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SECOND LIEUTENANTS OF LITERATURE / Thomas Zigal THE PHONE WAKES ME. I fumble across her sheeted body to lift the receiver. It's my old friend from the Writing Program, eighteen years now, a time before the boom. The younger practitioners consider us rugged precursors, treat us with deference, as though we deserve preservation. "I've got another one for you, if you want it," my friend chirps. For several years he has been the placement director for the Conference Circuit. We once taught together at a woodsy Uberai arts coUege in California (or was it the one in Oregon?), before we both gave up the aspiration. As I recaU, he won an O. Henry that same year, though I can't remember exactly what year that was. "TeU me where I am," I mumble, struggling to open my eyes. The motel room carries the faint stale remnant of past cigarettes, industrial air freshener, roach spray. "Let's see," my friend says, pausing, it seems, to shuffle through his printout. "Tucson, I beUeve," he says. "Yes, yes, Tm sure of it. Today's the twenty-fourth. Did you get lucky?" It comes back to me, slowly, the closing ceremonies last evening, the drinks, the reveling carload at the dark Mission somewhere out in the desert. I think that was last night. Who is this woman sleeping beside me? The young poet so fond of those physics metaphors? No, she was another time. That Uttle town in Vermont, I think. "Where is it?" I manage. He names the location, a smaU denominational coUege I've never heard of, two flight connections from here and a car rental for another hour's journey. But Tm in no position to refuse. The page eludes me now, has mocked my dryness for years. Putting words on that vicious white expanse is a prior conviction I would prefer to bury deep in another lifetime. "The gigs are getting more and more remote," I teU my friend on the phone. "Competition is fierce, old sack, and getting fiercer by the day," he says. "Please don't be offended if I teU you your stock is supping." The Missouri Review ยท 233 We chat a bit longer, and when I ask if he's working again he mentions poUshing a couple of old stories, resubmitting them for a grant. After we hang up, the woman beside me mutters, "Who was that, Robert?" I beUeve Robert is the name of the feUow in the black leather jacket from last evening, the one who teaches poetry in the prisons. I am not Robert, but I haven't the heart to teU her so. Nine hours later a grainy red dusk settles over the flattest hardscrabble land I have ever seen, the horizon undisturbed by even the meekest ridge. The town itself, an unimaginative grid of flaking woodframe houses and smaU, slapdash shopping centers, is severed by an andent rusted railroad Une, suggesting the place was once a water-tank stop along that endless cross-country stretch through the dusty wUderness. The campus cannot be missed, its rotating sprinklers reviving a scorched lawn, the clusters of cottonwoods the healthiest growth for mUes. I find the registration tables in the shaded portico of the chapel, an imposing stone and stained-glass structure in the center of the grounds. My host is a thin bespectaded EngUsh professor with a boyish haircut, several years younger than I, a nervous man sweating through his blazer. "We're very pleased to have you," he offers a busy wet hand. "You come highly recommended." He coerced his department chairman into letting him attend a writer's conference in Houston last year, he teUs me, "A real battery recharger. They're aU the rage now, you know. Everybody is scheduling one." At the conference he took a crash course conducted by my old friend the placement director. "What a pro he is," Professor Weeks smUes enviously. "In half a day he covered the territory, stem to stern, on how to run one of these babies. He's put together a very helpful packet." It was my friend who recommended me. "Scott teUs me you're top drawer. But you...


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