Calvin’s Ghost

A Story of Race, Recognition, and Retribution

In Calvin’s Ghost, civil engineering student Shahid Al-Haaq, arriving like the evening, confronts new Western Culture professor Eli Wheeler in the vestibule of Tillamook State’s McIntyre Hall. It is the summer of 1991, in Portland, Oregon.  Rebel son of a renowned American historian, Eli’s subversive vision of slave rebellion and slave freedom in America roils the T. State campus. Shahid knows Eli’s façade of self-assurance conceals a fractured past, born of childhood violence and strife. Shahid haunts Eli, pressing him to squirrel out his secret. But Eli knows Shahid conceals secrets of his own. Circling Shahid, encircled by Shahid, Eli alone comprehends that Shahid sees himself as a prophetic instrument of racial judgment and retribution. In the tradition of William Styron and Russell Banks, Calvin’s Ghost intermingles colorful characters and quotidian moments of grace and folly with themes of race and identity, innocence and guilt, and the heavy weave of the past upon our souls.

Chapter Introductions

Pilgrimage – Forsaking God. Splintered on storm-wracked rocks. Splayed on granite shores. Stone scabbards pierced my groin. Bitter winds stabbed my cheeks. The scallops did not taste good.

1991 / Summer

Tobias / Letter (August 28, 1991) – Dear Eli. I assume you are settling in and preparing for your first classes. A few words of advice from your old man. I’ve made no secret of my distaste for your decision to accept employment at Tillamook State. The school is a backwater, a stagnant pool in a God-forsaken part of the country. You deserve better. Still, perhaps you can engage in a bit of reclamation work with the students there. Spruce up your publishing record. Then move to a place that suits your talents and your temperament.

1 / Injuns – Eli dragged the hand dolly across the quad. He backed along the cobbled walkway, stopping sometimes to peer across his shoulder. After Berkeley, Tillamook State communicated self-contained, quiet dignity. It was a Sunday, more than a week before classes were to start. The campus was empty. Eli nodded at brownstone buildings rimming the quad, soaked in ivy, solid but unimposing, passerines diving into the ivy and calling to each other. Flower beds, overflowing still with petunias, marigolds, and geraniums, fronted each building. Nearby, a booted campus policeman surveyed the scene from the saddle of a horse. The policeman smiled. Put a finger to his hat.

2 / False Prophets – Harry Hamish hung like a bat from the ceiling in his office. He unwound this way every afternoon. The idea was to go limp, empty his mind and let each muscle in his body slacken. He liked the anti-gravity boots. But try as he might to clear his head–and, truth be told, he wasted little energy in the effort – prurient thoughts, like night creatures, crept back in.

3 / Name of the Rose – “You could make a movie about roses,” Jane was telling Eli. “And you would have all the elements for a great story: sex and violence, romance and intrigue, honor and betrayal.” They stood in the rose garden. Jane’s clippers flashed through the thorny branches, snipping and snapping like an angry mutt. Eli liked Jane. She was all business and she spoke her mind.

4 / Blade Won’t Sit Down – These were the statistics. The cold, hard facts. Since 1988, Tillamook State had admitted 3,200 students into the Diversity Project. More than 2,200 were African-American. Another 600 were Latino. The remainder were Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Southeast Asians. Administrators for the program had worked to establish relations with inner-city schools across the western part of the country. We will offer a full scholarship to any student who can meet these simple eligibility standards, they said. A family income under $35,000 and a B average through the last two years of high school. That was all. Poor whites did not qualify for the program. The administrators distributed glossy trifolds describing advantages of an education at Tillamook State, purposes and goals of the program, and support systems in place for students who needed help of any sort. We have dedicated ourselves, they said, with the assistance of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, we have dedicated ourselves to the success, both at Tillamook State and in life, of historically disadvantaged minorities.

5 / Northeast Corridor – A shroud descended upon Eli as the classroom emptied. Through the remainder of the week and into the next, his unhappiness only deepened, drilling like a diamond-tipped augur toward his core. He sleepwalked through his classes, shaken by knowledge that Shahid almost certainly would return to torment him. In class, the students were lethargic and unresponsive, as if they, too, were waiting for something to happen, something larger and fleshy. Something more alive than the dry bones of history Eli swept before them.

6 / Squeeze That Charmin – Rose City Racecourse occupies a lowland shelf where the Willamette River kinks, nestled on its west bank in the shadow of majestic Forest Park. The horse track camps beside Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge 5.1, with a clear view north toward the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland and south toward an industrial panorama embracing the Swan Island Ship Repair Yard, petroleum docks, barge and rail car fabrication plants, bulk cement import facilities, two grain elevators, and Port of Portland Terminal.

1991 / Autumn

Tobias / Letter (November 4, 1991) – Dear Eli. What is the matter with you, boy? Since you continue to insist we not speak directly, I am resisting the urge to pick up the phone right now. But I want you to understand how upset I am about this new development concerning the Chalmers in February.

7 / Vacant Hearts – “Yo Pro! Saw you at the track yesterday. Howja go?” Gary waved merrily. He sat with his friends by the window, stroking his chin and grinning. An autumn chill had settled in now that it was November. Gary and his friends wore flannel shirts, except for Jake Jackson, who wore long johns. None had shaved, their beards at least, in a few days.

8 / Carnivorous Plants – Eli sat in his office, sipping a Coke. Outside his window, starlings swooped and darted, their yellow beaks slashing like knives. The birds roosted in the thick ivy, hundreds of them. Sometimes Eli reached his hand through the window and shook the branches, just to see how many of the birds he could flush. The campus was hard into November now, and with the coming of winter, and the rains, he wondered if the birds would soon be gone.

9 / Pace Makes the Race – The running track at T. State did not encircle a football field. The track lay by itself, at the base of a grassy slope on the northern rim of the campus, surrounded by dilapidated wood frame houses. T. State students rented most of these buildings, with others occupied by some of the more peripheral offices of the school administration. A handful of fraternities and sororities, including Alpha House, the black student fraternity, sat directly atop the bluff, with fine views upon the river. Bars, dives, and warehouses not yet uplifted by gentrification bounded the enclave to the north and east. A gritty, grimy neighborhood, part student ghetto, part administrative wasteland, a portal to the harder realities of urban education.

10 / Stooping – One evening in December, while driving to the track, Harry told Eli about his brother. Jordan was a mathematical savant. He couldn’t care for himself. With the exception of Harry, he lacked any meaningful capacity to relate to other people. Nonetheless, he possessed remarkable arithmetic abilities. His brain could instantly calculate complex ratios and probabilities, and was also a compendium of data about racing, from bloodlines to past performances, race charts, and mutuel payoffs. When it came to horse racing, Jordan possessed a photographic memory.

1992 / Winter

Tobias / Letter (January 5, 1992) – Dear Eli. I arrive on Wednesday afternoon, February 5, at 4:30. Will it be possible for you to meet me at the gate? As you apparently know, Tillamook State is putting me up at the Heathman Hotel, in downtown Portland. Hugh Smalley said he spoke with you about shuttling me back and forth to campus. I hope this does not inconvenience you. Perhaps you would join me for dinner the night I arrive. My treat, of course. Why don’t you pick out a place for us? I would enjoy the opportunity to sample Northwest cuisine. There is a Northwest cuisine, is there not?

11 / Parsonic Virtues – Eli stood by the window of the terminal, staring out on to the tarmac, into the rain. He recalled his father’s letter from the previous September, in which Tobias imagined how Hugh Smalley would festoon the tarmac for his arrival. Eli wondered if his solitary sentinel presence at the terminal gate would offer Tobias sufficient quantities of festooning.

12 / The Fall – He climbs the wooden stairs at the back of the building. He plants each foot carefully, each step a singularity, the moist air a-hum, stairwell narrow enough that he can guide his progress with a hand sliding along each wall. Up and up he goes, to the little door at the top providing entrance to the loft. The door opens easily enough. He scoots his head down to enter, then drops to his knees.

13 / Social Death – A student escorted Tobias to Eli’s office precisely at 8:00. She was the perfect coed, a minx of a thing wrapped in red angora and plaid wool. “I enjoyed meeting you, Professor Wheeler,” she said, clearly under the spell of the great man’s luminous intellect, copies of his books pressed fetchingly to her bosom. “This has been an exciting morning for me.”

14 / Gwendolyn – Eli ditched the luncheon with his father. He saw no point in putting himself through more grief, and simply did not bother to show up at the doorway to the John Samuel Smith Building on the appointed hour. From his office window, through the storm-drenched darkness, to the pool of light in the doorway, he saw Hugh Smalley shepherding Tobias, Lando, Taka, and a crew of compatriots into a waiting red van, Tobias bemused, to say the least, and if he was suffering in any way from the emotional intensity of the Roundtable, Eli saw no outward evidence. They piled into the van, Tobias clapping Lando on the shoulder and laughing.

15 / The Original Librarian – Gwendolyn’s gift to Eli, such as it was, had not eased his mind regarding Shahid. Eli blamed Shahid for his troubles at the school, his sense of being wronged, of being a scapegoat for a racial imbroglio that preceded him and that did not directly concern him. Shahid, with his pompous, dour ways and his angry, dark eyes. Shahid with his encyclopedic knowledge of history and his newspaper editorship and his civil engineering specialization. Eli had a hunch about Shahid.

17 / The System – By the end of the morning, Tobias hadn’t called, which rankled Eli. He took it as a parting shot. Tobias, getting the final word by not actually saying anything. Finally, around noon, Eli phoned the Heathman himself. The deskman there said Tobias had checked out an hour before. He had taken the shuttle to the airport. He was on his way back to Princeton.

18 / Chekhov’s Gun – Eli woke. Wind whipped through the towering oak behind the house, branches moaning like old men with arthritic limbs, gibbous moon slanting pale light through the ballroom window, waltzing across the parquet. The door from the rear stairwell had flown open. The wind bustled through it, spraying leaves and moisture into the room.

19 / There is No Card Catalog – At 11:15 pm on a Wednesday evening in early March, Eli hunched low in a beanbag in the Pit at the rear of Kroll Library. He was reading Borges. The Library of Babel (At times I have traveled for many nights through corridors and along polished stairways without finding a single librarian). He hummed softly. A Talking Heads song from Stop Making Sense looped through his head. Life during Wartime. Eli had attended a Talking Heads concert in the Berkeley Bowl as a graduate student, and the song still spoke to him. Something about the beat, roughly cradling David Byrne’s warble, deeply affected Eli.

20 / Slam Deli – Only a few weeks before, Eli had joined 65 students, staff, and faculty to race in the famed Kroll-K, a running frolic, five times around the library’s lowest level, precisely one kilometer, cheered on by students perched in the stacks and lining the overhang of the Great Hall above, who by tradition showered the runners with various paper items, from confetti to toilet paper to paper cups (and the occasional paper clip and thumb tack). At the far end of the Great Hall campus dignitaries had assembled on the Parapet, which also overlooked the race course below. The Original Librarian stood there with Chancellor Gamson-Clark, Dean Pritchard, and Associate Dean Hamish, Gamson-Clark waggling a ribbon-festooned wicker basket overflowing with books from Powell’s, Portland’s legendary Burnside Avenue book emporium, and brightly wrapped Tillamook cheeses, this basket the coveted prize that Chancellor Gams would bestow upon the winner of the race.

1992 / Spring

Tobias / Letter (April 3, 1992) – Dear Eli. How are you my son? We’ve heard nary a word from you. Please write me and your mother straight away. As you know, I am not a stickler for filiopiety. From the perspective of your old Dad, we are just two guys making our way in the world. I cede all claims upon you! You are debt-free! But your mother? She remains old-fashioned and traditional. Her children never fully released from her apron strings. So please, son. Reattach yourself.

21 / Dawn of the Shadow Puppets – The beginning of the third term of the academic year found Eli in Seven Pints, a divey Irish pub half a mile north of the campus, on the main commercial drag adjacent to the running track, and not far from the fraternities and off-campus student housing. The pub drew Eli out of his solitary existence. He warmed to the pub food, the bitter pints, the televised basketball, the leaded-pane ambience, its antipodean mysteries.

22 / Jumble – One week later, just before noon on a lovely Portland spring Saturday, Sebby slipped the growling yellow Lambo into the parking space next to Harry and Eli, who were standing by Eli’s beater brown Datsun (Harry’s Triumph lolling in the shop on this particular day). The Lambo engine grumbled and quivered, then quieted. Scissor wings ascended. Sunglasses flapping on the cord around his neck, Sebby clambered from the low-slung driver seat. The menacing wings sliced down once again.

23 / Vanport – Fiske Newton smiled at Eli. “We appreciate the opportunity to learn more about our history, Professor.” He lightly tipped his cap, a smart, brown and gold, argyle wool pattern.

24 / Rodney King – Yes, they’d traveled to Vanport in a van, a battered red Chevy van, seating 16, owned by the university, Eli at the helm, but now as they slipped free from the Columbia Slough, it was not simply a van, but a boat disembarking, with skies now lowering, and water now rising, and Eli experienced the familiar tightness in his chest, his breath constricted, his palms moistening. Eli pulled on to North Columbia and headed east toward MLK, passing the water treatment plant, passing County Vector Control, and on, passing the Airgas plant, passing razor-wire lots with piping stacked like cordwood, the road itself ventricular, pulsing industrial heart, ribbed by railway crossings, railways sidings, Columbia River to the north, Portland city to the south, the road itself a boundary, river escarpment rising to the north, small, single-level homes on large land plots dotted with out-buildings, ringed by chain link, squatting to the south, the sky wide and grey to the east, the prospect before him strange and cinematic, setting for a contemporary western, maybe The Last Picture Show or maybe My Own Private Idaho, the passing scene seamlessly transitioning from rural industrial to slapdash residential, and back again, not quite Meth country, but close enough, the road itself a slurry of pickup trucks, dump trucks, 18-wheel trucks, the trucks themselves speaking to Eli of his alien and uncertain status traversing this boundary, in which he did imagine himself pulled into a movie, out of reality and into a dream, but a dream not his, a dream he could not own and could not control.

25 / End Game – Harry called Eli after 9:00 pm on Wednesday evening following the field trip to Vanport and Albina. Eli had been feeling poorly and was wearing his robe, sipping a mug of cocoa. The rioting in Los Angeles had spread like a contagion throughout major urban centers around the U.S, including Portland (perhaps most notably Portland, given its modest and compacted black American population). Chigger’s savage beat-down of one of Albina’s walking wounded unleashed a storm of outrage. If nothing else, Chigger had made damn sure the emotional balance tipped toward righteous venom, and indeed the crowd instantly struck back upon the police like a coiled snake.

26 / Gym Rat – In September 1969, Eli was a 9-year old, freshly-commissioned 4rd-grader, all innocence and watchful awareness. Was he happy? Certainly not. But Eli was expectant. At recess, he sprinted with his mates, out the back door of the classroom to the playfield. The stately elms filtering sunlight. The blue asphalt warming. Eli loved school, especially his short, attentive teacher, Mrs. Greenberry, with her Jackie Kennedy-Onassis bouffant and perfume smelling of earth and twigs and leaves. He loved the trees at his school. He loved the playground asphalt and the recess kickball games, and while he had no words for the spirit of the season, he might later have described it as autumnal complexity emergent.

27 / Seven Bridges – Harry and Rebecca arrived early to watch the start of the Seven Bridges. They beat the crowd. They sat together on a threadbare blanket, knees touching, knuckling coffee mugs close to their faces for warmth. Everything was peaceful and still in the low morning fog settled on the river.

28 / Presence of the Board – 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.

29 / Stripped – Stripped played Dillon Gym late October of Eli’s senior year. He’d slipped Cecilia a note in class. He’d been sliding toward the back of the classroom, eying the seat open between Bobby Princess and Shiree, but Cecilia swiveled her hip into the aisle, timing her move to ensure he brushed against her. Eli stopped, his heart a snare drum.

30 / Spin – Eli sat upright in the straight-backed wooden chair, mute, eyes closed, unable to separate threads of guilt that bound him like Gulliver, leaving him prone and burdened by filament cords, knowing only the sensation of Board members crawling upon him like ants, small men climbing about him, tickling hairs on his legs and chest, poking and inspecting him. He didn’t much enjoy this sensation and opened his eyes to dispel these pests from his body.

31 / Listen to Your Junkman – “Cedar Field and DC Loser on Closing Day. Gets no better than this, man.” Harry pointed to the racetrack infield, where Othello sat on a tower of hay bales peering at his guitar. Next to Othello, emblazoned for all to see was a glass case piled high with bills. On the other side of the bales an identical glass case squatted in muted darkness. “And check it out, Eli. P4 payout guaranteed at $1 million. There’s the money right there.” Harry laughed and thumped Eli between the shoulder blades. “Junior Buddy! Tonight we tear down the house!”

32 / Bulkington – Eli toured Rupert around the track after the 3rd race. They exited the Turf Club and descended to the main grandstand, the cavernous wagering parlor beneath, the paddock, the rail, and finally on their path back upstairs, passed the entrance to the ANCIENT PASSAGE. Eli rattled the knob to the door, and was surprised to discover the door wasn’t locked. Returning to his childhood slyndering days, with a glance at Rupert. “Feeling adventurous?”

33 / Albumen – Lawrence’s death blanched Eli’s family. Quite literally. Almost overnight, Eli’s mother’s hair whitened. Evangeline, in 7th grade, wouldn’t leave her room, and retreated to elementary school fantasies. The police retained her Raggedy Annie and Andy dolls as evidence, but a network of Princeton mothers replaced this collection with a new set of frontier rag dolls (along with a pair of Captain & Tennille action figure dolls, which thereafter stood ironic guard over Evangeline each night on her bedside table and was the only gift that bloomed even the hint of a smile on Evangeline’s broad, pale brow).

34 / Valedictory – Eli burst through the rose-festooned gateway to the track, heedless of the traffic, weaving between cars. He leaped the median and without hesitation flung himself in front of a semi-truck motoring down St. Helens toward the warehouses. He veered toward the footpath on Bridge Avenue, the spur ascending into the dark arboreal shadows of Forest Park, carrying him toward the St. Johns Bridge, little more than half a mile away.

Hogback Blues – It ain’t cool to cast a shadow, to darken the doorway, to block the light. It ain’t cool to tail the Devil, to school the fool, to spit on black cat, to chew hogback fat.

For publishing inquiries, please contact Mitchell S. Waters at Curtis Brown, LTD, Ten Astor Place, New York, NY 10003.