The sixties came just in time for Professor Edward Burke, who was meandering through middle age while everyone around him was fresh and young. He started calling himself Ned and insisted the students in his philosophy classes at the state college where he taught do the same. He let his fair hair grow to his jaw, tried a beard, but gave it up when it came in gray. He shed his suit and tie for turtlenecks and a fake leopard skin vest although sometimes he wore a garish top woven in some Third World nation.
Ned Burke was an impressive figure as he strode across the quadrangle, a student or two in tow, his hands scanning the air as he made a point. Or he held court at the coffeehouse in the basement of the Unitarian Church on the edge of campus. He usually sat with his wife at one of the tables to the side of the makeshift stage. Mrs. Burke, whose first name was Inez, wore pointed eyeglasses and a pageboy like her husband, but it was too girlish a hairstyle for her. Except for the liberal minister who was the pastor of the church and a new professor in the art department, they were the oldest people in the audience.
Friday was open-poetry night at the coffeehouse, and I sat at a table next to the Burkes with my friend, Geneva. Ned was the headliner among a few student poets. When the editor of the literary magazine announced his name, Ned leaped to the stage as if he was claiming a prize. He was dressed in black, and when he sat at the microphone, his thighs hung open in a wide, manly pose. His shirt was unbuttoned mid-chest. Geneva sighed.
“Oh, the flavor of jasmine/ I can taste it on her lips/ my lover/ the flower of my middle age,” he began one of his poems.
Ned recited four pieces, including a clever one about trying to hide a fart in class. At the end, everyone except Inez stood, but she clapped along with the rest. Her silver bracelet, heavy with charms, sparkled from the candlelight, so it looked as if it was in orbit around her wrist. Ned flashed the crowd two fingers spread in a V-shape.
“You’re a big hit, Ed,” Inez said in a flat voice as Ned waved to the students in the back of the room.
One of my friends read a bitter, rambling thing called Pussy Willow. I knew the girl, and frankly, the boy-poet never had a chance of getting or keeping her. But when he was done, Ned stood and clasped the back of his arm and hand in what appeared to be a special poet’s shake. Ned congratulated him on its imagery as the wannabe poet smiled shyly and pushed his square, black glasses up his nose. Geneva, who was not the girl in the poem, jumped up to peck him on the cheek.
I joked, “Farmhouse, kid. Out of state.”
Ned gave me a sly smile.
The next day, I went to the homecoming game, the athletic highpoint of the fall, when the college’s football team got creamed by one from another state college. Our players were typically a sad bunch, because it was too small a school to supply competitive teams. Besides nobody was that interested in sports. The kids in the bleachers were so high they booed the homecoming queen when she rode onto the field in an open convertible during halftime. The frat brothers who swaggered beside the car flipped us off.
“Off with her head,” Geneva yelled, which made all the hippies around her laugh. “Off with all of them.”
Ned sat in the lower end of the bleachers with a couple of colleagues and Inez, who was wearing a long fur coat. He was the head of the college’s philosophy department, which had three professors including him. The other two profs were ordinary men although when the trustees tried to cut one from the faculty, the students staged such large-scale demonstrations, classes stopped for a week. The college’s president was convinced outsiders must have organized the protest, but that was another story. Anyway that would not happen to Ned, who had long achieved tenure. He was also in good standing with the administration, because he had written two slim books in his field and hosted the faculty’s annual New Year’s Eve party at his house. Students who were hired to serve at the Burkes’ party reported that everyone got stinking drunk and there were numerous incidents of sloppy flirting.
I was standing high in the stands next to Geneva. Ned kept checking our group, who openly passed a jug of wine and hooted loudly when a player from the other team intercepted the ball. One guy used his fingers to make a sharp whistle, and when he got Ned’s attention, Geneva raised the jug and waved him over. Ned flashed us a peace sign.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Professor Groovy,” I said.
Geneva adjusted the slant of her floppy leather hat.
“You’re just terrible, Lenora. Ned’s a great guy.”
“He’s old enough to be our father.”
“I like to think of him as mature.”
I grabbed the jug from her hand.
The next weekend, Geneva and I went to a grad student’s apartment. Ned was the center of the crowd’s attention while his wife, wearing a plaid skirt to her ankles, watched from the kitchen. Inez held her glass of red wine at such a careless tilt it appeared ready to spill. Ned asked everyone to sit in a circle on the floor, because he was going to hold a T-group session, a sure-fire way, he explained, to let people expose their feelings and get rid of their inhibitions. They were supposed to accomplish that by doing embarrassing things, it seemed, such as touching a person on the part of the body they wanted to touch the most.
When it was my turn, and I had to do it with a boy in the group, I stroked his long, blond hair, which look freshly washed. Some of the group groaned, because I did not grope his crotch, but that definitely was not what I wanted to touch. When he reached for the strands of small, glass beads around my neck, his fingers tickled me so I slapped his hand away. Ned laughed loudly, and I was glad I had not been paired with him, because Geneva had, and he fondled her breasts as if he was testing their ripeness. Geneva was not wearing a bra so her nipples got hard beneath her blouse. She tried to act cool, but her cheeks reddened brightly as most of the group went “Ah!” Her hand shook when she patted Ned’s thigh.
Inez Burke, who was standing in the kitchen doorway, shouted, “Jesus, Ed, you’re scaring that poor girl to death.”
“Holy shit,” I hissed.
Later, in the car, Geneva marveled at how well she had handled that scene. I kept thinking of Inez Burke’s edgy voice and the way Ned’s head jiggled as if he was stifling a laugh when he released Geneva’s breasts. Everyone else tittered as if they were in on a joke.
Geneva and I became friends when we moved onto the same floor at Faulkner Dorm, known on campus as Fuckner Dorm. Sometimes we opened our windows and sat on the sills, resting our feet on the fire escape while Geneva smoked and complained she had been an unbeautiful girl shunned by those who counted in high school.
“You weren’t popular? Neither was I.”
Her butt tumbled sparking to the ground.
“Yeah, right.” she said.
Geneva and I often went after dinner to the commuter lounge, an open room in the basement of the administration building. We read our textbooks and took notes as we sat among chatting night school students. She liked talking about Ned, what he did in class, the witty things he said about the cool life. He liked jazz and met Henry Miller when he lived in Paris. He dropped acid, claiming it brought him nearer to God than church. A few afternoons a week, he held office hours and his students stayed for deep discussion. Mondays, he led a T-group. Geneva told me they often did role-playing. Last week, Ned had them pretend they were four years old.
“It was so liberating,” she said.
I rolled my eyes and made gagging noises.
“Ned says you should come sometime.”
“I’m not one of his students.”
“He says it would make you less uptight.”
I narrowed my eyes.
“You two talk about me?”
“Your name came up.”
She snorted when I asked if Mrs. Burke was there. She said Ned only stayed married, because his wife was filthy rich.
“Who told you that?”
Geneva gave me a smug smile.
“I just know.”
One night, Ned came into the lounge. He nodded at us as he fed change into the coffee machine, then came over with his cup.
“Hello, Geneva. Hello, Lenora Dias,” he said in a baritone that made my last name sound much sexier than my ancestors surely intended. “Mind if I join you?”
Ned shook his head dramatically, upset, he said, by the news from Vietnam. Too many deaths and no talk of peace. He clutched his fake leopard skin vest. A lottery for the draft would be held in December, which meant some of his students might be shipped overseas if they passed the physical.
“I’m glad I’m not a boy these days,” he said, pained. “The war. I would rather go to jail.”
Geneva went to the vending machine to get coffee. Ned bent closer. His breath smelled like sweetened coffee.
“Tell me. Am I making you uncomfortable?”
“What makes you think that?”
“I just sense it. I’ve got a knack for it.” Ned paused. “So, Lenora, is there something you’d like to tell me?”
Geneva was back with her coffee.
“Tell you what?” she asked.
That Saturday, Geneva and I were going to a Halloween party at the lakeside house a couple of grad students rented for the winter. Costumes were optional, but we went to the Salvation Army, where we scored prom gowns, turquoise and tangerine, strapless satin and taffeta numbers from the fifties that rustled suggestively. We got silly as we tried the dresses over our clothing and posed in the full-length mirror. Geneva twisted around so she could see the back.
“I never went to my high school prom,” she spoke to the mirror. “Did you?”
“Yeah, I did.”
Her face fell.
“I wanted to go. I even had a gown.”
Her voice was sad and wistful. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t that much fun, but she wouldn’t have believed me.
“Tell you what, Geneva. I’ll let you be prom queen.”
The hem of her gown swirled as she twirled in front of the mirror.
At the Halloween party, the only refreshments were booze, pot, and bags of potato chips so everyone got smashed really fast. The stereo played danceable stuff that jammed the living room with wiggling costumed people. I grabbed bunches of my gown’s skirt so it would not get stepped on. People were shouting “prom queen!” But I told them the honor belonged to Geneva.
“Just call me first runner-up.”
Ned and Inez Burke arrived a few hours later. Ned, carrying two bottles of wine, came as Julius Caesar. Inez had glued felt cat ears to a plastic headband. I had not expected to see the Burkes, but it appeared Geneva had, because she hurried to Ned, squealing, “It’s about time.” He gave her one of those T-group greetings, a hug and a light kiss-kiss on the lips.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Lenora, the last of the vestal virgins.”
I glared at Geneva, who was turned the other way. Inez glanced at us then shouted for a corkscrew.
The party was loud, but we got away with it, because most of the lakeside cottages were closed for the winter. People kept leaving for the back porch overlooking the water, and then reappearing after they shared a joint. It was too chilly to be outside too long, but everyone, including me in my turquoise strapless gown, was flushed from dancing.
I ducked into a bedroom to get a joint from my coat, stuck beneath a large pile of clothes. The door shut, and when I turned, Ned was stumbling forward. He hummed when he saw the joint in my hand then plucked a book of matches from the dresser top behind me.
“Great idea,” he crooned.
Ned took the joint from my hand and lit it. He held the smoke, then placed the unlit end between my lips. We went back and forth, separated by inches, until the joint was spent and the air around us, smoky. Ned’s crown of fake laurel leaves hung crookedly on his head, and his mouth moved in a fat-lipped smile as if he tasted something good. He laughed when I laughed.
“Ms. Dias, at last, we meet.”
The music, something Motown, was cranked louder in the living room. People were shouting and laughing. Feet pounded the floor. Somewhere Inez Burke was taking it all in. Perhaps she was wondering what had become of her husband.
“We should get back to the party,” I said, tipping my head toward the noise.
“Why the rush?”
His finger traced the bony ridge of one shoulder, then dipped toward the top of my gown. He chuckled when I swiped it away.
“Ned. Call me Ned.”
“Professor Burke, this isn’t a good idea.”
“Wait a minute.”
I watched as he tossed clothing from the bed to the floor, and then he sat, patting the spot next to him on the sagging mattress. I stayed put. The sheet of his toga had come undone, exposing his white Jockeys and undershirt. His laurel wreath was on the floor. Ned stretched out his hand, but I shook my head.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
I met Geneva at the door. She eyed the disheveled Ned on the bed.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Believe me, absolutely nothing.”
She shoved my arm as she moved toward Ned. I left the door open then squeezed into the crowd to join the other dancers moving wildly to the music. We jerked and jumped through the record, and when that one ended we stayed in our spots waiting for the next. Across the room, Ned was Julius Caesar again and hailing his fans. My new ex-friend Geneva shot me menacing looks. I waved her off then dropped onto the sofa when I saw an empty spot. Inez Burke was sitting in an easy chair beside it. The flame from her lighter flickered in her glasses as she fired up a cigarette. She blew the smoke it a long, noisy stream. She eyed me.
“Lenora, right? Ed told me he liked a short story you wrote for the college magazine. Why didn’t you read something of yours at the coffeehouse?”
I told her I didn’t like to be on stage, and Inez murmured as she eyed her husband dancing with Geneva. His arms pumped to the music’s beat. The skirt of his toga bounced.
“Don’t worry I made him wear underwear,” she said dryly.
I nodded, then asked Inez if she wrote, but she said no. Music was her thing. She played the piano, mostly classical, but some jazz, too. She tapped ashes into a cup.
“None of this stuff.”
Inez said she liked being married to a man who wrote poetry. He worked at it for hours, and when he was ready, he called her into his study so he could read aloud what he had written. Sometimes he repeated the poem several times so she could get a feel for it. That first one he read at the coffeehouse had been a birthday present to her.
“Jasmine? He wrote that for you?”
Inez took a long drag from her cigarette. Her tight lips curled as she forced out the smoke.
“The flower of his middle age. Of course, that’s me. Do you think Ed could have written that for anyone else? For one of these girls?”
She waved her hand around the room, and I gave her a timid smile.
Another song began, the third fast one in a row. Ned and Geneva were at it still. He was trying some flamenco-style moves, really goofy, but he was making it work, so the other dancers stopped to give them room. Geneva fluttered in tangerine satin around him, and she giggled when people clapped to the music and cheered.
Inez Burke bit her bottom lip. Deep lines formed between her brows. Ned’s face was swollen and red, and when he came near, he was panting. He had lost the wreath again. Inez dropped her cigarette and rushed toward her husband, yelling “Ed!” Her voice carried a warning as shrill as a siren, but the sound of Professor Burke’s old name reached him as he went crashing to the floor.
Yes, there was a Professor Groovy, but then again every college has had at least one. These characters appear in my unpublished novel, Last Weekend in Westbridge. This short story was published by The Bridge, a literary magazine at Bridgewater State College. It won first prize.