The Former Teen Detective and the Workshop Plot
By Patrick Thomas Henry
Dr. Falconer balances her story on his fingertips, the pages a bleached plateau flecked with the coal-dark nuggets of her words. The horn buttons on the cuff of Falconer’s tweed blazer are the bronze of mellowed honey. The story looks heavy as a sepulcher’s lid, a grim slab that conceals corpses and conspiracies. She’d seen enough of those, investigating the basements of quaint Massachusetts bungalows, against her father’s wishes.
Falconer clears his throat and sucks his teeth, just like her father does. There’s no way in hell she’s taking notes now. She pulls her hair into a bun and secures it with her only pencil.
“Nancy, we need to level with you,” Falconer says. “Plaid, pleated skirts and pressed blouses? Letterman jackets with the sleeves rolled to the elbows? In a modern-day Massachusetts town? Pah.”
Her classmates titter; her vision narrows to a pinprick.
Falconer says, “Cartoony. For Archie and the Riverdale gang, it’s at least part of the aesthetique.”
Dr. Falconer hisses aesthet-, then clips hard on the -ique: the word a short and beautiful fuse, building to a dud explosive.
She purses her lips. She knows how he plucked the allusion to Riverdale from the ether: a month ago, after the English department’s reception for new majors, she and her roommate tailed Falconer to his open-concept manse on the peak of a mountain outside the bucolic town. They spied from the hedges, as he reclined in his lush armchair and excised words from student manuscripts (with a bright green pen—red is so scarring). His stepdaughter, a classmate of theirs in Brit Lit I, was lying on her stomach and ogling the gothic neon-and-grit of the CW’s aesthetique. For a different man, the Riverdale reference would’ve been a bit of ore collected from the students’ pre-class banter, the details then mined from a spelunk down the hyperlinked shafts of io9 or—better—a review on The Washington Post.
He double-taps the table with his green pen. She’s seen his own manuscript, the pages splayed on his office desk and scribbled with jade shimmery as blood, like a cliché alien pulled asunder on the rack. He has a three-by-five card taped to his door, which reads, The evidence trail of revision is sacred.
For all his conviction, he’d make a terrible criminal.
Dr. Falconer waits for a response. The class shuffles in their seats, a cascade of denim and sweatpants and cashmere abrading hard-plastic seats. The ceiling vents hum. Her classmates smack their lips.
His stepdaughter is waiting in the hall, Nancy knows. Every time the ponytailed silhouette glides along the pebbled glass, it’s Falconer’s stepdaughter, a harlequined shadow biding the minutes till class is over. Nancy’s seen them crossing the sidewalks of the picturesque quad together, heads bowed in the kind of philosophical debate that can occur only in daylight, and only under the broad awning of the campus’s shade maples.
Dr. Falconer strikes his pen against the conference table’s edge. His questions lodge like pickaxes in the stale air. He is boring down on them, drilling them with silence, until someone offers a nugget of critique. Their nibbled-on lips, their creased brows, their frantic swipes at the screens of their phones—someone will break and he’ll get what he wants.
“Page seventeen, then. We’ve got Brett in the cellar of Mr. Tomlinson’s Victorian—too many Victorians, Nancy, not everyone can have one—and when he pans his flashlight over to Carolyn she’s thumbing through the dusty photo album. Brett says, ‘What have you got there, Carrie?’ But doesn’t that seem so mannered, to you? If Brett . . .”
It’s enough; her peers scab on her. Open the caskets. Give Brett a scar. Maybe Carrie’s pregnant and this is the only time she can tell Brett. Oh, oh, what if—
She slips her feet from her Birkenstocks, and her toes curl into the conference room carpet. Monroe Falconer—fucking Professor of English Monroe Falconer. A name like that has a bottle of Glenfidditch and a few glasses, clouded from use, hidden in a desk drawer. It’ll be three years before she can confirm that hunch on her commencement day: she’ll be seated across from Monroe Falconer, both in academic regalia. Her father will be there, a retired detective with a combover the color and texture of steel wool and a serge suit shiny at the elbows and knees. Falconer will pour them each a glass so they can toast her graduation and the placement of her first story in an online rag called Calamity Bungalow. It’ll appear beside a reprint of a Joyce Carol Oates story, which’ll earn her a certain notoriety in her MFA cohort.
But that’s still years off.
Falconer is still holding the frail plateau of her pages up. Now he’s chiseling the nub of his pen in the laminate tabletop. Under his dictation, the story’s walls crumble into gravel, Brett becomes the kind of man who extinguishes cigarettes in half-empty Coors cans and collects handguns, Carolyn becomes Cassandra because “Cassie” has a modernité that a “Carrie” never could, and all her retro pleated skirts get traded in for a denim pencil skirt, a camisole that’s see-through in a certain light and a peep of her bra’s lace trim, just the way Falconer likes, and when Cassie’s cold she’ll pilfer Brett’s battered and cracked bomber jacket, along with the Beretta and Camels in the inside pockets. Then, at the story’s end, they break up after a night of hollow, unprotected sex in which nobody considers the risk of pregnancy, also—the former teen detective suspects, no, knows—the way Falconer likes it.
And she’ll hate the story more, for all that.
When the workshop ends, her toes burn from hooking into the carpet; she slides her feet back into her Birkenstocks and smooths the pleats of her skirt. Everyone else leaves before Falconer and her. Falconer puts a broad palm on the small of her back and ushers her out.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the fiction and poetry editor at Modern Language Studies. His work has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Passages North, Longleaf Review, and Landlocked, amongst others. He’s a Teaching Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Creative Writing at the University of North Dakota. Find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.