Short Fiction: Kevin Grauke’s From the Desk of Celeste Derry

North Dakota Quarterly is housed at the University of North Dakota and published by the University of Nebraska Press. In other words, it is inextricably tied to its origins as an “academic” little magazine in the early 20th century and to the rhythms of academic life.

It seems only fitting then to kick off the new year with a fantastic short story set against an academic backdrop: Kevin Grauke’s “From the Desk of Celeste Derry.” It appears in the latest issue of the Quarterly, 89.3/4, and you can read more from this issue here.

If you like what you’re reading here, consider submitting some fiction which we read all year around or even consider subscribing to NDQ!  

 

From the Desk of Celeste Derry

Dear Professor Gupta,

Please forgive the presumptuousness of this letter. Clarke Toews recently phoned to inform me that he had finally filled my position at Olvidado, and he asked me if I’d be kind enough to write a letter of welcome to you—my “replacement,” as he called you. How could I, in good con-science, decline? After all, my dance card is far from full these days.

You must have a great number of questions, so I will do my best to anticipate and address them. But before I do so, I feel that I should first tell you a bit about myself and how I happened to come to such a place as Yonder, Texas.

My name is Celeste Derry (née Bannister), and I’m now eighty-two years old. I grew up pampered on Chicago’s North Shore, and then went east to Bryn Mawr for school, where I was pampered still more. While there on the Main Line, I met my future husband, Judson, who was a graduate student in Penn’s History Department at the time. While he finished his dissertation, (after having angrily set it on fire halfway through and starting over, much to my horror), I pursued a Master’s degree in Penn’s English Department, mostly to have something to occupy me while I waited for him to propose, which he eventually did. This was the 1950s, after all, and I was hardly driven to make my name as an academic; though it would probably shock the Bryn Mawr women of today, I dreamed only of being a wife and a mother. Once he graduated (I already had), he quickly received and accepted a position at Brown. In those days, choice teaching positions were there for the asking, especially for Ivy grads.

Life was good in Providence. I remember what seemed like an endless string of cocktail parties. We all drank much too much gin, played Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk records, and talked seriously and endlessly about communism, though always quietly and carefully, because the walls most definitely had ears back in those days. Despite the bleakness of the time—the threat of nuclear annihilation, the South’s bitter refusal to abandon segregation, the left-baiting of Senator McCarthy—we seemed always to be smiling. But then a rumor flared up about Judson. “Vicious rumor” is a hackneyed phrase, but this rumor was, in fact, a vicious one. It was a ridiculous one, as well, but its ridiculousness hardly diminished its scurrilousness. Unable to do anything more to fight it than to proclaim his innocence repeatedly, the rumor spread to such an extent that he even-tually had no choice but to resign, and so we spent the next several years hopping from one lesser institution to the next, usually only a semester or two ahead of the accusations that seemed to gath-er, rather than expend, force as they traveled slowly but surely through the network that connected the Waspy old boys’ clubs of the country’s history departments.

The early 1960s became the late 1960s, and having been asked to leave yet another school by yet another administration too cowardly to stand up against—or at least simply ignore—the baseless gossip and hearsay that continued to be conveyed by mail and telephone (who knows how much it had been perverted by this point), Judson brought us here, where the allegations somehow never managed to find him. He used to say this was due to Yonder being a pinhole known to no cartographer, but this was a joke that I never found particularly amusing and, in truth, I doubt he did, either. Nonetheless, we still both quietly hoped that, someday, he would be able to return to the world of real cities and universities. But time has a way of passing, especially when there seems to be so much of it still ahead of you. Soon enough, Nixon became Ford, and then Ford became Carter, and here we somehow still remained, suspended in amber just like two beetles from the Cretaceous Period. Hardly with any awareness of it happening, I had resigned myself to our fate somewhere along the way. Long before, I had also very sadly resigned myself to remaining child-less—one or both of us was apparently infertile—so Judson persuaded the chair of the English Department at the time, Murray Grosbeak (long dead now), to hire me to teach a few classes be-cause, by this point, I had grown dangerously despondent, to be perfectly frank. I’m sure that Jud-son felt similarly at times, but he never showed me anything but smiles since that was the sort of wonderful man he always was.

Through the eighties, the nineties, and into the new century, we taught our courses on op-posite ends of Buffalo Hall, but then Judson died suddenly, leaving me to teach alone until I finally retired two years ago due to my failing health, even though I feared the semester routine, dull though it was, might be the only thing keeping me alive. If I had somewhere else to go, I would go there, but I don’t. I’m the last leaf still clinging to the Bannister family tree, and so here I sit in our quiet house on this quiet street in this dusty town, not doing much more than listening to Debussy while reading cheap mystery novels because I no longer have the energy to read anything anymore taxing. I do have a cat to keep me company, though, a little tortoiseshell named Miss Beatrice. She sleeps with me every night, and she keeps me safe, the sweetheart.

You, of course, care not a whit about any of this. Please forgive me. I so rarely have a rea-son to take my memories down from the shelf to dust them, so to speak. They’re so fragile (like Laura’s glass menagerie), and also so difficult to return to their designated places. Once my pen started moving, I suppose I just got a bit carried away.

What you want to know about is the school, and since Clarke indicated that he’s already persuaded you to live in Yonder rather than Sweetwater or Big Spring, you’ll also want to know about the town, so I will now do his bidding and welcome you to the school and the town. Once I learned that your final interview took place over computer video, I realized that your first glimpse of Yonder probably won’t come until you pull into town with all of your possessions, just as was the case with us all those years ago. What a jolt that was. Never had I seen such a landscape. The sun, bigger and hotter and angrier than seemed possible, bore down on a land even flatter and emp-tier and sadder than Lindsborg, Kansas, the frontier outpost we had just left. Not until the follow-ing year, 1969, when we watched Neil Armstrong hop down upon the moon, would I see a world even more forsaken by God.

~

I had to stop there to take my medication and to feed bossy Miss Beatrice, and when I returned to my desk with a cup of chamomile tea to read over what I had written, I realized that I have not painted a very pleasant portrait of Yonder so far, which must give you pause. I do apologize for this. I honestly did not set out to prejudice you against your future home. My perceptions and opin-ions of this place will not necessarily be yours. Some of my former colleagues, including Clarke Toews, seem perfectly content living here, but I have to admit that I’ve always remained confound-ed by their contentedness, though a bit envious, too. Because, after all, in the end, who doesn’t want to be content?

But the locals, having sensed my aloofness from early on, I suppose, don’t like me. To say that they feel threatened by my intelligence would make me sound awfully conceited, but it would also be the truth, especially since I’m a woman. But even if I were the friendliest woman in town, I’d still be snubbed, and that’s because they never accept anyone who was not “born and bred” here, as they like to say at every opportunity, so my decades here have made me no more accepta-ble to them today than I was in 1968. Add to this their preposterously inflated sense of themselves, as well as their ridiculous belief in the supremacy of all things Texas, and only then will you begin to grasp how out of place I feel here. Everything associated with Texas and its history—be it admi-rable or not, and most of it is not—is held utterly sacrosanct. The word “provincial” doesn’t even begin to capture their willful unworldliness and aggressive anti-intellectualism. They love with mulish fervor what all sane persons would hate about this place, and all because they seem to con-sider themselves direct descendants of some mythical amalgam of Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett, and Judge Roy Bean.

Bewilderingly enough, your department chair, Clarke Toews, has, like a terribly desperate child, made every effort to adopt their backwards customs and ways. He wears cowboy boots and says “y’all” with absolutely no hint of irony or sarcasm, despite having been “born and bred” in Kingston, Ontario, of all places. Because the locals heartily hail him by name whenever they hap-pen to see him, he thinks that he’s found the most welcoming place in America, but I know how they must snicker and sneer behind his back at his fawningly eager efforts to assimilate. As for me, I’m simply ignored. Side-stepped. In other words, I’m invisible to them, a non-entity. I mention this not to be pitied by you but to alert you, as I fear that you may be received even less cordially than I.

It’s true that I know very little about you, but what I do know—your name, your address, and your degree-granting institutions—cause me a bit of concern, to be frank. (Aside: it’s none of my business, of course, but I can’t help but wonder why someone from such a perfectly respecta-ble school as Boston College would choose to come here. Has acquiring a post really become so dire? You must have your reasons, as did Judson, God knows, but I do still wonder.) If Boston (or anywhere else on the liberal East Coast, for that matter) has been your home for very long, they’ll smell the Yankee on you, so to speak, and there is nothing more despised by Yonder than Yankees, except possibly non-Christians and foreigners.

Which leads me to my other concern. You may very well be American-born, but your name, Rajiv Gupta, tells me that you are likely of South Asian descent. As far as I know, you would be the only such person in Yonder once you move here, now that Nischal Deep, who taught in the mathematics department, left for greener pastures (and all that this required, sadly, was a move to a school in Orem, Utah). Because the locals are almost entirely unaccustomed to brown-skinned people who are not Hispanic, do not be surprised if they take you to be an Arab and a Muslim (I assume that you are Hindu rather than Muslim, but if I am incorrect, please forgive me), which would come with particular difficulties these days, of course, so be wary. They know noth-ing of Muhammad or the Quran, but that hardly impedes their hatred of both. (And they certainly won’t have ever heard of the Vedas, the Upanishads, or the Bhagavad Gita).

I find myself growing tired, my friend (how strange it is that I already feel as if we are friends), so I believe I’ll stop here for the evening. My poor old knuckles ache, and Miss Beatrice is harassing me for more food, the little piggy. Tomorrow, I hope to finish this in time to give it to the postman.

~

Good morning, Rajiv! (Please forgive me, but I feel the need to call you by your first name now.) It has been so long since I last wrote a letter to someone that I can’t help but find myself a tad ex-cited at the thought of continuing this one despite not knowing you from Adam’s off ox, as I’ve heard them say around here, although I have no clue what that admittedly colorful phrase means.

In bed last night with Miss Beatrice curled up comfortably beside me, I thought about the quaint picture of Yonder that Clarke must have painted for you. Eating breakfast at the Double Aught, lunch at Ivory’s Barbeque, and dinner at Manuel’s El Rancho Grande. Drinking beer at the Chaparral. Watching the sun set red and purple behind the windmills and the oil pumps on the end-less, unbroken, monotonous horizon. Taking part in Americana on Friday nights at the high school football games, et cetera. What Clarke won’t tell you, though, is this: Yonder is a blasted place, not unlike the blasted heath upon which Macbeth met the three witches. I say this not because of my own unhappiness here, but because of my observations over the years. The weather alone lends credence to this notion. When General Philip Sheridan said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell,” he was hardly speaking hyperbolically, much to the perverse and everlasting pride of all Yonderites. The yearly rainfall here can be measured in thimbles, and the wind is unforgiving and relentless. And, believe it or not, tumbleweeds are real! All of my life, I thought they only existed in old Westerns, but no. And if the sight of one skittering over the barren terrain isn’t the apotheosis of desolation, I can’t imagine what is.

But even beyond its weather and its sickly vegetation, this place is a blasted place. Alt-hough I’m hardly privy to the town’s grapevine, I still occasionally manage to overhear a few dis-turbing whispers. People seem to get shot, both accidentally and intentionally, with the regularity of a metronome, and that’s because guns are everywhere here, so much so that when the “open carry” law went into effect a few years ago, it made no noticeable difference, mostly because nearly every-thing has always been ignored by the stereotypically bull-necked sheriff, who seems to have abso-lutely no interest in anything but doing as little as possible, especially if it might require him to en-force any law that would infringe even slightly upon the absolute freedom of any of his many friends. Maybe I exaggerate a bit, but not much.

Which leads me to what I couldn’t stop thinking about last night. Rajiv, I have a confession to make: I have not told you the full truth about everything. I don’t quite know why I suddenly feel a desire to do this, but I think it’s because I hope to be instructive in a way that sufficiently pre-pares you for the sort of welcome you may face. Or maybe it’s simply because I’ve got no one to talk to anymore who might understand, and I think you will. Regardless, here is the truth about what happened to Judson.

One night, the phone rang in the kitchen. Judson and I were in the living room. He was reading the second book of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent. I re-member this because I haven’t moved it from where he set it on the coffee table that night all those years ago. We had just eaten dinner and were drinking tea. Judson went to the kitchen to answer it. In the evenings, he was occasionally invited to the houses of other faculty members for cocktails and conversation. Because he was always more sociable than I, I never minded being left at home. When Judson returned to tell me that he’d be back after a while, I asked him who had called, and he told me that it was Rich (Richard Candelaria, one of his colleagues) and that it was just some departmental business that needed to be attended to on campus—aggravating stuff, he said, but no big deal. He said that he didn’t think that he would be gone very long, so I turned back to my book, knowing that he’d fill me in with the details when he got home if they were interesting.

“But if I’m wrong,” he said, “Don’t wait up for me. Go to bed.”

Three hours later, he hadn’t returned, so I did as I’d been told and went to bed, not worried in the slightest. I was used to him slipping into bed after I’d fallen asleep. He was a night owl, and I was—am—not. At some point before the sun came up, I was woken by a phone call from the sheriff and given the news. Judson was dead. He had been found in our sedan, slumped over the steering wheel. I wailed, Rajiv. I wailed. Later, the Crump County coroner ruled the death due to cardiac arrest, which made a certain degree of sense since Judson had already suffered one heart attack, a fairly significant one, but by the time the coroner’s verdict came, I had already determined that there had to be more to the story. First of all, Judson had been found parked in the dirt lot be-hind Riffee’s Feed & Seed, a business that neither of us had ever had any reason to visit. Second, I had already talked to Rich, and he hadn’t been with Judson that night. He hadn’t called Judson, either. And third, while on the phone with the sheriff, after I had stopped crying long enough to be able to speak, I asked him if he knew how Judson had died, and he said that there was no way for him to tell “from just the look of things, you know, ma’am.”

“So, there was no signs of foul play?” I asked. To this day, I still remember how difficult it was for me to say those two words; it was a phrase that I had never had any reason to say before—and then suddenly having to say it in regard to my own husband! This is what he said: “Umm, well, no, ma’am. Not really, no.” As you might imagine, this answer hardly reassured me, so I asked him to clarify himself, though I hardly did so as calmly as it appears here on the page. He seemed not to want to answer me, which compelled me to press him even harder. Finally, he said, “Well, I don’t quite know how to say this, ma’am, but he was found with his zipper down, and he was . . . well, part of him was kind of hanging out.”

At that moment, I had no idea how to process this, but I figured it out soon enough, and I figured it out because I knew Judson, and because I knew how Yonder was, is, and always will be.

You see, Judson was a delicate, sensitive man. Physically, he was unimposing, and he spoke with a very quiet voice. He despised confrontations of any sort. In fact, he despised nearly everything typically associated with the average American male. But he was not a homosexual, which was what he had been accused of being at Brown. In the fifties, all it took to destroy you was such an accusation made by one or two discontented students seeking revenge for a low grade. Back then, getting accused of that was just as bad as getting accused of being a member of the Communist Party, and an allegation of either left you with little recourse except simple, fruitless denial. That’s what Judson did, of course, and vociferously (but always civilly), when he was con-fronted by Brown’s administration, but it did no good. After all, how do you go about proving a negative? But rather than allowing them to add to his—our—misery by waiting for them to fire him, he resigned, as I already noted above. Maybe he could have—should have—fought harder, but he didn’t have it in him. It wasn’t his nature, and I’ll never fault him for that.

On the day I met him, I remember thinking that he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I instantly fell in love with everything about him—his cleft chin, his immaculate suits, his Boston Brahmin accent, his bashfulness. I also fell in love with the attention that he paid to me. Although I had rarely ever been the homeliest girl in any given room, even more rarely had I ever been the prettiest, so the moment that I felt his cool fingers on my wrist at that April soiree in Paoli, I was nearly already his forever, so this slanderousness accusation caused me to suffer my own particu-lar sort of misery, as you might imagine. To have one’s husband attacked in such a manner! I re-member thinking such black thoughts about those Brown students—their motiveless malignity, to borrow Coleridge’s perfect description of Iago. Such black thoughts. Even now, sixty years later, in this ancient husk of a body of mine, I grow angry and vindictive all over again. I wish bad things upon them from across time and space. Regardless, he and I persevered. Our defiance brought us closer together. It was us against the world—at least until the world stopped caring so much about such silly things as who loves whom and why, but by then it was too late; we had al-ready been in Yonder for too long.

If only he had known better than to bring us here. Every other place had been content mere-ly with his departure. Yonder, however, required his death and humiliation, even if it waited years to deliver it.

It was my duty to identify his body the next morning. When I saw him lying there beneath a white sheet folded down to the middle of his chest, still dressed in one of his beautiful Brooks Brothers suits, I forgot what I had come to do. Lost, I simply stared at his handsome sleeping face, and I remember thinking for some reason about how I would never again see his pale, piteous shins, which had been worn hairless by decades of tight dress socks pulled up to the top of his thin calves. I felt then as if I might just die right there, especially once I realized that I didn’t have the strength to pull down the sheet to see if someone had been kind enough to zip his pants for him.

As the coroner later verified, his body, besides his heart, had suffered no harm. But harm, I knew, could also be inflicted in ways that left no discernible signs. Sometimes, especially for the delicate and sensitive, just the threat of violence can be enough.

Judson was a docile man. Whoever compelled him to leave the house that night threatened him in some fashion, I’m sure of it—enough so that he lied to me so as not to worry me. And then they scared him to death. And then they desecrated his body, posing him as if he’d died in the throes of forbidden ecstasy mid-tryst. And they did this because he cherished all the things that Yonder abhors, and because he abhorred all the things that Yonder cherishes. And that was enough for them to do to him what they did.

The rare times that I leave the house these days, I look into the faces of Yonder’s men as they pass by, and I still wonder which one of them called the house that night. What did this person say to my beloved husband? How did that person convince Judson to leave the house so easily? And did Judson agree to leave in order to protect me in some fashion? That’s what I’ve come to believe.

Though I still don’t know his name, one man in particular continues to haunt me. I only know him by sight. Like most of the men in Yonder, he wears jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. Unlike the other men, however, he wears his hair long, not unlike the genocidal George Arm-strong Custer, and he sports the matching facial hair, too. In other words, he’s a caricature—a car-toon—but one that clearly takes itself deadly seriously. In still other words, he’s the quintessential Texan: a hollow performer of the Texas mythos. Nonetheless, each time that I’ve seen him since Judson’s death, he always walks past me with a humorless smirk that chills my blood, and he stares at me with eyes as soulless as a shark’s. It’s a stare that tells me that he knows all about what happened that night.

I regret so many things now, Rajiv. I regret going to bed without any worries on the night he died. I regret not appreciating every moment I got to spend with him. I regret not telling him that I loved him as often as I should have.

If I were sensible, I would shred this letter and start over, telling you nothing more than where to shop for food (the answer is Flatland grocery, by default, because that’s the only place to do so in town), but I’m too tired to do that, so I guess I’ll just stick a stamp on this one, hand it to the postman, and hope that it somehow does you some good. If it even gets to you, that is. The postman regularly steals my magazines, though I can’t imagine that he or anyone else in this town would find The New Republic interesting or even comprehensible. He probably does it simply be-cause he knows that he can get away with it. Not that it really matters, though. Even when I receive my issues, I don’t read them any more. Do I really need to be told by anyone that the hour of Yeats’s “rough beast” has come at last? No. The center clearly stopped holding long ago.

At any rate, this is for you, Rajiv, whether you receive it or not. Feel free, of course, to dis-regard the ramblings of a sad and lonely old woman, which is really all any of this is, and all that I am. Regardless, I hope that you find Yonder a more hospitable place than we did.

Sincerely,

Celeste Derry

~

P. S. I only now realize that I never mentioned the students at Olvidado. They mostly come from the surrounding counties, from tiny towns with names like Fluvanna, Birdette, and Destry. They’re typically very polite and conscientious, but many of them also believe that the planet is only six thousand years old. They’ve never heard of Byron, Shelley, or Keats, and they’re likely to file a complaint against you if you ever speak disparagingly about the beliefs and practices of any of their heroes, which certainly include the men who defied Lincoln. Nevertheless, you will occasionally find a diamond in the rough, which can be extremely rewarding, especially if you manage to con-vince him or her that there is a big world beyond Yonder worth discovering.

~

P. P. S. Once you’re in town, please be sure to stop by and say hello. Please! I do so want to meet you now! If you like tea, I will make a pot of chamomile for us to share, and then it will be your turn to tell me all about yourself.

~

Kevin Grauke has published work in such places as The Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, StoryQuarterly, Fiction, and Quarterly West. He is the author of Shadows of Men (Queen’s Ferry), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. He teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. 

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