Nanette Glitz referred to the mop-filled warren in the basement containing the janitor’s closet as “the physical plant,” a grandiose term for the place where the boiler mumbled under the podium in Old Main. Old Main had a little auditorium for quick speeches and directly under the podium from which these quick speeches came was the boiler, claimed Nanette Glitz, who had nicknamed it Fat Man, fantasizing that it might blow one day and take the dean with it. Nanette Glitz worked in what she called “the physical plant” on a work-study program because she was poor and attending St. Jeff’s on a scholarship that wasn’t quite generous enough to allow her to forget it. Every Monday and Thursday morning she donned wet-cement-gray overalls with morbid aplomb and walked the diagonal of shame from her dorm, across the commons, even in snow, to Old Main, to check in with Chuck, the alkie who assigned her specific unnecessary tasks so Nanette could earn out her scholarship in sweat and humiliation. It wasn’t even six months before Chuck and Nanette became lovers.
This was especially galling because Nanette told me she had showed Chuck some of the love poems I’d written her. “The kid’s not bad,” Nanette told me Chuck said. This galled me. “High praise coming from the guy who swabbed my puke from in front of the library last Thursday,” I hissed across the top of my emptied (but for one Cheerio in a marbled puddle of tepid, dime-deep milk) cereal bowl toward a Nanette with her back to gurgling incubators of milk and oj. Striated hypotenuses of sun were soldered to the linoleum a few feet out from the foot of every east-facing, ceiling-high window of our high-modernist cathedral of carbs and mystery meat.
“That was your puke? You asshole,” hissed Nanette right back. “Chuck was off last Thursday.”
“Chuck is always off,” I retorted, until it dawned on me what Nanette had meant to say by that. “Oh shit,” I slowly sat upright. “Sorry, Nan.”
“Anyway I forgot to mention Chuck used to teach poetry at the U of M so yeah.” Nanette shrugged. Her shrugs made me ache. I wanted to feel those shoulders lift and fall in my arms. “Plus don’t call me ‘Nan’. Chuck calls me Etta.”
I told my brother about Nanette, feeding a stream of quarters into the payphone near the dorm’s entrance like a penance for the sin of titillating description, adding: “You better not be beating off.” The payphone had bad breath.
“Don’t overestimate your powers of description, whelp. Bring the comely wench home for Christmas. Mom and AJ will love it. You know how they love to antagonize the Goldwater Democrats next door. We can all go caroling. Like the year they put that Happy Hanukkah light on the garage roof. How’d she get the name ‘Glitz,’ anyway?”
“I guess her dad must be white. Jewish, I mean.”
“All the better.”
My brother was technically younger by one and a third of a year but had some years back taken to behaving like the older brother and had done it so well that he had managed to make it stick, an arrangement I have never heard another reported case of in the history of the world. I had told him everything about Nanette and nothing about her lover Chuck, although Chuck, or advice regarding dealing-with-Chuck-as-obstacle, had been the original point of the frantic call. It was in hearing back a phantom image of Nanette as my actual girlfriend, as reflected as if by sonar against my brother’s grudgingly admiring jibes, that I became addicted to the omission. I started pretending that Chuck did not exist and that the mop he sometimes pushed impertinently around the perimeter of our high modernist cathedral of carbs and mystery meat, while the place was still full, was pushing itself. I stopped referring to gutty Chuck by name and if he waved I blanked him.
“Chuck wants to know,” said Nanette, “what you have against him, other than the fact that he’s fucking me and you’re not. You used to high-five him.”
“Chuck what? Chuck who?”
“If I let you fuck me will you be nice to Chuck again?”
I remember the first time I ever saw Nanette. Brad Clapperjohn was reading one of his narcissistic sonnets about his own transcendent image in a dark mirror that turns out to be his grandfather’s crystal tomb, or something, and I was late to class, easing the whiny door open under cover of Brad’s neurasthenic singsong and scanning the room for any available seat. In a sudden warm rush, of feeling for the first time ever that the Gods really care, I saw that the only empty seat in the room was next to the most beautiful girl possible. To her left were the windows overlooking St. Jeff’s pathetic playing fields and the absence to her immediate right was my destiny. I should have wondered why that seat was so empty.