Volume 1, Number 1
Some Things are Harder to Figure Out Than Others By Paul Beckman
Grandma’s House By DANIEL DAVIS
The Idea of A Virtual University By FRED McGAVRAN
Upright By JESSICA CORY
Answers By SARAH DUING-DAVIS
A Poet’s Guide to A Perfect Evening Out By MEHGAN PALKO
Jim Fuess works with liquid acrylic paint on canvas. Most of his paintings are abstract, but there are recognizable forms and faces in a number of the abstract paintings. He is striving for grace and fluidity, movement and balance. He likes color and believes that beauty can be an artistic goal. There is whimsy, fear, energy, movement, fun and dread in his abstract paintings. A lot of his abstract paintings are anthropomorphic. The shapes seem familiar. The faces are real. The gestures and movements are recognizable. More of his abstract paintings, both in color and black and white, may be seen at www.jimfuessart.com
Poetry & Creative Nonfiction
Jessica Cory is currently finishing a MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing, Poetry at East Carolina University. When not writing, she enjoys playing and learning instruments, gluten-free cooking, and listening to music spouted from mouths filled with gravel.
Sarah Duing-Davis comes from a town so small that there is only a lonely post office on a bare stretch of road. She attends Southeast Missouri State University and is majoring in English Secondary Education.
Meghan Palko is currently a graduate student at East Carolina University studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing and Poetry. She graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a BA in English. When she’s not at home in rural Trenton, North Carolina, she enjoys going back to the beach and taking cheap road trips with her friends and fiance.
By JESSICA CORYGeorgia and James used to play dominosas children. Though not together.
They had seventy-four between the two
of them, nineteen of which they had pilfered
from older siblings who had long outgrown
the simple pleasures found in games
believed to be solely for the young.
Georgia would stand hers on end,
making circular complicated patterns
reminiscent of ancient labyrinths.
And they had to be perfect, each one
equidistant from the previous,
so that when her hands decided to end
them, they would all fall down.
It was her way of playing God.
James preferred the numbers. Competing
against unwise neighborhood children
for nickels and pennies, he would place
his snake-eyed pieces beside their deuces,
his six polka dots abutting their sextuplets.
He loved the game. And the money.
Which he saved to buy his headstone.
And when Georgia realized
that playing God was just that,
she decided to be buried perfectly
in line, perfectly ready to fall.
By SARAH DUING-DAVIS
Ask of me no promises
because promises are hard to keep.
I’ll impress you with lies
because lies are easy to tell.
I can’t guarantee the truth
because I can’t change it.
Questions have so many answers
and I don’t want your pitying looks.
The truth about death
is hard to hear
and hard for me to say.
Don’t expect too much of me.
A Poet’s Guide to a Perfect Evening Out
By MEGHAN PALKO
Step One. Don’t look in the mirror too long
& don’t find too many things to change.
Don’t become an undoing; don’t let self get in
the way. Your dress is fine; adjust accordingly
Step Two. Decide what it means to go the extra mile.
Does this one call for a thoughtful batch of cookies?—
An extra bloom of perfume you save for quote-unquote
special occasions? Again, don’t let self get in the way.
Your assumptions are fine; adjust accordingly.
Step Three. Arrive early enough to stake out your prospects
from a safe distance. Notice the exterior
of the building—careless street-front advertising,
garishness (or alternately, subtlety) of the open sign,
whatever shade of light is apparent from the sidewalk.
Don’t be too shallow. Sometimes
you first have to step inside.
Step Four. A hug may be appropriate. Be the first
to ease up. You don’t want to appear too eager, too grave.
Accept compliments. Order a drink to relax & single out
the steepest items on the menu. (You want to avoid these.
You are, after all, an artist—you understand the necessity
of a penny & are thus unaffected by presumptuous ploys
to inspire unmerited awe, particularly when it comes
to food. You are strawberry jam & crackers,
not foie gras.)
Step Five. Then again, he is paying. Be prepared
to accept further invitation should you choose to indulge.
A back-up excuse may be necessary; again, adjust accordingly.
By this point you are far less self aware
depending on the slurring of your speech or the fine blushing
in your cheeks. In any event, be consistently kind:
Thank him for a lovely evening & accept
a goodnight kiss should it present itself.
Step Six. Let him know you’ve arrived home safely.
It is, after all, 12:16 a.m. & you haven’t gone home
with him. Consideration.
Step Seven. Don’t look in the mirror too long
& don’t find too many things to change.
Don’t become an undoing; don’t let self get in
the way. Your dress is fine; remove accordingly.
Wash off remaining lipstick and brush your teeth.
It is tomorrow. It is time to learn
how to write about someone you do not love.
Some Things are Harder to Figure Out Than Others
By PAUL BECKMAN
I answered the knock on my door and it was my neighbor. “I’m you’re neighbor, Al Barnes,” he said and “I’ve been picked to come and get you for the neighborhood association meeting.”
“I’m not a joiner,” I told Al Barnes and he said that it wasn’t a request but a vote by the association that I come to the meeting and come now.
I told Barnes that I didn’t know there was a neighborhood association and he said that’s because no one offered up my name to join so there was no need for me to know.
“So why now?” I asked and Barnes said that I’d find out at the meeting and I said thank you but no thank you and closed the door while he stood on my stoop looking at me.
He rang the bell and knocked on the door knocker a few more times but I just turned up the volume on the TV and ignored him. That night the first of the rocks came crashing through my window and the same happened for the next three nights.
I went to Barnes’ house the following day and said okay I’ll go to your meeting and he said I don’t know what meeting you’re talking about. “Are you sure about that?” I asked him and he told me that he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. His wife, a woman I didn’t know but who worked in my office, walked into the room and stood next to Barnes and he said to her do you know what meeting he’s talking about and she shook her head no. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a Taser and shocked Al Barnes off his feet.
“A shock for every rock,” I said and then walked over to the Mrs.. and patted her on the ass and told her to remind him what I said and then I turned and left without waiting for a reply from either one.
At work the following week, Mrs. Barnes watched me from across the room and after most people had left for lunch she walked over to me while I was at my desk, bent over and stuck her tongue in my ear. I spun around and looked at her. “Shocked you didn’t I? She asked before planting a kiss on my unsuspecting lips and walking away with a little extra wiggle into the supply room.
Naturally I got up and followed her and was shocked, to say the least, to see Al Barnes standing there, Taser in hand with the missus standing by his side.
By DANIEL DAVIS
Grandma clung to that house for years. Her grandmother had helped build it, had fed and watered her husband while he and some local boys put it together piece by piece. My great-grandfather had proved a singular talent for carpentry, one which he never exploited except for his own gains. He farmed, wasn’t very good at it but that’s what he did, and then his son, and then his grandson-in-law. All the way down the line: inept farmers all of them, but proud enough that it never seemed to matter.
When my grandfather died, Grandma was left in that house by herself. My mother and I would go there twice a week, rain or snow or sun, with my mother complaining all the way. Your grandma doesn’t need to be on her own. She can’t drive. She can barely even read anymore. Doesn’t remember a damn thing. Stubborn as the day is long. You look exactly like her, just as pretty as a peach, but thank God that’s the extent of it.
I suppose my grandmother was stubborn, but she was also my grandmother, and I got a dollar and some cookies every time I went out there. A hug too, and the television room all to myself as my mother cleaned and Grandma talked. Even as a kid, I knew there were worse arrangements, and my mother did too, because even though she talked about checking out nursing homes, she never did more than peruse a couple fliers we got in the mail.
Fact is, Grandma wasn’t just stubborn—she was tough. In her younger days, it was rumored, she once knocked a man unconscious with a single blow. No one knows why. The reasons don’t matter. One blow. And by the time I was seven, her hands were still hard; she could barely see, but I’ve no doubt that she could crack a walnut in her fist. Her back was bent, and she’d shrunk a little, but for seventy she was in remarkable shape, could walk faster and open that storm cellar door easier than I could.
So when the twister came through, in my seventh year, I was thankful we were at Grandma’s house. There’s no one I’d have trusted more during such a situation, not even my mother, God bless her. But Grandma, she heard the warning on the radio and said to my mother, Grab Celine and head outside.
My mother stopped her mopping. I’d been playing solitaire in the television room, but stopped and pressed my ear to the door.
Twister comin’. Outside. Now.
You’d do better to disobey Jesus Himself. Mother dropped that mop, came into the room and seized me, and we went outside.
West Texas is flat. You can see for miles. And there it was, how far away I couldn’t tell, but it was coming fast and coming hard. Black and fat and full of hate. Grandma stared at it for just a moment and said, It’d better miss if it knows from good. Then she threw open that cellar door and down we went.
We were down there thirty minutes. Thing about twisters is, they generally don’t last long. Just five-ten minutes in one spot, though you can get those ones that take a liking to the landscape and linger for the better part of an hour. Though we heard it go after ten minutes, we stayed down there longer, because twisters usually come at the end of a storm, but this one was a bit early, and Grandma didn’t want to risk letting us out too soon. We waited in the cellar until the thunder ceased, until even the rain against the door had faded away.
When we went up, I didn’t notice anything at first, ’cause I was looking the other way. I had instinctively turned towards town, ’cause that’s where my father was at the time. The twister had missed town completely; it had either skirted it or stopped altogether before getting there. It wasn’t until I heard the crying that I turned around.
I thought it was my mother, because she cried a lot, she was just that sort of person. But it wasn’t my mother—it was Grandma. I’d never seen her cry, not even when Grandpa went on, but she was on her knees and crying, and it wasn’t but a moment before I saw why.
The house was gone. And I mean gone. Wasn’t there. At all. Pieces of the foundation remained, what little of it was embedded so deep in the dirt that not even God at His angriest could root ’em out. The rest of the house—vanished, just trace remnants left behind to show that there’d once been a home: splinters of wood from dressers and walls, glass reflecting back the sun, bent metal and shattered porcelain. Grandma was sobbing, and my mother was holding her, and then I was too, and we were all three soon crying, though it was mainly Grandma.
e President and Bursar. The reality was much worse. Without a degree, the debtor would tumble from a hoped for deferment into the dreaded draft. She lived with us for a few months after that. Then went to a home. Wasn’t no way around it—insurance wouldn’t cover a new house, and we couldn’t afford to keep her with us once the recession set in. And Grandma—well, she’d lost the spirit, I guess. Didn’t want a new house. Didn’t want to be a burden to us. Didn’t want to go to a home, either, but she went without a fuss. She never fussed after that twister, but she cried a lot. I really just remember the television room of that house, ’cause that’s where I spent most of my time. But I guess Grandma, for her the television room was probably the least of it. I live in a trailer now, so I wouldn’t really understand. Maybe that’s for the best.
The Idea of a Virtual University
By FRED McGAVRAN
The week before my graduation in 1968, Harvard College sent a letter warning that unless all tuition and fees were paid in full, degrees would be withheld at the ceremony. What humiliation, the Dean fantasized, for the baccalaureate to hear his name called and stride across the stage for the diploma, only to be met with the crossed arms and stony stares of the President and Bursar. The reality was much worse. Without a degree, the debtor would tumble from a hoped for deferment into the dreaded draft.
Like the rest of my college career, however, I slept through commencement and wasn’t aware of this life threatening communication until several days later. I raced across the Yard to the administration offices as if my life depended on it. In fact it nearly did.
“You’re in the wrong office,” the receptionist said from under a bouffant shaped like an Army helmet. “All your records have been transferred to the Alumni Office.”
Another panicky race across the Yard and up the steps into Wadsworth House, where a gray haired woman with steel spectacles blocked the way.
“Mr. Schofield has been expecting you,” she said with the graciousness of the captain of the guard telling a new prisoner that he is late for a meeting with the warden.
Rising straight as a drill instructor from behind her gunmetal gray desk, she led me down an airless hall and rapped on the farthest door.
“Come in, Walter,” a deep New England voice called, and the receptionist withdrew like a passing psychotic thought.
Alone, I confronted R. Townsend Schofield, the man who had abolished undergraduate education at Harvard. But I realized all that much later. As the door swung shut behind me, I faced a tanned, mid-fifties New Englander resplendent in bow tie and seersucker suit.
“Slept through commencement, did you?” he chuckled behind his monstrous desk. “There are worse sins in undergraduate life.”
“I really need that degree,” I said, sinking into a Harvard chair like a suspect before his interrogator.
“You didn’t let me finish,” he snapped. “I was about to name a worse sin.”
“Such as?” I said, already knowing the answer.
“Not paying your dorm fee.”
Men facing a firing squad have seen more sympathy in the eyes of their executioners.
“There must be something I can do,” I pleaded.
“I’ve been watching you, Walter. There is something you could do for me, and I would give you this.”
He held my diploma before me like a reprieve.
“I accept,” I said.
“Well done. You are now class agent for the class of 1968. Just send us a note about the class every quarter, and I’ll find a way to make your bill go away.”
“Thank you, Sir,” I said, feeling the blood start to circulate again. “You have my word.”
“Don’t disappoint me, young man. Someday you may find yourself going for an interview before the Board of Overseers, and all this could be yours.”
He made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the universe.
How much we allow ourselves to be troubled over trifles, I thought as I stood to shake his hand.
I bounded past the receptionist and out the door into a bright and happy world.
I should have suspected something immediately. Class agents are usually the most popular people in their classes, but I didn’t know anyone. During four years steeped in beer and marijuana, I never wondered how I got passing grades without going to class or taking exams. How could Mr. Schofield have been watching me, when I was nowhere to be seen? So I accepted the job and became the voice of a class that never existed.
I found a temporary address in a Midwestern graduate school until the draft lottery was introduced in the spring of 1969. I was number two. By then I was almost glad to go. Mr. Schofield had found my address, and the College was threatening to sue me for thousands of dollars plus interest and penalties unless I produced some class notes. Despite pleas for news that the Alumni Office had enclosed with demands for gifts to the annual fund, no one from ‘68 had responded. There was nothing to report. Except for me, the class of 1968 had disappeared.
Dun letters followed me to Ft. Knox, then Ft. Sam Houston, then Firebase Martha, where I used them to light marijuana cigarettes. Watching the silky white flares drift down in the mellow darkness as the Vietcong rustled through the scrub along our perimeter, I had my first great inspiration: if no one knew anything about our class, no one would know whether what I reported was true or false. We can choose to create our own reality or merely accept what is thrust upon us. I chose to create.
To test the hypothesis, I wrote a class note about Johnny Breinstein’s upcoming graduation from Johns Hopkins Medical School and mailed it back. A month later I received another printout of my bill, showing that interest had been suspended for a quarter. I replied with notes about Brian Cunningham’s upcoming marriage on a yacht off the coast of Maine, Walter Dubois’ degree in classics from the Sorbonne, and Jules Mullins’ postdoctoral fellowship to study astrophysics at UCLA. Two months later the College sent a statement showing that my debt had been reduced by $100, along with a copy of the latest edition of the Alumni News. Seeing my notes published was more surprising than the occasional rush of Vietcong into the concertina wire. Didn’t anyone check the names against the class roster? Didn’t anyone in the class read them?
When I finally crept out of the jungle and raced across the tarmac for my flight home, I had a solid four quarters of class notes to my credit, and my debt to the College was nearly paid. As the orange Braniff jet soared up from Ton Son Nhut airbase over green mountains crackling with mortar fire and napalm, I felt exhilaration approaching mysticism. No more Army, no more class notes. The brilliant yellow sun was mine. If all life were an escape from death, we would be happy forever. But Braniff Airlines went bankrupt decades ago, and the brightest intoxicants fade away with the soft light of morning.
Within a month after my discharge, I found myself in a San Diego jail accused of crashing a pick up truck laden with marijuana into a customs checkpoint at the Tijuana border. With as little memory of the alleged offense as my college career or tour of duty at Fire Base Martha, I felt the cavern of fear open as wide as when the my birthday was drawn second in the draft lottery.
Outside the holding pen, a legal aid attorney appeared to plead all seventeen prisoners guilty. I had just asked another inmate to borrow his pen to sign the papers, when a jailer appeared. My one phone call had finally gone through. What phone call, I was about to ask, but the jailer wasn’t taking questions.
“Five minutes, no more,” he said, slamming the door to a concrete block cubicle with a wall phone.
“Walter, how are you?” a deep, practiced voice cried from the other side of the continent. “It’s R. Townsend Schofield at the Alumni Office.”
“A hell of a time to ask for a donation,” I said.
“We’ve been so pleased with your class notes,” he continued. “Fifty-seven applicants for this year’s class mentioned them in their interviews. What are you doing for us this quarter?”
“They don’t even give us toothpaste in this place. How can I write a class note?”
“We can get you out, Walter, but you’ll have to give us a really great year this time.”
A few years in the reality of the California prison system may have been preferable to a life of fiction, but I accepted. An hour later a lawyer appeared from a recent Law School class to announce that I had been granted bail and could plead to the lesser offense of disorderly conduct for a sentence of time served.
“Just don’t violate your probation,” he said as we went down the courthouse steps.
“Probation from the court?” I asked, fearing years of urine tests and counseling.
“From the Alumni Office,” he laughed, clapping my shoulder and disappearing into his Mercedes.
How brightly the sun shines outside jails. I did not realize that I had exchanged a fixed sentence for a lifetime of supervised release.
That year and the next and the next, I dutifully sent in my quarterly class notes, documenting the amazing progress of the class of ’68 through advanced degrees, first jobs, first marriages, first divorces, and beyond. After the lawyer’s bill was paid, I started receiving an allowance, not enough for a car or a condo, but sufficient to avoid reenrolling in graduate school for the miserable teaching stipend. In rare moments of clarity or while practicing pick up lines, I compared myself to a writer of romance novels, sending in the same material to his publisher after year, with only the names of the characters and the descriptions of their dresses and uniforms altered.
The only time I feared discovery was at our five-year reunion, which I avoided on the pretext of a head cold. A month later the Alumni Office sent me pictures of several people my own age at a party in Memorial Hall and asked me to identify them for the next issue of the Alumni News. I picked names from the regular characters in my class notes and even added a few new personalities to match the faces smiling happily through undergraduate memories at their glorious futures. This earned me several notes from classmates, who were delighted to get reacquainted at the reunion but felt terrible about missing me. The Alumni Office even sent me $5,000 as my commission on a check one of the honorees, a rising star (according to me) on Wall Street, had sent the College within a week after the issue appeared. Our class had crossed that magic divide where the College regarded them more as a profit center rather than as a destructive force.
My first marriage was brewing up, so I barely noticed the significance of the event. After years of living on the fringe of academia, I was about to enter the mainstream: pregnant bride, job down the hall from Daddy in the family company, and a week in rehab to prepare for the ceremony. Standing by the altar awaiting Carol’s appearance, I stared at the smirking guests with the tight-chested panic of a murderer awaiting the judge on sentencing day. The only people I recognized were Carol’s brothers forming a circle around me in case I tried to bolt, my parents, as surprised and horrified as I to be there, and a few familiar faces in the back on the groom’s side. But who could they be? I hadn’t invited anyone except my parents and a few cousins I knew couldn’t afford the trip. Just then the organ thundered, the doors to the nave opened, and Carol made her triumphal entry past my reunion classmates pictured in the Alumni News.
Too late to wonder how they had heard about it; flashbulbs blinded me; escape was impossible. So I resigned myself to the ceremony, an oblivious week in the Caribbean to recover, and a write up in my next class notes. If only marriage and alumni relations were so simple. While Carol and I were arguing over whose parents would be photographed with us first, my classmates dragged us aside to be photographed with them.
“Where did you find her?” whispered Lem Nostrum, author (according to me) of The Clock that Strikes Not Three, a best selling mystery novel. “Next time, check with us before you get so far into a relationship.”
“That’s for all of us, man,” said Burton Leveque, former clerk to a Supreme Court Justice and up and coming Wall Street super lawyer.
Carol had stepped away for a moment to try to keep her father from having the security detail remove my parents and missed our exchange.
“And cut yourself a break when you write this up for the Alumni News,” Leveque added. “None of this crap about being in the purchasing department. Call yourself Chief Financial Officer, something people in our class can relate to.”
Anxious to start shooting before Carol’s water broke, the photographer sent Slip Doherty, nominated (according to me) for an Oscar for his role as the boson’s mate in Down the Hatch to separate her from the feuding in-laws. She was so flattered to meet a real Hollywood actor that she smiled for the photograph with my class, the only time I recall her smiling during our brief marital relationship.
That class note plus Carol’s tales of our honeymoon on St. Lucia ended the marriage before the baby was born. She was badly sunburned the first day while I was working on my hangover in our room. Two catastrophes have tested my survival skills: Boston winters and being trapped in the honeymoon villa with Carol that ghastly week. To put a positive spin on her experience, I suggested that a good sunburn makes stretch marks disappear. She howled even louder. Finally, after the stench of aloe and coconut oil made our suite uninhabitable, I was driven to consult a native practitioner for a sedative.
If the results had not been so spectacular, I would not have taken those pictures of her with Dr. Tim that so outraged her parents. Understand that in the early seventies, Americans were not yet accustomed to seeing family doctors in dreadlocks, or patients and spouses puffing away on medicinal bongs. When we took our photos to dinner with her parents, Carol was as surprised as they to see a physician who still made house calls wearing a grass skirt and shaking monkey skulls on little sticks to draw the attention of the spirit world. She didn’t remember anything about the honeymoon after the second day. I wish I were as lucky. The dinner and marriage ended when my father in law waved my class notes in my face, demanding to know who had appointed me Chief Financial Officer of his company.
That was the only time anyone objected to one of my reports of success. He even wrote the Alumni Office demanding a retraction. The University, however, never retracts anything except an occasional President. I was cautioned, however, to only accept their nominees for my class notes in the future.
“Why?” I asked. “Aren’t I doing a good job?”
“Almost too good a job,” Mr. Schofield’s deep and soothing voice replied. “Your class is starting to fill up.”
I should have realized then what was going on, but I was too busy looking for an apartment that would fit my budget and finding another job. Such anxiety, however, had little place in the class of ’68. My father in law was so happy I went quietly that he paid me a year’s salary to release my claims to the wedding presents. Like any bored and resourceful person with extra money and time, I decided to write a book.
The Unbelievable Class of 1968 was a bestseller almost before it was published. My agent leaked copies to Time and Newsweek, which both published stories the same week with the same reunion photo of the class posed before Memorial Hall on the cover. Reviewers, themselves nearly all graduates of Harvard College, praised me for restoring their faith in America. By spotlighting our best and our brightest, I had shined a brilliant light into the dark tunnel that led from Vietnam to Nixon’s resignation to the oil embargo to stagflation to Jimmy Carter. The book shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for eighteen months, and I became the most sought after inspirational speaker in the country after George Wallace. Even the new President flattered me by using most of my opening chapter in his inaugural address.
The only person who wasn’t happy about my success was R. Townsend Schofield.
“For a member of the unbelievable class of 1968, you’re a slow learner,” he said over lunch of horsemeat and claret at the Faculty Club.
This was only the second time I had returned to the Yard since graduation. The first had been with my publisher’s photographer for shots of the author revisiting the launch pad for so many spectacular careers. Then as now I was embarrassed to have to ask for directions to Widener Library and other landmarks.
“There’s a problem with success?” I said, signaling the waiter for another bottle of wine.
I had only been on campus an hour, but that wonderful sense of undergraduate security was already returning. With any luck, I would find a friendly dealer in the Square, and this day, like my undergraduate experience itself, would pass effortlessly away.
“There were only one thousand nine hundred eighty-three in your class, and you’ve used up over two hundred in your class notes and book. That only leaves us one thousand seven hundred fifty.”
“So?” I said.
“So at a hundred thousand to matriculate, we’ll not reach your class goal of $200 million by the twentieth reunion.”
“You charge to be in my class?”
“Better than giving it away like you’ve been doing.”
“What are you talking about?” I exclaimed.
“We haven’t enrolled more than twenty undergraduates a year since 1959.”
I was so shocked that I let him consume most of our second bottle.
“But the Houses, the Library, the people in the Yard,” I said.
“We keep Eliot House open for the tourists. When we closed Dunster, there wasn’t a working toilet in the place.”
“Tuition is for losers. Who in their right mind would pay that much for something that wasn’t a sure thing?”
That’s when I began thinking like a member of the unbelievable class.
“Just move the price of the degree up slowly,” I said. “All you need is a few good men, and you’ve made your goal.”
“Don’t screw this up, Walter,” Schofield cautioned. “I’m planning to retire on my bonus from your twentieth.”
“So let’s start with the Business School to test the market. I’ll bet you have plenty of openings there.”
“At $250,000 a degree, you bet we do.”
“We’ll up it to $500,000,” I said. “If I don’t hit their next reunion goal in eight months, go with someone else.”
Schofield was trying to order another bottle, but all the waiter would bring was his check to sign.
“What are you looking for out of this?” he asked.
“Ten percent of the gross plus the rights to the class notes.”
“Five percent, Walter. Only the manager of the endowment fund gets ten percent.” he said, gripping my hand as we parted. “Just tell me where you’ll start.”
“At the very top.”
Although dealers still swarmed outside the Coop offering their wares to tourists just as they had in the great days of the class of ’68, I skipped the marijuana on the way out. In the Reagan years, everyone was an entrepreneur.
The top in America in the eighties was the same as it is today: politics, business, entertainment, sports, and sex. The President had children, some of whom he acknowledged, but he was so detached that he would never invest in a Harvard MBA for them. One of his henchmen, however, had a ne’er do well son for whom he had bought a degree at one of the Ivies, only to have him squander it on a few failed oil well scams. The father jumped at the opportunity to put a MBA on his namesake’s resume, recognizing the $1 million fee was far less than supporting Junior and his family indefinitely. Thus I upped the going rate for a Business School diploma 400% and started the derelict son on his own way high office.
I was such a success at the Business School that Mr. Schofield allowed me to increase the cost of a place in the unbelievable class to $10 million until the fifteenth reunion. Then we went to $25 million for the twentieth. Walter retired early, earning me a recess appointment as Director of Alumni Giving.
“Your moment has come, my boy,” the old man said proudly as he draped a shawl over his shoulders for that last long shuffle down the hall from his office.
Oddly, he left no papers or memorabilia for me to toss out. It was as if a god had left the temple after everyone ceased believing in him, or a fictional character had died without leaving an estate. Wadsworth House was as empty as a museum after all the artifacts have been reclaimed by the donor’s heirs. I spent the afternoon at Brooks Brothers being fitted for a seersucker suit and purchasing a selection of bright bow ties.
That’s when I was called before the Board of Overseers. Only a Henry Kissinger could face an audience like that without withering. Around the deep-bossed table sat the most powerful men in the United States, staring at me as if I were the author of a Ponzi scheme up for probation before a panel of his victims.
“Mr. Schofield has recommended you,” the President began. “We’re not so sure.”
I felt my world falling away.
“Schofield was an innovator,” the President said. “But his innovation has run its course. We need something to show that you are ready to take us to the next stage.”
“What are you thinking about?” I said, frantic to know how the concept of a virtual university could be pushed any further.
“Software,” he replied. “We want to get into software.”
Every hero must have an equally powerful antagonist. Who is Beowulf without Grendel? Only by struggling against giants do we earn plaques in Memorial Hall or an article in the university magazine, where great scholars and donors are profiled in the yellow lens of a Pleistocene insect trapped in amber. To prevail like Alexander and Caesar against mortals is to be loved by the gods. Only one who struggles against the gods, however, will ever achieve the sublime.
One of our few real graduates had left the College determined to produce an operating system that would give him a stranglehold on the fledgling computer industry. The moment he took his company public and became an instant billionaire, Mr. Schofield approached him with the offer of a $50 million MBA. He laughed the old man away. What need did he have for another degree? He could not bear comparison with an infamous Wall Street huckster, then facing indictment for insider trading, who had acquired his MBA in a program similar to ours. Like men who had striven against the gods and failed, I was about to lose everything by accepting an impossible challenge.
Despair, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Mr. Schofield had retired early not because his retirement had vested but because his inspiration had left him. Of course the software king was not a candidate for another degree; it would ruin his image as the ultimate nerd. The way to conquer him was to remove the degree that he had.
Soon after driving his major competitor bankrupt, Harvard’s newest drop out gave me a check for $100 million to expunge his record and create the legend that he had left the College without a degree to become the world’s richest man. A week later, I appeared before a special meeting of the Board of Overseers. They awarded me a contract equal to the Wall Street superstar who managed the endowment.
“Words cannot embrace your achievement,” the President gushed.
“I was thinking about writing it up in my next class notes.”
“No, Walter,” he cautioned. “This is like a secret citation in wartime, where we dare not acknowledge our triumph lest the publicity be our undoing.”
So, like Prometheus, I hang lashed to the cliff facing the cruel vengeance of the gods alone. The Overseers will not permit me to be listed in the Forbes 400 or be interviewed on Larry King Live. What would I say if I could speak? Like Nietzsche I have negated the negation by turning education into a denial of the need to learn. Universities scramble after me to the cliffs overlooking the sea, intoxicated by my vision of absolute nothingness.
Even greatness has a banal side: succession planning. The endowment now dwarfed the assets of ninety percent of the world’s nations, and annual giving exceeded the Gross Domestic Product of all but the five largest Western democracies. Nevertheless, like the slave in Caesar’s chariot whispering in the conqueror’s ear that he, too, is mortal, the Overseers began asking me who would inherit my mantle. That was a difficult question in an institution that had eliminated nearly all its students as a cost cutting measure.
I was pondering that question when I first saw Melanie Dauphine painting “On Strike” signs outside Hollis Hall to protest the awful food. We had dipped beneath prison food in quality and hired only recently paroled felons and residents of halfway houses as cooks to discourage consumption. In filthy jeans, flannel shirt, and hair tied back in a bun to keep it off her spectacles, she worked with an intensity I had only experienced in marketing meetings.
“What can you hope to accomplish with that?” I said to break the ice.
“A decent cheese dream with the bread toasted before they squirt the cheese food on top,” she replied, starting another sign.
“I hadn’t heard that there was a strike,” I countered.
“Oh, there will be,” she said.
The next morning, I read about the food service strike on the front page of The New York Times. Around the country, editorial pages exploded with op-eds applauding or denouncing strike with vehemence unseen since my undergraduate days. The University’s President received the news with the same grace as Vietnam veterans beholding Vietcong flags flying from dorm windows in the sixties. When I told him we could put the whole thing to bed for a well-cooked cheese dream, he wept on my shoulder.
I sent a note asking her to drop by my office to discuss a part time position.
“This place is such a dump,” she began the interview. “They ought to tear it down and start all over again.”
“What class are you in?” I said, passing her my bong.
“Who knows?” she said. “It’s so random around here that people seem to graduate whenever they want.”
I was sweating through my suit; she had figured out our system so soon?
“I can get you out of here this spring if you’ll be class agent,” I countered.
“What’s that worth to me?” she said.
So I told her. Not the money, of course. That comes later. The vision is what captivates youth. When she left Wadsworth House, she was musing about a grandeur she could only vaguely visualize. We still get together to console each other about ideas only we will ever understand.
The idea of a university is only an idea, a conception detached from reality. Mr. Schofield knew this and changed the university from a place of education to a place of the imagination by eliminating the student body. Still a prisoner of the romantic age, however, he retained the traditional tools of the fundraiser: degrees, speeches at commencement, buildings dedicated to the donor’s memory. I showed that none of this was necessary anymore. In the digital age it is as meaningful to erase accomplishments as to invent them. When I retired two years ago, I doubted I would ever be surpassed.
Melanie moved the Alumni Office from Wadsworth House to a new complex on Brattle Square just before the College closed the Yard to everyone except Japanese tourists. The cash flow was so much better than tuition that the Overseers wanted to clear the rest of the campus, too. So Melanie invented a project to tear down an entire city across the Charles River and repopulate it with our traditional profit centers, the Law School and the Business School. She sold the Overseers on the project by showing how they could raise the money as if students would actually inhabit the new buildings, whereas only the exteriors would ever be finished, like Albert Speer’s model for a New Berlin, or Count Potemkin’s village facades along the route of his bedazzled Empress. Nearly eighty percent of the money donated for the project would never leave the endowment fund. I regret not having thought of that myself, but every successful Director of Alumni Affairs stands on the shoulders of his or her predecessor.
The entire project was put on hold during the Crash of 2008, when the endowment lost nearly half its value. Desperate, the Overseers called me out of retirement. What can we do, they cried, now that the wall is breached and the palace is in flames?
“Steady,” I counseled, remembering R. Townsend Schofield sternly facing ever increasing fund raising targets.
As dreams of the virtual city sank with the stock market, a new star arose. This time it was an inventor of social networks who had everything: genius, billions, and ruthlessness unsurpassed by the Board of Overseers. Everything, that is, except a back story. Who could love someone who had invented the ultimate virtual time waster, when he had moved from high school to theForbes 400 in one easy step? Such virtuosity is not for mere mortals; it is beyond empathy and envy. To appreciate the Harvard mystique, you must understand that people desire to be loved by the masses more than money. Machiavelli got it wrong: you can compel love with the right story.
I found my notes about the operating systems pioneer and worked with Melanie on a killer email that the richest 20 year old in the world couldn’t resist. For $1 billion, we sold him the right to become another Harvard drop out who changed the virtual universe. We picked up another $100 million selling the movie rights to Hollywood. Melanie and I split the 10% commission on both deals. Life at Harvard would go on.
Now I wear a shawl over my shoulders on cool days and sit beside the sea at Marblehead in the summer. To keep my hand in, I still submit class notes four times a year. I am awarded a bonus of fifteen percent on every new member of the class of ’68 I can recruit for more than $100 million. Somewhere, I hope, sleeping one off in a filthy room in one of the old student houses, lies Melanie’s successor. Harvard can still produce greatness, but not as anyone currently defines it. If no one proves equal, I shall lie like the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in his mountain tomb, waiting to be restored to life if his legacy is threatened.
Paul Beckman is a real estate salesman & writer of short fiction.His collections of stories include:Come! Meet My Family & other stories, Web del Sol Chap book,Maybe I Ought To Sit Quietly In A Dark Room For A While, Silken Worm and the novella, Lovers and Other Mean People.
Daniel Davis is an editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him atwww.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or on Facebook.
FRED McGAVRAN is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the Navy in Vietnam. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award winning collection of short stories in December 2009. For more information, please go towww.fredmcgavran.com.