Nils Peterson: Talk in the Reading Room
About Nils Peterson

 The Reading Room
 Xmas Eve at the Big House 
 Christmas Mysteries 
Summers in Long Island 
 Father Arrives in the    Triumphal Car 
 Yankee Stadium Gone 
 A Thing of Beauty 
 Learning From My Father 
 Learning From My Mother 
The Bus


 Next Stop 
 Going to College
 My Lecture on Romanticism 
 A Story 
 Go Way From My Window 
• Singing in the Rain 
 On the Nature of Exposition 
 A Latin Class
A Hero's Life
 Letter to Paul Cantrell
• Homecoming 
 The Moon and the Bulldozer


A Hero’s Life

When I knew Mavis, she was the wife of the Director of Freshman Composition. She’s long since left faculty wifing to become a novelist, a good one, though more depressing than I can usually stand. What made her a hero to me happened at a party put on by Frederick Lark, the head of the English department.

He was the worst teacher ever to be given a festschrift. He was so bad, he was a blessing, for the shyest, timidest, dullest, stupidest of us could feel superior, could know that when he said white, blue surely was in the running.

His wife Cora, however, was very sharp. She had a Ph.D., taught English at the girls’ school across town, and looked like the heavy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the middle of her big scene. She would come into his class, sit in the corner cackling and muttering under her breath, knitting like Madame DuFarge on some object that never got any bigger. When Lark would say something stupid, Cora would look up, snort, and say matter of factly, “Freddy, you fool,” — like the time he gave the worst single reading of a poem I’ve ever heard —

                        Haaadweeee/ butwuuurld/ eeeenuff/ and tiiime.
                        Thiscoi/ nyeslay/ dyeedbee/ nocrime.
      Weewould/ sitdow/ nyandthink/ whichwaay...

and on and interminably on until


his little pink mouth tripping over itself, thin wisps of hair bobbing above his ears his turkey neck jutting out further and further. “Did you catch, gentlemen,” he asked as if in ecstasy, “Did you catch the change of pace in the poem?” — and in the pause where he still waited after thirty-five years for one enthusiastic response from a class — “Freddy, you fool,” or worst of all when he was caught up in mannerism and did a slide show of Italian painting lecturing about the importance of the Mona Lisa looking off in whatever direction she looks off in. He had barely started when Cora’s cackling began in the corner. We listened, caught between those two strands of discourse until he, sitting on the last of his dull point, looked up for comment, and she, in a seizure of snorts and titters spluttered — “Freddy, you fool, you’ve got the slide in backwards.”

Anyway, we were at this party for teaching assistants and young faculty drinking sherry — some nutty Amontillado — muttering among ourselves, “For God’s sake, Montressor,” as the bricks of the evening sealed us in. I was standing next to Lenny Martin, a thin paring of a fellow whose life was a continuous crisis. We had been given those tiny stemmed goblets whose tops hold about a thumb’s worth. Lark was going from glass to glass manfully pouring. Lenny stuck out his glass. Lark filled it. Nervous Lenny drained it and stuck it out again and from across a crowded room, on this enchanted evening, Cora came flying to his side, snatched his glass away and said — “No more good wine for you, young man; you get the cooking sherry.” She started for the kitchen and we got at last to the heroic part. Mavis, about our age and standing among the TA’s offering us a little comfort, spoke up and said, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Cora?”

I know it can hardly be believed in this year of our Lord, but that was the first time I had ever heard the word used in this way, not on walls, in jokes, or released in great anger, but with the simple purity of a necessary and moral rhetorical device.  My soul sang with it. It was like my young joy in Hamlet when the Prince, gathering together all the hatred in his heart for the old and contemptible says to Polonius — “You are a fishmonger.”

I wish I could report that we Teaching Assistants raised our fists as one, downed our sherry, hurled our glasses in the fireplace, and, bearing Mavis on our shoulders, marched out into the night singing “Stouthearted Men.” Instead, we blanched like almonds and started talking about the Fall, one of Lark’s favorite subjects, abandoning her as we had been taught Adam should have abandoned Eve. Mavis’s husband finally took her away saying, “A few of us are having this absolutely fascinating discussion on metaphor,” but a little happy ending. Cora, startled into decency, gave Lenny back his glass, Lark filled it, and we smiled and smiled and went on as if nothing had happened.

I have not seen Mavis in 50 years, but as I sit here writing this, I seem to be in love with her. I hope her novels become more cheerful so I can read them, though that may be hard for someone who’s been the wife of the Director of Freshman Composition.

When this poem is adopted for the movies, I will insist for the sake of my heart that Katherine Hepburn star, though the young Bette Davis was born for the part.


  © 2014, Nils Peterson

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