The Maiden and the Muse

First Things In Fall

I was contemplating the sweet sweep of blue sky through the casement window of my room in Fanjeaux hall. That portion of the sky which I could see beyond my red high-top sneakers, which were the height of undergraduate fashion that year, that is. I had just returned from the first class of my very first day at Holy Names College, and the dismal road of academic failure stretched long and dusty and familiar before me.

I wasn’t going to be able to do this. It was quite clear. My advisor, Sister Barbie, had placed me into a graduate level literature class by virtue of my stratospheric verbal score on the SATs. Graduate level! On my first day. Studying Chaucer. I hadn’t even known Middle English was a foreign language. I’d thought it might be related to Middle Earth. I couldn’t read it at all, I understood not a word. My junior college courses had in no way prepared me for a real school.

I waggled my sneaker at a wayward bee, which, apparently tired of its wanderings through the honeysuckle, wanted to cool off in the silence of my room. I turned my head lazily to follow its progress.

I almost screamed. There was a guy standing in the doorway, hipshot, looking in my direction. My door had been closed and locked, I would swear that to this day. But there he stood. Scary as that was, here’s the capper: it was Keith Richard. Craggy face, graying hair, ripped jeans, black boots, skull ring, and all, in all his Stony glory. He winked at me. Quite clearly. Though the light was behind me and he was in shadow, I saw him wink at me. And then he disappeared.

This can’t be happening to me. I’m losing it. I can’t lose it again. I almost flunked junior college. This is my last chance at school, I can’t believe I even got in here, academic probation or no. I should call my mom. No, strike that: I should find a shrink. Or maybe see Sister Michael at the infirmary. Yes. That’s a better plan. Think, Maddy! You can’t run off and tell a nun you’ve just seen the guitarist from the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band standing in Fanjeaux Hall! You’ll get kicked out. It didn’t happen, that’s all. He was a figment. Yeah. That’s definitely what he was. Or I fell asleep. Maybe.

I thought it best to leave the room for a while. I dropped the Riverside edition of the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer on my desk where it made a thunk equivalent to a sack of feed hitting the barn floor. The darn thing weighed a good three pounds at least. Then I beat it out of there.

The stairs were a little rickety, being over a hundred years old, and having been shorn up only as needed over the years. The original mahogany balustrade was still there, glowing green and gold and in the light from the stained glass windows above. I didn’t know what saints those were, looking down on me from the glass, but I threw them a token prayer anyhow: please don’t let me be crazy like I’m thinking, St. Jude, or St. Anthony, or whoever you are? I cast an apology over my shoulder as I stepped off the landing and out the door, down the stairs, to the grass at last.

I stopped and looked back up at Fanjeaux. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Yeah, I’d dreamed of Ivy League and gotten only ivy, but I considered my acceptance at Holy Names a victory nonetheless. But what if it was haunted?

Hang on Hysterica, Keith Richard is alive and well. OK, he’s alive, at any rate.

Parker Caldwell was coming up the path toward me. He gave me a smile full of perfect white dental work, and popped the collar of his pink polo.

“Hey Maddy. Have you been to a class yet?”

Parker was a junior too, and roomed downstairs from me. We’d met this morning when all the parents had finally gone, and the students were settled in their rooms and ready to explore. I was falling in love already. He was a blonde Adonis.

“Yes, I just came from Chaucer.”

“Oho,” said Parker portentously, “Chaucer! The genial genius!”

“Have you studied him before?” I was sure everyone here had more scholarly experience in their various appendages than I had in my entire body, because I had dropped out of high school.

“A bit at Larrimer, but we barely scraped the surface. You know, redacted versions of the Pardoner’s Tale and so on.”

I nodded my head sagely, as though I knew precisely what he meant, although I was pretty sure I couldn’t define the word ‘redacted.’ I had never heard of The Pardoner, either, and wondered who he was. I supposed I would wash out before making his acquaintance.

“Are you going for lunch?” I asked him, timidly.

“Oh yes. My friend Guilermo, from Spain, you know Guilermo – and Natalia, from Genoa, I assume you’ve met her -” (I hadn’t), “we’re going to the Olympic Club.”

“Oh. Well, have a good time, then!” I called to his retreating back. I knew he was out of my league. I hated being the schlub I was, with my flat dishwater blonde hair and my overly ample backside. Moreover, Parker was in both my creative writing classes, and my philosophy class. I would have to work hard at not appearing too much the dullard.

I had a bleak lunch of over-steamed “turkey” and a mass of mashy unidentified vegetation at our dining hall, Calaruega. I sat by myself and pretended to be writing something, so I wouldn’t look too pathetic, me and my no friends. I made mercifully short work of the dreadful fowl and boiled mashed peas, or whatever they were, and it was time for algebra.

It was quite true, as Sister Barbie had pointed out, that my score on the verbal section of the SATs was in the 96th percentile. But my math score was nearly non-existent. If Middle English wasn’t going to be my downfall, algebra almost certainly would be.

It was a very hot day, and the ancient radiator in my Guzman Hall classroom was stuck in the on position. Maintenance had been called, but in the meanwhile, Professor Deranje insisted that we go ahead with the first lesson.

Deranje was a short fellow with a mass of graying curls, pasty white skin, and a heavy accent. I wondered if it was Transylvanian. I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, nor could I finish copying the equations on the board into my notebook before he erased them.

Oh, this is going to be a breeze.

I was, to my great relief, able to copy the homework assignment in a timely fashion and retreat to the relative cool of the hallway at last.

The woman who had been sitting in the row below me came out of the classroom finally, fanning herself with a notebook. I believed, though I could not be sure, that she was cursing a purple streak under her breath. She glared at me and I stepped out of her way. She looked like the sort of person you wouldn’t want to encounter even in a bright alley in this particular mood.

I wondered whether I would manage to make any friends at all before my inevitable walk of shame from the Hallowed Halls of Ivy.

Chapter Two

Monday was my heaviest day, as it was for most of the campus. To my surprise, I had done quite well in French 101. Our professor, Madame Lisle, had complemented my ability to roll my r’s appropriately when no other student could yet do so. It was for this reason that I approached Fanjeaux that evening in a relatively happy state of mind.

At that time, Holy Names was one of those rare colleges where single dormitory rooms were the norm rather than the exception. Since I wasn’t going to be able to make any friends, it felt like a bonus that there would be no room mate to watch my inevitable academic meltdown.

I had purchased a dinner of Cheetos and Diet Coke from the vending machines and was headed upstairs with the intention of holing up in my room when a formidable personage approached me. I guessed by the uprightness of her posture that she was a nun, though like most nuns in 1988, she’d long since kicked the habit and gone plainclothes on us. The better to spring out from the brush and surprise one in some high-spirited college sin, I thought.

“Good evening, and what are we up to?” said the Formidable Personage.

“Um…I’m not really up to anything, just going in my room to have a go at Chaucer.” I felt my knees begin to tremble. Her very presence made me feel, though I was not Catholic, as though I were hiding a dark deed.

“What’s your name?” she asked sharply.

“Maddy. Madelaine. Madelaine McEwan.”

“Well, Maddy Madelaine McEwan, my name is Sister Daniel, how do you do?” she extricated her right hand from under the colossal pile of books she carried with her and shook mine.

“Nice to meet you Sister.”

“Are you a graduate student?”

“No, I’m a regular junior. Just a bit old for a regular junior, I guess,” I giggled vapidly. What was the matter with me?

“Well who let you into a Chaucer class? That’s a course for graduate students only, you know.”

“Yes Ma’am, I know it is. Sister Barbie placed me in that class, I didn’t request it.”

“Ah,” she said, with an air of mystery. “Sister Barbara never does anything without a reason. She is a very careful advisor and you are lucky to have her. If she has placed you in a 400 level class in your first semester, it seems she is lucky to have you, too.”

Oh my God, my dear God, I’ve been calling her Sister Barbie! I’m sure she hates me, I thought that’s what she said her name was, how insulting, how stupid can I be, a nun named BARBIE?

Sister Daniel was smiling at me, and nodded encouragingly.

“Thank you, but I’m sure she’s not. Lucky. Lucky to have me, that is. I don’t think I belong.”

“Well, if you do not belong now, you will belong shortly.”

This conversation was getting to be too much for me, and I was about to drop my backpack from fatigue and nerves. I took my key out of my pocket.

“Oh, is this your room, Ms. McEwan? Why, then, we’re neighbors. How satisfactory.” She patted my shoulder, let herself into the room next to mine, and closed the door.

I’m living next door to a nun. Even if Parker were not out of my league, I wouldn’t be able to have a Meaningful Physical Relationship with him.

Surprising though it was, at the advanced age of 24, I was still searching for my first Meaningful Physical Relationship. I guessed that was why Sister Daniel would agree to live in a dorm with several dozen rowdy undergraduates. To forestall such things. She must have drawn the short straw.

I closed my own door with gratitude, slumped into the armchair next to it, and dropped my backpack with the now-familiar heavy thud.

The moon looked like a framed picture in my casement window, a lovely crescent moon, with the Evening Star dangling like an earring below it.

“Well?” a deep british voice came out of the darkness. I nearly screamed, once again, but remembering the presence of the Formidable Personage, I bit my lower lip instead. My heart hammered. My hands started to shake.

“Who’s that?” I asked in a quietly brave voice. Well, in a quiet voice, anyway.

“Why don’t you turn on the light and find out?” said the voice, as though addressing a very small, very slow child.

I stood up, and, holding my room key in my fist, I flipped the switch.

Comic actor Hugh Kingsley was seated in the chair next to my bookcase, my copy of Camus’ The Stranger on his lap, fingers steepled beneath his chin.

“You’re not him!”

“I’m not whom?”

“Not…well, you’re a figment!”

“Am not,” he replied petulantly.

“Are so!”

Great, I’m arguing with an imaginary person and both of us are acting like third graders.

“I’m arguing with empty air.” I replied archly.

Take that, Figment!

“What? More of gravy than of grave about me, is that the quotation you’re ransacking your little blonde head for?”

“Don’t you Dickens me! I know my Dickens. You only bolster my point, in any case: I’m imagining you, so you must have ransacked my little blonde head for me.”

Hugh Kingsley sighed dramatically. “Alright. Your darling attempt at logic aside, what would convince you that I exist as an entity separate from yourself?”

“Um…I think I’ll need to pinch you.”

He scowled. “Pinch yourself! You’re the one who thinks she’s imagining things.”

“But – ”

“Oh, never mind, I don’t have time for any more of your sophomoric Cartesian sallies. Here.” he extended an arm.

Uh oh. I’m a junior, not a sophomore, and I don’t know what “Cartesian” means. My figment is better educated than I am…I think..therefore he’s real?

I pinched his arm. It was lean and sinewy and quite, quite solid. I stumbled backward in surprise, tripping on a small rug and landing back in my original chair.

“You do feel very real.” I granted.

“Are we done with this now?”

“OK, let’s say you’re real, just for the sake of argument. Who are you? You’re obviously not Hugh Kingsley.”

“Why not? Why can’t I be Hugh Kingsley?”

“Because he wouldn’t be sitting in a dormitory room in suburban America!”

“Are you sure? Can you say that with certainty?”

“Of course not, but my argument would tend to corroborate my position.”

“Aha, We have legal aspirations, do we? No more Law and Order at bedtime for you.” He shook an admonitory finger at me.

“So you’re claiming you actually are Hugh Kingsley.”

“I didn’t say that. It’s not nice to put words in other people’s mouths.” He crossed his black booted feet, winked at me, then faded gradually into nothingness as I watched.

I went directly to bed, bypassing Cheetos and Chaucer, and I never turned out the light. When the clock dragged its weary hands to 3 a.m., I finally fell asleep and dreamed that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had appeared at my lonely dining hall table and shared my breakfast of questionable eggs and ancient sausages.


One Response to “The Maiden and the Muse”

  1. I object. I’m much funnier than this. My little amateur.

    – Kingsley

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