11-2 fiction

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.2 (Spring 2011)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

The Gentleman of Chaillot

J. S. Moseby

They parked in the only lot that was unmarked–whose spaces weren’t staked with claims reading “administration” or “faculty” or “staff” or “students”.  He couldn’t afford to pay a fine, and asking that it be reimbursed would have published hard evidence of poor judgment… so he erred on caution’s side.  The lot was strangely beautiful in its peace.  Half empty, its curbs were almost overrun on two flanks by a little copse, through whose gap-filled heights the sunlight emerged in thin bands.  Dead pine needles rusted in a corner where they seemed to have been lain since last autumn.  A long-fallen limb decayed in shipwreck between curb and asphalt amid the thickest shadows.

The Administration Building would be somewhere over the hill–a long walk, long in his coat and tie (especially if he walked slowly enough in the morning shade not to work up a sweat).  He told his wife that they would rendezvous here at noon.  She would take the toddlers around the campus once the younger one (slumped deeply snoozing in a car seat) came awake.  The three of them could eat somewhere, play somewhere, to kill time.

If only he could have been the fourth on the picnic… but, cast upon this strange shore, he wandering inland and she left to count the waves, all encouragement sounded lame.  The day would be long, very long.  It had been a mistake to bring her and the girls–an act of cowardice for him to lean so heavily on her moral support, an act of doting indulgence for her to stifle the obvious objections so stoically.  She must have known that keeping two toddlers happy on a college campus while waiting to hear if he would remain unemployed would require the strength of a saint… but he had thought only of his own flagging strength.  Already it was in full ebb.  Climbing the hill through the shortening shadows of more manicured landscape, hearing a clock tower chime an hour that gave him fifteen minutes before he would be late to a building whose location he could only guess, he knew in his gut that he would not be enough–that some hidden notion of “enough” was tucked snugly in some file cabinet whose office window might briefly admit the distant sight of him wandering lost.  He should have taken this one like a man, since he always ended up alone, anyway.

By the time the full sun found him full on, he was trailing after a professor-type in mustache, glasses, and sweater-vest like Dante trailing after Virgil.  The damp within his armpits now gave him chills even as it bled further into his shirt.  The professor-type must have had a name; the men to whom the type had introduced him must also have had names.  Men have names.  It was a universal characteristic of types in suits.

“Dean of… expect… hope that your trip… current fiscal year… three sections of comp… benefits package… expect… plan… flex schedule… trustees are eager… salary freeze for the rest of… plan… writing across the curriculum… dental… nine percent… continuing education program… eventually… expect… interim provost… plan…”

Somewhere amid all that had nestled several names.  This man’s name would have represented etymologically something or other for which a chieftain had died (a ford or sacred hill) a thousand years ago–some bastard version thereof.  What he knew more certainly about his escort (he didn’t know how or why) was that his mustache had coffee stain.  A forensic examiner, picking over the man’s cadaver on a slab, would have found coffee traces in the bristles.

The sun was worse in this building, because the building had nothing but windows to line the top of a raised central hallway, and the effect was greenhouse-like.  He thought of certain malls, and he wondered why he hadn’t instructed his wife to take the kids to a mall.  Students milled with the brush-past indifference of mall shoppers, and his elbow kept nudging Mr. Coffee’s, who spoke to this by-passer, that one, was spoken to, spoke back, spoken to.  Did she win her tennis match?  Was tomorrow a chapel day?  Had Miss Epps found a conference room for them in the library?  Could they sell the Eagleton book back since they weren’t going to use it?  Were girders entitled to a refund if the degree plan could not be fulfilled with chocolate basketballs?  One of the girls, blonde and dimple-chinned, dealt him a very friendly smile.  The kind of smile he had never received at her age… the kind of girl who would have followed her pre-med future boyfriend and target fiancé straight through him when he was a student ten years ago.  If his wife ran off with the toddlers, never to be seen again, and this girl studied Milton at his feet in the senior seminar, would she consider joining her fate to a scholar’s of greater years?

Her eyes reappeared shortly later to help him animate his demonstration class, yet still he was uncertain that he said anything in any language.  “Canto… irony… rodomontade… lack of self-knowledge… betrayal… Delphic oracle… monologue… allusion… long before Spenser… paradox… self-knowledge.”  He could not have told from the adult mustaches that settled in at the room’s rear if he were broadly coherent or speaking in babble.  Probably sounded good.  Their mouths would probably have opened a crack if he had said, “Chivalry misfits artichokes.”  But perhaps not.  They didn’t seem to like it all that much, or neither liked nor disliked it but didn’t care for him, or just didn’t want to be here in the first place.  The girl’s eyes remained wide and helpful.  Their faces remained carved in stone.  A massive woman with more ears than hair told him how much she had enjoyed it (“it”, was all she said), and dragged him off to the cafeteria.  As he passed the coffee-man’s cadaver beside a gleaming row of urinals, he wondered how his wife was making out in her abandonment.  Why had he imagined that he would be free for lunch?

They left the unmarked parking lot (its shadows now long in the reverse direction) to begin an exhausting drive home, for they would drive through this time without stopping at a motel.  The college would reimburse his travel expenses for the interview, even if these included another night’s room and board–but the toddlers needed to wake up in their own beds tomorrow.  Their grumps and whines could not be reimbursed.  His wife’s silent suffering could not be reimbursed.  His own suffering, also silent–deathly silent… knowing how much she had suffered, knowing already that he wouldn’t get the job, knowing that she also knew already, knowing that the noon of his young career had already passed (without knowing exactly why), knowing that he was more intelligent than anyone he had met today and that (without knowing exactly why) therein lay the problem… what did they pay you for such discoveries, enough knowledge to snuff out a star?  What was the standard reimbursement for overhearing (while trying not to overhear) Mustache and Beulah discuss whose class would be sacrificed to next week’s demo?  For “getting” that he should have looked more tweedy, more paunchy and myopic, less edgy?  When you were a kid, they gave you candy after a cut.  When an adult has his guts ripped out, he holds his breath and buttons his coat in front of the children–and in front of his wife.  If the adult is a man, he doesn’t even bring children or wife along with him.  Tallying up that column of suffering, humiliation, and failure, what standard deduction sounded about right?

They did not deliberately have no more babies.  The sterility was an unintended consequence of an unnamed and unforeseen variety of slow death.  Once the girls were settled in school, it would have been unconscionable to keep pulling them out, to keep moving to another state, in pursuit of a career already damned for having logged too many moves.  He accepted a demotion and occupied–year after year now–the permanent bottom of the ladder, stepped over by everyone, a menace to no one, and hence–in this reduced capacity–a fixture.  His wife, soon earning more than his best figure in the glory days, had returned to the professional grind.  They slept in different rooms because she came home so exhausted, had to retire so early, had to rise so soon.  He built a kind of sofa-bed in his office so that both girls could have some privacy.  The little house in which they ended up offered no other solution.

There, in the “office”, he read and wrote more than ever in his life, though now he never published a line, or even tried.  He wrote for himself, recording thoughts that would have won him instant dismissal if he had achieved success and could brandish a name enjoying unconditional, automatic acceptance from journals.  Yet if he had reached such success, would not his pages simply have been admitted unread into the sacred vault–would not his high repute have rested intact though he had written, “Pigs have wings”?  He knew that he should have known that–that the selection process does not make mistakes.  And he knew, besides, that it would not have done, even in the unlikeliest of successes.  For if he had been a success, he would have known what not to know, what never to write.  Pigs just might have wings… but some things must have their wings plucked off, and he would have plucked away.  Q.E.D.

His final conference was therefore a logical inversion, a journey into anti-matter.  For his last conference but one, years earlier, should have been his last.  Those days were long gone when he had toiled among the thousand miserable competitors for one tiny foxhole out of the kill-zone–those days of padding one’s résumé with quarter-hour position papers (heard by no one in a room of six, all awaiting their own quarter-hour).  How many years was that behind him now?  It was far, far too late to be young again, to think again that one might be other than oneself (or to be unsure of who one was)–to think that one might yet be one of them).  It was the equivalent, this paper-reading spree, of getting off a plane in the antipodes to shirt-sleeve weather in December.  People should have been falling off the upside-down earth.

The request was a command, however, for someone on his rung of the ladder.  (Or was it meant to be a reward, an honor, for someone who had done so much so long for so little?  He could no longer tell the difference between respect and contempt: he no longer paid any attention.)  Others had prior commitments; and his vast experience… his intensive work on… he was perfect to represent the…

And so he boarded his first plane in years (expenses paid by the department).  His wife stayed behind, for her expenses would not have been paid, and her office was booked with clients, and the girls were not out of school, and… and he no longer needed moral support, since there was no longer anything at stake, since he had lost all that he could lose.  He therefore laced his first tie in years, threaded himself into a sport coat that had once hung too loose (before furniture-moving, home-restoring, garden-tending, and middle age had thickened him up).  There was the same registration desk, the same card with his name encased in clear plastic (though backed cleverly now with Velcro instead of a safety pin) which disappeared at his lapel, the same bevies of tweedy males and pants-suited females also stamped at the lapel with names (names he could read less well than ever, for his eyes had somewhat weakened).  Same banquet table with name-card in front of plate, showing each dog in the kennel his legal, rightful bowl.  Registration fully paid (to be reimbursed): admission granted.  Enter.

Yet it was an odd arrangement, after all, this conference… and it grew odder as he sat and watched.  More had changed than Velcro for a pin.  The long tables had been laid outside, on a grand green lawn.  White linens draped them almost to the grass.  In the great festive rectangle formed by three or four dozen tables, perhaps, most of the attendees were eating, while some (one at a time, no doubt–but even this was not clear at first) would speak formally, either reading a paper or reciting a speech.  A fine brick building sat in the background.  His eyes were not so reduced that he could not appreciate its utter rejection of the shopping mall.  As he had aged, state-of-the-art taste must have turned more ancient.

“Lib mantas forta elibriu…”

He could easily have credited and applauded a gesture at a Camelot motif if only the tables had been set in a circle.  They were squared at the corners under their linens, of course; yet how hard would it have been to…

“Madorn madarn hadaffi minchup throwlackay…”

It would have been the least shocking thing in the world to see knights come riding two by two between the caterers’ busy, aproned figures and the distant brick façades… which now, inexplicably but appropriately, looked much more like granite.

“Agorfay lattle lock finthrop ladderion…”

The words were drawing closer, growing clearer, yet not one of them ever assumed the least semblance to anything he understood.  His fellow conferees either comprehended everything or were taking in nothing at all with perfect ease as their forks and glasses rose and fell.  He himself felt not the slightest anxiety, a condition which (he thought dully or half-thought) should have struck him as oddest of all.

A woman at the table facing his on the rectangle’s far side put down her fork, arose, touched her face with a napkin, and began in mellifluous tones: “Electha garaban hanshoos nyekti filithi landistride…”

And on and on.  All of the speakers had held forth for perhaps a quarter-hour, though the delicate gilding of twilight never seemed to decay into a red-gray gloaming.  The sky overhead remained a marine-blue, almost a murky emerald, which dispensed entirely with any need for artificial light.

“… ecka tatting strath clarriod forgasthane…”

The movement of knives and forks and goblets was so well integrated with the rhythm of the words that there seemed, almost, a connection, a spiritual bond.  The words were chewed and drunk while the food elicited glittering, limber displays of teeth and tongue.  Ideas were ingested, and thrilling caresses were elocuted.

“… stobiasthena gubrum nottle frodoy…”

It was surely significant (of something he lacked energy to capture) that he had not once even lowered his eyes to his plate.  To say that he felt not in the least hungry would have fallen far short.  He could not so much as imagine hunger right now.  He had not been hungry for days… he could not remember eating.

“… horo vacum durabno notchalk.”

The woman sat, and he (for no reason, through no order of procession that he could grasp) stood up.  The diners continued to feast without a pause.

“Though beauty is the most real thing in our world,” he began, “it is the least so.”

Fine words: but what he heard was, “Lagmudi claggor istfani alla diplankto…”

Not once, not one day (he said), could I live on what I have seen…

“Kall depayu ace stho nyemini legdi avock.”

Yet on every day of my life (he said),

“Regdani karpalmem fasthiu…”

His fist struck the linened table–striking down with knuckles like a punch, not flat with lowered elbow.  China plates and silverware clattered.  The brick had now fully turned to granite, and the sky’s emerald grew less murky by the instant.

“I see what I do not see.  I see what I see, and I see in it and through it what is not quite there.  I see… oh, wall clocks and smoke detectors and… doorstops and keyboards and nail polish on long nails, keys to desk drawers, wall sockets, potted plants, lost thumb tack between carpet and molding, girl with soccer ball in tin frame with bar code on back… hummingbird feeders and bumper stickers… a belt forgotten under a bed, and… and a Mason jar full of old picture hangers, and commencement programs and Sunday comics and 501k annual reports, cough drops and a plastic kid’s stethoscope and bubble-wrap, lots and lots of bubble-wrap from Christmas… coffee mugs and an empty cell phone case and a weed-eater’s instruction manual, mouse traps and mouse pads, Safeway cheddar slices, gravel from the leaf-blower downloaded in shrink-wrap from Nike tread onto Title Nine X-Boxes with zero transfat.  Mudlia camflick sistark lolachavik!”

He could hear nervous rustling all around him now, could hear no more silver on china, but he watched intently what he thought might be the first star.

“If I could not see what I was not seeing… oh, I would drown in it all.  But I see the tear that a woman doesn’t shed.  The little girl that the graying woman used to be–I see her playing alone in the sand with a spoon.  And the man I meant to be in the boy I used to be… a lonely boy who drew knights in colored chalk.  I once saw dead bark in a parking lot where a rotten limb had fallen, and I saw the green shoot it had been.  Why did I do this?  Why did I become this?  But I saw… such beautiful things.  And this is what I never really became, because… my eyes, they wouldn’t see straight.  They have grown worse, perhaps, with age.”

Darkness had fallen over the airport, but traffic bustled brilliantly under pure starlight.  Geometrical shadows with wings took off constantly in joyful noises from the crisp grass (as when a boy plucks a piano’s chord after reaching curiously, mischievously, beneath the lid).  Whatever the limits of his eyesight–or of anyone’s–he could see craft far aloft narrow their spirals toward certain stars, the galaxy spilling before them like a runway.  Radiance rained in sheets.  A typhoon of luminous gold dust threw off musical lightning at a crawl.

“This flight for you, sir?” asked a clever child’s voice.  “Or the next, would you rather?”

“Is there a difference?” he asked.

“No.  But you may stand and watch a while, if you wish.”

“Yes.  Yes, for a bit.”  Then what little dark there was in the night packed itself into a tight round ball and hit him hard beneath the ribs, bouncing into his throat.  “My girls!” he whispered.  “My three girls!”

My girls, he thought.

“Yes.  But, you know, all is well.  Better for looking a little bad.  That’s always the way it is, when it was… that way.  Back there.  You need to try to see.”

He expelled the ball, which departed in something sounding like a “yes”.  And he asked, “How long have I been dead?”

“Do you mean to say, how long were you dead?”

 

John Moseby, a frequent contributor to this journal for years, lives in the Atlanta area.  He is a part-time teacher of composition at several institutions and otherwise devotes his semi-retirement to writing fiction.