Morris Collins' first novel, Horse Latitudes, was published in 2013 and was released in a 2nd edition by Dzanc Books in January 2019. He was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Fiction in 2020. Other fiction and poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Passages North, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review and The Florida Review among others.
The Meeting of the Search Committee
During the first meeting of the search committee after MLA, we decide that we, the search committee, will never open the additional materials we requested from our semi-finalists.
“My mouth is full of teeth,” says the Chair.
“Don’t start, Geoffrey,” Eleanor says.
Eleanor is on every departmental committee. She wears elaborate scarves. She requires at any given time three student research assistants. She doesn’t publish. She writes-in Ralph Nader. She replies-all.
“For this meeting,” says Tad, “I have prepared another casserole.”
“Did you remember plates this time?” Eleanor asks.
Tad produces the plates.
“What’s in it?”
Tad owns many different pairs of suspenders, suspenders of which I believe he is very proud. He has never used my name or answered an email. He does not make eye contact. His mouth rolls up like a pillbug.
“Can of Mushroom soup,” he says. “Some butter, some onions, and…”
Tad begins to giggle. His cheeks turn red and he crosses his legs, looks down to the side and wipes his eyes with the back of his pale, white wrist.
When we realize that he forgot to bring a serving spoon, it’s my job, as the most junior member of the search committee, to go find one.
“Now is the time for us to compare notes,” Eleanor says.
“This casserole is goopier than the last one,” says the Chair.
Tad does a little dance with his eyes closed.
“On the candidates,” Eleanor clarifies. “We interviewed thirty-seven at MLA. We need to winnow them down to three.”
Tad places eight files on the table.
“This is all I could find.”
“Much easier,” says the Chair of the search committee.
What can I say about MLA? I presented three papers on one panel. Eleanor met with her collaborators. “What are you collaborating on?” I asked collegially, between candidates, after my third wine. Eleanor fumbled in her tote. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry, but it’s too interstitial to say.”
And then, of course, convention lighting, the snowstorm outside, my confusion concerning lanyards, Pad Thai for every meal. And interviews in Tad’s hotel room. We had forgotten to ask for extra chairs, so the candidates sat on the bed and we stood over them. They had been expecting a table and they did not know what to do with their legs. We had intended to compile a list of questions on the plane but had all taken different flights. So we spitballed. We couldn’t read their CVs standing like that and sometimes we joined them on the bed. Mostly, though, we just asked whatever we could think of. What class from our curriculum would you cut? If you were to guest teach a course in another department, what would it be? If we do the digital humanities, do we need laptops? Aiming to impress, trying for precision, I asked, why do you think for all the walking on the moors she did, the moors never showed up in Emily Dickinson’s poetry? I asked this question all week. The fourth-to-last candidate wondered if maybe I was thinking of the Brontës? I held up my hand. “Not my period,” I said. “We already have a Britishist,” added Tad. “And a feminist,” said the Chair. “The Brontës are not feminists,” said Eleanor. Who can be held accountable for any of this? It was snowing everywhere. At the airport leaving, through the air, at the second airport, at the fourth, at arrival. On three separate occasions, alone in my hotel room, gazing furiously at my convexed reflection upon the broken TV screen, I failed to maintain an erection.
Now, making choices, we begin to disagree. All the candidates are supremely qualified, over-qualified, for this job here, teaching here, at this state school amid the blighted cornfields and closed pine mills, the neon sky and monthly parades celebrating whichever high school hero last died by diving, with a beauty only youth can own, into one of the infected fish weirs.
Oh, how we squabble and speculate, speculate and squabble. There are those who believe our investigations have the air of the insidious, or the cynical, or the sadistic. I too felt this way before I was a member of the search committee. But if they could realize that the questions we ask of our candidates are the questions life has asked of us, questions to which we don’t have the answer, or if we do we are looking desperately to have the world say, yes, this is as it should be. Will they be happy here? Will they get pregnant? Will they publish too much or too little? One of them said he loved to teach, he flashed ingenious handouts of possible assignments, but how bad would we feel about ourselves if, once here, he found our students—quiet as they are, interested in huffing glue, afflicted by rashes, ennui, vampires and Camus—a tad dim?
Another candidate is maybe a hundred times more qualified than all the others. Than anyone in our department, in fact, for any job. Eleanor dismisses her immediately.
“She doesn’t want to be here.”
“Wasting time,” says Tad. “Angling for a raise elsewhere.”
“Look at all those publications. A terrible teacher.”
“And the teaching awards?”
“Leaves very little time for service,” proclaims Eleanor from amid her scarf.
I feel in this moment a shiver of impurity. Who are we if we don’t trust the goodness of others?
I ask this question aloud, as rhetorically as I can, but their mouths are all full, the other members of the search committee, with Tad’s casserole.
This is a good time to note that we have done a search for this job for the last three years and have yet to fill it; in fact, we have yet to reply to any of our previous candidates. I don’t know why—this is my first time as a member of the search committee—but I see this woman, this perfect candidate, has applied each of the last three years.
“Certainly that must mean something,” I whisper.
“But what?” says Eleanor.
It gets bad from there. Do we throw things? Nearly. Or more accurately: a little.
Tad shouts, “a colleague for life is just like a wife” and everyone quiets for a moment to consider this. At the heart of our terror is another failed search. Another failed search says something about us. How can these people come here, see this, see us, and not find it, us, wanting? This question haunts every meeting of the search committee. Previously, I had believed that searches were processes of evaluation, but had not realized that we are the ones being evaluated. We tremble and scream. Does Tad weep? He does. “My mouth is full…” says the Chairman of the search committee. Into this consideration or negotiation wherein, I can tell, my colleagues believe that they will be revealed—by the gusto and glossy indifference of the young—to be the kind of people who hunker in the middle of a state in the middle of the country in a halogen-lit seminar room in a department housed in a building called, and this is, in fact, its official name, The NCAA Beef Center, I risk making my voice heard and stand up. Sweating, I say, “It’s hard out there, the market is a market, which is to say it isn’t what it was.” I try to explain, but they don’t believe me, the other members of the search committee. “Everywhere is as bad as this,” I say, but then we all look at the ruin of the casserole and think: maybe not.
Tad says, “there may be more files in my cat carrier” and he stands to go check.
Here is the truth: I have been alone for very long. Alone and lonely, this wasn’t the life I imagined or planned or rooted for but still I know I am lucky to have it. Every night from the smeltery the sky fizzes with phosphorescence. I sit up on my futon and watch the clouds go neon from the fumes. I stand; I look down at my feet; they hide under my belly. I close the window shades and I put on a record, a fucking vinyl record, of Nina Simone and pour a good scotch. I say: Nina on vinyl, a good scotch, a fine book. I say these things to no one. I have been practicing for the life I want, and now I think it’s time I earned it. Why else would I have been made a member of the search committee?
I slam my fist into the table.
“Choose the hottest one!” I shout. “Just choose the hottest one!”
The first candidate arrives from the airport with Eleanor. She looks harried and lovely, disheveled by the speed of Eleanor’s driving with the top down on her 1991 Saab, even though it is February.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know the top would be down.”
“It’s a convertible,” Eleanor says.
The candidate’s eyes are violet. She has written a dissertation on Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and on various early American notions of feminine captivity. We introduce her to everybody, we usher her into offices, and then, finally, a conference room. We start telling her about the faculty member who she will be replacing, gone these last three years after what some suspect was suicide though was officially deemed an accident involving an unsecured bookcase and 500 copies of our department-sponsored undergraduate magazine of arts and literature, also called The Beef Center.
“Oh,” says the candidate. She is covering her mouth with her fingers. “I’m so sorry.”
On her notepad I see Eleanor write, Does not show enthusiasm for department magazine L.
“Great at making turkey,” says the Chair.
“The last professor,” Tad explains.
The candidate touches her hair. She has not stopped doing this since she arrived. I don’t blame her. She didn’t bring a cap and the drive through the wind and across the prairie has done something to it. Beautiful as she is, she looks vaguely astonished or electrocuted.
“I’m sorry,” she says and smiles, mostly at the door. “Could you repeat the question?”
“Spatchcock,” shouts the Chair.
We all stop and wait.
“Turkeys. He spatchcocked them. With this cleaver—” from his knapsack the Chair produces a cleaver. “Do you know how to spatchcock?”
Tad squeals and rolls in the turkey on the projector cart.
“Essentially this question is about whether you can work collaboratively,” Eleanor says.
At some point we decide it is time for the sample class. We had asked the candidate to prepare a lecture such as she might give in an American Lit. survey. She sent us some readings that we were supposed to pass out to the students who would be taking part, but when we tried to assemble a group of students, we had—in practice sessions—found them wanting.
“Dumbish,” said the Chair.
“Not very realistic,” said Tad.
So, we decide that we would be the students. We don costumes: baggy jeans and backwards baseball hats, big backpacks. We swagger into the room, just the four of us, where she stands waiting. She frowns. Tad has decided not to remove his suspenders—which made us all a little mad—but he has for veracity, certainly, brought a boom box. We slump in our seats and pick up our phones.
“Where are the students?” blurts the candidate.
“There will be time for questions after,” Eleanor says, still looking down.
Why are we behaving this way? This was not the plan. This type of behavior was in fact what we had hoped to avoid by leaving the students out of it. But it feels so good to be in costume. To dress up. To be, if briefly, different than we were.
And we all sit sullen and glaring, as malicious as we can be, imagining that like our students we too live lives electric with the possibility a quick dip into the midnight pike hatchery.
She smiles, she’s nervous, she’s dabbing at the turkey spoils on her dress with the damp toilet paper we gave her but it’s just falling apart, clotting on the cloth in white polka dots.
“So, usually, I’d start by asking what you thought of the handout. I do this to get students talking but also to ascertain if they’ve done the reading, though obviously that’s not necessary today.”
“We haven’t,” says the Chair.
“Why don’t you ask us our names?” Tad offers.
There are tears in her violet eyes.
“Oh,” she says. “You’re using names?”
“Shir Kahn,” says the Chair.
“Griselda von Bittentoot,” Eleanor says. “With an s.”
Tad holds up a pencil and screams, “What’s this?”
In the car, on our way to the airport I want to acknowledge that things have not gone as they should. And yet, how should things go? Eleanor spent all of our food budget at MLA with her collaborators, so we did not have dinner.
“There’s casserole,” Tad had said.
The Chair shook his head. “If the spatchcock had gone better…”
As it is we are on the road by dusk which comes early around here, but with the smeltery and the new incandescent algae in the weir and the lights of the stadium that we never turn off, the horizon glows all through the night.
In the car, though this is exactly the opposite of what I want, a sort of quiet reigns. I try to play tour guide, but the river we drive along is swelling its banks, dangerous in the limitless flatness of these plains and the man standing at the bus stop, across from the traffic light, is absolutely masturbating into a football helmet and though we are alone with him, though there are no other headlights for a hundred miles, I wait for the signal to change.
For a while we drive beside the river and the river wells like a tear; this is my favorite stretch of road.
We approach town. I glance over at her where she sits greenlit and trembling, sweating, bad-smelling, lovely. “I’m sorry for how things have gone,” I say. “It’s not always like that.” She doesn’t answer. The town opens around us like a hospital curtain. I point. “Those coyotes are healthier than they look.”
The ruins of the last parade blow through the streets. A ruptured drum, a plastic crown, the shattered glass in the old arcade. “Is this all there is?” she says, and I don’t know what to tell her. Is this all there is? A while back when under University Assessment, we were forced to define Goals and Outcomes for our Major, the first of which was: Learn to Explore Some Larger Questions.
The town is behind us. We are nearing the exit. “The exit,” I cry and spin the wheel. She shrieks as I apologize and drive us back up the embankment to the road.
We get to the airport; it isn’t there.
This has happened before, once, with the train station. It’s how we found a new Provost. Narrative, I tell my students, is not a sequence of points, but how you explain the place where you find yourself. I begin to imagine her past life dimming into memory, like a dream or a course enrollment cap. I park and we venture out, together, to wander the concrete and dust of what was the terminal and it’s all wreckage. The roof is gone. Inside, just beyond what now seem like blunt rectangular columns, a baggage carousel still runs, turning empty but for some rubble, through the dark.
“You get a course release every two years,” I say.