Peter Vaudry-Brown

 

Single White Adjunct Teaching

“The kids still think that you’re...” She trails off there. Perhaps pensive. Maybe afraid to bring it up. They’ve had a good first day back together.

“The kids still think I’m... A laugh a minute?”

Wan smile. Joy’s looking out Trautman’s passenger window, which starts to fog from her breath. She wipes at it with the back of a gloved hand. “No.”

They’re pulling out of a chicken place, a ten-piece box and bulky paper bag on the seat between them. “They think I’m a good story-teller? Flatulent? That I want to play for the Mariners? Deserving of a big lottery payday? Can’t say that they’re far wrong there.”

“They still think that you’re too distant. That you’re not trying hard enough.”

He’s known this was coming. Caught a couple shared looks among Joy’s kids. He was even sounding phony to himself. “When, uh... Just when was there time for this communication to happen?”

They’ve recently had a cooling off period, something that’s been going on for a year. Two months of all right before the speech about the kids coming first. And then one month of his being single before the phone call to come back. This time, there was much codifying and stipulating about his behavior with and toward her children.

“When you were changing the filter on the furnace. It wasn’t a long talk. They’re kids. I asked them how they thought you were doing. You got two thumbs down and a crinkled nose.”

“Did the cat vote? I’ve got the feline block pretty much cornered.” He feels good, the energy is starting to flow, the spontaneity coming back after faking it all day in front of those kids. He’s glad that this is happening now and that there won’t be any two months.

Trautman looks over at her. Her mouth is set, holding something back. She’s almost his age, but has the children from a first marriage, to Dale, the Dairy Farmer. Trautman thinks that it’s better this way, even though he goes through it with her. He knows that Joy wants to get married again, knows that she fears winter nights more than anything, that she needs someone there to get up and turn up the heat, someone to look for candles when the lights go out. Someone to jump her car.

Eventually Joy says, “No. No cat. She was outside.”

“You know, it’s like trying to date four people at once. Never mind your family. You refer to your sister and brother-in-law as the Kids sometimes. I’m supposed to be dating you. It’s not entirely fair.” He strides into this portion of the talk. This isn’t new territory for them.

“Oh, Traut honey, you said you’d try.”

They’re at her driveway now, a Baby-Boom era woodframe in Sedro Woolley. The streets are still shaded pavement tones, grays and black, with the occasional puddle glassing over, but all the lawns are already hoar-frosted. “I didn’t get much of a grace period to try, did I?”

“That’s fair, true enough. But they’re kids and I can’t string them along. I told them you said you’d try.”

He signals to turn into her driveway even though there’s no one on the cul-de-sac, thinking of the spam that he gets, that thousands of Russian women are waiting to meet men like him. Can’t imagine why.

They sit in silence for minute. He turns off the car and picks up the food, hefting the box, feeling the weight of it. Says, “When I was a kid, we’d do this some Sundays, maybe once a month. Get a bucket of chicken like this. And the smell’d fill the house. I’d be in the living room...” He’s picturing how it was, a day like this, early December, cold out. Wearing a white turtleneck. “Singing Why can’t every day be like Christmas into a hairbrush.”

She turns to him, folding her leg and hitching it up so that she can get around and see him properly. “You never told me this.”

“It’s the time of year. Cold out that made me think of it.” Shrugs, “The smell’d fill the house. And there’d be mashed potatoes. And mom’d toss a salad, because none of us liked the Colonel’s coleslaw.”

She’s smiling at him now. “You know Trautman, if you’d show this side of yourself to the kids once in a while... You’re really nice when you want to be.”

<>

A planned city of over a million, situated on the scenic central plain of Siberia, a region that, but for blue lines, spends eight odd months a year imitating a hockey rink. Pretty good cultural scene, something that can’t be denied the residents of a failing worker’s paradise, and a nascent and developing nightlife. Omsk. And this is inferential, but the Big O had something to do with the Soviet nuclear or chemical program, hundreds of thousands of scientists and doctors devoting themselves to annihilating the decadent West.

When bored or worn down by the vagaries of his adjunct lifestyle, he opens the last message from this girl, and looks at her photo, the elbow length black gloves, the must-be-fake leopard skin upon which she is laid out, realizing that a girl like this is trying to catch him.

Hello Trautman, i'm glad to get your letter , i'm so sorry i couldn't answer to you earlier but my server didn't work at all and sometimes i have big problems with it , anyway i hope we can start our correspondence and can get to know much better each other , although you understand dear Trautman it's rather difficult from such big distance and may be we could meet each other one day ! Trautman , you know , i feel the same to you and inspite of we are so far away from each other , i do feel this closeness and it's so nice to realize it , i don't know how i can explain it but i always think of you and always look at your lovely picture but i would like to have more pictures of you , you are so attractive man !! As for my pictures , i haven't new ones and now when i have time i want to take new pictures of me and i promiss to send them soon . You know , it's very nice to know that you like animals and you have the cat i like animals too and i have the dog ,her name is Musia and i love her so much . Trautman, i must confess i have a lot of questions to you but i would like to know more about you , your interests ,tastes and what is your favourite music , food ? Have you any brothers or sisters ? I hope we can be open to each other and you can ask me whatever you wish to know about me. I'm waiting for you soon reply , thinking of you, Oksana

Brightening, he’ll say, to his plants and to her image and to no one and everyone, “Amazing.”

<>

There’s one more time over there, at Joy’s, one last try, and, over Sunday lunch, Carrie, the nine-year old, makes some comment to him. “You’re not going to sing, are you?”

And of course he’s never sung for them before; he’s hardly spoken to them really, prior to this new glasnost. They were right to criticize him for that. He suffers their existence like the weather, not allowing himself to think that he deserves more.

The other two laugh and start eating their soup. Joy shares a look with him, wanting him to understand why she told. Trautman smiles, reaching for a bun. “Can someone pass the butter?”

And the lunch goes on like that, Joy trying to include him in the conversation and Trautman nodding significantly from time to time, as if he held great interest in the new Target’s appeal to the pre-teen set.

At the end of the meal, Trautman folds his napkin, a paper towel with ducks on it, setting it on his plate, not even making the effort to take his dishes into the kitchen. An awkward and forced act that he has attempted, to much mirth, before.

He stands. “I have some things to do.”

“Ooooh.” Joy has dropped her hands into her lap and is looking up at him. The children have turned and are watching him, hearing the subtext, finally interested in him, in his relationship with their mother.

He shrugs, not feeling bad about it. He has slightly prepared the ground for this, having alluded to maybe leaving if it wasn’t going well.

“I thought we were going to have a nice family day together.”

He smiles slightly at her and then takes his empty bowl, stacking it on his plate. Then he adds his knife. But he doesn’t carry them into the kitchen. The children are watching everything, every gesture.

Joy follows him from the room, standing on the astroturf of the back porch while he puts on his shoes. It is clear and cold out. She says, “I thought we were going to have a nice family day together. The Seahawks are on.”

“Yes, well. I am an Idaho man. You know I haven’t followed them as much since they cut John Freisz.”

Wearing a white turtleneck herself today, she crosses her arms tightly under her breasts, trying to retain the warmth of inside. The back porch is enclosed but unheated. “I wanted to have a family day.”

“They’ve got a father for that, don’t they?”

“That’s not fair. They have to come first.”

He’s tracing with his shoes, dragging the heavy toes in the astroturf, making the nap go in certain directions, creating symbols. Circle, crescent, cross, x. “They have to. And they should.”

He has a whole raft of mean-spirited things to say to her, about there not being a lot of men looking to adopt her and her family. About her not getting any younger. But Trautman doesn’t, fearing to be drawn back to her for another round of this, in a week, maybe two. Better just the distance. With ironic commentary as a last defense.

Thousands of Russian women are waiting to meet him, even now. Amazing.

<>

He’s read in the P-I recently of a Seattle man who’s struck out twice with the Russian wife solution, both of them having left him as soon as it was safe with immigration. He killed the second one and left her body under a mattress on an Indian reservation. Reading the story, Trautman had said, “Man, you’re taking this too seriously.”

Trautman sends out form letter queries, drawing some solace from the quick and desperate way the women respond. He sends form letter responses as well, talking about his indigo plantation, natural colors for natural fibers!! It’s a noble concept but no real money to speak of. He ends with a URL from a particularly rough porn site, saying, “This is a link to me. I’m the one on the left, smiling!!!”

Hello Trautman! Thank you for the picture and letter. It's interesting to look at you like that. What is that dog name? How old id it? No, I didn't do any research or how easy or difficult it would be to get a dental license in the US. - DO you have any plans for weekend? My day off: I enjoyed this weekend so much! I spent it in Grodno with my parents and friends. Finally I visited almost all of my friends. One of my girlfriends gave birth. I came to her to see her daughter, Dasha by name. And do you know what my friend said? She said: I've learned: that having a child fall asleep in your arms is one of the most peaceful feelings in the world. It is hard to don't believe. Right? I've already seen "Pulp Fiction" in English. Certainly, I saw this film earlier, but in Russian. I mean language. Quentin Tarantino is just a genius. That's a great film? There are a lot of my favorite actors there. Well, now you see my sort of humor in some way. But I like different kinds of films. I have a nice friend of me. His name is Zenya. He said, that he is going to get married. As you see I had enough pleasant news. But the main hero of this weekend was my mother. My dear mommy, I miss her so much, when I am in Minsk. All my friends say that I'm a strong, independent person. But when I with my mom I'm like a kitten, a kid. When I was a child I called my mother "Baby". I still call her baby. She does the same. Every time when she says "baby" I want to cry. It's hard to explain. Maybe, because I'm not a baby, I'm rather big girl, which is not so carefree as earlier. I will again soon as I am interested in knowing more about you. Have a nice day. Elena.

<>

Trautman has been teaching adjunct at Western lately, the promised job that he had at the Whatcom County Community College dried up with the funding cuts that came out of Olympia, adjusting for revenue shortfalls. He can pick up some substitute work with the local schools when things get thin, but he is their last choice, even with his PhD., because he doesn’t have the Education courses required for certification to teach in the state. He has a Doctorate from the University of Idaho and can’t teach public school.

And he lives this life, vaguely attached to Joy when that’s going okay. He doesn’t worry too much during the cooling off periods. Their sex life is decidedly thirty-something, not loud, and heavily governed by children’s sleeping schedules. Trautman’s life away from Joy is limited to a studio apartment. The only decoration is two cactuses on the sill above the main heating duct. There was a cat and a litter box, but that cat’s been moved to Joy’s, when the opportunity for this place came up. It is box-like and nothing special, really, but has an unobstructed, if distant, view of the Bay that he can enjoy from the table where he prepares his classes and does his grading.

His computer sits on a small roll-away hutch, a thirty-dollar particle board and plastic mess that he hates. His monitor sits, waiting to tell him of the women who lie in wait for his predatory masculinity, the former Soviets of the world apparently being more impressed by his storied occupation, university professor, than his earning potential. And no matter what he does, still they reply. Trautman tells them that he must come clean: that he is really a drug runner. Trautman admits to needing to marry someone, anyone, from a country with no extradition treaties with the US. He admits to having a micro penis. A strong aversion to hand lotion. To being a paraplegic.

And still they write back, delicious waifs with an unending access to make up and synthetic fingernails. They are the second and third generation of Soviet planners, and they live in planned cities in Siberia and Kazakhstan and above the Arctic Circle, cities that are crumbling now, the planned apartment blocks unable to withstand the winters, and the people too economically fucked to be able to move on. And so the girls appeal to him, and those like him, saying that age and appearance don’t matter, going on about the lack of treaties in their land, and their own lack of interest in sex or dermatological cosmetics. Their love of wheelchair basketball.

Hi, Trautman! How are you? I hope you have a very nice weekend. Thank you for sincere letter. I value it highly. Well, I'll try to do my best too. You know something about me; I'll try to tell you some facts about me. I live in Belarus. I like to go biking, swimming and walk in nature. The only source that gives me strength in nature. Do you feel bad? Have a walk along a river or something like that. Speak to nature, it the best "friend". I enjoy talking with my good friends about things going on in our lives. I draw great strength from those conversations. My friends draw the same strength from me. I can't live without people, as I'm very sociable person. I have a loving warm and caring personality. It is very difficult for me to get mad at someone. I'm open-minded sensual, calm, natured and romantic. I have a big heart that's why I decided to be a doctor. For me it's very important to help, care of people, to make them smile and to feel happy. I mostly look on the bright side of things. I think that well being always wins. I appreciate in a man's character such qualities as intelligence, reliability, and devotion. I want to create a family and to have children. I value family highly. Maybe because my parents are divorced. I was a teenager when it happened. It goes without gives a sense of belonging, strength, purpose, and love. It's so wonderful when you know that you have a place, where someone loves you, waits for you, worries about you. Family is one of the reasons for living. This is my point of view. What about you? One of my favorite interests is cooking. I've learned this when I was 13. May I ask some questions? -How old are you? -Have you ever been married? If so, do you have children? -Do you want to have children? -Do you think you will walk again ever? No right or wrong answers. I'm just interesting in you. I'll answer your questions with pleasure. Hope to hear from you soon. With warm wishes, Elena.

<>

Sitting at the food court in the Bellis-Fair Mall, Trautman’s got a two-year-old Harper’s that he found while cleaning out his trunk. It has a blueish ring of hydraulic fluid on the cover, from his jack. Remembers keeping it for professional reasons, some aside or parenthetical tangent that struck Trautman as relevant to his research. Trautman’s dissertation dealt with treaty law and Northwest Indian relations with early administrations. Not really groundbreaking, but new enough that he still has hopes of getting some of it published.

Trautman is through a third article, skimming, looking for something he recognizes. For something to stand out. Mechanically, he reaches for his tea, gauging from the heat of the cup whether he can drink from it yet. Bringing it to his lips, his head raises enough for Trautman to sense them, just peripherally.

Pointedly reading on, he remains aware. He finally sets his tea down and, mentally marking his place, looks up. Joy’s children. He looks around, expecting to see Joy off at some distance watching his reaction.

“You’ve grown a mustache.”

“Yes, that’s true. I usually wear one. But your mother doesn’t like them.” The children are arranged in order, by age. Carrie, who spoke, then Mona, and then little Leon.

Carrie continues, “Yes. Well, it looks stupid.”

“Yes, I know. It’s my joke on the world. It tells everyone what I think of them.” None of them says anything to that and Trautman starts to reach for his tea. Then he doesn’t. The children all watch his hand come back down. The silence draws on, and finally he nods at Leon. Trautman knows that Leon can talk, but has only heard inaudible murmurs from the boy. “Where’s your mother?”

Mona, who usually just grimaces in Trautman’s presence, responds, “This is Daddy’s weekend. We’re with our Gran’ma while he works. She’s at bingo.”

Carrie says, “She’s meeting us at two.”

It’s twelve-thirty. Trautman has just finished a bagel and is trying to avoid going home to grade as long as possible. 500 words on an important figure from the Reconstruction. Doesn’t know why he assigns these kids writing that they are so obviously unprepared for, but he can’t quite take the step of going to full multiple-choice teaching. “Well well.”

The children stay to consider him for a while. Leon seems to want to wander off, but Mona has his hand. It’s warm in the mall, but Leon is still wearing a Mariners watch cap. Carrie has the coats, padded wind-breakers really, it’s early Spring now, wadded under her left arm.

“Um... I’m reading here kids. I mean, it’s been nice seeing you. Say hi to your mom.”

“My mom said she might call you today.”

“She asked us if she could. But we said no.”

“Well well.” His tea isn’t much cooler but he forces himself to take a drink. “This might be an interesting opportunity, a nice mental exercise, if it were a different time in my life. You should have caught me a couple years ago. When I was ABD, I would’ve relished the chance to ingratiate myself with you. I would’ve.”

Leon repeats, loudly, “A-B-D.”

Trautman looks at Leon, and continues, nodding, “Yes. ABD. It means you can lift heavy objects like abstract ideas or works on historiography.”

Carrie says, “You’re stupid.”

Trautman makes a show of looking at his watch. “Look, kids. I have to go. I have to meet someone. Would you like to buy a drink or something?”

Carrie steps forward and takes the money that he offers. All he has is a ten. She says, “You have a date.”

Trautman considers this and then takes it. “Yes, in a manner of speaking. I have to – Well, I am in contact with some Russian ladies these days. It’s all very promising. Amazing in fact.”

Like over lunch at Joy’s, the children watch him closely as he walks out; he’s alive for them again. Something beyond their verbal means has just happened.

Walking to his car, he knows that his e-mail is full right now, many, many plaintive missives from Russian girls, who dismiss his criminality, his impotence, his diseases and prostheses. His womanizing and gambling addictions. They appeal to him, pediatricians and dentists, veterinarians and the self-employed, they cry out to be chosen.

And driving home, taking the backroads instead of the Interstate, Trautman finds himself dreaming of tidy sinecure at teaching-oriented schools, little Baptist schools in the Ozarks, Liberal Arts colleges in the desert, schools for the deaf, schools for the dumb. Tenure and safety and security, the ability to pay down his loans and maybe feel like a person for once, someone capable of rescuing one of these girls from post-Soviet penury. And be a real hero for once.

Amazing.