once in a while. Dora had 75 nursing students in her human anatomy class, where they cut up cute little kitties instead of people, because cats are smaller and cheaper. Nurses need to know how muscles connect to bone and what it means when kidneys fail because they’ll have patients with broken bones and failing kidneys. It’s fine to discuss the symbolism of the whiteness of Moby Dick in some literature class, but you don’t need to discuss the meaning of bile. You just have to know it comes from the liver, is stored in the gall bladder, emulsifies fat and sometimes goes bad and gets stony. Dora put a handful of fish crackers in her mouth and the fake carnivory pleased her.
She’d jumped through all the hoops, but hadn’t held her tongue like good little pre-tenure profs ought to do. It bugged her that the president kept pushing for higher enrollments to keep up with increasing costs. That was like saying let’s make more babies so we can have more taxpayers. Dora had opened her big mouth at faculty meeting and actually said that. Who needs a gadfly like that around? Maybe she wouldn’t tenure herself if she was the pres.
It was just a Friday going home party, no big shakes, but she could look a little more artsy, so before approaching the next group she took out her barrette and let her hair loose. It didn’t so much fall as spring outward like a frizzy halo that made her two inches taller. This time she just smiled and listened, as a thin woman in a pencil skirt asked a shorter woman with the bosom of a Wagnerian soprano how she began her theory class.
“The basics first of course, tonic, subdominant, dominant chords, and I really want them to hear them before they start doing their own progressions, or go into the other triads.”
“Do you ever try 12 bar blues?” said Dora. “Very rich in those basic chords I hear. Hi I’m Dora, from biology.”
The pencil skirt glanced at her without smiling, but the chesty one said, “Hi Dora, I’m Loyce and this is Kendra. So you play the blues do you?” Her eyebrows raised high enough to be seen from the back row.
“Just enough to moan while I strum.” She didn’t tell them she used to teach piano lessons and had students improvise the blues for recitals. She’d already stepped on disciplinary toes tonight. Besides that was years past when her piano business held them up while the farm pulled them down. Kendra looked around the room and Loyce took a sip of her Chardonnay, but said no more. They were just waiting for her to go so they could continue their conversation. Dora proved it by drifting off and turning to watch them start up again.
Extruded into no man’s land between the tables, she was a lone wanderer adrift like Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis. Why did she feel that eyes watched her when no one had taken any notice of her? Did they all know how the tenure committee voted? Sweat returned under the collar of her plain biologist shirt and she had to escape.
“OK, I’ll tell you my most secret thing, if you tell me yours,” Dora said to Rhonda on their way to school. “But not till recess, OK?”
Rhonda stopped at the curb to look both ways and then at Dora without the hint of a smile. “Sure, we’ll talk in the spit pit,” she said. She put a lot of “s” into it.
At recess they crept out of the clear September sunshine down the outdoor stairwell to the basement of Stolp, the old school that had only a year to go before the wrecking ball. They were the last sixth grade to go through.
The stuff between the bricks powdered out to make a dust next to the walls, but in the stairwell turned into a dirty clay in the sinking moisture that smelled like a sewer. Some kids said huge centipedes lived in the cracks between the bricks down there. Mrs. Stebbins was busy watching dodge ball around the corner, and Kyle and Lloyd hadn’t seen them or they’d race over, but maybe they wouldn’t spit on a girl anymore.
“We’ll be real blood sisters after we share our deepest secrets, that’s how it works,” said Rhonda. Dora could not see her face in the shadows, but watched her head cock to the side and fold her arms in front of her. “You go first.”
Dora started, but it didn’t seem like her own voice. “When I was in third grade this boy visited his grandma down the block and played catch with me and my brother sometimes. We thought it was cool that a sixth grader would even look at us, but there weren’t many kids his age on the block. So one day he said let’s go in the garage and play a new game, but he didn’t want Jason to come along.”
Dora was so close to Rhonda she could feel her breath on her face.
“So he tells me to take off my pants, just so he can look. And then he kind of holds my wrists and I think, OK, big deal, it’s just my body and all girls have the same thing. So I do it, and I don’t know what he would have done if I hadn’t. He took out a flashlight and looked for awhile and then we went out and he played catch with Jason, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“Wow, Dora, this is big. Did you ever tell anyone?”
“You’re the only one Rhonda, and you can see how private it really is.” Dora shook a little in the cool air and wanted the sun, but said, “Now you tell.”
But Rhonda turned and ran up the stairs, calling to Penny and Carol even before she got to ground level.
Something in the stale beer-tinged air hit her nostrils, an undercurrent of mildew, resident of dark damp places. Maybe that’s what had set her off down memory lane and toyed with her panic button. She’d leave with some self respect, dammit, and managed to sift back to the entrance of the ballroom, but Jane entered as Dora rummaged around for her snowpants. “What’s the matter Dora, they run out of nachos?” Dora enjoyed the feel and smell of the cool air that still clung to Jane’s woolen coat. “Why not stick around for awhile?”
“I don’t have time to be scorned, and I already got my crackers.”
“Don’t tell me you started talking about cats again, do you know how many English professors have herds of them?” She pulled her scarf off and shook her long russet hair free. Jane practiced social glue where Dora dissolved it. She should have been in communications because she did that better than anyone Dora knew, but she taught organic chemistry, the one required course that nearly all biologists dreaded. Luckily for them she was not a hard ass, and found ways to make all those endless ring compounds dance through the formulas of creation and dissolution.
Jane took Dora’s arm and turned her back into the room. No one but Jane could do that, and Dora let herself be led for a little while. “What tables haven’t you destroyed,” she said as though she was asking for a grocery list.
Dora sulked at her side.
“All of them? Well what about the bar?”
At the far end Will hunched with both elbows on the bar. He must have come in after Dora did. “C’mon, we’ll go after the lonely boy, he’ll be flattered even with cat talk,” said Jane. She plopped down on the stool next to Will. “Hi Will, have you met my friend Dora?”
He uncoiled like a snail peeling out of its shell, but still attached to it, so now Dora looked up at him. The first time she met him was at Corncob Days last July, under a pop up tent filled with tables of squat little clay bowls in earthy tones. Then as now she pictured his long body curled around the wheel as his hands shaped tiny bowls hidden by his endless fingers. What could you put in them, cups of soup? Who can survive on cups of soup? But she had picked up a bowl to feel the curve inside and out, and to see if he would notice.
He got up from his folding chair and greeted her. “I’m not sure why I make bowls so small, and everyone wonders why, I can see you do too.”
He was new to the art department, from someplace in the mountains, Montana maybe? She picked up the tiniest bowl and laid her Jackson down, so she wouldn’t have to stay. Now the bowl sat on her kitchen window sill sprouting colored toothpicks she never used. It was something to look at while she washed the dishes. In class Will would be the quiet student Gloria couldn’t wait to crucify, but then she’d repent because of the jewels that came out of his mouth. What would he say now?
“Dora, isn’t it? You were the first one to buy a bowl from me last summer.”
The heat rose again to her face. What. She was far too young for hot flashes.
“Was I really? I’m not sure what got into me. ” Foot in mouth, a social disease she’d had all her life. Jane thrust an elbow to her ribs, but Will just smiled and left space for her. Empty space with nothing to hold on to. “Sorry, I really liked, like that bowl.”
Bowl, Charybdis, Rhonda’s silhouette between her and sunlight, centipede cracks between long gone crumbling bricks. Biologists shouldn’t be scared of centipedes.
Jane gave her a little sideways hug and whispered in her ear. “That away girl, you can take it from here.” Then to both she said, “I need to get back to Alan about our committee on cross disciplinary studies, so, if you’ll excuse me,” and she floated off like a life raft out of reach to leave Dora in ever smaller circles going down.
“You know I was just about to go too, pick up curly light bulbs at Ace before they close.” She longed for the cold air outside that door.
“Yeah, they do close early, that was the hardest thing to get used to after Boulder,” said Will. “But say, I was thinking I need more than spinach dip and stubby carrots, they just make me hungrier.”
“Me too, but I’ve learned to fill up on crackers.” She felt the tug of the door like she was attached to it by a wire.
“So I was thinking, after the hardware store and all, do you want to meet at La Fiesta Burrito for burritos or quesa whatevers?”
The imaginary wire went slack and left her vibrating. And when the quivering inside her stopped she sat on the bar stool because there was nothing left to hold her up. Will sat down too and they both turned to face the bar, she with her head in her hands. This time she was glad to let the silence grow until it filled her to the brim and spilled out as tears she could not catch between her fingers.
“I’m sorry, it’s not you.”
“Glad to hear it, but it seems I brought it on.” said Will. She heard the stool creak as he shifted in her direction. It was a wonder he didn’t just escape, the way she wanted to do moments ago.
“It’s just that I have to fight all the time just to stay afloat, and there you are offering me quesa somethings and they seemed to me like some kind of Spanish life raft, so I just stopped treading and that made the waterworks come.” She never cried.
Will offered her a bar napkin, the kind they give to you with a drink, small like the bowl on her window sill. One was not enough so he grabbed a handful. Some guys would be trying to put their arm around her by now.
“I think I should answer your question, in case I wasn’t clear before,” said Dora. “Burritos are too filling but put cheese on anything and I’ll snarf it down.”
The cold air made crystals of the moisture in her nostrils as Dora coasted downhill on the icy sidewalks all the way to La Fiesta Burrito. She forgot the spit pit and the sallow faces and her plans to buy curly light bulbs at Ace Hardware. But something clicked in her brain and she chanted it the last few blocks to the rhythm of her wheels: dilla, dilla, dilla.
Mary Lewis has published stories in Trapeze, Valley Voice, and Frank Walsh’s Kitchen and Other Stories. She also has published in Persimmon Tree, Lost Lake Folk Opera Magazine, and Wapsipinicon Almanac. This is her second story for r.kv.r.y.. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Augsburg College and teaches biology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She helped start Badgersett Research Corporation where hazels are being developed for growers in the Midwest. She is a figure skater, and for many years taught dance and piano.