after that girl
26 february 2006 @ 9:16 p.m.
“But if Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
and illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs
if there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
then i will follow you into the dark...”
--Death Cab For Cutie,
“I Will Follow You Into The Dark”
“Am i more than you bargained for
yet? i’ve been tryin’ to tell you
everything you want to hear...
but that’s just who i am this week.”
--Fall Out Boy,
“Sugar We’re Goin’ Down”
"You can't stop the spirits when they need you...
this life is more than just a read-through."
--Red Hot Chili Peppers,
“Seriously? I could sit and just watch her tits bounce in her sweater; this heather grey one she wears, the one made with the heavy worsted wool? I watched her take it off in the mezzanine of the library once and she was just wearing this GAP tee shirt underneath it and... I swear to God, Jack, I nearly had an orgasm sitting right there, pretending to read O’Neill’s essays on hypermodern horror and trying to figure out where Brite went in my lesson plans.” She sipped from her coffee, and then: “I didn’t even know she was in the library, didn’t even know her name, and i was already getting damp and trying to think of what to make her for breakfast the morning after.”
I laughed in spite of myself. Meredith had been my friend through my entire career at Dufresne; had been one of the people to recommend the college call me in the first place, if the stories i heard were true. I had never bothered to ask her and she had never volunteered anything. It was moot, anyway: the first time she had walked into my office and flopped on my couch after reading my door and not making any negative comment, i knew i had found a friend.
She had taped the rainbow triangle in the glass of my office door herself, without asking; the safe place logo had been there to begin with. Just as she had been my friend through those first few rocky semesters and then through the RPT hearings when i was being scrutinized for tenure and a host of everythings in between, I had been there to hold her hand and proctor classes for her when her life partner Elizabeth had died from brain cancer. Liz had gone from the jovially large two hundred pound woman who’s laugh could be heard almost across campus to the eighty nine pound, obscenity screaming husk she became in her last days in less than three months; the oncologists had been stupified and not much else, and most of the help and respite Meredith did have came from the Hospice workers. She had come through the darkness of it somewhat worse for wear—i don’t think anyone could have come through what she did unscathed, and the strength of her love for Liz must have been a bottomless reservoir; some of the stories she told me later nearly made me weep, and i was hearing them second hand almost five years later—but she wore the battle scars almost as proudly as she wore the hand-wrought golden ring on her thumb or the kaliphe Liz had made her from a piece of her native Scotland.
“Who is she, anyway?” I asked. Both of us had midterms to grade and demographic reports due to the Dean’s Office and a million other pieces of academic detritus to deal with, but... it was February in mid-Michigan, nearly sixty degrees in the shade without a cloud in the sky, and the students had been gone for almost three hours. When Spring Break came to the campus of Dufresne, the students quickly traded places with it for parts anywhere but here. It wasn’t that they didn’t love the school or that we had chased them away; it was that their youth, contrary to popular belief, was not being wasted on the young: they were out there, somewhere in the world, enjoying every minute of it.
Meredith ground her cigarette out on the concrete stoop where we were sitting—technically, we weren’t supposed to smoke where we were visible to others, but since there were no students on campus, it was another moot point—but neither one of us was ready to go back into the dungeon we lovingly inhabited in Harris Hall. The offices were spacious and well appointed almost to the point of luxuriousness—we’re talking leather furniture and Persian rugs and bookcases of red and white oak filled with the latest titles the academic world could offer, as well as SMART classrooms and an AV department most other colleges salivated over—but it meant living in the basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus; our departmental office had started out there when it was largely experimental and no one in the academic world had given much thought to an entire program based on the idea of interdisciplinary studies. We had been offered better digs half a dozen times, and had stubbornly refused every one of them. Living in Harris had taken on a certain bit of almost notoriety that actually fit many of us quite well—we were all renegades or mavericks or lone gunmen of a sort, the people Dufresne had called on when she could call on no one else—and while it sometimes backfired on the school or on us or both, our students and colleagues knew to expect challenges from us, and we rarely, if ever, disappointed them.
She looked at her watch and lit another Dunhill from the beaten silver case she carried in her hip pocket; she offered me the tray, but i declined. “Don’t know,” she said, exhaling in my general direction. “None of the people i’ve asked can even remember seeing her; it’s like she’s one of those people from that Bentley Little novel you taught in the summer seminar... you know, the one where the people are gone from your consciousness as soon as they’re out of sight?”
I nodded. “The Ignored. Sure. Hey, if she’s truly one of them, you won’t have to worry about anyone from Ethics saying anything to you, or running up against one of the puritans...”
She laughed that deep, lustful laugh of hers. “Why would the Ethics Committee come a-callin’, Jack? It’s not like she’s in one of my classes or on my advisory load.” She paused a second, flipped her hair out of the collar of her denim jacket. “And if the church feels brave enough, well... let’em bring it. I fought’em when i came out, fought’em even more when Lizzie and i forced them to recognize our marriage—this would be a walk in the park comparatively.”
“Yeah, well... remember what happened to Bill...”
She ground out her second cigarette—i half-thought she was going to drop it into her coffee mug--and we walked over to the door together, playing the conversational equivalent of ignoring the elephant in the room: Bill Ransom, one of our colleagues until this past year, had courted and eventually married one of his students; after much talking went between the Ethics Committee, Bill himself, the Union steward, the young woman he had married, representatives from the Dean’s Office and our board of directors and seemingly every permutation of the above, Bill’s status on campus had gone through one of those wringers that every academic envisions with a shudder. They hadn’t fired him—they couldn’t, what with the union people watching and Bill’s tenure and track record—but his class load had turned to shit overnight, his demographics had taken a nose dive that no one could explain, and his student reviews and grade curves had visitted territory that most of us largely treated as theoretical. Even the professional students that had been assigned to him had turned on him, and of course, no one knew anything about it.
He and his new wife had finally left Dufresne, heading for schools that were much more friendly toward the two of them. Meredith and i had both made calls and written letters of reference for him, as had most of the other diehards in our department; our school, as progressive as they appeared on the outside, was still pretty tight with the church we had started out as a seminary for, and when the church flexed its muscle on campus, well... it was never pretty. You know that old saying about how it stops being funny when it starts being you? Yeah: Bill Ransom's treatment was a perfect case in point.
There were perhaps a dozen or so tales told in the study carrels and through whispered conversations off campus about what could happen to you if you ran afoul of the church overseers; they were bad enough that, even heard fourth and fifth hand as most stories of this ilk were, they caused a shiver to go up your spine. Bill had been here for almost twenty five years, and the way the majority of people had turned on him at the drop of a hat had affected all of us to the extent that even now, almost a year later, a lot of people were still unsure of who you could talk to about what and who you couldn’t. One of the reasons i didn’t serve on RPT or faculty senate or any of the other committee appointments that had been offered to me over the years was to avoid situations just like this; but this was so much of a campus talking point that there was really no way to avoid being dragged into it. “I’m just saying; be careful.”
“Your point has been noted, dear sir,” she said, a slow smile creeping across her face. “Now, what say you and i go put our heads together and figure out who, exactly, my newest bit of conquest is?”
About three weeks had passed when, one day while i was sitting in my office wrapping things up with my TA, Meredith came knocking on the door. “Make yourself scarce, Lex,” she said, pushing the door the rest of the way open. “I need to talk to Dr. Wainwright alone.”
He turned to me. “i’ll email you the rest of the idea for the assignment later, then,” he said, folding his laptop closed. He and Meredith had had a rocky start—he had addressed her by one of my personal nicknames for her once, and it had gone downhill from there—but they attempted to at least be civil to one another for my benefit. Most of the time, it even worked.
After he left, she shut the door entirely. “Her name is Morgan Freemantle,” she said, flopping into the couch i kept in my office. It was one of those ones that had been kicking around the campus’ storage rooms for decades before i arrived and found it under a pile of boxes; it was softer than the inside of your lover’s thigh, sprung in all the right places, and slightly bowed in the center from the years of students who had sat in the middle of it, leaned forward with hands clasped, waiting for decisions to be made. The people in our office block jokingly referred to it as the Apathy Couch because if you sat on it for more than three or four seconds, your cares just sort of... went away. “No one knows anything about her other than her name, and the only reason i was able to get that was because vengeance belongs to whomever holds the grade book.” She laughed her true laugh and i knew, with every fibre of me, that my friend Meredith was getting pretty close to what passed for normal for her: it was a free and easy sound, no strain or falseness to it, and didn’t someone somewhere say that laughter was the best medicine? Inside, i cheered for her new-found love, regardless of the circumstances and consequences. “The girl working up in Nicole’s office was one of my students, and while i didn’t exactly say i’d go back and flunk her, wellllllll.....”
“Oooooh, the plot thickens,” i said, taking off my glasses and polishing them on my shirt; one of the downsides of working in Harris Hall—or upsides, i guess, depending on your perspective—was the fact that all of the classrooms and lecture halls save for those in our AV cluster had honest-to-God chalkboards instead of whiteboards, and the dust was ubiquitous. “Do tell.”
She poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot i kept going from the time i got there in the morning until most of us made the trek across campus to the dining hall and sat down in the corner of the couch, slipping out of the sandals she was wearing; her toenails had been painted a deep, deep purple that looked almost black until the light caught them. “Well, i told Becky that i saw the girl leave something in the hall and didn’t know who she was; after some hunting and pecking, we were able to find the picture of my new beloved.” i poured the rest of the pot into my own cup and shut it off; this month we were drinking some Peruvian fair trade that could put hair on your chest, regardless of your sex or age. “Becky asked if i wanted her to follow up on it and i played it off like it was too much of a trifle; i honestly think she had forgotten about it by the time i left the office.”
“i don’t suppose you asked for her dorm assignment or phone number or anything as direct as that?”
“Silly boy,” she said, sipping her coffee and eying me over the edge of the cup; that old twinkle was back again, that sparkle that made her eyes almost seem to dance, and it was good to see them this happy instead of the haunted and almost desparate look they had carried for so long. “Her class schedule was enough for me; i do have my ways, you know, eyes and ears all over campus.”
i dipped my head slightly in her direction; i doubt anyone else would have seen it. “Was it a good picture?”
She smiled. “Log in to PChart; i’ll show you.”
“Are we okay?”
i looked up from the pile of papers i was grading, honestly puzzled. “Why wouldn’t we be?”
She looked back down to her own pile of papers. “See? i knew there was a reason i liked you.”
“Yes.” i sipped from the coffee mug, leaned back in the chair. If all of us in Harris Hall had a bit of luxury in our offices, Beverely Hainesworth’s was Buckingham Palace. He had been my department chair since i had started working for Dufresne; if academia really is a battlefield, then he was our—or, at least, my—Dick Winters. He had stood behind me in all of my actions, had guided me and helped me grow and develop, had pushed me out into the world when i needed it and had even given me more than one good swift kick in the ass, and i would have followed him into hell and back if it came to that. i know that sounds odd when referring to someone in such a docile field as academia, but it is the truth; at the risk of using one of the oldest cliches in the book, you’d almost have to know him to appreciate it. And besides, anyone who’s ever lived through more than one cycle of faculty meetings can tell you that they can be more brutal and bloody than all of the wars in our human history combined.
“You know who the Freemantles were, don’t you?”
Were? i thought. “Sorry, Bevvie—i’m clueless on this one.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said, and we both chuckled. “The Freemantles were responsible for the first land grant the college was given back in the 1870s. The church owned a bit here, a bit there—you know how the area was divided into all those half- and quarter-plats because of all the share farmers in the area. The State had given some bigger chunks to people for the old Homestead Act, and then those bits had been divided and sold... you know.” He waved his hand in the general direction of the window, and i nodded—it was the way a large portion of this area had been settled. “Anyway, the church asked people to give their land that they weren’t using so a school could be built, and most of the people balked at the idea. So, John Freemantle went around buying up the pieces—after he had talked to some of the higher-ups in the church and figured out where the perfect place for the campus was—and after he had gotten all the pieces strung together, he gave the land to the Church, who then turned around and gave it to the people who wanted to build the college.”
“Now there’s some politicking,” i said, and he nodded. “And since it was private party recently sold—“
“Exactly. He was something of a land baron; did a land buy here, a sale there, a margin manipulation... pretty soon he owned almost eighty percent of the area. His heirs still own quite a big chunk out by where we just put up the new athletic centre...” he drifted off for a minute, consulted some inner encyclopedia, and then: “So, anyway—one of the things that happened in all the by-your-leave was an agreement between the Church and the College and the Freemantles that any Freemantle who wanted a college education could come here, free, for as long as the original charter stood.”
“So, Morgan Freemantle is the latest of the family, then?”
“Ah, Jackie, therein lies the rub: there are no ‘latest’ Freemantles. Bobbie Freemantle was the last of the family, and he died somewhere in Panama in ’88 or ’89. That Special Forces team that was there, the group that got trapped by snipers? He was one of the two who didn’t make it out. Caught a bullet meant for one of his team mates, someone laying wire for an explosives charge, if i remember correctly. Funeral was quite a to-do here in town; they had people from his unit and the National Guard over in Charlotte here for the honours; even did the 21 gun salute, gave the flag to his grandfather.” He reached toward the bookshelf closest to the desk, thumbed along a line of old editions of the Dufresne Diplomat, the college yearbook, and pulled out a dusty volume, opening it in his lap.
“There was a Morgan Freemantle back in the 60’s—she actually tried to start a chapter of the SDS here, if you can wrap your brain around that one—but she dropped out after five semesters; said the college was too small for her and that if she wanted to learn how to breed cows, she’d just go over to State. Last anyone saw her, she was on her way to Haight-Ashbury.” He laughed, handed the yearbook to me. “So, you can see why i was surprised when you said her name. i thought i was one of the only people around here who even remembered the Freemantles and their connection to the college.”
I looked down at the grainy black and white square, more perfunctorily than anything; someone had either dug into the wrong database, some computer routine had coughed up the wrong name with the right picture, or it was some combination of both. Even in forty year old black and white, she was beautiful; shoulder length hair cut in the way that Veronica Lake had popularized, almost Nordic cheekbones, and a smile Renoir could not do justice.
It was exactly the same picture Meredith had shown me earlier that morning.
Lex had gotten into the habit of bringing me a cup of coffee between our two morning classes somewhere in the first semester he had worked under me as a Teaching Assistant; now, he did it more out of tradition than anything else. i usually told my students that i was one of those people who, if you valued your life, you didn’t even breathe around until they had some caffeine in them. i had only been half-joking when i told the class he had been a member of the simple truth of it: i was a caffeine junkie. Lex knew just how bad it could get—he was the only one of my students to ever see me fresh out of bed, and since then, there was always a large cup of strong coffee with two sugars in it on my desk in between classes. i don’t know if he didn’t come around first thing in the morning because he was in class, because he was asleep, or because he was afraid i was still pre-second cup. “Hey, Doc—can we talk?”
i looked up, slightly puzzled; in the time we had known each other, he had only used my official title or any derivative of it perhaps half a dozen times, and four of those had been during those extremely ritualized instances when the college, in all her pomp and circumstance, had all but demanded it. “Sure, Lex. What’s on your mind?”
“Dr. Bronner,” he said, pushing the door closed all the way. “I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop on you guys or anything, but when you were talking about her love interest, l...” he sat on the apathy couch, flipped open his laptop, and turned it toward me after his fingers danced across the keyboard for a few seconds. “Here.”
The article was from one of those free college town papers—you know, one of those weeklies that usually sits in bins by the restrooms or just inside the foyers of the places where students tend to congregate; the kind of paper that essentially eeks out its living by advertising for all the hip and trendy places where students tend to congregate when they’re not in classes or when they want to meet for anything but academia—and was almost brutal in its brevity: LOCAL STUDENT DIES, it shouted at me, and the picture was enough to tell you why without delving into the story.
The car—or, rather, what was left of it—was in a ditch off to one side of a set of train tracks. Apparrently, she had tried to outrun the train, had misjudged, and someone had had to call here back to Dufresne and tell her parents. “And the pics match, Jack,” he said quietly, pulling me out of the almost-trance i was in while staring at the story. “And she looks like her, too. Like she hasn’t aged since 1968 or so.”
“But, Meredith said she was enrolled... she was able to get her class schedule...”
He turned the laptop back to face himself, taking it out of my hands as if it were an unstable bomb that would blow up at the slightest provocation; really, that wasn’t far from the truth. “The classes are the ones she was taking her last term here. She’s on the rosters, yes, and people know her name, but... no one can tell you anything about her. They remember she’s a good student, they remember her laugh, but... that’s it.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well... your name carries a certain weight around here, you know.”
“You mean...” and was i angry with him? Was i upset about someone else using my name to get information? Was i pissed at him for spying on the woman who was, for all intents and purposes, the best friend i had? No, not really. Actually, not at all: but it gave my mind something else to do rather than consider that the same friend was currently infatuated with someone who had been dead for better than thirty years. “Lex, are you sure?”
And the look he gave me was convincing enough.
It took almost an hour for me to build up the nerve to talk to Meredith about the past three days; i felt like i was betraying her by even broaching the idea, and still wasn’t sure how i was going to, exactly. How do you question the sanity of your best friend without sounding like you’re questioning their sanity? It wasn’t up there with the cosmology of the godhead or the hermeneutics of facticity or the benefit of justice on the guilty, but i’m sure it was a question that Dulley or Heidegger or Locke would have had fun kicking around. Most of the time when i had something this heavy to work with, i purposely didn’t plan; thinking on short notice and teaching off the cuff had always been my strongest suit, and i’m a firm believer of the idea that if it works, you shouldn’t fuck with it.
This was no exception to that logic.
And then i saw the two of them together, and even that small, rudimentary plan flew out the window.
“Hi, Jack,” Meredith said; she was smiling like the cat who had just finished licking out the butterchurn that someone had forgotten to wipe out completely. Today wasn’t one of her teaching days and so she was dressed very casually, even for her: a blouse that was open to the middle of the space between her breasts, no bra, and a hand-sewn skirt she had bought from one of her students during the Arts and Crafts fair Dufresne had every spring. Her legs had just been recently shaved, her Dianian sandals were a collapsed set of pressed leather platforms and leather lacings on the floor in front of her own version of the apathy couch... and Morgan Freemantle was sitting on the other end of the couch, holding my best friend’s feet and massaging them with a care and kind of physical intimacy that only comes from loving someone for as close to forever as we can come. She looked up at me and her eyes said We have a secret, don't we, Jackie?
And tt surprised me to find that we did.
i never did get the chance to talk to Meredith that day; the few other times i did hear her voice in the office were always in response to something Morgan said, while she was in her company; i'd see the two of them in the library, sneaking glances at each other and smiling... or they'd be in the Commons, in either the faculty dining room, sitting at one of the window tables that were perfect for one person who was working from a laptop, or two people who weren't working on anything but each other... or i'd be walking one way on campus and they'd be walking another. It wasn't that i was trying to follow them or anything; the campus of Dufresne, while it encompasses an area that can be measured in square miles, has a rather small academic center and people are bound to run into each other. i'd see them enough to say hello or to perhaps overhear a small bit of conversation, and then the opportunity would pass... and it always seemed that Meredith was either in class when i wasn't or was just coming from somewhere when i was going somewhere else; if it had been the Fall semester or even earlier in the Winter one things may have come out differently, but... from the time the students return from Spring Break until the end of the term is only six weeks and some change, and while it may seem to take ages while you're a student, it sneaks past as fast as a Langolier when you're a faculty member; you turn your back or blink and then its so long, Suzie Q, see you next term, please turn in your grades if you expect your last paycheck of the semester.
i did, on the other hand, find an opportunity to talk to Ms. Freemantle.
No, wait: that's not exactly right.
Morgan Freemantle made an opportunity to talk to me.
Until i met my wife, it wasn't unusual for me to spend an entire day-- and, truth be told, the night following it as well-- on campus: most of my friends were either students who went to school there or fellow faculty members, and my cat had learned a long time ago that i didn't keep what you would call a regular schedule. More often that not, i'd mean to get home around two or three in the afternoon and it would be almost seven or eight in the evening when i finally did pull into the driveway. Mr. Wubbs and i would spend some time together and then in the morning it was almost like those occasions we all remember from college, when you both wake up, one of you leaves and the other stays: a friend of mine often joked that i had a perpetual one night stand going on with my house and cat, and while it was good for a few laughs now and again, it wan't too far from the truth. We laugh and think things are funny because they are closer to reality than we'd like to admit, right?
So, my leaving that Tuesday night at almost nine-- a good two hours after most of the campus had been rolled up and put away and about five hours after my office hours had officially ended for the day-- wasn't really all that odd. i was putting my key into the lock when i felt someone standing behind me. "Okay, Jackie," she said, and her voice had an edge to it that under other circumstances would have sounded provocative and edgy but tonight just sounded tough. "We need to talk."
"Who are you?" I asked, turning and leanig against the car; my knee had been bothering me off and on, all day, and i had an appointment with the hottest shower i could draw: it didn't always work, but it came close. Getting off of it and stretching it out would do what the shower couldn't. "I mean, really?"
"See, that's funny: I read somewhere that you were dead."
She laughed then, and it was almost but not quite the sound of someone shaking broken glass in a bag. Her breath smelled like that deepest part of the forest where rot and rebirth happen simultaneously enough that you often times can't separate the two of them, and there was something radiating out from her that was part animal magnetism, part appeal of the strange and unknown, and part something i'm still trying to define. Her fingers traced arcane symbols and designs on the window of my car and left behind a weird after-image that was almost like the things you see when someone intentionally manipulates the oils and unguents in a Polaroid before the picture finally sets up... you can tell what you're looking at-- kind of-- but you can also get lost in the fractality just for the sake of it. I had a feeling that if I wasn't careful, I'd be standing there looking at those designs and watching her fingertips for the rest of my life. "You're better read than that, Jackie: wasn't it Hob Gadling who said that death was a mug's game? And even if I am, or was, well... death isn't as final as people would like you to believe...look at that carpenter from Nazareth."
"You're not a god."
She cocked an eyebrow in my direction; her fingers had stopped tracing their patters on the glass of my car wdnow, and even though it sounds impossible, I could hear the glass yearning for her fingers to come back; she laid a hand on my arm and even through the fabric of my shirt and the light sweater I was wearing, there was a heat there I had not felt before nor have I felt since. "I'm more than you think, Dr. Johnaton Wainwright." She looked down toward my knee and the pain i had been feeling off and on all day-- the pain i was used to and had more or less been living with for better than twenty years-- spiked into realms i had not even imagined were possible; i gasped. There was no hiding it. Huge tears welled up in my eyes, one of them spilling down my cheek and splashing onto the top of my shoe. "Let's not be unpleasant." She let got of my arm and like that, the pain was gone... not just back to where it had been before the spike, but gone completely. i felt a strange urge to flex it but was able to resist.
After a minute, i said "You have to understand; she's my friend. One of the few i have. I'm just looking out for her."
"Do you have any idea how cliche that sounds?" There was still a smile on her face and in her voice.
I shrugged. "Sometimes, cliches are the simplest of truths; that's why people use them so much."
She waved a hand, dismissing the idea. "Stay out of my way, Jackie. I'm trying to be nice about this."
And she walked away.
There are three ways to get copies made on the campus of Dufresne University, four if you don't mind visitting your local Kinko's and wating until tax time to get your money back. The first-- and the easiest-- is to go over to Harris Hall and use The Monster in the mailroom.
The Monster is actually an old Xerox machine that was given to the college by one of the generous alumni during the 60s: he had remembered all the mimeographed tests he had took, remembered the smell from the chemicals involved, and remembered how all the profs would bitch-- some goodnaturedly but most barely holding their anger in check-- and had given accordingly. It was a good machine, a reliable machine, but it was slower than the second coming and known to punk out about halfway through large orders; it would also mischievously put things in the wrong order somehwere between the copying platen and the collating stacks. Some people thought it was because of gremlins some of our faculty had brought back with them from WWII. I had heard wierder things. It was a huge and hulking thing that gave off waves of heat and worked accrding to its own secret rhythms and rules; it was also one of those things you had to plan well in advance and allow plenty of ample time for.
The second way saved you time... but there were hidden costs. The second way was to go over to the Publications Office, fill out all the appropriate forms, and drop everything off. It came back all neat and tidy and packaged up, but copies had a way of getting to other people. It wasn't uncommon to hear of a copy turning up with one of your colleagues on the other side of campus in another department just because they were curious; sometimes you would find out about a copy ending up in one of those files in the basement of the frat or sorority houses (you know, the files that don't exist)-- and by way of some weird default in the charter of the publications office and its relationship to the board, copies would turn up within the administration of the school, the various committees that dotted our academic lives, and the Church itself. There were people who worked in the Pubs Office that we referred to as the Thought Police and, while they weren't quite as bad as the Orwellian invention they were named after, wellll.... yeah. There were also students working there who weren't adverse to making money by selling copies to other academics in pursuit of knowlegde (athough to their credit, i've never heard of one student bying an exam from the Pubs Office; sometimes, that alone gives me hope for the future of academia). At any rate, most of us used the Pubs Office only for the most banal and deliberate of copy jobs-- if it was something vital and true and raw, it never went there.
The third option-- and the one that officially didn't exist but everyone knew about-- was to use the hidden, privately held and closely gaurded copy machines that were salted through the various buildings. It was how angry fliers of protest got reproduced during the Nixon administration; it was how the underground newspaper got printed, and it was an excellent resource for the voice of dissent on campus that the administration always shook a finger at but never quite got around to investigating with any sort of severity. It was in one of these rooms, tucked into one of the seldom used hallways on the fifth floor of Harris, that I ran into Meredith after Morgan and I had had our litle exchange.
The room was almost absurdly small; there was room fot the copier, a stack of paper that usually canted right up to the edge of falling over, and the person who was making the copies. The machine we had all chipped in to buy was more modern and much quieter than The Monster down stairs, but still had a distinct rhythm of slide and thump and whir that was almost another language. And when i used one of the keys on my ring to open the door to the room, I heard it talking to its co-conspiator and then, looking up, realized it was Mereidth. "Good morning, starshine," she said, and smiled: i had't seen this particular smile on her face in a long, long time. "My final exam says 'hello'."
I was surprised and happy and busy and concerned, but i was also struck by that smile: she was happy. In that instant, i knew i would never tell her about the conversation Morgan and I had. "How are you, Mere?" I asked-- it was the most important question i had posed to anyone in a long time, i think, and i don't think i've asked one as important since. I know, i know: it's a question we ask each other all the time, and most of the time we either don't wait for the answer to it, do't hear it when it gets profeered, or lie to the person asking it... but in that moment, I was genuine: I needed to know how she was.
"I think... i think i'm better than i have been in a long, long time, Jackie." The smile on her face could not be faked, even by the best of actors or actresses. "i know you don't approve---"
"i never said that, Meredith."
She looked at me with that look that only one friend uses with another. "Well, no, you never said it, but... you said it."
"So sue me for worrying about the only woman in my life."
"You know, you could fix that?"
"i'll pass. Besides, we were talking about you, remember?"
i could feel the tension mounting in the room-- you know the feeling i'm talking about, like being near one of those Tesla machines that make your hair stand on end-- and before it could get ugly, or uglier, the copy machie made one of those noises that humans only understand out of the most basic of needs: survival. It was that noise that copy machines use to indicate that they need to be fed, and by the time Meredith had whacked the ream of paper across her knee to open it, jerked the bottom drawer of the machine open and appeased its appetite, the tension had cleared enough that we could be alone together in the same room without a threat of us saying things that would lead us further down the road of being irreparably angry at each other.
"She makes me happy, Jack. She touches me on the inside in ways that Lizzie couldn't even begin to... not to speak ill of the dead, mind you, but..."
"i get it." And then, because something else seemed to be needed: "Do you know who she is, Mere? What she is?"
The copy machine kept sussurring to itself, the hallway outside began to fill with students for the first round of morning classes, and i could feel that tension mounting again... wasn't it Baxter (or Franzen, maybe) who wrote that true friendship could only be measured by how many times you could almost destroy it but bring it back from the edge instead? i knoew, positively knew that i was skating on the thinnest of ices when i opened my mouth next: "She's not even alive, Mere. She's a... a ghost, or..."
"I've felt her heart beating around my fingers, Jack. i've fed her, watched her use the bathroom, felt her touch."
"i've seen the police report for the car accident, Meredith. i've talked to people who knew her, even her family..."
"Shut up, Jack."
"No one else on campus..."
"You know what? I don't care." she grabbed my arm and the strength in her fingers was scary; at that pont, i think she could have bent steel or torn stone. "I don't care, Jackie, is that so bad? I don't care what the Ethics Committee would think, I don't care if it causes me to lose my job because some biddy on the church committee has a moral high horse to ride on, and as much as we've come to mean to each other over the years, Jackie, I really don't care whether you approve or not. I love her and she loves me and that's really all that's important to me, don't you get it?" She grabbed my other arm-- both of them would have bruises on them in the shapes of her fingers tomorrow morning when i showered, and they would still be there ten days later-- and slammed me up against the door; it was the most frightening physical confrontation i had had in a dozen years, second only to the time a drunk student had confronted me about a grade and everything had gone from bad to worse with frigthening speed.
"i get it," I said, softly; our faces were inches apart, bare inches. "i get it."
Something in her switched off. It was that simple, that quick. "Jackie, i'm sorry, i don't know..."
"You're right." i felt behind me for the doorknob, turned it, and slipped back out into the hallway. She looked down at her hands, fingers splayed, and the copying machine behind her made shuffling, stapling noises; there were no students in the hallway, and the classroom doors were all shut. It was, after all, the week before finals, and things were quickly drawing to a close.
There are certain rhythyms that exist in the academic world, just like in any other workforce, and our teaching scheules had stayed static enough-- especially since both of us were tenured-- that i knew when Meredith would be there and when she would not. i didn't go out of my way to see here over the next few days-- we had argued before, over any number of things, and while this was the worst disagreement we'd had in a long time-- and the only one that had ever gotten this close to physical-- i knew that the best thing for it was time-- but i wasn't avoiding her, either. I didn't change my schedule at all, but there were at least three times a day when we should have been at least on each other's radar, and she appeared during none of those. I didn't see any of her students walk by my office on their way to hers, nor did i hear the occassional sound of music from her office coming down into mine through the cold air return. i did hear her phone ring once, but that was about it.
The term ended without incident, and aside from having to go to Lansing with Lex about getting credit for his TA hours-- as a State, we had elected a new governor at the last election, and she had done some...interesting?... things to the educational credential process-- there was little i had to do that wasn't a normal part of my routine. On Friday i was walking back from helping one of my more adventorous students carry some books over to one of the residence houses-- he was doing some research between terms, and letting him borrow about a shelf full of books was easier than trying to orchestrate someone to let him into my office two days a week while i was gone-- and noticed that Meredith's car was parked in its usual corner spot behind the church. Taking my heart in my hands, i continued down the hall, past my own office, and knocked on her door.
And knocked again.
"Mere?" i reached out and twisted the doorknob, slowly at first, but them with more force as i realized it wasn't moving. This time when i knocked, i knocked on the glass tiself-- she had been known to fall asleep on the couch in her office after the adrenaline rush of last minute grading was over, as had all of us, and i knew from experience that that kind of knock could almost raise the dead-- and twisted the knob again. "Mere, it's Jack, hey listen..."
"She's not there, Dr. Wainwright." i turned, almost too quickly, and saw one of the students who would be staying on over the summer filling in for Mrs. Segall, our department secretary: she was a small, mousy girl who had taken my Intro to Linguistics course this past term and done quite well. "She hasn't been in since the day grades were due." She smiled at me, only trying to be helpful. "Would you like me to call her for you?"
"No, that's okay." And then, more as afterthought than anything else: "DId she say when she would be back?"
"She's not on the calendar for the next two weeks."
"The official calendar, or the real one?" Mrs. Segall-- who knew everything about our lives, even down to our dental appointments and shopping habits-- kept her own personal version of our summer schedules taped to the underside of her sliding secretarial panel on her desk. Obligingly, the young mousy girl (Nicole, my mind offered to me; her name is Nicole Bridgeway; she's a LitLang major) looked there and shook her head. "No, she's not even pencilled in for anything." And the smile again, almost as if she thought i was going to be angry about it.
"Okay, thank you."
i ended up writing her a note and wedging it under the windshield wiper on her Datsun. It was still there on Tuesday when i came back, a bit wind ravaged and water spotted, but still there.
I wouldn't be on campus for almost three weeks after i left that Friday-- i didn't have to come back until the textbook selection committee, one of the few non-teacing appointments i had accepted, met in the middle of August, and fully intended to stay away from campus unless something dire came up-- and i figured we would probably talk to each other, at least via email, at least once before then. Both of us got at least two or three complaints about grades at the end of the term, and we usually swapped emails with details both to keep each other in the loop and as a sort of cover your ass measure; we often joked that if we didn't get at least one of those, we weren't doing our jobs.
But July came and went and still no email, and i couldn't make myself call her, although i did stare at the phone more than once and think of it. A couple of times i came close-- i even had stories ready, everything from updates on the garden to interesting ways to scoff at that ridiculous religious myster cum conspiracy expose everyone was gaga for that year to unifying our front for textbook selection-- but the few times the phone rang it was someone else, and she never popped up in my emailbox, even after i sent her my usual hey hows it goin nothnin much here blah blah blah drop me a line when you get this email.
And then Laney and i met through a mutual friend and started dating.
And then it was August.
And then things got really scary.
Beverely was waiting for us as he usually was, dressed in jeans and a Dufresne college sweatshirt that had eight or nine different colours of paint splattered on it. There was coffee and pastries and fresh fruit on the table, as well as legal pads and the official forms for textbook adoption. He had a smile and a joke for all of us as we came in, and the six of us-- Bev, myself, Chloe Peters, Lindsey Reynols from History, Sarah Matthews from Humanities, and Tim Waters from Philosophy-- sat around waiting for Meredith for about twenty minutes, making small talk and chewing our way through the basket of pastries someone from the Commons had brought over for us, until Bev made a point of checking his pocketwatch against the clock over the doorway, adjusting it infinitismally, and than snapping it shut with one of those tiny noises that seem ever so monstrous when there's nothing surrounding it. "Well, there's enough of us for a forum," he said, trying to sound cheerful; those of us who worked with him on a regular basis could tell he was troubled, but i don't think half the committee noticed it. "Dr. Bronner's a quick study; she can catch up with us when she gets here. Are you comfortable speaking for her, Jack?"
"Yes. We're still teaching under the unified syllabus from when the core group met, and aside from her ancillaries..." i looked over at Tim and Chloe, and they both nodded encouragingly at me.
The first half of the meeting was largely spent going over what everyone was using this term, what was working and what wasn't, and what our dream texts would be like; selecting textbooks was one of the least pleasant jobs associated with our profession, and i think i can safely speak for a majority of my colleagues when i tell you that we usually waited until the texts we were using were utterly out of date or useless or both before we went through the horror of picking new ones.
What made it even more fun was that there seemed to be a fly on the wall when it came to the idea of texts, and we would be deluged with examination copies and ARCs for abut six weeks before the end of the term, and more would pile up while we were away for the small vacation we did have. Tim's pile was probably the largest, if i had to eyeball them, but most of us had a goodly stack next to our places at the table; all of them had those handy stickinote flags sticking out of them in various places, and so far there were only two with the big red half-sized sheet stuck to the front of them in the center of the table. It was our equivalent of the bubonic flag, a way of saying to our fellow pedagogues that the contents were infectious and dangerous and, worst of all, contagious... books that had the dreaded red half sheet were, like the inevitable red shirted crew member in Star Trek, the first ones to die.
The meeting was your usual round robin, and suddenly, it was noon. We were all walking over to the Commons for lunch when Bev pulled me back from the group. "Do you know where she is, Jack? Why she's not here?" We stopped on the sidewalk so he could light his pipe, and the smell of Borkum Riff filled the air, not unpleasantly. "She hasn't called or emailed me since end of term, when she asked about the new hire in Anthro."
"i'm as out of the loop as you are, friend," i said. And then: "She was seeing that Freemantle girl, you know, just before finals started." There, i thought. i've said it.
He took the Merschaum out of his mouth and looked over at me, raising one eyebrow. "What Freemantle girl, Jack? There hasn't been a Freemantle 'girl' in ages."
And when he started walking, he had to turn and call back to me; he and the rest of the group were standing on the steps leading into the Commons. The rest of the group lauged good-naturedly-- my absent-mindedness was legend on campus, especially amongst the colleagues i had who knew that what the students said on campus was largely true on that account-- and i jogged the dozen or so steps to catch up with them.
The kitchen staff had outdone themselves, preparing the usual late summer seafood and salad courses we all joked about being the only reason to show up for faculty meetings in the summer, but truth be told i barely tasted it. Looking around the dining room-- largely empty at this point-- i smiled and nodded and laughed when i was supposed to, but my eyes kept wandering over to the large window that looked out on the faculty parking lot behind the church.
Meredith's spot was empty.
The sign that marked her spot was gone, too.
At first i thought it was another instance of what had happened to Bill, but one better, given the homophobia of the time and the fact that Dufresne was, for the most part, still a seminary in a thinly wrought disguise: even while we had majors like Pre-law and Computer Science and graduated quite a few people from our renowned Business and Insurance programs, we were still predominantly a Humanities and Theological Sciences school: over sixty percent of our graduates went into those fields in one way or the other. While the church stayed away from our classroom material and our teaching methods, they did reach into the lives of students now and again-- like the young lady who had gotten pregnant on campus and was then told her financial aid package would cease to exist if she and the father didn't marry, or when the church had told the students they could have a co-ed dormitory if they really wanted to, but it would have to be built off school property and would not be connected to the college phone and computer systems, and would cost more to live in to boot-- and behavioural conduct of the faculty was almost always a concern of theirs. The development of the mind was fine-- we even had a chapter of the LGBSA, and most of us had a "safe place" sticker of one stripe or another tucked into the corners of our door widows-- but the soul was the province of the church, and they were more than happy to make sure that the populace of the college didn't stray too far off center.
And even when the people i knew in the bowels of the beauracracy denied everything, i still thought it might have been one of those cases of people just hushing up for each other... but when people started asking me who i was talking about, and when people startng asking me if i was sure she had taught at Dufresne in the past twenty years, and when my fellow faculty memebers started to look at me even more strangely than they used to, welll... suffice it to say i knew there ws something going on. i didn't want to think about that something too deeply, nor did i want to approach it head on, but it was definitely there, lurking in the basement of my mind like the monster we all believe in but no one wants to acknowledge.
One of the things Dufresne has always prided itself in-- and rightly so-- is an aspect of her library collection that has been in place since 1880. When the library became a separate entity instead of just the various collections faculty members held, the librarians had made it a point to collect the academic writings of the faculty. In the early 20th century it even became a separate part of the library with its own shelving and card catalog system, and sometime around 1950 the Board of Directors even appointed it its own librarian. One of the unspoken requirements of employment there was to make sure all of your stuff-- no matter how trivial, no matter what discipline, no matter whether it was in your teaching field or not-- was represented. It was considered bad form to refer to yourself in lectures and to go so far as to make your writings required reading in your classes, but everything everyone who worked there wrote was catalogued and kept up and cared for. The library would host formal signings and readings for the faculty members of the college, and the collection was a focal point in the library tours for new faculty and prospective students.
In my Introduction to Linguistics course, ENG 209, i often referred to Meredith's work; she had written some meticulously researched material on the Proto-Indo-European mother language that followed mankind out of the steppes of Russia, and her stories about the fact behind the idea of Babel never failed to surprise at least one student a term... so, at the end of August, i sent Lex over to the library to find the passage i wanted and to photocopy it. Normally it would have taken him half an hour or so, forty five minutes tops... this time he was gone for almost two hours, and came back empty handed. He was noticeably pale and quieter than usual.
"Copy machine broken again?" i asked as he came in. i was finishing up my lecture notes and had the handout for this partiular lecure all ready, not collated yet because i was waiting for the three page copies he would be bringing back. "You can forge my signature well enought to get past the Thought Police over in Pubs, Lex."
He cleared his throat, and when i looked up at him, he would not meet my eyes. "Lex?"
"The article isn't there, Dr. Wainwright."
"Well, can you find out who has it? If it's someone on campus, we could get the book for a few minutes, make one copy to copy from--"
"No, no, the book is there," he said, still not meeting my eyes. "The article isn't."
"i'm not sure i follow you."
"The article is gone, Dr. Wainwright. The book is there, and the other two arguments by Shrevei and Loganstern are there, but Dr. Bronner's is... well, not there."
"Did someone cut it out?"
"No, it's just... not there." He was very pointedly not looking at me. "The page numbers continue, and everyhing else is there... it's like the article was never there. If i hadn't read it the last three years running, i would have thought you gave me the wrong referece or something."
"Maybe the text is coming out in a new edtion," i said, thinking out loud. "We can just Google it then, prit it and fold it into the handout..."
And it worked.
Lex was gone on the Tuesday beore Thanksgiving; although most of the student population took the time to stretch the holiday weekend into a week, he was getting his wisdom teeth pulled in a nasty bit of surgery that even made me nervous when he discussed it. He had asked the dentist about postponing it until after the holidays-- who wants to spend one of our most gloriously gluttonous holidays unable to eat?-- but the dentist told him it was a case of needing to get it done yesterday, so he had acquiesced. i had offered to hold a post-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving for him, complete with all the trimmings, but he declined; he was notriously scrupulous and careful so that other students didn't think he was getting special treatment. Even buying him lunch could become an exercise in debate.
So that Tuesday morning i was carrying a stack of student essays along with my copy of the textbook, my lecture notes and gradebook, my calendar and day planner, and a cup of coffee; when i tried to adjust the strap of my teacher bag i lost my grip on the stack of essays and they fell spectacularly, flapping and falling and spreading down the hallway to Meredith's office door like a parliament of ravens come to listen to one of their own own tell a story. I swore under my breath, unlocked my own office, and after depositting most of the items on my couch-- i was ahead of the game; none of the coffee had been spilled-- i started picking up the essays.
i took my time getting down the hallway-- Hypermodern Poetry was a class full of bright young people with excellent minds, and their introductions and opening statements were addictingly promising as i read while i gathered-- and when i got to Meredith's door, i looked up.
The door was empty.
It didnt look like someone had taken everything off of it: it was empty. There was no dark spot of wood where her name tag had been removed-- hell, there weren't even drill holes where the screws would have been; there was none of that sticky, snot-like residue you see when someone peels off pieces of Scotch tape and bumper stickers; the glass panel in the door hadn't been scrubbed clean because it it had never been full of cartoons and clippings. The doorknob turned easily under my hand and i almost fell into an office space that was so empty it was alien in its sterility. Gone was the oriental rug she had chosen for its almost paisley pattern; her version of the Apathy Couch had returned to wherever all good overstuffed and lovingy worn furniture comes from; the poster of the Endless she had bought on E-bay had never graced the wall. The overstuffed bookshelves that always seemed precariously close to vomitting various bits and pieces of her store of knowledge and toys and knick-knacks onto the floor were barren, and i knew that if i went over and opened the two lateral file drawers they would slide open easily and swiftly and emptily. The office was a cold and empty cube, a vapid quietness, and what frightened me the most was the fact that i hadn't thought of her in almost a month, and likely would not have noticed this if that stack of papers hadn't made me come to the end of the hallway; i cannot make you feel how empty, how eager and waiting that space felt.
"Oh, Meredith," i said, very very close to tears. "Oh, nobovka, what have you gotten yourself into?"
© Copyright 2016 Anahnemus. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Thrillers
Short Story / Thrillers
Short Story / Thrillers
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