A long time ago—not that long really, but never mind, it feels that way—I took a creative writing class. Not my first one, probably not my last either. It was in high school.
That school is long gone now. It was sort of experimental, and then they ran out of funding, so the experiment was over. We had three classes a day, and they were each about ninety or a hundred and twenty minutes long. Every other day you got one of the periods off. If you were doing well in class, you got to do whatever you wanted as long as you stayed on campus. We were on a university campus, so we had a lot of leeway. I spent a lot of time at the diner across the street and the main library. They let me go to the diner because they liked me.
But that’s not really important. Anyway, we had a teacher, Peter, and for the life of me I can’t remember his last name. He was one of the ones who liked you to call him just by his first name, so I guess that’s why I can’t remember it. And boy was Peter interesting. He’d done a lot during his life, but the one that was kind of most interesting is, he did some work with the Peace Corps somewhere in the Caspian region a while back. Now, for whatever reason, my school had a lot of immigrants and first-generation kids from that area (Iran too, but that’s a whole different story; it’s sad). And they liked his stories about Georgia and Kazakhstan.
So he told them. One of them stuck with me, I don’t know why. He was in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, somewhere out in the steppes, and he was sort of wandering around maybe. The details are spotty. And he stops at some place for food and a drink, I always imagined it was some dusty, leather-detailed wooden building that had withstood the winds of ages. A revenant.
Peter said it was lit by candles, but when I think back I’d guess he probably made that part up. It was lit by candles and the clientele was grungy. He got some sort of hard-bread-and-spread deal, had a beer or two or three, and the day wore on and eventually he realized he was in the middle of nowhere, and he wasn’t sober, so he decided to rent a cot and spend the night.
By now, I imagined, the inside must have been thick with cigarette smoke. Seems like the sort of place where people smoke, right? And of course the floor was dirt, it just had to be, when I would picture it in my head. The floor was dirt and the people wore fur or something, I don’t know. I was fourteen.
And the locals start sort of making fun, you know, joking around, like you do, and they decide to show him what the locals really drink. Lord only knows if this is actually what they drink, or if it’s just something they keep in the back for the one old dude who lives in the village and still drinks it. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Except this one wasn’t just a dinged-up old bottle with a faded label, it was a glass jar where they measured how much you drank by measuring the level of the liquid on the side before and after. And at the bottom of the jar there was a dead snake, like the worm in a bottle of shitty tequila except, you know, a snake. The guys said they ate the snake when they were done.
I don’t remember what happened next. Peter probably finished the story and had us write a poem or something. I don’t remember what Peter had been doing in Kazakhstan or wherever, but it may have been teaching algebra. I do remember that Peter had lived in San Francisco for a while doing art, and that he had thinning hair and it was ginger, and that he had pudgy hands and some freckles on his nose, but that’s about it.
There’s a couple other things I remember but they’re not really important.
Peter was a great teacher. He turned me on to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he put up with me being the sort of goofy kid who wanted to read Finnegan’s Wake, and he showed me some Philip K. Dick, and we read, you know, Ray Carver and the rest of the stuff you’re actually supposed to read, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds and all those guys. (They’re all guys, except for Flannery O’Connor).
The class wasn’t really graded per se, just sort of a check/check-plus system. There was one midterm and one final. They were each a single piece of paper. “Please write either a story based on this prompt, or a personal essay.” And since the classes were so long, remember, you could do a lot with that in one period.
He handed out the prompts face-down. We flipped them over when he said to. I didn’t peek, not that sort of kid.
I wrote a satirical fantasy piece for the midterm. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was about, except that there was a scene involving climbing a rope really far.
For the final, when I flipped the page over, it said,
Please write either a story based on this prompt, or a personal essay:
On Tuesday, every fish on the planet disappeared.
Of all the things, these I remembered? The Kazakhstan story, this writing prompt, and his first name.
I guess I could probably ask somebody what his last name was.