9-2 story

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

9.2 (Spring 2009)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Memento Mori

Ivor Davies

     All of us imagine saying words, sometimes for months or years, which we would never ever allow to leak out of our mouths in an unguarded instant.  The intimate familiarity of the phrase, born of innumerable daydreamt rehearsals, is usually no lubricant at all to the outside world: passage from fantasy to reality remains unthinkable.  Were it otherwise, the institution of marriage would vanish, Tourette Syndrome would be diagnosed more often than the common cold, and listening to a politician would risk becoming informative.

It was with a paralyzing shock, therefore, that Molchak heard himself say to a class of two dozen freshmen one fine morning (a composition class, where discussions of racism, abortion, and gay marriage had already incited one sobbing breakdown and one shouting match over the long weeks) the following absurd words, which he had only ever imagined before over a Scotch-on-the-rocks on a lonely Saturday evening:

“I’m dying.”

Moments earlier, there had been an accidental silence as he was trying to air the ideas in the Kubler-Ross essay on death.  In the back of his mind, he had been trying to determine—as he did so often, and could now do rather well—whether the discussion’s relative flaccidity suggested an indifference to the subject more than a virgin innocence of exposure to the assignment.  The latter was always the proper explanation in at least 25% of cases on any given day… but even the three or four students who always bloviated away regardless of the topic (and of their exposure to relevant printed matter) had sat cheek in hand.  Not even texting or prodding their neighbors to peek at a laptopped image from FaceBook… just brooding, like castaways in an open boat with no supplies.  He had sensed the response’s unique oddity.  Here was a subject—death—that you really didn’t need to read about in order to find stimulus or provocation.  Everybody died.  Or did these ringed-and-tattooed culture warriors suppose, with their smooth cheeks and smooth brows, that they would never reach his age, let alone their forties and fifties?  As they dwelt in the Internet’s eternal Now, did they suppose that they would remain eighteen forever?

He stared hard into his rostrum, trying to recover the sound of his own voice.  Perhaps he had not really said it.  Having thought it so often in his empty apartment—“I’m dying”—while lounging on the sofa where he often slept the night away, perhaps the part of his brain entrusted with this playful recitation had simply flitted across the silence for a little exercise.

But a glance up at the first row of students convinced him that the voice in his ears had arrived there from his mouth.  Emily, who always sat front-and-center, seemed to have opened her eyes almost as wide as the thick lenses before them.  Cody, the baseball stud (whose coach exacted perfect attendance of the team), had surrendered the worldly-wise cock of his head, the visor of his eternal cap having leveled off perfectly.  Deandrion actually appeared interested, as if never having entertained the notion that white people, too, sometimes die out of season.

There was still time to… not to take it back, but to reshape it.  To vaporize the horror with a few more words.  Of course, we’re all dying.  You’re dying, too.  Yet as irresponsibly and unforgivably as those three syllables had slipped from his teeth, Molchak found that they had immediately captured a majesty which intimidated him from refinement.  After all, who was to say that he was not dying—dying in some sense far more imminent than the universal one?  He could be dead by this evening, perhaps shredded in a car wreck or shot by a deranged student… though that sense, indeed, was also universal, nor did it qualify for the imperfective aspect in dying.  Perhaps he had cancer and didn’t know it.

More than anything, though, he sincerely felt that he was dying inside—something in him, if not exactly the body which held the something.  He had been feeling this way, very palpably, for a long time now.  The Sibylline letters, “I’m dying,” had seemed to coalesce drily at the glassy bottom of every Scotch or beer he drained.  Even when he would go jogging an ambitious mile (for he had all but renounced booze after a scene with his father last Christmas—the college-professor son back at the humble homestead, caught in a trough between past and future), he would feel, curiously, that the salutary burst of physical activity was only using up his soul.  More than anything, he could not gainsay or finesse his horrible announcement because he found it, upon consideration, to be deeply true.

Melissa, the Buxom Blonde Christian, was about to ask him why—why was he dying?  Of what?  Was there anything he could do—anything she could do?  It was coming… he could see it bubbling up from those two magnificent breasts.

“Read the assignment next time, huh?” he smiled gently at his rostrum with a wave of the hand.  “Now get out of here.  Go soak up some springtime rays.”

Needlessly arranging his notes and gradebook, he listened to the silent scuff and rustle of exiting bodies in fascination.  Fascinating, that people could find absolutely nothing to say at such moments… fascinating, that he had moved them to so human a state—now they were just “people”, like the rest of the world—when they had been so full of contempt for over-twenties during the racism discussion a week ago.  Ever bourgeois, just beneath the surface.  And still more fascinating, that he was allowing them to exit and spread the word, the horrible word, like a tide going out with toxic waste in its rustling hems.  What on earth was he thinking?

A heavy vapor of perfume.  He looked up from his briefcase.

“I’ll pray for you!” whispered Melissa excitedly, her steady gaze shouting a heavenly blue.

He realized just then that he had foreseen her every word, even though he had been blind-sided by his own.  And he heard more words from another favorite fantasy—but this time kept safely under decorum’s lid: I’ll pray with you if you’ll sleep with me!  Had that played some part in The Announcement—his fantasy of killing a mattress under Melissa, an introverted, boring bachelor’s fantasy?  Had some particle of his motive been to create this instant?

Molchak couldn’t fight off a smile, so he gave it the best alibi he could.  “I… I’d like that.  Thank you.”

*

      One thing was for sure, he mused during the following free period in his office: when word did get out, his position would be no worse around campus than it already was.  His chance at tenure was already shot to hell, and he had already decided not to re-apply next year: going through all this a second time really would drive him to his grave.  His publications were satisfactory but not spectacular—none of his ideas was politically “edgy” enough to find favor with the most celebrated journals.  His institutional service consisted of grinding out hours on mean-nothing committees to which he was assigned precisely because he was the lowest grimace on the totem pole—well, that and the fact that he was temperamentally incapable of mounting a loud, righteous protest.  The students evaluated his teaching at the very bottom of the “average” range (he did not “arouse” or “stimulate” them, wrote Aldredi predictably in annual reviews, unconsciously equating college instruction to a species of pornography).

He was lackluster.  He was neither very bad at anything nor very good.  To the question, “Why fire him?” the obvious answer would always be, “Why not?”  Tenure was supposed to be special, like admission into heaven: if many were not denied, what would be the virtue of the accepted?  His lot—the lot of that horde of the lackluster which he represented (and he could easily have checked off his brethren on any class roster after two weeks of meetings)—was to ennoble the few by remaining among the many.  He made interviewers more aware of the dynamism and energy they sought by mulling over questions, refusing to effervesce on cue, and generally displaying the conductivity of cold mud.  He made women more aware of an exciting date or a possible mate by talking about Dostoevsky, not laughing when there was nothing to laugh at, and generally defining the polarity of perfect tedium.  If only he could rent his services out through some kind of agency… “A night on the town with Molchak: discover all that you are not looking for”… “Submit your employer to Molchak: teach him to appreciate you.”

The final pronouncement on tenure was supposed to have reached him long before Spring Break, but he had not even been able to summon enough nerve to ask the verdict of Aldredi.  To his own gloomy sense that the outcome could be presupposed was added a certain noxious condescension from his chair—an impatient but gentle recognition which he had never known before—in the mail room, the hall, the faculty lounge; this evasion, as if Aldredi dreaded being forced to pronounce the death sentence in so many words and was mildly grateful every time Molchak spared him, sealed the deal.  A few more weeks, and then no job.  Nor any prospects for another job—not this kind of job, the kind he had kidded himself for years of graduate school would give him all the fulfillment that driving a UPS truck hadn’t.

Under the circumstances, he concluded (deleting all his new e-mails in a sudden rush of nihilistic freedom), he was glad that they would all soon know of his impending death.  Let them know.  Let them stew in it.  Let them take it home to supper, bubbling in their gut like a dirty little bacterium, as they delayed writing unpleasant letters and sidestepped him to arrange interviews for his position.  Let them fully realize that they were cutting off a man—a real man, not just a stat knocking around at the bottom of the “average” pool—to meet his death without friends or resources.  Let them cram all that in their social-progressive pipe of compassion, bring the pipe to a nice red glow, and then stick the whole thing up their…

A sheepish knock at his not-quite-closed door.  He cried the “come in” without even pausing to consider what look a dying man should be wearing on his face.

What were their names, now… the buddies of the second row?  Jessica (bean-pole tall, stringy hair, wire-framed glasses) and Dolores (Latin-svelte, melting faun-dark eyes, a bit of an overbite—not unbecoming)….  Fairly regular attendance, both of them… Jessica had once approached a B on a paper… Dolores wrote with sincere fervor, but only in the “I… me… you… we” chatter of a conversation before the Coke machine.  Now, coke was one thing he had never tried—or scarcely even weed.  He had been a rarity in grad school that way.  If they would only give professors drug tests, like A-Rod and Roger Clemens, he would suddenly be catapulted to stardom in the vast gap created by mass-suspensions….

“I wanted to turn in my second essay,” Jessica finally murmured, fingering a pair of sheets thinner than their staple.  “You said that I could turn it in late, without penalty.  You remember… I told you that my grandmother d—… that she, that she passed….”

The bridge crumpled under passed, which came out sounding very like pissed as the girl dropped her chin onto her sternum and stiff-armed the paper in his direction, bidding to hide behind it, apparently.  Dolores picked up the slack.

“I… I have mine, too!” she warbled; anyone would have thought that she was giving him a going-away present.  What a beautiful smile budded from her mild overbite!  “I mean… not my second essay, but the one due on Friday.  I won’t be there.  We have a cross-country meet.  I showed you the note from my coach… remember?”

Molchak wondered what it would have been like to inhabit an Hispanic/Catholic pelt and have some tawny, voluble, doe-eyed thing bearing one yearly babies and serving one evening cervesas.  He couldn’t tell how the typical Hispanic male would hold any advantage over him, as a catch.  His skin wasn’t mottled, his teeth were straight, he was no shorter than average (if no taller), and he hadn’t ever drunk enough beer to build a paunch.  He could see why the Melissas of the world were saving their treasures for something in the Donald Trump line, but he retained just enough Catholicity himself to feel indignant at their bargaining powers.  A Dolores would not have been half bad….

“I could have her send you an e-mail, if you don’t remember…”

“No, no, no,” he sighed with a wave of the hand (a gesture which he suspected of being his signature move).  “I remember.  Off to go running.  Hard on the knees, isn’t it?”

“Only if you step in a hole!” Dolores laughed.  Yes, a surround-sound of laughter like that would have been some compensation for the loss of Melissa’s… amplitude of other surrounding qualities.  There was more than one way to pray.  There was oh, God! and fall on your knees in rapture… and then there was listening to the sparrows in the sunlight at your window.

“It’s… it’s not very good.  But I tried to make it more like what you said you wanted.  I’m going to get a B from you if it’s the last thing I do!  I mean, the last thing before… before the semester ends.”

“Well, the semester will probably end before I do, if that’s what’s eliciting this rash of submissions.”

“No!  I… we just…”

“We just thought… it seemed like a good time to…”

“Yes, a good time.  The present is always a good time.  You never know.”

And as he tidily aligned the two papers with a couple of taps on his desk, Molchak had the satisfaction of glimpsing Dolores’s lower lip, thrust prettily out by her slightly too salient teeth, begin to tremble.

*

    The news spread the way the weather warmed.  You never actually perceived the shift, yet it was unmistakable as the days wore on.  Students in all his classes—not just the section of composition where he had made The Announcement—began to follow his rambling with riveted attention, as if expecting him to fall dead in mid-sentence.  (What if he had—what would be the advantage of immediate awareness?  A lightning call to 911?  A rush to lift his short-circuiting brain off the hard floor?  [Melissa first, please.]  A chance to tell a ripping yarn in detail later on—maybe to capture his death, like Saddam Hussein’s, on a cell phone and post it on the Net?)  His languid jokes were laughed at, his non-sequiturs overlooked.  Reading assignments were not completed any more thoroughly nor writing assignments performed any more thoughtfully; but attendance, oddly enough, swelled and stabilized, and discussions grew… for lack of a better word… respectful.

The same… respect… seemed to infect the faculty.  In the mailroom and the lounge as in classes, a tacit kind of stricture appeared to forbid any direct questioning.  (That was the one thing he had feared originally—questions on the order of, “What are you suffering from?  How long did they give you?  Have you seen a specialist?”)  Molchak often puzzled over the phenomenon.  Did his colleagues suppose that he would break down—that the last thing he wanted was to be reminded of the grim hand poised above him?  Did they assume that the diagnosis might imply certain indiscretions, like visiting gay bars or sharing the blood of an inferior race?  The secretaries, in particular, treated him like a nine-year-old leukemia patient, feigning maternal smiles and hovering over him with maternal concern; but even faculty members who had never spoken to him turned almost chatty.  The German sociologist deemed a higher order of being since a five-minute spiel about transsexuals aired on Larry King once inquired of him if he found the weather to his liking.

Weston Aldredi still wouldn’t give him the time of day regarding the tenure decision (the foregone conclusion that never needed deciding)… but even these evasions had now assumed a new character.  No more was Aldredi the benign maitre-d’ saddled with the unsavory task of informing an out-of-towner that his attire was inadequate for admission into the club.  Now the out-of-towner had been shot on the club’s doorstep and was bleeding out: Jeeves’s unpleasant duty had been preempted by mortality, and he could only hold the unfortunate in his arms as he cried for help.  Molchak enjoyed the turned-tables effect very much, indeed.  For once, he was in control.  The supercilious frauds in the club could only peek timidly through the drapes at the death’s head on the sidewalk and wet their perfectly creased pants.

He was half-surprised to find himself solicitously invited to the semester’s end departmental soirée… and half not.  (Against the terror of inviting the death’s head would have been weighed the inhumanity of ignoring a colleague in his final days—and the fact that the colleague had already been slated for professional execution would only lump a heavy dose of guilt into the “humanity” side of the scale.)  Molchak in fact had little inclination to kill off an evening at Aldredi’s manse, listening to the tenure-track people attempt awkward thrusts of one-upmanship while the fully tenured people reminisced about the sixties or grew so tipsy that they started romancing each others’ mates.  After all, he didn’t have a lot of time left… to live, to die, to find a job, or whatever.  Yet when he expressed some of these reservations as diplomatically as possible to Ellen in the office next door, she vaguely threatened to bring the party to his apartment.  Perhaps supposing that he was unable to drive (sudden blackouts?  seizures?), she insisted on showing up with her significantly “other” other—a disturbingly attractive female muscle-builder who taught Fitness and always wore sleeveness tops—to transport him to the affair.

“So what exactly is the matter with you?” asked the Body-Builder out of the blue, his door scarcely closed.  Molchak, from the back seat, could see Ellen try to swallow her throat in the rear-view mirror.

“It’s… congenital.”

“Ah.  Been misbehaving, hmm?”

“No.  I mean that it’s… you know.  Inherited.  As old as the human race.  The mechanism of evolution works very slowly sometimes in weeding out the inferior.  I will be one more of my kind, at least, that doesn’t reproduce.  So you might say that I am serving the cause of progress.”

It was far, far more than he had ever said on the subject before (having never before been questioned)—and certainly more, as well, than he had ever planned out in the event of a question.  He was amazed at the ease with which the words flowed forth.  To his ear, it all had a ring of complete truth—and to his mind, it all enjoyed a strange justification.

“You look pretty healthy, all the same,” muttered Muscles from the front passenger seat, turning over an exquisite bare shoulder whose golden hairs caught the low sun like a fruit in the bowl of some still-life painting.  Ellen was starting to fidget visibly.

“So do you,” smiled Molchak at the shoulder.

“What?  What do you mean by that?”

“I mean you look pretty healthy.  You know… like that girl on… I’ve forgotten the name.  I take in a lot of trash TV, lying on the couch evening after evening.  Sometimes I go to sleep and then wake up to something that I can’t identify.”

“Poor dear,” he read off of Ellen’s lips in the rear-view mirror.

The Biggest Loser… that’s what it’s called.  There are women, you know….”  Did he really want to keep trotting up this path—hadn’t he already ridden into enough briars for one decade by giving his tongue free bridle?  On the other hand, he was as good as dead.  “Some women, when they work out until they almost look like men… they seem more attractive to me than they would have if they’d stayed as they were.  There’s just a hint of the brute in they way their brow or their lip is turned, as if the wince of lifting heavy weights had gotten permanently impressed on their face.  But it’s… somehow, it’s really a turn-on.  Not beautiful, but… seductive.  Maybe Ariosto’s Bradamante looked like that.  I like to think that she did.”

The Body-Builder had twisted increasingly back toward him until her lower lip caught the same sunlight as her shoulder.  Its fleshy, glossy surface described a kind of V whose mid-section was cut in two by a dramatic dark cleft.  Very kissable.  Its owner would ask him in whispers later that evening, as she cornered him in Aldredi’s deserted kitchen and crumpled her fourth beer can in a tight fist, if he had been insulting her or coming on to her.

But the only words spoken for the rest of the drive were Ellen’s.

“Why, Galen!” she cooed delightedly.  “To think that you’ve been here all these years, and I had no idea that… that you were a person of such discriminating taste!”

The showdown in the kitchen in fact occurred relatively early during that evening’s parade of bizarre events, not all of which he could reconstruct confidently in proper order.  The Body-Builder had started hitting the beer pretty hard right off, however, perhaps because she was the only non-academic in the house (Aldredi’s two children having departed for their court-ordered weekend with a bipolar but medicated mother) and hence left with little to say.  Since Molchak also always suffered through periods of long silence at such gatherings and often sought out empty rooms to cover his awkwardness, maybe the Amazon was drawn to him as much by a similar awkwardness as by the influence of John Barleycorn.  Yet her mouth was decidedly wetter than in the car, as he studied it from Ground Zero.  Somehow he managed to squeeze a refrigerator door between them and then execute a barrel roll that would have excited the Red Baron’s envy.  He wanted no trouble with Ellen, with whom he was often on something like friendly terms.  Then, too, his new role of Walking Dead Man didn’t allow for feeling out any waists for degree of physical fitness.

Either after his escape or, possibly, just before—or before, during, and after—two tenureless understudies lengthily hatched a tedious prank on two or three others of their rank which involved the Internet.  The most gullible tiro had apparently gone online upstairs, using one of the departed children’s computers, while a girl genius deeply mired in acne giggled downstairs over a laptop (which, Molchak was forced to conclude, she had brought with her to the party).  After a few minutes, the mark and his sidekicks were screaming down the stairwell, “We’ve done it!  We’ve got her!  Jason has Zora Neale Hurston’s niece in a chat!”  Another recent hire, looking more like a sorority sister than a Ph.D., pretended to relay further excited shouts as the chat progressed, actually guffawing over a sofa as Pimples hammered out the Hurston niece’s spontaneous reflections on race, gender, and a better world.  The last of these priceless observations appeared to include charges that the person at the chat’s other end was a bigot, a sexist, a fool, and a twit.  The upstairs gang descended for more beer with every bit as much weakness in their knees and pallor in their cheeks as three interns would have displayed who had accidentally given President Obama digitalis instead of aspirin.

Molchak had registered this low-grade burlesque—a kind of Jackass for Ph.D.s—as he drifted in search of rooms unoccupied by Muscles.  At some stage, he had blundered upon Lucas and Fernandez leaning each into the other’s face over a pool table, wagging a fist, and shouting.

“I was closer to meaningful revolution than you ever were—I was forty years ago, and I am now!

“You were never for change—you were always a little bourgeois!”

“How dare you?  Because I don’t want to put the worker out of work?”

“Bah!  If you let the worker make his own decisions in a degenerate state, he’ll graze his days away like a cow at Wal-Mart!”

“That’s because you don’t know the worker!  You never did!”

“I don’t know the worker… I?  Which of us went to Cuba while it was still dangerous to go?”

“Dangerous to whom—danger from whom?  I know you’re not talking about—”

“I’m talking about our government, you idiot!  My mentor Heilig was audited just for writing an open letter to Castro!”

“Oh, how chic!  So you braved auditing!  My father worked on an assembly line… but you sneaked over to Cuba from Madrid after your conference was over.”

“What your father did is irrelevant to the greater issue—you can never entertain a generality, can you?”

“No, not when the specifics you’re sweeping off the table are people like my father!”

“Such a good little bourgeois son!  But didn’t your mother teach you that to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs?  When will you ever understand?”

“But you don’t make an omelet with egg shells!”

“What in the hell does that mean?  Anyway, egg shells are high in protein.  Maybe the common people… maybe they need to eat crickets for a while to survive!  Maybe this is what you don’t see!”

“So is that your plan for change?  Destroy all our industrial jobs and have the people eat crickets?”

“You’ve never even eaten a cricket, have you!  I’m not surprised.  With that tire around your belt…”

“That fly trap of yours is open so much, you must have insects flying in all the time!  You should charge rent!”

And so on, and always in that style.  Molchak had heard twice as much before he could compose himself sufficiently to feel for the doorway; and at that point, he wondered if he should perhaps stay to avert a tragedy.  The hand of Lucas which was not a fist had fitted itself tightly to a billiard ball, while Fernandez’s free appendage had blindly happened upon a pool cue.

“Stop it!” screamed Ellen.  (Molchak did not know if she had been standing the whole time in rapt silence, much as he, or if the ruckus had only just drawn her in.)  “Listen to yourselves!  It’s no wonder the world is in the shape it’s in!  You men—you can’t even come together and have a few glasses of wine without wanting to kill each other!  Just like a couple of drunken sailors!  You should… you should be thankful just to be alive!”

And, incredibly, she burst into a sob.  He turned to her as the source—suddenly—of greater surprise, only to find her scurrying away from him to the room’s far corner.  Reflexively, he turned back to the combatants… and discovered them, almost as improbably, gaping at him rather than at their watery denunciator.  Yet once his eyes met theirs, they stared into the green felt of the pool table like boys whose Christmas presents have been taken away in punishment.  Fernandez finally relinquished the cue stick and (without looking up, his hand apparently endowed with special sensors) recovered a beer bottle that left behind a moist ring on the table’s varnished mahogany rim.

In fact, there seemed to have been rather a lot of elbow-bending, particularly for a department as tame as this one.  At some point in the evening—certainly before the incident in the billiard room—Molchak had begun to suspect that he had something to do with the Bacchic madness afoot.  Try as he might to float to the edge of every social eddy (and very little trying was required), he had poisoned the whole stream merely by being present: a grinning skull bobbing speechlessly in the current, looking on through empty sockets.  To the young ones, he must have signified not only mortality in the broadest sense, but also the more imminent professional demise that poised over their thickly haired heads (for he imagined it common knowledge by now—all the way down to the janitor—that he would be denied tenure).  The grave abruptly opened—so they thought—at his feet would simply be a metaphor for the oblivion awaiting at least half of them in five or six years.  And they must have accepted his presence as that of a white lamb too dull or disoriented to bleat before the altar, and garlanded his fleecy neck, and danced themselves silly around the scapegoat offering that might mystically clear a free passage for them: better he than they!

As for the older ones… he was farther from being able to frame a picture of what they must think, for he remained decades away from them while only years away from the ingénues.  Probably more of the real thing in their case—the real death.  Death.  Like Lucas and Fernandez (and Aldredi), they must have reflected that the very high mound of paper honors they had managed to heap up and climb throughout their adult life was still just fuming excrement, ready to decay into the earth at the first steady downpour.  Or maybe all the incessant hot air about social progress really did have enough electricity in it to stir a lightning bolt—maybe the ignoble prospect of giving the axe to one already bowed beneath a much sharper, surer axe had forced their vile hypocrisy over their lifted chins and into their faraway-focused eyes.  They appeared to grow more testy, more surly, even as the younger set grew more frivolous, more childish.  Or perhaps it was just the booze, after all.  (Mercifully, nobody had pressed him to imbibe once he had refused a couple of drinks: the word had obviously buzzed round that he was under doctor’s orders.)

The sliding doors onto the patio stood invitingly ajar all evening, though the occasional June bug angrily staggered in like a tipster who has forgotten the way home.  Molchak had fled into the cool night air more than once, perhaps evading Muscles, perhaps hoping she would follow him to a spot where they would not be observed.  (He honestly posed himself these alternatives several times, painfully understanding that they were a form of the question, “Are all your sexual fantasies the refuge of a coward?”)  Surely it was his last exit which brought him into the proximity of Leyda Reinsdorf and one of the young guns’ husbands, for this was the encounter which decided him upon leaving.  They never actually saw him, and he himself heard much more than he saw.  The scarcely mistakable sound of a lash falling (for though one seldom sees whippings, what else sounds like a whip?) followed immediately by a half-swallowed grunt of pain (which must have enhanced the image of a scourge) greeted him with the cool zephyr.  As he gaped into the back yard’s trees and slid himself into shadows away from the porch light, his widening eyes slowly brought up Leyda’s squat but not unshapely silhouette and very bushy coiffure.  The thrashing ended almost as soon as he had taken his position; but the exchange that ensued (as a belt buckle and zipper continued to clue his visual imagination with sounds) left little in doubt.

“I still don’t get it.”

“You didn’t like that?”

“It hurt!”

“God, you pansy!  It’s supposed to hurt!  Pain is the whetstone of pleasure—that’s the whole point.”

“Maybe if there were more pleasure to follow…”

“No, not here.  Maybe not anywhere.  That wasn’t part of the deal.  You just told me that you didn’t understand—”

“And you were going to show me.  Well, show it all!”

“You’re a creep!  I don’t know how Slayde could have paired up with someone like you!”

“Ah, come on!  I just meant…”

“No, you either get it, or you don’t.  If you didn’t feel the beginnings of pleasure in that, then… then the experiment failed.  As you said, you just don’t get it.”

“I want to try to get it.”

“Maybe you’re too drunk.”

“I’m not drunk!  But wouldn’t that help?”

“No, it would actually dull your senses.  S-and-M all about extending your sensory frontiers—turning up your brain’s dials and knobs to the max, for both pleasure and pain, so that one becomes the other—so that you live life to the fullest.”

“I love it when you talk like that!”

“One day we’ll be old, really old, like our pathetic host, or…”

“Or dead, really dead, like that… what’s his name again?”

“He was dead before he started dying.  That’s what I mean.  You can’t live your life like that.  You have to grab every cup you can reach and drain it to the lees.”

“To the lees, yes!  Let’s go rustle up a pot of coffee, and drain it to the lees, and try again!”

Let’s?  As in we?”

“Okay, me.  I promise I’ll sober up.  I have something better than caffeine.”

“I’m not coming out here again unless you bring Slayde, too.  Especially after what you said.”

“You saw her—she’s busy with her computer.  But they’re finished with all that crap upstairs, and we…”

The rest trailed off into a whisper, though Molchak heard the word “bathroom” emerge as the couple passed him for the sliding doors.  In a subconscious attack of decorum, one of them actually pulled the sliding panel shut.  Its thud echoed his resolution: he made his way toward the yard’s gate.  An invisible hound in the next yard almost scared him out of his shoes with its wolfish barks.

*

     He knew the way from here to his apartment complex well enough; but he was pleasantly taken aback, all the same, by the pedestrian appearance of landmarks—an ornate iron grill in the Spanish style, a small park with a slide, an odd intersection where five streets met—which that great fool, the Mind, had somehow supposed accessible only by car (in its infinite susceptibility to conditioning).  Six years he had lived in this burg, and twice that many times he had made the transit to Aldredi’s pretentious subdivision… yet always behind the wheel.  Now, on foot and by streetlight, he found this nondescript sprawl (where he had never really wanted to spend his life, but where he had inscrutably leaked out his soul’s last drop of blood to dwell as long as possible) strangely, pitiably unmasked.  He was struck especially by its emptiness.  Though Friday night had freed all wage-slaves temporarily from their chains, none of the liberated appeared to celebrate within these brick-and-shingle temples on whose account they had indentured themselves.  They had to flee the homes which were their refuge from work’s misery in order—properly and truly—to ventilate their hatred of work.  Birds slept in their nests among the thick boxwood hedges, retired senior citizens plied a satellite to find an episode of Gunsmoke… but the lifeblood of the community had gone in search of booze, sex, and near-death, vicarious or otherwise.  At a certain moment, passing entirely out of the streetlight where a tall pine threw a long shadow, he identified two distant sirens at opposite ends of the compass, racing at break-neck speed, no doubt.

He wondered where Melissa went on Fridays like this, with her Magic Christianity and her scented, magnificent bust?  A prayer meeting?  A movie with other girls?  A double-date to the bowling alley?  A tryst with a dark beau who spirited her to a place where nobody could see and nobody would talk?  Might that place be the apartment next to his?

What about Dolores?  Probably more likely to stay in a group all evening—more likely to be a virgin, if less likely to wear an wristband announcing her wait for marriage.  Catholic girls were the bunch he knew best of all.  But even she would be somewhere—anywhere but at home.  Even her balloon-waisted, bubbly mamacita would be somewhere, maybe at bingo or running a mission to the old folks’ home… maybe something charitable like that.  But the charity was more apparent than real (not that Mamacita would ever see it that way), because it got her out of her own home.  It spared her that grim moment of staring everything she had worked for in the face and thinking (for she couldn’t say it—no one could say it), “Is this all there is?”

An engine like the chest of a saber-toothed tiger growled moodily to a halt at the stop sign he had left twenty yards behind him.  Then a set of tires squealed, and the tiger roared just at his back, making to pounce upon his neck.  Something whisked passed his ear.  In the same instant, it seemed, the iron post of a chain-link fence at his elbow spat ice over his pants, and the tiger carried the laughter of its riders quickly off into the gloom (though a red pair of rear-view eyes continued to slant at him through the dark).  Molchak had not flinched.  He would have thought for sure that a coward like him would flinch, yet he had to make himself break his regular stride, pause, and look back over a shoulder.  Ice, nothing… the shards of an amber beer bottle lay scattered up and down the concrete curb, scintillant where drops of liquid still pooled in their curvature.

He could be dead right now.  But might he be alive right now?

*

     The next Monday morning, just after the class wherein he had made The Announcement, Molchak found Aldredi camped out before his office door.  Instantly he knew that This Was It: The Announcement.  After all, the bad news couldn’t be postponed indefinitely, even for a dead man.  Finals were looming.  The semester had grown so old that conducting interviews had almost grown impossible, from a standpoint of professional decency.

Curiously, he felt no knot in the stomach, no pounding of the heart.  He felt… nothing.  A strange pleasure.  The pleasure of nothing.

“First let me apologize for that… for our little end-of-the-term bash,” panted Aldredi, settling heavily into the guest chair from which students would numbly hear about sentence fragments and other atrocities eliciting red marks up and down their papers.  “That got out of hand, at some point.  I really have no idea what happened.  I had stocked up on Chablis, and one or two others seem to have brought some beer… ah!  And Lucas behaved rather badly, I heard.  How did you get home, by the way?  Ellen was frantically looking all over for you.  We thought maybe you’d fallen asleep in one of the upstairs beds.  Wilbury had dozed off in my daughter’s room, you know.  Hmm.”

“I caught a lift home with… with Lorrie.  Isn’t that her name?”

“Ah.  She left very early, I believe.”

“Yes.  Well, I did, too.  Obviously.  I’m afraid I suddenly became very tired…”

“Of course, of course.  Well… well, then.  Maybe you didn’t see the worst of it!”

“No.  No, I saw nothing that… I enjoyed myself, in fact.  Thanks for inviting me.”

“But you’re always invited.  As a member of the department, I mean.  And… and as a friend, too.  Whenever you want to pop over.  Mi casa, su casa.

“That’s very kind.”

“Not at all, not at all.”

Aldredi was no longer panting as if he had run an urgent message across campus, but his breathing’s labor persisted.  He couldn’t have sighed more heavily if he had occupied center-stage and wanted to mime “distress” for an auditorium’s balcony.

“This tenure business… what a damned messy business!  I want you to know, I’ve been working my tail off on it.  We’ve had such a complicated semester….  There was the accreditation renewal process, and the dean’s position to fill, and the curricular overhaul… and then Ballinger Hall burned down in that lightning strike!  The gods seem to have meant for us to struggle this term!  But you’re home free now, Galen.  You should receive a formal offer of tenure by the end of the week.”

Molchak was stunned.  He sat heavily back in his chair, as if… as if what?  Was it like hearing that a best friend had died, or hearing that a best friend presumed dead had been found?  What was it, besides more nothing—a deeper nothing?  What was the emotion at the bottom of this bottomless abyss?

“I am sorry—truly sorry—that we kept you waiting so long!  It was unconscionable.  Strictly speaking, the delay broke a number of guidelines—and to think that we’ve just conducted a self-study for the accreditation review!  But all’s well that ends well, eh?  I’m so glad to be able to bring you good news at last!”

“I… thank you, Wes.”  Still no feeling in the net.  From the abyss came only a string of words, like the hawser of a long-sunken ship bearded in kelp.  “I won’t be coming back, though.  I should have told you sooner.”

Aldredi sat in thunderstruck, open-mouthed silence.  As his own words dripped before him, freshly dredged up from another world, Molchak thought to tear away a bit of kelp and pass his companion some of the cable.

“I must have supposed you knew why.  I guess I thought you knew.”

Almost slumping over the desk impulsively, Aldredi seemed to reach for his young subordinate’s wrist (but came up with a stapler, instead).  His rounded mouth opened wider and wider, yet could now only produce something like a whisper.

“I… I’m so sorry, Galen!  God, I’m so sorry!  We’re all… just devastated!  I was afraid… frankly, I was afraid that those bastards had denied your application just to save a few bucks on insurance.  It’s the sort of thing they do now.  Because they did deny it, you know—I’ll tell you the whole honest truth.  Yes, they denied it at first!  And when I found that out… I was so furious, I threatened to resign myself if they didn’t reconsider!  I brought them new evidence, which didn’t hurt.  Your latest teaching evaluations were through the roof—I’ve never seen such high ratings!  What a turn-around!  They could hardly say that you hadn’t at last shown an improvement!  That deprived them of their last leg to stand on.  So now they have to… do you understand?  They have to provide for whatever medical expenses… whatever expenses may go along with… they have to!  I’ve made them do the right thing!”

“I’ll be in your debt as long as I live,” said Molchak very simply.  “But to tell you the truth, you’ve wasted your gallant effort.  There’s nothing that can be done.”

“Nothing?  Nothing at all?  No meds… nothing?”

“No, nothing.”

“But that’s… that’s just awful!  What will you do?  Naturally, you don’t want to spend your… your time… your remaining time grading freshman essays.  I can see that now.  I suppose you want to… to go some places.  See the world!  If there’s anything I can do to help out… if you need a little extra money…”

Molchak fought and fought against the instant recollection of a black-and-white sixties serial he had often dozed through on a re-run channel… “only one year to live.  Or maybe two.”  Aldredi was writing the pilot script for Run for Your Life and didn’t even know it.  In his revolutionary indignation at the evil engineering of benefits packages by heartless institutions, he was grinding out the kind of bourgeois pabulum that had kept Middle America dazed before Woodstock unlocked the kennel.

“Yes, I might see some of the world,” Molchak finally managed with continued simplicity.  “But I’ve got some savings, plenty of savings.  I truly appreciate the offer, but…”

“You will stay in touch, won’t you?”

He took the few minutes that remained before his next class to take a little air on the open porch just beyond the Coke machine.  Fortunately, there were no student-loiterers (or, more likely, those who would have appeared reconsidered when they saw the Walking Dead Man in a pensive mood).  It was no great sacrifice he had made, probably: Aldredi would have been the first to want more explanations once he had failed to die on schedule and threatened to sport his tenure for years… though, as to that, nothing short of a lawsuit was likely to have upset him on his new pedestal.  And how likely would a lawsuit have been, with all the negative publicity?  How could medical records (even non-existent records) be subpoenaed on the grounds that a tenure decision had been reversed because of them, when such a decision would itself have broken all the rules?  All the rules….

And still nothing in the nature of an emotion would float to the surface.  The pleasure of nothing.  To live dying, he decided, was the greatest pleasure a man could ever know.

 

Ivor Davies has composed for this journal a score of stories dedicated to stripping away the glamour from Academe.  His last contribution was “Next Door Burned Ucalegon,” in the Summer 2008 issue.