61 / Reparational Pathology
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. Speak from your heart.” The Chancellor 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.”
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 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. Of course, Pritchard’s angle possessed its own self-serving logic. But nonetheless. Eli’s stomach torqued.
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. 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. What we all know is 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. Complex ecosystems 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. Cells will slough according to a regular, almost prescribed, chronology, but the tree itself remains transcendent, in some cases virtually immortal, because of dynamic cell relationships that adjust to environmental variability to satisfy 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. “Hoo-ha! Dante! My nigger!”
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.”
62 / Kiekegaard
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. 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. When Eli first arrived on campus the previous summer, he expected to interact extensively with Jergensen. He assumed Jergensen would serve as his mentor (a counterweight to the wily and largely unwanted intercessions of his father). However, 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 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 become 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 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. 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.”
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 in our marvelous creation becomes merely instrumental and contingent.”
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.”
63 / Naito-Newton Joint
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 liked Fiske, would clearly place Fiske in the decent chap category (perhaps as a post-civil rights movement Dobie Gills). Although, truth be told, Harry also said, he sometimes harbored doubts about the young man’s wattage, considering that Fiske was largely imitating a version of the modern student, pretending to go 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 surely the wild card.
Fashion was really where Fiske excelled. On this evening, the Afro-grunge, an understated overstatement amongst the overdressed nearly dead white men in the room. “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.” Fiske chuckled. “Naito-Newton Joint,” he said. “You crack me up, Mr. Bruce.”
“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.”
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. “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.
64 / Muhammad Ali
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 whether immediately to ride you out of town on a rail or 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. Use superintendent-speak. Whisper sweet nothings. Make him feel special.”
Eli assumed Prophet had read his essay in the Week-Old Cheddar. Eli did not expect the calm and soothing ex-nuclear weapons supervisor to overreact, as had many on campus. However, Eli also imagined the essay (perhaps providentially for the fate of the Diversity Project) had not endeared him to Prophet, given Prophet’s own evangelism on behalf of the Afrocentric Baseline Essays.
Harry praised 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 with a blow-gun and shoot poisoned darts. 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. “Here’s what I recommend, young fellow,” Harry said. “Your executioner is likely to be Paul Harrison. For this reason, 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.”
65 / Quoth the Craven, Nevermore
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 agree with Dante and Harry,” he said. “And with Fiske and the Chancellor. Our Diversity Project efforts are reparational. The honor is in the repair.”
Eli paused and stared at the floor, as if to ponder for himself the implications of his next words. “My entire academic and intellectual development – my focus on economic markets and social transformation – has positioned me to view the idea of repair skeptically, as a crude kind of social engineering. However, 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 on this matter.”
Paul Harrison, clearly discomfited, rocked his chair and twisted, without much success, to pull Eli within his field of vision. Eli angled further away from Harrison, holding Prophet firmly in his gaze. “Consider this irony,” said Eli. “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. Please sit down and listen to what I have to say.”
Harry, also still spring-loaded, relaxed into his chair and smiled. “Ah yes,” he chuckled. “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore! Quoth the Craven, Nevermore.”
Eli 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.
66 / Asymptotic 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.
The Board members eyed him expectantly. Eli breathed quietly, happy to be by the window, night air cool on his neck, the presence of the Board less cloying at this distance. Just outside, the roosted starlings, huddled together, their own quiet breathing meshed with his own for Eli a hushed singularity. “We all have backstories,” he said finally. “We can call it backspin. And Dante will understand this because the spin is a matter of fluid dynamics, convergence of bodies, each within its own uniquely determined slipstream, with an influence (and a limit to influence) determined by the asymptotic curve of its trajectory.”
Dante now full-on Underdog, gazing quizzically at Eli, suddenly laughed “You’re putting us scientists to shame, Eli. The Magnus Effect, yes, the spin on the basketball dropped from a sheer height. It will not drop in a straight line, but veer out in an ever-flattening curve.”
“And with millions of these spinning balls in flight, imagine the turbulence.”
“Fascinating,” Dante mused.
Pritchard bent his cane upon his knee, as if to challenge its own capacity for asymptotic curvature. “This is what we’re up against,” stage-whispering to Miles Winslow. “About which, my poor friend Allan Bloom, now tunneled by AIDS, has written about, you see? Degradation of the disciplines, willy-nilly breaching of boundaries that preserve a civilization, degradation of discipline itself. Everyone now a scientist! Oh, so rich, Miles, so rich.”
“The day we toured Albina,” Eli said. “It was April 29th, Fiske will remember this. On that day, we drove down MLK. The street was wet and slick. Along the way, we passed a boy – a white kid – alone on a basketball court. Skinny kid with long arms, maybe 14, not in school. White shadow on a grey and rainy day. The boy spun the ball high into the wet sky. Five, six, seven times. Each time, with amazingly tight backspin. Each time maybe getting it 30, 40 feet into the air. Enough elevation that on the descent, with the backspin, the ball plunging back toward earth, smacking the asphalt, precipitating a carom, at quite a harsh angle, and with enormous speed, back toward the boy.”
“I remember that boy with his basketball, Professor Wheeler.” said Fiske. “Yes, sir! Something else it was! One of those old red, white, and blue ABA basketballs, if I recall.”
Eli staring directly at Matt Prophet. “The physics here being the ball wants to arc outward, away from the boy – its momentum propulsively outward, yes, because of the divergent impact of the spin on the airflow around the ball. But when the ball strikes asphalt, its considerable forward momentum stops, slamming it backwards toward the boy.”
“We Board members play tennis, Eli,” said Paul Harrison, ascending toward peak exasperation. “We’re familiar with backspin. What does any of this have to do with either the Diversity Project or your own tremulous hold on your job? What is your point?”
“The point being, we do not encounter each other, or even ourselves, via linear pathways. Our arcs always bend, such that we never fully or directly or cleanly encounter each other at all. We always, because of this spin, remain mysteries, to others, but also to ourselves. And when we crash, we rebound radically away from the direction our momentum was carrying us. Much to our own surprise, as well as to the surprise of others.”
Matt Prophet smiled and held out his arms as if to embrace Eli. “Wonderful, Eli. Tell us about your backstory. Your backspin. Your curvature.”
“Yes, Eli, tell us,” Pritchard murmured. “Disclose to us your dark asymptotic mysteries.”
Chancellor Gamson-Clark nodded at Eli, warming his heart with conjured sensations of hot chocolate mugs and wool lap blankets, crackling fires and frost-striped mornings. The womb-warmth of safety. Everything would be okay. Eli could survive this. He folded his hands prayerfully and began.
“My younger brother Lawrence killed himself when I was 17 years old. Several weeks after he died, my father found a letter I’d written Lawrence the previous summer, in his desk drawer. Lawrence had been at scout camp in New Mexico. In my letter, I told him I wished he’d never been born and that I hoped he would never return from scout camp, and that he would simply wander into the desert and die and become one of those bleached cow skulls with empty eye sockets you find in the desert. My father gave the letter to the police. Evidence. They opened a case file for me and spent some hours interviewing me. Then said they needed nothing more from me. That I was free to go home. And that on my 18th birthday, they would destroy the file.”
“Oh Eli,” Chancellor Gamson-Clark dabbing her eyes. “What are we to make of this?”
“I believe there’s more,” Pritchard said. “Enlighten us further, Eli. Connect the dots.”
Eli labored, considering this revelation, one secret among many, these the filament cords, his burden to snap each, one by one.
“There is more, yes. In my letter, I told Lawrence he reminded me of the black kids at my school who couldn’t get their shit together. I told Lawrence how much his own failure to get his own shit together frustrated me and my father. I even used a term favored by Tobias, that he, Lawrence, had no relish of salvation about him.”
“Hamlet,” Pritchard stage-whispered to Miles Winslow. “Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes.”
“And I used the term ‘white nigger’ to describe his friend Jasper. And I told Lawrence to pull his finger out of his black ass and lick himself clean.”
“What are we to make of this?” the Chancellor again asked, the information not new to her, but devastating nonetheless when delivered under present circumstances by the star witness, a kind of personal self-cancellation from which none in the room could fully distance themselves.
“There is no leaving this behind,” Eli spoke softly. “Truthfully, kids all used language of this sort at that time. But we do use our minds to escape our bodies, which is the same thing as to say we do use our minds to escape our history. We try. I certainly tried. My entire life in the academy has been about constructing mental abutments against my actions as a boy.”
67 / Wastrel Tide
“What are we doing?” Dante, now standing, turning slowly to pull everyone within his gaze, his words punctuated sharps and flats, black ivory speaking in a descant voice to its white counterparts. “Our focus is on racial semantics of Eli’s letter to Lawrence prior to his suicide? Why torture this poor boy? Who benefits from this personal unburdening? What is the relevance?”
“I’d like to reply to Dante.” Matt Prophet spoke softly, nodding toward the Chancellor, seeking her permission to address everyone, although all (including Prophet) knew such permission was not necessary. But this was Prophet’s way. Tamping down the assertive authority of his voice. Speaking slowly, carefully, deliberately, so that each of his words would count for more in the final tally of any conversation or debate.
“I’m guessing even Eli would agree his difficult and painful childhood experience with his brother condenses in a meaningful way the collective white response to black Americans, which is essentially a psychological and emotional response. Eli’s letter to his brother captures precisely the language of racial subjugation – with its base, coprophagic associations. If you will pardon my crudity, Eli asks his brother to eat shit and die. And this has been essentially the mandate assigned to black Americans, who white Americans deeply and irreducibly identify with corruption, waste, and death.”
Matt Prophet gazed sadly at Eli and sighed. “Excruciating though it might be for Eli to resurrect this extreme moment of pain and loss, I do see its value for understanding our own dilemma in deciding the fate of the Diversity Project, which might be that given, among white Americans, this psychological and emotional association of black Americans with the hind quarters of the animal, as it were, the optimistic premises of this project may have always been misplaced, its goals unattainable.”
Its goals unattainable. James Pritchard, victory near, taking this admission from Prophet as his cue, legs tightly crossed, leaning in toward Prophet like a plunging raptor, lidded eyes aglow, tapped his cane twice. “Chancellor, I do believe we’re ready to vote.”
Something happening to Eli. Yes. Now. Gulliver threads snapping, whipping the Lilliputian Board members like savaged snakes. “I don’t think so, James,” he said, unfurling like a flag unencumbered into a stiff breeze. “You’ve stripped me almost naked. The least you all can do is hear me out.”
The Chancellor checked her watch and smiled morosely at Eli. “You can have five minutes, Eli.”
“Here we have James Pritchard,” Eli said, his eyes luminescent, a cat in the dark. “James Pritchard, a wasted human being, also living entirely inside his head, a creature of technique and instrumentation, and black students here at T. State offend his sensibilities. There is no place for them within his technical (let’s not even call it scientific) paradigm. But O Irony, the Pritchard Paradigm itself is driven by base carnality – our essential meatiness as a species – that he denies. These students arouse within him primitive, physical emotions of fear and disgust. They do not belong here. The disciplinary boundaries, Miles. The absence of discipline. The promiscuity of expression and action. All so shocking.”
Like a wastrel tide, slipping furtively beyond the horizon, predicate to the tsunami, Eli had departed then returned, his energy large and robust and insistent, his pedigree rising within him. “This exercise tonight, pure and simple, is about James Pritchard’s obsession with the blood-brain barrier.” he said. “The true reason we are gathered together, the only reason we are gathered together, is to join Pritchard’s plant research discoveries and Pritchard’s social engineering objectives.”
“This is craziness, Chancellor,” Paul Harrison angry, haggard, and distraught.
“We will hear out, Eli,” the Chancellor said. “He’s earned that courtesy.”
“Think about it, all of you! We know Pritchard’s research targets olfactory plant extracts that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and establish efficient drug delivery pathways.”
“Of course, Eli,” said Paul Harrison. “This research transforms medicine as we know it. We all understand its remarkable potential for treating and curing illness and disease. As for your social engineering aside, that is ludicrous, entirely a red herring, and mere proof that you’re wasting our time ahead of this vote.”
“Is it?” Eli pulled a folded sheet of paper from his front pants pocket and splayed it for the Board.
Paul Harrison strode toward Eli and bent, glasses tipped at the far end of his nose, to examine Eli’s exhibit. When returned to his full height, he was smiling. “Eli holds a comic book page,” he said, reseating himself, shaking his head. “I rest this dreary case.”
“Not just a comic book page. It’s Pritchard proof. Regarding the Pritchard plants. Evidence that Associate Dean Pritchard wants to commercialize his blood-brain-barrier-breaching technology as an instrument of social control.”
“The smallest worm will turn being trodden on,” Pritchard said, to no one in particular, his laughter shallow, equanimity dissolving, even so, weaving his cane through the air as if to cast a spell that might dispel this aberrant, unhelpful young man.
Eli gave the comic book page to Harry, and asked him to pass it around. Harry glanced, laughed, then handed it to Dante.
“You all remember Gwendolyn Rochelle,” Eli said. “The philosophy professor who abruptly left T. State at the beginning of the third term last year. She gave me this Cave Carson comic. Said Pritchard had given it to her. Dawn of the Shadow Puppets. Pritchard’s template for his blood-brain barrier vision.”
Eli pressed forward, Pritchard now behind him, Pritchard merely the needle’s pocked eye for his straightening thread. “But what is the nature of these limits to our ability to understand and connect with each other across racial or ethnic boundaries? They are a product of our origins, of the random spin life confers on each of us as we rocket from the warm womb, bruised and gashed, distended sacks of blood and bone and brain. We seek in life to travel straight lines – certainly our minds want us to. But we curve. We can’t avoid it. And so we don’t see ourselves whole, and we don’t see others whole.”
68 / How Do We Manage Brokenness?
The night he’d encountered Bear behind McIntyre, on the loading dock of the engineering building, offloading the Airgas hydrogen tanks, Eli had entered the back stairway, intending to use this unfamiliar passageway to his office on the third floor, drop off the heavy satchel containing his Cave Carson comic books, and then drive home. When he arrived at the third-floor landing, however, he discovered the door was locked. Beyond his convocation with Gwendolyn, he’d never given much thought to this backside passageway. He’d not traveled that direction prior to this particular evening. But now, flummoxed and annoyed, tired and uncertain, he tossed his satchel on to the landing and collapsed his own rump on the top step of the stairway, head in hands.
For several minutes, Eli sat thus. Thinking about the Dawn of the Shadow Puppets, the Island of Misfit Toys, Cave Carson, Gwendolyn, Pritchard, Shahid now, to his surprise, at the margins of his mind. He considered Bear on the loading dock of the engineering building, and wondered whether it was odd that Bear would be doing this work at night. He thought about Gwendolyn, spinning in place on this landing behind him. Glancing to the wall of the stairwell, beneath the thick oak railing, hidden from view to anyone not sitting exactly where Eli sat, the written scratchings overtook him, scrawls declarative and accusatory. mucilage. mucosus, slam. delite. tunnel. cave. serum. albumin. cordovan. blood. brain. abattoir. The sketches, too. Of stick people in positions of discomfort, compromised, violated, sad and afraid, labeled in their relation to themselves and to each other. Gwen. James. Othello. Sebastian. And drawings of plants, primitive hashes of fronded monsters towering over the stick figures, top-heavy with cupped and pincered leaves, lacking roots, plants designed for a barren and desiccated world, subsisting on flesh alone.
Having apprised the Board of this discovery, Eli conceded, “I do not know the full meaning of these scribbles and sketches. But they fit together somehow, and they are the debased, cracked foundation on which you would build this new medical, science, and technology complex.”
The Chancellor glanced at John Jergensen, slumped in his chair, seemingly spent from his own contribution to the debate. “John, are you with us?” she asked. “Are you familiar with these markings, John?”
Jergensen restored himself to an upright posture. His eyes sparkled. “Oh yes, I’m with you,” he said. “I’m not familiar with the markings, no. Like Eli, I never use that back stairwell. Really, only Gwen ever did, in my memory at least. But these scribbles and sketches, they do certainly sound interesting. And relevant.” Jergensen paused, staring at his fist (as if to ponder some secret message wrapped within), then ponged himself on the forehead (as if to secrete the secret in his brain). He laughed. “I just remembered a few details about Gwendolyn. Two winters back, she moved a large tray of exotic plants to her office, along with super-bright plant lights. She said they were a gift from Jim Pritchard. A professional courtesy was the term she used, I believe. Soon after, a somewhat rotten smell often wafted from her office. I attributed the odor to the plants. Around that time, Gwendolyn also began to complain about her boots, that they were falling apart on her. She began to pad around the office building in her stocking feet.” Jergensen shrugged. “Does any of that make sense to you, Eli?”
“Maybe,” Eli said. “Does any of that make sense to you, Jim?” He stared evenly at Pritchard, who had withdrawn his brooding face more deeply within his cowl and did not respond. “Well then,” Eli said. “If we are to assign any meaning to the Cave Carson comics, here’s my theory. Pritchard drugged Gwendolyn. He got into her head. Let’s say he implanted her. Just like he implanted Sebby.”
Paul Harrison marched in the half-light, muscular and crepuscular. “This is ludicrous,” he seethed, rearing up so close to the Chancellor that she once again had to restrain Harry. “Please continue, Eli,” she said.
Sounding more prosecutorial than he felt, but finding that he didn’t half mind going on the offensive, and for an instant relishing the same authority and conviction with which Tobias addressed and abraded the world, Eli pressed on. “James introduced Gwendolyn – and Sebby, as well – to a world of sensual profligacy. Of sensual stupefaction. Or perhaps the most accurate term would be neologistic, stupidfaction. Because surely that’s the goal of his phytochemical research, to stultify and stupidify the minds of groups, or factions, of the population. James’s carnivorous plant extracts blanketing and dulling the edges of the mind. Limiting and constraining and distorting perception. Dark Acid, he called it, if we may believe Gwendolyn and Sebby. What Timothy Leary might have achieved in his experiments if he’d been a Promethean scientist. Indeed, that’s how James imagines himself. As a Dark Prometheus. Stealing fire, not from gods, but from humans. Stealing light from their eyes. All to avenge the loss of his wife. The bushmaster, stealing light from her eyes.”
Matt Prophet raised a hand. “Why Gwendolyn?”
“I’m not sure,” said Eli. “But I surmise it was because she was a young, vulnerable philosophy professor entirely engaged by the spiritual and formal background to what we call reality. The invisible shapes of the world. Our spiritual geometry. I can imagine James believed turning someone like Gwendolyn toward the darkness – someone for whom the world possessed transcendent, luminescent, essential beauty – would be an ultimate test of the power of his method for breaching the blood-brain barrier.”
“This is a petulant, rearguard action,” snapped Paul Harrison. “Designed only to obfuscate and delay. But there will be no delay. We are required, by our bylaws as a Board, to vote on this matter this evening. The time for preliminaries has passed. I am moving, now, that we vote on the matter of funding the renewal of the Diversity Project at Tillamook State for the 1992-1993 academic year.”
Eli waited for the Chancellor to enjoin Paul Harrison. But instead she sighed, and to Eli she suddenly looked ten years older, as if the fight had also consumed her. “Paul is correct,” she said. “This is not the proper venue for adjudicating any claims regarding the conduct of Dean Pritchard, especially in the absence of evidence less hearsay and speculative. Unfortunately. Yes, we must vote on the matter of the Diversity Project. Eli, please conclude, and we will get to it.” She leaned into Harry and wrapped his hand in both of hers, pulling it into her lap. Harry, who feared no person or power present in the room, rested his head on her shoulder and closed his eyes.
“I understand,” said Eli. “And I do appreciate the opportunity to address the Board. I would leave each of you with a question. As a public institution, with a charter that mandates we serve all citizens equally, how do we manage brokenness? How do we commit ourselves to the misfit toys amongst us? James Pritchard fears and despises black Americans, or should we say, non-white Americans, non-technically pure Americans (not “technically non-pure Americans” – there’s a difference!) who do not stay within their own discipline, because they have no discipline. Pritchard takes these unwashed, these bare of foot, and like a farrier, he will shoe them, as a way to civilize them. He will shoe them in cordovan leather (fibrous flat muscle from the ample rump of the horse). But the craftsmanship is, let us say, shoddy, with the effect, not to lift up these, the undisciplined, but to weigh them down, to make them less than themselves. These are not seven-league boots. These are plodding shit-kickers.”
Eli reached his hand through the open window, where the breeze had risen, the ivy rustling. He touched one of the roosting birds. “I am thinking of one of our literary forebears,” he said. “Crevecoeur, in his Letters from an American Farmer, published just as the Revolution ended and the new nation rooted itself in this tangible soil. Crevecoeur wrote about his tender winter ministrations to the quails on his farm, bearing the snow and the bitter wind, how in the angles of the fences exposed to this wind, and so denuded of snow, he brought to the quails both chaff and grain, the one to feed them, the other to prevent their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth as I have frequently observed them to do.”
Eli, now leaving the birds and returning to the gathered circle. He sat on the sofa next to Harry and the Chancellor. He stared around the room, lingering for a moment to capture the gaze of each Board member, to fully acknowledge Paul Harrison’s reclaimed smirk, James Pritchard’s hollow eyes, Matthew Prophet’s sad smile. The Chancellor squeezed his hand. “Perhaps my vision for T. State,” Eli said, “is that we honor our opportunity to carry to our students, of all backgrounds, but beginning with those most in need and with most to gain, that we carry them both chaff and grain; the one to feed them, the other to prevent their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth.”