First Male Voice
He blames her for leaving him for another man.
You should have told me
I didn't love you
You should have told me
He'd come between us
You should have told me
I didn't love you
from the start
You shouldn't walk where
I have to see you
You shouldn't be here
His arm around you
You shouldn't walk where
I have to see you
You make me think
I love you now
You shouldn't smile that
That smile right at me
You shouldn't tease me
His hands all on you
You shouldn't smile that
That smile right at me
You make me feel
Like half a man
You've got to have some
Some evil mojo
You toy with men like
They're little children
You've got to have some
Some evil mojo
You make me want
To run and hide
I don't know why you
You do this to me
When you come near me
I can't control it
I don't know why you
You do this to me
You make me crazy
In the end
September 27, 2016
Charles came by yesterday. I hadn’t seen him for a while, a few days, a week, I can't remember. I haven’t been in the office much. I wonder if the dean is ready to fire me, tell me that he needs me in the classroom. If he weren’t so pidgeon-livered, he would have already made the decision, moved me aside. He would have delivered some pathetic euphemism and waited for me to say, “Oh, I see. You’re firing me.” Then he would tell me what a great job I had done as chair and wait for me to say, “Thank you.” Fuck him. If it comes to that, I will not make it easy on him. He will have to actually say the words, “You’re fired.”
I saw him at the gym last week. It wasn’t crowded, only about a dozen people there, but he didn’t even see me. Or, he pretended he didn’t see me. I could have walked up to him and said hello, but I was curious. I wanted to see if he would acknowledge one of his chairs. He didn’t. I watched him work out. He got on the stationary bike for ten minutes, barely moving his legs, then he walked to the television, stood under it, and watched a football game for twenty minutes. Then he picked up a two-pound dumbbell and did four or five reps of some kind of lift. It was the most feckless workout I had ever witnessed. The whole time he is carrying a towel, like he would need to wipe off the sweat. This is our leader.
If he does decide, make that decision, tell me to step down, that would be okay. I would still have a job. It would probably be a blessing. Lately, my body has felt like it weighs six hundred pounds. I can hardly move. I’ve been having trouble getting out of bed. It’s felt like an emotional hangover. I just want to sleep.
I didn’t mean to get off on that. Anyway, Charles came in. He had probably been looking for me for days, maybe a week or more. He is always gnawing on some problem. If things are going well, if problems aren’t coming toward him, he invents one, a fantasy of what is most certainly happening behind the calm surface, which must be a smokescreen manufactured by the administration. In his view, of course. In his mind.
I think I told you about how I saw Charles standing there after that encounter at the party, that encounter with the guy. I wondered about what he saw or heard. If he would be telling stories about what happened that night, I wanted to know, wanted to be prepared for it, so I could read how others who heard the story would interact with me. I couldn’t just ask, “Hey, did you see me practically screaming at the guy at the party?” I never ask him anything directly. I try to give him an opening to emote. Sometimes I nudge him by throwing out some lame conspiracy theory. So, I asked if he knew the guy I was talking to at the party. He said no. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. He even looked a little puzzled about the question. Then I nudged him. I said that I had been seeing the guy around the provost lately, that they seemed to be having a lot of meetings about something. I asked if he had heard anything. This is usually enough to get him going, but nothing.
Maybe he was just being nice, not wanting me to know that he had heard everything. Maybe he was already talking about it, out of concern, as my friend, but I don’t think so. I think he was eating, focused on the food, probably wondering why no one had sought him out, come up to talk to him. He probably didn’t pay any attention to what was happening between that guy and me. I don’t know. Maybe he was trying to spare me embarrassment. Maybe he didn’t hear anything. Maybe he already had a fully formed story.
He asked me how my garden was doing. He might have wanted to switch the topic, or it might have been his way to ask how I was doing. Sometimes, it is like this between us. Not always. But sometimes, we speak around everything. It’s like we’re having a conversation full of metaphors that are symbols of other metaphors. It’s like we’re saying, “Coke is it.” Back and forth.
My answer was simple: “Everything’s dead.”
I planted tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, snow peas, carrots, and watermelon at the beginning of the season. Some of it lived for a while. I even harvested a few cucumbers. But I didn’t water. At least, not regularly. I didn’t fertilize. I didn’t weed. In the end, it all died. Except the weeds.
Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Lincoln walked in. Lincoln Wray. He’s a young instructor in the department. A protégé of sorts to Charles. Close to me, also. He lived at my house for a while after my wife died. I don’t think you’ve met him? . . . No. He’s a Native American poet. Cherokee. Big guy. Lumbering. He didn’t say much. He just sat down and laughed as I described my failures as a gardener and Charles offered advice about putting coffee grounds in the soil and using the trench method to plant tomato plants so they have more roots and so on. I kept saying that it would help if I watered. Lincoln kept laughing. It made me think that I didn’t see Lincoln at that party. He should have been there. He’s usually at events, hanging out with Charles. Drinking. Sometimes, too much. Lincoln loves Bukowski. I keep telling him to pick another literary hero, but he loves the guy. Who am I to criticize?
I was talking about the dead garden, going into detail about its slow death, how I had stood at the window and watched plants shrivel, turn brown, and become submerged in weeds, which thrived in the neglect, watched and felt depressed about it, watching with concern but without finding the energy to walk outside of the house, turn on the hose, spray some water, and then I looked up and Charles was gone. He does this sometimes. He disappears. When this happens, I am always left wondering what Charles wanted. He didn’t come in to chat. He didn’t come in to ask me about my garden. Of this, I am sure. Who knows what was behind all.
It always pisses me off. I asked Lincoln where he went. Lincoln just waived his hand in the air as if to say he disappeared. Then Linclon said, “See ya.” He had probably seen the line in the hall when he walked in, though he didn’t say anything about people needing to see me. He talks about having a lot of anxiety problems, but you wouldn’t know it to see him. He seems relaxed, unfazed by his heavy teaching load and the students who come to his office. Lots of them. He probably had some waiting for him, too.
As soon as Lincoln left, the backlog of people came forth like a levy had been breached. One student after another. One colleague after another. It was enough to make the joints of heaven crack.
Somewhere in the middle of this mass of humanity, a student came in to tell me, in confidence, which I guess meant she just wanted to pass on some gossip, without seeming to be a gossip, that Dr. Thomas had some sort of affair with a student and the student is pregnant now. She wouldn’t even tell me the name of the student. I hear rumors about Steve all the time. Most of them are not true. Some of them could be, but it seems like nothing ever materializes. The rumors remain mere vapors. Forgeries that cleave the soul. I am not sure what I’m supposed to do with something like this, unless the pregnant student comes forward, visibly with child. I could ask Steven about it, but I’ve done this in the past. No good ever comes of it. He accuses me of being a hysteric. He always uses that phrase. I am not hysterical. I am “a hysteric.” He is consciously placing me within a particular kind of category. I am, in other words, a late nineteenth-century hysteric, a madwoman in the attic, a lunatic in one of Freud’s case studies, which are mostly case studies of hysterics, mostly of women. He knows the etymology of the word. As do I. I would rather he were more direct. He should just call me a cunt. I’m probably not going to ask him if he has knocked up some coed unless I have some facts, a witness. . . . I don’t mean that kind of witness. Not someone who saw the act. But the student, a coed with an extended stomach, something, anything. I need more than a second-hand rumor.
In that whole string of people, this is the only one who stood out. But there was one other thing. Somewhere in that seemingly endless parade of complaints, I was talking to someone, maybe a student who was having trouble registering, and out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw that guy walk to my office door, pause, look inside, and then vanish. By the time I had sensed him there, swung my head around, he was gone. I think it was him, that guy from the party. Then, I returned to the student. I didn’t even think about it again until right now.
Odd. I feel like I am not even in time. In this job, I always had trouble holding onto the events in a day. I could rarely think through a sequence of what had come at me from eight to five. It was always a cloud with a few events that stood out, but it seems worse now, much worse.
When I first started the chair job, my wife used to ask me how my day was when I got home.
“Busy,” I would usually say.
“What kept you so busy?”
“I don’t know.”
It would make her a little angry, but I wasn’t trying to be coy. I just couldn’t remember, and eventually she stopped asking. It is like sitting on a bench on a busy street and watching people walk by. You see all of them, in the moment. At the end of the day, all you know is that you watched a bunch of people walk in front of you. If some guy were acting particularly crazy, a screaming lunatic, accusing everyone around him of having sex with goats, you might remember him. But mostly it will be a blur. All I remember from recent weeks was Charles asking me about my garden, and a student saying Dr. Thomas had a productive affair. And, until just now, seeing that guy, whose name I have forgotten, peer into my office and disappear. It’s odd, that I would have forgotten that.
But I keep circling back to those two students, the day the two students—Bess and what’s her name—came to my office. I’ve been in a silent rage about it. I’m not sure why a student complaining about Barnes—Lia was her name, of course—would have much of an effect on me. I am not saying I can always leave work at work. In some ways, I don’t even know where work begins or ends anymore. And I am not saying I don’t have a free-floating rage in me that comes out at odd time. The anger is there, somewhere. Waiting.
It usually comes out when I am driving. I lay on the horn. I scream at people who can’t hear me, or even see me behind my tinted windows. It’s a controlled eruption. Safe. But I’m always worried the anger will erupt at the wrong moment, that I will climb over the counter at Burger King and try to strangle some kid who is working for minimum wage, who is dealing with his own problems, who has done nothing more than hand me cold fries. If I were younger, I would join the army and release it all in a single tour of duty. Maybe, I should learn to play video games. Maybe that would help.
Usually, my rage erupts in connection with some slight annoyance. Someone pushes in front of me as I am standing in line, then I stew for days. My response is not proportional, so I know it is coming from somewhere besides the event, but I can’t figure out where, so I assume it is coming from this generalized sense of malaise, a disconnection with everything around me, a blunt and formless depression.
I am not sure what I am saying exactly, but, in some way, today was different. My anger had a focus. In that sense, I was better. I knew what I was feeling. I could label it. I knew the source. I kept thinking of a Dr. Haartz, a doctor who had accused my wife of making herself sick. Maybe I told you about this before. If I did, stop me. This was when she was suffering from recurring bouts of what seemed to be shingles in an area where she had a skin graft. She kept telling the doctor that blisters appeared and then opened up and that it was painful, extremely painful. Then, one day, out of nowhere, Dr. Haartz, one of her doctors, a specialist in infectious diseases, came into her hospital room with a nurse, who was all too obviously there to serve as his witness. At least, I eventually realized that. So, he knew he was on dangerous ground. He knew that he might be sued for what he was about to say.
Without any kind of examination, without even asking my wife how she was doing, he proceeded to explain his theory, which he kept calling science. (I don’t even want to call it a theory, because it didn’t seem to be the production of any kind of systematic thought process. It was more of a fixed idea, an obsession, a contusion to the brain.) The data, he said, indicated that there was nothing wrong with my wife, that he was sure she was picking at the area and causing the abrasions, as if you could pick at a skin graft and make blisters appear. He was talking, explaining step by step why he was convinced my wife had caused sores to erupt, and he kept using the phrase “as you could read in a basic psychological textbook,” which made me realize the asshole was making a diagnosis from a paragraph in his sophomore psych textbook, which he had probably read some twenty years before. He was writing his “science” down on a whiteboard with a dry erase marker he kept in his shirt pocket. About half way through the ridiculous babble, I asked him if he was saying that my wife had Munchausen’s Syndrome, which I said with enough irony that I assumed he would have understood I was saying I didn’t buy anything he was saying, any of it.
His eyes widened, he was silent for a moment, then he said, “Where did you hear about Munchausen’s?” I couldn’t believe it. He took my sarcasm and turned it into another bit of evidence to support his monomania, which he had long ago accepted as beyond question.
“I read books,” I answered. “Lots of them. Including books on psychology. I’ve also read The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Maybe you’ve seen the movie.” I don’t know why I waste perfectly good irony on people who use the words science and data and truth in the same sentence, as if critiques of science didn’t exist, since Bacon. Crap, just read Bacon on the idols of science.
He went on like that for a good while. Blabbering on.
After he released her—the next day, because, of course, there was nothing wrong with her, at least in his diagnosis, nothing physically wrong—she continued to be sick, now with a deep depression on top of whatever Haartz failed to diagnose. She was suicidal for weeks. Who wouldn’t be? She was sick, and she knew she was sick, and now she felt like she couldn’t even go to the hospital or to her primary care doctor, who had been bought into Dr. Haartz’s grand diagnosis.
We requested a copy of my wife’s medical records. The arrogance of Dr. Haatz’s clinical notes was astonishing. He said that she clearly suffered from Munchausen’s (without any indication that he ever consulted a psychiatrist, clearly a breach of proper medical procedure), that there was little hope for her because “these kind of people rarely consult the help of therapists” (my wife was regularly seeing a therapist at the time and had been for years), that the patient’s husband (me) claimed to be a college professor, that there is no clear indication that she even has Crohn’s disease (she was diagnosed by one of the leading gastroenterologists in the country), that she doesn’t have a MERSA inflection, on and on.
Eventually, we took her to another hospital, one where Dr. Haartz didn’t practice. The infectious disease specialists there said Dr. Haartz had released her when she had a MERSA infection in her blood stream. It was in her medical records. If Dr. Haartz had just read some of the lab results he had ordered, he would have seen this. It was there, in the charts. Data. Science. The new doctor also realized that my wife had the H1N1 virus. He was astonished that Dr. Haartz had missed this. He recommended we sue the idiot. How often does a doctor recommend that you sue another doctor? We would have probably sued, but we were dealing with too much. We had more than we could handle without suing a doctor. The whole process would have been very difficult on my wife. The depositions and all. We couldn’t do it.
It’s been almost six years since this happened, and I still feel my pulse throb in my forehead when I think about it. I have often lapsed into long fantasies about harming the sombitch. As he was explaining the science of how he had deduced my wife was hurting herself, outlining his major points on the whiteboard, I noticed that his hands were delicate and his fingernails well manicured. He probably saw a professional manicurist on a regular basis. At one point, as he was writing on the whiteboard, his hand slipped slightly, leaving a small smudge on one of his fingers. He was distressed, surprisingly so. He licked the smudge and wiped the splotched finger on his khaki pants, repeating this sequence three or four times, harder each time, with a rising and visible sense of panic with each repetition, until the smudge was almost gone. Even then, he seemed disconcerted and lost for a few minutes before picking up his line of thought.
Surgeons often take this kind of extraordinary care of their hands, but it is rare for doctors in other specialties. I did some research and found out that he was devoted to the piano, often playing concerts locally. If his passion is playing piano, if his fear is damaging his hands, I knew I could make his life miserable. I spend months developing a plan. I would begin by leaving short sections of two-by-four (seven to eight inches long) for him to find. In his mailbox. Behind one of the tires of his car, there in the hospital parking garage, so he would back over it, then get out of his car to see another inexplicable section of two-by-four. He would realize there was a pattern, a message being delivered, but he wouldn’t know what, why, or by whom. Then, I would start sending him notes, made from cutting letters and words out of magazines, pasted together, without any fingerprints, mailed from different cities, that would start out mysterious, like, “What do you think I am going to do with that two-by-four?”
Later, at some point, I would start to suggest a motive, like, “You killed my daughter.” I’ve thought for a long time about whether it would be better to throw out vague threats like this or research his career for patients who died or were harmed, patients who sued him to no avail, which might cause him or the police to follow one dead end lead after another. (Assuming he had to courage to call the police, if he didn’t feel guilt for something, whatever that was, if he didn’t worry that some dark secret would come out, spread across the local newspapers, a secret that would be whispered in the halls and break rooms of the hospital, find its way to his wife and children and friends.) I like the idea of research, using real patients and the harm this doctor did to them to hint at a motivation and throw out false leads. The leads with some basis in history, with mountains of files to shift through, would take time to follow up on, but, in the end, each lead would evaporate, leaving him perplexed. The leads (the notes) based on real patients might also cause him to reflect on every mistake he had made in his entire career, from the time he was an intern.
The only problem with this approach is that I would draw other people—his patients and their families—into the mess I was creating. I would be causing harm to the patients he had harmed. But maybe they would see his distress and take some comfort in it. Who knows? But, eventually, I decided to keep the notes and the threats vague. He might make a connection, but I wouldn’t push him in a particular direction.
Then, I would deliver direct threats, like, “I am going to break every finger in both your hands. I will be waiting for you. By your car.” Pieces of two-by-four. Messages. Without any seeming order. Without any schedule. Three in one week. Nothing for a month. This is what would finally make him crack. The periods when nothing happened. (I read about this in my own sophomore psychology textbook, which brings a certain elegance to this plan. It might even have been the same sophomore psychology textbook he used to diagnose Munchausen’s.) During the lapses, he would think it was over. Then, when he was just starting to relax, another piece of two-by-four in his garden, in the middle of his tomato plants. Or a note under his windshield wiper that he would find as he was walking with his wife to his car, not thinking about the threats anymore, walking to his car, after a nice dinner, thinking it had all stopped, that it was finally over. Then, it was there again. It was back. Whatever “it” was.
I just love Slovoj Zizak’s lecture about ideology. . . . Yea, I know, they’re all about ideology, but I mean the one were he talks about “Coke is it” and how the “it” is nothing, which means the “it” becomes the ideology of that context. So, “it” would be back, and he wouldn’t know what “it” was, until “it” destroyed him. The “it” would be everything.
I don’t know how many hours I've spent developing elaborate fantasies like this. I never acted on any of them. I know the whole time I was telling you this you were probably thinking, He is going to commit a felony and he is making me, with this act of telling, his accomplice. But it’s just a fantasy. I will never move it forward.
I honestly can’t say whether it is cowardice or maturity that keeps me from acting. If I were caught (honesty, how could someone get away with something like this?), my career would be over. I wouldn’t be able to be much of a father, and my sons still need me. I’ve read enough Elizabethan revenge tragedies to know that such plots that seek retribution are rarely more than narcissistic joy rides. Plots of vengeance, no matter how well planned and executed, no matter how justified, don’t usually end well for anyone. In the final act, bodies cover the stage. The audience might experience catharsis, but the hero chases revenge to his death. Still, I want to harm him. There must be some way to make that arrogant prick know how much harm his insane musings and misapplication of a smidgen of psychology have done.
What I couldn’t understand is why I was thinking about Dr. Haartz after hearing a student complain about Professor Barnes. Maybe it was because I saw Barnes walking across campus a few days ago. He had two people trailing a step behind him. He always seemed to have minions around him, junior faculty, graduate students, a deferential step behind. One of the minions was James L.W. Whitcomb, III, a good Southern boy with two middle names and a “third” at the end, an Assistant Professor in Poly Sci, untenured, in his third year, and probably worried shitless about his tenure review, three years away still, but approaching fast, and, I’ve heard, Whitcomb is already behind with publications, and he knows he is in trouble. He was walking a step behind Barnes, hoping, I suspect, that a deferential relationship with his chair would pull him through, even if the tenure committee gave an ambivalent recommendation. I couldn’t see the other guy very well. They were off in the distance, cutting across a parking lot, waves of heat rising from the pavement. It was almost like a mirage.