Dr. Vivek Chowdhury sat alone sipping the liquid filth the Commons food service provided; he was grim-faced, mentally preparing for the dreaded Dean’s staff meeting at 8:00. The college was ghastly, his colleagues intolerable—some weird even for academia—and half the faculty seemed spun out of re-runs of sitcoms dating from the seventies.
The students, however, were the lone bright spot, mainly because they were sincere, hopeful, and largely uncontaminated by the runaway liberalism of San Francisco 90 miles due south. McAlpin College, “nestled in the rolling pine hills of Northern California,” as that lying brochure had painted it back when his divorce from Josie was still a hot, fresh wound and he just wanted out, was an eyesore architecturally and Chowdhury’s own personal Naraka.
Well, I got out, all right, he mused. With little more than the clothes on his back, his wounded lawyer agreed to spare him, he left his home (now Josie’s, in toto) in the East, and headed out West for a last hurrah as a college administrator before pulling the plug and retiring with his pension (alas, half Josie’s now).
A familiar, loud male voice in the corridor outside the double doors. Ken Compagno, head of the I.T. department, held open a door for Karen Korhonen-Landers, Student Recruitment and Retention Officer. Korhonen-Landers, a slender cool blonde with high cheek bones, ignored him as usual but Ken made a show of stopping at his table, holding his own cup of Styrofoam coffee.
“Doctor V., how goes it on this lovely Monday morning?”
“Looking forward to the meeting?”
Chowdhury’s “plus-sized” secretary was the campus gossip queen.
“He leaves everything to his student lab workers.”
“Joyce, please, I’ve asked you before not to tell me any personal details about other staff or colleagues.”
Miffed, she dropped his emails onto his desk, and stomped back to her office, her massive buttocks shifting like Volkswagen Beetles in a drag race.
He was in a stall of the faculty restroom one afternoon after another tedious committee meeting he chaired to hear student complaints. His biggest complaint was the Jailhouse Special from lunch sitting on his stomach like a ball of hot lead. He was aware of Ken’s voice at the urinals.
“Doctor Hindoo’s meeting over? I need that room to route some cables.”
“Just ended now, Ken.”
“What a silly-looking goof.”
Ken’s mimicry of Chowdhury’s accented English drew an approving chuckle from the faculty member who had served on that committee with him.
The meeting in the Crystal Lake Room was dire, as he feared. Each staff member had to inform the dean, a stocky woman with porcine features, what he or she had accomplished that week in terms of goals and expectations. She spoke for ten minutes in that inflated patois of administrators everywhere, worse than the ones he’d left behind back east. A mix of Stalinist threat and fanciful cajolery. Listening to her whine about “enrollment numbers being down” and “stakeholders putting pressure on me,” he tuned out the gibberish until he heard his name spoken. Snapping to, he realized everyone was staring at him.
“Uh, yes, Dean?”
“Where are the pronouns I asked you for last week?”
“The . . . pronouns?”
Snickering, embarrassed coughs behind fists around the room.
“Yes, the pronouns!”
Riffling through his mental Rolodex of emails from her last week, a daily blizzard of truncated commands that resembled some character from Dickens who spoke in all caps with each hysterical sentence fragment separated by dashes, he fetched the one in question. He was to survey each faculty member for his or her “preferred pronouns.” Lord Ganesh, save me. That idiocy . . . She’d sent him an email demanding he investigate the Library Director’s “nervous breakdown.” Apparently the woman had too much time on her hands in a building where students entered solely to use the computers rather than check out books. The all-knowing Joyce claimed the director experienced a revelation of the face of Jesus on the glowing glass of the xerox machine. Now she was trying to entice visitors to the library to join a prayer group in her office during lunchtime. At the end of that request, she informed him he was appointed “Diversity Director” and to get all faculty pronouns for next year’s catalog. He sent out a survey and received a few responses, including a couple “they/them’s.” Most ignored his request. Some sent back emojis of grinning, confused, or sad faces. One of the math faculty, the one with the drunkard’s face, sent him an emoji that Joyce translated as Rolling on the Floor Laughing. He had no trouble interpreting the emoji from the chemistry instructor: a custard swirl of dog feces.
“I’m making progress, Dean. I’ll have it to you by—”
“By tomorrow morning,” Dean Cantwell said. “Get together with Ken and his people after the meeting. We’ll need a brochure celebrating campus inclusion as well.”
Chowdhury held his poker face but was inwardly astounded at how the ironies multiplied with every passing day in this place where sexual harassment, nepotism, and bullying were rampant, yet its public literature touted itself as “the Athens of Northern California.” True, Chowdhury reflected, if you counted only the Athens of 404 BC when the Spartans demolished the walls of the city.
The next two hours were straight from Pol Pot’s playbook of public confession and humiliation. Each staffer had to self-excoriate for the week’s failures, promise to do better, and praise the leader. Chowdhury had never experienced so much whiny self-indulgence and self-abasement as in these weekly masochistic ordeals. Only the members of the Dean’s so-called posse escaped unscathed. Ken Compagno’s moments in the spotlight were the hardest to stomach for their sheer sycophancy and bluster. Chowdhury reckoned Ken’s tongue must be tougher than shoe leather to accommodate all that backside slathering he engaged in for the Dean’s approval, which rarely seemed reciprocated other than a squinting of her smeary blue eyes in his general direction and the merest nod of her head.
Chowdhury always sat out of the Dean’s line of sight so that his assiduous note-taking would not expose the doodles, appeals to Kiva for revenge, and obscene rebukes of his colleagues he actually scribbled as the stale jargon and cliché-riddled testimonies issued forth like a gelatinous sludge. So far, he’d ticked off three “bottom lines,” two “circle backs,” two “thinking outside the boxes,” a smattering of “low-hanging fruits,” “pivots,” “new normals,” “drill downs,” and a whopping eight “buy-ins,” although who was meant as “buyer” and “buyee” was not easy to discern amid the fog of gobbledygook. The dean and her posse lapped it all up as ambrosia.
Mercifully, the meeting concluded before he had to stifle the big yawn clawing its way up his esophagus. The dregs inside his coffee cop evolved toward a muddy tan. He was dropping it into the waste receptacle by the door when Ken gripped him by the elbow.
“Say, V., how about you hooking up with Sharon about the brochure graphics she asked us to do?”
Sharon was the de facto boss of the I.T. department, Ken’s Girl Friday. Ken rolled his eyes at the Dean’s departing back, as though her request didn’t qualify for his to-do list.
“Are you sure about that, Ken? She seemed pretty serious to me.”
Ken made one of those peculiar guttural utterances Americans made when they didn’t want to waste breath on real words.
Chowdhury popped an antacid tablet and headed for the Commons for a cup of hot water. He kept a few green tea bags on his person for the daily grind of meetings.
Lost in thought, images of Josie in happier days bubbled to the surface. The chairs on either side of him were pulled out with scraping sounds that jarred him back to reality. Marcus and Dylan beamed at him. An odd couple, they ran the maintenance department and were incredibly efficient. Dylan’s narrow, fox face wasn’t enhanced by the chin whiskers he sported. Janice Wallender, a handsome woman in her forties, walked past their table with her young assistant.
“Check out the bazoombas on Janice,” Dylan said. “I wouldn’t mind yodeling in that cave.”
Dylan’s reputation for smut never seemed to affect people’s high regard for him, which impressed Chowdhury as another American peculiarity he couldn’t fathom. Marcus, on the other hand, had a brooding thoughtfulness in his conversations that made people uncomfortable. “He creeps me out,” his secretary whispered as she escorted him from the maintenance building. The Dean had asked Joyce to accompany him on his “get-acquainted” tour of the campus in her place, she claiming to have an important luncheon date with some campus boosters for the end-of-semester fundraising banquet.
“I don’t understand Einstein’s reluctance to accept Niels Bohr’s argument about indeterminacy. It bothers me that the greatest mind of his generation couldn’t accept quantum mechanics.”
“I’m not sure I can answer that, Marcus. In many ways, Einstein was a traditionalist who believed in an orderly, God-driven universe. The idea that subatomic particles could appear and disappear, be in two places at once, tunnel through barriers—that one particle could influence another at a distance, the whole spooky entanglement upset his sense of orderliness, I suppose.”
Dylan interjected: “What the hell is a subatomic particle anyway?”
“Pull a single hair out of your head, Dylan.”
“Ouch, fuck me, that hurt.”
“Look at it,” Chowdhury said. “That hair is a million atoms wide. A single atom is like placing a baseball in the middle of a soccer stadium with a golf ball or two in the upper decks. We’re mostly empty space. Now a subatomic particle is to an atom as a—”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, Dylan replied, blowing the hair off his fingertip. “Speaking of hair, I wonder if Janice is a redhead downstairs, too.”
Since coming aboard, Chowdhury had been assigned grant-writing duties and the more odious task of calling prospective local bigshots, chatting them up to “sell” various classrooms in the larger two buildings and a large room of study nooks in the library. The Dean gave him a list of campus rooms scattered among the college’s four main buildings, including the auditorium and gymnasium in Main Hall to various and sundry storage rooms “in the penthouse” where old tenure files lay moldering on tops of old filing cabinets. He was to offer these rooms to donors at certain prices in return for a naming plaque.
She showed him a sample bronzed plaque with a stamped image of the campus; the borders were adorned with sinewy tendrils. Like the various medals awarded to campus supporters at Commencement, the crassness of this money-grubbing inspired a bon mot; he mentioned Bonaparte’s creation of the Legion d’Honneur and quoted the General: “By such baubles are men won.” All California colleges in the post-pandemic period were flush with cash, even those like this place which failed to make academic excellence any kind of priority, and which didn’t explain the Dean’s rapacity when it came to seeking out more avenues to exploit for lucre.
“What’s Napoleon got to do with this?”
She cocked her head toward him, face contorting, and her eyes narrowed aggressively, adding to the hog-like image belied by the lipstick and shawl she wore in all seasons outside her office.
“Get top dollar,” the Dean insisted, “once you set the hook.” Chowdhury as a boy had strolled through the bazaars of Uttar Pradesh with his father and witnessed less aggressive marketing from merchants hawking belts, handbags, and spices.
“Dean, I’d like to discuss some of the duties you’ve assigned me.”
“Later.” She checked her watch. “I think you have a meeting coming up, right?”
Out of the frying pan, into the fire . . . The bi-weekly Dean’s Advisory Committee he chaired. Chowdhury loathed it for the membership as much as the irrelevancy of it. The most irascible faculty member, head of Biology, always made a show of himself either by nitpicking everything on Chowdhury’s agenda or openly twisting the discussions in the direction he wanted them to go, never altruistically and always with an eye toward self-aggrandizement. Verbose, crude, ignorant of the semantic differences between suspect and suspicion, blunt and brunt, he monopolized the meetings and turned every simple item into a dog’s breakfast of niggling complaints. The prior meeting was the worst yet; an hour and thirty-three minutes were spent discussing whether the tech brochures should be mailed to every student or placed in the racks of manila student file folders at the back of the Commons. Two of the Dean’s Posse, Compagno and Korhonen-Landers, were plants, he suspected, there to spy and report back to the Dean.
He made it back to the Sequoia Room, without a cup of coffee or tea, his agenda handouts snarled in the copier and faced a room of glowering members, half of whom were indulging in an early lunch from cafeteria trays or brown bags. Chowdhury didn’t consider himself a fastidious man, although the sight of people in close proximity inserting bits of food into the holes of their faces, audibly masticating and—far worse—talking with their mouths full of food was disconcerting. The meeting was worse than the last one owing to the bloviating and side-tracking Biology professor. The normally placid, amiable nitwit from Engineering expressed numerous objections to the new arts and sciences curricula adjustments that had already been passed by faculty council, signed off by the Dean and approved by the College Board, and were already at the printer’s. He wanted to propose several drastic changes that would have to run up the chain to be effected. After an hour and only halfway through the agenda, the overheated room began to smell of fried onions and banana peels. Every attempt he made to get the meeting back on track was foiled by one member or another; however, he noted out of his peripheral vision that the constant whispering between Ken and Korhonen-Landers resulted in a burst of note-taking, which, he suspected, was meant for the Dean’s eyes only.
The meeting turned ghastlier with side conversations, personal complaints aimed at other faculty and even students’ personal lives were dredged up for gossip. Ken: “I hear that Stevens girl is pregnant again. That makes it—what?—three times since she’s been here and she’s still a freshman. That’s your committee, V. Why do you keep readmitting her?”
Vivek had a vague notion who the Stevens girl might be. He’d glimpsed a slender girl in a pony tail walking at a trot through the Commons, her prominent distended belly outlined in a black tee. He remembered pitying her. The next morning outside the BP station where he stopped for coffee, he heard a ruckus outside on the sidewalk. The same dirty blonde in the ponytail wearing the same tee-shirt was having a loud argument with another girl. Both were pregnant, both pushing toddlers in strollers. All the customers and the clerk turned to watch as the argument grew in decibels. The gist of the argument stemmed over a mutual “baby daddy.” He feared for a moment the two clashing mothers might be tempted to use their occupied strollers as offensive weapons in the heat of emotion. The argument as suddenly deescalated, and he passed between them on his way back to his vehicle; neither girl acknowledged his existence as if he were a ghost.
Finally, he brought the meeting to an end with a slap of his palm on the mahogany tabletop.
“Colleagues, I must bring our meeting to a premature conclusion as the dean has asked me to address the Elks Club.”
That was true, but he was scheduled to speak at 5:00 p.m.
“I thought the talk was scheduled for later, V.?” Ken, checking his watch with a befuddled expression.
“Ah, yes, originally. Joyce informed me prior to this meeting that the time had been moved up.”
That, no doubt, would go verbatim into Korhonen-Landers’ notes, but he didn’t care. Take thy beak from out mine heart . . .
Chowdhury watched them exit, some grumbling, one voice above the others: “. . . late and then boots us out with three items left on the agenda—what’s up with that?”
“Vivek, a word, if you please.” Daniel Owusu, the head of the Economics department.
Most faculty dressed casually, the men more than the women. One faculty member in Owusu’s own department did a complete one-eighty, he abandoned his conservative attire in the middle of spring semester last year and appeared in cut-off Levi’s, sporting a buzzcut and loop earrings, aggressively promoting activist causes. His colleagues complained to Daniel, who defended his rogue colleague, and thereby quietly absorbed several palace revolts to unseat him as department chair. His suitcoats, slim pastel ties, and bone-white shirts with cufflinks were a staple every time Chowdhury encountered him around campus. He knew Daniel was from Ghana, a deacon in his tiny Pentecostal church, and wondered whether Daniel might harbor some distrust of him, “Chowdhury” being a common surname among Muslims and Hindus.
Daniel touched his elbow, showed him bright teeth in a friendly countenance, which assured Vivek his suspicions were unfounded.
“Yes, Doctor Owusu?”
“Please, just Daniel. I wonder if you could press my request to Mister Compagno to step up the stocks-tracker and forex software for my finance people.”
Low on his to-do list via Dean Cantwell was to “goose Ken” because she was sick of reading “whiny memos from Econ faculty” every morning. He was to have real-time, ticker-tape software installed into the computers in the business department’s classes in the Computer Lab.
“I have expressed your urgency, Daniel. I shall do so again this afternoon.”
“You see, and I don’t know how to express this delicately, that although Ms. Sharon is a wonderful person, a certain knowledge of VBA is required—”
“VBA?” “Visual Basic for Applications—yes, a browser plug-in necessary for stocks-tracker tools that enable macros to automatically download a stock’s performance data.”
“I see, but you’re taking me out of my depth.”
“Well, as Kenneth is frequently . . . unavailable to me, and Ms. Sharon, however wonder, has as yet been unable to work out the bugs so that faculty can download the preprogrammed macros from our spreadsheet firms. In short, we cannot download stock data from the internet and this failure undermines our teaching effectiveness, you see.”
A polite way of saying the AWOL and/or incompetent Ken was boring a big hole through the Economics department’s reputation and integrity.
“I will see to it today, Daniel. I promise.”
“Thank you, Vivek.”
The eyes around Daniel’s mocha skin were tinged with yellow; he wondered if Daniel had contracted malaria in his past.
The tandem Marcus and Dylan burst into the room.
“There’s a fight in the Commons!”
Vivek followed them at a run. At one of the front tables, two males were squaring off in boxer’s stances. By the time Vivek interposed himself between them, a roundhouse punch telegraphed from behind one of the combatant’s backs had already been launched and connected with Chowdhury’s right eyebrow, jarring him enough to topple him backwards onto the table and into a tray of warm spaghetti and meatballs.
With Marcus holding back one and Dylan the other, peace was restored. Both opponents threw verbal jibes at his opponent, but the fisticuffs, short-lived except for that single blow, were over.
“You okay, Doc?”
“I’m fine, Marcus, I’m fine.” Chowdhury’s eyebrow was already swelling as though an invisible needle from a hidden pump were at work.
Both youths were chastised and ordered, under threat of filing a police report for assault and summary dismissal from college for failure to show, to appear at his secretary’s desk at eight a.m. sharp tomorrow.
The circle of students and cafeteria staff who had assembled to watch the melee returned to their quarters. Vivek tucked his shirt in, gathered up his dignity, and exited the Commons for the parking lot. He wanted to get away from college and sort out the ugly day’s havoc on his sensibilities thus far. He had much remaining to do the feeling of helplessness building up inside him like a dam about to burst required some respite—and food. He hadn’t eaten anything since the energy bar he’d purchased at the BP station that morning.
Ringtones: Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.
“Doc, it’s Dylan—”
He heard Marcus’ voice in the background a high-pitched squeal followed by a woman’s tremolo warbling.
“Hello . . . hello?”
“Doc, you better get over to the library pronto. Mrs. Del Rio’s having a conniption fit.”
“A what fit?”
“Never mind. Just buzz on over here before Marcus and me wind up on the six o’clock news wrestling her to the carpet.”
Dylan thumbed off. Yama, Lord of Naraka, what fate have you woven for me? Either the Lord of Hell had stepped out of his office or he wasn’t bothering to reply to supplicants at the moment. Vivek had lost count of the number of times his life had changed for the worse since his divorce.
Chowdhury popped another antacid tablet and hurried to the library on the other side of campus.
Sweeping past the pneumatic doors, he saw Dylan and Marcus engaged in earnest conversation with the Library Director behind the front checkout counter. A 12-foot ladder lay against a book shelf of holds. Mrs. Del Rio was animated, gesticulating, one arm almost flailing. Marcus’ hands were open, palms up, placating. Dylan stood over his shoulder. The few students stared at them from the other room behind glass-walled partitions
Chowdhury slowly approached the three.
“Hello, Mrs. Del Rio, what appears to be the problem?”
She ignored Marcus to look at him. “Tonight’s a full moon. I told these two that. I told those students that.”
“Ah, yes, the supermoon,” Vivek replied, as if that resolved something.
“I’m done,” she said. “No more of this ungodliness.”
She threw a door key at him, hitting him in the chest. He stooped to pick it up; as he straightened, he watched her bolt through the door panel at the end of the counter and head right toward them. Marcus and Dylan parted before her like a bow wave, and Vivek found himself staring into her tea-colored eyes. Locks of gray hair had sprung free from the practical bun she always wore and bounced loose against her neck. She seemed like some vengeful goddess out of myth, a Medusa of gray flames instead of snakes.
Her mouth worked in agitation as she stood in front of him. He wasn’t sure what she was going to say or do next, but he sensed that, if he tried to put a soothing hand on her shoulder, he’d pull back a bloody stump.
Spit flecks whitened in the corners of her mouth. She whispered: “The she-witch is all yours now.”
“Should we stop her, Doc?”
“Let her go.”
“Woman’s crazy,” Dylan mumbled. “Marcus and me were changing fluorescent bulbs up there in that unit when she comes flying out of her office screaming about ‘devils’ and ‘full moons.’ Nearly knocked me off the ladder. Bitch’s crazy, man.”
“She’s . . . she’s not well in her mind,” Vivek said. He opened his hand to show them the key she’d flung at him.
“What is this?”
Dylan took the key from him and held it close.
“L-Two-Oh-Five,” he said. “Right up those stairs.”
“The key to the Dean’s second office,” Marcus confirmed.
He knew it. Called the Dean’s eyrie, it was the most striking room on campus because it overlooked a woodland scene of white alder split by a curving brook. When Joyce took over his guided tour of the campus, she mentioned the room with a backhanded gesture as they came down the stairs.
“The Dean brings important people there,” she said. “Boosters, big donors, the College Board members.” He remembered seeing it first as the cover on the college catalog when he’d been sent the contract.
“I wonder if I might experience the view from inside it,” he said, immediately regretting the imploring tone he adopted in the request. Something about his secretary’s haughty deportment caused him to infer he’d best not fall into a subordinate position with her from the outset of their relationship.
“Nobody goes in there but the Dean and invited guests.”
From then on, he never gave it a second thought other than to notice once in passing beneath the façade that massive drapes covered the huge half-round windows spoiling the effect.
He turned to Marcus. “Why does Mrs. Del Rio have access to the room?”
“I’m not sure. We’re not allowed to clean that room. Dylan and I built the castors and railing for the drapes. That was the only time we were allowed in there.”
“The Dean watched us like a hawk. Like there’s nothing in there to steal—a couple long tables, a chair, filing cabinets, bookshelves, her certificates and awards on the walls.”
“Why drapes at all?”
“That’s the odd thing, Doc. That glass is treated for glare. You don’t need any drapes.”
Chowdhury’s stomach rumbled and groaned.
“Whoah, Doc,” Dylan quipped. “Sounds like you got a hungry animal in there.”
“Hungry, yes,” Vivek replied. “I’ve not eaten all day. I’m very much starved.”
“Got to feed the inner man, Doc.”
“You’re right. Thank you fellows for . . . interceding with her in her distress. I’m sure it helped.”
The cafeteria being anathema to him just then, he strode for his Jeep, the hunger pangs doubling every minute. The nearest diner was five miles distant in Spring Creek off old Highway 62, an area of lush vegetation closer to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Being essentially a transplanted “Yankee,” Chowdhury reveled in fall foliage along the East Coast and considered the sere and barren canyons with their mangy coyotes roaming the hillsides a poor substitute. He’d never seen such a profusion of plant and tree life since coming to McAlpin College. Lovely dogwoods everywhere he looked above the ravines—white Kousa, pink, Wolf Eyes, and trees galore to rival Vermont: bigleaf maple, buckeye, and tall cottonwoods among the stands of Oregon ash. The knot in his shoulders, like a block of wood, began to ease even as his right eye began to discolor. He did not want to have to explain it to Dean Cantwell as he knew his role would be critiqued and found wanting.
The diner was packed with locals well after lunchtime. A waitress with beads of perspiration dotting her upper lip pointed at the far corner of the L-shaped room where tall booths in faux leather upholstery were lined up. The walls were decorated in art prints of waterfalls, crooked sunlit paths, mossy wooden bridges, and sunsets caught between the branches of live oaks and sunrises between lacy willows.
He sat down exhausted and immediately clenched at the sound of the voice in the last booth: Ken Compagno. Talking to someone. Her voice muted, girlish notes rising at the ends in that irksome California lilt: Korhonen-Landers.
Nor is this hell nor am I out of it . . .Chowdhury silently cursed his luck, but his ears perked up immediately when he heard himself referred to twice as “Doctor Chowderhead.” An approving giggle from Korhonen-Landers.
The words weren’t always distinct but the tone was unmistakable: lovers enjoying a tryst. Both were married to other people. Chowdhury didn’t judge and didn’t care. He was only concerned with extricating himself silently from the booth before he was discovered.
“What’ll you have?” Too late. An angular waitress with black curls surrounding a hatchet face stood poised with ordering pad blocking his exit.
“Say again,” she said. “I didn’t hear that.”
Chowdhury repeated his order of soup and a sandwich.
“Speak up, sir. I didn’t get it.”
He snatched the notepad from her hand and wrote out tuna fish, tomato soup in block letters. He pointed to his throat, hoping she’d disappear.
She mumbled something about “rude jerk” and marched off.
Chowdhury looked around sheepishly hoping no one witnessed his mime act. The diner was packed with farmers and ranchers, some mechanics. Lots of grimy John Deere ballcaps, work boots. He had a pang of anguish that his chosen profession was so lacking in the satisfaction he felt these people obtained in their daily lives from growing things and fixing things. The campus touted itself as having sprung from “settlers braving danger and hardship,” but what was omitted, according to Joyce, whose family went back five generations in these hills, was the reason for the settlement by the McAlpin tribe in the first place: gold. Hard, violent adventurers who staked claims and fought over patches of ground. Add isolation to greed and whiskey, and you had men go insane; others found in their tents with knives sticking from their backs.
The next utterance from the booth ahead of his turned his stomach and made him instantly clammy: “He’ll be gone as soon as his probation period is up. Sue’s had enough of our Doctor Hindoo, believe me.”
Dean Susan Cantwell, his soon-to-be ex-boss.
Before his waitress returned with his food, Chowdhury slipped away, leaving a twenty on the table.
He drove back to campus in a fury, gravel spewing beneath his chassis, sometimes swerving too close to the edge of a ravine. He parked outside the library and bolted up the stairs, the key hot in his hand.
Three long tables, everything as described by Marcus. He opened the filing cabinets and found an alphabetical list of personnel files—but only a select few. Inside the one with his name on the tab, he found his application papers, curriculum vitae, letters of reference, a copy of his first 4-week performance evaluation, which he recalled was less than glowing—and one he’d yet to see, dated two days hence. The words substandard . . . rejects guidance . . . not a team player jumped out from the text, and the original contract. Across the top were the words in the Dean’s grotesque handwriting: NOT TO BE RENEWED. Perusing other files made it clear these were staff and faculty on a target list. Handwritten notes from faculty spies abetted that conclusion. In his, he found a dozen scribbled “appraisals” from the irascible Biology instructor and more surprisingly, from a colleague in the English department with whom he’d rarely interacted. She commented on his “hostile intellectual attitude” toward her Women’s Study course. He recalled one brief, pleasant hallway conversation in which he’d expressed reluctance to accept Simone de Beauvoir as the “grand dame” of modern feminism.
The acid in his stomach could dissolve railroad tracks. He stumbled from the room, ran down the steps, and staggered to his Jeep. Chowdhury drove aimlessly, on automatic pilot. At first consumed by his abject failure, he assessed the situation without the jaundiced eye of his ego. At the main intersection of town near his apartment block, a car horn bleating behind him spurred him into a rubber-burning squeal of tires. He pulled into his parking lot and sat behind the wheel; his hands clenched and unclenched until both hands resembled the “diamond points” of a boxer’s knuckles.
The words from disturbed Mrs. Del Rio rippled across his brain: . . . full moon . . . she-witch . . .
Tonight. That room. Something was going to happen. Something he could use to bring down the college around the ears of Dean Cantwell and her posse. He went inside his apartment, showered, dressed in his darkest clothes, and ate out of the refrigerator standing up. The big supermoon was just rising above the treeline. Time to go.
He drove past the Elks, giving the life-sized brass moose out front the finger. He parked far from the library lot and waited until the last of the students emerged. He hid in the foyer until he heard the library assistant begin to shut down the lights. Emerging from the foyer, he trotted up the stairs and slipped the key into the Dean’s secret room. His eyes adjusted to the saffron glow of moonlight and his eyes boxed the room for the only place he could hide undetected once the lights were turned on. In the far corner, where the drapes were bunched, he could tuck himself in, his back to the cool stone wall—and wait.
He squatted behind the drapes in the far corner, hunkering down to make himself as small as possible. His mind raced in the dark; he thought his heartbeat was too loud. Time slowed to a molasses crawl. He cursed himself for not bringing a pinhole camera or a trail camera to record whatever it was he was going to see. Would his word be enough? He wanted to bring Dean Cantwell and her cohort down like a house of cards under strobe lighting.
Hours passed, although in his warped sense of time it might have been minutes. A scratching outside the room—a key being inserted. Sounds, voices as the door opened. The recessed track lighting going on made his eyes weep from the sudden illumination. A dozen people carrying parcels and satchels entered. Familiar faces mostly, not all. A couple young enough to be students. The Dean in her ubiquitous plaid shawl and pants suit entered the room last looking at her cell phone.
“No one’s seen him,” she announced to the room.
“Don’t worry, Sue,” Ken schmoozed; “he’ll turn up.”
“Who’s that? Are we waiting for someone? Too bad.” The obstreperous Biology professor, naturally.
“No,” Dean Cantwell replied. “Our Doctor Hindoo seems to have gone AWOL.”
“Oh him, that useless clown.”
“All right, everyone,” the Dean interjected to forestall more needless conversation. “We know what this is. Let us begin. The lights, someone.”
As abruptly as they went on, the lights dimmed to blackness. Rustling sounds, zippers, the soft sounds of clothes being removed. No one talked.
When the lights went on again, his colleagues and strangers faced one another on opposite sides of the long tables in the center of the room. They wore black or white robes and held hands. Some robes were opened to expose genitalia; the Dean’s small, cone-shaped dugs were separated by a thick necklace of black beads. Closest to him were Ken and Korhonen-Landers. Her tawny thatch resembled the swirl of a match flame extending from her pudenda. All the males in the room that he could see were flaccid except for Ken, who was afflicted with Peyronie’s disease; his thickened member held open the flap of his robe like a towel holder.
The Dean began speaking in a whispery voice that grew in volume until it became an unintelligible growl. Part incantation, part prayer, he could not make out what she said other than the implication her words were directed toward the “Dark Sire of all creation.” After the third iteration, the two young people, dropped their robes, climbed atop the tables from opposite sides, wiggling their bodies to with loud squeaks of flesh moving over varnished wood to touch heads. Chowdhury realized he’d been holding his breath and drew air into his lungs terrified he would be heard. The people in the room, however, were fixated on the sight of two youthful nude bodies lying before their eyes in utter stillness.
Someone parted the drapes in the center. A crepuscular column of moonlight filled the room.
Chowdhury’s terror at the spectacle grew by the second. Now each person around the tables was commanded by the Dean to speak of their complete obeisance to the Dark Lord and to her, as his designated and sworn disciple. Chowdhury thought his lungs would burst from the blood pumping in his veins and throbbing in the thick vein at his neck. Twice he had to cover his mouth to stifle gasps as the weird ceremony progressed. He blocked out their voices, covered his ears, tried to disappear, to become invisible. A single excruciating thought predominated above all: Would they try to kill me if I charge out of my hiding spot to flee? The cramped muscles in his thighs, back, and knees told him he wouldn’t get far.
The invocations went on interminably, agonizingly. People whose names he never heard of were summarily cursed and reviled. Chowdhury’s tortured muscles began to ease up; his mind began to relax by degrees. This . . . this farcical triteness! This playing at the supernatural—why, it was pathetic! Contemptible.
He was about to announce his presence, fling curses at these morons and their theater of the absurd display when Korhonen-Landers, taking a cue from the Dean, crawled onto the table, and positioned herself above the male. Someone handed her a hatbox inscribed with symbols and signs. She slipped it behind his head and secured it so that his head was completely encased. Slowly she began to masturbate him; then her pumping hand increased the tempo until the boy’s back arched and he ejaculated. Some of his jissom landed on his stomach, gobs oozed over her hand. A glass vial was handed to her and she scooped some of his semen into it. Except for his subdued grunts and involuntary spasms, the youth didn’t speak throughout the ordeal.
Chowdhury knew the moment had passed. He retreated even deeper into himself. One of the males, an older man judging by the amount of gray body hair, climbed the table and poised himself above the prone female. Chowdhury, suspecting what was going to happen next, averted his eyes. Minutes passed in silence before soft moans increased in audibility. The triple oh-oh-oh of her orgasm filled him with squirmy distress.
He could no longer watch, yet his ears and imagination filled in the rest of this ritual: the hissing sound of urination, the clinking of metal against glass. The odious mixture was being passed around for consumption.
Chowdhury’s mind couldn’t take it a moment longer. His stomach revolted in full force and hot bile exploded up his throat and spewed between the fingers he’d laced over his mouth much too late. A vomitous stench filled his nostrils and he gagged over and over, oblivious to the shouts and screams cascading all around. He knew they were going to kill him, probably butcher him right on that table . . . His last thought before a vortex of pitch-black air sucked him into it—Josie, I love you forever . . .
* * *
“Enjoy the show?”
She sat cross-legged, still partially nude, in a plastic chair a few feet from him. A gray-haired, smirking, sitcom succubus. Her round belly as she leaned toward him obscured her pubic ruff. Straightening up from the floor, he sat, his fuzzy vision taking her in by increments.
“Would you mind folding your robe, Dean? The view is profoundly anaphrodisiacal.”
“One of your big Mensa words, Vivek?”
“I’ll destroy you when word gets out about your nasty little . . . coven up here.”
“What coven? Do you see any pentagrams? Upside-down crosses? Where’s the goat horns? See the Devil’s bible anywhere?”
Nothing. No sign of the participants or the youth with the boxes over their heads. Not an article of clothing left behind. Chowdhury could imagine, though, their hysterical exit—stuffing their robes into handbags, fleeing half-dressed down the darkened stairway to scatter in the parking lot. Back to respectability.
“I’ll find a journalist, a reporter. If one of these hicktown reporters won’t write it, I’ll go to San Francisco.”
“Oh, you’ll go to San Francisco, all right. That’s destined. Mark my words, Vivek. You do have a meeting with someone there, and you’ll understand what that means.”
“Are you threatening me with your Dark Sire, Cantwell? I heard the mumbo-jumbo. I’m not impressed. Even cretins like you, Compagno, and Landers should be educated enough not to fall for that hocus-pocus.”
“Keep going, Vivek. He’s waiting for you now.”
“Chowdhury stood up, still wobbly in the knees from cramping and his vigil behind the drapes. He smelled foul. The residue of dried vomit on his shirt front wafted a stench that commingled with citrusy odor of some deodorizer sprayed, no doubt, while he lay in a dead faint on the floor.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Me? I’m the Dean. It’s Tuesday, almost six in the morning. I have a full day ahead of me.”
She stood up, unclasped her robe, and tucked it into a valise from under her chair.
“You’re walking out of here like that?”
“No,” she replied, stepping over to the bookshelf. “I keep a set of clothes handy. If you plan on leaving us today, I’d appreciate a letter of resignation and a progress report on your assignments. It’ll make it easier on the new Assistant Dean.”
Her nonchalance maddened him. “You’re out of your mind, you know that?”
“We’re done here.”
As if rooted to the floor with tenpenny nails through his shoes, he watched her complete her dressing down to the rouge and lipstick. Lipstick on a pig, he thought. Another plaid shawl, this one blue, completed the ensemble. She looked like a stevedore in drag.
Chowdhury stood alone in the room, pondering, his mind still a hazy kaleidoscope of conflicting thoughts and urges. As though to check whether the world outside the drapes was still the one he recognized, he grabbed a fistful in the center and flung them open. The scene below was so bucolic that he wanted to weep. A family of deer were sipping from the brook, the male with his antlers kept guard.
It’s too much . . . he fled the scene, bolted for the door, raced down the steps, and nearly knocked over Dylan in the foyer, just arrived to deactivate the alarm system and open the library up.
“Hey, Doc, what are you doing up so early?”
“Research for my grants,” he mumbled and kept going.
By the time he’d tossed everything helter-skelter into the back of his Jeep and turned in the apartment key to the manager, he had ten minutes before the bank opened. Fearful she might have some pernicious influence there, too—perhaps the bank manager was one of those males in a mask?—he waited anxiously while the teller cleaned out his account and counted out the bills in various denominations in front of him.
“Have a nice day,” she said.
“I can’t,” he replied, scooping up the money, “I have other plans.”
Driving through the Shasta-Trinity Nation Forest on Highway 36, he swung past Red Bluff south on Interstate 5. I’ll go to San Francisco, Dean. You watch me!
As though he were both reporter and subject, he mentally composed the article verbatim in his head, semi-tractor trailers and traffic accumulating in density the farther south he went. By the time he crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, he had what he considered a Pulitzer expose of material any journalist from the Chronicle would die for.
Chowdhury thought he knew the city well. He’d stayed at the Drake at least three times in the last decade for conferences. But taking Ubers wasn’t the same as driving around the city. He found himself snared in the time warp of the Upper Haight’s maze of eateries, souvenir shops, and vintage bookstores. He reversed on Stanyan Street and thought he was working his way back toward Golden Gate Park; instead, he found himself cruising the Tenderloin south of Nob Hill.
Homeless encampments lined both sides of the street. A zombie-like parade of drug addicts crossed in front of traffic to and fro. Deranged men and women in shabby dress gesticulated, talked to themselves, or slept on sidewalks. Opioid addicts stood on street corners waiting for dealers. Graffiti on every building, trash mounting on curbsides, paper sacks from fast-food franchises blew like tiny albino tumbleweeds into the gutters. A canvas waiting for a modern-day Bosch to portray it.
Then he spotted a man, almost dapper by contrast to the citizens swarming around him. He even sported a bow tie. Chowdhury swung over to the curb to ask him for directions back to the Market.
“Sir! Sir! Can you help me?’
The man paused in mid-stride to look him over. Then he smiled and approached the driver’s side window which Vivek had rolled halfway down to accommodate the conversation. With extraordinary hand speed, however, the man stuck the barrel of a gun into the flesh of Chowdhury’s neck and growled, “Give it up.”
Chowdhury’s fear and his eyes betrayed him. He looked at the fat bank envelopes he’d taken from the counter to separate his cash.
In seconds, the man had all the envelopes one by one secreted about his clothing.
To the street, it would look like a man leaning in to have a pleasant conversation with a passing friend.
Chowdhury surrendered his wallet; his eyes filled with tears.
The thief smiled at him—a ghastly spectacle of meth mouth, blackened fissures, and jagged shards of rotted teeth. He was gone before Vivek could take the gear shift out of Park.
What to do? What good would it do?
He drove aimlessly, inwardly sobbing, sickened by his failure to do something as much as by his depleted cash. Not even a credit card to buy gas to get him back to New England. The image of a wicked homunculus smirking at him from the rearview mirror transmogrified into the face of Dean Cantwell.
Driving too fast, slamming on his breaks, he kept going in circles. Vivek lost all thoughts of going to the San Francisco Chronicle with his erudite prose tale of a witches’ coven in the hills of an academic grove.
Desperate, crazed, he ignored the blinking red light on his dashboard until the Jeep juddered, stalled, and drifted to the curb. Chowdhury slammed his head masochistically into the steering wheel hard enough to split the skin above his left eye. His swollen right eye had subsided to a yellowish and purple halo. He exited the vehicle, falling into the street.
O Kali, with your garland of human heads and bloody knife, you have destroyed me . . .
Chowdhury stumbled down the street oblivious of his surroundings; people jostled him in passing. One unstable woman gibbered at him, pulling at his pants and shirt pockets, ripping holes in his clothing. He didn’t care, offering no resistance while her claw-like hands tore at him.
Someone came up behind him and grabbed his triceps steering him down a narrow alley packed with the tents of the homeless. The assault on his olfactory sense from the clashing odors of unwashed human beings, frying foods, cigarette smoke, and rotten food from the nearby dumpster twisted his stomach.
He knew he was going to be killed and almost welcomed it. Nauseated and dehydrated, Vivek wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating all of it. His captor was a man. He said, “Get in. Sit. Drink this.”
“What . . . what is it?”
“Green tea. From the men’s shelter. I get my food there every morning.”
In that moment of mighty despair and self-loathing, he’d have quaffed hemlock. The man was younger than he by several years. His face was haggard, the eyes sunken, and the skin of his face had the drawn look of malnutrition. Several days of reddish-blond beard gave his thin lips an odd comical appearance. His clothing was stained from living rough.
Despite his ragged appearance, he spoke clearly and didn’t seem inclined toward violence.
The lukewarm tea restored Vivek to a semblance of his himself. He thanked his savior, introduced himself as a “college administrator in a former life,” and mentioned his “bad luck” since arriving, omitting altogether his experiences of the last twenty-four hours.
His rescuer was silent throughout Chowdhury’s recitation of his woes as “a tourist.” Once in a while, his interlocutor would grimace or contort his mouth in a moue that made Vivek wonder about the man’s past, this well-spoken demeanor lurking behind deshabille.
“I used to be a college administrator myself,” he began. “A small college up north.”
Chowdhury’s pulse quickened. Something tickled at the back of his memory like a deep-water fish that avoids the surface.
“Someone reported to the Dean I was having an affair with a student . . .”
A fragment of that memory wiggled its way up through the darker layers; it moved slowly toward the light. Vivek replayed a snippet of film in his mind: Joyce in her office his first day as the new Assistant Dean of McAlpin College. Unimpressed by his massive new secretary, he kept the smile pasted on his face while she nattered on, mixing business with gossip.
“Since being fired for ‘moral turpitude,’ as she called it, I haven’t been able to restart my career. You see, it’s uncanny. Her letter showed up in every college I applied to. I tried entry-level positions, too. Many I was overqualified for, but that cursed letter would always arrive—sometimes one or two days after a successful final interview when I had all but signed the contract. I couldn’t escape it . . .”
It clicked, finally. The face. Add some flesh subtracted by grim poverty, erase the lines drawn by hard living and the danger of these streets. Replace the Salvation Army castoffs with a smart suitcoat and tie—and you had him: his predecessor, the former Assistant Dean of McAlpin College.
Vivek Chowdhury placed his aching, bruised face in his hands and wept.
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.