You sit at the head of the table, your new students take the other seats at the rectangular configuration, and you know that it is true.
You've looked at that face. You've seen that long, silky black hair and those emerald green eyes before. You know the name and face are a match.
It had simply been a wouldn't-it-be-funny-if thought. The Name: Shiloh McHammer. When you saw it on the class roster you remembered that Tina had always insisted she would name her first child Shiloh, boy or girl. She had loved the name, the sound. And, though both of you had been seventeen at the time, you'd believed yourself serious about marrying Tina -- still you'd been indifferent about the name. It was an easy thing to let her have, you'd thought, as if such a decision had bearing on the love life of two children.
So, sitting at your desk some days back, you read the name on the first version of the class roster and you commented to yourself that McHammer is not the most common name. And Tina had married John McHammer a couple years after high school. Then off they were to California shortly thereafter. Their children would be about college age.
"Now wouldn't that funny if this Shiloh McHammer is her Shiloh McHammer," you said to yourself.
This was your first semester back after sabbatical. You had way too much to deal with to concern yourself with whether the daughter of your first love was enrolled in your Creative Writing 355 class. So you had silently chuckled about an interesting what-if and moved on to the goal statement the director of English Programs wanted by the end of the week. Please make it at least three, double-spaced pages the memo had asked. And you had thought to yourself, I just finished a hundred-and- thirty page book of poetry, really going out on a limb since I've published little poetry, and this goof wants me to write a goal statement for the academic year!
Yet, as you called the book store to see if the copies of Welcome to the Monkey House, which you'd ordered for this class, would be arriving any time soon, you remembered how much Tina despised Vonnegut and you started calculating the possibilities of a Shiloh McHammer that was not Tina's child. The odds disturbed you.
But you let it all go and slipped it on a mental shelf while the three-page goal statement, the completion of the syllabus for your grad- level Great American Short Stories seminar next semester, the committee to fill the Victorian and Romantic periods European literature void left with Janice Pandimir's retirement, the regretful re-introduction back into academic society, all vied for first attention.
Then the next day, Candice, your wife, with whom you have not shared this Shiloh thing, told you your daughter, Kathy, was going to try out for the seventh-grade girls' track team. Out of a dust cloud ran Tina, as a high-school-junior who almost took the state finals, neither she nor you knowing that only a week later would come the inevitable explosion that was your melodramatic break up.
You remembered yourself at seventeen watching Tina run, so, briefly you felt the eyes of adolescent boys watching the out line of your twelve- year-old daughter's buttocks as she gracefully ran the track. But you've learned through your sixteen-year-old, Celia, that you can't stop it, and somewhere you have to close your eyes and try to sail through the boys wanting your girls, and pray that both daughters are who you hope they are. You suddenly thought of how proud Tina might be if she could see you making such a valiant attempt to trust and respect your children. Then the name popped back up, or at least rattled on the shelf. After all, it is why Tina is hanging around so much in your head.
The wall clock reads 2:55, but your watch says 3:02. Young Shiloh is looking at you -- sizing you up, yes. But, sizing you up as her new instructor, or as her mom's high school boyfriend? -- the one who caused her mom so much grief; the one Granddad and Grandmom hated with passion. She'd be the obvious one to ask what time she had, since her attention is already on you. You ask a general question of the small but growing group. The consensus is that it is closer to 3:02.
There's no way you can stop your mind from posing this: Does she have any idea that in a slightly different universe she'd be a very different human being, made up of different DNA, having a different mind? She'd still be Shiloh, but a different Shiloh. Her eyes might be blue, her hair auburn or blonde. Her favorite pop star might be different. She'd want a different syrup on her waffles in the morning.
Of the dozen or so students here now, you know most of them from other classes, or earlier semesters of this class, since it can be taken three times for credit by writing-degree students.
Half of these kids know each other and you. They chat, catch up, gossip. Shiloh looks at the table of contents of Fictioning Good Writing, which is your prize academic accomplishment, along with your former U. of A. colleague, David Harvest.
There are about eight people missing, of them, five familiar names. You announce that it's probably time to get started even though it's obvious that not everyone is here. Despite wanting to start in the M's to finalize what you already know, you call out Tina Avery, then Kevin Carson, Dave Clinger, Ford Edger (who is the best young writer you know), Mary Eisenhiem. Your heart pumps just a little harder than usual. This is not a true role call since you know most of the names and faces, and rather than saying the names with a question mark, you say them with a nod at the person or a comment that he or she is not here, "yet." you add with hope. But you do say, "Janet Evans?", and find that it is the young black girl down next to Ian Griffith (another promising writer). On you move, closer to Shiloh McHammer. Avery Goubouex -- heart rate accelerates, Sally Higgens -- up another notch, Tom Kline, Wanda Lawson.
When you finish saying you know that Joe Lipscomb won't be in town until next week, it's like you're judging whether you can jump the ravine you stand at the edge of. It's time to say the name. And you do, pretty sure no one has noticed your breath is just a tad short.
"That's me," she looks up and says.
In a sweet voice. Not taunting. Not with, "Yeah, that's right you son of a bitch, I'm the daughter of the woman you screwed over twenty-some years ago!", in between the lines.
You walk through the rest of the first-day-of-class technicalities. When you get to the assigned readings and hold up the Vonnegut anthology you pay particular attention to the reaction from Shiloh -- parents do bias their children. All the young woman does is touch her copy. Her copy is ragged, and it being so makes you wonder if, even hope that, she’s owned it for a while. Even more delicious would be that she's borrowed it from her mother who has come to see the light.
This being the only session where you lecture, you talk about hidden agendas in writing, about when the author should write for oneself, one's audience, and one's publisher. But, you do not lecture all the way to 4:45. At a bit after 4:00 you end your talk and open the session to questions. There are only a few, curriculum-type questions, mostly dealing with the grading curve and easily answered with your noncommittal responses -- because you hate grading creative writing, and, though the new students probably aren't aware of it, you'll assume everyone gets an A, then really make each one try hard to change your mind.
So at 4:17 you point to a good jumping off place for today's session, accept a few manuscripts, and let the class know that the first workbook of class writing will be available in the English department by Monday morning, and that anything turned in past Thursday, noon, will not be eligible for it. You stress that you want everyone to come to class with at least the first three stories already read, whatever those are, and regardless of the combined page length. But, you know that three quarters of the class will be coming to the work for the first time as each story is read aloud next Tuesday.
As the class breaks up, she walks up to you, wearing what could be a knowing smile. In her hand is a cloth edition of When Faith Is Less Than -- your first novel.
"My mom said you'd probably know who I was," she says.
You admit that it was pretty much a no-brainer. And you note as she hands you the novel that it looks like a very early printing, based on the size of the title fonts on the spine. "Your mother's" you say. She nods yes.
"But she's giving it to me because it's one of my favorite books ---- would you sign it?"
Somehow both more flattered and more uneasy than you've ever been about signing your work, you try very hard not to let your hand shake as you write a variation of what you always write to aspiring writers:
For Shiloh -- it's not as important to be a great writer as is to be a great re-writer. Best wishes and good fortune in your dream!
Then you make your name almost a scribble, as usual, because there is a rule out there somewhere that writers must never give legible autographs.
As you write you tell her that maybe she knows this already but her name was picked for her long before she was born.
"Yeah, my mom picked it when she was about nine."
You hand your novel back to her and she smiles that wonderfully shy, humble smile that proves by itself that she is Tina's daughter. And as Shiloh thanks you, in that subtly excited manner that had enticed you almost a quarter century ago, you know there's no way Tina can ever deny this young lady as her child.
Driving home, you start to understand very profoundly that Candice has been right all these years, that there's a part of you that never has, and more likely than not, never will, get over Tina.
"She was the first girl you were ever in love with," Candice once said, "with all that unbridled, undisciplined passion. There's no way you'll completely recover. None of us do."
As big a romantic as you believe yourself to be, you'd rejected your wife's opinion. You'd rejected it out of loyalty to your love for her. You'd rejected it because you'd never wanted to think about that little place in her heart reserved for, him.
You contrast the day you met Tina with the day you met Candice. Tina overtly chased you down, shouting for you to marry her -- her friends standing by at the football game, giggling at her brazen overtures. Candice had rolled her eyes as you awkwardly attempted to pick her up at The College Bar, just off campus. Had you actually pointed at her and said, "You're in my psych class."?
How innocent were the philosophies shared and debated by those two kids at Edgeview High School. How idealistic were those shared by two young college students at the University of Pennsylvania.
Candice has shown signs over the past few days of knowing that something is going on with you. You've recognized those little sideways glances she's given you. She's always willing to wait until you're ready to bring up whatever's going on. She won't push unless she sees it getting intense. And chances are, right now, she knows that you know she knows.
Tina's memory is weighing heavily on you. But you do not know if it's because you feel guilt, or, because you'll be admitting that Candice is right about that little place.
Opening the side door to your house you hear your daughters engaged in petty argument number one-million-seven-hundred-and-thirty-two-thousand -six-hundred-and-fifty-five.
"Mom! Tell that little racoon that I'm gonna kill her if she doesn't stop using my shampoo!"
"Celia!" your wife yells from the back of the house, "How much can it hurt to treat your little sister like she's a member of your family? Huh?"
Your wife expresses a temporary desire to sell her daughters to a sheik, while you change into jeans and your Carly Simon concert t-shirt. And you think about them being made up of different DNA, having different hair, eyes, passions. You think of Celia without your chin, and Kathy without your desire to put the world on paper in her prose.
You see that little piece of you heart that belongs to a quarter century ago differently by coming to acute appreciation for the big piece of you heart occupied by the most intelligent woman you've ever known and two young ladies who spend most of their time acting like they don't truly love each other as much as you know damn well they do.
So, all of a sudden it strikes you what a wonderful thing it is that you get to be involved in the college education of the beautiful young daughter of the first lady you were ever in love with -- what's more, you get to help guide her in her passion to write.
For a moment, you are urged to start the sentence you're about to utter with: Guess what I discovered today.
Instead, you hug your wife from behind, tell her that after a week or two that sheik would return the girls and demand his money back, then you say, "So, wanna know what's been bugging me?"
Candice turns to you, those crystal eyes saying: It's about time.
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