PLOW — Wendell Mayo
After teaching my morning section of first-year composition, I give my tally to Professor Gertrude Montbatten:
NINE students owning up to misused possessives,
EIGHT run-ons consecutively colliding in zany train wrecks, and
SEVEN comma splices creating impenetrable vinelands of prose…
“What,” Gert sniggers, “no PARTRIDGE in a pear tree?”
She runs the edge of her pinky finger along the zipper of my pants.
“Gert,” I begin, but she shepherds me out of the hall and into my office. She closes the door. I drop into my swivel chair. Gert reaches behind, under my armpits, and I sense cold, cold, her icy hand in my pants, not sure if it’s her glacial hand on me that has me fatally flaccid or what she says.
“We can do whatever you want.”
She unzips me and tugs away at my cock.
I swivel to face my bookshelves, desperately seeking some sort of inspiration.
Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s lover cheer me on.
But Dostoevsky and the Underground Man scowl, moan, “Liza!”
Conrad and Marlow have their eyes shut tight.
And all of Henry James is sobbing—inside.
Then hot, hot, Gert’s hot breath’s on my neck.
“Whatever you want,” she repeats.
My knuckles go white on the arms of the swivel chair. I try to pivot in the chair, to turn and face her, to explain, but she holds me in place, arm pumping, yanking harder. Gert’s always been in charge of our connubial strategies.
“You never say things like that,” I say, close my eyes, and imagine my dick stiff-straight as the flagpole I see outside my office window—until I hear the metal eyelets of the flag ring against it.
“Like what?” Gert says and yanks harder. I wince.
“Like do whatever I want,” I say, try to take command, “and we don’t fuck in my office, especially with Vymar, the Walking Chair, prowling the halls.” But then she’s really jerking away at me, so I add, “Do we?”
“We’ll be legal soon,” she says.
“You mean you sent that letter to the Dean?”
“What about the letter?” she growls.
Gert’s tenured, and I’m not, rather, I’m probationary, a crazy situation for both of us. She wants to start something. Her face is livid, red, showing an old scar, a faint white web of tissue below her left earlobe. I may not have sufficient control of my sexual mechanics that I can become inflexible on demand, but I’m not stupid enough to begin a quarrel with a woman who has my tool in her paw.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’m flexible.”
“I’ll say you’re flexible,” she huffs, releases my cock, digs in a pocket, jangles her car keys, and adds, “Wanna go to the Brethren?”
“Sure,” I reply and zip up.
Last time I was involuntarily flexible, Gert had suggested a trip to the Brethren, a kind of Amish superstore close to the college. That time, the sky was cold, clear, the infinite-blue sort, the limits of which seemed impossible to plumb. We bought an array of six faceless Amish dolls dressed in a variety of drab, washed colors. The next morning I found the expressionless creatures staring at me from Gert’s bedroom dresser, while Gert extoled the aphrodisiacal properties of things Amish and, as she put it, my rock-hard “Morning Glory.” The Brethren had worked its magic, and shortly after we moved into her apartment at the Equine Arms, a complex behind an arch with two reliefs jutting out, each a mangle of human and steed, like the Arc de Triomphe’s La Résistance de 1814 and La Paix de 1815.
But this time, the sky above the Brethren is a stainless-steel gray, hard-looking, clouds so low and vaporous you can’t make out one cloud from others, a kind of metal screen that blanks a sky one knows—or guesses—is blue above the early April weather, and flat, taut Ohio farmland.
We mount the homey porch and an Amish man goes to one knee with a high-end digital Minolta, snapping shots of a bottle fly on a stalk of yellow-flowered pussy willow arcing out a milk can. Another man leans on a wrench affixed the axel-nut of an upturned maroon Yeti mountain bike. Something about the two images has Gert smiling.
Once inside, Gert caresses the glossy black surface of a Pioneer Princess Cookstove with a palm, then dives full-torso into the oven, ass-end up like a gorgeous bran muffin. I’m thinking she wants to buy something big. When Gert wriggles free of the Princess’s maw, gets herself erect, I’m sure she’ll stick her mouth to my ear and ask if I’m similarly erect, so I preempt her question.
“Gert,” I say, “check out these Feuerhand lanterns. They’re a hundred percent German-made.”
She rotates the chimney of a Feuerhand in one hand, mumbles, “Firehand,” checks for bubbles in the glass, then watches me lean against a blood-red Deep-Well Hand Pump. “I don’t know,” Gert says, learnedly. “The Firehand may be too dangerous to have at the Equine Arms.”
She leads me through a canyon lined with Swiss Cow Bells to a section crowned with a hand-stenciled wooden plank hung from an old barn beam:
STATEMENTS IN BROADCLOTH
Chat lines open
I gasp audibly, picture the keen icy stare of a supermodel on the face of an Amish woman strutting a runway jutting above a sea of admiring brethren. The Amish girl at the checkout counter raises her eyes from her cell phone, then returns to texting, fast and facile, like she’s knitting baby booties.
“Climb down your high horse,” Gert sniggles. “It’s allowed. They’re Beachy Amish.”
Gert’s the smartest person I know. Older. The more I trail her around places, the smarter I get, so I’m at her heels again as she lights, rack to rack, like a butterfly, among colors of Beachy dresses, floral fields of calico blues, violets, purples, greens. She lands at the Baptist rack, swipes a solid green button-front closure and detached cape, holds it up, and smoothes it over her body.
“What do you think?” she smiles, a little tug of skin at the left corner of her mouth. Her nose bunches up, and then I see the ghost scar than runs from below her left ear, along the jawline, and disappears there, a childhood fall from quarrelsome horse that landed her in brambles.
I tap a sign over the Baptist rack.
PROVIDES EXCELLENT MODESTY FOR NURSING MOTHERS
“I don’t think so, Gert,” I say, trying to sound a note of cynicism to cover how enchanting her scar is.
She sweeps the Baptist aside, snags another dress, heads for the fitting room, and returns, modeling the Prairie. I consider the Prairie—a calico of violets, gathered waistband, full blousy bodice, and puffy pleats rising above Gert’s trapezoids.
Her ‘Well’ is not the “What do you think?” sort; it’s rather the “Is the Prairie giving you a stiffy yet?”
But I feel threatened.
“With those meaty shoulders,” I say, “you kind of look like an Amish superhero.”
“Smartass,” she sneers, and glances left then right at cumulus violet mounds on her shoulders. “Maybe if we both get into something Amish.”
I figure she figures full-on Amish roleplaying might ignite an evening of old-fashion, fantasy missionary sex.
She tosses a blue-banded straw hat at me. It lands at my feet like a Frisbee. Then she tosses an Old Fashion shirt and Broadfall pants at me and taps the stenciled sign:
EXCELLENT FOR DRESS, CASUAL, WORK—EVERYTHING!
PERIOD CORRECT FOR CIVIL WAR REENACTMENTS
“Let’s get something to hang on the wall of the apartment,” I plead and peel the Broadfall pants and shirt from my face. “Not on me.”
Gert ghost-smiles again and heads for a massive pile of metal, the Pioneer Walking Plow, another Brethren exclusive, its curvaceous carmine handles aching to be seized, massive black iron share to upturn mysteries of dark earth, green clevis awaiting a mighty workhorse to harness.
“Not that!” I say. “How’ll we get it through the door?”
She swishes past the plow, on to a wall of workhorse collars, hanging in rows like sad, droopy donuts. She goes onto tiptoes and removes the Farm Collar for Everyday Use from its hook.
“Perfect,” she says and briefly holds the collar out in stiff arms, framing my head, smiling back at me through the elliptical hole.
Gert pulls into the college’s parking lot ‘A,’ the letter itself painted in bold scarlet on a sign ahead of our space. She unsnaps her seatbelt and slips out the door in a blink.
“What’s the rush?” I ask.
She stoops into the driver-side door. “I have to drop that letter off at the Dean’s office.”
Lightning glints in her eyes, but no thunder. I remember the letter.
“You want me to read it?” I ask and she removes it from her satchel and tosses it in my lap.
To: Dean Sakaj
From: Gertrude Montbatten
Per College policy, I am writing to inform you that I am engaged in a Consensual Amorous Relationship with an untenured faculty member…
“Are we really Amorous?” I say and fold the letter. “And capital letters? Really?”
“I don’t fucking know,” she replies. “I’m just giving them words they want.”
I hear a grumble of thunder in her voice.
I try to dissipate the charge: “Isn’t it interesting that the root word of consensual is sensual?”
“Give me that fucking thing,” Gert says, so I do, and she speeds off to deposit the letter with the Dean’s office.
When Gert’s dot vanishes into the gray-green stone of the Administration Building, I get out of her car and notice Chair Vymar’s wicked-black Highlander parked next to ours, its yellowing bumper sticker from where he lived before.
QUAKER CITY HIGH TRACK & FIELD:
TRAMPLE THE WEAK
HURDLE THE DEAD
I can feel the cinders imbedded in my face when I go up for tenure, especially when Vymar’s pal, Dean Sakaj, lets out that Gert and I are in a Consensual Amorous Relationship. Still, undeterred by the image of myself impaled by track shoes, I head into the Department to attend Vymar’s mandatory seminar on curriculum reform.
I enter the conference room first, alone, notice, as I always notice, the sheer wall of glass that looks out over the East Green, its early-spring bare trees, a watery haze that settles in their branches. Beyond the liquid pall is a farm, an Amish man in a dark coat, his Broadfall slacks, moving slowly behind a plow, bottom halves of his legs vanishing into high furrows of soil. His workhorse strains against the traces. Man and horse, linked in silhouette, have one row done, a single stripe of loam brimming over the gray land.
Vymar enters the room, goes to the lectern, and slaps his papers down. He loads PowerPoint and a blue blur appears on the overhead screen.
I nod. He nods.
“How’re your kids doing in track?” I say in my best ass-kissing voice.
“Winning,” he replies.
Gert comes in and sits next to Vymar. I know she’s sucking up but I can’t blame her. Once it gets out she’s fucking me, I suppose she wants to be on Vymar’s good side, for sake of my tenure. Other faculty mosey in, afternoon coffees in hands, nods, nods, more nods, punctuated occasionally by strange rutting sounds. Dominique shows and, at the empty seat next to hers, arranges a yellow plastic lei in a circle; in its center she sets a snapshot of a woman. We smile, knowing the little shrine before the empty seat is in honor of the department’s Poet-in-Residence, Asira Szucs, who, since achieving tenure five years before based on her first collection, Think of Michaelangelo When I’m Not There, never comes to anything. Few of us have ever met her. The contemplative allure of the poet’s shrine throws me out to the Amish man’s field again, four rows gone, four stripes, the afternoon sun at last burning away some of the haze, and behind the new glow stands Asira, at least what I surmise is her from her photo, watching me plow, beaming with satisfaction.
Vymar plunges a hand into his pants pocket, sticks a hip to one side, and begins.
“All right, time to share, everyone. What do you want to talk about?”
“Curriculum?” I peep.
“Right,” Vymar says. “From the highest echelons of the Administration: ‘Please ask all faculty to immediately implement a compendious and embracive learning paradigm for all learning situations, all learning outcomes, and all high‐impact learner practices, everything embedded within totally socio-cognitive curricula.’” He leans in on his audience, but he’s staring straight at me. “What do you think?” But before I realize his question may be rhetorical, the blue glow overhead vanishes, replaced by a hot pink slide.
FORMATIVE UNDERGRADUATE CURRICULUM MAPPING
Batig, our Medievalist, who hasn’t taught a course in medieval literature in ten years, hoarse after meeting three overloaded sections of first-year composition in a row, rasps out:
“F. U. C. M.?”
“Right,” Vymar says, “F.U.C. M.” I’m not even looking around the room to map faces of my colleagues, afraid of what I might find there, afraid it might spark a ruddy-faced riptide of laughter on my part. Vymar spreads his arms apart, standing like Jesus on that mountaintop in Rio de Janeiro. “But you’re the real workhorses in our department. I’m nobody. I’m just here to facilitate. I really want to hear from you!”
A silence of stares walks about the room, until Gert says, “All right, then, why do our class sizes keep getting bigger and bigger?”
More stares circle the conference table.
“Great, Gertrude!” Vymar says. “Let’s just Blue Sky this a moment.” Blue Sky, we’ve figured, is Vymar’s version of brainstorming, but no one is entirely sure. “Who says small class sizes are best?” Vymar continues. “Maybe, just maybe, we need to admit there may be real joy in teaching large lecture hall classes. Hey, yeah, I have these video tapes of APPLE CEO Steve Jobs lecturing to huge groups. Rest his soul. I can loan them to you. He’s great!”
Outside, the afternoon glow in the sky goes dirty white. My Amish man’s up to six rows, man and horse the only things in motion. I feel like cheering. Dirt clods cleave and fall to the side of each furrow. I feel my shoulders tense, rock in my seat, sense the pull of the plow in my arm sockets, afraid someone will catch me, antsy me, not tenure-fancy me, but plowman me. Gert glances my way a couple times. But in this unguarded moment, I want to plow! Mash my toes into peat. Toss topsoil. Burrow into something and make way for something else to come up. Something. Anything.
Vymar goes on.
“It’s all about students, isn’t it, Gertrude?”
A third slide, beet-root red with garish yellow lettering, fills the room with a strange cabaret light. Fresh from the Administration:
CALIBRATED PEER REVIEW
“C. P. R.?” Gert says, normal eyes off me, suck-ass eyes again on Vymar.
“Right,” Vymar mumbles. “C. P. R.”
This time there’s a wave of silent humor one-two seconds in the room before Vymar continues, finger bouncing on pixelated rooftops of words on the screen.
C. P. R. involves students in the process of determining their own grades, as well as those of their classmates using an innovative computer system…
I’m thinking my Amish has only six more rows to plow, and I’m with him again, knee-deep, fecund, filthy, coming back briefly at the end of each row to catch only snatches of Vymar’s scrabbling about in metaphor and allusion, each snatch-row of Vymar’s more and more truncated…
like when God spake unto Israel…
integrative learning and core values…
a follow-up openness workshop, not open to the public…
like being in a crowd of elephants…
for the Twenty-First Century…
F. U. C. M….
for the Twenty-First Century…
C. P. R….
Back at our apartment at the Equine Arms, Gert flops onto the sofa.
“Well,” she sighs, “what did you think of our meeting with Vymar?”
She wants to know if Vymar’s meeting has gotten a rise out of me. It has before. But not now, except perhaps in the metaphysical sense, so I say:
“Yeah,” she says and ghost smiles. “Then give ‘em C.P.R.”
I carry the box with the horse collar inside into the bedroom. I open the box, set the contents on the bed, then peel away the burlap cover. I sit awhile on the bed with the large leather collar in my lap, thinking of a way to compensate for my failure with Gert in my office that morning.
I call out to the living room, “Hey, Gert,” then duck into the horse collar and settle it on my shoulders, “wanna talk to Mister Ed?”
I hear the springs in the sofa as she rolls up. I wriggle a bit in the collar, get used to it, want to look funny, the way you want to look funny when people are sure to laugh at the thing you’re wearing and not you. When Gert comes in, she walks straight up to the bed and shoves me back, into the headboard, collar still attached. She tugs off my shoes and socks, then drags my pants and underwear off. She straddles me, unbuttons my shirt, and peels it back, lifting the horse collar a little to pass under my shirt.
“Get up,” Gert says. “We’ve got a field to plow.”
I’m so stunned by her command that I stand, naked, hunched by the bedside, think I get it; she wants me to be her plow horse. I’m thinking, All right, whatever the fuck she wants, but when she circles behind and I feel the sting of her palm on my backside, I gasp, the Feuerhand!
“Git!” she shouts, grabs the rein terrets, and steers me into the living room. “Git, you Beachy Amish beast!”
And I’m gitting, straining against the collar, while at the same time she’s hauling back on the terrets. She hits me again, then suddenly releases the terrets. I catapult forward onto my knees beside the kitchen table, getting erect, hard, harder, stimulated by her stinging Feuerhand, knowing this should be a game, purely consensual, but my aching hard-on arcs left before my eyes, a huge, unbelievable crop of cock concealed from Gert and her Feuerhand.
“Get up!” Gert commands, and I’m tempted to tell her I already am, tempted to rise from my knees, turn, and put this true and proper erection to work, but instead I affix my forearms about my old iron share, moan the kind of moan incapable of human contempt or tragedy, coddle what may be my only real instrument of cultivation, and realize this time, hard, hurting, snuffling so near the earth, I’m finally plowing, and this time not sharing it with anyone.
Wendell Mayo is author of four story collections, recently The Cucumber King of Kedainiai, winner of the Subito Press Award for Innovative Fiction. He’s recipient of an NEA fellowship and a Fulbright to Lithuania. Over one-hundred of his short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Yale Review, Harvard Review, Manoa, Missouri Review, Prism International, and others. He teaches in the MFA/BFA programs in creative writing at Bowling Green State University.