ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"The Inferno" by Robert Earle


Teacher and Student

            Mr. Markowitz templed his long-fingered hands in front of his chest and spoke in elliptical bursts, complementing his thoughts with suggestive nods and inquisitive smiles. He was young, lean, kept his hair monkishly short from Vietnam, which he didn’t discuss, and taught world literature, beginning with Beowulf, then the Canterbury Tales, now The Inferno. His classes met around a large oval oak table. Faded prints of ancient Rome hung on the cracked plaster walls. Danny Lovell so deeply grasped the readings that he wanted out.

            “You find Dante’ s vision upsetting . . . strange? It . . .?”

            Danny said, “It disturbs me.”

            “Do you hate it . . .  or . . .?”

            “Do I what?”

            “Maybe . . . How should I put this? Identify with . . . a class of the damned? A form of . . .?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “Does how I teach cause you trouble?”

            “You’re just Virgil, guiding us through.” Danny worried this made it sound as though he were putting Mr. Markowitz down. “Not in a bad way.”

            “No? But . . . I’m leading you through depravity, the worst of human existence, and you . . . ?”

            “I feel it, I get it.  I know what’s next.”

            Mr. Markowitz couldn’t help being pleased, which unsettled him because the boy was in pain. Adolescence: pain. Learning: pain. Experience: pain.

            “You know you can’t drop the class.”

            “I know that, too.”


Upper School

            Danny lived above the classrooms in ramshackle Upper School with the other juniors and seniors. No quiet hours. Running, shouting, the Stones, the Byrds, clanking radiators, the aggravating bells, the chuckling of classes changing—an unremitting storm in a seventy-year old wooden carcass that shook loose more each year. Burn like a match if it caught fire.

            Beneath the Upper School basement, steam tunnels connected to the power plant led under the whole campus.  A suicide there. Forbidden things. Boys who went down, boys who didn’t.


The Soap Penis

            Steve Harbaugh used an X-Acto knife to sculpt a penis of Palmolive soap, green and engorged with a circumcised glans and an aperture for the urethra just right for pissing or coming. He kept the penis in a matchbox. To see it you had to lick it. He told you where to lick. Some boys got the shaft, others, Steve’s favorites, got a soapy taste of the head.  Six boys in a room initiating a seventh, all of them howling. A penis that size, three inches long, was almost exactly the same as an extended tongue. Steve said it was just as sensitive. His own prick squirmed when he saw a tongue and the soap dick touch.



             Because he looked twenty Mack Messer could get the people in the tobacco shop on High Street to sell him Playboy. He shared it at fifty cents an hour, which became seventy-five cents for the second hour, a dollar for the third. Jism on the centerfold cost another dollar.  If you kept it too long and didn’t have the cash for the fee, George charged escalating interest rates until payment was complete.  Danny didn’t know the word usury until there it was in The Inferno


What Difference Does It Make?

            Danny told Mr. Markowitz that he might drop out altogether and head for Vietnam, still going on.

            Mr. Markowitz’s flickering expressions froze. “Because you haven’t finished your Inferno paper?”

            “How can I write a paper when I can’t read the book? It’s saying what I already don’t want to know.”

            Lt. Markowitz lay in the mud listening all night; he kept his finger near the trigger of his rifle. He did that the next night. He did that the next night. He had boots that never dried and fungus between his toes and goofballs all around him. One morning the lead grunt stepped on a mine. Most of him came down on the edge of a clearing. To recover the torso, head and a nearby arm, Lt. Markowitz crawled on his belly. His platoon raked the trees on the other side of the clearing. Fire was returned. He was hit in the leg, though he got back what was left of the grunt and called for a chopper. He was told not today. Carry him. Lt. Markowitz had to be carried, too.

            “Vietnam isn’t a book,” Mr. Markowitz said.

            “I don’t think we even need books for this to be a school.”

            Mr. Markowitz heard long wakeful jungle nights in Danny’s voice. “So get on with it?  Is that . . . ?”

            “Why not? Or stay and damn ourselves here. Write about that.”

            Mr. Markowitz stared at Danny, who misinterpreted and resented his stare, its authority, its censure. But Mr. Markowitz simply was wondering if you ever learned a thing until you had almost died.

            “I’ll get you a paper tomorrow. Would that be all right?”  Danny asked.

            “But Danny . . .?”  Mr. Markowitz said, wishing all his questioning and nudging and probing weren’t so strangled by fears that never left him.  

            “All right?”

            “All right.”

            A man in a jungle. A boy in a dormitory. Looking for hell. Reading about hell. Hell so important. Hell so real. To grow up, you must say hello to hell. 


The Steam Tunnels

            That night Danny went down to the Upper School basement.  He walked quickly to the metal door that led to the pipe room which was connected by a trap door to the steam tunnel directly below.

            It was hot, stifling. The insulation was split and sagging. The periodic light bulbs on the low ceiling were clear glass. In between, murky shadows darkened armies of mold colonizing the yellow brick walls. The stink of rusty water boiled into vapor caught in Danny’s throat.  He hated the place, but he edged along, stopping at the opening of a side tunnel when something caught his attention.

            There sat two boys slapping each other’s pricks, making them bob from side to side like anemones, amused by the swelling pink-purple columns between their legs. Who had the master dick? Steve Harbaugh had the master dick, bigger by an inch.  He lay on his back to get blown first.

            Danny walked further and came to a control panel nook where another boy had a portable typewriter. He was writing a letter to his roommate’s girlfriend that he would substitute in the outgoing envelope he had steamed open. He said he didn’t love her anymore. She wasn’t giving him what he wanted. He didn’t know if she had to it to give, but it was over. He never wanted to hear from her again.

            Danny walked further along and saw a boy curled on the floor with a pint of vodka in his hand. The boy pushed the bottle toward Danny. Danny stepped around it.

            He came to a turn and could see a tunnel exit where, as he had heard, two prostitutes waited beyond the grate. One had long stringy brown hair, a thin chest and large hands. The other was fat and smoked a cigarette.

            The thin one said, “Well, you’re the first unlucky asshole showing up tonight. How would we do it through this locked grate?”

            The grate was medieval, rebar running vertical, rebar running horizontal.

            “I guess he’d stick his little prick through,” the fat one said. Her hair was chemical blond. She had an Australia-shaped wine stain on her right cheek.

            “But if he did that, we could bite it, couldn’t we?” the thin one said.

            “Want us to bite you?” the fat one asked.

            They were a few years older than Danny.  Worn jeans. Scuffed shoes. Pink lipstick, the same on both.

            “You guys and your money,” the thin one said. “Where do you come from?"

            “Not far away.”

            “Most say Boston, New York,  Florida.”

            “Not me.”

            “So you’re different?”

            “I didn’t say that.”

            “Oh, go away. We’re just here for a smoke before we hit the mill.”

            “Shift’s almost out,” the fat one said. “Those guys don’t just pay, they really fuck.”

            “We just like seeing boys like you cream yourselves,” the thin one said.

            “Show you my tits?” the fat one asked, pulling up her blouse and shaking her breasts at him.

            Danny heard their hoots ricocheting off the moldy bricks as he scuttled away, trying to remember, this way or that way? The boy with the vodka gone, the boy with the love letter gone, the boys blowing each other gone, no one down there, just him.


Student and Teacher

            He turned in his paper. It read in part:

            There is no need for literature or an imaginary hell. Dantes Inferno is only empty revenge for the exile he suffered and the humiliations he experienced.  Perhaps he had the ability to make all that more vivid than an average person, but what he had to say doesnt tell us anything. Hell shows up sooner or later in everyones life. The mistake is thinking that because The Inferno was written in the 14th century it’s some kind of prophecy. Dante could not have foreseen exactly how the brutality and violence and greed of mankind would unfold, but piles of history before and after his day are smeared with exactly the kind of scum he uses to torture thieves and murderers in his circles of hell. Adolescents make it their business to get acquainted with this fact. Theres no getting away from it. A boysschool might be the perfect laboratory for restocking the inventory of diseased minds and twisted sinners. No one here could write The Inferno, but its nothing new; its forever.”

            Mr. Markowitz read Danny’s paper as they sat side by side in his otherwise empty classroom after the dismissal bell. He nodded and shrugged and winced. He pushed back his chair. He interlaced his fingers in front of his chest and said, “Your reaction is so . . . visceral. We get further, usually, before we realize . . . at midlife, as Dante said . . . after we go to war, real war . . . have bad marriages . . . experience betrayal . . . but you think it’s all here already. You think this school . . . is a cesspool of evil. You think it would be the same anywhere people gather?”

            Danny asked, “Isn’t that what Dante thought, too?”

            Mr. Markowitz didn’t know what to say.  You weren’t supposed to know what life was like when you were seventeen.


Robert Earle has published more than 90 stories in literary journals across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. His latest novel is Suffer the Children. Previous novels are The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen. His books of nonfiction are Nights in the Pink Motel: An American Strategist’s Pursuit of Peace in Iraq and Identities in North America: Search for Community.
He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, having concluded a 25 year career as a diplomat.

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