Second Male Voice
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
April 25, 2017
I have been paralyzed since Charles died. Angry is more accurate. I was shocked and sad, then I read the obituary. I am pretty sure his family had nothing to do with it, the writing of it. They weren’t even in town, except for his nephew, who came to escort his body home.
I have to admit that I didn’t even realize he, Charles, was still in the state. I thought he had gone to Michigan. He still has his parents’ house in some small town, not too far from Lake Michigan. He spends most of his summers there. Spent. (I can’t get the tense right. I always slip into the present tense when speaking of the dead.) I thought he had gone there, as soon as he announced his retirement.
I didn’t know he was still here until I got the call. I think a neighbor found him. Maybe it was a friend.
When his nephew came in, I picked him up at the airport and went with him to make the arrangements, not for a service, but to ship his body to Michigan. He, John, the nephew. was in and out, didn’t even stay the night.
When we were at the funeral home, the director—the casket salesman, whatever they call these guys—had to leave the room for a few minutes. John turned to me and asked, “What has been going on here?” He knew Charles had been stressed out, unhappy, not himself. I didn’t know how to answer him. I told him about the stories in the newspaper. I didn’t say much about Charles’ involvement, just that he had stood up for some of the students involved. John shook his head. I’m sure that was enough. He knew his uncle well enough to fill in the blanks.
When I read the obituary, that’s when I started to feel the anger. It seemed so factual and ordinary. I suspect that the Office of Communications pulled something together so that everything would seem in place, especially for Charles’ former students, many of whom still live in the area. I’m sure whoever wrote it had never met Charles, never been in one of his classes, never talked to one of his students.
So I am reading the obit. It mentioned parents, who had preceded him in death, those who survived his death, his sister, his nieces and nephews. It mentioned his thirty-eight years of teaching. The funeral would be in Michigan, where most of his family lives. All of the normal kind of facts that are supposed to sum up a person’s life. As I’m reading, I am thinking of everything that’s not there. It said nothing about his teaching awards or his research, nothing, of course, about his role in revealing the recent university scandals, nothing about him retiring in the middle of the semester, probably being forced to retire, nothing about the cause of death, which is still unexplained, nothing about his last days, which must have been awful for him.
There wasn't anything overtly wrong with the obit. You saw it. It was ordinary. It was what it should have been—if Charles had an ordinary life. To me, it seemed false, so inadequate in the context of everything that had happened. That’s what made me angry, and most of that anger was directly at myself.
I can imagine, in those last days, he was without a purpose, for the first time in his adult life, maybe for the first time in his entire life. He was no longer a scholar, no longer a teacher, separated from his friends and students. I can’t fathom how he spent his days. And no one could tell me. I wanted to ask John about the cause of death, but he was not doing well. It didn’t seem right to ask. I knew they weren’t going to do an autopsy. When someone dies at home like this, the coroner often requires an autopsy. I guess he, or she, whoever the coroner was, decided it wasn’t necessary, probably because Charles was obviously in poor health. I would guess the coroner assumed it was a heart attack.
I thought about contacting the rest of the family, to see if they needed anything, to see if they knew anything. I didn’t know his sister. I had met his niece once. Knew John only from his day trip to town. I thought of contacting his neice, but I didn’t have a phone number, an email address. I might have been able to track her down, but I decided not to. I don’t know why. It seemed like interfering, I guess.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by his death. He didn’t take care of himself. He had heart troubles. Maybe other health problems as well. I have no reason to connect his death to recent events at the university, but I couldn’t help but think that it was all connected. Stress must have played a role. I have to admit I did wonder about suicide. I’m so paranoid now, I even wondered if someone had done something. I wouldn’t have voiced any of my suspicions, my thoughts, my own ramblings, because my mind was running wild, but I kept thinking, They killed him. Maybe not in a literal sense, of course. But I think they took life from him weeks before he died. And I did nothing. I wasn’t even his friend in the end.
People came to me and asked what happened, what should we do, why had he retired all of a sudden? Was he ill? I just kept saying that I didn’t know anything, which was true enough. I am sure they wondered why I didn’t know anything. And they are right. I should have known something.
We had a small wake at an Irish Pub where Charles liked to eat. It was actually some of his former students, Tom and others, a group that had kept in touch with him over the years. They arranged it. There were thirty or thirty-five of us there. Some colleagues, but mostly students. Mostly former students. We told stories. The former students talked about things he had said in class. I hadn’t heard much of it, surprising, considering how long I had known him.
Part of the reason I was feeling angry was because of how things had ended for Charles. He deserved better. He had given so much to the university. It seemed like there was virtually no notice given by the institution. Only an email to the faculty expressing sadness. The sadness seemed, I don't know, manufactured, bureaucratic.
We like to imagine our careers ending in a victory. They will have a dinner for us. Our colleagues will come. Former students. They will tell stories about how we changed their lives. But I have seen too many great careers end in a fizzle. We work past our prime. Or we work until we are caught up in forces that are beyond our control, beyond the control of anyone. We are encouraged to retire. Maybe even forced to retire. It ends in a cloud. If we’re lucky. It could end in a public scene. Charles died after he had been pushed aside. He died with too many questions.
In his meditations, Marcus Aurelius . . . I know, how did I get off on this? My mind is just going through associations. Tangents. Digressions. I think it is all connected and at the heart of things, but I’m not sure. Anyway, Aurelius has this section in his meditations where he writes about some of the ignominious ends of great men. I can’t remember the whole list, but I do remember he writes about Heraclitus, who was obsessed with big ideas, like the possibility of fire consuming the entire universe, and yet he died from a dung-plaster. That’s how Aurelius describes it. Heraclitus suffered from dropsy, the build up of fluid in the body. A man worried about the universe being consumed by fire was essentially drowning in his own flesh. The cure of the day was to cover the poor sap with dung, which was supposed to extract the excess water. This was the end of a great philosopher, Aurelius says. That image, Heraclitus covered in dung, is hard to shake. Charles. It is not . . . Fuck, I just don’t know.
Part of what I am feeling, I have to admit, is about me, about where my life’s at now. Being alone. Realizing that my career is starting to fizzle out. I even look at my body and see the aging and think that there is no improvement from here. I am becoming more fragile. Even if I started working out, I would not really be making myself stronger. I would be slowing the deterioration. I’ve been thinking, for the first time, about retiring, and wondering what I’ve accomplished, if anything. Not feeling like I belong here anymore. Wondering if I am even suited for life. I have lived a life of wondering where, if anywhere, I fit in. I don’t know that I believe half of what I am thinking. I have been tittering on the edge depression for a long time, moving in and out of dark periods, functioning at some minimal level, and then Charles dies, and I move right into darkness, start to pity myself, and lose any grasp on how I am a part of something. I haven’t even picked up my guitar for months.
I’ve been staying up nights. Can’t sleep. I’m not sure I want to sleep. I’ve been rereading Koba the Dread, Martin Amis’s book about Stalin’s purge. No one is sure how many died, maybe as many as twenty million people, maybe more. I am reading this book about a ruthless dictator, a sociopath who tortures until he extracts a confession, and then kills in a way that the person not only ceases to exist now and in the future, but in a way that erases any remnants that the person ever existed. Dead, buried in an unmarked grave, excised from all government records.
So, Stalin, what I don't understand, the confessions, the obsession with confessions. Why were confessions so important to him? If he obsessed, like a compulsive housewife, over wiping any record, any memory even, of the person from the face of the earth, scrubbing away any particle of the person’s dust, leaving nothing but a shiny surface where there once was a life, why would he need a confession? I think he wanted to convince himself he was right. Even Stalin had doubts. My guess is that he was even secretly religious, maybe at some level, or that he had religious type feelings that he couldn’t shake. He feared, I think, what would happen to him in the afterlife, even if he didn’t entirely believe in an afterlife, he feared there might be some accounting of his life in the future, in an afterlife, if only an dissipating energy. He needed the confession to ease his worries about his soul. Does that make any sense?
I’ve seen something like that here lately. Dark acts that cannot be acknowledged. People, smart people, seem to stare at the carnage as they are saying, Everything is normal. It’s all part of the process. We are part of a normal process. The documents have all of the necessary signatures.
I am not saying that what was going on in Stalinist Russia is similar to what has been going on here, at least in magnitude and sheer violence, in an absolute disregard for human life. But, as I am rereading Amis, I keep wondering, What would it take to push us on to that place? What would it take for this place to become a killing field? What I keep thinking is that it all it would take, the only thing, to push us there, is an army. Someone would have to have an army and a secret police force. Some organized thugs. Maybe it wouldn’t even take an army. Maybe all that is needed is the organized thugs. The thugs, they are easy enough to come by. There are always lost souls wanting to believe in a cause. We are all looking for meaning.
Everyday, when I cross the river, drive down the boulevard toward campus, a short drive, usually fifteen to twenty minutes, a homeless guy, in his sixties, or seventies, hard to tell, is camped out at the covered bus stop, almost to seventh street, shaded from the sun. He has a couple of shopping bags filled with his clothes, everything he owns, I’m sure, there under the cover of the bus stop. When I pass by, on the hot days, heat if radiating up from the concrete sidewalks, he has his shirt off, and he is dancing in circles, arms stretched out to embrace the universe. He is chanting, dancing, turning in circles, one direction then the other. I have no idea who he is, or what he is chanting, or why he is turning in circles. I am sure that most who drive by, windows up, AC on, car doors locked. Yes, most of them must think he is crazy, maybe somebody who have been on the streets for decades. I want to believe that he is a seer, that maybe he is on a vision quest. I want to think he has found the answer or is on the road to the answer, that he is not like the rest of us, looking for a cause, trying to move the unmovable. As he turns in circles, first one way, then the other, he is creating the center of the universe. This is what I want to believe, that he is the still point.
Charles’ death should have ended it all, but it didn’t. At least, not for me. I heard that the Poly Sci department agreed to undergo an independent review by some national organization. The organization will visit campus in the fall. They will issue a report. Remedial action will be taken. There, in that announcement, is the promise that things will still change. Yet, Barnes is still the chair. The dean is still the dean. The provost is still the provost. The president is still the president. The members of the board still sit in their leather chairs once a month and talk about football before they do business. A few days before Charles’ death, stories stopped appearing in the newspaper. The scandal had not really been resolved. It had simply run its course, punctuated by his death.
Charles, who played the role of whistle blower, ended up like whistle blowers usually do. He suffered as much as anyone else. Well, maybe, except for Cooper, who took a plea bargain and will be in jail for a few years, four or five, I think. But Cooper deserved that and more. Charles deserved better.
I heard that The Third—do you remember me talking him, Whitcomb, the guy in Political Science that I call The Third? I heard that Barnes did not renew his contract. Something to do with a weak mid-tenure review. Of course, the people doing the mid-tenure review would be the faculty in Political Science, some of whom might be on the verge of being fired themselves.
I never heard what happened with that girl’s grade complaint against Barnes. The girl who came in with Bess. I am sure that Barnes was criticized for making inappropriate comments or something like that, and then the grade stood.
I haven’t seen Bess for a long time. Someone told someone who told me that she is transferring out of the state.
It’s all left me numb. I feel stupid, too. Naïve. I try to be optimistic, believe that most people have good intentions, that the rules and policies are fair, that the system will mean most situations will turn out okay most of the time. I don’t seem to learn from my own experience. I keep coming back to be fooled again and again.