UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Rat in the Ivy
Enough! thought professor Todd Miller, barricading himself behind the door of his office, closing off the repellent sounds of laughter and chit-chat. He could no longer endure
For months Todd had been surfing a website devoted to student ratings of professors, feasting on reviews that were not only bad, but personally insulting. Nothing pleased him more than to read, “wears the same smelly shirt every day” or “obviously had an English dentist.” It disappointed him that most of the comments were positive, and that profane words were censored by asterisks. In addition, certain gaps in the text implied that accusations of sexual perversion or impropriety were held in taboo. But he still spent at least an hour a day in his office soaring from state to state, looking for the blue frowny-face that signaled a bad rating—the evisceration of a “beach-ball with legs” who taught English at Bard, for example, or the cruel designation “mutant bridge troll” affixed to a spinsterish scholar at Yale.
And then, one balmy afternoon in April, he stumbled upon a site that would change everything, allowing him to give tongue to the bitterness that was eating him alive. Hatemyprofs.com went right for the jugular. All the entries were derisive, and there were no restrictions on foul language or slimy details. Rigid with delight, he waded through this sewer of invective, thinking, now I shall have my revenge!
Associate Professor of English Ariel Benneton-Kozlowski, surrounded by listing piles of books and papers, sat contentedly in her office putting the final touches on a monograph entitled “The Pre-Raphaelites and Female Undinism,” when there came a knock at her door.
It was her colleague and pal Zenobia Lipschitz, whose frown and staring eyes meant trouble. “Ari, go to hatemyprofs.”
“Why, what is it?”
Zenobia shook her butch-coiffed head. “Just go.”
Ariel minimized the document and went to the site. Silently she clicked and cursored her way to her latest rating. She read it, her jaw literally dropping. “Motherfucker!” she hissed.
“Yeah,” said Zenobia. “Wait’ll you get to mine. They call me a rug-muncher.” But Ariel was concerned with her own problem. “How would a student know this? I do talk about my personal life now and then, but certainly not to this extent.”
“Maybe it’s not a student,” Said Zenobia.
It was only the beginning. During the next two weeks the postings for Lyceum University’s English Department were a cavalcade of slander and vilification. Stinging personal attacks quivered like poisonous toads next to the usual complaints of biased grading and slipshod pedagogy. Jonathon Cordwainer, the garrulous expert on American Lit, was demeaned as “sloppy-fat.” True enough—he was known to plod about the classroom with part of his shirttail out and his gut jiggling over his belt. Warren Dopp, a slender, elegantly dressed, Hoboken-born Chaucerian who affected a British accent, experimented with various hairstyles to offset a calamitous face, and prowled truck-stop lavatories far away where no one would know him, was outed as “a plug-ugly closet queen.” Sid Schenkman, glowing over a good review of his recent biography of Brother Antoninus, had his day ruined by seeing himself described as a “fatuous protozoan.”
Clearly, someone had a vendetta against the English Department. From his office in Boyd Hall, Chairperson Eric Lancer transmitted an ominous e-mail calling for an emergency meeting. “We will get to the bottom of this,” he wrote.
“It is, quite simply, an outrage,” said Professor Benneton-Kozlowski. “These people must be held accountable.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Lancer. “Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”
“What’s with the pissy tone?” shot Zenobia Lipschitz, sticking up for her pal.
Lancer looked at her in annoyance. “I’m not being pissy. I just don’t want to waste time belaboring the obvious.”
“Then let’s get to it,” said Pete Mc Dowell, Medievalist. “We’re all on edge. We need a plan.”
“Right,” said Lancer. He turned to Emily Prawn, Head of the Creative Writing program, whose husband, an attorney, had agreed to look into the legalities of this trouble. “Has Frank come up with anything?”
“He says the best we can do is a little saber rattling. Unless one of us is willing to come forward and fight. But that would involve exposing dirty linen, or addressing personal attacks that will be painful to refute.”
The room was silent. Emily continued.
“The media’s all over this site. They love it. Even Letterman’s joining in.”
“Letterman?” said Cordwainer, his puffy face twisted into a mask of incredulity. “He made fun of Al Gore. I guess he’s an adjunct at Vanderbilt. His students are posting fat jokes.”
“All right,” said Lancer, “let’s talk about the students. Do you think it’s one crank, or a cabal of troublemakers?”
“One crank,” said Julie Goldman, casually peeling away the foil of a Lindt bar. “And I know who.” Goldman, a devotee of French Language Theory who could have been pilloried for incomprehensible lectures and imperial rudeness, had instead been dismissed with one word that found its way to her core and brought her to an inward boil: irrelevant. She believed the author of these attacks was a blond-haired, blue-eyed sorority type with an implausibly brilliant mind. This girl, pretty as a homecoming queen, had been a nuisance in class and turned in a final paper filled with scorn for Goldman’s pet theories. Goldman had given her a C for the course. “It has to be Marissa. She hates me and everyone in the department.” And so it went for nearly an hour. Most agreed that a student was to blame. But then Darius Bell, Post-Colonialist, whipped out a paper on which he had compiled all the slurs, and in his deep, rich voice, read them aloud. It was a painful recitation, and many faces in the room burned with shame and anger. Politely, Bell had read his own insult first: “Stepin Fetchit in an Armani suit.”
“What’s your point, Darius?” said Lancer, furious at hearing his own bad review. Thusly agitated, Lancer lost control of the neurotic impulse he had struggled with all his life, and thrust his index finger deep into his nostril. It was a shocking moment, even for those who were familiar with the sight of this handsome man hideously transformed by such vulgarity, his eyes stark with tragic resignation. The affliction had been with him since childhood; the famous psychiatrist who treated him in graduate school finally threw up his hands and said that Lancer would have to live with it, and so he had, building a remarkable career in any case. “My point, Eric, is that these entries are too damn clever to have been written by a student.”
Silently, the group pondered this. People shifted in their chairs, coughed, set their beady eyes flickering from face to face. And then Paul Dann said what they were all thinking. “There’s a rat in the ivy, and it’s one of us.”
Dann, the department’s expert on Men’s Studies, a relatively new curriculum, sat grinning as his words sunk in. He wore dark glasses and a thin leather jacket. He had a military-style brush cut and a jet-pilot’s chronometer on his strong wrist. Dann was obsessed with 24. On his office wall hung a poster of Jack Bauer running from a fiery explosion. He called his students “hostiles,” and spoke of the hallway outside his classroom as “the perimeter.” When the University installed new phones, he had wasted an hour trying to program a ring tone similar to the one heard in the offices of CTU. “The only way to stop these attacks,” he said, “is termination. And I guarantee you, it’s someone in the DOE.”
Lancer, his picking hand now hidden beneath the seminar table, stared at Dann. “Termination, Paul?"
“As in firing. Letting go. This is not a capital offense. But to get to the firing part we may have to use drastic measures.”
“What exactly do you mean?” asked Zenobia.
“You know very well what I mean,” said Dann. “I’m talking about torture.”
Cordwainer exploded out of his seat. “This is madness!”
“Calm down,” said Dann. “We won’t be starting with you.”
“Who then?” asked Warren Dopp, his tongue darting between his lips.
“Who are the only DOE members not present in the room?” said Dann.
There were two. Todd Miller and Blaine Korba.
Lyceum University’s Department of English was seldom in accord about anything; meetings, contentious and overlong, were an agony for all, even those who normally delighted in hearing themselves talk. But they did hold a consensus regarding the two absent members: Miller was beloved, Korba despised.
Todd Miller was affable, self-effacing, eager to please. Now in his forties, he had missed the boat as a young man, dropping out of a respectable PhD program to tend bar and write novels. The novels had been rejected, and so in middle age he found himself clinging to a temporary position at Lyceum. He was given scut work—eight a.m. composition classes, five-day-per-week schedules—but never complained. Hey, he would say, I’m just happy to have the job. He was a good man to have a beer with, a fine tennis player, a laid-back sort who sometimes taught summer classes in shorts and a polo shirt. Such a nice, friendly guy—he just couldn’t be the culprit.
But Korba was another story. While Miller had a round, smiling face, an athlete’s broad build, and a graceful, elegant way of entering a room or sitting with his feet up on the desk and his hands clasped behind his head, Korba was a little weasel. He had pinched, angular features and shifty eyes. In a less civilized environment his perpetual smirk would have long been obliterated by a rain of blows. He wore nothing but black—shirt, pants, jacket, boots—and was called, predictably, “the Prince of Darkness” by his students, most of whom hated his guts. He wrote “fictions” that were sly, edgy, and meaningless, and had carved a small niche for himself on the reading circuit. His wit was acid, but his sarcasm had become a permanent infection, tainting his every utterance, as obvious and embarrassing as a bad toupee. One would see him snaking through crowds of students during class changes, en route to a Creative Writing seminar where he could be counted on to draw tears from one of his young charges. He was up for tenure and would not get it. No one would be sorry to see him go. But that would take time. With proper evidence, they might usher him out sooner.
“All right,” said Lancer, “maybe Paul isn’t wrong. Perhaps a little coercion is in order.”
“Coercion?” said Cordwainer. “Is that what you call branding irons and thumbscrews?”
Dann laughed out loud. “You’re the one bringing up instrumentality, Jonathon. My suggestion is far less gothic.”
“What do you propose?” asked Ariel.
The smile disappeared from Dann’s lean face. He removed his dark glasses and looked carefully around the room, making brief eye contact with everyone in turn. “Waterboarding.”
“Oh, for God’s sake…” said Cordwainer.
After a moment of quiet, Schenkman cleared his throat. “You know,” he said, “that’s really not such a bad idea.”
“There’d be no blood,” said McDowell. “No mutilation or broken bones.”
“More importantly,” said Ariel, “we could make a pretty good case that waterboarding isn’t really torture. Just ask the government.”
With Cordwainer the only dissenter, it was agreed that Korba should be subjected to a mild session of waterboarding, as a deterrent to further abuses at hatemyprofs.com.
“But wait,” said Warren Dopp. “Are we sure it’s not Miller?” Secretly, Dopp had it in for Miller, upon whom he had developed an unrequited crush. One day in the faculty dining hall, after Miller had spoken at some length about his stamp collection, Dopp put together a chain of mistaken assumptions and blurted out, in the presence of three other faculty lunchers, an invitation to go antiquing that very weekend. He offered to drive, and if their wanderings took them too far they could find a lovely bed & breakfast, and—
But Miller, wearing a bemused smile, said he already had plans, and the others grinned at their plates, and instantly Dopp’s infatuation turned to fury. He would not mind seeing Miller’s plump face gasping for breath as it was raised all too briefly from its bath of torment. No, not one bit.
“Come on, Warren,” said Lancer, who sometimes played tennis with Miller, “we all know it’s Korba.”
“If nothing else, consider Todd’s ratings,” said Darius Bell. Indeed, one of the entries read, “When I see that Charlie Brown face at the front of the room, I want to weep.” Korba, on the other hand, had been called nothing worse than “predatory” and “a barracuda,” which, his colleagues imagined, might actually please him.
So it was agreed. Korba would be waterboarded that very weekend, in the basement of Boyd Hall.
Boyd Hall, formerly the residence of the University’s founding family, was an umber, gloomy mansion festooned with gingerbread and widow’s walks. Renovations had brought it up to speed with the age of computers and smart boards, but its basement remained dank and stygian. The maintenance crew kept old desks and tables down there, and sometimes a rat could be seen darting across the concrete floor. In a sectioned-off area there was a large tub used for all kinds of industrial-strength scrubbing and cleaning. In this tub, Blaine Korba would get his comeuppance.
An elaborate plan had been hatched at the meeting. Schenkman, the only faculty member on passable terms with Korba, would call him with the bait. An alumnus had donated a collection of first editions, chapbooks, and ephemera from the California literary scene of the fifties and sixties. They were sitting in the basement of Boyd Hall and would be sent to the library on Monday, but if Korba liked, he could pick through the boxes on Saturday night. Next, Dann would enlist the help of his two favorite students, Vito Morelli and Sean Farrell, bull-necked Fight Club enthusiasts who would have entered the leg-breaking profession if not for their football scholarships. These malefactors would administer the punishment while a committee—Lancer, Lipschitz, and Goldman—performed the interrogation and elicited assurances that Korba’s crimes would cease and desist. Dopp would record the event with his video camera, on the theory that Korba would be so humiliated by the experience (surely he would scream and beg, perhaps even foul himself) that he would not seek retribution, especially if threatened by a posting of the ordeal on youtube. Everyone must attend, it was decided, except Miller, the temp who had no truck with departmental business. Besides, someone pointed out, he was such a nice guy that he’d probably try to stop the torture.
“Hold him down!” cried Dann. “Pete, give us a hand here, will ya?” McDowell moved quickly to the tub and took hold of Korba’s flailing legs while Dann and the ski-masked burleys struggled to secure the straps around his head and chest. Who’d have guessed this shrimp could put up such a fight? When they’d hustled him into the back room and he’d seen the tub and the large board with the straps, he’d turned into a Tasmanian Devil, spitting and cursing, clawing and kicking at his captors. They’d managed to tear his shirt off but not his trousers and boots, and it was all McDowell could do to keep the Doc Martens away from his teeth. But he averted his face and held tight, and at last Korba was helpless, and McDowell, trembling a little, took his place among the spectators.
Folding chairs had been placed in a semicircle around the tub, but only the interrogation committee was seated. Cordwainer remained in the basement’s main section, refusing to watch the torture but afraid not to attend, lest he become the next victim. Dopp was up and about with his camera, getting into it. The others stood whispering among themselves, glancing at the entrance, listening for the heavy footfalls of Security.
Korba was making so much noise that Dann immediately plunged the board into the frigid water. The sudden silence in the room was terrifying. Korba’s bound limbs jerked violently while the burleys held the board at the required angle. After a few interminable seconds Dann lifted him out of the tub. Korba’s gasps were hearbreaking, but no one stepped forward.
Dann bent low, his face close to Korba’s. “This can end right now. Tell us what we want to hear and you can go home.”
Wide-eyed, Korba babbled that he didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. Dann stepped back and nodded to the torturers. This time the dunking took longer—thirty seconds, at least.
“Please!” cried Korba, after coughing the water from his lungs. “I’ll tell you anything!”
“You’ve been a busy boy,” said Dann. “We’d like to hear all about your postings at hatemyprofs.com.”
A few more dunkings were necessary, but soon enough Korba figured out what they were after and cobbled a satisfactory confession for Dopp’s camera. The whole thing took less than an hour, though it seemed much longer. They unstrapped Korba and helped him towel off. In a sudden manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, he apologized to the department, shook hands with the committee, and showered profuse thanks on Dann for letting him go.
The burleys escorted Korba out of the basement. It was their job to see that he went right home, and that he understood what would happen if he blabbed to the authorities.
When it was over, the faculty stood chatting around a table on which Emily Prawn had laid out refreshments. “Amazing,” said Schenkman. “He cracked like this Wheat Thin.” Snapping it in half, he popped the cracker into his mouth. Cordwainer watched from the shadows. In a loud, steady voice he said, “You’re all insane. We’re in for it now.”
Todd Miller sat in a booth in the K-Mart cafeteria tucking into his lumberjack breakfast and reading the sports section of the NY Post. It was what he did every MWF at ten sharp, two hours before his first class of the day. The food was serviceable, the portions heaping, and the adjoining booths usually empty at this time. After his breakfast and paper he would take a stroll in the mall across the street, seeing if there was anything he wanted to buy. He had money in his pocket these days and plenty of leisure time. Life was good.
He was just finishing up his pancakes when Paul Dann appeared next to the table. “Hello, Todd. Mind if I join you?”
Todd, his pulse suddenly racing, tried to look happy. “Paul. Nice to see you. Yes, please do.”
Dann sat down heavily in the booth, put his hands flat on the table and stared at Todd with a grim smile. “I know you’re the one.”
Todd cocked his head slightly, dabbed at his lips with a napkin. “Sorry?”
Dann’s smile vanished. He was thinner, more gaunt than when Todd had last seen him, on the television engaged in a shouting match with Bill O’Reilly. “Cut the shit, Miller. I spent the last hour in your apartment. You should have swept your hard drive.”
Todd crumpled the napkin and dropped it on his plate. “Breaking and entering is a crime.”
Dann nodded. “Yes. And your offense was not, legally speaking. But you know what, Todd? It could get your ass fired in a hurry, and it could kill your chances of ever getting another job. I think that’s a fair assumption, don’t you?”
Todd knew there was no point in bluffing. Dann was right—he should have destroyed his records. He’d fucked up. “What do you want, Paul?”
Dann extracted a menu from between the napkin dispenser and the jelly carousel, and took his sweet time reading it. “Eggs over easy, I think. Home fries. Bacon.”
Todd waited, a bored look on his face.
“And my job, Todd. I want my job back.”
Todd snorted. “Impossible. I don’t have any pull. They only hired me because I was in the right place at the right time.”
“You’re the golden boy,” said Dann. “The brass loves you for being the only one who didn’t take part in the atrocity.” He laughed bitterly. “Can you imagine what they’ll say when they find out you started the whole fucking thing?”
Todd’s forehead was sweating. “I don’t see how…”
“I’ve thought it through,” said Dann. “There’s a trendy new affliction. They call it G-O-D, short for Gender Obsessive Disorder. I’ve already got a good psychiatrist on the case. He says we can prove the administration should have known that encouraging me to run a Men’s Studies program would only exacerbate my…condition.”
Todd looked at him in disbelief. “The condition of being a sadistic prick?”
Dann smiled. “Something like that.”
Shaking his head, Todd chuckled softly. “It just might work.”
“Set up a meeting with the Provost. They take me back or I get the lawyers involved. They’ll cave. They’re pussies.”
Dann had a point. Hell, the entire faculty should have been canned. But in a flurry of self-preservation, they’d banded together and gotten their story straight. It was a victimological hash of induced paranoia, the Millgram Effect, and thought reform techniques, with Dann as the fall guy. Darius Bell played the race card—how could a lone black man prevail against the mob mentality of a lily-white department? He might have been lynched! The media ate it up, and the University, frantic to quiet things down, had fired only Dann. Cordwainer had quit, and used talk shows to display his moral outrage before wangling a position at a better college. Korba had dropped his suit against Lyceum and taken a hefty settlement, and was writing his account of the awful affair; publishers were said to be very interested. A complete disaster had been averted when Dopp’s camera mysteriously disappeared and no one was willing to testify in court. But the University was on the breaking point. Yes, they would probably reinstate Dann after a cooling-off period.
“Okay, Paul. I’ll do what I can.”
A matronly waitress came to their table and addressed Dann. “Can I get you anything, hon?”
“I’ll have the number three.” He looked at Todd. “Got room for a Danish and coffee? My treat.”
Why not, thought Todd. Like Auntie Mame said, life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.Larry Gaffney's work has appeared in various litmags such as Rosebud, Opium, YPR, Light Quarterly, Duck & Herring, etc. Sales of his first novel (One Good Year, Level 4 Press, March 2008) have kept him in TiVo for months. His second novel, Abaddon, is about the end of the world.
© 2008 Underground Voices