The channels flashed by brightly, shadowing Richard’s watching figure up against the wall behind him. A small boned man selling knives and a cheery middle-aged man with a way to multiply huge columns of numbers. Richard went back and forth between 45 and 47 for a while with the remote. He liked it that way. He never got tired.
The spiel from one channel blended nicely with the other. “Indestructible is an understatement…now give me a four digit denominator…and look at what it does with tomatoes…isn’t that something, Mike? Don’t you want your children to have that kind of a head start…never dull, never needs sharpening, ever again.”
Richard kept going, up into the fifties, sixties, and to the end at 74, the program guide. He liked 74 pretty well because a scroll told him what was coming up on all the channels. It also marked the end of what was available to him. He always stopped here before going around to 2 again. It was ritual.
He usually had the mute on or the volume very low at night. It didn’t make any difference any more, because Phoebe had been gone for nearly six months. While she had been there though, she had slept soundly. The light of the TV would shine across the living room, past Richard, and right up the white banistered stairs that led to their room. If Richard had any sense he would have been there with her, nestled in behind her, his head sharing her pillow, an arm slung low over her hips, his knee pressed up to the small of her back, breathing with her, soft, silent, sleeping through the night.
But these were different times. These were the days of malaise. He had a penchant for the dramatic, a flair, Phoebe had actually said. The malaise had captured him after she left, and for a long season, he had almost relished it. It gave him purpose, a reason to keep moving. He watched the malaise grow, and he nurtured it.
He moved on to 2 and watched thirty seconds of a movie about a guy who once was a big country music star. He pumps gas now at some black and white and beautiful roadside service station somewhere pinned into an Oklahoma plain, and one day these four young guys pull up and ask if he used to be someone.
The leader of the young guys says to this old star, “Me and the boys got a band. Big Teddy there plays the bass, and Mike plays guitar. Joe Bob on the drums, and me, well I sing a little.” They all stand sheepishly around while this old guy half squints up at them, holding on to the pumps like he’s going to fall over.
“We was wondering if you had any advice for us?” the young guy says.
“Play it like you feel it,” the old guy says and then Richard gets back on the remote.
When Richard Welzer had first come to the college, he had been the golden boy. He had earned his M.A. at 22, his Ph.D. at 24, and his first book was published the same year. He taught for a couple of years in Baltimore and then had come down to D.C. to take an associate professorship when he was 25. One year later he was a full professor, and the grand world was opened wide to him. The chair at the time had even called him the “golden boy,” and many times in the ten years since, Richard had thought about what it had meant.
Those first few years had been wonderful. His book was a huge success, and he even continued publishing a few articles here and there. But his second book was a washout, a small university press from the south had finally taken it for a pittance and they ran a meaningless first order of 1000 copies. He couldn’t even sell his third or his fourth. And now the fifth book, Panic & Mastery, had just come back from his editor with a series of new letters from readers in the field. “Perhaps a re-write,” his editor had scrawled at the bottom of one of the letters. Richard could tell by the handwriting that it was just an afterthought, some vain attempt at appearing conscientious, still an ally.
Truth & Pity, the first book, had been out of print for nearly three years. You couldn’t find it any bookstores anymore, and where there used to be almost a hundred colleges and universities using it as a graduate philosophy text, now Richard’s was one of only four programs left in the country that included it at all on reading lists.
Richard had ten copies of the damn thing still shrink-wrapped, lined up on the uppermost shelf in his office, spaces next to them for the sure to follow deluge of important and worthy work. That empty space, so carefully planned when he was a mere phenom, now struck Richard as just another big empty spot in his life.
He would often stare up at those books, and on a row beneath them, the manuscript boxes for his other, failed books. And then when that got to be too much, he’d let his eyes float down, to the left, and out the massive window that opened out over the college’s grassy quadrangle. It was never lost on Richard that this was the same window in which he had celebrated his full professorship, and the beginning of a glorious career. Still, it was a nice view, the college of law looming on the right side, gray and magnificent, old columns and a Latin phrase meaning ‘Justice is the right of moral man,’ etched in giant letters above the double entrance doors. In the middle of it all, the quad itself, a long, wide strip of lawn crisscrossed with razor-like sidewalks and dotted with modern brick benches. There were always students out there. Richard could not remember a time when he couldn’t see students, laying in the grass, talking, meeting. In winter, even they would stroll along the paths, chatting, sometimes having snowball fights amongst the barren, short trees.
At the far end of the quad was the long, low lecture hall, the place where two of Richard’s classes met. He still taught the same courses he had that first year. Two large junior level classes in the hall, and then down on the first floor of this building a graduate seminar for about six or seven promising philosophy students.
The lecture hall looked small from this distance, but when you went in the front doors, you descended twenty or so steps so that the hall itself seemed enormous. Richard had loved that walk in the early days. His students would holler his name to him as he walked. It was young Dr. Welzer then, Richard to his familiar students, Rich, actually, to some of the grad students. He walked across that grassy patch like it had been designed simply for him to make his passage. And when he roared through those lecture hall doors he was already on, the lecture already begun, the students aware of his young brilliance, and waiting for the golden boy.
On the left side of the quad were two smaller buildings, one the fine arts complex, music, painting. And the other a student center, with bookstore, student government meetings and the like.
The whole view seemed like the only thing Richard had ever seen. Every day for ten years, he had looked out at it, and he had grown to detest it. He hated walking across it now. Indeed it took all the strength he had in his 35 year old body to force himself out of his office, down the stairs to the lobby, and then push through the doors, across the quad, head down, the sounds of the students almost crushing him, the doors to the lecture hall heavy, the stairs down interminable, and the new students, students who were twelve years old during those golden boy days, those new students just sitting there.
The sight of those same buildings, and those never-moving sidewalks and the constantly regenerative students made him want to fling his oversized window open and throw himself out down the three floors to the concrete below.
Of course, it was not lost on the rest of the college’s faculty the precipitous decline of Richard’s fortunes. The tenure meetings had been in the third year of his time there, far too soon for the glow to have dimmed. He was after all, a young, already important figure in the field. It was unheard of for someone of his age to be accorded his euphoric station. He constantly read papers, most often sections of the original book, at conferences all through the U.S. and in England, France, and Germany. Truth & Pity contained a variety of contemporary answers to traditional and legendary philosophical questions.
The prose was lean and sure, like that of a fine, young modern novelist. There was a cavalier attitude to the task that shocked and excited traditionalists and contemporists alike. And it was immense, nearly 800 pages in manuscript, some 450 pages of close, tight reading in a brilliant red cover, the title, gold, in all caps, and beneath it his name.
Richard had struck gold with it, but the books he tried to publish later were poor imitations of the first. The same questions were answered again with minor variations. The prose still sharp, but the innovativeness of it was by then old hat. Indeed other writers–of the still ruling generation of scholars–incorporated some of Richard’s approaches and wrote better, more responsible texts. They coupled their broader intellects with the admittedly brash take of Richard’s work. Within six months of tenure, the second book had died quietly. The articles stopped coming. Richard was the same man, he taught the same classes, but the fire was clearly out.
Richard sent word by a secretary to his graduate class that he would be thirty minutes late. The seminar started at 3:30 every Wednesday afternoon, but as of late they were starting no earlier than 4. It didn’t make any difference to Richard, and it was certainly probable that he could have made it at the scheduled time. But the class had deteriorated this semester into a sort of editing workshop. The students were brilliant, by their own admissions, and mostly they were only looking for suggestions on their nearly finished theses. There was really no reason for Richard to go at all, because a young turk, Franz Hester, had run the class from the beginning moments. Franz was born and raised in Portugal, the son of a German soldier and a Portuguese poet. He had been schooled in Switzerland, Munich, and London, and had come to the U.S. to work with a former professor of his from Cambridge. When the old guy died suddenly, Franz had transferred to Richard’s college. Richard had remembered the polite, Nordic looking youth standing in his office door, a badly worn copy of Truth & Pity in his hands. Richard had given him a fresh copy, autographed both, and he had imagined a tear had come to Franz’s eye.
Now, though, Franz was the university’s phenom. He had published two chapters of his thesis in a national philosophy journal, a place where Richard hadn’t been read in nearly five years. The current chairman had delighted in handing Franz some kind of award just a few months before. Richard had watched it all with a sort of disdain. Franz at least had the good sense to thank Richard for his “brilliant editorial help.”
The class was already started when Richard walked in the room. The students were in two groups, everyone spilling thick sheaves of their work, red pens and blue pens, marking everything. Franz was in the middle, shaking his head vigorously and marking out an entire paragraph.
“Shit,” he said. “You must have this all wrong. Go back and read your Kant. You can’t possibly keep any of this.”
The activity slowed a bit while Richard walked between them, sliding past their chairs to get to his desk in the small seminar room. But by the time he had seated himself, half looking at them, and half looking out the bank of windows, the conversation had started up again.
“We’re editing, all right?” Franz said, coming up and standing beside Richard’s desk.
Richard gave him a weary look. He hated the smiling German adolescent. What was he? Twenty years old? Twenty-five? Richard had been the golden boy by then. He wasn’t just dicking around and leading a graduate seminar.
“I think Mark is just about ready to finish his last chapter. It’s singing, it really is.” Franz gave Richard a thumbs up.
Before Richard could think of anything to say, Franz had left, the entire group began to form a circle, Mark, a thin, clear skinned archer, began reading aloud.
As 5:30 came, Richard left first, Franz still working the room. All of the students said goodbye, but Richard was out of the door and headed down the stairs as he heard their quickly disappearing voices. He turned right out of the front doors and emerged out into the quad, now a little deserted. One lone student rested up against a brilliant white pillar out front and Richard heard the young man whistling. He skirted the edge of the quad and kept going right, into a faculty parking lot and toward his car, a three-year-old BMW.
“Hey, Rich,” a voice came from behind him.
Richard turned to see Franz’s running figure come up to him.
“I mean, Richard, Dr. Welzer. Are you coming to campus tomorrow?” Franz asked, not even the slightest bit out of breath.
“I hadn’t planned to. Why?” Richard fumbled with his keys and tried to get the door to the car open.
“Just wondering. Dean Michaels is presiding over a reading of new publications at the faculty lounge. I’m reading the latest article of mine in Modern Philosophy.”
Richard got the door open and tossed his briefcase inside. When he looked around at Franz he saw his own future dashed in front of him, the high cheekbones of some sort of wasted decade.
“Kierkegaard was all wrong,” Franz said. “Even you admit that, right? Well I’m taking a pound of his flesh tomorrow. I’d be honored if you’d come and watch.”
Franz smiled some more. Richard could almost imagine the youth rubbing his hands together. “I’d rather eat glass,” Richard said, getting into the car.
Phoebe and Richard had married when they were at Berkeley. She was the same age, but two years behind him. Richard was then a mysterious, longhaired rebel, a book of poetry in one hand, a journal in the other. He told her when she first met him that he was a writer. That he had written a long poem about life and death. She had thought he was terribly beautiful.
When he had changed his major to philosophy, she hadn’t really understood it. But he seemed to have his professors behind him, and when the eastern grad schools began calling his dingy apartment to chat, Phoebe knew something big was brewing. They were married outside, right on the campus, a student chaplain presiding over the whole thing, about two hundred students there, cheering, drinking. There had been no formal announcement. Phoebe hadn’t even told her parents. It had all happened quickly.
Phoebe never finished college. It just didn’t seem necessary. As Richard wrote the first book, she did research for him. He sent her to every library on the west coast. He’d discover rare and wonderful titles and she would spin away in her little blue Karman Ghia and return later that same day, airline bag full of dusty books. Richard’s grant money kept them both going during all this, and his fellowships and scholarships made their first years easy ones. As Richard was finishing his Ph.D., advance money from his publisher started coming in. Five grand all at once, an unheard of price for an unknown writer in a trade field. But the publishers were paid off when the book began showing up on reading lists everywhere in the country. It was the first really contemporary philosophy text in twenty years, and it struck a chord.
When the spiral began, Phoebe knew it troubled Richard, but his insistence kept her away, when what he needed most was help with a solution. When she moved closer to him, he moved away. When she reached out, he pushed her back. When it had gone on for a year, with no improvement, with Richard sleeping on the couch, when the tension in the house got to be too much, Phoebe had left. Richard had stood in the doorway and watched her go. He was amazed by it. It had never struck him as a possibility. She was gone like lightning out of that house, and he didn’t have a clue as to what created it.
They found a dead girl named Sherilyn Harding. She was an undergrad–a party girl according to some dumb kids who the channel 10 news crew questioned live–an undeclared major who had just turned 19. Her nude and battered body was found in an alley, four doors down from Richard’s house.
Richard was woken up by the knock on the door and two uniformed police officers stood there for about five minutes asking Richard what time he went to bed, did he know the girl, had he been out in the night at all, had he heard anything. Richard told them he hadn’t heard anything all night, that he had slept on the couch and pointed at the blanket and pillow as evidence.
“Got troubles with the wife,” one cop said to the other, never looking at Richard for confirmation.
As he had driven to campus earlier he had seen the white ribbons tied around tree trunks; a sign that read “We Love Sherilyn” had been hand-lettered and placed outside one of the sororities.
As the morning passed, Richard sat in his office and watched the clock. He waited until three minutes to the hour, and then pulled himself up out of his chair on his way to the lecture hall.
Voices rose up from the grass as some students said hello. Richard nodded once or twice, not looking, eyes set ahead of him. Each step took him closer and before he knew it, really before he had even realized it was happening, he was in the lecture hall.
“We ended, if I remember correctly, leaving our moral man standing outside in a rain storm.” Richard took his position behind the podium, his left arm resting along the edge, his right hand in his pants pocket, his eyes fixed at a point slightly above the very last row of seats in the hall. It was a full class, a bit unusual even for this early in the semester. The shuffling and talking that would have been normal was non-existent, and Richard suddenly felt awkward, compelled in a way to talk about the girl’s murder. It appalled him, actually, feeling the need to address what to him was so painfully obvious. Yet, there it was. A hundred juniors sat there staring at the only morality guide they had. Richard felt sick to his stomach.
“But before we finish that, I thought we might discuss the incident.” A small appreciative murmur went up around the room and Richard paused for it to settle. “Indeed the young woman was found in my own neighborhood.” When he stopped for a moment, to remove his hand from his pocket and lay his right arm, too, on the podium, he heard a voice from the front row say the name ‘Sherilyn.’
“Anyone know her?” Richard ventured, and as a few hands went up, he kept going. “Of course you realize how amazingly ordinary her death was. I mean to say, just because of its proximity we are alarmed by the brutality of it. Yet, not more than a week ago a similar occurrence happened up in Philadelphia. A young man has been sodomizing school children in North Carolina since last spring.” Richard paused. This was not at all what he wanted to say. It was foolish. Insensitive.
“That is to say, the inherent horror of the situation is not necessarily moreso than any of a hundred other occurrences that took place just in the last 24 hours in cities all over the country.” Richard looked down at his bare podium for a second, as if to consult some sort of note. “Still, it is upsetting, and alarming, and it takes a bit of life out of each of us.”
That seemed to solve it. The students put up a bit of a whisper of assent to that.
“And what we lose, each of us, is the familiarity with moral behavior. We see the world as it has come to be and the idea of compassion is gone. We walk our streets at night as prisoners, streetlamp to streetlamp we hurry. No sooner do we get home then we lock the doors and turn on our alarms.”
Richard looked at them with real fatigue. He felt as though he were talking about himself now. He mimicked the turning of a key in a lock.
“We lock it out. We lock the world out, the danger, the immorality, and we try to lock out the killers and the rapists, and the burglars, and what we are really locking out, what we really bar at the door of our home, is the possibility, the capability, the capacity of morality. The moral man may as well be dead, since the moral man must embrace–in equal amounts–compassion and synergy. To commiserate with the fortune of another, to live on an elevated plain, to be capable of great things, and worthy of the title, moral man, one must be able to live life with the doors unlocked.”
And then Richard went blank. He stepped back from the podium and began to wander away from it, toward the bank of windows. Richard was aware that people in the back and the middle of the hall now were talking, whispering. They likely wanted to know what was going on. What was next?
Richard couldn’t remember what he was about to say when he had stopped talking, and now, away from the podium it didn’t seem to matter. He thought about Sherilyn Harding.
“Truth is an illusion. What I’ve been telling you about is not truth. Truth is what we hide behind. The man who says he is telling you the truth is a coward. That’s what it is. Courage, mes amis. Courage. A moral man would not allow any of it to happen. A moral man does not bar the door. That is a sign of weakness. A moral man would know that murder exists because it is allowed. He knows that rapists commit their crimes because there is nothing left to stop them. But a moral man can find the answers to God’s mysteries in a heartbeat. A moral man can see the distance without seeing the steps. A moral man would admit that the only remedy is courage.”
Richard felt sweat coming to his forehead, and he realized he was short of his breath. He recoiled as his last words hung in the air, echoing back to him a millisecond later from the far end of the hall. The beautiful young woman was looking right at him. The place was as quiet as a church. He thought about his wife Phoebe right then. Her image came to him like a bolt of something out of some kind of darkness. He loved her still.
Richard was done. He picked up his briefcase and went out the doors, scaling the steps and emerging out on the quad. The place was deserted, empty, free of everything but grass and benches and walkways, power lines, a jet stream.
Straight lines everywhere.