from "The Scissor Man"
The following novel excerpt appeared, in slightly different form, in "Normal 2014: Collected Works from the First Annual DFW Conference," an anthology published by Lit Fest Press / Festival of Language in 2015.
Delphina Moreau, sipping her usual morning cup of sugar-spritzed mocha, sat in her usual lumpy chair in the faculty lounge adjacent to Sage Hall’s cafeteria, one of the few places on Harper’s campus where the coffee was both complimentary and decently palatable. It was the morning of Monday, September 7th, and her first official day back was barely ten minutes off. Still she sat there, thinking. She thought that at the handful of colleges she had already taught at, as with most institutions of higher education spread thin and slowly growing thinner throughout the U.S., the average semester’s timetable differed greatly depending on whether one was an instructor or a student, a fact that many freshmen overlooked by the throng before, during, and oftentimes after matriculation. For those recent high school graduates, laidback and lazy and unprepared for the rigors of a proper education, this fallacy was especially problematic. Common sense—or at least what a great deal of them chose to inaccurately call “common sense” and accept at face value—dictated that there must be nothing of great importance going on beyond their line of sight, a skewed perception that limited them just like the ostrich that buries its head in the sand. She even remembered reading that freshmen in some backwater district had been heard asking instructors of an average college’s faculty toward the end of an average college semester’s first day, with debatable and always unverifiable concern, why they (that is, the instructors) looked so sickly pale or concavely thin, this line of questioning only seeming to engender annoyance and a lot of huffing and headshaking on said instructors’ side of an as-yet-unresolved conflict that seemed to have struck community colleges nationwide. “If you only knew,” she recalled one instructor responding with. Their drooping eyes, their compressing lips, their creasing foreheads: Delphina recognized the inference each imagined reaction encoded. What went unsaid (and had to be discovered on one’s own, if one was a self-conscious student with brainpower to burn) regarding the endless parade of lectures and meetings and all the maneuverings they both contained and from which no one faculty member could escape, was that the whole tiresome rigmarole bred an exhaustion of unbelievable intensity in the months that led up to a new semester at any given college (an exhaustion that was by no means limited to the faculty of colleges and universities alone, for those teachers who worked the K-12 spectrum had to leap and twist and cavort through a similar series of administrative acrobatics all while facing a much younger, much less focused, and much more rambunctious demographic that often had trouble recognizing itself). This ugly exhaustion, at least as Delphina had known it, typically reared its head as early as late August if term began in the fall and early January if term began in the spring, the latter always prompting muffled moans from instructors and students alike due to the too-brief two-week break before it began afresh. As a result of such a heavy institutional pace, the shell-shocked stares fostered on the faces of many a seasoned instructor—stares that should have thrown that exhaustion into sharp relief—suddenly, somehow, became one of the first noticeable instigators behind this new generation’s greatest and, perhaps, most perverse passion: the ecstasy of feeling misplaced anger, for many of these partial post-adolescents had reached adulthood—if not full maturity—either before the third millennium’s advent or after it and were, therefore, inured to sensing an attitude of constant condescension from all their environment’s most banal stereotypes: oft-overstressed parents, party-driven peers, the pop culture institutions and entities that vied for their already limited attentions, so forth. And that was just one symptom of a sickness that was still mutating into something even more lethal, a cultural cancer on the rise and growing virulent. Although Delphina had worked at seven different colleges over the last twenty years (spending the first fifteen of them in slow but steady ascent from her original, more-than-lackluster position at Metacomet Community College to her current, just-as-hotly-coveted position as a tenure-tracked professor at Harper), the speed at which each of their environments shifted from one of calm to one of hyperactivity amazed her no matter where she taught: the easy entrance by students both old and new at the beginning, the tornadic transition into an extended period of cramming and grading in the middle, the sudden sigh of relief that usually announced restful respite at the end. How could it be any different? Now, at the inception of her fifth year here at Harper, it was a mostly pleasant task to drive up Baptist Hill Road to the campus’s minor sprawl atop Baptist Hill itself—where, as one local legend recounted, the original Baptist Hill Church had been burned to the ground by a mob after it was discovered that “Wellington’s” founder and first minister, a certain Jeremiah Welling, had engaged in unspeakable acts with some of his flock’s children and set into motion the changing of the town’s name to “Willington”—and park in the separate lot identified with signs nailed to streetlights that proclaimed faculty parking only in bright green letters, and then walk up the wide front steps of Sage Hall (where her classes convened), through the front doors, down the central hallway, up on one of the three elevators that once in a while malfunctioned and trapped those onboard for hours at a time or the quicker-but-far-more-murderous stairs, and hopefully arrive before any students eager to see her in such dire straits. And she had no complaints whatsoever about this seemingly torturous routine even though it had been going on five days a week and nine months a year for five years, especially since President Gates was streamlining things for everyone on the administrative front. But when Delphina couldn’t help but remember her community college’s classes’ students wincing under the crunch of impending due dates and asking for just a little more time to complete their assignments, or distributing a pop quiz whose relatively easy questions returned with shockingly subpar answers or none at all and substantially dropped the grades of those who’d failed, or attending a meeting and hearing her colleagues complain that the same thing had happened in their own classes—in summary, as soon as she remembered the majority of her students admitting to themselves that some sort of pressure had accrued into a workload and that that oversight had threatened them with flunking out of the course on the one hand while also flunking out of the college and losing their only exceedingly expensive shot at getting a decent job on the other—then and only then did Delphina worry that the whole stupid mess would follow her here like a curse and run as rampant as the Black Death. Thankfully that hadn’t been the case, at least as far as she could tell. Besides, for the duration of her fifteen-year-long search for the right college, she had looked on optimistically while this masquerade continued turning itself over and over and over with little variation, observing from the edge the multivalent circumstances that the college environment couldn’t help but incubate. Many of them troubled her despite their relative rarity. Sometimes a lone student had approached her a day or so before a midterm or final was due and begged for an extension and/or exemption. Sometimes a fellow instructor had sat with her and vented their frustrations before returning with dejection to the daily grind. The rarest and most troublesome situations, however, were those that had inflicted misery both behind the lectern and before it: the act of plagiarism, the theft of reference materials, and the even more rarefied incidence of stalking. Notwithstanding the minor frenzy each case had bred—some of them being much tougher to overcome than others—Delphina had held onto her position as an instructor in each college’s history department without displacing too much of the optimism that made her such a joy to work alongside. Before arriving at Harper, though, her optimism had begun faltering to such an extent that she knew it had nothing to do with the prolonged onset of middle age—something having long since slipped away from all but the most selective colleges in the U.S., something she hadn’t even been able to conceive without the aid of apposite questioning to coax the problem out into the open, something she felt in the marrow of her bones and didn’t want to confront alone—the consensus she arrived at being that the value of America’s current, by-no-means-exemplary system of education had expired and was slowly but surely being agonized away by the more seductive quality of simply accepting the mundane, that all the achievements sent into the melting pot over the years were being carelessly forgotten, that the pride inherent to being another key component of the Constitution’s “We the People” was suddenly so much more difficult than obsessing over anything besides “Me Me Me!” What else could it be? Although Harper, along with many other liberal arts colleges and all the Ivies, had managed to stave off this backslide, she doubted the low-budget-low-income community colleges had been so lucky. Back there, the next generation and its most recent progenitors were picking apart the nation’s collective experience and canonical memory and casting the bulk of it aside with scant, almost recyclable concern. And now, just as these kids were about to inherit that nation and take up the incumbent task of keeping it cohesive even while the equilibrium of many of their own lives remained elusive—with hormonal infusions flowing faster, with alcohol consumption lasting longer, with drug use growing larger, with such a cyclone of temptations and potential pitfalls whirling around them like never before—Delphina couldn’t help but wonder if Vico, in his one great work, had been right. Was human history a cycle, and if so, was America going to fall just as hard and just as permanently as the Roman Empire had almost two thousand years ago?
“A penny from your thoughts, miss?”
She took a moment to digest these grim projections before returning to the faculty lounge on Sage Hall’s first floor, fresh from a retrospective look at the minimal pros and amazingly extensive cons of shifting one’s paradigm, educational or otherwise. Her mood moved from one of tense circumspection to one of attempted-but-still-ill ease as she moistened her dust-dry throat and made to answer the man who’d spoken. He was a tall man, ghostly pale and overly thin, with close-cut dirty blond hair. He wore a stylish suit that could have been any color from dark gray to dark blue to a shade or two beyond. For some reason she couldn’t fathom—and, therefore, chose to ignore out of a desire to remain polite on the one hand and allow him a reciprocal sense of privacy on the other—he also wore a pair of retro sunglasses with silver lenses.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“I said, ‘A penny from your thoughts, miss.’ You didn’t hear me? Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I just need to ask where Room 304 is. You wouldn’t happen to know the way?”
“Don’t you think you have that phrase mixed up with another?”
“Isn’t it ‘a penny for your thoughts,’ not ‘a penny from your thoughts’? Haven’t you confused the two?”
“I don’t think so. Given the level of concentration I saw you putting in just now, I think the latter’s much more fitting and altogether serendipitous. I tramped in here asking you for the location of Room 304, something which, if I already knew the answer, would indeed constitute a penny for your thoughts and from mine. But that’s not the case here and now. Right now, I’m in need of a bit of info that you may or may not possess. Hence, a penny from your thoughts. You see? It’s a matter of perspective and how you choose to orient yourself.”
“Huh,” Delphina sighed, not wanting to tell him what she really thought of all that. “Did you say 304?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Take those stairs,” she said, pointing. “Third floor, on your right.”
“Wouldn’t one of the elevators be a more prudent mode of transportation?”
“Not if past experience is any indication.”
“Meaning that if you don’t want one of the damn things to jam and maroon you between floors, you should take the stairs.”
“I should hope so.”
“…Well, that’s one hassle avoided,” he said, “thanks,” and retreated through the frosted-glass door as soundlessly as he’d come in.
Only after he left did Delphina realize that she’d had no idea who the hell that man was. She should have at least asked. Then again, he also seemed like he’d been in quite a rush. When she looked up at the clock, she understood why: just five minutes left. She downed what coffee remained in her Styrofoam cup and tossed it in the trash. Then she got up, pulled the door open, and made for the same stairs she’d mentioned, knowing that her ascents would feel all the more harrowing as the days dragged on, the weeks went by, and the months morphed into years.