Friday, October 14, 2011

Night Class by Terri Main


As a teacher I always enjoyed teaching night classes. There is something about the active serenity of the campus at night that just calms my soul and reaffirms my joy in education. At least that is how I used to feel until one fall semester twelve years ago.

Although it was called ‘fall’ semester, it began at the peak of Central California summer in mid-August. So, it was still nearly 90 degrees outside as I trudged across campus to “Societal Impact of Paranormal Literature” or, as my colleagues called it, my “Ghosties and Ghoulies 1A” class.

Opening the door I felt the door, I luxuriated for a few seconds in the cool blast of air conditioning, and then walked to the podium where I scanned the class. It was the usual assortment for the G&G class. Bored twenty-something students taking the class to fill in that last lit requirement before graduation, the Goth kids with their spike collars, spike earpiercings and spiked hair, and the reentry students in their thirties to fifties who were probably a mixture of students pursuing a degree and those from the community auditing the class under the college’s “enrichment” program.

I tapped a button on a remote I concealed in my hand. A piercing scream blasted out of the computer speakers. The initial startled response was followed by the equally predictable nervous laughter. Only one person neither jumped nor laughed. He sat still, smiling.

He wore a tweed jacket with brown slacks. His shirt was open at the neck, but he wore a monogrammed ascot of some sort. It would have seemed pretentious on anyone else, but on him it looked perfectly natural. His hair was gray. His skin was beige. His jaw as square and his age indecipherable. He seemed perfectly middle aged, yet both younger and older than that at once.
I stopped staring at the man who stirred feelings in me that an old maid school teacher had almost forgotten existed inside her.

“What scares you?” I began my normal opening day spiel. Silence. Another norm. No one wants to be first.

“Come on, what scares you, Besides being the first to speak up in class.” Nervous laughter.
A cultured voice with a Brittish sounding accent drifted over the crowd. “Loss. Loss is the root of all my fears. Loss of control. Loss of a limb. Loss of life. Loss of family and friends. Sadly, the older I get the more I loose. So the prospect of loss is my worst fear.” I felt almost like the man in the tweed jacket and I were the only two in the room as he spoke. But again my professionalism kicked in. I mentally shook myself and wrote down “LOSS” in capital letters on the board.

“That’s certainly true I think for many of us as we grow older, Mr….? I’m sorry I promise to learn all your names by semester’s end.”

“The name is Collins, Bradford Collins.”

“Collins. I think I can remember that.”

“So who else? What causes you to fear?” The discussion picked up after that with the usual suspects – snakes, slimy things, unearthly things, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, things that go bump in the night, dismemberment and death by torture.

As class wrapped up, I gave the reading assignment for the week – Dracula. May as well start with a classic. The next week we would deal with glittering teenage vampires.

As I was putting my books back in my bag, Bradford Collins stopped by the desk. He stood quietly until I finished my task.

“I don’t know why I bring so many things with me,” I said pushing the last paperback into a hole just a bit too small for it. “I never use half of them. But then if I left half of them home, that would be the half I’d need.”

Collins laughed a deep masculine laugh appropriate to the level of the joke. “I just wanted to say I am looking forward to this class. I am a fan of paranormal literature and you put on a great performance up there tonight. Have you had any acting experience?”

“Only 30 years of teaching. Everyday I go on stage and do my dog and pony show, hoping just a few of the students actually learn something that will stick past the final exam. If one of them does, then I have done my job. However, Mr. Collins, you sound as if you may have spent time in the theatre.”

Collins shrugged, “Oh just one of many jobs I’ve had over the years. I could never seem to settle on any one thing or in any one town. And please call me Bradford. But not Brad, please. I don’t feel like a ‘Brad.’”

I had to agree. It would do a disservice to this sophisticated gentleman to assign a hasty nickname to him. We both stood silent for a moment. Then he said, “Well, I’ll see you next week.” He touched the top of his forehead with two fingers and went out the door. I watched him leave and felt a bit breathless.

Then shook my head. “Come on, Lady. You aren’t 17 and he isn’t THAT good looking.” I took a deep breath picked up my bag and headed out the door.

* * * *

“The Dracula story set up many of the key elements of the literary myth of vampires which survive to this day – The fear of daylight, the drinking of blood, the sleeping in a coffin, the Eastern European origins of the vampire and the nascent sexuality of the vampire…”

“Yeah, so sexy… Yum.” Jennifer was one of those dreamy eyed freshmen who flirted with every male under the age of thirty in the class. “I’d love to have one of them bite my neck.”

After the laughter calmed down, I said. “Well, maybe today’s more tame literary vampires, but the original stories portrayed the vampire as evil incarnate, the bloodsucking undead without souls and thus without conscience.”

“What if the vampire was not the undead?” The rich baritone caught me by surprise.

“What do you mean, Bradford?”

“Well, suppose that he or she was just a different type of creature a different species of human being, say, that stayed hidden except for the legends. He or she might have a soul and a conscience, might he not?”

“Interesting philosophical question. What do you think class?” Knowing better than to ruin a good discussion question with my own opinion, I let the students have at it.

The goth students in the class were very committed to the idea of the undead. They like the idea of power and the supernatural. The students who were more in the science fiction than into horror, seemed intrigued with the idea. Then there were the students were barely stay awake, but that's a common sight in a night class.

After class, Bradford stop by the desk and waited for all the other students to leave. He smiled. "That was very clever how you avoided my question."

"I had hoped that you wouldn't notice. As a teacher, I have to remain mostly neutral. I don't cause the learning to take place as much as I create an environment in which the learning can take place. The more I interject my own personal opinion into the class, the more intimidated the students, particularly the younger ones, become."

Bradford nodded. "Well the students are gone now. What do you really think?"

"About bloodsucking things which may or may not be undead? I am an academic, a scholar. I love reading this literature but I don't believe it. However, if you're asking in general about the possibilities, then I would have to say that anything is possible. It is quite possible that two species developed along parallel tracks throughout history. One might well have needed to feed off of the other. That feeding could have led to the vampire myths. Most legends are rooted in some sort of truth. So I guess it is possible. However if you ask if I believe that, I would have to say no. It is just an interesting speculation."

“I must confess,” Bradford looked down at the floor like a little boy ready to admit breaking a lamp. “I took this class with an ulterior motive. I want to write a novel.”

“About vampires, right?” I smiled and he nodded. “Well, they are a popular topic today. Your idea of a parallel species would be an interesting twist on the subject.”

“Yes, I thought so, too.” Bradford was suddenly animated. While always engaged, in class he was reserved. I could see the passion of a writer in his eyes. “Maybe we could get together for coffee someday, and I could run a few ideas by you. I’d really value your opinion.”

“Why, yes, that would be fine.” To my embarrassment I found myself yawning. “Maybe after next class session. I don’t know why, but I feel a bit sleepy right now.”

I sat down in the chair behind the desk and leaned back. I always feel a little bit tired after a long class session. The teacher gives out so much of herself that at the end of an hour or two you feel completely drained.

"Oh, I'm sorry. You must be exhausted, and I'm tiring you out even more." Before he could say anything Bradford had already exited the room the door closing behind him. He was such an interesting man. Somehow, just thinking about him after he left gave me another burst of energy.

***
“Okay, you have read Dracula and you watched Twilight. Those are two very different takes on the vampire mythos.” As I spoke, I couldn't help directing my words toward Bradford. Meeting for coffee the night before had turned into a full dinner and a five hour conversation about everything from philosophy to the history of the Renaissance. He was well versed on so many subjects. I forced myself to focus on the Goth Girl with the pierced eyebrows in the front row.

“So, what I want you to do is to break up into your small groups put together a short 5-10 minute skit giving a completely new spin on vampires. You'll have the rest of the class session today to plan and then next week, you'll have a half hour to get ready and then you will present to the class.”

It was one of my most popular exercises. Most played it for laughs. Sometimes, though, a group came up with a skit that could actually be the basis of a novel or movie. Brad's group was one of those. The script was short, but complete with a beginning, middle and end. It reflected Brad's idea of vampires as a sub-species of human that originally lived in harmony with humans. They also presented the vampires not a feeding off the blood directly, but from the life force carried in the blood by psychically draining off that life force during the night while the people slept.

The story was of the last vampire and his wandering. Being free of illness, in their story, vampires could only die of extreme violence. Even wounds that would kill most humans didn't affect the vampire making them very long lived. But over time accidents and violence reduced their number to one who mourning the loss of his vampire wife contemplates suicide, but eventually opts for life.

It was poignant and the Terrance, the, young man playing the vampire, really gave the sense of one who had outlived his time. You could see weariness in those young eyes. Brad, didn't take part. He apparently wrote the script.

***
“That was quite a script you wrote last week,” pre-class coffee had become a tradition for Brad and myself. I felt a bit uneasy seeing a student socially, but he was just auditing the class, so there was no real ethical issue involved. Besides, there was something about him. When I was with him, I felt at ease. He had the ability to draw you out and really listen to what you had to say. I guess that's all any of us really want. To be known. To be understood. To be heard. I tried to return the favor, but he was always able to turn the conversation back to me or his novel idea.

“Thanks.” For the first time since I met this man his confidence seemed a bit shaken. “I – I hoped you would like it.”

“I suspect that character is the main character for your novel. Am I right?” His smile was like that of a child who got two gold stars on his paper.

“Yes, I'm thinking of calling the story, The Last Vampire. It will follow the final days of a vampire who had lived since the middle ages and has seen everyone he loved die, who has to live furtively, moving from town to town and place to place, who must be careful not to be around anyone for too many days or he will inadvertently drain that person of their life force. Who just wants to die, but cannot take his own life.”

Sounds like you have given this a lot of thought. It must have taken you hours to build up this alternate species and then make it sympathetic. I would love to read the manuscript when you finish it.”

He smiled an enigmatic smile and nodded, almost shyly. I began to reach across the table to touch his hand when my cell phone beeped. I paused a moment, but my professionalism over rode my passion. And not for the first time.

Hello.” I knew my voice sounded sharp and I didn't care. “Yes. Uh, huh. I understand. Terrance, too? Okay, yes. Take care of yourselves and get some notes from the others when you get back.”

Brad frowned and his eyes narrowed. “What's wrong?”

Oh, nothing much. Apparently, Cindy Lawson, she's one of the members of your group, collapsed. They took her to the emergency room. She was found to be anemic, but she has no history of anemia either for herself or her family. Oddly enough, while she was in the emergency room Terrance was brought in suffering from extreme fatigue.”

Will they be alright?” Brad's concern for his class mates was touching, but not unexpected. He was a gentleman and a gentle man.

Yes, they just need some medicine and bed rest for a few days. That was Cindy calling to tell me she wouldn't be in class tonight.” I slipped the cell back into my purse and glanced at my watch. “We'd better go. Class starts in a half hour.”

Of course, I'll catch up with you,” Brad's voice was shaky and his eyes seemed to focus on something far away. “And Thank you!”

For what?”

The coffee and the conversation.” He said smiling that controled yet sincere smile.

Coffee's cheap and conversation is free. You'll catch the coffee the next time. I've got to run.”

That was the last time I saw him. I fretted all the way through class. By the end of the session, I was exhausted. They picked me up in the hallway and called the EMT's. At the hospital, they said my red blood cell count was down and that I was suffering from anemia related fatigue.

Since I was confined to bed for a few days, I tried to find Brad using my trusty cell phone. The phone number the school had on record returned some beeps and the message that the phone had been disconnected. I called the main office of the apartment complex where he lived. The manager said, he gave his 30 day notice, paid in advance and moved out leaving his furniture and appliances just taking a few personal items.

I tried the hospitals, but no one matching his description had been admitted. In a few days, I recovered and went back to teaching. Student's drop classes all the time. I know this. Yet, Brad, Brad was different. I thought- Well, that was a silly thought for a middle-aged old maid professor. Still I would miss that self-assured presence in the audience.

As the semester wound down and the term papers began to appear in my online in-box, I had almost forgotten about the mysterious man with his lovely idea for a novel. I fumbled for my card key to unlock the door to the faculty mail boxes but the postal carrier took pity on me and used hers to let us both in.

Hey, I've got something for you,” she said as she reached into her cart. She pulled out a stuffy envelope of the sort review copies of textbooks came in. Considering I get 3-4 of those a week, I was unimpressed.

Goody, another textbook to review. Is that all you have?”

That's it. Have a nice day.”

Back in the car, I decided to look at my new “treasure.” I pulled the tab to open the envelope. Oddly enough it had no company logo or forwarding address.

The book slid out. The title froze me in my tracks. It read: The Last Vampire. After staring at the cover for several minutes, I opened the book to the title page and read these words. “Thanks to you, he lives!”

2 comments:

Jim Hartley said...

Very nice. I enjoyed this one.

Terri said...

Thanks, Jim. This one is a stretch for me. I'm much more comfortable with science fiction or mystery, but I like to try new things once in a while. I do like the Name of the Novel.