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Back to School by Ian Woollen

Our Illinois college town was a complicated organism, the busy campus of Prairie State, way more than an educational institution. It functioned as a diffuse ecosystem that sustained the livelihoods of shuttle bus drivers, secretaries, and bartenders. Like the tall pine-oak on the courthouse square, its roots spread deep and wide and infested the foundations of everything; the local real estate market, for example. The hulking Varsity Villa Apartments around the football stadium and adjacent student ghettos, those seedy bungalows with sagging couches on the front porch.

As part of this system, the rental-unit maintenance workers survived by mowing the lawns, repairing the plumbing, and fixing broken windows when the parties got too rowdy, like oxpeckers feeding off the hide of the hippo; one guy, in particular, Delmar Cobb.

Delmar was a fixture on South Lincoln Street. He wore the same clothes every day. A black watch cap, baggy gray painter pants, and a checked flannel shirt, all tenuously held together with red suspenders. His body was oddly shaped and appeared to be missing the posterior region. His pants drooped down straight from the waist in the rear. As the tenants often commented, it looked like his ass had slid around front to become his protruding gut. Whenever he caught one of the students giving him a double-take, he’d point to his missing behind and say, “This is what happens when you work your butt off, week in and week out without a vacation.”

No one knew where Delmar lived. Possibly, in the back of his rusted step-van stuffed with tools, fuses, mouse traps, duct tape, and two 40-foot aluminum extensions strapped on the roof rack. The passenger seat was occupied by abandoned textbooks, retrieved from the sidewalk after graduation weekend. He perused the books that he saved from the dump, and though not fully digesting the material, he could regurgitate names and dates. He liked factoids.

“William Tecumseh Sherman had three horses shot out from under him by nine o’clock in the morning on the first day at Shiloh.”

Did Delmar know he was a “character?” Sure. Did he play it up? Sure. But, he also refused to be taken in by the whiners who called him “Gramps,” who complained about renter’s insurance, or the seductive, underage sophomores who tried to get him to buy spiced rum at the corner liquor store.

Delmar took care of the labyrinthine Victorian mansions in the 1200 block of Lincoln Street, carved into apartments. They housed various grad students, but lately, the upstairs units had seen a succession of undergraduate theater majors. The owner had retired to Florida last year. He put his portfolio into the hands of a property management agency with the proviso that Delmar Cobb remains on salary; because he was a reliable asset who wasn’t scared of climbing up on a ladder to replace the steep, slate roof tiles.

Delmar sort of haunted the place. He showed up at all hours and not necessarily to work. Suddenly, there he was in the backyard after supper with a hedge trimmer, sculpting the elderberry. And there he was on the porch, homecoming weekend, mingling with the visiting parents and sipping beer from a keg, tossing in a few opinions on the topic of…whatever the topic was.

Delmar billed himself as a cautionary tale for higher education gone awry. ##“Beware of taking those ‘incompletes,’ fellas. You’ve heard of the five-year plan? Well, I’m on the twenty-five-year plan.”

“In the School of Hard Knocks?” asked Angel, one of the punk theater majors. Pink streaked ponytail.

These theater types could be mouthy.

Delmar shrugged and nodded. “Sometimes it feels that way.”

“Not that I would know anything about it,” Angel said, “That’s why I moved off-campus. My acting teacher says I need a taste of real life. More grit, more gravitas.”

“Be careful what you ask for,” Delmar said, “You could start by washing the bubblegum stains out of your hair.”

Angel surprised him by actually doing it.

The next time he encountered her in the alley at the recyclables dumpster, her hair was pure black.

“It’s my natural color. A gift from my mother,” Angel said, “She’s Mexican, and she accuses me of trying to cover that up.”

“Okay then,” Delmar said and grinned. His smile revealed a couple of missing teeth. “Where is your mother from in Mexico?”


“The old pirate port.”

“How do you know that?” Angel asked.

Delmar shook his head. “Anymore, I’m not sure how I know these things. Could be a course I once took, could be a magazine article. Could be aliens invading my brain.”

“Hate it when that happens,” Angel said. She tossed her bag full of jars and bottles into the bin. It boomed and echoed.

“FYI, a word of warning on unexpected tastes of real life,” Delmar said, “Homeless people roam this alley, and sometimes one will climb into the bin to get out of the rain for the night. It can be surprising to realize that a human being is down in there, underneath the stuff you just threw in.”

Angel rose on her painted toes and peered into the recyclables bin. She turned to Delmar. Her eyes widened. “I’m going to climb in,” she said, “I’m going to climb in and see what it feels like. I can use this in my improv class.”

“I don’t understand,” Delmar said.

“It’s research,” Angel said.

“It’s nuts,” Delmar said, “They give you a degree for this?”

“Please, just watch me,” Angel said, “Five minutes. I might need your help getting out.” She hoisted herself up, over the rim, and burrowed down under the mound of plastic jugs and glass jars and bottles. She was small enough to disappear under the debris.

Delmar shook his head and waited while she conducted her research. This situation only further confirmed his view that higher education just wasn’t what it used to be: grade inflation, trigger warnings, and such. Periodically, Delmar considered going back to finish in the continuing education program. He was only five credits short. But, receiving a degree now would be meaningless in this ersatz age. Like being a mail-order preacher. For Delmar Cobb, flunking out twenty years ago had paradoxically become a mark of academic distinction. Delmar viewed his last submitted anthropology paper as a badge of honor. “Extremely well-written bullshit – F.” Such a thing could not happen today. The professors were too worried about their ratings.

In the second week of October, Delmar received a call forwarded by the management agency to the maintenance line. It was from Angel, reporting a leaky faucet. To her credit, most of the students ignored leaky faucets and let them drip. Also, when Delmar arrived at Angel’s apartment, huffing and puffing up the backstairs with a tool case, he saw that Angel had tried to repair the faucet herself. She’d made a mess of it, but she’d tried.

“Let me guess,” Delmar said, “More research.”

“My mother used to chide my dad for not knowing how to fix anything. And after he died, she claimed all she wanted was to find a man who could fix a leaky faucet.”

“Hey, maybe I’m her guy,” Delmar said.

Angel giggled a little too loud and too long.

“It’s not that funny,” Delmar said.

“Sorry. Do you want some coffee?”

“No. Thanks.”

Concerned that she had offended him, Angel hovered and chirped and chatted about making herself comfortable in her “new nest.” She’d snipped a few late-season zinnias from the community garden plots and put them in a juice glass on the kitchen table. The walls were decorated with framed theater posters. Most of them were from plays her department had mounted since her arrival on campus.

“We’re doing a musical in the spring, and I’m hoping to land a lead. I can really belt. My voice teacher says I’m nailing the onsets.”

She’d had a couple of minor roles so far and worked in the costume shop. She liked walking to campus instead of taking the bus. It gave her some exercise and a chance to peek into windows.

Angel insisted on making a fresh pot of coffee while Delmar replaced the gasket. It only took about fifteen minutes.

“I love his house. It’s so spooky. Do you know who lived here originally?”

“A railroad baron.”

“Oh, my God. A railroad baron. That is so cool,” Angel gushed.

“Not when you know what happened to him.”

“Please don’t tell me that he hanged himself in my bedroom.”

“No. He went on a hunting trip to Africa and got eaten by a lion.”

“You’re making this up.”

“It’s a known factoid.”

Angel sipped her coffee studiously. “I don’t mean to pry, but what actually happened that made you drop out of college?”

“Cherchez la femme,” Delmar answered.

“That’s not what I expected you to say.”

“Recovery can take a long time.”

“With so many classes online now, you could finish your degree without being on campus. You wouldn’t have to see her.”

“Seeing her is not the issue,” Delmar said, “Besides, I hate computers.”

The “femme” was his late mother. A farm wife until the farm was lost. To parry Angel’s question, which he’d endured many times before from tenants, Delmar used the French quip to imply something more romantic. The reality was much more mundane. No one deserved to die alone. When Mother got sick with her final illness (she was always joking about her “final illness,” and this one turned out to be it), Delmar vowed to stay at her side. It was only supposed to be one semester. But, things went on longer and uglier than expected. Up close and personal, Delmar witnessed and experienced his mother’s bodily decay and demise in ways that just made it hard to go back to class.

He did not reveal any of this to Angel. For the next few weeks, alone in his step-van, driving back and forth to Lowe’s and Home Depot for plumbing supplies and such, he heard himself trying to explain the situation to her in his mind. It unnerved him to be thinking about his beleaguered mother again. He stayed away from the apartment house for a while. He neglected some duties. Leaves covered the yard, and the annual HVAC switchover and filter replacement did not happen at the end of October.

Angel went on a quest looking for Delmar and his missing van. She considered him a mentor. So instead of strolling north toward campus, she headed south on long walks that took her into sections of town that students rarely visited. The grain silos and train yards and the industrial park. Catcalls outside the biker bar on Dixie Street. Panhandlers from the shelter behind the church on River Avenue.

Further south, across the river, she wandered into a trailer court called “Harvest Acres.” Most of the trailers were jacked up on concrete block platforms with jerry-rig porches and patios attached. She saw a little girl arranging her dolls in circles on a pile of gravel beside a ditch. Finally, Angel found Delmar’s van parked on the diagonal in a small, muddy lot in the back.

Bedsheets for window shades, pots of plastic roses, and milk crate steps leading to the door. Angel knocked and waited.

“Who is it?” Delmar’s voice sounded.

“Your friend,” Angel said.

“I don’t have any.”

“I’m the friend you didn’t know you had,” Angel said.

She heard him fumbling with several locks.

“What are you doing in these parts?” Delmar asked.

“I was getting worried about you. Your van hasn’t been around,” Angel said.

He stood in the doorway, arms akimbo. He was wearing a pink apron covered in floral print.

“Are you a cross-dresser? Is that your big secret?” Angel asked.

“A lot of guys wear aprons when they cook,” Delmar countered.

“What are you cooking?”

“Peanut butter and jelly. You want some?”

They sat together on the couch and ate sandwiches off paper plates. TV Guide magazines littered the glass coffee table. Both Angel and Delmar seemed a bit nervous as they permanently crossed boundaries. It took a few minutes to realize that there would be no going back. Angel glanced around and said, “It looks like this trailer is where your mother lived.”


“And after she passed away, you couldn’t bear to change a thing,” Angel continued.

“You’re very observant,” Delmar said.

Angel pointed to the spinet against the far wall, partially hidden by more stacks of magazines.

“She played the piano?”

“In a manner of speaking. She knew about five songs that she banged out over and over.”

“I’d probably react the same too,” Angel said, “If my mom died, I’d react the same way.”

Delmar sighed and relaxed a bit. At some level, he felt grateful to Angel for normalizing his grief. All the phony explanations and defensive jokes could be dispensed with now. Poof! Over and done. A large, round wall clock with songbirds positioned at each number sounded the hour.

Angel glanced at her wristwatch and said, “I’ve got a class in thirty minutes.”

Delmar said, “I can give you a ride back to campus if you want.”

“That would be cool,” she said, “To ride in your van.”

“I’ll need to clear some stuff off the passenger seat,” Delmar said.

Angel waited indoors while he removed several dusty volumes and carried them onto the coffee table.

“Your thing with castaway books is like your mom and her magazines,” she said.

“Yeah, she actually read every page of them,” Delmar said, “I just rely on the osmosis method.”

He drove slowly up Central Avenue, hitting all the red lights, but that was okay. They both rolled down their windows and stuck out their elbows. Angel asked to be dropped off at the auditorium. Instead of pulling up under the curved portico, Delmar parked across the street in the Student Union lot. “Thanks, this is good,” Angel said and jumped out.

Delmar pushed open his door and climbed out too. He stretched and swung his arms and reached for the clasp on his suspenders and tightened them up. Angel misunderstood his intentions. “You don’t have to walk me,” she said, “I know how to get there.”

“I had a class once in the auditorium,” Delmar said, “in that lecture hall at the back, the one with the arched windows that look out on the duck pond.”

“With the creaky wooden seats.”

“I might just go have a look at it again,” he said.

The hall was empty, except for a flood of sunlight. Streaks of light crisscrossed the rows of study seats, each with a tabletop panel folded down at the side. Delmar entered like he was sneaking into a forbidden area. He eased down into a spot in the back row. Creak, creak. After a couple of tense minutes, his breathing gradually slowed and deepened. The silence in the large hall began to feel safer, inviting even. Delmar got up and moved forward to a seat in the middle row. He stretched his legs out into the aisle. After a couple more minutes, he got up again, moved to the front row, and sat up straighter, with his head cocked, as if listening to an imaginary lecture.

An hour later, the door at the back of the hall banged open. Busted! Oh, well. Delmar turned around to accept his fate.

“You’re still here!” Angel called.

“Just doing some research,” Delmar said.

“Good news. I got the female lead,” Angel said. She skipped down the aisle toward him.

“Congratulations, kid,” Delmar said, “You deserve it.”

“Plus, I get two comp tickets to every performance,” Angel said, “You’ll come, right. You’ll come see my show?”

“Who gets the other comp? Your mother?”

“She’s booking a room at the Union, and she’s coming every night and also for the matinees.”

“Do I have to flirt with her?” Delmar asked.

Angel said, “No. Just be yourself.”


Ian Woollen lives and writes in Bloomington, Indiana. Recent short fiction has appeared in Split Lip, Moon City Review, and Fiction Southeast. A new novel, SISTER CITY, is just out from Coffeetown Press

Art by Gabriela Knutson


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