L. SHAPLEY BASSEN

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

Pilgrim Walker

Viktor was in honors English, a junior accelerated among competitive seniors. He was pale and his fair hair was almost white. His skull was sharply visible under taut skin; in class, Dale was able to keep the seniors from calling him ‘Yorick’. He was the brightest and would easily have led the group if it were not for his temper. He snapped at the boys and dismissed with a snort anything said by a girl. Dale had spoken to him after class. But when she had assigned excerpts of Yeats’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, Viktor read the entire Commedia on his own and wrote a long story that identified her as Beatrice. She encouraged Viktor to publish it in the school literary magazine she supervised. The boy began writing to her.

In February, 1975, Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Tory Party. In March, the Eagles’ Best of My Love reached #1. It was Dale’s fifth year of teaching at a high school with a view of the lower NYC skyline the Twin Towers had dominated for two years. In April, the Khmer Rouge began the regime that resulted in the death of three million, and Bill Gates founded Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After Viktor’s letters turned up in her mailbox, or he tossed one onto her desk at the start of other classes, Dale answered as promptly as she could. But she became afraid the boy might misunderstand, and she had no respect for teachers who liked playing Pied Piper.

So she went to Viktor’s guidance counselor, Florence, who was on the phone. Dale had about four minutes to report her concern about Viktor before the bell rang. Florence hung up, rubbing her forehead.

“What brings you?” Florence asked.

“Viktor Heinz is too attached to me.”

“It’s Spring and you’re pretty.”

“And he acts out – in an honors class.”

Florence found the boy’s folder. “Highest I.Q. in the junior class. Youngest of three, older sisters your age. Family moved here in ninth grade.”

“His oldest sister named her twins after him, which he finds disgusting. They moved because his father’s inn out in Montauk burned down. Viktor was there alone and feels responsible.”

“He was alone?”

“He wrote that his mother chose the morning after the fire to tell him she’d been married before. That the sisters are half-sisters. For marrying twice, his mother is a ‘fallen woman.’”

“I’ll speak to him tomorrow the latest.”

The bell had sounded and 2400 students were crowding halls built for 1800.

“The call of the wild,” Dale said. “I’ll be late to class.”

At the end of the next day, Dale sat at her desk reading essays. Viktor appeared.

“You weren’t in class,” Dale said.

“I was in Guidance,” he said.

“We all need guidance.”

“She only talked about the SAT’s. I ought to do fine,” Viktor paused, “as long as Wrut’s in charge.”

Viktor wore a blue sport shirt and chinos. He folded his hands on the student desk. “Mrs. Citron did inform me about your concern about my behavior and I want to allay any future fears you may have in that regard. It is cruel of me to overreact in the classroom situation. Although there have been occasions when – after my story appeared, everyone attacked in a vicious, merciless way, not realizing it was the imaginary outcropping of my structural philosophy. But I will not upset you in class in the future. I hope you will accept my apology.”

“Of course.”

“I think it is perhaps time to clarify those references I made in my last letter to, as I said, my structural philosophy.” On that Thursday afternoon in April, Viktor hid his face inside his folded arms and gave a ninety minute monologue about three forces in his personality that drove (Wrut), threatened (Marauder), and protected (Danla) him. “They combine into Pilgrim Walker.” Viktor lifted his head.

“I’d like to write a philosophical play about the three factions of my character. It could incorporate all of the ideas and questions I have been exploring lately. I have also neglected to tell you of a strange dream I had about you last Wednesday. I was attending a mass at the church I used to attend when I was feeling pious. The celebration of the Eucharist was just beginning. I don’t know if you are familiar with Catholic doctrine, but when I was small, the altar boys used to ring a bell three times during the reenactment of the Last Supper. Each time you were supposed to beat your right hand upon your heart. In recent years, the ritual had largely disappeared. In my dream, there were two nuns in red and black habits seated behind me to the right. They were both beating their right hands across their hearts. Just then, the usher beyond their pew looked at me and smiled, nodding his head at the two as if pointing out their senility. When I again observed them, one was holding the other’s hand and hacking against her wrist with her free hand, drawing blood. In the midst of the Communion, I made my way to the rear of the church and began to ascend the staircase leading to the second floor balcony and the organ. As I was about halfway up, I met you coming down.”

“That’s a dream about me?”

A custodian pushed a wheeled garbage pail into the room. Dale greeted him, placed the essays into her briefcase, and put on her jacket. “We’ll be out of your way in a sec, Anthony,” she said.

Viktor walked with Dale down the hall to the parking lot exit.

“There’s one other thing I must tell you,” Viktor said. “I’m afraid what I have to say may end everything, but,” he whispered, “I abuse myself twenty times a day. Sometimes forty.”

Dale’s hand was on the exit door. “I’ve got to get home now, Viktor. My husband will be waiting.”

Viktor took a step back and let her go.

She called in sick the next day to read student essays. A school secretary called to say a bouquet of flowers from Viktor’s mother had arrived for her, and a colleague would drop them off on his way home. On Monday, an eleven page letter from Viktor waited in her mailbox. Dale read it to Florence in Guidance.

I encountered a practical and clear-cut thought in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who, as you know, in the course of narration slips in small remarks and comments on topics such as pathological dreams or human relationships. One such remark appeared very early in the book as Raskolnikov was about to make the acquaintance of Marmeladov, the uncurable drunkard, as they sat in a dirty tavern. I quote from the translation I borrowed from the public library which I believe is superior to the text the school bought. ‘There are some people who interest us immediately, at first glance, before a word is exchanged.’ This is essentially how my interest in you began, almost from the very first time I sat in your class before a word passed between us. I am very content in your class. You are a very effective teacher. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.”

“From now on,” Dale said, “when I get a letter, you get a letter. Can’t we get Mortie in?”

Florence grimaced at the school psychologist’s name. “Can you see Viktor with Mortie?”

“You’ve got to let his parents know he needs attention.”

“I’ll try,” Florence said, but the tone of her voice, her shifting in her chair, taking in a glance the courtyard outside her office, a Japanese maple and forsythia in bloom, students smoking, necking, tossing a frisbee – told Dale the opposite was true. The bell rang.

By June, the teacher had undergone a series of invasive tests and was told she couldn’t conceive. Dale went to Florence’s office with another thick Viktor envelope.

Unprotected by you, I am prone to suicide. In place of a love of life I have substituted the next best thing: a virtuous person who loves life 100% of the time, this person being you. You supply the energy that protects me from suicide. So the extent of my dependence on you is clear. When I do get suicidal, I need something to make me hold on. I need something to make existence meaningful. I need you. When combined with trust, confidence, concern, and the willingness to return more help than is taken, need becomes ‘entity love,’ as I refer to it in my terminology. When love like this exists, those two involved are functions of one another, the existence of one guaranteeing the other, and the death of one necessitating the other’s death as well.

“What is that,” Florence said, “a threat on your life if you let him down?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Thank god summer intervenes.”

Dale started to cry. “He’s — like the 20th century threatening annihilation if I can’t make sense

out of its break with the past.”

The older woman put her palm over Dale’s hand. “Or a troubled teenager trying to grow up.”

The tears stopped. “Viktor thinks I can save him. He’s a test I’m failing.”

Florence beckoned Dale to the door. “This is the time of year for tests and failures. In the Guidance Department,” Florence gestured, “at the end of June. we’re concerned with averages, not specific exams, and whether you get the half credit to be promoted or graduate. Go see JAWS and put Viktor in perspective. We’ll start over in the fall.”

* * *

It was the worst of summers: letters from Viktor that Dale didn’t open and hopeless, painfully repeated medical procedures. Then it was the best of summers: defeating Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win a Wimbledon singles title. In late August, a positive lab test said Dale was due May 1st. She was saved.

Back at work in September, Dale felt Viktor was broken and she was not. He spooked her students by peering in at them with her. Then she received a note: “My pessimistic fears are confirmed. I won’t waste any of your time by recounting any of the dark suspicions I have. You don’t want to hear from me. I accept that no matter what the consequences may be.”

Dale presented the note to Florence at the lunch table they shared in the Teachers’ Cafeteria. Another teacher had Viktor as a new student.

“It’s just September. I was getting around to seeing you, Flo,” the man said, “The other kids don’t want to sit near him.”

“He’s applied to Dale’s alma mater,” Florence sighed. “It’s his only way of staying close to her.”

“You can’t let that mad boy go to college,” Dale said. “I won’t write a recommendation.”

“He’ll get accepted anyway,” Florence said, noticing Dale’s sleeveless blouse. “I’m the one supposed to be having hot flashes, not you.”

“I’ll be 98.6,” Dale admitted, “for the next seven months.”

Talk about Viktor Heinz was lost in pregnancy fanfare.

A month later, Viktor turned up at the literary magazine meeting. He sat silently while kids argued about how often they could publish their own stories and poems and leave out everyone else’s. Viktor waited for the meeting to end.

At the door, Dale said, “Viktor, let me be. I’m expecting a baby.”

“You?” he cried and ran down the hall. It was after 4 p.m. on an autumn afternoon. Dale trudged to Florence’s office, hoping she’d left, but her Department Chair was there. Together, the listened to the latest Viktor Heinz story.

“That’s enough,” the Chair said.

Viktor was absent the next day, and a weekend followed. On Monday, the Chair told Dale that after Friday’s call from the Principal, Viktor’s parents had been relieved to have him hospitalized.

But Viktor returned to school in November. He’d run away and refused further treatment. Florence reported he called psychiatrists “illiterate and licentious.” Viktor took and received a perfect score on his SAT’s. He stayed away from Dale.

In December, Dale taught JULIUS CAESAR to sophomores. In the years before video and then laptops in the classroom, students followed the text listening to a tape recording of the play. When Casca struck the first blow, the textbook Dale rested on her belly flew into an aisle, kicked by the fetal critic inside her. In April, a class broke school rules against parties by sneaking in a sheet cake, cartons of juice, and a ribboned bassinette filled with gifts. Except for the misogynist assistant principal who daily told her she was fat — and the poem Viktor submitted to the literary magazine right before the deadline — Dale was happy.

Dale read it and passed it on to her Chair. The poem was titled The End.

When my Lady says me nay,

my mountain fastness ‘gins to sway;

I curse the night, I curse the day

my Lady turned from me away.

The mountain peak fuck-fingers God

Who shakes the climber from its peak –

O who’d with Lady only speak!

but ladies lure and gods betray.

The Principal said no to its publication, and a storm ensued in the school newspaper. The deadline passed, all the kids had read the poem, and the furor died as most spring-time excitations did. Florence told Dale that Viktor had been accepted to the University of Chicago. Before Dale went on maternity leave in April, she frequented the Faculty Room bathroom between classes. There was Viktor, neatly dressed, thin and pale, blocking her way.

“I only wanted to be your friend,” he said.

His eyes were dilated black. The winter-spring contrast of Viktor’s narrow morbidity and Dale swollen fecundity was vivid. The Faculty Room door opened, and a math teacher emerged, assessing the scene.

“Everything okay?” he threatened.

Dale entered as her colleague exited, closing the door after her.

* * *

Over decades, when Dale thought of Viktor, it was never without a sense of fear and failure. She kept but never reread his letters. The Towers that Dale had seen rise, fell. Another decade passed. In May, 2013, a spire capped the new 1776 ft. tall 1 World Trade Center, and a coda to the old century came out of cyberspace: online in her alumni magazine, Dale read an obituary essay for her most influential professor at Chicago. It was written by Viktor, who at the university had become the protégé of the professor, a more apt Beatrice who guided him on to unknown others. A biographical squib identified Viktor’s successful ongoing career as a partner, husband, and father (his sons attending Chicago).

In 21st century cyberspace, Dale and Viktor then ‘associated’ like subatomic particles. In response to her praise of his eulogy, Viktor wrote familiar lengthy, laudatory messages. Then, to emphasize her relief at Viktor’s survival, Dale tried delicately to describe their past entanglement. He replied more recognizably, denying, accusing and insulting her. Once again, he cast her as the evil Lady who Said Him Nay. She read his denials as the brief of his life, written by the expert he had become. Dale found her Pinsky translation of Dante:

To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel;

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I–so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

After Dale measured Viktor’s fury against the griefs of decades past and yet to come, she still felt only relief: how Viktor or anyone escaped the levels of hell remained a mystery, but for the time being, Life had won. Hamlet’s interim was enough.

L. Shapley Bassen’s novel [seeking publisher] NEW MARWA is a multicultural/gender novel whose twice-published coda chapter is a fast read at http://beneaththerainbow.com/that-is-the-question/. Updated website lsbassen.com now features a 37″ excerpt recording of her 1st novel read online/published by ACN Books Indie Beginning. Her story “Portrait of a Giant Squid” was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. She was Fiction Editor for prickofthespindle.org till its cessation after six successful years and indie-published author of Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press), and novella/story collection, Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and others.

DEAR READER

At The Wild Word we are proud to present some of the best online writing around, as well as being a platform for new and emerging writers and artists.

As a non-profit, the entire site is a labour of love.

If you have read the work in The Wild Word and like what we do, please put something in our tip jar to keep this amazing platform alive.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT!