Morgan's eyes flickered open, and he realized that his naked ass was touching another naked ass under the covers.
Visiting Professor Jay Morgan sat up in bed slowly, tried to remember how he'd hung himself over. The slim girl in a fetal curl under the covers next to him, Annie Walsh, didn't wake. A whole semester had slipped away on his one-year contract at Eastern Oklahoma University before he'd struck pay dirt.
She was nice, young and fit. Eager.
Morgan was short and soft around the middle. His black hair, sharpened into a deadly widow's peak, was long, pulled into a tight ponytail. But he had good cheekbones, and his eyes were a haunting blue. Morgan knew how to flash those eyes at young students.
Last evening's dark blur streaked with neon. The dance club on University Drive. Annie packed tight in denim and a black tank top, red hair shaved close. First-year master's student, a Sharon Olds wanna-be.
Morgan found boxers on the floor, slipped into them. He crept to the kitchen, tile freezing under his bare feet, started a pot of coffee, and watched it drip itself into existence. He filled a mug, drank with his eyes closed.
The phone rang. He grabbed it quickly. "Hello."
"Morgan? It's Dean Whittaker. We had an eight o'clock appointment."
"This is Wednesday."
Morgan's wristwatch said 8:37. "I'll be right there."
Morgan ran in and out of the shower, threw on black pants and a green Hawaiian shirt with a picture of flowered Elvis playing the ukulele. Brushing his teeth almost made him puke. He grabbed his pea coat, shrugged into it.
Oklahoma winter, not so much snow but plenty of ice and cold rain. How had he ended up in this redneck backwater? Oh, yeah. He needed the job. Every year a new campus, the life of a gypsy professor.
A flash of skin caught his eye as he passed through the bedroom. The girl.
He cleared his throat. "I have to go."
"Lock up when you leave, okay?"
He pulled the door closed behind him, groaned his way down the sidewalk, and climbed into his twelve-year-old Buick. He pointed it toward Eastern Oklahoma University's main campus, muttering inventive curses at Dean Whittaker in which the word cocksucker figured prominently.
Morgan stopped at the secretary's desk on the way into the English Department. "We have any aspirin, Tina?"
"I have Motrin in my purse."
He took the bottle from her, spilled five pills into his palm, and swallowed them dry.
"There's a girl here to see you," Tina said.
Morgan turned, fear kicking around in his gut. He thought Annie had somehow--impossibly--raced there ahead of him, coiled to spring charges of sexual misconduct.
It was a different girl, compact, tan, round-faced, and fresh, with black plastic glasses perched on the end of her nose, brown hair wild and shaggy. She bounced out of her chair and offered her hand to Morgan. He took it and shook, squinting at her, hoping to figure out what she was, if he was supposed to know her.
"Professor Morgan, I'm Ginny Conrad."
"Oh." Who? The voice was silky, familiar.
"I'm supposed to do a ride-along." The edges of Ginny's mouth quivered, hinted at a frown. "I'm supposed to follow you around. A day in the life of a poet--for the school paper. Remember?"
"Yes, of course I remember." No he didn't.
Morgan rubbed his temples with his thumbs. He looked at Ginny again, tried to make himself interested. But she had too much on the hips, too fleshy around the neck and cheeks.
"This isn't a good day, Ginny." He didn't have the stomach for questions right now. His head pounded.
A real frown this time from the girl, panic in the eyes. "But I have a deadline. My editor--"
Dean Whittaker leaned out of his office. "Morgan."
Morgan left Ginny standing there, the girl flowing into his wake, "but, but, but . . ." like an outboard motor about to stall. Morgan pulled the dean's office door closed and cut her off.
"Sit down," Whittaker barked. He was a huge man with a big voice. His full black beard, barrel chest, and concrete shoulders made him look like a bear. Whittaker was also interim chair of the English Department until a search committee could find somebody permanent. Whittaker's dissertation had been on ladies' costuming in Elizabethan theater.
Morgan began to lower himself into the overstuffed chair across from Whittaker.
"Not there!" Whittaker yelled.
Morgan leapt aside like he'd been hit with a cattle prod. He looked into the chair to see why he shouldn't sit.
The reason was an old man.
"I'm terribly sorry. I didn't see--I'm just out of it today."
The old man scowled but said nothing. His thin, nearly transparent skin clung to his skull like wet tissue paper. Bald. Small, shrunken inside a brown sweater and a pair of khaki pants pulled up almost to his armpits. A red stone the size of a doorknob on his pinkie finger.
"Take the seat by the bookcase." Whittaker glared.
"Sorry." Morgan squeezed between two giant bookcases. A narrow chair without armrests.
Whittaker sat, pulled at his tie, and fidgeted with a pencil.
"Morgan, this is Fred Jones. He's very generously donated enough money to keep Prairie Music operational for the next ten years."
"That's extremely generous," Morgan said. "Extremely."
And surprising as hell. The university had slashed the budget from under the third-rate literary journal, and it looked like they might have to go from a quarterly to an annual. Or maybe even scrap the journal altogether.
"Mr. Jones is a lover of fine literature and an amateur poet himself," Whittaker said. "He's been working quite hard on his own project, a volume of very personal poetry."
Whittaker was nailing Morgan to the back of his chair with his eyes, and Morgan realized he was supposed to say something about this but hadn't a clue what it should be. He took a shot at it.
"That's great." He nodded, raised his eyebrows to convey deep sincerity. "Absolutely great. I wish more people would develop their creative sides."
It was a fantastic lie. The amateur poet was a cancer. Morgan's brief stints as an assistant editor for a number of literary journals reinforced this belief. Every day he'd arrive at the office greeted by a towering stack of hideous verse. Everyone wrote poetry. Schoolteachers and teenage girls and spotty adolescent boys who couldn't catch a girl's eye. Christian crusaders who dumped their message into abstract verse, old men who committed the birth of the latest grand-offspring to rhyme. Housewives who scrawled their bland, unhappy lives into greeting-card drivel and refused to believe that their lives were as ordinarily miserable as everyone else's. They pressed on, relentless, minds clouded with the delusion that their agonies were somehow special or interesting and must therefore be shared with the world.
And the poetry came in like a flood, a tidal wave. It arrived dozens of pages at a time, folded into sweaty, smudged thirds and overstuffed into flimsy #10 envelopes that burst at the corners. It arrived as a wad of Scotch tape, or held together by string, handwritten in red pen, i's dotted with little hearts.
"I said, what do you think of that, Morgan? Sound okay?" Whittaker eyed him, clearly annoyed.
"Uh . . . that might be okay," Morgan said. He hadn't heard a word. He was too busy picturing a group of beret-clad amateur poets being run down by a team of Clydesdales.
The old man shifted in his seat, glowered at Whittaker, spoke for the first time. "Is this guy on the dope? Don't saddle me with no dopehead." His voice strained like an old sedan trying to crank. A deep Northeastern accent. New York? Philadelphia? Morgan had no idea, but the old man wasn't an Okie, that was for sure.
"You can count on Morgan, Mr. Jones. He's rock solid." Whittaker shot a look at Morgan that said or else.
"That's right," Morgan said. "I was just deep in thought, trying to figure the best way to approach the project."
Fred Jones stood, joints creaking. "It ain't goddamn rocket science." He made for the door.
Whittaker and Morgan stood as well. Morgan opened the door for Jones.
Whittaker said, "Morgan and I will work out the details, Mr. Jones."
"Don't take forever," Jones said without turning. "I'm only getting older." And he was gone, shuffling out of the office and down the hall, an old man a lot bigger than his bones.
"For Christ's sake, Morgan, you could show a little interest." Whittaker flopped back heavy in his chair.
"I'm interested," Morgan said. What the hell did I agree to?
"Jones doesn't think so. You better act fascinated as hell when you see him again. It's not like folks walk in and hand the department a big fat check all the time."
Morgan wondered why he was going to see Jones again. He couldn't ask. Whittaker would know he hadn't been listening. "So how do you suggest going about, uh, the project?"
"The hell if I know. Just keep him happy. Maybe the old buzzard will put us in his will. Don't you have a class?"
Morgan looked at his watch. He did have a class. It had started three minutes ago.
Outside the dean's office he saw Ginny the reporter coming for him with her hand raised. Fortunately, the department was crowded with undergrads trying to get their schedules changed before the end ...