Presence of the Board (An Excerpt from Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel of Race, Recognition, and Retribution)

nat-turner-1945

The below is a chapter from Calvin’s Ghost, a literary novel, set on a college campus Portland, Oregon in 1991-1992, that explores themes of sin, guilt, racial identity, and the frailty of the threads binding us to each other as a human species. I’ll leave it to you to decide its relevance in 2017. Comments welcome. Please send to calvinsghostnovel@gmail.com (for those who prefer to read offline, here’s a PDF of the chapter). Full disclosure: this chapter is pretty long – about 30 pages.

*                                 *                                  *

Transparency had never been the hallmark of Tillamook State Board meetings. The Board normally gathered every two months, assembling furtively on Friday evenings (typically for sumptuous banquets at the Chancellor’s house) when the attention of other interested parties would be least likely to wander in their direction, with decisions announced via press release over the weekend, with limited comment or elaboration on the meaning of these decisions following.

And so it happened in early June, as the spring term neared its end. Eli arrived alone at 7:30, having been apprised that the evening would unfold with aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres, continue with dinner in the banquet hall, then migrate to the conference room for deliberations and final votes on the fate of the Diversity Project, followed by dessert and digestifs to cap the evening.

Harry assured Eli the meeting would not unwind before 1:30 or 2:00 am. “These dudes party, Eli,” he said. “Mixing business and pleasure is how their world works. Most of these guys would say mixing business and pleasure is the secret of their success in the world.”

*                                 *                                  *

Jane sent Eli on his way with a long hug and a kiss on his forehead. “I’m rooting for you, dear. I know how much rides on what happens this evening.”

Eli’s eyes moistened as he stepped away from Jane. He was without words.

“The world will always disappoint you, dear,” Jane said. “The key is to make sure you don’t disappoint yourself.”

*                                 *                                  *

The bell clapped. Urchin footsteps scampered to the massive oak door which swung open to reveal, once again, Clive and Kramer and Betty, Clive and Kramer this time hosting ill-fitting baseball uniforms. They played for the Buffalos. Clive gripped a bat and Kramer had perched his catcher’s mitt on top of his head.

“Hey guys,” Eli said. “Game tonight?”

“We’re playing the Dumbos,” said Clive.

Betty and Kramer dissolved. “Dumbos!” they shouted.

“Dumbos, huh? Are the Dumbos elephants with big ears?” Eli asked.

All three children dissolved again. “Elephants with big ears!”

“You’re a poopy face!” Betty shouted.

Eli poked Betty on the nose. “Are you on the team?”

More hilarity. “No, silly! Little girls aren’t on the team! Just buffalos!”

“What position do you guys play?”

Kramer flexed his arm muscles. “I’m the slugger.” The mitt tumbled from his head.

“Slugger, huh? Is that a position?”

“Sure. I slug people!”

At that moment, the Chancellor manifested from the Great Room across the Moorish tile floor of the entry, while three men in dark suits materialized from the circular drive behind Eli. The children dashed away, Kramer, mitt forgotten on the floor, stiffly swinging Frankenstein-styled arms at Clive and Betty.

The Chancellor spreading her arms wide, smiling broadly, eyes twinkling, resplendent in a royal blue French chiffon dress, its gauzy fabric cascading down in a controlled flow of rivulets, stopping just above the knees.

“Greetings to all of you,” she murmured, cheek-bussing each of the new arrivals in turn and submitting a private word of welcome to each.

Acquiescing to his own instincts to defer, but also mindful of a desire to assess the Board members before they assessed him, Eli stepped to the side of the doorway to allow the other arrivals to enter ahead of him. Bruce Naito, esteemed Japanese-American property developer, chaired the Board, accompanied by Miles Winslow, CEO of Portland Savings & Trust, Paul Harrison, head of Litigation Practice at the Stoel Rives law firm, and of course, Portland Public Schools superintendent, Matthew Prophet.

Eli knew this. Aspirational universities such as Tillamook State that model their own growth and success using private sector templates will burnish their governing boards with business elites, the same local moguls who appreciate the value of public-private partnerships, ultimately adopting the philosophy that who one knows is more important than what one knows. Elites in smoke-filled rooms of the sort he was about to enter. Their intimate familiarity with each other the invisibility shield used as much to exclude as to enfold and include.

As the older men shuffled into Kroll Manor, Harry trotted up the drive. From the corner of his eye, Eli also saw Pritchard striding up the slate walkway with uncommon purpose, wearing the “evening wear” Harry had assured him would “make” the evening for Eli. “You’ve never seen anything like it, son,” Harry had said. “Pritchard as Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Eli also knew this. Nothing happens in real-time in the business world. Tobias himself had schooled him from an early age in the Machiavellian precepts of “management”, which pretty much guarantee the theatricality and artifice of all important organizational actions. “Decisions are made behind closed doors, Eli, or on the phone or the golf course or the high-end restaurant. Decision-making is like choreography. The meetings where decisions are made are really only well-rehearsed performances.”

Eli knew these things, yet was still surprised by how quickly the demise of the Diversity Project appeared to be a virtual fait accompli. The Board would politely listen to its defenders then vote to disassemble the program – a deconstruction that might well be the only thing to occur in real time.

*                                 *                                  *

Remarkably, the photography had taken. Tobias bought Lawrence a used Rolleiflex SL35 with an 80 mm Zeiss telephoto lens. It was a sweet rig, Eli had to admit, Lawrence was delighted, and given Tobias’s own nascent interest in photography, there was hope that he and Lawrence might be able to rebuild their relationship around a shared passion for capturing images.

And Lawrence had indeed been photographing. He’d spend afternoon and weekends at the Hodge Road mansion of a reclusive boy named Jasper, whose parents had fitted out a basement darkroom for their son. Eli didn’t personally know Jasper, who attended a private day school up on the Pretty Brook Road. Lawrence had met him at a weekly teen therapy group where Tobias and Bonnie had enrolled Lawrence the previous spring. Jasper wore his red hair long in twin braids, his freckled face and light green eyes giving him the appearance of a half-breed shaman, and while he was only 14 years old, influence he exercised upon Lawrence offered immediate evidence of a self-assured mind and powerful will.

Despite having no personal experience with him, Eli didn’t like Jasper. He also had been dubious from the start about this therapeutic tack, although clearly his parents had reached a degree of desperation he could barely comprehend. Just before school began in September, Eli confided to his mother. “Hanging around with a bunch of other losers is not going to help Lawrence, Mom,” he said. “They’ll just confirm this is the world where he belongs, that being a freak is his destiny.”

Bonnie stood up from her drafting table and folded her arms tightly against her chest. She was livid.  “Eli, I’m glad you’re enjoying life these days, but you’re not Lawrence’s parent and you’re in no position to judge our efforts to help Lawrence if you can offer no better treatment alternatives.”

Eli had to admit this was true – his enjoyment of life was part of the problem. He and Lawrence had grown apart in the previous year. Eli was too busy for his brother, whom he’d also begun, like his father, to regard as a bummer and as a lost cause. Indeed, only the tender and firm ministrations of Bonnie at this point kept Lawrence coming home at all. Even then, Lawrence had begun to spend more nights at Jasper’s house, and when he was home he’d blink furtively, hunched and anxious and volatile, pawing at his face like a deranged bear cub.

*                                 *                                  *

In the library they gathered, all nine Board members (including James Pritchard, recently elevated to Board stature and so in a position to cast a vote for his own ascendance). Among those standing with stilted affect upon the ancient wool pile, Eli could also count Harry, John Jergensen, Dante, and three students hand-selected to speak on behalf of interested campus constituencies. Eli knew Fiske, of course (on this particular evening insouciantly sporting ghetto Kurt Cobain, flannel and jeans with Doc Martens and baseball cap), but only barely recognized the others, one fellow a tall, pinch-nosed pre-med and the other student invitee a cerebral-looking girl apparently majoring in mathematics. But Eli did not have to know much more about the students to granulate on the stacked deck the Board was about to deal.

Eli sequestered himself in a corner of the room with Harry, Dante, and Fiske, consciously avoiding Board member eye contact. Nonetheless, Board members had been inching into his field of vision, sizing him up, checking him out, taking his measure.

“You’re the honeypot, Eli,” said Harry.

“As if any of this matters,” said Eli, awkwardly balancing a vintage Noilly Prat cocktail alongside a napkin the size of a bath towel pocketed with Pork Rillettes, Provencal Vegetable Tarts, and Caviar and Tomato-Pressed Salmon Trout Tartare.

“Of course it doesn’t matter, but it makes for good theater. Maybe that’s what matters. We all appreciate the entertainment value of events we orchestrate ourselves.”

Fiske knew Harry from a Third-World Politics class. He responded earnestly. “You know, Professor Harry, the outcome does matter to some of us. I’d like to believe we can all be difference-makers tonight.”

Harry nodded. “Yup. I’d like to believe that, too. But I don’t.”

Bruce Naito popped into their circle shortly before the call for dinner. A short man, sporting a firm handshake and jovial grin, Naito greeted all warmly before turning to Eli. “Well, the man of the hour. I want to introduce myself before the festivities begin.”

Eli smiled at Naito. According to Gerald, never fulsome with his praise, Naito was one of the “good guys” in the Portland business community. “His heart’s in the right place, Eli. He’s smart. He cares about the city. He’s not just about the money.”

“I’m a supporter of the Diversity Project,” Naito told Eli. He scanned the room systematically, as if to record specific data about each of his fellow Board members as they chattered with the Chancellor, his gaze lingering on Paul Harrison. Naito spoke again to Eli. “That’s the guy you need to worry about, Eli. Paul Harrison is the brains behind the Rose Quarter scheme.”

Pritchard slid toward Paul Harrison and slipped a folded piece of paper into his hand. Harrison pocketed the paper without shifting his gaze from the Chancellor.

Naito patted Eli on the shoulder before slipping away. “Paul Harrison wants the Eli Wheeler confession,” he said. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”

*                                 *                                  *

The breaking point occurred toward the end of September of Eli’s senior year in high school, height of Indian summer, with the moist heat stippling leaves just beginning to blaze with color, hastening their brilliance and their demise. Eli stepped from Cecilia’s car to the curb by his house, barking audible through open windows of the second floor bedrooms, sufficiently harsh and violent that Eli barely acknowledged Cecilia as he slammed the passenger door. Pavement beneath his feet crumbling and sagging as he staggered toward the front door, already half out of his mind.

Eli’s sister Evangeline sat in the sun room, her pallor like a tanned hide beneath her halter top and shorts, her eyes vacant like empty milk saucers. Eli sprinted upstairs, having noted his mother’s car had not been in the garage and so preparing for the worst. But this preparation still insufficient for what he encountered as he turned on the beige pile topped with oriental area rugs at the top of the stairs.

The landing itself was truly a sitting room in its own right, exposing the full dimensions of the capacious home. Three bedrooms opened directly from the sitting room. Evangeline and Lawrence occupied bedrooms at the front of the house, with Eli’s bedroom facing to the rear, alongside the children’s bathroom and the master suite accessed via a branching hallway. One of the design conceits of the sitting room was the placement of antique bureaus and armoires for each child, alongside wooden chairs (both high-backed and rocking) and tasteful paintings, the idea being that their presence in the common area would blend aesthetics and function – the functional effect being the forced interactivity of the children as they transacted the ritual moments of their daily lives.

Eli assumed the grunts and crunches from the upstairs windows of his house had come from Lawrence’s bedroom, which did strike him as strange, as Tobias almost literally never set foot in that room – with its steepled, sour-smelling piles of laundry, food residue, hair creams, acne astringents – carrying fear and loss, more than Tobias could bear. But Tobias and Lawrence were in Evangeline’s bedroom.

Eli spun toward the doorway of his sister’s room where, almost in slow motion Tobias was breathing fire, one hand clenched on Lawrence’s shirt collar, nearly entirely wrapped around his neck, the other slamming repeatedly and deliberately into Lawrence’s shoulder in cadence with Tobias’s panted declamations. On Evangeline’s bed, normally crisp and pristine, the comforter lay askew while a pile of bras and panties, capturing all colors of the rainbow, dimpled the pillows. Eli could only with great enervating pain bring himself to imagine the activities implicating Lawrence when Tobias confronted him in his younger sister’s bedroom.

Lawrence, a dogged mule, pulled and twisted away from his father with aversive frenzy, but Tobias’s tight grip upon his neck, against which he ineffectually struggled, merely showcased the boy’s loosely flapping shirttails, sad flags of rebellion, an ironic commentary on the shirt collar tight around his throat. Lawrence’s pants and underwear bundled at his ankles, exposing stork legs sprouting red wire-brush hairs. His unlaced Bean boots sagged in the corner of the room.

“Get the fuck off me, Dad,” Lawrence gasped. “Fucking asshole! It’s not what you think.”

Tobias shook Lawrence by the neck, rocking him back and forth. “You are not my son,” he mouthed, his fury too vast for sound, his muted words thick with meaning, instruments for dismantling his son, his boy beyond redemption. “You are no one’s son,” he seethed. “You. Debased spawn of the devil.”

Lawrence wrenched away from his father, pushing his arms into Tobias’s chest with sudden force. His father released the grip on Lawrence’s neck and he fell back on the bed. Tobias, moving with uncommon swiftness, retrieved one of Lawrence’s boots and, holding the boot by its leather tongue, lifted his arm and swung the rubberized heel into Lawrence’s cheek. His son folded, wrapping his arms about this head, going entirely limp, and gurgling like a small child as Tobias swung the boot at his son, hammering this Lawrence, this unworthy nail, three, four, five times, until Eli folded his own arms around his father, enveloping him with strength and purpose, tearing him away from Lawrence, half-dragging, half-lifting  him out of Evangeline’s bedroom and into the sitting room, where Tobias, released from his son’s embrace, but still gripping the boot by its tongue, sagged into one of the high-backed chairs and held his sweat-drenched head between his salty hands.

*                                 *                                  *

Seating arrangements at dinner suggested fun house mirrors to Eli, calculated to confuse and obfuscate and disorient. The Chancellor sat at the head of the massive round dining table (its diameter almost certainly ten feet), the group’s pole star illuminating them all from the northern sky. Bruce Naito anchored the southern tip. Falling somewhat into the mindset of an out-of-work Kremlinologist, Eli granulated away.

Imagining the cardinal points to be most significant, there was Matt Prophet occupying the eastern-most seat, with Paul Harrison bestriding the table’s western outpost. And here was Eli, denizen of the northwest, slotted in between Paul Harrison and James Pritchard, who angled north toward the Chancellor. Harry and Dante flanked the Chancellor.

Eli assumed some logic dictated the seating arrangement, but this logic eluded him, and in its absence he considered whether it could possibly be random that he occupied the inferno between Paul Harrison and James Pritchard. From his privileged station next to the Chancellor, Harry winked at Eli, clearly enjoying the irony even if it came at Eli’s expense.

Paul Harrison offered his hand to Eli. A handsome man in the early prime of his career – Eli had been surprised to see that up close he might not be older than 40. Eli knew Paul Harrison had in recent years positioned himself to take on much of the major eastside real estate development legal work, in the process claiming clients from David Clark. All the more surprising, then, that Chancellor Gamson-Clark had supported his appointment to the Tillamook State Board the previous year. “Nothing is personal to her,” Harry had told Eli. “Paul Harrison and David Clark might have the long knives out for each other, but Gams only cares about protecting her handsome flanks, and Paul Harrison is someone you’re better off having on the inside than on the outside.”

“So nice to meet you, Eli,” Paul Harrison said. “I understand you’re headlining this event.” His smile, softened by milky blue eyes, betrayed nothing more than benign, bemused good humor.

“I sure hope not,” Eli said. “I wouldn’t wish that responsibility on anyone.”

Dean Pritchard, looking even more flaxen than usual, leaned into their colloquy. He did indeed resemble a somewhat skeletal, albeit postmodern, Obi-Wan Kenobi, his “formalwear” cowl, essentially a morning coat kitted out with a loose-fitting black scarf draped over his head, shielding, but not concealing, the pale garb of indeterminate origin he wore beneath the morning coat, as well as the increased length of his white hair and the sprouting of a beard. He’d rested a short cane with a bulbous knob beside him at the table. Eli truly believed Pritchard to be the strangest-looking man he’d ever encountered. However, the Board members, some of them, at least, and among them Paul Harrison, appeared fully willing to accept Pritchard as an “eccentric monk”, and hence tolerated his strangeness in exchange for the transformational insights they were convinced he’d bring to the emerging partnership between plant biology and medical research.

“Eli’s the milquetoast of the diversity revolution,” Pritchard intoned mildly. “He’s here to help us take our medicine, to dim its bitter taste and infuse it with good feeling.” He tapped Eli on the shoulder with the knob of his cane. “Isn’t that so, Eli?”

“Well, James, when you put it that way, of course I have no choice but to agree.” Eli reached across his body and removed the cane from his shoulder.

*                                 *                                  *

At 10:30, they adjourned to the library and settled into wing chairs and on to sofas and settees for the dessert and digestifs. Pritchard, Bruce Naito, and Miles Winslow produced cigars and puffed serenely. Jason, the pre-med, coughed discreetly, but the men paid him no mind. Dante retreated to a tall mullioned window at the far end of the library, cracked to invite in the murmuring evening breeze, and there, seated in a high-backed wooden chair, he puffed from his inhaler.

Gamson-Clark, on a couch next to Harry, motioned for Eli. He leaned into her and she pressed her mouth to his ear. She clutched his arm. “You’ll be the last to speak before we vote, Eli. I heard James baiting you at dinner. Speak candidly. You just need to know that the fate of the Diversity Project does not rest with your words. Its fate was settled a long time ago. Your words are therefore not for the moment, not for this moment. Your words are for the ages. So speak from your heart.” She squeezed his arm and kissed his cheek.

Paul Harrison spoke first. “I have no quarrel with the Diversity Project,” he said. “I’m proud of our university and of our city for supporting this experiment in – for lack of a better term – reparational education.”

This creative use of the term reparations might have raised some eyebrows in other circles. Indeed, an almost imperceptible flinch did overtake Fiske Newton, while a smirk quivered through Harry’s mustache like a mouse in the tall grass. However, the other Board members merely gazed serenely at Paul Harrison. Miles Winslow puffed his stogie. Matt Prophet drummed the arm of his chair with his fingers. Bruce Naito doodled on a pad. James Pritchard sighed with satisfaction.

Paul Harrison elaborated. “One of the precepts of classical jurisprudence, dating back to Roman times, is there is neither right nor wrong, only positions or arguments stated poorly or well. While we might not want to accept fully this purely rhetorical stance on how we live and organize our lives, clearly, as responsible Tillamook State Board members, we need to assess continually the merits of the arguments for the projects we fund on behalf of our students, our faculty, and our community. On this basis, which relies on data and probabilities, not moral judgments and exhortations, we hope to choose correctly and wisely, but truly the only filter we can reliably use is rhetorical. Our choices require us to hew to the rhetorically superior argument. And on such purely rhetorical grounds, I have no doubt Tillamook State should unwind its funding for and commitment to the Diversity Project and shift the focus of its future toward the opportune development of the Rose Quarter Plant Biology and Medical Research complex.”

And so it went. The livery glided silently amongst them, backs straight as andirons, leading with their chins, refilling drinks, removing dessert dishes, fluffing pillows. All the while, hovering just above, words unspooled like pipe smoke into the cavernous room, words from Paul Harrison, first, then from the pre-medical and math students, followed by Pritchard, each uncoiling tight, intersecting, choreographed, and rehearsed arguments (resembling nothing so much as trial preparation) against the Diversity Project and on behalf of the Rose Quarter scientific complex.

The pre-medical student spoke of the excitement overcoming him as he contemplated the opportunity to learn “We are on the cusp of enormous, historically momentous scientific and medical advances, and why shouldn’t Tillamook State chart its future course institutionally and educationally to take advantage of this opportunity?”

The math major formed curlicues in the air with her fingers, elaborating on the habits of mind formed and reinforced by abstract logical and mathematical models of learning. “The Diversity Project is an incoherent, muddy mess,” she said, “the misfit, malformed, misshapen agglomeration of historical resentments and political agendas. Perhaps we should secure a place for adjudicating these injustices, but obviously the classroom is the not the appropriate venue for social engineering on this scale.”

And then the spotlight, figuratively if not literally, shifted to James Pritchard, although in this instance Eli couldn’t help noticing how, providentially, perhaps, Pritchard’s seating preference just happened to fully capture the modest light cast by an antique bascule lamp on the long table behind his chair, softening his face and applying a glow to his features that conjured medieval metaphysics, magicians and alchemists, talismans and spells from a primitive, bygone era.

Pritchard launched into a disquisition on reparational pathology, reshaping concepts from evolutionary biology to dismantle the premises that had supported and sustained the Diversity Project. It had been evident to all, he said, nearly from the beginning, that the insufficiency of these premises would doom the project to a failure. “Our students, minority and otherwise, deserve better. In biological systems, one cannot repair evolutionary failure. One can only trust that Nature, in her foresight and benevolence, will make it possible for the success of some species to arise from the failure of others.

With some shock, Eli, now more safely positioned amongst his “allies”, such as they were, realized that Pritchard’s themes echoed those he had imparted to his own students throughout much of the year. But of course Pritchard’s angle possessed its own self-serving logic.

Pritchard sat back in his large chair, almost staged by the lighting, scarf-cowl now pulled back low around the lapels of his morning coat. Eli considered it conceivable Pritchard might not even be able to see those he was now instructing. “Biological science allows us to enhance these evolutionary processes,” Pritchard continued. “The proposed Center for the Study of Plant Biology and Medical Science, will apply the most advanced interactive, systems-based, field modeling methods.” He smiled thinly. “In lay terms, this means we will host inter-species competitions, and determine via the outcomes optimal interactions for deriving medical advantage from plant DNA.”

Dante, slumped laconically in his chair, raised a finger. “James,” he said. Pritchard bared his teeth. “Infernal Dante,” he purred. “What’s on your mind?”

“Your sophistry may sway others here, James, but as your colleague in the Biology Department, I’ve been privileged to witness these contemptible histrionics for many years. I’d be more inclined to take your claims seriously if you weren’t so cravenly and openly positioned to benefit personally from the outcome of these deliberations.”

Pritchard’s palms-up “What, me worry?” gesture implicitly called for help from one of the other Board members, but with none instantly forthcoming, he instead folded together his palms prayerfully and leaned forward toward Dante. “We can discuss private matters separately, Dante. It’s beneath you to sully these proceedings with personal attacks. My status is irrelevant to the value of the Rose Quarter project. As you well know, my principled opposition to the Diversity Project long precedes any involvement in the proposed institute.”

Dante laughed, “Oh indeed I do know, James. But carry on. We all know these alleged sully-free proceedings are a kangaroo court. I don’t want to forestall the inevitable.”

As Pritchard moved to resume his soliloquy, Dante interrupted. “But I can’t let pass your mention of reparational pathology. As you well know, complex ecological systems evolve on behalf of species preservation, not their destruction. The tendency of complex ecosystems is to establish a balanced relationship between species, because this balance maintains conditions optimal for survival of the system on which all depend. This is true at the level of cell biology and for entire organisms. We know this.  We’ve all considered the difference between a dead block of wood and the living tissue of a tree, with cells sloughing away according to a regular, almost prescribed, chronology, but the tree itself, transcendent, in some cases virtually immortal, because of dynamic cell relationships that adjust to environmental variability in order to satisfy the conditions of homeostasis.”

Pritchard smiled blandly. “Dante. I’m sure that upon this winding trail on which you’ve led us, our esteemed members of our Board are now entirely lost. But you’ve also crossed domains at your own peril. When you discuss plants and cell biology, you’re in my neck of the woods.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Dante. “I could easily apply the same argument to land animals, sea animals, insects, reptiles, mammals, and humans. The point is this. You’re not a scientist. You’re merely a technician. An engineer. You have no intrinsic appreciation of the miracle of life, one that sanctifies all humans, irrespective of race. If you possessed such appreciation, you would understand that reparation is actually the beating heart of organic existence.”

Harry stood and clapped, stamping his foot. “Dante! My nigger!”

The Board members, variously, stiffened, blanched, and peered nervously into dark corners of the room. But Eli laughed. He knew Harry and Dante went way back. He knew Dante trusted Harry. And he knew that they knew love trumped language. For this reason, language (my nigger) must serve love (my nigger), not the other way around (my negro, my fine African-American friend, my base-layer human companion).

Dante smiled shyly and pulled further into his chair. He was done for the evening. The Chancellor levitated, as was her style, until she stood alongside Harry, perhaps in solidarity, perhaps merely to reaffirm her control of the meeting. “Thank you, Dante. Thank you, James. Let’s break for a moment. When we reconvene, we’ll hear from Professor Jergensen, Fiske, and Eli.”

*                                 *                                  *

John Jergensen’s health had not improved over the course of the school year. His vision had deteriorated and he suffered from angina. Although still only 63, he reduced his teaching load and began to prepare for an early retirement. To this degree, he had become largely irrelevant to the campus diversity debate. His presence at the Board meeting was more a gesture of respect and appreciation than any commitment to the weight or impact of his views about the fate of the Diversity Project.

Jergensen’s McIntyre office occupied part of an administrative suite only several doors away from Eli’s office. And while Eli initially expected to interact extensively with Jergensen, and assumed in some ways Jergensen would serve as his mentor (a counterweight to the wily and largely unwanted intercessions of his father), none of this came to pass, and Eli had been forced to engage his colleagues and his students without the proper moorings one would have otherwise expected T. State to provide its first-year faculty. After September, Eli rarely spoke with, or even saw, Jergensen. He was therefore without expectations for the message Jergensen would deliver at the Board meeting.

Jergensen shuffled his feet, pinched his glasses more tightly to his nose, and read from notes. “I’ve been less a presence on campus this year,” he said. “But no one should assume that means I’m less aware of campus events and actions and the larger meanings we can attach to them.” He stared fixedly at Pritchard. The two had never been close, Pritchard viewing Jergensen as inconsequential, and Jergensen viewing Pritchard, even before the loss of his wife, as insane.

“I don’t possess the spark of genius inflaming James Pritchard,” said Jergensen. “I’m a lesser Kierkegaard scholar, well past his prime. I’ve been at Tillamook State for 32 years.” Jergensen patted his belly, which somehow evoked for Eli the campus cop, McSorley. “Almost as long as our genocidal founder,” Jergensen smiled. “I was here when T. State was a 4th-rate college. And I’m still here now, as it has advanced to being a 3rd-rate university. Honestly, I have no problem with our station in life. The world probably needs more 3rd-rate and 2nd-rate institutions that focus on basic education needs and in their own way do God’s work. But this evening, I am breaking bread with members of our esteemed Board, Portland’s privileged princes, who cannot imagine overseeing an institution less illustrious then themselves.”

Harry spoke quietly to the Chancellor. Eli could barely make out taking no prisoners. She nodded knowingly and squeezed his hand, a reminder to all of her proximity and her concern. The Human Comforter. Another term of endearment for Gamson-Clark coined by Harry. “She should cover every bed, Eli,” Harry said, ambiguously. “Then we’d all sleep well at night.”

“I’m a Kierkegaard guy,” said Jergensen. “No one cares about Kierkegaard anymore. Most of my students have never heard of him, and for the others he’s just a crazy old Dane not, as he is for me, the original Great Dane. But here’s the thing. Kierkegaard located grace in the spaces we find and we honor in our lives – between individual humans, between humans and animals, between animals and plants, between God and creation. The spaces in-between. That’s where we experience reverence – for each other, for the awesome abundance of nature, for God. In these spaces, we find love. But to do so, we have to remain small, accept our finitude and weakness. We have to relinquish control and survive on faith.”

Paul Harrison, legal apothecary, stared impassively at Jergensen. Bruce Naito, playing the long game, tapped cigar ash. Pritchard, fully locked into his shaman persona, communicated a coiled, off-kilter energy. The meeting was not unfolding with the clockwork precision he’d anticipated. He leaned forward, rested his chin on the knob of his cane, and Eli almost laughed at his sudden resemblance to a buzzard.

“People these days don’t, can’t, appreciate Kierkegaard,” said Jergensen, “because we live in a scientific age, a period in the history of our world when machines, like the Frankenstein monster, have overtaken the humans who created them. We live in an age of instruments, of testing, of data, of god-like manipulation of subatomic worlds we can only fathom by anchoring ourselves to the machines that measure their activity. We impose ourselves on nature. But machines impose themselves on us. And so our world has become largely instrumental. In such a world, we cannot easily imagine the value of, and the need to recognize and preserve, the spaces in-between, the emptiness that no machine can measure.”

Well, well, Eli thought. Jergensen going out with style.

Jergensen now rose above himself, transcending his chicken-like appearance, his stumpy legs, his protruding belly, his sharp little nose. He rose above the appurtenances of the miserable, cloistered academic existence, hatched from his own shell, and pointed a T-Rex short arm at Paul Harrison.

“You, sir, with your rhetorical masturbation. You epitomize the modern age. You can’t abide limits. You lack humility.  You ooze contempt for the ineffable, the effulgent, without which we lack any cosmology whatsoever. In your universe, man is center and periphery, alpha and omega. Everything else is instrumental.”

Paul Harrison chuckled. “You flatter me, professor. I’m just a small-town lawyer. I pride myself on my humility. If one can make such an assertion.”

*                                 *                                  *

Fiske Newton leaped from his chair to address the gathering, his moment of high purpose having arrived. Harry had more than once let Eli know that he generally liked Fiske, would definitely place Fiske in the decent chap category (perhaps as a post-civil rights movement Dobie Gills). Although, truth be told, Harry sometimes harbored doubts about the young man’s wattage, considering that Fiske was largely aping a version of the modern student, playing at going to college, not really learning or educating himself, rather enacting a middle school play about what he imagined college should be like. Yes, Harry had even told Eli earlier in the evening, prior to their assembly in the library, Fiske was definitely the wild card.

Fashion was really where Fiske excelled. On this particular evening, the Afro-grunge, an understated overstatement amongst the overdressed nearly dead white men in the room if there ever was one. “Honorable members of the Tillamook State board,” Fiske began, smiling broadly. “Mr. Bruce. Mr. Paul. Prophet Matthew. Chancellor Gamson-Clark. Dean Pritchard. Associate Dean Harry. Professor Dante. My esteemed professor, Eli Wheeler. And everyone else. I salute you and offer my greetings and my gratitude for the privilege of speaking before you this evening.”

Yep, Harry thought. The threads. The awesome dental package. The rococo introduction. Fiske was on his game tonight.

“I’ve listened carefully to the astute observations and theories of the honorable gentlemen. I am sure your research facility will greatly benefit Portland and our own T. State. But I have also noticed the invisibility of my race in the conversation (except for the contribution of Professor Dante). No one has asked if the Diversity Project has succeeded. Has the Diversity Project helped the Negro race? And if the Project deserves to continue on that basis.”

Bruce Naito suddenly came awake. Naito held notecards in one hand and the stump of his cigar in the other, and began to wave the cigar for emphasis from his spot on the sofa next to Matthew Prophet. “Fiske, I have some Diversity Project data to share with the Board.”

“All right, Mr. Bruce. Thank you, sir.”

“But your story brings this data to life, Fiske. So perhaps we can work together for the next few minutes. A Naito-Newton Joint, as they say. Shall we?”

“All right, Mr. Bruce. Thank you, sir.”

“We all know you’ve been an exemplary student at T. State. Indeed, your example might on its own provide all the evidence or data we need to actually redouble our commitment to the Diversity Project.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bruce. Your words honor me.”

“So Fiske, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from originally?”

“I’m from Kansas City, Mr. Bruce.”

“Kansas City.  It gets pretty hot there, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, Mr. Bruce.” Fiske smiled mischievously. “If the Chancellor will pardon my language, we like to say in summer Kansas City is hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock.”

The Chancellor smiled. “I pardon you, Fiske.”

“Thank you, Fiske, for deepening our understanding of weather in Kansas City,” said Bruce Naito. “Now, can you also tell us what brought you to T. State?”

“I played football and basketball in high school, Mr. Bruce. I was pretty good. Yes, sir. Quarterback. Point guard. I also was student body president. And I drummed four years in the band. Drumline, too.”

“I assume you also were a fine student.”

“Oh yes, I was a fine student.”

“A fine student like you. Athlete. Musician. Student leader. You’re Stanford material, son.”

“Yes, Mr. Bruce. I am Stanford material.”

“But you’re at T. State.”

“Yes, sir. Lots of colleges recruited me. Including Stanford. But I busted my knee up pretty good in a football game my senior year, and the offers dried up.”

“I see. The offers dried up.”

“Yes, Mr. Bruce.”

“How did you hear about T. State?”

“Well, Mr. Bruce. T. State sent recruiters to my high school. You might say T. State recruited me for my future promise as a human being, just like Missouri and Penn State and Stanford recruited me for my football.”

“Ah. Recruited you for your future promise as a human being.”

“Yes, Mr. Bruce.”

“If T. State hadn’t recruited you, what would you be doing?”

“I don’t know. Hustling, I suppose.”

“Hustling.”

Bruce Naito’s eyes narrowed. He stood up and stepped closer to Fiske Newton, almost within poking distance. He waved his cigar at Fiske Newton, the stump still warm, the smoke acrid in Fiske Newton’s nose. “You didn’t attend T. State right out of high school, did you, Fiske?”

“No sir. I didn’t.”

“You didn’t graduate from high school, did you?”

“No sir. I didn’t.”

“Where were you in the three years before you came to T. State?”

“I was in prison.”

“You were in prison.”

“Yes Mr. Bruce. Prison.”

“How did you end up in prison?”

“I was selling drugs. Hustling.”

Fiske’s ready smile had vanished behind a cloud. Bruce Naito circled him like a pugilist. “So tell us, Fiske. How does a young man in prison for selling drugs end up at T. State? And why would your path, from prison to Portland, compel the sober, responsible members of our Board to choose the Diversity Project over the new medical research complex?”

Fiske didn’t pivot with Bruce Naito. He peered intently at the floor and only after two Naito circumnavigations did he elevate his gaze and speak. “Mr. Bruce. I won’t defend my actions. I will only say this. We human beings all live in relation to a line that bisects our souls. On one side of the line, we live in light that brightens the future with hope. On the other side of the line, we live in shadow that darkens the future with despair. Unfortunately, for young Negro males such as myself, the line separating light from shadow is perilously thin. Our white counterparts might, from time to time, bounce up against this line, but the barrier holds, and they rebound back toward the light, perhaps wiser for their brush with the darkness, but in other ways undamaged, their hopes for the future untarnished and secure. Young black males discover early in life that, as a rule, they live much closer to the line, and that when they brush up against the line, it will not hold them or shield them from the darkness. This existential line shatters more easily upon American Negroes than it does upon American whites. And when the line shatters, young black males do tumble into darkness, and all too often they do not find their way home.”

If Bruce Naito had indeed allied himself with Fiske Newton, in the moment other Board members could only with difficulty, and only with resolute suspension of disbelief, have perceived this alliance. However, Fiske Newton’s uncommon eloquence might have hinted to the most discerning of these Board members the hidden threads connecting “Mr. Bruce” and Fiske. Naito-Newton Joint indeed. Paul Harrison was not the only Board member versed in trial preparation.

The point had been made sufficiently clear. Knees blown up. College scholarships withdrawn. Upward mobility denied. Dreams dissolved. The line crossed, leading to … fill in the blanks. Hustling. The devil one knows.  Prison. The devil one expects to know.

But the T. State recruiters had seen something worth contesting and fighting for in the soul of Fiske Newton. They had remained in touch with him in prison, supplied him with books, with counseling, with GED instruction, with promises and encouragement. Fiske Newton had thrived in prison. Remade himself in prison. Become a preacher in prison (although motivational speaker might properly speaking be more accurate). Obtained an early release from prison. On the condition that he attend college at Tillamook State University in Portland, Oregon.

Bruce Naito wasted little time getting to the point. Flesh made Word. Fiske Newton transposed into factoids that would speak to the other Board members. How many Fiske Newtons the school had delivered from darkness (or threat of darkness) into light (or promise of light). How public education and public policy required commitment to the least among us, that raising them up would, over time, raise up all of us. That this investment trumped any narrow or technical commitment to real estate development and corporate research as the nexus of the partnership between higher education and private business interests.

*                                 *                                  *

Enter Eli.

Harry had previously given Eli his own pre-trial preparation. “Eli. When it’s your turn to bloviate, remember two things. First, you can’t out-blow the windbags who will precede you, so no need to try. Keep your message simple. The Board will spend enough time parsing its meaning, if only to decide if they want to ride you out of town on a rail this evening or take time to first tar and feather your little ass. Second, screen out everyone who doesn’t matter. And in your case, the only person who matters is the swing voter on the Board. My guess is your swing voter will be Matt Prophet. So use Superintendent-speak. Whisper sweet nothings. Make him feel special.”

Eli knew Prophet had almost certainly read his essay in the Week-Old Cheddar, and while Eli did not expect the calm and soothing ex-nuclear weapons supervisor to overreact as had many on campus, he imagined the essay had not endeared him. It was also interesting that Harry would regard Prophet as a swing vote on the Diversity Project. Eli did not understand how this could be so, given Prophet’s own evangelism on behalf of the Baseline Essays.

Harry liked to praise Prophet for having “brought a steady hand to the tiller.” Prophet had never been a Diversity Project partisan. But he also had never openly opposed its goals, and while he maintained cordial relations with the other Board members, including James Pritchard, and was genuinely excited about the Rose Quarter initiative, he never tipped his hand before a Board vote, and was known to enjoy heave-ho’ing a wrench into the works now and then.

Harry and the Chancellor had also warned Eli that he would not get far before encountering cross-examination from Paul Harrison and acid-laced interpolations from Pritchard. “Paul Harrison will try to throw you off balance, and essentially neuter you or render you harmless,” Harry had said. “Pritchard will simply crouch behind the potted plants and shoot poisoned darts from the blowgun collection in his office. His goal will be to destroy you. Perhaps literally.”

With these concerns foremost in Harry’s mind as the convocation floated in unison from banquet table to library, he grabbed Eli by the elbow and drew him into an alcove hosted by a stone gargoyle. “Always a good idea to be late to your own execution,” Harry said. He winked at the gargoyle.

Eli, his stomach in knots, not knowing whether to laugh or throw up, peered expectantly at Harry.

“It will be okay,” Harry said, now serious. He didn’t fully understand Eli, whose earnest disregard for the lighter, fluffier side of life often rendered him monochromatic and obscure. But he liked Eli and, understood the anxiety this moment had crystallized for his friend. “So here’s what I recommend, young fellow,” Harry said. “Your executioner is likely to be Paul Harrison. So when you speak, stand (or sit) as close to him as you can.”

Eli cocked an eyebrow, unsure why proximity to his foe would benefit him.

“Just a classic Muhammad Ali move, Eli,” Harry said. “If you’re draped all over him, he can’t punch you.”

*                                 *                                  *

And now, his time having arrived, Eli wasted no words. While not precisely clear on what he was supposed to divulge about his past, what information had already been made available to the Board, and how his revelations were supposed to influence Board proceedings, Eli dimly appreciated that coming clean might be personally therapeutic, while also conceivably effective in provoking Pritchard to disclose more evidence of his own perfidy. With images from his canopy flight through Forest Park still fresh in his mind, Eli had determined, mostly, to throw caution, and himself, to the winds. And, with eyes fixed upon the Matthew Prophet, these winds carried him to places he would not have imagined.

Eli rose from his seat moved swiftly to a spot that allowed him to directly face Matthew Prophet, which, as it happened, also placed him immediately behind and to the left of the wing chair occupied by Paul Harrison. “I’m with Dante and Harry,” he said. “And with Fiske and the Chancellor. Our Diversity Project efforts are reparational. The honor is in the repair. I definitely would not have said this at the start of the year, but relationships I’ve developed with my students and recent events, including my experience with my students in Albina when the rioting started, have altered my perspective.”

Paul Harrison, clearly discomfited, rocked his chair and twisted, without much success, to pull Eli within his field of vision.

“There’s a second thing I want to say. Important similarities exist between the Rose Quarter medical research institute and the Diversity Project. The promise of plant biology and genomic science is on restoring physical health. Obviously medicine is about repair and reparation. But race relations in this country literally make us insane. Repair in the context of the Diversity Project is about restoring our collective mental health.”

Matthew Prophet, a short man with cropped grey hair and skin the color of warm caramel, a cranberry turtleneck beneath a dark blue blazer, nodded at each of Eli’s initial remarks and scribbled a few notes on his pad.

Angered by Eli’s positional tactics, which he had not anticipated, and which placed him at a disadvantage he could not abide, Paul Harrison planted palms against the arms of his chair and vaulted to his feet. His face flushed, mouth gashed, easy serpentine manner a memory. Not wanting to re-cede any advantage to Eli, he pressed fingers to his temples and narrowed his eyes, one of his stock courtroom poses. “Are you a plant biologist or a medical doctor, Eli? Because if you’re not, we’re wasting our precious time.”

“We will vote in 15 minutes, Paul. Let Eli speak,” said the Chancellor. She wasn’t smiling.

Paul Harrison stepped toward Eli, removing the Chancellor from his field of vision, his bile evident, his manner aggressive and menacing. “And what about the craven behavior from your childhood about which we’ve recently learned? Doesn’t that behavior also discredit anything you might actually have to say on the subject of race?”

Matthew Prophet shifted in his chair. James Pritchard cracked his knuckles. Bruce Naito stared at the floor. Fiske Newton wiped his glasses. Harry hunched forward, no longer amused, poised for some nameless action. The Chancellor rested her arm on his, holding him back.

“I was asked to speak this evening on behalf of the Diversity Project because of the so-called craven behavior to which you’re alluding,” said Eli quietly, Paul Harrison’s face only feet away from his. “I won’t defend my alleged behavior, or deny it. Or confirm it. But I also won’t let it become the focus of this conversation. So sit down and listen to what I have to say.” Eli then strode across the room to the high, straight-backed wooden chair previously used by Dante to gain access to the night air. Backlit by moonlight, he closed his eyes. For a moment, the others in the room may have wondered if Eli had gone to sleep. But he wasn’t sleeping. He was returning to the day in his life when everything changed, the day from which he’d been running for almost 15 years. The day Lawrence died.

%d bloggers like this: