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The Freewheelin' Roger Castleman

“I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones,” Roger Castleman said. Quitman Short and Chris Leach were talking about the latest hip-hop CDs, and he interrupted their conversation. Rap artists seemed so alien to him; it didn’t sound like “music” to him at all. Was he an old fart, he wondered? “And American music, too, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Doors. And of course Dylan. I tend to listen to jazz and classical these days.”

“Were you a hippie, Mister Castleman?” Anita Carpenter asked. Anita was a woman in her mid-thirties with six kids, going back to college after more than a dozen years to “get a degree” in order to “get a job.” Beyond those vague ambitions it was difficult to nail her down to any specific interests or professions. She’d been a mom so long it was really all she wanted out of life.

Castleman felt he was being set up as an old has-been flowerchild dope-smoker to reminisce about the good old days. Peace, Love, Woodstock.

“Nah, not me,” he said, a little embarrassed by the question. His drug-addled brother, maybe, but not him. Maybe he really was just an old has-been. So conventional he couldn’t even shock a Baptist preacher.

Still, Castleman had been toying with the notion of reading the galley pages of a recently accepted short story of his to the class, which verged on being “adult material.” Partly this was an impulse to be risqué. But he was cautious; it might not be such a wise thing to do. It could get him into some vague, undefined trouble.

Ostensibly, he planned to use the galley pages as an object lesson in the publication process, explaining various editorial changes to the text and introducing the review and correction of galley proofs as yet another step – not all publications gave authors this opportunity, he’d tell them. But then he’d thought better of it, discretion being his best strategy, and though he’d brought the galley pages to class with him, they were buried beneath a handout on developing dialogue he planned to distribute. But now, on impulse, to challenge Anita and show the class he wasn’t so tame after all, he decided to plunge ahead with the reading.

“I’ve just received the galley pages from a short story that’s being published next month,” he heard himself say, “and I thought I’d read it to you, to introduce you to the process of editing that goes on when a publication accepts your work for print.” Castleman pulled the sheets of paper from under the dialogue exercise like a riverboat gambler sneaking the hidden ace from his sleeve.

“In his dorm room, Chad peeled back the foreskin of his penis like shrink wrap over a lollipop and looked with dismay at the red, pus-oozing welts that ringed the neck of his glans. They had not gone away over night. Who could he tell? The school nurse? Chad cringed at the idea of bringing his infected dick to the attention of Dean Hartley’s wife, the Nibana College student nurse. It would be too embarrassing to consider. ‘And what can I do for you, young man?’ ‘Well, there are these sores on my penis, under the foreskin, on the -- I guess you’d call it the collar, right below the head. They itch and bleed and sting, and I don’t know what to do about them.’ No, out of the question. He’d just have to endure them. They’d have to go away sometime, wouldn’t they? Who would blink first, him or the sores?

“So again, he decided to ‘wait another day’ before he did anything about it – maybe the welts would go away – and, since he had his dick out in his hand anyway, he couldn’t think of a good reason not to masturbate…”

Castleman looked up briefly from his reading at the wide-eyed look of astonishment on Kirsten Gould’s face that said, “too much information,” and he charged ahead, privately thrilled to be talking dirty to her in the guise of reading literature. “When he had his orgasm, the puckered lips of his dick insolently spitting out a gob of sperm like a streetcorner hooligan launching a wad of mucous, he let out a groan of pain.

“‘Oh Christ,’ Chad moaned aloud, ‘what am I going to do?’ He looked dismally at the red smear of fluids dribbling down his dick and across his belly, a puddle of blood, pus and come; he’d felt the imminence of the orgasm, prolonging the thrilling tingle a sweet extra couple of seconds by slowing down his pace. But just as he felt the orgasm about to explode, the angry ache of the welts throbbed that much more painfully; all that tugging and rubbing had opened one or two of the sores, and they bled freely.

“Chad mopped himself up with a wad of tissues and dabbed gingerly at the sores before allowing the foreskin to wrinkle back over the glans, covering the entire head except for a small gap through which the lips of his dick were still visible, as if blowing him a kiss. Then he pulled up his pants, collected his books, and headed off for his Introduction to World Literature class.”

It was the knowing smirk on Tom Franklin’s goateed face that brought him up short, for just a moment, wondering if he’d made a mistake by reading the story aloud. A hard rain’s a gonna fall, his brief premonition. Anita Carpenter was blushing, though, and Castleman knew she was getting her money’s worth. Six kids later she was attuned to the frailties and sensitivity of the genitalia. The word might have its roots in the Latin for “shame,” but such vital organs were hardly something to be ashamed of.

“When the sores still had not gone away by mid-July, Chad mentioned his anxieties to his older brother Jeff, sure his secret was safe with him, but Jeff told their father, and then it was out in the open -- the whole family knew about it, discussed it at the dinner table. ‘Shouldn’t Chad go see Doctor Spencer?’ his mother wondered. ‘At least Doctor Taylor?’ Spencer was the surgeon, Taylor the family doctor. ‘It’s gotta go away by itself pretty soon, don’t you think?’ Chad argued. ‘How long have you had these sores?’ his father asked. Though not a doctor, Ted Murray had taken his son to the bathroom, and with a look of embarrassment and aversion on his face examined Chad’s penis. ‘I first noticed them in April, I think,’ Chad confessed. ‘Just after Spring Break.’ ‘You haven’t been sleeping with prostitutes, have you?’ his mother asked, her tone containing an accusation. ‘No, God no,’ Chad said miserably, ‘I can guarantee I didn’t get it from sex.’ It was the most shameful confession he could make, that he was still a virgin. ‘That’s it, then, we have to call Doctor Taylor first thing tomorrow.’”

Castleman paused here to tell the class that the idea of a second doctor being consulted had been the suggestion of the editor; originally he’d had Chad go immediately to Spencer, but the editor had suggested that a consultation with a family doctor might be more realistic, the way it would be done. He tried to sound as if he were confiding professional secrets to the class, the straight skinny on working with editors and getting published, but he could tell they didn’t care what he had to say about it, didn’t particularly believe the conviction in his voice. They had his number. He was on his own, like a rolling stone.

It took another ten minutes to finish reading the story, describing Chad’s hospital stay, waking up from the anesthesia to find a black and blue circumcised penis, swollen like an eggplant, the ice packs and painkillers with which he recuperated for a few days and finally his return to college a few weeks later, a changed person, a mature man, the circumcision a strange rite of passage at the age of nineteen.

“And Chad became involved with a girl that fall, the woman he would eventually marry,” Castleman concluded, looking up from the lectern at the class when he finished.

Nobody said anything. He began to feel self-conscious. At last he said, “Well, so what do you think?”

“It was a little too, I don’t know, detailed,” Kirsten said. A tall redhead with a spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, she looked a little squeamish, like a girl in a biology lab who does not want to dissect the frog. “Where’s it being published?”

“A magazine called The O’Hara Street Literary Review.”

“A literary review?” Kirsten sounded as if she hadn’t heard right. Not a hard core porno magazine?

“Well, it’s a story with a literary theme,” Castleman said, and he felt his face wanting to break out into a smile. “It’s a story about the trauma in the life of a college freshman, something inexplicable that just happens to him, something he has no control over and can’t make sense of, and how he deals with it, sort of like Gregor Samsa becoming a cockroach in ‘The Metamorphosis.’ And it’s sort of a coming-of-age story, the way Chad achieves a new sense of his maturity at the end, becomes ‘a man,’ so to speak.”

Quitman Short’s expression said he found the comparison with Kafka a little self-congratulatory and far-fetched, but he said nothing, and Castleman did not address the implied objection in his brown eyes. But he did lower his own and look away.

“Mister Castleman?” Anita said then, her eyes sparkling. “Did this happen to you? Is this autobiographical?”

Castleman caught his breath. “No, Anita, it’s not me, but even if it were, what does that matter? It’s a story; you select details in a story, pace the plot, aim for a satisfying conclusion that brings the story together.”

“Yeah, but how would you know what it feels like if you didn’t –”

“I don’t know how it feels.”

“That’s you,” Anita said confidently. Her look said she had him pegged. Just like a woman.

Castleman shrugged. Should he continue to deny it? He changed the subject. “Okay, well, does anybody else have anything they’d like to read?” Nobody did. “Okay, then let me pass out the dialogue development handout.” Castleman walked around the classroom, distributing the sheets.

“Hey, what’s this red spot on my paper?” Tom Franklin said, making an exaggerated grimace so that his goatee seemed to swallow his face, and the rest of the class burst into spontaneous laughter.

Castleman knew he’d made a mistake.

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