Higher Education

Stephanie Mullings | Fiction

Before traveling to Los Angeles for the job interview, Dr. Henree Danielson III had lunch with his mother, who reminded him that people do good and do well from the kindness the Lord puts in their hearts. Henree’s mother had warmed tomato soup from the can. She used her spoon to crush oyster crackers at the side of her plate for both of them. They each used their hands to scoop the crumbs and sprinkle them in their bowls.

There had been the incident only nine months before, and so it had come as a surprise that he had advanced in the selection process of a humanities teaching fellowship at The University in Los Angeles. He had been invited for a campus visit, and this was a good sign. This meant that he was one of the few being considered. This meant they remained interested despite the incident. Henree was thirty-three years old and had been living with his mother for the entirety of his life.

“You know,” Henree’s mother was saying. Saying, you know, was her way of mothering. It meant that she should be listened to. “You know, you haven’t really been anywhere else. I don’t know about Los Angeles. The way of things is different there….” His mother was becoming the age of what Henree always noted as geriatric indifference. This meant dribbling food onto her clothing without an attempt to address the stain, leaving the clothing on for the remainder of the day. This meant picking remnants of her meal out of her teeth with the length of her pinky nail. It meant poorly fitting wigs. Burping or passing gas in the presence of company without excusing herself.

“What the fuck are you staring at?” Henree looked from the trail of tomato soup at the collar of his mother’s shirt to meet her eyes. “Did you hear what the fuck I said? Repeat it back to me.”

Henree rose from his seat at the dining room table. He approached his mother and tucked his own napkin into the opening of her shirt.

“You said, ‘You haven’t really been anywhere else. I don’t know about Los Angeles. The way of things is different there. Those motherfuckers out there will eat you up and spit you out. They have dirty fucking bums that live on the street, piss on the streets, shit on the streets. And the people in Los Angeles step over them, their piss and shit, and walk their dogs and sip their coffees because that is the way of things. The way of things is taking care of your fucking self and only yourself, whether that’s surviving on the streets and shitting on the curb or stepping over it to make your way to work. You have never taken care of yourself a fucking day in your life. You need me and have always needed me. And out there, you’ll be as good as the shit on the curb without me.'”

“Good boy. Now, let’s say a little prayer. That those people will do well and do good if, from the kindness the Lord puts in their heart, they will never take my good boy away from his dear momma.”

Henree fell to his knees and laid his head in his mother’s lap. He breathed prayer between her legs. And she rubbed his head, and she kept saying to him good boy, my goodest boy.


The University in Los Angeles had a large endowment. They had arranged Henree’s accommodations at a hotel downtown, an easy commute to campus, and a rent-a-car. He arrived on a Wednesday evening, and his interview was scheduled for Thursday, the next afternoon, at 12:30 pm. The morning of his interview, Henree had breakfast at a cafe just two blocks walking from his hotel that he had noticed on his drive from the airport. He ordered a hot tea with lemon and honey, eggs soft scrambled with cheese and sourdough toast. His waitress was young and so, therefore, distant in the ways of his former students. Yep, she said when he spoke.

“Hello,” Henree had said when she approached his table.


“How are you this morning?”

“Yep,” she was tapping the screen of a tablet in preparation for recording his order. She had an earbud in her right ear.

Did you hear what the fuck I said? Repeat it back to me. Henree thought of the many times his mother said this to him throughout his life. He thought of himself, the incident, the heat of his body, profusely sweating at the front of his classroom when he had been a teaching assistant while completing his doctorate. It had been winter, and it had been the midwest, and Henree had always been overweight, so the heat inside of the Humanities building would be suffocating. Henree would dress in his best wool turtleneck sweaters, cardigans, slacks, a leather belt, and dress shoes that he polished with a set that belonged to his father. His father kept the polishing kit in his Army duffle bag. At some point before his death, he had written the word SHINE in permanent marker on the outside. And so, in this dress, Henree would sweat, standing just off-centered at the front of his classroom. His students clustered about the seats furthest from him, often kept in one earphone as he spoke. How are we feeling about the upcoming essay? He would ask them. Yep, they would say, seemingly in unison.

“A hot tea. With honey and lemon. Eggs scrambled with cheese, please. Sourdough toast. Do you have sourdough?”

“Yep,” the waitress said, continuing her taps on the tablet’s screen, nodding her head, and pursing her lips. Yep, she repeated.

When the waitress returned, she brought with her wheat toast.

“Excuse me?” Henree asked.


“This is wheat toast. I asked for sourdough. I asked specifically if you had sourdough, to which you responded, ‘yep.'”

“Oh, well, we don’t have that.”

“So then, you weren’t, in fact, listening to me?” Henree said, but she had already long gone. Did you hear what the fuck I said? Henree spread butter and jam across his wheat toast. He ate it ravenously, tearing pieces and dunking them into the boiling water for his tea, stuffing his mouth, barely chewing before swallowing. Good boy, my goodest boy. He wiped his fingers against his napkin before pulling back the sleeve of his jacket. His watch read 10:34 am.

Henree settled the bill, paying in cash from a billfold he kept in his breast pocket. He left no tip.

“Fat fuck can’t even tip,” he thought he heard the waitress say, and she cleared his table.

“What did you say?” Henree asked.

“Hope you have a nice trip.”

“Oh, of course, yes.”

Fat fuck, former students had once whispered to each other. Henree was passing out a worksheet and was sandwiched between two tables.

Outside the cafe, Henree shuffled things around in his messenger bag in search of his car keys. He reasoned he would make his way to campus early to acclimate himself before his interview.


“Whatcha looking for? A lil something for me?” a man was saying to him. The sun was coming hard then. Before exiting the restaurant, Henree had checked his watch, 10:51. The man shielded the day with a ragged blanket draped over his head. He smelled of urine. His skin was blackened, with dirt, with the sun stretched over the thin of his frame. He was wearing basketball shorts and a tank top. Barefoot. His toenails were infested with fungus. He was missing a pinky toe on his left foot.

“Whatcha looking for? A lil something for me?” the man repeated louder. “You look like a man in good business. What kind of business ya in?”

Henree was beginning to sweat. He could feel the tag of his undershirt digging into a fold of skin at his lower back. Fat fuck. After he heard the students say it, Henree pushed forward one of the tables that had entrapped him. It made a scraping sound against the floor that had been much louder than he had anticipated.

“Higher education,” Henree told the man missing a pinky toe. He remembered what his mother had told him about homelessness in Los Angeles. He stepped past him.

“Now, waita minute. Waita minute. Education? A teacher? A man in higher education is a man willing to give to others.” The man missing a pinky toe stepped alongside Henree, holding his empty hands into Henree’s line of vision. “I knew what type of man you were when I first seen you. Yeah.”

Henree Danielson III. Henree Danielson III. Henree had stood at the vanity in his mother’s bathroom, practicing an introduction for some time. His mouth would round into a small circle when he pronounced the L of Danielson. He continued until it sounded right, until it sounded good. Until he sounded like the man his father had been. He stood erect. His voice came clear and surrounded you, all at once, but never suddenly.

Sorry, I must’ve missed you back there. It was the first night of a dissertation workshop with a few colleagues and faculty mentors. Henree was seated in a back corner. Sorry, I must’ve missed you back there. Would you introduce yourself, the workshop leader repeated, gesturing toward Henree. When he spoke, there was no sound.

Henree retrieved his billfold from his breast pocket and gave the man missing a pinky toe a five-dollar bill.

“I knew you were a certain typa man. I needa know the name of a man that saved my life today.”

“Henree Danielson III.” 

“Well, Henree, you should know that I’m not the typa man that’s gonna be shooting this here generosity up or drinkin it up. I know what everybody is thinking about us folks. I’m the typa man, Henree, that means what they say and say what they do. I’m gonna get me a pair of socks,” he put the bill to his mouth, breathing it in, before licking it.

Henree nodded because he believed the man missing a pinky toe. Henree trusted easily and desperately, anticipating others’ reciprocation. He wanted to be the person someone came to with a problem. For him, this meant to be seen, desired. To be needed. It was the doing of his mother, this want.

Henree and the man missing a pinky toe parted ways. By the time Henree made it back to the rental car and pushed the engine start button, the clock on the dashboard read 11:06. Inputting on the GPS The University’s address, he would have a twenty-one-minute drive, an estimated time of arrival around 11:30, one hour before the start of his interview. He retrieved some spare paper napkins he had taken from the restaurant from his bag. He blotted the sweat at his hairline and the creases of his nose. He removed his belt and unbuttoned his pants. His belly expanded, and he sighed softly in relief.

Fat fuck, he said to himself. He mimicked the student’s voice. The student was large in stature. Henree could not remember which sport but knew he had been affiliated with the school’s athletic program. It had always felt to Henree that the student took up the most space in the classroom. The student emailed Henree often. He was excusing himself from class for personal reasons—illness, mainly, or family emergencies. Henree had trusted him. Of course, please let me know how I can best support you at this time, Henree responded to the emails.

As Henree prepared to back out of his parking space, he noticed the man with the missing pinky toe in the rearview mirror. He was moving quickly, shuffling his feet in a running motion. He entered a 7-Eleven convenience store to Henree’s right. Henree put the car in park. He waited for the man with the missing toe to exit the store. He was holding a brown plastic bag that made it difficult for Henree to determine if he had, in fact, purchased a pair of socks. The kind of trust that Henree provided, he had begun to notice recently, often was manipulated, taken advantage of. The man with the missing pinky toe walked back in the direction he had come from. Henree put the car in reverse and worked his way out of the parking space. At the light at the end of the street, Henree made a right turn.

Rerouting, the GPS system announced.

Henree made a right at the next light.


Henree made a third right and drove in the lane closest to the sidewalk.


Henree unplugged his phone from the AUX system. He had made a full circle and, too, was headed back toward the cafe where he had breakfast. He spotted the man with the missing pinky toe shuffling along, deterring the route of others walking by, who hurried almost off the curb to get past him.

Henree turned the air conditioning to the highest fan speed. He had passed the man with the missing toe and was at a red light. He adjusted his rearview mirror again so that he was in better view. He wiped the newly formed sweat from his hairline with his sleeve.

Rerouting. He heard again. Henree realized that despite unplugging his phone from the AUX system, it was still routing him to The University and announcing directions through his cell phone’s speakers. He turned on the radio, but the signal was weak, and he heard mostly static.

Henree rolled down the passenger side window. Clipped inside the dashboard vent, closest to him, was a small cube filled with a blue liquid air freshener. He yanked it from the vent and threw it out the window. He realized that the smell had been bothering him for some time.

The man missing a pinky toe was walking on the sidewalk alongside the passenger side of Henree’s car. Henree had his best chance at seeing the contents of the 7-Eleven bag. The rental car windows were tinted, and it had been an adjustment for Henree’s vision. Henree had been diagnosed with diabetes at twelve years old and had high cholesterol, so he subsequently developed early diabetic retinopathy. It was difficult for him to see at night or in low lighting.

Henree had been thinking about what he would say to the man missing a pinky toe since he had turned his car around to follow him.

What’s in the bag? 

Open the bag.

Show me the bag.

Did you hear what the fuck I said? 

He had been saying quietly to himself but could not hear over the radio’s static. The light turned green, and the man missing a pinky toe stood at the corner, waiting to cross. Henree turned right, still unable to determine the 7-Eleven bag’s contents.


As soon as he could, Henree made a U-Turn.


The man missing a pinky toe was crossing the street. Henree made a right in the direction he was headed. There was an encampment of tents.

What do you have there?

Remember me? Remember what you told me? 

Open the bag, lying motherfucker.

Did you hear what the fuck I said?

Henree had been here before. The incident with the student. The student who was large in stature and often had reason to excuse himself from class sessions. The incident had been a time in which the student had emailed Henree before class stating that he had a family emergency and would therefore miss class. Henree had a growing concern for the student. He knew how difficult it could be to focus on coursework with personal troubles at home. His father had a heart attack and died on the couch watching Monday Night Football shortly after Henree left for college. His mother thought he had fallen asleep and didn’t realize he was dead until the next morning. She had called Henree, saying she needed him and would need him for the rest of her life. Henree moved out of the dorms and never left his mother’s house again. These things happened. Henree had sympathy for the student if something like this had happened to him. I am so sorry to hear this, let me know, whatever you need, Henree responded to the student’s email.

Henree had responded from the campus Starbucks shortly after class. As he closed his laptop, he noticed the student enter, rushing toward the mobile order pickup counter and picking up two drinks. Henree said his name, but the student did not hear him. The student made his way back outside, handing another large young man one of the drinks. Henree stood from the table and also exited, walking a few paces behind them. They chatted the way friends do, carelessly, loudly, and unconcerned. He followed them to a dorm, where the student swiped his ID and entered, parting ways with the other young man. Henree caught the door just as it closed. Inside, he noticed his student standing at the mail desk in the lobby. Henree approached his student and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Yo, what are you doing here?” the student said.

“I saw you at Starbucks and didn’t see your family. I didn’t see your dying family anywhere,” Henree said.

“Professor Danielson, did you follow me here?”

A girl came back to the desk holding a small Amazon box. She wore a hoodie with the university’s initials, and her hair was wrapped in a bun.

“Here you go,” she said to Henree’s student.

“I followed you because you lied to me. I thought you needed me.” Henree said. He stepped closer to the student. “Did you hear what the fuck I said? You are a fucking liar. Repeat it back to me. Say it to my face. You stupid, lazy motherfucker. Admit you’re a fucking piece of shit liar.”

“What’s going on?” the mail girl said. “Should I call campus security?”

“Say it! Did you hear what the fuck I said?” Henree yelled. His spit flew onto his student’s face.

“I heard you! Say what? Man, I don’t fuckin’ know, say what?” the man missing a pinky toe said.


Henree had been here before. The rental car was pulled onto the curb, the engine still running. The driver’s side door open. The passenger side window rolled down completely. Henree was holding pieces of the torn brown plastic bag. He backed away from the man missing a pinky toe.

“What the fuck is your problem, man?” he said. “You wanna see what I got, huh? You wanna see so bad, huh? Lemme show you what I got then.”

The man missing a pinky toe punched Henree in the face. The blow knocked Henree down to one knee.

“Fat fuck,” the man missing a pinky toe said. He gave Henree a kick to the head. Blood spurted from Henree’s mouth and onto the sidewalk. The man missing a pinky toe removed Henree’s shoes, and then took off both of his socks. “There. Ya happy? I got some fuckin socks.”

Henree rolled onto his side. The man threw Henree’s shoes back at him before hobbling into a run in the opposite direction. Henree pushed himself upward into a seated position. The side of his face was hot, swelling. Several people had poked their heads out of their tents and stared at him.

“You police?” a woman asked.

Henree spat blood.

“No,” he managed to say as he stood. He collected his shoes, stuffing his bare feet into them. He had polished them with his father’s kit the morning before.

Henree got back into the rental car and closed the door. He adjusted his mirrors and rolled up the passenger side window. He plugged his phone back into the AUX system.


Starting route to The University in Los Angeles.