by Con Chapman
MANKINSVILLE, Georgia. Walker College here is known as an academic backwater, so the announcement that Professor Ted Gomes won a McNiece Fellowship was cause for celebration. “It’s not a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, but it’s a start,” says the college’s president, Orel Fundy, Jr. “A MacArthur is worth $625,000 and certifies that you’re a genius. A McNiece means you’re pretty smart and you get $35,000.”
Gomes is a specialist in comparative literature, linking the verse of different nations through textual analysis. “My main focus is Elizabethan love poetry,” he explains as he looks anxiously at his watch. “‘Love gave the wound, which will bleede,’ and all that jazz,” he says with an awkwardness that is dispelled when two vacuous young women in Juicy Couture enter the room.
“That’s me,” he says. “The rest of my department doesn’t know how to teach classic literature in a way that engages real students,” he adds as Dean Morton Weiner, a bespectacled man in a shabby blazer, approaches with a look of concern on his face.
“Are these–women–friends of yours?” Weiner asks nervously.
“My name is Candi Jeugar,” one of the young women says, extending her hand. “I’m in Dr. Gomes’ Sexuality in Poetry class.”
“I’m Tiffani Branch,” says the other. “I’m Ted’s T.A.”
“Didn’t I see you at freshman orientation?” Weiner asks suspiciously.
“Yeah,” says Branch. “Professor Gomes says he sees something special in me and we spend extra time together prepping for an interactive class.”
“He’s the only professor who respects us like adults,” adds Jeugar. “He’s like a teacher and a best friend at the same time.”
The group enters the oak-paneled faculty lounge where members of the college community have gathered to honor one of their own. Gomes looks at the buffet with distaste: “Cheese and crackers? Pigs in a blanket?” he sneers at Weiner. “I win a big prize and this is it? Store-brand liquor?”
“Kinda cheap if you ask me,” says Branch as she pours herself a shot of vodka and uses a toothpick from an hors d’oeuvre to remove hot dog from between her teeth.
The risks inherent in “no strings attached” grants become apparent as Gomes calls from his cellphone to order pizza. “I’ve never had $35,000 to play with in my life,” he says as one of his “students” feeds him a slice of pepperoni. “Did they expect me to spend it on new leather elbow patches for my tweed jacket?”
As Gomes dives further into drink his tongue is loosened and he waxes academic. “There are parallels between the Elizabethan Age and the Age of Disco, which ran from 1973 until 1979, when an anti-disco riot erupted in Chicago,” he says in a professorial tone that seems fitting for a professor. He gets up on a table to demonstrate some of the dance moves he perfected as an undergraduate at NYU, and adds some impromptu disco-Elizabethan poetry as he gyrates:
She likes to party, she likes to disco
She likes to boogie down from here to San Francisco.
Ask not how long my love will last,
For in the asking we make love past.
This travesty is too much for the Chairman of the English Department, Merlin Mattoni, who rushes over and demands that Gomes get off the furniture. “He has no boundaries as an educator or a human being, but attracting a dynamic, revenue generating professor to our rural area is almost impossible,” he whispers in shame.
“Fine,” the prize winner says as he climbs down, but before he exits with his mentees a thought occurs to him. “What’s the poem by Yeats?” he asks, recalling the last two lines of “The Scholars“: “Lord, what would they say/Should their Catullus walk that way?”