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    Little more than a walk-in closet with a desk and computer, his windowless office gave him all the privacy he required once he shut the door and pulled down the blind on the narrow glass wall next to it. Yes, how easy to despise people, Reggie wrote in his journal. Dieter shouted in the corridor, denouncing the iniquities of the educational system that stifled his individual genius, or words to that effect. Reggie tried not to listen, but it was impossible not to hear. He had stopped listening to Dieter and many other colleagues in the department several years ago.

      This afternoon he kept the blind raised. There, the star rugby play sauntered by, Johnny de Soto, who had taken his Bible as Literature course last semester, understood little and barely survived. Reggie suspected someone else had written the lad’s essays, cleverly done. Preoccupied with the death of his only child after a long illness, a day before her thirteenth birthday, he had been little inclined to expose plagiarism and defend academic ethics.

      The death of a child, he wrote, created a fury of attention like a desert whirlwind, and  mourners, people no one knew, gathered like pilgrims trekking to a holy site. He still resented how his private tragedy had become a public spectacle, how strangers expropriated his child’s death so they could feel good about feeling bad. Bouquets of flowers had appeared outside his office door.

      “You think I’m going to have my reputation impugned by a snot-nosed, hormone-drizzled, pimply-faced cretin ….”

      “Well, as to your reputation, Dieter…” but the poet cut her off with a cascade of obscenities. Poor Julie. The punishing role of department chairperson required the patience of Job to withstand the all too human perversities and peccadilloes.

      Reggie could still smell the sickly odour of mums and roses arranged in baskets and urns. “In lieu of flowers,” the newspaper notice advised, but few respected his wishes and the leukemia society was all the poorer. Reggie typed expertly. Dieter made a virtue of dereliction of duty by showing up late for class, walking out early, throwing temper tantrums, and hurling chalk and books when students failed to grasp the obvious nature of whatever poem he had assigned. He also confused his own grandiloquence with teaching. Reggie sipped his green tea, now cold. After writing the impregnable narcissism, he deleted it, preferring less obvious psychology in his prose. Julie’s voice seemed to be mollifying.

      “Yes, Dieter, I agree, he should have gone to you first with the complaint.”

      “Complaint. I read that asinine concoction he calls an essay on Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale which the udder-sucking, duplicitous Neanderthal cribbed from the Internet!”

      Reggie returned to his journal which he had been compiling on the computer for a dozen years or so. If someone knocked, a simple SAVE, then EXIT, another quick click, and presto! restoration of an old examination to the screen. Rarely did anyone knock.

      He had written about everybody in the department who had aroused either his admiration or contempt. What to do with these notes, these journals, now consisting of so many thousands of words as to constitute a Victorian triple-decker novel, Reggie often pondered. A major, as yet unwritten novel, gestated in his mind somewhere, if not in the proverbial bottom drawer. Not many students loitered in the hall as classes ended by 2:30 on Friday afternoon. Only a few dedicated teachers remained, and those with problems that Julie needed to sort out. Reggie wrote that poets often made lousy teachers, but everyone wanted to believe artistic genius brought special gifts and insight to a class, invigorated the student body, and cast glory like divine light on the department. After hesitating, he decided to keep the simile.

      Well, Dieter had certainly invigorated one or two students in his office and had only just escaped being fired for inappropriate conduct because the union had rushed to his aid and insisted upon the legal age of the girls involved. Mutual consent, mutual consent. What business had the college in the bedrooms of the nation? None, Reggie typed, but he suspected the administration had a great deal of business in the offices of an educational institution. There was also the question of proper teacher student relations which Reggie believed should be solely intellectual. Students, after all, were his charges, not his bed mates.

      Checking the time and shifting in his seat to adjust for the onset of flatulence, a side-effect of green tea, Reggie wondered when he could exit his office and not be seen by either Julie or Dieter, or anyone else in the department. Dieter always looked at him as if he were some kind of hairy goitre disfiguring the body politic. Well, physically fit after twenty-five years of more or less sedentary work, thanks to regular swimming in the college pool, his slightly greying hair expensively trimmed in a boutique pour elle et lui, Reggie did not regard himself as beyond the pale.

      With personal problems of her own, Julie would corral him and he’d have  to listen to her repeat what he had just heard outside his door before she veered off into her private dramas, usually involving her stress and lover of the moment. Reggie suspected that a major source of animosity between Dieter, who never got along with intelligent females, and Julie was her refusal to sleep with him.

      Three-thirty, the time he had left the college to drive to the hospital last spring. It had become habitual and he had enjoyed discovering ways to help Emily laugh. Very good at mimicry, especially accents, Reggie often created little scenarios by his daughter’s bed, sometimes using the mannerisms and voice of various colleagues, Dieter sans profanity included. This had been a useful skill to distract her from questions about impending death and what happened afterwards for which his own personal answer of nothing, nothing happened seemed insensitive, even harsh. He wanted her not to be afraid, so he pretended to be Dieter or Donald Duck.

      Just as he had predicted, too many people showed up at the funeral home – he refused a religious service despite Lysianne’s tears – for he had the courage of his own disbelief in this instance, nor did he wish to speak over his child’s body. Lysianne had arranged for a couple of friends to offer eulogies, one in English and one in French. Both elevated poor agonized Emily to the most extraordinary child who had ever played upon the earth. Weren’t we all thankful that she had blessed us with her brief presence? Emily was now singing with the angels, except the French eulogy depended exclusively upon the present tense: elle chante avec les anges. Reggie had wanted to vomit in his mouth, but he kept silent. At least poor Emily was spared an arena packed with gawking thousands in a miasma of candle-lilt mourning.

      He checked the last entry on the screen and it occurred to him that he had never written a line about Emily or how he felt about her death. Outside his glass wall he caught a glimpse of Samantha. A very tall and skinny lady with rounded shoulders as if to reduce her height, she taught a course called The Healing Art of Literature, and was an avid practitioner of reiki and other assorted therapies. Now and then she could be seen in her office, the door left invitingly open, moving her graceful hands to manipulate or direct the energy field of a student suffering from headache or despair.

      She had crowded around him in her white pant suit at the funeral parlour, speaking of spirit and how we never ended or were never lost. Samantha also mentioned angels and twittered something about death being illusory.  Emily’s last gasp and dead hand resting in his palm by the hospital bed had been pretty real, he said, and backed away.

      He must drink less green tea, for its effect on his digestive system was becoming too pronounced. Before going home, Reggie decided to swim in the college’s Olympic-sized pool. Someone had once told him that nothing entered in a computer, even if deleted, was ever really lost, that electronic circuitry possessed the memory of God, a frightening idea, but then people argued that God was manifest in the laws of physics, so why not cyberspace as well?

      After securing his clothes in the locker, for the name of thieves was legion, Reggie immersed himself in the heavily-chlorinated vacancy of water. He momentarily recalled the first noxious application of chlorine during World War One when soldiers were gassed at Ypres. Pulling down his goggles, then kicking himself forward to begin his elegant and strong front crawl, he began his first lap, reached the other end, reversed under water, then entered his second lap, and continued expertly and tirelessly, stroke after stroke in a narrow, roped off channel, swimming on and on without words, without thought, without memory.



Kenneth Radu's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming online in Danse Macabre, vis a tergo, Spilt Milk, Four-Cornered Universe, Eclectic Flash and elsewhere.  A collection of his stories will be published this year by DC Press of  Montreal.
He lives in Quebec.


 


This story arose out of a variety of  public and private events. The media often shows  thousands of people expropriating the private tragedy and grief of total strangers as their own. Public figures have often caused people to cry over their demise, but lately, given the world wide web, people send condolences to ordinary people they've never met, or pile flowers in commemoration of someone they don't even know as if somehow the sorrow is also theirs, a public manifestation of feeling good about feeling bad.  In addition, this story is about inflated ego and the use of rhetoric to perpetuate self-serving illusions - mere gas. And sooner or later many of us experience the personal and inexplicable loss of a loved one.

 





  


Copyright 2009