In blistering hot August—when the weary fall from heatstroke and there is nary a cool front to be seen; when the birds are entirely too tired to bother with their summertime songs and give way to the hideous, malformed, cacophonous cicadas; and when schoolchildren do awake at normal hours (thus giving up their leisurely summertime joys)—the recent college graduates do wait for their time to go to new and exciting degrees. Without a doubt, they fear the drudgery of the real world, knowing full well from their temp work the existential horror of fluorescent lighting. In particular, the graduates embarking overseas wait with even more impatience than the rest, for they have an extra month in which to wait for their time to come.
It occured that I, too, waited for my voyage abroad to begin and passed some time in a bar in Nashville. In that low-lit establishment filled with smoke and the threats of gun violence (for, as you may or may not know, the state of Tennessee did of late pass a law allowing firearms in drinking establishments), there entered five men. They were boisterous, for the most part, well-willing to be on their journey across the Atlantic—moreso even to be already on Great Britain’s soil and undertaking their various endeavors. These five men had been granted the honor of studying outside of the United States. As I was to learn later, it befit all of them quite well, as most of them were of the opinion that the United States was on the verge of collapse for reasons varying.
As it happens, I have ample time and inclination (mostly owing to the consumption of various liquids), so I shall describe these five men to you. Ranging from their dress, to their thought, and to their actions. And, with the consideration of the purpose of our collective journey, with the student shall I begin.
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The STUDENT walked in first. For a man of learning, you could do no better. He could recite all things in his field: back and forth, left and right, up and down, backwards and forwards, he knew it all. From the beginnings of his field until the contemporary, he knew it all. If some poor soul were to come to him with the intention of debate about a particular subject, there would be no chance for that man: he would be promptly shot down with the use of logic, precedence, and ethics.
He studied in the flagship university of the state (a title which held no real meaning, simply that it bore ‘of Tennessee’ at the end of its name). Indeed, he went beyond the walls of the flagship university, studying for a semester in the same place to which he was about to depart for his postgraduate degree. In his work, one could find some wisdom for the ages—if one were interested in such things.
For all his knowledge, he was the most awkward of our troop. The joke was that if he were to successfully engage a woman in conversation, Ragnarok would immediately follow. For some, knowledge leads to conversation or success beyond academics. But for the pure scholar, such as The Student, knowledge existed for its own sake. For the life of him, The Student could not hold a conversation without something resembling an essay prompt. His intelligence, you see, was limited. His field was modern American literature, and there are few who are actually interested in such a thing.
The Traveler followed next. Dressed in shorts, t-shirt, sunglasses, and toting a large backpack with a sewn-on Canadian flag, he knew where he was and where to go. We said that there must have been a GPS in his brain, for he never steered us wrong and seemed to know where the most interesting places were wherever we found ourselves.
When it came to knowledge of how to behave in any given area, no other man was his equal. Why, he could tell you how the Cork dialect differed from Dublin’s, or why an American should never reveal his nationality in Glasgow, and could point out with ease the shysters in Paris. He had a natural ear for accents and could convince anyone that he was born, raised, and educated in Canada—never the United States. For all of this, he was a little paranoid, convinced that a wrong turn in a city could lead to mortal peril: forced into slavery, stabbed, mugged, shot, drowned in a river, kidnapped by Marxists in Germany, these were all nightmares which woke him whenever he travelled somewhere new.
Though paranoid he was, a more personable man would be hard to find. Once initial contact was made (and fear of revealing nationality destroyed), The Traveler could make lifelong friends. For us, this was intensely beneficial: For a year straight, we never paid a penny in hostel fees and had homecooked meals in over four countries. From time to time, he would impart to us kernels of wisdom, such as: Always insult George W. Bush; Johnny Cash is universally loved; and, most importantly, never talk about the first fifty years of the twentieth century with a German.
True to his cosmopolitan nature, his field was international politics with an eye to working with the United Nations.
Walking in third was The Writer. He carried with him no bags, only a leather-bound notebook and a fountain pen. He was short, wore a beard, a corduroy jacket and jeans, and quoted literature at every turn. Out of our band, he was the most charismatic—for one must be skilled at swaying if one is a writer.
His personality was his biggest fall. There was, without a doubt, no man we met over our year of acquaintance who was more of an obnoxious and pretentious fool than The Writer. The slightest mention of technology would lead to a snort and a sermon on how, really, the past was far superior because of its primitiveness. Try to find, he would say, a Roman who had angst issues because his diary was read by his greatest love. Any attempt at pointing out the flaws and foibles in his arguments in a logical manner would be met with derision and a retort along the lines of “I shouldn’t expect you to understand; you’re simply not on my level.”
To him, the classics were prudish and outdated. Contemporary literature was nonsense and doggerel. He described mainstream literature in terms not fit for print, but roughly equivalent to meaningless blots of ink on perfectly good, yet wasted, paper. Indeed, it would be difficult to glean any understanding of what The Writer enjoyed.
His degree was to be in Creative Writing. (Not surprising in the least, as the man was completely incapable of understanding anything other than writing.) He was admitted into the programme by the strength of his lies. Among them: He invented prose poetry; he was on friendly terms with Salman Rushdie (as it turned out, he was on friendly terms with a man who looked like a one-eyed headache-suffering incarnation of that author); he was the editor of his university’s literary journal (this was more of a half truth—he was fired after a week); and many, many others. Though our band got along fairly well, throwing The Writer into the Thames was discussed on several occasions.
The Drunkard stumbled in after The Writer, knocking the man down for a moment. Though good-natured at heart, The Drunkard suffered from severe alcoholism and, no matter what he did, smelled like a distillery at the end of every day. The smell was so overpowering that one’s first impression of The Drunkard was a man covered in vodka.
He was boisterous, klutzy at best, destructive at worst, and lacked the sense to not drink anything placed in front of him. He was, of course, a hit at parties. Walking around campus, it would be a rarity to spot him without a flask filled with liquor. In public, he could barely make his way around without staggering and stopping occasionally to vomit in a rubbish bin.
We were initially surprised to learn that he was receiving an advanced degree, but much less so when we learned it was in Journalism. His personal hero was Hunter S. Thompson, but it was doubtful that The Drunkard would have as much of an effect on the public as that luminary. For all his boorish behavior, I must admit that The Drunkard was a Hell of a reporter—as you shall see in his Tale.
And finally, there was The STALKER. He was a silent man, greasy haired, lanky, and chilling to the core. He habitually dressed in black clothing and avoided sunlight as if it were the plague. I believe that he chose England for his studies because of the general lack of sun.
Due to his excessively quiet and individualistic nature, we knew nothing of the man. Indeed, I gathered more about his personality by his entrance that night (a sidling, quiet, slow step through the doorway well after the commotion caused by The Drunkard ended) than the rest of our band had over the past four months. We had the idea that he was skilled with technology, since we found, by once peeking into his bags, he carried with him seventeen miniature webcams and four types of digital cameras—most with expensive and high-tech zoom equipment.
Looking at the man, and having a conversation with him, sent chills down one’s spine for hours afterwards. He had a very accurate, and disconcerting, memory for names and faces. From time to time, he would start listing off the names, addresses, and birthdays (as well as several other, much more intimate, facts) of women he’d known through his life.
In truth, we had no idea what he was studying, though The Student would occasionally see him leaving a course titled Drawing the Female Form. According to that scholar, he could never remember The Stalker leaving with any sort of drawing utensil, or any other thing one would associate with an art course.
The tavern was largely full that night, and I sat at a spacious table. I admit that I had, and still have, a preference for lots of room whenever I am dining or drinking, and tend to gravitate towards five- or six-person tables, snarling at anyone who attempts to sit next to me or share the table. That night, however, having heard these men state their goal the next day, I invited them over and bought a round of drinks for them.
As followed, The Traveler told us of the immense boredom of a transatlantic flight and suggested a game: each man would tell a story on the way to Britain, and we would continue doing so as long as someone had a yarn to weave. “But,” said I, “what should happen if we do not run out of narratives when we land?”
The Traveler thought for a moment, and said, “In such a case, we shall have to continue our acquaintance until one man loses.”
“At which point?” asked The Student.
“He buys us all booze!” shouted The Drunkard, banging the table and knocking over his own beer in the process.
We laughed at his clownishness and agreed. We were to begin immediately upon take-off (and, as it happened, Providence had placed us all in adjacent rows on the plane), and continue indefinitely. That night was to be spent thinking of what to tell our fellows on the eight hour flight. We spent an hour or so drinking at the tavern and went our separate ways, reflecting upon our lives in search of something that would be worthy of such a contest.