by Craig Greenman
I’m learning not to say, “It’s good,” but “I like it.” The pretense of my judgment, universality, has gone the way of my color-blindness. Good and bad are now two shades of purple which I can’t tell from blue.
It all began with my move. Geographically, the U.S. is as big as Europe, but we all speak the same language. If you accept a job in Michigan, it sounds the same as in Maine. But the regional differences are sharp, if tiny, like the mandibles of a termite; you won’t feel them till you’re thick with them, living and dying.
I was dismissed from my academic job for the usual reasons. It was politics, of course, as I learned from my sole supporter on the faculty, Clyde Williams.
“Politics,” he said.
“Oh?” I replied.
“Politics,” he repeated. Then he pointed at the sky.
I looked up—but when my eyes returned to the ground, he was gone.
My first mistake was sitting too close. In college, I’d always sat in front; that way, you don’t miss anything.
Clyde poked me.
“Too close,” he said.
I’d settled myself in the first row of a large, gray auditorium, awaiting my first faculty meeting.
“You don’t want people to think you’re arrogant,” he explained. “At your first faculty meeting.”
I smiled and ignored him.
The meeting began with a speech. The silver-haired president spoke of our dedicated, hard-working, reliable, loyal, devoted, and most of all, cooperative faculty. Then she presented a new dismissal policy for our advice and correction.
I have a bad habit of taking people seriously.
“You should change the comma after ‘climbing wall’ to a semi-colon,” I heard myself saying.
She looked me over.
“Yes,” she replied curtly.
After the meeting, I was besieged by several faculty members. They thanked me for my comments. I didn’t know what they were talking about; I had only mentioned the comma.
Clyde appeared the next day.
“Bill,” he said, “can I give you some advice?”
“Sure,” I said.
He sat down in my visitor’s chair (I’d picked it up on the sly from another office). “Bill,” he began, “I like you. But the administration doesn’t.”
“They just hired me,” I said.
“Yes!” Clyde nearly jumped out of his chair. “They just hired you! That’s precisely my point!”
I looked at him.
“My last name’s not ‘K.,’” I said.
He frowned. “You’re laughing at me,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. Clyde, like any other full professor, could be on my tenure committee someday. “I appreciate your concern, Clyde. Really, I do. Thank you.”
He smiled. “Anytime,” he whispered.
The following weeks were busy, with courses beginning and syllabi going out. I almost forgot to pick up the things that I wanted from open offices.
Clyde was classic Mafioso—a guy who could help you or hurt you, your choice. I couldn’t afford to ignore him. So I adopted him as a parental figure, hoping that he would get sick of it.
“Bill,” he said a few days later, “I’m worried about you again.”
“Why?” I said.
“What you told the provost on Tuesday.”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“That you weren’t a basketball fan.”
“Bill,” Clyde declared, “I can only protect you for so long. Be careful—for my sake. I have a lot invested in you.”
“Thank you, Clyde,” I said.
Ours was a jock school, so I wasn’t surprised at Clyde’s comment. In theory, however, we were a high-caliber academic institution. Sometimes, when the campus was empty and blossoming, I felt like all the faux Greek architecture in the world had come down to bless my little forehead.
“All this is mine,” I’d think, quivering. “Mine.”
I was out of my league. I was deficient—1140 on the GRE’s—and I’d gone to a mediocre grad school. But getting an academic job is a crapshoot: My last name, “Forester,” fit the new environmental curriculum of the college. Plus, I’m pretty cute.
So it was disappointing when I found out that nobody at the college left anything nice in their cars—when they left them open at all—only old tissues and chewing gum.
By winter break, I’d heard the rumors. People didn’t like me anymore. Clyde said it was because of the December faculty meeting. I’d said that the poetry club deserved more money than the football team. How could my colleagues disagree with that? Weren’t we all intellectuals?
“You don’t get it,” Clyde said. “When you criticize the college, you insult everybody who works here.”
“People aren’t institutions,” I snapped back. “I didn’t insult anybody.”
I was beginning to resent the academy. I’d always heard that it was full of pompous, name-dropping parasites, sucking at each other’s blood like mosquitoes in a bell jar. Now I was one of them.
Clyde and I began taking walks. We passed the “Compost Hut,” built by a trustee for the Environmental Studies program. It was decorated by the Fine Arts department.
“Watch what you say at the retreat,” Clyde said.
(I tried the lock, but it held.)
“I don’t understand ‘retreats,’” I said. “They send you out to relax, but you’re supposed make all these crucial decisions. It’s like drinking and driving.”
“That’s the attitude that’s got you in trouble,” Clyde said.
“Probably,” I agreed.
We moved across an open field, white, flat, and beautiful—probably a soccer field in the summer.
“Are you a Maoist?” Clyde suddenly asked.
I looked at him. “What kind of question is that?” I said.
“Well, are you?” he repeated.
“No!” I said. “Jesus!” Imperialist, I muttered under my breath.
We finally hit the end of the campus. I could hear the semi-trucks separating us from the world.
“Where is the retreat, anyway?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Clyde said.
Two weeks later, my department chair called me into his office. He asked me to sit down. He looked nervous.
“Bill,” he began (sadly, it seemed to me), “did you have anything stolen from you at the retreat?”
“No,” I said.
“Some people had some things stolen,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
As time went by, my position deteriorated. Most of the leading faculty members were administration stooges, anyway. My dream of a transparent campus, where nothing is hidden or locked away, was dying.
Finally I was called into the President’s office.
“Professor Forester,” she said. Her ceiling was higher than God.
“Now, then,” she continued. She seemed to be a very confident person. “Let’s be frank. You’re a thief. You’ve been pilfering things since the day you arrived. You probably have a stack of watches ten feet high.”
I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t expected this.
“However,” she continued, “I don’t want a scandal. Our college has a long tradition, dating back to 1852 . So instead of arresting you, I am dismissing you.”
She eyed me closely.
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
I was being singled out. She’d had a crush on me since that first faculty meeting. I hadn’t reciprocated properly. I was always terrible about that sort of thing. I am naïve, trusting—a believer in the clear difference between right and wrong. But the world is more complex than that—too complex.
I bowed my head and walked out of the office.
The next day, I filed my grievance.