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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Vigil," by David Gates (June 23, 1999)
"I had a fool thought -- probably due to that pill, because I could feel it coming over me pretty strong now. I thought that she'd lived a good long life and for that reason she'd been chosen to take Bonnie's place."

"Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," by Alex Keegan (May 26, 1999)
"The hens have been my livelihood, but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War."

"Introducing Unbound Fiction," by Katherine Guckenberger (May 26, 1999)
A note from Atlantic Unbound's fiction editor.

See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

July 28, 1999

Fundamentals of Communication, by Thisbe Nissen

Communications is not my field. I teach Fundamentals of Acting I and II. I used to do the Dramatic Monologue, alternating semesters with Advanced Improvisation, and sometimes I even staged a production spring term, but there have been cutbacks and a new dean who seems to think that art is as dispensable as coffee from the basement vending machine. Dean Ford would actually be a decent enough guy if not for his unbounded enthusiasm for democratic systems of check and balance. He's so gung-ho about "putting the community back in community college," that even though he's been here only six months we're all suddenly serving on eighteen zillion different committees -- "for the advancement of dialogue among students, faculty, staff, administration and community." The Rhetoric/Comp People were all in a snit for a while about the grammatical correctness of "dialogue among," but that's pretty much died down now. Pat Reiser in Economics suggested we form a committee for the Grammatical Integrity of Memos from Personnel, or GIMP, but we're all over-committed as it is. The one committee Ford has foisted on all of us is PEAN -- that's the Peer Evaluation and Advisory Network -- and it's PEAN duties that have me here at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning sitting in on Dan Zweibic's Fundamentals of Communication.

Dan's not a bad guy, just a bad teacher. But he's so goddamn earnest it's going to break my heart to do anything short of lying through my teeth on the PEAN form and proclaiming poor, dull Dan to be "dynamic," "engaging," "professional," "adept." I would lie, only no one would believe me. Dan's a mouse, a sad little mouse who must have pursued a communications major in college as a goal-project in Twelve Steps Beyond Shyness. So here's Dan a few years later, doing the community-college thing with the best and the rest of us. Eight a.m.: preaching to the sedated.

A few compassionate front-row souls are swigging from cans of Mountain Dew, purchased at the basement vending machines, in an attempt to caffeinate themselves into a modicum of functionality. The Dew may well have twice the kick of Coke, but even that's not going to do it for Dan's students this morning. "Fund of Comm" is a required course, meets four times a week for an hour and a quarter. I had heard -- through the student-faculty-staff grapevine (UNITED IN GOSSIP WE STAND!) -- that four days a week Dan delivers a seventy-five-minute lecture on communication. Now I can testify to the veracity of this apparent oxymoron. A lecture on communication! Need my PEAN report say anything more?

The lecture hall -- well, Jesus, what did the administration expect when they scheduled a Comm Class in a lecture hall? -- is a steeply sloped auditorium, with Dan stuck down there in front of us like a baby in a well. I've snuck in at the back, and I'm not sure he's aware I'm here. In front of me a kid in a dark trench coat is drawing, with a full box of sixty-four Crayolas, what appears to be a birthday card for a person called "Jeannine," whom, it would seem, he loves. A few seats down a girl who looks like she's still in her pajamas is writing a letter, or rather the first five or six lines of a letter, over and over on sequential pages of her spiral notebook. Every few minutes she snaps up the sheet she's been working on, flips it with an angry crackle around back, and begins again. "April 15. Dear Wallace, I'm in class, which sucks, which you probably figured since I'm sitting here writing you a letter." A row down from Friend-of-Wallace, two women pass a loose-leaf binder back and forth in written conversation. From the back one of them looks a little like Emily, my delight of a daughter, who's sworn that "if it's the last thing" she does, she's moving out of state as soon as she turns eighteen this spring, and that she'd "sooner die" than take classes at the same dippy college where her mother "entertains the local bimbos." Her language is clichéd, but so's the whole goddamn situation. I have no right, I'm told (by guess who?), to expect "a goddamn thing" from her. And, goddamn it, should I not have expected just that? Just precisely that.

The Emily girl reads her friend's latest message and dissolves into silent laughter, and that's more than enough to dispel her similarity to my daughter, who would not giggle, I don't think, if her life depended on it. In the aisle next to these girls' row, a young couple have eschewed the convention of desks and are sprawled on the steps. The boy, with his bobbed dark hair and tortoise-frame glasses, leans against the wall. The girl -- long, fine, white-blond hair skimming past a jaw that might be called horsey but is nonetheless striking -- rests against her sweetie, her back propped between his open thighs, her own legs tucked beneath her. She's slipped off her shoes, a pair of tiny cork-soled clogs that sit on the carpeted step like two pet mice heeled beside their owner. The couple are among the few in the hall who are actually looking toward the front of the room, but I don't think they're listening any more than Wallace's friend or Jeannine's lover.

It's when I see Dan climbing up the aisle stairs that I realize I'm not listening either. He's describing a film of some sort, and it becomes clear to me that he's headed up to man the projector from the back of the hall. He seems to spot the stair couple for the first time when he's about five steps below them; there's a shudder of something like panic that crosses his face (this is an unanticipated obstacle!), and I can picture the adolescent that Dan really is inside seized with the fear of having to maneuver his way past a pretty girl. A pretty girl entwined with a pretty boy, and the suggestion of everything that exists between them sprawled right there across the step. The girl leans toward the wall a bit to allow Dan passage, but she doesn't actually move over, just performs the gesture, the suggestion of movement. Dan seems to freeze, unable to move forward. He lifts his head, his eyes flit about, and it's then he notices me, my telltale PEAN clipboard out on the desk. Instantly his hand rises in greeting, like a child's imitation of an American Indian -- How! Dan cracks a goofy smile of utter relief. I smile back stiffly; a few heads turn to see who I am. I find myself nodding absurdly, as if I can coax Dan up the stairs the way I once rooted Emily down the slide, up the monkey bars, onto the tire swing. I think I can, I think I can -- The Little Professor Who Could. And we're all just poised there, waiting to see what will happen.

Suddenly the boyfriend, in a moment of divine inspiration, scoops the girl's clogs from the step, one-handed, and holds them above his head. He is the drawbridge, the starter gun, the butler gesturing Come in, come in, and somehow, miraculously, Dan is willing to accept this young man's offer to let him pass safely: the coast is clear, full speed ahead. Dan scuttles wordlessly past, flips a light switch at the back of the hall, and resumes control of his project: show movie, provide narration (for transcripts see textbook, Dynamics of Human Interaction, p. 472).

On the steps, the boy has set the girl's clogs back on the floor. The girl is wearing a sleeveless shirt, and in the dim film-light I can see the boy now place his hand on the warm skin of her back just between the shoulder blades. He's wearing sandals, and one of the girl's hands rests atop his exposed toes. The two of them are still, eyes trained on the screen, but all the energy is there, in these touch points. They sit, shifting occasionally, glancing at the glowing wall clock, waiting for 9:15. I can't see them as well now, in the shadows, but I catch the occasional movement of one of their hands, the caress of a finger, press of palm.

Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Thisbe Nissen is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is currently a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellow at the University of Iowa. Her first collection,
Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night, in which this story appears, won the 1999 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and will be published in the fall by The University of Iowa Press.

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