This sordid activity is set against a panorama of outwardly wholesome college life, but Don’s insider perspective digs beneath the facades both of professorial pretense and the institutionalized civility of the South. First-time novelist Galef, himself a tenured professor , writes knowingly of the academic scene, sparing no one, and sheds a whole new light on the subtleties of male bonding.
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During a typical Mississippi summer you can boil and fry at the same time, and maybe even smother if you're wearing anything heavier than cotton. Going through my desk that morning in 1989, I found all my postage stamps stuck together and transferred them to the refrigerator. My first memory of Max is from one of those mid-July afternoons gone crazy with the heat and humidity, so that cars and trees and even people shimmered in the distance, half-apparitions until they came within hailing range. The sun seemed to expand as the day progressed until it was one huge yellow field-tent, enclosing everything. About the best thing to do is fool the heat by smiling as if you enjoyed it. Susan and I were sitting on what we called our front porch, really a concrete stoop overlooking the scrub grass and Jimson weed around the apartment block. We were keeping cool by planning the purchase of an air conditioner.
The rumble of a rental truck from around the corner made me sit up. You can always tell the sound of those vehicles because they're noisier than a car, but without the heavy purr of a professional rig. This one sounded like at least a medium-sized van, and I wondered who was moving in. As the gray U-Haul came up our street, it seemed to experience a moment of hesitation, like a pachyderm suddenly unsure of the location of the burial ground. After idling for a moment, the truck lumbered ahead, then reversed and did a creditable parallel parking job right beside our Honda Civic. The engine died, and the next moment a short man wearing mirror sunglasses came out of the cab. Susan waved, a habit that I as a formerNortherner still had to get used to.
The man smiled, though I wasn't sure he saw us at first. He stared up at our apartment block, which is only two stories high, but on a hill that condescends to the curb. He stared down at something that flashed silver in his hand, probably a key. His figure shimmered at the edgesit was hard to get a fix on him until he came closer.
Susan nudged me with her knee. "That's got to be the new tenant for next door. It's been two months already."
I nodded, trying not to drip sweat. Susan remained unwilted in her sleeveless blouse and shorts, her auburn hair coiled gracefully at her nape, but then she was a native.
Susan nudged me harder with her knee. I got up from my wicker chair, which creaked and groaned like a lost soul, even in this humidity. The man was walking this way, following the path up to our building. He was slightly built but wiry-looking, dressed in tight black jeans and a polo shirt. His thick brown hair formed a thatch over his angular face. If there was anything particularly noticeable about him, it was that facenot the features, but the expression. It seemed to have a strong element of bluff to it, as with a poker player determined to make a go of two pair. When he took off his glasses, his eyes looked like what I'd call true blue.
"Hello, there," said Susan, putting on what I recognized as her hostess face.
"Hi," he said, and abruptly the poker face was replaced with that smile, warm and ingratiating "You live in C-8?"
Susan and I nodded as a couple.
"Well, if I'm in the right place, and this door opens...." He inserted his key, which turned easily enough in the lock, but the faded white door had swollen from the humidity. He pushed at it; it wouldn't budge. He tried again. The veins in his arms stood out like packing cord. Suddenly, he put all his weight against it hard, as if deliberately knocking someone down. The door groaned open, and he grinned in victory. "There! It looks like I'm your new neighbor." He pushed the door all the way open and then back-stepped onto our stoop, which was just an extension of his. "My name's Max Finster. I'm new in the history department."
I suspected a hand-crushing grip, which I got. He was just as hard on Susan, and she winced a bit. I told him we were Don and Susan Shapiro, which was true, and that we were delighted to meet him, which was semi-plausible. At least it was nice seeing someone new on the block. Our neighbors on the right had gone down to the Gulf for a week, and C-7 had been empty since June. In mid-July, there's not much going on in Oxford, except the tail-end of summer school at the university. Dinner parties become incestuous with the same round of people, mostly faculty members who have elected to stay here for one reason or another. Susan was bored by this, and I suppose she had a right to be. In our case, we couldn't really afford a prolonged vacation, so we had compromised with a week at Susan's parents' place in Georgia, and a resolve to take off for a weekend or two in August. Mostly, we spent a lot of time out on our porch.
Max's first reaction when he stepped inside his apartment was a low, prolonged whistle. "My God, I could sublet this to three other New Yorkers and still have my own room. Or I could rent somewhere else and be an absentee landlord. Does it really go back as far as it looks?" His voice grew muffled as he disappeared into one of the walk-in closets. C-7 was about the same size and layout as our apartment, but I'd forgotten how cavernous it was compared to something urban. There were four large rooms radiating out from a short corridor, like a quincunx, with one room obviously intended as the kitchen and another as a bedroom. The place was rife with closets, including two walk-in caves and a modest kitchen pantry.
"Are you here by yourself?" asked Susan, my matrimonially-minded wife.
"Hmmm? Oh, yes, all by my lonesome, junior faculty, degenerate bachelor habits, you know the type." He had a voice owned by a certain type of actor, engaging with just an edge of abrasion. He re-emerged from his new habitat with a loose grin for Susan. I beamed back: I'm an English professor, and on the whole I prefer talkers to non-talkers. They provide text.
"Well...." Here Susan prompted me with a nudge. "Would you like some help unloading?"
Max considered the offer. You could tell he liked doing things alone, including driving over 1,000 miles in a rented van. "Tell you what," he said finally. "Let me move what I can. There are just a few big pieces I may need help with, and I'll shout if I'm desperate. Okay?"
"Sure." Susan tried to signal me into arguing, but I ignored her. If a man wants to show off, it's probably healthier to let him. So Max went back to the van and began to carry out the first of many, many book crates. You could tell they were heavy as hell, the cords in his neck huge with the strain. In fact, we couldn't sit out on the porch anymore, since we felt ridiculous just watching someone struggle like that. So Susan went inside to make some iced tea, and I finally strode over to the van to see what I could do in spite of the restraint order.
Max had succeeded in carving out a large hole in a wall of boxes that surrounded a clump of furniture. Nothing exciting: a blond bureau, two mammoth bookcases, and a distressed cabinet. Over on the far side of the van were two bicycles with a blanket between them. Max was more or less in the center, disentangling a matrix of bungee cords that had kept things from sliding. He was sweating handsomely, damp patches plastering the shirt to his chest.
I leaned halfway in. "You about ready for a hand? You know, it's hard to watch you go it aloneand it's a downright breach of Southern hospitality."
A chuckle. "All right. When in Rome."
I was going to point out, in a hideous drawl, that he was in Miss'ippi, but he heaved me one of the last book boxes, and I staggered out of the truck and up the hill. He followed with a stuffed laundry basket that had a frying pan sticking out of some sheets, with a plaster cast of a Greek statue half-swathed in foam rubber on top. Only the head and groin were visible, but it was a rather prominent groin. The genitals were almost as big as the head.
"Who's that?" I asked on the way back.
"Up there." I pointed.
I felt as if I'd stepped into an Abbott and Costello routine. "On top of the frying pan. In the basket."
"Oh, that. Statue of Priapus. Sort of a conversation piece."
"Sure looks like it."
He shrugged, and I realized that was all he was going to say about it. We heaved out some furniture from the truck. On the two-man items he let me lead, but made sure to carry more than his share of the weight, mostly by holding his end higher. Soon I was perspiring over my regular sweat, a sudatory spectacle. But with two people, the work went a lot faster, and in about half an hour the whole gray interior of the truck was visible. The last items to go were the two bicycles, one of which Max just got on and rode up the path. When I had a chance to look at them more closely, I could see that one was obviously an expensive machine, while the other looked like the brown bomber I had when I was a kid. Max rode the bomber.
"Racing bike and truck bike," Max explained as he pedaled away. He had the disconcerting habit of not looking at you half the time he spoke. When he did gaze at you and talk to you at the same time, you felt oddly honored.
"What's a truck bike?" I called after him as he rode right into the foyer of his new apartment.
He emerged on foot. "I use the racing bike for distance, for training. The truck bike is for transportation. Going to the supermarket, things like that."
He walked down the hill to fetch the other bike, stretching a motley bungee cord between his hands. "No, I haven't a car in the world. I'm more of a two-wheel person." He snapped on a grin.
"Maybe, but you're going to need a car around here. No public transportation."
It was hard to tell whether he was pleased at the solitude or annoyed at the inconvenience. He nodded vaguely, laying his hand over the handlebars as if soothing a fretful horse. I was going to offer to help him sort out the boxes we'd moved, half from courtesy and half from curiosity, when Susan poked her head out the screen door.
"If you two stevedores are finished unloading, how about some iced tea?" This was Susan's version of half courtesy and half curiosity. There was also a plate of sugar cookies. Soon we were all sitting in wicker chairs on our mutual porch, sipping the Southern beverage that Susan always made a bit too tartlike Susan herself, I sometimes thought. In any event, she did know how to extract information. In a few minutes, she'd obtained a thumbnail biography. Thirty years old, Ph.D. in British history from Columbia, avid cyclist, single and available. I could see Susan's mind churning around prospects, which are not so numerous in Oxford, unless you're willing to join the church or prey on the academy. Susan was a graduate student floundering in journalism when I met her here. After we got married, she switched off to community volunteer work.
When I said that I had a friend at Columbia still plugging away on her dissertation, Max pointedly didn't ask her name. Not that they would have known each other, being from different departments, but he seemed to want to leave the subject of New York altogether. It wasn't that he shut down; rather, he turned the conversation around as if we were the new arrivals. He nodded after each answer as if we'd made the right choice.
After about fifteen minutes, Max stood up abruptly, thanked us for being neighborly, and said he really had to get back to his boxes. Just outside the stoop of his apartment, he drew out a pen and a wad of paper from his pocket and jotted down a note to himself.
"What do you think he's writing down?" I asked Susan.
"I don't know'Don and Susanmust remember their names'?"
"'Get back deposit on truck,'" I suggested. I also thought of Priapus and his phallus. Our new neighbor, I foresaw, would be a fruitful object of speculation.
For about two hours, we heard the shuffle of corrugated cardboard on linoleum, with an occasional thump and a muffled curse. At about three-thirty, when I was thinking of getting some work done at my desk, the screen door to C-7 sprang open and Max emerged in skin-tight cycling shorts and a banana-yellow jersey that read "MERCIER." I saw him divided up through the front blinds, my view on the outdoors when I've withdrawn to the world of literature. He had cleats on his shoes that made him clop as he walked, but he lost all awkwardness when he mounted his bike. His cleats fit into the pedals, and as he rode down the walk, he hunched over in a catlike crouch. The bike was the same color as his jersey and shone like a yellow mirror.
By the time he hit the asphalt, he was moving fast. He accelerated downhill and passed right through the red light at the bottom intersection. I wondered where he was going in a place he didn't even know yet. He zoomed straight past the fire station and down the bend in the road by the municipal pool, never hesitating. The pace he kept looked brutal and unstoppable, his thighs pumping like pistons. I watched him through the blinds, as I often did from that day on, until he disappeared from sight. Like a vanishing godling. I knew I couldn't possibly have kept up, but turning away from the window, I half-wished I were along for the ride.
Excerpted from FLESH by David Galef. Copyright © 1995 by David Galef. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.