Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Student's Tale

Just seven miles away from Harvard, the renown home of American academic thought, there was a large auditorium. It was in a hall made of marble—white, flawless marble. At the front of the building—which was built to resemble the Parthenon—there were gigantic columns, a large set of stone steps, and, at the top of the building, reliefs of scholars from throughout the ages. Walking up the steps and into the building, there was a horde of men and women—largely from their late 30s to their 60s—dressed in dark clothes, like a religious cult going to make their sacrifices in the temple.
They congregated within a great room, a vestibule of white marble, ferns and even trees potted in large, brown, earthen urns. The mass conversed, though one could not pick out individual conversations. Language was lost in this place; its high marble ceilings and walls created the perfect anonymity for those who should want it. Lights hung in chandeliers, bulbs incandescent and burning with electricity—for the owner of this construction could not stand the thought of wax dripping on to the carefully preserved marble, bought and shipped from all over the world and, supposedly, only coming from ancient pagan temples.
The lights dimmed. Conversation stopped. A few seconds later, the lights went back to their normal volume. Conversation remained halted as a dark-skinned man walked from a door on the second floor balcony holding a gong. The mass turned to the man. The man, holding a percussion hammer, bowed to the mass and then struck the gong. Once. Twice. Thrice. The low tones cascaded around the antechamber. The great doors towards which all of the people in black faced swung open. The great oak creaked against the giant brass hinges as the doors took their journey. Slowly, calmly, the mass filed through the doors.
The next room was an auditorium. The carpeting, seats, and walls were all of a deep, rich crimson. The seat-backs and the stage up front were all of the same dark oak of the now closing doors. As the mass took their seats in the auditorium—tonight, the boxes were left empty save for a group of five people sitting in one—as the great crimson curtains drew back, revealing a podium made of black-finished wood, thin, with a top positioned at just the slightest angle, and a microphone coming out from the surface. A man in a well-tailored black suit walked from stage right and stood behind the podium.
Silence fell across the auditorium as the man began to speak in a deep, sonorous voice. He greeted the audience, told them that he was very pleased to be speaking in front of a group of such distinguished peers such as they. He told them that he was to be discussing the use of the obscene in James Joyce’s ouvre (and yes, he used that word; and yes, the throng lapped it up). He outlined his forty-five minute speech, his own meager attempt to probe the mind of a genius—as he put it—and then began.
It seemed a very well-worked thesis, that idea of his. He spoke to the silent, watching audience, looking on as if they were children around a campfire listening to a ghost story right before bedtime. Such a display of oratory on such a mundane subject they had not seen before. The man, it seemed, legitimately cared about what he was saying, believed that what he had written was, if not the Gospel on the obscene of Joyce, something that came close to getting at the Truth of the Matter.
After the forty-five minutes was up, and the man closed on his topic with a sentence that, honestly, only half of the audience understood (and only a quarter of the remaining half even thought about), he folded the stack of papers from which he had been reading and placed them in his jacket. He gazed out at the crowd, gave them a minute to think about all that he had said, left them wondering if, since he wasn’t saying anything, he had a final thought, a final joke, a final something to take the edge off of the unbearable silence. After a minute, he asked, “Are there any questions?”
A bearded man stood up towards the back of the auditorium. He wore a black sweater, a black beret, black glasses that had frames in the Golden Ratio, and wore a black goatee that came down to a point. He cleared his throat and asked, “Do you expect the erudite among us—and I trust that we are in fact present tonight—”
The crowd laughed for a moment.
“Do you expect us to accept this load of tripe you have said? Do you believe that we are so na├»ve to accept everything, especially your tenuous position?”
The speaker fidgeted. In his practice runs, no one had said that he was being trite, or that he was expounding doggerel, which, it seemed, was what this man was saying. “I think,” he started.
The interjector cut him off with a howl of rage that bordered on the inhuman. It cut through the air and caused all those in the auditorium to blanche. “You think?” he shouted. “Boy, you do not think a conclusion! You do not think a defense! You take a stance! When you think something, or posit something, or—or—or…” Language failed him. He was reduced to a primitive state, some ancestral memory from the primeval past swept through his mind, and he knew what he had to do. He unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, stuck his hand down the back of his pants, and, judging from what happened immediately afterwards, shat in his hands. Screaming like a mad ape, the man flung his feces through the air with such force and such accuracy that the speaker was hit full-on by the load of dung, directly in his face. He had no reaction.
The audience did nothing for a full three minutes, until another man stood up and faced the man who had flung feces at the speaker. “You call that a criticism?” the new man shouted. “Why, throwing fecal matter at someone is not what we do at this University! That is the sort of behavior one would expect from a college in the SEC, or the Mid-West, but not this place. This is—this is a place of—of…” words failed him. Primordial visions of long-dead ancestors evolved just beyond apes passed before his eyes. In the jungle, there was a dispute over a banana. The new man saw what he had to do. He unbuttoned his trousers, defecated into his hands, and flung his dung at the first interjector.
This set off a tidal wave of fresh bodily waste. All of those in attendance at the symposium stood as one, defecated, and threw feces at each other. The people in the sole-occupied box took advantage of their leverage and, screaming about the proper methods of deconstruction—which, they claimed, the speaker had clearly and wisely utilized in his defense of his thesis—began urinating on the crowd below them. After five minutes, the pretense of language was mutually abandoned by all those in attendance, and the crowd began screaming and howling like animals at a zoo. They scratched, they leapt, and, above all, they continued flinging crap.
When all was said and done, the only thing the janitorial staff could agree upon, the only bit of good news they all shared, was that at least none of the academics had a case of diarrhea that night.

While this happened, across the street, in a dimly lit bar called The Pen and Paper, there was a small group of about twenty men and women reclining in leather chairs, clutching glasses of scotch, beer, and other tipples. In the corner of the bar, mounted on the wall, there was a television showing baseball scores. The Red Sox had lost to the Yankees in the final game of the ALCS—again. “Damn Yankees,” said a man sporting a large, fluffy brown beard.
The entirety of the bar’s custom raised their glasses and echoed the man’s toast.
“I’m not sure about my eighth chapter,” said one man, sitting across from an older woman with her gray hair pulled back into a pony tale, “in which Richard leaves the nursing home. I feel there should be a stand-off with one of the orderlies. Instead, he—”
A younger woman, curvaceous and attractive, sitting at the bar tapped her glass on the countertop and said, “Please, Don, don’t talk about work at night.”
“Agreed,” said another man sitting a few stools down from her, who, until then, had been glaring at his reflection in the mirror over six consecutive whiskeys. “We spend so much time in the morning and afternoon thinking about our false realities, putting them into computers, or notebooks, or whatever. So much time confined to the same spot every day, the same time every day, all so that we can continue writing word, after word, after word, just so the stories won’t play themselves over and over again in our heads and drive us mad. In the evening, let it drop. Dull the mind a little bit. Watch some baseball.”
A highlight of the game showed Stephen King sitting in a seat on the first base line, wearing a Boston Red Sox slicker and clutching a notebook and pencil in his hands. “Stephen King works at night,” said the man at the table.
The door opened and Stephen King walked into the bar. “What about Stephen King?” he asked. He walked to the bar and ordered a juice—after all, he hadn’t been drinking in years. (Good for him.)
The bar grumbled in response.
“The squares,” said a woman by one of the windows facing the street, “are throwing their shit around, again.”
“How can you tell?” asked the woman at the bar.
“Spilled out onto the street.” A splatter hit the window. “They need to work on their aim some more.”
The door swung open and an apparition entered. It closed the door behind it and spoke in a British accent, “Evening, all.”
A man sitting alone at a table reading by candlelight looked up, saw the ghost, and stood. He threw the book at the specter—the book, of course, passed right through it and hit the door—and shouted, “Get the fuck out of here, Dickens! No one wants you here! Go back to London and haunt your own God-damned people, you windbag fuck!”
The ghost of Charles Dickens looked at the man and said, “Vulgar language—”
“Is absolutely necessary! We don’t want you here, with your Chuzzlewits, and Cratchets, and motherfucking Twists. Go back to that racist shitbag, Kipling! I spit on you, and put a black year on your head!”
Dickens disappeared, and the man apologized to the bar, then sat back down. A good portion of the rest of the night was spent with a few of the bar-goers playing darts or pool. Occasionally, someone would make a comment about how evil and corruption was destined to take over the world, and King would retort that that was unnecessarily bleak and that maybe they should count their blessings (after all, they weren’t having their spines sucked out by aliens, or being turned into mindless zombies by aliens, or didn’t live in a haunted hotel, or etc. etc.), prompting a grumble from the more morose writers in the bar.
Outside, in the street, the academics kicked each other into the dirt and called each other imbeciles who had received their PhDs from diploma mills. By this time, thankfully, most of them had run out of shit to throw, and resorted to simple, old-fashioned name-calling.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Prologue to The Student's Tale


Time passed. Aside from my meeting with the Master and a couple victories at pub quizzes, nothing of note happened. (These wins were a rare occurrence, as every subsequent time we came in near to the bottom of the rankings—this may have been because The Drunkard started coming along, shooting vodka and whiskey, insulting the landlord, and getting us kicked out halfway through.) I went to courses, went on a date—incredibly unsuccessful, she found out that I was Jewish and spent the time asking me if I felt put upon in this country and if she had offended me in asking the question in the first place—all in all, a thoroughly normal week. Oh yes, and, every morning, The Drunkard and I collected The Stalker and formed a sort of military march down towards the humane shelter. By the weekend, he had served five days of his sentence.
Saturday rolled around, and in the afternoon, we all met at The Sub-Pope’s Flock for our weekly story session. I saw that The Stalker had taken up his usual seat in the back corner, and The Traveler was sitting there with him, doing his best to strike up conversation. I could hear The Stalker’s exaggerated slurps from the entrance, and I knew that, try as he might, The Traveler would get no real response from The Stalker. I bought my beer and sat down at the table. “Heya, Traveler,” I said.
“Afternoon, Narrator. How’s things?”
“Things are things,” I said. It was a response I’d perfected over the years and, more often than not, people thought I was just being a smartass instead of answering their question. While that was often true, it was also true that I was simply trying to make a statement that things were the way they were and could not be any other way. (In my opinion, it was a brilliant philosophical statement that went over most people’s heads.) “The Drunkard and I have been taking The Stalker along to volunteering jobs at the RSPCA shelter in town.”
The Traveler nodded. “That’s what he told me.”
“Apparently,” I said, “he gets on fantastically with the dogs there.”
“Dogs are simple,” said The Stalker. “Once you know how to get them to like you, then you control them.”
That was one of his responses that, while true, still had the effect of sending a mind-numbing chill down one’s spine. I still often wonder if he practiced his tone of voice in front of a mirror, just to get the proper cadence right before he went out talking to people and scaring the crap out of them.
“Hey, Narrator,” said The Traveler. “Let’s go outside for a sec, I have to ask you something.”
“Secrets,” said The Stalker, “don’t make friends, Traveler. They don’t make friends at all.”
The Traveler put on the epitome of an innocent smile, the sort that said, “Why would you say that? Why in this, the best of all possible worlds, would I have an ulterior motive,” and meant it. “Hah, no secret here, my friend. I just thought that you were enjoying your cider so much it’d be a shame to break you away from it.”
The Stalker nodded.
The Traveler and I stood up and walked outside.
The square was full of people clutching shopping bags. Most of them looked around them like they were lost, while a few loitered around not really moving with any sort of purpose. It was the first legitimately sunny day I’d seen that week, and though it was still chilly outside—about 50 degrees Fahrenheit—it was better than it had been in the morning. The Traveler rolled a cigarette, and offered me the tobacco and paper to make my own.
“No thanks,” I said, “I don’t smoke.”
“Good call. Terrible for your health. For example, I can no longer run marathons.”
“You used to run marathons?”
The Traveler grinned. “No, but I know that the option has been ripped away from me. So, what I asked you out here for was to see if you heard what The Stalker did to the rabbit.”
I nodded. “Indeed I had.”
“What do you think should be done?”
“Well, we’re already punishing him, in a way. And, if what The Drunkard said about the French almost decapitating him was true, then I’m certain The Stalker ise scared off from doing anything like that again. After all, if you were taken from your home by a couple of angry Frenchman, what would you do?”
The Traveler thought for a moment. “Declare war on them. That’d scare em away.”
We burst into laughter, causing quite the scene in the tranquil square across from the Cathedral.
The Writer walked up in his usual corduroy jacket and flat cap ensemble, saw the cigarette in The Traveler’s hand, and said, “Ah, Traveler, do you mind if I join you in a smoke?”
“G’head,” said The Traveler.
The Writer then pulled from one of his inner jacket pockets a corn-cob pipe, packed it, and lit it. I thought about asking him why he had chosen to smoke from a corn-cob pipe instead of something a bit more conventional in the UK, but I figured that The Writer would get defensive, and I wasn’t feeling up to the aftermath.
“Anyway,” The Traveler said, finishing his cigarette, “I was thinking that, this Wednesday, we could all go up to London and hit up a couple of the galleries or museums. It hit me yesterday that we hadn’t actually done anything as a group of mates beyond sit around the pub and attempt to tell stories; and if you ask me, that’s a damn shame.”
“I say, that’s a great idea,” I said. “A day trip to London might be just the thing a few of us need to break the monotony of going to courses, wandering around town, and knocking back beer to kill the time. What do you say, Writer?”
The Writer snorted. “I say that galleries are a waste of time, but, as I haven’t any plans for Wednesday, I might as well come.”
“Glad to have such an enthusiastic member on the expedition,” The Traveler said. “I believe that The Narrator and I shall head back inside and await the other members of our group. See you in a few.”
The Writer nodded and turned towards the Cathedral, affecting a pose that I’m sure he thought was erudite.
We walked back in the pub and sat at the table with The Stalker, still contentedly watching life drift by through the front windows. After a minute, The Writer walked in with The Student. They were chatting about different translations of Madame Bovary—a book which I had to read twice for two of my classes in undergrad, a requirement that led me to wish for sweet death both times. “And I say,” said The Student, “that it stands as a solid piece of literature. Maybe not the best, as you put it, but definitely solid.”
“You fool,” exclaimed The Writer, taking his drink from the bar to our table. “Just look at the emotional anguish felt in the story. The anguish! No one’s done that like Flaubert did.”
We were spared from further commentary by the arrival of The Drunkard, who stumbled in through the front door and ordered a whiskey. He joined us at the table, wearing clothes that looked like they hadn’t been changed in a few days, blinked his bloodshot eyes, and said, “Hi there.”
“What’s up, Drunkard?” asked The Student.
“Drank three bottles of wine last night. Still drunk when I woke up this morning, figured could keep on going.” He took a drink and hiccupped.
“Well,” said The Traveler, “before we begin our tale for the day, I thought I’d broach the subject of going to London on Wednesday so that we could all hit up a few galleries or museums or whatever, as a group.”
“Hit up some bitches!” shouted The Drunkard.
“Well, yes, if you want to. Anyway, who’s next?”
The Student cleared his throat. “I’ll go.”
“Yay,” we all said. It was one of those moments where a group of minds synchs up and, in doing so, sends a shiver down everyone’s spine.
“I should first apologize for my actions the past couple of days. I’ve been going through a rough time lately, and I sought solace at the bottom of the bottle.” He wrinkled up his nose and cleared his throat. “I found that once pink bits started appearing in my vomit, I should probably stop for a while. You see, literary criticism is a soul-crushing business, and having to read a significant amount of it over the course of a couple of days tends to lead one into either alcoholism or madness.”
Ah, well, I guess I was wrong about his troubles with women.
“At any rate,” he continued, “I was inspired to create the following story after thinking a little bit about what goes on in academic discourse, as a rule. It is, you see, a fictionalization of what I believe to be the method of having a discussion about any subject in the ivory tower.”