8-3 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

8.3 (Summer 2008)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Next Door Burned Ucalegon

Ivor Davies

     Latham cleared his throat as he nestled more deeply into the cushioned armchair beside his office’s one great window, reaching for his best lecture voice.  Its highly practiced modulations were able even to indicate, in some inexplicable but infallible way, the casual misspellings of the print-out that he held as gingerly as holy writ or, perhaps, an item of fingerprint evidence:

I think that the Anead by Virgil features a more sympathy by far to the female heroin.  Dido did not deserve to have what happen to her happen.  She was a graceful lady and did everything to treat Aneas right when he showed up at her door needing everything and having nothing not even so to speak the cloths on his back.  She helped him and he jilted her, leaving her far behind so he could go pursue fame and fortune in far-off Italy where he said the gods needed him.  But if they were the gods why did they need him?  They could have used anyone for their purposes, they being gods and all.  He knew that but deserted Dido anyway.  I feel he felt she was damaged goods so to speak—but he was the one damaged her and now she’s not of interest because she laid down her virginity and all she had for him, so he will be the “love ’em and leave ’em” type because now he is bored.  The gods should never have made Dido fall in love with Aneas, it wasn’t her fault.  But once they made it happen, he didn’t have to play along without him just wanting it that way all along.

Cutting a glance at his distressed auditor, Latham exhorted, “Wait, don’t die yet.  There’s more.  Indeed, the crux of the contrast is imminent, if I am not mistaken.”

Now Medea, there was no sympathy for her that one could have.  Killing her own children just to get back at the man that wronged her!  Jason was no-good, don’t get me wrong, just like Aneas.  But at least Dido didn’t kill any children, and she wouldn’t have if she had any.  She suicided herself in her grief, but she would never have killed her babies.  Medea is one of these bitches who kill their kids just to date some guy who doesn’t want their kids around.  She was a really wicked lady, and she thought it all over and did what would seem like it would really get to Jason, and for no other reason.  She only thought of herself and her ego.  So for that reason I feel that Medea sucks as a female heroin.  You can’t have any sympathy for her at all.  And if Eurypedes was like saying that this is what he thinks all women are like, then I don’t think we should even be reading him because it is just one more slam by a man on women he doesn’t even understand or want to understand, but just trash talk about.

“There, now… now you can heave that terminal sigh.  I’ll even join you.  We will… Jessup, let us suicide ourselves jointly.”

“Not until I’ve made you suffer, in return.  Wait, now… where’s my gem about medieval romance?”  Jessup flipped open a manila folder and mined his jewel from the papery depths with very little effort.  At the same moment, he paddled the swivel chair (which Latham had pressed upon him in artificial politeness, the armchair being infinitely more comfortable) toward the window’s light.  Yet he could not tune his voice, less rich and less mature, to transmit spelling errors through thin air.  In what he began to read, one could only suppose that orthographical mayhem was of the “drive-by” sort, senseless and ubiquitous.

Women in the Middle Ages were either saints or sluts.  There wasn’t any space between the two.  You were either a white plaster saint on a pedestal with your hands clasped together looking up at heaven.  The saints didn’t do anything but be saintly and wait for heaven, obstaining [“Yes, I said ‘obstaining’,” interpolated Jessup, mistrusting his tonal emphasis] from all sex with men and waiting around to get married and have children.  Or else go into a convent.  Or else they were complete sluts, tempting men into bed like prostitutes without brains, just bodies for men to stuff.

Well, the worst of these or a typical example of them, really, was the lady if you can call her that in Gawain and the Green Knight.  She came on to Gawain every single morning that he stayed in their castle.  She would slip through his door wearing a Victoria ’s Secret-type nightie, lock the door behind her (it didn’t say where she put the key) [“’Where’ is spelled ‘w-e-a-r’,” censured Jessup], and plop herself down on his bed.  Then she had her cones in his face the whole time telling him how great his reputation was for the ladies and what a sorry disappointment he was for not jumping her bones right then and there.  You do have to wonder about Gawain.  He says at one point that he didn’t even have a girlfriend, so maybe he just didn’t like girls.  And then there’s all that hugging and kissing of Bar-cilak the husband later on, in which Gawain seems kind of attracted to him.

Latham burst out laughing—seemed, indeed, to explode after a long-sustained partial suppression of laughter.  “What?  No comment about ‘gay was this goodly man in guise all of green’?”

“That’s… elsewhere.  In two or three places.”

“But this really isn’t bad, Jessup… that is, it’s an original, refreshing kind of bad.  In fact, the image of the plaster saint, though proverbial, has long vanished to this generation, and so might be considered a genuine heuristic triumph.  Did this person—is it a ‘he’ or a ‘she’?—did they, as the students say, really write, ‘It didn’t say where she put the key’?  But that’s… that’s choice!  That’s brilliant!  Read no more!  Give the man the prize!  Or is it a coed?”

“Have you forgotten?  All names and other possible references to the author’s identity or gender…”

“Yes, yes, yes.  I had forgotten.  But… wouldn’t you say it’s a lad?  What lassie would ever think about where the lovely seductress might deposit the key?  And then, ‘stuff’ as a metaphor for coition—not to mention ‘cones’—doesn’t sound very feminine to my conventional ear.”

“We’re not really supposed to discuss these matters, Comrade,” retorted Jessup in a mediocre bid for a Russian accent.  “Continue this talk, and I shall have to report you to Komissar Silverstein.”

“It’s a boy, for sure.”

“Well, if it’s not, I’d like to know what side of the brain ‘green nightie’ emerged from.”

What did you say?”

“Later on, the writer refers to the green girdle as the green…”

“Sir Gawain and the green nightie!  Oh, this is exquisite!  We have a winner!  Sir Gawain and the Green Nightie!”

And Latham laughed and snorted until his rather too plush cushion sagged deeply beneath his rather too plush bottom.

“We must give this man—this scholar—his rightful award!  Winner of the 2008 Erma Luftspiegel Award for Best Undergraduate Comparative Essay About Woman’s Historical Struggle!  Applaud, gay knights!  Now let’s fill out the form and go home.”

Jessup smiled, but appeared sincerely perplexed.  “Um… there are a couple of problems.  One minor, the other more formidable.”

“Oh. Jessup!  I trust you’re not going to get hung up on some nugatory concern such as the incoherent argument, the factual blunders about the poem’s content, or the hideous lurching of the writing from one clause to another without regard for finishing an idea.  These are but trifles beside such virtues as a disappearing key and a green nightie!”

“Well, you have identified Objection One.”

“Away with Objection One, I say!  Why, my piece on Dido and Medea had all of said foibles in spades.  The essay is supposed to identify, not a strong hallucinogen, but a heroine who demonstrates initiative in the face of patriarchal oppression.  My piece presents Dido purely as a victim; and while it does promote the view of Medea as a bitch, the word seems to carry none of those positive connotations prized by the contemporary female professional.  The writer seems actually to hate Medea.  Erroneous assertions, such as Dido’s virginity before the arrival of Aeneas, are legion; incoherent ones, such as that the childless Dido wouldn’t have killed her children even though she had none, keep pace.  Grammar is conspicuous by its absence.  So I put it to you that, merely as a display of miserable writing, Green Nightie has nothing whatever on Bad-Ass Ho.”

“You haven’t let me finish.”

“Ah!”  Latham waved with contempt and stared out the window, where the aging day gilded the archaic mansards of Fennimore Hall and the poplars lining the boulevard beyond.  “I think you’re just being difficult, Carlton .  This arbitration business is going to your head.”

The swivel-chair squawked as Jessup leaned back deliberately, eying his colleague like a poker-player about to double the stake on his remaining adversary.  “I don’t intend to put my foot in it, if that’s what you mean.  I’m not exactly as secure as you.”

Secure?  Why, nobody cares about this ridiculous contest…”

“No, probably not.  But somebody does care about getting something on me, and I don’t intend to make it easier.  The contest in itself means nothing, as you say.  But handled wrongly, it could have one very big loser.”

“Ah…” waved Latham again, but with far less conviction.

“Which brings us to Objection Number Two.  If the author of Green Nightie truly turns out to be a male, then…”

“Then we will have given the award to the wrong gender.  Yes, I follow you.”

“And particularly since the essay has so many transparent weaknesses, questions will be raised—and you could hardly blame anyone for raising them—about the motive behind our choice.  Our making a mockery of the whole thing isn’t a case we’d want to expose publicly… but if worse came to worst, it might even be said that we weren’t clowning around at all—that we were just looking for a male to give the nod.”

“No, you’re wrong there,” interrupted Latham keenly, frowning at the semi-rural, now traffic-less boulevard.  “No, the accusation would read that, as involuntary but incorrigible sexists, we had nosed our way to one of the more repulsive male entries—and there are probably few enough male entries, which makes it worse—because the scent of keg parties and porn flicks overcame our intelligence.  The inadvertence of it would make us ten times more despicable.”

“So you do know what I mean!”

Latham wrinkled his mouth in a response often elicited by lemon juice.  “What, then, is the alternative?  Choose the entry with the best grammar, or with the least miserable grammar?  That would leave us—and especially you, my young bull’s-eye-bearing straw man—in the middle of yet another mine field.  The moderns would identify you with the ancients; and as the last surviving ancient, I can tell you that such an alliance will not work to your advantage.”

“Do you really have nothing… nothing, you know, a little more respectable in your pile?  This one’s not bad, exactly.  Just… insipid.”

“Yes, we could always go with insipid.  Perhaps even a candidate for graduate study…”

“The grammar and spelling, at least, are… well, not bad.”  Jessup lay the manila folder flat in his lap and cleared his throat:

Women have been recognized as higher beings as our history has advanced from the ancient times.  Before, women were almost like senseless animals.  In the ancient world, they had no rights and were not expected to show any judgment.  Allowed to become rulers [“I’m afraid she wrote ‘a-l-o-u-d’,” whispered Jessup], they ended up falling for the first handsome stranger, like Dido.  As gods, they were childish and always seeking to have their way, like Juno in the Aeneid [“Spelled correctly!” marveled Jessup].  Calypso and Circe were both goddesses and seductive females who couldn’t control themselves.  They fell for the handsome Od… Od-ee-sus [“Hmm…”] thinking only of their lust and not of his wife and child.

Then in the Middle Ages, the Christian Era came.  More was expected of women.  The woman in Marie de France’s Laustic doesn’t even have a sexual act of any kind with the man who lives next door and speaks to her every night at their respective windows.  [“Some rough riding there, I’m afraid.”]  Yet she has committed adultery with him in her heart.  She must go through a painful pinnace [“Uh-oh… chose the wrong option from Spell Check”] because she has broken her marriage vows in her heart for the next door neighbor.  It is as if Marie is telling us that women can now be expected so much of [“Ouch!”] that even a sinful act only imagined is cause for just punishment…

“All right, enough.”

“Can’t do it?”

“You know damn well we can’t.  Besides the fact that her torment at the hands of her monstrous husband is not ‘just punishment’—and I admit, such a misunderstanding of the story is at least not on the level of imputing virginity to Dido—the whole tenor of the thing makes the author sound like a refugee—a reluctant refugee—from the walled-and-armed compound of some polygamous Texas sect of millenarians.  Poor girl—for she is too obviously a girl!  Only imagine how adrift she will feel in her pink pinnace if she ever steers into one of Professor Silverstein’s classes!  I’m shocked to find that we have any such students here.”

“More than you might think.”

“Well, apparently.  But they cannot be allowed—not loudly nor even tacitly allowed—to come close to the Luftspiegel Award.  I’m within a few short years of retirement.”

“You think anti-Christian bias here is that strong?  What about Lodovico’s new book…”

“Oh, Carlton!  Lodovico does the missionary thing in Africa.  That is always above reproach.  What you have just read, in contrast, makes it sound not only as though having sex with a man of her choice may sometimes be a sin for a woman, but as though the mere thought of it may be so.  I’m telling you, this would… how can you…”

“Okay, okay.  I had shuffled it to the back of the folder, as you may have noticed before I started reading.  But we were talking about good grammar—or less-than-terrible grammar—and…”

“A secondary criterion.  Even tertiary.  Forget about it.  Make it a tie-breaker, if we can find a tie.”

Jessup seemed distinctly disappointed in the response.  His blondly innocent expression wandered neither out into the gathering evening nor in upon the seamlessly bookshelved walls, but inward, crinkling behind a clenched fist.  At last he murmured, as if to himself, “I knew this was a trap.”

“A trap?  This stupid contest?  God, no, it’s not a trap!  Why would it be that?  It’s just something nobody else wanted to do.  I was too old and slow-moving to get out of the way, and you… you were not in a position to say ‘no’ to any request of your chair, especially a tedious one with no promise of glory.  For those are the chores reserved for you poor sods who dangle from thin threads.”

“But if I don’t acquit myself well of this meaningless task…”

“Yes, I know.  But that’s always true.  You might say something wrong to the Vice President at a reception.  That doesn’t make the reception a trap… not really.  Only if you want to go through life being perfectly miserable.”

“But… but I think Dana really doesn’t like me.  I think that’s why she sets me up at times like these—she really is waiting for me to stumble over my own feet.”

“Which you will not do—you’ve already stopped me from dragging us both down on a whim.  And Dana… I can’t tell that she’s ever liked anyone.  For her, the world is made up of superiors to be fawned upon, adversaries to be cleverly assassinated, and underlings to be treated with the utmost contempt.  You and I qualify for the last, you because you haven’t been around long enough to fit the second category, I because my silver years have demoted me from any competitive ranking.  Contempt is not hatred, however.  It may well be the emotion with whose recipients she is most comfortable.”

Latham had perked up in his armchair, flapping his hands and working his mellifluous voice for effect.  He stopped short now in mid-breath, observing that his colleague had scarcely lifted his eyes.

“Damn old lady Luftspiegel, anyway!  An obscenely wealthy widow with time on her hands… so she takes night classes at the local liberal arts college, where she is introduced by Rhoda Witzinger—long before your time—to the mysteries and wonders of feminist revisionism and has a kind of epiphany about her own life.  Oh, she saw other mysteries and wonders, too… but this one resulted in that damned award, which—to be fair—was really a logical-seeming next step to the guru’s teachings.  Why not open up the entirety of history to close examination for signs of women throwing off the yoke?  Trouble was… we had jettisoned all our ancient and medieval courses by then!  Nothing left but the sophomore survey that even mentioned Dante’s name.  Did any of your Ciceros mention Dante, by the way?”

“Um…”  Engrossed in Latham’s words, Jessup was somewhat ambushed by the question.  “Yes.  Um… Green Nightie did, as a matter of fact.  That was his example of a plaster saint.  Beatrice… Dante’s wife!  His dead wife….  But this is all fascinating about the award.  I never knew any of it.  So this Luftspiegel had been a student…”

“A very wealthy student.  She first wanted to endow an entire new Department of Gender Studies, but cooler heads prevailed, and the Luftspiegel Library was born.  The award was kind of a consolation prize for her literary designs gone awry.  Only, as I was saying, there were now no students capable of writing intelligently upon the very historical periods she wished to have illumined in all their villainy, because the courses addressing such periods had been airbrushed from the catalogue as punishment for their evil deeds…”

“But they couldn’t turn down the contest—the award.”

“Oh, no!  So much free publicity in so many varieties…”

“But now it was just a prize for someone taking the sophomore world lit survey…”

“Not even that, for a while.  Right after the old lady’s death, during the competition’s first cycles, it was an award for the best senior essay on Madame Bovary or Sister Carrie or Sister Souljah or… or Françoise Sagan, how the hell do I know?  Of course, the writing was far better… but the period, the modern focus, was all wrong.  Frau Luftspiegel had specified that ancient and medieval literature should be the targets on the firing range.  And her son and heir, to whom the gene for being a pain in the ass was passed along, had noticed this in one of his rare encounters with the written word.”

“And so how long has the contest been…”

“Particularly idiotic?  Oh, four or five years.  Just before you came, I should say.  So, you see, you could view yourself as stepping into a trap… but there are others in this department who probably view you as their savior, if not their lord.”

“You’re making me feel better already!”

Jessup’s weak witticism clearly signaled that a cloud remained low over his head, and now the two of them fell to brooding in tandem.  After all, fascinating though the contest’s history might be, its present cycle still possessed certain qualities of an unexploded land mine.

After a moment, Latham emitted a sort of laughing sniff, without even opening his mouth, and started thumbing through his stack of papers with apparent purpose..  Soon he announced, “Here, now!  This is one that almost would do… or I suppose might do in response to the proverbial loaded gun pressed to my head.  When your last paper was discussing goddesses—whom it very diplomatically, if tastelessly, referred to as gods—it set me to thinking of this one.  Goddesses, you will notice, are but so many girls facing The Great Struggle with the rest of the sisterhood.  Their divinity amounts to an aristocratic social class… not that social class is recognized as a lifestyle determinant of equal value to gender in any of these screeds.  Marx, thy body lies a-moldering.”

And fishing out a slender mass of stapled pages, he cleared his throat once more.  “Well… let me find yet another purple passage.  Black-and-blue, more like…”

I liked Athena the best.  She would be my nominee for a lady who really showed advancement and self-independence.  [A pause for a sigh….]  She wanted her man Odysseus back home, and she even went up against the great Zeus to demand her wishes.  She was there for him when he got back home, too.  She guided him in the fight and made sure that he was not hurt.  She was crafty and smart, even disguising herself on many occasions.  Other female goddesses were not this way at all.  They were like spoiled children.  Hera tried to ruin all of Zeus’s plans because she hated the Trojans because of the Judgment of Paris, and she continued to destroy everything he tried to do when she became Juno and he became Jove later in history.  She seemed not to have a brain, just her passionate fury.  She did trick Jove once by sleeping with him so that the Trojans could be killed, but this was not being smart.  It reminded me of the prostitute in Gilgamesh who just slept with people to get them to loose their power.  Athena would never have done that, because she didn’t sleep with anyone.  It wasn’t clear to me if she just didn’t like men or was waiting for someone special.  She obviously was not completely ruled by sex though and could hold out for something better.  I wouldn’t want to live completely without sex, but I like it that she was not dominated by men.  She was going to choose the man she wanted.  I felt like she really wanted to choose Odysseus, but she also liked Penelope and didn’t want to break up their relationship.  She was just a good person as well as a strong one.  I would love to have someone like her as a friend.  When I read the book, I just keep saying, “You go, girl!” everytime [“One word…”] she pops into a scene….

“Whew!  I’m afraid I can go no farther!”

“But you’re right, Latham.  It has possibilities.  At least she’s smart enough—my God, there’s not any pretense of this one concealing her gender identity, is there?  But at least she’s smart enough to keep her sentences short and avoid major grammatical gaffes.  I know you don’t want to valorize grammar particularly… but there seem to be few other mistakes, either.  Perhaps looking only at the Odyssey’s Athena and ignoring her conduct in the Iliad is tendentious, but I see such things as that in scholarly journals.”

The paper cracked so loudly in Latham’s impatiently waved hand that Jessup gave a mild start.  His older colleague, having turned toward the window again—very abruptly—didn’t notice the effect.  “Bah!  I… I can’t do it!”

“You mean… because of the sorority-sister tone?”

“That’s exactly what I mean!  I tell them and tell them when I teach the survey that they must not evaluate the gods as if they projected human standards.  Yet they do it anyway!  Athena is, as you say, a new pledge attending rush—or a cool lady, a good person, a chummy companion.  ‘You go, girl!’  My God, I hate that expression!  I think I hate it almost as much as that incomparably repellent popular ditty—repellent in every way, from mawkish lyrics and swaggering tempo to witless, stomach-churning, narcissistic optimism—the one that began… oh, you know the thing.  Even your generation must know it.  What was it?  ‘I am woman, see me go, watch me grow… nyah-nyah-nyah…  I am invincible.’  Invincible, for Christ’s sake!  If there is any lesson at all in the classics, Jessup—if there is one most basic lesson to which all others distill—it is the admonition against hubris.  No one is invincible!  I could slip on the stairs on my way out tonight… oh, but if a woman slips, then the college must be sued for negligence—or else it is the wicked programming of a sexist society which victimized her by placing high heels on her feet!  I could have blood in my urine tomorrow—I could be dead of cancer in a month.  But if a woman dies of cancer, it’s because not enough pink ribbons have been affixed to enough minivans—because society continues to evince a callous sexist indifference to lumps in breasts!  Why, the natural state for any woman is immortality!  That goes without saying!  She is invincible!  Anything short of that is a plot, an evil plot!  Well, I’m sick of it, do you hear?”

“I…”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong.”  Now Latham struggled to lower his voice, which had surged to a low shout with stunning speed and with no show of irony.  He gazed into the violet sky with near-mesmeric intensity, perhaps afraid to look at his companion before he had shored up several tottering bridges between honesty and respectability.  “I have two daughters, you know.  God forbid that they should have lived before feminism.  I can’t imagine them wasting their lives answering phones or… or producing baby cretins for some prematurely balding philistine stockbroker.  But this invincibility folderol… who would want his own child, or anybody else’s, released into life’s jaws picturing herself as invincible?  Why, it’s criminal!  I suppose that’s why these girls simply cannot be brought to understand that the representation of goddesses in ancient texts is no window into the lives of human women—because it seems natural to them that women should be gods!  What is invincible, but a god?”

Jessup raised his brows affably and nodded without looking Latham’s way, as if wanting to appear sympathetic but not trusting his eyes to show a proper depth of sympathy.  His hands had slipped from the manila folder to grip the frail leathered arms of the swivel chair—to secure them, perhaps, against any attempt at squealing.

“I… oh my God, how I must have shocked you just now!  That was quite an outburst!  I don’t quite know where it came from…”

“No, no, no!  It’s very interesting, really.  I mean, I had never thought of it that way.”  Jessup pondered his next words for another instant, then chanced a peak at his colleague.  “I suppose the feminist argument would be… that we cannot allow ourselves to be locked into immutable truths, because then progress would become impossible.  I mean, the existing power structure could always deny freedoms to its minions on the reasoning that freedom had already been pushed to its limits.”

“Yes, but… but invincible?”

“I’m not saying that I agree with that position.  I’m just saying that I can understand why… why the progressive argument would be reluctant to admit the classical argument.  There could be abuse…”

“Well, I suppose that’s the nutshell case for why the classics were thrown overboard.  No more immutable truths.  Not because they don’t exist, but because it would be impossible to distinguish between them and an abuse of power…”

“Mind you, I’m not saying that I agree with that point of view!”

“No… no, of course not.  But you state it very well.  And… and it has merit.  Yes.”  Latham’s stare had imperceptibly worked its way to the worn pine flooring which separated his laced shoes from his partner’s loafers.  What he found there seemed to be far more sobering than anything he had read in the sunset.  “So you would like to give the laurel to this essay, then?”

“Oh, no!  Not at all!  That wasn’t my intent… I mean, I think the tone is too… too ‘ OMG ’.  You know—like a text-message from one coed to another.  I agree with you about that.  I really do.  But… but we’re going to have to pick something.”

“Something.  Yes.  And it’s getting very late.”

“Very late… yes.  We have to have something by tomorrow.  I should have agreed to meet earlier this week, but… but I had a stack of essays to return on Wednesday.”

“Ah….”  Latham’s characteristic gesture of dismissal turned his vision back out the great window.  He seemed to do a double-take, shifting from moody abstraction to specific interest.  The outermost, western-most mansard of Fennimore Hall had caught fire in a late, low streak of sunlight, its old panes as hotly silver-white as a new star.  When would those panes have been forged in a real flame?  Almost two hundred years ago… unless someone had clambered up three stories on a scaffold to replace them while the sashes were being painted.  And why would they ever need replacing, those panes, in two hundred years?  Hail damage?  But they would be small and thick, hard to crack.  Their inequities probably bent outside images in strange ways to the insider’s eye, cast prismatic rainbows in strange spots across an old throw-rug or hardwood floor.  And who would be sitting in that room day after day to enjoy the quaint distortions wrought by past’s crude hammer?  What lowly bureaucrat would be relegated to such a high office?  Perhaps it was a broom closet….

“I’m willing to go along with whatever you choose,” uttered Jessup’s voice very softly.

Latham roused himself.  “Plan B.”

“Plan…”

“B.  Subterfuge.  Create a prize essay.  The students do it all the time—download a paper from the Internet.  Why in the ever-loving hell couldn’t one of them do it this time?”

“Maybe they did.”

“Jesus, there’s a truly frightening thought!  I wonder how much they had to pay?”

“But probably not.  If the contest had been for a grade instead of a thousand-dollar prize, then  they would have plagiarized.  A grand doesn’t mean much to them, even though all of them are always broke.”

“But the contest session was monitored—I forgot about that.”

“Doesn’t mean a thing.  The terminals in the lab were all taken off-line for the occasion, but … but cell phones are always smuggled into any exam, in my experience.  The kids can access the Internet on a screen smaller than your palm and copy whatever they find.”

“Can they, now?  Damn them for resourceful little bastards!  I never knew that.  Still… the monitoring presents a problem.”

“Let me get this straight: you’re going to download an essay from the Internet…”

No, no, no, no.  No, Jessup.  I’m going to write an essay.  To be precise, I’m going to re-write a very good essay I received early in the term… something about Marguerite de Navarre.  The girl who wrote it… Haley Ngyuyen, do you know her?  No?  Well… very bright.  Sharp as the proverbial tack.  But lazy.  At least… I couldn’t get her to sacrifice one afternoon and go rewrite the thing, essentially, for the Luftspiegel competition.  I think she said she had to be at work!  Imagine thinking of filthy lucre at such a time, when the door of eternal glory cracks open to admit you… with a thousand bucks sitting on the other side.  Surely that represents a lot of tips, even today!  But… but since the session was monitored, there will be a record of attendees… and that complicates matters.  Do you happen to know who did the monitoring?”

“You mean that thankless, menial chore for no extra pay and carrying no recognition for services rendered?”

“Jessup!  You sly dog!  Very well, then, we’re in.  I’ll rewrite Haley’s essay tonight, being certain to introduce a solecism here and there in homage to the occasion’s haste, but not anything of the sort that would indict the girl’s native intelligence.  In fact, I intend to spruce up the content, just a bit.  Haley is a worthy cause.  The money will be welcome, she will do credit to the institution… and her demographic profile, as you might say, is a public relations officer’s dream.  I suspect she is probably even Buddhist.”

“But… but how will you explain it to Haley?  She wasn’t there, and… and if she sees the rewritten essay…”

“Trifles, Jessup, trifles.  I shall tell her that several entries were culled from classroom essays because too few students appeared at the designated time.  I’ll also say that it’s entirely conventional for the winning essay to undergo a tiny bit of rewriting for publication in the student literary journal and elsewhere.  How’s she ever going to know otherwise?”

The swivel chair squawked like a badly wounded partridge as Jessup fell back with full impact, dazed.  “It’s brilliant!”

“But you,” pursued Latham, heaving himself from his plush chair with miraculous new life (and stumbling forward almost upon Jessup’s loafers), “you will have to obtain another entry form and fill it out properly, including—especially including—the correct date.”

The older don’s papers had spilled all over the floor in his remarkable leap.  He now stepped over them and gave a cat-like stretch, his back and balding head to the window.  The younger man, still smiling, leaned from the swivel chair to reach tentatively for one of the fallen essays.

“Oh, leave it!  The cleaning lady will retrieve them all.  ‘Lady’, indeed!  Athena demoted to a lady, the charwoman promoted to one… no comrade workers, all of us lords and ladies.  What a brave new world for us,  Jessup!  And you see, don’t you, that with a little subterfuge… you are invincible!”

Jessup laughed—almost.  He blinked, and smiled more broadly, and blinked.

“In fact,” murmured Latham around a wagging finger, swaying back toward his colleague as the two hovered over their briefcases, “it occurs to me that you have a chance at a real coup here.  Not simply a dodge of the proverbial bullet… but a real coup.”

“How… how do you mean?”

“This exercise has made me realize how damaging is the survival of the classics even in our watered-down sophomore survey.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  To see these young imbeciles bandying about Homer, Virgil, Dante, as if they were so many… ah, what’s the phrase?  Those insipid comic-book dildos that they paste all over websites… clip-art!  The classics are nothing but clip-art to this generation.  They’re a strategy for low-level rhetorical points.  ‘Give me my promotion, you loathsome white male!  Do you take me for Dante’s Beatrice, to be thus walked over?  Do you expect me to do your dirty-work forever, like Enkidu’s prostitute?  I have a lawyer who, like Circe, can change you into a pig!’  It is my opinion—my considered opinion—that we should stop doing this.  It advances no one and nothing.  It desecrates the memory of great texts, and… and it impedes our young charges from… from credibly making the kind of sales pitch that they do so well among those of their kind and in their own lingo.  The classics are dead.  They have no relevance to this generation… or probably to future generations.  Let them rest in peace.  Erase the sophomore survey from the books—at least its first half.  History begins with the eighteenth century.  That’s what you need to tell them, the whole department, the next time a curricular discussion arises.  You’ll have them all on board—particularly Dana.  Give that little spiel of yours about the contradiction between immutable truth and progress.  Make them see that we are actually standing in the way of progress as long as we keep burdening impressionable young minds with ancient ideas.  Make them see that it is their moral duty to declare that nothing happened before the eighteenth century.”

Jessup had turned a shade paler—or perhaps the sun had finally started to dip behind the distant poplars.  His upper teeth might have glinted in a smile… or they might have been shaping a word which refused to take wing.

“Don’t like the idea?” coaxed Latham.

“Well, I… but I rather like some of those old texts.  And my Chaucer class…”

“Your Chaucer class is upper-division, and would of course remain untouched.  I’m just pointing out to you how we could… how we could spare texts we both admire this obscene kind of death agony, how we could spare our underclassmen the misery of suffering through authors they can’t understand and will only grow to hate—and, oh, by the way, how you could both remove some of Silverstein’s suspicion of you and ensure that we would never again pass an afternoon like this one.  For the rules of the Luftspiegel competition would have to be completely overhauled.  Luftspiegel fils, the son and heir, would have no choice but to comply.  We could return to our piles of essays about Madame Bovine-Ovary, a hallowed ground we never should have left.”

“Well… I…”

“Think about it.  No need to make up your mind soon.  But there is a need—a pressing need—for you to construct an entry form for Haley Ngyugen.  ‘N-g-y’… Vietnamese origin, you know.”

“Oh, really?  Oh.”

“Yes.  And do it tonight.  You do the form and I’ll do the essay.  You’ll be making a first-generation hard-working legal American very happy.”

This time, Jessup was laughing less obstructedly, in the vicinity of merrily, as Latham escorted him out his office’s door with a mild push on the shoulder.  Then the older man—the no-longer-young Full Professor—shuffled very slowly back to his desk, where he allowed his briefcase to collapse upon the blotter.  After some hesitation and heaving a very deep sigh, he grunted uncertainly, laboriously, to his knees, balancing his descent against the desk, and began to collect the scattered papers.

 

Ivor Davies has been a frequent contributor of humorous stories about academe to this journal for many years.  He resides in the southeastern United States, but prefers for his institutional connections to remain undivulged.