Second Male Voice
He sings about mourning the
loss of his lover.
The road's a winter scene
That carries her from here
I used to hold her smile
In my trembling hands
The snow like feathers falls
It drifts across the road
Her path is covered o'er
She's vanished from the earth
The spring will come someday
The snow will melt away
There will be a trace
A shadow of our love
I must find my way
And journey far from here
Rivers I must cross
Some are cold and deep
March 7, 2017
The mire of the abyss and the darkness of falsehood. That is where we are. I have resorted to quoting St. Augustine. Not just now. Not just once. Often. It’s become a pattern. This couldn’t be good.
In an odd way, it feels very Southern, part of our fascination with the darkness of sin and the grotesque and the Gothic, the smell of things rotting. There is always the hidden South. It’s there, entire realities that Northerners never see, even most Southerners never see. Pockets of culture that emerge only in times of crisis.
It’s unraveling, all of it. The hidden South, it's revealing itself. I see it, what is behind the veneer of civility, but it is beyond me. Apart from me, like I am watching it on a screen at a drive-in movie. I can’t seem to make myself care. It’s like I am walking down the street and see a dead body in a pool of blood and all I can muster up—feel—yes, all that I can feel is, “Oh my goodness, that’s someone’s body.”
Just this morning, I was in a committee meeting in the administrative building. The meeting itself was not unusual. It was about vetting some assessment software so programs could be assessed campus wide, coordinated better for accreditation self-studies. Everything at universities is more complicated now—and more expensive. Believe it or not, Barnes was there. He came in and sat across from me, without any kind of hello, or even a glance. Then, he began taking his detailed notes, even before the meeting started. He didn’t act as if anything were wrong. He didn’t look tired, like he hadn’t slept. He didn’t seem flustered. He walked in with Whitcomb, you know, the one I call The Third, and Robert Simpson, that guy.
The Third was the only one who seemed to show signs of stress. His eyes darted around the room when he came in. When he saw me, he forced a faint smile, then sat down and pulled out his laptop to take notes—to hide.
Later, after the provost had walked in, the meeting begun, Barnes caught my eye, stared at me, without any change in expression, except for his eyes. He did a sort of slow motion blink. I remember thinking, not really thinking, seeing, yes, seeing this thing, more as a visual image, the image of the words, as if I were reading it, the latest Trump crazy-train tweet: “Bad (or sick) guy!”
I looked away, toward Simpson. He nodded at me. We had, remember, that recent encounter on the sidewalk, when he seemed to be my ally, seemed to be at odds with Barnes.
The provost was talking at a rapid pace, moving through the pros and cons of different software packages. I kept expecting him to say something about the crisis, the scandal, the stories in the press, what was behind it, how it was being dealt with. Nothing. Nothing but the thin veneer. As if there were nothing else. It almost seemed like a normal meeting, except less chitchat than usual.
This banality, as all things were coming apart. No indication from the provost that anything was wrong. All of it, a cover. My mind started to race, as if I were passively watching images flash on a screen, my eyelids held open with crude metal contraptions. I started to imagine what the provost was not saying. He must be doing something to deal with this, something to shift it, reframe it, minimize the damage. I realized that I was starting to think like Charles. I was filling in the gaps, assuming that a demon is going to reach out of the damp earth, grab my leg, and drag me under. I tried to refocus, but I had no control.
I was all over the place. For some reason, I started to think about Sir Brian Vickers’ The One King Lear, his edition that attempts to resolve all the differences between the Quarto and Folio versions of King Lear, as he arrogantly swept away the work of all the scholars who had studied the variants, dismissing them, as if their life work did not matter, as if only his “definitive” text need ever be considered now and in the future, and how Holger Syme attacked him, destroyed him, in a series of five-hundred tweets, a 140 characters at a time, eating his flesh in small bites. I had just read an article about this, and I was thinking, This is what is happening, the provost is probably working behind the scene to create a single story, push it out to friendly reporters, claim that everything has been resolved, is settled for all time, and they, some disparate group of angry students and disgruntled faculty will destroy this master narrative, this blanket of a story, in tweet after tweet, as if they had gathered together to plan the whole thing.
About ten minutes into the meeting, my phone started to vibrate. I typically keep it out, on the conference table, during meetings, for emergencies. I can easily answer text messages during the meeting without missing much of anything. Usually, Tom Callahan, the Director of Freshman Composition, is the only one who texts me. If it’s an important call from my admin, who knows when I am in meetings and only calls when it’s an emergency, I can walk out of the room and answer it. This time, it was a text from Charles. He almost never sends texts. He's a Luddite at heart. I don’t think he has entirely adjusted to emails yet.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since I pulled out of the driveway at Tom’s cabin. As far as I knew, he has been teaching his classes, but I don’t think he has been keeping office hours. Over the past week or so, I had several students stop by my office to ask if I had seen him. Maybe I should have tried to contact him. I think I have been feeling defeated by the whole thing. It seems like, everyday, several times a day, there is something new in the newspaper or on the local news everyday. Most of the stories don’t add anything new. The new stories don’t redirect the narrative. It is more a process of accretion. Another student comes forward with a few more sorted details. The story stays alive. More damage is done. Mostly in the Globe and on the local news stations. A brief article has already appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. I’ve heard that a longer story is coming out this week in Inside Higher Ed. Though short, the Chronicle article was bad. The Inside Higher Ed article will likely be worse because it will try to one-up the Chronicle story.
So, a text from Charles pops up. I open it. All it said was, “I am going to retire at the end of the week. You will need to find someone to cover my courses for the rest of the semester. A memo is in your mailbox.”
I probably looked like I had just watched a car run over my dog. The voices in the room became muffled. I’m sure my breathing grew audible. After a few moments—I’m not sure how long—I looked up. I couldn’t help but look at Barnes, who was hacking away on his laptop. He must have sensed me starting at him. He looked up. Stared back. He did that slow motion blink again and then looked to the provost, who was running the meeting, speaking nonstop, filling the air with vibrations that bounced from the walls, echoed, diminished in volume, drifted into silence, but lingered long enough to layer words over top of words, almost like a choral piece, until the layers of words were muffled, blurred, incomprehensible. In the midst of this all, that slow blink. There was an arrogance in the gesture, as if he were saying something like, “I’m going to come through this just fine. Your friend, your guy, is the one who is going down.”
Of course, this was probably just me being paranoid, or putting together the text from Charles and the gesture and making meaning out of it when it was, more likely than not, two unrelated events, random, pure chance.
My mind was still racing, passively watching the visual images again. I started to assume that Barnes knew something. What did I have to base this on? Nothing. Except maybe that slow blink, that smug look, that stare. I wanted him to be behind whatever came. I knew it was going to be bad. I knew there would be actions behind the scenes, decisions that would never hit the newspaper, the press, negotiations that would shift the outcome, save those in the inner circle, punish those who didn’t seem willing to play the game.
There, I was thinking like Charles again. I was starting to realize that I was not much different. I had only been different in reaction to him. Only because I could remain a witness, judge him, and pull back. Balance myself. Use him to right my stance. Without him, without being in his presence, I was being pulled to a dark place, draped inside thick fabric, feeling the heat of my own breath. Hearing only fragments of muffled speech. Thinking I must know it all. Thinking I must have hit the end point. Thinking I must act. At some point, I must act. I am being commanded to act.
The provost, who must have noticed that I was distracted, asked me if I had anything to add. I think he asked twice before I heard the question, because he said, “I fear you are not with us.” Then he asked, “Do you have anything to add?” I had no idea what had been said for the last twenty minutes. I muttered a faint “no” in a voice that struck me, as I heard myself speak, a voice not my own, but one thin and childlike.
I couldn’t believe Charles. What the hell happened? I was shocked that he didn’t let me know in person. He had been teaching at the institution for thirty-eight years, and we had been friends even before I was hired as chair twelve years ago. I had no idea that he was even considering retiring. He often joked about “teaching till the bitter end.” He said, “I am going to drop dead mid lecture with a piece of chalk in my hand, muttering, ‘To Whitman, we owe our identity.’” Now, in this moment, he sends a curt text, a few sentences, that will end an entire career. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t even think he could retire at mid-semester. I couldn’t imagine the dean would let him do this.
After the meeting, I went to my mailbox and pulled out Charles’ official resignation. It wasn’t even on departmental letterhead:
Due to unexpected events, I will retire at the end of the semester, effective May 15. Due to health problems, I will be on sick leave until that date. I have attached a statement from my doctor for the FMLA documents. My office will be cleaned out soon. After March 15, I will not serve on any thesis committees. I will be gone entirely from the university. I do not want and will not attend a retirement party of any kind. I’ve turned in my keys. HR has sent through all needed papers.
There it was, in this short memo, one he didn't even bother to address to me. He had a doctor who was willing to sign the FMLA documents. He would be on medical leave the rest of the semester. His official retirement date would be May 15th, the last day of the semester. He had worked out an exit. They wouldn’t be able to touch him. And he was going to leave without even acknowledging he has friends here. He was already gone. No goodbye. Only this, a memo, a few lines, addressed to no one, after thirty-eight years at the university, about twenty-years as my friend. I am still puzzled. Hurt.
Since the story started to break, for almost two weeks now, I have almost become invisible. When I didn’t answer my phone on that day, didn’t answer emails, I thought that the dean, the provost also, would keep trying to get in touch with me, but after about ten hours, it all stopped. During the meeting, the provost didn't even act like he cared that I have ceased to be present most of the time, disengaged even when I was there bodily, except for that one brief comment. I expected overt anger.
I am pretty sure the university lawyers stepped in and told the dean and the provost that it would be better if they didn’t talk to me. It seems like someone would have at least advised me against speaking to the press, but no one from the legal staff or the Office of Communications contacted me. I wonder if the absence of any messages was not a message in itself. They were saying, “You are on your own.” They know I am a friend of Charles. Was. Was a friend. They would assume I was talking to him. They would assume I was a part of it all, part of the cancer they were trying to excise.
When I am in my office, when the phone rings, I assume it is someone from the Provost Office, telling me to come by at my earliest convenience, starting the machinery that will lead to me stepping down as chair or being forced into an early retirement. The call hasn’t come yet. I keep waiting.
At this point, it is starting to seem like my department will pay a price for the story going to the press, maybe even a bigger price than Poly Sci would pay for creating the stuff of the story in the first place. I am certain that Charles didn’t just decide to retire in the middle of a semester without being pressured or threatened. I had seen this kind of thing at other institutions. If they want to get you, they find a way.
When I was at another university, early in my career, the provost didn’t like a friend of mine in Social Work, a guy named Eric Thompson. Eric had heard about the provost going after a colleague in some other department. History, I think. He scheduled a meeting with the provost. He asked questions. Reasonable questions. At least, that is what I was told. He gave his friend in History advice. He even alluded to the issue in the Faculty Senate to say, This is what is going on, you should know about this. The provost went after him. He started to file various kinds of complaints against Eric. There would be a simple grade complaint, and the provost would say it involved racism, even though racism was not mentioned in the complaint. The provost would file an Affirmative Action complaint with HR on behalf of the student. The student didn’t even know about it, had not given his consent. Another grade complaint would become a Title IX issue. Why? Because the provost filed a complaint on behalf of the student. This kept happening. Within about a year, Eric was facing six or seven different complaints. He tried to hire a lawyer. He found out that the provost held anyone in town who did labor law on a retainer. He would also hire other lawyers to do bits of work here and there. So, they couldn’t defend faculty in lawsuits against the university. That would be a conflict of interest. Eric had to go half way across the state to find a lawyer. He had to pay the guy for travel. It cost him over $20,000 before everything was resolved. This is the sort of thing that can happen. I didn’t think it would happen here. But I am starting to think it is there, the same kind of narcissistic rage.
I couldn’t help feeling like this was part of the crisis management that had finally kicked in, after the crisis was past the point of managing, that this was already boiling behind closed doors, that a creature had finally emerged to eat its young. When a story like this is in the press, all they can do is look for scapegoats.
I don’t know what drove Charles to retirement. I suspect there were threats of some kind, though it is hard to imagine what they could use as a threat. I am sure they wanted to silence him, though it was too late for that. The story was going to continue without him, at least for a while. They needed a different kind of scapegoat, someone who could be fired in a public way. This would send a message that they had addressed the problem, someone had paid a price, the contagion had been contained and excised. I don’t think it’s going to be Barnes. It will be someone else.
I almost forgot to tell you. Not sure why I thought of this, just now, at this point. Not sure what the connection is in my mind. That problem with my car, the blinker. The odd rhythm that was driving me nuts. I thought there was some major short. It was just the blub. The blub was burned out. Once I replaced it, everything was fine. I should have figured this out sooner.