The boy crosses Paul’s path near the sun-scorched center of the quad, just past the misplaced conquistador statue that the student progressives have been calling to pull down all year. When the boy nods, Paul does too, though he still can’t place the kid, thinks for a moment he might be one of the ball-capped yawners from the back row of his poetry survey. Paul walks on, already late for some horrible faculty mentorship luncheon, feels more than sees that he’s being followed, a body gaining in slow increments, the same skinny kid, one shoulder dipping under the weight of his army surplus pack.
When they’ve traveled together too long not to acknowledgement it, Paul turns and smiles. The boy’s face beneath the scraggly van dyke is gaunt, eyes sunken. His close-cropped haircut looks self-inflicted.
“I never heard back from you,” the kid says.
They’re entering the zone of endless construction near the student union where police tape funnels the crowds into muddy single file. The kid follows closely, speaks over Paul’s shoulder.
“I emailed you last month. You never answered.” The kid sounds more dejected than angry.
“Huh. Must have missed it. I’ll check my spam folder.” Paul speaks to the boy familiarly, confidently, hoping the name will come, that it’s somewhere. If he can just remember a paper, a presentation, even just place this face in a classroom alongside other faces.
“Like I said in my email, we just need your signature. You wouldn’t have to come to the meetings. You wouldn’t have to do anything really.”
“Okay, how about you resend your email. And I’ll take a look.” They trudge in silence for a time. “So how’s your semester going?”
The boy frowns and blinks, chews the corner of his mouth, looks in general as if this is a much more fraught question than it should be. “All right.”
“Set to graduate soon?” Another safe question, though again the boy considers for far too long.
“I think so.”
“Well, good. I’ll look for that email.” They’ve arrived now at the opulent new STEM Facilities building where Paul turns right, and the kid, mercifully, swings left, bent under his pack.
It isn’t until the email from ‘James Pelish’ arrives later that afternoon that the memories return. Even then, Paul has to dig through musty grade sheets in his filing cabinet, from long before he went digital. Almost twelve years ago, the semester he started here at TFSU. Freshman Writing 1410. Paul remembers another face now, fresh-scrubbed and plump, so different than the haunted, emaciated kid with which he just spoke. So James Pelish has been kicking around here for twelve years too. The thought depresses Paul more than he can bear.
James Pelish’s email bears no message or subject line, just an attachment that Paul cautiously opens. It’s a scan of an official form, so many generations old that it’s all blurs and blobs. “Student Organization Faculty Sponsorship Agreement.” Paul reads down to where someone’s filled in the middle in childish scrawl.
“FANTASY LITERATURE FAN CLUB AND DISCUSSION GROUP (WITH SPECIAL ATTENTION TO THE WORKS OF KRISTIAN VANG.)”
Paul Googles the unfamiliar name and gets a bewildering list of hits: a Seattle realtor, a Minneapolis high school halfback with a rushing record. Switching to image search, he spots a gaunt, scowling face with a beard a little like the boy’s. Paul clicks that link. “Kristian Vang. Fantasy novelist. Philosopher. Ethnographer. Born: Malmo, Sweden, 1939. Died: Rochester, Minnesota, 2001.”
A second email arrives while Paul is studying Kristian Vang’s haggard face, the alert startling in his quiet office.
Thanks in advance, Professor Coronado. Having a faculty sponsor
means we can book a room on campus. (We’ve been meeting upstairs
at Stormcloud Comix). Also the SGA might give us money for snacks
and things. If your willing to sign (hope you are) please leave the
form at the English desk. I will do the rest. I thought of you for this
because I have real good memories of your class. A lot of what you
said back then has really stuck with me.
Paul prints the form, feels a quick flicker of unease as he recalls the kid’s sunken eyes, but he signs before he can change his mind, reasons that this will be his small penance for pretending to know peoples’ names, for agreeing to things that he shouldn’t. He drops the form in the main office tray. It’s gone the next time he looks.
When Jeff Muller from university physical maintenance calls Paul three weeks later, he thinks at first it’s someone finally getting back to him about his uninstalled office door name placard, is just starting in on that, venting his righteous annoyance, when the man interrupts.
“I’m sorry to hear about your placard, Professor Coronado. This is actually about something else.” The man clears his throat. “The Fantasy Literature Discussion Group. You’re listed here as their faculty sponsor.”
It takes Paul some moments to remember. “Oh, sure. That.”
“I’m only calling you because I’m not getting an answer from their contact number. They’ve been meeting in ESB 328 on Wednesday nights at nine. Some of our maintenance crew are a little unhappy about the condition of the classroom afterwards.”
Paul sighs. “What’s going on?”
“They’ve been rearranging the desks.”
Paul laughs. “Like in a circle?”
“No, pushed into the corners. Piled up. It’s a little hard to describe. Also, they’ve been smudging the chalkboards with something. Some glue or resin. It’s nearly impossible to clean off. Instructors in other classes have complained.”
Paul sighs. “Right.”
“Also, the campus police night patrol says whoever’s in that room have been leaving the temperature very high. I’m not sure if they’re messing with the thermostat or plugging in heaters. Either way, that’s a fire code violation.”
Paul rubs his eyes. “Okay. To be clear, I’m just the faculty sponsor. I can pass a message along. I can’t promise anything beyond that.”
“We appreciate whatever you can do, Professor. And sorry for the bother.”
“Hey, Jeff, while I have you on the line, could we talk about that other thing? The name placard? I mean, when I can expect to get that up?”
“One second. Coronado.” Jeff Muller clucks his tongue. “That work order is actually showing in our system as complete.”
Paul forces himself calm, knows it will do no good to rant in the way he’d like to. “Well, it’s not. Like I was just telling you, they’ve taken the old one down, the previous occupant’s. The new one’s been sitting here on my desk for months.”
“I’ll put in a new ticket. We’re backed up now. But someone will be by, I’m sure.”
Various annoyances boil in Paul as he hangs up, as he composes a curt email to James Pelish, sends it off before hurrying to his graduate seminar, grabbing some notes for an abandoned paper on Every Man In His Humour on his way. The class goes about as expected. Most of the students haven’t done the reading, stare at their hands through Paul’s discussion questions. When he tries to riff off his old notes, Lucy Van homes in like a shark on the same argumentative flaw that made him ditch the paper five years ago. A few students never return from break. After class, Paul skulks back to his office, sees the reply email from James Pelish waiting.
Dear Professor Coronado,
On behalf of our entire group I want to apologize. You did us a favor
and we let you down. We will most definitely take better care of the
classroom space in future. We are sorry for any trouble and
embarrassment we have caused. I want you to know that I personally
feel terrible about this and will do my utmost not to let it happen ever
Yours very sincerely,
Paul laughs out loud in his dim office, can almost picture the boy’s hangdog expression. But for the first time tonight he feels appeased, or at least feels a little of his displeasure fading. He thinks of writing back, but it’s probably enough, one nuisance sorted.
The pair who appear outside Paul’s office, the young woman and man in shapeless cardigans, are grad students, Paul recognizes, tutors down in the writing center where he sends his truly hopeless cases. He doesn’t really know either of them, hasn’t taught them, isn’t sure why they’ve found their way up to his quiet corner of the fourth floor or why they’re leaning in his door.
“Professor Coronado?” the young woman says.
Paul waves her in.
“Sorry, we couldn’t tell if this was the right office.”
“I just moved here. They still haven’t put up my . . .” Paul stops himself, partly because he knows how uninterested they will be in his name placard, partly to head off the tight-stomached anger that rises whenever he considers the bare spot on his door.
“I’m Irene Kotsovolos. And this is Davis.” The young woman squirms in her chair, seems almost bashful. “So I don’t really know how to start.”
The young man offers no help, sits and chews his thumbnail.
Paul smiles. “It’s fine. Go ahead.”
“So you’re faculty mentor for the Kristian Vang Fan Club?”
Paul thumb-rubs his eyes. “I think it’s ‘Fantasy Literature Fan Club.’ And it’s sponsor, not mentor. Look, if this is about the classroom, they said they’re not going to muck up the chalkboards anymore so –”
The girl shakes her head. “This isn’t about that.”
Irene looks to the boy for help, though he’s still chewing his nails. She squirms again. For the first time Paul can see something he should have noticed sooner, an agitation in her eyes, bright and fierce, as if she’s working herself up to something. “I mean . . . you must see the problem, right?”
“I’m not following.”
“Okay. I know that fantasy isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But there’s an audience, right? Also, you guys are tutors. Maybe we should be happy about anything that gets these kids reading instead of watching anime and playing video games or –”
Irene’s laughter is loud, brittle, a little theatrical. “You think that’s the problem? That Kristian Vang was a fantasy writer?”
“Okay, I’ll admit I maybe don’t know what the problem is.”
“That he was a neo-Nazi. An occultist.” She straightens in her chair, holds up her phone, a grainy black and white
image. “A convicted rapist.”
Paul studies the image, which is a smirking mugshot, he sees, does his best to ignore the prickling that’s descending, like stepping fingers, between his shoulder blades. “Okay. I didn’t know those things.”
“Well, now you do. And I don’t know what else to tell you. Just that we don’t appreciate that we’re at a school that has no George Eliot or Jane Austen or even a freaking Shakespeare club but somehow has a Kristian Vang club. That we don’t appreciate our course fees funding an organization like that. And that we especially don’t appreciate faculty in our own department supporting it.”
Paul licks his lips. “I honestly wasn’t aware of these things. I’m going to look into it. If what you’re saying is true, I’m sure it will be taken care of.”
The young man takes a breath, speaks finally. “We’re very upset about this.”
The pair file out, and Paul has a browser open before their footsteps fade, Googles a few key words and scans the results.
“Oh, Goddamnit,” he says.
A half hour later, Paul is still reading online newspaper stories, antifascist blogs and old court transcripts, still feeling faintly nauseous, when he stops, drafts James Pelish a short email then a longer one though he sends neither.
By the time Paul arrives at 9 PM at Earth Sciences 328, the classroom, like most of the floor, is empty and unlit. Paul turns on the light, double-checks the place and time on his phone then takes a desk. By 9:15, he’s just about to leave when a wan-faced girl with a cloud of frizzy, auburn hair enters, sees him, and looks briefly panicked. Like James Pelish, she’s oddly familiar.
“Excuse me? Sir?” The girl’s voice is scratchy and adenoidal, as if she’s just clearing the worst of a bad cold. She dabs her nose with the wad of tissues in her fist. “We actually have this room booked for our club meeting tonight. So . . .”
“I’m Paul Coronado.”
A blank stare. The girl clamps the wad of tissues hard around her nostrils.
“I’m your club’s faculty sponsor.”
Oh, right. Oh, great.” The girl smiles, backs up to her desk and sits, is on her phone soon after, texting, her thumbs a blur.
The young man who shows up next could be James Pelish’s brother, equally gaunt and pale, hair shorn in a similar DIY haircut. His smile shows a missing top incisor. The young woman whispers in his ear, and a moment later the boy is on his phone too.
“So when do things usually get started?” Paul asks around 9:40.
“Soon as everybody’s here,” the frizzy-haired girl says and shrugs. “Soon as James gets here.”
“And when does that generally happen?”
“I don’t know. Soon.”
Two more skinny, young men enter, sit but don’t greet the others. A young blonde woman in a baggy hoodie follows, sits briefly in the desk beside Paul’s, has barely settled when she lights again, relocates across the room, watches Paul dolefully from over there.
“So you probably don’t remember, Professor Coronado,” the frizzy-haired girl with the cold is saying to him, breaking the silence. “But I was in your Shakespeare class two years ago. The mega-section. You gave the lectures. We mostly talked with our TA. I didn’t even 100% know your name until just now.” She smiles brightly. “You gave me an A on my final paper. Daisy Mulgrew. I’m sure you don’t remember me.”
“Mulgrew.” Paul squints. “Wait. Did you write on Richard III?”
He snaps his fingers. “Antony and Cleopatra, right?”
The girl blows her nose messily. “Uh uh.”
There’s a silence then, and Paul smiles helplessly, wonders if she’s waiting for him to keep guessing. But then James Pelish has arrived at last, out of breath, hands and ears pink from the outside chill. The other kids stare at him expectantly.
“Hey, Professor Coronado.” The boy waves. “This is a great surprise. Thanks for coming. So I guess we should get going, right?”
Paul stands. “James, before you start, could I talk with you out in the hallway for a –”
“Can it wait until first break, Professor? Twenty minutes?”
Paul checks his watch. His plan to deal with this unpleasantness then head home, maybe watch a few DVR’d TV shows before bed, was shot some time ago. “All right.”
“So, uh, let’s get started.” The boy strides to the lectern, stands in his awkward slouch there, flips through a worn paperback. “We should pick up where we left off, right? The Grey Wolves of Eurundus Prime. Chapter two.”
Paul can’t help but notice the circuit of anxious glances around the classroom, how only one other member, the girl with the cold, Daisy, seems to have a book. The others stare at their hands or at various coordinates in space. Paul knows these earnest, empty expressions, has seen them enough over the years.
James clears his throat. “So, just to start things off, do you all think Lupus is returning home to reclaim his birthright from the Winter Warlocks like he says he was going to? Or maybe is he after something else maybe?”
Though the silence after, broken only by the frizzy-haired girl’s sniffles, continues far beyond anything Paul could personally endure, the boy waits it out.
James Pelish clears his throat, has grown even paler. “What do you think, Daisy?”
Daisy stiffens and flips pages. “I mean, it seems to me like, yeah, maybe Lupus wants to reclaim the throne or . . . or I don’t know. Maybe something else. Hard to say.”
“Good.” James Pelish nods vigorously. “Great. Does anyone have anything else to add?” James Pelish licks his lip, waits out another interminable silence. “Okay. Moving on to chapter three.”
Paul stands, beckons the boy out in the hallway with him, waits for the door to close behind them.
“Sorry, Professor Coronado. I’m really embarrassed. I don’t know where peoples’ heads are at tonight.”
“Just stop.” Paul sighs. “Drop it, okay?”
The boy’s small nostrils twitch. “Drop what?”
“Whatever this is. That was.”
“Seriously, it pisses me off when people don’t care enough to do the readings. I mean, you know how that is.”
The boy’s eyes drop, a shrug, a small, embarrassed smile.
Paul sighs. “I’ll admit I didn’t know much about your Kristian Vang before. But I’ve learned some things recently. Some disturbing things that we need to talk about.”