White plains, p.1

White Plains, page 1

 

White Plains
 


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White Plains


  Advance Praise for White Plains

  “In David Hicks’s captivating debut, an English professor realizes he can no longer stand to live a life of quiet desperation. Comic and tender by turns, White Plains is a big-hearted novel about awakening—and reawakening—to love.”

  —Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks

  “For the single man, in this case dear Flynn in White Plains, it can be a rocky road to climb toward grace; and David Hicks shows us every glorious bump on the way I found myself groaning at each of Flynn’s stumbles, but always hoping for him (especially as he assembles himself as a parent) in this glowing set of stories, a book that reads like late night messages sent from a friend. This is an honest look at a man moving from punishing bad faith toward something he finally hopes is good.”

  —Ron Carlson, author of The Signal

  “What happens when a man risks everything in search of a real home and big love? David Hicks shares the answer in White Plains, a thrilling and thoughtful take on what it means to live life to the fullest.”

  —Sophfronia Scott, author of Unforgivable Love

  “David Hicks has written a novel with sentences that dance and sing on the page, as we follow Flynn Hawkins, our protagonist, in his quest for redemption from the debilitating effects of divorce, abandoned children, and consuming guilt. Introspection is key here (where so few tread), and there are no tricks in this writing, only honesty.”

  —Allen Learst, author of Dancing at the Gold Monkey

  “On first glance, David Hicks’ witty and melancholy White Plains is a novel of the academic life, in the tradition of Lodge, Amis and McCarthy, and it deserves a place in that most excellent tradition. But White Plains exceeds this subgenre and rewards us with dynamic shifts in point of view that reveal an unsparing and original look at aging through a literary life and events that seem to have a mind of their own. Hicks writes spot on spots of time covering thirty years: St. Marks, Shea Stadium, Creede, Colorado. . . . momentary stays against confusion and concentric circles of diminishing expectations. With characteristic and devastating restraint, we’re asked, “How many chances does a man get [does anyone get] to set his life straight.” The answer: read this extraordinary novel.”

  —David Lazar, author of I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms

  “White Plains resonates with our desire to do right by those we love and offers a compelling tale of self-inflicted destruction and redemption.”

  —Benjamin Dancer, author of Patriarch Run

  “Flynn’s half-lived life comes of age post-marriage, in the time of tender fatherhood. He’s not just the flawed but adored professor living inside an English teacher’s dream of a book. He’s an American man growing up, finally, right when this country needs him the most.”

  —Rebecca Snow, author of Glassmusic

  “In this intensely psychological story, David Hicks gives us a panoramic understanding of his protagonist, Flynn, as he investigates the human condition. How can we live close to the bone? With characterization reminiscent of Richard Powers and John Williams, White Plains is as intriguing as it is beautiful.”

  —Erika Krouse, author of Contenders

  “White Plains is wise, sincere, intimate; Flynn’s self-reflection refreshing, if flawed. A novel comprised of a patchwork of perspectives, each its own swelling wave, so full and beautifully realized, show us Flynn as father, as friend, as professor, as son, brother, lover. As human. A man sometimes silent but never resigned, never disengaged. This book is a blueprint for a life lived, seized. A book that guts, but holds you fast with exquisite sentences and offers, yet, a measure of hope.

  —Angela Palm, author of Riverine and Work With Me

  white plains

  white plains

  A NOVEL

  DAVID HICKS

  CONUNDRUM PRESS: A Division of Samizdat Publishing Group.

  PO Box 1353, Golden, Colorado 80402

  WHITE PLAINS. Copyright ©2017 by David Hicks. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  Print ISBN: 978-1-942280-39-2

  ePub ISBN: 978-1-942280-40-8

  Mobi ISBN: 978-1-942280-41-5

  Library of Congress control number: 2017936789

  Conundrum Press books may be purchased with bulk discounts for educational, business, or sales promotional use. For information, please visit Conundrum Press online at conundrum-press.com.

  Conundrum Press is distributed by Independent Publishers Group: ipgbook.com

  PUBLICATION ACKNOWLEGMENTS

  Earlier versions of some chapters first appeared in the following magazines:

  “Once Upon a Time at the Kiev,” Specs, Fall 2011.

  “Higher Laws,” Saranac Review, Fall 2014.

  “Diamond Dash,” Colorado Review, Summer 2003.

  “Us and Mom in a Fancy-Schmancy Restaurant, If You Can Believe That” in Crack the Spine 164, September 2015

  “Sunday Morning at the Silverado” (originally titled “Sunday Morning at the Silver Spur”), South Dakota Review, Summer 2011.

  “Spring Creek Pass,” Glimmer Train, Spring 2006.

  “All the Wrong Moves,” Saranac Review, Fall 2012.

  “In Love with Louise,” Trachodon, Spring 2012.

  This book is dedicated to my parents, Albina and Richard, for all their love.

  And to Cynthia, always.

  §

  This is either a dream or it happened. I’ll never know.

  My father at my bedside, saying he has to go, he’s sorry he won’t be at my baseball game.

  I don’t know what I say back.

  As he leaves my room, his shoulders are slumped. He doesn’t look at me when he closes the door.

  NEW YORK

  IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PART OF THE COUNTRY

  Professor James Augustus Faustino was a large man. His head was a stalwart dome mopped by black-and-gray hair, his enormous face swathed by a trimmed white beard. He draped his whale-shaped torso with a linen shirt he bought at the Big and Tall shop in Jamestown, along with a leather vest that used to be his father’s. The last time he had weighed himself, over two years ago, he had topped off at 306.

  Faustino was the chairman of the English Department and a beloved professor of American literature at Devlin College in Madisonville, New York. On this day—August 29, 1994—he was sipping coffee from a mug that said “Papa” while preparing to welcome the new recruits, the six graduate assistants entering Devlin’s two-year Master’s program on scholarship in exchange for teaching College Composition. He could hear them already, down the hall. They would begin teaching and taking graduate classes in a week. One of them, a kid named Hawkins, was only twenty-two and had no teaching experience at all.

  Faustino was a “toss them in the water and see if they could swim” kind of guy. There would be no mollycoddling on his watch. After all, nobody had ever “mentored” him. At age twenty-nine, only three months after earning his PhD at NYU (studying under the famed Hemingway biographer Philip Young), he had launched right into his teaching career: four preps, publish-or-perish, and absolutely no mollycoddling. He had been hard at it for thirty years since.

  He pressed his fingers to his temples while scanning his office for the “Grad Ass” folder. The previous evening he had attended the wedding of Mary Anne Tscherpel, one his colleagues, and while his wife Joanna had left early, complaining of lower-back pain (she caught a ride with the Slowicks, who didn’t drink or dance
), Faustino had been among the last to leave and was now paying the consequences.

  He found the folder and flipped through the files. The usual pie-in-the-sky types: book lovers, strong recs from their English professors, and 3.9 GPAs—except for the Hawkins kid, who was accepted only because Slowick’s good friend at SUNY/Binghamton had called the young man “one of our most promising graduates” despite his 3.1. Hawkins had asked if he could move to Madisonville as soon as he graduated (something about not wanting to spend the summer in White Plains, his hometown), so Faustino had contacted another recent admit, Mason Briggs, a Devlin alum who in the three years since his graduation had done time as a substitute teacher in the Cheektowaga School District and as a patient in the “blue room” of Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital after (allegedly) trying to kill his mother. Briggs, now “fully recovered” and already in town, had said yes, he sure could use a roommate, you bet, and arrangements were made for Hawkins to move in with him at 17 Younger Drive, a mile or so from campus—and as further evidence of his good will, Briggs had secured his new roommate a job at Honest John’s in Jamestown, where he was employed as a waiter.

  When the clock on his desk flipped to 9:00 a.m., Faustino heaved himself up, hefted a box filled with composition textbooks and other materials, and shuffled over to the GA Office. He spotted young Hawkins right away, an affable-looking kid with wavy brown hair who squinted when he smiled, but was taken aback by the sight of Briggs, who had gained at least forty pounds, further embedding his deep-set eyes and giving him a scruffy, half-crazed look. Faustino introduced himself, welcomed them all to the program, announced he was eschewing any “team-building” nonsense, and passed out textbooks along with the same sample syllabi he’d been distributing to GAs for over a decade. “Feel free to improvise,” he told them as he took one of the student seats, worrying it might collapse underneath him. “And if you have any questions, don’t ask me; ask Slowick,” for he hadn’t taught composition in seventeen years.

  He gave them the run-down: the usual HR bullshit; the location of the infirmary, gym, dining hall, and Student Life office; how to open a library account; how to use the new personal computers they had recently installed (he pointed out the monstrous printer in the corner), how to open a new “electronic mail” account (“Don’t ask me about that either”); where to get their IDs; where their classrooms were located; the new touchy-feely rules about dealing with students of the opposite sex; and the location of the Tutoring Center for the idiots that Devlin seemed to be admitting to college these days. At the end, he asked if anyone had any further questions, and the Hawkins kid raised his hand.

  “I wonder if you could say a word or two about why you do this.”

  Faustino looked at the young man. “You mean this?” he said, pointing at his notes.

  “No,” Hawkins said. “Teaching English. Do you consider it, you know, a worthy vocation?”

  Faustino tossed his folder onto the nearest desk. He really needed this kid to teach two sections of Comp, and if Hawkins or anyone else quit before even embarking on this enterprise because he didn’t think the profession was “a worthy vocation,” Faustino would be completely screwed. “Just to be clear,” he said, “you’re questioning what I do for a living.”

  The young man swiped away a stray hair. “Not questioning exactly,” he said, and then shrugged. “Asking for guidance. I’m trying to figure myself out.”

  One of the other GAs hacked out an aggressive cough, and Briggs appeared to scoff—he had once told Faustino his lifelong dream was to be an English teacher. And one of the female students, Amita, was staring at the general vicinity of Hawkins’ thighs.

  Twenty-one months later, after missing the Commencement ceremony at which these six graduate assistants received their diplomas and realizing he would never see any of them again (except perhaps Briggs), Faustino would look out the front window of his house as Hawkins’ beige, boxy, stuffed-to-the-gills 1984 Dodge Aspen (nicknamed “the Coffin”) pulled away from the curb outside his house, would remember the young man’s first question to him, and try to recall his response. No doubt it was something about the value of showing young people their own humanity and the humanity of others through stories, of exploring the dark and ambiguous aspects of human nature in a world that avoids such exploration at all costs, of such work being of the highest calling. He may have quoted Northrop Frye. Whatever he said, it was apparently good enough, for he would remember the kid nodding and saying, “Okay sir, count me in.”

  *

  On Monday morning, Faustino was writing up a note to his colleagues reminding them about the Add/Drop deadline, which his secretary would type into an electronic-mail memo for him and send to everyone, when the Hawkins kid, Flynn, stopped by.

  “Well well,” Faustino said, settling back into his chair with a creak, “look who just broke his cherry. How was your first class?”

  Flynn wrinkled his nose. “My knees were actually knocking,” he said. “Behind the podium. I thought that was just an expression.” He told Faustino he had broken out in a sweat as soon as he walked into the room.

  Faustino smiled, remembering his first time in front of the classroom, thirty years earlier. “You didn’t perchance ask, ‘Is it just me or is it hot in here,’ did you?”

  Flynn laughed. “How did you know?” He told Faustino that after class a female student had come up to him, asked him how old he was, and when he told her, she put a hand on her hip and said, “I’ve dated men older than you.”

  Faustino scratched his beard. No Devlin freshman would dare to speak like that to their professor, not even to a graduate assistant. It must have been a community-college transfer.

  “I could feel myself blushing,” Hawkins said. “Not very professorial. Has that kind of thing happened to you?”

  Faustino glanced up to see if the young man was kidding, then tapped the desk with his pencil. “Oh,” he said, “back in the day.” He pointed the pencil at Flynn. “Word of advice,” he said. “No dalliances. With students, I mean. We had an incident, a few years back. Didn’t end well.”

  After Flynn straightened, clicked his heels together, and saluted—“Yes sir!”—Faustino smiled and pointed two fingers toward the door, a gesture he had perfected to signal students that he needed to get back to work.

  *

  It wasn’t very kind of Flynn to call his roommate “Mason the Matricidal Maniac,” but that’s the nickname he came up with after a few months of living with him and then two weeks of sharing an office. When Briggs graded essays, he hunched over, fists to temples, and shouted invectives at the offending authors: “Who on earth uses a semicolon to introduce a series? You moron!” Once, when Flynn was returning from a class and heard Briggs spewing this kind of vitriol at what he assumed was a student, he ran down the hall to put a stop to the abuse, only to discover Briggs alone at his desk, the back of his neck red, fists clenched. “Idiot! When are apostrophes ever used to create plurals? Aargh!”

  Whereas Briggs seemed of the mind that bad grammar signified the onset of the Apocalypse, Flynn took a more conciliatory approach. “They’re just kids, Mase,” he said one late-September evening at home. “Besides, Slowick says it’s more important to teach them to express their ideas well, give them some confidence. Grammar comes later.” Dr. Slowick taught the Practicum they were all taking to help with their first year of teaching.

  Briggs rolled his eyes. “Fuck off, Mister Wonderful,” he muttered—which is what the hostess at Honest John’s had been calling Flynn.

  The thin and slightly teetering house they rented for two hundred seventy-five dollars a month was across the street from an abandoned factory that had at one time employed nearly all the men of Madisonville. Now it was where kids went to smoke pot, and there were rumors of a meth lab. All that was left of the town itself was the Ace Hardware Store, the Kum N’ Go gas station, a smattering of houses, and a few old shops, including D
ave’s Sporting Goods, which sold mostly ammunition and bait (Lake Chautauqua was a few miles away), Margie’s Beauty Shoppe, and three run-down bars, one of which, Jack’s Joint, was a favorite among Devlin students. For groceries, Flynn and Briggs drove to nearby Jamestown or Lakewood. Their house at 17 Younger Drive sat scrunched between its leaky-roofed twin rented by four Devlin seniors and a dilapidated faded-blue edifice occupied by a ragged young couple with a flinching four-year-old of indeterminable gender and a disgruntled German Shepherd named Baby chained up in the back yard. Baby’s lean and tattooed master made a habit of screaming at his dog, and at his wife and son, with such ferocity that Flynn and Briggs were more than once tempted to phone the police. When they finally did, after hearing the child shrieking nonstop, the officer who picked up the phone chuckled at Flynn. “19 Younger? That’s my brother Ray! I’ll call him and tell him to settle down, don’t you worry. Now who’s this? You renting the white house next door? College kid?”

  After Flynn hung up, Briggs slammed down the upstairs phone and stomped down the steps. “Inbred rednecks! That’s who’s running this shit town! Cauliflower-eared pedophiles!”

  By then Flynn had learned that the Matricidal Maniac was not simply angry with low-life townies and ungrammatical freshmen—he was angry at the world, angry at how he had been treated at Buffalo Psychiatric (“I mean, electroshock? I told the doctors—and I use that term loosely—what is this, Victor Frankenstein’s lab? What’s next, leeching?”), angry at Flynn (mostly for being so damned pleasant), and angry at his mother, not for refusing to die after he had tackled her to the floor, wrapped his burly hands around her neck, and banged her head against the hardwood in a blind rage that had been building for two decades, but for exacerbating the audacity of her survival on a daily basis by calling to offer tender, tentative inquiries about his physical and mental health. He had told Flynn the whole story of the “acute psychiatric episode” while at Jack’s Joint shooting pool on the first day they met, seeming surprised when Hawkins didn’t bat an eye at the details. Typically, he said, people looked aghast, or found an excuse to leave his company, or pretended to be sympathetic but never called him again, or attempted a lame joke about wanting to kill their own mothers; but Flynn had simply sighed, then shook his head. “Tough deal, man.”

 
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