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In the Company of Educated Men
By Leonce Gaiter
Astor + Blue EditionsCopyright © 2014 Leonce Gaiter
All rights reserved.
GRADUATION DAY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The beautiful June morning offered a classic picture-postcard vision of the famous university. Like the veins of eternity itself, the deep green ivy clung to the august, columned red brick facades. Sunlight through ancient trees tastefully dappled everything beneath with dancing shadows. I sat in my underwear on a threadbare sofa with springs shooting out of it like weeds, concentrating on the sounds. Six notes. That's all I wanted — to mimic six notes. They had been played with equal parts thoughtless abandon and effortless mastery, mind you, but I sat, biting furiously on my reed and making wretched noises as the sublime 1947 Charlie Parker Dial Records master tape of "Embraceable You" spun on the turntable. I would set the needle down, hear the speakers 'whomp,' set myself on the edge of the sofa, embouchure just right, fingers in position, and try to play along. After note two, I invariably lagged. By note three, I was parodic. About there I'd stop, hop to the turntable, and try it all over again.
After the tenth time, the obligatory "Shut the fuck ups" and "You sucks" faded into ambient noise, easily ignored. I knew they were right, but it didn't matter. Trust me: I didn't sense that I had some grand talent lurking beneath the false notes and wayward time, but I did think this was important. It was a test that I had set for myself. I meant to determine what kind of person I was and what kind of man I might be: an exercise in sheer will. I would impose my will upon this hunk of alto brass and my lack of native ability. But more importantly, I would understand. By playing those six notes as Charlie Parker had, by mimicking a slice of the solo from the Dial "Embraceable You," I would prove that I could, at least from a distance, enter the realm of The Great. I would understand, at least secondhand, what occurred at such enviable altitudes. I desperately wanted to know how men breathed at those all but unreachable heights. Don't look for logic in it. I was young; there was none, and this was a different time — before our media-technological obsessions had rendered moot the very concept of art, much less great art, to most. Back then, I wanted to snuggle up to brilliance, just as today's young want wealth or fame, though I had none of my own. I wanted to understand the oddity of genius — a thing that, like God, stubbornly defies knowing or understanding unless you happen to be a god or a genius — and decided through a quirk of twisted logic that I would do it through the first six notes of the Dial "Embraceable You."
I heard the heavy wooden door slam into the wall as if kicked (which it had been, by my roommate, Paul) followed by a rhythmically endless thump, thump, thump.
"Twenty more an' I got a personal best," he said. "Why aren't you dressed?"
He was playing paddleball, a recent obsession. For the past two days he'd constantly held the small wooden paddle with the red rubber ball dangling limply from a rubber band when he wasn't slapping it up in the air. Eyes to the ceiling, the ball's apogee, he sailed into the room following the ball's inevitable shifts and scurries to ensure that his paddle lay directly beneath it. His black gown flowed after him, and the dangle on his black mortarboard bobbed hysterically with every thump.
"Avoidance technique," I replied. "My parents are coming."
"Mine are here already. Had to go to dinner with 'em last night. They reminded me that they sacrificed their life savings to send me here and I'm obligated to achieve all that they never could because they did not have the advantages that they have so generously afforded me."
I settled the horn near its case and walked calmly through the collision of the room's grandeur (oak walls, six foot fireplace, hardwood floors, Harvard's gifts to the 19th century sons of the rich) and its threadbare Salvation Army castoff furnishings. In my bedroom, next to the packing tape, I found the scissors. I re-entered the living room and froze in the doorway, dangerously snipping the air. Paul dared take his eye off the ball long enough to glance my way. I charged. With a stooped, bent-legged gait, he scurried forward. The rubber ball smacked against the wooden paddle as he rushed this way and that, yanked by the little ball's unpredictability and my pursuit. I leapt on the sofa and sliced the air an inch from his rubber band. He came tragically close to missing the ball, which flew vertically, but with a quick-footed shuffle he made a save as he floated into my bedroom — a fatal move. Trapped. He bobbed and weaved, but he was done; the scissors snapped and the ball flew, disappearing into a pile of dirty clothes.
He fell back on the bed, arms outstretched. "Now I have to figure out what to do with my life," he said, as if cause and effect came into play between the lost rubber ball and his existential crisis.
Ignoring him, I returned to the living room and ritually, as always, lovingly, removed the saxophone mouthpiece, wiped it down, cleaned the spit valve and placed the gold horn on its blue velvet padding. I closed the case as if locking a genie back in the bottle, as if securing the concept of possibility itself.
"I said," Paul repeated more loudly, 'Now I have to figure out what to do with my life.' Graduation, remember? Liberal arts degree, remember?"
"Get a job," I replied. "Work, retire, and die."
I grabbed my pants. I was about to put them on, but an idiotically irresistible idea beamed into my head. I think I'd hatched it freshman year, probably hoping I'd have grown beyond it in four years. Unable to resist, I took the scissors and cut the legs off the pants just above the knee. I kept the legs bottoms and discarded everything attached to the waistband.
"Of course, you don't have to worry about that," Paul continued. "Dying, I mean. You have a rich daddy."
I was surprised to hear that rich people didn't die, but my family's wealth was a constant source of wonder for the middle-class (just one step above working class) Paul.
"You get a cushy job with Daddy's firm. People like you live for fuckin' ever."
Graduation loomed, and the future — even to the point of its inevitable end — obsessed us.
"I don't want a cushy job with Daddy's firm," I honestly replied. "Shit, look what it's doing to Daddy. I just wanna ..." Knowing what I wanted to say, I hesitated at the cliché of it, the childish naiveté. But what the hell. It was graduation day. "I just wanna live," I blurted. "Why can't you do that? Just live."
"'Cause I gotta pay the rent. You give that livin' thing a shot and tell the rest of us what it's like."
Never a break from Paul. That's one of the things I liked most about him. He never let me forget the difference between me and him, between my wealth and his comparative poverty, my privilege and his necessities.
The instant of sincerity having passed, I grabbed a roll of silver packing tape. I taped the pantleg bottoms to my bare legs. Four spots of tape did the trick. Once I donned the gown, the full length mirror showed a guy wearing pants. I removed my underwear.
"The career counselor said I should go to law school," Paul continued. "When I told him I didn't want to be a lawyer, he made me feel like I was six. My own fault ... I made the mistake of telling him I wanted something ... and I actually used the word 'more.' I could have smacked the smirk off his face. He said, 'We rarely get what we want,' like he was talking to a child. What's our problem, then? Why the fuck don't we?"
"Lennie! Paul!" a voice from the living room.
Louisa and Eva entered, both sporting caps and gowns. Louisa carried a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a plastic champagne glass in the other.
"Party! Party!" Louisa falsettoed. She was a lovely girl and you could tell she might grow into a truly beautiful woman. Twenty-one and half-drunk, she showed the potential for depth and grace. Eva, on the other hand, was a bit of a toad. A self-congratulatory New Yorker, she consistently "worked the room," any room — it could be the bathroom — literally scurrying from person to person, touching one and then the other in forced camaraderie and for assurance that she had been noticed as she feigned breathless earnestness in all things.
"Isn't it exciting?" she cried. "I can't believe we're actually graduating. Just think. In a few years, Lennie, you'll be the toast of New York literary society."
"I don't write."
"Oh, but you should. And I'll be the editor of the New York Review of Books ... Louisa ..."
"Will be married," Louisa interjected as Paul grabbed the bottle from her and swigged, "to a short, balding man with a large income and a mistress he beats."
She sipped the brown juice from her plastic champagne glass.
"Louisa will be in the drunk tank if she doesn't watch it," Paul said.
At that, Louisa cuddled up to him, pursing her lips and caressing his face. "Will you marry me?" she cooed. "You're not short. Your hair's thick and any woman I know could take you."
"Have another," he replied as he filled her glass.
"Do you know who's speaking today?" Eva oozed, not waiting for a response. "Anna Freud."
"Anna Freud's dead," Paul noted.
"So are half the professors on this campus," I began as Paul and Louisa joined in, "AND IT NEVER STOPPED THEM!"
"Oh, Lennie," Sara chirped. "Aren't you excited?"
I faced her and flashed my gown open. She covered her mouth and smothered giggles.
"Oh God. That's so funny. Lennie, you're so funny."
I walked to Paul and Louisa and whispered, "Kill her."
"Guess what," Eva went on. "Daddy said he might send me to Paris for the summer. I love Paris. It's soooo romantic."
From behind her back, Paul madly waved a ball of twine in one hand and a roll of packing tape in the other. I lured Eva with a fake smile as Paul pulled a chair from the desk and set it behind her.
"Have a seat and tell us about it, hon." I slipped her into the chair.
Louisa shoved her fist in her mouth to keep from laughing.
"Well Daddy knows the editor of the International Herald Tribune, who's spending the summer on Onassis's yacht. Can you believe it? What are you doing, Paul? Paul!"
Paul threw rope around her chest and wrapped a quick knot. She tried to stand, but I sat on her lap. Paul slid rope around her legs and tied them to the chair. He tossed me a pre-cut piece of tape (I had no idea when he had the time to do that), which I placed on her mouth. Louisa finally removed her own fist from her mouth and guffawed.
"Why didn't we think of that four years ago?" she sighed.
Eva's reduction to an objet d'art was so satisfying it was easy to ignore her muffled screams. But then a concussive thud outside grabbed our attention. We went to the window to check it out. We figured they were setting up the microphones in Harvard Yard. Another mic shot a thunderous whomp. We stared down at the pre-graduation bustle in the street. Earlier, I had seen the acre of brown folding chairs facing the grand-columned facade of Memorial Church. Atop its endless steps, between its huge Roman columns, sat the bigwigs' chairs, the microphones and dais. Workers bustled with final preparations. The church had given the scene a deathly finality.
Right then, the gowned students and proud parents milling about reminded me that our lives, as we knew them, were ending. I had been told what to do all of my life. Go to school. Get good grades. Go to college. Home, schools, Harvard ... all pre-arranged, regimented worlds designed with just enough wiggle room to provide the young an illusory sense of self-determination. These places had taken care of me. The track on which I had traveled had been straight and very narrow. It ended today, and disappeared, leaving a future before me that seemed so vast, so daunting in its unchartedness that it might as well have been a void. 'For the first time,' I almost said aloud, but caught myself, 'I don't know what's going to happen.' For the first time, it was not all neatly mapped out. It scared the shit out of me.
The PA system belched another deep thump. In the Yard beyond the buildings outside my window, the chairs on the lawn between Widener Library and Memorial Church were beginning to fill.
I gazed out the window, wistfully self-pitying, when a face appeared before me. I almost fell backwards as I checked to see if she was floating.
"AACHGG!" Paul gagged on Jack, waving his hands before him as if to shoo away a specter.
We both looked down and saw the flimsy-looking mobile platform supporting her. I marveled at both her dexterity and ambition.
"Hi!" she hollered. "I'm Patsy!"
We stared in rank shock and awe.
"I'm here for the Harvard Booster Club, and we know how much we owe this University, and I'm sure you'll share my feelings that we must give back."
"Cool," Paul exclaimed, ignoring Patsy and clambering over the sill and onto the alarmingly swaying platform. Off-balance, Patsy flailed her arms in furious windmills against the concerted tugs of imbalance and gravity. She did not scream as she fell. I had thought everyone screamed as they fell. Maybe she didn't have time before she smashed into shrubbery below.
"I'm gonna be payin' off loans 'til I'm eighty," Paul mused as he looked down at her.
Patsy twitched as passers-by rushed to her aid. Paul climbed back inside. We abandoned her to her rescue.
"I hope you didn't kill her."
I felt embarrassed at how happy that voice made me. It filled an emotional need, and I hated recognizing those. The mastery of the Dial "Embraceable You," I knew, I just knew, demanded immunity to such petty things. But every inch of me smiled. Very unsure of myself at the dawn of my blank future, I heard the call of a concrete, comforting past to hold onto. I rushed at her. I hugged her hard, and she hugged me back just as fully. Only then did I stand back to take a look at her. And she did not disappoint; she never did. She was stunning in all her paint and armor. Tastefully light on the makeup, just highlighting the glories and masking the few imperfections, she wore a simple, huggy black number that beautifully trod the line between cocktail and after dinner drinks. Her smile acknowledged my appreciation of her art.
"Hello, little brother," she said all full of warmth.
Her eyes darted to the bound girl tied to the chair. Paul jumped in front of Eva, trying, too late, to obscure the view while Louisa hid the bottle behind her back.
"These are my friends," I blurted. "Paul."
Just drunk enough, he bowed, sans irony.
She hiccupped and over-enunciated in her attempts to sound sober. "We have never met. You must be Lennie's sister. I have heard a lot about you. How do you do?"
"And ... that's Eva."
Fury now rimmed Eva's eyes as she gurgled loudly behind her gag and violently shook her chair. Louisa rushed to her and untied the ropes. An embarrassed Paul assisted. They left the gag as they each took an arm and hustled her from the room.
Becca raised an eyebrow, no more, as the two scurried past with the gagged girl between them.
"YOU FUCKERS!" thundered from the hall.
"Never mind," Becca deadpanned. Her eyes burrowed into me, focusing on me every ounce of her attention and demanding all of mine.
"Oh ... you look just the same," she said almost sadly, as if prematurely mourning her own youth. "I haven't seen you all year. I wish you looked older, but you're all grown now. All grown."
Not comfortable with talk about me, I shrugged.
"Why not?" I asked. "Why didn't you visit?"
She turned away and pretended not to hear. "How are you?" she asked.
"Fine. You?" I could give trite as good as I got.
"Where're the others?" The plan had been for Becca to meet up with my parents and travel here together.
She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a cigarette, and quickly lit it.
"Mom and Dad can't make it, Lennie," she said, staring out the French windows. At the lack of response, she turned and looked at me. I had nothing to say.
"Dad needed a rest," she went on.
"Is it bad?" I asked.
We never discussed my father's condition, the drinking that had progressed to days in bed with bottles. I immediately wished I hadn't asked.
"... And Mom took off. God knows where."
"She left him alone?"
"She's been dealing with this for years ..." Becca said, making excuses, but even she couldn't maintain the pretense. She didn't go on. Her eyes still bored into me, though, gauging my reaction. I resented the pressure I felt to maintain a brave front.
"I thought they'd at least give me the satisfaction, on my graduation day," I said, "of loathing them in person."
"They can't help it," she said. "It all just happened. Things happen." The last word came with surprising emphasis and she let a scowl of disquiet mar her lovely face. "They don't mean any harm," she said, regaining her stoic smile. "They care about you."
I changed the subject. "I meant to tell you I was sorry about you and Terry." Terry had been her most recent boyfriend.
She made another beeline for her purse. You'd have thought that little bag contained balms for all the world's discomforts. She yanked a compact from it and examined herself as if I'd giggled at a zit.
"The man's a worm," she said.
"I told you that two years ago."
She put away the mirror. "He wore a hairpiece, did you know that? And he still had a mistress from his second marriage. He probably beat her."
Arms outstretched, she suddenly ran toward me and smothered me in a hug.
"You know I love you, don't you?" she whispered in my ear. "My big, little brother. You're so smart and levelheaded. I'm a mess."
She pushed me to arm's length to stare in my eyes again. Her hands vise-gripped my shoulders.
"You listen to me," she said with almost maternal authority.
She stared at me, waiting. Realizing this required a response, I nodded.
"Don't listen to 'em, Lennie," she said. "They don't know anything."
"They. Them, everyone. Only you know what's gonna be right for you. If you chase anything where they tell you to look, you'll never find it."
Her hands slipped from my shoulders. "There," she exhaled. "I feel better." Again she moved to her purse, this time tucking it under her arm. "I've got to go now," she said.
"You're not staying?" I must have gaped. She looked stung.
"Don't be mad at me," she pleaded. "I met someone. A real nice guy. You'd like him. I told him all about you." Every pore in her body screamed guilt, begged forgiveness, and pled weakness as a defense.
"We've got a plane to catch. He's waiting," she begged.
I couldn't speak. It hurt so much that she looked like a stranger to me. Her eyes tried to meet mine, but I stared past her. She moved toward the door. There, she gathered herself to her full height and faced me. She mustered an expansive, beneficent smile.
"You've got wings, brother," she declared with her own combination of sincerity and grandiloquence. "Fly!" She blew me a sad little kiss as if acknowledging the insufficiency of her performance and then she slipped from view.
Excerpted from In the Company of Educated Men by Leonce Gaiter. Copyright © 2014 Leonce Gaiter. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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