January 24, 2017
(Shortest Blues Song Ever)
First Male Voice
You kept me standing
You kept me here
You kept me standing
“You’re the Chair of English, right?”
That came at me, as if out of the dark, as if from a ghost. Disembodied. A call that shook me back into the moment.
When I turned, a young woman stood there, late twenties, flesh and blood, breathing, of this earth.
I was standing at the bar, in front of the cash register, in the half-light, waiting to pay my bill so I could head back to campus. What I really wanted to do was go home. Then the voice. Am I making too much of this?
For the last two hours or so, I had been having a few beers with some of the other chairs in my college. We meet for drinks, a few times a semester, in the late afternoon, like dysfunctional undergrads cutting class. Usually on a Thursday, as if it were already the weekend. This happened just a few days ago. So, you know, now, the dusk of winter still lingered. It was still that point in spring semester when it felt more like deep winter.
When we met, us chairs, I sip a couple of beers over two or three hours. Most of the other chairs drink with a clearer sense of purpose—with that determination to rid the mind of recent memories. I had been feeling fairly good lately. I was okay. I almost felt like I carried less turmoil that the others, a feeling I have rarely had in recent years.
We usually spend too much time talking about work, as if we were secreted in the office of a therapist, far from campus, far from each other, in another city. Initially, it is nothing more than idle conversation, asking about families, how the kids are doing, the kids we have watched grow up on campus, as if they were little students. Then someone offers a confession of some recent lapse in judgment, and the vacuous winds rise. In time, we lapse into academic cynicism, complaining about the dean, the provost, the president, the entire cocoon that surrounds our departments, as if what we do has an impact on the universe. It’s all pretty toothless. No matter how many beers we down or how venomous the comments, we all show up for work on Friday, sober, tidy enough, appropriately deferential to the chain of command. We are all probably a bit embarrassed about the words spoken, but none of us would admit it to the others. There is an unspoken agreement we won’t speak of it on campus, or even act as if we had heard murmurs of . . . whatever.
That Thursday was the day before the inauguration. No one spoke of it. No one wanted to acknowledge this reality.
I had been waiting to pay for about three or four minutes, maybe longer. I am sure the bartender would have rather let the barmaid process my bill, but I had to leave the session early to observe a junior faculty member’s night class. I was already a bit late. At some point, without my even noticing it, this young woman had moved beside me, I assumed to pay her bill also.
Then she said, “You’re the Chair of English, right?”
“I’m Samantha—.” I can’t remember her last name. “I’m a grad student in Poly Sci.”
“Nice to meet you.” We shook hands.
“I’m sitting with some friends. Would you like to join us for a while?” She didn’t say who “us” was. I assumed some other grad students. It was then I realized she had come up to the bar to introduce herself. It was confusing to me. I couldn’t imagine why she would want to meet me. It felt confusing and . . . dangerous, creepy maybe, like when you sense something. I’m making too much of it, maybe. I am making it more than it could have been. It was inconsequential. It just felt odd.
I begged off. I told her, “Thanks, I can’t tonight. I have to go observe a class. I’m already late.”
“Maybe some other time.” This, too, seemed like an odd response. More like something she would have said to someone her own age, more like someone she was flirting with, or . . . I don’t know what. Maybe, her words were not pregnant with meaning. Maybe, I was just startled, off balance. I’m not used to attractive, young women speaking to me in a bar.
“Yes, certainly.” I was distracted, trying to pay my bill, trying to get out of there. I am sure there was nothing to it. If there were, I certainly didn’t encourage any continuation of it. I was distracted. I probably even sounded a bit annoyed.
I would have been surprised by this encounter even if it had been a graduate student in my program, or maybe especially if it were one of our students. They just don’t approach me, even if they’ve had me in class. I try to be non-threatening, to never show anger or frustration, but I make them nervous. Even faculty seem to view me as The Father. So, I was surprised to be invited to sit down with grad students from another program. She didn’t go away.
“My friends call me Sam. I know Dr. Elliott.”
The bartender finally took my credit card. I was growing more late, and I was feeling uncomfortable. I wanted out of there, but I spoke, almost as a reflex.
“How do you know Charles?”
“The coffee shop in the student union. I have a friend in one of his classes. I’ve drop by, sometimes. When he has his office hours. His coffee shop hours.”
“He’s a dedicated teacher.” I said this, without looking at her, as I added in a tip and signed my bill.
“He speaks well of you. I also know Bess Abbott.”
I turned and looked at her, closely. For the first time. This was starting to feel like a setup. Like Charles told her where I would be on Thursday night. Like she was there waiting for me. Again, maybe I am being too dramatic. Reading too much into it. I don’t know. I was probably paranoid after talking to a bunch of chairs for a few hours.
“I’ve got to go. Nice to meet you, Sam.” I said her name. I shouldn’t have said her name. Or, I should have called her Ms. Whatever, if I could have remembered her last name. It might have been interpreted as some sort of encouragement. But, I am not even clear on what it might have encouraged. I have been feeling ungrounded, like the simplest conversations, interactions, almost become archetypal, luminal, as perplexing as a wall of petroglyphs.
I went and observed the class. William Carson’s Comp I course. It was a disaster. The students kept turning around and looking at me. He couldn’t get them to talk, so he overcompensated. He talked louder and faster, as if he believed his future hinged on his performance in that single class, with me as his judge. He moved frenetically, and his students yawned and shifted around in their seats. After, when all the students had left, I told him it was okay. I would come and observe a different class. He’s a solid scholar, doing work on Henry James. Just published an article on “Daisy Miller.” But his course evaluations are a mixed bag. He does okay, not great, on his upper-level courses, not so good with Gen Ed classes. He needs a mentor, but I am not sure I can help much. Maybe Charles. Maybe he can work with him.
A few days later, I ran into Sam at Kroger, or she ran into me. Odd. . . . I know it’s a smallish town, but I usually don’t run into people I know. I don’t tend to run into people twice in a few days. The bar, then Kroger. Someone I’ve just met.
I stopped there, at Kroger, on my way home from work, Monday afternoon, yesterday, which would have been after the last time we had coffee. Post inauguration. Post Women’s March. Post Kellyanne Conway talking about alternative facts.
It was a typical trip to Kroger. I walked the same pattern, picking up pretty much the same things, hardly enough to feed even one human for a week, but I often eat on campus or pick up takeout on the way home. At some point, a wave of sadness came over me. This is typical, also. I think it is because this is the store where I used to shop for my family, when I was still taking care of my wife and raising my kids. In those days I would pack food into a shopping cart. Now, I carry one of those plastic shopping baskets. I hate being here. I leave feeling sad and lonely and detached.
I was moving through the isles quickly, as usual, carrying the plastic basket with a few items in it and my reusable white canvas shopping bags. I’m not even sure why I bother with the reusable shopping bags. Half the time, the bag boy packs my groceries in plastic bags and then puts the plastic bags in the canvas bags. Should I lecture him, I always wonder, on the problems with plastic in landfills? About the time I ask myself the question, the bag boy is usually double-bagging my almond milk before putting it in a different canvas shopping bag. It’s hard to comprehend. I usually say nothing. At least, to the bag boy. I mutter to myself, something like, “There is no hope for the planet.” This under my breath, like a lunatic arguing with voices in his head. I sometimes wonder if the bag boy feels sorry for me, this old man who has canvas shopping bags, who must not own a car, who has to carry his groceries to the bus stop. I am sure that’s what he thinks, the only reason I would bother with canvas bags, to carry my groceries onto the bus and walk home from the bus stop.
I rounded a corner and Sam’s cart came close to hitting me in the crotch. As a reflex, I doubled up. When she said my name, my last name—with professor or doctor, I can’t remember which—I looked at her face but still didn’t recognize her from our one encounter. I hadn’t really looked at her for long that night, Thursday, in the bar.
“It’s Sam. We talked at The Limerick. When you were paying.”
“Oh, yes, Sam. I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t see you.”
“I’m so sorry. My fault. You okay?”
“Yes. No damage.”
“You looked like I hurt you.”
“No, no. I’m fine.”
Actually, when I looked down at my basket, I could see that my cartoon of eggs was wet on one corner. Now, I would have to go back to the egg section and trade out this dozen. I guess, at some level, this is dishonest. It was my fault some of the eggs were broken. Or Sam's, maybe. I guess trading out the eggs didn’t rise to a level where my sense of morality kicks in. Or, maybe I just didn’t feel like ruminating on ethics that day. Surely, I could move through Kroger, pick up a few farm products, check out, without thinking about ethics.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Dr. Elliot suggested it.”
“Sure. Glad to. If you send me an email, we can set something up.”
I started to move off, back to the dairy section.
“I’d rather not meet on campus. If we could meet someplace else.”
I was taken back by this. It felt creepy again. I don’t like to meet a lone student, off campus, if I can avoid it. Especially a female student. I didn’t have any sense Sam was being flirtatious. Why would she flirt with me? I just don't even like to leave the appearance of a meeting that wasn’t entirely professional and business and related to school.
“I don’t really—I usually only meet with students on campus.”
“I really need to let you know about something. Some things in—well, my program. It won’t take long. Maybe just a few minutes outside. I could walk out with you. I’ll be checking out in just a few minutes.”
We agreed to talk, for a few minutes, in the parking lot, by her car. I picked up a few more items, traded out the eggs, went through the line, paid the cashier, watched the bag boy put my groceries in a plastic bags and then put the plastic bags in my canvas shopping bags. My God, I thought, there is no hope for us—us, meaning our entire species. I took my bags to my car. I waited for about ten minutes until Sam came out with enough groceries to feed a family of six. Once she reached her car, which was a few rows from mine, about a hundred feet away, I walked over. By the time I reached her car, she was putting the last bag into the trunk of an old Volvo.
“Do you want to sit in my car?”
An entire scandal flashed through my mind in about two seconds, “Professor and Student Caught in Car at Kroger.”
“Thanks, but could we just talk here, outside?” She looked at me like I was from another planet. Who knew what she was thinking. Maybe something like, This old fart thinks I am coming on to him.
She rubbed her hands to warm them, pulled up her coat collar, then reached into her coat pocket for a pair of gloves. It was chilly that day. Unusually chilly.
“There are things going on that, well, Dr. Elliott thought, I think, some of my friends also think, some things . . . not really things, like events per se . . . I’m sorry . . . it makes me nervous to talk about it . . . What I mean is that it is more like an entire culture . . . an entire culture that someone should know about, that is having a real effect on us. People are not being treated with respect. They’re being bullied. Things are being said to women. It’s not everyone. It’s a group. About five or six in the department. But they are the ones who control things. Most of the profs, the ones who don’t like what’s going on, are afraid to say anything. Dr. Barnes seems to let things happen. Like he thinks it is okay. There are a number of professors involved in it. Dr. Cooper, Dr. Harper, Dr. Albert.”
“Did you speak with the Affirmative Action officer?”
“Someone spoke to the dean. One of my friends did. Things happened at a retreat a few months ago. I wasn’t there, but I heard about the things. My friend was there. This friend, she went to the dean. Then nothing.”
“You, your friend, too, should make a statement to the AA officer. It would be confidential. The AA officer will follow up on it.”
“Don’t you even want to know what happened?
“I don’t want to come across as unhelpful. There’s just a process. Pretty much the only way to deal with it is through the process. I would not be involved in the process. I am not a part of it.”
“Would this AA officer really do something?”
“Yes, she would follow up on it. She would have to.”
“I could get kicked out of my program. Or, worse, treated like a persona non grata. It could end my career before it began. You know what it’s like. It’s hard enough to be one of the handful who get a tenure-track job, no matter how good you are. Especially for a woman, no matter what they say. You can’t make it if there is even a hint of some issue, even if it wasn’t you fault, even if you were trying to do the right thing. . . . I don’t see how it could work, how you can make a complaint and it be confidential. Don’t the details implicate you? If you say this professor did this, he did this to me, doesn’t that reveal who made the complaint?”
“They would not be allowed to retaliate against you. If they did, they would be charged with retaliation, which is serious, very serious. They, whoever it was, could lose their jobs. Even if they have tenure.”
“It’s not retaliation I’m worried about,” she said. “It’s not the immediate effects. I’m, my friends too . . . we’re worried about how we won’t be able to get decent letters when we finish, how there might be some rumors floating around about what happened in our program. A phrase in a letter of recommendation, Charles said this, Dr. Elliot, he explained this, a phrase, a phrase that hints at something can eliminate you in a job search. Your application, he said, can just be thrown out. I don’t, none of us, want to hurt the university or the reputation of the department. We just want someone to . . . intervene.”
“I can make an appointment for you. I could walk you over.”
“I need to think about it, you know, talk with the others.”
As I was walking back to my car, I was wondering if I should have told Sam that I was going to report it if she didn’t. I probably should have asked for details. I probably should have just said I was going to speak with the AA officer, even if she didn’t want me to. I was on the edge of being legally obligated to do this, but this was her talking about, for the most part, things that happened to a friend. I keep hearing about these things that are going on, but everyone is telling me about someone else having problems. I am not sure what I should do about second-hand or third-hand rumors. It seemed on the verge of a mandatory report, the kind of information said to me that would require me, legally require me, to go, myself, to the AA officer. But some second-hand comments said in the parking lot at Kroger? Does this event rise to the level of an official incident? I kind of feel like Charles. I should do—say—something, but what would I say? A grad student named Sam, I don’t even know her last name, said that some Poly Sci profs are not treating grad students with respect. I would look like an idiot. I wouldn’t be able to say anything concrete. Only that I’ve heard something that someone said. Something. Something that is happening in that department. What can I do with such vague assertions? It’s as vague as smoke. You can reach for it, but you can’t hold onto it. But there was something there. It felt like something had changed.
It all seemed to hang there, in the air, in the fucking parking lot at Kroger. Like half rotten produce. The conversation didn’t actually end. Sam got in her car, turned on the engine, backed out, without even looking to make sure I was out of the way, and then drove off. Not mad. Not much of anything. Resigned. She seemed resigned to it all. There, in the fucking parking lot at Kroger, I was standing, alone and unobserved, myself a witness, looking across an expanse of asphalt, dotted with a few empty cars, as if something had happened, something significant, eventful, standing as if I were a dramatic pause, as if I hinted at some future action. To whom? To what end? I felt like creeping into a corner in this open space, like running from myself.
As I was driving home, as I was putting up my groceries, as I started to cook my dinner, some chicken and rice or something like that, one of the three or four things I cook, I started to think about that doctor who accused my wife of hurting herself. Dr. Haartz. I started to think, There must be something I can do to him. I thought about taking my own advice, following some policy or procedure, going through the proper channels. I thought about making a complaint to the state medical board. I doubt that it would be enough for him to lose his license, but he might receive a written censure of some kind. It might cause him some sleepless nights if he had to worry about appearing before his peers, if he had to explain sending a patient home with a blood infection, explain his diagnosis of Munchausen’s when he wasn’t a psychiatrist, when he didn’t even consult a psychiatrist. Maybe, I thought, they would look into the records of other patients and find other problems. Maybe people, other doctors, nurses, would start to talk about him, or he might think they were talking about him. If I started it off, it might build on its own. That might be enough.
I also thought about sending him a card every holiday, Christmas, New Years, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King’s birthday, a card dripping with irony, thanking him for helping out my wife, thanking him for taking a sophomore psychology course and keeping his textbook, so he could offer such helpful insight. I don’t think he would get it. He wouldn’t even remember her. He probably did similar things, not exactly this, but something as damaging, to several patients each week. That’s the thing with people like him. They are too hard to harm.
Whatever I do is going to have to be more direct, maybe even more physical. I need to find some way to use something he values against him, but I am not going to do anything that will harm his wife or kids. Of course, I am assuming he values them. I don’t want anything to come back and hurt my kids either. Of course, my kids aren’t kids anymore, but I don’t want them to have to deal with some unpleasant thing.
There is one thing I know he values. He has a show dog, one that he uses as a stud. I thought about doing a dognapping, stealing—borrowing—his dog for a few days. I could just think of it as taking his dog for a walk. That would cause him some stress. I could even take the dog to another town, maybe one across the state border and have some vet cut its nuts off, then drop the dog back inside his fence.
I wonder how long it would take him to notice his dog’s nuts were missing. . . . I know. Why harm a dog because his master is an asshole? I will never do this, or anything else to him. I shouldn’t even think about things like this. I can’t help myself. I start thinking about what he did to my wife, I start to get angry, it builds, I start to fantasize. Then, I realize how sick it is and start beating up on myself. But, for a few minutes, when I am in the fantasy, when I come up with some interesting idea, like unmanning his dog, I feel pretty happy. Only for a few minutes.
Aristotle says in The Rhetoric that we enjoy anger, that we revel in fantasies of revenge. What he doesn’t say is that these fantasies leave us empty, hungry. Can we ever convince ourselves that there is the possibility of a moral murder? A righteous anger? A pure revenge? . . . I know. I know it makes you nervous when I speak about this. It’s just my way of dealing with a feeling of powerlessness. I’m absorbed in the fantasy for a while and then I am exhausted. It passes. It always passes.