Morgan's eyes flickered open, and he realized that his naked ass was touching another naked ass under the covers.
Visiting Professor Jay Morgan sat up in bed slowly, tried to remember how he'd hung himself over. The slim girl in a fetal curl under the covers next to him, Annie Walsh, didn't wake. A whole semester had slipped away on his one-year contract at Eastern Oklahoma University before he'd struck pay dirt.
She was nice, young and fit. Eager.
Morgan was short and soft around the middle. His black hair, sharpened into a deadly widow's peak, was long, pulled into a tight ponytail. But he had good cheekbones, and his eyes were a haunting blue. Morgan knew how to flash those eyes at young students.
Last evening's dark blur streaked with neon. The dance club on University Drive. Annie packed tight in denim and a black tank top, red hair shaved close. First-year master's student, a Sharon Olds wanna-be.
Morgan found boxers on the floor, slipped into them. He crept to the kitchen, tile freezing under his bare feet, started a pot of coffee, and watched it drip itself into existence. He filled a mug, drank with his eyes closed.
The phone rang. He grabbed it quickly. "Hello."
"Morgan? It's Dean Whittaker. We had an eight o'clock appointment."
"This is Wednesday."
Morgan's wristwatch said 8:37. "I'll be right there."
Morgan ran in and out of the shower, threw on black pants and a green Hawaiian shirt with a picture of flowered Elvis playing the ukulele. Brushing his teeth almost made him puke. He grabbed his pea coat, shrugged into it.
Oklahoma winter, not so much snow but plenty of ice and cold rain. How had he ended up in this redneck backwater? Oh, yeah. He needed the job. Every year a new campus, the life of a gypsy professor.
A flash of skin caught his eye as he passed through the bedroom. The girl.
He cleared his throat. "I have to go."
"Lock up when you leave, okay?"
He pulled the door closed behind him, groaned his way down the sidewalk, and climbed into his twelve-year-old Buick. He pointed it toward Eastern Oklahoma University's main campus, muttering inventive curses at Dean Whittaker in which the word cocksucker figured prominently.
Morgan stopped at the secretary's desk on the way into the English Department. "We have any aspirin, Tina?"
"I have Motrin in my purse."
He took the bottle from her, spilled five pills into his palm, and swallowed them dry.
"There's a girl here to see you," Tina said.
Morgan turned, fear kicking around in his gut. He thought Annie had somehow--impossibly--raced there ahead of him, coiled to spring charges of sexual misconduct.
It was a different girl, compact, tan, round-faced, and fresh, with black plastic glasses perched on the end of her nose, brown hair wild and shaggy. She bounced out of her chair and offered her hand to Morgan. He took it and shook, squinting at her, hoping to figure out what she was, if he was supposed to know her.
"Professor Morgan, I'm Ginny Conrad."
"Oh." Who? The voice was silky, familiar.
"I'm supposed to do a ride-along." The edges of Ginny's mouth quivered, hinted at a frown. "I'm supposed to follow you around. A day in the life of a poet--for the school paper. Remember?"
"Yes, of course I remember." No he didn't.
Morgan rubbed his temples with his thumbs. He looked at Ginny again, tried to make himself interested. But she had too much on the hips, too fleshy around the neck and cheeks.
"This isn't a good day, Ginny." He didn't have the stomach for questions right now. His head pounded.
A real frown this time from the girl, panic in the eyes. "But I have a deadline. My editor--"
Dean Whittaker leaned out of his office. "Morgan."
Morgan left Ginny standing there, the girl flowing into his wake, "but, but, but . . ." like an outboard motor about to stall. Morgan pulled the dean's office door closed and cut her off.
"Sit down," Whittaker barked. He was a huge man with a big voice. His full black beard, barrel chest, and concrete shoulders made him look like a bear. Whittaker was also interim chair of the English Department until a search committee could find somebody permanent. Whittaker's dissertation had been on ladies' costuming in Elizabethan theater.
Morgan began to lower himself into the overstuffed chair across from Whittaker.
"Not there!" Whittaker yelled.
Morgan leapt aside like he'd been hit with a cattle prod. He looked into the chair to see why he shouldn't sit.
The reason was an old man.
"I'm terribly sorry. I didn't see--I'm just out of it today."
The old man scowled but said nothing. His thin, nearly transparent skin clung to his skull like wet tissue paper. Bald. Small, shrunken inside a brown sweater and a pair of khaki pants pulled up almost to his armpits. A red stone the size of a doorknob on his pinkie finger.
"Take the seat by the bookcase." Whittaker glared.
"Sorry." Morgan squeezed between two giant bookcases. A narrow chair without armrests.
Whittaker sat, pulled at his tie, and fidgeted with a pencil.
"Morgan, this is Fred Jones. He's very generously donated enough money to keep Prairie Music operational for the next ten years."
"That's extremely generous," Morgan said. "Extremely."
And surprising as hell. The university had slashed the budget from under the third-rate literary journal, and it looked like they might have to go from a quarterly to an annual. Or maybe even scrap the journal altogether.
"Mr. Jones is a lover of fine literature and an amateur poet himself," Whittaker said. "He's been working quite hard on his own project, a volume of very personal poetry."
Whittaker was nailing Morgan to the back of his chair with his eyes, and Morgan realized he was supposed to say something about this but hadn't a clue what it should be. He took a shot at it.
"That's great." He nodded, raised his eyebrows to convey deep sincerity. "Absolutely great. I wish more people would develop their creative sides."
It was a fantastic lie. The amateur poet was a cancer. Morgan's brief stints as an assistant editor for a number of literary journals reinforced this belief. Every day he'd arrive at the office greeted by a towering stack of hideous verse. Everyone wrote poetry. Schoolteachers and teenage girls and spotty adolescent boys who couldn't catch a girl's eye. Christian crusaders who dumped their message into abstract verse, old men who committed the birth of the latest grand-offspring to rhyme. Housewives who scrawled their bland, unhappy lives into greeting-card drivel and refused to believe that their lives were as ordinarily miserable as everyone else's. They pressed on, relentless, minds clouded with the delusion that their agonies were somehow special or interesting and must therefore be shared with the world.
And the poetry came in like a flood, a tidal wave. It arrived dozens of pages at a time, folded into sweaty, smudged thirds and overstuffed into flimsy #10 envelopes that burst at the corners. It arrived as a wad of Scotch tape, or held together by string, handwritten in red pen, i's dotted with little hearts.
"I said, what do you think of that, Morgan? Sound okay?" Whittaker eyed him, clearly annoyed.
"Uh . . . that might be okay," Morgan said. He hadn't heard a word. He was too busy picturing a group of beret-clad amateur poets being run down by a team of Clydesdales.
The old man shifted in his seat, glowered at Whittaker, spoke for the first time. "Is this guy on the dope? Don't saddle me with no dopehead." His voice strained like an old sedan trying to crank. A deep Northeastern accent. New York? Philadelphia? Morgan had no idea, but the old man wasn't an Okie, that was for sure.
"You can count on Morgan, Mr. Jones. He's rock solid." Whittaker shot a look at Morgan that said or else.
"That's right," Morgan said. "I was just deep in thought, trying to figure the best way to approach the project."
Fred Jones stood, joints creaking. "It ain't goddamn rocket science." He made for the door.
Whittaker and Morgan stood as well. Morgan opened the door for Jones.
Whittaker said, "Morgan and I will work out the details, Mr. Jones."
"Don't take forever," Jones said without turning. "I'm only getting older." And he was gone, shuffling out of the office and down the hall, an old man a lot bigger than his bones.
"For Christ's sake, Morgan, you could show a little interest." Whittaker flopped back heavy in his chair.
"I'm interested," Morgan said. What the hell did I agree to?
"Jones doesn't think so. You better act fascinated as hell when you see him again. It's not like folks walk in and hand the department a big fat check all the time."
Morgan wondered why he was going to see Jones again. He couldn't ask. Whittaker would know he hadn't been listening. "So how do you suggest going about, uh, the project?"
"The hell if I know. Just keep him happy. Maybe the old buzzard will put us in his will. Don't you have a class?"
Morgan looked at his watch. He did have a class. It had started three minutes ago.
Outside the dean's office he saw Ginny the reporter coming for him with her hand raised. Fortunately, the department was crowded with undergrads trying to get their schedules changed before the end of the drop/add period. Morgan ducked into the flow of students, pretended not to see Ginny as he scooted down the hall. He didn't quite run. But he walked very, very fast.
"DelPrego." Morgan looked up from the roll sheet, saw a bored youth in a T-shirt and jeans lift his hand. Hair shaggy and over his neck, dishwater strands falling over his eyes.
He went through eight grad students like that, all dripping attitude. One actually wore an ascot. A goddamn ascot! What the hell was that kid's name? He scanned the roll. Timothy Lancaster III. Christ. Morgan made a mental note to humiliate and demean the kid soon.
He called the last name on the list. "Annie Walsh."
Morgan marked her absent, then asked the class, "Has anyone . . . uh . . . seen Annie Walsh?" Good one, Jay. Nobody suspects a thing.
"She wasn't in my eight o'clock class." The kid in the white T-shirt. DelPrego.
The Lancaster kid cleared his throat. "It's been my experience that Annie Walsh has some sort of allergic reaction to early-morning classes."
Morgan wondered if the girl was still home in his bed. He supposed she might have a whale of a hangover.
Morgan pulled Lancaster's poem from the bottom of the pile. "Okay, let's start with you, Timmy."
"I prefer Timothy to Timmy."
The DelPrego kid snickered.
Morgan's predatory smile didn't touch his eyes. "Your poem's called . . ." He squinted at his copy. "What is it?"
" 'The Fallible Quiescence of a Wrathful Jehovah.' "
"It's about the disparity between free will and--"
"What's this about in line seven?" Morgan asked. "Fuzzy nut sacks . . ."
Lancaster's lips moved as he counted lines. "Nut soldiers. It concerns--"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
DelPrego squirmed in his seat, bit his bottom lip. He couldn't stand it.
Lancaster had a little sheen of sweat on his forehead. "I use rodentia to symbolize the lower societal strata--"
Lancaster said, "It's really a metaphor for a much broader--"
"It's squirrels, isn't it?" Morgan said.
"Yes, sir, but--"
"Your poem's about squirrels, Timmy."
DelPrego's face had purpled, his shoulders shaking with barely controlled laughter. He stuck the heel of his hand in his mouth to stifle himself. Others in the class giggled openly.
Morgan sifted the pile of poems, moved DelPrego's to the top.
Harold Jenks was one tough nigger, and everybody knew it. You had to be tough to work for Red Zach.
Jenks liked to call himself the King of East St. Louis, but that was sort of a joke too many of the neighborhood folks took seriously. More accurately, he was king of about seven square blocks between the bus station and the Missouri State Welfare Offices. But everyone knew Jenks was Red Zach's boy. That made Jenks important.
Jenks and Spoon Oliver hung out in the alley near the bus station. They sipped beer and smoked and waited for something to happen. It was after midnight. When you worked for Red Zach, you didn't keep regular hours.
Jenks's boy Spoon nudged Jenks in the ribs and pointed down the alley. "Check it out."
Some nigger coming down the alley, carrying big suitcases. Jenks watched a minute, puffed his cheap cigar, a Philly Blunt he bought at the convenience store along with a sixteen-ounce can of Bud Light in a little paper sack.
"So what?" Jenks drank his beer.
"Toll," Spoon said.
Jenks shrugged. "Shit."
"I say we toll him. This our alley or ain't it?"
"We ain't charged toll since we was sixteen," Jenks said. "We work for Zach now."
"I'm cash short," Spoon said. "I say we do it."
Jenks sighed, tossed down the cigar stub, and stamped it out. "Okay, but don't go all crazy."
Jenks backed up behind the Dumpster, gave the "stay down" motion to his partner Spoon on the other side of the alley. Let that nigger get closer, then we jack his ass good. Only I got to keep an eye on Spoon. He's over the edge lately. Jenks suspected his boy had developed a coke twitch, dipping into the merchandise.
When the victim got between them, Jenks and Oliver leapt. Poor nigger dropped the bags and tried to run, but Jenks had a fistful of his jacket, and Oliver tackled his legs. They all went down in a pile.
Jenks saw the kid was about his age, maybe twenty-two. He yelled, but Jenks twisted, got on top of him. He punched down hard across his face, twice. A third time broke the kid's lip open, and dark blood smeared down his chin. Jenks let up when he saw the blood.
Oliver stuck a knife to the sucker's throat. "Give it up, boy."
"Let me go," the kid said. "Take the bags. I got money. Take it."
"Shut up." Jenks gut-punched the kid. He pulled the wallet out of the kid's jacket, counted the bills. "Eighty fucking greenbacks. Shit."
He pulled the kid up by the shirt. "All you got is eighty fucking dollars, motherfucker. Shit. Not even worth jacking your ass."
"Shut up, nigger."
"Aw, shit," Spoon said. "We got to kill this boy."
"Please, no, I--"
"I said shut your cunt mouth." Jenks rapped him on the nose.
From the Hardcover edition.