"She thought of his disappearance as a kind of evaporation; she heard that he had gone away to get clean, then she saw him in the hallway, then he was dead."


         He was dead.[1] She remembered him studying her across the broad seminar tables, lowering his glasses to get a better look at her.[2] His bifocals were red.[3] In the story she wrote about him, “The Professor,” she added the detail that he had once put his hand on her leg in a bar.[4] At the memorial, which his girlfriend meant as a celebration of his life and work, a female professor read one of his stories.[5] The story took place on a bus and involved graphic descriptions of sex.[6]

What she remembered most, besides his manner in class, abrupt and confrontational, was that he walked around in what she now thought of as a cloud of sex.[7] She thought of his disappearance as a kind of evaporation; she heard that he had gone away to get clean, then she saw him in the hallway, then he was dead.[8] She now felt that she knew very little about him; she had only rumors—about his affairs, about his drug use—and, instead of memories, only stories.[9] When she thought about him now, years later, she remembered most the way he had looked at her.[10] She remembered all the times she had seen him at that bar.[11] And she felt guilty that she still included him among the authors who, for her, remained unread.[12]

When someone dies, she often seeks out something to read.[13] In the story she wrote, “The Professor,” the protagonist finds solace at his funeral, not in words, but in sex.[14] Many of the scenes in that story are set in a place that really existed: The Beaver Inn, a bar.[15] At that point in her life, it was still a shock that anyone she knew, someone once so alive she had said, “Fuck you!” to him across a pool table and meant it, could be dead.[16] But the dying didn’t have anything to do with her.[17] His death became a fleeting part of her life, just a story.[18]

Eventually she gave up trying to write the story.[19] But she returns to it occasionally, finding passages that are difficult to read.[20] She feels surprised that they were written by her.[21] What embarrasses her the most, however, is that in her mind, he is always linked with sex.[22] The cloud of sex even hangs over her memories of his death.[23] The memories of his funeral are the only ones she has left, along with her memories of them, together, at the bar.[24]

She has not returned to the bar.[25] She cannot write a new ending, revise the story.[26] He is dead, irreparably dead, and that version of herself, also dead.[27] What is left for her are his stories to read.[28] Also his aura of sex.[29] This aura, which clings to him, to his stories, to her.[30]

It clings, at least, to the fictional version of her.[31] And to the memories she keeps returning to, obsessively, like the one at the bar.[32] And to the rumors of his affairs, of sex.[33] But she wants to write a different story.[34] One she would want to read.[35] One in which she gleans some kind of meaning, some kind of insight from his death.[36]
This, then, is the story.[37] One in which she reads his death as something that extends beyond his aura of sex and in which she sets the bar a little lower in terms of what it could all mean. And she comes to this: sex and death

[1] “[Omar] Castañeda died of a heroin overdose in January 1997. He was a professor of writing at Western Washington University at the time, and his death came as a shock to the campus. He is survived by his wife and two children” (www.enotes.com/among-volcanoes/author-biography). This is the only online reference I can find to his death.

[2] She—the unnamed character in this story—is a not-so-disguised version of myself.

[3] While I invented many details in the story, the bifocals were real.

[4] In reality, that never happened.  He never put his hand on my leg. Or if he did, I can’t remember it. I remember a hand on my leg at his funeral, but it wasn’t his; it belonged to another man.

[5] The story in question is called “Woman of the Bus.” 

[6] For example: “She measures the length of my erection by using the old dents in her gums.”

[7] This cloud of sex involved a woman whose name I can’t remember, but she had short hair and wore

skintight leotard tops, some of them see-through. It also involved a female fiction writer. Other students said she had once been a heroin addict and a prostitute.

[8] In fact, he died of an overdose in a friend’s apartment. The friend was living in a drug-free building.

[9] I have told the story, of his drug use, the review board, his firing. But only once.

[10] He had looked at me across the seminar table, lowering those red bifocals meaningfully. I can’t remember anything he said, specifically, but I remember his eyes over the tops of those red frames.

[11] Though I took at least two classes from him, maybe three, I remember most standing across the pool table from him at the bar. How short he was. The time he said something, I can’t remember what, and my response was, “Fuck you!” I didn’t worry that this would hurt my grade in his class. In fact, I was pretty sure he liked me more once I said it.

[12] I worry that many people I love will be hurt by this essay: Alison, Bil, Eric, Robin, Bruce, Suzanne. Those I can’t name. Those whose names I have forgotten. Also, that some of my other teachers, still living, will mistakenly believe that they are not as important as he was. The opposite is true. They were positive forces, encouragers. He became a friend, a person to drink with. He was also an opposing force. A writer needs someone to write against.

[13] I often try to find some comfort in poetry. For example, when a poet I knew died, I turned to W. H. Auden’s poem “Stop All the Clocks,” because I had once heard him sing it with his band. The poem didn’t make me feel better, but at least I felt, for a moment, a connection to him again.

[14] “Finally,” he said, pulling her toward him. He kept kissing her as he maneuvered her onto the chaise, pressing her down until she was looking up at him. He reached beneath her dress and began to tug on her underwear. Through the wall, Stephanie could hear low laughter and the sound of sobbing.

“I’m not sure we should be doing this,” Stephanie said, even as she lifted her dress a bit higher. “It seems kind of morbid.”

Andrew pushed against her, flattening her breasts between them. Stephanie couldn’t help but think of the breasts in the Professor’s stories. If she were a character in one of his stories, she thought, what would she do?

She began kissing Andrew in earnest now, pushing against him with equal force. Yes, she thought. This.

[15] Like this one: 

When they walked into the Beaver Inn, they saw the Professor sitting alone in a booth. He waved them over and reached out to shake their hands.

“Hey,” he said, smiling. “It’s the two of you.” The Professor made a motion with his hands that included Stephanie and Andrew in an intimate circle. “Well.”

Stephanie took a seat in the booth beside the Professor. “Well?”

Garbage littered the table between empty beer glasses, and when she looked closer, Stephanie could see that some of the garbage was made up of unused matches that had been bent into tiny characters. “Did you do these?” She picked one up and examined it more closely.

“A little something I learned in the military.” The Professor positioned one of the matchstick people in the middle of his open palm. “I call this one ‘Student.’” The figure appeared to be a desk with a neck reaching up out of the chair, with the ignitable portion of the match serving as the head.

“Huh.” Andrew had been sitting quietly across the table from Stephanie, and now he raised his eyebrows at her. “Who wants a beer?”

When Andrew went up to the bar, the Professor turned quickly to Stephanie. “So, how are you?” He leaned in a little too close and set his hand on Stephanie’s knee.

She picked up his hand and placed it softly on the red vinyl between them. Then she slowly raised her eyes and looked directly at the Professor. “How are you?”

The Professor sighed. “I don’t want to talk about me. I cleaned out my office. I’m on my way to the Midwest, you know. All is well. Now about you and Andrew—”

Just then Andrew appeared with a pitcher in one hand and three frosty glasses in the other. When he set the beer on the table, it sloshed over the edge of the pitcher and onto the table. “What’s going on?”

“Andrew,” said the Professor, “you’ve got yourself quite a woman.”

Andrew laughed. “I don’t know about got.”

The Professor turned and looked at Stephanie. “Stephanie?”

“You were saying, the Midwest?”

“Iowa, Indiana, Illinois. One of the ‘I’ states. Who can remember? Boring. So what are you two up to?” The Professor reached forward and poured himself a glass from the pitcher.

Andrew sat down and poured himself a glass. “What will you do?”

The Professor smiled. “Do? Write. Whatever it is I do. And you?”

“Pursue Stephanie,” said Andrew, grinning broadly. “It’s a full-time job. Pool?” He motioned to the empty back room and the two pool tables.

Stephanie nodded her head, and Andrew went to the bar for quarters.

The Professor turned toward her. “So, you two. A handsome couple.”

“Yeah.” She turned toward the Professor. “We’re not really a couple. More like, uh, a couplet. But enough about us. What happened to you? You just kind of disappeared from campus.”

“Not by choice, my dear.” The Professor took a long drink and looked toward the bar. He seemed to be focusing on something far away though the bar was only twelve feet from where he sat. “So what are your plans?”

“I have none.” Stephanie turned to face the bar, sitting parallel to the Professor and staring in the same way. “Finish school and make my way into the world.”

“You need to send out your stories. I’ll tell you where.” The Professor grabbed a napkin from the wreckage on the table. He took a pen from his back pocket and began to scrawl a list of journals. “These places would like your work. Tell them I told you to send there. Don’t thank me. Just do it.” He quickly downed the rest of his beer and stood up. Even standing, the Professor’s head barely rose above Stephanie’s. He went around the table so that he stood between Stephanie and the door. He rested his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on Andrew. He can’t help himself.” The Professor tucked Stephanie’s hair behind her ear and leaned down. “He’s under your spell,” he whispered, then quickly brushed his dry lips against her cheek. After he took a step back and seemed to be studying her, he said, “Send out your stories. I told you to. Now do it.” He walked to the door, but before pushing through, he turned again. “I’ll see you again soon, Stephanie. Don’t worry.”

[16] Since then, many people I have known have died, including the poet, who was too young, and, just this year, several parents at my son’s school. It is a symptom of growing older that as we age, people begin to drop off, one by one. It is another symptom of age that each death seems to affect us a little less.

[17] This is just something I tell myself so as to insulate myself against the inevitability of my own death.

[18] Not “The Professor.” The real story is a different story.

[19] That is not entirely accurate. I feel like the story gave up on me. I entered it in a contest, which it didn’t win. A friend told me I could probably get it published anywhere, that it seemed right to him, but the contest judge felt it was too long, too slow in the middle. I think the part where I describe the workshop would only be interesting to people who have been in writing workshops and understand the pain of reading terrible stories. And also they would be the only ones to get the joke about the student with long, dark hair and a trench coat, who writes Goth/vampire stories. Or the joke about the student who writes stories about sex in an attempt to shock everyone. An attempt that always fails.

[20] Like this: 

Sitting beside her, asking for her help, the Professor looked more like one of those drunk men on Railroad Avenue, who always smelled of beer and held out their hands for spare change. When those men smiled, she always noticed that they needed dental care, too.

[21] I often find files on my computer that I don’t remember writing. Usually I like them, except for the occasional poems that I write during month-long challenges with a friend, poems I write just for the sake of having written a poem, to get my poem done for the day. Sometimes I find little bits, fragments, that I wish I could publish on their own, though they are always too brief.

[22] I wish I could explain how someone could always walk around connoting sex without actually being sexy.

[23] This is, I am sure, not his fault, but the fault of the man who put his hand on my knee and rubbed his hand up my leg during the funeral. It makes sense now, because grief and sex are so closely linked.

[24] “Fuck you!”

[25] The bar is in Bellingham, which I have gone back to only once since moving away.

[26] I have revised the story. This is the revision.

[27] That version of myself is now more than ten years old and feels unrecognizable to me, as if she were someone I made up, the way I made up “Stephanie” in the story as a version of myself.

[28] His stories remain, as of now, unread.

[29] This, I think, is the one aspect of him that remains inexplicably alive.

[30] I do not have an aura of sex, and I believe I was one of the few female students he never made a pass at, though he may have said something inappropriate to me. I don’t remember.

[31] There was a girl in one of my workshops named Stephanie, though I don’t think she was in my class with him. I think she was in a writing class I had with a different professor.

[32]“Fuck you!”

[33] Some of them were rumors, some true. I do know that he was romantically involved with a graduate student, who may have been a former graduate student, at the time of his death. She did say something at the memorial like “I’m doing this to keep him alive.”

[34] This is not true. I have given up on writing anything fictional about him.

[35] This is what I want to read.

[36] I have also given up trying to find any kind of meaning in the deaths around me. Death is meaningless and random.

[37] Actually, this is an essay.

About the Author

Lynn Kilpatrick

Lynn Kilpatrick’s essays have appeared in Ninth Letter and Brevity. Her short story collection, In the House, was published by FC2. She earned a PhD from the University of Utah, and teaches at Salt Lake Community College.

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