CSUSB: Stories

Driving to Cal State San Bernardino took Shazz Baric half an hour on highway 215. The school was set against a backdrop of hills, the northernmost edge of San Bernardino. He drove a Mercedes and liked to tell his classmates this, although he did not mention that it was a 1970’s diesel model. His mother thought that it was practical and safe, but Shazz viewed it as evidence that he would not be hitting his stride for a while.

San Bernardino was nowhere near saintly. The city was at best petulant, at worst intimidating to its own natives. Newcomers desensitized quickly to the homicides that were splayed almost daily across the papers. The area surrounding the school was typically college: coffee shops, fast food, mega stores, and overpriced apartment complexes. Cal State San Bernardino…why not just call it a drive –thru degree, or a McEducation, Shazz’s mother had said the week before. A few faculty vehicles peppered the parking lot. A diminutive man in a skateboarding sweater stood outside the English Department’s automatic doors, swigging from a leather flask. English professors always seemed to be drinking, searching for purpose or the escape from ambition. Shazz made brief, respectful eye contact, then went in, registered, and took a seat across from a woman holding what looked like an analysis paper in her hands. He considered running back to his car for a book, but remembered how fickle office hours could be, so he stayed put.

The woman hugged her papers to her chest, rocking back and forth like a metronome. The short man in the skateboarding sweater appeared besides her. He said, “OK, I’ve got five minutes.”

“I’m just confused as to…” she trailed off as she followed him into his office.

The professor pinched the bridge of his nose as he settled behind his desk. “Plenty of people in that boat,” Shazz heard him say.

Shazz thought of his book, and glanced through the window at his car. The Mercedes stood apart from the other cars in the lot. He would never get laid with that car. Before the Mercedes, he had owned a Datsun 280Z which he had named Selena, after his first girlfriend. She was beautiful; supple curves on a low, taught frame. That was in high school. Selena had been two years younger than Shazz. When first Stanford and then Berkeley turned down his application for admittance, Selena flat refused to believe it. He had rationalized that he could take a year off, perhaps pad his resume and extra curricular. But when he got a letter from Cal State San Bernardino, he saw an opening and tried to be reasonable. “San Bernardino is a great place to get an education,” he had told Selena.

That was more than two years ago, with Selena now on the East coast it seemed more like a lifetime ago. Not a poverty stunted San Bernardino lifetime, but a long, healthy Orange County lifetime ago.

Sue Dent wished she’d gone instead to the writing center. But because Professor Standing was known to grade esoterically (to put it lightly), and because law school (Harvard, no less) demanded her falling into a 3.8-4.0 range, she sought clarification on her paper. She had not known that Mr. Standing kept such erratic office hours, or that he was even less coherent one on one. Or how on earth she was going to condense fifteen pages of (did he just say plebian doggerel?) into an A paper. And is that whiskey on his breath she thought, nodding her head in agreement as he rambled.

O. U. Standing had enough of this inflated student. As he reiterated his grading schematics he mentally pondered what real grade he would eventually give her. She was far too impetuous for an A in his class. Indeed, he held himself to a strict grading metric that he was loath to break. A student’s grade is inversely related to their appearances around his office, a rule needed for discipline if not sanity. She was talking now. He watched a hawk circle outside his window. Standing’s mind flashed to his childhood, his father reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as he paced their lawn in his shorts. God he wanted a drink. His eyes spied, through the cracked door, the young man sitting outside his office. Another English major, he thought, but the student did not seem eccentric enough. Probably going for teaching creds, with some inane question or another.

Through the slit in the door, Shazz caught Professor O. U. Standing’s eye. He felt opened, as if those eyes could explicate his soul. Sue Dent came out, if possible, more flustered and nervous than before. And it appeared as though her papers had multiplied. “Proceed” emanated forth from the office of Mr. Standing, and Shazz obliged.

Shazz wondered how intelligence such as O. U. Standing could survive the banality of CSUSB. What of the dearth of funding, drought of genius in the student body? Shazz had done his research. He knew that professor Standing was riding a sizeable swell of popular acclaim regarding his latest collection of short stories. But beaching himself at CSUSB while his literary career crested seemed, well… almost negligent. Shazz began, “I’ve come to talk to you regarding the creative writer’s club on campus-”

“Great.” The interjection sounded reflexive. Standing had expected this to be a quick in and out. He said, “The Creative Writing Group of Young Professionals is a fine program, you’ll find it an invaluable experience.”

They were interrupted by a freshman’s head, somewhat misshaped, protruding through the cracked door. “You need an appointment, Kit,” Standing said.

Kit’s cheeks flushed and he scurried down the hall. The professor leaned over his desk. “Kit the illiterate… has more problems than I can help him with. All he does is point at text and scream ‘I don’t know what that is!’”

“You mean this university admits functional illiterates?”
“Oh, my Lord. No, my boy, not illiterate…diversity…”
He might have been lying, but Shazz was in no position to probe, especially in the lair of Standing. He had heard second hand the scathing vitriol the professor was capable of. The last thing that Shazz wanted was to alienate the sparse talent on campus.

“Are you taking a creative writing workshop? 318, 418?” Professor Standing asked.

Earlier that quarter, Shazz had settled into a writing workshop. But he had failed in producing anything for his first submission. He dropped the class after just two weeks. How many times had Shazz envisioned the perfect story, the most cunning plot device? Now he realized he’d no works to his credit, no finished pieces. “I plan to take 318. I really have a lot going on, a lot of side works that have life of their own. You know how it is…” Shazz flashed a small grin.

The professor let his hand fall on a rectangular carving that adorned his desk. The letters spelled O. U. Standing in dark wood. Shazz felt a weight pressing upon him. He started a lie regarding a fictitious work of fiction in progress but was cut short.

“How much longer will you be attending CSUSB, son?” Standing asked.

“Oh, at least for another two years,” Shazz answered quickly. Then, invigorated, he felt his opportunity to pounce. The time was now; he had his opening. “You seem like a very busy man. If I could spearhead the writing club, take some of the organizational responsibility?”

“Perhaps…”was the terse reply. It echoed in Shazz’s ears, electrified him. Perhaps! How simple, he thought, to assume a position of power in these feeble institutions. Why, the world was truly your oyster if you asserted your God given genius. Shazz’s mind spun rapidly, his imagination keeping pace with his newly inflated confidence.

Kit shoved his unique head into the doorway: “I don’t know what this is!” he screamed, clutching John Steinbeck in his paws.

Leaving the school, Shazz felt brilliant. Speaking to an inspiring faculty member always reenergized his ambition. He promised himself that he would have a completed work to discuss with Professor Standing the next time he dropped by his office hours. Palm leaned in the wind like drunken sentries on either side of the road as Shazz bounded home on highway 215. Although he disdained popular music Shazz found himself singing along with the radio. Clouds rolled overhead, the beginnings of damp weather.

He saw the slowing headlights before catching sight of the flashing sign: SLOW, FOG ON PASS. His car sped past the sign, as if into a cocoon of misty white. Shazz noticed the vibrations first, a jarring rhythm from the car’s left side, accompanied by a familiar thucka-thucka. You’re going to do this to me now you diesel piece of junk, he thought as he pulled over far on the shoulder. There, in that snow globe of mist, Shazz watched a few cars slowly pass. He got out and surveyed the damage. Blown, the front left, completely shredded. He checked the trunk to confirm his suspicions…Full spare, no jack.

The leather flask appeared empty, but Professor O. U. Standing was not a man to be discouraged by appearances. He tilted back his head, catching the last few drops on his tongue, the SLOW sign just beyond the corner of his eye. His car was enveloped in fog immediately. He swerved, hitting something to his immediate right, and slammed on his breaks. Standing was breathing heavily, the road ahead now only partially illuminated. His right headlight had been smashed.

O. U. Standing promptly got out of his BMW and threw his flask down the embankment into the San Bernardino brush. He then walked slowly around his car, his feet lead, his stomach churning. My God…not the beamer…He heard a noise, a shuffling from the mist behind him. What could he have hit?

“Hey, Assclown, you could have killed me! You side-swiped my car you piece of shii- eeeze! Professor! Where did you… what?… Are you all right?” Shazz was utterly shocked, his anger immediately sublimated. The Professor seemed equally shocked, although he quickly recovered his demeanor.

“Ah, uhm, yes, it appears that we have had an incident,” Standing began. “Well, let’s look at the respective damages then. I’m sure we can come to equitable terms of mitigation, perhaps recompense if need be. Litigation of course being the last resort…”

The fog was heavy, damp. It concentrated on Professor Standing’s face, and gave the impression of profuse sweating. How different was the creature out of his lair, Shazz thought. He really was a diminutive figure, with overly ruddy cheeks below bulbous eyes. How uncomfortable in his sweater, like an animal out of his element: a little lobster scuttling his ragged claws through the desert. I must insist upon the writing club while I have the opportunity, Shazz thought. “Ahem, Professor…” Shazz said. “Regarding that writing club, I had a few thoughts before serendipity brought us together just now. If I could run them past you.” Shazz’s eyes were shining through the fog.

Standing took a step back. He felt that he was not drunk enough for this, a conversation with this man, under these circumstances. He held up his hand. “Son,” he began, “Take it. I bequeath the reigns. Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, at least in relation to this sordid patch of desert here.” Standing drew himself up, seemed to be composing himself. It was almost full night, and in the dusk he cut an impressive figure, silhouetted against the highway. “To speak plainly, I have accepted a teaching position on the east coast, and do not intend to stay on after this year. Scholarship, prolificacy, prestige, my boy these are the fruits that await.”

This was unexpected and Shazz tried to wrap his mind around the concept. Roles were muddied, as if the fog had permeated his thinking. There sparked something inside him, from a deep recess that had hereto been neglected. What was this? Why was his pulse pounding? Shazz looked at O. U. Standing and pictured a crab scuttling back to Maine, along wind swept beaches adorned with tufts of grass, obligatory white picket fences. Sailing clubs, New England intellectuals, and the crustacean before him all commingled, absconding purposefully, seeking absolution of ambition. But he was not a pitiable creature. “You’re leaving?” Shazz took a step forward.

The night had now completely fallen. The occasional car passed on the highway. O. U. Standing very much wanted to get on his way. He did not wish for an inquisition. But here he was, pinned between Shazz and the highway. Canon to the right of him, canon to the left of him, volley and thunder. He took a step back and flashed as he turned in air, propelled off the hood of a Lincoln Mark VII. The car screeched, braking. It stopped far beyond the Professor’s car. Where the Professor landed all the world wondered.

Kit the illiterate knew that there might have been fog on that road. He knew that he probably shouldn’t have been going that fast. But for the life of him, Kit could never figure out what that sign posted at the beginning of the pass meant. He did find Shazz broken down on the side of the road, though. And in the history of writing clubs, no one ever accepted an invitation with more effusive joy.