2015-08-03

Poor Gus
—fiction by Matt McGowan

           He thought it would be like a string of Black Cats, exploding furiously until the final crack and the lights went out. But it wasn’t like that at all. Instead, Gus Thorp’s life was unraveling like an old, frayed rope, the barely visible strands stretching and stretching, until, one by one, they quietly snapped. 
            There was usual stuff – papers to grade, students whining about their grades, harassment calls from his editor. He hadn’t talked to his quasi-girlfriend in two weeks, and his adult children barely tolerated him. But now life had taken a nasty turn. His ex-wife, whom he recognized less and less with each plastic surgery, was suing him again, and his 78-year-old mother probably had Alzheimer’s. The prospect of this last worry was doubly problematic, because he knew it would do nothing to prevent his father from treating her like shit. 
Between sessions with students, there were phone calls to lawyers and doctors and nursing homes. While talking to these people, Gus was distracted by a growing stack of insurance forms and nursing-home applications.
But these problems were merely priming the pump. The real unraveling started one hot afternoon in May, toward the end of the semester, when Gus was climbing the hill, heading back to his office after swimming laps at the natatorium. Only swimming and weightlifting, in addition to alcohol, helped him cope with his problems. They satisfied his particular strain of masochism.
The thing that disturbed him most and made him immediately defensive – both of which he admitted to the dean of students, the university chief of police, and the chancellor – was that he hadn’t even heard the truck coming. As he approached the end of the sidewalk, he looked to his right and saw nothing. While turning the other way, he started to step off the curb – again, because he did not hear anyone coming – but immediately jumped back when he saw a large black Chevy Silverado bearing down on him like a drone on the Taliban.
When the truck passed, its tires brushed against the curb, and the enormous side mirror jutted out so far that it nearly clipped Gus’s nose. When he reared back to avoid getting hit, he saw inside the cab. The driver was looking at his cell phone.
Gus yelled but the truck’s stereo was turned up so loud that the driver did not hear him. Distracted by music and phone, the young man didn’t appear to even notice Gus was there. Which explained why he was so surprised when Gus confronted him after he parked the truck in a small gravel lot between two houses on fraternity row.
“Turn that shit down,” said Gus.
The young man frowned, as if Gus’s presence was an inconvenience.
“Turn it down!” yelled Gus.
The driver ignored him and looked at his phone. The stereo blared bad gangsta rap, the kind suburban white boys listen to.
Gus reached up into the truck. When he grabbed the driver’s shoulder, the young man flinched, causing him to fumble the phone and drop it. Gus had a handful of the young man’s light blue polo shirt, and he held on, pulling it toward him until he could let go and grab something else. When he did this, he got a hold of the driver’s collar and yanked him to the side, ramming his head into the doorframe.
 “What the fuck?” said he driver, squealing, almost crying.
“You almost hit me back there,” said Gus. He opened the door and dragged the stunned driver out of the vehicle. The kid was confused and distracted, still looking for his cell phone.
“What?” he said. “Where?”
“Up there,” said Gus.
But the young man could not see where Gus was pointing, because his head was facing the ground, as Gus whipped him back and forth like a roped calf. Gus was so angry he thought he would slap the man’s head and probably would have had it not been for three people standing on the same sidewalk he had just climbed. When he looked up, after shouting angry epithets into driver ’s ear, he saw three fraternity brothers staring back at him in utter astonishment.
Gus let go, and the young man fell to his hands and knees. As he walked up the hill, Gus heard complaining, the grumbling of vague threats, but they did not pursue him.

An hour later, a university police officer showed up at his office. The cop knocked gently, as if he were a timid student.
            “Door’s open,” growled Gus.
            The officer poked his head into the room. He did not say anything.
            “I don’t hate rap music,” said Gus, rising from his chair and walking toward the door. “I want it on the record that I do not hate rap music.”
“Okay,” said the officer, rolling his eyes. He and Gus walked in silence to the administration building.
Word spread quickly about the incident. By the time Gus and the officer reached Epson Hall, a dozen students had lined up along the sidewalk. Gus recognized three as his own. The students cheered as Gus and the officer approached the administration building. One of the students, a bearded, long-haired kid in blue jeans and a filthy shirt, raised his clenched fist in a mock demonstration of solidarity. To show that he understood the gravity of his predicament, Gus frowned at the students and shook his head.
             
In her dark office, Chancellor Ophelia Jensen, a Classics scholar, was sitting behind her massive cherry desk. Her glasses were pulled down to the tip of her nose. She was using them to read a transcript given to her by Mike Emery, university police chief. Emery and Danny Sutton, dean of students, were sitting in armchairs, next to each other, opposite the chancellor.
Jensen did not look up when Gus and the officer entered the room. They walked toward the desk and stood next to Emery and Sutton. Emery nodded at the officer, who stepped back and then left the room. Jensen finished reading the transcript and flipped it over. She leaned back in her chair and sighed deeply.
“Gus,” she said. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Gus smiled. He knew Jensen had been a close friend of Jay Goddard, the venerable newspaper editor and journalism professor who died of a heart attack two years ago. Gus had worked for Goddard for many years. He was the reason Gus was at the university.
“Somebody’s gotta stop these maniacs,” said Gus.
Jensen sighed and shook her head. She leaned forward, setting her elbows on the desk and removing the glasses. She started to speak but looked at Emery instead.
“I can arrest you right now,” Emery said. “For assault.”
Gus laughed. He and Emery had some history.
“You think I’m kidding?”
“No, Mike, I don’t,” said Gus. “But let me ask you something. When are you gonna crack down on these fuckers? They’re gonna kill someone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost been run over by one of these assholes checking Facebook or whatever while driving across campus.”
“Gus,” said Jensen. “Please.”
“I didn’t hurt that kid,” Gus said. “That punk got what he deserved.”
“His family could sue the university,“ said Emery.
Gus laughed again. He started to argue, but Jensen cut him off by raising her hand.
“Listen,” she said. “Do you want to work here? Because I could fire you before Mike arrests you. I think I would if these… ‘punks,’ as you so affectionately refer to them, didn’t like you so much.”
“My students aren’t punks,” said Gus. “My students are going write the great American novel and keep us from turning this planet in an oven.”
Jensen sighed again. “Be that as it may…” she said.
“Right,” interrupted Emery. “And you’re sure your students aren’t texting and driving.”
Gus backed down. He did want to work at the university. Sometimes it felt like that was all he had. He answered Jensen’s question by agreeing to apologize to the student. 

Gus avoided most of his colleagues and loathed a good many. Although he enjoyed his work and was tacitly grateful that anyone would pay him to do what he did, he never felt totally comfortable among his peers. They all had advanced degrees and talked skillfully, sometimes eloquently, about complex subjects. He, on the other hand, had barely managed to finish college. There were always too many distractions back then.
            Despite this ill-formed, ironic and yet innate contempt of higher education, Gus had fallen in with a cadre of colleagues from the university, most of whom shared his cynical view of the human race. This group included an angry sculptor who reminded him of Jackson Pollock, a criminologist who studied domestic terrorism, two history professors, one of whom was Russian and drank more vodka than Gus, an assistant swim coach and a balding math professor who smoked more pot than his students. There were others too, Goddard before he died, a carpenter who had done home repair for several in the group, and always one or two hacks from the local newspaper.
Gus liked these folks just fine. They played poker on Wednesday nights and drank at Exene’s on the weekends. Sometimes they canoed together in the summer and, depending on the season, attended the occasional ad hoc event, such as a football game or holiday party.
It was at one of these parties, last December, that Gus met Carrie. Gus had consumed a prodigious volume of Gray Goose, as he always felt obligated to do at such events, and he flirted with Carrie after catching her looking at him from across the kitchen. She laughed at his sarcastic jokes and helped him poke fun at the pretentious people surrounding them. Gus liked her, and the next day, while nursing an equally prodigious hangover, he silently cursed himself for forgetting her name.
But this problem was solved when, three days after the party, he received an e-mail from Carrie while he was straining to understand just exactly what a freshman was trying to say in a nearly unreadable essay on gun control.
“Hey Gus,” the e-mail stated. “As you might expect, I think you’re probably an asshole, but I had fun talking to you the other night. Let me know if you’d like to hang out sometime or get your ass kicked at racquetball.”
Gus remembered they had talked about sports, racquetball specifically. Now that right there, he said to himself, is a woman who knows how to communicate.
Gus and Carrie saw a lot of each other after that. If it hadn’t been for the sex, one might describe their relationship as platonic. They shared a bed occasionally, but they didn’t touch otherwise, and they didn’t go out on dates. Nor did they talk about feelings or their respective families, although Gus knew that Carrie had a seven-year-old son, only because she mentioned him one evening when she couldn’t come up with a good excuse for why she couldn’t see Gus.
They played racquetball and tennis, and she even talked him into rock-climbing, which they did once. Gus thought it was okay, even though he was feeling too old for it, a fact he’d never admit to her.
Which is to say that relations between them were light and easy, never any complications. Except for the one time when Gus was coming out of the bathroom, after they had had sex in his apartment, and he heard her on the phone in the kitchen. She was arguing with someone. When he came into the room, she hurried off the phone.
            “Who was that?” he asked.
            “Nobody,” she said.
“Okay,” said Gus, shrugging. “Is everything okay.”
“Yep,” said Carrie.

Two years ago, shortly after Goddard died, the peace and ease of hanging out with his friends was disrupted when one of Gus’s colleagues introduced a new member to the group. At first, Jarod Thoma seemed like a decent guy, interesting at least. As a graduate student at Yale, he had studied under a renowned archeologist who had discovered several small but important sites in the Middle East. In archeology circles, Thoma himself had become somewhat of a name, by proxy more than production, but he had led a few of his mentor’s digs and subsequently authored articles about them. Now Thoma was at the university to make a name for himself, to try to get out from under his mentor’s shadow.
Gus had talked to Thoma a few times and thought he was aloof, except when he was talking about himself and his experiences in the Middle East. Thoma had interesting things to share, but Gus noticed that as soon as someone else tried to insert something, Thoma always brought the conversation back to himself. First it was Yale this and Yale that, and then it was a series of dramatic stories about running into heavily armed soldiers while trying get to a dig in a remote corner of Syria. The soldiers spoke fiercely and gestured wildly, waving their weapons around, Thoma said, but that didn’t stop him and the others from reaching the site and finding important artifacts.
For several months, Gus wasn’t more than mildly annoyed by Thoma. He generally avoided him, but occasionally they occupied the same room. With each encounter, Gus became increasingly intolerant of the younger man, especially since Thoma had shifted his focus from grandiose stories about adventures overseas to near-constant whining about the “podunk” place they lived in. As if someone had forced him to accept the job at the university. When Thoma did this, when he ridiculed the dialect of locals or complained that he couldn’t find a decent bagel in town, most of Gus’s friends laughed politely, but Gus, who had grown up only seventy miles to the north, wouldn’t play along. He never laughed and usually didn’t say anything, but sometimes he responded with a playfully snide comment about how they all couldn’t be as sophisticated as “you god-damned Yankees.”

A month after the incident with the student and the truck, Gus was drinking at Exene’s. He got there early, around 4:30 p.m., and found his favorite seat at the bar. He was vaguely aware that there was supposed be a party there later that night for a colleague who had taken a job and was moving out of state. But that wasn’t why Gus was there. Earlier that day, he’d had an argument with his son, during which he’d said a few regretful things, and now he was at the bar to do one thing: Drink.
As the hours passed, friends trickled in. Most of them said a quick hello or nodded at Gus and then walked past him to one of the pool tables at the end of the bar. Others joined a group at a long table behind Gus’s barstool. Eventually, as the night wore on, Gus’s initial one-man party blended in with the increasingly raucous gathering going on behind him.
Gus hadn’t even seen Thoma enter Exene’s. But at some point, when he was still facing the big mirror behind the bar, Gus heard Thoma’s voice carry over the din. He looked up and saw a reflection of Thoma standing on the far side of the table behind him. Thoma was wearing a black leather coat and waving a heavy mug of beer across the table as he talked too loudly about something Gus was sure he didn’t give a shit about. Thoma had a look on his face like he expected the attention of everyone and knew they would be fascinated by what he had to say.
It was at this this moment – sullen Gus weaving slightly on a barstool, nursing grudges, pissed that he’d had to apologize to the frat dick and trying hard forget mistakes with his son and other loved ones, while observing the obnoxious behavior by someone he felt nothing but contempt for – that Gus should have slid off the barstool and gone home. But he didn’t. He looked away from the image of Thoma, and he ordered another drink.
He stayed there like that, planted on the barstool, getting up only to go to the restroom, for another hour, during which Thoma continued to talk loudly, spouting his worldview and complaining about everything from public transportation to the lack of organic produce at the local grocery. Nothing met his high standards for how a community should operate or how an individual should live a virtuous life.
So Gus had already heard enough when Thoma and another colleague, an equally loud, loquacious guy named Harrison Moore, made their way to the bar and wedged themselves between two stools next to Gus. They had come over to order another pitcher of beer, but the bartender – there was only one working that night – was busy and hadn’t taken their order yet. The two men were tight and boisterous, talking loudly and laughing at every stupid comment each of them made. They had entered that stage of drunkenness when a man isn’t fully aware of his body and crashes into things and people without realizing it. Moore’s fat ass had bumped into Gus three times before he turned around and realized who he was.
“Gus!” slobbered Moore, slapping Gus on the back. “What do you think? We’re trying to talk Thoma here into running for mayor.”
Gus lifted his pint glass and moved it toward his mouth. But he stopped about halfway between the bar and his lips.
“You don’t want to know what I think,” he said.
Thoma heard him and leaned across Moore. “Yeah?” he said. “Come on Gus, tell me what you think. I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”
“All right,” said Gus, setting the glass on the bar. “I think you oughtta shut the fuck up or get the fuck out.”
Thoma tried to act cool. He nodded and squinted and twisted his mouth as if he were thinking, working out a complex multiplication problem without a calculator. But he was clearly agitated, his shoulders and chest twitching enough to make Moore feel crowded and uncomfortable. When Moore shoved his stool back away from the bar, Thoma stepped in between him and the cushioned edge of the bar. He was now closer to Gus, who was looking straight ahead, right into the mirror’s image of his own swollen red face.
“Fair enough,” said Thoma, nodding, pointing his finger at Gus. “Now let me tell you what I think.”
Gus lifted his brow and took a drink. “All right,” he said.
Thoma dropped his hand but moved in even closer to Gus’s head. “I think you oughtta stop fucking my wife,” he said.
            Gus’s brow rose again as he tipped his head back and finished off the beer. He looked surprised but not as surprised as one might think. After this day, after the shitty things he’d said to his son, after thinking again about all the crap he’d put that kid’s mother through, nothing could surprise him.

Gus set the glass down on the bar and slid off the stool, opposite Thoma. When he was steady on his feet, as steady as he could be, he turned and looked at Thoma, who appeared disappointed rather than hostile. His head was tilted, and he was staring back at Gus with an apprehensive grimace, as if he felt sorry for him or perhaps was reminded of some of his own regrets. Gus nodded at Thoma and then squeezed past him and walked outside into the darkness of his life.

___
Matt McGowan has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism, both from the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has been a working as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. Recently, his stories have appeared in Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Open Road Review, Danse Macabre and Indiana Voice Journal.

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