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May 20, 2024

Time Traveler 03

By Sand Pilarski

And all the wishes those beings may think of,
they all will be fulfilled,
as long as they are rightful.

Sukhavativyuha Chapter 18

Leaning against the wall beside the open door of Neil Radigan's classroom, I wondered for the thousandth time that morning why I'd agreed to have lunch with such a pompous buffoon. Maybe I was tired of having lunch alone, crouched among the stacks of notebooks and papers on my desk. Maybe I was curious to ascertain whether or not I had always judged him wrongly: what if there was really a great intellect at work there? Perhaps I had a furtive desire for respectability, and being seen with Radigan would further my ambition. Maybe I was just condescending. Maybe I was a masochist. Maybe I thought a pompous buffoon would be an entertaining companion. Maybe I came away from the house this morning without breakfast, and without my wallet.

How many years has Radigan's teaching been fixated on phallic symbols, I wondered, listening to the lecture. How many classes per term does he devote to them? I'd sneaked a glance at his blackboard from the doorway, seeing words scrawled in luminescent pink chalk: obelisks, standing stones, electrical poles, billiard cues.

On and on and on, power and generation and subjugation and size and ya dee da dee dah, this is why mountains must be climbed and the rocket has captured the imagination of a people, he pontificated. I expected to hear the echoes of 'bonk's from students' heads hitting the desks as they fell asleep in boredom.

"A perfect example in front of us. Mr. Olmsley, I see you chewing the pink eraser on the end of your pencil." Snickers from the class. "The pencil is a classic phallic symbol."

A male student's voice said, "Hey, so's your head, man."

A silence. "Thank you for that observation, Mr. Olmsley," Radigan replied, his annoyance making his tone tight. "I hope that your grasp of grammar exceeds your power of judgment on the next test, which will be a selection of essay questions, by the way." Groans replaced the snickering. "Chapters 41 through 50" -- more groaning -- "They're short, don't be so pessimistic. Please highlight and be prepared to recite 25 to 50 words of the text that presented information that was new to you for the next class. Good afternoon, all."

A clutter of students piled out the door, and when about twenty feet down the hall, broke into shrieks of laughter. A couple of boys bounded through, one hissing, "Why'd you say that, man? Now we have a fuckin' essay instead of multiple choice!"

"Gentlemen, mind your language until you know who's within hearing," I said, causing them to skid to a surprised stop and stare at me wide-eyed.

"Sorry, Dr. Renoir." Off they went, trying to whisper as well as they were able.

I went into Radigan's classroom and watched him erasing the boards. With a pathetically outdated long fringe of hair around his head and over his ears and his collar, and the top of his head shiny with sweat, he didn't even have a clue that his phallic fanaticism and irritable way with students had earned him the nickname "Dickhead Radigan."

A hint of a snicker muttered around my own mouth, but I stifled it well. Instead of chuckling, I said, "Good morning, Neil. Are we still on for lunch?"

"Augusta! Yes, is Giammarino's acceptable?"

"You know, I've been in Port Laughton for more than ten years and I have never yet been in Giammarino's. I'd say it's about time." I sat down in one of the student desks in the front row to wait for him to complete the erasure of the boards.

He placed the felt eraser on the shelf, dusted his hands a little, then opened his briefcase and pulled out a plastic holder with dampened towelettes. He scrubbed his hands with one, tossed it into the trashcan beside the desk, and stared into my eyes. "I hate these mid-level courses," he said with heartfelt rancor.

"I understand, Neil. Do you have a strategy for avoiding them?" We walked out of the classroom and turned right to walk down the hallway. Full wall windows gave a view of the north side of the building, where rhododendrons and azaleas were still presenting a few blooms among the ferns.

"Formulating escape plans occupies more of my waking hours than I care to admit," he sighed. "And with no apparent success."

Patting his shoulder sympathetically, I chuckled a little and told him to keep trying.

Me, I liked the mid-range stuff the best. I wasn't fond of the huge introductory courses where you'd have a hundred neophytes packed in an auditorium-sized classroom for their prerequisite psych classes, or even the smaller specialization 101 classes in anthropology in which you were invariably stuck with some Miss Rabid Fundamentalist High School Bitchissimo who wanted to turn every session into a Creation vs. Evolution argument. Why do those kids even sign up for Anthy courses?

Nor am I much fonder of the 400-level courses in which the students are smelling ink of their degrees due to their proximity, and are so intense to get whatever work done that needs to be done and not screw up their grade point average and kiss up to the profs so they will have a chance at the grad student teaching positions that nothing else matters -- !

Radigan's problem was his inflexibility, and in the Psych Department he was just sabotaging himself with his phallicism and stiff way with students. He longed to be called a Master and wear a scholar's gown, but was so stuck in his ways that what he needed was to be teaching high school in a town with an iron-handed principal and superintendent of schools, who would tell him to drop his damn phallus and concentrate on acquisition of knowledge.

The late morning sun was generous, drenching the downtown with unexpected warmth. The marine fog layer had receded early, unusual for June. Neil found a parking space, and we strolled along the wide sidewalks to Giammarino's Delicatessen.

Why had I never ventured in here before? My mind was immediately entranced by an herb-laden aroma that made me think of rock gardens and spring water and the smells of the lowland forest verges in May. "My god, what do I smell here?" I demanded of Radigan.

"The bread? They bake it here," he offered, as he went to stand in line at the counter to order a sandwich. I left him, and followed the scent of the herbs, my mouth open a tiny bit to drink in the aroma the better.

I found an open deli case with pre-packaged salads, one of which proclaimed itself "Feta cheese vegetables." I picked it up and sniffed. Yes, this was the source of the heavenly herbal smell, not the bread at all. I scooped up one of the packages of zucchini, peppers, olives, tomatoes, and avocado hearts and turned to see where I had left the hapless Radigan.

Before me, holding a foam expresso cup, was a dark curly-haired man, staring at me. I was surprised at first, and then let my inner empress take over. I felt my shoulders drop, and my eyes turn to glaciers as I returned his look. I see you, my demeanor posted its billboard-sized message, and I forget that you exist. I spotted Radigan approaching the cash register, and slipped through the growing crowd in the restaurant to his side to hand him my salad for checkout.


Using phallic Neil as a shield, I peered around him to look at the dark-haired man again. He was seated, looking at a newspaper, dark eyelashes forming crescents on his cheeks. He looked up at the enormous menu boards that stretched the length of the store above the counters. He had shadows in half-circles under his eyes. He had a thin dark moustache. He needed a shave. He had a funny little triangle of short beard right under his lower lip. He was abruptly looking in my direction, and saw me watching him. I took a step back to use Neil to block my line of sight, and thanking Neil graciously for the lunch, engaged him in conversation about his department's politics, a subject few professors can resist. We took our food outside and sat in the sun at Giammarino's tables on the sidewalk. There the conversation shifted, Neil Radigan fishing for tidbits about my former relationship with Moersgard. If he came away from that conversation with more than Moersgard and I being just great friends, he was a telepath. I gave him nothing, though the speculations of the university community over the years had told it all.

The 'feta vegetable salad' was exquisite, satisfying for now, but alluring in the mix of scents and flavors; I knew I would be back one day soon to have another. We finished our food and took our trash to the covered can by the front door to dump it. I let Radigan toss his sandwich leavings first, and had one last sniff of my salad container to try to guess the herbs. When I approached the trash can, I looked to my left (I have no idea why) and there stood the weary-looking curly haired man with the small tuft of hair under his lower lip, watching me again. As my eyes registered recognition, his lips smiled just a little -- a hint of a smile. A hint of an interest.

I gave nothing in return. Mom, god rest her, had always counseled stillness of face, and trained me in stillness of face, and that's what this peculiar man got now. Was he on drugs? A burnt out neo-beatnik? No matter. My gaze slid across his face and back to my own business. My own business being appreciating Neil Radigan's generosity by paying attention to what he was blathering on about next. I hung on his every word, hearing them all and letting them go, glad to be heading back to the campus where I could forget these lunch hours and hone my mental swords for the challenge of the afternoon's classes.

Psych and Anthy share students in common far more than, say, Chem and Anthy would, so it wasn't really a surprise to have one of the girls who had been in Neil's class plunk herself and her books down at a desk in the front row of my classroom and impertinently ask, "Are you dating Professor Radigan?"

"No, I'm not dating him. We just had lunch together." A childish part of me wanted to say "Eewwww! Guh-ross!" However, I kept my opinions well under cover, this being a skill that comes in handy in dealing with all levels of university life.

"Which is good," said the girl. "Because he's a jerk. I was hoping you were too cool to date someone like him."

"I'm flattered by your judgment of me, but feel obligated to stand in defense of Dr. Radigan. I have known him for quite a few years, and I have never once heard that he intentionally wronged anyone or behaved in a manner that would make the university staff look bad." An even tone of voice is in order when dealing with students. Give none of them the slightest leverage in their dealings with you, especially where emotions or opinions are concerned.

"He's still a jerk, and his class is boring. He acts like he doesn't want to be there, but your classes are fun."

"You wait until you see the midterm before you decide I'm 'fun'," I told her.

I don't think I've ever planned a lesson or a course with an eye to 'fun.' Fun is for recess, for break time, for 'classes done for the day, let's have a beer.' What this kid perceived as 'fun' is just enthusiasm for teaching and a delight in my subjects.

The bell signaling the start of class time tolled, one of the many things I have found simply a pleasure to experience at this university. The architects used an electrical system to ring a real bell in buildings rather than an electronic tone or a buzzer. Buildings were constructed in such a way that the moderate bells (no tiny tinkling, no basso gong) can be heard through all the hallways. An agreeable sound to make a beginning and an end to each class.

"Today we're going to have a peek into Heaven," I began. Here are your handouts, pass them along, please. And as always, let's suspend judgment about which religion is right and pretend that we're students of human beliefs and practices -- got that?"

"You say that every class," one of the students observed.

"That's true. We need to remember that for every class," I replied. "You'd be surprised how quickly a discussion of religious belief or myths can devolve into a burning at the stake. If you can't allow open discussion of humanity's nature to develop religions, you don't belong in this class.

"Heaven!" I said, "What does the word 'Heaven' bring to mind?"

Clouds, harps, angels, music, sky, forever, God, grandma. The mention of grandma sparks more responses about dead people. My dad, said one, and another voice piped up, this kid named Barry that died when we were in seventh grade; my cousin, my baby brother, my grandfather.

"Hold on," I paused in writing the things down on the board. "Let's categorize all those good folks into 'Departed Loved Ones', okay?

"But let's have a look at the list. This is what the word 'Heaven' brought to mind. However, the concept of a heaven is different. Think 'reward.' Think 'fulfillment.' Think how you would want things to be for all time. Now what would you say is heaven?" I loved seeing the change in their expressions. What a huge leap the students always made in a matter of seconds!

From cartoon paradise and association with fear of death to earthy hedonists in no time. All the pizza I could eat! A huge house that cleans itself! Sex! A big-ass Harley!

"Wait a minute," a student offered in rebuttal. "Wouldn't you need a body for all that? Don't people just turn into ghosts when they die?"

"No, angels." Another stated authoritatively.

Time for me to wade in and moderate. "This isn't about what does or doesn't actually happen. Perhaps we need to add to our list of speculations 'physical body'." I wrote that down on the list.

"Then add 'No sickness,' too," someone said.

"Immortality," said a serious faced student.

Thank you, kiddo, you just made the tie-in to the next four classes, I thought.

"Does this mean we do get to have the sex?" said a gangly youth who had to have skipped a grade or two in high school. The class roared, of course, giving me the break point to develop the idea.

What would you think was Heaven if you were in prison? To be free. If you were some unfortunate sitting on the floor of a rainforest picking leeches off your legs? To be clean. If you had to work all day just to earn enough to eat, or you made your living by begging for handouts? If you lived in Siberia four thousand years ago?

We read cursorily over the accounts of Heaven from the Bible, accounts of the Thompson River Indians, Mahayana Buddhism, Ibn Makhluf for Islam. A strange recurring motif of precious stones leapt out at them from three of the writings.

"What's with the jewels?" asked the girl who thought Radigan was a jerk.

"Think about the time from which the people wrote," I prodded them. "What would be wondrous and valuable, and pretty much out of reach? What would they be able to see in their time and place that they would like to have, but probably never would? Not televisions or yachts, not a personal jet or world travel. What was their experience of life? Food, clothing, housing all in short supply, and little left over for ornamentation. But what comprises the occasionally seen ornamentation? Gemstones ... which also appear to last forever." They were unconvinced until we pulled the heavy curtains over the windows and I showed them a video I'd had made, of really, really expensive necklaces and rings, including an excellent photo of the Hope Diamond. The last minute or so of the video was drawn from a documentary about some lunatic in the Middle East who had compiled himself a treasure chest, filled with bushels of cut gems, some in settings, many not. I could take a guess at some of them: emerald, ruby, diamond; beryl, topaz, garnet, pearl.

They were thoughtful then. "We're going to be all over the place in Eliade for the next couple weeks. Here's the reading list and class dates. Extra credit points towards the mid-term for properly written papers of one thousand to three thousand words about the kind of Heaven that would be imagined by some of the street people down town."

"How many points?"

"Depends on how well you convince me you're not just pretending to observe them."

The bell began tolling the change of classes, and off they went.

Heaven is an imagined concept based on what you don't have any of or enough of at the time. Starving and hungry? Then on that mountain there will be rich food and choice wine. Parched from the heat and sun? Then Paradise will be replete with fountains and fans and gentle moist breezes from broad cool rivers. Surrounded by millions of teeming people? Heaven will be annihilation of bodies, leaving only enough of self to appreciate the lack of crowding, the lack of noise, the wondrous privacy of mind blending with a silent infinity.

When I was a child, Heaven was a place for all the things I couldn't afford. A horse. Beautiful clothes. A library of all my favorite books. As a teen, Heaven was a place to be alone -- not an uncommon wish for an adolescent, I think. No homework, no rude and critical peers, no worried and con-stantly pestering parents. While I was married to James, Heaven was a peaceful place with no accusations and disappointments, and a limitless range of studies and projects and prospects and vistas.

And now? What more could I possibly want? I was about to head to a Heaven on earth, my wonderful little house on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. If I dreamed of a heaven, my house would be in that best of places. I fell into the purchase of it simply by chance, and loved it so much that I thought of it as an extension of my own body. When I bought the little place, the market was horribly depressed by an oil spill right outside the Bay, so I got it cheap and watched it turn into solid gold over the next few years. Not that I loved it for its value -- the modest building was just an ideal house for a single woman. Good neighborhood, bus stop four houses away. Two bedrooms, one bath, a combo kitchen and living room. Garage underneath, built into the slope of the hill.

Sounds tiny and uninspiring like that. But the white stucco and red tile roof would catch the morning light (if it broke through the fog) like an angel had painted the sunbeams, and the view from the living room of the ocean was priceless. There wasn't a back yard, per se, the cliff tops being more suited to iceplants and exotic tall grasses, but mature cherry trees grew on either side of a wide brick patio, and beneath one of them, a visionary of a previous owner had built a deep little pool with a trickle of water making a soothing sound and aerating the water for the fish that lived in it.

And the house on the cliff was mine, with no encumbrances or caveats, no rules made by other people, no boundaries on how much I could enjoy myself. Heaven broke through the dimensions and came to rest right there on Baycrest Drive. Every day that I lived there, when I was done with classes, I was eager to go home, to shelter, to haven.

But I needed to stop back at my office first and pick up some notes and some extra credit essays from various classes. (I think that students who show initiative and are willing to put time into writing and studying above and beyond the regular class requirements are entitled to have their effort recognized. Screw standardization. My question is always: are they learning?!)

After returning the video cart to the AV room, I opened my office and hoisted my briefcase to the desk. The notes I needed and the essays were all in the "OUT" box. I scooped them into the briefcase, made a quick look around to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything, and turned to find Neil Radigan standing at the door. Reminding myself not to call him "Dick", I said, "Hey!" as cheerfully as I could muster.

"Do you want to do a repeat on lunch tomorrow, Augusta?" he asked.

I would rather squeeze a giant shaved squirrel, I thought. "Neil, how kind. Tomorrow's my lunch workout day. (Thank God.) I will take a rain check, as long as next time it's my treat. Okay?"

"All right," he said with a sigh. "I enjoyed your company today."

I patted his arm as I slid past him and closed the door to lock it. "Thank you." I'll bet you enjoyed it, I thought. I'm the hottest bitch you've ever had a walk with who wasn't a paid whore on Broadway in San Francisco. You think you're going to take Moersgard's place with me and you are dreaming one big wet one.

"Good evening, Augusta."

"Have a great night, Neil."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-01
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