This did not happen. My application for full professorship was not nit-picked to death by ideological parties on the university’s faculty promotions committee opposed to the themes of my research. Nope! Did not happen, said Drs. Watt and Wee, co-chairs of the committee. How could it? To do such a thing would be an outrageous violation of the scholarly community’s ethic of uncensored, unpoliced, and open scholarly discourse. Think it not that such a fascist thing could happen under their watch in the committee’s necessarily closeted deliberations, they said.
So what did happen?
Well, for one thing, I wrote too much. “Too many words,” said Wee at the start of my failed-applicant’s post-promotion consultation with her and Watt.
“You mean in my narrative?” I asked, endeavoring by the innocence of my tone to diminish the inescapable irony in my question’s last word—inescapable, because, yes, the narrative was indeed the print-rich portion of my failed portfolio that Wee had open before her, and because, yes, too, on the advice of others, I had walked into this interview vowing to receive any and all critiques contritely, lest, doing otherwise, I sewed ill-will in either of the co-chairs’ legendarily prickly memories and, thus, got myself ranked dead last next year too.
“A narrative is not a novel,” Watt put in. As was I, she was sitting in front of Wee’s desk, though at a safe, hierarchical remove from me of some six feet or so. Thus, her voice summoned my attention away from the puckish Wee’s animated form to her own less pleasant, squat, stolid, dustcoat wrapped, bonneted, and iPhone thumbing profile—that of an Appalachian Madame Defarge with an internet habit, if you will.
“Oh, my god, Patrick!” Wee spoke again. “What did you think you were writing? Madame Ovary?” She closed with a slap my application’s binder, pushed it with two hands across her desktop to Watt, lifted her reading glasses to the spiky crown of her chemically empurpled head, and then, as if exhausted, looked at me weary-eyed out over her outstretched arms.
Heroic innocence my aim this time, I said, “Perhaps you mean Madame Bovary?”
Wee sat up. “Is that the title? Really? Wow! All these years I thought it was Madame Ovary.”
“Hah! Leave it to you,” said Watt, who had just now put aside her iPhone in order to begin flipping pages in my failed application.
“Leave what to me?”
“Don’t you see? You’re mistaking your research for his.” When she said his, Watt pointed at me with her thumb and a sideways twist of her wrist.
Yes, she’s right, I thought. A Health and Physical Education professor, Wee’s primary research concerns college students’ awareness of the availability of emergency contraceptives in their schools’ health centers. Indeed, she regularly administers surveys to her own students pursuant to that interest, tabulates their responses, and then publishes her conclusions in a journal called Contraceptive Health. Yes, for sure, the word ovary appears frequently in her work. That was the source of her error.
“Silly me!” said Wee. “What do I know?”
Then me: “Not so silly.” And before I could stop myself, the English professor in me was opining aloud: “As a matter of fact, literary scholars have long argued an onomastic connection between Flaubert’s heroine’s married name and the female organ of reproduction. For them, that connection bespeaks Flaubert’s belief that women are biologically selfish and crazy, as is Emma Bovary.”
Big mistake. Yes, very big mistake—this brief, impromptu recitation of mine, for, by the time I finished it, the room’s adversarial vibes had trebled. Now the two women were openly eyeing one another, firming up, it seemed to me, their brook-no-intellectual-backtalk policy. “Yes, yes, of course,” I said in deference to that policy, “far too wordy. What was I thinking? I guess when I wrote the darn thing I was too much under the influence of the faculty rumor that promotion narratives that reach the fifteen-page limit do better than those that don’t.”
“That’s not a rumor,” said Wee.
“Bullets,” responded Watt, who, despite her head-lowered focus on my portfolio, had anticipated my next question and answered it.
“Emoji,” added Wee.
Again Watt: “Pie charts.”
Then me: “Oigi?”
“Emoji,” Wee corrected me.
Watt showed me one on her iPhone.
Another thing that derailed my application was my including book reviews on my vita. This was the theme that Co-Chair Watt next took up.
“Explain to me why these book reviews are on your vita?”
“They don’t belong there?” I gulped, struggling to get air to my stopped heart. For how could it not stop? That I had been too prolix in my narrative had been a sufferable critique, one I had on other occasions and in other contexts endured. But that the thirty-five book reviews I had posted in various publications in the two-and-a-half years that preceded my promotion candidacy did not belong on my vita! No! No! I could not be hearing a thing so injurious to my scholarly record, not to mention so philistine. But transparently I was hearing it, for next Watt said:
“Be serious. They’re only book reviews.”
And what could I say to that? That book reviews played a vital role in our universal intellectual culture! That they announced the arrival of important books, first-responded in a critical and informed way to new books' contents, distinguished the good from the trivial, suggested the critical parameters within which the books would likely later be discussed by academics, supplied context to a reading public that without the reviews would meet new books like a driving public traveling new roads without road signs? In prose that was engaging and original, those were the things I had tried to do every time I penned one of my near three-dozen reviews. But could I say those things?
Hell no! said the spirits of my immigrant Irish forebears as they and I took in together Watt’s face, as round as an Irish half-penny, the orangey ends of her hair curling out from under her bonnet, her bump of a nose, and her jaw like a wingnut covered with skin. That one in front of you now, they whispered, is not an Irish one like yourself—monkish and Catholic, given to learning, statues and stained glass. She’s a Scotch-Irish, let you beware, of the amnesiac, turf-covetous, spinsterish sort. It was her interloping forebears, let you remember, who came into Ulster behind the fanatical Cromwell and occupied the properties that he had emptied. Then, once landed, didn’t they live in Éire as if they had walked onto the island direct from the Garden of Eden? Yes, as easily as you or I forget a phone number or a dentist’s appointment, it’s in the nature of her people, warned my Irish Catholic spirits, to forget their own scapegrace histories of plunder, covetousness and illegitimacy.
Further, it was they, too, the spirits reminded me, who, having stupidly quarreled with their land grab’s royal protectors, transferred in the 18th and 19th centuries their squatters’ caboodles to outlaw Appalachia, and there, for two centuries, to their hearts’ base content, indulged their anti-civilizational tendencies—shooting at strangers, breeding with their familiars, fiddling, mining, drinking, chewing, bartering in auto parts, and raising their children without books. Do you think that the daughter of such as they is likely to understand an argument based on literary culture’s and scholarly culture’s informal relations? As for her Ph.D. in Feminist Anthropology, that’s no more than a new patch on an old garment, said another of my spirits, that of a male academic in the prevailing millennium.
Still, these whisperings notwithstanding, I did try a literary argument, albeit one aimed at Watt’s charter membership in the University’s Women’s Studies Committee. “But, Dr. Watt,” I pleaded,” Virginia Woolf wrote book reviews. And when Sherwood Anderson asked Gertrude Stein for a review of one of his books, Stein famously complied.”
“And what about that Kakutani woman at The New York Times?” I tried again. “Before she retired last year as the paper’s principal book reviewer, she was said to be the most powerful woman in contemporary literature.”
“Writing for a newspaper?” sniffed Watt, bent now over my application like short-limbed tortoise digging its nose into the sand.
“That’s where book reviews most significantly appear,” I insisted. “The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the London Review of Books—they’re all newspapers.”
“Newspapers are not peer reviewed,” countered Wee, inserting her sweat-suited self into Watt’s and my disagreement like a gender-ambiguated Bitzer.
Watt added, “For the handful of your reviews that appeared in journals, you might get some credit. But the newspaper stuff is worthless.”
Then Wee: “We only give credit—”
“Well, hush us all! You’re a Halloween Baby!” That was Watt, cutting off her co-chair, and shutting down, too, anything I might have had it in mind to say.
And, oh, how effectively, she did shut me down! For, yes, the birthdate that she had just spotted on my portfolio’s first page was true! There was no escaping it, no denying it, no putting off its explanation to another moment. Howsoever much I would have wished to obscure it, indeed, howsoever much it made me anxious to even think about it, I could no more fail to respond to queries about my Halloween Baby birthdate than I could let pass the Sunday offering basket without dropping in my coin. Accordingly, I said to Watt what I said to any and all who happened to notice my gothic date of birth: “That was my twin brother’s idea. I would have preferred we were born the day before or after.”
Watt let that pass. Indeed, she gave me no acknowledgement of my even having spoken. Instead, her head still lowered, she said, “Pass me a pencil.”
“A pencil!” answered her co-chair, now keelie-ish in her appearance, with the hood of her Once a Baller hoodie drawn over her head. “Who keeps pencils in 2017?”
“I might have one,” I said. A brief search in the bottom of my book bag followed, and, then, just after the search, I reached with the requested item toward Watt, saying “Please,” as I did so. She received the bygone writing device without saying thanks, indeed, without so much as a sidewise glance to see the size or quality of the pencil that I was putting in her hand.
I got the message. Co-Chair Watt’s attention was now exclusively focused on my failed portfolio, and I ought not distract her as she worked. Accordingly, I sat back to watch in meek silence as she, roughly an arm-and-a-half’s length away, renewed her tight-lipped perusal of my earnestly and painstakingly compiled professional documents, marking, as she did so this second time, her inching progress down the file’s pages with lead scorings channeled through the pencil that I had spontaneously supplied. Accordingly, so positioned, what did I see? Get ready for my astonishing answer to that question, for I am at the very limits of my own credulity as I tell it to you. What I saw rolling like spider’s legs from the pencil’s tip on to the margins of my vita were these mind-boggling things: curlicues and cuneiforms; graphemes, obelisks, and ideographs; runes, dieses, hashtags, asterisks, daggers and other characters beyond my powers of orthographic naming. Further, I saw them assume spatial and rhythmic relations to one another suggestive of a syntactical intricacy that Watt’s clunky literacy simply would not account for. In short, I saw—yes, you guessed it— the handwriting of Old Scratch himself!
Yes! That’s what I saw! The black hieroglyphics of Satan’s legendary Syllabary, multiplying like measles on the pages of my promotion portfolio and making them look like the mottled leaves of an annotated Quixote! For if not his dieses and daggers, then whose? Watt’s? Yes, absolutely, the marks were at least in part the pinched products of her infertile academic capacities, as well as, too, of her narrow scholarly understanding. And, yes, too, they were the worm-like diacritics of the Hammurabian code that is my university’s promotion process’s arcane playbook. I was not blind to these realities. What’s more, it was transparent to me that the marks were to no small extent, too, the mites and motes of my own eyes, put there by the cruelty of being made to watch while a colleague of so limited discernment probed her jealous way through my professional documents, poking here, there and everywhere in them as if to make their pages bleed. Again, what did it say of my mimetic faculties at that moment that, looking in the bonneted Watt’s direction, I saw, not her profile, but, instead, the composite of Mrs. Havisham’s, Carrie Nation’s, and the Wicked Witch of the West’s photos? It said, of course, that the faculties were compromised. And, lastly, the scene in the window above and behind Watt—that of a darkly troublous, summer-solstice sky spraying a pesticide-like mist on our near-evacuated college campus—that gothic tableaux was no doubt also playing havoc with my perceptive organs.
Still, these other dynamics notwithstanding, the Evil One’s shorthand, just as it had been demonstrated to me some two weeks before by the trio of off-campus, evangelical Christians into whose proselytizing orbit I had lately wandered—that’s what I knew myself to be most essentially looking at! True, I had pooh-poohed as reactionary and paranoid the trio’s whispered talk of a diabolical script underlying what passed for settled, obligatory truth at my university these days, indeed, underlying, they said, campus cultures nationwide; however, now that I saw hemorrhaging from Watt’s pencil characters just like the sample six that they had sketched for me, I sensed them to be right! And was I ever spooked by their spot-on foresight! Grievously, dizzily, and breathlessly affrighted! Fit to bless myself, fit to yell for help, fit to run for the door, and fit, lastly, to abandon work on college campuses forever after!
And, yet still, praise God, despite my fright, I did none of those four things—catastrophic each and all, said my prudential Catholic instincts, to my purposes at that moment. Instead, I behaved as would any inveterately ecumenical Catholic faced by a comparably dark event. I counted costs. I kept quiet. I pretended not to see the horror. For doing the overwrought opposite was precisely what the devil himself would have wished me to do, wasn’t it? To scuttle my chances for promotion by stupidly over-reacting to his winking revelation of himself to me in the workings of the promotion process that I was now contesting? To consign myself forever to the purgatorial limbo that is a stalled academic career by discovering to Watt and Wee my awareness of their affiliations with him? No! No! I would not be so suckered!
Instead, I would feign composure, would distract myself, would look away from Watt and her pencil work in my portfolio, and then, after a moment or two of diversion, would come back with a more tranquil head to deal with the notoriously wily pair of my co-chair antagonists, and, apparently, with the demonic powers that backed them. For, despite Satan’s backing, they, no less than I, were subject to the imperatives of fairness and reason. And I could beat them at those games, I thought.
Accordingly, I stood, stretched and said to Wee, who looked my way as I rose up: “Mind if I take a look at your library?”
“Hah!” That was Watt, responding before Wee could, to my having referred to the meager display of print materials on the whole rear wall of her colleague’s bookshelves as a library.
“There’s not much there,” Wee herself said when she did speak.
Yes, that was certainly so, for, as I say, on the wall of bookshelves toward which I was headed no more than a handful of print materials were in evidence—the majority of Wee’s shelves being occupied, instead, by curios, athletics trophies, framed photographs, stuffed animals, and other memorabilia of professional and personal outings. Still, one shelf did contain a few books and journals, as well as the folders and handouts of Wee’s classroom work. Getting to it, I pulled what looked to be a non-scholarly magazine from its hiding place between a pillar-like pair of diet/health reference books.
“You might not want to look at that,” Wee said.
“You think?” I answered. However, as I began to flip through the publication’s glossiest pages, I very soon decided that she might have a point, and I returned the magazine to the out-of-sight place where I had found it. Next, I began working my way down the shelf’s single pile of scholarly journals, looking for an issue that was not still in the brown paper wrapping of its mailing.
“The top one is the most recent,” said Wee.
“Any issue will do,” I answered. “After all, what difference does it make when you read things?”
“None to me” said a blushing Wee. Though, she added, she was surprised to hear me say the same.
“Actually, maybe I should take it back,” I said. And then suddenly, for reasons that I can’t entirely explain, apart from my now seeking diversion, not just from the devil’s revelation of his agency in my promotion application’s processing, but also from the fruit-cake Sexual Identity journal issue that had just come into my hands, I found myself telling Wee about a short story whose title, “It Matters When You Read Things,” said the exact opposite of what she and I had just agreed was our shared belief.
“That’s a title?” said Wee.
It was, I assured her, and began to tell her the story—a curious one about a guy who, at the start of the fiction, gets from the pretty neighbor he has been hoping to date, not the assignation he wants, but, instead, one of those little Bible books with an inspirational reflection for each day.
“Patrick,” Wee stopped me. “If you’re going to tell Dr. Watt and I—“
“No, no,” I rushed in (albeit too late to save her from her faulty understanding of pronoun case). “It’s not that kind of story.”
“Are you sure? Because Dr. Watt and I aren’t in the mood right now for one of those stories. Are we, Wattsy?”
I caught that, Wee’s sudden abandonment in front of me of titular formality in her address to her colleague, though, to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it, other than the considerable likelihood of its being intended to throw me off-balance. In any event, to my surprise, Watt signaled no dislike for her familiar address but, instead, much to my surprise, put out her free hand, the one that was not penciling, and, giving it a flutter, signaled her mild, tentative interest in my story.
More or less encouraged, I assured Wee again—for it was mostly to her that I was talking—that it was not the kind of story she and Watt might not like. “It’s more realistic than that. For example,” I said, “when the neighbor gives the guy the book, she says, ‘Here, Peter, take this. You need some direction.’”
“Bit of a bitch,” remarked Wee.
“Who’s to know?” I said, though interiorly I was mostly just glad to see that she had taken an interest in the story. Accordingly, I continued my summary of it, describing for her the incremental changes in the wannabe lover Peter’s life that came about as, day-by-day, he read the days’ assigned pages. “What’s more,” I explained, “the readings not only helped him navigate the precise challenges of the day on which he read them, but they also influenced for the better other people’s perceptions of him.”
“And then he gets to fuck the girl, when she sees what a Christian success he is,” said Wee, rolling her eyes upward.
“The story doesn’t end that way.”
“All het- stories end that way. They just don’t say it.”
“The story has an unexpected ending,” I insisted.
“Was he wearing a condom?” Wee demanded.
“The protagonist,” I explained, “who, yes, has been extraordinarily successful in all his endeavors since he started modeling his life on the book’s recommendations, comes nevertheless to his birthday in its calendar of readings, and he is so frightened by what it might say on that day that he simply stops reading from it.”
Her skepticism increased, Wee said, “Not even to get laid he won’t read from the woman’s little book?”
“That didn’t seem to be on offer.”
“That’s the weirdest story I’ve ever heard. Even for a het- story—“
“No, no,” I broke in, having just figured out what het- meant. “It’s not a heterosexual story. It’s a postmodern—“
“He’s gay?” interjected Wee.
“Hey, ever heard of Samhain?” That interruptive question, directed at me of course, came from Watt. Yes, leave it to her, without so much as the grace of an excuse me, the otherwise tight-lipped co-chair had just shut down Wee’s and my conversation as if it were no more than a children’s quarrel.
Well, as it happened, I was ok with the shutdown—and with, too, after it, I hoped, the return of talk in the room to the supposed subject of our meeting, namely, my application’s fair or unfair handling in the latest spin of the university’s annual promotions process roulette. For, as you may recall, my straying towards Wee’s bookshelf and my engaging her in the small talk that followed had been for me no more than the diversionary, head-clearing maneuvers of a Catholic applicant spooked by what he took to be the devil’s winking revelation of himself in the very gears of the promotions process that he hoped to contest. By way of them, I had hoped to gain the time I needed to get my affrighted head back together before calmly and politically making the case that I needed to make to the faculty evaluating committee’s co-chairs, their affiliations with the Evil One notwithstanding. Well, by the time Watt put her interruptive question to me, I had done that. Indeed, I had done better, far better—for, not only had I by then shaken off my spooking’s disorientation but also I had cleared my head of my fright’s dubious cause, namely, the gothic proposition that the Lord of Mischief himself was out to get me, as were, too, his handmaids, Watt and Wee. That kind of thinking, I had concluded even while engaged with Wee, was no more than evangelical paranoia, the production of my conversations with my un-churched Christian associates. Indeed, as I saw it now, key to my success going forward in this meeting would not be my evangelical mindfulness of the Evil One’s presence in the room but, instead, my disciplined, Catholic refusal to imagine him anywhere meaningfully proximate.
But how had this change in my attitude come about? By way, as it providentially happened, of Watt’s using her fingertip to brush aside the rubber remnants of an erasure that she had just then administered to her scribblings. From my vantage on the other side of Wee’s desk, I spotted that finger brushing, and immediately I was transported back to that recent luncheon at which the trio of my evangelical friends had pressed on me their more lively belief in a devil than my accommodative Catholic outlook provided me with. Specifically, I recalled the moment when the leader of the three, by way of introducing me to the basic shape of the Wicked One’s supposed cursive, dipped his index finger into his water glass and used its wetted tip to draw on our tabletop an exemplary half-dozen of what he said were the 600-plus calligraphic marks of the Bad Guy’s influential script. And, too, I recalled, now more clearly than I had originally, his saying that he would have written the letters on a napkin were he not afraid of igniting a fire by doing so. And lastly, and most importantly, I recalled my response to his demonstration: These people are crazy! Yes, that emphatic, interior yell, rather than the mild pooh-poohing that I had originally remembered, was my actual response to the evangelicals’ anti-demonic cautions. Further, just after it, I cautioned myself against the trio’s excessive influence over me, for that seemed to me to be the trajectory of their bi-weekly meetings with me.
Accordingly, indeed, instantly, even as I small-talked with Wee, I began not only to reprove myself for the delusional and very likely unfair notion of Watt’s and Wee’s Satanic alliances but also to debar from my future thinking any similar suspicions about them in our on-going meeting. For that, it seemed to me, was the transparent moral of my revised recollections: To steer clear of the paranoia that is demonization, to think, in short, like a prudential Catholic, not like an evangelical. Yes, that would be my policy going forward, and in its spirit I answered Watt’s interruptive question:
“It’s the ancient, pagan Celtic celebration out of which our Halloween traditions developed.”
“Wow! Listen to you,” she said. “I’m impressed you know that. Not many people do.”
“Helps to be born on that day,” I offered.
At that, Watt, who had not before looked up from my portfolio during this interaction, suddenly did so. And was I ever encouraged by what I saw, because, Wow! How much changed it seemed to me was her appearance! Not so greatly transfigured that in her bonnet and oil-cloth duster she looked to me exactly as a nun would. Nor so much transformed that her chin, which for years had seemed to me a skin-covered wingnut, now looked like a Claddagh signet. And, yet still, yes, as a result most probably of my own changed attitude toward her, some portion of the woman’s hostile regard for me had clearly fallen away from her face—like dried mud from boots, so to speak—and had been replaced by a darn-near collegial look.
Further, without any prompting from me, strictly of her own devices, she said, as if to no one in particular, this for me encouraging thing: “Yep, you could have been promoted.” Then, having said that, she closed hard my portfolio, pushed it to her right, leaned back in her chair, and withdrawing her iPhone from beneath the folds of her coat, began pecking away at it.
Hope ignited, I moved back to her side of the desk and stood in front of the chair that I had not long before abandoned. “Really? Do you think so?”
Her scrolling and pecking uninterrupted, Watt answered, “Absolutely.”
“May I?” I said, throwing my eyes at the closed portfolio that was now about halfway between us. “If it’s ok, I’d like to see your comments.”
Instead of answering, Watt put a hold on her iPhone activity, came forward in her chair, re-opened the binder, and adjusted it to the page that she wanted me to see.
After a minute—a pause during which I mostly sighed in relief and thanked the heavens that I was not looking at the aghast variety of cuneiforms and polytopes that had so recently unsettled me—I heard Wee say, “That’s a lot of checkmarks.”
Yes, that was true. The tick marks that Watt had etched beside each and all of my vita’s refereed publications were numerous and their character positive. Even as I thanked the Lord for the absence of satanic characters, I had noticed as much. “But I don’t get it. I finished dead last.”
This time Wee came forward to the binder and flipped its pages.
Then, as her colleague stepped back, Watt spoke. “Those are zeros,” she said of the markings on this next page in my academic history.
Then Wee: “If you want to get promoted—“
At which point, my ears shut down. And my eyes too. For, though the devil was not in the room, the co-chairs’ obsession with peer-reviewed publications clearly was! Also, to make matters worse, attached to that theme as they now recurred to it was this crushing mandate inscribed in the checks and zeros that flanked, respectively, my vita’s refereed and non-refereed publications: that in order to get promoted I would have to set aside my work as a literary journalist and devote myself exclusively to the production of academic prose. But, oh, how little I wanted to do that! Indeed, how it pained me, choked me, and sent blood rushing to my head to even think of returning to the demented region that is academic literary criticism! Hadn’t I already frittered away too much of my life in that wasteland of jargon, kowtowing, pretentiousness, sophistry, and neologisms? Didn’t I already know everything there was to know about its lockstep, politicized thinking? And, most importantly, hadn’t I more or less successfully fled the region some two years before for the more wholesome, saner zone of nonacademic literary production? Well, admittedly, not entirely successfully. No, my efforts as a book reviewer had not exactly yielded prose of the cut of Kazin’s, Hardwick’s, Howe’s, or either of the Trillings’ postings in that genre. Nor had I produced cultural commentaries as sensible and encouraging as those of Sheen or Sheed. And yet my flight from academic prose had been, an aspirational, upwardly inclined one, an escape about which I had absolutely no regrets, as well as one which now, in the wake of Watt’s and Wee’s checks and zeros, I saw as a million-times preferable to the harrowing, apocalyptic scene that flashed into my mind’s eye and that would not be blinked away: I was seated on a bus, manacled to my fellow passengers, dressed like them in ash-colored fatigues, our heads barbarously shaved, pencils behind our ears, cowering together in our helpless, communal dread of the obliterating impact that would be the inevitable outcome of our vehicle’s maniacal, downward speed. Watt, or a bonneted woman very like her, was on the bus, too, driving it. And, as for Wee, she was walking its center aisle, distributing ear buds and candied prophylactics out of a stewardess’s tray.
“Still with us, Patrick?” I heard Wee’s voice.
“I’m just admiring your bus,” I said, nodding as I did so in the direction of a foot-long, rainbow-colored, toy bus on the book/curio shelf just above and behind her left shoulder.
“You like that?” she exclaimed. “Oh, my God, Wattsy! Did you hear that? Patrick likes our bus!”
Watt, who had returned once more to her pencil-work in my portfolio, responded with a palm-up, who’s-to-know? hand gesture, suggestive of her lesser excitement about my having noticed the bus than was Wee’s.
So began, then, the next surreal segment of this meeting, a handful of strange, theatrical minutes during which I watched from the mezzanine, so to speak, while Wee tried to draw from her co-chair feelings commensurate to her own about the epical bus journey that my supposed liking of her toy bus had triggered. Thrilling for Wee, for example, had been the many truck drivers who had signaled their support of the bus’s mission by honking their horns. Pulling down twice on an imaginary cord, she recalled for Watt the gesture that she and other of the bus’s passengers had employed when they wanted a nearby trucker to honk. Yes, Watt recalled fondly that feature of the trip. She said so with a thumbs-up hand signal, only minimally distractive from her focus on my portfolio. Further, when coaxed to do so by Wee, she also remembered the perils of the journey. Specifically, when Wee asked her to support her in her testimony to me that the trip had been dangerous beyond my imagining, Watt made a pistol with her thumb and index finger, pointed it at Wee, screwed closed one eye, and filliped it as if she were taking down an enemy combatant with a sniper’s bullet.
That enactment—as I saw it from my audience-like vantage—caused Wee to throw her hands over her chest, and to declare that it was enough to make her want to take a pill. “A pill as big as a hamburger,” that was what she needed when she recalled the hazards of the bus trip that had been the pinnacle of her and Watt’s long career of off-campus collaborations.
To which demonstration of upset, Watt next responded by executing a gleeful pair of the handle-pulling gestures that the bus’s riders had used to call for truckers’ honks.
“Not that kind of pill, Wattsy! A pill for my stopped heart. A heart pill, for God’s sake, said Wee, her hands dropped now to her hips.”
Watt angled her face toward me and winked.
And at that point, I thought that this, the bus segment of our meeting, had run its course. However, that was not the case. For by the time I turned toward Wee again, she had brought the toy vehicle down off its shelf and was holding it in front of herself as if she were selling it to me. “Read out our slogan,” she directed. “I inscribed it on the side of the bus.”
“That’s clever,” I said after gulping. “Who thought of that?”
“Wattsy, tell him.”
Watt pointed with her thumb in the direction of Wee, who, by the time I turned again, had recomposed her profile into that of a blushing starlet receiving a bus-shaped trophy on an award show. She read out the inscription that I had avoided reading aloud. “This bus will wait for you. Do you like it, Patrick? Someone told me that it was in the Bible. That’s why I adopted it.”
“Actually,” I said, “it’s not from the Bible.” Though weak in the scriptural department of my faith, I did for God’s sake know that the sentence being forced on my vision was not from the holiest of holy books.
“No?” said Wee, turning the inscription toward herself.
“It comes from the sermonizing of an influential Christian preacher. He used to call it out as his rallies reached their climax.”
“Still, I used it correctly, didn’t I? Everyone told me it was brilliant.”
“I’m of a different denomination than that particular minister,” I said, “but, yes, as I imagine your purposes—”
“Ooh! What a cool word! demón-uh-nation,” Wee cut me off. Then, next, she asked me to repeat the word in my sentence that had struck her.
I did so.
“You said it better the first time. Wattsy, did you hear the word that Patrick just used: demón-A-nation.” As she spoke her neologism, Wee wrote her visualization of it in the air. “It’s perfect for your journal.”
“Don’t you see? It’s so easy. It’s like apples and oranges.” That was Wee, three or four unremarkable minutes later, restoring with two hands her cherished bus to its shelf, and, then, from a neighboring shelf, bringing down to her desktop’s center three porcelain teacher’s apples for the purpose of instructing me in the greater academic value of refereed than of non-refereed publications. Oh, how eager I am to tell you of the Beckettian thing she, the more theatrical of the two co-chairs, did with those apples, for of all her vaudevillian performances enacted during this meeting, Wee’s apples demonstration was her prize winner. However, before doing so, if for no other reason than to be complete in my account of the day’s happenings, I should finish the episode just begun, that is, I should render in full the few unremarkable moments in this meeting that followed immediately after Wee’s discovery of a title for Watt’s journal in a word I had supposedly used.
For truly, even as I conscientiously describe them, I declare to you that the minutes were unremarkable, or, if not entirely so, they were at the very least imaginable without my complete, scenic rendering of them, given their similarity to this history’s prior episode. For, yes, basically, that prior scene’s dynamics—wherein I, the bemused observer, watched as if from a ticketed seat Wee’s efforts to stimulate in her phlegmatic colleague feelings as intense as her own for the epical bus ride that the two had years ago co-organized—were repeated in its successor scene, save that in their second enactment Wee’s fervor for the bus journey was replaced by her passionate advocacy of demón-A-nation as a journal title, and save, too, that her means of illustration in the second scene were largely gymnastic, whereas those in the original had been prop driven. Specifically, rather than make her case for demón-A-nation’s titular strengths by way of a hand-held item as she had on the bus ride’s behalf, Wee pirouetted, gyrated, stood on one foot, and variously posed her proposed title into Watt’s consciousness, making the point as she did so that the neologism—italicized, accented, and capitalized as I’ve presented it—would look cool on the journal’s cover page, as well as too on the tee-shirts, travel bags, coffee mugs and head gear of the scholarly society that Watt was also planning to found. As for Watt’s conduct in these few moments, just as she had in the prior dramatic interval, she continued her further interrogation of my portfolio, paying only a modicum of attention to her colleague’s demonstrations. I was glad for that, I should say too, for thereby my resolution of moments earlier to not allow into my head the sort of demonic conspiracy theories that were my evangelical friends’ chief preoccupation in life was made easier to keep. Indeed, far from being spooked by Wee’s title pitch, in the absence of Watt’s interest in it, I was rather amused by it— appealing, I confess it, in its female physicality, as well as in its alert to me of Watt’s plan to launch a scholarly journal and to have soon at her disposal the many powers and possibilities that pertain to the office of academic journal editor. Yes, that plan amused me. That Watt would launch a journal that would give ready admittance to her and her like-minded colleagues’ otherwise unpublishable prose struck me as deliciously confirmatory of my low regard for her. Further, the fact that the journal’s theme would be loony, borderline blasphemous, was no surprise to me either. Of course it would, said so many of my experiences with contemporary literary journals.
No, as I say, nothing particularly remarkable for me occurred during this, the second of Wee’s several performances on this day—save, that is, for out little group’s near entry conversationally into the actual subject matter of my scholarship. That near entry began this way: Watt, misliking it seemed to me a question that Wee had just put to me, interrupted her co-chair’s and my incipient dialogue with another of her out-of-the-blue questions: “You’ve written about Hawthorne?”
Thus, I was briefly faced with two prompts—the interruptive one from Watt, based, no doubt, on something she had just noticed in my vita, and Wee’s preceding interrogation: “What do you think, Patrick? Wouldn’t demón-A-nation make a great title?”
Accordingly, in the order in which their questions had come to me, I answered the women. First, to Wee, who was standing at that moment with her arms raised over her head in an A-frame roof-like pose, illustrative of the upper case A that she had been asking Watt to visualize, I said, “Not bad.” Further, lest she think that my response was aimed more at the view of her navel afforded me by her raised arms and lifted sports garment than it was at her proposed title, I added to it, “But it needs a colon. demón-A-nation: A journal of ideas. That’s my recommendation.”
And then to Watt, I said, yes, I had written about that author, and why did she ask?
“I saw his statue,” she answered, as proudly as someone else might say they had read all of his books.
“The one in Salem, Massachusetts?” I asked, relieved, I confess it, that we were talking about the author’s statue rather than about my thesis in the Hawthorne paper whose bibliographic entry on my vita she was most probably looking at: “'The Birthmark’: Hawthorne’s Anti-Abortion Allegory.'” No, for the little likely good that that that paper’s discussion would do my promotion prospects, I did not wish to discuss it in his time and place with Watt and Wee.
“It’s near the Witchcraft Museum,” put in Wee, now relaxed out of her balletic upper-case-A pose. She had seen the statue too, on an undergraduate excursion organized by Watt.
“Small world,” I said, “that you should see the statue of an author I’ve written about on, of all things, a witchcraft trip.”
“Yes, imagine that,” Watt said.
And so ended the unremarkable demón-A-nation portion of my interview.
Now, once again, Wee’s apple act.
“Don’t you see? It’s so easy. It’s like apples and oranges.” That was Wee, as I say, not long after my “small world” comment, restoring with two hands her cherished bus to its shelf, and, bringing down from a neighboring shelf onto her desktop’s center three porcelain teacher’s apples for the purpose of instructing me in the greater value of refereed over non-refereed publications. And yet not immediately after my “small world” remark either, for just after it, Watt had abruptly slapped closed my application’s binder for a second time, leaned back in her creaking chair, made herself comfortable, removed her iPhone from its belt carrier, fiddled with it, and announced wistfully, “Yep, could have been promoted. What a mistake that was—your publishing those book reviews in newspapers when journals might have taken them.”
And then I, disappointed in myself, thinking back on it, for my failure a moment earlier in not taking up with these two women the anti-abortion theme of my Hawthorne paper, said with more confrontational self-confidence than I actually felt, “To be honest. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, the distinction you’re making between book reviews that appear in journals and those that appear in news publications.”
And now, finally, it was at this precise moment that Wee brought out her apples and set them down on her desktop’s center as gently as new-laid eggs. “Don’t you see? It’s like apples and oranges.” So saying, she started sliding two of the fruits toward Watt and the third toward me. “Refereed book reviews over here and newspaper stuff over there. It’s so, so simple.” When she finished her little demonstration, the smallest of the apples was on my corner of the desk.
To be honest, it was a convincing performance. The physicality of the apples, especially the little one, had indeed flummoxed me. Daunting beyond my powers of describing to you had been that undersized fruit’s brazen, solitary advance across the desktop to my corner. A bullying Lilliputian if ever there was one was for me that porcelain fruit, and how could I stand up against him, given my cowardice in having so recently ducked a confrontation with the women over the abortion issue? Would God back me in a small matter when I had let pass my opportunity of going to combat for him in a larger issue’s regard? In short, I was feeling weak-kneed, entirely outmaneuvered, checked, check-mated and ashamed. Further, to just such a cornered juncture, each and all of the faculty members whom I had consulted in advance of this meeting had told me the session would inevitably tend. And, when it got there, I should give up, they had advised me, lest I appeared insufficiently meek to the co-chairs and got myself ranked poorly again next year. In short, that’s pretty much what I had decided to do when suddenly I heard these words spoken by a martial voice: “No, Patrick, don’t give up. Push ‘em back! Push ‘em back where they come from!”
Swallowing my fears, then, I addressed myself to Wee, “No, Dr. Wee, it’s not a matter of apples and oranges. Book reviews in journals and those in newspapers are of equal value. They’re addressed to different audiences, but they essentially do the same thing. Further, in terms of admission standards they’re exactly the same. You and Dr. Watt may be working under the common misapprehension that the book reviews that appear in peer-reviewed journals are themselves peer reviewed. But that’s not the case. The reviews in scholarly journals are no more tested for their worth than are those in newspapers. They, like newspaper reviews, are admitted into the journal at an editor’s discretion. That’s all there is to it. The two—newspaper and journal book reviews—are absolutely equal in that regard.” Saying this, I slowly but determinedly pushed the smaller apple back beside its larger fellows.
Wee contemplated for a moment the restored group of three apples. Then she spoke: “You’d see the difference better if I had an orange.”
"No, no, I absolutely wouldn’t. Trust me. The two are the same,” I said. “Think about it. Is the editor of a journal going to pass around to three experts for their sanctioning a ten-paragraph book review? She’s got enough trouble getting experts to vet her journal’s scholarly papers. No, no, it simply doesn’t happen.”
Wee considered again the three apples, rendered now indistinguishable, even fellows, by their proximity. “They do look alike,” she said.
“That’s because they are the same. If I told you that they are not of the same genus and species, you would say I was a liar. And, so too, if someone else has told you that the book reviews that appear in commercial publications and those that appear in scholarly vehicles are not kith and kin, that person, I assure you, has motives other than honesty.”
Another half-minute of silence followed, at the end of which Watt’s thumbs stopped. She raised her head, raised her eyebrows, and saw that both Wee and I were looking at her.
“Hah! “Listen to him,” she said to Wee, turning her wrist and pointing at me again with her thumb. “Now it’s him talking the lingo of your research.”
“Yeah, stop stealing my lingo,” said a suddenly re-invigorated Wee. “What do you think? Because you talk like a health science professional everyone’s going to respect you?”
“I was only—”
“Let’s make this clear, Patrick,” said Wee, waving her surprisingly long index finger at me as she lectured. “This is not about respect. Everyone is respected in this process, both the applicants and the committee, who, by virtue of their faculty-union election, are forced to make difficult judgments about their colleagues. No one in this process is an apple, no one is an orange, and respect is a two-way street. If you’ve been told by anyone that Dr. Watt and I play by rules that favor our friends—”
“Please,” I said, calling for my browbeating’s merciful conclusion. “What’s the difference, Dr. Wee? That’s all I want to know. What’s the difference between book reviews in journals and those in newspapers? Save in stature, how is this apple”—I slid one of the trio a half-yard in her direction—“different from those other two?”
Refusing to look down at the porcelain fruits but, instead, continuing to train her eyes on me, Wee said, “Wattsy, you tell him.”
So summoned, Watt, unlike Wee, did glance in the direction of the apples, but only after, first, issuing a last, assertive thumb touch to her electronic device and after, second, eyeballing first Wee and then me, as if to check, it seemed to me, that her colleague and I had not somehow allied ourselves against her. Whatever her conclusions in that regard, she, as I say, eventually turned her attention to the apples. Indeed, she not only glanced at them but also rose up from her chair and stood over them as if they were a puzzle. Then, lastly, she turned to me, the puzzle’s inventor, and said, “It’s complicated.”
“Yes, Patrick, it’s complicated!” Wee swiftly and emphatically echoed her co-chair’s ruling. Further, as she did so, she swept all three apples off the desk and turned to restore them to their shelf. “The difference between your newspaper reviews and everyone else’s journal reviews is very, very complicated!”
Our conversation turned next to a subject that surprised me. As Wee re-shelved the apples and made other adjustments to her bookcase’s knick knackery, she spoke behind herself, telling me in gradually less assertive tones that Dr. Watt had herself published several book reviews in academic journals, and, therefore, she knew what she was talking about in handing down the judgment that she had just rendered. This surprised me, Wee’s telling me about Watt’s scholarship. Indeed, as I had prepared myself for this meeting, I had assumed that both her own and Dr. Watt’s dubious scholarly records would be among the meeting’s most taboo subjects. Imprudent unto catastrophic would have been my touching on the topic of their lightweight scholarly histories, I thought.
“If Dr. Watt says the difference between reviews in scholarly journals and those in newspapers is complicated, she speaks from experience. Also,” Wee remarked as she turned toward me, “Dr. Watt has co-authored both papers and books.”
“One book,” Watt clarified with the aid of a raised index finger.
Yes, I knew these things. No one had any need to tell me about Watt’s scholarly record—nor, for that matter, Wee’s—for, before coming into this meeting, even as I had resolved not to bring up the topic, I had, of course, looked into both co-chairs’ academic histories, and, thus, I knew about Wee’s emergency contraception surveys and knew, too, about Watt’s sketchy record of achievement: that, before she put a few lines of questionable merit on her vita as the co-author of a pair of papers and of a locally published book, her scholarly performance had consisted entirely of some four or five book reviews. Those few pages of typed thought had appeared, yes, in two scholarly journals of estimable pedigree; however, they were, as I envisioned them, transparently grad student work, that is, publication opportunities offered to her by former teachers or by colleagues of hers who had charge of the journals and who had, therefore, the journals’ book review by-lines to give away. Be that as it may, preposterous as it would seem, Watt had ridden that handful of reviews and the pair of papers, one of them co-authored, at least three-quarters of the way up our university’s benighted full-professor’s incline, and, then, in a last incoherent spill of print gotten her broad caboodle over the incline’s crest with the help of co-authors whose authorial alliances with her had in both cases proved fleeting. Was her inexplicable resistance to the merit of my more substantial scholarly record rooted somehow in the flimsiness of her own authorial performance? I am not enough expert in the obscure and measly gyrations of the scapegrace academic’s heart to answer that question. More importantly, as a Christian, I had not been disposed before this meeting to pull the veil of professional courtesy off my powerful colleagues’ suspect academic attainments. However, offered the opportunity to do so by one of the women herself, I found myself making ready to do so.
“Is that right? Dr. Watt used to write book reviews?” I said, looking toward Watt, who remained stolid in her attention to her iPhone.
Wee answered, “Soon Dr. Watt and I are going to co-author a paper together.”
“That’s exciting,” I said. “What will you write about?”
“We’re still deciding. A lot will depend on who we recruit to join us.”
“An Irish topic,” Watt put in.
“That should be right up your alley,” I said, recalling, not Watt’s ethnic background nor anything she had written, but, instead, the several undergraduate, study-abroad tours of Ireland that she had organized in the past several years and that she had copiously advertised on the university’s email server and newly installed, near-ubiquitous LED billboards.
Again Wee spoke: “Yes, an Irish topic is one of the possibilities, but, as I mentioned, much will depend on who else we recruit.”
“Whom do you have in mind?”
“A strong writer.” That response too came from Watt.
“That makes sense,” I said.
“We want our team to be diverse,” Wee added.
“An admirable consideration,” I offered.
“Not just racially or gender-wise,” Wee continued, “but also ideologically. I mean why be narrow and a jerk if you can be broad? And the worst of it is that it hurts the students.”
“I hear that from my students all the time,” I said. “Narrowness hurts us, they say.”
“If only people would let go of their prejudices,” Wee continued. “It’s like in the Bible. You know—that story about Jesus dropping his hook on the other side of the boat and catching a humongous fish?”
“Yes, perhaps I do know that story,” I said, taken aback by this sudden turn in the conversation toward scripture. “However, in the story I know, it was the apostles who did the fishing, and they were using a net.”
“Wow! I love that story,” Wee said. “It’s so deep. It just speaks to me.”
“That’s great,” I said. For what else could I say? That the Bible is only for Christians to quote? That even the devil can quote scripture? No, I couldn’t say either of those things, especially the second, on this particular day.
“Wattsy, isn’t that the coolest story you ever heard? Jesus is fishing on one side of the boat and not catching any fish, so he drops his hook on the other side and he catches this humongous fish? Awesome, no?”
“Your answers to several of the application’s mandatory questions suggested contempt for their themes.” That was Watt, not much later, initiating the next theme in my post-promotion candidacy interview, while, of course, perusing her iPhone.
“You have in mind perhaps my answer to the critical thinking prompt?”
“Remind me,” sniffed Watt.
“Logic feeds extremism. People who tell me they like critical thinking make me nervous. That’s how I began my answer to the question about how I cultivate critical thinking among my students.”
“Excellent example,” Watt said.
“Faith trumps reason. I think I might have written that too.”
“Another good example.”
“No wonder you finished last,” interjected Wee. Seated once more, she had again stretched her arms beseechingly across her desktop and between them—a new posture—rested her head sideways on her left ear. With fatigue in her voice, she spoke in the direction of the window, “What in the name of God were you thinking when you wrote those sarcastic things?”
“Of my terminated comrades in our university’s Philosophy Department,” I answered. And suddenly, spontaneously, against my better judgment, I found myself launched into a verbal rendition of the thoughts that had, indeed, overwhelmed me when I sat down to write that portion of my promotion narrative in which I was called upon to testify to my dedication to the university’s “critical thinking” mission: That at about the same time that the state (and our university after it) decided that critical thinking was public education’s noblest cause, it started withdrawing funds from the Philosophy Department’s budget, started encouraging the retirement of that department’s tenured professors, and stopped hiring their replacements. The darkened corridor that was once the domain of the Philosophy Department’s faculty offices was now being marketed to call centers, day care providers, crowd-funders and start-up wannabes. Yes, yes, occasionally might be spotted in that shadowed hallway the moving silhouettes of revenue producing video game technologists and infant border detainees; however, more often than not, they were the shadows of truant housekeeping personnel looking for dark corners in which to smoke their dope. Or sometimes too they were the gaunt, grey profiles of the Philosophy Department’s remaindered faculty, sharing ideas and food stamps in the overlong intervals that separated their shifts in the university’s Academic Advisement Center.
“Done some thinking on this topic?” said Watt.
“Yeah, what’s it to you?” said Wee.
Thus, the women tried to stop me in my idle lament for a bygone classical curriculum, and were I capable of doing so, I would gladly have complied. However, the anguish in my heart in this theme’s regard was like the dread that those who suffer trauma in the womb must feel. In short, once activated, I could not contain it. “No, this is about me too,” I continued. “For what has been my own discipline’s fortunes ever since the state took up the critical thinking theme? Harried and trammeled and made to feel as if we are malingerers, as if taps on the public pelf! That has been the average humanities professor’s day-to-day experience, post the critical thinking theme’s coronation. No, no,” I finished my threnody with a flourish, “for us in the humanities the critical thinking question on one’s promotion application—how do you stimulate critical thinking in your classes, professor?—is not an encouragement to better teaching. It’s the last torture our employers administer before they shut us down. And on my application, I addressed it accordingly.”
As best I could discern, my speech had no effect on either Watt or Wee. The former, leaned back now in her chair and with her hand-held device propped on the knoll of her dustcoat-draped midriff only continued thumbing, while the latter was either asleep or watching through the window a pair of willowy, hooded female undergrads as they seized an abatement in the rainfall to dash from their car, cross the parking lot, and duck into the university’s health clinic.
“How should I have answered the prompt?” I asked.
Wee responded. Lifting her hoodied head up and propping her chin anew on the V made by her elbows’ planting on her desktop and her hands’ bunching, she said. “Begin like this, ‘Critical thinking is vital, especially for today’s youth.’”
“You mean with a platitude?”
Wee looked to Watt, who gave her the faintest of approving nods.
“Yes, what you said,” Wee said.
Now to return to the topic of Wee’s dubious New Testament enthusiasms, cut short, as you may have noticed, by my abrupt entry into the question of my handling of the promotion application’s critical thinking prompt. But, first, why the abrupt departure from scene and theme? From, moreover, a sketch whose premises promised considerable amusement? Yes, even before telling you what did indeed happen next in terms of Wee’s preposterously composed Biblical narrative, you have need to know the answer to those questions. It’s this: That once again a voice intervened in my head, and I obeyed it. Don’t tell them that! They won’t believe it, the voice said. And when I heard that instruction, I recognized immediately in it a prudential outlook that accorded with my own feelings. Why should I tell you of a magical-realist phenomenon that I myself, in its hindsight, was struggling to believe actually happened? Of, to put it in another way, a paranormal occurrence that would surely break the bank of your generous trust in me as an historical narrator while adding nothing of consequence to my overall testimony? For, yes, trust me on this, the strange thing that happened next as Wee assayed to go on with her Biblical parable shed light on nothing of moment—save perhaps on her shamelessness and on my susceptibility to spiritual appeals, two things you are already amply aware of. In short, then, I did what the voice told me and passed over that episode’s curious end. So what’s changed that I should now return to it? Well, go figure, I’ve heard another voice, this one instructing me to do just the opposite. Tell them what happened, you scapegrace! Devil take the hindmost, tell them what happened! That, to be honest, is not an instruction that accords with my own feelings. Yet still, I obey it. Here’s what happened.
As you recall, when I aborted the narrative, Wee had just turned excitedly to Watt and said of her liberally recalled scriptural passage, “Wattsy, isn’t that the coolest story you ever heard? Jesus is fishing on one side of the boat and not catching any fish, so he drops his hook on the other side and he catches this humongous fish? Awesome, no?”
And, then, for once, Watt did stop fiddling with her iPhone. However, it was clearly not because she was pleased by the Biblical turn in her co-chair’s speech. Indeed, as I read her frown, she was issuing a cautionary to Wee. Further, when she did speak, she said just this minatory thing: “And? And? And your point is?”
“Well, let’s us think about that,” said Wee, leaning back on her bookcase in the manner of a teacher reclining against a chalk ledge. “So Patrick, Wattsy, and me—we’re Jesus’s fishermen, let’s say. And we’re all in a boat, dropping our hooks in the wide, wide ocean. Wattsy and me are on the starboard side of the boat, and Patrick is on—“ Wee hesitated. “Either of you guys know what the other side of the boat is called?”
Neither of us knew.
“Figures,” said Wee, before resuming her scene’s construction: “Patrick is on his lonely side. But we’re not catching anything. Nothing. Not a single smelly fish—.” Again Wee checked herself and, turning to me, said, “You ok with this, Patrick? You don’t look so good. I mean someone told me that when you read the Bible it’s helpful to imagine yourself in the scene.”
Yes, very likely I did not look so good, stunned, as I was at that particular moment, not so much by Wee’s appalling Biblical chicanery, leading who knew where, nor by the diabolical inconvenience of the vow I had taken earlier in the day against calling out what seemed to me transparently demonic behaviors, nor even by my awareness of my own maximal susceptibility to any and all scriptural appeals. No, none of those things were so much tormenting me as was the blurred silhouette that had just then stolen into my head as Wee composed her Biblical boat scene. Admittedly, the image was unclear in its particulars and, for that reason, impossible to interpret. However, when it launched itself into my mind’s eye, I had the overwhelming sense that it had been sent to me, not by the devil, but by God himself.
“Meditatio,” I accordingly said, culling a word from my many hours of listening to Catholic radio and quelling as best I could my quaking awe at the divine event that I sensed might be unfolding. “That’s what you’re doing. It’s the second phase of what the monks used to call Lectio Divina. And I’m ok with it.”
“Meditio. I like that word,” said Wee, and then, ignoring it seemed to me another frown from Watt expressive, this one, of the pair’s shared paranoia about stealth attacks by way of cunning intellectual tongue-in-cheek-isms, she started drifting to her left in the manner of a teacher thinking out loud as she lectures: “Nothing. Not a single stinking fish, even though we’ve tried everything—from changing the bait, to switching our sides on the boat, and to turning off our hand-held devices in case the buzz they make is scaring off the fish.”
“Hmm!” That skeptical harrumph was made by Watt.
“It does,” Wee insisted. “The buzz of hand-held devices bothers fish. They find it rude. I saw it on National Geographic. Isn’t that right, Patrick?”
“Sorry, I’m just trying to imagine the scene you’re painting,” I said, in defense of the fact that, yes, my eyes were closed, as well as in response to this other likely reality: that Wee’s calling on me to support her was at least in part an expression of her mislike of my clenched eyelids.
“Then I should continue?”
As Wee continued, I heard her drift yet further to her right. “So it’s mid-day, and there’s a lot of hungry people around, waiting for food and wishing they had something good to read. And Jesus, who owns our boat, he comes out to us walking on the water, and he calls out, ‘Hey, apostles—”
I interrupted, “Can we pray?” And this, too, like my claim to want to see the scene in its fullness, was an utterance as earnestly spoken as anything I’ve ever said in my life. For plaguy was my feeling at that moment of culpable omission in our not having prayed as we began this exercise. My evangelical associates, after all, always prayed at the outset of their shared Biblical rumination. “It’s the recommended way,” I said.
A short pause later, Wee answered, “Dr. Watt is not so good with that.”
“How about I do it myself, quietly?” I offered.
A second, shorter pause later, Wee spoke: “Let us know when you’re finished.”
I prayed briefly in silence, and when I was finished, I said aloud, “Amen.”
“Now where was I?” said Wee, sounding even more animated than she had a moment earlier. “Oh, yeah. So Jesus comes out to us walking on the water, and he calls out, ‘Hey, apostles, why don’t you guys work together?’ And Patrick, on his side of the boat, says, ‘Us? Together?’ And Watt on her side says, ‘He wants us to use this net.’ ‘Oh, yeah, the net,’ I say. But then just as we’re about to throw it over the side, Patrick stands up and calls out to Jesus, ‘Which side of the coffin should we throw it over?’”
“Coffin! Did you say coffin?” That was the Watt who was in the office.
“Coffin! That’s strange. Yes, I said coffin, didn’t I?” said the Wee also in the office.
When I opened my eyes, both women were looking at me as if to get answers to their coffin questions—Watt from her chair in front of the office’s already mentioned storm-darkened window, and Wee, from the room’s right-front corner, where she and the standing coat tree on which hung her polka-dot rain coat were back-dropped by a three-babies-in-a-bathtub Gender Studies poster that I had seen a thousand times before around campus but that I had just now noticed on her bulletin board.
“Yes,” I agreed, “How strange that you should say coffin.”
That’s what happened.
Not much later, just after the dust had settled on my application’s addled handling of the critical thinking prompt and just before our meeting’s interruption by the door knock and low-comedy performance of a pizza delivery guy asking for four tips, the co-chairs surprised me by returning to the very theme that moments earlier I had thought short-circuited by Wee’s incapacity to re-start her scripture reflection after her strange coffin gaffe.
“The committee will never promote you if you insist on working alone,” said Watt. “It smacks of an anti-social disposition. Also, your production suffers because you refuse to co-author.” Her turning her iPhone off and slipping it under the folds of her duster as she said these things signaled to me—as I read the gestures—the topic’s importance to her.
Wee too, despite her failed New Testament effort, seemed intent on the subject’s re-visiting. From her station behind her desk, she added, “How can you keep up with teams of four or five if you work alone?”
As inoffensively as I might, I urged that to the best of my knowledge I had not only kept up with the several co-authors who had been promoted in front of me but I had, as a point of fact, exceeded them in my production of published pages by ratios of six and seven to one—if, that is, you divided the numbers of published papers by the numbers of their authors (one, in my case) or co-authors (several, in their cases). Further, my papers had distinguished themselves from those of my colleagues by their advocacy of a thought. Mine were not just best-practice and review-of-the-research summaries. “In short,” I pleaded, “if the committee would only install a rational formula for adjudicating scholarly production, then for sure I’d outpace my competitors. In other universities, they divide the scholarly credit by the number of people who have co-authored the paper. Can’t we do that here?”
'“Too much math,” Wee answered.
“What would be the point?” Watt asked.
“Among other things,” I said, “it would encourage the university’s scholar-writers to think for themselves, as opposed to thinking within the limits of their ideological alliances. Also,” I added, “it would prevent the scam wherein groups of supposed researchers multiply their individual scholarly credits by adding their names to one another’s papers.”
“People do that?” exclaimed Wee.
“So I’ve heard.”
“Such deviosity!” she said, glancing at Watt and exchanging with her a look whose contents the pair, this time, successfully kept from me.
Whatever the look’s content, when Watt spoke, she directed herself to me: “We already make use of a formula. One paper equals one credit to each and every of the paper’s co-authors. That’s been the faculty union’s policy for as long as I can remember at this university.”
“That might be why there are so many co-authors on campus, and so few stand-alone authors like myself,” I said.
“But, Patrick,” Wee interjected, “if we did what you propose, you would have such an advantage. It would be like apples—“
And that’s when a knock on the door interrupted us.
“Smoking hot!” announced an apparently British voice just outside.
“Pizza?” Wee called back.
“Smoking hot, extra-large, extra cheese, gluten-free for Dr. Watt.”
“I didn’t—“ Watt said.
“That’s the pizza guy. Thank God! I’m so hungry,” interjected Wee, bursting at that moment from behind her desk and hustling toward the door.
She brushed by my feet, though, to tell you the whole strange, shape-shifting truth, I sensed no more of her passing than her shadow’s gliding by, startled unto blindness as I was at that precise moment by what my hand had just fearfully discovered in the shoulder bag that I had brought along with me to the meeting and that I had laid on the floor beneath my chair. You see, during much of the dialogue just now recounted, I had been reaching into that bag, making ready to withdraw from it the three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing that I had earlier in the week stowed in it. Should a moment arise in the meeting when I absolutely must defend my practice of singly authoring my work, my strategy had been to draw my cherished Field Day from the bag, slap the boxed-set anthology down like a concrete block on Wee’s desktop, withdraw one of its volumes, open it, and say, See! See, Madams Co-Chairs! The contents of these three fat books, representative of the best writing ever done by Irish hands from times monkish to times present teach us this truth: that truly original, truly groundbreaking writing is singly authored, not multiply hashed out. Look at the by-lines: Swift, Sterne, Goldsmith, Shaw, Yeats, Gregory, Carleton, Joyce, Beckett, O’Faolain, Trevor, O’Brien, and the inspired James Clarence Mangan. They are all the names of a single human person. There’s not a co-authored poem or play or story in here. Please, please do not insist, then, that I write co-authored papers with you or with anyone else because, if you do, how will I ever compose anything that will get into a book like this?
Admittedly, this was no promising strategy, given the threadbare cultural sympathies of my interviewers; however, it was the best I could devise, and it was, too, I declare, earnestly constructed. When all else fails, speak the truth. That had for many years been one of my life’s policies, and it was prominent in my thinking now. Accordingly, just seconds before the pizza guy tapped, I began reaching into the bag, began squirreling my hand through its various contents, began probing my way downward toward its largest, heaviest holding, the boxed trio of books whose exterior should have been, in the natural order of things, of a firm, papered cardboard texture. However, when my hand met the anticipated block-like object, its cover was supple rather than firm. Yes, for sure, there was something brick-like, weighty and book-like in my hand, an object similar in its shape to the one I had anticipated laying hold of; however, the book-like thing that my hand had landed on was unboxed and single; what’s more, its cover was, as I say, of the expensive, soft, pliant, calf-skinned variety, not that of a cardboard box. Instantly, to my hand’s credit, it recognized what it was holding. For, yes, as you might be guessing, the book was the one volume in a trillion that the blind hand of a Christian ought immediately recognize, even in the most pressured of circumstances, such as mine were at that moment. I’m talking of course about the Bible!
For, lo-and-behold, that’s what I saw the volume to be when I carefully, fearfully, and surreptitiously drew it up and out of the bag, and placed it face down in my lap. A handsomely bound, sand-colored, gilt-paged Lutheran Study Bible, just like the one that on the first day of this 2017 year I had pulled from my ecumenical shelf of eleven Bible translations for closeting, lest, in the half-millennium, anniversary year of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses, I became unduly tested in my Catholic allegiances by it. But how had this particular Bible gotten into my book bag on this particular day, when, I confess it, I rarely carried around with me even a Catholic Bible, yet alone a Lutheran New Revised Standard Version? And to what end had it gotten in there? Had one of my evangelical Christian friends put it there? Yes, ever intent on steering me away from my inordinate reliance on literary texts for my soul’s nourishment and on the whispering of Catholic spirits for its guidance, several of my Christian associates were, for sure, capable of stratagems like this. They wanted me to go to the Bible for all my needs of conscience and of thought, to be set free from the lousy traumas of my past, which, in their opinions, underlay both my Catholic and literary reflexes. Nothing wrong with that, I had to admit, given the likelihood that their hands were also God’s in this initiative—that, in other words, He had prompted them to put the Bible in my bag because ultimately it was He, more than anyone else, who wanted my Biblical makeover. And then came this reflection’s terrifying clincher! Oh No! God wants my makeover on this day of all days, the day in which my promotion hangs in the balance! Did that mean that the Bible would steer me successfully through the considerable perils of my promotion’s pursuit? That it would deliver me smiling, uncompromised, and un-damned up to the professorial ladder’s highest plateau? Or did it mean the dreadful opposite, namely, that I would have to make a choice between it and academic advancement? Oh, how I hoped for the former. In any event, the Bible was now in my hands, and I dared not let it go.
Such was my mental state as Wee passed by my feet, opened the door, greeted the pizza guy, and engaged him in the transaction’s initial steps. And then, too, moments later, it continued to be my background state of mind as I vaguely, distantly began to pick up on the conversation that ensued between her and the pizza carrier.
“Say what, Mr. Sticks for Legs?” said Wee. “You want four tips for one pizza!”
Looking to my left, I saw, in the corridor just outside the door of her office, Wee and a tall, rail thin, generously goat-teed, theatrically rain-coated pizza deliverer faced off against one another, a green, thermal, canvas-encased pizza box suspended between them in their antagonistic grips.
The tall man drew a deep breath and sighed forbearingly before responding: “With all due respect, Dr. Wee, it’s a union-sanctioned pizza, transported to the customer by four union-certified deliverers. Each and all deserve a tip, says the union’s new contract. Given their considerable outlays of time and talent, surely that makes sense to you?” In his knee-length, Inverness rain garment, the big man looked, in his coat’s regard at least, like a coachman in a Victorian movie; however, in other particulars of his dress and coiffeur—Native American headband, shoulder-length hair, half-foot of goatee, cut-off shorts (that Wee had noticed), and flip flops—he was quintessentially the aging, college-town pizza carrier that one would locally expect. So, too, the “Feel the Bern” button on his lapel and the “Free the Weed” t-shirt occasionally discernible in the opening between his un-buttoned coat’s two lapels declared to me his authenticity. For, having lived in the town in which I live for two decades, I can tell you that some few members of his locally ubiquitous profession are invariably philosophically and politically awakened, and it is they, not the entrepreneurial of their class, who stay on the job longest. Still, even in my Bible-preoccupied state, I, as transparently did Wee, sensed something performative and shyster-ish about this guy, whose diction was too eloquent by half for our open-enrollment neighborhood and whose equipage did not, as far as I could see, include a device that would enable payment by credit or debit card.
Indeed, to what the guy had just said, Wee responded, “Union Petunion! Four tips for one pizza is a crime!”
Again the guy drew a deep breath and sighed forbearingly. Then, having done these two things, he consoled Wee for her stupefaction—thoroughly understandable, he said, given that the policy of requiring tips commensurate with the number of deliverers had taken effect just that morning. Still, if Dr. Wee would but think about it, the new custom was “an eminently fair and mathematical one, far superior to that of the old individualist dispensation when pizza deliverers were as fodder for the insatiate capitalist belly.”
Wee, to me: “What he just say?”
“That he’s a co-deliverer.”
Wee, again to the carrier: “Bull! How about this mathematics, Mr. Food in a Box! One tip for four deliverers, each guy getting an equal share! How about you put that Geometry in your happy pipe and smoke it!”
The pizza carrier winced as if his toes had been stepped on when he heard, it seemed to me, the name Food in a Box, though, too, it may have been the words “pipe” or “smoke” that caused him pain. Regardless, whichever of the three, he recovered quickly and in an equitable tone continued to make his case: “Unfortunately, Dr. Wee, that’s not an option in the dismal times that is. Time was in this campus town when pizza was delivered by one solitary entrepreneur working alone in his fully-paid-for and expensively maintained vehicle of choice. However, that was the old economy, when this top-of-the-line university at which you teach had more students than it could seat and the demand for pizzas was greater. Dr. Wee, as you well know, those times is long gone, and we, the community of pizza deliverers, have responded progressively, unionizing our workforce, lest we be pushed aside by modernity, as were the Pony Express and juniper berries.”
“You’ve read my research?” said Wee.
“Live by it,” the guy answered, releasing for just an instant his right hand’s hold on the pizza box in order to issue a scouts honor hand signal.
Yes, I admitted to myself, some of what this guy said was true. Down by a third for the past two years, the University’s regrettable student enrollment most certainly must have impacted negatively the local pizza industry and its appended workforce. It only made sense that fewer pizzas would have to, in one way or another, sustain the sizeable delivery community. Save by unionization and the multiplication of tips, how else could that community survive?
However, despite the soundness of his argument, Wee’s outrage was little diminished. “Wattsy!” she said. “Are you hearing this guy? He wants us to shell out four tips for one pizza!”
“What’s it to me? I’m not hungry,” answered Watt. In the interval during which I had been discovering the miraculous contents of my bag and Wee arguing with the pizza carrier, Watt had returned to the scrolling of her iPhone, and so, as was her custom, this last statement was made without her looking up.
“Nnye, nnye? I’m not hungry.” Wee mimicked. “Yeah, right! If the rest of us blinked, you’d scarf down the whole pie by yourself. Probably eat the box too.”
Watt stirred. Touching her iPhone decisively, she turned it off, slid it into a belt sleeve located somewhere beneath the folds of her oilcloth dustcoat, stood on feet too small even for a woman of her short stature, and advanced toward, not Wee, but the pizza guy.
“It’s good pizza, Dr. Watt,” the tall man said.
“We know one another?”
“World Cultures 303, Wicca History, Dr. Watt. I took it some nine or ten years ago.”
“Browne, Thomas, with an e. In the e’s regard equivalent to White, Dr. Watt.”
Watt frowned. She didn’t remember having a Browne in that class, she said. She did, however, recall a White, and remembered too his handing in a paper on Wicca Networking, a paper that had more parenthetical references than it did sentences.
“Your memory is phenomenal,” said Browne. Yes, indeed, he said, there had been a White in that class, a student named Barron “Parentheses” White, famed campus-wide for his researches into networking’s charms and for the prodigality of his parenthetical references. As for himself, Browne, he had been more select in his citations. Writing about the origins of contemporary American Wicca belief in Celtic mythology, Dr. Watt’s suggested topic, he and his diverse team of three female co-authors had limited themselves to a handful of Wikipedia borrowings.
“You’re Browne, and your classmate was White?” said Watt.
“First and last in the class roster’s alphabetical listing, as you perhaps recall, and yet frequently you confused us.”
“And he, not you, wrote the networking paper?”
“Worked very hard on it, White did. Oh, how hard he worked on that paper! Research both bookish and experiential went into the writing of that paper. I will not shortchange White in my recall of his efforts.”
“What was his thesis?”
“That was his paper’s chief limitation. It had no thesis, and you flunked him for it.”
“Of course, I did,” Watt said. “Imagine handing in a twelve-page paper without a thesis and calling it college research. That’s what tenth-graders do.”
“Yes, Dr. Watt. White told me of your insistence on this college/tenth-grade distinction and of your flunking him for putting himself on the wrong side of that divide. The F disheartened him at the time, but when I saw him last he said he was thankful for the correction. More than anything else that befell him while an undergraduate, that F you gave him made a man of him. That’s what White told me. ‘I’m a man today because of Dr. Watt.’”
Watt said she was happy to hear of her positive influence on a former student, and, indeed, she did seem pleased. Then, as she and the pizza carrier continued their conversation about times past and about White, she recalled a faculty rumor of White’s having submitted a networking paper of one sort or another in each and all of the classes that he had taken.
“Yes, it was his signature theme,” said Browne, “and handsomely rewarded with a B+ or better in each of the six or seven instances in which he resorted to it.”
“Way to go, White!” said Wee, reprieving her truck drivers’ honking gesture of an earlier moment in the meeting.
“Howsoever far away you may now be,” added Browne.
“And where would that be?” asked Watt.
“Harvard!” said Browne with a straighter face than a Cigar Store Indian’s. “He teaches there.”
“Figures,” said Wee.
If Harvard’s employment of White made sense to Watt too, however, she did not say so. Rather, just as Browne was about to say more about his classmate, Watt cut him off. “Excuse us,” she said, stepping back into the office and beginning to close the door. “My colleagues and I need to discuss something.”
“Yes, but the pizza?” said Browne.
Watt answered Browne with the schoolmarm’s universal hush now gesture—a single index finger held authoritatively aloft. “This won’t take more than a minute. Don’t go anywhere,” she said and then closed the door.
“Surname Dysphoria,” Watt whispered to Wee and me once the door was closed.
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Wee.
And then to me specifically Watt explained what Surname Dysphoria was, or better SND: the existential discomfit felt by those in conflict with their patriarchally assigned surnames, an anxiety that most often resulted in their changing it. The condition was increasingly common among university students named White and Mann.
“Also Weiner, Ho, Cox, and Van Nutts,” said Wee.
“That’s different,” Watt corrected, and then continued: While it was somewhat troublesome that Browne had taken the name that he had taken, the misstep was more likely attributable to the trauma of his awakened social and historical consciousness than it was to cultural or racial appropriation. “He’s transitioning. Eventually he’ll figure out who he is and very likely take another name.”
“That’s what most often happens,” Wee agreed.
“He might call himself Apple or Orange,” I ventured.
“What’s important now,” said Watt after another quick exchange of glances with Wee, “is that we’re all accepting of Browne’s being Browne, at least for the time being, and that we individually have no issue of faith or conscience that would prevent us from awarding him our business. Is that the case?”
“Absolutely! I’m accepting. Of course!” said Wee.
“Thomas Browne with an e,” I began to say, “was after all the name—“ however, before I could finish my support of the pizza carrier’s name-change with an impromptu reflection on the Stuart Era polymath whose name seemed to me pertinent, Watt and Wee silenced me with the oneness of their stern, forbidding looks. “Pizza is pizza,” I said, jumping to my reflection’s conclusion.
Still speaking softly, Watt said she was heartened by our unanimity, though, she advised us, she had been fully prepared to look for a third way, somewhere between humiliating Browne and asking either one of us to trammel his or her conscience by accepting pizza from a deliverer who had changed his name. Happily, however, that wasn’t necessary. Then, her speech finished, Watt re-opened the door.
To Browne, who hadn’t much moved, save to lean sideways against the corridor’s facing wall and to avail himself of the delay to check his iPhone for messages, Watt said: “Mr. Browne, Dr. Wee will be happy to go downstairs with you and finish the purchase there.”
“Me!” expostulated Wee. “Why am I going downstairs?”
“Because, as I mentioned not so long ago, I’m not hungry,” Watt answered. Then, as if to make that point, she restored to her hands her iPhone and moved back towards her chair. “We can square things up when you get back.”
Wee persisted: “Why can’t we just pay him here?”\
“Because, silly, we don’t know if there are actually three other deliverers out there. Haven’t you heard about the co-deliverers swindle that’s sweeping across university campuses nationwide?” Watt then explained to Wee the pizza delivery scam that had lately been the subject of an exposé in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Deliverers were multiplying their earnings by making false claims about the number of their colleagues involved in the delivery. Though The Chronicle’s editors applauded the deliverers’ unionization and their move to a multiple-deliverers’ business model, “they recommended physically counting carriers before tipping them,” said Watt.
Wee looked to Browne for a reaction but got from him only the face and gestures of a dismayed innocent.
“You’re such a Communist, Wattsy!” Wee eventually said, crossing her arms over her chest and planting her feet on the ground as if she would never move them again
Watt, who was now seated, only continued thumbing away on her iPhone.
“It’s raining,” Wee pleaded. She turned to the pizza guy for support in this too: “It’s raining outside, right?”
“Pouring,” he said.
“That’s not what your window says.” Watt pointed toward the window in Wee’s office. It communicated a different weather report than Browne’s—a report of desisted rain, of breaking clouds, of an emerging rainbow, and of a drying campus-town generously posted with “room available” signs. Also, far off in the distance, up near the campus’s Damascus Street exit, the largest of the university’s newly installed LED billboards flickered away, while to the east of it, an undergraduate shot hoops on the university’s only outdoor basketball court.
“Nye, nye, nye window says.” Wee mimicked her co-chair, before reluctantly agreeing to go. However, in order to do so she would have to borrow Watt’s rain coat.
“Where’s yours?” Watt countered.
“Way over there.” Wee pointed to a candy-striped, spring jacket hanging on the coat tree in the far right corner of her office, just to the right of the babies-in-a-bathtub poster.
“Well, go over there, get it, and wear it!” Watt said.
“Yours is roomier,” said Wee, sneaking a wink in my direction as she did so.
Watt, to my surprise, relented, got up from her chair, removed her rain coat and handed it to Wee. “Stretch it, and it’s yours, sister.”
Wee and the pizza guy left.
Immediately Watt swooped in on me. She drew her chair closer to mine, sat in it, tinkered briefly with her iPhone, rolled her eyes upward-left as she ordered her thoughts, and spoke:
“First, I want to apologize for Dr. Wee’s leaning on your religious beliefs.”
“You mean the bit about fishing on the boat’s other side?”
“That was not my idea. That made me uncomfortable. People ought not manipulate one another on the basis of their beliefs.”
I said I was not offended, and was on the cusp of adding that, indeed, sometimes I found it helpful to have my beliefs thrown in my face. However, before I could get that thought organized and articulated, Watt put her iPhone in my right hand, my left being occupied by the Lutheran Bible.
“Do you know who that is?” she asked.
By the man’s penciled Wikipedia portrait, I did not. But, yes, the name beneath the sketch meant something to me. “That’s Patrick Maturin,” I said, “the author of the 19th-century, gothic Irish classic Melmoth the Wanderer.”
“Now scroll down,” she said. Further, to facilitate my scrolling—Yikes! Oh, my God!— she teased from my reluctant left hand the Bible, whose titled front face I had been obscuring from her and Wee’s vision during the whole of the pizza deliverer’s interrogation. And, then—Yikes again!—its giveaway calf-skin cover, gilt-edged pages, and tell-tale weight signaling absolutely nothing of its sacred identity to her, she stored it in her lap, unaware of what it was, and waited while I read.
I did so, albeit heart-stopped and made to bathe in sweat-sodden undergarments by the Bible’s sudden removal from my possession and its harboring in the agnostic Watt’s lap: Born in Dublin in 1782 and passed away forty-two years later in the same city, Maturin left behind himself a small shelf of gothic fictions and plays among which the novel Melmoth was the most remembered. A Church of Ireland minister, he had also written sermons, and they too were esteemed strong, publishable stuff.
“What do you think?” asked Watt.
To be honest, I was mostly thinking about the Bible, so near and yet so far away from my failed custody, thinking that I was not much of a Christian soldier to have let go of it, and thinking, lastly, that a moment was certainly approaching in which I would absolutely need it. However, instead of saying these things, I said, “I need to read some more.”
I did so: Maturin’s insistence on writing novels and plays had apparently sat unwell with his church superiors. For that reason, he never got beyond the rank of curate. Still, he remained a minister, a profession he clearly felt called to, and, despite his low rank, distinguished himself as one of his generation’s most formidable preachers. His masterwork in the homiletic category of expression was the group of sermons he delivered in the year of his death, “Five Sermons on the Errors of the Roman Catholic Church.” Those homilies, it seemed, had occasioned a good deal of polemics in the press and pulpits of the intensely sectarian Irish era in which he lived. However, it was not the heat of the day’s theological discussions that caused him to die prematurely. No, testified his widow, “it was the penury imposed upon him by his ecclesiastical superiors that put a period to his existence.”
“You’re recommending that I not do like Maturin, bucking, that is, the reigning theological ethos and dying poor and un-promoted as a result?” I said.
Watt scrunched her forehead in befuddlement. “What?” She took the iPhone from my hand, turned it toward herself, and checked to make sure that I was looking at the appropriate webpage. I was. No, she explained, her intent had been to ask if I was interested in writing with her a paper about Maturin and his Melmoth. She would contribute the paper’s historico-cultural gender critique, while I would handle the literary stuff. Then, before I could answer, she began to tell me the spooky origins of her interest in Melmoth: basically, how she had found the book on the lampstand beside her motel bed during a student trip she had just this last semester led to the Salem Witchcraft Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. “Imagine that,” she said. “The one year I don’t take my students to Ireland but, instead, to Salem, I find this Irish novel in my motel room in the place where you usually find a Bible. How providential was that?”
Fairly out of the ordinary, I admitted, figuring that that was what she meant by providential. “And it was on that trip that you saw the Hawthorne statue?”
Watt said that Wee, who was more into statues than she, had pointed out the generously jacketed Hawthorne likeness to her. “That’s another curious thing,” she added, “that I didn’t find one of his books on the night stand.”
“Yes, curious,” I agreed, relieved not to hear the word providential this time, and thinking too of a Hawthorne title that someone, if not God, might one day profitably leave in a place where she might find it. However, rather than mentioning the title, I threw a glance at the door and in a hushed voice asked: “Dr. Wee is not going to be a part of this project?’
“Not if I can help it,” Watt answered promptly, “but no promises. She’s hard to keep out of things.” Then, with renewed animation, she returned to her proposed paper’s topic. She had another motive for wanting to write about Melmoth. The book, her research told her, concerned in ways direct and indirect the Huguenot expulsion to Ireland from France—
“A tad too simple?” I interrupted.
This time it was Watt who glanced at the door before whispering, “Devious.”
“The bus ride never happened?”
“Not the way she remembers it,” Watt said, and resumed again her eager explanation of her interest in Melmoth: As it happened, the Huguenot expulsion was the historic event that had brought many of her own ancestors to Ireland and then eventually to America. In addition to being a Watt, she was too a Breakey, a Sufferin, a Jenrette, and a Molineaux on the succession of her parents’ maternal sides. Regrettably, because she was from Tennessee and because her name was Scots-Irish, people ascribed to her solely the characteristics of that group of people. However, while there was some truth in those ascriptions, she was also Huguenot Irish—
“Won’t there be a conflict of interest?” Again I interrupted, the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside the door compelling me to do so. “In my writing a paper with a co-chair of the promotions committee, that is?”
Watt rose from her chair and put her hand on the door’s knob. “Your promotion and this paper have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Besides, you’ll be promoted before the paper is published.” She began opening the door, but then, having swung it inward a half-foot or so, she abruptly reversed its course, pushed it closed again, and, putting her hand to her face, said in a hushed voice: “Hah! You want to know devious, ask her what she weighs.”
“Sensitive about that, huh?”
“Woman gains a pound,” said Watt, who once again closed the door after having opened it a crack, “and she’s ready to put a knife in her own back.”
“Oh, my!” I whispered
Finally, Watt swung open the door and, thus, there, before the two of us, with a pair of stacked pizza boxes in her hands, stood her co-chair, whom you will no doubt now imagine as a larger woman than the one you have up until this moment been conjuring. That’s as it should be, for though Wee was no heftier than the average middle linebacker on a second-tier woman’s football team, she was by a hand and a stone larger than the person her name and her sprightly mannerisms would suggest. She was not, to be clear, as large as the physical educationist suggested by that unfortunate freshman essay I had once received under the title “Why Is My Gym Teacher Fat?” No, absolutely not as big as that essay’s blubbery protagonist! Indeed, I flunked its writer on the grounds that authors ought be careful unto faultlessness in giving no undeserved offense in their writings. As for the descriptor looks pregnant, no, that would not do either, for, as I wrote in the margins of the paper, to look pregnant, no regrettable thing and Looks pregnant? What does that mean? Women pregnant for weeks and weeks before tummies expand an inch. Still, yes, Wee’s physical person was out of sync with her name and manner, and you, dear reader, ought from this moment forward to imagine her larger than you heretofore have. Specifically, you ought to see her straining the threads of Watt’s jacket rather than swimming in them, and you might, too, see her as making prominent by the wearing of her smaller colleague’s miniature coat that which she most wished to hide about herself, namely, her adult size.
As for the pizza, you should imagine it as having doubled in its quantity, for, lo and behold, with her elbows high and her shoulders bowed as if the heat of her burden were scorching her fingers, Wee was now carrying, not one, but two white pizza boxes. “Oh, my gosh! He was so sweet!” she said, rushing forward and hurriedly setting the boxes down on her desktop. “When I complained that the pizza was cold, he drove us back to the shop, re-heated it, and, while his boss wasn’t looking, slipped a second pizza into my hands. And then he drove me back to campus. Wasn’t that sweet?”
“How many other deliverers were with him?” Watt asked.
“I forgot to count.”
“Well, how many people were in the car, for god’s sake?”
“Just me, him, and a blonde girl named Raven. I tipped him too much, didn’t I?”
“You gave him four tips!”
“Of course!” Wee responded. “He gave us two pizzas. Besides, didn’t he say he was a former student of yours and that someday he was coming back to the university to teach?”
“Coming back to teach?”
“In the Economics Department,” said Wee. She explained that while in transit to and fro between the campus and the pizza shop, Browne had revealed to her his humble aspiration to go to graduate school, to focus on informal economies, and to eventually return to the university as a contributor to its educational enterprise. In short, he would do something like what his buddy White was doing at Harvard, albeit in less prestigious circumstances.
“Imagine that!” I interjected. “Teaching at his alma mater! Just like so many of our coll—“
“You don’t expect me to chip in for those tips?” Addressing Wee, Watt interrupted me.
“You already did. I found a spare five in the pocket—“
Wee stopped just there, in the middle of her sentence, because she saw me on her desk’s other side, having risen out of my chair and standing now in front of her and Watt with my book bag slung over my shoulder.
“Going so soon, Patrick? Stay for some pizza,” Watt said.
“Watching my weight,” I answered.
“You?” said Wee.
“Hardly,” I confessed. “In any event,” I continued, “today I’d prefer to eat alone. You and Dr. Watt have given me quite a lot to think about.”
“Oh!” Wee said. “I hope our meeting has been helpful to you.” She turned her eyes toward Watt, asking her, it seemed to me, for some signal of what had transpired while she was out of the room. Watt, for her part—also, it seemed to me—pretended not to see her colleague’s inquiry.
“Illuminating,” I said. “As I say, you’ve given me lots to think about. I thank both of you for your time and counsel.” Then, bowing the slightest of bows, I turned to leave.
However, just as I put my hand on the door, Watt called out to my back, “Stop by again some time. If you care to talk some more, that is.”
Then, suddenly, and louder than her voice, I heard another voice say, Talk now, Patrick! Right now! Tell ‘em, for God’s sake. Tell ‘em. And don’t leave out any of the hard parts. Without the Bible? I answered back, acutely conscious of that saving book’s having been taken out of my hands by Watt and of my never having asked for its return. Without the Bible, yes. This one is simple. For this one you don’t need the Bible. Tell ‘em. So that’s what I did for the next four or five minutes. I told ‘em, making sure not to leave out any of the hard parts.
And what did I tell ‘em?
I told ‘em first, thanks. I was honored by the offer to co-author a paper with whomever else would be drawn into the multiply-authored project, and I was intrigued by Dr. Watt’s proposed subject. Her idea was one that I hoped she would pursue, for much instruction it seemed to me was surely to be drawn from a fresh, new Melmoth paper.
I told ‘em, too, no thanks.
Then, in the no thanks’ regard, I told ‘em why: The lousy, lingering traumas of my youth made impossible my entering into, not just this co-authored project, but any project that would make of me a co-author.
Might I tell them about the lousy, stinking traumas of my youth? I at this point asked.
They said I might. Indeed to better focus on what I was about to say, they pushed aside the pizza, propped their elbows on Wee’s desktop, and propped their chins on their clasped hands, with the result that they looked to me from my standing, preacher’s perspective like nuns in a front pew. My audience thus positioned, I began then the true story of my three brothers and our shared, co-owned jacket:
In addition to the twin brother whom I have already mentioned, I have two other brothers, I told ‘em, a sibling pair, who, just like Jasper and I, are also twins. Further, they too, like Jasper and I, were born in 19_ _. Yes, a very challenging year, as you may imagine, for my Catholic mother, who used to say of it, “God spare me from another like it.”
As a result of our proximity in age, I told ‘em, my brothers and I grew up, for the first seven or eight years of our lives, like a band of Communists, little distinguishing either ourselves from one another or our individual possessions from each other’s. Who’s the toothbrush? Who’s the comb? Who’s the socks? These questions meant nothing to us so long as we went out the door each morning freshened, groomed and decent. Of course, as it should, this practice of sharing everything diminished over time as our individualities asserted themselves and as the world around us made its individual claims upon us. Indeed, by age eighteen, strangers on the street wouldn’t have known that we were brothers, let alone quadruplet-like siblings.
Then, in its due course, I told ‘em, came college, that wrecker of commonsense, homespun morals to which many, many damned souls owe their eternal perdition. “Why do we need four jackets?” asked one of my brothers at the start of that morally perilous era. “When one will do us,” continued another. “Jackets are expensive,” added Jasper. “I don’t know about you guys, but, on those few occasions when I do put one on, I’d rather it enhanced my appearance than marked me as a pauper. Let’s pool our resources, buy a good one, a spiffy one, and share it,” I finished the fateful conversation.
So that’s what we did, I told ‘em. We bought a single jacket—in the wide-lapelled, big-buttoned, psychedelically colored, disco style of that early-70s day. It was bomb! as we used to say. We called it the company jacket, high-fived one another on the day we carried it home, stored it in our shared closet, devised a coherent set of ground rules as per its usage and maintenance, and, lastly, swore one another to secrecy as regards its corporate ownership.
“Do I need to finish the story?” I asked my audience at this, the anguished threshold of my embarrassing story’s next shameful section. For, yes, in anticipation of what I needed to relate, I had by this point in my narration begun to sweat, begun to buckle under the imperative to tell ‘em the hard parts as well as the easy, begun, if you will, to hope for the cup’s passing me by. If they could imagine the rest, that would be best for me.
“You killed one of your brothers!” Wee gasped, and then in response to the befuddled glance I threw her way, she followed, “He killed you?”
Before I could answer, Watt hushed Wee and said to me, “Please, if you would, Patrick, to the best of your ability, continue. The ending is not yet clear to us.”
I continued: So now the jacket of great price was in our closet. That was a good thing for my brothers, who were preternaturally invested even at that young age with self-confidence and with the ethics of self-identification and self-representation that I’ve already mentioned as keys to the honest performance of one’s life. They wore the jacket only on the most formal of occasions and, then, as if they were not wearing it at all. My morals, however, were in this regard not so firmed as theirs. Further, as for self-confidence, I hadn’t a speck of it. As a result, though I was sparing in my usages of the garment in the first two or three weeks of our joint ownership of it, in short order I was wearing it far more often than were my brothers. Especially I was keen to put in on when headed out the door for social events that might be attended by—I lower my head in shame as I say it—girls. That’s a lot of events during one’s college era, if you start to list them, I said. We’re talking movies, car shows, barbecues, keg parties, funerals, weddings, study sessions, and the roller rink. We’re talking funerals, commencements and camp fires. If there was any chance at all that a cute girl might show up at a place I was headed, I wore the company jacket. I wore it in heat and in cold, in rain and in sunshine, with boots, oxfords and flip-flops, on mountains highest and valleys lowest, as the song says. I wore it almost as regularly as I wore underwear.
“How pathetic!” Wee said.
“You’ve guessed the ending?” I answered.
“Hush!” Watt said to Wee. “Go on, Patrick. Tell us the ending.”
That was a directive I couldn’t resist, my spirits having spoken to me so similarly at the beginning of this performance. Accordingly, I continued: Miracle to behold, against poetic justice’s uncanny knack for biting us where we sit with teeth of our own sharpening, sometimes the jacket actually did the trick for me! More than once I found myself standing next to the most attractive girl in the church or at the grocery store, and, geez, it sure as hell hadn’t been my Ringo Starr haircut or my alluring insouciance that had drawn her close. No, it was the jacket! A chick magnet if ever that mythical object was of thread and cloth knit. However, then would come the inevitable moment when I’d have to say something, when, that is, the girl would give me the blushing gaze that meant I should say hello, or live around here? or—substitute as you like the physician—see this ophthalmologist often? Some few words like that—low key, nonthreatening, and brainless. In that big, big repeated moment, when cool and charm were in high demand, and when forlorn virginity it seemed to me would be my life sentence if I got a single word wrong in my next utterance, what did I say over and over again?
Like teammates in a game show, the women looked at one another. Then, that brief, wordless consultation having yielded no results, Watt, her face at once grim and caring, said, “Please, Patrick. You tell us. What did you say?”
The prompt was helpful. Indeed, it was liberating. For immediately there leaped from my lips the end of the story that I had never before had the courage to tell: How do you like my jacket? That’s what I said! How do you like my jacket? Hell, I didn’t own any more than the left sleeve and perhaps some two or three of the garment’s buttons, but each and every time a girl gave me the far-off gaze that meant I should say something, that’s what came out of my mouth. How do you like my jacket? How do you like my jacket? Over and over again, I said this off-putting, romance-dousing, pa--, pa--. I struggled to get the next word out.
“Pathetic,” Wee helped me.
Pathetic thing! How do you like my jacket? And each and all of the girls went away.
Oh, how quickly and definitively they went away! No! No! Lest in my old age I regress to that sort of pathetic, adolescent performance, I must never allow myself to co-author. For better or worse, as it ever has been with me in the past, so it must be in the future. The texts that have my name on them, I must have written whole and entire. What I write and who I am must be a perfect match!”
Thus, with that declamatory, resolute flourish I ended the speech in which I told ‘em. The pair took my story well. They gave me no quarrel. “That’s so sad. Yes, yes, entirely understandable that you should not want to co-author,” they said. “We look forward to reading your application next year,” they also said. I was out of Wee’s office and headed for my car not more than a minute later.
But what about the Lutheran Bible, you ask, the one that had been favored to me in the middle of the meeting and that Watt had taken out of my hands? Is it possible that I left it behind when I exited Wee’s office? that, instead of seizing the opportunity offered me on this day by Providence for a wholesale Biblical makeover, I chose, instead, to be ruled by the trinity of theologies that had ever and always been my life’s guiding texts: literature, my immigrant Irish rearing, and a broadly conceived Catholicism? Or, to put it another way, is it possible that instead of letting go and letting Jesus, as my evangelical friends often encouraged me to do, I had decided to cling fast to the traumas of my bittersweet personal history, to allow their hauntings, rather than the Word of God itself, to be my ruling companions in life’s moral situations--tricky, easy and in between? And, lastly, most terrifyingly, is it possible that I had declined the offer of a more intimate friendship with Jesus? For, make no mistake about it, the intensification of one’s relationship with the Savior is the first yield of Biblical governance.
Yes, curious reader, I confess it. In their distressingly awful aggregate, those were precisely the spiritually regressive, scapegrace cluster of Jonah-like things that I chose to do as I departed Wee’s office. Further, I did them as decisively, as consciously, and as quickly as I have ever done anything in my life. You should have seen me trying to mask my hurry as I backed politely away from Wee’s pizza-laden desk, as I thanked the women once more for their time and counsel, as I wished them bon appétit with their pizza, received gratefully their best wishes for my application’s success in the year ahead, and, lastly, noticing exactly where in the office and in what posture the Bible at this juncture in the proceedings lay—on the seat that Watt had long occupied, title page face-down by the grace of God—, decided against claiming it, and, empty-handed, completed the process of making myself gone. Firmly I pulled shut Wee’s office door behind me, a-characteristically I skipped the wait for her building’s elevator, escapee-like I bounded down the building’s stairwell, and, under a now rainbow-striped sky, briskly I made my way out of the building and across the puddled parking lot to my car. Further, unlike Lot’s wife, who looked back and was turned to salt, I made this transit from office to car looking solely ahead, and, once arrived in my vehicle, I paused not even for a second but, instead, immediately touched the ignition, revved the engine, set swiping for two rain-drop clearing rotations the vehicle’s windshield wipers, and looked for the exit.
And who could blame me for not looking back? I thought to myself as I followed unnecessarily the near-empty lot’s directional arrows and pointed my car’s nose toward the exit. Hadn’t my trinity of a-Biblical theologies brought me safely through the abundant moral hazards of my hour-long meeting with the arch-connivers Watt and Wee? Hadn’t they supplied me with apt advice in the interview’s several thaumaturgical moments, as well as in those plain and simple? And hadn’t they done so for the whole of my life to date? Yes, dear reader, if the history of my encounters with illusions damning and temptations ludicrous ever gets written, it will be a very curious history in each and every chapter of which I will be seen walking out with my soul more or less intact, my hands clean, and my ankles unshackled thanks to my attentiveness to one or another of the three theologies above named. These theologies had not, to be sure, kept me as spotless as the lamb in fresh-fallen snow, but I was not at the very least routinely to be found grazing in pastures as scheming and self-serving as those that nourished Watt and Wee. Also, I had my writing to think about. What would be the consequences for my prose if I jettisoned the lousy traumas of my past? Could I write in a state of evangelical grace even one truly human sentence, one in equal measures knowing and mischievous, restrained and indelicate, nuanced and cruel? And, lastly, the contents of the Bible itself, the little I knew of them, they scared me off: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Yes, that’s what it says, in several places. Look it up. That’s what it says. Do you blame me for running?
The parking lot’s exit threaded a narrow channel between the building in which Wee’s office was located and an identical building just to its east. Needle-like, single-lane, threatened at all times in its through-traffic capabilities by both entering and exiting vehicles, as well as by pedestrian traffic emanating from the buildings’ side doors, the passageway was little conducive to hurried escapes like mine. However, much to my relief, as I rolled toward it, I saw neither a stopped auto that would impede my flight nor any indications of human activity stirring behind the ominous doors. Thank God for summer recess, I thought to myself. Further, pressing down on the gas pedal, I thought also, This Bible that I’m leaving behind me today will do someone else a lot of good tomorrow. And, as have many before me, I concluded the thought, There is merit in that. Such were my earnest reflections when, at the last minute, just seconds before my front bumper’s entrance into the passageway proper, the side door to Wee’s building swung open and out stepped a woman in an over-sized pink hoodie waving a book. Who else? Wee, of course, wearing now neither Watt’s dust coat nor her own candy-striped jacket but, instead, her signature lipstick colored hoodie. What’s more, though she did not seem to know the nature of the book she was using to flag me down, it was, yes, for sure, the Bible from which I was in flight. In this manner, then, was I, a longtime educator and sucker thereby to visionary scenes like the one that Wee now offered me—that of a child running breathlessly at me with a book in her hand and asking to be read to—stopped. In sum, precisely where her and my trajectories intersected, I braked, shifted into park, brought down my window, greeted her, and listened as she told me that I had forgotten my book. Without fuss, I accepted the Bible and placed it on my vehicle’s passenger seat.
I thanked Wee for the effort she had made in coming down the stairs. “I could have come back some other day to get it.”
“No problem. I needed the exercise. Haven’t you noticed? I’m getting fat.” Wee stepped away from the vehicle, flounced her hoodie’s front as if to let air out from beneath its hem and exhibited herself to me.
Yes, that’s what she did just after handing me the Bible. To say the least, I was caught off guard by it, and yet, still, I kept my cool. “What fat? I don’t see any fat.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” she answered, and then, after a sigh of forbearance like the one the pizza guy had several times issued, and after, too, a preemptive glance upward toward her office window to make sure that Watt was not watching, my professedly lesbian, junior colleague by a decade-and-a-half did this even more startling sequence of things: She rolled up her hoodie’s front, rolled up the blouse beneath it, pulled down her waistband and showed me her belly’s two rolls of sun deprived, pillowy, female midriff. “I’m serious. Look at me. I’m a disgrace. My students must think I’m pregnant.”
“You exaggerate,” I said, downplaying as best I could the evidentiary, albeit shapely, poundage with which I was confronted—to say nothing of the effort I was simultaneously making to conceal my state-of-shock wonderment at the impropriety of my female colleague’s performance of a skin show in front of me. And then, too, there was the windfall of male elation exploding in my chest and everywhere else in my corporal person as a result of her exposing to me her eminently passable midsection. Yes, that too I was trying hard to hide.
“You think?” said Wee, the faintest lilt of hope in her voice as she stepped back a pace in order that both she and I might have a better look.
“Absolutely. You’re a skeleton. If you put your hand out, people would think you’re a beggar and put an apple in it.”
“If only,” she said, albeit it distractedly, for having just noticed her shape’s reflection in my Mitsubishi’s side panels, she had begun twisting her torso left and right in an effort to discover in the reflection the true degree of her body’s fair or failed condition.
“No, look here,” I said, placing my left arm over the ambiguous portrait of herself that she must have been seeing in my little-washed vehicle’s siding while at the same time swiveling toward her, by way of its LED dashboard button, the car’s driver-side, rear view mirror.
Wee shifted her stance toward the recommended mirror, pulled north and south another inch or so respectively her hoodie’s front and her jeans’ waistband, rolled her torso to bring her right hindquarters’ upper curve, as well as her tummy, into the mirror’s purview, flexed her abs, and pressed together, unto their blanching, a pair of lips expressive of her self-examination’s rigorousness. Thus, save for bangles and skirt, I saw the contemporary campus Jezebel that you now imagine, and I saw, too, just north of the cleft that ran from her right hip to her holy of holies this other curious thing: a tattoo in the shape of a child’s hand.
“That’s better, no?” I said.
“Oh, God!” Wee groaned. “I’m awful.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, though, truth be told, I knew instantly, within a hair’s breadth of absolute certainty, the cause of the woman’s awful. By offering her my driver-side rear view mirror as her looking glass, I had inflicted upon her, not a mimetically reliable version of herself, but an image laterally expanded by the mirror’s distance closing properties. Yes, dumb, dumb move, and how it hurt me to realize it!
“I look like the Michelin Woman.”
“It’s the mirror,” I said. “It’s badly positioned. Let me—“
“No! Leave it. I deserve it,” said Wee, grabbing my wrist. Her grip was strong, as well as feminine—very clearly the grip of a former athlete. Had I wanted to, I don’t know for sure that I would have been able to shake my arm free of it. Almost immediately, however, she released it of her own accord, and shortly after that she was once again inspecting herself in the mirror, testing, in particular, her midsection’s flexed vs. its relaxed appearances.
“You just ate,” I offered. “That makes a—“
“Fat is a punishment from God, isn’t it?” Yes, that was the question that Wee had just interrupted me with, and Wow! What a guilt-ridden question it was! And how heartfelt its tonal rendering! Coming from a woman whose sincerity was questionable in ninety-nine of one-hundred instances, the plain-to-hear guilelessness of this humdinger of a Calvinist question was staggering.
“Who told you that?”
“Wattsy,” Wee said peripherally, that is, with her eyes still directed toward the mirror. “She says fat is God’s way of punishing the wicked.”
Wow! And double Wow! Now I was so far into the zone of stupefaction that my head hurt. That Watt would be seizing on her colleague’s insecurities to make her feel bad, yes, that made perfect sense to me. But that there should be a Calvinist coloring to her passive-aggressive crosstalk with her co-chair—that made no sense at all to me. “Really? Dr. Watt!”
“Tell me about it,” said Wee, now pounding her flexed abs with the side of her fist.
“Does she often talk like that?”
“All the time. It’s very annoying,”
“I should think—“
Before I could finish my thought,” Wee interrupted me once more: “Punch me.”
“Punch me,” she said again. Yes, that was the bizarre thing that she had just asked me to do. My stupefied hearing hadn’t deceived me. Furthermore, by the time she said it this second time, she had turned herself squarely toward me, had closed her eyes, and was holding out to me, as openly and as naturally as a student might the draft of an essay that she wanted me to scrutinize, her maximally flexed midsection.
“But your birthmark,” I pleaded.
Now the tables were turned. It was Wee who was looking at me as if I had been smoking something. Who could blame her? For what the hell kind of an excuse was that? Had I begged off from hitting her on the grounds that I might hurt her, or that someone might see us, or that the act would later come back to haunt me as a #Metoo allegation, those rationales would have immediately made sense. However, her birthmark! That took her a moment to figure out. “That’s a tattoo,” she said.
“What did I say?”
“You said birthmark.”
Yes, I had, hadn’t I? But, praise God, it wasn’t a birthmark! No, it was a tattoo! Furthermore, Wee was my colleague of more than a decade and a half; she was transparently in need of cheering; her body had never before been on offer to me; and, lastly, she was the co-chair of the promotions committee that would next year consider my renewed application. In short, as per the last, she was one of the two people on the whole planet whose requests I should least want to refuse. Processing all of these considerations at once, I suddenly felt licensed to hit her.
“Come closer,” I said. And when she had done so, and when she had once again closed her eyes, I struck her.
“That’s not a punch.”
No, it wasn’t, or, better said, it wasn’t a punch of the roundhouse, haymaker variety. Indeed, it was more like the knuckle rap that one makes on a bedroom or bathroom door before entering. Still, howsoever underwhelming, it seemed to have answered whatever was its object, for almost immediately there lifted from Wee’s voice the tone of groaning desolation that had settled over it when first she saw herself in my vehicle’s mirror. What’s more, her appearance was also revived. The cheerful pink that was ever and always Wee’s signature color, but that had been displaced by grayscale in the past few moments, came rushing back into her cheeks, putting her facial person in harmony with her hoodie, lips and, as it happened, the rainbow resplendent, late afternoon sky. In short, she looked like a woman whose happy pill has just taken effect. And yet, it was true; my touch had been light. To account for that fact, I said, “I didn’t want to hurt my hand.”
“Hah!” Wee laughed.
“No, I’m serious. You’re like that woman who fights in the cage, who gives shiners to all the other women.”
“Like her, yes. You’re bigger and smarter than her, of course—“
“Taller! Did I say bigger? I meant—“
Wee cuffed me on the shoulder with the palm of her hand. “You should talk,” she said, and, thus, with her hoodie’s front having fallen to its customary place, and with her hands doing half the explaining, she launched herself into a brief, spontaneous phys. ed. lecture, reproving me for the fat around my middle and elsewhere. During the meeting that had just finished, she had been watching me, noting the constancy of my seated posture, imagining that I spent too much time each day sitting in front of a computer, writing nonsense, clogging my arteries, and, in general, getting far fatter than was good for me. One day I would wake up dead, and I would have no one to blame for it save my overweight self. She hoped I didn’t mind her saying these things. She was talking as a health professional.
I said I didn’t mind.
“Losing some weight would also help you get promoted,” she lastly said. “People are judgmental about weight. They shouldn’t be, but they are. I shouldn’t tell you this, but after you left your promotion interview last spring, I happened to see the marginal notes of one of the members of the committee. Can I tell you what I saw? Promise me you won’t be humiliated.”
“If you think it will be helpful,” I said.
“Too fat! That’s what it said. Sorry I can’t tell you who wrote it.”
Eventually, when I had promised her that I would substitute an apple for my afternoon nachos, I transitioned our conversation to the subject that I wanted to pursue, having done my duty in entertaining the topic that had brought her downstairs. I was thinking, I said, of sending Dr. Watt a story that might interest her; however, I didn’t want to do anything that would look inappropriate as regards the promotion process’s objectivity. What did she think?
“She doesn’t read much.”
“It’s a Hawthorne story,” I explained. “And it has the name of one of her maternal ancestors in its title. While you were out of the office, Dr. Watt mentioned to me that she had a maternal, Huguenot blood relation named Moli—“
“Tell me about it!” Wee interrupted. “She’s always talking about being a Hyug-uh-nut. Makes her a higher class of hillbilly, she thinks. She even wrote a book about them.” That was another reason her co-chair probably wouldn’t read the story—because she was proofing her second book’s galleys.
I swallowed hard. “A book! Dr. Watt?”
“Oops!” Wee put her fingertips over her lips. “You didn’t hear me say that. Tell me you didn’t hear that from me.”
“I’m not sure that I did.”
Then, after glancing up to her office window to make sure once again that Watt wasn’t spying on us, Wee confided to me that Watt had had a second book manuscript accepted for publication, this one by a university press.
“Wow! That’s impressive!” I said, giving release in the force of my exclamation to about one one-thousandth of my amazement. “How is it possible that during our meeting Dr. Watt didn’t say anything to me about this great achievement of hers? I’m surprised she didn’t tell me about it. If the situation were reversed, you can be sure I’d have told her,” I said.
“Consider yourself lucky,” answered Wee. Watt had only told her co-chair, about the book’s acceptance, just her, Wee, and no one else. A buzillion times in the past few days she had mentioned in passing, in one way or another to Wee that she, Watt, was publishing with a university press a book of which she was the sole author.
“So she says.”
Wow!” I exclaimed again, now ready to take my head off my shoulders and send it out for re-wiring, so disoriented was it in trying to comprehend what it was hearing. “And she’s not boasting about it here, there, and everywhere. I’m flabbergasted!”
“She doesn’t want to jinx the book by talking about it before it’s released. Dr. Watt’s kind of superstitious, if you haven’t noticed.”
Wee and I might have talked some more; however, there was by now a car waiting both in front of and behind me to get through the narrow exit that I occupied. Also, she had to get back upstairs before Watt ate all the pizza. “Think skinny. You can do it,” she turned around to say, just before stepping inside the building’s side doors.
To close, imagine first, patient reader, this stained glass window of a scene. Under a cloud-wispy, rainbow-refulgent sky, a young woman is shooting hoops. The girl is notably lissome and sure-handed, as fatless as a spider, as quick as a squirrel, as furtive as a fox, as edgy and explosive as a grasshopper, a blow away talent, transfixed and transfixing in the intensity of her head-banded effort. She’s a striver and a winner, no doubt about it, all be she vexed on this particular day by what appears to be a preternaturally accursed basket. The damn rim simply will not give admittance to the ball that she, from multiply marvelous angles and accompanied by several serpentine flourishes, repeatedly lofts towards it. Nevertheless, undaunted, the athlete plays on—tossing the ball now with her left hand, now with her right, preceded this time by a Houdini-like feint, the next by a pirouette, and the third by a behind-the-back, between-the-legs, now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t hesitation whose time and space coordinates would confound Sir Isaac Newton himself. She is, in all, the most gifted basketball player ever by human parents naturally conceived. And yet, as I say, not a single one of her shots goes into the bucket. This one comes up short by inches, this other one exceeds the mark by the same frustrating measurement, a third one clanks against the rim’s leftward limit, a fourth pings sharply off the metal’s nether curve, etc., etc., etc….ad infinitum—and yet, still, the young woman does not give up. She is clearly of a dauntless Joan of Arc-like temper and something of a dervish to boot.
Now, tireless reader, imagine a car stopped without apparent cause on the rise in the Damascus Street campus exit, the vehicular channel nearest the basketball court on which this young woman practices her art. And imagine too, watching her spin and twirl with a janissary’s eye, its driver, Assistant Professor for Life Patrick Jonah McGillicuddy. Yes, let’s call him that, for by that name and title he has come quickly to denominate himself in the confounded, vexed, and troublous soliloquy of his post-meeting drive home. And how not confounded, vexed and troublous, given the hall of mirrors experience that has been his day, and the difficulty of discerning whether its chastening aspects have been of God’s or of the Devil’s construction? The bleeding of Satan’s syllabary from Watt’s pencil followed by the marks’ disappearance not more than a moment later—which of the two had been his real experience? Wee’s gymnastics and gospel-baiting in the office, designed, it would seem to antagonize his Christian beliefs, or her chasing after him with his Bible—which of those two scenes was the more important? And then there had been the earlier moment when Watt took away from him his Bible and handed him her iPhone in its place. Was that not a re-enactment of the principal plotline of Maturin’s Melmoth, which, as he recalled it when he saw Wee retain Watt’s raincoat as the pair sat down to eat, concerned a condemned soul’s efforts to clear himself of his obligations to the Devil by handing them off to someone else? And was not that re-enactment warrant a-plenty for his quick exit from Wee’s office once the pizza’s eating afforded him the opportunity? No, perhaps it wasn’t, said Wee’s report a few minutes later of Watt’s guilt-tripping her about her weight. For what was that guilt-tripping if not evidence plain and palpable of Watt’s having come to Jesus? Yes, try that on for size, dear reader, and know thereby McGillicuddy’s flummoxed condition. Watt, guardian of Wicca beliefs and historian of Christian atrocities on the campus at which he works, has come to Jesus, by way of, McGillicuddy guesses, her Huguenot investigations! How de-stabilizing is that if your case against your university’s moral worth is largely built on her presence in it! And try this other thing on too: the possibility that Wee’s belly dance in front of him had been either a subconscious or a conscious gesture preliminary to her taking up the heterosexual lifestyle!
Oh, how it hurt McGillicuddy’s head to think on these things! No, that’s not what hurts his head. It is this other last, infuriating, late-in-the-day revelation laid on him by Wee: the news that Watt had been successful in getting out a book all by herself, without, that is, a support staff of bullied, suborned, and/or co-o-opted confederates. Yes, that was the news flash that McGillicuddy would most wish not to have to make room for in his consciousness now. For had he yet published a book? No, despite the abundance of his book reviews, he had not!
But, if indeed Watt has published a book, and if indeed, too, she and Wee have turned at least partially to the Lord, can he trust this new version of his workplace reality? That is McGillicuddy’s problem now—discerning whether the day’s events have been a richly deserved rebuke from the Lord, enjoining him to come down from his holier-than-thou perch and to live equably and democratically among the diversity of university types that surround him? Or whether, instead, as would recommend his evangelical associates, he should take as the moral of his day his need to go home, read the Bible, and firm up his defenses against the Evil One, lest by that Bad Guy’s wiles he be drawn into the moral abyss that is almost certainly his workplace culture?
But wait! Now the girl has suddenly stopped shooting. Or, better said, she has gone slowly after the ball after the last of her ninety-nine consecutive misses. For she has been counting her attempts, marveling at her ineptitude on this particular day, and marveling, too, at the clairvoyance in her coach’s rebuke to her earlier in the day that she played like a girl. Oh, how that rebuke had pierced her heart, had weakened her knees, had set her teeth to gnashing, had echoed in her consciousness and, ultimately, spooked her! Further, it had rendered her absolutely vulnerable to another voice, a coach-like voice in her head that she had never before heard. Go outside and shoot baskets, it said. Yes, that sounded like good advice in that moment. So that’s what she had done—gone outside to that most desolate, most throwback of spaces on her new school’s campus, the outdoor basketball court. And there, while she shot baskets, she had asked herself over and over again how the hell her coach had known that at night she, his five-star freshman recruit, a female physical specimen if ever there was one, the girl who is to be the linchpin of his lackluster team’s roster for the next four years, has this recurring dream in which she and her teammates are playing basketball like she imagines her great grandmother must have played it some sixty or seventy years earlier: wearing plaid skirts, button-down white blouses, and saddle oxford shoes, shooting from the chest with two hands, taking turns, clapping and squealing when someone makes a basket, heedless of a score, and quitting ten minutes before the buzzer sounded so that everyone would have adequate time in the changing room to powder their noses. How had he known of that dream, when she had told no one about it, not even her Instagram fan base? Did he know too that his prize recruit would have much preferred to major in Early Childhood Education than in the Sports Management program that her dad and her guidance counsellor had signed her up for? That when the Athletics Director had spoken to her and to her mom about the team’s marketing, she had supposed he was talking about a bake sale? That, to be quite honest about it, she would rather be a cheerleader than a basketball player? And that, lastly, more than anything else in choosing to go across state to college—in choosing even to come to this preliminary, summer basketball camp—it had devastated her to say goodbye to her boyfriend? Did her coach know these things? Or was it just the guy in the Mitsubishi Mirage who had been watching her for the past two or three shots who knew them? His car was angled as if he were watching like a movie the LED bulletin board so irrationally located in this outback quarter of the campus, and yet she sensed that he had been watching her, and sensed, too, that he understood her.
So, you ask, how close or how far afield have been the young woman’s guesses as to the nature and tone of her oddly-parked observer’s mindset? As it happens, less close than you probably imagine. In actual fact, the Assistant Professor for Life hasn’t a clue as to the counter-feminist quality of the girl’s interior monologue. No, an irrelevance in his students’ lives for at least the past quarter century, McGillicuddy has for that same number of years answered their disregard for him with an equivalent indifference about them. Furthermore, when, of necessity, he does push himself to think individually of the female undergraduates that are his instructional charges, he imagines them junior Watts and junior Wees fully calcified, in other words, as the very opposite of this young woman in front of him. But how could he do otherwise, given the radical slants of their essays and their on-campus activities? Also, and more important to him, to do otherwise would be to assign blame for their souls’ loss to the instruction they receive at the university where he teaches and, thereby, to impute blame to himself too. No, McGillicuddy couldn’t bear to have that mass slaying of the innocents on his conscience. He fears too much the bad, bad things promised by scripture for those who lead innocents astray to imagine himself even for a moment in that category of wicked person. Far off the mark then is the young woman’s hunch that the stopped car’s driver knows of the chaos that rules her insides as she struggles to adjust to the ideological progressivism that surrounds her. And, yet still, on the other hand, howsoever wrong in that regard, she is right about the man’s car. It is, just as she perceived it, positioned so squarely in front of the least propitiously situated of the dozen new LED billboards recently installed around campus that one would think its driver had mistaken it for a drive-in movie screen.
Along with a ringing in his ears, that’s what McGillicuddy hears not long after his vehicle’s arrival in front of the just-mentioned billboard and after his almost simultaneous, first happenstance spotting of the stained-glass-window of a scene created by the wondrously talented girl’s display of her basketball abilities under a rainbow-radiant sky. To be sure, he is in the heady throes of an epiphany when he hears it, and, yet still, he is clear-headed enough to figure out that it is the girl in the breath-taking window who has called out to him, and that she has done so because she has heard as Hello! the Halleluja! that he has just shouted.
“Your socks,” he calls back to her, now standing with the ball on her right hip some wary thirty or so feet away from his car. “I couldn’t help but stop when I noticed your sagging socks.”
She looks down at the oversized wooly socks fallen low on her shins like ill-pinned insulation sleeves on vertical pipes, though, of course, she needn’t do so, given that she knows all about the socks. Their fallen condition is her trademark.
He hasn’t, he says, seen a basketball player wearing socks like that since Pete Maravich. Had she ever heard of Pistol Pete Maravich? He retired a long time ago.
“I don’t watch men’s basketball,” the girl answers, adding, by way of an alternative explanation for her sock’s dilapidation, “They’re my lucky socks.”
“Oh, I see,” says McGillicuddy, who quickly figures out that the girl is lying to him. How else explain her professing the exact same motives for her fallen socks as Pistol Pete had offered for his? In any event, he is not put off by the girl’s dissembling. She is probably made uneasy by this conversation with an older man who she thinks has shouted out to her unbidden from his car. Further, he feels the same way about talking to her, for despite his euphoric response to the scene of which she is the principal, moving piece, he is mindful of his vulnerabilities to campus gossip, not to mention to #MeToo accusations. On the other hand, he can’t resist asking her just this one further question, “You Catholic?”
Rather than answer, the girl pulls wide the hem of her shorts so that he can read the name of her high school.
“Yes, St. Benedict’s, that’s why I asked,” says McGillicuddy. He thinks to add that he’s a Catholic too, that there’s a church in town, and that he hopes to see her there some Sunday. But then he checks himself. No, he would be on the far, far side of an excess of familiarity with a just-met undergraduate were he to do so. Instead, he tells her that Pistol Pete was a Christian too and recommends that she look the guy up on her computer. “There’s a channel where you can find tapes of his games.”
“It’s called YouTube,” she says.
“Yes, YouTube,” he agrees. “M-A-R-A-V-I-C-H,” he spells the name for her. “Look him up. He was a one-in-a-million player, like you.” Then McGillicuddy drives off.
And almost immediately the girl, who now stands alone in front to the LED monitor that would seem to have been the man’s motive for stopping on his way out of campus, begins the process of shaking off her encounter with him. No, she does not want to have anything to do with an older man who would call out hello! to her on the pretext of having noticed her fallen socks, who would ask her about her religion without so much as introducing himself, and who, lastly, would make a show in front of her of his supposed computer illiteracy. Yeah, right! Give her a break! That he would not know in 2017 the name for YouTube! Even if he was a hundred-and-ten years old and five hundred sloppy pounds, he would know that in 2017! More likely than not he was an internet porn addict hiding behind the ruse of his supposed technological cluelessness. Lots of old guys are these days, especially the ones that are fat. And even if he wasn’t a porn junkie, if, instead, he was one of those musty headed old men who gets all sorts of sentimental whenever he sees a young person devoting herself to something other than her sulks—that would be pretty creepy too. Yes, she had done right in letting him believe she was Catholic. Back in high school, whenever gay girls hit on her, that had been the remedy she most often resorted to in fending them off—telling them that she was Catholic. And hadn’t it proved effective in this situation too? For hadn’t the guy abandoned the scene pronto, as her –ex used to say, once she applied it?
If only she knew! Knew the guy’s fuller story, that is. Not the fuller story of his internet porn habits, for those are negligible. Nor even the fuller picture of his soft-headedness when confronted with a young person striving to improve herself, for, no, at this late stage in his career, McGillicuddy is not given in the least to that sort of romantic educator’s reflex. And, lastly, as for his supposed technological cluelessness, the girl has no need to know more about him in that regard, for, yes, just as she figured, the fat man in the car is far more adept at a computer keyboard than he lets on. And yet still, if only she knew! Knew, that is, how overwhelming had been her effect on him when first he spotted her shooting hoops under the arc of the sky’s just crested rainbow! For, if she knew that, then she would know what an epiphany is!
But how could she know of her impact on him without knowing, first, that just a few moments ago, blind and raving with the several confusions of his day, and ten times more abject still because no voices were coming to his rescue, he had driven away from Wee’s parking lot praying this prayer: OK, Lord, if not voices, send me a sign. And then, more quickly than he could say Nineveh, his car had delivered him to the open space in front of the LED billboard where the girl had spotted him. However, rather than looking at its stillborn contents, his eye had been taken by the gymnastical display of her talents, enhanced, as I say, by the ribbon of a rainbow over spreading her efforts. Had she known of these things, and known too of his religiosity and of his vulnerability to spiritual currents, then maybe, just maybe, she might have figured out that his espial of her had been for him nothing less than an answer to his prayers, than a meeting with Providence, than a call to put aside his Daniel in the lion’s den persona and to live and work equitably and graciously among the diversity of his university peers. That it had been for him nothing less than an epiphany! Yes, leave it to her, she would have figured these important things out.
But where is McGillicuddy now? Who knows, save to say that he is probably not on his way to wherever it is that he thinks he is going nor much aware of anything he’s passing along the way. For this strange thing that has just happened to him with his head locked into the vexations of his half-day spent with Watt and Wee also quite frequently happens to him when his head is entertaining hopeful thoughts. And, make no mistake about it, that’s what his head is doing now—playing extravagant court to his academic life’s closing promise, courtesy of the transformational experience served up to him by the sight of the girl playing basketball under the arc of a rainbow-painted sky. Gone then from his memory once he arrives at his next location will be his recollections of the peoples and physical structures that he has passed enroute. Let’s say, for example, that he is now passing the very same campus facilities that geography says he passed on his way to his Damascus Street epiphany: among them, the Savonarola Library, the Rosetta (nee de las Casas) Foreign Languages and Cultures Building, the Ellis Building’s Sanger Center for Mental and Physical Health, the Offices for Student Financial Services in Micawber Hall, the Offices of Campus Justice, Inclusion and Diversity in I.C. Parker Hall, the trio of academic buildings called Pan, Darling and Barrie, and, lastly, the Mary Queen of Scots Safe Space (nee Chapel), where not too long ago some four hundred students gathered to swoon and condole one another in the wake of a Native-American Studies professor’s having referred to a five-dollar bill as a fin. Will he remember having passed them even five minutes later? No, he won’t, says his unremembered encounter with them on his way to his interactions with the girl. Or, again, let’s say he is passing once again the pair of curious campus scenes that were also pieces of his ocular experience as he drove preoccupiedly away from his encounter with Wee: first, the university’s already too-tall student dorms, looking as he passed them One World Trade Center tall and, second, the University’s President and her Executive Council playing tag in the little used playground behind the long-shuttered Early Education Center of Herod Hall. Will he remember these scenes once arrived at his endpoint? If at all only vaguely, says his first encounter with them earlier in the day, even though they were bathed that first time in the pastel lights of a rainbow at its zenith. Ah, as they say, the vagaries of human perception! Also, Ah, as they might say too, McGillicuddy!
As for the girl, she knows exactly where she is. She is still standing in front of the LED billboard that the fat man in the Mitsubishi failed to see. And why not, given that her view of its monitor is, in the aftermath of his departure, completely unobstructed? Also, what does it matter to her that at the moment of the guy’s arrival the monitor had imploded, emitting an explosive pop as it did so, and then after going dark for a moment, had flickered to a re-light frozen on a single frame? For the frame, which is an ad for the Department of Social Work’s minor in Gender Studies, features three babies in a bathtub. And the girl, who is a sucker for babies, is enchanted by the trio featured in this LED display, particularly by the middle one, who reminds her of Trey, her born-out-of-wedlock niece. Great name, huh? It was her sister’s community college coach who suggested it. In actual fact, he had been totally bummed to lose his best three-point shooter for the more important, second half of the season. But when the girl’s sister told him of her pregnancy, he had put a brave face on his disappointment, and, yeah, no one could deny that he had come up with the perfect name for the child.
So that’s where the girl is—standing in front of the monitor, admiring for a long moment the three babies in her new university’s Gender Studies ad and resolving that she will attend at the start of the semester the informational meeting for those interested in that minor. And then another thought pops into her head. It’s the answer to a question that for several weeks has stumped her, namely, what to call the new, deadly, one-of-a-kind shot that she has been practicing for the same several weeks. The “coffin shot!” that’s what she will call it! The perfect name on account of the role the shot will play in burying opponents at the end of close games, and on account, too, of the shape of the bathtub in which the three little baldies sit! Squared at its corners and filigreed all along its rim, the tub looks more like a small boat or a coffin than it does a vessel for washing babies, thinks the girl. And what’s that all about, she wonders? The coffin, that is? But hey, no matter! For the discovery of the perfect name for her shot has so much raised her spirits—brought low, as you recall, by her coach’s having told her earlier in the day that she “shot like a girl” and, then, after that, by her bricking the first ninety-nine shots she had taken outside, following the instructions of a never-before-heard, coach-like voice in her ear—that she quickly forgets whatever is ominous and off-putting in the image of three babies riding the waves in a bathtub that looks like a coffin. Indeed, so encouraging is her discovery of the name that, almost immediately she feels as if she can not only break the unprecedented streak of misfires that have spoiled her day so far but also that she can do so with the most awesome death shot ever executed by a Division II player.
“This one’s for you, Bubbles,” she says to the Trey lookalike squeezed unto visible discomfort by his chubbier associates, when, almost immediately, her sense of uplift stirs her to action. Then, dropping into a half-crouch and dribbling the ball left and right between her quick-scissoring legs, she starts backpedaling, reverse pivoting, and spinning herself away from the signboard and toward the familiar, corner spot on the court’s far side, where her spectacular play’s on-ball action will unfold. Next, once arrived there, she sets the ball on the ground and adjusts it so that its Spalding label faces eastward. Also, before leaving it to behave as gravity and inertia would require, she holds the ball in its grounded place for a steadying moment during which its entropic energies can settle and during which too her determination can harden. Satisfied as per those two things, she withdraws her hand from the ball and returns to the side of the court closest to the LED monitor. She does so, I should tell those of you who are wondering why, in order to begin the play just as she would in a game, that is, without the ball in her hands and with the need, therefore, of darting, feinting and, in general, shaking off her primary defender before taking a pass from one of her teammates. Returned then to the LED billboard’s side of the court, she starts rocking back and forth on her pivot foot, preparing herself as might a high jumper for the great effort that is in front of her. Next, she makes a hasty sign of the cross (a gesture recommended to her by her high school co-captain) and begins the play proper with that most essential of life and basketball moves, the head fake. In this case, it’s a wildly exaggerated leftward throw of her upper torso meant to draw her opponent in the fake’s diversionary direction so that she, darting in the opposite direction, can both get a step on her defender and run her backwards into a blind-side pick set by one of her teammates. Bingo-Bango! The head fake, the dart, and the pick all work brilliantly, allowing the girl to run under the basket, loop around behind it, and run for the opposite corner, unattended by any defender, save a tall, ineffectual one who has taken up desperate chase after her in the aftermath of her teammate’s getting blocked. Now the girl gets to that spot on the court where she had earlier set the ball down. Her job here is to pick it up--imagining as she does so that she is actually catching it—spin hard, face that tall defender who has been chasing her, and give her both a ball and a head fake that will cause her to leap high and fruitlessly to her left so that she, the play’s hero, can side-step her on her right while simultaneously shifting the ball to her own left hand with a behind-the-back dribble that will position her for a forward charge along the baseline and toward the basket. She will, of course, there meet a pair of towering defenders positioned in the low post against her advance. But that’s ok, because when she gets to them, she will pivot, pirouette, show them the ball in her right hand, hang in the air in front of them, transfer the ball to her left hand, and, lastly, while descending, throw the ball high against the glass with a finely calibrated reverse spin—
But what the hell! What the oh-my-gosh hell! Why can’t she get the ball off the ground? It feels as if it weighs two hundred pounds. Bent over it, her hands positioned on either side of its nubbled surface, she has already twice tried to lift it only to be thwarted both times by its inexplicable weight. But, as she has already said, what the hell! It’s a basketball for God’s sake! Fully inflated it ought to weigh no more than a pound and a half. Then why does it feel like an evil piece of gym equipment? Is it filled with cement? Glued to the ground? Invisibly strapped down? In some sort of maniacal fitness trick, has her new coach switched out the basketball with a super-heavy medicine ball?
Or is it her? After her mind runs through the short, desperate list that first occurs to it of improbable physical explanations for the ball’s determined refusal to be lifted, it lands on this, last, more likely explanation: That she’s the problem. That it’s her sudden loss of strength, the limpness in her knees, the explosion of dark spots in her eyes, the sweats and the chills that together, contradictorily, cover her skin, the nausea, the vertigo, the abdominal heaviness, the de-centering of her gravity, the tears streaming down her cheeks….in sum, the sudden return of the crying jags that have lately become a big part of her life—that they are the problem!
And where now to go for help on this strange, new campus that so confuses her?
That’s what happened. And, admittedly, then some, in terms of McGillicuddy’s failed promotion application. Yes, that’s what happened, and then some.