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?”

“Campeche.”

“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.”