DEWAYNE MICHAELS SAT in the second row of the lecture hall, staring at the professor with what he hoped passed for interest. His eyelids were so heavy they felt as if lead sinkers had been sewn to them. His head pounded in rhythm with his heart and his tongue tasted like something had curled up and died on it. He’d arrived late, only to find the huge hall packed and just one seat available: second row center, smack-dab in front of the lectern.
Dewayne was majoring in electrical engineering. He’d elected this class for the same reason engineering students had done so for three decades—it was a gimme. “English Literature—A Humanist Perspective” had always been a course you could breeze through and barely crack a book. The usual professor, a fossilized old turd named Mayhew, droned on like a hypnotist, hardly ever looking up from his forty-year-old lecture notes, his voice perfectly pitched for sleeping. The old fart never even changed his exams, and copies were all over Dewayne’s dorm. Just his luck, then, that—for this one semester—a certain renowned Dr. Torrance Hamilton was teaching the course. It was as if Eric Clapton had agreed to play the junior prom, the way they fawned over Hamilton.
Dewayne shifted disconsolately. His butt had already fallen asleep in the cold plastic seat. He glanced to his left, to his right. All around, students—upperclassmen, mostly—were typing notes, running microcassette recorders, hanging on the professor’s every word. It was the first time ever the course had been filled to capacity. Not an engineering student in sight.
What a crock.
Dewayne reminded himself he still had a week to drop the course. But he needed this credit and it was still possible Professor Hamilton was an easy grader. Hell, all these students wouldn’t have shown up on a Saturday morning if they thought they were going to get reamed out . . . would they?
In the meantime, front and center, Dewayne figured he’d better make an effort to look awake.
Hamilton walked back and forth on the podium, his deep voice ringing. He was like a gray lion, his hair swept back in a mane, dressed in a snazzy charcoal suit instead of the usual threadbare set of tweeds. He had an unusual accent, not local to New Orleans, certainly not Yankee. Didn’t exactly sound English, either. A teaching assistant sat in a chair behind the professor, assiduously taking notes.
“And so,” Dr. Hamilton was saying, “today we’re looking at Eliot’s The Waste Land—the poem that packaged the twentieth century in all its alienation and emptiness. One of the greatest poems ever written.”
The Waste Land. Dewayne remembered now. What a title. He hadn’t bothered to read it, of course. Why should he? It was a poem, not a damn novel: he could read it right now, in class.
He picked up the book of T. S. Eliot’s poems—he’d borrowed it from a friend, no use wasting good money on something he’d never look at again—and opened it. There, next to the title page, was a photo of the man himself: a real weenie, tiny little granny glasses, lips pursed like he had two feet of broomstick shoved up his ass. Dewayne snorted and began turning pages. Waste Land, Waste Land . . . here it was.
Oh, shit. This was no limerick. The son of a bitch went on for page after page.
“The first lines are by now so well known that it’s hard for us to imagine the sensation—the shock—that people felt upon first reading it in The Dial in 1922. This was not what people considered poetry. It was, rather, a kind of anti-poem. The persona of the poet was obliterated. To whom belong these grim and disturbing thoughts? There is, of course, the famously bitter allusion to Chaucer in the opening line. But there is much more going on here. Reflect on the opening images: ‘lilacs out of the dead land,’ ‘dull roots,’ ‘forgetful snow.’ No other poet in the history of the world, my friends, ever wrote about spring in quite this way before.”
Dewayne flipped to the end of the poem, found it contained over four hundred lines. Oh, no. No . . .
“It’s intriguing that Eliot chose lilacs in the second line, rather than poppies, which would have been a more traditional choice at the time. Poppies were then growing in an abundance Europe hadn’t seen for centuries, due to the numberless putrefying corpses from the Great War. But more important, the poppy—with its connotations of narcotic sleep—seems the better fit to Eliot’s imagery. So why did Eliot choose lilacs? Let’s take a look at Eliot’s use of allusion, here most likely involving Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’”
Oh, my God, it was like a nightmare: here he was in the front of the class and not understanding a word the professor was saying. Who’d have thought you could write four hundred lines of poetry on a freaking waste land? Speaking of wasted, his head felt like it was packed full of ball bearings. Served him right for hanging out until four last night, doing shots of citron Grey Goose.
He realized the class around him had gone still, and that the voice from behind the lectern had fallen silent. Glancing up at Dr. Hamilton, he noticed the professor was standing motionless, a strange expression on his face. Elegant or not, the old fellow looked as if he’d just dropped a steaming loaf in his drawers. His face had gone strangely slack. As Dewayne watched, Hamilton slowly withdrew a handkerchief, carefully patted his forehead, then folded the handkerchief neatly and returned it to his pocket. He cleared his throat.
“Pardon me,” he said as he reached for a glass of water on the lectern, took a small sip. “As I was saying, let’s look at the meter Eliot employs in this first section of the poem. His free verse is aggressively enjambed: the only stopped lines are those that finish his sentences. Note also the heavy stressing of verbs: breeding, mixing, stirring. It’s like the ominous, isolated beat of a drum; it’s ugly; it shatters the meaning of the phrase; it creates a sense of disquietude. It announces to us that something’s going to happen in this poem, and that it won’t be pretty.”
The curiosity that had stirred in Dewayne during the unexpected pause faded away. The oddly stricken look had left the professor’s face as quickly as it came, and his features—though still pale—had lost their ashen quality.
Dewayne returned his attention to the book. He could quickly scan the poem, figure out what the damn thing meant. He glanced at the title, then moved his eye down to the epigram, or epigraph, or whatever you called it.
He stopped. What the hell was this? Nam Sibyllam quidem . . . Whatever it was, it wasn’t English. And there, buried in the middle of it, some weird-ass squiggles that weren’t even part of the normal alphabet. He glanced at the explanatory notes at the bottom of the page and found the first bit was Latin, the second Greek. Next came the dedication: For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro. The notes said that last bit was Italian.
Latin, Greek, Italian. And the frigging poem hadn’t even started yet. What next, hieroglyphics?
It was a nightmare.
He scanned the first page, then the second. Gibberish, plain and simple. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” What was that supposed to mean? His eye fell on the next line. Frisch weht der Wind . . .
Abruptly, Dewayne closed the book, feeling sick. That did it. Only thirty lines into the poem and already five damn languages. First thing tomorrow morning, he’d go down to the registrar and drop this turkey.
He sat back, head pounding. Now that the decision was made, he wondered how he was going to make it through the next forty minutes without climbing the walls. If only there’d been a seat up in the back, where he could slip out unseen . . .
Up at the podium, the professor was droning on. “All that being said, then, let’s move on to an examination of—”
Suddenly, Hamilton stopped once again.
“Excuse me.” His face went slack again. He looked—what? Confused? Flustered? No: he looked scared.
Dewayne sat up, suddenly interested.
The professor’s hand fluttered up to his handkerchief, fumbled it out, then dropped it as he tried to bring it to his forehead. He looked around vaguely, hand still fluttering about, as if to ward off a fly. The hand sought out his face, began touching it lightly, like a blind person. The trembling fingers palpated his lips, eyes, nose, hair, then swatted the air again.
The lecture hall had gone still. The teaching assistant in the seat behind the professor put down his pen, a concerned look on his face. What’s going on? Dewayne wondered. Heart attack?
The professor took a small, lurching step forward, bumping into the podium. And now his other hand flew to his face, feeling it all over, only harder now, pushing, stretching the skin, pulling down the lower lip, giving himself a few light slaps.
The professor suddenly stopped and scanned the room. “Is there something wrong with my face?”
Slowly, very slowly, Dr. Hamilton relaxed. He took a shaky breath, then another, and gradually his features relaxed. He cleared his throat.
“As I was saying—”
Dewayne saw the fingers of one hand come back to life again, twitching, trembling. The hand returned to his face, the fingers plucking, plucking the skin.
This was too weird.
“I—” the professor began, but the hand interfered with his speech. His mouth opened and closed, emitting nothing more than a wheeze. Another shuffled step, like a robot, bumping into the podium.
“What are these things?” he asked, his voice cracking.
God, now he was pulling at his skin, eyelids stretched grotesquely, both hands scrabbling—then a long, uneven scratch from a fingernail, and a line of blood appeared on one cheek.
A ripple coursed through the classroom, like an uneasy sigh.
“Is there something wrong, Professor?” the T.A. said.
“I . . . asked . . . a question.” The professor growled it out, almost against his will, his voice muffled and distorted by the hands pulling at his face.
Another lurching step, and then he let out a sudden scream: “My face! Why will no one tell me what’s wrong with my face!”
More deathly silence.
The fingers were digging in, the fist now pounding at the nose, which cracked faintly.
“Get them off me! They’re eating into my face!”
Oh, shit: blood was now gushing from the nostrils, splashing down on the white shirt and charcoal suit. The fingers were like claws on the face, ripping, tearing; and now one finger hooked up and—Dewayne saw with utter horror—worked itself into one eye socket.
“Out! Get them out!”
There was a sharp, rotating motion that reminded Dewayne of the scooping of ice cream, and suddenly the globe of the eye bulged out, grotesquely large, jittering, staring directly at Dewayne from an impossible angle.
Screams echoed across the lecture hall. Students in the front row recoiled. The T.A. jumped from his seat and ran up to Hamilton, who violently shrugged him off.
Dewayne found himself rooted to his seat, his mind a blank, his limbs paralyzed.
Professor Hamilton now took a mechanical step, and another, ripping at his face, tearing out clumps of hair, staggering as if he might fall directly on top of Dewayne.
“A doctor!” the T.A. screamed. “Get a doctor!”
The spell was broken. There was a sudden commotion, everyone rising at once, the sound of falling books, a loud hubbub of panicked voices.
“My face!” the professor shrieked over the din. “Where is it?”
Chaos took over, students running for the door, some crying. Others rushed forward, toward the stricken professor, jumping onto the podium, trying to stop his murderous self-assault. The professor lashed out at them blindly, making a high-pitched, keening sound, his face a mask of red. Someone forcing his way down the row trod hard on Dewayne’s foot. Drops of flying blood had spattered Dewayne’s face: he could feel their warmth on his skin. Yet still he did not move. He found himself unable to take his eyes off the professor, unable to escape this nightmare.
The students had wrestled the professor to the surface of the podium and were now sliding about in his blood, trying to hold down his thrashing arms and bucking body. As Dewayne watched, the professor threw them off with demonic strength, grabbed the cup of water, smashed it against the podium, and—screaming—began to work the shards into his own neck, twisting and scooping, as if trying to dig something out.
And then, quite suddenly, Dewayne found he could move. He scrambled to his feet, skidded, ran along the row of seats to the aisle, and began sprinting up the stairs toward the back exit of the lecture hall. All he could think about was getting away from the unexplainable horror of what he’d just witnessed. As he shot out the door and dashed full speed down the corridor beyond, one phrase kept echoing in his mind, over and over and over:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.