Barry Vitcov lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife and two standard poodles. He started writing poems in his early teens and fondly remembers his father carrying around a small collection of his poems in his billfold and showing them off to his friends and customers. During his professional career as a teacher and school administrator, he wrote very little poetry or fiction, as he was immersed in his work. Retirement has changed that, and now he’s back at uncovering his writing voice again.
Max lived a simple life. The small closet in his one-bedroom apartment reflected his minimalist beliefs. Long-and short-sleeve blue and white cotton dress shirts, tan pants, two blue and three black blazers, one navy blue suit, seven red ties, and three pair of dress shoes made up his entire work wardrobe. For weekend wear, there hung two pair of Levis, four T-shirts, one V-neck black sweater, one red cardigan sweater, a yellow and green Hawaiian shirt given to him by his mother on his thirty-third birthday, a pair of all-white New Balance sneakers and a pair of flip flops. At six foot four and exactly two hundred pounds, Max’s clothes hung loose and straight, and, to his colleagues at the small college at which he taught English literature, seemed perfectly in keeping with his personality.
Every morning at precisely 5:30 AM, National Public Radio woke Max. He would remain in bed through the news update, then rise, slip into his jogging clothes, and run the same three-mile loop he had run for the past five years. After shaving and showering, a breakfast of rye toast, vanilla yoghurt, three stewed prunes, black tea, and a multi-vitamin, Max would read the New York Times and five poems from the frayed Norton Anthologies he had first used as an undergraduate at the same college where he was now a tenured full professor. At thirty-five, he was the youngest tenured professor at this Midwestern, ivy-covered college.
Students enjoyed Max’s classes. They found his lectures interesting and the questions he posed intriguing. The serious students imagined Max to have a casual and uncluttered academic life. Less serious students fantasized a romantic relationship with him. After all, Max was a handsome man bordering on prettiness. His blonde hair stylishly a bit out of place, bluish eyes that always seemed actively engaged, an easy smile filled with genuine sincerity, and a relaxed gait that made it easy to keep up with him on walks across campus. Acquaintances were never sure if Max's bent was towards men or women. This was a part of his life that Max kept completely private. It might have surprised some to know that he was heterosexual. Although he was not currently involved, there had been five women in his life. And each relationship, with the first being in graduate school, was kept mutually discreet to ensure respect for his lover and privacy for Max. After completing his daily college duties, Max would stop at the University Diner for dinner. He always sat at the same window booth, which had become known as Max’s Booth. Karen Allensworth served him every day except when she had a commitment with her school-aged son. Max ordered one of three meals. His first choice, if it was fish, was the daily special. Otherwise, it was sirloin tips over egg noodles with a green salad and bleu cheese dressing on the side, or a chicken cutlet without gravy and a cup of the soup-of-the day, unless it was a creamed soup, and then he would have a green salad with Thousand Island dressing on the side. With his meal, he drank two glasses of unsweetened iced tea with lemon and had one cup of black coffee and apple pie for dessert. After dinner, Max walked to the college library, where he wrote in his journal, read obscure poems, and chatted with the serious students until 9:00 PM, when he walked home and retired for the evening. The only exception to Max’s weekday routine occurred on the third Wednesday evening of each month, when he would hold court with interested students at the Village Pub. Over beers, pickled eggs, and pretzels, Max and the serious students would engage in debate over some unresolved issue that had come up in class. On weekends, Max cooked for himself.
It was on one of those Wednesdays when Jill Templeton walked through the pub’s front door, purposefully approached Max, pulled a small caliber pistol from her purse, and shot him in the head. Max fell to the floor. Jill Templeton turned and walked out the door to the nearby police station, where she reported her crime and was arrested. In the meantime, an ambulance responded and whisked Max off to the hospital where he lay with tubes and breathing devices keeping him alive. Medical tests determined that he was not brain dead. Apparently, the bullet was not powerful enough to obliterate brain functioning, but it was lodged in a place where it could not be removed.
While Max remained in the hospital, Jill Templeton’s trial was speedy one. She pled guilty and explained that she was one of the few students who had failed one of Max’s English literature classes. She told how she had offered sexual favors in exchange for a passing grade but had been spurned. Her attorney convinced the judge that she was clearly a deeply disturbed young woman and ought to be committed to a psychiatric facility.
Thinness was a genetic trait that ran in Max’s family. Every day of his hospital stay, his thin, sixty-year-old mother visited from 11:00 AM until 3:00 PM. His thin father had died in a fiery accident as an amateur sports car racer when Max was ten years old. He had no siblings and his mother never remarried. His mother always brought a bag lunch, usually egg or tuna salad on white bread, an orange or apple, and two Oreo cookies. The nurses would bring her apple juice or water, which she drank out of the serving container.
Max did not inherit his imagination. His mother and father led ordinary, plain lives. His father owned a gas station and purchased an extravagant amount of life insurance that served his mother well. His mother never held a job outside their tidy, cottage-style home. She dutifully cared for Max through his undergraduate schooling and she belonged to the same women’s service club for almost forty years. Max’s imagination emerged in early adolescence when he began writing poetry. With his father gone, his mother would sit at the dinner table and listen as Max read his daily poems. She would silently affirm his efforts with nods and smiles. His mother never fully understood his obscure metaphors and references. When Max left for graduate school, he and his mother kept in touch with weekly letters, hers mailed on Friday and received by Monday; his sent on Tuesday and received on Thursday. Only visits home on observed holidays broke the routine. Well-crafted words defined this mother-son relationship better than promises and feelings.
While Max lay in his coma, Jill Templeton sat incarcerated in a ten-by-ten-foot room in a psychiatric hospital surrounded by lush woods and a twenty-foot security fence. She was awakened each morning, had breakfast among fifty other criminally insane patients with whom she had no ongoing relationships, attended a one-hour group therapy session, walked the grounds when the weather cooperated, ate lunch with the same fifty criminally insane patients, and retired to her room to spend two hours writing letters to Max. At 3:00 PM she had a one-hour private therapy session with a staff psychologist, at which time she delivered her daily letter to Max hoping it would be mailed. The psychologist dutifully made note of each letter and turned it over to the staff psychiatrist for analysis and feedback. The letters were never mailed.
Jill Templeton could best be described as cute and bouncy. She was twenty-eight, red haired, with a perfect complexion and a slender, well-proportioned body. In high school she was a cheerleader who never dated. She learned early on to sit at the front of the classroom, smile, raise her hand, and reply to questions even if she didn’t know the answers. She always stayed after class to ask a question or two. She was what teachers would describe as a polite and ideal student. Although she didn’t do well on tests, she turned in all her homework and excelled at participation. In return, she received grades good enough to gain entry into college even though her college entrance exams were below the norm. Jill’s parents, neighbors, and friends could not understand why she would shoot a college professor. They collectively believed that Max must have done something to incite Jill to such gruesome action.
In his coma, Max began to dream. All of the dreams involved Jill. The first was a replaying of Jill walking into the pub. At that moment, Max hadn’t recognized Jill, even when he saw her pull the pistol from her purse, aim, and shoot. In his dream, he saw Jill enter in slow motion wearing a pink cashmere sweater, blue jeans, clogs, and carrying a black tote-style purse. He watched her walk towards him, reach into her purse, pull out the pistol, and fire. He saw the bullet leave the barrel and strike him in the forehead. He felt nothing but watched as the serious students screamed; their mouths wide open, and saw Jill turn to walk out the door after dropping the pistol on the black-and-white linoleum floor. Max played this dream like a video loop for months.
Doctors would tell his mother that his brain was still very much alive and that there was evidence from both brain wave activity and rapid eye movements that he was dreaming. They encouraged his mother to talk to Max as much as she was comfortable. She began writing letters to Max and reading them to him later. She would three-hole punch the letters and place them in a binder. She believed that, should he recover from his coma, the letters would serve to fill in the history of his long sleep.
In the meantime, Jill’s letters, which had begun as long apologies, were turning into love letters. They began as a simple wooing gesture. She wrote about flirting with Max in class, and how she would answer a question from the lesson’s literature assignment by doing what romance novels had instructed: look up from her book with come-hither eyes, moisten her lips with a swirl of her tongue, and softly say that she couldn’t remember. She wrote long descriptions of how she dressed to seduce Max. She described a life that they might have together in a romanticized future, and slowly her letters evolved into highly erotic descriptions of an on-going honeymoon. The more Jill wrote, the more connected she felt to Max. She thought of the ink flowing from her pen into Max’s veins as a life-sustaining plasma.
Max’s dreams about Jill began to change. At first, he heard Jill’s apologies as whispers. With each new apology and description of her own condition, her voice became louder and clearer. Max found himself seeing Jill in her own deep sleep – unable to be free of her own circumstances. Max imagined his own letters in reply to Jill’s long narratives. He would ask for Jill to clarify her motivation for injuring him. He would describe his own disconnected state and inform – and later remind - her that she was his only link to the outside world. Each new response from Jill brought him comfort. Max grew increasingly sympathetic to Jill’s isolation.
As Jill’s letters became more sexually explicit, a new video loop in Max’s brain took on highly-charged romantic overtones. He vividly saw himself and Jill meeting for sexual trysts at fancy hotels and weekend stays at country inns. Evidence of these new dreams showed as increased brain wave activity and visible erections. The dreams grew in intensity for most of the second year of his coma.
Jill wrote ninety-nine letters. Her last letter to Max was a suicide note. In it she apologized again for the pain she had caused. She described her longing for him and the belief that they would one day meet in heaven. On the day Jill hung herself, Max awoke.
Several months later, after undergoing extensive voice and physical therapy, Max was back at the college teaching serious and less serious students. He resumed his regular rituals. One day, he sat at his usual booth at the diner. Only this time he was joined by his mother. She was sharing the binder filled with the letters she had written during Max's hospital stay. Max had ordered chicken noodle soup and salmon patties. His mother chose an egg salad sandwich and an iced tea. As Max flipped through his Mother's letters, he was approached by one of his less serious students. She politely leaned over and whispered into Max' ear. He considered her request and decided to meet with her later in the week.
When Max's mother inquired about the young women, Max informed her that she was the friend of a very dear, departed friend.