More fastidious editors would have dramatically shortened this bio and the excerpt that follows. But we’re thinking anyone who reads literary fiction isn’t in it for the brevity and deserves to be entertained, so here:
Larry Baker’s wife would insist that the use of “career” in conjunction with his life is a bit misleading. Admitting that, however, Larry would still insist that he has done a few things in his life that might constitute real work.
He is currently an adjunct instructor of American History at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, IA. With a PhD in English, he began teaching composition and literature on the college level in 1988, but he soon discovered that he was an overly critical comp teacher and an overly opinionated lit teacher. Thus, he went back to graduate school and earned 15 hours of post-doctorate credit in history, being certified to teach basic American History courses at the community college level. He was very happy. He is known for entertaining and enlightening lectures, and he is an easy grader. Students love him. Most students do. At least, many.
Prior to getting his PhD, Larry was, in no particular order in a list not meant to be comprehensive: a Pizza Hut manager, Pinkerton security guard, emcee at a strip club, ad salesman, sports reporter, and hotel desk clerk. Most importantly, he owned and operated movie theatres throughout Oklahoma and Texas for 15 years. After moving to Iowa City to finish his degree, Larry was soon involved in local politics. He was elected twice (yes, people voted for him) to the City Council. From that experience came his second novel, Athens, America (2005), a book that managed to agitate many people in Iowa City. Shortly after Athens was published, Larry ran for another term on the Council. He came in fifth.
Although he had been publishing short stories since he was a teenager, he was 50 before his first novel, The Flamingo Rising (Knopf 1997), was published. Flamingo was one of three finalists for the Barnes and Noble “Great New Voices” award for 1997, a Los Angeles Times “Top 100” book for 1997, and chosen by the Iowa Center for the Book to represent Iowa at the 2010 National Book Festival in Washington. It was also adapted for a Hallmark tv movie in 2001. With those pro-family credentials established, Flamingo was also included on the American Library Association’s “Banned Books” list for 2011. His third novel, A Good Man (2009), was nominated for “Book of the Year” by the Southeast Independent Booksellers Association in 2010. His 2012 novel, Love and Other Delusions, is a dramatic departure for Baker in style and theme. As he says, “This is definitely not Hallmark material.”
Early buzz for his latest novel, The Education of Nancy Adams, was enough to get Larry selected as the “Writer on Tour” by the Florida Literary Arts Council. He will be hosted by a lot of Florida colleges in the Fall of 2014 and Spring of 2015. He was included on the Iowa Literary Walk of Fame in 2010, joining other writers such as John Irving, Marilynne Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Flannery O’Connor, et al. Everything considered, Larry thinks his parents would be proud of him, and surprised. His wife is still skeptical.
Excerpted from The Education of Nancy Adams
Ice Tea Books
© Larry Baker 2014
From Chapter 3, “An Older Woman”
Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.–Jane Austen
He wanted an answer to his question, but I wanted to talk about my name.
“I hate my name.”
Russell was silent, trying to be his usual patient and considerate adult self. After all, I was dealing with the possibility that I would have to actually work for a living.
“So all I did with this phone call was trigger a name crisis with you?” he finally said, starting to laugh.
“I just always wanted to know why my parents named me Nancy. It’s not a family name. None of their friends was named Nancy. And, please, that godawful middle name. Golden, seriously? Nancy Golden Adams? Why Nancy? I hate my name. I’ve always hated it. I’m not a Nancy.”
“Nancy…” he hesitated…”this is all very interesting, of course, your approaching-40 crisis, but I still need an answer about that job.”
He was right. I knew that, even at that moment I knew he was right, but I couldn’t stop myself. “How many Nancys are there that anybody remembers or knows about? Who else is a Nancy?”
“The world is full of Nancys, Nancy. There’s Nancy Drew…”
“Not real,” I protested.
“Oh, please, Russell. Not her.”
“She’s a great woman, Nance.”
“Russell, stop being a Republican for once in your life. Nancy Reagan is not a….” And it hit me then, could he really be a Republican? How did that possibility not sink in all these years? Did we never discuss politics?
“Keep going, please please please, before I start seeing those teeth. Keep going.”
“If you really want to know, I do know why your parents named you Nancy. Your mama told me with her last dying breath. You were named after that girl in the Nancy cartoon strip, the one with Sluggo as a boyfriend. That’s you. Nancy and Sluggo. Now, can I get an answer, please?”
“Does that make you Sluggo?”
“No, Nancy Adams, former star student of mine, all your teachers Golden Girl, that makes me…”
“That’s all I was?”
Silence. I had the phone tight against my ear, listening for his breath.
“No, Nancy, you were always more than that,” he said. “You know that, after all this time, you know that.”
“I hate you, Russell Parsons,” I finally blurted out.
He didn’t skip a beat, “No, you don’t. You love me, and we’ve worked around that for twenty years.”
“You’ve worked around it for twenty years. Your marriage…my marriage…you’ve worked around everything.”
“Nancy, you’re not being fair, and you know it,” he said quietly. “Maybe I was wrong about my offer, but I thought you needed…”
“I accept,” I cut him off. “I’ll take the job. But you still have to explain to me what happened last night.”
I’m cursed by my education. I know just enough undergraduate psychology to categorize myself as having a father fixation, so I’m some sort of Sunshine Electra. The father I adored, he died while I was young. I married an older man. Textbook clue. Too obvious. The first great love of my life had been my high school history teacher, Russell Parsons. That great teenage love had just offered me a job. My former teacher, my future boss. I wasn’t making progress. And I never had a good response whenever my best girlfriend Kris would ask me, If you’re so damn smart, why aren’t you happy? Touche, Kris, tu-fucking-shay.
Russell had asked me to meet him at the high school the night before. He was the principal; he had the keys. It’s almost romantic, I told myself. I hadn’t been inside Kennedy High since my ten year class reunion, but there I was the previous night, standing on the front steps of the main entrance, the Class of 1977 valedictorian, my mother’s pride and my father’s legacy, telling myself over and over, I am not Emily Grierson, I am not Emily Grierson. It was my greatest secret fear, becoming the town’s crazy woman. Thank God, I reminded myself, thank God for Russell’s wife. As long as Stella Parsons was around, I was a safe second in the crazy department.
He was wearing faded jeans and a knit sport-shirt, casual clothes that he seldom wore, clothes that didn’t fit my image of him. Hell, nobody’s image of him. Russell was a paragon of maturity. His public wardrobe was old even when he was young.
“Are we the only people here?” I asked.
“I assume so,” he said, holding the door open for me.
I stepped into the hallway and instinctively reached for something to hold on to in the darkness. Outside, the security lights had turned the whole campus into a fuzzy orange dreamscape. Inside, the only light was at the end of the hall, a hundred feet away, and that distant white light created a harsh glare that bounced off the freshly polished floors. I could smell the wax. Déjà vu all over again.
He took my hand and held it for a second.
“Stand still until your eyes adjust. I don’t want you walking into the lockers. Insurance is already too high. You hurt yourself and we’ll have to cancel the music programs to pay off your lawyer.”
“Is insurance the reason you can’t afford to turn on the lights?” I asked, wondering how long he was going to hold my hand.
“No need for lights. You’ll be okay.”
My eyes adjusted, and he let go of my hand. Soon enough, I could see in the dark.
“You want a tour?” he asked, beginning to walk away.
“Has it changed all that much?”
“No, not really. Not the building. Just more stuff in it. A lot more memories. You were here for three years a long time ago. I’ve been here twenty-two years, almost half my life, certainly most of my adult life. Nope, you’ve probably changed more than this building, or me.”
“Russell, you’re beginning to wax sentimental, and something worse…profound. So, how come you asked me here?”
He turned around and laughed. “Absolutely right.” Then, abruptly, “Race you to the end of the hall. One, two…” And then he was running down the hall toward the light at the end.
I was too stunned to do anything other than start running after him, yelling at the same time, losing my breath, unable to ignore how totally out of shape I was. “Russell! Why are we here? And why, for chrissake, am I running at my age!”
He stopped fifty feet away from me, then turned and started jogging backwards away from me as he answered, “Because I have a favor to ask of you. And you, Nancy Adams, had better get in shape.”
“Later, Nancy. Right now, as soon as… if… you catch me, I’ll give you the grand tour of your former domain.”
Reunited at the end of the hall, we walked through Kennedy High School. The more we walked, the less I cared if any of this made sense. I looked at him in the dim light. “You know what I feel like, right now?”
Russell turned toward me and shook his head.
“Like I’m just recovering from amnesia. Like I’ve been awake for a long time but not conscious. Not just since Jack’s death, for a long time even before that. Does that make sense?”
“You said the same thing after your mother died. Remember?”
“So, you’re telling me that this isn’t the first time I’ve lost my mind.” We were outside the classroom where he had first touched me a lifetime ago. Only the hall posters had changed: IF YOU BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE—YOU CANNOT DISCOVER NEW OCEANS UNLESS YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO LOSE SIGHT OF THE SHORE—A DAY WITHOUT WEIRDNESS IS LIKE A DAY WITHOUT SUNSHINE—MY BASIC PHILOSOPHY AS A PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER IS TO FIND A WAY TO CONNECT WITH WHOEVER SHOWS UP ON MONDAY—FRESHMEN NEED LOVE, TOO.
“Remember this room?”
Well, duh, I wanted to say, refusing to act my age. I was seventeen again, outside the room in which Kris and I had fantasized about our favorite history teacher. Standing across from him twenty years later, I had a thought that I didn’t want to share with him, a thought that contradicted anything I felt only a few minutes earlier. I wanted to be alone at that exact moment, there in his old classroom. Somehow, as much as I had looked forward to being alone with him this night, for some reason I now wanted to be alone with myself. Somehow, he wasn’t part of anything I wanted to think about at that moment. I wanted to walk around Kennedy by myself, to find my old locker, then Kris’s locker, where we would always meet to go to lunch in the cafeteria where everyone sat according to their status in the high school pecking order. More than anything else, I wanted to go to the pool building.
“Let’s get out of here. You got keys to the pool?” I said.
He had been staring at me. “You okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. So, you got those keys?”
He stood up and pulled a ring of keys out of his jeans pocket. “Nancy, I am the principal of Kennedy High School. I have the master key to every locker in this building. Nobody has any secrets from me. Getting into the poolroom is merely a matter of us getting to the poolroom. You remember the way?”
Five minutes later we were sitting on opposite ends of a bench in a room as big as a typical high school gymnasium, looking up at a cloudless summer sky through an open roof. Of all the changes to the school as I remembered it, the biggest surprise was that the solid roof over the pool had been replaced by a steel and plexi-glass retractable roof. It was, as Russell admitted, an absolutely unnecessary improvement. But, like many things at Kennedy, it had been paid for by private donations, not by local taxes. I was sure that my mother had been one of the donors.
We opened the sliding glass doors along the side, and the wind created small ripples in the water. I could hear them gently lap against the side of the pool. The only light was from the outside orange security lights reflecting off the pool water. I wanted to go for a swim. I really wanted to get wet.
“If you know everything,” I asked him, “do you know all the stories about this pool?”
“About the parties, the initiations, you mean all that?”
“I guess you do,” I said, letting that subject drop. “Do you remember the first time we ever met?”
“At your mother’s house. She was very proud of you.”
“Oh, you were the one who made the big impression on everyone.” I resisted the temptation to remind him that it was my house now, not my mother’s. Instead, I walked to the edge of the pool. Then I asked, “You ever swim here by yourself? You know, you’ve got the keys. You are the man with the keys.”
“Never,” he said, standing up to walk toward me.
“You said you had a favor to ask of me.” He stood next to me, both of us looking down into the water. Before he could answer, I took off my sandals and sat down on the edge of the pool, letting my feet dangle in the water. He looked down at me, looked at his own feet, and then he took off his shoes and socks to sit beside me with his feet in the water. I wondered if he remembered that I had asked him to do this with me, sit by the pool with our feet in the water, back when he was my teacher, and we were our own secret. Back then, he had said it was not a good idea. Always boundaries for us, all of them set by him.
“Yes, a favor,” he said. “I want you to accept that job I’ve been offering you for years. I need you to do it this year.”
I almost got hysterical, “For Christ’s sake, Russell, I’m looking for a life! Not a job!”
“Nancy, I can’t get you a life, but if you want a job I have an opening for this fall at school. Five classes, one an honors course. And I know you’re qualified.”
Of course I was qualified. I spent my entire life getting qualified. A major in history and a minor in English, and an MA in history. I went to Notre Dame to be a teacher, to be just like my parents. My father taught history at Gainesville. My mother taught English at Kennedy High. I set out to make both of them proud. I did my student teaching in a South Bend high school, but in the back of my mind was a plan to get a PhD so I could teach in college, not high school. I was my father’s daughter, not my mother’s, I was sure of that. I became certified, but I never became employed. After I moved to Atlanta with my new doctor husband, I had been on call for subbing jobs. Fifty dollars a day, no benefits, but no homework to grade either. I never needed a salary because I never had to support myself. After Jack died, I lived off his insurance, his stocks, our small savings. The few dollars I made from reviewing went to meals I never finished. God, to be that thin again.
“Russ, how can you…” I started to ask.
“Because, since I’m the principal of Kennedy High School, I can fill any sudden opening on a temporary basis if I want to. Those are the rules. So, if you accept, I’m your future boss. Can you live with that?”
Then it hit me, the absurdity of it all, of everything about thirty-eight years of going in a circle. He was offering me a job at the school I had left twenty years ago. As if my first paycheck was inside the diploma I had been given by the principal at Kennedy when I graduated.
“I don’t have a Florida teaching certificate…” I started to protest.
“No problem,” he said. “You can get a temporary license. You’ve got two years to get certified. Until then, your Georgia license is all you need.”
“I don’t have any full-time high school experience.”
“No problem. That’ll come soon enough,” he countered.
“I hate teenagers.”
“No problem. I do too.”
He was joking with me, like the best of our old days, and we both began to laugh, to laugh so loud that I forgot how miserable I felt. “Russ, do me a favor,” I said to him as we sat next to each other. “One of these days, would you explain to me how I got here at this moment.”
“This exact moment? Nancy, I’ve got my own questions. My own problems. And until I figure out how I got here,” he said, standing up and offering me his hand, “you’re on your own. You’ve come back home. Jack is dead. You’re alive. That’s all that matters.”
I just looked at him, wondering if he realized that the most attractive part of his offer was…him. He stared back, but the light was behind me so he could not see my face in the dark. “Oh, yes, my dear dead Jack,” I sighed, at the same time reaching into the pool and pulling up a handful of water to throw at him.
“You do that again, Nancy, and I’m calling for Darrell,” he said in a mock angry tone.
I laughed so hard that I began choking. Darrell was Kennedy’s career janitor, rumored to actually live in his supply closet. He had been at Kennedy High longer than the original paint, and he always had a pocket full of Tootsie Rolls to offer the girls. As soon as I stopped laughing, I looked around. Nobody could ever be sure where Darrell was. He was Kennedy’s Freddie Krueger, that was what Kris called him.
“Actually, Nancy, you need a job. I know your money situation. I know your emotional situation. You keep yourself buried in that house much longer, you’re going to turn into…”
“Russ, if you mention me and any character from a Faulkner story in the same breath I am going to scream at the top of my lungs until Darrell thinks I’m being murdered and calls the police. Do you understand that!”
The great love of my adolescence scooped up his own handful of pool water and threw it in my face. I returned the assault. He kicked water up with his foot. We then called a truce. Domestic tranquility restored, he continued, “You taking this job is not a favor for me. You’ll be a good teacher, if you give yourself a chance. But I can hire other people to do the same thing. The favor I need from you is more personal.”
At last, at last, I told myself, what I want to hear from him.
“I want to tell you about someone else who needs your help too. Her name is Dana O’Connor. I want you to do her a favor. She had some problems last year, and I made arrangements for her to take some courses over this year, to do a second grade option to bring her GPA back up. She needed a break, and it worked like I thought it would.”
“You let her take courses over?” I asked.
“Principal’s prerogative: A student may be allowed to repeat a course if the principal determines that extenuating circumstances prevented that student from performing at a level reflective of that student’s abilities. Something like that in the district guidelines. I love bureaucratic language.”
“Dana had a baby last year. She didn’t drop out of school, but her work suffered because of all the problems. She was really distracted.”
As he talked, I kept listening for a reason that would explain why he was telling me all this at that particular moment, alone at night in an empty building, after offering me a job.
“Why are we here?” I interrupted him.
“You wanted to see the pool,” he said.
He just sat there swinging his feet back and forth in the water. I sat there like a stone, or a shrink waiting for the patient to finish talking. I wanted him to tell me that Dana whoever was just an excuse for the two of us to see each other without being seen by others. I wanted him to tell me what he thought of me…Nancy Adams. It was time to get the truth, any sort of truth. A few minutes earlier, I had wanted to be by myself. Now, I wanted him to tell me why he wanted to be alone with me.
“When you meet her, you’ll understand. She’s the most extraordinary young person I’ve met in years. A lot like you a long time ago. Full of questions. But not optimistic like you. She doesn’t assume, like you did, that things will work out.”
I was optimistic? I wanted to hear more about myself back then. I wanted him to describe the seventeen year old Nancy Adams. I was back to being a teenager, and the world revolved around me. It had to.
“The difference between day and night, you and Dana. Still, you had a lot of people who were looking out for you. Your mother, your teachers, and friends. Dana’s got that in common with you, except for the mother and friends.”
“Funny, I don’t remember it that way,” I said. “I remember feeling terribly misunderstood.”
“You were almost eighteen. Being misunderstood goes with the territory.”
“This Dana girl is seventeen, isn’t she?”
“Dana is eighteen going on fifty, Nancy. She’s got a baby with no father, two younger brothers that she has to raise in addition to her own baby because her mother is a total waste of human flesh. Christy O’Connor was in your class but dropped out. The father is dead and not missed.”
“Christy O’Connor doesn’t ring a bell.” How small was the circle lived in, I wondered.
“She and Dana’s brothers live with their mother in a trailer half the size of your future classroom. Dana works. Worked two jobs and went to school and got straight A’s and raised her brothers while her mother bitched at her for being…for not being a failure. I even think that her mother was glad that she got pregnant.”
“Russell, you never answered my question.”
I was looking across the pool to the other side of the room. Banners hung down from the ceiling, more proof of some championship team. I remembered the time when I had waited outside the door to the girls shower room as Kris and the football captain had sex inside. Then the time Kris and I stayed in the building until nine o’clock, telling my mother that we were working late on the yearbook. We sneaked into the pool to swim naked, scrambling out when we heard Darrell making his rounds. I remembered swimming alone other times, slow laps back and forth across the pool, floating in the dark, wishing that Russell would find me.
“You want to know why we’re here, right? You and me,” he said.
“To be as honest as I can be, this girl needs more help than I can give her. She needs an older woman as a friend. She needs…”
I was almost hysterical again, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Of all the things I thought he might tell me, hearing myself described as an older woman wasn’t on my list. I stood up, shoes in hand, and began walking away. He was on his bare feet following me in a split second.
“Nancy, I’m sorry. Believe me, you’re the only person I could ask this of.”
I stopped cold and spun around to face him. “Are you listening to me? Are you hearing me? Are you hearing yourself? For someone who always seemed to say the right thing, how can you not hear what you’re telling me? The first really personal conversation we’ve had in years, and we don’t even talk about us?”
We looked at each other in the faint glow of the orange lights from outside. His outline was more visible than his face.
“No, Russ.” I said, straining to see his face, “I’m the one who’s sorry. This is my fault. I guess I was the one who wasn’t listening.”
“Look, if you don’t want…,” he tried to say.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore. That’s what I want. I want to go home.”
An hour later, I was sitting at the end of my dock. I had stopped at the Curb Mart on the way home and bought ten six-packs of eight ounce bottled Cokes. I sat on the dock and stacked them beside me, opened each one and emptied it into the St. Johns and then corked each empty. I kept a bucket of corks in my kitchen just for these moments. Let’s face it. I was Emily Grierson. I was a single white female pushing forty who was still sorting out a few minor issues from her past. Would rat poison complete the circle? Would the town gentlemen protect me from my own madness. Thank God, I told myself, I wasn’t an English major. I would be even more insufferable in yanking analogies out of thin air. Nope, I was stuck in history, just like daddy, just like that goddam Henry Adams I studied at Notre Dame. Russell wanted an older woman for his new star student, and I was the designated oldie. I was the fossil. Nancy Adams, welcome home.
Sixty targets, a full box of ammunition, I tossed the bottles in the water one at a time, shooting at them by the light of the full moon. I could fool a lot of people, but not myself. “You are a complete and utter idiot,” I said out loud. My reflection did not disagree. “You’re still mad at your dead father, at your dead husband, and you’re probably about to accept a job from a man who broke your heart twenty years ago. You know, Nancy, for an educated woman, you’re not making a lot of smart decisions. And you talk to yourself out loud. What is that all about?” My reflection seemed amused. “And you’re going to stand up in front of a bunch of kids and be an adult?” My reflection withheld judgment. “Jesus, those poor kids.” My reflection nodded.