November 2005 (v8 i3)
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How Faulkner Retired
by Jonathan York, Contributing Writer

She swayed onstage in a faded ball gown on the morning I first heard her. Brown, wavy hair fell to her chin, her gray eyes watched light fall from filthy windows, and her pink lips opened to the psalm.

No one with sense would have brought her to our rural university. But we had President Faulkner, who was near to wiping his bloodless brow once more with the towel, then throwing it in. He preferred the deans forge his signature rather than ask for decisions; that must have been how they booked the punk-rock singer for morning sets. I covered Faulkner for the school paper, waiting outside his door with a notepad to record the curses he muttered when walking drunk to meetings. While her shrieks and guitar explosions echoed above footsteps, above coffee fumes, through hallways of wood panels and trophy cases, Faulkner didn't notice the music — he was too busy croaking into his cell phone.

I walked home to find my bulbous roommate reciting Isaiah on our living-room floor. I tried to tell him about the singer, but he just lifted his eyebrows to signify the word "buttfucker," spelling it out beneath his pimplish forehead. The imaginary girlfriend must have left him again. I lay in bed, hoping his biblical oaths would rumble me to sleep. Then a stylus crackled, and Janis Joplin sang, "Summertime . . ." The next afternoon, Faulkner dedicated a modern glass statue of a Lego dinosaur. The singer, in a blue fedora, elbowed through overweight broadcasters until she was taking notes beside me. When I raised an eyebrow, she leaned close and whispered that gigs didn't cover the bills. So she worked for a start-up newspaper, and each day, they paid her slightly less.

"You get high, or do you just sing about it?" I said.

"Is my fedora blue?" she said, and we slipped off as Faulkner droned his thank-yous to silent, rotting donors.

We smoked a blunt in the August light, watching farmers spit into the empty square. The roommate was a glacial silhouette in the comics shop window. The next window was a dojo, and I told the singer how I'd pledged to learn karate in college (I imagined throwing roundhouse kicks before a tall mirror) and let that promise go. Her blue-jean legs were crossed, the fedora lay beside her green-polished toenails, and her short index finger circled its brim. She said she adored singers who were lesser-known than Janis Joplin but took more drugs and sang more searing things.

"We have the same music," she said, taking my hand.

The roommate squeezed into the living room, wearing a ninja suit, reeking of Zima. He said the imaginary girlfriend told him she only fucked him for inspiration. (Sometimes, with her invisible tongue still firmly in his mouth, she'd rummage for paper and scrawl a line of hexameter.) "I'm really afraid," he said, through the gray bandanna. "I got so many friends, and they're all about to graduate and go kill themselves. Do you think they're gonna forget me?" I patted the dark fabric and assured him they wouldn't.

Faulkner's secretary sipped wine from a beaker. She was laughing with her eyes closed. After I stood by her desk for two minutes, she glanced up, flushed, and pushed the drink behind a typewriter. "He hasn't come in," she said gently, then giggled again. When could I expect him? "Lord knows," she said, chortling, really starting to guffaw. Well, was he coming at all? She caught breath again, cleared her throat, and leaned from her chair. "Young man," she whispered, "how much do you know about life?" When I called his cell phone, the answer was muffled squeals that meant furious adultery.

I didn't care. I quit the paper, and I saw the singer every night. We sneaked into a biology lab to smoke out, shoot up, cook meth, drop ecstasy, and roast s'mores on a burner (jellyfish in formaldehyde jars gleamed against the flame). At home, I unhooked her arms from my neck and wandered from bed, clutching my heart occasionally when the glass dinosaur head screamed at me from the darkness. I sipped chocolate milk and massaged my temples while the roommate snored in a cape and Mickey Mouse ears.

The next morning, she'd gone before I woke, leaving a note in black ink on my face; I blinked into the mirror until realizing it was a geometry problem.

I left class to pee, sharing the trough with English professors Lewis and Larkin, who stared at her note as though the Devil or Death had left his mark. They were arguing about her drug imagery, telling each other (from either side of me) of punk singers each had seen perform, one of whom was so hung over, she chugged 10 gallons of water while naked fans screamed lustily.

Then her song rang again from the speakers. With hot water stinging my hands, I thought how she would leave when the paper crumpled or the gigs ran dry, and how I would hear her voice through the days of sticky typewriters after graduation, and through the nights of books and pencils after retirement, and through the dark mornings in hospice, when I would lie awake with a vision — not of unresting death, but of which pills rolled down the ageless interval of her throat.

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