Mazie tensed her whole body. Shabazz bristled at the end of a taut leash, staring down a terrified rabbit. Mazie double wrapped the loop around her wrists and braced her feet against the curb. Strained seconds passed. Just when Mazie felt a bit of slack in the leash, and she hoped they might move on, Shabazz sprang, salivating like a famished alpha predator, toward the rabbit. The sudden lurch nearly pulled Mazie’s arm out of its socket. She staggered forward and pulled backwards simultaneously. She could only trundle along behind Shabazz, trying to hold on and stay on her feet.
The dog’s ferocious bark echoed across the quad, probably awakening anybody trying to sleep in on Sunday morning within earshot. The rabbit bolted into the campus rose garden, with Shabazz in enraged pursuit. Panicked by a vision of the dog ravaging through the colorful rows of delicate polyantha, floribunda, and gallica, Mazie yelled, “Shabazz, no!”
The dog ignored her and barreled headlong into the Friends of Antaeus College’s award-winning flowers. Mazie maneuvered around a tree and managed to hook the leash line around its trunk. When Shabazz reached the extent of his leash, he yelped, and his head snapped back so hard that Mazie worried he’d broken his spine. If that crazy dog died on her watch, there’d be hell to pay from Professor Alolo. But after a few moments, Shabazz snorted and looked back at Mazie with big round eyes, as if to say that he was okay.
Even while panting for air, Mazie smiled. She couldn’t help it—dogs made her smile. People, not so much.
The bucolic campus of Antaeus College was nothing like Mazie had envisioned. Even though she’d lived most of her life within a few miles of it, Mazie had never set foot in the college’s home town of Golden Springs, Ohio. Because of its leftist reputation, most folks in Coon Creek referred to it as “Piss Springs” home of “Egghead College.” But they were idiots. Her brother, Boog, referred to it as “where kids learn how to hate America.”
Mazie had expected a campus with Soviet-style modern architecture, academic buildings made of steel and reflective glass, box-shaped residence halls, windowless computer labs, a vast pavilion with a central obelisk for communal gatherings, and functional structures like greenhouses, solar arrays, and gargantuan windmills. By contrast, on that early summer morning the grounds of Antaeus College looked like an impressionist painting. Blue wisteria and purple bougainvillea vines wrapped in helixes around an ornate trellis that adorned the arched main gate. The central pedestrian boulevard traversed verdant lawns, bordered by beds of mixed flowers, rows of stately oaks, a few towering pines, and rolling mounds landscaped with evergreen ground cover.
Mazie walked by red brick and bluish-gray limestone buildings covered with English ivy, a rotunda lecture hall with Romanesque columns at the entrance, a vaulted library with gargoyles around the roof, and a postmodern student union building that looked to her like a place where poets might hang out. Even the dormitory where she was staying during her residency—aptly named Bard Hall—had stained-glass windows in the common room. These were grand spaces for bold and profound thoughts. Mazie felt smarter just being there.
Shabazz pulled unceasingly forward, as if he was late for some extremely urgent business. Mazie had the all-too-familiar feeling of being pulled somewhere she did not want to go. She tried to remember Professor Alolo’s dog-walking instructions. Shabazz, he said, did not recognize normal dog commands.
“Desist!” she called.
Shabazz ignored her. Instead, he dragged Mazie to a dirt path that led off campus and into the woods of the Golden Springs Nature Preserve. Mazie yielded to the dog’s will.
The hills and forests that surrounded Antaeus College covered a vast expanse of undeveloped land. The tracts of old growth hardwoods in the protected areas were among the oldest east of the continental divide. Elixir Creek, source of the eponymous Golden Springs from which the town borrowed its name, bordered the preserve on one side, and flowed into Clifford Gorge of the Little Miami River on the other side, where legend had it Daniel Boone leapt across to escape hostile Indians. In between, the land rose to the Shawnee Knob, the highest point in the county.
Beyond the boundary of the protected areas, the patchwork of private lands on the far side of Shawnee Knob had been logged bald, then served as pastures for a couple of decades, before being abandoned and left undeveloped for more decades, so that by the year 2016 it was once again heavily wooded. Mazie knew those lands on the other side of the hill quite well. That territory was rutted with unpaved roads popular among dirt bikers and four-wheelers. In the autumn, hunters frequented those tracts, and gunshots echoed through the valleys. The narrow, brackish Coon Creek flowed through it all.
Shabazz climbed, dragging Mazie behind him like a beast of burden. The trail ended at the summit of Shawnee Knob, where Mazie had been many times, although never via this route. From Coon Creek you needed a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance to get there, and even then you could only drive to where there’d been a landslide in the 1990s. To reach the Knob, you had to bushwhack a hundred or so yards, then shimmy through a gap in a wire fence.
Coming from Golden Springs, though, was literally a walk in the park—on a wide mulched trail marked by yellow ribbons hanging from tree branches. Switchbacks crossed through the steep parts. Fallen debris was moved to the side. Mazie would have liked to linger and enjoy the trek, but Shabazz seemed hellbent to get to the top, so it was all she could do to keep up.
After a thirty-minute hike, Mazie and Shabazz emerged from under the broadleaf canopy and stepped into a clearing at the viewpoint. She’d looked down from this vista of the upper Little Miami Valley many times, but somehow it looked different. On a clear day like today, she could see for miles. To the southwest, Coon Creek flowed swiftly down a ridge and then spilled into the Little Miami River on the other side of the gorge. The town of Coon Creek was farther downstream, where an ice-age glacier had deposited stray boulders across the turf like junk cars. From Shawnee Knob, she could make out the ugly smokestack at the old Hercules Steel Mill and Coon Creek Stadium, where the high school football team—the Raging Coons—lost most of their games. But in her mind’s eye, Mazie could see it all: the green water tower painted with a fading CC, Burl Slocum’s personal billboard at the city limit, Amity Valley Memorial Gardens, the Drink Here Tavern, the Hungry Coon Diner, a boarding house with hourly room rentals, and “church row,” just off Main Street, where locals had their choice of four flavors of worship, including the Coon Creek Baptist Church of God, where Mazie’s family certainly worshiped at that very moment.
A bench at the viewpoint faced northeast, looking past the gorge and toward the flatlands at the confluence of Elixir Creek and the Little Miami. The pastoral grounds of Antaeus College dominated this view. Situated at a bend in the creek and accessible by a single winding road, the college stood apart from the town, but also encompassed a good part of it. On Route 68, just beyond the entrance to the college, the “Welcome to Golden Springs” sign was hand carved in the shape of Ohio out of black walnut, with stainless-steel script lettering. Next to it, a three-tiered alpine rock fountain flowed 24/7. By decree of the zoning commission, nothing in Golden Springs exceeded two stories high. Earth tones dominated the storefronts along the cobblestones of Main Street, including Firefly Candles, Happy Legs Bicycle Shop, Vishnu’s Dish Vegetarian Restaurant, Far Out Freddy’s Tie-Dye, Gonzalez and Gringo’s Brewpub, the Give Peace a Chance Gallery, and the Unitarian Universalist Church for ALL. Even the US Post Office resided inside of a geodesic dome.
As the crow flies, only seven miles separated the two towns. Nevertheless, on opposite sides of the gorge, no direct route connected one to the other. They were equally distant from each other culturally, too.
In pursuit of God-only-knows what, Shabazz abruptly launched forward hard enough to detach the leash from around Mazie’s wrist.
“Stop!!!!” she shrieked, horrified at the prospect of losing Professor Alolo’s dog before the first day of class. “Heel! Whoa! Oh, goddamnit, desist!!!”
Shabazz screeched to a halt at a sycamore tree on a narrow side path. He sniffed it up and down as if he were trying to uproot it by inhaling. Aroused by something that he smelled, Shabazz circled the tree, squealing, and then started to hump its trunk, peeling off shards of bark with every brutish thrust.
Mazie caught up and retrieved the leash, but worried that if she pulled the dog away before finishing, he might attack her. Somehow she had the impression that Professor Alolo would want her to stand down and let the beast have his way with the tree. Watching disturbed her, though, so she lowered her head and looked at her shoelaces.
That dog really needs to get laid, she thought.
Rufus Cobb was hip-hopping to 50 Cent in his room when he heard a crash in the hallway. Until that moment, he’d thought he was alone in the dormitory. He muted the volume and went to see what was shaking.
A young woman, wearing cutoff shorts and a sleeveless tie-dye T-shirt, and with her long red hair hanging in front of her face, held an empty box, the bottom of which had just fallen out. At her feet, a disorderly heap of books fanned out as if ready for a bonfire. She looked at Rufus with pleading eyes.
“‘Sup?” he asked.
Rufus’s high-topped dreads bounced on his head as he hustled over. When he bent down to pick up her books, he glimpsed an alluring Rorschach-blot of a birthmark on her inner left thigh. He took his time gathering the books and gave them to her one at a time while she reconstructed the box.
He lifted Capital in the Twenty-First Century from the pile and tapped it on the cover, noting that he’d seen the same book in Professor Alolo’s office.
“I’m guessing you’re here for the Emerging Writers Workshop,” he said.
“Yeah. Hi, I’m Mazie T.”
“Yo. Rufus Cobb.”
Mazie tucked the book under her arm and offered her hand to Rufus. He started to reciprocate with a fist bump but opened his hand when he realized that Mazie was soliciting a traditional up-and-down handshake. They locked hands, squeezed once, and then released. Her palm was slippery.
They stood flat-footed, facing each other, total strangers but also classmates. At a lack for anything witty or eloquent to say, as he so often found himself when speaking to a white female, Rufus opted for his default, “Wanna get high?”
Mazie said, “I don’t,” and then wrinkled her brow and hedged, “I shouldn’t,” before finally clicking her tongue and saying, “Oh, why the hell not?”
“Hey, that’s what I’m sayin’. Why not? This is like being back in college, am I right? ‘Xcept now we’re supposed to be like all adult and responsible. I don’t feel like it though, not until I’m thirty, at least. Maybe. What’s responsible supposed to feel like, anyway?”
Mazie rolled her eyes. Rufus wasn’t sure how to take that gesture. It could have meant “I feel you,” or even “I don’t know,” but it also could’ve meant she thought he’d asked a dumb question.
They sat on folding chairs in Rufus’s room. He removed a joint from behind his ear and lit it with a wooden match, which he struck using his fingernail. He offered the first toke to Mazie. The way her cheeks puffed up when she inhaled was kind of cute.
“Looks like we’d be the first two peeps from the program to show,” Rufus remarked.
“I got here yesterday,” Mazie said. “It’s my job to walk Professor Alolo’s dog.”
“Shabazz? Watch out for that dog, he’s so horny he’ll hump anything vertical.”
Mazie coughed in mid toke, diverting the smoke from her lungs into her nasal cavities, which then escaped in puffs through her nostrils.
“Sorry. I was just jerkin’ your chain,” Rufus said, even though he’d been serious. “But how come you’re walking the professor’s dog?”
“That’s my job. I’m here on a scholarship, so that’s part of the deal.”
“No shit? I’m on the professor’s discretionary scholarship too. Now I get why we’d be the first ones here. We both got special assignments to do for him for our tuition.”
“Yeah. I’m his dog walker. What’s your special assignment?”
Rufus opened a desk drawer to reveal a dozen baggies containing various strains of cannabis.
“No way!” Mazie exclaimed.
“True all,” Rufus replied. “Technically, I’m his ‘research assistant.’ But for real, my job is to provide his weed.”
“How did you—? Never mind. All I have to do is walk his dog.” Mazie eyes widened. “At least I hope that’s all he expects from me.”
“Naw,” he assured her. “Professor Alolo may be a freaky old dude, but he’s on the up and up.”
They handed the joint back and forth a couple of times. Rufus wondered if their silence meant she felt at ease around him, or if she truly had nothing to say. Either way, it relieved him when at length she asked, “So, Rufus Cobb. Poetry or prose?”
“Narrative rap is my weapon of choice. In my straight job, I teach literature to middle school students in East Cleveland.”
“Really? That sounds like a thankless job.”
Rufus waved his finger to cut her off. “Not so. Iambic pentameter is the original rap. It’d blow you away to see how kids go for Beowulf once they know how to read it. Check it out....” Rufus slapped a rap beat on his lap and recited:
Leaping and laughing, his lair to return to
With surfeit of slaughter, sallying homeward
In dusk of the dawning, as the day was just breaking
Mazie smiled. “I get it.”
“For real. In my hood, if not for hip-hop, there’d be no poetry. I pound out rhythmic stream-of-consciousness rants. The lit sample I submitted in my program application was a monologue written from the perspective of a suicide jumper on his way down. His life flashes before his eyes in the seconds before splattering. With his last thought, he changes his mind. Professor Alolo said it was ‘poignant,’ which must have meant that he liked it, because here I be.”
Mazie made a face like she’d sucked a lemon. “Poignant? Really?”
“That’s the exact same word he used to describe my sample.”
Rufus had felt rather proud of that word, as if he owned it, so Professor Alolo using it for another’s work seemed like a small betrayal.
“Oh,” he said, swallowing his disappointment.
Then after another couple of seconds, it occurred to him that having poignancy in common with Mazie was kind of cool, like being conspirators. Being poignant was a kind of superpower. He imagined the two of them having many poignant discussions about their poignant feelings, opinions, and—maybe, possibly, hopefully—passions. Really poignant ones.
“It sounds like our writing styles are similar,” Mazie said. “I mostly write flash fiction, snapshots of stories, half poetry and half prose. I write in the first person about characters who can’t hold a thought on any subject for more than a few seconds at a time. They tend to be perpetually dazed, frustrated, and clueless. They’re like a lot of people where I’m from.”
“For real? Where are you from?”
“I live in Columbus.”
She hadn’t exactly answered his question. “That’s crank. Yo—we should swap out. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.”
Mazie firmed her cheeks and bit her lower lip. “I don’t....”
“Naw huh. I didn’t hear myself right when I said that,” Rufus sputtered. “I must be buzzed. What I meant is that we should read each other’s writing samples. That’s all. Get a jump start on the workshop, yo, before everybody else gets here.”
“Buzzed?” Mazie said. “I’m freakin’ stoned.”
She chuckled, then laughed, and then started chortling rapidly; it sounded to Rufus like popcorn popping.
Her mirth was contagious. Rufus breathed it into his lungs, and it tickled like tiny feathers. He started nose laughing, which turned into a snicker, then to a snort, then to a massive har-de-ha-ha guffaw.
Mazie hiccupped and laughed with alternate breaths, faster, building to an explosive crack-up.
They laughed at each other laughing, both doubled over, elbows to knees, chests heaving. They laughed in unabashed, ungainly paroxysms of gaiety, as if they had known each other all their lives.
They heard something. “Ahem.”
Rufus hugged a cushion, trying to restrain himself. He struggled to focus through watery eyes.
Mazie’s tongue hung out of the corner of her mouth, limp and exhausted.
“I beg your pardon.”
Rufus and Mazie righted themselves and looked up. A slight, pale Asian man, with thin hair in a tight ponytail and a thin, patchy beard, stood in the doorway, suitcases at his side. He wore beige gym shorts and a matching polo shirt.
“Hello. I see that you’ve been smoking marijuana. Good! My name is Quang Nguyen. Is this Bard Hall? I’m here for the writing workshop.”
Rufus opened his mouth to speak, but he caught a glimpse of Mazie in his peripheral vision, and she him, and that triggered another riotous cascade of laughter from them both.
“May I have some of that weed?” Quang asked.
Roscoe Alolo had practiced making an entrance for two hours the previous night. He was determined to show the class from the very outset that he still had it. The problem was that he no longer possessed even an iota of it unless he got high first. Without a rejuvenating buzz, he felt old, dull, and lethargic. He could probably get a prescription for medical marijuana, but that would’ve taken the thrill out of it. He needed to feel like a renegade to act like one.
First impressions were critical. Back in his heyday, he treated every public appearance as an opportunity to make a brand statement. With his mountainous Afro, his black shield sunglasses, and his glitter shirt unbuttoned to the navel, he often made white people gasp when he entered a room. But when he read, they listened in rapt silence, either out of appreciation or fear, he never knew and didn’t care.
Alas, he could no longer anticipate that his reputation preceded him, or even that every student in the class would’ve heard of him. He’d written his most recent book before most of them were born. It had been almost as long since he’d taught a writing class—or any kind of class, for that matter. Years ago, he’d passed the torches of his many causes to other, younger activists—or, more accurately, they’d wrested the torches from him, because he could no longer hold them and keep them burning at the same time. He had written himself out. Still, the presence of his major books in the Antaeus College library pleased him, and students had even checked out some of them in the last decade.
When the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Meredith Stokes, telephoned him, he answered the phone prepared to be rude. Lately, solicitors or scam artists were his only callers. His modus operandi was to answer the call and just breathe heavily until the caller hung up, which they often did angrily, as if he had interrupted them. But as soon as she introduced herself as Dean Meredith Stokes from Antaeus College, he surrendered all incredulity. He had to restrain himself from agreeing too quickly when she inquired if he had any interest in facilitating the summer literary residency for emerging writers. If the offer had come from almost anywhere else, Roscoe would have been suspicious. But it seemed plausible that, there, he might still be relevant. Maybe this was his comeback. Or, maybe it was his swan song. Either way, he vowed to himself that he would make the most of this unexpected opportunity.
The first meeting of the 2016 Antaeus College Emerging Writers Summer Literary Arts Residency and Workshop had assembled in the lecture hall, where they’d been told class would begin at 1:00 p.m., sharp. For them, that was. Professor Alolo would start class whenever he was damn well ready. His number one rule of making a memorable entrance was to arrive late. Tardiness not only built expectations but signaled that he was in charge. So, he waited outside in the hallway, listening. Rather than buzzing with anticipation, though, the students waited in dull silence, like timid schoolchildren. A shot of Red Bull and vodka, and he was ready.
Professor Alolo entered from the double doors at the rear of the room. The students, expecting him to come in via the door at the front, turned their heads in unison. He tapped his beechwood raven-headed cane. The students looked up and followed him with their eyes as he descended the aisle between tiered rows of seats, saying “well, well, well.” As he stepped into the open space at the front of the room, he stretched his arms over his head so that his oversized African-print sweater hung over him like a tent. He’d borrowed the gesture from street preachers.
Hands on hips, he positioned himself in front of a clean whiteboard and beneath a dome of bright LED lights. This backdrop made him look black—not tan, amber, caramel, mid to dark brown, cocoa, milk chocolate, or espresso, but black as ebony, onyx, or obsidian, so black he glistened. He used white strips on his teeth so that his smile seemed separate from his face. He shaved and waxed his whole head, removing every trace of gray stubble. His wrinkles added depth to his blackness.
Professor Alolo allowed the class to absorb his aura for a moment, then addressed them, “You people are too well-behaved to be writers.”
There were some half laughs and stifled groans, but nobody knew quite how to react to that statement.
The professor continued: “That must change. Nobody ever wrote anything worth a damn that didn’t piss off somebody. I know you people can do it—piss off me, piss off each other, or take it to the bone and piss off yourselves. Listen up. Are you listening to me? You’d better. Before we get started, I have to disabuse you of certain presumptions right quick.”
He amplified, not so much for volume, but to bring out a guttural quality in his voice that made it sound like he growled his r’s and spat his s’s. “First, you probably think you’re already a pretty good writer, otherwise, you wouldn’t have scored a seat in this workshop. I get how you might think so. After all, your writing samples went through three rounds of rigorous screening from hundreds of applications before the reviewers forwarded them to me, and from the somewhere around one hundred samples that I reviewed blind, I picked out just twenty. And you are the survivors of that process. Do you feel special?
“Bullshit!” Professor Alolo declared, so loud it made him momentarily dizzy. “This is your first lesson about writing—it’s all bullshit. You have no idea how lucky you are that I’m here to call out your bullshit.”
A Middle Eastern woman wearing a hijab and a jeweled nose stud stood and crossed her arms. Professor Alolo saw her but did not acknowledge her.
“Second, I am not here to teach you. No, you are here to learn from me. There’s a huge difference. I lead, but only you can decide where you’re going. I will give you my frank opinions, suggestions, criticisms, and even occasional praise. What you do with my feedback is entirely up to you. I don’t have any curriculum. I’m completely okay with sitting back and doing nothing if you all come to class with no material for us to work. If you learn nothing, that’s on you, not me.”
The same hijab-wearing woman shuffled her feet. The whites of her eyes stood out from her dark irises and deep pupils. Again, Professor Alolo ignored her.
“Third, you are all strangers to me, as, I’m guessing, you are to each other. We all start as blank pages in respect to each other, so there’s no reason not to be completely badass honest. Each of you gets a hall pass so far as everything that goes on here. For the next six weeks you all will live, work, eat, sleep, play, argue, tell stories, make love—”
Somebody in the back row of the room cheered.
“—and, above everything else, write together. I expect you to work together as equal members of an organic literary community. Every word any one of you writes belongs to everyone in the group. Everybody will read everything. No secrets. Get over any idea you have about privacy. You belong to me. You belong to each other. And we’re all here to piss off each other.
“So, to tear down any personal barriers, for your first assignment I want each of you to write a three thousand word autobiography. It’s due tomorrow.”
With an exasperated huff, the woman in the hijab stomped toward to the door.
“Are you quitting already?” Professor Alolo called her out. He hoped so; it made him look more formidable if she did.
“If you must know,” she huffed, “I am in need of urinating.”
Roscoe Alolo grinned his trademark grin, which he had originally unveiled for his cover photo on Mother Jones, with his upper jaw extruding, as if to take a bite of something, his lower jaw hanging, and the corners of his lips raised so high that they pushed his cheeks into his earlobes. It made him look like a jovial madman.
He shooed for her to leave, then said, “And that, my friends, is how we do things in this class.”