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Westwords, Chapter 4

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About 94,000 words First Serial Rights 1990 Lewis W. Heniford

May, 1943

West had gotten up early, gone to breakfast at the Inn cafeteria with his roommates, and come back by the room for pen and notebook. He was ready to start Carolina. He stepped out of the dorm. Grass and trees stretched from Old South Building nearby on his right to the library some distance away on his left. What a beautiful sight, he thought, and watched birds darting across the open span, some, no doubt, hurrying home with breakfast for their fledglings. Bird speech filled the air.

A human call broke through these melodies. "Hello, West."

West, surprised to hear his name, turned and smiled.

"Go get 'em."

Dr. Frank had not forgotten his name! "Thank you, sir. I will. You have a good day, too."

Entering the very first class, English, in the building beside Steele Dormitory, West sat at the left end of the middle row, near the metal-edged tilt windows, and watched the other students arrive. The professor came through the double doors of the classroom as the tower bell tolled. On the podium at the front, he half-sat, half-leaned on the raised desk and lit a cigarette. He waited, surveyed the students intently, and began speaking as the eighth knell faded.

"I am Professor Leut Drang, B.A. this University, M.A. Oxford, Ph.D. Harvard. I shan't mention my publications; you can find them listed in the card catalog of the main collection at the library."

Again, he paused to survey the class.

"This course is an experiment. You, as efficacious freshmen, must learn to write and think, think and write; subsequently, you will learn to rethink and rewrite. For you to achieve those inestimable skills, I have petitioned the Department to allow an innovation: an introductory course in semantics, built around a most useful recent book, S. I. Hayakawa's Language in Action, Harcourt, Brace, 1941. We shall see if, in these short weeks, your minds will take the desired turn toward clarity through an understanding and practice of his discipline, semantics.

"If only Thomas Wolfe had had such an advantage; his prose, as you must know . . ."

Who is Thomas Wolfe? West wondered. For a full five minutes, the professor went on about Wolfe's syntax and vocabulary. West raised his hand, proud to be the first in the class to show such interest. "Sir?"

"Yes?"

"Who is Thomas Wolfe?"

The professor's eyes narrowed. The class instantly transformed into a vale of silence. Normal sounds of life suspended.

The professor inhaled then blew smoke, punctuating the moment, his eyes two slits. "Why are you at this University?"

West's mouth dried suddenly as his heart beat faster. "To get an education."

"One is pleased to hear it. That is a noble goal. What do you bring to this project? . . . Intelligence? . . . Curiosity? Yes, you did ask a question. . . . General information? No. No such. . . . The mind boggles. . . . My first reference in this course is to Thomas Wolfe, and you don't know the reference. Does anyone else not know the identity of Mr. Wolfe? . . . Well, I see that you are singularly alone, Mr.--Mr.?"

"Newcomb."

"Mr. Newcomb." He inhaled reflectively, analyzing the name. "Mr. Newcomb, . . ." The name rode out on a cloud of smoke. "You have a noteworthy gap in your general information. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that you are indefatigable in your academic quest. I shan't stem that drive by answering your question. You may be excused to go to the library--just to your left down the campus as you exit the front of this building--and correct that gap. You do know how to use a library?"

A small room with its few hundred books, sometimes open at his high school, rushed to mind. West had used it twice. "Yes, sir." The words lumped inside his mouth.

"Well, we shall at the start of class tomorrow have you report the identity and merits of Thomas Wolfe. Good morning, Mr. Newcomb."

West walked the long distance to the door and stepped into the hall feeling sick.

The professorial voice continued as if uninterrupted. Look Homeward, Angel, Scribner's, 1927, thrust fame upon Thomas Wolfe. . . ."

West crossed the hall to the nearest water fountain and vainly tried to refresh his dry mouth. He felt a welling in his eyes but remembered he was in college and stemmed the tears.

For the rest of that hour in the library and, aside from time in other classes, for the rest of that first day, he read as he never had before. He wrote three pages of notes, certainly more than he had written in his three years of high school. The library's closing at ten o'clock forced him to stop.

A hunger pang stuck so severely that he realized that he had not eaten for many hours. A second time in his short while at the University, he had gone twenty-four hours between meals! He marveled that he could forget food. Forgetting did have one good side; it saved him money. Well, not really. He had no money left to save. He had only the money from Francis.

He crossed campus to the downtown area. Someone had mentioned Ptomaine Tommy's as a late night eatery. With little trouble, he found it in the two-block stretch of stores. He studied the menu as intensely as he had studied a dozen books in the library. Rewarding his own hard work, he ordered liberally and ate his fill. He enjoyed more than the food the adult aura of eating in restaurants. At the cash register, he extended Francis' one-hundred-dollar bill.

The counter girl whistled. "Beginning of term, I see. We get at least one of these every term on the first day. She re-added the items on the check. "You eat like this long, and you're gonna be nickel-and-diming it before the summer's over."

"Forgot lunch. I was starved."

She carefully counted the change. "We welcome the trade. Anytime you're gonna overeat, come to Tommy's." She smiled before she turned to the next customer in line.

West took his satisfied stomach, his stacks of library notes, and the counter girl's smile into the campus night. Loris offered nothing like this!

Next morning, again he arrived first to class. He debated whether to take the same seat and could not find enough reason not to. As the other students filed in, every one of them looked at him. He wished desperately that one of them would say something beyond "Hi." Then he noted that no one talked. Yesterday the others had talked amongst themselves. He felt his heart gain speed and the dryness recur in his mouth.

Professor Drang resumed exactly his posture of yesterday. As the tower bell's tolling ended, he expelled smoke from the first drag on his cigarette and looked directly at West. He spoke with deliberation. "You asked, 'Who is Thomas Wolfe?' I recall."

"Well . . ."

"Please stand, Mr. Newcomb."

"Well, he . . ."

"If you speak loudly and clearly, the rest of us will have the full benefit of your report."

Stumblingly, West started to read the mass of notes.

"We can dispense with incoherent ramblings. In one sentence, can you identify Thomas Wolfe?"

"The greatest writer we've had at this University."

"Mr. Newcomb, that is not a sentence; it is a fragment. You will need to distinguish between them, in due time." He momentarily gave more attention to the cigarette than he did to the sacrificial student trying to stand before him. Then he resumed, "We?"

"Sir?"

"You said we?"

"Yes, sir."

"Mr. Newcomb, time . . . and your hard work . . . will tell. You may sit."

West sat weakly.

"Thomas Clayton Wolfe, 'the greatest writer we have had at this University,' was born in Asheville, in 1900. He, therefore, would have been forty-three years old now but for his untimely death five years ago. . . ." The chronology of Wolfe's life and works flowed easily as Professor Drang continued the topic the full hour, in concluding, aptly returning to Wolfe's remarkable vocabulary and the study of semantics. At the first strike of the tower bell to end class, he said, "I count myself fortunate to have been among his colleagues. And you, Mr. Newcomb, can consider yourself fortunate that you now know who he is."

In contrast, the other classes passed comfortably. The day became a clear success, though, when the letter arrived from home with a check to cover the full semester's expenses, enough money for him to breathe easily, more money, certainly, than he had ever handled before. He totted up a budget based on the past few days and considered himself rich.

Sunday night, at the end of the first week, West handed over to Francis the books, change, receipts, as well as the first week's class notes. He soon heard a typewriter across the hall clicking away. Amid the sound of copying, the thought came to him that Francis had said a lot of things, but never once had he said, "Thank you."

West mentioned that to Chuck.

"Hell will freeze over before that son'abitch learns gratitude," Chuck responded.

You can go to Chapter 5.

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