by David Schweidel
For Philip Levine
We were telling stories of work, a litany of indignities and disasters, acts of revenge, moments of unexpected kindness or connection. I knew immediately the story I wanted to tell, but I didn’t know how to tell it — an embarrassing confession, given that I teach Creative Writing.
The first class I ever taught in Berkeley, on the last night of the term, a student named X (okay, not his real name) brought in a pink cardboard cake box, which he set down on the gray desk at the front of the room and deftly deconstructed to reveal a round, single-layer cake glazed in thick chocolate, gleaming oddly in the unflattering fluorescent light.
“For everyone,’ X said.
He’d also brought paper plates, plastic forks, and a sharp knife with which he sliced thin pieces that he handed out, a few at a time, to every classmate.
The last piece he gave to me, without saving one for himself.
“Enjoy,’ he said.
I looked around the room. Not a single student had taken a bite.
Every one of them, I had the uncanny feeling, suspected the cake was poisoned.
Years before the case of the possibly poisoned cake, I’d had a particularly vivid dream in which I was a student in an art class. Think adult education, rickety easels, buzzing fluorescent lights. Other students had brought in food to share: casserole dishes, store-bought cookies, veggies on a plate. Evidently, it was the last night of the term, and everyone was milling around. A very pale woman came my way with a tray of devilled eggs that looked too perfect. The whites were too white, the yellows too yellow, the paprika — or was it cayenne? — too intensely red. The woman herself had spiky hair and wore black lipstick. The teacher, also a woman, reached for a devilled egg, but then hesitated. Her hand hovered over the tray.
“Don’t eat them,’ I said. “They’re poison.’
I was trying to make a joke, diffuse the tension, cover the awkwardness of the teacher’s uncertain hand adrift in midair, but the pale woman serving the devilled eggs gave me a look of such powerful hatred that it jolted me awake.
The devilled eggs wound up in a short story — “Lucky and Unlucky Mean the Same Thing,’ published, eventually, in the Kansas Quarterly. I started teaching Creative Writing. Think adult education, buzzing fluorescent lights — but no easels.
The first class I taught in Berkeley, on the very first night, a student named X politely raised his hand and asked if I ever got story ideas from dreams. I described the devilled egg dream and the story that came out of it while X nodded with great enthusiasm. He looked like an Iowa farm boy, collared shirt, conservative haircut, missionary gleam in his brilliant blue eyes.
After class, he lingered. He’d just graduated from Berkeley, he told me. He was a poet, but he wanted to write short stories like no one had written before.
I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I probably said something eloquent and inspiring, like “Go for it!’
The first assignment was to write two openings for the same basic story. I’d discovered earlier in my teaching career that if you asked for one opening, some students would obsess, get paralyzed, and not write a word. But if you asked for two openings, both became provisional, and thus much easier to write. Students always arrived at the second class with at least one.
My usual routine was to have students pair up, read each other’s openings, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, focusing on strengths and ways to improve. The class would be silent while everyone read, then a voice or two would pipe up, and soon the room would buzz with ten excited conversations. I’d wander from pair to pair, listening in, making sure everyone was clicking. X’s partner was a woman in her late 40s who had an administrative job at the university. If she indicated discomfort, I missed the signal.
The next step was to ask a few students to read their preferred opening, and then ask for the partner’s feedback, before hearing from the rest of the class.
When I called on X, he launched into his reading with gusto. Turned out he’d written a complete story, flash fiction ahead of its time. What stands out in memory is that the first person narrator, a man, brutally murders a woman in her apartment, defecates on a plate, and puts the plate in the microwave oven.
While X was reading, I tried to think of what I should say, but when he finished, I simply turned to his partner and asked the usual question: “So what feedback did you have for X?’
The woman looked at me, looked at X, and said, “I thought the poop on the plate was a bit over the top.’
A few weeks later, when X’s first full-length story came up for discussion, he arrived at class with a freshly shaved head, wearing a white T-shirt and an old tuxedo he later told us he’d bought that day at a secondhand store. His story was about a boy who spontaneously caught fire and had no control over when he’d ignite. It had elements of violence and misogyny, but the boy was as much a victim as the other characters, and the writing was powerful, poetic, and funny in a way that elevated the piece far above the poop-on-the-plate saga, which itself had sparked a useful discussion about the difference between shock-for-shock’s-sake and shock in the service of a greater purpose.
X’s second full-length story presented a series of vividly depicted scenes of rape and murder. The perpetrator was always a man, the victim was always a woman, and the violence was always extreme. Instead of letting X submit the story to the class, I asked him to write an aesthetic statement explaining what he wanted the story to accomplish.
X missed the next few classes. When he finally returned, he told me he was hard at work on the aesthetic statement, reading Bret Easton Ellis and the Marquis de Sade. He said he’d written 30 pages, but wasn’t nearly done. I didn’t see him again until the last class, when he served that cake with the thick chocolate glaze that shined like the witch’s apple in Snow White.
I don’t know how to tell this story because I don’t know what it’s really about — except that moment, which had moved from dream to fiction to reality, just another night in the classroom, under fluorescent lights, the moment of choice between consuming possible poison or refusing to play along, despite the rudeness, the violation of decorum.
I looked down at the cake, out at the class, over at X, who smiled beatifically, and then I forked off a little piece, lifted it into my mouth, chewed and swallowed.
The cake was too rich for my taste, but it didn’t kill me, nor did it make me stronger. It did, however, make me more aware of my weakness, and maybe even of my strength. And isn’t that the beauty of work?