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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The London-Ehrenreich School of Applied Textual Fortitude


AS instructed, I appeared for my first day of classes at the London-Ehrenreich School of Applied Textual Fortitude dressed in the manner that the school's preparatory materials had dictated.

I wore a pair of sturdy workboots, brown Carhartt overalls, and a denim shirt. I wasn't quite sure why this uniform had been selected, but I was desperate enough to comply.

My entire adult life to the present day, it seemed, had been spent inside one classroom or another, all to no real profit or fulfillment of my overriding dream.

I had worked incredibly hard in my mediocre high school to qualify for entrance to the Ivy League, and succeeded. My postgrad degree was an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins. I had taken several online writing workshops with highly regarded instructors thereafter. Somewhere in that academic hurlyburly I had even managed to snag an intern's position one summer at The New Yorker. All of this activity with the sole goal of becoming a published novelist, the high-minded literary career I had longed for since adolescence.

And where was I, at age thirty-one? Back living with my folks, buried under a mountain of student debt and facing a stack of rejection letters as high as a wind turbine, with the partial manuscript of my fourth unsold novel gathering dust, because I was too disheartened to continue.

Naturally, when I had encountered the publicity for the LESATF, full of authentic testimonials from recent bestselling authors, everyone praising the school to the skies and attributing all their success to it, I jumped at the chance to enroll, taking out one last loan for the modest ten thousand dollar tuition cost. This would be my final attempt to learn the secrets and skills of a real novelist.

I stepped into a small office and looked about curiously. Two framed photos hung on one wall, headshots of a man and a woman, neither of whom I recognized. The man was handsome in a rough-hewn, retro way, the woman rather modern and dowdy.

There were no other exits that could possibly lead to classrooms or an auditorium, conference space or library, studios or Dean's quarters. But the school's brochure had promised "No online components!" I couldn't figure out how the teaching was supposed to happen. Had I been rooked? My check had already been cashed.…

The fellow sitting at the lone spartan desk, fortyish, trim, and vibrant, looked up at me with a confident and piercing gaze. I felt inexplicably reassured by his assured and intimate vibe. He stood and thrust forward his hand to shake.

"Mr. Funderbunk, I am glad to see you show up on time, and dressed in the proper attire to continue your education. We'll get you started right away. But first, the barest of lectures.

"I have read the manuscripts you sent us as your qualifying submissions. As is the case with all of the disciples we take on, they exhibit two essential qualities which perfectly fit you for our unique course. An utter mastery of sentence by sentence construction—"

I grinned broadly and stood taller at that praise, although I had heard similar words before, from professors and TAs and my workshop peers.

"—and absolutely nothing to say or any grasp of real life. To put matters plainly, you are a perfect modern millennial product of the MFA system, and this is why you have been unable to convince anyone to publish you, and why you will remain unpublished forever unless you acquire some fundamental understanding of how the world works and the ability to peer sympathetically into the hearts and minds of myriad types of people outside your normal sphere of activities. Now, take this piece of paper to the address thereon, and I will see you again in six weeks' time."

To say I was poleaxed would be the understatement of the century. I mindlessly accepted the invoice, and then managed to summon up enough wits to ask one instinctive question that must have seemed an utter non sequitur.

"Who—who are those two people in the portraits?"

"Those are the spiritual gurus and namesakes of our school, Jack London and Barbara Ehrenreich. I suggest you consider their biographies when you get a moment free from the rest of your, ah, 'studies.'"

With that, the head of the LESATF (whose name I still did not know, I realized) swiveled his chair away from me, and so I left.

The address on the paper was a cargo firm on the city's waterfront. There I reported to one Hernan Portillo, approximately six foot two and with arms big as sequoias.

"Okay, kid, just pay attention and try to learn quick, and you'll do okay. Now, follow me. These sonsabitchin' ships ain't gonna unload themselves."

Did you know that not every cargo ship nowadays is a highly mechanized container vessel? There's still a lot of manual labor involved with the smaller ships. Here were a few of my official duties.

"Tie/untie incoming/departing vessels to moorings. Hook up shore power, phone lines and install/adjust/remove gangway as needed. Deploy/retract oil boom around vessels as needed. Monitor tidal fluctuation and make or report the need to make necessary line adjustments accordingly. Open containers and inspect and sort cargo, if applicable, before loading and unloading. Load and unload materials or garbage onto or from pallets, trays, racks, and shelves by hand and keep dock free of debris (cardboard, pallets, and garbage). Load and unload ship cargo, using winches and other hoisting devices.…"

There was a lot more than that, but you get the picture.

That first night I went home, fell asleep with my face in a plate of my mother's corned beef and cabbage, then shuffled off to bed like a zombie before getting up at five A.M., bone-weary, to do it all over again.

At the end of six weeks, I had learned incredible amounts about the underpinnings of modern commerce, developed biceps almost as big as Hernan's, attended afterhours weddings of co-workers from six different ethnic backgrounds, and cultivated a scatalogical vocabulary second to none. The crew at the docks gave me a drunken farewell party on my last night, and the next day I reported back to the LESATF office.

When I entered, I immediately said, "Jack London worked for the Fish Patrol, as an oyster pirate, in a salmon cannery, and as an able-bodied seaman. He became a hobo, was thrown into jail, then joined the Yukon Gold Rush, all before he was twenty years old. Then he started to write. As for Barbara Ehrenreich, before writing Nickel and Dimed, she worked as a minimum-wage waitress and a maid to understand her topic."

The head of the school nodded approvingly, then said, "Very good. But don't get smart, kid, you still got a lot to learn."

He handed me a new assignment, and I left.

Over the next year I worked as an EMT, a crossing guard, a tour bus guide, a crematorium operator, a swimming pool installer, administrative assistant to a city councilman, a garbage truck driver, a short order cook at a roadside rest stop, a carpenter, a grocery bagger, a chicken de-beaker, a cabana boy, and a dozen other highly heterogenous jobs.

After the last assignment, I returned to LESATF a changed man. The scales had fallen from my eyes, and, like the Grinch, my heart had grown two sizes.

The mysterious head of the school regarded me with an assessing eye, then said, "You've graduated. Here's your tuition back, with interest. Consider it a grant to support your new writing."

I looked with bafflement at the check. "But, but—"

"Don't sweat it. We make plenty off commissions as an employment agency."

I folded the check and pocketed it. "I just want to say thank you. But I do have one little problem."

"Oh? What's that?"

"Now, mimetic fiction looks pointless to me. I want to write something speculative and important, like science fiction."

"Oh, you do, do you? Well, you're going to need further training then."

The man picked up his smart phone. "Hello? Mr. Qfwfq? Could I see you here now, please?"

A whirlpool portal suddenly opened up in midair and out of it stepped a gnomish man with a slight green tinge to his skin.

"Mr. Qfwfq, we have here a budding science fiction writer. What would you suggest as his first assignment?"

The elderly sprite studied me up and down, then snapped his fingers and said, "The droid-repair factory on Mizar Five has an opening. Yes, I think that will do splendidly!"

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